Do Supplements Interfere With Chemotherapy?

Should You Avoid Supplement Use During Chemotherapy?

cancerSince much of my research career was devoted to cancer research, specifically developing new chemotherapeutic drugs for treating cancer, many of you have asked me the question: “Do food supplements interfere with chemotherapy?”

My answer has always been that it is theoretically possible, but that we don’t really know the answer because the necessary studies have not been done.

However, I do know that most cancer drugs are retained in the body for a short period of time. So, my pragmatic advice has always been to avoid supplementation for a day or two before to a day or two after each round of chemotherapy. That is a strategy designed to minimize the possibility that supplementation would interfere with chemotherapy and maximize the possibility that supplementation might aid in recovery between rounds of chemotherapy.

That is why I was interested when I saw the recent headlines claiming certain supplements may interfere with chemotherapy for breast cancer. I wanted to find out if someone had finally done a definitive study on the effect of supplementation on chemotherapy.

So, I have reviewed the study (CB Ambrosone et al, Journal of Clinical Oncology, 38, 804-815, 2020) behind the headlines and will share what I discovered.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was an offshoot of a much larger Phase III clinical trial designed to determine the best schedule for administering three drugs (doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide, and paclitaxel) to patients with high-risk early-stage breast cancer.

The 1,134 patients enrolled in this study were given questionnaires on their use of supplements when they registered for the study to determine supplement use prior to the study. They were also given questionnaires when they completed chemotherapy to determine supplement use during chemotherapy.

The questionnaires documented use of:

  • Multivitamins
  • The antioxidants vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, carotenoids, and coenzyme Q10.
  • Vitamin D.
  • The B vitamins vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folic acid.
  • The minerals iron and calcium.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Glucosamine, melatonin, and acidophilus.

Recurrence of the breast cancer and death from breast cancer were measured 6 months after chemotherapy ended.

Do Supplements Interfere With Chemotherapy?

Questioning WomanThe study reported:

  • The number of patients using individual antioxidant supplements was too low to determine whether individual antioxidants had any effect on treatment outcomes.
  • When the patients using any antioxidant supplement were pooled into a single group, there was a nonsignificant association between antioxidant supplement use during chemotherapy and an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence and death from breast cancer.
  • Iron use during chemotherapy was significant associated with an increased risk of breast cancer recurrence.
  • Vitamin B12 use during chemotherapy was significantly associated with increased risk of breast cancer recurrence and death from breast cancer.
  • Multivitamin use was not associated with either recurrence or death from breast cancer.
  • The number of patients using the other supplements was too low to determine whether those supplements had any effect on treatment outcomes.

The authors concluded: “Associations between survival outcomes and use of antioxidant and other dietary supplements are consistent with recommendations for caution among patients when considering the use of supplements, other than a multivitamin, during chemotherapy.”

This is the conclusion that generated the headlines you may have seen.

However, in their discussion the authors conceded that a previous review concluded that, “…insufficient evidence existed with regard to the safety of dietary supplements [during chemotherapy] to make recommendations, and that still may be the case.”

I will discuss the reasons for their disclaimer below. However, I will point out that disclaimers like this never seem to make it into the headlines you read.

What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of This Study?

strengths and weaknessesThe only strength of this study is that it was performed in the context of an ongoing clinical trial, with surveys conducted before chemotherapy and during chemotherapy to assess supplement use.

However, the study had multiple weaknesses that limit the ability to draw any firm conclusions from the study.

#1: The number of people using supplements in this study was very small. For example:

  • Only 200 people took any antioxidants during chemotherapy.
  • Only 137 people took a vitamin B12 supplement during chemotherapy.
  • Only 109 people took an iron supplement during chemotherapy.

To put this into perspective, if a drug company were submitting a new drug for approval to the FDA, they would be required to submit data from ~50-100-fold more cancer patients to prove that the drug was effective.

With this small number of supplement users, even “statistically significant” observations are questionable.

In contrast, the number of people taking a multivitamin during chemotherapy was 497. Thus, those data were a little stronger than the data for individual supplements.

#2: They did not ask why people were taking supplements. It turns out that the patients who used supplements were older and sicker. They were more likely to be overweight and to have type 2 diabetes.

These are patients who are also more likely to have poor outcomes from chemotherapy. The authors tried to correct for that, but it is virtually impossible to make these corrections when the number of patients taking supplements is so low.

#3: They did not ask about the dose of supplements people were taking.

  • Multivitamins typically contain RDA levels of antioxidants and vitamin B12, so it would be safe to assume that RDA levels of antioxidants and vitamin B12 are safe during chemotherapy.
  • Approximately 50% of the women in the study were premenopausal, so it is likely that they were taking a multivitamin with iron. That suggests that RDA levels of iron are safe during chemotherapy for premenopausal women.

In short, the association between supplement use and poorer outcomes from chemotherapy is tenuous. If there is any association, it is likely with high dose individual supplements rather the lower levels of the same nutrients found in a multivitamin.

Is An Effect Of Supplement Use On Chemotherapy Plausible?

As a biochemist, the next question I ask is whether there is a plausible mechanism for an effect of any of these Look forsupplements on chemotherapy outcomes.

  • For two of the drugs in the regimen (paclitaxel and cyclophosphamide), free radical formation may contribute to their effectiveness, but it is not their main mechanism of action. Thus, it is plausible that high dose antioxidant supplements could make these drugs less effective, but the effect should be relatively small.
  • Tumors require high amounts of iron for proliferation, so it is plausible that excess iron could make tumors more resistant to chemotherapy. However, for premenopausal women, multivitamins with iron did not interfere with the drugs used in this study. Thus, it appears likely that RDA levels of iron, where appropriate, do not interfere with chemotherapy.
  • The authors said that the reason for the observed effects of vitamin B12 on chemotherapy in their study “remains to be understood”. However, the answer might be found in the dosage of vitamin B12. A previous study reported that doses of vitamin B12 that were greater than 20 times the RDA increased the risk of lung cancer.

If people in this study were taking doses of vitamin B12 in excess of 20 times the RDA, it would provide a plausible explanation for B12 interfering with chemotherapy. If not, there is no known explanation. In any case, I do not recommend taking such high doses of any supplement.

Should You Avoid Supplement Use During Chemotherapy?

AvoidNow, let’s get back to the original question: “Should you avoid supplement use during chemotherapy?” If you read the headlines saying, “Supplement Use During Chemotherapy May Be Risky”, you might think that the answer is an unqualified yes. That is also what your doctor is likely to think.

However, when you analyze the study behind the headlines you realize that the evidence supporting the headlines is very weak.

So, that puts us back to where we were before the study was published. Simply put:

  • It is theoretically possible that supplements interfere with chemotherapy, but we don’t know for sure.
  • A pragmatic approach is to avoid supplementation for a day or two before to a day or two after each round of chemotherapy. This is a strategy designed to minimize the possibility that supplementation would interfere with chemotherapy and maximize the possibility that supplementation might aid in recovery between rounds of chemotherapy.

Note: This is generic advice. I am not a medical doctor, so it would be unethical for me to provide individualized advice on how to minimize interactions between supplements and chemotherapy. What I recommend is that you ask your doctor whether my generic recommendations make sense for your cancer and your drug regimen.

If this study advanced our knowledge at all, it would be that:

  • The supplements most likely to interfere with chemotherapy appear to be high dose antioxidants, vitamin B12, and iron supplements.
  • Multivitamins, even multivitamins with iron when appropriate, are unlikely to interfere with chemotherapy.

The Bottom Line 

Recent headlines have warned, “Supplement Use During Chemotherapy May Be Risky”. Is that true?

However, when you analyze the study behind the headlines you realize that the evidence supporting the headlines is very weak.

So, that puts us back to where we were before the study was published. Simply put:

  • It is theoretically possible that supplements interfere with chemotherapy, but we don’t know for sure.
  • A pragmatic approach is to avoid supplementation for a day or two before to a day or two after each round of chemotherapy. This is a strategy designed to minimize the possibility that supplementation would interfere with chemotherapy and maximize the possibility that supplementation might aid in recovery between rounds of chemotherapy.

