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

What’s the Optimal Cholesterol Level?

Optimal Cholesterol Level.jpg

No matter where we live, how old we are or what we look like, health researchers from the Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health have discovered that 90% of the chance of having a first heart attack "can be attributed to nine modifiable risk factors." The nine factors that could save our lives include: smoking, too much bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, abdominal obesity, stress, a lack of daily fruit and veggie consumption, as well as a lack of daily exercise.

Dr. William Clifford Roberts, Executive Director of Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute and long-time Editor in Chief of the American Journal of Cardiology, is convinced, however, that atherosclerosis has a single cause--namely cholesterol--and that the other so-called atherosclerotic risk factors are only contributory at most. In other words, we could be stressed, overweight, smoking, diabetic couch potatoes, but if our cholesterol is low enough, there may just not be enough cholesterol in our blood stream to infiltrate our artery walls and trigger the disease. Thus, the only absolute prerequisite for a fatal or nonfatal atherosclerotic event like a heart attack is an elevated cholesterol level.

It was not appreciated until recently "that the average blood cholesterol level in the United States, the so-called normal level, was actually abnormal," accelerating the blockages in our arteries and putting a large fraction of the normal population at risk. That's cited as one of the reasons the cholesterol controversy lasted so long--an "unwillingness to accept the notion that a very large fraction of our population actually has an unhealthily high cholesterol level."

Normal cholesterol levels may be fatal cholesterol levels.

The optimal "bad cholesterol" (LDL) level is 50 to 70. Accumulating data from multiple lines of evidence consistently demonstrate that that's where a physiologically normal LDL level would be. That appears to be the threshold above which atherosclerosis and heart attacks develop. That's what we start out at birth with, that's what fellow primates have, and that's the level seen in populations free of the heart disease epidemic. One can also look at all the big randomized controlled cholesterol lowering trials.

In my video, Optimal Cholesterol Level, you can see graphing of the progression of atherosclerosis versus LDL cholesterol. More cholesterol means more atherosclerosis, but if we draw a line down through the points, we can estimate that the LDL level at which there is zero progression is around 70. We can do the same with the studies preventing heart attacks. Zero coronary heart disease events might be reached down around 55, and those who've already had a heart attack and are trying to prevent a second one might need to push LDL levels even lower.

Atherosclerosis is endemic in our population in part because the average person's LDL level is up around 130, approximately twice the normal physiologic level. The reason the federal government doesn't recommend everyone shoot for under 100 is that despite the lower risk accompanying more optimal cholesterol levels, the intensity of clinical intervention required to achieve such levels for everyone in the population would "financially overload the health care system. Drug usage would rise enormously." But, they're assuming drugs are the only way to get our LDL that low. Those eating really healthy plant-based diets may hit the optimal cholesterol target without even trying, naturally nailing under 70.

The reason given by the federal government for not advocating for what the science shows is best was that it might frustrate the public, "who would have difficulty maintaining a lower level," but maybe the public's greatest frustration would come from not being informed of the optimal diet for health.


It's imperative for everyone to understand Dr. Rose's sick population concept, which I introduced in When Low Risk Means High Risk.

What about large fluffy LDL cholesterol versus small and dense? See Does Cholesterol Size Matter?

More from the Framingham Heart Study can be found in Barriers to Heart Disease Prevention and Everything in Moderation? Even Heart Disease?.

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: lightwise © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

Original Link

What’s the Optimal Cholesterol Level?

Optimal Cholesterol Level.jpg

No matter where we live, how old we are or what we look like, health researchers from the Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health have discovered that 90% of the chance of having a first heart attack "can be attributed to nine modifiable risk factors." The nine factors that could save our lives include: smoking, too much bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, abdominal obesity, stress, a lack of daily fruit and veggie consumption, as well as a lack of daily exercise.

Dr. William Clifford Roberts, Executive Director of Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute and long-time Editor in Chief of the American Journal of Cardiology, is convinced, however, that atherosclerosis has a single cause--namely cholesterol--and that the other so-called atherosclerotic risk factors are only contributory at most. In other words, we could be stressed, overweight, smoking, diabetic couch potatoes, but if our cholesterol is low enough, there may just not be enough cholesterol in our blood stream to infiltrate our artery walls and trigger the disease. Thus, the only absolute prerequisite for a fatal or nonfatal atherosclerotic event like a heart attack is an elevated cholesterol level.

