Do Processed Foods Increase Your Risk Of Diabetes?

Why Do We Keep Eating Processed Foods?

Fast Food DangersUnless you are Rip Van Winkle and have been asleep for the past 20 years you probably know that the highly processed foods in the typical American diet are bad for your health. But perhaps you didn’t realize just how bad they were.

But first, let’s start with a bit of perspective. Scientists like to be precise. Even healthy foods go through some processing.

  • The oatmeal you ate this morning was either steel-cut or ground. That is processing.
  • The almond butter you put on your whole grain toast this morning was made by roasting and grinding. That is processing.

So, scientists have developed the term “ultra-processed food” to describe the worst of the worse. In short, ultra-processed foods:

  • Usually go through several physical and chemical processes, such as extruding, molding, prefrying, and hydrogenation that can lead to the formation of toxic contaminants. One example you may have heard about recently would be acrylamide in French fries.
  • Typically contain ingredients of no or little nutritive value, such as refined sugar, hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, thickening agents, and artificial colors. Some of these ingredients have been linked to cancer, heart disease, and premature death.
  • Have long shelf-lives because of added preservatives. This allows migration of chemicals such as bisphenol A from the packaging materials into the food.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Sodas
  • Chips
  • Candy and packages of cookies or crackers
  • Most breakfast cereals
  • Boxed cake, cookie, and pancake mix
  • Chicken nuggets and fish sticks
  • Fast food burgers
  • Hot dogs and other processed meats
  • Infant formula
  • Instant noodles
  • Most store-bought ice cream
  • Flavored yogurt

In short, ultra-processed foods include sodas and the junk and convenience foods Americans hold so dear. Even things like infant formula and flavored yogurt make the list.

Evidence of the ill effects of ultra-processed foods on our health is becoming overwhelming. In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have shared recent studies that have shown that heavy consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to increased risk of obesity and cancer. Other studies have linked ultra-processed food consumption with increased risk of depression, heart disease, and premature death.

In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I:

  • Ask the important question, “If we know these foods are so bad for us, why do we still keep eating them?”

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data from this study were taken from an ongoing study in France (the NutriNet-Sante study) looking at associations between nutrition and health. This study began enrolling French adults 18 and older in 2009.

This is a web-based study. Participants are prompted to go to a dedicated website and fill out questionnaires related to things like sex, age, height, weight, smoking status, physical activity, health status, and diet.

With respect to diet, participants filled out a series of 3 nonconsecutive 24-hour dietary records at the time of enrollment and every 6 months. This is a particularly strong feature of this study. Many studies of this type only analyze participant’s diets at the beginning of the study. Those studies have no way of knowing how the participant’s diets may have changed during the study.

Diagnosis of type 2 diabetes for study participants was obtained from the French centralized health records.

The study enrolled 104,708 participants, 20% men and 80% women, and followed them for an average of 6 years. The average age of the participants was 43 years.

Do Processed Foods Increase Your Risk Of Diabetes?

High Blood SugarIn this study the range of ultra-processed foods in the French diet ranged from 7% to 27% (average = 17%). High intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with:

  • Younger participants. Simply put, young people were more likely to drink sodas and eat junk food than older adults.
  • Increased caloric intake. Ultra-processed foods have a higher caloric density than whole, unprocessed foods.
  • No surprise here. Previous studies have shown that ultra-processed food consumption increases the risk of obesity.
  • Poorer diet quality. Again, no surprise. Junk foods tend to crowd healthier foods out of the dirt. Specifically, ultra-processed food consumption was associated with:
    • Higher intake of sugar and salt.
    • Lower intake of fiber.
    • Higher intake of sugary drinks, red and processed meats.
    • Lower intake of whole grains, yogurt, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

However, even after statistically correcting for all these factors, there was a significant association between ultra-processed food consumption and the onset of type 2 diabetes in the 6-year follow-up period.

  • There was a linear relation between ultra-processed food consumption and the development of type 2 diabetes. Simply put, the more ultra-processed food the participants consumed the more likely they were to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
  • There was a 15% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption.

The authors concluded:

“In this large observational prospective study, a higher proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet was associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Even though these results need to be confirmed in other populations and settings, they provide evidence to support efforts by public health authorities to recommend limiting ultra-processed food consumption.”

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanYou might be tempted to say that a 15% increase in the risk of developing diabetes is a small price to pay for continuing to eat the foods you enjoy. However, you should be alarmed by this study. Here is why.

The French diet is much healthier than the American. Remember that ultra-processed foods only comprised 17% of the French Diet. In contrast, a recent survey found that:

  • Ultra-processed foods make up 58% of the average American’s diet.
  • Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugar in our diet.

It is no wonder that obesity and diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions in our country.

You might also be tempted to think that you can just take some medications and live with type 2 diabetes. However, you should think of type 2 diabetes as a gateway disease. It increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney damage, and neuropathy, just to name a few. These are diseases that make your life miserable and ultimately kill you.

More importantly, type 2 diabetes is completely reversible if you catch it early enough. Just lose some weight, exercise more, give up the ultra-processed foods, and eat a healthy diet. I recommend a whole food, primarily plant-based diet.

Why Do We Keep Eating Processed Foods?

Fast FoodsWe all know that ultra-processed foods are bad for us. Study after study show that they make us sick. They kill us prematurely. And, unlike most topics in the field of nutrition, this is not controversial.

For example, there have been lots of bizarre diets that have come and gone over the years. There have been books written on “The Steak Lover’s Diet” and “The Drinking Man’s Diet”. But nobody has written a book on “The Junk Food Lover’s Diet”. It simply would not be believable.

So why do we Americans keep eating such unhealthy foods. Part of the answer is physiological. A preference for sweet, salty, and fatty foods is hardwired into our brain. That’s because they had great survival value in prehistoric times.

If we think back to the time when we were hunters and gatherers:

  • Fruits are healthy foods. They are a great source of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber, but there were no orchards or grocery stores back then. We had to search for fruits in the wild. Our desire for sweet tasting foods provided the motivation to seek them out.
  • Game was seasonal and sometimes scarce. We had to be prepared to go for days or weeks without eating except for the leaves and roots we could gather. Our bodies are designed to store fat as the primary energy source to get us through the lean times. Our preference for fatty foods encouraged us to store as much fat as possible in times of plenty so we would be prepared for times of scarcity.
  • If we fast forward to our early recorded history, salt was scarce. It was worth its weight in gold. Yet some salt is essential for life. Our preference for salty foods encouraged us to search out supplies of salt.

Unfortunately, the food industry has weaponized these food preferences to create the ultra-processed foods we know today. Their ads entice us by associating these foods with youth and good times. And ultra-processed foods have become ubiquitous. There are fast food restaurants on almost every street corner and shopping mall in the country.

Fortunately, we do not have to let the food industry destroy our health. We can retrain our taste buds to appreciate the sweetness of fresh fruits and vegetables. We can substitute healthy fats for the kinds of fat found in most ultra-processed foods. We can also retrain our taste buds to appreciate herbs and spices with just a pinch of salt.

The Bottom Line

Ultra-processed foods, such as sodas, junk foods, and convenience foods have become the biggest food group in the American diet. A recent study found:

  • Ultra-processed foods make up 58% of the average American’s diet.
  • Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugar in our diet.

That is scary because ultra-processed foods are deadly. Previous studies have shown that consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The study discussed this week looked at the association between ultra-processed food consumption and type 2 diabetes. It showed:

  • There was a linear relation between ultra-processed food consumption and the development of type 2 diabetes. Simply put, the more ultra-processed food the participants consumed the more likely they were to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
  • There was a 15% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption.

You might be tempted to think that you can just take some medications and live with type 2 diabetes. However, you should think of type 2 diabetes as a gateway disease. It increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney damage, and neuropathy, just to name a few. This are diseases that make your life miserable and ultimately kill you.

More importantly, type 2 diabetes is completely reversible if you catch it early enough. Just lose some weight, exercise more, give up the ultra-processed foods, and eat a healthy diet. I recommend a whole food, primarily plant-based diet.

For more details and a discussion of why Americans continue to eat ultra-processed food even though we know it is bad 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.

Are Nuts Good For Your Heart?

Which Nuts Are Best?

Last week I shared an important study about the benefits of replacing some of the animal protein in your diet with plant protein from whole grains. In case you have forgotten, the study showed replacing just 15 grams of the animal protein in your diet with an equivalent amount of protein from whole grains significantly decreased the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease, stroke, and from all causes.

This was an important study because whole grains have been maligned in recent years. Low carb diets, keto diets, paleo diets, and low-lectin diets all recommend cutting whole grains out of your diet. Dr. Strangelove and his friends have been telling us to avoid whole grains, and too many Americans have been doing just that.

The study I shared last week reminds us that whole grains are good for our hearts. They are a great source of antioxidants, B vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. More importantly, they contain a unique type of fiber called resistant starch that supports the growth of heart-healthy gut bacteria. There are a few other foods that are a good source of resistant starch, but they are also on Dr. Strangelove’s “naughty list” of foods to avoid.

Unfortunately, you might have come away from last week’s article thinking that other plant protein sources, like beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds, weren’t important for reducing your risk of heart disease. However, the fact that they didn’t reduce the risk of premature death from heart disease in that study was likely an artifact of the way the study was designed.

The study asked what happens when you change 15 grams of the protein in your diet from red meat protein to different kinds of plant protein. That question was easy to answer for grains because they are a major source of protein in the American diet. However, Americans don’t get enough protein from either beans and legumes or nuts and seeds to provide a statistically valid answer to that question.

To correct any misconceptions from last week’s article I thought it might be valuable to review a study (M Guasch-Ferré et al, Journal Of The American Journal Of Cardiology, 70: 2519-2532) from a few years ago that looked at the effect of nut consumption on the risk of heart disease.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study started by combining the data from three major clinical trials:

  • The first Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1980 to 2012,
  • The second Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1991-2013, and
  • The Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study, which ran from 1986-2012.

These studies combined enrolled 169,310 women and 41,526 men and followed them for an average of 32 years. All the participants were free of heart disease and cancer at the time they were enrolled. The design of these studies was extraordinary.

  • A detailed food frequency questionnaire was administered every 4 years. This allowed the investigators to calculate cumulative averages of all dietary variables, including nuts. This assured that the effects of nut consumption and diet represented the participant’s average diet over the 32-year duration of the study, not just their diet when they entered the study.
  • Participants also filled out questionnaires that captured information on disease diagnosis, disease risk factors, medicines taken, weight, and lifestyle characteristics every 2 years with follow-up rates >90%. This allowed the investigators to measure the onset of heart disease for each participant during the study. More importantly, 32 years is long enough to measure the onset of diseases like heart disease, which requires decades to develop.
  • The primary endpoint of the study was “cardiovascular disease”, which the investigators defined as fatal and non-fatal heart attacks, fatal and non-fatal strokes, and deaths from all types of heart disease. During this study, 14,136 participants developed cardiovascular disease. This was a large enough number for a detailed statistical analysis of the data.
  • Secondary endpoints were heart disease (fatal and non-fatal heart attacks) and stroke (fatal and non-fatal strokes).

Are Nuts Good For Your Heart?

strong heartWhen the authors compared people who consumed 5 or more one ounce servings of nuts per week with people who never or almost never consumed nuts, they found that nut consumption decreased:

  • Cardiovascular disease by 14%.
  • Heart attacks by 20%.
  • Strokes by a non-significant 2%.

This part of the study merely confirms what other studies have shown. What makes this study unique is that it identifies the relative heart health benefits of different kinds of nuts.

Which Nuts Are Best?

Nuts are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber. But what makes them particularly heart healthy is the healthy fats they provide.

  • Peanuts (which are actually legumes rather than true nuts) are rich in monounsaturated fats.
  • Tree nuts in general are an excellent source of polyunsaturated fats.

    Walnuts
  • Walnuts are particularly rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fats.

When they looked at individual nuts:

  • Consuming a serving of peanuts (35 peanuts) 2 or more times per week decreased:
    • Cardiovascular disease by 13%.
    • Heart attacks by 15%.
    • Stroke by 10%.
    • Peanut butter had no effect on cardiovascular outcomes, probably because many commercial brands of peanut butter add saturated fats to reduce separation of the oil and make their product creamier.
  • Consuming a serving of tree nuts (12-15 nuts) 2 or more times per week decreased:
    • Cardiovascular disease by 15%.
    • Heart attacks by 23%.
  • Consuming a serving of walnuts (14 walnut halves) one or more times per week decreased:
    • Cardiovascular disease by 19%.
    • Heart attacks by 21%.
    • Stroke by 17%.

In case you missed it, walnuts were the superstars of the nut family. One serving/week of walnuts was more effective than two or more servings/week of peanuts or other tree nuts at reducing the risk of heart attacks, stroke, and overall cardiovascular disease. This is probably because walnuts are a particularly good source of omega-3 fats.

[Professor’s note: I include a serving of walnuts with my breakfast every morning.]

The authors concluded: “Findings from 3 large prospective cohort studies indicate that frequent intake of nuts, tree nuts, peanuts, and walnuts was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, independently from other cardiovascular risk, lifestyle, and dietary factors. Our findings support recommendations of increasing the intake of a variety of nuts as part of healthy dietary patterns to reduce the risk of chronic diseases in the general population.”

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanI have consistently shared the evidence that primarily plant-based diets are associated with the best long-term health outcomes, especially when we look at chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

I have also consistently shared the message that “We have 5 food groups for a reason”. All 5 food groups are part of a healthy diet.

Unfortunately, Dr. Strangelove and his friends have been telling us that whole grains are bad for us. We should eliminate them from our diet. And too many Americans have been following that advice. That’s why last week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” article reviewed the evidence for heart health benefits from whole grain consumption.

The situation with nuts and seeds is a little different. Most people recognize them as healthy. They just don’t eat enough of them. That’s why this week’s article emphasized the heart health benefits from nut consumption. Here is the take home message I hope you get from this article:

  • Two or more servings/week of peanuts or tree nuts significantly reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.
  • Walnuts are the superstars of the nut family. One serving/week of walnuts (14 walnut halves) was more effective at reducing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases than two or more servings/week of the other nuts.
  • This study was based on unprocessed nuts. Nuts coated with salt, sugar, or chocolate probably don’t qualify as heart healthy.
  • Processed foods made from nuts also may not be heart healthy. For example, peanut butter had no effect at decreasing heart disease risk in this study.

Finally, in closing I want to revisit my statement that “We have 5 food groups for a reason”.

  • The studies I shared this week and last week show that whole grains and nuts are important components of a heart healthy diet. But it doesn’t stop there.
  • All plant food groups are part of a heart healthy diet. In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have shared studies showing beans, fruits, and vegetables are all important components of a heart healthy diet.
  • I have also shared recent studies showing that adding small amounts of eggs and dairy may make a vegetarian diet more heart healthy.
  • Finally, I have shared a study showing that small amounts of red meat can be heart healthy in the context of a primarily plant-based diet such as the Mediterranean diet.

Of course, we are talking about whole food diets. If you include sodas and highly processed foods in the diet, all bets are off.

The Bottom Line

I have consistently shared the evidence that primarily plant-based diets are associated with the best long-term health outcomes, especially when we look at chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

I have also consistently shared the message that “We have 5 food groups for a reason”. All 5 food groups are part of a healthy diet.

Unfortunately, Dr. Strangelove and his friends have been telling us that whole grains are bad for us. We should eliminate them from our diet. And too many Americans have been following that advice. That’s why last week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” article reviewed the evidence for heart health benefits from whole grain consumption.

The situation with nuts and seeds is a little different. Most people recognize them as healthy. They just don’t eat enough of them. That’s why this week’s article emphasized the heart health benefits of nut consumption. Here is the take home message I hope you get from this article:

  • Two or more servings/week of peanuts or tree nuts significantly reduces your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases.
  • Walnuts are the superstars of the nut family. One serving/week of walnuts (14 walnut halves) was more effective at reducing the risk of heart attack, stroke, and other cardiovascular diseases than two or more servings/week of the other nuts.
  • This study was based on unprocessed nuts. Nuts coated with salt, sugar, or chocolate probably don’t qualify as heart healthy.
  • Processed foods made from nuts also may not be heart healthy. For example, peanut butter had no effect at decreasing heart disease risk in this study.

Finally, in closing I want to revisit my statement that “We have 5 food groups for a reason”.

  • The studies I shared this week and last week show that whole grains and nuts are important components of a heart healthy diet. But it doesn’t stop there.
  • All plant food groups are part of a heart healthy diet. In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have shared studies showing beans, fruits, and vegetables are all important components of a heart healthy diet.
  • I have also shared recent studies showing that adding small amounts of eggs and dairy may make a vegetarian diet more heart healthy.
  • Finally, I have shared a study showing that small amounts of red meat can be heart healthy in the context of a primarily plant-based diet such as the Mediterranean diet.

Of course, we are talking about whole food diets. If you include sodas and highly processed foods in the diet, all bets are off.

For more details, read the article above.

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

Does Eating Plant Protein Help You Live Longer?

Are Whole Grains Heart Healthy?

protein and heart disease nuts and seedsThe diet wars continue. Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues are still trying to convince you that you can eat all the red meat you want. It is those deadly whole grains, beans, and fruits you need to avoid.

However, as the benefits of primarily plant-based diets continue to accumulate, it is becoming harder for them to maintain these preposterous claims.

For example, several recent studies have shown that replacing animal protein with plant protein in your diet results in better health.

  • The Iowa Women’s Health Study found that plant protein substitution for animal protein is associated with reduced risk of dying from heart disease.
  • The Nurse’s Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study found that greater plant protein intake was associated with reduced risk of dying from heart disease and reduced risk of dying from all causes.
  • The Japan Public Health Center-Based Prospective Cohort Study found a reduced risk of dying from heart disease, cancer, and all causes with substitution of plant protein for red meat protein.

These were all very large studies in which populations were followed for long periods of time. You might be thinking that with such overwhelming evidence no further studies are needed.

However, these studies did not examine which plant protein sources were most beneficial and which animal protein sources were most detrimental. The study (J. Huang et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, published online July 13, 2020) I describe in today’s “Health Tips From The Professor” was designed to answer that question.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical Study416,104 participants from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study were enrolled in this study in 1995 and 1996 and were followed for 16 years. At the time of enrollment, the participants filled out a comprehensive Diet History Questionnaire. The participants also completed questionnaires about their health, lifestyle, and socio-economic status.

Deaths were obtained from the Social Security Death Master File. Causes of death were obtained from the National Death Index Plus.

The basic characteristics of the study population were:

  • Gender: 57% men, 43% women.
  • Racial identification: 90% non-Hispanic white.
  • Average age 61 (range 50-71).
  • Average BMI = 27 (in the overweight range).
  • Participants were excluded from the study if they had pre-existing cancer, heart disease, stroke, or end-stage kidney disease.

In terms of protein intake:

  • Average protein intake was 15.3% of calories.
  • Plant protein contributed 40% (range 27% – 57%) to the total protein intake.
  • Animal protein contributed 60% (range = 43% to 63%) of the total protein intake.

The major sources of animal protein in the diet were:

  • Dairy products = 31.6%
  • White meat (poultry, fish, and processed white meat) = 31.3%
  • Red meat (both fresh and processed) = 30.6%
  • Eggs = 4.0%

The major sources of plant protein in the diet were:

  • Grains (bread, cereal, and pasta) = 45.8%
  • Beans and legumes = 8.0%
  • Nuts and seeds = 4.5%
  • Other plant protein (including plant protein from supplements) = 41.7%

All these protein intake figures are normal for the American diet.

I should note that beans, nuts, and seeds are among the best sources of plant protein. However, they are only a minor part of the typical American diet, so they contribute relatively little to our plant protein intake.

Does Eating Plant Protein Help You Live Longer?

In terms of overall protein intake, this study mirrored previous studies.

  • There was an inverse association between plant protein intake and premature death from heart disease, stroke, and all causes. Put another way, the more plant protein people in this study ate, the lower was their risk of premature death.

To quantify the effect, the investigators asked what happened when 3% of calories came from plant protein instead of animal protein. I recognize, however, that 3% of calories is a rather abstract concept, so let me break it down for you so you can apply it to your lives.

  • For participants in this study, protein was 15% of their total calories. That means when the investigators were talking about shifting 3% of total calories from animal protein to plant protein, they were talking about 20% of the protein in the diet coming from plant protein rather animal protein.
  • Based on the average caloric intake of participants in this study, that corresponds to 15 grams of protein for men and 12 grams of protein for women.

With that in mind, let’s look at the results:

  • Changing just 3% of calories from animal protein to plant protein:
  • Lowered the risk of premature death from all causes by 10% for both men and women.
  • Lowered the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 11% for men and 12% for women.
  • Lowered the risk of premature death from stroke by 22% for men and 19% for women.

These findings are consistent with previous studies. By now, it should be apparent that primarily plant-based diets are best for your overall health. Primarily plant-based diets also appear to reduce your risk of dying prematurely from heart disease and from all other diseases combined.

The authors concluded: “This large cohort investigation showed small but significant associations between higher intake of plant protein and lower overall and cardiovascular mortality…Findings from this and previous studies provide evidence that dietary modifications in choice of protein sources may promote health and longevity.”

However, this part of the study merely confirms what other studies have shown. What makes this study unique is that it identifies which animal proteins are worst for us and which plant proteins are best for us.

Which Animal Proteins Are Least Heart Healthy?

Animal Protein FoodsLet’s start with the animal proteins (Note: To simplify a complex set of data, I am going to average the results for men and women).

  • Changing 3% of calories from egg protein to plant protein:
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from all causes by 23%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 27%.
    • To put this into perspective, 3% of calories from egg protein corresponds to around 2.5 eggs/day. So, talking about replacing 3% of calories of egg protein creates a false narrative. The average egg consumption in this study was 0.5 eggs/day and very few participants consumed even 2 eggs every day. If we make a more reasonable comparison, replacing one egg/day with an equivalent amount of plant protein:
      • Lowers the risk of premature death from all causes by 9%.
      • Lowers the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 11%.
  • Changing 3% of calories from red meat protein to plant protein:
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from all causes by 14%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 12%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from stroke by 21%.
    • To put this into perspective, 3% of calories from red meat protein corresponds to around 2 ounces/day.
  • Changing 3% of calories from dairy protein to plant protein:
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from all causes by 8%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 11%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from stroke by 21%.
    • To put this into perspective, 3% of calories from dairy protein corresponds to around 1.7 8-ounce glasses of milk, 2 ounces of cheese, or 1 cup of yogurt (most yogurt “cups” sold commercially are less than an 8-ounce cup).
  • Changing 3% of calories from white meat protein to plant protein had no effect on premature death from any disease in this study. I will discuss the reasons for that below.

Are Whole Grains Heart Healthy?

Whole GrainsNow, let’s look at the flip side. What happens when you replace 3% of calories from red meat protein with various kinds of plant protein?

  • Changing 3% of calories from red meat protein to plant protein from whole grains:
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from all causes by 28%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease by 32%.
    • Lowered the risk of premature death from stroke by 32%.
    • To put this into perspective, 3% of calories from whole grain protein corresponds to around 2.5 slices of whole grain bread, 2 cups of oatmeal, or 2.5 cups of brown rice or whole grain pasta – or any combination of them during the day.
  • The results were similar for replacing egg protein with whole grain protein.
  • Changing 3% of calories from red meat protein or egg protein to other types of plant protein had no effect on premature death from any disease. The reasons for that will be discussed below.

The authors concluded “…this investigation showed prominent inverse associations between overall and cardiovascular mortality and the replacement of egg protein and red meat protein with plant protein, particularly for plant protein derived from bread, cereal, and pasta…”

Why Do Animal Proteins Increase Your Risk Of Premature Death?

Let me take a deep dive into the data. If you like, you can skip to “What Does This Study Mean For You?”

To help you gain a better understanding of these results, I will answer two questions for you:

  • Mechanism: What is/are the metabolic explanation(s) for these results?
  • Perspective: How can you apply this information to your own life?

Reminder: This section is for those of you who want the details. I will give the Cliff Notes summary in the section “What Does This Study Mean For You”.

EggsEggs

Mechanism:

  • The bad effect of eggs on cardiovascular mortality and all-cause mortality is thought to be almost exclusively due to their high cholesterol content.
  • On the flip side, eggs are an excellent source of low-fat animal protein and provide nutrients like choline and carotenoids that are often insufficient in the American diet.

Perspective:

  • Our bodies have a beautifully designed system for regulating blood cholesterol levels. This means under ideal conditions dietary cholesterol has very little effect on blood cholesterol levels. However, as I have pointed out in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, conditions are often far from ideal.
  • Diet context matters. Obesity, saturated fat, and sugar all interfere with our ability to regulate blood cholesterol levels. People consuming the typical American diet, like the ones in this study, have more difficulty regulating their blood cholesterol levels and are more likely to be adversely affected by dietary cholesterol from eggs and other high-cholesterol foods.
    • Previous studies suggest that adding eggs to the typical American diet may increase risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
    • In contrast, adding eggs to a primarily plant-based diet, such as found in China and Japan, appears to decrease risk of heart disease and premature death.

Red Meatfatty steak

Mechanisms: The mechanism(s) associated with the bad effects of red meat are less clear. Here are the potential mechanisms discussed by the authors of this study.

  • Red meat is high in cholesterol. While many experts have downplayed the importance of dietary cholesterol in recent years, it still may be of concern in the context of the typical American diet because of our body’s inability to regulate cholesterol metabolism normally.
  • Red meat is high in saturated fat. While some experts have downplayed the importance of reducing saturated fat intake, I pointed out in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” that it depends on what the saturated fat is replaced with.
    • When saturated fats are replaced with sugar and refined carbohydrates in the typical American diet, reducing saturated fat is of no benefit.
    • When saturated fats are replaced with polyunsaturated fats in the context of a primarily plant-based diet, such as the Mediterranean diet, reducing saturated fats leads to a substantial reduction in the risk of heart disease and premature death.
  • Red meat also contains heme iron which is associated with 57% increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Diets high in red meat result in populations of gut bacteria that are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. This is most likely because red meat is displacing plant foods that support the growth of healthy bacteria.
  • As discussed in a recent issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, the gut bacteria associated with red meat consumption convert the L-carnitine in red meat to a metabolite called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) which appears to significantly increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Finally, a recent study suggests that foods high in sulfur-containing amino acids significantly increase risk of cardiovascular disease. However, this mechanism is not specific for red meat. White meat, beans, and legumes are also high in sulfur-containing amino acids.

Perspective:

  • While the exact mechanism(s) is/are uncertain, there is substantial evidence from multiple studies that red meat consumption increases the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease and from all causes.
  • Grass fed beef is not a “get out of jail free card”. Grass fed beef is modestly lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. However, those are only two of six potential mechanisms for the link between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease.
  • However, those of you who, like me, enjoy red meat should not consider this to be an absolute “red meat should never touch your lips” edict. As I have discussed in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, the health effects of red meat are a matter of quantity and diet context.
    • If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not a healthy choice.
    • However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat may be a healthier choice.

dairy products and heart diseaseDairy: I have reported on the health risks and benefits of dairy foods in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, so I will just give you a brief summary here.

Perspective:

  • Eating dairy foods, even high-fat dairy foods, has relatively little effect on cardiovascular disease risk in the context of the typical high-fat, high-sugar American diet.
  • Eating dairy foods, even high-fat dairy foods, in the context of a healthy plant-based diet appears to lower cardiovascular disease risk.
  • As this study suggests, moving towards a more plant-based diet by substituting some plant protein for dairy protein in the diet will also decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease

White Meat: This and previous studies suggest that white meat is less likely than red meat to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. I have discussed the differences between red and white meat in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”. However, I can summarize the differences best here by going back to the mechanisms associated with the link between red meat and cardiovascular diseases and highlight those that do not apply to white meat.

Mechanisms:

  • Saturated fat. Many fish are much lower in saturated fat and are excellent sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fats. Chicken and turkey breast with the skin removed are also much lower in saturated fat than red meat.
  • Heme iron. Chicken breast is lower in heme iron than red meats.
  • TMAO. White meats contain 10-50 times less L-carnitine than red meats. Since L-carnitine is the precursor of TMAO, they are much less likely to cause TMAO production.

Why Do Plant Proteins Decrease Your Risk Of Premature Death?

Whole Grains: Whole grains have been much maligned in recent years. They have been lumped in with sugar and refined grains and have been added to everyone’s “naughty list”.

  • If you are following a low-carb diet, you are told to avoid all grains.
  • If you are following a Paleo diet, you are told our paleo ancestors ate no grains.
  • If you are trying to avoid lectins…you get the point.

That’s unfortunate, because whole grains are very healthy. In a recent issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared a study showing that whole grain consumption reduced the risk of premature death from heart disease, cancer, and all causes. The current study shows essentially the same thing.

The only question is why whole grains are uniquely effective at decreasing premature death from cardiovascular disease and all causes in this study. Why aren’t all plant proteins equally effective? I will share both a suggested mechanism and perspective.

Mechanism:

  • In a recent issue of “Health Tips From The Professor” I reported a study showing that grains and a few other foods contain a unique type of fiber called resistant starch that suppress growth of the gut bacteria which convert L-carnitine to TMAO. This may be why whole grains are uniquely effective at reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
  • Some refined grains are also good sources of resistant starch. However, I don’t recommend them because they lack the antioxidants, vitamins, phytonutrients, and insoluble fiber found in whole grains.

Perspective:  

The fact no other plant protein source significantly reduced heart disease risk in this study is most likely an artifact of the study.

  • The study asked what happens when you change 15 grams of the protein in your diet from red meat protein to different kinds of plant protein. That question was easy to answer for grains because they are a major source of protein in the American diet. However, Americans don’t get enough protein from other high protein plant foods like beans and legumes or nuts and seeds to provide a statistically valid answer to that question.
  • However, all plant foods have their own health benefits. They are excellent sources of antioxidants and phytonutrients that provide heart health benefits.
  • In addition, each plant food provides a different blend of fibers and supports different populations of gut bacteria with different health benefits. For example, fiber from fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of cancer.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

dairy products and heart disease questionsA recent study has shown that changing as little as 20% of the protein in our diet from animal protein to plant protein significantly reduces our risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease, stroke, and from all causes.

The effect of replacing 2 ounces of red meat, 1 egg, or 2 servings of dairy with an equivalent amount of plant protein was equally beneficial.

Previous studies show that diet context is important. A small amounts of animal protein in the context of a whole food, primarily plant-based diet is much less likely to cause harm and may provide benefit. For example:

  • Eggs are high in cholesterol but are also excellent sources of low-fat protein and nutrients that may be missing in a plant-based diet.
    • Previous studies suggest that adding eggs to the typical American diet may increase risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
    • In contrast, adding eggs to a primarily plant-based diet, such as found in China and Japan, appears to decrease risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.
  • Dairy foods are high in saturated fat but are excellent sources of calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients that may be missing in a plant-based diet.
    • Eating dairy foods, even high-fat dairy foods, has relatively little effect on cardiovascular disease risk in the context of the typical high-fat, high-sugar American diet.
    • Eating dairy foods, even high-fat dairy foods, in the context of a healthy plant-based diet appears to lower cardiovascular disease risk.
  • Red meat has multiple suggested mechanisms for it increasing the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. However, diet context still matters.
    • If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not a healthy choice.
    • However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat may be a healthier choice.
    • Grass fed beef should not be considered a “get out of jail free card”. Grass fed beef is modestly lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. However, those are only two of six potential mechanisms for the link between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease.
  • White meat does not appear to affect your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
  • Whole grains significantly decreased the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease and death from all causes. This may be because whole grains contain a unique type of fiber called resistant starch that suppresses the growth of the gut bacteria which convert L-carnitine to a heart-damaging compound called TMAO.
    • Notice that I specified “whole grain”. While some refined grains are also a good source of resistant starch, they lack the other heart healthy nutrients and phytonutrients found in whole grains.
      • Wonder Bread, Frosted Flakes, Honey Bunches of Oats, and white-flour pasta are not on my approved list. I agree with low-carb enthusiasts about eliminating them from our diets.
      • You should also be aware that “whole grain” on the label means nothing. You want to choose foods that say “100% whole grain”.
    • Finally, this study only focused on plant protein sources. It is important to remember that other plant foods are an excellent source of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber. Each plant food provides unique heart health benefits.

The Bottom Line

A recent study has shown that changing as little as 20% of the protein in our diet from animal protein to plant protein significantly reduces our risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease, stroke, and from all causes.

The effect of replacing 2 ounces of red meat, 1 egg, or 2 servings of dairy with an equivalent amount of plant protein was equally beneficial. White meat did not affect the risk of cardiovascular disease or premature death.

  • Grass fed beef should not be considered a “get out of jail free card”. Grass fed beef is modestly lower in cholesterol and saturated fat. However, those are only two of six potential mechanisms for the link between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease.
  • Diet context is important. Small amounts of animal protein in the context of a whole food, primarily plant-based diet appear to be much healthier for us than large amounts of animal protein in the context of the high-fat, high-sugar American diet.

On the flip side of the equation, whole grains significantly decreased the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease and death from all causes. This has also been seen in other recent studies.

  • Notice that I specified “whole grain”. Wonder Bread, Frosted Flakes, Honey Bunches of Oats, and white-flour pasta are not on the list.
  • You should also be aware that “whole grain” on the label means nothing. You want to choose foods that say “100% whole grain”.
  • Finally, this study only focused on plant protein sources. It is important to remember that other plant foods are an excellent source of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber. Each plant food provides unique heart health benefits.

For more details, read the article above, especially the “What Does This Study Mean For You?” section.

