Tag Archives: heart attack survivors

Jamón Ibérico and The Mediterranean Diet

The skeptical cardiologist recently spent a week in the Basque region of Spain intensively researching dietary and lifestyle choices of this unique area.

Spain borders the Mediterranean and is often included in those countries that are considered to be the source of the Mediterranean diet (MD) which I recommend to my patients.

For a good summary of the Mediterranean “diet pyramid” check out this 1995 article.

The definition of the MD varies, often based on what  bias the definer has for particular foods or macronutrients, but initially was considered to be the food patterns typical of Crete, much of the rest of Greece and southern Italy in the early 1960s. The reason for choosing this time era and geography was based on:

  • very high adult life expectancy with very low rates of coronary heart disease, certain cancers and diet-related chronic disease
  • Data suggested common characteristics of  food availability and dietary intake
  • Epidemiological studies throughout the world on populations with similar dietary patterns suggested a benefit

The diet is closely tied to traditional areas of olive cultivation in the Mediterranean region.

The MD of the early 1960s had the following characteristics:

  • an abundance of plant foods (fruit, vegetables, breads, other forms of cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds)
  • minimally processed, seasonally fresh and locally grown foods
  • fresh fruit as the typical daily dessert
  • sweets containing concentrated sugar or honey consumed a few time per week
  • olive oil as the principal source of fat
  • dairy products (principally cheese and yogurt and full fat) consumed in low to moderate amounts
  • fish and poultry consumed in low to moderate amounts
  • zero to four eggs consumed weekly
  • red meat consumed in low amounts
  • wine consumed in low to moderate amounts, normally with meals

I stayed in a small beach town, Deba, in Spain which is half way between Bilbao (famous for its Guggenheim museum) and San Sebastian. There were very few non-Spanish tourists in Deba so  presumably the dietary and lifestyle choices I observed are representative of current Basque choices although likely different from the early 1960s.

I found the Basque people in Deba to be welcoming and joyful and European statistics show the Basque to be among the most satisfied with their overall life and job conditions.

Interestingly, the  life expectancy of the Basque population in  2000 in years was  75.8 for men and 83.8 for women, and by  2011 it had increased to 79.3 and 86.1, respectively. The Basque women live longer than women in any other country in Europe.

Walking around the squares of Deba I observed two activities which I would ordinarily have presumed would result in a low life expectancy: lots of cigarette smoking and lots of Jamón consumption.

hanginghamsHam was everywhere in Deba, from the supermarkets to the cafes. A typical appetizer choice was a plate full of Jamón Ibérico. Most of the pintxos (Basque-style tapas) we saw consisted of Jamon on bread.

From  jamon.com (dedicated to the fine art of ham):

jamon“Picture paper-thin strips of dark red ham like petals ringing a hand painted plate. Imagine big honest hams curing in the mountain air. Picture individual hams resting on stands in family kitchens throughout Spain with a long slim knife at hand for any and all to slice a treat.

In Spain, Jamón is hospitality. Jamón is Spain. Of all the European hams, jamón from Spain is the Gold Standard.”

Jamón, dry-cured ham, has been eaten in Spain and other Mediterranean countries since ancient times. There are basically two kinds: hams from rustic and free range  pigs (Iberia, Corsican or Cinta Senese) and hams from intensively-reared white pigs (Serrano, Parma, Bayonne).

Both hams involve a moderate salting and a ripening period of 7-14 months for white pigs and over 20 months for Iberian hams.

When they are finished curing, they have an incredibly complex taste,  distinct marbling, a deep red color and an intense ham flavor.

The most sought after ham is Jamón Ibérico de Bellota: a sub category of Jamón Ibérico” where the pigs are free to roam the meadows of the ‘dehesa’. During the autumn prior to their sacrifice, they are encouraged to gorge on acorns (bellotas) from the holm oak and cork trees, sometimes gaining as much as a kilo of weight a day.”

