Are Calcium Supplements Heart Healthy?

Should You Follow Your Doctor’s Advice About Calcium Supplementation?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Heart ConfusionAre calcium supplements good for your heart or bad for your heart? If you don’t know the answer to that question, don’t feel badly. You have every right to be confused. Some studies say that calcium supplements increase heart disease risk while others say they decrease heart disease risk. The headlines have veered between “killer calcium” and “beneficial calcium”.

The trend appears to be moving in a positive direction. In recent years most of the studies have suggested that calcium supplements either decrease heart disease risk or have no effect on heart disease risk.

However, the medical profession has been slow to take note of this trend. Most medical societies and health professionals have focused on earlier studies and are still recommending that their patients get calcium from food rather than from supplements. I will talk more about that recommendation below.

With this context in mind, this week I will review and discuss the results from the latest study (MG Sim et al, Heart, Lung and Circulation, 32: 1230-1239, 2023) on the effect of calcium supplementation on heart disease risk.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe authors of this study performed a meta-analysis of 12 double-blinded randomized clinical trials with 87,899 participants comparing the effect of a calcium supplement versus a placebo on heart disease outcomes (heart attack, stroke, heart failure, cardiovascular mortality, and all-cause mortality).

The studies included in this analysis:

  • Used calcium doses from 500 mg/day to 2,000 mg/day.
  • Used supplements with calcium coming from a variety of sources (calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, calcium gluconolactate, and tricalcium phosphate).
  • Ranged from 18 months to almost 12 years in length.
  • Were performed with population groups from a wide range of countries (United States, England, France, Australia, New Zealand, European Union, Denmark, and Thailand).
  • Included calcium supplements with and without vitamin D.
  • Were primarily (86% of participants) conducted with post-menopausal women. One small study (0.3% of participants) was conducted with non-osteoporotic men. The rest were conducted with mixed populations (men and women) diagnosed with colorectal adenoma.

Are Calcium Supplements Heart Healthy?

calcium supplementsThis is the largest meta-analysis performed to date of double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials on the effect of calcium supplementation versus a placebo on heart disease outcomes. This study found no effect of calcium supplementation on:

  • Heart attack.
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure.
  • Cardiovascular mortality.
  • All-cause mortality.

This study also evaluated potential confounding variables and found no effect of calcium supplementation on heart disease risk for:

  • Calcium supplements with and without vitamin D.
  • Dosage of calcium in the supplements (The dosage ranged from 500 mg/day to 2,000 mg/day).
  • Females (I suspect the number of males in this study was too small to come to a statistically significant conclusion).
  • Duration of calcium supplementation ≤ 5 years (The shortest duration of calcium supplementation in these studies was 18 months).
  • Different geographical regions.

However, this meta-analysis reported considerable variation between studies included in the analysis. Simply put,

  • Some studies showed an increase in heart disease risk.
  • Some studies showed a decrease in heart disease risk.
  • Some studies showed no effect on heart disease risk.

What this analysis showed was that when you combine all the studies, the aggregated data is consistent with calcium supplementation having no effect on heart disease risk.

The authors concluded, “Calcium supplementation was not associated with myocardial infraction [heart attack], stroke, heart failure, and cardiovascular/all-cause mortality. Further studies are required to examine and understand these associations.

Should You Follow Your Doctor’s Advice About Calcium Supplementation?

Doctor With PatientAs I said above, most medical societies and health professionals have focused on earlier studies and are still recommending that their patients get calcium from food rather than from supplements. That may be the advice you are getting from your doctor.

Before you assume your doctor isn’t keeping up with the latest science and ignore his or her advice, we should ask why they are giving that advice. The top three reasons most medical societies give for recommending dietary sources of calcium are:

1) Some studies do show an increased risk of heart disease associated with calcium supplementation. The prime directive for health professionals is to do no harm. Yes, the average of all studies shows no effect of calcium supplementation on heart disease risk. But what if the studies showing increased risk are true for some of their patients? Those patients could be harmed. 

Are you someone who might be at increased risk for heart disease if you take calcium supplements. The short answer is we don’t know because previous studies have not asked the right questions. 

In my opinion, it is time to pause additional studies and meta-analyses on calcium supplementation and heart health until we have gone over existing studies with a fine-tooth comb to figure out why the results differ so wildly. For example, we need to ask whether the effect of calcium supplements on heart disease risk is influenced by things like:

    • Age or ethnicity of participants.
    • Other preexisting health conditions.
    • Other lifestyle factors (exercise is probably the most important, but others may be involved as well).
    • Diet context. For example, we already know that the effect of eggs and dairy on heart health is influenced by diet context. [I have covered this for eggs in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.]
    • Other unanticipated variables.

Only when we have identified variables that might influence the effect of calcium supplements on heart disease risk, will the scientific community be able to design studies to identify the population groups who might be adversely affected by calcium supplementation.

This would allow health professionals to make informed decisions about which of their patients should avoid calcium supplementation and which of their patients would benefit from calcium supplementation. 

2) We really don’t need the recommended RDAs for calcium to build strong bones. The Healthy Bonerecommended RDAs for calcium are 1,000 mg/day for adults 19-50, 1,000 mg/day for men and 1,200 mg/day for women 51-70, and 1,200 mg/day for both men and women over 70. But do we really need that amount of calcium to build healthy bones? 

I have discussed this topic in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here are the key points:

    • The current RDAs are based on calcium needs for people consuming the typical American diet and following the typical American lifestyle. If that is you, the current RDAs probably apply.
    • However, strong bones are absolutely dependent on three things, adequate calcium, adequate vitamin D, and adequate weight-bearing exercise. Most recent studies of calcium supplementation and bone density include adequate vitamin D, but almost none of them include exercise. Previous studies have been inadequate.
    • The best calcium supplements contain certain nutrients besides vitamin D that optimize bone formation. I have listed those nutrients in the article cited above.
    • Our ability to use calcium to build strong bones is dependent on diet (something I call a bone-healthy diet) and lifestyle (something I call a bone-healthy lifestyle).
    • For more information on each of these points, read the article I referenced above.

In short, I agree that the current calcium RDAs may be too high for individuals consuming a bone-healthy diet and following a bone-healthy lifestyle. But the current calcium RDAs are likely accurate for people consuming the typical American diet and following the typical American lifestyle.

    • While we do not have a calcium RDA for populations following a bone healthy diet lifestyle, some studies suggest that 700-800 mg of calcium/day may be sufficient for this group.

3) Calcium from supplements is absorbed faster and gives higher blood level spikes than calcium from foods. That could be a problem because high blood levels of calcium are associated with calcification of our arteries, which is associated with increased heart disease risk. 

This is a theoretical concern, because high blood calcium levels from supplementation are transitory, while it is continuous high blood calcium levels that are associated with calcification of our arteries.

However, it is a plausible concern because most supplement companies design their calcium supplements based on how quickly they get calcium into the bloodstream rather than how effectively the calcium is utilized for bone formation. Here are my recommendations:

    • Choose a calcium supplement that provides RDA levels of vitamin D plus other nutrients shown to support strong bone formation.
    • Choose a calcium supplement supported by clinical studies showing it is effectively utilized for bone formation.

4) We should be getting our calcium from foods rather than supplements. dairy foods

While it is always easy for doctors to recommend that we get our nutrients from food rather than supplements, they need to ask whether we are getting those nutrients from our diet. For calcium the data are particularly sobering.

    • The average American gets around 740 mg of calcium/day from their diet. That is probably enough for the small percentage of Americans following a bone healthy diet and lifestyle. But it is 260-460 mg short of the 1,000-1,200 mg/day recommended for older adults with the typical American diet and lifestyle.
      • And for the average American, around 70% of their calcium intake comes from dairy foods.

       

      • So, Americans who are following a typical American diet and lifestyle and are restricting dairy may require 800-1,000 mg/day of supplemental calcium unless they carefully plan their diets to optimize calcium intake.

       

      • Finally, vegans average about 550 mg/day from their diet. That might be borderline even if they were following a bone healthy lifestyle.
    • In short, we cannot assume our diet will provide enough calcium for strong bones unless we include dairy foods and/or plan our diet very carefully. Some degree of supplementation may be necessary.

How Much Calcium Do You Need?

Questioning Woman

I have covered a lot of territory in this article, so let me summarize the four concerns of the medical community and answer your most important question, “Should you take calcium supplements?”

1) Calcium supplements may increase the risk of heart disease for some people.

That is true, but we have no idea at present who is at increased risk and who isn’t. So, we should minimize our risk by taking the precautions I describe below.

