Cholesterol is a fatty wax-like substance that is in your blood and cells of your body. Your body needs cholesterol to make vitamin D, hormones, and enzymes that help you digest your food. The liver makes all the cholesterol it needs, and you also take in cholesterol through your food.
Learning about cholesterol is helpful for anyone looking to live a healthy life. This article discusses how much cholesterol you need daily and which foods promote healthy cholesterol levels and which ones do not. It also talks about the risks of having high cholesterol levels.
How Much Cholesterol You Need Daily
In the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the National Academies recommends “dietary cholesterol consumption to be as low as possible without compromising the nutritional adequacy of the diet.” The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends keeping your daily dietary cholesterol intake below 300mg per day. This number may be lower however, depending on your risk factors.
The two types of cholesterol are:
- HDL cholesterol: is good cholesterol that helps remove harmful cholesterol from your blood arteries
- LDL cholesterol: is the harmful cholesterol that can build-up and block your arteries
The level your cholesterol should be depends on several factors such as your age, gender, genetics, and overall health.
Anyone younger than 19 should have:
- LDL less than 100mg/dL
- HDL more than 45mg/dL
Men age 20 or older should have:
- LDL less than 100mg/dL
- HDL more than 40mg/dL
Women age 20 or older should have:
- LDL less than 100mg/dL
- HDL more than 50mg/dL
Other factors affecting what level your cholesterol should be at include your:
- Weight management
- Level of physical activity
- If you smoke
- Gender assigned at birth
- Level of chronic stress
Talk with your medical provider about what cholesterol level is healthy for you.
How to Tell if a Food is High in Cholesterol
Dietary cholesterol is only found in animal products such as meats, dairy products, egg yolks, and spreads. When deciding which foods to eat, look at the Nutrition Facts label to monitor how much dietary cholesterol you eat each day.
The Nutrition Facts label on the packages of foods and beverages shows the amount of cholesterol in milligrams (mg) as well as the % Daily Value (%DV) of cholesterol per serving. After reviewing the Nutrition Facts label, make food choices throughout your day to give you less than 100% DV of cholesterol each day.
Foods to Eat for Healthy Cholesterol Levels
There are a variety of foods out there that have no cholesterol by nature—pretty much anything plant-based—and these are all great foods to turn to if you’re trying to lower or maintain your cholesterol. Foods that are high in fiber are also good for lowering cholesterol, as fiber can help reduce the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream.
Fruits like apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus fruits are high in a substance called pectin, a soluble fiber that can help lower your LDL cholesterol.
Having a diet rich in colorful vegetables like spinach, broccoli, bell peppers, yams, and avocados is ideal for lowering LDL cholesterol, as they’re high in fiber and antioxidants and low in calories. Vegetables like okra, eggplants, carrots, and potatoes are also known to be especially rich in pectin.
There are plenty of ways to get your proteins without consuming animal products, which, as we know, can be high in dietary cholesterol. Foods high in healthy proteins include beans and peas, soy products, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish (like salmon and tuna), and are recommended as replacements for meat and other animal products.
Grain products like oats and oat bran, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, and other whole grains are great options for lowering your cholesterol because they are high in soluble fiber. A bowl of oatmeal, for example, can deliver one to two grams of soluble fiber.
Foods to Avoid for Healthy Cholesterol Levels
If you have high cholesterol, you’re going to want to avoid foods that are high in dietary cholesterol, as well as foods that are high in saturated and trans fat, which can stimulate the liver to produce more cholesterol. The items below are some of the most well-known for being bad for those with high cholesterol.
Beef, lamb, pork, poultry, processed meats (like bacon, hot dogs, jerky), animal fats, and other meat products all include dietary cholesterol, and can also be high in saturated fats, which will be described further below. If you do eat meat, the FDA recommends choosing lean cuts, trimming or draining most of the fat on the meat either before or after cooking, and removing the skin if you are eating poultry.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting your intake of saturated fats—which can be found in meats, processed foods, dairy products, fried foods, tropical oils, chocolate, and more—as studies have shown that they increase your levels of LDL cholesterol. The National Library of Medicine recommends that less than 7% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat, while the AHA recommends 5-6%.
Animal-based dairy products like milk, cheese, butter, and spreads can all be high in dietary cholesterol and saturated fats, which can increase your LDL cholesterol levels. Try to avoid full-fat dairy products where possible, choosing low-fat options instead.
Eggs are naturally high in cholesterol (about 186mg per large egg), but all of the cholesterol within an egg is found in its yolk. Egg whites, therefore, are heart-healthy food options. Despite being high in cholesterol, eggs are low in saturated fat, making them a better option than some other foods which are packed with both.
The amount of cholesterol in seafood varies, with some (like whitefish, fatty fish, and mollusks) being low in dietary cholesterol, and others (like crustaceans) having far more. If you have high cholesterol, it might be worth avoiding crustaceans like lobster, crab, and shrimp.
According to the USDA, one ounce of cooked shrimp has approximately 60mg of cholesterol, while one ounce of ahi tuna (a fatty fish) contains approximately 11 mg of cholesterol. That said, seafood is packed with other important nutrients, like omega-3 fatty acid, which can be beneficial for heart health, so seafood certainly isn’t the worst on the list.
Risks of Eating Too Much Cholesterol
If you eat too much dietary cholesterol and you are predisposed to have high cholesterol, you risk suffering from atherosclerosis, a condition where excess levels of cholesterol build up in the arteries and form plaque, which increase one’s susceptibility to blood clots.
Blood clots can cause a heart attack or stroke depending on if the blood clot is in the artery leading to the heart or the brain, respectively.
When to See a Medical Provider
Because high cholesterol doesn’t come with signs or symptoms, getting your cholesterol tested regularly is important in order to keep it in check. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that healthy adults get their cholesterol tested every 4-6 years, unless high cholesterol runs in their family or they suffer from diabetes or heart disease, in which case they should get checked more often.
Children should get tested at least once between ages 9 and 11, and then again between the ages of 17 and 21.
If you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol in the past, it’s important to keep an ongoing dialogue with your doctor, who may suggest you engage in certain lifestyle changes (diet being one of them!) or take a cholesterol medication.
Managing Cholesterol Online
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Frequently Asked Questions
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