Note: This is generic advice. I am not a medical doctor, so it would be unethical for me to provide individualized advice on how to minimize interactions between supplements and the chemotherapy drugs you are on. What I recommend is that you ask your doctor whether my generic recommendations make sense for your cancer and your drug regimen.

If this study advanced our knowledge at all, it would be that:

  • The supplements most likely to interfere with chemotherapy appear to be high dose antioxidants, vitamin B12, and iron supplements.
  • Multivitamins, even multivitamins with iron when appropriate, are unlikely to interfere with chemotherapy.

For more details read the article above.

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

 

Do Processed Foods Increase Your Risk Of Diabetes?

Why Do We Keep Eating Processed Foods?

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

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

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

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

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

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

How Was The Study Done?

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

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

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

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

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

Do Processed Foods Increase Your Risk Of Diabetes?

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

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

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

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

The authors concluded:

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

What Does This Study Mean For You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Do We Keep Eating Processed Foods?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more details and a discussion of why Americans continue to eat ultra-processed food even though we know it is bad for us, read the article above.

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

Diet And Cancer Risk

What Can You Do To Reduce Your Risk Of Cancer?

Magic WandIt seems like everyone has a magic pill, essential oil, food, or diet that prevents cancer. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that all the claims can’t be true. No wonder you are confused. You want to know:

  • Which of these claims are true?
  • What can you do to reduce your risk of cancer?

These aren’t trivial questions.

  • Cancer is the second leading cause of death in this country, and some experts predict it will surpass heart disease as the leading cause of death in the near future.
  • While cancer treatments have become much more effective in the past few decades, these treatment successes are often associated with severe side-effects, enormous expense, or both.

That is why I was intrigued by a recent study (FF Zhang et al, JNCI Cancer Spectrum (2019) 3(2): pkz034) on diet and cancer that came from the prestigious Friedman School of Nutrition and Public Policy at Tufts University. This study asked two important questions:

  • How many newly diagnosed cancer cases could have been prevented by changes in the American diet? This is something the authors referred to as the “preventable cancer burden associated with poor diet”.
  • Which foods increased or decreased the risk of cancer? This, of course, is the most useful information for you and me.

Diet And Cancer Risk

Diet And CancerThis study estimated that 80,110 new cancer cases among US adults 20 and older could be primarily attributed to poor diet. While poor diet contributes to many more cancers, the authors of this study felt 80,110 represented the number of cancer cases that were clearly preventable by some simple dietary changes.

While all cancers were affected by diet to some degree, the cancers most affected by poor diet were:

  • Colon cancer (65% of cases)
  • Mouth and throat cancer (18% of cases)
  • Endometrial cancer (4.0% of cases)
  • Breast cancer (3.8% of cases)

When the diet was broken down into individual food groups:

  • Low intake of whole grains was associated with the largest number of preventable cancer cases (35% of cases). This was followed by.
  • Low intake of dairy foods (22% of cases).
  • High intake of processed meats (18% of cases).
  • Low intake of vegetables (16% of cases).
  • Low intake of fruits (10% of cases).
  • High intake of red meat (7.1% of cases).
  • High intake of sugar sweetened beverages (4.0% of cases).

Of the diet-associated cancer cases, the scientists who lead the study estimated that 84% of them represented a direct effect of diet on cancer risk. The dietary factors most likely to directly increase the risk of cancer were:

  • Low intake of whole grains.
  • Low intake of dairy foods.
  • High intake of processed meats.

The scientists estimated that 16% of diet-associated cancer cases were “mediated by obesity”. In layman’s terms, this means that diet increased the risk of obesity and obesity increased the risk of cancer. The dietary factors most likely to increase the risk of obesity-mediated cancers were:

  • High intake of sugar sweetened beverages.
  • Low intake of fruits.

The authors concluded: “More than 80,000 new cancer cases [per year] are estimated to be associated with suboptimal diet among US adults…Our findings underscore the need for reducing cancer burden in the United States by improving the intake of key food groups and nutrients of Americans.”

What Does This Mean For You?

Questioning ManThese findings aren’t novel. Many previous studies have come to the same conclusions. However, many people find these recommendations to be confusing. Should they increase their intake of certain foods? Should they follow some sort of magic diet?

Perhaps we need to get away from the magic food concept. We need to understand that every time we increase one food in our diet, we exclude other foods. We need to step back and look at the overall diet.

Let me break down the recommendations from this study into three categories: foods we should eliminate from our diet, foods we should include in our diet, and foods we should balance in our diet.

Foods we should eliminate from our diet:

  • Sugar Sweetened Beverages. They provide no nutritional benefit, and the sugar in most beverages rushes into our bloodstream and overwhelms our body’s ability to utilize it in a healthy way. This leads to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other health issues.
    • Public enemy number one is sodas. However, this category also includes fruit juices, sweetened teas and energy drinks, and sugary processed foods.
    • This category also includes diet sodas. For reasons we don’t completely understand, diet sodas appear to be just as likely to lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease as sugar sweetened sodas. I have discussed the proposed explanations of this phenomenon in a recent issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.
    • Sugar, however, is not the enemy. Sugar found naturally in fruits and other whole foods enters the bloodstream slowly and is metabolized in healthy ways by the body. I have discussed this in another issue  of “Health Tips From the Professor”. This is what I mean by restoring balance in our diet. Decreasing the sugar intake from sugar sweetened beverages and increasing sugar intake from fruits is associated with a decreased risk of obesity and obesity-related cancers.
  • Processed Meats. The evidence is overwhelming at this point that processed meats directly increase the risk of cancer.
    • If you have trouble completely eliminating processed meats from your diet, my advice is to minimize them and consume them only in the context of an overall healthy diet. Personally, I still consume bacon occasionally as flavoring for a healthy green salad.

Whole GrainsFoods we should include in our diet. I put these in a separate category because Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues have been telling us to eliminate them from our diet, and many Americans are following those recommendations:

  • Whole grains. We can think of whole grains as the underserving victim of the low-carb craze. The low-carb craze is on the mark when it comes to eliminating added sugars and refined grains from the diet. However, eliminating whole grains from the diet may be doing more harm than good. In fact, this and other studies suggest that whole grains are the most effective foods for reducing cancer risk. Why is that?
    • If we assume whole grains are just a good source of fiber and a few vitamins and minerals, it is hard to grasp their importance. We could easily get those nutrients elsewhere.
    • However, we are beginning to realize that whole grains play a unique role in supporting certain species of gut bacteria that are very beneficial to our health. In short, whole grains may be essential for a healthy gut.
  • Dairy Foods. This is another food that has been treated as a villain by Dr. Strangelove and his many colleagues. However, for reasons we don’t completely understand, dairy foods appear to decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Foods we should balance in our diet.

  • Red Meat. Diets high in red meat are consistently associated with a slight increase in cancer risk. The World Health Organization lists red meat as a probable carcinogen, but that has proven to be controversial.
    • Much of the research has centered on why red meat causes cancer. Several mechanisms have been proposed, but none of them have been proven.
    • In contrast, very little consideration has been given to what red meat is displacing from the diet. Diets high in red meat are often low in whole grains, fruits and/or vegetables.
    • Perhaps instead of eliminating red meat from our diets we should be talking about balancing red meat in our diets by consuming less red meat and more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

What Can You Do To Reduce Cancer Risk?

American Cancer SocietyYou may have been thinking that 80,110 cases/year represents a small percentage of new cancer cases. That’s because diet is only one component of a holistic cancer prevention strategy. Here is what the American Cancer Society recommends for reducing cancer risk:

  • Avoid tobacco.
  • Limit sun exposure.
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Eat a healthy diet, with an emphasis on plant foods (Their recommendations are in line with this study).
  • Be physically active.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Get vaccinated against HPV.
  • Get regular medical checkups.

Doing any of these things will reduce your cancer risk. But the more of these you can incorporate into your lifestyle, the lower your risk.

The Bottom Line

A recent study looked at diet and cancer risk. The authors reported that 80,110 new cancer cases among US adults 20 and older could be primarily attributed to poor diet.

