What’s the Optimal Cholesterol Level?

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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

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

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How Well Do Cholesterol-Lowering Drugs Actually Work?

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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:

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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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How to Eliminate 90 Percent of Heart Disease Risk

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Medical myths and dogmas die hard. Researchers creating a new body of knowledge for prevention and control of heart disease had to disprove a bunch of doozies. For example, we used to think that heart disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure were just inevitable consequences of aging. All these are now bygone notions, refuted by massive data. Other long-standing myths and dogmas about our number one killer epidemic persist, however. For example, many still think that major risk factors like cholesterol account for a minority of risk, and that many people have heart attacks with no risk factors at all.

There are rare genetic conditions that give people high cholesterol no matter what they eat, but such genetic defects occur in no more than 1 in 200 people. As you can see in my video, Eliminating 90% of Heart Disease Risk, this means that most people with atherosclerosis acquire it by what they put in their mouth.

One study showed that for men and women, old and young, and in all areas of the world, nine potentially modifiable factors like diet, exercise, and smoking, accounted for over 90 percent of the proportion of the risk of having a heart attack. This has also been confirmed in prospective studies such as the Harvard Health Professional's Follow-up, which showed that making healthy lifestyle choices are associated with a 90 percent drop in risk in men followed over time. This is true for women as well, who had a 92 percent drop in risk.

The same goes for diabetes--91 percent of cases could be attributed to bad habits and behaviors. And the same healthy lifestyle, which includes not smoking, eating a healthy diet, exercising and maintaining an optimal body weight, may reduce the risk of multiple chronic diseases such as stroke. Up to 80 percent of strokes are avoidable with simple lifestyle changes.

How does this all compare to drugs? Why change our diet, lose weight and start exercising if we can just pop some pills? Pharmacological therapies, including cholesterol lowering statin drugs and blood pressure pills, typically only reduce cardiovascular disease risk by 20 percent to 30 percent, not 90 percent like lifestyle changes. So even on drugs, 70 to 80 percent of heart attacks still occur.

One of the great things about the Harvard Health Professional's Follow-up is that they also looked at the effect of lifestyle changes on people already on medications. Even those on cholesterol and blood pressure lowering drugs may be able to get a further 78 percent drop in risk by eating and living healthfully. So the choice isn't diet or drugs. Cardiovascular medications "should be used as an adjunct to, not just a replacement for, healthy lifestyle practices."

It takes time for new science to trickle down into mainstream medical practice. The practice of cardiology and medicine in general may correspond, on average, to what was being published 10 or 20 years before. So it's important to know if your doctor is still stuck practicing 20th century medicine.

Chronic disease, then--the leading cause of death and disability--may be a choice. See for example, Cavities and Coronaries: Our Choice. What do you choose?

Why reduce a preventable disease just 90%? How about 99.9%? See One in a Thousand: Ending the Heart Disease Epidemic

More from the field of lifestyle medicine:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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

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Dietary Estrogens and Male Fertility

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In my video, The Role of Diet in Declining Sperm Counts, I discussed the association between high saturated fat intake and reduced semen quality. But what's the connection? One of the most recent papers on the topic found that a significant percentage of the saturated fat intake in the study was derived from dairy products. Residues of industrial chemicals may bioaccumulate up the food chain into animal fat, and some of these lipophilic (fat-loving) chemicals may have hormone-disrupting abilities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency performed a national survey of persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic pollutants in the U.S. milk supply (highlighted in my video, Dairy Estrogen and Male Fertility). The EPA team noted that since milk fat is likely to be among the highest dietary sources of exposure to these pollutants, it's important to understand the levels in the dairy supply. The team tested milk from all over the country and found a veritable witches brew of chemicals. They estimate that dairy products alone contribute about 30% to 50% of our dioxin exposure. And "like dioxin, other toxic pollutants tend to be widely dispersed in the environment, bioaccumulated through the food chain and ultimately result in low-level contamination in most animal fats."

This may explain higher pollutant concentrations in fish eaters. Xenoestrogens like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are associated with the fats of fish or animal flesh and cannot be fully removed by washing and cooking, and so can accumulate in our fat, too. Xenoestrogens are chemicals with demasculinizing or feminizing effects. But even in a non-polluted world, animal foods also have actual estrogen, which are unavoidable constituents of animal products. All foodstuff of animal origin contains estradiol, which is at least 10,000-fold more potent than most xenoestrogens. Dietary exposure--meat, dairy products and eggs--to these natural sex steroids is therefore highly relevant, as the hormones in these animals are identical to our own.

Estrogens are present in meat and eggs, but the major sources are milk and dairy products. By drinking a glass of milk, a child's intake of estradiol is 4,000 times the intake of xenoestrogens in terms of hormone activity. Modern genetically-improved dairy cows can lactate throughout their pregnancy. The problem is that during pregnancy, estrogen levels can jump as much as 30-fold.

