What if gluten sensitivity doesn’t exist?

How can I possibility make that statement?  Two recent best-selling diet books have maintained that gluten makes us fat and dumb (1,2). Billions of dollars are spent on gluten-free (but carbohydrate-rich) food products.  And people feel better when they don’t eat bread.

Before explaining my statement, let me make two things very clear.  First, I am not a big believer in bread.  In 1997, in a Time magazine interview I said, “If all the bread left the face of the earth, we would have a much healthier planet.” (3)  I stand by that statement.

Second, gluten “sensitivity” is not celiac disease.  Celiac disease is a clinically proven autoimmune response to the proteins in gluten (4).  I know since my wife has severe celiac disease.

However gluten sensitivity is different.  Most of the people who pretend to be experts in gluten sensitivity usually have no background in gastrointestinal research.  After all, why try to back up your claims with real research that is very difficult to do?  So it came as a great initial salvation to those people when a real expert from Australia published a paper indicating that gluten sensitivity may exist but with no clues to the mechanism (5).  In this study subjects with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and no evidence of celiac disease were put on a gluten-free diet for six weeks and then either challenged daily with muffins and bread either containing gluten (16 grams per day) or without gluten.  Even though both groups were on a gluten-free diet, they were both having more symptoms, although the group getting the extra gluten had more symptoms of IBS, including being more fatigued than the control group (5).

gluten-chart-0

What was also strange about the results of this study was there were no differences in the intestinal inflammation or any increase in the permeability of the intestinal wall in either group.  This caused the researchers to ponder if they had been too simplistic in their experimental design.   So they went back to do another experiment in which a diet that was far more rigorous in reducing other potential food allergens, such as FODMAPs, which stand for Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Monosaccharides And Polyols.  These are poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates, which means that many of these dietary carbohydrates reach the colon where the trillions of bacteria are waiting to begin fermenting them. FODMAPs are found in foods, such as those containing free fructose (found in apples, cherries, pears, asparagus, artichokes, etc.), foods that can be easily broken down into free fructose (such as high-fructose corn syrup and table sugar), free lactose (found in milk, yogurt, soft cheeses, etc.), polymers of fructose known as fructans (found in peaches, artichokes Brussels sprouts, fennel, onion, wheat, barley, and rye), polymers of galactose known as galactans (found in legumes, chickpeas, lentils, etc.) and polyols (found in apricot, avocado, blackberries, plums, cauliflower, mushrooms, snow peas, etc.).  This is a lot more complex dietary undertaking than putting all of your bets on gluten (6).

So when the researchers repeated their experiment and removed many of the FODMAPs from the diet of the sufferers with “gluten sensitivity” and then added back bread and muffins consisting of either high gluten (16 grams per day), low gluten (2 grams per day), or a placebo, they got a very different response as shown below (7).

gluten-chart

Now you get a very different picture than the earlier study in which the researchers had not removed many of the FODMAPs from the diets of their subjects.  Furthermore, there was no increase in fatigue in those getting the gluten compared to the placebo, even though more than half of the subjects had the genetic susceptibility marker for celiac disease (DQ2 or DQ8 positive HLA), and a quarter of them had anti-bodies to gliadin (one of the proteins in the overall family of protein collectively called gluten).

These new results with the low-FODMAPs diet led the researchers to conclude:  In a placebo-controlled, cross-over rechallenge study, we found no evidence of specific or dose-dependent effects of gluten in patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity placed on diets low in FODMAPs.  That’s a mouthful, but in essence the benefits of a gluten-free diet may not be the removal of gluten but the removal of various FODMAPs found in the wheat, rye, and barley that just happen to also contain gluten.

What remains unknown is whether it is the FODMAPs or a unique bacteria composition in the guts of the “gluten-sensitive” people interacting with the FODMAPs that can cause the problems that lead to IBS and the designation of being “gluten-sensitive”.

