Shrimp Dilemma: Low Fat. High Cholesterol. What to Do?

Here’ a question we got from Lillie, a Fooducate community member

Can you help me and your other readers understand how it is that shrimp have no fat, but lots of cholesterol?  Why don’t they have fat, if they are a living animal?

Great questions.

What you need to know:

We’ll start with the second question. Shrimp actually does have fat, but a very small amount of it. A 3 oz serving has just 1 gram of fat, none of it saturated. Compare that to the same serving of salmon with 11 grams of fat, or beef with 15-25 grams for a comparable portion. But smaller fish such as sardines also have just 3 grams of fat.

Regarding cholesterol – a quick reminder – cholesterol is a waxy substance found only in animal organisms, not plants. It is a lipid, or a fat, in plain English. But it’s weight is measured in milligrams (a thousandth of a gram) compared to “regular fat” that we measure in grams.

Cholesterol levels in shrimp are high, about 150mg per 3oz serving, which is 50% of the daily max. (Math:  150mg of cholesterol is still just 15% of the 1 gram of fat in a serving of shrimp)

If you are worried about cholesterol, the good news is that the cholesterol in food, including shrimp, does not directly translate to high blood cholesterol. It’s saturated fat that raises our levels of blood cholesterol.

That’s not to say the cholesterol in food doesn’t have any effect on our metabolism, but for most healthy adults, the cholesterol in shrimp should not be of concern.

By the way, shrimp is an excellent source of protein, Omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, vitamin D and vitamin B12.

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  • Pat

    I don’t think you’re answer goes far enough. I would think that if the reader is asking about cholesterol she may have high cholesterol! So what about a person with high cholesterol should they avoid shrimp?

  • lauri (redheadrecipes.com)

    Pat: Our liver makes all the cholesterol we need and it compensates for the chol we get from our diet. So when you eat a diet high in chol, the liver compensates by making less chol (and vice versa). Sat fat and trans fat are what contribute to our bad chol (LDL, you want this to be Low). Exercise and ‘healthy fat’ such as poly/mono unsat fat help to increase our good chol (HDL, you want this to be High). When it comes to your chol numbers, the ratio of good to bad is more of an indicator of your risk for heart disease than the individual numbers alone. Hope this helps!

    • Anonymous

      Let’s also not forget that saturated fat increases both — LDL and HDL ;)

      • Bryan

        Great add Kangax…a lot of people don’t realize that.

  • Daria

    Studies done on the relationship between saturated fat intake leading to high blood cholesterol levels have been weak.  There is also no clear evidence that people who consume a lot of saturated fat actually have an increased risk for heart disease.
    To learn more read work by the following people: Stephan Guyenet, Michael Eades MD, Gary Taubes, Chris Masterjohn.

  • Bryan

    I love Fooducate and agree with 98% of the posts.  Real, fresh, minimally processed food is without a doubt the way to go.  However, I think you need to freshen up on your research.  More and more peer-reviewed, published studies are showing that saturated fat is not the bad guy.  It’s the polyunsaturated fat, the high levels of Omega-6′s from most vegetable-type oils, and the insane amount of added sugar we eat these days (often from HFCS) that are to blame.

    Riddle me this – the percent of fat in the US diet has declined for almost three decades, yet cholesterol & heart disease have gotten worse…

    A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition pooled together data from 21 unique studies that included almost 350,000 people, about 11,000 of whom developed cardiovascular disease (CVD), tracked for an average of 14 years, and concluded that there is no relationship between the intake of saturated fat and the incidence of heart disease or stroke. This piece discusses that study and more.
    http://thehealthyskeptic.org/new-study-puts-final-nail-in-the-saturated-fat-causes-heart-disease-coffin

    Another great article discussing the fat myth…
    http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/07/magazine/what-if-it-s-all-been-a-big-fat-lie.html?scp=1&sq=gary+taubes+and+fat&st=cse

    • Anonymous

      Right on, Bryan! I also wish Fooducate would stop the myth of saturated fat.

      Just a small remark — you mention polyunsaturated fat and Omega-6 rich oils being at the heart of unhealthy diet (among other things, like sugar — which I fully agree with). But I think it’s more about trans fat, lack of fiber and processed food itself (being metabolically inferior) that is to blame.

    • Daria

      Agree, healthy skeptic is another good source.  Not to mention our ancestors consumed saturated fat for years before the agricultural revolution and they did not suffer from heart disease.

    • Joshh83

      We had this discussion on our listserve not long ago with other health care professionals, this is what we ended up agreeing on overall at the AJCN study.

      One major problem with this study is they did not look at any studies where the saturated fat intake was less than 7%, which is the level recommended by the AHA,  Most of the diets had saturated fat intakes in the range of 10-15% or more.
      This study criticizes the impact of lowering saturated fat, but never looked at any diet that truly lowered saturated fat to the level recommended <7% caloric intake, nor by the methods of a very low fat, high fiber, whole plant foods diet.

      Studies on all-cause mortality trumps findings for subsets such as CHD and CVD. Most all-cause studies demonstrate a direct relation between saturated fat intake and all-cause mortality and the lower the better.J Nutr. 2005 Mar;135(3):556-61.The combination of high fruit and vegetable and low saturated fat intakes is more protective against mortality in aging men than is either alone: the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging.Eur J Epidemiol. 2001;17(5):469-77.Differences in all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality between Hong Kong and Singapore: role of nutrition.Int J Epidemiol. 2000 Apr;29(2):260-5. 
      Saturated fat, vitamin C and smoking predict long-term population all-cause mortality rates in the Seven Countries Study.
      Br J Nutr. 2005 May;93(5):709-16.Comparison of two statistical approaches to predict all-cause mortality by dietary patterns in German elderly subjects.Arch Intern Med. 2007 Dec 10;167(22):2461-8.Mediterranean dietary pattern and prediction of all-cause mortality in a US population: results from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study.

      There is too much research out that continues to prove the harmful impacts on overall quality of life when it comes to high intake of saturated fat…. I could probably post more than this, but my time is limited. 

      Thanks.

    • amb

      I think all of the processed flours we eat in america are also to blame…..such as wheat….it is in almost all processed foods and has no health values it is just cheap to create…..also a lot of americans have excess belly fat and people say carbs o straight to the belly

  • anonymous

     ”…cholesterol is a waxy substance found only in living organisms, not plants.”  Are you saying that plants are not living organisms?  Please correct this – people get confused enough without educational articles adding to their confusion.

  • Jacinta Cole

    Does the same thing apply to prawns then, and what about other shellfish i.e. mussels or crab, clams, oysters. My cholesteral was high last time and I’m not reallly doing much about it, nor have I had it checked recently. Also I’m a smoker!

  • http://www.thefrugaldietitian.com Nancy – The Frugal dietitian

    Keep in mind that cholesterol is poorly absorbed from food. Less than 50% on average.

  • FrugalArugula

    Honestly… I’m most concerned about getting Gulf shrimp right now (i.e. oil, contaminant content). Basically, if I eat enough shrimp to raise my cholesterol, then I feel like it’s not the cholesterol I’m probably going to need to worry about.

  • Joshh, RD

    Salmon, Red or Pink, is actually the only food that has a higher amount of Vitamin D than Shrimp.