Reverse Engineering Cholesterol Misconceptions

Siobhan Huggins



This week's guest, Siobhan Huggins, is a stellar citizen scientist who has a passion for dissecting complex topics, and understanding how misbeliefs lead us astray. She has a remarkable gift of analyzing complex topics and reframing them from a systems and engineering point of view. Plus, her own personal journey through the low-carb keto lifestyle prompted her deeper dive into lipids, inflammation, insulin resistance and more. She understands that cholesterol is not inherently evil. Rather, it actually serves a purpose to help us. It's our lifestyle that alters it into something potentially harmful.

 

Most exciting of all, she has recently joined forces full-time with Dave Feldman at CholesterolCode.com, so we will be hearing much more exciting research and perspective shifts from Siobhan in the near future.

 

Key Takeaways:

 

[6:03] A keto diet has given Chivon improved health and changed her personality.

[8:58] Research and reading has qualified Chivon to write for Cloresteralcode.com

[12:07] Understanding inflammation and the chronic oxidation of LDL.

[17:07] Scavenger receptors and small, dense LDL.

[28:42] The human body wasn't designed to take on a constant barrage of insulin damage.

[35:32] What causes vascular calcification?

[43:32] The differentiator in familial hypercholesterolemia is the level of insulin resistance.

[47:13] Lipoprotein(a): What is it used for?

 

Mentioned in This Episode:

Low Carb Cardiologist Website

Dr. Scher on Twitter

Dr. Scher on Facebook

Cholesterol Code

 

This Episode is Sponsored by LowCarbCardiologist.com and Your Best Health Ever! The Cardiologist's Surprisingly Simple Guide to What Really Works,
by Bret Scher, M.D., FACC

 

Top 4 Tips For Optimizing Melatonin and Sleep

Do you struggle to get consistent sleep? You are not alone.

 

An estimated 27% of Americans report having trouble sleeping most nights of the week, with an astounding 68% saying the same at least 1 night per week. That has led to 5% of all women and 3% of all men taking prescription sleeping pills at the cost of millions of dollars.

 

That pales in comparison the 10-20% of Americans spending multiple millions of dollars on non-prescription sleep supplements. Of those sleep aids, melatonin is likely the most common. But here’s the problem, melatonin is not a great on-demand sleep aid.

 

I recently posted a Facebook video about the use of melatonin for sleep. If you like videos, you can watch it here. If you prefer blogs, then read on my friend!!

 

Seep aids like Ambien work within minutes, and therefore should be taken right when it is time to go to sleep. Many take melatonin the same way, right before it’s time to go to sleep. But melatonin doesn’t work that way.

 

Melatonin is a natural hormone in our brains that has a natural circadian rhythm, meaning it rises and falls during the day in concert with the light-dark cycle of the sun. Or at least that is how it is supposed to work. Thanks to Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, melatonin doesn’t work that way for many of us.

 

Artificial light and especially blue light from our phones and computer screens fool our brains into thinking the sun is still out, and therefore, resetting our melatonin cycle.  Thus, the push for us to take melatonin supplements to help balance this us.

 

Instead of taking a melatonin supplements, however, we have much more success by getting our natural melatonin cycle back in sync with the sun. Here are my Top 4 Tips For Optimizing Melatonin and Sleep!

 

  1. Dim your lights EARLY, around 8pm. That doesn’t mean turn them off and live by candlelight (although that would work REALLY well). It does mean, however, that you should not have every light in the house on at full force until the moment you go to bed. You need to prepare your brain for bed, starting at least 2-hours before lights out. Get dimmers for your lights or turn off half the lights starting at 8pm. You might even save money on your electricity bill (bonus!).
  2. Dim your screens early as well. Most phones, tablets and computers now come with a screen dimming option. Most commonly I see people use this starting at 10pm. That’s better than nothing, but by then most of the damage has already been done.  I recommend dimming your screens at 8pm, along with the lights, and turn your screens off completely 1-2 hours before bed. Remember, you want your melatonin to start rising well before it’s time for lights out. Screen time prevents that from happening.
  3. Get plenty of light early in the day. This is the time to signal your brain that IT IS DAYTIME!!! Natural sunlight is best. Get outside and sun yourself for 20-minutes, go for a walk, eat breakfast outside, whatever you can do to get early sunlight. If that is too much of a logistical challenge, then this is when you want every light on in the house at full blast. Even house lights can tell your brain the sun is out and it’s time to get going.
  4. The best use for melatonin supplements is if you disrupt your sleep-wake cycle, such as travelling across a few time zones, or staying up a few nights in a row for work, kids or other reasons. In that case, melatonin supplements can help get your cycle back in rhythm. Just remember to take it an hour or two before you want to go to sleep, not at the moment you lie down in bed. If done right, you shouldn’t need melatonin for more than a couple days before your natural circadian rhythm is back in sync with your time zone.  Just keep I mind steps 1-3 above!

 

 

There you have it. My Top 4 Tips For Optimizing Melatonin and Sleep. For even more information, you can listen to my podcast with sleep expert Dr. Chris Winter, nicknamed The Sleep Whisperer,” or read my earlier blog on sleep. Do you have other tips that work for you, or other sleep challenges you need help with? Leave a comment below or contact us at www.LowCarbCardiologist.com.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Founder, Boundless Health

www.LowCarbCardiologist.com

 

 

 

Zero LDL vs Ketogenic Diet- Which Prevents Heart Disease?

Virta Health continues to revolutionize the treatment of diabetes. And they are doing it while taking drugs away!

