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If your cholesterol levels are higher than they should be, one of the first things you’ll hear is that it’s worth taking a good hard look at your diet. That means double-checking you’re eating more of the foods that help keep your heart healthy, and less of the foods that (to put it bluntly) don’t. So: what foods can cause high cholesterol, and what can you replace them with? Here’s our guide.

What are the foods that cause high cholesterol?

If you’re trying to lower your cholesterol, it’s best to cut down on foods that contain a lot of saturated fat. That alone might not lower your levels, but if you replace that saturated fat with unsaturated fat in your diet (keeping an eye on your total fat intake), you’re likely to see a difference*.

A quick note on the cholesterol in food

At this point, you might be thinking, “What about eggs, shellfish, or liver? Aren’t they the foods that cause high cholesterol? Well, no. These days, the scientific consensus on what gives you high cholesterol is that the cholesterol in the foods we eat (dietary cholesterol) has much less of a direct impact on the cholesterol in our blood than saturated fat – so the NHS and others recommend making smart fat swaps a priority, as part of a balanced diet.

That’s why the list below isn’t a list of high cholesterol foods. Find out more about dietary cholesterol here.

What foods can cause high cholesterol? 6 things to look out for

OK! So if it’s all about reducing our intake of saturated fat, what are some of the foods should we eat less of, and what swaps can we make? Here’s a list to help:

  1. Meat, especially fatty red meat and meat products: Fatty red meat and meat products – such as sausages, pies, and pastries – tend to contain lots of saturated fat. For example, some sausages have a whopping 5g of saturated fat in each one – that means you’d get about a half of the recommended daily intake of saturated fat by eating just two. Try swapping these fatty meats with oily fish, white fish, and vegetarian protein (pulses, beans, tofu) when you can. When only meat will do, go for leaner cuts, and remove the visible fat from meat (such as bacon rind) when you can, as this is saturated.
  2. Full fat cheese: As tasty as they are, full fat cheeses are also high in saturated fat: a 30g portion of brie contains 5g of saturated fat! It’s a good idea to go for reduced fat cheeses where possible. If you love to liven up dishes with a sprinkle of cheese on top, try adding a tablespoon of dry-fried seeds instead.
  3. Full fat milk: Whole milk has 23% of your recommended daily allowance of saturated fat in just 200mls (a small glass). The closest alternatives are semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, and soya or nut-based milks. If you’re trying to lower your cholesterol, a skimmed milk with added plant sterols can help**.
  4. Butter: With 7g in just one tablespoon, butter is very high in saturated fat. If you tend to cook with it, try using a plant-based oil instead – olive, sunflower, rapeseed, vegetable oils are all much lower in saturates and they’re sources of unsaturated fat, too. For sandwiches, toast, mash, and all the other times butter calls to you, vegetable oil-based spreads, such as Flora ProActiv Buttery, are a good alternative.
  5. Coconut oil, milk and cream: Coconut-based products are surprisingly high in saturated fat, so be careful if you use them in your cooking. It’s simple enough to cook with olive oil instead of coconut oil. In curries, try using a tablespoon of low fat natural yoghurt to replace coconut milk and cream.
  6. Pastries, cakes, and biscuits: We all love a tasty cake, but unfortunately these are also high up on the list of cholesterol offenders. Look to reduce your intake of these treats, and if cooking them yourself, replace ingredients like butter with vegetable based spreads or oils instead.

This is just a bit of background on the foods that are associated with higher cholesterol levels. For a full review of all the factors, lifestyle included, check out our guide on what causes high cholesterol levels here. And for more helpful hints and tips, including food swap ideas, try downloading our Cholesterol Lowering Starter Kit. It’s the perfect beginner’s guide to all things heart health.

* Replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet has been shown to lower blood cholesterol. High cholesterol is a risk factor in the development of coronary heart disease.