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Cholesterol Myth: What Really Causes Heart Disease?

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In the fight for better health, Americans view cholesterol as Public Enemy No. 1. Doctors tell us to stay away from food high in saturated fat, like butter, eggs and meat because it's responsible for heart disease.

But what if that's wrong?

Dr. Stephen Sinatra, a cardiologist who's been practicing for over 30 years and the author of The Great Cholesterol Myth, thinks it's wrong.

Cholesterol Not the Perpetrator

"You know cholesterol is found at the scene of the crime for heart disease, but it's not the perpetrator," he contends.

Sinatra explained that since half of all patients hospitalized for heart disease have high cholesterol, that means the other half do not.

He had a similar experience in his own practice, which helped him realize high cholesterol didn't cause heart disease.

"I was doing angiograms on people with 150, who had far advanced heart disease," he recalled. "And the converse, I was doing angiograms on somebody with cholesterol of 280 and they had no heart disease."

Deadly Inflammation

If cholesterol doesn't cause heart disease, what does? Sinatra is among a growing number of physicians who point the finger at inflammation, which is caused by a number of things. Eating too much sugar is at the top of the list.

Sinatra admits a small percentage of LDL cholesterol is bad because it's inflammatory. But he said, for the most part, it's good for you.

"Cholesterol many times can be a gift in disguise," he said. "Higher cholesterol."

Unlike Sinatra, most physicians blame cholesterol for causing heart disease. They prescribe cholesterol-lowering statin drugs to their patients with high cholesterol.

But Sinatra said he believes only a very small percentage of people who are taking statins actually need them. For example, he usually only prescribes statins to middle-aged men who have coronary heart disease.

He also said a small number of women need statins but mostly benefit from the statin's anti-inflammatory properties, not its ability to lower cholesterol.

On the other hand, by and large, Sinatra believes statins are far too over-prescribed. Although drug companies sell $30 billion worth of statins every year, Sinatra said the people who take them are paying a price with their health as well as their wallet.

Statin Risks

In other words, for many statin users, the risks outweigh the gains.

"The side effects of statins are grossly under-reported," he said.

Muscle pain and fatigue are two of the key complaints he hears from statin users.

"'Doc, I can't get out of a chair. I have weakness in my thighs. I can't play doubles tennis. I walk the dog and I'm virtually exhausted,'" he said he's heard from many patients.

Sinatra said the reason for these symptoms is often misdiagnosed.

"These are statin side-effects," he concluded. "However, a lot of the doctors and patients think they're getting older. They're not getting older, these are statin side effects."

Patients over 70 years old are especially vulnerable.

"They can't remember names. They can't remember where they put their glasses or keys. They forget sometimes who they are," Sinatra explained.

"It can actually bring on the onset of Alzheimer's Disease by 15 years. So you have to be cautious with statins," he advised.

Villainous Sugar

Sinatra said one of the best things about statins are their ability to reduce inflammation. But since statins have so many side-effects, most people are better off ditching the statin and reducing inflammation the natural way, by reducing the amount of sugar they eat.

"Cholesterol is sort of your friend. Sugar is your foe. It's the villain. It's your enemy," he said.

Sugar damages arteries, increases blood pressure, and ages your organs.

Of course people know sugar is the white, granular stuff many put in their coffee. But sugar comes in many other forms.

For example, high fructose corn syrup is a sugar. It is the primary ingredient in soda and candy and is found in the list of ingredients in a huge number of other products, many that most people probably don't even consider a "sweet," such as bread or pasta sauce.

Many other syrups and ingredients that end in "ose" are also sugars. So read the list of ingredients to identify whether a product contains a sugar.

Do not pay attention to the labels. Food manufacturers have discovered legal loop-holes so they can deceive consumers by advertising on the label that their product is healthy when it is not. Read the list of ingredients.

In addition to avoiding foods that contain a sugar, reducing inflammation also involves avoiding foods that turn into sugar once you eat them.

These are called refined carbohydrates and are basically grains that have been stripped of the healthiest part, leaving only the starchy part of the grain.

Refined carbohydrates are the "white" foods, such as white bread, white bagels, white hot dog or hamburger buns, white pasta, white rice, white tortillas, and so forth.

Saturated Fats Okay

In place of all that sugar, Sinatra advises replacing it with vegetables and fats. He also highly recommends eating unsaturated fats such as nuts, avocados, fish, and olive oil.