 

They recently released their study of cardiovascular risk data which, no surprise to me, shows significant improvement in patients’ risk profile. This impressive lifestyle study contrasts sharply with the other side of the coin- promoting drugs to drive LDL to a near zero level in the hopes of helping patients. That’s the other study I read last week, and I was much less excited about it.

 

Two wildly different approaches with wildly different magnitude of benefit. Let’s dig deeper to learn more….

 

The Virta Health Study:

 

The Virta Health trial enrolled subjects with diabetes, mean age was 54 years old, and they were obese on average with a BMI 40.  After 1 year, they had the following results:

  • LDL particle number decreased by almost 5%,
  • Small LDL decreased by 20%,
  • Apo A1 increased by almost 10%,
  • TG decreased by 24%,
  • HDL increased by 18%,
  • TG/HDL radio decreased by almost 30%,  
  • Large VLDL particles decreased by 38%,
  • CRP decreased by almost 40%,
  • The 10-year calculated risk went down by 11% ,
  • No change in CIMT, and
  • LDL-C went up by 10%.

 

EVERYTHING IMPROVED! Except for a small increase in LDL-C.

 

The first question this study forces us to ask, therefore, is should we care about the LDL-C? That is the only marker that went “the wrong” way, increasing 10%. But that is in the face of the LDL-P decreasing, the size of the LDL improving, and dramatic improvements in HDL and TG. All things that are likely protective against CAD.

 

Going all the way back to Dr. Castulli and the Framingham data, we know that LDL-C is a very poor predictor of CVD in the setting on high HDL. We also know that markers such as LDL-P and non-HDL cholesterol are better predictors of CVD than LDL-C.

 

So, in short, the answer is no. We should not be concerned with a 10% increase in LDL-C in this setting.

 

The second question is this. Does this data show that one year on a ketogenic diet is BENEFICIAL for heart health?

 

The original assumption within the medical community was that a ketogenic diet would be harmful and lead us to our grave (as many docs still believe).

 

The times they are a changin.’

 

Based on this data, the question has changed significantly. We should no longer concern ourselves with wondering if a very low carbohydrate, ketogenic diet could be harmful. The data is overwhelming that it is not. Instead, we need to ask if this diet protects us from heart disease.

 

Of course, we would need long term outcome data to show us that for certain. But in the absence of that, the most recent Virta Health data provides a strong vote of confidence that a very low carbohydrate ketogenic diet is likely cardioprotective.

 

That is my kind of medical science. Showing that lifestyle changes promote health.  Clean and simple.

 

The Drug Trials- PCSK9i

 

The Virta Health study contrasts sharply with another paper I read recently, one that claims it is safe and beneficial to lower LDL as low as possible, the so called “Zero LDL hypothesis.”

 

I have to admit, I started reading with a heavy contrary bias. I wanted to rip it apart and find all the shortcomings in the paper.  There were plenty, but I also have to admit that there are some very well thought out and well-argued points.

 

The general argument is that statins and PCSK9i are able to lower LDL to extremely low levels without documented significant adverse effects thus far. Therefore, there is no “floor” for how low we should drive down LDL.

 

Both statins and PCSK9i work by increasing the efficacy of LDL receptors, but they allow other compensatory mechanisms to remain functioning. For instance, the authors describe “back up” mechanisms for maintaining neuronal health, hormone synthesis, and even vitamin E transport (all of which are theoretical concerns with lowering LDL). They argue, since the back-up systems prevent adverse outcomes, and PCSK9i studies have gotten LDL down to 30, we can therefore safely drive LDL down to zero.

 

That’s a stretch that remains to be proven. However, the main question they fail to answer is this: Is worth the effort?

 

Once again, we see studies generating a tremendous amount of publicity and praise for underwhelming and conflicting results. Here’s what I mean:

 

The first big trial with PCSK9i was called the FOURIER trial. They enrolled patients with known cardiovascular disease and added PCSK9i or placebo to their current care. After 2 years, the PCSK9i drug reduced LDL by 60% to a median level of 30mg/dl (lower than any other major trial). The results? There was a small decrease in non-fatal heart attacks (1.2%), with absolutely no improvement in mortality. It did not save a single life.

 

The second trial that got even more attention was the Odessey trial. They enrolled individuals with a recent cardiac event and added PCSK9i or placebo to their standard care. After 2.8 years they lowered LDL by 61% to an average level of 53mg/dl.  Again, there was a very small 1.5% reduction in a combined primary endpoint. In reality, this is negligible clinically even though it is statistically significant.

 

Where the trials differed, however, was that Odessey showed a very small reduction in all-cause mortality of 0.6%., whereas Fourier did not.

 

But here is where it gets complicated. What the press and mainstream cardiology societies don’t tell us is that because of the way the trial was structured, this is not a truly significant finding. It had a weakly positive p value, but since cardiac mortality was not decreased, it invalidated the all-cause mortality. Don’t worry. I don’t completely understand this part either. But I’m told that’s how statistics work in this case.

 

In summary, despite lowering LDL cholesterol to levels lower than we have even seen before with drug therapy, the benefits were underwhelming. If LDL was the true cause of heart disease, there should have been breath takingly dramatic benefits. Yet, one trial showed no improvement in all-cause mortality. One may have shown an improvement, but the trial can’t really claim that.

 

Yet somehow the conclusion is that now we should drive LDL down to zero.  Where did that come from????

 

First Do No Harm

 

The belief that we should drive ldl to zero with drugs comes from the inherent bias in modern medicine: When it comes to drug therapy, “more is better,” and drugs are the best choice for treatment.

 

After all, the trials “proved” that the drugs were safe with no significant increase in adverse effects, right?  Not so fast. Lack of side effects at 2 years is not very reassuring for a drug people will be on for decades. There is plenty of concern about long term effects of near zero LDL levels, even if the authors postulate ways the body will compensate.  To counteract that concern, the benefits better be monumental.

 

After all, the medical oath is “First do no harm”.  Not “First assume there will be no harm”.

 

And more importantly, just because we can treat LDL to near zero, doesn’t mean we should. If we aren’t helping people live longer or live better, then what are we accomplishing?

 

Instead of talking about zero LDLs, we should be talking more about Virta Health. They showed the ability to reverse one of the most common chronic diseases we face with simple lifestyle interventions. And they did it while improving cardiovascular risk factors and getting people off of their medications. In my eyes, that deserves a ticker tape parade.

 

My take home message: Lifestyle beats drugs. Commit to lifestyle change and the argument about reducing your LDL to zero is a non-factor.  

 

What’s your take home message? Let us know your thoughts or if you have questions at www.LowCarbCardiologist.com

 

Thanks for reading

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Founder, Boundless Health

www.LowCarbCardiolgist.com

My Journey to The Low Carb Cardiologist Podcast

My Journey to The Low Carb Cardiologist Podcast

 

Sometimes change is hard, and sometimes it just feels right.

 

Changing my podcast from The Boundless Health Podcast to The Low Carb Cardiologist Podcast was a little of both.

 

To be fair, this wasn’t exactly the biggest, most impactful decision I have made lately.  The perspective is not lost on me. It’s a podcast name, not heart surgery.

 

But it was meaningful for me personally, and it exemplifies the current atmosphere of health and nutrition, and that is why it is worth exploring with you.

 

I still remember when I started my podcast. I was so afraid that I wouldn’t get any guests, that I was simply happy anyone would agree to come on the show and talk to me! As soon as the interview started, I was so grateful they were there, I just wanted to support them and thank them for their time.

 

But that doesn’t do much for challenging them, or digging deep to determine fact from fiction, or deciphering reasonable recommendations from those that are…..well…..let’s just say not as reasonable. Luckily, my friend HD from HormonesDemystified.com was there to set me straight.

 

HD helped me focus on my relationship with my listeners, and helped me realize that my listeners were my primary responsibility. My job wasn’t to give my guests the best experience. My job was to give my listeners the best experience, and to give them the best information I could.

 

With a clearer mission, I set out to refine my role and my niche.

 

That is where nutritional and health science started to look more like religion to me.

 

When I interviewed a vegan, I got push back from my low carb supporters wondering how I could support his views. When I interviewed a meat proponent, those who appreciated my vegan interview were up in arms about my hypocrisy.  They felt as if I had misled them.

 

What I failed to get across was that my interviews were not about me! These interviews were supposed to tease out the nuances of my guests’ viewpoints, to help determine what is backed by science, what is backed by emotion, and what can we learn from it. Yet many listeners equated my guests’ opinions with my own, and thus were upset at me for supporting both a vegan and a meat advocate. They were left wondering what I stand for.

 

I understand this does not encapsulate everyone. But it does highlight the world in which we live. Far too many people hold so strongly to their nutritional and health beliefs that they cannot bear to listen to the “other side” or even consider an opposing view point. The importance of detail, nuance, and scientific integrity is far too easily lost in the emotion and vigor of belief. And that is a sad reality for the world of reason, debate and scientific “truth.”

 

Which brings me back to the name of my podcast. What do I stand for? Which side of the aisle do I sit?

 

I believe some people can be healthy as vegans. I believe some people can do well restricting their fat intake and focusing on calories.

 

I also believe that the vast majority of people cannot achieve their health goals limiting fat and counting calories.

 

The most generalizable and most effective intervention that I have seen in the past 20 years is without out a doubt the low-carb lifestyle. Thus, the change to The Low Carb Cardiologist Podcast. No confusion there. My guests and my listeners know where I stand.

 

But that doesn’t mean I am going to stop looking at differing views, or trying to find the common ground between healthy vegans, healthy carnivores, and everyone in between. I will continue to tease out the nuances behind endurance athletes, crossfitters, and power walkers.

 

We all need a reminder to look outside our field of view (me included!), to go outside our comfort zone, and to explore the “other side,” even if it is simply to help us feel stronger in our convictions. The exploration is part of the process.  

 

My promise is that I will continue to explore health from any and every angle that I think will help you, my listener, improve your health for a lifetime of Your Best Health Ever!

 

The name has changed, but the mission remains the same.

 

How can I help you on your health journey? Please visit me at www.LowCarbCardiologist.com  and let me know how I can best help you achieve your health goals, or feel free to provide feedback about what you would like to see from The Low Carb cardiologist in the future.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Founder, Boundless Health

www.LowCarbCardiologist.com

 

Do Low Carb Ketogenic Diets Increase Your Risk of Dying?

Do Low Carb Ketogenic Diets Increase Your Risk of Dying?

 

Some people certainly want us to think so.

 

But as is often the case, the evidence doesn’t reliably support the dramatic claim.

 

Let’s face it. We all have biases. We all believe things strongly, and we look for evidence to support our position.  I have been guilty of that.

 

That is why those who state that ketogenic diets kill us may still be well meaning, even if they completely miss the point.

