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:

 

 

 

 

 

Still More Reasons Not to Take Worthless Vitamins and MultiVitamins

As I have pointed out in a previous post, there is no reason to take multivitamins or any individual vitamin or supplement to prevent cardiovascular disease.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) has just  updated its 2003 recommendation on vitamin supplementation to prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer and published this analysis in the April 15, 2014  Annals of Internal Medicine issue.

Their recommendations agree with mine and those of the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

After analyzing all available studies they found insufficient evidence to support

  • the use of multivitamins to prevent cardiovascular disease or cancer
  • the use of single or paired nutrients (except β-carotene or vitamin E) for the prevention of cardiovascular disease or cancer (including Vitamins A, C, D, E, folic acid, selenium and beta-carotene)

About half the country is taking these worthless vitamins, supplements and multivitamins and spending 28 billion dollars per year on them.

This money would be much better spent on gym memberships or  on the purchase of real, unprocessed food which contains all the vitamins and nutrients you need.

 

 

Hot Dogs, Brats, Music, Nitrates and Your Risk of Cardiovascular Death

IMG_2690
The Skeptical Cardiologist observes the Dirt Leg Benders at Perche Creek Bridge

The skeptical cardiologist participated in the Pedaler’s Jamboree this Memorial Day weekend. This is an annual bicycling/music festival centered around a 30 mile bike ride from Columbia to Boonville, MO along the KT trail as it tracks the Missouri River. It ends at Kemper Park in Boonville with a concert and campout (the highlight of which for me was SHEL)

 

At various stops along the way we were treated to excellent roots/blues/folk

The significant other of the skeptical cardiologist (SOSC) and friend enjoying the bluesy slide guitar work of White Trash Blues Revival at the McBaine stop along the KT trail at the Pedaler's Jamboree
The significant other of the skeptical cardiologist (SOSC) and friend enjoying the bluesy slide guitar work of White Trash Blues Revival at the McBaine stop along the KT trail at the Pedaler’s Jamboree

music. Our favorite moment was listening to an awesome duo from Fort Wayne, Indiana, the White Trash Blues Revival, in a downpour at the McBaine stop. The lead singer/guitarist played a home-made lap steel (made from a skate board and a Red Stripe beer bottle) and the drummer played trash cans, a beer keg and a cardboard box with outstanding results.

During the day, I observed thousands of my fellow pedalers consuming hot dogs and bratwursts at the various stops. In America, during Memorial Day weekend, several million brats and dogs will be consumed which made me ponder: is this increasing Americans’ risk of dying from heart disease?

 

US dietary-guidelines recommend “eating less” red and processed meat. For cardiovascular disease, these recommendations are based largely on expected effects on blood cholesterol of saturated fat and dietary cholesterol in meats. However, multiple recent published analyses have found no relationships of meat intake with cardiometabolic disease outcomes, including coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke, and diabetes.

This is a really important fact to know when making food choices, so I’m going to highlight it and repeat it:

Scientific studies do not show an association between unprocessed red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease.

 “Red meat” is usually defined as unprocessed meat from beef, hamburgers, lamb, pork, or game, and excludes poultry, fish, or eggs.

“Processed meat” is any meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives, such as bacon, salami, sausages, hot dogs, or processed deli or luncheon meats, excluding fish or eggs.

A 2010 meta-analysis of American studies on this showed no increased risk of coronary heart disease for the highest consumers of unprocessed meat versus the lowest.

On the other hand, each serving per day of processed meat was associated with a 42% higher risk of coronary heart disease.  Restricted to US studies, each serving per day was associated with 53% higher risk of diabetes.

A recent European study of 448,000 people found no association between unprocessed red meat consumption and mortality. For processed meats, there was an 18% higher risk of death per 50 gm/day serving.

Scientists really don’t know what it is about processed red meat that makes it associated with higher mortality.

As the table below indicates, the amount of saturated fat and cholesterocontents processed meatl is not higher, so that does not appear to be the cause.

Because sodium nitrite is used to cure most processed  meats, processed meats have about 4 times the amount of sodium as red meats.

High dietary sodium intake significantly increases blood pressure. Habitual consumption may also worsen arterial compliance and promote vascular stiffness, so It’s possible this is a factor.

