High cholesterol is a rising concern in the United States. Once thought to be a condition of middle and old age, it was recently found that approximately 1 in 5 teens has cholesterol levels that raise the risk for heart disease. Dr. Campbell, in his book documenting his authoritative 27 year nutritional study dubbed the China Study, explains how the primary culprit behind high cholesterol is not what we’ve been led to believe.
First of all, it’s important to understand that the cholesterol we eat (called dietary cholesterol) and the cholesterol that our body produces (called blood cholesterol) are not the same thing. Your doctor can’t measure how much cholesterol you consume, he can only measure the amount of cholesterol that’s in your bloodstream. The process by which your body manufactures cholesterol is complex, and the cholesterol you consume in the form of fat may not become blood cholesterol once your body digests it.
Dr. Campbell discovered that the levels of blood cholesterol found in the Chinese population were significantly lower than the US. Even the highest levels in China were so low by US standards that it was commonly thought they could have no affect on health. However, Dr. Campbell found that even a slight increase in blood cholesterol was associated with a higher risk of cancer and heart disease.
Dr. Campbell set out to study what aspects of nutrition might contribute to higher blood cholesterol. He found, much to his surprise, that “consuming animal-based protein increases blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fat and dietary cholesterol also raise blood cholesterol, although these nutrients are not as effective at doing this as is animal protein.”
In other words, you may have heard from your doctor that you should eat lean meats to lower your cholesterol. But Dr. Campbell has discovered that it is the meat itself that is a greater cause of high blood cholesterol than the fat around the meat! He continues, “in contrast, plant-based foods contain no cholesterol, and in various other ways, help to decrease the amount of cholesterol made by the body.”
Many people have heard about the Atkins diet, which promises that you can lose weight by eating as much fat and animal protein as you want, as long as you stay away from carbohydrates. Dr. Campbell makes it clear that just because an idea is popular, doesn’t make it true. While he acknowledges that many people have lost weight on this diet, he says that the weight loss is temporary and unimportant compared to the negative side affects that accompany this diet over the long term. Constipation, headaches, hair loss, vomiting, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, vitamin deficiencies, kidney damage and increased cancer risk were just some of the side affects reported by studies of high protein, low carb diets. He concludes, “You can also lose weight by undergoing chemotherapy or starting a heroin addiction, but I wouldn’t recommend those either.” He also points out that Dr. Atkins himself was an obese man with heart disease and high blood pressure who suffered a heart attack.
So what does Dr. Campbell recommend? He points out that the diet of rural Chinese – who have levels of blood cholesterol lower than most Western doctors have ever seen - is low in animal protein and high in carbohydrates. The difference is that they primarily consume complex carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Americans, on the other hand, mostly eat refined carbohydrates in the form of crackers, cakes, sweets, soda and white bread. Complex carbohydrates include fiber, which is necessary for good digestion, along with vitamins and minerals in a form that your body can assimilate. They are broken down in a controlled manner in your body, and are a good source of accessible energy. Refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, are rapidly broken down into glucose which causes a sudden spike in blood sugar and is then stored as fat.
The conclusion is: we need to eat plants – fruits, vegetables, grains and beans - in their natural state. If we can retrain our taste buds away from refined, fatty and sugary foods, we will appreciate that this is not such a sacrifice. For thousands of years, fruits were considered the sweetest, most delicious temptations on earth. Figs, plums, apricots, apples, peaches, pomegranates, dates and grapes have long been appreciated as works of art in themselves, delighting in their beauty, aroma and taste. Imagine a plate filled with orange squash, purple sweet potatoes, dark green kale and brown rice. The bright colors in your vegetables are signs of naturally occurring antioxidants, which are potent anti-cancer agents. Dr. Campbell explains how plants build antioxidant shields to protect themselves from the free radicals produced during photosynthesis. “The plants make the antioxidant shields, and at the same time make them look incredibly appealing with beautiful, appetizing colors. Then we animals, in turn, are attracted to the plants and eat them and borrow their antioxidant shields for our own health. Whether you believe in God, evolution or just coincidence, you must admit that this is a beautiful, almost spiritual example of nature’s wisdom.”
Next time you have an avocado, cut it open, sprinkle it with a pinch of sea salt, and eat it with a spoon. There’s nothing better. Consider the last time you ate an orange off the tree. Go find one (if you can’t find one, plant one. Hawaii is the perfect climate for citrus. With a grafted tree, you can see fruits within two or three years). Cut through the peel and pith to reveal the juicy flesh beneath. Take a minute to smell the orange oils, which are natural anti-depressants. Feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Take a bite of your sun-drenched orange. This is what sunshine tastes like. Mmmm…..