The Omega-3 Pendulum

Who Benefits Most From Omega-3s? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Pendulum
Pendulum

If you were around in the 60’s, you might remember the song “England Swings Like a Pendulum Do”. It was a cute song, but it had nothing to do with pendulums. This week I am talking about something that really does resemble a pendulum – the question of whether omega-3s reduce heart disease risk.

There is perhaps nothing more confusing to the average person than the “truth” about omega-3s and heart disease risk. The headlines and expert opinion on the topic swing wildly between “omega-3s reduce heart disease risk” to “omega-3s have no effect on heart disease risk” and back again. To me these swings resemble the swings of a pendulum – hence the title of this article.

Part of the reason for the wild swings is that journalists and most “experts” tend to rely on the latest study and ignore previous studies. Another contributing factor is that most journalists and experts read only the main conclusions in the article abstract. They don’t read and analyze the whole study.

So, in today’s “Health Tips From the Professor” I plan to:

  • Analyze 3 major studies that have influenced our understanding of the relationship between omega-3 intake and heart disease risk. I will tell you what the experts missed about these studies and why they missed it.
  • Summarize what you should know about omega-3 intake and your risk of heart disease.

Why Is The Role Of Omega-3s In Preventing Heart Disease So Confusing?

SecretsIn answering that question, let me start with what I call “Secrets Only Scientists Know”.

#1: Each study is designed to disprove previous studies. That is a strength of the scientific method. But it guarantees there will be studies on both sides of every issue.

Responsible scientists look at all high-quality studies and base their opinions on the weight of evidence. Journalists and less-responsible “experts” tend to “cherry pick” the studies that match their opinions.

#2: Every study has its flaws. Even high-quality studies have unintended flaws. And I have some expertise in identifying unintended flaws.

I published over 100 papers that went through the peer review process. And I was involved in the peer review of manuscripts submitted by other scientists. In the discussion below I will use my experience in reviewing scientific studies to identify unintended flaws in 3 major studies on omega-3s and heart disease risk.

Next, let me share the questions I ask when reviewing studies on omega-3s and heart disease. I am just sharing the questions here. Later I will share examples of how these questions allowed me to identify unintended flaws in the studies I review below.

#1: How did they define heart disease? The headlines you read usually refer to the effect of omega-3s on “heart disease”. However, heart disease is a generic term. In layman’s terms, it encompasses angina, heart attacks, stroke due to blood clots, stroke due brain bleeds, congestive heart failure, impaired circulation, and much more.

Omega-3s have vastly different effects on different forms of heart disease, so it is important to know which form(s) of heart disease the study examined. And if the study included all forms of heart disease, it is important to know whether they also looked at the forms of heart disease where omega-3s have been shown to have the largest impact.

#2: What was the risk level of the patients in the study? If the patients in the study are at imminent risk of a heart attack or major cardiovascular event, it is much easier to show an effect than if they are at low risk.

For example, it is easy to show that statins reduce the risk of a second heart attack in someone who has just suffered a heart attack. These are high-risk patients. However, if you look at patients with high cholesterol but no other risk factors for heart disease, it is almost impossible to show a benefit of statins. These are low-risk patients.

If it is difficult to show that statins benefit low-risk patients, why should we expect to be able to show that omega-3s benefit low-risk patients?

[Note: I am not saying that statins do not benefit low-risk patients. I am just saying it is very difficult to prove they do in clinical studies.]

#3: How much omega-3s are the patients getting in their diet? The public reads the headlines. When the headlines say that omega-3s are good for their hearts, they tend to take omega-3 supplements. When the headlines say omega-3s are worthless, they cut back on omega-3 supplements. So, there is also a pendulum effect for omega-3 intake.

Omega-3s are fats. So, omega-3s accumulate in our cell membranes. The technical term for the amount of omega-3s in our cellular membranes is something called “Omega-3 Index”. Previous studies have shown that:

    • An omega-3 index of 4% or less is associated with high risk of heart disease, and…
    • An omega-3 index of 8% or more is associated with a low risk of heart disease.

When the omega-3 index approaches 8%, adding more omega-3 is unlikely to provide much additional benefit. Yet many studies either don’t measure or ignore the omega-3 index of patients they are enrolling in the study.

#4: How many and what drugs were the patients taking? Many heart disease patients are taking drugs that lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides, reduce inflammation, and reduce the risk of blood clot formation. These drugs do the same things that omega-3s do. This decreases the likelihood that you can see any benefit from increasing omega-3s intake.

The Omega-3 Pendulum

With all this in mind let’s examine three major double-blind, placebo-controlled studies that looked at the effect of omega-3s on heart disease risk and came to different conclusions. Here is a summary of the studies.

GISSI Study ASCEND Study VITAL Study
11,000 participants 15,480 participants 25,871 participants
Followed for 3.5 years Followed for 7.4 years Followed for 5.3 years
Europe USA USA
Published in 1999 Published in 2018 Published in 2019
Dose = 1 gm/day Dose = 1 gm/day Dose = 1 gm/day
20% ↓ in heart disease deaths No effect on fatal or non-fatal heart attack or stroke Significant ↓ in some forms of heart disease
45% ↓ in fatal heart attack or stroke – as effective as statins Significant ↓ in heart disease risk for some patients

heart attacksAt first glance the study designs look similar, so why did these studies give such different results. This is where the unintended flaws come into play. Let’s look at each study in more detail.

The GISSI Study:

  • The patients enrolled in this study all had suffered a heart attack in the previous 3 months. They were at very high risk of suffering a second heart attack within the next couple of years.
  • Omega-3 intake was not measured in this study. But it was uncommon for Europeans to supplement with omega-3s in the 90’s. And European studies on omega-3 intake during that period generally found that omega-3 intake was low.
  • Patients enrolled in this study were generally taking only 2 heart disease drugs, a beta-blocker and a blood pressure drug.

The ASCEND Study:

  • The patients enrolled in this study had diabetes without any evidence of heart disease. Only 17% of the flawspatients enrolled in the study were at high risk of heart disease. 83% were at low risk. Remember, it is difficult to show a benefit of any intervention in low-risk patients.
  • The average omega-3 index of patients enrolled in this study was 7.1%. That means omega-3 levels were near optimal at the beginning of the study. Adding additional omega-3s was unlikely to show much benefit.
  • Most of the patients in this study were on 3-5 heart drugs and 1-2 diabetes drugs which duplicated the effects of omega-3s.

That means this study was asking a very different question. It was asking whether omega-3s provided any additional benefit for patients who were already taking multiple drugs that duplicated the effects of omega-3s.

However, you would have never known that from the headlines. The headlines simply said this study showed omega-3s were ineffective at preventing heart disease.

Simply put, this study was doomed to fail. However, despite its many flaws the authors reported that omega-3s did reduce one form of heart disease, namely vascular deaths (primarily due to heart attack and stroke). Somehow this observation never made it into the headlines.

The VITAL Study:

  • This study enrolled a cross-section of the American population aged 55 or older (average age = 67). As you might suspect for a cross-section of the American population, most of the participants in this study were at low risk for heart disease. This limited the ability of the study to show a benefit of omega-3 supplementation in the whole population.

However, there were subsets of the group who were at high risk of heart disease (more about that below).

  • This study excluded omega-3 supplement users The average omega-3 index of patients enrolled in this study was 2.7% at the beginning of the study and increased substantially during the study. This enhanced the ability of the study to show a benefit of omega-3 supplementation.
  • Participants in this study were only using statins and blood pressure medications. People using more medications were excluded from the study. This also enhanced the ability of the study to show a benefit of omega-3 supplementation.

The authors reported that “Supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids did not result in a lower incidence of major cardiovascular events…” This is what lazy journalists and many experts reported about the study.

good newsHowever, the authors designed the study so they could also:

  • Look at the effect of omega-3s on heart disease risk in high-risk groups. They found that major cardiovascular events were reduced by:
    • 26% in African Americans.
    • 26% in patients with diabetes.
    • 17% in patients with a family history of heart disease.
    • 19% in patients with two or more risk factors of heart disease.
  • Look at the effect of omega-3s on heart disease risk in people with low omega-3 intake. They found that omega-3 supplementation reduced major cardiovascular events by:
    • 19% in patients with low fish intake.
  • Look at the effect of omega-3s on the risk of different forms of heart disease. They found that omega-3 supplementation reduced:
    • Heart attacks by 28% in the general population and by 70% for African Americans.
    • Deaths from heart attacks by 50%.
    • Deaths from coronary heart disease (primarily heart attacks and ischemic strokes (strokes caused by blood clots)) by 24%.

