A Steady Diet of Pseudo-Science…

Type the word ‘cholesterol’ into a Google search page and hit enter.  What comes up is a veritable cornucopia of nutritionist advertising touting both the ills of cholesterol and the almost magical effect of whichever nutritionist’s cure-all drug or vitamin, or tracking system or holistic diagnosis.

Actually, you don’t even have to go to that kind of effort, just log into Facebook, chances are you’ll see, eventually if not right away, an advertisement titled as follows: “Click to learn what three foods, formerly thought healthy, will add inches to your gut.”, or some variation on that particular theme.

Hell, one of the oldest nutritional memes, which also happens to be one of the widest held incorrect beliefs about food in modern times, is that salt is bad for you.

Here are some little known facts, offered free of charge and I don’t even ask for a donation.

“…Dietary cholesterol makes a very small contribution to our blood cholesterol levels.  Every 100 milligrams of cholesterol intake increases blood cholesterol by about 0.06 millimoles per litre, which is practically insignificant.”[1]

To bring that into perspective, one egg yolk contains approximately 266 milligrams of cholesterol[2], which is only 50 milligrams below the daily recommended intake of dietary cholesterol by most nutritionists (300 milligrams[3]).  Add that to virtually anything else you might eat in a day – various meats, cheeses, seafood, desserts etc – and you can see how quickly we all exceed the recommended daily intake of dietary cholesterol.  Now here’s the perspective, even at twice the recommended daily intake of cholesterol, you might be increasing your blood cholesterol levels by as much as 0.09 – 0.12 millimoles.

But here’s the kicker…do you know how much a millimole is, compared to how much your blood cholesterol level would have to change for it to have an impact on your health?

According to the Mayo Clinic (no pun intended), the ideal target cholesterol level for the average person, is 5.2mmol/L (mmol is the standard abbreviation for millimoles, so this would be 5.2 milimoles per litre of blood).  The diagnostic range for LDL – or bad cholesterol – is between 5.2mmol/L (ideal) and 6.2mmol/L and above (high risk).[4]

So, does a change of between 0.06 – 0.12mmol/L really seem all that significant in the long run?  Especially when you consider that there are elements in everyone’s diet already that help to actively reduce LDL, as well as the positive effects of exercise in which most people partake.  An individual’s LDL level is a fluid or non-static process, the number will fluctuate constantly, depending on many, many factors, such as age, activity level, predisposition to both high LDL and to heart disease, and diabetes and many other common things.

In short, the link between dietary cholesterol and ill health is tenuous at best, but the myth continues to be spread as gospel truth, even though the science behind it is not that difficult to understand.  I am not a doctor, nor am I trained as a dietician or nutritionist, though I am a former bodybuilder and I have a knack for cutting through the bullshit of modern meme-itus, and well, I understand it perfectly.  Let’s be clear though, I am not advocating a high fat diet coupled with an excessively sedentary lifestyle (even though I tend to subscribe to the same personally from time-to-time).

How about that pernicious Facebook ad?  I would think most people are coherent enough to see through such flimflammery, though with the success of diet fads in the distant and not-so-distant past, it seems I may be wrong.  Without disparaging the efforts of medical science, I’m not about to say that we should all embark on a journey of culinary carnality; eating anything and everything in sight, so as to make Viking feasts look like unsatisfying appetisers.  However, the true science of metabolism is well-known and easily studied by anyone who wishes to look.

Food – whichever variety you choose to imbibe – is broken down by the body’s digestive system into constituent elements.  Those elements are used to fuel the body in the short- and long-term, to build and re-build tissue, bone and everything else we’re made of, and to aid in the efficient functioning of our various systems (immune, nervous, neural etc).  Food is food, eat it and your body will do with it, what it can.  For years the nutritionist industry has been peddling the idea that “you are what you eat” and in all honesty, this is total horseshit.  It’s amazing to me that no one has picked up on the idea that dietary health is just as complex and, dare I say, multidimensional as any other human endeavour.  Restricting cholesterol, or salt, or fat or whatever it is that your Glamour Magazine says you should cut out of your diet is just as useless as changing the air filter on your car when you’ve run out of gas.  Adjusting one variable with questionable relatedness to the problem won’t solve the problem.  You must address all the variables, adjusting the ones that need tweaking and supporting the ones that work well.

In our world, that is the Western world, the single largest dietary problem we face is that we don’t know how to serve food.  Go to nearly any popular restaurant and here’s what you’ll see: huge plates with huge servings and a dining room full of people competing to see who can pack away the most food in one sitting.  Your metabolism is laughing at you!

I’m going to cut through the bullshit for you and just tell you what the problem is…portion control, meal frequency and food quality.  That’s it!  Smaller portions (much smaller in some cases), more frequent meals (6-8 per day…everyday) and wholesome, real food (you know, stuff that either had parents or was pulled from the ground by someone’s hand rather than a machine).  Improve these elements of your diet and combine that with daily exercise, and guess what…you’ve just found the best, longest lasting and most trendy diet that ever existed.  It will maximize the potential of your metabolism, it will boost your immune system, give you more energy and have you looking exactly the way you want, but the trick is…you actually have to do it.

See, this is no get skinny fast gimmick, this is no “what the stars use” fad diet…this is a life change.  Do you want to know why more fitness and nutrition gurus aren’t spouting the benefits of, well, eating properly?  It’s because there’s no way to sell common sense.  They want your money, plain and simple, and to get it, they think they need to dress up a gimmick in a sequence dress and parade it around in front of your with lights and music…the surely you’ll pay them for their expertise!

People fall for it all the time, and some even achieve some measure of success with the various nutritionist scams out there, but this isn’t about any one person’s weight loss story.  This is about sifting through the pseudo-science of the supermarket and getting the most out of your money and your time.  In essence, I’m asking you to forget everything you think you know about the science of food and nutrition and just live your life in moderation.  I’m telling you to stop giving your money to gimmick peddlers (in every respect) and start doing things for yourself, including thinking about fuelling your body.


[1] Joe Schwarcz Ph.D, Brain Fuel – 199 Mind-Expanding Inquiries Into The Science Of Everyday Life (Anchor Canada, 2010) p46

[2] Desserts-recipes.com, Cholesterol Content in Common Foods, http://www.netrition.com/rdi_page.html

[3] Netrition.com, Reference Values for Nutrition Labelling, http://www.netrition.com/rdi_page.html

[4] Author Not Listed, Cholesterol Levels, What numbers should you aim for?, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cholesterol-levels/CL00001

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Martin J. Clemens

Writer, Canadian, Fortean Addict...and lover of science and history. "As for me...I know only, that I know nothing..."

I also blog at mysteriousuniverse.org, check it out!
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