Shrimp, Scallops, and Other Shellfish As Part of a Low-Cholesterol Diet

shrimp and scallop
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Doctors and health experts used to warn people to stay away from shellfish, including shrimp and scallops, because the belief was they were too high in cholesterol. When researchers started to look more closely at cholesterol in food, however, they found shellfish contained dietary cholesterol, which has little or no effect on blood cholesterol for most people.

Shellfish, in fact, are excellent choices for a low-cholesterol diet. Aside from the fact that they don't negatively influence your cholesterol levels, they have other benefits—such as having more unsaturated than saturated fat—that increase their value as heart-healthy foods.

Shellfish Benefits

Shellfish (and seafood in general) not only offers a great tasting alternative to meat, but it is also lower in calories and high in protein. And seafood contains high amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, or what is commonly referred to as good fats. These improve blood cholesterol and lower a person’s heart disease risk. (In contrast, saturated fat from one's diet prompts the body to produce bad cholesterol, which increases heart disease risk.)

Shellfish are excellent sources of heart-healthy nutrients and do not appear to contribute to heart disease or high cholesterol. They are also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can actually help to lower cholesterol. And both shrimp and scallops contain generous amounts of vitamins B12 and D, potassium, and magnesium.

The American Heart Association recommends eating seafood (especially fatty fish) at least twice a week.

Shrimp and scallops are low in mercury, so they can be enjoyed on a regular basis, per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Buying Shrimp and Scallops

When shopping for shrimp, look for transparent flesh (avoid cloudy shrimp) with a sweet scent of fresh sea water. If a package of shrimp smells fishy or like ammonia or bleach, do not use it. Shrimp spoil quickly, so, unless you live near a thriving shrimp business, your best bet is frozen shrimp (wild caught, if possible).

The scallops available at your local grocery store are wet packed. That means they are shucked (shells removed) directly on the boat and dropped into a container of cold water, which preserves them longer. They should be white with firm, slightly moist flesh. Don’t buy scallops that appear shredded or mangled in any way. Packaging should be firmly closed and not allow for any odor to escape. Much like shrimp, they should not smell fishy or have an ammonia or bleach-like odor.

Keeping Shellfish Dishes Low in Cholesterol

The way shrimp and scallops are prepared can easily make a low-cholesterol dish a high cholesterol one. For example, fried, breaded shrimp or scallops are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Depending on how much you are consuming, you could easily consume more 100 milligrams of cholesterol from your main dish alone. 

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend dietary cholesterol amounts from about 100 to 300 milligrams per day and no more.

Be mindful of all the ways in which a low-cholesterol dish can become a high cholesterol one. For example, too many people dip their shellfish in melted butter. Doing that increases unhealthy fat intake and sabotages a low-cholesterol diet. Try lemon juice or cocktail sauce to add flavor to your shrimp and scallop meals instead of fatty sauces and butter.

Scallops and shrimp pair well with fresh dill, garlic, tarragon, parsley, lemon, freshly grated ginger, and/or olive oil. Heart-smart preparations include stir-frying, grilling, pan frying, searing, sautéing, or baking.

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