UI scientist writes book of simple truths about food
URBANA – First the nutrition gurus told us we shouldn't eat butter because it's an artery-clogging saturated fat.
Then they told us to watch out for margarine because it's an artery-clogging trans fat.
Fred Kummerow never wondered which one to spread on his toast. He knew butter was better for us more than half a century ago, and he explains why in his new book, "Cholesterol Won't Kill You But Trans Fat Could: Separating Scientific Fact from Nutritional Fiction in What you Eat."
A 93-year-old University of Illinois food scientist who's focused his life's research on the role of fat and diet in heart disease, Kummerow said he wrote this book to debunk common food myths and share his belief that America is on the wrong track, by focusing so much attention on cholesterol to reduce cardiac deaths.
One of Kummerow's daughters, psychologist Jean Kummerow, helped him with the writing to make sure it's understandable for a nonscientist audience, he said.
Fred Kummerow says cholesterol, a life-sustaining substance needed to make new cells in the body, has gotten a bad rap – while not nearly enough attention has been focused on the ill effects of manufactured trans fats.
Contrary to common belief, he writes, six decades worth of research haven't proven that cholesterol actually causes heart disease; and cutting too much of it from our diets can actually do more harm than good.
"By focusing on lowering cholesterol levels, we may possibly be creating health problems in the future and sidetracking efforts to find the causes and cures (or at least a way to delay the onset) of heart disease," he writes.
Kummerow acknowledges his findings contradict what most people believe these days. After all, even the American Heart Association lists high blood cholesterol as a major risk factor for heart disease, and doctors are always advising patients at risk for heart disease to cut their cholesterol.
"It is one of the most important factors," says Dr. Batlagundo Lakshminarayanan, a cardiologist with Provena Medical Group.
Lakshminarayanan says he tries to educate his patients that not all cholesterol is created equal. There's the good HDL and the bad LDL, and then there are the ugly triglycerides, another kind of fat found in the blood. And it's the latter two you want to keep low, he adds.
"It is a very big deal," he adds. "If the LDL is lower than 70, your risk dramatically drops with heart attacks and strokes."
Kummerow says his research has shown it's not so much about lowering cholesterol but rather how to eat the right combination of foods to minimize the cholesterol that isn't used properly by the body.
But it's going to take some time to convince the public of that, he says. Cholesterol is well-entrenched as a heart health enemy – so much so that people spend more money each year on cholesterol-lowering drugs (statins) than the National Institutes of Health spends on research of all diseases, he adds.
"All studies on statins agree that statins do lower cholesterol levels. However, lower cholesterol levels have not eliminated deaths from heart disease," Kummerow writes.
But eliminating manufactured trans fats could, he contends: They're so bad for us, he says, they should be banned.
Trans fats – produced by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil to turn a liquid fat into a solid one – first appeared in America's diet around 1900, and are probably responsible for the increase in cardiac deaths that occurred from 1920 to 1950, Kummerow said.
As for the new requirement on food manufacturers to list the trans fat content in their products, Kummerow doesn't think much of it.
Here's why: The labeling law treats manufactured trans fats (present in many margarines, baked goods and many fried foods) the same as it does natural trans fats that come from meat and dairy products, when the two actually work differently in the body, he says.
Natural trans fats don't interfere with the making of cell membranes, so they're safe to eat, Kummerow writes. Manufactured trans fats, on the other hand, cause unhealthy changes in the way cell membranes are made in the body, including those of arteries and veins.
Another problem with the labeling law: Food makers aren't required to list trans fats in products containing less than a half-gram per serving. But these small amounts add up in our bodies, Kummerow said.
"What's a serving?" he asks. Read the label and you may find out it's two little cookies, and who eats just two?
His advice beyond avoiding trans fats: Eat a balanced diet. Cut back on calories if you need to, and avoid eating between meals so your body can use its fat in its fasting period.
But your diet should include some fat. Butter and vegetable oil, for example, are good sources of essential fatty acids the body needs to keep blood flowing, he said.
Two other food groups Kummerow says people shouldn't cut from their diets to cut cholesterol:
– Protein, a basic nutrient essential to carry fat and cholesterol through the blood and prevent heart disease. Cutting the best protein sources (meat, dairy and eggs) from your diet can do more harm than good, he says.
– Carbohydrates are an important energy source for the brain and the heart, but don't eat too many: Excess carbs are turned into fat.
You want to lose weight? Eat right and weigh yourself daily, Kummerow advises.
He does, and when he gains, he cuts back for a few days. When he loses, he treats himself to ice cream or a slice of cherry pie.
To order Fred Kummerow's book, go to the publisher's Web site, www.trafford.com. Kummerow said all royalties will go to support his ongoing research at the University of Illinois.