The Omega-3 Pendulum

Who Benefits Most From Omega-3s? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Pendulum
Pendulum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Omega-3 Pendulum

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

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

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

The GISSI Study:

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

The ASCEND Study:

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

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

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

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

The VITAL Study:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Benefits Most From Omega-3s?

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

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

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

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

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

I feel the same way about omega-3s:

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

Is Dairy Bad For Your Heart?

Is Dairy Right For You? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Dairy Bad For Your Heart?

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

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

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

The participants in this study were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The results of the study were:

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

When the results were broken down into individual dairy foods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Dairy Right For You?

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Diet To Die For

Which Diet Is Best? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Heart AttackMany clinical studies focus on the benefits or risks associated with individual components of our diet. For example, we have been told:

  • Saturated and trans fats are bad for us and monounsaturated and omega-3 fats are good for us.
  • Sugar and refined carbohydrates are bad for us, but complex carbohydrates are good for us.

However, we don’t eat saturated fats or sugars in isolation. They are part of a diet with many other foods. Do other foods in our diet affect the risks we associate with saturated fat or sugar? We don’t know.

Simply put, we don’t eat foods, we eat diets. We don’t eat saturated fats, we eat diets. It would be more helpful for the average person if research focused on which diets are good and bad for us instead of which foods are good and bad for us.

One recent study (JM Shikany et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 10:e019158, 2021) did just that. It evaluated the effect of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death (dropping dead from a stroke or heart attack).

  • It turns out that one of the diets significantly increases your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to die for”.
  • Another diet significantly decreases your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to live for”.
  • The other diets had no significant effect on the risk of sudden cardiac death.

You are probably wondering, “What were the diets?”; “Which diet is best?”; and “Which diet is worst?” I cover that below, but first we should look at how the study was designed.

How Was The Study Designed?

Clinical StudyThe study involved 21,069 participants in the REGARDS (Reasons for Geographical and Racial Differences in Stroke) clinical trial who were followed for an average of 10 years. This clinical trial enrolled:

  • 30% of its participants from what is called the “the stroke belt” (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana).
  • 20% of its participants from what is called “the stroke buckle” (the coastal plain of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia).
  • 50% of its participants from elsewhere in the continental United States.

At the beginning of the study, participants were given a medical exam and filled out an extensive questionnaire on diet.

Based on the diet analysis, the participants were ranked for adherence to six dietary patterns.

#1: The Convenience Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on pre-packaged or restaurant meals, pasta dishes, pizza, Mexican food, and Chinese food.

#2: The Plant-Based Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on vegetables, fruits, fruit juice, cereal, beans, fish, poultry, and yogurt.

#3: The Sweets Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on added sugars, desserts, chocolate, candy, and sweetened breakfast foods.

#4: The Southern Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on added fats, fried food, eggs and egg dishes, organ meats, processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

#5: The Alcohol and Salad Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on beer, wine, liquor, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and salad dressing.

#6: The Mediterranean Pattern. Adherence to the Mediterranean dietary pattern was based on the well-established Mediterranean Diet Score.

  • Points are added for beneficial foods (vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grain cereals, nuts, and fish).
  • Points are subtracted for detrimental foods (meat and dairy).
  • Points are added for a high ratio of monounsaturated fats to saturated fats (think diets rich in olive oil).
  • One point is added for moderate alcohol consumption, Zero or excess alcohol consumption is assigned 0 points.

The study looked at the correlation of these dietary patterns with the incidence of sudden cardiac death during the 10-year study.

A Diet To Die For

deadThe results were striking.

  • The Southern Diet increased the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death 2.2-fold. Basically, it doubled the risk.
    • In people with no previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Southern Diet increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 2.3-fold.
    • In people with a previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Southern Diet increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 2-fold.
  • The Mediterranean Diet decreased the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death 41%.
    • In people with no previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Mediterranean Diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 51%. Basically, it cut the risk in half.
    • In people with a previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Mediterranean Diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 23%, but that decrease was not statistically significant.
  • None of the other diets had a significant effect on the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death.

In the words of the authors, “We identified a trend towards an inverse association of the Mediterranean diet score and a positive association of adherence to the Southern dietary pattern with risk of sudden cardiac death.” [That is a fancy way of saying the Mediterranean diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death, and the Southern dietary pattern increased the risk of sudden cardiac death.]

