By Dr. Mercola
Many Americans are still under the false impression that eating cholesterol-rich foods will cause your cholesterol levels to skyrocket and increase your risk of heart disease.
Many also avoid healthy animal foods like butter, grass-fed beef, and eggs because the cholesterol they contain has been vilified by conventional nutritionists working off of public-health agency guidelines.
As recently as 2010, US dietary guidelines described cholesterol-rich foods as "foods and food components to reduce."1 They advised people to eat less than 300 milligrams (mg) per day, despite mounting evidence that dietary cholesterol has very little to do with cholesterol levels in your body.
Now, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) has done a complete about-face. They are finally acknowledging what the science shows, which is that "cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."2
This latter statement, which came from a DGAC meeting, is expected to change the books, so to speak, when it comes to dietary cholesterol recommendations in the soon-to-be-released 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The 2015 guidelines have not yet been finalized, but, according to a report in the Washington Post, "a person with direct knowledge of the proceedings said the cholesterol finding would make it to the group's final report, which is due within weeks."3
No More Limits on Dietary Cholesterol
DGAC has recommended limits on dietary cholesterol be removed from the upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This is a reversal of the cholesterol limitations that have been widely circulated since the 1960s.
Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Dr. Steven Nissen told USA Today: "It's the right decision. We got the dietary guidelines wrong. They've been wrong for decades."4
Indeed, Dr. Nissen estimates that only 20 percent of your blood cholesterol levels come from your diet. The rest of the cholesterol in your body is produced by your liver, which it makes because your body needs cholesterol.
One survey of South Carolina adults found no correlation of blood cholesterol levels with "bad" dietary habits, such as consumption of red meat, animal fats, butter, eggs, whole milk, bacon, sausage, and cheese.5
Consumption of more than six eggs per week also does not increase your risk of stroke and ischemic stroke,6 while eating two eggs a day does not adversely affect endothelial function (an aggregate measure of cardiac risk) in healthy adults.
This supports the view that dietary cholesterol may be far less detrimental to cardiovascular health than previously thought.7 According to Chris Masterjohn, who received his PhD in nutritional sciences from the University of Connecticut:8
"Since we cannot possibly eat enough cholesterol to use for our bodies' daily functions, our bodies make their own. When we eat more foods rich in this compound, our bodies make less. If we deprive ourselves of foods high in cholesterol -- such as eggs, butter, and liver — our body revs up its cholesterol synthesis.
The end result is that, for most of us, eating foods high in cholesterol has very little impact on our blood cholesterol levels. In seventy percent of the population, foods rich in cholesterol such as eggs cause only a subtle increase in cholesterol levels or none at all. In the other thirty percent, these foods do cause a rise in blood cholesterol levels.
Despite this, research has never established any clear relationship between the consumption of dietary cholesterol and the risk for heart disease… Raising cholesterol levels is not necessarily a bad thing either."
You Might Be Getting Too Little Cholesterol in Your Diet
Download Interview Transcript
Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), also believes it's difficult to get "too much" cholesterol in your diet, particularly in the standard American diet. But you may very well be getting too little, and that can cause serious problems.
She points to the research of Weston A. Price, a dentist by profession who traveled all around the world studying the health effects of indigenous diets. Interestingly enough, many indigenous diets are shockingly high in dietary cholesterol based on today's conventional medical standards.
Cholesterol-rich foods like caviar, liver, and the adrenal glands of bears were highly valued in some cultures that also had very low rates of heart disease and other modern diseases. Dr. Seneff believes, as do I, that placing an upper limit on dietary cholesterol, especially such a LOW upper limit as is now recommended, is likely causing far more harm than good.
Cholesterol has been demonized since the early 1950s, following the popularization of Ancel Keys' flawed research. But cholesterol has many health benefits. It plays a key role in regulating protein pathways involved in cell signaling and may also regulate other cellular processes,9 for instance.
It's already known that cholesterol plays a critical role within your cell membranes, but research suggests cholesterol also interacts with proteins inside your cells, adding even more importance. Your body is literally composed of trillions of cells that need to interact with each other.
Cholesterol is one of the molecules that allow for these interactions to take place. For example, cholesterol is the precursor to bile acids, so without sufficient amounts of cholesterol, your digestive system can be adversely affected.
It also plays an essential role in your brain, which contains about 25 percent of the cholesterol in your body. It is critical for synapse formation, i.e. the connections between your neurons, which allow you to think, learn new things, and form memories.
Low levels of HDL cholesterol has been linked to memory loss and Alzheimer's disease, and may also increase your risk of depression, stroke, violent behavior, and suicide.
In addition to helping produce cell membranes, cholesterol also plays a role in the production of hormones (including the sex hormones testosterone, progesterone, and estrogen) and bile acids that help you digest fat.
It's also important for the production of vitamin D, which is vital for optimal health. When sunlight strikes your bare skin, the cholesterol in your skin is converted into vitamin D. It also serves as insulation for your nerve cells.
Meat and Soda Industries Fight New Dietary Guidelines
Doing away with dietary cholesterol limits was only one aspect of DGAC's report. The Committee also recommended that Americans eat more fruits and vegetables and less sugary drinks and red meat. They also, for the first time, recommended that Americans consider the sustainability of their food.
I don't agree that red meat is a problem, provided it comes from a high-quality source and is pasture-raised (see below). However, reducing red meat that comes from unsustainable sources, like concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), is sound advice. The report even pointed out the meat industry's role in environmental destruction.
"Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use and energy use," said the report. "This is because the current U.S. population intake of animal-based foods is higher and plant-based foods are lower."
