Does Olive Oil Help You Live Longer?

Which Fat Is Healthiest?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

If you believe the headlines, olive oil is a superfood. It is often described as the star of the Mediterranean diet. It is referred to as the healthiest of dietary fats. Is this true, or is it hype?

Olive oil’s resume is impressive:

  • It is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which…
    • Are less susceptible to oxidation than polyunsaturated oils.
    • Make our arteries more flexible, which lowers blood pressure.
    • Lower LDL-cholesterol levels, which reduces the risk of heart disease.
  • Extra-virgin olive oil contains phytonutrients and tocopherols (various forms of vitamin E), which…
    • Have anti-inflammatory properties.
    • Improve insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control.
  • Olive oil consumption is also associated with healthier gut bacteria, but it is not clear whether this is due to olive oil or to the fact that a Mediterranean diet is also richer in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Several recent studies have shown that olive oil consumption is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. However, these studies were conducted in Mediterranean countries where the average intake of olive oil (3 tablespoons/day) is much greater than in the United States (0.3 tablespoons/day).

The current study (M Guasch-Ferré et al, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 79: 101-112, 2022) was designed to test whether:

  • The amount of olive oil Americans consume decreases the risk of heart disease.
  • Whether olive oil consumption had benefits beyond a reduction in heart disease risk.

How Was This Study Done? 

Clinical StudyThis study combined data from 60,582 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study and 31,801 men enrolled in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study). The participants:

  • Were free of heart disease and diabetes at the start of the study.
  • Were 56 at the start of the study with an average BMI of 25.6 (Individuals with BMIs in the 25-30 range are considered overweight, so they were at the lowest end of the overweight range).

The Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professional Follow-Up Study are both association studies, meaning they looked at the association between olive oil consumption and health outcomes. They cannot directly prove cause and effect. However, they are very strong association studies because:

  • Every 2 years, participants filled out a questionnaire that updated information on their body weight, smoking status, physical activity, medications, multivitamin use, and physician-diagnosed diseases.
  • Every 4 years, participants filled out a comprehensive food frequency questionnaire.
  • In other words, this study did not just rely on the participant’s lifestyle, dietary intake, and health at the beginning of the study, as so many association studies do. It tracked how each of these variables changed over time.

The participants were followed for an average of 28 years and their average olive oil intake over those 28 years was correlated with all-cause mortality and mortality due to specific diseases.

  • Deaths were identified from state vital statistics, the National Death index, reports by next of kin, or reports by postal authorities.
  • Causes of death were determined by physician review of medical records, medical reports, autopsy reports, or death certificates.

Does Olive Oil Help You Live Longer?

During the 28 years of this study:

  • Olive oil consumption in the United States increased from an average of ~1/3 teaspoon/day to ~1/3 tablespoon/day.
  • Margarine consumption decreased from 12 g/day to ~4 g/day.
  • The consumption of all other fats and oils remained about the same.

As I mentioned above, olive oil consumption was averaged over the life of the study for each individual. When the investigators compared people consuming the highest amount of olive oil (>0.5 tablespoon/day) with people consuming the least olive oil (0 to 1 teaspoon/day):

  • Mortality from all causes was decreased by 35% for the group consuming the most olive oil.

However, the group consuming the most olive oil also was more physically active, had a healthier diet, and consumed more fruits and vegetables than the group who consumed the least olive oil.

  • After correcting for all those factors, mortality from all causes was decreased by 19% for the group consuming the most olive oil.

The authors concluded, “We found that greater consumption of olive oil was associated with lower risk of total…mortality… Our results support current dietary recommendations to increase the intake of olive oil…to improve overall health and longevity.” (I will fill in the blanks in this statement once I have covered other aspects of this study)

The authors also said, “Of note, our study showed that benefits of olive oil can be observed even when consumed in lower amounts than in Mediterranean countries.”

Are There Other Benefits From Olive Oil Consumption?

Mediterranean dietThe study didn’t stop there. The investigators also looked at the effect of olive oil consumption on the major killer diseases in the United States and other developed countries. When they compared the effect of olive oil consumption on cause-specific mortality, they found that the group who consumed the most olive oil reduced their risk of dying from:

  • Cardiovascular disease by 19%.
  • Cancer by 17%
  • Respiratory disease by 18%.
  • Neurodegenerative disease (cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease) by 29%.
    • The reduction in neurodegenerative disease was much greater for women (34% decrease) than for men (19% decrease).

With this information I can fill in one of the blanks in the author’s conclusions: “We found that greater consumption of olive oil was associated with lower risk of total and cause-specific mortality… Our results support current dietary recommendations to increase the intake of olive oil…to improve overall health and longevity.”

Which Fats Are Healthiest?

Good Fat vs Bad FatThe sample size was large enough and the dietary information complete enough for the investigators to also estimate the effect of substituting olive oil for other dietary fats and oils.

They found that every ¾ tablespoon of olive oil substituted for an equivalent amount of:

  • Margarine decreased total mortality by 13%.
  • Butter decreased total mortality by 14%.
  • Mayonnaise deceased total mortality by 19%
  • Dairy fat decreased total mortality by 13%.
    • The same beneficial effects of substituting olive oil for other fats were seen for cause-specific mortality (cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease, and neurodegenerative disease).
    • There was a linear dose-response. This means that substituting twice as much olive oil for other dietary fats doubled the beneficial effects on total and cause-specific mortality.
  • However, substituting olive oil for polyunsaturated vegetable oils had no effect on total and cause-specific mortality.

Now I can fill in the remaining blanks in the author’s conclusion: “We found that greater consumption of olive oil was associated with lower risk of total and cause-specific mortality. Replacing other types of fat, such as margarine, butter, mayonnaise, and dairy fat, with olive oil was also associated with a lower risk of mortality. Our results support current dietary recommendations to increase the intake of olive oil and other unsaturated vegetable oils in place of other fats to improve overall health and longevity.”

What Does This Study Mean For Us?

ConfusionAs I said above, this is an association study, and association studies do not prove cause and effect. However:

1) This is a very strong association study because:

    • It is a very large study (92,383 participants).
    • It followed the participants over a long time (28 years).
    • It utilized a very precise dietary analysis.
    • Most importantly, it tracked the participant’s lifestyle, dietary intake, and health at regular intervals throughout the study. Most association studies only measure these variables at the beginning of the study. They have no idea how they change over time.

2) This study is consistent with several previous studies showing that olive oil consumption decreases the risk of dying from heart disease.

