mountain-cottontail-rabbitHeart disease and its many supposed causes are always a hot topic in health conversations. This isn’t surprising considering that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. [1]

Even with all of the earthquakes, tornadoes, car accidents, and college drinking parties going on out there, more people die because their arteries turn to crud and their hearts stop working properly.

The valiant search for the villain in this great scourge has obviously lead to the vilification of cholesterol specifically, and dietary fat in general. Despite a lack of clear evidence that foods containing saturated fat are really the cause of atherosclerosis [2], misinformation continues to spread unabated, with even young school-aged children regurgitating the dangers of “artery clogging saturated fat”. [3]

I know that I can’t be the only person who goes into a brief anger seizure whenever I hear that terrible meme. I’m not sure which is worse, the saturated fat one, or its ridiculous cousin “heart healthy whole grains”. Ridiculous in that wheat can be indicated as a correlative factor in heart disease when looking at the data from the China Study. [4]

So, when did cholesterol first become a target for heart disease research and prevention?

Usually, when one thinks about heart disease and correlated factors, Ancel Keys will come to mind, along with his landmark Seven Countries study on saturated fat, increased cholesterol, and heart disease. [5] But actually, there was a group of scientists making the connection well before Ancel was busy cherry-picking data to demonstrate the biased results he was looking for. [6]

As it turns out, it all really began in 1913 when Nikolay Anichkov and Semen S. Chalatov fed a bunch of cholesterol to a group of rabbits and noted how their arteries became clogged with lots of yellow gunk. This experiment has long been lauded as one of the most influential health discoveries of all time. [7]

American biochemist D. Steinberg wrote:

“If the full significance of his findings had been appreciated at the time, we might have saved more than 30 years in the long struggle to settle the cholesterol controversy and Anitschkow might have won a Nobel Prize”. [8]

What’s the problem?

Interestingly, from the book The Magnesium Miracle I learned that the Russian scientists fed their furry test subjects pure crystalline cholesterol dissolved in vegetable oil to produce the cholesterol build-up in their arteries. I’ll give the Russian researchers a pass since 1913 was a long time ago and science has progressed quite a bit since their time. However, it seems problematic to me that modern heart disease research relies upon this study as a pivotal contributor to the body of knowledge.

Feeding purified substances, which are probably stale or rancid anyway, to a test subject in an effort to achieve a specific result should not be compared to the results of feeding actual whole foods. Eating an egg is not the same as drinking pure crystalline cholesterol dissolved in vegetable oil.

So, to suggest one should not eat cholesterol containing foods based on this type of experiment is extremely illogical. Humans consume food, and the way various chemical components of our food is absorbed by our body is very different from just consuming purified substances. Of course, plenty of studies have been done since then using substances closer to food, but the results still haven’t quite panned out the way pharmaceutical companies would like.

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9 Responses to When Did Cholesterol First Become Public Health Enemy #1?

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean and Christopher Sturdy, David Csonka. David Csonka said: When Did Cholesterol First Become Public Health Enemy #1? 1913 #paleo #heartdisease [...]

  2. Cheryl White says:

    David, when referring to someone, particularly in the scientific community, you should always include their titles. In this case the appropriate reference should be That Bastard Ancel Keys.

  3. Fitz says:

    I’m going to start ordering yolk only omelettes. Also, interesting fact: a few hundred mg of cholesterol can increase your sex drive according to Ferriss’ Four Hour Body.

  4. Not exactly related (but perhaps including tasty cholesterol), I seem to recall you mentioning an Angus burger experiment over at free the animal. How’s that been going?

    • David Csonka says:

      Hey Skyler!

      The experiment basically ended with my move out to Denver a couple of weeks ago. But for a couple of months, my main protein source was bacon and massive amounts of angus burgers from Costco.

      I got up to about 8 burgers day and did some experiments with 1 meal per day huge meals. In the end, my kidney function was fine (some people were concerned about the high protein intake) and my lipid panel was great after it was all over.

      The only glaring issue I encountered was an increasing frequency of watery stools towards the end. I’ve had that happen previously when I binged on specific types of meat products (sausages, etc). I wonder about the cause. To much information, I know, but pretty significant in my mind.