 

One frequently cited article to “prove” ketogenic diets kill us was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in 2010

 

If we just read the abstract, the conclusion is clear. In a study of 129,000 subjects, those who scored the highest for an animal based low-carb diet had a 23% relative increased risk of all-cause mortality.

 

A plant based low-carb diet, on the other hand, seemed to be protective with a 20% decreased risk.

 

For many, an abstract is good enough evidence to sing from the rafters as if it were fact.

 

But that is not how science works. The details matter. They matter a lot. So, let’s look at the details before we condemn a ketogenic diet as a serial killer.

 

The analysis was based on a retrospective look at the Health Professional’s Study and the Nurse’s Health Study. Subjects filled out food questionnaires to estimate their nutrition intake over the past year, estimating their frequency of eating certain foods. Based on that frequency, they were given an animal low-carb diet “score,” and a vegetable low-carb diet “score”.

 

Let’s set aside the how horrible food questionnaires are for scientific validity. That’s the least of the study’s problems.

 

Looking at the baseline characteristics, we see all we need to know. Those who scored highest for animal low-carb diets also had the highest percentage of smokers, 30% vs 27% for women and 14% vs 9% for men (anyone else surprised there were more women smokers than men? I was). Is a 3-5% difference in smoking significant? You better believe it. Smoking is the single most dangerous thing we can do for our health. Considering the mortality difference was so small between the groups, a 5% smoking difference could absolutely account for it.

 

But it doesn’t stop there. The animal consuming men were less physically active and ate more trans-fats.  

 

This is a prime example of the “healthy user bias.” When the whole world says eating meat is bad for you (as they did in the 1980s), who do you think eats meat? You got it. Those who don’t care all that much about their health. Thus, the increase in smokers, increased unhealthy trans fats, and less physical activity.

 

And that is likely just the tip of the iceberg. What other unhealthy practices do they do more often that weren’t measured? We can’t analyze the data from what we didn’t measure.

 

Oh, and let’s not forget that the diets were nowhere close to being low carb ketogenic diets. The animal based low carb eaters consumed 163 grams of carbohydrates per day. 163 grams! I am not sure in what universe that is considered “low carb,” but I can assure you it isn’t in the actual low-carb community. For that, we need to eat at most 50 grams of carbs per day, and even less if we are already insulin resistant.

 

The paper then goes on to show the risk for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and cancer mortality. But does it matter? When the data is as poor as this study’s, what can we really conclude?

 

We can conclude this: People who are unhealthy, who smoke, who follow a mixed diet of animal fat and moderate in carbohydrates, and who ignore society’s recommendations about their health have a worse outcome than those who are healthier and follow society’s health advice. Yawn. I think we have seen this movie before

 

So, before we condemn a ketogenic diet as being a silent killer, let’s make sure we are actually studying a ketogenic diet, and let’s make sure it is a level playing ground.

 

Does this mean ketogenic diets have been proven to be safe long term? No. Those studies have not been done. But……

 

Is losing weight, reducing inflammation, reversing diabetes and normalizing blood pressure, all while getting rid of medications likely to improve people’s long-term health? You better believe it.

 

Say hello to a real ketogenic diet.

 

Thanks for reading

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

LowCarbCardiologist.com

Low-Carb No Better Than Low-Fat….Or is it?

The quest for the one study to finally answer all our nutritional questions continues. And likely will continue forever.

 

If you believe the hype, the recent JAMA study comparing a “healthy low fat” and “healthy low carb” diet on the effect of weight loss was the definitive answer we sought.  The only problem is that it wasn’t.

 

Their conclusion? Everyone lost the same amount of weight regardless of the diet, and genetics of insulin resistance didn’t matter. So, in the end, we can all stop worrying about low fat or low carb or insulin resistance and just eat well. Right?

 

I’m all for simple advice, and that is as simple as it gets. And it will work for many people. But from a scientific perspective, this study did not adequately address the questions it sought to answer. Let’s look under the hood…..

 

600 people without diabetes or heart disease and not on hypertension or lipid medicines were randomized to a “healthy low fat” or “healthy low carb” diet for 12 months.

 

Neither group was told to restrict calories (although both groups ended up eating 500 calories less per day on their own). They had extensive counseling and support with over 20 support sessions throughout the 12 months. These sessions included specifics about the diet and support for maintaining behavioral changes. (That’s a great goal for us all, but the reality of behavior change support looks far different. “Eat better, lose weight and come back in a year” is an all-to-familiar refrain).

 

Here is the kicker. Both diet groups were advised to maximize the veggies, minimize sugar and processed flour, minimize trans fats, and focus on nutrient dense whole foods prepared mostly at home.

 

I don’t care what the macros of the diet are. If we get people to do that, Bravo! That would be a vast improvement for the majority of this country. As a result, the “low fat” group reduced their carb intake from 241 grams per day at baseline down to 205-212 grams per day during the study, and undoubtedly improved the quality of their carbs. They were the low-fat group, and they reduced their carbs! Red flag #1.

 

On the other side, the low-carb group also started in the 240s per day, and reduced their carb intake to 96-132 grams per day during the trial. Red flag #2. This is not a true low carb diet. Low carb diets tend to have less than 50 grams of carbs (100 at the absolute most!), and ketogenic diets tend to have carbs <30grams per day.

 

So, let’s be clear about what was tested. The diet was a “lower than average but still not all that low” intake of carbohydrates, compared to a “lower than average but more moderate carb intake” diet.  

 

This is hardly the definitive once and for all answer about low fat vs low carb diets for which we had all hoped.

