That Oily Aggression By Rob Kasper


September 16, 1990

I've been meaner lately, shouting at the kids, snapping at my wife, being more aggressive toward other drivers -- especially those jerks who play what's-my-lane.

I think I know why I've been so hostile. It is the olive oil. Every morning, in a bow to the cholesterol police, instead of slathering my toast with butter I dip it in olive oil. According to the authorities olive oil is less of an artery-clogger than butter. According to me, it tastes good on toast.

Recent studies, however, have indicated that lowering your cholesterol may make you meaner.

This, of course, is a vast oversimplification of complicated scientific research. For a more studied view, I refer you to the comments of Dr. Stephen M. Weiss, chief of behavioral medicine at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

In a phone interview, he said that the long-term health benefits of being on a low-fat diet still outweigh any side effects. But he acknowledged that one of the side effects of the low-fat diet may be that some people on it somehow become more vulnerable to accidents, suicides and homicides. He said that the research that indicates signs of aggressive behavior among low-fat eaters is preliminary. And he said flatly that anyone with a high cholesterol level is better off eating a low-fat diet.

After talking with experts, what I concluded was that people eating low-fat food, like olive oil and oat bran, do have healthier hearts. But everybody who eats a low-fat diet isn't necessarily living a longer, happier live.

As a matter of fact, the word in some circles is that some folks in the low-cholesterol crowd may lead angrier lives.

Research done by Jay R. Kaplan of Wake Forest University found that monkeys on low-fat diets like to fight much more than monkeys eating high-fat foods. One group of monkeys ate a diet that contained 30 percent fat, while another group feasted on a diet of 43 percent fat. The research findings were presented at a medical meeting in Boston last March. Stephen B. Manucka, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, was co-author of the research paper.

The low-fat, or eating-smart, monkeys were were significantly more aggressive than the high-fat or junk-food monkeys. In a 22-month period the low-fat monkeys got into twice as many quarrels as their junk-food companions.

This link between low cholesterol level and a short fuse seems to be borne out by a second study, a statistical analysis of seven well-known heart studies, or trials, of humans.

This analysis confirmed that if you are on a low-cholesterol diet, your risk of dying from heart disease drops. However, this doesn't mean you live longer. Instead the analysis found that any edge the low-fat eaters picked up in their battle against the Grim Reaper was wiped out by an increase in the number of accidental, suicidal and homicidal deaths. Whether the crowd is called "accident prone" or risk-taking, they shouldn't be messed with.

To me this makes sense. If I were forced to eat low-fat food, I too would compensate by walking on the wild side.

The debate over whether eating oat bran and olive oil will transform you into a thug is just getting started. One theory is that lowering the cholesterol levels also lowers the chemical serotonin in the brain. What scientists call "aggressive individuals" and what the rest of us call "bad guys" are believed to have low serotonin levels.

The theory goes something like this. If you eat low-fat food, you lower your cholesterol. If you lower your cholesterol, you also lower your serotonin. If you lower your serotonin, you get hostile. If you get hostile, you want to punch the lights out of anybody who looks at you funny.

did a little research on this theory. I checked it out with the maitre d', Nicholas Burns, at the Brass Elephant restaurant in downtown Baltimore.

Recently the restaurant, in cooperation with Pompeian Olive Oil, has been offering customers free servings of bread and extra virgin olive oil. Rather than covering the bread with butter, restaurant patrons are encouraged to dip the bread in heart-healthy olive oil.

This has been going on for five weeks. So I asked the maitre d' for a report on any unseemly low-fat-inspired incidents.

I wanted to know if any olive-oil eaters had swaggered over to a nearby diner and shouted, "Hey! You! Butter eater! Wanna go outside?"

No, the maitre d' said.

How about a cholesterol square-off? I asked. Have any olive-oil eaters challenged the butter eaters in the restaurant to a cholesterol-level showdown? A "mine-is-lower-than yours" contest?

Not so far, he said.

How about this penchant for risk-taking, I asked. Have the olivoil eaters tried anything dangerous, like attempting to swallow a shish kebab?

Not so far, he said.

On the contrary, Burns said that giving the customers free olive oil got the meal off on a genial note. This mood held right through dessert, he said, a course where the olive-oil eaters seem to display the same amount of aggression as anyone else.

So based on this report that all is quiet on the olive-oil front, I am sticking with my morning ritual. I am still dipping my toast in olive oil.

Wanna fight about it?

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