Is Fructose Good For You Or Bad For You?

Is It The Fructose Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

VillainFructose is the villain of the day. It is #1 on everyone’s “No-No” list. Almost every website, blog, and diet book demonize it. Even authors I highly respect say we should absolutely avoid it.

We are told it causes obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease – a disease that was unheard of only a few decades ago. We are told to read labels and avoid any foods with fructose or high-fructose corn syrup listed on their label.

But wait. Isn’t fructose a natural sugar? The answer is, “Yes”. It is the main sugar in fruit and many other naturally sweet whole foods. In fact, there is the same amount of fructose in an 8-ounce soda and a medium apple.

Does that mean that fruits are also bad for us? What is the truth?

Is It The Fructose Or Is It The Food?

AppleLet me put this into perspective for you. I have covered this in detail in a previous issue of Health Tips From The Professor. Here is a brief summary.

  • There are no sugar villains. There are no sugar heroes. Most of your favorite “natural” sugars are chemically and biologically indistinguishable from high-fructose corn syrup. Other natural sugars, like agave sugar, contain more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup.
  • All the studies showing the bad effects of fructose have been done with sodas and/or highly processed foods with added sugar. Let’s be clear. Those foods are bad for you.
  • Fruits, on the other hand, are good for you. You’ve heard the old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. A recent study showed that isn’t just an “old wives’ tale”. It is true.

Why is that? Why is fructose in sodas and junk foods bad for us and fructose in fruits good for us?

Part of the answer is that fruits are high in fiber, which slows the release of fructose into the intestine as fruits are digested. In addition, the fructose in fruits is trapped in a cellular matrix, which also slows the release of fructose during digestion.

Sodas and highly processed foods, on the other hand, have nothing to slow the release of fructose. It is immediately available as soon as the food reaches the intestine.

A recent study sheds light on why the rate of fructose release in our intestine may be important. The study showed:

  • When fructose is released slowly our bodies know exactly what to do with it.
    • Most of it is metabolized by the cells that line our intestine, and the rest is metabolized by the liver.
    • In both cases fructose is converted to glucose and slowly released into the bloodstream.
    • This stabilizes blood sugar levels.
  • When fructose is released quickly our bodies are overwhelmed and bad things happen.
    • The intestine passes the excess on to the liver, and the liver converts it to fat rather than glucose.
    • The fat is stored in the liver.
    • This leads to insulin resistance, diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease.

But could the fiber in fruits have other beneficial effects such as supporting populations of beneficial gut bacteria? The study ( J Beisner et al, Nutrients, 12: 3444, 2020) I will focus on today suggests the answer is yes.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyInvestigators from the University of Hohenheim, Germany recruited 12 healthy female volunteers, ages 20 – 40 (average age = 28).

Each of the subjects was given a series of diets to follow for one week each.

  • Week one was a low fructose diet (10 g of fructose/day). For this diet phase subjects had to avoid sweets, highly processed foods, sodas, and fruits and vegetables containing more than 1 g of fructose per serving.
  • Week two was a high fructose fruit diet (100 g of fructose/day). This diet phase emphasized fructose-rich fruits and vegetables. Sweets, highly processed foods, and sodas had to be avoided.
  • Week three was a repeat of the low fructose diet (10 g of fructose/day).
  • Week four was a high-fructose corn syrup diet (100 g of fructose/day). For this diet phase subjects had to sweeten the food they were eating with a measured amount of high-fructose corn syrup. They also had to avoid fructose-rich fruits and vegetables.

The diets were designed to have around 2,000 calories/day and to have the same amounts of fat (30% of calories), protein (15% of calories), and carbohydrate (55% of calories). However, the fiber content of the diets was very different (around 17 g/day on the low fructose and high-fructose corn syrup diets and around 38 g/day on the high fructose fruit diet).

The subjects were given detailed instructions and training before starting on the 4-week program. They also kept a daily dietary record of everything they ate and drank so the investigators would know how closely they stuck to their dietary instructions.

