Most of us know that it's better to keep our levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol low and our levels of "good" HDL cholesterol high. But new research claims that not all HDL is as healthy as once thought.

The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine on January 13, shows heart disease risk may be better assessed by measuring HDL's ability to remove artery-clogging plaque, rather than the HDL levels themselves.

US researchers from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine stated that there may be a protein in some types of "good" cholesterol that is better at dislodging plaque than other kinds of HDL.

While more research is needed, the researchers suggest that the study is one step toward explaining why some people with high levels of HDL have a high risk for heart disease while others with low levels of HDL have less risk.

Meanwhile, what can you do to keep your cholesterol in check? While healthy cholesterol levels depend on your weight, sex, and age, for most people, LDL levels above 160 mg per deciliter are considered too high. Alternatively, HDL levels below 40 mg per deciliter are considered too low, and a combination of high LDL and low HDL can put you at risk for plaque buildup in your arteries. So, it's important to talk to your doctor and get your cholesterol checked.

A heart-healthy diet includes cutting back on some of the highest sources of bad cholesterol, which include beef, cheese, egg yolks, pork, poultry, and shrimp. David Jenkins at the University of Toronto and St. Michael's Hospital in Ontario, Canada, recommends filling your plate with nuts, avocados, and sunflower and olive oils, while trimming back on highly refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and processed snack foods, to reduce LDL levels. Other key factors include plenty of cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber (10 grams for every 1,000 calories) from whole grains, almonds, eggplants and okra.

According the Mayo Clinic, a cholesterol-lowering lifestyle also emphasizes:

  • Getting plenty of exercise
  • Eating primarily plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts
  • Replacing butter with healthy fats such as olive oil and canola oil
  • Using herbs and spices instead of salt to flavor foods
  • Limiting red meat consumption to no more than a few times a month
  • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week
  • Drinking red wine in moderation (optional)

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