Thursday, July 3, 2008

Is Cholesterol a Myth?

My father while on vacation in Mexico recently experienced chest pains that turned into a grueling medivac experience to Chicago and quadruple bypass surgery. This came as a chock to the entire family as my father, even at age 79, was regarded as one of the most fit in the entire clan--near perfect cholesterol and blood pressure and an exercise routine that included walking four miles every morning. His own mother lived to 103.

I, on the other hand, definitely take after the other side of the family: high cholesterol, elevated blood pressure, too much belly fat and an aversion to exercise unless it involves gardening or walking around the neighborhood. I was already on high alert for heart disease. Three years ago I altered my diet to go low on fat and eliminate any hint of saturated fats. I avoid refined flours in favor of whole grains. Essentially, I was following the South Beach Diet, right down to the daily dose of Lipitor, the cholesterol lowering drug. (My wife would say I was doing everything right, except eating portions that were too big.)

So along comes my fit and hardy dad with major blockages in four arteries to completely rattle my concept of how to avoid heart failure. How does all this square?

I just happened to be in the middle of reading Nina Planck's book, Real Food: What to Eat and Why. Yesterday I finished reading it a second time, wearing out two highlighter pens marking up the very compelling case Planck makes for ditching the cholesterol hypothesis and embracing foods like whole milk, farm-fresh eggs and meat from pastured animals, foods that often are high in cholesterol and saturated fats.

Entering Planck's world is like visiting a parallel universe. Everything we've been taught about fat, cholesterol and heart disease is turned inside out. The reason is simply this: after reading all the scientific literature, Planck has concluded that cholesterol does not cause hardening of the arteries. The real villain is our industrial diet full of processed corn and soybean oils, processed foods based on powdered milk and eggs from livestock raised on corn and soybeans, refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, salt and hydrogenated fats such as margarine.

Planck makes the case that heart disease was virtually unknown prior to the 20th century, yet by the 1950 after just two generations of industrial food, it had become this nation's number one killer. An industrial diet that favors unhealthy refined fats from corn and soybeans--previously unknown in the human diet--completely unhinges a lipid balance that should be equally weighted toward Omega-3 fats,. the kind found in wild-caught fish.

Eventually we hear the story of Kilmer McCully, then a young pathologist at Massachusetts's General Hospital, who in 1968 published ground-breaking research showing that the real culprit in arteriosclerosis was not cholesterol but an excess of an amino acid called homocysteine, caused by a lack of B vitamins and folic acid. But while McCully's research was initially hailed, he was quickly blackballed by the medical profession because his work ran counter to the ascending medical/pharmacological orthodoxy that heart disease is caused by cholesterol.

Today the sale of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs is a $16 billion business. Meanwhile, Kilmer McCully now is chief of pathology at the Veterans Affairs Medicals Center in Boston and supervises something called the Homocysteine Study involving some 2,000 veterans.

I won't go into all the details. I just wanted to warn readers that a shift in thinking was underway here at The Slow Cook and that I will probably be returning to this topic more frequently and in greater depth in the future.

Since starting a subscription with a local dairy I've been drinking unhomogenized ("cream top") whole milk, making bacon and eggs for breakfast, occasionally ordering grass-fed steaks and including very dark chocolate as part of my daily diet. I've almost eliminated consumption of alcohol and I take fish oil capsules three times a day for the Omega-3. I am trying to avoid any kind of processed foods, even if it means saying no to ice cream from the local gelati joint when they can't tell me what's in it.

Remarkably, I am losing weight and I feel healthier than ever. My blood pressure is coming back down. It makes me want to run out and have liver and onions for lunch....


el said...

(Wow: I am the first to comment again?) This is one of those watershed books that led me back to being a carnivore. I think what Pollan have been trying to say is in this book: just eat the way people (like your grandmum) used to eat and dang, you'll have the added benefits of decent health. Processing is actually the greater evil. Give us another 10,000 years and maybe we can figure out how to properly metabolize that can of Pringles or that Twinkie.

Oh, and lard is mighty good in my cherry pies' crusts!

Anonymous said...

You might be interested to know that Purslane (common garden weed) is an excellent source of Omega-3s. ( Tastes great in salads!

The Baklava Queen said...

Ed, I will be following your journey with great interest. Omnivore's Dilemma caused me to be a little more relaxed about being a vegetarian and to understand nutrition differently, so I can see the merit in what you're saying.

I also know a couple of people who have been put on strict vegan diets by their cardiologist to address their severe heart disease -- people who I would consider fit because they are still very active in their 70s. I don't know which will work best, whether it's tied to individual genetics or what, but it will be worth seeing the results. I suspect both approaches will have significant results.

Best of luck, Ed. I think you're doing a great job. (But you can keep the liver and onions. ;-)

susan harris said...

Great topic - keep it coming. I'm taking Lipitor, too, and exercising my butt off, but having trouble changing the way I eat. I'd hate to give up my secret pleasures (ditto about ice cream) for no good reason.
Oh, and what about the alcohol? Are the recommendations about drinking red wine daily still valid, ya think?

Joanna said...

Ed, I've been increasingly coming to this view, but, when your man has had a heart attack - the man who, like your father, "shouldn't" have had one - it's very hard not to take the prevailing view.