2) We don’t need RDA levels of calcium to build strong bones. That is probably true if you are one of the few people who follows a bone healthy diet and lifestyle, but it isn’t true if you follow the typical American diet and lifestyle.

  • The current RDAs of 1,000 – 1,200 mg/day are a good guideline for how much calcium you need if you follow the typical American diet and lifestyle.
  • If you a one of the few people who follow a bone healthy diet and lifestyle (For what that involves, read this article) you may only need 700-800 mg/day. But we don’t have clinical studies that can tell us what the actual RDA for calcium should be under those circumstances.

3) Calcium from supplements is absorbed faster and gives higher blood calcium spikes than calcium from foods. You may remember that the theoretical concern is that even short-term spikes of high blood calcium may lead to calcification of your arteries, which increases your risk of heart disease. So, the important question becomes, “What can we do to minimize these spikes in blood calcium levels?”

  • We should avoid calcium supplements that brag about how quickly and efficiently the calcium is absorbed. That could lead to calcium spikes. Instead, we should look for calcium supplements that are backed by clinical studies showing they are efficiently utilized for bone formation.
  • We should look for calcium supplements that include RDA levels of vitamin D and other nutrients that optimize bone formation. You will find more information on that in the same article I referenced above.
  • Some experts recommend that calcium supplements be taken between meals. But it is probably better to take them with meals because foods will likely slow the rate at which calcium is absorbed and reduce calcium spikes in the blood.
  • We are told to limit calcium supplements to less than 500 mg at any one time because calcium absorption becomes inefficient at higher doses. It might be even better to limit calcium to 250 mg or less at a time to reduce calcium spikes in the blood.

4) We should get calcium from foods rather than supplements.

  • Many Americans do not get enough calcium from diet alone, especially if they avoid dairy foods. So, some degree of calcium supplementation may be necessary. I have given some guidelines depending on your diet and lifestyle above.
  • The amount of supplemental calcium needed is relatively small. I do not recommend exceeding the RDA unless directed to by your health professional.

The Bottom Line 

Some studies say that calcium supplements increase heart disease risk while others say they decrease heart disease risk. The headlines veer between “killer calcium” and “beneficial calcium”.

The trend appears to be moving in a positive direction. In recent years most of the studies have suggested that calcium supplements either decrease heart disease risk or have no effect on heart disease risk.

However, the medical profession has been slow to take note of this trend. Most medical societies and health professionals have focused on earlier studies and are still recommending that their patients get calcium from food rather than from supplements.

A recent meta-analysis of 12 double-blinded randomized clinical trials with 87,899 participants comparing the effect of a calcium supplement versus a placebo on heart disease outcomes has just been published. This study found no effect of calcium supplementation on:

  • Heart attack.
  • Stroke.
  • Heart failure.
  • Cardiovascular mortality.
  • All-cause mortality.

The authors of the study concluded, “Calcium supplementation was not associated with myocardial infraction [heart attack], stroke, heart failure, and cardiovascular/all-cause mortality.

For more details and advice on whether you should follow your doctor’s recommendations for calcium 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.

 _____________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

____________________________________________________________________

About The Author

Dr. Steve ChaneyDr. Chaney has a BS in Chemistry from Duke University and a PhD in Biochemistry from UCLA. He is Professor Emeritus from the University of North Carolina where he taught biochemistry and nutrition to medical and dental students for 40 years.  Dr. Chaney won numerous teaching awards at UNC, including the Academy of Educators “Excellence in Teaching Lifetime Achievement Award”. Dr Chaney also ran an active cancer research program at UNC and published over 100 scientific articles and reviews in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In addition, he authored two chapters on nutrition in one of the leading biochemistry text books for medical students.

 

Which Diets Are Heart Healthy?

Which Diet Is Best For You?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

strong heartThe top 3 claims the advocates of every popular diet make are:

  • It will help you lose weight.
  • It reduces your risk of diabetes.
  • It reduces your risk of heart disease.

The truth is any restrictive diet helps you lose weight. And when you lose weight, you improve blood sugar control. Which, of course, reduces your risk of developing diabetes.

But what about heart disease? Which diets are heart healthy? When it comes to heart disease the claims of diet advocates are often misleading. That’s because the studies these advocates use to support their claims are often poor quality studies. Many of these studies:

  • Look at markers of heart disease risk rather than heart disease outcomes. Markers like LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, c-reactive protein, etc. are only able to predict possible heart disease outcomes. To really know which diets are heart healthy you have to measure actual heart disease outcomes such as heart attacks, stroke, and cardiovascular deaths.
  • Are too short to provide meaningful results. Many of these studies last only a few weeks. You need much longer to measure heart disease outcomes.
  • Are too small to provide statistically significant results. You need thousands of subjects to be sure the results you are seeing are statistically significant.
  • Have not been confirmed by other studies. The Dr. Strangeloves of the world like to “cherry pick” the studies that support the effectiveness of their favorite diet. Objective scientists know that any individual study can be wrong. So, they look for consensus conclusions from multiple studies.

A recent study (G Karam et al, British Medical Journal, 380: e072003, 2023) avoided all those pitfalls. The investigators conducted a meta-analysis of 40 high-quality clinical studies with 35,548 participants to answer the question, “Which diets are heart healthy?”

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe authors started by searching all major databases of clinical studies for studies published on the effect of diets on heart disease outcomes through September 2021.

They then performed a meta-analysis of the data from all studies that:

  • Compared the effect of a particular diet to minimal dietary intervention (defined as not receiving any advice or receiving dietary information such as brochures or brief advice from their clinician with little or no follow-up).
  • Looked at heart disease outcomes such as all cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, non-fatal heart attacks, stroke, and others.
  • Lasted for at least 9 months (average duration = 3 years).
  • Were high-quality studies.

Using these criteria:

  • They identified 40 studies with 35,548 participants for inclusion in their meta-analysis.
    • From those 40 studies, they identified 7 diet types that met their inclusion criteria (low fat (18 studies), Mediterranean (12 studies), very low fat (6 studies), modified fat (substituting healthy fats for unhealthy fats rather than decreasing fats, 4 studies), combined low fat and low sodium (3 studies), Ornish (3 studies), Pritikin (1 study).

One weakness of meta-analyses is that the design of the studies included in the meta-analysis is often different. Sometimes they don’t fit together well. So, while the individual studies are high-quality, a combination of all the studies can lead to a conclusion that is low quality or moderate quality.

Finally, the data were corrected for confounding factors such as obesity, exercise, smoking, and medication use.

Which Diets Are Heart Healthy?

Now that you understand the study design, we are ready to answer the question, “Which diets are heart healthy?” Here is what this study found:

Compared to minimal intervention,

  • The Mediterranean diet decreased all cause mortality by 28%, cardiovascular mortality by 45%, stroke by 35%, and non-fatal heart attacks by 52%.
  • Low fat diets decreased all cause mortality by 16% and non-fatal heart attacks by 23%. The effect of low fat diets on cardiovascular mortality and stroke was not statistically significant in this meta-analysis.
    • For both the Mediterranean and low fat diets, the heart health benefits were significantly better for patients who were at high risk of heart disease upon entry into the study.
    • The evidence supporting the heart health benefits for both diets was considered moderate quality evidence for this meta-analysis. [Remember that the quality of any conclusion in a meta-analysis is based on both the quality of evidence of the individual studies plus how well the studies fit together in the meta-analysis.]
  • While the percentage of risk reduction appears to be different for the Mediterranean and low fat diets, the effect of the two diets on heart health was not considered significantly different in this study.
  • The other 5 diets provided little, or no benefit, compared to the minimal intervention control based on low to moderate quality evidence.

The authors concluded, “This network meta-analysis found that Mediterranean and low fat dietary programs probably reduce the risk of mortality and non-fatal myocardial infarction [heart attacks] in people at increased cardiovascular risk. Mediterranean dietary programs are also likely to reduce the risk of stroke. Generally, other dietary programs were not superior to minimal intervention.”

Which Diet Is Best For You?

confusionThe fact that this study found both the Mediterranean diet and low fat diets to be heart healthy is not surprising. Numerous individual studies have found these diets to be heart healthy. So, it is not surprising when the individual studies were combined in a meta-analysis, the meta-analysis also concluded they were heart healthy. However, there are two important points I would like to make.

  • The diets used in these studies were designed by trained dietitians. That means the low fat studies did not use Big Food, Inc’s version of the low fat diet in which fatty foods are replaced with highly processed foods. In these studies, fatty foods were most likely replaced with whole or minimally processed foods from all 5 food groups.
  • The Mediterranean diet is probably the most studied of current popular diets. From these studies we know the Mediterranean diet improves brain health, gut health, and reduces cancer risk.

