After a week of trying to track my salt consumption I have learned two things
1. Tracking salt consumption (unless you make all your meals at home from scratch or buy from fast food restaurants) is very tedious.
2. My salt consumption is low: less than the 1.5 grams per day recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA) every day (unless I attend a Cardinals game)
After reviewing the latest scientific publications on salt, however, I have to think that for most people, it is not worth the effort to track daily salt consumption.
Yes , this is nutritional heresy and goes against what my patients have been reading from authoritative nutritional sources for decades.
The AHA 1.5 gram/day limit for all Americans comes from a small, short term (4 weeks) study (Sacks FM, Svetkey LP, Vollmer WM, et al. Effects on blood pressure of reduced dietary sodium and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. N Engl J Med2001;344:3-10.)
The findings are not applicable to all Americans because more than 50% of participants in the DASH study had hypertension or prehypertension, more than 50% of participants were of African ancestry, potassium intake was markedly lower than in the general U.S. population, the trial involved only 412 persons, and a limited range of sodium intake was studied (1.5 to 3.3 g per day).
I asked most of my patients this week about their salt consumption. None of them could tell me what their average daily salt consumption was. However, almost to a man (or woman) they told me they had been consciously limiting their consumption of salt because they knew that this was healthy.
Thus, the 35 year old white woman with a blood pressure of 110/50 , palpitations and periodic dizzy spells is following the same recommendations to limit salt consumption as the 70 year old African-American with poorly controlled hypertension.
In the last few years this focus on lower salt consumption has been questioned after close analysis by the Institute of Medicine and the Cochrane Analysis.
Two articles in the prestigious New England journal of Medicine published a few weeks ago have convinced me that most individuals who are following a Mediterranean diet do not need to be concerned about their salt consumption.
Salt and Blood Pressure
In the first PURE study paper,(a prospective cohort study that included 101,945 people from five continents)
very few participants had an estimated sodium intake of less than 2.3 g per day, and almost none had an intake of less than 1.5 g per day. This suggests that, at present, human consumption of extremely low amounts of sodium for prolonged periods is rare.
The PURE Study looked at sodium excretion versus blood pressure and
found a steep slope for this association among study participants with sodium excretion of more than 5 g per day, a modest association among those with sodium excretion of 3 to 5 g per day, and no significant association among those with sodium excretion of less than 3 g per day.
This graph of data from the PURE study shows that lower levels of sodium excretion , below about 3 grams per day were associated with a higher risk of death.
Starting above about 5 grams per day the risk of death increased with increasing amounts of sodium excretion.
This is quite a shocker for those of us who have assumed for the last 20 years that the less salt we consumed the longer we would live.
Drawing less controversy were the findings from these two studies on potassium consumption. Higher levels of potassium consumption were associated with lower blood pressures and lower risk of death. The authors point out that high potassium intake may simply be a marker of healthy dietary patterns that are rich in potassium (e.g., high consumption of fruit and vegetables).
You can read more about these papers, including critical and positive comments at the heart.org here.
My Recommendations on Salt Consumption
Here is what I will be telling my patients about salt after a week of tracking my consumption and reading the relevant scientific literature.
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.
Public health experts are always seeking a “one size fits all” message to give the public. In the case of salt consumption, however, the message of less is better does not apply to all.
Ah Cheese. A most wondrous and diverse real food. Of 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
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!
This 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:
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
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 cholesterol 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.
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.
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.
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 NOTassociated 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
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.
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)
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.
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?
“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.
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?
A 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.
So, 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
I 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.
I recommend the Mediterranean diet (MED) to my patients. Every unbiased, systematic review of the research on diet and heart disease in the last 8 years has concluded that it is the most likely dietary model to provide protection against coronary heart disease. One review concludes
Among the dietary exposures with strong evidence of causation from cohort studies, only a Mediterranean dietary pattern is related to CHD (coronary heart disease) in randomized trials.
