Can Healthy Eating Help You Lose Weight?

Who Benefits Most From A Healthy Diet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

fad dietsFad diets abound. High protein, low carb, low fat, vegan, keto, paleo – the list is endless. They all claim to be backed by scientific studies showing that you lose weight, lower your cholesterol and triglycerides, lower your blood pressure, and smooth out your blood sugar swings.

They all claim to be the best. But any reasonable person knows they can’t all be the best. Someone must be lying.

My take on this is that fad diet proponents are relying on “smoke and mirrors” to make their diet look like the best. I have written about this before, but here is a brief synopsis:

  • They compare their diet with the typical American diet.
    • Anything looks good compared to the typical American diet.
    • Instead, they should be comparing their diet with other weight loss diets. That is the only way we can learn which diet is best.
  • They are all restrictive diets.
    • Any restrictive diet will cause you to eat fewer calories and to lose weight.
    • As little as 5% weight loss results in lower cholesterol & triglycerides, lower blood pressure, and better control of blood sugar levels.

Simply put, any restrictive diet will give you short-term weight loss and improvement in blood parameters linked to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. But are these diets healthy long term? For some of them, the answer is a clear no. Others are unlikely to be healthy but have not been studied long term. So, we don’t know whether they are healthy or not.

What if you started from the opposite perspective? Instead of asking, “Is a diet that helps you lose weight healthy long term?”, what if you asked, “Can healthy eating help you lose weight?” The study (S Schutte et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 115: 1-18, 2022) I will review this week asked that question.

More importantly, it was an excellent study. It compared a healthy diet to an unhealthy diet with exactly the same degree of caloric restriction. And it compared both diets to the habitual diet of people in that area. This study was performed in the Netherlands, so both weight loss diets were compared to the habitual Dutch diet.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyThis was a randomized controlled trial, the gold standard of clinical studies. The investigators recruited 100 healthy, abdominally obese men and women aged 40-70. At the time of entry into the study none of the participants:

  • Had diabetes.
  • Smoked
  • Had a diagnosed medical condition.
  • Were on a medication that interfered with blood sugar control.
  • Were on a vegetarian diet.

The participants were randomly assigned to:

  • A high-nutrient quality diet that restricted calories by 25%.
  • A low-nutrient-quality diet that restricted calories by 25%.
  • Continue with their habitual diet.

The study lasted 12 weeks. The participants met with a dietitian on a weekly basis. The dietitian gave them the foods for the next week and monitored their adherence to their assigned diet. They were advised not to change their exercise regimen during the study.

At the beginning and end of the study the participants were weighed, and cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure were measured.

Can Healthy Eating Help You Lose Weight?

Vegetarian DietTo put this study into context, these were not healthy and unhealthy diets in the traditional sense.

  • Both were whole food diets.
  • Both included fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean meats.
  • Both restricted calories by 25%.

The diets were designed so that the “high-nutrient quality” diet had significantly more plant protein (in the form of soy protein), fiber, healthy fats (monounsaturated and omega-3 fats), and significantly less fructose and other simple sugars than the “low-nutrient-quality” diet.

At the end of 12 weeks:

  • Participants lost significant weight on both calorie-restricted diets compared to the group that continued to eat their habitual diet.
    • That is not surprising. Any diet that successfully restricts calories will result in weight loss.
  • Participants on the high-nutrient quality diet lost 33% more weight than participants on the low-nutrient-quality diet (18.5 pounds compared to 13.9 pounds).
  • Participants on the high-nutrient quality diet lost 50% more inches in waist circumference than participants on the low-nutrient-quality diet (1.8 inches compared to 1.2 inches).
    • This is a direct measure of abdominal obesity.

When the investigators measured blood pressure, fasting total cholesterol levels, and triglyceride levels:Heart Healthy Diet

  • These cardiovascular risk factors were significantly improved on both diets.
    • Again, this would be expected. Any diet that causes weight loss results in an improvement in these parameters.
  • The reduction in total serum cholesterol was 2.5-fold greater and the reduction in triglycerides was 2-fold greater in the high-nutrient quality diet group than in the low-nutrient-quality diet group.
  • The reduction in systolic blood pressure was 2-fold greater and the reduction in diastolic blood pressure was 1.67-fold greater in the high-nutrient quality diet group than in the low-nutrient-quality diet group.

The authors concluded, “Our results demonstrate that the nutrient composition of an energy-restricted diet is of great importance for improvements of metabolic health in an overweight, middle-aged population. A high-nutrient quality energy-restricted diet enriched with soy protein, fiber, monounsaturated fats, omega-3 fats, and reduced in fructose provided additional health benefits over a low-nutrient quality energy-restricted diet, resulting in greater weight loss…and promoting an antiatherogenic blood lipid profile.”

In short, participants in this study lost more weight and had a better improvement in risk factors for heart disease on a high-nutrient-quality diet than on a low-nutrient-quality diet. Put another way, healthy eating helped them lose weight and improved their health.

Who Benefits Most From A Healthy Diet?

None of the participants in this study had been diagnosed with diabetes when the study began. However, all of them were middle-aged, overweight, and had abdominal obesity. That means many of them likely had some degree of insulin resistance.

Because of some complex metabolic studies that I did not describe, the investigators suspected that insulin resistance might influence the relative effectiveness of the two energy-restricted diets.

To test this hypothesis, they used an assay called HOMA-IR (homeostatic model assessment of insulin resistance). Simply put, this assay measures how much insulin is required to keep your blood sugar under control.

They used a HOMA-IR score of 2.5 to categorize insulin resistance among the participants.

  • Participants with a HOMA-IR score >2.5 were categorized as insulin-resistant. This was 55% of the participants.
  • Participants with a HOMA-IR score ≤2.5 were categorized as insulin-sensitive. This was 45% of the participants.

When they used this method to categorize participants they found:

  • Insulin-resistant individual lost about the same amount of weight on both diets.
  • Insulin-sensitive individuals lost 66% more weight on the high-nutrient-quality diet than the low-nutrient-quality diet (21.6 pounds compared to 13.0 pounds).

The investigators concluded, “Overweight, insulin-sensitive subjects may benefit more from a high- than a low-nutrient-quality energy-restricted diet with respect to weight loss…”

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanSimply put this study confirms that:

  • Caloric restriction leads to weight loss, and…
  • Weight loss leads to improvement in cardiovascular risk factors like total cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure.
    • This is not new.
    • This is true for any diet that results in caloric restriction.

This study breaks new ground in that a high-nutrient quality diet results in significantly better:

  • Weight loss and…
  • Reduction in cardiovascular risk factors…

…than a low-nutrient quality diet. As I said above, the distinction between a “high-nutrient-quality” diet and a “low-nutrient-quality” diet may not be what you might have expected.

  • Both diets were whole food diets. Neither diet allowed sodas, sweets, and highly processed foods.
  • Both included fruits, vegetables, grains, and lean meats.
  • Both reduced caloric intake by 25%.
    • If you want to get the most out of your weight loss diet, this is a good place to start.

In this study the investigators designed their “high-nutrient-quality” diet so that it contained:

  • More plant protein in the form of soy protein.
    • In this study they did not reduce the amount of animal protein in the “high-nutrient-quality” diet. They simply added soy protein foods to the diet. I would recommend substituting soy protein for some of the animal protein in the diet.
  • More fiber.
    • The additional fiber came from substituting whole grain breads and brown rice for refined grain breads and white rice, adding soy protein foods, and adding an additional serving of fruit.
  • More healthy fats (monounsaturated and omega-3 fats).
    • The additional omega-3s came from adding a fish oil capsule providing 700mg of EPA and DHA.
  • Less simple sugars. While this study focused on fructose, their high-nutrient-quality diet was lower in all simple sugars.

ProfessorAll these changes make great sense if you are trying to lose weight. I would distill them into these 7 recommendations.

  • Follow a whole food diet. Avoid sodas, sweets, and highly processed foods.
  • Include all 5 food groups in your weight loss diet. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and lean proteins all play an important role in your long-term health.
  • Eat a primarily plant-based diet. My recommendation is to substitute plant proteins for at least half of your high-fat animal proteins. And this study reminds us that soy protein foods are a convenient and effective way to achieve this goal.
  • Eat a diet high in natural fibers. Including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, and soy foods in your diet is the best way to achieve this goal.
  • Substitute healthy fats (monounsaturated and omega-3 fats) for unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats) in your diet. And this study reminds us that it is hard to get enough omega-3s in your diet without an omega-3 supplement.
  • Reduce the amount of added sugar, especially fructose, from your diet. That is best achieved by eliminating sodas, sweets, and highly processed foods from the diet. I should add that fructose in fruits and some healthy foods is not a problem. For more information on that topic, I refer you to a previous “Health Tips” article .
  • Finally, I would like to remind you of the obvious. No diet, no matter how healthy, will help you lose weight unless you cut back on calories. Fad diets achieve that by restricting the foods you can eat. In the case of a healthy diet, the best way to do it is to cut back on portion sizes and choose foods with low caloric density.

I should touch briefly on the third major conclusion of this study, namely that the “high-nutrient quality diet” was not more effective than the “low-nutrient-quality” diet for people who were insulin resistant. In one sense, this was not news. Previous studies have suggested that insulin-resistant individuals have more difficulty losing weight. That’s the bad news.

However, there was a silver lining to this finding as well:

  • Only around half of the overweight, abdominally obese adults in this study were highly insulin resistant.
    • That means there is a ~50% chance that you will lose more weight on a healthy diet.
  • Because both diets restricted calories by 25%, insulin-resistant individuals lost weight on both diets.
    • That means you can lose weight on any diet that successfully reduces your caloric intake. That’s the good news.
    • However, my recommendation would still be to choose a high-nutrient quality diet that is designed to reduce caloric intake, because that diet is more likely to be healthy long term.

The Bottom Line 

A recent study asked, “Can healthy eating help you lose weight?” This study was a randomized controlled study, the gold standard of clinical studies. The participants were randomly assigned to:

  • A high-nutrient quality diet that restricted calories by 25%.
  • A low-nutrient-quality diet that restricted calories by 25%.
  • Continue with their habitual diet.