Nitrate and nitrite levels are about 40% higher in processed meats and this has been suggested as a contributor to higher CVD and cancer rates.

However, 80-95% of dietary nitrates come from vegetables sources and a very significant source of nitrites is the breakdown of nitrates to nitrites by bacteria in saliva. Recent studies suggest that the blood pressure lowering effect of vegetables may be mediated by their nitrate content.

 A recent review concluded

At present, it seems that dietary nitrite and nitrate have cardiovascular protective effects. … the effects of nitrite and nitrate to enhance NO bioavailability, to improve endothelial function, to cause vasodilation, and to inhibit platelet aggregation may at least partly mediate their cardiovascular beneficial effects. … Taking the data presented above together with the failure of recent studies to show significant correlation between nitrite and nitrate exposure and cancer, we suggest that the benefits of dietary nitrite and nitrate will strongly outweigh any potential risks, particularly for cardiovascular disease patients.

So, there is a signal from observational data that processed meats may increase cardiovascular disease and death, but exactly which ones might be the culprits and how this might work is entirely unclear. I’m still consuming brats, sausages,  and hot dogs on occasion. Riding a bike, listening to music and drinking beer is a fine occasion for that.

I would advise the following

  • Don’t worry about nitrates/nitrites in processed meats. Science has not determined whether this is good or bad for you. Brands of bacon/sausage that claim no nitrates/nitrites are often using “natural” forms of nitrates that come from sources such as celery powder or sea salt.
  • Processed meats contain a lot of salt. Your body likely senses that and cuts back on salt consumption in other food choices during the day, especially if you indulge moderately. If you eat too much, too often, you put yourself at risk for high blood pressure and its attendant consequences. What is “too much” is uncertain, but the higher rates of heart disease and death don’t really seem to kick in until you eat the equivalent of greater than 80 grams per day.
  • Personally, I choose sustainably, humanely, “naturally” and locally raised processed meats whenever possible but there is no evidence-based medicine supporting this choice.

 

Are You Fed Up With Sugar?

A new documentary  movie, Fed UP, released May 9 and a   New York Times Editorial published  today are helping to focus the country’s attention on a new paradigm for what makes us fat and the importance of added sugar in causing obesity and chronic diseases. I highly recommend both viewing the movie and reading the editorial.

As I’ve pointed out here and here and as eloquently summarized by Gary Taubes in “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat”, the concept of replacing fat with carbohydrates is not making America healthier.

The NY Times editorial and an article published by the same authors in JAMA focus on an alternative view of why people get fat. The generally accepted view is based on the (seemingly immutable)  first law of thermodynamics, that you gain weight because you have consumed more calories than you have burned with exercise. People get fat due to lack of willpower in either consuming too many calories or not exercising enough. In this paradigm, all calories are equal in their effects. To lose weight you merely need to cut back on how many calories you consume. Unfortunately, calorie restriction for weight loss fails almost all the time.

 

The alternative view of obesity posits that underlying genetic factors exacerbated by lifestyle factors such as inadequate sleep, stress and by poor quality of diet are the major reasons for obesity. These factors lead to increase in fat storage which , in turn, means less metabolic fuels available for activity. This causes an increase in hunger and a reduction in metabolic activity, muscular efficiency and physical activity.  The combination of increased energy intake and reduced energy expenditure causes obesity.

Insulin is the major hormone involved in fat metabolism and of all the things we eat highly refined and rapidly digestible carbohydrates cause the greatest insulin response. Thus, the authors write 

By this way of thinking, the increasing amount and processing of carbohydrates in the American diet has increased insulin levels, put fat cells into storage overdrive and elicited obesity-promoting biological responses in a large number of people. Like an infection that raises the body temperature set point, high consumption of refined carbohydrates — chips, crackers, cakes, soft drinks, sugary breakfast cereals and even white rice and bread — has increased body weights throughout the population.

Fed Up, the movie, focuses on how American diets became awash in added sugar and what the consequences of that has been. Dr. Robert Lustig a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California, San Francisco is an advisor to the film and has spoken and written eloquently on this new paradigm for obesity and the dangers of processed food, fructose and sugar as in this video.

.

 

Here’s the trailer for Fed Up.