 

That doesn’t mean we have to throw out the results, however. We can still learn valuable information from the trial.

 

  1. Reduce junk, and focus on real foods and you will lose weight and improve your health. AMEN! Not a shocker, but always nice to be reminded of the simple things that work.
  2. Engage in a strong support system and you have a good shot of staying with a nutritional change for 12 months.
  3. The more you reduce your carbs, the more likely you are to raise your HDL and lower your TG.
  4. The more you lower your fat, the more likely you are to lower your LDL
  5. Following a mildly reduced carbohydrate intake may not significantly improve insulin resistance blood tests.
  6. There was still a huge variability within each group with some people losing a great deal of weight, and some not losing any. Looking at the averages does not help us decide what specific characteristics predicted success. But in this trial, it did not seem to be genetics.

 

And the other take home? Testing moderate changes in diet are unlikely to show dramatic differences when both tested diets focus on real, nutrient dense, whole foods, limiting added sugar and processed flour.

 

If we want to test for a REAL difference, we need to go more “extreme.”

 

Doing this same study with a ketogenic diet would be very interesting.

 

Including people with diabetes and hypertension (more metabolically unhealthy, like so many in this country) would be very interesting.

 

Would that give us the once and for all answer which we crave?

 

Once again, probably not. But it may help us understand when to use the different tools we have in our nutritional tool box.

 

As was so nicely stated by The Diet Doctor, we now have an equal number of studies showing no difference between low fat and low carb diets as we do showing that low carb is better. We are still waiting for one to show low fat is better…….

 

The main takeaway, however, is that we don’t have to believe there is one diet for everyone. That is why we need an open mind, we need to be open to experimentation, and we need to treat individuals as…….individuals.

 

We can reverse type II diabetes with a ketogenic diet. Virta Health has shown us that.

 

Real food, relatively low-fat diets, when combined with healthy lifestyle practices can be associated with good healthspan. The Blue Zones observations have shown us that.

 

Our definitive trial may never come. But we don’t need it as long as we are willing to work with the n=1 experiment with each and every person we encounter. The starting point is easy. Just eat real food. Then be open to different avenues of specifics and see where the road goes.

 

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com

 

New Hypertension Guidelines- Lifestyle over Drugs? Or another victory for Big Pharma?

Can half the population have a single disease?

 

First, we were told that half of all Americans have type II diabetes or pre-diabetes. Now we are told that almost 50% of Americans have hypertension (elevated blood pressure) too. Could it be true?

 

That depends who you ask.

 

The American Heart Association (AHA) published new hypertension guidelines during their annual meeting November 2017. These guidelines now classify those with a systolic blood pressure between 130-139 as having hypertension.  That increases the number of Americans with hypertension from 72 million adults to 103 million, a little over 46% of all adult Americans.

 

We should note, however, that the AHA does not have a monopoly on guidelines.

 

The American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Family Physicians still define hypertension as a systolic blood pressure (the top number) of 150 or greater for those over age 60. That means we have to take the new guidelines with a grain of salt (which may not raise your blood pressure). They are the recommendations of one specific organization, not a unanimously agreed-upon decree.

 

The AHA changed their guideline largely on the basis of one particular study, the SPRINT trial. This trial enrolled subjects over age 50 with hypertension and at least one other cardiac risk factor. They sought to determine if using drugs to treat to a blood pressure of less than 120 would be more beneficial than treating to a blood pressure less than 140.  In the end, they determined that it was.

 

After three years, treating subject’s blood pressure more aggressively (with an average of three drugs per subject) reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 1.6%, a statistically significant difference. That means we need to treat 62 people for three years to prevent one cardiovascular event, pretty paltry evidence in the scheme of things.

 

This 1.6% reduction came at a potential cost. They found that the drugs caused dangerously low blood pressure in one out of every 100 people treated, fainting in one out of every 166 people treated, and significant kidney disease in one out of every 62 people.

 

So, even though the data were statistically significant, it appears that the clinical benefit may be much less impressive. But that isn’t even the biggest issue with the new guidelines.

 

The SPRINT trial was designed with meticulous follow up, something that usually don’t translate to the real world.

 

For example, in the SPRINT trial, researchers measured the blood pressure three times, not just once, and they did this only after the subject had been sitting quietly for at least five minutes.

 

Think about the last time you had your blood pressure measured in the doctor’s office. It was likely after you sprinted in from the parking lot after circling three times white knuckling the steering wheel looking for an open space. Or, it was after checking your watch for the tenth time wondering if they forgot about you since they were over 30-minutes late. You then are led into the room and they immediately take one blood pressure and chart it. Does that sound like we are comparing apples to apples?

 

No way.

 

Subjects in the study were also followed monthly for the first three months and then every three months after that. Is that how often your doctor sees you?

 

Unlikely.

 

Remember all those side effects that were found in the trial? That was with meticulous monitoring of patients and their blood pressure. What do you think will happen if the follow up turns into once or twice per year?

 

Medication-induced dizziness, falls, broken hips and kidney disease.

 

So, if your doctor wants to treat you for hypertension for a blood pressure of 130, insist that you measure your blood pressure at home, multiple times each day, for at least a full week before deciding you have a true “disease” that needs treatment. Blood pressure varies during the day, and we should not label you with a disease based on one measurement.

 

But wait. That STILL isn’t the biggest concern with the guidelines.

 

To their credit, the guidelines specify that those with blood pressure 130-139 should start with lifestyle intervention. Bravo. That is absolutely the way it should be.

