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.

Are We Killing Our Children With Kindness?

The Danger Of Ultraprocessed Foods 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

fast foodIt breaks my heart when I see a mom and her children in the checkout line of a supermarket with a cart filled with sodas, sweets, and convenience foods and devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables – or when I see fast food restaurants packed with parents and their children.

I get it. Our kids love these foods. It seems like an act of kindness to give them the foods they crave. But are we killing our children with kindness?

Let me explain. The human brain is hardwired to crave sweets, salt, and fat. In prehistoric times each of these cravings had a survival benefit. For example:

  • Mother’s milk is naturally sweet. It only makes sense that babies should crave the nutrition source that is essential for their early growth and development.
  • Fruits provide a cornucopia of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. But fruits were scarce and seasonal in prehistoric times. Their sweetness provided an incentive for early man to seek them out.
  • Some salt is essential for life. Yet in early history it was scare. It was worth its weight in gold.
  • In prehistoric times it was feast or famine. The human body has an unlimited capacity to store fat in times of plenty, and those fat stores carried early man through times of famine.

Today most Americans live in a time of food abundance. There are fast food restaurants on almost every street corner and in every shopping mall. We think of famine as the days we skipped lunch because we were busy.

Yet these cravings remain, and the food industry has weaponized them. They are churning out an endless supply highly processed foods and beverages. These foods are not being designed to improve their nutritional value. They are designed to satisfy our cravings and lure us and our children into consuming more of them every year.

Scientists have developed a classification system that assigns foods in the American diet to different groups based on the degree of processing of that food. As you might expect, the best classification is unprocessed foods. The worst classification is called “ultraprocessed foods”. [I will describe this classification system in more detail in the next section.]

It is time we asked how much ultraprocessed foods our children are eating and what it is doing to their health. That is the topic of the study (L Wang et al, JAMA, 326: 519-530, 2021) I will discuss today.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) dietary data collected from 33,795 American children (ages 2-19, average age = 10) between 1999 and 2018.

NHANES is a program conducted by the CDC to survey the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States. The survey has been conducted on a continuous, yearly basis since 1999.

The dietary data are collected via 24-hour dietary recalls conducted by trained interviewers, with a second recall administered over the phone 3-10 days later to improve the accuracy of the data.

  • Children aged 12-19 completed the dietary survey on their own.
  • For children aged 6-11, a parent or guardian assisted them in filling out the survey.
  • For children aged 2-5, a parent or guardian filled out the survey for them.

The foods and beverages consumed by the children were divided into 4 major groups based on the extent of processing using a well-established classification system called NOVA. The 4 groups are:

1) Unprocessed Or Minimally Processed Foods.

  • This includes whole foods and foods that are minimally processed without the addition of oils, fats, sugar, salt, or other ingredients to the food.
  • Examples of minimally processed foods include things like oatmeal, nut butters, dried fruit, frozen fruits or vegetables, and dried beans.

2) Processed Culinary Ingredients.

  • This includes recipes from restaurants or in-home cooking that add small amounts of oils, fats, sugar, salt, and seasonings to whole foods.

3) Processed Foods

  • This includes foods made in factories by the addition of salt, sugar, oil, or other substances added to whole or minimally processed foods.
  • Examples include tomato paste, canned fruits packed in sugar syrup, cheese, smoked or cured meat.

4) Ultraprocessed Foods

  • These are industrial formulations created in factories mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories (flavor enhancers, colors, and food additives).
  • Examples include sugar sweetened beverages; sweet or savory packaged snacks; chocolates and candies; burgers, hot dogs, and sausages; poultry and fish nuggets, pastries, cakes, and cake mixes.

Are We Killing Our Children With Kindness?

Obese ChildAs I said above, the important question is, “Are we killing our children with kindness when we give them the sugary drinks, sweets, convenience foods, and fast foods they crave?” After all, the foods we give them when they are young are the ones they are most likely to select when they get older.

Let’s start by looking at how pervasive these foods have become. That was the purpose of the study I am discussing today, and the results of this study are alarming. When they looked at the changes in food consumption by our children between 1999 and 2018:

  • The percentage of calories from ultraprocessed foods increased from 61.4% to 67%. That means:
    • Today, more than 2/3 of the calories our children consume daily come from ultraprocessed foods!
  • The percentage of calories from unprocessed and minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. That means:
    • In the span of just 19 years the diets of our children have gone from bad to worse!
  • Ultraprocessed foods were more likely to be consumed away from home and at fast food restaurants.

