Are You Consuming Too Much or Too Little Salt?

He is embarrassed to admit this, but the skeptical cardiologist has no idea how much salt he consumes.

I have never stressed to my patients that they engage in obsessive assessment of their salt consumption. The data that everyone needs to limit salt consumption to , say 1.5 grams/ day, as the AHA recommends are not compelling. If asked, my typical response is to recommend not adding additional table salt from the salt shaker and to avoid processed and fast foods (which apparently accounts for 75% of salt consumed in the US).

I definitely have some patients with hypertension and some with heart failure in whom watching for excessive salt consumption is important. One of my patients with fairly well controlled hypertension called me last week because he was recording blood pressures of 210/120. Before I could add another blood pressure agent he had decided to stop adding the salt to the tomatoes he was eating and over a period of a week the blood pressure came back to normal values. Manyl of my severe  heart failure patients will report weight gain due to ankle swelling after a particularly salty meal.

On the other hand, I have many patients who are symptomatic from low blood pressure. These patients have frequent episodes of dizziness and have been following the recommended low salt diet thinking that this was enhancing their health. When I get them to liberalize salt intake, blood pressures and their symptoms go away.

Recent papers on salt consumption suggest that either too much or too little salt is bad for you and consequently the public must be totally confused on what they should be doing.

Since I have high blood pressure which seems to randomly fluctuate I’ve decided to try to measure exactly how much salt I consume daily. Maybe I am consuming more than 5 grams daily (I think that is too much).

This is not going to be an easy task. If i eat out during this time I’m not sure how I will have any clue what amount of salt is in the meal. If I decided to fry a couple of eggs this morning , I will shake some salt on them from the salt cellar. Is it possible to measure this amount? If I put some cheese on the eggs, will I need to precisely measure the amount of cheese? Looks like there are some free iPhone apps I can utilize to assist me in the process.

To my readers and patients, please join me in this exciting and informative adventure. Over the next week, try to track your daily salt consumption and report the numbers to me. Or do it for one day.  The Great Salt Measurement Challenge is On!

Cheerios, Soluble Fiber and Your Heart

IMG_3239The skeptical cardiologist usually eschews the breakfast offerings in the Doctor’s lounge. I’m not really interested in consuming donuts, muffins, or bagels with their high carbohydrate load. As I’ve ranted out about previously, the only yogurt available is Yoplait low fat , highly sugared-up yogurt which is arguably worse than starting the day with a candy bar.

A selection of breakfast cereals is available including Cheerios, Raisin Bran, and Frosted Flakes. Occasionally, when I have neglected to bring in my own yogurt, granola and/or fruit I will open up one of the Cheerios containers and consume a bowl mixed with 2% milk (full-fat, organic milk which I passionately advocate here and here is not available)

Pondering the Cheerios packaging and the cute little O’s made me wonder whether this highly processed and packaged food with a seemingly endless shelf life was truly a healthy choice.

The “ready-to-eat”  and allegedly heart-healthy cereal

Cheerios and Honey-nut cheerios were  the #4 and #1 breakfast cereals in the US in 2013, generating almost a billion dollars in sales. Both of these GM blockbusters undoubtedly have reached their popularity by heavily promoting the concept that they are heart healthy.

The Cheerios label is all about the heart. The little O’s sit in a heart-shaped bowl. A prominent red heart with a check inside it attests to the AHA having certified Cheerios as part of its checkmark.heart.org program. Additional text states “low  in Saturated fat and cholesterol” and “diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease.”

For those concerned about GMO  the package also states “not made with genetically modified ingredients”

Is the Fiber in Cheerios “heart-healthy” ?

Beta-glucan is a soluble fiber primarily located in the endosperm cell wall of oats. Early studies showed that oats and beta-glucan soluble fiber could reduce total and LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. The mechanism isn’t really known. (see the end of post for possible mechanisms). The Quaker oats web site oversimplifies the mechanism thusly :

“In your digestive tract, it acts as a sponge, soaking up cholesterol and carrying it out of the body”

This narrative fits with the oversimplified and now discredited descriptions of atherosclerosis which attribute it directly to consumption of cholesterol and fatty acids. See here if you’d like to appreciate how complex the process truly is.

The FDA sanctions oats as heart healthy

In 1997, the FDA reviewed 33 studies (21 showing benefit and 12 not) and decided to allow a health claim for foods that contain oats and soluble fiber. A minimum dose of 3 grams/day of oat beta-glucan was suggested for a beneficial reduction in blood cholesterol and (presumably, although never documented) a subsequent decline in coronary heart disease.

In 1998 Johnson, et al, published the results of a study funded by a grant from General Mills that showed that  inclusion of whole grain oat ready to eat cereal providing 3 grams of beta-glucan as part of a low fat diet reduced  LDL cholesterol by 4% after 6 weeks. HDL was unchanged. Patients in this study consumed 45 grams (1.5 oz) of cheerios at breakfast and then again in the evening. There was a total of 3 grams of soluble fibre in this amount of Cheerios. A control group consumed corn flakes in a similar fashion without change in LDL.

General Mills took this weak data and ran with it and began posting on Cheerios the following statements

 “Did you know that in just 6 weeks Cheerios can reduce bad cholesterol by an average of 4 percent? Cheerios is … clinically proven to lower cholesterol. A clinical study showed that eating two 1 1/2 cup servings daily of Cheerios cereal reduced bad cholesterol when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol.”