The film has a limited release and may not be showing in your town,  but you can check out some actions the film’s web site proposes  (supporting a proposed tax on soda and  sugary beverages, investigating your school’s nutrition policy, taking a 10 day no-sugar challenge) here.

 

 

 

Urban Cycling Part I: Does Biking To Work Make You More or Less Likely to Die?

5Boro Bike Riders crossing the summit of the Queensboro aka 59th Street aka "Feelin Groovy" Bridge
5Boro Bike Riders crossing the summit of the Queensboro aka 59th Street aka “Feelin Groovy” Bridge. For some reason the significant other of the skeptical cardiologist (SOSC) has decided to stop here to look at her cell phone, thereby creating a traffic hazard.

The skeptical cardiologist recently participated in the 5 Boro New York City Bike Tour. It was quite cool.

This annual event allows 32,000 bike riders to stream from Manhattan to the Bronx to Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island along 40 miles of traffic-free (except for thousands of cyclists) roads

Unlike my previous rides in Brooklyn and Manhattan (under the guidance of legendary Park Slope flaneur, NYC biking advocate, and old high school chum David Alquist) I was not in constant peril from automobile encounters because we cyclists had the mean streets of New York all to ourselves.

Take a look at this video to understand “why cyclists come from around the world for an experience of the Big Apple unlike any other”.

Urban Cycling as Transportation

The NYC event, and the fact that this is “bike to work week,” lead me to ponder aspects of urban bike riding, specifically, cycling as transportation.  Since cycling is physical exercise and there is scientific evidence (observational studies only) linking regular physical activity to a significant cardiovascular risk reduction, we might expect that it would help us live longer. 

A reasonable physical activity goal , endorsed by most authorities,  is to engage in moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity for a minimum of 30 min on 5 days each week or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity for a minimum of 20 min on 3 days each week. This level of exercise helps with weight control, fitness and is associated with lower mortality from cardiovascular disease .

METS:calories
METs and calories consumed per hour for various physical activities

The metabolic equivalent of task (MET) is a measure of the energy cost of physical activity. The chart to the left gives METs for various activities.  Individuals should be aiming for 500–1,000 MET min/week. Leisure cycling or cycling to work (15 km/hr) has a MET value of 4 and is characterized as a moderate activity  A person shifting from car to bicycle for a daily short distance of 7.5 km would meet the minimum recommendation (7.5 km at 15 km/hr = 30 min) for physical activity in 5 days (4 MET × 30 min × 5 days = 600 MET min/week).

 

Thus, cycling to work for many individuals would provide the daiy physical activity that is recommended for cardiovascular benefits. However, cycling in general, and urban cycling in particular, carries a significant risk of trauma and death from accidents and possibly greater exposure to urban pollutants.

bikversuscardeaths
from CBS (Statistics Netherlands) Traffic and Transport, 2008

This table shows the estimated numbers of traffic deaths per age category per billion passenger kilometers traveled by bicycle and by car (driver and passenger) in the Netherlands for 2008. These data suggest that there are about 5.5 times more traffic deaths per kilometer traveled by bicycle than by car for all ages. Interestingly, there is no increase in risk for individuals aged 15-30 years. On the other hand , those of us in the “baby-boomer” generation (?slowed reflexes, poor eyesight, impaired hearing) and older are at an 8 to 17 fold increase risk.

In the Netherlands, where a very large percentage of the population regularly rides bikes, there has been considerable scientific study of the overall health consequences of biking and we have reasonably good data on the question of relative safety of biking versus driving a car for short distances. You can watch the happy people of Groningen (“the world’s cycling city”, where 57% of the journeys in the city are made by bicycle) riding their bikes below.

Health Impact of Transition from Car to Bike for Short Trips

One study quantified the impact on all-cause mortality if 500,000  people made a  transition from car to bicycle for short trips on a daily basis in the Netherlands and concluded

For individuals who shift from car to bicycle, we estimated that beneficial effects of increased physical activity are substantially larger (3–14 months gained) than the potential mortality effect of increased inhaled air pollution doses (0.8–40 days lost) and the increase in traffic accidents (5–9 days lost). Societal benefits are even larger because of a modest reduction in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions and traffic accidents.