He touts saturated fats like butter, unprocessed meat (the kind you get in the meat department, not the deli) and one of his favorites: coconut oil.

"I love coconut oil," he said. "Coconut oil is a saturated fat. Because it's a saturated fat, it's less prone to oxidation. So it protects you."

He encourages people to put aside their fears that saturated fats cause heart disease. Although they may raise your cholesterol, he believes that that will not hurt you. In fact, it will probably improve your health.

However, it is very important not to confuse unsaturated fats or saturated fats with trans fats. Although doctors may disagree about whether you should eat saturated fats, no doctor will ever tell you it's safe to eat trans fats. You should avoid them like the plague.

"I call trans fats unguided missiles that really cause enormous inflammation in the blood vessels," Sinatra said.

Trans Fats = Plastic?

Trans fats are man-made fats and are, sadly, in most processed foods. That means most of the foods in packages contain trans fats.

You can check to see whether a product contains a trans fat by checking the list of ingredients.

Again, do not pay attention to the labels. Food manufacturers have discovered legal loop-holes so that they can advertise on the front of a package that an item "contains no trans fats" when it actually does.

So look at the list of ingredients for a hydrogenated oil. That's a trans fat. Like the name suggests, a trans fat is an oil that has been infused with hydrogen. Food manufacturers discovered that by creating trans fats and adding them to food, it prolongs a product's shelf life.

Therefore, a good indication a food contains a trans fat is whether it lasts for months, such as many crackers and packaged baked goods.

Unfortunately, trans fats are molecularly similar to plastic! As such, it's not difficult to believe that they wreak havoc on your body, especially your heart.

Don't Worrry!

Aside from avoiding sugar and trans fats, another way to reduce inflammation is to avoid stress. Stress is just another term for fear, or worry.

Remember, reducing stress is not about eliminating the source of stress, such as traffic jams, difficult teenagers, and financial problems. That will never happen as long as we are living in this fallen world.

Reducing stress is about how we respond to such things. The Bible addresses this topic many times. In it, God commands (not suggests!) us not to worry.  He tells us not to fear and to trust Him, to cast our burdens on Him because he cares for us.

That is not only good spiritual advice but good medical advice, as well.

When we fear, we secrete two hormones called adrenaline and cortizol. God designed us to secrete these hormones infrequently and for short spurts of time. That's because when adrenaline and cortizol are being secreted, other cells cease their normal functions. 

Fear's Destructive Power

A good example of this is when a man is walking in the woods and a wild animal jumps out at him. The man feels fear. Adrenaline and cortizol are secreted.  All the cells in his body stop their normal functions and work in perfect unison toward one goal: in this case, running like the wind.

The hormones cause him to run super-humanly fast and escape the pursuing animal. This whole process takes only a matter of minutes. After that, the man no longer feels fear and he stops secreting adrenaline and cortizol and his cells can go back to their normal jobs of keeping him healthy. 

A modern example would be the mother who sees her little girl is trapped under the car. She feels fear. Adrenaline and cortizol are secreted and all her cells stop their normal activity and are re-programmed for a singular goal: super-human strength.

She is thus able to lift the car and free her daughter. This takes only a matter of minutes. After that, she stops feeling fear and her body functions go back to doing what they are supposed to do.

Those are examples of real fear, and the proper use of adrenaline and cortizol. Stress, on the other hand, is a perpetual state of fear.

We fear being late for work, getting fired. We fear our spouses leaving us. We fear being rejected by our peers, not "fitting-in," going broke, or getting sick. The list goes on.

When we constantly feel these false fears, our bodies secrete a steady drip, drip, drip of adrenaline and cortizol and our cells don't operate the way in which they were designed. They are too caught up with fear and the result is a break-down of our healthy bodily systems.

So if you've been praying for good health, take to heart these three things:  stop eating sugars, stop eating trans fats, and stop worrying.

Like Lorie Johnson on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @LorieCBN

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About The Author

Lorie Johnson

As CBN’s Senior Medical Reporter, Lorie Johnson reports on the latest information about medicine and wellness. Her goal is to provide information that will inspire people to make healthy choices. She joined CBN in 2008 and has interviewed some of the world's leading doctors and researchers from The Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Duke, and more. She kept viewers up to date throughout the COVID-19 pandemic with regular appearances onThe 700 Club, Faith Nation, and Newswatch. She has reported on many ground-breaking medical advancements, including the four-part series, Build a