The truth about cholesterol and your favorite foods

Cholesterol – food taboo, right?

I grew up hearing this, and judging by the look I get when I recommend eating eggs or shellfish, many of us are still convinced that cholesterol isn’t welcome in our diets.

It’s true that high serum cholesterol (the cholesterol found in the body) is associated with increased risk of heart disease and stroke. What’s actually not true is that cholesterol in our food has any relationship with that number.

What the science says

Research shows that our bodies are actually responsible for creating most of the cholesterol they house. Dietary intake has minimal impact. Eating foods like shellfish, eggs, and cheese does not increase risk of heart disease or stroke.

To put it simply, when we’re talking food, cholesterol content doesn’t need to be high on the list of concern.

The truth about food and your cholesterol, including is shellfish really unhealthy?

So we can eat whatever we want?

Almost. There are some foods that are known to raise blood cholesterol levels:  fried foods, saturated and trans fats, and sugar. Surprised? It's hardly news that these are not meant to be staples of our diets. 

But what might be news is that many of the foods commonly shunned for their cholesterol content actually offer a lot of nutritional perks. Eggs and shellfish are wonderful sources of lean protein and both are a cinch to cook. Squid is also low-calorie, high protein, and pretty tasty. Cheese is infinitely more fun than a calcium pill, and, luckily, it's just as effective. 

The Takeaway

When thinking of our diets, it’s important to see the whole picture. Let's not vilify food for the nutrients it does or does not contain. Nutrients do matter, but at the end of the day, we eat food, not nutrients. A food’s entire profile – taste, ease, expense, availability, and, yes, health – is an important consideration. The ultimate takeaway is not a new one. Eat mostly whole foods: lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Stick to leaner meats. Don't OD on sugar. It's just as fun as it sounds.