Health Consequences of Eating Jamón Ibérico.

A 100 g serving of Jamon Iberico contains 375 calories, 200 of them from fat. Of the total 22 grams of fat, 6.5 grams is saturated, 2 grams polyunsaturated, and 13 grams monounsaturated . There are 43 grams of protein and a lot of sodium ( 1.1 grams).

If we follow most current nutritional guidelines we would be advised to avoid Jamon because it is a considered a processed meat and it contains lots of salt and saturated fat.

Despite eating lots of Jamon,  however, the Spanish and Basque do very well in terms of longevity and rates of heart disease.

joxeancider
Our Basque host, Joxean, pouring cider from a giant wooden barrel at a “sagardotegi” or Basque cider house after yelling “Txotx”. See here (http://www.euskoguide.com/food-drink-basque-country/sagardotegi-sidreria-cider-house/)

The Basque good health could be related to any number of factors. They consume lots of fresh fish caught in nearby ports and prepared with lots of garlic and olive oil. (I had the best monkfish of my life in a cider house in the hills near Deba). Fish and olive oil are clearly beneficial dietary components.

They also drink alcohol in varied forms, including locally sourced apple cider, beer and fine local wines from Rioja.

moreflyschThey are active and they have long stretches of beautiful coastline to hike (including this geopark), some of the best surfing beaches in the world, and hills for cycling.

Ultimately, a healthy lifestyle consists of enjoyable and sustainable exercise and an enjoyable, sustainable  and palatable diet composed of  a combination of foods (mostly plants) , interacting in myriad unmeasurable ways. Focusing on specific fat (other than industrially produced trans fats) or sodium content is not a particularly useful approach.

I think Jamon can be considered part of a healthy Mediterranean diet when consumed in moderation and when combined with an active physical lifestyle. It makes a wonderful addition to anyone’s diet.

Jamónly yours,

-ACP

 

 

Since Dietary Cholesterol Isn’t Important Can I Stop Taking My Cholesterol Drug

A year ago one of my patients began experiencing  chest pain when he walked up hills. Subsequent evaluation revealed that atherosclerotic plaque (95% narrowing of a major coronary artery ) was severely reducing the blood flow to his heart muscle and was the cause of his chest pain. When this blockage was opened up with a stent he no longer had the pain.

Along with other medications (aspirin and plavix to keep his stent open) I had him start atorvastatin, the generic version of Lipitor, a powerful statin drug that has been shown to prevent progression of atherosclerotic plaque and thereby reduce subsequent heart attacks, strokes and death in patients like him

I saw him in the office the other day in follow up and he was feeling great . He asked me “Doc I read  your post yesterday.s Since you say that cholesterol in the diet doesn’t matter anymore, does that mean I don’t have to take my cholesterol drug anymore.?”

His question gets at the heart of the  “diet-heart hypothesis”. The concept that dietary modification, with reduction of cholesterol and fat consumption can reduce coronary heart disease.

The science supporting this hypothesis has never been strong but the concept was foisted on the American public and was widely believed. It was accepted I would  say because it has a beautiful simplicity which can be summarized as follows:

“If you eat cholesterol and fat it  will enter  your blood stream and raise cholesterol levels. This excess cholesterol will then  deposit in your arteries, creating fatty plaque , clogging them and leading to a heart attack.”

This concept was really easy to grasp and simplified the public health recommendations.

However, cholesterol blood levels are determined more by cholesterol synthesized in the liver and predicting  how dietary modifications will effect these levels is not easy.

Since the public has had the diet-heart hypothesis fed to them for decades and given its beautiful simplicity it is hard to reverse this dogma. My patient’s question reflects a natural concern that if science/doctors got this crucial question so wrong, is everything we know about cholesterol treatment and heart disease wrong?

In other words, are doctors promoting a great cholesterol hoax?