Apart from the highest average distance cycled per person, the Netherlands is also one of the safest countries in terms of fatal traffic accidents so it’s reasonable to ask whether these data apply to other countries. This study concluded

 When  traffic accident calculations for the United Kingdom were utilized, where the risk of dying per 100 million km for a cyclist is about 2.5 times higher, the overall benefits of cycling were still 7 times larger than the risks.

If you decide to bike to work this week, braving the elements , the possible automobile collisions and the automobile exhaust you can rest comfortably with the thought that not only are you  prolonging your own life but by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution you are contributing to the health of everyone around you.

Should I Take Aspirin To Prevent Stroke or Heart Attack?

 

Aspirin is a unique drug, the prototypical  two-edged sword of pharmaceuticals.  It has the capability of stopping platelets, the sticky elements in our blood, from forming clots that cause strokes and heart attacks when arterial plaques rupture, but it increases the risk of serious bleeding into the brain or from the GI tract. Despite these powerful properties, aspirin is available over the counter and is very cheap, thus anyone can take it in any dosage they want. 

Who Should Take Aspirin?

For the last five years I’ve been advising my patients who have no evidence of atherosclerotic vascular disease against taking aspirin to prevent heart attack and stroke. Several comprehensive reviews of all the randomized trials of aspirin had concluded by 2011 that

The current totality of evidence provides only modest support for a benefit of aspirin in patients without clinical cardiovascular disease, which is offset by its risk. For every 1,000 subjects treated with aspirin over a 5-year period, aspirin would prevent 2.9 MCE and cause 2.8 major bleeds.

(MCE=major cardiovascular events, e.g. stroke, heart attack, death from cardiovascular disease)

Dr. Oz, on the other hand, came to St. Louis in 2011 to have  lunch with five hundred women and advised them all to take a baby aspirin daily (and fish oil, which is not indicated for primary prevention as I have discussed here). When I saw these women subsequently in my office I had to spend a fair amount of our visit explaining why they didn’t need to take aspirin and fish oil.

After reviewing available data, the FDA this week issued a statement recommending against aspirin use for the prevention of a first heart attack or stroke in patients with no history of cardiovascular disease (i.e. for primary prevention). The FDA pointed out that aspirin use is associated with “serious risks,” including increased risk of bleeding in the stomach and brain. As for secondary prevention for people with cardiovascular disease or those who have had a previous heart attack or stroke (secondary prevention), the available evidence continues to support aspirin use.

Subclinical Atherosclerosis and Aspirin usage

As I’ve discussed previously, however, many individuals who have not had a stroke or heart attack are walking around with a substantial burden of atherosclerosis in their arteries. Fatty plaques can become quite advanced in the arteries to the brain and heart before they obstruct blood flow and cause symptoms. In such individuals with subclinical atherosclerosis aspirin is going to be much more beneficial.

 

Guided Use of Aspirin

zerilloplaque
Large, complex atherosclerotic plaque in the carotid artery found by vascular screening in an individual with no history of stroke, heart attack, or vascular disease. This patient will definitely benefit from daily aspirin to prevent stroke or heart attack
We have the tools available to look for atherosclerotic plaques before they rupture and cause heart attacks or stroke. Ultrasound screening of the carotid artery, as I discussed here, is one such tool: vascular screening is an accurate, harmless and painless way to assess for subclinical atherosclerosis.

In my practice, the answer to the question of who should or should not take aspirin is based on whether my patient has or does not have significant atherosclerosis. If they have had a clinical event due to atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (stroke, heart attack, coronary stent, coronary bypass surgery, documented blocked arteries to the legs) I recommend they take one 81 milligram (baby) uncoated aspirin daily. If they have not had a clinical event but I have documented by either

  • vascular screening (significant carotid plaque)
  • coronary calcium score (high score (cut-off is debatable, more on this in a subsequent post)
  • Incidentally discovered plaque in the aorta or peripheral arteries (found by CT or ultrasound done for other reasons)

then I recommend a daily baby aspirin (assuming no high risk of bleeding).

There are no randomized trials testing this approach but in the next few years several large aspirin trials will be completed and hopefully we will get a better understanding of who benefits most from aspirin for primary prevention.

Until then remember that aspirin is a powerful drug with potential for good and bad effects on your body. Only take it if you and your health care provider have decided the benefits outweigh the risks after careful consideration of your particular situation.