As for the other 5 diets (very low fat, modified fat, low fat and low sodium, Ornish, and Pritikin), I would say the jury is out. There is some evidence that these diets may be heart healthy. But very few of these studies were good enough to be included in this meta-analysis. Clearly, more high-quality studies are needed.

Finally, you might be wondering why other popular diets such as paleo, low carb, and very low carb (Atkins, keto, and others) were left out of this analysis. All I can say is that it wasn’t by design.

The authors did not select the 7 diets described in this study and then search for studies testing their effectiveness. They searched for all studies describing the effect of diets on heart health. Once they identified 40 high-quality studies, they grouped the diets into 7 diet categories.

I can only conclude there were no high-quality studies of paleo, low carb, or very low carb diets that met the criteria for inclusion in this meta-analysis. The criteria were:

  • The effect of diet on heart health must be compared to a control group that received no or minimal dietary advice.
  • The study must measure heart disease outcomes such as all cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, non-fatal heart attacks, and stroke.
  • The study must last at least 9 months.
  • The study must be high-quality.

Until these kinds of studies are done, we have no idea whether these diets are heart healthy or not.

So, what’s the takeaway for you? Which diet is best for you? Both low fat diets and the Mediterranean diet are heart healthy provided the low fat diet consists of primarily whole or minimally processed foods. Which of these two diets is best for you depends on your food preferences.

The Bottom Line 

Many of you may have been warned by your doctor that your heart health is not what it should be. Others may be concerned because you have a family history of heart disease. You want to know which diets are heart healthy.

Fortunately, a recent study answered that question. The authors performed a meta-analysis of 40 high-quality studies that compared the effect of various diets with the effect of minimal dietary intervention (doctors’ advice or diet brochure) on heart disease outcomes.

From this study they concluded that both low fat diets and the Mediterranean diet probably reduce mortality and the risk of non-fatal heart attacks, and that the Mediterranean diet likely reduces stroke risk.

Other diets studied had no significant effect on heart health in this study. That does not necessarily mean they are ineffective. But it does mean that more high-quality studies are needed before we can evaluate their effect on heart health.

So, what’s the bottom line for you? Both low fat diets and the Mediterranean diet are heart healthy provided the low fat diet consists of primarily whole or minimally processed foods Which of these two diets is best for you depends on your food preferences.

For more information on this study, 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.

___________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

Is Whole Fat Dairy Healthy?

Is It Dairy Or Diet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

CheesesFor years we have been told to select low fat dairy foods. But recent headlines claim, “That’s nonsense. Whole fat dairy foods are healthy.” Are those headlines true?

In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have kept you abreast of recent studies suggesting that whole fat dairy foods may not be as bad for us as we thought. I also cautioned you that the headlines may not have accurately represented the studies they described.

Headlines have to be simple. But truth is often more nuanced. If we believed the current headlines, we might be asking ourselves questions like, “Should we ditch the current health guidelines recommending low-fat dairy foods? Are foods like ice cream, sour cream, and cheddar cheese actually be good for us?

To answer these questions, I will look at the study (A Mente et al, European Heart Journal, 44, 2560-2579, 2023) behind the current headlines and put the study into perspective.

Spoiler alert: If I could summarize the study findings in two sentences, they would be, “Whole fat dairy can be part of a healthy diet. But can it be part of an unhealthy diet?”

Stay tuned. I will discuss the science behind that statement below.

How Was This Study Done?

clinical studyThis study started with data collected from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study. The PURE study is an ongoing study correlating diet, lifestyle, and environmental effects on health outcomes. It has enrolled 166,762 individuals, age 35-70, from 21 low-, middle-, and high-income countries on 5 continents.

Habitual food intake was determined using country-specific food frequency questionnaires at the time participants joined the study. Participants (166,762) from the PURE study who had complete dietary information were included in this study and were followed for an average of 9.3 years.

Based on preliminary analysis of data from the PURE study, the authors developed their version of a healthy diet, which they call the PURE diet. Like most other healthy diets, the PURE diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fish. However:

  • Based on studies suggesting that whole fat dairy foods can be part of a healthy diet, the PURE diet includes whole fat dairy foods.

This is different from most other healthy diet recommendations.

They went on to develop what they referred to as the PURE healthy diet score by:

  • Determining the median intake for each of the 6 food groups included in their PURE diet (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish, and whole fat dairy).
  • Assigning each participant in the study a score of 0 or 1 depending on whether their intake for that food group was below or above the median intake.
  • Adding up the points. Since 6 food groups were included in the PURE diet, this means that each participant in the study was assigned a PURE diet score ranging from 0-6.

Once they had developed a PURE diet score, they expanded their data by including five additional large independent studies that included people from 70 countries. The combined data from all six studies amounted to 245,597 people from 80 countries. Of the people included in the data analysis:

  • 21% came from high income countries.
  • 60% came from middle income countries.
  • 19% came from low-income countries.

This is very similar to the global population distribution. This is a strength of this study because it allowed them to ask whether the PURE diet score worked as well in low-income countries as in high-income countries.

Finally, they correlated the PURE diet score with outcomes like all-cause mortality, heart attack, and stroke.

Is Whole Fat Dairy Healthy?

QuestionsThe authors of this study divided the participants of all 6 studies into quintiles based on their PURE diet score and compared those in the highest quintile (PURE score of ≥ 5) with those in the lowest quintile (PURE score of ≤ 1).

The people in the highest quintile were eating on average 5 servings/day of fruits and vegetables, 0.5 servings/day of legumes, 1.2 servings/day of nuts, 0.3 servings/day of fish, 2 servings/day of dairy (of which 1.4 servings/day was whole fat dairy), 0.5 servings/day of unprocessed red meat, and 0.3 servings/day of poultry.

 

The people in the lowest quintile ate significantly less fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and dairy; and slightly less legumes, unprocessed red meat, and poultry than those in the highest quintile.

However, they consumed significantly more refined wheat foods and white rice. This study did not track consumption of highly processed foods, but the high consumption of white flour leads me to suspect they ate a lot more highly processed food.

With that in mind, when the authors compared people with the highest PURE diet scores to those with the lowest PURE diet scores:

  • All-cause mortality was reduced by 30%.
  • Cardiovascular disease was reduced by 18%.
  • Heart attacks were reduced by 14%.
  • Strokes were reduced by 19%.
  • The PURE healthy eating score was slightly better at predicting health outcomes than the Mediterranean, DASH, and HEI (Healthy Eating Index) scores. But the differences were small. So, I still recommend choosing the healthy diet that best fits your preferred foods and your lifestyle.
  • The PURE healthy eating score was significantly better at predicting health outcomes than the Planetary diet score. I will discuss the nutritional inadequacy of “sustainable diets” like the Planetary diet in next week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” article.

Because of the size and design of this study, they were able to make three interesting observations.

  1. The PURE, Mediterranean, DASH, and HEI diet scores were predictive of health outcomes in every country across the globe. You no longer have to wonder if what works in the United States will work in low-income countries and in countries with very different food preferences. Previous studies have not been able to make that claim.

2) You don’t have to be perfect.

    • A 20% increase (one quintile) in PURE score was associated with a 6% lower risk of major cardiovascular events and an 8% lower risk of mortality. In other words, even small improvements in your diet may improve your health outcomes.
    • The health benefits of the PURE diet started to plateau at a score of 3 (with 6 being the highest score). The authors concluded that most of the health benefits were associated with a modestly higher consumption of healthy foods compared to little or no consumption of healthy foods.

Simply put, that means the health benefits gained by going from a moderately healthy diet to a very healthy diet are not as great as the health benefits gained by going from a poor diet to a moderately healthy diet.

[Note: There are still improvements in health outcomes when you go from a moderately healthy diet to a very healthy diet.  My recommendation: “You don’t need to achieve perfection, but you shouldn’t accept mediocrity”.]

3) The PURE diet score was more predictive of health outcomes in some countries than in others.

    • The PURE diet score was more predictive of health outcomes in low-income countries. The authors felt that was because low-income countries started with average PURE scores of 2.1, whereas higher-income countries started with average PURE scores of 3.5.

The authors felt this was another example getting more “bang for the buck” by going from a poor diet to a moderately healthy diet than from a moderately healthy diet to a very healthy diet. (Remember, the health benefits associated with improving PURE diet scores start to plateau at a PURE score of 3.

    • The difference in benefits for low-income countries compared to high-income countries was observed for the Mediterranean, DASH, and HEI diet scores. So, it is probably safe to say for any healthy diet you don’t need to be perfect. You just need to be better.

