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Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a fat-like chemical compound that is naturally produced by the body and is a combination of lipid (fat) and steroid. Cholesterol is a building block for cell membranes and for hormones like estrogen and testosterone. About 80% of the body's cholesterol is produced by the liver, while the rest comes from our diet.

All foods containing animal fat contain cholesterol to varying extents. Major dietary sources of cholesterol include cheese, egg yolks, beef, pork, poultry, and shrimp.

The amount of cholesterol present in plant-based food sources is generally much lower than animal based sources. In addition, plant products such as flax seeds and peanuts contain cholesterol-like compounds called phytosterols, which are suggested to help lower serum cholesterol levels.

After a meal, dietary cholesterol is absorbed from the intestine and stored in the liver. The liver is able to regulate cholesterol levels in the blood stream and can secrete cholesterol if it is needed by the body.

Total fat intake, especially saturated fat and trans fat, plays a larger role in blood cholesterol than intake of cholesterol itself. Saturated fat is present in full fat dairy products, animal fats, several types of oil and chocolate. Trans fats are typically derived from the partial hydrogenation of unsaturated fats, and, in contrast to other types of fat, do not occur in significant amounts in nature. Research supports a recommendation to minimize or eliminate trans fats from the diet due to their adverse health effects. Trans fat is most often encountered in margarine and hydrogenated vegetable fat, and consequently in many fast foods, snack foods, and fried or baked goods.

A change in diet in addition to other lifestyle modifications may help reduce blood cholesterol. Avoiding animal products may decrease the cholesterol levels in the body not only by reducing the quantity of cholesterol consumed but also by reducing the quantity of cholesterol synthesized. Those wishing to reduce their cholesterol through a change in diet should aim to consume less than 7% of their daily calories from saturated fat and less than 200 mg of cholesterol per day.