Which Diet Is Best?

AwardThe Mediterranean Diet Is Best: In this analysis of the effects of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death, it is obvious that the Mediterranean diet is best. It cut the risk of sudden cardiac death in half.

This should come as no surprise:

  • I have reported on a previous study showing that the Mediterranean diet decreases the risk of heart disease by 47%.
  • In the Woman’s Health Study the Mediterranean diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 36%.
  • In the Nurses’ Health Study there was an inverse association between the Mediterranean Diet Score and sudden cardiac death.

The Southern Dietary Pattern Was Worst. It doubled the risk of sudden cardiac death. As someone who grew up in the South, this comes as no surprise to me. Let me count the ways:

  • It starts with a breakfast of fried eggs, grits with “red-eye gravy” (a mixture of ham drippings and coffee), ham or sausage, and biscuits made with lots of lard and sugar.
  • When I was growing up, a snack might be an RC cola and moon pies (look that one up).
  • Dinner might be fried chicken and hushpuppies or fried fish and hushpuppies.
  • Instead of picnics we have pig pickins (which is pretty much what it sounds like).
  • And we boil our vegetables with fatback (pig fat) and sugar.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond memories of the foods I ate while growing up in the South. I just don’t eat them much anymore.

Why Didn’t The Plant-Based Dietary Pattern Score Better? One of the surprises from this study was that the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern didn’t score better. After all, numerous studies have shown that mostly plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease. Why did it strike out in this study?Vegan Foods

My feeling is that the study did not adequately describe a true Plant-Based Dietary Pattern. As I described above, participants following the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern were identified as having above average consumption of vegetables, fruits, fruit juice, cereal, beans, fish, poultry, and yogurt compared to others in this study. I have two concerns with this classification.

  • As described, this is a semi-vegetarian diet, while the best results for reducing heart disease risk are seen with strict vegetarian and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets.
  • However, my biggest concern is that we don’t know what other foods they were consuming. Were they also consuming convenience foods? Were they consuming sweets? We don’t know.

That is very different from the two dietary patterns that stood out in this study.

  • 50% of the participants in this study came the Southeastern region of the United States. So, when the study identified participants as following a Southern Dietary Pattern based on a few southern foods, it is likely that those participants ate many other southern foods as well.

If 50% of the participants in the study had come from the Loma Linda area of California where vegetarianism is much more common, the study might have done a better job of identifying participants consuming a plant-based diet.

  • While participants consuming the Mediterranean diet were more scattered geographically, the Mediterranean Diet Score used to identify people consuming a Mediterranean diet is much more detailed and has been validated in numerous previous studies.

In short, the Southern and Mediterranean Dietary Patterns may have stood out in this study because they provided a more precise distinction between those consuming a Southern or Mediterranean diet and those following other dietary patterns. If the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern had been more precisely described, it might have shown a statistically significant benefit as well.

The Bottom Line

Many clinical studies focus on the benefits or risks associated with individual components of our diet.

However, we don’t eat foods, we eat diets. It would be more helpful for the average person if research focused on which diets are good and bad for us instead of which foods are good and bad for us.

One recent study did just that. It evaluated the effect of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death (dropping dead from a stroke or heart attack).

  • It turns out that the Southern diet doubles your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to die for”.
  • In contrast, the Mediterranean diet cuts your risk of sudden cardiac death in half. I call that one, “A diet to live for”.
  • The other diets had no significant effect on the risk of sudden cardiac death.

For more details on the study, why the Southern diet is so bad for us, and why the Mediterranean diet is so good 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.

Omega 3 Supplementation And Heart Disease Risk

How Can You Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Disease?

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

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

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

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

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

How Were The Studies Done?

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

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

The major strengths of this study were:

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

The major weaknesses of this study were:

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

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

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

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

The main strengths of this study were:

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

The main weakness of this study was:

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

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

Omega 3 Supplementation And Heart Disease Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can You Reduce Your Risk Of Heart Disease?

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

These studies showed that omega 3 supplementation:

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

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

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

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

Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?

Does Fish Oil Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fish OilOne of my readers recently sent me a video titled “Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?” and asked me to comment on it. The doctor who made the video claimed that the most recent studies had definitively shown that omega-3 fatty acids, whether from fish or fish oil, do not decrease the risk of heart attack, stroke or cardiovascular death. He went on to say that the case was closed. There was no point in even doing any more studies.