When the investigators looked at individual categories of ultraprocessed foods:

  • The percentage of calories coming from ready to heat and eat dishes like frozen pizzas and other frozen meals or snacks increased from 2.2% to 11.2%.
  • The percentage of calories coming from sweet snacks and desserts increased from 10.7% to 12.9%.
  • The percentage of calories coming from sugar sweetened beverages decreased from 10.8% to 5.3%.
    • This is potentially the only good news from this study.

The authors concluded. “Based on NHANES data from 1999 to 2018, the estimated energy intake from consumption of ultraprocessed foods has increased among youths in the US and has consistently comprised the majority of their total energy intake.”

“These results suggest that food processing may need to be considered as a food dimension in addition to nutrients and food groups in future dietary recommendations and food policies.”

The Danger Of Ultraprocessed Foods

Fast Food DangersThis study clearly shows that ultraprocessed foods have become the mainstay of our children’s diets. Forget a balanced diet! Forget “Eat your fruits and vegetables”! Our children’s diets have been fundamentally transformed by “Big Food, Inc”.

You might be saying to yourself, “So, they are eating their favorite processed foods. What’s the big deal? How bad can it be?” My answer is, “Pretty Bad”. I chose the title, “Are we killing our children with kindness”, for a reason.

When you look at what happens to children who eat a diet that is mostly ultraprocessed foods:

#1: Their nutrition suffers. When the investigators divided the children into 5 groups based on the percentage of calories coming from ultraprocessed foods, the children consuming the most ultraprocessed food had:

  • Significantly higher intakes of carbohydrates (mostly refined carbohydrates); total fats; polyunsaturated fats (mostly highly processed omega-6-rich vegetable oils); and added sugars.
  • Significantly lower intakes of fiber; protein; omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids; calcium; magnesium; potassium; zinc; vitamins A, C, D, and folate.
    • The low intake of fiber means our children will be less likely to have health-promoting friendly bacteria and more likely to have disease-promoting bad bacteria in their guts.
    • The low intake of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D means they will be less likely to achieve maximum bone density as young adults and will be more likely to suffer from osteoporosis as they age.

#2: They are more likely to become obese. Remember, these are foods that are made in a factory, not grown on a farm.

  • They are high in fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. That means they have a high caloric density. Each bite has 2-3 times the calories found in a bite of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • As I said earlier, the food industry has weaponized our natural cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods. They feed their prototypes to a series of consumer tasting panels until they find the perfect blend of sugar, salt, and fat to create maximum craving.
  • And if that weren’t enough, they add additives to create the perfect flavor and “mouth appeal”.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and obesity in both children and adults.
    • It is also no wonder that the rate of childhood obesity has almost quadrupled (5% to 18.5%) in the last 40 years.

#3: They are more likely to become sick as adults and die prematurely.

  • Obesity; high intake of fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates; and low intake of fiber, omega-3s, and essential nutrients all contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and premature death in adults.
    • It is also no wonder a recent study found that type 2 diabetes in children has almost doubled between 2001 and 2017.

The data are clear. When we allow our children to subsist on a diet mostly made up of the ultraprocessed foods they crave, we may be giving them, not love, but a lifetime of obesity and declining health instead. And yes, we may be killing them with kindness.

Instead, my recommendations are:

  • expose your children to a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed foods at an early age.
  • They will reject some of them, and that’s OK. Introduce others until you find whole, minimally processed foods they like. Reintroduce them to some of the foods they initially rejected as they get older.
  • Don’t keep tempting ultraprocessed foods in your house.
  • You may just succeed in putting your children on the path to a healthier diet and a healthier, longer life.

The Bottom Line

It breaks my heart when I see a mom and her children in the checkout line of a supermarket with a cart filled with sodas, sweets, and convenience foods and devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables – or when I see fast food restaurants packed with parents and their children.

I get it. Our kids love these foods. It seems like an act of kindness to give them the foods they crave. But are we killing our children with kindness?

It is time we asked how much ultraprocessed foods our children are eating and what it is doing to their health. A recent study did just that. When they looked at the changes in food consumption by our children between 1999 and 2018:

  • The percentage of calories from ultraprocessed foods increased from 61.4% to 67%. That means:
    • Today, more than 2/3 of the calories our children consume daily come from ultraprocessed foods!
  • The percentage of calories from unprocessed and minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. That means:
    • In the span of just 19 years the diets of our children have gone from bad to worse!