Cheese intake has specifically been associated with lower sperm concentration, whereas dairy food intake in general has been associated with abnormal sperm shape and movement. Lower sperm concentrations by themselves may just represent a potential suppression of sperm production due to higher estrogen levels, but abnormal shape and movement suggests that dairy intake may be implicated in actual direct testicular damage.

While milk products supply most of our ingested female sex steroids, eggs are a considerable source as well, contributing about as much as meat and fish. This could be expected, as eggs are produced directly in the hens' ovaries.

Meat may also contain added hormones. In the U.S. anabolic sex steroids may be administered to animals for growth promotion, a practice banned in Europe twenty-five years ago. A study in New York found progressively lower sperm counts associated with processed meat consumption. However, similar studies in Europe after the ban found the same thing, so it may not be the implanted hormones, but rather a consequence of other meat components, such as the saturated fat raising cholesterol levels.

We've known for decades that men with high cholesterol levels show abnormalities in their "spermiograms": decreased sperm concentration, about a third of the normal sperm movement, and half the normal sperm shape. Twenty-five years later, we're finding the same thing. In the largest study to date, higher blood cholesterol levels were associated with a significantly lower percentage of normal sperm. Cholesterol was also associated with reductions in semen volume and live sperm count. These results highlight the role of fats in the blood in male fertility, and should be of concern given the rising prevalence of obesity and cholesterol problems. Although a healthier diet may be associated with healthier sperm counts, cholesterol-lowering statin drugs do not seem to help.

What about the phytoestrogens in soy? See The Effect of Soy on Precocious Puberty.

More on hormones in dairy in:

Neurotoxic chemicals in the dairy supply have been blamed for neurological conditions as well. See my video Preventing Parkinson's Disease with Diet.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Image Credit: Taber Andrew Bain / Flickr

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Four Brazil Nuts Once a Month…

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One of the craziest studies I read all year involved feeding people a single serving of Brazil nuts to see what it would do to the cholesterol levels of healthy volunteers. They gave ten men and women a single meal containing zero, one, four, or eight Brazil nuts, and found that the ingestion of just that single serving almost immediately improved cholesterol levels. LDL, so-called "bad" cholesterol levels in the blood, was significantly lower starting just nine hours after the ingestion of nuts, and by no insignificant amount, nearly 20 points within a day. Even drugs don't work that fast. It takes statins around four days to have a significant effect.

But that's not even the crazy part.

The researchers went back and measured their cholesterol five days later, and then 30 days later. Now keep in mind they weren't eating Brazil nuts this whole time. They just had that single serving of Brazil nuts a month before and their cholesterol was still down 30 days later. It went down and stayed down, after eating just four nuts... That's nuts!

And no, the study was not funded by the Brazil nut industry.

Interestingly, four nuts actually seemed to work faster than the eight nuts to lower bad cholesterol and boost good cholesterol. These results suggest that eating just four nuts might be enough to improve the levels of LDL and HDL for up to 30 days, and maybe longer--they didn't test past 30.

Now normally, when a study comes out in the medical literature showing some too-good-to-be-true result like this you want to wait to see the results replicated before you change your clinical practice, before you recommend something to your patients, particularly when the study is done on only ten people, and especially when the findings are literally just too incredible to be believed. But when the intervention is cheap, easy, harmless and healthy--eating four Brazil nuts a month--then, in my opinion, the burden of proof is kind of reversed. I think the reasonable default position is to do it until proven otherwise.

They concluded a single serving was sufficient "without producing liver and kidney toxicity." What they're referring to is the high selenium content of Brazil nuts--so high that four eaten every day may actually bump us up against the tolerable daily limit for selenium, but not something we have to worry about if we're just eating four once a month.

I'd be curious to hear if anyone experiences similar results. Even if the study was just a fluke, Nuts May Help Prevent Death by improving the function of our arteries (Walnuts and Artery Function) and fighting cancer (Which Nut Fights Cancer?) and inflammation (Fighting Inflammation in a Nut Shell).

Even eating nuts every day does not appear to result in expected weight gain (Nuts and Obesity: The Weight of Evidence), so enjoy!

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Image Credit: CIFOR / Flickr

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Why Don’t More Doctors Practice Prevention?

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Why don't more doctors practice preventive cardiology? Time availability is a reason frequently cited by physicians, but if you probe a little deeper, the number one reason given was their perception that patients fear being deprived of all the junk they're eating. Can you imagine a doctor saying, "I'd like to tell my patients to stop smoking, but I know how much they love it"?

Changes in diet to reduce cholesterol levels are often assumed to result in reductions in quality of life. Do we get to live longer or is it just going to feel longer? Contrary to popular belief, studies have found no apparent reduction, but rather an improvement in some measures of quality of life and patient satisfaction using nutrition therapy as opposed to drugs for high cholesterol. Whereas people taking cholesterol-lowering drugs don't feel any different, studies have found that those using dietary changes reported significantly better health and satisfaction, and better life in general. More positive feelings and fewer negative. In the Family Heart Study, for example, those placed on a cholesterol lowering diet showed significantly greater improvements in depression as well as a reduction in aggressive hostility.

