I am often frustrated by newspaper and television reports about medical studies, when one report contradicts an earlier report so that you have no idea what to believe. Is dietary cholesterol bad for me or not? Often, reports ping pong back and forth between competing theories. Debate often seems drawn along political lines–meat industries and Congress vs. the Obama administration, for example–rather than along scientific lines.
Just today, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee placed numerical guidelines on how much sugar and saturated fat, among other things, a person should eat on any given day. Not surprisingly, these guidelines represent changes from what was recommended in the past. Sometimes changes are good; sometimes they are harmful.
These specifics come after broader guidelines were released in February of 2015. The New York Times published an article explaining the original report called, “Nutrition Panel Calls for Less Sugar and Eases Cholesterol and Fat Restrictions” Incidentally, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is the body that advises The Department of Health and Human Services and The Department of Agriculture, the two governmental bodies responsible for the famous “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
For the purposes of discussion, it is important to know the difference between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol is the cholesterol you ingest from eating animal-based foods including meat, fish, eggs, poultry, and dairy. Plant foods do not contain measurable amounts of dietary cholesterol.
Blood cholesterol is the soft, waxy substance found in your blood (and indeed, in every cell of your body) and which produces cell membranes, hormones, vitamin D, and bile acids that help you digest fat and maintain neurological function. Your body manufactures cholesterol.
Cholesterol matters! Your body needs cholesterol, but there is no need to ingest cholesterol.
Changing Things Around
The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee called for a reduction in added sugar and saturated fat in the diet. These recommendations were largely undisputed. However…
…the panel also dropped a longstanding recommendation that Americans restrict their intake of dietary cholesterol from foods like eggs and shrimp — a belated acknowledgment of decades of research showing that dietary cholesterol has little or no effect on the blood cholesterol levels of most people. The New York Times
They told us not to worry so much about eating foods containing dietary cholesterol.
The pushback was fairly immediate, although the public had already lost interest and turned back to eating bacon, eggs, meat and butter regardless of anything any panel had to say.
Cardiologists and Researchers Speak
In March of 2015, cardiologist and Preventive Medicine Research Institute president, Dean Ornish, wrote a New York Times op-ed in response to the February article. He said,
MANY people have been making the case that Americans have grown fat because they eat too much starch and sugar, and not enough meat, fat and eggs. Recently, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee lifted recommendations that consumption of dietary cholesterol should be restricted, citing research that dietary cholesterol does not have a major effect on blood cholesterol levels. The predictable headlines followed: “Back to Eggs and Bacon?”
But, alas, bacon and egg yolks are not health foods.
Although people have been told for decades to eat less meat and fat, Americans actually consumed 67 percent more added fat, 39 percent more sugar, and 41 percent more meat in 2000 than they had in 1950 and 24.5 percent more calories than they had in 1970, according to the Agriculture Department. Not surprisingly, we are fatter and unhealthier.
The debate is not as simple as low-fat versus low-carb. Research shows that animal protein may significantly increase the risk of premature mortality from all causes, among them cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes. Heavy consumption of saturated fat and trans fats may double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Low-carb, high-animal-protein diets promote heart disease via mechanisms other than just their effects on cholesterol levels. Dean Ornish
He goes on to explain the detail, which involves a discussion of trimethylamine N-oxide or TMAO, a metabolite of meat and egg yolks linked to the clogging of arteries.
But you see? Such detail is difficult to spell and even more difficult to understand and therefore boring to us! It’s apparently boring to panels making dietary recommendations. It’s boring to people in the grocery store buying bacon and eggs.
His conclusion, however, should not bore us. Essentially, he thinks that to the extent that food containing dietary cholesterol also includes animal protein, which causes a complex cascade of damaging effects on the body including raising the risk for heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, any dietary recommendations allowing cholesterol is faulty.
