When you hear the word cholesterol, you may be thinking about the “bad” kind that can increase your risk of heart disease, including stroke. But there is also “good” cholesterol called high-density lipoprotein (HDL) which is a relative measure of health and wellbeing. When your good cholesterol goes up, it signals that your body is moving in the right direction, health-wise, since your HDL is like a "return signal" that happens when you start pulling fat out of storage.

Your HDL goes up when fat is moving through the bloodstream to get used, such as to the muscles, as fuel during exercise. Even walking, hiking gardening, or any activity that lasts longer than your ready energy stores of glycogen in the muscles and liver can sustain will pull fat out of storage for use. So if LDL cholesterol shows fat going into the system (after a greasy cheeseburger and fries) then HDL is fat getting sent to the body as energy, to be used for activity (after 45 minutes of hiking that trail).

When you have too much low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, it can lead to blockages as it calcifies and builds up into your blood vessels in the form of plaque which causes your blood vessels to narrow and like rocks in a stream, these plaques are hard to move out once lodged in place. Aiming to increase your HDL cholesterol can prevent that from happening, as its role is to absorb the cholesterol and take it back to the liver to be removed from the body.

According to MedlinePlus, a healthy LDL level is less than 100 mg/dL and a healthy HDL level is over 45 mg/dL. Although it’s important to have a higher HDL cholesterol level, it’s just as important to keep your LDL levels low since it can help to improve the LDL-to-HDL ratio. We once thought that the only way to raise HDL was through exercise and the only way to lower LDL was through food choices. But it turns out you can also eat to boost good cholesterol. Here's what we know, from studies and research that has been scientifically proven, so far.

Try these 11 different foods to improve your HDL cholesterol

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1. Oats

If you start your morning off with a hearty bowl of oatmeal, you’ll also be helping your HDL cholesterol levels rise. A 2019 review in Frontiers in Nutrition states that oat beta-glucans (a type of fiber) can help to metabolize and remove cholesterol from the body due to their ability to enhance the elimination of bile acids. Bile acids act as a warehouse for cholesterol, so eliminating them can also reduce cholesterol levels. It’s recommended to aim to get in 3 grams of beta-glucan, which is comparable to about ¾ cup of dry oats.

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2. Beans and Legumes

Whether you choose chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, or black beans — they all are capable of improving your HDL cholesterol. A 2021 study found that ¾ cup of black beans showed lowered LDL cholesterol levels after 6 hours. A 2014 review of different studies also showed that eating ½ cup of various beans and legumes could drop LDL cholesterol levels by 6.6 mg/dL which would improve the LDL-to-HDL ratio.

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3. Avocados

If you’re looking to get in more heart-healthy fats, look no further than avocados. A 2018 review of 7 different studies found that avocado intake was linked with a significant increase of HDL cholesterol, with a change of about 2.84 mg/dL.

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4. Leafy greens

Similar to oats, leafy greens can bind to bile acids which can promote the removal of cholesterol. An animal study from 2019 showed that a diet that contains green leafy vegetables showed an improvement in total and LDL cholesterol after 6 weeks.

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5. Soy foods

Soy foods contain both fiber and plant sterols which are claimed to be heart-healthy and have the ability to lower “bad” cholesterol. A 2019 meta-analysis of 46 studies found that soy protein consumed at a dose of 25 grams per day significantly improved LDL cholesterol levels by about 3 percent to 4 percent.

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6. Berries

If you’re in the produce aisle, look to add some berries to your cart. Blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and more all contain beneficial fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (chemical compounds made by plants). According to a 2010 review, various studies have found that berries show promising results when it comes to improving cardiovascular risk factors. This includes a decrease in LDL and total cholesterol, along with an increase in HDL cholesterol.

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7. Flaxseed

Here are the flax facts. These little seeds pack a large punch when it comes to our health, bringing in healthy fats, fiber, and protein. A 2014 study found that consuming 3 tablespoons (30 grams) of flaxseed powder for 3 months lowered total cholesterol by 17 percent and “bad” cholesterol by about 20 percent. A similar 2011 study in people with diabetes saw a 12 percent increase in HDL cholesterol when they consumed 1 tablespoon (10 grams) of flaxseed powder daily for one month.

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8. Beets

Whole beets, or even beet juice, is a good addition to your diet due to its beneficial mineral content but also their effect on cholesterol.

A 2015 study found that supplementation of beetroot juice for 15 days increased HDL cholesterol levels from 42.9 mg/dl to 50.2 mg/dl. Researchers believe this improvement comes from its dietary nitrate levels and phytochemicals.

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9. Apples

As the saying goes, an apple a day keeps the doctor away. It can also improve your cholesterol levels. A 2020 study found that eating 2 apples per day that are high in proanthocyanidins (a type of polyphenol) decreased both total and LDL cholesterol levels. The soluble fiber in apples is a great way to help your gut health, the microbiome that helps determine your heart health and immune system, so make sure to add an apple a day!

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10. Olive oil

Cooking with olive oil not only gives you a great flavor (and less pan-sticking), but it contains healthy monounsaturated fats, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties. According to a 2012 article, evidence has indicated that olive oil can increase HDL cholesterol levels more so than a diet that is low in carbohydrates and fat.

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11. Cashews

The perfect on-the-go snack is a handful of nuts, and your nut of choice may need to be cashews. A 2018 study found that eating 30 grams of cashews per day for 12 weeks increased plasma HDL cholesterol by 1.7 mg/dL. A different 2017 study also on cashews found that adding them to your diet can also decrease total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels.