Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Refined carbs, sugar, and cholesterol: My own experience

A few years ago I went to the doctor for a routine appointment, and I was told that my LDL cholesterol was elevated. I was in my early 40s. My lipid profile was the following - LDL: 156, HDL: 38, triglycerides: 188. The LDL was calculated. I was weighing about 210 lbs, which was too high for my height (5 ft 8 in). My blood pressure was low, as it has always been - systolic: 109, diastolic: 68.

My doctor gave me the standard advice in these cases: exercise, lose weight, and, most importantly, reduce your intake of saturated fat. I was also told that I would probably have to take statins, as my high LDL likely had something to do with my genetic makeup. Again, this is quite standard, and we see it all over the place, particularly in commercials for statins.

I told my doctor that I would do some research on the topic, which I am going to save for other posts. Let me get to the point, by telling you what my lipid profile is today - LDL: 123, HDL: 66, triglycerides: 46. Again, the LDL value is calculated. I am weighing about 152 lbs now, with about 13 percent of body fat.

The HDL and triglycerides numbers above are shown in bold font because my research convinced me that these two numbers are the ones most people should really worry about when trying to address what is known as dyslipidemia. Here I am assuming that only standard lipid profiles are available; there are better alternatives, such as particle type analyses, which are not yet standard.

Many people who suffer from cardiovascular disease have low LDL cholesterol, but very few of those have high HDL cholesterol, which is one of the best predictors of cardiovascular disease among lipids. More specifically, if you have an HDL higher than 60, you have a very small chance of developing cardiovascular disease. (It can happen, but it is very unlikely, with a percentage chance in the single digits.)

Interestingly, low HDL cholesterol is also associated with the metabolic syndrome. This syndrome is characterized by the following:

- High fasting serum glucose (hyperglycemia), which is one of many signs of insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes type 2;
- High blood pressure;
- Abdominal obesity (also known as pot or beer belly);
- Low HDL cholesterol; and
- Elevated triglycerides.

Now, you may ask, how did you increase your HDL? Well, I tried a number of things - diet and lifestyle changes - and had a blood test every 3 months. After a while I was able to put all of the measures in a spreadsheet table, and correlate them using a statistical software that I developed, to give me an idea of what was going on.

Weight was a big factor on LDL, and I was able to bring my weight down to 150 lbs and my LDL to below 100 at some point. For me, and many other people, body weight and LDL cholesterol are strongly and positively correlated (the higher the weight, the higher the LDL cholesterol - actually body fat seems to be the real culprit). Moreover, my LDL seemed to decrease more markedly when my weight was on the way down, and not as much when it was stable, even if low.

But the HDL would only increase if I increased my saturated fat intake. The problem is that every time I increased my saturated fat intake my LDL would go up; it reached 162 at one point, when my HDL went up to a modest but encouraging 47. That was my highest HDL until I eliminated refined carbs and sugars (e.g., bread, pasta, cereals, doughnuts, bagels, regular sodas) from my diet.

When I brought my intake of refined carbs and sugars down to zero, my intake of protein and saturated fat went up. Either that would happen, or I would starve, because you have to eat something. (I figured that I would not die by doing a low carb/high fat-protein experiment for 3 months to see what happened.) Also, I dramatically increased my dietary cholesterol - two to four eggs per day, organ meats, and seafood.

That is when my HDL shot up, to 66, and my LDL went down. Yes, my LDL levels seem to be negatively correlated with dietary saturated fat and cholesterol amounts, as long as I do not consume refined carbs and sugars. Moreover, it is very likely that my LDL particle size increased, and large LDL particles DO NOT cause atherosclerosis because they cannot penetrate the artery walls.

So, the bottom line is that, at least for me, an INCREASE in saturated fat and a DECREASE in refined carbs and sugars, happening together, seem to have taken me out of my previous path toward the metabolic syndrome.

Moreover, I feel a lot more energetic than before, my immune system seems to have gotten better at fighting disease, and even my pollen allergies are not as bad as they were before. Admittedly, these benefits may be strongly associated with the weight loss and the related reduction in body fat percentage.

I hope this post is helpful to others. The standard advice that people with high LDL cholesterol receive, which usually focuses on reducing saturated fat intake, has a big problem. When you reduce your intake of a type of food, you usually increase your intake of other types of food. Most people who try to reduce their saturated fat intake invariably increase their carb intake, usually with the wrong types of carb-rich foods (the man-made ones), simply because they go hungry.


Dimitri said...

Hi Ned. A very informative & exciting post.
Thanks for sharing your personal experience.

Ned Kock said...

You are welcome Dimitri.

Ed Terry said...

My experience is very similar to yours. After years of eating "healthy" and exercising a lot (14 hours per week), my HDL rose to 32, and my LDL and triglycerides hovered around 140. My weight was 230 lbs (10 years ago).

Two years ago, after getting my weight down to 180, and eating as little saturated fat as possible, my total cholesterol was 97 and my HDL 42. Shortly thereafter, after reading a book by Gary Taubes, I developed a spreadsheet, using values from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Standard Food Database, and started charting what I had been and was putting into my body (In order to improve something, you must first measure it).

Long story short, half my calories now come from saturated fat and the sweetest thing I eat is coconut chips. My HDL is now 70, and my small, dense LDL particles count has gone from 1,600 to 120.

One of the things that has made this possible is the ability to order my own lab tests online. It's one thing to believe what others may think. but there's no substitute for hard data.