How to Tell if Foods Are Low or High Cholesterol

Many foods you buy are labeled with nutrition facts, making it easy to detect and limit high-cholesterol foods. But what about foods you purchase that don't have a label, like deli meat or prepared foods?

Understanding general principles about high-cholesterol foods can help you determine which non-labeled foods might be high in cholesterol.

Egg with yolk
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Understanding Cholesterol

When cholesterol comes up in conversations about diet, the context is usually negative. But it's important to understand that not all cholesterols are dangerous. In fact, the body produces certain amounts of cholesterol each day to support overall functioning.

Dietary cholesterol is also consumed through animal products, such as dairy products, meat, fish, and egg yolks. Foods derived entirely from plants, such as vegetables, fruits, and grains, contribute insignificant, if any, amounts of cholesterol.

Blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol are not the same thing. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that dietary cholesterol consumption be as low as possible without compromising the nutritional adequacy of the diet.

Reading Food Labels

Physicians may recommend cholesterol-restricted diets for patients with significantly elevated cholesterol levels and known (or sometimes just high risk of) heart disease. To follow such a diet, it's important to read the nutrition labels on foods before consumin them.

Each food label should include milligrams (mg) of cholesterol per serving. Don't forget to look at the serving size as well. Sometimes products can seem low in cholesterol, but if you eat more than the recommended servings at one sitting, then you can end up consuming a lot more cholesterol than you intended.

You may be confused by the percentages included on the label, marked as "% of daily value." The daily value—or daily reference value—is the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s term for daily nutritional requirements based on a 2,000-calorie diet. For cholesterol, the percentage is based on a daily cap of 300 mg.

Foods Without Labels

Some foods in the grocery store doesn't have labels. For these, the USDA maintains a searchable nutrient database.

This database provides cholesterol contents for many different foods. All you have to do is use a keyword like "turkey" and click the result.

The entry that pops up will have all of a given food's nutrient information, including cholesterol content.

What About Fats?

In addition to watching the cholesterol content of your foods, you'll probably want to keep tabs on saturated fat and trans fats.

According to the USDA, saturated fats can raise low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or "bad cholesterol." This is the artery-clogging kind that can lead to heart attacks or strokes.

Trans fats have also been linked to increased LDL levels and lowered levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or "good cholesterol."

The USDA recommends limiting saturated and trans fats as much as possible.

Unsaturated fats, however, can be good for the body. According to the USDA, most of the fat in your diet should come from unsaturated fats. Seeds, nuts, and fish are all good sources.

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  1. U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020