Biochemist Ron Goor, Ph.D., of Bethesda, Maryland, had a family history of serious heart disease. His father had the first of three heart attacks in 1943 at age 31 when young Ron was only three. Goor grew up with parents who preached the gospel of weight control, but their young son didn’t listen. “I thought: Why should I?,” Goor, now 56 recalls. “My father was the one with heart disease, not me.”
But when Goor turned 31, he realized that he was heavier than he wanted to be. When he looked in the mirror, he saw his own face, but his father’s shape. The memory of his father’s first heart attack spurred him to have his cholesterol measured for the first time. It was 311 milligrams per deciliter of blood (mg/dl), considerably higher than the average level of people who have heart attacks (235 mg/dl), much higher than the 200 mg/dl, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends as the safe maximum, and way above the 150 mg/dl heart disease experts suggest as the ideal level for health. Like his father, Goor was at high risk for a heart attack, the nation’s leading cause of death. “My cholesterol scared the hell out of me,” he says. “I was a heart attack waiting to happen.”
Goor’s heart attack risk spurred a change of heart about his career. He quit his job at the National Institutes of Health, and returned to school, earning a Masters in public health. In 1973, he went to work for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute as the coordinator of the Coronary Primary Prevention Trial (CPPT), an experiment to determine if heart attack risk could be reduced by lowering cholesterol. The results of the seven-year study were impressive: Cutting cholesterol definitely reduced heart attack risk. For every 1 percent decrease in cholesterol level, heart attack risk dropped 2 percent. Many other studies have subsequently confirmed this finding.
Participants in the CPPT cut their cholesterol with drugs, or by reducing the cholesterol and saturated fat in their diets, or both. (Saturated fat is the type found in red meat, butter, and whole-milk dairy foods). During the study, Goor went the exclusively dietary route. He cut his cholesterol from 311 to 200–and also lost some weight–thanks to his wife, Nancy, an artist and children’s book author, who loved to eat and refused to believe that dishes low in cholesterol and saturated fat had to be unappetizing. For more than 10 years, she tinkered with recipes and substituted ingredients, learning how to cook tasty, cholesterol-lowering cuisine. The result was Eater’s Choice: A Food Lover’s Guide to Lower Cholesterol, coauthored by the Goors. It became a best-seller, and since then, the Goors have revised and expanded it several times.
But as the 1980’s turned into the ’90’s, nutrition scientists learned that cholesterol and saturated fat were not the only villains in the American diet. All fats contribute to obesity, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, and chronic high blood pressure (hypertension). The Goors realized that it was not enough to limit dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. For optimal health, consumption of all fats should be reduced. Nancy Goor returned to her kitchen and discovered that low-fat cooking was not only possible and delicious, but that it also had an immediate payoff–major weight loss. The Goor’s latest book is The Choose to Lose Diet: A Food Lover’s Guide to Permanent Weight Loss.
Like the Goors, Dean Ornish, M.D., president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Saualito, California, was originally more interested in prevention of heart disease than in weight control. Ornish made medical history in 1994 as the first researcher to show that atherosclerosis, the narrowing of the coronary arteries that causes heart disease, could be reversed. Even more remarkable, his program involved neither drugs nor surgery, but rather an ultra-low-fat diet, yoga, a walking program, and a weekly support group. In addition to reversing his participants’ heart disease, the Ornish program had another major benefit, weight loss. The average participant lost 22 pounds during the first year–with no restrictions on the total number of calories they consumed. Most ate more and still lost weight because they their fat consumption plummeted. Dr. Ornish’s book on weight loss is Eat More, Weigh Less.
Dr. Goor and Dr. Ornish are not “diet doctors.” They’re health educators who learned through their own research and personal experience that one key to permanent weight loss–and prevention of the diseases that cause more than half of U.S. deaths–is a low-fat diet.