The Truth About Cholesterol and Cholesterol-rich Foods

For decades, people avoided cholesterol-rich foods due to the fear that they would increase their risk of heart disease.

This, in turn, has pushed many of us away from eating a lot of healthy foods like; eggs, butter, red meat that were once staples in our everyday diet.

Yet, recent research shows that consuming these healthy foods, that are high in cholesterol, won’t harm your health.

What’s more, many cholesterol-rich foods are loaded with important nutrients that many of us have become deficient in due to our more modern approach of eating.

In this article I will explain why most cholesterol-rich foods should not be feared and list which ones to focus on and which ones should be avoided.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced by the liver and plays a significant role in the production of hormones, vitamin D and the bile necessary for digesting fats.

However, cholesterol can also be introduced through the consumption of certain types of food, particularly animal products.

Cholesterol is an essential component of every cell in your body, giving cell membranes strength and flexibility. (1)

And since cholesterol doesn’t mix well with liquids (blood), it’s transported by particles called lipoproteins, including low-density and high-density lipoprotein or what is commonly referred to as LDL and HDL.

LDL is often referred to as “bad cholesterol,” as it’s associated with the plaque buildup in arteries, while HDL, otherwise known as “good cholesterol” helps excrete excess cholesterol from your body. (2)

When you consume extra dietary cholesterol, your body automatically compensates, by reducing the amount of cholesterol that it naturally produces.

In contrast, when dietary cholesterol intake is low, your body increases cholesterol production to ensure there is always an adequate supply of this vital substance. (3)

Only about 25 percent of all the cholesterol in our system comes from dietary sources. The rest is produced internally by your liver. (4)

Is Dietary Cholesterol Harmful?

Research has shown that dietary cholesterol does not significantly impact cholesterol levels in our body, and data from population studies does not support an association between dietary cholesterol and heart disease in the general population. (5, 6, 7)

While dietary cholesterol may slightly impact cholesterol levels in some individuals, this isn’t an issue for the majority of 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)

However, a small number of people are considered cholesterol non-compensators or hyper-responders. And while these individuals appear to be more susceptible to high-cholesterol foods, it is thought that hyper-responders 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)

Therefore, while research shows that it’s unnecessary for most people to avoid dietary cholesterol, keep in mind that not all cholesterol-containing foods are created equal.

Healthy Cholesterol-rich Foods

Eggs

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 percent 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, in fact, 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)

Research has shown that eating 1–3 eggs per day is perfectly safe for healthy people. (14, 15)

Cheese

A 1-ounce serving of cheese provides 27 mg of cholesterol, or about 9 percent 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, 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)

Different types of cheese vary in nutritional content, but most cheeses provide a good amount of calcium, protein, B vitamins and vitamin A. (18, 19)

Since cheese is high in calories, stick to the recommended servings of 1 to 2 ounces per day.

Shellfish

Shellfish, including; clams, crab and shrimp are an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, iron and selenium. (20, 21)

They’re also high in cholesterol. For example, a 3-ounce serving of shrimp provides 166 mg of cholesterol, which happens to be over 50 percent of the RDI. (22)

Additionally, shellfish contain bioactive components such as carotenoid antioxidants and taurine, a sulfur-containing amino acid important in the metabolism of fats and the lowering of “bad” LDL cholesterol. (23, 24)

In fact, it is confirmed that populations who consume more seafood have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes and inflammatory diseases like arthritis. (25)

Pasture-Raised Beef

Pasture-Raised Beef is packed with protein, as well as important vitamins and minerals like vitamin B12, zinc, selenium and iron. (26)

It’s lower in cholesterol than feedlot beef and contains significantly more omega 3 fatty acids, which have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. (27, 28)

A 4-ounce serving of pasture-raised beef packs about 62 mg of cholesterol, or 20 percent of the RDI. (29)

Though processed meat has a clear association with heart disease, several large population studies have found no association between red meat intake and heart disease risk. (30, 31)

Organ Meats

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 percent 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

Sardines are not only loaded with nutrients but also a tasty protein source that can be added to a wide variety of dishes or used as a convenient carry along food.

One 3.75-ounce serving of these tiny fish contains 131 mg of cholesterol, or 44 percent of the RDI, but it also packs 63 percent of the RDI for vitamin D, 137 percent of the RDI for B12 and 35 percent 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

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 percent 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)

Summary:

Eggs, cheese, shellfish, pastured beef, organ meats, sardines and full-fat yogurt are cholesterol-rich, nutritious foods that make healthy additions to your diet.

Unhealthy Cholesterol-rich Foods

Fried Foods

Fried foods such as deep-fried meats and cheese sticks are high in cholesterol and should be avoided as much as possible.

These foods loaded with empty calories and contain trans fats, which are known to increase cardiovascular disease risk factors, including; elevated LDL cholesterol, high triglycerides and high blood pressure. (38)

Additionally, high consumption of fried foods has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity and diabetes. (39, 40)

Fast Food

Fast food consumption is a major risk factor for numerous chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Those who frequently consume fast food tend to have higher cholesterol, more belly fat, higher levels of inflammation and impaired blood sugar regulation. (41)

Cutting back on eating processed food and cooking more meals at home is associated with lower body weight, less body fat and reductions in heart disease risk factors like elevated LDL cholesterol and high triglycerides. (42)

Processed Meats

Processed meats, such as Sausages, hot dogs, salami and ham 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)

In fact, in a large review that included over 614,000 participants found that each additional 50-gram serving of processed meat per day was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of developing heart disease. (43)

Sugary Snacks

Cookies, cakes, ice cream, pastries and other sweets are unhealthy foods that tend to be high in cholesterol, as well as added sugar, unhealthy fats and empty calories.

Frequently indulging in these foods can negatively impact overall health and lead to weight gain over time.

In fact, research has firmly linked added sugar intake to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cognitive decline and certain cancers. (43)

Additionally, these foods are often devoid of the valuable nutrients your body needs to thrive. These include vitamins, minerals, protein and healthy fats.

Summary: 

It’s best to limit or avoid certain high-cholesterol foods, such as fast foods, processed meats, fried foods and sugary desserts.

Healthy Ways to Lower Your Cholesterol Naturally

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)

However, 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 cruciferous vegetables, whole fruit and beans can help reduce LDL cholesterol levels. (45)

Increase physical activity: Becoming more physically active is an excellent way to lower cholesterol levels. Whether through aerobic or anaerobic exercise, they both seem to be an 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 general 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 has 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)

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.

Summary:

Increasing dietary fiber, engaging in regular physical activity and quitting unhealthy habits like smoking are proven ways to decrease cholesterol levels.

The Bottom Line:

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, sugary snacks 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.

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