Say the word 'cholesterol' and most people start to worry. Over the years this life-essential fatty substance has received so much bad press that few of us are sure about how much of it we need, and what the sources of cholesterol are.
And how is it linked to heart disease, if at all?
Dr Peter Hill, a specialist in metabolic syndrome, explains that cholesterol is an essential component of every cell in our bodies, that 25% of the total amount in our body is actually found in the brain, and that it is an essential component of every cell in our bodies.
"Cholesterol in food has very little impact on blood cholesterol levels. If you eat food rich in cholesterol, your liver simply makes less," he explains.
"Eat less cholesterol and your body will make more and keep on doing so until the system is in balance"
Hill asks: Can cholesterol-rich food be connected to heart disease?
"There is very little supporting research", he says.
“What the research does show instead is that, with few exceptions, people with low cholesterol levels are more likely to die at an earlier age than those with relatively high cholesterol levels.”
Hill says there are a number of scientists and medical researchers around the world, such as US cardiologist and nutritionist Dr Stephen Sinatra, French cardiologist and researcher Dr Michel de Lorgeril and British interventional cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, who believe that we can connect the dots linking what we eat with death from heart disease, but – and here’s the kicker – they believe that the guilty party is not cholesterol in our diets, but rather oxidative stress and inflammation resulting from diets that are too high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and easily oxidised omega-6-rich polyunsaturated oils, mainly from processed foods and seed oils.
“So while cholesterol per se is not dangerous to your health, what you do to it may well be.
Danger is in the small cholesterol particles
Cholesterol consists of different sized particles – from large buoyant ones at one end of the scale to small dense ones at the other end.
It appears that it’s the small dense particles that are harmful and not the large buoyant ones.
And here is a little known but very important bit of information: a high sugar and refined carbohydrate diet is associated with the production of the dangerous small dense particles.
Saturated (animal) fats are associated with the production of the large buoyant and generally harmless particles.
Poor lifestyle choices appear to play a key role in turning an essential biological substance into an unnatural born killer,” says Hill.
Read: The margarine shock
What to do?
To reverse the pattern, Hill says cholesterol patients should not look at medication (cholesterol lowering drugs known as statins) to fix the problem but rather at a diet where sugar and other refined carbohydrates are cut out and only moderate protein and sufficient healthy fats are consumed.
Dr. Roger Blumenthal, director of the Ciccarone Preventive Cardiology Center at Johns Hopkins, concurs: “Statin therapy should not be approached like diet and exercise as a broadly based solution for preventing coronary heart disease. These are lifelong medications with potential side effects.”
He also points out that as many as 5%
of people on statins develop serious side effects such as severe muscle
pain. One in 255 will develop diabetes.
“If you are going to consume carbohydrates, make sure they’re low glycaemic load complex carbs especially those that contain high amounts of fibre,” says Hill.
Do the test: What is the GI of my food?
“If we came across a building on fire,” says Hill, “we could reasonably expect to find firemen fighting the fire.
Very few of us would think of blaming the firemen for the fire. And yet this is what we do when we say, ‘cholesterol is the cause of heart attacks’.
Perhaps it’s time we recognised cholesterol for what it is: an essential biological substance that does not end life, but sustains it.”