Do Low Fat Diets Reduce The Risk Of Diabetes?

Why Is Nutrition So Confusing?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

EpigeneticsSometimes the professor likes to introduce you to the frontiers of nutrition. Epigenetics is such a frontier. In recent years, the hype has centered on DNA sequencing. It seems like everyone is offering to sequence your genome and tell you what kind of diet is best for you, what foods to eat, and what supplements to take. But can DNA sequencing fulfill those promises?

The problem is that DNA sequencing only tells you what genes you have. It doesn’t tell you whether those genes are active. Simply put, it doesn’t tell you whether those genes are turned on or turned off.

This is where epigenetics comes in. Epigenetics is the science of modifications that alter gene expression. In simple terms, both DNA and the proteins that bind to DNA can be modified. This does not change the DNA sequence. But these modifications can determine whether a gene is active (turned on) or inactive (turned off).

This sounds simple enough, but here is where it really gets interesting. These modifications are affected by our diet, our lifestyle (BMI and exercise), our microbiome (gut bacteria), and our environment.

In today’s “Health Tips From The Professor” I am going to share a study (CQ Lai et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 112: 1200-1211, 2020) that looks at the effect of diet (low-fat versus low-carb diets) on a particular kind of DNA modification (methylation) that affects a gene (CPT) which influences our risk for metabolic diseases (obesity, high triglycerides, low HDL, insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, and type 2 diabetes).

[Note: For simplicity I will just refer to type 2 diabetes in the rest of this article. Just be aware that whatever I say about type 2 diabetes applies to other metabolic diseases as well.]

Previous studies have shown that:

  • Methylation of the CPT gene is the only epigenetic change in the entire genome that is associated with decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • CPT gene activity regulates multiple metabolic pathways that influence the risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • High fructose and sucrose consumption increases CPT gene methylation in rats, and high fat diets suppress that methylation.

Based on those data, the authors hypothesized that carbohydrate and fat intake affect the methylation of CPT gene, which:

  • Alters the activity of the CPT gene and…
  • Affects the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Since we are talking about our diet making alterations to our DNA, we could consider this as an example of, “We are what we eat”.

Biochemistry 101: Why Is Nutrition So Confusing?

ConfusionNow it is time for my favorite topic, Biochemistry 101. Along the way you will discover why nutrition is so complicated – and so confusing.

The CPT gene codes for a protein called carnitine palmitoyltransferase or CPT. CPT transports fats into the mitochondria where they can be oxidized to generate energy. Simply put, without CPT we would be unable to utilize most of the fats we eat. And, as you might expect, CPT is not required for carbohydrate metabolism.

  • In a simple world where our DNA sequence determines our destiny, we would either have an active CPT gene or an inactive mutant version of the gene. If we had the mutant version of the CPT gene, we would be unable to use fat as an energy source.

However, we don’t live in a simple world. Epigenetic modifications alter the activity of the CPT gene. When the CPT gene is unmethylated it is fully active. Methylation inactivates the gene.

  • In a simple world, a high fat diet would activate the CPT gene so our body would be able to utilize the fat in our diet. It would do that by decreasing methylation of the gene. Conversely, a high carbohydrate, low fat diet would decrease CPT gene activity by increasing methylation of the gene.

This is the one simple prediction that works exactly as expected. 

  • In a simple world, CPT would be involved in transport of fat into our mitochondria and nothing else. In that world, the activity of the CPT gene would only affect fat metabolism.

However, we don’t live in a simple world. By mechanisms that are not completely understood, carnitine palmitoyltransferase (CPT) also influences both insulin resistance and release of insulin by our pancreas. That means the activity of the CPT gene also affects our risk of developing type 2 diabetes. 

  • In the simplest terms, we can think of diabetes as an inability to properly regulate blood sugar levels. In a simple world, that would mean that carbohydrates are the problem, and we could reduce our risk of developing diabetes by restricting our intake of carbohydrates.

