Category Archives: Diet and Heart Disease

Low-Fat Versus Low-Carb Diet: DIETFITS Show Both Can Work If They Are “Healthy”

In the ongoing nutritional war between adherents of low-fat and low-carb diets, the skeptical cardiologist has generally weighed in on the side of lower carbs for weight loss and cardiovascular health.

I’ve questioned the vilification of saturated fat and emphasized the dangers of added sugar. I’ve even dabbled in nutritional ketosis.

The science in  nutrition is gradually advancing and the DIETFITS study recently published in JAMA is a welcome addition.

DIETFITS is a  really well done study which provides important insights into three huge questions about optimal diet:

  1. Should we choose a low-fat or a  low-carb diet for  weight loss and cardiovascular health?
  2. Do baseline insulin dynamics predict who will respond to low-fat versus low-carb diet?
  3. Can we predict who will respond to low-fat versus low-carb by genetic testing?

The Details Of DIETFITS

Stanford investigators recruited 609 San Francisco area individuals between the ages of 18 to 50 years with BMI of 28 to 40  and randomized them to a “healthy” low-fat diet or a “healthy” low-carb diet.

During the first 8 weeks of the study, low-fat participants were instructed to reduce fat consumption to <20 gm/ day while the low carb participants were instructed to reduce digestible carbohydrate to <20 gms/day.

Then individuals were allowed to add back fats or carbs back to their diets in increments of 5 to 15 g/d per week until “they reached the lowest level of intake they believed could be maintained indefinitely.”  Importantly no explicit instructions for energy restriction were given.

The “healthy” instructions for both groups were as follows

  1. maximize vegetable intake
  2. minimize intake of added sugar, refined flours and trans-fats
  3. focus on whole foods that are minimally processed, nutrient dense and prepared at home whenever possible

Dietfits Outcomes-Diet And Weight

Major findings

  1. Total energy intake was reduced by 500-600 kcal/d for both groups
  2. The low-fat vs the low-carb intake at 12 months was 48% versus 30% for carbs, 29 vs 43% for fat and 21 vs 23% for protein.
  3. Mean 12 months weight change was -5.3 kg for low-fat vs 6-6.0 kg for low-carb which was not significantly different
  4. There was no difference between groups in body fat percentage or waist circumference
  5. Both diets improved lipid profiles and lowered blood pressure, insulin and glucose levels
  6. LDL (bad cholesterol) declined more in the low-fat group whereas HDL (good cholesterol) increased more and triglycerides declined more in the low-carb group.

Thus both diets were successful for weight loss and both improved risk markers for cardiovascular disease after a year.

DIETFITS- Can Genes and Insulin resistance Predict Best Diet?

Surprisingly, the study found no significant diet-genotype interaction and no diet-insulin secretion interaction with weight loss.

This means that they could not predict (as many believed based on earlier studies) who will benefit from a low carb diet based on either currently available genetic testing or a generally accepted measure of insulin resistance.

As the authors point out, these findings “highlight the importance of conducting large, appropriately powered trials such as DIETFITS for validating early exploratory analyses.”

DIETFITS-Perspectives

As you can imagine this study has led to quite an uproar and backlash from dedicated combatants in the macronutrient wars.

A reasoned summary and response from Andreas Eenfeldt, a low carb proponent can be found on his excellent low carb/keto Diet Doctor site here.

Eenfeldt concludes

If I’m allowed to speculate, the reason that we did not see any major additional benefit from low carb in this study is that the groups ended up so similar when it came to bad carbs. The low-fat group ended up eating fewer carbs too (!) and significantly less sugar, while the low-carb group ended with a somewhat weak low-carb diet, reporting 130 grams of carbs per day.

Eenfeldt emphasizes that low-fat diets never “win” these macronutrient dietary skirmishes:

On the whole, this study adds to the 57 earlier studies (RCTs) comparing low carb and low fat for weight loss.

From a standing of 29 wins for low carb, zero for low fat and 28 draws, we now have 29 wins for low carb and 29 draws. The wins for low fat stay at zero.

Larry Husten at Cardiobrief.org in his analysis of the study quotes a number of experts including Gary Taubes, the low carb pioneering journalist

Taubes speculates “that the weight loss may have been similar not because any diet works if you stick with it and cut calories (one possible interpretation) but because of what these diets had in common — avoid sugar, refined grains, processed foods. Whether the low-carb arm would have done even better had Gardner kept their carbohydrates low is something this study can’t say. (And Ornish [low-fat diet proponent] would probably say the same thing about fat consumption.)”

The low-fat or vegan disciples seem to have had a muted response to this study. I can’t find anything from John McDougal , Dean Ornish, Caldwell Esselstyn or Joel Fuhrman.

Readers feel free to leave comments which  link to relevant analysis from the low-fat proponents.

Dietfits-Perspective Of The Participants

Julia Volluz at Vox wrote a fascinating piece recently which involved interviewing some of the participants in this study.

She points out that although the average DIETFITS participant lost over 10 pounds, “Some people lost more than 60 pounds, and others gained more than 20 during the year.”

LOW_FAT_LOW_CARBS_DIETS1__1_

She obtained permission from the lead author, Christopher Gardner  and interviewed  “Dawn, Denis, Elizabeth*, and Todd — two low-fat dieters and two low-carb dieters — about their experiences of succeeding or faltering in trying to slim down”

LOW_FAT_LOW_CARBS_DIETS1

I highly recommend reading the entire article for details but Volluz concludes

And that leads us to one of the burning mysteries of diets: how to explain why some people fail where others succeed — or the extreme variation in responses. Right now, science doesn’t have compelling answers, but the unifying theme from the four study participants should be instructive: The particulars of their diets — how many carbs or how much fat they were eating — were almost afterthoughts. Instead, it was their jobs, life circumstances, and where they lived that nudged them toward better health or crashing.

DIETFITS-Importance of “Healthy” Diet

Most likely the success of both of these diets is due to the instruction that both groups received on following a “healthy” diet. This guidance is remarkably similar to what I advocate and is something that combatants in the diet wars ranging from paleo to vegan can agree on.

The JAMA paper only provides the description I listed above but Volluz adds that participants were instructed to:

… focus on whole, real foods that were mostly prepared at home when possible, and specifically included as many vegetables as possible, every day … choose lean grass-fed and pasture-raised animal foods as well as sustainable fish ... eliminate, as much as possible, processed food products, including those with added sugars, refined white flour products, or trans-fats … prepare as much of their own food as possible. …

Indeed, if you want to see a very detailed description of the instructional process for participants check out the very detailed description of the methods here.

Yours in Health,

-ACP

N.B. I was searching for a reasoned response to this study from the low fat camp and to my surprise came across this fascinating video featuring the lead author of the study, Christopher Gardner, on (no fat/vegan) John McDougal’s YouTube site. Gardner is clearly on the side of sustainable, local , ethical food consumption but to his credit, his research , publications and comments on DIETFITS don’t reveal this.

The Bad Food Bible: A Well-Written, Sensible and Science-Based Approach To Diet

The skeptical cardiologist has been searching for some time for a book on diet that he can recommend to his patients. While I can find books which have a lot of useful content, usually the books mix in some totally unsubstantiated advice with which I disagree.

I recently discovered a food/diet/nutrition book which with I almost completely agree. The author is Aaron Carroll,  a pediatrician, blogger on health care research (The incidental Economist) and a Professor of Pediatrics and Associate Dean for Research Mentoring at Indiana University School of Medicine.

He writes a regular column for the New York Times and covers various topics in health care. His articles are interesting,  very well written and researched and he often challenges accepted dogma.

Like the skeptical cardiologist, he approaches his topics from an unbiased perspective and utilizes a good understanding of the scientific technique along with a research background to bring fresh perspective to health-related topics.

Last last year he wrote a column, within which I found the following:

Studies of diets show that many of them succeed at first. But results slow, and often reverse over time. No one diet substantially outperforms another. The evidence does not favor any one greatly over any other.

That has not slowed experts from declaring otherwise. Doctors, weight-loss gurus, personal trainers and bloggers all push radically different opinions about what we should be eating, and why. We should eat the way cave men did. We should avoid gluten completely. We should eat only organic. No dairy. No fats. No meat. These different waves of advice push us in one direction, then another. More often than not, we end up right where we started, but with thinner wallets and thicker waistlines.

