Book Review/Diatribe: The Great Cholesterol Con

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I had so much fun with my last book review that I decided to do another one. Who knows, maybe it will become “a thing.” Whatever that means.

You may scratch your head on this one. The review is on a book entitled “The Great Cholesterol Con: The Truth About What Really Causes Heart Disease and How to Avoid it,” by Dr. Malcolm Kendrick.

So, why would the Catholic Diatriber review this book? Primarily, the easy answer is “because I feel like it.” But why not do so on the “Personal Diatribes” blog? Well, I don’t really post there much, and it’s really meant to be a site for anecdotes and family stories and such. Though, not exclusively so.

Actually, I am posting it here because this is where I do the majority of my posts, and also because we Catholics don’t just concern ourselves with purely spiritual matters. If we find something that can prove helpful to others, then we assist. And so, in the area of health information, I think it’s a quite Catholic thing to do to share a few lay insights into my take on Dr. Kendrick’s little book.

By way of a bit of background, my wife and I both have what I believe to be some healthy skepticism towards consensus on matters where consensus tends to shout down dissenting views. And to the extent I am a little skeptical, my wife tends to default to that view especially in areas of health. But this comes with a good dose of her seeming to be generally right, so I seldom argue. That said, I will tend to roll my eyes at some of the things she reads, and my initial reaction to this book was to do the same. Before I picked it up, the title alone struck me as a bit sensational and alarmist – kind of like those e-mails one gets with all sorts of huge, red, bolded letters with a lot of exclamation points. You know the ones – where if you don’t forward it to 800 other people then you hate America or want children to suffer or don’t love Jesus, or whatever the case may be.

I can’t even remember what prompted me to actually pick it up and start reading it. But I was actually shocked as I read it… not so much as to any claims or content, but that it was incredibly sensibly written, humorous, and fully referenced. As difficult as it may be to believe, it truly is written with a sense of humor. In my opinion this adds credibility. Too many “Exposed!” books are all about demagoguery and written with a great sense of foreboding and conspiracy. A couple of random examples of a little humor that helped make the book eminently readable follow.

Moving on from that cheery subject. Apart from the heart and the brain, you can have infarctions in the kidneys, the guts, the eyes – almost anywhere, in fact. (At this point, it occurs to me that I should, perhaps, have inscribed the words DON’T PANIC on the cover of the book.)

There are so many ways in which this analogy is wrong, that I just can’t possibly outline them all here. Hopefully, by the time you have finished this book you will understand that anyone making such a statement needs to be taken out and slapped repeatedly with a we kipper.

I shall start by presenting all of the evidence in support of the diet-heart hypothesis. It is, as follows: [ ]. (Leave space blank for any supportive evidence that might appear.)

…my memory of a traditional Scots recipe is, as follows: Step one: Place a three-pound lump of beef in a saucepan with a carrot and an onion and boil for eight hours. Step two: Eat with boiled potatoes. And as everyone knows, the Scots love a fry-up. Even a fried-up Mars bar: Step one: Take a frozen Mars bar and cover in batter. Place in deep-fat fryer for two minutes. Step two: Eat with chips while walking home in the rain.

None of those quotes are particularly relevant as far as content goes, but I thought they were funny so I felt like quoting them. There are many other such things that kept it entertaining.

Of course, humor is all well and good, but it is not the purpose of the book. So, how did I feel like it held up where actually important: making a case for what Dr. Kendrick considers to be the “con”?
This book is really just written more from the point of view that the consensus is simply wrong. Oh, sure, there are a few little potshots here and there as to the motives of some, but that is not the focus of the book. This may seem a bit surprising, given the title, which would lead one to think it’s about uncovering some great conspiracy. This isn’t really a case about conspiracy as it is about groupthink and an inability to see the forest through the trees. The author recognizes that certain things just seem so logical to the establishment that they “must be true,” and are so compelling that those studying the question cannot seem to alter their course even when studies show contradictory results. Instead, the underlying premise is assumed correct while they study certain aspects of the studied group and then provide reasons for why the study showed different results without having it affect the initial hypothesis, even when that is the simpler and more realistic answer. Some of this is certainly profit-driven, and there is a real question about ties to pharmaceutical companies among other valid observations. But the main point seems to be that good and well-meaning people just plain have it wrong, whatever the reasons for it.

I am a math guy and have studied my share of science. I am not an expert in bio-health, so I cannot state with certainty much of anything. What I can tell, I believe, is whether or not somebody is sourcing their material validly and making a strong case. I can also tell if there’s a sincerity to the opinion, or whether or not this is just a book to alarm and make money. It is my opinion that the book is a valuable read for those with an open mind to questioning the consensus. Certainly, it should not be viewed as the be-all and end-all, but should promote further questions and study.

It would take some length to summarize the points of this book, and I may do a follow-up post on that. The point of this post was to simply review the book. I believe I have covered most of what I intended to cover in the review.

If I have one critique to the negative, it is that as I read this book I found myself looking forward to the end, where I was sure it would be all laid out for me on exactly what I can do to escape heart disease now that it’s been shown that a lot of those reasons we thought caused it no longer apply. I admit I was disappointed in the conclusion. There certainly were some bullet-points there, and they had been alluded to throughout the book, but it fell quite a bit short in my opinion. It was clear that it was not the emphasis of the author to provide a “how to live your life” book, but to perhaps free us from the chains of thought that are not helping –and may be hurting us and making life more miserable than it needs to be. But a little bit more in the suggestions would have made the book feel more complete, as opposed to feeling like the author just wanted to end it after he was done with what he was really actually interested in.

Recommendation: If you eschew these kinds of books for any of the following reasons: (1) they are dry and boring; (2) they are over your head; (3) they are alarmist; (4) they are not well-referenced and lack credibility; (5) they are written by quacks who are not doctors and have no relevant experience then you have still not hit on a reason to not read this book. None of those apply. I strongly recommend reading this, if for no other reason than to consider the discussions on Statins and medications and be more informed as to how they work and better understand the total mortality concept instead of just focusing on heart disease. Read and enjoy, but make your own decisions.

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