Are Calcium Supplements Heart Healthy?

Should You Follow Your Doctor’s Advice About Calcium Supplementation?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Heart ConfusionAre calcium supplements good for your heart or bad for your heart? If you don’t know the answer to that question, don’t feel badly. You have every right to be confused. Some studies say that calcium supplements increase heart disease risk while others say they decrease heart disease risk. The headlines have veered between “killer calcium” and “beneficial calcium”.

The trend appears to be moving in a positive direction. In recent years most of the studies have suggested that calcium supplements either decrease heart disease risk or have no effect on heart disease risk.

However, the medical profession has been slow to take note of this trend. Most medical societies and health professionals have focused on earlier studies and are still recommending that their patients get calcium from food rather than from supplements. I will talk more about that recommendation below.

With this context in mind, this week I will review and discuss the results from the latest study (MG Sim et al, Heart, Lung and Circulation, 32: 1230-1239, 2023) on the effect of calcium supplementation on heart disease risk.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe authors of this study performed a meta-analysis of 12 double-blinded randomized clinical trials with 87,899 participants comparing the effect of a calcium supplement versus a placebo on heart disease outcomes (heart attack, stroke, heart failure, cardiovascular mortality, and all-cause mortality).

The studies included in this analysis:

  • Used calcium doses from 500 mg/day to 2,000 mg/day.
  • Used supplements with calcium coming from a variety of sources (calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, calcium gluconolactate, and tricalcium phosphate).
  • Ranged from 18 months to almost 12 years in length.
  • Were performed with population groups from a wide range of countries (United States, England, France, Australia, New Zealand, European Union, Denmark, and Thailand).
  • Included calcium supplements with and without vitamin D.
  • Were primarily (86% of participants) conducted with post-menopausal women. One small study (0.3% of participants) was conducted with non-osteoporotic men. The rest were conducted with mixed populations (men and women) diagnosed with colorectal adenoma.

Are Calcium Supplements Heart Healthy?

calcium supplementsThis is the largest meta-analysis performed to date of double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials on the effect of calcium supplementation versus a placebo on heart disease outcomes. This study found no effect of calcium supplementation on:

  • Heart attack.
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure.
  • Cardiovascular mortality.
  • All-cause mortality.

This study also evaluated potential confounding variables and found no effect of calcium supplementation on heart disease risk for:

  • Calcium supplements with and without vitamin D.
  • Dosage of calcium in the supplements (The dosage ranged from 500 mg/day to 2,000 mg/day).
  • Females (I suspect the number of males in this study was too small to come to a statistically significant conclusion).
  • Duration of calcium supplementation ≤ 5 years (The shortest duration of calcium supplementation in these studies was 18 months).
  • Different geographical regions.

However, this meta-analysis reported considerable variation between studies included in the analysis. Simply put,

  • Some studies showed an increase in heart disease risk.
  • Some studies showed a decrease in heart disease risk.
  • Some studies showed no effect on heart disease risk.

What this analysis showed was that when you combine all the studies, the aggregated data is consistent with calcium supplementation having no effect on heart disease risk.

The authors concluded, “Calcium supplementation was not associated with myocardial infraction [heart attack], stroke, heart failure, and cardiovascular/all-cause mortality. Further studies are required to examine and understand these associations.

Should You Follow Your Doctor’s Advice About Calcium Supplementation?

Doctor With PatientAs I said above, most medical societies and health professionals have focused on earlier studies and are still recommending that their patients get calcium from food rather than from supplements. That may be the advice you are getting from your doctor.

Before you assume your doctor isn’t keeping up with the latest science and ignore his or her advice, we should ask why they are giving that advice. The top three reasons most medical societies give for recommending dietary sources of calcium are:

1) Some studies do show an increased risk of heart disease associated with calcium supplementation. The prime directive for health professionals is to do no harm. Yes, the average of all studies shows no effect of calcium supplementation on heart disease risk. But what if the studies showing increased risk are true for some of their patients? Those patients could be harmed. 

Are you someone who might be at increased risk for heart disease if you take calcium supplements. The short answer is we don’t know because previous studies have not asked the right questions. 

In my opinion, it is time to pause additional studies and meta-analyses on calcium supplementation and heart health until we have gone over existing studies with a fine-tooth comb to figure out why the results differ so wildly. For example, we need to ask whether the effect of calcium supplements on heart disease risk is influenced by things like:

    • Age or ethnicity of participants.
    • Other preexisting health conditions.
    • Other lifestyle factors (exercise is probably the most important, but others may be involved as well).
    • Diet context. For example, we already know that the effect of eggs and dairy on heart health is influenced by diet context. [I have covered this for eggs in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”.]
    • Other unanticipated variables.

Only when we have identified variables that might influence the effect of calcium supplements on heart disease risk, will the scientific community be able to design studies to identify the population groups who might be adversely affected by calcium supplementation.

This would allow health professionals to make informed decisions about which of their patients should avoid calcium supplementation and which of their patients would benefit from calcium supplementation. 

2) We really don’t need the recommended RDAs for calcium to build strong bones. The Healthy Bonerecommended RDAs for calcium are 1,000 mg/day for adults 19-50, 1,000 mg/day for men and 1,200 mg/day for women 51-70, and 1,200 mg/day for both men and women over 70. But do we really need that amount of calcium to build healthy bones? 

I have discussed this topic in detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Here are the key points:

    • The current RDAs are based on calcium needs for people consuming the typical American diet and following the typical American lifestyle. If that is you, the current RDAs probably apply.
    • However, strong bones are absolutely dependent on three things, adequate calcium, adequate vitamin D, and adequate weight-bearing exercise. Most recent studies of calcium supplementation and bone density include adequate vitamin D, but almost none of them include exercise. Previous studies have been inadequate.
    • The best calcium supplements contain certain nutrients besides vitamin D that optimize bone formation. I have listed those nutrients in the article cited above.
    • Our ability to use calcium to build strong bones is dependent on diet (something I call a bone-healthy diet) and lifestyle (something I call a bone-healthy lifestyle).
    • For more information on each of these points, read the article I referenced above.

In short, I agree that the current calcium RDAs may be too high for individuals consuming a bone-healthy diet and following a bone-healthy lifestyle. But the current calcium RDAs are likely accurate for people consuming the typical American diet and following the typical American lifestyle.

    • While we do not have a calcium RDA for populations following a bone healthy diet lifestyle, some studies suggest that 700-800 mg of calcium/day may be sufficient for this group.

3) Calcium from supplements is absorbed faster and gives higher blood level spikes than calcium from foods. That could be a problem because high blood levels of calcium are associated with calcification of our arteries, which is associated with increased heart disease risk. 

This is a theoretical concern, because high blood calcium levels from supplementation are transitory, while it is continuous high blood calcium levels that are associated with calcification of our arteries.

However, it is a plausible concern because most supplement companies design their calcium supplements based on how quickly they get calcium into the bloodstream rather than how effectively the calcium is utilized for bone formation. Here are my recommendations:

    • Choose a calcium supplement that provides RDA levels of vitamin D plus other nutrients shown to support strong bone formation.
    • Choose a calcium supplement supported by clinical studies showing it is effectively utilized for bone formation.

4) We should be getting our calcium from foods rather than supplements. dairy foods

While it is always easy for doctors to recommend that we get our nutrients from food rather than supplements, they need to ask whether we are getting those nutrients from our diet. For calcium the data are particularly sobering.

    • The average American gets around 740 mg of calcium/day from their diet. That is probably enough for the small percentage of Americans following a bone healthy diet and lifestyle. But it is 260-460 mg short of the 1,000-1,200 mg/day recommended for older adults with the typical American diet and lifestyle.
      • And for the average American, around 70% of their calcium intake comes from dairy foods.

       

      • So, Americans who are following a typical American diet and lifestyle and are restricting dairy may require 800-1,000 mg/day of supplemental calcium unless they carefully plan their diets to optimize calcium intake.

