“Saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet are not the cause of coronary heart disease. That myth is the greatest ‘scientific’ deception of the century, and perhaps any century.”
– George V. Mann, M.D.
Professor of Biochemistry and Medicine
All that chit chat we had about how the cholesterol myth got off the ground only says that there are reasons the theory shouldn’t be trusted. It doesn’t say much about the real cause heart disease, which I would argue is the more significant issue here.
It’s a tricky topic, as most health issues are, because our lives involve so many variables that are difficult to measure and control in studies. Things like smoking and alcohol consumption are pretty obvious, and other lifestyle factors like fitness, sleep habits, and emotional health all play a very significant role. In this article, let’s stick to what we can do with our diet.
So if cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease, what does?
Welp, see ya later!
Oh. Not thorough enough? Let’s go back and lay some groundwork.
It has been proven time and time again that increasing dietary intake of cholesterol does not affect the amount of “bad cholesterol” in the blood. In fact, in many cases, the reverse is true. Consuming more dietary cholesterol often lowers overall triglycerides and LDL levels, while raising “good” HDL.
Cholesterol plays an important role in virtually every function that our bodies perform. Most of the cholesterol that we use is manufactured in the liver. Even if you had a diet completely devoid of cholesterol, you could still have high cholesterol levels.
Now all of that talk about cholesterol levels would be important IF total cholesterol levels actually predicted heart disease risk, which they don’t. At least not in the way that we currently measure them.
UCLA published an article in 2009 stating that nearly 75% of those hospitalized for heart attacks didn’t have high cholesterol levels based on current national cholesterol guidelines.
“Almost 75 percent of heart attack patients fell within recommended targets for LDL cholesterol.” Says Dr. Gregg C. Fonarow, Eliot Corday Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Science at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
That information should lead us to look for some other cause for heart attacks, right? Well, the scientists quoted above don’t think so. The rest of the quote goes on to say, “The current guidelines may not be low enough to cut heart attack risk in most who could benefit.”
Translation: We should probably start telling patients to get their cholesterol even lower. Put them all on statin drugs, and maybe then we can save them from themselves.
The biggest issue I have with this is that cholesterol is an essential part of human health. Our brains and nervous systems are made of cholesterol, our hormones are made from cholesterol, along with our cell walls, our skin, and on and on. Cholesterol is necessary for health, and turning cholesterol into a dietary villain is only doing us harm.
Groundwork laid, let’s move on.
To understand the role of inflammation in heart disease, we need to also understand that cholesterol is often used to repair damage or inflammation in the tissues. (That’s not the only role cholesterol plays in the body, but for the sake of length, let’s stick to that one.) Remember how we talked about correlation not equaling causation? This is a prime example.
Let’s say some punk kids were playing with fire at a gas station. The gas station inevitably catches on fire. The firemen show up to put the fire out, and someone snaps a photo of the scene. What they see in the photo is a fire with lots of firemen present.
There are often firemen present at the scene of a fire. This is a positive correlation. If we take the leap to say that correlation = causation, we would also say that firemen must cause fires.
The presence of cholesterol near the ‘crime scene’ of a heart attack doesn’t mean that cholesterol caused the heart attack. When there is damage or inflammation in the blood vessels, the body signals for cholesterol (the firefighters) to come repair the damage. Heart disease doesn’t begin with cholesterol build up, it begins with damage from inflammation.
So what causes our blood vessels to become damaged in the first place? Processed sugar, starches, and industrial oils. These foods are notoriously inflammatory and fattening.
Seriously. Sugar ruins everything.
When we eat starchy foods, our bodies quickly break them down into simple sugars. Bread, pasta, muffins, bagels, cereal grains, and potatoes all turn into glucose once they pass our mouths. Elevated glucose levels spike our blood sugar, which raises our insulin, which drives fat into our fat cells, and ultimately leads to inflammation, obesity, and diabetes.
Then WHY are those foods the base of our food pyramid?
