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Choosing low-fat, low-cholesterol foods

June 10, 2008 - 7:30am
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Choosing low-fat, low-cholesterol foods

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Meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts

To lower your blood cholesterol level, choose only the leanest meats, poultry, fish and shellfish. Choose chicken and turkey without skin or remove skin before eating. Some fish, like cod, have less saturated fat than either chicken or meat. Since even the leanest meat, chicken, fish, and shellfish have saturated fat and cholesterol, limit the total amount you eat to six ounces or less per day.

  • Poultry
    In general, chicken and turkey are low in saturated fat, especially when the skin is removed. When shopping for poultry remember that you can buy chicken and turkey pieces with the skin already removed. Or buy pieces with the skin on and remove it yourself before eating-it's easy to do. Remember, the white meat itself always contains less saturated fat than the dark meat. Limit goose and duck. They are high in saturated fat, even with the skin removed. Try fresh ground turkey or chicken that is made from white meat like the breast. Remember that some chicken and turkey hot dogs are lower in saturated fat and total fat than pork and beef hot dogs. There are also "lean" beef hot dogs and vegetarian (made with tofu) franks that are low in fat and saturated fat.
  • Fish and shellfish
    When shopping for fish and shellfish remember that most fish is lower in saturated fat and cholesterol than meat or poultry. Shellfish varies in cholesterol content. Shellfish have little saturated fat and total fat. Even shrimp can be enjoyed occasionally provided you eat less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day. For example, 3 ounces of steamed shrimp has 167 milligrams of cholesterol.
  • Meat substitute
    Dry peas and beans and tofu (bean curd) are great meat substitutes that are low in saturated fat and cholesterol. Dry peas and beans also have a lot of fiber, which can help to lower blood cholesterol. Try adding a ½ cup beans to pasta, soups, casseroles, and vegetable dishes. Tofu takes on the flavor of marinades well. Try marinating tofu in a non-fat dressing or a tangy sauce and grilling or baking for a heart healthy dish.
  • Eggs
    Egg yolks are high in dietary cholesterol-each contains about 213 milligrams. So, egg yolks are limited to no more than four yolks per week. This includes the egg yolks in baked goods and processed foods. Check the label to see how much cholesterol the food contains or ask the bakery if the recipe uses whole eggs. Limit these types of foods for occasional treats. Egg whites have no cholesterol, and you can substitute them for whole eggs in recipes-two egg whites are equal to one whole egg. You can also use cholesterol-free egg substitute in place of whole eggs-in many baked goods, you can't tell the difference. Try a cholesterol-free egg substitute instead of whole eggs. Count the number of eggs you eat a week and see if you meet the recommendations.

Milk, yogurt, and cheese group

Like high fat meats, regular dairy foods that have fat-such as whole and 2% milk, cheese, and ice cream-are also high in saturated fat and cholesterol. However, dairy products are an important source of nutrients. You should eat two to three servings per day of low-fat or non-fat dairy products. Here is a guide to buying low-fat and non-fat dairy foods:

  • Milk
    Buy skim and 1% milk rather than whole or 2% milk. Skim and 1% milk have just as much or more calcium and other nutrients as whole milk-with much less saturated fat and cholesterol. If you now drink whole milk, you will probably find it easier to change to skim milk in steps so your taste buds can adjust. Drink 2% milk for a few weeks, then 1% milk and finally skim. You'll get used to the new taste gradually. And, with each step, you'll cut down on the saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Cheese
    When looking for hard cheeses, go for the versions that are "fat free," "reduced fat," "low-fat," or "part skim." Choose varieties that have 3 grams of fat or less per ounce. When looking for soft cheeses, choose low-fat (1%) or non-fat cottage cheese, farmer cheese, or part-skim or light ricotta. Some of these cheeses have 3 grams of fat or less per ounce. If you are watching your sodium intake, choose lower sodium cheeses. Read the label to compare the sodium content.
  • Frozen dairy desserts
    Buy frozen desserts that are lower in saturated fat, like ice milk, low-fat frozen yogurt, low-fat frozen dairy desserts, fruit ices, sorbets, and popsicles.
  • Other dairy foods
    Buy low or non-fat yogurt; like many other dairy foods, it is an excellent source of protein and calcium. Eat low-fat or non-fat yogurt alone or as a topping or in recipes. Try topping with fruit. Try low-fat or non-fat sour cream or cream cheese blends. Many taste as rich as the real thing, but have less fat and calories.

Fats and oils

You can help to lower your blood cholesterol when you replace saturated fats with unsaturated fat. Just be sure to limit the total amount of fats or oils to keep calories in check. Remember to:

  • Choose liquid vegetable oils that are high in unsaturated fats-like canola, corn, olive, peanut, safflower, sesame, soybean, and sunflower oils.
  • Buy margarine made with unsaturated liquid vegetable oils as the first ingredient.
  • Choose soft tub or liquid margarine or vegetable oil spreads.
  • Limit butter, lard, fatback, and solid shortenings. They are high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Buy light or non-fat mayonnaise and salad dressing instead of the regular kind that are high in fat. For example, two tablespoons of regular Italian dressing can add as many as 14 grams of fat.

