Does Magnesium Protect Your Heart?

Do You Need A Magnesium Supplement?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

Getting an adequate amount magnesium from our diet should not be a problem. Magnesium is found in a wide variety of foods with the best sources being legumes (beans), nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and dairy foods.

The problem is:

  • None of these foods contain enough magnesium by themselves to provide the RDA (420 mg/day for men and 320 mg/day for women) for magnesium. We need to consume a variety of these foods every day – something most Americans aren’t doing.
  • These foods are decent sources of magnesium only in their unprocessed form. And most Americans consume more highly processed foods than whole, unprocessed foods.
  • Two to three servings of dairy provide a decent amount of magnesium, but many Americans are cutting back on dairy. And plant-based dairy substitutes often provide much less magnesium than the dairy food they replace.
  • Finally, green leafy vegetables (iceberg lettuce doesn’t count) don’t make it into the American menu as often as they should.

As a result, recent studies find that at least 50% of Americans are not getting enough magnesium in their diet. In fact, the average magnesium intake in this country is 268 mg/day for men and 234 mg/day for women. And the figures are not very different in other developed countries.

Does it matter? Recent studies have shown that an adequate intake of dietary magnesium is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and all-cause mortality. This may be because of the of role of magnesium in supporting heart muscle contraction, normal heart rhythm, and blood pressure regulation. Adequate magnesium intake is also associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

But what if you have already had a heart attack? Is it too late for magnesium to make a difference? A recent study (I Evers et al, Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, August 12, 2022) was designed to answer this question.

The authors examined the effect of magnesium intake on cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality, all-cause mortality, and coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality in patients who had experienced a recent heart attack.

[Note: CHD is defined as heart disease due to clogged coronary arteries, such as a heart attack. CVD includes CHD plus diseases caused by other clogged blood vessels, such as strokes and peripheral artery disease].

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyThe authors used data from a previous study that had enrolled 4,365 Dutch patients aged 60-80 (average age = 69) who had experienced a heart attack within approximately 4 years prior to enrollment and followed them for an average of 12.4 years. All patients were receiving standard post-heart attack drug therapy.

The characteristics of the patients enrolled in the study were as follows:

  • Male 79%, female 21%
  • Average magnesium intake = 302 mg/day
  • Percent magnesium deficient: 72% of men and 67% of women
  • Percent taking magnesium supplements = 5.4%
  • Percent on drugs to lower blood pressure = 90%
  • Percent on statins = 86%
  • Percent on diuretics = 24%

Upon entry into the study the patients were asked to fill out a 203-item food frequency questionnaire reflecting their dietary intake over the past month. Trained dietitians reviewed the questionnaires and phoned the participants to clarify any unclear or missing items. The questionnaires were linked to the 2006 Dutch Food Composition Database to calculate magnesium intake and other aspects of their diets.

The patients were divided into 3 groups based on their energy adjusted magnesium intakes and those in the highest third (>322 mg/day) were compared to those in the lowest third (<238 mg/day) with respect to cardiovascular disease (CVD), all-cause mortality, and coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality.

The comparisons were statically adjusted for fiber intake (most magnesium-rich foods are also high fiber foods), diuretic use (diuretics reduce magnesium levels in the blood), age, sex, smoking, alcohol use, physical activity, obesity, education level, caloric intake, calcium, vitamin D, sodium from foods, potassium, heme iron, vitamin C, beta-carotenoids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, saturated fatty acids, overall diet quality based on the Dutch Dietary Guidelines, systolic blood pressure, kidney function, and diabetes. In other words, the data were adjusted for every conceivable variable that could have influenced the outcome.

Does Magnesium Protect Your Heart?

When those with the highest magnesium intake (>322 mg/day) were compared to those with the lowest intake (<283 mg/day):

  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality was reduced by 28%.
  • All-cause mortality was reduced by 22%.
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality was reduced by 16%, but that reduction was not statistically significant.

They then looked at the effect of some variables that might affect CVD risk on the results.

  • Diabetes, kidney function, iron intake, smoking, alcohol use, blood pressure, most dietary components and overall diet quality had no effect on the results.
  • The results were also not affected when patients using a magnesium supplement were excluded from the analysis. This suggests the effect of magnesium from diet and supplementation is similar.
  • However, diuretic use had a significant effect on the results.
    • For patients using diuretics, high magnesium intake versus low magnesium intake reduced CVD mortality by 45%.

How Much Magnesium Do You Need?

Question MarkYou may have noticed that the difference between the highest magnesium intake group and the lowest intake group was, on average, only 39 mg/day. So, the authors also used a statistical approach that utilized data from each individual patient to produce a graph of magnesium intake versus risk of CVD, total, and CHD mortality. For all 3 end points the graphs showed an inverse, linear relationship between magnesium and mortality.

From this, the authors were able to calculate the effect of each 100mg/day increase in magnesium intake on mortality risk. Each 100mg/day of added magnesium reduced the risk of:

  • CVD mortality by 38%.
  • All-cause mortality by 30%.
  • CHD mortality by 33%, and these results were borderline significant.

The inverse relationship between magnesium intake was observed at intakes ranging from around 200 mg/day to around 450 mg/day, which represented the range of dietary magnesium intake in this Dutch population group.

This study did not define an upper limit to the beneficial effect of magnesium intake because the graphs had not plateaued at 450 mg/day, suggesting that higher magnesium intakes might give even better results.

The authors concluded, “We observed a strong, linear inverse association of dietary magnesium with CVD and all-cause mortality after a heart attack, which was most pronounced in patients who used diuretics. Our findings emphasize the importance of an adequate magnesium intake in CVD patients, on top of cardiovascular drug treatment.”

I might add that this is the first study to look at the effect of magnesium on long-term survival after a heart attack.

Do You Need A Magnesium Supplement? 

magnesium supplements benefitsAs I said earlier, the best dietary sources of magnesium are beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, green leafy vegetables, and dairy foods. And:

  • None of these foods contain enough magnesium by themselves to provide the RDA (420 mg/day for men and 320 mg/day for women) for magnesium.
  • These foods are decent sources of magnesium only in their unprocessed form.

When unprocessed, each of these foods provides 20 to 60 mg of magnesium per serving. If we use an average value of 40 mg/serving, you would need in the range of 8-10 servings/day of these foods in their unprocessed form to meet the RDA for magnesium.

You could get a more accurate estimate of the magnesium content of your diet using the “Magnesium Content of Selected Foods” table from the NIH Factsheet on Magnesium.

Now you are ready to ask yourself two questions:

  1. Does my current diet provide the RDA for magnesium?

2. If not, am I willing to make the dietary changes needed to increase my magnesium levels to RDA levels?

If your answer to both questions is no, you should probably consider a magnesium supplement. A supplement providing around 200 mg of magnesium should bring all but the worst diets up to the recommended magnesium intake.

The current study did not define an upper limit for the beneficial effect of magnesium on survival after a heart attack but suggested that intakes above 450 mg/day might be optimal.

I do not recommend megadoses of magnesium, but intakes from diet and supplementation that slightly exceed the RDA appear to be safe. In their Magnesium Factsheet, the NIH states, “Too much magnesium…does not pose a health risk in healthy individuals because the kidneys eliminate excess amounts in the urine.”

The only concern is that magnesium from supplements is absorbed much more rapidly than magnesium from foods, and this can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea in some individuals. For this reason, I recommend a sustained release magnesium supplement, so the magnesium is absorbed more slowly.

Finally, we should not consider magnesium as a magic bullet. The current study statistically eliminated every known variable that might affect survival after a heart attack, so it could estimate the beneficial effects of magnesium alone.

However, survival after a heart attack will likely be much greater if diet, exercise, and body mass are also optimized.

The Bottom Line 

Recent studies have shown that an adequate intake of dietary magnesium is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular diseases (CVD) and all-cause mortality.

But what if you have already had a heart attack? Is it too late for magnesium to make a difference? A recent study of heart attack patients in Holland was designed to answer this question.

The authors examined the effect of magnesium intake on cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality, all-cause mortality, and coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality in patients who had experienced a recent heart attack.

When heart attack patients with the highest magnesium intake (>322 mg/day) were compared to those with the lowest intake (<283 mg/day):

  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality was reduced by 28%.
  • All-cause mortality was reduced by 22%.
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD) mortality was reduced by 16%, but that reduction was not statistically significant.

The authors went on to look at the inverse linear relationship between magnesium intake and mortality risk. They found that each 100mg/day of added magnesium reduced the risk of:

  • CVD mortality by 38%.
  • All-cause mortality by 30%.
  • CHD mortality by 33%, and these results were borderline significant.

The authors concluded, “We observed a strong, linear inverse association of dietary magnesium with CVD and all-cause mortality after a heart attack…Our findings emphasize the importance of an adequate magnesium intake in CVD patients…”

I might add that this is the first study to look at the effect of magnesium on long-term survival of patients who have suffered a heart attack.

