Benefits of Oatmeal for Fatty Liver Disease

Benefits of Oatmeal for Fatty Liver Disease.jpeg

If oatmeal is so powerful that it can clear up some of the ravages of chemotherapy just applied to the skin (see my video Oatmeal Lotion for Chemotherapy-Induced Rash), what might it do if we actually ate it? Oats are reported to possess varied drug-like activities like lowering blood cholesterol and blood sugar, boosting our immune system, anticancer, antioxidant, and anti-atherosclerosis activites, in addition to being a topical anti-inflammatory, and reprtedly may also be useful in controlling childhood asthma and body weight.

Whole-grain intake in general is associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and weight gain, as shown in my video Can Oatmeal Help Fatty Liver Disease?. All of the cohort studies on type 2 diabetes and heart disease show whole grain intake is associated with lower risk.

Researchers have observed the same for obesity--consistently less weight gain for those who consumed a few servings of whole grains every day. All the forward-looking population studies demonstrate that a higher intake of whole grains is associated with lower body mass index and body weight gain. However, these results do not clarify whether whole grain consumption is simply a marker of a healthier lifestyle or a factor favoring lower body weight.

For example, high whole grain consumers--those who eat whole wheat, brown rice, and oatmeal for breakfast--tend to be more physically active, smoke less, and consume more fruit, vegetables, and dietary fiber than those that instead reach for fruit loops. Statistically, one can control these factors, effectively comparing nonsmokers to nonsmokers with similar exercise and diet as most of the studies did, and they still found whole grains to be protective via a variety of mechanisms.

For example, in terms of helping with weight control, the soluble fiber of oatmeal forms a gel in the stomach, delaying stomach emptying, making one feel full for a longer period. It seems plausible that whole grain intake does indeed offer direct benefits, but only results of randomized controlled intervention studies can provide direct evidence of cause and effect. In other words, the evidence is clear that oatmeal consumers have lower rates of disease, but that's not the same as proving that if we start eating more oatmeal, our risk will drop. To know that, we need an interventional trial, ideally a blinded study where you give half the people oatmeal, and the other half fake placebo oatmeal that looks and tastes like oatmeal, to see if it actually works. And that's what we finally got--a double-blinded randomized trial of overweight and obese men and women. Almost 90% of the real oatmeal-treated subjects had reduced body weight, compared to no weight loss in the control group. They saw a slimmer waist on average, a 20 point drop in cholesterol, and an improvement in liver function.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, meaning a fatty liver caused by excess food rather than excess drink, is now the most common cause of liver disease in the United States, and can lead in rare cases to cirrhosis of the liver, cancer of the liver, and death. Theoretically, whole grains could help prevent and treat fatty liver disease, but this is the first time it had been put to the test. A follow-up study in 2014 confirmed these findings of a protective role of whole grains, but refined grains was associated with increased risk. So one would not expect to get such wonderful results from wonder bread.

How can you make your oatmeal even healthier? See Antioxidants in a Pinch.

Whole Grains May Work As Well As Drugs for hypertension, but refined grain intake may linked with high blood pressure and diseases like diabetes. But If White Rice is Linked to Diabetes, What About China?.

More on keeping the liver healthy 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: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Are Sugar Pills Better than Antidepressant Drugs?

Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work.jpg

We've learned that exercise compares favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression (in my video Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression). But how much is that really saying? How effective are antidepressant drugs in the first place?

A recent meta-analysis sparked huge scientific and public controversy by stating that the placebo effect can explain the apparent clinical benefits of antidepressants. But aren't there thousands of clinical trials providing compelling evidence for antidepressant effectiveness? If a meta-analysis compiles together all the best published research, how could it say they don't work much better than sugar pills?

The key word is "published."

What if a drug company decided only to publish studies that showed a positive effect, but quietly shelved and concealed any studies showing the drug didn't work? If you didn't know any better, you'd look at the published medical literature and think "Wow, this drug is great." And what if all the drug companies did that? To find out if this was the case, researchers applied to the FDA under the Freedom of Information Act to get access to the published and unpublished studies submitted by pharmaceutical companies, and what they found was shocking.

