Heart disease is the number one killer in developed nations, especially in the US and Canada. Lowering dietary cholesterol and fat has been the rallying cry of heart and lung associations for decades. Cholesterol-lowering medications have made large profits for their manufacturers. Despite all this, cholesterol is not the monster it is made out to be.
Cholesterol is a vital substance that is made by the body. There are sophisticated controlling mechanisms in place to regulate its manufacture and its release into the bloodstream, so that if more is obtained from the diet, less is made and vice-versa. Cholesterol is used in the manufacture of sex hormones like estrogen and testosterone as well as others. Bile, used in the intestines to dissolve fats for digestion, is made from cholesterol. Both fat and cholesterol are crucial for proper brain and nerve development in children. Cholesterol is also a vital component in the membrane that surrounds every cell in our bodies.
The theory that fat and cholesterol were the culprits behind heart disease was based mainly on a study done in 1955-65 by Dr Ancel Keys. He used data from the World Health Organization (WHO) from seven nations to show a linear relationship between estimated fat intake and reported deaths from coronary heart disease. This was held up as proof that dietary fat and cholesterol were causes of heart disease and the campaign began to teach North Americans to eat less fat. Since then, however, studies have proven otherwise. It has come to light that Dr Keys ignored data from 15 nations that did not fit his preconceived notions of the diet-disease link.
Restoring the Reputation
The foremost of the studies disproving this theory is the International Atherosclerosis Project Report of Autopsy Findings. This report lists the autopsy reports of 31,000 people from 15 countries. It shows no correlation between estimated animal fat intake, blood cholesterol and degree of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), one of the first signs of heart disease. In fact, both the American Heart Association and the WHO acknowledge that more than half the number of coronary heart disease deaths occurs in people with blood cholesterol levels of under 225 millilitres per dl (mL/dl). Current recommendations from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada are that all ages should have a blood cholesterol level of under 200 mL/dl and therapy should be taken by those with levels over 230-240 mL/dl.
Cholesterol got its bad name back when scientists first discovered that atherosclerosis is caused by cholesterol and protein aggregating on the walls of the arteries, making them thick and narrow and restricting blood flow. Cholesterol in the blood also tends to make the platelets sticky, more likely to clot and less likely to flow smoothly. It was thought that if the levels of cholesterol in the blood were lower, there would be less aggregation on the walls of the artery and the blood would flow more smoothly.
Dr Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel Prizes, put together why cholesterol seemed to cause atherosclerosis, even though there was no link between blood cholesterol levels and development of coronary heart disease. He showed that it was the lack of antioxidants–specifically, vitamin C.
C The Difference
Vitamin C is necessary for the manufacture of collagen and elastin, chemicals that keep arteries, bones, skin and all other tissues strong. Arteries are constantly under pressure–without enough vitamin C to strengthen the tissues, they become weak. When the artery is weakened, cholesterol and other proteins are used to repair it, causing thickening and hardening.
Specifically, it is one particular type of cholesterol, and one repair protein. Dietary fat and cholesterol do not add to blood levels of this repair protein, but trans-fatty acids, like those in margarine and other hydrogenated oils, along with heavy metals, alcohol and other chemicals and drugs add to the breakdown of our arteries, which then need to be repaired.
The good news is that atherosclerosis and the risk of coronary heart disease can be stopped, and even reversed through some simple dietary changes. Eating foods or taking supplements high in vitamin C and other antioxidants like vitamin E, beta-carotene and selenium strengthen artery walls and prevent the oxidation of cholesterol. As the artery wall is strengthened, the levels of bad cholesterol naturally go down.
Avoidance of toxins like trans-fats, and consumption of poly-unsaturated fats like those found in flax seed, fish and sunflower oil also help reverse atherosclerosis. These essential fatty acids make the artery wall stronger and more flexible and thin the blood. Be sure that the oil is stored in and opaque, airtight container and stored in the freezer or cooler. Part of the value of these oils to the body is that they are highly reactive; they go rancid quickly in the presence of light, heat and air. The rancid oils are far more toxic to the body than saturated fat or cholesterol, so freshness and proper storage are important.
Better yet, buy whole flax seed and grind it fresh. Whole flax stays fresh for years because of its hard seed coat, but the coat must be broken before eating or it passes through whole. An inexpensive coffee mill can grind a few tablespoons of flax meal quickly and easily for an addition to breakfast cereal that can save your heart.