My reader, like many of you, was confused. Wasn’t it just a few years ago we were being told that clinical studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduce the risk of heart disease? Hadn’t major health organizations recommended omega-3 fatty acids as part of a heart health diet? What has changed?

The answer to the first two questions is a resounding YES, and “What has changed?” is THE story.  Let me explain.

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Healthy People

If we look at intervention studies in healthy people (what we scientists refer to as primary prevention studies) the results have been pretty uniform over the years. In a primary prevention setting, fish oil cannot be shown to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease (Rizos et al, JAMA, 308: 1024-1033, 2012).

That’s not unexpected because it is almost impossible to show that any intervention significantly reduces the risk of heart disease in healthy populations. For example, as I pointed out in recent Health Tips From the Professor (“Do Statins Really Work?” and “Can An Apple A Day Keep Statins Away?”) you can’t even show that statins significantly reduce heart attack risk in healthy populations.

If you can’t prove that statins reduce the risk of heart attacks in a healthy population, it should come as no surprise that you can’t prove that fish oil reduce heart attacks in a healthy population. To answer that question we need to look at whether fish oil reduces the risk of heart attacks in high risk populations.

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Sick People – The Early Studies

Most of the early  studies looking at the effect of fish oil in patients at high risk of cardiovascular disease (what we scientists refer to as secondary prevention studies) reported very positive results.

For example, the DART1 study (Burr et al, Lancet, 2: 757-761, 1989) and the US Physician’s Health Study (Albert et al, JAMA, 279: 23-28, 1998) reported a 29% decrease in total mortality and a 52% decrease in sudden deaths related to heart disease in patients consuming diets rich in omega-3 containing fish.

Even more striking was the GISSI-Prevenzione study (Marchioli et al, Lancet, 354: 447-455, 1999; Marchioli et al, Eur. Heart J, 21: 949-952, 2000; Marchioli et al, Circulation, 105: 1897-1903, 2002). This was a very robust and well designed study. It looked at the effect of a fish oil supplement providing 1 g/day of omega-3 fatty acids on the risk of a second heart attack in 11,323 patients who had survived a non-fatal heart attack within the last 3 months – a very high risk group.

The results were clear cut. Over the next 3.5 years supplementation with fish oil reduced overall death by 15% and sudden death due to heart disease by 30% compared to a placebo. And, if you looked at the first 4 months, when the risk of a second heart attack is highest, the fish oil supplement reduced the risk of overall death by 41% and sudden death by 53%.

The authors estimated that treating 1,000 heart attack patients with 1 g/day of fish oil would save 5.7 lives per year. That is almost identical to the 5.2 lives saved per 1,000 patients per year by the statin drug pravastatin in the LIPID trial (NEJM, 339: 1349-1357, 1998).

No wonder the American Heart Association said that patients “could consider fish oil supplementation for heart disease risk prevention.”

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Sick People – The Latest Studies

Heart Health StudyHowever, the most recent studies have been uniformly negative. For example, the ORIGIN trial (Bosch et al, NEJM, 367: 309-318, 2012) treated 12,536 patients who were considered at high risk of heart disease because of diabetes or pre-diabetes with either 1 g/day of fish oil or a placebo. This was also a robust, well designed study, and it found no effect of the fish oil supplement on either heart attacks or deaths due to heart disease.

Similarly, a recent meta-analysis looking at the combined effects of 14 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials in patients at high risk of heart disease found no significant effect of fish oil supplements on overall deaths, sudden death due to heart disease, heart attacks, congestive heart failure or stroke (Kwak et al, Arch. Int. Med., 172: 686-694, 2012).

No wonder you are confused by all of the conflicting studies. You must be wondering: “Is the American Heart Association wrong?” “Are fish oil supplements useless for reducing heart disease risk?”

What Has Changed Between The Early Studies & The Latest Studies?

When a trained scientist sees the outcome of well designed clinical studies change over time, he or she asks: “What has changed in the studies?” It turns out that a lot has changed.

1)     In the first place the criteria for people considered at risk for heart attack and stoke have changed dramatically. Not only has the definition of high cholesterol” been dramatically lowered, but cardiologists now treat people for heart disease if they have inflammation, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood pressure, diabetes, pre-diabetes or minor arrythmia.