I couldn’t agree more with this assessment and as I surveyed the top diet books on Amazon recently, I saw one gimmicky, pseudoscientific  diet after another. From the Whole30 approach (which illogically  completely eliminates any beans and legumes, dairy products,  alcohol, all grains, and starchy vegetables like potatoes (see how absurd this diet is here)) to Dr. Gundry’s Plant Paradox (aka lectin is the new gluten (see here for James Hambling’s wonderful Atlantic article on the huckster’s latest attempt to scare you into buying his useless supplements).

It turns out Carroll published a useful book recently, The Bad Food Bible which critically examines diet and I agree with the vast majority of what is in it.

The first three chapters are on butter, meat, eggs and salt. His conclusions on how we should approach these 4 are similar to ones I have reached and written about on this site (see here for dairy, here for meat, here for eggs and here for salt).  Essentially, the message is that the dangers of these four foods have been exaggerated or nonexistent, and that consuming them in moderation is fine.

The remaining chapters cover topics I have pondered extensively,  but have not written about: including gluten, GMOs, alcohol, coffee, diet-soda and non-organic foods.

I agree with his assessments on these topics. Below, I’ll present his viewpoint along with some of my own thoughts in these areas.

Gluten

Carroll does a good job of providing a scientific, but lay-person friendly background to understanding the infrequent (1 of 141 Americans), but quite serious gluten-related disorder, celiac disease.

However, surveys show that up to one-third of Americans, the vast majority of whom don’t have celiac disease, are seeking “gluten-free” foods, convinced that this is a healthier way of eating. Carroll points out that there is little scientific support for this; there are some individuals who are sensitive to wheat/gluten, but these are rare.

He concludes:

“If you have celiac disease, you need to be on a gluten-free diet. If you have a proven wheat allergy, you need to avoid wheat. But if you think you have gluten sensitivity? You’d probably be better off putting your energy and your dollars toward a different diet. Simply put, most people who think they have gluten sensitivity just don’t.

I do agree with him that the “gluten-free” explosion of foods (gluten-free sales have doubled from 2010 to 2014) is not justified.

However, I must point out that my 92 year old father has recently discovered that he has something that resembles gluten sensitivity. About a year ago, he noted that about one hour after eating a sandwich he would feel very weak and develop abdominal discomfort/bloating. He began suspecting these symptoms were due to the bread and experimented with different bread types without any symptom relief.

Finally, he tried gluten-free bread and the symptoms resolved.

If you have engaged in this type of observation and experimentation on your self, and noted improved symptoms when not consuming gluten, then I think you’re justified in diagnosing gluten sensitivity, and by all means consider minimizing/avoiding wheat.

GMOS

Carroll begins his chapter on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with a description of the droughts that plagued India in the 1960s and the efforts of Norman Borlaug to breed strains of wheat that were resistant to fungus and yielded more grain. By crossbreeding various strains of wheat he was able to develop a “semi-dwarf” strain that increased what was produced in Mexico by six-fold.

Despite the fact that numerous scientific and health organizations around the world have examined the evidence regarding the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and found them to be completely safe, there remains a public controversy on this topic. In fact a Pew Poll found that while 88% of AAAS scientists believe that GMOs are safe for human consumption, only 37% of the public do – a 51% gap, the largest in the survey.

This gap is largely due to an aggressive anti-GMO propaganda campaign by certain environmental groups and the organic food industry, a competitor which stands to profit from anti-GMO sentiments. There is also a certain amount of generic discomfort with a new and complex technology involving our food.

The National Academy of Sciences analyzed in detail the health effects of GMOs in 2016. Their report concludes:

While recognizing the inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects in health or the environment, the study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between currently commercialized genetically engi-neered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. GE crops have generally had favorable economic outcomes for producers in early years of adoption, but enduring and widespread gains will depend on institutional support and access to profitable local and global markets, especially for resource-poor farmers

Carroll does a good job of looking at the GMO issue from all sides. He touches on environmental downsides related to herbicide-resistant GMO crops and the problems created by patenting GMO seeds, but asserts that “these are the result of imperfect farming and the laws that regular agribusiness, not of GMOS themselves.”

Ultimately, despite these concerns, I agree with Carroll’s conclusion that:

“Foods that contain GMOs aren’t inherently unhealthy, any more are  than foods that don’t contain them. The companies that are trying to see you foods by declaring them ‘GMO-free” are using the absence of GMOs to their advantage–not yours.”

Alcohol, Coffee, and Diet-Soda

Carroll does a good job of summarizing and analyzing the research for these three topics and reaches the same conclusions I have reached in regard to coffee, alcohol and diet-soda:

-alcohol in moderation lowers your risk of  dying, primarily by reducing cardiovascular death

-coffee, although widely perceived as unhealthy, is actually good for the vast majority of people

For those seeking more details a few quotes


on alcohol:

“Taken together, all of this evidence points to a few conclusions. First, the majority of the research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with decreased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and death. Second, it also seems to be associated with increased rates of some cancers (especially breast cancer), cirrhosis, chronic pancreatitis, and accidents, although this negative impact from alcohol seems to be smaller than its positive impact on cardiovascular health. Indeed, the gains in cardiovascular disease seem to outweigh the losses in all the other diseases combined. The most recent report of the USDA Scientific Advisory Panel agrees that “moderate alcohol consumption can be incorporated into the calorie limits of most healthy eating patterns.”

Keep in mind that moderate consumption is up to one drink per day for women, and two drinks for men (my apologies to women in general and the Eternal Fiancee’ of the Skeptical Cardiologist in particular) and be aware of what constitutes “one drink.”

Also keep in mind that any alcohol consumption raises the risk of atrial fibrillation (see here) and that if you have a cardiomyopathy caused by alcohol you should avoid it altogether.


on coffee:

“It’s time people stopped viewing coffee as something to be limited or avoided. It’s a completely reasonable part of a healthy diet, and it appears to have more potential benefits than almost any other beverage we consume.
Coffee is more than my favorite breakfast drink; it’s usually my breakfast, period. And I feel better about that now than ever before. It’s time we started treating coffee as the wonderful elixir it is, not the witch’s brew that C. W. Post made it out to be.”

Strangely enough, coffee is usually my breakfast as well (although I recommend against adding titanium oxide to your morning java).  Why am I not compelled to consume food in the morning?  Because breakfast is not the most important meal of the day and I don’t eat until I’m hungry.


on diet-soda:

Carroll notes that many Americans are convinced that artificial sweeteners are highly toxic:

“no article I’ve written has been met with as much anger and vitriol as the first piece I wrote on this subject for the New York Times, in July 2015, in which I admitted, “My wife and I limit our children’s consumption of soda to around four to five times a week. When we let them have soda, it’s . . . almost always sugar-free.”

He notes, as I have done, that added sugar is the real public enemy number one in our diets. He reviews the scientific studies that look at toxicity of the various artificial sweeteners and finds that they don’t convincingly prove any significant health effects in humans.

Some believe that artificial sweeteners contribute to obesity, but the only evidence supporting this idea comes from observational studies. For many reasons, we should not highly value observational studies but one factor, “reverse causation,” is highly likely to be present in studies of diet sodas. If diet soda consumption is associated with obesity, is it the cause, or do those who are obese tend to drink diet soda. Observational studies cannot answer this question but randomized studies can.

Carroll points out that:

the randomized controlled trials (which are almost always better and can show causality) showed that diet drinks significantly reduced weight, BMI, fat, and waist circumference.”

Simple Rules For Healthy Eating

Carroll concludes with some overall advice for healthy eating:

-Get as much of your nutrition as possible from a variety of completely unprocessed foods

-Eat lightly processed foods less often

-Eat heavily processed foods even less often

-Eat as much home-cooked food as possible, preparing it according to rules 1, 2, and 3

-Use salt and fats, including butter and oil, as needed in food preparation

-When you do eat out, try to eat at restaurants that follow the same rules

-Drink mostly water, but some alcohol, coffee, and other beverages are fine

-Treat all calorie-containing beverages as you would alcohol

-Eat with other people, especially people you care about, as often as possible

These are solid, albeit not shocking or book-selling, rules that  correspond closely to what I have adopted in my own diet.