These were not healthy and unhealthy diets in the traditional sense.

  • Both were whole food diets.
  • Both included fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean meats.
  • Both restricted calories by 25%.

The diets were designed so that the “high-nutrient quality” diet had significantly more plant protein (in the form of soy protein), fiber, healthy fats (monounsaturated and omega-3 fats), and significantly less fructose and other simple sugars than the “low-nutrient-quality” diet.

At the end of 12 weeks:

  • Participants on the high-nutrient quality diet lost 33% more weight than participants on the low-nutrient-quality diet (18.5 pounds compared to 13.9 pounds).

When the investigators measured cardiovascular risk factors at the end of 12 weeks:

  • The reduction in total serum cholesterol was 2.5-fold greater and the reduction in triglycerides was 2-fold greater in the high-nutrient quality diet group than in the low-nutrient-quality diet group.
  • The reduction in systolic blood pressure was 2-fold greater and the reduction in diastolic blood pressure was 1.67-fold greater in the high-nutrient quality diet group than in the low-nutrient-quality diet group.

The authors concluded, “Our results demonstrate that the nutrient composition of an energy-restricted diet is of great importance for improvements of metabolic health in an overweight, middle-aged population. A high-nutrient quality energy-restricted diet enriched with soy protein, fiber, monounsaturated fats, omega-3 fats, and reduced in fructose provided additional health benefits over a low-nutrient quality energy-restricted diet, resulting in greater weight loss…and promoting an antiatherogenic blood lipid profile.”

In short, participants in this study lost more weight and had a better improvement in risk factors for heart disease on a high-nutrient-quality diet than on a low-nutrient-quality diet. Put another way, healthy eating helped them lose weight and improved their health.

For more details on this study, what this study means for you, and my 7 recommendations for a healthy weight loss diet, 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 Diet Protect Your Mind?

Which Diet Is Best?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

can diet prevent alzheimer'sAlzheimer’s is a scary disease. There is so much to look forward to in our golden years. We want to enjoy the fruits of our years of hard work. We want to enjoy our grandkids and perhaps even our great grandkids. More importantly, we want to be able to pass on our accumulated experiences and wisdom to future generations.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have the potential to rob us of everything that makes life worth living. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia don’t happen overnight. The first symptoms of cognitive decline are things like forgetting names, where you left things, what you did last week. For most people it just keeps getting worse.

Can diet protect your mind? Recent studies have given us a ray of hope. For example, several meta-analyses have shown that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a 25-48% lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

However, there were several limitations to the studies included in these meta-analyses. For example:

  • For most of the studies the diet was assessed only at the beginning of the study. We have no idea whether the participants followed the same diet throughout the study. This means, we cannot answer questions like:
    • What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet?
    • Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet?
  • These studies focused primarily on the Mediterranean diet. This leaves the question:
    • What about other healthy diets? Is there something unique about the Mediterranean diet, or do other healthy diets also reduce the risk of cognitive decline?

This study (C Yuan et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 115: 232-243, 2022) was designed to answer those questions.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyThe investigators utilized data from The Nurse’s Health Study. They followed 49,493 female nurses for 30 years from 1984 to 2014. The average age of the nurses in 1984 was 48 years, and none of them had symptoms of cognitive decline at the beginning of the study.

The nurse’s diets were analyzed in 1984, 1986, and every 4 years afterwards until 2006. Diets were not analyzed during the last 8 years of the study to eliminate something called “reverse causation”. Simply put, the investigators were trying to eliminate the possibility that participants in the study might change their diet because they were starting to notice symptoms of cognitive decline.

The data from the dietary analyses were used to calculate adherence to 3 different healthy diets:

  • The Mediterranean diet.
  • The DASH diet. The DASH diet was designed to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. But you can think of it as an Americanized version of the Mediterranean diet.
  • The diet recommended by the USDA. Adherence to this diet is evaluated by something called the Alternative Healthy Eating Index or AHEI.

Adherence to each diet was calculated by giving a positive score to foods that were recommended for the diet and a negative score for foods that were not recommended for the diet. For more details, read the article.

In 2012 and 2014 the nurses were asked to fill out questionnaires self-assessing the early stages of cognitive decline. They were asked if they had more trouble than usual:

  • Remembering recent events or remembering a short list of items like a grocery list (measuring memory).
  • Understanding things, following spoken instructions, following a group conversation, or following a plot in a TV program (measuring executive function).
  • Remembering things from one second to the next (measuring attention).
  • Finding ways around familiar streets (measuring visuospatial skills).

The extent of cognitive decline was calculated based on the number of yes answers to these questions.

Can Diet Protect Your Mind?

Vegan FoodsHere is what the investigators found when they analyzed the data:

At the beginning of the study in 1984 there were 49,493 female nurses with an average age of 48. None of them had symptoms of cognitive decline.

  • By 2012-2014 (average age = 76-78) 46.9% of them had cognitive decline and 12.3% of them had severe cognitive decline.

Using the data on dietary intake and the rating systems specific to each of the diets studied, the investigators divided the participants into thirds based on their adherence to each diet. The investigators then used these data to answer two important questions that no previous study had answered:

#1: What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet? To answer this question the investigators averaged the dietary data obtained every 4 years between 1984 and 2006 to obtain cumulative average scores for adherence to each diet. When the investigators compared participants with the highest adherence to various healthy diets for 30 years to participants with the lowest adherence to those diets, the risk of developing severe cognitive decline was decreased by:

  • 40% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 32% for the DASH diet.
  • 20% for the USDA-recommended healthy diet (as measured by the AHEI score).

#2: Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet? To answer this question, the investigators looked at participants who started with the lowest adherence to each diet and improved to the highest adherence by the end of the study. This study showed that improving from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet over 30 years decreased the risk of developing severe cognitive decline by:

  • 20% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 25% for the DASH diet.

There were a few other significant observations from this study.

  • The inverse association between healthy diets and risk of cognitive decline was greater for nurses who had high blood pressure.
    • This is an important finding because high blood pressure increases the risk of cognitive decline.
  • The inverse association between healthy diets and risk of cognitive decline was also greater for nurses who did not have the APOE-ɛ4 gene.
    • This illustrates the interaction of diet and genetics. The APOE-ɛ4 gene increases the risk of cognitive decline. Healthy diets reduced the risk of cognitive decline in nurse with the APOE-ɛ4 gene but not to the same extent as for nurses without the gene.

This study did not investigate the mechanism by which healthy diets reduced the risk of cognitive decline, but the investigators speculated it might be because these diets:

  • Were anti-inflammatory.
  • Supported the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

The investigators concluded, “Our findings support the beneficial roles of long-term adherence to the [Mediterranean, DASH, and USDA] dietary patterns for maintaining cognition in women…Further, among those with initially relatively low-quality diets, improvement in diet quality was associated with a lower likelihood of developing severe cognitive decline. These findings indicate that improvements in diet quality in midlife and later may have a role in maintenance of cognitive function among women.”

Which Diet Is Best?

Mediterranean Diet FoodsIn a sense this is a trick question. That’s because this study did not put the participants on different diets. It simply analyzed the diets the women were eating in different ways. And while the algorithms they were using were diet-specific, there was tremendous overlap between them. For more specifics on the algorithms used to estimate adherence to each diet, read the article.

That is why the investigators concluded that all three diets they analyzed reduced the risk of cognitive decline rather than highlighting a specific diet. However, based on this and numerous previous studies the evidence is strongest for the Mediterranean and DASH diets.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the MIND diet. While it was not included in this study, the MIND diet:

  • Was specifically designed to reduce cognitive decline.
  • Can be thought of as a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Includes data from studies on the mind-benefits of individual foods. For example, it recommends berries rather than all fruits.

The MIND diet has not been as extensively studied as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, but there is some evidence that it may be more effective at reducing cognitive decline than either the Mediterranean or DASH diets alone.

Which Foods Are Best?

AwardThe authors of this study felt it was more important to focus on foods rather than diets. This is a better approach because we eat foods rather than diets. With that in mind they analyzed their data to identify the foods that prevented cognitive decline and the foods increased cognitive decline. This is what they found:

  • Fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) reduced the risk of cognitive decline.
  • Red and processed meats, omega-6 fatty acids (most vegetable oils), and trans fats increased the risk of cognitive decline.

While this study did not specifically look at the effect of processed foods on cognitive decline, diets high in the mind-healthy foods listed above are generally low in sodas, sweets, and highly processed foods.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Question MarkThe question, “Can diet protect your mind”, is not a new one. Several previous studies have suggested that healthy diets reduce the risk of cognitive decline, but this study breaks new ground. It shows for the first time that:

  • Long-term adherence to a healthy diet can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by up to 40%.
    • This was a 30-year study, so we aren’t talking about “diet” in the traditional sense. We aren’t talking about short-term diets to drop a few pounds. We are talking about a life-long change in the foods we eat.
  • If you currently have a lousy diet, it’s not too late to change. You can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by switching to a healthier diet.
    • This is perhaps the best news to come out of this study.

Based on current evidence, the best diets for protecting against cognitive decline appear to be the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets.

And if you don’t like restrictive diets, my advice is to:

  • Eat more fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil).
  • Eat less red and processed meats, omega-6 fatty acids (most vegetable oils), and trans fats.
  • Eat more plant foods and less animal foods.
  • Eat more whole foods and less sodas, sweets, and processed foods.

And, of course, a holistic approach is always best. Other lifestyle factors that help reduce your risk of cognitive decline include:

  • Regular exercise.
  • Weight control.
  • Socialization.
  • Memory training (mental exercises).

The Bottom Line 

Alzheimer’s is a scary disease. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

A recent study looked at the effect of diet on cognitive decline in women. The study started with middle-aged women (average age = 48) and followed them for 30 years. The investigators then used these data to answer two important questions that no previous study had answered:

#1: What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet? When the investigators compared participants with the highest adherence to various healthy diets for 30 years to participants with the lowest adherence to those diets, the risk of developing severe cognitive decline was decreased by:

  • 40% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 32% for the DASH diet.
  • 20% for the USDA recommendations for a healthy diet.