In summary, if you take every study at face value it seems like the pendulum is constantly swinging from “omega-3s reduce heart disease risk” to “omega-3s are worthless” and back again. There appears to be no explanation for the difference in results from one study to the next.

However, if you remember that even good studies have unintended flaws and ask the four questions I proposed Question Markabove, it all makes sense.

  • How is heart disease defined? Studies looking at heart attack and/or ischemic stroke are much more likely to show a benefit of omega-3s than studies that include all forms of heart disease.
  • Are the patients at low-risk or high-risk for heart disease? Studies in high-risk populations are much more likely to show a benefit than studies in low-risk populations.
  • What is the omega-3 intake of participants in the study? Studies in populations with low omega-3 intake are more likely to show a benefit of omega-3 supplementation than studies in populations with high omega-3 intake.
  • How many heart drugs are the patients taking? Studies in people taking no more than one or two heart drugs are more likely to show a benefit of omega-3 supplementation than studies in people taking 3-5 heart drugs.

When you view omega-3 clinical studies through the lens of these 4 questions, the noise disappears. It is easy to see why these studies came to different conclusions.

Who Benefits Most From Omega-3s?

omega 3s and heart diseaseThe answers to this question are clear:

  • People at high risk of heart disease are most likely to benefit from omega-3 supplementation.
  • People with low omega-3 intake are most likely to benefit from omega-3 supplementation.
  • Omega-3 supplementation appears to have the biggest effect on heart attack and ischemic stroke (stroke due to blood clots). Its effect on other forms of heart disease is less clear.
  • Omega-3 supplementation appears to be most effective at preventing heart disease if you are taking no more than 1 or 2 heart drugs. It may provide little additional benefit if you are taking multiple heart drugs. However, you might want to have a conversation with your doctor about whether omega-3 supplementation might allow you to reduce or eliminate some of those drugs.

What about the general population? Is omega-3 supplementation useful for patients who are at low to moderate risk of heart disease?

  • If we compare omega-3 studies with statin studies, the answer would be yes. Remember that statins cannot be shown to reduce heart attacks in low-risk populations. However, because they are clearly effective in high-risk patients, the medical community assumes they should be beneficial in low-risk populations. The same argument could be made for omega-3s.
  • We also need to recognize that our ability to recognize those who are at high risk of heart disease is imperfect. For too many Americans, the first indication that they have heart disease is sudden death!

When I was still teaching, I invited a cardiologist to speak to my class of first year medical students. He told the students, only partly in jest, that he felt statins were so beneficial they “should be added to the drinking water”.

I feel the same way about omega-3s:

  • Most Americans do not get enough omega-3s in our diet.
  • Our omega-3 index is usually much closer to 4% (high risk of heart disease) than 8% (low risk of heart disease).
  • Many of us may not realize that we are at high risk of heart disease until it is too late.
  • And omega-3s have other health benefits.

For all these reasons, omega-3 supplementation only makes sense.

The Bottom Line

There is perhaps nothing more confusing to the average person than the “truth” about omega-3s and heart disease risk. The headlines and expert opinion on the topic swing wildly between “omega-3s reduce heart disease risk” to “omega-3s have no effect on heart disease risk” and back again. To me these swings resemble the swings of a pendulum – hence the title of this article.

If you take every study at face value, there appears to be no explanation for the difference in results from one study to the next. However, if you recognize that even good studies have unintended flaws and ask four simple questions to expose these flaws, it all makes sense.

For the four questions you should ask when reviewing any omega-3 study and my recommendations for who benefits the most from omega-3 supplementation, 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.

Is Dairy Bad For Your Heart?

Is Dairy Right For You? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

dairy foodsWe have been told for years that dairy foods are good for us. They are part of the USDA five food groups. In fact, they are part of the dietary recommendations of every government and most health organizations across the world.

And dairy foods are nutritious. They are excellent sources of calcium, potassium, protein, and vitamins A and B12. And if they are fortified, they are also an excellent source of vitamin D. Many health experts consider them essential for healthy bones. So, you might be saying, “Case closed. We should all be eating more dairy foods”.

