If a chef makes food that leads to clogged arteries, do you call the chef a good cook?

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I recently gave a talk about lifestyle changes to prevent heart attacks and afterwards a pleasant man came up to speak with me.

He said that he had a heart attack last year and a friend gave him Forks over Knives, a movie about the health benefits of a plant-based diet. He said that after watching the movie he did some research on his own and decided to stop eating meat and animal products.

He said that he felt great and wanted to eat this way for the rest of his life, but his wife was making it very difficult. He said that his wife was “a really good cook,” she liked all kinds of meat, eggs and butter; he could not convince her to change. He said that he started cooking his own food but that created a little rift between them because she always cooked and she resented him cooking.

Lately she seemed to be trying to sabotage him by cooking his old favorites, and he just could not resist her cooking; he also loved her and did not want to offend her. His wife was not there to defend herself so I don’t know her side of the story.  I could not tell him that maybe he needed to cancel his life insurance policy, but his situation got me thinking about the definition of a “good cook.”

If the food that someone cooks leads to clogged arteries, heart attacks, and possible death, can you really call that person a “good cook?”

In the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study 35-year follow-up, researchers compared risk factors for death from all causes and found that eating a diet that contained 210 mg of cholesterol a day doubled the risk of having a heart attack equivalent to being a current smoker.1

The only source of cholesterol in our diet is animal products; an egg contains about 210 mg,  3 oz. of shrimp contains about 179 mg, 3 oz. of  skinless chicken breast contains about 86 mg, 3 oz. of lean red meat contains about 60 mg, and 3 oz. of wild salmon  contains about  50 mg of cholesterol.2  In 2010 researchers at the University of Michigan found that dietary cholesterol crystalizes in our blood stream and tears the lining of our arteries to start the inflammatory process that leads to plaque formation, clogged arteries and heart attacks.3

We’re told to worry about the “bad” LDL cholesterol that our liver makes, but what the liver makes may not be as dangerous as what we absorb from the food we eat. The damage done by dietary cholesterol may also explain why over half the people who have heart attacks actually have normal cholesterol levels and many have no obvious risk factors.

We have all heard someone say “I eat healthy; I don’t know how I had a heart attack.”

Small amounts of cholesterol from our food may damage our arteries and cause inflammation without obvious signs such as a high cholesterol level. Most health care professionals are not aware of this research on the early effects of dietary cholesterol.  Most health care professionals eat meat and other animal products and advise their patients to do the same for protein, even though the scientific evidence is very clear that animal protein promotes cancer cell growth. 4

We are in the same place now as we were in 1930s and 1940s when most doctors smoked and advised their patients to do the same for relief of throat irritation and anxiety.  It takes a while for research to catch-up to the reality of medical practice, but in the case of cigarette smoking the research caught up quickly because of public pressure. Some people, including some health care professionals, still smoke but they do so now with the full knowledge that it is not a “good” thing to do.

If a physician gave cigarettes to patients today we would not consider that to be normal behavior and that person would not be considered a “good doctor.”

If a parent gave cigarettes to their children that would not be normal behavior and we would not consider that person to be a “good parent.”

If eating cholesterol-containing foods carries an equal risk of dying from a heart attack as smoking cigarettes, then hopefully the day is coming soon when we will no longer see eating artery- damaging cholesterol containing foods as normal behavior. When that day comes, we may also have to reconsider the definition of a “good cook.”

References

1. Baer HJ, Glynn RJ, et al., Risk factors for mortality in the nurses’ health study: a competing risks analysis.Am J Epidemiol. 2011 Feb 1;173(3):319-29.

2. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference

3. Duewell P, Kono H, et al. NLRP3 inflammasomes Are Required for Atherogenesis and Activated by Cholesterol Crystals.  Nature. 2010;464(7293):1357-61.

4.  Campbell TC, Campbell TM. The China Study: Startling implications for diet, weight                loss and long-term health. Dallas: BenBella Books, Inc.; 2006.

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