Foods that contain cholesterol

Some foods contain cholesterol, but surprisingly, they don’t make a big difference to the cholesterol in your blood.

Cholesterol is made mainly in the liver. But it’s also found in animal foods such as eggs, shellfish, meat and dairy products. Whereas plant foods don’t contain any cholesterol.

The cholesterol already present in food doesn’t have much effect on the amount of cholesterol in your blood. That's because most of us eat less than 300mg of cholesterol per day – a tiny amount compared to the amount of saturated fat we eat.

If you have FH or very high cholesterol

A few people, for example people with familial hypercholesterolaemia (FH) or very high cholesterol, need to be careful with foods like liver, liver pate and offal, as these are very rich in cholesterol.

Do I need to cut down on cholesterol in food?

Most people don’t need to cut down on the cholesterol that’s found in foods – so you don’t need to worry about having an egg for breakfast or eating shellfish more often.

It’s much more important to cut down on foods which contain saturated fats. That’s because saturated fats affect how the liver handle cholesterol. So, eating saturated fats can raise your blood cholesterol. Try to replace saturated fats with other fats which are better for your heart.

The UK guidelines say to limit cholesterol in food to less than 300mg per day if you have FH. Even though cholesterol in food only has a small effect on blood cholesterol, people with FH already have high levels of cholesterol, so it seems sensible not to eat too much cholesterol in food.

The myth of dietary cholesterol

The myth that the cholesterol in foods, sometimes called dietary cholesterol, has a big effect on your blood cholesterol has been around for a long time.

There is little evidence to show that the cholesterol eaten in food makes any reasonable difference to the amount of cholesterol in the blood. There is no need to cut down on dietary cholesterol – but cutting down on saturated fats and replacing it with other fats lowers cholesterol.

Which foods are high in cholesterol?

All animal foods contain some cholesterol. But by cutting down on the animal foods that contain saturated fats you will be keeping the cholesterol in your diet in check too.

There are some foods which are low in saturated fat but high in cholesterol. These include eggs, some shellfish, liver, liver pate and offal. Unless you have FH or very high cholesterol, you can eat these as normal – there is generally no need to limit them.

Foods that contain cholesterol and are high in saturated fat.
Try to cut down on these.
Foods that contain cholesterol but are low in saturated fat.
There’s no need to limit these
Full fat dairy foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt and cream. Lean meat, especially offal, such as liver, kidney, sweetbreads, heart and tripe  
Animal fats, such as butter, ghee, margarines and spreads made from animal fats, lard, suet and dripping. Prawns, crab, lobster, squid, octopus and cuttlefish.
Fatty meat and processed meat products such as sausages. Eggs (the cholesterol is in the yolk).  

If you have FH

You can still eat some foods which contain cholesterol if you have FH but limit the amount. For example, you could eat three or four eggs a week, and shellfish such as prawns up to once or twice a week.

Some shellfish such as cockles, mussels, oysters, scallops and clams are all low in cholesterol and in saturated fat and you can eat them as often as you like.
You should avoid liver and offal altogether because they are so high in cholesterol.

A word about eating liver

Liver is a lean meat which is high in cholesterol. It’s low in saturated fat and high in vitamins and minerals such as iron, copper, zinc, and vitamins A, B and D.

It’s generally a very healthy food to eat, but it’s so high in vitamin A that it’s best not to eat too much of it. For some people, eating liver often could mean that vitamin A builds up in the body, causing health problems.

The government recommends eating no more than one portion per week of liver or liver pate. If you do eat liver, avoid any supplements that also contain vitamin A in the form of retinol.

If you are pregnant or planning to get pregnant, avoid liver, liver pate and supplements which contain retinol completely.

Women who have been through the menopause should limit liver to no more than once a week.

Foods which don’t contain cholesterol

Cholesterol is only found in foods that come from animals, there is no cholesterol in foods that come from plants. So, there is no cholesterol in fruit, vegetables, grains, seeds, nuts, beans, peas and lentils.