First, let's get one thing straight: Cholesterol is really
our friend. It's necessary to form adrenal and sex hormones,
Vitamin D and bile (a digestive fluid). It also gives cell
membranes their proper shape, and helps carry fatty nutrients
to every body tissue. If levels are too low, we sicken.
Half of all heart attacks occur in people with normal cholesterol
levels. How, then, did we come to believe that high cholesterol
levels cause heart disease?
Let's go back to the early 1900s, when coronary heart disease
was relatively rare in America. What were people eating then?
Prodigious amounts of rich organ meats, chicken and goose
fat, butter, lard and tallows -- all highly saturated fat,
all from free-range poultry and grass-fed animals. Saturated
coconut or palm oil was used as shortening in most bakery
items; French fries were cooked in palm oil. All farming was
organic then, soils were rich and foods were nutrient-dense.
As the 20th Century progressed, America's food lost more and
more of its integrity.
THE CRISCO GENERATION
In 1911, Procter & Gamble added hydrogen to cottonseed
oil, turning it into a semi-solid fat at room temperature.
Thus was Crisco born. Hydrogenation results in what's called
a "trans" fat, never before encountered by the human
body. Gradually, other hydrogenated vegetable oils found their
way into crackers, chips, cookies and a host of other snack
and fast foods. Back then, we didn't understand the impact
of these fake fats. Now we know they make blood platelets
sticky, damage cholesterol itself, and inflame fat-containing
structures like blood vessel walls, which, it's thought, initiates
the cascade of events leading to heart disease. Trans fats
also push the LDL:HDL (fat/protein complexes) ratios in an
unhealthy direction. A robust HDL level is a sign of cardiovascular
health, indicating that fats are absorbed into the tissues,
where they belong.
By the '30s and early '40s, heart disease was on the rise.
In 1948, the Framingham Heart Study aimed to determine risk
factors associated with heart attacks. Though 240 risk factors
were eventually identified, a high cholesterol level drew
the most early interest. Soon, high cholesterol became synonymous
with being a sitting duck for a heart attack.
There were several flaws in this thinking. First, though
cholesterol may have been associated with heart attacks, it
does not necessarily cause them. One big mistake was that
early researchers failed to distinguish between saturated,
monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Neither did they
differentiate between HDLs and LDLs; lumping them together,
they searched for ways to lower the total sum. Their mistaken
conclusion was that all fats were bad.
Maryann Napoli of the Center for Medical Consumers raises
another question about the direction of research. She writes
in the November 2003 HealthFacts newsletter, "Research
focused on cholesterol because it is a modifiable risk factor
(translation: drug industry opportunity)." Opportunity
or not, the first-generation cholesterol-lowering drugs (Lopid,
Cholestyramine) had extremely uncomfortable side effects and
Nonetheless, Americans were advised to lower cholesterol
by eating less saturated fat (eggs, red meat, butter, full-fat
dairy), and began dutifully eating products like margarine,
imitation cheese, egg-replacer and even "imitation ice
milk" -- tasteless, fractured foods. Cholesterol, the
experts said, could be lowered by using more polyunsaturated
oils like corn and safflower oils. Just one problem: these
oils are unstable and easily damaged (oxidized) by processing
and cooking (to say nothing of hydrogenation). It's worth
noting that the ancient Ayurvedic (East Indian) medical tradition
viewed safflower oil as the most dangerous oil.
As fear of fat and cholesterol ran rampant, our fat profile
radically changed. According to Sally Fallon and Mary Enig,
PhD, authors of Nourishing Traditions, in the last 80 years,
America's intake of vegetable oils (including margarine, shortening
and refined oils) increased an astonishing 400%. The use of
butter and other saturated fats plummeted. Complying with
medical experts' advice and customer demand, manufacturers
of baked and fried foods switched from healthier palm and
coconut oils to hydrogenated soy, corn, canola and cottonseed
Meanwhile, back at the ranch in the '50s, in a move that
would prove to have serious consequences, the meat industry
began moving animals from pasture to feedlots to fatten them
on grains before their slaughter. Free-range hens, once enjoying
a diet of both grains and their fill of weeds, insects and
worms, were moved to factory farms and exclusively grain-fed.
Fish farming got started, and the fish were being fattened
with -- you guessed it -- grain-based feed.
Grain-fed fish and animals fatten quickly, improving industry's
bottom line, but there is a down-side to these foods. The
ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids veers in the wrong
direction, and our health suffers. While omega-3s reduce the
risk of heart attack by calming inflammation, protecting blood
vessels and decreasing high blood pressure and inappropriate
clotting, omega-6s, on the other hand, are inflammatory and
increase the tendency to blood clots and high blood pressure.
Vegetable oils and grains are top-heavy in omega-6s.
