Listen to Life in the Data, Episode 2, featuring Daniel Duane:
It all started with 229, 178, and 24.8, back in 2006. Before that, I thought of my health in words: surfer, jogger, farmers’-market shopper, nonsmoker, prudent father of two young girls. Put another way, I thought I lived too sensibly to worry about cholesterol. Then I discovered French cooking and home butchery, started buying whole hogs and keeping all those chops in a freezer. Plus, I turned 38. I’m not sure what it was about 38; maybe the view it provided of 40. I decided to get a checkup.
That first number, 229, put my total cholesterol well above what the doctor said was a preferred ceiling of 200. The second number, 178, pegged my LDL “bad” cholesterol even further above his preferred 130. The final number, 24.8, my body mass index, placed me one french fry short of “overweight.” My doctor’s computer calculated “borderline cardiovascular risk.”
I had read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food. I knew that some of the smartest people now doubt the lipid hypothesis, the idea that heart disease begins with saturated fat driving up cholesterol, clogging the arteries. I had also read Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories, so I knew there was a case to be made that LDL and total cholesterol numbers were crap, because they lumped together multiple subcategories of cholesterol, many of which were cardioprotective. Taubes also convinced me that sugar, not meat, was the real culprit in heart disease. I told my doctor I’d cut back on ice cream.
Two years later, 40 made me look again at 229, 178, and 24.8. They’d all worsened: 253, 198, and 25.1. My BMI scored as “overweight” and my cardiovascular risk ranked “high.” My doctor prescribed cholesterol-lowering statin medication. My cholesterol numbers dropped to 180 and 127, “near or above optimal.”
I returned to words: jogger, farmers’-market shopper, prudent taker of statins.
Then I turned 41 and, by chance, discovered a new set of numbers. Strength- and-conditioning coaches have charts. You look up your age and body weight to find out how much you should be able to bench, squat, and dead lift to consider yourself a badass.
Surfer, jogger, and farmers’-market shopper yielded to “weakling.”
I lifted. My lifting numbers rose—and I got heavier. That meant a higher BMI. I read that BMI was crap, making zero distinction between muscle and fat. Obese guy, buff guy—same BMI.
I kept lifting. Then progress stalled on my numbers. I read around: Muscles get stronger if you lift hard enough to tear them down and then rest enough for them to grow back stronger. A British study said statins undermine muscle recovery after exercise. I learned more: statins do lower cholesterol, but no study of statins had ever found a truly meaningful benefit to people who have never had a heart attack. (Weird, but true.) Countless studies have shown that indicators measured through words— exercise (surfer, jogger), diet (farmers’-market shopper)—do dramatically lower the likelihood of that first heart attack, regardless of cholesterol.
I quit statins and began chugging raw milk. My lifting numbers climbed.
I heard about a new test called the Vertical Auto Profile, discriminating among all those cholesterol subcategories, the ones lumped together in conventional LDL testing. I signed up, certain that my subcategories would turn out great, reconciling my linguistic and numerical identities.
The VAP doctor, looking at my results: “This is pretty much a D minus. Do men in your family die of strokes in their 40s?” They do not. I did not go back on statins.
When I stopped weight lifting and took up triathlons and lost 28 pounds, I told myself that it honestly had nothing to do with cholesterol, just a new athletic challenge. When I eliminated dairy and cut back on steaks, I told myself triathletes do better on carbs.
When I cooked my way through Rick Stein’s Complete Seafood, it was purely because I’d always wanted to master the fish-cookery basics, not because I’d heard about omega-3 fish oils.
Finally, when I revisited my original doctor and scored 194, 138, and 24—“near or above optimal” cholesterol at “normal body weight”—without statins, I resisted feeling good about myself because words matter more than numbers.