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New Dietary Guidelines May Lighten Caution Against Cholesterol


We've been told for decades to limit cholesterol-rich foods, but now, that advice may be changing. A panel of top experts appointed by the federal government is expected to update recommendations on what we should be eating. And NPR's food and health correspondent, Allison Aubrey, joins us now to talk about it. Hi-ya.


SIEGEL: We've been told to avoid cholesterol forever, and generations have grown up with that idea. What's changing?

AUBREY: That's right. A lot of us grew up thinking eggs were a no-no, right? Back in the 1970s, that's when experts first started making links between heart disease and diet. And that's when dietary cholesterol was really fingered as a problem. Now, cholesterol is found in animal products - meat, eggs, cheese, butter. And the thinking was that the amount Americans were eating was responsible for the increasing prevalence of heart disease.

SIEGEL: And what's happened now?

AUBREY: Well, in short, as researchers have continued to study this, they've concluded that there's really not strong evidence to support the idea that eating a lot of cholesterol in foods leads directly to higher amounts of bad artery-clogging cholesterol in our bloodstreams.

In fact, the American Heart Association changed its policy on dietary cholesterol in 2013, citing insufficient evidence on this link. And that's the new science that the dietary guidelines committee is responding to. Now, I should point out that their final report has not been released yet, so the details of their message on cholesterol is just not clear yet.

SIEGEL: We're talking about high-cholesterol foods. Does this mean that we don't have to worry about having high cholesterol?

AUBREY: No, the thinking has not changed about the risks of having high levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. That is still linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Now, what has evolved over time is a greater understanding of where the cholesterol comes from.

So our bodies make all the cholesterol we need. And for most people, it doesn't seem that the cholesterol we get directly from foods makes a significant difference in determining the levels of cholesterol in our blood. What does determine this is a whole range of other factors, including your genes, the amount of exercise you get and your overall pattern of eating.

SIEGEL: Well, what's the expectation of what we'll see in the new guidelines?

AUBREY: Well, we'll have to wait to see how far the committee goes. But I would say that based on the science, experts have already concluded that for most healthy people, an egg a day is fine. Studies show that eating one egg per day is not going to significantly increase artery-clogging cholesterol in healthy people.

But here's the caveat - a lot of the foods that contain cholesterol are also often very high in saturated fat. Think of meat and cheese, which Americans eat a lot of. So regardless of a new message on cholesterol, this is not going to be a green light to eat all of the bacon cheeseburgers you want. In fact, I would bet that what we can expect to see when this new report comes out is a continued focus on, you know, eating a healthy diet where you limit added sugars and, at any given meal, fill up half your plate with fruits and vegetables.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Allison.

AUBREY: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's food and health correspondent Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.