The great cholesterol debate |

The great cholesterol debate

Lauren Blair
Cholesterol in eggs: healthful, brain-boosting nutrient or artery-clogging enemy?
Courtesy Photo

— Cholesterol is bad.

Or so we’ve been taught by several generations of doctors and dietary organizations in charge of distilling reliable research into guidelines easily understandable by members of the public.

But could cholesterol actually be good for you? And could high cholesterol make you healthier and happier?

There is a new wave of research suggesting just this, and some are starting to question the legitimacy of the nearly 60-year-old theory that higher cholesterol equals nothing more than heart disease and an early death.

So is cholesterol bad?

The conventional wisdom on cholesterol originated in the 1950s from a large study performed by Ancel Keys, later known as the Seven Countries Study. The research came at a time when a growing epidemic of heart disease was threatening the lives of more and more Americans.

The study linked high cholesterol levels to an increased risk of heart disease and led the American Heart Association to recommend that people shun foods high in saturated fats such as butter, cheese, eggs and red meat.

The Seven Countries Study — and Keys — has many critics. Nina Teicholz, author of “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet,” cites several reasons in her article written for The Wall Street Journal in May. Foremost among the criticisms is that Keys purportedly cherry-picked countries that would give him the results he was trying to prove.

In short, Teicholz argued that “nutrition policy has been derailed over the past half-century by a mixture of personal ambition, bad science, politics and bias.”

A moderate approach

Jon Hamilton, D.O., family practice doctor at The Memorial Hospital Medical Clinic in Craig, doesn’t dismiss the whole theory quite so quickly, however.

“There are thousands of studies that show cholesterol contributes to plaque formation and causes heart disease,” Hamilton said. But he also recognizes that “cholesterol is required to build cells in our body.”

Striking a more moderate tone, Hamilton said he still recommends keeping cholesterol in the traditional healthy ranges, under 200, with a particular focus on keeping levels of LDL, or low-density lipoprotein — the bad cholesterol — as low as possible.

Hamilton encourages patients with cholesterol concerns to consume foods such as almonds, cold-water fishes high in omega-3 fatty acids and olive oil to promote healthy cholesterol levels, as well as grains, greens and high-fiber foods like oatmeal. He also recommends whole milk for kids, who can use the extra fats to help their brains develop.

Cholesterol and brain health

Yet another argument emerging in the cholesterol debate poses that high cholesterol actually equates with better brain health and longevity.

In the book “Grain Brain,” David Perlmutter, M.D., cites results from the Framingham Heart Study, a well-known, multi-generational study that began in 1948, to support this claim.

The study’s report on the connection between total cholesterol and cognitive performance, published in 2005, found that “participants with ‘desirable’ total cholesterol (less than 200) performed less well than participants with borderline high total cholesterol levels (200 to 239) and participants with high total cholesterol levels (greater than 240),” as quoted by Perlmutter in “Grain Brain.”

In sum, the report concluded that “lower naturally occurring total cholesterol levels are associated with poor performance on cognitive measures,” which tested “abstract reasoning, attention/concentration, word fluency and executive functioning.”

In other words, the cholesterol levels we’ve been instructed to maintain for good heart health could in fact be compromising brain health. Perlmutter suggests that everything from migraines, depression and ADHD to schizophrenia and even Alzheimer’s disease are related to imbalances in the diet, with cholesterol and fats being a key component.

“Study after study shows that high cholesterol reduces your risk for brain disease and increases longevity,” Perlmutter said. “By the same token, high levels of dietary fat (the good kind, no trans fats here) have been proven to be key to health and peak brain function.”

A healthy dose of skepticism and common sense

With so many new dietary trends and conflicting research barraging us every year with advice about how to eat better and live longer, the best approach is a moderate one. Too often, Americans give up one bad dietary habit for another, just as they did when fat was demonized.

“… in cutting back on fats, we are now eating a lot more carbohydrates — at least 25 percent more since the early 1970s,” which break down into sugars and can tax the body in other ways, Teicholz said in her article.

There is no simple answer to good health and a long life, and more often than not, new information raises more questions than it answers. But it serves to do some research, think independently and use a dash of common sense when deciding what’s for dinner.

Contact Lauren Blair at 970-875-1794 or

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