Early this year the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans were published. The basis of these guidelines stem from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) report published early in 2015. The DGAC report recaps the latest nutrition guidance based on currently available science. Combined, the DGAC report and the Dietary Guidelines help the public eat a healthy, nutritionally adequate diet and inform federal food, nutrition, and health policies and programs.
The 2015 DGAC report sparked controversy on a few topics. One was the recommendation to remove dietary cholesterol from the existing list of “nutrients of concern for overconsumption.” In essence this recommendation declares there’s no longer a strong connection between the amount of cholesterol Americans eat and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD). However, and critical to note, the committee did keep saturated fat on the nutrients of concern list because research continues to show that we eat too much of it and a high intake is linked to a higher incidence of CVD.
Regarding this cholesterol recommendation, don’t think for a minute that the new Dietary Guidelines intend for you to overdo it on foods that contain large amounts of cholesterol. As a reference point, the DGAC report notes that Americans now eat less than 300 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol a day, on average. The Guidelines recommend that “individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible.”
To cut through what can be a confusing topic, let’s define a few important terms on the topic of cholesterol in your blood and in foods, as well as how fat travels in your body. Then let’s explore how to interpret these new cholesterol and fat recommendations as you make efforts to eat more healthfully.
What is Cholesterol?
Cholesterol is actually not a fat, it’s a waxy-like substance that’s made in the liver. It’s needed by the body to make certain hormones and even Vitamin D. Too much cholesterol, however, has been associated with an increased risk for, or incidence of, heart and blood vessel diseases, like heart attacks and strokes.
Cholesterol in the blood: Cholesterol travels through the bloodstream in small packages made up of fat and protein called lipoproteins. Two kinds of lipoproteins carry cholesterol throughout the body: low-density lipoproteins (LDL) and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). The American Heart Association states, “LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol because it contributes to plaque, which is a thick, hard deposit that can clog arteries and make them less flexible.” When enough plaque builds up, this can cause arteries to clog and lead to heart problems. In contrast, HDL cholesterol can help remove LDL cholesterol from arteries, so it is known as the “good” type of cholesterol. Maintaining healthy LDL and HDL levels helps keep your heart and blood vessels healthy. The liver typically makes enough cholesterol to meet your body’s needs. It’s wise to limit the amount of cholesterol you eat from foods to help maintain healthy levels of LDL and HDL.
Cholesterol in foods: The cholesterol we eat, called dietary cholesterol, is found only in foods that have an animal origin, such as egg yolks, full fat dairy products, shell fish, meats, poultry and organ meats. A few foods, notably egg yolks and some shell fish, are relatively high in dietary cholesterol but not high in saturated fats. Keep in mind foods that are higher in cholesterol, such as fatty meats and high-fat dairy products, are also higher in saturated fats (see saturated fat definition). Saturated fat and cholesterol often keep company with each other in foods. Examples are meats, full fat dairy foods, poultry and fish.
What is Saturated Fat?
Saturated fat is a kind of fat that is in some foods. Our main sources of saturated fats are dishes that contain cheese, meat, or both, such as burgers, sandwiches, and tacos; pizza; rice, pasta, and grain dishes; and meat, poultry, and seafood dishes. Other sources of saturated fat are palm and coconut oils. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that you limit the amount of saturated fats you eat to less than 10 percent of your calories per day.
Replace Saturated Fats for Unsaturated Fats
Research shows that eating a lot of saturated fats isn't healthy for your heart and blood vessels. The 2015-20 Dietary Guidelines suggest you replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats. There are different types of unsaturated fats, namely polyunsaturated and monounsaturated. The use of polyunsaturated fats and oils are associated with reduced blood levels of total cholesterol and of LDL-cholesterol. The Dietary Guidelines suggest you use more fats and oils that contain polyunsaturated fats, such as corn, soybean, and sunflower oils. Fats and oils that contain mainly monounsaturated fats and oils, such as safflower, canola and olive oil, are also healthier than saturated fats. Replacing saturated fats with plant sources of monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil and nuts, may be associated with a reduced risk of CVD.
What about Solid Fats in Foods
The Dietary Guidelines also offer a recommendation on what’s called solid fats. This recommendation was made because solid fats are plentiful in the American diet and eating less of these is an important way to eat less saturated fat and fewer calories. Solid fats contain a higher amount of saturated fat and are usually solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats are in a liquid form at room temperature. A stick of butter or margarine are good examples. Eating as little man-made trans-fats as possible is the current recommendation due to their negative impact on heart health. Trans fats are another kind of solid fat, typically found in processed food, but the amount of trans fats used in foods today has gradually decreased over the last decade.
What Does All This Mean to You?
While it may no longer be so important to pay careful attention to the milligrams of cholesterol you eat, it’s still important to eat as little cholesterol as possible. Your main focus should be on reducing the amount of saturated and/or solid fats that you eat, and choosing more healthy fats and oils. However, fats, healthier or less healthy, continue to be a concentrated source of calories, so consider the amount of fat you eat within your calorie needs.
Remember, when making changes in your food choices and eating habits, take a one-step-at-a-time approach. This can help keep the changes you make easier to sustain for years to come. A place to start may be with your dinner entrees. Here’s a delicious recipe for Grilled Salmon and Cucumber Relish that is low in saturated fat, and provides healthy fats. Bon appétit!
I have been compensated for my time by Heartland Food Products Group, the maker of SPLENDA® Sweetener Products. All statements and opinions are my own. I have pledged to Blog with Integrity, asserting that the trust of my readers and the blogging community is vitally important to me.
For more information about planning a healthy diet, visit the Healthy Lifestyle section of this blog.
Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE, BC-ADM, is a nationally recognized dietitian and diabetes educator who applies more than 35 years of expertise as an author, freelance writer, media spokesperson, consultant and diabetes educator. Hope notes: “Healthy eating today is one tough job! The good news is that simple tweaks in your food choices and how you prepare foods can often set you on a path to healthier eating. Each positive step is a step in the right direction along the path to a long and healthy life.”
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 8th ed. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines. (Accessed June 3, 2016)
- Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/ report. (Accessed June 3, 2016)
- Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). Part D. Chapter 1: Food and Nutrient Intakes, and Health: Current Status and Trends. http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/06-chapter-1/d1-2.asp. (Accessed June 3, 2016)
- What is cholesterol? http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/hbc. (Accessed June 3, 2016)
- Good vs. Bad Cholesterol http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Cholesterol/AboutCholesterol/Good-vs-Bad-Cholesterol_UCM_305561_Article.jsp#.V4PM603bLrc. (Accessed August 3, 2016)