It’s time to talk about the big “C” – Cholesterol. This vitally important substance has been the villain of the health and nutrition world for the last sixty years or so. But what is it really and why has it gotten such a bad rap?
Cholesterol, a waxy substance made primarily in the liver, is one of the most important substances in the body. It is a primary component of all of our cells and is required for the manufacture of hormones like cortisol, estrogen, and vitamin D, among others. It even functions as an antioxidant, protecting against inflammation and free radical damage that can lead to a whole host of diseases. The analogy is often made comparing cholesterol to firefighters who rush in to put out a fire, only to end up being blamed for causing the fire in the first place.
Cholesterol’s reputation was originally tarnished by a researcher named Ancel Keys who theorized that the amount of cholesterol and saturated fat in the diet was linked to heart disease. This is called the lipid hypothesis, but there were many flaws in his research and there is still little evidence that supports this theory. Since this theory has taken hold in the last half century, heart disease has skyrocketed, yet dietary intake of cholesterol and saturated fats has declined. So what is the real culprit, you ask? Refined vegetable oils and sugar are what are wreaking havoc on our health, both of which have increased exponentially in the last century.
This view of cholesterol as a dirty word is finally starting to change. There are free-thinking doctors, writers, researchers and nutrition professionals out there who are dispelling the cholesterol myth (see “Further Reading” links at the end of this post). Even Dr. Oz is getting on the bandwagon. (For the record, I don’t agree with many of the things he has to say about food and nutrition. After all, in his Time article, “What to Eat Now” in December 2012, he wrote this gem: ”Nutritionally, there is not much difference between, say, grass-fed beef and the feedlot variety.” I won’t even go into that now; I could write a whole post on just that quote.) In his December 11, 2012 broadcast, Dr. Oz was willing to challenge the conventional “wisdom” regarding cholesterol. Check it out:
The fallacy of the lipid hypothesis is going mainstream. It’s a slow process, but the word is getting out that cholesterol and saturated fats are not harmful and shouldn’t be avoided. In fact, they are sources of valuable nutrients and should be included in a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet.