Cholesterol: Widely Misunderstood Nutrient (Yes, Nutrient)
February is “Heart Month”, a month where we should all be focusing on heart health and recognizing that we’re probably all going to die of heart disease unless we adopt a truly unpalatable way of eating and an unsustainable exercise regimen.
(As you can probably tell, I’m not totally enamoured with the “consensus” view of heart health).
So what better time than now to inject a few truth bombs into the monolithic, although wildly untrue, heart health dogma that assaults us at every turn. It’s time for a little debunking of the cholesterol myth.
First off, it should be noted that cholesterol is all good; both HDL and LDL. LDL cholesterol was innocuously labelled as “bad” at some point in the 80s’ simply because it was discovered that it’s the carrier that takes cholesterol to the cells. Since its brother, HDL was the carrier that carried cholesterol to the liver, to eventually be taken out of the body, it was decidedly “good”. Good cholesterol is the kind that’s leaving, bad cholesterol is the kind that stays, or so the logic goes.
All this hinges on the supposition that cholesterol is a bad thing and shouldn’t be in the body in the first place. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Cholesterol is a vital component of our biology; so vital that almost every cell in our bodies are capable of making it, and do so almost constantly. The brain is made up of cholesterol. It’s vital to proper brain function and helps to protect against depression. Cholesterol plays an essential role in cell membranes, keeping them firm and stopping them from being more porous (incidentally, so does saturated fat). It’s also an antioxidant, helping to protect against the big “C”. Cholesterol is also key in the creation of many of the body’s hormones including progesterone, pregnenalone, DHEA and the stress hormone cortisol (this is why the body increases cholesterol in times of stress). It’s also needed for the production of the all-important vitamin D!
It was erroneously decided that cholesterol must be bad.
But because cholesterol is a component of arterial plaques (one of many components), and arterial plaques are what lead to heart disease, it was erroneously decided that cholesterol must be bad. The less cholesterol you have in your body, it was reasoned, the less likely it is to deposit in your arteries.
However, it was discovered a few years back, that the plaques formed on the arterial wall are a means of protecting inflamed areas in order for them to heal, much like a scab. The logic of lowering cholesterol levels to increase health is akin to lowering the number of fire trucks in order to decrease the number of fires. Afterall, fire trucks are always found at the scene of the crime. You can probably see where this logic would take us.
Fun fact: people with higher cholesterol levels have been found to live LONGER than those with lower levels.
We’ve been told to lower our fat consumption, replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats (from processed vegetable oils) and raise our carbohydrate consumption and supplement with harsh insoluble fibres in order to lower the body’s natural inclination to make and recycle cholesterol. Ironically, this is an inflammatory dietary prescription, leading to increased inflammation in the body.
The biggest culprits of chronic inflammation are simple, highly processed carbohydrates like sugar and flour and the excess consumption of omega-6 vegetable oils like corn, soybean, and sunflower oils found in almost all processed foods. So the prescribed diet to fight against heart disease is, in fact, likely to lead to it.
Another key component of the cholesterol myth is the idea that you need to cut cholesterol consumption in order to lower your cholesterol levels. Goodbye eggs and meat, our fearless leaders have discovered these nutrient-dense super-foods are actually bad for us! This assumption is so completely contrary to the way the body actually works that it has done nothing but harm our health and made our meals intolerably boring.
Your body makes the cholesterol it needs.
When there’s not enough coming from your diet, it makes more. When there’s an excess in your diet, it makes less. An estimated 70 – 80% of the total cholesterol in your body at any given time is homemade. Eating less of it will do nothing but make your body work harder by having to produce it.
The same can be said for the advice to eat lots of insoluble fibre in order to bind cholesterol to be eliminated, rather than reabsorbed. You see, your body so values this substance that it will reabsorb as much as it can from the digestive tract so that it doesn’t have to waste precious energy producing more of it.
Yet the cholesterol myth lives on. Despite the fact that 25% of the population is on cholesterol-lowering medications and we’ve taken on the dietary recommendations by drastically reducing the amount of fat in our diets and replaced what fat there is with polyunsaturates, heart disease is still on the rise. When is it time to say enough is enough and admit that there’s something wrong with this approach?
By Doug DiPasquale Certified Holistic Nutritionist