The MED is the only comprehensive dietary approach that has been proven to reduce total death and heart attacks in comparison to standard diets. There are two major randomized controlled trials (the only kind of study that proves the value of a dietary intervention) with this diet.
The first, called the Lyon heart Study, was in patients who had had heart attacks (secondary prevention) . As this graph demonstrates, those patients randomized to receive instruction on following the Mediterranean diet had a 60% lower death rate and a 70% lower heart attack rate. The second was published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine and was a primary prevention study: that is, participants had not had heart attacks. Participants were randomized to one of three diets: a MED supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil, MED supplemented with mixed nuts or a control diet (advice to reduce dietary fat). Participants received quarterly individual and group educational sessions and either free provision of olive oil, mixed nuts or small nonfood gifts. The high extra virgin olive oil group ingested an average of 3.6 tablespoons/day (51 grams/day equal to 459 calories/day) of olive oil with 98% of it being extra virgin olive oil. The high nut group ate 8.2% of their total daily calories in the form of nuts, including an additional approximately one ounce packet of nuts (15g of walnuts, 7.5 g of almonds, and 7.5g of hazelnuts) provided by the study coordinators. 7447 persons were enrolled (ages 55 to 80 years) for an average 4.8 years. Those persons following the MED diet (either supplemented with olive oil or nuts) were 30% less likely to have a major cardiovascular event (heart attack, stroke or death from cardiovascular causes.) There was a statistically significant reduction in stroke rate (≈39%) when considered as an isolated endpoint. We don’t know exactly what components of the MED are the most beneficial. This trial suggests that olive oil and nuts are at least two of the key ingredient so it makes sense to increase your consumption of these foods. Other studies strongly support fish consumption and alcohol consumption as key components. As I’ve discussed (?ad nauseam) in other posts, full fat dairy and eggs, although banned by most “heart healthy diets”, have not been shown to increase heart disease risk. Fermented dairy consumption, in particular, in the form of plain full-fat yogurt (not adulterated with sugar) and full-fat cheese is consistently associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. Plain full-fat yogurt and full-fat cheese (from goat milk) were consumed by the inhabitants of Crete, the Greek Island on which the original MED was based.
It has to be emphasized that within this pattern of eating you want to be consuming real foods, not processed products of the industrial food industry which have been manipulated to appear healthy due to being “low-fat” or “low cholesterol.”
This is a pattern of eating which is varied, interesting and sustainable.
The skeptical cardiologist has to admit that when he drinks milk or puts it in his coffee or cooks with it he almost exclusively drinks “organic”, non-homogenized milk obtained from dairy cows which are grass-fed and spend most of their lives grazing in a pasture.. In previous blogs I’ve laid out the evidence that supports that dairy products in general do not increase the risk of heart and vascular disease and, in fact, may lower that risk.
Full fat dairy has gotten a bad rap because it contains high levels of saturated fat. However, just as total fats were inappropriately labeled as bad , it is now clear that all saturated fats are not bad for the heart.
Although I recommend full fat dairy products to my patients I haven’t emphasized the organic or grass-fed aspect because I didn’t think there was enough good evidence that this is healthier than other kinds of milk and it is more expensive. There is evidence from small studies that cows consuming a more natural diet of grass and legumes from a pasture have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their milk than those confined indoors and eating corn.
I keep my eyes (and ears) open for papers in this area.. One such paper appeared in the online peer-reviewed publication PLOS recently. I was driving to the hospital, listening to NPR when I first heard about it. Melissa Block was interviewing NPR correspondent Allison Aubrey . Her take, in a more subdued written form here is similar to many news outlets.
Allison summarized the findings as follows
The researchers compared organic and conventional milk head-to-head. They analyzed about 400 samples over an 18-month period, to account for seasonal differences. And the samples were taken from, you know, all different parts of the country. And they found that organic milk had about 62 percent more of the heart healthy omega-3s, compared to conventional milk.
