Following a nearly year-long campaign including petitions, oral testimony, billboards, and threat of legal action by the Physicians Committee, a nonprofit of 12,000 doctors, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans released this morning retain - and strengthen - recommendations for Americans to limit cholesterol consumption - a major rebuff for the purveyors of high-cholesterol food products. But the Physicians Committee is demanding an investigation into food industry financial pressures that nearly toppled cholesterol warnings.
In February 2015, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recommended dropping limits on dietary cholesterol, motivated by industry pressure, according to documents recovered by the Physicians Committee under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents revealed a money trail from the American Egg Board to universities where DGAC members were employed and persistent industry pressure to weaken cholesterol limits.
In March, Neal Barnard, M.D., president of the Physicians Committee presented oral testimony at the National Institutes of Health, stating that "for all its good work, the Committee made a scientific error on cholesterol and to carry this glaring mistake into the Guidelines is not scientifically defensible."
The Physicians Committee appealed to Agriculture Committee chairman Rep. K. Michael Conaway in October with "Cholesterol Kills" billboards and a letter, after he convened a congressional hearing over the Agriculture Committee's "concerns with the process of developing the Dietary Guidelines."
On November 12, 2015, the Physicians Committee fired a shot across the bow in the form of a demand letter to DHHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, putting them on notice that it would litigate if warnings on dietary cholesterol were weakened, and the Physicians Committee followed up with a lawsuit on January 6, 2016.
However, instead of weakening the cholesterol warnings, the just-released Dietary Guidelines issued an even stronger warning about cholesterol. The Guidelines state: "As recommended by the IOM, individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible ... Strong evidence from mostly prospective cohort studies but also randomized controlled trials has shown that eating patterns that include lower intake of dietary cholesterol are associated with reduced risk of CVD, and moderate evidence indicates that these eating patterns are associated with reduced risk of obesity. ... Dietary cholesterol is found only in animal foods such as egg yolk, dairy products, shellfish, meats, and poultry."
"Cholesterol in eggs, poultry, cheese, and meat contributes to heart attacks and other health risks," said Neal D. Barnard, MD, President of the Physicians Committee. "We praise the Government for resisting industry pressure to weaken the warnings. It has actually strengthened them."
The new Guidelines also include details on following a Healthy Vegetarian Eating Pattern, including modifications for an entirely vegan eating plan.
"Although its recommendations were rejected, we still need to know how the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee could be so easily swayed by industry," Dr. Barnard said, "but the fact that the Government has retained cholesterol warnings is heartening."
The Guidelines were scheduled to be released in December, but were delayed at years-end until today, when they were released with cholesterol warnings intact.