A noted 98-year-old scientist is arguing that decades of clinical assumptions and advice about dietary cholesterol is all wrong and that the waxy, fat-light substance is actually good for your heart — as long as it is not unnaturally oxidized by frying foods in reused oil, eating lots of polyunsaturated fats, or smoking.
Fred Kummerow, an emeritus professor of comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois, says his conclusions are based on the more than six decades he has spent studying the dietary factors that contribute to heart disease. In a new paper in the American Journal of Cardiovascular Disease, he argues that research on cholesterol metabolism and heart disease shows the consumption of only oxidized cholesterol is a primary contributor to heart disease.
"Oxidized lipids contribute to heart disease both by increasing deposition of calcium on the arterial wall, a major hallmark of atherosclerosis, and by interrupting blood flow, a major contributor to heart attack and sudden death," Kummerow writes in the article, entitled "Cholesterol Won't Kill You, But Trans Fats Could."
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Kummerow says his view is informed by his own research on the physical and biochemical changes that occur in the arteries of people with heart disease. He has worked with surgeons to retrieve and examine the arteries of people suffering from heart disease, and compared his findings with those obtained in animal experiments.
He and his colleagues first reported in 2001 that the arteries of people who had had bypass operations contained elevated levels of sphingomyelin, one of several fatty substances that make up the membranes of all cells. The bypass patients also had more oxidized cholesterols (oxysterols) in their plasma and tissues than people who had not been diagnosed with heart disease.
He concluded the increase in sphingomyelin was a prime suspect in the blocked arteries of the cardiac patients. Other studies have linked increases in sphingomyelin and the deposit of calcium in the coronary arteries. In addition, oxidized fats contribute to heart disease (and sudden death from heart attacks) in an additional way, Kummerow said. He and his collaborators found that when the low-density lipoprotein (LDL, the so-called "bad cholesterol") is oxidized, it boosts the creation of blood-clotting agents.
If someone eats a diet rich in oxysterols and trans fats and also smokes, he or she is endangering the heart in three distinct ways, Kummerow said. The oxysterols enhance calcification of the arteries and promote the creation of the clotting agents. And the trans fats and cigarette smoke interfere with the production of a compound that keeps the blood fluid.
"And that causes 600,000 deaths in this country each year," Kummerow said.
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