#2: Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet? This study showed that improving from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet over 30 years decreased the risk of developing severe cognitive decline by:

  • 20% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 25% for the DASH diet.

The investigators concluded, “Our findings support the beneficial roles of long-term adherence to the [Mediterranean, DASH, and USDA] dietary patterns for maintaining cognition in women…Further, among those with initially relatively low-quality diets, improvement in diet quality was associated with a lower likelihood of developing severe cognitive decline. These findings indicate that improvements in diet quality in midlife and later may have a role in maintenance of cognitive function among women.”

For more details on the study, which diets, and which foods are best for protecting your mind, and what this study means for you, read the article above.

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

How Much Omega-3s Do Children Need?

What Does This Study Mean For Your Children?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

It is back to school time again. If you have children, you are probably rushing around to make sure they are ready.

  • Backpack…Check.
  • Books…Check
  • School supplies…Check
  • Omega-3s…???

Every parent wants their child to do their best in school. But do they need omega-3s to do their best? I don’t need to tell you that question is controversial.

Some experts claim that omega-3 supplementation in children improves their cognition. [Note: Cognition is defined as the mental action or process of acquiring knowledge and understanding through thought, experience, and the senses. In layman’s terms that means your child’s ability to learn.]

Other experts point out that studies in this area disagree. Some studies support these claims. Others don’t. Because the studies disagree these experts conclude there is no good evidence to support omega-3 supplementation in children.

The authors of this study (ISM van der Wurff et al, Nutrients, 12: 3115, 2020) took a different approach. They asked why these studies disagreed. They hypothesized that previous studies disagreed because there is a minimal dose of omega-3s needed to achieve cognitive benefits in children. In short, they were asking how much omega-3s do children need.

They based their hypothesis on recent studies showing that a minimum dose of omega-3s is required to show heart health benefits in adults.

What Have We Learned From Studies on Omega-3s And Heart Health?

Omega-3s And Heart DiseaseThe breakthrough in omega-3/heart health studies came with the development of something called the omega-3 index. Simply put, omega-3s accumulate in our cell membranes. The omega-3 index is the percent omega-3s in red blood cell membranes and is a good measure of our omega-3 status.

Once investigators began measuring the omega-3 index in their studies and correlating it with heart health, it became clear that:

  • An omega-3 index of ≤4% correlated with a high risk of heart disease.
  • An omega-3 index of ≥8% correlated with a low risk of heart disease.
  • Most Americans have an omega-3 index in the 4-6% range.
  • Clinical studies in which participants’ omega-3 index started in the low range and increased to ~8% through supplementation generally showed a positive effect of omega-3s on reducing heart disease risk. [I say generally because there are other factors in study design that can obscure the effect of omega-3s.]

This is the model that the authors adopted for their study. They asked how much omega-3s do children need to show a positive effect of omega-3s on their cognition (ability to learn).

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe authors included 21 studies in their analysis that met the following criteria:

  • All studies were placebo controlled randomized clinical trials.
  • The participants were 4-25 years old and had not been diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Supplementation was with the long-chain omega-3s DHA and/or EPA.
  • The trial assessed the effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition.

I do not want to underestimate the difficulties the authors faced in their quest. The individual studies differed in:

  • The dose of omega-3s.
    • The relative amount of DHA and EPA.
    • Whether omega-3 index was measured. Only some of the studies measured fatty acid levels in the blood. The authors were able to calculate the omega-3 index in these studies.
  • How cognition (ability to learn) was measured.
  • The age of the children.
    • 20 of the studies were done with children (4-12 years old) or late adolescents (20-25 years old).
    • Only one study was done on early to middle adolescents (12-20 years old).
  • All these variables influence the outcome and could obscure the effect of omega-3s on cognition.

In short, determining the omega-3 dose-response for an effect on cognition was a monumental task. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack. These authors did a remarkable job.

How Much Omega-3s Do Children Need?

Child Raising HandHere is what the scientists found when they analyzed the data:

  • 60% of the studies in which an omega-3 index of ≥6% was achieved showed a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition (ability to learn) compared to 20% of the studies that did not achieve an omega-3 index of 6%.
    • That is a 3-fold difference in effectiveness once a threshold of 6% omega-3 index was reached.
  • 50% of the studies in which a dose of ≥ 450 mg/day of DHA + EPA was used showed a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition (ability to learn) compared to 25% of the studies that used <450 mg/day DHA + EPA.
    • That is a 2-fold difference in effectiveness once a threshold of 450 mg/day DHA + EPA was given.

The authors concluded, “Daily supplementation of ≥450 mg/day DHA and/or EPA and an increase in the omega-3 index to >6% makes it more likely to show efficacy [of omega-3s] on cognition (ability to learn) in children and adolescents.”

What Does This Study Tell Us?

Question MarkIt is important to understand what this study does and does not tell us.

This study does not:

  • Prove that omega-3 supplementation can improve cognition (ability to learn) in children and adolescents.
  • Define optimal levels of DHA + EPA.
  • Tell us whether DHA, EPA, or a mixture is better.

It was not designed to do any of these things. It was designed to give us a roadmap for future studies. It tells us how to design studies that can provide definitive answers to these questions.

This study does:

  • Define a threshold dose of DHA + EPA for future studies (450 mg/day).
  • Tells us how to best use the omega-3 index in future studies. To obtain meaningful results:
    • Participants should start with an omega-3 index of 4% or less.
    • Participants should end with an omega-3 index of 6% or greater.
  • In my opinion, future studies would also be much more effective if scientists in this area of research could agree on a single set of cognitive measures to be used in all subsequent studies.

In short, this study provides critical information that can be used to design future studies that will be able to provide definitive conclusions about omega-3s and cognition in children.

What Does This Study Mean For Your Children?

child geniusAs a parent or grandparent, you probably aren’t interested in optimizing the design of future clinical studies. You want answers now.

Blood tests for omega-3 index are available, but they are not widely used. And your insurance may not cover them.

So, for you the most important finding from this study is that 450 mg/day DHA + EPA appears to be the threshold for improving a child’s cognition (their ability to learn).

  • 450 mg/day is not an excessive amount. The NIH defines adequate intakes for omega-3s as follows:
  • 4-8 years: 800 mg/day
  • 9-13 years: 1 gm/day for females, 1.2 gm/day for males
  • 14-18 years: 1.1 gm/day for females and 1.6 gm/day for males.
  • With at least 10% of that coming from DHA + EPA

Other organizations around the world recommend between 100 mg/day and 500 mg/day DHA + EPA depending on the age and weight of the child and the organization.

  • Most children need supplementation to reach adequate omega-3 intake. The NIH estimates the average child only gets around 40 mg/day omega-3s from their diet. No matter which recommendation you follow, it is clear that most children are not getting the recommended amount of DHA + EPA in their diet.
  • Genetics.
  • Diet.
  • Environment.
  • The value placed on learning by parents and peers.

Supplementation is just one factor in your child’s ability to learn. But it is one you can easily control. . And if your child is like most, he or she is probably not getting enough omega-3s in their diet.

The Bottom Line 

It is back to school time again. Every parent wants their child to do their best in school. But do they need omega-3s to do their best? I don’t need to tell you that question is controversial.

Some studies support these claims, but others don’t. Because the studies disagree some experts conclude there is no good evidence to support omega-3 supplementation in children.

The authors of a recent study took a different approach. They asked why these studies disagreed. They hypothesized that previous studies disagreed because there was a minimal dose of omega-3s needed to achieve cognitive benefits in children. They asked how much omega-3s children need.

They analyzed the data from 21 previous studies looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition (ability to learn) in children and adolescents. Their analysis showed:

  • 60% of the studies in which an omega-3 index of ≥6% was achieved showed a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition (ability to learn) compared to 20% of the studies that did not achieve an omega-3 index of 6%.
    • That is a 3-fold difference in effectiveness once a threshold of 6% omega-3 index was reached.
  • 50% of the studies in which a dose of ≥ 450 mg/day of DHA + EPA was used showed a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation on cognition (ability to learn) compared to 25% of the studies that used <450 mg/day DHA + EPA.
    • That is a 2-fold difference in effectiveness once a threshold dose of 450 mg/day DHA + EPA was given.

The authors concluded, “Daily supplementation of ≥450 mg/day DHA + EPA and an increase in the omega-3 index to >6% makes it more likely to show efficacy [of omega-3s] on cognition (ability to learn) in children and adolescents.”

For more details on the study and what it means for your children and grandchildren, 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-3s And Congestive Heart Failure

We Have Been Asking The Wrong Questions 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Confusion Clinical StudiesToday’s Health Tip is a follow-up to the article I published last month on omega-3s and heart disease risk. In that article I pointed out the reasons why studies of the effect of omega-3s and heart disease risk have been so confusing.

One of the reasons is that many of the studies have been asking the wrong questions.

  • They were asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of heart disease for everyone. Instead, they should have been asking who benefited from omega-3 supplementation.
  • They were asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of all forms of heart disease combined. Instead, they should have been asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of specific kinds of heart disease.

I also discussed a large clinical trial, the VITAL study, that was designed to answer those two questions.

The study I will describe today (L Djoussé et al, JACC Heart Failure, 10: 227-234, 2022) mined the data from the VITAL study to evaluate the effect of omega-3 supplementation on congestive heart failure, a form of heart disease that was not discussed in the VITAL study.

Everything You Need To Know About Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive Heart FailureCongestive heart failure is a killer. The term congestive heart failure simply means that your heart no longer pumps blood well. The initial symptoms are relatively non-specific and include things like.

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Fatigue and weakness.
  • Reduced ability to exercise.
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat.
  • Persistent cough or wheezing.

However, as it progresses, the symptoms get much worse. Fluid builds up in your tissues.

  • Fluid buildup in your legs, ankles, and feet can make it difficult to walk.
  • Fluid buildup in your lungs makes it difficult to breathe. In advanced stages it can feel like you are drowning in a room full of air.

According to the CDC:

  • 4 million Americans have congestive heart failure (CHF).
    • It leads to ~380,000 deaths/year.
  • 83% of patients diagnosed with CHF will be hospitalized at least once.
    • 67% will be hospitalized two or more times.
  • CHF costs >$30 billion per year in health care costs and lost wages.