For example, the GISSI-Prevenzione study recruited patients who had a heart attack within the past three months, while the ORIGIN study just looked at people who had diabetes or impaired blood sugar control. While both groups could be considered high risk, the patients in the earlier studies were at much higher risk for an imminent heart attack or stroke – thus making it much easier to detect a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation.

2)     Secondly, the standard of care for people considered at risk for heart disease has also changed dramatically. In the earlier studies patients were generally treated with one or two drugs – generally a beta-blockers and/or drug to lower blood pressure. In the more recent studies the patients generally receive at least 3 to 5 different medications – medications to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides, reduce inflammation, reduce arrhythmia, reduce blood clotting, and medications to reduce the side effects of those medications.

Since those medications perform many of the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids, it is perhaps no surprise that it is now very difficult to show any additional benefit of omega-3 fatty acids in patients on multiple medications.

The bottom line is that we are no longer asking the same question. The earlier studies were asking whether fish oil supplements reduce the risk of heart attacks or cardiovascular death in patients at high risk of heart disease. The more recent studies are asking whether fish oil supplements provide any additional benefits in a high risk population that is already on 3-5 medications to reduce their risk of heart disease.

However, the people who are writing the headlines you are reading (and the videos you are watching) are not making that distinction. They are pretending that nothing has changed in the way the studies are designed. They are telling you that the latest studies contradict the earlier studies when, in fact, they are measuring two different things.

Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?

Was the doctor who made the video “Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?” correct in saying that omega-3 fatty acids are ineffective at reducing the risk of heart disease? The answer is yes and no.

If you take the medical viewpoint that the proper way to treat anyone at the slightest risk of heart disease is with 3-5 medications – with all of their side effects, the answer seems to be pretty clear cut that adding fish oil to your regimen provides little additional benefit.

However, that is not the question that interests me. I’d like to know whether I can reduce my risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death by taking omega-3 fatty acids in place of those drugs – as the original studies have shown.

I’m sure many of my readers feel the same way.

The Bottom Line

  • Studies performed prior to 2000 have generally shown that fish oil supplements reduce the risk of a second heart attack in patients who have previously had a heart attack. One study even suggested that they were as effective as statin drugs at reducing heart attack risk in this population.
  • Recent studies have called into question the beneficial effects of fish oil supplements at reducing the risk of heart disease. However, these studies were performed with lower risk patients and the patients were on 3-5 medications to reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • The recent studies are no longer evaluating whether fish oil supplements can reduce the risk of heart disease. They are asking whether they have any additional beneficial effects for people taking multiple medications. That’s a totally different question.
  • So ignore the headlines saying that fish oil is snake oil. If you are content taking multiple medications to reduce your risk of heart disease, it is probably correct to say that omega-3 fatty acids provide little additional benefit.
  • However, if you are interested in a more holistic, drug-free approach to reducing your risk of heart disease, I still recommend omega-3 fatty acids as part of a heart healthy diet, as does the American Heart Association.

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 Multivitamins A Waste Of Money?

Don’t Throw Your Vitamins Away Yet

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

ProfessorThe Professor is annoyed. Two things really irritate me:

  • Charlatans who cherry pick studies to “prove” that their snake oil supplements will cure what ails you.
  • Doctors who proclaim that vitamins are a waste of money without understanding the science behind the studies they are quoting.

Are Multivitamins A Waste Of Money?

You’ve seen the headlines telling you that “the experts” have concluded that multivitamins are a waste of money. You might be wondering “What’s behind these headlines? Who are these experts, and what is their evidence?”

Let’s start at the beginning. The article (Gualler et al., Annals of Internal Medicine, 159: 850-851, 2013) that generated all of the headlines was an editorial, which means it is an opinion piece, not a scientific study. It represents the opinion of five very prominent doctors, but it is, at the end of the day, just their opinion. Many other well respected experts disagree with their opinion.

They based their editorial on three recently published studies:

  • The first study reported that vitamin and mineral supplements did not decrease the risk of heart disease and cancer in healthy individuals (Fortmann et al., Annals of Internal Medicine, 159, doi: 10.7326/003-4815-159-12-201312170-00729)
  • The second study reported that multivitamins did not affect cognitive function in healthy male physicians aged 65 and older (Gradstein et al, Annals of Internal Medicine, 159, 806-814, 2013)
  • The third study concluded that multivitamins did not reduce the risk of a second heart attack in patients who had previously had a heart attack and were receiving appropriate medical therapy.