The authors concluded, “A diet composed of higher amounts of fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, and whole fat dairy is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality in all world regions, especially in countries with lower income where consumption of these foods is low.”

Is It Dairy Or Diet?

CheesesThe headlines are telling us that recommendations to choose low-fat dairy products are out of date. They say there is no reason to fear whole fat dairy foods. They are good for you. Bring on the ice cream, sour cream, cream cheese, and high fat hard cheeses!

As usual, there is a kernel of truth in the headlines, but headlines have to be simple. And the latest headlines are an oversimplification of what the studies actually show. Let me provide perspective to the headlines by asking two questions.

#1: Is it dairy or diet? A major weakness of this and similar studies is that they fail to consider diet context. What do I mean by that? Let’s dig a little deeper into this study.

  • Let’s start with a description of the PURE diet. It is a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fish. In other words, it is a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Although the authors keep referring to the diet as one that includes whole fat dairy. It would be more accurate to say that it includes dairy, which was 30% low-fat and 70% whole fat.
  • The authors said that removal of any one food group from this combination reduced the predictive power of the PURE diet. In other words, the beneficial effect of 70% whole fat dairy is best seen in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • The PURE diet was most effective at predicting health outcomes in low-income countries where a significant percent of the population consumes a primarily plant-based diet because meats are expensive.

So, a more accurate description of this study would be it shows that a mixture of low-fat and whole-fat dairy foods are a healthy addition to a primarily plant-based diet. But that is too complicated for a headline.

#2: If whole fat dairy can be part of a healthy diet, can it also be part of an unhealthy diet?

To answer that question let’s compare the potential effects of whole fat dairy on a primarily plant-based diet compared to the typical American or European diet.

  • Milk and other dairy foods are excellent sources of calcium, vitamin B12, and iodine and good sources of protein, vitamin D, choline, zinc, and selenium – nutrients that are often low or missing in plant-based diet. And this is true whether the dairy foods are low-fat or whole fat.
  • Primarily plant-based diets tend to be low in saturated fat, so the potential negative effects of adding a small amount of saturated fat to the diet may be outweighed by the beneficial effects of the nutrients dairy foods provide.

On the other hand,

  • The typical American or European diet provides plenty of protein and vitamin B12 and significantly more choline, vitamin D, iodine, and zinc than a plant-based diet. The added nutrients from adding dairy foods to this kind of diet is still beneficial, but the benefits are not as great as adding dairy foods to a primarily plant-based diet.
  • If you read the American Heart Association statement on saturated fats, it does not say that any amount of saturated fat is bad for you. In fact, small amounts of saturated fats play some beneficial roles in our bodies. The American Heart Association says, “Eating too much saturated fat can raise the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood…[which] increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.”
  • Here is where the problem lies. The typical American or European diet already contains too much saturated fat. Whole fat dairy just adds to that excess.

So, the most accurate description of this study would be it shows that a mixture of low-fat and whole-fat dairy foods are a healthy addition to a primarily plant-based diet but may not be a healthy addition to the typical American diet. But that is way too complicated for a headline.

You are probably wondering what this means for you. Here are my recommendations.

If you eat like most Americans, you should continue to follow the current health guidelines to choose low-fat dairy foods.

If you happen to be among the few Americans who eat a primarily plant-based diet, you will probably benefit by adding a mixture of low-fat and whole fat dairy foods to your diet.

The Bottom Line 

Once again, the headlines are telling us that recommendations to choose low-fat dairy products are out of date. The articles say there is no reason to fear whole fat dairy foods. They are good for you. Bring on the ice cream, sour cream, cream cheese, and high fat hard cheeses!

As usual, there is a kernel of truth in the headlines, but headlines have to be simple. And the latest headlines are an oversimplification of what the studies actually show. In this post I looked at the study behind the most recent headlines and provided perspective to the headlines by asking two questions.

#1: Is it dairy or diet? A major weakness of this and similar studies is that they fail to consider diet context.

When you consider diet context a more accurate description of this study would be it shows that a mixture of low-fat and whole-fat dairy foods are a healthy addition to a primarily plant-based diet. But that is too complicated for a headline.

#2: If whole fat dairy can be part of a healthy diet, can it also be part of an unhealthy diet?

When you consider that question the most accurate description of this study would be it shows that a mixture of low-fat and whole-fat dairy foods are a healthy addition to a primarily plant-based diet but may not be a healthy addition to the typical American diet. But that is way too complicated for a headline.

You are probably wondering what this means for you. Here are my recommendations.

If you eat like most Americans, you should continue to follow the current health guidelines to choose low-fat dairy foods.

If you happen to be among the few Americans who eat a primarily plant-based diet, you will probably benefit by adding a mixture of low-fat and whole fat dairy foods to your diet.

For more information on this study, and the science behind my summary of the study, 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.

_________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

Are All Carbs Bad?

Are Low Carb Enthusiasts Right About The Dangers Of Carbohydrates?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

Low carb enthusiasts have been on the warpath against carbohydrates for years.

Almost everyone agrees that sugar-sweetened sodas and highly processed, refined foods with added sugar are bad for us. But low carb enthusiasts claim that we should also avoid fruits, grains, and starchy vegetables. Have they gone too far?

Several recent studies suggest they have. For example, both association studies and randomized controlled studies suggest that total carbohydrate intake is neither harmful nor beneficial for heart health.

In addition, recent studies suggest that free sugar intake is associated with both elevated triglyceride levels and an increase in heart disease risk.

But those studies have mostly looked at free sugar intake from sugar-sweetened sodas. The authors of this study (RK Kelley et al, BMC Medicine, 21:34, 2023) decided to look more carefully at the effect of all free sugars and other types of carbohydrates on triglyceride levels and heart disease risk.

How Was This Study Done?

clinical studyThe 110,497 people chosen for this study were a subgroup of participants in the UK Biobank Study, a large, long-term study looking at the contributions of genetic predisposition and environmental exposure (including diet) to the development of disease in England, Scotland, and Wales.

The participants in this study were aged between 37 and 73 (average age = 56) on enrollment and were followed for an average of 9.4 years. None of them had a history of heart disease or diabetes or were taking diabetic medications at the time of enrollment.

During the 9.4-year follow-up, five 24-hour dietary recalls were performed, so that usual dietary intake could be measured rather than dietary intake at a single time point. The people in this study participated in an average of 2.9 diet surveys, and none of them had less than two diet surveys.

The averaged data from the dietary recalls were analyzed for the amount and kinds of carbohydrate in the diet. With respect to the types of carbohydrate, the following definitions would be useful.

  • The term free sugars includes all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook, or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, and unsweetened fruit juices.
  • The term non-free sugars includes all sugars not in the free sugar category, mostly sugars naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products.
  • The term refined grains includes white bread, white pasta, white rice, most crackers and cereals, pizza, and grain dishes with added fat.
  • The term whole grains includes wholegrain bread, wholegrain pasta, brown rice, bran cereal, wholegrain cereals, oat cereal, and muesli.

Finally, the study looked at the association of total carbohydrate and each class of carbohydrate defined above with all heart disease, heart attacks, stroke, and triglyceride levels.

Are All Carbs Bad?

Question MarkThe study looked at total carbohydrate intake, free sugar intake, and fiber intake. In each case, the study divided the participants into quartiles and compared those in the highest quartile with those in the lowest quartile.

Using this criterion:

  • Total carbohydrate intake was not associated with any cardiovascular outcome measured (total heart disease risk, heart attack risk, and stroke risk).
  • Free sugar intake was positively associated with all cardiovascular outcomes measured. Each 5% increase in caloric intake from free sugars was associated with a:
    • 7% increase in total heart disease risk.
    • 6% increase in heart attack risk.
    • 10% increase in stroke risk.
    • 3% increase in triglyceride levels.
  • Fiber intake was inversely associated with total heart disease risk. Specifically, each 5 gram/day increase in fiber was associated with a:
    • 4% decrease in total heart disease risk.

The investigators also looked at the effect of replacing less healthy carbohydrates with healthier carbohydrates. They found that:

  • Replacing 5% of caloric intake from refined grains with whole grains reduced both total heart disease risk and stroke risk by 6%.
  • Replacing 5% of caloric intake from free sugars (mostly sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juices, and processed foods with added sugar) with non-free sugars (mostly fruits, vegetables, and dairy products) reduced total heart disease risk by 5% and stroke risk by 9%.

Are Low Carb Enthusiasts Right About The Dangers Of Carbohydrates?

With these data in mind let’s look at the claims of the low-carb enthusiasts.

