The question: A friend recently told me that most shellfish – including shrimp – is very high in cholesterol. I always thought shrimp was a healthy, low-fat protein option. Should I be concerned?
The answer: You are right, shrimp is a low-fat, lower calorie source of protein. Three ounces of cooked shrimp has 19 grams of protein, 1.4 grams of total fat and 100 calories. What's more, less than half a gram of its fat comes from saturated fat, the type that raises blood cholesterol. Shrimp is certainly lower in fat and calories than lean beef: Three ounces contains 31 grams of protein, eight grams of total fat, and 3.2 grams of saturated fat. Even skinless chicken breast has a little more fat than shrimp.
But your friend is right, too. Shrimp is high in cholesterol – three ounces has 179 milligrams. A similar serving of lean beef or chicken has 75 milligrams, less than half the amount. Cholesterol is important. It's needed to synthesize significant hormones and vitamin D. It is also used to make bile acids, which help digest the fat in meals. But the body can make all the cholesterol it needs on its own. That's why, unlike vitamins and minerals, there is no daily requirement for cholesterol.
Consuming too much cholesterol from foods can increase LDL (bad) blood cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease. Every 100 milligrams of cholesterol consumed – the amount in eight large shrimp or three ounces of cheddar cheese – it's estimated to raise LDL cholesterol by 0.05 to 0.1 millimoles per litre of blood. (If you are considered low risk for developing heart disease, your LDL cholesterol should be less than 5.0 mmol/L. If you have diabetes or existing heart disease, your LDL target is 2.0 mmol/L or lower.) So yes, dietary cholesterol does raise blood cholesterol, but people vary considerably in their response, probably because of genetic factors. Some research suggests that people with diabetes may absorb more cholesterol from foods and, as a result, are more responsive to its blood cholesterol-raising effect.
It's also important to know that the rest of your diet matters too. If you follow a diet low in saturated fat and high in fibre, dietary cholesterol has a lesser impact on your LDL cholesterol level.
That still doesn't mean you can eat all the cholesterol-rich foods you want. We are advised to limit our cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams a day. If you have heart disease, your daily cholesterol intake should not exceed 200 milligrams. Besides shrimp, foods higher in cholesterol include liver, egg yolks, lobster, fatty cuts of meat and high-fat dairy products such as cream, butter and cheese.
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