Panel suggests that dietary guidelines stop warning about cholesterol in food

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Warnings against eating foods high in cholesterol, like eggs or shrimp, have been a mainstay of dietary recommendations for decades. That could change if the scientific advisory panel for the 2015 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans has its say.

A summary of the committee’s December 2014 meeting says “Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.” Translation: You don’t need to worry about cholesterol in your food.

Why not? There’s a growing consensus among nutrition scientists that cholesterol in food has little effect on the amount of cholesterol in the bloodstream. And that’s the cholesterol that matters.

Nutrition experts like Dr. Walter C. Willett, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, called the plan a reasonable move. Dr. Steven Nissen, chair of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, told USA Today “It’s the right decision. We got the dietary guidelines wrong.”

Keep in mind that this isn’t a done deal. The panel, which is formally known as the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, makes recommendations for the next guidelines update, but these recommendations aren’t always followed.

The cholesterol connection

Cholesterol has a bad reputation, its name linked to heart attacks, strokes, and other types of cardiovascular disease. Yet cholesterol is as necessary for human health as water or air.

Cholesterol is a type of fat, or lipid. It is an essential building block for cell membranes and other crucial structures. It is needed to form the protective sheath that surrounds nerve fibers. The body uses cholesterol to make hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, the bile acids we need to digest and absorb fats, and vitamin D.

Cholesterol is so important that your liver and intestines make it day and night from fats, sugars, and proteins. In the average person, the body’s production of cholesterol far outstrips any contribution from cholesterol in food.

Why is blood cholesterol a concern? Too much of it, especially in the wrong kind of particle, can cause trouble inside blood vessels (see “From cholesterol to crisis” below). Harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) particles ferry cholesterol to artery walls. Protective high-density lipoprotein (HDL) particles pull cholesterol out of circulation and deliver it to the liver for destruction.

Doing away with the beware-cholesterol-in-food warning would simplify the art of choosing healthy foods. And it would let people enjoy foods that contain higher amounts of cholesterol, such as eggs, shrimp, and lobster, without worrying about it. A better focus is on reducing saturated fat and trans fat in the diet, which play greater roles in damaging blood vessels than dietary cholesterol.

Science, including nutrition science, is a process of change. New findings emerge that nudge aside old thinking and prompt new recommendations. That’s easy for someone like me to say, since I closely follow nutrition science and research and understand how they work. But for folks who don’t, a change in the recommendations about cholesterol in food is likely to be seen as another dietary flip-flop and undermine confidence in what’s known about healthy eating.


Image from Managing Your Cholesterol, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School


Related Information: Managing Your Cholesterol


  1. S K

    When is the medical community going to realize that the nutrition issue that causes elevated cholesterol and many health issues is carbohydrates not fat? The research is out there, but nobody is looking at it. Look at what functional medicine is doing and you’ll see that those practitioners are at least 10 years ahead of allopathic medicine. Fat is not the issue here, our country has been following a low fat diet for decades and the rate of disease has increased.

  2. Tony C

    For the average person like me, all these conflicting studies just make me more confused. And trying to figure out what foods contain saturated fats and trans fats is too confusing and overwhelming. I simply try to eat smaller portions, avoid processed foods, including sugar and flour, cook my own meals using fresh, natural ingredients, consume high fiber foods especially fruits and beans, and treat yourself to eat that ice cream cone or piece of chocolate cake occasionally. After all we are only on this planet so long.

  3. Alex Hobbs

    I think it is great that we can acknowledge change and explain why the change is being made. Within the fitness community eggs are heralded as the perfect protein. As a heart attack survivor, I have been wary about introducing them back into my diet since suffering my heart attack.

  4. Internet Marketing Millions

    I am new to this blog. But I have enjoyed your post and learned something
    new. Waiting for your next update.

  5. Nayna

    Peoples are eating unhealthy foods at any time.It will surely affect their health.Cholesterol has a bad reputation, its name linked to heart attacks, strokes, and other types of cardiovascular disease. Yet cholesterol is as necessary for human health as water or air.

  6. Sonu

    Thanks for this informative article.

  7. tigermatka

    Cholesterol is very harmful these days. one should be strict in diet.
    more Cholesterol content in body would lead to heart diseases.

