Benefits of Nuts for Stroke Prevention

PREDIMED - Does Eating Nuts Prevent Strokes.jpg

In the PREDIMED study, from the Spanish "PREvencio ́n con DIeta MEDiterranea," a whopping 7,447 patients were randomized into three groups. These were folks at high risk for a heart attack, about half were obese, diabetic and most had high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but they had not yet had their first heart attack or stroke. A third were told to eat a Mediterranean diet and given a free quart of extra virgin olive oil every week. The second group were told to eat a Mediterranean diet and given a half pound of free nuts every week, and the last third were told to follow the American Heart Association guidelines and reduce their fat intake. No portion control or exercise advice was given, and they were followed for about five years. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The first thing you do when you look at a diet intervention trial is see what the groups actually ended up eating, which can be very different from what they were told to eat. For example, the so-called low-fat group started out at 39 percent of calories from fat, and ended up getting 37 percent of calories from fat, which is high fat even compared to the Standard American Diet which comes in at 33 percent, something the researchers plainly acknowledged. In fact, the control group didn't change much at all over the years, so can be thought of as the what-if-you-don't-do-anything group, which is still an important control group to have. Though the two Mediterranean diet groups didn't get much more Mediterranean. You can see the charts in my video PREDIMED: Does Eating Nuts Prevent Strokes?

The two Mediterranean groups were told to eat more fruits and vegetables, for example, and less meat and dairy, but didn't accomplish any of those compared to control. The biggest changes recorded were, not surprisingly, in the consumption of the freebies. The group that got a free jug of extra-virgin olive oil delivered to their home every week really did start increasing their consumption, in part by replacing some of the refined olive oil they had been using. And those that got a half pound of free nuts sent to them every week for four years straight did start eating more nuts.

Basically the researchers designed a study to test two different Mediterranean diets versus a low fat diet, but ended up studying something very different. In essence, they studied what happens when thousands of people switch from consuming about three tablespoons of olive oil a day (half virgin) to four tablespoons of all virgin, compared to thousands of people who all the sudden go from eating about a half an ounce of nuts a day to a whole ounce, compared to thousands of people who don't make much of a change at all. It may not have been what they were hoping for, but these are important research questions in and of themselves.

With no significant differences in meat and dairy intake, there were no significant differences in saturated fat or cholesterol intake, so no surprise there was no significant differences in their blood cholesterol levels, and so no difference in their subsequent number of heart attacks. In the five or so years the study ran, there were 37 heart attacks in the olive oil group, 31 in the nut group and 38 in the neither group. No significant difference. Same with dying from a heart attack or stroke or from any cause--but, those in the olive oil and especially the nut group had significantly fewer strokes. All three groups were eating stroke-promoting diets; some people in all three groups had strokes after eating these diets for years, and so ideally we'd choose diets that can stop or reverse the disease process, but the diet with added extra virgin olive oil caused about a third fewer strokes, and adding nuts seemed to cut their stroke risk nearly in half. If this worked as well in the general population, in the U.S. alone that would mean preventing 89,000 strokes a year. That's would be like ten strokes an hour around the clock prevented simply by adding half an ounce of nuts to one's daily diet.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

The PREDIMED study got a bad rap because of how it was reported, but it's an extraordinary trial that continues to churn out useful results.

More on nuts in:

But what about nuts and weight gain? See Nuts and Obesity: The Weight of Evidence .

For videos on olive oil, see Extra Virgin Olive Oil vs. Nuts and Olive Oil & Artery Function.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Benefits of Nuts for Stroke Prevention

PREDIMED - Does Eating Nuts Prevent Strokes.jpg

In the PREDIMED study, from the Spanish "PREvencio ́n con DIeta MEDiterranea," a whopping 7,447 patients were randomized into three groups. These were folks at high risk for a heart attack, about half were obese, diabetic and most had high blood pressure and high cholesterol, but they had not yet had their first heart attack or stroke. A third were told to eat a Mediterranean diet and given a free quart of extra virgin olive oil every week. The second group were told to eat a Mediterranean diet and given a half pound of free nuts every week, and the last third were told to follow the American Heart Association guidelines and reduce their fat intake. No portion control or exercise advice was given, and they were followed for about five years. The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The first thing you do when you look at a diet intervention trial is see what the groups actually ended up eating, which can be very different from what they were told to eat. For example, the so-called low-fat group started out at 39 percent of calories from fat, and ended up getting 37 percent of calories from fat, which is high fat even compared to the Standard American Diet which comes in at 33 percent, something the researchers plainly acknowledged. In fact, the control group didn't change much at all over the years, so can be thought of as the what-if-you-don't-do-anything group, which is still an important control group to have. Though the two Mediterranean diet groups didn't get much more Mediterranean. You can see the charts in my video PREDIMED: Does Eating Nuts Prevent Strokes?

