Cholesterol gets a bad rap. This fatty substance, also known as a lipid, is often shunned by health enthusiasts. However, bad reputation aside, cholesterol plays several vital roles in the body. For starters, it acts as a precursor to vitamin D and the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone, which play a role in reproductive health. Cholesterol also makes up the outer coating of your cells and enables your body to make bile -- a substance needed to properly digest fats.
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Know Your Limits
According to the Institute of Medicine, the body can synthesize all the cholesterol it needs to function. Because of this, cholesterol recommendations are given as an upper limit, rather than an recommended dietary allowance or RDA. The current recommendation from the Food and Nutrition Board, which is a subgroup of the Institute of Medicine, is to consume no more than 200 milligrams of cholesterol per day. It is possible to stay within this recommendation by choosing lean sources of meat, such as skinless chicken and fish, and low-fat or non-fat dairy products, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
What to Choose and What to Lose
It's important to note that cholesterol is solely derived from animal based foods. If you are trying to curtail your cholesterol intake, stick to plant-based foods - such as grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds - as they do not contain any cholesterol. Choosing non-fat milk is a great way to stay under the cholesterol recommendations, as non-fat milk contains only 4 milligrams of cholesterol per cup, compared to 33 milligrams in its whole milk counterpart. The highest dietary sources of cholesterol are chicken liver, beef liver and squid, which contain a whopping 631 milligrams, 389 milligrams and 231 milligrams of cholesterol per 3.5 ounce serving, respectively. Eggs are also a significant source, at 212 milligrams of cholesterol per egg.