       

      • Finally, vegans average about 550 mg/day from their diet. That might be borderline even if they were following a bone healthy lifestyle.
    • In short, we cannot assume our diet will provide enough calcium for strong bones unless we include dairy foods and/or plan our diet very carefully. Some degree of supplementation may be necessary.

How Much Calcium Do You Need?

Questioning Woman

I have covered a lot of territory in this article, so let me summarize the four concerns of the medical community and answer your most important question, “Should you take calcium supplements?”

1) Calcium supplements may increase the risk of heart disease for some people.

That is true, but we have no idea at present who is at increased risk and who isn’t. So, we should minimize our risk by taking the precautions I describe below.

2) We don’t need RDA levels of calcium to build strong bones. That is probably true if you are one of the few people who follows a bone healthy diet and lifestyle, but it isn’t true if you follow the typical American diet and lifestyle.

  • The current RDAs of 1,000 – 1,200 mg/day are a good guideline for how much calcium you need if you follow the typical American diet and lifestyle.
  • If you a one of the few people who follow a bone healthy diet and lifestyle (For what that involves, read this article) you may only need 700-800 mg/day. But we don’t have clinical studies that can tell us what the actual RDA for calcium should be under those circumstances.

3) Calcium from supplements is absorbed faster and gives higher blood calcium spikes than calcium from foods. You may remember that the theoretical concern is that even short-term spikes of high blood calcium may lead to calcification of your arteries, which increases your risk of heart disease. So, the important question becomes, “What can we do to minimize these spikes in blood calcium levels?”

  • We should avoid calcium supplements that brag about how quickly and efficiently the calcium is absorbed. That could lead to calcium spikes. Instead, we should look for calcium supplements that are backed by clinical studies showing they are efficiently utilized for bone formation.
  • We should look for calcium supplements that include RDA levels of vitamin D and other nutrients that optimize bone formation. You will find more information on that in the same article I referenced above.
  • Some experts recommend that calcium supplements be taken between meals. But it is probably better to take them with meals because foods will likely slow the rate at which calcium is absorbed and reduce calcium spikes in the blood.
  • We are told to limit calcium supplements to less than 500 mg at any one time because calcium absorption becomes inefficient at higher doses. It might be even better to limit calcium to 250 mg or less at a time to reduce calcium spikes in the blood.

4) We should get calcium from foods rather than supplements.

  • Many Americans do not get enough calcium from diet alone, especially if they avoid dairy foods. So, some degree of calcium supplementation may be necessary. I have given some guidelines depending on your diet and lifestyle above.
  • The amount of supplemental calcium needed is relatively small. I do not recommend exceeding the RDA unless directed to by your health professional.

The Bottom Line 

Some studies say that calcium supplements increase heart disease risk while others say they decrease heart disease risk. The headlines veer between “killer calcium” and “beneficial calcium”.

The trend appears to be moving in a positive direction. In recent years most of the studies have suggested that calcium supplements either decrease heart disease risk or have no effect on heart disease risk.

However, the medical profession has been slow to take note of this trend. Most medical societies and health professionals have focused on earlier studies and are still recommending that their patients get calcium from food rather than from supplements.

A recent meta-analysis of 12 double-blinded randomized clinical trials with 87,899 participants comparing the effect of a calcium supplement versus a placebo on heart disease outcomes has just been published. This study found no effect of calcium supplementation on:

  • Heart attack.
  • Stroke.
  • Heart failure.
  • Cardiovascular mortality.
  • All-cause mortality.

The authors of the study concluded, “Calcium supplementation was not associated with myocardial infraction [heart attack], stroke, heart failure, and cardiovascular/all-cause mortality.

For more details and advice on whether you should follow your doctor’s recommendations for calcium supplementation read the article above.

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

 _____________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

____________________________________________________________________

About The Author

Dr. Steve ChaneyDr. Chaney has a BS in Chemistry from Duke University and a PhD in Biochemistry from UCLA. He is Professor Emeritus from the University of North Carolina where he taught biochemistry and nutrition to medical and dental students for 40 years.  Dr. Chaney won numerous teaching awards at UNC, including the Academy of Educators “Excellence in Teaching Lifetime Achievement Award”. Dr Chaney also ran an active cancer research program at UNC and published over 100 scientific articles and reviews in peer-reviewed scientific journals. In addition, he authored two chapters on nutrition in one of the leading biochemistry text books for medical students.

 

Is Whole Fat Dairy Healthy?

Is It Dairy Or Diet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

CheesesFor years we have been told to select low fat dairy foods. But recent headlines claim, “That’s nonsense. Whole fat dairy foods are healthy.” Are those headlines true?

In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have kept you abreast of recent studies suggesting that whole fat dairy foods may not be as bad for us as we thought. I also cautioned you that the headlines may not have accurately represented the studies they described.

Headlines have to be simple. But truth is often more nuanced. If we believed the current headlines, we might be asking ourselves questions like, “Should we ditch the current health guidelines recommending low-fat dairy foods? Are foods like ice cream, sour cream, and cheddar cheese actually be good for us?

To answer these questions, I will look at the study (A Mente et al, European Heart Journal, 44, 2560-2579, 2023) behind the current headlines and put the study into perspective.

Spoiler alert: If I could summarize the study findings in two sentences, they would be, “Whole fat dairy can be part of a healthy diet. But can it be part of an unhealthy diet?”

Stay tuned. I will discuss the science behind that statement below.

How Was This Study Done?

clinical studyThis study started with data collected from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study. The PURE study is an ongoing study correlating diet, lifestyle, and environmental effects on health outcomes. It has enrolled 166,762 individuals, age 35-70, from 21 low-, middle-, and high-income countries on 5 continents.

Habitual food intake was determined using country-specific food frequency questionnaires at the time participants joined the study. Participants (166,762) from the PURE study who had complete dietary information were included in this study and were followed for an average of 9.3 years.

Based on preliminary analysis of data from the PURE study, the authors developed their version of a healthy diet, which they call the PURE diet. Like most other healthy diets, the PURE diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fish. However:

  • Based on studies suggesting that whole fat dairy foods can be part of a healthy diet, the PURE diet includes whole fat dairy foods.

This is different from most other healthy diet recommendations.

They went on to develop what they referred to as the PURE healthy diet score by:

  • Determining the median intake for each of the 6 food groups included in their PURE diet (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, fish, and whole fat dairy).
  • Assigning each participant in the study a score of 0 or 1 depending on whether their intake for that food group was below or above the median intake.
  • Adding up the points. Since 6 food groups were included in the PURE diet, this means that each participant in the study was assigned a PURE diet score ranging from 0-6.

Once they had developed a PURE diet score, they expanded their data by including five additional large independent studies that included people from 70 countries. The combined data from all six studies amounted to 245,597 people from 80 countries. Of the people included in the data analysis:

  • 21% came from high income countries.
  • 60% came from middle income countries.
  • 19% came from low-income countries.

This is very similar to the global population distribution. This is a strength of this study because it allowed them to ask whether the PURE diet score worked as well in low-income countries as in high-income countries.

Finally, they correlated the PURE diet score with outcomes like all-cause mortality, heart attack, and stroke.

Is Whole Fat Dairy Healthy?

QuestionsThe authors of this study divided the participants of all 6 studies into quintiles based on their PURE diet score and compared those in the highest quintile (PURE score of ≥ 5) with those in the lowest quintile (PURE score of ≤ 1).

The people in the highest quintile were eating on average 5 servings/day of fruits and vegetables, 0.5 servings/day of legumes, 1.2 servings/day of nuts, 0.3 servings/day of fish, 2 servings/day of dairy (of which 1.4 servings/day was whole fat dairy), 0.5 servings/day of unprocessed red meat, and 0.3 servings/day of poultry.

 

The people in the lowest quintile ate significantly less fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and dairy; and slightly less legumes, unprocessed red meat, and poultry than those in the highest quintile.

However, they consumed significantly more refined wheat foods and white rice. This study did not track consumption of highly processed foods, but the high consumption of white flour leads me to suspect they ate a lot more highly processed food.

