Ah, cholesterol. And its good friend, saturated fat. Invariably, when the topic of healthy eating comes up, one of the first things many people bring up is how they eat a healthy low-fat diet, and try their best to stay away from those bad, evil, high-fat foods.
Immediately following this, many will mention how they are doing with their blood cholesterol levels, the medications they have been prescribed to deal with it, and how they have been doing thus far with their meds.
There is a great deal of concern and fear concerning the possibility that high blood cholesterol levels, especially the “bad” kind, will create a higher risk of heart disease, heart attacks, and death.
No wonder no one can enjoy their bacon anymore!
And no wonder the cholesterol lowering drugs called statins are a multi-billion dollar industry.
A philosopher should be a man willing to listen to every suggestion but determined to judge for himself. He should not be bound by appearances, have no favourite hypothesis, be of no school and in doctrine have no master. Truth should be his primary object.Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
My cholesterol journey
Like almost all Americans, for most of my life, I fully bought in to the full range of modern cholesterol theories. It mostly existed as background fear, not necessarily influencing my day-to-day choices in a complete way, but nonetheless present in my consciousness.
In 2000, after graduating from college, with my health a complete mess, I was exposed to the theory and practice of Ayurvedic nutrition. Ayurveda is the traditional medical system of India, and is closely related to the theory and practice of yoga. According to Ayurvedic theory, the human being (body, emotions, and mind) is composed of 3 types of energies: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
When one type of energy excessively predominates in your body, you become out of balance. At the time, I was experiencing a lot of fatigue, anxiety, depression, being spaced out, very low energy, underweight, easily disturbed digestive system, and so on. This is classified in Ayurveda as an excess of Vata energy. Their cure? Eat more butter.
More butter? Yes, but this is the root of all evil! A multimillion dollar margarine and vegetable oil industry rests on this claim. However, I was desperate to feel better, and intrigued by the accurate depiction of my physical, emotional, and mental symptoms that Ayurveda offered. So, I looked into the dietary recommendations (which, of course, were more sophisticated than offering just butter), and began making ghee, their preferred form of butter.
Over the next year I ate ghee with pretty much everything. I ate it with bread, spiced it with cardamom seeds, and threw a bunch of medjool dates to soak in a big pot of it for a week (yes, they were extremely delicious). I’m not sure how much I ate, maybe ¼ to a ½ stick per day?
Over that year, I finally began to gain weight again, my moods began to stabilize, and my energy started to pick up. And I didn’t keel over from a heart attack. Sure, I was embarrassed to tell other people how much butter I was eating. However, it was this experience that really got me questioning whether cholesterol and saturated fats are truly bad for people, and on the contrary, whether they might actually serve a deeply nourishing, beneficial purpose for the body, the emotions, and the mind.
Cholesterol is good for you—my introduction to the Weston A. Price Foundation
A few years after, my experiments with ghee, I started acupuncture school in Columbia, MD and discovered Sally Fallon’s book, Nourishing Traditions, and her foundation, the Weston A. Price Foundation. Similar to the traditional system of Ayurveda, Sally Fallon advocated the inclusion of saturated fats in a healthy diet.
Sally Fallon’s book is based on the work of Weston Price, a dentist, who in the 1930s, traveled to all 6 populated continents to observe the health conditions and diets of native cultures whose diets and ways of life had not yet been touched by industrialization.
Across cultures, Weston Price found that pre-industrial societies all valued foods with high saturated fat content. Some of these foods were so highly valued that they were considered sacred foods. For example in Switzerland, the rich yellow butter produced by cows in the fall and spring seasons, when they grazed on fast growing grass, was prized and celebrated in an annual festival.
To ensure the fertility of married couples, some societies provided a special 6-month pre-conception diet for the woman and the man, to ensure not only fertility but also the optimal health and well-being of the newborn child. Invariably, these diets are high in high-quality saturated fats and cholesterol.
Sally Fallon and the Weston A. Price Foundation also go to great lengths to show the benefits of foods that are produced using traditional farming methods. In modern-day terms that would mean: local, grass-fed, humanely raised, organic, non-gmo, unrefined, no industrial processing, and so on.