The risk of congestive heart failure is not spread evenly across the American population. Black Americans and Americans with type 2 diabetes are at increased risk.

According to the Framingham Heart Study:

  • Type 2 diabetes increases the risk of CHF 2-fold in men and 5-fold in women. The reasons are not entirely clear. However:
    • High blood sugar is thought to either damage cells in heart muscle, weakening it, or damage small blood vessels within the heart, making it more difficult for the heart to pump blood.
    • Some diabetes drugs that lower blood sugar also appear to increase the risk of congestive heart failure.

According to the CDC:

  • Black Americans are 2-fold more likely to develop CHF than White Americans. Again, the reasons are not clear. However:
    • Some experts feel it could be due to the higher incidence of untreated high blood pressure in Black Americans.

In summary:

  • Congestive heart failure is a serious disease. Its symptoms affect your quality of life, and it can lead to hospitalizations and death.
  • Black Americans and Americans with type 2 diabetes are at higher risk of developing congestive heart failure.

How Was The Study Done?

The VITAL study, from which these data were extracted, was a placebo-controlled clinical trial designed to measure the effects of 1,000 mg omega-3 supplementation on the risk of developing heart disease. It enrolled 25,871 Americans aged 55 years or older and followed them for an average of 5.3 years.

The participants enrolled in the VITAL study represented a cross-section of the American population. Most were at low risk of heart disease, but there were subsets of the study group who were at higher risk of heart disease. A strength of the VITAL study was that it was designed so the high-risk subgroups could be evaluated separately.

The current study utilized data from the VITAL study to look at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on hospitalizations due to congestive heart failure. It also evaluated the effect of type 2 diabetes and race on the risk of hospitalizations.

Omega-3s And Congestive Heart Failure

Omega-3s And Heart DiseaseWhen the investigators looked at the whole population, most of whom were at low-risk of congestive heart failure, they did not see any effect of omega-3 supplementation on the risk of hospitalizations due to congestive heart failure.

However, when they looked at high risk groups, the story was much different.

In patients with type-2 diabetes:

  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced the risk of the initial hospitalization for congestive heart failure by 31%
  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced the risk of multiple hospitalizations due to congestive heart failure by 47%.

The effect of omega-3 supplementation on hospitalizations was greatest for the Black participants in the study.

In the words of the authors, “Our data show beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acid supplements on the incidence of heart failure hospitalizations in participants with type 2 diabetes but not in those without type 2 diabetes, and such benefit appeared to be stronger in Black participants with type 2 diabetes.”

We Are Asking The Wrong Questions

ScientistAs I said above, there is so much confusion about the effect of omega-3s on heart disease because we scientists have been asking the wrong questions:

  • We have been asking whether omega-3s reduce the risk of heart disease for everyone. Instead, we should have been asking who benefits from omega-3 supplementation.
  • We have been asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of all forms of heart disease combined. Instead, we should have been asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of specific kinds of heart disease.

In my “Health Tip” last month I discussed a large clinical study, the VITAL study, that was specifically designed to answer the right questions. Like so many other studies it found that omega-3 supplementation did not significantly reduce the risk of all kinds of heart disease for everyone.

However, what it did find was more important than what it did not find:

  • When they looked at the effect of omega-3s on heart disease risk in high-risk groups, they found that major cardiovascular events were reduced by:
    • 26% in African Americans.
    • 26% in patients with type 2 diabetes.
    • 17% in patients with a family history of heart disease.
    • 19% in patients with two or more risk factors of heart disease.
  • When they looked at the effect of omega-3s on heart disease risk in people with low omega-3 intake, they found that omega-3 supplementation reduced major cardiovascular events by:
    • 19% in patients with low fish intake.
  • When they looked at the effect of omega-3s on the risk of different forms of heart disease, they found that omega-3 supplementation reduced:
    • Heart attacks by 28% in the general population and by 70% for African Americans.
    • Deaths from heart attacks by 50%.
    • Deaths from coronary heart disease (primarily heart attacks and ischemic strokes (strokes caused by blood clots)) by 24%.

In other words, when they asked the wrong questions, they got the wrong answer. If they had just looked at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on all forms of heart disease for everyone (like most other omega-3 studies), they would have concluded that omega-3s are worthless.

However, when they asked the right questions, they found that omega-3s were very beneficial for high-risk populations and for certain types of heart disease.

The current study utilized the same data to analyze the effect of omega-3 supplementation on hospitalizations due to congestive heart failure. And the results were similar.

If they had asked the wrong question, “Does omega-3 supplementation reduce congestive heart failure hospitalizations for everyone?”, they would have concluded that omega-3 supplementation was worthless.

However, instead they asked, “Does omega-3 supplementation reduce congestive heart failure hospitalizations for certain high-risk groups” and were able to show that omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced congestive heart failure hospitalizations for people with type 2 diabetes and for Blacks.

We need to change the paradigm for clinical studies of supplements. The old paradigm asks the wrong questions. If we really want to know the role of supplementation for our health, we need to start asking the right questions.

The Bottom Line

There is perhaps nothing more confusing to the average person than the “truth” about omega-3 supplementation and heart disease risk. Much of the confusion is because we have been asking the wrong questions:

  • We have been asking whether omega-3 supplementation reduces the risk of heart disease for everyone. Instead, we should have been asking who benefits from omega-3 supplementation.
  • We have been asking whether omega-3 supplementation reduces the risk of all forms of heart disease combined. Instead, we should have been asking whether omega-3 supplementation reduces the risk of specific kinds of heart disease.

A recent study on the effect of omega-3 supplementation on hospitalizations due to heart disease is a perfect example.

If they had asked the wrong question, “Does omega-3 supplementation reduce congestive heart failure hospitalizations for everyone?”, they would have concluded that omega-3 supplementation was worthless.

However, instead they asked, “Does omega-3 supplementation reduce congestive heart failure hospitalizations for certain high-risk groups” and were able to show that omega-3 supplementation significantly reduced congestive heart failure hospitalizations for people with type 2 diabetes and for Blacks.

We need to change the paradigm for clinical studies of supplements. The old paradigm asks the wrong questions. If we really want to know the role of supplementation for our health, we need to start asking the right questions.

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.

The Omega-3 Pendulum

Who Benefits Most From Omega-3s? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Pendulum
Pendulum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Omega-3 Pendulum

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

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

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

The GISSI Study:

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

The ASCEND Study:

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

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

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

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

The VITAL Study:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Benefits Most From Omega-3s?

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

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

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

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

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

I feel the same way about omega-3s:

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

Can Your Diet Cause You To Lose Your Mind?

What Is A Mind-Healthy Lifestyle? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Cognitive-DeclineMost of us look forward to our golden years – that mystical time when we will be free from the workday pressures and have more time to spend with friends and family doing the things we love.

But cognitive decline can cast a dark cloud over those expectations.

  • By the age of 65, 11% of adults suffer from some degree of cognitive impairment.
  • And by the age of 80 the percentage of adults suffering from cognitive impairment has increased to 26-30%, depending on which study you cite.

The results of cognitive decline can be devastating.

  • First you start to lose the cherished memories of a lifetime.
  • Then comes confusion and an inability to perform basic tasks and participate in your favorite activities.
  • Eventually you may reach a stage where you no longer recognize the ones you love.

In short, cognitive decline can rob you of everything that makes you you.

The causes of cognitive decline are complex, but recent studies have pointed to the role of chronic inflammation in cognitive decline. If that is true, it is a good news – bad news situation.

  • The bad news is:
    • Some increase in chronic inflammation appears to be an inevitable consequence of aging.
    • Chronic inflammation can be caused by certain diseases that are beyond our control.
    • Chronic inflammation can be triggered by viral or bacterial infections.
  • The good news is that chronic inflammation is also controlled by your diet and lifestyle. For example, as I said above, chronic inflammation is often triggered by a viral infection, but whether the inflammation is mild or severe is strongly influenced by diet and lifestyle.

In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I share a study (S Charisis et al, Neurology, In Press, November 10, 2021) showing that diets high in inflammatory foods increase the risk of dementia. Then, I answer 3 important questions.

  • Can your diet cause you to lose your mind?
  • What is a mind-healthy diet?
  • What is a mind-healthy lifestyle?

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were taken from the first three years of the Hellenic Longitudinal Investigation of Aging and Diet (HELIAD), a study designed to look at the effect of diet on dementia and other neuropsychiatric conditions in the Greek population.

There were 1059 participants (40% male, average age = 75 at the beginning of the study) in this study. At the beginning of the study the participants completed a food frequency questionnaire administered by a trained dietitian. The foods were broken down into individual nutrients using the USDA Food Composition tables adapted for foods in the Greek diet.

The diet of each participant was then rated on a 15-point scale ranging from pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory based on something called the Diet Inflammation Index (DII).

Simply put, the DII is a validated assessment tool based on the effect of food nutrients on 6 inflammatory biomarkers found in the blood (IL-1β, IL-4, IL-6, IL-10, TNF-α, and CRP). Nutrients that decrease these markers are considered anti-inflammatory. Nutrients that increase these inflammatory biomarkers are considered pro-inflammatory.

For example, anti-inflammatory nutrients include:

  • Carotenoids and flavonoids (found in fruits and vegetables).
  • Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in cold-water fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds).
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids (found in olive, avocado, and peanut oils).
  • Fiber (found in minimally processed plant foods).
  • Antioxidants, most B vitamins, and vitamin D.
  • Magnesium and zinc.
  • Garlic, onions, most herbs & spices.

Pro-inflammatory nutrients include:

  • Refined carbohydrates.
  • Cholesterol.
  • Total fat.
  • Saturated fats.
  • Trans fats.

The participants were followed for 3 years, and all new diagnoses of dementia were recorded. The diagnoses were confirmed by a panel of neurologists and neuropsychologists.

Can Your Diet Cause You To Lose Your Mind?