3) This study draws on its large population size and precise dietary analysis to strengthen and extend the previous studies. For example:

    • The study showed that increased olive oil consumption also reduced total mortality and mortality due to cancer, respiratory disease, and neurodegenerative disease.
    • The study measured the effect of substituting olive oil for other common dietary fats.
    • The study showed that increased olive oil consumption in the context of the American diet was beneficial.

I should point out that the headlines you have seen about this study may be misleading.

  • While the headlines may have depicted olive oil as a superfood, this study did not find evidence that olive oil was more beneficial than other unsaturated vegetable oils. Again, this is consistent with many previous studies showing that substituting vegetable oils for other dietary fats reduces the risk of multiple diseases.
  • The headlines focused on the benefits of increasing olive oil consumption. However, they neglected the data showing that increasing olive oil (and other vegetable oils) was even more beneficial (35% reduction in total mortality) in the context of a healthy diet – one with increased intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and long-chain omega-3s and decreased intake of red & processed meats, sodium, and trans fats.

So, my recommendation is to follow a whole food, primarily plant-based diet and substitute extra-virgin olive oil and cold pressed vegetable oils for some of the animal fats in your diet.

Some vegan enthusiasts recommend a very low-fat whole food plant-based diet. They point to studies showing that such diets can actually reverse atherosclerosis. However:

  • Those studies are very small.
  • The overall diet used in those studies is a very healthy plant-based diet.
  • The studies did not include a control group following the same diet with olive oil or other vegetable oils added to it, so there is no comparison of a healthy vegan diet with and without vegetable oils.

If you have read my book, Slaying the Food Myths, you know that my recommendations encompass a variety of whole food, primarily plant-based diets ranging all the way from very-low fat vegan diets to Mediterranean and DASH diets. Choose the one that best fits your food preferences and the one you will be most able to stick with long term. You will be healthier, and you may live longer.

The Bottom Line

A recent study looked at the effect of olive oil consumption on the risk dying from all causes and from heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. When the study compared people consuming the highest amount of olive oil (>0.5 tablespoon/day) with people consuming the least olive oil (0 to 1 teaspoon/day):

  • Mortality from all causes was decreased by 19% for the group consuming the most olive oil.

They also found that the group who consumed the most olive oil reduced their risk of dying from:

  • Cardiovascular disease by 19%.
  • Cancer by 17%
  • Respiratory disease by 18%.
  • Neurodegenerative disease (cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease) by 29%.

They also found that every ¾ tablespoon of olive oil substituted for an equivalent amount of:

  • Margarine decreased total mortality by 13%.
  • Butter decreased total mortality by 14%.
  • Mayonnaise deceased total mortality by 19%
  • Dairy fat decreased total mortality by 13%.
  • However, substituting olive oil for polyunsaturated vegetable oils had no effect on total and cause-specific mortality.

The authors concluded, “We found that greater consumption of olive oil was associated with lower risk of total and cause-specific mortality. Replacing other types of fat, such as margarine, butter, mayonnaise, and dairy fat, with olive oil was also associated with a lower risk of mortality. Our results support current dietary recommendations to increase the intake of olive oil and other unsaturated vegetable oils in place of other fats to improve overall health and longevity.”

For more details and a summary 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.

Is Dairy Bad For Your Heart?

Is Dairy Right For You? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Dairy Bad For Your Heart?

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

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

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

The participants in this study were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results of the study were:

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

When the results were broken down into individual dairy foods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Dairy Right For You?

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Way To Reduce Risk Of Breast Cancer

What Does The American Cancer Society Say About Reducing Breast Cancer Risk? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

breast cancerBreast cancer is a scary disease. The American Cancer Society tells us:

  • 281,000 women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in 2021.
  • 43,000 women will die from breast cancer in 2021.
  • The good news is that both prevention and treatment of breast cancer have gotten much better:
    • The 5-year survival rate is 90%.
    • The 10-year survival rate is 84%.
    • For women over 50 the death rate has decreased by 1%/year between 2013 and 2018 (mainly due to recognition that hormone replacement therapy is a risk factor for breast cancer).
  • The bad news is:
    • The cost of breast cancer treatment can range from $50,000 to over $180,000.
    • The side effects of breast cancer treatment can be brutal.
      • For example, there is an effective treatment to prevent breast cancer recurrence for some forms of breast cancer, but many women discontinue the treatment after a few years because of the side effects.

So, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were some simple changes you could make that would dramatically reduce your risk of developing breast cancer in the first place? There are lots of options for reducing your risk of developing breast cancer, but which one(s) should you choose?

  • Dr. Strangelove and his friends are only too happy to recommend their favorite potion, food, or diet.
  • There are long lists of foods you should avoid if you want to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
  • There are also lists of harmful chemicals in cleaners and other household products that you should avoid.

It can become confusing. It can become overwhelming. It would be easy to just throw up your hands and say, “I give up. I don’t know what to do.”

You may be thinking, “Why doesn’t someone simplify things by identifying the top few lifestyle changes that are most effective for reducing my risk of developing breast cancer?”

It turns out someone has. Today I will share two recent studies that have identified the top 6 strategies for reducing your risk of breast cancer, and I have ranked them from 1 to 6 in order of effectiveness.

What Is The Best Way To Reduce Risk Of Breast Cancer?

AwardThe first study (RM Tamimi et al, American Journal of Epidemiology, 184: 884-893, 2016 was designed to identify the major modifiable risk factors for invasive, postmenopausal breast cancer (The term “modifiable risk factors” refers to those risk factors that are under your control.

The study utilized data collected from the Nurses’ Health Study between 1980 and 2010. During that time 8,421 cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in 121,700 postmenopausal women in the study. The study looked at the effect of nonmodifiable and modifiable risk factors on the development of invasive breast cancer in these women.

  • Nonmodifiable risk factors included current age, age at which menstruation began, height, age of first birth, number of births, weight at age 18, family history of breast cancer, and prior benign breast disease.
  • Modifiable risk factors included weight change since age 18, alcohol consumption, physical activity level, breastfeeding, and postmenopausal hormone therapy use.

Here were the results from the study:

  • All the risk factors included in this study accounted for 70% of the risk of developing invasive breast cancer in postmenopausal women.
  • Modifiable risk factors accounted for 34.6% of the risk of developing invasive breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

When they analyzed the effect of modifiable risk factors on the risk of developing invasive breast cancer separately:

  • 44 pounds of weight gain since age 18 increased the risk by 50%.
  • Postmenopausal hormone replacement use increased the risk by 35%.
  • More than one alcoholic beverage/day increased the risk by 32%.
  • Low physical activity increased the risk by 7%.
  • Lack of breastfeeding increased the risk by 5%.