Evidence Strongly Supports Statins in Secondary Prevention 

For my patient the science supporting taking a  cholesterol-lowering statin drug is very solid. There are multiple excellent studies showing that in patients with established coronary artery disease taking a statin drug substantially reduces their risk of heart attack and dying.

These studies are the kind that provide the most robust proof: randomized, prospective and blinded.

level of evidenceWhen cardiologists rate the strength of evidence for a certain treatment (as done for lifestyle intervention here) we use  a system that categorizes the evidence as Level A, B, or C quality.

LeveleA quality (or strong) evidence consists of multiple,large, well-done, randomized trials such as exist for statins in patients with coronary heart disease.

Level B Evidence comes from a single randomized trial or nonrandomized studies.

Level C evidence is the weakest and comes from “consensus opinion of experts, case studies or standard of care.”

When treatment recommendations are based on Level C evidence they are often reversed as more solid data is obtained. Level A recommendations almost always hold up over time.

The level of evidence supporting restricting dietary cholesterol and fat to reduce heart attacks and strokes has always been at or below Level C and now it is clear that it is insufficient and should be taken out of guideline recommendations.

Evidence Strongly Supports Atherogenic Cholesterol is Related to Coronary Heart Disease

There are other lines of evidence that strongly support  the concept that  LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) or an atherogenic form of LDL cholesterol is strongly related to the development of atherosclerosis. If you are born with really high levels you are at very high risk for coronary heart disease, conversely if you are born with mutations that cause extremely low levels you are highly unlikely to get coronary heart disease.

Thus, the cholesterol hypothesis as it relates to heart disease is very much till intact although the diet-heart hypothesis is not.

Conflating the Diet-Heart Hypothesis and the Cholesterol Hypothesis

There is an abundance of misinformation on the internet that tries to conflate these two concepts. Sites with titles like “The Great Cholesterol Lie” , “The”  Cholesterol Hoax”, The Cholesterol Scam”  abound .

These sites proclaim that cholesterol is a vital component of cell membranes (it is) and that any attempt by diet or drugs to lower levels will result in severe side effects with no benefit

Doctors, according to these types of sites, in collusion with Big Pharma, have inflated the benefits of statin drugs and overlooked the side effects in the name of profit. Often, a “natural” alternative to statins is promoted.  In all cases a book is promoted.

The Great Cholesterol Truths

It’s unfortunate that nutritional guidelines have promoted restriction of cholesterol and fat for so long. These guidelines (like most of nutritional science)  were based on flawed observational studies. They should not have been made public policy without more consensus from the scientific community.  The good news is that ultimately the truth prevails when enough good scientific studies are done.

It is right to question the flimsy foundation of nutritional recommendations on diet and heart disease but the evidence for statin benefits in patients with established coronary heart disease is rock solid.

Hopefully, the less long-winded explanation I provided my patient in the office will persuade him to keep on taking his atorvastatin pills while simultaneously allowing him to eat eggs, shrimp and full fat dairy without guilt.

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.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Should I Take A Statin Drug? Risks, Benefits and the New Guidelines

StatinsThe skeptical cardiologist just returned from Washington, DC where he attended the American College of Cardiology (ACC) annual conference and visited Ford’s Theatre. I was hoping to gather more information on diet and cardiovascular disease but most of the discussions on prevention of heart disease centered around the new ACC/AHA guidelines for treating cholesterol.

A recently published analysis of the impact of these guidelines found that

As compared with the ATP-III guidelines, the new guidelines would increase the number of U.S. adults receiving or eligible for statin therapy from 43.2 million (37.5%) to 56.0 million (48.6%). Most of this increase in numbers (10.4 million of 12.8 million) would occur among adults without cardiovascular disease.

If you are a man over the age of 59 (which I just became), even without any cardiovascular disease or diabetes, there is an 87% chance the guidelines would suggest you take a statin drug.

This is a startling increase and consequently there has been a lot of criticism and questioning of the validity of these recommendations.