However, we don’t live in a simple world. There are short-term studies supporting the effectiveness of both low carb and low fat diets at helping to control blood sugar levels. However, longer term studies generally show that only whole food, low fat diets are associated with reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In other words, healthy carbohydrates aren’t the problem. They are the solution for reducing your risk of type 2 diabetes. This isn’t intuitive. It isn’t simple. But the weight of evidence points in this direction.

[I should add the emphasis is on “healthy” carbohydrates. I am talking about diets that emphasize whole food sources of carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes), not diets loaded with sugar, refined carbohydrates, and highly processed foods.]

Confused yet? Don’t worry. The authors of this study combined all this information into a single, unifying hypothesis.

They proposed that the fat and carbohydrate content of the diet influence methylation of the CPT gene, which influences the activity of the CPT gene, which influences both fat metabolism and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Specifically, they proposed that:

  • High fat diets reduce methylation of the CPT gene. This activates the CPT gene which results in more carnitine palmitoyltransferase (CPT) being produced. This improves fat metabolism, but also increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
  • High carbohydrate, low fat diets increase methylation of the CPT gene. This inactivates the CPT gene which results in less CPT being produced. This is OK because there is little fat to be metabolized. However, it also has the advantage of reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

This can be visually represented as:Diet And CPT

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study combined the results from 3,954 selected participants in three previous clinical trials:

  • The Genetics of Lipid Lowering Drugs and Diet Network (GOLDN) study.
  • The Framingham Heart Study.
  • The REGICORE study. This study is similar in design to the Framingham Heart Study except the participants were drawn from a region of Spain.

The participants were selected based on 4 criteria:

  • The study they were in measured metabolic disease outcome.
  • The study they were in included a detailed diet analysis.
  • A DNA methylation analysis was performed on blood taken from these participants so that the methylation status of the CPT gene could be determined.
  • mRNA levels were measured for the CPT gene (This is a measure of how active the gene is. Active genes will produce lots of mRNA. Inactive genes will produce very little mRNA).

The study then analyzed the data and looked at the associations between carbohydrate and fat intake with:

  • Methylation of the CPT gene.
  • Activity of the CPT gene (measured as the amount of CPT mRNA produced by the gene).
  • Type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases.

Do Low Fat Diets Reduce The Risk Of Diabetes?

The authors systematically tested the predictions of their unifying hypothesis (To help you understand the significance of their findings, I am repeating the visual representation of their unifying hypothesis below):

Diet And CPT

  1. Methylation of the CPT gene was negatively associated with type 2 diabetes. Simply put, when the methylation of the of the CPT gene was high, the risk of type 2 diabetes was low. This confirmed the results of previous studies.

2) Carbohydrate and fat intake influenced methylation of the CPT gene. Specifically:

    • Carbohydrate intake and the ratio of carbohydrate to fat intake were positively associated with CPT methylation. Simply put, a high carbohydrate, low fat diet resulted in increased methylation of the CPT gene.
    • Fat intake was negatively associated with CPT methylation. Simply put, a high fat, low carbohydrate diet resulted in decreased methylation of the CPT gene.

3) Carbohydrate and fat intake influenced the activity of the CPT gene. Specifically:Diabetes and healthy die

    • Carbohydrate intake and the ratio of carbohydrate to fat intake was negatively associated with CPT mRNA levels (a measure of CPT gene activity). Simply put, a high carbohydrate, low fat diet resulted in lower CPT gene activity. This means the CPT gene produced less CPT. And, combined with the previous data, it also means that methylation of the CPT gene decreases its activity.
    • Fat intake was positively associated with CPT mRNA levels. Simply put, a high fat, low carbohydrate diet resulted in greater CPT gene activity. This means the CPT gene produces more CPT. And, combined with the previous data, it also means that reducing methylation of the CPT gene increases its activity.

