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Cholesterol plays a vital role in the body. The body can’t function without it, as it is a key component of the cell membrane. Cholesterol also helps build vitamins and hormones, which are important for overall health and well-being.
Cholesterol¹ is a waxy lipid (fat) that travels around the body in blood vessels and is then taken by the body cells and utilized in many bodily functions. Since it is fat, it can’t travel in the bloodstream as it will just float. Therefore, the body wraps the cholesterol and other fats in tiny protein particles (lipoproteins) that can mix with blood and carry the fats around the body.
The most well-known lipoproteins are:
1) LDL, which is known as the bad cholesterol as it carries it to the body cells and can build up in the arteries, clogging them and increasing the risks of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke
2) HDL, known as the good cholesterol as it removes cholesterol and other fats from the cells and artery walls and carries it to the liver, where it is cleared from the body
But it is possible to have too much cholesterol, which can harm your health. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need, and any additional cholesterol comes from your diet. Processed foods and foods like meat and dairy may be high in saturated and trans fats, leading to high total cholesterol and elevated LDL levels.
Eating foods that lead to high cholesterol in the blood can accumulate around your liver, which eventually can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), leading to liver damage. Since the liver is also responsible for breaking down and clearing extra cholesterol, having NAFLD will hinder its ability to do so, causing a loop of higher cholesterol levels in the blood that worsens the fatty liver. High serum cholesterol levels are also a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease, increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
In contrast, healthy unsaturated fats can be beneficial in lowering LDL (low-density lipoprotein), the “bad” cholesterol, and increasing HDL (high-density lipoprotein),s the “good” cholesterol, which is protective against cardiovascular disease.
By making the right diet choices and leading an active, healthy lifestyle, it is possible to keep cholesterol levels in check. This will help prevent the health risks linked with high cholesterol.
Age and sex can impact cholesterol levels. Your cholesterol will change throughout your life.
Teens and children tend to have lower cholesterol levels than people over 20. Women before menopause tend to have lower LDL than men of a similar age, but it increases post-menopause. HDL can often be higher in women than in men of the same age.
Doctors know what levels of cholesterol patients of different genders and ages should have.
As a guideline, on average, a healthy person's blood sample will show:
Total cholesterol: less than 200 milligrams per deciliter
LDL “bad” cholesterol: less than 100mg/dL
HDL “good” cholesterol: higher than 40mg/dL in men and 50mg/dL in women
Triglycerides: less than 150mg/dL
There are many low-cholesterol meats you can enjoy.
Note that recent evidence² suggests that the association between saturated fat intake and blood cholesterol is higher than between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol.
This means that the main focus should be on avoiding high levels of saturated and trans fats and high cholesterol. Although some foods have high cholesterol and low saturated fats, such as eggs and shrimp, these foods could be okay to consume in moderation.
It’s recommended to consume a maximum of 156-170 grams of cooked lean meat, fish, or skinless poultry daily.
Also, it’s not just the type of meat that’s important — how you cook it can also impact the cholesterol, trans fats, and saturated fat amounts. Broiling, baking, grilling, and boiling, are better than frying meat with added oil or butter.
If you do need to add fats during the cooking process, consider choosing vegetable oils such as olive oil, soybean oil, and canola oil over solid fats (butter, lard, or shortening),
White meat and fish tend to have the lowest cholesterol and saturated fat content, so choose meats like:
Skinless, lean, and ground chicken or turkey breast are good low-cholesterol choices.
100g of lean cuts of turkey breast contain around 104mg of cholesterol. While this seems like a lot, it only has 3g of saturated fat.
100g of skinless chicken breast contains 73mg of cholesterol and 0.5g of saturated fat.
It’s a good idea to focus on fish high in “healthy fats'' such as omega-3s and other unsaturated fats.
Research³ suggests omega-3s may reduce triglyceride levels and improve “good” cholesterol (HDL).
Fish that are low in cholesterol, or are low in saturated fat and high in “healthy fats”, include:
Salmon (63mg of cholesterol per 100g)
Mackerel (95mg of cholesterol per 100g)
Tuna (36mg cholesterol per 100g)
Trout (70mg per 100g)
Herring (60mg per 100g)
The American Heart Association⁴ recommends eating about 225 grams (8 ounces) of fish each week.
