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. However, 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. “It’s safe to have some cholesterol in your diet,” says registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD. “But many high-cholesterol foods also contain high amounts of saturated fat.”
Zumpano explains how to make sense of the confusing cholesterol advice out there, and what foods high in cholesterol are best to eat — or leave at the store.
High-cholesterol foods to avoid
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.
Experts recommend limiting or avoiding the following “unhealthy” high-cholesterol foods, which are also high in saturated fat:
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.
Limit cheese to about 3 ounces per week, and choose part-skim cheese such as Swiss or mozzarella when cooking. Drink skim (non-fat), 1% or 2% milk to get your calcium intake. Look for non-fat or low-fat yogurt varieties. Use extra-virgin olive oil or avocado oil instead of butter.
Steak, beef roast, ribs, pork chops and ground beef tend to have high saturated fat and cholesterol content.
Choose 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.
You should limit processed meat in general because of its high sodium content and low nutrition. In fact, bacon, sausage and hot dogs are usually made from fatty cuts of beef or pork.
If you must eat processed meat, choose minimally processed sausage or deli meat made from lean turkey or chicken.
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.
A better choice is 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.
They also tend to be full of sugar, which can lead to high levels of blood triglycerides, an unhealthy blood fat (lipid) that can be a risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Instead, make your desserts at home, choosing recipes that don’t need shortening or lots of butter. This also allows you to modify recipes and cut down the amount of sugar used, to half or three-quarters the recommended amount. You can also enjoy baked fruit as a dessert, or substitute applesauce for eggs or butter in your baking.
Best high-cholesterol foods to eat
These high-cholesterol foods can be part of a heart-healthy diet:
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. If you do have to watch your cholesterol, stick to egg whites, which contain plenty of protein without any of the cholesterol.
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.
Certain kinds of lean meat are high in cholesterol but low in saturated fat. These include liver (and liver pate), kidney, sweetbreads, heart, and tripe. While you might not find these meats appealing, they are better options than processed or red meat.
Still, Zumpano says even if these foods are best eaten in moderation, especially eggs and shellfish. “They have nutritional benefits that may outweigh the cholesterol content. 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.”
Moderation is key
You don’t have to eliminate all the unhealthy high-cholesterol foods in your diet. Most people can, in moderation, eat “healthy” high-cholesterol foods — those that have high cholesterol but low saturated fat content.
It’s most important to 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 licensed nutritionist or registered dietitian can customize a diet that works with your health goals.