Claim #1: Carbohydrates raise triglyceride levels. This study shows:

  • This claim is false with respect to total carbohydrate intake and high fiber carbohydrate intake (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. This study did not measure intake of beans, nuts, and seeds, but they would likely be in the same category).
  • However, this claim is true with respect to foods high in free sugars (sugar-sweetened beverages, fruit juices, and processed foods with added sugar).

Claim #2: Carbohydrates increase heart disease risk. This study shows:

  • That claim is false with respect to total carbohydrate intake and high fiber carbohydrate intake.
  • However, this claim is true with respect to foods high in free sugars.

Claim #3: Carbohydrates cause weight gain [Note: Low carb enthusiasts usually word it differently. Their claim is that eliminating carbohydrates will help you lose weight. But that claim doesn’t make sense unless you believed eating carbohydrates caused you to gain weight.] This study shows:

  • This claim is false with respect to total carbohydrate intake and high fiber carbohydrate intake.
  • Once again, this claim is true with respect to foods high in free sugars.

The data with high fiber carbohydrates was particularly interesting. When the authors compared the group with the highest fiber intake to the group with the lowest fiber intake, the high-fiber group:

  • Consumed 33% more calories per day.
  • But had lower BMI and waste circumference (measures of obesity) than the low-carbohydrate group.

This suggests that you don’t need to starve yourself to lose weight. You just need to eat healthier foods.

And, in case you were wondering, the high fiber group ate:

  • 5 more servings of fruits and vegetables and…
  • 2 more servings of whole grain foods than the low fiber group.

This is consistent with several previous studies showing that diets containing a lot of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are associated with a healthier weight.

The authors concluded, “Higher free sugar intake was associated with higher cardiovascular disease incidence and higher triglyceride concentrations…Higher fiber intake and replacement of refined grain starch and free sugars with wholegrain starch and non-free sugars, respectively, may be protective for incident heart disease.”

In short, with respect to heart disease, the type, not the amount of dietary carbohydrate is the important risk factor.

What Does This Mean For You?

Questioning WomanForget the low carb “mumbo jumbo”.

  • Carbohydrates aren’t the problem. The wrong kind of carbohydrates are the problem. Fruit juice, sugar-sweetened sodas, and processed foods with added sugar:
    • Increase triglyceride levels.
    • Are associated with weight gain.
    • Increase the risk for heart disease.
  • In other words, they are the villains. They are responsible for the bad effects that low carb enthusiasts ascribe to all carbohydrates.
  • Don’t fear whole fruits, vegetables, dairy, and whole grain foods. They are the good guys.
    • They have minimal effect on triglyceride levels.
    • They are associated with healthier weight.
    • They are associated with a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.

So, the bottom line for you is simple. Not all carbs are created equal.

  • Your mother was right. Eat your fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Avoid fruit juice, sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages, and processed foods with added sugar. [Note: Artificially sweetened beverages are no better than sugar-sweetened beverages, but that’s another story for another day.]

And, if you were wondering why low carb diets appear to work for weight loss, it’s because any restrictive diet works short term. As I have noted previously, keto and vegan diets work equally well for short-term weight loss.

The Bottom Line 

Low carb enthusiasts have been telling us for years to avoid all carbohydrates (including fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains) because carbohydrates:

  • Increase triglyceride levels.
  • Cause weight gain.
  • Increase our risk for heart disease.

A recent study has shown that these claims are only true for some carbohydrates, namely fruit juices, sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages, and processed foods with added sugar.

Whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grain foods have the opposite effect. They:

  • Have a minimal effect on triglyceride levels.
  • Are associated with a healthier weight.
  • Are associated with a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.

So, forget the low carb “mumbo jumbo” and be sure to eat your fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

For more information on this study and what it means for you, 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.

___________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

Is HDL Good For Your Heart?

Is Everything You Knew About HDL Wrong?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

HDL CHolesterolIn last week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” I talked about one of the greatest strengths of the scientific method – namely that investigators constantly challenge, and occasionally disprove, existing paradigms. That allows us to discard old models of how things work and replace them with better ones.

Last week I shared a study that disproved the paradigm that low to moderate alcohol consumption is healthier than total abstinence. This week I share several studies that challenge the belief that HDL cholesterol is good for your heart.

The belief that HDL is good for your heart has all the hallmarks of a classic paradigm.

  • It is supported by multiple clinical studies.
  • Elaborate metabolic explanations have been proposed to support the paradigm.
  • It is the official position of most medical societies, scientific organizations, and health information sites on the web.
  • It is the recommendation of most health professionals.
  • It has been repeated so often by so many trusted sources that everyone assumes it must be true.

Once we accept the HDL/heart health paradigm as true, we can construct other hypotheses on that foundation. For example:

  • Raising your HDL levels naturally takes effort. Pharmaceutical companies have been pursuing the “magic pill” that raises HDL levels without any effort on your part.
  • Low carb diets like the Keto and Paleo diets are high in saturated fat. The low carb enthusiasts claim this is a good thing because saturated fat raises HDL levels, and HDL is good for your heart.

But what if the underlying HDL/heart health paradigm weren’t true? These hypotheses would be like the parable of a house built on a foundation of sand. The paradigm will be washed away as soon as it is critically tested.

So, let’s look at experiments that have challenged the HDL/heart health paradigm.

Do Drugs That Increase HDL Levels Work?

The first hint that the HDL/heart health paradigm might be faulty happened when a pharmaceutical company developed a drug that selectively increased HDL levels.

The drug company thought they had found the goose that laid golden eggs. Just imagine. People wouldn’t have to lose weight, exercise, or change their diet. They could simply take a pill and dramatically decrease their heart disease risk. A drug like that would be worth $billions.

The problem was that when they tested their drug (torcetrapib) in clinical trials, it had absolutely no effect on heart disease outcomes (AR Tall et al, Atherosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 27:257-260, 2007).

The pharmaceutical company couldn’t believe it. Raising HDL levels just had to reduce heart disease risk. They concluded they didn’t have the right drug, and they continued to work on developing new drugs.

That was 16 years ago, and no HDL-increasing drug has made it to market. Have they just not found the right drug, or does this mean the HDL/heart health paradigm is incorrect?

Does Saturated Fat Decrease Heart Disease Risk?

Now let’s turn to two claims of low carb enthusiasts.

#1: Saturated fats decrease your risk of heart disease in the context of a low carb diet. I have debunked that claim in several previous issues of “Health Tips From The Professor”. But let me refer you to two articles here – one on saturated fat and heart disease risk and one on low-carb diets.

#2: Saturated fats decrease heart disease risk because they raise HDL levels. This is the one I will address today.

The idea that saturated fats decrease heart disease risk because they raise HDL levels is based on a simplistic concept of HDL particles. The reality is more complex. Several clinical studies have shown:

  • The type of fat determines the property of the HDL particles.
    • When polyunsaturated fats predominate, the HDL particles have an anti-inflammatory effect. When saturated fats predominate, the HDL particles have a pro-inflammatory effect.
  • Anti-inflammatory HDL particles relax the endothelial cells lining our blood vessels. That makes the lining of our blood vessels more pliable, which improves blood flow and reduces blood pressure.
    • Anti-inflammatory HDL particles also help reduce inflammation of the endothelial lining. This is important because an inflamed endothelial lining is more likely to accumulate fatty plaques and to trigger blood clot formation that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

So, the question becomes, “What good is it to raise HDL levels if you are producing an unhealthy, pro-inflammatory HDL particle that may increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes?”

In short, these studies suggest it isn’t enough to just focus on HDL levels. You need to ask what kind of HDL particles you are creating.

Is HDL Good For Your Heart?

strong heartOnce the studies were published showing that…

  • Drug-induced increase of HDL levels without any change in health habits is not sufficient to decrease heart attack risk, and…
  • Not all HDL particles are healthy. There are anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory HDL particles, which likely have opposite effects on heart attack risk…

…some people started to question the HDL/heart health paradigm. And one group came up with the perfect study to test the paradigm.

But before I describe the study, I need to review the term “confounding variables”. I described the term and how it affects clinical studies in last week’s article. Here is a brief synopsis:

  • The studies supporting the HDL/heart health paradigm are association studies. Association studies measure the association between a single variable (in this case, increase in HDL levels) and an outcome (in this case, heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and total deaths).
  • Associations need to be corrected for other variables known to affect the same outcome (things like age, gender, smoking, and diabetes would be examples in this case).
  • Confounding variables are variables that also affect the outcome but are unknown or ignored. Thus, they are not used to correct the associations, which can bias the results.

The authors of this study (M Briel et al, BMJ 2009:338.b92) observed that most interventions that increase HDL levels also lower LDL levels. Lowering LDL is known to decrease the risk of heart disease deaths. But this effect had been ignored in most studies looking at the association between HDL and heart disease deaths.

