If you have high cholesterol, you've had to come to terms with the fact that some dietary changes may be necessary. If ice cream is a favorite food, be it an everyday or occasional treat, you may be wondering how — or if — that scoop of rocky road fits in.
How Ice Cream Affects Cholesterol
Cholesterol is a waxy substance made by your liver, per the American Heart Association (AHA), but it can also come from the foods you eat. Cholesterol is found in meat and full-fat dairy products, and, as you know, ice cream typically falls into the latter category.
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Ice cream is also rich in saturated fat, which can prompt your liver to make more cholesterol than it normally would, driving up cholesterol levels, says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, a New Jersey-based nutrition and diabetes expert and author of Belly Fat Diet for Dummies. High cholesterol levels, particularly low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the "bad" type of cholesterol, increase your risk for heart disease and stroke.
Plus, don't forget the sugar found in your favorite scoop. Excess sugar can increase triglyceride levels, Palinski-Wade says. (Triglycerides are a type of fat found in your blood, according to the Mayo Clinic.) The concern is high triglycerides often go hand-in-hand with high blood glucose, she says. That means your triglyceride level may indicate you have a higher risk of insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes.
Bottom line: The combination of saturated fat and added sugar does not make ice cream a particularly heart-healthy food, particularly for someone with high cholesterol.
Make Nutritious Ice Cream Choices
If you enjoy ice cream once in a while, don't worry too much. If you enjoy ice cream daily, you may want to consider some tweaks to your routine. "Your day-to-day diet will have more of an impact on your cholesterol numbers," Palinski-Wade says. Once or twice a week should be OK for most people, she says.
Ask yourself how often you're likely to have ice cream. "If you're having it a couple of times during summer, choose the flavor you love the most, order a small, baseball-sized quantity and fully enjoy it," Palinski-Wade says.
But if ice cream is a regular snack option and you have high cholesterol, look for varieties that are reduced, low- or non-fat, and read the label carefully to avoid flavors that are very high in sugar, Palinski-Wade says.
You may also want to consider non-dairy, plant-based options, like those made from coconut or cashew milk, or avocado- or fruit-based sorbets. Again, make sure your picks don't contain too much sugar.
Protein-enriched ice cream may have less fat than traditional ice creams, but keep in mind they're typically made with sugar alcohols, which some people say give them digestive issues.
Because there are so many varieties available catering to different dietary tastes and preferences, you're better off analyzing the labels and comparing the saturated fat and sugar in each, then making the best choice for your diet. And remember, claims on the front of the container may make what's inside sound more nutrient-dense than it really is.
Palinski-Wade recommends trying a bowl of homemade "nice" cream, made by whirling a frozen banana in a food processor until smooth. Top with nutrient-rich fruit or chopped nuts.
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