Here are some sobering examples of what happened to our animal
foods: Grass-fed animals have an omega-3:6 ratio of 1:2.5,
whereas grain-fattened animals are 1:14. Free-range hens‚
eggs boast a 1:1 ratio, while commercial, grain-fed hens'
eggs are a whopping 1:19! Even wild fish offer better omega-3:6
ratios than farm-raised fish. Grass-fed butter and cheese
products likewise have completely different ratios than products
from grain-fed cows' milk.
Given the strong link between animal feed and human health,
why don't we hear more about this problem? Jo Robinson, author
of Why Grassfed is Best! and co-author of The Omega Diet (with
Dr. Artemis Simopoulos), describes part of the problem: "Much
of our animal research is funded by commercial interests --
specifically the grain, chemical, pharmaceutical, farm equipment,
and meat-packing companies. Together, these vertically integrated
behemoths have a multi-billion dollar stake in perpetuating
The low-fat craze continued well into the 1980s, Americans
ate more omega-6 fats than ever (which also make people gain
weight). At the same time, a sedentary lifestyle together
with a sharp rise in the intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates
added up to a glut of unused fuels. Obesity is not the only
result of such a scenario: The liver transforms unused carbohydrates
into a surfeit of triglycerides, which predispose people to
heart disease. It seemed we had gotten nowhere in attempts
to combat cardiovascular disease.
A few voices in the wilderness insisted that when people
with an inherited tendency to overproduce cholesterol were
excluded, there was little evidence that high cholesterol
is a causative factor in heart disease. Further, they claimed,
faulty carbohydrate metabolism, obesity and diabetes are far
more dangerous risk factors. An alternate theory emerged:
The disease develops in response to blood vessel injury incurred
by smoking, inflammation, high blood pressure, etc. Once the
inside lining is damaged, cholesterol catches on the rough,
THE PROBLEM WITH INDISCRIMINATE SCREENING
In 1986, a new class of potent cholesterol-lowering drugs
dubbed "statins" appeared on the medical scene.
They were prescribed primarily for smokers, people with diabetes
(which causes deranged fat and carbohydrate metabolism), people
with existing heart disease, those who had had a heart attack,
and those with total cholesterol above 350. People felt better
on statins than on the earlier drugs, but there were silent
and potentially dangerous side effects. These included transient
amnesia (as yet not admitted by the drug companies) and a
potentially fatal muscle disease. Liver enzymes were frequently
elevated, a sign of a dysfunctional liver.
The following year, 1987, The National Cholesterol Education
Program launched a public education effort called "Know
Your Numbers." Routine cholesterol testing, once reserved
for those who already had heart disease, was now promoted
to everyone, regardless of age, symptoms or risk factors.
Such indiscriminate screening often gets ahead of a true understanding
of an illness, and can set people up for lifetime medication.
For decades, researchers had tried -- and failed -- to prove
that lowering cholesterol saved lives. Then in 1995, a Scottish
study on a statin drug (Pravachol) finally succeeded. This
meant the drug could be prescribed preventively, and millions
of people could take it, for the rest of their lives. (Ironically,
the drug may save lives not because it lowers cholesterol,
but because it's an anti-inflammatory.)
Then in 2001, the federal government lowered the threshold
of the "normal" total cholesterol level from 300
to 200, resulting in millions more people being put on cholesterol-lowering
drugs. Healthy people with high cholesterol might want to
think twice. A 2001 review of all relevant statin trials concluded
that these drugs harm as many people as they help. Statins
block a liver enzyme necessary to make cholesterol, something
that seems inherently unwise. The long-term consequences of
suppressing cholesterol synthesis are unknown, as studies
lasted but five years.
Worse, all patients on these drugs eventually deplete Coenzyme
Q10, a heart-protective anti-oxidant. (If someone you love
is on these drugs, make sure they take 200 mg/day of CoQ10.
It‚s also possible to reduce the statin dosage by using
other supplements.) Though conventional medical dogma stubbornly
clings to the idea that cholesterol levels can predict future
heart disease, there are two other tests that may be much
more accurate. First, elevated C-Reactive Protein (CRP) levels
indicate inflammation, but testing is most useful in high-risk
people such as smokers, diabetics, etc. The other test is
for homocysteine. When elevated, homocysteine is correlated
with pathological buildup of plaque, and hardening and blockage
of blood vessels. Health care professionals suggest supplements
of Vitamins B6, B12 and Folic Acid to bring the levels down.
This is one test to discuss with a progressive doctor.