Although the FDA had approved verbiage indicating oats may reduce heart disease “when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol” the agency objected to General Mills claiming that Cheerios lowers cholesterol “when eaten as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol”.

The FDA  issued a warning letter to General Mills in 2009 in which the agency alleged “serious violations” of the FDC Act in the label and labeling of Cheerios cereal.

Based on claims made on your product’s label, we have determined that your Cheerios® Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal is promoted for conditions that cause it to be a drug because the product is intended for use in the prevention, mitigation, and treatment of disease.

Should We Be Treating High Cholesterol or Preventing Heart Disease?

The FDA was telling General Mills that it was OK to say that Cheerios may reduce heart disease but not that it can reduce cholesterol because that made it a drug. It makes no sense.

The only thing that had been demonstrated for oat soluble fiber and Cheerios in particular was a reduction in cholesterol. There has never been a study with oats showing a reduction in heart disease..

It’s the heart disease, the atherosclerosis clogging our arteries and causing heart attacks and strokes that we want to prevent. We could care less about lowering cholesterol if it doesn’t prevent atherosclerosis.

A recent review of studies since the FDA ruling shows that 70% of studies show some reduction in LDL with beta-glucan. Interstingly, the studies which added beta-glucan to liquids were generally positive whereas addition to solids such as muffins usually did not show benefit.

I’m going to accept as evidence-based the claim that whole oats can lower your LDL about 7% if you consume a very large amount of them on a daily basis.

However, the critical question for any drug or dietary intervention is does it prevent atherosclerosis, the root cause of heart attacks and strokes. There has been in the past an assumption that lowering cholesterol by any means would result in lowering of atherosclerosis. This theory has been disproven by recent studies showing that ezetimibe and niacin which significantly lower LDL do not reduce surrogate markers of atherosclerosis or cardiovascular events any more than placebo when added on to statin drugs. The recently revised cholesterol guidelines endorse the concept of treating risk of atherosclerosis rather than cholesterol levels.

Eat Real Foods, Mostly Plants, Not Too Much

If you follow Michael Pollan’s simple dictum you will get plenty of fiber, soluble or otherwise and you will avoid the necessity to obsess over the macronutrients in your diet, fiber or otherwise. Throw in some cheerios and oatmeal every once in a while if you like them, in their unadulterated state they are a healthy food choice.

To quote David Katz

Wholesome foods in sensible combinations, as prevail in the world’s Blue Zones, seemingly take care of all nutrients, by focusing on none. Such dietary patterns can be low in fat, as vegan and traditional Asian diets tend to be; or high in fat, as Mediterranean diets tend to be. Variations on a common theme nicely accommodate personal preference, allowing us all to find a dietary pattern to love that loves our health back.

Addendum

As promised, for those with inquiring minds and oatmeal-induced fortitude, I present from a recent review of fiber some discussion of proposed mechanisms of cholesterol lowering

The mechanism by which fiber lowers blood cholesterol remains undefined. Evidence suggests that some soluble fibers bind bile acids or cholesterol during the intraluminal formation of micelles. The resulting reduction in the cholesterol content of liver cells leads to an up-regulation of the LDL receptors and thus increased clearance of LDL cholesterol. However, increased bile acid excretion may not be sufficient to account for the observed cholesterol reduction. Other suggested mechanisms include inhibition of hepatic fatty acid synthesis by products of fermentation (production of short-chain fatty acids such as acetate, butyrate, propionate) ; changes in intestinal motility; fibers with high viscosity causing slowed absorption of macronutrients, leading to increased insulin sensitivity; and increased satiety, leading to lower overall energy intake.

and their take on soluble fibers overall importance

The modest reductions in cholesterol expected from intakes of soluble fiber within practical ranges may exert only a small effect on the risk of heart disease. For example, daily intake of 3 g soluble fiber from either 3 apples or 3 bowls (28-g servings) of oatmeal can decrease total cholesterol by ≈0.129 mmol/L (5 mg/dL), a ≈2% reduction. On the basis of estimates from clinical studies of cholesterol treatment,, this could lower the incidence of coronary artery disease by ≈4%.

and a comment on publication bias: the finding that studies that do not show a positive effect of the intervention tend not to get published.

Publication bias toward studies that showed positive results is always a potential issue in meta-analyses and could be operating in this study. If this were true, then the small effect estimates associated with intake of dietary soluble fiber would be further attenuated, further highlighting the need for conservative public health claims. The major benefit from eating fiber-rich foods may be a change in dietary pattern, resulting in a diet that is lower in saturated and trans-unsaturated fats and cholesterol and higher in protective nutrients such as unsaturated fatty acids, minerals, folate, and antioxidant vitamins.

 

Tofu: Heart Healthy SuperFood or Environmental Nightmare?

Most of my patients think tofu and soy protein are particularly heart healthy food choices. Since tofu contains significant calcium and protein, it is often viewed as a healthier alternative to dairy (which has inappropriately been labeled as heart unhealthy).

A huge growth in the use of soy protein occurred between 1996 and 2009 with annual sales of foods containing soy expanding from $1 billion to $4.5 billion. This appears to have been driven by a perception that soy is more healthful than other sources of protein (especially animal protein).

