Is Cholesterol (LDL) Really That Bad?
Cholesterol is an extremely controversial subject in nutrition. For decades we have believed cholesterol is the cause of heart disease, clogged arteries and even cognitive disease and rightly so. Study after study shows a strong correlation between cholesterol, particularly LDL cholesterol and heart disease.
LDL or “bad” cholesterol is the sticking point of debate. LDL is what is being fought over as the causative factor for clogged arteries.
We have experts on both sides arguing for cholesterol being good and fundamental to human health and others who say that we don’t need any dietary cholesterol for optimal health.
Today I’m going to play devil’s advocate against nutritional research over the last few decades on LDL cholesterol and make an argument based on a few interesting studies I’ve found as to why LDL cholesterol may be at the crime scene but not the criminal.
It’s important to note that LDL cholesterol isn’t a “bad cholesterol” it is a protein, which carries cholesterol.
Remember, this is no manifesto, but simply a look at what research on the opposing side is showing us about cholesterol.
The Framingham Heart Study examined the relationship between total cholesterol and cognitive performance. This study looked at a particularly large community-based study based mainly on cardiovascular risk factors.
Contrary to what most would think the study found a significant positive association between total cholesterol (TC), verbal fluency, concentration and even cognitive reasoning.
Many would consider a cholesterol score of 200-239 mg/dL on the high end depending on other blood markers and anything over 240 is generally going to be considered high. People within the ranges of the latter mg/dL score outperformed those with a cholesterol score <200 mg/dL.
Cholesterol which is made in the liver is a fundamental building block of cells.
25% of the cholesterol in the body is in the brain and it is well known that the brain is mostly fat. As a quick note, breastmilk itself which is the optimal fluid for human babies has cholesterol in it as well as more saturated fat than monounsaturated or polyunsaturated.
Cholesterol is actually the raw ingredient which your body is able to create vitamin D, testosterone, cortisol and other important hormones.
An interesting study set out to explore whether there was a significant correlation between blood fat markers and changes in the brain examined through MRI scans of 2,608 adults.
What they looked at specifically was small blood vessel damage and white matter which are variables closely associated with small strokes and other degenerative cognitive disorders.
The conclusion of the study was that these changes to the brain were closely correlated with triglyceride levels in the blood.
The results showed that increased LDL was associated with decreased frequency of every single marker of cerebral small vessel disease in both of the examined studies.
Many researchers have looked deep into the idea that cholesterol is the cause of heart disease and some have come to the conclusion that saturated fat, in fact, is not what clogs arteries, but instead it is inflammation.
Inflammation can be alleviated by healthy dietary and lifestyle interventions.
So, if inflammation was the kick-starting cause of clogged arteries then it would be imperative to have this proposition examined through an angiography.
An angiography is a medical imaging strategy which allows researchers to actually look inside the blood vessels of organs especially in arteries and veins.
A study which looked at postmenopausal women with coronary heart disease (CHD) found that a greater consumption of saturated fat actually was associated with a decreased progression of atherosclerosis.
What researchers found in the angiographic study was that carbohydrates and polyunsaturated fat intake were associated with an increased rate of progression.
Yes, this was just done on women, but what an extremely contradictory result to common belief.
A study looking at 7500 high-risk patients for cardiovascular events experienced a 30% reduction (which is rather significant) in cardiovascular events after being given at least four tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil or nuts.
There were no differences in LDL between both groups meaning LDL didn’t play a causative role in risk.
The study concluded that is is alpha linoleic acid, polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids inside the olive oil (which has saturated fat) and nuts which decreased inflammation and coronary thrombosis which decrease the likelihood of cardiovascular events.
A 20-year study looked at all-cause mortality in old people from the Honolulu Heart Program. The risk of mortality increased by 65% for those with the lowest cholesterol.
More controlled environments would be more favourable, but over a 20 year period, this is unrealistic.
Regardless, if cholesterol was causative, wouldn’t the risk for mortality be flipped, or at least less than 65%?
The research is all over the place, experts are saying completely opposite things, the public is confused and that is unfortunate.
After looking over these specific studies it seems plausible that LDL is only a problem when it has been damaged when the body is inflamed and LDL becomes oxidised.
Diets which are based on starchy carbohydrates and beans have also been shown to help improve heart disease risk and so I think it’s fair to say that we shouldn’t point at saturated fat and cholesterol as the problem but rather than the common denominator, sugar, processed junk foods which we know without a doubt is detrimental to us all.