Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced primarily by the liver in both humans and animals.
It is found in all cells of the body.
Cholesterol in food is referred to as “dietary cholesterol” and is found only in animal products.
The human body makes more cholesterol than it needs — so it is not necessary to get cholesterol from food.
Where It Is Found
Dietary cholesterol is found in animal products, including:
Beef fat (tallow and suet), chicken fat, and pork fat (lard)
Cream and milk (whole and 2% milk)
Dairy products (such as butter and regular/full-fat cheese, cream cheese, and ice cream)
Meats and poultry
Processed meat and poultry products (such as bacon, hot dogs, jerky, luncheon meats, and sausages)
Shellfish (such as lobster and shrimp)
Plant foods (such as beans and peas, fruits, grains, nuts and seeds, vegetables, and vegetable oils) do not contain dietary cholesterol.
What It Does
Cholesterol is a structural component of cell membranes.
Cholesterol is necessary for the production of bile, a fluid made by the liver that aids in the digestion of fat in the intestine.
Cholesterol is used to make to vitamin D and certain hormones, like estrogen and testosterone.
Many foods that are higher in dietary cholesterol are generally higher in saturated fat, which can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends keeping the intake of dietary cholesterol as low as possible while maintaining a healthy diet.
Good vs. Bad Cholesterol
Cholesterol is transported in the blood by particles called "lipoproteins," which contain both lipid (fat) and protein. There are several types of lipoproteins, and how much you have of each of them is one of the many factors that determine your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol is often referred to as "bad" cholesterol. It is the form in which cholesterol is carried from the liver to arteries and body tissues. Higher levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood can lead to a harmful buildup of cholesterol in blood vessels. This buildup can increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is often referred to as "good" cholesterol. It is the form in which cholesterol travels from body tissues back to the liver, where it is broken down and removed. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol in the blood can help prevent cholesterol buildup in blood vessels, decreasing your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Action Steps for Reducing Cholesterol in Your Diet
Use the Nutrition Facts Label as your tool for monitoring consumption of cholesterol. The Nutrition Facts Label on food and beverage packages shows the amount in milligrams (mg) and the Percent Daily Value (%DV) of cholesterol in one serving of the food.
The Daily Value for cholesterol is less than 300 mg per day
When comparing foods, choose foods with a lower %DV of cholesterol. The goal is to get less than 100% of the Daily Value for cholesterol each day. And remember:
5% DV or less of cholesterol per serving is low
20% DV or more of cholesterol per serving is high
Try fish and plant sources of protein (such as beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds) in place of some meats and poultry.
Choose lean cuts of meats and poultry. Trim or drain fat from meat before or after cooking and remove poultry skin before cooking or eating.
Substitute fat-free (skim) or low-fat (1%) dairy products (such as cheese, milk, and yogurt), or fortified soy beverages for regular/full-fat (whole) dairy products.
Cook and bake with liquid oils (like canola or olive oil) instead of solid fats (like butter, lard, or shortening).
Opt for foods that are naturally low in cholesterol and saturated fat, such as beans and peas, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.