This experimental design was based on previous studies showing that populations of gut bacteria change within 24-48 hours when you go on a new diet. Stool samples were collected at the end of each week and analyzed for gut bacteria.

Is Fructose Good For You Or Bad For You?

MicrobiomeThe study showed:

  • Consumption of a high-fructose, fruit-rich diet resulted in:
    • An increase in beneficial butyrate-producing bacteria (more about that below).
    • A decrease in bacteria associated with elevated total and LDL cholesterol.
    • Decreased blood levels of total and LDL cholesterol.
  • Consumption of a high-fructose corn syrup diet had the opposite effect. It resulted in:
    • A decrease in beneficial butyrate-producing bacteria.
    • An increase in bacteria associated with elevated total and LDL cholesterol.
    • Increased blood levels of total and LDL cholesterol.

The authors concluded: “We provide evidence that the high-fructose corn syrup diet induces an imbalanced microbiota [gut bacteria] profile characterized by a significantly reduced abundance of beneficial butyrate-producing bacteria and of bacteria known for anti-obesity effects…Despite the high fructose content, the fruit-rich diet shifts the intestinal microbiota composition in a protective manner…”

The authors said that there were probably two mechanisms for the different effects of fructose in high-fructose corn syrup and in fruits.

  • The fiber found in fruit supports the growth of beneficial bacteria in our intestine.
  • When high-fructose corn syrup is present in foods with low fiber content, it is released rapidly in the intestine. As I noted above, the cells that line our intestine become overwhelmed and pass some of that excess fructose on to our liver. However, the authors cited previous studies showing that some of that excess fructose remains in our intestine and supports the growth of unhealthy bacteria.

What Does Butyrate Do?

Question MarkYou are probably wondering what is special about butyrate-producing bacteria. Here is a brief synopsis.

  • Butyrate is a short chain fatty acid. As you might expect from its name, it was originally identified as a constituent of butter.
  • Some species of gut bacteria convert the fats in our diet to butyrate.
    • It is used as a preferred energy source for the cells that line our intestine. Consequently, butyrate production in our intestines has been linked to:
      • Reduced inflammation of the cells lining our intestine, which reduces the risk for diseases like inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) and Crohn’s Disease.
      • Reduced risk of “leaky gut syndrome”.
      • Reduced risk of colon cancer.
    • It is also absorbed into the bloodstream and appears to affect several metabolic pathways. For example, butyrate production in the intestine is associated with:
      • Decreased cholesterol levels.
      • Improved blood sugar control.
      • A healthy body weight.

What Does This Mean For You?

Questioning ManThis was a small study. As the authors noted, larger studies of longer duration are needed to confirm that the effects of fructose on our gut bacteria depend on the food the fructose is in. However, several other studies have come to similar conclusions.

More importantly, this study merely shows that the effect of fructose-containing foods on our gut bacteria is a potential mechanism for explaining why the effect of fructose depends on the food it is in.

There is already overwhelming evidence that fructose in fruits is good for us, while high-fructose corn syrup in sodas and highly processed foods is bad for us.

Does that mean high-fructose corn syrup is villainous? Should we read labels and avoid any food containing high-fructose corn syrup?

I would remind you that the amount of fructose and the relative abundance of fructose and glucose are virtually identical in fruits and high-fructose corn syrup. It is not high-fructose corn syrup that is the problem, it is the foods it is found in.

We don’t need to become compulsive label readers. We just need to eat more foods without labels.

The Bottom Line 

High-fructose corn syrup has been vilified in recent years. However, there is increasing evidence that it is not fructose that is the problem. It is the foods it is found in.

A recent study was designed to test that hypothesis. The investigators fed subjects high fructose diets in which the fructose came either from fruits or high-fructose corn syrup. The amount of fructose was identical in the two diets. The investigators then asked what effect the two diets had on gut bacteria. In short:

  • Consumption of the high-fruit diet increased healthy levels of beneficial gut bacteria and suppressed levels of unhealthy gut bacteria.
  • Consumption of the high-fructose corn syrup diet had the opposite effect. It increased unhealthy bacteria and suppressed beneficial bacteria.

The authors concluded: “We provide evidence that the high-fructose corn syrup diet induces an imbalanced microbiota [gut bacteria] profile characterized by a significantly reduced abundance of beneficial…bacteria and of bacteria known for anti-obesity effects…Despite the high fructose content, the fruit-rich diet shifts the intestinal microbiota composition in a protective manner…”

My take is as follows: This study shows that the effect of fructose-containing foods on our gut bacteria is a potential mechanism for explaining why the effect of fructose depends on the food it is in.

There is already overwhelming evidence that fructose in fruits is good for us, and high-fructose corn syrup in sodas and highly processed foods is bad for us.

Does that mean that high-fructose corn syrup is villainous? Should we read labels and avoid any food containing high-fructose corn syrup?

I would remind you that the amount of fructose and the relative abundance of fructose and glucose is virtually identical in fruits and high-fructose corn syrup. It is not high-fructose corn syrup that is the problem, it is the foods it is found in.

We don’t need to become compulsive label readers. We just need to eat more foods without labels.

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.

Could Mom’s Stress Affect Her Baby’s Health?

How Can You Minimize Stress During Pregnancy?

StressIf you are pregnant, the advice you see on the internet can be overwhelming. There are so many things you “must do” and so many things you “must avoid” if you want a healthy baby. It’s enough to stress you out.

As if that weren’t bad enough, we are probably living through the most stressful period in recent memory. So, the last thing you want to hear is that your stress during pregnancy can affect the health of your baby.

Before I go any further, let me make it clear that the studies I will discuss in this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” are intriguing, but they are preliminary. I don’t want to add to your stress.

Let me start by reviewing the literature:

  • Several studies suggest that stress during pregnancy is associated with preterm birth, low birthweight, and infant mortality.
  • Other studies suggest that stress during pregnancy is associated with suboptimal cognitive development, hyperactivity, and asthma in the offspring.

The big question, of course, is how a mom’s stress during pregnancy can affect the health of her child months or years later. One hypothesis is that stress affects the mom’s gut bacteria, and those gut bacteria are passed along to the child as he or she passes through the birth canal.

We know that stress can affect your gut bacteria, but can it affect your child’s gut bacteria? Studies in mice suggest it can. Today I will discuss the first large clinical study (AK Aatsinki et al, Pyschoneuroendocrinology, 119 (2020) 104754) designed to evaluate that hypothesis in humans.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study was an offshoot of an ongoing FinnBrain Cohort Project, which aims to study the influence of stress exposures during pregnancy on later childhood development and health outcomes. This particular study was designed to investigate the role of chronic stress during pregnancy on the population of gut bacteria in infants. There were 399 mothers and their babies who completed this study.

All Participants in the FinnBrain Project:

  • Filled out self-reported prenatal questionnaires at gestational weeks 14, 24, and 34. These questionnaires provided background information about the health, weight, age, and education level of the moms, as well as whether they were taking antidepression medications during their pregnancy.
  • Were also asked about breast feeding 2.5 months after giving birth.
  • Duration of gestation, birth weight, and method of delivery information were obtained from Finland’s National Institute for Health and Welfare.

Participants in this study:

  • Were evaluated for depression and anxiety symptoms three times during pregnancy and at 3 months after giving birth. It should be noted that the questionnaires used to evaluate depression and anxiety symptoms did not measure the stressors (events causing the stress). Instead they were measuring the mom’s response to those stressors.
  • Cortisol levels were measured at gestational week 24 as another measure of the mother’s stress level.
  • Fecal samples were obtained from the offspring at the age of 2.5 months and analyzed for the population of gut bacteria.

Could Mom’s Stress Affect Her Baby’s Health?

Bad BacteriaThe results of this study were intriguing:

Infants born to mothers who experienced high levels of stress (such as depression and/or anxiety) during pregnancy had an increased abundance of potentially pathogenic gut bacteria such as:

  • Serratia, Haemophilus, Citrobacter, and Campylobacter from the Proteobacteria group of bacteria.
  • Veillonella and Finegoldia from the Firmicutes group of bacteria.

In addition, infants born to mothers with elevated cortisol levels (another measure of stress) had decreased abundance of potentially health promoting gut bacteria such as Lactobacillus.

In contrast:

  • Infants born to mothers who experienced low levels of stress had increased levels of potentially health promoting gut bacteria, such as Akkermansia.
  • Infants born to mothers with low cortisol levels had an increased abundance of Lactobacillus in their gut.

In short:

  • High levels of stress in the mother during pregnancy are associated with an increased abundance of unhealthy bacteria in their baby’s intestine.
  • Low levels of stress in the mother during pregnancy are associated with an increased abundance of healthy bacteria in their baby’s intestine.

The authors concluded:

“The observed fecal bacteria signature in the infants with exposure to chronic maternal stress, such as increased abundance of potentially inflammatory bacteria from the Proteobacteria group of bacteria, warrant future follow-up of these children, since similar alterations of fecal bacteria have previously been associated with adverse health outcomes such as asthma in children.

The results of this study describe only associations, yet corroborate certain interesting findings reported in earlier literature and offer hypotheses for future mechanistic studies.”

How Can You Minimize Stress During Pregnancy?

Simply put, this study shows that chronic stress during pregnancy increases populations of gut bacteria in the newborn that are associated with adverse health outcomes in children. More studies are needed to confirm and understand this observation, but it raises an issue that is often ignored.

Pregnancy can be a stressful time, especially if you are a first-time mom. Plus, we are living in the most stressful time any of us can remember. So, this study is particularly relevant today.

However, let’s put this into perspective. It’s not the stress in our lives that harms us. It is how we respond to the stress. This study did not measure stress, per se. It measured depression, anxiety, and cortisol levels associated with the stress.

Some of the women in this study had very low levels of all three. It wasn’t that they led stress-free lives. They simply coped better with stress. So, the real question isn’t how to minimize stress. It’s how to better cope with stress. Here are some suggestions.

1) Take time to relax. What you do with this time will be different for each of you. Think about what kind of activity relaxes you the most. Here are some suggestions.

    • Meditation or prayer.
    • Yoga or Tai chi.
    • Watching a comedy.
    • Listening to your favorite music.

2) Make time for hobbies. Again, these would be different for each of you. They should be something that you enjoy and engages your mind. Examples include:

    • Reading.
    • Creating your favorite art. It could be painting, pottery, or knitting, for example.
    • Playing your favorite sport such as golf or tennis.
    • Doing puzzles.
    • Playing cards or board games.
    • Watching a movie.

3) Exercise on a regular basis. Exercise produces endorphins that elevate your mood. It’s even better if you are exercising outdoors so you can enjoy nature or listening to your favorite music while you exercise.

4) Relax your muscles. This is particularly important after you have exercised. Examples include:

    • Do some stretching exercises.
    • Take a luxurious hot bath.
    • Set a regular time to go to bed and get a good night’s sleep.
    • Get a massage.

5) Eat a healthy diet. Studies have shown that people who eat lots of junk and processed foods tend to be depressed and anxious. Aim for a whole food diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. That kind of diet is best for your baby as well.

6) Try deep breathing exercises.

7) Ask for support from your family members, especially if they are stressors in your life.

8) Talk with someone. Find a friend or family member who is willing to listen and support you.

In short, take care of yourself. Don’t let stress affect your health and the health of your baby.

The Bottom Line

Pregnancy can be a stressful time, especially if you are a first-time mom. Plus, we are living in the most stressful time any of us can remember. That is why a recent study is particularly relevant.

Simply put, the study showed that chronic stress during pregnancy increases populations of gut bacteria in the newborn that are associated with adverse health outcomes in children. More studies are needed to confirm and understand this observation, but it raises an issue that is often ignored.

However, let’s put it into perspective. It’s not the stress in our lives that harms us. It is how we respond to the stress. This study did not measure stress, per se. It measured depression, anxiety, and cortisol levels associated with the stress.

