In the 80s, the following conversation took place between Mike, a friend of mine, and a pharmaceutical representative. They were both attending a conference and had lunch together during the conference.
Over the meal, the rep asked Mike, “Do you worry about your cholesterol?”
Mike responded, “No, why should I?”
The rep smiled and said, “Well, you soon will. In fact, everyone will.”
“And why is that?” asked Mike.
“Because we’ve invented and patented a drug that lowers cholesterol,” explained the rep.
And Mike asked, “How will you convince people that they need this drug?”
“We don’t have to convince the people. All we have to do is convince the doctors and they’ll do it for us,” boasted the rep.
About 30 years have passed since that conversation took place and today cholesterol-lowering drugs rake in $31 billion dollars annually. (1) Apparently, the doctors were convinced and we bought their “science” and their drugs.
We were told that saturated fat was bad for us and caused heart disease. Consequently, we’ve been on a fat-free craze trying to lower cholesterol all these years. Food manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants joined in on this epic attempt to reduce our intake of saturated fat and lower our cholesterol. We even find the “low-fat” or “no fat” label on candies and beer.
(Related: The Facts About Fat)
But for all the fuss about fat and cholesterol, Americans have become sicker. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Heart disease has risen steadily and is the leading cause of death in America. (2) Type 2 diabetes and obesity are epidemics and Alzheimer’s disease has skyrocketed sixty-fold in recent years. (3)
It seems that our grand, fat-free experiment has failed miserably and now science and the medical community are admitting it. In March 2014, The Annals of Internal Medicine revealed the results of a very large study announcing, “Saturated fat does not cause heart disease.” (4)
The above study was what they call a “meta-analysis” or combination of data from almost 80 clinical studies involving nearly 350,000 people. The analysis showed absolutely no correlation between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. (5)
5 Common Myths about Cholesterol
For a few decades now, the following myths have been circulating through the media and have impacted our lifestyles far more profoundly than the cholesterol circulating in our blood. Some of these myths include:
1. High cholesterol causes coronary heart disease. In reality, lowering your cholesterol may increase your risk of heart disease. (6) We have substituted processed foods high in carbs and sugar to replace saturated fat in an effort to lower cholesterol. The results are rampant obesity, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and coronary heart disease.
2. High cholesterol will cause early death. A major cholesterol research project called the Framington Study demonstrated the opposite! Those with the highest levels of cholesterol lived the longest. (7)
3. Saturated fat causes high cholesterol and should be avoided. Actually, the liver manufactures 80 percent of the cholesterol in our bodies with only 20 percent coming from our food. Saturated fat provides us with many health benefits. The real culprit is not saturated fat but sugar and man-made transfats. (8) On the contrary, low-fat diets harm the body and negatively impact cognitive function.
4. High cholesterol is a chief determining factor in heart attacks. Again, the studies show no bearing whatsoever of high cholesterol on heart attacks. In fact, a Japanese study following 58,000 men for 14 years found that those who ate more saturated fat had a lower risk of stroke. (9)
5. Statin drugs are safe and will prolong your life. Clinical studies have not shown any increase in longevity for those who take statins. Additionally, statin drugs carry with them serious side effects: loss of memory, lower libido, muscle pain and fatigue. (10)
Why We Need Fat and Cholesterol
- Every cell in the human body contains cholesterol as an essential component of proper cellular function. Cholesterol serves as a “building block” and a protective barrier for each and every cell. Cholesterol and fat help repair cells and tissues. When cholesterol levels fall, the cells are negatively affected.
- Cholesterol aids in the production of hormones that regulate digestion, bone health, sexual function, weight, and emotional status. Cholesterol also monitors the flow of those hormones, fats, and proteins in and out of the cells.
- Sixty percent of the brain consists of fat and cholesterol. Cholesterol is essential for proper brain function, especially in the transmission of nerve impulses and memory. Insufficient cholesterol is associated with decline in memory, cognitive skills, and neurotransmission. In fact, one of the unfortunate side effects of statin drugs that lower cholesterol is loss of memory and cognitive function.
- Finally, cholesterol is a key cellular component for protecting the immune system. When our cells are healthy, our organs are healthy. And healthy organs translate to a healthy person.
What Can We Do to Prevent Coronary Heart Disease?
The following tips can help prevent and remedy heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease.
1. Eat whole foods and avoid processed foods. Processed foods are high in carbs, sugars and trans fats, and low in nutrients. Feed your body what it needs with whole foods like fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. (14)
2. Exercise regularly. Make exercise a part of your weekly routine, spending 30 to 60 minutes per day at least three times a week on it. Find activities that you enjoy and work up slowly to avoid injury and soreness. Combine both aerobic and strength training exercises in your regimen.
3. Reduce stress. Stress-related ailments are among the most common reasons people go to the doctor. Chronic stress plays a role in heart disease, compromising the immune system, and wreaking havoc on our health. Slow down, laugh a lot, spend time with those you love, rest, and resolve any conflicts or broken relationships in your life.
4. Get plenty of sleep. Not getting enough sleep is associated with greater risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Get on a regular sleep schedule and stick to it as much as possible.
5. Avoid sugar. Research published recently in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal reported that people who get 25 percent or more of their daily calories from added sugar nearly triple their risk of dying from heart disease. The reason: sugar causes inflammation in the body. Even those who consume moderate amounts of added sugar (10-25 percent) increase their risk of death from heart disease by 30 percent. (17)
6. Stop smoking! If you smoke or use tobacco, one of the most significant things you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease is to quit. Smoking constricts the arteries and damages virtually every organ in the body. Smoking starves the blood of oxygen and fills the body with toxins, while hindering the body’s ability to remove them. Smoking also raises blood pressure. (18)
7. Lose weight. Excess weight puts a strain on your heart, raises blood pressure and blood sugar. Many of the preceding tips can help you lose weight if you are overweight. Eating fat does not make one fat. Instead of cutting back on saturated fat, cut back on carbs.
The idea that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease was based on a theory that turned out to be horribly wrong. Fortunately, with the mountains of observable evidence we have available to us today, we can debunk the cholesterol myth and get on with our lives.
In many respects, living a healthy lifestyle comes down to using common sense rather than following the latest fad or whim—even if those come from so-called science and the medical community.