Much of the success of soy foods followed a 1999 decision by the FDA which approved a food-labeling health claim for soy protein for the prevention of coronary heart disease (CHD):

25 grams of soy protein a day, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease.

 Does soy deserve this designation? Should we be purposefully trying to consume more soy to lower our risk of heart disease?

Early studies, which compared consumption of 25 grams of soy protein versus control protein consumption, suggested a slight reduction in total and bad cholesterol levels. The problem with these studies is that a flawed surrogate marker (cholesterol or bad cholesterol) is being studied in place of the real disease (atherosclerosis and its associated complications, including heart attack and stroke). We now know that dietary interventions or drug therapies that lower cholesterol don’t necessarily reduce heart attacks or prolong life.

In 2000, the AHA published a document supporting the concept that 50 grams of soy protein per day would reduce heart disease risk .

However the AHA reversed this recommendation in a 2006 publication finding that

 In the majority of 22 randomized trials, isolated soy protein with isoflavones, as compared with milk or other proteins, decreased LDL cholesterol concentrations; the average effect was approximately 3%. This reduction is very small relative to the large amount of soy protein tested in these studies, averaging 50 g, about half the usual total daily protein intake. No significant effects on HDL cholesterol, triglycerides, lipoprotein(a), or blood pressure were evident. Among 19 studies of soy isoflavones, the average effect on LDL cholesterol and other lipid risk factors was nil. Soy protein and isoflavones have not been shown to lessen vasomotor symptoms of menopause, and results are mixed with regard to soy’s ability to slow postmenopausal bone loss. The efficacy and safety of soy isoflavones for preventing or treating cancer of the breast, endometrium, and prostate are not established; evidence from clinical trials is meager and cautionary with regard to a possible adverse effect. For this reason, use of isoflavone supplements in food or pills is not recommended. Thus, earlier research indicating that soy protein has clinically important favorable effects as compared with other proteins has not been confirmed. 

There is no scientific evidence that consuming soy protein lowers your risk of heart disease. There is no evidence that substituting soy protein for animal protein lowers your risk of heart disease. Certainly, if you like tofu (does anyone really like tofu?) and/or you have a philosophical desire to avoid meat and dairy consumption, tofu can provide a lot of the protein and calcium that you cannot get from eating only vegetables.

What does the searching the Internet tell us about tofu?

A Google search on the health benefits of tofu reveals stridently negative and positive (allegedly  evidence-based) articles (as is typical for everything in the world of nutrition). Medical News Today (“a leading health care internet publishing company,” which gets 9,000,00 views a month for unknown reasons), for example, has an overwhelmingly positive article written by a dietician which claims:

Countless studies have suggested that increasing consumption of plant-based foods like tofu, decreases the risk of obesity and overall mortality, diabetes, and heart disease and promotes a healthy complexion and hair, increased energy, and overall lower weight

The “Foundation for Integrative Medicine” (when you see the word “integrative” before the word “medicine,” substitute “unproven” and move to another website. This is a marker for quackery) cites similar claims, adding that regular tofu consumption reduces breast and lung cancer and osteoporosis.

None of these claims are supported in the medical literature.

On the anti-tofu side, we have this blog post from a chiropractor (chiropractors are usually big advocates of “integrative” medicine) who finds unfermented soy consumption to be the cause of myriad health problems including:

  • Breast Cancer
  • Brain damage
  • Infant abnormalities
  • Thyroid disorders
  • Kidney stones
  • Immune system impairment
  • Severe, and potentially fatal food allergies
  • Impaired fertility
  • Danger during pregnancy and nursing

None of these claims are supported by the medical literature

You can also read about why soy “May be a health risk and environmental Nightmare” here. The majority of soy grown in the US comes from genetically modified plants from Monsanto which have had a gene inserted that allows them to resist Roundup. Consequently, farmers can spray all the Roundup they want on the plants.

Nobody knows if this is a health risk or not. Monsanto likes to make the case that the overall effects of RoundupReady soy, as they like to call it, are positive, whereas Mother Jones writes that soy is “Scarier Than You Think”.

My bottom line recommendation on soy is that, like all other foods, we should try to consume it in its least industrially processed form as part of a balanced diet of real foods.

There is no scientifically proven reason to  avoid it or seek it out.

 

 

Statin Drugs Have Benefits Beyond Cholesterol Lowering

For most of the last 25 years I have told patients when I recommend  a statin drug to them that they should take it in order to lower their bad cholesterol (and raise the good cholesterol) thereby lowering their risk of future heart attacks.

I based this statement on my understanding of large statin trials which demonstrated reduction in heart attacks seemingly closely tied to drops in the bad cholesterol level.

Although I was aware of the so-called “pleiotropic” (meaning effecting multiple pathways leading to atherosclerosis) of statins it was easier to point to the cholesterol lowering effects and unify that message with the recommendation to reduce fat and cholesterol in the diet , thereby lowering cholesterol in the blood and arteries and cut heart attack risks.

Thus emerged a very simple (and likely false) paradigm: Fat in the diet causes fat in the blood which causes fat in the arteries which causes fatty plaques in the coronary arteries which causes heart attacks when they get too big and block off the blood flow.

I, like most cardiologists and lay people  mistakenly assumed that since lower bad cholesterol levels associated with taking a statin drug were associated with lower heart attack risks then dietary changes aimed at lowering bad cholesterol levels would also lower heart attack risk.