Moogfest, the Z-pak, the QT interval and Sudden Cardiac Death


kraftwerk
The skeptical cardiologist was planning on attending Moogfest 2014 in Asheville, North Carolina last weekend. I was going with the old friend and life coach of the skeptical cardiologist (OFLCSC) and planned on taking in electronic and synthesizer legends like Kraftwerk and Keith Emerson, riding bikes and drinking lots of craft beer. Unfortunately, a very bad upper respiratory infection took hold of me, progressing to what felt like a pneumonia (shaking chills, fever, coughing up dark, thick sputum, rattling emerging from the depths of my lungs) and I had to cancel the trip.

After processing multiple factors of risk versus benefit (not to mention the contribution to resistant bacteria), I decided to start myself on a Z-pak which is commonly utilized for community acquired pneumonia (does this mean I have a fool for a doctor?)

Azithromycin (the macrolide antibiotic in the Z-pak) , due to its broad antibiotic spectrum and perceived favorable safety profile, became one of the top 15 most prescribed drugs and the best-selling antibiotic in the United States, accounting for 55.4 million prescriptions in 2012.

The time between onset of electrical activation of the ventricles (Q) and the depolarization or reset of the ventricles (T) is called the QT interval. You can be born with a prolonged QT interval or it can become prolonged due to certain conditions. Prolonged QT intervals increase risk of sudden death
The time between onset of electrical activation of the ventricles (Q) and the depolarization or reset of the ventricles (T) is called the QT interval. You can be born with a prolonged QT interval or it can become prolonged due to certain conditions. Prolonged QT intervals increase risk of sudden death from abnormal rhythms like torsades de pointes type of ventricular tachycardia

Between 2004 to 2011, the FDA received 203 reports of azithromycin-associated QT prolongation (see graphic to the left) Torsades de Pointes (graphic) ventricular arrhythmia, or, in 65 cases, sudden cardiac death.

This prompted a review of Tennessee medicaid data which was published in 2012.

tdp
Torsades Des Pointes (fancy French word  for twisting of the points: note how the deflections seem to be oscillating slowly (somewhat like a sine wave I would have heard at Moogfest) . This is felt to be the way QT prolongation from medications like the Z-pak cause sudden death.

This study found that people taking azithromycin over the typical 5 days of therapy, had a rate of cardiovascular death 2.88 times higher than in people taking no antibiotic, and 2.49 times higher than in people taking amoxicillin. Most of the risk appeared to be those patients who had a baseline high risk of cardiovascular disease and the excess risk of death resolved after the 5 days of therapy.

As a result, the FDA added a warning to the azithromycin package insert and urged health care professionals to use caution  when prescribing it to patients known to have risk factors for drug-related arrhythmias, including those with long QT intervals, either congenitally or induced by drugs, low potassium or magnesium levels, slow heart rates or on other medications drugs used to control abnormal heart rhythms (amiodarone, sotalol and dofetilde). 

I survived my 5 day brush with a three-fold increased risk of sudden death and I really think the Z-pak substantially helped me get over the bacterial lung infection I felt I had. I knew my risk factors in detail and they were low. I was totally aware of any interacting drugs that could prolong my QT interval.

You can survive too. Make sure you definitely need the drug (i.e. you have a bacterial infection not just the common cold) and be cautious if you have any of the following

  • Family history of sudden death
  • Personal history of unexplained passing out or dizziness
  • Use of other medications that prolong QT interval (PDF)
  • Low potassium or magnesium levels (not uncommon in heart failure patients who are on water pills)
  • Severe heart disease of any kind

A complete listing is available here.

Meanwhile, Enjoy a sample of whatl I missed at Moogfest: Dorit Chrysler playing the theremin

 

 

 

How Starbucks is Making Heart-Healthy Coffee into A Stealth Dessert

Chemex
The Skeptical Cardiologist’s preferred method of making coffee-hand poured over freshly ground beans, filtered through a Chemex filter (yes, I know it’s laborious and the pictures aren’t as pretty as Starbucks, but it is really good!)

Many of my patients believe that coffee is bad for them. I’m not sure where this belief comes from; perhaps the general belief that anything that they really like and are potentially addicted to cannot be healthy.