More importantly, for an individual patient, should you take a statin drug if your doctor recommends it? This is an especially good question if you have no evidence of any atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (so-called primary prevention). At a minimum, you should have a very detailed discussion with your doctor about the risk and benefits of taking the medication in your particular situation.

What are statin drugs?

Statins are the most powerful, safe and effective drugs available for lowering LDL or bad cholesterol levels. They inhibit 3-hydroxy-3-methylglutaryl coenzyme A (HMG-CoA) reductase, involved in cholesterol biosynthesis. Low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol concentration is lowered by reducing its production in the liver and increasing removal from the circulation. Statins also have anti-inflammatory effects, improve endothelial function, and reduce thrombus formation.

Common examples of statin drugs are Lipitor which is now available as a generic called Atorvastatin , Pravastatin, and Crestor (Rosuvastatin), which is only available in brand name form.

What are the risks of statin drugs?

When large scale randomized trials of statin drug therapy are analyzed, rates of adverse events (17%) or stopping treatment due to adverse events (12%) are similar in the statin compared to placebo/control groups.

The incidence of cancers, liver enzyme elevations, kidney dysfunction or arthritis was the same in the two groups.

There are only two side effects from taking statins I consider significant and mention to my patients:
1. There does appear to be a 9% increase in the risk of developing diabetes. Most of the patients who develop diabetes on statins were at high risk for this to begin with and the overall benefits of lowering CV disease outweighs the development of diabetes in patients who take statins.
2. Statins definitely can cause muscle aches (myalgias) and this seems to happen in about 10% of patients over time. If these develop, we stop the statin and the myalgias go away if they are due to the drug. There are no reliable studies showing any long term residual muscle weakness or ache. A very, very small number of patients develop rhabdomyolysis, in which there is severe muscle damage. These patients are almost always taking multiple medications which interact with the statins and often have kidney failure to begin with.

Some things you don’t need to be concerned with while on statins:

1. That the drug will give you Alzheimer’s or make you stupid. There is much anecdotal misinformation on the web about this, but no solid evidence of any adverse effect on cognition.
2. That the drug will destroy your liver. A small percentage of patients will develop elevations of their liver enzymes (AST or ALT) but this does not lead to liver damage and is considered so insignificant now that the FDA now longer advises checking liver enzymes in patients on statin drugs.

What are the benefits of statins in people without known heart disease?

They lower all-cause mortality by 14%, combined fatal and nonfatal cardiovascular disease by 25%, and stroke by 22%. They lower the chances that you would need a stent or bypass surgery by 38%.
Another way of looking at the benefits of a treatment is the number needed to treat (NNT).
To save one life, you would need to treat 138 patients for 5 years with statin drugs. This means that 137 patients would have done fine without taking the drug.

The higher your risk of developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease  (ASCVD (all the disease that occurs as a result of fatty plaque build up in the body, including heart attack and stroke)), the more likely you will benefit from taking a statin drug.
Thus, the new guidelines utilize a risk estimator that takes into account your total and good cholesterol values, your systolic blood pressure, age and whether you smoke, have diabetes or treated hypertension to calculate your risk of developing clinical ASCVD over the next ten years.

If this ten year risk is over 7.5%, statin therapy should be considered.

I’ve looked over the guidelines carefully, read a lot of the original studies and listened to the discussion and I think this is a reasonable approach. I try to present each patient with the risks and benefits and let them make the decision as to whether they want to take the drug.
Each individual has a different perspective, perhaps heavily influenced by their father having died of a heart attack in his fifties or by a close friend who feels that statins ruined his life.

Two important new concepts from the new guidelines

The new guidelines no longer look at the LDL or bad cholesterol level as a goal or as a level for initiating treatment (unless it is super high, above 190). Thus, the only reason to be checking follow up cholesterol panels on patients who are taking good levels of statin drugs is to verify compliance and an effective reduction in LDL from baseline. I will not try to get your LDL below 100 or 70 and you will not have to worry that it is not at that level.