It turns out that we don’t really know how the statins reduce heart attacks . As a recent review points out:

 some of the cholesterol-independent or “pleiotropic” effects of statins involve improving endothelial function, enhancing the stability of atherosclerotic plaques, decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation, and inhibiting the thrombogenic response. Furthermore, statins have beneficial extrahepatic effects on the immune system, CNS, and bone. Many of these pleiotropic effects are mediated by inhibition of isoprenoids, which serve as lipid attachments for intracellular signaling molecules. In particular, inhibition of small GTP-binding proteins, Rho, Ras, and Rac, whose proper membrane localization and function are dependent on isoprenylation, may play an important role in mediating the pleiotropic effects of statins.

Supporting the non cholesterol lowering effects of statins on reducing CVD are the following observations

-Most heart attack victims don’t have elevated bad cholesterol levels and dietary reduction of bad cholesterol doesn’t seem very effective at preventing heart attacks.

-Drugs, like Zetia or ezetimibe which lower cholesterol level by other mechanisms don’t seem to prevent atherosclerosis even though they substantially lower bad cholesterol levels.

-Statin drugs reduce heart attacks in patients who have normal or low bad cholesterol levels

What Causes Atherosclerosis?

An article (Innate and adaptive inflammation as a Therapeutic Target in Vascular Disease) published in JACC recently by Tousoulis,et al. summarizes the current understanding of how atherosclerosis develops and the multiple ways that statins may affect that process. They write

Atherosclerosis, once thought to be a lipid storage disease, is now considered a chronic low-grade inflammatory condition that affects the vascular wall. It is characterized by the deposition of cholesterol and lipids followed by infiltration of T cells and macrophages, all as a result of an endothelial injury response.

I’m including this figure from the article to give you some idea of how incredibly complicated the process is.

atherosclerosis
Overview of Mechanisms Involved in Atherosclerosis Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is oxidized in the presence of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and binds to proteoglycans (heparin sulfate) while simultaneously stimulating the endothelium, leading to adhesion molecule overexpression and increasing its permeability. Apart from this action, oxidized low-density lipoprotein (ox-LDL) inhibits nitric oxide (NO) production, prohibiting vasodilation. Furthermore, cytokines and other chemoattractant molecules, such as MCP-1, are secreted, favoring leukocyte adhesion. Leukocytes come into random contact with the activated endothelium and, due to interactions with adhesion molecules, roll and tether and are subsequently firmly arrested. In addition, leukocytes transmigrate into the subendothelial space, where they differentiate into macrophages, which in turn take up ox-LDL, forming foam cells. Ox-LDL antigens are presented by macrophage major histocompatibility complex class II (MHC-II) proteins and are recognized by CD4+ T cells. These preferentially differentiate into Th-1 cells, pro-inflammatory cytokine production. Finally, smooth muscle cell (SMC) proliferation and migration are induced as a result of cytokine and growth factor secretion.

Can you imagine trying to explain this to the average patient?

My eyes glazed over once I reached MCP-1.

Thus, doctors end up giving the simple, accepted conventional wisdom that we are “treating” high cholesterol by giving statin drugs. What we are really treating is atherosclerosis. And statins are the only effective drug treatment we have identified for this ubiqitous  and complex process.

It is entirely possible that the lower LDL cholesterol caused by statin drugs is totally unrelated to their ability to forestall atherosclerosis. The new cholesterol guidelines reflect this concept as they don’t recommend treating to an LDL target level.

I end with the closing comments from the article by Tousoulis, et al.

Given the fact that atherosclerosis is a multivariable disease, with several molecules involved in each stage, it is vey difficult to find an effective treatment. However, statins prove to be the most effective treatment so far because they interfere with most of the critical components of the atherosclerotic process and have been proven to have beneficial effects. Further to their well-established impact on nonspecific low-grade inflammation, statins also appear to have significant effects on innate and adaptive immunity that have been underestimated so far.

Searching for Subclinical Atherosclerosis: Coronary Calcium Score-How Old Is My Heart?

Heart attacks and most sudden cases of sudden death are due to rupture of atherosclerotic plaques. Thus, it makes sense to seek out  such plaques, a process I call searching for subclinical atherosclerosis. I’ve talked about using high frequency ultrasound of the carotid arteries to the brain to look for plaque and for carotid IMT in earlier posts here and here.

There is a third method that looks directly at the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart.  It is variously called a heart scan, coronary calcium score, or cardioscan, and it is more widely utilized amongst physicians who are serious about preventing cardiovascular disease.

This technique utilizes the ionizing radiation inherent in X-rays to perform a CT examination of the chest. It does not require injection of any dye or the puncture of any arteries; thus, it is considered noninvasive and has no risk or pain associated with it.

When atherosclerosis first begins to form in the arteries, it generally takes the form of “soft” plaques. Soft plaques are initially full of lipids, but after a period of time, the plaques undergo change: calcium begins to deposit into this plaque.

There is a direct relationct_calciumship between coronary artery calcium (CAC) and the amount of atherosclerotic plaque in the coronary arteries.

CT scans are very accurate in identifying small amounts of calcium in the soft tissue of the body. Calcium score tests essentially look for blobs of calcium that are felt to be within the coronary arteries, count up the intensity and distribution of them, and calculate a total score that reflects the entire amount of calcium in the coronary arteries.