According to the published literature, the results of nearly all the trials of antidepressants were positive, meaning they worked. In contrast, FDA analysis of the trial data showed only roughly half of the trials had positive results. In other words, about half the studies showed the drugs didn't work. Thus, when published and unpublished data are combined, they fail to show a clinically significant advantage for antidepressant medication over a sugar pill. Not publishing negative results undermines evidence-based medicine and puts millions of patients at risk for using ineffective or unsafe drugs, and this was the case with these antidepressant drugs.

These revelations hit first in 2008. Prozac, Serzone, Paxil and Effexor worked, but so did sugar pills, and the difference between the drug and placebo was small. That was 2008. Where were we by 2014? Analyses of the published data and the unpublished data that were hidden by drug companies reveals that most (if not all) of the benefits of antidepressants are due to the placebo effect. And what's even worse, Freedom of Information Act documents show the FDA knew about it but made an explicit decision to keep this information from the public and from prescribing physicians.

How could drug companies get away with this?

The pharmaceutical industry is considered the most profitable and politically influential industry in the United States, and mental illness can be thought of as the drug industry's golden goose: incurable, common, long term and involving multiple medications. Antidepressant medications are prescribed to 8.7 percent of the U.S. population. It's a multi-billion dollar market.

To summarize, there is a strong therapeutic response to antidepressant medication; it's just that the response to placebo is almost as strong. Indeed, antidepressants offer substantial benefits to millions of people suffering from depression, and to cast them as ineffective is inaccurate. Just because they may not work better than fake pills doesn't mean they don't work. It's like homeopathy--just because it doesn't work better than the sugar pills, doesn't mean that homeopathy doesn't work. The placebo effect is real and powerful.

In one psychopharmacology journal, a psychiatrist funded by the Prozac company defends the drugs stating, "A key issue is disregarded by the naysaying critics. If the patient is benefiting from antidepressant treatment does it matter whether this is being achieved via drug or placebo effects?"

Of course it matters!

Among the side effects of antidepressants are: sexual dysfunction in up to three quarters of people, long-term weight gain, insomnia, nausea and diarrhea. About one in five show withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit. And perhaps more tragically, the drugs may make people more likely to become depressed in the future. Let me say that again: People are more likely to become depressed after treatment by antidepressants than after treatment by other means - including placebo.

So if doctors are willing to give patients placebo-equivalent treatments, maybe it'd be better for them to just lie to patients and give them actual sugar pills. Yes, that involves deception, but isn't that preferable than deception with a side of side effects? See more on this in my video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?

If different treatments are equally effective, then choice should be based on risk and harm, and of all of the available treatments, antidepressant drugs may be among the riskiest and most harmful. If they are to be used at all, it should be as a last resort, when depression is extremely severe and all other treatment alternatives have been tried and failed.

Antidepressants may not work better than placebo for mild and moderate depression, but for very severe depression, the drugs do beat out sugar pills. But that's just a small fraction of the people taking these drugs. That means that the vast majority of depressed patients--as many as nine out of ten--are being prescribed medications that have negligible benefits to them.

Too many doctors quickly decide upon a depression diagnosis without necessarily listening to what the patient has to say and end up putting them on antidepressants without considering alternatives. And fortunately, there are effective alternatives. Physical exercise, for example can have lasting effects, and if that turns out to also be a placebo effect, it is at least a placebo with an enviable list of side effects. Whereas side effects of antidepressants include things like sexual dysfunction and insomnia, side effects of exercise include enhanced libido, better sleep, decreased body fat, improved muscle tone and a longer life.


There are other ways meta-analyses can be misleading. See The Saturated Fat Studies: Buttering Up the Public and The Saturated Fat Studies: Set Up to Fail.

More on the ethical challenges facing doctors and whether or not to prescribe sugar pills in The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?

I've used the Freedom of Information Act myself to get access to behind the scenes industry shenanigans. See, for example, what I found out about the egg industry in Who Says Eggs Aren't Healthy or Safe? and Eggs and Cholesterol: Patently False and Misleading Claims.

This isn't the only case of the medical profession overselling the benefits of drugs. See How Smoking in 1956 is Like Eating in 2016, The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs and Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure (though if you're worried about your mood they might make you even more depressed!)

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: GraphicStock. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Are Sugar Pills Better than Antidepressant Drugs?

Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work.jpg

We've learned that exercise compares favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression (in my video Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression). But how much is that really saying? How effective are antidepressant drugs in the first place?