The new guidelines rightly emphasize statin drugs as the only drug therapy that has good outcomes data (meaning they have been show to reduce heart attacks and strokes) supporting their use in primary prevention.
Ezitimibe (Zetia) is a commonly prescribed drug which lowers LDL cholesterol but is expensive and has never been shown to lower heart attack or stroke risk and, in my opinion, should not be prescribed.

Our goal should be prevention of heart disease, not lowering LDL levels or triglyceride levels.

I believe that we can fine tune which patients will and will not benefit from statin therapy by looking for evidence of what is called “subclinical atherosclerosis.” I plan to review this in a future post.
For now, I leave you with the humorous line from the play “Our American Cousin” that caused the distracting laughter during which John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in Ford’s Theatre (which is not far from the Washington Convention Center and well worth visiting!)

“Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.”

Tell your cardiologist you will sockdologize him if he doesn’t give you a good discussion of the risks and benefits of the statin drug he is recommending.

Why I Recommend the Mediterranean Diet

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

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

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

lyon
From Eric Roehm at www.nutritionheart.com

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

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

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

It’s one that can last a lifetime. ,

Butter versus “Healthier” Butter-like Spreads: Choose Nature over Industry

doctor's lounge donutsThe Skeptical Cardiologist occasionally wanders into the Doctors Lounge at the hospital and surveys the food choices available to him. One morning, descried amongst the carbohydrate bonanza of donuts, pastries, bagels and muffins was a bin containing little tubs of substances that could be spread on a bagel of slice of bread.

The choice was between something called Promise Buttery Spread

and Wholesome Farms Whipped Butter..

IMG_2265Conventional Wisdom and the recommendation of almost every nutritional authority for the last 30 years tells me that I should choose the Promise Buttery Spread. I would have taken this choice 5 years ago in the belief that butter with its high content of saturated fat was to be avoided. I used to spend a considerable amount of time in the pseudo-butter portion of the grocery aisles trying to determine which, of the myriad of competing alternatives, would be better than butter.
But, as I’ve noted in previous posts, the authorities have gotten it wrong.  Let’s look carefully at the two choices.

Promise Buttery Spread

Certainly the packaging would suggest that this is a “promising” choice.  It says very clearly in the small print circling the outside of the tub: “heart healthy when substituted for butter.” If you’d like to read the arcane FDA rules on which foods can make this sort of claim, they are here. Basically, if the product has less fat, saturated fat or cholesterol than butter it can make this claim.

From the website of Unilever, the giant food processing conglomerate that makes Promise and all of its siblings, we learn that Promise contains 8 grams of fat, 1.5 grams of which are saturated fat. Uniliver is very happy to provide you with the macronutrient content of Promise and its various variations. After all, they spent a lot of time researching what combination of fats, protein and carbohydrates would satisfy consumers desire for a heart-healthy substitute. Canola oil turns out to be high in monounsaturated fats just like olive oil, the major fat consumed in the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet

But how did they come up with this fine ratio of unsaturated to saturated fats? What actually goes into it?

Here are the ingredients (not obtainable from Unilever’s web site but from another source that, presumably could read the small print that I could not read on the little tub of Promise)
Vegetable Oil Blend (Liquid Soybean Oil, Canola Oil, Palm Oil, Palm Kernel Oil), Water, Whey (Milk), Salt, Vegetable Mono and Diglycerides, Soy Lecithin, (Potassium Sorbate, Calcium Disodium EDTA) Used to Protect Quality, Vitamin E Acetate, Citric Acid, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride (Vitamin B6), Artificial Flavor, Maltodextrin (Corn), Vitamin A Palmitate, Beta Carotene (Color), Cholecalciferol (Vitamin 13), Cyanocobalamin (Vitamin B12).
That’s 21 ingredients, most of which are made in a factory and added back to the mixture of exotic vegetable oils, most of which is canola oil.

