Cholesterol: The Good, Bad and Ugly

 

 
cholest-header
 

Do you know all about cholesterol? You’ve heard there’s good and bad cholesterol, right? Or maybe you’re taking a statin drug to lower your bad cholesterol. Perhaps you’ve even changed your diet to a low-fat diet to cut your cholesterol. Guess what? There’s a good to excellent chance that just about everything you’ve ever heard about diet and cholesterol is wrong—but you won’t hear it from your doctor or the people selling drugs.

 

The Basics

 

Beef stew is delicious.

Beef contains saturated fat and cholesterol. Is that bad? Are you sure? Better read on.

Let’s start simple. What is cholesterol? Cholesterol is a fatty, waxy substance the body uses to build and regenerate damaged cells. It is also needed to manufacture hormones our bodies need—hormones like testosterone and estrogen. Cholesterol is ultimately manufactured by our bodies from foods we eat. However, dietary cholesterol and the cholesterol floating around in our bodies are not to be confused. In other words, eating foods that contain cholesterol (like eggs or butter) doesn’t directly translate to having high cholesterol—your body will use the cholesterol or not depending on need.

 

Cholesterol is not water soluble. This means it must attach itself to a lipid protein in order to travel through the bloodstream. We often refer to LDL and HDL as types of cholesterol, but LDL and HDL are actually “low” or “high” density lipid proteins and as such are just the mechanism our bodies use to transport cholesterol where it’s needed. Our livers regulate blood cholesterol. The liver sends LDL out to wherever part of the body needs cholesterol. Conversely, HDL attaches to excess cholesterol and transports it back to the liver to be recycled.

 

The notion HDL is somehow the better of the two types of lipid protein is at least partially tied to the idea it removes excess cholesterol from our system. However, that’s a bit misleading. HDL does takes cholesterol back to the liver, but there it is recycled as needed by the body.

 

Cheese contains fat and cholesterol.

Dairy like this cheese also contains saturated fat and cholesterol. Most doctors warn to eat less meat and dairy, but new information about LDL cholesterol may make those recommendations obsolete.

By reducing the overall level of LDL cholesterol there is less cholesterol to build up as plaque (or so goes the reasoning). When an artery is damaged by high blood pressure, smoking, diabetes or otherwise, LDL can enter the inner artery wall at the sight of the damage. As white blood cells stream to the area to repair damage, the LDL and white blood cells combine and harden as plaques. This process can proceed in an orderly fashion or not and occur over a long period of time. The worse the damage, the more plaque build up and the more risk for a complete blockage.

 

To complicate matters, ongoing research has shaken our original understanding of LDL cholesterol. It turns out there are four sizes of LDL not one as originally thought. These go from large to very small. The current thought is the smallest LDL particles pose the bigger risk as they can more easily plug the lining of arteries at sites where damage to the wall of the arteries has occured, and the larger LDL particles may not pose any risk since they will float harmlessly past. This means our current testing for cholesterol may have a major built-in flaw since it only looks at total LDL and not LDL type.

 

To be clear, unless the cholesterol blood test you take is specifically designed to measure the size of your LDL particles you may end up with a high reading for LDL and yet it could be the better variety, meaning the larger LDL particles. This implies indiscriminately reducing total LDL without knowing the specific type (as is now done by the majority in medical profession who prescribe statin drugs) might well be a misguided notion as it forces patients into unnecessary drug regimes, subjects them to potential side-effects, and increases overall health care costs.

 

Lest we jump to conclusions, the jury is still out on the role statins should play in reducing LDL when particle size is taken into account. Yes, there may be some benefit to taking statins to reduce small particle LDL. Then again, it appears eating more saturated fat may reduce the amount of small particle LDL floating around in your system. Yes, you read that right: Increasing saturated fat in the diet creates more of the larger size LDL and a diet low in fat and high in carbohydrates results in LDL with smaller size particles. This means more focus on diet and less on popping pills may ultimately turn out more beneficial to those at risk. And yes, genetics, environmental factors and lifestyle choices all play into the mix. For more on this subject read, “Small LDL Particles Pose The Biggest Risk” at NBCNews.com.

