Tag Archives: death

Salt Talks Two

The skeptical cardiologist found himself reading a cookbook the other day, something he heretofore had avoided. Cookbooks somehow seem archaic and, I presumed, exclusively the domain of the women in my life.  My mother had loads of them, hiding their food-stained bindings behind a cabinet door in my childhood kitchen. Whereas I can stare longingly at all manner of books on  bookstore shelves, I scrupulously avoid the cooking section, finding nothing that intrigues or attracts me in their heavily illustrated contents.

The eternal fiancee’ of the skeptical cardiologist (EFOSC), I believe, had requested I find the recipes for several dishes we (more accurately, she) could prepare the next week and had headed off to Whole Foods or Nordstrom Rack or Pier 1 (all of which, strangely and conveniently sit side by side).

IMG_6880 copyAfter receiving directions on where these mysterious tomes resided, I grabbed the cookbook that looked the most interesting: Ruhlman’s TWENTY: 20 Techniques, 100 Recipes, A Cook’s Manifesto. Instead of searching for recipes I ended up being distracted by Chapter 2: Salt: Your Most Important Tool.

In Chapter 2, Ruhlman makes the bold statement that “if you don’t have a preexisting problem with high blood pressure and if you eat natural foods-foods that aren’t heavily processed-you can salt your food to whatever level tastes good to you without worrying about health concerns.”

As I’ve written previously, I agree with him, and a recent article published in The Lancet casts further doubt on recommendations for the general population to limit sodium consumption drastically.

In the Lancet article, the authors did a pooled analysis of four large prospective studies involving 133118 patients in 49 countries. They studied the relationship between salt consumption, measured by 24 hour urine excretion of sodium (because what goes in must come out) and the incidence of cardiovascular disease and death over about 4 years.

The findings:

  1. Patients without hypertension who excreted more than 7 grams/day of sodium were no more likely to have cardiovascular disease or death than those excreting  4-5 grams/day.
  2. In fact, in both normotensive and hypertensive groups, sodium excretion of < 3 g/day was associated with a significantly (26% higher in normotensives, 34% in hypertensives) increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death.
  3. The only group that would appear to benefit from lower sodium consumption was the hypertensive group which excreted 7 g/day of sodium and when compared to the hypertensive group that excreted 4-5 g/day of sodium had a 23% higher risk of CV death and disease.

If we have to worry about anything with salt consumption, this study (and others) suggests that it is consuming too little salt.

The only group that need worry about too much salt consumption is those who have hypertension and who consume a really large amount of salt.  Since the average American Average consumes 3.4 grams per day of salt, very few of us are consuming over 7 g/day.  Despite this, The American Heart Association continues to stick by its totally unjustified recommendation that sodium levels be no higher than 1,500 mg/day, and other organizations recommend sodium levels below 2,300 mg/day.

What Kind of Salt Should We Consume

Ruhlman recommends coarse kosher salt, preferably Diamond Crystal or, if that’s not available, Morton’s.

Why? Because “salt is best measured with your fingers and eyes, not with measuring spoons.”

“Coarse salt is easier to hold and easier to control than fine salt.”

He feels that salting is an inexact skill and one should always salt to taste.

“When  recipe includes a precise measure of salt, a teaspoon, say, this is only a general reference, or an order of magnitude–a teaspoon, not a tablespoon. You may need to add more. How do you know? Taste the food.”

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The skeptical cardiologist’s frittata.

These words were music to my ears as I am an advocate of serendipity, chaos and creativeness in the kitchen.  When I make a frittata, as I did this morning, I measure nothing precisely; not the butter and olive oil used to sauté, the bell peppers, onions and garlic; not the milk mixed with the eggs; not the cheese sprinkled on top; not the time spent in the oven or even the heat; and most assuredly, not the salt and pepper.

IMG_6876At the end of the frittata creation process I took a bite. It was delicious but it needed something: a touch more salt. I sprinkled some David’s kosher salt on top and tried again, Perfection!

Although I have hypertension, I know (see discussion here) that my salt consumption is way below 7 grams/day and, if anything, based on the most recent studies, I should be worrying about too little sodium in my diet.

saltatorily yours,

-ACP

PS>

As I outlined in one of my previous posts on salt, here is what I tell my patients:

  • Spend a day or two accurately tracking your consumption of salt to educate yourself. I found this app to be really helpful. I’ll expand on this in a future post.
  • Recognize that not everybody needs to follow a low salt diet. If your blood pressure is not elevated and you have no heart failure you don’t need to change your salt consumption.
  • If your blood pressure is on the low side and especially if you get periodic dizzy spells, often associated with standing quickly liberalize your salt intake, you will feel better.
  • If you have high blood pressure, you are the best judge of how salt effects your blood pressure. In the example I gave in a previous post, my patient realized that all the salt he was sprinkling on his tomatoes was the major factor causing his blood pressure to spike.
  • The kidneys do a great job of balancing sodium intake and sodium excretion if they are working normally. If you have kidney dysfunction you will  be more sensitive to the effects of salt consumption on your blood pressure and fluid retention.
  • If you are following a Mediterranean diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables you are going to be in the ideal range for both potassium and sodium consumption.

