When you are introduced to a new diet, you quite easily accept a whole list of things you are not allowed to eat anymore. It’s difficult, and you don’t like it, but you accept it. But when a diet tells you to start eating things you always thought to be unhealthy, acceptance is more difficult. Your education tries to intervene and send you warning signals. We’re guessing cholesterol is near the top of your mental list of “things you are not supposed to eat”. Cholesterol and saturated animal fats have gotten a bad rap since the 1950s. This has been done so consistently that most people now wince painfully when they are served meat with a little fat on it. How dare the chef feed me this artery-clogging poison?
The reality is that cholesterol is not bad. In fact, it is a natural part of a healthy nutrition and does a lot of important things in your body. We know, it’s hard to believe. To reassure you, we will explain what caused the confusion these past five decades, and explain how cholesterol really works.
Cholesterol’s bad rap
When scientists first began to look at the mechanisms behind clogged arteries, they always found cholesterol at the site of the problem. A study also found that rabbits that were fed cholesterol had higher mortality rates. But while that is interesting, rabbits are not humans. Rabbits are natural herbivores and their diet normally contains zero cholesterol. A rabbit may therefore not be the ideal test subject to test the effects of cholesterol on humans.
But because the connection between cholesterol clogging our arteries and cholesterol in our diet seemed so intuitive, these methods were mostly unquestioned. On top of that, a few small population studies found a correlation between high cholesterol and heart disease. The case seemed clear cut and “cholesterol is bad” became official government policy in most of the Western world.
But a correlation doesn’t say anything about cause and effect. More recent studies into the effects of lowering cholesterol on mortality rates show no evidence that replacing cholesterol with polyunsaturated plant oils reduces the risk of heart disease. If anything, those studies found an increased risk of cancer and a potentially increased risk of heart disease. But it was too late to stop the tide as mainstream science and government policy had now firmly adopted the view that cholesterol and animal fats are bad.
Cholesterol as part of a healthy nutrition
There are other hints that cholesterol can not be as bad as it is made out. We only get a minor amount of our cholesterol from our diet. Up to 85% of your cholesterol is manufactured by your own body. Would your own body really try to kill you? Similarly, human breast milk contains more cholesterol than pork belly. If cholesterol was so terrible, would mothers be feeding it to their infants?
Finally, recent studies have found cholesterol plays a number of important roles in your body. In no particular order, here are some recent scientific findings about the role of cholesterol:
- Cholesterol can inactivate dangerous toxins.
- Cholesterol builds and maintains healthy cell membranes.
- Cholesterol is necessary for your body to produce vitamin D.
- Cholesterol is necessary for your body to produce a whole host of hormones, which help maintain an emotional and physical balance.
- Conversely, low cholesterol levels are linked to emotional instability, low self-control, aggression, violence and suicide; things that have arguably not improved these past 50 years.
- Low cholesterol can cause loss of memory (one of many negative side effects of using statins to lower cholesterol).
LDL and HDL: Cholesterol transporters
That’s all fine and good. But what about LDL? That was the bad cholesterol, wasn’t it? Well, “good” and “bad” are misleading terms that have little to do with how LDL and HDL actually work. LDL and HDL are not different types of cholesterol. There is only one type of cholesterol. LDL and HDL refer to low- and high-density lipoproteins. A lipoprotein could be described as the vehicle that transports cholesterol through your blood stream. LDL brings cholesterol to cells that need to be repaired or renewed, while HDL takes excess cholesterol away from the cells to the liver to be recycled. As a consequence, LDL particles are often found near sites of inflammation. They are there to repair the damaged cells.
So when a person suffers from inflammation (an important cause for heart disease and stroke), this is often paired with an increase in LDL. Not because cholesterol is causing the problem, but because it is trying to fix it. So while high LDL can be an indication of health problems that could lead to heart disease, reducing your cholesterol intake is not the correct response. If your LDL levels are too high, you need to eliminate possible causes of inflammation. Eat plenty of vegetables, especially those with high vitamin C and E content. Make sure you have healthy insulin levels by limiting your sugar intake. Avoid inflammatory foods like refined grains and seed oils. Don’t smoke and try to avoid stress in general. If you do this, your inflammation and consequently your LDL levels should subside.