They hypothesized that the change in LDL levels was a confounding variable that had been ignored in previous studies and may have biased the results.Heart Disease Study

To test this hypothesis the authors searched the literature and identified 108 studies with 299,310 participants that:

  • Compared the effect of drugs, omega-3 fatty acids, or diet with either a placebo or usual care.
  • Measured both HDL and LDL levels.
  • Measured reduction in cardiovascular risk.
  • Had a randomized control design.
  • Lasted at least 6 months.

They found that every 10 mg/dl decrease in LDL levels in these studies was responsible for a:

  • 7.1% reduction in heart disease events (both heart disease deaths and non-fatal heart attacks).
  • 7.2% reduction in heart disease deaths.
  • 4.4% reduction in total deaths.

After correcting for the effect of decreased LDL levels on these heart disease outcomes, the increase in HDL levels had no statistically significant effect on any of the outcomes.

The authors concluded, “Available data suggest that simply increasing the amount of circulating HDL cholesterol does not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease events, coronary heart disease deaths, or total deaths. The results support reduction in LDL cholesterol as the primary goal for lipid modifying interventions.”

In other words, this study:

  • Supports the author’s hypothesis that LDL levels were a confounding variable that biased the studies supporting the HDL/heart health paradigm.
  • Concludes that increasing HDL levels has no effect on heart disease outcomes, thus invalidating the HDL/heart health paradigm.

Is Everything You Knew About HDL Wrong?

Peek Behind The CurtainDoes that mean that everything you knew about HDL is wrong? Not exactly. It just means that you need to change your perspective.

Don’t focus on HDL levels. Peek behind the curtain and focus on what’s behind the HDL levels. For example:

  • Losing weight when overweight increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to weight loss than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • Exercise increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to exercise than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • Reversing pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to the reversal of diabetes than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • High-dose omega-3 fatty acids increase HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to the omega-3 fatty acids than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • The Mediterranean diet increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to the diet than to the increase in HDL levels.

And if you want to go the drug route:

  • Statins and some other heart drugs increase HDL levels, but the reduction in heart disease outcomes is probably due to their effect on LDL levels rather than their effect on HDL levels.

On the other hand:

  • Saturated fats increase HDL levels. But saturated fats increase heart disease risk and create pro-inflammatory HDL particles. So, in this case the increase in HDL levels is not a good omen for your heart.
  • Drugs have been discovered that selectively increase HDL levels. However, there is nothing of value behind this increase in HDL levels, so the drugs have no effect on heart disease outcomes.

The Bottom Line 

In this article I discuss several studies that have challenged the HDL/heart health paradigm – the belief that HDL is good for your heart.

For example, one group of investigators analyzed the studies underlying the HDL/heart health paradigm. They hypothesized that these studies were inaccurate because they failed to account for the effects of LDL levels on heart disease outcomes.

After correcting for the effect of decreased LDL levels on heart disease outcomes in the previous studies, the authors showed that increases in HDL levels had no significant effect on any heart disease outcome.

The authors concluded, “Available data suggest that simply increasing the amount of circulating HDL cholesterol does not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease events, coronary heart disease deaths, or total deaths. The results support reduction in LDL cholesterol as the primary goal for lipid modifying interventions.”

In other words, this study:

  • Supports the author’s hypothesis that LDL levels were a confounding variable that biased the studies supporting the HDL/heart health paradigm.
  • Concludes that increasing HDL levels has no effect on heart disease outcomes, thus invalidating the HDL/heart health paradigm.

Does that mean that everything you knew about HDL is wrong? Not exactly. It just means that you need to change your perspective. Don’t focus on HDL levels. Focus on what’s behind the HDL levels. For more information on that, read the article above.

For more information on this study, and what it means for you, 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.

____________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

Is Erythritol Bad For Your Heart?

Who Should Be Concerned About Erythritol Intake?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

Everyone is searching for the perfect sweetener. And if you were in the marketing department of Big Food Inc, the perfect sweetener would be defined as:

  • Natural, meaning that it is found in fruits, vegetables, or other plant foods.
  • Low in calories. Of course, a perfect sweetener would have zero calories because it is not metabolized in our bodies.
  • Low glycemic, meaning that it would have a minimal effect on blood sugar levels. Once again, a perfect sweetener would have zero effect on blood sugar levels.
  • Safe, meaning that it has no adverse effects on our health.

Sugar alcohols appear to meet all these criteria, so they have become the sweetener of choice for lots of highly processed foods. This is especially true for the sugar alcohol, erythritol, since it is currently the least expensive of the sugar alcohols.

So, a recent study (M Witowski et al, Nature Medicine, 2023) suggesting that erythritol might increase the risk of heart disease was quite surprising.

This is the first study to suggest a link between erythritol and heart disease, and it was a flawed study (I will discuss the flaws below).

Reputable scientists don’t put much credence in a weak first study like this one. We generally consider the conclusions of a first study like this one to be an unproven hypothesis at this point.

But we are cautious. There will be many follow-up, better designed studies, to test this hypothesis. Once these studies have been published, the scientific community will look at all the evidence and either issue a warning or conclude that there is no reason for concern.

But that doesn’t stop the Dr. Strangeloves of the world from warning you of the “dangers” of erythritol and telling you to avoid it at all costs.

For that reason, I felt it was appropriate to address this issue. I will:

  • Describe the study and its flaws.
  • Put the study into the broader perspective of what we know about sweeteners.
  • Identify the two population groups who should be most concerned about erythritol.

How Was The Study Done And What Did It Show?

This study can be divided into three parts.

heart disease#1: An Association Between Erythritol Blood Levels And Heart Disease.

There were three separate experiments included in this section of the study. In each experiment patients were recruited after visiting cardiac clinics for diagnostic procedures. The average age of these patients was 67 and 45% of them already had experienced a non-fatal heart attack prior to the study. In other words, these were all older patients with pre-existing heart disease who were at high risk of heart attack or stroke in the near future.

The first study was a metabolomic study. In simple terms this means that high-tech equipment and computing were used to measure hundreds of metabolites in the blood of the patients and, in this case, correlate each of them with the occurrence of heart attacks and strokes over the next three years.

  • This study identified 16 sugar alcohols and related metabolites in the blood of these patients that were associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. (I will discuss the significance of this observation in more detail later.)

Because erythritol was among the top 6 compounds in terms of association with increased heart attack and stroke risk, and erythritol is the most commonly used sugar alcohol in processed foods, the next two studies focused on the association between blood levels of erythritol and heart attack/stroke risk. Their results were predictable.

  • High blood levels of erythritol were associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke over the next three years.

Flaws In This Portion Of The Study:thumbs down symbol

  • As the authors of the study pointed out, these studies were done with older patients with pre-existing heart disease who were at high risk of heart attack or stroke. They acknowledged that it is not known whether these associations exist with younger, healthier patients.
  • As the authors also pointed out, these are associations. They do not prove cause and effect. In particular, the studies did not measure the diet, exercise habits, and other lifestyle factors of these patients that may have contributed to their increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • When you look closely at the data, it is clear that the association is only seen at the highest blood levels of erythritol. Specifically, the blood levels of erythritol in these patients were divided into quartiles. The risk of heart attack and stroke in the first three quartiles (low to moderate blood levels of erythritol) were identical to the control. However, the fourth quartile (highest blood levels of erythritol) was associated with a dramatically increased risk of heart attack and stroke. That raises three important questions:
    • “How much erythritol were patients in the fourth quartile consuming?”
      • The authors did not look at dietary intake of erythritol but did note a previous study estimated that Americans consume up to 30 grams of erythritol a day.
    • 30 grams of erythritol a day is a huge amount of erythritol. Where does that erythritol come from?
      • Much of it comes from erythritol-containing highly processed foods like zero calorie sugar substitutes (either erythritol alone or erythritol mixed with artificial sweeteners to improve the taste); reduced- and low calorie carbonated and non-carbonated beverages; hard candy and cough drops, cookies, cakes, pastries, and bars; puddings and pie fillings; soft candies; syrups and toppings; ready to eat cereals; fruit novelty snacks; and frozen desserts.
      • But it is also found in foods you might not suspect, such as plant-based “milk” substitutes; chocolate and flavored milks; barbecue and tomato sauce, fruit-based smoothies, the syrup used in canned fruits, yoghurt; low calorie salad dressings; and salty snacks.
      • In other words, the only way anyone can consume 30 grams of erythritol in a day is to consume large quantities of erythritol-containing highly processed foods (I will discuss the significance of this observation later).
    • “What else was different about patients in the fourth quartile?”
      • When you look carefully at the data, the patients in the fourth quartile were significantly older, with a higher incidence of diabetes, pre-existing coronary artery disease, previous non-fatal heart attacks, congestive heart failure, and greater triglycerides – all of which significantly increase their risk of heart attack and stroke.

