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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Several Theories of Heart Disease Origin
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Leslie M. Klevay

Ischemic heart disease is the leading cause heart attacks and the leading cause of death in the U.S. It is twice as common as all the different cancers combined.

Recently, "Science," the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published an important article, "The Soft Science of Dietary Fat." The article traced 50 years of scientific statements and dietary recommendations related to heart disease and atherosclerosis. It suggests that dietary fat has been demonized and that hundreds of millions of dollars of research have failed to prove that eating a low-fat diet will help people live longer. The article went on to point out that since the early 70s, the average American has decreased intake of dietary fat from 40% calories consumed to 34% of and average cholesterol has dropped. Yetbut surgical procedures for heart disease have increased 4 fold and obesity has surged.

In view of these trends, medical scientists are developing several alternatives to the hypothesis that dietary fat is poison. One of them, David Barker with the University of Southampton, in the United Kingdom, proposes that much adult disease has fetal origins; small infants who don't catch up by year one or who catch up with too much fat are likely to have high blood pressure and mild diabetes in middle age. Professor Barker will be in Grand Forks to give the Massee Lecture at the University of North Dakota on November 1, 2002. The Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center has been a leader in finding anatomical, chemical and physiological reasons why an adequate amount of dietary copper may be important in preventing or lowering risk of ischemic heart disease. Kilmer McCully of Harvard Medical School, whose grandfather introduced durum wheat to the Dakota Territory, illustrates how mild vitamin deficiencies of B complex vitamins from our purified diets can contribute to heart and artery disease. Jerome Sullivan, a researcher at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Charleston, SC, explains the high risk of heart disease in men, compared to women, by the fact that men retain iron throughout their lives. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health, reminds us that trans fatty acids produced when vegetable oils are hydrogenated may increase heart disease risk. It is clear that while diet largely determines heart disease risk, the science is complex. It seems prudent to select a balanced diet with a variety of foods and health promoting components.


Last Modified: 10/23/2006