  8. Mary

    You mentioned eggs and this is a huge mistake most people do about them because the chicken eggs are really high in cholesterol but the effect of the egg consumption on blood cholesterol is so minimal when compared with the effect of trans fats and saturated fats. The risk of heart disease may be more closely tied to the foods that accompany the eggs in a traditional American breakfast also such as the sodium in the bacon, sausages and ham, and the saturated fat or oils with trans fats used to fry the eggs and the hash browns.

    • Randal L. Schwartz

      So much conventional wisdom, so little time.

      Please go read “The Big Fat Surprise” by Nina Telcholz.

      In brief… it’s not sodium, or sat fats, or even dietary cholesterol that damages artery walls. It’s inflammation, mostly triggered by *dietary carbs*, along with oxidized oils like all vegetable oils.

      Eat Meat. Good for you.

  9. bharathkumaran

    Peoples are eating unhealthy foods at any time.It will surely affect their health.Cholesterol has a bad reputation, its name linked to heart attacks, strokes, and other types of cardiovascular disease. Yet cholesterol is as necessary for human health as water or air.

  10. Marjorie

    Nonsense to say this is not a dietary flip flop. It’s the biggest dietary flip flop in the history of dietary flip flops. Avoiding healthy fats has led to an epidemic of obesiety and diabetes in this country. which the medical establishment needs to own up and of course never will.

  11. Master of News

    this nice information, good knowledge.
    I have some foods Most Weird and Wonderful Breakfasts from Around the World.

  12. Robert johnston

    It is about time that our nutritional recommendations are updated to follow recent scientific study results that show eating saturated fat and high cholesterol foods are essential for our well-being and overall health.
    For the last 5 decades the goverment has followed the faulty science and totally unproven theories of academics whose careers and reputations have been in the forefront of feeding the public and our government agencies with unsubstantiated conclusions on the dangers of satuarted fat in our diet. For all these lost decades, not only is Big Pharma (statins) but also Big Agricultural corporations pouring money into covering up this “inconvenient truth”. The increase in cancer, heart disease and diabetes and other diseases has skyrocketed in this time. Wake up people! Demand that unbiased results of nutritional studies be kept truthful and halt the deceit perpetrated on us by our medical and health organizations, university studies, and corporate lobbyists. Recommended reads are: Gary Taubes, Good Caloies, Bad Calories, a 10 year study of nutritional research studies, also his book Why We Get Fat.

  13. Sheryl Carey


    I have LDL of 140 and HDL of 90, always have had a high good and high bad, I don’t eat red meat, hardly any eggs, and exercise 5 times a week, am I good.

    Thank you


  14. David Brown

    ” A better focus is on reducing saturated fat and trans fat in the diet, which play greater roles in damaging blood vessels than dietary cholesterol.”

    If saturated fats damage blood vessels, where is the evidence?

    I began reading popular nutrition books in 1977. By 1980 I was following the saturated fat debate, mostly by collecting newspaper articles about saturated fats, cholesterol, and sugar. By the year 2000, the file on saturated fats and cholesterol was bulging. The Sugar folder contained two articles, one of them by a local reporter.

    Early on, I couldn’t help but notice that public health dietary advice did not square with what the researchers and practitioners of that era were saying about fats and added sugars. For example, from reading Why Raise Ugly Kids? I learned that if total cholesterol was high, it would drop if one ate two eggs and a quarter pound of butter daily. Likewise, if total cholesterol was low, it would rise if one ate two eggs and a quarter pound of butter daily. So how does that work? It has to do with added sugars and polyunsaturated vegetable oil intake. Polyunsaturated oils lower total cholesterol (including HDL) and added sugars raise total cholesterol (but lower HDL). Those with low cholesterol generally have low sugar and saturated fat intake. Those with high cholesterol generally have high sugar and/or trans fat intake. Optimal total cholesterol seems to be around 220 mg/dL. Google – Total cholesterol and cardiovascular disease: A U-curve

    The following excerpt from pages 81-82 of Nutrition Against Disease by Roger J. Williams, PhD (1972) is typical of the information that shaped my thinking about fats and oils in the early stages of my investigation.