In comparison to the bizarre advice from nutrition books which dominate the best-selling diet books, I found The Bad Food Bible to be a consistent, well-written, extensively researched, scientifically-based, unbiased guide to diet and can highly recommend it to my readers and patients.

Semibiblically Yours,

-ACP

Still More Evidence That Fish Oil Supplements Do Not Prevent Cardiovascular Disease

Avid readers of the skeptical cardiologist know that he is not an advocate of fish oil supplements.

One of my first posts (1/2013) was devoted to taking down the mammoth OTC fish oil industry because recent scientific evidence was clearly showing no benefit for fish oil pills.

I concluded:

", the bottom line on fish oil supplements is that  the most 
recent scientific evidence does not support any role for them  inpreventing heart attack, stroke, or death. There are potential 
down sides to taking them, including contaminants and the impact on the marine ecosystem. I don’t take them and I advise my
patients to avoid them (unless they have triglyceride levels 
over 500.)"

Despite a lack of evidence supporting taking them, the fish oil business continues to grow,  buttressed by multiple internet sites promoting various types of fish oil (and more recently krill oil)  for any and all ailments and a belief in the power of “omega-3 fatty acids”.

Another Meta-Analysis Concludes No Benefit To Fish Oil Supplements

A publication this month evaluated the 10 randomized controlled trials involving 77 917 thousand individuals that have studied fish oil supplements in preventing heart disease. The writers concluded that fish oil supplements do not significantly prevent any cardiovascular outcomes under any scenario.

It was written by a group with the ominous title of “The Omega-3 Treatment Trialists’ Collaboration.”

The Omega-3 Treatment Trialists’ Collaboration was established to conduct a collaborative meta-analysis based on aggregated study-level data obtained from the principal investigators of all large randomized clinical trials of omega-3 FA supplements for the prevention of cardiovascular disease, using a prespecified protocol and analysis plan. The aims of this meta-analysis were to assess the associations of supplementation with omega-3 FAs on (1) fatal CHD, nonfatal MI, stroke, major vascular events, and all-cause mortality and (2) major vascular events in prespecified subgroups.

The authors conclusions:

. Randomization to omega-3 fatty acid supplementation (eicosapentaenoic acid dose range, 226-1800 mg/d) had no significant associations with coronary heart disease death (rate ratio [RR], 0.93; 99% CI, 0.83-1.03; P = .05), nonfatal myocardial infarction (RR, 0.97; 99% CI, 0.87-1.08; P = .43) or any coronary heart disease events (RR, 0.96; 95% CI, 0.90-1.01; P = .12). Neither did randomization to omega-3 fatty acid supplementation have any significant associations with major vascular events (RR, 0.97; 95% CI, 0.93-1.01; P = .10), overall or in any subgroups, including subgroups composed of persons with prior coronary heart disease, diabetes, lipid levels greater than a given cutoff level, or statin use.

Nothing. Nada. No benefit.

There is clearly no reason to take fish oil supplements to prevent cardiovascular disease!

American Heart Association Sheepishly Recommends Fish Oil Supplements

If the science was conclusive on this in 2013 why did the American Heart Association (AHA) issue an “advisory” in 2017  suggesting that the use of omega-3 FAs for prevention of coronary heart disease (CHD) is probably justified in individuals with prior CHD and those with heart failure and reduced ejection fractions?

The AHA advisory is clearly misguided and relies heavily in its discussion on a 2012 meta-analysis from Rizos, et al. published in 2012.

Oddly, this is the study that prompted me to write my first fish oil post in 2013

The AHA advisory totally distorts the completely negative conclusions of the Rizos meta-analysis, writing:

A meta-analysis published in 2012 examined the effects of omega-3 PUFA supplementation and dietary intake in 20 RCTs that enrolled patients at high CVD risk or prevalent CHD and patients with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (total n=68 680). That meta-analysis demonstrated a reduction in CHD death (RR, 0.91; 95% CI, 0.85–0.98), possibly as the result of a lower risk of SCD (RR, 0.87; 95% CI, 0.75–1.01).11

Strangely enough, if you look at the conclusions of Rizos, et al. they are

No statistically significant association was observed with all-cause mortality (RR, 0.96; 95% CI, 0.91 to 1.02; risk reduction [RD] -0.004, 95% CI, -0.01 to 0.02), cardiac death (RR, 0.91; 95% CI, 0.85 to 0.98; RD, -0.01; 95% CI, -0.02 to 0.00), sudden death (RR, 0.87; 95% CI, 0.75 to 1.01; RD, -0.003; 95% CI, -0.012 to 0.006), myocardial infarction (RR, 0.89; 95% CI, 0.76 to 1.04; RD, -0.002; 95% CI, -0.007 to 0.002), and stroke (RR, 1.05; 95% CI, 0.93 to 1.18; RD, 0.001; 95% CI, -0.002 to 0.004) when all supplement studies were considered.

Nothing. Nada. No significant benefit!

The AHA was so confused by their own advisory that in the AHA news release on the article they quote Dr. Robert Eckel, a past AHA president as saying he remains “underwhelmed” by the current clinical trials.

“In the present environment of evidence-based risk reduction, I don’t think the data really indicate that fish oil supplementation is needed under most  circumstances.”

The end of the AHA news article goes on to quote Eckel as indicating he doesn’t prescribe fish oil supplements and the science advisory won’t change his practice:

Eckel said he doesn’t prescribe fish oil supplements to people who have had coronary events, and the new science advisory won’t change that. “It’s reasonable, but reasonable isn’t a solid take-home message that you should do it,” he said.

AHA: Wrong On Coconut Oil and Fish Oil

It’s hard for me to understand why the AHA gets so many things wrong in their scientific advisories. In the case of the recent misguided attack on coconut oil , their ongoing vilification of all saturated fats, and their support for fish oil supplements I don’t see evidence for industry influence. The authors of the fish oil supplement advisory do not report any financial conflicts of interest.

There is, however, one bias that is very hard to measure which could be playing a role: that is the bias to agree with what one has previously recommended.  The AHA issued an advisory in 2002 recommending that people take fish oil. Changing that recommendation would mean admitting that they were wrong and that they had contributed to the growth of a 12 billion dollar industry serving no purpose.

Personally, I am aware of this kind of bias in my own writing and strive to be open to new data and publications that challenge what I personally believe or have publicly recommended.

In the case of fish oil supplements for preventing cardiovascular disease, however, the most recent data supports strongly what I wrote in 2013:

Don’t take fish oil supplements to prevent heart disease.

Americans want a “magic-bullet” type pill to take to ward off aging and the diseases associated with it. There isn’t one. Instead of buying pills and foods manipulated and processed by the food industry which promise better health, eat real food (including fish) eat a lot of plants and don’t eat too much.

Piscinely Yours,

-ACP

N.B. I have no patients on the two prescription fish oil supplements available, Lovaza and Vascepa. I wrote about Vascepa here

Below is an excerpt:

Like the first prescription fish oil available in the US, Lovaza, VASCEPA is only approved by the FDA for treatment of very high triglycerides (>500 mg/dl).

This is a very small market compared to the millions of individuals taking fish oil thinking that  it is preventing heart disease.

The company that makes Vascepa (Amrin;$AMRN)would also like to have physicians prescribe it to their patients who have mildly or moderatelyelevated triglycerides between 200 and 500 which some estimate as up to 1/3 of the population.

The company has a study that shows that Vascepa lowers triglycerides in patients with such mildly to moderately elevated triglycerides but the FDA did not approve it for that indication.

Given the huge numbers of patients with trigs slightly above normal, before approving an expensive new drug, the FDA thought, it would be nice to know that the drug is actually helping prevent heart attacks and strokes or prolonging life.

After all, we don’t really care about high triglycerides unless they are causing problems and we don’t care about lowering them unless we can show we are reducing the frequency of those problems.

Data do not exist to say that lowering triglycerides in the mild to moderate range  by any drug lowers heart attack risk.

In the past if a company promoted their drug for off-label usage they could be fined by the FDA but Amarin went to court and obtained the right to promote Vascepa to physicians for triglycerides between 200 and 500.