It was not appreciated until recently "that the average blood cholesterol level in the United States, the so-called normal level, was actually abnormal," accelerating the blockages in our arteries and putting a large fraction of the normal population at risk. That's cited as one of the reasons the cholesterol controversy lasted so long--an "unwillingness to accept the notion that a very large fraction of our population actually has an unhealthily high cholesterol level."

Normal cholesterol levels may be fatal cholesterol levels.

The optimal "bad cholesterol" (LDL) level is 50 to 70. Accumulating data from multiple lines of evidence consistently demonstrate that that's where a physiologically normal LDL level would be. That appears to be the threshold above which atherosclerosis and heart attacks develop. That's what we start out at birth with, that's what fellow primates have, and that's the level seen in populations free of the heart disease epidemic. One can also look at all the big randomized controlled cholesterol lowering trials.

In my video, Optimal Cholesterol Level, you can see graphing of the progression of atherosclerosis versus LDL cholesterol. More cholesterol means more atherosclerosis, but if we draw a line down through the points, we can estimate that the LDL level at which there is zero progression is around 70. We can do the same with the studies preventing heart attacks. Zero coronary heart disease events might be reached down around 55, and those who've already had a heart attack and are trying to prevent a second one might need to push LDL levels even lower.

Atherosclerosis is endemic in our population in part because the average person's LDL level is up around 130, approximately twice the normal physiologic level. The reason the federal government doesn't recommend everyone shoot for under 100 is that despite the lower risk accompanying more optimal cholesterol levels, the intensity of clinical intervention required to achieve such levels for everyone in the population would "financially overload the health care system. Drug usage would rise enormously." But, they're assuming drugs are the only way to get our LDL that low. Those eating really healthy plant-based diets may hit the optimal cholesterol target without even trying, naturally nailing under 70.

The reason given by the federal government for not advocating for what the science shows is best was that it might frustrate the public, "who would have difficulty maintaining a lower level," but maybe the public's greatest frustration would come from not being informed of the optimal diet for health.


It's imperative for everyone to understand Dr. Rose's sick population concept, which I introduced in When Low Risk Means High Risk.

What about large fluffy LDL cholesterol versus small and dense? See Does Cholesterol Size Matter?

More from the Framingham Heart Study can be found in Barriers to Heart Disease Prevention and Everything in Moderation? Even Heart Disease?.

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: lightwise © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Improving Employee Diets Could Save Companies Millions

Plant-Based Workplace Intervention.jpg

The food, alcohol, and tobacco industries have been blamed for "manufacturing epidemics" of chronic disease, but they're just trying to sell more product like everyone else. And so if that means distorting science, creating front groups, compromising scientists, blocking public health policies... they're just trying to protect their business.

It's not about customer satisfaction, but shareholder satisfaction. How else could we have tobacco companies, for example, "continuing to produce products that kill one in two of their most loyal customers?"

Civil society organizations concerned with public health have earned a reputation for being "anti-industry," but the issue is not industry, but that sector of industry whose products are harmful to public health. We like the broccoli industry. In fact, the corporate world might end up leading the lifestyle medicine revolution.

As shown in my video, Plant-Based Workplace Intervention, the annual cost attributable to obesity alone among full-time employees is estimated at 70 billion dollars, primarily because obese employees are not as productive on the job. Having healthy employees is good for the bottom-line. Every dollar spent on wellness programs may offer a $3 return on investment. And if you track the market performance of companies that strive to nurture a culture of health, they appear to outperform their competition.

That's why companies like GEICO are exploring workplace dietary interventions (see my video, Slimming the Gecko). The remarkable success at GEICO headquarters led to an expansion of the program at corporate offices across the country, with test sites from San Diego to Macon, Georgia. Given that previous workplace studies have found that workers who ate a lot of animal protein had nearly five times the odds of obesity, whereas those that ate mostly plant protein appeared protected, obese and diabetic employees were asked to follow a plant-based diet of whole grains, vegetables, beans, and fruit while avoiding meat, dairy, and eggs. Compliance wasn't great. Fewer than half really got their animal product consumption down, but there were definitely improvements such as significant reductions in saturated fat, an increase in protective nutrients, and even noted weight loss, lower blood cholesterol levers, and better blood sugar control in diabetics.

And this was with no calorie counting, no portion control, and no exercise component. The weight reduction appears to result from feeling fuller earlier, due to higher dietary fiber intake. The difference in weight loss could also be the result of an increase in the thermic effect of food, allowing a small extra edge for weight loss in the vegan group. Those eating plant-based diets tend to burn off more calories in heat.

