Have you had your cholesterol checked recently? Lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise, have a direct impact on your numbers. Even consuming a small bowl of ice cream after dinner may elevate your levels. Here’s what you need to know about this dessert and your health.

Cholesterol and Your Body

Cholesterol is a waxy substance created by the liver. It’s attached to most cells in your body. Cholesterol performs many essential functions, such as forming cell membranes, regulating hormones, and producing vitamin D.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is known as the “bad” cholesterol. Its ratio of fat to protein is high. Doctors may get concerned with high LDL cholesterol levels because too much can cause heart disease, which is currently the leading cause of death in America for both men and women.

Did You Know?
Brisk, cardiovascular exercise has been shown to increase HDL within the first few months of a consistent exercise routine.

Unlike popular belief, not all cholesterol is bad and the body needs it. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or the “good” cholesterol, has a higher ratio of protein to fat. It helps prevent buildup, which can lead to stroke, by transporting excess cholesterol to your liver for breakdown and removal.

HDL cholesterol can be improved by

  • quitting smoking
  • consuming heart-healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, nuts, and fatty fish
  • exercise

LDL cholesterol will rise when you consume foods that contain saturated or trans fats, including:

  • meat
  • butter
  • cheese
  • donuts
  • pastries
  • processed foods

Your blood cholesterol levels are not significantly impacted by the cholesterol found in food, but rather are more influenced by the types of fat you eat, whether unsaturated, saturated, or trans.

Risk Factors

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that all adults over age 20 have their cholesterol checked annually. You are more likely to develop high cholesterol if you:

  • smoke
  • have high blood pressure
  • are over 45 (men) or 55 (women)
  • have a family history of high cholesterol
  • live a sedentary lifestyle

For high cholesterol, it is recommended that you consume less than 7 percent of total calories from saturated fat. For most people, that falls anywhere between 12 and 18 grams of saturated fat per day.

What Does 100 Percent of Your Daily Value of Cholesterol Look Like? »

Ice Cream and Cholesterol

Ice cream, while certainly delicious, is a full-fat dairy product that can raise your cholesterol levels, especially if eaten regularly. According to the USDA, the average serving of vanilla ice cream (1/2 cup) contains 4 1/2 grams of saturated fat, which is more than a quarter of the maximum recommended intake for most adults. Richer varieties can contain even more.

If you’re concerned about your cholesterol, you probably think that the extra treats, including ice cream, are off-limits. But you shouldn’t feel like you have to completely deprive yourself.

In fact, a 2013 survey found that 73 percent of Americans believe ice cream and other frozen treats can be part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s all about moderation, so save full-fat ice cream for special occasions and make smart substitutions every other day of the year.

Ice Cream Alternatives

The next time you find yourself in the novelty freezer section, take a step back. You’ll likely notice that there are a lot of other desserts besides ice cream, many of which are lower in fat. Be aware of sugar content in low-fat desserts, as food companies will often increase the sugar content to compensate for the lack of fat. High sugar intake has been linked to an elevated risk for heart disease.

Consider swapping in one of these lighter alternatives for a higher fat ice cream.

Frozen Yogurt

Considered ice cream’s cousin, nonfat frozen yogurt contains just 2 grams of saturated fat per serving. Besides finding it in the grocery store, frozen yogurt shops have risen in popularity across the United States. Just be sure to look at the labels: Not all frozen yogurt is nonfat, and regular varieties can have as much as 4 grams of saturated fat per 1/2 cup, which is almost as much as ice cream.


Sherbet is another milk-based dessert that’s similar to ice cream. Like nonfat frozen yogurt, many sherbet flavors contain just 1 gram of saturated fat per 1/2-cup serving. Sherbet is typically made in fruity flavors, like this blackberry lime buttermilk sherbet. But again, read the labels since some brands contain more fat.


For a totally ice-based dessert, try sorbet. At heart, it’s just sugar and fruit cooked together and then frozen in an ice cream maker. There’s no dairy in the mix, so it’s safe for cholesterol levels. It has a similar texture and flavor to Italian ice, and tends to come in a variety of fruity flavors. This recipe for frozen strawberry daiquiri sorbet is great for a summer backyard barbecue, while cinnamon peach sorbet is sure to satisfy your sweet tooth craving any time of year.


Don’t think that popsicles are just for kids: The variety of flavors has expanded beyond the red, white, and blue firecracker-shaped pop! Choose whole fruit popsicles over ice cream versions, and look for sorbet or frozen yogurt varieties as well. If there’s no dairy, there’s likely less fat (unless coconut milk is used), but double check the label just to be sure.

Nondairy Frozen Desserts

Skipping dairy-based desserts but miss that creamy texture? Check out the ice creams made from alternative milks such as soy, almond, coconut, and cashew. Of course, look at the nutrition labels carefully to ensure you’re not getting more than you bargained for!


As the name implies, milkshakes are made from milk-based ice creams. For a more healthful dessert drink, turn to fruit and vegetable smoothies. While you can buy prepackaged smoothie mixes and kits, it can be just as easy and more fun to make your own at home. If you want a creamier texture, go ahead and add alternative milk ice cream or yogurt like in this raspberry smoothie recipe. Frozen bananas or fresh avocado also provide creaminess to blended drinks, without dairy.

Frozen Fruit

It may seem obvious, but plain frozen fruit is one of the healthiest options since it is naturally a low-fat choice without added sugar. Try rinsing off grapes and freezing them for a bite-sized afternoon snack, or freeze banana slices for an after-dinner dessert.


Even if you have high cholesterol, don’t think that you can’t enjoy a frozen dessert every once in a while. It’s all about balance and moderation. Just make sure to avoid all trans fats and hydrogenated oils, and minimize saturated fat. If you’re craving something sweet, think about going for a longer walk that afternoon or cutting back during another meal.

As always, talk to your doctor and dietitian about lifestyle modifications and medications to help control your cholesterol and heart disease risk.