How Much Cholesterol Should You Have Per Day?

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
December 20, 2021

Cholesterol is a tricky topic.

The body needs it to function properly, but having too much of it can cause significant—and even deadly—health problems. 

There’s a lot you’ll want to know about the substance, including the difference between dietary cholesterol and the cholesterol produced by your body, the two different kinds (HDL and LDL), and how much or little of it you need to live a healthy life

Additionally, in this article, we’ll discuss what exactly cholesterol is, how much you need to consume daily (the answer may surprise you!), which foods you should eat and avoid if you want to maintain healthy cholesterol levels, the risk of eating too much cholesterol, and more.

While this information is helpful for anyone, it’s especially important if you are predisposed to having high cholesterol, or are a part of the 11% of Americans who fall into this category already.

What is Cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance the body uses to build cells and produce vitamins and hormones.

It is neither good nor bad—it is necessary for the body to function properly—but too much can lead to problems like heart disease, stroke, and other health issues.

This is because excess levels of cholesterol can build up in the arteries and form plaque (fatty deposits), which can lead the arteries to narrow and become less flexible, which is a condition called atherosclerosis.

This increases one’s risk of blood clots, which can be deadly. 

There are two types of cholesterol that travel through the blood: Low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol, and high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is often referred to as the “good” cholesterol.

While LDL is the main source of cholesterol buildup in the arteries, HDL helps remove cholesterol buildup from the arteries by returning it to the liver, where it can be removed from the body. 

All the cholesterol your body needs is produced by the liver, but cholesterol can also enter the body through foods from animals (like dairy products, meat, and poultry).

This is called dietary cholesterol, and is not necessary for the body to function.

In addition to dietary cholesterol, foods that are high in saturated and trans fats can also stimulate the liver to produce excess cholesterol.

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How Much Cholesterol You Need Daily

In the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the National Academies recommends “dietary cholesterol consumption to be as low as possible without compromising the nutritional adequacy of the diet.”

This is because you don’t need any dietary cholesterol—your liver makes all it could ever need on its own. 

If you are healthy and do not have/are not predisposed to high cholesterol, the FDA recommends keeping your daily dietary cholesterol intake below 300mg per day. 

Foods to Eat for Healthy Cholesterol Levels

There are a variety of foods out there that have no cholesterol by nature—pretty much anything plant-based—and these are all great foods to turn to if you’re trying to lower or maintain your cholesterol.

Foods that are high in fiber are also good for lowering cholesterol, as fiber can help reduce the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream. 

Fruits

Fruits like apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus fruits are high in a substance called pectin, a soluble fiber that can help lower your LDL cholesterol. 

Vegetables

Having a diet rich in colorful vegetables like spinach, broccoli, bell peppers, yams, and avocados is ideal for lowering LDL cholesterol, as they’re high in fiber and antioxidants and low in calories.

Vegetables like okra, eggplants, carrots, and potatoes are also known to be especially rich in pectin

Healthy proteins

There are plenty of ways to get your proteins without consuming animal products, which, as we know, can be high in dietary cholesterol.

Foods high in healthy proteins include beans and peas, soy products, nuts and seeds, and fatty fish (like salmon and tuna), and are recommended as replacements for meat and other animal products.

Grains

Grain products like oats and oat bran, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, and other whole grains are great options for lowering your cholesterol because they are high in soluble fiber.

A bowl of oatmeal, for example, can deliver one to two grams of soluble fiber. 

Foods to Avoid for Healthy Cholesterol Levels

If you have high cholesterol, you’re going to want to avoid foods that are high in dietary cholesterol, as well as foods that are high in saturated and trans fat, which can stimulate the liver to produce more cholesterol.

The items below are some of the most well-known for being bad for those with high cholesterol.

Meats

Beef, lamb, pork, poultry, processed meats (like bacon, hot dogs, jerky), animal fats, and other meat products all include dietary cholesterol, and can also be high in saturated fats, which will be described further below.

If you do eat meat, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends choosing lean cuts, trimming or draining most of the fat on the meat either before or after cooking, and removing the skin if you are eating poultry.

Saturated Fats

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting your intake of saturated fats—which can be found in meats, processed foods, dairy products, fried foods, tropical oils, chocolate, and more—as studies have shown that they increase your levels of LDL cholesterol.

The National Library of Medicine recommends ​​that less than 7% of your daily calories should come from saturated fat, while the AHA recommends 5-6%.

Dairy

Animal-based dairy products like milk, cheese, butter, and spreads can all be high in dietary cholesterol and saturated fats, which can increase your LDL cholesterol levels.

Try to avoid full-fat dairy products where possible, choosing low-fat options instead. 

Egg yolks

Eggs are naturally high in cholesterol (about 186mg per large egg), but all of the cholesterol within an egg is found in its yolk.

Egg whites, therefore, are heart-healthy food options.

Despite being high in cholesterol, eggs are low in saturated fat, making them a better option than some other foods which are packed with both. 

Seafood

The amount of cholesterol in seafood varies, with some (like whitefish, fatty fish, and mollusks) being low in dietary cholesterol, and others (like crustaceans) having far more.

If you have high cholesterol, it might be worth avoiding crustaceans like lobster, crab, and shrimp.

According to the USDA, one ounce of cooked shrimp has approximately 60mg of cholesterol, while one ounce of ahi tuna (a fatty fish) contains approximately 11mg of cholesterol.

That said, seafood is packed with other important nutrients, like omega-3 fatty acid, which can be beneficial for heart health, so seafood certainly isn’t the worst on the list.

Risks of Eating Too Much Cholesterol

If you eat too much dietary cholesterol and you are predisposed to have high cholesterol, you risk suffering from atherosclerosis, a condition where excess levels of cholesterol build up in the arteries and form plaque, which increase one’s susceptibility to blood clots.

Blood clots can cause a heart attack or stroke depending on if the blood clot is in the artery leading to the heart or the brain, respectively.

When to See a Doctor

Because high cholesterol doesn’t come with signs or symptoms, getting your cholesterol tested regularly is important in order to keep it in check.

The CDC recommends that healthy adults get their cholesterol tested every 4-6 years, unless high cholesterol runs in their family or they suffer from diabetes or heart disease, in which case they should get checked more often.

Children should get tested at least once between ages 9 and 11, and then again between the ages of 17 and 21.

If you have been diagnosed with high cholesterol in the past, it’s important to keep an ongoing dialogue with your doctor, who may suggest you engage in certain lifestyle changes (diet being one of them!) or take a cholesterol medication. 

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How K Health Can Help

If you have questions about keeping your cholesterol in check, what to do if high cholesterol runs in your family, what foods are heart healthy, or anything else, K Health and their team of health professionals can be a great option for you. 

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it dangerous to eat foods with cholesterol if you have high cholesterol?
If you have high cholesterol and eat a diet full of dietary cholesterol, you may be at risk for atherosclerosis, which can lead to heart disease, stroke, and more, all of which can be deadly. That said, you can still enjoy foods with cholesterol once and a while—it's just important to do so in moderation, and keep up with other parts of your treatment plan (lifestyle changes and/or medication).
What is the worst food for high cholesterol?
While there’s no one food that is the worst for high cholesterol, some foods notorious for increasing LDL cholesterol levels include: full-fat dairy, fried foods, sweets, red meat, and processed meat.
What is a normal level of cholesterol to have?
The National Library of Medicine suggests that a healthy level of total cholesterol for adults ages 20 and older is between 125 to 200mg/dL. For children and adolescents 19 and under, total cholesterol should be less than 170mg/dL.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.