Dr. Susie Rockway on conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)

I’m fascinated by the perspectives that nutritionists (free-thinking ones, at least), food scientists, and biochemists bring on nutrition and nutritional supplements.

A few months ago, I met a fascinating nutritionist/biochemist named Susie Rockway, PhD. Dr. Rockway brings a world of experience in the world of nutritional supplements, clinical trials with supplements, and their development. She has special expertise in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), having been among the scientists who initially developed CLA as a supplement. We are also exploring CLA as a possible addition to the Track Your Plaque program and wanted to get Dr. Rockway’s perspectives.

So I asked Dr. Rockway if she’d answer a few questions for us.

TYP: Dr. Rockway, we understand that you are particularly excited about the prospects of CLA for FAT loss and perhaps for regression of atherosclerosis. Can you tell us about the origins of your interest in CLA and why you're so enthusiastic?

Dr. Rockway: I have been fascinated with this unique fatty acid since the early 1990’s when CLA was first being discussed as nature’s most potent anti-carcinogen. I was then working in the granting/funding section of the National Dairy Council and saw this molecule as truly one of the future functional fats that would likely benefit people (next to omega-3’s!)

I think the benefits of CLA have just begun to be investigated—animal studies are extraordinary for showing fat reduction, lean mass (muscle) increases, immune enhancements, blood glucose normalization, anti-inflammatory properties and plaque reduction!

Human data to date is very encouraging for fat reduction. As a nutritionist seeing the massive increase in abdominal fat (stomach fat) in the world population and the direct relationship to cardiovascular disease, I see CLA as a great supplement to take to help this. Of course eating lots of vegetables, fruit, lean protein and whole grain products is also a must for maximizing good health.

I am studying the impact of CLA in reducing muscle loss in aging women—a condition known as sarcopenia. As we lose muscle with age, we lose strength, falls increase, we become frailer, and eventually many of us lose our independence. Along with the muscle atrophy, most people gain fat—never a good thing! So, if CLA can reduce fat and increase muscle, our bodies are more likely to withstand the hurdles that life throws at us much more efficiently.

So, how can you not be excited about this very bioactive molecule?

TYP: What are your specific areas of interest in nutrition and health?

Dr. Rockway: I strive to understand the role of bioactive molecules that can be taken to improve the aging process and enhance health.

As a trained nutritional biochemist, we tend to look at cell metabolism in a very ideal sense: what we learned in our biochemistry texts years ago where all substrates, proteins, enzymes, etc. are made exactly when we need them, where all cells behave as they should.

Unfortunately, little research has been devoted to understanding the changes in metabolism as we age. Do we still produce everything as efficiently as when we were 20? I suspect not. So, I think we need a little help, and supplements are a key to getting there.

Two nutrients that I think are emerging as “super nutrients” are the fatty acids found in fish oil (EPA and DHA) and vitamin D. Where we know these two nutrients are essential for life, we are seeing that they play a huge role in the QUALITY of life. Mood, depression, PMS, wound healing, bone growth, atherosclerosis, and arthritis are clinical areas where we see a direct benefit with doses of omega-3 and Vitamin D that are probably much greater than the RDA. Our current requirements for nutrients are really based on fixing deficiencies and not maximizing health, and maximizing health is where I’m at.

Thus, I am very interested molecules like CLA as mentioned above, and other bioactive ingredients such as plant derived ingredients (phytochemicals) called flavonoids that may well help explain why people who have diets high in fruits and vegetables are less likely to have certain cancers and heart disease. Reducing oxidative stress through foods that provide these active molecules (think colored fruits and veggies) is a new and exciting area of research.

TYP:The big "diet experiment" in America has clearly steered people in the wrong direction, usually by 50 or more pounds. As a scientist in nutrition, what are your thoughts?

Dr. Rockway: The American Heart Association was keen 20 years ago to promote the low-fat diet for all Americans as the key way to reduce cholesterol levels and decrease chance of heart disease, the number one killer of men and women. However, I must admit the nutritional community bought into this one, too. Unfortunately, the general public took this message to reduce percent fat in their diet (and they did a bit), but increased overall calories instead—and a large portion of the increased calories was from simple carbohydrates. I’m convinced that this in itself has been part of the huge rise in obesity…we simply eat more food and it’s not the healthy kind of food either.

When you increase sugar intake beyond what you burn off, you will store some of it as glycogen in the liver and muscles, but you will convert most of the excess into fat—and that we can store very efficiently! The fat that is made in the liver is sent to the blood as VLDL’s which are the precursor to the class of lipids called low density lipoproteins (LDL) that are the “lethal” type of cholesterol circulating in our blood.

