Controversies Over What Raises Cholesterol
The question of what raises your cholesterol is quite clear, yet the integrative medicine community to a large extent sends mixed messages on this issue. How does your cholesterol get high and how much control over this problem do we really have? What raises cholesterol levels in your blood and how does all of this tie in with the various diet trends out there from Paleo to Plant Based?
My grandmother, Betty Olival was one of twelve children. She was born on a sugar plantation in a very small town in Hawaii. Growing up very poor their diet was highly restricted to rice, vegetables, fruit and some fish and chicken but virtually no red meat. When the sugar cane plantation closed all of the 12 kids started to eat a more typical western diet with dairy, red meat and processed foods and sugar. For them this was progress, a sign they were out of the grips of indentured servitude that the plantation life dealt them. The bad news was that my grandmother and all of her brothers and sisters died from heart attacks, some as young as 50, some later on in their late 70’s. Growing up and see 12 out of 12 of those close relatives die from heart disease made me really ponder what the role of cholesterol is in heart disease and what raises your cholesterol in the first place.
Vegetarian Diets and Animal Products
You would think knowing what increases cholesterol levels in the blood would be a straight forward question and in many ways it is! Trans fat from highly processed foods, saturated fat from dairy, meat and, you guessed it, processed foods and of course you can increase cholesterol levels in the blood from eating foods containing cholesterol like meat, dairy and eggs, but the trans fats and saturated fats are a much bigger concern.
At the age of 18 I became a vegetarian, looking to stave off my own feared impending heart attack risk. This all started while I lived in a Zen Temple in Japan. In 1982 I found myself in a Zen Temple that ran an organic farm in the mountains of Japan and I spent six months living and working with the monks there. We would meditate anywhere from 3 hours to 18 hours a day, and of course, spent a lot of time working on the farm. We ate our own fresh grown brown rice and vegetables three times a day with the very occasional fish, eggs or meat. It was very close to a peasant diet from centuries past.
The Zen of Eating
While in Japan I learned so much about Zen Buddhism, practicing Zen meditation with the enlighted Zen Master Harada Roshi and I even studied the art of Zen archery, which is really hard! Without thinking about it I learned a lot about food and what food does to the mind. When I came back to the United States I remained a vegetarian for many years. Then in my late 20’s and early 30’s I began the study of functional medicine in earnest and began to question whether meat and dairy might actually be healthy? As I studied more of clinical nutrition and human physiology the question of what raises your cholesterol became more clouded. I began to incorporate more and more meat and dairy into my diet and into the diets of my patients. Raw, unprocessed milk. Yes let’s do it! Grass fed beef, alright bring it on! Chicken, lamb and of course my favorite which I do think I could live on, BACON! The question of what raises cholesterol in your blood morphed from animal products to more technical stuff like unstable blood sugar, processed foods, too many carbs, the wrong grains.
I began to look at heart disease as primarily an inflammatory disorder and not be concerned with how does your cholesterol get high, and to a certain extent not being concerned with high cholesterol in general. During my 30’s and 40’s this all made sense. Eat healthy meat, healthy dairy, eliminate the sugar, reduce or eliminate grains and do all the functional medicine assessments to find the source of inflammation and you’ll beat heart disease and be able to ignore these cholesterol issues which are, in certain alternative medicine circles, seen as a plot by big pharma to sell medications and so on.
The Truth About Cholesterol
Now in my 50’s I’m coming back to what I believed at age 18 which is that animal products aren’t that great for those with high risk of cardiovascular disease. And you can’t necessarily take fish oil, eat grass fed meat, drink raw milk and just cruise along with high cholesterol/low inflammation and be ok. As with many things in life, like relationships, it’s… complicated.
What increases cholesterol in the blood? Animal fat and animal protein do, they also cause inflammation to the arterial wall which lead to a build up and potential blockage of your arteries. If it’s an artery serving your heart and it seizes up completely you’ll be dead before you hit the ground. Dropping your cholesterol levels down can save your life if you are at high risk for a heart attack as I am. Taking a statin medication makes no sense as a means to lower blood cholesterol since those medication mess up CoQ10 levels which is one key nutrient you don’t want to mess with! However, eating plants, a lot of plants, plants with every meal will reverse any previous increases in cholesterol levels in the blood and make you as Dr. Caldwell Essentyn says, “heart attack proof”.
For more information on this subject I highly recommend the film “Forks Over Knives” and the new book just out by Michael Greger, MD, titled “How Not to Die”. In fact, “How Not to Die” is the best nutrition book I’ve ever read. It’s 100% research based, pretty funny, which is hard to pull off given the subject matter and will help us all understand the role of plant nutrition better. Answering the questions of how does your cholesterol get high is complex, I don’t believe everyone for every meal needs to avoid meat and dairy, but if you have a strong family history of heart disease, read the book and see what you think. “How Not to Die” is also available as an audio book which I’d recommend, I listened to the entire book while on various flights and in airports and it was great way to soak in Dr. Greger’s information.