Ask the Dietitian: All About Cholesterol

When it comes to our cholesterol, there’s a lot of confusing information out there. Here are questions about cholesterol that dietitians are often asked.

When it comes to our cholesterol, there’s a lot of confusing information out there. So we asked our Facebook fans their burning cholesterol questions. Here are two great questions about cholesterol that many dietitians are commonly asked.

Q: I read that the cholesterol you eat does not affect your cholesterol numbers, but rather it’s the saturated fat you need to watch. Is this true? Can I eat shellfish and lean meat and not worry about my cholesterol?

A: It’s true that saturated fat influences your cholesterol numbers more than the cholesterol you eat.

Studies show that it’s really the saturated fat found in foods like whole milk and dairy products, baked goods, fatty beef, pork, and lamb and chicken (especially the skin) that have a bigger influence on raising your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Shellfish are high in cholesterol, but they’re pretty low in calories and saturated fat too. Three ounces of raw shrimp has 90 calories, 1 gram fat, minimal saturated fat, and 129 milligrams of cholesterol (which is 43 percent of your daily recommended amount of cholesterol). Moderation is still important. You can get a low-calorie meal with a 3 to 4 ounce portion of shellfish and still be within your recommended amount of cholesterol for the day. The same goes for eating lean meats. You don’t need to be afraid to incorporate these “high” cholesterol foods into your diet. Many of them are actually good for you.

Q: You hear a lot about foods that lower your LDL, but are there foods to help raise your HDL?

A: Your “good” cholesterol (HDL) is tougher to bring up, but there are a few things you can do.

HDL cholesterol is one of the blood fats that are measured when you get your cholesterol checked at the doctor. A high level of HDL has been associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Genetics do play a role in your HDL levels—sometimes you can eat perfectly and just be dealt a bad hand. It’s frustrating because it can put you at a higher risk for heart problems.

Studies have shown that two particular nutrients may play a role in raising HDL levels. Omega-3 fats seem to help raise your HDL. Good sources of these fats are salmon, tuna and sardines. You can also find some omega-3 fats in flax seeds, walnuts and tofu. Read more about this heart healthy fat in our previous post.

Numerous studies have shown that niacin helps raise HDL cholesterol. It never hurts to add foods high in niacin to your eating regimen like chicken, tuna, salmon and mushrooms. Using high doses of niacin for heart disease is approved by the FDA and may be prescribed by your doctor or registered dietitian if you’re at risk or have heart disease.

There are other things you can do to help raise your HDL cholesterol. These include:

  • Regular exercise: At least 30 minutes most days of the week.
  • If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. That’s one drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day maximum for men.
  • Stop smoking.

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Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. See Toby's full bio »

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