My cholesterol is slightly elevated. How many grams of cholesterol should I be eating each day if I'm trying to lower it?

My cholesterol is slightly elevated. How many grams of cholesterol should I be eating each day if I'm trying to lower it?

Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D.

Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D.

Elizabeth Ricanati, M.D., is the founding medical director of Lifestyle 180, an innovative Cleveland Clinic program aimed at treating and... Read more

Cholesterol is a soft, fat-like, waxy substance found only in animal products (think steak, butter, ice cream). People are sometimes surprised to learn that cholesterol plays a vital role in the formation of cell walls, production of hormones and manufacturing of bile acids, which are necessary for digestion. Fortunately, your liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs.

However, when you get too much cholesterol from your diet, this leads to a buildup of fatty materials (plaque) on the walls of your arteries. Plaque buildup can rupture and cause a heart attack. This is why you often hear about the relationship between elevated cholesterol levels and heart disease. Before you set out to lower your cholesterol, it helps to know what all the numbers mean. Your total cholesterol number consists of two components: HDL (high-density lipoproteins or "good" cholesterol) and LDL (low-density lipoproteins or "bad" cholesterol). Your total cholesterol should be less than 200 and your LDL levels less than 100. Women should aim for HDL levels greater than 55. (Men should aim for greater than 45.)

Consider these steps to help lower your cholesterol:

  • Eliminate trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils from your diet.
  • Decrease the amount of saturated fat to 7 percent or less of your total daily calories. For a typical 2,000-calorie daily diet, this would mean consuming 55 to 65 grams or less of fat and 16 grams or less of saturated fat.
  • Limit cholesterol found in food to 200 mg or less per day. Avoid whole milk, cheese and fatty meats. Buy leaner cuts of meat, trim all visible fat and take the skin off chicken or turkey.
  • Make sure you reach your daily dietary fiber goal (25 grams for women).
  • Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids (found in salmon, flaxseed, walnuts and spinach).
  • Make your plate look like a rainbow: Eat more colorful fruits and vegetables (aim for at least five servings per day).
  • Maintain a healthy body weight and engage in at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day (you can break this up too; think about parking your car further away, taking the steps, etc.). Regular exercise is a powerful tool to help lower your cholesterol.

As always, before making any substantial change to your diet or exercise regime, talk to your physician first.