When the diet was broken down into individual food groups:

  • Low intake of whole grains was associated with the largest number of preventable cancer cases. This was followed in descending order by.
  • Low intake of dairy foods.
  • High intake of processed meats.
  • Low intake of vegetables.
  • Low intake of fruits.
  • High intake of red meat.
  • High intake of sugar sweetened beverages.

The authors concluded: “More than 80,000 new cancer cases [per year] are estimated to be associated with suboptimal diet among US adults…Our findings underscore the need for reducing cancer burden in the United States by improving the intake of key food groups and nutrients of Americans.”

For more details, read the article above. For example, I discuss which foods we should eliminate, which foods we should eat more of, and which foods we should balance in our diet. To add a more holistic perspective, I also discuss the American Cancer Society’s recommendations for reducing cancer risk.

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

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s In The Impossible Burger?

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

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

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

What Are The Pluses Of The Impossible Burger?

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

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

What Are The Minuses of the Impossible Burger?

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

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

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is The Impossible Burger Healthy For the Planet?

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more details, read the article above.

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

Is Red Meat As Healthy As White Meat?

The Lies of the Beef Industry

Eating Red MeatLast week I wrote about a recent review claiming that the evidence for the health risks of red meat consumption was so weak that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much of it as they like. I pointed out the many flaws in that study.

  • One of the flaws was that the review discounted dozens of association studies showing a link between red meat consumption and disease and relied instead on randomized controlled trials. Normally, that would be a good thing, but…
  • The association studies looked at health outcomes and had hundreds of thousands of participants. They found clear links between red meat consumption and increased risk of heart disease and cancer.
  • The randomized controlled trials looked at blood parameters like LDL cholesterol and averaged less than 500 participants. These studies were too small to provide meaningful results, and, not surprisingly, the results were conflicting. Some linked red meat consumption to increased risk, while others did not.

Because they had discounted evidence from association studies, the authors of the review concluded that the overall evidence was weak.

This week I want to address why the evidence from randomized controlled trials for health risks of red meat is so weak. More importantly, I want to highlight the role of the beef industry in making sure the evidence on the health risks of red meat consumption is weak.

I will also point out the role of the media in this process because they are equally complicit in spreading misleading information about the health risks of red meat consumption.

You might be asking: “How does the beef industry influence clinical trials to produce outcomes supporting their message that red meat is perfectly healthy?” “Surely they can’t convince reputable scientists to falsify their results.”

  • The answer is they don’t need to convince scientists to falsify their results. They just need to influence the design of the experiments so the results will be to their liking.” I will give two examples of that in this article.

Next you might be wondering: “What is the role of the media in this? Surely they just report what the scientific publication says.” Don’t be deceived. The media isn’t interested in accuracy. They are interested in generating the largest possible audience. They know controversy attracts an audience. They are looking for “man bites dog” headlines even if it isn’t true.

  • If you actually read the studies, you discover that reputable scientists always discuss the weaknesses and flaws in their study. The media either doesn’t read the publication or ignores the weaknesses. Instead they focus on the most controversial headline they can craft. I will give some examples of that as well.

Is Red Meat As Healthy As White Meat?

Red Meat Vs White MeatFor years we have been told that red meat increases our risk of heart disease because it is high in saturated fats. We’ve been told that white meat and plant proteins are better alternatives.

But the latest headlines claim that red meat is just as heart healthy as white meat. You are probably wondering what to believe. Let’s examine the study behind the headline and ask two important questions?

  1. Did the beef industry influence the study?
  2. Did the media distort the study in their reporting?

I will start by reporting the study design and the results of the studies without comment. Then I will discuss how the beef industry influenced the design of the study to produce misleading results.

The Headlines Said: “Red Meat and White Meat Are Equally Heart Healthy.” The study behind the headlines was a 4-week study (N Bergeron et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 110: 24-33, 2019) comparing equivalent amounts of red meat, white meat, and non-meat protein on LDL levels. It did report that red meat and white meat raised LDL cholesterol levels to the same extent, but here is what the headlines didn’t tell you:

  • The authors of this study are heavily funded by the dairy and beef industries. I will point out the implications of this funding below.
  • 4 weeks is a very short time. This study provides no information on the long-term effects of red meat versus white meat consumption.
  • The study only measured LDL and related lipoproteins. It did not measure heart disease outcomes. LDL and lipoprotein levels are only one indicator of heart disease risk. Thus, they are imperfect predictors of heart disease risk. I will point out why that is important below as well.
  • The study was performed at two levels of saturated fat – low (7% of calories) and high (14% of calories).

At the low level of saturated fat, only the leanest cuts of red meat (top round and top sirloin) were used to keep saturated fat low in the red meat group. High fat dairy foods were added to the non-meat protein group to increase saturated fat content. Thus, all 3 groups consumed the same amount of saturated fat.

At the high level of saturated fat, butter and high-fat dairy foods were added to the white meat and non-meat protein groups to increase saturated fat content. Once again, saturated fat content was identical in all 3 groups.

Here were the results:High Cholesterol

  • LDL and related lipoproteins were higher for the high saturated fat group than the low saturated fat group. Nothing new here. This is consistent with dozens of previous studies. We know that saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol levels when other aspects of the diet are kept constant.
  • In both the low and high saturated fat groups, red and white meat raised LDL cholesterol to the same extent. In other words, when saturated fat levels are held constant, red meat and white meat raise cholesterol levels to the same extent.

In interpreting that statement, you need to remember the study design.

    • In the low saturated fat group, only two cuts of red meat were low enough in saturated fat for a direct comparison to white meat.
    • In the high saturated fat group, butter and high fat dairy had to be added to white meat so it could be compared to red meat.

Obviously, this is not the real world. 95% of the red meat the average American consumes is higher in saturated fat than most white meat.

The authors concluded “The findings…based on lipid and lipoprotein effects, do not provide evidence for choosing white over red meat for reducing heart disease risk”. That conclusion is clearly inaccurate.

  • The study did not measure heart disease outcomes. It measured only LDL cholesterol and related lipoprotein levels. That is just one factor in determining heart disease risk. The significance of that statement will be explained below.
  • Red meat and white meat raised LDL cholesterol levels to the same extent only when saturated fat is held constant. We know that most red meat is higher in saturated fat than white meat and saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol levels. In fact, the study confirmed that the high-fat red meats most people consume raised LDL cholesterol more than white meats.
  • The accurate conclusion to this study would have been: “Most red meat raises LDL cholesterol more than white meat, which suggests red meat may increase heart disease risk compared to white meat.”
  • Did I mention that the authors are heavily funded by the beef industry?

What About TMAO And Heart Disease Risk?

heart diseaseInterestingly, the authors also looked at another risk factor for heart disease in the same study, something called TMAO. I have discussed the relationship between red meat, TMAO, and heart disease risk in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”).

Let me summarize briefly here:

  • Red meat has 10-50-fold higher concentrations of a compound called L-carnitine than white meat.
  • Meat eaters have a very different population of gut bacteria than people who eat a primarily plant-based diet. It is not clear whether that is due to the meat or the loss of plant foods that meat displaces from the diet.
  • The gut bacteria of meat eaters convert L-carnitine to trimethylamine (TMA), which the liver then converts to trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO).
  • The gut bacteria of people consuming a primarily plant-based do not convert L-carnitine to TMA, so no TMAO is formed. For example, in one study investigators fed an 8-ounce sirloin steak to meat eaters and to vegetarians. The meat eaters ended up with high levels of TMAO in their blood. The vegetarians had little or no TMAO in their blood.
  • High levels of TMAO are associated with atherosclerosis, increased risk of heart attacks, and death. Therefore, TMAO is considered an independent risk factor for heart disease.

The authors of the study comparing red meat and white meat also found that blood TMAO levels were two-fold higher in the red meat group than in the other two groups and this was independent of dietary saturated fat. However, rather than publishing this in the same paper where it might have interfered with their message that red and white meat affect heart disease risk to the same extent, the authors chose to publish these data in a separate paper (Z.Wang, European Heart Journal, 40: 7: 583-594, 2018).

Did I mention the authors are heavily funded by the beef industry?

