There's room on your plate for shellfish...cholesterol and all

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Q. I'm trying to watch my cholesterol. Do I need to cut out shellfish?

A. No. Shellfish's reputation as a cholesterol villain is quite undeserved. Health experts no longer place shrimp, lobster and other shellfish on the dietary blacklist, even for people whose blood cholesterol is high.

Why the change? For one thing, shellfish contains less cholesterol than once thought (old tests gave high readings). Most shellfish contains no more cholesterol than many cuts of meat and poultry. Some even contain less.

For example, three ounces of extra-lean ground beef or chicken breast without the skin both contain about 72 milligrams of cholesterol. Three ounces of eye-of-round beef contain only 56 milligrams. In comparison, the same amount of lobster contains 61 milligrams. Clams, mussels and crab contain even less. (See chart.)

Shrimp tops the shellfish cholesterol list, at 166 milligrams in 3 ounces. Still, since the American Heart Association recommends no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day, there's room on the plate even for shrimp.

But all this talk about cholesterol counts may be missing the point. Dietary cholesterol is not the chief cholesterol-raising culprit in food. Saturated fat is. And you can't find an animal food much lower in saturated fat than shellfish.

Could it be that shellfish may even be good for your heart? Some research suggests so. A recent study from Harvard University and Rockefeller University saw a favorable effect on blood lipids in healthy people eating 10 ounces of shrimp daily for three weeks. The benefits were attributed to omega-3 fats.

So, go ahead, indulge in shellfish--with a few caveats:

Eat reasonably sized portions.
Use low-fat cooking methods, like steaming, rather than frying.
Be aware that frozen prepared shellfish dishes are often high in cholesterol and fat because of added bread crumbs, eggs, milk and fats.
Cholesterol Countdown of Shellfish
(Serving size=3 ounces, cooked by moist heat. N/A=Not available)

Legend for Chart:

A - Shellfish
B - Cholesterol (milligrams)
C - Fat (grams)
D - Saturated Fat (grams)
E - Calories

A B C D E

Crab, imitation (surimi) 17 1.1 N/A 87
Crab, Alaska king 45 1.3 0.1 82
Mussels, blue 48 3.8 0.7 147
Clams (19 small), fresh or canned 57 1.7 0.2 126
Lobster, northern 61 0.5 0.1 83
Crab, dungeness 64 1.1 0.1 94
Lobster, spiny 76 1.7 0.3 122
Oysters, eastern (12 medium) 93 4.2 1.1 117
Crayfish 151 1.2 0.2 97
Shrimp (15 large) 166 0.9 0.2 84
Source: Bowes and Church's Food Values of Portions Commonly Used, 16th edition, 1994.

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