Cholesterol has a bad reputation from being linked to clogged arteries and heart disease. If you’re trying to lower your cholesterol, you may have been told to stay away from saturated fats and high-cholesterol foods. Many cheeses fit this profile, so for years people have avoided them when trying to lower cholesterol levels. However, according to the Harvard Medical School, saturated fats and cholesterol that occur in foods like eggs and cheese shouldn’t be a problem if they’re a small part of a healthy diet.
Cholesterol in Your Diet
Cholesterol is found in a variety of foods, particularly those from animal products. People are encouraged to remain aware of their cholesterol levels because they can clog arteries and affect heart health. This has led to the assumption that people monitoring cholesterol levels need to avoid animal products like eggs, dairy and meat.
To a certain extent, this is true — unsaturated fats found in fatty fish and nuts, for instance, are much better for your heart than products like red meat and butter. Yet, this doesn’t mean that you need to eliminate cholesterol entirely. Since the release of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, cholesterol in your diet and cholesterol levels in your body are considered to be different things.
If you consumed only foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol, your consumption of eggs, dairy and meat would be of concern. However, most people eat a balanced diet that includes foods like fruits, vegetables and grains alongside these animal products.
As long as saturated fat-rich foods don’t make up more than 5 to 6 percent of your diet (equivalent to 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat in the average 2,000-calorie diet), these foods can be considered a healthy part of your diet. So, you don't really need to eliminate foods like cheese from your diet if you’re trying to lower your cholesterol.
You should, however, keep an eye on saturated fat and cholesterol to make sure you don't exceed recommended amounts. For instance, the single egg you eat for breakfast contains 186 milligrams of cholesterol and 1.6 grams of saturated fat. Cholesterol in chicken breast (a 4-ounce serving) is much less at 84 milligrams, but saturated fat is nearly double at a total of 3 grams. A 1.5-ounce serving of cheddar cheese that you might eat as a snack will have only 43 milligrams of cholesterol, while having the highest saturated fat total at 8.2 grams.
This small amount of cheese could constitute the vast majority of your daily recommended amount of saturated fat, so it’s easy to see why people might find it easier to avoid animal products entirely. The good news is that saturated fats from meat are thought to be much worse than those from dairy, and there are many low-cholesterol, low-fat cheeses you can easily include in a healthy diet.
Cheese and Cholesterol
Cheese is an interesting food product because it can be made in a wide variety of ways. You wouldn’t really compare a stinky, aged Brie to a freshly made buffalo mozzarella, after all. These differences don’t just change the flavor of your food; different cheeses also have different amounts of cholesterol and fat.
Certain cheeses, like Gouda and Gruyere, contain more than 30 milligrams of cholesterol per ounce. This is similar for cheeses like Brie, cheddar and Swiss, which have more than 25 milligrams of cholesterol per ounce. Fortunately, this isn’t the case for all cheeses.
Low-fat cheeses like low-fat cottage cheese and ricotta cheese or nonfat cheddar have very little cholesterol. In fact, low-fat cottage cheese has only 1 milligram, while nonfat cheddar has a grand total of 5 milligrams. Even the popular salad topper Parmesan can be a healthy choice, with just 19 milligrams per ounce. You’ll notice that low-fat cheeses are also low in cholesterol — a win-win for your health, especially that of your heart.
So, if you’re hoping to lower your cholesterol, there’s no need to eliminate all fatty foods. Many foods, like fatty fish, are good for you. Do, however, limit your consumption of saturated fat and try replacing high-fat, high-cholesterol products for lower-fat, lower-cholesterol alternatives. You can also try certain diets, like the Mediterranean diet, that can improve heart health and are known for their moderate inclusion of high-cholesterol, high-fat foods.
- Harvard Health Publishing: Cholesterol: What's Diet Got to Do With It?
- Harvard Health Publishing: Say Cheese
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: Low-Calorie, Lower Fat Alternative Foods
- American Heart Association: The Skinny on Fats
- My Food Data: Top 10 Cheeses Low in Cholesterol
- USDA: Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Saturated Fat Does Not Clog the Arteries: Coronary Heart Disease is a Chronic Inflammatory Condition, the Risk of Which Can Be Effectively Reduced From Healthy Lifestyle Interventions
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Dietary Intake of Saturated Fat by Food Source and Incident Cardiovascular Disease: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis