University of Illinois Extension

Dietary Factors that Increase Blood Cholesterol

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Having high blood cholesterol, high LDL, or low HDL are risk factors for cardiovascular disease. There are five dietary factors that can increase your blood cholesterol levels, increase your LDL level, and/ or lower your HDL level:

  • Saturated fat
  • Trans fat
  • Total fat
  • Excess calories
  • Dietary cholesterol

Consuming too much dietary cholesterol, total fat, saturated fat, trans fat, or too many calories can raise your blood cholesterol levels and increase your risk for heart disease. Therefore, it is important to know what foods contain these factors, and how you can change your diet to decrease your risk.

Saturated Fat

Foods high in saturated fats raise blood cholesterol more than foods high in dietary cholesterol. “Saturated” is a word that refers to the chemical structure of some fats. Saturated fats are usually firm or hold their shapes at room temperature. For example, at room temperature butter is solid because it has more saturated fat, versus oil that is liquid, because it does not have a lot of saturated fat. The main sources of saturated fat in the typical American diet are:

  • Foods from animals: including beef, beef fat, veal, lamb, pork, lard, poultry fat, butter, cream, milk, cheeses, and other dairy products made from whole milk.

These foods also contain saturated fat:

  • Foods from plants: including coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil (often called tropical oils), and cocoa butter.

Tips for Reducing Saturated Fat Intake

  • Choose leaner cuts of meat.
    • Try skinless chicken, fish, and 90%-95% lean ground beef.
    • Choose whole cuts of meat rather than ground pork or beef.
    • Choose the leaner cuts of meat such as top loin, sirloin, round or flank steak (buy select or choice instead of prime).
    • Trim fat from meat before cooking and drain fat from meat once it is cooked.
  • Reduce high-fat dairy products. These are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Choose skim or 1 percent milk, low fat yogurt, and reduced fat cheese. Try low fat frozen yogurt or sherbet instead of ice cream. However, remember to take these carbohydrates into consideration when planning your daily meals.
  • Use oils in cooking and baking instead of butter or lard. Olive and canola oils are high in monounsaturated fats.

Trans Fat

Foods high in trans fat also raise blood cholesterol. “Trans” is also a word that refers to the chemical structure of certain unsaturated fats when they have had hydrogen added to them to make them firm. Foods with the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oils” in their ingredient list are likely to be high in trans fat. Baked goods, snack foods, fried foods, margarines, and shortenings often contain trans fats. The best way to find out if a food contains trans fat is to look on the Nutrition Facts label or look for partially hydrogenated fat in the ingredients list.

Tips for Reducing Trans Fat Intake

  • Look for processed foods made with unhydrogenated oil rather than hydrogenated oil or saturated fat. If it doesn’t say “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated,” it is unhydrogenated fat.
  • Use margarine as a substitute for butter, and choose soft (liquid or tub) margarines over harder, stick forms. Use margarine and other products that contain liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient and no more than two grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.
  • Look for trans fat information on the Nutrition Facts label and choose products with no trans fat added.

Total Fat

The total amount of dietary fat eaten has a large impact on blood cholesterol levels. Since many foods contain fat, the best way to find out how many grams of total fat you eat each day is to look at the Nutrition Facts labels of the foods you eat. Eating a lower fat diet tends to lower blood cholesterol and helps keep levels within a normal range. Only 20 – 35 percent of your daily calories should come from fat.

Tips for Reducing Total Fat Intake

  • Use 1/2 less fat in every recipe without changing flavor or texture. Although some fat may be essential to a recipe, generally a reduction of 1/2 the fat in a recipe will not alter the product taste or texture.
  • Reduce the amount of sauces, dressings, and gravies that you put on foods.
  • Make low-fat or non-fat substitutions in recipes. Replace 1 cup of sour cream with 1 cup of plain non-fat yogurt (or try the fat free version of sour cream). Use ground turkey breast, ground chicken breast, or tofu instead of ground beef.
  • Use more herbs and spices to enhance flavor, rather than added fat.
  • Use fat-free cooking spray for baking – versus butter or oil.
  • Reduce the amount of high-fat items in a recipe, such as nuts, cheese, and chocolate.

The chart below will help you determine the amount of total fat and saturated fat grams that the American Heart Association recommends you eat depending on your calorie level.

Calorie Level Total Fat (grams) Saturated Fat (grams)
< 10% of total calories
Saturated Fat (grams)
< 7% of total calories
1200 40 < 13 < 9
1500 50 < 17 < 12
1800 60 < 20 < 14
2000 67 < 22 < 16
2200 73 < 24 < 17
2500 83 < 28 < 19
3000 100 < 33 < 23

Consuming Excess Calories

Eating too many calories leads to weight gain. Weight gain can raise your LDL cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and blood glucose levels.

Dietary Cholesterol

Dietary cholesterol is different than blood cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is the cholesterol obtained from food. Only food from animal sources contains dietary cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol only has a slight effect on your total blood cholesterol level. A person's total fat intake, especially saturated fat, has a more significant effect on blood cholesterol levels than dietary cholesterol alone does. However, a person should still have a low-to-moderate intake of dietary cholesterol, which would be less than 300 mg for those without high blood cholesterol and 200 mg for those with high blood cholesterol.

Tips for Reducing Dietary Cholesterol Intake

  • Limit intake of egg yolks, liver and other organ meats, meat, and whole milk dairy products.

Back to: Eating for Cardiovascular Health

This document is a source of information only, and is not medical advice.