A large body of scientific literature has documented that higher calcium scores are associated with higher risk of significantly blocked coronary arteries and of heart attack.

You can read the NHLBI clinic’s info for patients here on the test.

How Is The Calcium Score Used To Help Patients?

The calcium score can be utilized (in a manner similar to the carotid IMT and plaque) to help determine whether a given individual has more advanced atherosclerosis than we would predict based on their risk factor profile. A score of zero is consistent with a very low risk of significantly blocked arteries and confers an excellent prognosis. On the other hand, scores of >400 indicate extensive atherosclerotic plaque burde , high risk of heart attack, and high likelihood of a significantly blocked coronary artery.

The calcium score (similar to the carotid IMT) increases with age and is higher in males versus females at any given age. We have very good data on age and gender normals. The average 50-59 year old woman has a zero score, whereas a man in that age range has a score of 30. The average man has developed some CAC by the fourth decade of life whereas the average woman doesn’t develop some until the sixth decade. More advanced CAC for age and gender is a poor prognostic sign. You can plug your own age, gender, race and CAC score into a calculator on the MESA (Multi-ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis) website here.

2013 ACC/AHA Guideline on the Assessment of Cardiovascular Risk says the following

 If, after quantitative risk assessment, a risk based treatment decision is uncertain, assessment of 1 or more of the following—family history, hs-CRP, CAC score, or ABI—may be considered to inform treatment decision making

This guideline recommended utilizing a  CAC score of >300 Agatson Units or >75th percentile for age, gender and ethnicity as a cut-off.

CAC Score Identifies Those At Very High  Risk

A forty-something year old man came to see me for palpitations. He had a stress echo which was normal except for the development of frequent PVCs and a brief run of non sustained ventricular tachycardia.  His risk factor profile was not particularly bad: no diabetes, hypertension, or cigarette smoking and an average lipid profile. When I calculated his 10 year risk of ASCVD using my iPhone app it came out at 7%: below the level at which statin treatment would be recommended.  Because his father had a coronary stent in his fifties (this does not qualify as a family history of heart disease according to the new guideline, by the way)  I recommended he get a CAC test done.

His CAC score came back markedly elevated, almost 1000.  .  A subsequent cardiac catheterization demonstrated a very high-grade coronary blockage iwhich was subsequently stented. I started him on high intensity statin therapy and he has done well.

CAC score identifies Those At Very Low Risk

Many individuals with high cholesterol values do not develop atherosclerosis.  A zero CAC score in a male over 50 or a woman over 65 (or non-zero CAC score that is <25th percentile for age, gender, ethnicity) indicates that they are not developing atherosclerosis and makes it less likely that they will benefit from statin therapy to lower cholesterol.

Some Caveats About CAC score testing

-Like carotid vascular screening, there is no reason to get a CAC test if you already have had problems related to blocked coronary arteries such as a heart attack or coronary stents or coronary bypass surgery.

-CAC score testing is not covered by insurance (except in Texas) and costs somewhere between $125 and $300 out of pocket.

-The CT scan leads to a small amount of radiation exposure-approximately 1 – 2 milliseiverts of radiation (mSv). To puts things in perspective, the annual radiation dose we receive from natural sources is around 3 mSV per year.

Some of the other approximate radiation doses for tests commonly used in medicine are:

Chest X-ray ( )            0.1 mSV
Routine CT chest:  10 mSV
CT abdomen: 10 mSV
Nuclear stress test: 10 to 20 mSV

Smoothies: Kings of Sugar Masquerading As Healthy Food Choice

I have had a vague interaction with smoothies in the past, but after a recent jam session with my bassist daughter and drummer son, my daughter enthusiastically recommended we get a smoothie. “Smoothie” was entered into the Apple map app and a remarkable number of establishments serving this concoction popped up.

Smoothie sales have taken off in the last decade as consumers are apparently seeking healthier alternatives to carbonated beverages.

This was my first experience with Smoothie King which is the biggest and oldest chain of smoothie purveyors. According to their web site:

Since Steve Kuhnau created the first Smoothie Bar in 1973, Smoothie King has grown to over 650 locations across three continents. From the US to the Republic of Korea, Singapore and the Cayman Islands, our purpose continues to impact millions of lives around the globe.

Our quest is simple: Make living a healthier more active lifestyle delicious and nutritious. Whether you’re trying to lose a few pounds, have a little more energy at the end of the day or simply feel better about your diet, each and every Smoothie we make is blended for a specific purpose. Which is why we call them “Smoothies With A Purpose.”

This sounds spectacularly good: who wouldn’t want to lose a few pounds, have more energy at the end of the day and feel better about their diet.

Smoothie-King-New-Store-Design-interiorThe Smoothie King store was disturbingly sterile with an intense corporate feeling and had a bewildering array of choices. I could choose from Fitness Blends, Energy Blends, Slim Blends, Wellness Blends or Take a Break Blends.

 

There are 17 “Slim Blends” to choose from. The Angel Food  (“treat your body like an angel”(I have no idea what that means)) Slim Blend contains 350 calories, 84 grams of carbohydrates, 75 grams of sugar, 4 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fiber. This comes from strawberries (I saw no real strawberries behind the counter),bananas, non-fat milk (when I asked about getting whole milk the girl behind the counter told me that they didn’t even use real non-fat milk just a powder), vanilla, turbinado (fancy and deceptive word for brown sugar) and soy protein.