Eating plants appears to boost metabolism. This may be due to increased insulin sensitivity in cells, allowing cells to metabolize carbohydrates more quickly rather than storing them as body fat. "As a result, vegan diets have been shown to increase postprandial calorie burn by about 16%, up to three hours after consuming a meal."

Imagine how much money companies that self-insure their employees could save! See, for example:

Find out more on some of the potential downsides of corporate influence in videos like

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: Ryan McGuire / Pixabay. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Improving Employee Diets Could Save Companies Millions

Plant-Based Workplace Intervention.jpg

The food, alcohol, and tobacco industries have been blamed for "manufacturing epidemics" of chronic disease, but they're just trying to sell more product like everyone else. And so if that means distorting science, creating front groups, compromising scientists, blocking public health policies... they're just trying to protect their business.

It's not about customer satisfaction, but shareholder satisfaction. How else could we have tobacco companies, for example, "continuing to produce products that kill one in two of their most loyal customers?"

Civil society organizations concerned with public health have earned a reputation for being "anti-industry," but the issue is not industry, but that sector of industry whose products are harmful to public health. We like the broccoli industry. In fact, the corporate world might end up leading the lifestyle medicine revolution.

As shown in my video, Plant-Based Workplace Intervention, the annual cost attributable to obesity alone among full-time employees is estimated at 70 billion dollars, primarily because obese employees are not as productive on the job. Having healthy employees is good for the bottom-line. Every dollar spent on wellness programs may offer a $3 return on investment. And if you track the market performance of companies that strive to nurture a culture of health, they appear to outperform their competition.

That's why companies like GEICO are exploring workplace dietary interventions (see my video, Slimming the Gecko). The remarkable success at GEICO headquarters led to an expansion of the program at corporate offices across the country, with test sites from San Diego to Macon, Georgia. Given that previous workplace studies have found that workers who ate a lot of animal protein had nearly five times the odds of obesity, whereas those that ate mostly plant protein appeared protected, obese and diabetic employees were asked to follow a plant-based diet of whole grains, vegetables, beans, and fruit while avoiding meat, dairy, and eggs. Compliance wasn't great. Fewer than half really got their animal product consumption down, but there were definitely improvements such as significant reductions in saturated fat, an increase in protective nutrients, and even noted weight loss, lower blood cholesterol levers, and better blood sugar control in diabetics.

And this was with no calorie counting, no portion control, and no exercise component. The weight reduction appears to result from feeling fuller earlier, due to higher dietary fiber intake. The difference in weight loss could also be the result of an increase in the thermic effect of food, allowing a small extra edge for weight loss in the vegan group. Those eating plant-based diets tend to burn off more calories in heat.

Eating plants appears to boost metabolism. This may be due to increased insulin sensitivity in cells, allowing cells to metabolize carbohydrates more quickly rather than storing them as body fat. "As a result, vegan diets have been shown to increase postprandial calorie burn by about 16%, up to three hours after consuming a meal."

Imagine how much money companies that self-insure their employees could save! See, for example:

Find out more on some of the potential downsides of corporate influence in videos like

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: Ryan McGuire / Pixabay. This image has been modified.

Original Link

The Natural Human Diet

NF-Nov15 The Problem with the Paleo Diet Argument copy.jpg

Our epidemics of dietary disease have prompted a great deal of research into what humans are meant to eat for optimal health. In 1985, an influential article highlighted in my video The Problem With the Paleo Diet Argument was published proposing that our chronic diseases stem from a disconnect between what our bodies ate while evolving during the Stone Age (about 2 million years ago) and what we're stuffing our face with today. The proposal advocated for a return towards a hunter-gatherer type diet of lean meat, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

It's reasonable to assume our nutritional requirements were established in the prehistoric past. However, the question of which prehistoric past we should emulate remains. Why just the last 2 million? We've been evolving for about 20 million years since our last common great ape ancestor, during which our nutrient requirements and digestive physiology were set down. Therefore our hunter-gatherer days at the tail end probably had little effect. What were we eating for the first 90% of our evolution? What the rest of the great apes ended up eating--95 percent or more plants.