With that in mind, when the authors compared people with the highest PURE diet scores to those with the lowest PURE diet scores:

  • All-cause mortality was reduced by 30%.
  • Cardiovascular disease was reduced by 18%.
  • Heart attacks were reduced by 14%.
  • Strokes were reduced by 19%.
  • The PURE healthy eating score was slightly better at predicting health outcomes than the Mediterranean, DASH, and HEI (Healthy Eating Index) scores. But the differences were small. So, I still recommend choosing the healthy diet that best fits your preferred foods and your lifestyle.
  • The PURE healthy eating score was significantly better at predicting health outcomes than the Planetary diet score. I will discuss the nutritional inadequacy of “sustainable diets” like the Planetary diet in next week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” article.

Because of the size and design of this study, they were able to make three interesting observations.

  1. The PURE, Mediterranean, DASH, and HEI diet scores were predictive of health outcomes in every country across the globe. You no longer have to wonder if what works in the United States will work in low-income countries and in countries with very different food preferences. Previous studies have not been able to make that claim.

2) You don’t have to be perfect.

    • A 20% increase (one quintile) in PURE score was associated with a 6% lower risk of major cardiovascular events and an 8% lower risk of mortality. In other words, even small improvements in your diet may improve your health outcomes.
    • The health benefits of the PURE diet started to plateau at a score of 3 (with 6 being the highest score). The authors concluded that most of the health benefits were associated with a modestly higher consumption of healthy foods compared to little or no consumption of healthy foods.

Simply put, that means the health benefits gained by going from a moderately healthy diet to a very healthy diet are not as great as the health benefits gained by going from a poor diet to a moderately healthy diet.

[Note: There are still improvements in health outcomes when you go from a moderately healthy diet to a very healthy diet.  My recommendation: “You don’t need to achieve perfection, but you shouldn’t accept mediocrity”.]

3) The PURE diet score was more predictive of health outcomes in some countries than in others.

    • The PURE diet score was more predictive of health outcomes in low-income countries. The authors felt that was because low-income countries started with average PURE scores of 2.1, whereas higher-income countries started with average PURE scores of 3.5.

The authors felt this was another example getting more “bang for the buck” by going from a poor diet to a moderately healthy diet than from a moderately healthy diet to a very healthy diet. (Remember, the health benefits associated with improving PURE diet scores start to plateau at a PURE score of 3.

    • The difference in benefits for low-income countries compared to high-income countries was observed for the Mediterranean, DASH, and HEI diet scores. So, it is probably safe to say for any healthy diet you don’t need to be perfect. You just need to be better.

The authors concluded, “A diet composed of higher amounts of fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish, and whole fat dairy is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality in all world regions, especially in countries with lower income where consumption of these foods is low.”

Is It Dairy Or Diet?

CheesesThe headlines are telling us that recommendations to choose low-fat dairy products are out of date. They say there is no reason to fear whole fat dairy foods. They are good for you. Bring on the ice cream, sour cream, cream cheese, and high fat hard cheeses!

As usual, there is a kernel of truth in the headlines, but headlines have to be simple. And the latest headlines are an oversimplification of what the studies actually show. Let me provide perspective to the headlines by asking two questions.

#1: Is it dairy or diet? A major weakness of this and similar studies is that they fail to consider diet context. What do I mean by that? Let’s dig a little deeper into this study.

  • Let’s start with a description of the PURE diet. It is a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and fish. In other words, it is a primarily plant-based diet.
  • Although the authors keep referring to the diet as one that includes whole fat dairy. It would be more accurate to say that it includes dairy, which was 30% low-fat and 70% whole fat.
  • The authors said that removal of any one food group from this combination reduced the predictive power of the PURE diet. In other words, the beneficial effect of 70% whole fat dairy is best seen in the context of a primarily plant-based diet.
  • The PURE diet was most effective at predicting health outcomes in low-income countries where a significant percent of the population consumes a primarily plant-based diet because meats are expensive.

So, a more accurate description of this study would be it shows that a mixture of low-fat and whole-fat dairy foods are a healthy addition to a primarily plant-based diet. But that is too complicated for a headline.

#2: If whole fat dairy can be part of a healthy diet, can it also be part of an unhealthy diet?

To answer that question let’s compare the potential effects of whole fat dairy on a primarily plant-based diet compared to the typical American or European diet.

  • Milk and other dairy foods are excellent sources of calcium, vitamin B12, and iodine and good sources of protein, vitamin D, choline, zinc, and selenium – nutrients that are often low or missing in plant-based diet. And this is true whether the dairy foods are low-fat or whole fat.
  • Primarily plant-based diets tend to be low in saturated fat, so the potential negative effects of adding a small amount of saturated fat to the diet may be outweighed by the beneficial effects of the nutrients dairy foods provide.

On the other hand,

  • The typical American or European diet provides plenty of protein and vitamin B12 and significantly more choline, vitamin D, iodine, and zinc than a plant-based diet. The added nutrients from adding dairy foods to this kind of diet is still beneficial, but the benefits are not as great as adding dairy foods to a primarily plant-based diet.
  • If you read the American Heart Association statement on saturated fats, it does not say that any amount of saturated fat is bad for you. In fact, small amounts of saturated fats play some beneficial roles in our bodies. The American Heart Association says, “Eating too much saturated fat can raise the level of LDL cholesterol in your blood…[which] increases your risk of heart disease and stroke.”
  • Here is where the problem lies. The typical American or European diet already contains too much saturated fat. Whole fat dairy just adds to that excess.

So, the most accurate description of this study would be it shows that a mixture of low-fat and whole-fat dairy foods are a healthy addition to a primarily plant-based diet but may not be a healthy addition to the typical American diet. But that is way too complicated for a headline.

You are probably wondering what this means for you. Here are my recommendations.

If you eat like most Americans, you should continue to follow the current health guidelines to choose low-fat dairy foods.

If you happen to be among the few Americans who eat a primarily plant-based diet, you will probably benefit by adding a mixture of low-fat and whole fat dairy foods to your diet.

The Bottom Line 

Once again, the headlines are telling us that recommendations to choose low-fat dairy products are out of date. The articles say there is no reason to fear whole fat dairy foods. They are good for you. Bring on the ice cream, sour cream, cream cheese, and high fat hard cheeses!

As usual, there is a kernel of truth in the headlines, but headlines have to be simple. And the latest headlines are an oversimplification of what the studies actually show. In this post I looked at the study behind the most recent headlines and provided perspective to the headlines by asking two questions.

#1: Is it dairy or diet? A major weakness of this and similar studies is that they fail to consider diet context.

When you consider diet context a more accurate description of this study would be it shows that a mixture of low-fat and whole-fat dairy foods are a healthy addition to a primarily plant-based diet. But that is too complicated for a headline.

#2: If whole fat dairy can be part of a healthy diet, can it also be part of an unhealthy diet?

When you consider that question the most accurate description of this study would be it shows that a mixture of low-fat and whole-fat dairy foods are a healthy addition to a primarily plant-based diet but may not be a healthy addition to the typical American diet. But that is way too complicated for a headline.

You are probably wondering what this means for you. Here are my recommendations.

If you eat like most Americans, you should continue to follow the current health guidelines to choose low-fat dairy foods.

If you happen to be among the few Americans who eat a primarily plant-based diet, you will probably benefit by adding a mixture of low-fat and whole fat dairy foods to your diet.

For more information on this study, and the science behind my summary of the 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.

_________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

Is HDL Good For Your Heart?

Is Everything You Knew About HDL Wrong?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

HDL CHolesterolIn last week’s “Health Tips From the Professor” I talked about one of the greatest strengths of the scientific method – namely that investigators constantly challenge, and occasionally disprove, existing paradigms. That allows us to discard old models of how things work and replace them with better ones.

Last week I shared a study that disproved the paradigm that low to moderate alcohol consumption is healthier than total abstinence. This week I share several studies that challenge the belief that HDL cholesterol is good for your heart.

The belief that HDL is good for your heart has all the hallmarks of a classic paradigm.

  • It is supported by multiple clinical studies.
  • Elaborate metabolic explanations have been proposed to support the paradigm.
  • It is the official position of most medical societies, scientific organizations, and health information sites on the web.
  • It is the recommendation of most health professionals.
  • It has been repeated so often by so many trusted sources that everyone assumes it must be true.

Once we accept the HDL/heart health paradigm as true, we can construct other hypotheses on that foundation. For example:

  • Raising your HDL levels naturally takes effort. Pharmaceutical companies have been pursuing the “magic pill” that raises HDL levels without any effort on your part.
  • Low carb diets like the Keto and Paleo diets are high in saturated fat. The low carb enthusiasts claim this is a good thing because saturated fat raises HDL levels, and HDL is good for your heart.

But what if the underlying HDL/heart health paradigm weren’t true? These hypotheses would be like the parable of a house built on a foundation of sand. The paradigm will be washed away as soon as it is critically tested.

So, let’s look at experiments that have challenged the HDL/heart health paradigm.

Do Drugs That Increase HDL Levels Work?

The first hint that the HDL/heart health paradigm might be faulty happened when a pharmaceutical company developed a drug that selectively increased HDL levels.

The drug company thought they had found the goose that laid golden eggs. Just imagine. People wouldn’t have to lose weight, exercise, or change their diet. They could simply take a pill and dramatically decrease their heart disease risk. A drug like that would be worth $billions.

The problem was that when they tested their drug (torcetrapib) in clinical trials, it had absolutely no effect on heart disease outcomes (AR Tall et al, Atherosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 27:257-260, 2007).

The pharmaceutical company couldn’t believe it. Raising HDL levels just had to reduce heart disease risk. They concluded they didn’t have the right drug, and they continued to work on developing new drugs.

That was 16 years ago, and no HDL-increasing drug has made it to market. Have they just not found the right drug, or does this mean the HDL/heart health paradigm is incorrect?

Does Saturated Fat Decrease Heart Disease Risk?

Now let’s turn to two claims of low carb enthusiasts.

#1: Saturated fats decrease your risk of heart disease in the context of a low carb diet. I have debunked that claim in several previous issues of “Health Tips From The Professor”. But let me refer you to two articles here – one on saturated fat and heart disease risk and one on low-carb diets.

#2: Saturated fats decrease heart disease risk because they raise HDL levels. This is the one I will address today.

The idea that saturated fats decrease heart disease risk because they raise HDL levels is based on a simplistic concept of HDL particles. The reality is more complex. Several clinical studies have shown:

  • The type of fat determines the property of the HDL particles.
    • When polyunsaturated fats predominate, the HDL particles have an anti-inflammatory effect. When saturated fats predominate, the HDL particles have a pro-inflammatory effect.
  • Anti-inflammatory HDL particles relax the endothelial cells lining our blood vessels. That makes the lining of our blood vessels more pliable, which improves blood flow and reduces blood pressure.
    • Anti-inflammatory HDL particles also help reduce inflammation of the endothelial lining. This is important because an inflamed endothelial lining is more likely to accumulate fatty plaques and to trigger blood clot formation that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

So, the question becomes, “What good is it to raise HDL levels if you are producing an unhealthy, pro-inflammatory HDL particle that may increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes?”

In short, these studies suggest it isn’t enough to just focus on HDL levels. You need to ask what kind of HDL particles you are creating.

Is HDL Good For Your Heart?

strong heartOnce the studies were published showing that…

  • Drug-induced increase of HDL levels without any change in health habits is not sufficient to decrease heart attack risk, and…
  • Not all HDL particles are healthy. There are anti-inflammatory or pro-inflammatory HDL particles, which likely have opposite effects on heart attack risk…

…some people started to question the HDL/heart health paradigm. And one group came up with the perfect study to test the paradigm.

But before I describe the study, I need to review the term “confounding variables”. I described the term and how it affects clinical studies in last week’s article. Here is a brief synopsis:

  • The studies supporting the HDL/heart health paradigm are association studies. Association studies measure the association between a single variable (in this case, increase in HDL levels) and an outcome (in this case, heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and total deaths).
  • Associations need to be corrected for other variables known to affect the same outcome (things like age, gender, smoking, and diabetes would be examples in this case).
  • Confounding variables are variables that also affect the outcome but are unknown or ignored. Thus, they are not used to correct the associations, which can bias the results.

The authors of this study (M Briel et al, BMJ 2009:338.b92) observed that most interventions that increase HDL levels also lower LDL levels. Lowering LDL is known to decrease the risk of heart disease deaths. But this effect had been ignored in most studies looking at the association between HDL and heart disease deaths.

They hypothesized that the change in LDL levels was a confounding variable that had been ignored in previous studies and may have biased the results.Heart Disease Study

To test this hypothesis the authors searched the literature and identified 108 studies with 299,310 participants that:

  • Compared the effect of drugs, omega-3 fatty acids, or diet with either a placebo or usual care.
  • Measured both HDL and LDL levels.
  • Measured reduction in cardiovascular risk.
  • Had a randomized control design.
  • Lasted at least 6 months.

They found that every 10 mg/dl decrease in LDL levels in these studies was responsible for a:

  • 7.1% reduction in heart disease events (both heart disease deaths and non-fatal heart attacks).
  • 7.2% reduction in heart disease deaths.
  • 4.4% reduction in total deaths.

After correcting for the effect of decreased LDL levels on these heart disease outcomes, the increase in HDL levels had no statistically significant effect on any of the outcomes.

The authors concluded, “Available data suggest that simply increasing the amount of circulating HDL cholesterol does not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease events, coronary heart disease deaths, or total deaths. The results support reduction in LDL cholesterol as the primary goal for lipid modifying interventions.”

In other words, this study:

  • Supports the author’s hypothesis that LDL levels were a confounding variable that biased the studies supporting the HDL/heart health paradigm.
  • Concludes that increasing HDL levels has no effect on heart disease outcomes, thus invalidating the HDL/heart health paradigm.

Is Everything You Knew About HDL Wrong?

Peek Behind The CurtainDoes that mean that everything you knew about HDL is wrong? Not exactly. It just means that you need to change your perspective.

Don’t focus on HDL levels. Peek behind the curtain and focus on what’s behind the HDL levels. For example:

  • Losing weight when overweight increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to weight loss than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • Exercise increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to exercise than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • Reversing pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to the reversal of diabetes than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • High-dose omega-3 fatty acids increase HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to the omega-3 fatty acids than to the increase in HDL levels.
  • The Mediterranean diet increases HDL levels. But the decrease in heart disease outcomes is more likely due to the diet than to the increase in HDL levels.

And if you want to go the drug route:

  • Statins and some other heart drugs increase HDL levels, but the reduction in heart disease outcomes is probably due to their effect on LDL levels rather than their effect on HDL levels.

On the other hand:

  • Saturated fats increase HDL levels. But saturated fats increase heart disease risk and create pro-inflammatory HDL particles. So, in this case the increase in HDL levels is not a good omen for your heart.
  • Drugs have been discovered that selectively increase HDL levels. However, there is nothing of value behind this increase in HDL levels, so the drugs have no effect on heart disease outcomes.

The Bottom Line 

In this article I discuss several studies that have challenged the HDL/heart health paradigm – the belief that HDL is good for your heart.

For example, one group of investigators analyzed the studies underlying the HDL/heart health paradigm. They hypothesized that these studies were inaccurate because they failed to account for the effects of LDL levels on heart disease outcomes.

After correcting for the effect of decreased LDL levels on heart disease outcomes in the previous studies, the authors showed that increases in HDL levels had no significant effect on any heart disease outcome.

The authors concluded, “Available data suggest that simply increasing the amount of circulating HDL cholesterol does not reduce the risk of coronary heart disease events, coronary heart disease deaths, or total deaths. The results support reduction in LDL cholesterol as the primary goal for lipid modifying interventions.”

