What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a fat-like substance that the body uses to make hormones and cell walls. Cells in the liver make all the cholesterol our body needs.
The body does NOT need the extra cholesterol we get in the foods we eat, which is called dietary cholesterol. Eating foods high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fats can raise levels of cholesterol in the blood.
Why are high levels of cholesterol a problem?
The higher the level of cholesterol in your blood, the greater your risk of heart disease, the #1 killer in the United States of both men and women.
What factors tend to raise cholesterol?
Several factors raise blood cholesterol. Some we have no control over, like our genetic make-up and aging bodies. But many we do have control over.
A major controllable factor that raises blood cholesterol levels is a diet high in:
- Saturated fats (such as butter, palm oil, coconut oil, meat fats, and milk fats)
- Trans fats (such as margarine, vegetable shortening, and partially hydrogenated oils)
- Cholesterol (found ONLY in animal products such as meat and cheese, not plants)
Other controllable factors that raise cholesterol levels include:
- Gorging (eating one or two very large meals per day)
- Fructose and sucrose
- Unfiltered coffee (both regular and decaffeinated, if greater than 1 cup per day)
- Weight gain and excess body fat (BMI, or body mass index, greater than 25)
- Medications (such as diuretics and beta blockers)
- Uncontrolled diabetes, hypothyroidism, and other metabolic conditions
Exactly how does cholesterol cause a heart attack?
Cholesterol, particularly one type of cholesterol called LDL “bad” cholesterol, seeps into the inner walls of the arteries, creating plaque. Like sores on your skin, plaques are raw, sensitive to infection, which means they make the arterial skin a breeding ground for inflammation.
The higher the LDL cholesterol, the more plaques tend to form, and the more inflamed the arterial skin becomes. Plaque build-up is also known as atherosclerosis.
Most heart attacks occur because one of these plaques ruptures. Like boils, many plaques are soft and fragile, full of cholesterol-rich “pus.” When inflamed, they can burst and spew their contents into the bloodstream, triggering chemical reactions that often culminate with a large blood clot, which can choke off blood flow to the heart.
Scientists call a plaque that has burst or ruptured the single most common lethal event of the industrialized world.
Plaque build-up can happen in arteries throughout the body, including those carrying blood to the brain. So plaque build-up can also lead to strokes and other circulatory problems.
Can I stabilize these plaques?
Yes. That’s the really good news. With a healthy lifestyle and, if needed, cholesterol-lowering medications, you can stabilize plaques and improve the entire health of the inner walls of your coronary arteries, so much so that “you could very well reduce your risk of a heart attack by 80 to 90%,” asserts Dr. Jay Kenney, Nutrition Research Specialist at the Pritikin Longevity Center® & Spa.
Regular exercise and a diet like the Pritikin Eating Plan, very low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol, and very high in fruits, whole grains, and vegetables, can dramatically lower the amount of cholesterol entering plaque, aid weight loss, reduce insulin levels, control blood pressure, reduce inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein, and bring down blood sugar levels – all good things for your arteries.
What factors tend to lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and total cholesterol?
You can lower your LDL and total cholesterol by:
- Eating more fiber (especially soluble fiber from beans, oats, barley, fruits, and vegetables)
- Eating polyunsaturated fatty acids in prudent portions (In large amounts, they promote weight gain and may impair immune function.)
- Eating frequent, smaller meals (grazing)
- Eating vegetable proteins (such as tofu and beans) in place of meat
- Gradual weight loss
- Eating phytochemicals (i.e., plant sterols)
- Taking cholesterol-lowering medications like statins
What is HDL cholesterol?
HDL cholesterol is commonly called the “good” cholesterol because it tends to pick up bad cholesterol particles from the blood and artery walls and return them to the liver for disposal. Think of HDL particles as your “garbage workers.” HDL garbage workers do a great job of clearing the body of LDL “trash.”
How can I raise my HDL “good” cholesterol?
You can raise your HDLs by:
- Exercising – the equivalent of walking 15 to 18 miles per week. Keep in mind, though, that it takes months of walking, not days, to raise HDL.
