Want Cholesterol With Your Six Pack? A 56% Increase in Cholesterol Has Me Worried. But Should I Be?

Earlier this week, I went to get a blood test to see how things have changed since going on a low-carb, high-fat diet for four months and reaching 10% body fat in the process. I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life, so the results from the blood test surprised me:

Figures from my blood tests before and after going on a low-carb, high-fat diet. Total cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides have all increased by quite a bit.

Figures from my blood tests before and after going on a low-carb, high-fat diet. Total cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides have all increased by quite a bit.

I’ve always had relatively high cholesterol, which I likely inherited from my father, but this latest cholesterol reading is ridiculous. My total cholesterol figure of 10.2 mmol/L is nearly double the high-end of the “recommended” range of 5.7 mmol/L. These results are pretty much the opposite of what I had expected based on what I’d read up until that point. In the book "The Calorie Myth” by Jonathan Bailor, I came across the following chart that shows the relative risk of heart disease based on your HDL and LDL cholesterol figures:

According to this chart, my numbers put me somewhere in the “moderate” to “high” risk range. How could this be?

Should I be worried?

I really don’t know. Part of me says to ignore the numbers because my body feels healthier than it’s ever been. But another part of me is saying “better safe than sorry”. 

Prior to writing this article, I spent several hours online researching cholesterol, and I came away even more confused and uncertain about the topic than before. What a waste of time!

I’ve found that the more time you spend trying to find definitive answers to issues related to health and nutrition, the more you realize the frightening truth that nobody really knows for sure. Take any health issue that is controversial, like the correlation between cholesterol and heart disease for example, and you will find that doctors, scientists and other “experts” are all over the place on the issue. If the experts can’t figure it out, there is no way in hell I’m going to be able to.  

And things get worse when you start digging into the details of specific research studies and see how imperfect they are. You start to realize that until the day that governments allow scientists to conduct controlled experiments on humans in the same way we experiment on lab rats, issues related to human health and nutrition will continue to be subject to interpretation. 

Reaching a compromise

I’ve decided rather than spend endless hours trying to find definitive answers that probably don’t exist, I think the more productive approach in this case is to recognize that my high cholesterol is causing me stress, and therefore I should try to reduce this stress by reaching a compromise in my diet. 

Thus for my next experiment, rather than try to get fat like I had previously planned, I will instead see what I can do to bring my cholesterol levels back down to earth while remaining on a low-carb diet. This means that I will need to create a diet plan that enables my body to continue to be a fat-burning machine while cutting back on likely contributors to high cholesterol. 

The obvious place to start cutting back on is my saturated fat intake (goodbye to Shanghai Bulletproof Coffee for the time being). In other words, going from "low-carb, high-fat” to something more like "low-carb, moderate-fat”. This should be doable, but it will take time to figure out an optimal mix of macros (carbs, fat, protein) that will keep me energized. For me, eating more fat was a way to get the energy and satiety I needed to get through the day. Going low-carb can be tough when you aren’t getting enough calories from other sources. 

In closing, here are two life lessons that I feel are appropriate for my situation:

  1. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I loved eating unlimited amounts of steak and bacon, popping hard-boiled eggs all day, and adding globs of butter to my coffee, but the high-fat diet I was on did seem a bit too good to be true.  
  2. Try to avoid extremes and absolutes. Most things in life are often grey. Only rarely are they black and white. Cholesterol is one of those issues that certainly is not black and white and my extremely high cholesterol is perhaps a signal to pull back on my bacon binge. 

And that’s it for now. Until next time!

Update from blood test on June 9, 2014

After one month of cutting out eggs, cheese, bacon, butter and coconut oil from my diet (excluding cheat days) while keeping everything else virtually the same, I went to get another blood test and here are the results:

This time around I added tests for ApoA and ApoB. I wanted to test LDL-P as well, but the test doesn't appear to be available in Shanghai. While there was no change in HDL, there was improvement in CHOL, LDL and TG, bringing me within the low to moderate risk range based on the "Relative Risk of Heart Disease" chart. I plan to give my current diet another month before I begin to bring back certain foods in my daily diet. 

Have any stories or thoughts to share? Please leave a comment below.