 

The Case For Statins

 

Vegetables are good for you.

Those carrots and that celery look more like rabbit food to me.

A hundred years ago, way back in 1913, a Russian physiologist studied cholesterol using rabbits. The physiologist fed the rabbits a diet that was high in dietary cholesterol and discovered the rabbits developed atherosclerotic changes that weren’t unlike human atherosclerosis. In other words, the rabbits developed plaque in their arteries. Out of this study the notion was born that too much cholesterol is bad for us.

 

The rabbit study is notable for being flawed in design from the start. Rabbits are herbivores, meaning they normally eat plants. They aren’t accustomed to eating meat or other foods high in cholesterol. Thus, the affected rabbits in this study were given food that was completely unnatural and foreign to their systems. Should the rabbits have a problem handling cholesterol under the circumstances? Wouldn’t you?

 

Science provides wonderful and important new insights and discoveries on a daily basis, but every scientific study starts with a hypothesis and then is tested to see if the hypothesis holds true. Unfortunately, when scientists set out to prove certain things, their personal beliefs and agendas often get in the way of learning or promoting truth. A hypothesis can be worded a particular way. Certain tests can be proposed or rejected. Other tests may not be thought of. Data considered too far out of the norm can be ignored. And scientists who earn their living at the courtesy of companies or governments may not want to disappoint their sponsors. Is all science bad? Absolutely not. However, any study requires critical review and scrutiny before we rely on it as fact.

 

Chicken has less dietary cholesterol than beef.

Thanks to Ancel Keys and others who followed, dietary guidelines still suggest cutting back on saturated fats like those found in meats.

Sixty years ago, in 1953, a man called Ancel Keys (who is most famous for developing army K-rations) published a study that correlated the number of deaths from heart disease with fat calories (i.e. the percentage of calories from fat). Mr. Keys looked at death rates from heart disease in six countries and concluded higher fat consumption was the cause for increased rates of heart disease. In 1970, he published another study, using three countries from his first study and four new ones. This study reinforced his original findings, and was a major reason why our government (through the McGovern Report) released food guidelines in 1977 with the goal of reducing overall fat intake and avoiding foods high in cholesterol. A curious side note: The report was written by a McGovern staffer who was a vegetarian with no background in diet or nutrition. Did this vegetarian have his own agenda in regards to reducing meat consumption? Who can say?

 

Here’s the kicker: Ancel Key’s original fat-heart study of 6 countries specifically ignored data available from at least 16 other countries—data which specifically contradicted his findings. In fact, some countries with the highest rates of saturated fat consumption had the lowest levels of heart disease, which completely contradicted Key’s findings.

 

 

Walnuts are high in protein and good for you besides.

Nuts like walnuts and other foods like avocados and coconut all are high in saturated fat, but many now consider these foods good for us.

In case you’re still unconvinced poor science hurts or that good science is often ignored, one need only look at the 30 year 1987 Framingham study which studied thousands of people and among other things concluded: 1) That those over the age of 50 have no increased overall risk from low or high cholesterol levels, and 2) People with falling cholesterol over the first 14 years of the study had an 11% increase of mortality in the next 18 years of the study. In other words, reducing cholesterol was ultimately associated with an increased risk of mortality—the exact opposite of what so-called health professionals continue to drill into us.

 

While there are many more examples of science being misused in the study of health and nutrition, the point is the same: When there’s a financial interest at stake, you can expect either some findings to be ignored or to be promoted based on whether or how the study affects those same interests.

 

Big Pharma

 

We all like to think our doctor knows best when it comes to our health and nutrition. Didn’t he or she go to school for years to earn their degree? Yet tell a typical doctor you have X and Y symptoms and they’ll pull out a pad and write a prescription to treat the symptoms rather than dig into the real cause of the problem. And nowhere does this happen more frequently than for those people who take a blood test and the results show they have high cholesterol. Think about it: Prescriptions for statin drugs to reduce cholesterol create a multi-billion dollar per year windfall for the pharmaceutical industry. Is there an invested interest in keeping the status quo? Absolutely.

 

Try a smoothy made with fresh berries. Mmm. Delicious.

