Health Tips From The Professor Dairy Products and Heart Disease

Posted January 29, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Will Eating Cheese Help You Live Longer?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

dairy products and heart diseaseA recent study is generating lots of headlines. Here are some examples:

  • Eating Dairy Foods Can Help Reduce Heart Disease Risk.
  • Fermented Dairy-Products May Protect Against Heart Attack.
  • Full-Fat Dairy May Actually Benefit Heart Health.
  • Eating Cheese Might Help You Live Longer.
  • Eating Cheese and Butter Every Day Linked To Living Longer.

My favorite headlines were the ones about cheese and longevity. For example, one headline read: “New Study Finds People That Eat Cheese Live Longer.” The article opened by saying “Sprinkle on another handful of mozzarella on your pizza, add an extra slice of American cheese on your burger, or grab a bite of sharp cheddar with your crackers. A new study published in The Lancet claims that eating cheese reduces your risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Now that’s something we like to hear.”

A lot of people must like to hear good news about cheese. The headlines about cheese making you live longer outnumbered all the other headlines by about 3 to 1.

In summary, the claims ranged from dairy foods in general to milk & fermented dairy foods, full-fat dairy foods, cheese, and cheese & butter. Let’s look at the study behind the claims to see which of these claims about dairy products and heart disease are true and which are wishful thinking.

 

How Was The Study Designed?

dairy products and heart disease relationshipThe study behind the headlines (M. Dehghan et al. The Lancet, 392: 2288-2297, 2018 ) was a very ambitious study called PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology study). It was a large multinational study of 136,384 individuals aged 35-70 from 21 countries in five continents.

At the beginning of the study participants filled out a country-specific food frequency questionnaire. The data from this survey were broken down into total dairy foods, milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter. The data were also subdivided into low-fat and full-fat dairy foods.

The participants were followed for an average of 9.1 years. The outcomes measured at the end of the study were overall mortality, cardiovascular mortality, cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke and heart failure. The way these outcomes were measured was also country specific because the way these data are collected varies from country to country. [Note: There were some other outcomes measured, but for the sake of simplicity I have not included them in the discussion. Their omission does not change the discussion.]

Finally, in case you were wondering, this research was not funded by money from the dairy industry.

 

Dairy Products and Heart Disease Risk?

dairy products and heart disease milkThe results were interesting:

  • Higher intake of total dairy foods (>2 servings/day compared with no intake) was associated with a lower risk of overall mortality (17% less), cardiovascular mortality (23% less), cardiovascular disease (22% less) and stroke (34% less). No association of dairy consumption with heart attack or heart failure was seen.
  • Higher intake of milk (>1 serving per day compared with <0.5 servings/day) was associated with a lower risk cardiovascular disease (18% less).
  • Higher intake of yogurt (>1 serving/day compared with <0.5 servings/day) was associated with a lower risk of overall mortality (17% less) and cardiovascular disease (10% less).
  • No significant effect of cheese was observed for any of the outcomes measured.
  • Butter intake was low and was not associated with any of the outcomes measured.

The authors concluded: “We observed that higher dairy consumption was associated with lower risks of mortality and cardiovascular disease, particularly stroke. Our study suggests that consumption of dairy products should not be discouraged and perhaps should even be encouraged in low-income and middle-income countries where dairy consumption is less.”

 

Will Eating Cheese Help You Live Longer?

  • dairy products and heart disease cheeseThe claims you have been seeing about consumption of dairy foods in general, milk, and yoghurt reducing heart attack risk are supported by this study and several other recent studies.
  • I hate to disappoint you, but the claims about cheese and butter consumption reducing cardiovascular disease and extending lifespan are clearly wishful thinking. They are not supported by this study.

The discussion of full-fat versus low-fat dairy products is more complicated. You are undoubtedly aware that most current dietary guidelines recommend avoiding full-fat dairy foods in favor of low-fat alternatives. Studies like this have led some to question whether these dietary guidelines should be changed.

Interestingly, the authors of the PURE study did not make any claims about the benefits of full-fat dairy foods in their discussion of the results. These claims have all come from internet blogs and articles. Why were the authors of the study reluctant to make that claim? To answer that question I turned to reviews of the study published in the Science Media Center by experts in that field of study. Here were some of their comments:

  • Because dietary guidelines recommending the consumption of low-fat dairy foods exist primarily in western countries (specifically, the US, Canada & Europe) the distribution of low-fat dairy and full-fat dairy was not evenly divided between counties. Most of the low-fat dairy consumption occurred in western countries. In contrast, most of the full-fat dairy consumption occurred in developing countries. That introduces a couple of confounding variables that are unique to this study. For example:
    • In developing countries, diets are often primarily plant-based and tend to be low in sugar and highly processed foods, while in western countries, diets are often primarily meat-based and are high in sugar and highly processed foods. The addition of full-fat dairy to a plant-based diet may not have the same effect as adding it to a pizza or hamburger.
  • In developing countries, people with higher incomes, a healthier lifestyle, and better access to health care are often the ones who consume more dairy products. In other words, the PURE study can’t tell us whether consumption of full-fat dairy lead to better health outcomes in those countries or whether wealthier and healthier people in those countries had the means to consume more dairy.
  • In many developing countries, a large segment of the population is lactose intolerant. Increased full-fat dairy consumption by these people would be largely yogurt and other fermented dairy foods which have health benefits of their own.