    “That cardiovascular disease is not associated with high fat diets is also shown by a comparison study of matched groups of twenty-eight railwaymen from North India and twenty-eight from Southern India. The consumption of fats, mostly of animal origin, was ten times higher among the North Indians than the South Indians, but there were no significant differences between their lipid and cholesterol levels. Among the South Indian population, the incidence of heart disease is said to be fifteen times as high as among the North Indians where the fat content of the diet is ten times higher. Dietary factors are doubtless very important in connection with the incidence of heart disease, but fat is only one factor, and other dietary factors are considerably more important.” Geographical aspects of acute myocardial infarction in India

    For several decades I believed added sugars to be the major dietary factor driving the epidemics of obesity and noncommunicable disease. Now I’m not so certain. It appears omega-6 linoleic plays a significant role in these public health problems. For example, in 2007, the American Heart Association (AHA) published an article acknowledging a connection between increased omega-6 consumption and the deteriorating public health. “Contemporary changes in diet (including increased caloric content, increased consumption of glucose and OMEGA-6 FATTY ACIDS (emphasis mine), decreased consumption of omega-3 fatty acids) and an overall decrease in exercise and activity have contributed to an increased incidence of obesity and diabetes in the adult and pediatric population. These trends, in turn, have led to an increased incidence of cardiovascular diseases including atherosclerosis, AF, and congestive heart failure, each of which is associated with increased risk of mortality. SCD (sudden cardiac death) due to arrhythmias is a primary cause of increased mortality.”

    Evidence from various lines of research indicates that excessive omega-6 linoleic acid intake is problematic for both animal and human health. Regarding vegetable oils, Dr. Williams further noted, “A corollary of the notion that saturated fats are arch villains is the idea that one should eat substantial amounts of polyunsaturated fats. (The phrase ‘polyunsaturated fatty acids’ has become virtually synonymous with ‘heart protection’ in both popular and orthodox medical thinking.) While everyone should have unsaturated fats in his diet, their presence does not by any means afford adequate protection against atherosclerosis and heart disease. The current consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids in the USA is higher than it has ever been, yet this does not curb heart disease. There are many reasons on which to base our conclusion that other factors are far more important. When other deficiencies are eliminated, the amount of unsaturated fat is of secondary importance. If there is plenty of vitamin B6 in the diet, fat metabolism tends to take care of itself.”

    At the time, Dr. Williams wasn’t concerned about excessive polyunsaturated fat intake. Perhaps he should have been. It was known as early as the 1940s that high omega-6 linoleic acid (LA) intake has a decidedly negative impact on animal health. “The effects of different levels and types of dietary fats on adult ruminant fat metabolism and milk fat secretion has been studied by various workers. The efficacy of feeding growing ruminants various fats other than milk fat of normal composition has been studied less. Adams et al. (1959a,b) in papers describing biochemical and physiological effects of rearing calves on highly unsaturated vegetable fat, observed poor gains, ill health and high mortality. »Growth, Plasma Lipids and Fatty Acid Composition of Veal Calves Fed Polyunsaturated Fats (PDF)

  15. Debbie B

    So should folks w/ genetically elevated cholesterol, LDL in particular, stop taking statins?

  16. SHAH

    Awasome blogs thanks for sharing , atleast get some idea about cholesterol ,,
    thanks for sharng

  17. Matteo D'Acri

    Thanks for this interesting article. I’m perfectly agree that nutrition is a process of change. I think also that probably sugar refined and its derivatives are the real enemies of our time, what do you think about?

    • S K

      I agree 100%. Fat is not making us sick. The USA has been on a low fat diet for decades and we are getting sicker. We eat an overabundance of carbs, that’s where the real issue falls.

  18. J P

    Great to see we’re finally turning this ship around.

  19. Larry Martinez

    Frankly this is old news. The science has long been published showing cholesterol is not the “demon” it’s sugar. Will there be a refund for statin users?
    Can we please educate our clinicians about the availability of tests that show particle size?
    IMHO this is profit driven Medicine. It’s time for the powers that be to break away from Big Pharma and to take the time to look at the function of our systems and educate our communities on Diet and Lifestyle changes that can make a real difference.

    Larry R Martinez,DC,FIAMA

  20. Sathish Arumugam

    Cholesterol is very harmful these days. one should be strict in diet.
    more Cholesterol content in body would lead to heart diseases.
    maintain proper diet and give some physical excersie for your body, post is really useful. thanks