Cholesterol is an important topic for heart health. Your body needs some in order to function, but too much can be harmful, leading to heart disease and stroke. There is technically no recommended daily amount (RDA) for cholesterol, since your body produces what it needs. However, it’s really hard to avoid all foods that contribute to added cholesterol in the body.

Read on to find out how you can monitor your dietary cholesterol.

What Is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fatty substance that travels through your bloodstream. It’s important to your body’s function because it helps build cells and produce certain hormones. Lipoproteins are what carry cholesterol through your blood.

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also called “bad” cholesterol, takes cholesterol to your body’s tissues and blood vessels. If your body has too much LDL, it will deposit the excess along the walls of your blood vessels, creating blockages that put you at risk for having a heart attack or stroke.

High-density lipoprotein (HDL), also called “good” cholesterol, takes cholesterol from your body’s tissues and blood vessels and delivers it to your liver where it can be removed from the body. HDL helps protect you from heart disease. You want to have higher levels of HDL.

Triglycerides (fat cells) are another type of lipid that can build up in your body. A high level of triglycerides combined with high levels of LDL cholesterol also raises your risk for heart disease.

How Does the Body Make It?

Your body produces cholesterol in the liver and intestines from fats, sugars, and proteins. The liver plays a key role in both making and disposing of the fatty substance. You also take in cholesterol from animal food sources that contain it, like eggs, meat, and poultry.

When you eat trans fats and saturated fats, your liver makes more cholesterol. For this reason, experts generally recommend avoiding trans fats altogether and limiting saturated fats to 10 percent or less of your total calorie intake.

What’s Considered Healthy?

Your cholesterol levels are measured through a blood test. Doctors look at your total cholesterol — LDL and HDL combined — as well as the numbers for each type. Your doctor will suggest lifestyle changes and possibly medication if your cholesterol numbers fall in the borderline or high categories.

Total cholesterol240 mg/dL or higher200-239 mg/dL200 mg/dL or lower
LDL160 mg/dL or higher130-159 mg/dL100 mg/dL or lower
HDL45 mg/dL or higher
for men and for women
39 mg/dL or lower
Triglycerides200 mg/dL or higher150-199 mg/dL149 mg/dL or lower

How Much Should Come from Diet?

According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, your daily intake of cholesterol should be no more than 300 mg, and no more than 200 mg if you’re considered at high risk for heart disease.

Cholesterol itself is only found in animal-based foods, including meat, dairy products, seafood (shrimp is known for its high cholesterol content), eggs, and butter. There is no cholesterol in fruits, vegetables, or grains.

However, many processed snack foods contain trans fats and saturated fats, which contribute to high cholesterol. There has been recent debate over whether eating too many of these foods is actually more harmful to the body than foods with dietary cholesterol.

How to Read Food Labels

Nutrition labels on foods tell you how much of each nutrient or fat is in the item, based on the recommended serving size. The numbers and percentages are written for a 2,000-calorie diet. You’ll find a label on the back of packaged, canned, or bottled items that says “Nutrition Facts.”

Here’s how to read the label properly:

  • First, pay attention to the serving size listed directly under the bold “Nutrition Facts” lettering. The information below is listed for the serving size, which may not be the entire container. For example, a serving size could be 1/2 cup or 18 crackers.
  • Next you’ll see the calorie count for that serving amount, including the number of calories that come from fat.
  • On the right side of the label, the percent daily value tells you what percent each fat or nutrient in that particular food represents, based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet. Over 20 percent is considered high and 5 percent or under is considered low.
  • Total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium are listed first. These are the values you’ll want to limit and monitor carefully.
  • Carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sugar, and protein are grouped second. You want to make sure you’re eating plenty of fiber each day to help keep cholesterol in check.
  • Vitamins and minerals are listed last. These are nutrients you want to have more of as well.
  • Finally, you’ll see a footnote that tells you how much of each listed nutritional item you should aim for if you’re eating a 2,000- or 2,500-calorie diet each day.