This study clearly shows that ultraprocessed foods have become the mainstay of our children’s diets. Forget a balanced diet! Forget “Eat your fruits and vegetables”! Our children’s diets have been fundamentally transformed by “Big Food, Inc”.

You might be saying to yourself, “So, they are eating their favorite processed foods. What’s the big deal? How bad can it be?” My answer is, “Pretty Bad”. I chose the title, “Are we killing our children with kindness”, for a reason.

When you look at what happens to children who eat a diet that is mostly ultraprocessed foods:

  • Their nutrition suffers.
  • They are more likely to become obese.
  • They are more likely to become sick as adults and die prematurely.

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.

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.

Will Plant Proteins Help You Live Longer?

Is A Vegan Diet Healthiest?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fountain Of YouthUnless you are Rip Van Winkle and have been asleep for the past 40 years, you have probably heard that whole food, primarily plant-based diets are good for you.

  • They help you control your weight.
  • They reduce inflammation.
  • They reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
  • They even reduce your risk of some cancers.

But do they help you live longer? If we take that question literally, the answer appears to be no. There is no “Fountain Of Youth”. There are no diets that extend our lives significantly.

However, what if you could reduce your risk of premature death? It would be tragic to have your life cut short by a heart attack or some other major disease. What if you could prevent that?

And what if you could live healthier longer? It would be equally tragic to spend your golden years debilitated by chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, or dementia. What if you could delay these diseases and live healthier longer?

The study I discuss this week (Y Sun, Journal of the American Heart Association, 10:e015553, 2021) looks at the effect of different dietary protein sources on premature death.

This study, like many others, suggests that primarily plant-based diets are healthier than meat-based diets. But what does this mean for you? Should you go completely meatless? Is a vegan diet healthier than other plant-based diets? I discuss what we know and what we do not know about the vegan diet compared to other plant-based diets.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were drawn from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). The Women’s Health Initiative was designed to help identify strategies for preventing heart disease and other diseases in postmenopausal women. It enrolled 161,000 postmenopausal women from 40 sites across the US between 1993 and 1998 and followed them through 2017.

This study excluded women who had heart disease or cancer when they entered the WHI study and women who had incomplete data on either their diet or their use of postmenopausal hormone therapy. They were left with 102,521 women, age 50-79 at time of entry, who were followed for 18 years.

Each woman filed out an extensive dietary survey at the beginning of the study. There were 25,976 deaths during the study. The cause of death was determined by reviewing death certificates, medical records, autopsy reports or by linkage to the National Death Index.

The investigators asked whether women who ate more plant proteins were healthier than those who ate primarily meat protein. To answer this question, they correlated protein sources in the diet with all-cause mortality and deaths from various diseases.

The greatest difficulty with this type of study is that people who eat more plant protein tend to have a healthier diet and a healthier lifestyle. That makes it hard to separate out the benefits of eating plant proteins from benefits associated with other aspects of their diet and lifestyle. So, the authors corrected their data for every factor known to influence the risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and premature death.

Specifically, the data were statistically corrected for age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, hormone use, lifestyle (smoking status, physical activity, and alcohol intake), baseline health status (diabetes and/or high blood cholesterol), family history of heart attack/stroke, dietary factors (calorie intake, dietary fiber intake, whole grain consumption, fruit and vegetable consumption, sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, glycemic load (effect of foods in the diet on blood sugar), and percentage of saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and trans fats), and weight (BMI).

In short, the authors corrected for every other factor that could influence disease risk and/or premature death. By doing so, they were able to focus on the effect of protein sources on disease risk and/or premature death.

Will Plant Proteins Help You Live Longer?

Plant ProteinsThe investigators divided the study participants into quintiles with respect the kind and amount of protein they consumed.

  • For animal protein, the intake ranged from 4 ounces/day in the lowest quintile to 9 ounces a day in the highest quintile (For comparison, 3 ounces is roughly equivalent to the size of a deck of cards).
  • For plant protein, the intake ranged from 2 ounces/day in the lowest quintile to 3.5 ounces/day in the highest quintile.
  • When you combine plant and animal protein in these women’s diet, plant protein ranged from 18% of total protein intake in the lowest quintile to 48% of total protein intake in the highest quintile.

