Can DNA Testing Help You Lose Weight?

How Does DNA Testing Work Best?

Genetic TestingGenomics (DNA testing) is hot. You are being told that if you just knew your genes, you could lose weight successfully, be healthier, be happier, leap tall buildings in a single bound (Actually, I haven’t heard the last claim, but it’s about the only claim that genomics marketers haven’t made). Which of these claims are true, and which are just hot air?

The experts agree that the benefits of DNA testing have been greatly oversold. As I said in a recent article on DNA testing, the idea that genes control our destiny is no longer considered valid. There are 3 reasons for this. I will start with the scientific term for each and then give you the non-scientific explanation.

  • Penetrance simply means that the severity of most gene mutations is influenced by our genetic background. Simply put, the same mutation can have a significant effect in one individual and a trivial effect in another individual.
  • Epigenetics refers to modifications of the DNA that influence gene expression. These DNA modifications are, in turn, influenced by diet and lifestyle.
  • Microbiome refers our gut bacteria. In many cases, our microbiome has just as much influence on our health as our genes. And our microbiome is influenced by diet and lifestyle.

Now you know the complexity of DNA testing, it is easy to see why experts feel that it is premature to use DNA testing to predict the best diet for either weight loss or health.

As an example, one recent study used DNA testing to predict whether study participants were more likely to lose weight on a low-carb or low-fat diet. The participants were then randomly assigned to low-carb and low-fat diets. At the end of 12 months:

  • There was no significant difference in weight loss for those on low-fat and low-carb diets. This has been reported in multiple previous studies but is an inconvenient truth that most low-carb enthusiasts tend to ignore.
  • DNA testing offered no predictive value as to whether a low-carb or low-fat diet was more effective for weight loss.

However, DNA testing may have one benefit that is overlooked by many experts. What if the DNA test results motivated people to do better? After all, most diet advice is generic. People feel it may or may not apply to them. Does personalized diet advice based on their genetic makeup motivate people to stick with the diet better?

Some studies have suggested that people may follow personalized diet plans based on their DNA more faithfully. However, most of those studies have been short-term.

That is why I have chosen today’s study (J Horne et al, BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, 2020) to discuss. It is a very well-designed study and it lasted for a full year.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis was an extremely well-designed study. In fact, it was so well designed that it probably needs the “Results are not typical” designation the FDA requires when some diet companies make claims about weight loss success. Here are the details:

  • The study participants were highly motivated, college educated, middle-aged (average age = 55), obese (average weight = 216 pounds) Caucasian women who had a positive attitude about their ability to change what they ate. In case you weren’t counting, there were four characteristics of this group that might be considered atypical for the average American.
  • The participants volunteered for a highly structured weight loss program called the “Group Lifestyle Balance”, or GLB, program.
    • Participants were given a detailed calorie-controlled nutrition plan at the beginning of the program.
    • They were asked to track their daily food and beverage intake for the first 2-3 months of the program.
    • In the second week of the program participants were educated on how to count and track calories and nutrients such as total fat or saturated fat.
    • There were weekly meetings with dietitians the first 3 months and monthly meetings for the remainder of the 12-week program to provide the guidance and support needed to stick with their nutrition plan.
  • The plan also incorporated a behavior change program called Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) that evaluates and influences attitudes, subjective norms, and behavioral control that are key to behavior change. During the regular meetings:
    • The participants were informed about of the health benefits associated with a healthy lifestyle.
    • They were educated on positive mindsets and mindfulness.
    • They were taken through a stepwise, goal setting approach designed to positively impact behavioral change.

In short, this is a gold standard diet program that provided the nutritional support needed to stick with the diet program and the psychological support needed to change eating behavior. Unfortunately, this is also atypical. Very few diet programs provide this level of support.

Everyone in the study participated in this program. However, the participants were divided into two groups.

  • Both groups were advised to follow a standard calorie-controlled, moderately low-fat (25% of total calories) nutrition plan.
  • In addition, the second group was put on a plan that was either high protein or low saturated fat (<10% of total calories) based on their DNA test results.
  • The nutritional support was identical except that the second group was told that their nutrition plan was specific for them, based on their DNA analysis.
  • The dietary intake of both groups was assessed with a 3-day dietary recall (2 week days and 1 weekend day) at baseline (before the program began) and at 3, 6, and 12 months to assess the participants adherence to their diet plan.

Can DNA Testing Help You Lose Weight?

Happy woman on scaleI hate to disappoint you, but the short answer to this question, is no. Both groups lost the same amount of weight, which is not surprising considering the comprehensive nature of the diet program that both groups were enrolled in.

