Category Archives: Diet and Heart Disease

Why I Recommend the Mediterranean Diet

I recommend the Mediterranean diet (MED) to my patients. Every unbiased, systematic review of the research on diet and heart disease in the last 8 years has concluded that it is the most likely dietary model to provide protection against coronary heart disease. One review concludes

Among the dietary exposures with strong evidence of causation from cohort studies, only a Mediterranean dietary pattern is related to CHD (coronary heart disease) in randomized trials.

The MED is the only comprehensive dietary approach that has been proven to reduce total death  and heart attacks in comparison to standard diets. There are two major randomized controlled trials (the only kind of study that proves the value of a dietary intervention) with this diet.

lyon
From Eric Roehm at http://www.nutritionheart.com

  The first, called the Lyon heart Study,  was in patients who had had heart attacks (secondary prevention) . As this graph demonstrates, those patients randomized to receive instruction on following the Mediterranean diet had a 60% lower death rate and a 70% lower heart attack rate. The second was published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine and was a primary prevention study: that is, participants had not had heart attacks. Participants were randomized to one of three diets: a MED supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil,  MED supplemented with mixed nuts or a control diet (advice to reduce dietary fat). Participants received quarterly individual and group educational sessions and either free provision of olive oil, mixed nuts or small nonfood gifts. The high extra virgin olive oil group ingested an average of 3.6 tablespoons/day (51 grams/day equal to 459 calories/day) of olive oil with 98% of it being extra virgin olive oil. The high nut group ate 8.2% of their total daily calories in the form of nuts, including an additional approximately one ounce packet of nuts (15g of walnuts, 7.5 g of almonds, and 7.5g of hazelnuts) provided by the study coordinators. 7447 persons were enrolled (ages 55 to 80 years) for an average 4.8 years. Those persons following the MED diet (either supplemented with olive oil or nuts) were 30% less likely to have  a major cardiovascular event (heart attack, stroke or death from cardiovascular causes.) There was a statistically significant reduction in stroke rate (≈39%) when considered as an isolated endpoint. We don’t know exactly what components of the MED are the most beneficial.  This trial suggests that olive oil and nuts are at least two of the key ingredient so it makes sense to increase your consumption of these foods. Other studies strongly support fish consumption and alcohol consumption as key components. As I’ve discussed (?ad nauseam) in other posts, full fat dairy and eggs, although banned by most “heart healthy diets”, have not been shown to increase heart disease risk.  Fermented dairy consumption, in particular, in the form of plain full-fat yogurt (not adulterated with sugar) and full-fat cheese is consistently associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. Plain full-fat yogurt and full-fat cheese (from goat milk) were consumed by the inhabitants of Crete, the Greek Island on which the original MED was based.

It has to be emphasized that within this pattern of eating you want to be consuming real foods, not processed products of the industrial food industry which have been manipulated to appear healthy due to being “low-fat” or “low cholesterol.”

This is a pattern of eating which is varied, interesting and sustainable.

It’s one that can last a lifetime. ,

Full Fat Dairy Lowers Your Risk of Obesity

ButterWhen i tell my patients that I am fine with them consuming full fat dairy products including butter I see  a mixture of responses. For many, there is a great relief that the butter they have been avoiding for the last 20 years (or consuming guiltily) can now be used. For others, the prospect of consuming full fat milk, cheese or yogurt still seems risky. After all, they have been hearing from the American Heart Association, the USDA nutritional guidelines and pretty much every nutritional advice column for the last 30 years that these products increase their risk of heart disease and contribute to obesity. Why should they believe their local cardiologist, a lone voice promoting full fat dairy against a chorus of naysayers?
Hopefully, by continuing to present scientific research on the topic I can make this concept more acceptable and counter the misinformation that is so prevalent

Researchers in Sweden have followed a cohort of rural men for over 12 years. In a previous study they found that daily intake of fruit and vegetables in combination with a high dairy fat intake was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. Recently they examined their data to answer the question : how does dairy fat intake impact on the risk of developing central obesity in this middle-aged male cohort?

What is central obesity?