However one thing is certain: This new research will not stop the continuing flow of “gluten-free” products rich in carbohydrates coming from the food industry and more popular diet books “discovering” the real reason we are getting fatter and dumber.  Maybe I was on the right track in 1997 when I stated that bread removal is not such a bad idea for mankind.  That’s because I also believe that it is increased diet-induced inflammation, not simply gluten, that is the real cause of our growing epidemics of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and Alzhemier’s.

References

1.  Davis W.  Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. Rodale Books.  Erasmus, PA (2011)

  1.  Perlmutter D.  Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar-Your Brain’s Silent Killers. Little, Brown and Company.  New York, NY (2013)
  2.  Ratnesar R.  “Against the grain.”  Time. December 15, 1997 (1997)
  3. Fasano A. Gluten Freedom: The Nation’s Leading Expert Offers the Essential Guide to a Healthy, Gluten-Free Lifestyle. Wiley.  New York, NY (2014)
  4. Biesiekierski JR, Newnham ED, Irving PM, Barrett JS, Haines M, Doecke JD, Shepherd SJ, Muir JG, and Gibson PR.  “Gluten causes gastrointestinal symptoms in subjects without celiac disease: a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial.”  Am J Gastroenterol 106:508-514 (2011)
  5. Gibson PR and Shepherd SJ.  “Food choice as a key management strategy for functional gastrointestinal symptoms.” Am J Gastroenterol 107:657-666 (2012)
  6. Biesiekierski JR, Peters SL, Newnham ED, Rosella O, Muir JG, and Gibson PR.  “No effects of gluten in patients with self-reported non-celiac gluten sensitivity after dietary reduction of fermentable, poorly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates.” Gastroenterology 145:320-328 (2013)

What’s in it for us?

In this day and age when we hear about selfish genes and winner-takes-all outcomes in evolution, it is refreshing to come across a scientific paper that redeems your faith in doing the right thing. In this case, there is strong support that being a giving person may let you potentially have a longer lifespan (1).

This research focused on hedonic behavior. There are two forms of hedonism. One is the classical desire for pleasures that are simply self-gratification. The other is called eudaimonic hedonism that comes from striving toward meaning and a noble purpose in life. Classical hedonism is deeply embedded in our genes. That’s why we eat to stay alive and have sex to propagate the species. That’s also why it is also highly related to fame and wealth so that you can get more food and sex. On the other hand, eudaimonic hedonism appears to motivate us toward more complex social and cultural activities that go beyond our individual lifespans.

One of the reasons why stress reduction is so important in living a good life is that there are a number of genes that seem to be up regulated in response to extended periods of stress and uncertainties. In particular, these are pro-inflammatory genes. This is known as the conserved transcriptional response to adversity or CTRA.

What this study did was to take healthy people and through a series of questions determine the balance of the two types of hedonism. Not surprisingly, nearly 80% of the subjects had higher levels of self-gratification (what’s in it for me) compared to those who had higher levels of eudaimonic hedonism (what’s in it for us). Then the researchers looked at the levels of activity of the genes that comprise the CRTA cluster of genes. Those who fell in the self-gratification group had higher levels of pro-inflammatory gene expression (as well as decreased expression of the genes required for immunity) compared to the subjects who were in the group that had a higher level of eudaimonic hedonism. These changes in gene expression should translate into a longer and healthier life. There is some indication that this may be true (2,3).

Conversely, it is known that increased inflammation reduces hedonic well being (4,5). This would explain why high-dose omega-3 fatty acids rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) seem to have such clinical benefits in treating depression (6-8).

So if you want to live a longer (and probably better) life, then try to start thinking of others beside yourself. If that is too hard, then consider taking high-dose fish oil rich in EPA. You will be happier, probably have a longer and healthier life, and may even become nicer to your fellow man.