Some of the women in this study had very low levels of all three. It wasn’t that they led stress-free lives. They simply coped better with stress. So, the real question isn’t how to minimize stress. It’s how to better cope with stress.

For more details and a discussion on how to cope with stress, 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.

Could A Probiotic Supplement Make You Healthier?

What Is The Truth About Our Microbiome?

Myth BusterOur gut bacteria, often referred to as our microbiome, are a “hot” topic in today’s world. They have been in the news a lot in recent years. If you believe the headlines, the right gut bacteria can make you smarter, healthier, and cure what ails you. They appear to have almost mystical powers. Could a probiotic supplement make you healthier?

How much of this is true and how much is pure speculation? It’s hard to say. Our microbiome is incredibly complex. To make matters more confusing, the terminology used to classify our gut bacteria into groups is not consistent. It varies from study to study.

Perhaps it is time to take an unbiased look at the data and separate fact from speculation.

Could A Probiotic Supplement Make You Healthier?

Probiotic SupplementTo answer the question of whether a probiotic supplement could make you healthier, we need to differentiate between what we know is true and what we think might be true. Let’s start with what we know for certain:

  • Our gut bacteria are affected by diet. People consuming a primarily plant-based diet have different populations of gut bacteria than people consuming a primarily meat-based diet.
    • The populations of gut bacteria found in people consuming a plant-based diet are associated with better health outcomes, but associations have their limitations as discussed below.
  • Our gut bacteria are affected by exercise.
    • It’s not clear whether it is the exercise or the fitness (increased muscle mass, decreased fat mass, improved metabolism) associated with exercise that is responsible for this effect.

Most of the other claims for the effects of gut bacteria on our health are based on associations. However, associations do not prove cause and effect. For example:

  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with obesity.
    • Do our gut bacteria make us obese, or does obesity affect our gut bacteria? There is evidence to support both viewpoints.
  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with better mental health.
    • Do gut bacteria influence mental health, or does the stress associated with poor mental health influence our gut bacteria? Again, there is evidence to support both viewpoints.
  • Certain populations of gut bacteria are associated with better health outcomes (reduction in diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure).
    • Here the question is a little different. In general, the populations of gut bacteria associated with disease reduction are produced by a healthy diet, exercise, and weight control. In this case, the question becomes: Is it the gut bacteria that caused disease reduction, or is it diet, exercise, and weight control that caused disease reduction?

To better understand these points, let’s look at four recently published studies. After reviewing those studies, I will come back to the question of whether a probiotic supplement might decrease our disease risk.

Is Our Microbiome Better Than Our Genes For Predicting Disease?

Predict DiseaseThis study (T. Tierney et al, bioRxiv, 2020) reviewed 47 studies that analyzed people’s microbiome (their gut bacteria) and their genes and asked which was better at predicting their risk of various diseases. The study focused on 13 diseases that are considered “complex” because they are caused by both genetic and environmental factors such as diet and exercise. Examples include diabetes, high blood pressure, digestive disorders, asthma, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia.

The study found that our microbiome was a better predictor of these diseases than our genes. This finding is not surprising. Our microbiome is heavily influenced by diet and other environmental factors. Our DNA sequence is not.

This study supports previous studies in suggesting that our microbiome is a better predictor of most diseases than our DNA sequence. The exception would be diseases that are clearly caused by gene mutations, such as sickle cell disease.

Does this mean our microbiome is directly influencing these diseases, or is it merely serving as a marker for diet and other environmental factors that are influencing these diseases? Nobody knows.

Does The Mediterranean Diet Support Gut Bacteria Linked To Healthy Aging?

Mediterranean dietThis study ( TS Ghosh et al, Gut, 17 February 2020) divided people aged 65-79 into two groups. One group consumed a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and fish and low in red meat and saturated fat. The other group consumed a typical western diet. After a year on the diets the gut bacteria in the microbiomes of the two groups was analyzed.

