Is ice cream bad for cholesterol levels? What to know and alternatives

Ice cream can be high in saturated fat and refined sugar. Regularly consuming large quantities of this dessert can potentially increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL), which is known as “bad” cholesterol, levels in the blood.

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance that plays a critical role in the fluidity and structure of cell membranes. It also has a role in producing hormones, neurotransmitters, bile, and vitamin D and is important for healthy body functioning.

However, high levels of LDL cholesterol can elevate the risk of heart disease.

It is important to note that dietary cholesterol does not directly influence blood cholesterol. The most important contributor to blood cholesterol levels is the mix of carbohydrates and fats in food. However, people should be aware that dietary choices can affect their LDL cholesterol levels. If someone has concerns about their cholesterol levels, they may want to cut back on foods high in saturated fat.

This article examines cholesterol and ice cream and how people can include this food in their diet without compromising heart health.

Ice cream can contain saturated fat and refined sugar, which may contribute to high cholesterol levels in the blood. However, the dietary cholesterol in ice cream itself does not contribute to cholesterol blood levels.

Dietary vs. blood cholesterol

Dietary cholesterol may not cause issues in people without diabetes.

The body tightly regulates cholesterol levels, so if dietary intake of cholesterol decreases, the body makes more. If dietary levels increase, it makes less. Because of this, high cholesterol foods typically have minimal effects on blood cholesterol levels in most people.

Cholesterol in ice cream

Manufacturers often make ice cream from full fat cream, which is high in saturated fat.

If a person regularly consumes large quantities of saturated fats, this can potentially increase LDL cholesterol levels in the blood. Furthermore, ice cream, including ice cream that food companies market as being lower in fat, often contains sugar and high amounts of vegetable fats such as coconut and palm oil.

In its heart-healthy food guidelines, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends choosing fat free or low fat ice cream with no more than 3 grams (g) of fat per 1/2 cup serving. However, people should also be aware of their sugar intake with these types of ice cream.

The exact cholesterol content in ice cream varies depending on the brand, type, and ingredients. However, it is important to note that for people looking to reduce or manage their blood cholesterol levels, the saturated fat and sugar content in ice cream can be more problematic than dietary cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is different from blood cholesterol.

Dairy ice cream can contribute more to LDL cholesterol than light or nonfat varieties. A person also needs to consider that ice creams lower in fat may be higher in sugar, which can also contribute to LDL cholesterol.

A typical 66g serving or half-cup of regular vanilla ice cream contains:

  • 4.5 g of saturated fat
  • 15.6 g of carbohydrates
  • 14 g of total sugars
  • 29 milligrams of dietary cholesterol

Most people can enjoy ice cream as part of an overall balanced and varied diet. The important factor is moderation.

However, individuals following a heart-healthy diet, especially those with preexisting heart conditions or high cholesterol levels, need to exercise more caution. They may want to choose options that have less saturated fat and sugar.

A person with diabetes should also limit their consumption of foods that can raise their blood cholesterol levels.

If in doubt, a person should consult with a healthcare professional or dietitian about specific nutritional choices.

People can still enjoy frozen desserts that contain less saturated fat, sugar, or dietary cholesterol. The following are some suitable options:

  • Sorbet: This is a dairy-free option consisting primarily of fruit puree, water, and sugar. It does not contain the fats present in regular ice cream but can contain high levels of sugar.
  • Frozen yogurt: Frozen yogurt often has lower fat and cholesterol than regular ice cream. A person can check the food label for added sugar.
  • Nondairy ice creams: These alternatives comprise almond, coconut, soy, or oat milk and are often lower in saturated fats. However, people should always check nutritional labels, as some might be high in sugars or other fats.
  • Ice pops: Containing fruit juices or purees, they are often free from the saturated fats in ice cream but can contain high amounts of sugar.
  • Low fat or cholesterol-free ice creams: Some brands offer versions formulated with low fats and cholesterol. These may be a suitable option for those watching their cholesterol intake. However, they will need to check the sugar amount.

If a person has concerns about cholesterol and its potential effects on their health, they can consult a doctor. Here are some questions to consider asking during the appointment:

  • What are the optimal cholesterol levels for my age and gender?
  • Given my family history and current health status, am I at an increased risk for high cholesterol or related heart conditions?
  • Are there specific foods or food groups I should focus on or avoid to manage my cholesterol levels effectively?
  • Do I need medication to manage my cholesterol levels? If so, what are the potential side effects?
  • How often should I get my cholesterol levels checked?
  • Given my current cholesterol levels, how often is it safe for me to consume ice cream or other high fat desserts?
  • Can you recommend any low cholesterol or heart-healthy alternatives to my favorite high cholesterol foods?

Cholesterol is pivotal in many essential bodily functions, and it is important to understand the difference between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol. However, imbalances, particularly elevated LDL levels, can pose significant health risks.

Ice cream contains saturated fats that can influence LDL cholesterol levels when a person consumes them in excessive amounts. However, with moderation and informed choices, people can still indulge occasionally.

For those following heart-healthy diets or who have conditions such as diabetes, various alternatives to ice cream are available that may not affect cholesterol as much as traditional ice cream.