How to Tell If Foods Are Low or High Cholesterol

Sometimes, high cholesterol foods will not be directly stated on the label.

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When it comes to detecting high cholesterol foods, it's not always as simple as reading the label. Nutrition facts labels should always list the cholesterol, in milligrams (mg), per serving. But many foods you buy don't even have nutrition labels, such as meats purchased from the deli. This article will explain how to figure out high cholesterol foods, with or without a label.

Understanding Cholesterol

Although cholesterol has gotten a bad rap, it isn't quite the culprit it's made out to be. Your body actually needs cholesterol, and your liver makes about 1,000 mg of the stuff every day.

In addition to cholesterol produced by the body, we also get cholesterol from animal products. For example, dairy products, meat, fish and egg yolks contain cholesterol. Foods derived entirely from plants, such as vegetables, fruits, and grains, do not contain cholesterol.

The formerly recommended limit of 300 mg of cholesterol per day was lifted in the 2015 - 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They removed this recommendation, citing insufficient evidence to show a relationship between ingesting dietary cholesterol and your blood cholesterol. 

Reading Food Labels

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

Each food label should include milligrams 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 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 food in the grocery store doesn't have labels, such as fruits and vegetables, but these don't have cholesterol. For other products, 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 scroll down until you find the turkey bacon that you ordered. Then, you can find all the nutrient information, including cholesterol, for the food you're looking up.

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 "bad cholesterol" or the low-density lipoproteins (LDL); this is the artery-clogging stuff that can lead to heart attacks or strokesTrans fats have also been linked to increased LDL levels and lowered HDL levels. 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 of these healthy, unsaturated fats.