Does bacon deserve the health halo it now seems to have in light of what is becoming common knowledge about saturated fat? Mm. Good question, and it probably comes down to context. If we were to position bacon against Flora Proactive, then that changes the question somewhat: which is better for your health? I mean, one is designed specifically to lower low density lipoprotein (LDL), aka ‘bad’ cholesterol (something we’ve been told for years to strive for) and is ridiculously expensive; the other is … well, bacon. Due to its saturated fat content (or perceived saturated fat, it contains less than 50% of its fat from saturated sources), it is always the second food which people think of when it comes to elevating cholesterol levels and causing heart disease – the first being butter.
Many clients come into my clinic with a total cholesterol above 5 mmol/L and are told by their GP that they should bring their cholesterol level down by way of eating low saturated fat, low total fat and reducing animal protein in their diet. OR (worse) go on cholesterol lowering medication (why is medication worse? Check out here and here). There are many things contributing to a higher cholesterol level, and the risk this poses to you is based on many factors. I’ve covered some of these (and what you can do about it) previously.
Here are 6 things I found useful to know about LDL cholesterol. I’m not talking about particle size, particle number, patterning of particles or Apo A or B, reverse transport cholesterol etc. Keeping it kind of simple. If you know more than your average Joe about cholesterol this will likely be a bit elementary. Otherwise:
- Most studies and media reports that report a reduction of risk of heart disease when taking cholesterol lowering medication focus on the relative risk. Relative risk – takes a small effect and it amplifies it. This makes the medication look far more effective than it actually is. Let’s explore what this means:
If you have a clinical trial whereby 100 people are given a placebo drug* and 100 people are given the experimental drug, you might find that 2 people in the placebo group go on to have a heart attack (2%), 98 have no adverse events. In the drug-treated group, 1 person has a heart attack (1%), and 99 people have no adverse events. The difference is 1%, however the relative risk reduction is 50% and a much more impressive number, don’t you think? Those reporting in the media certainly do.
- We need cholesterol to synthesise naturally occurring steroids in our system. It is necessary for life. It is the substrate for every sex steroid, for vitamin D, to make new neurons and new synapses to consolidate memories. Many people think cholesterol is in our body solely to clog arteries, and the lower the better. This is not the case. For example, in some populations a low total and LDL cholesterol are linked to higher incidence of depressive symptoms. A low cholesterol level may also result in less synthesising of vitamin D in the body, lower hormone production and an impaired immune system.
- LDL is an innate part of the immune system. When there is damage to the artery, you have susceptibility to infection, and there is evidence of pathogens present in plaques. When there is damage to the artery and artery wall, resulting in atrophy, there is an infusion of white blood cells as well as LDL cholesterol which work together to promote inflammation (for healing purposes). Blaming LDL for creating damage is like blaming the fireman for creating a fire.
- There is NO level of LDL that is unhealthy. There is an assumption that LDL cholesterol is inherently atherogenic and that above a defined level it is dangerous – there is something about the LDL packaging of cholesterol that causes heart disease. That’s not the case, and some experts in the field believe there is no level of LDL that should be treated with a statin. Researchers reviewing the literature have found people with high LDL with no heart disease. The cut-off of 4mmol/L or 5mmol/L depending on your reference point is an artificial distinction that has been created to suggest LDL is inherently toxic to the heart and cardiovascular system. Now there are people who have a genetic predisposition to storing cholesterol, so they have an increased risk? Actually research looking at the lifespan of people with familial hypercholesterolemia (FH, a mutation in the LDL receptor whereby the end result is elevated LDL cholesterol) have found that, aside from a subsection of the population, there is normal lifespan, with just a small number of these people going on to develop heart disease. There are people who have other genetic variants which do result in build up of LDL cholesterol, and we don’t know enough to say that a very high LDL level is NOT dangerous – however the likelihood of harm will be increased with the presence of other risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure or smoking.
- It is not LDL that is causing heart disease. Blood cholesterol (including LDL) is high in people consuming a higher fat diet. However, research shows that other biomarkers are not only fine, but can be improved when transitioning to a higher fat diet from the standard western diet. A recent paper found that people 60 years and older who have the highest LDL live as long or even longer than those with low LDL. They have lower rates of cancer and lower rates of infectious disease.
- If it’s not LDL cholesterol, then what is causing a heart attack? A critical trigger factor is coagulation. We rely on the coagulation factors in our bloodstream to create a clot when we become wounded and begin to bleed. However, our blood can clot without there being a wound. High stress, tobacco smoke, high blood sugar all trigger clotting mechanisms. It looks like this:
- In our artery wall, there are tiny arteries which feed to the inside of the artery (called vasovasorum).
- Vasovasorum are easily blocked or clogged by clots.
- If these can’t feed our artery wall, the wall essentially becomes hypoxic and the tissue dies.
- When the tissue dies, the LDL cholesterol comes in to repair it, and this happens repeatedly, causing the artery wall to become thicker and thicker until it chokes the artery.
- When you combine this thickening of the artery wall with something that might trigger clotting of the blood (such as high blood sugar, smoking or a stressful or emotional event etc), a clot will pass through the narrowed artery,
- The clot will eventually block the artery entirely and the result is a heart attack.
- None of this is caused by LDL cholesterol.
What really matters is keeping your clotting factors inactive until they are needed. Most people (unless they are haemorrhaging) don’t need their clotting factors on high alert all the time.
So, which is better for your health? IMO – while bacon may not be a health food, I’d choose it over the Flora (preferably free range, minimal added preservatives, along with an abundance of vegetables). Flora doesn’t have a lot going for it, TBH, and while it may lower your cholesterol level, how important is that really? If your cholesterol levels are high and you’re not sure of your risk, get in contact with someone like me who can work with you to address the lifestyle factors that might be driving up your cholesterol levels and contributing to health risk.