The 8 Worst Foods for High Cholesterol

It's a bad day to be a french fry.

If you have high cholesterol, your doctor has probably advised a diet overhaul. Well-meaning friends, family, and health professionals may have offered you conflicting advice about what foods to avoid. So we asked registered dietitians to explain what it means to have high cholesterol, how diet plays a role, and the actual worst foods to eat if you have it.

Cholesterol Isn't All Bad

Cholesterol is often described as a "waxy" substance found naturally in our own cells and in animal-based foods. Cholesterol gets a bad rap when there's too much of it in your blood (aka the medical condition, hypercholesterolemia). But in reality, having normal levels of cholesterol is important: The body needs cholesterol to carry out various functions, including making hormones, forming cell walls, and producing bile acid to help your body absorb nutrients from food. It's so important, in fact, that your liver makes 80 percent of the cholesterol currently in your body, says Alanna Cabrero, RDN, registered dietitian and founder of Alanna Cabrero Nutrition.

But when cholesterol levels in the blood go above the normal, healthy range, it often leads to increased risk of heart disease. A specific type of cholesterol—low-density lipoprotein (or LDL)—poses concern.

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High Cholesterol, Explained

There are two types of lipoproteins that carry and circulate cholesterol around the body, says Jasmine Westbrooks, RD, a registered dietitian in North Carolina and co-founder of Eat Well Exchange. Cholesterol carried by low-density lipoproteins, or LDL, is the harmful kind when its levels in the blood are high. This is because LDL brings cholesterol to your blood vessels and lines them with fatty deposits—one of multiple risk factors of heart disease and stroke.

The target is to have LDL levels at less than 100 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dL), Westbrooks says. People on cholesterol-lowering medications may be recommended a target of less than 70 mg/dL.

Besides a low LDL level, you also need to ensure your high-density lipoprotein levels, or HDL (known as "good cholesterol"), is also within their recommended range. "HDL is like the garbage truck," Westbrooks says. "It goes to pick up additional, circulating cholesterol and brings it to your liver, and your liver gets rid of it." Unlike LDL, HDL in most people actually needs to be increased in order to meet the target of above 40 mg/dL for men and above 50 mg/dL for women, with over 60 mg/dL being ideal.

How Diet Impacts Cholesterol Levels

Whether or not you're genetically at higher risk of developing hypercholesterolemia, everyone should maintain a diet to balance the LDL and HDL levels in your blood.

LDL rises when you eat trans fats and excessive amounts of saturated fats, says Westbrooks. Saturated fats are found in animal-based foods, and trans fats are mostly in processed foods. The American Heart Association recommends that only 5 to 6 percent of your total dietary caloric intake consists of saturated fats. This is equivalent to 13 grams of saturated fat per day if your total caloric intake is 2,000 calories per day. Using this example of 2,000 calories, a person should aim for 2 grams or less of trans fat per day.

You might assume limiting dietary cholesterol is the best approach. But experts say that high saturated fat intake has more impact on your LDL levels. Even if dietary cholesterol does have some impact, there's no additional dietary guideline you need to follow. "The moment you start reducing animal fats [in your diet], you're naturally going to start decreasing the amount of dietary cholesterol you eat, since cholesterol is only in animal foods," says Cabrero.

The Worst Foods for High Cholesterol

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Fried Foods

Commercial oils used for deep-frying foods are often hydrogenated. The process of hydrogenation of unsaturated oils to solidify them creates trans fats. Fried foods are also dripping in saturated fats. A medium serving size of french fries has 2.7 grams of saturated fat.

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Fatty Cuts of Meat

The fat and skin of meat and poultry are packed with saturated fat, says Westbrooks. Remove these or choose leaner cuts of meat more often. A 3-ounce serving of sirloin steak, for instance, has 4.8 grams of saturated fat.

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Fast Food and Takeout

You can't know whether a restaurant uses hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils to cook their food. Restaurants may even reuse oils, which converts the fats in the oil into trans fats, Cabrero adds. It's also harder to choose a leaner cut of meat. A cheeseburger contains around 5 grams of saturated fat and may provide 0.7 grams of trans fat.

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Processed Meats

Processed meats like lunch meat, sausages, bacon, and salami are all high in saturated fat. Three slices of bacon provides 3.3 grams of saturated fat. So keep your consumption to a minimum.

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Packaged Foods

Processed, frozen foods like pizza and nuggets, and packaged foods like microwave popcorn and crackers, may contain saturated fat, hydrogenated oils, or trans fat. Westbrooks advises reading the nutritional label to check for mention of these.

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Desserts and Baked Goods

Sad news—it's not just the sugar content you need to watch out for in ice cream, cookies, muffins, and pastries. They all contain saturated fat, says Westbrooks. A medium-sized chocolate chip cookie has 2.3 grams of saturated fat, and a mini croissant has 3.3 grams of saturated fat.

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Large Amounts of Butter

Butter is high in saturated fat, providing 7 grams of saturated fat in one tablespoon. Yikes! While a bit of butter now and then can add unparalleled deliciousness to toast, veggies, grains, and more, consuming more than a tablespoon (at most) every day is an unhealthy habit. (For a dose of healthy fat, may we recommend mashing avocado on your toast or drizzling olive oil on pasta instead?)

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Cabrero often asks about her clients' cheese consumption when they're looking to decrease their saturated fat intake. "An ounce of cheese can give you around 7 grams of saturated fat, depending on the type of cheese," says Cabrero, "And most people don't just sit down with an ounce [of cheese]." While it's nearly impossible to convince a cheese-lover to give it up entirely, consider this a wake-up call to start becoming more mindful of how much you eat.

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