Skip these ingredients, and plan healthier meals for your heart.

By Isadora Baum
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Cholesterol is a waxy substance that your body needs to build cells. Your liver makes the cholesterol you need, and any extra comes from your diet in the form of animal foods. "Plant-based foods are naturally free of cholesterol, including oils," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, founder of NutritionStarringYou.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. "So that bottle of corn oil with the heart on it that says cholesterol-free is not special; it never contained any in the first place."

Cholesterol gets a bad name when it comes to heart health — and for good reason. High levels of cholesterol in the blood have been shown to increase the risk for heart disease and other diseases, too. Yet, we do need some cholesterol in our diets. It's just a matter of how much.

While it seems logical that eating foods with cholesterol would cause your blood cholesterol to rise, that's actually not the way it works. "In fact, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans removed cholesterol limitations from its list of recommendations," Harris-Pincus says. "Foods that contain saturated fat and trans fats are the ones that encourage the liver to make more cholesterol than it normally would, often leading to an increase in blood cholesterol."

Having too much of the bad kind of cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins or LDL) and not enough of the good kind (high-density lipoproteins or HDL) can lead to a buildup of plaque in your artery walls. Over time, this can lead lead to buildup in the heart and brain, too, which increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, Harris-Pincus explains.

So, "while dietary cholesterol was feared for a long time, research actually demonstrates that it is high intakes of saturated and trans fats that have the largest impact on blood cholesterol levels," says Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN. And yes, red meat and cheese do fall into those categories of higher saturated fat.

"While some genetic differences may be present, most people will reduce cholesterol production from the liver when dietary cholesterol intake is adequate. Saturated fat and trans fat, however, increase production of lipoproteins, which are actual markers of cholesterol in the blood," Jones continues.

In other words, foods may not directly increase blood cholesterol levels, but foods high in saturated and trans fat items do increase how much cholesterol your liver makes naturally, so food is an important part of controlling cholesterol levels. Here are a few foods that aren't so good for your cholesterol health. Keep them in moderation if you are watching your intake to protect your heart.

1. Butter

Since dairy fat is mostly saturated fat, its byproduct, butter, is even higher in the fatty acid. "Butter consumption should be moderate to allow for healthier fat to fit into one's diet," Jones says. That means swap out healthier oils, like olive oil and walnut oil, for dipping in bread, for example. Or use nut butter on your morning toast, over that butter and jam.

2. Alfredo Sauce

Pasta night? Perhaps go with marinara or a pesto as a regular sauce, and use creamier ones, like Alfredo or a butter sauce, more sparingly. "Alfredo sauce is made with both butter and cheese, offering a lot of saturated fat, as well as white flour," Jones says.

"While this sauce can be eaten and enjoyed every so often, including it regularly may contribute to a higher risk of high blood cholesterol, especially in those with genetic links," she explains. So, set a limit in the week or month based on your specific health needs and goals!

3. Soda

Add soda to the list of culprits that increases bad cholesterol levels. "Because of the association between high added sugar intake and poor heart health, the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugar to no more than 25 grams per day," Jones says.

One 12-ounce soda contains close to 40 grams of sugar. While an occasional soda won't make or break your health, your overall eating pattern plays a big role in heart health. So," reducing frequency of soda and sugary candy intake is wise for those who already have risk factors for high cholesterol," she says.

4. Microwavable Popcorn

Microwave and movie popcorn are often loaded with butter and hydrogenated oils (trans fat in disguise) that add no nutritional value, other than calories and artery clogging fats, Harris-Pincus says. "Look for a low-fat version or pop your own. And definitely avoid adding liquid butter to movie popcorn; it's already high in fat from the oil used in the popper," she says.

5. Fried Chicken

Fried chicken is a double whammy because of the saturated fat found in the skin, plus the fat that soaks into the breading during the frying process. "It's even worse in restaurant and fast food fryers that cook over and over again in the same oil," Harris-Pincus says. If you must have your fried chicken, take off the skin or cook some at home in a little bit of unsaturated oil like olive or avocado, or try it in an air fryer to cut back on the fat, she says. Oven "fried" chicken is a delicious substitute, too.

6. Baked Goods

These sweet treats are made with saturated fats and butter, so they are not good for your ticker and cholesterol. "Saturated fats increase the shelf stability of products. Check out how many have tropical oils like palm oil and palm kernel oil that are cheap, plentiful and likely to raise your cholesterol," Harris-Pincus says. Eat these sparingly, and make your own sweet treats at home! Try these incredible blueberry muffins.

7. Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is a very controversial topic, as some people swear it's healthy, but the American Heart Association cautions against using it because of its high saturated fat content. "And research has shown that it does raise cholesterol levels, both good and bad. So use it on your skin, not in your food, unless the distinct flavor is required for a specific recipe," Harris-Pincus says.

Then, enjoy and use it sparingly in food to flavor it (like in baked goods), not because you think it's a health elixir, but because you want a little splurge and are craving that nutty flavor and texture, she says.