References

  • 1. Fredrickson BL, Grewen KM, Coffey KA, Algoe SB, Firestine AM, Arevalo JMG, Ma J, and Cole SW. “A functional genomic perspective on human well-being.” Proc Nat Acad Sci USA 110: 13684-13689 (2013)
  • 2. Hummer RA, Rogers RG, Nam CB, and Ellison CG. “Religious involvement and U.S. adult mortality.” Demography 36:273-285 (1999)
  • 3. Helm HM, Hays JC, Flint EP, Koenig HG, and Blazer DG. “Does private religious activity prolong survival? A six-year follow-up study of 3,851 older adults. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 55: M400-405 (2000)
  • 4. Dantzer R, O’Connor JC, Freund GG, Johnson RW, and Kelley KW. “From inflammation to sickness and depression: when the immune system subjugates the brain.” Nat Rev Neurosci 9:46-49 (2008)
  • 5. Eisenberger NI, Berkman ET, Inagaki TK, Rameson LT, Mashal NM, and Irwin MR. “Inflammation-induced ahedonia.” Bio Psychiatry 68:748-754 (2010)
  • 6. Stoll AL, Severus WE, Freeman MP, Rueter S, Zboyan HA, Diamond E, Cress KK, and Marangell LB. “Omega 3 fatty acids in bipolar disorder: a preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” Arch Gen Psychiatry 56:407-412 (1999)
  • 7. Nemets H, Nemets B, Apter A, Bracha Z and Belmaker RH. “Omega-3 treatment of childhood depression: a controlled, double-blind pilot study.” Am J Psychiatry 2006 163:1098-1100 (2006)
  • 8. Martins JG. “EPA but not DHA appears to be responsible for the efficacy of omega-3 long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in depression: evidence from a meta-analysis of randomized controlled” trials. J Am Coll Nutr 28: 525-542 (2009)

Why doesn’t exercise and diet reduce heart disease for diabetics?

That’s a good question after the June 24 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reported on the failure of long-term diet and exercise to reduce heart disease in diabetics1. It had been known from earlier and shorter studies that diet and exercise in diabetics appeared to generate a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. This is important since heart disease remains the number-one killer of Americans, and people with diabetes are two to four times more likely to develop heart disease. Since diabetes is becoming epidemic, this would suggest that heart disease should soon begin to escalate. But for exercise and diet have any benefits in any condition, they have to been continued forever. That is the motivation for this 13-year study that started with the best of intentions. However, last year the study was terminated at 10 years since it was clear that there were no cardiovascular benefits. Now that the study details have been published, it is clear why it failed.

First, all of the success of diet and exercise started to evaporate after the first year. Remember, the people who enter these studies are highly motivated with a terrible future awaiting them. So why would they seemingly throw away all the initial benefits of weight loss and reduction of blood sugar? Part of the reason can be explained by why most diet program fail: Willpower can only take you so far if your hormones are working against you. The end result is you are constantly hungry and always tired.

The amount of calories the subjects of this study consumed was low (between 1,200 and 1,800 calories per day), but the diet was a high-carbohydrate diet (that induces low blood sugar due to hyperinsulinemia). The diet was coupled with lots of exercise (that also lowers blood sugar). This is an almost surefire prescription to be constantly hungry and tired. As a result, compliance wanes.

On the other hand, if you are never hungry, then compliance is better. That was the case with another 13-year study of diabetic patients who had gastric bypass surgery. For these patients, there was a significant reduction in cardiovascular events2. The reason is probably hormonal. If you lose weight by diet and exercise, your levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin increases with no change in the levels of your satiety hormone, PYY. Just the opposite happens with gastric bypass surgery. Ghrelin doesn’t change, but PYY increases3. The result is that you are not hungry, and therefor your lifestyle compliance improves.

Of course, giving every diabetic gastric bypass surgery makes little sense. Giving them new, more powerful diabetic drugs with equally powerful side effects (like heart attacks) also makes no sense.

There may be third way: Functional foods that can increase PYY levels. But these have to be tasty (like pasta and rice) and convenient (only 90 seconds to make) since you have to take them the rest of your life. That’s the project I have been working on for the past six years. These new Zone meals may be the answer, as they appear to reduce hunger without causing fatigue while eating the foods you like to eat. Zone meals are low-tech medicine with potentially high-tech results and are coming soon.