It's also because in the US most animal-based foods do not come from small organic farms; they come from CAFOs, which are among the worst polluters on the planet. Not surprisingly, the meat industry wasn't happy with the report, calling it "nonsensical" and describing the sustainability references as "well beyond its scope and expertise."10
The DGAC report even recommended that sugars should be reduced in the diet and not be replaced with low-calorie sweeteners, an important distinction, since artificial sweeteners are just as bad, if not worse, than natural sugar. The American Beverage Industry took issue with this, claiming such sweeteners help with weight loss, when in reality they've been linked to weight gain. ABA also bulked at the report's suggestion to reduce intake of sugary beverages, noting "restricting one food or food group is not the best approach… for maintaining a healthy weight.11"
Why Feasting on Cholesterol-Rich Foods Is Good for You
Many of the healthiest foods also happen to be rich in cholesterol and saturated fats. Like cholesterol, saturated fat has also been wrongly vilified. In 2010, a meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition came to the conclusion that there's "no significant evidence... that saturated fat is associated with an increased risk for coronary heart disease."12
And last year, another meta-analysis reached the same conclusion that current evidence does not support guidelines that encourage low consumption of saturated fats.13 After cholesterol, the flawed guidelines to limit saturated fat deserve attention. As noted by Forbes:14 "[Dr.] Nissen also said that advice about reducing saturated fat and salt may be wrong, but no major change in these areas is expected in the new guidelines." Getting back to your diet, cholesterol- and saturated-fat-rich animal foods are featured in my nutrition plan because of their many health benefits.
Following are just a few examples:
- Organic Pastured Eggs: Eggs are a phenomenal source of protein, fat, and other nutrients, including choline, selenium, biotin, B vitamins, phosphorus, and the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. They are so good for you that you can easily eat one dozen eggs per week.
- Organic Pastured Raw Butter: Butter is a veritable health food rich in vitamins E, K2, and A, along with minerals, iodine, antioxidants, and healthy fats. Butter also contains the anti-cancer agent conjugated linoleic acid (CLA along with Wulzen factor, a hormone-like substance known to prevent arthritis and joint stiffness (only in raw butter).
- Grass-Fed Beef: Some of the benefits of grass-fed and grass-finished beef include high levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and other healthy fats. It also has a more balanced ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 (compared to grain-fed beef) and is higher in beta-carotene, certain minerals, vitamin E, and B vitamins.
- Liver: Liver from grass-fed animals is rich in high quality amino acids, fat, B vitamins and B12, CoQ10, minerals, and "fat-soluble activators" (vitamins A, D and K), important for mineral absorption.
One Exception: Damaged or Oxidized Cholesterol
Download Interview Transcript
Oxidized cholesterol is formed when polyunsaturated vegetable oils (such as soybean, corn, and sunflower oils) are heated. A primary source is fried foods. This oxidized cholesterol (not dietary cholesterol in and of itself) causes increased thromboxane formation—a factor that clots your blood. Two of Dr. Fred Kummerow's papers pertain to how these oils harden your arteries and play an important role in the development of atheorosclerosis. Dr. Kummerow has studied heart disease for more than 60 years. As noted by the New York Times,15 these oils are precisely the types of fats that Americans have been, and still are, urged to consume in lieu of saturated fats like butter.
"The problem, [Dr. Kummerow] says, is not LDL, the 'bad cholesterol' widely considered to be the major cause of heart disease. What matters is whether the cholesterol and fat residing in those LDL particles have been oxidized... 'Cholesterol has nothing to do with heart disease, except if it's oxidized,' Dr. Kummerow said... [He] contends that the high temperatures used in commercial frying cause inherently unstable polyunsaturated oils to oxidize, and that these oxidized fatty acids become a destructive part of LDL particles. Even when not oxidized by frying, soybean and corn oils can oxidize inside the body."
So while naturally cholesterol-rich foods are good for you, if those foods are fried or heated to high temperatures, the cholesterol may become oxidized… and this form of cholesterol should be avoided. There is some compelling evidence to suggest that heated fats may worsen insulin resistance more than sugar and may be more dangerous.
How to Optimize Your Cholesterol Levels
The goal of the guidelines below is not to lower your cholesterol as low as it can go, but rather to optimize your levels so they're working in the proper balance with your body. Again, the majority of your cholesterol is produced by your liver, which is influenced by your insulin levels. Therefore, if you optimize your insulin level, you will tend to automatically optimize your cholesterol. This is why my primary recommendations for safely regulating your cholesterol have to do with modifying your diet and lifestyle as follows (what you won't find on this list is taking cholesterol-lowering medication or eating a low-cholesterol diet):
- Reduce, with the plan of eliminating, grains and sugars in your diet. It is vitally important to eliminate gluten-containing grains and dangerous sugars especially fructose.
- Consume a good portion of your food raw.
- Make sure you are getting plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega 3 fats, such as krill oil. Research suggests that as little as 500 mg of krill per day may improve your total cholesterol and triglycerides and will likely increase your HDL cholesterol.
- Replace harmful vegetable oils and synthetic trans fats with healthy fats, such as olive oil, butter, and coconut oil (remember olive oil should be used cold only, use coconut oil for cooking and baking).
- Include fermented foods in your daily diet. This will not only optimize your intestinal microflora, which will boost your overall immunity, it will also introduce beneficial bacteria into your mouth. Poor oral health is another powerful indicator of increased heart disease risk.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels, ideally through appropriate sun exposure as this will allow your body to also create vitamin D sulfate—another factor that may play a crucial role in preventing the formation of arterial plaque.
- Exercise regularly. Make sure you incorporate high-intensity interval exercises, which also optimize your human growth hormone (HGH) production.
- Avoid smoking or drinking alcohol excessively.
- Be sure to get plenty of high-quality, restorative sleep.