In short, confounding variables unique to this study make it difficult to say with confidence that full-fat dairy foods were just as beneficial as low-fat dairy foods.

In western countries the results of previous studies are mixed. Some suggest that full-fat dairy foods are just as effective as low-fat dairy foods at reducing heart disease risk. Others report that the primary heart-health benefits come from low-fat dairy foods.

 

Dairy Products and Heart Disease:  Diet Context Matters

dairy products and heart disease dietWhy so much confusion? Some recent studies suggest that diet context matters. Simply put, that means the effect of the overall diet is more important than single food groups (dairy). To illustrate this point, let’s look at two other studies.

The first study (M Chen et al, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 104: 1209-1217, 2016 ) was published two years ago by investigators at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. That study included data from 43,000 men in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, 87,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study, and 90,000 women in the Nurses’ Healthy Study II. All these study participants were from the United States. This study put dairy fat consumption into the context of the overall diet. The main findings were:

  • Full-fat dairy foods did not increase heart disease risk compared to a diet that contains high amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugar (the typical American diet).
  • However, when dairy fat was replaced with the same number of calories from:
    • vegetable fat, the risk of heart disease decreased by 10%.
    • polyunsaturated fat, the risk of heart disease decreased by 24%.
    • healthy carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), the risk of heart disease decreased by 28%.

In other words, the effect of dairy fat on heart disease depends on the overall diet. If you add dairy fat to an already bad, heart-unhealthy diet, it does not further increase heart disease risk. (This finding may explain why several recent studies of western populations have found no difference between full-fat and low-fat dairy consumption.) However, this study also shows that addition of full-fat dairy to a heart-healthy diet is likely to increase heart disease risk.

The lead author of that study was quoted as saying: “These results suggest that dairy fat is not an optimal type of fat in our diets. Although one can enjoy moderate amounts of full-fat dairy such as cheese, a healthy diet pattern tends to be low in saturated fat. These results strongly support existing recommendations to choose mainly unsaturated fats from vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, avocados, and some oily fish for a heart-healthy diet.”

The second major study is the 7th-Day Adventist study, which I have described in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”  This study showed that a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet was less heart healthy than a vegan diet but is far heart-healthier than the typical American diet.

 

What Does This Study Mean For You?

dairy products and heart disease questionsDairy foods are good for you: Increased consumption of dairy foods, milk, and yogurt are associated with decreased risk of heart disease. As I have said before, we have 5 food groups for a reason. Dairy foods are an essential part of a healthy diet.

  • If you are lactose-intolerant I have good news for you. Yogurt and other fermented dairy foods are probably even better for you than non-fermented dairy foods.
  • If you are avoiding dairy for other reasons, be sure to get your calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D from other sources. There may be other important nutrients in dairy that are heart-healthy, but these are the ones we are sure of.

The jury is still out on full-fat dairy products: It is best to follow current dietary guidelines and consume primarily low-fat dairy products.

If you are a cheese lover, it is probably OK to consume moderate amounts of cheese or other full-fat dairy foods on occasion as part of a heart-healthy, primarily plant-based diet. In short, it is probably better to add a little cheese to a green salad than it is to add it to pizza or a hamburger. It is probably better to pair your cheddar with an apple than with crackers.

Hopefully, this gives you a better understanding of the relationship between dairy products and heart disease.

 

The Bottom Line 

A recent study looked at the consumption of dairy products and heart disease risk, and overall mortality risk in a study with 134,000 participants from 21 countries on five continents. The media response to this study has been overwhelming. Some of the recent headlines are:

  • Eating Dairy Foods Can Help Reduce Heart Disease Risk.
  • Fermented Dairy-Products May Protect Against Heart Attack.
  • Full-Fat Dairy May Actually Benefit Heart Health.
  • Eating Cheese Might Help You Live Longer.
  • Eating Cheese and Butter Every Day Linked To Living Longer.

The first two claims were supported by the study results. The claims about cheese and butter were wishful thinking. They were not supported by the study results. The claim about full-fat dairy was supported by the data, but the authors of the study did not make that claim because of study limitations.

Another recent study of 220,000 participants in the United States provides a better estimate of the effect of full-fat dairy foods on heart health. The main findings of this study were:

  • Full-fat dairy foods did not increase heart disease risk compared to a diet that contains high amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugar (the typical American diet).
  • However, when dairy fat was replaced with the same number of calories from:
    • vegetable fat, the risk of heart disease decreased by 10%.
    • polyunsaturated fat, the risk of heart disease decreased by 24%.
    • healthy carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, and whole grains), the risk of heart disease decreased by 28%.

In other words, the effect of dairy fat on heart disease depends on the overall diet. If you add full-fat dairy to an already bad heart-unhealthy diet, it does not further increase heart disease risk. However, if you add full-fat dairy to a heart-healthy diet, it is likely to increase heart disease risk.

For more details and a thorough discussion of the full-fat versus low-fat controversy read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor Do Omega-3s Reduce Heart Disease Risk

Posted October 2, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Omega-3 Confusion

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 This article includes updates as of October 2, 2018.  First, here is the earlier information.

do omega 3s reduce heart disease risk confusionDo omega-3s reduce heart disease risk?

Perhaps there is nothing more controversial in nutrition today than omega-3 fatty acids and heart disease risk. It is so confusing. One day you are told they reduce heart disease risk. The next day you are told they are worthless.

The controversy around omega-3s and heart disease risk is part of the larger controversy around supplementation. It is omega-3 supplements that are controversial, not omega-3-rich fish. Of course, that completely ignores the fact that many omega-3-rich fish are contaminated with PCBs and/or heavy metals.

Why is omega-3 supplementation so controversial? The problem is that proponents of omega-3 supplementation often seize on a single study as “proof” that everyone should supplement with omega-3s.  Opponents of omega-3 supplementation take the opposite approach. They pick studies showing that not everyone benefits from omega-3 supplementation as “proof” that nobody benefits. As usual, the truth is in between.

I have a section in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths,”  called “None of Us Are Average.” In that section I point out that clinical studies report the average results of everyone in the study, but nobody in the study was average.

For example, let’s say the study reported that (on average) there was no heart health benefit from omega-3 supplementation. That is what makes the headlines. That is what opponents of omega-3 supplementation cite as “proof” omega-3 supplementation doesn’t work.

However, some of the people in the study may have benefited from omega-3 supplementation, while others did not. Thus, the important question is not “Does everyone benefit from omega-3 supplementation?” It is “Who benefits from omega-3 supplementation?” and “Why do the results vary so much from study to study?”

Omega-3 Confusion

do omega 3s reduce heart disease risk rolesI have a chapter in my book called “What Role Does Supplementation Play?” which helps put this omega-3 controversy into perspective. I created the graphic on the left to answer the question “Who needs supplementation?”

The concept is simple. Poor diet, increased need, genetic predisposition, and pre-existing disease all increase the likelihood that supplementation will be beneficial. However, the benefit will be most obvious in the center of the diagram where two or more of these factors overlap.

Let’s take this concept and apply it to studies of omega-3 fatty acids and heart disease risk.  In particular, let’s use this concept to understand what I call “omega-3 confusion” – why some studies give negative results and others give positive results:

Poor Diet: Again, the concept is simple. You are most likely to see a benefit of omega-3 supplementation when the dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids is low. Put another way, if the subjects in a study are already getting plenty of omega-3s from their diet, supplementing with omega-3s is unlikely to provide any benefit.

Until recently, dietary surveys were the standard method for assessing dietary omega-3 intake. However, dietary surveys can be inaccurate. The best of recent studies, measure the omega-3 levels in cellular membranes. The omega-3 levels at the beginning of the study reflect your diet. The omega-3 levels at the end of the study reflect how effective supplementation was at improving your omega-3 status. In short, this is the gold standard for omega-3 clinical studies. Subjects can lie about how many omega-3-rich foods they eat and whether they take their supplements, but the omega-3 levels in their cell membranes reveal the truth.

When you read the methods section, it turns out that most negative studies did not ask how much omega-3s their subjects were getting from their diet. Almost none of the negative studies measured omega-3 levels in cell membranes.

Increased Need: In terms of heart disease, we can think increased need as the presence of risk factors for heart disease such as:

  • Age
  • Obesity
  • Inactivity
  • Elevated cholesterol or triglycerides
  • Dietary factors like saturated fats and/or sugar and refined carbohydrates
  • Smoking

What does this mean in terms of clinical studies?

  • Studies in which most of the subjects have a poor diet, are over 65, and have multiple risk factors for heart disease are more likely to show a beneficial effect of omega-3s on heart disease risk.
  • Studies in which most of the subjects are young and healthy are unlikely to show a measurable benefit of omega-3s on heart disease risk. You would need to follow this population group 20, 30, or 40 years to demonstrate a benefit.

Genetic Predisposition: There is a lot we don’t know about genetic predisposition for heart disease. The only exception is family history. If you do omega 3s reduce heart disease risk geneticshave a family history of early heart disease, you can be pretty certain you are at high risk for heart disease. As you might suspect:

  • Studies focused on populations with genetic predisposition to heart disease are more likely to show a benefit of omega-3 supplementation.
  • Studies that just look at the general population without consideration of genetic predisposition to heart disease are less likely to show a benefit of omega-3 supplementation.

Disease: Diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure increase heart disease risk. And, of course, pre-existing heart disease, especially a recent heart attack, dramatically increase the risk of a subsequent heart attack or stroke. Studies focusing on subjects with diabetes have been inconsistent. However, studies focusing on patients with pre-existing heart disease are more clear-cut:

  • Studies focused on populations with pre-existing heart disease and/or a recent heart attack are more likely to show a benefit of omega-3 supplementation.
  • Studies that just look at the general population without consideration of genetic predisposition to heart disease are less likely to show a benefit of omega-3 supplementation.