Nuts, Legumes, Drupes and Mortality

When I was a child in small town Oklahoma, I collapsed walking home from school one day after eating pecans. Apparently I had never encountered pecans in England where I grew up and I had a very severe, life-threatening  allergic reaction (anaphylaxis.)

My pediatrician was promptly called, drove over, picked me out of the street and (legend has it) with one hand on the steering wheel and the other jabbing me with epinephrine drove me to the local hospital (apparently ambulances were not invented at this time). There I spent several days in an oxygen tent recuperating.

Since then I had, until recently,  concluded (based on my own multiple food reactions and research) that I was allergic to “tree nuts.”

I would patiently explain to the uninitiated that I could eat almonds because they are in the peach family and I could eat peanuts because they are in the legume family: neither one of these, therefore, were true “tree nuts.”

To all whom I gave this seemingly erudite explanation I owe an apology for I have learned the earth-shattering truth that pecans are drupes! They are no more a nut than an almond is!

In fact, even walnuts are not nuts as hard as that is to believe.

Pecans, walnuts and almonds are all drupes.

Why, you may wonder, is any of this botanical folderol of any relevance to cardiology?

Nuts and Cardiovascular Death

For those paying attention to media reports on the latest food that will either kill you or make you live for ever you may already know the answer. This paper published in JAMA made big headlines.

Jane Brody of the New York Times wrote a piece extolling the virtues of nuts entitled “Nuts are a Nutritional Powerhouse”. Medical New Today wrote “Eating Nuts Linked to 20% Cut in Death Rates”.

It turns out, however, that most of what the 136,000 Chinese were eating and half of  the “nuts” the 85,000 low income Americans were eating in that JAMA study  were legumes: peanuts or peanut butter. The authors wrote:

“Our findings … raise the possibility that a diet including peanuts may offer some CVD (cardiovascular)  protection. We cannot, however, make etiologic inferences from these observational data, especially with the lack of a clear dose-response trend in many of the analyses. Nevertheless, the findings highlight a substantive public health impact of nut/peanut consumption in lowering CVD mortality, given the affordability of peanuts to individuals from all [socioeconomic status] backgrounds.”

These findings follow another large observational study published in 2013 which also found (in American doctors and nurses) an inverse relationship between nut consumption and mortality.

“compared with participants who did not eat nuts, those who consumed nuts seven or more times per week had a 20% lower death rate. Inverse associations were observed for most major causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, and respiratory diseases. Results were similar for peanuts and tree nuts, and the inverse association persisted across all subgroups.”

We also have a very good randomized trial (the PREDIMED study) that showed that  the Mediterranean diet plus supplementation with extra-virgin olive oil or mixed nuts performed much better than a control diet in reducing cardiovascular events.

Participants in the two Mediterranean-diet groups received either extra-virgin olive oil (approximately 1 liter per week) or 30 g of mixed nuts per day (15 g of walnuts, 7.5 g of hazelnuts, and 7.5 g of almonds) at no cost, and those in the control group received small nonfood gifts (I wonder what these were?)

After 5 years, those on the Med diet had about a 30% lower rate of heart attack, stroke or cardiovascular death.

Nuts versus Drupes versus Legumes

The evidence supporting “nut” consumption as a major part of a heart healthy diet is pretty overwhelming. But what is a nut and which nuts or nut-like foods qualify?

Let’s lay out the basic definitions:

Nut-Generally has a hard outer shell that stays tightly shut until cracked open revealing a single fruit inside. Examples are hazelnuts and acorns.

Drupe-Has a soft, fleshy exterior surrounding a hard nut. Classic drupes are peaches and plums with interior nuts so hard we won’t eat them. Examples are pecans, almonds, walnuts and coconuts.

Legume-generally has a pod with multiple fruit which splits open when ready. Examples are peas, carob, peanuts, soybeans and beans.

What Nuts Were Consumed in Studies Showing Benefits of Nuts?

Initially participants were given a questionnaire and asked

” how often they had consumed a serving of nuts (serving size, 28 g [1 oz]) during the preceding year: never or almost never, one to three times a month, once a week, two to four times a week, five or six times a week, once a day, two or three times a day, four to six times a day, or more than six times a day.”

After initial surveys, the questionnaires split out peanut consumption from “tree nut” consumption and whether you ate peanuts or nuts the benefits were similar.

Thus, for the most part, participants were left to their own devices to define what a nut is.  Since most people don’t know what a true nut is, they could have been eating anything from almonds (drupe related to peaches) to hazelnuts (true nut) to a pistachio “nut” (drupe) to a pine “nut” (nutlike gymnosperm seed).

Nutrient Content of Nuts

The nutrient components of these nuts varies widely but one consistency is a very high fat content. For this reason, in the dark days when fat was considered harmful, nuts were shunned.

However, in our more enlightened era we now know that fat does not cause heart disease or make you fat.

Please repeat after me “Fat does not cause heart disease or make you fat.”