When asked for an explanation she said
It really comes down to watch what the cows were eating. Organic milk is produced from cows that spend a lot more time out on pasture, and they’re munching on grasses and legumes. And these greens are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. So as a result, the milk they produce has more omega-3 fatty acids.
Wait a minute! I said , you’re confusing “organic” and “grass-fed” or “pasture raised ” they are two totally different things although they can overlap. I totally get the concept of a healthier diet for the cows increasing omega-3s in their milk but I haven’t seen anything that would suggest reducing pesticide or antibiotic usage does that. The radio did not respond. Also, I asked, is it possible to use the term omega-3 without prefacing it with “heart healthy”?
Once you start demanding to know more about the conditions of the cows that made the milk you drink things can become complicated. A cow can be grass-fed but not pasture raised, meaning that it stayed indoors and was fed hay. A cow can be outside “grazing ” but be given corn to eat. Prior to looking at the PLOS one article, I did not assume organic implied anything about how the cows were fed or grazed.
It turns out that in 2010 the USDA announced guidelines that mandated, among other things, for a dairy to be called “organic”, its dairy cows had to spend at least 120 days grazing on pasture.Thus, there is some correlation between organic and pasture raised/grass-fed but not a complete one.
The PLOS one study looked at geographical variation in the difference between organic and conventional milk fatty acid content. Northern California was the only region in which there was no significant difference. The authors speculated that this was because conventional farmers in Norther California usually have cows that roam on the pasture and eat grass and legumes. Thus, it appears the differences between organic and conventional milk are primarily due to what the cows were eating rather than the presence or absence of pesticides, antibiotics, GMOs, or hormones.
Allison Aubrey went on to say
But you know, I should say that there’s a trade-off here because in order to get all these extra omega-3s, you’ve got to drink whole milk. And you know, if you opt for the low-fat dairy – say, 1 percent fat -you’ve skimmed off most of these omega-3s. So the question is, you know, can you afford the extra calories in fat. If you choose the whole milk, you might need to trim a few calories from elsewhere in your diet.
To which I responded “Yes, by all means drink whole milk, there is no evidence that it adds to obesity. You will naturally want less calories down the line and you will get the benefit of good saturated fats.”
I'll continue to pay extra to drink milk from Trader's Point Creamery that I pick up at Whole Foods. I like their milk because I've visited their farm in Indiana and talked to their (plastic surgeon) owner and I like what he says on the website about their milk (ignoring the part about a “better immune system”.
We let our cows graze on 140 acres of pesticide free pasture, which results in milk with more healthy fats like Omega 3 and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid). Grassfed milk also contains more nutrients like beta carotene and vitamins A and E than milk produced using standard feeds. To all of us this means more nourishment and a better immune system for our bodies.
I’m going to end with the summary from the PLOS one article (DMI=dry matter intake, LA=linolenic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid) which emphasizes the importance of grazing and forage-based feeds not the organic aspects of milk.
We conclude that increasing reliance on pasture and forage-based feeds on dairy farms has considerable potential to improve the FA profile of milk and dairy products. Although both conventional and organic dairies can benefit from grazing and forage-based feeds, it is far more common—and indeed mandatory on certified organic farms in the U.S.—for pasture and forage-based feeds to account for a significant share of a cow’s daily DMI. Moreover, improvements in the nutritional quality of milk and dairy products should improve long-term health status and outcomes, especially for pregnant women, infants, children, and those with elevated CVD risk. The expected benefits are greatest for those who simultaneously avoid foods with relatively high levels of LA, increase intakes of fat-containing dairy products, and switch to predominantly organic dairy products.
It always irritates me when a friend tells me that I should eat breakfast because it is “the most important meal of the day”. Many in the nutritional mainstream have propagated this concept along with the idea that skipping breakfast contributes to obesity. The mechanism proposed seems to be that when you skip breakfast you end up over eating later in the day because you are hungrier.