These were all large, well designed studies, so it would be tempting to conclude that the headlines were right. Maybe vitamins are a waste of money.

But, what if the whole underlying premise of these studies was flawed? Let’s examine that possibility by examining the flawed premises behind these and other studies.

What’s Wrong With These Studies?

#1) These studies were too narrowly focused.

MultivitaminsMultivitamins and individual vitamins and minerals are not magic bullets. They are not drugs. They are meant to fill nutritional gaps in our diet – not prevent or cure disease. We should be asking whether holistic approaches can prevent or cure disease – not whether individual nutrients can do so.

One of the examples that I love to use, because it really made an impression on me as a young scientist, occurred at an International Cancer Symposium I attended more than 30 years ago. I attended a session in which an internally renowned expert was giving his talk on colon cancer. He said, “I can show you, unequivocally, that colon cancer risk is significantly decreased by a lifestyle that includes a high-fiber diet, a low-fat diet, adequate calcium, adequate B-vitamins, exercise and weight control. But I can’t show you that any one of them, by themselves, is effective.”

The question that came to me as I heard him speak was: “What’s the message that a responsible scientist or responsible health professional should be giving to their patients or the people that they’re advising?” You’ve probably heard experts saying:

  • “Don’t worry about the fat content of your diet. It can’t be shown to increase the risk of colon cancer.”
  • “Don’t worry about calcium. It doesn’t decrease the risk of colon cancer”
  • “Don’t worry about B-vitamins. They don’t decrease the risk”
  • “Don’t worry about fiber. It can’t be shown to decrease the risk either”

But, is that the message that we should be giving people – that nothing matters? Shouldn’t we really be saying what that doctor said many years ago – that a lifestyle that includes all of those things significantly decreases the risk of colon cancer?

#2) These studies were destined to fail.

It’s almost impossible to prove that any single intervention prevents disease when you are starting with a healthy population (something we scientists refer to as a primary prevention study).

For example, in “Health Tips From the Professor” just a couple of weeks ago I shared with you that even when you combine all of the published studies with tens of thousands of patients, it is impossible to prove that stain drugs prevent heart attacks in healthy individuals.

If you can’t show that statins prevent heart disease in healthy people, why would you expect to be able to show that vitamins or minerals prevent heart attacks in healthy people?

I can’t resist pointing out that this perfectly illustrates the pro-drug, anti-supplement bias that is so prevalent among many of my medical colleagues. I haven’t seen a single editorial or headline suggesting that statin drugs might be a waste of money for healthy individuals.

#3) These studies simply asked the wrong questions.

For example, the third study described in the editorial was asking whether multivitamins reduced the risk of a second heart attack in patients who were receiving “appropriate medical therapy”. What does “appropriate medical therapy” mean, you might ask? It means that those patients were on 4 or 5 drugs, with all of their side effects.

In reality the study was not asking whether multivitamins reduced the risk of a second heart attack. The study asked whether multivitamins had any additional benefits for individuals who were taking 4 or 5 drugs to reduce their risk of a second heart attack. That’s a totally different question.

There are lots of examples of this paradigm. For example, 17 years ago the Cambridge Heart Antioxidant Study showed that vitamin E significant decreased heart attack risk in patients with severe cardiovascular disease (Stephens et al, The Lancet, 347: 781-786, 1996). Patients in that study were taking one or two medications. However, in today’s world that would be considered unethical. The standard medical treatment for high risk heart disease patients today is 4 or 5 drugs, and when patients are receiving that many medications it is no longer possible to demonstrate a benefit of vitamin E. The story is similar for omega-3 fatty acids.

That poses a dilemma. What recent studies show is that individual nutrients don’t reduce the risk of a second heart attack in someone who is receiving “standard of care” medical treatment.

But that’s not the question I am interested in. I’d like to know whether natural approaches might be just as effective as the drugs or whether natural approaches might allow one to use fewer drugs or lower doses. I’d like to avoid all of the side effects of those drugs if I could.

