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After almost 60 years of being told that cholesterol is “Public Health Enemy No. 1,” along with an overwhelming amount of science debunking the “cholesterol theory,” (2,3,4) the prestigious Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which sets the FDA’s Dietary Guidelines, has decided that cholesterol is no longer a “nutrient of concern.” (1)
This news is not exactly new, as I have written much on this topic and it has even been covered on CNN – sort of. However, it is the government’s first official statement declaring cholesterol innocent of a crime it never committed in the first place.
On first inspection, being given the go-ahead from the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to eat more healthy fats seems like a welcome and long overdue sentiment. Let’s keep in mind that these anti-cholesterol guidelines that were adopted back in 1961 by the American Heart Association completely changed how America ate, farmed, and manufactured food, such as school lunches, for the past 55 years.
When the new recommendations are filed with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture in a couple of weeks, reams of new dietary advice will be written. School menus will change and manufacturers will produce and market foods completely differently. Let’s hope they get it right this time!
The Perfect Storm
Up until now, we have been told that saturated fats like butter and animal fats were no-no’s, and highly processed vegetable polyunsaturated fats that we now know are toxic were considered okay. In the sixties, margarine replaced butter, egg consumption in the US dropped by 30%, red meat consumption plummeted and a national sugar-fueled vegetarian movement was born.
Perhaps the damage from these early cholesterol warnings would not have been so terrible if it were not for the fact that in 1980, the federal government subsidized farmers to grow wheat and corn in an attempt to eradicate hunger. That meant that American farmers were being paid to grow wheat and corn, which helped farmers, but flooded the market with highly processed wheat and corn products like high fructose corn syrup and loaves of bread that could sit on the counter for weeks and not go bad!
Cows were forced to eat inexpensive corn rather than grass, which reduced the healthy CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) content in cows by 500%. (6) This practice has not only genetically altered the cows but rendered their milk and dairy relatively indigestible.
There are only two viable sources of fuel for the human body, and they are fat and sugar (glucose). Sadly, at the same time we were told that eating fats was bad, food manufacturers encouraged by new federal guidelines to grow more grains like wheat and corn were incentivized to feed America a low-fat, high-sugar diet for pennies on the dollar.
Food manufacturers, who were required to list cholesterol levels on food labels, were motivated to make and market “no cholesterol” foods as being heart-healthy. No one knew then that they were loaded with sugar as the replacement. Now we know that doing so turns good cholesterols into bad, and that sugar is the smoking gun for almost every degenerative disease.
The Aftermath of the Storm
The American diet changed from home-cooked balanced meals and little snacking to low-fat, highly processed foods that were loaded with sugar. Without good fats in the diet, the only way to get satisfied from a meal was to load up on starch. Starches are long chains of sugar prevalent in wheat and corn.
While fats deliver a lasting energy supply, sugars deliver short, erratic bursts of energy. Fats are the body’s slow-burning, steady fuel that encourages a calm response to stress, sleeping through the night, endurance, and satiation, with no sudden highs or lows. Sugars found in processed grains provide quick-burning fuel that give a short-lived sugar high, quickly leading to a sugar crash and then leaving us hungry for more food.
Today, perhaps as a direct result of generations on a low-fat, high-sugar diet, Americans eat 100% more food than they need. (5) The extra food or fuel we consume quickly gets stored as fat, converts to toxic cholesterols, causes free radical damage and dangerous advanced glycation end-products (AGES).
The result: more cardiovascular issues, weight gain and mood instability than ever before.
How We Got Here
Back in 1913, a study by Niokolai Anitschkov and his colleagues at the Czar’s Military Medicine Institute in St. Petersburg found that a high cholesterol diet caused heart disease in rabbits. (7) With heart disease on the rise in the 1940s, scientists were compelled by the logic that too much fat would clog arteries. With little science, a pinch of logic, a growing need for answers and lots of scientific inertia, the “cholesterol theory” took hold. According to a recent Washington Post article, “Experiments in biology, as well as other studies that followed the diets of large populations, seemed to link high cholesterol diets to heart disease.” (1)
The “cholesterol theory” was so well accepted, even with so little hard science to back it up, that studies in the past decades did not actually study the effects of cholesterol on heart disease. They simply assumed that anything that would raise cholesterol would therefore increase heart health risk.
Interestingly, what scientists have now uncovered is that in the original 1913 paper that started it all, it noted that while a high cholesterol diet is damaging for rabbits, it seems to have no effect on white rats – oops! Rats are used in research today because they more closely mimic human function. Rabbits are also too cute for research and they are vegetarians! It seems painfully obvious to me that feeding a vegetarian animal a diet loaded with animal fat would screw them up.
Believe it or not, this is how we got here!
In the late 1960s, as a graduate student at the University of Arkansas, Lawrence Rudel came across Anitschkov’s paper and decided to hone in on its seeming discrepancies. Rudel noticed that while the cholesterol diet had negative effects on rabbits, it did not affect white rats. It turns out that rabbits are exceptionally sensitive to a high-cholesterol diet, and had Anitschkov focused his initial cholesterol research on any other animal, the effects wouldn’t have been so striking or decisive that there would be over 50 years’ worth of massive impact on dietary trends in the Western world.
So now that the old myths around cholesterol are debunked, don’t be afraid of reaching for healthy amounts of healthy fats to support your health and well-being!