References

  1. Wing RR et al. “Cardiovascular effects of intensive lifestyle intervention in type 2 diabetes.” NEJM DOI:10.1056/NEJMoa 1212914 (2013)
  2. Romeo S et al. “Cardiovascular events after bariatric surgery in obese subjects with type 2 diabetes.” Diabetes Care 35: 3613-2617 (2012)
  3. Olivan B et al. “Effect of weight loss by diet or gastric bypass surgery on peptide YY3-36 (PYY) levels.” Ann Surg 249: 948-953 (2009)

Good Diet, Bad Study

As the creator of the Zone Diet, I am a strong believer in the Mediterranean diet as a lifetime dietary program for good health. In fact, the Zone Diet can be considered to be the evolution of the Mediterranean diet as it provides even greater anti-inflammatory benefits. That being said, this week’s New England Journal of Medicine contained an article on using the Mediterranean diet with high-risk cardiovascular patients that got great press based on some really poor science1. Let’s get to the bad science first.

The researchers compared two “Mediterranean” diets (one with extra nuts and the other with extra olive oil) to a low-fat diet. Unfortunately, they were unable to get the subjects to follow a low-fat diet. If you are a follower of Dean Ornish, then a low-fat diet means less than 10% of your calories coming from fat. Using that definition of a low-fat diet, you have to throw out one-third of the subjects because they couldn’t reduce their fat intake below 37% of total calories. In fact, at the end of this five-year study, the percentages of protein, carbohydrate, and fat in the diets of all three groups were approximately the same. As a result, you are left with a study with two groups of subjects being compared to another group of subjects who really didn’t change their diet that much.

Even Dean Ornish pointed this out in his rebuttal blog in the Huffington Post to this study2. He wrote that if people had followed his low-fat diet, then the results would have been much different. Well, actually when high-risk cardiovascular patients did follow his diet in a study done 15 years ago, those on his low-fat diet had twice the deaths compared to those in the control group3. So maybe it’s a good thing that the low-fat group couldn’t follow the prescribed low-fat diet.

The reason for adverse effects of a low-fat, low-protein, very high-carbohydrate diet for cardiovascular patients is quite clear. Those subjects following his high-carbohydrate, low-fat, and low-protein diet developed insulin resistance as evidenced by a significant increase in their triglyceride-to-HDL ratio3. If you already have had a heart attack, then an increase in insulin resistance and the accompanying increase in inflammation are almost certain to push you over the edge.

If you really dig deeper into the supplemental material (Table S7 to be exact) of this article (as most journalists neglected to do), you are remarkably unimpressed by the changes in the diet over a five-year period except that the people who got free olive oil and free nuts were consuming more free olive oil and free nuts than those who were not getting free food.

Now, back to the clinical results — a strange brew of stroke, heart attack, and death. Usually when you include a lot of different clinical end points as your primary goal, it means you are not very confident about seeing any real striking clinical benefit. Stroke is primarily associated with high blood pressure, whereas heart attack is associated with the rupture of small vulnerable plaques leading to blockage of the coronary arteries. I personally like death as a clinical end point since you can’t cheat on its definition, thus making it harder to manipulate your statistics to prove your point.

So let’s look at the individual clinical endpoints. There was a reduction in strokes that was statistically significant. Unfortunately, there was no statistically significant reduction in either heart attacks or death. For such a large study, these clinical results are not too impressive. Maybe if the researchers had actually gotten the low-fat group to reduce their fat intake to less than 10% of calories (instead of going from 39% to 37% of calories), there might have been more deaths in that group, which would have made the other two Mediterranean diet groups look better.

Virtually every cardiovascular researcher knows that fatty acid composition of the plasma is an important factor in the prediction of future cardiovascular events. Unfortunately, the authors of the New England Journal of Medicine article apparently didn’t think so. Obviously, they measured one fatty acid (alpha linolenic acid) in Figure 5S (again buried deep in the supplemental material), but somehow forgot to report the other 34 fatty acids also found in the plasma. Two of the most important of these unreported fatty acids would have included arachidonic acid (AA) and eicosapentaenoic (EPA). The AA/EPA ratio in the blood is the best marker of cellular inflammation that drives heart disease4. You would think inclusion of information on this ratio (or at least providing the fatty acid levels) would be important since a far larger JELIS study demonstrated that the lowering of the AA/EPA ratio resulted in a significant reduction of cardiovascular events5.