Another barrier to preventive cardiology is that doctors don't realize how powerful dietary changes can be. The importance of diet for patients' health remains underestimated by doctors. Even the new drug-centered cholesterol guidelines emphasize that lifestyle modification should be the foundation for the reduction for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease risk. Despite this, more than half of physicians may skip over lifestyle change completely and jump straight to their prescription pad doubting that cholesterol goals can be reached with lifestyle changes alone.

According to the Director of the famous Framingham Heart Study (highlighted in my video, Barriers to Heart Disease Prevention), the best way to manage coronary artery disease is to lower patients' LDL cholesterol and other atherosclerosis-causing particles. "You can achieve this with diet plus drugs, but if you can do it with a vegetarian diet, it works even better." In the Framingham Heart Study, those running in the Boston Marathon achieved the goal of getting their total to good cholesterol ratio under four, but the vegetarians did even better.

And if you go all out, putting people on a very high fiber, whole-food vegetable, fruit, and nut diet, you can get a 25 percent drop in the bad to good cholesterol ratio within one week and a 33 percent drop in LDL. That's the cholesterol-reduction equivalent to a therapeutic dose of a cholesterol-lowering statin drug.

Dr. Ornish talks about how diet can be more sustainable than drugs, since compliance is more based on love-of-life rather than fear-of-death. See his editorial in Convergence of Evidence.

More on how lifestyle medicine is not only safer, and cheaper, but more effective:

Many physicians just weren't taught the power of diet:

But there have been cases of the medical profession actively seeking to limit further nutrition training. See my series about a bill in California:

Why not take drugs every day for the rest of our lives instead of using dietary change? That's the question I ask in my video Fast Food: Do You Want Fries With That Lipitor? Plus, drugs may not be effective as we think. Check out: Why Prevention is Worth a Ton of Cure. Not only is that not treating the root cause, but there are potentially serious drug side-effects. See, for example, Statin Muscle Toxicity and Statin Cholesterol Drugs and Invasive Breast Cancer.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Image Credit: Williams / Flickr

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Hummus for a Healthy Heart

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I've talked previously about the anti-diabetic and anti-obesity effects of various phytonutrients in beans, but beans have protective effects on the cardiovascular system as well. As one academic review suggested, plant-specific compounds can have a remarkable impact on the health care system and may provide therapeutic health benefits, including the prevention and treatment of diseases and disorders. Plants have antioxidant effects, anti-inflammatory effects, protect our livers, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and help prevent aging, diabetes, osteoporosis, DNA damage, heart disease and other disorders. Those without legumes in their daily diet, for example, may be at quadruple the odds of suffering high blood pressure.

Legumes such as chickpeas have been used to treat high blood pressure and diabetes for thousands of years. And they can also lower cholesterol levels. Researchers placed people in Northern India on high fat diets to raise their cholesterol levels up to that of the Western world (up around 206 mg/dL) and swapped in chickpeas for some of the grains they were eating. In five months, their cholesterol levels dropped to about 160, almost to the target of around 150. Cholesterol was reduced more than 15 percent in most of the subjects. In a randomized crossover trial, highlighted in my video, Beans, Beans, They're Good for Your Heart, two servings a day of lentils, chickpeas, beans, or split peas cut cholesterol levels so much that many participants moved below the range for which statin drugs are typically prescribed.

In the India study, although the subjects' cholesterol levels were comparable to the Western world at the start of the treatment with chickpeas, before the studym the participants were eating a low-fat diet. So low that their cholesterol levels started out at 123, well within the safe zone. Only after packing their diets with saturated fat were the researchers able to boost their cholesterol up to typical American levels, which could then be ameliorated by adding chickpeas. So it would be better if they just ate healthy in the first place. Or even better, healthy with hummus: a healthy diet with lots of legumes.


Beans dips like hummus are among my favorite go-to snacks. I like to dip snap peas and red bell pepper slices in them. I'd love to hear everyone's favorite recipe. You show me yours and I'll show you mine :)

Canned Beans or Cooked Beans? Click the link to find out!

Beans can help us live longer (Increased Lifespan from Beans), control our blood sugars (Beans and the Second Meal Effect), and help prevent and treat diabetes (Preventing Prediabetes By Eating More and Diabetics Should Take Their Pulses).

What about the purported "anti-nutrient" phytates in beans? You mean the Phytates for the Prevention of Cancer, the Phytates for Rehabilitating Cancer Cells, and the Phytates for the Treatment of Cancer? Phytate-containing foods may also help protect our bones (Phytates for the Prevention of Osteoporosis).

Why not just take cholesterol pills every day for the rest of our life? See my videos Statin Muscle Toxicity and Statin Cholesterol Drugs and Invasive Breast Cancer.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

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

Image Credit: homami / Flickr

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