Can I Eat Cheese If I Have High Cholesterol?

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on February 13, 2017Written by Ashley Marcin on February 13, 2017

Overview

If you’ve been recently diagnosed with high cholesterol, you may be wondering what foods are off limits. Cheese, for example, is a food you may associate with high cholesterol. Does this mean you have to strike it off your menu for good? Not necessarily. Keep reading to learn more about cholesterol, saturated fat, and how to keep favorite foods like cheese in your life.

Cheese and cholesterol

There are many different varieties of cheese. All cheeses are a good source of calcium, but they don’t all contain the same amount of fat and cholesterol. For example:

Cheese typeCholesterol per 1 oz.Saturated fat per 1 oz.
mozzarella18 mg2.9 g
Swiss26 mg5 g
American27 mg5.6 g
cheddar30 mg6 g

*Source

When you’re looking at foods to keep your cholesterol numbers low, it’s saturated fat content that matters most. That’s because dietary cholesterol and cholesterol in your body are different things.

Saturated fat vs. cholesterol

Cholesterol itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have in your body. It’s a waxy substance that can be found in the fats running through your blood. You need cholesterol to build healthy cells. So, why exactly does cholesterol get a bad reputation?

There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL is sometimes called “bad” cholesterol. It carries cholesterol to the tissues in your body. HDL is sometimes referred to as “good” cholesterol. It helps move cholesterol from the tissues in your body to your liver so it can flush out of your system.

Saturated fat, on the other hand, refers to the fat content in foods. It’s mostly found in foods that are made from animal products. Too much saturated fat can raise the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood. Most people should try sticking to a maximum of 18 grams of saturated fat per day, or seven percent of your daily caloric intake.

Symptoms and complications of high cholesterol

You may be surprised to learn that high cholesterol isn’t associated with any specific symptoms. Instead, a blood test is needed to determine your levels. The American Heart Association recommends that people over age 20 who haven’t been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease have their cholesterol levels checked every four to six years. Your doctor may want to check your levels more frequently, however.

Left untreated, high cholesterol may cause an accumulation of cholesterol and other substances in your arteries. This condition is called atherosclerosis can slow blood flow through your arteries, creating clots and other issues.

You may also experience:

  • chest pain
  • heart attack
  • stroke

Diet and other lifestyle choices aren’t the only factors in developing high cholesterol and heart disease. Genetics can play a heavy role as well. If you have a family history of high cholesterol, it’s a good idea to have your levels checked despite your other risk factors.

Learn more: The effects of high cholesterol on the body »

How to eat cheese and watch your cholesterol

You can eat cheese and still maintain healthy cholesterol levels. One study reported that cheese intake, compared with the same amount of fat from butter, didn’t increase LDL. While you may not want to eat tons of cheese, there’s no reason you need to totally cut it out of your diet.

Here are some tips to remember when selecting and eating cheese:

  • Watch portion sizes. Many cheeses suggest a one-ounce serving. Since cheese often comes in block form, portioning can be difficult. Cheese sticks that come pre-portioned take the guesswork out of the equation. If your favorite cheese doesn’t come in a single serving size, one ounce of cheese is about the same size as three stacked dice. You may also want to purchase a food scale so that you can easily measure out portions.
  • Savor it. If you go for a full-fat cheese, choose a small portion and savor every bite to get the most satisfaction out of a smaller quantity.
  • What about cream cheese? Opt for ricotta or goat cheese, which are both higher in protein, or sub it for avocado. You may also try blending 4 tablespoons of softened non-hydrogenated margarine with a cup of low-fat cottage cheese (dry and unsalted) to make a tasty substitute spread.
  • Write it down. If you’re having trouble tracking your saturated fat intake for the day, consider using a nutrition tracking app such as MyFitnessPal or Loseit! A simple pen and paper approach can also work.

Whatever you eat in your day, just try to stay below 18 grams of saturated fat or whatever number you’ve been given by your doctor. Otherwise, enjoy your cheese!

Tips for managing cholesterol

You can keep your cholesterol levels in a healthy range and still eat cheese and other foods with cholesterol. That being said, some people find it difficult to self-regulate. You may want to take a more regimented approach. The United States Department of Health and Human Services recommends following what’s called the TLC (Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes) Program, which is often supervised by a doctor.

It is made up of three lifestyle components:

  1. diet
  2. physical activity
  3. weight management

With diet, the main goal is to decrease the amount of saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol you consume daily. Along with this, you’ll want to add plant stanols and sterols, which fight cholesterol. You’ll also want to increase your intake of soluble fiber. Some people have success by shifting their diet to Mediterranean, Paleo, or plant-based (vegetarian, vegan) from more traditional forms of eating.

Physical activity and weight management can lower your numbers as well. Working out regularly helps with weight loss and can raise your good cholesterol levels. It also strengthens your heart and lungs. Reaching a healthy weight may lower your bad cholesterol and triglycerides.

Switching over to a different type of diet can help you reach your goal weight more quickly. In one study, people with high cholesterol ate a “traditional” heart-healthy diet for four months followed by a Paleo diet for four months. The participants saw far more significant changes when following the Paleo diet.

If you don’t know where to start, your doctor or dietitian is a wonderful resource. Reach out and begin your journey today.

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