Central obesity refers to fat that builds up inside the abdomen. It is often measured by measuring the waist circumference: > 102 cm for males and 88 cm for females is a  marker of central obesity. Central or abdominal obesity indicates insulin resistance and is part of the metabolic syndrome and well known to increase the risk of diabetes.  It is also associated with heart disease, various cancers, and dementia. In this Swedish study, central obesity was defined as waist hip ratio ≥ 1.
The study found that 197 men (15%) developed central obesity during follow-up. A low intake of dairy fat at baseline (no butter and low fat milk and seldom/never whipping cream) was associated with a higher risk of developing central obesity (OR 1.53, 95% CI 1.05-2.24) and a high intake of dairy fat (butter as spread and high fat milk and whipping cream) was associated with a lower risk of central obesity (OR 0.52, 95% CI 0.33-0.83) as compared with medium intake (all other combinations of spread, milk, and cream) after adjustment for intake of fruit and vegetables, smoking, alcohol consumption, physical activity, age, education, and profession

Yes, these data show that participants were three times more likely to develop central obesity if they consumed skim milk and no butter compared to those who drank high fat milk and butter.

This is not an isolated finding. There is a wealth of data supporting the concept that full fat diary is less associated with obesity and markers of the metabolic syndrome, diabetes and insulin resistance.

120px-CheeseAnother recent study in a Basque population in Spain found that  participants with low or moderate consumption of cheese (high fat) compared to high consumption of cheese (high fat) had a higher prevalence of excess weight

Why do people falsely believe that fat in general and high fat dairy in particular promotes obesity?

In the past, supporters of this concept (and there are less and less in the scientific world)  would point to the energy density of fat which contains 9 calories per gram compared to 4 calories per gram for carbohydrates or protein. Obviously, if obesity is determined by calories in versus calories out then the food with more % fat compared to carbs or protein is providing more calories. All things being equal, one could expect to grow fatter on the higher % fat diet. All things are not equal, however, because one doesn’t determine how much one consumes based on the volume or weight of the food entering the mouth.

There are far more complex factors at work. How does the mixture of food components effect satiety? What is the insulin response to the food? What are the other components of the food such as vitamins, fiber, calcium and how do they interact with food absorption and metabolism?

So, even though this contradicts what has been drummed into your head for 30 years: eat full fat yogurt , cheese and milk , not fat-free, if you want to avoid getting fat

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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Yogurt and Your Heart: Part I. The No Fat Frozen Yogurt Scam

tpyogurtYogurt: Heart healthy in its natural state

The Skeptical Cardiologist is a big fan of yogurt. I prefer yogurt in its unadulterated state, 3.5 to 5% milk fat, no sugars added at the factory. Preferably sourced from a local dairy where the cows range freely and eat grass. In this form, yogurt is a very healthy, nutrition-dense, vitamin- enriched food that supplies calcium, essential vitamins, protein and fats.

Yogurt, like all full fat dairy products (with the possible exception of butter) does not increase the risk of heart disease. In fact, some epidemiologic studies show that yogurt consumption is associated with lower risk of heart attacks. It is also associated with less weight gain over time .Because these observational studies can never prove causation we cannot conclude that eating yogurt will reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease or help us lose weight, but certainly there is nothing to suggest that it contributes to heart disease or obesity.

Small prospective, randomized studies (the best kind) show that yogurt consumption may lower blood pressure and raises the good or HDL cholesterol. Again, these studies donʼt prove eating yogurt is healthier but they should make everyone comfortable eating the full fat yogurt.

The Frozen Yogurt Scam: Substitute Sugar and Chemicals for Dairy Fat

Yogurt has a reputation as being a “healthy snack.” Sales of yogurt are increasing rapidly with Greek and frozen yogurt, in particular, showing spectacular growth.

Unfortunately, a great hoax has been perpetrated on the American public. Following advice generated from organizations like the American Heart Association and the USDA government nutritional guidelines, with the idea that they are making healthier choices, Americans are choosing yogurt that is nonfat or low-fat.

When the fat is taken out of yogurt, almost invariably sugar in one form or another is added in by the food industry to enhance flavor and make it palatable.

