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February 22, 2012 at 8:00 AMComments: 7 Faves: 0

Foods That Affect Cholesterol (For Better AND for Worse)

By Jessica Corwin MPH RDN More Blogs by This Author

After reading my previous blog post I hope you have a better understanding of what cholesterol is and how it can be used in both positive and negative ways inside the body.

Now, we can dive into my favorite topic within heart health: food.

Did you know that just as certain foods can raise your blood cholesterol levels, other foods can actually lower them? The trick is in knowing which foods will raise our healthy cholesterol (HDL) without raising our lousy cholesterol (LDL), and vice versa, because some will help our heart while others will cause harm.

What foods can influence my cholesterol levels?

The cholesterol levels found in our blood can be influenced by both dietary cholesterol and dietary fats – meaning the cholesterol and fat from the food you eat (not those that already in your body).

Dietary cholesterol is found in:

  • Egg yolks
  • Meat
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Ice-cream
  • All Dairy Products (excluding fat-free varieties)

Because our body already makes its own cholesterol, any extra we consume through food is just that – extra. This extra cholesterol can build up in our arteries and cause blockages which can increase our risk for heart disease. Therefore we must keep an eye on the amount of cholesterol that is in our diet.

If you were to follow the advice of the American Heart Association, that would mean limiting your dietary cholesterol to less than 300 milligrams per day (or less than 200 milligrams for those who are already at risk for heart disease). To do so, you will need to read the Nutrition Facts Panel to find out just how much cholesterol is included.

Here are a few examples:

  • 1 egg yolk: 200 mg 
  • 3.5 ounces shrimp: 200 mg
  • 3.5 ounces lean ground beef: 80 mg
  • 3.5 ounces tuna: 30 mg
  • 1 cup whole-fat yogurt or milk: 30 mg
  • 1 ounce whole-fat cheese: 30 mg
  • 1 teaspoon butter: 11 mg
  • 1 cup non-fat yogurt: 10 mg
  • 1 cup non-fat milk: 5 mg
  • 1 teaspoon margarine: 0 mg

After scanning this list it becomes easier to understand how quickly the numbers can add up, doesn’t it?

Dietary Fats and Cholesterol

Dietary fats are found more commonly throughout our food and exist in both plant and animal based options. The fats found in our food can be classified as the:

The Good (Unsaturated Fats) The ‘good’ unsaturated fats include fatty fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil, canola oil, avocado and more. These heart-healthy fats can help by increasing your ‘healthy’ HDL cholesterol levels while lowering your ‘lousy’ LDL cholesterol.

The Bad (Saturated Fats) The ‘bad’ saturated fats are found in animal products including meat, poultry, and dairy, as well as some fried foods and sweet bakery goods. This type of fat can increase your ‘lousy’ LDL cholesterol.

The Ugly (Trans Fats) The ‘ugly’ trans fats are a newer form of fat, one that is primarily made by us through a process called hydrogenation. Trans fats are found in some donuts, crackers, cookies, fried foods, margarine, and other processed foods.

The only way to truly know if there are trans fats in your food is to look for the word ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ in the ingredient statement. It is important to avoid this ingredient because trans fats are truly a double-edged sword, both raising your lousy LDL and lowering your healthy HDL cholesterol levels!

For someone following a 2,000 calorie diet, the American Heart Association recommends we strive to follow a diet with:

  • 25%-35% or less total fat. (55-75 grams or less)
  • 7% or less coming from saturated fat.(16 grams or less)
  • Less than 1% or better yet, zero, coming from trans fat. (less than 2 grams)

What other factors influence cholesterol levels?

Despite the strong link between diet and cholesterol levels, food is not the only factor when it comes to blood cholesterol.

Research has found that your HDL and LDL cholesterol are actually influenced by a variety of elements including those that you have no control over (family history and age) and also those that you can control through lifestyle choices (activity levels, body mass index (BMI) (obesity), tobacco). Therefore even if you know you are already at a higher risk for heart disease due to the fact that your dad has high cholesterol or your mom has high blood pressure, you can start making choices today that will help to lower your risk.

As a public health professional, this latter aspect of prevention through a healthy lifestyle is what I encourage for everyone and anyone that has the ability to do so. I don’t know about you, but I would much prefer to enjoy long (FREE) hikes with my husband and our boxer each day to keep my heart healthy than to have to take (EXPEN$IVE) medications to help keep my cholesterol levels in check!

If You Take Just ONE Thing Away From This...

If you take only one piece of advice away from this post, I hope it is that you will begin to take note of the Nutrition Facts Panel to find out just how much saturated fat and cholesterol is in the foods you are eating.

Or, you can save yourself a lot of work simply by opting for a plant-based diet because plants (whole grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds) are all free from these unhealthy fats, making it VERY easy to tally up your totals for the day: zero and zero! 

Make sense? What steps are you taking to improve your cholesterol levels? I think I’ll head outside for one of those lovely walks right now, right after grabbing a heart-healthy handful of almonds to power me along! 

More from Health Coach Jessica Corwin MPH RDN Others Are Reading


  • Thanks Jessica. My husband has high cholesterol and as a chef he finds it challenging to stay away from those ugly foods. I find that if I pack him a healthy lunch and snacks he will be less tempted to eat bad foods. Some of the foods I pack are apples, carrots, almonds, light tuna with light mayo and his favorite sushi. I'll soon post some of my healthy recipes on the Hello Life Network.

  • Sounds like you are doing all of the right things to keep your husband healthy! Sounds quite familiar to our situation :) I also like to keep healthy snacks front and center in the refrigerator (string cheese, sliced veggies, yogurt, fruit...) and cupboards (whole grain granola bars, almonds, dark chocolate covered almonds, whole grain crackers, popcorn kernels...).

    Looking forward to your tasty recipes!

  • Jessica, great advice thanks for a better understanding or further confirmation of what is good and what is bad for people with High Cholesterol. As I just finished eating an apple and a cap full (1/8 cup) of trek trail mix, with 0 cholesterol but 2g of saturated fats.

  • Thanks for helping to make this more clear. After trying a lot of diets to lower my cholesterol, the one that was the easiest to follow and immediately lowered my bad cholesterol enough to put me below a total number of 200 was simply switching to non-fat milk and not eating real eggs.

  • Good for you, Holly! Fat-free or skim dairy products are an excellent way to cut out saturated fat in our diet. Eggs have less of an impact, but can certainly make more of a difference for some people. If you want to try to save money on those egg products you can always just separate regular eggs and only use the whites. Or there are are also fun vegan substitutes for eggs - my favorite is combing ground flax seed with water :)

  • I'm a huge fan of Avos, walnuts, almonds, etc. Go thing to know that the fat they carry is good for you. I was hearing recently that carbs are actually the main reason people are overweight and diabetic.

    Protein and unsaturated fats are the way to go apparently.

  • Yes, garchow, unsaturated fats and protein are excellent additions to a healthy diet. Thought carbs are certainly not the enemy. Did you know that sweet potatoes, butternut squash, blueberries, pomegranates, quinoa, oatmeal, and other nutrient rich foods are carbohydrates? Each and every one provides essential nutrients for a healthy diet.

    Now, when it comes to highly processed white flour, sweets, and sugary beverages, yes, we can certainly do without THOSE carbs ;)

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