Cholesterol, Statins, and Choice

I was at the gym the other day and I overheard a couple of middle-aged tubby guys complaining about their cholesterol. To make a long story short, one was listening attentively while the other bragged about his statins—made me cringe. Why? Well, in Cholesterol Protection for Life Dr. Fuhrman talks about their side-effects, pretty scary stuff. Check it out:
When resorting to medical intervention, rather than dietary modifications, other problems arise, reducing the potential reduction in mortality possible, as these individuals are at risk of serious side effects from the medication. The known side effects for various statins (the most popular and effective medications to lower cholesterol) include hepatitis, jaundice, other liver problems, gastrointestinal upsets, muscle problems and a variety of blood complications such as reduced platelet levels and anemia.
Now, I doubt my two tubby guys will heed a warning like this. After all, they belong to a gym and are still fat. But I guess they represent the millions of people that just aren’t willing to do the hard work. They’d rather pop a pill and continue eating poorly. Recently New York Times reporter Jane E. Brody was faced with this very decision—guess what she did? See for yourself:
Now it was time to further limit red meat (though I never ate it often and always lean), stick to low-fat ice cream, eat even more fish, increase my fiber intake and add fish oils to my growing list of supplements. But the latest test, in early June, was even more of a shock: total cholesterol, 248, and LDLs, 171.

My doctor’s conclusion: “Your body is spewing out cholesterol and nothing you do to your diet is likely to stop it.” I was not inclined to become a total vegetarian to see if that would help. The time had come to try a statin, one of the miraculously effective cholesterol-lowering drugs.

By studying the effects of statins in thousands of people who already had heart disease or were likely to develop it, researchers finally proved that lowering total and LDL cholesterol in people at risk was both health-saving and life-saving. I’ll know by fall if the low-dose statin I now take nightly will do the trick, or if I’ll need a higher dose.
Wow. That quote from the doctor is amazing. Talk about throwing in the towel. Brody is no better. I mean why wouldn’t she at least try ratcheting up her diet further? My guess is she’d be pleasantly surprised by the results, and, it’s a lot better than being saddled with statins for the rest of her life. According to Dr. Fuhrman superior nutrition would set her straight. From Eat to Live:
A vegetable, fruit, nut, and bean-based diet has been shown to be the most effective cholesterol-lowering dietary approach in medical history. This newsworthy data with the potential to save millions of lives has been ignored by the mass media. With this dietary approach, most patients drop their total cholesterol below 150 and LDL below 100, without the need for medications…

…In areas of the world where people eat a diet of unrefined plant foods, people have total cholesterol levels below 150, and there is zero incidence of heart disease in the population.1
A couple years ago when I was sick with gastritis and my doctor wrote me a bunch of prescriptions, I made a choice. I said I could either be beholden to drug companies for the rest of my life, or, I can beat this thing on my own terms. For me, the carrot was mightier than the prescription pad.
1. Breslow JL. Cardiovascular disease myths and facts. Cleve Clin J Med 1998:65(6):286-287. Campbell TC, Parpia B, Chen J. et al. Diet, lifestyle and the etiology of coronary artery disease: the Cornell China Study. Am J Cardiol 1998; 8210B):18T-21T.
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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
John - August 22, 2007 1:32 PM

I am amazed at how pervasive this idea is that the body is producing too much cholesterol, so you might as well eat what you want and pop a pill is.

I was in my 20's and my cholesterol and triglycerides were off the charts (around 300 and 400 respectively). Through diet and exercise alone I have gotten both numbers so low I'll probably never meet a cardiologist, except maybe on the jogging trail.

Chris MacAskill - August 22, 2007 11:15 PM

I'm a huge fan of Eat to Live and The China Study and my wife thinks I've influenced more than 100 people to eat this way. 8 of them are my kids or kids-in-law.

The good news is we've all lost weight, we feel better, and so many indicators of health have improved.

The ironic bad news is I started this because my own total cholesterol was flirting with 200. I'm the only one of the 100 or so of us who've see their LDL rise, but after several years of doing this more faithfully than anyone I know with no lapses, having lost 43 pounds and gotten in good triathlon shape, my cholesterol has drifted up to 235, much of it from increasing LDL.

Doc says I need to either stop the extreme veganism or go on Lipitor. Go figure.

Kirsten - August 23, 2007 4:47 PM

Chris, have you consulted with Dr. Fuhrman about this? Surely, he would have some suggestions.

Eric - August 23, 2007 10:08 PM

I saw Jane Brody's artice as well and actually wrote her a letter about how I'd lowered my total cholesterol to well below 150 and ldl well below 80 by changing to a no/low fat vegan diet (Esselstyn style). Several of my family members have done the same. My doctor had just said the same old "watch what you eat" but had never told me I could do without drugs just by changing my diet.

It's one thing for her to make a personal choice to just rely on drugs, which is of course her right, but as a journalist she should be more responsible and let her readers know that plant based diets have been shown to work far better than drugs, and would most likely accomplish what she is trying to do without the need for statins.

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