High Cholesterols Foods - Friend or Foe?

Originally published on the Sophia Health Institute blog on June 20, 2015.

For decades we have been conditioned to believe that saturated fats and cholesterol were the enemy responsible for heart disease, obesity and a host of other health problems. In the 80’s we all began ditching the bacon, nuts, and full fat dairy in favor of low-fat, high carbohydrate foods that were supposed to contribute to a healthy heart and a leaner body. But here we are, a little over 20 years later, finding ourselves hungrier, fatter, and sicker. So what went wrong?

It all began with a study published by Dr. Ancel Keys in 1970 who postulated that heart disease was directly related to high serum cholesterol, caused by high dietary fat intake. The model of his study was highly suspicious and recent studies have found that there is in fact no link between saturated fats in the diet and heart disease. However, Dr. Keys’ ideology was – and still is – widely accepted in the mainstream medical community. Many doctors continue to recommend low-fat, high carbohydrate diets in spite of the new, more accurate science proving that this approach is detrimental to our health.

Produced by the liver, cholesterol would still be present in your body even if you consumed no dietary cholesterol whatsoever. It is the most common steroid in the body and it is a crucial component of our cell membranes. In addition, cholesterol is required in the formation of Vitamin D, bile acids and hormones. Evidence suggests that without adequate cholesterol, our risk for heart disease and other inflammatory diseases increases; according to Dr. Joseph Mercola “Your body needs adequate cholesterol to perform a number of critical functions, and there is strong evidence that people have a higher risk for heart attacks by having their cholesterol levels driven too low, as is being done by drugs like statins.”

Cholesterol is also necessary for a healthy brain as it acts as a protective antioxidant, promotes neurogenesis (creation of new brain cells) and facilitates communication between neurons. According to Dr. David Perlmutter, author of Grain Brain, there is a correlation between higher serum cholesterol and increased cognitive function and a Mayo Clinic study found individuals consuming a higher saturated fat diet reduced their risk for developing dementia by a whopping 36%.

Not all saturated fats are created equal, especially when it comes to trans fats and animal fats. In a ruling on this Tuesday the 16th of June, the FDA declared that trans fat are not “generally recognized as safe” for use in human food. Trans fats or hydrogenated fats/oils are highly inflammatory and should be avoided at all costs.

Fats from animals raised by grazing on a natural diet (grass-fed beef, pasture-raised chickens and eggs, etc.) contain higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, whereas animals fed grains or other foods foreign to their natural diet are higher in omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory if we get too much of them. Ideally our diet would consists of a ratio of 1:1 omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, but in the standard American diet, people consume over 25 times as much omega-6 as they do omega-3.

There are three types of omega-3 fats – ALA, EPA and DHA, and while there are good plant-based sources of ALA (hemp, flax, chia), our bodies need all three types. To get the necessary doses requires eating a variety of both plant and animal foods.

Refined vegetable oils can be equally problematic; these so-called  “heart healthy”, “cholesterol free” oils such as canola, soybean, peanut,  sunflower and corn are high in omega-6 fatty acids which can contribute to intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome), increase the risk of inflammatory diseases and negatively alter gene expression. These oils are also commonly made from genetically modified crops which destroy our beneficial gut bacteria, further compromising our digestion, immune system, and neurological functions. If you are already struggling with digestive issues or chronic illness you may already have too much inflammation in your body. By eliminating refined vegetable oils you can reduce your overall inflammation.

A diet high in healthy fats is also beneficial for digestive health. Ghee and butter from pastured animals are excellent sources of butyric acid. This fatty acid is an excellent anti-inflammatory source of energy for the cells lining our intestines and it helps to “seal” the gut and reverse intestinal permeability. In addition, bacteria, parasites and fungus do not eat fat which means that we can reap the nutritional benefits of healthy fats while starving any unwelcome bacteria or pathogens in the gut.

Great sources of cholesterol and healthy fats:

  • Nuts
  • Wild fish
  • Wild and grass-fed meats
  • Ghee and butter from pastured animals
  • Seeds (hemp, chia, flax)
  • Avocados
  • Whole organic pastured eggs (the yolk is the best part!)
  • Organic extra virgin olive oil
  • Coconut oil

People often ask me if eating more fat and high cholesterol foods will make them fat, and the answer is absolutely not! In fact, proper fat intake can help us lose weight and maintain healthy body composition by training our bodies to tap into our fat as a fuel source instead of burning sugar. Fat also keeps us feeling full and satisfied, enhances absorption of fat-soluble nutrients, helps reduce blood sugar and provides a steady flow of energy throughout the day.

Heart disease is less likely a product of high fat foods and more likely the result of chronic stress, a diet high in processed foods and poor lifestyle choices. When we are under constant stress our bodies produce more cortisol which then breaks down vitamin C. If we have a long-term vitamin C deficiency, it weakens our arterial walls which the body then attempts to “patch up” with available cholesterol from the bloodstream. This creates atherosclerotic plaque to protect the arterial walls which is often treated with statins. Sadly this approach does nothing to address the root cause of the problem which could most likely be resolved with proper diet, lifestyle changes, and natural interventions.

By choosing real, unprocessed, properly raised and cultivated high fat foods from both plant and animal sources we can greatly improve the state of our health and overall well-being. So enjoy that organic, grass-fed steak and full fat organic yogurt and don’t skimp on the avocado in your salad. You will enjoy your food so much more and your heart, brain, gut and waistline will thank you.

If you have trouble digesting fats or have had your gallbladder removed, talk to your practitioner about supplementing with digestive support such as digestive enzymes, ox bile and/or betaine HCl. Fatty or greasy stools that float or are pale and very stinky are good indicators that you’re not digesting fat properly.

References:

Dietary intake of saturated fatty acids and mortality from cardiovascular disease in Japanese: the Japan Collaborative Cohort Study for Evaluation of Cancer Risk (JACC) Study. - American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Yamagishi K., et al. 2010

Aglaée Jacob, M.S., R.D., Digestive Health with Real Food (Paleo Media Group, LLC, 2013)

Effect of Dietary Fatty Acids on Inflammatory Gene Expression in Healthy Humans*  - Kelly L. Weaver, et al.

The Diet-Heart Myth: Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Are Not the Enemy - by Chris Kresser 2013

Your “Healthy” Diet Could Be Quietly Killing Your Brain - A new book challenges convention with the latest science on brain health. by Max Lugavere for PsychologyToday.com 2013

Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. -  American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Siri-Tarino PW, et al. 2010

The Great Cholesterol Myth, - Dr. Stephen Sinatra 2014

New Science Destroys the Saturated Fat Myth – Mercola.com 2014

The 6 Greatest Cholesterol Myths Debunked - James Colquhoun,2014

The diet–heart hypothesis: a critique - Sylvan Lee Weinberg, MD, MACC* 2004

Why Grassfed Animal Products Are Better For You – Dr. Joseph Mercola

FDA orders food manufacturers to stop using trans fat within three years, By Jen Christensen, CNN Updated 3:47 PM ET, Tue June 16, 2015

The Science is Practically Screaming... Don't Make This Trendy Fat Mistake – Mercola.com 2011

How too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3 is making us sick - 2010 by CHRIS KRESSER 

Dietary Fats and Health: Dietary Recommendations in the Context of Scientific Evidence - Glen D. Lawrence* 2013