However, the group given advice based on their DNA test were more motivated to stick with their personalized nutrition goals. Specifically:

  • Long-term adherence to reductions in saturated fat intake was significantly greater in the group that was told their diet plan was personalized based on their DNA analysis.
    • The control group reduced their saturated fat intake by 12% at 3 months, but only by 4% at 6 months, and 2.5% at 12 months.
    • The group with the personalized diet plan reduced their saturated fat intake by 14% at 3 months, 18% at 6 months, and 22% at 12 months.
  • Long-term adherence to reductions in total fat intake was also significantly greater in the group that was told their diet plan was personalized based on their DNA analysis.
    • The control group reduced their total fat intake by 18% at 3 months, but only by 4% at 6 and 12 months.
    • The group with the personalized diet plan reduced their total fat intake by 11% at 3 months, 13% at 6 months, and 16% at 12 months.
    • It is important to remember that both groups had been advised to reduce their total fat intake to 25% of calories and had received nutritional and psychological support to achieve that goal. The only difference was that the second group had been told that advice was based on their DNA test.

The authors of the study concluded: “Weight management interventions guided by nutrigenomics can motivate long-term improvements in dietary fat intake above and beyond gold-standard population-based interventions.”

How Does DNA Testing Work Best?

DNA TestingThere remain significant concerns about the validity of personalized weight loss advice based on DNA testing. However, this and other studies suggest that DNA testing may provide one valuable asset for weight loss programs. It appears that people are more likely to stick with a program they believe has been personalized for them.

There are, however, several caveats to this conclusion.

  • Participants in this study received nutritional and psychological support throughout the 12-month program. We don’t know how well participants would have stuck with the program if they had not been continually reminded that the program had been personalized for them.
  • Participants in this study were well-educated, highly motivated, Caucasian women. We don’t know whether these results apply to men and to other ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
  • This study only looked at personalized diet advice based on DNA testing. Some studies suggest that other methods of diet personalization may also improve adherence.
  • Personalization can be misused to recommend unhealthy dietary changes. It is not enough to follow personalized diet advice. You also need to ask whether it is healthy dietary advice.

For example, DNA test results consistent with reduced carbohydrate intake are sometimes used to recommend unhealthy diets that eliminate one or more food groups rather than low-carb versions of healthy diets like the Mediterranean diet.

The Bottom Line

There remain significant concerns about the validity of personalized weight loss advice based on DNA testing. However, DNA testing may provide one valuable asset for weight loss programs. Some studies have suggested that people are more likely to stick with a program they believe has been personalized for them.

However, most of these studies have been short term. A recent study asked whether the improvement in motivation lasted for 12 months.

Two matched groups of well-educated, highly motivated women were enrolled in a “gold-standard” weight loss program that provided both nutritional and psychological support for 12 months.

Both groups were given a diet plan that restricted total calorie intake and advised reducing fat intake to 25% of total calories. However, based on their DNA test results one group was given a personalized diet plan that also advised them to reduce their saturated fat intake to less than 10% of total calories.

  • The group receiving personalized diet advice did a better job of reducing both saturated and total fat intake and maintaining that change for 12 months compared to the group that just received a set diet plan.
  • These results suggest that personalization of diet advice may improve long-term adherence to healthy dietary changes.

The authors of the study concluded: “Weight management interventions guided by nutrigenomics can motivate long-term improvements in dietary fat intake above and beyond gold-standard population-based interventions.”

There are, however, several caveats to this conclusion.

  • Participants in this study received both nutritional and psychological support throughout the 12-month program. We don’t know how well participants would have stuck with the program if they had not been continually reminded that the program had been personalized for them.
  • Participants in this study were well-educated, highly motivated, Caucasian women. We don’t know whether these results apply to men and to other ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
  • This study only looked at personalized diet advice based on DNA testing. Some studies suggest that other methods of diet personalization may also improve adherence.
  • Personalization can be misused to recommend unhealthy dietary changes. It is not enough to follow personalized diet advice. You also need to ask whether it is healthy dietary advice.

For more details read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

What Is Nutritionism?

In Defense Of FoodRecently, I have been reading Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food”. Yes, I know the book has been around for a long time. Normally I read the scientific literature rather than popular health books. However, in the past few weeks I have had a lot more time to read books, so I decided to read this one.

Some of the things he says are “off the wall”. As he readily admits, he isn’t a scientist or a medical doctor. However, a lot of what he says is “right on”. He echoes many of the things I have been talking about for years. But he does a masterful job of pulling everything together into a framework he calls “nutritionism”.

If you have a chance, I highly recommend that you read his book.

I will briefly summarize his discussion of nutritionism below. I will also share some scientific support for what he is saying. Finally, I will close by sharing what the Bible says on the subject.

What Is Nutritionism?

Low Fat LabelSimply put, nutritionism is the belief that we can understand food solely in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents and our requirements for them. I use the term “belief” purposely. As Michael Pollan puts it: “As the ‘-ism’ suggests, nutritionism is not a scientific subject, but an ideology.”

What Michael Pollan is referring to is taking food constituents like saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics and labeling them as either “good” or “bad”.

As he points out, that leads to debacles like the creation of margarine as a substitute for butter. Of course, everyone reading this article knows that we subsequently found out that the trans fat in margarine was worse for us than the saturated fat in butter. He offers many other examples like this.

He also points out that the nutritionism concept has given free rein to the food industry to replace whole foods with processed foods that are cholesterol-free, sugar-free, low-fat, low-carb, or high in fiber, omega-3s, etc. He says that these foods are seldom healthier than the foods they replace. I agree.

