Tag Archives: Nutrition

The Bad Food Bible: A Well-Written, Sensible and Science-Based Approach To Diet

The skeptical cardiologist has been searching for some time for a book on diet that he can recommend to his patients. While I can find books which have a lot of useful content, usually the books mix in some totally unsubstantiated advice with which I disagree.

I recently discovered a food/diet/nutrition book which with I almost completely agree. The author is Aaron Carroll,  a pediatrician, blogger on health care research (The incidental Economist) and a Professor of Pediatrics and Associate Dean for Research Mentoring at Indiana University School of Medicine.

He writes a regular column for the New York Times and covers various topics in health care. His articles are interesting,  very well written and researched and he often challenges accepted dogma.

Like the skeptical cardiologist, he approaches his topics from an unbiased perspective and utilizes a good understanding of the scientific technique along with a research background to bring fresh perspective to health-related topics.

Last last year he wrote a column, within which I found the following:

Studies of diets show that many of them succeed at first. But results slow, and often reverse over time. No one diet substantially outperforms another. The evidence does not favor any one greatly over any other.

That has not slowed experts from declaring otherwise. Doctors, weight-loss gurus, personal trainers and bloggers all push radically different opinions about what we should be eating, and why. We should eat the way cave men did. We should avoid gluten completely. We should eat only organic. No dairy. No fats. No meat. These different waves of advice push us in one direction, then another. More often than not, we end up right where we started, but with thinner wallets and thicker waistlines.

I couldn’t agree more with this assessment and as I surveyed the top diet books on Amazon recently, I saw one gimmicky, pseudoscientific  diet after another. From the Whole30 approach (which illogically  completely eliminates any beans and legumes, dairy products,  alcohol, all grains, and starchy vegetables like potatoes (see how absurd this diet is here)) to Dr. Gundry’s Plant Paradox (aka lectin is the new gluten (see here for James Hambling’s wonderful Atlantic article on the huckster’s latest attempt to scare you into buying his useless supplements).

It turns out Carroll published a useful book recently, The Bad Food Bible which critically examines diet and I agree with the vast majority of what is in it.

The first three chapters are on butter, meat, eggs and salt. His conclusions on how we should approach these 4 are similar to ones I have reached and written about on this site (see here for dairy, here for meat, here for eggs and here for salt).  Essentially, the message is that the dangers of these four foods have been exaggerated or nonexistent, and that consuming them in moderation is fine.

The remaining chapters cover topics I have pondered extensively,  but have not written about: including gluten, GMOs, alcohol, coffee, diet-soda and non-organic foods.

I agree with his assessments on these topics. Below, I’ll present his viewpoint along with some of my own thoughts in these areas.

Gluten

Carroll does a good job of providing a scientific, but lay-person friendly background to understanding the infrequent (1 of 141 Americans), but quite serious gluten-related disorder, celiac disease.

However, surveys show that up to one-third of Americans, the vast majority of whom don’t have celiac disease, are seeking “gluten-free” foods, convinced that this is a healthier way of eating. Carroll points out that there is little scientific support for this; there are some individuals who are sensitive to wheat/gluten, but these are rare.

He concludes:

“If you have celiac disease, you need to be on a gluten-free diet. If you have a proven wheat allergy, you need to avoid wheat. But if you think you have gluten sensitivity? You’d probably be better off putting your energy and your dollars toward a different diet. Simply put, most people who think they have gluten sensitivity just don’t.

I do agree with him that the “gluten-free” explosion of foods (gluten-free sales have doubled from 2010 to 2014) is not justified.

However, I must point out that my 92 year old father has recently discovered that he has something that resembles gluten sensitivity. About a year ago, he noted that about one hour after eating a sandwich he would feel very weak and develop abdominal discomfort/bloating. He began suspecting these symptoms were due to the bread and experimented with different bread types without any symptom relief.

Finally, he tried gluten-free bread and the symptoms resolved.