Forgetful Old ManAs described above, the diet of each participant in the study was rated on a 15-point DII (Diet Inflammatory Index) scale ranging from pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory. The association of the DII score of the participant’s diets with the onset of dementia was evaluated in two ways.

  • Each one-point increase from an anti-inflammatory diet to a pro-inflammatory diet was associated with a 21% increase in the risk for dementia.
  • In other words, even small changes in your diet can have a significant impact on your risk of developing dementia.

The investigators then divided the participants into three equal-sized groups based on the DII score of their diets.

  • The group with the highest DII scores were 3 times more likely to develop dementia than the group with the lowest DII scores.
  • In other words, a major change in your diet can have a major effect on your risk of developing dementia.

The authors concluded, “In the present study, higher DII scores (indicating greater pro-inflammatory diet potential) were associated with an increased risk for incident dementia [newly diagnosed dementia]. These findings may avail the development of primary dementia strategies through tailored and precise dietary interventions.”

What Is A Mind-Healthy Diet?

Vegan FoodsThis and other studies show that an anti-inflammatory diet is good for the mind. It helps protect us from cognitive decline and dementia. But what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like?

One hint comes from analyzing the diets of participants in this study:

  • Those with the lowest DII scores (most-anti-inflammatory diets) consumed 20 servings of fruit, 19 servings of vegetables, 4 servings of beans or other legumes, and 11 servings of coffee or tea each week. That’s almost 3 servings of fruit and 3 servings of vegetables every day!
  • Those with the highest DII scores (most pro-inflammatory diets) consumed only half as many fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
  • In short, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and legumes is a good start.

I have described anti-inflammatory diets in more detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor.” Let me summarize that article briefly.

Anti-inflammatory foods include:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Whole grains.
  • Beans and other legumes.
  • Nuts, olive oil, avocados, and other sources of monounsaturated fats.
  • Fatty fish and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Herbs and spices.

Pro-inflammatory foods include:

  • Refined carbohydrates, sodas, and sugary foods.
  • Foods high in saturated fats including fatty and processed meats, butter, and high fat dairy products.
  • Foods high in trans fats.
  • French fries, fried chicken, and other fried foods.
  • Foods you are allergic or sensitive food. For example, gluten containing foods are pro-inflammatory only if you are sensitive to gluten.

If your goal is to reduce chronic inflammation and keep your mind sharp as a tack as you age, you should eat more anti-inflammatory foods and less pro-inflammatory foods.

Of course, we don’t just eat random foods, we follow dietary patterns. It should be apparent from what I have Mediterranean Diet Foodscovered above that whole food, primarily plant-based diets are anti-inflammatory. This is true for diets ranging from vegan through semi-vegetarian, to the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets.

All these diets are anti-inflammatory and likely protect the brain from cognitive decline. However, the best evidence for brain protection is for the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets.

  • The Mediterranean and DASH diets have been shown to prevent cognitive decline in multiple studies.
  • The MIND diet is a combination the Mediterranean and DASH diets that was specifically designed to prevent cognitive decline. It has been shown to cut the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in half.

What Is A Mind-Healthy Lifestyle?

Diet is just one aspect of a holistic approach for reducing cognitive decline as we age. Other important factors include:

  • Reduce excess body weight.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get adequate sleep.
  • Reduce and/or manage stress.
  • Eliminate smoking and reduce alcohol consumption.
  • Socialize with friends and family who support you. Numerous studies have shown that a strong support network reduces dementia risk in the elderly.
  • Keep your brain active. Work crossword puzzles. Learn new things. An active brain is forced to lay down new neural pathways.

The Bottom Line 

Recent studies have suggested that chronic inflammation increases the risk of cognitive decline and dementia as we age. Some causes of chronic inflammation are beyond our control, but others, such as diet, we can control.

Recently, a precise scoring system called the Diet Inflammatory Index (DII) has been developed. This scoring system allows studies to look at the correlation between the inflammatory potential of the diet and cognitive decline.

A recent study enrolled 1,000 participants with an average age of 75 in a 3-year study to determine the impact of diet on cognitive decline. The association of the DII score of the participant’s diets with the onset of dementia was evaluated in two ways.

  • Each one-point increase from an anti-inflammatory diet to a pro-inflammatory diet was associated with a 21% increase in the risk for dementia.
  • In other words, even small changes in your diet can have a significant impact on your risk of developing dementia.

The investigators then divided the participants into three equal-sized groups based on the DII score of their diets.

  • The group with the highest DII scores were 3 times more likely to develop dementia than the group with the lowest DII scores.
  • In other words, a major change in your diet can have a major effect on your risk of developing dementia.

The authors concluded, “In the present study, higher DII scores (indicating greater pro-inflammatory diet potential) were associated with an increased risk for incident dementia [newly diagnosed dementia]. These findings may avail the development of primary dementia strategies through tailored and precise dietary interventions.”

For more details and a description of mind-healthy diets and a mind-healthy lifestyle 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.

Do Omega-3s Add Years To Your Life?

Why Are Omega-3s So Controversial? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

ArgumentI don’t need to tell you that omega-3s are controversial. Some experts confidently tell you that omega-3s significantly reduce your risk of heart disease and may reduce your risk of cancer and other diseases. Other experts confidently tell you that omega-3s have no effect on heart disease or any other disease. They claim that omega-3 supplements are no better than “snake oil”.

The problem is that each camp of experts can cite published clinical studies to support their claims. How can that be? How can clinical studies come to opposite conclusions on such an important topic? The problem is that it is really difficult to do high quality clinical studies on omega-3s. I will discuss that in the next section.

The question of whether omega-3s affect life span has also been controversial. Heart disease and cancer are the top two causes of death in this country. So, if omega-3s actually reduced the risk of heart disease and cancer, you might expect that they would also help us live longer. Once again, there are studies on both sides of this issue, but they are poor quality studies.

We need more high-quality studies to clear up the controversies surrounding the health benefits of omega-3s. I will report on one such study in this issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”. But first let me go into more depth about why it is so difficult to do high-quality studies with omega-3 fatty acids.

Clinical Studies 101: Why Are Omega-3s So Controversial?

professor owlI have covered this topic in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”, but here is a quick summary.

  1. Randomized, placebo controlled clinical trials (RCTs) are considered the gold standard for evidence-based medicine, but they ill-suited to measure the effect of omega-3s on health outcomes.
    • Heart disease and cancer take decades to develop. Most RCTs are too small and too short to show a meaningful effect of omega-3s on these diseases.
    • To make up for this shortcoming, some recent RCTs have started with older, sicker patients. This way enough patients die during the study that it can measure statistically significant outcomes. However, these patients are already on multiple medications that mimic many of the beneficial effects of omega-3s on heart disease.

These studies are no longer asking whether omega-3s reduce the risk of heart disease. They are really asking if omega-3s have any additional benefits for patients who are already taking multiple medications – with all their side effects. I don’t know about you, but that is not the question I am interested in.

    • Until recently, most RCTs did not measure circulating omega-3 levels before and after supplementation, so the investigators had no idea whether omega-3 supplementation increased circulating omega-3 levels by a significant amount.

And for the few studies where omega-3 levels were measured before and after supplementation, it turns out that for many of the participants, their baseline omega-3 levels were too high for omega-3 supplementation to have a meaningful effect. Only participants with low omega-3 levels at the beginning of the study benefited from omega-3 supplementation.Supplementation Perspective

These studies are often quoted as showing omega-3 supplementation doesn’t work. However, they are actually showing the true value of supplementation. Omega-3 supplementation isn’t for everyone. It is for people with poor diet, increased need, genetic predisposition, and/or pre-existing disease not already treated with multiple medications.

2) Prospective cohort studies eliminate many of the shortcomings of RCTs. They can start with a large group of individuals (a cohort) and follow them for many years to see how many of them die or develop a disease during that time (this is the prospective part of a prospective cohort trial). This means they can start with a healthy population that is not on medications.

This also means that these studies can answer the question on most people’s minds, “Are omega-3s associated with reduced risk of dying or developing heart disease?” However, these studies have two limitations.

    • They are association studies. They cannot measure cause and effect.
    • Ideally, omega-3 levels would be measured at the beginning of the study and at several intervals during the study to see if the participant’s diet had changed during the study. Unfortunately, most prospective cohort studies only measure omega-3 levels at the beginning of the study.

3) Finally, a meta-analysis combines data from multiple clinical studies.

    • The strength of a meta-analysis is that the number of participants is quite large. This increases the statistical power and allows it to accurately assess small effects.
    • The greatest weakness of meta-analyses is that the design of the individual studies included in the meta-analysis is often quite different. This introduces variations that decrease the reliability of the meta-analysis. It becomes a situation of “Garbage in. Garbage out”

The study (WS Harris et al, Nature Communications, Volume 12, Article number: 2329, 2021) I am discussing today is a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. It was designed to determine the association between blood omega-3 fatty acids and the risk of:

  • Death from all causes.
  • Death from heart disease.
  • Death from cancer.
  • Death from causes other than heart disease or cancer.

More importantly, it eliminated the major weakness of previous meta-analyses by only including studies with a similar design.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was a meta-analysis of 17 prospective cohort studies with a total of 42,466 individuals looking at the association between omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood and premature death due to all causes, heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer.

Participants in the 17 studies were followed for an average of 16 years, during which time 15,720 deaths occurred. This was a large enough number of deaths so that a very precise statistical analysis of the data could be performed.

The average age of participants at entry into the studies was 65, and 55% of the participants were women. Whites constituted 87% of the participants, so the results may not be applicable to other ethnic groups. None of the participants had heart disease or cancer when they entered the study.

Finally, the associations were corrected for a long list of variables that could have influenced the outcome (Read the publication for more details).

A strength of this meta-analysis is that all 17 studies were conducted as part of the FORCE (Fatty Acids & Outcomes Research Consortium) collaboration. The FORCE collaboration was established with the goal of understanding the relationships between fatty acids (as measured by blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids) on premature death and chronic disease outcomes (cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other conditions).

Each study was designed using a standardized protocol, so that the data could be easily pooled for a meta-analysis. In the words of the FORCE collaboration founders:

  1. The larger sample sizes of [meta-analyses] will substantially increase statistical power to investigate associations…enabling the [meta-analyses] to discover important relationships not discernible in any individual study.