In contrast to this poorly executed study, there exists a far more powerful study conducted nearly 20 years ago on the benefits of a stricter Mediterranean diet. This is was the Lyon Diet Heart Study6. The primary clinical difference between this new study and older Lyon Diet Heart Study is that the Lyon Diet Heart Study generated a 65% reduction in overall cardiovascular mortality, a complete reduction in cardiac sudden death, and 44% reduction in all-cause mortality6,7. Those are clinical end points to get excited about. On the other hand, this New England Journal of Medicine article showed no impact on mortality. The only striking difference between the two groups in the Lyon Diet Heart Study was the restriction of omega-6 fatty acids in the experimental group. You find omega-6 fatty acids in vegetable oils like corn, safflower, and sunflower oils. They accomplished this dietary change by giving the subjects in the experimental groups margarines rich in omega-3 fats and trans fats. Although there was a dramatic decrease in death between the two groups in the Lyon Diet Heart Study, there were no differences in weight, BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol (good and bad), and blood lipids between the two groups. In other words, all the usual suspects in heart disease were eliminated. The only differences between the two groups were in the fatty acids, both linoleic acid and the AA/EPA ratio. If you again go back to bowels of the recent New England Journal article (in supplemental Table S7), you find out that the levels of linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) as analyzed from dietary records of the subjects was between 5 and 6% in both of the Mediterranean diets. In the Lyon Diet Heart Study, the investigators were able to reduce to the linoleic levels to 3.6%, which is similar to levels found in the Japanese (actually Okinawans), who have the lowest cardiovascular mortality in the developed world (8). The subjects in the control group of the Lyon Diet Heart Study had a nearly 50% higher level of linoleic acid in their blood compared to the experimental group8. However, those subjects following the “Mediterranean” diets in the new study had even higher levels of linoleic acid than those in the control group of the Lyon Diet Heart Study. That is the most likely reason there wasn’t any change in cardiovascular mortality or overall mortality in the New England Journal of Medicine study. Unlike this more “modern” study, the Lyon researchers further demonstrated that the AA/EPA ratio was reduced by some 30% (from 9 to 6.2) in the active group compared to the control group, and this resulted in a 65% reduction of cardiovascular death.

Bottom line, unless you dramatically reduce omega-6 intake by reducing your consumption of vegetable oils (such as corn, soy and safflower oils), you will not get clear-cut clinical results (like reduction in death) no matter how much hype the media give to the research.

As I said earlier, the Zone Diet can be considered to be the evolution of the Mediterranean diet because it represents a superior dietary program to control inflammation, the true underlying cause of heart disease. This is because the Zone Diet dramatically reduces white carbohydrates (pasta, bread, rice, and potatoes) and replaces them with increased amounts of colorful carbohydrates (vegetables and fruits). Unlike the New England Journal of Medicine article where the subjects were consuming about 5 servings a day of vegetables and fruits, the Zone Diet recommends 10 servings per day. Rather than keeping the linoleic acid content at 6% of the calories (the American Heart Association recommends 10-15%) or even at the 3.6% level as in the Lyon Diet Heart Study, the Zone Diet recommends fewer than 2% of total calories should consist of linoleic acid. Like the JELIS study, the Zone Diet recommends extra supplemental of omega-3 fatty acids to reduce the AA/EPA ratio to 1.5 or less.

Although the jury may still be out on the Mediterranean diet (especially after this poorly executed study) for the primary prevention of heart disease, the data from secondary prevention studies (5-7) strongly suggest that the Zone Diet may be the dietary approach you want to follow if reducing mortality is your personal clinical end point.

