Cholesterol is historically thought to be the biggest predictor for heart disease, and therefore not something we want in high quantities in our bodies. But, an emerging new paradigm in the medical community suggests it may not be the most important determinant for cardiovascular disease.

So if cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease, what does? A growing number of physicians blame inflammation, which is caused by a number of things with a sugary, carb-laden diet at the top of the list.

As a medical community, we are beginning to take a closer look at the pros and cons of keeping cholesterol at a minimum. Given that Americans spend $30 billion on statins to lower their cholesterol levels, an important consideration is the mounting data warning us of the measurable correlations between statin drug use and diabetes, memory loss and cancer in certain segments of the population.

So why is cholesterol not such a bad thing? As the vital molecule present in every cell membrane, cholesterol is so important to the body we simply cannot exist without it. It’s used to insulate nerve fibers (and therefore make nerve signals travel properly), contribute to vitamin synthesis, and make hormones which carry chemical signals around the body. But when cholesterol is grossly out of balance – either in too high or too low quantities – disease can ensue.

Two important studies help broaden our perspective of what other factors are predictors of heart disease. The Nurse’s Health Study, one of the largest and most respected studies regarding diet and health, found 5 basic behaviors that reduced the risk of heart disease by 82%.

  1. Exercising regularly
  2. Eating a diet rich in omega-3 fats, fruits and vegetables
  3. Drinking alcohol only in moderation
  4. Not smoking
  5. Maintaining a healthy weight

All 5 of these behaviors likewise support healthy cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation in the body.

Another important 4 year study, Lyon Diet Heart Study, looked at 605 patients who had heart attacks and who had classic risk factors, including high cholesterol and being a smoker. About half of the participants were told to eat a low fat and low cholesterol diet; the other half were told to eat a Mediterranean diet high in oils, vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish.

Neither group was given a cholesterol lowering drug such as a statin. The participants who ate the Mediterranean diet had a 72% decrease in coronary events and a 56% decrease in overall mortality and their cholesterol didn’t elevate despite the fact they ate a good portion of fat in their diet.

From these studies we are reminded that our overall lifestyle, how we eat, sleep, move and indulge, have significant implications on the health of our heart and all systems of our body. While some people need–and benefit from–cholesterol lowering medications, the overall best practice for your heart starts with daily choices. Begin by filling your kitchen with a disease preventing diet, rich in good fats, organic protein, fresh veggies and fruits, and minimal breads and sugars.

Dr. Ortiz is a primary care naturopathic doctor at the Live Well Clinic in La Quinta.  For more information call 760-771-5970 or visit 

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