Forget what you know about lowering your cholesterol.
Eat some red meat. Use a little bit of real butter and cheese. And stop eating egg whites.
Doctors and dietitians are learning that the popular low-fat and low-cholesterol diets popularized in the past 40 years just did not work.
“We are really just uncovering a lot of myths about what causes high cholesterol and heart disease,” said Terri Johnson, a dietitian at Baton Rouge General Medical Center.
For decades, patients cutting their cholesterol levels have focused on diets low in fat and high in whole grains.
“It’s been backward thinking for the last 40 years,” Johnson said. “Since the introduction of the low-fat diet, we’ve seen cholesterol go up, we’ve seen obesity go up, we’ve seen heart disease, cancer, hypertension skyrocket since the introduction of the low-fat diet.”
After years of study, researchers know that foods high in cholesterol — eggs and butter, for example — play a very small role in raising cholesterol.
“The human body makes about three times more cholesterol than is actually absorbed,” Johnson said. “Some people make more cholesterol than others, and that has a greater effect on blood cholesterol than the things they eat.”
Instead of counting fats grams, Johnson encourages the intake of good fats. These are monounsaturated fats found in nuts, avocados and olive oil. She also recommends animal fats from meat and butter. They prevent overeating.
“Your appetite self-regulates,” Johnson said. “When you eat fat, it helps you feel satisfied. It helps you feel full. It takes a longer time to break down, and you feel full longer. It’s really the key to getting lean, is to eat more fat.”
That’s why Johnson doesn’t encourage people to dump the egg yolk from breakfast or meat from dinner.
“You should eat egg yolks because really that’s where most of the nutrition is in the egg,” she said. “You should eat meats because they are good sources of protein and saturated fats our bodies need.”
However, when cooking meat, cut off the visible fat, said Dr. Robert St. Amant, a cholesterol specialist at Baton Rouge General Medical Center.
While whole grains were once an important part of a cholesterol-fighting diet, doctors now push fewer grains. Processed carbohydrates — bread, rice, cereals and chips — play a major role in raising cholesterol.
“The reason this is a problem is they turn into sugar in the blood stream, and when they turn into sugar, they have a negative effect on (cholesterol),” St. Amant said.
Now St. Amant tells patients to avoid white vegetables, such as potatoes, and eat those rich in color. Sugar in any form is bad, he said, especially soft drinks sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, which “pushes people toward diabetes and pre-diabetes.”
Even though whole grains are to be avoided, fiber is still an important fighter of cholesterol, said Johnson, who wants patients to find fiber in fruits and vegetables.
“With fiber, your blood sugars don’t go as high so you’re not going to stimulate insulin in the same way,” she said.
Johnson rarely asks patients to count calories or fat. Instead she wants them to focus on eating well.
“It’s mainly looking at the quality of the foods you are eating, knowing what’s in your food, reading that ingredients list,” she said. “Again, just knowing everything that you’re putting in your body.”