Cholesterol Isn’t as Bad for You as You Thought…In Fact – It can be Really Good!
Cholesterol, like many nutrients and foods, is making a comeback. Driven by an industry that profits off scaring us into nutrition fads, our culture tends to demonize one food group or nutrient at a time.
Unfortunately, no one ACTUALLY paid attention to the research, or maybe they just did poor research. Because when you conduct solid and non-biased research you find that dietary cholesterol (and saturated fat) are not only not bad for you, but are really quite good for you.
You also find eye-opening revelations like the fact that eating cholesterol doesn’t usually raise blood cholesterol. In fact, healthy fats actually help prevent heart disease. And I’ll raise you once more –cholesterol helps us build muscle (*gasp*)!
What cholesterol does in the body
No aspect of nutrition can be viewed in a box. As soon as you demonize one component or praise another, you take it out of the complex context in which it exists within the body. Cholesterol is no exception.
Cholesterol is necessary to produce:
Vitamin D: Vitamin D is actually a HORMONE and nearly every cell in your body has receptors for it. So yeah, pretty important. Vitamin D aids in calcium and phosphate absorption as well as overall anabolic (building up) for bone tissue.
Steroid hormones: You know how you like building muscle? Well dietary saturated fat is a building block for cholesterol in the body. And cholesterol is the backbone for testosterone, estrogen and a few other anabolic hormones. These hormones are responsible for “turning on” muscle building by creating new proteins in the body.
Bile acids: These are crucial for the absorption of dietary fat by emulsifying them and transporting them through the digestive system.
Cell membranes: Cholesterol is integral for cell structure, function and fluidity. We need cell membranes to be resilient but sensitive to hormones. Poor cell membrane function means less of a response to anabolic hormones and decreased insulin sensitivity – both bad news for growing muscle and keeping off body fat.
What the research says on the safety of saturated fat and cholesterol
Research is pointing towards the notion that saturated fat and cholesterol are not harmful….
In some studies, it has been found that saturated fat is actually cardio protective – in fact carbohydrates may be more impactful of raising disease risks.
What dietary changes actually impact our health?
As Dr. Johnny Bowden said, “trying to prevent heart disease by lowering cholesterol is like trying to reduce calories by taking the lettuce off your whopper.”
But if lowering saturated fat and dietary cholesterol doesn’t decrease disease risks for the majority of populations, what dietary changes impact disease risk?
The answer: Inflammation.
Johnny Bowden writes:
“It’s worth noting that many researchers believe that whatever good statin drugs may do has much less to do with their ability to lower cholesterol than their ability to lower inflammation, which is indeed a definite risk for heart disease (as well as a component of Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes and cancer).
Small injuries to the vascular wall that can be caused by anything from high blood pressure to toxins attract all sorts of metabolic riff-raff, from bacteria to oxidized (damaged) LDL particles; the immune system sends inflammatory cytokines to the area, and more oxidation and inflammation takes place eventually resulting in the growth of plaque and, ultimately, to an increased risk for heart disease. If there were no inflammation, the arteries would be clear.
But we can lower inflammation quite effectively with naturally anti-inflammatory foods (apples, onions, wild salmon) and supplements (fish oil, quercetin,
omega-7, curcumin), not one of which has the side effect profile of statin drugs.”
Does lower cholesterol mean better health?…..Not usually
In the famous Lyon Diet Heart Study, 605 people who had previously had a heart attack were told to either eat a Mediterranean-type diet (fish, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts) or given the routine post-heart attack typical advice (like eat a ‘prudent’ diet, and stay away from saturated fat and cholesterol).
The people who ate the Mediterranean diet experienced 70% less heart disease than those getting the standard advice of avoiding saturated fat and cholesterol; about three times the reduction in the risk of further heart disease achieved with statin drugs! Their overall risk of death was 45% lower than that of the group using the conventional advice.
But now we ask - did the people eating the Mediterranean diet have lower cholesterol? They must have, to experience such dramatic drops in heart disease, right?
Amazingly no, and that’s the greatest part of this study: Their cholesterol levels didn’t change at ALL!
They just stopped dying.
Let’s repeat that because it’s worth repeating: Though these folks had significantly less heart disease, and significantly less risk of dying, their cholesterol levels didn’t change.
How much does our diet impact our cholesterol?
Chris Kresser writes; “on average, 70% of people are NOT impacted by cholesterol in the diet”. Even eating 4 eggs per day, 70% people had no change to blood cholesterol. 30% did increase serum cholesterol, but they had an even increase of LDL and HDL, which is indicative of healthy cholesterol levels.
Our cholesterol ratio is much more important for cardiovascular disease risk, so the rise in cholesterol (for most) is not likely to cause issues if ratio stays in a healthy range.
There are hyper-responders, Chris Kresser says, who do experience big rises and falls in blood cholesterol with increased or decreased dietary saturated fat. Genetics play a large role.
But 90% of people who have a heart attack or high cholesterol issues, also have at LEAST ONE other risk factor like family history, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking etc.
We often make the mistake of jumping to correlation and causation. Sure, some studies say people who eat more red meat have higher risk of heart disease…but that is because MANY people who eat lots of red meat also eat too many calories, they smoke, don’t exercise and are exposed to many more risk factors. So you cannot pull that causation claim without considering all the other factors.
Tips for reducing risks of heart disease
- Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet. The fruit and vegetable kingdom is teeming with natural anti-inflammatories like quercetin (apples and onions) and curcumin (turmeric). Drink green tea and pomegranate juice. Balance your protein and fat with tons of vegetables. And eat dark chocolate—its cocoa flavanols help lower blood pressure and keep the cardiovascular system healthy.