4) CPT gene activity influenced the prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Specifically:

    • High CPT gene activity was positively associated with the risk of type 2 diabetes.
    • Low CPT gene activity was negatively associated with the risk of type 2 diabetes.

Putting this all together, as the authors had predicted,

  1. High fat, low carbohydrate diets reduce methylation of the CPT gene. This activates the CPT gene which results in more CPT being produced. This improves fat metabolism, but also increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

2) High carbohydrate, low fat diets increase methylation of the CPT gene. This results in less CPT being produced. This is OK because there is little fat to be metabolized. However, it also has the advantage of reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In short, the results of the study confirmed all the predictions of the author’s unifying hypothesis.

Putting it all together, the authors concluded, “Our results suggest that the proportion of total energy supplied by carbohydrate and fat can have a causal effect on metabolic diseases [like type 2 diabetes] via the epigenetic status (DNA methylation) of the CPT gene.” Simply put, their data suggested that high carbohydrate, low fat diets reduced the risk developing type 2 diabetes.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Peek Behind The CurtainLet me start by saying that occasionally I like to give you a peak behind the curtain and talk about emerging areas of research. We should think of this article as the beginning of an exciting new area of research rather than as a definitive study.

I should start with the disclaimer that this study looks at associations between diet, methylation of the CPT gene, and risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Associations do not prove cause and effect. This study does not prove that epigenetic changes to the CPT gene caused the reduction in type 2 diabetes risk.

High carbohydrate and high fat diets likely influence the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in other ways as well. For example, the fiber in healthy high carbohydrate diets may support friendly gut bacteria that reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

I also don’t view this study as one that settles the debate as to whether low carb or low fat diets are better for reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. It does not clinch the argument for low fat diets. Rather, this study suggests a mechanism by which low fat diets may reduce the risk of metabolic diseases.

In summary, this study does not end the debate as to whether low carb or low fat diets are best. However, it does remind us just how complex the human body is. It reminds us that simple assumptions about how foods affect our bodies may not be the correct assumptions. It also helps us understand why nutrition can be so confusing.

The Bottom Line 

In recent years, DNA sequencing has become all the rage. It seems like everyone is offering to sequence your genome and tell you what kind of diet is best for you.

The problem is that DNA sequencing only tells you what genes you have. It doesn’t tell you whether those genes are active. Simply put, it doesn’t tell you whether those genes are turned on or off.

That is where epigenetics comes in. Epigenetics is the science of modifications that alter gene expression. In simple terms, both DNA and the proteins that bind to DNA can be modified. This does not change the DNA sequence. But these modifications can determine whether a gene is active (turned on) or inactive (turned off).

Epigenetics makes nutrition more complicated, and more confusing. For example, diabetes is characterized an inability to control blood sugar levels properly. Accordingly, it seems only logical that carbohydrates, especially sugars and simple carbohydrates, are the problem.

This study showed that high carbohydrate, low fat diets cause epigenetic modifications to a gene that reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and other metabolic diseases. Conversely, high fat, low carb diets have the opposite effect.

This mechanism is consistent with multiple long-term studies showing that whole food, low fat diets reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

This study does not end the debate as to whether low carb or low fat diets are best. However, it does remind us just how complex the human body is. It reminds us that simple assumptions about how foods affect our bodies may not be the correct assumptions. It also helps us understand why nutrition can be so confusing.

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 DNA Testing Help You Lose Weight?

How Does DNA Testing Work Best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Was The Study Done?

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

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

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

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

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

Can DNA Testing Help You Lose Weight?

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

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

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

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

How Does DNA Testing Work Best?

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

There are, however, several caveats to this conclusion.

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are, however, several caveats to this conclusion.

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

For more details read the article above.

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

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

What Is Nutritionism?

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

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

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

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

What Is Nutritionism?

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

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

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

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

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

The essence of Michael Pollan’s message is:

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

I will discuss these points below.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does This Mean To You?

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

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

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

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

What Does The Bible Say?

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

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

Interesting.

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health Tips From The Professor