Should I Check the Cholesterol on Nutrition Labels?

Last week I wrote about three heart-health related changes to Canada’s nutrition label, and invited readers to submit questions about the label in our Facebook group. One of the questions that popped up: “What is your stance on having cholesterol on the labels? Should the focus be on cholesterol, or saturated/trans fats?”

I’m sharing the response here because I think it will be of interest to many people. It’s expanded a bit beyond my Facebook post, but the substance remains the same.

“I wouldn’t pay much attention to cholesterol on labels.

You’re right, saturated and trans fats have more effect on our body’s cholesterol, although even that seems to differ by type of food. And the overall impact on heart health depends on lots more than that. (More here on saturated fat and your body’s cholesterol levels.)

Some population studies in people with diabetes (here and here) find more heart problems in those who eat more eggs (a uniquely high-cholesterol food). This trend is generally not seen in studies looking at otherwise healthy subjects. They do, however, find a higher chance of developing diabetes in the heavy egg eaters.

It’s not clear, however, that the eggs or cholesterol are the cause of these findings. Studies like this can demonstrate association but not causation.

Think about it this way: If someone cuts out eggs, what are they eating instead? Corn Flakes? That’s not helpful. Or are they starting their day with steel-cut oats with walnuts and blueberries?

Conversely, if someone eats a lot of eggs, are they routinely having them with spinach and sprouted grain toast, or bacon, white toast and butter?

This is one reason nutrition studies can give conflicting results. It’s our overall diet that matters, not just one tiny nutrient. (Not to mention many other habits and factors!)

But even if you want to keep your cholesterol intake on the low side, to be conservative, I wouldn’t do that with label-reading. Major dietary cholesterol contributors — meat, fish, and chicken — often have no label. Having less than 4-6 oz of those per day and less than 2-4 eggs per week will generally keep your cholesterol reasonable.

And that’s a smart idea anyhow, to leave room for more artery-friendly fruits, veg, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, etc.”

What other questions do you have? Ask them in the Facebook group! And if you’re frustrated sometimes by the lack of a clear choice, say if one food is lower in saturated fat, but higher in sodium, some thoughts here on how to navigate that.

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