Interestingly, the situation is very similar with statin drugs. As I reported in a recent issue  of “Health Tips From the Professor” on cholesterol lowering drugs, studies done with patients who had recently had a heart attack show a clear benefit of statin drugs, while studies with the general population show little or no benefit of statin drugs.

One More Factor: There is one more confounding factor that is somewhat unique to the omega-3-heart disease studies and, therefore, not included in the figure at the beginning of this section. Ethical considerations dictate that the placebo group in a double-blind, placebo controlled clinical study receive the “standard of care” for that disease. In the case of heart disease, the standard of care is 4-5 drugs which provide most of the same benefits as omega-3 fatty acids (although with many more side effects).

Thus, these studies are no longer asking whether omega-3s reduce heart disease risk. They are asking whether omega-3s have any additional benefits for heart disease patients already on 4-5 drugs. I have discussed this in more detail in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” on omega-3 and heart disease.

do omega 3s reduce heart disease risk conflicting studiesWhy Are Omega-3 Studies Conflicting? In summary, the likelihood that clinical studies show a beneficial effect of omega-3 fatty acids on heart disease risk is highly dependent on study design and the population group included in the study. Many of the studies currently in the scientific literature are flawed in one way or another. Once you understand that, it is obvious why there are so many conflicting studies in the literature.

Unfortunately, meta-analyses that combine data from many studies are no better than the individual studies they include in the analysis. It is the old “Garbage in – garbage out” principle.

What Does An Ideal Study Look Like? In my opinion, an ideal study to evaluate the effect of omega-3s on heart disease risk should (at minimum):

  • Determine omega-3 levels in cellular membranes as a measure of omega-3 status (dietary intake of omega-3s plus their utilization by the body). The percentage of omega-3 fatty acids in cell membranes is referred to as Omega-3 Index. Based on previous studies (W.S. Harris et al, Atherosclerosis, 262: 51-54, 2017, most experts consider an Omega-3 Index of 4% to be low and an Omega-3 Index of 8% to be optimal.
  • Focus on a population group at high risk for heart disease or include enough subjects in the study so that you can determine the effect of omega-3s on high risk subgroups.
  • Measure cardiovascular outcomes (heart attack, stroke, cardiovascular deaths, etc.).
  • Perform the study long enough so that you can accumulate a significant number of cardiovascular events.
  • Include enough subjects for a statistically significant conclusion.

Do Omega-3s Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

do omega 3s reduce heart disease riskMost of you have probably heard of the Framingham Heart Study. It was started in 1941 with a large group of residents of Framingham Massachusetts and surrounding areas. The data from this study over the years has shaped much of what we know about cardiovascular risk factors. The original participants have passed on, but the study has continued with their offspring, now in their 60s.

A recent study (W. H. Harris et al, Journal of Clinical Lipidology, doi: 10.1016/j.jacl.2018.02.010 ) with 2500 subjects in the Offspring Cohort of the Framingham Heart Study incorporates many of characteristics of a good omega-3 clinical study.

  • The average age of the subjects was 66. While none of the subjects enrolled in the study had been diagnosed with heart disease at the time the study began, this is a high-risk population. At this age a significant percentage of them would be expected to develop heart disease over the next few years.
  • The subjects did have other risk factors for heart disease. 13% of them had diabetes, 44% had high blood pressure, and 40% of them were on cholesterol medication. However, those risk factors were corrected for in the data analysis, so they did not influence the results.
  • The Omega-3 Index was measured in their red blood cell membranes at the beginning of the study.
  • The study was long enough (7.3 years) for cardiovascular disease to develop.

When they compared subjects with the highest Omega-3 Index (>6.8%) with those with the those with the lowest Omega-3 Index (<4.2%):

  • Death from all causes was reduced by 34%
  • Incident cardiovascular disease was reduced by 39% (Remember that none of the subjects had been diagnosed with heart disease at the beginning of the study. This terminology simply means that they received a new diagnosis of heart disease during the study.)
  • Cardiovascular events (primarily heart attacks) were reduced by 42%
  • Strokes were reduced by 55%.

There were two other interesting observations from the study:

  • There was no correlation between serum cholesterol levels and heart disease in this study.
  • The authors estimated that it would require an extra 1300 mg of omega-3s/day, either from a serving of salmon or from fish oil supplements, to bring the membrane Omega-3 Index from the lowest level in this study to an optimal level.

The authors cited three other recent studies performed in a similar manner that have come to essentially the same conclusion. These studies are not perfect. They are all association studies, so they do not prove cause and effect.

However, the authors concluded that Omega-3 Index should be measured routinely as a risk factor for heart disease and should be corrected if it is low.

The Bottom Line:

Perhaps there is nothing more controversial in nutrition today than omega-3 fatty acids and heart disease risk. It is so confusing. One day you are told they reduce heart disease risk. The next day you are told they are worthless.  I have discussed the reasons for the conflicting results and the resulting omega-3 confusion in the article above.

I shared a recent study that escapes many of the pitfalls of previous studies because it measures the Omega-3 Index of red blood cells as an indication of omega-3 status.

