Cholesterol is arguably one of the most misunderstood substances.

For decades, people avoided healthy yet cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs, fearing that these foods would increase their risk of heart disease.

However, recent research shows that, for most people, eating healthy high cholesterol foods is not harmful to health. What’s more, some cholesterol-rich foods are loaded with important nutrients that are lacking in many people’s diets.

This article explains why cholesterol in foods shouldn’t be feared and lists 7 healthy high cholesterol foods — and 4 to avoid.

Here are 7 high cholesterol foods that are incredibly nutritious.

1. Eggs

Eggs are one of the most nutritious foods you can eat. They also happen to be high in cholesterol, with 1 large egg (50 grams) delivering 207 mg of cholesterol (1).

People often avoid eggs out of fear that they may cause blood levels of cholesterol to skyrocket. However, research shows that eggs don’t raise cholesterol levels and that eating whole eggs may boost heart-protective HDL (good) cholesterol (2).

Aside from being rich in cholesterol, eggs are an excellent source of highly absorbable protein and beneficial nutrients such as selenium, vitamin A, and several B vitamins (1).

Research has shown that eating 1–3 eggs per day is perfectly safe for healthy people (3).

2. Cheese

A single slice (22 grams) of Swiss cheese provides around 20 mg of cholesterol (4).

Although cheese is often associated with increased cholesterol, several studies have shown that full-fat cheese doesn’t raise cholesterol levels.

One 12-week study in 162 people found that eating 3 ounces (80 grams) of full-fat cheese per day, which is considered a high intake, didn’t raise LDL (bad) cholesterol when compared with the same amount of low fat cheese or an equal number of calories from bread and jam (5).

Different types of cheese have varying nutritional content, but most provide a good amount of calcium, protein, vitamin A, and B vitamins (6, 7).

Since cheese is high in calories, stick to the recommended serving size of 1–2 ounces (28–56 grams) at a time to keep portions in check.

3. Shellfish

Shellfish — including clams, crab and shrimp — are an excellent source of protein, B vitamins, iron and selenium (8, 9).

They’re also high in cholesterol. For example, a 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of canned shrimp provides 214 mg of cholesterol (10).

Additionally, shellfish contain bioactive components, such as carotenoid antioxidants and the amino acid taurine, which help prevent heart disease and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol (11, 12).

Older research indicates that people who eat more seafood exhibit lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis than those who eat less seafood (13).

4. Pasture-raised steak

Pasture-raised steak is packed with protein, as well as important vitamins and minerals like vitamin B12, zinc, selenium, and iron (14).

It’s lower in cholesterol than feedlot beef and contains significantly more omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties (15, 16).

A 4-ounce (113-gram) serving of pasture-raised steak packs about 62 mg of cholesterol (14).

Although processed meat — such as bacon, sausage, ham, and most deli meats — has a clear association with heart disease, several large population studies have found no association between red meat intake and heart disease risk (17, 18).

5. Organ meats

Cholesterol-rich organ meats — such as heart, kidney, and liver — are highly nutritious.

For example, chicken heart is an excellent source of the powerful antioxidant CoQ10, as well as vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. It’s also high in cholesterol, with a 1-cup (145-gram) serving providing 351 mg (19).

One study in more than 9,000 Korean adults found that those with a moderate intake of unprocessed meat, including organ meats, had a lower risk of heart disease than those with the lowest consumption (20).

6. Sardines

In addition to being loaded with nutrients, sardines are a tasty and convenient protein source you can add to a wide variety of dishes.

One 3.75-ounce (92-gram) serving of these tiny fish contains 131 mg of cholesterol, plus 63% of the Daily Value (DV) for vitamin D, 137% of the DV for vitamin B12, and 35% of the DV for calcium (21).

What’s more, sardines are an excellent source of iron, selenium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, magnesium, and vitamin E.

7. Full-fat yogurt

Full-fat yogurt is a cholesterol-rich food packed with nutrients such as protein, calcium, phosphorus, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, and potassium.

One cup (245 grams) of full-fat yogurt contains 31.8 mg of cholesterol (22).

Research associates increased intake of full-fat fermented dairy products with reduced LDL (bad) cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as a lower risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes (23).

Plus, fermented dairy products like yogurt benefit intestinal health by supporting friendly gut bacteria (24).

Summary

Eggs, cheese, shellfish, pastured steak, organ meats, sardines, and full-fat yogurt are cholesterol-rich, nutritious foods that make healthy additions to your diet.

While certain cholesterol-rich foods are highly nutritious and beneficial to your health, others can be harmful. Here are 4 high cholesterol foods that are best to limit or avoid.

8. Fried foods

Fried foods, such as deep-fried meats and cheese sticks, are high in cholesterol and worth avoiding whenever possible.

That’s because they’re high in calories and may contain trans fats, which can increase heart disease risk and be detrimental to your health in many other ways (25).

Plus, high intake of fried foods has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes (26, 27).

