“Even bright, intelligent people are now so brainwashed they think one egg will go straight to the heart, “says Dr. Robert E. Olson, 61, principal author of the controversial new report by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council. Contrary to popular medical theory, it found no evidence that a reduction of cholesterol in diets will help prevent heart disease. (For a story on the role of stress in heart attacks in one small town, see page 71.)
The council’s vindication of moderate servings of eggs, butter, milk and animal fats—all sources of cholesterol—won the approval of the American Medical Association and the food industry. But the American Heart Association charged the board with ignoring major population studies, which show that countries with a low-fat diet have a low incidence of heart disease. Consumer groups accused the board of being a tool of the egg and dairy industry.
Born in Minneapolis, Olson has an M.D. from Harvard and a Ph.D. from St. Louis University, where he is a professor of medicine and chairman of biochemistry. Father of five grown children, he lives with his wife, Catherine, a former nurse. Olson admits he was disturbed by the outcry over the study. Although the report was partly financed by food industry groups, and Olson is a paid consultant for the American Egg Board, he insists, “There’s no evidence of bias introduced by funding. Why shouldn’t in dustry give support to science? Anyway, I’m too stubborn to be bought.”
Recently he discussed his report with Barbara Kleban Mills of PEOPLE.
What is the main message of the Food and Nutrition Board report?
That the board—myself and 14 other members—considers it scientifically unsound to make single, all-inclusive recommendations to the public on intakes of protein, fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, fiber and salt.
But haven’t reliable studies shown for years that reducing cholesterol intake lowers the incidence of heart disease?
No. What has been shown is that a high level of serum cholesterol in the blood can lead to coronary heart disease. But there’s no clear-cut evidence that reducing blood levels of cholesterol by changes in diet can prevent coronary disease. The human body needs cholesterol. It’s manufactured by the liver and is essential to producing certain hormones.
Has the public been misled, then?
The diet-heart controversy has been growing now for about 20 years. Our board thinks the link might not be as important as other groups do. But the dogma—that heavy cholesterol intake leads to heart disease or that lower cholesterol intake will eliminate it—has gained strength by repetition way beyond what should be invested in an uncertain idea.
What about American Heart Association complaints that you ignored a vast body of evidence linking cholesterol levels with heart disease?
Our report specifically refers to those very same 10-year studies in various countries. These showed that even where serum cholesterol concentrations were lowered by anywhere from seven to 16 percent, there was no change in the mortality rate.
How did your report originate?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture first asked us to evaluate the dietary goals published in 1977 by Sen. George McGovern’s Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs. His report had urged all Americans to cut down on fats, cholesterol, salt and sugar and to eat more starches and fiber.
Was that scientifically based?
Well, McGovern felt as a senator that if you could stamp out chronic diseases, that would make health insurance cheaper. The report was written by lawyers with the advice of doctors. Some nutritionists thought it was biased and our board decided to review it. One objection we had was that over reliance on cutting fat out of the diet is not sensible for coronary heart disease, which is not primarily a nutritional disease.
Did you expect this negative reaction?
Not at all. I’m surprised by the attacks on our integrity. The consumer advocacy people are calling us a tool of industry instead of taking up the issue.
What do they mean by that?
I suppose they mean that, in my case, I have received money from the American Egg Board, and I get a retainer from them now. But I’m not advising the egg producers, and I’m not selling eggs, although I do think it’s a good food that’s been unfairly damned. The report doesn’t even mention eggs. I have been paid for giving my opinion—which is worth something, since I am a highly qualified scientist and nutritionist—not to act as an advocate for a particular group or industry. I don’t understand why it’s so important to people to discredit the report, which after all only recommends balance and moderation.
Does this hostility bother you?
In one aspect, yes. I was on the American Heart Association Research Committee—I’m an old boy of American Heart! But if people are going to say Olson’s corrupted by industry, they’d have far more reason to call me a tool of government. Over a period of 30 years I’ve had some $10 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health. I’ve gotten maybe $250,000 as a consultant from industry, including the Egg Board.
What did you do for them?
I set up a blue-ribbon research committee to evaluate grant applications.
Is it a good idea for scientists to accept funds from industry?
I think university professors should be talking to people beyond the university. I believe, also, that money is contaminated by the user rather than the source. All scientists need funds. My own department needs $1.4 million a year for a faculty of 19. We have to file 100 grant applications annually, otherwise we’d never keep going.
Is this the board’s first report?
Not at all. The Food and Nutrition Board was created in 1940 by the federal government and first calculated the recommended dietary allowances (RDA) for a basically healthy U.S. population. The ninth edition was published this year.
What motivated this report?
We were concerned about the flood of dietary recommendations the public is getting from many different quarters—government, health and consumer groups and health-food interests. These often lack a sound scientific foundation. Some contradict one another. We wanted to reduce that confusion.
Do you include the Pritikin diet among those of questionable value?
Yes. The Pritikin is simply malnutrition. You get low calories, low protein and low fat, just as you do in a concentration camp. As with malnutrition, chronic diseases go away. The Pritikin is really a rice diet. It does do things—weight loss, relief from heart pain. But in the prison camps of the Far East during World War II, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure also went down, because symptoms of disease need nourishment too. Still, if people want to spend $5,000 to go and be malnourished, that’s their choice.
What about the relationship between cancer and diet?
Some tumors, such as those of the breast and uterus, are associated with obesity. One of our report’s chief recommendations is to maintain ideal body weight by eating a variety of foods, avoiding too much salt and drinking alcohol in moderation. Since the board finds no evidence of causal relationship between nutrition and cancer, we’re not recommending changes.
How do you maintain ideal weight without restricting fats?
The American Heart Association has recommended that the fat content of diets be cut from 40 percent of calories to 30 percent. But fat per se is not harmful. Cholesterol per se is not harmful. Babies, adolescent boys, pregnant teenage girls and adults doing heavy manual work don’t need to reduce their fat intake to below 40 percent. They need the energy, and fat equals energy. But if you’re a low energy spender and don’t exercise, then you should probably cut down on fats, sugar and alcohol.
Who else should be careful?
People with a family history of obesity, hypertension, diabetes or heart disease. If their blood test is abnormal, a doctor’s help should be sought.
What sort of a diet do you follow?
I’d say it’s pretty well balanced. There are no dictates. I’m big on salads and don’t avoid meats. I watch the scales and enjoy my food. My wife is a good cook. She does everything from scratch and bakes her own bread. She’s strong on variety. We don’t exclude anything, and neither of us is allergic to anything, although I’ve cut down on salt. And we now use just about equal amounts of polyunsaturated margarine and unsalted butter.
What did you hope would come out of your report?
There’s a lot of fear of food, and I’d like to allay some of that. The report is called “Toward Healthful Diets.” It says, “Good food that provides appropriate proportions of nutrients should not be regarded as a poison, a medicine or a talisman. It should be eaten and enjoyed.” I thought I was bringing good news and doing a good turn for Americans. But my friend Dr. Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, was right. Cholesterol is a code word for anxiety. After he read the 10th draft of the report he said, “It’s solid, scientifically based and worthy of publication. But it will be bathed in controversy.”