When the study compared subjects with the highest Omega-3 Index (>6.8%) with those with the those with the lowest Omega-3 Index (<4.2%):

  • Death from all causes was reduced by 34%
  • Incident cardiovascular disease was reduced by 39% (Remember that none of the subjects had been diagnosed with heart disease at the beginning of the study. This terminology simply means that they received a new diagnosis of heart disease during the study.)
  • Cardiovascular events (primarily heart attacks) were reduced by 42%
  • Strokes were reduced by 55%.

There were two other interesting observations from the study:

  • There was no correlation between serum cholesterol levels and heart disease in this study.
  • The authors estimated that it would require an extra 1300 mg of omega-3s/day, either from a serving of salmon or from fish oil supplements, to bring the membrane Omega-3 Index from the lowest level in this study to an optimal level.

The authors concluded that Omega-3 Index should be measured routinely as a risk factor for heart disease and should be corrected if it is low.

 

Are Omega-3s Worthless?

omega 3 and heart disease supplementsRecommendations from the medical industry changes often.  The following updates are in response to some of those changes concerning omega-3 and heart disease.  These updates were added on October 2, 2018.

The internet is abuzz with headlines saying things such as “Omega-3 Supplements Don’t Protect Against Heart Disease” and “Forget Omega-3s”. Are those headlines true? Should we throw our omega-3 supplements in the trash?

If the recent headlines are true, it is confusing, to say the least. In the late 90s and early 2000s we were being told of clinical studies showing that omega-3s reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke. At that time the American Heart Association was recommending omega-3 supplements for patients at high risk of heart attack or stroke. What has changed?

It turns out that a lot has changed. The design of clinical studies has changed dramatically in the past 10-15 years. I have covered the changing omega-3 story in detail in my upcoming book “Slaying The Supplement Myths.” Let me just summarize a few key differences between the year 2000 and today.

  • The definition of “high risk of heart attack and stroke” has changed dramatically since 2000. Clinical studies today include subjects who have a much lower risk of heart attack and stroke. That makes it more difficult to see any benefits of omega-3s.
  • Most studies do not measure the omega-3 status of their subjects. That means they do not know whether their patients were omega-3 deficient at the beginning of the study. It also means they have no objective measure of how faithfully the subjects took their omega-3 capsules.
  • We are asking a totally different question today than we were in the year 2000. It is considered unethical to withhold “standard medical care” from the control group. In 2000 the standard of care was one or two heart medications and often did not include a statin. Back then we were asking “Do omega-3s reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke?” Today, the standard of care is 3-5 heart medications, each of which provides some of the same benefits as omega-3s. Today we are asking the question “Do omega-3s provide any additional benefit for people who are already taking 3-5 heart medications?”

Let me start by analyzing a recent study that illustrates these points perfectly.

How Was The Study Done?

omega 3 and heart disease studyOn the surface the study appeared to be a well-designed study. The study (The ASCEND Study Collaborative Group, New England Journal Of Medicine, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1804989, 2018 ) was conducted by scientists from the University of Oxford. They used a national diabetes registry and contacted general practitioners from all over England to identify 15,480 patients who had diabetes, but no evidence of heart disease and were willing to participate in the study. Participants were at least 40 (average age 63) and 60% male.

The participants were mailed a six month’s supply of capsules containing either 1 gram of omega-3s or olive oil as a placebo. Each 6 months the participants were mailed a questionnaire to report on whether they took the capsule daily and whether they had any adverse side effects. If they returned the questionnaire, they were given another 6 month’s supply of omega-3s or placebo. The patients were followed for an average of 7.4 years and “adverse vascular events” (simple definition: non-fatal and fatal heart attack or stroke) were recorded.

 

Omega-3 and Heart Disease?

omega 3 and heart disease no affectsThe authors of the study reported:

  • Omega-3 supplementation had no significant effect on either serious vascular events or death from any cause.

The authors concluded “These findings, together with results of earlier randomized trials involving patients with and without diabetes, do not support the current recommendations for routine dietary supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids to prevent vascular events.”

On the surface, this appears to be a strong study and the results were conclusive. What could go wrong? The answer is “Plenty.”

What Are The Weaknesses Of The Study?

omega 3 and heart disease flawsThe study contains multiple weaknesses that have been ignored by the medical community and the press.

Omega-3 Supplements Reduced Vascular Deaths In This Study. To begin with, the study showed that omega-3 supplementation reduced vascular deaths (simple definition: fatal heart attacks and stroke) by 18%. That observation was reported as a single sentence in the Results section of the paper but did not appear in either the Discussion or Abstract. It was also not reported in any of the media reports telling you that omega-3s are worthless. Perhaps it did not match the preconceived beliefs of the authors.

This Study Was Not Really Looking At High Risk Patients. The studies in the late 90’s and early 2000’s showing a significant effect of omega-3s on heart attack risk were done with truly high-risk patients. For example, the best of these studies looked at the effect of omega-3 supplementation in patients who had suffered a heart attack in the past 6 months. Those patients were at high risk of a second heart attack in the next 6-12 months. They were in imminent danger.

This study looked at patients with diabetes. They have a 2 to 3-fold risk of heart attack or stroke over the next decade. That’s a big difference. In addition, this study only looked at patients with diabetes AND no evidence of heart disease. Their risk of heart attack and stroke is substantially less. In fact, if you look at the data in the study, 83% of the participants in their study were at low to moderate risk of heart disease. Only 17% were at high risk.