Finally, he points out that the scientific support for the classification of individual ingredients or foods as “good” or “bad” is weak. That’s because when scientists design a study that removes a chemical constituent or a food from the diet, they have to replace it with something. And what they replace it with determines the outcome of the study. I give some examples of this in the next section.

The essence of Michael Pollan’s message is:

  • The effect of an individual nutrient or chemical constituent on your health depends on the food it is found in. Forget the fancy nutrition labels. Whole foods are almost always healthier than processed foods.
  • The effect of a food or food constituent on your health also depends on your overall diet. We should be thinking about healthy diets rather than the latest “magical” or “forbidden” food.

I will discuss these points below.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

Question MarkNow, let’s get to the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” If we are talking about whole foods, the short answer is “None”. As I said in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”.

For example, if we are talking about plant foods, each plant food group:

  • Has a unique blend of vitamins and minerals.
  • Has a unique blend of phytonutrients.
  • Has a unique blend of fiber.
  • Supports the growth of a unique combination of beneficial gut bacteria.
  • Dr Strangelove and his friends are telling you to eliminate whole grains, fruits, and legumes (beans) from your diet. Recent studies suggest that might not be a good idea. Here is one example.

If we are talking about animal foods, each animal food group:

  • Has a unique blend of vitamins and minerals.
  • May have unique components that are important for our health. [Note: This is an active area of research. Theories have been proposed for which components in animal foods may be important for our health, but they have not been confirmed.]
  • Vegan purists will tell you that you have no need for meat and dairy foods. Recent studies suggest otherwise. Here is one example.

With that as background, let’s turn our attention to nutritionism and look at some of science behind claims that certain food components are either good for us or bad for us.

Saturated Fat. Saturated fat is the poster child for nutritionism.lowfat

First, we were told by the American Heart Association and other health organizations that saturated fat was bad for us. Recently Dr. Strangelove and his friends are telling us that saturated fat is good for us. Instead of limiting saturated fat, we should be limiting carbs by cutting out fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Both cite clinical studies to support their claims. How can this be?

Perhaps a little history is in order. When the American Heart Association recommended that we decrease intake of saturated fat, they were envisioning that we would replace it with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat in the context of a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. That never happened.

Big Food quickly realized that if the American public were to follow the AHA guidelines, it would be disastrous for their bottom line. So, they sprang into action. They mixed sugar, white flour, and a witch’s brew of chemicals to create highly processed, low fat “foods”. Then they told the American public, “Don’t worry. You don’t have to give up your favorite foods. We have created low fat alternatives.”

This is the essence of what Michael Pollan refers to as nutritionism. By marketing their fake foods as low fat Big Food created the halo of health. In fact, Big Food’s fake foods were less healthy than the foods they replaced. Americans got fatter and sicker.

Now let’s look at the conflicting claims that saturated fat is bad for us or good for us. How can clinical studies disagree on such an important question? The answer is simple. It depends on what you replace it with. You need to consider saturated fat intake in the context of the overall diet.

I discussed this in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, but let me summarize it briefly here. The American Heart Association tells us that replacing half of the saturated fat in a typical American diet with:

  • Trans fats, increases heart disease risk by 5%.
  • Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American Diet), slightly increases heart disease risk.
  • Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits & vegetables), decreases heart disease risk by 9%.
  • Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), decreases heart disease risk by 15%.
  • Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oils and fish oil), decreases heart disease risk by 25%.
  • Unsaturated fats in the context of a Mediterranean diet, decreases heart disease risk by 45%.

My advice: Saturated fat is neither good for you nor bad for you. A little bit of saturated fat in the context of a healthy diet is fine. A lot of saturated fat in the context of an unhealthy diet is problematic.

fatty steakRed Meat. Is red meat bad for you? Like saturated fat, it depends on the amount of red meat and the overall diet. I covered this in detail in “Slaying The Food Myths”, but let me summarize briefly here:

According to the World Health Organization, red meat is a probable carcinogen. If we look at the postulated mechanisms by which it causes cancer, they can be mostly neutralized by components of various plant foods.

My advice: An 8-ounce steak with fries and a soda is probably bad for you. Three ounces of that same steak in a green salad or stir fry may be good for you.

I should make one other point while I am on the topic. Dr. Strangelove and his friends have been telling you that grass-fed beef is better for you than conventionally raised beef. Once again, that is nutritionism.  Grass-fed beef is lower in saturated fat and high in omega-3s than conventionally raised beef. That may be better for your heart, but it has no effect on the cancer-causing potential of red meat. It doesn’t give the license to eat 8-ounce steaks on a regular basis. You still want to aim for 3-ounces of that grass-fed beef in a green salad or stir fry. 

High-Fructose Corn Syrup. This one seems to be on everyone’s “naughty list”. You are being told to read labels, and if the food has high-fructose corn syrup on the label, put it back on the shelf. But is that good advice?

It turns out that all the studies on the bad effects of high-fructose corn syrup have been done with sodas and highly processed foods. This should be your first clue.

