High-density lipoprotein (HDL) is often referred to as the "good" cholesterol.
Having high HDL levels helps carry cholesterol from your arteries to your liver, where it can be used or excreted.
Most health experts recommend minimum blood levels of 40 mg/dl in men and 50 mg/dl in women.
While genetics definitely play a role, there are several other factors that affect HDL levels.
Here are nine healthy ways to raise your "good" HDL cholesterol.
1. Consume olive oil
Olive oil is one of the healthiest fats around.
A large analysis of 42 studies with more than 800,000 participants found that olive oil was the only source of monounsaturated fat that seemed to reduce heart disease risk (3).
Extra virgin olive oil has more polyphenols than more processed olive oils, although the amount can still vary among different types and brands.
One study gave 200 healthy young men about 2 tablespoons (25 ml) of different olive oils per day for three weeks.
The researchers found that participants' HDL levels increased significantly more after they consumed the olive oil with the highest polyphenol content (6).
In another study, when 62 older adults consumed about 4 tablespoons (50 ml) of high-polyphenol extra virgin olive oil every day for six weeks, their HDL cholesterol increased by 6.5 mg/dl, on average (7).
In addition to raising HDL levels, olive oil has been found to boost HDL's anti-inflammatory and antioxidant function in studies of older people and individuals with high cholesterol levels ( 7, 8, 9).
Whenever possible, select high-quality, certified extra virgin olive oils, which tend to be highest in polyphenols.
Bottom line: Extra virgin olive oil with a high polyphenol content has been shown to increase HDL levels in healthy people, the elderly and individuals with high cholesterol.
2. Follow a low-carb or ketogenic diet
Low-carb and ketogenic diets provide a number of health benefits, including weight loss and reduced blood sugar levels.
They have also been shown to increase HDL cholesterol in people who tend to have lower levels.
In one study, people with type 2 diabetes were split into two groups.
One followed a diet consuming less than 50 grams of carbs per day. The other followed a high-carb diet.
Although both groups lost weight, the low-carb group's HDL cholesterol increased almost twice as much as the high-carb group's did (14).
In another study, obese people who followed a low-carb diet experienced an increase in HDL cholesterol of 5 mg/dl overall.
Meanwhile, in the same study, the participants who ate a low-fat, high-carb diet showed a decrease in HDL cholesterol (15).
This response may partially be due to the higher levels of fat people typically consume on low-carb diets.
One study in overweight women found that diets high in meat and cheese increased HDL levels by 5-8%, compared to a higher-carb diet (18).
3. Exercise regularly
Being physically active is important for heart health.
However, the biggest increases in HDL are typically seen with high-intensity exercise.
One small study followed women who were living with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which is linked to a higher risk of insulin resistance. The study required them to perform high-intensity exercise three times a week.
The exercise led to an increase in HDL cholesterol of 8 mg/dL after 10 weeks. The women also showed improvements in other health markers, including decreased insulin resistance and improved arterial function (23).
In a 12-week study, overweight men who performed high-intensity exercise experienced a 10% increase in HDL cholesterol.
In contrast, the low-intensity exercise group showed only a 2% increase and the endurance training group experienced no change (24).
Overall, high-intensity exercise such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and high-intensity circuit training (HICT) may boost HDL cholesterol levels the most.
Bottom line: Exercising several times per week can help raise HDL cholesterol and enhance its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. High-intensity forms of exercise may be especially effective.
4. Add coconut oil to your diet