09 Nov High-Cholesterol Foods: Which to Eat, and Which to Avoid
Cholesterol is arguably one of the most misunderstood substances.
For decades, people avoided healthy yet cholesterol-rich foods like eggs due to the fear that these foods would increase their risk of heart disease.
However, recent research shows that—for most people—consuming healthy foods that are high in cholesterol won’t harm your health.
What’s more, some cholesterol-rich foods are loaded with important nutrients that are lacking in many people’s diets.
This article explains why cholesterol in foods should not be feared and lists healthy high-cholesterol foods and some that should be avoided.
What Is Cholesterol and Is It Unhealthy?
Cholesterol plays important roles in the production of hormones, vitamin D, and the bile necessary for digesting fats, and is an essential component of every cell in your body, giving cell membranes strength and flexibility. 1
Since cholesterol doesn’t mix well with liquids (blood), it’s transported by particles called lipoproteins, including low-density and high-density lipoprotein—or LDL and HDL (more on that here).
LDL is often referred to as “bad cholesterol,” as it’s associated with the plaque buildup in arteries, while HDL (“good cholesterol”) helps excrete excess cholesterol from your body. 2
When you consume extra cholesterol, your body compensates by reducing the amount of cholesterol that it naturally makes.
In contrast, when dietary cholesterol intake is low, your body increases cholesterol production to ensure there is always enough of this vital substance. 3
Only about 25% of cholesterol in your system comes from dietary sources. The rest is produced by your liver. 4
Is Dietary Cholesterol Harmful?
Research has shown that dietary cholesterol does not significantly impact cholesterol levels in your body, and data from population studies does not support an association between dietary cholesterol and heart disease in the general population. 5 6 7
Though dietary cholesterol can slightly impact cholesterol levels, this isn’t an issue for most people.
In fact, two-thirds of the world’s population experience little or no increase in cholesterol levels after eating cholesterol-rich foods—even in large amounts. 8
A small number of people are considered cholesterol non-compensators or hyper-responders and appear to be more vulnerable to high-cholesterol foods.
However, hyper-responders are thought to recycle extra cholesterol back to the liver for excretion. 9
Dietary cholesterol has also been shown to beneficially affect the LDL-to-HDL ratio, which is considered the best indicator of heart disease risk. 10
While research shows that it’s unnecessary for most people to avoid dietary cholesterol, keep in mind that not all cholesterol-containing foods are healthy.
Here are 7 healthy high-cholesterol foods
Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. They also happen to be high in cholesterol, with one large egg delivering 211 mg of cholesterol, or 70% of the RDI. 11
People often avoid eggs out of fear that they may cause cholesterol to skyrocket. However, research shows that eggs don’t negatively impact cholesterol levels and that eating whole eggs can lead to increases in heart-protective HDL. 12
Aside from being rich in cholesterol, eggs are an excellent source of highly absorbable protein and loaded with beneficial nutrients like B vitamins, selenium and vitamin A. 13
A 1-ounce serving of cheese provides 27 mg of cholesterol, or about 9% of the RDI. 16
Although cheese is often associated with increased cholesterol, several studies have shown that full-fat cheese does not negatively impact cholesterol levels.
One 12-week study in 162 people found that a high intake of 80 grams or about 3 ounces of full-fat cheese per day did not raise “bad” LDL cholesterol, compared to the same amount of low-fat cheese or the equal number of calories from bread and jam. 17
Since cheese is high in calories, stick to the recommended serving size of 1–2 ounces at a time to keep portions in check.
They’re also high in cholesterol. For example, a 3-ounce serving of shrimp provides 166 mg of cholesterol—which is over 50% of the RDI. 22
Populations that consume more seafood have demonstratively lower rates of heart disease, diabetes and inflammatory diseases like arthritis. 25
Pasture-raised steak is packed with protein, as well as important vitamins and minerals like vitamin B12, zinc, selenium and iron. 26
A 4-ounce serving of pasture-raised steak packs about 62 mg of cholesterol, or 20% of the RDI. 29
Cholesterol-rich organ meats—such as heart, kidney and liver—are highly nutritious.
For example, chicken heart is an excellent source of the powerful antioxidant CoQ10, as well as vitamin B12, iron and zinc.
