Cholesterol and Salt: Friend or Foe?
Cholesterol was an easy target, but even famous heart surgeons like Michael DeBakey failed to find a link between cholesterol levels and heart disease in their patients. High cholesterol levels are linked to all sorts of disorders nowhere near the heart, and those patients don’t die of atherosclerosis more often than anyone else does, even when given high-cholesterol diets. 1 Contrary to popular belief, high-cholesterol diets don’t increase blood cholesterol levels significantly, as even Keys pointed out in 1952. The research simply didn’t show that increased fat increases cholesterol or even that increased cholesterol leads to atherosclerosis or heart disease. The American Heart Association wrote a report admitting this in 1957, but by 1960, the organization published a two-page paper without references but in support of a low-fat diet. 7
In the late 1970s, half of researchers were still skeptical that enough evidence existed to link saturated fat with heart disease. That’s because they were correctly looking at the problem from a preventative health standpoint—teaching, teaching healthy people how to tweak their diets to stay healthy—as, as opposed to an acute approach of hurriedly saving them from surreptitious heart disease. This meant that data disproving dietary fat hypotheses from isolated monks, Irish immigrants in Boston, Swiss farmers, and more groups was rejected. Keys responded that the peculiarities of those primitive nomads had no relevance to diet-cholesterol-coronary heart disease relationships in other populations. Over the years, similar results were skewed, and random statistics from specific ethnicities were touted as cause and effect relationships. 7
I say all this not to make you paranoid about anything a doctor or scientist tells you. Good research disproves wrong theories. For example, after a large and well-constructed study on post-menopausal estrogens in 2002, the scientific community realized that the heart benefits of (non-bioidentical) hormone replacement therapy didn’t exist after all and that such “preventative” care was increasing cancer, heart disease, stroke, and dementia risks! 8
In the 1990s, increases in fat consumption in Japan, Spain, and Italy mirrored what researchers already knew about the French—diets high in fat don’t lead to a population with higher risks for heart disease. For mMore specific studies, such as the Framingham Heart Study, Stamler’s MRFIT study, and Taylor’s Harvard study showed that people on low-fat diets were no more likely to live longer than anyone else. Dr. Castelli noticed that mortality levels increased as cholesterol levels decreased.
“In Framingham, Massachusetts, the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower people’s serum cholesterol. . . we found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories weighed the least and were the most physically active.”
–William Castelli, MD, Director, The Framingham Study
Although I’m sure my exposé on cholesterol and fat is fascinating, please take them with a grain of salt—literally—because , because the last myth to discuss is the low sodium myth. I’m certainly not telling you to go eat fast food because all that fat, salt, and cholesterol is good for you. The source of your food matters so much that I’m devoting the next chapter to it. What should you do if told you have high cholesterol? Know first that cholesterol is like the firefighters of your body. They make it to the scene to help repair damage. What caused the damage and what we need to fight is inflammation which can be caused by infections, heavy metals, and other environmental toxins. Aim at the inflammation, not at the cholesterol.
As we left the hospital with my grandma after her low sodium level almost killed her, the nurse reminded Grandma to eat a 1,000-milligram sodium per day cardiac diet. Why was the hospital continuing to instruct her to lower her salt intake, after I watched her not salt her food for 15 years? I knew that salt is important for specific biological functions, so you can be certain I stocked my grandparents pantry with both Celtic and Himalayan salt on the way home. . How did the low -sodium diet begin, and is there any truth to it?
Let’s start with what we know: sodium is essential for life. Unrefined, natural salt helps our bodies by regulating blood pressure and the water in our bodies. It is an essential part of plasma and the extracellular fluid that it travels to transport nutrients between cells. It nourishes the glial cells in the brain that support memory-making neurons and is necessary for muscle function.
Before we go any further, it’s important to note that most people are consuming way too much sodium from processed foods. Indisputably, this practice is harmful to your health. The type of salt used in convenience foods is mostly processed sodium chloride, not Himalayan or Celtic salt high in trace minerals. Let’s dash the sodium myth.
What research caused us to replace our salt shaker with those artificial flakes with more colors than a crayon box? Volunteers ate a diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in salt and sugar. Guess what? Their blood pressure decreased! 9 That’s right, the low-sodium theory evolved from one lonely study hiding in the cupboard behind the salt shaker. Firstly, we shouldn’t listen to any scientific study until two others confirm it. . Secondly, we eat a lot more sugar than salt in this country, and low-sugar diets decrease blood pressure to healthy levels too. 9 Salt became the blood pressure villain while sugar toxicity was limited to discussions about weight loss.
One of the best research examples comes from the Journal of Hypertension. The study examined sodium excretion because the kidneys are the main organ interacting with salt to influence blood pressure. Sodium levels in the blood and urine were compared between two native Brazilian tribes and non-Indians. I know, I just love me some native cultures, but I gravitate toward these studies because it’s easy to say, “We’d all be healthier living in the jungle” without looking up the research. I believe it’s harder to interpret studies from patients already in the Western healthcare system because of all the possible toxins and variables we can’t control.
Anyway, high blood pressure, cholesterol, and high blood sugar levels were also compared between the three groups. Researchers hoped to show that the most primitive tribe had healthier results because of a low sodium diet. The study was successful in showing that cholesterol, obesity, high blood sugar, and blood pressure were all lower in the more primitive tribe, but these results did not correlate with sodium levels. 10 The primitive tribe was healthier and it had nothing to do with salt. Subsequent studies show that low sodium diets can actually increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, but increased sodium doesn’t increase the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, or a quicker death. 11
The media has benefitted from the confusion about eating healthy because people are continually searching for answers. One sentence taken out of context from research studies can become a popular article or news story. Add politics and advertisers and it’s no wonder we had to debunk years of diet mythology about cholesterol and salt.
- Heart Disease. CDC. July 14, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/heart-disease.htm
- Leading Causes of Death. CDC. July 14, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/leading-causes-of-death.htm
- Influence of high-fat diet from differential dietary sources on bone mineral density, bone strength, and bone fatty acid composition in rats. – Lau, Beatrice et al- Appl Physiol Nutr Metab – 01-OCT-2010; 35(5): 598-606
- Lewiecki, E Michael. Prevention and treatment of postmenopausal osteoporosis. Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics – Volume 35, Issue 2 (June 2008)
- Good Calories Bad Calories. 2007. Gary Taubes. NY Random House
- Keys, Ancel (Ed). Seven Countries: A multivariate analysis of death and coronary heart disease. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1980. ISBN 0-674-80237-3.
- DeBakey, Michael E., et al, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1964, 189:655-59
- JAMA. 2002 Jul 17;288(3):321-33. Risks and benefits of estrogen plus progestin in healthy postmenopausal women: principal results From the Women’s Health Initiative randomized controlled trial. Rossouw, Jacques E., et al. Writing Group for the Women’s Health Initiative Investigators.
- Appel, Lawrence et. al. A Clinical Trial of the Effects of Dietary Patterns on Blood Pressure. N. Engl Med 1997; 336:1117-1124.
- Age-dependent increase in blood pressure in two different Native American communities in Brazil. – Meyerfreund, Diana – J Hypertens – 01-SEP-2009; 27(9): 1753-60
- Stolarz-Skrzypek, Katarzyna, et al. Fatal and Nonfatal Outcomes, Incidence of Hypertension, and Blood Pressure Changes in Relation to Urinary Sodium Excretion. JAMA, May 4, 2011. 305(17).