2) Standardization of variable definitions and modeling of associations will reduce variation and potential bias in estimates across cohorts.

3) Results will be far less susceptible to publication bias.

Do Omega-3s Add Years To Your Life?

Omega-3sThe meta-analysis divided participants into quintiles based on blood omega-3 levels. When comparing participants with the highest omega-3 levels with participants with the lowest omega-3 levels:

  • Premature death from all causes was decreased by 16%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, EPA > EPA+DHA > DHA.
  • Premature death from heart disease was decreased by 19%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, DHA > EPA+DHA > EPA.
  • Premature death from cancer was decreased by 15%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, EPA > DHA > EPA+DHA.
  • Premature death from causes other than heart disease and cancer was decreased by 18%.
    • When looking at the effect of individual omega-3s, EPA > EPA+DHA > DHA.
  • The differences between the effects of EPA, DHA, and EPA+DHA were small.
  • ALA, a short chain omega-3 found in plant foods, had no effect on any of these parameters.

In the words of the authors: “These findings suggest that higher circulating levels of long chain omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a lower risk of premature death. Similar relationships were seen for death from heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer. No associations were seen with the short chain omega-3, ALA [which is found in plant foods]”.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

confusionIf you are thinking that 15-19% decreases in premature death from various causes don’t sound like much, let me do some simple calculations for you. The average lifespan in this country is 78 years.

  • A 16% decrease in death from all causes amounts to an extra 12.5 years. What would you do with an extra 12.5 years?
  • A 19% decrease in death from heart disease might not only allow you to live longer, but it has the potential to improve your quality of life by living an extra 15 years free of heart disease.
  • Similarly, a 15% decrease in death from cancer might help you live an extra 12 years cancer-free.
  • In other words, you may live longer, and you may also live healthier longer, sometimes referred to as “healthspan”.

Don’t misunderstand me. Omega-3s are not a magic wand. They aren’t the fictional “Fountain of Youth”.

  • There are many other factors that go into a healthy lifestyle. If you sit on your couch all day eating Big Macs and drinking beer, you may be adding the +12.5 years to a baseline of -30 years.
  • Clinical studies report average values and none of us are average. Omega-3s will help some people more than others.

I will understand if you are skeptical. It seems like every time one study comes along and tells you that omega-3s are beneficial, another study comes along and tells you they are worthless.

This was an extraordinarily well-designed study, but it is unlikely to be the final word in the omega-3 controversy. There are too many poor-quality studies published each year. Until everyone in the field agrees to some common standards like those in the FORCE collaboration, the omega-3 controversy will continue.

The Bottom Line 

A recent meta-analysis looked at the association between omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood and premature death due to all causes, heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer.

The meta-analysis divided participants into quintiles based on blood omega-3 levels. When comparing participants with the highest omega-3 levels with participants with the lowest omega-3 levels:

  • Premature death from all causes was decreased by 16%.
  • Premature death from heart disease was decreased by 19%.
  • Premature death from cancer was decreased by 15%.
  • Premature death from causes other than heart disease and cancer was decreased by 18%.

In the words of the authors: “These findings suggest that higher circulating levels of long chain omega-3 fatty acids are associated with a lower risk of premature death. Similar relationships were seen for death from heart disease, cancer, and causes other than heart disease and cancer.”

For more details about study and what this study means for you read the article above.

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

 

 

What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Can Diet Douse The Flames?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

InflammationIf you have arthritis, colitis, bursitis, or any of the other “itis” diseases, you already know that inflammation is the enemy. Chronic, low level inflammation is also a contributing factor to heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases. Clearly, inflammation is a bad actor. It is something we want to avoid.

Obesity and diabetes are two of the biggest contributors to inflammation, but does diet also play a role? With all the anti-inflammation diets circulating on the internet, you would certainly think so. How good is the evidence that certain foods influence inflammation, and what does an anti-inflammatory diet look like?

The Science Behind Anti-Inflammatory Diets

ScientistLet me start by saying that the science behind anti-inflammatory diets is nowhere near as strong as it is for the effect of primarily plant-based diets on heart disease and diabetes. The studies on anti-inflammatory diets are mostly small, short duration studies. However, the biggest problem is that there is no standard way of measuring inflammation.

There are multiple markers of inflammation, and they do not change together. That means that in every study some markers of inflammation are altered, while others are not. There is no consistent pattern from one study to another.

In spite of these methodological difficulties, the studies generally point in the same direction. Let’s start with the strongest evidence and work our way down to the weakest evidence. 

Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory (I. Reinders et al, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 66: 736-741, 2011). The evidence is strongest for the long chain omega-3s found in fish and fish oil, but the shorter chain omega-3s found in foods like walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and flaxseed oil, soybean oil, and canola oil also appear to be anti-inflammatory. 

Inflammation is directly correlated with glycemic index (L. Qi and F.B. Lu, Current Opinion in Lipidology, 18: 3-8, 2007). This has a couple of important implications.

The most straightforward is that refined carbohydrates and sugars (sodas, pastries, and desserts), which have a high glycemic index, increase inflammation. In contrast, complex carbohydrates (whole grains, most fruits and vegetables) decrease inflammation. No surprise there. The second implication is that it is the glycemic index, not the sugar, that is driving the inflammatory response.

That means we need to look more closely at foods than at sugars. Sodas, pastries and desserts are likely to cause inflammation, but sugar-containing foods with a low glycemic index are unlikely to be inflammatory. 

Fruits and vegetables are anti-inflammatory. This has been shown in multiple studies. At this point most of the research is centered on identifying the nutrients and phytonutrients from fruits and vegetables that are responsible for the reduction in inflammation. I suspect the investigators are hoping to design an anti-inflammatory supplement and make lots of money. I will stick with the fresh fruits and vegetables. 

Saturated fats are inflammatory. At face value, the data on saturated fats appear to be contradictory. Some Fatty Foodsstudies say that saturated fats increase inflammation, while others say they do not. However, similar to my earlier discussion on saturated fats and heart disease), the outcome of the study depends on what the saturated fats are replaced with.

When saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates, sugar and highly processed foods (the standard American low-fat diet), inflammation doesn’t change. This doesn’t mean that a diet high in saturated fat is healthy. It just means that both diets are bad for you. Both are inflammatory.

However, when saturated fat is replaced with omega-3 polyunsaturated fats (J.A. Paniagua et al, Atherosclerosis, 218: 443-450, 2011) or monounsaturated fats (B. Vessby et al, Diabetologia, 44: 312-319, 2001), markers of inflammation decrease. Clearly, saturated fats are not the best fat choice if you wish to keep inflammation in check.

I would be remiss if I did not address the claims by the low-carb diet proponents that saturated fats do not increase inflammation in the context of a low-carb diet. I want to remind you of two things we have discussed previously:

  • The comparisons in those studies are generally with people consuming a diet high in simple carbohydrates and sugars.
  • These studies have mostly been done in the short-term when the participants are losing weight on the low-carb diets. Weight loss decreases inflammation, so the reduction in inflammation on the low-carb diet could be coming from the weight loss.

The one study (M. Miller et al, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109: 713-717, 2009) I have found that compares a low-carb diet (the Atkins diet) with a good diet (the Ornish diet, which is a low-fat, lacto-ovo vegetarian diet) during weight maintenance found that the meat based, low-carb Atkins diet caused greater inflammation than the healthy low-fat Ornish diet.

Red meat is probably pro-inflammatory. Most, but not all, studies suggest that red meat consumption is associated with increased inflammation. If it is pro-inflammatory, the inflammation is most likely associated with its saturated fat, its heme iron content, or the advanced glycation end products formed during cooking.

What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Colorful fruits and vegetablesAnti-inflammatory diets have become so mainstream that they now appear on many reputable health organization websites such as Harvard Health, WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, and the Cleveland Clinic. Each have slightly different features, but there is a tremendous amount of agreement. 

Foods an anti-inflammatory diet includes: In a nutshell, an anti-inflammatory diet includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, plant-based proteins (like beans and nuts), fatty fish, and fresh herbs and spices. Specifically, your diet should emphasize:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables. Not only do they help fight inflammation, but they are a great source of antioxidants and other nutrients important for your health.
  • Whole grains. They have a low glycemic index. They are also a good source of fiber, and fiber helps flush inflammatory toxins out of the body.
  • Beans and other legumes. They should be your primary source of protein. They are high in fiber and contain antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory nutrients.
  • Nuts, olive oil, and avocados. They are good sources of healthy monounsaturated fats, which fight inflammation.
  • Fatty fish. Salmon, tuna, and sardines are all great sources of long chain omega-3 fatty acids, which are fish and fish oilincorporated into our cell membranes. Those long chain omega-3s in cell membranes are, in turn, used to create compounds that are powerful inflammation fighters.

Walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds are good sources of short chain omega-3s. The efficiency of their conversion to long chain omega-3s that can be incorporated into cell membranes is only around 2-5%. If they fight inflammation, it is probably because they replace some of the saturated fats and omega-6 fats you might otherwise be eating.

  • Herbs and spices. They add antioxidants and other phytonutrients that fight inflammation.

Foods an anti-inflammatory diet excludes: In a nutshell, an anti-inflammatory diet should exclude highly processed, overly greasy, or super sweet foods, especially sodas and other sweet drinks. Specifically, your diet should exclude:

  • Refined carbohydrates, sodas and sugary foods. They have a high glycemic index, which is associated with inflammation. They can also lead to weight gain and high blood sugar, both of which cause inflammation.
  • Foods high in saturated fats. This includes fatty and processed meats, butter, and high fat dairy products.
  • Foods high in trans fats. This includes margarine, coffee creamers, and any processed food containing partly hydrogenated vegetable oils. Trans fats are very pro-inflammatory.
  • French fries, fried chicken, and other fried foods. They used to be fried in saturated fat and/or trans fat. Nowadays, they are generally fried in omega-6 vegetable oils. A little omega-6 in the diet is OK, but Americans get too much omega-6 fatty acids in their diet. Most studies show that a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is pro-inflammatory.
  • Foods you are allergic or sensitive to. Eating any food that you are sensitive to can cause inflammation. This comes up most often with respect to gluten and dairy because so many people are sensitive to one or both. However, if you are not sensitive to them, there is no reason to exclude whole grain gluten-containing foods or low-fat dairy foods from your diet.