If you have engaged in this type of observation and experimentation on your self, and noted improved symptoms when not consuming gluten, then I think you’re justified in diagnosing gluten sensitivity, and by all means consider minimizing/avoiding wheat.

GMOS

Carroll begins his chapter on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) with a description of the droughts that plagued India in the 1960s and the efforts of Norman Borlaug to breed strains of wheat that were resistant to fungus and yielded more grain. By crossbreeding various strains of wheat he was able to develop a “semi-dwarf” strain that increased what was produced in Mexico by six-fold.

Despite the fact that numerous scientific and health organizations around the world have examined the evidence regarding the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and found them to be completely safe, there remains a public controversy on this topic. In fact a Pew Poll found that while 88% of AAAS scientists believe that GMOs are safe for human consumption, only 37% of the public do – a 51% gap, the largest in the survey.

This gap is largely due to an aggressive anti-GMO propaganda campaign by certain environmental groups and the organic food industry, a competitor which stands to profit from anti-GMO sentiments. There is also a certain amount of generic discomfort with a new and complex technology involving our food.

The National Academy of Sciences analyzed in detail the health effects of GMOs in 2016. Their report concludes:

While recognizing the inherent difficulty of detecting subtle or long-term effects in health or the environment, the study committee found no substantiated evidence of a difference in risks to human health between currently commercialized genetically engi-neered (GE) crops and conventionally bred crops, nor did it find conclusive cause-and-effect evidence of environmental problems from the GE crops. GE crops have generally had favorable economic outcomes for producers in early years of adoption, but enduring and widespread gains will depend on institutional support and access to profitable local and global markets, especially for resource-poor farmers

Carroll does a good job of looking at the GMO issue from all sides. He touches on environmental downsides related to herbicide-resistant GMO crops and the problems created by patenting GMO seeds, but asserts that “these are the result of imperfect farming and the laws that regular agribusiness, not of GMOS themselves.”

Ultimately, despite these concerns, I agree with Carroll’s conclusion that:

“Foods that contain GMOs aren’t inherently unhealthy, any more are  than foods that don’t contain them. The companies that are trying to see you foods by declaring them ‘GMO-free” are using the absence of GMOs to their advantage–not yours.”

Alcohol, Coffee, and Diet-Soda

Carroll does a good job of summarizing and analyzing the research for these three topics and reaches the same conclusions I have reached in regard to coffee, alcohol and diet-soda:

-alcohol in moderation lowers your risk of  dying, primarily by reducing cardiovascular death

-coffee, although widely perceived as unhealthy, is actually good for the vast majority of people

For those seeking more details a few quotes


on alcohol:

“Taken together, all of this evidence points to a few conclusions. First, the majority of the research suggests that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with decreased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and death. Second, it also seems to be associated with increased rates of some cancers (especially breast cancer), cirrhosis, chronic pancreatitis, and accidents, although this negative impact from alcohol seems to be smaller than its positive impact on cardiovascular health. Indeed, the gains in cardiovascular disease seem to outweigh the losses in all the other diseases combined. The most recent report of the USDA Scientific Advisory Panel agrees that “moderate alcohol consumption can be incorporated into the calorie limits of most healthy eating patterns.”

Keep in mind that moderate consumption is up to one drink per day for women, and two drinks for men (my apologies to women in general and the Eternal Fiancee’ of the Skeptical Cardiologist in particular) and be aware of what constitutes “one drink.”

Also keep in mind that any alcohol consumption raises the risk of atrial fibrillation (see here) and that if you have a cardiomyopathy caused by alcohol you should avoid it altogether.


on coffee:

“It’s time people stopped viewing coffee as something to be limited or avoided. It’s a completely reasonable part of a healthy diet, and it appears to have more potential benefits than almost any other beverage we consume.
Coffee is more than my favorite breakfast drink; it’s usually my breakfast, period. And I feel better about that now than ever before. It’s time we started treating coffee as the wonderful elixir it is, not the witch’s brew that C. W. Post made it out to be.”

