Extensive rebuttal to the Cholesterol Skeptics claims

Posted: June 26, 2013 in Cholesterol Wars

More extensive rebuttal to the Cholesterol Skeptics claims:


in men aged 55 to 64 years, 10-year population changes in serum cholesterol level alone explained 35% of the variance of change in fatal and nonfatal coronary events. (1) When comparing people within in the same country (more like a controlled study), less LDL is associated with less heart disease. Dr. Kendrick only told us about ONE exception. A subset of men with the lowest educational achievement who drink too much alcohol in Russia. They must be the only ones or he would have told us about the rest of them.

On the other hand, the data in Dr. Kendrick’s graph comparing average serum cholesterol and heart disease death rates in 21 countries plus the Australian aborigines amounts to an uncontrolled observational study. The same is true of his graph of saturated fat consumption. Such studies can be useful for generating hypotheses but they can’t prove cause and effect of lack of it. There are too many confounding variables (e.g. affluence, quality of healthcare, malnutrition, sanitation, stress levels, smoking rates and alcoholism etc. etc.)


1. A new study shows that lifelong reductions in LDL are linked to consistent reduction in CHD risk. Scientists studied nine single nucleotide polymorphisms which influence LDL levels. From homozygous familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) at the high extreme (over 600 mg/dL LDL cholesterol) to hypobeta-lipoproteinemia at the low extreme (less than 15mg/dL LDL cholesterol). Since these SNP’s are present from birth, this allowed them to see the effect of low LDL levels maintained over a lifetime. The results show a three times greater benefit for these life long low LDL levels compared taking statins later in life. The lead scientist stated, “the effect of each of the included SNPs on risk of CHD is mediated largely or entirely through effect on circulating levels of LDL, rather than through some other pleiotropic effect.” “The researchers also conducted a meta-analysis of the “natural” randomized trials by combining non-overlapping data from multiple SNPs involving 326,443 participants. Results of this study indicated that lifetime exposure to lower LDL was associated with a 54% (95% CI, 48-59) relative reduction of CVD for each 38.7 mg/dL (1 mmol/L) lower LDL.” There is a clear dose response relationship. (1) In the era before the statins, FH patients aged 20 to 39 years old were 100 times more likely die of heart disease and 10 times more likely to die from all causes than someone in the general population. (2) In a later study, FH patients treated with statins lived just as long as people without FH. (3)
2. Atherosclerotic plaque contains a lot of cholesterol.
3. People with very low LDL tend to be protected from CHD. The normal LDL cholesterol range is 50 to 70 mg/dl for modern hunter-gatherers, healthy human newborns, free-living primates, and other wild mammals (all of whom do not develop atherosclerosis). (4) And during the 80s, rural Chinese had an average serum cholesterol level of 127 mg/dl. And the men in rural China had a rate of CHD that was only 1/17th that of American men. This was in spite of the fact that close to 80% of them smoked. (5) According to the third report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP), “Only in populations that maintain very low levels of serum cholesterol, e.g., total cholesterol <150 mg/dL (or LDL cholesterol <100 mg/dL) throughout life do we find a near-absence of clinical CHD.” (6)
4. People with an intermediate level of LDL have intermediate levels of heart disease. Virtually 100% of observational studies comparing people within the same country show a strong association between serum cholesterol and heart disease. (7,8,9)
5. The fact that HDL is protective and carries LDL away from the arteries is further proof of the harmfulness of elevated LDL. The INTERHEART study looked at 52 different countries and found that the ratio of apo-B (mostly LDL) to apo-A1 (HDL) could account for 50% of the risk of CHD mortality. (10) Dr. Kendrick says INTERHEART supports his stress theory but as I show in the next section stress can’t be the most important cause.
6. Atherosclerosis can be induced in many different animal species including non-human primates by raising serum cholesterol high enough and maintaining it long enough. And atherosclerosis can then be reversed by lowering serum cholesterol low enough and maintaining it long enough. (11) This can’t be explained away by stress or some infectious agent. Although adding inflammatory factors can speed up the process, oxidized LDL, foam cells and cholesterol crystals inside the artery wall provide their own inflammation. See point eight.
7. In a meta-analysis of 35 randomized trials using diet and/or medication for every 10 percentage points of cholesterol lowering, CHD mortality was reduced by 13% and total mortality by 10% (12). Dr. Kendrick makes a big deal about LDL not being important for elderly people, but a meta-analysis of 9 randomized trials shows that when statins are used for secondary prevention in elderly patients they can reduce all-cause mortality by 22% and heart disease mortality by 30%. (13
8. Last but not least elevated LDL is essential to the mechanism of atherosclerosis. Apo B lipoproteins (mostly LDL) diffuse into the artery wall. They become oxidized and cause inflammation which attracts macrophages. Macrophages devour oxidized LDL and become foam cells which form plaque and produce more inflammatory chemicals. They grow and eventually rupture depositing cholesterol crystals in the plaque. The crystals penetrate the artery wall causing even more inflammation. Elevated LDL also impairs endothelial function, reduces nitric oxide production and promotes platelet aggregation which promotes clotting. There are other factors besides elevated LDL that contribute to heart disease like smoking, hypertension, diabetes, abdominal obesity, stress, inflammation, homocysteine, sedentary lifestyle and excess sucrose but according to the INTERHEART study the ratio of apo-B (mostly LDL) to apo-A1 (HDL) can account for 50% of the risk. (14,15,16,10)
9. People who know the most about the subject agree. Scientists studying atherosclerosis know more about the subject than anyone else and the vast majority think that cholesterol is connected to heart disease. This is according a scientist who supports the cholesterol hypothesis as well as Dr. Kendrick himself. (17,18)


