With heart disease reaching near epidemic proportions in the U.S., health care professionals are urging patients to reduce their risk factors through exercise and a diet low in cholesterol and saturated fats. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends keeping your daily cholesterol intake below 300 milligrams, or 200 milligrams if you have high cholesterol or heart disease. Although some seafood products, including shrimp, contain significant amounts of cholesterol, clams are considerably lower in cholesterol.
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Cholesterol is a wax-like substance produced by clams, humans and other animals. Your body produces about cholesterol you need to build healthy cells, produce vitamin D and hormones and regulate other functions. If you take in more cholesterol than your body needs for essential functions, the excess cholesterol stays in your bloodstream and increases your risk of developing coronary artery disease, heart failure, heart attacks and strokes.
A single serving of clams, or about 12 small clams, contains 80 milligrams of cholesterol, which represents less than a third of your daily limit -- a moderate amount of cholesterol. To put this amount in perspective, consider that a large egg has 186 milligrams of cholesterol, half a roast chicken breast delivers 82 milligrams and a 3-ounce hamburger made with 80 percent lean beef has 77 milligrams.
It's easy to go overboard on condiments for your steamed clams, but wise choices can limit the added cholesterol. Lemon juice, wine and garlic are all cholesterol-free, so you can comfortably add those to the clam broth. However, butter contains 31 milligrams of cholesterol in a single tablespoon. Adding 3 tablespoons of melted butter to your dozen steamed clams raises the total cholesterol content to 173 milligrams, or about 87 percent of the daily recommended limit.
Although many people believe fried clams are higher in cholesterol than steamed clams, the difference is minimal. A 3/4 cup serving of breaded and fried clams from a fast food restaurant contains 87 milligrams of cholesterol, only 7 milligrams more than the steamed version. Since cholesterol is an animal product, the wheat flour used to coat the fried clams is cholesterol-free and brings down the overall cholesterol count. If you add 3 tablespoons of melted butter to your steamed clams, however, your entrée of a dozen steamed clams contains twice as much cholesterol as the serving of fried clams. However, fried clams contain more saturated fat -- the type of fat that increases harmful blood cholesterol -- than steamed clams, so they have more of an effect on your blood cholesterol levels than steamed clams.