Shape magazine (Iʼm choosing this magazine as representative of the kind of health information available online and in print on this topic) ran an article with the following headline:

The Healthiest Froyo Orders at Pinkberry, Baskin Robbins, and More Get your frozen yogurt fix without downing an entire mealʼs worth of calories

The teaser line read as follows:

Frozen yogurt may offer a healthier alternative to ice cream, but it can be easy to fall into a calorie trap when you load up on rich flavors and toppings. Check out our cheat sheet to see which froyo combos to order at popular chains. Each one is low in fat and calories—so you can enjoy a guilt-free summer treat!

The number one recommendation was for a sugar and carbohydrate bonanza with the title: “Pinkberry’s Strawberry Classic,” which contains the following nutritional ingredients:

pinkberryNonfat milk, sugar, strawberry flavor (strawberries, sugar, water, natural flavors, fruit and vegetable juice [for color], guar gum, sodium citrate), nonfat yogurt (pasteurized nonfat milk, live and active cultures), nonfat yogurt powder (nonfat milk, culture), fructose, dextrose, natural flavors, citric acid, guar gum, maltodex- trin, mono- and diglycerides, rice starch

Sugar is listed twice and overall there are 23 ingredients that have been added to make this pale imitation of real yogurt palatable. Ironically, Pinkberry claims to have “real” yogurt but the only thing I could tell from their website is the following:

Pinkberry is made with REAL nonfat milk, not from cows treated with rBST hormones, and REAL nonfat yogurt, among many other natural ingredients.

The Shape magazine article recommends you add real strawberries plus a “balsamic glaze” and estimates the total calories as 165 with 144 of which are provided by sugar (36g).

Pinkberry lists the nutritional content for a small cup (5 oz) of pink berry strawberry classic as 110 calories, 22 grams of sugar and 4 grams of protein.

The Skeptical Cardiologist does not recommend this as a “healthy snack” because of the massive amount of sugar, unrefined carbohydrates, and added chemicals. Michael Pollan’s Food Rules are violated multiple times with this ultraprocessed concoction including “Avoid foods with more than 5 ingredients” and” avoid foods which have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top 3 ingredients”.

Eat Real Food Not Ultraprocessed Industrial Concoctions

photoIn contrast to the typical nonfat frozen yogurt  sugar nightmare, a 5 oz serving of whole milk yogurt from Traders Point Creamery has 90 calories total, 5 grams of fat, 7 total grams of carbohydrate and 5 grams of protein.

There are four ingredients listed on the glass bottle for Traders Point Creamery whole milk yogurt: organic whole milk, organic skim milk, live cultures, and probiotic cultures. The cows are also pastured raised and grass-fed.

This is a yogurt I can recommend.

The food industry routinely presents us with ultra-processed, “food-like” substances that are promoted as more healthy but contain added sugar and refined carbohydrates to enhance taste and promote excess consumption. When we consume sugar added by food processing, we are consuming calories without any nutritional value.

There is no science that tells us that substituting sugar for dairy fat is better for you or for your heart. Several lines of evidence suggest excess consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates contribute to obesity, inflammation and may increase cardiovascular and chronic disease risk. The high glycemic index and resulting spike in blood sugar may trigger hormonal responses that increase inflammation and fat storage.

America’s obesity epidemic seems to have developed as Americans, following dietary guidelines not based in science, began seeking out low-fat substitutes for real foods. Thus, we have witnessed the explosion of fat-free or low-fat frozen yogurt as food marketers and the obliging “health” media trumpeted the health benefits of these products with no evidence to support the claims.

Being the skeptical cardiologist I have to point out that there has been a shameless, unsubstantiated over-hype of the benefits of yogurt in all sorts of areas including immunity, “digestive health,” bladder cancer, and eczema. I’ll review the health benefits (if any) of the “probiotic” or “prebiotic” features of yogurt and the growth of Greek yogurt in future posts.

Full Disclosure: I have no connections with and receive no support from any food industry sponsored organization. I’m not selling anything. I’m just an unbiased cardiologist seeking the truth so I can make evidence-based recommendations on diet to my patients.  I do eat Traders Point Creamery yogurt and drink their milk but have no other connection to the whole organic yogurt I featured in the pictures.  I have, however, visited their farm and can attest to the fact that the cows are grazing in a pasture and are well treated.