What About The Effect Of Diet On Breast Cancer Risk?

You may be wondering, “What about the effect of a healthy diet on my risk developing invasive breast cancer?” Unfortunately, the study I described above completely disregarded the effect of diet on breast cancer risk.

However, the second study (MS Farvid et al, International Journal of Cancer, 144: 1496-1510, 2019) I will discuss today partially addresses this issue. It uses the same database as the first study and looks at the effect of fruit and vegetable consumption on the risk of developing invasive breast cancer.

When this study compared high versus low intake of fresh fruits and vegetable on the risk of developing invasive breast cancer:

  • Women eating >5.5 servings/day of fruits and vegetables had a 11% lower risk than women consuming ≤2.5 servings/day.
  • Women consuming >2.5 servings/day of fruit had a 9% lower risk than women consuming ≤0.5 servings/day.
  • Women consuming >4.5 servings/day of vegetables had a 9% lower risk than women consuming ≤0.5 servings/day.

While all fresh fruits and vegetables contributed to this effect:

  • The most protective fruits were berries and cantaloupe & melons.
  • The most protective vegetables were yams & sweet potatoes, green leafy vegetables (such as kale, mustard greens, and chard), and cruciferous vegetables (such as Brussels sprouts).

The authors concluded, “Our findings support that higher intake of fruits and vegetables, and specifically cruciferous and yellow/orange vegetables, may reduce the risk of breast cancer, especially those that are more likely to be aggressive tumors.”

Now we are ready to answer your question, “Which lifestyle changes are most effective for reducing your risk of developing breast cancer?” If we combine the two studies and rank order the modifiable risk factors, it would look like this.

#1: Minimize weight gain during your adult years.

#2: Don’t use postmenopausal hormone replacement therapy unless absolutely necessary.

#3: Drink little or no alcohol.

#4: Eat a healthy diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

#5: Be physically active.

#6: Breastfeed when possible.

What Does The American Cancer Society Say About Reducing The Risk Of Breast Cancer?

American Cancer SocietyThe advice of the American Cancer Society is remarkably similar. Here are their recommendations:

  1. Get to and stay at a healthy weight.

After menopause, most of your estrogen comes from fat tissue. Having more fat tissue increases the amount of estrogen your body makes, raising your risk of breast cancer. Also, women who are overweight tend to have higher levels of insulin. Higher insulin levels have also been linked to breast cancer.

If you are already at a healthy weight, stay there. If you are carrying extra pounds, try to lose some. Losing even a small amount of weight can also have other health benefits and is a good place to start.

3) Be physically active and avoid time spent sitting.

Current recommendations are to get at least 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week. Getting to or exceeding 300 minutes is ideal.

In addition, you should limit sedentary behavior such as sitting, lying down, watching TV, and other forms of screen-based entertainment. This is especially important if you spend most of your working day sitting.

3) Follow a healthy eating plan.

A healthy eating pattern includes a variety of vegetables, fiber-rich legumes (beans and peas), fruits in a variety of colors, and whole grains. It is best to avoid or limit red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, highly processed foods, and refined grain products. This will provide you with key nutrients in amounts that help you get to and stay at a healthy weight.

4) It is best not to drink alcohol.

Research has shown that drinking any alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer. If you choose to drink alcohol, the American Cancer Society recommends that women have no more than 1 alcoholic drink on any given day. A drink is 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.

5) Think carefully about using hormone replacement therapy.

Studies show that HRT using a combination of estrogen and progestin increases the risk of breast cancer. This combination can also lead to increased breast density making it harder to find breast cancer on mammogram.

Talk with your doctor about all the options to control your menopause symptoms, including the risks and benefits of each. If you decide to try HRT, it is best to use it at the lowest dose that works for you and for as short a time as possible.

The Bottom Line

Breast cancer is a scary disease. The good news is that detection and treatment of breast cancer has improved over the past decade. The bad news is that treatment is expensive, and the side effects can be brutal.

There are lots of options for reducing your risk of developing breast cancer, but which one(s) should you choose?

  • Strangelove and his friends are only too happy to recommend their favorite potion, food, or diet.
  • There are long lists of foods you should avoid if you want to reduce your risk of breast cancer.
  • There are also lists of harmful chemicals in cleaners and other household products that you should avoid.

It can become confusing. It can become overwhelming. It would be easy to just throw up your hands and say, “I give up. I don’t know what to do.”

You may be thinking, “Why doesn’t someone simplify things by identifying the top few lifestyle changes that are most effective for reducing my risk of developing breast cancer?”

It turns out someone has. Today I will share two recent studies that have identified the top 6 strategies for reducing your risk of breast cancer, and I have ranked them from 1 to 6 in order of effectiveness in the article above.

For more details about these studies, my ranking of the top 6 strategies for reducing your risk of breast cancer, and the American Cancer Society recommendations, 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 Diet And Gut Bacteria Affect Our Health

Why Is Your Microbiome Important? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Vegan FoodsWe have known for years that primarily plant-based diets are healthy. As I have shared in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, people who consume primarily plant-based diets have lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers and live longer than people who consume the typical American diet.

But why is that?

  • Is it the nutrients, phytonutrients, and fiber plant foods provide?
  • Is it because plant foods are lower in saturated fats and are good sources of healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats?
  • Or is it because plant foods have a low caloric density, which makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight?

The answer, of course, is that all the above are important. But is there something else? Is there a “missing link” we don’t talk about much? Many experts think our microbiome (our gut bacteria) is that missing link.

You have heard the saying, “We are what we eat”. You might be scratching your head and saying, “I could eat cabbages all day long, but I am never going to become a cabbage.” It seems like a crazy saying.

But for our microbiome that saying is true. What we call fiber, our gut bacteria call food. Consequently, microbiomevegetarians and meat eaters have very different populations of gut bacteria in their microbiome. The question, of course, is whether these differences influence our health. This central question has spurred multiple research studies on our microbiome in recent years.

Two central themes have emerged from these studies:

  • There are certain populations of gut bacteria that are associated with healthy outcomes (lower risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers). We can think of these as “good bacteria”.
    • There are certain populations of gut bacteria that are associated with unhealthy outcomes (increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers). We can think of these as “bad bacteria”.
  • People consuming primarily plant-based diets tend to have more of the “good bacteria” and less of the “bad bacteria” in their gut microbiome.

