Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Long-term adherence to Dr. Kwaśniewski’s Optimal Diet: Healthy with high LDL cholesterol

This is a study (Grieb, P. et al., 2008; full reference at the end of this post) that I read a few years ago, right after it came out, and at the time I recall thinking about the apparent contradiction between the positive effects of the Optimal Diet and the very elevated LDL cholesterol levels among the participants. I say “contradiction” because of the established and misguided dogma among medical doctors, particularly general practitioners, that decreasing LDL cholesterol levels is the best strategy to avoid cardiovascular disease.

The Optimal Diet is one of the best examples of a healthy diet where LDL cholesterol levels are generally high, in fact much higher than most people are willing to accept as healthy today. (In this study, LDL cholesterol levels were calculated based on the Friedewald equation.)

It is not uncommon to see people concerned about their high LDL cholesterol levels after adopting a low carbohydrate diet. (A low carbohydrate diet is, generally speaking, a high fat diet.) This study shows that this is a rather common thing, and also that it is not something that those who experience it should be too concerned about. To be convinced of this, one can always do a VAP test (see this post for a link to a sample VAP test report) and check his or her LDL particle pattern.

The study presents the Optimal Diet as the Polish equivalent to the Atkins diet. It states that the Diet’s main characteristic is maintaining the proportion of proteins:fat:carbs. in the range of 1:2.5-3.5:0.5, with no restriction on the amount of food consumed. In fact, as you will see in this post, more than 70 percent of the calories consumed by the study participants came from fat.

Easily digestible carbohydrate-rich foods are not part of the Optimal Diet. More specifically, the following foods were listed as not being allowed in the Optimal Diet: sucrose, sweets, honey, jam, white rice, bread, starches in general, beans, potatoes (only in small amounts), and sweetened drinks. Also, the Optimal Diet is definitely a low carbohydrate diet, but not what is often referred to as a "very low carbohydrate diet". In this study, the typical carbohydrate intake per day was around 60 g.

Thirty-one healthy people participated in the study, 17 women and 14 men. The average age was 51.7 (standard deviation: 16.6). They had self-reportedly adhered to the Optimal Diet for at least 1 year prior to the study; the average period of adherence was 4.1 years (standard deviation: 1.9). So, the vast majority had been on the diet for more than 2.2 years, about half for 4.1 years or more, and about one-sixth for more than 6 years. (Check this post if you want to know how these figures can be calculated based on the average period of adherence and the standard deviation.)

The table below (click on it to enlarge) shows anthropometric and physiologic characteristics of the participants. Note that longer adherence to the Optimal Diet (right end of the table) was associated with lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure, as well as lower body mass index (BMI). (It was also associated with lower height and BMR, so I am guessing that more women tended to be long-term adherers than men.) Most of the participants had BMIs in the normal range, with only one in the obese category. That was a 43-year-old man who followed the diet for 1.5 years; he had a BMI of 34.1.

The macronutrient distribution of the Optimal Diet is shown on the table below (click on it to enlarge), as followed by the participants. As you can see, protein intake was not that high; about 53.9 g per day on average for men, a bit less for women. Note the percentage of calories from fat: more than 77 percent for men and 72 percent for women. Given the BMIs just discussed, one can safely say based on this that eating a lot of fat did not make the participants fat.

The table below (click on it to enlarge) has some interesting health markers. Note that free fatty acids (FFAs) were elevated. This is to be expected, as these folks were burning fat for energy most of the time, and not as much glucose. The FFAs are not really “free”, but bound to a protein called albumin, which is abundant in human blood. FFAs yield large quantities of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the main energy “currency” used by the body.

These levels of FFAs are also usually associated with mild ketosis, where ketones are produced by the body and used for energy. Unlike albumin-bound FFAs, ketones are soluble in water, and thus circulate freely through the blood. The mild ketosis experienced by the participants was possibly to the point where ketones showed in the urine. The article mentions this, and provides a measure of beta-HB (beta-hydroxybutyrate, a ketone body), which is elevated as expected, but does not provide urine or other blood ketone measures (e.g., blood acetone levels). Also note the fairly healthy fasting glucose levels, slightly higher in men than in women, but fairly low overall. Fairly healthy insulin levels as well; at the high end of what Stephan at Whole Health Source would recommend, but still significantly lower than the average insulin level in the U.S. at the time of the article's publication.

Finally, the table below (click on it to enlarge) shows lipids and a few other measures. Total cholesterol was on average a bit more than 278 mg/dL. LDL cholesterol was a bit higher than 188 mg/dL on average; high enough to make most doctors cringe today. Based on the means and standard deviations provided, we can estimate that about 16 percent of the participants had LDL cholesterol levels higher than 228.1 mg/dL. About 2.5 percent of the participants had LDL cholesterol levels higher than 268 mg/dL. And this is all after adhering to the diet for a relatively long period of time; even higher LDL cholesterol levels might have occurred right after adoption.

Yet average HDL cholesterol was a very high and protective 71.6 mg/dL. This high HDL and the relatively low triglycerides suggest a large-buoyant non-atherogenic LDL particle pattern.

Average HOMA(IR), a measure of insulin resistance, was a low 1.35 mU/mmol; strongly indicating, together with the relatively low fasting glucose levels, that the participants were far from being pre-diabetic, let alone diabetic.

Diabetes is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and many other health complications; much more so than elevated LDL cholesterol.

The Optimal Diet does not seem to be a diet for bodybuilders, but I would say that, overall, Peter at Hyperlipid has chosen a diet that makes some sense.


Grieb, P. et al. (2008). Long-term consumption of a carbohydrate-restricted diet does not induce deleterious metabolic effects. Nutrition Research, 28(12), 825-833.