For more details on this study and my discussion of whether you might benefit from a magnesium supplement, read the article above.

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

Do Calcium Supplements Increase Deaths From Heart Valve Disease?

What Did This Study Get Wrong?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Aortic Stenosis“Killer calcium” is back. Once again, we are seeing headlines saying that calcium supplementation increases our risk of dying from heart disease. If you have seen these headlines, you are probably confused.

After all, there have been three major clinical studies looking at the effect of calcium supplementation on heart disease risk. These studies followed close to 100,000 Americans for 10-20 years. And none of the studies found any increase in the risk of developing or dying from heart disease for people taking calcium supplements. For more information on this topic, see an article from “Health Tips From the Professor”.

You are probably wondering, “What is going on? I thought this issue was settled”.

In the first place, this study did not look at heart disease in general, but on a very specific form of heart valve disease called aortic stenosis. Aortic stenosis is a narrowing of the heart valve leading to the aorta. And it is often associated with calcification of the heart valve.

The cause of aortic stenosis is complex, but it is associated with:

  • Chronic inflammation.
  • High cholesterol levels.
  • Tobacco use.
  • Dysregulation of calcium metabolism caused by things like elevated parathyroid levels and end-stage kidney disease.
  • Elevated blood levels of calcium and/or vitamin D.

Because of the role of calcium and vitamin D in aortic stenosis, the current study (N Kassis et al, Heart, Epub ahead of print, 1-9, 2022) was designed to ask whether calcium and vitamin D supplementation influenced the risk of dying from aortic stenosis.

How Was This Study Done?

Heart Disease StudyThe Cleveland Clinic scanned their Echocardiography Database for patients aged 60 years or more who had been diagnosed with mild to moderate aortic stenosis. 2,657 patients met these criteria (average age = 74, 58% men) and were followed for an average of 59 months in their database.

In terms of calcium and vitamin D supplementation:

  • 49% did not supplement.
  • 12.5% supplemented with vitamin D (dose not defined).
  • 38.5% supplemented with calcium (500 – 2,000 mg/day) ± vitamin D.

The study looked at the correlation between vitamin D supplementation and calcium supplementation with:

  • Aortic valve replacement surgery.
  • All-cause mortality* with and without aortic valve replacement surgery.
  • Cardiovascular mortality* with and without aortic valve replacement surgery.

*Note: Since all the patients had aortic stenosis at the beginning of the study, both all-cause and cardiovascular mortality were primarily due to aortic stenosis.

Do Calcium Supplements Increase Deaths From Heart Valve Disease?

Before I describe the results of the study, there are two things you need to know:

  • Vitamin D supplementation did not have a significant effect on any outcome studied, so I will not mention vitamin D in the rest of this article.
  • In the calcium supplementing group, there were only a few people taking calcium supplements without vitamin D. However, their outcomes were the same as for people taking calcium + vitamin D supplements. Therefore, the authors discussed their results in terms of calcium supplementation, not calcium + vitamin D supplementation. I will do the same.

With those two things in mind, here is what the study found.

With respect to the need for aortic valve replacement surgery:

  • Calcium supplementation increased the need for surgery by 50%.

With respect to all-cause mortality:

  • Calcium supplementation increased the risk of death by 31%. When you divided the results into patients who did and did not have aortic valve replacement surgery within the 59-month follow-up of this study:
    • Those who received aortic valve replacement surgery did not have a statistically significant increase in risk of death.
    • Those who did not receive aortic valve replacement surgery had a 38% increased risk of death.

With respect to cardiovascular mortality:

  • Calcium supplementation doubled the risk of death. When you divided the results into patients who did and did not have aortic valve replacement surgery within the 59-month follow-up of this study:
    • Those who received aortic valve replacement surgery did not have a statistically significant increase in risk of death.
    • Those who did not receive aortic valve replacement surgery had a 205% increased risk of death.

The authors concluded, “Supplemental calcium … is associated with lower survival and greater AVR [aortic valve replacement surgery] in elderly patients with mild to moderate AV [aortic stenosis].”

What Did This Study Get Wrong?

thumbs down symbolLet me start by looking at the limitations of this study.

#1: This is a single study. It is a well-designed study, but it is only one study. And, as the authors acknowledge, previous studies have come down on both sides of this issue. Until we have more well-designed studies that come to the same conclusion, we cannot be confident this study is correct.

#2: The results of this study could have been significantly influenced by confounding variables.