However, most of these studies have been small and have looked at individual foods rather than the effect of the overall diet.

The study (KK Koponen et al, American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition, 2021; doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqab077 I will describe today was designed to overcome those limitations.

Metabolism 101: What Are Short Chain Fatty Acids And Why Are They Important?

professor owlTo fully understand the findings of this study, you need to understand what short chain fatty acids are and why they are important. Simply put, short chain fatty acids are the end products of fiber digestion by some species of gut bacteria in our intestines. The major short chain fatty acids in our intestines are acetate (2 carbons), propionate (3 carbons), and butyrate (4 carbons).

There are the key facts about short chain fatty acids you should know:

  1. They are formed by anaerobic fermentation of dietary fiber by our gut bacteria. However:
    • Not all gut bacteria can produce short chain fatty acids.
    • The amount and type(s) of dietary fiber determine whether the gut bacteria that can produce short chain fatty acids are present.

2) Acetate is readily absorbed into the bloodstream and is utilized for fat production and other biosynthetic pathways.

3) Short chain fatty acids, especially butyrate, are the primary energy source for cells lining the colon. Because of this, they have several important health benefits.

    • They support the immune cells that line our intestine. This helps strengthen our immune system.
    • They help maintain the integrity of the intestinal wall. This helps protect against leaky gut syndrome.
    • They reduce inflammation. This reduces the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
    • They reduce the risk of colon cancer.

4) In addition, small amounts of propionate and butyrate can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Butyrate is of particular interest because it has the potential to regulate gene expression.

    • There is some evidence that short chain fatty acid production in the intestine is correlated with reduced risk of inflammatory diseases, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, but these studies remain controversial.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study made use of data from the FINRISK Study. This study was conducted by the Finnish Institute of Health and Welfare every 5 years between 1972 and 2012 to assess risk factors for noncommunicable diseases, health behavior, and their changes in adult Finns.

This study included 4930 individuals from the 2002 FINRISK assessment. The characteristics of the group were:

  • 53% female, 47% male.
  • Average age = 48.
  • Average BMI = 26.9 (slightly overweight).

Upon entry into the study, the participants were asked to fill out a food frequency questionnaire.

  • The data from this questionnaire were used to calculate a Healthy Food Choices (HFC) score based on the Nordic Nutrition Dietary Guidelines for a healthy diet.
    • The HFC score ranged from 9-745 and was based on the consumption of fiber-rich breads; vegetables (including beans and lentils); fruits; berries; fresh, non- sweetened berry and fruit juices; fish; poultry; low-fat cheeses; salad dressings and oils; nuts; and seeds.
    • In the words of the authors, “A high HFC score effectively acts as an indicator of a healthy omnivorous Nordic diet rich in plants, fiber, and polyunsaturated fatty acids.”
  • The data were also used to calculate a total dietary fiber score.

The participants were also asked to provide a stool sample. DNA was extracted from the stool sample and sequenced to determine the number and types of bacteria in their gut microbiome. These data were analyzed for:

  • Bacterial diversity (greater bacterial diversity is associated with better health outcomes).
  • Species of gut bacteria known to be associated with better health outcomes.
  • Species of bacteria known to produce short chain fatty acids.

How Diet And Gut Bacteria Affect Our Health

MicrobiomeMicrobiome research is complex. But here is a description of the results in simple terms.

Both the Healthy Food Choice (HFC) and fiber scores correlated positively with:

  • Bacterial diversity (greater bacterial diversity is associated with better health outcomes).
  • Species of gut bacteria known to be associated with better health outcomes.
  • Species of bacteria known to produce short chain fatty acids that are associated with better health outcomes.

Simply put, a healthy, primarily plant-based Nordic diet produces the kind of gut microbiome that is associated with better health outcomes.

When the authors analyzed the contribution of individual components of the diet to a healthy microbiome:

  • Vegetables; berries; fruits; fiber-rich breads; salad dressings and oils; low-fat cheeses; poultry; fresh, unsweetened juices; and fish were all positively associated with a healthy microbiome.
    • Each of these foods supported the growth of different gut bacteria that contributed to the healthy microbiome.
    • Simply put, none of these foods was sufficient by itself. It was a healthy diet with all these foods that resulted in a healthy microbiome.
  • Nuts and seeds did not affect the microbiome. This may have been because there was too little of them in the diet to have a significant effect.
  • Red and processed meats were negatively associated with a healthy microbiome.

The authors concluded, “Our results from a large, population-based survey confirm and extend the findings of other, smaller-scale studies that plant- and fiber-rich dietary choices are associated with a more diverse and compositionally distinct microbiome with a greater potential to produce short chain fatty acids.”

The authors also said, “The associated between red and processed meat products and the gut microbiome cannot be ignored either…[Our data] indicate that increased usage of red and processed meat is associated with the microbiome composition in an opposite manner to that of a healthy diet.”

Why Is Your Microbiome Important?

happy gut bacteriaThe most important message from this and previous studies is that your gut microbiome is the “missing link” between a healthy diet and a healthy body.

Simply put,    healthy diet →→→healthy microbiome→→→healthy body

However, I also need to acknowledge microbiome research is in its infancy. That is because our microbiome is very complex:

  • We have around 38 trillion microorganisms (give or take a few trillion) in our intestine. That means we have slightly more microorganisms than we do cells in our body.
  • Each of us have more than 1,000 different species of bacteria in our intestine.
  • Collectively, these bacteria have around 750,000 genes. That is 30 times more than the number of genes in our DNA.
  • Finally, we all have different species of bacteria in our intestines. We are all unique.

The only simplifying principle is that these bacteria exist in communities that generally group together. Unraveling the complexities and identifying the communities of bacteria in our intestines requires high throughput DNA sequencing and supercomputers to analyze the data.

Studies like this one can identify the associations between diet and distinct communities of bacteria. They can even identify which foods in the diet support the growth of these bacterial communities. Other studies can identify the association between distinct communities of bacteria and healthy outcomes.