What about you? What questions would you like answered? Do these studies answer those questions?

What Was Overlooked In Those Studies

The studies did show conclusively that there were no harmful effects from supplementing except for high dose beta-carotene in smokers. Somehow that information never made it into the headlines.

The Bottom Line

  • Don’t pay much attention to the reports that supplements don’t work and are a waste of money. Those studies are fundamentally flawed.
  • Don’t pay much attention to the reports claiming that vitamins will hurt you. Except for beta-carotene in smokers the latest studies showed no evidence of harm.
  • On the other hand, don’t expect miracles from your vitamins. If you spend your time sitting in front of the TV set eating pizza & drinking sodas, popping a vitamin pill won’t prevent much of anything.
  • Finally, holistic approaches are often as effective as drug therapy – without the side effects. Your vitamins can be an important part of a holistic approach to better health that includes weight control, a good diet and exercise.

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 Cholesterol Lowering Drugs Right For You?

Do Statins Really Work?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Do statins really work?Statins – those ubiquitous drugs used to lower cholesterol levels – are big business!

Over 20 million Americans are currently being treated with statin drugs at a cost that runs into billions of dollars every year. And cardiologists have just recommended that another 20 million Americans consider using cholesterol lowering drugs. 44% of the men and 22% of the women in this country are now being told that they should be using statin drugs.

Some of my cardiologist friends are so convinced that statin drugs prevent death from heart attacks that they have said, only half-joking, that we should just add statins to the water supply.

Are Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Right For You?

Is the faith of doctors in the power of statin drugs to prevent death from heart disease justified? To answer that question in full we need to look at people who have already survived a heart attack and people who have never had a heart attack separately.

If you’ve already had a heart attack the evidence is clear cut.

  • If you have had a heart attack, there is good evidence that statins will reduce your risk of dying from a second heart attack.
  • In the technical jargon of the scientific world that is referred to as secondary prevention.

But what about those millions of Americans who are being prescribed statin drugs who have never had a heart attack? This is something we scientists refer to as primary prevention.

What Do The Studies Actually Say About Statins And Primary Prevention?

Here the evidence is not clear at all. Two major reports have cast doubt on the assumption that statins actually do prevent heart attacks in people who have not already had a first heart attack.

In the first study, Dr. Kausik Ray and colleagues from Cambridge University in England performed a meta-analyis of 11 clinical studies involving over 65,000 participants (Ray et al, Arch. Int. Med., 170: 1024-1031, 2010). They focused on those participants in the studies who had not previously had a heart attack (primary prevention).

  • They found that the use of statins over an average of 3.7 years had no statistically significant effect on mortality. In short, statins had no effect on the risk of dying from heart disease or any other cause.
  • Dr. Sreenivasa Sechasai, one of the doctors involved in the study, said “We didn’t find a significant reduction in death despite having such a huge sample size. This is the totality of evidence in primary prevention. So if we can’t show a reduction with this data, it is unlikely to be there.”

The second study was a Cochrane Systemic Review of statins published January 19th, 2011.  It stated that there was not enough scientific evidence to recommend the use of statins in people with no previous history of heart disease with some caveats (see below).

To help you understand the significance of that conclusion, let me give you a bit of background:

  • First you need to understand that the Cochrane Collaboration is an independent, non-profit organization that carefully reviews the scientific evidence behind medical treatments and proposed medical treatments.
  • Cochrane Reviews are considered the “Holy Grail” of evidence-based medicine (ie. medicine based on the best scientific evidence rather than what the pharmaceutical companies would have you believe).
  • So when a Cochrane Review concludes that there isn’t enough evidence to recommend use of statins in patients with no prior history of heart disease that is pretty big news in the medical world.

How Should These Studies Be Interpreted?

Please don’t misinterpret what I am saying. The Cochrane Review said that statin drugs are overprescribed, but it did not say that everyone who has not had a heart attack will not benefit from statins. It said that there are a number of risk factors that need to be considered in evaluating individual patients for statin use.

  • Simply put, that means that it is not as simple as saying that everyone with no previous history of heart disease should not be on statin drugs.
  • If you are currently taking statin drugs and you have no previous history of heart disease, you may want to discuss with your physician whether the Cochrane Review of statin drugs changes their opinion of whether se of those drugs is still warranted for you.
  • But the bottom line is that only your physician is trained to take into account all of the factors that increase your risk of heart disease and the best therapeutic approach for reducing your risk of heart attack.