What’s wrong with this? A smoothie from SmoothieKing marketed as a Slim Blend contains 75 grams of sugar, the equivalent of 19 cubes of sugar. There only 39 grams of sugar in a 12 ounce coca-cola thus the small 20 oz “Slim Blend” contains the equivalent of two cans of coca-cola in sugar. There may be some useful nutrients in this monstrosity but predominantly you are getting loads of sugar in a highly concentrated form.

As I’ve pointed out here and here, there is reason to believe that sugar contributes more to obesity and heart disease than fat. Its hard to understand how this Slim Blend would contribute to weight loss in any way. It is just another stealth dessert similar to what Starbucks promotes as I’ve discussed here. What the food industry has done to smoothies is eerily similar to what happened to yogurt which I call the no fat  yogurt scam.

Most people have figured out for good weight control and health they should avoid sodas and sugar-sweetened beverages (even my 19 year old daughter has) but smoothies are masquerading as healthy choices for slimming, for fitness or wellness when they are (in the case of ones from SmoothieKing and presumably most similar chains) an absolutely horrible dietary choice.

What we have here is the classic food industry approach to marketing: Take real food ingredients like fruits, which are healthy choices when consumed in their original state, process  them, industrialize them, add sugar and promote them as healthier dietary choices.

Add in the veneer of promoting fitness or weight loss or wellness by adding magically powerful elixirs or powders and  the duped public will line up and sales will skyrocket. Unfortunately, despite claims of health benefits, consumers will end up less healthy.

 

 

 

 

 

Searching for Subclinical Atherosclerosis: Vascular Age

I’ve discussed in a previous post the importance of detecting subclinical atherosclerosis.

The process of atherosclerosis (the build up of fatty plaques in all arteries) occurs silently and often the first symptom is sudden death due to a heart attack.

Examining the large arteries in the neck (the carotids) with ultrasound for early fatty  plaques helps establish whether atherosclerosis is present or not.

If there is plaque in the carotids this is a strong indicator that atherosclerosis is present throughout the large arteries of the body including the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart.

Ruptured plaques in the coronary arteries are what cause heart attacks and most cases of sudden cardiac death are due to heart attacks.

If we can identify those who have subclinical (i.e. before significant blockages and symptoms develop) atherosclerosis, we can better target aggressive therapy to those at the highest risk.

Carotid IMT: The window to your vascular age

There is a second technique which uses carotid ultrasound  available to evaluate an individual’s longer term risk of heart disease even before plaque develops.

This technique is termed carotid IMT. IMT (intimal-medial thickness ) refers to the thickness of the wall of the artery which includes the thin layer of cells lining the inside of arteries or intima and the smooth muscle in the wall of the artery (media).

The Carotid IMT has been shown to be related to all of the risk factors that medical science knows for atherosclerosis. It progressively increases with normal aging and we have data on what the normal value is for white and black  men and women between the ages of 40 and 70.

By making multiple precise and careful measurements of an individual’s CIMT we can determine where that individual stands in comparison to normal individuals of the same age, gender and race.

Individuals whose CIMT is great than that of 75% of individuals of the same age and gender are at significantly higher risk of heart attack and stroke even if no carotid plaque is discovered.

Thus, the CIMT serves somewhat as an early warning signal for unhealthy arteries.

We can also determine a so-called vascular age from this technique.

 

Carotid IMT is the distance between the lines the two arrows point at
Carotid IMT is the distance between the lines the two arrows point at

An example of this is shown to the left. . The individual was an asymptomatic young man. He had no plaque but his CIMT measured 0.770, which is significantly higher than the normal CIMT for a similarly aged white male of 0.598.  This is thicker than 80% of normal individuals of the same age and gender. It is normal for an individual who is 65 years old. Thus, this individual’s vascular age is 65 years, 20 years greater than his chronological age.

In my office I usually recommend a combination of CIMT and carotid plaque be performed in individuals in whom I am trying to assess risk of cardiovascular disease between the ages of 40 and 70.

There is no reason to do CIMT in patients who have documented coronary heart disease (heart attack/stroke/stent/bypass surgery), carotid disease (stroke/carotid surgery), or peripheral arterial disease. These patients have already passed the early warning phase of atherosclerosis.

This technique should only be done by physicians/technicians who have been adequately trained and have dedicated themselves to performing the meticulous tiny measurements required in an accurate manner.

Major cardiovascular organizations differ on recommending  CIMT for screening purposes.  Well-respected scientific papers have clearly established CIMT as reproducible and highly predictive of vascular events but there is no randomized , controlled trial which establishes that utilizing it in conjunction with treatment decisions based on the results will improve cardiovascular outcomes.

For this reason, even though it is cheap, painless, harmless and quick insurance companies do not reimburse for the costs.

Some caveats:

*We don’t have good data sets on individuals under the age of 40 years. I offer CIMT to this group and extrapolate the good data  but more studies are needed in this age range.

*We don’t have good data sets on ethnicities other than the African-americans and European and American whites.

*Multiple methods of CIMT recording and measurement  have been published.

*I don’t find CIMT useful in individuals over the age of 70. Carotid plaque is much more helpful. Most men have carotid plaque by this age. If you don’t have any carotid plaque over the age of 70 years then you are in a very low risk category and are unlikely to benefit from statin or aspirin therapy.