The two Mediterranean groups were told to eat more fruits and vegetables, for example, and less meat and dairy, but didn't accomplish any of those compared to control. The biggest changes recorded were, not surprisingly, in the consumption of the freebies. The group that got a free jug of extra-virgin olive oil delivered to their home every week really did start increasing their consumption, in part by replacing some of the refined olive oil they had been using. And those that got a half pound of free nuts sent to them every week for four years straight did start eating more nuts.

Basically the researchers designed a study to test two different Mediterranean diets versus a low fat diet, but ended up studying something very different. In essence, they studied what happens when thousands of people switch from consuming about three tablespoons of olive oil a day (half virgin) to four tablespoons of all virgin, compared to thousands of people who all the sudden go from eating about a half an ounce of nuts a day to a whole ounce, compared to thousands of people who don't make much of a change at all. It may not have been what they were hoping for, but these are important research questions in and of themselves.

With no significant differences in meat and dairy intake, there were no significant differences in saturated fat or cholesterol intake, so no surprise there was no significant differences in their blood cholesterol levels, and so no difference in their subsequent number of heart attacks. In the five or so years the study ran, there were 37 heart attacks in the olive oil group, 31 in the nut group and 38 in the neither group. No significant difference. Same with dying from a heart attack or stroke or from any cause--but, those in the olive oil and especially the nut group had significantly fewer strokes. All three groups were eating stroke-promoting diets; some people in all three groups had strokes after eating these diets for years, and so ideally we'd choose diets that can stop or reverse the disease process, but the diet with added extra virgin olive oil caused about a third fewer strokes, and adding nuts seemed to cut their stroke risk nearly in half. If this worked as well in the general population, in the U.S. alone that would mean preventing 89,000 strokes a year. That's would be like ten strokes an hour around the clock prevented simply by adding half an ounce of nuts to one's daily diet.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

The PREDIMED study got a bad rap because of how it was reported, but it's an extraordinary trial that continues to churn out useful results.

More on nuts in:

But what about nuts and weight gain? See Nuts and Obesity: The Weight of Evidence .

For videos on olive oil, see Extra Virgin Olive Oil vs. Nuts and Olive Oil & Artery Function.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?

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Recent studies have shown that higher Mediterranean diet adherence scores are associated with a significant reduction of the risk of death, heart disease, cancer, and brain disease. The problem with population studies like these is that people who eat healthier may also live healthier, and so how do we know it's their diet? I examine this in The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?.

As the American Heart Association position states, "Before advising people to follow a Mediterranean diet, we need more studies to find out whether the diet itself or other lifestyle factors account for the lower deaths from heart disease." How do you do that? There are ways you can control for obvious things like smoking and exercise--which many of the studies did--but ideally you'd do an interventional trial, the gold standard of nutritional science. You change people's diets while trying to keep everything else the same and see what happens.

We got that kind of trial 20 years ago with the famous Lyon Diet Heart Study where about 600 folks who had just had their first heart attack were randomized into two groups. The control group received no dietary advice, apart whatever their doctors were telling them, while the experimental group was told to eat more of a Mediterranean-type diet, supplemented with a canola-oil based spread to give them the plant-based omega-3's they'd normally be getting from weeds and walnuts if they actually lived on a Greek isle in the 1950's.

The Mediterranean diet group did end up taking some of the dietary advice to heart. They ate more bread, more fruit, less deli meat, less meat in general, and less butter and cream; other than that, no significant changes in diet were reported in terms of wine, olive oil, or fish consumption. So, they ate less saturated fat and cholesterol, more plant-based omega 3's, but didn't have huge dietary changes. Even so, at the end of about four years, 44 individuals from the control group had a second heart attack, either fatal or nonfatal, but only 14 suffered another attack in the group that changed their diet. So they went from having a 4% chance of having a heart attack every year down to 1%.

A cynic might say that while there was less death and disease, the Mediterranean diet continued to feed their heart disease, so much so that 14 of them suffered new heart attacks while on the diet. Yes, their disease progressed a lot less than the regular diet group (about four times less), but what if there was a diet that could stop or reverse heart disease?

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic recently published a case series of 198 consecutive patients with cardiovascular disease counseled to switch to a diet composed entirely of whole plant foods. Of the 198, 177 stuck to the diet, whereas the other 21 fell off the wagon, setting up kind of a natural experiment. What happened to the 21? This was such a sick group of patients that more than half suffered from either a fatal heart attack or needed angioplasty or a heart transplant. In that same time period of about four years, of the 177 that stuck to the plant-based diet, only one had a major event as a result of worsening disease. As Dean Ornish noted in his response to the latest trial, "a Mediterranean diet is better than what most people are consuming"...but even better may be a diet based on whole plant foods.

Dr. Esselstyn's was not a randomized trial, so it can't be directly compared to the Lyon study, and it included very determined patients. Not everyone is willing to dramatically change their diets, even if it may literally be a matter of life or death. In which case, rather than doing nothing, eating a more Mediterranean-type diet may cut risk for heart attack survivors by about two-thirds. Cutting 99% of risk would be better if Esselstyn's results were replicated in a controlled trial, but even a 70% drop in risk could save tens of thousands of lives every year.

For more on the Mediterranean diet, check out:

For more on Dr. Esselstyn's amazing work:

If the short-chain plant-based omega-3s in flax seeds and walnuts appear so beneficial, what about the long-chain omega-3's found in fish and fish oil? There are pros and cons. See, for example, Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development, Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?, and Omega-3's and the Eskimo Fish Tale.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: wildpixel / Thinkstock. This image has been modified.

Original Link

The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?

The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet.jpg

Recent studies have shown that higher Mediterranean diet adherence scores are associated with a significant reduction of the risk of death, heart disease, cancer, and brain disease. The problem with population studies like these is that people who eat healthier may also live healthier, and so how do we know it's their diet? I examine this in The Mediterranean Diet or a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet?.

As the American Heart Association position states, "Before advising people to follow a Mediterranean diet, we need more studies to find out whether the diet itself or other lifestyle factors account for the lower deaths from heart disease." How do you do that? There are ways you can control for obvious things like smoking and exercise--which many of the studies did--but ideally you'd do an interventional trial, the gold standard of nutritional science. You change people's diets while trying to keep everything else the same and see what happens.

We got that kind of trial 20 years ago with the famous Lyon Diet Heart Study where about 600 folks who had just had their first heart attack were randomized into two groups. The control group received no dietary advice, apart whatever their doctors were telling them, while the experimental group was told to eat more of a Mediterranean-type diet, supplemented with a canola-oil based spread to give them the plant-based omega-3's they'd normally be getting from weeds and walnuts if they actually lived on a Greek isle in the 1950's.

The Mediterranean diet group did end up taking some of the dietary advice to heart. They ate more bread, more fruit, less deli meat, less meat in general, and less butter and cream; other than that, no significant changes in diet were reported in terms of wine, olive oil, or fish consumption. So, they ate less saturated fat and cholesterol, more plant-based omega 3's, but didn't have huge dietary changes. Even so, at the end of about four years, 44 individuals from the control group had a second heart attack, either fatal or nonfatal, but only 14 suffered another attack in the group that changed their diet. So they went from having a 4% chance of having a heart attack every year down to 1%.

A cynic might say that while there was less death and disease, the Mediterranean diet continued to feed their heart disease, so much so that 14 of them suffered new heart attacks while on the diet. Yes, their disease progressed a lot less than the regular diet group (about four times less), but what if there was a diet that could stop or reverse heart disease?

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic recently published a case series of 198 consecutive patients with cardiovascular disease counseled to switch to a diet composed entirely of whole plant foods. Of the 198, 177 stuck to the diet, whereas the other 21 fell off the wagon, setting up kind of a natural experiment. What happened to the 21? This was such a sick group of patients that more than half suffered from either a fatal heart attack or needed angioplasty or a heart transplant. In that same time period of about four years, of the 177 that stuck to the plant-based diet, only one had a major event as a result of worsening disease. As Dean Ornish noted in his response to the latest trial, "a Mediterranean diet is better than what most people are consuming"...but even better may be a diet based on whole plant foods.

