3 Big Cholesterol Myths

by Randell Allen on June 8, 2011

1. Myth 1: Cholesterol Is Bad For You

Most of us have heard only the negative associations with cholesterol and heart disease. We have been told that cholesterol is the blame for heart disease and we should avoid high cholesterol containing foods like eggs and butter.

Often overlooked is the essential role cholesterol plays in building health.

Cholesterol is a basic component of cell function, the production of hormones (including estrogen and testosterone), Vitamin D, and bile, which aids in fat digestion (bile salts, also aids in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E, and k.) Cholesterol lubricates the skin and is necessary part of the brain and nervous system.

Low levels of cholesterol have been linked to poor immunity, depression, as well as, cancer.

Fat and water do not mix well, so our body shuttles fat around attached to a protein. Cholesterol is also referred to as a lipoprotein (lipoprotein = fat+protein).

Cholesterol is simply the means in which, our body transports fat through the blood stream.

Our liver produces about 75% of the total blood cholesterol, the other 25% comes from dietary sources (cholesterol is only found in animal products).

2. Myth 2: DIETARY Cholesterol Is The Sole Cause Of Heart Disease

Though there are studies indicating an increased risk of heart disease correlated with high blood cholesterol levels, studies pinning the total blame of heat disease on dietary cholesterol have been inconsistent at best.

More consistently, studies indicate that heart disease is a multivariate phenomenon: cholesterol intake, inactivity, smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of fiber, body fat levels, saturated fat intake, trans-fats intake, and occupation (stress levels) all playing a role.

Recently, research has implicated the aforementioned lifestyle factors contribute to a state of chronic inflammation, which may be the real culprit behind a host of diseases including diseases of the heart.

A test has been developed for assessing this chronic inflammatory state by measuring a component of the blood called C-reactive protein. C-reactive protein is a marker for inflammation levels in our body. When C-reactive protein levels are high there is more likely damage to the heart and arteries, and an increase risk of heart attack.

Quote taken from the American Heart Association website:

Scientific studies have found that the higher the hs-CRP levels, the higher the risk of having a heart attack. In fact, the risk for heart attack in people in the upper third of hs-CRP levels has been determined to be twice that of those whose hs-CRP level is in the lower third.”

Here is how it works. Lifestyle factors contribute to chronic inflammation, which damages the artery walls. Cells multiply to repair the area. Similar to a scab, scar tissue is accumulated within the damaged area (plaque), ultimately arteries become restricted and blood flow is impaired to the heart.

Here is the twist. At lease, some doctors believe high blood cholesterol levels are apart of the body healing process and not the actual cause of artery/heart damage.

Since cholesterol is a necessary component of all cellular tissue, the belief is our body continues to produce more cholesterol to repair damaged tissue. Hence, the blood cholesterol remains high as result of chronic inflammation and the natural repair process.

How’s that for a spin? Cholesterol may be the good guy in a bad situation.

Inflammation is also believed to be the culprit behind a host of other diseases. The medical community is now searching for anti-inflammatory drugs to help reduce incidence of chronic inflammation and heart disease.

Why Cholesterol get a bad rap

When you visit your doctor, which lifestyle factor can he or she control with the least amount of effort?

Of all the lifestyle factors correlated with heart disease: cholesterol levels, inactivity, smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of fiber, body fat level, saturated fat intake, trans-fat intake, and occupation (stress levels) cholesterol is the only factor your doctor can control with medication.

Exercise does not come in a bottle yet.

Thus, cholesterol gets somewhat assumed to be the sole cause of heart disease.

Body Fat Levels

Once of the biggest oversights in the medical community is not including body fat testing with health assessments. In all my years in body fat testing, almost every person over 25% body fat for a male and 32% for a female, has tested positive for, at least, one of the following health conditions: high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, or coronary heart disease.

25% for a male and 32% for a female is considered obese based on the standards set by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

Body Fat Analysis Vs. BMI

Often, the people I test are not aware of their body fat level, nor what is considered obese. It is possible to not necessarily “look obese,” but fall into the obese range nonetheless (skinny fat).

When you visit your doctor, they are not assessing your body fat level or using the ACSM standard.

Doctors use a standard assessment called the BMI or Body Mass Index. The BMI is based on your weight and height, but does not consider muscle mass.