But, not so fast. Many dairy foods are high in saturated fats. In fact, 65% of the fat in dairy foods is saturated. We have known for years that when saturated fats replace polyunsaturated fats in the diet, LDL cholesterol levels increase. And, as I reported in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” there is excellent evidence that replacing polyunsaturated fats with saturated fats substantially increases the risk of dying from heart attack, stroke, and other forms of heart disease.

The widely accepted message from these studies is that saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol levels and increases our risk of dying from heart disease. If we accept this message, it poses a dilemma. Dairy foods are nutritious. But they are high in saturated fat. What should we do?

The answer from the American Heart Association and most other health organizations is simple. We should eat low-fat dairy foods.

But this is where it gets really confusing. Dairy foods are composed of much more than saturated fats. And you have probably seen the claims that full fat dairy foods don’t increase the risk of heart disease.

So, what is the truth about full-fat dairy foods and heart health? In this issue of “Health Tips From The Professor” I review three recent studies and the recommendations of the Heart Foundation because they shed light on this question.

Is Dairy Bad For Your Heart?

dairy products and heart disease cheeseBefore I answer this question, I should point out that there are two ways of looking at it.

  • As I said above, the studies proving that saturated fats increase the risk of heart disease, substituted saturated fats for polyunsaturated fats and controlled every other aspect of the diet. That has led the American Heart Association and other organizations to recommend that we eat low-fat dairy foods.
  • However, when most people hear that recommendation, they simply substitute low-fat dairy for full-fat dairy foods without changing any other aspect of their diet or lifestyle. The first two studies were designed to see if that approach was effective for reducing heart disease risk.

The first study (KA Schmidt et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 114: 882-892, 2021) was a randomized controlled trial that compared the effect of low-fat dairy foods and full-fat dairy foods on heart health parameters.

The participants in this study were:

  • Average age = 62
  • 56% male
  • 75% white
  • Average weight = 214 pounds
  • All of them were prediabetic

All participants were told to stick with their usual diets (probably typical American diets) except for the amount and type of dairy foods added to their diet. During the first four weeks they restricted dairy consumption to 3 servings of nonfat dairy/week so they would all be starting with the same amount of dairy consumption. Then they were divided into 3 groups for the 12-week study:

  • Group 1 continued with 3 servings of nonfat dairy/week.
  • Group 2 added 3 servings of low-fat dairy/day to their usual diet.
  • Group 3 added 3 servings of high-fat dairy/day to their usual diet.

At the beginning of the study and again at the end of the 12-week study LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, free fatty acids, and blood pressure were measured. The results were:

  • There was no difference in LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, free fatty acids, or blood pressure in the three groups at the end of 12 weeks.
  • There was no also significant change in LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, free fatty acids, or blood pressure during the study in any of the three groups.

The authors concluded, “A diet rich in full-fat dairy had no effect on fasting lipid profile or blood pressure compared with diets limited in dairy or rich in low-fat dairy. Therefore, dairy fat, when consumed as part of complex whole foods does not adversely affect these classic cardiovascular disease risk factors.”

[Note: The last sentence is key. Remember the “proof” that saturated fats increase LDL levels and increase the risk of heart disease come from studies in which saturated fats were substituted for polyunsaturated fats and every other aspect of the diet was carefully controlled.

In this study, and others like it, the effects of saturated fats are studied in a complex food (dairy) in the presence of an even more complex diet containing many foods that influence the risk of heart disease.]

The second study (J Guo et al, European Journal of Epidemiology 32: 269-287, 2017) was a meta-analysis of Healthy Heart29 studies with 938,465 participants looking at the association of full-fat dairy consumption with the risk of dying from heart disease.

Seven of the 29 studies were conducted in the United States. Of the remaining studies 3 were from Japan and Taiwan, 2 were from Australia, and 17 were from Europe.

The results of the study were:

  • There was no association between full-fat dairy, low-fat dairy, and total dairy consumption and risk of dying from heart disease.

When the results were broken down into individual dairy foods.

  • There was no association between milk consumption and risk of dying from heart disease.
  • Consumption of one serving/day of fermented dairy foods was associated with a 2% decreased risk of dying from heart disease.