Consequently, you may find your doctor prescribing this drug to you. If you do, I suggest you ask him if he recently had a free lunch or dinner provided by Amarin, has stock in the company (Vascepa is the sole drug made by Amrin and its stock price fluctuates wildly depending on sales and news about Vascepa) or gives talks for Amarin.

If he answers no to all of the above then, hopefully, your triglycerides are over 500.

.

 

 

 

 

Tom Brady Lost The Super Bowl: Can We Now Dismiss His Ridiculous, Pseudoscientific “Alkaline” Diet?

I think Tom Brady is the best professional quarterback of all time (IMBO Baker Mayfield of the Oklahoma Sooners is the best all-time college QB).

However, I think he has succeeded despite, not due to, the silly diet he follows as outlined in his best selling book, TB12.

Although he set a Super Bowl record for passing a few days ago his team lost and I’m really hoping that this will tamp down the unjustified enthusiasm in his lifestyle.

Tom Brady being “strip-sacked”. by Philly defensive end Brandon Graham. Clearly Brady’s diet is responsible for this and should be abandoned by all adherents.

Brady, according to reports, attempts to follow a diet that is 80% alkaline and 20% acidic. As Business Insider points out:

His extreme diet is a key part of what he refers to as the TB12 Method, an approach consisting of 12 fitness principles that Brady outlines in his book, called “The TB12 Method: How to Achieve a Lifetime of Sustained Peak Performance”. He also sells a selection of rather expensive products and supplements designed to help adherents live according to his fitness gospel.

For an outstanding take down of the nonsensical pH balancing diet (free of any TB references strangely enough) please read Harriet Hall’s typically outstanding article at skeptic.com entitled “PH Mythology: Separating pHacts from pHiction.”

She concludes correctly that:

“systematic analyses of all the published scientific studies have determined that the evidence does not support the acid/alkaline theory of disease, so it should be dismissed as pseudoscience.”

Although  Brady eats a lot of fresh, organic vegetables he avoids those in the nightshade family because Brady  and his wife, Gisele Bündchen’s personal chef, Allen Campbell, believes they cause inflammation (according to a 2016 The Boston Globe’interview, )

The nightshade family includes vegetables which nutritionists believe are very good for you like tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, and  eggplants.  In fact there are more putative anti-inflammatory chemicals in these plants than inflammatory.

You should no more base your diet on Tom Brady’s success than  you should on the manner in which Nathan Pritikin or Robert Atkins died.

If Tom Brady is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer tomorrow will you conclude that it was due to the absence of the health-promoting phytochemical, lycopene, from his diet due to avoiding tomatoes?

Following the latest trends in diet or exercise based on anecdotes from celebrities is a fool’s game. Those celebrities that cash in on their good fortune to promote pseudoscientific quackery like Brady and Gwyneth Paltrow (aka GOOP) should be ashamed that they are contributing to this idiocy.

Nightshadily Yours,

-ACP

N.B. Perhaps Phlly fans should start following some of the “sci-fi” training tools that Brandon Graham’s trainer utilizes:

  • When the workout is finished, Graham is fitted with something called an ECP (External Counterpulsation), a medical device that’s used for cardiac patients. They lay him down, put the ECP on his legs and hook him up to an EKG machine to monitor his heart. When his heart is in the relaxation phase, the device will compress, which apparently “enhances oxygenated blood flow through the coronary arteries to the heart muscle” and, according to Barwis, promotes quicker healing.

 

What Is A Plant-Based Diet (And Should I Be On One)?

The phrase “plant-based diet” is being tossed around a lot these days. The skeptical cardiologist never knows what people mean when they use it and so must assume that most of the world is also puzzled by this trendy term.

Is A Plant-Based Diet Code For Veganism?

For some, a “plant-based diet” (PBD) is what vegans eat.

Veganism combines a diet free of animal products, plus a moral philosophy that reject the “commodity status of animals.” Vegans are the strictest of vegetarians, eschewing milk, fish and eggs.

One PBD advocate in the introduction to a Special Issue of the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology,  defines it as follows:

“a plant-based diet consists of all minimally processed fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, herbs, and spices and excludes all animal products, including red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products.”

You will notice that this cardiologist “excludes all animal products”  and that the qualifying phrase “minimally processed” has crept into the definition.

Forks Over Knives-Whole-food, plant-based diet

The “documentary” Forks Over Knives brought the phrase “whole food, plant-based diet” to national prominence. The movie focused on the diets espoused by Caldwell Esselstyn and T. Colin Campbell. Since its release in 2011 a whole industry based on the Forks Over Knives (FON) brand has been launched. FON uses the following definition:

 “A whole-food, plant-based diet is centered on whole, unrefined, or minimally refined plants. It’s a diet based on fruits, vegetables, tubers, whole grains, and legumes; and it excludes or minimizes meat (including chicken and fish), dairy products, and eggs, as well as highly refined foods like bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil.”

I’ve written detailed posts on the Esselstyn diet here and here. I think it is needlessly restrictive and not supported by scientific evidence. (Esselstyn’s website and book state unequivocally “you may not eat anything with a mother or a face (no meat, poultry, or fish” and “you cannot eat dairy products” which differs from the FON definition.)

The key new terms in the FON approach to note are:

Whole Food. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines whole food as “food  that has been processed or refined as little as possible and is free from additives or other artificial substances.”

Unrefined or minimally refined. The OED defines refined as:

“With impurities or unwanted elements having been removed by processing.”

The FON definition for a PBD then is similar to our first definition-minimally processed vegan-but allows (at least theoretically)  minimal meat, dairy and eggs. The FON Esselstyn/Campbell diets choose to define vegetable oil, including olive oil, as highly refined foods and do not allow any oils.

U.S. News and World Report Definition Of Plant-Based Diets

U.S. News and World Report publishes an annual rating of diets based on the opinion of a panel of nationally recognized experts in diet, nutrition, obesity, food psychology, diabetes and heart disease.

US News defines a plant-based diet as “an approach that emphasizes minimally processed foods from plants, with modest amounts of fish, lean meat and low-fat dairy, and red meat only sparingly.”

This definition is radically different from the first two. Notice now that you can have “modest amounts” of meat and dairy, foods which are anathema to vegans. Also, note that “low-fat dairy” is being recommended, a food which (in my opinion) is highly processed and that lean meat is to be preferred and red meat avoided.

I was happy to see that for the first time, the Mediterranean Diet ranked as  Best Diet Overall, but shocked to find that the Mediterranean diet came out on top of the US News list of “Best Plant-Based Diets.”

Readers will recognize that this is the diet I recommend and follow (with slight modifications). On this diet I regularly consume hamburgers, steak, fish and whole egg omelettes.

The plant-based diet of vegans or of Forks Over Knives is drastically different from the Mediterranean Diet.

For example, olive oil consumption is emphasized in the Mediterranean Diet, whereas the Esselstyn diet featured in FON forbids any oil consumption.

The FON/Esselstyn diets are very low in any fats, typically <10%, whereas the Mediterranean Diet is typically 30-35% fat.

Esselstyn really doesn’t want you to eat nuts and avocados because he thinks the oil in them is bad for you. This is nuts! I’m handing out nuts to my patients just as they were given to the participants in the PREDIMED randomized trial showing the benefits of the Med diet.

Dr. Pearson’s Plant-Based Diet

Since the term “plant-based diet” apparently means whatever a writer would like it to mean, I have come up with my own definition.

With the  Dr. P Plant-Based Diet© your primary focus in meal planning is to make sure that you are regularly consuming a large and diverse amount of healthy foods that come from plants.

If you don’t make it your focus, it is too easy to succumb to all the cookies, donuts, pies, cakes, pretzels, chips, French fries,  breakfast bars and other  calorie-dense but nutrient-light products that are cheap and readily available.

In Dr. P’s Plant-Based Diet© meat, eggs, and full fat dairy are on the table. They are consumed in moderation and they don’t come from plants (i.e. factory farms).

I, like the PBD  definers of yore, have taken the liberty of including many vague terms in my definition. Let me see if I can be more precise:

Regularly = at least daily.

Large amount = 3 to 4 servings daily.

