In a survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the vast majority of Americans (76 percent) said they had had their cholesterol level checked at least once in the previous five years. Despite the commonality of the cholesterol test, many are seriously misled about what the results of the test mean. Many people aren’t even receiving a useful cholesterol test at all. A total cholesterol test, for instance, tells you practically nothing about your health. What you really need to know is how much high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) you have and, beyond that, the size of the LDL particles.
If you’re confused, it’s not your fault. Cholesterol has been a highly publicized scapegoat for causing heart disease for decades, and many have diligently cut all cholesterol-rich foods, which also tend to be nutrient-rich foods, from their diets as a result. Others have opted to take cholesterol-lowering statin drugs at the recommendation of their physicians. More than 1 in 4 Americans over 45 take them, despite their lengthy list of side effects and dubious effectiveness. But the real question is this: do you really need to be worried about cholesterol? Is it the villain that’s it’s portrayed to be, silently clogging up your arteries and putting you at a dangerously high risk of heart attack, one cholesterol-laden egg yolk at a time? The answer is, for most people, no. So let’s put some of the most widely circulated cholesterol myths to bed once and for all.
Top Cholesterol Myths Busted
Myth#1: Cholesterol Is Bad Cholesterol is not inherently bad. If it were, your liver wouldn’t produce it (btw, your liver makes about three-quarters or more of your body’s cholesterol). It’s rather important. Many of the healthiest foods happen to be rich in cholesterol (and saturated fats), yet cholesterol has been demonized since the early 1950s following the popularization of Ancel Keys’ flawed research. In reality, cholesterol has many health benefits. It plays a key role in regulating protein pathways involved in cell signaling and may also regulate other cellular processes. It’s already known that cholesterol plays a critical role within your cell membranes, but research suggests cholesterol also interacts with proteins inside your cells, adding even more importance. Your body is composed of trillions of cells that need to interact with each other. Cholesterol is one of the molecules that allow for these interactions to take place. It also plays an essential role in your brain, which contains about 25 percent of the cholesterol in your body. It is critical for synapse formation, i.e. the connections between your neurons, which allow you to think, learn new things, and form memories.
Myth#2: High Cholesterol Is Caused by What You Eat. This is simply untrue. The biggest factor in cholesterol is not diet but genetics or heredity. Your liver is designed to remove excess cholesterol from your body, but genetics play a large part in your liver’s ability to regulate cholesterol to a healthy level. Eating nutritious cholesterol-rich foods is not something you should feel guilty about; they’re good for you and will not drive up your cholesterol levels as you may have been told. It’s estimated that only 20 percent of your blood cholesterol levels come from your diet. If you’re still worried about the cholesterol in your diet, take a look at the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines. As recently as 2010, U.S. dietary guidelines described cholesterol-rich foods as “foods and food components to reduce.” They advised people to eat less than 300 milligrams (mg) per day, despite mounting evidence that dietary cholesterol has very little to do with cholesterol levels in your body.The latest guidelines have finally removed this misguided suggestion, and they even added egg yolks to the list of suggested sources of protein.The long-overdue change came at the advice of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), which acknowledged what the science shows, which is that “cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”
Myth#3: Everyone’s Cholesterol Level Should Be the Same What is a healthy cholesterol level? That depends. Despite what your doctor may tell you, there’s no rule that says everyone’s total cholesterol should be less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) and your LDL less than 100 mg/dL. Further, this will tell you very little about your heart disease risk. If your doctor tells you your cholesterol is too high based on the standard lipid profile, getting a more complete picture is important—especially if you have a family history of heart disease or other risk factors. For starters, you can ask for a NMR LipoProfile, which looks at particle sizes of LDL cholesterol. Large LDL particles are not harmful. Only small dense LDL particles can potentially be a problem, as they can squeeze through the lining of your arteries. If they oxidize, they can cause damage and inflammation.
Myth#4: Children Cannot Have High Cholesterol It’s possible for children to have high cholesterol levels, which is typically due to a liver problem that makes the liver unable to remove excess cholesterol from the body. Lifestyle changes, including exercise, limiting sugar intake and eating real (not processed) foods, will often help to restore healthy levels.
Myth#5: Margarine Is Better Than Butter for Cholesterol Butter, especially raw organic butter from grass-fed cows, is a wealth of nutrition and nourishing fats. Research points to the fact that butter may have both short-term and long-term benefits for your health. Further, replacing saturated animal fats with omega-6 polyunsaturated vegetable fats (i.e., margarine) is linked to an increased risk of death among patients with heart disease, according to a 2013 BMJ study. Swapping margarine for healthy butter is the opposite of what your body needs for heart health, and here’s why. Saturated fats have been shown to raise HDL cholesterol—a benefit—and may also increase LDL. The latter isn’t necessarily bad either, as research has confirmed that eating saturated fats raises levels of large, fluffy LDL particles—the type that do not contribute to heart disease. Further, eating saturated fat may even change the small, dense LDL in your body into the healthier large, fluffy LDL! On the other hand, margarine has historically contained synthetic trans fat, the worst type of man-made fat that increases small, dense LDL—and your risk of chronic disease.
The Anti-Drug Method
Looking for a non-drug way to boost your heart health? Here are some of my top recommendations:
- Reduce, with the plan of eliminating, grains and sugars in your diet. It is vitally important to eliminate gluten-containing grains and sugars, especially fructose.
- Consume a good portion of your food raw.
- Make sure you are getting plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats, such as krill oil. Research suggests that as little as 500 mg of krill per day may improve your total cholesterol and triglycerides and will likely increase your HDL cholesterol.
- Replace harmful vegetable oils and synthetic trans fats with healthy fats, such as olive oil, butter, avocado, pastured eggs and coconut oil (remember olive oil should be used cold only, use coconut oil for cooking and baking).
- Include fermented foods in your daily diet. This will not only optimize your intestinal microflora, which will boost your overall immunity, it will also introduce beneficial bacteria into your mouth. Poor oral health is another powerful indicator of increased heart disease risk.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels, ideally through appropriate sun exposure as this will allow your body to also create vitamin D sulfate—another factor that may play a crucial role in preventing the formation of arterial plaque.
- Exercise regularly. Make sure you incorporate high-intensity interval exercises, which also optimize your human growth hormone (HGH) production.
- Avoid smoking or drinking alcohol excessively.
- Be sure to get plenty of high-quality, restorative sleep.
- Practice regular stress-management techniques.
Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.
See you tomorrow for Day 3 of the 12 Days of Fitness!
Just in case, here’s what you might have missed: