Can Vitamin C Prevent Heart Disease?

Where Should I Get My Vitamin C?

vitamin CThe vitamin C controversy continues. Some people call vitamin C a “miracle” nutrient. Others consider it little more than “fairy dust”. What is the truth?

Let’s look at the effect of vitamin C on heart disease risk as an example of why it is so difficult to resolve questions like this.

Association studies are ideal for measuring long-term effects of nutrient consumption on health outcomes. These studies have consistently found an inverse association between dietary vitamin C and plasma vitamin C levels with the risk of heart disease. Simply put, the more vitamin C from dietary sources, the lower the risk of heart disease.

However, association studies do not prove cause and effect. The primary reason for this is that association studies are complicated by “confounding variables”. For example, most vitamin C in the diet comes from fruits and vegetables. So, the question arises, “Is it the vitamin C in fruits and vegetables that is responsible for the decreased heart disease risk, or is it the fiber that is also present in fruits and vegetables?” Previous studies have not been designed to answer this question.

Placebo-controlled clinical trials solve the confounding variable issue because they involve supplementation with pure vitamin C or a placebo. There is only a single variable. However, placebo-controlled clinical trials only last for a short time. That means they can measure biological markers that may affect heart disease risk but seldom last long enough to directly measure the effect of vitamin C on heart disease risk.

For example, previous studies have shown that high-dose (500 to 4,000 mg/day) supplementation with vitamin C improves the function of the endothelial lining of our blood cells and reduces blood pressure. These are biological markers that might be expected to reduce heart disease risk.

However, heart disease takes decades to develop. No studies of vitamin C supplementation have lasted long enough to show an actual decrease in heart disease outcomes.

In today’s issue of “Health Tips From The Professor” I would like to address three questions:

1) Does dietary vitamin C reduce heart disease risk?

2) How much of the risk reduction is due to the fiber content of fruits and vegetables rather than their vitamin C content?

3) Does supplementation with vitamin C reduce heart disease risk?

I will focus on a recent study (N Martin-Calvo and MA Martinez-Gonzalez, Nutrients, 9: 954, 2017, doi.org/10.3390/nu909054) that was designed to answer these questions.

How Was The Study Done?

Heart Health StudyThis study was an offshoot of an ongoing Spanish research program called Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra (SUN) follow-up study. This program is following graduates of the University of Navarra to gauge the effect of diet and lifestyle on health outcomes.

Health, lifestyle, and diet information is collected when graduates enroll in the program and by mailed questionnaires every two years thereafter.

Graduates who were enrolled in the SUN program in 2014 or earlier were invited to participate in this vitamin C and heart disease study.

  • Vitamin C intake from diet and from supplements was assessed from the dietary analysis.
  • A diagnosis of heart disease was obtained from the Health questionnaire and confirmed by physician follow-up.
  • Deaths due to heart disease were obtained from the Spanish National Death Index cross-referenced to participants in the study and were confirmed by participants next of kin, work associates, or postal authorities.

The study excluded:

  • Participants with pre-existing heart disease at the beginning of the study.
  • Participants who were younger than 40 at the beginning of the study.
  • Participants with either very high or very low vitamin C intake.

That left 13,421 participants who were young (average age = 42), at a healthy weight (average BMI = 24), healthy, and taking few medications.

Can Vitamin C Prevent Heart Disease?

Healthy HeartThe 13,421 participants in this study were followed for an average of 11 years.

They were divided into three groups based on their vitamin C intake.

  • Group 1 averaged 148 mg/day.
  • Group 2 averaged 257 mg/day.
  • Group 3 averaged 445 mg/day.

There are two noteworthy observations about their vitamin C intake:

  • None of the groups were vitamin C deficient. All three groups were getting well above the RDA for vitamin C (75 mg/day for women and 90 mg/day for men).
  • Most of the vitamin C came from fruits and vegetables in the diet. The group with the highest vitamin C intake (445 mg/day) only averaged about 10 mg/day from supplements.

The results of the study were intriguing. When the investigators compared the group with the highest vitamin C intake to the group with the lowest vitamin C intake:

  • Vitamin C significantly decreased both the risk of developing heart disease and the risk of dying from heart disease.
    • Statistically adjusting the data for age, gender, weight, lifestyle, and medicine use did not affect the outcome.
    • Statistically adjusting the data for fiber from sources other than fruits and vegetables did not affect the outcome.
    • Statistically adjusting the data for adherence to a healthy diet (the Mediterranean diet) did not affect the outcome.

However, when the data were statistically adjusted for total fiber (including fiber from fruits and vegetables) the high fiberresults painted a slightly different picture. With this adjustment:

  • Vitamin C decreased the risk of developing heart disease by 26%, but this decrease was not statistically significant.
  • Vitamin C decreased the risk of dying from heart disease by 70%, and this decrease was highly significant.

This was the first study to consider the relative importance of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables and fiber from fruits and vegetables on heart disease outcomes and the results were interesting. Here are the important conclusions.

1) Both the fiber and the vitamin C from fruits and vegetables contributed to a decreased risk of developing heart disease. This study was unable to separate their contributions.

Of course, it is important to note that this was a young, healthy population, none of whom were deficient in vitamin C. It would be interesting to repeat this study with an older, sicker population with a more restrictive diet.

2) Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of dying from heart disease independent of the beneficial effects of fruit and vegetable fiber.

3) This study was not able to address the effect of vitamin C supplementation on heart disease risk. That is because the Spaniards supplement much less frequently than Americans and this study excluded anyone with unusually high vitamin C intake. The average supplemental vitamin C in the 3 groups ranged from 0.56 mg/day to 9.6 mg/day.

4) This study also emphasizes the importance of getting fiber from a variety of food sources. It showed that fiber from fruits and vegetables was more beneficial at reducing heart disease risk than fiber from other food sources. That means restrictive diets that eliminate fruits and/or vegetables may be bad for your heart.

Where Should I Get My Vitamin C?

Vegan FoodsThis study reinforces the importance of getting lots of fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet.

  • You could make a list of all the vitamin C-rich fruits and vegetables like citrus fruits, red & green peppers, broccoli, etc. and make sure you are including them in your diet.
  • You could total up the vitamin C in each food you eat and try to reach the 445 mg/day in the group with the highest vitamin C in this study.

However, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. If you eat a primarily plant-based diet, aim for 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and “eat the rainbow” you will get plenty of vitamin C from your diet.

Also, don’t worry about whether the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption come from their vitamin C or from their fiber. That’s the beauty of eating whole foods. You get both in the same package.

Of course, you are probably also wondering whether vitamin C supplementation will reduce your risk of heart disease. As I described earlier, there are lots of reasons for thinking that vitamin C supplementation might decrease heart disease risk.

  • Several studies show that higher vitamin C intake and higher vitamin C levels in the blood are associated with lower heart disease risk.
  • This study showed that vitamin C reduces the risk of dying from heart disease independent of fiber from fruits and vegetables and independent of an overall healthy diet. This suggests that vitamin C plays an independent role in reducing heart disease risk.
  • Placebo controlled clinical trials show that vitamin C supplementation reduces risk factors that contribute to heart disease.

However, none of these studies prove that vitamin C supplementation reduces heart disease risk. That requires placebo-controlled clinical trials measuring the effect of vitamin C supplementation on heart disease outcomes. Unfortunately, these studies are usually doomed to failure.

Chronic diseases like heart disease takes decades to develop. Placebo-controlled, randomized studies are almost never large enough or last long enough to show an effect of supplementation on chronic diseases.

The best we can say at present is that vitamin C supplementation along with a primarily plant-based diet with lots of colorful fruits and vegetables may reduce your risk of heart disease.

The Bottom Line

A recent study in Spain followed 13,421 healthy college graduates with an average age of 42 for 11 years and looked at the effect of vitamin C intake on the risk of developing heart disease and the risk of dying from heart disease.

This was the first study to consider the relative importance of vitamin C from fruits and vegetables and fiber from fruits and vegetables on heart disease outcomes and the results are intriguing. Here are the important conclusions.

1) Both the fiber and the vitamin C from fruits and vegetables contributed to a decreased risk of developing heart disease. This study was unable to separate their contributions.

Of course, it is important to note that this was a young, healthy population, none of whom were deficient in vitamin C. It would be interesting to repeat this study with an older, sicker population with a more restrictive die

2) Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables reduced the risk of dying from heart disease by 70%, and this effect was independent of the beneficial effects of fruit and vegetable fiber.

3) This study was not able to address the effect of vitamin C supplementation on heart disease risk. That is because the Spaniards supplement much less frequently than Americans and this study excluded anyone with unusually high vitamin C intake. The average supplemental vitamin C in the 3 groups ranged from 0.56 mg/day to 9.6 mg/day.

4) This study also emphasizes the importance of getting fiber from a variety of food sources. It showed that fiber from fruits and vegetables was more beneficial at reducing heart disease risk than fiber from other food sources. That means restrictive diets that eliminate fruits and/or vegetables may be bad for your heart.

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.

Should I Avoid Whole Grains?

Will Whole Grains Kill Me?

Whole GrainsIt seems like just yesterday that health experts all agreed that whole grains were good for us. After all:

  • They are a good source of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, and the minerals magnesium, iron, zinc, manganese, and selenium.
  • Their fiber fills you up, so you are less likely to overeat. This helps with weight control.
  • Their fiber also supports the growth of friendly bacteria in your gut.

In fact, the USDA still recommends that half of the grains we eat should be whole grains. And, outside experts, not influenced by the food industry, feel this recommendation is too low. They feel most of the grains we eat should be whole grains. Foods made from refined grains should be considered as only occasional treats.

