The Big, FAT, Cholesterol Myth That Refuses To Die
Cholesterol has gotten a bad reputation in recent decades.
If you go up to any person---literally any person in the USA---and you ask them, “Is cholesterol bad for you?” 9 times out of 10 people will say “YES! YOU NEED TO STAY AWAY FROM CHOLESTEROL!”
People believe that having “high cholesterol” is the leading cause of high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis (hardening of your arteries), heart attacks and strokes.
Seeing as 1 in 4 people in the USA die from a heart attack, that paints a lot of blame on big, bad, ol' cholesterol.
But where did all of this come from?
And what is cholesterol exactly?
The Diet-Heart Hypothesis
Back in the early 1950’s, all around the (developed) world, more and more people kept dying from heart attacks.
This was very alarming and scientists tried to figure out why this was happening.
In the late 1950’s Dr. Keys began conducting a "ground-breaking" study on the effects that lifestyle and diet played upon coronary heart disease and stroke in different populations and regions around the world.
In each of the 7 countries and specific regions that Dr. Keys studied, he noticed that people with higher levels of cholesterol in their body had a higher risk of having a heart attack and/or stroke.
“The Seven Countries Study suggested that the risk and rates of heart attack and stroke (CVR), both at the population level and at the individual level, correlated directly and independently to the level of total serum cholesterol, in seven sampled out countries. It demonstrated that the correlation between blood cholesterol level and coronary heart disease (CHD) risk from 5 to 40 years follow-up is found consistently across different specially selected cultures in these seven countries." (SOURCE)
Pretty alarming stuff, right?
Ever since this study was done in the late-1950’s cholesterol has been deemed as one of—if not the most—important factor to consider when it comes to overall heart health and increasing/decreasing your risk of heart attacks.
However, there’s a big problem with this whole situation…
The Seven Countries Study is NOT scientifically sound and has not held up to repeated analysis over the years.
In the study itself, there are 2 glaring problems that are never discussed.
- Within each country, no association between high cholesterol levels and an increase in heart attacks were made.
“In Finland and Greece for instance, heart mortality in two districts varied with a factor five and seven, respectively, despite similar diets and other risk factors.” (SOURCE)
What this means is that while looking at all 7 countries combined showed a link between having high cholesterol and an increased risk of heart attacks—no relationship was shown inside of each of those countries.
So if you took one town in Greece that had high rates of cholesterol and heart attacks and you compared it with another town down the road—where people ate the same exact things—that other town did not show any of these symptoms.
This brings us to our second point, which is perhaps the most important of all regarding the seven countries study.
2. “The seven countries were admittedly selected by Keys. Such selection may be helpful to illustrate an idea at a preliminary stage, but a proof of causality demands random data. In more recent studies, including many more countries, the association was weak, absent, or inverse.” (SOURCE)
Let’s break that down a little further:
- The countries and places that were used in the study were NOT chosen at random. They were specifically chosen by Dr. Keys.
- All of the countries selected are/were prosperous, first-world countries.
- Keys data is not able to be replicated or verified by repeat random-based studies including many more countries in recent years.
There are 2 things that all scientific studies must follow if they want to be legitimate:
- They must be random.
- They must be able to be repeated by other people.
Have you ever heard of a randomized double blind placebo control study?
That type of scientific trial is the "GOLD STANDARD" scientists use to test out their theories.
It's when you get a group of RANDOM people and you separate them into 2 or more RANDOM groups.
Then you give half of them the new drug you want to test, and you have half of them a sugar pill (placebo).
Most importantly, you DO NOT TELL THEM what they are getting.
Then you record the results between the groups of people to see if the drug actually does anything.
Why do they do this?
Because when people are specifically chosen to participate in something, our brains like to either prove or disprove it based on how we feel.
This is a common psychological phenomena called “cognitive dissonance”.
(There's a lot of cognitive dissonance surrounding cholesterol.)
Keys, doing the world’s first multi-country epidemiological study at the time, clearly had invested a lot of time, money, resources, energy, and above all—reputation in proving that something useful would come out of this study.
So instead of doing a random study, he chose where he was going to study, what results were important, and he ignored everything else.
While his intentions were good, they were not scientific.
Okay, onto the next point, and this is a big one.
There’s a reason why it’s still called the Diet-Heart Hypothesis.
A hypothesis is an educated guess.
It’s when you say, “based on what I’ve seen, I’m pretty sure that this is going to happen.”
Then you test it.
If your hypothesis is correct, then you publish your results so that other scientists can look at them and essentially call bullshit.
This is when other scientists see your results and then they test your hypothesis out for themselves.
If the results of your test are legitimate, then every time another scientist tests out your hypothesis they should receive the same results.
This is where Keys and his seven countries study falls right on his face.
(Many of these new studies were done properly *randomly* and across a broad-range of countries—not just seven specifically chosen by Keys.)
So what does all of that mean?
The Seven Countries Study—which told the world about the evils of cholesterol—is WRONG.
And if the scientific study that proved cholesterol is bad for you is wrong, then…
Maybe Cholesterol Isn’t So Bad For You After-all?
Are you still with us?
Now let’s move into the meat of it.
What The Heck Is Cholesterol Anyway?
Cholesterol is a naturally occurring, organic, lipid (fat) sterol (steroid) produced by your body.
It is biosynthesized (created) by ALL animal cells because it is NEEDED by all cells in your body to properly maintain their cell membranes.
What this means is simple...
Without cholesterol, you would not exist.
In addition to helping to regulate cells in your body, cholesterol is needed so that your body can properly make and use:
- Steroid hormones (testosterone & estrogens)
- Bile acid (for your liver)
- Vitamin D
- And more!
