Myth busting – Part 2
Myth: Cholesterol is bad for you
Truth: Cholesterol itself is a naturally occurring compound, an essential part of YOU! Only high LDL and VLDL cholesterol is associated with heart disease risk factors.
Whole books have been written about ‘the cholesterol myth’, lots of them, and I’ve read several. The truth that I always come back to is this – cholesterol is a naturally occurring sterol lipid (that’s a fancy name for a fat-based chemical compound) that is an integral part of every cell of every animal on Earth. Your body needs cholesterol to maintain cell integrity for all cells in the human body. Cholesterol is also an essential precursor in the production of a number of hormones, and it has other functions in our bodies too.
Cholesterol is an essential element of all cells in all animals. Your brain and nervous system, organs and muscles, none of them would work without cholesterol. It is so important, that if you don’t ingest any from dietary sources, your body can make its own.
So I think: if cholesterol is so important, vital to all animal life and so omnipresent in all animal life forms, how on Earth can it be bad for us? Would Mother Nature really have evolved a system whereby this wonderfully important compound, which we get from the food we eat, and which our body can make for itself, becomes harmful to us if we have a little bit too much of it? That seems counter-intuitive to most other things that have evolved over the last ten million years of our ancient genetic heritage to me.
High cholesterol levels
I’m not going to get into too much detail, because there are books out there that do a much better job of it than I can (I suggest you check out Dr Malcolm Kendrick if you want to learn more), but this number we hear so much about, the ‘safe maximum limit’ for total cholesterol, has been dropping steadily over the years. When I was born, 45 years ago, anything up to 7.5 mmol/l was considered OK, then it dropped to 7, then a decade or so ago it came down to 6.5, then 5.2 and now it’s 5 mmol/l. Many studies (in a lot of cases, studies funded by drug companies that sell statins) are suggesting the safe limit should be pushed down to 4!! The average Brit has a cholesterol level of around 6.1 mmol/l at the present time. If the limit comes down to 4, almost every adult in the UK will end up taking statins – for life!
Ummm…statin nation anyone??? (You might like to watch the movie by that name, Statin Nation.)
But measuring total cholesterol seems like a wonky measure to me. HDL cholesterol is proven to have lots of great health benefits, and only LDL and VLDL cholesterol is associated in some studies with negative health consequences.
Some studies, much less talked about than the ones funded by the statin-manufacturing drug companies, show a direct correlation between low-cholesterol in the elderly and higher rates of mortality. Yes, multiple studies show that low cholesterol in older people correlates with a shorter life! A study from 1997 (Corti MC et al) concluded that “Persons (over 65) with the lowest total cholesterol levels of 4.15 mmol/L and below had the highest rate of death from coronary heart disease, whereas those with elevated total cholesterol levels of 6.2 mmol/L and above seemed to have a lower risk of death from coronary heart disease.”
Yes, you read that right – the polar opposite of what we are told!
Another study (from the Honolulu Heart Program) found that low cholesterol in the elderly had a significant association with increased mortality – low cholesterol in folks over the age of 65 led to 64% higher likelihood of dying at a comparatively young age! Other studies link low cholesterol in the elderly to dying younger, and to links between low cholesterol in children and autism spectrum disorders including bipolar disorder. This could be linked to the importance of cholesterol as a building block of brain cells and nervous system cells.
It seems that having a higher cholesterol level is actually associated with good health, for every decade you go over your 40s, it seems to actually benefit longevity if your total cholesterol level gets higher as you get older. These studies actually show a very clear and demonstrable association between higher total cholesterol and REDUCED mortality from heart disease. Heart disease! The very thing high cholesterol is alleged to cause!
Personally, my own total cholesterol has gone up since I switched to my MND diet. Back in early 2012, (after the bulk of my weight loss, and several years after quitting smoking, but before my complete switch to MND, cutting all sugar and grains) my total cholesterol was low, at just 3.7, but also my HDL (that’s the good stuff) was very low, at 1.3. More recently, in 2015, my total cholesterol is up at 5.4, but my HDL is up to 2.2.
This means my “HDL-to-total cholesterol” ratio has gone down from 2.8, to 2.4, and the experts suggest that the lower that number goes, from 3.5 downwards towards 1, the better, and the lower risk of heart disease. So although my total may be up, it’s up because I’ve raised the good stuff, and that’s fine by me! I don’t care if my total goes up over 6, in fact when I hit my 60s, I hope it does – I want to live longer!!
Anyway, despite all the science, I personally think that lifestyle stress, smoking and obesity are all far more important indicators for heart disease. In my opinion, someone who is grossly overweight, smoking, drinking heavily, eating sugary foods and stressed out all the time is at very high risk for heart disease, whatever the numbers on a cholesterol test may say.
The MND lifestyle is designed to take care of all of this for you. So don’t get hung up on fears of ‘high cholesterol’, and don’t go avoiding eggs unless you have a known intolerance to them! Animal foods are good for you, providing you buy food from good clean free range and organic sources (Core Principle 7 and 8).
Following the MND 12 Core Principles is a heart-healthy diet and lifestyle.
- CP 1 - cut grains. That lowers omega-6 fatty acids. Also helps with weight loss, and if there is any undiagnosed non-celiac gluten sensitivity, causing gut irritation and chronic systemic inflammation, then cutting grains should take care of that
- CP 2 - cut sugar. Help with weight loss, reduce poor metabolic function, improve insulin sensitivity, all helps with chronic systemic inflammation
- CP 3 - cut trans fats in processed foods, also cheap processed salt and poor processed vegetable oils. All bad fats
- CP 4 - cut smoking and drinking, both direct leading proven contributing factors in heart disease. Cutting smoking is probably the #1 thing you can do to protect yourself against heart disease
- CP 5, CP 6 - air and water, all lead to help in stress reduction, and about a million other beneficial factors
- CP 7, CP 8 - eat lots of veggies, fresh fruit, meat and fish. Only pastured meat, free range eggs, organic veggies and sustainably caught fish. Diet high in omega-3 fatty acids, low in omega-6 fatty acids, high in nutrients, and good fats. Diet high in good fats, and very low in any bad fats
- CP 9 - exercise. Engaging in regular, moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise is probably the best protection anyone can take against heart disease
- CP 10 - reduce stress. Possibly the third most important factor in heart disease protection, after quitting smoking and engaging in regular exercise
While type-2 diabetes has become so common these days it is easy to be ‘off-hand’ about it, the reality is that being diagnosed diabetic, statistically, means a reduction of life expectancy of 12 years, on average. Poorly-controlled diabetes, and metabolic syndrome, are key heart disease risk factors. MND Core Principles 1, 2 and 9 are all there to help protect you from developing type-2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.