#2: Mechanistic Studies:

Next the authors did in vitro and animal studies looking at the effect of high levels of erythritol on blood clotting.

  • These studies showed that high levels of erythritol promoted blood clotting both in vitro and in mice. The authors concluded that these studies provided a plausible mechanism for a link between high erythritol blood levels and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.

Flaws In This Portion Of The Study:thumbs down symbol

  • Other critics have pointed out that the assays used were not accurate models of blood clotting in humans. This particular critique is beyond my expertise, so I won’t comment further. However:
    • As someone who was involved in cancer drug development for over 30 years, I know that in vitro and animal models are poor indicators of how things work in humans.
    • And as a biochemist, I have two concerns:
      • The authors provided no mechanistic rationale for why erythritol would enhance blood clotting.
      • The authors made no effort to show that the effect of erythritol was unique. Would high levels of other sugar alcohols or other naturally occurring sugars have the same effect on blood clotting in their assays? We don’t know.

#3: Blood Levels Of Erythritol After Oral Intake.

Finally, the authors gave subjects 30 grams of erythritol and measured blood levels over the next several days.

  • This experiment showed that very high blood levels of erythritol were attained and maintained for at least two days before gradually decreasing to baseline. The authors concluded this experiment showed that it was feasible to attain and maintain high blood levels of erythritol for several days following a single ingestion of 30 grams of erythritol.

Flaws In This Portion Of The Study:thumbs down symbol

  • I have already pointed out that 30 grams per day is a huge amount of erythritol. However, erythritol in the diet will come from a variety of foods, some of which will contain components (fiber etc.) that slow the absorption of erythritol.
  • In contrast, the subjects in this experiment were given 300 ml of liquid containing 30 grams of erythritol and told to drink it in two minutes!
  • In other words, these subjects were consuming 30 grams of erythritol in 2 minutes rather than 24 hours, and they were consuming it in the most easily absorbable form. For a study like this, that makes the effective dose orders of magnitude greater than the amount of erythritol that anyone consumes from their diet over a 24-hour period. The study design was completely unrealistic.

Is Erythritol Bad For Your Heart?

Question MarkAs described above, this is the first study to suggest an association between erythritol and heart disease, and it was a highly flawed study.

It is also important to know that erythritol is not an artificial sweetener. It is found naturally in foods like grapes, peaches, pears, watermelons, and mushrooms. It is also found in some fermented foods like cheese, soy sauce, beer, sake, and wine.

It is also a byproduct of normal human metabolism, so we always have some of it circulating in our bloodstream. Our body knows how to handle low to moderate intakes of erythritol.

However, to help you really understand what this study means, I need to put it into the context of other studies. I will do this in story form (You will find more details about these studies in my book “Slaying The Food Myths”).

First, let’s look at highly processed food consumption:

  • Multiple recent studies have shown that high consumption of highly processed food is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and premature death. We don’t know what it is about highly processed food consumption that is responsible for the increased risk, but it is unlikely to be just one thing.
  • As I pointed out above, the only way to achieve the high blood levels of erythritol associated with increased heart disease risk is to consume large quantities of erythritol-containing highly processed foods.

Next, let’s follow the history of sweeteners in highly processed foods.

  • When I was a young man, sucrose (table sugar) was added to most highly processed foods. Sucrose is foundsugar cubes naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Small to moderate intake of sucrose in unprocessed and minimally processed foods posed no problem. However, large intakes of sugar in highly processed foods were found to increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and premature death.
  • At that point, sucrose became a “sugar villain”, and Big Food, Inc substituted fructose and high fructose corn syrup (a mixture of fructose and glucose) for sugar in their highly processed foods. As with sucrose, fructose is found naturally in many foods, and small to moderate intakes of fructose and high fructose corn syrup posed no health risks. However, large intakes of fructose and high fructose corn syrup in highly processed foods were found to increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and premature death.
  • Fructose and high fructose corn syrup then became the sugar villains. And because high fructose corn syrup is chemically and biologically indistinguishable from natural sugars like honey, date sugar, coconut sugar, it is likely that high intakes of these sugars in highly processed foods would cause the same problem.
  • So Big Food, Inc started relying on artificial sweeteners in their highly processed foods. But guess what? Artificial SweetenersRecent studies have suggested that artificial sweeteners in highly processed foods are associated with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That has caused Big Food, Inc to rely more on sugar alcohols in their highly processed foods, particularly erythritol because it is the least expensive of the sugar alcohols. Now the current study comes along and suggests that high intake of erythritol in highly processed foods may increase the risk of heart disease.
  • If this hypothesis is confirmed by better designed studies, it is not clear what Big Food, Inc will do next. The metabolomic study described above showed that high blood levels of several other sugar alcohols are associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Hopefully, you are starting to see a pattern here. It’s time to ask the question, “Is it the sweetener, or is it the food?”

Clearly, it doesn’t matter what sweetener we are talking about. Large intake of any natural sweetener in the context of a diet rich in highly processed foods appears to have an adverse effect on our health. And we don’t know whether these adverse health effects are caused by the sweetener or some other component of the highly processed foods.

If you want to improve your health, the best solution is to decrease your intake of highly processed foods. That will automatically reduce your intake of sweeteners and other unhealthy components of highly processed foods and increase your intake of healthy components from the whole foods you will be eating instead.

Who Should Be Concerned About Erythritol Intake?

The authors of this study identified two groups who should be most concerned about erythritol consumption – diabetics and adherents of the keto diet.

  • Diabetics are at high risk because they are told to consume non-caloric sweeteners instead of sugars, and they are not told to avoid highly processed foods. Consequently, they consume much higher amounts of non-caloric sweeteners than the average American.
  • I must admit that I didn’t foresee keto adherents as a high-risk group. However, it appears that keto enthusiasts love their sweets as much as the rest of us, and the sweetener of choice for keto-friendly sweets is erythritol. The authors said that a single serving of keto ice cream contains 30 grams of erythritol. I can hardly imagine how much erythritol they must be getting in their diet.

And, once again, the best advice for both groups is to simply decrease the amount of highly processed food in their diet.

The Bottom Line 

Erythritol is not an artificial sweetener. It is found naturally in foods like grapes, peaches, pears, watermelons, and mushrooms. It is also found in some fermented foods like cheese, soy sauce, beer, sake, and wine.

It is also a byproduct of normal human metabolism, so we always have some of it circulating in our bloodstream. Our body knows how to handle erythritol.

That is why it was a surprise when a recent study claimed that high intake of erythritol is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. The Dr. Strangeloves of the world are already starting to tell you that erythritol is deadly and you should avoid it at all costs. But reputable scientists are saying, “Not so fast”.

This is the first study to suggest an association between erythritol and heart disease, and it was a highly flawed study.

In fact, the study showed that low to moderate intakes of erythritol had no effect on heart disease risk. It was only the highest intake of erythritol that was associated with increased risk of heart disease. And given the distribution of erythritol in the American diet, the only way someone could take in that much erythritol is to consume large amounts of erythritol-sweetened highly processed foods.

A brief review of the literature on sweeteners reveals that this is a common pattern for every natural sweetener tested. Low to moderate intake of these sweeteners has no adverse health effects. However, high intake of every sweetener tested in the context of a highly processed food diet is associated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and premature death.

That raises the question, “Is it the sweetener, or is it the food?”

Clearly, it doesn’t matter what sweetener we are talking about. Large intake of any natural sweetener in the context of a diet rich in highly processed foods is likely to have an adverse effect on our health. And we don’t know whether these adverse health effects are caused by the sweetener or some other component of a highly processed food diet.

If you want to improve your health, the best solution is to decrease your intake of highly processed foods. That will automatically reduce your intake of sweeteners and other unhealthy components of highly processed foods and increase your intake of healthy components from the whole foods you will be eating instead.

For more details on the study and information about which foods are likely to contain erythritol and the population groups who should be most concerned about erythritol consumption, 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

Does Magnesium Protect Your Heart?

Do You Need A Magnesium Supplement?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

Getting an adequate amount magnesium from our diet should not be a problem. Magnesium is found in a wide variety of foods with the best sources being legumes (beans), nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and dairy foods.