Strangely enough, coffee is usually my breakfast as well (although I recommend against adding titanium oxide to your morning java).  Why am I not compelled to consume food in the morning?  Because breakfast is not the most important meal of the day and I don’t eat until I’m hungry.


on diet-soda:

Carroll notes that many Americans are convinced that artificial sweeteners are highly toxic:

“no article I’ve written has been met with as much anger and vitriol as the first piece I wrote on this subject for the New York Times, in July 2015, in which I admitted, “My wife and I limit our children’s consumption of soda to around four to five times a week. When we let them have soda, it’s . . . almost always sugar-free.”

He notes, as I have done, that added sugar is the real public enemy number one in our diets. He reviews the scientific studies that look at toxicity of the various artificial sweeteners and finds that they don’t convincingly prove any significant health effects in humans.

Some believe that artificial sweeteners contribute to obesity, but the only evidence supporting this idea comes from observational studies. For many reasons, we should not highly value observational studies but one factor, “reverse causation,” is highly likely to be present in studies of diet sodas. If diet soda consumption is associated with obesity, is it the cause, or do those who are obese tend to drink diet soda. Observational studies cannot answer this question but randomized studies can.

Carroll points out that:

the randomized controlled trials (which are almost always better and can show causality) showed that diet drinks significantly reduced weight, BMI, fat, and waist circumference.”

Simple Rules For Healthy Eating

Carroll concludes with some overall advice for healthy eating:

-Get as much of your nutrition as possible from a variety of completely unprocessed foods

-Eat lightly processed foods less often

-Eat heavily processed foods even less often

-Eat as much home-cooked food as possible, preparing it according to rules 1, 2, and 3

-Use salt and fats, including butter and oil, as needed in food preparation

-When you do eat out, try to eat at restaurants that follow the same rules

-Drink mostly water, but some alcohol, coffee, and other beverages are fine

-Treat all calorie-containing beverages as you would alcohol

-Eat with other people, especially people you care about, as often as possible

These are solid, albeit not shocking or book-selling, rules that  correspond closely to what I have adopted in my own diet.

In comparison to the bizarre advice from nutrition books which dominate the best-selling diet books, I found The Bad Food Bible to be a consistent, well-written, extensively researched, scientifically-based, unbiased guide to diet and can highly recommend it to my readers and patients.

Semibiblically Yours,

-ACP

Are Sweet Potatoes Healthier Than Potatoes?

In recent years, sweet potatoes have become a favored alternative to potatoes for health-conscious eaters for some reason. I’ve been noticing sweet potatoes more and more on the menus of trendy/healthy/locavore oriented restaurants as an alternative to potatoes.

A typical appraisal comes from Time’s Health magazine website:

“It’s no surprise that sweet potatoes are at the top of nearly everyone’s healthiest foods list.”

EatingWell. com proclaims,

“The sweet potato is a nutritional powerhouse. Deemed a ‘superfood’ by many nutritionists, sweet potatoes are loaded with vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber and potassium, plus phytochemicals like lutein and zeaxanthin, which promote eye health. ” (Appropriately, if you click on the nutritionists link on this quote it takes you to an Amazon.com listing of pull-up diapers!)

Please note that any article that takes the term superfood seriously should be dismissed as frivolous. Stop reading immediately and never revisit the source.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 10.40.32 AMThe Cleveland Clinic website provides a comparison of the two vegetables and determines that sweet potatoes win the nutritional battle by “knock-out”. (This site also claims that sweet potatoes are far better than yams, a claim I have not had time to research)

Somehow, the idea that a sweeter, tastier vegetable is better for me than its not-so-sweet relative made no sense to me.

Call me skeptical.

Are they a healthier choice than regular potatoes or is this all driven by marketing hype?

Nutritional Differences

There are some minor differences in the nutrient content of SP and P:

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 8.36.39 AM
A 180 gram sweet potato has 12 grams of sugar, 6 grams of fiber and 37 grams of carbohydrate
Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 8.35.45 AM
A 173 gram potato has 2 grams of sugar, 4 grams of fiber and 37 grams of carbohydrate

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet potatoes have  six times more sugar and 50% more fiber than regular potatoes. Sources that proclaim SP healthier like to focus on the large amount of Vitamin A. However, we don’t necessarily need more Vitamin A in our diet and nothing suggests these minor differences are of any importance in our overall health.

