Does Dietary Cholesterol Raise Blood Cholesterol Levels?

For years we’ve been told that cholesterol is bad for our health. We’ve avoided foods high in cholesterol because we thought it was good for our heart. But recent research has discovered new evidence showing cholesterol to be largely misunderstood.

According to the latest research referenced in theDietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020), not all foods high in cholesterol are bad for your health. Dietary cholesterol may only be a risk factor in foods that are also high in saturated fats. Instead of 300 mg a day, the guidelines now say to eat as little cholesterol as possible.1

What exactly is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is described as a fatty, waxy substance produced by the liver. Its main function is to assist your body in producing hormones, digestive enzymes, and healthy cells. It does this by circulating through your bloodstream to the necessary sites where it is needed. This is called blood cholesterol or serum cholesterol.

To help cholesterol travel through your bloodstream, it attaches itself to a protein molecule and becomes a lipoprotein.2 There are two kinds of cholesterol lipoproteins:

  • LDL Cholesterol - low density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol)
  • HDL Cholesterol - high density lipoprotein (good cholesterol)

LDL (or bad cholesterol) is the kind responsible for fatty deposits building up along the walls of your arteries. It transports cholesterol in the bloodstream to its destination. High levels of LDL cholesterol puts you at risk for heart disease.

HDL (or good cholesterol) scoops up extra cholesterol circulating in your blood and returns it to the liver. This helps to keep LDL from building up along your artery walls.

What is blood cholesterol?

Blood or serum cholesterol refers to how much cholesterol you have circulating in your blood at any one time.

What’s the difference between blood cholesterol and dietary cholesterol?

Dietary cholesterol comes from the food we eat and is only found in animal products such as:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy products (milk, butter, cheese, etc.)
  • Red meat (bacon, beef, sausages)

Does cholesterol from the diet influence blood cholesterol?

At this point, more research is needed to determine whether dietary cholesterol alone raises blood cholesterol. The tricky part is that foods high in dietary cholesterol are also often high in saturated fats and a diet higher in saturated fats is associated with higher blood cholesterol levels. This is why it’s currently recommended to limit saturated fat in the diet, especially when it comes from processed and fried foods. Other sources of saturated fats are fatty meats meats such as sausage and bacon and foods containing dairy products like ice cream and cream-based desserts.

However, foods such as egg yolks and shrimp are higher in cholesterol but lower in saturated fats and can be included as part of a healthy diet.

People who have a family history of very high cholesterol (familial hypercholesterolemia) have a genetic risk for high cholesterol and should be even more mindful of their fat and cholesterol intake.

Recommendations for healthy cholesterol levels

Healthy levels of blood cholesterol can be achieved through diet, exercise, and healthy lifestyle choices.

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

  • Substituting saturated fats like butter with unsaturated fats like olive oil can help reduce “blood levels of total cholesterol.
  • Limit daily intake of saturated fats to 10% of total calories as they can raise blood cholesterol.
  • Avoid trans fats altogether. Make sure you read the nutrition label and stay away from deep fried foods. Trans fats are especially unhealthy because they have been shown to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good ) cholesterol.  
  • Eat more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that can help lower blood cholesterol. These include nut and seed oils, fish, and avocados.

Does Dietary Cholesterol Raise Blood Cholesterol Levels?

Dietary cholesterol alone may not be the bad guy we once thought it was. If you limit saturated fats in your diet and avoid trans fats, you stand a better chance of not raising your blood cholesterol levels and staying within a healthy range.



1 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2015-2020) eighth edition. USDA Publication: Home and Garden Bulletin No. 232

2 Mayo Clinic: High Cholesterol

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