‘Tis The Season For Bad Dietary Advice
Have you been told that you have high cholesterol? Or at least that you have to watch what you eat so you don’t get high cholesterol?
Of course you have! This is like a mantra – every health care professional and the writers who cover healthcare join in the party line. Everywhere you turn, it seems like everybody is on the “low-cholesterol” bandwagon.
Everybody? Hmm … (looking around) Well, there are exceptions.
Pardon me while I clear my throat and say in a loud, confident voice (and – might I add – a well-informed, scientifically and medically educated voice) – Bunk.
Common wisdom may be common, but it ain’t wisdom. It’s dead wrong. Like our friend Penn Gillette (of Penn and Teller) said, “they could not be any more wrong if their name were ‘Wrongie Wrongstein.’”
I recently ran into another article about watching your cholesterol and this looks like a reputable source, right? I mean, you would like to do what they say to lower your cholesterol, right? Right around this time of year (between Thanksgiving and Christmas as I write) folks tend to be more oriented toward meals and diet, so you see more of these things.
But repeating false information again and again will never make it true. I wish the political pundits would learn this lesson.
The cholesterol myth is what a colleague of mine called “Politically Correct Medicine.”
He was an immigrant from the United Kingdom where they practice what is called “Evidence-Based Medicine” Evidence – as in “Proof.”
Evidence – based on research and science and all that good stuff – has shown that people who eat almost exclusively fat – like the Eskimo and Inuit people – have very low cholesterol. And it’s not just because they eat exotic fats – like seals and whales – that the rest of us can’t eat. It’s the fact that eating fat doesn’t raise your body’s cholesterol (serum cholesterol).
Add to that the scientifically proven fact that the highest cholesterols in the world are in folks who don’t eat any fat – Anorectics. I have seen them and taken care of them . Their bodies are so deprived of fats and cholesterol (which is necessary for many body functions) that their body goes into survival mode and makes its own.
This is especially worrisome in eating disorders and children. This is also what bothers me about our current politically-correct and scientifically-wrong concentration on childhood obesity. Children don’t control what they eat to the extent that adults do. They can be given horrible dietary choices – which might induce illness – by well-meaning (but misguided) adults.
That’s a lot to swallow, I know. It’s not only the Eskimo — studies of African people who eat tons of animal fat fail to show raised cholesterol. Again, this is not due to the exotic nature of the fats they eat. They don’t eat giraffe and hippo and zebra fat. These are people who eat pork and chicken and beef.
People are flooded with information in this age of mass communication and the “Information Superhighway” – the internet. And people tend to bow to authority.
Add to that the confusion of things like “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol.” We have so much technical information out there that our sources (soundbites on TV and radio and brief paragraphs in USA Today) have to simplify (need I say “dumb-down”) a lot of technical information that can really lead to some wild assumptions.
Yes –- trans fats (already eliminated from lots of commercially available products) and saturated fats may mean higher cholesterol – but marginal changes in your serum cholesterol are seldom significant. Here is an example of how to confuse the public. Pay attention to this next sentence:
The cholesterol you eat can raise your serum cholesterol and eliminating dietary cholesterol can lower your serum cholesterol – but the amount of increase or decrease is not clinically significant.
That’s a long and complex sentence and three different people with three different agendas could take any part of it (out of context) and make whatever point they want to make.
By now you probably feel either contemptuous of my radical anarchy or you feel wounded and confused for being fed misinformation.
“But …” you may protest, “the government (FDA and USDA) and the American Medical Association (AMA) and many people I know and trust (parents, teachers, media pundits) all say fat is bad, fat makes you fat, and fat gives you cholesterol and cholesterol can kill you, and …”
This is a deeply-rooted problem, and one that causes many arguments – or at least spirited discussions.
The “Government” is actually acting to please the people it serves – the big-money special interests. The so-called “Food Pyramid” is a sham, based upon input from the food industry and lacking in scientific validity. In fact, it has changed many times over the years, and not because of human evolution. (News flash – there is no more “Food Pyramid” – it is now a plate).
The AMA is a political action committee that works to get favorable legislation for the medical community, and less than 50% of the doctors in America belong to it (I haven’t since the mid-1990s).
Parents, teachers and even friends will tell you things to make things better for themselves – not necessarily what is best for you (go to bed early, sit there quietly, etc.).
Political pundits – well, that’s a whole book unto itself. Doctors have sold their souls to tobacco companies and some will give prescriptions over the phone to anyone who calls them with a credit card. People sell out to get an easy buck, and we need to be able to identify who is selling out and who is really informed.
OK – assuming you haven’t stopped reading in disgust and disbelief, you are probably wondering what is responsible for our dietary problems, including high cholesterol and obesity.
The worst culprit in my estimation is refined sugar. Most mass-market nutritional information is oversimplified, idiotic, and not based on science. The first time I was hospitalized as a metabolic mess, the doctor told me not to waste my time on a nutritional consultation. (I asked for one anyway. I really had no idea what the hell to eat. The nutritionist was wrong.) Somehow, since then I have seen clearly that most nutritional recommendations are indeed vacant. My then-doctor said that this was a discipline that had contributed absolutely nothing to patient care. Given what little I had read of the nutritional literature, he may be right. My husband thinks bacon is a major food group and the last time we had our cholesterols tested, his was lots lower than mine.
But sugar – and especially the ubiquitous sweetener High –fructose corn syrup – are only a part of the problem. Most of the problems people have with cholesterol and triglycerides and obesity are genetic.
Your body (liver, specifically) makes the cholesterol measured in your blood tests (serum cholesterol) and as we have already said, very little of it comes from what you eat or by eliminating certain things from your diet.
Lots of genetic and enzyme type factors can affect cholesterol. After all, does anybody actually believe that when you eat food, it stays what it was when you ate it? Things get broken down and can become different things. They call it physiology, and if anybody studied it in college, my bet is they weren’t dieticians. Even if cholesterol eaten did become body cholesterol, this list of cholesterol-containing foods would be useless. Different ways of measuring cholesterol in seafood are so contradictory that even the pros get confused. Seafood may contain compounds that reduce the likelihood of cardiovascular disease. (NOTE: This link opens a PDF file and you need to have the free Adobe Acrobat reader to view it.) I do not know how to tell you who you can believe and trust. You have to determine that yourself. Most people make that determination to fit their prejudices and preconceptions. Catholics believe the official Catholic doctrine. Right-wing Christians believe Fox News. People like my father put unwavering faith in the old Alma Mater (his was Harvard) as an unpeachable authority. Many women will blindly follow Oprah Winfrey or Martha Steward. Many people cast their fate to the winds of their ethnic, religious or other type of orientation.
I say, “Follow the money.”
Universities – even Harvard – take money to do research. Commercial broadcasters are supported by sponsors and are owned by multi-national corporations, so don’t expect them to blow the whistle on their meal-tickets.
Beware of recommendations that are vague. “Eat in moderation” is not worth the keystrokes that wrote it.
I wrote about my personal experiences – near-death experiences – with obesity and cholesterol and triglycerides and blood sugar and blood pressure and all of these things. And I go into detail about how the body actually works when you put food and drink into it, and why the official stories you are told are often dead wrong.
HINT: It makes a good Christmas or Hanukkah present. But I don’t want to be one of those commercial-type info-peddlers, so I will leave you with these words of wisdom:
If you question everything, you may get some delightful surprises.