For instance, a 5’ 10” 200 pound man would be considered overweight base on BMI. There is a big difference however, between a 5’ 10” athletes who is all muscle, and someone who is the same height and weight, but a “couch potato.”

There is a large margin for error using the BMI standard.

MYTH 3: High Cholesterol Is Usually Genetic

I have had this conversation (borderline argument) with clients many times, who come to me to learn weight lifting but are not yet committed to changing their dietary habits.

These clients usually exercise moderately, and consider themselves “healthy eaters.”  Based on their doctor’s BMI assessment, they believe themselves to be a perhaps a few pounds overweight, but definitely not obese.

They believe that their higher than average cholesterol levels are genetic, which is usually supported by comments made by their doctor.

The doctor tells them, “you appear to eat well and exercise, and your weight (based on BMI) is okay.”

The problem is their body fat level is not okay based on the body fat standard set forth by the ACSM. The client’s body fat level is always in the 25-32% range.

Moreover, if a male is 30% body fat and loses a few pounds, and now is 25% body fat, they are still considered obese! This situation lends to the “see you have lost a few pounds and your cholesterol levels are still considered high, so it’s genetics” belief system.

The truth is that until one gets out of the 25%-32% body fat range, their cholesterol levels will most likely remain high.

And, what do you think contributes to high body fat levels?

Well, it is inactivity, smoking, alcohol consumption, lack of fiber, saturated fat intake, trans-fats, and occupation. We can also add total calorie intake to this list.

I do not like blanket statements, so I cannot say there are absolutely no cases where high cholesterol is genetic. I, however, have not tested anyone with a low body fat level and high cholesterol.

What I believe to be genetic is body types (also, families sometimes have similar lifestyle habits and food choices). If your parents are overweight, you run the risk of having a strong chance of being overweight also.

This simply means you may have to work harder to keep out of the 25-32% body fat range. No, this does not mean that you are doomed and destined for high cholesterol and heart disease based on your genes!

Some people have heart disease without high cholesterol and some have high cholesterol without heart disease. The bottom line is to know your body fat level and assess all the aforementioned lifestyle factors before assuming your cholesterol levels are genetic.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

George June 8, 2011 at 7:40 pm

A few years ago, I had “borderline” high cholesterol levels. I then followed a vegetarian diet for about 2 years and my cholesterol levels went back down. i have resumed eating meat in the last 3 months. I’ve also increased my exercise level. It will be interesting to see if my cholesterol level has gone back up once I started eating meat again. I have my yearly physical in September.

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Randell Allen June 8, 2011 at 10:15 pm

My question for you George: are you sure that the drop in cholesterol was due to not eating meat? Did you also lose weight? Losing weight generally lowers cholesterol levels.

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Name (required) July 18, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Hi Randell, I am male, white, 35, 6’2, 163 lbs, and 10% body fat, yet my cholesterol numbers are 44 HDL, 153 LDL, 171 Tri’s, with a Total Cholesterol of 231 (5.3). So, there goes your theory about thin people not having high cholesterol.

I do resistance weight training three times a week, along with interval cardio three times a week (along with running a 10 minute mile), yet I have high cholesterol. I eat nothing but whole grains, lean meats, low fat foods, no butter, little cheese, no ice cream, and few sweets. Any thoughts on how I can get my numbers down?

Reply

Randell Allen July 21, 2012 at 9:16 pm

Hi,

First of all, thank you for your comments and questions. I wrote this article over a year ago, and this is the first legitimate response. You taking the time to write is truly appreciated.

I apologize for my failure to convey clearly the strong relationship between obesity and cholesterol. This is often overlooked by doctors, which use BMI with their patients and not body fat testing. With that said, obesity appears to be only one correlation. And, every scientist knows that correlation is not causation. I did not intend to intimate that only obese people have high cholesterol. The science indicates that cholesterol is a multivariate issue, which includes smoking, alcohol intake, exercise habits, stress level, over consumption, and genes to name a few.

As mentioned in the article, many holistic practitioners believe that the aforementioned factors contribute to high inflammation levels. And, the belief is cholesterol is apart of the healing process of the body in attempt to mitigate inflammation.

You obviously care about your health. You are taking the time to educate yourself and have developed healthy eating habits.

