Cholesterol and Your Diet

It has been common knowledge for the last several decades that eating foods high in cholesterol will raise your blood cholesterol level.

Unfortunately, this common knowledge isn’t exactly accurate.

In most people, eating foods with cholesterol in them will only negligibly affect blood cholesterol level. (In what I read, authors disagreed on the percentage of people whose cholesterol level is affected by dietary cholesterol — between 10 and 33%.)

However, eating foods high in saturated fat and/or trans fat has a much more significant effect, regardless of your sensitivity to dietary cholesterol.

Is all cholesterol bad?

No. The cholesterol in your food and the cholesterol in your body are similar. Your body requires cholesterol and in fact produces quite a bit of it on a daily basis. These are measured in blood tests as LDL and HDL.

LDL is “bad fat” and HDL is “good fat.” While keeping an eye on the numbers is important (low LDL — ideally below 100 — and high HDL — ideally above 60), it is more important to keep an eye on the ratio. Roughly 3.5 to 1 is ideal according to the American Heart Association.

What foods contain cholesterol?

Pretty much anything that comes from animals. Meat, eggs, milk/dairy. Skim milk products contain less cholesterol (but not zero) than their partial- or full-fat counterparts.

Plants do not contain cholesterol (fiber serves that cellular function in plants).

But some plants have saturated fat!

Yes, several plant products have saturated fat; they simply don’t contain cholesterol. Be on the lookout for  coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil, and cocoa butter. So if you were only watching out for cholesterol, you might consume these products with reckless abandon. (OK, maybe not that much, but still.) But since you know now that sat fat is on the watch-out list, these are ingredients you should be aware of.

What about trans fat?

There is no recommended dose of trans fat. Your body will be happy if you eliminate it entirely. Remember, labels that say “0 grams trans fat per serving” are slightly misleading. Food can have up to 1/2 gram trans fat per serving and legally list it as 0 per serving.

What’s the bottom line?

Reduce your intake of saturated fat. Be aware of your cholesterol intake. Eliminate your intake of trans fat. Increase your intake of fiber. Maintain or increase your intake of unsaturated fat from healthy sources. The simplest way to do this is to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables.

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