The skeptical cardiologist is puzzled. Why would i eat breakfast if I am not hungry in order to lose weight? What constitutes breakfast? Is it the first meal you eat after sleeping? If so, wouldn’t any meal eaten after sleeping qualify even it is eaten in the afternoon? Is eating a donut first thing in the morning really healthier than eating nothing? Why would your first meal be more important than the last? isn’t it the content of what we eat that is important more than the timing?
eat a nutrient-dense breakfast. Not eating breakfast has been associated with excess body weight, especially among children and adolescents. Consuming breakfast also has been associated with weight loss and weight loss maintenance, as well as improved nutrient intake
Eating a healthy breakfast is a good way to start the day and may be important in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight
A recent study anayzes the data in support of the “proposed effect of breakfast on obesity” (PEBO) and found them lacking.
This is a fascinating paper that analyzes how scientific studies which are inconclusive can be subsequently distorted or spun by biased researchers to support their positions. It has relevance to how we should view all observational studies.
Observational studies abound in the world of nutritional research. The early studies by Ancel Keys establishing a relationship between fat consumption and heart disease are a classic example. These studies cannot establish causality. For example, we know that countries that consume large amounts of chocolate per capita have large numbers of Nobel Prize winners per capitaChocolate Consumption and Nobel Laureates
Common sense tells us that it is not the chocolate consumption causing the Nobel prizes or vice versa but likely some other factor or factors that is not measured.
Most of the studies on PEBO are observational studies and the few, small prospective randomized studies don’t clearly support the hypothesis.
Could the emphasis on eating breakfast come from the “breakfast food industry”?
I’m sure General Mills and Kellogg’s would sell a lot less of their highly-processed, sugar-laden breakfast cereals if people didn’t think that breakfast was the most important meal of the day.
My advice to overweight or obese patients:
Eat when you’re hungry. Skip breakfast if you want.
If you want to eat breakfast, feel free to eat eggs or full-fat dairy (including butter)
These foods are nutrient-dense and do not increase your risk of heart disease, even if you have high cholesterol.
You will be less hungry and can eat less throughout the day than if you were eating sugar-laden, highly processed food-like substances.
I think eggs are wonderful. They are little balls of nutrition that can be prepared in numerous fascinating ways to make breakfast interesting and delicious. I particularly like omelets. Alas, when I was training as a medical student the medical establishment had embraced the diet-heart hypothesis. It was felt that dietary cholesterol and fat (subsequently modified to saturated fat) by increasing levels of cholesterol in the blood (subsequently modified to raising levels of bad or LDL cholesterol) were responsible for the increasing rate of coronary heart disease that was being observed.
This certainly made sense at the time: If you eat too much cholesterol, of course it’s going to raise your blood cholesterol levels and contribute to the buildup of those nasty cholesterol plaques that would clog your arteries and give you heart attacks and strokes.
Since egg yolks contain 210 mg of cholesterol on average (more recent data suggest they only contain 184 mg/egg), eggs became a target of the dietary police.
The American Heart Association (AHA, the same organization that until recently endorsed sugar-laden cereals like Cocoa Puffs as “heart healthy”) had decided decades ago to recommend restricting egg consumption. In 2010, AHA guidelines restricted everybody’s total cholesterol to <300 mg per day on the flimsiest of evidence. From the AHA guidelines:
“Although there is no precise basis for selecting a target level for dietary cholesterol intake for all individuals, the AHA recommends <300 mg/d on average. By limiting cholesterol intake from foods with a high content of animal fats, individuals can also meet the dietary guidelines for saturated fat intake. This target can be readily achieved, even with periodic consumption of eggs and shellfish. As is the case with saturated fat intake, reduction in cholesterol intake to much lower levels (<200 mg/d, requiring restriction of all dietary sources of cholesterol) is advised for individuals with elevated LDL cholesterol levels, diabetes, and/or cardiovascular disease.”
