To coincide with ‘Cholesterol Week’ in the UK, we recently had a rash of ‘news’ stories reminding us about the supposed perils of this fat. See here for an example in one of the UK’s broadsheet newspapers. This story is I think an attempt by Unilever (manufacturer of Flora pro.activ) to get more people to have their cholesterol levels checked, I assume with a view to getting more people to consume its product.
The problem is, as I’ve stated before, there simply is no evidence that consuming Flora pro.activ is beneficial to health. These products can indeed reduce cholesterol levels (a bit). But the idea that this has benefits for health is based on two assumptions:
- 1.cholesterol causes heart disease
- 2.reducing cholesterol levels therefore reduces the risk of heart disease
Actually, study after study have shown that taking dietary steps to reduce cholesterol does not bring broad benefits for health or save lives. We also have drugs that reduce cholesterol that do not appear to improve health either. What this means is that the second assumption above is on distinctly shaky ground. But what about the first?
Have a look at the linked article and you’ll see that Flora pro.activ nutritionist Laura Tari, tells us that: “Heart disease is the main cause of death in the UK, and one of the key risk factors is raised cholesterol.” She adds: “It’s worrying that so many people – and especially women – don’t seem to understand the link.”
The idea that cholesterol is a risk factor for heart disease is repeated loudly and often. However, there is at least some evidence that this ‘fact’ does not stand up to scrutiny.
By way of example, let’s take a look at the result of a recent study published in the journal Atherosclerosis. In it, more than 82,000 adults in England were followed for an average of over 8 years. The relationship between a range of lifestyle factors and health markers and risk of stroke and heart disease was assessed.
Some of the factors that were associated with an increased risk of both stroke and heart disease were smoking, raised blood pressure, diabetes and low levels of physical activity. What about cholesterol though? For all the talk about the perilous dangers of this substance you’d expect it to be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, right? Wrong.
- • Higher total cholesterol levels were NOT associated with an increased risk of death due to heart disease.
- • What is more, higher total cholesterol levels were actually associated with a REDUCED risk of death due to stroke.
The authors of the study acknowledge in their discussion that higher cholesterol levels were associated with lower risk of stroke, but can’t quite bring themselves to pass comment on the fact that cholesterol was not found to be a risk factor for heart disease. They do write this though: “Nevertheless lipid-lowering therapy with statins has shown to reduce the incidence of both thrombotic stroke and coronary disease.”
What they appear to be suggesting here is that we should gloss over their findings, because cholesterol-reduction with statins reduces the risk of stroke and heart disease, so cholesterol must cause these conditions after all.
But the thing about statins is that they don’t just reduce cholesterol, but have a range of effects that might reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, including anti-inflammatory and blood-thinning properties. Here’s what I believe to be a more logical and honest appraisal of this study:
- 1.higher cholesterol levels are not associated with heart disease and are associated with reduced risk of stroke
- 2.statins reduce the risk of stroke and heart disease
- 3.any benefits of statins in this regard is not due to their cholesterol-reducing properties
Don’t be expecting much in the way of this sort of honest appraisal from the scientific establishment any time soon. For whatever reason, some seem keen to twist and turn in an effort to keep the cholesterol hypothesis alive.
Here’s to a healthy heart
Dr John Briffa
for The Cholesterol Truth
Bear in mind we are not addressing anyone’s personal situation and you should rely on this for informational purposes only. Please consult with your own physician before acting on any recommendations contained herein.
1. Hamer M, et al. Comparison of risk factors for fatal stroke and ischemic heart disease: A prospective follow up of the health survey for England. Atherosclerosis epub 22 August 2011.
Category: Latest Cholesterol Research