A couple of years ago my triglyceride and cholesterol levels were borderline high. My primary physician wanted me on statins immediately! For the rest of my life! What?!
Examining the numbers, I found that both my HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol) were at normal levels, but my overall cholesterol (good and bad combined) was borderline. My triglycerides were approaching borderline high levels as well.
Because I don’t like taking unnecessary prescription drugs, and I’m a smart-ass, I decided to do research instead of taking his advice.
Everywhere I looked I read that to lower cholesterol and triglycerides you needed to decrease fat in your diet. Cut out all that butter and meat! I had done raw food diets in the past for short periods. I decided to see what my blood levels looked like on a raw food diet. No meat. No dairy. Lots of fruit and veggies. I ate salads, wraps, and juiced quite a bit. Nuts for protein. Dates and fruit to sweeten deserts. I allowed myself some rice and rice-pasta on occasion. The end result? No change. I lost some weight, but my cholesterol and triglycerides were still high.
I decided it was time to look at the science.
The first thing I reviewed was information on triglycerides. Instantly I questioned why any intelligent healthcare provider would recommend cutting fat intake to reduce triglycerides. Triglycerides are how the body stores excess carbohydrates. If my triglycerides were high, wouldn’t lowering carbohydrates be a better solution? Seemed logical.
I switched to a mostly Primal Diet instead. I ate plenty of meat, eggs, veggies and nuts. No sugar. Only low fructose fruits, like ripe bananas and strawberries, and fewer of them than on the raw diet. No grain, other than cheating with some rice and quinoa on occasion. It was low carb, but fairly high fat and high cholesterol.
After six weeks I had my blood tested. Both my triglycerides and cholesterol had plummeted! Interesting, by going against medical practice, increasing the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in my diet, I had brought down both my triglyceride and cholesterol blood levels to extremely healthy levels. If reducing blood cholesterol levels was the desired outcome, then this diet had been a total success.
I read up and tried to figure out why this might have worked for me.
As I mentioned, triglycerides are a way the body stores excess carbohydrates. Unless you have a genetic issue, high triglycerides are likely from consuming way more carbohydrates than your body needs. Even on the raw food diet I was apparently eating too much fruit, especially in the form of juice.
I read that the liver makes cholesterol out of triglycerides. This might explain why lowering triglycerides can lower cholesterol as well. It appears that my body is really good at storing sugar as triglycerides and equally good at producing cholesterol from those triglycerides.
Cholesterol is necessary for the body. It is required by the liver for the production of hormones, cortisol, and the production of vitamin D from the sun. Cholesterol is used to produce the bile acids in the gall bladder needed to break down fats and absorb vitamins A, D, E and K from food sources. The brain is made up of plenty of cholesterol. So, cholesterol is not a bad thing on its own, but too much LDL (the bad kind) in your blood can clog arteries.
The body will dump excess cholesterol with excess bile through the intestines. The intestines will also absorb some back into the body for reuse. If you’re digestion is working well, this can help regulate the amount of cholesterol in your system. Of course, the gall bladder only dumps bile when you eat fat. People often lose their gall bladders when they go on low fat diets, likely because the gall bladder needs to keep bile flowing. Knowing that I can eat cholesterol and still have low blood cholesterol likely means that my body is either good at dumping or bad at reabsorbing cholesterol.
At the same time, it’s important to mention that dietary cholesterol is not a necessity. A properly working body will produce its own cholesterol as needed. Consumption of cholesterol in food simply triggers a reduction in the production of the enzymes used to produce cholesterol, thus keeping balance. Eating cholesterol in reasonable amounts means you should simply be replacing the cholesterol the body would have produced anyway. Thus, cholesterol in butter, eggs, and meat is not necessarily a problem unless there’s way more in your system than your body needs or can remove.
In relationship to cholesterol, I assume a reduced sugar and carb diet will only work if your triglyceride levels are high. If your triglycerides are low, but your cholesterol is high, it seems more likely that the standard wisdom will actually be necessary. In that situation reducing the amount of fat and cholesterol consumed in food might be worth exploring, and the use of statins may actually be the only option if your levels are actually high (unlike mine) and do not come down through diet change. Our bodies all work slightly different, so we all have to explore what works for us individually.
I now keep my carbohydrate intake lower, especially on days I don’t get much physical activity. On days I get more exercise I allow my carb intake to increase slightly. While I do have the occasional gluten-free pizza, pasta, or ice cream, it’s a rare occurrence these days, and something I do mainly to make my family happy. I don’t worry as much as I used to about eating foods with fat and cholesterol, though I will continue to have a yearly checkup to make sure my cholesterol levels stay in a good range. Mainly I avoid sugar and eating too many carbohydrates. I also no longer drink juice, and avoid overeating fruit. Everything in moderation.
After adjusting my diet I found I had a lot more energy and stamina. Back when my triglyceride levels were higher I could not run, swim, or do any other form of exercise without running out of steam quickly. No matter how hard I tried to build up stamina each summer, I never could. Now I can outrun my seven year old daughter, and I make it through much more intense exercise sessions.
I’ve been doing this long enough that bakery and store bought treats taste way too sweet now. I no longer enjoy them. I prefer to make my own less sweet snacks and deserts. I’ve also noticed that if I do cheat more than one day in a row by eating sugary snacks (usually because of a family event with leftovers pushed upon us) I start getting sugar and carb cravings. Sugar becomes an addiction so quickly that I force myself to stop cold turkey after any day of sweets so as not to risk getting back on the sugar train and losing all that health and energy.