The study found that the group consuming the Mediterranean diet had an increase in gut bacteria associated with healthy aging, reduced inflammation, and reduced frailty.

The title of the paper describing this study was “Mediterranean diet intervention alters the gut microbiome in older people, reducing frailty and improving health status”. But is that true?

There is already good evidence that the Mediterranean diet improves health status. Is it the gut bacteria supported by the Mediterranean diet that were responsible for healthy aging, or were other aspects of the Mediterranean diet responsible for healthy aging? Nobody knows.

Are Low Fat Diets Healthy Because Of Their Effect On Our Microbiome?

Heart Healthy DietThis study (Y Wang et al, Gut Microbes, 21 January 2020) put participants on a low fat diet (20% fat and 66% carbohydrates), a moderate fat diet (30% fat and 56% carbohydrate) or a high fat diet (40% fat, 46% carbohydrates). To assure the accuracy of the diets, participants were provided with all foods and beverages they consumed. After 6 months on the three diets, the gut bacteria of each group were analyzed.

Note: Because all food and beverages were provided, none of the diets included sodas, added sugar, refined flour, saturated fats, or highly processed food. In short, the diets were very different than the typical low fat or low carb diets consumed by the average American.

This study found that participants consuming the high fat, low carb diet had gut bacteria associated with increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. In contrast, the low fat, high carbohydrate diet group had gut bacteria associated with decreased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

To understand this study, you need to reevaluate what you may have learned from Dr. Strangelove’s health blog. It is true that low fat diets in which fat has been replaced with sugar, refined flour, and highly processed low-fat foods are unhealthy. But that’s not what happened in this study.

Remember that all the food and drink the participants consumed was selected by dietitians.

When you replace the fat with whole foods – fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes, as was done in this study, you end up with a very healthy diet.

The authors talked about the importance of the “diet-gut axis” for reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes. However, is it the gut bacteria that influenced the risk of heart disease and diabetes, or is it the diets themselves that influenced disease risk? Nobody knows.

Can Gut Bacteria Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

MicrobiomeThis study (Y Heianza et al, Journal of The American College Of Cardiology, 75: 763-772, 2019) focused on the interactions between diet, gut bacteria, and a metabolite called TMAO (trimethylamine N-oxide).

Here is what we know for certain:

  • L-carnitine (found in high levels in red meat) can be converted to TMA (trimethylamine) by gut bacteria and then to TMAO in the liver.
  • The gut bacteria of meat eaters are very efficient at converting L-carnitine to TMA. Thus, meat eaters tend to have high levels of TMAO in their blood.
  • The gut bacteria of vegans and vegetarians are very inefficient at converting L-carnitine to TMA. Thus, people consuming a primarily plant-based diet tend to have low TMAO levels in their blood.

Here is what we are uncertain about:

  • High TMAO levels are associated with increased heart disease risk. However, there is no direct evidence that TMAO causes heart disease.

What made this study unique is that it measured TMAO levels in the study participants at their entrance into the study and again 10 years later. The study found:

  • Participants with the greatest increase in TMAO levels over the 10 years had a 67% increased risk of heart disease compared to participants whose TMAO levels remained constant.
  • Participants consuming a healthy, primarily plant-based diet had little or no increase in TMAO levels over 10 years. It was the participants consuming an unhealthy diet who had significant increases in their TMAO levels.

This study strengthens the association between TMAO levels and heart disease risk. Because gut bacteria are required to produce TMAO, it also strengthens the association between gut bacteria and heart disease risk. However, is it the high TMAO levels that increased heart disease risk or is it the unhealthy diet that increased heart disease risk? Nobody knows.

What Is The Truth About Our Microbiome?

MicrobiomeBy now you have probably noticed a common theme that runs through all four studies. This is also true of most published studies on our microbiome.

  • We have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets lead to improved long-term health outcomes.
  • We also have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets influence the populations of gut bacteria found in our microbiome.
  • We know the populations of gut bacteria supported by primarily plant-based diets are associated with improved health outcomes.
  • We don’t really know whether it is the gut bacteria or the diets that are responsible for the improved health outcomes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a microbiome skeptic. I think we have enough evidence to say that our gut bacteria are likely to have an important effect on our health. However, to claim that gut bacteria play a primary role in influencing our health would be pure speculation at this point.