The strength of this study is that it identifies the kind of diet and the kinds of food that support the communities of bacteria associated with healthy outcomes. However, these are just associations. They don’t tell us why these associations occur. Specifically:

  • We don’t know why certain diets are associated with different communities of gut bacteria. However, we do know several things.
    • High fiber diets are a major driving force in creating a healthy gut microbiome. This is because what we call fiber, our gut bacteria call food.High Fiber Foods
    • The diet should contain a variety of high fiber foods. This is because different kinds of fiber support the growth of different kinds of gut bacteria, and the diversity of our gut microbiome is associated with healthy outcomes. As I have said before, “We have 5 food groups for a reason”.
    • However, the type of fat and the type of protein in the diet also influence the type of bacteria that thrive in our intestines. We know less about why that is.
  • We also don’t know why certain communities of gut bacteria are associated with healthy outcomes.
    • The exception is communities of bacteria that produce short chain fatty acids. We do have a good idea why short chain fatty acids are associated with gut health.

However, the fact we don’t know why these associations occur, doesn’t detract from the strength of these associations.

  • The associations between a healthy, primarily plant-based diet and a healthy microbiome are not based on this study alone. The same associations have been seen in multiple studies.
  • The associations between a healthy microbiome and better health outcomes have also been seen in multiple studies.

The evidence for these associations is too strong to ignore.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanThis study shows that a healthy Nordic diet is associated with a healthy microbiome. “But what is a healthy Nordic diet?”, you might ask. Simply put, it is a whole food, omnivorous, primarily plant-based diet with Scandinavian food preferences.

And, if pickled herring, potato pancakes, and meatballs aren’t your favorite foods, never fear. You have lots of other options:

  • The Mediterranean diet is essentially the same diet with Mediterranean food preferences.
  • The DASH diet is essentially the same diet with American food preferences.
  • You can start with a semi-vegetarian diet and tailor it to your food preferences. Of course, some common sense is required here. You will need to primarily include whole, unprocessed food preferences in your diet.

Let me close with some simple advice I have shared before:

  • We are what we eat. Our microbiome (gut bacteria) reflects what we eat.
  • What we call fiber, our gut bacteria call food. A primarily plant-based diet is best because our friendly gut bacteria thrive on the fiber it provides.
  • We have 5 food groups for a reason. Each plant food group provides different kinds of fiber and feeds different families of friendly gut bacteria. We eliminate plant food groups at our peril.
  • We should think of red meat as a condiment, not a main course. Plants contain antidotes to many of the harmful ingredients in red meat. Two to three ounces of steak as part of a green salad or stir fry is much healthier than an 8-ounce steak and fries.

The Bottom Line

Most previous studies on the effect of diet on our microbiome have been small and have looked at individual foods rather than the effect of the overall diet. In this week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” I report on a large, well-designed study that examined the effect of a healthy Nordic diet on our microbiome.

In case you were wondering, the investigators defined a healthy Nordic diet as a whole food diet that:

  • Includes lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and is, therefore, high in fiber.
  • Uses fish, poultry, and low-fat cheeses as its primary protein source.
  • Minimizes red and processed meats.
  • Has more polyunsaturated oils than saturated fats.
  • Reflects Scandinavian food preferences.

This study found that a healthy Nordic diet correlated positively with:

  • Bacterial diversity (greater bacterial diversity is associated with better health outcomes).
  • Species of gut bacteria known to be associated with better health outcomes.
  • Species of bacteria known to produce short chain fatty acids that are associated with better gut health outcomes.

Simply put, a healthy, primarily plant-based Nordic diet produces the kind of gut microbiome that is associated with better health outcomes. To put this into perspective, a healthy Nordic diet is similar to a healthy Mediterranean diet or a healthy DASH diet except that the Mediterranean diet reflects Mediterranean food preferences, and the Dash diet reflects American food preferences.

The most important message from this and previous studies is that your gut microbiome is the “missing link” between a healthy diet and a healthy body.

Simply put,    healthy diet →→→healthy microbiome→→→healthy body

I summed up the article with some simple advice I have shared before:

  • We are what we eat. Our microbiome (gut bacteria) reflects what we eat.
  • What we call fiber, our gut bacteria call food. A primarily plant-based diet is best because our friendly gut bacteria thrive on the fiber it provides.
  • We have 5 food groups for a reason. Each plant food group provides different kinds of fiber and feeds different families of friendly gut bacteria. We eliminate plant food groups at our peril.
  • We should think of red meat as a condiment, not a main course. Plants contain antidotes to many of the harmful ingredients in red meat. Two to three ounces of steak as part of a green salad or stir fry is much healthier than an 8-ounce steak and fries.

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

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

 

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.

Which Diets Are Best In 2021?

Which Diet Should You Choose?

Emoticon-BadMany of you started 2021 with goals of losing weight and/or improving your health. In many cases, that involved choosing a new diet. That was only 2 months ago, but it probably feels like an eternity.

For many of you the “bloom” has gone off the new diet you started so enthusiastically in January.

  • Perhaps the diet isn’t working as well as advertised…
  • Perhaps the diet is too restrictive. You are finding it hard to stick with…
  • Perhaps you are always hungry or constantly fighting food cravings…
  • Perhaps you are starting to wonder whether there is a better diet than the one you chose in January…
  • Perhaps you are wondering whether the diet you chose is the wrong one for you…

If you are rethinking your diet, you might want to know which diets the experts recommend. Unfortunately, that’s not as easy as it sounds. The diet world has become just as divided as the political world.

Fortunately, you have an impartial resource. Each year US News & World Report invites a panel of experts with different points of view to evaluate popular diets. They then combine the input from all the experts into rankings of the diets in various categories.

If you are still searching for your ideal diet, I will summarize the US News & World Report’s “Best Diets In 2021”. For the full report, click on this link.

How Was This Report Created?

Expert PanelUS News & World Report recruited panel of 25 nationally recognized experts in diet, nutrition, obesity, food psychology, diabetes, and heart disease to review the 39 most popular diets.  They rated each diet in seven categories:

  • How easy it is to follow.
  • Its ability to produce short-term weight loss.
  • Its ability to produce long-term weight loss.
  • its nutritional completeness.
  • Its safety.
  • Its potential for preventing and managing diabetes.
  • Its potential for preventing and managing heart disease.

