We have been led to believe that cholesterol is bad; and that we need to lower it so we can lower our risk of heart disease. And eating fatty foods raise cholesterol, so we should eliminate those. And, very likely, if you have high cholesterol, according to your doctor and very persuasive marketing by the pharmaceutical industry, you should be following a low-fat diet and taking cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins.
But it’s not really that simple. If you lower your Cholesterol too low your body will not be able to perform important functions. When I hear someone say they are proud of the fact that they lowered their total cholesterol to under 150, I get worried, they have been lead to believe lower is better. Not necessarily. Cholesterol is produced in your body by your liver; you actually need cholesterol in order to survive; it is essential for normal cellular function, hormone production and to fight infection. Cholesterol is the precursor to the production of really important hormones such as testosterone, and progesterone. Although cholesterol is also found in animal products, and the amount of cholesterol you consume affects your cholesterol levels to some extent, so do genetics and the type of nutrients you eat.
For the past 40 years we were told that eating fat makes us fat and causes heart disease—so we cut the fat and what happened? We’re in the midst of the biggest obesity and diabetes epidemic in history. We swapped out fatty foods for low-fat or fat-free substitutes (fat-free high sugar cookies, anyone?). Thanks to our consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates, our good cholesterol went down, triglycerides went up, and so did our risk for metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, and yes, heart disease.
Meanwhile, research continues to show no link between saturated fat or total fat and heart disease. But we are still asked to limit saturated fat because it raises total cholesterol and LDL (bad”) cholesterol, even though it also raises HDL (good) cholesterol. In fact, if you are on a low-carb diet like Atkins, recent studies show that if you are consuming fat as well as saturated fat, it can actually help improve your cholesterol profile. So, lowering cholesterol might not be the end-all, be-all solution, but instead achieving the perfect cholesterol “balance” of high HDL, low LDL and low triglycerides.
Fortunately, a low-carb diet like Atkins can help create this favorable cholesterol “balance”. Controlling carbohydrates reduces triglycerides, while having a positive effect on both HDL and LDL cholesterol. Add in unsaturated fats coming from fish, olives, nuts, avocados and vegetables and saturated fats coming from meat, butter, cheese, poultry, eggs and pork while eliminating manmade trans fats and refined carbs (found in margarines, baked goods, fried foods, crackers, chips and many packaged foods). This right combination of protein, fats and carbohydrates allows your body to safely process cholesterol and positively impacts your cholesterol levels.