Next post we’ll discuss the third noninvasive tool at cardiologists disposal to assess individuals for subclinical atherosclerosis: a direct look at calcium in the coronary arteries

N.B. As noted here.

The full process underlying intimal thickening is not fully understood but is thought to be similar, though not identical, to that underlying atherosclerosis. The hypothesis that IMT represents subclinical vascular disease may be supported by the finding of graded associations between IMT and concurrent atherosclerotic change visualized in the coronary arteries during angiography. It is important to note, however, that whilst in many cases thickening of the intima–media does represent atherosclerotic change, in other cases it may represent non-atherosclerotic lesions such as hypertrophy in response to shear stress on the artery wall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You’re The Titanium Dioxide In My Coffee

What do you put in your coffee?

Apparently 2/3 of Americans put either a sweetener or a creamer/whitener in their cup.

For the longest time I put skim milk in my coffee

When I was doing my cardiology training in the mid 1980s at Saint Louis University, one of the cardiology faculty was obsessed with the dangers of putting cream in coffee. He and mainstream nutritional guidelines convinced me  that putting this dangerous liquid in my coffee would clog my coronary arteries and give me a heart attack.  This was during the hey-day of the “saturated fat is bad so it’s better to substitute anything for it even if it was made in a factory and contains umpteen chemicals whose effects on the body are unknown” era.

Thus, was born the dreaded industrial trans-fats, and a host of food transformed to be low fat by adding high fructose corn syrup.

As a result of nutritional advice to avoid all saturated fats, Americans feared cream in their coffee and a variety of Frankensteinian coffee additives was born.

I encountered such a monstrosity the other day, as I was waiting in a gargantuan, luxurious medical waiting room when i felt the urge to have a cup of coffee to stimulate me while I waited interminably for my name to be called. Coffee was offered free of charge to those of us in the waiting room, but there was no container of milk or cream, not even boring skim milk. Instead, I found in a drawer filled with packets of sugar and artificial sweeteners, a product that calls itself “Coffee Creamer”

coffecreaerMade by “Wholesome Farms” a creation of Sysco, the giant food conglomerate, Wholesome Farms (?more appropriately Unwholesome Factory Produced) Coffee Creamer contains a  long list of barely recognizable chemicals and industrially processed natural foods as follows

  • corn syrup solids
  • partially hydrogenated soybean oil
  • sodium caseinate ( a milk derivate)
  • dipotassiumphosphate
  • mono and diglycerides
  • sodium silicoaluminate
  • sodium tripoliphosphate
  • diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and di glycerides
  • artifical flavor
  • beta carotene
  • riboflavin
  • titanium dioxide
  • artifical colors

Wholesome Farms Coffee Creamer is a microcosm of the food industry reaction to misguided nutritional recommendations to cut back on saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet: substitute  industrially produced chemical, sugars and oils and add in factory processed vitamins to create the illusion of healthiness.

The obvious advantages of this coffee additive are that it can sit in a drawer, unrefrigerated for years without spoiling because there is no real food in it but why on earth would anyone willingly choose to adulterate a perfectly good cup of coffee with it?

After realizing that full fat dairy does not raise the risk of cardiovascular disease (see here and here) about two years ago I began using whole milk (from Trader’s Point Creamery’s happy, grass-fed cows) in my morning coffee and it is a lot more satisfying than the skim milk I used for 30 years. In most coffee shops I’m presented with half and half or skim milk as options and I have no heart health  concerns about cream as a coffee additive.

Indeed, we can now appreciate cream in coffee as a very good thing as Annette Henshaw sung in 1928.

Soon we shall have to discuss “the salt in my stew”.

 

 

 

Time to Eat Butter Without Guilt

A number of readers of The Skeptical Cardiologist have pointed out to me that Time Magazine’s latest issue has a picture of butter on the cover with the headline “IMG_2965Eat Butter. Scientists labeled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.”

The lead  article summarizes a lot of the evidence I have been writing about which suggests that saturated fat has been inappropriately vilified (here) and that added sugar and processed food may be the real root cause of the obesity epidemic (here).

It is well-written and reasonably balanced and has some catchy graphics.  It doesn’t really specifically address issues with dairy fat or butter as the title implies. I have defended high fat dairy in numerous posts over the past two years.

Hopefully this article in a well-respected mainstream newsmagazine will help correct the misinformation about diet and nutrition that has become entrenched in the consciousness of Americans.

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In Defense of Real Cheese

Ah Cheese. A most wondrous and diverse real food.
wensleydaleOf the thousands of delightful varieties, let us consider Wensleydale, the 33rd type of cheese requested by John Cleese of Ye Olde Cheese Emporium proprietor, Henry Wensleydale (Purveyor of Fine Cheese to the Gentry and the Poverty Stricken Too) in the Monty Python sketch, Cheese Shop.

The cheese I have in front of me from Wensleydale creamery (which owes its continued existence to being the favorite cheese of  Wallace (of Wallace and Gromit fame)) lists  the following ingredients:

  • pasteurized cow’s milk
  • cheese cultures
  • salt
  • rennet
  • annato (a natural coloring that gives cheese and other foods a bright orange hue. It comes from the Bixa orellana, a tropical plant commonly known as achiote or lipstick tree (from one of its uses))

Other than annato, the above ingredients are components of all cheese and signify that it is a non processed, nonindustrial product.