Healthy = a highly contentious term and one, like “plant-based” that one can twist to mean whatever one likes. My take on “healthy” can be seen on this blog. I’m not a fan of plant-based margarines, added sugar, whether from a plant or not, should be avoided, and the best way to avoid added sugar is to avoid ultra-processed foods.

Ultra-processed foods (formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavours, colours, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product).

Ultra-processed foods account for 58% of all calories in the US diet, and contribute nearly 90% of all added sugars.

I do like the food writer Michael Pollan’s simple rules to “Eat Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.” and this NY Times piece summarizes much of what is in his short, funny and helpful Food Rules book:

you’re much better off eating whole fresh foods than processed food products. That’s what I mean by the recommendation to eat “food.” Once, food was all you could eat, but today there are lots of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket. These novel products of food science often come in packages festooned with health claims, which brings me to a related rule of thumb: if you’re concerned about your health, you should probably avoid food products that make health claims. Why? Because a health claim on a food product is a good indication that it’s not really food, and food is what you want to eat.

On Dr. P’s Plant-Based Diet© you can add butter to your leeks and green onions.You can add eggs to your onions, tomatoes and peppersAnd you can eat salads full of lots of cool different plants for lunch.

To answer my titular question-if you are using Dr. P’s definition of a plant-based diet then you definitely should be on one.

Viva La Plant!

-ACP

Top Skeptical Cardiology Stories of 2017

Science continued to progress in the field of cardiology in 2017. Some cardiology interventions were proven to be more beneficial (TAVR) and some less (coronary stents). A class of cholesterol lowering drugs had a big winner and a big loser. A supplement that many thought, based on observational studies, was crucial to prevent heart disease, turned out to be unhelpful. More evidence emerged that saturated fat is not a dietary villain.

From the skeptical cardiologist’s viewpoint, the following were the major scientific studies relevant to cardiology:

1.  “Thousands of heart patients get stents that may do more harm than good”

Thus read the Vox headline for the ORBITA study which was published in November.

Indeed this was an earth-shattering study for interventional cardiologists, many of whom agreed with the NY Times headline “Unbelievable: Heart Stents Fail To Ease Chest Pain.”

Cardiologists have known for a decade (since the landmark  COURAGE study) that outside the setting of an acute heart attack (acute coronary syndrome or ACS), stents don’t save lives and that they don’t prevent heart attacks.

Current guidelines reflect this knowledge, and indicate that stents in stable patients with coronary artery disease should be placed only after a failure of  “guideline-directed medical therapy.”  Despite these recommendations, published in 2012, half of the thousands of stents implanted annually in the US continued to be employed in patients with either no symptoms or an inadequate trial of medical therapy.

Yes, lots of stents are placed in asymptomatic patients.  And lots of patients who have stents placed outside the setting of ACS are convinced that their stents saved their lives, prevented future heart attacks and “fixed” their coronary artery disease. It is very easy to make the case to the uneducated patient that a dramatic intervention to “cure” a blocked artery is going to be more beneficial than merely giving medications that dilate the artery or slow the heart’s pumping to reduce myocardial oxygen demands.

Stent procedures are costly  in the US (average charge around $30,000, range $11,000 to $40,000) and there are significant risks including death, stroke and heart attack. After placement, patients must take powerful antiplatelet drugs which increase their risk of bleeding. There should be compelling reasons to place stents if we are not saving lives.

I, along with the vast majority of cardiologists, still recommended stents for those patients with tightly blocked coronary arteries and stable symptoms, which were not sufficiently helped by medications. ORBITA calls into question even this indication for stenting.

The ORBITA study investigators recruited 230 patients to whom most American cardiologists would have recommended stenting. These patients appeared to have a single tightly blocked coronary artery and had chest pain (angina) that limited their physical activity.

They treated the patients for 6 weeks with aspirin/statins/ and medications that reduce anginal symptoms such as beta-blockers, calcium-channel blockers or long-acting nitrates. At this point patients were randomized to receive either a stent or to undergo a catheteriation procedure which did not result in a stent, a so-called sham procedure.

The performance of a sham procedure was a courageous move that made the study truly double-blinded; neither the patients nor the investigators knew which patients had actually received a stent. Thus, the powerful placebo effects of having a procedure were neutralized.

Surprisingly, the study found that those patients receiving stents had no more improvement in their treadmill exercise time, angina severity or frequency or in their peak oxygen uptake on exercise.

ORBITA hopefully will cause more cardiologists to avoid the “oculo-stenotic” reflex wherein coronary artery blockages are stented without either sufficient evidence that the blockage is causing symptoms or that a medical trial has failed.

Although this was a small study with a very narrowly defined subset of patients, it raises substantial questions about the efficacy of coronary stenting. If ORBITA causes more patients and doctors to question the need for catheterization or stenting, this will be a  very good thing.

2. Vitamin D Supplementation Doesn’t Reduce Cardiovascular Disease (or fractures, or help anything really).

One of my recurring themes in this blog is the gullibility of Americans who keep buying and using useless vitamins, supplements and nutraceuticals, thereby feeding a $20 billion industry that provides no benefits to consumers (see here and here).

Vitamin D is a prime player in the useless supplement market based on observational studies suggesting low levels were associated with increased mortality and cardiovascular disease

Despite well done studies showing a lack of benefit of Vitamin D supplementation, the proportion of people taking more than 1,000 IU daily of Vitamin D surged from just 0.3 percent  in 1999-2000 to 18 percent in  2013-2014.

I’ve written previously (calcium supplements: would you rather a hip fracture or a heart attack) on the increased risk of heart attack with calcium supplementation.

Most recently a nicely done study showed that Vitamin D supplementation doesn’t reduce the risk of heart disease.

In a randomized clinical trial that included 5108 participants from the community, the cumulative incidence of cardiovascular disease for a median follow-up period of 3.3 years was 11.8% among participants given 100 000 IU of vitamin D3 monthly, and 11.5% among those given placebo.

Aaron Carroll does a good job of summarizing the data showing Vitamin D is useless in multiple other areas in a JAMA forum piece:

Last October, JAMA Internal Medicine published a randomized, controlled trial of vitamin D examining its effects on musculoskeletal health. Postmenopausal women were given either the supplement or placebo for one year. Measurements included total fractional calcium absorption, bone mineral density, muscle mass, fitness tests, functional status, and physical activity. On almost no measures did vitamin D make a difference.

The accompanying editor’s note observed that the data provided no support for the use of any dose of vitamin D for bone or muscle health.

Last year, also in JAMA Internal Medicine, a randomized controlled trial examined whether exercise and vitamin D supplementation might reduce falls and falls resulting in injury among elderly women. Its robust factorial design allowed for the examination of the independent and joined effectiveness of these 2 interventions. Exercise reduced the rate of injuries, but vitamin D did nothing to reduce either falls or injuries from falls.

In the same issue, a systematic review and meta-analysis looked at whether evidence supports the contention that vitamin D can improve hypertension. A total of 46 randomized, placebo controlled trials were included in the analysis. At the trial level, at the individual patient level, and even in subgroup analyses, vitamin D was ineffective in lowering blood pressure.

Finally, if the Vitamin D coffin needs any more nails, let us add the findings of this recent meta-analysis:

calcium, calcium plus vitamin D, and vitamin D supplementation alone were not significantly associated with a lower incidence of hip, nonvertebral, vertebral, or total fractures in community-dwelling older adults.

3. PCSK9 Inhibitors: Really low cholesterol levels are safe and reduce cardiac events

I reported the very positive results for evolocumab and disappointing results for bosocizumab on the physician social media site SERMO in March but never put this in my blog.

As a practicing cardiologist I’ve been struggling with how to utilize the two available PCSK9 inhibitors (Amgen’s Repatha (evolocumab) and Sanofi’s Praluent (alirocumab) in my clinical practice.  I would love to use them for my high risk statin-intolerant patients but the high cost and limited insurance coverage has resulted in only a few of my patients utilizing it.

The lack of outcomes data has also restrained my and most insurance companies enthusiasm for using them.

The opening session at this year’s American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions in DC I think has significantly changed the calculus in this area with two presentations: the first showing  Amgen’s “fully humanized” evolocumab significantly lowers CV risk in high risk patients on optimal statin therapy and the second showing that Pfizer’s “mostly humanized” bococizumab loses efficacy over time and will likely never reach the market.