Is Red Meat Healthy As Part Of A Mediterranean Diet?

Mediterranean Diet FoodsLet me briefly touch on one other study funded by the beef industry. The headlines said: “You may not have to give up red meat. It is healthy as part of a Mediterranean diet.”

The study (LE O’Connor et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 108: 33-40, 2018) behind the headlines did report that lean beef and pork did not raise LDL cholesterol levels when they were included in a Mediterranean diet. However, it is important to look at what the headlines didn’t tell you.

  • The red meat group consumed only 2.4 ounces of red meat a day. We aren’t talking about 8-ounce steaks or a rack of pork ribs here.
  • The red meat group ate only the very leanest (tenderloin) cuts of beef or pork.
  • On a positive note, while it wasn’t measured in this study, it is likely that TMAO levels would be relatively low because the subjects were consuming a primarily plant-based diet. They were consuming 7 servings of vegetables, 4 servings of fruit, and 4 servings of whole grains each day.
  • Similarly, red meat has several components that appear to increase cancer risk. However, they can be largely neutralized by various plant foods. This is something I have discussed in more detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths”.

In summary, it would have been more accurate to conclude that very small, very lean servings of red meat may be healthy as part of a primarily plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet.

The Lies Of The Beef Industry

LiesBoth these studies utilized the very leanest cuts of red meat so they could conclude that red meat is healthy. This is a common design of studies funded by the beef industry. Rather than looking at the health effects of the high fat red meats most people consume, the studies focus only on the leanest cuts of meat.

The studies appear to be designed to purposely mislead the American public. Let’s look at how that happens. When studies like these are incorporated into larger meta-analyses or reviews, investigators often look at the conclusions, not at the experimental design.

Meta-analyses and reviews are only as good as the studies they include, a concept referred to as “Garbage in – Garbage Out”. That is what happened with the review and recommendations I discussed last week. The review relied heavily on short-term randomized controlled trials.

However, this is problematic. Because of the way they are designed, industry funded studies tend to find no adverse effects of consuming red meat. Independently funded studies tend to find adverse health effects from red meat. If you throw them all together without considering how the experiments were designed, the studies cancel each other out.

On that basis the authors of the review concluded that the evidence for red meat adversely affecting health outcomes was weak and recommended that everyone could continue consuming red meat. (That is a recommendation that virtually every health organization and top expert in the field have rejected for the reasons I summarized last week).

The beef industry doesn’t have to influence the design of every study, just enough studies to confuse the science and confuse the media.

The Complicity Of The Media

newspaper heallinesUnfortunately, the media is equally guilty of misleading the public. As I said above, the media is interested in attracting an audience, not in accuracy. For example:

  • The headlines describing the first study should have said: “Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol levels”. But everyone knows that. Headlines like that are non-controversial. They don’t attract readers.
  • The headlines describing that study could have said: “Very lean cuts of red meat don’t raise LDL levels any more than white meat”. That would have been accurate, but that wouldn’t attract readers either. Most Americans prefer high fat cuts of red meat. They aren’t interested in reading articles suggesting they should change what they are eating.
  • Similarly, the headlines describing the second study should have said: “Very small amounts of very lean red meat may be healthy as part of a Mediterranean diet.”
  • In fact, the authors of both studies admitted in their discussions that they could not extrapolate their findings to the effects of higher-fat red meats. The media ignored those statements. Presumably, they decided the American public didn’t want to hear that message.
  • The first study also found that LDL and related lipoprotein levels were lower for the non-meat protein group than the red and white meat groups at both saturated fat levels. In fact, the main conclusion of the authors was: “The findings are in keeping with recommendations promoting diets with a high proportion of plant foods.” Somehow the media completely ignored that finding.

When the media consistently misleads the public about what constitutes a healthy diet, it leads to confusion. Confusion leads to inaction. At a time when so many Americans are suffering from preventable diseases, this is inexcusable.

Is Red Meat Healthy?

red meat heart healthyLet’s return to the question I posed last week: “Is red meat healthy?” Most of what I say below is identical to what I said last week. However, with the information I provided in the article above it may be easier to understand.

  • The saturated fat in red meat is associated with increased heart disease risk.
  • Red meat increases blood levels of TMAO, which is associated with increased heart disease risk.
  • The heme iron in red meat can be converted in the gut to N-nitroso compounds, which are associated with increased risk of cancer.
  • Benzopyrene and heterocyclic amines are formed when red meat is cooked. And they are associated with increased risk of cancer.

As I said last week, “There are too many studies that show a strong association between red meat consumption and disease risk to give red meat a clean bill of health. We can’t say red meat is healthy with any confidence.”

However, that doesn’t mean we need to eliminate red meat from our diet. As described above, the health risks of red meat are determined by the type of red meat consumed, the amount of red meat consumed, and the overall composition of our diet. For example:

  • Very lean cuts of red meat contain no more saturated fat than white meat.
  • Primarily plant-based diets alter our gut bacteria in such a way that production of TMAO and N-nitroso compounds are decreased.
  • Diets high in plant fiber sweep benzopyrene and heterocyclic amines out of our intestine before they can cause much damage.

So, what does that mean to you?

  • If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat may increase your risk of disease.
  • However, if you are thinking of 2-3 ounces of very lean steak in a vegetable stir fry or a green salad, red meat is probably OK.
  • If you are thinking about the very leanest cuts of red meat, they are probably just as healthy as white meat.

What About Grass Fed Beef?

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is: “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” Grass fed beef does have a slightly healthier fat profile. It is modestly lower in saturated fat and modestly higher in omega-3 fats. However, grass feeding doesn’t affect TMAO, N-Nitroso, benzopyrene, and heterocyclic amine formation.

  • That means the 8-ounce steak is only slightly less unhealthy and the 2-3 ounces of steak in a green salad only slightly healthier when you substitute grass-fed for conventionally raised beef. It’s probably not worth the extra cost.

Next week I will return with the answer to another question I get a lot. “If plant protein is good for me, what about all those meatless burgers that are popping up in my favorite fast food restaurants. Are they healthy?”

The Bottom Line

Last week I wrote about a recent review claiming that the evidence for the health risks of red meat consumption was so weak that the best advice for the American public was to eat as much of it as they like. I pointed out the many flaws in that study.

This week I provided two examples of how the beef industry influences the design of clinical trials to minimize the health risks of red meat and the media misleads the public about what the studies showed.

The bottom line is that red meat likely has no adverse health effects only if you are consuming very small amounts of very lean red meat in the context of a primarily plant-based diet. Unfortunately, this is not the message you are getting from the media and from Dr. Strangelove’s health blog.

As for grass-fed beef, it is only modestly healthier than conventionally raised beef for reasons I have given in the article above. It’s probably not worth the extra cost.

Next week I will return with the answer to another question I get a lot. “If plant protein is good for me, what about all those plant-based burgers that are popping up in my favorite fast food restaurants. Are they healthy?” Stay tuned.

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.

 

 

Is Red Meat Healthy For You?

Why Is Red Meat So Controversial?

fatty steakThe American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization and other organizations have been telling us for years that diets high in red meat are likely to increase our risk of chronic diseases. If you are like most Americans, you have been trying to cut back on red meat.

However, the latest headlines are saying things like: “Red meat is actually good for you” and “Most adults don’t need to cut back on red meat for their health”. Where did those headlines come from?

A group calling itself the Nutritional Recommendations Consortium (NutriRECS) has reviewed the scientific literature and said: “The evidence is too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less beef and pork.” They have issued guidelines (BC Johnston et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, 171: 756-764, 2019) saying that adults really don’t need to change the amounts of red meat they are eating.

As you can imagine, that has proven to be a controversial recommendation. Many of the top experts in the field have questioned the validity of the study and have condemned the guidelines as misleading.

However, most of you don’t care about arguments between the experts. Your questions are: “What does this study mean to me?” Is everything I have been told about red meat wrong?” “Is red meat healthy after all? Can I really eat as much as I want?”

Why Is Red Meat So Controversial?

ArgumentIf you are confused by the latest headlines, it’s not your fault. Over the past few decades you have been bombarded by conflicting headlines about red meat. One month it is bad for you. The next month it is good for you. It is fair to ask: “Why is red meat so controversial? Why is it so confusing?”

