Okay, so cholesterol is bad and eating fish is good, right? But wait — don’t some fish contain cholesterol? And to make things even more confusing, isn’t some cholesterol good for you? Let’s try to straighten this out.

First, a quick review: Cholesterol is a fatty substance that’s produced by your liver and is present in all of your cells. It helps you process vitamin D, break down foods, and make hormones. There are two kinds of cholesterol, HDL and LDL. You don’t want elevated levels of LDL cholesterol because that can lead to health events such as heart disease and stroke, since it accumulates in your veins, blocks blood flow, and can cause clots.

The National Institutes of Health say that healthy cholesterol levels are:

  • Total cholesterol: less than 200 mg/dL
  • LDL cholesterol (“bad”): less than 100 mg/dL
  • HDL cholesterol (“good”): 60 mg/dL or higher

The foods you eat affect your cholesterol levels, as does exercise, heredity, and your weight. Foods that contain cholesterol will add some cholesterol to your bloodstream, but the main culprits are saturated and trans fats. These cause your liver to make more cholesterol. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, meanwhile, add to your total fat grams, but don’t cause any increase in LDL cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association suggests consuming less than 7 percent of your calories from saturated fat and less than 1 percent from trans fats.

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Omega-3s and Cholesterol

If dietary changes are part of your overall plan to lower your LDL cholesterol levels, fish is a good option. All fish contain some cholesterol, but many are high in omega-3 fatty acids, an essential dietary fat that helps you maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Your body can’t make essential omega-3 fatty acids, so you have to get them from the food you eat. It is important for a variety of body and brain functions and is even thought to affect mood and pain. Salmon, trout, and tuna are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Most fish are low in saturated and trans fats, and many contain no trans fats at all. Studies show that people whose diets rely on fish as a primary protein tend to have higher HDL levels.

There is some concern about pregnant women getting too much mercury from the fish they eat. Pregnant women should limit consumption of tuna to a 6-ounce serving three times a month, and limit cod to six servings a month, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

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How Do Fish Compare?

Below are some fish to consider including in your diet. All of the stats assume low-fat preparation, such as broiling or grilling. Deep-frying your fish would definitely add fat and cholesterol. If you sauté fish, use an oil that is low in saturated fat, such as olive oil. Each portion is 3 ounces.

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