While the majority of people who go Primal see their blood lipids improve, a significant minority do not in the short term. They see LDL cholesterol skyrocket, or their total cholesterol increase, and sometimes triglycerides even mysteriously elevate despite a low-carb intake.
What’s going on here? Should you go on statins? Should you add grains back in? Should you start jogging for a couple hours every night? Should you even worry about it?
Before you freak out, let’s go over a couple things:
Even though it may be sufficient to get your doctor to write a statin prescription, keep in mind that a total cholesterol level of between 200 and 240 is associated with the lowest risk of all-cause mortality (PDF).
If it’s LDL you’re worried about, total particle count is the thing to watch. Standard lipid panels, including LDL-C (amount of cholesterol inside the particles) and total cholesterol, can certainly give you an idea of your particle count, but you might want to read up on advanced lipid tests, too, if you’re not satisfied. Confirm that your “elevated cholesterol” is actually an issue.
That said, seeing a host of beyond-end-range numbers on your lipid test can be scary. It can also be confusing, especially if everything else appears to be going so well for you health-wise. So today, I’m going to explore a few of the reasons why your cholesterol might have gone up after going Primal. Some reasons will quell your fears, while some may provide avenues for further experimentation. At any rate, you’ll learn something.
You’re losing weight.
Going Primal often means weight loss. This is a good thing, as excess body fat is unhealthy. We want to increase lean mass while decreasing fat mass. Usually, such weight loss leads to improvements in lipid numbers. If you get your cholesterol checked when you’re fifty pounds overweight, lose it all, and check it again once your weight stabilizes, your numbers will likely have improved. That’s what the studies tend to suggest.
When you lose weight the good way – by burning body fat rather than lean mass – you are consuming pure animal fat. Say you’re dropping a pound of body fat every four days or so – that’s releasing a stream of 3500 calories-worth of animal fat into your blood stream as triglycerides and free fatty acids. If you take a snapshot of your lipids in the midst of this rapid weight loss, there’s a chance that your numbers will look off. Triglycerides in particular may be up, way up (since your blood is now full of them, newly liberated from adipose tissue).
Solution: Recheck once your weight has stabilized.
You’re deficient in some key micronutrients.
Yeah, the food we get to eat on Primal is delicious and incredibly nutritious, but that doesn’t mean we’re completely immune to nutritional deficiencies, especially considering a lot of the food we stopped eating – grain products like breakfast cereal and granola bars, and processed foods of all kinds – were our most reliable sources of vitamins and minerals thanks to the wonders of fortification.
A few of the most common include:
- Iodine - Iodine is required for production of thyroid hormone, and too large a reduction in thyroid activity can lower the expression of LDL receptors. Without enough LDL receptors, LDL doesn’t get cleared from the blood. Primal eaters who give up iodized salt for sea salt without making up the difference with adequate seaweed and seafood may be missing out on iodine (eating tons of goitrogenic cruciferous veggies at the same time might compound the problem).
- Copper – Copper deficiency is associated with elevated levels of LDL, as well as increased particle number. Both oysters and ruminant liver are excellent sources of copper. You eating your offal and shellfish?
- Selenium – Selenium deficiency is associated with reduced LDL receptor activity (and subsequent elevated LDL levels). Salmon, kidneys, and brazil nuts are great sources of selenium.
Solution: Eat some liver, shellfish, seaweed, salmon, brazil nuts, and check your diet against a nutritional database for a couple weeks to see if you’re hitting all your targets.
You’re grazing all day.
People coming from a standard Westernized diet are usually ravenously hungry at all times. They have trouble going several hours between meals. And then they switch to Primal eating, their hunger issues improve, but the snacking remains. It’s tough to beat. After all, we live in a culture of snacking (those of us in the US, at least). If you work in an office, snacks abound. Donuts are always being trotted in and paraded about. Jars of candy beans and M&Ms adorn every second desk. People keep “snack stashes” in their desk drawers.
And so we snack. Instead of giving our bodies and digestive systems a break, we remain in “fed” mode. As soon as our bodies start to get a handle on the nutrition we’ve recently ingested, we send in some more – just as our guts were about to crack a beer and take a load off. Admittedly, I don’t have any studies to reference, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that staying in the fed state hampers our ability to utilize the fatty acids in our blood (since there’s a constant influx of nutrients, why bother burning what we have?), and thus might cause elevated cholesterol.
