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For the entirety of my lifetime, cholesterol has been demonized, claimed as the worst thing in the world and something to avoid at all costs.
I mentally put it on par with the Boogeyman and the reminder to “never take candy from strangers.” I grew up in a time where Snackwells, high sugar, low fat products began taking the world by storm. I remember the 1990s very vividly and remember the advertisements on TV after school that told me to consume lots of fruit juice and sugary sodas.
When I began to learn that cholesterol was actually something essential to life and beneficial to health, I was very confused.
It was as if everything I was told my entire life was wrong, and the opposite, which was always denied, was true. Sort of like when I found out Santa Claus looked suspiciously like my mustached father, eating cookies and placing presents under the tree at 11:40PM on Christmas Eve (I couldn’t sleep).
This article will cover the myth of cholesterol, the reality of what it actually does, why it’s important, and what foods to eat and to avoid.
Though many in the Paleo community are already aware of the importance of cholesterol, there is still a widespread belief that it is to be avoided at all costs. So please, feel free to share this article with uninformed relatives, friends, and those otherwise confused.
So what used to be said about cholesterol? Well, let’s take a journey back into the annals of time, and find out!
Here is the Time Magazine cover from March 26th, 1984. Not looking so favorable towards cholesterol, right? The words were strong and widespread – don’t eat much cholesterol at all and you will avoid heart disease and all other illness! Quite honestly, this was far from true. But Ancel Keys certainly had his day in the sun (more on that soon).
I won’t spend too much time recounting “the horrors of cholesterol.” Most of us reading, lived through it. However, back in the mid-1900s, there was much more of an “accepted society” and it was very rare that many ventured outside of societal norms. My point here, is that this recommendation did maximum damage, because almost everyone listened to it!
Here is the Time Magazine cover from June 23rd, 2014. Perhaps they changed their tune?
If we look into the science behind cholesterol, we will see that many, if not all, of the conclusions that it was a negative thing came from experiments that were flawed for a variety of reasons.
In fact, many diets of healthy cultures were all high in fats. This meant: meat with the fat, blubber, egg yolks, coconut oil, lard and butter. These are the exact list of foods that I was told to never eat as a child. Instead, I became hooked on chips and soda.
However, this is where the industries of Big Pharma and Big Food come in to play. Vegetable oils, added sugars, and poor health are all ways to make money.
Eating farm-raised eggs? Not so much. This isn’t to say it’s all one big conspiracy. It is, instead, a way to say that their interests don’t dovetail with ours, the consumers. Their job is to sell food and drugs. Period. Until most wake up to this cold hard fact, we will remain in limbo with our own health.
So what really happened? Rudolph Virchow, over 100 years ago, developed the lipid hypothesis. The idea was that the cholesterol in your blood, lead to the development of plaque in your arteries.
Again, this was a hypothesis. Meaning, it needed to be tested. Even more alarmingly, he based this hypothesis on studying corpses. Meaning, this was only a hypothesis that seemed to be true in dead people. The obvious issue here: what about ALL other variables, that may play a role in potential morbidity?!
This dovetails with the second part of our problem. Rabbits and cholesterol. What’s that you say? We’re not rabbits, and all information that was concluded from experiments on them should be taken with a grain of salt? I agree. But that’s not exactly what happened. In fact, far from it.
Nikolaj Nikolajewitsch Anitschkow fed rabbits cholesterol (they do not naturally consume it, since they are herbivores) and “proved” that cholesterol led to atherosclerotic issues.
To be clear, the first part of the issue was derived from studying corpses. The second part of the issue was derived from studying rabbits, who are not meant to consume cholesterol.
If this seems like poor science to you, I agree. If it seems very dubious to base an entire nation’s dietary recommendations on these kinds of experiments, I agree as well!
Another flaw, though less obvious at the time, was the notion that all cholesterol in the blood comes from diet. This is far from true and is one of the misnomers that led to this massive confusion. Your liver makes sure that you always have cholesterol in your body since it is required to make cell membranes. In fact, as we will see, even proponents of this theory were cited as saying that dietary cholesterol was unlikely to lead to issues. Are you shaking your head yet at this inane situation?
Things only got worse and really reached maximum acceptance with the aforementioned Ancel Keys. Dr. Keys’ famous work was the Seven Countries Study. This is already dubious as Keys had data from 22 countries. However, he kept this point nice and quiet and ignored all rational thought.
Instead, he chose to focus on the 7 countries that supported his idea: cholesterol is bad and we should all stop consuming it. And, believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened.
To be more specific, Keys claimed that dietary fat itself caused heart disease (cholesterol goes along for the ride). This completely ignored the countries that ate TONS of fat and had very low rates of heart disease. Interestingly, it also ignored the countries that ate almost NO fat and had high rates of heart disease.
Based on Dr. Keys’ conclusions, Americans then assumed that we should go as low fat as possible. We are now similar to those “low fat diet, high heart disease rates” countries that Keys ignored in his initial study. Irony?
Sadly, the politics of the time gave Keys a lot of clout. Although some very clearly disputed his conclusion, power won the day. We all were told to cut out dairy, eggs, animal fats, red meat, and butter. And so we did. This has led us to the worst state of our nation’s health, in history. A state that is bankrupting us, and making us sick.
Every country, even ones who were previously healthy, that has adopted our diet, has come down with the same diseases. The addictive and rewarding nature of carbohydrates (especially sugar) is strong. And that’s where we are at right now.
What To Eat?
As we’ve seen, foods high in cholesterol are not the problem. Foods high in sugar, foods high in vegetable oils, and foods which provide no nutrients with lots of calories are the problem.
So eating eggs, meat (grass-fed, please), butter, coconut oil, etc. are all good choices. This doesn’t mean to make them the only foods in your diet. Just as important are vegetables and good sources of carbohydrates.
What to Avoid?
Quite frankly – anything the food industry is trying to sell you! Anything with added sugars, dyes, trans fats, or anything not naturally found in nature, shouldn’t really be going into your mouth – at least on a regular basis. This logic may seem obvious, but I bet most people would struggle to go one entire month without eating the garbage that’s out there.
Watch this video – Debunking Cholesterol Myths
Though I realize many in the Paleo community already know why cholesterol is not the demon we all perhaps once thought it was, it is important to remember that the community grows every day. This is great, but underscores the need for information and truths to be dispersed.
The danger of low cholesterol and over-carb-consumption is very real; it can have a huge positive impact on someone’s health to start eating eggs and limit their processed carbohydrate consumption. This article is as much for them as it is for me.
Until we get more mainstream minds on board, we remain a cult movement. An ever-enlarging cult! Clear and concise language, clean and clear science, and sharing of information is the best way to make not only ourselves but everyone in the world healthier!
Written by Casey Thaler
Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS is an NASM® certified personal trainer and NASM® certified fitness nutrition specialist. He writes for Paleo Magazine®, The Paleo Diet® and Greatist®. He is also an advisor for Kettle and Fire and runs his own nutrition and fitness consulting company, Eat Clean, Train Clean®.
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