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The Cholesterol Myth

If I were to identify the single MOST misunderstood health and nutrition topic, it would be cholesterol. Even amongst people that are relatively well versed in health & nutrition, I frequently hear misinformed comments like “I would order the prime rib, but my cholesterol will go through the roof!” or “The doc says my cholesterol is over 200, so I need to lay off the butter and eat a low-fat diet.”

I won’t pretend to be the foremost authority on cholesterol, as it is a complex, evolving, and even controversial topic. Keep in mind I am not an MD or a Ph.D. researcher either. That said, a lot of MDs have less knowledge about cholesterol and nutrition than we would like to believe. And conventional cholesterol beliefs that have been recited for decades are simply WRONG.

While poor diet and lifestyle could be a factor in blood cholesterol levels for some individuals, cholesterol is not the foreboding boogeyman we once thought. In fact, I could go on and on about the important role of cholesterol in our bodies and our health. But I will save that topic for another time. For now, let’s stay focused on debunking the myth. Namely: High cholesterol is NOT a good indicator of heart disease risk. In fact, a recent study of 136,905 patients hospitalized for heart attack show that nearly 75 percent of them had cholesterol levels below the national cholesterol guidelines that indicate a high risk for a cardiovascular event. 

Some of my opinions may be a little controversial to medical doctors, but here’s what I can confidently say, with little controversy:

1) A total cholesterol number by itself is NOT a good indicator of cardiovascular health. HDL-to-LDL ratios are a little more helpful. Traditionally, HDL has been considered the “good” cholesterol. So if your HDL to LDL ratio is high, that’s a good sign. A high HDL count also increases total cholesterol count, which is part of the reason why total cholesterol alone not a good indicator of cardiovascular risk.

2) Exercise has been proven to increase HDL levels. Again, this is a good thing.

3) Cholesterol is not entirely bad for us. It’s actually a critical component in hormone production, cell development, and metabolism.

4) Heredity/DNA are a major factor in blood cholesterol levels. Some people simply have naturally higher cholesterol levels than others.

From there it gets a little more controversial, but research is stacking up every day to support these points: 

1) Not all LDL cholesterol is “bad” cholesterol. There are actually multiple kinds of LDL: large/buoyant and small/dense. Large/buoyant LDL is good. It transports critical components to our cells via the bloodstream and then returns to the liver, where it gets recycled. Small/dense LDL is the dangerous type of cholesterol that can cause a host of problems (such as inflammation), can get stuck in the arteries, and eventually cause heart disease. Traditional cholesterol tests, called Lipid Panels, do not provide this level of detail. There are a number of providers that will provide these more detailed tests, including a group called LabCorp and another called Quest Diagnostics (Made Man has no affiliation with either). A doctor can order these tests, which are often called Lipo Profile Tests or LPP Tests.

2) The link between saturated fat consumption and increased heart disease risk is questionable at best. There is no a strong correlation of any kind between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol. In fact, the human liver produces 1-2 grams of cholesterol every day, which is more than anyone would reasonably ingest in a day.

3) Simple and refined carbohydrates, not saturated fat,  seem to be the real dietary link to increased levels of small/dense LDL. If you are concerned about cardiovascular health, you should be much more worried about sugar, white bread and alcohol consumption than saturated fat consumption.  In fact, a diet low in sugar and high in saturated fat (such as a keto diet) could be a healthy choice that reduces small/dense LDL levels. However (and this is very important), a diet high in BOTH sugar AND saturated fat may be the worst option when it comes to small/dense LDL levels.

In closing, cholesterol is not the dietary boogeyman. If you have a high total blood cholesterol count, it is not necessarily the terrible news you once would have thought. Furthermore, eating cholesterol or saturated fat does not equal high blood cholesterol levels. Lastly, if there is a dietary boogeyman, it is sugar. 

A diet low in sugars/refined carbs, combined with exercise and smart supplementation, are of great benefit to cardiovascular health. Omega-3 is arguably the most important supplement for cardiovascular health, which is why we focus on the Omega-3 content and EPA/DHA ratios in Made Man 360. Research is also uncovering a link between gut health and cardiovascular health. This is one of the reasons we include 20 Billion CFU of Probiotics in Made Man 360 and offer PRO-40 as another source of probiotics. 

We will write additional articles about cholesterol in the near future. In the meantime, you can read a little more about the link between probiotics and heart health here.