What Foods Cause High Cholesterol? Foods to Avoid

By Arielle Mitton
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
November 8, 2022

Cholesterol is a wax-like substance found in your blood. Too much cholesterol puts you at higher risk for heart disease and stroke. Research shows that certain foods contain high levels of cholesterol which increase your blood cholesterol levels

In this article, I’ll outline some foods that are high in dietary cholesterol, as well as foods with other nutrients that could impact your cholesterol levels. Then I’ll explain what high cholesterol is, and the risks it can pose to your health. Finally, I’ll tell you when you should talk to your doctor or another healthcare provider about your cholesterol.

Healthy Foods High in Cholesterol

Cholesterol is in foods originating from animals such as whole milk dairy products, egg yolks, shrimp, liver, and other organ meats, 

Egg yolks

While chicken eggs, in moderation, can be a good, affordable source of protein, eggs are naturally a cholesterol-rich food, particularly the yolk. Some studies show that a single egg yolk may contain upwards of 275 mg of cholesterol, which is more than the recommended 200 mg per day. While egg yolks do not raise cholesterol levels as much as other meats and saturated fats, it is still best to avoid egg yolks if you already have high cholesterol levels. 

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Red meat

Red meat tends to be higher in trans fats than its leaner meat counterparts. In general, you should limit your consumption of animal products, especially red meat, to one day per week. You can also replace meat entirely with alternative protein sources such as beans, nuts, and tofu. 

Cheese

Cheese tends to be high in saturated fat and cholesterol. It is also often high in sodium, which can also put you at risk for hypertension. Try to limit cheese consumption when you are able, and opt for non-fat or low-fat options, such as mozzarella or ricotta.

Butter

Butter is high in fat, which contributes to cholesterol levels. Try limiting baked goods, which often contain high amounts of butter and shortening. Use unsaturated fats like olive or avocado oils when baking at home. 

Full-fat dairy

Similar to cheese and butter, other full-fat dairy products tend to increase LDL cholesterol, as they are often high in saturated fats and cholesterol. Try swapping dairy foods like whole milk for skim or 1%, and full-fat yogurt for skim. Instead of ice cream, opt for a less fatty food like sorbet or frozen yogurt. Also consider alternatives to dairy, such as almond or oat milk products.

Shrimp

Shrimp is a great source of protein and several nutrients including potassium and other minerals. However, while shrimp is a low fat food, it contains high cholesterol amounts. For example, 100 g of shrimp, or approximately 13 shrimp, contain 189 mg cholesterol. Compare this to 100 g of chicken containing only 58 mg of cholesterol.

Liver and other organ meats

Liver and other organ meats contain many health benefits including high levels of iron, potassium, phosphorus, folate, and other minerals and vitamins. It is also high in protein and low in calories. However, if you are trying to watch your cholesterol level, liver isn’t the best choice. 100 g of liver contains 345 mg of cholesterol making it a high cholesterol food. 

Foods with High Cholesterol to Avoid

Here are other foods high in cholesterol.

Processed meats

Hot dogs, sausage, and bacon are examples of processed meats that are high in cholesterol and fat. Studies link these processed meat varieties to diabetes and heart disease. Turkey and chicken alternatives, such as turkey bacon or chicken sausage, are better options. But they are also not cholesterol-free and should be consumed in moderation.

Fried food

Fried food is often deep fried in oil, such as corn oil and grapeseed oil, which are high in saturated fat and increase LDL cholesterol. Instead of eating fried foods, try using an air fryer, or drizzle your food with olive oil and bake it for a similar, satisfying crunch. 

Trans fats

It is best to avoid trans fats, which not only cause high LDL levels, but also lower “good” HDL cholesterol. Trans fats are often found in items that contain hydrogenated vegetable oils. These are used to give foods a longer shelf life and are also sometimes used in deep fryers at restaurants. 

Trans fats naturally occur in some types of dairy and meat, as well as certain food products like baked goods, frozen foods, fried food, frozen dough, and non-dairy creamers These unhealthy fats increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Read food labels and beware of hidden trans fats in food. 

Alcohol

Excessive consumption of alcohol can also raise your bad cholesterol levels.  