Perhaps the best way to answer those questions is to review the scientific critique of the latest guidelines saying we can eat as much red meat as we want and then look at the authors’ rebuttal.

The best summary of the scientific critique of these guidelines is a WebMD Health News report. Let me cover a few of the most important criticisms:

#1: The NutriRECS group was not backed by any major health, government, or scientific organizations. The members of this group self-nominated themselves as gurus of nutritional recommendations. In an earlier publication they concluded that the evidence was too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less sugar. But in that review they stopped short of recommending that adults could eat as much sugar as they wanted.

#2: The review left out 15 important studies showing that diets high in red meat are associated with increased disease risk. If those studies had been included in the analysis, the link between meat consumption and disease would have been much stronger. Even worse, the omitted studies met the author’s stated criteria for inclusion in their analysis. No reason was given for omitting those studies. This suggests author bias.

#3: The authors used an assessment method that prioritizes evidence from randomized controlled trials and downgrades evidence from association studies. As a result, multiple association studies showing red and processed meat consumption increases disease risk were discounted, and a few randomized controlled clinical trials giving inconsistent results dominated their analysis.

Let me state for the record that my research career was devoted to cancer drug development. I am a big proponent of the value of randomized controlled trials when they are appropriate.

·       Randomized controlled trial are perfect for determining the effectiveness of new drugs. In this context it is appropriate. In a drug trial it is easy to design a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial. In addition, every participant already has the disease. If a drug has a benefit, it is apparent in a very short time.

·       However, randomized controlled trials are not optimal for dietary studies. In the first place, it is impossible to design a placebo or have a “blinded study”. People know what they are eating. In addition, diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes take decades to develop. You can’t keep people on specific diets for decades.

·       In addition, because randomized controlled trials are short, they can only measure the effect of diet on disease markers like LDL cholesterol. These disease markers are imperfect predictors of disease outcomes. I will discuss this in more detail next week.

·       Consequently, most of the major studies in nutrition research are “association studies” where the investigators ask people what they customarily eat and look at the association of those dietary practices with disease outcomes. These studies aren’t perfect, but they represent the best tool we have for determining the influence of diet on disease outcomes.

confusion#4: The authors included people’s attitudes about eating meat in their analysis. Because many meat eaters stated they would be unwilling to give up meat, the authors downgraded the association between meat consumption and disease risk.

·       That really had the outside experts scratching their heads. They agreed that people’s attitudes should be considered in discussions about how to implement health guidelines. However, they were unanimously opposed to the idea that people’s opinions should be a factor in crafting health guidelines.

#5: The authors ignored the environmental impact of meat consumption. As I indicated in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”, this should be a major consideration when choosing your diet.

#6: The authors may have been influenced by the beef industry. The NutriRECS group stated that the Agriculture and Life Sciences (AgriLife) program at Texas A&M provided generous support for their study. While that sound innocuous, the AgriLife program receives financial support from the “Texas Beef Checkoff Program”, which is a meat industry marketing program paid for by cattle ranchers.

#7: The beef industry influenced the studies the authors relied on in their review. The beef industry supports randomized controlled clinical trials on red meat and influences the outcome of those studies in ways that minimize the health effects of red meat consumption. I will give some examples of this next week. Unfortunately, these are the studies the NutriRECS group relied on for their recommendations.

What Did The Authors Say About Their Guidelines?

balance scaleBecause I like to provide a balanced evaluation of nutrition controversies, it is only fair that I summarize the authors argument for their recommendations. However, I will add my commentary. Here is a summary of their arguments.

#1: Nutritional recommendations should be based on sound science. In principle, this is something that everyone agrees on. However, as I noted above randomized controlled trials are not always the best scientific approach for studying the health effects of diet.

My comment: In matters of public health it is better to be safe than sorry. Simply put, it is better to warn people about probable dangers to their health rather than waiting decades for certainty. Smoking is a perfect example. The Surgeon General warned the US public about the dangers of smoking long before the evidence was conclusive.

Smoking is also an example of how industry tries to influence scientific opinion. The tobacco industry supported and influenced research on smoking. Industry funded research tended to minimize the dangers of smoking. Next week I will show how the meat industry is doing the same concerning the dangers of red meat.

#2: It is difficult to get good dietary information in association studies. That is because most association studies ask people what they have eaten over the past few decades. There are two problems with that.

1)    Most people have enough trouble remembering what they ate yesterday. Remembering what they ate 10 or 20 years ago is problematic.

2)    People listen to the news and often change their diets based on what they hear. What they are eating today may not resemble what they ate 10 years ago.

My comment: That is a legitimate point. However, in recent years the best association studies have started collection dietary information at the start, the mid-point, and the end of the study. I agree we need more of those studies.

#3: The authors claim they found no statistically significant link between meat consumption and risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer in a dozen randomized controlled trials that had enrolled about 54 000 participants.

label deceptionMy comment: That statement is highly misleading. One of those studies had 48,835 participants. That study wasn’t even designed to measure the effect of red meat consumption. It was designed to measure the health effects of low fat versus high fat diets. The difference in red meat consumption between the two groups was only 1.4 servings per day, a 20% difference. Even with that small difference in red meat consumption, there was about a 2% reduction in some heart disease outcomes, which the authors considered insignificant.

That leaves 11 studies with only 5,165 participants, which averages out to 470 participants per study. Those studies had too few participants to provide any meaningful estimate of the effect of red meat on health outcomes.

In addition, the meat industry influenced the design of some of those studies to further minimize the effect of red meat on health outcomes, something I will discuss next week.

#4: The authors found a slight effect of red meat consumption on heart disease and cancer deaths in association studies, but said the decrease was too small to recommend that people change their diet.

My comment: This represents the folly of looking at any single food or single nutrient rather than the whole diet. We need to take a holistic approach and ask questions like: “What are they replacing red meat with? What does their overall diet look like?

For example, let’s look at what happens when you reduce saturated fats, something I discussed in a previous issue (https://chaneyhealth.com/healthtips/are-saturated-fats-bad-for-you/) of “Health Tips From the Professor”. When you replace saturated fats with:

·       Trans fats, your heart disease risk increases by 5%.

·       Refined carbohydrates and sugars (the kind of carbohydrates in the typical American diet), your heart disease risk increases slightly.

·       Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits and vegetables), your heart disease risk decreases by 9%.

·       Monounsaturated fats (olive oil & peanut oil), your heart disease risk decreases by 15%.

·       Polyunsaturated fats (vegetable oil & fish oil), your heart disease risk decreases by 25%.

·       Unsaturated fats in the context of a primarily plant-based diet like the Mediterranean diet, your heart disease risk decreases by 47%.

While we don’t have such precise numbers for red meat, we do have enough evidence to know that the situation with red meat is similar.

·       Replacing high-fat red meat with low-fat red meat or white meat in the context of a typical American diet will probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

·       Replacing red meat with plant protein in the context of a typical American diet (think Impossible Burgers or the equivalent at your local Fast Food restaurant) will also probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

·       Replacing red meat with white meat or plant protein in the context of a primarily plant-based diet is likely to significantly reduce disease risk.

Is Red Meat Healthy For You?

Steak and PotatoesLet’s return to the question I posed at the beginning of this article: “Is red meat healthy for you?” In the context of headlines saying: “Red meat is actually good for you”, the answer is a clear No!

·       The saturated fat in red meat is associated with increased heart disease risk.

·       However, it’s not just saturated fat. Other components of red meat are associated with increased risk of heart disease and cancer. I will discuss those next week.

There are simply too many studies that show an association between red meat consumption and disease risk to give red meat a clean bill of health. We can’t say red meat is healthy with any confidence.

However, that doesn’t mean we need to eliminate red meat from our diet. The health risks of red meat are determined by the type of red meat consumed, the amount of red meat consumed, and the overall composition of our diet. So:Steak Salad

·       If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not healthy.

·       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 healthy.

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” I will answer that question next week.