This may explain why we're so susceptible to heart disease. For most of human evolution, cholesterol may have been virtually absent from the diet. No bacon, butter, or trans fats; and massive amounts of fiber, which pulls cholesterol from the body. This could have been a problem since our body needs a certain amount of cholesterol, but our bodies evolve not only to make cholesterol, but also to preserve it and recycle it.

If we think of the human body as a cholesterol-conserving machine, then plop it into the modern world of bacon, eggs, cheese, chicken, pork, and pastry; it's no wonder artery-clogging heart disease is our #1 cause of death. What used to be adaptive for 90% of our evolution--holding on to cholesterol at all costs since we weren't getting much in our diet--is today maladaptive, a liability leading to the clogging of our arteries. Our bodies just can't handle it.

As the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Cardiology noted 25 years ago, no matter how much fat and cholesterol carnivores eat, they do not develop atherosclerosis. We can feed a dog 500 eggs worth of cholesterol and they just wag their tail; a dog's body is used to eating and getting rid of excess cholesterol. Conversely, within months a fraction of that cholesterol can start clogging the arteries of animals adapted to eating a more plant-based diet.

Even if our bodies were designed by natural selection to eat mostly fruit, greens and seeds for 90% of our evolution, why didn't we better adapt to meat-eating in the last 10%, during the Paleolithic? We've had nearly 2 million years to get used to all that extra saturated fat and cholesterol. If a lifetime of eating like that clogs up nearly everyone's arteries, why didn't the genes of those who got heart attacks die off and get replaced by those that could live to a ripe old age with clean arteries regardless of what they ate? Because most didn't survive into old age.

Most prehistoric peoples didn't live long enough to get heart attacks. When the average life expectancy is 25 years old, then the genes that get passed along are those that can live to reproductive age by any means necessary, and that means not dying of starvation. The more calories in food, the better. Eating lots of bone marrow and brains, human or otherwise, would have a selective advantage (as would discovering a time machine stash of Twinkies for that matter!). If we only have to live long enough to get our kids to puberty to pass along our genes, then we don't have to evolve any protections against the ravages of chronic disease.

To find a population nearly free of chronic disease in old age, we don't have to go back a million years. In the 20th century, networks of missionary hospitals in rural Africa found coronary artery disease virtually absent, and not just heart disease, but high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, common cancers, and more. In a sense, these populations in rural China and Africa were eating the type of diet we've been eating for 90% of the last 20 million years, a diet almost exclusively of plant foods.

How do we know it was their diet and not something else? In the 25 year update to their original paleo paper, the authors tried to clarify that they did not then and do not now propose that people adopt a particular diet just based on what our ancient ancestors ate. Dietary recommendations must be put to the test. That's why the pioneering research from Pritikin, Ornish, and Esselstyn is so important, showing that plant-based diets can not only stop heart disease but have been proven to reverse it in the majority of patients. Indeed, it's the only diet that ever has.

For more on the absence of Western diseases in plant-based rural populations, see for example:

I've touched on "paleo" diets in the past:

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: Nathan Rupert / Flickr

Original Link

The Natural Human Diet

NF-Nov15 The Problem with the Paleo Diet Argument copy.jpg

Our epidemics of dietary disease have prompted a great deal of research into what humans are meant to eat for optimal health. In 1985, an influential article highlighted in my video The Problem With the Paleo Diet Argument was published proposing that our chronic diseases stem from a disconnect between what our bodies ate while evolving during the Stone Age (about 2 million years ago) and what we're stuffing our face with today. The proposal advocated for a return towards a hunter-gatherer type diet of lean meat, fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

It's reasonable to assume our nutritional requirements were established in the prehistoric past. However, the question of which prehistoric past we should emulate remains. Why just the last 2 million? We've been evolving for about 20 million years since our last common great ape ancestor, during which our nutrient requirements and digestive physiology were set down. Therefore our hunter-gatherer days at the tail end probably had little effect. What were we eating for the first 90% of our evolution? What the rest of the great apes ended up eating--95 percent or more plants.

This may explain why we're so susceptible to heart disease. For most of human evolution, cholesterol may have been virtually absent from the diet. No bacon, butter, or trans fats; and massive amounts of fiber, which pulls cholesterol from the body. This could have been a problem since our body needs a certain amount of cholesterol, but our bodies evolve not only to make cholesterol, but also to preserve it and recycle it.

If we think of the human body as a cholesterol-conserving machine, then plop it into the modern world of bacon, eggs, cheese, chicken, pork, and pastry; it's no wonder artery-clogging heart disease is our #1 cause of death. What used to be adaptive for 90% of our evolution--holding on to cholesterol at all costs since we weren't getting much in our diet--is today maladaptive, a liability leading to the clogging of our arteries. Our bodies just can't handle it.

As the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Cardiology noted 25 years ago, no matter how much fat and cholesterol carnivores eat, they do not develop atherosclerosis. We can feed a dog 500 eggs worth of cholesterol and they just wag their tail; a dog's body is used to eating and getting rid of excess cholesterol. Conversely, within months a fraction of that cholesterol can start clogging the arteries of animals adapted to eating a more plant-based diet.

Even if our bodies were designed by natural selection to eat mostly fruit, greens and seeds for 90% of our evolution, why didn't we better adapt to meat-eating in the last 10%, during the Paleolithic? We've had nearly 2 million years to get used to all that extra saturated fat and cholesterol. If a lifetime of eating like that clogs up nearly everyone's arteries, why didn't the genes of those who got heart attacks die off and get replaced by those that could live to a ripe old age with clean arteries regardless of what they ate? Because most didn't survive into old age.

Most prehistoric peoples didn't live long enough to get heart attacks. When the average life expectancy is 25 years old, then the genes that get passed along are those that can live to reproductive age by any means necessary, and that means not dying of starvation. The more calories in food, the better. Eating lots of bone marrow and brains, human or otherwise, would have a selective advantage (as would discovering a time machine stash of Twinkies for that matter!). If we only have to live long enough to get our kids to puberty to pass along our genes, then we don't have to evolve any protections against the ravages of chronic disease.

To find a population nearly free of chronic disease in old age, we don't have to go back a million years. In the 20th century, networks of missionary hospitals in rural Africa found coronary artery disease virtually absent, and not just heart disease, but high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, common cancers, and more. In a sense, these populations in rural China and Africa were eating the type of diet we've been eating for 90% of the last 20 million years, a diet almost exclusively of plant foods.

How do we know it was their diet and not something else? In the 25 year update to their original paleo paper, the authors tried to clarify that they did not then and do not now propose that people adopt a particular diet just based on what our ancient ancestors ate. Dietary recommendations must be put to the test. That's why the pioneering research from Pritikin, Ornish, and Esselstyn is so important, showing that plant-based diets can not only stop heart disease but have been proven to reverse it in the majority of patients. Indeed, it's the only diet that ever has.

For more on the absence of Western diseases in plant-based rural populations, see for example:

I've touched on "paleo" diets in the past:

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: Nathan Rupert / Flickr

Original Link

Medical Care: The Third Leading Cause of Death

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An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but a pound isn't that heavy. Why change our diet and lifestyle when we can just wait and let modern medicine fix us up? In my video The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs, I noted that patients tend to wildly overestimate the ability of cancer screening and cholesterol-lowering medications to prevent disease. Surveyed patients report they were told the truth about how little they'd benefit, 90% said they wouldn't even bother.

The reason we should eat healthier, rather than just counting on a medical technofix, is that we may hold this same overconfidence for treatment, too. In a massive study of more than 200,000 trials, researchers discovered that pills and procedures can certainly help, but genuine, very large effects with extensive support from substantial evidence appear to be rare in medicine. Further, large benefits for mortality--making people live significantly longer--are almost entirely nonexistent. Modern medicine is great for acute conditions--broken bones and curing infections--but for chronic disease, our leading causes of death and disability, we don't have much to offer. In fact, we sometimes do more harm than good.

In my Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death presentation, I noted that side-effects from prescription drugs kill an estimated 100,000 Americans every year, making medical care the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. There are another 7,000 deaths from getting the wrong medicine by mistake and 20,000 deaths from other errors in hospitals. Hospitals are dangerous places. An additional 99,000 of us die from hospital-acquired infections. But can we really blame doctors for those deaths, though? We can when they don't wash their hands.

We've known since the 1840's that the best way to prevent hospital-acquired infections is through handwashing, yet compliance rates among healthcare workers rarely exceeds 50%, and doctors are the worst, as highlighted in my video Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure. Even in a medical intensive care unit with a "contact precautions" sign, signaling a particularly high risk patient, less than a quarter of doctors were found to wash their hands. Many physicians greeted the horrendous mortality data due to medical error with disbelief and concern that the information would undermine public trust. But if doctors still won't even wash their hands, how much trust do we deserve?

