Now, we are going to look at the most anticipated question about the paleolithic diet: what about all the cholesterol and saturated fat? I will discuss it, but, I don’t have to pose it as a question to the paleos. They address it. They face it head-on, and they do a fine job of handling it. They point out that cholesterol is a vital substance, present in every animal cell, and without which all animal life would cease to exist. The body makes a lot of cholesterol, far more than anyone could possibly eat. The link between high cholesterol and heart disease is just a statistical association- not a cause and effect relationship. And for some groups, such as women and the very aged, high cholesterol has never been correlated with increased heart attacks. And if cholesterol is so bad, why doesn’t it clog up the veins? Venous blood is just as cholesterol-ridden as arterial blood. Also, arteries within the cranial bones don’t get plaqued up under any circumstances either. Why not, if it’s all supposed to be caused by cholesterol?
We hear a lot about high cholesterol, but what about low cholesterol? Low cholesterol has been statistically linked to a higher risk of cancer. However, I’ll point out that the naysayers say that it’s cancer that causes low cholesterol, and not vice-versa. This remains unresolved.
There may be a greater risk of infection from low cholesterol. Dr. Uffe Ravnskov points out that in rural China, where blood cholesterol averages just 129, Hepatitis B is endemic. Also, among the very aged, there is greater resistance to deadly pneumonia among those with high cholesterol. Beyond the age of 70, high blood cholesterol is associated with reduced mortality- from all causes. It’s not far-fetched to think that cholesterol supports immunity. Low cholesterol has also been correlated with depression and anxiety.
But, how low is low? It’s common for cholesterol of 200 to be considered high and cholesterol of 150 to be considered fine, but how much difference is there between them? 150 is only 25% less than 200. Why should dropping the cholesterol level by 25% make a colossal difference in plaque formation? A 25% differential in an organic substance like cholesterol isn’t much. Is it reasonable to think that subtracting 25% from the blood concentration will affect the amount of cholesterol being deposited in the vessel walls? I doubt it.
And notwithstanding the Chinese, 150 is about as low most people will go in their blood cholesterol when they stop eating animal foods. The only way to get it substantially lower is to take drugs. And of course, that is exactly what the medical establishment wants us to do. They’re looking for an LDL cholesterol of 70 or lower. But, nobody can get to 70 or lower without drugs. It isn’t natural. The body wants more LDL cholesterol than that.
So, the medical establishment is telling us that the human body is dangerously defective in that it makes too much cholesterol, and the only way to get it down to a safe level is to take powerful drugs that slam the liver hard and prevent it from doing what it wants to do, which is to make cholesterol. To be healthy, we have to knock out our livers. It’s a very morbid view of life and of health.
The Life Extension Foundation does not champion super-low cholesterol. They think that total blood cholesterol should be between 150 and 180 and definitely not below 150. Last checked, my total cholesterol was 161. And my LDL cholesterol was 92 (where less than 100 is considered right for those without heart disease). Considering all the positive roles of cholesterol in the body: as a steroid hormone precursor, as a cell membrane insulator, as a nerve cell facilitator (there is lots of cholesterol in the brain, and the brain makes its own cholesterol), as an immune booster, a mood elevator, and more, it’s possible that cholesterol has a useful, guarding effect even in heart disease, and that the deposition of cholesterol in the vessel walls is protective. That would make cholesterol a marker for heart disease but not a cause of it.
This is a crucial issue, and I applaud the paleos for standing up to the medical establishment and taking them on. Clearly, it's awful, and I mean criminal, that millions of Americans are being laden and burdened with dangerous statin drugs all on the basis of a blood test. I believe that the harm from these drugs is far greater than any potential good they can do. Dr. Uffe Ravnskov, of Sweden, a leading cholesterol skeptic, points out that, even granting the most favorable interpretation of the statin studies, 100 people would have to take statins for 10 years in order for 1 of them to avoid having a heart attack. He also points out that even this miniscule effect has no relation to cholesterol lowering. His book, The Cholesterol Myths, is well worth reading.
I heartily applaud Dr. Ravnskov, and I consider him a medical hero. He’s a lot smarter than the mindless, medical zombies who prescribe statins all day long.