What is Canola Oil? Does it come from a canola plant or seed?

A good source of information (and presumably positive) is the Canola Council web site which gives the history of Canola Oil. It all begins with oil from the seed of the rape plant, a crop grown in Canada.

Rapeseed oil naturally contains a high percentage (30-60%) of erucic acid, a substance associated with heart lesions in laboratory animals. For this reason rapeseed oil was not used for consumption in the United States prior to 1974, although it was used in other countries. In 1974, rapeseed varieties with a low erucic content were introduced. Scientists had found a way to replace almost all of rapeseed’s erucic acid with oleic acid, a type of monounsaturated fatty acid.

The Canola council website says that this process of developing rapeseed with low levels of the toxic erucic acid was not accomplished by genetic engineering, but the nongmoproject.org indicates 90% of Canola oil qualifies as genetically modified.

More history from the Canola Council:

By 1978, all Canadian rapeseed produced for food use contained less than 2% erucic acid. The Canadian seed oil industry rechristened the product “canola oil” (Canadian oil, low acid) in 1978 in an attempt to distance the product from negative association with the word “rape.” Canola was introduced to American consumers in 1986. By 1990, erucic acid levels in canola oil ranged from 0.5% to 1.0%, in compliance with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards.

The term canola was trademarked by the Western Canadian Oilseed Crushers’ Association (now the Canadian Oilseed Processors Association) to differentiate the superior low-erucic acid and low-glucosinolate varieties and their products from the older rapeseed varieties.

How is Canola Oil Processed?

Again, the Canola Council provides their summary of the process here.

Unlike olive oil which is just expeller expressed from olives, canola oil goes through quite a bit of processing. After pressing, about half of the oil is left, and the remainder is extracted by a solvent called hexane (interestingly, there is a controversy in the world of veggie burgers since hexane is used in processing soy and residual levels of this “neurotoxin” have been detected). This oil then goes through processes called degumming (which often involves mixing with acid), bleaching and deodorizing. To make a more solid form it is heated to hydrogenate the oil or palm kernel oil is mixed with it.

Is Canola Oil healthier than butter?

Unilever claims

Research shows that replacing saturated and trans fat with unsaturated fats can help maintain heart health.

Unfortunately, none of this research involves canola oil so it is not really applicable. In the 1980s, at the urging of health authorities, the food industry went through a similar process and created butter substitutes that utilized oils hydrogenated in a factory. The result was the consumption by the public of large amounts of trans-fats which subsequent research has shown to be great promoter of coronary heart disease. Does it make sense to put our trust in these newer , factory produced ,butter substitutes?

There are NO STUDIES that would indicate substituting canola oil for butter is a heart-healthy choice. Personally, I have grave concerns about consuming a product that has gone through such a tortured process in order to make it appear safe and palatable.

In the Doctor’s Lounge, my butter choice lists pasteurized cream and salt as the ingredients. I like that, it’s simple and straightforward. I know that most studies that have looked at consumption of dairy fat have found that it lowers risk of heart disease. Wholesome Farms is a Sysco, Inc. label and Sysco says

Wholesome Farms farm-fresh cream, eggs and other dairy offerings are typically produced at dairies located closer to our foodservice customers, resulting in fresher, more dependable products with longer shelf lives.

I have tried to contact Sysco to get more information on where my little tub of butter came from and what the cows were fed but have gotten no information.

Choose Nature, not Industry, for good health.

The choice between a highly processed, genetically modified, industry promoted vegetable oil (or blend of oils) which has been manipulated to resemble a healthy natural vegetable oil and never shown to be safe or healthy in humans, versus butter, is clear to me. Give me butter every time. I’m not excited about the fact that I can’t be sure the milk used in this little tub of butter came from pasture-raised, grass-fed cows. However, I realize that compromises have to be made for convenience sometimes. I’d rather eat the butter from unknown cows than the vegetable oil from a known factory.