It’s not uncommon for a patient to tell me after a heart attack that they have “really cleaned up their act” and have stopped drinking alcohol and cut back on coffee. They seem disappointed when I tell them that moderate alcohol consumption and coffee consumption are heart healthy behaviors.

In contrast to what the public believes, the scientific evidence very consistently suggests that drinking coffee is associated with living longer and having less heart attacks and strokes. Multiple publications in major cardiology journals in the last few  years have confirmed this.

You can read the details here and here. The bottom line is that higher levels of coffee consumption (>1 cup per day in the US and >2 cups per day in Europe) are NOT associated with:

  • Hypertension (if you are a habitual consumer)
  • Higher total or bad cholesterol  (unless you consume unfiltered coffee like Turkish, Greek or French Press types, which allow a fair amount of the cholesterol-raising diterpenes into the brew)
  • Increase in dangerous (atrial fibrillation/ventricular tachycardia) or benign (premature ventricular or supra-ventricular contractions) irregularities in heart rhythm

Higher levels of coffee consumption compared to no or lower levels IS associated with:

  • lower risk of Type 2 Diabetes
  • lower risk of dying, more specifically lower mortality from cardiovascular disease
  • Lower risk of stroke

So, if you like coffee and it makes you feel good, drink it without guilt, there is nothing to suggest it is hurting your cardiovascular health. It’s a real food. These tend to be good for you.

Making Coffee Unhealthy: Dessert as Stealth Food

People have always added things to coffee – cream, half and half, milk, skim milk, sugar, artificial sweeteners. The coffee data doesn’t reveal to us what the consequences of these additions are, but given the consistent positive health associations of coffee, they must have had a minor effect.

However, in the last 20 years, the food industry, led by the behemoth Starbucks (which controls 1/3 of the coffee served in the US and has 11,000 stores and growing) has turned coffee into a stealth dessert. Starbucks offers the consumer (by their own admission) 87,000 different choices of coffee drinks.
A basic coffee house drink is a latte’. This consists of one or more shots of espresso combined with steamed milk (skim, 2% or whole) and topped with foam. According to Starbucks, the 16 ounce, medium (I refuse to use their size terminology), cafe latte’ made with 2% milk, contains 17 grams of sugar and 7 grams of fat, yielding a reasonable 190 calories. Those who drink these should understand that they are consuming a glass of milk, plus coffee. Dairy products have consistently been associated with lower cardiovascular risk. They would arguably be better off consuming a whole milk (11 grams fat, 16 grams sugar, 220 calories) latte’ as I’ve pointed out in previous blogs here and here.

 

 

( Cinnamon Dolce Latte . Picture taken from Starbucks web site.

Most of the latte’s consumed at Starbucks aren’t plain latte’s, however; they are nightmares of added sugar. Let’s take the Cinnamon Dolce Latte’: (A complete nutritional breakdown is available from Starbucks’ website (I do congratulate Starbucks for finally capitulating and presenting nutritional data on their products at stores, allowing the public to draw back the curtain on the Starbucks Oz. Their website provides a cool way to compare your drink with whole/2%/skim/soy milk or with and without whipped cream)) It contains 38 grams of sugar, 6 grams of fat, and 11 grams of protein, yielding 260 calories, 152 of which are coming from sugar. That’s 22 grams more sugar, compared to their unadulterated latte’. (There must be an internet site devoted to promoting the health benefits of cinnamon since I hear about them so often from my patients but this claim is not evidence-based)

 

 

mochae frap
Picture of the Mocha Frappacino “Dessert” from the Starbuck website

My 17 year old daughter’s drink of choice at Starbucks is the Mocha Frappuccino® Blended Beverage, which, according to Starbucks, is “Coffee with rich mocha-flavored sauce, blended with milk and ice. Topped with sweetened whipped cream.” It contains 60 grams of sugar, 15 grams of fat and has 400 calories.

Such concoctions have no right to consider themselves coffee, they should be labeled as a sugar-laden dessert that happens to have some coffee in it. To give some perspective, the typical 20 ounce soda contains 40 grams of sugar (the equivalent of 10 packs of sugar).  Starbucks has added 44 grams of sugar to coffee and milk in order to draw children, teens and unsuspecting adults to consume more “coffee.”