Of course, as soon as high-fructose corn syrup gained its “bad” reputation, Big Food started replacing it with Sugar Comparisons“heathier” sugars. Does that make those foods healthier?

The answer is a clear “No”. Both chemically and biologically, high-fructose corn syrup is identical to sucrose (table sugar), honey, molasses, maple syrup, coconut sugar, date sugar, or grape juice concentrate. Agave sugar is even higher in fructose than high-fructose corn syrup. This is your second clue.

Substituting these sugars for high-fructose corn syrup doesn’t turn sodas and processed foods into health foods. This is nutritionism at its worst.

My advice: Forget reading the label. Forget trying to avoid foods with high-fructose corn syrup. Avoid sodas and processed foods instead.

Sugar. Once the public started to realize that natural sugars in processed foods were just as bad for us as high-fructose corn syrup, sugars became “bad”. We were told to avoid all foods containing sugar in any form. In fact, we were told we needed to become “label detectives” and recognize all the deceptive ways that sugar could be hidden on the label.

Apple With Nutrition LabelI have discussed this in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

Let me just summarize that article with one quote, “It’s not the sugar. It’s the food. There is the same amount and same types of sugar in an 8-ounce soda and a medium apple. Sodas are bad for you, and apples are good for you.” If you are wondering why that is, I have covered it in another issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.

Before leaving this subject, I should mention that nutritionism has risen its ugly head here as well. Big Food has struck again. They have replaced sugar with a variety of artificial sweeteners.

Once again, nutritionism has failed. Those artificially sweetened sodas and processed foods are no healthier and no more likely to help you keep the weight off than the sugar-sweetened foods they replace. I have covered the science behind that statement in several previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here is one example.

My advice: Forget about sugar phobia. You don’t need to become a label detective. Just avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweet processed foods. Get your sugar in its natural form in fruits and other whole foods.

low carb dietCarbs. Dr. Strangelove and his friends are now telling you that you need to avoid all carbs. That is pure nutritionism. Carbs are neither good nor bad. It depends on the type of carb and what you replace it with.

Once again, clinical studies have given conflicting outcomes. Each side of the carbohydrate debate can provide clinical studies to support their position. How can that be? The answer is simple. It depends on what assumptions went into the design of the clinical studies. I have written several articles on this topic in “Health Tips From the Professor”, but let me give you one example here.

In this example, I looked at two major studies. The PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology) study included data from 135,000 participants in 18 countries. In this study, the death rate decreased as the % carbohydrate in the diet decreased. The low-carb enthusiasts were doing a victory dance.

However, it was followed by a second, even larger study. The ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk In Communities) study included 432,000 participants from even more countries. In this study, the death rate decreased as the % carbohydrate decreased to about 40%. Then a curious thing happened. As the % carbohydrate in the diet decreased further, the death rate increased.

How can you explain this discrepancy? When you examine the PURE study:

  • The % carbohydrate only ranged from 70% to 40%.
  • The data for the PURE study was obtained primarily with third world countries. That is an important distinction because:
    • In those countries, it is primarily the well to do that can afford sodas, processed foods, and meat.
    • The poor subsist on what they can grow and inexpensive staples like beans and rice.
  • Simply put, in the PURE study, the type of carbohydrate changed as well as the amount of carbohydrate.
    • At the highest carbohydrate intakes, a significant percentage of the carbohydrate came from sugar and refined grains.
    • At the lowest carbohydrate intakes, most of the carbohydrate intake came from beans, whole grains, and whatever fruits and vegetables they could grow.

When you examine the ARIC study:how much carbohydrates should we eat aric

  • The % carbohydrate ranged from 70% to 20%.
  • The ARIC study added in data from the US and European countries. That is an important distinction because:
    • Low carb diets like Atkins and Keto are popular in these countries. And those are the diets that fall into the 20-40% carbohydrate range.
    • Most people can afford diets that contain a lot of meat in those countries.
  • Simply put, at the lower end of the scale in the ARIC study, people were eating diets rich in meats and saturated fats and eliminating healthy carbohydrate-containing foods like fruits, whole grains and legumes.

My advice: The lesson here is to avoid simplistic nutritionism thinking and focus on diets rather than on foods. When you do that it is clear that carbs aren’t bad for you, it’s unhealthy carbs that are bad for you.

Which Foods Should I Avoid? By now the answer to the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” is clear. Avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (The term processed foods includes convenience foods, junk foods, and most sweets).

What Does This Mean To You?

Questioning ManNow that we are clear on which foods you should avoid, let’s look at the flip side of the coin. Let’s ask, “Which foods should you include in your diet?

As I said at the beginning of this article, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”. We should consider whole foods from all 5 food groups as healthy.

Of course, each of us is different. We all have foods in some food groups that don’t treat us well. Some of us do better with saturated fats or carbs than others. We need to explore and find the foods and diets that work best for us.

However, whenever we assume one diet is best for everyone, we have crossed the line into nutritionism.

What Does The Bible Say?