They converted the experts’ ratings to scores 5 (highest) to 1 (lowest). They then used these scores to construct nine sets of Best Diets rankings:

  • Best Diets Overall combines panelists’ ratings in all seven categories. However, all categories were not equally weighted. Short-term and long-term weight loss were combined, with long-term ratings getting twice the weight. Why? A diet’s true test is whether it can be sustained for years. And safety was double counted because no diet should be dangerous.
  • Best Commercial Diets uses the same approach to rank 15 structured diet programs that require a participation fee or promote the use of branded food or nutritional products.
  • Best Weight-Loss Diets was generated by combining short-term and long-term weight-loss ratings, weighting both equally. Some dieters want to drop pounds fast, while others, looking years ahead, are aiming for slow and steady. Equal weighting accepts both goals as worthy.
  • Best Diabetes Diets is based on averaged diabetes ratings.
  • Best Heart-Healthy Diets uses averaged heart-health ratings.
  • Best Diets for Healthy Eating combines nutritional completeness and safety ratings, giving twice the weight to safety. A healthy diet should provide sufficient calories and not fall seriously short on important nutrients or entire food groups.
  • Easiest Diets to Follow represents panelists’ averaged judgments about each diet’s taste appeal, ease of initial adjustment, ability to keep dieters from feeling hungry and imposition of special requirements.
  • Best Plant-Based Diets uses the same approach as Best Diets Overall to rank 12 plans that emphasize minimally processed foods from plants.
  • Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets is based on short-term weight-loss ratings.

Which Diets Are Best In 2021?

The word WInner in white letters surrounded by a burst of colorful stars in 3d

Are you ready? If this were an awards program I would be saying “Envelop please” and would open the envelop slowly to build suspense.

However, I am not going to do that. Here are the top 5 and bottom 5 diets in each category (If you would like to see where your favorite diet ranked, click on this link). [Note: I excluded commercial diets from this review.]

Best Diets Overall 

The Top 5: 

#1: Mediterranean Diet

#2: DASH Diet (This diet was designed to keep blood pressure under control, but you can also think of it as an Americanized version of the Mediterranean diet.)

#3: Flexitarian Diet (A flexible semi-vegetarian diet).

#4: Mayo Clinic Diet

#5: MIND Diet (This diet is a combination of Mediterranean and DASH but is specifically designed to reduce cognitive decline as we age.)

The Bottom 5: 

#35: Modified Keto Diet

#36: Whole 30 Diet

#37: GAPS Diet (A diet designed to improve gut health).

#38: Keto Diet

#39: Dukan Diet

Best Weight-Loss DietsWeight Loss

The Top 5: 

#1: Flexitarian Diet

#2: Vegan Diet

#3: Volumetrics Diet (A diet based on the caloric density of foods).

#4: Mayo Clinic Diet

#5: Ornish Diet

The Bottom 5: 

#35: Fertility Diet

#36: Whole 30 Diet

#37: Alkaline Diet

#38: AIP Diet (A diet designed for people with autoimmune diseases)

#39: GAPS Diet

Best Diabetes Diets

The Top 5: 

#1: Flexitarian Diet

#2: Mediterranean Diet

#3: DASH Diet

#4: Mayo Clinic Diet

#5: Vegan Diet

The Bottom 5: 

#35: The Fast Diet

#36: AIP Diet

#37: GAPS Diet

#38: Whole 30 Diet (A diet designed for people with autoimmune diseases)

#39: Dukan Diet

strong heartBest Heart-Healthy Diets 

The Top 5: 

#1: DASH Diet

#2: Mediterranean Diet

#3: Ornish Diet (A diet based on the caloric density of foods).

#4: Flexitarian Diet

#5: Vegan Diet

The Bottom 5: 

#35: Keto Diet

#36: AIP Diet

#37: Whole 30 Diet

#38: Modified Keto Diet

#39: GAPS Diet

Best Diets for Healthy Eating

The Top 5: 

#1: DASH Diet

#2: Mediterranean Diet

#3: Flexitarian Diet

#4: TLC Diet (A diet designed to promote heart health)

#5: MIND Diet

The Bottom 5: 

#35: Atkins Diet

#36: Raw Food Diet

#37: Modified Keto Diet

#38: Dukan Diet

#39: Keto Diet 

Easiest Diets to FollowEasy

The Top 5: 

#1: Mediterranean Diet

#2: Flexitarian Diet

#3: MIND Diet

#4: DASH Diet

#5: Fertility Diet

The Bottom 5: 

#35: Keto Diet and Modified Keto Diet (tie)

#36: Whole 30 Diet

#37: Dukan Diet

#38: GAPS Diet

#39: Raw Foods Diet 

Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets

The Top 5 (Excluding Commercial Diets): 

#1: Atkins Diet

#2: Biggest Loser Diet

#3: Keto Diet

#4: Raw Food Diet

#5: Volumetrics Diet

Which Diets Are Best For Rapid Weight Loss?

Happy woman on scaleLet me start with some general principles:

#1: If you are looking for rapid weight loss, any whole food restrictive diet will do.

  • The Atkins and keto diets are meat heavy, low carb diets. They restrict fruits, some vegetables, grains, and most legumes.
  • The Biggest Loser diet relies on restrictive meal plan and exercise programs.
  • The restrictions of the raw food diet are obvious.
  • The volumetrics diet restricts foods with high caloric density.
  • The vegan diet, which ranks #7 on this list, is a very low fat diet that eliminates meat, dairy, eggs, and animal fats.
  • I did not include commercial diets that rated high on this list, but they are all restrictive in one way or another.

#2: Restrictive diets ultimately fail.

  • The truth is 90-95% of people who lose weight quickly on a restrictive diet regain most of that weight in the next two years. The pounds come back and often bring their friends along as well. Many people regain more weight than they lost. This is the famous “Yo-Yo Effect”.
  • If dieters paid for one of the commercial diets, they may as well have burned their money.
  • When I talk with people about weight loss, many of them tell me the Atkins diet is the only one they can lose weight on. That would be impressive if they were at a healthy weight, but most are not. They are overweight. I am starting to see the same thing from overweight people who have used the keto diet to lose weight and have regained their weight.

#3: We should ask what happens when we get tired of restrictive diets and add back some of your favorite foods.

  • If you lose weight on a vegan diet and add back some of your favorite foods, you might end up with a semi-vegetarian diet. This is a healthy diet that can help you maintain your weight loss.
  • If you lose weight on the Atkins or keto diets and add back some of your favorite foods, you end up with the typical American diet – one that is high in both fat and carbs. This is not a recipe for long-term success.
  • Long term weight loss is possible if you transition to a healthy diet after you have lost the weight. In a recent article in “Health Tips From The Professor” I wrote about an organization called the National Weight Control Registry. These are people who have been successful at keeping the weight off. For purposes of this discussion, two points are important.
  • They lost weight on every possible diet.
  • They kept the weight off by following a healthy reduced calorie, low fat diet. (For what else they did, click here).