References

  1. Estuch R et al. “Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet.” N Engl J Med 368: doi10.1056/NEJMoa1200303 (2013)
  2. Ornish D. “Does a Mediterranean diet really beat a low-fat for health?” HuffPost Healthy Living Feb 25 (2013)
  3. Ornish D et al. “Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease.” JAMA 280: 2001-2007 (1998)
  4. Sears B. The Anti-Inflammation Zone. Regan Books. New York, NY (2005)
  5. Yokoyama M et al. “Effects of eicosapentaenoic acid on major coronary events in hypercholesterolaemic patients (JELIS): a randomized open-label, blinded endpoint analysis.” Lancet 369: 1090-1098 (2007)
  6. de Lorgeril et al. “Mediterranean alpha-linolenic-rich diet in secondary prevention of coronary heart disease.” Lancet 343: 1454-1459 (1994)
  7. de Lorgeril et al. “Mediterranean diet, traditional risk factors, and the rate of cardiovascular complications after myocardial infarction.” Circulation 99: 779-785 (1999)
  8. Kagawa Y et al. “Eicosapolyenoic acids of serum lipids of Japanese islanders with low incidence of cardiovascular disease.” J Nutr Sci Vitaminol 28: 441-453 (1982)

Harvard explains why people regain weight with the Atkins diet

A study from Harvard Medical School explains that even though people can lose weight on a ketogenic diet, all lost weight usually rapidly returns.

Ketogenic diets have been recommended for decades for rapid weight loss. The most famous is the Atkins diet. Ketogenic diets are based on high-protein and very low-carbohydrate intake. For the past 40 years such diets have been routinely used in America for weight loss, yet America remains in the midst of a growing epidemic of obesity. While ketogenic diets can induce initial weight loss, all lost weight usually rapidly returns, resulting in more weight (and even more fat) than when the person started the ketogenic diet.

For many years it was thought that such weight regain was due to poor dietary compliance. Now Harvard Medical School in an article in the June 27, 2012, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association shows the reason for weight regain is more ominous than simple dietary non-compliance. In carefully controlled studies Harvard researchers demonstrated that on a ketogenic diet the levels of the hormone cortisol increase by 18%, and the levels of active thyroid hormone (T3) control metabolism decrease by 12% (1).

The effect of increased cortisol is to cause rapid fat accumulation, as any patient who has ever used prescription cortisol-like drugs knows. It also causes depression of the immune system, loss of memory, and thinning of the skin. These are also hallmarks of the acceleration of the aging process. Furthermore, the lowering of the active form of the thyroid hormone slows down the metabolism, making even seemingly small increases in calorie intake result in increased body fat accumulation. Besides setting you up to regain all the lost weight, the Atkins diet apparently also increases the rate of aging.

However, many people seem willing to continue to try such ketogenic diets in hopes of losing weight quickly. Yet highly controlled studies I published in the world’s most prestigious nutrition journal in world more than six years ago demonstrated that is simply not a true statement (2). In this study either a ketogenic diet (the Atkins diet) or a non-ketogenic diet (the Zone Diet) were compared in obese individuals. For the first six weeks all meals for both groups were prepared in a metabolic kitchen at Arizona State University (in essence treating subjects like lab rats). Both diets contained an equal number of calories.

When it came to weight loss, the subjects following the Zone Diet actually lost slightly more weight than as those on the ketogenic diet during the initial six-week period as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Weight Loss (Zone Diet in open circles, Atkins diet in black squares)

Relative to fat loss on the non-ketogenic Zone Diet, their loss of body fat was again superior to the Atkins diet as shown in Figure 2. Fat loss is far more important than weight loss since all the health benefits from weight loss come from the loss of excess body fat; not from the loss of retained water or loss of muscle mass.

Figure 2. Fat Loss (Zone Diet in open circles, Atkins diet in black squares)

When the subjects continued on the respective diets for another four weeks (but now preparing meals on their own), those subjects on the non-ketogenic Zone Diet continued to lose even more weight and body fat, whereas those on the ketogenic Atkins diet did not. They had reached a plateau. The new research from Harvard Medical explains why.

One of the major problems in following a calorie-restricted diet is lack of energy. In this same study, the subjects on the Zone Diet demonstrated improved daily energy compared to those on the Atkins diet. In another publication using the same subjects, we also demonstrated that those subjects following the Zone Diet had greater performance in endurance testing compared to those following the ketogenic Atkins diet (3).