Then the low-carb craze came along. Diets like Paleo and Keto were telling you to avoid all grains, even whole grains. Even worse, Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues were telling you whole grains contained something called lectins that were bad for you. Suddenly, whole grains went from being heroes to being villains.

You are probably asking, “Should I avoid whole grains?” What is the truth? Perhaps the best way to resolve this debate is to ask, how healthy are people who consume whole grains for many years? This week I share a recent study (G Zong et al, Circulation, 133: 2370-2380, 2016) that answers that very question.

How Was The Study Done?

This study was a meta-analysis of 14 clinical trials that:

  • Enrolled a total of 786,076 participants.
  • Obtained a detailed diet history at baseline.
  • Followed the participants for an average of 15 years (range = 6-28 years).
  • Determined the effect of whole grain consumption on the risk of death from heart disease, cancer, and all causes.

Will Whole Grains Kill Me?

deadDr. Strangelove and his colleagues are claiming that whole grains cause inflammation, which increases your risk of heart disease and cancer. Heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death in this country. In fact, according to the CDC, heart disease and cancer accounted for 44% of all deaths in the US in 2017.

Therefore, if Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues were correct, consumption of whole grains should increase the risk of deaths due to heart disease and cancer – and increase the risk of death due to all causes.

That is not what this study showed.

When the highest whole grain intake (5 servings/day) was compared with the lowest whole grain intake (0 servings/day), whole grain consumption reduced the risk of death from:

  • Heart disease by 18%.
  • Cancer by 12%.
  • All causes by 16%.

Furthermore, the effect of whole grains on mortality showed an inverse dose response. Simply put, the more thumbs upwhole grains people consumed, the lower the risk of deaths from heart disease, cancer, and all causes.

However, the dose response was not linear. Simply going from 0 servings of whole grains to one serving of whole grains reduced the risk of death from.

  • Heart disease by 9%.
  • Cancer by 5%.
  • All causes by 7%.

The authors concluded: “Whole grain consumption was inversely associated with mortality in a dose-response manner, and the association with cardiovascular mortality was particularly strong and robust. These observations endorse current dietary guidelines that recommend increasing whole grain intake to replace refined grains to facilitate long-term health and to help prevent premature death.”

The authors went on to say: “Low-carbohydrate diets that ignore the health benefits of whole grain foods should be adopted with caution because they have been linked to higher cardiovascular risk and mortality.”

Should I Avoid Whole Grains?

Question MarkAs for the original question, “Should I avoid whole grains?”, the answer appears to be a clear, “No”.

The strengths of this study include the large number of participants (786,076) and the demonstration of a clear dose-response relationship between whole grain intake and reduced mortality.

This study is also consistent with several other studies that show whole grain consumption is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer – and appears to lead to a longer, healthier life.

In short, it appears that Dr. Strangelove and the low-carb enthusiasts are wrong. Whole grains aren’t something to avoid. They reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. And they reduce the risk of premature death. We should be eating more whole grains, not less.

However, the authors did point out that this study has some weaknesses:

  • It is an association study, which does not prove cause and effect.
  • Study participants who consumed more whole grains also tended to consume more fruits and vegetables – and less red meat, sodas, and highly processed foods.

However, I would argue the second point is a strength, not a weakness. We need to give up the idea that certain foods or food groups are “heroes” or “villains”. We know that primarily plant-based diets like the Mediterranean and DASH diets are incredibly healthy. Does it really matter how much of those health benefits come from whole grains and how much comes from fruits and vegetables?

The Bottom Line

Dr. Strangelove and low-carb enthusiasts have been telling us we should avoid all grains, including whole grains. Is that good advice?

If Dr. Strangelove and his colleagues were correct, consumption of whole grains should increase the risk of deaths due to the top two killer diseases, heart disease and cancer. Furthermore, because heart disease and cancer account for 44% of all deaths in this country, whole grain consumption should also increase the risk of death due to all causes.

A recent study showed the exact opposite. The study showed:

When the highest whole grain intake (5 servings/day) was compared with the lowest whole grain intake (0 servings/day), whole grain consumption reduced the risk of death from:

  • Heart disease by 18%.
  • Cancer by 12%.
  • All causes by 16%.

Furthermore, the effect of whole grains on mortality showed an inverse dose response. Simply put, the more whole grains people consumed, the lower the risk of deaths from heart disease, cancer, and all causes.

However, the dose response was not linear. Simply going from 0 servings of whole grains to one serving of whole grains reduced the risk of death from.

  • Heart disease by 9%.
  • Cancer by 5%.
  • All causes by 7%.

The authors concluded: “Whole grain consumption was inversely associated with mortality in a dose-response manner, and the association with cardiovascular mortality was particularly strong and robust. These observations endorse current dietary guidelines that recommend increasing whole grain intake to replace refined grains to facilitate long-term health and to help prevent premature death.”

The authors went on to say: “Low-carbohydrate diets that ignore the health benefits of whole grain foods should be adopted with caution because they have been linked to higher cardiovascular risk and mortality.”

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.

Health Tips From The Professor