Let me start this section by saying that I rely on the Bible for spiritual guidance rather than nutritional guidance. However, as part of our church’s Bible reading plan, I was reading 1 Timothy. A passage from 1 Timothy 4:1-5 leapt out at me. It reinforces the theme of Michael Pollan’s book and seems uniquely applicable to the times we live in.

“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They…order people to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

Interesting.

The Bottom Line

In this article, I have discussed the concept of “nutritionism” introduced in Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense Of Food”. He defines nutritionism as the belief that we can understand food solely in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents and our requirements for them.

What Michael Pollan is referring to is taking food constituents like saturated fats, cholesterol, sugar, carbohydrates, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, fiber, antioxidants, and probiotics and labeling them as either “good” or “bad”. He points out that when we accept these simplistic labels, we often end up creating foods and diets that are less healthy than the ones we were trying to replace.

At the beginning of the article, I asked the question, “Which Foods Should I Avoid?” I then looked at several foods or food groups we have told to avoid, including saturated fats, red meat, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar, and carbs. When you look at the science behind these recommendations from the lens of nutritionism, you come to two conclusions:

  • We should avoid sodas, sugar-sweetened beverages and processed foods (The term processed foods includes convenience foods, junk foods, and most sweets).
  • Whole foods from all 5 food groups should be considered as healthy.

Of course, each of us is different. We all have foods in some food groups that don’t treat us well. Some of us do better with saturated fats or carbs than others. We need to explore and find the foods and diets that work best for us.

However, whenever we assume one diet is best for everyone, we have crossed the line into nutritionism.

For more details and a bible verse that supports the theme of Michael Pollan’s book and seems uniquely applicable to the times we live in, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Best Diet For Heart Disease Prevention

Are The American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

What is the best diet for heart disease prevention? 

diet for heart disease preventionHeart disease is a killer. It continues to be the leading cause of death – both worldwide and in industrialized countries like the United States and the European Union. When we look at heart disease trends, it is a good news – bad news situation.

  • The good news is that heart disease deaths are continuing to decline in adults over 70.
  • The decline among senior citizens is attributed to improved treatment of heart disease and more seniors following heart-healthy diets.
  • The bad news is that heart disease deaths are starting to increase in younger adults, something I reported in an earlier issue, Heart Attacks Increasing in Young Women of “Health Tips From the Professor.”
  • The reason for the rise in heart disease deaths in young people is less clear. However, the obesity epidemic, junk and convenience foods, and the popularity of fad diets all likely play a role.

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

Of course, we don’t eat fats, carbohydrates, or proteins. We eat foods. That is why a recent study (T Meier et al, European Journal of Epidemiology, 34: 37-45, 2019) is so important. It reported which foods increase and which decrease the risk of premature heart disease deaths.

How Was The Study Done?

diet for heart disease prevention studyThe authors of the current study analyzed data from the “Global Burden of Diseases (GBD) Study”, a major world-wide effort designed to estimate the portions of deaths caused by various risk factors.

The current study focused on the impact of 12 dietary risk factors on heart disease deaths between 1990 and 2016 for 51 countries in four regions (Western Europe, Central Europe, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia).

The dietary risk factors were:

  • Diets low in fiber, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and whole grains.
  • Diets high in sodium, processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and trans fatty acids.

Saturated fat and meat were not explicitly included in the GBS Study data. However, diets low in polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats are likely high in saturated fats. Similarly, diets low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are likely higher in meats. The study also did not include dairy, and some recent studies suggest that some dairy foods may decrease heart disease risk.

For simplicity I will only consider the findings from Western Europe because their diet and heart disease death trends are similar to those in the United States.

 

Best Diet for Heart Disease Prevention?

plant-based diet bestThe study found that in 2016 (the last year for which data were available):

  • Dietary risk factors were responsible for 49.2% of heart disease deaths.
  • 6% of all diet-related heart disease deaths occurred in adults younger than 70, and that percentage has been increasing in recent years.

When they looked at the contribution of individual foods to diet related heart disease deaths, the percentages were:

  • Diets low in whole grains = 20.4%
  • Diets low in nuts and seeds = 16.2%
  • Diets low in fruits = 12.5%
  • Diets high in sodium = 12.0%
  • Diets low in omega-3s = 10.8%
  • strong heartDiets low in vegetables = 9.0%
  • Diets low in legumes = 7.0%
  • Diets low in fiber = 5.7%
  • Diets low in polyunsaturated fats = 3.7%
  • Diets high in processed meats = 1.6%
  • Diets high in trans fatty acids = 0.8%
  • Diets high in sugar-sweetened beverages = 0.1%

So, what is the best diet for heart disease prevention?

In short, this study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat was not included in the analysis, but it is likely that most people’s diets in this region of the world contained some meat. The most likely take-away is that meat does not affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis either, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease in Western Europe.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

 

Are the American Heart Association’s Recommendations Correct?

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Everyone has a magic diet for reducing heart disease risk. The American Heart Association tells us to avoid fats, especially saturated fats. Vegans tell us to avoid animal protein. Paleo and keto enthusiasts tell us carbs are the problem. Who is correct?