There is growing evidence that sugar, not fat, is the major toxin in our diet. The misguided concept that cutting fat in the diet and replacing it with anything, including sugar, will reduce cardiovascular disease is gradually being rolled back. Nutritional advocates are now zeroing in on appropriate targets like sugary beverages.

It’s sad that Starbucks, which started out making a good, real product that was actually good for you, has morphed into an international, growth-obsessed, behemoth that is pumping billions of grams of added sugar into our stomachs.

But, as the significant other of the skeptical cardiologist (SOSC) often muses, people are always looking for new ways to con themselves into thinking they are eating/drinking something healthy, when in fact, they are just eating/drinking cleverly disguised desserts. Starbucks has made a huge success for themselves by providing people what they want: a way to kid themselves.

 

Searching for Subclinical Atherosclerosis: Vascular Screening

I reviewed in a previous post  the importance of detecting sublinical atherosclerosis when trying to assess someone’s risk of heart attack and of dying suddenly.  Subclinical atherosclerosis refers to the build-up of plaque in the lining of our arteries which occurs long before any symptoms of atherosclerosis occur.

Since the process tends to be diffuse, occurring in all the large arteries of the body, it makes sense that if we can easily visualize one artery this will give us a window into what is happening in other arteries (including the coronary arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle).

Vascular Screening

The vascular screening I offer in my office uses high frequency ultrasound to image the large artery, the carotid artery, that supplies blood to the brain.

normalimtNormally the lining of that artery is smooth and thin as in the example to the left. As the process of atherosclerosis works its damage on the artery lining it becomes thicker and plaque begins to develop. High frequency ultrasound is an excellent tool for identifying these early, subclinical stages of atherosclerosis because it is painless, harmless, inexpensive, and quick. 

Identifying Higher Risk Patients

Mr. M is  a 60 year old man who I was seeing for an abnormal heart rhythm. Using the ACC risk estimator I calculated his 10 year risk of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) as <7.5%. However, he had a brother who had cardiac stents placed in his coronary arteries (indicating coronary artery disease (CAD)). His carotid artery screening (shown below) shows a large, soft plaque

Large, relatively echo lucent (soft) plaque found in the internal carotid artery of Mr. M.

This indicates that although his known risk factors for atherosclerosis were not tremendously high, the combination of known and unknown factors (likely genetic, given his brother’s premature CAD) were damaging the lining of his arteries leaving him at a  high risk for stroke and heart attack.

 

A patient like Mr. M I consider to have documented atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD)and I  will strongly recommend statin therapy along with a baby aspirin

Several studies have shown in those patients who are reluctant to start statin therapy, documenting subclinical atherosclerosis serves as a strong motivational factor for lifestyle change or compliance with medications.

Identifying Lower Risk Patients

Equally important as identifying advanced subclinical atherosclerosis, imaging the carotid artery can identify those patients who are at lower risk and save them from a lifetime of unnecessary treatment.

Ms N is 64 years old whom I see h for high blood pressure and supra ventricular tachycardia (an abnormal heart rhythm). She has a total cholesterol of 219, HDL(or good) cholesterol of 74, systolic blood pressure of 130 and the ACC risk estimator gives her an 8.4% risk of ASCVD over the next 10 years. She greatly dislikes taking medications, but her mother died in her early fifties from  a “massive heart attack” .

huelsingHer carotid exam shows the carotid thickness as less than average for her age and gender, equivalent to that of a 58 year old. There is no plaque anywhere in her carotid system. I feel comfortable not recommending statins to this type of patient. In many cases, I often  stop cholesterol treatment in patients with no evidence for subclinical atherosclerosis who have marginal cholesterol levels and intermediate risk.

What vascular screening allows me is the ability to see if my patients do or do not have the disease that we are trying to prevent or mitigate: atherosclerosis.

As the skeptical cardiologist I must point out that national guidelines do not endorse vascular screening primarily because there are no randomized controlled trials showing that it influences outcomes. I’ll talk more about potential pitfalls of vascular screening when done by for profit ventures in a subsequent post  and we’ll discuss the other good way of assessing for subclinical atherosclerosis: coronary calcium.

 

Is A Snickers Bar Healthier Than Yoplait Yogurt?

