Many of us grew up thinking cholesterol = bad. Eat a lot of cholesterol, end up with high cholesterol, right? Well, that might not be the case.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s dietary guidelines once capped daily cholesterol consumption at 300 milligrams, but dropped the limit recommendation in 2015, stating that “available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol” and that “cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”
Recent research has found that the cholesterol we consume may not be as big of a heart health risk as we once thought, says Tori Schmitt, M.S., R.D.N., L.D., founder of YES! Nutrition. “For many people, when they eat cholesterol, their body accommodates by producing less,” says Schmitt. (Yep, your body makes cholesterol!)
But what does the stuff even do? Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is the starting point for making cells and steroid hormones (like sex and adrenal hormones) in the body, says Rachel Begun, M.S., R.D.N. It also plays a role in vitamin D synthesis and digestion.
Cholesterol is transported throughout the body by two different kinds of lipoproteins: Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) carry cholesterol from the liver throughout the body and high-density lipoproteins (HDL) carry the cholesterol back to the liver, Begun says.
LDL cholesterol can contribute to plaque buildup in the blood, which is why it’s known as the ‘bad’ cholesterol, Begun explains. “Generally, the lower your LDL and the higher your HDL, the better your odds for preventing cardiovascular disease,” she says.
The sticky substance is found in the cell membrane of animal cells, so foods high in cholesterol are animal-based foods like meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, and milk, says Schmitt. Nope, you won’t find cholesterol in plants!
Just don’t consider the recent research an invitation to go crazy: One review published in the Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology suggested dietary cholesterol generally does not impact blood cholesterol levels or coronary heart disease risk but still cautioned that some people may be more sensitive to cholesterol intake than others.
Even if you don’t need to worry too much about dietary cholesterol affecting your LDL levels on its own, though, certain foods it’s found in contain something you do need to look out for: saturated fats. These fats can increase that ‘bad’ cholesterol and the USDA dietary guidelines still consider them a threat. Monitor your intake of fatty meats and high-fat dairy, and keep saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your daily calories, recommends Schmitt.
If heart health is a priority (and it should be!) your diet should focus on “fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, plant oils, and moderate amounts of lean animal protein,” says Begun.
When it comes to cholesterol-containing foods that don’t pack much saturated fat, there are a few that deserve a spot on your plate.
One large egg packs on 186 milligrams of cholesterol. (That’s 372 milligrams in two.) We don’t know about you, but we like more than one egg in our morning scramble, and we get that this may feel a little bold, considering that previous 300 milligram limit. But cholesterol or not, eggs are super-nutritious and definitely deserve a spot in your daily grub.
Eggs are quite nutrient-dense, with six grams of protein, 41 IU vitamin D and 270 IU of vitamin A per egg, says Schmitt. She adds that egg yolks also have a nutrient called choline, which helps support fetal brain development during pregnancy.
Shellfish, like shrimp, are a delicious way to get lean protein and essential minerals without much saturated fat, says Begun. A three-ounce serving of shrimp, for example, contains about 161 mg of cholesterol and packs 20 grams of protein with only trace amounts of fat.
Not into the little guys? Other varieties of shellfish (like lobster) are also low in fat but high in nutrients.
That salmon filet contains some cholesterol, but also provides a variety of valuable nutrients. A three-ounce fillet of wild salmon contains 43 milligrams of cholesterol, 19 grams of protein, 312 milligrams potassium, and 2158 milligrams of polyunsaturated fatty acids, including omega-3s, Schmitt says.
“Salmon’s omega-3 fatty acids, including EPA and DHA, can support heart health, memory, and cognition,” says Schmitt.
Chicken is probably already a staple in your diet. After all, it’s a prime source of lean protein. But did you know it contains some cholesterol, too?
A three-ounce serving of chicken breast contains 52 milligrams of cholesterol, 18 grams of protein, and is a great source of niacin, vitamin B12, and selenium, says Schmitt. Go for lean cuts, like the breast, to keep that saturated fat intake low.