Egg-ception to cholesterol?

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Nutrition

FOR YEARS, doctors have warned that a diet high in cholesterol leads to elevated levels of blood cholesterol. And because high blood cholesterol levels have been clearly associated with coronary heart disease, concerned consumers have cut down on high cholesterol foods: red meat, butter and eggs-especially eggs. The American Heart Association's (AHA) recommendation that we consume less than 300 milligrams (mg.) of dietary cholesterol per day has, over the years, made the "incredible edible egg," with its 213 ma. of cholesterol, neither incredible nor edible.

Enter Wanda Howell, Ph.D., R.D., associate professor of nutrition at the University of Arizona in Tucson and author of a cholesterol study recently published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Her study, which analyzed 224 clinical trials, concludes that saturated fat-not dietary cholesterol-is the culprit in skyrocketing cholesterol levels.

What does this mean? According to Howell, it means that most consumers don't need to be afraid of foods high in cholesterol but low in saturated fat, mainly eggs. Before you break out the omelet pan, however, know this: Howell's study was partially funded by The Egg Nutrition Center, the education and research arm of the American Egg Board, in Washington, D.C.

Of course, just because a study is suspect doesn't mean it's inaccurate. Alice Lichtenstein, D.Sc., American Heart Association Nutrition Committee member says that although she believes disregarding the importance of dietary cholesterol is "premature," she is "not particularly influenced by who funded the study."

What gives her pause is that cholesterol is fraught with complexities. "It's not a black-and-white issue. People need to understand that a little [dietary cholesterol] is OK and a lot may be OK. But know what your blood cholesterol is, if [your doctor says] it's OK you can be a little more liberal about what you eat," says Lichtenstein.

Howell and Lichtenstein share a similar concern: that the study's findings may be misinterpreted by those who cannot afford a misunderstanding-namely, a segment of the population that will always have to monitor their cholesterol intake.

"There is a caveat. If somebody already has high LDL ["bad"] cholesterol, they need to be under a physician's care. About 15 percent of the population can't regulate cholesterol production, and the cholesterol they eat is added onto what their body is producing," says Lichtenstein.

Lichtenstein believes everybody should play it safe and stick to the AHA guidelines. She points out that there is no reason to increase your dietary intake of cholesterol. In other words, despite what you may hear about this "landmark study," dietary cholesterol is still a concern. It's important to note that most foods high in cholesterol, such as red meat, also are high in saturated fat so you're doing your heart a favor by avoiding them.

Both researchers emphasize the importance of proactively preventing high cholesterol with regular exercise, a saturated fat intake that is less than 10 percent of daily calories and maintenance of a healthy body weight.

Can Diet Lower Cholesterol?
THE AMERICAN HEART Association recently released a statement citing certain foods that may lower blood cholesterol.

Preliminary studies indicate that garlic, onion, leeks, tea (both green and black), soy and wine are among the top cholesterol-busters. However, the AHA does note that more research is needed regarding the phytochemical compounds (which are thought to inhibit cholesterol absorption) in these foods.

Regardless of who comes out on top in the dietary-cholesterol debate, for those with elevated cholesterol levels, or for those with a family history of high cholesterol, data such as this can help make hearts all the healthier.

PHOTO (COLOR): Garlic

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