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

What Is The Truth About Eating Eggs And Heart Disease?

Have The Dangers Of Eggs Been “Eggagerated”?

egg confusionIt’s no wonder you are confused about whether or not eggs are good for you. The advice you have been given about eggs over the years has been constantly changing.

Eggs are an affordable source of high-quality protein, iron, unsaturated fats, phospholipids like lecithin and choline, and carotenoids. That almost qualifies them as a health food. However, they are also a major source of cholesterol in the American diet. Back when we thought of dietary cholesterol was bad for us, that made eggs the enemy.

Then we discovered that dietary cholesterol has relatively little effect on blood cholesterol levels. It was obesity plus saturated fat and sugar in our diet that raised blood cholesterol levels and increased our risk of heart disease.

Then several studies reported that eggs did not increase our risk of heart disease. A study out of China even found that eggs decreased the risk of heart attack and hemorrhagic stroke. Suddenly, eggs became our best friend.

That only lasted a few years until a study from the United States reported that eggs increased your risk of heart disease, and a study from Europe reported that eggs increased your risk of hemorrhagic stroke. Eggfusion (egg confusion) reigned.

Most of these studies were large studies. They followed their participants for 5-10 years. Why were their results so confusing? A careful analysis of the studies shows that most of them suffered from three major weaknesses.

  • They only measured egg consumption at the beginning of the study. This fails to account for the fact that egg consumption has waxed and waned over the years as eggs have gone from enemy to friend and back to enemy.
  • They did not assess how the overall diet influences the effect of egg consumption on heart disease. If we believe the previous studies, eggs lower the risk of heart disease and hemorrhagic stroke in China and increase the risk of both in the United States and Europe. This suggests that overall diet is important, but this hypothesis has not been tested.
  • They also did not address the question of whether eggs, because of their cholesterol, might have a more adverse effect on heart disease in individuals who already have high blood cholesterol and have difficulty controlling their cholesterol levels.

That is why the study (JP Drouin-Chartier et al, British Medical Journal, 368:m513, 2020) I am reporting on today is so important. It is a huge study, much larger than any previous study on the topic. Plus, it was designed in such a way that it had none of the weaknesses of previous studies.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study started by combining the data from three major clinical trials:

  • The first Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1980 to 2012,
  • The second Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1991-2013, and
  • The Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study, which ran from 1986-2012.

These studies combined enrolled 173,563 women and 42,055 men and followed them for an average of 32 years. All the participants were free of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer at the time they were enrolled. The design of these studies was extraordinary.

  • A detailed food frequency questionnaire was administered every 2-4 years. This allowed the investigators to calculate cumulative averages of all dietary variables, including egg intake. This assured that the effects of egg consumption and diet represented the participant’s diet over the 32-year duration of the study.
  • Participants also filled out questionnaires that captured information on disease diagnosis, disease risk factors, medicines taken, weight, and lifestyle characteristics every 2 years with follow-up rates >90%. This allowed the investigators to measure the onset of disease and medicine use for each participant during the study. More importantly, 32 years is long enough to measure the onset of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – diseases that require decades to develop.
  • The endpoint of the study was “incident heart disease”, which the investigators defined as non-fatal heart attack, death from heart disease, and fatal and non-fatal stroke. During this study, 14,806 participants developed incident heart disease. This was a large enough number for a detailed statistical analysis of the data.
  • For example, statistical analysis showed that the participants with the highest egg intake also were more likely to be obese and more likely to consume red meat, bacon and other processed meats, refined grains, French fries, and sugar-sweetened beverages. These are what we refer to as “confounding variables” because they also increase the risk of heart disease and are likely to confound (confuse) the analysis. Therefore, the investigators statistically corrected the data on egg consumption for these confounding variables. Many previous studies did not have the data or statistical power to correct their egg consumption data for these confounding variables.

In short, this study was much larger, ran far longer, and was better designed that any of the previous studies on egg consumption and heart disease risk. However, the authors did not stop there. They also performed a meta-analysis of 28 previous studies with a total of 1,720,108 participants and 139,195 cardiovascular disease events.

The only weakness in this study is that only 2% of the participants ate more than one egg per day. Consequently, it cannot address the health consequences of eating more than one egg per day on a regular basis.

Before sharing the results of this study with you, I need to provide some background about how our bodies regulate blood cholesterol levels. So, let’s move on to my favorite topic, “Biochemistry 101”.

Biochemistry 101: Cholesterol Metabolism

ProfessorMost people think of cholesterol only as a bad thing – something that can kill us. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, cholesterol is essential for life.

  • Our body makes vitamin D and coenzyme Q10 from cholesterol.
  • Our body makes steroid hormones such as cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone from cholesterol.
  • Cholesterol is a vital component of the myelin sheath that coats our nerve cells.
  • And that is just the beginning.

Because cholesterol is essential, our body makes its own cholesterol and has an elegant control system that keeps our blood cholesterol levels right where they should be.

  • When we get lots of cholesterol from our diet, our body makes less and excretes any excess.
  • When we get little cholesterol from our diet, our body makes more and excretes less.

Unfortunately, many Americans muck up this elegant control system. There are several factors that can throw our body’s ability to regulate blood cholesterol levels out of whack, leading to elevated blood cholesterol levels and increased risk of heart disease. For example:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Diets high in saturated fats
  • Diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates
  • Genetics

And it’s not just elevated cholesterol that is the problem. These same factors are associated with inflammation, which also increases the risk of heart disease.

Of course, we can’t do anything about our genetics, but the other factors are under our control. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at the results of this study.

What Is The Truth About Eating Eggs And Heart Disease?

the truth signWhen the investigators looked at their combined data from the Nurse’s Health Studies and the Health Professional’s Study:

  • There was no difference in heart disease outcomes for participants consuming an average of one egg/day and participants consuming less than one egg/month.
  • When the investigators examined heart attack and stroke separately, there was no difference in either outcome for participants consuming an average of one egg/day and participants consuming less than one egg/month.
  • As mentioned above the participants who consumed the most eggs weighed more; were less physically active; were more likely to be current smokers; and were more likely to consume red meat, processed meats, refined grains, potatoes (think French fries and potato chips), full fat milk, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
    • Without correcting for these factors eating one egg/day resulted in a 10% increase in heart disease risk.
    • After correcting for these factors, eating one egg/day resulted in a 7% decrease in heart disease risk.
    • In both cases the differences were statistically non-significant. However, they were in line with the previous studies mentioned above.

When they looked at the data generated by their meta-analysis of 28 studies:

  • There was no association between heart disease risk and egg consumption.
    • In Asian countries where the diet was primarily unrefined, plant-based foods, egg consumption decreased heart disease risk.
    • In people with type 2 diabetes, egg consumption increased heart disease risk.

The authors concluded “…moderate egg consumption (up to one egg/day) is not associated with cardiovascular disease risk overall, and is associated with potentially lower cardiovascular disease risk in Asian populations.”

The authors also noted that their data did not allow them to evaluate the effect of consuming more than one egg/day.

Have The Dangers Of Eggs Been “Eggagerated”?

are eggs good for youThis study clears up a lot of confusion about egg consumption and heart disease risk. The problem is that the scientific and medical communities have been looking for a “one size fits all” recommendation about egg consumption. This study shows us that the reality is much more complicated. Let me describe my interpretation of the data.

I think the results of this and previous studies are best described by the phrase, Eggs are a healthy part of a healthy diet. Here is what I mean by that.

  • If you are consuming a primarily plant-based diet, your body is fully able to regulate your blood cholesterol levels. Then, you can reap the full benefits of the egg, namely the protein, iron, unsaturated fats, lecithin, choline, and carotenoids it provides. Under these conditions, eating up to one egg/day reduces your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are consuming a diet that contains primarily chicken or fish and unprocessed plant foods, egg consumption is neutral. It neither increases nor decreases your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are consuming a diet that contains sugar-sweetened beverages, red and processed meats, high fat dairy products, refined grains, and junk foods (ie, the typical American diet), your body is no longer able to regulate blood cholesterol levels well. Now the cholesterol content of eggs becomes an issue and consuming one egg/day slightly increases your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are overweight and have developed type 2 diabetes, your body has become insulin resistant. This also interferes with your body’s ability to regulate blood cholesterol levels. In this situation, consuming one egg/day also increases your risk of heart disease.

The caveat is, of course, that these conclusions are based averages, and none of us are average.

The Bottom Line

You are probably aware that the effect of egg consumption on heart disease risk is controversial. Some studies report that egg consumption has no effect on heart disease risk. Other studies report egg consumption decreases heart disease risk. Still other studies report that egg consumption increases heart disease risk. No wonder you are confused.

A recent study has cleared up much of the confusion. This was not just another study. This study was much larger, ran far longer, and was better designed that any of the previous studies.

If you look at this and previous studies, it becomes clear that the effect of egg consumption on heart disease risk is strongly influenced by your overall diet and lifestyle.

  • If you are consuming a primarily plant-based diet, your body is fully able to regulate your blood cholesterol levels. Then, you can reap the full benefits of the egg, namely the protein, iron, unsaturated fats, lecithin, choline, and carotenoids it provides. Under these conditions, eating up to one egg/day reduces your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are consuming a diet that contains primarily chicken or fish and unprocessed plant foods, egg consumption is neutral. It neither increases nor decreases your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are consuming a diet that contains sugar-sweetened beverages, red and processed meats, high fat dairy products, refined grains, and junk foods (ie, the typical American diet), your body is no longer able to regulate blood cholesterol levels well. Now the cholesterol content of eggs becomes an issue and consuming one egg/day slightly increases your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are overweight and have developed type 2 diabetes, your body has become insulin resistant. This also interferes with your body’s ability to regulate blood cholesterol levels. In this situation, consuming one egg/day also increases your risk of heart disease.

In short, eggs are a healthy part of a healthy diet.

For more details, read the article above. You may also want to read the section “Biochemistry 101: Cholesterol Metabolism” to gain a better understanding of the mechanism behind these statements.

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

Can Vitamin C Prevent Heart Disease?

Where Should I Get My Vitamin C?

vitamin CThe vitamin C controversy continues. Some people call vitamin C a “miracle” nutrient. Others consider it little more than “fairy dust”. What is the truth?

Let’s look at the effect of vitamin C on heart disease risk as an example of why it is so difficult to resolve questions like this.

Association studies are ideal for measuring long-term effects of nutrient consumption on health outcomes. These studies have consistently found an inverse association between dietary vitamin C and plasma vitamin C levels with the risk of heart disease. Simply put, the more vitamin C from dietary sources, the lower the risk of heart disease.

However, association studies do not prove cause and effect. The primary reason for this is that association studies are complicated by “confounding variables”. For example, most vitamin C in the diet comes from fruits and vegetables. So, the question arises, “Is it the vitamin C in fruits and vegetables that is responsible for the decreased heart disease risk, or is it the fiber that is also present in fruits and vegetables?” Previous studies have not been designed to answer this question.

Placebo-controlled clinical trials solve the confounding variable issue because they involve supplementation with pure vitamin C or a placebo. There is only a single variable. However, placebo-controlled clinical trials only last for a short time. That means they can measure biological markers that may affect heart disease risk but seldom last long enough to directly measure the effect of vitamin C on heart disease risk.

For example, previous studies have shown that high-dose (500 to 4,000 mg/day) supplementation with vitamin C improves the function of the endothelial lining of our blood cells and reduces blood pressure. These are biological markers that might be expected to reduce heart disease risk.

