Overview

Following dietary guidelines, doctors used to recommend that you consume no more than 300 milligrams (mg) of dietary cholesterol per day — 200 mg if you had a high risk of heart disease. But in 2015, those guidelines changed.

Now, there are no specific recommended limits for the amount of cholesterol you consume from food. But it’s still important to pay attention to the food you eat in order to keep your body’s cholesterol levels in a healthy range.

Doctors now recommend that you limit the amount of harmful saturated fats, trans fats, and added sugars in your diet. You should also keep an eye on your cholesterol intake since foods that are high in cholesterol also tend to be high in saturated fats.

The guideline changes are due to research showing that dietary cholesterol itself isn’t harmful and doesn’t contribute to increases in your body’s blood cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a natural substance that’s produced in your body and is found in animal-based foods. It’s a waxy, fatty substance that travels through your bloodstream.

Your body needs cholesterol to help build cells and produce certain hormones. Your body produces all the cholesterol it needs in the liver and intestines from fats, sugars, and proteins.

But problems arise when you eat too many saturated and trans fats. These cause your liver to produce too much LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which winds up in artery-clogging deposits. For this reason, experts generally recommend avoiding trans fats altogether and limiting saturated fats to 10 percent or less of your total calorie intake.

For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that would be 200 calories (22 grams) or less of saturated fats per day. The most recent recommendation by the American Heart Association (AHA) is to further limit saturated fats to only 5 or 6 percent of your total daily calories. So for a 2,000 calorie per day (calorie/day) diet, that would be about 100-120 calories or around 11-13 grams.

Studies have also shown the negative impact added sugars have on cholesterol and increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease. The AHA recommends no more than 6 teaspoons (100 calories) of added sugar for women, and 9 teaspoons (150 calories) for men.

Keep reading to learn more about the new guidelines for recommended levels of cholesterol and fats, as well as the foods you should watch out for.

What are the guidelines?

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans lays out the following dietary recommendations for keeping your body’s cholesterol levels low:

Cholesterol:Eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible, but there are no specific limits.
Saturated fats:Limit these fats to less than 10 percent of the calories you consume per day.
Unsaturated fats:Replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats as often as possible. There’s no upper limit for healthy unsaturated fats.
Trans fats:Eat little to no synthetic trans fats, as they’re associated with inflammation.

Learn more about the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats.

Foods to eat and avoid for healthy cholesterol levels

Where it’s found

Cholesterol itself is only found in animal-based foods, including:

  • meat
  • dairy products
  • seafood
  • egg yolks
  • butter

Shrimp is high in cholesterol but very low in saturated fat. See why you can enjoy it as part of a heart-healthy diet.

Cholesterol-free foods

There’s no cholesterol in foods like:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • grains
  • nuts

These are also all part of a healthy well-balanced diet.

Foods containing fats

Foods that are high in saturated fats and should be limited include:

  • red meat and pork
  • baked goods, such as cakes and cookies
  • cheese
  • pizza
  • ice cream
  • processed meats, such as sausages
  • fried foods

Foods containing unhealthy trans fats, which should be avoided, include:

  • fried foods
  • packaged foods with “hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients list
  • baked goods, such as cakes, pies, and cookies
  • margarine
  • microwave popcorn
  • frosting

Foods that contain healthy unsaturated fats, which you should eat, include:

  • olive, peanut, canola, safflower, and sunflower oils
  • avocados
  • most nuts, but especially walnuts
  • most seeds, including sunflower, chia, and hemp seeds

Understanding the amounts of cholesterol and fats found in foods

Here are some examples of foods and approximately how much cholesterol and fats you can find in each:

FoodAmount of cholesterolAmount of saturated fatAmount of trans fatAmount of unsaturated fat
1 large egg186 mg1.6 g0 g2.7 g
1/4 lb. 95% lean ground beef70 mg2.5 g0.3 g2.5 g
1/4 lb. 70% lean ground beef88 mg13.3 g2.1 g16.8 g
6 oz. skinless chicken breast124 mg1 g0.01 g1.9 g
1 tbsp. salted butter31 mg7.3 g0.5 g3.4 g
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil0 mg2 g0 g11.5 g
1 cup vanilla ice cream58 mg9 gN/A4.5 g
1 cup low-fat yogurt15 mg2.5 gN/A1.1 g
3 oz. uncooked shrimp137 mg0.1 g0 g0.2 g
1 avocado0 mg4.3 g0 g23.4 g
1/2 cup plain walnuts0 mg3.1 g0 g28.1 g

All of the above values come from the USDA’s National Nutrient Database. These are just some examples of the relative amounts of cholesterol and fats found in your food. Here’s more cholesterol-lowering foods for you to enjoy.

Tips

  • Pay attention to the saturated and trans fats on your food labels, as well as added sugars. The less of these you consume, the better. No more than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from either saturated fats or added sugars.
  • Don’t worry about eating enough cholesterol. Your body makes enough whether or not you consume it.
  • Eat more healthy, unsaturated fats. Try replacing butter with extra virgin olive oil in cooking, buy lean cuts of meat, and snack on nuts and seeds instead of french fries or processed snack foods.

What to look for on nutrition 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/day 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:

Serving size

First, you’ll want to pay attention to the serving size. It’s listed directly under the bolded “Nutrition Facts.” 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.

Between 2018 and 2020, most food manufacturers should have updated their nutrition labels to include a more realistic serving size. For certain products, they’d potentially include a second column showing the values per total package or unit of food.

Calorie count

Next, you’ll see the calorie count for that serving amount, including the number of calories that come from fat.

Percent daily value

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/day diet. Over 20 percent is considered high and 5 percent or under is considered low.

Fats, cholesterol, and sodium

The total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium are listed first. These are the values you’ll want to limit and monitor closely.

Carbs, fiber, sugar, and protein

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.

“Added sugars” will also be listed on the updated nutrition labels.

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals are listed last. These are nutrients you usually want to have recommended amounts of as well.

The footnote

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/day diet.

Knowing what to look for — and where on your food packages — is an important step to keeping your cholesterol levels low and your heart healthy.