Encouraged by this information, I began to incorporate the full range of traditional foods containing saturated fat into my diet, including:
- Whole eggs
- Full fat dairy, including cream and yogurt
- Lard (yes, I actually use lard in my cooking!)
- Bacon and bacon fat
- Organ meats, including liver and kidney
- Full fat cuts of bacon, pork, etc.
And, after 10 years of this heart-stopping nonsense of a diet, I have to say that I’ve never felt better.
Re-examining the mainstream medical hypotheses
But, even if I feel good eating all this tasty stuff, what if, as the argument goes, I keel over and die 10 years earlier than I would have, due to an artery clogged with the excessive saturated fat and cholesterol included in my diet?
That could be an important reason for limiting cholesterol and saturated fat intake.
Or—and even better if you own pharmaceutical company stock—an important reason for taking statin drugs, for the rest of your life.
However, what if the mainstream medical hypotheses concerning cholesterol are not true? Or, at the least, are not as proven and bulletproof as we have been led to believe?
Important note: Before I discuss the scientists’ viewpoints who refute the mainstream medical community’s view on cholesterol, I would like to make it absolutely clear that I do not claim to know what is true about how cholesterol and saturated fat affects our health. Rather, I am more interested in:
- Investigating both sides of the story—because the scientists and doctors who look favorably on saturated fat and cholesterol intake are rarely publicized in the press or media
- Advocating for an attitude of personal experimentation rather than listening only to experts’ theories—how does your body feel when you eat bacon, or eggs, or butter? What happens when you use the evidence of your own experience rather than the theories of “scientists” and “experts” to direct your dietary choices?
Venturing outside the mainstream medical hypothesis
In his excellent book,The Cholesterol Myths: Exposing the Fallacy that Saturated Fat and Cholesterol Cause Heart Disease, Uffe Ravnskov, MD, PhD lays out the central tenets of the mainstream medical hypotheses concerning cholesterol, saturated fat, and heart disease:
- High-fat foods cause heart disease
- High blood cholesterol levels cause heart disease
- High-fat foods raise blood cholesterol
- Cholesterol blocks arteries
- Animal studies prove the diet-heart idea
- Lowering your blood cholesterol levels will lengthen your life
- Polyunsaturated oils are good for you
- The mainstream medical hypotheses concerning cholesterol are based on good science
- All scientists support the diet-heart idea
And, yes, you guessed it, Ravnskov spends the next 300 pages debunking each of these 9 “myths.” Through a thorough examination of all of the major studies that purport to show the truth of these “myths,” Ravnskov shows how in each study, the author’s conclusions and summaries are not supported by the data. However, in practice, it is these conclusions and summaries that drive the thinking, prescription habits, and dietary recommendations of physicians all over the country.
I’m not going to go into how Ravnskov dissects each study here, but he has excerpts from his book on his website. Go to The Cholesterol Myths and Scroll down to click on each of his main points, which takes you to excerpts from his book.
Also see the group he founded, The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, a group of scientists and doctors opposed to the current cholesterol theories and the use of statins. Click on the members page to see the 90 doctors and scientists from around the world who are willing to publicize their disagreements with these theories.
In fact, what struck me most when reading Ravnskov’s book was actually myth #9: All scientists support the diet-heart idea. It hadn’t even occurred to me that this was a debated issue in the scientific community. Yet, reading quote after quote from MDs and PhDs talking about the fallacies in the cholesterol—fat—heart disease hypothesis really peaked my curiosity.
Below is one example from Ray Rosenman, MD, the former associate chief of medicine at Mt. Zion hospital in San Francisco, CA:
There is a widespread belief that fat in the diet raises blood cholesterol and is the cause of heart attacks. Knowledgeable scientists know the many fallacies in these simple beliefs, and particularly in blaming the diet. Unfortunately, too many persons have inappropriately changed their diet in the belief that it would prevent a heart attack.
And this is a statement written back in 2000.