To put that into perspective, it has only been possible to prove the effectiveness of statins when they are tested in patients who have already suffered a heart attack. In low risk populations, their benefit is almost negligible. You will find details about those studies in my new book “Slaying The Supplement Myths.

If you can’t prove statins are effective in low risk populations, why would you expect to be able to show omega-3s are effective in low risk populations.

omega 3 and heart disease optimumThe Subjects Were Already Getting Near Optimum Amounts of Omega-3s From Their Diet. The study analyzed the omega-3 index (a measure of omega-3 status) from a randomly selected subset of participants at the beginning and end of the study. They reported that the omega-3 index in their study participants increased from 7.1% at the beginning to 9.1% at the end, a 32% increase. They considered that to be a good thing because it showed that their participants were taking the omega-3 supplements faithfully.

However, let’s put that into perspective. An omega-3 index of 4% is associated with a high risk of heart disease. An omega-3 index of 8% is associated with a low risk of heart disease. It is considered optimum. With an omega-3 index of 7.1% at the beginning of the study, the subjects already had near optimum omega-3 status before the study even began.

If the subjects were already at near optimum omega-3 status, why would you expect additional omega-3 supplementation to be beneficial?

The Subjects Were On 3-5 Heart Medications. To discover this, you had to dig a little.  Something only a science-wonk like me is willing to do. The Results section reported that 35% of the subjects were taking aspirin and 75% were on a statin. You have to go to the Supplementary Data online to discover that most of the subjects were on 3-5 heart medications in addition to 1 or 2 medications for diabetes. That is somewhat curious because nobody in the study had any detectable cardiovascular disease.

To understand the significance of this observation, we look at what the drugs do. Aspirin prevents blood clot formation in our arteries, which is one of the main benefits of omega-3s. For reasons nobody understands, statins decrease inflammation, which is another major benefit of omega-3s. Most of the subjects were also taking a medicine to decrease blood pressure, another major benefit of omega-3s.

If subjects are already on 3-5 heart medications that duplicate the benefits of omega-3s, why would you expect omega-3 supplementation to be beneficial?

As I said before, we are now asking a totally different question than we were in the studies performed in the late 90s and early 2000s. Back then we were asking whether omega-3s reduced the risk of heart disease. Today we are asking whether omega-3s have any additional benefits for someone who is already on 3-5 heart medications. That question may be of interest to your doctors, but it is probably not the question most of you are interested in.

Even worse, every one of those drugs has documented side effects. For example, the same group that published this paper also examined the role of aspirin in reducing heart attacks in the same patient population and concluded that the befits of aspirin were “largely counterbalanced by the bleeding hazard [caused by aspirin use],” (The ASCEND Study Collaborative Group, New England Journal Of Medicine, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1804988, 2018).  In contrast, they found no side effects in the group receiving 1 gram/day of omega-3s.

Garbage In Again, Garbage Out Again

do omega 3s reduce heart disease risk conflicting studiesTwo recent meta-analyses (T Aung et al,  JAMA Cardiology 3: 225-234, 2018  and Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews ) have analyzed all the recent placebo-controlled studies and have concluded that omega-3s are of little or no use for reducing heart disease risk. However, those meta-analyses both suffered from what, in the computer programming world, is called “Garbage in. Garbage out.”

The meta-analyses included the studies from the late 90s and early 2000s, but the positive data from those studies was swamped out by all the recent negative studies, most of which suffered from the same flaws as the study I reviewed above. This is the “Achilles’ Heel” of meta-analysis. If they include flawed studies in their analysis, their conclusions will also be flawed. What the recent studies do tell us is that omega-3s are of little additional benefit if you are already taking multiple heart medications.

 

Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

The next time you visit your doctor you are likely to be told: “The evidence is in. We know that omega-3s don’t reduce the risk of heart attack.” Now you know the truth. What we can definitively conclude is that omega-3s offer little additional benefit if you are already taking multiple heart medications. As I said before, that question may be of interest to your doctor but is probably not the question you had in mind.

omega 3 and heart disease reduce blood pressureUnfortunately, because of the way clinical studies of omega-3 supplementation and heart disease risk are currently conducted, we may never have a definitive answer to whether omega-3s reduce heart disease risk for those of us who aren’t taking heart medications.

However, even if there is some controversy about omega-3s and heart disease risk, there are multiple other reasons for making sure that your omega-3 status is optimum. For example:

  • We know that omega-3s reduce triglycerides. This is non-controversial.
  • There is excellent evidence that omega-3s improve arterial health and reduce blood pressure.
  • There is good evidence that omega-3s reduce inflammation.

If they also reduce heart disease risk, consider that to be a side benefit.

The Bottom Line

A recent study has reported that that omega-3s do not reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. However, the study suffered from multiple flaws.

  • Omega-3s reduced the risk of cardiovascular deaths in the study by 18%. That never got reported by the media.
  • The study was looking at subjects at relatively low risk of heart disease.

If you can’t even prove statins are effective in low risk populations, why would you expect to be able to show omega-3s are effective in low risk populations.