But I now think that the wholefood / cooking from scratch / not eating industrial food is probably enough. Plus more exercise and less wine boo hoo. My grandparents, who each lived to be 95, had everything in moderation ... that's the bit I find the hardest

I'm off to Amazon to order the book - thanks for drawing it to my attntion


Matt said...

Great stuff! I came to the same conclusion last fall.

I read The Cholesterol Myth and the Weston Price foundation books, which helped. It really freaks people out though because it is so contrary to the medical profession.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks for sharing this story and helping to spread the word about the cholesterol mythology we've been fed!
Like many other natural health professionals, I believe that cholesterol is a normal, HEALTHY element of our bodies that plays a role in everything from the nervous system and arteries to digestion, libido, fertility,and even mental acuity. While there may be a correlation between cholesterol and heart disease, no study has yet to show causality. But still, the cholesterol-lowering drug makers have made millions of customers-for-life and are raking in obscene profits even in this economy.
I agree with Planck that the answer is to return to whole foods and eschew the processed diet we've all become so attached to. Not only will you lose weight as you have seen (congratulations on that!), but you'll feel better and be healthier, too.
I'm thrilled to see you write about your shift in consciousness and hope the rest of the country catches on in time. Thanks for keeping us all informed!

MamaBird said...

You'd probably like the Weston A Price Fdn aka Sally Fallon books (Nourishing Traditions for a start) and I have been really wanting to read Mary Enig's book on fats for some time. Best of luck with your health - all whole foods has to help.

Bronwyn said...

a) It doesn't matter how fit you are, or how good your diet, if you have the bad genes for heart disease.

b) Everyone dies of something, and if you avoid accidents and infectious diseases you will die of cancer or heart failure of one sort or another.

c) Dietary cholesterol has little effect on blood cholesterol, and cholesterol is important for health.

d) For goodness' sake ignore all of the "latest findings" etc. Eat ordinary natural food in sensible quantities without going to extremes.

Ed Bruske said...

El, I didn't realize this was one of those watershed books. I simply had it on my list of books to read. In fact, I had run across Mina Planck's parents at one of the local farmers markets (they have a farm in Loudon County) where they were selling the book. It wasn't until I was well into reading it that I realized that my world was being shaken. Hence the second, closer reading.

Emily, in fact I did know something about purlane. This is the season for it. Purslane is coming up in the garden like crazy, and I've been noshing on it as I do my weeding. I prefer it raw. It tastes mostly like grass but has an umpleasant mucilagenous texture when cooked (although I'm a huge fan of okra). I noticed it was being sold next to the salad mix at the farmers market.

Jennifer, Nina Planck writes about being a vegetarian in her youth, and feeling much healthier when she went back to a diet that included meat and dairy. I am coming to think that livestock raised on grass is good for farming, good for the soil, good for the environment, good for human health. I think it's safe to say Planck is anti-vegan from a health standpoint, and she has a lot to say about elevated cholesterol levels being good for the elderly. It's all very counterintuitive.

Susan, I think the concnesus remains that a serving (5-ounce glass) of red wine is good for the antioxidants, and me help lower blood pressure. But in my case, if something is open I will drink it. So I no longer have wine on a daily basis. But I don't refuse at a dinner party.

Joanna, I can certainly feel your pain. I think the medical profession has made up its mind and it is very hard for the lay person to make an independent decision. But the bigger danger by far is the insidious processed food culture and the corporate structure that promotes it. That I have no problem giving up, and good riddance.

Matt, there is an extensive bibliography in this boo. Quite a lot of reading to do. And of course I'd already run across the Weston Price story many times in my travels. It's very compelling stuff.

Elizabeth, that's a great summation of what Nina Planck has to say. I'm just discovering how many people out there share this view.

Bronwyn, all good points and very logical. Apparently you didn't grow up in the U.S. where the prevailing culture always involves a struggle over scientific studies. We are studied to death, and I think one of Planck central points is we just need to go back to the common-sense, natural way of eating that our ancestors engaged in. Unfortunately, we've all been indoctrinated since birth by the corporate food establishment.

WeekendFarmer said...

Ed - Sorry to hear about your dad. Hope he is doing well. I have been through that with my dad.

Janet said...

Chiming in late here. That book shook me up, too, although my cholesterol etc. were fine. I drove people crazy talking about it as I was reading it and created my only (I think) blog series about it. (It starts here if you're interested: I was largely a whole-foods eater anyway, but it did push me toward pastured chicken, eggs and beef. I don't know that it's made a difference in my health (status quo from all indications), but it has made me enjoy more and feel better about eating those same foods.

Ed Bruske said...

WF, my dad says he's doing fine, although he he feels like a prisoner in his own home during the recuperation.

Janet, great series on Real Food. I knew I was a little latefinding it. For me, more than anything, Nina Plancks work underscores how our diet and our health have been hijacked by Big Agriculture and the corporate food establishment. And with the help of our own federal government. As you point out, we come back to the question of access to healthier foods. Obviously, there's not enough for everyone, and the cost is high.

Ramona said...

Great post, Ed. I admire you're dedication to real food. Might I urge you to consider the role of dietary saturated fat (and of course refined sugar, trans fats etc), inflammation and heart disease?
Heart disease is quite complex and you're right-it's not all about cholesterol. Inflammation is a great factor, which diet can affect.
Take care! and sorry if I'm being a buttinsky!