How did eggs, one of the most nutritious foods on the planet, become associated with guilt and restrain? Well, the average egg contains 185 mg of cholesterol, more than half the 300 mg daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA) and other prominent institutions. If we're to believe the AHA, eating two or more eggs per day increases one's risks for cardiovascular disease. Scientific research, however, doesn't support such limitations. That's why the US government, a longtime proponent of the theory that dietary cholesterol (cholesterol within food) increases serum cholesterol (blood cholesterol), may soon start singing a different tune.
The Washington Postrecently reported, based on insider sources, that the highly influential Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) will soon discontinue its warnings against cholesterol-laden foods like eggs, shrimp, and beef, based on mounting evidence that dietary cholesterol, far from compromising our health, is actually an important and beneficial nutrient.
The DGAC convenes every five years to review the scientific literature on nutrition before producing a final report for the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture, the agencies behind the infamous Food Guide Pyramid (retired in 2005), MyPyramid (retired in 2011), and the current MyPlate guidelines for healthy eating.
It would be easy to chastise the DGAC for repeatedly warning against dietary cholesterol in the absence of evidence linking its consumption to increased serum cholesterol and increased risk for heart disease. What's done is done, however, and despite the widespread health consequences of decades of incorrect and unscientific advice, perhaps we should congratulate the DGAC for finally hitting the mark.
In December, during their final meeting for their current five-year rotation, the DGAC panel purportedly decided to stop rallying against dietary cholesterol. "A person with direct knowledge of the proceedings," according to the Post, "said the cholesterol finding would make it to the group's final report, which is due within weeks."
While the Department of Agriculture is not obliged to alter its own recommendations, they typically don't deviate from the DGAC's final report. This could mean big changes in the US and beyond. This could mean, for example, that irrational and unscientific fears around eggs and other high-cholesterol foods could finally subside.
In 1961, when the AHA started campaigning against dietary cholesterol, egg consumption dropped 30 percent in the US. Ever since, eggs have been stigmatized, despite repeatedly being vindicated by scientific research. A recent meta-analysis, for example, published by the prestigious British Medical Journal, found that egg consumption is associated neither with increased risk of heart disease, nor with stroke.
Official US dietary guidelines are important because they influence school lunch programs, meal planning at hospitals and cafeterias, and the food choices of millions of people, both within the US and beyond. During the 20th century, which I sometimes refer to as the Dark Ages of Nutrition, many governments and prominent health organizations adopted erroneous theories on many nutritional topics, including sugar, saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol.
Things are changing now. Regarding the DGAC's anticipated reversal on cholesterol, Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, observed, "There's been a shift of thinking." We're now in the midst of a Nutritional Renaissance. In 2014, for example, convincing research further eroded the antiquated notion that saturated fat promotes heart disease. Let's see what 2015 will bring and which other longstanding nutritional myths will crumble. For now, it's time to end the egg fight and continue enjoying healthy foods, like eggs, shrimp, and beef, which happen to contain dietary cholesterol.
Christopher James Clark is the award-winning author of Nutritional Grail. He serves on the Advisory Board of Men's Health magazine and writes for Dr. Loren Cordain, the founder of the Paleo movement.