What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is an odorless, soft, fat-like substance found in all of the body’s cells. It is used to form cell membranes, hormones, and necessary tissues. Cholesterol is made by the body, and we get additional cholesterol from foods. Cholesterol is an important part of a healthy body.  

Why is cholesterol discussed as a health risk?

Having too much cholesterol in your blood (more than 200mg/dl) is a risk factor for heart disease. When people talk about their cholesterol level, they mean the amount of cholesterol in their blood. High blood cholesterol levels can affect the heart by building up cholesterol, in a form called plaque, in the lining of the heart’s blood vessels. Over time, this build-up can block the vessels. If blood cannot get to the heart, this causes a heart attack.

 What causes high blood cholesterol?

A family history of high blood cholesterol puts you at risk for high blood cholesterol. Some of the foods you eat can increase your risk. If you eat foods high in dietary cholesterol and saturated fat, you will raise your cholesterol level. Saturated fat (animal fats) can raise blood cholesterol more than anything else in your diet. Being overweight or obese also raises your risk for high cholesterol.

 For most people, eating foods lower in saturated fats and cholesterol can reduce their blood cholesterol levels.

Where does dietary cholesterol come from? 

Cholesterol is found only in foods that come from animals. Foods that have very high amounts of cholesterol are egg yolks, organ meats (liver, kidney, heart), and whole milk products. Cholesterol is never found in plant foods such as fruits and vegetables. Your diet should contain less than 300 mg of cholesterol per day.

Unsaturated Fats

Unsaturated fats come from vegetables. They are liquid at room temperature and are divided into two types: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in corn oil; sunflower seeds and oil; safflower seeds and oil; and soybeans and soybean oil. These fats should make up no more than 10 percent of the total calories in your diet (see chart).

Monounsaturated fats are found in canola oil, olive oil, and peanut oil. Monounsaturated fats should make up 10 percent to 15 percent of the total calories in your diet (see chart).

Saturated Fat

Saturated fats come from animal sources such as beef, veal, lamb, pork, ham, butter, cream, cheese made from cream, and whole milk. They are usually solid at room temperature and are often used in store-bought bakery items, candies, fried foods, and non-dairy creamers.

Saturated fats are also found in coconut, palm and palm kernel oils, cocoa butter, hydrogenated oils, and shortening. These are known as saturated vegetable fats. Saturated fats should make up less than 10 percent of the total calories in your diet (see chart).

 Tubs are Better than Sticks

The more firm the fat, the more saturated. For example, stick margarine and shortenings are more saturated than soft tub-type margarines. As with all saturated fats, intake should be limited to less than 10 percent of the total calories in your diet.

How can I reduce fat and cholesterol in my diet? 
  • Use vegetable fats instead of animal fats when cooking.

  • Select lean meats, and trim visible fat from meat before cooking.

  • Limit meat portions. Your total meat intake should be 5 to 6 ounces per day.

  • Eat fish or skinless poultry more often than beef or pork.

  • Limit liver and other organ meats in your diet.

  • Choose low-fat or non-fat dairy products and cheese.

  • Eat more grains, fruits, vegetables, dried beans, and peas.

  • Limit the number of egg yolks you eat to 3 or 4 per week.

  • Roast, bake, or broil meats and other foods instead of frying.

No more than 30 percent of your total daily calories should come from fat. Converting this into grams can be confusing.

The following chart lists common daily calorie totals and goals for total fat, saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, and monounsaturated fat in grams. Use this chart as a guide when making your food selections.

If you normally eat this many calories each day Total fat should be no more than Total saturated fat should be no more than Total Unsaturated Fat
Total poly-saturated fat
should be no more than
Total mono-unsaturated fat
should be no more than
1000 33 g 11 g 11 g

11 g

1200 40 g 13 g 13 g 13 g
1500 50 g 16 g 16 g 16 g
1800 60 g 20 g 20 g 20 g
2000 65 g 22 g 22 g 22 g
2200 73 g 24 g 24 g 24 g
2500 83 g 27 g 27 g 27 g


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