Cholesterol, alongside fat, has been the most vilafied dietary evil among health gurus, government officials, dieticians, and doctors.
The vilification of cholesterol began in the 1950’s when a man by the name of Ancel Keys completed a series of studies which supposedly showed a direct correlation between heart disease and fat intake. This is commonly known as the lipid or cholesterol hypothesis. Conventional wisdom says: the more saturated fat you eat, the higher your cholesterol levels will be, which in turn results in gunked up arteries, which leads to heart disease.
Ancel Keys collected data and plotted statistics from six countries, showing a direct coorelation between fat intake and rates of heart disease (see picture below on the left). But, the information not shown to the public is more eye-opening than what Keys did show to the public. Keys had data from 22 countries, but because there was not a nice plot line with all 22 countries, he cherry-picked just the data that supported his hypothesis (see below picture on the right). When you see the data plotted from all of the countries, you see there is no correlation at all. The data is all over the board.
The Farmingham Study
In 1948 the groundbreaking Farmingham Heart Study, embarked on a 50-year journey to begin identifying cardiovascular disease risk factors. The original cohort consisted of 5,209 men and women between the ages of 30 and 62. This study gave us much important information. (In large part, due to this study we now know that smoking and high blood pressure impact our health.)
After 16 years of study, the Farmingham researchers reported that those who developed heart disease had an 11% increase in cholesterol. In 1987 a new report was issued – a 30 year follow-up to the Farmingham study . The Farmingham researchers discolsed that there was a coorelation between cardiovascular mortality and elevated cholesterol for those under age 50, but no coorelation for those over age 50. In fact, they have found that in individuals over age 50 there is an inverse coorelation. That means, for those in the 50+ crowd, as cholesterol decreases your risk of dying from heart disease and other diseases increases (bet your doctor didn’t mention that to you)!
“After age 50 years there is no increased overall mortality with either high or low serum cholesterol levels. There is a direct association between falling cholesterol levels over the first 14 years and mortality over the following 18 years (11% overall and 14% CVD death rate increase per 1 mg/dL per year drop in cholesterol levels).” – Farmingham researchers, 1987
There has been continued evidence that heart disease simply can not be predicted by looking at a simple lipid profile. Take for instance the Japanese people of Okinawa. They are among the healthiest individuals in the world: this population has extremely low rates of heart disease. Guess what? They tend to have what many researchers would consider high cholesterol levels.
Almost 75% of individuals suffering a heart attack for the first time have cholesterol levels that fall within the “normal” range.
I believe from all of this information we can firmly argue (along with many researchers) that the standard lipid profiles really don’t tell us much of anything regarding cardiovascular health.
More posts to come
In the near future, we’ll be looking at some more interesting cholesterol topics including: why cholesterol really is a “good guy,” the science behind how cholesterol works, the cause of heart disease and the best tests to request from your doctor (hint: it’s not the standard lipid profile).
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