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Foods and Their Effects on Cholesterol

The table below lists different foods and drinks and how they affect your total cholesterol level, your HDL ("good") cholesterol, and your LDL ("bad") cholesterol.

Effects of different foods and drinks on your cholesterol

Dietary element

Found in these foods

Effect on your cholesterol level

Alcohol*
  • Red wine
  • White wine
  • Beer
  • Hard liquor
  • Moderate consumption (up to 1 glass a day for a woman; 1-2 a day for a man) may raise your HDL.
  • More than 2 drinks a day may raise triglyceride levels in people who are overweight or who have high triglyceride levels.
  • Heavy drinking greatly increases risk of heart and liver damage, addiction, and other serious health problems.
Dietary cholesterol
  • Egg yolks
  • Poultry, especially skin
  • Red meat, especially organ meats
  • Dairy products that are not low-fat (1%) or nonfat
  • Shellfish
  • Raises total blood cholesterol
  • May combine with saturated fat to raise blood cholesterol
  • Shrimp and crawfish have more cholesterol than fish but are still lower in total fat and saturated fat than most meats and poultry.
Dietary fiber (soluble)
  • Oats
  • Dried beans (legumes)
  • Peas
  • Barley
  • Citrus fruits
  • Apples
  • Proven to reduce total cholesterol and LDL
Saturated fat
  • Fatty meats (beef, pork)
  • Poultry skin
  • Butterfat (in whole milk, cream, ice cream, cheese)
  • Tropical oils (coconut, palm)
  • Raises LDL
  • Little effect on HDL or triglycerides
Monounsaturated fat
  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Lowers LDL if substituted for saturated fat
  • Keeps HDL up
Polyunsaturated fat
  • Safflower oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Sesame oil
  • Corn oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Linoleic acid, found in these oils, can lower LDL if used in moderation
Omega-3 fats
  • All fish, especially fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel
  • Plant sources, such as walnuts, canola, and flaxseed oils
  • Lowers triglycerides
Trans fats
  • Hydrogenated fats, margarine, vegetable shortening, nondairy creamer, and whipped toppings
  • Snack foods (potato chips, cookies, cakes)
  • Peanut butter that contains hydrogenated fat (except all-natural varieties)
  • Raises LDL
  • Little effect on HDL but at high levels can lower HDL

Recommended Related to Cholesterol Management

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* Doctors do not generally recommend drinking alcohol to raise your HDL cholesterol level, and you should not do so without first consulting your doctor.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Carl Orringer, MD - Cardiology, Clinical Lipidology
Last Revised July 2, 2010

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: July 02, 2010
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

Is This Normal? Get the Facts Fast!

Is Your Cholesterol Level Heart Healthy?
What is your LDL (low-density lipoprotein) level?

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or
Answer:
Desirable
0-199
Borderline
200-239
High
240+

Your level is currently

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal.

Congratulations! Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is borderline high. If your LDL goes higher, your total cholesterol level could become Borderline High. Consider reducing the amount of foods you eat with saturated fats and increasing physical activity. If you get more exercise, your level of "good" HDL cholesterol may increase, which could also help to keep your levels of LDL and total cholesterol in check.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL. The HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is in the Desirable range, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. This may mean that your level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or "good" cholesterol, is too low. It is best to have a high level of "good" HDL and a low level of "bad" LDL because the HDL helps keep your LDL level in check. Ask your doctor for your HDL level. If your HDL is low, increasing your physical activity can increase it, which may help reduce your LDL level.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High, but fortunately your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have other non-measured increases in LDL-like particles that can increase heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is Borderline High. But your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol is High, but your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is near optimal. This could mean you have a high level of high-density lipoprotein, or "good" HDL cholesterol, which protects against heart disease. Or you could have elevated secondary lipids, such as non-HDL particles that increase the risk of heart disease. Your LDL level also could be optimal if you are taking a statin medication. Please check with your doctor to get your complete lipid profile and see if you may need additional treatment. In the meantime, find more information on WebMD's Cholesterol Health Center.

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Borderline High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels!

Your total cholesterol level is High. Your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is High, too. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe medication, such as statins. Following medication, dietary, and exercise instructions should result in improvements.

Your total cholesterol level is High, and your level of "bad" LDL cholesterol is Very High. Working to bring down your total cholesterol decreases your LDL cholesterol level. You can do this by exercising more and eating less food with saturated fats. Check food labels! If you are struggling to bring down your total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels, your doctor may prescribe statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications.

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