Can Diet Douse The Flames?

FlamesIn case you didn’t notice, the recommendations for an anti-inflammatory diet closely match the other healthy diets I have discussed previously. It should come as no surprise then that both the Mediterranean (L. Gallard, Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25: 634-640, 2010; L. Schwingshackl and G. Hoffmann, Nutrition Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases, 24: 929-939, 2014) and DASH (D.E. King et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, 167: 502-506, 2007) diets are anti-inflammatory.

Vegan and vegetarian diets also appear to be anti-inflammatory as well. The anti-inflammatory nature of these diets undoubtedly contributes to their association with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

As for the low-carb diets, the jury is out. There are no long-term studies to support the claims of low-carb proponents that their diets reduce inflammation. The few long-term studies that are available suggest that low-carb diets are only likely to be anti-inflammatory if vegetable proteins and oils replace the animal proteins and fats that are currently recommended.

What does this mean for you if you have severe arthritis or other inflammatory diseases? An anti-inflammatory diet is unlikely to “cure” your symptoms by itself. However, it should definitely be a companion to everything else you are doing to reduce inflammation.

The Bottom Line 

If you have arthritis, colitis, bursitis, or any of the other “itis” diseases, you already know that inflammation is the enemy. Chronic, low level inflammation is also a contributing factor to heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases. Clearly, inflammation is a bad actor. It’s something we want to avoid.

Obesity and diabetes are two of the biggest contributors to inflammation, but does diet also play a role? With all the anti-inflammation diets circulating on the internet, you would certainly think so. In this article I review the evidence that certain foods influence inflammation and describe what an anti-inflammatory diet looks like.

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.

Do Omega-3s Oil Your Joints?

Fish Oil And Osteoarthritis

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Osteoarthritis is not just painful. It is one of the leading causes of disability in this country. And because the joint pain associated with osteoarthritis limits activity levels, it is linked to:

  • Obesity
  • The diseases associated with obesity (diabetes and heart disease).
    • Osteoarthritis increases the risk of heart disease by 50%.
  • Premature death associated with the increased prevalence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
    • Osteoarthritis increases the risk of all-cause mortality by 55%.

If osteoarthritis were rare, these statistics would just be an interesting side note. But osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It affects more than 32 million Americans. And it is costly. It costs the American economy:

  • $65 billion in health care costs.
  • $17 billion in lost wages.
  • $136 billion in total costs.

Conventional therapy for osteoarthritis is treatment with anti-inflammatory drugs, but they have side effects. They may even increase the risk of premature death in some individuals.

What about natural anti-inflammatory nutrients and phytonutrients? Two that have received a lot of press in recent years are omega-3s (fish oil) and curcumin.

A recent meta-analysis (NK Senftleber et al, Nutrients, 9: 42, 2017) of 42 clinical studies on the effects of omega-3s on various types of arthritis found that:

  • There is moderate quality evidence that omega-3s reduce the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Basically, this means that there is strong, but not definitive, evidence that omega-3s reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Other general conclusions with respect to rheumatoid arthritis were:
    • The best results were obtained from fish oil preparations with an EPA/DHA ratio of >1.5, suggesting that EPA is more beneficial than DHA.
    • Early studies suggested that the optimal dose of omega-3s was ≥2.6 g/day for ≥12 weeks.
  • There was low quality evidence for an effect of omega-3s on osteoarthritis. Only 5 clinical trials have been published on the topic and the results of those studies are conflicting.

The data for an effect of curcumin on osteoarthritis pain are even more limited. There is some evidence it might be beneficial, but the studies are small and are conflicting.

In this week’s issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I discuss an exploratory study (JC Kuszewski et al, Rheumatology Advances In Practice 4: 1-9, 2020) on the effect of omega-3s and curcumin on osteoarthritis pain.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyYou are probably wondering, “What is an “exploratory study?” Let me start by providing you with a little perspective from my years of heading a cancer research laboratory at the University of North Carolina:

Clinical studies are expensive. And if you are trying to study an approach that has not already proven to be successful, the money needed to fund the study can be hard to come by. It is a “Catch 22” situation. You need to conduct an “exploratory study” to show your project is likely to succeed before the funding agency will give you money to fund your project.

But where do you get the money to fund your exploratory project? One way that investigators overcome that barrier is to use data from a previous study that was originally designed for a different purpose. The study I will describe today is an example of that approach.

The study utilized data collected from a clinical trial designed to measure the effect of omega-3s and curcumin on brain function in older adults. The study recruited 152 older adults (average age = 65) who were overweight to obese (average BMI = 31) and sedentary (˂55 min/week of physical activity) from New South Wales, New Australia.

The participants were randomly divided into 4 groups:

  • Placebo group. [Note: The fish oil placebo contained 20 mg of fish oil so it would match the odor of the fish oil supplement, and the curcumin placebo contained yellow food dye so it would match the color of the curcumin supplement.]
  • Fish oil group (2,000 mg DHA & 400 mg EPA per day).
  • Curcumin group (160 mg/day curcumin).
  • Fish oil + curcumin group.

Participants were followed for 16 weeks. At the beginning and end of the study participants filled out questionnaires assessing (among other things):

  • The severity of their chronic osteoarthritis pain.
  • Disabilities caused by osteoarthritis in the participant’s daily life (physical distress, sleep disturbances, psychological distress, loss of productivity, physical limitations, physical deconditioning due to reduction in physical activity, and financial hardship).
  • Their physical and mental wellbeing during the past 4 weeks.
  • Their mood during the past 7 days.

Do Omega-3s Oil Your Joints?

fish and fish oilThe results were as follows:

  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced chronic osteoarthritis pain by 42%.
  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced disability associated with osteoarthritis by 40%.
    • The reduction in pain and disability in participants supplemented with fish oil was greatest in those who reported the highest pain/disability at the beginning of the study.
    • The reduction in pain was associated with an improved perception of physical and mental wellbeing.
    • The reduction in pain was also associated with a decrease in depression and other mood disturbances.
  • Curcumin did not affect pain or osteoarthritis burden either alone or paired with omega-3s.

The authors concluded, “Our findings indicate potential for fish oil supplementation to reduce mild osteoarthritis pain and burden in sedentary overweight/obese older adults…,which was associated with improved wellbeing.”

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

pros and consPros:

The results for the effects of omega-3s on osteoarthritis were highly significant. In addition, the questionnaires used were well designed to capture the intensity and location of pain, mood, and feelings of wellbeing.

Cons:

This was an exploratory study using data collected from a study designed to measure the effect of omega-3s and curcumin on brain health in older adults. It was not ideally designed to measure the effect of omega-3s and curcumin on osteoarthritis.

If the original study had been intended for investigating the effect of these supplements on osteoarthritis, it would have been designed differently:

  • Participants would have been recruited into the study based on the presence and intensity of osteoarthritis pain.
  • The diagnosis of osteoarthritis would have been confirmed by X-rays.
  • Participants would have been admitted into the study only if they had moderate to severe osteoarthritis pain. Most of the participants in this study had only mild osteoarthritis pain. That may have limited the ability of this study to find an effect of curcumin on osteoarthritis pain.
  • The design of the omega-3 supplement would have been different.
    • Because the original study was designed to determine the effect of omega-3s on brain health, the omega-3 supplement chosen had more DHA than EPA.
    • Had the study been designed to determine the effect on omega-3s on an inflammatory disease like osteoarthritis, the omega-3 supplement would have had more EPA than DHA.
  • The curcumin supplement was also not ideally designed for this study. The curcumin supplement used in this study contained only 160 mg of curcumin and contained no other ingredients. Well-designed curcumin supplements usually contain around 500 mg curcumin standardized to 95% curcuminoids plus piperine to enhance the absorption of the curcumin.

In the words of the authors, “Further studies are warranted to evaluate the benefits of fish oil, alone or as an adjunct to pharmacotherapy, in patients diagnosed with osteoarthritis who suffer moderate-to-severe pain…” In other words, they now intend to use the data from this exploratory study to apply for funds to conduct a larger study specifically designed to measure the effects of omega-3s on osteoarthritis pain.

The study limitations described above, severely restricted the ability of the study to detect any beneficial effect of curcumin on osteoarthritis pain. The effect of curcumin on osteoarthritis pain is probably less than the effect of omega-3s, but it would be premature to conclude that it has no benefit. However, they obtained no data from their “exploratory study” to justify a follow-up study on the effect of curcumin on osteoarthritis pain.

Fish Oil And Osteoarthritis

omega-3 fish oil supplementThis study suggests that 2.4 grams/day of omega-3s may be equally effective at reducing osteoarthritis pain and the effects that osteoarthritis pain has on both physical health and psychological health. However, because this study has several limitations, the evidence cannot be considered definite.

If you have either rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, I recommend trying omega-3 supplementation. Based on the studies described above, you might want to aim for 2-3 g/day of omega-3s with an EPA/DHA ration of 1.5 or greater.

As with any natural approach, this will work better for some people that for others. However, don’t forget that omega-3s are also important for heart health, healthy blood pressure, brain health, and a healthy pregnancy (https://chaneyhealth.com/healthtips/omega-3s-during-pregnancy-are-healthy/). If they also happen to reduce your arthritis pain, that is an extra benefit.

As usual, I recommend a holistic approach. You should also:

  • Keep active.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Add antioxidant and polyphenol supplements.

These lifestyle changes should allow you to reduce or eliminate any pain medication you may be taking.

Finally, if you are on blood thinners, consult with your physician before adding omega-3 supplements to your diet. My preference is to incorporate omega-3s and reduce other medications, but that is a discussion you need to have with your doctor.

