Having high cholesterol means paying attention to what you eat and choosing foods that help — rather than hurt — your efforts to control your numbers. If you love fish, you might wonder if salmon is high in cholesterol. Luckily for you, it's not off-limits if you have high cholesterol.
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Low in Cholesterol, High in Omega-3s
"Individuals with high cholesterol should not shy away from salmon," says Samantha Gitlin, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian and nutritionist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. That's because salmon actually "plays an integral part in an overall heart-healthy diet," she says.
Not only is salmon low in saturated fat and cholesterol, Gitlin says, but it's rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12. According to the Cleveland Clinic, omega-3s are essential fatty acids that have to be sourced from food because the body can't produce them on its own. And fish options like salmon are some of the best omega-3 food sources.
A 'Good' Cholesterol All-Star
But how do the omega-3s in salmon specifically benefit you if you have high cholesterol? The answer is a bit complex. It's not that the omega-3s have any direct effect on so-called "bad" cholesterol — or low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — like you might think, according to the Mayo Clinic. That LDL is what health care providers mean when they refer to having "high cholesterol."
Rather, the high levels of omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon "are shown to be cardioprotective through their ability to lower triglycerides and blood pressure," Gitlin says. And while they won't make your LDL levels budge, omega-3s increase the levels of your "good" cholesterol, or high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol.
That's a definite nutritional leg up because high levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol can contribute to plaque buildup, clogged arteries and eventually coronary heart disease and heart attacks, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM), and boosting "good" HDL levels achieves the opposite effect. That good cholesterol helps route unwanted cholesterol to the liver for excretion, and thereby reduces heart disease risk.
A Heart-Healthy Choice
Eating an omega-3-rich food like salmon "can lead to a decreased risk of stroke or other cardiovascular events," Gitlin says, which is great news for people with high cholesterol.
This pro-salmon take is seconded whole-heartedly by registered dietitian and senior clinical nutritionist Samantha Heller, RD, MS, of New York University Langone Health in New York City. "High cholesterol patients should certainly not be concerned about eating salmon," Heller says. "Quite the opposite. We generally recommend that such patients do go for fatty or oily fish options like salmon, specifically because they're a good source of protein, while still being a heart-healthy food."
The American Heart Association (AHA) backs this up, highlighting salmon as a good fish option. The AHA recommends eating two servings of fish — especially the kinds rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon — per week. (A serving is considered 3.5 ounces of non-fried fish or roughly 3/4 cup flaked fish.)
In addition to salmon, other omega-3-rich fish choices the AHA notes include:
- Albacore tuna
- Lake trout
Driving Triglycerides Down
Heller similarly emphasizes the trifecta of heart benefits that people with high cholesterol stand to gain from salmon's omega-3 fatty acids: higher HDL levels, better inflammation management and lower triglycerides.
The latter is particularly good heart health news for people with high cholesterol, she says. That's because high levels of triglycerides — another food-sourced fat — further drive up the risk for coronary artery disease, according to the NLM, which is already higher for people who have high cholesterol.
But it's not just about making good choices concerning what goes in your cart. How you prepare or order your food has an effect on your heart health, too.
Baking, broiling, grilling or boiling salmon get the green light from the AHA for people with high cholesterol. Recipes and dishes that involve breading and frying do not, because they can be higher in saturated fat. And when it comes to adding salt, the AHA says to just say no.
- Samantha Gitlin, RD, CDN, CNSC, registered dietitian, nutritionist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York, New York
- Cleveland Clinic: "Omega-3 Fatty Acids"
- Mayo Clinic: "Cholesterol: Top Foods To Improve Your Numbers"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "LDL: The 'Bad' Cholesterol"
- Samantha Heller, RD, MS, senior clinical nutritionist, New York University Medical Center, New York, New York
- American Heart Association: "Cooking to Lower Cholesterol"
- American Heart Association: “Keep Saying Yes to Fish Twice a Week for Heart Health”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Triglycerides"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.