Though cholesterol often gets demonized, our bodies do need some cholesterol for normal functions. Cholesterol serves as a precursor for manufacturing certain hormones, it is necessary to produce vitamin D, and it forms a crucial structural component in the cell membrane of nearly every type of cell in the body. However, many people have excessively high cholesterol levels, termed hyperlipidemia, which is associated with increasing the risk of diseases like atherosclerosis and heart disease, and with increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Certain risk factors for high cholesterol are out of your control. For example, there is certainly a genetic component to high cholesterol because the amount produced and the removal rate of LDL cholesterol in your body are partly determined by your genes. That said, the good news is that there are lifestyle modifications and practices that can reduce and control your cholesterol, the primary of which is through following a low-cholesterol diet. A low-cholesterol diet isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, however, so keep reading for our complete low-cholesterol diet guide and start making strides toward lowering your cholesterol today.
Cholesterol is naturally produced in the liver. There are several different types or classifications of cholesterol based on the characteristics of the molecules, but there are two primary types. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, often referred to as “bad cholesterol” and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or “good” cholesterol. HDL cholesterol actually helps remove excess LDL cholesterol from the bloodstream, while high LDL cholesterol increases the risk of atherosclerosis, or arterial hardening and plaque buildup, along with heart disease and other vascular diseases.
The term “low-cholesterol diet” can be a bit misleading because it sounds like a diet that is low in dietary cholesterol or that eliminates foods that contain cholesterol. However, while high-cholesterol foods like red meat, cheese, eggs, full-fat dairy, butter, snack cakes, ice cream, shellfish, commercially fried foods, and organ meats, are to be avoided on a low-cholesterol diet, the real dietary culprits in terms of elevated cholesterol levels are actually trans fats and saturated fats. Accordingly, a low-cholesterol diet eliminates all trans fats and avoids as much saturated fat as possible. Lastly, sugar should also be limited — particularly corn syrup and added sugars — as excessive sugar can be converted to triglycerides.
Although there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to the rules of a low-cholesterol diet, most low-cholesterol diets limit total cholesterol intake to 200 mg per day, ban all trans fats, and limit saturated fat intake to a maximum of 7 percent of total daily caloric intake. For example, on a 2,000-calorie diet, you should consume no more than 14 calories of saturated fat, or about 15 grams. Emphasis should be on eating whole, natural foods and getting 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.
Because high cholesterol can increase the risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease, following a low-cholesterol diet can result in the following benefits:
- Reduced total cholesterol
- Reduced LDL cholesterol
- Weight loss
- Decreased risk of heart attack and stroke
- Improved diet quality
- Increased HDL cholesterol, particularly when the diet is paired with exercise
Because trans fats and saturated fats are associated with increased LDL cholesterol levels, and excessive cholesterol intake also seems to contribute to the issue, these should be limited. Note that trans fats are hydrogenated oils added to foods to improve stability and saturated fats are solid at room temperature and are mostly found in animal products. The following foods are particularly high in trans fat, saturated fat, and/or cholesterol and should be avoided on a low-cholesterol diet:
- Fast Food: Burgers, anything fried, French fries, breakfast sandwiches with sausage, donuts, chicken nuggets, pizza, fast food Chinese, tacos, onion rings, etc.
- Snacks: Breaded snacks, pork rinds, combos, potato chips, Jiffy pop, tater tots, packaged cookies, toaster pastries, candy, white chocolate, milk chocolate, anything with icing or frosting, pepperoni, cheese dip, etc.
- Processed Meats: Lunch meats and cold cuts, sausage, bacon, hot dogs, etc.
- Meat/Some Shellfish: Lean cuts are OK, but avoid fatty beef, veal, lamb, pork, lobster, and shrimp.
- Frozen Dinners: Frozen pizza, frozen entrees, frozen prepared lasagna, frozen Chinese foods dishes, frozen pot pies, etc.
- Full-Fat Dairy Products: Cream, whole milk, 2% milk, cheese, sour cream, buttermilk, ice cream, gelato, creamer, pudding, half and half, etc.
- Certain Bread Products: Canned and prepared biscuits and croissants, pies, donuts, muffins, snack cakes, cakes, cookies, prepared granolas with oils, Danishes, tortillas, sweetened cereals, etc.
- Sauces and Condiments: Mayo, creamy salad dressings, any salad dressing with hydrogenated oils, gravy, sweetened jellies and jams, chocolate syrup, pancake syrup, etc.
- Beverages: Eggnog, full-fat coconut milk, chocolate milk, shakes, juices, soda, etc.
- Restaurant Foods: Ribs, fatty cuts of pork or beef, burgers, steaks, fried appetizers, etc.
- Fats and Oils: Butter, margarine, olio, lard, shortening, bacon fat, coconut oil, etc.
- Sugary Foods: Avoid any sweets or sugary foods as much as possible because excess sugar can get converted to triglycerides.
A low-cholesterol diet should include as many whole, unprocessed healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, legumes, low-fat dairy, and seeds as possible. Unsaturated oils like olive oil and avocado oil should be used instead of saturated fat or canola oil. Nuts and seeds may help raise good HDL levels, and even though eggs contain cholesterol, there is evidence to suggest they will not negatively impact your cholesterol levels. That said, limit egg yolks to 2-3 per week but enjoy egg whites as much as you’d like.
The following are foods to eat on a low-cholesterol diet:
- Vegetables: Fresh or frozen kale, spinach, carrots, lettuce, Swiss chard, broccoli, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, cauliflower, asparagus, sweet potatoes, beets, squash, onions, etc. Avoid canned vegetables in cream sauces like creamed spinach or creamed corn.
- Fruits: Pears, apples, melons, oranges, grapefruit, plums, apricots, peaches, berries, bananas, pomegranates, kiwi, tomatoes, kumquats, etc.
- Whole Grains and Bread Products: Whole, unprocessed oats, whole wheat, barley, brown rice, quinoa, teff, farro, etc.; pasta, bread, oatmeal, healthy cereals, etc.
- Lean Meats, Poultry, and Fish: Fresh or frozen lean beef, bison, venison, chicken, turkey, salmon, scallops, tofu, halibut, cod, etc.
- Low-Fat Dairy Products: Skim milk, 1% milk, low-fat yogurt, cottage cheese, eggs, low-fat cheese, etc.
- Legumes: Dry or canned beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, soy, etc.
- Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, pecans, chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, Brazil nuts, etc.
- Fats and Oils: Olive oil, avocados, flaxseed oil, etc.
- Herbs and Spices: Basil, thyme, pepper, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, ginger, rosemary, cumin, chili powder, etc.
- Beverages: Water, tea (herbal tea, green tea, black tea, etc.), red wine, coffee.
Curious what a day of eating might look like on a low-cholesterol diet?
- Breakfast: Greens smoothie made with banana, spinach, almond butter, fat-free Greek yogurt, frozen blueberries, and chia seeds
- Lunch: Veggie burger on a whole grain bun topped with lettuce, tomato, and onion. Snap peas on the side.
- Snack: Hummus with carrots, cucumbers, pepper strips, and celery.
- Dinner: Miso marinated salmon, roasted Brussels sprouts, and brown rice. Side salad with lemon juice.
- Snack: Fat-free Greek yogurt with berries, flax seeds, and walnuts.
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