Dr. John McDougall joins lawsuit against new federal dietary guidelines

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Santa Rosa physician and nutrition expert Dr. John McDougall has joined a lawsuit seeking to overturn one key change to the new federal dietary guidelines released last week.

McDougall, who champions a starch-based vegan diet, is part of a group calling for the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services to reinstate a dietary recommendation limiting cholesterol consumption to no more than 300 milligrams per day.

McDougall and three other physicians have joined the Washington-based nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in the suit against Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell.

The lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, raises concerns that food business groups have used their financial power to influence recent dietary research and have put “industry pressure” on guideline committee members who recommended removing the previous numeric limit on cholesterol.

“Their recommendations are hurting my patients,” McDougall said Tuesday.

The guidelines released last week made headlines for urging Americans to drastically reduce sugar from their diets, as well as for teenage boys and men to consume less protein.

The new guidelines also gave a win to the egg industry by dropping the specific cholesterol limit. But their victory was only partial, according to both McDougall and the physicians’ group.

Both did admit the guidelines note that, while the specific limit was removed, “this change does not suggest that dietary cholesterol is no longer important to consider when building healthy eating patterns. As recommended by the (Institute of Medicine), individuals should eat as little dietary cholesterol as possible while consuming a healthy eating pattern.” The Institute of Medicine is a division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

“As little as possible is none,” said McDougall.

He acknowledged that his allies last summer thought the industry forces “were going to get everything they wanted” with no limits on cholesterol, but the guideline that recommends limiting cholesterol to as little as possible amounted to “a sliver of light” to encourage Americans to reconsider their diets. Nonetheless, he expects the physicians’ group to continue the lawsuit over the removal of the 300-milligram limit.

McDougall’s recommendation for the general public is to treat items with saturated fats, sugar or cholesterol as “feast food” and to save them for celebratory occasions: eggs at Easter, candy at Halloween and turkey at Thanksgiving. The problem, he said, is that too much of the world’s population today eats like royalty all year long and “they look like kings and queens. They’re fat. They’ve got the gout.” And many are at risk of diabetes.

McDougall has been a best-selling New York Times author thanks to his McDougall diet. Since 2002, he has run his own 10-day wellness program in Santa Rosa. And over the years a number of local restaurants have offered McDougall dishes on their menus.

The American Egg Board wouldn’t comment Tuesday on the lawsuit and its allegations. But it did provide a statement suggesting support for the elimination of the 300-milligram limit for cholesterol intake.

“The U.S. has joined many other countries and expert groups like the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology that do not have an upper limit for cholesterol intake in their dietary guidelines,” said Mitch Kanter, executive director of the Egg Nutrition Center, the research arm of the egg board.

The egg board also noted that while many Americans “avoided eggs for years due to their cholesterol content, that thinking has evolved.”

Arnie Riebli, co-owner of Sunrise Farms in Petaluma, echoed that view and said such groups as the heart association no longer “beat the drum” in opposition to eggs.

“Eggs are not the demon they were made out to be,” Riebli said.

In a press release last week on the new dietary guidelines, the heart association made no specific mention of eggs, but said that in order to reduce cholesterol, it “continues to recommend limiting saturated fats to less than 5 to 6 percent of total calories consumed. For someone eating 2,000 calories a day, that’s about 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat a day.”

Riebli also noted that the all-day breakfast that McDonald’s instituted last fall is just one sign of the growing popularity of eggs.

“The demand for eggs has gone up significantly over the last three or four years,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also declined comment on the lawsuit Tuesday.

But the agency released a statement saying that the development of the dietary guidelines has become “more robust and transparent” and the current release “recognizes the importance of focusing not on individual nutrients or foods in isolation, but on the variety of what people eat and drink — healthy eating patterns as a whole — to bring about lasting improvements in individual and population health.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

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