The Bottom Line

A group calling itself the Nutritional Recommendations Consortium (NutriRECS) recently reviewed the scientific literature and said: “The evidence is too weak to justify telling individuals to eat less beef and pork.” They then issued guidelines saying that adults really don’t need to change the amounts of red meat they are eating.

As you can imagine, that has proven to be a controversial recommendation. Many of the top experts in the field have questioned the validity of the study and have condemned the guidelines as misleading.

When you examine the pros and cons carefully, it becomes clear that the NutriRECS group:

1)    Put too little emphasis on association studies with hundreds of thousands of participants showing a link between red meat consumption and increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

2)    Put too much emphasis on very small randomized controlled trials that had no possibility of evaluating the effect of red meat consumption on disease risk. In part, that is because many of the randomized controlled trials were funded and influenced by the meat industry, something I will discuss next week.

3)    Did not ask what the red meat was replaced with or look at red meat consumption in the context of the overall diet.

Based on what we currently know:

1)    Replacing high-fat red meat with low-fat red meat or white meat in the context of a typical American diet will probably have only a modest effect on disease risk.

2)    Replacing red meat with plant protein in the context of a typical American diet (think Impossible Burgers or the equivalent at your local Fast Food restaurant) will also probably have only a minor effect on disease risk.

3)    Replacing red meat with white meat or plant protein in the context of a primarily plant-based diet is likely to significantly reduce disease risk.

That means:

1)    If you are thinking in terms of a juicy 8-ounce steak with a baked potato and sour cream, red meat is probably not healthy.

2)   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 healthy.

Of course, one question I am frequently asked is “What about grass fed beef? Is it healthier than conventionally raised beef?” I will answer that question next week. Stay tuned.

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.

Risk Factors of Prostate Cancer

Vitamin D Deficiency?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Vitamin D

Is vitamin D deficiency one of the risk factors of prostate cancer? What if something as simple as maintaining optimal vitamin D status could decrease your risk of prostate cancer? There is a lot of indirect evidence suggesting that vitamin D deficiency might affect your risk of developing prostate cancer. For example:

  • Prostate cancer incidence and vitamin D deficiency parallel each other. Both are highest in northern latitudes, in African American men, and in older men.
  • Prostate cancer mortality rates are highest for patients diagnosed in the winter and at Northern latitudes.

However, clinical studies looking at the correlation between 25-hydroxy vitamin D (the biologically active form of vitamin D in the blood) and prostate cancer incidence have been inconsistent. Because of this there has been considerable controversy in the scientific community as to whether or not there was any correlation between vitamin D deficiency and prostate cancer.

Vitamin D Deficiency and Cancer

That’s what makes the recent headlines suggesting that vitamin D is associated with decreased risk of aggressive prostate cancer so interesting. Does this study show low vitamin D to be one of the risk factors of prostate cancer? Have the conflicting data on vitamin D deficiency and prostate cancer finally been resolved or is this just another case of dueling headlines? Let’s start by looking at the study itself.

This study (Murphy et al, Clinical Cancer Research, 20: 2289-2299, 2014) enrolled 667 men, aged 40-79 (average age = 62), from five urology clinics in Chicago over a four year period. These were all men who were undergoing their first prostate biopsy because of elevated serum PSA levels or an abnormal DRE (that’s doctor talk for digital rectal exam – the least favorite part of every guy’s physical exam). The clinics also drew blood and measured each patient’s 25-hydroxy vitamin D level at the time of the prostate biopsy.

This study had a number of important strengths:

  • It was conducted at a northern latitude. Because of that 41.2% of the men in this study were vitamin D deficient (<20 ng/ml) and 15.7% were severely vitamin D deficient (<12 ng/ml). That’s important because you need a significant percentage of patients with vitamin D deficiency to have any chance of seeing an effect of vitamin D status on prostate cancer risk.
  • The study had equal numbers of African American and European American men. That’s important because African American men have significantly lower 25-hydroxy vitamin D status and significantly higher risk of prostate cancer than European American men.
  • All of the men enrolled in the study had elevated PSA levels or abnormal DREs. That’s important because it meant that all of the men enrolled in the study were at high risk of having prostate cancer. That made the correlation between vitamin D status and prostate cancer easier to detect.
  • This was the first study to correlate 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels with prostate biopsies at the time of biopsy. That’s important because it allowed the investigators to distinguish between aggressive tumors (which require immediate treatment and have a higher probability of mortality) and slow growing tumors (which may simply need to be monitored).

The results were pretty dramatic:

  • In African American men vitamin D deficiency (<20 ng/ml) was associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer diagnosis at time of biopsy.
  • In both European American and African American men severe vitamin D deficiency (<12 ng/ml) was associated with increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer diagnosis at time of biopsy.

The authors concluded: “Our work supports the hypothesis that 25-hydroxy vitamin D is a potential biomarker that plays a clinically significant role in prostate cancer, and it may be a useful modifiable risk factor in the disease”.

That’s “science speak” for “adequate vitamin D status may help prevent prostate cancer” or “low vitamin D may indeed be one of the risk factors of prostate cancer.”

VitaminD-smashes-cancer

Why Have Some Studies Failed To Find A Correlation Between Vitamin D Deficiency and Prostate Cancer?

The authors of the current study had an interesting hypothesis for why some previous studies have not seen an association between vitamin D status and prostate cancer risk. When you compare all of the previous studies, the strongest correlations between vitamin D deficiency and prostate cancer were the studies conducted at northern latitudes, in African American men, or focusing on aggressive prostate cancer as an end point.

That offers a few clues as to why other studies may have failed to find a link between vitamin D status and prostate cancer risk. For example:

  • The clue that the correlation between vitamin D deficiency and prostate cancer risk was strongest at northern latitudes and with African American men suggests that you need to have a significant percentage of subjects with deficient or very deficient levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D before you can see a correlation. Other studies may have failed to show a correlation simply because most of the men in the study had normal vitamin D status.
  • The clue that the correlation is strongest for aggressive prostate cancer is more subtle. The authors hypothesized that prostate cancer develops over a lifetime. If that is the case, measuring vitamin D deficiency at the time of diagnosis may not represent the lifetime vitamin D status. The vitamin D status could have decreased because the men were older or had become overweight, or the vitamin D status could have changed simply because they moved from one geographical location to another.

In contrast, the progression from benign to aggressive prostate cancer is generally short term, so it would be affected by the most recent vitamin D status. If that is the case, then the vitamin D status measured at the time of diagnosis may more accurately reflect the vitamin D deficiency that affected the aggressiveness of the cancer.

 

The Bottom Line

1)     The latest study suggests that vitamin D deficiency (<20 ng/ml serum 25-hydroxy vitamin D) may significantly increase the risk of prostate cancer. The correlation between low vitamin D status and prostate cancer risk is strongest for African American men.

2)     The study also suggests that severe vitamin D deficiency (<12 ng/ml serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D) may significantly increase the risk of aggressive prostate cancer in both African American and European American men.

3)     This is a very well done study, and it is consistent with many, but not all, of the previous studies. Clearly more research needs to be done. Future research should be focused on high risk subjects and subjects with low vitamin D status so that the correlation between vitamin D status and prostate cancer risk can be adequately tested.

4)     This is another example of why I recommend that you have your serum 25-hydroxy vitamin D level measured on a regular basis and that you aim to keep it in the normal range (20-80 ng/ml). Some experts believe that 30-80 ng/ml is optimal.

5)     If you are African American, overweight, live in northern latitudes or it is winter, you may need supplemental vitamin D3. 1,000 – 4,000 IU/day of vitamin D3 is generally considered to be safe. If higher amounts are needed to normalize your 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels I recommend that you consult your physician for the appropriate dose.

 

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

Are The Benefits Of Resveratrol A Myth?

Is Resveratrol Dead?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Red WineIt seems like just a few years ago that the headlines were proclaiming that resveratrol, a polyphenol found in red wines, grapes and chocolate, was the latest “super nutrient”. It was going to make you younger, smarter and healthier. You probably knew that all of the claims being made at the time could not be true.

But the latest headlines are claiming that resveratrol health benefits are all a myth. Has the resveratrol bubble burst? Was it all just hype?

