Cholesterol is an essential building block for cell membranes. It helps produce vitamin D, hormones and substances that are needed to digest fatty foods.
However, when the body produces too much cholesterol due to lifestyle choices and genetics, it can lead to health issues. Cholesterol can build up in your arteries and block blood flow, which can cause a heart attack or stroke.
For years doctors and health experts have told us to avoid high-cholesterol foods. However, recent research has shown that people no longer have to be concerned about eating healthy foods that are high in cholesterol.
Eating cholesterol-rich nutritious foods as a part of a healthy balanced diet can be beneficial for health. Let us learn more about cholesterol, its impact on health and the kind of high-cholesterol we can eat or avoid.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a wax-like substance that is found naturally in all the cells of the body. It has many essential functions in the human body including generating vitamin D, producing hormones and digesting fatty foods.
The brain and the nervous system depend on cholesterol for the creation of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. Cholesterol is predominantly produced in the liver and is also found in foods like red meat, butter, eggs, and high-fat cheese.
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There are two types of cholesterol based on the type of protein that transports it through the bloodstream:
- Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or Bad cholesterol: It is associated with plaque build-up in the arteries. When you have high levels of LDL in your blood, it increases the risk of developing heart disease. LDL cholesterol also raises the risk of peripheral artery disease, which forms when plaque buildup narrows the artery supplying blood to the legs.
- High-density lipoproteins (HDL) or Good cholesterol: HDL cholesterol is known as the good cholesterol as it helps carry cholesterol from other parts of the body to the liver, where it is broken down and excreted from the body. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol in the body helps lower the chances of developing heart disease.
High level of cholesterol is a common problem and a risk factor for developing heart disease and heart attacks.
Should we avoid all high cholesterol foods?
According to research, 75 percent of the cholesterol in the body is produced by the liver. Only 25 percent comes from food sources. When the dietary intake of cholesterol is low, the body increases its cholesterol production and vice versa.
Several studies have shown that dietary cholesterol content does not significantly impact the cholesterol levels in the body (1,2). The data from 40 studies could not show any significant link between dietary cholesterol and heart disease (3).
So, it may not be necessary to avoid all high-cholesterol foods. Certain high-cholesterol foods are rich in nutrients, and they can easily be added to your diet in moderation.
Healthy high-cholesterol foods
Eggs are a high-cholesterol food. One large egg contains 211 mg of cholesterol, which is 70 percent of our daily requirement (4). One of the main reason people avoid eating eggs is the fear that it would increase their cholesterol levels.
Eggs are also a source of other nutrients like protein, selenium, vitamin A and B vitamins. The egg yolk contains antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which help prevent macular degeneration (7).
Shellfish like shrimp, crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, clams and scallops are low in saturated fat, but they are high in cholesterol. A three-ounce serving of shrimp provides 166 mg of cholesterol, which is around 55 percent of the daily requirement (8).
Shellfish is low in fat and is also rich in many other nutrients like B vitamins, proteins, iron, and selenium.
3. Grass-fed beef
Pasture raised beef is a rich source of protein, vitamins, and minerals like zinc, selenium, iron and vitamin B12. It is also lower in cholesterol than feedlot beef.
Grass-fed beef also contains omega-3 fatty acids which have anti-inflammatory properties. A 412-gram serving of grass-fed beef contains 118 mg cholesterol, which is 39 percent of the daily allowance (9).
Several studies have also shown that there is no association between the consumption of red meat and heart disease (10).
4. Organ meats
Organ meat like liver, kidneys, heart, and brain are high in cholesterol and low in fat. A 113-gram serving of lamb kidneys contains 381 mg of cholesterol, which is 127 percent of the daily need (11). This, however, does not mean that organ meats are unhealthy.
These meats contain several B vitamins, selenium, and iron. Heart meat, in particular, is very high in antioxidant CoQ10, which protects against Alzheimer’s and heart disease (12).
5. Full fat yogurt
Full-fat dairy products are considered bad for cholesterol levels, but full-fat yogurt is an exception. This cholesterol-rich food is rich in nutrients like protein, B vitamins, calcium, potassium, zinc, phosphorus, and magnesium.
One cup (245 grams) of full-fat yogurt contains 32 mg of cholesterol (13).
According to a 2018 study, consumption of full-fat fermented dairy products helps lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure. Fermented dairy products also lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes (14).
Cod liver oil is high in cholesterol. Just one tablespoon contains 77 mg of cholesterol. However, it is also a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which help reduce blood triglycerides (15).
Omega-3 fatty acids aid in lowering blood pressure, increasing HDL cholesterol and preventing plaque formation.
Cod liver oil also is a rich source of vitamin A, which protects against eye diseases caused by inflammation. It also helps improve bone health and provides relief from joint pain and arthritis.
Dark chocolate, when eaten in small amounts, is good for the heart. Many studies show that flavonoid-rich cocoa (the main ingredient of chocolate) helps lower bad cholesterol and improves the levels of good cholesterol (16).
High cholesterol foods to avoid
1. Processed vegetable oils
Vegetable oils like canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, and soy oil contain trans fatty acids. Studies have shown that fatty acids with one or more bonds in the trans configuration raise the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol (17).
Canola oil is known to undergo hydrogenation, and this increases its levels of trans fats. Trans fats increase DHL cholesterol and lower HDL cholesterol.
2. Packaged snacks
Packages snacks such as potato chips, fried food and crackers are high in saturated fats and cholesterol. These snacks contain sodium, trans fats, refined grains, all of which lead to obesity and high cholesterol levels. So, avoid such meals and opt for a healthier diet.
3. Sugary treats
Snacks like cookies, cakes, muffins have added sugar. For most Americans, these treats can make up a large part of the calorie intake. Added sugars make up almost 17 percent of the calorie intake for adults, and up to 14 for children, while the dietary guidelines suggest that must take less than 10 percent of our calories from sugary food (18).
According to studies, dietary sugars increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol (19).
4. Processed Meats
According to a 2013 study that included an analysis of 448, 568 men and women, there is a positive association between processed meat consumption and mortality due to cardiovascular disease and cancer (20).
According to the American Heart Association, you should limit your consumption of processed meats like sausage, bologna, salami, and hot dogs. Such meats, even the ones with low-fat labels, are high in saturated fats, sodium, and calories.
5. Milk and dairy products
The fat in milk contains fatty acids that have a negative impact on cholesterol-rich lipoproteins. Lauric acid and myristic acid are saturated fatty acids in milk that increase total plasma cholesterol, especially LDL. According to research, replacing saturated fatty acids and trans fatty acids from dairy with polyunsaturated fatty acids can decrease LDL cholesterol levels.
Drinking high levels of alcohol has been linked to high levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. High levels of LDL can lead to an increased risk of heart disease.
7. Refined Carbs
Foods rich in refined carbs like white rice, bread, pizza, sweetened cereal, bagels, and pasta can cause your cholesterol levels to rise. These highly processed carbs have a high-glycemic index, which means they can cause blood sugar levels to rise.
This increased blood sugar raises insulin, which in turn raises cholesterol levels. According to a 2015 study, high carbohydrate intake from starchy foods is positively associated with metabolic disorders (21).
Not all high-cholesterol foods are created equal. Some of these foods can even increase HDL cholesterol levels and improve your heart health.
Some high-cholesterol foods like eggs, shellfish, cod liver oil and dark chocolate are highly nutritious and offer many health benefits. Others like processed foods, refined carbs, sugary treats, processed meats, and vegetable oils can increase cholesterol levels in the body.
Just because a particular food contains cholesterol does not mean it is bad for health. Have these foods in moderation along with other nutritious foods and enjoy a healthy life.