Cutting Through the Cholesterol Confusion
Does cholesterol-free food protect your heart?
Of all the information on the nutrition facts panel on food labels,
cholesterol may be the most misunderstood.
Part of the confusion comes from the fact that cholesterol in food isn't the
same thing as the cholesterol that clogs arteries. To be sure, foods high in
cholesterol can cause blood levels of cholesterol to rise. But only about one
in three people seem to be especially susceptible to the effects of cholesterol
"And even then, dietary cholesterol isn't the biggest worry when it
comes to heart disease," says Kathy McManus, MS, RD, director of nutrition
for Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston. "Studies show it's only about
half as important as saturated fat and trans fat in raising serum cholesterol
Cholesterol-Free Food: What Does It Mean?
All those factors can make it easy to get confused when you're trying to
make a healthy choice at the grocery store. Many foods trumpet themselves as
being cholesterol free or low in cholesterol. That's an easy claim to make. The
main sources of dietary cholesterol are animal foods that don't carry nutrition
facts labels, such as:
Cholesterol-free labels are misleading in another way. Foods loaded with
saturated fat or trans fats can claim they contain zero cholesterol, but
they're actually more of a threat to your heart and arteries than foods with a
little cholesterol and less saturated fat.
Cholesterol and the Great Egg Debate
One source of confusion has long been eggs. A typical egg contains about 200
milligrams of cholesterol, but only 1.5 grams of saturated fat. When
researchers first linked high blood cholesterol levels to heart disease, eggs
got a bad rap.
But there's never been good evidence that eggs are a major factor in high
blood cholesterol levels or a contributing cause of heart disease.
In fact, when researchers at Harvard Medical School analyzed data from
almost 120,000 men and women, they found that eating the equivalent of an egg a
day did not increase the risk of heart disease or stroke. A more recent Harvard
Medical School study, published in 2008, also found that otherwise healthy men
could eat up to seven eggs a day with little risk. The only danger showed up in
men with diabetes, which is known to increase heart disease risk.
Indeed, studies suggest that only about 30% of people are particularly
susceptible to the effects of dietary cholesterol on blood cholesterol
And overall, the effects of dietary cholesterol are relatively small
compared with saturated fat and trans fats.
In a review of studies in which volunteers were fed eggs, researchers found
that lowering the amount of dietary cholesterol by 100 milligrams a day
resulted in only a 1% reduction in blood cholesterol levels. Replacing
saturated fat with unsaturated fat had a much more beneficial effect on