The authors concluded, “The current meta-analysis of 29 prospective cohort studies suggested no association of total, high and low-fat dairy and milk with risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, a possible role of fermented dairy was found in cardiovascular disease prevention, but the result was driven by a single study.” [I would add that this effect, if confirmed by subsequent studies, is extremely small (2%).]

The first two studies do not say that full-fat dairy foods are heart healthy for everyone, as some headlines would have you believe. Instead, these studies show fairly convincingly that simply switching from full-fat to low-fat dairy foods, without changing any other aspect of your diet and lifestyle, is not as effective at decreasing your risk of heart disease as some experts would have you believe.

balance scaleThe third publication (WC Willett and DS Ludwig, New England Journal of Medicine 382: 644-654, 2020) was a review of the effect of dairy foods on our health. One of the authors, Walter C Willett, is one of the top experts in the field. The review covered many topics, but I will focus on the section dealing with the effect of dairy foods on heart health.

This review took a more nuanced look at full-fat dairy foods and examined the effect of substituting full-fat dairy for other protein foods.

The review concludes, “The association of milk with the risk of cardiovascular disease depends on the comparison foods. In most cohort studies [such as the studies described above], no specific comparison was made; by default, the comparison was everything else in the diet – typically large amounts of refined grains, potato products, sugar, and meat.”

The review went on to say that previous studies have shown:

  • “Both full-fat and low-fat dairy foods…were associated with a lower risk [of cardiovascular disease and stroke] than…the same number of servings of red meat but with a higher risk than seen with the same number of servings of fish or nuts.”
  • “Dairy fat…was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than was polyunsaturated or vegetable fat.”
  • “For persons living in low-income countries where diets are very high in starch, moderate intake of dairy foods may reduce cardiovascular disease by providing nutritional value and reducing glycemic load [the amount of easily digestible carbohydrate in the diet].”

Is Dairy Right For You?

dairy products and heart disease questionsNow I am ready to answer the question posed at the beginning of this article, “Is dairy bad for your heart?” The answer is, “It depends”.

  • As described above, the effect of dairy on heart health depends on our overall diet. It also depends on our lifestyle, our weight, and our health.
  • In addition, clinical studies report averages, and none of us are average. We all have unique diets, lifestyles, health status, and genetic makeup.

So, what does this mean for you? Perhaps it is best summed up by the recommendations of Australia’s Heart Foundation which take health status, lifestyle, and genetic differences into account:

  • A heart healthy diet can include dairy, but it is not essential [with careful planning and/or supplementation you can get your calcium and protein elsewhere].
  • Milk, yogurt, and cheese are considered neutral for heart health, meaning they neither increase nor decrease the risk of heart disease for the average person. However, the recommendations vary depending on health status, genetics, and lifestyle:
    • Low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese are recommended for people with heart disease or high cholesterol because the fat in dairy foods can raise cholesterol more for these people. [Note: If cholesterol is elevated, it usually means that individual has a hard time regulating blood cholesterol levels because of obesity, genetics, or pre-existing disease. For these individuals, diets high in saturated fat are more likely to increase LDL cholesterol and risk of heart disease.]
    • Full-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese can be part of a heart healthy diet for healthy people provided most of the fat in the diet comes from fish, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils. [Note: Overall diet is important.]
  • Choosing unflavored milk, yogurt, and cheese helps limit the amount of sugar in your diet.
  • Ice cream, cream, and dairy desserts should be eaten only sometimes and in small amounts because they have more sugar and fat, and less protein, vitamins, and minerals than other dairy foods.
  • Butter raises LDL cholesterol levels, especially in people who already have elevated cholesterol.
    • There is no evidence that butter can be part of a heart healthy diet, so you should consider healthier options such as olive oil, avocado, nut butters, and spreads made with healthier oils, such as olive oil.

The Bottom Line

We have been told for years that dairy foods are good for us. They are part of the USDA five food groups. In fact, they are part of the dietary recommendations of every government and most health organizations across the world.

However, dairy foods have been controversial in recent years. Some experts claim that only low-fat dairy products can be heart healthy. Others claim that full-fat dairy foods are just as healthy as low-fat dairy foods.

I shared three recent publications and dietary recommendations from The Heart Foundation that shed light on these controversies.