In other words, this study:

  • Supports the author’s hypothesis that LDL levels were a confounding variable that biased the studies supporting the HDL/heart health paradigm.
  • Concludes that increasing HDL levels has no effect on heart disease outcomes, thus invalidating the HDL/heart health paradigm.

Does that mean that everything you knew about HDL is wrong? Not exactly. It just means that you need to change your perspective. Don’t focus on HDL levels. Focus on what’s behind the HDL levels. For more information on that, read the article above.

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

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

____________________________________________________________________________

My posts and “Health Tips From the Professor” articles carefully avoid claims about any brand of supplement or manufacturer of supplements. However, I am often asked by representatives of supplement companies if they can share them with their customers.

My answer is, “Yes, as long as you share only the article without any additions or alterations. In particular, you should avoid adding any mention of your company or your company’s products. If you were to do that, you could be making what the FTC and FDA consider a “misleading health claim” that could result in legal action against you and the company you represent.

For more detail about FTC regulations for health claims, see this link.

https://www.ftc.gov/business-guidance/resources/health-products-compliance-guidance

Are Low Carb Diets Healthier?

The “Goldilocks Effect”

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Goldilocks EffectThe low-carb wars rage on. Low-carb enthusiasts claim that low-carb diets are healthy. Many health experts warn about the dangers of low-carb diets. Several studies have reported that low-carb diets increase risk of mortality (shorten lifespan).

However, two recent studies have come to the opposite conclusion. Those studies reported that high carbohydrate intake increased mortality, and low carbohydrate intake was associated with the lowest mortality.

One of those studies, called the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study was published a few years ago. It included data from 135,335 participants from 18 countries across 5 continents. That’s a very large study, and normally we expect very large studies to be accurate. The results from the PURE study had low-carb enthusiasts doing a victory lap and claiming it was time to rewrite nutritional guidelines to favor low-carb diets.

Whenever controversies like this arise, reputable scientists are motivated to take another look at the question. They understand that all studies have their weaknesses and biases. So, they look at previous studies very carefully and try to design a study that eliminates the weaknesses and biases of those studies. Their goal is to design a stronger study that reconciles the differences between the previous studies.

A third study published a year later (SB Seidelmann et al, The Lancet, doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(18)30135-X was such a study. This study resolved the conflicting data and finally answered the question: “How much carbohydrate should we be eating if we desire a long and healthy life?” The answer is “Enough”.

I call this “The Goldilocks Effect”. You may remember “Goldilocks And The Three Bears”. One bed was too hard. One bed was too soft. But one bed was “just right”. One bowl of porridge was too hot. One was two cold. But one was “just right”. According to this study, the same is true for carbohydrate intake. High carbohydrate intake is unhealthy. Low carbohydrate intake is unhealthy. But moderate carbohydrate intake is “just right”.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyThis study was performed in two parts. This first part drew on data from the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study. That study enrolled 15,428 men and women, aged 45-64, from four US communities between 1987 and 1989. This group was followed for an average of 25 years, during which time 6283 people died. Carbohydrate intake was calculated based on food frequency questionnaires administered when participants enrolled in the study and again 6 years later. The study evaluated the association between carbohydrate intake and mortality.

The second part was a meta-analysis that combined the data from the ARIC study with all major clinical studies since 2007 that measured carbohydrate intake and mortality and lasted 5 years or more. The total number of participants included in this meta-analysis was 432,179, and it included data from previous studies that claimed low-carbohydrate intake was associated with decreased mortality.

Are Low Carb Diets Healthier?

GravestoneThe results from the ARIC study were:

  • The relationship between mortality and carbohydrate intake was a U-shaped curve.
    • The lowest risk of death was observed with a moderate carbohydrate intake (50-55%). This is the intake recommended by current nutrition guidelines.
    • The highest risk of death was observed with a low carbohydrate intake (<40%).
    • The risk of death also increased with very high carbohydrate intake (>70%).
  • When the investigators used the mortality data to estimate life expectancy, they predicted a 50-year old participant would have a projected life expectancy of:
    • 33.1 years if they had a moderate intake of carbohydrates.
    • 4 years less if they had a low carbohydrate intake.
    • 1.1 year less if they had a very high carbohydrate intake.
  • The risk associated with low carbohydrate intake was affected by what the carbohydrate was replaced with.
    • When carbohydrates were replaced with animal protein and animal fat there was an increased risk of mortality on a low-carb diet. The animal-based low-carb diet contained more beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and fish. It was also higher in saturated fat.Beans and Nuts
    • When carbohydrates were replaced with plant protein and plant fats, there was a decreased risk of mortality on a low-carb diet. The plant-based low-carb diet contained more nuts, peanut butter, dark or whole grain breads, chocolate, and white bread. It was also higher in polyunsaturated fats.
  • The effect of carbohydrate intake on mortality was virtually the same for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and non-cardiovascular mortality.
  • There was no significant effect of carbohydrate intake on long-term weight gain (another myth busted).

The results from the dueling meta-analyses were actually very similar. When the data from all studies were combined:

  • Both very low carbohydrate diets and very high carbohydrate diets were associated with increased mortality.
  • Meat-based low-carb diets increased mortality, and plant-based low-carb diets decreased mortality.
  • Once again, the results were the same for total mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and non-cardiovascular mortality.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest a negative long-term association between life-expectancy and both low carbohydrate and high carbohydrate diets…These data also provide further evidence that animal-based low carbohydrate diets should be discouraged. Alternatively, when restricting carbohydrate intake, replacement of carbohydrates with predominantly plant-based fats and proteins could be considered as a long-term approach to healthy aging.”

Simply put, that means if a low carb diet works best for you, it is healthier to replace the carbs with plant-based fats and protein rather than animal-based fats and protein.

The “Goldilocks Effect”

low carb dietThis study also resolved the discrepancies between previous studies. The authors pointed out that the average carbohydrate intake is very different in Europe and the US than in Asian countries and low-income countries.

In the US and Europe mean carbohydrate intake is about 50% of calories and it ranges from 25% to 70% of calories. With that range of carbohydrate intake, it is possible to observe the increase in mortality associated with both very low and very high carbohydrate intakes.

The US and European countries are affluent, which means that low-carb enthusiasts can afford diets high in animal protein.

White rice is a staple in Asian countries, and protein is a garnish rather than a main course. Consequently, overall carbohydrate intake is greater in Asian countries and very few Asians eat a truly low carbohydrate diet. High protein foods tend to be more expensive than high carbohydrate foods. Thus, very few people in developing countries can afford to follow a very low carbohydrate diet, and overall carbohydrate intake also tends to be higher.

Therefore, in Asian and developing countries the average carbohydrate intake is greater (~61%) than in the US and Europe, and the range of carbohydrate intake is from 45% to 80% of calories. With that range of intake, it is only possible to see the increase in mortality associated with very high carbohydrate intake.

Both the studies that low-carb enthusiasts quote to support their claim that low-carb diets are healthy relied heavily on data from Asian and developing countries.ARIC Study

In fact, when the authors of the current study overlaid the data from the PURE study with their ARIC data, there was an almost perfect fit. The only difference was that their ARIC data covered both low and high carbohydrate intake while the PURE study touted by low-carb enthusiasts only covered moderate to high carbohydrate intake.

[I have given you my rendition of the graph on the right. If you would like to see the data yourself, look at the paper.]

Basically, low-carb advocates are telling you that diets with carbohydrate intakes of 30% or less are healthy based on studies that did not include carbohydrate intakes below 40%. That is misleading. The studies they quote are incapable of detecting the risks of low carbohydrate diets.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

QuestionsThere are several important take-home lessons from this study:

  • All major studies agree that very high carbohydrate intake is unhealthy. In part, that reflects the fact that diets with high carbohydrate intake are likely to be high in sodas and sugary junk foods. It may also reflect the fact that diets which are high in carbohydrate are often low in plant protein or healthy fats or both.
  • All studies that cover the full range of carbohydrate intake agree that very low carbohydrate intake is also unhealthy. It shortens the life expectancy of a 50-year-old by about 4 years.
  • The studies quoted by low carb enthusiasts to support their claim that low-carb diets are healthy don’t include carbohydrate intakes below 40%. That means their claims are misleading. The studies they quote are incapable of detecting the risks of low carbohydrate diets.
  • Meat-based low-carb diets decrease life expectancy while plant-based low carb diets increase life expectancy. This is consistent with previous studies. For more details on those studies, see my article, “Are Any Low-Carb Diets Healthy?”, in “Health Tips From The Professor” or my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”.

