Okay, so cholesterol is bad and eating fish is good, right? But wait — don’t some fish contain cholesterol? And isn’t some cholesterol good for you? Let’s try to straighten this out.
Do fish contain cholesterol?
To start, the answer is yes — all fish contain some cholesterol. But don’t let that scare you. Different kinds of seafood contain different amounts of cholesterol, and many contain fats that can actually help you manage your cholesterol levels.
But before we get into which fish have what fats, let’s talk a little about cholesterol.
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 main kinds of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol. You don’t want elevated levels of LDL cholesterol because it can accumulate in your blood vessels, block blood flow, and cause blood clots. These problems can lead to serious problems such as heart attack or stroke.
However, high levels of HDL cholesterol are good, as HDL cholesterol helps transport LDL cholesterol out of your arteries.
The National Institutes of Health previously recommended the following healthy cholesterol levels:
- Total cholesterol: less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL)
- LDL cholesterol (“bad”): less than 100 mg/dL
- HDL cholesterol (“good”): 60 mg/dL or higher
These guidelines were updated in 2013 in the United States, and the LDL cholesterol target was removed due to insufficient evidence. The European Union still uses LDL targets.
Food and cholesterol levels
The foods you eat affect your cholesterol levels, as do how much you exercise, your genetics, and your weight. Any foods that contain cholesterol will add some cholesterol to your bloodstream, but the main dietary culprits are saturated and trans fats. These fats increase your LDL levels and lower your HDL 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.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, on the other hand, are considered “healthy” fats. They add to your total fat grams but don’t cause any increase in LDL cholesterol levels.
Is it ok to eat fish if you’re watching your cholesterol?
If dietary changes are part of your overall plan to lower your LDL cholesterol levels, fish is a good option. While all fish contain some cholesterol, many are high in omega-3 fatty acids. These are essential dietary fats that can actually help you maintain healthy cholesterol levels by lowering your triglyceride levels. They can also help increase your HDL levels.
Your body can’t make essential omega-3 fatty acids, so you have to get them from the food you eat. Omega-3s are important for a variety of body and brain functions and are even thought to affect mood and pain. Salmon, trout, and tuna, as well as walnuts and flaxseed, are all good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
In addition, most fish are low in saturated and trans fats, and many contain no trans fats at all.
All of that said, you may be wondering about shrimp, which contains 161 mg of cholesterol in a 3-ounce serving. If you have high cholesterol levels, your doctor may advise you to avoid shrimp. If so, you should follow your doctor’s recommendations. But keep in mind that research has shown that the increase in HDL levels from eating shrimp may outweigh the risk from the increase in LDL levels. Learn more about it in this article on shrimp, cholesterol, and heart health.
How do fish compare?
Below are some fish to consider including in your diet. Each portion is 3 ounces, and all of the statistics 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’s low in saturated fat, such as avocado oil.
How much fish should I eat?
The American Heart Association recommends that people eat fish at least twice per week. They suggest a 3.5-ounce serving, preferably of fish high in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon, herring, or trout.
All fish contain some cholesterol, but they can be part of a heart-healthy diet. Interestingly, there is also evidence to suggest that a plant-based diet, excluding fish, is beneficial for managing chronic disease risk. To find out the best foods for you to eat to help manage your health and cholesterol, including fish, talk to your doctor. They can provide guidance, or they can refer you to a registered dietitian, who can create a diet plan just for you.