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The Dangers of a High-Fat Diet

After smoking, a high-fat diet is the second most lethal habit you can have. According to a report in The Journal of the American Medical Association, smoking causes 400,000 deaths a year. High-fat diets cause 300,000.
Several more highly publicized social evils are comparatively small problems: alcohol (81,000 deaths), guns (19,000), auto accidents (41,000), and drug abuse (14,000). These statistics in no way minimize the tragedies of alcoholism, murder, or drug addiction. But they do provide perspective on what's really killing us.

And what's killing us is preventable. "Most Americans who have chronic health problems," says William Castelli, M.D., longtime director of the Framingham Heart Study, the nation's oldest ongoing research program into the causes of heart disease, "would not have them if they ate a low-fat diet."

Consider the dangers of dietary fat, and judge for yourself: Obesity As weight increases above a body mass index (BMI) of about 28, so does risk of premature death. Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, several cancers, hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. Heart disease The United States' leading cause of death, heart disease, kills 730,000 Americans a year, most as a result of heart attacks. About one American in four suffers some form of heart disease.

Heart disease results from a process called atherosclerosis, or artery disease, which is directly linked to dietary fat. Fatty foods are high in cholesterol and free radicals. Free radicals are oxygen molecules that have lost an electron and become highly reactive. As they circulate in the blood, they snatch electrons away from other molecules, sometimes grabbing them from the cells that line artery walls. The microscopic injuries that free radicals inflict begin a decades-long process that eventually narrows the arteries with cholesterol-rich deposits called plaques.

Sometimes plaques break off, entering the blood stream. If a plaque breaks off in one of the two coronary arteries, which nourish the heart, its debris can cause complete blockage. Without food and oxygen to nourish its hard-working cells, part of the heart dies. That's a heart attack.

Although heart disease usually doesn't strike before 40 in men or before menopause in women, atherosclerotic arterial damage begins in childhood. A study by Jack Strong, M.D., chair of the pathology department at Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans, analyzed autopsies of 1,532 teenagers who had died in accidents. One hundred percent showed atherosclerotic plaques in their aortas, the body's largest artery. Stroke This is America's third leading cause of death, claiming 159,877 lives a year. There are two major types of stroke, one caused by bleeding in the brain (hemorrhagic), the other by blockage of an artery in the brain (ischemic). About 75% of strokes are ischemic, and the vast majority of those are caused by cerebral thrombosis, blockage of a brain artery that develops in a process similar to heart attack, with fat-related atherosclerosis and plaque rupture. Cancer A high-fat diet does not contribute to all cancers, but many studies have linked it to several, notably colon and breast cancer, which together account for 100,000 deaths a year.

Other studies suggest that a high-fat diet may play a role in causing cancers of the prostate (42,000 deaths annually) and pancreas (28,000), lung cancer in nonsmokers (30,000), and malignant melanoma (7,300).

The American Cancer Society urges everyone to eat less fat. Dietary fat contributes to cancer risk because of free radicals, and a high-fat diet increases the number of these molecules in the blood. If they don't snatch electrons from artery walls, causing heart attack or stroke, they may grab them from the chromosomes that contain a body's genes. Chromosomes can often repair themselves, but if significant damage continues for many years, cellular repair mechanisms may become overwhelmed, resulting in cancer. High blood pressure (hypertension) Hypertension is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. A high-fat diet makes it worse by adding extra pounds. As weight increases, the heart must work harder to pump blood through all the extra tissue. As the heart's effort increases, so does blood pressure. Diabetes Diabetes contributes to an estimated 250,000 deaths a year. When afflicted with diabetes, the body cannot metabolize blood sugar because of problems with the pancreatic hormone insulin. In type 1 diabetes, the pancreas stops producing insulin. In the vastly more common type 2 diabetes, typically associated with obesity, insulin production may be normal but obesity prevents the body from using it efficiently. Osteoarthritis Dietary fat contributes to the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis, because excess weight subjects the body's major joints to extra wear and tear. Rheumatoid arthritis A high-fat diet also appears to increase risk of rheumatoid arthritis, the most serious and potentially crippling form of joint disease. Several studies suggest that a low-fat diet relieves RA symptoms. Multiple sclerosis For the last 50 years, Roy Swank, M.D., a professor emeritus of neurology at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, has amassed evidence that a high-fat diet is a key risk factor for multiple sclerosis, which causes an enormous number of symptoms from blurred vision to paralysis. His studies show that a low-fat diet minimizes MS symptoms.


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