  • The subjects had near optimum omega-3 status before the study even began.

If the subjects were already at near optimum omega-3 status, why would you expect additional omega-3 supplementation to be beneficial?

  • The subjects were on 3-5 heart medications that provided many of the same benefits as omega-3s, but with side effects.

If subjects are already on 3-5 heart medications that duplicate the benefits of omega-3s, why would you expect omega-3 supplementation to be beneficial?

Two recent meta-analyses also concluded that omega-3s do not reduce the risk of heart disease. However, most of the studies in those meta-analyses suffered from the same flaws as the study I reviewed in this article. The meta-analyses are an excellent example of what computer programmers refer to as “Garbage in. Garbage out.”

The next time you visit your doctor you are likely to be told: “The evidence is in. We know that omega-3s don’t reduce the risk of heart attack.” Now you know the truth. What we can definitively conclude is that omega-3s offer little additional benefit if you are already taking multiple heart medications. That question may be of interest to your doctor, but that is probably not the question you had in mind.

Unfortunately, because of the way that clinical studies of omega-3 supplementation and heart disease risk are currently conducted, we may never have a definitive answer to whether omega-3s reduce heart disease risk for those of us who aren’t taking heart medications.

However, even if there is some controversy about omega-3s and heart disease risk, there are multiple other reasons for making sure that your omega-3 status is optimum. For example:

  • We know that omega-3s reduce triglycerides. This is non-controversial.
  • There is excellent evidence that omega-3s improve arterial health and reduce blood pressure.
  • There is good evidence that omega-3s reduce inflammation.

If they also reduce heart disease risk, consider that to be a side benefit.

For more details, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor Protein and Heart Disease: Meat vs Plant-Based

 

Does Meat Protein Increase Heart Disease Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Is a plant-based diet better than eating meat when it comes to protein and heart disease?

protein and heart disease plant-basedThere are a multitude of studies showing the long-term health benefits of plant-based diets. Among the best of these studies are the Seventh-Day Adventist Studies. That’s because the Adventist church advocates a vegan diet but allows personal choice. This means Seventh-Day Adventists eat a more plant-based diet than most Americans. However, there is also significant variation in the diet of Adventists.

Not all Adventists are vegans. Significant numbers of Adventists choose lacto-ovo-vegetarian (dairy, eggs & vegetarian), pesco-vegetarian (fish & vegetarian), and semi-vegetarian (meat & vegetarian).

Because of this variation, Adventists provide a rich database for clinical studies. You can compare health outcomes of a vegetarian diet to the standard American diet by comparing Adventists to the non-Adventist population living in the same area. You can also use the Adventist population to compare the health outcomes of the various types of vegetarian diets.

I have described the Adventist Health Studies in detail in my new book, Slaying The Food Myths. Let me briefly summarize the results with an emphasis on heart disease risk:

  • Compared to the standard American Diet, vegetarian diets decrease cardiovascular deaths by 41% in men and 51% in women.
  • The reduction in cardiovascular death is greater for vegans than for lacto-ovo-vegetarians.
  • If we look at the average of multiple studies, the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer is less for vegans than for lacto-ovo-vegetarians, which is less than the risk for pesco-vegetarians, which is less than the risk for semi-vegetarians, which is much less than the risk for people consuming the standard American diet.

There are multiple reasons why vegetarian diets decrease the risk of heart disease compared to the standard American diet. These will be discussed below. The current study was designed to look at the proteins found in vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets and ask what effect these proteins had on heart disease.  This was a good study of protein and heart disease.

How Was The Study Done?

protein and heart disease heart healthThis study (M. Tharrey et al, International Journal of Epidemiology, 2018, 1-10 doi: 10.1093/ije/dyy030 ) utilized a database of 81,337 men and women over age 25 who were enrolled in the Adventist Health Study-2 between 2002 and 2007.

At the time of enrollment, a very detailed food frequency questionnaire was administered. The participants were divided into groups based on the most prevalent protein source in their diet as follows:

  • Grains: This group averaged 44% of their protein intake from grains.
  • Processed foods: This category included protein from cheese, eggs, and milk. However, it also included processed plant proteins and protein from cold breakfast cereals.
  • Meats: The largest protein contributors to this category were red meat, processed meat, and poultry. Fish made only a minor contribution.
  • LFV (Legumes, fruits & vegetables): Legumes were the biggest protein contributors in this category.
  • Nuts and seeds: This included peanuts, tree nuts and seeds.

The participants in the study were followed for an average of 9.4 years during which there were 2276 cardiovascular deaths. The study then asked what effect protein intake from each of these food groups had on cardiovascular risk.

 

Meat Protein and Heart Disease?

