Shortly after World War II, doctors and researchers discovered that cholesterol is a component of arterial plaque. Not long after this discovery, the medical establishment declared war on cholesterol, blaming it as a major contributor to heart disease. Yet several decades later, the medical community is divided over how to increase good cholesterol. It's simply not as straightforward as many people would hope.
In fact, the subject of cholesterol could be considered controversial. Ask a doctor who follows the mainstream medical liturgy of how to increase good cholesterol and you'll likely hear the following:
- Replace saturated fats with monounsaturated fats.
- Substitute animal-based products with soy foods for heart health. Although traditional thinking was that only red meat has an impact on cholesterol, a 2019 study finds that eating white meat, such as chicken, also can increase blood cholesterol levels.
- Consider taking prescription drugs to reduce your LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels. (The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently updated its guidelines to say that everyone over age 40, regardless of heart disease risk, should be screened to see if they need cholesterol-lowering drugs).
- Perform daily aerobic exercise for 30 minutes most days of the week to raise your HDL levels, or "good" cholesterol.
It's safe to say there are no doctors who would argue that exercise can't boost HDL levels. But this method might be slightly more controversial: A study presented at the 2016 American Heart Association's annual meeting showed that consuming up to two alcoholic beverages daily may slow the decline of "good" cholesterol. The study of 80,000 adults over six years found that beer, more than other kinds of spirits, had a greater effect on heart health.
However, some doctors disagree with the American Heart Association's claim that, "High cholesterol is one of the major controllable risk factors for coronary heart disease, heart attack and stroke. As your blood cholesterol rises, so does your risk of coronary heart disease."
The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics (THINCS) lists 101 medical doctor members, all of whom disavow mainstream medical advice about how to raise good cholesterol.
Although not a member of THINCS, Dr. Jon Dunn, a Palm Desert, California-based naturopathic doctor and author of "The Family Guide to Naturopathic Medicine," agrees with their thinking. "Overall I believe that cholesterol by itself is essential to our health and well-being, and the majority of negative publicity surrounding cholesterol serves only to profit the pharmaceutical industry."
Cholesterol, Dunn asserts, is not the main culprit for heart disease. So what is? According to Dunn, it's inflammation. The following methods — in addition to regular exercise — can reduce your risk for arterial inflammation, and as a side benefit, can increase HDL levels, or "good" cholesterol:
- Don't cook with vegetable oils other than olive oil.
- Avoid high sugar/processed food; white flour products; alcohol and nicotine.
- Maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
- Correct hormonal imbalances.
- Manage stress levels.
You can increase HDL cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation, according to Dunn, by consuming some of the following foods and supplements:
- Dark fruits (blueberries, dark cherries, blackberries, dark grapes)
- Omega 3 fatty acids (cold-water oily fish like salmon, or fish oil supplements — 1200 to 2400 milligrams, 2 to 3 times per day with meals)
- Magnesium: 200 mg 1 to 2 times per day
- Calcium citrate: 500 milligrams daily
- Alpha Lipoic: 100 to 500 milligrams daily
In his book "The Cholesterol Myths," THINCS spokesman Dr. Uffe Ravnskov argues that saturated fat is unjustly blamed for causing heart disease. On the contrary, Ravnskov posits that saturated fats, such as animal protein, which contain cholesterol, are important for overall health.
Bloomfield, Michigan-based Dr. David Brownstein, another THINCS member, claims vitamin C also can reduce inflammation, which, according to him, is more important than worrying about eating foods like organic, all-natural animal-based products that contain cholesterol. His recommendations:
- Take 2,000 to 5,000 milligrams per day of vitamin C.
- Drink enough water.
- Don't eat refined foods.
There are always exceptions to the rule. Some people are just dealt a bad genetic hand of cards and are at risk of having high cholesterol levels. But an increasing number of doctors recommend shifting your focus from increasing good cholesterol to reducing inflammation in your body.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in June 2011.