The Australian Bureau of Statistics ranks cardiovascular disease (CVD) as the leading cause of death in Australia, with 45,600 deaths in Australia in 2011. This equates to one Australian dying every 12 minutes (1). Despite significant medical advancement over the last few decades, CVD remains one of the biggest health burdens on our economy.
Cholesterol has strongly been implicated as the enemy and that restricting our intake of cholesterol will reduce our risk of developing CVD. Truth is, cholesterol is not deadly poison that many of us have been led to believe in fact, cholesterol is a substance that you require to be healthy. Did you know your most precious organ your brain contains 25% cholesterol?
Cholesterol is not the enemy, in fact, when it comes to the development of CVD people who have low blood cholesterol have the same rates of heart disease as people who have high blood cholesterol. The cholesterol found in your blood comes from two sources: cholesterol in foods you’ve eaten and cholesterol your liver has produced from other nutrients.
Now, the amount of cholesterol your liver produces varies according to how much cholesterol you eat, so if you’re eating bucket loads of cholesterol from foods your liver will produce less. If you aren’t eating lots of cholesterol from foods, then your liver will ramp up its production of cholesterol. This is why a low cholesterol diet only decreases a person’s totally cholesterol by a few percent.
Now let’s look at some key facts about the key players in cholesterol – that is LDL & HDL. We’ve all heard about them, LDL is the ‘bad’ cholesterol and HDL is the ‘good’ cholesterol, what if I was to tell you LDL and HDL carry the same cholesterol, confused? I’ll explain how this is true. First a few facts:
- LDL and HDL are not types of cholesterol
- LDL and HDL are lipoproteins that transport cholesterol through your blood circulatory system
- LDL stands for Low Density Lipoprotein, and HDL stands for High Density Lipoprotein
- LDL is often mistakenly thought of as being bad cholesterol because it carries cholesterol to your arteries
- HDL is often mistakenly referred to as good cholesterol because it carries cholesterol away from your arteries to your liver
As I said before LDL and HDL carry the same cholesterol. So why isn’t LDL ‘bad’ and HDL ‘good’?
Cholesterol can become harmful to your health but only if it’s damaged by exposure to high levels of heat and/or harsh processing techniques. If you regularly eat foods containing damaged cholesterol and high levels of free radicals, this increases the levels of damaged cholesterol floating around your blood. If you regularly have lots of damaged cholesterol floating around in your blood, then a high LDL level correlates with a higher risk of developing CVD and a high HDL level correlates with a lower risk of developing CVD.
In other words, if you’ve got stacks of damaging cholesterol floating around, you don’t want lots of LDL to be available to carry this damaged cholesterol to your arteries, where the damaged cholesterol can contribute to the development of atherosclerosis. What you want is lots of HDL cholesterol available to transport the damaged cholesterol away from your arteries.
Still not convinced? Perhaps the next few studies might change your mind:
The Honolulu Heart Program study, with 8,000 participants, published in 2001 concluded:
“Long-term persistence of low cholesterol concentration actually increases the risk of death. Thus, the earlier the patients start to have lower cholesterol concentrations, the greater the risk of death (2).”
Another study a huge Japanese Lipid Intervention Trial with over 47,000 participants concluded:
“The highest death rate observed was among those with lowest cholesterol (under 160mg/dl); lowest death rate observed was with those whose cholesterol was between 200-259mg/dl” Meaning those with the lowest cholesterol levels had the highest death rate, and those with seemingly dangerous cholesterol levels had the lowest death rate (3).
If that wasn’t enough!
- Framingham Heart Study, the longest-running study on heart disease done to date, demonstrated that intake of cholesterol in the diet had absolutely no correlation with heart disease (4).
- A recent study in the Journal of American Medical Association indicated that high LDL cholesterol is not a risk factor for coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality or total mortality (death from any cause) (5).
Finally, 11 major studies including 125,000 people was recently reviewed at a Conference on Low Blood Cholesterol, it concluded that there was absolutely no relationship between total cholesterol levels and mortality from cardiovascular or any other causes (6).
Best be swapping vegetable oil to butter I think!
By Megan Maitland
Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.