For example:

  • End-stage kidney disease is associated with a dysregulation of calcium metabolism that can lead to aortic valve calcification. Patients in the calcium supplementation group had a 2-fold higher incidence of chronic kidney disease and a 10-fold higher incidence of kidney dialysis.
  • There were also significant differences in several diseases and drugs that influence the risk of developing aortic stenosis between the groups.

In the words of the authors, “Given the degree of clinical differences between the groups, there was a risk of residual confounding that may have impacted our findings; we attempted to mitigate this with our statistical model.”

However, as Mark Twain is quoted as saying, “There are lies. There are damn lies. And then there are statistics.”

That is a humorous way of saying we should not put too much faith in statistical manipulations of the data.

#3: They did not measure parathyroid levels. That is a serious omission because elevated parathyroid levels are a major driver of the type of dysfunctional calcium metabolism that could lead to calcification of the aortic valve.

#4: Serum calcium and vitamin D levels were slightly lower in the calcium supplementation group. This is unexpected because aortic stenosis is usually associated with higher serum calcium and vitamin D levels.

The authors speculated this might be due to transient increases in serum calcium levels following supplementation. This is possible for some calcium supplements, but not others.

Specifically, some calcium supplements are marketed on how quickly they get into the bloodstream. But those same supplements often do not provide all the nutrients needed for bone formation. There is always the possibility that excess calcium not used for bone formation might be deposited where we do not want it (such as in the aortic valve).

What Did This Study Get Right?

thumbs up#1: It was a larger, longer lasting study than previous studies on the effect of calcium supplementation on aortic stenosis. Even though it has limitations, we shouldn’t discount it. It might just be correct.

#2: It doesn’t necessarily conflict with the earlier studies showing that calcium supplementation doesn’t increase cardiovascular disease risk. That’s because the design of these studies is very different.

  • The health of the people studied was very different.
    • The earlier studies started with healthy adults and asked whether calcium supplementation increased their risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
    • This study started with people who already had a form of cardiovascular disease associated with abnormal calcium metabolism and asked whether calcium supplementation increased their risk of dying from the disease.
  • The age of the people studied was very different.
    • The earlier studies started with middle-aged adults and followed them for 10-20 years
    • This study started with people in their mid-70’s and followed them for almost 6 years.
  • The type of cardiovascular disease studied was different.
    • The earlier studies included all types of cardiovascular disease.
    • This study focused on a very minor type of cardiovascular disease, aortic stenosis. Aortic stenosis accounts for about 10% of all cardiovascular disease 17% of cardiovascular deaths. There may not have been enough deaths from aortic stenosis in the previous studies to have had a statistically significant effect on the results.

Given all these differences, the results of this study may not be incompatible with the results of previous studies

What Does This Study Mean For You?

There are three important takeaways from this and previous studies:

1) For most Americans calcium supplementation does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. That has been shown in three major clinical studies.

2) However, if you have been diagnosed with aortic stenosis, calcium supplementation may increase your risk of needing heart valve replacement or of dying from the disease. This study is not definitive, but I would advise caution.

You may wish to discuss with your doctor how to best balance:

    • The need for calcium supplementation to prevent osteoporosis…
    • With the need to limit calcium supplementation to prevent adverse outcomes from your aortic stenosis.

3) Finally, the authors did not discuss a very significant observation from this study, namely that heart valve replacement reduced the risk of dying from aortic stenosis in people taking calcium supplements.

Aortic valve replacement is the only proven treatment for aortic stenosis. If your doctor recommends aortic valve replacement, you should consider it.

The Bottom Line

A recent study looked at the effect of calcium supplementation for people with aortic stenosis, a rare form of heart disease.

The study found:

  • Calcium supplementation increased the need for aortic valve replacement surgery by 50%.
  • Calcium supplementation increased the risk of all-cause mortality* by 31%. When you divided the results into patients who did and did not have aortic valve replacement surgery during the study:
    • Those who received aortic valve replacement surgery did not have a statistically significant increase in risk of death.
  • Calcium supplementation doubled the risk of cardiovascular mortality*. When you divided the results into patients who did and did not have aortic valve replacement surgery within the 59-month follow-up of this study:
    • Those who received aortic valve replacement surgery did not have a statistically significant increase in risk of death.

*Note: Since all the patients enrolled in this study had aortic stenosis at the beginning of the study, these deaths were primarily due to aortic stenosis.

The authors concluded, “Supplemental calcium … is associated with lower survival and greater AVR [aortic valve replacement surgery] in elderly patients with mild to moderate AV [aortic stenosis].”