Dr. Esselstyn's was not a randomized trial, so it can't be directly compared to the Lyon study, and it included very determined patients. Not everyone is willing to dramatically change their diets, even if it may literally be a matter of life or death. In which case, rather than doing nothing, eating a more Mediterranean-type diet may cut risk for heart attack survivors by about two-thirds. Cutting 99% of risk would be better if Esselstyn's results were replicated in a controlled trial, but even a 70% drop in risk could save tens of thousands of lives every year.

For more on the Mediterranean diet, check out:

For more on Dr. Esselstyn's amazing work:

If the short-chain plant-based omega-3s in flax seeds and walnuts appear so beneficial, what about the long-chain omega-3's found in fish and fish oil? There are pros and cons. See, for example, Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development, Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?, and Omega-3's and the Eskimo Fish Tale.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: wildpixel / Thinkstock. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Do You Meet the Simple Seven?

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In public health school, you learn there are three levels of preventive medicine. Primary prevention would be like trying to prevent someone at risk for heart disease from getting his or her first heart attack. Secondary prevention is when you already have the disease and are trying to prevent your second heart attack, and tertiary prevention is like cardiac rehab, where you're just trying to reduce the complication rates. A fourth level was suggested in 2000, quaternary prevention, trying to reduce the damage from all the drugs and surgery from the first three levels. But people seem to forget about a fifth concept, introduced by the World Health Organization back in 1978, termed primordial prevention, which is being embraced by the American Heart Association's 2020 strategic impact goals.

Primordial prevention was conceived as a strategy to prevent whole societies from experiencing epidemics of the risk factors. The corresponding strategy at the individual level is to prevent the development of risk factors. Instead of trying to prevent someone with high cholesterol from getting a heart attack, why not prevent them from getting high cholesterol in the first place?

So the American Heart Association came up with the simple seven, featured in my video, How Many Meet the Simple Seven?. These health behaviors or factors include not smoking, not being overweight, being "very active" (defined as walking at least 22 minutes a day), eating a few fruits and veggies, having below average cholesterol, normal blood pressure, and normal blood sugars.

Their goal was to reduce heart disease deaths by 20% by 2020. Why so modest an aim? An improvement of 25% was deemed "unrealistic," and 15% was considered insufficient, so they decided on 20. If 90% of risk can be thrown out the window by engaging in simple lifestyle modifications, why is just 25% considered unrealistic? To understand, one must realize just how bad our diets have gotten.

The most common reason patients give for not complying with a cholesterol-lowering diet may be the presumption that they're already eating healthy and so don't need to change. But if you look at the status of cardiovascular health in U.S. adults, only about 1% of Americans have a bare minimum of healthy eating behaviors, such as five-a-day fruits and veggies, eating beans, whole grains, drinking less than three cans of soda a week, etc. What percentage of Americans hit all seven of the simple seven? 14,000 men and women were surveyed, and most had two or three, but hardly any had all seven simple health components. Just how low a prevalence was having seven out of seven? Only about 1 out of 2,000 Americans had all seen factors intact. And the one they were missing the most was diet.

Unfortunately unhealthy behaviors extend into the medical profession. Just like smoking doctors are less likely to tell their patients to stop smoking, and couch potato docs are less likely to push exercise, or things like more fruits and vegetables; we need to role-model healthy behavior. This greatly enhances our credibility and effectiveness. Gone are the days of traditional authority when the fat physician, dropping cigarette ash down his gravy-stained vest, could credibly prescribe a change in behavior.

So What Diet Should Physicians Recommend? Watch the video!

Lifestyle medicine, the use of diet and lifestyle changes to prevent and treat disease, cannot only be cheaper and safer, but also more effective. See, for example:

I've previously noted just how sad the Standard American Diet is in Nation's Diet in Crisis. See how you compare: Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score.

In health,

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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The Saturated Fat Studies: Buttering Up the Public

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Time magazine's cover exhorting people to eat butter could be viewed as a desperate attempt to revive dwindling print sales, but they claimed to be reporting on real science--a systematic review and meta-analysis published in a prestigious journal that concluded that current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage cutting down on saturated fat, like the kind found in meat and dairy products like butter.

No wonder it got so much press, since reducing saturated fat intake is a major focus of most dietary recommendations worldwide, aiming to prevent chronic diseases including coronary heart disease. So, to quote the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "What gives? Evidently, shaky science...and a mission by the global dairy industry to boost sales."