 

Does that mean if your blood pressure is less than 130 you don’t need to worry about eating well, exercising, managing your stress and getting adequate restorative sleep? Hopefully we didn’t need to reclassify 30 million Americans as having a disease in order to start talking to them about healthy lifestyles. That should be the main focus of every visit for every patient, not just those who have the label of hypertension.

 

Also, remember the 2013 cholesterol guidelines? They specified that the low-risk group that was now labeled as having the disease of high cholesterol should “begin the conversation about statins.” That quickly turned into doctors grabbing their prescription pads and writing millions of statin prescriptions.

 

Even worse, it usually isn’t long before “quality” measurements and insurance reimbursements are attached to achieving the new goal of blood pressure less than 130. Once that happens, do you think your doctor will patiently work with you to fine tune your lifestyle over the course of months? Or will they reach for the drugs to get you to the target faster and simply check the box that they did it?

 

I love rhetorical questions.

 

That leads to the next issue. The guidelines state that if one fails lifestyle interventions, then drugs are indicated.

 

What does it mean when a patient “fails” lifestyle intervention? How long should that trial be? One month? Six months? And what is the lifestyle intervention? 150 minutes per week of cardio with no mention of resistance training or interval work? A low-fat, low-sodium diet, with no consideration that many people may respond better to a low-carb diet rather than a low-fat diet, and salt may have no impact on your blood pressure?

 

Picture this instead.

 

You bring your home blood pressure log into your doctor’s office. The average is consistently above 130. You have a detailed conversation about your risk for cardiovascular disease, and you agree to be more vigilant with your nutrition, physical activity, stress management and sleep.

 

But it doesn’t stop there. Together, you and your doctor decide what the best specific approach is for you. You then set an email follow up in one month and an office visit in 3 months to check in.

 

If you have not started to progress, you re-evaluate why. Does your nutrition need to change? Maybe you started with a low-fat diet but will actually respond better to a low carb diet. Maybe you are getting your 30 minutes of exercise but are sedentary the rest of the day. Maybe you are still hooked on Ambien and can’t get to sleep. Maybe you need a little more encouragement from a weekly email, or joining an online group, or competing with a friend over your Fitbit numbers.

 

None of those issues should mean you “failed” lifestyle intervention. Instead, they should help you and your doctor fine tune your purposeful lifestyle prescription to find what will work for you.

 

In the end, could you have hypertension? You may. But that doesn’t mean you have a “drug deficiency.” It means it’s time to work together with your healthcare provider to get serious about your lifestyle. In a perfect world, that would already be happening for all of us. If it takes a new guideline to initiate that, so be it. Let’s applaud the guidelines for the attention it will bring to lifestyle interventions.

 

Doctors, just keep the prescription pad in the drawer please.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com 

The War Against Wheat- Will Our Health Win?

The War Against Wheat

 

What’s at the base of your food pyramid? Is it whole grains? Have you ever stopped to ask why?

 

As we know, whole grains are the base of just about every “healthy” food pyramid. The American Heart Association recommends at least 3-5 servings of whole grains per day for optimal healthy nutrition. It’s simply accepted that whole grains are good for us.

 

So why are so many waging a war against whole grains?

 

Just look at the bestsellers on Amazon and you will find Wheat Belly, by Dr. William Davis, Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter, plus a slew of books promoting low carb nutrition. Do they know something the AHA doesn’t?

 

It turns out, they just might.

 

It is time to start asking the questions, how do we know whole grains are healthy? What’s the evidence?

 

First, people living in Blue Zone communities (those where people routinely live the longest) eat vegetables fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains. Since they routinely have better health than most other populations, that must mean whole grains are healthy, right?

 

Not so fast. People living in the Blue Zones also sleep 8 hours per night, they get regular physical activity, they have close social connections, they enjoy life and have a purpose for waking up every day, and they do not eat many sugars or processed junk food.  Plus, they eat vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes.

 

How could we possibly say the whole grains themselves are what keeps them healthy? Are they healthy because of the whole grains? Or does the rest of their healthy activities outweigh the unhealthy effects of the whole grains?

 

Luckily, we have studies that tried to answer that question.

 

Studies looking at replacing white flour with whole grains consistently showed health improvements in those easting whole grains. Easy answer. Whole grains must be healthy.

 

Again, not so fast. That only tells us that whole grains are healthier than processed white flour. That should not be a surprise. Said another way, they are less bad than white flour.

 

But are they healthy? Or are they necessary?

 

It turns out, grains are not necessary at all for health or for survival. You heard that right. Fats and proteins are considered essential nutrients. Our bodies cannot make all the fats and proteins we need, so we must eat them. That Is not the case for grains and carbs. Our bodies get all the fuel they need from converting fats and proteins to glucose or other fuel sources such as ketones.

 

OK. We have established that grains are not necessary. But do they add anything to a diet consisting only of fats and proteins?

 

Fiber. The whole grains that show the greatest health benefits, compared to white flour, are those with the highest fiber-to-carbohydrate ratio. That makes sense. Fiber is a key component to healthy eating, and whole grains can be a good source of fiber.

 

Lucky for us, we have a bounty of choices from where we can get our fiber. Vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds and legumes are fantastic sources of fiber. If fiber is our goal, we once again see that grains are not necessary.

 

But are they harmful? Listening to William Davis, and reading his book Wheat Belly, will certainly convince you that they are.