We could go in for a simple operation and come out with a life-threatening infection, or not come out at all. 12,000 more die from surgeries that were unnecessary in the first place. For those keeping score, that's 225,000 people dead from iatrogenic ("relating to medical care") causes. And that's mostly just for patients in a hospital. In an outpatient setting, side-effects from prescription drugs send millions to the hospital and result in perhaps 199,000 additional deaths. This is not including all those non-fatally injured (such as the case where doctors accidentally amputated the tip of a man's penis. Oops).

These estimates are on the low end. The Institute of Medicine estimated that deaths from medical errors may kill up to 98,000 Americans. That would bump us up to 284,000 dead. Even if we use the lower estimate, the medical profession constitutes the third leading cause of death in the United States. It goes heart disease, cancer, then... me.

One respondent pointed out that it was misleading to call medicine the third leading cause of death since many of those we kill also had heart disease or cancer. It's not like doctors are out there gunning down healthy people. Only people on medications are killed by medication errors or side-effects. You have to be in the hospital to be killed by a hospital error.

To which I respond: Exactly.

That's why lifestyle medicine is so important. The most common reasons people are on drugs and in hospitals is for diseases that can be prevented with a healthy diet and lifestyle. The best way to avoid the adverse effects of medical care is to not get sick in the first place.

For more background on how scandalous our handwashing history has been, see my Q&A: What about Semmelweis and medicine's shameful handwashing history? It's truly an unbelievable story.

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: Portal PBH / Flickr

Original Link

How Well Do Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Actually Work?

NF-Nov8 The Actual Benefit  copy.jpg

One of the reasons people may undervalue diet and lifestyle changes is an overconfidence in the ability of pills and procedures to prevent disease. For example, people tend to wildly overestimate the power of things like mammograms and colonoscopies to prevent deaths from breast and bowel cancer, or the power of drugs like Fosamax to prevent hip fractures, or the power of cholesterol drugs to prevent fatal heart attacks. Patients believe statin drugs like Lipitor are about 100 times more effective than they actually are in preventing heart attacks. Studies show most people wouldn't take multiple blood pressure medications if they knew the truth.

For most people, the chance of benefit is normally less than 5 percent over five years for cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood thinning drugs. Patients don't want to take drugs unless they have at least a one in five chance--even those who just had a heart attack. It's no wonder, then, that doctors seldom share these figures. Informing patients of the percentage chance of benefit from preventive drug strategies would likely substantially reduce the likelihood that patients would agree to take the drugs every day for the rest of their lives.

For the individual, this is unlikely to be detrimental; after all, there's a 95 percent chance it won't do anything for them. But for the population at large, it would make a difference, so doctors and drug companies oversell the benefits by conveniently not mentioning how tiny they actually are, knowing most patients wouldn't take them if doctors divulged the truth. To practice non-lifestyle medicine is to practice deceptive medicine.

The best that cholesterol-lowering statin drugs appear to do is an absolute risk reduction of 3.1 percent over six years. If Dr. Esselstyn's work can be replicated in a randomized, controlled trial, then a whole foods plant-based diet will have been shown to work twenty times better, an absolute risk reduction of 60 percent after less than four years. In Esselstyn's study, 99.4 percent of high-risk patients that stuck with the diet avoided major cardiac events, such as death from heart attack.

When we have to decide whether we want to go diet versus drugs, we're not making a choice between eating healthy to prevent a heart attack or taking a pill to prevent a heart attack. Because in 97 percent of cases in the near-term, pills don't do anything. We're risking side effects for nothing, whereas if we treat the underlying root cause of the disease by eating a healthy, cholesterol-free diet, we may even reverse the progression of the disease, as seen in my video The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs.

If we stop eating an artery-clogging diet, our bodies can start dissolving that plaque away, opening up arteries in some cases without drugs or surgery. A healthy whole food plant-based diet by itself may work 20 times better than drugs to combat our #1 killer.

Now that's something doctors may want to tell their patients.

Yes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, but a pound isn't that heavy--why change our diet and lifestyle when we can just wait and let modern medicine fix us up? Turns out we overestimate the efficacy of treatment as well, the subject of my video Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure.

Sometimes preventive medicine procedures can even be harmful. See Cancer Risk From CT Scan Radiation and Do Dental X-Rays Cause Brain Tumors?

