Doctors used to recommend that you consume no more than 300mg of dietary cholesterol per day (200mg 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. Also keep an eye on the amount of cholesterol in the food you eat. This is because foods that are high in cholesterol also tend to be high in saturated fats.
The guideline changes are because research has shown that dietary cholesterol itself isn’t harmful and doesn’t contribute to increases in your body’s cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a natural substance that’s produced in your body and 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 “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 200g or less of saturated fats per day. Studies have also shown the negative impact added sugars have on cholesterol and increasing risk for cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons or 100 calories of added sugar for women, and 9 teaspoons or 150 calories for men.
Keep reading to learn more about guidelines for the recommended levels of cholesterol and fats as well as the foods you should watch out for.
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans lay 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 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 is no upper limit for healthy unsaturated fats|
|Trans fats||Eat little to no synthetic trans fats|
Cholesterol itself is only found in animal-based foods, including:
- dairy products
- seafood (shrimp is known for its high cholesterol content)
- egg yolks (not the whites)
There is no cholesterol in foods like:
Foods that are high in saturated fat and should be limited include:
- regular (instead of lean) ground beef
- baked goods, such as cakes and cookies
- ice cream
- processed meats, such as sausages
- French fries
Foods containing unhealthy trans fats include:
- fried foods
- packaged foods with “hydrogenated oils” in the ingredients list
- baked goods, such as cakes, pies, and cookies
- microwave popcorn
Foods that contain healthy unsaturated fats include:
- olive, peanut, canola, safflower, and sunflower oils
- most nuts, but especially walnuts
- most seeds, including sunflower, chia, and hemp seeds
Here are some examples of foods and approximately how much cholesterol and fats you can find in each:
|Food||Amount of cholesterol||Amount of saturated fat||Amount of trans fat||Amount of unsaturated fats|
|1 large egg||186mg||1.6g||0g||2.7g|
|1/4 pound of 95% lean ground beef||70mg||2.5g||0.3g||2.5g|
|1/4 pound of 70% lean ground beef||88mg||13.3g||2.1g||16.8g|
|6oz skinless chicken breast||124mg||1g||0.01g||1.9g|
|1 tbsp salted butter||31mg||7.3g||0.5g||3.4g|
|1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil||0mg||2g||0g||11.5g|
|1 cup of vanilla ice cream||58mg||9g||No information||4.5g|
|1 cup of low-fat yogurt||15mg||2.5g||No information||1.1g|
|3oz uncooked shrimp||137mg||0.1g||0g||0.2g|
|1/2 cup of plain walnuts||0mg||3.1g||0g||28.1g|
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.
How to read 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 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. By mid-2018, most food manufacturers should have updated their nutrition labels to include a more realistic serving size, and potentially a second column showing the values per total package or unit of food.
- 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 closely.
- 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 be listed on the updated nutrition labels.
- Vitamins and minerals are listed last. These are nutrients you usually 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.
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.