All posts by Dr. AnthonyP

Cardiologist, blogger, musician

Should You Get a Routine Annual Electrocardiogram (ECG)?

Recently, the skeptical cardiologist  was asked by his  old friend and life coach (OFALCSC) whether he was correct to refuse the annual electrocardiogram (ECG) which his primary care doctor had recommended during an annual physical.

ECG showing atrial fibrillation
ECG showing atrial fibrillation

Most of my patients feel that the ECG has the ability to tell me  quite a bit about their heart. The technique utilizes electrodes on the arms, legs and chest region which  record with precision, the depolarization and repolarization of the upper chambers (atria) and lower chamber (ventricles) of the heart.

The ECG is THE tool for assessing the rhythm of the heart.  If performed and interpreted properly (not always a given) it tells us very precisely whether we are in normal (sinus) rhythm, wherein the atria contract synchronously before the ventricles contract, or in an abnormal rhythm. It is also very good at telling us whether you are having a heart attack.

If you are, however, like the OFALSC, and feel fine (meaning without symptoms or asymptomatic), exercise regularly, have never had heart problems,  and have a pulse between 60 and 90, the value of the routine annual ECG is very questionable. In fact, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPFTF)

“recommends against screening with resting or exercise electrocardiography (ECG) for the prediction of coronary heart disease (CHD) events in asymptomatic adults at low risk for CHD events”

(for asymptomatic adults at intermediate or high risk for CHD they deem the evidence insufficient). The USPSTF feels that that the evidence only supports an annual BP screen along with measurement of weight and a PAP smear.

To many, this seems counter-intuitive: how can a totally benign test that has the potential to detect early heart disease or abnormal rhythms not be beneficial?

There is a growing movement calling for restraint and careful analysis of the value of all testing that is done in medicine. Screening tests, in particular are coming under scrutiny.
Even the annual mammogram, considered by most to be an essential tool in the fight against breast cancer, is now being questioned.

My former cardiology partner, Dr. John Mandrola, who writes the excellent blog at www.drjohnm.org, has started an excellent discussion of a recent paper that shows no reduction of mortality with the annual mammogram. He looks at the topic in the context of patient/doctor perception that “doing something” is always better than doing nothing, and the problem of “over-testing.”

In my field of cardiology there is much testing done. It ranges from the (seemingly) benign and (relatively) inexpensive electrocardiogram to the invasive and potentially deadly cardiac catheterization. For the most part, if patients don’t have to pay too much, they won’t question the indication for the tests we cardiologists order. After all, they want to do as much as possible to prevent themselves  from dropping dead from a heart attack and they reason that the more testing that is done, the better, in that regard.

The Problem of False Positives and False Negatives

But all testing has the potential for negative consequences because of the problem of false positives and negatives. To give just one example: ECGs in people with totally normal hearts are regularly interpreted as showing a prior heart attack. This is a false positive. The test is positive (abnormal) but the person does not have the disease. At this point, more testing is likely to be ordered; specifically, a stress test. Stress tests in low risk, asymptomatic individuals often result in false positive results. After a false positive stress test, it is highly likely that a catheterization will be ordered. This test carries potential risks of kidney failure, heart attack, stroke and death. It is bad enough that the cascade of testing initiated by an abnormal, false positive,  screening test results in unnecessary radiation, expense and bother but  in some cases it end up killing patients rather than saving lives.

On the other end of the spectrum is the false negative ECG. Most of my patients believe that if their ECG is normal then their heart is OK. Unfortunately the ECG is very insensitive to cardiac problems that are not related to the rhythm of the heart or an acute heart attack.

Patients who have 90% blockage of all 3 of their major coronary arteries and are at high risk for heart attack often have a totally normal ECG. This is a false negative. The patient has the disease (coronary artery disease), but the test is normal. In this situation the patient may be falsely reassured that everything is fine with their heart. The next day when they start experiencing chest pain from an acute heart attack, they may dismiss it as heart burn instead of going to the ER.

More and more, screening tests like the ECG and the mammogram  are rightfully being questioned by patients and payers. For a more extensive discussion about which tests in medicine are appropriate check out the American Board of Internal Medicine’s www.choosingwisely.org.

Keep in mind: not uncommonly,  doing more testing can result in worse outcomes than doing less.

Estimating Your Risk of Heart Attack and Stroke: There’s an App For That

I’ve been meaning to blog on the new ACC/AHA (ACC=American College of Cardiology, AHA=American Heart Association) guidelines for treatment of high cholesterol but have been waiting for the initial controversy to die down and to get more experience with using them.  One of the areas of controversy has been the ASCVD (atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease) risk estimator. These guidelines attempt to look at risk of both stroke and heart attack (the components of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease) and what published scientific research tells us works to reduce that risk.

