ROCKLAND, Maine — An overflow crowd filled the Good Tern Natural Foods Store Oct. 10 as Dr. Ralph Hamill unveiled a new diet that he hopes will control cholesterol and reduce the nation’s high rate of cardiovascular disease.
Hamill, a cardiologist at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, spoke for more than an hour to about 50 people who crammed into the health food store to hear about his new diet that focuses on eating more tree nuts, dark chocolate, tomatoes, certain yogurts and extra virgin olive oil.
A normal 40-year-old man in the United States has a 5 percent risk of heart disease within 10 years and 43 percent in his lifetime, Hamill said.
“Forty-three percent and that’s considered normal,” Hamill said.
The average total cholesterol level in the United States is 208, nearly twice what it should be, Hamill said.
He noted in Africa, where diets are much healthier, cardiovascular disease hardly exists.
To try to provide further proof that people in the United States can lower their levels of bad cholesterol and increase the presence of good cholesterol, Hamill is proposing a clinical trial of his diet.
The goal of the diet is not to lower weight, he said, but to lower the bad type of cholesterol, known as low-density lipoprotein, or LDL.
Originally, the study was going to involve only 10 people, but Hamill said the company that provides some blood testing supplies for Pen Bay Medical Center has agreed to cover the cost of blood tests for 70 participants. Laboratory employees at the hospital also have volunteered their time to perform the blood tests to check participants’ cholesterol levels before and after the four-week diet.
Each participant will be given a diary to write down what they ate.
Pen Bay approved the clinical trial this month, Hamill said.
He wants participants in the diet trial to be people who now have what is considered an average diet.
“If you’re already on a good diet, grazing here, we’re not interested in you,” Hamill joked during his talk at the natural food store.
He said people who eat a vegetarian diet would not be sought for participation.
The trial will last for four weeks, with participants paying approximately $100 for the package of food that is part of the diet.
“If the food was provided to participants, it would not reflect a real-life situation,” the cardiologist said.
The goal is to convince people to eat a heart-healthy diet even after the trial. He said the foods on the diet can be purchased at local grocery stores — the Good Tern has all the food that is part of the diet.
People’s intake of sugary foods has increased by a factor of 10 during the past 200 years, he said. And beginning in the mid-1970s, government policies have contributed to the steep jump in the use of high-fructose corn syrup in many foods, which is a leading cause of increased cholesterol and obesity in the United States, he said.
“If you read labels, it’s in almost everything,” Hamill said.
He said the government subsidizes the production of corn so that it can be made into the low-cost sweetener. High-fructose corn syrup also makes people hungrier, he said, compounding the obesity and cholesterol problems.
Under Hamill’s diet, people avoid fatty foods containing trans fats, such as doughnuts, french fries and fried dough. Ice cream should be avoided and substituted with frozen yogurt or sorbet.
A healthy diet also should include less processed meat and less feed-lot beef; those should be substituted with local, grass-fed meat, he said. Hamill also said people should eat less bread, pasta and potatoes.
The diet he proposes calls for eating tree nuts such as walnuts, pistachios and almonds; soluble fiber such as whole oats, bran, barley, psyllium powder and pectin; fish and fish oil capsules; dark chocolate (one small bar a day); one cup of V8 juice a day; one-half to one cup of yogurt with live cultures; extra virgin olive oil when cooking; soy, soy milk or almond milk; and a meat substitute from mushrooms called quorn.
He warned people, however, that anyone with an allergy to penicillin should be cautious about consuming quorn.
And instead of butter or margarine, Hamill said people need to use substitutes that go by brand names such as Promise or Smart Balance.
People signed up at the Oct. 10 presentation to participate in the diet study. Hamill said there are still openings and anyone interested in signing up can call 596-8959. Hospital employees also are being offered an opportunity to participate in the study.
Study results will be released once the tests are completed and compiled, he said.
“A one-point drop in the LDL can translate to a 1 percent drop in death,” Hamill told the gathering. He said that would have a major impact on what is the most common cause of death and disability in the United States.