However, heart disease takes decades to develop. No studies of vitamin C supplementation have lasted long enough to show an actual decrease in heart disease outcomes.

In today’s issue of “Health Tips From The Professor” I would like to address three questions:

1) Does dietary vitamin C reduce heart disease risk?

2) How much of the risk reduction is due to the fiber content of fruits and vegetables rather than their vitamin C content?

3) Does supplementation with vitamin C reduce heart disease risk?

I will focus on a recent study (N Martin-Calvo and MA Martinez-Gonzalez, Nutrients, 9: 954, 2017, doi.org/10.3390/nu909054) that was designed to answer these questions.

How Was The Study Done?

Heart Health StudyThis study was an offshoot of an ongoing Spanish research program called Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra (SUN) follow-up study. This program is following graduates of the University of Navarra to gauge the effect of diet and lifestyle on health outcomes.

Health, lifestyle, and diet information is collected when graduates enroll in the program and by mailed questionnaires every two years thereafter.

Graduates who were enrolled in the SUN program in 2014 or earlier were invited to participate in this vitamin C and heart disease study.

  • Vitamin C intake from diet and from supplements was assessed from the dietary analysis.
  • A diagnosis of heart disease was obtained from the Health questionnaire and confirmed by physician follow-up.
  • Deaths due to heart disease were obtained from the Spanish National Death Index cross-referenced to participants in the study and were confirmed by participants next of kin, work associates, or postal authorities.

The study excluded:

  • Participants with pre-existing heart disease at the beginning of the study.
  • Participants who were younger than 40 at the beginning of the study.
  • Participants with either very high or very low vitamin C intake.

That left 13,421 participants who were young (average age = 42), at a healthy weight (average BMI = 24), healthy, and taking few medications.

Can Vitamin C Prevent Heart Disease?

Healthy HeartThe 13,421 participants in this study were followed for an average of 11 years.

They were divided into three groups based on their vitamin C intake.

  • Group 1 averaged 148 mg/day.
  • Group 2 averaged 257 mg/day.
  • Group 3 averaged 445 mg/day.

There are two noteworthy observations about their vitamin C intake:

  • None of the groups were vitamin C deficient. All three groups were getting well above the RDA for vitamin C (75 mg/day for women and 90 mg/day for men).
  • Most of the vitamin C came from fruits and vegetables in the diet. The group with the highest vitamin C intake (445 mg/day) only averaged about 10 mg/day from supplements.

The results of the study were intriguing. When the investigators compared the group with the highest vitamin C intake to the group with the lowest vitamin C intake:

  • Vitamin C significantly decreased both the risk of developing heart disease and the risk of dying from heart disease.
    • Statistically adjusting the data for age, gender, weight, lifestyle, and medicine use did not affect the outcome.
    • Statistically adjusting the data for fiber from sources other than fruits and vegetables did not affect the outcome.
    • Statistically adjusting the data for adherence to a healthy diet (the Mediterranean diet) did not affect the outcome.

However, when the data were statistically adjusted for total fiber (including fiber from fruits and vegetables) the high fiberresults painted a slightly different picture. With this adjustment:

  • Vitamin C decreased the risk of developing heart disease by 26%, but this decrease was not statistically significant.
  • Vitamin C decreased the risk of dying from heart disease by 70%, and this decrease was highly significant.

This was the first study to consider the relative importance of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables and fiber from fruits and vegetables on heart disease outcomes and the results were interesting. Here are the important conclusions.

1) Both the fiber and the vitamin C from fruits and vegetables contributed to a decreased risk of developing heart disease. This study was unable to separate their contributions.

Of course, it is important to note that this was a young, healthy population, none of whom were deficient in vitamin C. It would be interesting to repeat this study with an older, sicker population with a more restrictive diet.

2) Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of dying from heart disease independent of the beneficial effects of fruit and vegetable fiber.

3) This study was not able to address the effect of vitamin C supplementation on heart disease risk. That is because the Spaniards supplement much less frequently than Americans and this study excluded anyone with unusually high vitamin C intake. The average supplemental vitamin C in the 3 groups ranged from 0.56 mg/day to 9.6 mg/day.

4) This study also emphasizes the importance of getting fiber from a variety of food sources. It showed that fiber from fruits and vegetables was more beneficial at reducing heart disease risk than fiber from other food sources. That means restrictive diets that eliminate fruits and/or vegetables may be bad for your heart.

Where Should I Get My Vitamin C?

Vegan FoodsThis study reinforces the importance of getting lots of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet.

  • You could make a list of all the vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables like citrus fruits, red & green peppers, broccoli, etc. and make sure you are including them in your diet.
  • You could total up the vitamin C in each food you eat and try to reach the 445 mg/day in the group with the highest vitamin C in this study.

However, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. If you eat a primarily plant-based diet, aim for 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and “eat the rainbow” you will get plenty of vitamin C from your diet.

Also, don’t worry about whether the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption come from their vitamin C or from their fiber. That’s the beauty of eating whole foods. You get both in the same package.

Of course, you are probably also wondering whether vitamin C supplementation will reduce your risk of heart disease. As I described earlier, there are lots of reasons for thinking that vitamin C supplementation might decrease heart disease risk.

  • Several studies show that higher vitamin C intake and higher vitamin C levels in the blood are associated with lower heart disease risk.
  • This study showed that vitamin C reduces the risk of dying from heart disease independent of fiber from fruits and vegetables and independent of an overall healthy diet. This suggests that vitamin C plays an independent role in reducing heart disease risk.
  • Placebo controlled clinical trials show that vitamin C supplementation reduces risk factors that contribute to heart disease.

However, none of these studies prove that vitamin C supplementation reduces heart disease risk. That requires placebo-controlled clinical trials measuring the effect of vitamin C supplementation on heart disease outcomes. Unfortunately, these studies are usually doomed to failure.

Chronic diseases like heart disease takes decades to develop. Placebo-controlled, randomized studies are almost never large enough or last long enough to show an effect of supplementation on chronic diseases.

The best we can say at present is that vitamin C supplementation along with a primarily plant-based diet with lots of colorful fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of heart disease.

The Bottom Line

A recent study in Spain followed 13,421 healthy college graduates with an average age of 42 for 11 years and looked at the effect of vitamin C intake on the risk of developing heart disease and the risk of dying from heart disease.

This was the first study to consider the relative importance of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables and fiber from fruits and vegetables on heart disease outcomes and the results are intriguing. Here are the important conclusions.

1) Both the fiber and the vitamin C from fruits and vegetables contributed to a decreased risk of developing heart disease. This study was unable to separate their contributions.

Of course, it is important to note that this was a young, healthy population, none of whom were deficient in vitamin C. It would be interesting to repeat this study with an older, sicker population with a more restrictive die

2) Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of dying from heart disease by 70%, and this effect was independent of the beneficial effects of fruit and vegetable fiber.

3) This study was not able to address the effect of vitamin C supplementation on heart disease risk. That is because the Spaniards supplement much less frequently than Americans and this study excluded anyone with unusually high vitamin C intake. The average supplemental vitamin C in the 3 groups ranged from 0.56 mg/day to 9.6 mg/day.

4) This study also emphasizes the importance of getting fiber from a variety of food sources. It showed that fiber from fruits and vegetables was more beneficial at reducing heart disease risk than fiber from other food sources. That means restrictive diets that eliminate fruits and/or vegetables may be bad for your heart.

For more details read the article above.

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

Can You Improve Your Healthspan?

Can You Live Healthier, Longer?

Ever since Ponce de Leon led an expedition to the Florida coast in 1513, we have been searching for the mythical “Fountain Of Youth”. What does that myth mean?

Supposedly, just by immersing yourself in that fountain you would be made younger. You would experience all the exuberance and health you enjoyed when you were young. There have been many snake oil remedies over the years that have promised that. They were all frauds.

But what if you had it in your power to live longer and to retain your youthful health for most of those extra years. The ability to live healthier longer is something that scientists call “healthspan”. But you can think of it as your personal “Fountain Of Youth”.

Where are we as a nation? Americans ranked 53rd in the world for life expectancy. We have the life expectancy of a third-world country. We are in sore need of a “Fountain Of Youth”.

That is why I decided to share two recent studies from the prestigious Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health with you today.

How Were The Studies Done?

Clinical StudyThese studies started by combining the data from two major clinical trials:

  • The Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1980 to 2014.
  • The Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study, which ran from 1986-2014.

These two clinical trials enrolled 78,865 women and 42,354 men and followed them for an average of 34 years. During this time there were 42,167 deaths. All the participants were free of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer at the time they were enrolled. Furthermore, the design of these clinical trials was extraordinary.

  • A detailed food frequency questionnaire was administered every 2-4 years. This allowed the investigators to calculate cumulative averages of all dietary variables.
  • Participants also filled out questionnaires that captured information on disease diagnosis every 2 years with follow-up rates >90%. This allowed the investigators to measure the onset of disease for each participant during the study. More importantly, 34 years is long enough to measure the onset of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – diseases that require decades to develop.
  • The questionnaires also captured information on medicines taken and lifestyle characteristics such as body weight, exercise, smoking and alcohol use.
  • For analysis of diet quality, the investigators use something called the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index”. [The original Healthy Eating Index was developed about 10 years ago based on the 2010 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”. Those guidelines have since been updated, and the “Alternative Healthy Eating Index” is based on the updated guidelines.] You can calculate your own Alternative Healthy Eating Index below, so you can see what is involved.
  • Finally, the investigators included five lifestyle-related factors – diet, smoking, physical activity, alcohol consumption, and BMI (a measure of obesity) – in their estimation of a healthy lifestyle. Based on the best available evidence, they defined “low-risk” in each of these categories. Study participants were assigned 1 point for each low-risk category they achieved. Simply put, if they were low risk in all 5 categories, they received a score of 5. If they were low risk in none of the categories, they received a score of 0.
  • Low risk for each of these categories was defined as follows:
    • Low risk for a healthy diet was defined as those who scored in the top 40% in the Alternative Healthy Eating Index.
    • Low risk for smoking was defined as never smoking.
    • Low risk for physical activity was defined as 30 minutes/day of moderate or vigorous activities.
    • Low risk for alcohol was defined as 0.5-1 drinks/day for women and 0.5-2 drinks/day for men.
    • Low risk for weight was defined as a BMI in the healthy range (18.5-24.9 kg/m2).

Can You Live Healthier Longer?

Older Couple Running Along BeachThe investigators compared participants who scored as low risk in all 5 categories with participants who scored as low risk in 0 categories (which would be typical for many Americans). For the purpose of simplicity, I will refer to people who scored as low risk in 5 categories as having a “healthy lifestyle” and those who scored as low risk in 0 categories as having an “unhealthy lifestyle”.

The results of the first study were:

  • Women who had had a healthy lifestyle lived 14 years longer than women with an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated life expectancy of 93 versus 79).
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 12 years longer than men with an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated life expectancy was 87 versus 75).
  • It was not necessary to achieve a perfect lifestyle. Life expectancy increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior achieved.

The authors of the study concluded: “Adopting a healthy lifestyle could substantially reduce premature mortality and prolong life expectancy in US adults. Our findings suggest that the gap in life expectancy between the US and other developed countries could be narrowed by improving lifestyle factors.”