A recent meta-analysis sparked huge scientific and public controversy by stating that the placebo effect can explain the apparent clinical benefits of antidepressants. But aren't there thousands of clinical trials providing compelling evidence for antidepressant effectiveness? If a meta-analysis compiles together all the best published research, how could it say they don't work much better than sugar pills?

The key word is "published."

What if a drug company decided only to publish studies that showed a positive effect, but quietly shelved and concealed any studies showing the drug didn't work? If you didn't know any better, you'd look at the published medical literature and think "Wow, this drug is great." And what if all the drug companies did that? To find out if this was the case, researchers applied to the FDA under the Freedom of Information Act to get access to the published and unpublished studies submitted by pharmaceutical companies, and what they found was shocking.

According to the published literature, the results of nearly all the trials of antidepressants were positive, meaning they worked. In contrast, FDA analysis of the trial data showed only roughly half of the trials had positive results. In other words, about half the studies showed the drugs didn't work. Thus, when published and unpublished data are combined, they fail to show a clinically significant advantage for antidepressant medication over a sugar pill. Not publishing negative results undermines evidence-based medicine and puts millions of patients at risk for using ineffective or unsafe drugs, and this was the case with these antidepressant drugs.

These revelations hit first in 2008. Prozac, Serzone, Paxil and Effexor worked, but so did sugar pills, and the difference between the drug and placebo was small. That was 2008. Where were we by 2014? Analyses of the published data and the unpublished data that were hidden by drug companies reveals that most (if not all) of the benefits of antidepressants are due to the placebo effect. And what's even worse, Freedom of Information Act documents show the FDA knew about it but made an explicit decision to keep this information from the public and from prescribing physicians.

How could drug companies get away with this?

The pharmaceutical industry is considered the most profitable and politically influential industry in the United States, and mental illness can be thought of as the drug industry's golden goose: incurable, common, long term and involving multiple medications. Antidepressant medications are prescribed to 8.7 percent of the U.S. population. It's a multi-billion dollar market.

To summarize, there is a strong therapeutic response to antidepressant medication; it's just that the response to placebo is almost as strong. Indeed, antidepressants offer substantial benefits to millions of people suffering from depression, and to cast them as ineffective is inaccurate. Just because they may not work better than fake pills doesn't mean they don't work. It's like homeopathy--just because it doesn't work better than the sugar pills, doesn't mean that homeopathy doesn't work. The placebo effect is real and powerful.

In one psychopharmacology journal, a psychiatrist funded by the Prozac company defends the drugs stating, "A key issue is disregarded by the naysaying critics. If the patient is benefiting from antidepressant treatment does it matter whether this is being achieved via drug or placebo effects?"

Of course it matters!

Among the side effects of antidepressants are: sexual dysfunction in up to three quarters of people, long-term weight gain, insomnia, nausea and diarrhea. About one in five show withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit. And perhaps more tragically, the drugs may make people more likely to become depressed in the future. Let me say that again: People are more likely to become depressed after treatment by antidepressants than after treatment by other means - including placebo.

So if doctors are willing to give patients placebo-equivalent treatments, maybe it'd be better for them to just lie to patients and give them actual sugar pills. Yes, that involves deception, but isn't that preferable than deception with a side of side effects? See more on this in my video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?

If different treatments are equally effective, then choice should be based on risk and harm, and of all of the available treatments, antidepressant drugs may be among the riskiest and most harmful. If they are to be used at all, it should be as a last resort, when depression is extremely severe and all other treatment alternatives have been tried and failed.

Antidepressants may not work better than placebo for mild and moderate depression, but for very severe depression, the drugs do beat out sugar pills. But that's just a small fraction of the people taking these drugs. That means that the vast majority of depressed patients--as many as nine out of ten--are being prescribed medications that have negligible benefits to them.

Too many doctors quickly decide upon a depression diagnosis without necessarily listening to what the patient has to say and end up putting them on antidepressants without considering alternatives. And fortunately, there are effective alternatives. Physical exercise, for example can have lasting effects, and if that turns out to also be a placebo effect, it is at least a placebo with an enviable list of side effects. Whereas side effects of antidepressants include things like sexual dysfunction and insomnia, side effects of exercise include enhanced libido, better sleep, decreased body fat, improved muscle tone and a longer life.


There are other ways meta-analyses can be misleading. See The Saturated Fat Studies: Buttering Up the Public and The Saturated Fat Studies: Set Up to Fail.

More on the ethical challenges facing doctors and whether or not to prescribe sugar pills in The Lie That Heals: Should Doctors Give Placebos?

I've used the Freedom of Information Act myself to get access to behind the scenes industry shenanigans. See, for example, what I found out about the egg industry in Who Says Eggs Aren't Healthy or Safe? and Eggs and Cholesterol: Patently False and Misleading Claims.

This isn't the only case of the medical profession overselling the benefits of drugs. See How Smoking in 1956 is Like Eating in 2016, The Actual Benefit of Diet vs. Drugs and Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure (though if you're worried about your mood they might make you even more depressed!)

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: GraphicStock. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Exercise as a Treatment for Depression

 Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression.jpg

We've known for decades that even a single bout of exercise can elevate our mood, but could it be enough to be used as a treatment for major depression?

We've known that physical activity has been associated with decreased symptoms of depression. For example, if you look at a cross-section of 8,000 people across the country, those that exercised regularly were less likely to have a major depression diagnosis. That's just a snapshot in time, though. In that study, the researcher openly acknowledges this may be a case of reverse causation. Maybe exercise didn't cut down on depression, maybe depression cut down on exercise. The reason depression may be associated with low physical activity is that people may feel too lousy to get out of bed. What we've needed was an interventional study where you take people who are already depressed and randomize them into an exercise intervention.

That is what researchers from Duke University Medical Center did. They randomized men and women over age 50 with major depression to two groups: one who did an aerobic exercise program for four months and another that took an antidepressant drug called Zoloft. In my video Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression you can see a graph of their changes. Before exercise, their Hamilton Depression scores were up around 18 (anything over seven is considered depressed). Within four months, the drug group came down to normal, which are exactly what the drugs are supposed to do. What about the exercise-only group, though? Exercise had the same powerful effect.

The researchers concluded that an exercise training program may be considered an alternative to antidepressants for treatment of depression in older persons, given that they've shown that a group program of aerobic exercise is a feasible and effective treatment for depression, at least for older people.

Not so fast, though.

A "group program?" They had the exercise group folks come in three times a week for a group class. Maybe the only reason the exercise group got better is because they were forced to get out of bed and interact with people--maybe it was the social stimulation and had nothing to do with the actual exercise? Before you could definitively say that exercise can work as well as drugs, what we would need to see is the same study, but with an additional group who exercised alone with no extra social interaction. And those same Duke researchers did just that,

They created the largest exercise trial of patients with major depression conducted to date, and not just including older folks, but other adults as well with three different treatment groups this time: a home exercise group in addition to the supervised group exercise and the drug group as before.

And they all worked about just as well in terms of forcing the depression into remission. So we can say with confidence that exercise is comparable to antidepressant medication in the treatment of patients with major depressive disorder.

Putting all the best studies together, researchers indicate that exercise at least has a moderate antidepressant effect, and at best, exercise has a large effect on reductions in depression symptoms and could be categorized as a very useful and powerful intervention. Unfortunately, while studies support the use of exercise as a treatment for depression, exercise is rarely prescribed as a treatment for this common and debilitating problem.

Exercise may compare favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression, but how much is that really saying? How effective are antidepressant drugs in the first place? Check out my video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?

For dietary interventions that may improve mood, see:

Exercise can also help with ADHD (Treating ADHD Without Stimulants) and improve immunity (Preserving Immune Function in Athletes With Nutritional Yeast), not to mention extend our lives (Longer Life Within Walking Distance). But what we eat matters: Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise.

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

Exercise as a Treatment for Depression

 Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression.jpg

We've known for decades that even a single bout of exercise can elevate our mood, but could it be enough to be used as a treatment for major depression?

We've known that physical activity has been associated with decreased symptoms of depression. For example, if you look at a cross-section of 8,000 people across the country, those that exercised regularly were less likely to have a major depression diagnosis. That's just a snapshot in time, though. In that study, the researcher openly acknowledges this may be a case of reverse causation. Maybe exercise didn't cut down on depression, maybe depression cut down on exercise. The reason depression may be associated with low physical activity is that people may feel too lousy to get out of bed. What we've needed was an interventional study where you take people who are already depressed and randomize them into an exercise intervention.