A one ounce portion of pecans contains 20.4 grams of fat (11.6 arms monounsaturated and 6.1 polyunsaturated) so that 90% of its 204 calories come from fat.

Nuts, of course, also contain numerous other biologically active compounds that all interact and participate in the overall  beneficial effects that they have on cardiovascular disease and mortality.

They are a whole, real food which can be eaten intact without processing and these are the foods we now recognize provide the best choices in our diets, irrespective of fat or carbohydrate content.

They are also convenient, as they are easy to store and carry with you, providing a perfect snack.

If You Think It’s A Nut, It’s A Nut

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Hazelnut Death Experiment (Don’t try this at home!) A single hazelnut was partitioned into halves, quarters, slivers and little tiny bits. Progressively larger portions were consumed at 5 minute intervals. An Epipen (right) was available in case of anaphylaxis.

It turns out, that my attempts to put pecans and walnuts in to a specific family of nuts that increased my risk of dying if I consumed them were misguided.

I’m allergic to drupes.

In fact, I did an experiment recently and consumed a true nut (a hazelnut) and found I had no reaction.

I’m not allergic to nuts!!!

In the world of allergic reactions, thus,  there is no particular value to partitioning nuts from drupes from legumes.

Similarly, for heart healthy diets, it doesn’t matter if you are consuming a true nut or a drupe as long as you think of it as a nut.

Consume them without concern about the fat content and consume them daily and as along you are not allergic to them they will prolong your life.

Skeptically Yours,
-ACP

 

 

 

Death and Marriage in The Big Easy

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Built in 1857 for Richard Terrell, a wealthy cotton broker originally from Natchez, Mississippi, the Terrell House is a grand three story Italianate stucco-over-brick mansion. The main house features porches, galleries, and balconies framed in ornate cast iron and a brick New Orleans courtyard complete with several fountains and lush vegetation.

The Skeptical Cardiologist is not just researching low carb diets in The Big Easy. He has also been investigating the effects of marriage on cardiovascular risk.

I and the significant other of the skeptical cardiologist stayed at the wonderful Terrell House, a  bed and breakfast nestled among the magnolias on Magazine Street in the Garden District of New Orleans. There, we participated in the marriage of our close friends, Dave and Barb.

Was marrying a heart healthy choice for Dave? for Barb?

Science seems to tell us yes. Marriage has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease compared to being single or divorced in multiple studies and for both sexes.

A study of the rate at which individuals in Finland developed what are termed acute coronary syndromes or ACS (think of these as heart attacks or heart attacks about to happen) showed that ACS events were approximately 58–66% higher among unmarried men and 60–65% higher in unmarried women, than among married men and women in all age groups.

The chance of dying within 28 days of an ACS were even worse for the unmarried. These mortality rates were found to be 60–168% higher in unmarried men and 71–175% higher in unmarried women, than among married men and women.

This meant a rate of death of 26% in the 35-64-year-old married men, 42% in men who had previously been married, and 51% in never-been-married men. Among women, the corresponding figures were 20%, 32%, and 43%.

As with all such observational studies, association does not prove causation.

How on earth does being married confer a lower risk of developing cardiac problems and halving of the death rate once one has an ACS?

Some speculation from the authors:

1.  Perhaps a poor health status leads to not getting married or getting divorced more frequently.

2.  Perhaps married people have better health habits and enjoy higher levels of social support than the unmarried which promotes lower risk

3. Perhaps prospects in the pre-hospital phase are better because of earlier intervention (wife bugging husband to get that indigestion checked out)

Do I believe that Dave and Barb have suddenly halved their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease because they tied the knot last night?  Not at all!

Nothing has fundamentally changed in their lives that I can see that will have any significant impact on either one’s risk of a heart attack.

If Dave were a true bachelor and not in a committed monogamous relationship I can see certain factors that marriage would modify: perhaps unmarried Dave would be more inclined to engage in risky behaviors such as binge drinking, cigarette smoking, unhealthy food consumption or staying out late partying and  listening to wild music. Perhaps married Dave’s wife will be watching over him carefully for any signs or symptoms of heart disease and encouraging an early visit to the doctor to get checked out.

Perhaps the presence of kids limits the married parents engagement in risky or unhealthy behaviors either because the parents are spending more time parenting than partying or because they are trying to serve as role models.

Perhaps, and this is likely unmeasurable, it is the “love” in the relationship (and the associated change in neurohormonal milieu) that lowers stress and inflammation and is crucial in stopping atherosclerosis.

Two individuals living together in a committed and loving relationship would seem to have these same factors on their side and I can’t fathom how the legal or religious sanctioning of their union modifies those factors favorably.

Unfortunately, the myriad studies that have been published on this topic totally fail to capture the important distinction between single and unattached and single but living in a committed and loving relationship.

In any event, in the immortal words from my toast to them last night:

“May your fights be short and your apologies many
May your desire to be in each other’s company grow stronger every year
And may all your bartenders look like  Alan Alda”
Here’s to Barb and Dave and marriage and less death!