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A Layman's Guide to Cholesterol: What Mark Sisson and Chris Kresser Have Been Trying to Tell Us

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It's been ingrained in us; the Standard American diet founded on a carb-centric food pyramid, fad-diets and a phobia of cholesterol.

Those who have been educated followers of the Paleo diet have come to realize the faults in the USDA approved food pyramid and understand why fad-crash-yoyo-diets inevitably fail. But for some reason, the belief that cholesterol is the cause of heart disease still elicits a false sense of foreboding. So hear this; Cholesterol is not the bad guy!!!! Cholesterol is in fact, inherently good.  To get a better understanding of the way that cholesterol operates, let's break down what experts, Mark Sisson and Chris Kresser, have to say in their many articles on the topic.

To begin, did you know that cholesterol is essential to all cellular life? It's true!  Mark Sisson notes that the jobs of cholesterol are many, as the indispensable lipid has the task of "insulating neurons, building and maintaining cellular membranes, metabolizing fat soluble vitamins, producing bile, and kick-starting the body's synthesis of many hormones, including the sex hormones."

What's more, your body - more specifically your liver - produces and regulates its own cholesterol levels to ensure that it always has enough of the critical lipid. Accordingly, if you consume more cholesterol in your diet, your body will produce less, while if you consume less cholesterol or take medication like statins to reduce your cholesterol levels, you force your body to produce more. This means that because your liver regulates your bodies' cholesterol, your dietary cholesterol intake does not affect your blood cholesterol. Capisce?

Before I go further, let's take a look at the components of cholesterol:

HDL (high density lipoproteins) - This is your "good" cholesterol. It transports cholesterol from your body back to your liver. (We like this guy!)

LDL (low density lipoprotein) - LDL transports the cholesterol produced in the liver to be distributed to your body tissue. Believe it or not, there are actually two kinds of LDL; one is soft and billowy and one is smaller and denser. The large, billowy LDL is innocuous and poses no problems. It is the small, dense LDL that we want to be careful of because it is more likely to oxidize, inciting inflammation and atherosclerosis. Here's the thing, Mark Sisson contends that "it's a diet high in simple carbs that most readily promotes the formation of these small LDL particles."   *It should be noted that these small, dense LDLs are not typical products of the Paleo diet and those akin to it.

Triglycerides - fatty acids that circulate in our bloodstreams - the lower the levels, the better.

What everyone needs to understand is that it is inflammation - not cholesterol - that is to blame for heart disease. Diets that promote inflammation are those high in carbohydrates, low in fat because they produce chronically high levels of insulin. In contrast, low carb, high fat diets, like the Paleo diet have been effective in treating and reducing inflammation in the body.

If you're wondering what types of fats you should be incorporating in your diet, they should be saturated and monounsaturated fats, such as animal fats, egg yolks, coconut oil, and unheated olive oil (you want to steer clear of the omega-6 vegetable oils since they increase your triglyceride levels). Fear eggs after recent publications like this one? Well, Chris Kresser actually argues that "eating eggs not only increases the benign large, buoyant LDL, but also decreases the harmful, small, dense LDL by 20%."

So really the only thing you should concern yourself with in regards to eggs is whether they should be accompanied by bacon or sausage.

Things to take away:

Your intake of dietary cholesterol does not impact your overall cholesterol levels
Cholesterol is not inherently bad; it is rather a life necessity.
Inflammation, and not cholesterol, is the root of heart disease (as well as a plethora of other metabolic and inflammatory diseases)
High-carbohydrate diets trigger inflammation and raise your levels of dense LDL, while low-carb, high-fat diets reduce inflammation

But, if you are still concerned with your blood work, Chris Kresser, Mark Sisson and The Paleo Diet Lifestyle all argue that if you want to analyze numbers, your goal should be high HDL and low triglyceride levels. If you've got a good ratio, you're on the right track!!

"But you don't have to take my word for it"

Additional Reading/Sources


marksdailyapple.com - the straight dope on cholesterol Part 1

marksdailyapple.com - the straight dope on cholesterol Part 2

Chris Kresser - 5 Reasons Not to Worry About Your Cholesterol Numbers

Paleo Diet Lifestyle - How We Get Fat

Paleo Diet Lifestyle - Cholesterol Is Not Bad

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