Egg Nog: Recipe for a Heart Attack or Heart Healthy?

It’s Christmas Eve and you are starting to make merry. Time to break out the egg nog? Or should you eschew this fascinating combination of eggs, dairy and alcohol due to concerns about heart disease?

    eggCardiac deaths increase in frequency in the days around Christmas.

    Could this be related to excessive consumption of egg nog?

    Egg nog is composed of eggs, cream, milk and booze. All of these ingredients have become associated with increased risk of heart disease in the mind of the public.
    Nutritional guidelines advise us to limit egg consumption, especially the yolk, and use low-fat dairy to reduce our risk of heart disease

    A close look at the science, however, suggests that egg nog may actually lower your risk of heart disease.

    Eggs are high in cholesterol but as I’ve discussed in a previous post, cholesterol in the diet is not a major determinant of cholesterol in the blood and eggs have not been shown to increase heart disease risk.

    Full fat dairy contains saturated fat, the fat that nutritional guidelines tell us increases bad cholesterol in the blood and increases risk of heart attacks. But some saturated fats improve your cholesterol profile and organic (grass-fed, see my previous post) milk contains significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids which are felt to be protective from heart disease.
    Milk and dairy products are associated with a lower risk of vascular disease!

    Whether you mix rum, brandy, or whisky into your egg nog or you drink a glass of wine on the side you are probably lowering your chances of a heart attack compared to your abstemious relatives. Moderate alcohol consumption of any kind is associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease compared to no alcohol consumption.

    So, drink your egg nog without guilt this Holiday Season!
    You’re actually engaging in heart healthy behavior.

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

tpyogurtYogurt: Heart healthy in its natural state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teaser line read as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eat Real Food Not Ultraprocessed Industrial Concoctions

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

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

This is a yogurt I can recommend.

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

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

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

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

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

Omega-3 fatty acids, and heart disease: Do fish oil supplements prevent heart attacks or death from heart disease

In recent years, a steady stream of experts, including the ubiquitous Dr. Oz, Screen shot 2013-01-26 at 9.47.51 AMhave advised every one to take fish oil supplements to protect their heart health

In fact, there is little to no evidence that fish oil supplements or fish oil enhanced foods should be consumed for any health purpose.
Omega-3 fatty acids (also known as  ω−3 or n−3) are polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) that can be derived from marine or plant oils. They are considered essential fatty acids in humans, vital for normal metabolism but not synthesized by the human body.

The long chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA)  are felt to be the most beneficial. The best food source of DHA and EPA is cold water fatty fish and shellfish. The fish highest in these fatty acids are salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring and tuna.

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is an omega-3 fatty acid which is predominantly found in plant oils (flaxseed, canola, and soybean oils) and walnuts. It can, to a limited extent, be converted in human bodies  to EPA and DHA, thus can be considered a precursor.

There is some evidence that consuming fish on a regular basis is associated with lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Therefore, I can agree with current AHA and USDA guidelines which recommend consumption of fatty fish at least twice a week and I advise this for my patients.

Predominantly on the basis of one very positive study performed in Italy in 1999 (the GISSI study, which gave EPA/DHA to heart attack survivors), most cardiologists, the AHA, and the supplement industry had concluded by 2005 that fish oil reduced mortality and cardiac morbidity. The best evidence then was that the fish oil supplement was helpful after a heart attack (so-called secondary prevention). However, there was a very powerful urge to extrapolate this recommendation to patients without heart disease (so-called primary prevention).

Such expanded recommendations were reflected in the media. For example, Forbes proclaimed

“One Supplement That Works:

A lot of nutritional supplements are quack medicines. Not fish oil”

By 2009 sales of OTC fish oil supplements had risen 18% in one year to 739 million and Americans were buying 1.8 billion worth of foods (such as margarine and peanut butter) fortified with extra omega-3s. By  2011, Americans were spending 1.1 billion on supplements.

