Cholesterol has long been both a concern and a mystery to many Americans. For decades, we’ve been taught to worry about the levels of this fatty molecule in both our blood and our diet, in order to limit heart disease risk. In recent years, however, health recommendations have changed: Instead of worrying about our total blood cholesterol level, we’re supposed to focus on HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good”) versus LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad”) cholesterol levels. And while it’s been known for years that cholesterol in the diet is just one factor in blood cholesterol levels, recent studies have highlighted just how small this role may be — prompting health officials to reconsider long-standing recommendations to limit cholesterol intake.
According to a HealthDay article from earlier this month, the panel of health experts that is convened every five years by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to create the agency’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans will relax limits on cholesterol in this year’s report — in fact, there will be no recommended limits at all. This is a sharp departure from the current guidelines developed in 2010, which advise adults to limit their cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams per day, or approximately the amount found in one egg. (High-cholesterol foods include eggs, shellfish, butter, and certain types of organ meat.) While members of the panel have refused to comment on the new lack of restrictions until the report is published later this year, none of them denied that dietary cholesterol guidelines are, in fact, being dropped when the Washington Post first reported this development on February 10. In the HealthDay article, several top cardiologists endorse the panel’s move, noting that for years, research has established just how weak the link between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol is in most people.
But concerns remain about the potential effects of the new guidelines, since many people are still confused about the relationship between cholesterol in their food and in their bodies. Some doctors fear that a significant number of people will mistakenly conclude that blood cholesterol levels don’t matter anymore. Other people may take the new guidelines as a license to eat unlimited amounts of saturated fat, which has been shown to raise LDL and total cholesterol levels. And some doctors have also noted that in a small minority of people, dietary cholesterol does, in fact, have a significant impact on blood cholesterol levels. These people will still need to limit their cholesterol intake. Monitoring blood cholesterol levels is still essential, and recommended by the American Heart Association every four to six years for adults over age 20.
What’s your attitude toward cholesterol — do you currently worry about your cholesterol intake, or about your blood cholesterol levels? Will you eat more eggs, shellfish, or organ meat in light of the new Dietary Guidelines? Are you concerned that you might be in the minority of people for whom dietary cholesterol has a large effect on blood cholesterol? Should we be cautious about the new guidelines, given that just five years ago, strict limits on cholesterol were recommended? Leave a comment below!