Shellfish — cholesterol content?

Originally Published: August 29, 2008
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Dear Alice,

How much cholesterol does shellfish have?

Dear Reader,

We've all heard about the "good stuff" in seafood (and if you haven't, check out the Health benefits of fish oils) but cholesterol gets less attention. Gram for gram, cholesterol levels in most shellfish are comparable to cholesterol levels in beef, pork, and poultry. However shellfish, along with cold water fish, certain oils (soy, flax, olive, canola) and nuts (almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pecans), have low levels of saturated fat. These may help increase so-called "good" cholesterol (a.k.a. high density lipoproteins or HDLs) which can help counteract the effects of "bad" cholesterol (LDL).

Several agencies (including the federal government, the American Heart Association, the National Cholesterol Education Program and so on) agree that people should consume no more than 300 milligrams of any type of cholesterol in a day. Here's a table from the Yale-New Haven Hospital that shows the typical amount of cholesterol found in a variety of shellfish:

Type of shellfish

Total fat
(grams)

Saturated fat
(grams)

Cholesterol
(milligrams)

Mussels (4-5), steamed

4

0.7

48

King crab (1 leg)

2

0.1

71

Crab (3 oz), baked

5

1.0

80

Clams
(19 small)

2

0.2

57

Lobster
(3 oz)

0.5

0.1

61

Oysters
(6 medium)

2

0.5

58

Shrimp
(15 large)

0.9

0.2

166

Scallops (3-4), broiled

3

0.6

34

Compare these numbers to the cholesterol in other meats and dairy products (from the UCSF Medical Center):

Type of meat/dairy

Total fat
(grams)

Saturated fat
(grams)

Cholesterol (milligrams)

Beef, ground (lean only), 3.5 oz

18

7

78

Beef, sirloin (lean and fat), 3.5 oz

12

5

89

Pork loin (lean only), 3.5 oz

6

2

79

Lamb (shank), 3.5 oz

14

6

106

Chicken (no skin), 3.5 oz

5

1

85

Eggs (whole), 1 egg

5

2

212

Butter, 1 tsp

4

3

11

Milk (skim), 1 cup

0

0

4

Milk (whole), 1 cup

8

5

33

As you can see, there is a range of cholesterol content in animal products, but many varieties of shellfish, meats, and dairy products have comparable levels of cholesterol. Keep in mind, plant products, including fruits, vegetables, vegetable oil, soy products, and so on, do not contain cholesterol.

To prepare shellfish without adding cholesterol to the dish, you may want to:

  • Broil, steam, or bake shellfish
  • Pan-fry shellfish in a small amount of vegetable oil
  • Use wine- or tomato-based sauces (rather than cream-based)
  • Garnish with lemon

As you can see, many shellfish have a moderate amount of cholesterol. However, some shellfish — such as shrimp — have quite a bit. As a general rule, as long as you stay conscious of portion size and maintain an otherwise balanced eating plan, shellfish can easily be incorporated into a heart healthy diet.   

Alice