A recent study provides some important clues. It looked at dietary patterns associated with reduced risk of premature death from heart disease in Western Europe. The study concluded:

  • A primarily plant-based diet is the best protection against premature death due to heart disease.
  • All plant-based food groups (whole grains, nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes) play an important role in reducing heart disease deaths.
  • Meat did not appear to affect heart disease risk in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Dairy was not included in the analysis, but some studies suggest dairy, particularly fermented dairy foods, reduce heart disease risk.
  • Finally, the study concluded: “Compared to other…modifiable risk factors (physical inactivity, drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco smoking, obesity, etc.), an altered diet is the most effective means of preventing premature deaths from cardiovascular disease.”

While every study has its weaknesses, this study is consistent with multiple previous studies showing that primarily plant-based diets are best for reducing heart disease risk. You will find a more complete discussion of these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

With this study’s results in mind we can now ask whether the recommendations of the American Heart Association and other popular diets are correct. Are they likely to reduce heart disease deaths?

  • The American Heart Association Recommends a dietary pattern that emphasizes a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and low-fat dairy products. This study supports those recommendations.
  • This study also supports the heart-health benefits of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Meat and dairy were not explicitly considered in this study. Thus, the results of this study are also consistent with vegan and semi-vegetarian diets.
  • However, low carb diets like Paleo and keto eliminate some of the key food groups (whole grains, fruits, and legumes) that appear to be essential for reducing heart disease risk. 40% of the heart-health benefits in this study came from those 3 food groups. Thus, this study does not support claims that those two diets are heart-healthy long term.

For more details read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

What Is The Best Diet For You?

Sorting Through The Dueling Diets

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

battle over best dietDiets are a lot like politics in today’s world. Everyone is absolutely convinced their diet is the best and absolutely convinced the other diets are terrible.

Remember the nursery rhyme: “Jack Sprat could eat no fat. His wife could eat no lean…”? Today’s diets remind me of that. They run the gamut from no fat to no carbohydrates. Surely, both extremes couldn’t be healthy. Or could they?

Some diets eliminate whole food groups. That couldn’t be a good thing. Or, could it?

So, what is the best diet for you?

In today’s article, I will give you the pros and cons of these dueling diets. Before I do that, however, let me give you some principles to put things into perspective.

General Principles For Evaluating Diets

How do you sort out the claims and counterclaims associated with the various diets? More importantly, how do you know which of the claims are true and which are misleading? Here are some general principles to help you separate the wheat from the chaff.  What’s the right diet for you?

We are omnivores. We can adapt to a wide variety of diets and do reasonably well. That means most people will do well on any of these diets short term.

wings proteinAnything is better than the standard American diet (SAD). It is high in sugar and refined carbohydrates. It is also high in saturated and trans fats. That is why proponents of every diet can claim that you will feel better and be healthier when you switch to their diet.

Processed and convenience foods are part of the problem. Most diets recommend “clean eating” (elimination of processed and convenience foods). Any diet that eliminates processed and convenience foods is likely to help you lose weight and get healthier. Caution: As soon as a diet becomes popular, food manufacturers rush in to provide pre-packaged, convenience foods to support that diet. Avoid the temptation to use those foods. Big Food Inc. does not have your best interests in mind. They are not your friends.

Most diets lead to a fairly rapid initial weight loss. This is because they restrict food choices and eliminate processed foods. When you eliminate familiar foods from someone’s diet, they instinctively eat less without even thinking about it. This rapid initial weight loss is part of the allure of almost every diet program. However, over time most people start adding back some of their favorite foods or find new foods they like, and the weight comes back.

Weight loss leads to improved blood parameters irrespective of diet composition. That is why every diet, no matter how bizarre, can claim it lowers your blood pressure, improves your blood sugar, lowers your cholesterol, and lowers your triglycerides.

Long term weight loss is virtually identical on every diet. Numerous clinical studies have compared long term weight loss on low fat diets, low carbohydrate diets, and virtually everything in between. Initial weight loss is more rapid on the low-carbohydrate diets. However, at the end of one or two years there is not a dime’s worth of difference in weight loss between any of the diets. The exception is the Vegan diet. Long term Vegans typically weigh less than their meat-eating counterparts, probably because the foods in the Vegan diet have low caloric density (fewer calories per serving).

Healthy carbs and healthy fats are more important than low carb or low fat diets. Ignore the claims and counter claims about low fat and low carb diets. Focus instead on diets that provide moderate amounts of whole grains instead of refined grains & sugar. Also focus on diets that provide moderate amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, especially the omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, instead of saturated and trans fats.

Focus on well balanced meals rather than individual foods. For example, moderate amounts of healthy carbohydrates will have relatively little effect on blood sugar and triglyceride levels as part of a plant-based meal that provides plenty of fiber and protein. However, those same carbohydrate-rich foods by themselves may cause a spike in both blood sugar and triglycerides.

best diet for youPlant-based diets rule. The Ornish diet (a very restrictive form of the Vegan diet) is the only diet that has been shown to reverse atherosclerosis in some people. The Vegan diet and the Mediterranean diet, which is largely plant-based, have been shown to be healthy long term. On the other hand, we simply don’t know whether low carbohydrate diets are healthy long term. Those clinical studies have not been done.

