Remember when experts said to avoid cholesterol-rich foods like eggs? The thought was that cholesterol in food raised your blood cholesterol and risk of heart disease, but recent studies have found that some high-cholesterol foods may not raise your heart disease risk after all.
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Still, this doesn’t mean you can ignore the amount of cholesterol you consume. Registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, explains how to make sense of the confusing cholesterol advice out there.
Should you eat a low-cholesterol diet?
“It’s safe to have some cholesterol in your diet,” Zumpano says, “but many high-cholesterol foods also contain high amounts of saturated fat.”
And therein lies the problem with many high-cholesterol foods: While some cholesterol in your diet is fine, lots of saturated fat isn’t. Diets high in saturated fat are linked to increased blood cholesterol and heart disease risk.
Most people can, in moderation, eat “healthy” high-cholesterol foods — those that have high cholesterol but low saturated fat content. But limit or avoid “unhealthy” high-cholesterol foods, which are also high in saturated fat. Here’s how to stock your kitchen.
High-cholesterol foods to eat
These high-cholesterol foods can be part of a heart-healthy diet:
- Eggs: The cholesterol in eggs gets a bad rap. One egg contains about 60% of the daily value of cholesterol, but it only contains 8% of your allowance for saturated fat. Eggs are high in protein, low in calories and contain B vitamins, iron and disease-fighting nutrients.
- Shellfish: Some types of shellfish are higher in cholesterol than others. Shrimp is notoriously high in cholesterol, packing in more than half of your daily value in a 3-ounce serving, but its saturated fat content is practically nonexistent. And shellfish is a good source of protein, B vitamins, selenium and zinc.
“Eggs and shellfish have nutritional benefits that may outweigh the cholesterol content,” Zumpano says. “But if you have high cholesterol, eat limited amounts of these foods. Stick to a weekly intake of four egg yolks or two servings of shellfish.”
That said, egg whites contain plenty of protein without any of the cholesterol. So enjoy egg whites all you like — just keep track of how many whole eggs or egg yolks you’re consuming.
High-cholesterol foods to limit and healthy swaps
Most other high-cholesterol foods are also high in saturated fat. Because saturated fat is linked to a higher risk of heart disease, it’s best to limit or avoid these foods. These swaps will help you find healthier options.
Whole milk, butter and full-fat yogurt and cheese are high in saturated fat. Cheese also tends to be high in sodium, and most Americans get too much sodium, too.
Healthy swap: Drink skim (non-fat), 1% or 2% milk to get your calcium intake. Look for non-fat or low-fat yogurt varieties. Limit cheese to about 3 ounces per week. Choose part-skim cheese such as Swiss or mozzarella. Use extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil instead of butter.
Bacon, sausage and hot dogs are usually made from fatty cuts of beef or pork.
Healthy swap: Limit processed meat in general because of its high sodium content and low nutrition. Instead, choose minimally processed sausage or deli meat made from lean turkey or chicken.
Steak, beef roast, ribs, pork chops and ground beef tend to have high saturated fat and cholesterol content.
Healthy swap: Use 90% lean ground beef, lean cuts of beef (such as sirloin, tenderloin, filet or flank steak, pork loin or tenderloin), and focus on lower-fat sources of animal protein, such as baked skinless or lean ground poultry.
French fries, fried chicken with skin and other foods cooked in a deep fryer have a high amount of saturated fat and cholesterol from the oil they’re cooked in.
Healthy swap: Eat baked chicken or turkey without the skin, baked potatoes or baked “fries” tossed with a little olive oil. Try using an air fryer for a lower-fat “fried” food taste.
Baked goods and sweets
Cookies, cakes and doughnuts usually contain butter or shortening, making them high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Healthy swap: Make your desserts at home, choosing recipes that don’t need shortening or lots of butter. You can also enjoy baked fruit as a dessert, or substitute applesauce for eggs or butter in your baking. Cut sugar in half or to three-quarters the recommended amount, as sugar can lead to high levels of blood triglycerides which are another unhealthy blood fat (lipid) that can be a risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Moderation is key
You don’t have to eliminate all the unhealthy high-cholesterol foods. Focus on your overall diet and make healthy choices most of the time. “Enjoy the less healthy foods as occasional treats, not as everyday meal choices,” Zumpano says.
And if you’re not sure where to start with a healthy eating plan, ask your healthcare provider. A certified nutritionist or registered dietitian can customize a diet that works with your health goals.