Red meat includes beef, pork, and lamb. Red meat is known for being high in cholesterol and saturated fat, so many experts⁵ recommend replacing it with other protein sources.
However, lean or extra-lean cuts of red meat can offer lower cholesterol options. Lean cuts are identifiable because they have less visible fat than other cuts.
Extra-lean cuts of beef (with the cholesterol per 100 grams listed) include:
Top sirloin steak (92mg)
Bottom-round steak (77mg)
Top-round steak (77mg)
Sirloin tip steak (71mg)
Eye of round steak (77mg)
100g of a lean cut of beef contains around 4.5g of saturated fat, while 100g of an extra-lean cut of beef contains 2g of saturated fat.
Pork also has lean-cut options, such as pork tenderloin, which has 80mg of cholesterol and 1.2g of saturated fat per 100g. For people looking for lower-cholesterol options, this should be chosen over other cuts of pork.
Organ meats such as tripe, kidney, liver, and the hearts of lambs and pigs are very high in cholesterol, ranging from 200-400mg per 100g.
However, organ meats are typically lower in saturated fat than other types of meat.
It’s a good idea to limit your intake of the following foods high in cholesterol — particularly saturated fat.
Some of the meats on this list have comparable cholesterol levels to the recommended meats. In these cases, the main difference is that the saturated fat and trans fat content is much higher.
Processed meats, with cholesterol and saturated fat amounts per 100 grams, include:
Sausages (76mg of cholesterol, 11g of saturated fat)
Salami (89mg of cholesterol, 9.3 grams of saturated fat)
Bacon (110mg of cholesterol, 32g of saturated fat)
Many cuts of meat are higher in saturated fat and, often, cholesterol.
This is true for most cuts of red meat (such as beef, pork, and lamb), and for some cuts of white meat, usually, the legs are less healthy than the breast.
A low-cholesterol diet does not have to be tricky. Here are some great tips:
Trying vegan options can be a simple way to lower cholesterol and live a healthier lifestyle. Reduce cholesterol levels through wholesome, healthy eating.
Whole-grain options often have the lowest cholesterol, so choosing whole-grain carbs can help manage cholesterol.
Nuts can also help lower cholesterol by providing good fats and helping you feel full. This can prevent overeating later and assist with weight management.
Just be careful with portion sizes. Nuts are high in calories and should be eaten in moderation. One serving fits roughly into the cup of your hand.
Getting plenty of exercise⁶ is a great way to stay healthy, lose extra weight, and therefore take pressure off the heart and blood vessels. This can help reduce the risks linked with high cholesterol, like stroke and high blood pressure.
Cholesterol plays a key role in the body. Your liver makes all the cholesterol the body needs, so watching your diet is key to making sure you do not reach cholesterol levels that are too high.
Long term, too much cholesterol in the blood can cause many health problems like heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. Plus, high cholesterol is also linked with extra weight.
Enjoying meat while trying to manage or lower your cholesterol levels is possible.
Eat the right foods (low-saturated and trans-fat meats in small amounts) and exercise regularly to help limit cholesterol and avoid health problems linked with high cholesterol.
Cholesterol | Harvard Health Publishing
Fish and omega-3 fatty acids | Heart Attack and Stroke Symptoms
Cholesterol levels (2022)
Cholesterol levels (2022)
Cooking to lower cholesterol | Heart Attack and Stroke Symptoms
Low cholesterol diet (2022)
Turkey, ground, 93% lean, 7% fat, pan-broiled crumbles | U.S. Department of Agriculture
Chicken, broiler or fryers, breast, skinless, boneless, meat only, raw | U.S. Department of Agriculture
Omega-3 fatty acids | NIH: National Institute of Health
Fish, salmon, Atlantic, farmed, cooked, dry heat | U.S. Department of Agriculture
Fish, mackerel, salted | U.S. Department of Agriculture
Fish, tuna, light, canned in water, drained solids | U.S. Department of Agriculture
Fish, raw, Atlantic, herring | Nutrition Value
Beef, top sirloin, steak, separable lean and fat, trimmed to 1/8" fat, all grades, cooked, broiled | U.S. Department of Agriculture
Beef, round, outside round, bottom round, steak, separable lean and fat, trimmed to 0" fat, all grades, cooked, grilled | U.S. Department of Agriculture