Common foods with surprisingly high cholesterol levels

By Charlie Williams
Published October 1, 2020

Key Takeaways

For most people, the word “cholesterol” automatically has negative connotations. But cholesterol isn’t unhealthy in its own right. In fact, our bodies produce it every day—it’s essential for health and has many roles that contribute to the normal cellular function.

Most of the cholesterol in our bodies is produced by the liver; only a small percentage comes from food. But when we eat too much dietary cholesterol, higher concentrations of cholesterol in our blood can cause plaque buildup in our arteries, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

This side effect of high cholesterol consumption gets a lot more attention than the fact that cholesterol is essential for human life—a possible explanation for cholesterol’s bad reputation. Another explanation is that more than 100 million American adults aged 20 or over have total cholesterol above healthy levels (at or above 200 mg/dL). Of these, more than 35 million have levels of 240 mg/dL or higher, which puts them at high risk for cardiovascular disease.

What can these millions of Americans do to reduce their cholesterol intake and lower their risk of cardiovascular disease? Of course, they should avoid known culprits like fried foods, processed meats, and many desserts. But they should also stay vigilant for cholesterol that lurks in unexpected places.


For millions of people, coffee is a necessary caffeine boost in the morning. And for almost as many, it’s a sneaky cholesterol booster, too.

Despite the fact that research overwhelmingly suggests coffee is good for you, it contains two diterpenes, called cafestol and kahweol, which are not. Cafestol and kahweol are naturally present in the oil contained inside coffee beans and have been shown to raise serum levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.

Fortunately, diterpenes can be easily avoided. All you have to do is brew your coffee through a paper filter. In one study that measured the amount of cafestol in a cup of coffee brewed this way, investigators found that just 0.15% of the cafestol present in the unbrewed coffee grinds passed through to the brewed cup. The rest remained trapped in the spent coffee grinds (87.45%) and in the paper filter (12.41%). To reduce cholesterol from coffee, stick with paper filters or instant brewing and steer clear of Greek and Turkish coffees.

Organ meats

Most animal products, especially meats, are rich in cholesterol. A 9-oz steak, for example, has 196 mg of cholesterol, or 65% of your daily recommended value (DRV). A single fried egg has nearly as much at 187 mg, or 62% DRV.

Organ meats like liver, kidneys, brains, and tongues tend to have levels of cholesterol that match or exceed typical muscle meat cuts like flank steak, chicken breast, or pork ribs. A 100-g serving of beef tongue, for example, has 131 mg of cholesterol. Kidneys contain 710 mg of cholesterol and a 100-g serving of chicken liver has 558 mg of cholesterol. A 100-g serving of beef brain (yes, people eat beef brain) has a massive 3,100 mg of cholesterol.

Despite their high cholesterol, most organ meats are packed with healthy nutrients. That 100-g serving of chicken liver, for example, has 24 g of protein and numerous other healthy nutrients, including iron, potassium, zinc, folate, and vitamins A, B12, B6, and C. For this reason, humans prized organ meats for much of our early history, when essentially every part of an animal was eaten.


Yogurt can be an incredible health food or a sugary junk food depending on the type you’re eating. The milk fat in plain Greek yogurt, for instance, is packed with protein, calcium, and as many as 400 types of fatty acids, which make it the most complex of all natural fats. But a single serving of Yoplait’s strawberry flavored Go-Gurt has 21g of sugar—more than half as much sugar found in a can of Coke.

When you head to the dairy aisle in your local grocery store, read the nutrition labels carefully. Besides sugar, many types of yogurts have noteworthy levels of cholesterol. Nonfat Greek yogurt has about 9 mg of cholesterol per serving, while a single serving of Yoplait Original French Vanilla Yogurt has 10 mg, and Chobani Flip Cookie Dough Yogurt has 15 mg.

Ironically, some yogurts have been shown to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol, potentially because of their probiotic content. In one study, researchers found that patients with high cholesterol who consumed yogurts containing microencapsulated probiotics attained a 4.8% reduction in total cholesterol and an 8.9% reduction in LDL cholesterol vs. those who had yogurt without probiotics.


Shrimp is low in total fat and very low in saturated fat, but its dietary cholesterol content is one of the highest of commonly eaten foods. A 100-g serving of cooked shrimp contains about 189 mg of cholesterol. While that’s less than steak, chicken liver, or beef brain, people looking to avoid extra cholesterol often steer clear of shrimp.

In one study, researchers found that a diet containing 300 g of shrimp daily (590 mg dietary cholesterol) increased participants’ LDL cholesterol by 7.1% and high-density-lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol by 12.1% compared with a baseline diet matched for fat content but containing only 107 g of cholesterol per day. This may seem like a steep increase, but it wasn’t worrisome to the researchers, who said that “the shrimp diet did not worsen the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol or the ratio of LDL to HDL cholesterol,” and that “moderate shrimp consumption in normolipidemic subjects will not adversely affect the overall lipoprotein profile and can be included in ‘heart healthy’ nutritional guidelines.”

So, shrimp may be the exception that proves the rule—though it’s high in cholesterol, it doesn’t worsen lipoprotein levels. And, in moderation, it may even be a good substitute for high-fat, protein-rich foods.

Bottom line

It’s important to remember that cholesterol isn’t all bad—in fact, it’s vital to human health. But keeping an eye on dietary cholesterol intake is an important health-conscious choice.

It’s also important to stick to foods deemed healthy by medical consensus. Fried foods are high in cholesterol and also hurt our health in other ways. Coffee, shrimp, organ meats, and yogurt, on the other hand, are generally healthy. Even though their cholesterol levels are high, they’re rich in other nutrients and can usually be consumed as part of a heart-healthy diet—in moderation, of course.

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