They interviewed an academic insider, who noted that some researchers are intent on showing saturated fat does not cause heart disease, which can be seen in my video The Saturated Fat Studies: Buttering Up the Public. In 2008, the global dairy industry held a meeting where they decided that one of their main priorities was to "neutralize the negative impact of milk fat by regulators and medical professionals." And when they want to do something, they get it done. So they set up a major, well-funded campaign to come up with proof that saturated fat does not cause heart disease. They assembled scientists who were sympathetic to the dairy industry, provided them with funding, encouraged them to put out statements on milk fat and heart disease, and arranged to have them speak at scientific meetings. And the scientific publications we've seen emerging since the Mexico meeting have done just what they set out to do.

During this meeting, the dairy industry discussed what is the key barrier to increasing worldwide demand for dairy. There's global warming issues and other milks competing out there, but number one on the list is the "Negative messages and intense pressure to reduce saturated fats by governments and non- governmental organizations." In short, the negative messages are outweighing the positive, so indeed, their number one priority is to neutralize the negative image of milk fat among regulators and health professionals as related to heart disease.

So if we are the dairy industry, how are we going to do it? Imagine we work for Big Butter. We've got quite the challenge ahead of us. If we look at recommendations from around the globe, there is a global scientific consensus to limit saturated fat intake with most authoritative bodies recommending getting saturated fat at least under 10% of calories, with the prestigious U.S. Institute of Medicine and the European Food Safety Authority recommending to push saturated fat consumption down as low as possible.

The latest guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommend reducing trans fat intake, giving it their strongest A-grade level of evidence. And they say the same same for reducing saturated fat intake. Since saturated and trans fats are found in the same place, meat and dairy, cutting down on foods with saturated fat will have the additional benefit of lowering trans fat intake. They recommend pushing saturated fat intake down to 5 or 6%. People don't realize how small that is. One KFC chicken breast could take us over the top. Or, two pats of butter and two cubes of cheese and we're done for the day--no more dairy, meat, or eggs. That'd be about 200 calories, so they are in effect saying 90% of our diet should be free of saturated fat-containing foods. That's like the American Heart Association saying, "two meals a week can be packed with meat, dairy, and junk, but the entire rest of the week should be unprocessed plant-foods." That's how stringent the new recommendations are.

So this poses a problem for Big Cheese and Chicken. The top contributors of cholesterol-raising saturated fat is cheese, ice cream, chicken, non-ice cream desserts like cake and pie, and then pork. So what are these industries to do? See The Saturated Fat Studies: Set Up to Fail.

For those unfamiliar with Trans Fat in Meat and Dairy (and refined vegetable oils), that's why I made a video about it.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine "as low as possible" position, echoed by the European Food Safety Authority, is described in my video: Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero.

What happened when a country tried to put the lower saturated fat guidance into practice? See the remarkable results in Dietary Guidelines: From Dairies to Berries.

Don't think the dietary guidelines process could be undermined by underhanded corporate tactics? Sad but true:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

Image Credit: Johnathan Nightingale / Flickr

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How Much Added Sugar is Too Much?

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In 1776, at the time of the American Revolution, Americans consumed about four pounds of sugar per person each year. By 1850, this had risen to 20 pounds, and by 1994 to 120 pounds. Now we're closer to 160 (See How Much Added Sugar is Too Much?). Half of table sugar is fructose, taking up about 10 percent of our diet. This is not from eating apples, but rather the fact that we're each guzzling the equivalent of 16-ounce soft drink every day; that's about 50 gallons a year.

Even researchers paid by the likes of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group and The Coca Cola Company acknowledge that sugar is empty calories, containing "no essential micronutrients, and therefore if we're trying to reduce calorie intake, reducing sugar consumption is obviously the place to start." Concern has been raised, though, that sugar calories may be worst than just empty.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that "the fructose added to foods and beverages in the form of table sugar and high fructose corn syrup in large enough amounts can trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and other chronic diseases."

Fructose hones in like a laser beam on the liver, and like alcohol, fructose can increase the fat in the liver. The increase in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is one of the most remarkable medical developments over the past three decades--the emergence of fatty liver inflammation as a public health problem here and around the globe.

These may not be messages that the sugar industry or beverage makers want to hear. In response, the director-general of the industry front group, the World Sugar Research Organization, replied, "Overconsumption of anything is harmful, including water and air." Yes, he compared the overconsumption of sugar to breathing too much.

