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Conference speaker says food wrongly associated with disease

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Lance Baumgard, Iowa State University associate professor and native of Round Lake, addresses the audience at the regional Bioscience Conference Thursday morning at the Bioscience Advancement Center in Worthington.2 / 2

WORTHINGTON -- When people say there's an increased risk of heart disease or cancer by consuming animal food products, Iowa State University animal science associate professor Lance Baumgard wants them to know that risk is a relative term.

To prove his point, Baumgard spoke of a study involving 12,000 people, half of which were told to stop drinking alcohol, exercise more and reduce their fat intake. The other half "could do whatever they wanted." At the end of the study, Baumgard said there was no difference in mortality due to heart disease. However, the special intervention group did have a higher mortality rate overall.

"So, drink your beer, eat your bacon," Baumgard told a crowd at Thursday morning's session of the Regional Bioscience Conference in Worthington.

While the crowd laughed, Baumgard said he was dead serious. For years, the messages conveyed to consumers have been that meat and milk products are bad for them -- they need to buy lean meats, low-fat dairy products and incorporate lots of fruits and vegetables into their diet.

"The Average Joe affiliates animal food products with some type of human disease, unfortunately and wrongly," Baumgard said, a Round Lake native.

The myth isn't new. In fact, Baumgard said a 50-year-old hypothesis made by Dr. Ansel Keys claims that eating saturated fat increases cholesterol, which causes clogged arteries, which leads to heart attacks and potential death.

"I'm not going to trivialize heart disease, but the connection between disease and our diet is actually quite weak," he added.

In fact, Baumgard said the initial study conducted by Keys failed to mention information from 20 countries was ignored because it didn't fit his hypothesis that saturated fat intake led to coronary heart disease.

"This has been controversial for over 50 years," he added. "In 2000, the dietary guidelines for Americans said to choose a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol and moderate in total fat. We keep getting this message that these food products are bad for you."

And yet, the waistlines of Americans continue to expand. Baumgard said it's because sugar has taken the place of animal fat in consumer diets.

In 1830, the average person consumed 15 pounds of sugar per year. In 2000, average consumption of sugar reached 150 pounds per person, per year.

At one point, Baumgard displayed results from a study printed in the British Journal of Cancer showing 6.8 percent of 32,403 meat eaters in the study developed cancer, as compared to 4 percent of 20,601 vegetarians. In other words, chances a meat eater would not get cancer were 93.2 percent and odds a vegetarian wouldn't get cancer were 96 percent.

"Would you change your lifestyle based on those statistics?" he asked.

Baumgard said there are several reasons for increased rates of cancer and coronary heart disease in people today, including their higher sugar intake, obesity, better and early diagnosis of disease and the fact Americans are living longer and thus have more opportunity to develop those diseases.

Meanwhile, he said some progress is being made at getting the proper message out to consumers. More and more articles question the low-fat diet, and for every paper that cites a negative correlation between diet and disease, there are two to three more that don't support the correlation.

"If the link exists between fat intake and specifically animal fat and human disease ... I don't think rational people will care -- that's if it exists. I don't think it does," Baumgard said. "Eat a balanced diet, exercise and maintain a healthy lifestyle."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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