What is cholesterol?

Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance that is produced in the livers of animals (including humans).

The word "cholesterol" is often used to describe two unique concepts: 1) blood cholesterol, and 2) dietary cholesterol.

Blood Cholesterol

The bloodstream contains two main types of cholesterol: Low-Density Lipoprotein (LDL), known as "bad" cholesterol, and High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL), known as "good" cholesterol.

LDL ("bad") cholesterol can accumulate on the walls of blood vessels, which over time can cause a narrowing and hardening of the blood vessels — a condition called atherosclerosis. This process can cause serious medical complications like strokes, chest pain, heart attacks, and severe leg pain. Consequently, atherosclerosis is a leading cause of death.

HDL ("good") cholesterol can carry LDL cholesterol to the liver, where LDL is broken down in preparation for removal from the body. As a result, HDL helps limit the negative effects of LDL.

Dietary Cholesterol

Dietary cholesterol is found in animal-based food products.

Track Cholesterol with MyFoodDiary

How much dietary cholesterol do I need?

None. Your body produces all of the cholesterol it needs.

How much dietary cholesterol is too much?

For decades, most health organizations recommended consuming no more than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day. However, due to a lack of scientific data supporting a specific limit on cholesterol, many organizations (including the American Heart Association) no longer recommend an upper limit. Many experts still encourage people to moderate their cholesterol consumption, but more research is needed to determine precisely how much cholesterol is too much.1

How much dietary cholesterol are you eating? Keep a food diary and find out. Track cholesterol!

Which foods are high in dietary cholesterol?

Food Qty Chol. (mg)
Beef Liver 4 oz 311
Extra Large Egg 1 egg 208
KFC Fried Chicken Breast 1 breast 120
Lobster 4 oz 81
Ground Beef (80/20) 4 oz 80
Atlantic Salmon 4 oz 72

How can I improve my blood cholesterol levels?

Several factors have an impact on your blood cholesterol levels, including your intake of fats and fiber, your exercise level, and the use of cholesterol-lowering medication.

Fat Type Effect
Artificial Trans Fats Very negative. Increase LDL & decrease HDL
Saturated Fats Debated. See Saturated Fats.
Polyunsaturated Fats Positive. Increase HDL & decrease LDL
Monounsaturated Fats Positive. Increase HDL & decrease LDL
Soluble Fiber

Soluble fiber binds to dietary cholesterol in our intestines and prevents the body from absorbing it. Foods rich in soluble fiber include:

  • Beans (black, lima, kidney)
  • Vegetables (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, potatoes)
  • Fruits (avocados, apples, pears, prunes)
  • Nuts (walnuts, almonds)
  • Whole grains (wheat bread, oat bran, oatmeal)

Studies have shown that exercise may increase HDL ("good") cholesterol levels in the body — lowering your risk for heart disease.2 These benefits are more pronounced if you can routinely engage in high-intensity activities for long durations. Endurance activities, such as running, cycling, rowing, and swimming, are great ways to help increase HDL cholesterol levels.


Statins are a class of medications taken by millions of people to lower their LDL levels and increase their HDL levels.

Additional Resources

  1. New federal guidelines may lift dietary cholesterol limits. American Heart Association.
  2. Kokkinos PF, Fernhall B (Nov 1999). Physical activity and high density lipoprotein cholesterol levels: what is the relationship?. Sports Medicine, 28(5):307-314.

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