Figure 3. Energy levels (Zone Diet in open circles, Atkins diet in black squares)

For the past 40 years, ketogenic diets (like the Atkins diet) have failed to treat obesity in America. That is why one relies upon science, not hype, to determine which is the best diet to lose weight (and really body fat), keep it off, and increase energy. Continuing research from Harvard Medical School since 1999 demonstrates that the Zone Diet is the best dietary program to accomplish both goals (1,4-7). And the one thing Harvard will always tell you is that they are never wrong.

References

  1. Ebbeling CB, Swain JF, Feldman HA, Wong WA, Hachey DL, Garcia-Logo E, and Ludwig DD. “Effects of dietary composition on energy expenditure during weight loss maintenance.” JAMA 307: 267-2634 (2012)
  2. Johnston, C.S., Tjonn, S., Swan, P.D., White A., Hutchins H., and Sears B. “Ketogenic low-carbohydrate diets have no metabolic advantage over nonketogenic low-carbohydrate diets.” Am J Clin Nutr 83: 1055-1061 (2006)
  3. White AM, Johnston CS, Swan PD, Tjonn SL, and Sears B. “Blood ketones are directly related to fatigue and perceived effort during exercise in overweight adults adhering to low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss: A pilot study.” J Am Diet Assoc 107: 1792-1796 (2007)
  4. Ludwig, DS, Majzoub AJ, Al-Zahrani A, Dallal GE, Blanco I, and Roberts SB. “High glycemic index foods, overeating, and obesity.” Pediatrics 103: e26 (1999)
  5. Agus MSD, Swain JF, Larson CL, Eckert EA, and Ludwig DS. “Dietary composition and physiologic adaptations to energy restriction.” Am J Clin Nutr 71:901–907 (2000)
  6. Pereira MA, Swain J, Goldfine AB, Rifai N, and Ludwig DS. “Effect of low-glycemic diet on resting energy expenditure and heart disease risk factors during weight loss.” JAMA. 292: 2482-2490 (2004)
  7. Ebbeling CB, Leidig MM, Feldman HA, Lovesky MM, and Ludwig DS. “Effects of a low–glycemic load vs. low-fat diet in obese young adults”. JAMA 297: 2092-2102 (2007)

Meta-analysis study on fish oil effectiveness is fatally flawed

One of the events in the food industry you never want to see is the making of sausage where sometimes good cuts of meat are combined with items you would never want to eat. 

The same is true of meta-analysis studies in medical research.  Meta-analysis means that you take a lot of different studies (some good, some not so good) using different patient populations, different inclusion criteria, different protocols, and different outcome criteria and mix them together to get a conclusion that often demonstrates a non-result.  The best example of this is the recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that combined a wide number of studies using fish oil supplements to come up with the conclusion that omega-3 fatty acids have no benefit (1).  So let’s take a look at this study in a little more detail.

First, it is always useful to look at the investigators.  In this case, the authors are from Greece (not exactly a hotspot of high-quality clinical research since Aristotle), and to my knowledge none of them has been involved in any actual cardiovascular intervention studies in the past, let alone any work with omega-3 fatty acids. (I believe a little background is a good foundation to build from, but then call me crazy.)

Second, the average dose used in these studies was 1.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day.  Surprisingly, the American Heart Association recommends more than double this dose to reduce triglycerides, a known risk factor for heart disease (apparently not in Greece since the authors ignored this fact).  This would indicate the authors were making conclusions based on placebo doses of omega-3 fatty acids.  Usually a placebo dose gives placebo effects, which was confirmed in their meta-analysis.  Furthermore, just giving a dose of anything is meaningless unless it is reducing a measureable clinical parameter in the blood that has a relationship to the disease condition being studied.  For example, if I gave a statin dose that reduced LDL cholesterol levels from 250 mg/dl to 245 mg/dl, I wouldn’t expect any therapeutic benefits unless I gave enough statin drug to reduce the LDL cholesterol level to less than 130 mg/dl, if not much lower. 

