No limit on cholesterol? Here’s why

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) were unveiled just a few weeks ago and one of the most surprising changes was the new recommendation (or lack thereof) on cholesterol.  As recent as the 2010 DGA, and for many years previous, the recommendation has been to limit dietary cholesterol intake to less than 300 milligrams (mg) per day.  This recommendation has done an about face – the 2015-2020 DGA makes no limit on the amount of cholesterol we are to consume.

The reason? The DGA stated “Adequate evidence is not available for a quantitative limit for dietary cholesterol specific to the Dietary Guidelines.” 

Here’s why - based on data from the 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) – a program of studies designed to assess the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States – cholesterol is no longer considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption. 

Here’s another reason that may really catch you off guard – studies are showing dietary cholesterol does not play a major role in elevating blood cholesterol.  Meaning, the cholesterol we obtain from food does not appear to be the main culprit in raising our blood cholesterol levels.  Nutrition scientists are now pointing the finger at other factors affecting blood cholesterol other than food sources of cholesterol – lack of physical activity, increased body weight, intake of saturated and trans fat, hereditary, age and sex. 

So does that mean we have a green light on chowing down on foods rich in cholesterol?  Not so fast.  This change does not mean that dietary cholesterol is inconsequential.  It does mean we still need to practice daily making wise food choices to build a healthy diet.  It all points back to our day-to-day choices of fat and why they make a difference in the development of elevating cholesterol levels and ultimately our risk of heart disease.

So here is the new advice concerning dietary cholesterol intake, along with advice on saturated and trans fat from the United States Department of Agriculture’s website:

·      Limit saturated fats to less than 10% of total calories per day.  If you follow a 2,000 calorie diet, this means no more than 200 calories or 22 grams of saturated fat should make up your total saturated fat amount each day.  Trans fat should be reduced to as little as possible.

·      Read the Nutrition Facts label on food packages to find how many grams of saturated and trans fat a food contains per serving. Choose foods with as little saturated fat as possible and preferably foods with 0 grams of trans fat. 

·      The main sources of saturated fats include mixed dishes containing meat, cheese or both such as burgers, sandwiches, tacos, burritos, and pizza.  Animal sources include fatty beef, lamb, pork, poultry with skin, lard, cream, butter, cheese and other dairy products made from whole or reduced fat (2%) milk. Non-animal foods contributing to saturated fat intake include sweets such as cookies, pies, cakes and snack foods such as chips, and crackers. 

·      Trans fats are another contributor to increasing blood cholesterol levels.  By 2018, trans fats are to be totally eliminated from the US food supply and many restaurants and food manufacturers have already begun the process of removing or reducing the amount of this harmful fat in their food products.  Foods that may still contain trans fats are some desserts, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, margarines, and coffee creamers.

·      Even though there is now no limit on the amount of dietary cholesterol to eat, keep in mind where cholesterol is found to begin with – cholesterol is found only in foods of animal origin.  There is no cholesterol in plant-based food sources (vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains, seeds, legumes).  This means foods higher in dietary cholesterol, such as fatty meats and high-fat dairy products, tend to also be higher in saturated fats.  Because of this commonality, when you limit your intake of saturated fat, you will also be limiting your intake of dietary cholesterol. 

·      Certain foods though, like eggs and shellfish, are unique in that they are higher in dietary cholesterol but not saturated fats.  Therefore, they can be consumed along with other nutritious protein sources that are low in saturated fat. 

·      Know what is considered a lean cut of beef.  By choosing lean cuts of meat, you can still enjoy these animal sources of high-quality protein without contributing high amounts of saturated fat.  The portion size recommended for any animal-source of protein – red meat, poultry, fish – is a 3-4 ounce portion size, about the size and thickness of the palm of your hand or a deck of cards. 

The key is to reduce saturated and trans fats to decrease the development of elevated blood cholesterol levels and heart disease.  When it comes to eating a healthy diet, it’s all about our food choices.  By being an informed consumer, you can make much better choices for yourself and your family in regards to limiting saturated and trans fats to reduce elevated blood cholesterol levels and heart disease.