- Losing weight (and keeping it off)
- Quitting smoking
- Frequent meal patterns (eating several smaller meals during the day instead of one or two large ones)
- Medications (if lifestyle change has proven inadequate)
- Alcohol (Don’t go overboard; in excess, alcohol has many adverse effects.)
What is CRP, or C-reactive protein?
CRP is a protein our bodies produce when the walls of our arteries are inflamed. A high C-reactive protein level – 3 mg/L or higher – is not something you want to have because high CPR levels tend to mean high levels of inflammation, which makes LDL-filled plaques more likely to burst and block arteries.
In a recently published study, UCLA scientists found that the Pritikin Program reduced CRP levels by 45% -- and in just two weeks. “No other diet-and-exercise program or drug therapy, including statins, has proven to lower C-reactive protein levels so dramatically or rapidly,” states Dr. James Barnard, UCLA Department of Physiological Science, one of the study’s authors.
Other dietary and weight-loss programs have been shown to lower CRP, but over several months. “What’s particularly important about our new research is that health improvements happened almost immediately – within a matter of days,” notes Dr. Barnard. “In just 14 days, the women’s risk of a heart attack plummeted.”
What if I have a heart attack? Wouldn’t surgeries like angioplasty or bypass take care of the problem?
Not really. Though surgeries can reduce symptoms like angina (chest pain), they do not remedy the underlying disease of plaque build-up, or atherosclerosis.
What does reduce heart attack risk, and substantially so, are strategies like diet, exercise, and drugs that can aggressively lower key risk factors like LDL cholesterol, and, in doing so, improve the overall health, the “metabolic milieu,” of the inner walls of the coronary arteries.
Just one of these strategies, lowering LDL cholesterol to what federal guidelines suggest (below 100 mg/dL), can reduce the risk of heart attack by a third.
What can the Pritikin Program do for someone who has high cholesterol and is at risk of a heart attack?
No diet-and-exercise program or drug therapy has proven more effective than the Pritikin® Program in lowering virtually all known lifestyle-related risk factors for a heart attack, including total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and C-reactive protein, as well as blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and excess weight.
Landmark research by UCLA scientists also found that the Pritikin Program more than doubled the effectiveness of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. (American Journal of Cardiology, 79: 1112, 1997.)
The Pritikin Program has also been found to eliminate the need for angioplasty and bypass surgery, as well as relieve angina pain A five-year follow-up of 64 men who came to the Pritikin Longevity Center instead of undergoing bypass surgery found that 80% never needed surgery. Of those taking drugs for angina (chest) pain, 62% left the Center drug-free. Journal of Cardiac Rehabilitation, 3: 183, 1983.
Cholesterol: An analysis of nearly 4,600 men and women attending the Pritikin Longevity Center for three weeks showed an average 23% drop in total cholesterol as well as a 23% drop in LDL bad cholesterol. New England Journal of Medicine, 323:1142, 1990; Archives of Internal Medicine, 151: 1389, 1991. See also Circulation, 106: 2530, 2002.
Triglycerides: These 4,587 Pritikin guests also reduced triglycerides on average 33%. New England Journal of Medicine, 323:1142 ,1990; Archives of Internal Medicine, 151: 1389, 1991.
C-Reactive Protein: In just two weeks, inflammation markers like C-reactive protein plummeted 45% in women at the Pritikin Center. Metabolism, 53: 377, 2004.
Healthy, Long-Term Weight Loss
Pritikin guests in need of weight loss shed an average of 12 pounds and more within three weeks of starting Pritikin. Archives of Internal Medicine, 151: 1389, 1991.
In two long-term studies, more than 85% of Pritikin graduates claimed a 50% or greater adherence to the Pritikin Program after 5 years, and the majority continued to lose weight after leaving the Center. Journal of Cardiac Rehabilitation, 3: 183, 1983; Diabetes Care, 6: 268, 1983.
The most comprehensive study of long-term weight loss ever conducted, the National Weight Control Registry, found that the vast majority of its nearly 4,500 successful dieters follow a diet, like the Pritikin Program, that is low in fat and very high in fiber-rich carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables. The members lost, on average, 66 pounds and have kept them off for six years. Less than 1% follow a high-protein, high-fat diet. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 98: 480, 1998.