Cholesterol: Friend or Foe?

Posted by Healthful Elements Staff

This post is an installment in our 52 Health Hinges series. Remember, “Small hinges swing big doors.”

In our last two Health Hinges, we’ve gotten into the nitty gritty of eggs. First, we talked about the health benefits of eggs and alternately, how they can also be a troublemaker for those with food sensitivities. Then last week, I addressed eco-labeling on egg cartons.

When people think eggs, they often think cholesterol; and when many think cholesterol, they think heart disease.

Today, we’ll broaden our lens and get to the bottom of this once and for all.

So…cholesterol – friend or foe?

My colleague, Healthful Elements founder Jill Grunewald, busted the myth that cholesterol is something to be feared in this article. Check out her reference to how Dr. George Mann’s Framingham Heart Study refers to the cholesterol/heart disease relationship as “the greatest scientific deception of our times.”

Bottom line, cholesterol is essential for good health and a necessary component of every cell in your body.

To summarize, here are 9 benefits of cholesterol, from Eat Fat, Lose Fat by Sally Fallon Morell and the late Dr. Mary Enig:

  1. Cholesterol is vital for hormonal balance and the production of the hormones that help us manage the stress of everyday living. These hormones also are protective against heart disease and cancer.
  2. Cholesterol is needed by the body to make all the sex hormones including our androgens (testosterone and DHEA), estrogens, and progesterone.
  3. Cholesterol is necessary for the proper use of Vitamin D, which is critical for all body systems including bone health, nerve function, proper growth, mineral metabolism, muscle tone, insulin production, fertility, and strong immunity.
  4. Bile salts made by the liver require cholesterol. Bile is critical to the digestive process and absorption of dietary fats.
  5. Cholesterol functions as a powerful antioxidant and protects us against free radical damage to tissues.
  6. Cholesterol is vital for proper functioning of the brain. Cholesterol is used by serotonin receptors – serotonin is the body’s natural “feel good” neurotransmitter/chemical. No wonder low cholesterol levels have been associated with aggressive and violent tendencies, depression, and suicide.
  7. Breastmilk is ideally rich in cholesterol and contains a special enzyme for the baby to properly utilize it. Babies and children need cholesterol for proper growth and development of the brain, nervous system, and immune function.
  8. Cholesterol is necessary for proper functioning of the intestines and maintaining the integrity of the intestinal wall. Low cholesterol diets can lead to leaky gut syndrome and other digestive problems.
  9. Cholesterol is critical for the repair of damaged cells. This is why cholesterol levels naturally rise as we age and are beneficial to the elderly. Women with the highest cholesterol actually live the longest!

Sounds pretty good, right? So why the bad rap?

Again, this goes back to the 1950s when scientist Dr. Ancel Keys created his “lipid hypothesis,” accusing saturated fats of raising cholesterol and causing heart attacks. His faulty hypothesis was that cholesterol-containing foods lead to high blood cholesterol, which lead to atherosclerosis, which lead to coronary heart disease.

This theory has since been disproven.

We now know that:

  • Processed foods and refined carbohydrates more rapidly lead to the production of cholesterol
  • High caloric intake leads to the production of cholesterol
  • Stress increases the production of cholesterol
  • Only about 25% of cholesterol from cholesterol-containing foods – eggs, meat, dairy, and seafood – is absorbed

But unfortunately, Keys’ hypothesis left quite a mess in its wake.

Let’s take a walk down cholesterol memory lane, shall we?

Did you know that:

  • In 1983, the median total cholesterol range to initiate drug therapy was 340-359?
  • In 1986, it dropped to 300-319.
  • In 1990, it dropped to 240-259.
  • Later in 1990, it dropped again to 200-219.

This is an amazing perspective, isn’t it? We’ve been programmed to believe that cholesterol of 200 is high, but back in the early 1980s, that level wouldn’t have even landed you on your doctor’s radar.

So that must mean that we’re using science to better treat the disease, right? Is there less heart disease now vs. in the 80s?

Unfortunately…no. The opposite is true. Rates of heart disease continue to rise.

And what is this drug therapy that I referenced? Cholesterol lowering drugs called statins. (Don’t even get Jill G. started on the dangers of statin drugs.)

Lipitor is the world’s top selling drug. The company spends $10 million per day on TV ads, and is repaid with profits of $13 billion per year.

Heart disease is nothing to mess with, so I’m not taking this lightly; this year alone, I’ve been personally impacted as four loved ones have been diagnosed or have had a serious heart-related situation and Jill G.’s late father had heart disease.

If our rates of heart disease were decreasing, I’d back these drugs 100%. But unfortunately, heart disease continues to rise.

I think we’re pulling on the wrong string.

In his book Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill, Udo Arasmus says, “For the last 30 years, doctors have measured our blood cholesterol levels as predictors of cardiovascular disease. These measurements are turning out to be better for business than prediction.”

Note: I’m not a doctor. And I’m certainly not your doctor.

You’re a smart person, so before you stop taking your medication, you would first educate yourself with information from doctors like Dr. Mark Hyman, cardiologist Rita F. Redberg, Dr. Joseph Mercola, Dr. Dwight Lundell, and Dr. John Briffa, and then you would partner with your own doctor to make medical decisions. Right?

Whew! I digress. I didn’t anticipate taking this article to statin-land, but I think it’s important to understand that perspective and the history of “high cholesterol” so you understand why cholesterol is indeed our friend.

So bottom line – cholesterol is essential for good health and hormonal balance and the better predictor of heart disease is your triglycerides which are more implicated by your sugar and processed food consumption.

So…is it possible for your cholesterol to be too low? Yes! More on this next week.

Posted by Healthful Elements Staff



I have a question.

I know nowadays we are recommended to eat low fat because otherwise our cholesterol will rise. But how can we be so sure that people actually follow those advices and still get bad cholesterol? Nowadays we have the same reccomendations that we had 30 years ago. My question is: did those people living in the 80's FOLLOW those reccomendations? Maybe it's because they didn't follow so that is why they had heart disease. Who can prove this?

In my country (Romania) people eat high fat and they have their cholesterol go up. The doctors prescribe low fat diets to them and cholesterol goes down. 


Thank you

Yes, there are plenty of studies available on this topic. My hope is that our articles are inspiring our readers to think for themselves, so I appreciate your curiosity!

I don’t think that we need to go back in time for this proof, as there are people eating low-fat and high-fat in our current day. And…I think there are many more factors that contribute to cholesterol, like sugar and processed food consumption.

I share links to some articles/studies in prior posts, and here is a post from Chris Kresser where he explains cholesterol well and also shares many good links to studies. I also love this site by Chris Masterjohn PhD. Happy reading!

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