There Is A Double Standard In The Medical Community

More importantly, these studies highlight the difficulty in showing that anything works when you start out with a healthy group of adults with no prior evidence of disease (primary prevention).

And, the way that doctors have responded to primary prevention studies shows that there is a double standard in how primary prevention trials are interpreted in the medical community. For example:

  • There is no good evidence that statins prevent fatal heart attacks in healthy people.
  • However, because statins do work in high risk patients, most doctors recommend their use by millions of Americans who have never had a heart attack.
  • There is also no good evidence that nutrients like vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids prevent fatal heart attacks in healthy people.
  • However, there is evidence that both vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids prevent heart attacks in high risk patients, yet most doctors will tell you they are a waste of money.

It is food for thought.

The Bottom Line

1)    Statin drugs clearly save lives when used by people who have already had a heart attack.

2)    On the other hand, there is no proof that statin drugs prevent heart attacks in people who have not previously had a heart attack

3)    Statin drugs do have side effects. Increased risk of diabetes, liver damage, muscle damage and kidney failure are the best documented, although memory loss has also been reported.

4)    I am not recommending that you stop using statin drugs without consulting your doctor. I am suggesting that you discuss the benefits and risks of statin drug use with your doctor.

5)    Perhaps the most important poin tto come out of these studies is that it almost impossible to prove the benefit of any intervention in a primary prevention trial. If you can’t prove that statins work in healthy people, it is not surprising that it is difficult to prove that other interventions work.

6)   Finally, the way that these studies have been interpreted shows that there is a clear double standard in how the medical community evaluates primary intervention trials.

  • Statin drugs don’t show any benefit in a primary prevention setting, yet most doctors still recommend them.
  • Vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids don’t show any benefit in a primary prevention setting, and most doctors recommend against them.

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

Does Skipping Breakfast Increase Heart Disease Risk?

Should You Eat Breakfast Every Day?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Mature Man - Heart AttackDoes skipping breakfast actually increase your risk of heart attacks? You’ve probably heard the saying “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper”.

You’ve probably also heard that skipping breakfast is associated with increased risk of things like:

 

  • obesity
  • high blood pressure
  • and diabetes

If you believe those associations are true, the latest study showing an association between skipping breakfast and heart disease risk just makes sense. After all, obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes all increase the risk of heart disease.

But, how good is the evidence skipping breakfast actually increases the risk of any of those things?

The evidence for the link between skipping breakfast and heart disease risk:

Let’s start with the current study linking breakfast skipping with heart disease (Cahill et al, Circulation, 128: 337-343, 2013) because its study design is similar to the studies linking breakfast skipping to obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. This study surveyed the eating habits of 27,000 men (45+ years old) enrolled in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study in 1992 and followed those men for 16 years.

The results were pretty dramatic. After correcting for other factors that might influence heart disease risk, the men who skipped breakfast were 27% more likely to develop heart disease over the next 16 years than the men who ate breakfast on a daily basis.

As impressive as the association between breakfast and heart disease was, there was an even more impressive association that never made it into the headlines.

There was no association between skipping breakfast and eating late in the evening. However, those men who ate late in the evening were 53% more like to develop heart disease than men who did not.

The pros and cons of the study:

The pros:

1)     The strength of this study is that it is large (27,000 participants), long (16 years) and well designed. The results were statistically very significant.

The cons:

1)     This study only shows associations. It does not prove cause and effect. Having said that, it would be really, really hard to design a placebo controlled study for breakfast versus no breakfast. So cause and effect is almost impossible to prove for this type of comparison.

2)     The study did not ask what kind of breakfast the participants were eating. We don’t know whether the breakfasts were a Danish and coffee, an Egg McMuffin and hash browns  or a high protein smoothie with perhaps some fruit or oatmeal– and, believe me, there is a difference among those three breakfasts!

The Bottom Line:

1)     Eating breakfast is probably a good thing. Yes, the evidence that skipping breakfast increases heart disease risk is circumstantial, but it is also substantial. This is a large, well designed study.

2)     Not all breakfasts are equal. You probably already knew that! I recommend a breakfast with fruit, nuts, whole grains in moderation and lean protein sources.