1. Atherosclerosis can be induced in many different animal species including non-human primates by raising serum cholesterol high enough and maintaining it long enough. And atherosclerosis can then be reversed by lowering serum cholesterol low enough and maintaining it long enough. There is no evidence that increased stress followed by decreased stress is involved. (11)
2. Statins reduce heart attacks but there is no evidence that they lower cortisol levels. (19)
3. Fruit and vegetables reduce heart attacks but Dr. Kendrick admits he can see no connection to the HPA-axis. They can however reduce hypertension and oxidized LDL. (20)
4. Dr. Esselstyn’s study got better results than Dr. Ornish’s study even though Dr. Ornish used stress reduction therapy and Dr. Esselstyn didn’t. However Dr. Esselstyn’s patients had lower LDL levels. (21,22)

There is no doubt that stress is one of the risk factors for CAD. And there is no doubt that injury to the endothelium and blood clots are part of the mechanism. But unless you are an alcoholic elevated LDL is probably more important.


Dr. Kendrick says the body can’t turn saturated fat into cholesterol. That’s correct but that’s not the problem. Dietary saturated fat causes LDL receptors in the liver to down regulate causing LDL to build up in the blood. (23)

Dr. Stephen Phinney conducted a metabolic ward trial with nine healthy lean men during weight maintenance, not weight loss. These men consumed nothing but meat, fish, eggs, cheese and cream (no hydrogenated vegetable oil) for 35 days. Their carbohydrate intake was less than 20 grams a day. Their blood cholesterol went up from 159 to 208 on average in 35 days. That is a 31% increase. The average adult in this country has a cholesterol level of 199. A 31% increase would give 261. The high risk category is anything over 240. (24)

A meta-analysis of 395 metabolic ward experiments concluded that in typical British diets replacing 60% of saturated fats by other fats and avoiding 60% of dietary cholesterol would reduce blood total cholesterol by about 0.8 mmol/l (that is, by 10-15%), with four fifths of this reduction being in low density lipoprotein cholesterol. (25)

The Masai (they are not hunter gatherers) have a very low serum cholesterol level, but 82% of the plant food additives known to be used by the Masai contain potentially hypocholesterolemic saponins and/or phenolics. (26) And eating raw blood exposes them to parasites which can also lower cholesterol. When Westerners eat a lot of animal fat and they’re not losing weight their TC goes up drastically. So without statin-like chemicals and parasites in their food, the serum cholesterol of the Masai would be much higher. Therefore their low serum cholesterol along with their low rate of CHD is further support for the lipid hypothesis.

Why don’t Americans who eat a lot of meat get the the same low LDL levels as hunter gatherers who eat a lot of wild game? Feed lot meat and dairy is a new food that has only been a staple of the American diet for less than 100 years. On average it contains over 8 times as much saturated fat as wild game. If fact elk, moose and whale meat are so low in palmitic acid that they could be part of an Ornish diet. You can check this for yourself online at the USDA National Nutrient Database. So contrary to cholesterol skeptics, the hunter gatherers did not eat a high animal fat diet.

What about Pacific Islanders who eat a lot of saturated fat? Unlike feedlot meat, coconuts improve the LDL/HDL ratio and they don’t raise LDL as much either. (27,28)


Heart disease has several risk factors. Therefore in uncontrolled observational studies we can see a lot of inconsistent results. But associations or lack of associations in an uncontrolled observational study can only suggest, not prove cause and effect or lack of it. The results depend on:
1) CONFOUNDING VARIABLES. These include smoking, hypertension, diabetes, abdominal obesity, stress, sucrose consumption etc. For example, in an uncontrolled study lower saturated fat can be associated with either less heart disease or more heart disease depending on whether people replaced the saturated fat with canola oil or stick margarine with trans fat.
2) THE RANGE OF THE VARIABLE. Studies where the difference between the lowest level of saturated fat and highest level is very great have better resolution than studies with a smaller difference. When the difference is large, the effect of confounding variables is less pronounced. For example, in studies of very high saturated fat diets, even if they are not controlled, the harmful effects of saturated fat override the confounding variables and give consistent positive associations between saturated fat and heart disease.
3) PAST VERSUS PRESENT. Before statins or the link between saturated fat and heart disease was discovered, people with chest pain or survivors of heart attacks did not reduce saturated fat or take medication to lower cholesterol. Now LDL is routinely measured every time someone gets a complete physical, and dietary changes or prescription medication is recommended to high risk individuals long before they have a heart attack. Atherosclerosis is slowed and the heart attack is delayed for several years and occurs with lower saturated fat consumption and a lower LDL level. The lifetime average cholesterol level is much more relevant than the level when admitted to the hospital.