Potatoes have their own PR machine which will regale you with the wonders of spuds:

“It’s a surprise for many to discover one medium potato (5.3 oz) with the skin contains:

  • 10 percent of the daily value of B6;

  • Trace amounts of thiamine, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and zinc…and all this for just 110 calories and  no fat, sodium or cholesterol.

  • More potassium (620 mg) than even bananas, spinach, or broccoli;

  • 45 percent of the daily value for vitamin C

The potato people would also like you to know that:

Potatoes are a vegetable.  The popular tuber counts toward the total recommended servings of vegetables. One medium-sized potato (5.3 oz.) counts as 1 cup of starchy vegetables.

On the other hand, the Harvard School of Public health has decided potatoes are not a vegetable:

“However, potatoes don’t count as a vegetable on Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate because they are high in carbohydrate – and in particular, the kind of carbohydrate that the body digests rapidly, causing blood sugar and insulin to surge and then dip (in scientific terms, they have a high glycemic load).”

There isn’t much good evidence that the glycemic load is something we should be focusing on with diet (see here) but the Harvard people like to point to observational studies that show that people who increased their consumption of  french fries and baked or mashed potatoes  gained more weight over time.

All observational studies try to control for confounding factors in their analysis, but in the case of food consumption it is particularly difficult because it is highly likely that those individuals who are eating french fries are also engaging in other lifestyle choices that are perceived as unhealthy.

The large observational study, which found that increased consumption of potato chips and potatoes was associated with the biggest weight gain, classifies yams or sweet potatoes as a vegetable (along with tomato juice (which is mostly sugar)and tomato sauce).  Vegetables were associated with a small loss of weight over time.

The sweet potato gets to hide amongst all the arguably really healthy vegetables (like chard and brussel sprouts and kale) that  those who are truly dedicated to a healthy lifestyle have embraced with enthusiasm.  This group also exercises optimally, avoids eating junk food and processed food, and engages in other subtle behaviors that the observational study did not measure.

Why Might Potatoes Be Associated with Obesity?

I view potatoes as a ubiquitous, cheap and quickly prepared food  that allows the rapid and easy accumulation of excess calories. The average American consumes 120 pounds of potatoes per year compared to only about 5 pounds of sweet potatoes.

French fries, a staple of fast food throughout the world, when consumed hot, combine many of the sensory elements that lead to overeating. When done properly, the frying process adds a wonderful crispness to the outside, and when combined with the warm, perfectly cooked potato on the inside, the result is irresistible.

A large order of McDonald’s french fries contains 510 calories, suddenly triple the number in a medium potato, but it only costs $2.19 and is available virtually instantaneously.

Chances are those who are consuming the McDonald’s french fries are saving further money and preparation time by combining it with a Big Mac (590 calories) and a medium Coke (210 calories). This Value Meal #1 only costs $5.69 but contains 1300 calories.

Even if you are avoiding fast food, french fries and potato chips are ubiqitous. For some reason, most restaurant breakfasts which are not pancake or waffle oriented are presented with a side of potatoes. Sandwiches always seem to come with an order of potato chips. Hamburgers are served with fries. Steaks with mashed potatoes.

For most meals that contain a potato side, up to  half of the total calories are coming from the spuds.

You have to make a concerted effort to not consume some form of potato when you are eating out, and when you do that, you are now importantly paying attention more to total calories than to macronutrient content of meals.

Your other choice is to not consume all of the french fries, potato chips, grilled potatoes or mashed potatoes that are presented as a side, but many individuals feel compelled to finish everything on their plate.

Dietary Recommendations

If sweet potatoes were as ubiquitous as potatoes and became a staple of fast food restaurants and a side for any and all dishes (and if they were separated out from the rest of vegetable world), I suspect they would also be associated with weight gain.