I’m not saying you have to fast, because you don’t. But I would caution people against grazing – against always having something on hand to absentmindedly munch on, against gallivanting around with a sackful of salted nuts on your belt, against eating 6-12 small “meals” per day so as to avoid imminent muscle catabolism. Just eat real meals, substantial plates of food that keep you sated for four to five hours a pop.
Solution: Eat real meals.
Your activity levels don’t match your carb intake.
While I’m a proponent of tailoring your workouts so that you don’t require a high-carb diet, many people enjoy maintaining a high level of sustained intensity in their workouts. That’s cool. I get it. Just don’t think you can stay very low carb and enjoy good health while maintaining high-intensity endurance or metcon training on a daily basis.
What’s this have to do with cholesterol? Well, if you’re hitting the metcons regularly without the necessary glucose infusions, your body conserves what glucose is available. We need some glucose for brain function (ketones and other sources can handle a lot of our brain’s needs, but not all of it), so in order to preserve what little glucose is available, T3 thyroid hormone is reduced. Normally, T3 increases glucose utilization, but when the body doesn’t have enough due to mismatched exercise output and carb input, T3 must drop to conserve glucose. Unfortunately, this lowered T3 can lead to lowered LDL receptor activity, which leads to increased lipid levels.
Solution: Align your activity levels with your carb intake.
You’re still not moving frequently at a slow pace.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: low level aerobic activity in the form of walking, hiking, easy cycling, or even light rowing is absolutely essential. There’s a reason it forms the base of my Primal Blueprint Fitness pyramid. When you go for a good-sized walk, you’re not burning calories. You’re not blasting your abz, bunz, and gunz. You’re not vomiting on yourself from overexertion. It’s not exciting. It won’t make a good Youtube video set to Linkin Park. But what you will be doing is utilizing those free fatty acids that might be throwing off your lipid panels.
In one study, patients who walked briskly were far less reliant on cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes medications. Those who took the longest walks at the briskest pace were the least likely to have LDL cholesterol high enough to warrant statins. In another, brisk walking was enough to reduce triglycerides and LDL particle count in overweight women.
Lifting heavy things and sprinting once in awhile are excellent acute stressors that elicit fantastic health and performance benefits, but constant low-level movement is the foundation of it all, especially if you’re eating more fat and trying to become a true fat-burning beast.
Solution: Do I even have to say? This isn’t optional. Go for a walk!
You’re not lifting heavy things.
Cholesterol isn’t out to get us, you know. We don’t manufacture the stuff to commit slow suicide. It actually serves a purpose in our bodies. From cholesterol, we produce steroid hormones, sex hormones, and make vitamin D (with a little help from the sun, of course). With cholesterol, lipid particles transport nutrients and antioxidants to various parts of the body. Research shows that, following weight lifting, we also use cholesterol to repair and rebuild muscles.
In fact, acute bouts of resistance training can cause large reductions in blood lipids. One study found that total cholesterol was reduced up to 48 hours after a single weight training session. Another (PDF) found that the cholesterol reduction persisted at 72 hours post workout. Interestingly, the drop in cholesterol in both studies accompanied a rise in creatine kinase, an indirect marker of the degree of muscle damage caused by strength training. The fact that the effects persist for days after a single bout of weight training suggests that regularly lifting heavy things can effectively manage your cholesterol.
Eating fat can increase cholesterol. Not in everyone, not even in most, but enough people see a (usually neutral) increase in cholesterol when they start eating more fat. That’s all well and good as long as you make use of it. Lifting heavy things, whether it’s your own bodyweight, someone else’s, a barbell, a log, or a machine, breaks down and then repairs muscle. Cholesterol is required to repair muscle, to make it stronger. To make you stronger. If you squander the opportunity to use all that cholesterol by failing to lift anything heavy, don’t be surprised if things get a little screwy with your blood lipids.
Solution: Lift heavy things at least twice a week.
Notice a common thread? Most of these reasons for elevated cholesterol are easily testable. And if you can test them, you can probably find a solution. Think back to the recent series on self-experimentation if you need some pointers.
That’s what I’ve got. What about you? Has your cholesterol increased since going Primal? Do any of these sound familiar? If so, how are you going to approach the issue – if at all? Or, if something else was causing your increase, tell us how you fixed it. Thanks for reading, everyone!