The health risks of meat-based low-carb diets may be due to the saturated fat content or the heavy reliance on red meat. However, the risks are just as likely to be due to the foods these diets leave out – typically fruits, whole grains, legumes, and some vegetables.

Proponents of low-carb diets assume that you can make up for the missing nutrients by just taking multivitamins. However, each food group also provides a unique combination of phytonutrients and fibers. The fibers, in turn, influence your microbiome. Simply put, whenever you leave out whole food groups, you put your health at risk.

The Bottom Line

The low-carb wars are raging. Several studies have reported that low-carb diets increase risk of mortality (shorten lifespan). However, two studies published a few years ago have come to the opposite conclusion. Those studies have low-carb enthusiasts doing a victory lap and claiming it is time to rewrite nutritional guidelines to favor low-carb diets.

However, a study published a year later resolves the conflicting data and finally answers the question: “How much carbohydrate should we be eating if we desire a long and healthy life?” The answer is “Enough”.

I call this “The Goldilocks Effect”. According to this study, high carbohydrate intake is unhealthy. Low carbohydrate intake is unhealthy. But, moderate carbohydrate intake is “just right”.

Specifically, this study reported:

  1. Moderate carbohydrate intake (50-55%) is healthiest. This is also the carbohydrate intake recommended by current nutritional guidelines.

2) All major studies agree that very high carbohydrate intake (60-70%) is unhealthy. It shortens life expectancy of a 50-year old by about a year.

3) All studies that cover the full range of carbohydrate intake agree that low carbohydrate intake (<40%) is also unhealthy. It shortens life expectancy of a 50-year old by about 4 years.

4) The studies quoted by low carb enthusiasts to support their claim that low-carb diets are healthy don’t include carbohydrate intakes below 40%. That means their claims are misleading. The studies they quote are incapable of detecting the risks of low carbohydrate diets.

5) Meat-based low-carb diets decrease life expectancy while plant-based low carb diets increase life expectancy. This is consistent with the results of previous studies.

The authors concluded: “Our findings suggest a negative long-term association between life-expectancy and both low carbohydrate and high carbohydrate diets…These data also provide further evidence that animal-based low carbohydrate diets should be discouraged. Alternatively, when restricting carbohydrate intake, replacement of carbohydrates with predominantly plant-based fats and proteins could be considered as a long-term approach to healthy aging.”

Simply put, that means if a low carb diet works best for you, it is healthier to replace the carbs with plant-based fats and protein rather than animal-based fats and protein.

For more details, read the article above.

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

Which Supplements Are Good For Your Heart?

How Should You Interpret This Study? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

strong heartFebruary is Heart Health month. So, it is fitting that we ask, “What is the status of heart health in this country?” The American Heart Association just published an update of heart health statistics through 2019 (CW Tsao et al, Circulation, 145: e153-e639, 2022). And the statistics aren’t encouraging. [Note: The American Heart Association only reported statistics through 2019 because the COVID-19 pandemic significantly skewed the statistics in 2020 and 2021].

The Good News is that between 2009 and 2019:

  • All heart disease deaths have decreased by 25%.
  • Heart attack deaths have decreased by 6.6%.
  • Stroke deaths have decreased by 6%.

The Bad News is that:

  • Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in this country.
  • Someone dies from a heart attack every 40 seconds.
  • Someone dies from a stroke every 3 minutes.

Diet, exercise, and weight control play a major role in reducing the risk of heart disease. Best of all, they have no side effects. They represent a risk-free approach that each of us can control.

But is there something else? Could supplements play a role? Are supplements hype or hope for a healthy heart?

All the Dr. Strangeloves in the nutrition space have their favorite heart health supplements. They claim their supplements will single-handedly abolish heart disease (and help you leap tall buildings in a single bound).

On the other hand, many doctors will tell you these supplements are a waste of money. They don’t work. They just drain your wallet.

It’s so confusing. Who should you believe? Fortunately, a recent study (P An et al, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 80: 2269-2285, 2022) has separated the hype from the hope and tells us which “heart-healthy” supplements work, and which don’t.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis was a major clinical study carried out by researchers from the China Agricultural University and Brown University in the US. It was a meta-analysis, which means it combined the data from many published clinical trials.

The investigators searched three major databases of clinical trials to identify:

  • 884 randomized, placebo-controlled clinical studies…
  • Of 27 types of micronutrients…
  • With a total of 883,627 patients…
  • Looking at the effectiveness of micronutrient supplementation lasting an average of 3 years on either…
    • Cardiovascular risk factors like blood pressure, total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides…or…
    • Cardiovascular outcomes such as coronary heart disease (CHD), heart attacks, strokes, and deaths due to cardiovascular disease (CVD) and all causes.

[Note: Coronary heart disease (CHD) refers to build up of plaque in the coronary arteries (the arteries leading to the heart). It is often referred to as heart disease and can lead to heart attacks (myocardial infarction). Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a more inclusive term that includes coronary heart disease, stroke, congenital heart defects, and peripheral artery disease.]

The investigators also included an analysis of the quality of the data in each of the clinical studies and rated the evidence of each of their findings as high quality, moderate quality, or low quality.

Which Supplements Are Good For Your Heart?

The top 3 heart-healthy supplements in this study were:

Omega-3s And Heart DiseaseOmega-3 Fatty Acids:

  • Increased HDL cholesterol and decreased triglycerides, both favorable risk factors for heart health.
  • Deceased risk of heart attacks by 15%, all CHD events by 14%, and CVD deaths by 7% (see definitions of CHD and CVD above).
  • The median dose of omega-3 fatty acids in these studies was 1.8 g/day.
  • The evidence was moderate quality for all these findings.

Folic Acid:

  • Decreased LDL cholesterol (moderate quality evidence) and decreased blood pressure and total cholesterol (low quality evidence).
  • Decreased stroke risk by 16% (moderate quality evidence).

Coenzyme Q10:

  • Decreased triglycerides (high quality evidence) and reduced blood pressure (low quality evidence).
  • Decreased the risk of all-cause mortality by 32% (moderate quality evidence).
  • These studies were performed with patients diagnosed with heart failure. Coenzyme Q10 is often recommended for these patients, so the studies were likely performed to test the efficacy of this treatment.

There were three micronutrients (vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin D) that did not appear to affect heart disease outcomes.

Finally, as reported in previous studies, β-carotene increased the risk of stroke, CVD mortality, and all-cause mortality.

In terms of the question I asked at the beginning of this article, this study concluded that:

  • Omega-3, folic acid, and coenzyme Q10 supplements represent hope for a healthy heart.
  • Vitamin C, vitamin E, and vitamin D supplements represent hype for a healthy heart.
  • β-carotene supplements represent danger for a healthy heart.

But these conclusions just scratch the surface. To put them into perspective we need to dig a bit deeper.

How Should You Interpret This Study?

Question MarkIn evaluating the significance of these findings there are two things to keep in mind.

#1: This study is a meta-analysis and meta-analyses have both strengths and weaknesses.

The strength of meta-analyses is that by combining multiple clinical studies they can end up with a database containing 100s of thousands of subjects. This allows them to do two things:

  • It allows the meta-analysis to detect statistically significant effects that might be too small to detect in an individual study.
  • It allows the meta-analysis to detect the average effect of all the clinical studies it includes.

The weakness of meta-analyses is that the design of individual studies included in the analysis varies greatly. The individual studies vary in things like dose, duration, type of subjects included in the study, and much more.

