This is the second part of a previous blog post (“Life Changes: Diet for Living”) for which I will be offering more and more controversial information pertaining to diet and heart disease.
There are many alternative diets out there; and in the more recent years, keto, carnivore, and animal-based diets have been on the rise. Keto is the least strict and more commonly requires tracking of foods consumed. It includes very little carbohydrates; and basically claims that through ketogenesis [production of ketone bodies that in turn make available energy that is stored as fatty acids], the fats eventually take over and do the job that the carbs normally do.
The carnivore diet consists of only eating meat, preferably red meat. This diet claims that the highest levels of nutrients can be found in eating meat and organs. I know, I know…that doesn’t sound the most appetizing. With the animal-based diet, the menu consists of meat (preferably red), organs, fruit, raw dairy, and honey. This diet is somewhat modified for more highly active individuals who desire what the carnivore diet promotes but feel they need some source of carbohydrates due to their levels of activity.
With all this talk about red meat, I am sure you all are wondering about the cholesterol levels of those who choose these lifestyles. First, for the sake of common terminology, let’s divide cholesterol (a type of fat that floats around the bloodstream) into three basic types. High-density lipoproteins (HDL) – or ‘good’ cholesterol – tend to be considered positive features of a blood workup. However, there is a type of HDL that may actually be a negative, but that’s still in the infancy stages of research. For now, note that anything over 60 mg/dL is deemed a negative risk factor whereas a measure of 40 or less is considered a pretty concern-worthy risk factor for heart disease. That said, there is some research suggesting that too high an HDL reading might actually be a matter of concern, especially for those with thyroid issues.
Then there’s the category of ‘bad’ cholesterol – low-density lipoprotein, or LDL. This is subdividable into basic LDL and very-low-density cholesterol or vLDL. What differentiates the HDL from the LDL and vLDL is their correlation with vascular disease.
The LDLs tend to clog arteries while the HDL sweeps the arteries clean. And clean arteries, those without clots on the inner walls, are better for your heart health.
A lot of the controversies regarding cholesterol and heart disease are addressed in a book called “Lies My Doctor Told Me”, by Dr. Ken Berry (2019). He is a board-certified family physician who takes a deeper look into the carnivore diet. Through his own curiosity, the diet not only changed his life but forever changed his outlook (and everything med school taught him) on cholesterol and its relationship with heart disease. His book can be found here.
He describes how the human body cannot function properly without cholesterol as it makes up about a third of every cell membrane. It is the framework for vitamin D and all sex hormones. Dr. Berry references a statement made by the USDA Dietary Guidelines Committee Report explaining previously recommended cholesterol ranges. They go on to say, “The 2015 guidelines will not bring forward this recommendation because available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol (my emphasis)…cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for over-consumption” (Berry, 2019 p. 72).
Even after this was released, I am pretty certain doctors continued prescribing statins to help manage high cholesterol. But that is another controversial topic for another time. Another study Dr. Berry shares established an inverse relationship between high cholesterol levels and the rate of morbidity.
He concludes that the higher your cholesterol levels are, the less likely you will die from any cause (Berry, 2019 p. 72). Try this line on your cardiologist!
Dr. Paul Saladino is another board-certified physician who has very similar thoughts on the cholesterol controversy. His diet is coined as “animal-based” because of the added carbohydrates and different forms of fat included with the meat and organs. Dr. Saladino encourages us to look deeper into high LDL levels and their association with atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in arteries). On a recent podcast, he suggests that we need to bring in a third variable when considering the relationship between HDL and cardiovascular disease; that variable being metabolic health and insulin sensitivity (The Minimalists, 2023). In a nutshell, he explains that if we distinguish studies by insulin sensitivity, we can determine whether or not LDL is a risk factor connected to heart disease.
Dr. Saladino points out that people’s blood levels are not intentionally taken in a fasting state. Taking measurements in a fasting- state results in accurate, baseline levels of triglycerides. To conclude, metabolic health is the foundation for which we should evaluate the risks of LDL load. His book can be found here his website here and the podcast referenced here.
So, before you go calling these carnivorous people “meat heads”, realize that there is considerable research that has been done regarding carnivore, animal-based, and ketogenic diets. However, due to it being highly controversial, the research can be hard to find. With that being said, I encourage you to dig a little deeper into the world of all things cholesterol.
If you are feeling up for it, question your doctor on the matter as well.