My questions for you are: how often do you drink? Do you smoke? Do you have a high stress job or are a type A personality? How is your sleep? Are you married or have children? Do you mediate or have an outlet for stress? Are often tired or over training?

Although not scientific, I am not a proponent for a lot of grains in the diet. I try to replace grains with tubers whenever possible. Mostly, I recommend carbohydrate from vegetables and some fruits.

I have not read Dr. Mercola’s book about grain free diets, so I recommend it with some hesitation.

Again, I do not like to speak in absolutes, but eating fresh foods the vast majority of time may help.

Do you have a fair amount of naturally occurring omega 3 fatty acids in your diet? I do not eat dairy a lot, but when possible, I consume raw dairy products.

My final questions: what method are you using for body fat testing? Have you ever used hydrostatic body fat testing?

You may gather from my line of questioning that there is probably no direct cause and effect, as pertaining to heath.

A holistic model includes examining life from a panoramic view point.

I look forward to hearing from you. Thanks again.

Best, Randell

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Mirjam April 7, 2014 at 4:23 pm

Hi Randell,

I’m from Europe and I have the same ‘issue’: I am a 42 year old woman with only 18% bodyfat, almost no visceral fat, and my BMI is 19.2. I eat a low carb, low saturated fat diet, enriched with superfoods like goji berries and mulberries. I do strength/weight training twice a week and run twice a week as well. Yet my cholesterol is really elevated. I don’t know the american equivalent but here, its 7.0. However, I have such high HDL levels that HDL/LDL ratio is normal. Same goes for apo A / apo B: both are high, apo B above cut off point, but ratio is 0.6 and is considered normal.

Also, it is a well known fact that almost half of the people who suffer from anorexia nervosa have high cholesterol.
So how does this fit with your findings?

Kind regards,
Mirjam

Reply

Randell Allen April 7, 2014 at 10:06 pm

Hi Mirjam, thank you for your inquiry. What a great question! Greetings form Hollywood, California.

In the last part of the cholesterol article, my intention is to point out that many people unknowingly have high body fat levels, which is not addressed by the medical community because of BMI being the standard in medical testing. The main point is before anyone considers that their high cholesterol is related simply to genetics, a body fat test should be done to make sure the person is not in the obese category (over 32-35% for women and 22-25% body fat for men). It is well documented that obesity is related to high cholesterol. In your case, you are not obese, so this scenario does not apply.

The article also mentions there is a correlation between high cholesterol levels and inflammation. Research shows that high c-reactive protein levels are correlated with heart disease and heart attack, more than having high cholesterol levels alone. Inflammation should be of a main concern for every individual, especial with high cholesterol. In your case, I would recommend making sure that your c-reactive protein levels are normal. Your HDL is good, so this scenario may not apply to you either.

Now, there are a number of studies indicating that high inflammation levels correlate with a host of other health issue: Diabetes, asthma, allergies, arthritis, colitis, and Crohn’s disease to name only a few. Do you suffer from any of these or similar issues?

The problem is since there is few doctors or people concerned about inflammation until there is a problem. If your high cholesterol levels are a sign of high inflammatory levels, you probably will not know.

There is a less common test called a Sed rate, or erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) test, which also may reveal more non specific (not specifically related to heart disease) high inflammatory levels. If you are concerned, consider checking with your doctor.
What strikes me about your response is you mentioned following a high carbohydrate, low fat diet. I am not a fan of whole grains, which contain anti-nutrients and often are hard on the digestive track, which may contribute to high inflammation levels. Do you eat a high grain diet?
Moreover, a low fat diet devoid of omega 3 fatty acids (coconut oil, raw butter, fatty oil fish, raw grass fed dairy or grass fed beef products) or an imbalance of omega 6 (too high) to omega 3 may lead to high inflammation. Olive oil is not high in omega 3 fatty acids and all processed (heated) oils will contribute to inflammation.
Do you eat a high omega 3 based diet?
Do you have a sweet tooth (high sugar), (drink) alcohol, smoke, or are a high stress person? These factors may contribute to high inflammation.
As I mentioned, making blanket statements like, ” cholesterol is never genetic” is something no one is capable of substantiating probably at this point.
If all the factors contributing to inflammation above do not apply to you, then you may fit into the “cholesterol is genetic category.” If you cannot, you may consider researching and changing some of your lifestyle factors, which may be contributing to high inflammatory levels.

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