What is Cholesterol?

Nearly 28 million American adults have high cholesterol. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by your liver and found in your blood. You actually need some cholesterol—it helps you digest fatty foods, and is used to produce certain hormones. But too much cholesterol can contribute to the buildup of plaque in your arteries, narrowing your blood vessels, and inhibiting blood flow. Cholesterol moves through your blood by attaching to proteins, becoming what is called a lipoprotein.

“Good” vs “Bad” Cholesterol

There are two types: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is considered “bad” cholesterol, whereas HDL cholesterol is considered “good.” High levels of LDL increase your risk of dangerous, life threatening diseases, while HDL is somewhat protective. Your body naturally produces all of the cholesterol it needs, and high dietary intake of excess cholesterol raises your LDL cholesterol levels.

You are considered to have high levels of cholesterol when your total cholesterol is equal to or more than 239 mg/dL for men and women 20 and older. Desirable ranges for total cholesterol are between 125 mg/dL to 200 mg/dL. Ideally LDL should be lower than 160 mg/dL (or lower if you have other risk factors) and HDL should be higher than 40 mg/dL. 

High cholesterol can be the result of genetics, poor diet, an unhealthy lifestyle, or other factors. There are a number of ways to manage cholesterol: There are medications designed to help balance your “good” and “bad” cholesterol. Healthcare professionals may also recommend a diet and exercise plan to balance your numbers.

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Tips for Lowering Cholesterol 

Here are some lifestyle changes you can make to help lower your cholesterol.

  • Follow a low cholesterol diet: When you are trying to lower your cholesterol, focus on eating a diet with less than 200 mg of cholesterol each day.
  • Choose healthy fats: When deciding what to eat, check for total fat and saturated fat levels. Less than 7% of your daily calories should come from saturated fats, and no more than 25%-35% of your daily calories should come from dietary fats. 
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables help decrease your level of cholesterol. They are also high in fiber which helps prevent cholesterol absorption during digestion.  
  • Eat food high in omega-3 fatty acids: Fatty acids do not help lower your LDL level, however, they do help increase your HDL level. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include salmon, mackerel, tuna, walnuts, chia seeds, edamame, and refried beans. 
  • Limit alcohol: Alcohol itself does not increase your cholesterol, however, it does lead to weight gain which can raise your LDL level. This puts you at higher risk for heart disease.  
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity and overweight affects how your body processes cholesterol and slows its ability to remove LDL from your blood.  Talk with your medical provider about what a healthy weight is for you.
  • Stop smoking: Smoking causes damage to your blood vessels. It also causes your arteries to harden. These increase your risk of heart disease. 
  • Get regular physical activity: Physical activity on a regular basis helps promote a healthy weight. Try to get 30 minutes of regular moderate-intensity physical activity daily.  

When to See a Doctor

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute suggests people get their cholesterol checked every five years starting between the ages of 9-11. As individuals get older, screenings should be adjusted to every two years. Individuals over 65 should get annual cholesterol tests. Depending on results, your doctor or provider may want to test your blood pressure and cholesterol more frequently. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are some high protein foods that are also low in cholesterol?
Fish, such as tuna and salmon, plant-based proteins like nuts and legumes, and boneless, skinless chicken and turkey are all high-protein, low-cholesterol options.
How often should cholesterol levels be tested?
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute suggests people get their cholesterol checked every five years starting between the ages of 9-11. As individuals get older, screenings should be adjusted to every two years, and individuals over 65 should get annual cholesterol tests.
When is high cholesterol considered dangerous?
Dangerous cholesterol levels are generally considered to be a total cholesterol level about 240 mg/dL, but different factors and family history can affect the reading of your cholesterol panel. It is best to consult a medical professional if you are concerned about your cholesterol levels. Too much cholesterol puts you at higher risk for heart diseases.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Arielle Mitton

Dr. Mitton is a board certified internal medicine physician with over 6 years of experience in urgent care and additional training in geriatric medicine. She completed her trainings at Mount Sinai Hospital and UCLA. She is on the board of the Hyperemesis Research Foundation to help women suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum.