Is cholesterol unhealthy? A second look.

Eggs frying in oilCholesterol – it’s a very dirty, scary word in our culture.  Why?  Because so many people die every year from heart disease, which is largely blamed on dietary fat and cholesterol.  But there are quite a few misunderstandings about cholesterol and its role in health and disease. In this article I’m going to explain why we need cholesterol for health, why dietary cholesterol isn’t harmful, and why, if these things are true, high cholesterol is often associated with heart disease.

First of all, cholesterol is essential for optimum health and has numerous functions in the body.  Over 35,000 mg of cholesterol can be found in the average human body at any give time.  Most of that amount is found in the cell membranes, where it serves as an important structural component.  Cells need cholesterol to maintain the permeability that allows nutrients to nourish the cells.  Cholesterol is also the structural precursor for steroid hormones, such as testosterone, estrogen, and cortisol, all of which are crucial for proper metabolism and reproductive health.  Additionally, cholesterol is needed in order to produce one of the body’s most important vitamins, vitamin D.  Then there’s bile production (bile is essential for the digestion of fats) — it too depends on cholesterol.  The immune system is also strengthened by cholesterol.  And, finally, cholesterol is an essential component of myelin, which forms the protective sheaths around neurons, allowing the central nervous system to function properly!  Moral of the story: we need cholesterol!

If cholesterol has so many health benefits, then why is it associated with cardiovascular disease?  Well, a growing body of evidence is starting to reveal the answer.  Initially researchers noticed a correlation between cholesterol levels, especially high LDL cholesterol, and incidence of heart disease.  Then, as is so often the case in the realm of medicine, dietary cholesterol was demonized without an understanding of all the other factors at play.  We now know that dietary cholesterol actually has a very minimal effect on blood cholesterol levels, if any, and that saturated fats, in and of themselves, don’t cause elevated cholesterol levels either.  In fact, the body is highly efficient at maintaining cholesterol levels and will actually decrease it’s own production of cholesterol when cholesterol is obtained from diet.

While LDL undoubtedly has a role in atherosclerosis, few people seem to known what LDL is or that there are actually different types of LDL.  Not all LDL is created equal.  In a nutshell, LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) is basically a protein shuttle that carries cholesterol to the cells. The cells then use the cholesterol to repair the themselves or produce hormones.  LDL levels are known to rise as a result of mental stress (stress drains the body of stress hormones that are cholesterol-based), physical injury, smoking (which causes injury to the cells), and overeating.  LDL levels can also be elevated as a result of a genetic predisposition to having fewer LDL receptors.  If there aren’t enough receptors on the cells, then the LDL continues circulating in the blood stream where it can eventually lodge into the arteries and promote arterial plaque.

It’s important to reiterate that LDL, in and of itself, isn’t unhealthy.  In a way, a high ratio of LDL to HDL is merely a sign that the body is undergoing some form of stress that needs to be remedied.  Targeting LDL is kind of like removing the warning signal  instead of fixing the actual problem.  LDL is important because it provides nourishment to the cells, but there are two factors that can make LDL particularly problematic: particle size and oxidation.

A high carbohydrate diet, particularly one that’s  high in fructose and refined sugar, can caused the body to produce a certain type of LDL called Small Dense LDL.  These LDL particles are smaller and denser than they should be, which makes them more prone to lodging themselves in artery cell walls and initiating the first stages of atherosclerosis and heart disease.  A whole-food based diet, however, that’s higher in healthy fats, causes the body to produce larger, fluffier LDL particles that don’t damage the arteries as easily.

Perhaps even more dangerous than Small Dense LDL particles are oxidized LDL particles. Several recent studies have found a direct correlation between the amount of LDL oxidation in circulation and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease.  Oxidized LDL is basically a damaged, unstable LDL molecule that is absorbed by the arteries’ immune cells in self-defense.  When oxidized LDL is absorbed by these cells (called macrophages) foam cells can form that bulge and lead to atherosclerosis.

So what causes oxidized LDL?  There are several potential culprits, for one, a diet high in polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs).  PUFAs (found in refined seed oils like corn, canola, and soybean oil) are unstable and prone to damage.  When these types of fats are digested, they’re used for building LDL particles; in turn, these LDL particles are prone to oxidation.  Saturated and monounsaturated fats, by contrast, (butter and olive oil) are much less prone to oxidation and, therefore, result in LDL that is resistant to oxidation.