The FOURIER study of evolocumab randomized  27, 564 high risk but stable patients who had LDL>70 with prior MI, prior stroke or symptomatic PAD to receive evolocumab or placebo on top of optimized lipid therapy. 69% of patients were recieving high intensity statin therapy and the baseline LDL was 92. LDL was reduced by 59% to average level of 30 in the treated patients. The reduction in LDL was consistent through the duration of the study.

IN 1/4 of the patients LDL was <20! These are unprecedented low levels of LDL.

Active treatment significantly reduced the primary endpoint by 15% and reduced the secondary endpoinf  of CV death, MI, stroke by 20%. absolute difference 2% by 3 years. 

There was no difference in adverse effects between placebo and Evo. 

The next presentation featured data using Pfizer’s candidate in the PCSK9 wars and the acronym SPIRE (Studies of PCSK9 Inhibition and the Reduction in vascular Events (SPIRE) Bococizumab Development Program).

Paul Ridker presented the outcomes data for bococizumab which was actually similar to evolocumab data but given the declining efficacy and development of antibodies to the Pfizer drug over time these were very disappointing for Pfizer and I would presume their drug will never reach the market.

How will these results impact clinical practice?

I am now more inclined to prescribe evolocumab to my very high risk patients who have not achieved LDL< 70. I’m willing to do what I can to jump through insurance company hoops and try to make these drugs affordable to my patients.

I am less worried about extremely low LDL levels and have more faith in the LDL hypothesis: the lower the LDL the lower the risk of CV disease.

Cost is still going to be an issue for most of my patients I fear and the need for shared decision-making becomes even more important.

 

4. “Pure Shakes Up Nutritional Field: Finds High Fat Intake Beneficial.”

As one headline put it.

I recorded my full observations on this observational international study here

Here is a brief excerpt:

The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, involved more than 200 investigators who collected data on more than 135000 individuals from 18 countries across five continents for over 7 years.

There were three high-income (Canada, Sweden, and United Arab Emirates), 11 middle-income (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Iran, Malaysia, occupied Palestinian territory, Poland, South Africa, and Turkey) and four low-income countries (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe)

This was the largest prospective observational study to assess the association of nutrients (estimated by food frequency questionnaires) with cardiovascular disease and mortality in low-income and middle-income populations,

The PURE team reported that:

-Higher carbohydrate intake was associated with an increased risk of total mortality but not with CV disease or CV disease mortality.

This finding meshes well with one of my oft-repeated themes here, that added sugar is the major toxin in our diet (see here and here.)

I particular liked what the editorial for this paper wrote:

Initial PURE findings challenge conventional diet–disease tenets that are largely based on observational associations in European and North American populations, adding to the uncertainty about what constitutes a healthy diet. This uncertainty is likely to prevail until well designed randomised controlled trials are done. Until then, the best medicine for the nutrition field is a healthy dose of humility

I wish for all those following science-based medicine a healthy dose of humility. As science marches on, it’s always possible that a procedure we’ve been using might turn out to be useless (or at least much less beneficial than we thought), and it is highly likely that weak associations turn out to be causally nonsignificant. Such is the scientific process. We must continually pay attention, learn and evolve in the medical field.

Happy New Year to Be from the Skeptical Cardiologist the EFOSC!

The skeptical cardiologist and his Eternal Fiancee marveling at the total eclipse of the sun (very accurately predicted by science) in St. Genevieve, Missouri

-ACP

 

Is Chocolate Good For The Heart?

While in Paris recently,  allegedly researching the French Paradox, the skeptical cardiologist and his Eternal Fiancee’ participated in a Food Tour (Paris By Mouth).  Along with 2 other American couples, we were guided and educated by a Parisian food/wine expert as we wandered from one small shop to another in the St. Germain district of the Left Bank.

We collected the perfect Baguette Monge from Eric Kayser, delicious rillettes, terrine, and saucisson from Charcuterie Saint Germain, amazing cheese from Fromager Laurent Dubois, delightful  pastries from Un Dimanche a Paris, and unique and delicious chocolate from Patrick Roger.

The tour ended at La Cave du Senat wine shop, where we descended into a stone cellar and tasted all of the delicious foods while drinking wonderful wines.

The French Paradox refers to the fact that the French are among the world’s highest consumers of saturated fat, but have among the world’s lowest rates of cardiovascular disease. For those nutritional experts still obsessed with the dangers of all saturated fats, this poses a conundrum.

Cheese And The French Paradox

France consumes more cheese (27 kg per person per year) than any other country in the world (the US only consumes 16 kg per capita). Unlike Americans who have embraced low fat or skim versions of cheese, the French predominantly consume full fat cheese.

I wrote In Defense of Real Cheese  in 2014 and extolled the heart-healthy virtues of eating full fat , non factory-processed cheese.

Perhaps the French are protected against heart disease by their high consumption and love of real cheese ?

Chocolate And The French Paradox

Whereas cheese contains saturated fat and has been unfairly stigmatized as unhealthy, chocolate, similarly with high saturated fat content, seems to have been coronated as the king of food that is yummy but paradoxically is also heart healthy.

Could chocolate be the enigmatic protector of the hearts of the French?

Back on Boulevard Saint-Germain we entered the shop of Patrick Roger, who won the coveted Meilleur Ouvrier de France, in the craft of chocolate in 2000. The MOF is France’s way of recognizing the best artisans in various fields and occurs every 4 years. The standards are so high that in 2015 none of the 9 chocolatier competitors were felt to merit receiving the award.

The French clearly take their chocolate seriously but they don’t top the international charts at per capita consumption.

The Swiss consume 20 pounds of chocolate per year, whereas the French and US are tied for 9th, consuming 9.3 and 9.5 lbs. (Infographic from Forbes

 

 

Chocolate And The Heart

I’ve been meaning to write a post on chocolate and the heart since my encounter with high end chocolatiers in Paris and Bruges, and especially since May when there was much fanfare over a Danish study showing less atrial fbrillation in high chocolate consumers.

A NYTimes piece stimulated by the Danish study and entitled “Why Chocolate May Be Good For The Heart” typified the media headlines  and summarized the study thusly:

Scientists tracked diet and health in 55,502 men and women ages 50 to 64. They used a well-validated 192-item food-frequency questionnaire to determine chocolate consumption.

After controlling for total calorie intake, smoking, alcohol consumption, body mass index and other factors, they found that compared with people who ate no chocolate, those who had one to three one-ounce servings a month had a 10 percent reduced relative risk for atrial fibrillation, those who ate one serving a week had a 17 percent reduced risk, and those who ate two to six a week had a 20 percent reduced risk.

Previous large, well done observational studies also show that high chocolate consumption compared to no consumption is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Of course these being observational studies with only weak (but significant) associations, we cannot conclude that chocolate consumption actually  lowers the risk of developing afib or cardiovascular disease (causation.)

My favorite graph to hammer home this point is below and plots how much each country consumes in chocolate, versus the number of nobel laureates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a good correlation here (Pearson’s (no relation unfortunately) correlation coefficient or r value) which is highly significant (p value <.0001). But does anyone seriously think a country can boost its Nobel Laureate production by promoting chocolate consumption?

The authors of the Danish afib trial, admit the possibility of residual or unmeasured confounding variables as a limitation in their discussion:

Although we had extensive data on diet, lifestyle and comorbidities, we cannot preclude the possibility of residual or unmeasured confounding. For instance, data were not available on renal disease and sleep apnoea. However, after adjusting for age, smoking status and other potential confounders, the association was somewhat attenuated but remained statistically significant.

Most chocolate authorities proclaim the health  benefits of dark chocolate over milk chocolate but in this Danish study:

We did not have information on the type of chocolate or cocoa concentration. However, most of the chocolate consumed in Denmark is milk chocolate. In the European Union, milk chocolate must contain a minimum of 30% cocoa solids and dark chocolate must contain a minimum of 43% cocoa solids; the corresponding proportions in the USA are 10% and 35%.16 Despite the fact that most of the chocolate consumed in our sample probably contained relatively low concentrations of the potentially protective ingredients, we still observed a robust statistically significant association, suggesting that our findings may underestimate the protective effects of dark chocolate.