Instead of using butter to spread on your toast, switch to a soft tub margarine. To cut back on fat and calories, try to use a reduced fat or non-fat salad dressing or mayonnaise; or lemon juice, vinegar, or herbs-all of which are naturally low in fat.

A word about margarine

You may have heard that margarine has a type of unsaturated fat called "trans" fat. "Trans" fats appear to raise blood cholesterol more than other unsaturated fats, but not as much as saturated fats. "Trans" fats are formed when vegetable oil is hardened to become margarine or shortening , through a process called hydrogenation. The harder the margarine or shortening, the more likely it is to contain more "trans" fat. Read the ingredient label to choose margarine containing liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient rather than hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil. Use the food label to choose margarine with the least amount of saturated fat.

Fruits and vegetables

You should be eating at least three to five servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Fruits and vegetables are very low in saturated fat and total fat, and have no cholesterol. A diet high in fruit and vegetables may also help to improve cholesterol levels for those with heart disease. So, fruits and vegetables are great substitutes for foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Remember to:

  • Buy fruits and vegetables to eat as snacks, desserts, salads, side dishes, and main dishes.
  • Add a variety of vegetables to meat stews or casseroles or make a vegetarian (meatless) main dish.
  • Wash and cut up raw vegetables (carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, etc.) and store in the refrigerator for quick and easy use in cooking or snacking.
  • Serve fresh fruit for dessert or freeze (banana, berries, melon, grapes) for a delicious frozen treat.
  • Display fresh fruit in a bowl in the kitchen to make fruit easier to grab as a snack.
  • To keep vegetables low in fat and saturated fat, season with herbs, spices, lemon juice, vinegar, fat free or lowfat mayonnaise or salad dressing.

Make an entree with more vegetables and less meat or make a vegetarian (meatless) meal at least once a week. If you have a small amount of leftover meat, make a stew that has lots of vegetables. Keep more fruit out in a bowl or in the refrigerator so it will be handy for a snack or dessert.

Breads, cereals, rice, pasta, and other grains

Breads, cereals, rice, pasta, and other grains, and dry beans and peas are generally high in starch and fiber and low in saturated fat and calories. They also have no dietary cholesterol, except for some bakery breads and sweet bread products made with high fat, high cholesterol milk, butter and eggs. Like fruits and vegetables, breads and other foods in this group are usually also good choices. You should be eating six to 11 servings of foods from this group each day. Remember to:

  • Choose whole grain breads and rolls often. They have more fiber than white breads.
  • Buy dry cereals, most are low in fat. Limit granola, muesli, and oat bran types that are made with coconut or coconut oil and nuts, which increases the saturated fat content.
  • Add fat-free skim milk or 1% milk instead of whole or low-fat (2% milk) to save saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Buy pasta and rice to use as entrees.
  • Hold the sauces high in fat (butter, cheese, cream, white).
  • Limit sweet baked goods that are made with lots of saturated fat, mostly from butter, eggs, and whole milk such as croissants, pastries, muffins, biscuits, butter rolls, and doughnuts. These are also high in cholesterol.

For breakfast, instead of doughnuts and muffins, try a hot or cold cereal with skim milk or toast and jelly. Top your spaghetti with lightly stir-fried vegetables instead of meat or a creamy sauce.

Sweets and Snacks

Some sweets and snacks-like baked goods (cakes and cookies) cheese crackers, and some chips-often are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Here are some sweets and snacks that are low in fat, which you should eat only now-and-then:

  • Angel food cake topped with fruit puree or fresh fruit slices
  • Fat-free or low-fat brownies, cakes, cheesecake, cupcakes, and pastries
  • Fat-free or low-fat cookies like animal crackers, devil's food cookies, fig and other fruit bars, ginger snaps, and vanilla or lemon wafers
  • Frozen low-fat or non-fat yogurt, fruit ices, ice milk, sherbet, and sorbet
  • Gelatin desserts-watch the whip cream!
  • Graham crackers
  • Puddings made with 1% or skim milk

These treats may be may be low in fat, but most are not low in calories. So choose them only every now-and-then, especially if you are trying to control your weight to improve your blood cholesterol levels.

The next time you crave a cookie, try a new fat-free type (But not too many-remember the calories!) Instead of buying ice cream, try ice milk or non-fat frozen yogurt. Instead of snacking on regular chips, try pretzels or butter-free air popped popcorn. Not all snack foods are high in saturated fat and cholesterol. Buy some of these low fat ones and keep them on hand for snack attacks:

  • Bagels
  • Bread sticks
  • Ready-to-eat cereals without added sugar
  • Frozen grapes or banana slices; or other fresh fruit
  • Fruit leather or other dried fruit
  • Crackers that are low in fat like melba toast, rice cakes, rye crisp, and soda crackers
  • No-oil baked tortilla chips
  • Popcorn (air popped or "light")
  • Pretzels
  • Raw vegetables with non-fat or low-fat dip

If you are watching your sodium intake, be sure to look for low-sodium or unsalted varieties.


The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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