The Bottom Line

A recent meta-analysis has concluded there is moderate quality evidence that omega-3s reduce the pain associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Basically, this means that there is strong, but not definitive, evidence that omega-3s reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Other general conclusions with respect to rheumatoid arthritis were:

  • The best results were obtained from fish oil preparations with an EPA/DHA ratio of >1.5, suggesting that EPA is more beneficial than DHA.
  • Earlier studies suggested that the optimal dose of omega-3s was ≥2.6 g/day for ≥12 weeks.

However, there have been few studies on the effect of omega-3s on osteoarthritis. A new exploratory study looked at the effect of 2.4 g/day of omega-3s for 16 weeks on the pain and disability associated with osteoarthritis. It found:

  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced chronic osteoarthritis pain by 42%.
  • Omega-3 supplementation reduced disability associated with osteoarthritis by 40%.
    • The reduction in pain and disability in participants supplemented with fish oil was greatest in those who reported the highest pain/disability at the beginning of the study.
    • The reduction in pain was associated with an improved perception of physical and mental wellbeing.
    • The reduction in pain was also associated with a decrease in depression and other mood disturbances.

The authors concluded, “Our findings indicate potential for fish oil supplementation to reduce mild osteoarthritis pain and burden in sedentary overweight/obese older adults. Further studies are warranted to evaluate the benefits of fish oil, alone or as an adjunct to pharmacotherapy, in patients diagnosed with osteoarthritis who suffer moderate-to-severe pain…”

If you have either rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, I recommend trying omega-3 supplementation. Based on the studies described above, you might want to aim for 2-3 g/day of omega-3s with an EPA/DHA ration of 1.5 or greater.

As with any natural approach, this will work better for some people that for others. However, don’t forget that omega-3s are also important for heart health, healthy blood pressure, brain health, and a healthy pregnancy. If they also happen to reduce your arthritis pain, that is an extra benefit.

As usual, I recommend a holistic approach. You should also:

  • Follow an anti-inflammatory diet.
  • Keep active.
  • Aim for a healthy weight.
  • Add antioxidant and polyphenol supplements.

These lifestyle changes should allow you to reduce or eliminate any pain medication you may be taking.

Finally, if you are on blood thinners, consult with your physician before adding omega-3 supplements to your diet. My preference is to incorporate omega-3s and reduce other medications, but that is a discussion you need to have with your doctor.

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.

Update On Omega-3 Supplementation And Heart Disease

How Much Omega-3s Do You Need?

Pendulum
Pendulum

In previous issues of “Health Tips From The Professor” I have described the medical consensus about omega-3 supplementation and heart disease as resembling a pendulum.

A few positive studies are published, and the pendulum swings in the positive direction. The medical consensus becomes, “Omega-3s may reduce heart disease risk.”

Then a few negative studies are published, and the pendulum swings in the other direction. The consensus becomes that omega-3 supplements are worthless. One review a few years ago went so far as to say that fish oil supplements were the modern-day version of snake oil.

Meta-analyses combine the data from multiple clinical studies to increase statistic power and minimize the effect of clinical studies that are outliers. They are supposed to provide clear answers to medical questions like the effect of omega-3 supplements on heart disease.

However, the meta-analyses published to date have also reached conflicting conclusions about the effectiveness of omega-3 supplementation. No wonder you [and the medical community] are confused!

In 2018 three large, well-designed, clinical studies looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on heart disease risk were published. They reached different conclusions. However, they covered a much wider range of omega-3 doses than previous studies. And the studies with the highest doses of omega-3s showed the most positive effect of omega-3 supplementation on the reduction of heart disease risk.

That lead a group of doctors and scientists from the United States and Finland to postulate that many previous studies had failed to find an effect of omega-3 supplements on heart disease risk because the dose of omega-3s they used was too low.

These scientists designed a very large meta-analysis (AA Bernasconi et al, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, doi.org/10.1016/j.mayocp.2020.08.034) to test their hypothesis. In short, their study was designed to:

  • Determine whether supplementation with the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA resulted in reduced heart disease risk.
  • Quantify the relationship between the dose of EPA + DHA and the risk of heart disease outcomes.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was a meta-analysis of 40 randomized control clinical studies on the effect omega-3 supplementation on heart disease outcomes. Specifically:

  • It included all high-quality clinical studies of omega-3 supplementation published before August 2019.
  • It included a total of 135,267 participants.
  • It included participants at both low and high risk of developing heart disease.
  • It included studies of supplementation with EPA alone and with EPA + DHA.
  • It included omega-3 doses ranging from 400 mg/day to 5,500 mg/day.
  • It excluded dietary studies because:
    • It is difficult to measure the dosage of omega-3s that participants are consuming in dietary studies.
    • It is difficult to assure their compliance with dietary advice.
    • There is variation in the omega-3 content of various foods.
    • Participants in these studies are often advised to make other changes in diet. It then becomes difficult to know whether any benefits observed were from changes in omega-3s or from changes in other components of the diet.

Update On Omega-3 Supplementation And Heart Disease

omega-3 supplements and heart healthHere are the results of the meta-analysis. Supplementation with EPA or EPA + DHA reduced:

  • Coronary Heart disease (defined as diseases caused by atherosclerosis, such as angina, heart attack, and heart failure) by 10%.
  • Heart Attacks by 13%.
  • Coronary Heart disease deaths by 9%.
  • Heart attack deaths by 35%.

Because of the large number of participants in this meta-analysis, they were able to reach some other important conclusions:

  • Despite the claims you may have heard about a new drug consisting of highly purified EPA, this study found no evidence that EPA supplementation was superior to EPA + DHA supplementation.
  • Even though heart medications provide some of the same benefits as omega-3s, this study concluded that omega-3 supplementation reduced the risk of heart disease even for patients on multiple heart medications.
  • This study also concluded that omega-3 supplementation was likely to be effective for people at both low and high risk of heart disease. This means that omega-3 supplementation is likely to be beneficial for preventing heart disease.

The authors concluded: “The current study provides strong evidence that EPA + DHA supplementation is an effective strategy for the prevention of certain coronary heart disease outcomes…Considering the relatively low costs and side effect profiles of omega-3 supplementation and the low drug-drug interactions with other standard therapies…clinicians and patients should consider the potential benefits of omega-3 (EPA/DHA) supplementation…”

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Heart AttackThe most significant conclusions from this study are the reduction in heart attacks and heart attack deaths. That is because:

  • Approximately 1.5 million Americans suffer a heart attack each year. For those who survive their quality of life may be permanently altered.
    • A 13% reduction in heart attacks means that something as simple as EPA + DHA supplementation might prevent as many as 195,000 heart attacks a year.
  • Approximately 100,000 Americans will die from a heart attack each you.
    • A 35% reduction in heart attack deaths means that EPA + DHA supplementation might prevent as many as 35,000 deaths from heart attacks each year.
  • For many Americans sudden death from a heart attack is the first indication that they have heart disease.
    • As Benjamin Franklin said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. That is why EPA + DHA supplementation makes sense for most people.

I can’t say that this study will be the final word on omega-3 supplementation and heart disease risk. However, several recent studies have supported the benefit of omega-3 supplementation at reducing heart disease risk. The pendulum has clearly swung in the direction of omega-3s being beneficial for heart health.

Of course, omega-3 supplementation is not a magic “Get Out of Jail Free” card. You can’t expect it to overcome the effects of a bad diet and lack of exercise with omega-3 supplementation alone. You need a holistic approach.

The American Heart Association recommends:

Doctor With Patient

  • If you smoke, stop.
  • Choose good nutrition.
    • Choose a diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, legumes, non-tropical 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.
  • Lower High Blood Pressure.
  • Be physically active every day.
    • 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.
  • Have a regular physical checkup.

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

How Much Omega-3s Do You Need?

Question MarkAs I mentioned at the beginning of this article the omega-3 dosages used in the studies included in this meta-analysis ranged from 400 mg/day to 5,500 mg/day. More importantly, there were enough participants in these studies to obtain a fairly accurate estimate of dose response. This allow the authors to answer the question, “How much omega-3s do I need?”The study found that:

  • The protective effect of omega-3s for heart attack deaths and coronary heart disease deaths plateaued with dosages of EPA + DHA that exceeded 800 – 1200 mg/day.
  • The dose response of the protective effect of omega-3s for non-fatal heart attacks was linear over a wider range of dosages, with every increase 1,000 mg/day of EPA + DHA decreasing the risk of heart attack by 9%.

Based on the totality of their data, the authors concluded, “…clinicians and patients should consider the potential benefits of omega-3 supplementation, especially using 1,000 to 2,000 mg/day dosages, which are rarely obtained in most Westernized diets, even those including routine fish consumption.”

The Bottom Line

A recent meta-analysis combined the data from 40 clinical studies with over 135,000 participants looking at the effect of omega-3 supplementation on various types of heart disease. The study found that supplementation with EPA or EPA + DHA reduced:

  • Coronary Heart disease (defined as diseases caused by atherosclerosis, such as angina, heart attack, and heart failure) by 10%.
  • Heart Attacks by 13%.
  • Coronary Heart disease deaths by 9%.
  • Heart attack deaths by 35%.

Because of the large number of participants in this meta-analysis, they were able to reach some other important conclusions:

  • This study found no evidence that EPA supplementation was superior to EPA + DHA supplementation.
  • This study concluded that omega-3 supplementation reduced the risk of heart disease even for patients on multiple heart medications.
  • This study also concluded that omega-3 supplementation was likely to be effective for people at both low and high risk of heart disease. This means that omega-3 supplementation is likely to be beneficial for preventing heart disease.
  • The optimal dose of EPA + DHA appeared to be 1,000 – 2,000 mg/day.

The authors of the study concluded: “The current study provides strong evidence that EPA + DHA supplementation is an effective strategy for the prevention of certain coronary heart disease outcomes…Considering the relatively low costs and side effect profiles of omega-3 supplementation and the low drug-drug interactions with other standard therapies…clinicians and patients should consider the potential benefits of omega-3 (EPA/DHA) supplementation, especially using 1,000 to 2,000 mg/day dosages, which are rarely obtained in most Westernized diets, even those including routine fish consumption.”

For more details, including a more detailed discussion of what this study means for you, read the article above.

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

Health Tips From The Professor