Cholesterol—especially the cholesterol found in certain foods we eat—has long been misunderstood, even villainized.
At one time, we were told to avoid cholesterol-rich foods because they were believed to raise our blood cholesterol and risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. Remember all those yellow egg yolks that we threw away?
However, research has found that some high-cholesterol foods may not raise our risks at all.
Still, this doesn’t mean you can go crazy on things like hamburgers, French fries and milk shakes. Here’s why.
Cutting through the cholesterol confusion
“We previously thought that dietary cholesterol caused high blood cholesterol, but we’ve found that saturated fat and trans fat actually have more of an effect on blood cholesterol than dietary cholesterol does,” said with Gina Thayer, a registered dietitian with Banner Health Center in Colorado. “What you should really watch out for are foods high in saturated and trans fats, as these can boost the level of LDL cholesterol, or ‘bad cholesterol,’ in your blood, which can increase your risks.”
[Curious about cholesterol? Learn more about what’s considered good and bad.]
Another note Thayer pointed out is that the majority of the cholesterol in our bodies is produced by our liver—not food. “Your body will make the amount of cholesterol it needs to perform key functions, like making hormones, vitamin D and bile acids,” she said. “Cholesterol isn’t a required nutrient we need in our diets, but it’s safe to have some as long as you’re being mindful of what types of cholesterol-rich foods you’re eating.”
To help you navigate the grocery store, Thayer shared two lists of high cholesterol foods: those to include in your diet and some you should avoid.
3 high cholesterol foods to add to your diet
One whole egg averages about 215 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol, depending on its size, but is an egg-cellent source of protein. But the good news is that many dietitians agree eggs can be a part of a healthy diet. Egg yolks contain all of the vitamins (except vitamin C) and are considered a good source of vitamins A, D, E, K, B1, B2, B5, B6, B9 and B12.
“Limiting egg yolks to two to four per week can help keep that dietary cholesterol intake in a healthy range,” Thayer said. “You can use 1 egg yolk and two egg whites to make scrambled eggs with lots of protein but with less cholesterol.”
Salmon and other fatty fish
“Salmon contains about 70 mg of cholesterol for a 4 oz. fillet, but it’s rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, a heart-healthy fat and protein,” Thayer said.
The American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish like salmon, tuna, trout and mackerel twice a week.
Another friend of the sea, shrimp is high in cholesterol, but it also contains antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. “It’s also a great source of lean protein and is one of the best sources or iodine, an important mineral for brain health and thyroid function,” Thayer said. A 3 oz. serving contains about 166 mg of cholesterol.
3 high cholesterol foods to avoid
Remember the hamburger, fries and shake from earlier? It may taste delicious in the moment, but fast foods like these are high in saturated fat, trans fat, refined carbohydrates, added sugar and salt.
Eating fast food is a major risk factor for numerous chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Organ meats like liver
“Liver, gizzards and other organ meats are very high in cholesterol (each chicken liver has about 250 mg cholesterol), and don’t really provide a lot of nutritional value,” Thayer said. “Unless you really love liver, limiting your intake is a good idea.”
Full-fat dairy foods like milk, cheese, yogurt and cream are high in saturated fats and trans fats. Cheese also tends to be high in sodium, of which, Americans get way too much of on a daily basis.
Instead of cream-based products, consider switching to low-fat, plant-based or oil-based alternatives.
Remember: Everything in moderation
The good news is that cholesterol shouldn’t be a long scary word anymore. Dietary cholesterol, in moderation, has only minimal effects on blood cholesterol in most people.
All foods in moderation are really important. The main reason for this is that you don’t have to feel deprived of enjoying foods that you really love.
“When you give up your favorite foods for health reasons (usually weight loss), the eventual result is that you will want to eat those foods again at some point,” Thayer said. “You’re much more likely to overeat those foods when you finally allow yourself to have them.”
Changing your mindset to include all foods to be healthy in moderation gives you freedom to listen to your body and trust that you can nourish it when you’re hungry but also stop eating when you’re satisfied.
“Food is a quality-of-life issue—we have taste buds so that we can enjoy what we eat,” Thayer said.
Talk to your health care provider
If you’re not sure where to start with a healthy eating plan, ask your health care provider for help or speak with a registered dietitian who can customize a diet that works with your goals.