The official US dietary guidelines on the topic of dietary cholesterol read as follows
“the body uses cholesterol for physiological and structural functions, but it makes more than enough for these purposes. Therefore, people do not need to eat sources of dietary cholesterol. Cholesterol is found only in animal foods. The major sources of cholesterol in the American diet include eggs and egg mixed dishes (25% of total cholesterol intake), chicken and chicken mixed dishes (12%), beef and beef mixed dishes (6%), and all types of beef burgers (5%). Cholesterol intake can be reduced by limiting the consumption of the specific foods that are high in cholesterol. Many of these major sources include foods that can be purchased or prepared in ways that limit the intake of cholesterol (e.g., using egg substitutes). Cholesterol intake by men averages about 350 mg per day, which exceeds the recommended level of less than 300 mg per day. Average cholesterol intake by women is 240 mg per day.
Dietary cholesterol has been shown to raise blood LDL cholesterol levels in some individuals. However, this effect is reduced when saturated fatty acid intake is low, and the potential negative effects of dietary cho- lesterol are relatively small compared to those of saturated and trans fatty acids. Moderate evidence shows a relationship between higher intake of cholesterol and higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Independent of other dietary factors, evidence suggests that one egg (i.e., egg yolk) per day does not result in increased blood cholesterol levels, nor does it increase the risk of cardiovascular disease in healthy people. Consuming less than 300 mg per day of cholesterol can help maintain normal blood cholesterol levels. Consuming less than 200 mg per day can further help individuals at high risk of cardiovascular disease.”
Americans were being told to severely restrict their egg consumption, especially if they had high cholesterol levels, diabetes, or heart disease. Even one egg a day seemed too much. As a cardiologist in training I dutifully took these recommendations to heart. I can’t tell you how many egg beater or egg white omelets I cooked over the next 25 years.
As more evidence accumulated, however, the bulk of the scientific evidence was coming down clearly on the side of eggs and the lack of effect of dietary cholesterol on blood cholesterol levels. As The Skeptical Cardiologist I began embracing the heresy of eating eggs, yolk and all, about two years ago.
Several large epidemiological studies have examined the association of egg consumption and serum cholesterol. The Framingham Heart Study examined the serum cholesterol in high versus low egg consumption and found no significant difference in either men or women. The association between self-reported dietary intake of eggs and serum cholesterol was examined in a population of 12,000 men in the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial. Paradoxically, the men who consumed more eggs had lower serum cholesterol than those who consumed fewer eggs.In the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), the diets of 20,000 participants were evaluated.
“Compared to egg consumers, nonconsumers had higher rates of inadequate intake (defined by Estimated Average Requirements (EAR) or < 70% Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA)) for vitamin B12 (10% vs. 21%), vitamin A (16% vs. 21%), vitamin E (14% vs. 22%) and vitamin C (15% vs. 20%). After adjusting for demographic (age, gender and ethnicity) and lifestyle variables (smoking and physical activity), dietary cholesterol was not related to serum cholesterol concentration. People who reported eating > or = 4 eggs/wk had a significantly lower mean serum cholesterol concentration than those who reported eating < or = 1 egg/wk (193 mg/dL vs. 197 mg/dL, p < 0.01”
Study after study in the next 20 years showed that egg consumption was not associated with coronary heart disease and strokes. A more recent study from Spain shows no association of egg consumption on cardiovascular disease. A meta-analysis of all prospective cohort studies published in 2013 concluded that there was no association between higher egg consumption and coronary heart disease or stroke. Studies (randomized controlled trials) that actually prove that egg consumption causes cardiovascular disease are totally lacking. Nutritional guidelines should have concluded that there was no reason to restrict egg consumption in the vast majority of Americans.
Unfortunately, the AHA guidelines (and mainstream nutritional advisors) to this day continue to embrace the 300 mg/ day limit on cholesterol (although most other countries have dropped it). Most of my patients, having heard that eggs are bad for the heart, mistakenly try to restrict the amount they eat or eat egg whites. I see my fellow doctors in the doctors’ lounge taking boiled eggs out of the refrigerator, scooping the yolk out and eating only the egg white.