9. Fast food

Fast-food intake is a major risk factor for numerous chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Those who frequently eat fast food tend to have higher cholesterol, more belly fat, higher levels of inflammation, and impaired blood sugar regulation (28).

Eating fewer processed foods and cooking more meals at home is associated with lower body weight, less body fat, and reductions in heart disease risk factors such as high LDL (bad) cholesterol (29).

10. Processed meats

Processed meats, such as sausages, bacon, and hot dogs, are high cholesterol foods that you should limit in your diet.

High intake of these foods is linked to increased rates of heart disease and certain cancers, such as colon cancer (30).

A large review involving more than 614,000 participants associated each additional 2-ounce (50-gram) serving of processed meat per day with a 42% higher risk of heart disease (31).

11. Desserts

Cookies, cakes, ice cream, pastries, and other sweets tend to be high in cholesterol, as well as added sugars, unhealthy fats, and calories.

Frequently consuming these foods may negatively affect health and lead to weight gain over time.

Research has linked added sugar intake to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental decline, and certain cancers. Plus, these foods are often devoid of the nutrients your body needs to thrive, such as vitamins, minerals, protein, and healthy fats (32).

Summary

It’s best to limit or avoid certain high cholesterol foods, such as fast food, processed meats, fried foods, and sugary desserts.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your body and in animal products such as meat, eggs, and dairy.

It plays important roles in the production of hormones, vitamin D, and the bile necessary for digesting fats. It’s also an essential component of every cell in your body, giving cell membranes strength and flexibility (33).

Your liver produces all the cholesterol your body needs to function, but cholesterol can also be introduced by eating animal products.

Since cholesterol doesn’t mix well with liquids such as blood, it’s transported by particles called lipoproteins, including low density and high density lipoprotein — or LDL and HDL.

LDL is often referred to as “bad cholesterol” because it’s associated with plaque buildup in your arteries, while HDL (“good cholesterol”) helps excrete excess cholesterol from your body (34).

When you consume extra cholesterol, your body compensates by reducing the amount that it naturally makes. In contrast, when dietary cholesterol intake is low, your body increases cholesterol production to ensure that there’s always enough of this vital substance (35).

Only about 25% of cholesterol in your system comes from dietary sources. Your liver produces the rest (36).

Is dietary cholesterol harmful?

Research shows that dietary cholesterol doesn’t significantly affect cholesterol levels in your body, and data from population studies doesn’t support an association between dietary cholesterol and heart disease in the general population (37, 38, 39).

Though dietary cholesterol may slightly affect cholesterol levels, this isn’t an issue for most people.

In fact, two-thirds of the world’s population experience little or no increase in cholesterol levels after eating cholesterol-rich foods — even in large amounts (40).

A small number of people are considered cholesterol non-compensators or hyper-responders and appear to be more vulnerable to high cholesterol foods. However, hyper-responders are thought to recycle extra cholesterol back to their liver for excretion (41).

Dietary cholesterol has also been shown to beneficially affect the LDL-to-HDL ratio, which is considered the best indicator of heart disease risk (42).

While research shows that it’s unnecessary for most people to avoid dietary cholesterol, keep in mind that not all cholesterol-containing foods are healthy.

Having high levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol may lead to cholesterol buildup in your blood vessels, which may increase your risk of heart disease (43).

Certain lifestyle and dietary changes can reduce LDL levels and create a more favorable LDL-to-HDL ratio.

Here are healthy, evidence-based ways to lower your cholesterol levels:

  • Eat more fiber. Research shows that eating more fiber — especially soluble fiber found in fruits, beans, and oats — may help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels (44).
  • Increase physical activity. Becoming more physically active is an excellent way to lower your cholesterol levels. High intensity aerobic exercise seems to be the most effective way to reduce LDL (45).
  • Lose weight. Losing excess body weight is one of the best ways to lower your cholesterol levels. It can reduce LDL while increasing HDL, which is optimal for health (46).
  • Cut back on unhealthy habits. Quitting unhealthy habits such as smoking can significantly reduce LDL levels. Smoking raises LDL cholesterol levels and greatly increases the risk of cancer, heart disease, and emphysema (47, 48).
  • Eat more produce. Research shows that people who eat more fruits and vegetables have lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and are less likely to develop heart disease than those who eat fewer of these foods (49).

Trying just a few of the above suggestions may significantly reduce cholesterol levels and lead to other health benefits, such as weight loss and improved dietary habits.

Summary

Increasing fiber intake, engaging in regular exercise, and quitting unhealthy habits such as smoking are proven ways to decrease cholesterol levels.

Cholesterol-rich foods aren’t created equal. While some, such as eggs and full-fat yogurt, are nutritious, others may harm your health.

Though it’s safe for most people to enjoy the healthy cholesterol-rich foods listed above, everyone should try to limit unhealthy high cholesterol foods such as fried foods, desserts, and processed meats.

Remember, just because a food is high in cholesterol doesn’t mean it can’t fit into a balanced diet.