Under American Heart Association's new sugar guidelines, most American women should consume no more than 100 calories per day from added sugars, and most American men should eat or drink no more than 150. That means one can of soda could take us over the top for the day. The new draft guidelines from the World Health Organization suggests we could benefit from restricting added sugars to under 5 percent of calories. That's about six spoonfuls of added sugar. I don't know why they don't just recommend zero as optimal, but you can get a sense of how radical their proposal is given that we consume an average of 12-18 spoonfuls a day right now.

This underscores why a whole foods, plant-based diet is preferable to a plant-based diet that includes processed junk.

I've touched on the harm of refined sugars before in:

For healthful alternatives in baking, see The Healthiest Sweetener, and for beverages, Erythritol May Be a Sweet Antioxidant.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Adam Engelhart / Flickr

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Dietary Cholesterol Affects Blood Cholesterol Levels

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In my video, Eggs vs. Cigarettes in Atherosclerosis, I profiled a study showing that both smoking and eating eggs can harm our arteries. But even egg yolks alone were associated with artery-clogging plaque buildup nearly two thirds as bad as smoking.

This certainly ruffled some feathers.

Yes, eggs are by far the number one source of cholesterol in the American diet, but some letters to the editor protested that dietary cholesterol may have very little impact on blood cholesterol levels, citing a study published in 1971 performed on eight people. But if one looks at dozens of studies together, covering hundreds of study subjects, we find that blood cholesterol concentration is "clearly increased by added dietary cholesterol." In my video, Debunking Egg Industry Myths, there is an extreme example just to illustrate: a year in the life of a study subject taken on and off eggs. First, the researchers take him off eggs, putting him on a cholesterol-free diet, and his blood cholesterol plummets within just three weeks. Then they give him lots of eggs, and his cholesterol shoots back up, stays high until they take the eggs away and put him back on the cholesterol free diet, and so on and so forth. The researchers were essentially turning his high blood cholesterol on and off like a light switch (made out of eggs).

Of course the only reason we care our about our cholesterol levels or how much plaque is building up inside our arteries is because we want to avoid the consequences, like a heart attack. So do eggs increase our risk of cardiovascular disease? The latest meta-analysis, the latest compilation of all the best studies on egg consumption and risk of heart disease going back to 1930, found that, overall, those who ate the most eggs had a 19% increased risk of cardiovascular disease, a 68% increased risk of diabetes, and, once you have diabetes, an even greater 85% increased risk of heart disease. It didn't take much; less than a single egg a day was associated with a significantly increased risk of heart disease. Just over half an egg a day may increase heart disease risk 6% (40% in separated diabetes patients), and the risk of diabetes by 29%. The researchers conclude that their findings support the American Heart Association dietary guidelines, which advise restricted egg consumption in adults for preventing cardiometabolic disease, like diabetes, our seventh leading cause of death, and heart disease, our number one killer.

More on the diabetes connection in Eggs and Diabetes and Bacon, Eggs, and Gestational Diabetes During Pregnancy.

More on eggs and the egg industry in general:

There's more to heart disease than just cholesterol buildup. In my video, Eggs and Arterial Function, I explore what effect egg consumption has on endothelial function, the ability of our arteries to relax normally.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 - 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Rebecca Siegel / Flickr

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The Reversal on Fish Oil

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Are the purported benefits of fish oil supplementation for the prevention and treatment of heart disease just a "fish tale"? Thanks to recommendations from organizations such as the American Heart Association that individuals at high risk for heart disease ask their physicians about fish oil supplementation, fish oil has grown into a multibillion dollar industry. We now consume over 100,000 tons of fish oil every year.

But what does the science say? A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, highlighted in my video Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil? looked at all the best "randomized clinical trials evaluating the effects of omega-3's on lifespan, cardiac death, sudden death, heart attack, and stroke." The studies told the subjects to either eat more oily fish or to take fish oil capsules. What did the study find? Overall, the researchers found no protective benefit for all-cause mortality, heart disease mortality, sudden cardiac death, heart attack, or stroke.

What about for those who already had a heart attack and are trying to prevent another? Still no benefit. Where did we even get this idea that omega 3's were good for the heart? If we look at some of the older studies, the results seemed promising. For example, there was the famous DART trial back in the 80s involving 2,000 men. Those advised to eat fatty fish had a 29% reduction in mortality. Pretty impressive--no wonder it got a lot of attention. But people seemed to have forgotten the sequel, the DART-2 trial. The same group of researchers, and an even bigger study (3,000 men). In DART-2 "those advised to eat oily fish and particularly those supplied with fish oil capsules had a higher risk of cardiac death."