Saturated and trans fats are not your friends. They increase inflammation, which can have many serious long-term health consequences. In addition, the foods that are rich in saturated fats are often acid-forming foods, which can upset your acid-base balance.

We have 5 food groups for a reason. Each food group provides valuable nutrients (vitamins a & minerals) and phytonutrients. You may be able to replace the missing nutrients with supplementation, but you are unlikely to replace the phytonutrients with supplements – even those supplements that claim to be made from whole foods. You should be concerned about the long-term health consequences of any diet that eliminates whole food groups.

Low fat diets aren’t necessarily healthy. Whole food, low-fat diets like the Vegan diet are extremely healthy. However, as soon as health experts started recommending low-fat diets, Big Food Inc. stepped in to offer convenient low fat options. They simply replaced the fat with refined carbohydrates, sugar, and a witch’s brew of chemicals (Remember the part about Big Food Inc. not being your friend?). As a result, the low-fat diet consumed by most Americans is anything but healthy.

The supposed advantages of low carbohydrate diets are misleading. Low carbohydrate diets look very good when you compare them to the Big Food Inc version of the low-fat diet. However, when you compare them to something like the Vegan diet the advantages disappear.

Avoid sugar-sweetened and diet beverages. This should go without saying. Choose water instead. Add carbonation and/or a little lemon or lime juice for flavoring if necessary. Fortunately, most of the major diets exclude sugar-sweetened and diet beverages.

 

The Pros and Cons Of The Major Diets

It is not possible to cover each diet in depth in a single article, so this is meant to be a very brief overview of the major diets.

Low Fat Diets

The Dean Ornish Diet. This is a variation of the Vegan Diet that eliminates all oils, even vegetable oil.

Pros:

  • Whole food, plant-based diet.
  • All the advantages of the Vegan diet, plus it is the only diet shown to reverse atherosclerosis.

Cons:

  • Very restrictive.
  • Long-term adherence is low.

 

vegetablesThe Vegan Diet. This is a whole food, plant based diet. It uses plant proteins instead of meat and plant substitutes for dairy and eggs.

Pros:

  • Whole food, plant-based diet.
  • Associated with lower blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides, and inflammation.
  • Clinical studies show that the onset of major diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are delayed by at least 5-10 years. People on this diet live healthier, longer.

Cons:

  • Long-term adherence is relatively low, but some people stick with this diet for a lifetime.

 

Healthy Fat, Healthy Carb Diets

The Mediterranean Diet. This diet emphasizes fresh fruits & vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes and olive oil. It includes cheese, poultry and eggs in moderation.

whole food dietPros:

Cons:

  • Not designed specifically for weight loss. You will need to watch portion sizes and track calories if you want to lose weight on this diet.

 

The DASH Diet. This diet was specifically designed to help reduce the risk of hypertension and stroke. It is similar to the Mediterranean diet except that it restricts sodium and includes a wider range of lean meats and low-fat dairy products. It does not specifically include olive oil.

Pros:

  • Whole food diet.
  • Clinically proven to lower blood pressure  as effectively as some blood pressure medications.
  • Relatively easy to follow. Includes foods familiar to Americans.

Cons:

  • Not designed specifically for weight loss. You will need to watch portion sizes and track calories if you want to lose weight on this diet.

 

Low Carb Diets

meat protein dietThe Paleo Diet. The Paleo diet is supposedly based on the diet of our paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors. The diet is high in protein & fat, and low in carbohydrates. The diet eliminates grains, sugars, refined oils, dairy, legumes, and starchy fruits & vegetables. Most of the protein comes from meats, but the animals must be grass-fed. This reduces, but does not eliminate, saturated fat and gives a modest increase in omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. Thus, the meats included in this diet are healthier than the meats in other low carbohydrate diets. However, it does not turn red meats into health foods.

Anthropologists tell us that the premise of the Paleo diet is faulty. The diet of our paleolithic ancestors was highly dependent on the foods available in their environment. Some were hunters and gatherers. Others lived in areas where fruits & vegetables were prevalent and game was scarcer. Still others lived in areas where starchy root vegetables were an important part of their diet. Furthermore, the enzymes required for digestion of starches are inducible. We can easily adapt to the introduction of grains into our diet.

Pros:

  • Whole food diet.
  • The Paleo diet is associated with several short-term benefits including weight loss, improved blood sugar control and reduced cholesterol, triglycerides & blood pressure.

Cons:

The Atkins Diet. The Atkins diet is the granddaddy of the low-fat diets. It is a very low carbohydrate diet that restricts sugars, grains, high carbohydrate fruits and vegetables. The allure of the diet is that it includes as much fatty meats and saturated fats as you want.

Pros:

  • The Atkins diet is associated with several short-term benefits including weight loss, improved blood sugar control and reduced cholesterol, triglycerides & blood pressure.

