I had a health check-up recently, shortly after my sixtieth birthday. OK I admit it, I was a bit bad. I was drinking too much, eating too much and was sat at my desk too much, not taking enough exercise. My blood cholesterol level was also raised, especially the LDL (Low Density Lipids), which are the BAD ones. Also, my blood pressure was a little raised. I am overweight. A couple of days I received a booklet produced by The British Heart Foundation entitled ‘Reducing your blood cholesterol’. Page 14 has the title ‘What causes high blood cholesterol?’, and the first sentence reads ‘A common cause of high blood cholesterol levels in people in the UK is eating too much saturated fat‘. Now I’m no scientist, but I do know a bit about the way things work. Complex fats are difficult to absorb through the gut lining. They need to be broken down by the digestive process into simpler, smaller molecules. So I did a bit more research.
This is from the advice given by BUPA. The emphasis is mine.
“Sources of cholesterol
There are two different sources of cholesterol – some comes from the food you eat, but most of it is made within your body.
Cholesterol that comes from the food you eat is called dietary cholesterol. Not many foods actually contain cholesterol. Examples of some that do are:
If you eat foods that are high in cholesterol, it won’t usually raise your blood cholesterol level much. Most cholesterol is made within your body, in your liver. Your liver can produce all of the cholesterol your body needs so dietary cholesterol isn’t an essential part of your diet. Your cholesterol levels are mainly influenced by the other fats that you eat.”
It turns out that the proportion of cholesterol produced in the liver is roughly 85%, and cholesterol from, or rather via, your diet is 15%. The only fats that are really bad for you in terms of causing cholesterol production in the liver are hardened vegetable fats, which are common in cooking margarines and are therefore present in cakes, biscuits and pastry. Avoid these trans-fatty acids like a really bad smell. They are unnatural and your body cannot deal with them. Oh, and your body needs cholesterol for all sorts of functions, though this is mostly the higher density variety.
Now, I am not really doubting the link between very high LDL cholesterol levels and CHD (Coronary Heart Disease), but the research seems to have been based on initial experiments carried out on chickens and rabbits, which were fed very high levels of saturated animal fat. As rabbits do not have to metabolise saturated fats in their normal diet, the results of this experiment are essentially invalid.
Moreover, ethnic groups whose diets are very high in saturated animal fats, such as the Masai of Kenya, have low blood cholesterol levels. If they move to Nairobi and adopt a western way of life their levels rise as ours do. Perhaps we should be looking for other factors for this rise.
I already know I have a familial link to high LDL cholesterol inherited from my mother. I was put on statins about eighteen years ago to reduce my LDL cholesterol. The side effects were stomach cramps which prevented me sleeping and made me quite ill. So I stopped taking them. I have been told that the new stains have much reduced side effects. But I still won’t take them. Just to make another point, people with very low levels of blood cholesterol are far more likely to suffer CHD than those with slightly raised levels.
I have put myself on a reasonably strict diet and have stopped drinking. In a fortnight I have dropped five pounds in weight. I am taking regular daily exercise, which seems to help. The weight target I have set myself is still above my supposed ‘ideal’ weight of 10.5 stone (147 pounds). My father died of CHD, and he weighed about 8.5 stone (119 pounds). While this example is not statistically valid, it is the example I have. I will get down to a weight that is well within my healthy limits and be more physically active. The ‘one size fits all’ model is crap. I have broad shoulders, a deep chest, a big arse and short legs. For me to be 147 pounds would not be healthy.
The other major causes of CHD are smoking, hypertension, alcohol consumption, diabetes, raised blood pressure, lack of exercise and stress. I would be a little less stressed out if the advice I was provided with were a little more accurate and far less preachy. The rest of these I can manage to control or avoid. The message I am given is inaccurate and muddled. Or is there some kind of sympathetic magic I am supposed to believe in which directly links dietary fat with LDL cholesterol, like sticking pins in a voodoo doll?
There are food products which can lower your cholesterol slightly, these being put, largely, into yoghurts and margarine. Unfortunately, I am sensitive to cow’s milk, that is I am bovine lactose intolerant. I can happily drink goat’s milk, I just don’t care for it much. Lactose is found in the whey powder used in margarines and in yoghurts. You see my problem here. Incidentally, there is no lactose in hard cheese and almost none in butter, two major sources of saturated fat. Lactose is found in whey, not curds, and in buttermilk but not butter. Also, there are health warnings about using these cholesterol lowering foods, so I don’t think I will use them. They are also incredibly expensive when you consider the active ingredient is a by-product of the timber industry and is virtually cost-free. They are a con, designed to rip you off. I recommend using oat bran instead.
Now I won’t go so far as to suggest that the multi-national companies which produce statins have rigged the data in order to sell more of their product, but a good deal of research results which run counter to their claims tends to go unpublished. Perhaps it is time for there to be a proper study of what causes raised LDL cholesterol levels and also a review of what the link of this to CHD statistically is. Telling me to cut down on saturated fats, as if there were a direct link to raised LDL blood cholesterol, is an insult to my intelligence.