The first study found that full-fat dairy foods did not increase LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and other heart disease risk factors.

The second study was a meta-analysis of 29 clinical studies with almost one million people. It found that full-fat dairy foods did not increase the risk of dying from heart disease.

“Case closed”, you might say. However, these studies do not say that full-fat dairy foods are heart healthy for everyone, as some headlines would have you believe. Instead, these studies show fairly convincingly that simply switching from full-fat to low-fat dairy foods, without changing any other aspect of your diet and lifestyle, is not as effective at decreasing your risk of heart disease as some experts would have you believe.

Moreover, these studies do not account for the effect of overall diet, lifestyle, health status, and genetics on the risk of heart disease.

That is why I included the third study in my review. It took the overall diet into account and concluded the effect of full-fat dairy foods on heart disease risk depends on the overall diet.

  • For some diets full-fat dairy increases heart disease risk.
  • For other diets full-fat dairy has no effect on heart disease risk.
  • And for some diets full-fat dairy may even decrease heart disease risk.

Finally, I included recommendations of the Australian Heart Foundation because they included the effect of health status, lifestyle, and genetics in their recommendations.

For more details on the findings of the third study and the recommendations of the Heart Foundation, 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.

A Diet To Die For

Which Diet Is Best? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Heart AttackMany clinical studies focus on the benefits or risks associated with individual components of our diet. For example, we have been told:

  • Saturated and trans fats are bad for us and monounsaturated and omega-3 fats are good for us.
  • Sugar and refined carbohydrates are bad for us, but complex carbohydrates are good for us.

However, we don’t eat saturated fats or sugars in isolation. They are part of a diet with many other foods. Do other foods in our diet affect the risks we associate with saturated fat or sugar? We don’t know.

Simply put, we don’t eat foods, we eat diets. We don’t eat saturated fats, we eat diets. It would be more helpful for the average person if research focused on which diets are good and bad for us instead of which foods are good and bad for us.

One recent study (JM Shikany et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 10:e019158, 2021) did just that. It evaluated the effect of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death (dropping dead from a stroke or heart attack).

  • It turns out that one of the diets significantly increases your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to die for”.
  • Another diet significantly decreases your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to live for”.
  • The other diets had no significant effect on the risk of sudden cardiac death.

You are probably wondering, “What were the diets?”; “Which diet is best?”; and “Which diet is worst?” I cover that below, but first we should look at how the study was designed.

How Was The Study Designed?

Clinical StudyThe study involved 21,069 participants in the REGARDS (Reasons for Geographical and Racial Differences in Stroke) clinical trial who were followed for an average of 10 years. This clinical trial enrolled:

  • 30% of its participants from what is called the “the stroke belt” (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana).
  • 20% of its participants from what is called “the stroke buckle” (the coastal plain of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia).
  • 50% of its participants from elsewhere in the continental United States.

At the beginning of the study, participants were given a medical exam and filled out an extensive questionnaire on diet.

Based on the diet analysis, the participants were ranked for adherence to six dietary patterns.

#1: The Convenience Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on pre-packaged or restaurant meals, pasta dishes, pizza, Mexican food, and Chinese food.

#2: The Plant-Based Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on vegetables, fruits, fruit juice, cereal, beans, fish, poultry, and yogurt.

#3: The Sweets Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on added sugars, desserts, chocolate, candy, and sweetened breakfast foods.

#4: The Southern Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on added fats, fried food, eggs and egg dishes, organ meats, processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

#5: The Alcohol and Salad Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on beer, wine, liquor, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and salad dressing.

#6: The Mediterranean Pattern. Adherence to the Mediterranean dietary pattern was based on the well-established Mediterranean Diet Score.

  • Points are added for beneficial foods (vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grain cereals, nuts, and fish).
  • Points are subtracted for detrimental foods (meat and dairy).
  • Points are added for a high ratio of monounsaturated fats to saturated fats (think diets rich in olive oil).
  • One point is added for moderate alcohol consumption, Zero or excess alcohol consumption is assigned 0 points.

The study looked at the correlation of these dietary patterns with the incidence of sudden cardiac death during the 10-year study.

A Diet To Die For

deadThe results were striking.