I've previously noted how an honest physician-patient interaction might go in Fully Consensual Heart Disease Treatment, Optimal Diet: Just Give it To Me Straight, Doc and Disclosing Conflicts of Interest in Medical Research. What should we be saying? See: What Diet Should Physician's Recommend?

So why don't more doctors do it? See Barriers to Heart Disease Prevention and Find Out If Your Doctor Takes Drug Company Money.

More on Dr. Esselstyn's heart disease reversal study in: Evidence-Based Medicine or Evidence-Biased?

Of course then there's just the brute force method: Kempner Rice Diet: Whipping Us Into Shape.

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: [akz] © 123RF.com

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Flax Seeds Can Have Profound Effect on Hypertension

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A recent article in the journal, Meat Science, acknowledged that a sector of the population perceives meat as a food that is detrimental to their health because of studies associating meat consumption with heart disease and cancer. So, the article continues, meat consumers may look for healthier food alternatives as a means to maintain good health, which represents a good opportunity for the meat industry to develop some new products. The industry felt that natural foods could be added to meat to reach those health-oriented consumers by boosting antioxidants levels, for example. Foods like flax seeds and tomatoes are healthy, associated with reduced risks of cancer and cardiovascular disease. So by making flax-y tomato burgers, they figure they can reduce saturated fat intake and maybe eat less sugar somehow. Wouldn't it be easier to just cut out the middle-cow and eat flax seeds ourselves?

Flax seeds have been described as a "miraculous defense against some critical maladies." I'm a fan of flax, but this title seemed a bit over-exuberant; I figured something just got lost in translation, but then I found a prospective, double-blinded, placebo-controlled, randomized trial--you know how hard that is in a nutrition study? For drugs, it's easy: you have two identical looking pills, one's active, one's placebo, and until the end of the study, neither the researcher nor the patient has any idea which is which, hence "double blind." But people tend to notice what they're eating. So how did they sneak a quarter cup of ground flax seeds into half of the people's diets without them knowing? They created all these various flax or placebo containing foods, and even added bran and molasses to match the color and texture, so it was all a big secret until six months later when they broke the code to see who ate which.

Why test it on hypertension? Because having a systolic blood pressure over 115--that's the top number--may be the single most important determinant for death in the world today. If you take a bunch of older folks, most of them on an array of blood pressure pills, and don't improve their diet at all, despite the drugs, they may start out on average hypertensive and stay hypertensive six months later. But those who were unknowingly eating ground flaxseeds every day, dropped their systolic blood pressure about ten points, and their diastolic, the lower number, by about seven points. That might not sound like a lot, but a drop like that could cut stroke risk 46 percent and heart disease 29 percent, and that ten point drop in the top number could have a similar effect on strokes and heart attacks. And for those that started out over 140, they got a 15-point drop.

In summary, flaxseed induced one of the most potent antihypertensive effects ever achieved by a dietary intervention. In other words, the magnitude of this decrease in blood pressure demonstrated by dietary flaxseed, is as good or better than other nutritional interventions and comparable to many drugs, which can have serious side effects. And they're not exaggerating about the comparable to drugs bit. The flax dropped systolic and diastolic up to 15 and 7. Compare that to powerful ACE inhibitors like Vasotec, which may only drop pressures five and two, and calcium channel blockers like Norvasc or Cardizem which drop pressures eight and three. Side effects of these drugs include a large list of serious medical issues, as seen in my video Flax Seeds for Hypertension, compared to the side effect of flax seeds, "its pleasant nutty flavor."

During the six-month trial there were strokes and heart attacks in both groups, though. Even if the flax seeds can cut risk in half, any avoidable risk is unacceptable. Isn't high blood pressure just inevitable as we get older? No - the prevalence of hypertension does increase dramatically with age, but not for everyone. People who eat more plant-based diets or keep their salt intake low enough tend not to exhibit any change in blood pressure with advancing age. It's always better to prevent the disease in the first place.

And that's not all flax can do. Check out:

Hibiscus tea may help with high blood pressure as well: Hibiscus Tea vs. Plant-Based Diets for Hypertension

Diet can also play an important role in preventing heart disease (How Not to Die from Heart Disease and One in a Thousand: Ending the Heart Disease Epidemic) and diabetes (How Not to Die from Diabetes and Plant-Based Diets and Diabetes). In some cases diet can even reverse some of the worst ravages of high blood pressure: How Not to Die from High Blood Pressure and Kempner Rice Diet: Whipping Us Into Shape.

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: Veganbaking.net / Flickr

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