Cholesterol and Your Health
Cholesterol comes from two sources: The foods that you eat and your body, which produces it. Your liver and intestines produce cholesterol because your body needs it for various essential functions. According to the American Heart Association and Harvard Health Publishing, cholesterol is important because it can help:
- Build cells.
- Make vitamin D.
- Make hormones, like testosterone and estrogen.
- Make fat-dissolving bile acids, which are important for digestion.
As a fat, cholesterol can't move through your body on its own. It's bound to lipoproteins in order to do so, which is why you'll often hear cholesterol referred to as LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). It's the levels of LDL and HDL that determine if there are issues regarding cholesterol and your health.
HDL cholesterol is called the good cholesterol, while LDL cholesterol is called bad cholesterol. Too much LDL cholesterol or low levels of HDL cholesterol can affect your health. Both of these issues can cause cholesterol to build up in your body, affecting your heart and brain.
It's important for you and your health care provider to monitor your cholesterol levels. Cholesterol can accumulate in the inner walls of your arteries, making them less flexible and making the passages within them narrower. This increases your likelihood of blood clots, which can cause heart attacks and strokes.
The Cholesterol in Chicken
The cholesterol in chicken varies depending on the part of the bird you're eating. This means that the same 100-gram (3.5-ounce) serving size has different amounts of cholesterol depending on whether you've chosen the wing, thigh, leg or breast. In every 100 grams:
- Chicken legs have 93 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Chicken thighs have 98 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Chicken wings have 111 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Chicken breasts have 73 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Chicken sausages have 36 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Rabbit meat has 57 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Duck meat and skin have 76 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Beef skirt steak has 99 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Beef sausage has 83 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Pork loin has 80 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Pork sausage has 76 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Ground turkey has 69 milligrams of cholesterol.
- Atlantic salmon has 55 milligrams of cholesterol.
This means there is less cholesterol in chicken breasts compared to most other meat products, with the exception of leaner meats, like turkey and rabbit meat, as well as fish like salmon. The cholesterol in chicken legs is still lower than the cholesterol in steak, but chicken thighs and wings are both fairly high in cholesterol compared to other meat products.
Notably, there is less cholesterol in sausage compared to other products. There's between a third and half the amount of cholesterol in a sausage made from chicken compared to other chicken products. This is less extreme for other meats, but is still the case. For example, there are 16 more milligrams of cholesterol in steak compared to the equivalent amount of beef sausage and an extra 4 milligrams of cholesterol in pork compared to the equivalent amount of pork sausage.
Cholesterol Consumption and Healthy Diets
Despite its important role in the body, dietary cholesterol has typically been limited because of the association between cholesterol levels and disease. The previous edition of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans limited recommended cholesterol intake to a total of 300 milligrams per day. This amount of cholesterol is equivalent to about:
- 5 ounces (142 grams) of shrimp.
- Two small- to medium-sized eggs (about 80 grams).
- 10.5 ounces (about 300 grams) of chicken thighs.
ounces (over half a kilogram) of salmon.
However, the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans no longer limits your daily cholesterol intake. This is because dietary cholesterol is no longer thought to affect most people's blood cholesterol.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the dietary cholesterol you eat isn't what usually raises the cholesterol levels in your blood. Instead, the biggest influence on your blood cholesterol levels comes from the types of fats and carbohydrates you consume in your diet. The American Heart Association recommends limiting foods that are rich in saturated and trans fats, because these are believed to directly influence your blood cholesterol levels.
Limiting Dietary Cholesterol
Even though the Dietary Guidelines for Americans no longer includes a cholesterol consumption limitation, you should be aware that not everyone processes cholesterol in the same way. Some people are considered to be hyper-responders, which means dietary cholesterol impacts them more than average. Other people, like those with familial hypercholesterolemia, also need to keep an eye on their cholesterol consumption because they're at an increased risk for high cholesterol.
Although the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has reported that dietary cholesterol doesn't affect most people's blood cholesterol levels or increase your risk of heart disease, not all research is in agreement. An April 2018 study in the journal Nutrients _and a March 2019 study in the _Journal of the American Medical Association have both reported the opposite.
According to these two studies, the consumption of cholesterol-rich foods, like eggs, can affect your blood cholesterol. The Journal of the American Medical Association study went one step further, reporting that the higher your dietary cholesterol consumption, the higher your risk of cardiovascular disease and death.
- JAMA: "Associations of Dietary Cholesterol or Egg Consumption With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality"
- Nutrients: "Dietary Cholesterol, Serum Lipids, and Heart Disease: Are Eggs Working for or Against You?"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Cholesterol"
- Familial Hypercholesterolemia Foundation: "Diet and Familial Hypercholesterolemia"
- Health.gov: "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- American Heart Association: "The Skinny on Fats"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Why You Should No Longer Worry About Cholesterol in Food"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How It’s Made: Cholesterol Production in Your Body"
- FDA: "Cholesterol"
- American Heart Association: "Control Your Cholesterol"
- Dietitians of Canada: "Food Sources of Cholesterol"
- MyFoodData: "Nutrition Comparison of Sausage Chicken or Turkey Italian Style Lower Sodium, Raw Chicken Drumsticks, Raw Chicken Leg, Raw Chicken Thigh, Raw Chicken Wings, and Raw Chicken Breast"
- MyFoodData: "Nutrition Comparison of Game Meat Rabbit Domesticated Composite of Cuts Raw, Duck Domesticated Meat and Skin Raw, Beef Sausage Pre-Cooked, Sausage Italian Pork Raw, Raw Chicken Breast, Farmed Atlantic Salmon (Raw), Ground Turkey Raw, Skirt Steak, and Pork Loin"
- MyFoodData: "Nutrition Comparison of Farmed Atlantic Salmon (Raw), Raw Chicken Thigh, Cooked Shrimp, and Eggs (Raw)"