  • The Southern Diet increased the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death 2.2-fold. Basically, it doubled the risk.
    • In people with no previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Southern Diet increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 2.3-fold.
    • In people with a previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Southern Diet increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 2-fold.
  • The Mediterranean Diet decreased the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death 41%.
    • In people with no previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Mediterranean Diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 51%. Basically, it cut the risk in half.
    • In people with a previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Mediterranean Diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 23%, but that decrease was not statistically significant.
  • None of the other diets had a significant effect on the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death.

In the words of the authors, “We identified a trend towards an inverse association of the Mediterranean diet score and a positive association of adherence to the Southern dietary pattern with risk of sudden cardiac death.” [That is a fancy way of saying the Mediterranean diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death, and the Southern dietary pattern increased the risk of sudden cardiac death.]

Which Diet Is Best?

AwardThe Mediterranean Diet Is Best: In this analysis of the effects of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death, it is obvious that the Mediterranean diet is best. It cut the risk of sudden cardiac death in half.

This should come as no surprise:

  • I have reported on a previous study showing that the Mediterranean diet decreases the risk of heart disease by 47%.
  • In the Woman’s Health Study the Mediterranean diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 36%.
  • In the Nurses’ Health Study there was an inverse association between the Mediterranean Diet Score and sudden cardiac death.

The Southern Dietary Pattern Was Worst. It doubled the risk of sudden cardiac death. As someone who grew up in the South, this comes as no surprise to me. Let me count the ways:

  • It starts with a breakfast of fried eggs, grits with “red-eye gravy” (a mixture of ham drippings and coffee), ham or sausage, and biscuits made with lots of lard and sugar.
  • When I was growing up, a snack might be an RC cola and moon pies (look that one up).
  • Dinner might be fried chicken and hushpuppies or fried fish and hushpuppies.
  • Instead of picnics we have pig pickins (which is pretty much what it sounds like).
  • And we boil our vegetables with fatback (pig fat) and sugar.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond memories of the foods I ate while growing up in the South. I just don’t eat them much anymore.

Why Didn’t The Plant-Based Dietary Pattern Score Better? One of the surprises from this study was that the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern didn’t score better. After all, numerous studies have shown that mostly plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease. Why did it strike out in this study?Vegan Foods

My feeling is that the study did not adequately describe a true Plant-Based Dietary Pattern. As I described above, participants following the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern were identified as having above average consumption of vegetables, fruits, fruit juice, cereal, beans, fish, poultry, and yogurt compared to others in this study. I have two concerns with this classification.

  • As described, this is a semi-vegetarian diet, while the best results for reducing heart disease risk are seen with strict vegetarian and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets.
  • However, my biggest concern is that we don’t know what other foods they were consuming. Were they also consuming convenience foods? Were they consuming sweets? We don’t know.

That is very different from the two dietary patterns that stood out in this study.

  • 50% of the participants in this study came the Southeastern region of the United States. So, when the study identified participants as following a Southern Dietary Pattern based on a few southern foods, it is likely that those participants ate many other southern foods as well.

If 50% of the participants in the study had come from the Loma Linda area of California where vegetarianism is much more common, the study might have done a better job of identifying participants consuming a plant-based diet.

  • While participants consuming the Mediterranean diet were more scattered geographically, the Mediterranean Diet Score used to identify people consuming a Mediterranean diet is much more detailed and has been validated in numerous previous studies.

In short, the Southern and Mediterranean Dietary Patterns may have stood out in this study because they provided a more precise distinction between those consuming a Southern or Mediterranean diet and those following other dietary patterns. If the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern had been more precisely described, it might have shown a statistically significant benefit as well.

The Bottom Line

Many clinical studies focus on the benefits or risks associated with individual components of our diet.

However, we don’t eat foods, we eat diets. It would be more helpful for the average person if research focused on which diets are good and bad for us instead of which foods are good and bad for us.

One recent study did just that. It evaluated the effect of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death (dropping dead from a stroke or heart attack).

  • It turns out that the Southern diet doubles your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to die for”.
  • In contrast, the Mediterranean diet cuts your risk of sudden cardiac death in half. I call that one, “A diet to live for”.
  • The other diets had no significant effect on the risk of sudden cardiac death.

For more details on the study, why the Southern diet is so bad for us, and why the Mediterranean diet is so good for us, 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.

Health Tips From The Professor