Inadequate supplies of antioxidants, especially Co-enzyme Q10 and vitamin E, can also lead to excess oxidized LDL.  Coenzyme q10 is specially manufactured by the body to protect LDL and HDL cholesterol from damage, but in order to produce it, the body needs plenty of b-vitamins.  Coenzyme q10 can also be obtained from grass-fed beef (especially the liver) and from dietary supplements.  Studies indicate that supplemental co-enzyme q-10 does have a cardioprotective role and can protect LDL from oxidation.  Vitamin E is another important fat-soluble antioxidant for protecting lipoproteins, but it works best in the presences of co-enzyme q-10.  There are also a number of polyphenols from plants that have the ability to protect against oxidation, as well as increase the number of LDL receptors (which means there are more “nets” to remove LDL from the blood stream).  Some of these polyphenols include EGCG from green tea, resveratrol from red wine, and quercetin, which is found in onions, apples, and berries.

The Take Away: Our bodies absolutely depend on cholesterol for health.  While, in certain cases, cholesterol can contribute to heart disease, dietary cholesterol isn’t the problem.  The quality of cholesterol the body produces is more relevant than the quantity.  Healthy cholesterol depends on eating the right kinds of oils (monounsaturated and saturated fats found in natural products like butter, olive oil, and coconut oil), grass-fed meats, and plenty of leafy greens that are high in fat-soluble anti-oxidants.  High LDL levels may require a dietary and/or lifestyle change, including stress reduction.  Some people are also genetically predisposed to having higher LDL levels, in which case it’s especially important to prevent LDL particles from becoming oxidized by eating a creation-based diet.

References: Dietary Cholesterol Reduces Endogenous Production, The Role of Oxidized LDL in Atherosclerosis, Is Dietary Cholesterol as Bad for You as History Leads us to Believe?, Regulation of LDL by Carbohydrates, Small Dense LDL and Atherosclerosis, Association of Circulating Oxidized LDL with Heart Disease, Effects of Co-enzyme q10 on Oxidized LDL in Vitro, Cardioprotective Effects of Dietary Polyphenols, Consumption of Fructose and HFCS Increase LDL, Green Tea Upregulates LDL Receptors

 

Originally posted 2013-06-04 17:33:00.

Office Job Hazards: This practice may lead to your early death

While dangerous and physically demanding, it’s not climbing telephone poles, mining, or deep sea fishing that pose the greatest health risks for most of today’s workers. No, one of the riskiest and increasingly common types of jobs in the world is the all too coveted desk job. In this “Office Job Hazards” series I’ll cover the dangers of working behind a desk, from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome to co-worker related stress, and identify strategies to prevent them and improve your health. To start off the series, we’ll take a look at the office job requirement that increases the risk of diabetes, back pain, cardiovascular disease, and early death: sitting.

If you can’t reduce the amount of time that you work behind a desk, it’s important for your health (for your life) that you find a way to change how you work behind a desk. Recent studies have produced very alarming but important information about sitting, namely that doing so for prolonged periods of time greatly increases the risk of disease and early death. Unfortunately, sitting increases these risks despite how physically active one is after work. Yet, to make matters worse, instead of doing something active after work, most people do even more sitting (driving home, watching TV, etc.), which only increases the risk of disease. For many people sitting is also a major cause of bad posture, weak stomach muscles, and lower back pain. The reason sitting can cause lower back pain because it places increased angular stress (up to 50% more than when standing) on the lumbar vertebrae. If going to work feels like torture, maybe it’s because in some ways it is. While your chair at work isn’t electric, it might be causing you a very slow, early death.

The good news is that you can keep your day job and still decrease your risk of death and disease, as well as gain relief from lower back pain. While not fully accepted in the work place, standing desks and alternative chairs are graining traction as healthy alternatives to sitting in a traditional chair all day. I’ve personally used both, and while both are better than a standard chair, I prefer working at a standing station. A standing station is essentially a very tall desk, elevated so that your arms are parallel with the ground while typing and you’re looking directly at the computer screen while standing. By standing you’ll actually be able to focus better, burn more calories, straighten your spine, and decrease your risk of disease! The other alternative is some type of dynamic seating device that activates your core muscles and forces you to stabilize your spine while sitting, such an exercise ball or modified exercise ball. If you have to work 8-hours a day at a desk, the ideal situation might be some combination of both, a standing station connected to a seated desk with an exercise ball for a chair.

The easiest solution for most people, however, would probably be to purchase an exercise ball (or modified exercise ball) and use it to replace their existing chair at work. You might get a few stares, laughs, or questions, but it’s usually an acceptable middle ground, and it might even cause some of your co-workers to follow suit. A standing desk takes a little bit more time to get use to (and a little bit more money up front), but it’s amazing how quickly the body can adapt. Standing also promotes proper posture and increased movement better than an exercise ball. Once on your feet you’ll quickly find yourself doing stretches and moving around more often in between daily assignments. If you can get your employer to purchase a standing station/desk for you, do it!

The take home message is, don’t underestimate the negative effect sitting all day in a standard chair can have on your health. We weren’t created to sit all day – we need to move!
References:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22915074
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19346988
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20114100
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22890825
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23009637

Originally posted 2012-11-02 21:16:00.

