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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Cholesterol Hype

Originally posted 6-13-2006

We are constantly told that dietary saturated fat and cholesterol intake are the causes of high lipid (blood) cholesterol and that high cholesterol is the cause of atherosclerosis and heart disease. Of course, this means that we should subsist on a diet relatively devoid of animal fat and possibly replace some of your protein intake with soy for a “good low fat choice.” You also have to cut down on eggs, eat lots of grains for starch and fiber, and replace that “nutritional devil” saturated fat with some mono- and polyunsaturated fats.

So if we assume that the premise that saturated fats and dietary cholesterol are bad and lots of grains and polyunsaturated fats are good, is the War on Cholesterol justified? Does lowering the level of lipid cholesterol reduce the prevalence of heart disease and atherosclerosis? Should we seek to lower lipid cholesterol levels to the lowest level possible? Is there really such a thing as “bad” and “good” cholesterol? Hmmm. What if the establishment has been inadvertently wrong or possibly advertently misleading?

Oops, I guess I gave away the premise right there at the end of the second paragraph. The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics is a group of doctors and scientists that seeks to set the record straight regarding the role of animal fat and high lipid cholesterol in heart disease. One of these doctors is Uffe Ravnskov, author of The Cholesterol Myths. Dr. Ravnskov makes the point that high cholesterol doesn’t contribute to the hardening of arteries because studies show that people with low cholesterol are just as atherosclerotic as people with high cholesterol.

In fact, it appears that there may be benefits to having high cholesterol levels. Dr. Ravnskov asks us to “consider the finding of Dr. Harlan Krumholz of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Yale University, who reported in 1994 that old people with low cholesterol died twice as often from a heart attack as did old people with a high cholesterol.” In fact, low cholesterol increases one’s risk of all-cause mortality; numerous studies show that high cholesterol protects against infection. Plain and simple, cholesterol is the building block of many structures in the body, including all steroid hormones and cell membranes, and plays a key role in regulating blood sugar, building strong bones and muscles, and repairing tissue damage.

So it appears that high cholesterol isn’t really a risk factor for much of anything. However, high cholesterol may be indicative of a situation that is a risk factor. For instance, high cholesterol is not a risk factor for women or old people, but is for young and middle-aged men. Now that sounds like an odd hypothesis.

To quote this summary of Dr. Ravnskov’s book:
“If we were to believe that a correlation between high cholesterol and heart disease proved that cholesterol causes heart disease, using the data from the major studies used to support this idea, we would have to believe:
•cholesterol causes heart disease in men, but not in women
•cholesterol causes heart disease in Americans, but not in Canadians, and protects against heart disease in Russians
•cholesterol causes heart disease if you are between the ages of 30 and 47, but stops causing heart disease once you turn 48”

Essentially, cholesterol is dangerous, but only if you have a Y chromosome and are a certain age. Logic dictates that it isn’t the high cholesterol levels in these young and middle-aged men that is causing their problems since high cholesterol levels in all other populations are protective. Remember folks, correlation does not prove causation. Basically, high cholesterol could be a symptom of something risky or it may just be an innocent bystander, flexing its protective muscle in your blood system. Dr. Thomas Cowan found that a woman that was a lifetime golfer had high cholesterol. Once put on statins, her cholesterol dropped and she started showing symptoms of toxicity from the pesticides on the golf course, so it looks like the cholesterol was allowing her body to detoxify the large amount of pesticides she was taking in.

Oh and don’t be so concerned about that “bad” LDL either. I’ll leave you with that thought and move onto the role of diet in this farce. So now let’s assume that high cholesterol is something to worry about and look at how we should go about “fixing” that.

Dr. Malcolm Kendrick will tell you that neither dietary cholesterol nor dietary saturated fat intake causes any change in lipid cholesterol levels (as he provides further systematic dismantling of the cholesterol hypothesis). To summarize: saturated fat is NEVER turned into cholesterol. The liver makes cholesterol and it doesn’t make cholesterol from fat, saturated or not. In fact, it has been shown that saturated fat is protective against arterial narrowing, while (drumroll!) grains and polyunsaturated fats have been found to be harmful. Now that makes sense! Before the cholesterol can attach to form a plaque, the artery needs to be damaged. High levels of circulating glucose and insulin damage the lining of arteries. And polyunsaturated fats are highly susceptible to oxidation, while saturated fats are nearly impervious, with mono’s falling somewhere in the middle.

Quick primer on oxidation: when it happens to iron it’s called rusting, when it happens to fruit it’s called ripening, when it happens to our bodies it’s called aging. Oxidation is a bad thing, hence why ANTI-oxidants are such a good thing. So cooking should be done with saturated fats such as palm and coconut oils, rather than with polyunsaturated fats like corn and peanut oils, since heat increases oxidation in fats.

Given the multitude of studies showing that cholesterol isn’t a risk factor for heart disease, and may even be beneficial in the protection against other infections, why isn’t it common knowledge? That one’s simple. You don’t have to be the CEO of Pfizer to recognize that statins, the only truly effective way to lower cholesterol, are a multi-billion dollar “wonder drug.” The more diseases that can be pinned on cholesterol, and the more doctors purchased, the more profits the pharmaceutical giants stand to rake in. Late last year, cholesterol was “linked” to Alzheimer’s – chalk up another disease that can be treated with statins. Unfortunately for the cholesterol hypothesis, it appears that insulin resistance (Type II diabetes) is strongly linked to Alzheimer’s, not cholesterol. Don’t worry, Big Pharma won’t let a little thing like truth keep them from pumping millions more Americans full of statins. They will keep pushing for new lower limits of “healthy” cholesterol and doctors in the know will continue to oppose them, to no avail.

The part that I find exceptionally ironic is that when most people take their car to the mechanic, a $500 repair raises eyebrows. “Hey, is this guy taking me to the cleaners?” A doctor tells them they have high cholesterol and are going to be taking statins for the rest of their life. “Oh…ok.” And statins are going to cost upwards of $1000 per year. So people are more than willing to take drugs that can cause birth defects, pancreatic disorders, Coenzyme Q10 depletion (extremely ironic considering CoQ10 is necessary for proper heart function), and a whole host of other known issues, yet they question a guy that wants to put new brakes on their car. Even better, statins cause depression in many people. How’s that for a double-whammy for the pharmaceutical companies? They can put you on lifetime statins and lifetime depression meds.

So putting it all together, it appears that neither saturated fat intake nor cholesterol intake have a measurable effect on lipid cholesterol. Further, it appears that lipid cholesterol may have the opposite effect of what we’re told. That is, high cholesterol seems to be protective rather than detrimental. So if you go to the doctor and he tells you that you have “high cholesterol”, rest assured that you’re probably ok. Or at the very least, it isn’t the cholesterol that you need to be worried about, it’s whatever underlying issue your body is trying to protect itself against by producing cholesterol. Eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, full-fat grassfed meats, and wild-caught fish, and low in polyunsaturated fats and grains. And don’t take statins.

Other Links:
Much more reading courtesy of Cholesterol and
Cholesterol levels not linked to cardiovascular disease
Potential side effects of statins
More on carbohydrates and atherosclerotic progression
Lack of scientific evidence for saturated fat connection to cholesterol