We should be eating a lot more natural foods like berries. Though high in fructose, a type of sugar, they contain vital nutrients. Some say blueberries are especially good for lowering cholesterol.

But don’t statin drugs reduce LDL cholesterol? Yes they do. Statin drugs inhibit a specific enzyme in the liver and that reduces the amount of LDL traveling through the blood stream. The question we need to ask is whether or not it’s a good idea to interfere with the body’s natural process that involves rebuilding cells and manufacturing new hormones. If you take a statin drug, it’s worth bringing up the subject with your doctor. Though you have to look at the fine print, statins do have side effects. Most notably, a number of them create constant and nagging back and joint pain and can cause significant damage to the liver.

 

What’s Wrong With Modern Medicine?

 

Curiously, a hundred years ago less than one percentage of our population was considered obese and the notion of heart disease as a killer was virtually unknown. Since that time heart disease has become one of the top two causes of death (the other being cancer). Equally curious, in 1950 the U.S. had a total of 500 cardiologists. Today, that number approaches 30,000. As our population has only doubled in the same time frame, one might think we’d need only 1000 cardiologists. Instead we have 60 times our original number.

 

Isn’t it worth asking why? Why are so many people now getting sick from heart disease, even after decades of prescribing statins and following low-fat diet regimes? A hundred years ago, beef fat, diary such as eggs and butter, and lard were a staple of the American diet. Today, we’re constantly told to shy away from these “high-fat, high-cholesterol” foods in favor of low-fat, low cholesterol foods. Today we also consume countless excess calories from sugar and sugar substitutes like corn syrup in form of soft drinks, candy bars, sugary snacks, processed foods and even foods like “low-fat” yogurt. In addition, many of our processed foods still come loaded with “trans-fats” (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenate fats) even though the main stream medical profession is now recognizing trans-fat as a type of fat we should all eliminate from our diets. And equally striking is how our physical activity during the day includes endless hours of sitting idly in front of a computer or T.V.

 

Walking anywhere is great exercise, though walking on the beach is my favorite.

Are you getting enough exercise? Probably not! Go for a walk. It’s easy on the joints.

Is the key to better health really a mystery? From the beginning of time, we have hunted and gathered food we then prepared for ourselves—food we could readily find in our local environment. Now, we pop into the grocer and have all but given up on getting sufficient exercise, even knowing how critical it is to burning excess calories. There is no magic pill to stave off death, but eating right and exercising certainly seem the time-tested formula for leading healthier lives.

 

We can’t recommend anyone stop taking statins prescribed by their doctor. We are not scientists or doctors. However, it’s worth understanding the risks involved with any medication you consume and how so-called truths are born into popular culture. Don’t be afraid to drill your doctor when he or she tells you to take a statin. Make sure he or she isn’t repeating some of the same myths we’ve all bought into. Cholesterol isn’t bad, in and of itself. It’s a necessary ingredient to life and reducing it creates the potential for some serious side effects. Not all LDL is bad. Does your doctor even know this? Do you have small or large particle LDL? Should it matter? All fats aren’t bad. Are you eating the good ones and avoiding the bad? How much sugar is in the food you eat? How much fiber? Take the time to sort the facts. Meanwhile, get a lot more exercise and eat a well-balanced diet of natural, unprocessed foods.

 

Sources:

1)   Small LDL Particles Pose Biggest Risk, NBCNews.com, Laura Roberson, 2010

2)   Bad Cholesterol: It’s Not What You Think, NBCNews.com, Paul Scott, 2010

3)   Cholesterol And Artery Plaque Build Up, WebMD

4)   Enjoy Saturated Fats: They’re Good For You, Donald W. Miller, Jr., MD, LewRockwell.com

 

Much of this post was inspired by Dr. Miller. If you have the time, we heartily recommend watching his complete video below or reading the full text of it which you can find at the link immediately above.

 

 

Comments are closed.

Categories

Favorite Pages

Comics-2quotes-buttonFood-Recipes-2Recipe-Index-butHome-Project-Tips-2Famous-Ducks-2Personal-Growth-2Great-Savings-Tips-2Investing-Ideas-2

Archives