The results of the second study were:

  • Women who had a healthy lifestyle lived 11 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than women who had an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated disease-free life expectancy of 85 years versus 74 years).
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 8 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than men who had an unhealthy lifestyle (estimated disease-free life expectancy of 81 years versus 73 years).
  • Again, disease-free life expectancy increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior achieved.

The authors concluded: “Adherence to a healthy lifestyle at mid-life [They started their analysis at age 50] is associated with a longer life expectancy free of major chronic diseases. Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help reduce healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy.”

Can You Improve Your Healthspan?

Questioning ManI posed the question at the beginning of this article, “Can you improve your healthspan?” These two studies showed that you can improve both your life expectancy and your disease-free life expectancy. So, the answer to the original question appears to be, “Yes, you can improve your healthspan. You can create your personal “Fountain of Youth.”

However, as a nation we appear to be moving in the wrong direction. The percentage of US adults adhering to a healthy lifestyle has decreased from 15% in 1988-1992 to 8% in 2001-2006.

The clinical trials that these studies drew their data from were very well designed, so these are strong studies. However, like all scientific studies, they have some weaknesses, namely:

  • They looked at the association of a healthy lifestyle with life expectancy and disease-free life expectancy. Like all association studies, they cannot prove cause and effect.
  • The clinical trials they drew their data with included mostly Caucasian health professionals. The results may differ with different ethnic groups.
  • These studies did not look at the effect of a healthy lifestyle on the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. However, other studies have shown that people who were low risk for each of the 5 lifestyle factors (diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use) individually have a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s and/or dementia.

Finally, I know you have some questions, and I have answers.

Question: What about supplementation? Will it also improve my healthspan?

Answer: When the investigators analyzed the data, they found that those with the healthiest lifestyles were also more likely to be taking a multivitamin. So, they attempted to statistically eliminate any effect of supplement use on the outcomes. That means these studies cannot answer that question.

However, if you calculate your Alternate Healthy Eating Index below, you will see that most of us fall short of perfection. Supplementation can fill in the gaps.

Question: I cannot imagine myself reaching perfection in all 5 lifestyle categories? Should I even try to achieve low risk in one or two categories?

Answer: The good news is that there was a linear increase in both life expectancy and disease-free life expectancy as people went from low-risk in one category to low-risk in all 5 categories. I would encourage you to try and achieve low risk status in as many categories as possible, but very few of us, including me, achieve perfection in all 5 categories.

Question: I am past 50 already. Is it too late for me to improve my healthspan?

Answer: Diet and some of the other lifestyle behaviors were remarkably constant over 34 years in both the Nurse’s Health Study and the Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study. That means that the lifespan and healthspan benefits reported in these studies probably resulted from adhering to a healthy lifestyle for most of their adult years.

However, it is never too late to start improving your lifestyle. You may not achieve the full benefits described in these studies, but you still can add years and disease-free years to your life.

How To Calculate Your Alternative Healthy Eating Index

You can calculate your own Alternative Healthy Eating Index score by simply adding up the points you score for each food category below.

Vegetables

Count 2 points for each serving you eat per day (up to 5 servings).

One serving = 1 cup green leafy vegetables or ½ cup for all other vegetables.

Do not count white potatoes or processed vegetables like French fries or kale chips.

Fruits

Count 2½ points for each serving you eat per day (up to 4 servings).

One serving = 1 piece of fruit or ½ cup of berries.

          (do not count fruit juice or fruit incorporated into desserts or pastries). 

Whole Grains

Count 2 points for each serving you eat per day (up to 5 servings).

One serving = ½ cup whole-grain rice, bulgur and other whole grains, cereal, and pasta or 1 slice of bread.

(For processed foods like pasta and bread, the label must say 100% whole grain).

Sugary Drinks and Fruit Juice

Count 10 points if you drink 0 servings per week.

Count 5 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 0 points for 7 or more servings per week (≥1 serving per day).

One serving = 8 oz. fruit juice, sugary soda, sweetened tea, coffee drink, energy drink, or sports drink.

Nuts, Seeds and Beans

Count 10 points if you eat 7 or more servings per week (≥1 serving per day).

Count 5 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 0 points for 0 servings per week.

One serving = 1 oz. nuts or seeds, 1 Tbs. peanut butter, ½ cup beans, 3½ oz. tofu.

Red and Processed Meat

Count 10 points if you eat 0 servings per week.

Count 7 points for 3-4 servings per week (½ serving per day).

Count 3 points for 3 servings per week (1 serving per day).

Count 0 points for ≥1½ servings per day.

One serving = 1½ oz. processed meats (bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs, deli meat)

          Or 4 oz. red meat (steak, hamburger, pork chops, lamb chops, etc.)

Seafood

Count 10 points if you eat 2 servings per week.

Count 5 points for 1 serving per week.

Count 0 points for 0 servings per week.

1 serving = 4 oz.

Now that you have your total, the scoring system is:

  • 41 or higher is excellent
  • 37-40 is good
  • 33-36 is average (remember that it is average to be sick in this country)
  • 28-32 is below average
  • Below 28 is poor

Finally, for the purposes of these two studies, a score of 37 or higher was considered low risk.

The Bottom Line

Two recent studies have developed a healthy lifestyle score based on diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use. When they compared the effect of lifestyle on both lifespan (life expectancy) and healthspan (disease-free life expectancy), they reported:

  • Women who had had a healthy lifestyle lived 14 years longer than women with an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 12 years longer than men with an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Women who had a healthy lifestyle lived 11 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than women had an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • Men who had a healthy lifestyle lived 8 years longer free of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer than men who had an unhealthy lifestyle.
  • It is not necessary to achieve a perfect lifestyle. Lifespan and healthspan increased in a linear fashion for each low-risk lifestyle behavior (diet, exercise, body weight, smoking, and alcohol use) achieved.
  • These studies did not evaluate whether supplement use also affects healthspan.
    • However, if you calculate your diet with the Alternate Healthy Eating Index they use (see above), you will see that most of us fall short of perfection. Supplementation can fill in the gaps.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest that promotion of a healthy lifestyle would help reduce healthcare burdens through lowering the risk of developing multiple chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, and extending disease-free life expectancy.”

For more details, including how to calculate whether you are low risk in each of the 5 lifestyle categories, read the article above.

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

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

What Is Nutritionism?

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

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

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

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

What Is Nutritionism?

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

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

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

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

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

The essence of Michael Pollan’s message is:

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

I will discuss these points below.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does This Mean To You?

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

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

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

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

What Does The Bible Say?

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

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

Interesting.

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omega 3 Supplementation And Heart Disease Risk

How Can You Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Disease?

fish and fish oilI understand your confusion. One month the headlines say that omega 3 supplementation reduces the risk of heart disease. The next month headlines claim that omega 3 supplements are worthless. What is the truth about omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk?

Let me start by sharing the two of the most recent studies on the topic. They are both very large, well designed studies. However, the reason I selected these two studies is that they approached the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk in very different ways but came to the same conclusion.

The first study (Y Hu et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, Volume 8, Issue 19, 1 October 2019) was a meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled clinical studies looking at the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk.

The second study (Z-H Li et al, British Medical Journal, BMJ2020;368:m456) looked at the association between habitual omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk.

Each of these studies had strengths and weaknesses, but they complemented each other. The weaknesses of one study were the strengths of the other study.

How Were The Studies Done?

Clinical StudyStudy #1: The 13 studies included in the meta-analysis had a total of 127,477 participants (mean age 64, 60% male, mostly overweight) who were given either an omega-3 supplement or a placebo.

  • 40% of the participants had diabetes.
  • 72% of the participants were on cholesterol lowering drugs and a variety of other medications.
  • Participants were followed for between 3 and 7.4 years (average follow-up period was 5 years).
  • The dose of omega 3s ranged between 376 and 4,000 mg/day.

The major strengths of this study were:

  • All 13 studies included in the meta-analysis were randomized, placebo controlled clinical trials.
  • The meta-analysis had a very large number of participants (nearly 130,000), so it was possible to accurately measure even small effects of omega 3 supplementation on heart disease risk.

The major weaknesses of this study were:

  • Most of the participants were already on multiple drugs that provided many of the same benefits as omega 3s, so it was impossible to assess the full effect of omega 3 supplementation on heart disease risk.
  • The duration of the clinical trials included in this meta-analysis was short compared to the decades required for heart disease to develop.
  • Most of the participants already had heart disease or were at high risk of developing heart disease. The people in these studies were not representative of the general population.

Study #2: The data for this study were obtained from the UK Biobank study which enrolled 427,678 participants (mean age 56, 45% male) from 22 medical centers across England, Scotland, and Wales. None of the participants had been diagnosed with heart disease or cancer at the time of enrollment.

At enrollment the participants filled out a detailed online questionnaire concerning their lifestyle, diet, diseases, medications, and supplement use. Among the questions was whether they habitually used fish oil supplements (Yes or No).

  • The participants were enrolled between 2006 and 2010 and followed for an average of 9 years.
  • 31% of the participants were already taking omega 3 supplements on a regular basis at the time they enrolled in the study. This was the omega 3 supplementation group. The remaining 69% was the control group.
  • Only 10% of the participants were taking statin drugs or aspirin, probably because none of them had been diagnosed with heart disease.
  • Around 10% of the participants had high blood pressure and were taking blood pressure medications.
  • Most of the participants were slightly overweight but only 4% had diabetes.

The main strengths of this study were:

  • Very few of the participants were on medications. That means that medications did not interfere with the effect of omega 3 supplementation.
  • The participants were already using omega 3 supplements at the time of enrollment and were followed for an additional 9 years. That means that the duration of omega 3 supplement use was much longer than in the first study.
  • The participants were healthy and free of heart disease at the beginning of the study. That means that the results of this study focused more on prevention than on treatment. It also means the results are more applicable to the general population.

The main weakness of this study was:

  • It was an association study, which cannot prove cause and effect. In contrast, the first study was based on randomized, placebo controlled clinical trials, which can prove cause and effect.

In short, the weaknesses of the first study were strengths of the second study and vice-versa.

Omega 3 Supplementation And Heart Disease Risk

strong heartStudy #1: The results from the meta-analysis of randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials were that omega 3 supplementation:

  • Reduced heart attacks by 12%.
  • Reduced overall heart disease risk by 7%.
  • Reduced deaths from heart disease by 8%.
  • Because of the large number of participants included in the meta-analysis, all these reductions were highly significant.
  • The risk reduction was linearly related to the dose of omega-3s, but the study did not allow estimation of an optimal omega-3 dose.

The authors concluded: “Marine [fish oil] omega-3 supplementation lowers risk for heart attack, overall heart disease risk, and heart disease death…Risk reductions appear to be linearly related to marine omega-3 dose.”

Study #2: This study showed that regular use of omega-3 supplements:

  • Reduced deaths from all causes by 13%.
  • Reduced deaths from heart attacks by 20%.
  • Reduced deaths from all types of heart disease by 16%.
  • Because of the large number of participants, all these reductions were highly significant.
  • This study did not collect data on omega-3 dose, so the study did not allow estimation of an optimal omega-3 dose.

The authors concluded: “Habitual use of fish oil seems to be associated with a lower risk of all cause mortality and heart disease mortality…,supporting their use for the prevention of mortality from all causes and heart disease. Future studies are needed to examine the extent to which the dose of fish oil supplements influences the ability to achieve a clinically meaningful effect.”