A 1 oz serving of this cheese (28 grams), like cheddar cheese (“the single most popular cheese in the world”), provides 110 calories, 80 of which are from fat (9 grams total fat, 6 grams saturated fat), 25 grams of cholesterol, 170 mg of salt and around 200 mg of calcium.

For the last 40 years, Americans have been mistakenly advised that all  saturated fat in the food is bad and contributes to heart disease. Since cheese contains such a high proportion of saturated fat, it has also been targeted. Dietary recommendations suggest limiting real cheese consumption and switching to low-fat cheese.

This concept is not supported by any recent analysis of data, and as I’ve pointed out in a previous post, saturated fat does not contribute to obesity, nor is it clearly associated with increased heart disease risk. There are many different saturated fats and they have varying effects on putative causes of heart disease such as bad/good cholesterol and inflammation. In addition, the milieu in which the fats are consumed plays a huge role in how they effect the body.

Cheese vary widely in taste, texture and color and the final ingredients depend on a host of different factors including:

  • the type of animal milk used
  • the the diet of the animal
  • the amount of butterfat
  • whether the product is pasteurized or not
  • the strain of bacteria active in the cheese
  • the strain of mold active in the cheese

As a result the bioactive ingredients in cheese will vary from type to type.

Recent scientific reviews of the topic note that dairy products such as cheese do not exert the negative effects on blood lipids as predicted solely by the content of saturated fat. Calcium and other bioactive components may modify the effects on LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.

In addition, we now know that the effect of diet on a single biomarker is insufficient evidence to assess CAD risk; a combination of multiple biomarkers and epidemiologic evidence using clinical endpoints is needed to substantiate the effects of diet on CAD risk.

Some points to consider in why dairy and cheese in particular are healthy:

  • Blood pressure lowering effects.  Calcium is thought to be one of the main nutrients responsible for the impact of dairy products on blood pressure. Other minerals such as magnesium, phosphate and potassium may also play a role. Casein and whey proteins are a rich source of specific bioactive peptides that  have an angiotensin-I-converting enzyme inhibitory effect, a key process in blood pressure control. Studies have also suggested that certain peptides derived from milk proteins may modulate endothelin-1 release by endothelial cells, thereby partly explaining the anti-hypertensive effect of milk proteins.
  • Inflammation and oxidative stress reduction. These are key  factors in the development of atherosclerosis and subsequent heart disease and stroke. Recent animal and human studies suggest that dairy components including calcium and or its unique proteins, the peptides they release, the phospholipids associated with milk fat or the stimulation of HDL by lipids themselves, may suppress adipose tissue oxidative and inflammatory response.

Government and health organization nutritional guidelines have had a huge and harmful impact on what the food industry presents to Americans to eat. The emphasis on reducing animal fats in food led to the creation of foods laden with processed vegetable oils containing harmful trans-fatty acids.  This mistake has been recognized and corrected, but the overall unsupported  concept of replacing naturally occurring saturated fats with processed carbohydrates and sugar is ongoing and arguably the root of the obesity epidemic in America.

Converting mistaken nutritional guidelines into law

The USDA in 2012 following an act of Congress stimulated by Michelle Obama, changed the standards for the national school lunch and breakfast guidelines, for the first time in 15 years.

The law was intended to increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and promote the consumption of low-fat or nonfat milk. It seemed like a good idea and likely to counter increasing obesity in children. However, the original recommendations were modified by Congress, due to heavy food industry lobbying, to allow the small amount of tomato paste in pizza to qualify as a vegetable.

Unfortunately, the food industry has responded by providing products which meet the government’s criteria for healthy lunches, but in actuality are less healthy.

Dominos Pizza, as a recent New York Times article pointed out, is now providing a specially modified pizza to schools which is unavailable in their regular stores. Their so-called “Revolution in School Pizza” is a…

line of delicious, nutritious pizzas created specifically for schools delivered hot and fresh from your local Domino’s Pizza store. Domino’s Pizza Smart Slice is the nutritious food that kids will actually EAT and LOVE!

school_lunch_anatomyofsliceThis pizza, in contrast to the pizza sold in Domino’s stores, utilizes a “lite” Mozarella cheese to cut fat content, a pepperoni with lower sodium and fat content, and a crust that contains 51% whole grain flour.

This “smart slice” replaces dairy fat with carbohydrates; there is no evidence that this will improve obesity rate or reduce heart disease  In fact, this change may lead to less satiety and a tendency for the children to want to snack on further carbohydrate or sugar-laden products when they get home. Furthermore, as critics have suggested, it may promote the consumption of  “unhealthy” versions of pizza that are sold in stores.

If we are going to make laws that promote healthy eating, we have to be absolutely certain that they are supported by scientific evidence. These School Lunch Program Standards are an example of how getting the science wrong or getting ahead of the science can lead to worse outcomes than if there were no laws regulating school diets.

Hopefully, you will continue to consume real full-fat cheese without concerns that cheese is “artery-clogging” and you will be more successful in obtaining the “fermented curd” than John Cleese’s Mr. Mousebender was below:

 

 

 

 

 

Unbiased, evidence-based discussion of the effects of diet, drugs, and procedures on heart disease

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