Before you decide that resveratrol supplements are just a waste of money, let me take you behind the scenes and evaluate the latest study objectively. Let’s talk about what it showed, and didn’t show. But, before we look at the study, let’s review the history of resveratrol.

How Did The Resveratrol Story Get Started?

The resveratrol story started in the 1990’s when Dr. Serge Renaud at Bordeaux University coined the term “French Paradox” to describe the fact that cardiovascular disease incidence was relatively low in the French population despite the fact that they consumed diets high in saturated fat and cholesterol.

People immediately started asking what could possibly explain this discrepancy between the US and French populations? In other words, what could be protecting the French population from their high fat diet? One obviously difference between the French and Americans is that the French consume a lot more red wine – or at least they did before the “French Paradox” publicity turned red wine into a health food. Based on that difference, Dr. Renaud proposed that the French Paradox was due to the high red wine consumption in France.

But, red wine is an alcoholic beverage and overconsumption of alcoholic beverages is a major health problem for many people. And, while alcohol does have some cardiovascular benefits, alcohol consumption was pretty constant across countries.

So the next logical question was what other ingredients in red wine might explain their supposed health benefits. Polyphenols appear to have numerous health benefits, and resveratrol is the major polyphenol in red wine. So resveratrol became the “poster child” for the health benefits of red wine.

Even so, for years resveratrol was a “niche” supplement. It had a loyal following, but it wasn’t a big player in the nutritional supplement market. All that changed in 2009. Dr. David Sinclair at Harvard University had been studying genes that slow the aging process. He had screened thousands of naturally occurring small molecules in hopes of finding some that could turn on those anti-aging genes.

He announced that resveratrol and a few related polyphenols were the most potent activators of those anti-aging genes, and he went on to publish studies showing that resveratrol could help obese mice live longer and lean mice be healthier. All of a sudden resveratrol became a superstar.

But, does resveratrol also work in humans? There are many clinical studies that suggest it does. That’s why I was surprised by the recent headlines proclaiming that the supposed health benefits of resveratrol were myths. So once again, let’s look at the study behind the headlines.

Are The Benefits Of Resveratrol a Myth?

The study behind the headlines (Semba et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, doi: 10.1001/jamainternalmed.2014.1582) followed 783 men and women aged 65 years or older from the Chianti region of Italy for 9 years. None of the participants were taking resveratrol supplements. The investigators estimated resveratrol intake by measuring the concentrations of resveratrol metabolites in the urine.

The investigators measured all cause mortality and the prevalence of heart disease and cancer over the 9 year period and found no correlation between those outcomes and urinary resveratrol metabolites. From those data the authors concluded that “Resveratrol levels achieved with a Western diet did not have a substantial influence on health status or mortality risk of the population in this study.”

The Strengths And Weaknesses of The Study

There are really two important questions – what are the strengths and weaknesses of the study and what does the study actually show?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the study?

  • A major strength of the study was the measurement of urinary resveratrol metabolites rather than relying on the less accurate dietary recall – although it should be noted that the assays used are relatively new and could benefit from further validation.
  • The main weakness is that it was a relatively small study in a relatively homogeneous population. Most of the resveratrol consumed by this population came from red wine and even the group with the lowest resveratrol intake was drinking 2-3 glasses of red wine per week (You don’t find many teetotalers in the wine growing regions of Italy).

What does the study actually show?

  • The level of resveratrol metabolites in this population directly correlated with alcohol consumption. And, the authors of the study concluded that since the study was done in the Chianti region of Italy, most of the resveratrol came from red wine. So the study actually suggests that red wine consumption has no effect on heart disease, cancer or longevity – in direct contradiction to Renaud’s French Hypothesis.
  • The conclusion that the amount of resveratrol one can obtain from diet alone is unlikely to provide health benefits needs to be replicated in a much larger population group with a wider range of resveratrol intakes from a wider variety of foods before it can be considered definitive.
  • Even if the amount of resveratrol in food does offer no significant health benefits, that information provides little or no guidance when we consider resveratrol supplements, which generally provide much higher levels of resveratrol.

The Bottom Line:

1)    Don’t pay too much attention to the headlines saying that the health benefits of resveratrol are a myth. The study behind the headlines was a small study in a relatively homogeneous population. If anything, it debunked the hypothesis that red wine consumption is responsible for the French Paradox.

2)    The study did suggest that the amount of resveratrol one can obtain from diet alone is unlikely to provide significant health benefits. While that may be true, it is irrelevant when considering resveratrol supplements because they provide much higher amounts of resveratrol.

3)    The clinical studies on resveratrol supplements are very encouraging, but not yet definitive (see, for example, my “Health Tips From the Professor” article on resveratrol and blood sugar control. That’s to be expected at this stage. It generally takes decades of studies before the scientific community reaches consensus on anything. In the meantime you will continue to see alternating headlines proclaiming the miracles and the myths of resveratrol.

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.

Our Gut Bacteria Are What We Eat

We Grow What We Eat

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

BacteriaThe subtitle of this week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” is “We Grow What We Eat”.

No, this is not about each of us starting a backyard garden and literally growing what we eat – although that would probably be a good idea for most of us. I’m actually talking about the bacteria that we “grow” in our intestine.

Most of you probably already know about the concept of “good” and “bad” intestinal bacteria.

Evidence suggests that the “bad” bacteria and yeast in our intestine can cause all sorts of adverse health effects:

  • There is mounting evidence that they can compromise our immune system.
  • There is also evidence that they can create a “leaky gut” (you can think of this as knocking holes in our intestinal wall that allow partially digested foods to enter the circulation where they can trigger inflammation and auto-immune responses).
  • There is some evidence that they can affect brain function and our moods.
  • They appear to convert the foods that we eat into cancer causing chemicals which can be absorbed into the bloodstream.
  • Studies in mice even suggest that they can make us fat.

The list goes on and on…

The “good bacteria” are thought to crowd out the “bad” bacteria and prevent many of the health problems they cause.

In case you’re thinking that it seems a bit far-fetched to think that our intestinal bacteria could affect our health, let me remind you that we have about 100 trillion bacteria in our intestine compared to about 10 trillion cells in our body. They outnumber us 10 to 1.

For years we have thought of “bad” bacteria and yeast as originating from undercooked, spoiled or poorly washed foods that we eat and the “good” bacteria as originating from foods like yogurt and probiotic supplements.

But most of us have not thought that the kinds of foods we choose to eat on a daily basis can affect the kinds of bacteria we “grow” in our intestine – until now. You’ve heard for years that “We are what we eat”. Well it now appears that we also “grow what we eat”. I’m referring to a recent study by G. D. Wu et al (Science, 334: 105-108, 2011).

Our Gut Bacteria Are What We Eat

I’m going to get a bit technical here (Don’t worry. There won’t be a quiz). Scientists refer to the population of bacteria in our intestines as our “microbiome”. Previous studies have shown that people from all over the world tend to have one of two distinct microbiomes (populations of bacteria) in their intestines – Bacteroides or Prevotella. [Again, don’t let the specialized scientific terminology scare you. These are just the names scientists have given to these two distinctive populations of intestinal bacteria].

What this study showed was that people who habitually consumed high-fat/low-fiber diets (diets containing predominantly animal protein and saturated fats) tended to have the Bacteroides bacteria in their intestine, while people who habitually consumed low-fat/high-fiber diets (diets that are primarily plant based and are high in carbohydrate and low in meat and dairy) tended to have the Prevotella bacteria in their intestine. And surprisingly this appears to be independent of sex, weight and nationality.

Is This Important?

The research defining these two distinct microbiomes (populations of intestinal bacteria) and showing that they are influenced by what we eat is very new. At this point in time we know relatively little about the health benefits and risks associated with the Bacteroides and Prevotella microbiomes.