While these studies did not provide information on the optimal omega 3 dose, a previous study concluded that an omega-3 intake of 835 mg/day or higher is needed to achieve clinically meaningful reductions in heart disease risk.

How Can You Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Disease?

Heart Healthy DietThese two studies support the value of omega 3 supplementation for reducing heart disease risk. However, while risk reductions were highly significant, the magnitude of risk reduction was relatively small. That means we should think of omega-3 supplementation as part of a holistic approach to reducing our health disease risk. It is just one piece of the puzzle.

With that in mind, here is what the American Heart Association recommends for reducing your risk of heart disease:

  • If you smoke, stop.
  • Choose good nutrition.
    • Choose a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, nontropical vegetable oils, and nuts.
    • Choose a diet that limits sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and red meats.
  • Reduce high blood cholesterol and triglycerides.
    • Reduce your intake of saturated fat, trans fat and cholesterol and get moving.
    • If diet and physical activity don’t get those numbers under control, then medication may be the next step.
  • Lower High Blood Pressure.
  • Be physically active every day.Heart Healthy Exercise
    • Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Manage diabetes.
  • Reduce stress.
  • Limit alcohol.

Add in omega-3 supplementation to these recommendations and you have a winning combination.

The Bottom Line

Two major studies have recently been published on the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease. I felt it was important to evaluate these studies together because:

  • They are both very large, well designed studies.
  • They approached the relationship between omega 3 supplementation and heart disease risk in very different ways but came to the same conclusion.
  • They complemented each other. The weaknesses of one study were the strengths of the other study.

These studies showed that omega 3 supplementation:

  • Reduced heart attacks by 12-20%.
  • Reduced overall heart disease risk by 7%.
  • Reduced deaths from heart disease by 8-16%.
  • Reduced deaths from all causes by 13%

While these studies did not provide information on the optimal omega 3 dose, a previous study concluded that an omega-3 intake of 835 mg/day or higher is needed to achieve clinically meaningful reductions in heart disease risk.

For more details and the American Heart Association recommendations on what else you can do to reduce your risk of heart disease, 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.

Could A Probiotic Supplement Make You Healthier?

What Is The Truth About Our Microbiome?

Myth BusterOur gut bacteria, often referred to as our microbiome, are a “hot” topic in today’s world. They have been in the news a lot in recent years. If you believe the headlines, the right gut bacteria can make you smarter, healthier, and cure what ails you. They appear to have almost mystical powers. Could a probiotic supplement make you healthier?

How much of this is true and how much is pure speculation? It’s hard to say. Our microbiome is incredibly complex. To make matters more confusing, the terminology used to classify our gut bacteria into groups is not consistent. It varies from study to study.

Perhaps it is time to take an unbiased look at the data and separate fact from speculation.

Could A Probiotic Supplement Make You Healthier?

Probiotic SupplementTo answer the question of whether a probiotic supplement could make you healthier, we need to differentiate between what we know is true and what we think might be true. Let’s start with what we know for certain:

  • Our gut bacteria are affected by diet. People consuming a primarily plant-based diet have different populations of gut bacteria than people consuming a primarily meat-based diet.
    • The populations of gut bacteria found in people consuming a plant-based diet are associated with better health outcomes, but associations have their limitations as discussed below.
  • Our gut bacteria are affected by exercise.
    • It’s not clear whether it is the exercise or the fitness (increased muscle mass, decreased fat mass, improved metabolism) associated with exercise that is responsible for this effect.

Most of the other claims for the effects of gut bacteria on our health are based on associations. However, associations do not prove cause and effect. For example:

  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with obesity.
    • Do our gut bacteria make us obese, or does obesity affect our gut bacteria? There is evidence to support both viewpoints.
  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with better mental health.
    • Do gut bacteria influence mental health, or does the stress associated with poor mental health influence our gut bacteria? Again, there is evidence to support both viewpoints.
  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with better health outcomes (reduction in diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure).
    • Here the question is a little different. In general, the populations of gut bacteria associated with disease reduction are produced by a healthy diet, exercise, and weight control. In this case, the question becomes: Is it the gut bacteria that caused disease reduction, or is it diet, exercise, and weight control that caused disease reduction?

To better understand these points, let’s look at four recently published studies. After reviewing those studies, I will come back to the question of whether a probiotic supplement might decrease our disease risk.

Is Our Microbiome Better Than Our Genes For Predicting Disease?

Predict DiseaseThis study (T. Tierney et al, bioRxiv, 2020) reviewed 47 studies that analyzed people’s microbiome (their gut bacteria) and their genes and asked which was better at predicting their risk of various diseases. The study focused on 13 diseases that are considered “complex” because they are caused by both genetic and environmental factors such as diet and exercise. Examples include diabetes, high blood pressure, digestive disorders, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia.

The study found that our microbiome was a better predictor of these diseases than our genes. This finding is not surprising. Our microbiome is heavily influenced by diet and other environmental factors. Our DNA sequence is not.

This study supports previous studies in suggesting that our microbiome is a better predictor of most diseases than our DNA sequence. The exception would be diseases that are clearly caused by gene mutations, such as sickle cell disease.

Does this mean our microbiome is directly influencing these diseases, or is it merely serving as a marker for diet and other environmental factors that are influencing these diseases? Nobody knows.

Does The Mediterranean Diet Support Gut Bacteria Linked To Healthy Aging?

Mediterranean dietThis study ( TS Ghosh et al, Gut, 17 February 2020) divided people aged 65-79 into two groups. One group consumed a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and fish and low in red meat and saturated fat. The other group consumed a typical western diet. After a year on the diets the gut bacteria in the microbiomes of the two groups was analyzed.

The study found that the group consuming the Mediterranean diet had an increase in gut bacteria associated with healthy aging, reduced inflammation, and reduced frailty.

The title of the paper describing this study was “Mediterranean diet intervention alters the gut microbiome in older people, reducing frailty and improving health status”. But is that true?

There is already good evidence that the Mediterranean diet improves health status. Is it the gut bacteria supported by the Mediterranean diet that were responsible for healthy aging, or were other aspects of the Mediterranean diet responsible for healthy aging? Nobody knows.

Are Low Fat Diets Healthy Because Of Their Effect On Our Microbiome?

Heart Healthy DietThis study (Y Wang et al, Gut Microbes, 21 January 2020) put participants on a low fat diet (20% fat and 66% carbohydrates), a moderate fat diet (30% fat and 56% carbohydrate) or a high fat diet (40% fat, 46% carbohydrates). To assure the accuracy of the diets, participants were provided with all foods and beverages they consumed. After 6 months on the three diets, the gut bacteria of each group were analyzed.

Note: Because all food and beverages were provided, none of the diets included sodas, added sugar, refined flour, saturated fats, or highly processed food. In short, the diets were very different than the typical low fat or low carb diets consumed by the average American.

This study found that participants consuming the high fat, low carb diet had gut bacteria associated with increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. In contrast, the low fat, high carbohydrate diet group had gut bacteria associated with decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

To understand this study, you need to reevaluate what you may have learned from Dr. Strangelove’s health blog. It is true that low fat diets in which fat has been replaced with sugar, refined flour, and highly processed low-fat foods are unhealthy. But that’s not what happened in this study.

Remember that all the food and drink the participants consumed was selected by dietitians.

When you replace the fat with whole foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, as was done in this study, you end up with a very healthy diet.

The authors talked about the importance of the “diet-gut axis” for reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, is it the gut bacteria that influenced the risk of heart disease and diabetes, or is it the diets themselves that influenced disease risk? Nobody knows.

Can Gut Bacteria Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

MicrobiomeThis study (Y Heianza et al, Journal of The American College Of Cardiology, 75: 763-772, 2019) focused on the interactions between diet, gut bacteria, and a metabolite called TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide).

Here is what we know for certain:

  • L-carnitine (found in high levels in red meat) can be converted to TMA (trimethylamine) by gut bacteria and then to TMAO in the liver.
  • The gut bacteria of meat eaters are very efficient at converting L-carnitine to TMA. Thus, meat eaters tend to have high levels of TMAO in their blood.
  • The gut bacteria of vegans and vegetarians are very inefficient at converting L-carnitine to TMA. Thus, people consuming a primarily plant-based diet tend to have low TMAO levels in their blood.

Here is what we are uncertain about:

  • High TMAO levels are associated with increased heart disease risk. However, there is no direct evidence that TMAO causes heart disease.

What made this study unique is that it measured TMAO levels in the study participants at their entrance into the study and again 10 years later. The study found:

  • Participants with the greatest increase in TMAO levels over the 10 years had a 67% increased risk of heart disease compared to participants whose TMAO levels remained constant.
  • Participants consuming a healthy, primarily plant-based diet had little or no increase in TMAO levels over 10 years. It was the participants consuming an unhealthy diet who had significant increases in their TMAO levels.

This study strengthens the association between TMAO levels and heart disease risk. Because gut bacteria are required to produce TMAO, it also strengthens the association between gut bacteria and heart disease risk. However, is it the high TMAO levels that increased heart disease risk or is it the unhealthy diet that increased heart disease risk? Nobody knows.

What Is The Truth About Our Microbiome?

MicrobiomeBy now you have probably noticed a common theme that runs through all four studies. This is also true of most published studies on our microbiome.

  • We have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets lead to improved long-term health outcomes.
  • We also have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets influence the populations of gut bacteria found in our microbiome.
  • We know the populations of gut bacteria supported by primarily plant-based diets are associated with improved health outcomes.
  • We don’t really know whether it is the gut bacteria or the diets that are responsible for the improved health outcomes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a microbiome skeptic. I think we have enough evidence to say that our gut bacteria are likely to have an important effect on our health. However, to claim that gut bacteria play a primary role in influencing our health would be pure speculation at this point.

A Cautionary Tale

HDL CHolesterolWhy do I make this point? It’s because I suspect that some in the supplement industry will be tempted to make probiotic supplements and claim they contain bacteria “known” to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. You wouldn’t need to change your diet. All you would need to do to improve your health would be to take their probiotic supplement.

Lest you be taken in by such future claims, let me share a cautionary tale.

High HDL cholesterol levels are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Exercise and weight loss increase HDL levels. However, those require work. They aren’t easy. So, pharmaceutical companies were constantly looking for ways to raise HDL levels without the hard work.

A few years ago, a pharmaceutical company discovered a drug that increased HDL levels. They thought they had discovered a wonder drug that would bring in billions of dollars. People wouldn’t need to exercise. They wouldn’t need to lose weight. All they would need to do would be to take their drug. HDL levels would go up and heart disease risk would go down.

However, when they tested their drug in a major clinical trial, it didn’t move the needle. HDL levels went up, but heart disease risk stayed the same. It turns out it was the exercise and weight loss that decreased heart disease risk, not the increase in HDL levels.

My message is simple. Even if our gut bacteria are found to play a major role in mediating the effect of diet on health outcomes, don’t assume we can take a probiotic and forget about the role of diet and exercise. Good health starts with a whole food, primarily plant-based diet and a healthy lifestyle.

The Bottom Line

Our gut bacteria, often referred to as our microbiome, are “hot”. If you believe the headlines, the right gut bacteria can make you smarter, healthier, and cure what ails you. How much of this is true and how much is pure speculation? In this article I reviewed four recent studies on diet, gut bacteria, and health outcomes. I took an unbiased look at the data and separated fact from speculation.

There was a common theme that ran through all four studies. This is also true of most published studies on our microbiome.

