Special thanks to Elizabeth Chmel, MS, RD, CNSC, who specializes in cardiovascular and transplant nutrition, for her help in answering this question.
This is a tricky question because there are so many other things that influence the cholesterol level beyond the amount of fat you eat each day. You may not be able to lower that level by simply eating less fat. Make sure that you are looking at the “bad” cholesterol level, the LDL, before you get worried because your total cholesterol level can be elevated by having a high “good” cholesterol level, the HDL.
It is important to know that there are four major dietary fats, and they have different effects on your body. Monounsaturated fat (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) are considered “healthy fats” and may improve your cholesterol levels. Examples of foods high in MUFAs may include many nuts, seeds, olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil and sesame oil. Omega-3, a PUFA, has specifically been shown to help lower your risk of cardiovascular disease. More recently, research explores the ratio of Omega-6:Omega-3 PUFAs in your diet and its impact on your health. Omega-3 PUFAs are found in foods from plants, such as soybean oil, canola oil, walnuts and flax. However, they can be found in fatty fish and shellfish, such as salmon, anchovies, herring and trout. USDA recommends 8 oz. or more of these per week. As a rule of thumb, these fats will usually be liquid at room temperature.
Saturated and trans fats are usually more solid at room temperature. Saturated fat, found in dairy products, meats, some oils (such as palm), cocoa butter and certain baked goods, may truly raise your bad cholesterol – the LDL level. According to the American Heart Association, you should limit your saturated fat intake to less than 7 percent of your daily calories, limiting your total fat to less than 25-35 percent of your total calories each day. USDA recommends that less than 10 percent of your daily calories be from saturated fat. For someone of your size, recommended calories per day for weight maintenance with light physical activity is around 1,500 calories/day, which means you should eat less than 50 total grams of fat (30 percent) and 12-17 (7-10 percent) grams of saturated fat a day.
It’s important to remember that we need some fat in our diet because it helps to absorb fat-soluble vitamins and promotes healthy cell function, among other things. Some essential fatty acids cannot be produced by the body and need to be consumed in small amounts.
As stated earlier, this is a tricky question, as lifestyle- and non-lifestyle-related factors may influence cholesterol levels.
Another lifestyle factor, exercise, can help improve cholesterol levels. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise with muscle strengthening two or more days per week.