3)     While this particular study only included men, previous studies suggest that the potential health risks of skipping breakfast are equally strong for women.

4)     Finally, while skipping breakfast grabbed all the headlines, the data suggest that eating late at night is an even stronger predictor of heart disease risk.

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

Can Soft Drinks Cause Heart Disease?

Put Down That Soda

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 soda-drink-300x181Can Soft Drinks Cause Heart Disease? For today’s “Health Tip” I’m going to paraphrase a quote from your some of your favorite action flicks: “Put down that soda and back away and nobody gets hurt.”

You see, the news about soft drinks keeps getting worse and worse! You’ve probably already heard that soft drink consumption leads to weight gain, pre-diabetes and possibly even diabetes because calories in liquid form do not affect appetite to the same extent as calories in solid form.

Soft Drink Consumption increases the risk of heart attack and stroke in women:

As if that weren’t bad enough, three recent studies suggest that soft drinks consumption is also associated with increased risk of heart attacks and stroke.

The first study looked at sweetened beverage consumption and risk of coronary heart disease in women (Fung et al, Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 89: 1037-1042, 2009).

This study followed 88,520 women enrolled in the Nurses Health Study for 24 years. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (either sodas or non-carbonated sugar-sweetened beverages such as Hawaiian Punch, lemonade and other non-carbonated fruit drinks) was assessed from food-frequency questionnaires administered 7 times during the 24 years. And the total incidence of coronary events (both fatal and non-fatal) was recorded.

The results were striking. When they compared women who consumed as little as one sugar-sweetened beverage per day with women who consumed those beverages less than once per month, the increased risk of coronary heart disease was 23%. And when they compared women who consumed more than two sugar-sweetened beverage per day with women who consumed those beverages less than once per month, the increased risk of coronary heart disease was a whopping 35%.

Sodas are just as harmful for men:

And, in case you guys thought you were off the hook, a study has just been published showing similar results in men (de Koning et al, Circulation, March 12, 2012, Epub ahead of print). This study was a 22 year follow up of 42,883 men enrolled in the Men’s Health Professional study. The study design and results were very similar to the ones obtained previously in the Nurses Health Study except that this study did not distinguish between subjects consuming one sugar sweetened beverage a day and those consuming more than one each day.

When they compared men who consumed one or more sugar sweetened beverage a day to men who never consumed sugar-sweetened beverages, the increased risk of coronary heart disease was 20%.

Diet sodas are just as bad as regular sodas:

 Finally, you may be saying that this information doesn’t apply to you because you only consume diet sodas or artificially sweetened non-carbonated beverages.

Unfortunately, you may not be off the hook either!

Another study published in January 2012 reported that diet soft drink consumption is also associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease – including strokes (Gardener et al, J. Gen. Intern. Med., DOI: 10.1007/sl11606-011-1968-2). This study followed 2564 men and women enrolled in the Northern Manhattan Study for 10 years.

The people in this study who consumed more than one diet soda or artificially sweetened beverage/day were 43% more likely to have a vascular event (heart attack or stroke) then the people consuming less than one diet beverage/month. This study is in line with previous studies showing that diet soda consumption is associated with increased risk of pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes.

And, as I have pointed out in my previous “Health Tips”, there is no convincing evidence that diet sodas actually help prevent weight gain. Sure there are several published studies showing that when dietitians supervise the diets of the study participants, you can achieve weight loss by substituting diet beverages for sugar containing beverages.

However, two major studies have shown that when you look at free-living populations, consumption of diet beverages is associated with just as much weight gain as consumption of sugar containing beverages (Dhingra et al, Circulation,116: 480-488, 2007; Fowler et al,

Obesity, 16:1894-1900, 2008). Apparently, without a dietitian looking over our shoulder, we manage to make up for those lost calories somewhere else!

The Bottom Line:

So what’s the bottom line for you?

You should be aware that these studies just look at associations – not cause and effect – and they can be skewed by the characteristics of the study populations. For example, there were some striking inconsistencies between the 3 studies I cited that are likely due to differences in the population groups that they sampled. However, despite some differences from one study to the next, the weight of accumulating evidence seems to suggest that sodas – both sugar containing and diet – are really not good for us.

So it’s back to my original advice: “Just put down that soda and nobody gets hurt.” Water is sounding better and better!

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