A Cautionary Tale

HDL CHolesterolWhy do I make this point? It’s because I suspect that some in the supplement industry will be tempted to make probiotic supplements and claim they contain bacteria “known” to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. You wouldn’t need to change your diet. All you would need to do to improve your health would be to take their probiotic supplement.

Lest you be taken in by such future claims, let me share a cautionary tale.

High HDL cholesterol levels are associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Exercise and weight loss increase HDL levels. However, those require work. They aren’t easy. So, pharmaceutical companies were constantly looking for ways to raise HDL levels without the hard work.

A few years ago, a pharmaceutical company discovered a drug that increased HDL levels. They thought they had discovered a wonder drug that would bring in billions of dollars. People wouldn’t need to exercise. They wouldn’t need to lose weight. All they would need to do would be to take their drug. HDL levels would go up and heart disease risk would go down.

However, when they tested their drug in a major clinical trial, it didn’t move the needle. HDL levels went up, but heart disease risk stayed the same. It turns out it was the exercise and weight loss that decreased heart disease risk, not the increase in HDL levels.

My message is simple. Even if our gut bacteria are found to play a major role in mediating the effect of diet on health outcomes, don’t assume we can take a probiotic and forget about the role of diet and exercise. Good health starts with a whole food, primarily plant-based diet and a healthy lifestyle.

The Bottom Line

Our gut bacteria, often referred to as our microbiome, are “hot”. If you believe the headlines, the right gut bacteria can make you smarter, healthier, and cure what ails you. How much of this is true and how much is pure speculation? In this article I reviewed four recent studies on diet, gut bacteria, and health outcomes. I took an unbiased look at the data and separated fact from speculation.

There was a common theme that ran through all four studies. This is also true of most published studies on our microbiome.

  • We have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets lead to improved long-term health outcomes.
  • We also have good evidence that whole food, primarily plant-based diets influence the populations of bacteria found in our gut, also known as our microbiome.
  • We know the populations of gut bacteria supported by primarily plant-based diets are associated with improved health outcomes.
  • We don’t really know whether it is the gut bacteria or the diets that are responsible for the improved health outcomes.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not a microbiome skeptic. I think we have enough evidence to say that our gut bacteria are likely to have an important effect on our health. However, to claim that gut bacteria play a primary role in influencing our health would be pure speculation at this point.

Why do I make this point? It’s because I suspect that some in the supplement industry will be tempted to make probiotic supplements and claim they contain bacteria “known” to reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. You wouldn’t need to change your diet. All you would need to do to improve your health would be to take their probiotic supplement.

My message is simple. Even if our gut bacteria are found to play a major role in mediating the effect of diet on our health outcomes, don’t assume we can take a probiotic and forget about the role of diet and exercise. Good health starts with a whole food, primarily plant-based diet and a healthy lifestyle.

For more details, read the article above. You may be particularly interested in the cautionary tale I shared about HDL and heart disease risk.

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

Is Red Meat As Healthy As White Meat?

The Lies of the Beef Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Red Meat As Healthy As White Meat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here were the results:High Cholesterol

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About TMAO And Heart Disease Risk?

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

Let me summarize briefly here:

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

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

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

Is Red Meat Healthy As Part Of A Mediterranean Diet?

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

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

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

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

The Lies Of The Beef Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Complicity Of The Media

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

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

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

Is Red Meat Healthy?

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

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

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

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

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

So, what does that mean to you?

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

What About Grass Fed Beef?

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

For more details, read the article above.

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

 

 

Our Gut Bacteria Are What We Eat

We Grow What We Eat

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

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

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

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

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

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

The list goes on and on…

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

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

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

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

Our Gut Bacteria Are What We Eat

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

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

Is This Important?

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

For example:

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line:

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

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

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

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

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

Health Tips From The Professor