Denise Minger did some heavy duty research on this, and published it in a book called “Death By Food Pyramid”. In this book, she explains how Luise Light, a professor at NYU, was recruited to help create a new set of food guidelines for America. Ms. Light took this job very seriously and did loads upon loads of research before she submitted her conclusions. An optimal diet, according to her, was high in vegetables and fruits, with moderate amounts of cold pressed fats, meat, and dairy, and very limited amounts of starch. She submitted this information to the Secretary of Agriculture, and it came back heavily edited, with grains as the base of the diet, and fats at the very top. She protested that this type of grain-based diet would promote disease in our country, but Big Agriculture won the battle.
In short, the reason we are told to eat lots of grains is that Big Agriculture wants us to buy lots of grains. Tom Naughton is quick to point out that these are the same grains that we use to fatten up our livestock. What makes us think they would help us stay slim?
So eating sugar and starch might make us fat, but what does that have to do with heart disease? Dr. Dwight Lundell published an excellent article on this topic, where he breaks it down very clearly:
Blood sugar is controlled in a very narrow range. Extra sugar molecules attach to a variety of proteins that in turn injure the blood vessel wall. This repeated injury to the blood vessel wall sets off inflammation. When you spike your blood sugar level several times a day, every day, it is exactly like taking sandpaper to the inside of your delicate blood vessels. While you may not be able to see it, rest assured it is there. I saw it in over 5,000 surgical patients spanning 25 years who all shared one common denominator — inflammation in their arteries.
To make matters worse, the excess weight you are carrying from eating these foods creates overloaded fat cells that pour out large quantities of pro-inflammatory chemicals that add to the injury caused by having high blood sugar. The process that began with a sweet roll turns into a vicious cycle over time that creates heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and finally, Alzheimer’s disease, as the inflammatory process continues unabated.
Soooo. What about the industrial oils?
You’ve probably heard of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3 is anti-inflammatory, Omega 6 is pro-inflammatory. In an ideal world, omega 3 and omega 6 would be consumed in a 1:1 ratio. This is the ratio that we see when studying healthy hunter-gatherer populations. We have set our standards a little lower, and said that anything below 4:1 is acceptable. When we consume corn oil (and we tend to consume quite a bit here in America) we are getting an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 49:1. Corn oil is inherently pro-inflammatory, and this goes for virtually all processed vegetable oils. Our excess Omega 6 consumption is setting us up for some serious chronic inflammation.
Another problem with vegetable oils is that they are often hydrogenated. Hydrogenation makes vegetable oils solid at room temperature, like margarine and “vegetable shortening”. We call hydrogenated oils “trans fats”, which have gotten quite a bit of negative press in the last few years, for good reason. Our bodies take in these trans fats quite readily, and then pack them into our cell membranes which causes inflammation and constriction. Think of hydrogenated oils as delicious little pieces of saran wrap that give your arteries a hug from the inside. :)
Vegetableoil.org says, “Hydrogenated oils have been shown to cause what is commonly termed the ‘double deadly effect’, raising the level of LDLs and decreasing the level of HDLs in the blood, increasing the risk of blood clotting inside blood vessels.”
So apparently the government was a bit hasty when they recommended we substitute this stuff for butter. The unfortunate thing is that we were all trying so hard to do the right thing for our health, and a bunch of misinformation just ruined all of our efforts.
Another thing I should mention is oxidation. When these oils are exposed to oxygen and/or too much UV light or heat, they oxidize resulting in rancid oil. The way these oils are processed, they are often oxidized before they even make it into the bottle, and this is bad news bears. Oxidation results in production of even more inflammatory compounds that lead to chronic inflammatory diseases (like heart disease) and eventually cancer.
Butter, lard, tallow, and coconut oil, on the other hand, are incredibly resistant to oxidation since they are naturally saturated and shelf-stable. When you eat these fats from high quality sources, you are getting a healthy dose of Omega 3’s, and providing your body with really important nutrients. How about that?
Dr. Lundell sums it up quite nicely:
Simply stated, without inflammation being present in the body, there is no way that cholesterol would accumulate in the wall of the blood vessel and cause heart disease and strokes. Without inflammation, cholesterol would move freely throughout the body as nature intended. It is inflammation that causes cholesterol to become trapped.