When women who had the highest intake for plant protein were compared with women who had the lowest intake of plant protein, the women with the highest plant protein intake had:

  • 12% lower risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 21% lower risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 9% lower risk of premature death from all causes.

There was an inverse relationship between the amount of plant protein in the diet and premature death. Specifically, every 3 ounces of animal protein that was replaced with 3 ounces of plant protein resulted in:

  • 22% lower risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 19% lower risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 14% lower risk of premature death from all causes.

The Effect Of Individual Animal Proteins On Mortality

Fatty SteakThe authors also looked at the effect of various animal proteins on premature death. For example:

Red Meat: Women with the highest consumption of red meat had:

  • 14% higher risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 20% higher risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 10% higher risk of premature death from all causes.

Eggs: Women with the highest consumption of eggs had:

  • 24% higher risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 14% lower risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 14% higher risk of premature death from all causes.

Dairy: Women with the highest consumption of dairy had:

  • 11% higher risk of premature death from heart disease.

The authors concluded, “In this large prospective cohort study, we found that higher plant protein intake and substitution of animal protein with plant protein were associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and dementia mortality…Our findings support the need for consideration of protein sources, in addition to the amount of protein intake, in future dietary guidelines.”

Is A Vegan Diet Healthiest?

Vegetarian DietYears ago, as my brother-in-law was coming out of anesthesia at the end of quadruple bypass surgery, the first question he asked was, “Does this mean I need to eat tofu?” Obviously, nothing terrified him more than the thought of eating tofu the rest of his life. In the same vein, some of you are probably asking, “Does this mean I need to go vegan?”

The good news is that none of the women in this study were consuming a vegan diet. They were consuming a typical American diet with varying amounts of plant and animal protein. The group with the highest plant protein consumption were still getting 52% of their protein from animal sources.

This study shows that even people consuming a typical American diet can become healthier by simply swapping out some of the animal protein in their diet with plant protein.

However, you are probably thinking, “Plant protein is good for us, and a vegan diet is 100% plant protein. Does that mean a vegan diet is healthier than other plant-based diets?

The answer is………”Maybe”

If the linear relationship between plant protein consumption and risk of premature death could be extrapolated all the way to 100% plant protein, the answer would be obvious. Vegan diets would be healthier than other plant-based diets. But that extrapolation is an assumption. It might not be true.

For example, some recent studies suggest that completely eliminating meat, eggs, and dairy from your diet may slightly increase your risk of heart disease and stroke:

  • One recent study found that adding 1.4 ounces of fish/day to a primarily vegetarian diet decreases the risk of stroke by 20%.
  • Another study reported that adding one egg/day to a primarily vegetarian diet decreases the risk of heart disease by 12% and stroke by 10-26%.

These studies need to be confirmed, but they do suggest we need to be cautious about assuming that vegan diets are healthier than other primarily plant-based diets. This is why, when I recommend primarily plant-based diets, I include everything from vegan through semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, and DASH.

They are all healthy diets. My advice is to choose the one that best fits your lifestyle and food preferences. And focus on whole foods, not processed foods.

The Bottom Line 

A recent study asked whether women who ate more plant proteins were healthier than those who ate primarily meat protein. To answer this question, the investigators correlated protein sources in the diet with all-cause mortality and deaths from various diseases.

When women who had the highest intake for plant protein were compared with women who had the lowest intake of plant protein, the women with the highest plant protein intake had:

  • 12% lower risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 21% lower risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 9% lower risk of premature death from all causes.

There was an inverse relationship between the amount of plant protein in the diet and premature death. Specifically, every 3 ounces of animal protein that was replaced with 3 ounces of plant protein resulted in:

  • 22% lower risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 19% lower risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 14% lower risk of premature death from all causes.

[Note: A 3-ounce serving is roughly equivalent to a deck of cards.]

The authors concluded, “In this large prospective cohort study, we found that higher plant protein intake and substitution of animal protein with plant protein were associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and dementia mortality…Our findings support the need for consideration of protein sources, in addition to the amount of protein intake, in future dietary guidelines.”

Years ago, as my brother-in-law was coming out of anesthesia at the end of quadruple bypass surgery, the first question he asked was, “Does this mean I need to eat tofu?” Obviously, nothing terrified him more than the thought of eating tofu the rest of his life. In the same vein, some of you are probably asking, “Does this mean I need to go vegan?”

I discuss the answer to that question in the article above.

For more details and a discussion about the vegan diet versus other primarily plant-based diets 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