Dr. Kendrick relies heavily on uncontrolled observational studies to ridicule the conclusions of experimental studies when it’s the experimental studies that carry the most weight.

EXPERIMENTAL EVIDENCE OF WHAT SAVES LIVES IN PEOPLE WITH HEART DISEASE (for these people lower serum cholesterol and less animal fat clearly leads to longer life)

In the 1950s, Dr. Morrison put 50 heart attack survivors on a 15% fat diet and another 50 survivors were told to eat as usual. Total cholesterol fell from 312 mg/dl to 220 mg/dl in the experimental group. That’s a reduction of 29%. And over a period of 8 years, 38 patients eating as usual died while only 22 in the experimental group died. (29)

In the 80s, Dr. Esselstyn used a 10% fat, high fiber diet plus low dose statins to reverse heart disease in 17 men and one woman. The average for total cholesterol and LDL was maintained at 145 mg/dl and 82 mg/dl respectively. We know it worked because of before and after coronary angiograms and cardiac PET scans. People given less than a year to live are alive and healthier over 23 years later. During that time no patient died of coronary artery disease, but one died of an arrhythmia. (22)

Dr. Ornish also reversed heart disease using a similar diet plus exercise and meditation but no statins. Since then Dr. Ornish has enrolled at least 3800 patients in demonstration projects (to demonstrate savings on surgery) which resulted in over 40 insurance companies including Medicare covering a program in diet and lifestyle for heart disease patients. According to Dr. Ornish, “In brief, we found that almost 80 percent of patients who were eligible for bypass surgery or angioplasty were able to safely avoid it for at least three years.” 22)

In the Lyon Diet-Heart Study of heart attack survivors there was a 76% reduction in major cardiovascular events in the group eating a Mediterranean diet where they replaced saturated fat with canola based margarine. (30)

Dr. Kendrick claims that lowering cholesterol is useless in elderly people, but a meta-analysis shows that when statins are used for secondary prevention in elderly patients they can reduce all-cause mortality by 22% and heart disease mortality by 30%. (13) Dr. Kendrick claims that statins work for some other reason than lowering cholesterol, but a meta-analysis of 19 studies (81,859 participants in all) that lowered LDL and measured clinical disease or death, including 5 diet trials, 3 bile sequestrant trials, 1 surgery trial and 10 statin trials concluded that: “The pleiotropic effects [effects apparently unrelated to lowering LDL] of statins do not seem to contribute an additional cardiovascular risk reduction benefit beyond that expected from the degree of LDL-C lowering observed in other trials that primarily lowered LDL-C.” (31) But isn’t atherosclerosis primarily an inflammatory disease? Well, oxidized LDL, foam cells and cholesterol crystals in the artery wall all produce their own inflammation. So statins, diet or anything else that lowers elevated LDL would also be expected to have the “pleiotropic effect” of reducing inflammation.


Dr. Kendrick claims that low cholesterol shortens your life and that a serum cholesterol of 216 is ideal, but this is based on uncontrolled observational studies that compare people in very poor countries where they are starving and have inadequate health care with affluent countries. But when we look at the longest lived people within affluent countries there’s no disadvantage to having a serum cholesterol of 170 or 180.

1. Vegetarian Adventist men and women live an average of 87 and 89 years, respectively and have a typical cholesterol level in the 180s. They abstain from alcohol and tobacco, exercise regularly and eat nuts, eggs and dairy products.

2. In the 50’s and 60’s Crete had the best longevity in the world. They ate 40% fat mostly from olive oil, but only 8% saturated fat. The total red meat, poultry and fish consumed per-person, per-day in Crete was only about 2 ounces. Ancel Keys followed this version of the Mediterranean diet and lived to be 100 years old. (32)

3. According to The Okinawa Program on page 23, the Okinawa centenarians have an average cholesterol of about 170. And contrary to an internet myth that’s based on young people, it says on page 71 that the centenarians eat about 2 ounces/person/day of fish and 1 ounce/person/day of meat, poultry and eggs while Americans eat very little fish and close to 10 ounces/person/day of meat, poultry and eggs. 33)

4. Iceland has the best longevity in Europe. The average man lives 80.1 years and the average women 83.5 years. They eat less carbs and more fat than the U.S. They eat more seafood than they do meat and their meat is grass fed. (In France they also eat grass fed meat.)


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32. Various biographies of Ancel Keys are available on the Internet.
33. Willcox BJ, Willcox DC, Suzuki M. The Okinawa Program. 2001, Three Rivers Press. Pages 23 and 71.


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