Which Diet Should You Choose?

Which Diet Is BestWith rapid weight loss out of the way, let’s get back to the question, “Which Diet Should You Choose?” My recommendations are:

  • Choose a diet that fits your needs. That is one of the things I like best about the US News & World Report ratings. The diets are categorized. If your main concern is diabetes, choose one of the top diets in that category. If your main concern is heart health… You get the point.
  • Choose diets that are healthy and associated with long term weight loss. If that is your goal, you will notice that primarily plant-based diets top these lists. Meat-based, low carb diets like Atkins and keto are near the bottom of the lists.
  • Choose diets that are easy to follow. The less-restrictive primarily plant-based diets top this list – diets like Mediterranean, DASH, MIND, and flexitarian.
  • Choose diets that fit your lifestyle and dietary preferences. For example, if you don’t like fish and olive oil, you will probably do much better with the DASH or flexitarian diet than with the Mediterranean diet.
  • Finally, focus on what you have to gain, rather than on foods you have to give up.
    • On the minus side, none of the diets include sodas, junk foods, and highly processed foods. Teose foods should go on your “No-No” list. Sweets should be occasional treats and only as part of a healthy meal. Meat, especially red meat, should become a garnish rather than a main course.
    • On the plus side, primarily plant-based diets offer a cornucopia of delicious plant foods you probably didn’t even know existed. Plus, for any of the top-rated plant-based diets, there are websites and books full of mouth-watering recipes. Be adventurous.

The Bottom Line 

For many of you the “bloom” has gone off the new diet you started so enthusiastically in January. If you are rethinking your diet, you might want to know which diets the experts recommend. Unfortunately, that’s not as easy as it sounds. The diet world has become just as divided as the political world.

Fortunately, you have an impartial resource. Each year US News & World Report invites a panel of experts with different points of view to evaluate popular diets. They then combine the input from all the experts into rankings of the diets in various categories. In the article above I summarize the US News & World Report’s “Best Diets In 2021”.

There are probably two questions at the top of your list.

#1: Which diets are best for rapid weight loss? Here are some general principles:

  • If you are looking for rapid weight loss, any whole food restrictive diet will do.
  • Restrictive diets ultimately fail.
  • We should ask what happens when we get tired of restrictive diets and add back some of our favorite foods.
  • Long term weight loss is possible if you transition to a healthy diet after you have lost the weight.

#2: Which diet should you choose? Here the principles are:

  • Choose a diet that fits your needs.
  • Choose diets that are healthy and associated with long term weight loss.
  • Choose diets that are easy to follow.
  • Choose diets that fit your lifestyle and dietary preferences.
  • Finally, focus on what you have to gain, rather than on foods you have to give up.

For more details on the diet that is best 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 Do The US Dietary Guidelines Say About Supplementation?

What Do The US Dietary Guidelines Say About Your Diet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

US Dietary Guidelines 2020-2025Science is always changing, and nutritional science is no different. As we learn more, our concept of the “ideal diet” is constantly evolving. Because of that, the USDA and the US Department of Health & Human Services produce a new set of Dietary Guidelines for Americans every 5 years.

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans have just been released. As usual, the process started with a panel of 20 internationally recognized scientists who produced a comprehensive report on the current state of nutritional science and made recommendations for updated dietary guidelines. After a period of public comment, the dietary guidelines were published.

There were two new features of the 2020-2025 Guidelines:

  • They provided dietary guidelines for every life stage from 6 months of life to adults over 60.
  • The guidelines also addressed personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary concerns in so that each of us can develop a healthy diet that fits our lifestyle.

What Do The US Dietary Guidelines Say About Your Diet?

Here are the 2020-2025 Guidelines in a nutshell:healthy foods

  • Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.
  • Customize and enjoy nutrient-dense food and beverage choices to reflect personal preferences, cultural traditions, and budgetary considerations.
  • Focus on meeting food group needs with nutrient-dense foods and beverages and stay within calorie limits. They went on to say, “A healthy dietary pattern consists of nutrient-dense forms of foods and beverages across all food groups [emphasis mine], in recommended amounts, and within calorie limits.”

They said, “the core elements that make up a healthy dietary pattern include:”

    • Vegetables of all types – dark green, red, and orange vegetables; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy vegetables; and other vegetables.
    • Fruits – especially whole fruits.
    • Grains – at least half of which are whole.
    • Dairy – including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese; lactose-free versions; and fortified soy beverages and soy yogurt as alternatives. [Other plant-based milk and yogurt foods were not recommended because they do not provide as much protein as dairy. So, they were not considered equivalent foods.]
    • Protein foods – including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products.
    • Oils – including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts.
  • Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium; and limit No Fast Foodalcoholic beverages. Their specific recommendations are:
    • Added sugars – less than 10% of calories/day starting at age 2. Avoid foods and beverages with added sugars for those younger than 2.
    • Saturated fat – Less than 10% of calories starting at age 2.
    • Sodium – Less than 2,300 mg per day – even less for children younger than 14.
    • Alcoholic beverages – Adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men and 1 drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed. Drinking less is better for health than drinking more. There are some adults who should not drink alcohol, such as women who are pregnant.

For more details, read the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Dark Side Of The US Dietary Guidelines

Darth VaderThe US Dietary Guidelines point Americans in the right direction, but they are never as strong as most nutrition experts would like. The 2025 Dietary Guidelines are no exception. They have two major limitations:

#1: The food industry has watered down the guidelines. This happens every time a new set of guidelines are released. The food and beverage lobbies provide their input during the public comment period. And because they fund a significant portion of USDA research, their input carries a lot of weight. Here are the 3 places where they altered the recommendations of the scientific panel:

  • The scientific panel recommended that Americans decrease the intake of added sugar from 13% of daily calories to 6%. The final dietary guidelines recommended reducing sugar to 10% of daily calories.
  • The scientific panel recommended that both men and women limit alcoholic drinks to one a day. The final dietary guidelines recommended men limit alcoholic drinks to two a day.
  • The scientific panel included these statements in their report:
    • “Dietary patterns characterized by higher intake of red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, and refined grains are…associated with detrimental health outcomes.”
    • “Replacing processed or high fat-meats…with seafood could help lower intake of saturated fat and sodium, nutrients that are often consumed in excess of recommended limits.”
    • “Replacing processed or high-fat meats with beans, peas, and lentils would have similar benefits.”

