There are many misconceptions in the world of Health and Fitness, but none greater than cholesterol and its relationship with cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and the role saturated fat plays.
Like me, you probably know someone who is trying to manage their cholesterol in an attempt to reduce their risk of stroke. They would have been told that in order to reduce risk they should reduce their cholesterol numbers by consuming less saturated fat and so they eat less; eggs, butter, read meat, etc. What if I was to tell you that this is wrong? What if I was to tell you cholesterol, like saturated fat, has little to do with heart diseases?
To cover this topic in depth would require a series of books. There is so much to say and so many fascinating, “a-haa” moments, but sadly that will need to wait till next time. If I was told I could only ever write one article, I would write the following, as it will not only make you, the reader, healthier, the information I am about to share could, save lives.
In this three-part article I will take you on a short journey. One that covers:
- why we wrongly believe cholesterol is the enemy;
- what is the real cause of atherosclerosis (hardening of arterial walls) and consequently CVD; and
- what you should be doing to reduce your risk of stroke and to be healthier in general.
First things first, cholesterol is fundamental to life. Just like oxygen, no cholesterol means no life – and this is a fact. The cholesterol in our body plays a vital role in producing hormones (testosterone and oestrogen), producing bile (aids in fat digestion) and even synthesising vitamin D. Not to mention, it’s a part of virtually every cell.
The total cholesterol in our body is either exogenous (cholesterol we’ve eaten), or endogenous (cholesterol our body produces by itself). Majority (85%) of the cholesterol in our bodies is produced endogenously, by our liver. The amount of cholesterol we eat has little effect on the amount of cholesterol we have in our bodies.
If cholesterol is so important to us humans, then why do we believe that reducing it will help? Well, that is thanks to a certain someone called Ancel Keys.
Ancel Keys, a USA scientist, conducted what is known as the ‘Seven Countries Study’. In this study he observed that countries with diets high in fat had higher counts of heart diseases. No one, including myself, is arguing with what Keys observed. But, the problem here is that correlation does not equal causation. Think of it this way, there is a positive correlation between height and basketball players, does this mean that playing basketball will make me taller? Sadly, no.
This same logic applies to the Seven Countries study. It’s also worth pointing out that there were in fact 22 countries in the study, but Keys selectively picked the 7 that best fit his theory. When you compare all 22, the correlation is weak.
At the time of this study (which was in the 50’s and 60’s), in the US there was growing public concern surrounding the rising incidences of heart disease. The government was under pressure to act. It was being pushed to issue health advice to the public, and we all know that under pressure we don’t make the best decisions. To the US, Keys had the answer, and so the anti-cholesterol agenda was born. Saturated fat became the enemy.
This brought Ancel Keys fame and power. He had the backing of the Government, American Health Association (AHA), American Diabetic Association (ADA), and most importantly, the public had bought into it too. Any alternative hypothesis was immediately and abruptly bashed. None more important than John Yudkin’s sugar hypothesis in; ‘Pure, White and Deadly’, which is a must read.
Two industries particularly benefited from this advice, the cereal and the pharmaceuticals industry. When you take away eggs you leave a gap for someone else to swoop in and take over the breakfast market. Have a look in any supermarket and there is now a whole isle dedicated to a vast array of different cereals. All packed and loaded with sugar, but hey “it’s not fat so it’s fine right?” I will cover breakfast in a different article, for now just know how big the industry has become.
The pharmaceutical industry created a cholesterol lowering drug called statins. This drug in the US alone has a value of $30 billion a year. That’s a lot of reasons to keep cholesterol public health enemy number one.
I am not here to tout conspiracy theories. These are the facts, it’s up to you, the educated reader, to decide for yourself. The point I do want to make however, is that there are a lot of people benefiting from this advice and they have some significant financial motivation to keep the status quo.
With that first “a-ha” moment, let’s look at why cholesterol is positively correlated with CVD. If it’s not the cause then why is it always at the scene of the crime? The answer is simple really, cholesterol is in virtually every cell. If a bunch of cells are clogging up an artery, cholesterol will be there, but it’s not the problem. Do we blame firefighters for fires? After all, wherever there is a fire, there are firefighters. But no, we don’t.
The more scientific answer is this. Fat (aka lipid) is hydrophobic, which means it repels water. Our blood (plasma) is water and so the lipid will not travel since it just repels or floats on the top of the plasma. To move the lipid to the muscle (for energy), or adipocytes (for storage), our body has to put it on a carrier (lipoprotein) that will then take it to it’s destination.
Lipoproteins come in many shapes and sizes, the most commonly known ones are HDL (High Density Lipoprotein) and LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein). These lipoproteins are made up of part protein and part lipids, which includes cholesterol. Let me say that again, cholesterol since it’s an important molecule happens to be part of the carrier. And, it’s these carriers, specifically the LDL ones that get stuck in our artery walls. The more LDL particles we have the more chance we have of these getting stuck in our artery walls.
- Cholesterol is fundamental to life, and found in most bodily cells.
- Correlation does not equal causation.
- LDL (lipoprotein) is what gets stuck in our artery walls, and cholesterol happens to be on board.
- There are big financial benefits of the current anti-cholesterol stance.
Finally, I will leave you with this; we’ve had the low-fat-low-cholesterol advice for many years now and yet incidences of heart disease continue to rise. Maybe it’s time to look at a different solution.
In my next article, I will share with you; why LDL isn’t the enemy but only a part of LDL is, what causes high LDL numbers and how atherosclerosis, the hardening/clogging of artery walls occurs.
With that, we can create a plan of attack (nutrition and training) that actually helps to lower your risk of heart disease and makes you healthier inside and out.