The war on cholesterol: promoting public health or drug company marketing strategy?

If you keep up with the news, you may have read or heard about the newly publicized “war on cholesterol”. It was announced that, in a shift in policy, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is recommending that cholesterol-lowering drugs be prescribed more aggressively to individuals with a history or other risk factors for heart disease, even if they do not have particularly elevated cholesterol levels. This could potentially triple the number of adults in this country taking cholesterol-lowering drugs. But is this new policy based on science alone, or on drug companies’ skillful marketing and vast profit potential? Interestingly, this announcement did not follow any new breakthrough studies showing that cholesterol is the ultimate cause of heart disease. In an interesting op/ed article published in the May 23, 2001 edition of the Houston Chronicle and other leading newspapers, Robert Atkins, MD pointed out that the new policy fails to address serious side effects of these drugs, including potentially severe liver damage and increased risk of cancer. In addition, these prescriptions have a high financial cost to individuals and/or insurers. The NIH also disregards a mounting body of evidence indicating that, through a controlled-carbohydrate diet, exercise and dietary supplements, cholesterol and other risk factors for heart disease can be effectively corrected. Dr. Atkins is a board-certified cardiologist and the author of several books on the benefits of a low-carbohydrate diet. Numerous studies spanning a decade or more point to a complex set of causes that lead to heart disease, rather than implicating cholesterol alone. Some of these causes are strongly linked to lifestyle, diet and nutrient deficiencies. They include chronic inflammation, elevated insulin levels in the blood, pro-oxidants and so-called free radicals, as well as low testosterone in men and low estrogen in women1. Elevated blood levels of a chemical called homocysteine have also been shown conclusively to be associated with a higher risk of heart disease even in the absence of elevated cholesterol2. Homocysteine buildup in the blood is caused by a deficiency of certain B vitamins.

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