Do You Need to Limit Dietary Cholesterol?

For most people, the answer might not be what you expect. We dive into the science to explain why.

Cholesterol is arguably one of the most misunderstood nutrients. Remember the days when eating egg yolks was a diet taboo? Or when there was a low-fat version of everything? This is in large part due to misconception that many held around dietary cholesterol and how it influences your health.

Luckily for us, more and more research is coming to light about cholesterol levels, heart health, the cholesterol that's naturally present in food (also called dietary cholesterol) and how they're all intertwined. In short, dietary cholesterol doesn't directly raise your blood cholesterol levels. And there are several foods we can eat that boost our "good" cholesterol levels and lower our "bad" cholesterol levels. So, you don't need to strictly limit your dietary cholesterol in that name of healthy cholesterol levels. Here we dive into the science to explain why.

Cholesterol vs. Dietary Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that is found in every cell in our body (usually in cell membranes). Contrary to popular belief, not all cholesterol is bad. In fact, our bodies need cholesterol to carry out functions that help keep us healthy. It helps our bodies make hormones, synthesize vitamin D and even aids in digestion. That said, because of cholesterol's waxy consistency, it can stick to the walls of our arteries and create a plaque build-up, which can increase our risk for heart diseases, like atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease.

There are two types of cholesterol in our bodies: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the type that can get stuck in your blood vessels, whereas HDL cholesterol cleans out excess cholesterol and sends it to the liver to be excreted (for more on that, check out what you need to know about your cholesterol levels). So, if your doctor says you have high cholesterol, they likely mean that your LDL cholesterol is too high and your HDL cholesterol is too low.

Dietary cholesterol is only found in animal products, from meat to egg yolks and dairy products. It's important to note that foods with dietary cholesterol do not directly increase our blood cholesterol levels.

Sources of Dietary Cholesterol

Here are some of the top sources of dietary cholesterol for U.S. adults:

What causes high cholesterol?

Since cholesterol comes in two forms (LDL and HDL), it's important to think of what foods influence those numbers. Foods that are high in saturated fats, like fatty meat, cheese, coconut oil and baked goods, increase the number of "less helpful" LDL cholesterol in our blood, upping our risk of high cholesterol and heart disease. It should also be noted that genetics can also be a reason for high cholesterol levels.

Alternatively, there are several foods that can boost our "good" HDL cholesterol levels, namely foods high in heart-healthy fats (think omega-3's and mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids) and high-fiber foods. So, make a place on your plate for cholesterol-lowering foods like olive oil (and other fats that are liquid at room temperature), salmon, avocados, legumes, oats and nuts and seeds. This can help balance out LDL levels and improve total cholesterol levels.

Regular exercise, limiting alcohol intake and getting enough sleep are other ways to help lower cholesterol levels to a healthy range and keep your heart healthy.

How much cholesterol should you eat in a day?

In the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the recommendation of limiting dietary cholesterol to 300mg or less per day was removed. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans followed suit.

Does that mean you should eat as much dietary cholesterol as you want with no limitation? Not exactly. Foods that are high in dietary cholesterol are high in several other nutrients, some helpful, some not as helpful. For example, foods like red meat, eggs and dairy are also high in saturated fats. Processed meats are high in saturated fats and sodium.

That is not to say you should cut out dietary cholesterol completely, either. Since saturated fat and sodium are nutrients you might want to limit in the name of heart health, these foods should be enjoyed in moderation.

The Bottom Line

Cholesterol is a nutrient that has confused people for a long time, but it doesn't need to be feared. In fact, we need some cholesterol in our bodies to function at our best. Understanding the types of cholesterol and getting your cholesterol checked regularly are great ways to stay ahead of any negative side effects. Focus on including foods that boost your "good" cholesterol levels and limiting high-saturated foods.

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