EAT YOUR WAY TO HEART HEALTH
The case is strong for a dietary connection to cardiovascular
disease, but the problem is not what the experts led us to
believe. Remember two things: the quality of the fats you
eat is much more important than the quantity; and excessive
carbohydrates/sugars can set the stage for problems. There
are many theories about how to structure your diet, but that
discussion is beyond the scope of this article. Also, some
people may not thrive on meat or dairy, so fine-tune all dietary
and herbal choices with a health care practitioner to allow
for constitutional differences.
Here are some health-enhancing tips to consider. As you make
these changes, both your HDL:LDL and your omega-3:6 ratios
will improve. Inflammation will decrease, and cholesterol
levels will probably drop, which will make your doctor happy.
If you are already on statins and would like to quit, arm
yourself with all the research you can, then talk to your
Know what you're eating. If you buy anything in a
can, jar or package, start reading the labels. You will make
the unpleasant discovery that hydrogenated fats and undesirable
vegetable oils (as well as sugar) are in most of these foods,
even in some so-called health foods.
* Eat real fats. Beef, buffalo or other
animals raised exclusively on pasture provide healthy fats.
The popular deep-sea fish like halibut, tuna and salmon do,
too. But because mercury concentration is a real concern with
these large fish, allow the smaller herring and sardines to
contribute to your omega-3 quota. If you have hardened your
heart against them, try herring chunks (packed in wine sauce)
with mixed baby greens, roasted red pepper, artichoke hearts
(packed in water), sliced carrots, a handful of pumpkin seeds,
olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Substitute sardines in your
tuna salad. A yummy snack: Portuguese whole sardines, packed
in olive oil (Bela brand, distributed by Blue Galleon), goat
cheese, sliced radishes and lettuce on whole rye crackers.
Goat or sheep dairy products are preferable to those from
grain-fed animals. Walnuts, hemp, flax and pumpkin seeds offer
omega-3s, as do dark green leafy vegetables and seaweed. Avocado
is among the healthy "monounsaturated" (omega-9)
fats, along with pecans, almonds and some other nuts. Happily,
a small piece of bittersweet chocolate (good fats and anti-oxidants)
and a glass of red wine (anti-oxidants) each day contain compounds
that support the cardiovascular system! A critical mineral
for heart health is magnesium -- in short supply in the American
diet. You'll find it in anything green -- chlorophyll-rich,
leafy green vegetables, seaweed, green herb teas (nettle,
raspberry, alfalfa, horsetail) -- as well as oatmeal, almonds,
brazil nuts, pecans, walnuts, dried figs and dates.
* Choose the right oil for the job. The
two best oils for raw use are flax and walnut oils (Spectrum
is a reliable brand). Unsaturated oils must be refrigerated
and never heated. In a foolish attempt to jump on the "healthy"
bandwagon, many baked goods contain safflower oil or flax
seeds, both badly damaged by heat. Throw out your corn, safflower,
almond and canola oils. Canola can deplete Vitamin E (essential
for hearts) and is susceptible to rancidity. What's more,
when it's deodorized, the dreaded trans fats are created.
Olive oil (another omega-9) can be used liberally, raw or
cooked. Get unrefined, extra virgin. Ghee (clarified, organic
butter) is good to cook with as well -- it won‚t burn
as butter does. Use peanut and sesame oils only occasionally.
I predict health-enhancing, extra-virgin coconut oil (try
the Garden of Life brand) will make a big comeback soon. It
tastes and smells lovely, stores at room temperature for at
least a year, does not promote weight gain, and enhances the
immune system with potent anti-microbial properties. Use for
high temperature cooking, in smoothies, and in baking. Buy
Newman's Own cookies, now made with organic palm oil (another
healthy tropical oil). Palm oil is widely used by savvy European
food manufacturers as an alternative to partially hydrogenated
* Herbs can help, too. Dandelion and burdock
roots are bitter herbs that promote bile flow, emulsifying
fats thoroughly for proper absorption. (You can eat nutty-flavored
burdock root as a vegetable, too -- scrub well, slice thinly,
and add to stir-fries.) Other herbs like green tea or Eleutherococcus
(formerly known as Siberian Ginseng) can normalize cholesterol
levels and regulate metabolic functions.
* Love. Finally, spirituality and connection
nourish a healthy heart -- open to love and compassion for
yourself and others. Relax, dance, walk and smile as much
as you can. And may you enjoy eating your cholesterol from
learn more about the benefits of eating grass-fed meat and
dairy, and find out who's producing it in your community (note:
Standard Market, listed as a source in Santa Fe, has closed.)
* HealthFacts, for Informed Decision Making, newsletter by
the nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, Center for Medical
* Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically
Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, by Sally Fallon
with Mary Enig, PhD
* The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, www.thincs.org
* Earth Medicine Gazette, free e-mail newsletter, subscribe:
Carole Tashel works with wild and cultivated
plants as a clinical herbalist, teacher, gardener and author.