Every 39 seconds, on average, someone in the United States dies of cardiovascular disease. The frightening epidemic of this condition in our country has many people scared – and for good reason. Many of us know at least one person who suffers from heart disease, and many families have been forever changed by the toll that this dreaded disease takes.
When we think of heart disease, we have been conditioned to immediately associate it with high cholesterol. It is a resounding mantra in this country – “lower your cholesterol to keep your heart healthy.” However, in recent years, more and more research has been finding that there really is no long-term connection between a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet and cardiovascular disease, and that the culprit lies somewhere else entirely.
Cholesterol is a type of fat that is crucial to the body’s proper functioning. It is needed for the production of cell membranes, and also carries essential nutrients such as CoQ10, beta carotene and vitamin E to the mitochondria (energy center) of the cells. Cholesterol is also integral in cognitive function, as well as to support hormonal stability.
There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and low-density lipoprotein (LDL). LDL cholesterol is considered the “bad” cholesterol, as it can lead to plaque formation on artery walls, which may then lead to heart disease, if it is left unchecked. HDL cholesterol is the “good” cholesterol, as it removes LDL cholesterol from the body.
However, while keeping LDL cholesterol levels in check is important for the prevention of heart disease, the cholesterol in our diets actually has little to do with it. About 75 percent of the cholesterol in the body is produced by the liver. The amount of cholesterol in your blood is mitigated by your body: if you take in less through food, your body will make more to compensate. If you eat a greater amount of cholesterol, the body does not produce as much.
So, why is it considered common knowledge nowadays that foods high in cholesterol and saturated fats lead to heart disease? This idea, known as the Lipid Hypothesis, was proposed in the early 1900s by Rudolf Virchow, a German pathologist who studied arterial plaque in human cadavers, and speculated a connection between blood cholesterol and arterial plaque development.
This idea was taken further in 1953, when physiologist Ancel Keys published the Seven Countries Study, a chart that linked the consumption of dietary fat to coronary heart disease. The chart showed seven countries with high average cholesterol levels, and correspondingly high rates of heart disease. This study became a huge part of the basis for the Diet Heart Hypothesis, which states that consuming saturated fats and high-cholesterol foods raises blood cholesterol levels.
However, Keys omitted some important data from his chart: 22 countries that did not support the linear relationship between a high-fat diet and heart disease. In fact, many of the countries that were left out had high cholesterol levels, and low rates of heart disease. When the data from these countries was later added by researchers back into the chart, there was no discernable relationship between cholesterol intake and heart disease to be found.
Furthermore, a large body of recent research does not support the Diet Heart Hypothesis at all. A 2009 review published in Current Atherosclerosis Reports found that in about 75 percent of subjects, dietary cholesterol had only a miniscule effect on blood cholesterol levels. In the other 25 percent, an increase in dietary cholesterol increased both the LDL and HDL cholesterol, but did not affect the ratio of the two.
Other studies have found that cultures which consume the highest levels of saturated fats often have the lowest levels of heart disease. Three examples are the Maasai tribe of Kenya, the Eskimos in the Arctic, and the tribe of the Atoll Islands off the coast of New Zealand. The diets of these cultures was found to contain over 66 percent saturated fat, and their risk of heart disease was extremely low.
So, if it’s not cholesterol and saturated fat, what is to blame for our nation’s rampant heart disease rates? Many experts agree that the high amount of sugars and grains in the Western diet are to blame. Leading health expert Dr. Joseph Mercola writes:
“Remember that 75 percent of your cholesterol is produced by your liver, which is influenced by your insulin levels. Therefore, if you optimize your insulin level, you will automatically optimize your cholesterol and reduce your risk of both diabetes and heart disease. There is NO magic pill to cure heart disease, as the underlying cause is insulin resistance caused by eating too many sugars, grains and especially fructose.”
The former president of the American College of Cardiology, Sylvan Lee Weinberg, states: “The low-fat, high carbohydrate diet… may well have played an unintended role in the current epidemics of obesity, lipid abnormalities, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndromes. This diet can no longer be defended by appeal to the authority of prestigious medical organizations.”
In order to help reduce our risk of heart disease, it is important to keep our insulin levels in check. This keeps the body able to control the amount of internal fat you produce, and allow you to burn more of the healthy fat you eat for energy. By cutting processed foods and sugars from our diet, and either eliminating grains, or limiting them and only choosing healthy, gluten-free grains, we can do our bodies a world of good.
Dr. Mercola also recommends getting plenty of exercise and restful sleep, making sure you get enough vitamin D (preferably from the natural sunlight), and dining on healthy fats, including heart-healthy omega-3s, as well as healthy saturated fats such as are found in organic coconut oil, organic grass fed meats and organic grass-fed dairy products. You heard right – saturated fats can actually help to support a healthy heart.
A true heart-healthy diet is balanced, and contains a wide array of fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins and healthy fats. Be wary of the grains you put in your body, avoid sugar like the plague and move as much as possible, and your body will wholeheartedly thank you.
– The Alternative Daily