However, even though I think Dr. Ravnskov is right, I’m not inclined to cast caution to the wind and start eating animal foods with abandon. There are plenty of good reasons to eat a plant-based diet that have nothing to do with cholesterol. Only plants have fiber, and we know how protective fiber is: against heart disease, colon cancer, and even diabetes. There is no fiber in animal foods. Also, it’s plants that have phytochemicals and antioxidants, and we know how important they are. Meats have essentially none. How are you going to get those phytonutrients unless you go to the source and eat plants? Of course, a paleo could eat a lot of plants with his meat and fish, and that would be the best way to practice a paleo diet. But, the fact is, for every mouthful of animal food that you eat, it is one less mouthful of plant food going into you. And, there is another nutrient that you can’t get unless you eat plants: carbohydrate. And to my mind, the demonizing of carbohydrates makes no more sense than the demonizing of fats. And what about magnesium? It is widely distributed in plant foods and scarce in animal foods, and I mean all of them.
So, for these and other reasons, I think that eating a plant-based diet is paramount. But, if you broaden it a little to include some animal food, I don't say you are going to ruin it. However, there is no good reason to go hog-wild over animal food. Cholesterol, even if it’s not as harmful as the experts say, is something that the body can easily make. It is not a required nutrient. And even if cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease per se, it definitely can accumulate in excess. For instance, consider gall stones, which are very common, afflicting tens of millions in the US alone. Most often, gallstones are composed of cholesterol, and they form because the concentration of cholesterol in the bile is too high, where it precipitates out. No matter what anybody says, I have to think that if you’ve got gallstones that scarfing down on more cholesterol can’t possibly be in your best interest.
So, the bottom line for me is that I applaud the paleos for exposing the establishment’s fraudulent anti-cholesterol campaign, which is mainly designed to push drugs on people. But as far as diet goes, I start where it should start: with a vast array of fresh fruits and vegetables. Then, I add raw nuts, which are primal human foods and proven health-builders. And so far, I haven’t violated any paleo tenets. Then, I add legumes and beans, which are considered non-paleo foods, but, I am not so sure about it. Two of the first foods cultivated by humans in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the alleged birthplace of agriculture, were lentils and chickpeas. Why did they grow them if they weren’t used to eating them? It is absolutely certain that humans made some use of legumes prior to agriculture.
In my backyard, I have a wild mesquite tree, and it produces beautiful mesquite beans. I have never eaten them, but they do look edible. And, I know that the aboriginals of Texas did grind the mesquite beans into flour and use them in their cooking. Explain that, paleos. I’ll have more to say about legumes in my final article in this series.
And, I also make use of whole grains in my diet. I don’t say you have to. You can be well-nourished without them. But, I happen to like them. I find them hearty and satisfying to eat. They certainly haven’t made me fat. And while paleos are making a lot of noise about gluten and celiac disease, I observe the fact that every study that has ever been done on whole grains has shown them to be cardio-protective and cancer-preventive. If there is even one study to the contrary, I haven’t seen it.
So, the point is that since I am eating fresh fruits and vegetables in vast amounts, raw nuts, plus cooked legumes and whole grains, that’s a lot of food! That’s a ton of food! No matter how sanguine cholesterol may be, I wouldn’t have much room for it in my diet anyway. As I’ve said, I will occasionally eat a high-quality egg, and I don’t worry about the cholesterol in it. But, for those who are really gorging on animal foods, I have to think that they are not getting their full ration of plant foods.
Finally, in regard to saturated fats, I think the paleos are right that they have been unfairly demonized. Saturated fats are very widely distributed in Nature, and not just in animals and in tropical seeds like coconut. 14% of the fat in olives is saturated. Almost as much of the fat in nuts is saturated. And of course, saturated fats are something that your body vitally needs. However, it is also true that your body can make all the saturated fat it wants.
It’s interesting that within the paleo community, there is a debate going on about saturated fat. Dr. Loren Cordain, a leading paleo writer, recommends eating only certain meats, such as lean game meats, because he claims that in primordial times, the wild animals being hunted must have been very lean. However, other paleos have pointed out that there are globs of fat in every animal, including lean ones. And we know that carnivorous animals often hone in on the fat. Lions, for instance, will focus on the organ meat and fattier parts of the prey and leave the lean cuts to scavengers. Polar bears will pull seal cubs up from under the ice and deliberately eat globs of fat, leaving the lean meat for arctic foxes and wolves- who would probably prefer the fattier cuts too, but hey, you take what you can get. And among human hunter/gatherers similar honing in on fat has been observed. As Mark Sisson points out, since it’s the fattier cuts of meat that are the tastiest to us, why should it have been any different for our forbears? We know from the fossil record that the long bones were broken and the marrow sucked out, which is very fatty. I don't think there is any instinct in human beings, past or present, to avoid dietary fat.
There is going to be just one more, final episode in this Ancestral Health series, in which I will wrap everything up and put it all in perspective. So stay tuned.