Cholesterol is proved deadly, and our diet may never be the same
This year began with the announcement by the Federal Government of the results of the broadest and most expensive research project in medical history. Its subject was cholesterol, the vital yet dangerous yellowish substance whose level in the bloodstream is directly affected by the richness of the diet. Anybody who takes the results seriously may never be able to look at an egg or a steak the same way again. For what the study found, after ten years of research costing $150 million, promises to have a profound impact on how Americans eat and watch their health. Among the conclusions:
> Heart disease is directly linked to the level of cholesterol in the blood.
> Lowering cholesterol levels markedly reduces the incidence of fatal heart attacks.
Basil Rifkind, project director of the study, believes that research "strongly indicates that the more you lower cholesterol and fat in your diet, the more you reduce your risk of heart disease."
Everybody knows George Ford. Or somebody like George Ford. There he was, 52, the energetic president of a small Ohio electronics firm who "wouldn't eat an egg unless it was fried in bacon grease" His lunches were executive size. He matched his business cronies drink for drink. He smoked "pretty heavily" and exercised with a knife and fork. In the winter of 1981 doctors informed Ford that his cholesterol levels were dangerously high; by April he required a quadruple coronary bypass operation. He emerged from the hospital determined to revise his ways radically. Today he does not smoke, he exercises four or five days a week, and he sticks scrupulously to a diet high in fiber and low in cholesterol and fat. "I haven't had a slice of bacon in three years," he says. He is proud and relieved that his cholesterol level is normal. "Maybe heart disease is God's way of telling us we're living too damn high on the hog," Ford says. "It's hard to practice moderation in this country. We're a nation of excess."
Sadly, George Ford is right. By the time the average American puts down his fork for the day, he has consumed the equivalent of a full stick of butter in fat and cholesterol. This is despite more than 25 years of warnings from doctors and the American Heart Association about the dangers of such oleaginous indulgence. All their good advice, plus the urgings of the health-and-fitness movement, has, it seems, succeeded only in making us feel guiltier as we plow our way through the eggs Benedict. Although intake of animal fats has been declining, American men continue to consume an average of about 500 mg of cholesterol a day, and women 350 mg, in both cases about 60% more than the Heart Association recommends. About 40% of our daily calories are taken in as fat; this is about 30% more than Americans ate 60 years ago, and nearly three times the amount consumed by the Japanese and some African and Latin American populations.