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College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences


Chow Line: Understanding HDLs can be complex (8/17/12)

August 17, 2012

I have always been proud of my high HDL level, but I heard recently that it might not be very important in terms of heart disease after all. What happened?

Well, not so fast.

You probably heard about a study that the medical journal The Lancet published online in May 2012. It received a lot of publicity because its findings were rather startling: After years of advising people to do what they can to raise their levels of HDLs -- high-density lipoproteins, or what we’ve called the “good” cholesterol -- researchers found that the 15 HDL-raising genetic variants they tested are not, in fact, linked to a reduced risk of heart attack.

However (and this is important): The scientists also emphasized that low HDL levels remain a good predictor, or what they call a “biomarker,” that a person has a higher risk of heart disease. This study revealed that low HDL levels themselves aren’t actually the bad guys -- it appears that they’re just somehow associated with some as-yet-undetermined factor that increases the risk of heart disease.

So, for people who have a low HDL level, increasing it -- by changing the diet or taking supplements, for example -- won’t lower the risk of heart disease in and of itself. Raising a low HDL level simply won’t change the underlying factors that signal an increased risk.

At the same time, eating a healthy, balanced diet has many benefits. If it increases your HDLs at the same time, there’s certainly no harm in that.

It’s also important to realize that this finding does not affect recommendations regarding LDLs, or low-density lipoproteins. And, while genetic factors play a strong role in determining LDL levels, there’s a lot you can do to keep them as low as possible, including avoiding trans fats; keeping saturated fats low (less than 7 percent of your total calories); limiting total fat to 25 to 35 percent of total calories; keeping cholesterol intake to less than 200 milligrams a day; consuming 2 grams of plant stanols or sterols a day; increasing soluble fiber to 10 to 25 grams a day; and maintaining a healthy weight.

In addition, get at least 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise most days of the week, if not every day. And, when necessary, take prescribed medication, such as statins, to lower LDLs.

For more information, the National Institutes of Health offers a free, comprehensive, easy-to-read guide to “Lowering Your Cholesterol with TLC: Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes.” To download a copy, go to

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Hugo Melgar-Quinonez, food security specialist with Ohio State University Extension and associate professor of human nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

Martha Filipic
Hugo Melgar-Quinonez