Why ‘Bad’ Cholesterol Isn’t As Bad As You Think

June 1, 2011

I would say it isn’t as bad as most doctors claim either, and having lived in France where supermarkets proudly proclaim their cheeses as 100% fat, and they do not have the heart disease rates that we have in the UK and US it’s time to take a balanced view according to a new study.

The so-called “bad cholesterol” or low-density lipoprotein (LDL)—has been examined by Texas A&M University and their findings may surprise you. Steve Riechman, a researcher in the Department of Health and Kinesiology, says the study reveals that LDL is not the evil Darth Vader of health it has been made out to be in recent years and that new attitudes need to be adopted towards it. As a woman who has never given up butter and regards low fat cheese as an anathema, I am pleased to hear it and send thanks to him and a whole raft of colleagues from the Universities of Pittsburgh, Kent State, Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center and the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

They published their findings in the Journal of Gerontology and their study was based on 52 adults aged 60-69 who were in generally good health but not physically active, and none of them were participating in a training program. The study showed that after fairly vigorous workouts, participants who had gained the most muscle mass also had the highest levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Riechman explained that this was “a very unexpected result and one that surprised us. It shows that you do need a certain amount of LDL to gain more muscle mass. There’s no doubt you need both — the LDL and the HDL — and the truth is, it (cholesterol) is all good. You simply can’t remove all the ‘bad’ cholesterol from your body without serious problems occurring.”

Muscle mass is important, particularly as we get older, and are prone to a condition called sarcopenia, which is muscle loss due to aging. Previous studies show muscle is usually lost at a rate of 5 percent per decade after the age of 40, a huge concern since muscle mass is the major determinant of physical strength. After the age of 60, the prevalence of moderate to severe sarcopenia is found in about 65 percent of all men and about 30 percent of all women, and it accounts for more than $18 billion of health care costs in the United States.

Your total cholesterol level comprises LDL (low-density lipoprotein) and HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. LDL is almost always referred to as the “bad” cholesterol because it tends to build up in the walls of arteries, causing a slowing of the blood flow which often leads to heart disease and heart attacks. HDL, usually called the “good cholesterol,” often helps remove cholesterol from arteries. “But here is where people tend to get things wrong,” Riechman says.

“LDL serves a very useful purpose. It acts as a warning sign that something is wrong and it signals the body to these warning signs. It does its job the way it is supposed to. People often say, ‘I want to get rid of all my bad (LDL) cholesterol,’ but the fact is, if you did so, you would die because everyone needs a certain amount of both LDL and HDL in their bodies. We need to change this idea of LDL always being the evil thing — we all need it, and we need it to do its job. Our tissues need cholesterol, and LDL delivers it. HDL cleans up after the repair is done and the more LDL you have in your blood, the better you are able to build muscle during resistance training.”

LDL — the bad cholesterol — serves as a reminder that something is wrong and if we have high levels of it then we need to find out why. It gives us warning signs: is smoking the problem, or poor diet, or a lack of exercise? That is where we need to start and you can deal with those factors yourself before resorting to medication.


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