There are three important takeaways from this and previous studies:

1) For most Americans calcium supplementation does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. That has been shown in three major clinical studies.

2) However, if you have been diagnosed with aortic stenosis, calcium supplementation may increase your risk of needing heart valve replacement or of dying from the disease. This study is not definitive, but I would advise caution.

  • You may wish to discuss with your doctor how to best balance:
    • The need for calcium supplementation to prevent osteoporosis…
    • With the need to limit calcium supplementation to prevent adverse outcomes from your aortic stenosis.

3) Finally, the authors did not discuss a very significant observation from this study, namely that heart valve replacement reduced the risk of dying from aortic stenosis in people taking calcium supplements.

Aortic valve replacement is the only proven treatment for aortic stenosis. If your doctor recommends aortic valve replacement, you should consider it.

For more details, read the article above.

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

Does Olive Oil Help You Live Longer?

Which Fat Is Healthiest?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

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

Olive oil’s resume is impressive:

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

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

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

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

How Was This Study Done? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Olive Oil Help You Live Longer?

During the 28 years of this study:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are There Other Benefits From Olive Oil Consumption?

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

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

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

Which Fats Are Healthiest?

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

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

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

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

What Does This Study Mean For Us?

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

1) This is a very strong association study because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more details and a summary of what this study means for you, read the article above.

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

Is Low Omega-3 Intake As Bad For You As Smoking?

What Is The Omega-3 Index And Why Is It Important? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

deadWe already know that smoking is one of the worst things we can do to our bodies. It dramatically increases our risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and lung diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

It also leads to premature death. People who smoke regularly die 5 years earlier than those who don’t.

That is the bad news. The good news is that smoking is what is called a “modifiable risk factor”. Simply put, that means it is a risk factor we are in control of. The message has been clear for years.

  • If you don’t smoke, keep it that way.
  • If you do smoke, stop. If you are a smoker, quitting isn’t easy, but it is worth it. The damage caused by smoking can largely be reversed if you stay off cigarettes long enough.

Obesity and diabetes are also modifiable risk factors that have a huge effect on the risk of both heart disease and premature death. People with diabetes die 4 years earlier than those without diabetes. But obesity and diabetes are harder for most people to reverse than smoking.

Diet is another modifiable risk factor, but, in general, its effect on the risk of heart disease and premature death is not as great as smoking and diabetes. But what if there were one component of diet that had huge effect on both heart disease and premature death?

The long chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA & DHA) might just fill that bill. We already know they significantly reduce the risk of heart disease (see below), but could they also help us live longer? This study (MI McBurney et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, published online June 16, 2021) was designed to answer that question.

Metabolism 101: What Is The Omega-3 Index And Why Is It Important?

professor owlClinical studies on the benefits of omega-3s have been plagued by the question of how to best measure the omega-3 status of the participants.

  • You can ask the participants to fill out a dietary survey and calculate how many omega-3-rich foods they are eating, but:
    • Dietary recall is notoriously inaccurate. People don’t remember everything they ate and have a hard time estimating portion sizes.
  • You can measure omega-3 fatty acids in the blood, but:
    • Blood levels are transient. Omega-3 fatty acids enter the bloodstream from the intestine and then disappear from blood as they are taken up by the cells.
    • Different forms of omega-3s (esters versus acetate, for example) are absorbed from the intestine and taken up by cells at different rates.
  • You can measure the omega-3 content of cellular membranes. This is the best assay for omega-3 status because:
    • The long chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) that have the biggest effect on heart disease risk accumulate in our cell membranes.
    • Omega-3 fatty acids are essential (our bodies can’t make them). That means the omega-3 content of our cell membranes reflect the omega-3 content of our diet. This is one of the cases where the saying, “We are what we eat”, is literally true.
    • The omega-3 content of our cell membranes is relatively stable. It reflects the omega-3 content of our diet over the last few months.
  • In theory, you could measure the omega-3 content of cell membranes from any tissues in the body, but red blood cells can easily be obtained by a simple blood draw, so they are the tissue of choice.

A group lead by Dr. William H Harris standardized this measurement by creating something called the Omega-3 Index. Simply put, the Omega-3 Index is the percentage of EPA and DHA in red blood cell membranes.

It turns out that the Omega-3 Index is an excellent indicator of heart disease risk.

  • An Omega-3 Index of less than 4% is associated with a high risk of heart disease.
  • An Omega-3 Index of more than 8% is associated with a low risk of heart disease.