 

protein and heart disease meatsSome of the findings from this study were expected, but some were surprising. When studying protein and heart disease for example:

  • When they compared people getting the most protein from meat with those getting the least (24% versus 1% of their protein intake from meat), the risk of cardiovascular death was increased by 61%. This is consistent with several previous studies suggesting that meat, particularly red meat, increases the risk of heart disease.
  • When they compared people getting the most protein from nuts and seeds with those getting the least (18% versus 2%), the risk of cardiovascular death was decreased by 40%. Again, this is consistent with previous studies suggesting that nuts and seeds reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • They found no significant effect of protein intake from grains on cardiovascular death. This could be considered as surprising because whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, which reduces the risk of heart disease. However, the difference in protein intake between the groups getting the most protein from grains versus the least was relatively small (34% versus 19%). In addition, the study did not differentiate between whole grains and refined grains.
  • There was a slight, but non-significant, increased risk of cardiovascular death for people getting the highest amount of protein from processed foods. This is also a bit surprising. It may be because the survey included both meat-based and vegetarian processed foods in the processed foods classification, and there are many processed foods that are marketed specifically to vegetarians.
  • There was also no significant effect of protein from legumes, fruits and vegetables on cardiovascular death. This is also surprising and will be discussed below.

The authors concluded “Our results suggest that healthy choices can be advocated based on protein sources, specifically preferring diets low in meat intake and with a higher intake of plant proteins from nuts and seeds.”

What Does This Mean For You?

protein and heart disease nuts and seedsThis study does not fundamentally alter what we know about diet and heart disease risk. That is because this study focused solely on the protein and heart disease not on the foods and heart disease. The data were statistically corrected for every other beneficial and detrimental effect of those foods. For example:

  • The people in this study with the highest intake of processed foods were more likely to be overweight and physically inactive. They were also more likely to be smokers. These factors increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, the data were statistically adjusted to remove these considerations from the analysis.
  • The people in this study with the highest intake of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables also had the highest intake of fiber, antioxidants, and B vitamins. These factors decrease the risk of heart disease. However, the data were statistically adjusted to remove these considerations from the analysis.

In short, processed foods are still probably bad for the heart, but that is not due to the protein component of processed foods. Similarly, whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are still good for the heart, but it is not the protein component of these foods that conveys the heart-healthy benefits.

Where the study breaks new ground and leaves some unanswered questions is with the effect of meat, nuts, and seeds on heart disease risk. For example:

  • The American Heart Association has recently released a Presidential Advisory statement warning that the saturated fat in meats increases heart disease risk. However, the data in the present study were statistically adjusted to remove the effect of saturated fat from the analysis. Thus, this study suggests that the protein in red meat also contributes to heart disease risk. If this is confirmed by subsequent studies, it is an important advance. It might mean, for example, that grass-fed beef is no healthier than conventionally raised beef.

However, it is unclear why meat protein increases heart disease risk. One recent study has suggested that meat-based diets favor a population of gut bacteria that metabolize a compound called carnitine, also found in meat, into a metabolite that increases heart disease risk. However, this mechanism has not yet been confirmed.

[Note: The effects of saturated fats and carnitine on heart disease risk are covered in detail in my new book “Slaying the Food Myths.” In my book I carefully analyze the arguments of saturated fat proponents as well as saturated fat opponents.]

  • Conventional wisdom has attributed the heart health benefits of Paltrox T nuts and seeds to their omega-3 fatty acids. However, the data in this study were statistically adjusted to remove the effect of omega-3 fatty acids from the analysis. Thus, this study suggests that the protein in nuts and seeds decreases heart disease risk.

Once again, the mechanism of this effect is unclear. The authors suggest it might be due to higher levels of the amino acids glutamate and arginine in seed and nut protein. However, these two amino acids are abundant in a variety of plant-based proteins. Their presence in nut and seed proteins would not appear to be sufficient to confer a special heart health benefit.

In short, this is the first study of this kind and the mechanisms of the effects described are unclear. Thus, one cannot yet definitively claim that meat protein is bad for the heart and nut and seed proteins are good for the heart.

Whether it is the protein component of these foods that affects heart health is relatively unimportant. It does not change what we know about diet and heart health. As discussed in “Slaying The Food Myths,” multiple studies show that meat-based diets increase heart disease risk and primarily plant-based diets decrease heart disease risk. Multiple studies also show that nuts and seeds decrease heart disease risk.

The Bottom Line:

A recent study looked at the effect of the protein content of various foods on heart disease risk. The study reported:

  • Meat protein increased the risk of cardiovascular deaths by 61%.
  • Proteins from nuts and seeds decreased the risk of heart disease deaths by 40%.
  • Proteins from processed foods, grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables had no effect on cardiovascular deaths.

This study does not fundamentally alter what we know about diet and heart disease risk. That is because this study focused solely on the protein component of various foods rather than the foods themselves. The data were statistically corrected for every other beneficial and detrimental effect of those foods. Because of that:

  • Processed foods are still probably bad for the heart
  • Whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables are still good for the heart.
  • Meat, especially red meat, is probably bad for the heart, while nuts and seeds are good for the heart.

The major new information provided by this study is that:

  • The increased risk of heart disease associated with meats is not just due to their saturated fat content. Meat protein may also increase heart disease risk. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this is an important finding because it suggests that lean cuts of meat and grass-fed beef may not eliminate heart disease risk.
  • The decreased risk of heart disease associated with nuts and seeds is not just due to their omega-3 content. Nut and seed proteins may also decrease heart disease risk.

For more details, read the article above:

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.