This is why this study rated most of their conclusions as backed by moderate- or low-quality evidence. [Note: The fact that the authors evaluated the quality of evidence is a strength of this study. Most meta-analyses just report their conclusions without telling you how strong the evidence behind those conclusions is.]

#2: Most clinical studies of supplements (including those included in this meta-analysis) have two significant weaknesses.

  • Most studies do not measure the nutritional status of their subjects prior to adding the supplement. If their nutritional status for a particular nutrient was already optimal, there is no reason to expect more of that nutrient to provide any benefit.
  • Most studies measure the effect of a supplement on a cross-section of the population without asking who would be most likely to benefit.

You would almost never design a clinical study that way if you were evaluating the effectiveness of a potential drug. So, why would you design clinical studies of supplements that way?

With these considerations in mind, let me provide some perspective on the conclusions of this study.

Coenzyme Q10:

This meta-analysis found that coenzyme Q10 significantly reduced all-cause mortality in patients with heart failure. This is consistent with multiple clinical studies and a recent Cochrane Collaboration review.

Does coenzyme Q10 have any heart health benefits for people without congestive heart failure? There is no direct evidence that it does, but let me offer an analogy with statin drugs.

Statin drugs are very effective at reducing heart attacks in high-risk patients. But they have no detectable effect on heart attacks in low-risk patients. However, this has not stopped the medical profession from recommending statins for millions of low-risk patients. The rationale is that if they are so clearly beneficial in high-risk patients, they are “probably” beneficial in low-risk patients.

I would argue a similar rationale should apply to supplements like coenzyme Q10.

Omega-3s:

This study found that omega-3 reduced both heart attacks and the risk of dying from heart disease. Most previous meta-analyses of omega-3s and heart disease have come to the same conclusion. However, some meta-analyses have failed to find any heart health benefits of omega-3s. Unfortunately, this has allowed both proponents and opponents of omega-3 use for heart health to quote studies supporting their viewpoint.

However, there is one meta-analysis that stands out from all the others. A group of 17 scientists from across the globe collaborated in developing a “best practices” experimental design protocol for assessing the effect of omega-3 supplementation on heart health. They conducted their clinical studies independently, and when their data (from 42,000 subjects) were pooled, the results showed that omega-3 supplementation decreased:

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

This study eliminates the limitations of previous meta-analyses. That makes it much stronger than the other meta-analyses. And these results are consistent with the current meta-analysis.

Omega-3s have long been recognized as essential nutrients. It is past time to set Daily Value (DV) recommendations for omega-3s. Based on the recommendations of other experts in the field, I think the DV should be set at 500-1,000 mg/day. I take more than that, but this would represent a good minimum recommendation for heart health.

folic acidFolic acid:

As with omega-3s, this meta-analysis reported a positive effect of folic acid on heart health. But many other studies have come up empty. Why is that?

It may be because, between food fortification and multivitamin use, many Americans already have sufficient blood levels of folic acid. For example, one study reported that 70% of the subjects in their study had optimal levels of folates in their blood. And that study also reported:

  • Subjects with adequate levels of folates in their blood received no additional benefit from folic acid supplementation.
  • However, for subjects with inadequate blood folate levels, folic acid supplementation decreased their risk of heart disease by ~15%.

We see this pattern over and over in supplement studies. Supplement opponents interpret these studies as showing that supplements are worthless. But a better interpretation is that supplements benefit those who need them.

The problem is that we don’t know our blood levels of essential nutrients. We don’t know which nutrients we need, and which we don’t. That’s why I like to think of supplements as “insurance” against the effects of an imperfect diet.

Vitamins E and D:

The situation with vitamins E and D is similar. This meta-analysis found no heart health benefit of either vitamin E or D. That is because the clinical studies included in the meta-analysis asked whether vitamin E or vitamin D improved heart health for everyone in the study.

Previous studies focusing on patients with low blood levels of these nutrients and/or at high risk of heart disease have shown some benefits of both vitamins at reducing heart disease risk.

So, for folic acid, vitamin E, and vitamin D (and possibly vitamin C) the take-home message should be:

  • Ignore all the Dr. Strangeloves telling you that these vitamins are “magic bullets” that will dramatically reduce your risk of heart disease.
  • Ignore the naysayers who tell you they are worthless.
  • Use supplementation wisely to make sure you have the recommended intake of these and other essential nutrients.

β-carotene:

This meta-analysis reported that β-carotene increased the risk of heart disease. This is not a new finding. Multiple previous studies have come to the same conclusion.

And we know why this is. There are many naturally occurring carotenoids, and they each have unique heart health benefits. A high dose β-carotene supplement interferes with the absorption of the other carotenoids. You are creating a deficiency of other heart-healthy carotenoids.

If you are not getting lots of colorful fruits and vegetables from your diet, my recommendation is to choose a supplement with all the naturally occurring carotenoids in balance – not a pure β-carotene supplement.

The Bottom Line 

The Dr. Strangeloves in the nutrition space all have their favorite heart health supplements. They claim their supplements will single-handedly abolish heart disease (and help you leap tall buildings in a single bound).

On the other hand, many doctors will tell you these supplements are a waste of money. They don’t work. They just drain your wallet.

It’s so confusing. Who should you believe? Fortunately, a recent study has separated the hype from the hope and tells us which “heart-healthy” supplements work, and which don’t.

This study was a meta-analysis of 884 clinical studies with 883,627 participants. It reported:

  • Omega-3 supplementation deceased risk of heart attacks by 15% and all cardiovascular deaths by 7%.
  • Folic acid supplementation decreased stroke risk by 16%.
  • Coenzyme Q10 supplementation decreased the risk of all-cause mortality in patients with heart failure by 32%.
  • Vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D did not appear to affect heart disease outcomes.
  • β-carotene increased the risk of stroke, CVD mortality, and all-cause mortality.

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

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

Walking Your Way To Health

How Much Should You Walk? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

Overweight People ExercisingThe new year is almost here. If you are like millions of Americans, you may already be making plans to join a gym, get a personal trainer, or join a spin class.

The problem is these are all expensive options. And a good portion of that money is wasted. To put it into perspective, let’s look at some statistics

  • Around 6 million Americans buy gym memberships every January.
  • 67% of those memberships are never used.
  • For those memberships used in January, another 50% are not in use 6 months later.
  • Americans spend about 1.6 billion dollars on unused gym memberships every year.
  • And that doesn’t include those gym memberships that are only occasionally used.

If you want to get fit and healthy in the new year, perhaps you should consider a less expensive option – like walking. Your only investments are a good pair of walking shoes and a device that keeps track of the number of steps you take (eg, Fitbit, smart watch, or smart phone).

You still may give up on your New Year’s goal of getting fitter at some point. But you won’t have wasted so much money.

Of course, you probably have some questions about the benefits of walking, such as:

  1. Is walking enough to significantly improve my fitness and health?

2) How far (how many steps) should I walk?

3) How fast should I walk?

Fortunately, two recent studies (B del Pozo-Cruz et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, 182: 1139-1148, 2022; J del Pozo-Cruz et al, Diabetes Care, 45: 2156-2158, 2022) have answered all three questions.

How Were These Studies Done?

clinical studyThe first study (B del Pozo-Cruz et al, JAMA Internal Medicine, 182: 1139-1148, 2022) followed 78,500 participants (average age 61, 55% female, 97% white) enrolled in the UK Biobank study for an average of 7 years.

At the time of enrollment, each participant was given an accelerometer (a device that measures the number and frequency of steps) to wear on their dominant wrist for 24 hours/day for 7 days. The investigators used the accelerometer data to categorize several types of physical activity.

  • Daily step counts (the average number of steps per day for 7 days). These step counts were further subdivided into two categories:
  • Incidental steps (It was assumed that ˂40 steps/min represented steps taken that were incidental to normal daily activities).
  • Purposeful steps (It was assumed that ≥40 steps/min represented steps taken as part of planned exercise).
  • Stepping intensity (the highest frequency of steps/min averaged over 30 min intervals for all 7 days).

At the end of the study, each of these variables was correlated with the risk of premature deaths due to all causes, cancer, and heart disease.