  • We have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets lead to improved long-term health outcomes.
  • We also have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets influence the populations of bacteria found in our gut, also known as our microbiome.
  • We know the populations of gut bacteria supported by primarily plant-based diets are associated with improved health outcomes.
  • We don’t really know whether it is the gut bacteria or the diets that are responsible for the improved health outcomes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a microbiome skeptic. I think we have enough evidence to say that our gut bacteria are likely to have an important effect on our health. However, to claim that gut bacteria play a primary role in influencing our health would be pure speculation at this point.

Why do I make this point? It’s because I suspect that some in the supplement industry will be tempted to make probiotic supplements and claim they contain bacteria “known” to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. You wouldn’t need to change your diet. All you would need to do to improve your health would be to take their probiotic supplement.

My message is simple. Even if our gut bacteria are found to play a major role in mediating the effect of diet on our health outcomes, don’t assume we can take a probiotic and forget about the role of diet and exercise. Good health starts with a whole food, primarily plant-based diet and a healthy lifestyle.

For more details, read the article above. You may be particularly interested in the cautionary tale I shared about HDL and heart disease risk.

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 The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

Vegan BurgerAmericans love their meat. In 2018 we averaged over 200 pounds of meat per person. If we just focus on beef, we eat about 54 pounds per year. That’s equivalent to four quarter pounders a week!

But we are also getting the message that too much meat, especially red meat, may be bad for us. Nearly 40% of us are trying to eat a more plant-based diet.

The problem is that we love the convenience of fast food restaurants, and we love our burgers. Plus, in the past the meatless burgers on the market were, in a word, disappointing. Their taste and texture left something to be desired. You really needed to be committed to a plant-based diet to eat them in place of a regular burger.

That all changed a few years ago with the introduction of the and new generation of meatless burgers – the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger. They had the taste and texture of a real burger, but they were completely plant-based. What wasn’t to like?

  • Both companies claimed that their meatless burgers were healthier for the planet than regular burgers. For example, Impossible Food’s mission statement is: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems. So, we’re doing something about it: We’re making meat using plants, so that we never have to use animals again”.
  • Neither company claims their burgers are healthier for you. However, because their burgers are plant-based, the almost universal assumption has been that they are healthier than regular burgers.

Since their introduction they have taken the world by storm. You can find them in almost every supermarket and in many of your favorite fast food restaurants. Now that they are omnipresent, it is perhaps time to step back and take a closer look at this new generation of meatless burgers. In this article, I will ask two questions:

  • Are they healthier for you than regular burgers?
  • Are they healthier for the planet than regular burgers?

For the sake of simplicity, I will focus on the Impossible Burger with occasional comparisons with the Beyond Burger. It is beyond the scope of this article to compare these burgers with the many other meatless burgers that are now starting to flood the marketplace.

What’s In The Impossible Burger?

  • When we think of a burger, the first thing we think of is protein. The Impossible Burger gets its protein from soy, while the Beyond Burger gets its protein from peas.

Coconut OilHowever, soy and pea protein don’t give you the mouth feel, flavor, red color, and texture of a beef burger.

  • The mouth feel of a burger comes from its saturated fat. Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger use coconut oil as their source of saturated fat.
    • Coconut oil has gained a reputation as a “healthier” saturated fat. However, as I have discussed in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, we have no long term studies on the health effects of diets high in coconut oil. We don’t really know whether it is healthier than other saturated fats.
  • The taste and color of a beef burger come from its heme content. Heme does not occur in the parts of plants we eat. However, heme is involved in nitrogen fixation, so it is found in the roots of some legumes.
    • The Impossible Burger has genetically engineered yeast to produce a type of heme called leghemoglobin that is found in soy roots. The Beyond Burger uses beet juice extract and annatto for the color and unspecified “natural flavor” for the flavor.
  • To get the texture of a beef burger, both the Impossible Burger and the Beyond Burger use maltodextrin, modified food starch, and a variety of other ingredients. They are both highly processed foods.
  • Iron is another important nutrient you expect to get from a beef burger. The Impossible Burger contains 4.5 mg of iron and the Beyond Burger contains 5.4 mg of iron.
    • However, that is only part of the story. When iron is attached to a heme molecule, it is more efficiently absorbed by our bodies. Beef burgers and the Impossible Burger contain heme iron. The Beyond Burger does not.
  • In addition, the Impossible Burger adds in the vitamins, including B12, that we would expect to get from a beef burger. The Beyond Burger does not.

What Are The Pluses Of The Impossible Burger?

thumbs upThere are some definite pluses for the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger:

  • Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are made from plant-based ingredients rather than from meat.
  • Both are cholesterol free.
  • Both contain modest amounts of fiber (3 grams for the Impossible Burger and 2 grams for the Beyond Burger), while a meat burger contains none.
  • Both are good sources of iron, and the iron in the Impossible Burger is heme-iron, which is efficiently absorbed by our bodies.

What Are The Minuses of the Impossible Burger?

thumbs downThere are, however, some definite minuses as well.

  • Both the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger are high in saturated fat. The Impossible Burger is higher in saturated fat and the Beyond Burger contains the same amount of saturated fat as a real burger. That’s important because the latest advisory of the American Heart Association warns that saturated fat increases our risk of heart disease (I have discussed this finding in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”).
    • The saturated fat in both burgers comes from coconut oil. However, as I discussed above, we don’t know whether coconut oil is better or worse for us than other saturated fats. The relevant studies have not been done.
  • Both the Impossible and Beyond burgers are high in sodium. They have almost 5-times more sodium than a beef burger.
  • The heme in red meat catalyzes the formation of N-nitroso compounds in our gut which increase the risk of colon cancer. We do not know whether the form of heme added to Impossible Burgers catalyzes the same reaction, but it is likely.
  • Both plant-based burgers are low in protein compared to a beef burger (~20 grams versus 27 grams). On the other hand, 20 grams of protein is reasonable for a single meal.
  • The plant proteins used for these burgers (soy for the Impossible Burger and pea for the Beyond Burger) are highly processed. They lack the phytonutrients found in the unprocessed proteins.
    • The isoflavones found in soy are thought to decrease the risk of cancer and osteoporosis.
    • The phytonutrients found in peas have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. They are also thought to decrease the risk of certain cancers.
  • The Impossible Burger is GMO. The leghemoglobin is produced by genetically engineered yeast, and the soy is also GMO.
  • Neither the Impossible Burger nor Beyond Burger are certified organic. Organic certification refers to how the plant was grown. Both burgers are highly processed. Many of the ingredients in both burgers came from factories, not farms.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Eating Impossible BurgerNow, it is time to return to the original question: “Is the Impossible Burger healthy for you?” Since it is plant-based, it would be easy to assume that it is healthier than a burger made from beef. However, when you look more closely, it is not clear that it is healthier.

The manufacturers of the Impossible Burger and similar burgers have gone to the laboratory and have been successful at creating meatless burgers with the taste, mouth feel, and texture of real burgers. However, these improvements have come with a price.

  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are higher in saturated fat than a beef burger. This means they may be just as likely to increase the risk of heart disease as a beef burger.
  • The Impossible Burger contains as much heme as a beef burger, which means it may be just as likely to increase the risk of cancer as a beef burger.
  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are highly processed. That means:
    • The plant proteins no longer contain the phytonutrients thought to be responsible for some of their health benefits.
    • They also don’t contain the vitamins you would expect to find associated with the plant proteins.
  • The Impossible Burger and similar burgers are not organic. Even worse, the Impossible Burger is GMO.

On balance, we can’t really assume the Impossible Burger is any healthier than the beef burgers it replaces. Plus, if you include the usual condiments and add fries and a soft drink, any slight health benefits of the Impossible Burger will be lost.

It would be much healthier to choose a bean burger. They don’t taste like beef, but many of them are quite tasty. Plus, if you do some label reading, you can find ones that use only whole, unprocessed ingredients.

For example, I looked up the Organic Sunshine brand South West Black Bean burgers. It only provides half as much protein as an Impossible Burger, but all the ingredients are organic, non-GMO, and minimally processed. Note: I am not recommending a particular brand. However, with a little research I am confident you can find a healthy meatless burger with a taste you will enjoy.

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

impossible burger good for planetNow, let’s look at the second question: “Is the Impossible Burger healthy for the planet?” The answer to this question seems obvious. As the Impossible Burger company states in their mission statement: “Animal agriculture occupies almost half the land on earth, consumes a quarter of our freshwater, and destroys our ecosystems”. It seems logical that any meatless burger would be an improvement.

If we are talking about a minimally processed black bean burger, like the one I described above, the answer is a clear yes. It is healthier for the planet. However, when you look more closely at the Impossible Burger, the answer isn’t as clear.

  • As coconut oil has increased in popularity massive areas of untouched, forested land have been cleared for coconut plantations.
    • These forested areas provide an essential ecosystem for animals and provide natural storm protection by absorbing rainwater. Therefore, coconut oil, like beef, also destroys our ecosystems.
    • In addition, many of the coconut plantations use large amounts of chemical fertilizers which contribute to phosphate pollution and algae overgrowth in lakes, rivers, and coastal ocean areas. This also degrades our environment.
  • The Impossible Burgers and similar meatless burgers contain many highly processed ingredients. Each of these ingredients imposes its own environmental burden. For example:
    • Coconut oil is often processed with hexane, which is categorized as a hazardous air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency.
    • In addition, coconut oil is primarily grown in the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. Transporting it to this country generates significant greenhouse gas emissions.
    • And, of course, coconut oil represents only one of the many highly processed ingredients in the Impossible Burger and similar meatless burgers.

In short, the Impossible Burger may be slightly healthier for the planet than a beef burger, but it is much less environmentally friendly than your typical, minimally processed, bean burger.

The Bottom Line

Two weeks ago, I wrote about recent headlines claiming that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much red meat as they like. I looked at the study behind the headlines and pointed out the many flaws in that study.

Last week I wrote about headlines claiming that red meat was just as heart healthy as white meat. I looked at the study behind the headlines and showed it was an excellent example of how the beef industry influences the design of clinical trials to minimize the health risks of red meat. It is also an example of how the media misleads and confuses the public about the effect of nutrition on their health.

What the studies I reviewed the last two weeks really showed was that very small amounts (2-3 ounces) of very lean red meat is probably OK as part of a healthy diet like the Mediterranean diet. Larger servings of fattier cuts of red meat as part of the typical American diet is problematic.

However, if you love your burgers, what are you to do? Are the meatless burgers like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger that are showing up in your favorite fast food restaurants the answer? Specifically, you are probably asking:

  • Is the Impossible Burger, and similar burgers, healthy for you?
  • Is the Impossible Burger, and similar burgers, healthy for the planet?

I looked at the composition, pluses, and minuses of this new generation of meatless burgers in this article. The bottom line is:

  • On balance, the Impossible Burger is only slightly healthier than the beef burgers it replaces. And, if you include the usual condiments and add fries and a soft drink, any slight health benefits of the Impossible Burger will be lost.

It would be much healthier to choose a bean burger. They don’t taste like beef, but many of them are quite tasty. Plus, if you do some label reading, you can find ones that are organic, non-GMO, and use only whole, unprocessed ingredients.

  • Similarly, the Impossible Burger may be slightly healthier for the planet than a beef burger, but it is much less environmentally friendly than your typical, minimally processed, bean burger.

For more details, read the article above.

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

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