Why hasn’t your doctor told you about this?
If this is an issue that’s up for debate, where has the press been?
And more importantly, before your doctor prescribes you a lifetime prescription of Lipitor, encouraging you to ignore the possible side effects for the good of your heart health, why hasn’t he or she at least mentioned the fact that the cholesterol theories are up for debate?
Why cholesterol is good for you—the positive roles it plays in the body and brain
Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, MD, wrote an excellent article posted on the Weston A. Price Foundation website called Cholesterol: Friend or Foe? In this article, she details the many beneficial roles that cholesterol plays in the body, including:
- Creating structural integrity in our cell membranes: Our cell membranes are composed of 50% cholesterol and saturated fats. If we took away the cholesterol, we would look more like a worm or slug.
- Facilitate cell-to-cell communication and coordination: The cholesterol in cell membranes plays an important role in cell-to-cell communication, and in transporting molecules in and out of the cell
- Brain function: The brain uses about 25% of the cholesterol in the body
- Cholesterol composes 20% of myelin, one of the most abundant materials in the brain and nervous system. A decrease or loss of myelin puts the body at risk for multiple sclerosis
- Memory and Learning Issues
- And, many other physiological functions
Below is a direct quote from Dr. Campbell-McBride’s article:
One of the most wonderful abilities we humans are blessed with is the ability to remember things—our human memory. How do we form memories? By our brain cells establishing connections with each other, called synapses. The more healthy synapses a person’s brain can make, the more mentally able and intelligent that person is. Scientists have discovered that synapse formation is almost entirely dependent on cholesterol, which is produced by the brain cells in a form called apolipoprotein E. Without the presence of this factor we cannot form synapses, and hence we would not be able to learn or remember anything. Memory loss is one of the side effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs.
In my clinic, I see growing numbers of people with memory loss who have been taking cholesterol-lowering pills. Dr. Duane Graveline, MD, former NASA scientist and astronaut, suffered such memory loss while taking his cholesterol pill. He managed to save his memory by stopping the pill and eating lots of cholesterol-rich foods. Since then he has described his experience in his book, Lipitor: Thief of Memory, Statin Drugs and the Misguided War on Cholesterol. Dietary cholesterol in fresh eggs and other cholesterol-rich foods has been shown in scientific trials to improve memory in the elderly. In my clinical experience, any person with memory loss or learning problems needs to have plenty of these foods every single day in order to recover.
In summary—think for yourself
The science of the body is complex, and the role of cholesterol is no exception. I think it took me about 2 years of reading and consideration before I finally let go of my own fear of cholesterol blood levels and foods rich in saturated fat, and began to instead value the benefits that I personally experience when I eat these foods.
As I stated above, I believe that your own personal experience should trump any scientific theory when it comes to choosing foods for your diet. As you develop greater and more subtle awareness of your body, you will have a very strong idea of which foods suit you, and which don’t. No theories required.
However, some theories can be very compelling, especially when a trusted doctor is convinced that you face possible heart disease, cancer and death unless you lower your blood cholesterol with diet, exercise, and medication, and reduce saturated fat in your diet.
When faced with this, I recommend you read up on the subject—from both angles.
My recommended reading list
Pro-cholesterol articles and websites
- Know Your Fats
- The Weston A. Price Foundation
- Uffe Ravnskov’s—The Cholesterol Myths by UffeRavnskov, MD, PhD
- The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics
Well, you can find this almost anywhere you look. Why not get the summary on cholesterol and health from webMD, one of the most popular medical information sites on the Internet? Interesting though, there’s no mention of any alternative views on the cholesterol hypothesis…
Finding the diet that’s right for you
After facing this complex, contradictory onslaught of information, you might be wondering – so, what should I eat? If you want to learn how to listen to your body, become your own source of dietary wisdom, and gain insight into which foods are really suited to your unique body and mind, schedule an appointment today.
We will review what you’re doing now, what your goals are, and guide you through the process of critical thinking and listening to your body that are the 2 keys to discovering a diet that is truly healthy and sustainable for you, and the world around you.