It’s also high in cholesterol, with a 2-ounce serving providing 105 mg of cholesterol, or 36% of the RDI. 32
One study in over 9,000 Korean adults found that those with a moderate intake of unprocessed meat—including organ meats—had a lower risk of developing heart disease than those with the lowest consumption. 33
Sardines are not only loaded with nutrients but also a tasty and convenient protein source that can be added to a wide variety of dishes.
One 3.75-ounce serving of these tiny fish contains 131 mg of cholesterol, or 44% of the RDI, but it also packs 63% of the RDI for vitamin D, 137% of the RDI for B12 and 35% of the RDI for calcium. 34
What’s more, sardines are an excellent source of iron, selenium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, magnesium and vitamin E.
Full-fat yogurt is a cholesterol-rich food packed with nutrients like protein, calcium, phosphorus, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and potassium.
One cup of full-fat yogurt contains 31.9 mg of cholesterol, or 11% of the RDI. 35
Recent research shows that increased consumption of full-fat fermented dairy products is associated with reductions in “bad” LDL cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as lower risks of stroke, heart disease and diabetes. 36
Plus, fermented dairy products like yogurt benefit intestinal health by positively impacting friendly gut bacteria. 37
Eggs, cheese, shellfish, pastured steak, organ meats, sardines and full-fat yogurt are cholesterol-rich, nutritious foods that make healthy additions to your diet.
High-Cholesterol Foods You Should Avoid
These foods should be filed in the “no duh” category—it’s obvious to anyone who is considering a healthy diet that you shouldn’t eat these. So we’ll blast through ’em.
Fried and Fast Food
Fried foods—such as deep-fried meats and cheese sticks—are high-cholesterol and should be avoided whenever possible.
Fast food consumption is a major risk factor for numerous chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Eating less processed food and cooking more meals at home is associated with lower body weight. 41
Processed meats, such as sausages, bacon and hot dogs, are high-cholesterol foods that should be limited.
High consumption of processed meats has been linked to increased rates of heart disease and certain cancers like colon cancer. 42
Cookies, cakes, ice cream, pastries and other sweets are unhealthy foods that tend to be high in cholesterol, as well as added sugars, unhealthy fats and calories.
Research has linked added sugar intake to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cognitive decline and certain cancers. 43
Don’t eat this stuff! Or, in the very least, keep your consumption to a minimum.
Healthy Ways to Lower Your Cholesterol
Having high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol can lead to cholesterol buildup in your blood vessel, which can increase your risk of developing heart disease. 44
Certain lifestyle and dietary changes can reduce LDL levels and create a more favorable LDL-to-HDL ratio.
Here are healthy, evidence-based ways to lower cholesterol levels:
- Eat more fiber: Research shows that consuming more fiber—especially soluble fiber found in fruits, beans and oats—can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels. 45
- Increase physical activity: Becoming more physically active is an excellent way to lower cholesterol levels. High-intensity aerobic exercise seems to be the most effective way to reduce LDL. 46
- Lose weight: Dropping excess body weight is one of the best ways to lower cholesterol levels. It can reduce LDL while increasing HDL, which is optimal for health. 47
- Cut back on unhealthy habits: Quitting unhealthy habits like smoking can significantly reduce LDL levels. Smoking raises LDL cholesterol levels and greatly increases your risk of cancer, heart disease and emphysema. 48 49
- Increase dietary omega-3s: Consuming more omega-3-rich foods like wild-caught salmon or taking omega-3 supplements like fish oil pills have been shown to reduce LDL and raise HDL levels. 50
- Eat more produce: Research shows that people who consume more fruits and vegetables have lower LDL cholesterol levels and are less likely to develop heart disease than those who eat less. 51
There are many other ways to effectively reduce high cholesterol levels.
Trying just a few of the above suggestions could result in a significant reduction in cholesterol and lead to other health benefits, such as weight loss and better dietary habits.
Increasing dietary fiber, engaging in regular physical activity and quitting unhealthy habits like smoking are proven ways to decrease cholesterol levels.
Cholesterol-rich foods are not all created equal—while some like eggs and full-fat yogurt are nutritious, others aren’t good for your health.
Though it’s safe for most people to enjoy the healthy, cholesterol-rich foods listed above, everyone should try to limit unhealthy, high-cholesterol foods like fried items, desserts and processed meats.
Remember, just because a food is high in cholesterol doesn’t mean it can’t fit into a well-balanced, nutritious diet.