But could a low Omega-3 Index also be associated with an increased risk of premature death? This is what the current study was designed to find out.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from the ongoing Framingham Offspring Heart Study.

To put this statement into perspective, the original Framingham Heart Study began in 1948 in Framingham Massachusetts with the goal of identifying the factors that contributed to heart disease. It was one of the first major studies to identify the role of saturated fats, elevated blood cholesterol, and elevated blood triglycerides on heart disease risk.

The study is continuing today with the second and third generation descendants of the original study participants. It has also been broadened to include other diseases and additional risk factors, such as the Omega-3 Index.

This study selected 2240 participants from the Framingham Offspring study who had no heart disease and also had Omega-3 Index measurements at the beginning of the study. The study then followed them for 11 years. The goal of the study was to compare the Omega-3 Index with the two most potent risk factors for heart disease (smoking and diabetes) in predicting the risk of premature death.

The characteristics of the participants at the beginning of the 11-year study were:

  • 43% male, 57% female.
  • Average age = 65.
  • 3% were smokers.
  • 8% were diabetic.
  • Average Omega-3-Index = 5.8%. This is slightly higher than the American average of ~5%.

Is Low Omega-3-Intake As Bad For You As Smoking?

omega-3 supplements and heart healthThe participants in the study were divided into 5 quintiles based on their Omega-3 Index.

  • The 20% of the group in the lowest quintile had an Omega-3 Index of <4.2%.
  • The 20% of the group in the highest quintile had an Omega-3 Index of >6.8%.

First, the scientists running the study did a direct comparison of the top three risk factors on the risk of premature death. Here is what they found.

  • The group with the lowest average Omega-3 Index died 4.74 years earlier than the group with the highest average Omega-3 Index.
  • Smokers died 4.73 years earlier than non-smokers.
  • People with diabetes died 3.90 years earlier than people without diabetes.

That means low omega-3 intake was just as bad for the participants in this study as smoking. Even the authors of the study were surprised by this result. They had expected omega-3 fatty acids to be beneficial, but they had not expected them to be as beneficial as not smoking.

Because omega-3 fatty acid intake and smoking were the two most potent risk factors for premature death, the authors looked at the interaction between the two. They found that the predicted 11-year survival was:

  • 85% for non-smokers with high omega-3 intake.
  • 71% for either…
    • Smokers with high omega-3 intake, or…
    • Non-smokers with low omega-3 intake.
  • Only 47% for smokers with low omega-3 intake.

Simply put, this study predicts if you were a 65-year-old smoker with low omega-3 intake, you could almost double your chances of surviving another 11 years by giving up smoking and increasing your omega-3 intake.

In the words of the authors, “Smoking and omega-3 intake seem to be the most easily modified risk factors [for premature death]…Dietary choices that change the Omega-3 index may prolong life.”

The Bottom Line

We know that smoking is deadly, but could low intake of omega-3 fatty acids be just as deadly?

A recent study compared omega-3 intake with the two most potent risk factors (smoking and diabetes) in predicting the risk of premature death. Here is what it found.

  • The group with the lowest average omega-3 intake died 4.74 years earlier than the group with the highest average omega-3 intake.
  • Smokers died 4.73 years earlier than non-smokers.
  • People with diabetes died 3.90 years earlier than people without diabetes.

That means high omega-3 intake was just as beneficial for the participants in this study as not smoking. Even the authors of the study were surprised by this result. They had expected omega-3 fatty acids to be beneficial, but they had not expected them to be as beneficial as not smoking.

Because omega-3 fatty acid intake and smoking were the two most potent risk factors for premature death, the authors looked at the interaction between the two. They found that the predicted 11-year survival was:

  • 85% for non-smokers with high omega-3 intake.
  • 71% for either…
    • Smokers with high omega-3 intake, or…
    • Non-smokers with low omega-3 intake.
  • Only 47% for smokers with low omega-3 intake.

Simply put, this study predicts if you were a 65-year-old smoker with low omega-3 intake, you could almost double your chances of surviving another 11 years by giving up smoking and increasing your omega-3 intake.

In the words of the authors, “Smoking and omega-3 intake seem to be the most easily modified risk factors [for premature death]…Dietary choices that change the Omega-3 index may prolong life.”

For more details about this study, read the article above.

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

Do Omega-3s Add Years To Your Life?

Why Are Omega-3s So Controversial? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Was This Study Done?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Omega-3s Add Years To Your Life?

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

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

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

What Does This Study Mean For You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

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