Lose fat, improve your health….with whole fat dairy?

There is a misconception, pehaps a result of the low-fat craze or the desire to blame our health problems on one cause, that whole fat dairy causes increased body fat and a number of other health problems.  Many have also stopped drinking milk or eating dairy products because of the health problems that can be caused by lactose.  In this article I will explain why the right kind of dairy is actually healthy and why many people don’t have to worry about eating lactose. 

While it can be difficult to wrap our minds around, especially given the message we’ve heard over and over againt that eating fat is bad, whole fat dairy can actually promote fat loss when coupled with an overall healthy diet.  Here’s how: high quality, whole fat milk contains a specific type of fat called coagulated linoleic acid (CLA) that may contribute to fat loss.  In addition to it’s potential fat-loss benefits, CLA also has anticarcinogenic properties.  Since non-fat milk doesn’t have any fat it doesn’t have any CLA either.  Also, CLA is only found in milk from cows that eat a natural grass diet.  By contrast, most cows raised in industrial dairies eat grains like corn rather than natural grass.  You can ensure your milk is from grass fed cows by looking for a label that says “pastured” or “organic.”  Organic milk has to come from cows that have been, at a minimum, partially pastured.  Also, cows that produce organic milk haven’t been treated with growth hormones.

Moreover, whole milk from pastured cows is rich in nutrients and has the ability to satisfy hunger.  Feeling full is an important part of being able to lose unhealhty weight, and whole milk helps accomplish this more than non-fat, low-fat milk, or other sugary drinks like soda or juice.  Milk from pastured cows is also rich in potassium, high quality protein, vitamin A, calcium and vitamin K2 (which isn’t found in industrially raised cows).  Together, these nutrients work together to support lean muscle mass, strong bones, and healthy teeth. Therefore, when milk replaces other less nutritious calories it can improve your overall health. 

Milk from pastured cows has even greater benefits when found in other forms.  For example, regular consumption of yogurt can have an even more pronounced effect on feeling full.  Yogurt also contains high amounts of iodine, an extremely important nutrient for women’s health.  It also contains healthy bacteria for a strengthened immune system and improved digestion.  Another benefit of yogurt is that those who are lactose intolerant can often eat it without any problems, as the bacteria in yogurt break lactose down into easily digestible sugars.

Cheese is another little recognized health food.  Cheese is especially high in K2, a vitamin that is different from the common form of Vitamin K and is gaining recognition for its importnant role in bone heath and preventing artherosclerosis.  Cheese is also high in calcium and protein.

Perhaps most suprising, butter from pastured cows is healthy too and might actually promote fat loss when eaten as part of a diet low in refined sugar and whigh in whole-foods!  While butter is high in saturated fat, the saturated fat is readily used by the body for energy and does not cause a spike in insulin.  Butter from pastured cows is also extremely high in vitamin K2, which helps the body deposit calcium in the bones and teeth, rather than in soft tissues like the arteries (one of the major causes of atherosclerosis).  Whole butter is also high in Vitamin A, an important nutrient for the skin, eyes, and immune system.  Finally, since it is almost pure fat, butter is extremely high in CLA! For a good source of butter, I recommend Kerry Gold (from Ireland) or a local organic butter.  You’ll be able to tell it’s from cows that eat grass by its distinct orange tint, indicating its high nutrient content. Another potential benefit of butter is that it contains little to no lactose.

Which leads me to the issue of lactose intollerance.  Avoiding lactose is one of those health trends that spread when a few people have good results with it and then assume that everyone else needs to do the same.  For most people of European descent, however, lactose consumption doesn’t pose any problems.  Lactose is the form of sugar that is found in milk.  The body breaks lactose down into glucose by releaseing lactase (a digetive enzyme).  Most humans can eat lactose when they are babies because their bodies still produce lactase.  Good thing, because they depend on their mother’s milk for survival.  Unfortunately, many people’s bodies stop producing lactase when they grow older, leading to digestion problems when dairy is eaten.  The bottom line is that unless you are actually lactose intollerant, you don’t need to stop eating dairy, just be sure to eat dairy from cows that eat grass (the food they are designed to eat).  If you have digestion problems or feel bloated or have other reactions after eating dairy, try going without it for a while to find out if that is the problem.

If you are lactose intollerant and still want to enjoy the health benefits of dairy, you might be able to eat yogurt, butter, or whey protein, as these products are low in lactose (be sure to consult with your doctor first).  Also, not all forms of lactose are the same, different cows produce different kinds of lactose. Old varieties of cows, called the A2 variety, such as Jersey and Guernsey, produce a milk that some people who are lactose intollerant can drink.  Most mass-produced milk, however, is produced by new varieties of cows (the A1 variety), like the Holstein, that can cause symptoms such as excess mucus production and other forms of lactose intollerance.