These statements are included in the final report, but they are buried in portions of the report that most people are unlikely to read. The summary that most people will read recommends shifts in protein consumption to “add variety” to the diet.

#2: The guidelines do not address sustainability and do not explicitly promote a shift to more Planetary Dietplant-based diets. Again, this was based on input from food lobby groups who argued that sustainability has nothing to do with nutrition.

If you are concerned about climate change and the degradation of our environment caused by our current farming practices, this is a significant omission.

I have covered this topic in a recent issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here is a brief summary:

  • In 2019 a panel of international scientists was asked to conduct a comprehensive study on our diet and its effect on both our health and our environment.
  • The scientific panel carefully evaluated diet and food production methods and asked three questions:
    • Are they good for us?
    • Are they good for the planet?
    • Are they sustainable? Will they be able to meet the needs of the projected population of 10 billion people in 2050 without degrading our environment.
  • They developed dietary recommendations popularly known as the “Planetary Diet”. Here are the characteristics of the planetary diet.
    • It starts with a vegetarian diet. Vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, soy foods, and whole grains are the foundation of the diet.
    • It allows the option of adding one serving of dairy a day.
    • It allows the option of adding one 3 oz serving of fish or poultry or one egg per day.
    • It allows the option of swapping seafood, poultry, or egg for a 3 oz serving of red meat no more than once a week. If you want a 12 oz steak, that would be no more than once a month.

Unless you are a vegan, this diet is much more restrictive than you are used to. However, if you, like so many Americans believe that climate change is an existential threat, I would draw your attention to one of the concluding statements from the panel’s report.

  • “Reaching the Paris Agreement of limiting global warming…is not possible by only decarbonizing the global energy systems. Transformation to healthy diets from sustainable food systems is essential to achieving the Paris Agreement.”

In other words, we can do everything else right, but if we fail to change our diet, we cannot avoid catastrophic global warming.

What Do The US Dietary Guidelines Say About Supplementation?

MultivitaminsThe authors of the 2020-2025 US Dietary Guidelines have relatively little to say about supplementation. However:

  • They list nutrients that are of “public health concern” for each age group. Nutrients of public health concern are nutrients that:
    • Are underconsumed in the American diet.
    • Are associated with health concerns when their intake is low.
  • They state that “dietary supplements may be useful in providing one or more nutrients that otherwise might be consumed in less than recommended amounts.”
  • They recommend specific supplements for several age groups.

Here are their nutrients of public health concern and recommended supplements for each age group:

#1: General population.

  • Nutrients of public health concern are calcium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D. They state that supplementation may be useful for meeting these needs.

#2: Breast Fed Infants.

  • Supplementation with 400 IU/day of vitamin D is recommended shortly after birth.

#3: Vegetarian Toddlers.

  • Iron and vitamin B12 are nutrients of concern.

#4: Children & Adolescents.

  • Calcium and vitamin D are nutrients of concern. Dairy and/or fortified soy alternatives are recommended to help meet these needs.
  • Iron, folate, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and magnesium are also nutrients of concern for adolescent females.

#5: Adults (Ages 19-59).

  • 30% of men and 60% of women do not consume enough calcium and 90% of both men and women do not get enough vitamin D.

#6: Pregnant & Lactating Women:

  • Calcium, vitamin D, and fiber are nutrients of concern for all women in this age group.
  • In addition, women who are pregnant have special needs for folate/folic acid, iron, iodine, and vitamin D.
  • Women who are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant should take a daily prenatal vitamin and mineral supplement to meet folate/folic acid, iron, iodine, and vitamin D needs during pregnancy. They go on to say that many prenatal supplements do not contain iodine, so it is important to read the label.
  • All women who are planning or capable of pregnancy should take a daily supplement containing 400 to 800 mcg of folic acid.

#7: Older Adults (≥ 60).

  • Nutrients of concern for this age group include calcium, vitamin D, fiber, protein, and vitamin B12.
  • About 50% of women and 30% of men in this age group do not get enough protein in their diet.

My Perspective:

The US Dietary Guidelines use foods of public health concern as the only basis for recommending Supplementation Perspectivesupplementation. I prefer a more holistic approach that includes increased needs, genetic predisposition, and preexisting diseases as part of the equation (see the diagram on the right). I have discussed this concept in depth in a previous issue of “Health Tips From The Professor”.

I have also taken this concept and made supplement recommendations for various health goals in a free eBook called “Your Design For Healthy Living”.

Some people may feel I should have included more supplements in my recommendations. Others may feel I should have included fewer supplements in my recommendations. No list pf recommend supplements is perfect, but I have tried to include those supplements supported by good scientific evidence in my recommendations.

The Bottom Line 

The USDA and Department of Health & Human Services have just released the 2020-2025 US Dietary Guideline. In the article above I have summarized:

  • Their recommendations for a healthy diet.
  • Their recommendations for supplementation.
  • The dark side of the US Dietary Guidelines.

For more details, read the article above.

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

Does Eating Plant Protein Help You Live Longer?

Are Whole Grains Heart Healthy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Was The Study Done?

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

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

The basic characteristics of the study population were:

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

In terms of protein intake:

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

The major sources of animal protein in the diet were:

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

The major sources of plant protein in the diet were:

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

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

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

Does Eating Plant Protein Help You Live Longer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which Animal Proteins Are Least Heart Healthy?

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

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

Are Whole Grains Heart Healthy?

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

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

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

Why Do Animal Proteins Increase Your Risk Of Premature Death?

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

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

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

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

EggsEggs

Mechanism:

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

Perspective:

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

Red Meatfatty steak

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

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

Perspective:

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

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

Perspective:

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

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

Mechanisms:

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

Why Do Plant Proteins Decrease Your Risk Of Premature Death?

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

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

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

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

Mechanism:

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

Perspective:  

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

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

What Does This Study Mean For You?

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can DNA Testing Help You Lose Weight?

How Does DNA Testing Work Best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Was The Study Done?

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

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

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

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

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

Can DNA Testing Help You Lose Weight?

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

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

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

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

How Does DNA Testing Work Best?

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

There are, however, several caveats to this conclusion.

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are, however, several caveats to this conclusion.

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

For more details read the article above.

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

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

What Is Nutritionism?

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

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

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

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

What Is Nutritionism?

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

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

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

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

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

The essence of Michael Pollan’s message is:

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

I will discuss these points below.

Which Foods Should I Avoid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Does This Mean To You?

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

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

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

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

What Does The Bible Say?

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

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

Interesting.

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Health Tips From The Professor