That is what researchers from Duke University Medical Center did. They randomized men and women over age 50 with major depression to two groups: one who did an aerobic exercise program for four months and another that took an antidepressant drug called Zoloft. In my video Exercise vs. Drugs for Depression you can see a graph of their changes. Before exercise, their Hamilton Depression scores were up around 18 (anything over seven is considered depressed). Within four months, the drug group came down to normal, which are exactly what the drugs are supposed to do. What about the exercise-only group, though? Exercise had the same powerful effect.

The researchers concluded that an exercise training program may be considered an alternative to antidepressants for treatment of depression in older persons, given that they've shown that a group program of aerobic exercise is a feasible and effective treatment for depression, at least for older people.

Not so fast, though.

A "group program?" They had the exercise group folks come in three times a week for a group class. Maybe the only reason the exercise group got better is because they were forced to get out of bed and interact with people--maybe it was the social stimulation and had nothing to do with the actual exercise? Before you could definitively say that exercise can work as well as drugs, what we would need to see is the same study, but with an additional group who exercised alone with no extra social interaction. And those same Duke researchers did just that,

They created the largest exercise trial of patients with major depression conducted to date, and not just including older folks, but other adults as well with three different treatment groups this time: a home exercise group in addition to the supervised group exercise and the drug group as before.

And they all worked about just as well in terms of forcing the depression into remission. So we can say with confidence that exercise is comparable to antidepressant medication in the treatment of patients with major depressive disorder.

Putting all the best studies together, researchers indicate that exercise at least has a moderate antidepressant effect, and at best, exercise has a large effect on reductions in depression symptoms and could be categorized as a very useful and powerful intervention. Unfortunately, while studies support the use of exercise as a treatment for depression, exercise is rarely prescribed as a treatment for this common and debilitating problem.

Exercise may compare favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression, but how much is that really saying? How effective are antidepressant drugs in the first place? Check out my video Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work?

For dietary interventions that may improve mood, see:

Exercise can also help with ADHD (Treating ADHD Without Stimulants) and improve immunity (Preserving Immune Function in Athletes With Nutritional Yeast), not to mention extend our lives (Longer Life Within Walking Distance). But what we eat matters: Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise.

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

What Do All the Blue Zones Have in Common?

Do Flexitarians Live Longer.jpg

What accounts for the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet? An anatomy of health effects was published, and the single most important component was the high consumption of plant foods. In contrast, fish and seafood consumption, the only animal foods promoted in the Mediterranean diet, did not seem to help.

If you look at four of the major dietary quality scoring systems, which have all been associated with extending lifespan and lowering heart disease and cancer mortality, they all share only four things in common: more fruit, more vegetables, more whole grains and more nuts and beans. They are all built on a common core of a diet rich in plant foods, whereas opposite food patterns, rich in animal foods and poor in plant-based foods (in other words, the Western diet), is associated with higher risks. So we need to optimize the food environment to support whole grains, vegetables, fruit and plant-based proteins.

That's one of the things all the so-called Blue Zones have in common: the longest living populations have not only social support and engagement and daily exercise, but nutritionally they all center their diets around plant foods, reserving meat mostly for special occasions. In fact, the population with perhaps the highest life-expectancy in the world, the California Adventist vegetarians, doesn't eat any meat at all.

So if the primary benefits of the Mediterranean diet are due to all the whole plant foods, what if you went back to the famous PREDIMED study and created a "provegetarian" scoring system? We know vegetarians live longer, but because a pure vegetarian diet might not easily be embraced by many individuals, maybe it would be easier to swallow if we just tell people more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods. But would just moving along the spectrum towards more plants actually enable people to live longer? Researchers thought of this food pattern as a "gentle approach" to vegetarianism, figuring that if it improved survival it would be an easily understandable message for health promotion: more plant foods, less animal foods.

On this scoring system, you get points for eating fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, beans, olive oil and potatoes, but get docked points for any animal fats, eggs, fish, dairy or any type of meat or meat products. Of course that means you get a higher score the more potato chips and French fries you eat. That's why I prefer the term "whole-food, plant-based diet" since it's defined by what you eat, not by what you don't eat. When I taught at Cornell I had "vegan" students who apparently were trying to live off French fries and beer; vegan does not necessarily mean health-promoting.

But did the provegetarian scoring system work? Regardless of healthy versus unhealthy, if you give points to people for any kind of plant food, processed or not, and detract points for any kind of animal product consumption, people with higher scores live longer. The maximum provegetarian score is 60, but even just scoring 40 or more was associated with a 40 percent drop in mortality. In fact, there were so few deaths in the highest category of adherence to the provegetarian diet, they had to merge the two upper categories for their analysis. This is evidence that simple advice to increase the consumption of plant-derived foods with reductions in the consumption of foods from animal sources confers a survival advantage. You can view the graph in my video Do Flexitarians Live Longer?