Despite the fact that the participants in the Danish AFib study were likely mostly consuming  milk chocolate rather than dark chocolate,  the lead author of the study has been quoted as saying “dark chocolate with higher cocoa content is better… because it is the cocoa, not the milk and sugar, that provides the benefit.”

The Chocolate-Industrial -Research Complex

Julia Volluz, in a nicely written piece at Vox  entitled “Dark chocolate is now a health food. Here’s how that happened.” describes how “over the past 30 years, food companies like Nestlé, Mars, Barry Callebaut, and Hershey’s— among the world’s biggest producers of chocolate — have poured millions of dollars into scientific studies and research grants that support cocoa science.”

Here at Vox, we examined 100 Mars-funded health studies, and found they overwhelmingly drew glowing conclusions about cocoa and chocolate — promoting everything from chocolate’s heart health benefits to cocoa’s ability to fight disease. This research — and the media hype it inevitably attracts — has yielded a clear shift in the public perception of the products.

“Mars and [other chocolate companies] made a conscious decision to invest in science to transform the image of their product from a treat to a health food,” said New York University nutrition researcher Marion Nestle (no relation to the chocolate maker). “You can now sit there with your [chocolate bar] and say I’m getting my flavonoids.”

Flavonols and Blood Pressure

Dark chocolate and cocoa products are rich in chemical compounds called flavanols. Flavanols have attracted interest as they might help to reduce blood pressure, a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The blood pressure-lowering properties of flavanols are thought to be related to widening of the blood vessels, caused by nitric oxide.

The latest Cochrane Review on this topic commented on the poor quality of the studies involved:

Studies were short, mostly between two and12 weeks, with only one of 18 weeks. The studies involved 1804 mainly healthy adults. They provided participants with 30 to 1218 mg of flavanols (average of 670 mg) in 1.4 to 105 grams of cocoa products per day in the active intervention group. Seven of the studies were funded by companies with a commercial interest in their results, and the reported effect was slightly larger in these studies, indicating possible bias.

This graph from Volluz’s Vox article demonstrates how much chocolate you would need to consume to get the average amount of flavanols that participants in these studies received:

The Cochrane review felt there was

moderate-quality evidence that flavanol-rich chocolate and cocoa products cause a small (2 mmHg) blood pressure-lowering effect in mainly healthy adults in the short term.

Thus, for a very small drop in blood pressure you would have to make chocolate the main source of calories in your daily diet.

Consuming such large amounts of chocolate, even dark chocolate, would drastically increase your sugar consumption.

Further weakening any conclusions on the benefit of chocolate are that these are very short-term studies with markedly different baseline BPs, ages, and large variations in flavanol dosage.

Is Your Chocolate Produced By Slaves?

After reading the Danish AFib article, I purchased several bars of Tony’s Chocolonely chocolate that caught my eye at the Whole Foods checkout counter. The bars had interesting wrappers and on the inside of the wrapper I discovered that Tony’s Chocolonely’s claim to fame is that it is “slave-free.”

Per Wikipedia:

Tony’s Chocolonely is a Dutch confectionery company focused on producing and selling chocolate closely following fair trade practices, strongly opposing slavery and child labour by partnering with trading companies in Ghana and Ivory Coast to buy cocoa beans directly from the farmers, providing them with a fair price for their product and combating exploitation.

The slogan of the company is: “Crazy about chocolate, serious about people“.

I was previously unaware of the problem of child slavery and cocoa production. If you’d like to read more about it start here.

The Tony’s Chocoloney was so tasty I ended up consuming vast quantities of it at the end of the day and it disappeared rapidly. Currently the skeptical cardiologist’s house is chocolate free.

Should Chocolate Be Considered A Super Food or A Slave Food?

I can’t recommend chocolate to my patients as a treatment for high blood pressure or to reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke on the basis of the flimsy evidence available.

If you like chocolate, the evidence suggests no adverse effects of consuming it on a regular basis.

As far as flavanols obtained from cocoa and their benefits for cardiovascular disease, I eagerly awaiit the result of the ongoing Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study (COSMOS), a randomized trial looking at whether daily supplements of cocoa extract and/or a standard multivitamin reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Patients and readers should recognize that there is an ongoing research/media campaign by Big Chocolate to convince them that chocolate is a SuperFood which can also be a dessert.

Flavanoidly Yours,

-ACP

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health Now Recommends Full Fat Dairy For Your Kid’s Lunch Boxes

The skeptical cardiologist became overjoyed while reading an email from The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (THTHCSPH) which outlined  their recommendations for packing kids‘ lunch boxes.:

The Kid’s Healthy Eating Plate was created as a fun and easy guide to encourage children to eat well and keep moving. The plate guidelines emphasize variety and quality in food choices.

The majority of the recommendations were pretty straightforward and mainstream:

The formula is simple: Fill half your plate (or lunch box) with colorful fruits or vegetables(aim for two to three different types). Fill about one-quarter with whole grains like whole grain pasta, brown rice, or quinoa, and the remaining quarter with healthy proteinslike beans, nuts, fish or chicken. Healthy fatsand a small amount of dairy (if desired) round out a tasty meal that will fuel an active, healthy lifestyle.

What caught my attention was the comment about dairy.

The dreaded words skim or low-fat did not appear in the sentence!

It would appear that a highly respect and mainstream source of nutritional advice is not making the typical (and scientifically unsupported ) recommendation to consume low fat or skim dairy products!

Indeed, if we look at their expanded comments on dairy they read:

Incorporating dairy (if desired). For example: unflavored milk, plain Greek yogurt, small amounts of cheese like cottage cheese, and string cheese.

No mention of fat content. Zip. Zero. To me, if you don’t put non fat low fat or skim next to the word diary it implies full fat.

Following their yogurt link we find no reference to preferentially consuming low fat yogurt despite the fact that the vast majority of yogurt sold in the US has been processed to remove healthy dairy fat, something the THCHSPH must be painfully aware of. (My wonderful MA Jenny’s husband, Frank, until very recently was unable to find full fat yogurt at Schnuck’s.)

As I pointed out here, a huge scam was foisted on Americans when allegedly healthy non fat yogurt filled with added sugar began to be promoted as a healthy treat.

It is almost  as if the THTHCSPH  has become agnostic about dairy fat and therefore is trying not to make recommendations.

Elsewhere on the THTHCSPH site however the old unwarranted advice  to avoid dairy fat rears its ugly head. On a page devoted to calcium we read:

Many dairy products are high in saturated fats and a high saturated fat intake is a risk factor for heart disease”

Then this interesting (and ?ironic) observation:

And while it’s true that most dairy products are now available in fat-reduced or nonfat options, the saturated fat that’s removed from dairy products is inevitably consumed by someone, often in the form of premium ice cream, butter, or baked goods.

Strangely, it’s often the same people who purchase these higher fat products who also purchase the low-fat dairy products, so it’s not clear that they’re making great strides in cutting back on their saturated fat consumption.

The THTHCSPH seems conflicted, as well they should. They want to keep up the nutritional party line that they have been spouting for 30 years that all saturated fats are bad but they now realize that supporting non fat dairy products has likely worsened rather than improved the diet of millions of Americans.

Galactosely Yours,

-ACP

N.B. The overall Kid’s healthy eating plate is not likely to be a favorite of kids  and I disagree with some aspects of it.

Namely, I think it is fine to have red meat and processed meats in moderation and I wouldn’t push the pasta, rice, and bread.

 

 

 

 

Pistachios: Are Their Shells A Portal to Contamination, The Key To Weight Loss, or A Manicure Destruction Device?

The results of the “Fourth Nut” poll are in and the winner is a nut first cultivated in Bronze Age Central Asia,

Almost 60% of readers who took the time to vote selected the pistachio nut.

Coming in a distant second was the macadamia nut. One reader prized it because it only contained saturated fat and monounsaturated fats. Another bemoaned their candy-like quality which makes over-consumption an issue.

A couple of readers were strong proponents of Brazil nuts. This prompted me to enter a selenium rabbit hole from which I have yet to emerge. If I can escape with my selenoproteins intact I’ll let you know.

Pistachios are a fine choice from a health standpoint and seem to be embraced by all nutritional cults, with the exception of  the very nutty Caldwell “NO OIL” Esselstyn’s acolytes.

The Pistachio Principle PR Institute

I’m in the process of sorting through the nutritional studies on pistachios, and the hardest part is determining which data are sponsored by the pistachio industry.

For example, poorly researched online articles about pistachios will typically state that “research suggests” that “pistachios could help to reduce hypertension and promote development of beneficial gut microbes. They’re even gaining credibility as a tool for weight loss”

The first reference is an open access review article which clearly just wants to extoll any and all positive pistachio data and was paid for by the American Pistachio Growers. The second article comes directly from “The Pistachio Health Institute,” a PR voice for the pistachio industry.

To Shell or Not to Shell

My major dilemma was deciding if the pistachios should be shelled or left in-shell. (This has led me down the pistachio production rabbit hole).

I was concerned that the outsides of the pistachio shells could be contaminated in some way and the idea of mixing them in with unshelled nuts seemed a little strange.

If you Google images of mixed nuts pistachio you only see mixtures with unshelled pistachios.

Why, then, are most pistachios sold and consumed in-shell?

According to How Stuff Works Louise Ferguson, author of the Pistachio Production Manual believes:

Between 70 and 90 percent of pistachios develop a natural split in their shells during the growing process, After those pistachios are shaken off the trees by harvesting machines, they can be salted and roasted while still inside the shells as that natural crack allows heat and salt access to the nut, eliminating a step in the industrial process and saving processors some money.

The pistachio PR machine would also have us believe that eating pistachios in-shell can lead to weight loss:

Why choose any other nut?

This pistachios principle is based on 2 studies in the journal Appetite (seems to be a legitimate journal) by JE Painter of the department of “Family and Consumer Sciences” Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois.

I’m awaiting a full copy of the paper, but the abstract notes that students offered in-shell pistachios consumed only 125 calories, whereas those offered shelled pistachios consumed 211 calories yet “fullness and satisfaction” were similar.

My skeptical sensors were exploding when I read about this study. I doubt that it will ever be reproduced.

If we look at cost, an unofficial analysis revealed:

The pre-shelled pistachios were priced at $5.99 for 6.3 oz of nuts.

The 8 oz bag of pistachios were priced at $4.49.  After shelling he was left with 4.3 oz of nuts.

Un-shelled pistachios = $1.04 per oz.

Shelled pistachios = $0.95 per oz.

If you go the lazy route, you save $.09 per oz!

Most likely, the fourth nut will be a shelled pistachio unless readers convince me otherwise or the blather from the pistachio PR machine  annoys me too much.

The eternal fiance’e has just weighed in and tells me that women who care about their well-groomed  nails will not consume  in-shell pistachio nuts for fear of damaging their manicures.

That, my friends, is the  nail in the coffin for shelled pistachios as the fourth nut.

Pistachoprincipaly Yours,

-ACP

Does Eating Saturated Fat Lower Your Risk of Stroke and Dying?: Humility and Conscience in Nutritional Guidelines

A study presented at the European Society of Cardiology  meetings in Barcelona and simultaneously published in The Lancet earlier this month caught the attention of many of my readers. Media headlines trumpeted  “Huge New Study Casts Doubt On Conventional Wisdom About Fat And Carbs” and “Pure Shakes Up Nutritional Field: Finds High Fat Intake Beneficial.”

Since I’ve been casting as much doubt as possible on the  conventional nutritional wisdom  to cut saturated fat, they reasoned, I should be overjoyed to see such results.

What Did the PURE Study Find?

The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, involved more than 200 investigators who collected data on more than 135000 individuals from 18 countries across five continents for over 7 years.

There were three high-income (Canada, Sweden, and United Arab Emirates), 11 middle-income (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Iran, Malaysia, occupied Palestinian territory, Poland, South Africa, and Turkey) and four low-income countries (Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe)

This was the largest prospective observational study to assess the association of nutrients (estimated by food frequency questionnaires) with cardiovascular disease and mortality in low-income and middle-income populations,

The PURE team reported that:

Higher carbohydrate intake was associated with an increased risk of total mortality but not with CV disease or CV disease mortality.

This finding meshes well with one of my oft-repeated themes here, that added sugar is the major toxin in our diet (see here and here.)

Higher fat intake was associated with lower risk of total mortality.

Each type of fat (saturated, unsaturated, mono unsaturated ) was associated with about the same lower risk of total mortality. 

 

These findings are consistent with my observations that it is becoming increasingly clear that cutting back on  fat and saturated fat as the AHA and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans have been telling you to do for 30 years is not universally helpful (see here and  here ).

When you process the fat out of dairy and eliminate meat from your diet although your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol drops a little your overall cholesterol (atherogenic lipid) profile doesn’t improve (see here).

Another paper from the PURE study shows this nicely and concluded:

Our data are at odds with current recommendations to reduce total fat and saturated fats. Reducing saturated fatty acid intake and replacing it with carbohydrate has an adverse effect on blood lipids. Substituting saturated fatty acids with unsaturated fats might improve some risk markers, but might worsen others. Simulations suggest that ApoB-to-ApoA1 ratio probably provides the best overall indication of the effect of saturated fatty acids on cardiovascular disease risk among the markers tested. Focusing on a single lipid marker such as LDL cholesterol alone does not capture the net clinical effects of nutrients on cardiovascular risk.

Further findings from PURE:

-Higher saturated fat intake was associated with a lower risk of stroke

-There was no association between total fat or saturated fat or unsaturated fat with risk of heart attack or dying from heart disease.

Given that most people still believe that saturated fat causes heart disease and are instructed by most national dietary guidelines to cut out animal and dairy fat this does indeed suggest that

Global dietary guidelines should be reconsidered …”

Amen!

Because the focus of dietary guidelines on reducing total and saturated fatty acid intake “is largely based on selective emphasis on some observation and clinical data despite the existence of several randomizesed trials and observational studies that do not support these conclusions.”

Pesky Confounding Factors

We cannot infer causality from PURE because like all obervational studies, the investigators do not have control over all the factors influencing outcomes. These confounding factors are legion in a study that is casting such a broad net across different countries with markedly different lifestyles and socioeconomic status.

The investigators did the best job they could taking into account household wealth and income, education, urban versus rural location and the effects of study centre on the outcomes.

In an accompanying editorial, Christopher E Ramsden and Anthony F Domenichiello, prominent NIH researchers,  ask:

“Is PURE less confounded by conscientiousness than observational studies done in Europe and North American countries?

 

“Conscientiousness is among the best predictors of longevity. For example, in a Japanese population, highly and moderately conscientious individuals had 54% and 50% lower mortality, respectively, compared with the least conscientious tertile.”

“Conscientious individuals exhibit numerous health-related behaviours ranging from adherence to physicians’ recommendations and medication regimens, to better sleep habits, to less alcohol and substance misuse. Importantly, conscientious individuals tend to eat more recommended foods and fewer restricted foods.Since individuals in European and North American populations have, for many decades, received in influential diet recommendations, protective associations attributed to nutrients in studies of these populations are likely confounded by numerous other healthy behaviours. Because many of the populations included in PURE are less exposed to in influential diet recommendations, the present findings are perhaps less likely to be confounded by conscientiousness.”

It is this pesky conscientiousness factor (and other unmeasured confounding variables) which limit the confidence in any conclusions we can make from observational studies.

I agree wholeheartedly with the editorial’s conclusions:

Initial PURE findings challenge conventional diet–disease tenets that are largely based on observational associations in European and North American populations, adding to the uncertainty about what constitutes a healthy diet. This uncertainty is likely to prevail until well designed randomised controlled trials are done. Until then, the best medicine for the nutrition field is a healthy dose of humility.

 

Ah, if only the field of nutrition had been injected with a healthy dose of humility and a nagging conscience thirty years ago when its experts declared confidently that high dietary fat and cholesterol consumption was the cause of heart disease.!

Current nutritional experts and the guidelines they write will  benefit from a keen awareness of the unintended consequences of recommendations which they make based on weak and insufficient evidence  because such recommendations influence the food choices  (and thereby the quality of life and the mechanisms of death) of hundreds of millions of people.

PUREly Yours,

ACP