GlaxoSmithKline developed and patented a high-concentration fish oil (Lovaza) that gained an indication for treating high triglycerides which had global sales of 1 billion dollars in 2008. Supported by heavy advertising and promotion to physicians (through dinner lectures, lunches and other promotions), this expensive version of fish oil is widely prescribed by physicians for reasons other than the very high triglyceride elevations it has an indication for.

Forbes wrote

“In the history of nutritional supplements there’s something striking about omega-3: the fact that it works. Much of the $25 billion a year that Americans spend on supplements is money down the drain”

While the second part of that sentence is true (the vast majority of supplements/nutraceuticals/minerals that Americans take in a search for longevity or arthritis relief are worthless) the first part is not true.

The subsequent  hype for the benefits of fish oil supplements, especially in the world of nutritional supplement has been outrageous and inaccurate.

A typical product description reads as follows.

“We believe this is the highest quality Omega-3 available.
This highly concentrated Pharmaceutical Grade Omega-3 Fish Oil delivers 800mg of EPA and 600mg of DHA.
The important benefits of Omega-3 have been proven in thousands of independent studies by universities, governments, and health organizations. Because of such research, people around the world are now taking fish oil for reasons ranging from brain development, mild depression and heart function to arthritis and our immune systems.
It causes NO fishy or un-pleasant after taste.
This Omega 3 has been verified by a 3rd party to be Mercury Free.”

If one reads further down the page, however, the most important sentence is the following (and this is true for all supplements_






These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease

So , the fish oil pushers  make a series of totally unsubstantiated claims about the benefits followed by the statement that it is not intended to benefit any one in any way.

The most recent systematic review and meta-analysis of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and the risk of major cardiovascular events (published Sept. 2012,) concluded:

“overall, omega-3 PUFA supplementation was not associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiac death, sudden death, myocardial infarction,  or stroke based on relative and abolute measures of association”

Studies performed in the last 5 years of omega-3 PUFA supplementation do not support a role for them in reducing heart disease, either in high risk individuals without documented heart disease or those who have already had heart attacks.

Most of my patients continue to take fish oil supplements because they think that there may be a benefit without any down side. However, there are a number of potential down sides that should be considered.
1. There is no government regulation or measurement of the contaminants in fish oil supplements.
According to Consumer Reports

“Most tested pills are claimed to be “purified” or “free” of PCBs, mercury, or other contaminants, claims that have no specific regulatory definition, the Food and Drug Administration says. The agency has taken no enforcement action against any omega-3 maker over PCBs or other contaminants, an FDA spokeswoman said, because it has seen no public-health risk”

2. A major source of the fish oil in fish oil supplements, menhaden, is being over fished. Menhaden are a sardine-like forage fish that range in huge schools from Canada to Florida and into the Gulf. As filter feeders, they form an important base of the marine food chain. They have historically been harvested for food and later, for use as fertilizer and more recently for use in aquaculture and in omega-3 supplements. This fish, which has been called “the most important fish in the sea,” feeds on phytoplankton and is essential for a healthy marine ecosystem. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) recently approved a 20% decrease in fish catch for the Atlantic Coast menhaden bait and reduction fisheries, The numbers of these fish have declined by 90% in the last 4 decades. Without doing extensive research on your particular fish oil supplement you can’t be sure you aren’t contributing to  this problem.

So, the bottom line on fish oil supplements is that  the most recent scientific evidence does not support any role for them  in preventing heart attack, stroke, or death. There are potential down sides to taking them, including contaminants and the impact on the marine ecosystem. I don’t take them and I advise my patients to avoid them (unless they have triglyceride levels over 500.)

Americans want a “magic-bullet” type pill to take to ward off aging and the diseases associated with it. There isn’t one. Instead of buying pills and foods manipulated and processed by the food industry which promise better health, I advise following Michael Pollan’s simple advice

“Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much”