Cholesterol is SO IMPORTANT to your body that you always need to have a good supply of it floating around.
Your body is constantly making the stuff, whether you eat food with cholesterol in it or not.
"A human male weighing 68 kg (150 lb) normally synthesizes about 1 gram (1,000 mg) of cholesterol per day, and his body contains about 35 g, mostly contained within the cell membranes. Typical daily cholesterol dietary intake for a man in the United States is 307 mg." (SOURCE)
But that isn't to say that what you eat has no effect on the amount of cholesterol inside of your body and in your blood.
What you eat DOES have an impact on your cholesterol levels.
Just maybe not the way you think...
The Effect Of Diet On Cholesterol Levels
When you eat fatty foods that contain cholesterol, your body recognizes that you just ate some cholesterol and gets to work breaking it down and transporting it so that it can be used by your cells.
While your body is doing it, it LOWERS the amount of cholesterol that you are naturally producing.
"Most ingested cholesterol is esterified, and esterified cholesterol is poorly absorbed. The body also compensates for any absorption of additional cholesterol by reducing cholesterol synthesis. For these reasons, cholesterol in food, seven to ten hours after ingestion, has little, if any effect on concentrations of cholesterol in the blood." (SOURCE)
Your body does this because it is smart.
It likes balance.
If you're eating plenty of cholesterol per day, then your body will turn down the amount that it naturally produces to help your body achieve balance.
That's why people who go on a high-fat diet like the carnivore diet don't see their cholesterol levels skyrocket and immediately drop dead from heart attacks like people have been lead to believe.
The increase in cholesterol eaten reduces the amount of natural cholesterol produced, helping to keep your body in balance.
On the other hand, when you don't eat enough fat and you don't get enough cholesterol in your diet, your cholesterol levels typically don't go down.
Or if they do, it's very minimal, on average only 1 - 5% lower.
(NOTE: There are some extreme diets that have achieved a 10-15% reduction in cholesterol levels, but these diets are typically only done in doctor-regulated, controlled, clinical settings for experiments.)
This happens because your body still needs cholesterol to operate properly.
So if you don't get any cholesterol from your food, your body will push itself into overdrive, naturally ramping up cholesterol production to overcompensate for the lack of dietary cholesterol it is receiving.
What all of this means really boils down to one important fact:
Your Diet Has Very Little Effect On Your Cholesterol Levels.
- So if your diet doesn't really affect your cholesterol levels...
- And the scientific study that proved cholesterol is bad for you is wrong...
- And cholesterol is a vital substance that is NECESSARY for you to live a happy, healthy life...
Then is having high cholesterol a one-way ticket to an early grave?
It is not.
Actually, the opposite is true.
People With High Cholesterol Levels Typically Live Longer Than People With Low Cholesterol Levels
We know it sounds crazy, but there is legitimate scientific evidence backing this up.
In a study published in 1981, a research team in Yugoslavia studied 11,121 random Yugoslavian males aged 35 - 65 for a period of 15 years to see if there was any correlation between cholesterol levels and deaths from heart attacks.
Do you want to know what they found out?
"Serum (total) cholesterol was negatively related to mortality, i.e., those with a lower cholesterol experienced a higher mortality than those with a higher cholesterol." (SOURCE)
Then there's this study, published in 1987, which compared the health issues of men with low cholesterol vs. men with high cholesterol in a VA nursing home:
"Men with (total) cholesterol less than or equal to 156 mg/dL and hematocrit less than or equal to 41% died at a rate 42 times the rate of men with values above both thresholds." (SOURCE)
In yet another study, this one published in 1997, a research group found that in patients that already had coronary heart disease—people with low cholesterol levels and people with high cholesterol levels had the same risk when it came to dying from a heart attack.
HOWEVER, they also found out that people with lower cholesterol levels had a 2.27x GREATER risk of dying in general than people who had higher cholesterol levels. (SOURCE)
In all 3 of these studies, people with low cholesterol levels died at a significantly faster rate than people who had high cholesterol levels.
While people who have low cholesterol levels tend to die earlier and faster than people with high cholesterol levels, most of the time it has nothing to do with heart attacks.
Many of these people die from respiratory diseases, cancers, infections, gastrointestinal diseases and other disorders.
This brings up two interesting points:
Point #1: Lower cholesterol levels may lead to decreased immune system and overall bodily functions which leads to the development of degenerative and/or life-threatening diseases.
And most importantly...
Point #2: HIGH OR LOW CHOLESTEROL LEVELS HAVE LITTLE IMPACT ON HEART ATTACKS.
So there you have it.
Cholesterol is your friend, not your foe.
While there are many people who die from heart attacks who have high cholesterol, there are just as many people who die from heart attacks who have low cholesterol.
And an even higher amount of people who die from all sorts of diseases that have low cholesterol levels compared with people who have high cholesterol level
Moral of the story?
YOU CAN STOP WORRYING ABOUT CHOLESTEROL SO MUCH!
The best way to live a long and happy life is to focus on the fundamentals of health and wellness.
Take care of yourself. (Physically, spiritually, and emotionally)
As long as you are doing those things, you are taking steps in the right direction and you can stop worrying so much about what everyone (and their mothers) are saying about what you should and shouldn't eat.
It's your body and at the end of the day it's your responsibility to take care of it.
Do your research. Compare and contrast different opinions, and most importantly TEST THINGS FOR YOURSELF.
That's how winnin' is done.
(P.S. Did you like this article? Do you want to see us come out with more or less articles like this in the future? Let us know what you think in the comments below!)