A note on raw vs pasteurized milk.  Many in the natural health community argue that raw milk is far healthier than pasteurized milk – I’m not convinced.  Based on the studies I’ve looked at ,the most common form of pasteurization used, Short Time High Temperature (STHT), has a minimal effect on milk’s nutrients.  Some milk is pasteurized using an Ultra High Temperature process, and this can have a more significant effect on milk’s nutrients and should be avoided.  In my opinion the benefits of STHT pasteurization outweight any small losses in nutrients.  Unless you get raw milk from cows rasied in your backyard of from someone you trust who lives very nearby, the risk of bacteria contamination is real. The more times raw milk is handled and the futher it has to be transported, the more opportunites there are for bacteria contamination or growth.   Raw milk consumption continues to result in sickness or death every year.  Some foods simply need to undergo a minimal amount of processesing to ensure edibility. 

The most important things to ask when purchasing dairy are: “Is it organic?”, “Are the cows grass fed?”, and, perhaps, “What kind of cows does it come from?”  Organic, whole dairy from grass fed cows is nutritionally superior to any other type of dairy and offers a whole host of health promoting nutrients!  So, put down the non-fat milk from cows fed corn and soy and enjoy the rich goodness of a cold glass of whole milk from happy cows that eat green, nutrient-dense, grass!

Pubmed study on dairy and body composition: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22249225
Dr. Weston Price study on K2: http://www.westonaprice.org/fat-soluble-activators/x-factor-is-vitamin-k2
Pubmed study on dairy and appetite: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22380537

Originally posted 2012-07-29 22:48:00.

The Saturated Fat Myth

saturated fat mythAccording to the saturated fat myth, saturated fats must be bad for us. After all, that is what we have been told for so long. And since we been told this for so long, it’s logical to think that there must be strong evidence to support this claim. It would be right to assume that everything we hear about saturated fat has been proven numerous times. If you’re sensing a bit of sarcasm, it’s because there’s actually very little evidence to support anything we’ve ever been told about saturated fat. The following article will outline how the saturated fat myth came to be accepted as fact. 

The development of the saturated fat myth started at the beginning of the twentieth century with the belief that there was a new national epidemic—that heart disease was rapidly becoming the leading cause of death. Simultaneously to this “rise” in heart disease deaths, our nation’s understanding of heart disease was also growing. So isn’t it possible that our new understanding of heart disease was mistaken for the emergence of the disease itself? The truth is, heart disease existed before we had the tools to detect it. Increased life expectancy also contributed to the appearance of a rise in heart disease. Americans were simply living long enough to die from heart disease instead of from non-degenerative diseases, like viruses.  

Part two of the creation of the saturated fat myth involved a physiologist from the University of Minnesota named Ancel Keys. During the growing awareness about heart disease, Keys took interest and started researching the matter. In the early 1950s, Keys set out for Naples where he discovered that only the rich population of the city experienced heart disease. After observing the dietary choices of the rich, Keys began to draw a link between saturated fat and serum cholesterol and heart disease. His conclusions were not greeted with popularity. Over the next six years, Keys travelled and made observations about diverse populations in order to support his case that saturated fat was one of the main causes of heart disease. The problem with his evidence was that he merely made associations between variables and failed to support any reasonable cause and effect relationships.

Perhaps the most pivotal moment in the development of the saturated fat myth occurred in 1960. It was just three years prior that the American Heart Association (AHA) opposed and rejected Ancel Keys’ claims about the saturated fats and heart issue. The AHA insisted that there was simply not enough evidence to authorize telling people to follow a low-saturated fat diet for better health. Yet, with the same evidence three years later, Keys and a committee of five other men issued a new report to the AHA. This time the report claimed it was “the best scientific evidence of the time.” It suggested that Americans should reduce the fat in their diets and replace saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats in order to reduce the risk of heart disease. Although the previous report was said to be insufficient, the new one was indeed considered “the best scientific evidence of the time.”

Keys and his counterparts also successfully brought their saturated fat claims to the attention of the press. In the following weeks, months, and years the low-fat, high carbohydrate diet that Keys suggested boomed in popularity and the saturated fat myth became firmly established as fact. Keys was esteemed as “the face of dietary wisdom in America” (Taubes, 2007, p. 21), and although there was still some doubt about the validity of his claims, many physicians followed his lead. The medical community  was desperately trying to put a halt on the rising number of heart disease cases in America, and the saturated fat myth seemed to make sense. 

The Takeaway: So, what can we learn from all of this? Perhaps knowing this brief history of the creation of the saturated fat myth will make it easier to accept new myth-busting information. But more importantly, this history reveals how imperative it is to question and challenge what our friends, the media, and even health officials tell us about nutrition. We must remember that good health depends on a few wise choices, but wise food choices depend on constant vigilance

Reference: Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007), by Gary Taubes, 

Originally posted 2013-11-20 15:27:16.