They differ substantially from previous guidelines recommendations and suggest treatment with statin drugs(no other cholesterol lowering agents) for the following groups

1. Diabetics

2. Patients with known clinical ASCVD  (this includes stroke/TIA, heart attack, and peripheral arterial disease)

3. LDL or bad cholesterol over 190

4. Individuals without ASCVD whose 10 year risk of developing ASCVD (heart attack or stroke) is > 7.5%

It is the last category that has garnered the most controversy as it appears this will substantially increase the number of patients in whom statin therapy is recommended. In addition, the accuracy of the risk estimator has been questioned. When the guidelines were released the risk estimator was available as a downloadable Excel spreadsheet which was very cumbersome to use (and did not work on my Mac).

IMG_0847

Today, the ACC announced that  an iphone/ipad app version of the risk estimator was available on itunes . You can download it for free here. (The app is now called ASCVD Plus) It’s pretty well done. You enter your age, race, gender, HDL (“good” cholesterol) and total cholesterol along with yes/no answers to whether you have diabetes, treatment for hypertension or are a smoker.

Your 10 year risk of ASCVD appears as a percentage.

In the example to the left, the individual (whose numbers are eerily similar to those of the skeptical cardiologist) has a 10 year risk of 6.2% compared to 5.2% for an individual with “ideal” risk factors. In this case, the 6.2% 10 year risk is below the proposed 7.5% cut point for treatment. (As a side note, this individual’s HDL rose from 53 to 80 when he switched from skim milk , egg-whites and low-fat processed food to full fat dairy, eggs and grass-fed beef. An HDL of 53 would raise the risk to 8.5% which would trigger a recommendation for statin therapy!)

A lifetime risk is also given for those aged 20 to 59 years but the app seems flawed because in every case I entered the lifetime risk was 50% for the individual and 5% for the ideal risk factor individual

I’ll be utilizing this on every patient I see that does not have clinical ASCVD. I would encourage everybody to download this app and find out what your risk is. The higher your risk, the more likely your are to benefit from taking a statin drug, the lower it is, the less likely the benefits of lifelong drug treatment will outweigh the risks.

Understanding your risk of ASCVD is the crucial first step to having an informed discussion with your physician about atherosclerosis and the risks and benefits of drug therapy to prevent strokes and heart attacks.

More Evidence That Sugar is the Major Toxin in our Diets

A can of Coke (12 fl ounces/355 ml) has 39 grams of carbohydrates (all from sugar, approximately 10 teaspoons),[47] 50 mg of sodium, 0 grams fat, 0 grams potassium, and 140 calories. Image courtesy of Gwyneth Pearson who likely consumed it
A can of Coke (12 fl ounces/355 ml) has 39 grams of carbohydrates (all from high fructose corn syrup, equivalent to approximately 10 teaspoons of sugar), 50 mg of sodium, 0 grams fat, 0 grams potassium, and 140 calories. Image courtesy of Gwyneth P, who likely consumed it (the beverage in the can, that is, not the image)
The skeptical cardiologist had to temporarily interrupt his scintillating research into Canola Oil and the Mediterranean diet in order to highlight a study published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Society that adds further evidence to the paradigm that sugar is not just causing obesity but is actually killing us.

In a previous post on low-fat yogurt I emphasized that a great pseudo-scientific scam had been foisted on Americans, the promotion of low fat substitutes for real food. The low-fat substitutes masquerade as more heart healthy because saturated fat has been removed but they are actually less healthy because sugar or high fructose corn syrup has been added. Substantial evidence indicates that consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates are contributing to obesity and cardiovascular disease (CVD), not the unjustly demonized  saturated fats. Now there is evidence to suggest sugar is actually directly promoting heart disease.

In the article, the authors analyzed data from subjects who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They estimated the “usual percentage of calories from added sugar” for individuals.

Added sugar “includes all sugars used in processed or prepared foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, candy, ready-to-eat cereals and yeast breads, but not naturally occurring sugar, such as in fruits and fruit juices.”
Among the 11733 participants there were 831 CVD deaths with a median follow up of 14.6 years.

Those who consumed 25% or more of calories from added sugar were 2.75 times more likely to die than those who consumed less than 10% of calories from added sugar. The risk of CVD mortality increased exponentially with increased  percentage of calories from added sugar.

Major sources of added sugar in American adults diet included sugar-sweetened beverages (37%), grain-based desserts (14%), dairy desserts (6%) and candy (6%). One 360-ml can of regular soda contains about 35 g of sugar (140 calories) or 7% of total calories.

The authors discussed emerging evidence suggesting multiple pathways by which sugar might play a role, including promoting hypertension, increased de novo lipogenesis in the liver (resulting in high triglycerides) and promoting inflammation.

My first dietary recommendation to my patients is to cut out the added sugar. This is both for weight management and lower heart attack risk. The low-fat,  processed “food-like substances” you have been choosing are far worse for you than the unprocessed high fat food they replaces.

Butter versus “Healthier” Butter-like Spreads: Choose Nature over Industry

doctor's lounge donutsThe Skeptical Cardiologist occasionally wanders into the Doctors Lounge at the hospital and surveys the food choices available to him. One morning, descried amongst the carbohydrate bonanza of donuts, pastries, bagels and muffins was a bin containing little tubs of substances that could be spread on a bagel of slice of bread.

The choice was between something called Promise Buttery Spread

and Wholesome Farms Whipped Butter..

IMG_2265Conventional Wisdom and the recommendation of almost every nutritional authority for the last 30 years tells me that I should choose the Promise Buttery Spread. I would have taken this choice 5 years ago in the belief that butter with its high content of saturated fat was to be avoided. I used to spend a considerable amount of time in the pseudo-butter portion of the grocery aisles trying to determine which, of the myriad of competing alternatives, would be better than butter.
But, as I’ve noted in previous posts, the authorities have gotten it wrong.  Let’s look carefully at the two choices.

Promise Buttery Spread

Certainly the packaging would suggest that this is a “promising” choice.  It says very clearly in the small print circling the outside of the tub: “heart healthy when substituted for butter.” If you’d like to read the arcane FDA rules on which foods can make this sort of claim, they are here. Basically, if the product has less fat, saturated fat or cholesterol than butter it can make this claim.

From the website of Unilever, the giant food processing conglomerate that makes Promise and all of its siblings, we learn that Promise contains 8 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of which are saturated fat. Uniliver is very happy to provide you with the macronutrient content of Promise and its various variations. After all, they spent a lot of time researching what combination of fats, protein and carbohydrates would satisfy consumers desire for a heart-healthy substitute. Canola oil turns out to be high in monounsaturated fats just like olive oil, the major fat consumed in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet

But how did they come up with this fine ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats? What actually goes into it?

Here are the ingredients (not obtainable from Unilever’s web site but from another source that, presumably could read the small print that I could not read on the little tub of Promise)
Vegetable Oil Blend (Liquid Soybean Oil, Canola Oil, Palm Oil, Palm Kernel Oil), Water, Whey (Milk), Salt, Vegetable Mono and Diglycerides, Soy Lecithin, (Potassium Sorbate, Calcium Disodium EDTA) Used to Protect Quality, Vitamin E Acetate, Citric Acid, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Artificial Flavor, Maltodextrin (Corn), Vitamin A Palmitate, Beta Carotene (Color), Cholecalciferol (Vitamin 13), Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12).
That’s 21 ingredients, most of which are made in a factory and added back to the mixture of exotic vegetable oils, most of which is canola oil.

What is Canola Oil? Does it come from a canola plant or seed?

A good source of information (and presumably positive) is the Canola Council web site which gives the history of Canola Oil. It all begins with oil from the seed of the rape plant, a crop grown in Canada.

Rapeseed oil naturally contains a high percentage (30-60%) of erucic acid, a substance associated with heart lesions in laboratory animals. For this reason rapeseed oil was not used for consumption in the United States prior to 1974, although it was used in other countries. In 1974, rapeseed varieties with a low erucic content were introduced. Scientists had found a way to replace almost all of rapeseed’s erucic acid with oleic acid, a type of monounsaturated fatty acid.

The Canola council website says that this process of developing rapeseed with low levels of the toxic erucic acid was not accomplished by genetic engineering, but the nongmoproject.org indicates 90% of Canola oil qualifies as genetically modified.

More history from the Canola Council:

By 1978, all Canadian rapeseed produced for food use contained less than 2% erucic acid. The Canadian seed oil industry rechristened the product “canola oil” (Canadian oil, low acid) in 1978 in an attempt to distance the product from negative association with the word “rape.” Canola was introduced to American consumers in 1986. By 1990, erucic acid levels in canola oil ranged from 0.5% to 1.0%, in compliance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards.

The term canola was trademarked by the Western Canadian Oilseed Crushers’ Association (now the Canadian Oilseed Processors Association) to differentiate the superior low-erucic acid and low-glucosinolate varieties and their products from the older rapeseed varieties.

How is Canola Oil Processed?

Again, the Canola Council provides their summary of the process here.

Unlike olive oil which is just expeller expressed from olives, canola oil goes through quite a bit of processing. After pressing, about half of the oil is left, and the remainder is extracted by a solvent called hexane (interestingly, there is a controversy in the world of veggie burgers since hexane is used in processing soy and residual levels of this “neurotoxin” have been detected). This oil then goes through processes called degumming (which often involves mixing with acid), bleaching and deodorizing. To make a more solid form it is heated to hydrogenate the oil or palm kernel oil is mixed with it.

Is Canola Oil healthier than butter?

Unilever claims

Research shows that replacing saturated and trans fat with unsaturated fats can help maintain heart health.

Unfortunately, none of this research involves canola oil so it is not really applicable. In the 1980s, at the urging of health authorities, the food industry went through a similar process and created butter substitutes that utilized oils hydrogenated in a factory. The result was the consumption by the public of large amounts of trans-fats which subsequent research has shown to be great promoter of coronary heart disease. Does it make sense to put our trust in these newer , factory produced ,butter substitutes?

There are NO STUDIES that would indicate substituting canola oil for butter is a heart-healthy choice. Personally, I have grave concerns about consuming a product that has gone through such a tortured process in order to make it appear safe and palatable.

In the Doctor’s Lounge, my butter choice lists pasteurized cream and salt as the ingredients. I like that, it’s simple and straightforward. I know that most studies that have looked at consumption of dairy fat have found that it lowers risk of heart disease. Wholesome Farms is a Sysco, Inc. label and Sysco says

Wholesome Farms farm-fresh cream, eggs and other dairy offerings are typically produced at dairies located closer to our foodservice customers, resulting in fresher, more dependable products with longer shelf lives.

I have tried to contact Sysco to get more information on where my little tub of butter came from and what the cows were fed but have gotten no information.

Choose Nature, not Industry, for good health.

The choice between a highly processed, genetically modified, industry promoted vegetable oil (or blend of oils) which has been manipulated to resemble a healthy natural vegetable oil and never shown to be safe or healthy in humans, versus butter, is clear to me. Give me butter every time. I’m not excited about the fact that I can’t be sure the milk used in this little tub of butter came from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows. However, I realize that compromises have to be made for convenience sometimes. I’d rather eat the butter from unknown cows than the vegetable oil from a known factory.

It’s Time to End the War on Fat: Dietary Fat Doesn’t Make You Fat or Give You Heart disease.

Most cardiologists don’t spend a lot of time talking about diet with their patients. When they do, they usually cite the mainstream maxim that you should cut down on saturated fat by reducing red meat consumption, choosing low-fat or skim dairy products, and lean cuts of meat. Patients are referred to standard recommendations that conform to this advice that comes from the American Heart Association.

This is certainly what I did for 30 years until I started examining the research supporting these recommendations in detail. It’s a lot easier to give advice to your patients when it conforms to what they are hearing from nutritional authorities. If it doesn’t conform, you have a lot of ‘splaining to do. If doctors spend time teaching or discussing diet with our patients, we do not get reimbursed for it.

However, a close examination of the research on dietary fat and heart disease shows that there is no good evidence supporting these recommendations.

The two major fallacies are:

Eating high fat foods will make you fat.

Eating high fat or cholesterol laden foods raises your cholesterol, thereby promoting the development of heart disease

Dietary Fat and Obesity

Although these concepts have become ingrained in the consciousness of Americans, they are not supported by scientific studies; more and more researchers, nutritional scientists, and cardiologists are sounding the warning and trying to change the public’s understanding in this area.

It seems logical that the fat that we consume goes into the body and is then converted into fat that appears on our thighs or belly and lines our arteries. This logic, and weak epidemiologic studies, led to national nutritional recommendations, beginning in 1977, that Americans cut back on fat (particularly saturated fat). The food industry seized on these recommendations and began providing consumers with “low-fat” alternatives to standard foods. To make these low-fat foods palatable, sugar had to be added. Often,  due to a surplus of industrial farm produced corn, sweetening was accomplished with high-fructose corn syrup. This graph shows what happened with weight in the US:
obesity rates

Beginning in the late 1970s, the percentage of people with BMI > 30 (considered obese) increased dramatically.
More and more evidence points to increased consumption of sugar, HFCS, and refined carbohydrates as the root cause of this obesity epidemic.
I tell my overweight patients that reducing sugar and refined starch is the most important thing that they can do to shed excess pounds.  They should avoid processed foods which the food industry have manipulated to make more palatable and less healthy. This means, among other things, avoiding or minimizing drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and avoiding “drinking your calories,” cutting way back on donuts, pastries, and potatoes and when consuming pastas or breads, try to make them whole-grain.

Dietary Fat and Heart Disease

I don’t tell my patients to cut fat consumption; this advice runs counter to everything they have heard about diet and heart disease. I encourage them to consume full fat dairy and this is considered particularly heretical.

However, as I have discussed in previous posts, there is no evidence that dairy fat increases cardiovascular risk. In fact, all studies suggest the opposite: a lower risk of heart disease associated with full fat dairy consumption.

Just as all fats are not the same (consider trans, saturated and unsaturated), all saturated fats are not the same. Some, particularly, the shorter chain fatty acids found in dairy, have beneficial effects on the lipid profile and likely lower overall cardiovascular risk.

What about red meat? All of my patients have received the dogma that they need to cut back on red meat. It hasn’t come from me (not since I began looking at the scientific evidence). When I look at my patients’ cholesterol profile before and after they institute what they perceive as the optimal “heart-healthy“ diet (cutting back on saturated fat and increasing carbohydrates by reducing meat consumption and shifting to skim or low-fat dairy products), their LDL or “bad” cholesterol has dropped a little, but proportionally their HDL or good cholesterol has dropped more and their triglycerides have gone up. What is the overall effect of this dietary change? There are no studies demonstrating that this change improves your heart health.

A recent systematic review and meta-analysis of 20 studies which included 1,218,380 individuals found no relationship between red meat consumption and coronary heart disease, CHD, (or diabetes). Conversely, processed meat intake was associated with a 42% higher rate of CHD and 19% higher risk of diabetes.

Analysis of data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis population indicates

After adjustment for demographics, lifestyle, and dietary confounders, a higher intake of dairy saturated fat was associated with lower cardiovascular disease risk [HR (95% CI) for +5 g/d and +5% of energy from dairySF: 0.79 (0.68, 0.92) and 0.62 (0.47, 0.82), respectively].

There also appears to be no association between red meat consumption and mortality in Asian countries

The Womens Health initiative was started in the early 1990s to test the hypothesis that a low fat diet would lower risk of cancer, stroke and heart attacks.Women were aged 50-79 at trial enrollment in 1993-98 and were followed for an average of 8.1 years. By the end of the first year, the low-fat diet group reduced average total fat intakes to 24 percent of calories from fat, but did not meet the study’s goal of 20 percent. At year six, the low-fat diet group was consuming 29 percent of calories from fat. The comparison group averaged 35 percent of calories from fat at year one and 37 percent at year six. Women in both groups started at 35-38 percent of calories from fat. The low fat diet group also increased their consumption of vegetables, fruits, and grains.
The study design reflected a widely believed but untested theory that reduction of total fat would reduce risks of breast or colorectal cancers. Among the 48,835 women who participated in the trial, there were no significant differences in the rates of colorectal cancer, heart disease, or stroke between the group who followed a low-fat dietary plan and the comparison group who followed their normal dietary patterns.

Yes, “widely believed but untested theory” is a great description of the current recommendation to cut saturated fat because no prospective trial has proven any benefit to this approach in reducing cardiovascular disease.

There is some evidence (but still fairly weak) to support the idea that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is beneficial. Thus, the popularity of the Mediterranean diet which utilizes olive oil liberally. There is good evidence that industrially produced trans-fatty acids (from products designed to take the place of inappropriately demonized butter) increase cardiovascular risk. However, this evidence does not extend to natural trans-fatty acids such as those coming from the udders of cows.

Mounting evidence suggests that replacing fat or saturated fat in the diet with carbohydrates, however, contributes to obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and thereby may increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

What are the Reasons for Lower Heart Attack Risk in the US Virgin Islands?

The skeptical cardiologist was hard at work researching cardiovascular disease in the Virgin islands last week. It was a tough assignment, but I felt I was the right man for the job. It required me to leave the snow and freezing temperatures of St. Louis to fly to St. John where the daytime highs are 82 and the nighttime lows are 73 and the skies are clear to partly cloudy every day.

Honeymoon Beach, St. John, USVI, Virgin Islands National Park
Honeymoon Beach, St. John, USVI, Virgin Islands National Park

The United States Virgin Islands (USVI) are located 1100 miles southeast of Miami and cover 346 square miles, with an estimated population  of 112,000 residents, who live primarily on three islands: St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. About 78 percent of the residents are Black (African-Caribbean), 10 percent White, and 12 percent “other.”  Just under half (49 percent) of the population was born in the Virgin Islands. Native born or naturalized Virgin Islanders are U.S. citizens.

Interestingly, the CDC has reported that the USVI has the lowest rate of heart attack (2.1%) of any state or territory in the US. (W. VA is highest at 6.4%). In addition, a recent study, has shown that blacks in the USVI have a significantly lower rate of cardiovascular disease than blacks in the other 50 states.

Using my cardiology sleuthing skills on site in several Cruz Bay bars and at various beaches and hiking trails I have come up with several hypotheses for the remarkably low rate of cardiovascular disease in this area.

1. Rum-based beverage consumption. Rum is big business in the USVI. As the result of a public-private partnership deal in 2009 the USVI helped Captain Morgan Rum move their distillery from Puerto Rico to St. Croix and helped expand and improve the Cruzan Rum distillery on the islands. As part of the deal the US Congress gives money from excise taxes back to the USVI

The “cover-over” program returns $10.50 of the total $13.50 distilled spirits tax collected per proof gallon to the territories. In 1999, Congress temporarily increased the “cover-over” rate to $13.25 and has extended that rate ever since when it comes up for a bi-annual vote. As part of the agreements with Diageo and Fortune, the USVI government will return a portion of the cover-over funds to the companies in the form of the marketing support, financing of the new or expanded distilleries and waste water treatment facilities, tax incentives and molasses support so companies can secure the key rum ingredient molasses at a competitive price.”

This must explain why rum-based drinks are incredibly cheap in St John. The skeptical cardiologist and the significant other of the skeptical cardiologist (SOSC) found, during the course of their research, that at many beachfront bars, multiple rum-based drinks such as Dark and Stormy’s, Painkillers, and Rum Punches were priced at 3$ during happy hour. Happy hours extended for particularly long hours.

It is well known that alcohol in general raises the good cholesterol, HDL, and lowers cardiovascular disease when consumed in moderation. But could rum have a special cardioprotective effect? More studies are clearly needed in this area.

North Shore Beaches, St. John, Virgin Islands National Park
North Shore Beaches, St. John, Virgin Islands National Park

2.Incredibly beautiful weather, beaches and topography. Our extensive investigations led us to detailed examinations of Solomon, Honeymoon, Caneel, Trunk, Cinnamon, Gibney, Jumbie, and Salt Pond Bay beaches on St. John At these beaches we found that the clear, warm, aquamarine waters with coral reefs close to shore allowed for excellent snorkeling, thus promoting extensive physical activity. Similarly, multiple hiking trails in the  Virgin Islands National park (which covers two-thirds of St. John), stimulated the desire to walk. Physical activity is known to substantially reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Could increased physical activity related to a conducive environment be playing a role here?

3.Sun exposure. Some studies suggest a role of low Vitamin D levels in promoting heart attacks. Vitamin D deficiency links to cardiovascular disease can be found in a number of studies demonstrating a 30% to 50% higher cardiovascular morbidity and mortality associated with reduced sun exposure caused by changes in season or latitude. Conversely, the lowest rates of heart disease are found in the sun-drenched Mediterranean coast and in southern versus northern European countries. Cardiac death has been reported to be the highest during winter months.

Is increased sun exposure responsible for the lower heart attack risk on the Virgin Islands?

4.Diet. Our research took us to several restaurants in Cruz Bay, however, I don’t feel that we got a good feel for the typical diet of the people of USVI. The only restaurant that was not owned and operated by rich white people and frequented by predominantly rich white people was an overpriced BBQ joint. The food did not seem different from what one could easily get in a modestly sized mainland city.

5. Relaxed Lifestyle. Epidemiological data show that chronic stress predicts the occurrence of coronary heart disease (CHD). Employees who experience work-related stress and individuals who are socially isolated or lonely have an increased risk of a first CHD event. In addition, short-term emotional stress can act as a trigger of cardiac events among individuals with advanced atherosclerosis. Could the laid back life style in the Caribbean where every one seems to be on “island time” be a factor?

Clearly more research is needed into this topic. Rest assured, the skeptical cardiologist and SOSC will be actively investigating these potentially life changing issues in more detail next winter.

Egg Nog: Recipe for a Heart Attack or Heart Healthy?

It’s Christmas Eve and you are starting to make merry. Time to break out the egg nog? Or should you eschew this fascinating combination of eggs, dairy and alcohol due to concerns about heart disease?

    eggCardiac deaths increase in frequency in the days around Christmas.

    Could this be related to excessive consumption of egg nog?

    Egg nog is composed of eggs, cream, milk and booze. All of these ingredients have become associated with increased risk of heart disease in the mind of the public.
    Nutritional guidelines advise us to limit egg consumption, especially the yolk, and use low-fat dairy to reduce our risk of heart disease

    A close look at the science, however, suggests that egg nog may actually lower your risk of heart disease.

    Eggs are high in cholesterol but as I’ve discussed in a previous post, cholesterol in the diet is not a major determinant of cholesterol in the blood and eggs have not been shown to increase heart disease risk.

    Full fat dairy contains saturated fat, the fat that nutritional guidelines tell us increases bad cholesterol in the blood and increases risk of heart attacks. But some saturated fats improve your cholesterol profile and organic (grass-fed, see my previous post) milk contains significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids which are felt to be protective from heart disease.
    Milk and dairy products are associated with a lower risk of vascular disease!

    Whether you mix rum, brandy, or whisky into your egg nog or you drink a glass of wine on the side you are probably lowering your chances of a heart attack compared to your abstemious relatives. Moderate alcohol consumption of any kind is associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to no alcohol consumption.

    So, drink your egg nog without guilt this Holiday Season!
    You’re actually engaging in heart healthy behavior.

Organic Milk, Grass-fed Cows and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

The skeptical cardiologist has to admit that when he drinks milk or puts it in his coffee or cooks with it he almost exclusively drinks “organic”, non-homogenized milk obtained from dairy cows which are grass-fed and spend most of their lives grazing in a pasture.. In previous blogs I’ve laid out the evidence that supports that dairy products in general do not increase the risk of heart and vascular disease and, in fact, may lower that risk.

Full fat dairy has gotten a bad rap because it contains high levels of saturated fat. However, just as total fats were inappropriately labeled as bad , it is now clear that all saturated fats are not bad for the heart.

Although I recommend full fat dairy products to my patients I haven’t emphasized the organic or grass-fed aspect because I didn’t think there was enough good evidence that this is healthier than other kinds of milk and it is more expensive. There is evidence from small studies that cows consuming a more natural diet of grass and legumes from a pasture have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their milk than those confined indoors and eating corn.

I keep my eyes (and ears) open for papers in this area.. One such paper appeared in the online peer-reviewed publication PLOS recently. I was driving to the hospital, listening to NPR when I first heard about it. Melissa Block was interviewing NPR correspondent Allison Aubrey . Her take, in a more subdued written form here is similar to many news outlets.

Allison summarized the findings as follows

The researchers compared organic and conventional milk head-to-head. They analyzed about 400 samples over an 18-month period, to account for seasonal differences. And the samples were taken from, you know, all different parts of the country. And they found that organic milk had about 62 percent more of the heart healthy omega-3s, compared to conventional milk.

When asked for an explanation she said

It really comes down to watch what the cows were eating. Organic milk is produced from cows that spend a lot more time out on pasture, and they’re munching on grasses and legumes. And these greens are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. So as a result, the milk they produce has more omega-3 fatty acids.

Wait a minute! I said , you’re confusing “organic” and “grass-fed” or “pasture raised ” they are two totally different things although they can overlap. I totally get the concept of a healthier diet for the cows increasing omega-3s in their milk but I haven’t seen anything that would suggest reducing pesticide or antibiotic usage does that. The radio did not respond. Also, I asked, is it possible to use the term omega-3 without prefacing it with “heart healthy”?

Once you start demanding to know more about the conditions of the cows that made the milk you drink things can become complicated. A cow can be grass-fed but not pasture raised, meaning that it stayed indoors and was fed hay. A cow can be outside “grazing ” but be given corn to eat. Prior to looking at the PLOS one article, I did not assume organic implied anything about how the cows were fed or grazed.

It turns out that in 2010 the USDA announced guidelines that mandated, among other things, for a dairy to be called “organic”, its dairy cows had to spend at least 120 days grazing on pasture.Thus, there is some correlation between organic and pasture raised/grass-fed but not a complete one.

The PLOS one study looked at geographical variation in the difference between organic and conventional milk fatty acid content. Northern California was the only region in which there was no significant difference. The authors speculated that this was because conventional farmers in Norther California usually have cows that roam on the pasture and eat grass and legumes. Thus, it appears the differences between organic and conventional milk are primarily due to what the cows were eating rather than the presence or absence of pesticides, antibiotics, GMOs, or hormones.

Allison Aubrey went on to say

But you know, I should say that there’s a trade-off here because in order to get all these extra omega-3s, you’ve got to drink whole milk. And you know, if you opt for the low-fat dairy – say, 1 percent fat -you’ve skimmed off most of these omega-3s. So the question is, you know, can you afford the extra calories in fat. If you choose the whole milk, you might need to trim a few calories from elsewhere in your diet.

To which I responded “Yes, by all means drink whole milk, there is no evidence that it adds to obesity. You will naturally want less calories down the line and you will get the benefit of good saturated fats.”

I'll continue to pay extra to drink milk from Trader's Point Creamery that I pick up at Whole Foods. I like their milk because I've visited their farm in Indiana and talked to their (plastic surgeon) owner and I like what he says on the website about their milk (ignoring the part about a “better immune system”.

We let our cows graze on 140 acres of pesticide free pasture, which results in milk with more healthy fats like Omega 3 and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). Grassfed milk also contains more nutrients like beta carotene and vitamins A and E than milk produced using standard feeds. To all of us this means more nourishment and a better immune system for our bodies.

I’m going to end with the summary from the PLOS one article (DMI=dry matter intake, LA=linolenic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid) which emphasizes the importance of grazing and forage-based feeds not the organic aspects of milk.