The second study (J del Pozo-Cruz et al, Diabetes Care, 45: 2156-2158, 2022) was similar except that it:

  • Used data from 1687 adults (average age = 55, 56% male, with diabetes or prediabetes when the study began) in the 2005-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in the US.
  • Followed participants for 9 years instead of 7.
  • Only measured total steps/day
  • Correlated total steps/day with premature death for participants who already had prediabetes or diabetes when they entered the study.

Walking Your Way To Health

Study 1 looked at the effect of walking on health outcomes in multiple ways.

woman walking dog#1: Increase in number of steps/day:

  • On average study participants took an average of 7200 steps per day, but this ranged from a low of 3,200 steps/day to a high of 12,200 steps/day.
  • Each increase of 2,000 steps/day was associated with a:
    • 8% decrease in all-cause mortality.
    • 11% decrease in cancer mortality.
    • 10% decrease in heart disease mortality.
  • Overall, increasing from 3,200 steps/day to 10,000 steps/day decreased all-cause, cancer, and heart disease mortality by around 36%.
  • There was no minimum threshold to this beneficial effect of walking on the risk of premature death.
  • The benefits of walking appeared to plateau at 10,000 steps/day.

#2: Increase in number of incidental steps/day (steps taken that are incidental to normal daily activities):

  • On average study participants took 3240 incidental steps/day, but this ranged from a low of 2,100 steps/day to a high of 4,400 steps/day.
  • Each 10% increase in incremental steps/day was associated with a:
    • 6% decrease in all-cause mortality.
    • 6% decrease in cancer mortality.
    • 10% decrease in heart disease mortality.

#3: Increase in number of purposeful steps/day (steps taken as part of planned exercise):

  • On average study participants took 4,600 purposeful steps/day, but this ranged from a low of 1,600 steps/day to a high of 8,600 steps/day.
  • Each 10% increase in purposeful steps/day was associated with a:
    • 7% decrease in all-cause mortality.
    • 8% decrease in cancer mortality.
    • 10% decrease in heart disease mortality.

#4: Increase in speed of walking or cadence. The measurement they used was “peak-30 cadence” – the Walking Fasthighest average steps/min during a 30-minute interval within a day:

  • On average study participants had a “peak-30 cadence” of 76 steps/min, but this ranged from a low of 47 steps/min to a high of 109 steps/min.
  • Each 10% increase in “peak-30 cadence” was associated with a:
    • 8% decrease in all-cause mortality.
    • 9% decrease in cancer mortality.
    • 14% decrease in heart disease mortality.
  • The benefits of walking rapidly (increase in “peak-30 cadence”) were in addition to the benefits seen by increasing the number of steps per day.
  • Overall, increasing from a “peak-30 cadence” of 47 steps/min to 109 steps/min decreased all-cause, cancer, and heart disease mortality by an additional 34%.
  • There was no minimum threshold to this beneficial effect of increasing “peak-30 cadence” (the speed of walking) on the risk of premature death.
  • The benefits of increasing “peak-30 cadence” appeared to plateau at 100 steps/min.

#5 Effect of walking on the prevention of heart disease and cancer: The investigators measured this by strong heartlooking at the effect of walking on the “incidence” of heart disease and cancer (defined as new diagnoses of heart disease and cancer) during the study. They found.

  • Each 2,000-step increase in the total number of steps/day decreased the risk of developing heart disease and cancer by 4% during this 7-year study.
  • Each 10% increase in the number of purposeful steps/day decreased the risk of developing heart disease and cancer by 4% during this study.
  • Each 10% increase in “peak-30 cadence” decreased the risk of developing heart disease and cancer by 7% during this study.

The authors concluded, “The findings of this population-based…study of 78,500 individuals suggest that up to 10,000 steps/day may be associated with a lower risk of mortality and cancer and CVD incidence. Steps performed at a higher cadence may be associated with additional risk reduction, particularly for incident disease.”

Study 2 extended these findings to diabetes. They started with participants that had either prediabetes or diabetesdiabetes and followed them for 9 years. They found that:

  • Study participants with prediabetes ranged from a low of 3,800 steps/day to a high of 10,700 steps/day.
    • Prediabetic participants walking 10,700 steps/day were 25% less likely to die during the study than participants walking only 3,800 steps/day.
  • Study participants with diabetes ranged from a low of 2,500 steps/day to a high of 10,200 steps/day.
    • Diabetic participants walking 10,200 steps/day were also 25% less likely to die during the study than participants walking only 2,500 steps/day.
  • Even small increases in the number of steps per day decreased the risk of premature death for both prediabetic and diabetic participants.
  • Once again, 10,000 steps/day appeared to be the optimal dose to lower the risk of premature death for both diabetic and prediabetic patients.

The authors of this study concluded, “Accumulating more steps/day up to ~10,000 steps/day may lower the risk of all-cause mortality of adults with prediabetes and diabetes.”

How Much Should You Walk?

Walking CoupleThat was a lot of information. You are probably wondering what it means for you. Let’s start with the big picture:

  • Going from couch potato to 10,000 steps per day may reduce your risk of premature death due to all causes, cancer, and heart disease by 36% (24% if you are already prediabetic or diabetic).
  • Increasing the speed with which you walk from 47 steps/min to 109 steps/min sustained for 30 minutes may reduce your risk of premature death by an additional 34%.

In other words, simply walking more and walking faster can have a significant on your health. I am not recommending walking as your only form of exercise. I’m just saying not to consider it inferior to other forms of exercise.

  • There is no lower limit to the benefits of walking. Even small increases in the number of steps/day you take and the speed with which you walk may have a beneficial effect on your health.

In other words, you don’t need to speed walk 10,000 steps/day to reap a benefit from walking. Even small increases are beneficial. That’s good news for those of you who may not be able to speed walk long distances. It also means that if you are a couch potato, you don’t need to attempt 10,000 steps at high speed from day 1. You can work up to it gradually.

  • Incidental walking (walking that is incidental to your daily activities) is almost as beneficial as purposeful walking (walking as part of a planned exercise).

That’s good news for those of you who may not have time for long walks. It also means that advice like “park your car at the far end of the parking lot and walk” or “take the stairs rather than the elevator” can have a meaningful impact on your health.

  • The benefits of walking appear to max out at around 10,000 steps per day and a cadence of 100 steps/min sustained for 30 minutes.

That means once you get to those levels, it’s time to consider adding other kinds of exercise to your regimen. More and faster walking may offer little additional benefit.

Finally, in the words of the authors, “This information could be used to motivate the least active individuals to increase their steps and the more-active individuals to reach the 10,000-step target.”

The Bottom Line 

The new year is almost here. If you are like millions of Americans, you may already be making plans to join a gym, get a personal trainer, or join a spin class.

If you want to get fit and healthy in the new year, perhaps you should also consider a less expensive option – like walking.

Of course, you probably have some questions about the benefits of walking, such as:

1) Is walking enough to significantly improve my fitness and health?

2) How far (how many steps) should I walk?

3) How fast should I walk?

Fortunately, two recent studies have answered all three questions. They found:

  • Going from couch potato to 10,000 steps per day may reduce your risk of premature death due to all causes, cancer, and heart disease by 36% (24% if you are already prediabetic or diabetic).
  • Increasing the speed with which you walk from 47 steps/min to 109 steps/min sustained for 30 minutes may reduce your risk of premature death by an additional 34%.
  • There is no lower limit to the benefits of walking. Even small increases in the number of steps/day you take and the speed with which you walk may have a beneficial effect on your health.
  • Incidental walking (walking that is incidental to your daily activities) is almost as beneficial as purposeful walking (walking as part of a planned exercise).
  • The benefits of walking appear to max out at around 10,000 steps per day and a cadence of 100 steps/min sustained for 30 minutes.

In the words of the authors of these studies, “This information could be used to motivate the least active individuals to increase their steps and the more-active individuals to reach the 10,000-step target.”

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

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

 

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.

Health Tips From The Professor