Cons:

  • There are no studies evaluating the long-term benefits and risks of the Atkins diet.
  • Weight loss at the end of one or two years is no better than for the low-fat diets.
  • The high intake of saturated fat has the potential to increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.
  • It is a very restrictive diet. Long-term adherence to this diet is poor.

The Ketogenic Diet. The Ketogenic diet is even more restrictive than the Atkins diet. I have covered the pros and cons of the Ketogenic diet in a recent post, so I will refer you to that article, Is the Ketogenic Diet Safe for details. In short, the Ketogenic diet has some short-term benefits and some potential long-term risks. Ketone supplements mimic some, but not all, of the short-term benefits of the Ketogenic diet. Their long-term health risks are unknown.

 

What Is The Best Diet For You?

what diet is right for youWe are all different, so there is no perfect diet for everyone. Want to know how to find a diet that works for you?  Here are some things to think about.

  • If you are like most Americans, almost any of these diets is better than your current diet.
  • The good thing about all the diets reviewed in this article is:
    • They replace refined carbohydrates & sugars with healthier alternatives (The best of the diets also replace saturated & trans fats with healthier alternatives).
    • They emphasize whole foods rather than processed and convenience foods.
    • They eliminate sugar-sweetened and diet beverages.
    • They emphasize fresh vegetables and most include fresh fruit.
  • If you are looking for rapid initial weight loss:
    • The very restrictive diets at either extreme (very low fat or very low carb) are best because they eliminate familiar foods from the diet.
    • The very low carb diets are slightly more effective than low fat diets initially because of water loss, but weight loss on most low carb and low fat diets is identical after 1-2 years.
    • Because both the Mediterranean and DASH diets involve many familiar foods, you will need to pay more attention to portion sizes and total calories on these diets if your primary goal is to lose weight.
  • If you are looking for long term weight control, the Vegan diet is best, probably because most foods in the Vegan diet have low caloric density. Multiple studies have shown that Vegans weigh less than their meat-eating counterparts.
  • If you are looking for long term health benefits:
    • The Vegan and Mediterranean diets are clearly your best choices. They are backed by multiple clinical studies showing they reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia and other diseases.
    • The DASH diet is probably equally healthy. However, because it was designed to control blood pressure, most clinical studies have focused only on how well it reduces blood pressure.
    • There is no evidence that the low carb diets have any long-term health benefits, and there is reason to suspect they may have some long-term health risks.
  • I have serious concerns about long-term health risks for any diet that:
    • Eliminates whole food groups.
    • Is high in saturated and trans fats.
  • The effectiveness of any diet is dependent on how well you stick with it:
    • The long-term adherence to any of the very restrictive diets (either low carb or low fat) is low, although some people do stick with the Vegan diet for a lifetime.
    • Adherence is best with the Mediterranean and DASH diets, probably because many of the foods are familiar and readily available.

 

The Bottom Line

 

In this article I have reviewed the major low fat diets (the Dean Ornish diet and the Vegan diet), the major healthy carb, healthy fat diets (the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet), and the major low carb diets (the Paleo diet, the Atkins diet, and the Ketogenic diet). In summary:

 

  • If you are like most Americans, almost any of these diets is better than your current diet.
  • The good thing about all these diets is:
    • They replace refined carbohydrates & sugars with healthier alternatives (The best of the diets also replace saturated & trans fats with healthier alternatives).
    • They emphasize whole foods rather than processed and convenience foods.
    • They eliminate sugar-sweetened and diet beverages.
    • They emphasize fresh vegetables and most include fresh fruit.
  • If you are looking for rapid initial weight loss:
    • The very restrictive diets at either extreme (very low fat or very low carb) are best because they eliminate familiar foods from the diet.
    • The very low carb diets are slightly more effective than low fat diets initially because of water loss, but weight loss on most low carb and low fat diets is identical after 1-2 years.
    • Because both the Mediterranean and DASH diets involve many familiar foods, you will need to pay more attention to portion sizes and total calories on these diets if your primary goal is to lose weight.
  • If you are looking for long term weight control, the Vegan diet is best, probably because most foods in the Vegan diet have low caloric density. Multiple studies have shown that Vegans weigh less than their meat-eating counterparts.
  • If you are looking for long term health benefits:
    • The Vegan and Mediterranean diets are clearly your best choices. They are backed by multiple clinical studies showing they reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, dementia and other diseases.
    • The DASH diet is probably equally healthy. However, because it was designed to control blood pressure, most clinical studies have focused only on how well it reduces blood pressure.
    • There is no evidence that the low carb diets have any long-term health benefits, and there is reason to suspect they may have some long-term health risks.
  • I have serious concerns about long-term health risks for any diet that:
    • Eliminates whole food groups.
    • Is high in saturated and trans fats.
  • The effectiveness of any diet is dependent on how well you stick with it:
    • The long-term adherence to any of the very restrictive diets (either low carb or low fat) is low, although some people do stick with the Vegan diet for a lifetime.
    • Adherence is best with the Mediterranean and DASH diets, probably because many of the foods are familiar and readily available.
  • For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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