 

For some, the answer is clear. If someone has celiac disease, or gluten sensitive enteropathy, the proteins in wheat cause an autoimmune reaction that attacks their intestinal lining. There is no question that they need to avoid wheat and grains.  

 

What if someone does not have celiac disease? Some are still sensitive to gluten or other elements of grains (some studies show it may be other components of grains called the FODMAPs instead of the gluten). Although there is no clear diagnostic test for this, we can subjectively test it very simply. Go for 30 days without wheat and grains and see if you feel better. Do you have more energy? Do you feel less bloated? Less achy? Do you sleep better? Do you think more clearly? If the answer is yes, then you too should avoid wheat and grains.

 

So far, this should be pretty intuitive.

 

But what if you do not feel any better off grains? Is there still a reason to avoid them?

 

At this point we need to better define our enemy. Is gluten inherently evil for everyone?

 

No.

 

Well then, are FODMAPS inherently evil for all?

 

No.

 

Is there something that is evil for all?

 

Maybe.

 

It’s true that we do not all need to avoid gluten. In fact, gluten-free foods may be far worse for our health than gluten containing whole grains. A recent study suggested that low fiber, gluten free foods increased heart disease risk compared to higher fiber whole grains. Again, this proves whole grains are less bad than something really bad. That makes sense.

 

But wheat, grains and flour are not comprised of only gluten. They are a mix of carbohydrates and other grain proteins.  And what do those carbohydrates do? Raise your blood glucose and insulin levels. “Healthy” whole grains have a glycemic index on par with a snickers bar!

 

Admittedly, glycemic index is not a perfect measure, but it is an accurate assessment of how quickly and strongly a food induces a glucose (and subsequently, an insulin) spike in your blood. For reference, white bread has a GI of 73, 100% Whole Grain Bread 51, Coca Cola 63, Snicker’s 51, oatmeal 55, cashews 22, broccoli 10, and cauliflower 10. Also for reference, spinach, salmon, beef, chicken and eggs have a GI of zero.

 

Do you see a pattern? Food that comes from wheat and grains, no matter how “Whole,” significantly raise our blood sugar and insulin. Real food, vegetables, meats, etc. do not.

 

Our bodies were never meant to eat grains or wheat. The agricultural revolution and production of wheat and grains has only existed for less than 0.1% of our evolution.

 

Some would argue that is enough for us to avoid them.

 

That’s not supported by evidence. But it does make sense (remember, this is an article on health, not about the economics of agricultural wheat production, government subsidies, worldwide famine or other issues outside larger than I care to tackle).

 

Again, the question comes back to, why are we eating them? Not because of physiological need. Not for health (as long as we can get fiber elsewhere).

 

We eat grains and wheat for taste, for convenience (since our society has evolved into a grain-centric society), and possibly for addiction (or at least a stimulated craving).

 

Health does not factor into the “Why.” If we believe Hippocrates who said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” then our perspective of why we eat has to change. Everything we eat either helps our health, or hurts it. For that reason alone, I would argue that we should avoid wheat and most grains. I can’t defend it with solid research, but I can defend it with the often dangerous, “It makes sense.”

 

That’s enough for me. Is it for you?

Carbs Kill? Fat Heals? What does PURE Really Say?

Are you still confused about all the contradictory advice on fat and carbs? We have been told for decades that low-fat is best when it comes to our health.  Turns out, that was pretty bad advice.

 

We now have even more evidence showing that fat certainly isn’t “bad,” and it is probably beneficial for our health. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are trending toward the “bad” side and may need to be reduced.

 

Confused? I don’t blame you. Read on for more info.

 

First my usual disclaimer.

 

We do not eat fats and carbs. We eat food. A wonderful combination of macro- and micronutrients, including fat and carbs. Whole grain bread, farro, quinoa can all be labeled as carbs. So too, can bleached white bread, French fries, Cheetos, and cookies. They are all carbs, but I guarantee you they are not all the same for your health.

 

Grass-fed steak, wild salmon, and avocado can all be labeled as fat and protein. So too, can deep fried chicken, processed lunch meats and others.  Do you see where I am going with this?

 

The Study

 

With that disclaimer in place, let’s talk about the new study released in the Lancet and presented at the European Society of cardiology Conference earlier this week. You may have already seen the headlines, “Low-fat Diet May Kill You!” “The Low-Fat, Low-Carb Question Has a New Answer.” And others. As usual, the truth is never as exciting as the headlines, but it is still worth exploring.


This trial followed over 135,000 subjects from 18 countries for over 7 years. Researchers recorded nutritional intake through standard questionnaires (which are subject to errors as I’ve mentioned before), and investigators followed the subjects, noting who died, who had heart attacks, strokes or heart failure.

 

The short answer is that the group with the highest intake of carbohydrates (77% of daily calories) had an increase in their risk of dying when compared to the group with the lowest intake of carbs (46%). Interestingly, their risk of dying from heart disease was not increased, but their overall risk of dying was increased.  This was mostly driven by cancer, respiratory diseases and dementia.

 

Intake of fat, on the other hand, was associated with a lower risk of dying. This held true for saturated fat, monounsaturated fat and poly unsaturated fat.  There was no significant change in the risk of cardiovascular disease, but again, total mortality was significantly improved.

 

What can we make of all this?

 

It is important to remember that this was an observational trial. It doesn’t prove anything. It shows a very interesting association, but there is no way to control for all the variables that could influence the outcome (as an aside, the same caveat applies to all the prior observational trials condemning saturated fat).

 

The subjects filled out a food intake questionnaire at the beginning of the study, but they were not followed over the seven years to see if their food intake changed. That can certainly introduce inconsistencies in the data.