In April of 2015, Cornell University biochemist specializing in nutrition, T. Colin Campbell joined the conversation in an article on his web site. He echoes Ornish but concentrates less on complexities and more on animal protein itself. He said,
The original hypothesis that dietary fat, especially saturated fat, is chiefly responsible for heart disease began with laboratory studies over a century ago and the findings are, at best, uncertain. Much more impressive evidence also was published to show that the early stages of heart disease, atherosclerosis, and its predictive serum cholesterol marker, were increased much more by dietary protein than by dietary fat, especially the protein in animal-based foods. Later, around 1940, more of the same evidence favoring protein was published. The animal protein, casein, was shown to be five times more effective in raising cholesterol in experimental rabbits than the plant protein, soy. In a human study, replacing dietary protein (mostly animal based) with soy protein lowered serum cholesterol much more effectively than lowering dietary fat. T. Colin Campbell
This is also not boring, especially to those of us with heart disease in our families. We want and need to know the truth.
He thinks that to the extent that food containing dietary cholesterol also includes animal protein, which is directly linked to predictive serum cholesterol markers and heart disease, any dietary recommendations easing cholesterol restrictions is irresponsible.
My advice: Look around the internet and beyond the headlines to see what experts are saying.
No-Cholesterol Foods: What Do They Look Like?
So, how can you go right ahead and avoid dietary cholesterol (and animal protein) anyway? Well, that’s the FUN part! The sky really is the limit, but let me lay some ideas on you. There’s a plant-based substitute for ALMOST everything. Let’s take chicken liver pâté, something fancy people ate back in the day on crackers at cocktail parties with pinkies extended. Chicken liver pâté is an example of a high-cholesterol food.
Try this no-cholesterol Mushroom Walnut Pâté instead:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 medium-sized yellow onion, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 15 cremini or shitake mushrooms, sliced
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme or 2 teaspoons dried
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage or 2 teaspoons dried
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes
- 3 tablespoons tamari, divided
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 2 cups walnuts, toasted
- ½ teaspoons freshly ground pepper
- Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in large sauté pan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until they become translucent, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, along with remaining 1 tablespoon oil and cover; cook for 5 minutes longer, stir occasionally. Uncover pan and allow to cook for about 10 minutes longer.
- Add thyme, sage, nutritional yeast, 2 tablespoons of tamari, and vinegar. Stir to combine. Cook for 1 minute and turn off heat. Transfer mushroom mixture to food processor and add walnuts, adding fresh ground pepper and remaining tamari if needed. Pulse until mixture become creamy pâté. Taste and add more seasoning as necessary.
- Serve at room temperature with crackers, bread, or crostini.
Next, eggs are notorious for dietary cholesterol with experts abhorring them one day and adoring them the next. Right now, it’s thumbs-up for eggs in the media it seems, but we know better, don’t we? Try a Tofu Scramble instead of scrambled eggs on a weekend morning.
In the following recipe, I seasoned things using salt and pepper, but you may add a half teaspoon of cumin or turmeric. Some people like to add a tablespoon of nutritional yeast. Try different things, and see what you like. Serve this with toast slathered in jam or with fresh salsa for a spicy kick.
- 1 block of tofu (firm or soft, depending on preference), cubed
- 1 large potato, washed and cubed (leave skins on)
- ¼ cup vegetable stock for sautéing
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded, de-veined and finely chopped (optional)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- 1 or 2 tablespoons minced, fresh chives or parsley
- Heat vegetable broth in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes and cook until they begin to get tender, about 10 minutes.
- Add the onions and peppers and cook for about 5 minutes more.
- Add the cubed tofu and cook for another 5-7 minutes.
- Season everything with salt, pepper and chives and serve immediately.
This recipe–a hash as much as a scramble–is a tasty and savory breakfast that will keep you full all morning long.
Lastly, many people are surprised to learn you can bake without eggs or dairy products. Try these Mighty Muffins, inspired by a recipe from The Engine 2 Diet, by Texas Firefighter, Rip Esselstyn. No cholesterol and no added fat at all! Surprise! It’s a treat you can enjoy without guilt. And it’s gluten free too!
- 3 cups oat bran
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons sweetener (agave, maple syrup or granulated sugar)
- 1 cup unsweetened applesauce
- 4-6 brown bananas, lightly mashed (leave some chunks)
- ¼ cup walnuts, chopped
- ¼ cup raisins
- ¾ cup water
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
- Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.
- Add the applesauce and bananas.
- Add walnuts, raisins and water.
- Combine wet and dry ingredients into one bowl.
- Pour into sprayed muffin tins and bake for 45 minutes or until golden brown on top.