US federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee changes stance on cholesterol

Signal of change / US federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee changes stance on cholesterol

By Laura Picot / 18 May 2015

The US federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has changed its advice concerning dietary cholesterol in its 2015 review of nutrition and health science. The scientific report, written by experts in the fields of nutrition, food science, public health, medicine and agriculture, states that: “Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”

The report goes on to explain the evidence behind the change: “Previously, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended that cholesterol intake be limited to no more than 300 mg/day. The 2015 DGAC will not bring forward this recommendation because available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol”. The greater danger, it is suggested, lies not in consuming products that are high in cholesterol, but that contain high levels of saturated fats.

The recommendations also address the sustainability effects of diet for the first time and recommend reducing red and processed meat consumption for health, stating that “a diet higher in plant-based foods … and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current US diet.”

Image: Yes to eggs but hold the bacon?

Image credit: Phil Lees / Flickr

So what?

When caution against over-consumption of cholesterol was first adopted in the American Heart Association guidelines, in 1961, it resulted in a 30% per capita reduction in egg consumption – a significant blow to egg farmers. If included in the federal Dietary Guidelines, the change in recommendations will increase egg consumption at a national scale as they influence school lunches and doctors’ dietary advice. The consumption of other foods that are believed to have high cholesterol levels, such as lobster and prawns, may also increase. The question is then raised, what would a significant rise in the consumption of these foods mean in the long-term? How would an increase affect the supply chains to the US and what sustainability implications would there be?

Walter Willett, chair of the Nutrition Department at the Harvard School of Public Health, called the change a “reasonable move” as there has been “a shift of thinking”. Dr Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, also supported the recommendation, telling CNN: "The idea we need to limit saturated fat and cholesterol shifted Americans from a well-balanced diet to high-sugar diets, which made people eat more and get fatter."

The DGAC’s statements regarding the environmental impacts of animal products and health benefits of reducing red and processed meat have caused a major political and industry outcry. A letter from 30 senators expressed concern about the suggestion to decrease consumption of red and processed meats, questioning the inclusion of sustainability in a nutritional report. Industry leaders echoed these concerns. In a public statement, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association’s president Philip Ellis said “the topic of sustainability is outside the scope of the Dietary Guidelines and we urge the Secretaries to reject any recommendations beyond health and nutrition.”

However, the inclusion of sustainability in the DGAC report was met with strong support by environmental and health groups. It remains to be seen whether the recommendations will be included in the Dietary Guidelines by the USDA and HHS at the end of this year.

Sources

USDA (2015, February) Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee

The Washington Post (2015, February 10) The U.S. government is poised to withdraw longstanding warnings about cholesterol

CNN (2015, February 20) Cholesterol in food not a concern, new report says

Union-Bulletin (2015, March 14) Meat industry wages war on new guidelines

What might the implications of this be? What related signals of change have you seen?

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