Put all the studies together, and there's no justification for the use of omega 3s as a structured intervention in everyday clinical practice or for guidelines supporting more dietary omega-3's. So what should doctors say when their patients follow the American Heart Association advice to ask them about fish oil supplements? Given this and other negative meta-analyses, "our job as doctors should be to stop highly marketed fish oil supplementation in all of our patients."

I've previously discussed fish oil supplements in the context of risks versus purported cardiovascular benefits:

But if the benefits aren't there, then all one is left with are concerns over the industrial pollutants that concentrate in the fish fat (even in distilled fish oil, see Is Distilled Fish Oil Toxin-Free?).

These same contaminants are found in the fish themselves. This raises concern for adults (Fish Fog), children (Nerves of Mercury), and pregnant moms:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day ,and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Jo Christian Oterhals / Flickr

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Seeing Red

The best advice I ever received was perhaps in the 9th grade. I told my English teacher I wanted to be a writer. She gave me a puzzling frown and replied, "Don't study to be a writer, do something with your life and write about it. The best writing comes when you write what you know."

Twenty years later, I am a physiciphoto (1).JPGan. My undergraduate degree was in communication studies and deep down, all I ever wanted to do was write. Little did I know that between medical education, a marriage, and three children, I wouldn't find many spare moments in my day to write.

I addition to practicing obstetrics and gynecology, I also practice a plant based died. The journey to health through nutrition has been mostly self-taught, so I was absolutely delighted when I was approached to share my perspectives on Vegsource.com as a blogger. But with contemporaries like Drs. Greger, Klaper, and Popper...I was curious what angle I could possibly bring to the picture.

And then today, just days after receiving my blog access, I was delivered to the very best setting to begin to share my insights as a plant based physician. And of all places, it was the American Heart Association Go Red For Women luncheon. Last I checked it wasn't exactly a secret heart disease kills more American women than all cancers combined. But shall we start from the beginning?

A few months ago I was flattered to be invited join a local philanthropic women's group composed of thought leaders who desired to use their influence to spread the word about heart health. Of all the anticipatory guidance and preventive screening I provide in my practice, heart health is certainly something I discus, so the group seemed like a perfect fit. I could share what I know about diet and lifestyle changes to prevent and reverse heart disease, and due to the group's ties to the American Heart Association, I could gain access to more resources to share with my patients.

The group has met for several social and educational events and I was even asked to share tips for making changes towards a heart-healthy diet. Without an overt vegan agenda, I shared how some of the very best data we have on heart disease came from the human subjects in the Framingham Heart Study--and that nutrition status is a crucial and modifiable risk factor. I briefly reviewed how a high fiber, low fat diet will lower cholesterol, etc. And after my presentation was complete, the group proceeded with a "heart healthy" cooking class where duck breast, salmon, and fat-laden Caesar salad was prepared. I drove home heavy-hearted, feeling as though I had not done enough to point out the forest from the trees.

Today I found myself at the biggest event of the year, the Go Red For Women Luncheon. Following a silent auction of themed purses and gift baskets, over 400 attendees were seated in a beautifully decorated dining room for lunch. As a side note, I had contributed to the auction by enthusiastically donating a vegan tote bag stuffed with materials from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease by Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn.

I had not, however, taken any trouble to request a meal free of animal products. I can usually get away with being a "low profile vegan," and I was fully expecting to be served some standard banquet vegetarian plate of steamed potatoes and green beans. I truly did not expect what was awaiting me at the table. And I quote from the menu--

Sliced tenderloin of beef over wild rice salad

Baby spinach, Roasted red pepper, Kalamata olive, toasted pine nuts and sherry vinaigrette

Drizzled with watercress pesto

Flourless chocolate cake with white chocolate mikado,

Dark chocolate ganache, white chocolate drizzle, and chocolate fudge sauce

It was my choice to come and also my choice whether or not I wanted to eat. I wasn't going to starve (and was already thinking of the fresh fruit I keep on hand back at my office), so as the presentation began, I settled in for heartwarming stories from survivors and local celebrities, and politely sipped my ice water.

Then it happened. After the blessing, the emcee invited us to enjoy our "heart healthy lunch."

Whoa! Back up a second.