We conclude that increasing reliance on pasture and forage-based feeds on dairy farms has considerable potential to improve the FA profile of milk and dairy products. Although both conventional and organic dairies can benefit from grazing and forage-based feeds, it is far more common—and indeed mandatory on certified organic farms in the U.S.—for pasture and forage-based feeds to account for a significant share of a cow’s daily DMI. Moreover, improvements in the nutritional quality of milk and dairy products should improve long-term health status and outcomes, especially for pregnant women, infants, children, and those with elevated CVD risk. The expected benefits are greatest for those who simultaneously avoid foods with relatively high levels of LA, increase intakes of fat-containing dairy products, and switch to predominantly organic dairy products.

Breakfast is Not The Most important Meal of the Day: Feel Free to Skip it

It always irritates me when a friend tells me that I should eat breakfast because it is “the most important meal of the day”. Many in the nutritional mainstream have propagated this concept along with the idea that skipping breakfast contributes to obesity. The mechanism proposed seems to be that when you skip breakfast you end up over eating later in the day because you are hungrier.

The skeptical cardiologist is puzzled. Why would i eat breakfast if I am not hungry in order to lose weight? What constitutes breakfast? Is it the first meal you eat after sleeping? If so, wouldn’t any meal eaten after sleeping qualify even it is eaten in the afternoon? Is eating a donut first thing in the morning really healthier than eating nothing? Why would your first meal be more important than the last? isn’t it the content of what we eat that is important more than the timing?

The 2010 dietary guidelines state

eat a nutrient-dense breakfast. Not eating breakfast has been associated with excess body weight, especially among children and adolescents. Consuming breakfast also has been associated with weight loss and weight loss maintenance, as well as improved nutrient intake

The US Surgeon General website advises that we encourage kids to eat only when they are hungry but also states

Eating a healthy breakfast is a good way to start the day and may be important in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight

A recent study anayzes the data in support of the “proposed effect of breakfast on obesity” (PEBO) and found them lacking.
This is a fascinating paper that analyzes how scientific studies which are inconclusive can be subsequently distorted or spun by biased researchers to support their positions. It has relevance to how we should view all observational studies.

Observational studies abound in the world of nutritional research. The early studies by Ancel Keys establishing a relationship between fat consumption and heart disease are a classic example. These studies cannot establish causality. For example, we know that countries that consume large amounts of chocolate per capita have large numbers of Nobel Prize winners per capitaChocolate Consumption and Nobel Laureates
Common sense tells us that it is not the chocolate consumption causing the Nobel prizes or vice versa but likely some other factor or factors that is not measured.

Most of the studies on PEBO are observational studies and the few, small prospective randomized studies don’t clearly support the hypothesis.

Could the emphasis on eating breakfast come from the “breakfast food industry”?
I’m sure General Mills and Kellogg’s would sell a lot less of their highly-processed, sugar-laden breakfast cereals if people didn’t think that breakfast was the most important meal of the day.

My advice to overweight or obese patients:
Eat when you’re hungry. Skip breakfast if you want.
If you want to eat breakfast, feel free to eat eggs or full-fat dairy (including butter)
These foods are nutrient-dense and do not increase your risk of heart disease, even if you have high cholesterol.
You will be less hungry and can eat less throughout the day than if you were eating sugar-laden, highly processed food-like substances.

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More Lenient Blood Pressure Goals Now Recommended

Doctors have been waiting a long time to read what the Eighth Joint National Commission on Hypertension (JNC8) would recommend for current treatment of patients with high blood pressure. They were finally published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association online
These recommendations were based on only the most rigorous of scientific data, randomized controlled trials and so can be considered evidence-based.
The most important change in them compared to previous recommendations and current clinical practice is more lenient blood pressure goals.
To quote

There is strong evidence to support treating hypertensive persons aged 60 years or older to a BP goal of less than 150/90 mm Hg and hypertensive persons 30 through 59 years of age to a diastolic goal of less than 90 mm Hg; however, there is insufficient evidence in hypertensive persons younger than 60 years for a systolic goal, or in those younger than 30 years for a diastolic goal, so the panel recommends a BP of less than 140/90 mm Hg for those groups based on expert opinion.

This is a big change for the blood pressure target in older patients and a welcome one. As a cardiologist I see a lot of older patients who pass out, fall, become dizzy on standing or are imbalanced on walking. Sometimes passing out (syncope) is due to abnormal heart rhythms or major structural problems with the heart. But in many instances, the fall, dizziness, imbalance, instability is related to inadequate perfusion of the brain due to lower blood pressures on standing. I can often alleviate or prevent completely these problems by downward adjustment or elimination of some of the patient’s blood pressure medications.

With these less stringent BP goals, I think we will help to improve older individuals quality of life.
Higher BP goals will mean less BP medications and lower dosages and less interactions with other medications.