The researchers conclude, "this modest change is realistic, affordable, and achievable because a sizable proportion of their population was already eating that way. So one can get significant survival benefit without a radical shift to the exclusive consumption of plant foods, a more gradual and gentle approach which is more easily translatable into public policy." A 41 percent drop in mortality rates in the United States would mean saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

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

I've done a few videos on the health of so-called semi-vegetarians or flexitarians ("flexible" vegetarians). See how they rate in:

The Provegetarian Score reminds me of the animal to vegetable protein ratio in Prostate Cancer Survival: The A/V Ratio. My favorite dietary quality index is the one in Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score. How do you rate? Even the healthiest among us may be able to continue to push the envelope.

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

What Do All the Blue Zones Have in Common?

Do Flexitarians Live Longer.jpg

What accounts for the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet? An anatomy of health effects was published, and the single most important component was the high consumption of plant foods. In contrast, fish and seafood consumption, the only animal foods promoted in the Mediterranean diet, did not seem to help.

If you look at four of the major dietary quality scoring systems, which have all been associated with extending lifespan and lowering heart disease and cancer mortality, they all share only four things in common: more fruit, more vegetables, more whole grains and more nuts and beans. They are all built on a common core of a diet rich in plant foods, whereas opposite food patterns, rich in animal foods and poor in plant-based foods (in other words, the Western diet), is associated with higher risks. So we need to optimize the food environment to support whole grains, vegetables, fruit and plant-based proteins.

That's one of the things all the so-called Blue Zones have in common: the longest living populations have not only social support and engagement and daily exercise, but nutritionally they all center their diets around plant foods, reserving meat mostly for special occasions. In fact, the population with perhaps the highest life-expectancy in the world, the California Adventist vegetarians, doesn't eat any meat at all.

So if the primary benefits of the Mediterranean diet are due to all the whole plant foods, what if you went back to the famous PREDIMED study and created a "provegetarian" scoring system? We know vegetarians live longer, but because a pure vegetarian diet might not easily be embraced by many individuals, maybe it would be easier to swallow if we just tell people more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods. But would just moving along the spectrum towards more plants actually enable people to live longer? Researchers thought of this food pattern as a "gentle approach" to vegetarianism, figuring that if it improved survival it would be an easily understandable message for health promotion: more plant foods, less animal foods.

On this scoring system, you get points for eating fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, beans, olive oil and potatoes, but get docked points for any animal fats, eggs, fish, dairy or any type of meat or meat products. Of course that means you get a higher score the more potato chips and French fries you eat. That's why I prefer the term "whole-food, plant-based diet" since it's defined by what you eat, not by what you don't eat. When I taught at Cornell I had "vegan" students who apparently were trying to live off French fries and beer; vegan does not necessarily mean health-promoting.

But did the provegetarian scoring system work? Regardless of healthy versus unhealthy, if you give points to people for any kind of plant food, processed or not, and detract points for any kind of animal product consumption, people with higher scores live longer. The maximum provegetarian score is 60, but even just scoring 40 or more was associated with a 40 percent drop in mortality. In fact, there were so few deaths in the highest category of adherence to the provegetarian diet, they had to merge the two upper categories for their analysis. This is evidence that simple advice to increase the consumption of plant-derived foods with reductions in the consumption of foods from animal sources confers a survival advantage. You can view the graph in my video Do Flexitarians Live Longer?

The researchers conclude, "this modest change is realistic, affordable, and achievable because a sizable proportion of their population was already eating that way. So one can get significant survival benefit without a radical shift to the exclusive consumption of plant foods, a more gradual and gentle approach which is more easily translatable into public policy." A 41 percent drop in mortality rates in the United States would mean saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

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

I've done a few videos on the health of so-called semi-vegetarians or flexitarians ("flexible" vegetarians). See how they rate in:

The Provegetarian Score reminds me of the animal to vegetable protein ratio in Prostate Cancer Survival: The A/V Ratio. My favorite dietary quality index is the one in Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score. How do you rate? Even the healthiest among us may be able to continue to push the envelope.

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?

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.

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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.

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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:

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