Recently the annual Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report stated that cholesterol was "not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption." Some people celebrated, expecting once again to fill their bellies with unlimited amounts of butter, cheese, sausage and steak. But several notable doctors and scientists balked -- and even protested.
"The result has been a green light for people to eat unhealthful foods," said Neal D. Barnard, founding president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in his March 24 testimony before the advisory committee. "The committee made a scientific error on cholesterol, and to carry that mistake into the guidelines is not scientifically defensible and serves only to perpetuate confusion."
A conclusion that eating foods high in cholesterol like eggs will not affect blood cholesterol levels is flawed science, several critics have stated. Others raise concern that people will use that pronouncement as license to eat as much high-cholesterol foods as they want -- all to the detriment of health.
Moreover, other components in foods containing cholesterol can pose health risks, including saturated fat, they said.
"Most of the members of the public don't differentiate between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol or the effects of dietary cholesterol from the risk of foods that contain it," Barnard said in his testimony.
Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts.com went a step further, stating that dietary cholesterol not only raises blood cholesterol but increases the risk of diabetes, cancers and liver disease, including nonalcoholic cirrhosis, cancer and hepatitis C.
Another problem, Greger testified, is that cholesterol is "correlated with other disease-promoting components in the same foods," such as saturated fat. Removing limits on cholesterol consumption will invite people "to consume foods that should be minimized in lieu of healthier food choices."
Cholesterol occurs only in animal-based foods, with high concentrations in eggs, shellfish and organ meats including liver. While those foods don't contain high levels of saturated fat, certain cuts of beef (ribs), lamb and pork (chops), and whole-dairy products do contain elevated levels of cholesterol and saturated fat.
The draft guidelines say that limiting saturated fat consumption "would further reduce the population level risk of cardiovascular disease."
Cholesterol, found in animal-based foods but not plants, travels in the blood with elevated low-density lipoproteins (LDL) cholesterol levels responsible for the buildup of plaque in arteries, resulting in cardiovascular and heart disease.
Cholesterol in the blood courses back to the liver where it is removed and discarded. But saturated fat in the liver prevents the liver from removing cholesterol, allowing levels to build in the blood, the NIH explains.