Low Carb, High Cholesterol and the Mediterranean Diet

Low Carb, High Cholesterol and the Mediterranean Diet | Reining in Mom

Cholesterol loch mediterranean

In doing my research on quitting sugar, I came across a lot of information recommending a no or low carb diet. This is because carbs are apparently treated just like sugar in your body in that they are processed by the liver into fructose which triggers insulin production which triggers your body to store extra calories as fat. If you cut out carbs and sugar, your body will be forced to burn the fat you already have instead of fructose. There have been some studies that connect high insulin production with heart disease and diabetes. Plus insulin production is what leads to energy highs followed by crashes.

Both Gretchen Rubin in Better Than Before and Gary Taubes in Why We Get Fat swear by the low carb high fat diet, LCHF in netspeak, to turn your body into a fat burning, low insulin powerhouse. There’s a ton of information on the benefits of LCHF and how to implement it on the Diet Doctor’s website, as well as links to studies on insulin production and the effect of carbs on the body.

I was eager to try LCHF to slim down a bit and manage my energy crashes. So for three weeks I conducted this little experiment on myself. Here’s how it went.

Low Carb High Fat: The Results

The first few days of LCHF I had headaches, which are apparently a common initial side effect, and generally felt very “meaty,” i.e., full and sluggish.

On days 3-4 I actually went on an unexpected trip and was somewhat concerned that I wouldn’t be able to stick to my plan. I was pleasantly surprised though that it’s pretty easy to eat LCHF when eating out a lot. Much easier than when I attempted vegetarian and veganism several years ago. The hardest part was grab-and-go food. Carbs are portable. Veggies and animal proteins are not as portable for say, an airplane trip and long car ride where you don’t have access to refrigeration. I bought hard boiled eggs pre-peeled at a lovely gas station, and ate a lot of nuts. Apparently meat sticks are also a thing. Not jerky which is high in sugars, but plain meat sticks like Nick’s Sticks, with no added sugars, nitrates or hormones. I could not bring myself to eat a meat stick though so I’ll have to take the other LCHF dieters’ word for it that they’re good. If you try them, let me know if you liked them in the comments!

By the end of the first week of LCHF, I found my groove. As long as I was well prepared with hard boiled eggs, frittatas pre-made for breakfast, extra protein to bulk up salads, and a canister of nuts in my diaper bag, I found it pretty easy to eat LCHF. My energy was much more stable throughout the day. I did not have that 3pm crash, and I wasn’t snacking much either. I just was not hungry between meals. My headaches were gone too and I no longer felt sluggish after meals. I did have some issues adjusting to processing such big meals, but nothing horrible.

Low Carb High Fat: The Fatal Cholesterol Flaw

Here’s the big elephant in the room though – with all this meat and dairy, what about cholesterol?  Well, LCHF enthusiasts point to recent studies that indicate LCHF can actually improve cholesterol.  However, even the rah-rah LCHF folks admit that for some genetically predisposed folks, eating high fat can lead to elevated LDL cholesterol and increased markers for heart disease.

By coincidence, my doctor had ordered a blood work as part of my annual exam and I had my blood drawn at the end of the first week of LCHF. Two weeks later, I got the results. Unfortunately my LDL was higher than we’d like and my HDL wasn’t high enough to balance it out.

Winner, Winner, Mediterranean Diet Dinner

My doc recommended that I watch Forks Over Knives (FOK) as “food for thought” if you will. It’s a documentary focusing on Drs. Colin Campbell and Caldwell Esselstyn who suggest a very severe “whole food, plant-based diet,” which is basically vegan but without any oil or fats. The movie was fascinating but the diet felt unrealistic to me. So of course I started researching.

The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends a whole foods diet, but says that can include healthy fats like fish in moderation, and has not found an additional benefit from veganism for cancer prevention. I read several criticisms of the FOK movie and diet which point out that the movie overlooks some of the possible benefits from animal proteins, and bases its über vegan diet on a faulty reading of a major study. The FOK diet limits all fats, and my HDL was also too low so I decided I needed some healthy fats to combat that as well.

In the course of my research, I also found those who say that cholesterol is not an indicator of heart disease risk, and that dietary cholesterol does not affect bloodstream cholesterol. I also read that saturated fats are both villains and unduly vilified. Ugh. So confusing. Why can’t doctors ever agree? I was unable to find definitive answers, but NPR’s The People’s Pharmacy did a wonderful podcast debating these cholesterol issues which helped.

There were no clear cut answers on NPR either, but what I kept seeing over and over again in my research was support for the so-called Mediterranean Diet (MD): a diet of healthy fats, fish proteins, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Considering that the prevailing recommendations to lower your risk of heart disease are still to avoid saturated fats (predominantly those from animal proteins), completely eliminate transfats (such as partially hydrogenated oils), eat healthy fats (such as olive oil & fish) eat whole grains (such as oatmeal & barley), limit refined or simple carbs, sugar, and dairy, and only have one egg a day, the MD seemed to fit nicely within these recommendations. This is basically what Michael Pollan famously suggested: “Eat (real) food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Moreover, this seemed like a diet to which I could actually stick.

The MD / Pollan diet, I figure, will address my cholesterol issues because “mostly plants” means not so much saturated fat from animals which is generally regarded as the main LDL cholesterol culprit, and no sugar or any of its supposedly healthier friends (agave, brown rice syrup, and stevia which I abhor), or processed carbs as they are not “real food.” Nuts are still in, thank God.

So what am I eating now?  I’m eating far less dairy (only milk with my coffee and a little yogurt sometimes), mostly fish, eggs or beans for protein, with one chicken dinner a week, sticking to olive or avocado oils, eating a ton of veggies and fruits, and adding back in whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and hummus. I am avoiding polyunsaturated fats as well as saturated fats because the jury is still out on the cholesterol effect of those canola and vegetable oils. I am also really trying to avoid refined carbs like white flour because it acts so similarly to sugar in our bodies.

The biggest question is coconut fats (oil, cream) and macadamia type nut fats. They are saturated fats some say trigger LDL cholesterol production, but may also raise HDL and have other benefits. Some people swear by these fats, particularly coconut oil, but while the jury is out, I’m going to avoid them for now.

So there’s my big dietary saga. The biggest frustration during my research was that nothing is clear cut. We’ve been battling heart disease in this country since Nixon with saturated fats as the villain, but several highly regarded doctors and researchers are now saying that was undeserved. We have been cutting out fat from our diets, and exercising more, for decades, yet the obesity epidemic is worse than ever. Sugar and carbs seem likely candidates for contributing to this, but for me, I can’t go all the way and cut carbs completely. I need healthy fats, whole grains, and lots of veggies and fruit. And that is the moral of my foray into being an arm-chair nutritionist, no one plan will work for everyone. For me, I like feeling a little lighter, and a lot more environmentally responsible, by eating less meat. I have noticed the return of the 3pm crash and major 8pm sugar cravings though, so if you don’t have a cholesterol problem, maybe LCHF is the way to go. Here’s hoping my cholesterol count is lower next year when I get it checked!

Do you have a nutrition plan or basic rules you try to follow for eating? I’d love to hear how you arrived at your plan! Let me know in the comments.

**May contain affiliate links. Honest opinions are all my own.

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  1. I’m sorry you’re not feeling good, I hope you’ll be better, usually our bodies are smart in finding ways to cope.
    Hope to hear better news soon.

    1. Thanks Aseel. Luckily I feel fine and elevated cholesterol at my age is not really something to worry about. I just need to watch it and maybe change my diet. Check back to find out how I did that in Part II!

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