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Unlearning what you know about cholesterol

Posted Feb 20 2013 8:55pm

Over Christmas my brother came home to celebrate with us. It wasn’t long into our conversation that he mentioned that he wasn’t going to be eating much of the beef tenderloin that we were having Christmas day, or much of the shellfish we were having on Christmas Eve. He told me it was because his cholesterol was high and he needed to reel it in.  “That moment” was in front of me again. You know “that moment” where someone brings up something incorrect about food, nutrition, or exercise and I try really hard to just let it go but I just can’t! I took a moment to decide whether or not I wanted to get into a “dietary cholesterol has little to do with blood cholesterol” discussion on Christmas. I decided that since this was my brother that it was worth it, and I would make it brief.  So I gave him a synopsis of what my research and personal experimentation has led me to believe & understand.

My cholesterol has always been higher than the “normal” of 200 mg/dl. My dad had high cholesterol so I thought that I was destined to have it as well. No matter how much meat and fat I cut out of my diet, I couldn’t get my numbers below 200. My first paleo challenge included pre & post blood work. My total cholesterol before the challenge was 209 and 63 days of strict paleo later, it went down to 203. An Earth shattering decrease…no. But it was the first time in my life that I ate MORE meat & fat than ever before and my numbers went down. Some people in the challenge dropped 40+ points. So what’s the deal with that? Well it turns out that dietary cholesterol has little to do with blood cholesterol. Usually I am not a big fan of Dr. Oz, but he did a 15 minute segment on how everything we have learned about cholesterol has been wrong. It’s really worth the watch. Here it is:

My main take away points are:

  1. Cholesterol & fat don’t cause heart disease, sugar and systemic inflammation do.
  2. Your total cholesterol numbers don’t matter. It is all about LDL particle size.  Big fluffy LDL particles bounce around the inside of your vessels and are protective because they can’t get into the artery wall. Envision a large balloon (fluffy LDL’s) being thrown against a window (blood vessel lining). The window won’t break because it’s too light and fluffy. Small LDL particle size can get into artery wall and cause inflammation and lead to plaque. Envision BB’s from a BB gun. If you shoot the window (blood vessel lining) with a BB gun (small LDL’s) it will shatter (inflammation).
  3. The next time I have an appointment for a physical, I am asking for the LDL particle size test. Read more about this test here.

And I know you will shocked to read this but guess what? Low-fat, high-carb diets RAISE bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol in the majority of people ( source ). Right, here is where I tell you again that the lovely food pyramid and the American Heart Association led us all wrong. It’s not saturated fat or cholesterol that raise the amount of small LDL particle’s in our blood, it’s……CARBOHYDRATE ( source ) . Now remember that all carbohydrate is not created equal. There is a big difference between the carbs you will get by eating a bagel or a bowl of pasta and the carbs you will get by eating some broccoli or a salad. What’s great about eating more protein & fat is that helps with satiety-that feeling of being full and being able to last more than an hour or 2 between meals.  It’s no secret that wheat has a high glycemic index. Here is the definition of glycemic index from

The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high GI are those which are rapidly digested and absorbed and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Low-GI foods, by virtue of their slow digestion and absorption, produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels, and have proven benefits for health. Low GI diets have been shown to improve both glucose and lipid levels in people with diabetes (type 1 and type 2). They have benefits for weight control because they help control appetite and delay hunger. Low GI diets also reduce insulin levels and insulin resistance. 

So by decreasing the amount of grains in your diet and by increasing the amount of quality protein sources (grass-fed beef, poultry, fish, seafood, etc), quality fat sources (olives, avocado, coconut, etc.), & quality carbohydrate sources (vegetables & fruit), you can significantly improve your overall health & lose weight in the process. I like to call this diet the freedom diet. Freedom from counting calories, points, estimating portion size, etc. Why would anyone want to have to do math in order to just eat food? I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full. I don’t count calories and I certainly don’t measure portion size. If I want to eat clean & healthy this is how I eat. If I want to eat following a Standard American Diet, well that’s when portion size and calorie counting comes into play. It was an easy decision for me.


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