For example:

  • Most of the studies on the health effects of “bad intestinal bacteria” were based on the identification of one or two “bad bacteria” in the gut – not on the hundreds of bacterial species found in the Bacteroides microbiome. So we can’t say for sure that the Bacteriodes microbiome found in people with diets high in animal protein and saturated fats will cause the same health problems as the “bad bacteria”. Nor do we know for sure how important a role the Bacteriodes microbiome plays in the health consequences of consuming that kind of diet.
  • Similarly, many of studies on the health benefits of “good intestinal bacteria” have been based on probiotic supplements containing one or two bacterial species – not the hundreds of bacterial species found in the Prevotella microbiome. So we can’t really say if probiotics or even the Prevotella microbiome will convey the same health benefits seen in populations who consume vegetarian diets.

However, now that do we know that we “grow what we eat” there are numerous studies ongoing to define the benefits and risks associated with each type of bacterial population.

For example, I shared a study with you recently which shows that the intestinal bacteria in people who eat a lot of animal protein convert carnitine (which is also found in meat) to a compound called TMAO, which may increase the risk of heart attacks, and that the conversion of carnitine to TMAO does not occur in people who consume a vegetarian diet ( see “Does Carnitine Increase Heart Disease Risk”)

Stay tuned! I’ll keep you updated as more information becomes available.

The Bottom Line:

Most of the studies I report on are ones that you can act on right away. This one is different. This study introduces a whole new concept – one that raises as many questions as it answers. This makes us ask those “what if” questions.

1)     Previous studies have shown that most people have one of two different kinds of microbiomes (populations of bacteria) in their intestines. This study showed that diets high in animal protein and fat favored one kind of intestinal microbiome, while diets low in fat and high in fiber from fruits & vegetables favored another type of intestinal microbiome.

2)     With a few exceptions we don’t know yet how important a role these intestinal microbiomes play in determining the health consequences of different diets. However, because our intestinal bacteria outnumber the cells in our body by 10:1, it is tempting to ask “What if?”

3)     We also don’t yet know the extent to which probiotics (either from foods or supplements) can overcome the effects of a bad diet on our intestinal microbiome, but it is tempting to ask “What if?”

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 Vitamin D Overhyped?

Are Clouds Gathering For the Sunshine Vitamin?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Clouds Obscuring The SunWe’ve known for years that vitamin D plays an essential role in calcium metabolism and is important for bone health. In fact, the use of vitamin D to prevent and cure rickets is one of the greatest success stories in the field of nutrition.

However, in recent years a number of studies have suggested that adequate vitamin D status was also important in reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, infectious diseases and autoimmune diseases – as well as overall mortality. Suddenly it seemed as if vitamin D could leap over tall buildings in a single bound (I realize that I’m probably dating myself with that analogy).

So when I saw the headlines about a new study (Theodoratou et al, BMJ, 2014;348:g2035 doi: 10.1136/bmj.g2035)  that concluded all of those benefits of vitamin D were unconfirmed, I was not surprised. After all there have been many examples of periods in which individual vitamins were reported to have miraculous benefits – only to have most of those benefits debunked by subsequent studies. I fully expected that would be the theme of this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.

But when I read the article I found that the study had multiple flaws (more about that latter). I also discovered that the same issue of the British Medical Journal had another, much better designed, study that came to the exact opposite conclusion (Chowdhury et al, BMJ 2014;348:g1903 doi: 10.1136/bmj.g1903).

Funny how only the first study made it into the headlines. It’s only the negative news that sells.

Is Vitamin D Overhyped?

The first study was a very large meta-analysis that included 107 systematic reviews, 74 meta-analyses of observation studies (studies that compare population groups) and 87 meta-analyses of randomized, placebo controlled trials. In case you were wondering, the total number of patients enrolled in these studies must have numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

The authors of the study reported that:

  • There was no relationship between vitamin D intake and cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disease, infectious diseases, diabetes and other diseases. In other words, they concluded that most of the recent excitement about vitamin D was just hype.
  • There was also no evidence that vitamin D increased bone density or reduced the risk of fractures and falls in older people – in contrast to many previous studies.

Based on this evidence the authors said “universal conclusions about vitamin Ds benefits cannot be drawn [from current data]” and that vitamin D “might not be as essential as previously thought in maintaining bone mineral density”.

Both of those statements are pretty revolutionary, but a study this large has to be true – right? The answer is a definite maybe. The problem is that many of the studies included in this meta-analysis were poorly designed by today’s standards. Remember the old saying “garbage in, garbage out”.

The Study Is Flawed

My specific criticisms of the study are:

1)     The conclusions about vitamin D and bone density were seriously flawed. The authors acknowledged that previous studies have shown that calcium and vitamin D together increased bone density, but they considered calcium to be a confounding variable and only included clinical trials using vitamin D supplementation alone. That shows a complete misunderstanding of the biochemical role of vitamin D.

The purpose of vitamin D is to maintain constant levels of blood calcium, not to build strong bones.

  • When blood levels of calcium are high, vitamin D lowers it by depositing the calcium in bones.
  • When blood levels of calcium are low, vitamin D raises it by leaching calcium from bone.

That’s why vitamin D and calcium work together. It is utter nonsense to expect vitamin D to increase bone density or prevent fractures unless you make sure that calcium intake is at least adequate.

2)     Most studies of vitamin D supplementation did not stratify the data based on low versus high levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D at the beginning of the study. That’s important because you would only expect vitamin D supplementation to be of benefit in people with low levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D to begin with. If their 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels are already optimal, vitamin D supplementation is unlikely to be of additional benefit.

3)     Finally, the authors did not separate the studies based on whether vitamin D2 or vitamin D3 was used. That’s important because some recent studies have suggested that D3 is more beneficial than D2.

Is Vitamin D Beneficial After All?

SunThe second study came to the exact opposite conclusions. It was also a very large study. It included 73 observational studies (849,412 participants) and 22 randomized, placebo controlled studies (30,716) participants. Here is what the authors of this study concluded.

  • High blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D decreased the risk of heart disease by 35%, cancer by 14% and overall mortality by 35%.
  • Supplementation with vitamin D3 reduced overall mortality by 11%, while supplementation with vitamin D2 increased overall mortality by an insignificant 4%.
  • 65% of the US population can be classified as vitamin D insufficient (blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D of below 30 ng/ml) and 4% as severely deficient in vitamin D (blood levels below 10 ng/ml)
  • Vitamin D deficiency contributes to 13% of the deaths in the United States. For comparison the corresponding numbers for other major risk factors are: smoking – 20%, physical inactivity – 11% and alcohol – 9%.
  • About the only point on which the two studies agreed was that there is a need for more, better designed studies to clarify the benefits of vitamin D.

The Bottom Line:

1)     Two studies were published in the April 2014 issue of the British Medical Journal. The first concluded that all of the supposed benefits of vitamin D – including increasing bone density – were not supported by the available data. The second study concluded that adequate intake of vitamin D significantly reduced deaths due to heart disease and cancer and also significantly reduced overall mortality. Somehow, only the first study made it into the headlines. Why does that not surprise me?

2)     The suggestion in the first study that vitamin D may not be essential for strong bones is based on a complete misunderstanding of the role of vitamin D in the body. There are ample clinical studies showing that vitamin D and calcium together are essential for strong bones. Nobody who understands biochemistry would expect vitamin D to increase bone density in the absence of calcium, but the authors only considered studies that excluded calcium in drawing their conclusion that vitamin D did not increase bone density.

3)     The only point of agreement between the two studies is that more and better studies are needed to sort out the benefits of vitamin D and what levels of vitamin D are optimal. I wholeheartedly agree.

4)     My advice is to ignore the headlines telling you that vitamin D is dead. On the other hand, don’t get caught up in the hype and buy megadoses of vitamin D supplements. While the evidence is rock solid that vitamin D and calcium together are essential for strong bones, the jury is still out on some of the other health benefits of vitamin D.

5)     If you are supplementing with vitamin D you should know that the RDAs for vitamin D are 600 IU for ages 1-70 and 800 IU over 70. The safe upper limit has been set at 4,000 IU. You should only go above that on a doctor’s advice.

6)     However, people metabolize vitamin D with different efficiencies, so I strongly recommend that you get your blood levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D tested and let your doctor help you determine how much vitamin D you should be getting.

7)     Finally, a number of recent studies suggest that vitamin D3 may be more effective than vitamin D2, so I only recommend supplements that contain D3.

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