If, on the other hand, potatoes were not markers of fast, tasty, and easily prepared and consumed food and were only eaten at trendy locavore restaurants or prepared at home, I think they would no longer be associated with obesity.

Looking at the two on strictly nutritional or scientific grounds, it is not possible to choose one over the other.

If you are overweight and ready to lose weight, cutting out the potatoes when eating out will eliminate a lot of the carbohydrates and calories you consume. But don’t think that substituting sweet potato fries is a magical solution.

I yam what I yam,

-ACP

For a Michael Pollan video on the evil of McDonald’s french fries for other reasons take a look at:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Smoothies: Kings of Sugar Masquerading As Healthy Food Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Still More Reasons Not to Take Worthless Vitamins and MultiVitamins

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

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

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

After analyzing all available studies they found insufficient evidence to support

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

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

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

 

 

Are You Fed Up With Sugar?

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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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.

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Coffee Unhealthy: Dessert as Stealth Food

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

More Evidence That Sugar is the Major Toxin in our Diets

A can of Coke (12 fl ounces/355 ml) has 39 grams of carbohydrates (all from sugar, approximately 10 teaspoons),[47] 50 mg of sodium, 0 grams fat, 0 grams potassium, and 140 calories. Image courtesy of Gwyneth Pearson who likely consumed it
A can of Coke (12 fl ounces/355 ml) has 39 grams of carbohydrates (all from high fructose corn syrup, equivalent to approximately 10 teaspoons of sugar), 50 mg of sodium, 0 grams fat, 0 grams potassium, and 140 calories. Image courtesy of Gwyneth P, who likely consumed it (the beverage in the can, that is, not the image)
The skeptical cardiologist had to temporarily interrupt his scintillating research into Canola Oil and the Mediterranean diet in order to highlight a study published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Society that adds further evidence to the paradigm that sugar is not just causing obesity but is actually killing us.

In a previous post on low-fat yogurt I emphasized that a great pseudo-scientific scam had been foisted on Americans, the promotion of low fat substitutes for real food. The low-fat substitutes masquerade as more heart healthy because saturated fat has been removed but they are actually less healthy because sugar or high fructose corn syrup has been added. Substantial evidence indicates that consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates are contributing to obesity and cardiovascular disease (CVD), not the unjustly demonized  saturated fats. Now there is evidence to suggest sugar is actually directly promoting heart disease.

In the article, the authors analyzed data from subjects who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They estimated the “usual percentage of calories from added sugar” for individuals.

Added sugar “includes all sugars used in processed or prepared foods, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, grain-based desserts, fruit drinks, dairy desserts, candy, ready-to-eat cereals and yeast breads, but not naturally occurring sugar, such as in fruits and fruit juices.”
Among the 11733 participants there were 831 CVD deaths with a median follow up of 14.6 years.

Those who consumed 25% or more of calories from added sugar were 2.75 times more likely to die than those who consumed less than 10% of calories from added sugar. The risk of CVD mortality increased exponentially with increased  percentage of calories from added sugar.

Major sources of added sugar in American adults diet included sugar-sweetened beverages (37%), grain-based desserts (14%), dairy desserts (6%) and candy (6%). One 360-ml can of regular soda contains about 35 g of sugar (140 calories) or 7% of total calories.

The authors discussed emerging evidence suggesting multiple pathways by which sugar might play a role, including promoting hypertension, increased de novo lipogenesis in the liver (resulting in high triglycerides) and promoting inflammation.

My first dietary recommendation to my patients is to cut out the added sugar. This is both for weight management and lower heart attack risk. The low-fat,  processed “food-like substances” you have been choosing are far worse for you than the unprocessed high fat food they replaces.

Organic Milk, Grass-fed Cows and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

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.

Breakfast is Not The Most important Meal of the Day: Feel Free to Skip it

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?

The 2010 dietary guidelines state

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

The US Surgeon General website advises that we encourage kids to eat only when they are hungry but also states

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.

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