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Eggs, Cheese Might Be Fine If You Have High Cholesterol


Key Takeaways

  • Having high cholesterol is linked to many health risks, including heart disease.
  • The long-standing dietary advice for high cholesterol has been to limit, if not avoid, certain food groups. However, research has not backed up cutting out certain cholesterol-containing foods when they’re part of an overall heart-healthy diet.
  • If you’re trying to manage your cholesterol, you may not need to avoid foods like eggs and cheese.

Almost 40% of people living in the United States have high cholesterol levels, which puts them at risk for heart attacks and strokes.

If you’re trying to lower your cholesterol, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that you focus on two nutrients: saturated fat and trans fat.

The AHA recommends keeping your saturated fat intake to no more than 6% of your total daily calories and eating as little trans fat as possible. However, the AHA’s dietary recommendations do not say that you have to avoid dietary cholesterol.

It’s long been thought that people with high cholesterol had to avoid foods with cholesterol in them, but that may not be the case. There has not been enough research evidence to back up the claim that dietary cholesterol raises “bad” cholesterol levels.

In fact, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans removed the recommendation that people limit their dietary cholesterol intake to 300 mg/day.

Still, there are some foods that get a bad rap when it comes to cholesterol.

While your provider is not likely to say you can eat as many sweet or fried foods as you’d like, some of the foods you’d think that you need to avoid to achieve healthy cholesterol levels might be fine in moderation.

Here are four foods you might be surprised to learn you don’t necessarily have to cut out if you want to follow a heart-healthy diet to manage your cholesterol.

What Makes a Diet “Heart-Healthy?”

A heart-healthy diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, poultry, fish, nuts, and non-tropical vegetable oils (like olive oil) and limits red and processed meats, sodium, and sugar-sweetened foods and beverages.

Eggs

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If you love omelets and are focused on maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, you’ll be glad to learn that you may not have to give up eggs to meet that goal.

According to the AHA, “healthy individuals can include up to a whole egg or equivalent daily” as part of a heart-healthy dietary pattern.

The AHA does caution that people with high cholesterol still need to be mindful of their cholesterol intake.

Even still, a growing body of evidence suggests that eggs might be part of heart-healthy dietary patterns even in people at risk for cardiovascular disease.

According to a 2022 study, eating whole eggs in combination with a plant-based diet may be healthier than relying on egg substitutes. This is because of a positive effect on plasma lipids, antioxidant carotenoids, and choline.

The study looked at 30 people with metabolic syndrome who were told to follow a plant-based diet for 13 weeks.

The participants were randomly assigned to have one of two breakfasts: spinach with two eggs or spinach with an egg substitute. About halfway through the study, the groups switched to the other breakfast.

Eating the egg breakfast was linked to higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol compared to eating the egg substitute. The researchers did not see differences in the participants’ LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar (glucose), insulin, or blood pressure levels.

When you’re making a meal with eggs, just be aware of other parts of the meal that may not support your cholesterol goals. For example, bacon and Hollandaise sauce are high in fats that are not heart-healthy.

Cheese

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After years of nutrition guidelines advising people to limit dairy and preferably eat low or nonfat dairy foods, we’re now learning that moderate consumption of full-fat dairy foods can be part of a healthy, nutritious, eating pattern.

While it is true that many varieties of cheese contain saturated fat, cheese is also an excellent source of calcium, bioactive lipids, and peptides—all of which support heart health.

Several studies have found that eating cheese is linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, including stroke.

A 2017 study found that eating cheese instead of butter may have lowered LDL “bad” cholesterol, even though both foods are sources of saturated fat.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that people include three servings of dairy in their diet every day.

In moderation, counting a serving of cheese as a dairy serving can be part of a heart-healthy diet, especially if it has a lower sodium content (like mozzarella).

Beef

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Beef can range from being quite high in saturated fat to being surprisingly lean.

Research has found that when people include appropriate portions of leaner cuts of beef in their overall balanced diets, it does not appear to have negative effects on their heart health.

In a 2012 study, researchers found that people maintained healthy blood cholesterol levels while consuming a diet that was rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and beans, with lean beef as the primary protein source.

The subjects ate 1–5.4 oz (the weight before cooking) of lean beef daily. The portion provided less than 7% of their daily calories from saturated fat. 

Other studies have shown that following a Mediterranean-style diet that includes lean beef can help. lower LDL cholesterol.

When including beef in your diet, choose lean cuts and keep your portions in check.

To find lean cuts, look for the terms “round” or “loin” (e.g., sirloin, tenderloin, or eye of round). Limit your portions of beef to one 3-ounce serving.

Shrimp

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While shrimp is high in cholesterol, it does not contain saturated fat—at least, not when it’s eaten plain! As long as it’s not fried or cooked in large quantities of butter, shrimp can be part of a heart-healthy diet.

In fact, the AHA includes shrimp as a food that people can include to support healthy cholesterol levels.

If you’re trying to manage your cholesterol, try making shrimp part of a well-balanced meal, like a veggie stir-fry with plenty of spices and herbs or drizzled with olive oil on a fresh salad.

Other Ways to Lower Cholesterol

Dietary changes are just one part of preventing high cholesterol or managing them if they are higher than is best for your health.

Getting physical activity, quitting smoking, and maintaining an optimal weight for your body are also heart-healthy habits you can work toward.

If you’ve made diet and lifestyle changes and are still having a hard time getting your cholesterol levels under control, talk to your provider. You may need medication to help get your levels into a healthy range and keep them there.

What This Means For You

You may not need to avoid foods like cheese, lean beef, eggs, and shrimp if you’re trying to create a heart-healthy diet that supports healthy cholesterol levels.

However, if you’ve made diet and other lifestyle changes and your cholesterol levels are still high, talk to your provider. You might need medication to get (and keep) your cholesterol levels in a healthy range.



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