I can accept banquet food. And I can accept that not all venues cater to all dietary preferences, especially when I had not asked in advance. But if I donated a 4-figure sum to attend this fundraiser, I expect to not be lied to or have my intelligence insulted at the suggestion of a "heart healthy lunch."

The presentations were lovely and I unfortunately had to leave before the end in order to resume my afternoon clinical responsibilities. As I drove back to the hospital from downtown, I felt so empty. Sure, my stomach was empty, but I felt more bereft by the missed opportunity I had witnessed. Somehow a brilliant committee of very passionate and dedicated women had managed to get hundreds of women to pay to attend this luncheon, had dozens more sponsor the event financially, and even more than that donate purses for the auction.

Yet, when the fork hit the plate, no one in the room was any wiser about the absolutely most important, crucial, and yet simple way to decrease their risk of heart disease.

By serving a meal that represented just about every misconception of the standard American diet, not to mention touting it as "heart-healthy," every attendee's current nutrition beliefs were only reinforced.

While researching for this post, I went to the American Heart Association website to check some statistics. Today, on the front page was a link to a Huffington Post blog by American Heart Assocation CEO Nancy Brown discussing Dr. Ancel Keys' data about how limiting saturated fat helps your heart. She specifically quotes the November 2013 lifestyle guidelines released by the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology, which recommended, "limiting saturated fats to about 5 or 6 percent of daily calories to lower blood pressure and "bad" cholesterol (LDL)."

So, with that in mind, let's recap an overview of the nutrition information from today's lunch. I'm not much of an app person, but I do love My Fitness Pal. I utilized this database to plug-in my kind estimations of the food items presented to me today. For 6 oz of beef tenderloin, ½ cup of rice (not accounting for the glistening oil or animal fat I could see it had been bathed in), ¼ cup spinach, and flourless chocolate cake with dollop of whipped cream, it estimated the meal to be 717 calories, with 25% from carbohydrates, 46% from fat, and 29% from protein. Of the 40 grams of fat, 21 were estimated to be saturated fat. Ok, tenderloin is leaner than a pork chop, spinach is green, and chocolate has antioxidants, but no matter how you slice this, I was not served a heart-healthy meal.

Suppose I could overlook the meal. The theme of high fat, low fiber recommendations pervaded the recipes included in the program. The broccoli salad called for mayonnaise, sour cream, and bacon. The nutrition information indicated that 40% of the calories per serving came from fat. Again, the opportunity to share a truly heart-healthy recipe was missed.

Do you need to eat a vegan diet to be healthy? Not necessarily. Has a vegan diet been proven again and again to prevent and reverse heart disease in literally millions of subjects? Yes. Was the topic of a plant based diet even briefly mentioned as an option at this event? No.

Per the American Heart Association website, "Most vegetarian diets are low in or devoid of animal products. They're also usually lower than nonvegetarian diets in total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol. Many studies have shown that vegetarians seem to have a lower risk of obesity, coronary heart disease (which causes heart attack), high blood pressure, diabetes mellitus and some forms of cancer."

How hard would it have been to throw that information in the line-up today? And how many lives could we save if we spent less time trying to raise money and more time trying to really educate people on simple changes such as diet?

The one activity most Americans make time to do every day is eat (ok, and sleep). When we eat we make choices. If you are reading this, you are somewhere on your own journey to wellness through nutrition. Whoever you are and wherever you came from, I welcome you on the path. And until we meet here again, I want to leave you with the slogan the American Heart Associated printed on the donation cards at each seat today -- "Speak Red." In the case of my lunch, the language of Red appeared to be red meat. That had me "Seeing Red." I had the choice to leave the luncheon disappointed and unchanged, but instead I decided to Speak to all of you about how I feel we are still in the Red with our efforts to adequately educate this nation about heart disease.

Let's keep this conversation going. Let's commend the Go Red For Women organization for having over 1.6 million sponsors and raising over $36 million towards education and research. But let's also, as citizens, donors, physicians, and women, insist that the right messages be sent with this money. Let's continue to work with these organizations to provide the whole story, especially when it comes to educating women about all the ways of decreasing their risk of dying of heart disease.

P.S. When I arrived home this evening, I found an invitation to an upcoming American Heart Association event entitled "Advocacy Afterhours", to review key heart disease and stroke priorities with key volunteers.

Despite the events of today, I'm more motivated than ever to assist in educating people about heart disease.

But next time, I'll eat before I go.

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