The link between high cholesterol and heart disease has long been embedded in our minds, reinforced by warnings that big, greasy burgers and other fast food items are “heart attacks on a plate.” But a new study conducted by Finnish researchers brings some information to the table, asserting instead that high cholesterol diets may not always lead to heart disease.
The study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined 1,032 healthy men between the ages of 42 and 60 for some 21 years, tracking their diets. One-third of the men carried ApoE4, a gene variant that is associated with heart disease. Normally, people with this gene would need to be extra careful about their dietary habits and lifestyles — as they’re more prone to heart problems.
On average, the men consumed some 2,800 milligrams of cholesterol every week — primarily from eating about four eggs a week. The researchers controlled for age, education, smoking, and body mass index and still found no link between cholesterol consumption and heart disease among all the men, whether or not they carried the Apoe4 gene. They also found no association between carotid artery thickness and cholesterol intake.
Despite what we’ve always assumed — that too much cholesterol from foods can eventually build up in arteries and lead to heart attacks — some recent studies have argued that cholesterol doesn’t necessarily impact heart disease. Some doctors attribute heart disease to other health problems or negative lifestyles — like smoking or eating too much sugar.
It’s still well-accepted that cholesterol plays a role in heart health. It appears the key here is moderation — as well as the type of food you’re getting your cholesterol from. “Moderate intake of cholesterol doesn’t seem to increase the risk of heart disease, even among those people at higher risk,” Jyrki Viranen, an adjunct professor of epidemiology at the University of Eastern Finland, said, according to The New York Times.
Eggs, which are filled with other solid nutrients like protein and potassium, may not be an entirely bad source of cholesterol if eaten in moderation. A 2013 study found that eggs and red meat may contribute to heart disease due to their impact on gut bacteria rather than their amount of cholesterol. Likewise, occasional cheese or butter won’t harm you unless you’re eating it in excess every day. But it’s always a safe bet to stick to a more Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oils (a substitute for fatty butters), fish, vegetables, and nuts, as this type of diet has been shown to cut heart disease risk in half.
Source: Virtanen J, Mursu J, Virtanen H, Fogelholm M, Salonen J, Koskinen T. Associations of egg and cholesterol intakes with carotid intima-media thickness and risk of incident coronary artery disease according to apolipoprotein E phenotype in men: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2016.