The problem is:

  • None of these foods contain enough magnesium by themselves to provide the RDA (420 mg/day for men and 320 mg/day for women) for magnesium. We need to consume a variety of these foods every day – something most Americans aren’t doing.
  • These foods are decent sources of magnesium only in their unprocessed form. And most Americans consume more highly processed foods than whole, unprocessed foods.
  • Two to three servings of dairy provide a decent amount of magnesium, but many Americans are cutting back on dairy. And plant-based dairy substitutes often provide much less magnesium than the dairy food they replace.
  • Finally, green leafy vegetables (iceberg lettuce doesn’t count) don’t make it into the American menu as often as they should.

As a result, recent studies find that at least 50% of Americans are not getting enough magnesium in their diet. In fact, the average magnesium intake in this country is 268 mg/day for men and 234 mg/day for women. And the figures are not very different in other developed countries.

Does it matter? Recent studies have shown that an adequate intake of dietary magnesium is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and all-cause mortality. This may be because of the of role of magnesium in supporting heart muscle contraction, normal heart rhythm, and blood pressure regulation. Adequate magnesium intake is also associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

But what if you have already had a heart attack? Is it too late for magnesium to make a difference? A recent study (I Evers et al, Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, August 12, 2022) was designed to answer this question.

The authors examined the effect of magnesium intake on cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality, all-cause mortality, and coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality in patients who had experienced a recent heart attack.

[Note: CHD is defined as heart disease due to clogged coronary arteries, such as a heart attack. CVD includes CHD plus diseases caused by other clogged blood vessels, such as strokes and peripheral artery disease].

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyThe authors used data from a previous study that had enrolled 4,365 Dutch patients aged 60-80 (average age = 69) who had experienced a heart attack within approximately 4 years prior to enrollment and followed them for an average of 12.4 years. All patients were receiving standard post-heart attack drug therapy.

The characteristics of the patients enrolled in the study were as follows:

  • Male 79%, female 21%
  • Average magnesium intake = 302 mg/day
  • Percent magnesium deficient: 72% of men and 67% of women
  • Percent taking magnesium supplements = 5.4%
  • Percent on drugs to lower blood pressure = 90%
  • Percent on statins = 86%
  • Percent on diuretics = 24%

Upon entry into the study the patients were asked to fill out a 203-item food frequency questionnaire reflecting their dietary intake over the past month. Trained dietitians reviewed the questionnaires and phoned the participants to clarify any unclear or missing items. The questionnaires were linked to the 2006 Dutch Food Composition Database to calculate magnesium intake and other aspects of their diets.

The patients were divided into 3 groups based on their energy adjusted magnesium intakes and those in the highest third (>322 mg/day) were compared to those in the lowest third (<238 mg/day) with respect to cardiovascular disease (CVD), all-cause mortality, and coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality.

The comparisons were statically adjusted for fiber intake (most magnesium-rich foods are also high fiber foods), diuretic use (diuretics reduce magnesium levels in the blood), age, sex, smoking, alcohol use, physical activity, obesity, education level, caloric intake, calcium, vitamin D, sodium from foods, potassium, heme iron, vitamin C, beta-carotenoids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, saturated fatty acids, overall diet quality based on the Dutch Dietary Guidelines, systolic blood pressure, kidney function, and diabetes. In other words, the data were adjusted for every conceivable variable that could have influenced the outcome.

Does Magnesium Protect Your Heart?

When those with the highest magnesium intake (>322 mg/day) were compared to those with the lowest intake (<283 mg/day):

  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality was reduced by 28%.
  • All-cause mortality was reduced by 22%.
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality was reduced by 16%, but that reduction was not statistically significant.

They then looked at the effect of some variables that might affect CVD risk on the results.

  • Diabetes, kidney function, iron intake, smoking, alcohol use, blood pressure, most dietary components and overall diet quality had no effect on the results.
  • The results were also not affected when patients using a magnesium supplement were excluded from the analysis. This suggests the effect of magnesium from diet and supplementation is similar.
  • However, diuretic use had a significant effect on the results.
    • For patients using diuretics, high magnesium intake versus low magnesium intake reduced CVD mortality by 45%.

How Much Magnesium Do You Need?

Question MarkYou may have noticed that the difference between the highest magnesium intake group and the lowest intake group was, on average, only 39 mg/day. So, the authors also used a statistical approach that utilized data from each individual patient to produce a graph of magnesium intake versus risk of CVD, total, and CHD mortality. For all 3 end points the graphs showed an inverse, linear relationship between magnesium and mortality.

From this, the authors were able to calculate the effect of each 100mg/day increase in magnesium intake on mortality risk. Each 100mg/day of added magnesium reduced the risk of:

  • CVD mortality by 38%.
  • All-cause mortality by 30%.
  • CHD mortality by 33%, and these results were borderline significant.

The inverse relationship between magnesium intake was observed at intakes ranging from around 200 mg/day to around 450 mg/day, which represented the range of dietary magnesium intake in this Dutch population group.

This study did not define an upper limit to the beneficial effect of magnesium intake because the graphs had not plateaued at 450 mg/day, suggesting that higher magnesium intakes might give even better results.

The authors concluded, “We observed a strong, linear inverse association of dietary magnesium with CVD and all-cause mortality after a heart attack, which was most pronounced in patients who used diuretics. Our findings emphasize the importance of an adequate magnesium intake in CVD patients, on top of cardiovascular drug treatment.”

I might add that this is the first study to look at the effect of magnesium on long-term survival after a heart attack.

Do You Need A Magnesium Supplement? 

magnesium supplements benefitsAs I said earlier, the best dietary sources of magnesium are beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and dairy foods. And:

  • None of these foods contain enough magnesium by themselves to provide the RDA (420 mg/day for men and 320 mg/day for women) for magnesium.
  • These foods are decent sources of magnesium only in their unprocessed form.

When unprocessed, each of these foods provides 20 to 60 mg of magnesium per serving. If we use an average value of 40 mg/serving, you would need in the range of 8-10 servings/day of these foods in their unprocessed form to meet the RDA for magnesium.

You could get a more accurate estimate of the magnesium content of your diet using the “Magnesium Content of Selected Foods” table from the NIH Factsheet on Magnesium.

Now you are ready to ask yourself two questions:

  1. Does my current diet provide the RDA for magnesium?

2. If not, am I willing to make the dietary changes needed to increase my magnesium levels to RDA levels?

If your answer to both questions is no, you should probably consider a magnesium supplement. A supplement providing around 200 mg of magnesium should bring all but the worst diets up to the recommended magnesium intake.

The current study did not define an upper limit for the beneficial effect of magnesium on survival after a heart attack but suggested that intakes above 450 mg/day might be optimal.

I do not recommend megadoses of magnesium, but intakes from diet and supplementation that slightly exceed the RDA appear to be safe. In their Magnesium Factsheet, the NIH states, “Too much magnesium…does not pose a health risk in healthy individuals because the kidneys eliminate excess amounts in the urine.”

The only concern is that magnesium from supplements is absorbed much more rapidly than magnesium from foods, and this can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea in some individuals. For this reason, I recommend a sustained release magnesium supplement, so the magnesium is absorbed more slowly.

Finally, we should not consider magnesium as a magic bullet. The current study statistically eliminated every known variable that might affect survival after a heart attack, so it could estimate the beneficial effects of magnesium alone.

However, survival after a heart attack will likely be much greater if diet, exercise, and body mass are also optimized.

The Bottom Line 

Recent studies have shown that an adequate intake of dietary magnesium is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and all-cause mortality.

But what if you have already had a heart attack? Is it too late for magnesium to make a difference? A recent study of heart attack patients in Holland was designed to answer this question.

The authors examined the effect of magnesium intake on cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality, all-cause mortality, and coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality in patients who had experienced a recent heart attack.

When heart attack patients with the highest magnesium intake (>322 mg/day) were compared to those with the lowest intake (<283 mg/day):

  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality was reduced by 28%.
  • All-cause mortality was reduced by 22%.
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality was reduced by 16%, but that reduction was not statistically significant.

The authors went on to look at the inverse linear relationship between magnesium intake and mortality risk. They found that each 100mg/day of added magnesium reduced the risk of:

  • CVD mortality by 38%.
  • All-cause mortality by 30%.
  • CHD mortality by 33%, and these results were borderline significant.

The authors concluded, “We observed a strong, linear inverse association of dietary magnesium with CVD and all-cause mortality after a heart attack…Our findings emphasize the importance of an adequate magnesium intake in CVD patients…”

I might add that this is the first study to look at the effect of magnesium on long-term survival of patients who have suffered a heart attack.

For more details on this study and my discussion of whether you might benefit from a magnesium supplement, 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.

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