This container of Yoplait comes from the refrigerator in the Doctor’s Lounge at my hospital. It is often the go-to snack for busy doctors and health conscious consumers.
I used to consider Yoplait about as healthy a snack as I could get. After all, it was low in fat, owned by French farmers and it had pictures of fruit on it. How could I go wrong?yoplait

In addition, Yoplait is focused on making “so good yogurt” as the company (now owned by General Mills) explains

“Ultimately, we’re focused on making so good yogurt, and here’s how we see it: you can eat something that tastes amazing but isn’t that good for you. You can eat stuff that’s really good for you, but doesn’t always leave you yummed up. So good yogurt does both. All of you is happy, not just your tongue. And while so goodness will never be perfect, we’ll keep working on ways to make our yogurt more so good than it is today.”

The significant other of the skeptical cardiologist (SOSC) made the claim recently that women who felt they were having a healthy lunch by consuming fat free yogurt and salad with sugary, fat-free salad dressing might as well be eating a candy bar. At least they would enjoy it more! Could this be true?

Yoplait made the bold step in 2012 of taking out the high fructose corn syrup they had been adding to their yogurt (or yoghurt as they like to spell it), but it’s still chock full of added sugar (which is probably why it leaves you “yummed up”)

What is now in “original” Yoplait?

Original Yoplait has 12 ingredients. They are Cultured pasteurized Grade A Low Fat Milk, Sugar, Blueberries, Modified Corn Starch, nonfat milk, kosher gelatin, citric acid, tricalcium phosphate, pectin, natural flavor colored with beet juice concentrate, Vitamin A and Vitamin D3.Yoplait_Original_Mountain-Blueberry

Indeed, the fat has been taken out but in its place – added sugar, 26 grams of sugar to be precise.

Of the 170 calories you are consuming, 104 of them are coming from sugar.

How healthy is a Snickers Bar?

snickers.jpgA regular-sized Snickers candy bar has a total of 280 calories with 13.6 grams of fat (5 grams saturated fat), 35 grams of carbohydrates (29 grams of sugar) and 4.3 grams of protein. It is made with peanuts, milk chocolate, egg whites and hydrogenated soybean oil. If we ate 2/3 of the bar to make the calories the same as the Yoplait, there would be 19 grams of sugar (compared to 26 for Yoplait) and 8 grams of fat.

A recent review of the cardiovascular effects of tree nuts and peanuts concluded:

there is impressive evidence from epidemiological and clinical trials and in vitro studies of beneficial effects of nut consumption and their constituents on the risk of CVD (cardiovascular disease), including sudden death, as well as on major and emerging CVD risk factors.

This is because in addition to a favorable fatty acid profile, nuts and peanuts contain other bioactive compounds that provide cardiovascular benefits. Other macronutrients include plant protein and fiber; micronutrients including potassium, calcium, magnesium, and tocopherols; and phytochemicals such as phytosterols, phenolic compounds, resveratrol, and arginine.


 

Curb your hunger.jpgSo, consuming 2/3 of a Snickers bar is arguably healthier than Yoplait. It contains peanuts, which have demonstrable benefits in lowering cardiovascular disease despite a high fat content. Yoplait has had the heart healthy dairy fat removed and replaced with added sugars. As I mentioned in a previous post, added sugar is clearly related to increased cardiovascular risk. The higher fat and fibre content of the peanuts in the Snickers bar will increase satiety and arguably be less likely to cause obesity due to rebound overeating later in the day.

A much healthier choice than low fat, added sugar products like Yoplait (and candy bars) is full fat, plain yogurt (preferably from grass-fed cows) as I’ve discussed in previous posts. It can be combined with real fruit or even with nuts. Full fat yogurt is surprisingly hard to find on a grocery shelf. Even at Whole Foods, the vast majority of yogurt and dairy products are low fat. I’ve only been able to find two brands, Supernatural and Trader’s Point Creamery, which consistently offer full fat yogurt.

Disclaimer and clarifications

godzilla.jpgI do not receive any payments from Snickers nor from Mars, Inc., one of the most known and beloved brands of chocolate.  I do not plan on seeing Godzilla, May 16. Although Snickers loves you, you do not need to like Snickers.snickersloves you.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

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