Q: I’ve been hearing mixed things: Does eating high-cholesterol foods lead to high cholesterol in the body?
For a long time, doctors and dietitians’ advice was to skip high-cholesterol foods.
But just like we discovered eating fats doesn’t always make you fat (yay!), research increasingly confirms that cholesterol in food doesn’t necessarily raise cholesterol levels in your blood. We’ve known this for a while, but I still get this question from clients and readers. (There’s also lots of new evidence on how saturated fat affects cholesterol, which I’ll definitely get into in another post, soon.)
What does raise cholesterol? Eating fried foods and tons of sugar. (You’re not really surprised by that one, right?)
RELATED: Why Healthy Fats Don’t Make You Fat
Cholesterol in the Body
Here’s a quick review of the high school science you slept through: Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like, waxy substance found in the bloodstream and in all your body’s cells. It’s an important part of a healthy body because it’s used for producing cell membranes and some hormones, but too much cholesterol in the blood is a major risk factor for heart disease and strokes.
There are two kinds of cholesterol: LDL, known as “bad” cholesterol, and HDL, known as “good” cholesterol. Increased LDL in the blood leads to the buildup of plaque, which narrows blood vessel walls (arteries) and restricts blood flow. If a clot blocks the flow of blood to your heart, a heart attack results; if it restricts blood flow to your brain, a stroke results.
Recent research has also pointed specifically to oxidized cholesterol (from sources like fried foods) as a major contributor to heart disease, via contributing to calcium buildup on artery walls and interrupting blood flow.
Age, family history, diet, and exercise can all affect the level of cholesterol in your blood. Which brings us to…
Cholesterol in Food
Some foods from animal sources naturally contain high doses of cholesterol, but research has not demonstrated a link between eating those foods and increased risk of heart disease or stroke.
Foods that are high in cholesterol but are healthy? Eggs, cheese (portion-controlled, please!), grass-fed butter, and shrimp.
RELATED: Is Clarified Butter Healthy?
Foods that are linked to raising blood cholesterol levels include fried foods, trans fats (particularly partially hydrogenated oils), and sugar. Trans fats and tons of sugar tend to be hiding in processed, packaged foods and fast food, and you already know those aren’t going to help your overall health anyway.
The bottom line? Save yourself time by not worrying about “grams of cholesterol” and just stick to a whole food diet filled with veggies, fruits, whole grains, and lean meats. Whatever you do, stay away from the deep fryer—but go ahead, put a little grass-fed butter in your coffee if you love the creamy taste.