 

Also, the study lacked many nutritional specifics. What kind of carbs were the subjects eating? Something tells me in the high carbohydrate group, it probably wasn’t sweet potatoes, buckwheat, quinoa, and amaranth. The higher the overall intake of carbs, the more likely their diet included poor quality carbs. Food quality matters.

 

Nonetheless, increasing carb intake seemed to go along with increasing risk of death. That association was clear. Conclusion #1, therefore, is to reduce our carb intake. My editorial is to reduce your low-quality carb intake, although that was not specifically studied.

 

Increasing fat intake, on the other hand, was associated with a reduced risk of death.  The group eating 35% fat had a better survival than the group eating 10% or 18%. Importantly, increasing fat intake was not associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. But it wasn’t associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease either. It was neutral to heart disease, and beneficial to overall mortality.

 

Picture your doctor telling you a pill won’t change your risk of heart disease, but will reduce your risk of dying. And it’s only side effects are enjoying it as you ingest it, it gives you energy and nutrients, and helps you feel full. Sounds like a pretty good pill to me! Sign me up. Only in this case, it wasn’t a pill. It was dietary fat.

 

Conclusion #2, therefore, is to not fear the fat. Adding fat can be a benefit, especially if (again, my editorial) it is high quality and helps you reduce your carb and overall caloric intake.

 

There is Another

 

Based on most social media headlines, one may think that this was the only PURE study. It turns out, there was another one.

 

The other PURE study involved the same group of individuals, but it investigated overall fruit, vegetable and legume intake. The researchers found that three-to-four servings per day of fruit, vegetables and legumes was associated with the greatest decreased risk of death.

 

Interestingly, adding more was of no further benefit, but eating less was a lower benefit. This likely did not get the same media attention as the low fat study since the benefits of eating fruit, vegetables and legumes is much less controversial, and not surprising at all.

 

Should anything change from these studies?

 

Yes and no.

 

Real-foods like veggies, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds are a great place to start for most people. Hopefully we already knew that.

 

Fear of fat should get squashed. Fat is not inherently dangerous. Hopefully we already knew that as well.

 

Concern for too many carbs should be a hot button issue. Hopefully we already knew that also!

 

What may change for some people is further increasing the fat (up to 40+% of daily calories) and animal sources in your diet, and further limiting the carbohydrate sources (down to 40% of calories). Go ahead and add fish, meat, chicken, eggs, milk, olives, olive oil, avocados and avocado oil to your diet. Especially if your diet is based on veggies, fruits, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. The evidence supports it.

 

Be careful of over-generalizing these results. Many details are missing, and observational trials cannot control for all the important variables. But since this is the best evidence we have, we still should take note.

 

Will this be enough to change national nutritional guidelines? That seems unlikely. Bureaucracy is much slower to move than individual recommendations. On an individual basis, not many people follow national guidelines anyway. But guidelines do impact governmental programs (i.e. school lunches, etc.), so my hope is that they will take note and start to change with the tide.

 

My advice?

 

Eat foods that make you happy. Eat foods that fit with your traditions. Just make sure you follow the concept of eating simply prepared, high-quality, real foods. Don’t over-do the carbs, and don’t underdo the fats. Start there and you are well on your way.

 

Interested in more information? Listen to my podcast, The Boundless Health Podcast here, read more of my blog here, learn about my book, Your Best Health Ever,  here, or The Boundless Health Membership Program here. My goal is to provide helpful information through multiple avenues to make sure you get what you need to live Your Best Health Ever!

 

Thanks for reading

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com

 

 

 

 

 

Don’t Invite Me to Your Dinner Party

Don't invite me to your dinner party.

 

Seriously. Don’t do it.

 

If you do, you may feel like I am judging you. Like I am watching your every move, critiquing and grading you.

 

I am not, of course. I wouldn’t think of doing that. But that is how many people feel. Whether it's the third course of the meal when you're already full, or any talk of dessert after you just ate the delicious third course, I can sense the glance in my direction to see how I respond.

 

And don’t get me started on your third beer or third glass of wine or the amazing homemade Challah bread. You feel like I am watching and judging.

 

At first, I was a little disturbed by the perception. Can’t I just be another friend at your dinner party? Can’t you just see me as Bret, and not as Dr. Scher?

 

But now I realize it's a sign of success. Success that you are starting to get the message. Success that you are starting to realize all the unconscious decisions that go into preparing a meal and hosting a party, and you are starting to make them more conscious.

 

Recognizing the automatic lifestyle decisions and giving them serious thought is a tremendous improvement for our lifestyle and our health.

 

That doesn’t mean we cannot indulge on occasion. You can still serve dessert, even if I am at your dinner party. You can still prepare more food than anybody needs to eat, including the homemade Challah.

 

But now you can do it consciously. Not because it is what you always do, or what you think your guests expect. You can do it knowing that it is a special occasion, a rare splurge that you intend to enjoy with your friends (and me, if I am invited).

 

Remember it's not about being perfect. It's about being better every day, every week, every month, every year. So, go ahead and enjoy your life. Indulge on occasion. Just understand that your path to health is an everyday path. Be present, and be aware of your decisions. Strive to be better.

 

And please keep inviting me to your dinner parties. I promise to behave.

 

Thanks for reading.

 

Bret Scher, MD FACC

Cardiologist, author, founder of Boundless Health

www.DrBretScher.com 

 

 

 

858-799-0980Dr Bret Scher