- Reduce grains, starches, sugar and omega-6s (vegetable oils). Every one of these has the power to increase inflammation—a lot!
- Manage Your Stress. Stress is an enormous risk factor for heart disease, and is inflammatory as well. Find a way to manage it. Anything from regular walks in the park to deep breathing exercises to warm baths can help.
- Exercise. It’s probably the best anti-aging (and heart protective) drug on the planet.
- Drink only in moderation. And if you don’t process the word “moderation” very well, don’t drink at all. Moderation means one or two glasses of wine a day, not 7 to 14 glasses on the weekend!
- Don’t smoke. Probably the number one recommendation for heart disease prevention.
- Supplement smart. There are many “must have” supplements: antioxidants, vitamin C, coenzyme Q10, omega-3s, citrus bergamot, and curcumin. While they are all valuable, curcumin stands out. This amazing extract from turmeric does just about everything—it’s an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, so it stops and even reverses cellular damage. However, it is vitally important to find a curcumin supplement that is clinically tested and absorbs well. Terry Lemerond has found compelling evidence that a specific curcumin with up to 10 times the absorption of standard extracts is best on both of these counts. You take less, but get noticeably more benefits. This high-absorption curcumin is actually as effective as an anti-inflammatory than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, celecoxib, naproxen sodium, and even the steroid, prednisone – but without side effects! And that’s just one example of curcumin’s many achievements. In fact, in India, they call curcumin “the all in one solution.”
Recapping the good news
· Cholesterol as a whole isn’t bad
· Eating cholesterol and saturated fat doesn’t usually raise cholesterol levels
· Lowering cholesterol doesn’t guarantee better heath either
· You can decrease risk of heart disease WITHOUT lowering cholesterol
· Cholesterol and saturated fat are important for a ton of bodily functions
· Decreasing inflammation likely improves all health markers, including risk of heart disease
So if cholesterol isn’t bad and in fact is good for me, how can it help me get stronger?
New research, compiled succinctly by Menno Henselmann here, points towards higher levels of cholesterol leading to more muscle and strength.
When protein and fat are matched, people who eat more cholesterol build more muscle.
Positive dose relationships have been found between cholesterol intake and strength gains.
When comparing high (800mg/d) to low (200mg/d) cholesterol intakes, the high cholesterol diets had three times the muscle protein synthesis (muscle building) of the low diets.
Statins, which lower cholesterol, are often associated with muscle weakness.
Vegans and vegetarians have a harder time building muscle because plant based foods are dramatically lower in cholesterol– up to 100 times less. (Also as a side note, plant proteins do not contain nearly as much leucine, which is important for stimulating muscle building – but that’s a blog post for another day!)
Cholesterol is integral for immune function and the immune system is what repairs muscle tissue.
Perhaps the most compelling new evidence from Kent State compared 47 adults over the course of a 12-week strength-training program. Both groups ate equal amounts of protein but were divided into high and low cholesterol groups.
-The low cholesterol group saw a 35% increase in strength gain but NO gains in muscle mass
-The high cholesterol group saw a 90% increase in strength gains with a 5lb increase in muscle mass.
Steve Riechman, a researcher in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at the Texas A&M University, says:
“It shows that you do need a certain amount of LDL to gain more muscle mass. There’s no doubt you need both – the LDL and the HDL — and the truth is cholesterol is all good. You simply can’t remove all the ‘bad’ cholesterol from your body without serious problems occurring.”
People often say, ‘I want to get rid of all my bad (LDL) cholesterol,’ but the fact is, if you did so, you would die,” the Texas A&M professor adds. “Everyone needs a certain amount of both LDL and HDL in their bodies. We need to change this idea of LDL always being the evil thing – we all need it, and we need it to do its job.”
This leads us to some pretty compelling new ideas. We’ve got to abandon the dogma of saturated fat and cholesterol being “bad”. We need to consider that much of our fear of certain foods and nutrients directly benefits big pharmaceutical corporations selling drugs to “solve” those issues. Statins are big business. And some people need them but we’ve got lots of research and evidence showing that perhaps the problem is more of inflammation than high cholesterol.
Personally, it’s been my experience that vegans and vegetarians have a much harder time leaning out, getting stronger and gaining muscle. Low protein, low leucine and of course low saturated fat and cholesterol are major drivers of this and the research supports it. While its not impossible it means making smarter food choices and not relying too heavily on carbohydrates and low fat foods.
We now have pretty solid evidence linking saturated fat and cholesterol as not only good, but downright great for getting strong and building muscle.
And don’t forget, if your diet is low in saturated fat and cholesterol, your intestines will increase their absorption and your liver will make more. So your body is actively trying (and doing a better job than you) regulating blood cholesterol.
Instead, we should focus much more on eating quality fats, complete proteins, fruits and vegetables and unrefined carbohydrates sources. It’s amazing how much people will defend a low cholesterol diet but not adhere to some nutrition basics.
Hopefully this gets you reaching for some meat, eggs, nuts, olive oil, seeds, salmon and avocado and maximizing your gains.
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“Is Cholesterol the Forgotten Anabolic?” Bayesian Bodybuilding (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
Mozaffarian, Dariush, Eric B. Rimm, and David M. Herrington. "Dietary Fats, Carbohydrate, and Progression of Coronary Atherosclerosis in Postmenopausal Women." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. N.p., 01 Nov. 2004. Web. 20 May 2017.
Siri-Tarino, P. W., Q. Sun, F. B. Hu, and R. M. Krauss. "Meta-analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies Evaluating the Association of Saturated Fat with Cardiovascular Disease." The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2010. Web. 20 May 2017.