So, Americans now have to listen to a new message that they need to eat more fruits and vegetables in hopes they will cut down on fast foods—tending to be high in fat (saturated particularly), low in fiber and low in nutrients and other high calorie dense foods. We nutritionists have our work cut out for us, that’s for sure.

TYP: We are especially excited that nutritionists are assuming a leading role in shining light on the confusion in diet and nutrition that has characterized the last 40 years. Do you have a sense for the emerging important issues for the next 10 years?

Dr. Rockway: Certainly, the scientists in the nutritional field are well aware of the problems facing this nation—it’s in fixing them that we fall short!

We aren’t very well coordinated to get a single message out, nor do we all agree on what that message should be. I feel that people need to eat healthy MOST OF THE TIME, exercise all of the time, and take supplements that have clear evidence of benefit. Lots of my colleagues would not concur with supplement use. Our bodies were designed to move a lot and eat a lot…we just do the latter now and are paying the price!

One emerging and very exciting area that we have to teach Americans is that all fat is not bad. The different types of fat—omega-6 vs. omega-3, are where we need to focus our education.

Decreasing the corn oil we pour on everything needs to go out the window! Consume olive oil and eat fish or take fish oil supplements—we simply have tons and tons of research showing the benefits of reducing the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. Did you know that cattle that are grass fed actually have less omega-6 in their tissues and more CLA? But most cattle are fed corn-based diets, so we have perturbed their natural selection of food and their fat composition.

See, it all comes back to CLA!

TYP: Thanks, Susie!

Susie Rockway, Ph.D., C.N.S.

Dr. Susie Rockway is an experienced scientist with accomplishments in both the academic and food and supplement industry business directing science/technology research. Her background includes faculty appointments at the graduate level in teaching and research at Rush University Medical Center and industrial experience managing basic and applied research studies.

Dr. Rockway received her Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences, Biochemistry from the University of Arizona. Dr. Rockway has authored several publications in journals such as the Physiological Genomics, Journal of Nutrition, the Journal of Food Science, International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health and has published chapters on nutrition on inflammatory bowel diseases. She is a member of the American Society for Nutrition, American Oil Chemists Society, the Institute of Food Technology, American College of Nutrition and is a Certified Nutrition Specialist.

We're also proud to add Dr. Rockway to our panel of Track Your Plaque Experts.

Comments (7) -

  • Perplexed

    10/5/2007 7:36:00 PM |

    Excellent! At 62 years old I'm one who followed a <10% fat diet fo 11 months and developrd a pot belly that still amazes me.
    I began following the TYP program 4 weeks ago but have been unable to reduce the abdominal fat.
    How long did it take Dr. Davis to see results after he stopped the Ornish diet?

  • Dr. Davis

    10/6/2007 12:13:00 AM |

    Within days, though weight was lost gradually, since it was a lesson I learned slowly back then.

  • ShuffleUp

    11/26/2007 3:11:00 PM |

    I've only done the non-wheat diet that TYP advocates for a couple weeks and my stomach is visibly thinner to not only me but others that know me and see me regularly.  The thing that amazes me more is that I am not hungry either.  I've cut out most grains as well but I eat 4 tbsp's of oat bran (2 in the morning and 2 at night).  I think on a low(er) carb diet you will notice that you will lose some glycogen in the beginning which will show up in less weight on the scale as well.  I've probably dropped a good 5 lbs. in that time period. My skinfold measurements have changed very slightly but if you are losing more VAT then this won't show up in the skinfolds as much.

  • Anonymous

    1/26/2008 3:33:00 PM |

    Regarding CLA as a supplement to aid in weight loss and other promoted benefits; any thoughts on what would be the recommended dosage and are there differences in the capsules available on the market?
    Thanks in advance -

  • Dr. Davis

    1/27/2008 2:09:00 AM |

    I'll answer for Susie.

    I've had experience (as has Susie) with the Intellitrim brand (www.beneomega.com, the same source as the PharmaOmega high-potency fish oil) and the Tonalin brand, which is distributed by a number of retailers, including Vitamin Shoppe.

    The dose that has been most widely explored in clinical trials and appears to yield weight-loss effects is 3000 mg per day.

  • Anonymous

    11/17/2009 11:40:54 AM |

    It was extremely interesting for me to read this blog. Thanks for it. I like such topics and anything connected to this matter. I definitely want to read more soon.

  • buy jeans

    11/3/2010 7:34:51 PM |

    I think the benefits of CLA have just begun to be investigated—animal studies are extraordinary for showing fat reduction, lean mass (muscle) increases, immune enhancements, blood glucose normalization, anti-inflammatory properties and plaque reduction!