Why doesn’t more cholesterol in the diet lead to higher blood cholesterol level and subsequently to heart attacks? The answer is complicated, beyond the scope of this blog, but it illustrates how amazingly complex the body’s regulation of lipids and lipoproteins is, as well as how complicated the process of atherosclerosis is.
There are at a very basic level 3 main types of fat that doctors measure in the blood to help us gauge heart disease risk: the low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol portion or “bad”, the high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol or “good,” and the triglycerides (esterified fatty acids). On a very simplistic level, we tell patients that higher LDL levels tend to build up fatty plaques, whereas higher HDL levels can be thought of as reducing fatty plaques. When we eat an egg there is a complex reaction to the fats, proteins, sugar, and cholesterol absorbed into the blood stream. Although the LDL rises (which might increase coronary artery disease (CAD) risk), the HDL also rises (which might lower CAD risk) and there is a variable response of triglycerides. To further complicate things, each of the cholesterol fractions has good forms and bad forms. LDL can be in a large, “fluffy” state that is not prone to promoting plaque formation or a small, dense form that does promote plaque formation. Eggs seem to promote the less atherogenic forms of both LDL and HDL. In addition, inflammation plays an important role in the process of atherosclerosis. Certain components of egg yolks may actually reduce inflammation, making plaque formation less likely.
Certain components of eggs may be beneficial and outweigh any theoretical concern about cholesterol consumption.. Eggs are the major sources of lutein and zeaxanthin, two potent anti-oxidants, which in addition to their recognized protective effects against macular degeneration and cataract formation, may also reduce LDL oxidation.
Eggs also contain choline, a nutrient that is needed for membrane formation, methylation and acetylcholine biosynthesis, which plays a major role in normal fetal development. Some studies suggest a role of choline in protecting against Alzheimer’s disease
Eating eggs may contribute to weight loss compared to eating carbohydrates. A recent study compared two different breakfasts, a bagel-based and an egg-based breakfast. During the egg period, men had a significantly lower caloric intake not only in the next meal, but also in the following 24 hours.
To make things more complicated, all eggs are not created equal. Hens that are allowed to range freely on a farm and eat grass, bugs and what might be considered their normal diet, have a different amount of omega-3 fatty acids than those that are fed grain. Given America’s current obsession with fish oil supplements (see my prior post), this makes these eggs perceived as healthier. By manipulating the diet of hens, even those stuck in cages, the omega-3 content of eggs can be increased. Is this healthier?
The limit on dietary cholesterol of 300 mg imposed by the AHA and the USDA in their guidelines, unnecessarily has my patients worrying about cholesterol in all the things that they eat. For example, there is a lot of cholesterol in shellfish. There is no evidence that eating shellfish is bad for the heart or your cholesterol profile. For example, this recent study showed no effect of eating cold water prawns on plasma cholesterol or lipoproteins.
The Bottom Line:
Eggs are an affordable (15 cents/egg) source of high quality protein and fat. Although they contain a lot of cholesterol, there is no evidence (with the possible exception of diabetics) that egg consumption is related to risk of coronary heart disease; they may in fact reduce the risk of stroke.
Since this new evidence has emerged, I regularly enjoy the deliciousness of a three egg omelet with cheese and other ingredients without guilt and I encourage my patients to do the same. Personally, especially in my home kitchen, I try to eat eggs that come from hens that are raised under more natural and humane circumstances as I view them as healthier than eggs from factory farms.
Not everyone is an egg lover and I’m fine with that. There is no evidence that you have to eat them. You could feel towards them as did Alfred Hitchcock :
“I’m frightened of eggs, worse than frightened, they revolt me. That white round thing without any holes … have you ever seen anything more revolting than an egg yolk breaking and spilling its yellow liquid? Blood is jolly, red. But egg yolk is yellow, revolting. I’ve never tasted it.”