The Truth about Cholesterol on the Carnivore Diet
Everywhere carnivore diets are discussed over the net, you will find the raised concerns over cholesterol. We see various comments like “The carnivore diet is great, but I’m scared of how it will raise my cholesterol” or “I love low-carb diets, except for the high cholesterol numbers.”
Many people are misinformed about the real purpose, functions, and various benefits of a carnivore diet. Although cholesterol has been vilified for decades, new research shows that it’s a critical molecule for your health.
Cholesterol: What Went Wrong?
The anti-cholesterol propaganda started with some contradictory studies, including a study by Ancel Keys in 1953, which showed the correlation between saturated fat and heart disease. Without enough evidence, Keyes concluded his analysis by linking saturated fat with heart disease. Keys only cherry-picked the seven countries leaving out 22 other countries, which were outliers. He also consulted only 3.9% of the participants on the type of food they ate and bypassed one of the most important scientific tenets; that correlation isn’t equal to causation. He failed to randomize his test participants.
Based on his observational studies, some significant dietary guidelines were created. The meat was labeled bad, and vegetable oils (“healthy fats”) and grains became good. This was the catalyst for the high-carb, low-fat recommendation and is the leading cause of the current skyrocketing epidemic of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
Is Animal Fat to Blame?
Food consumption data paints a different picture from what Keys tried to show in his study. Over the past century, USDA consumption data shows that Americans consume less red meat and saturated fats but eat more whole grains and vegetable oils. Low fat intake combined with declined smoking and improved medical care and technological advancements in the medical field should result in a healthier population, but the opposite has been confirmed. The health trend in the U.S is quickly spiraling downwards and getting worse every year.
In India, people consume the least amount of meat globally yet have one of the highest depression and diabetes rates and the shortest life expectancies. A recent study shows that women in India who eat meat at least 5 times a week have lower inflammation and insulin resistance rates and are less likely to suffer from cancer, obesity, and heart disease.
On the other hand, Hong Kong consumes more meat surpassing the national guidelines but has one of the world’s highest life expectancies. These examples are consistent with a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition to examine meat intake and cause-specific mortality. The pooled analysis found no evidence of higher mortality risk for total meat intake of red meat, seafood/fish, and poultry.
Why Is Cholesterol Important?
Before we dive into the many benefits of cholesterol, let’s first define what cholesterol is. Cholesterol is an organic molecule commonly found in most tissues and cell membranes. Our bodies naturally produce it, and you can also find it in the food we eat (meat-based foods since plant foods don’t provide cholesterol). Of the total cholesterol present in your body, the body produces 75% of it, and the remaining 25% is sourced from meat-based foods.
The importance of cholesterol in the nervous system was recognized as early as 1834. Still, it’s only during the past few decades that concerted efforts to determine cholesterol’s importance began. Cholesterol is vital for energy metabolism, cellular structure, hormone production, and the body produces nearly 3,000 mg of it every day. It’s a crucial component in the composition of the following compounds:
- Vitamin D
- Myelin sheath (required for nerve cells insulation)
- Cortisol (anti-inflammatory stress hormone)
- Bile (necessary for nutrients and fat absorption)
- Adrenal hormones (regulates salt balance in the body)
- Brain synapses – crucial for neurotransmitter exchange
25% of all the cholesterol in your body goes to the brain. While this may seem like a lot, cholesterol serves crucial functions between nerve endings that conduct electrical impulses responsible for memory, movement, learning, sensation, and thinking.
Studies show that dietary cholesterol protects against neurodegeneration and diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia. It accomplishes this by promoting the repair of demyelinated lesions in the brain. Here’re some more benefits of high cholesterol:
- Protects against heart disease and infections
- Lowers risk for colorectal cancer
- Reduces all-cause mortality
- Lowers breast cancer risk
- Reduces risk for Parkinson’s disease and dementia
What Happens When You are Deficient in Cholesterol?
Low cholesterol has been shown to increase the risk for neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia. The Framingham study found that low cholesterol, coupled with obesity, increases colon cancer risk up to 4 times in men and that lowered cholesterol is associated with lower cognitive performance.
Low cholesterol in diabetics increases the risk of peripheral neuropathy or nerve damage. Recent findings also show that lowering blood cholesterol levels using drugs and plant-based diets increases depressive symptoms and doesn’t reduce cardiac events. Lower cholesterol concentration was also found to increase the risk for stroke, while an increment of 1 mmol/L in cholesterol concentration resulted in a 15% decreased risk for hemorrhagic stroke.
Statins, drugs that reduce the body’s cholesterol levels, have side effects such as memory loss and peripheral neuropathy. Pharmaceutical companies even caution the elderly against using statins. This is because low cholesterol is associated with increased death rates among older people. Cholesterol is crucial for cellular repair, and as we age, the need for repair increases, but statins interfere with this process.
Other dangers of low cholesterol include:
- Decreased lifespan
- Increased cancer risk
- Increases risk for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s
- Linked to poor cognition
- Increases mental health risk
- Increased risk of stroke
The Carnivore Diet and Cholesterol
Although nutritionists and doctors have pedaled the conventional low-fat, high carb recommendation for decades, research has shown that saturated fats aren’t the primary cause of cardiovascular diseases.
In 2010, researchers conducted a massive study with 350,000 participants to evaluate the saturated fat association with cardiovascular disease. They concluded that saturated fats’ dietary consumption doesn’t increase the risk of coronary heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases.
A 2014 study led by Dr. Chowdhury found no evidence that saturated fat consumption increased the risk of heart attacks and other cardiac diseases. They concluded that current evidence doesn’t support the current cardiovascular guidelines encouraging low consumption of saturated fats. Instead, they found that high fat intake actually reduces stroke risk and that substituting saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats from plants increases the likelihood of heart disease by 70% and death by 62%.
Dave Feldman, who has been researching cholesterol on a low-carb, high-fat diet ever since he started the diet five years ago, found that people on a high fat, low-carb diet like the carnivore diet often see an increase in their total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. But this doesn’t necessarily mean your health is at risk.
This is because of the interplay between fat and energy. Generally, the body uses carbohydrates and fats to generate energy. Since the carnivore diet provides a lot of fat and contains virtually no carbs, your body restores to fat as an energy source. As we’ve seen, fat has to be converted into triglycerides for it to be effectively transported, and by eliminating carbs, your body absorbs more triglycerides from the bloodstream. That’s why most carnivore dieters notice a drop in their triglycerides levels.
As you increase your fat intake, the body has to create more lipoproteins to transport the fats to the cells for absorption, causing your LDL levels to rise. The increased LDL levels in metabolically healthy carnivore dieters are the reason why they are getting leaner. Higher LDL numbers mean your body is burning more fat.
It’s also important to note that there’re two kinds of LDL; Pattern A and Pattern B versions of LDL. The former is considered to be harmless, while Pattern B is denser and more worrisome. Consuming saturated fat increases the benign Pattern A LDL.
Eating carbs and sugar, on the other hand, increases the more serious Pattern B LDL. So even though your LDL levels will rise while on the carnivore diet, you don’t have to worry since it will be the more benign version of LDL. There’s also no evidence that independent of other factors, high cholesterol causes heart disease.
The dietary cholesterol you consume on the carnivore diet doesn’t significantly impact your lipid profile. Instead, the sugars and carbohydrates damage your system and worsen cardiac disease risk factors. The high cholesterol in the carnivore diet is actually more beneficial to your health.