By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
According to the American Heart Association, a diet that is high in cholesterol, saturated fats, and trans fats raises blood cholesterol levels and puts you at risk for heart disease. Saturated fats are found in foods like meat and dairy products that come from animals, while trans fats lurk in baked goods and fast foods.
Here are some obvious and not-so-obvious high-cholesterol food choices — most of which are also high in unhealthy fats.
What’s for Breakfast?
The first thing you need to know about high cholesterol food is the numbers. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum daily cholesterol intake of 300 mg per day. If you already have high cholesterol, you need to stay below 200 mg. When you think of a high-cholesterol food, the first thing that comes to mind might be eggs. If you have an egg for breakfast you are already up to 213 mg of cholesterol. How about some whole grain cereal with fruit as an alternative?
A Cheeseburger Is Not Paradise
If you are like many Americans, you sometimes have lunch at a fast food restaurant. Before you order that double cheeseburger, consider this: A McDonald’s Big Mac has 85 mg of cholesterol and a Wendy’s Classic Double With Everything has a whopping 175 mg of cholesterol. You might want to hold the fries and the shake, or better yet, order a plain burger instead.
Macaroni and Cheese
The typical mac-and-cheese ingredients — whole milk, butter, and cheese — are loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol. But this all-American comfort recipe does not have to be a high-cholesterol food. By substituting 1 percent milk and evaporated milk for butter and whole milk, and using low-fat cheese, you can decrease your calories and have your macaroni and cheese with less than half the fat and cholesterol of the traditional recipe.
Ice Cream for Dessert?
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, America produced 1.55 billion gallons of ice cream in 2007, and the cold, sweet stuff is a staple in 90 percent of American households. Ice cream beats cookies and brownies as our most popular frozen dessert, but did you know that a single cup of ice cream has more fat than a hamburger and more cholesterol than 10 glazed doughnuts? Skip the scoop and try a cup of fresh fruit for dessert instead. Fruit is low in calories and high in the fiber, vitamins, and nutrients you really need — making it one of the best things you can eat for lower cholesterol.
What’s Better Than a Rib-Eye Steak for Dinner?
Even under the best of circumstances (with the fat well-trimmed, and cooked in olive oil), a 4-ounce rib-eye steak takes up a big chunk of your recommended daily allowance for saturated fat and cholesterol. With nothing else on your plate, you will be eating 20 percent of your allowable saturated fat and 22 percent of your cholesterol, which doesn’t leave much room for the rest of the day. If you’re not ready to say goodbye to beef, consider leaner cuts of meat — such as tenderloin, flank, round, rump, or tip steak — for lower cholesterol.
Do You Really Want That Muffin?
Not all muffins are created equal. Sure, you can get an English muffin with no saturated fat and no cholesterol, but many muffins — especially those tempting treats loaded with extra ingredients that you can buy or bake at home — could have up to 8 grams of fat in a single serving. A low-fat bran muffin made with whole-wheat flour that gives you some fiber, a lot less fat, and lower cholesterol is a much better choice.
Seafood: Is It a High-Cholesterol Food?
Some types of seafood are good for you, but others are loaded with cholesterol. Lobster, for example, is not a good choice if you have heart disease or high cholesterol. Three ounces of lobster has 61 mg of cholesterol — and that’s before you dip it in melted butter. If you go out for seafood, stay away from the butter and remember that broiled is much better than fried. You also need to keep in mind the amount you eat, as a double portion will also double the cholesterol.
Even Chicken Can Be a High-Cholesterol Food
Although chicken is usually considered to be a good low-fat meat choice, how you cook it can make a big difference. For example, one chicken leg with the skin still on it has more fat and cholesterol than a cup of ice cream or a hamburger. Keeping the skin on poultry or frying it can turn it into a high-cholesterol food. Also, remember that dark poultry meat has more fat than white meat. When making chicken choices, opt for skinless and skip the dark meat.
Just Say No to Liver
Liver is loaded with iron — which could be good for you — but it is also high in cholesterol. Cholesterol is made and stored in the liver, and the most concentrated levels of cholesterol in animal meats are found in organ meats like the liver. Remember, the American Heart Association says no more than 300 mg of cholesterol for a healthy adult. Three ounces of cooked beef liver will give you 331 mg of cholesterol. Skip this high-cholesterol food if your cholesterol is high and stick with lean cuts of meat instead.
Snacks Also Count as High-Cholesterol Food
Trans fats can turn a healthy food into a high-cholesterol food. These fats result from adding hydrogen to vegetable oils, which are then used in many commercial baked goods or fried foods such as cookies, cakes, French fries, onion rings, and crackers. Whether it’s fried, au gratin, crispy, or stuffed, many of the things we love to eat are bad for our cholesterol levels. Know the allowable numbers for fat and cholesterol. Read the labels, cook smart, order wisely, and remember smaller portions are another way to cut back on high-cholesterol foods.