So what is a good dose of omega-3 fatty acids?  As I have already mentioned, the American Heart Association recommends 3.4 grams of EPA and DHA per day to lower triglyceride levels.  However, I believe a better marker is the amount of omega-3 fatty acids needed to reduce the AA/EPA ratio to the levels found in the Japanese population, which has the lowest levels of cardiovascular events in the world.  Recent studies with healthy Americans indicate that would take between 5 and 7.5 grams of EPA and DHA per day (2).  Again, this indicates that the dose of omega-3 fatty acids in this meta-analysis was providing a placebo dose. 

Third, another problem with meta-analysis is conflicting protocols.  In this study, almost half the patients came from two just studies: The GISSI study and the JELIS study.  The GISSI study (more than 11,000 patients) indicated that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the foundation of a Mediterranean diet could reduce sudden cardiovascular death rate by 45% versus a placebo and reduced overall cardiovascular death by 20% (3).  This study was criticized because the care that all groups were receiving didn’t include statins (since they were not yet approved).  After all, the thinking for a typical cardiologist is that there is no reason to use omega-3 fatty acids if you can simply give a statin drug instead.

That faulty thinking was addressed by the JELIS study in which all the patients (about 18,000) were getting statins (4).  Unlike the GISSI study, the AA/EPA ratio was measured in these patients.  The initial AA/EPA ratio was 1.6 (a level requiring Americans to take about 5 to 7.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids per day just to reach that starting point), and then even more EPA was added to the active group.  After 4 ½ years, those Japanese patients getting the statins and extra fish oil had another 20% reduction in cardiovascular events over and above those getting the statins and an equivalent amount of supplemented olive oil.  The take-home lesson from the JELIS study was that any physician who didn’t prescribe supplemental omega-3 fatty acids along with statins was simply practicing bad medicine. 

Meta-analysis studies are supposed to make up for potential shortcomings in small clinical trials (like the ones used to approve virtually all pharmaceutical drugs).  In the hands of unqualified researchers who have little understanding of the field or compound being studied, a meta-analysis can become an instrument for the mass confusion generated by this recent article in the Journal of American Medical Association. 

The bottom line is that you need adequate doses of natural compounds to generate a therapeutic effect.  The levels of these doses of natural compounds will always be far greater than with drugs, but also with far fewer side-effects.  If you give a placebo dose of a natural compound, then expect a placebo result.  But please don’t try to pass off such an obvious result as “science”.

References

  1. Rizos EC et al.  “Association between omega-3 fatty acid supplementation and risk of major cardiovascular disease events.”  JAMA 308: 1024-1038 (2012)
  2. Yee LD et al. “Omega-3 fatty acid supplements in women at high risk of breast cancer have dose-dependent effects on breast adipose tissue fatty acid composition.”  Amer J Clin Nutr 91: 1185-1194 (2010)
  3. GISSI-Prevenzione Investigators. “Dietary supplementation with n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E after myocardial infarction: results of the GISSI-Prevenzione trial.” Lancet 354: 447-455 (1999)
  4. Yokoyama M et al.  “Effects of eicosapentaenoic acid on major coronary events in hypercholesterolaemic patients (JELIS): a randomized open-label, blinded endpoint analysis.” Lancet 369: 1090-1098  (2007)   

Anxiety and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Anxiety is one of most the common neurological disorders, but it also is one of the most difficult to understand. Simply stated, anxiety is an apprehension of the future, especially about an upcoming challenging task. This is normal. What is not normal is when the reaction is significantly out of proportion to what might be expected. Over the years, a number of specific terms, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobia, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and separation anxiety disorder have emerged in an attempt to better categorize general anxiety. Any way you describe anxiety, it is a big problem with nearly 20% of Americans suffering from it, thus making anxiety the largest neurological disorder in the United States (1).

If anxiety is worrying about the future, then it has a fellow traveler, depression. Depression can be viewed as an over-reaction about regret associated with past events. Not surprisingly, almost an equal number of Americans suffer from this condition. This leads to the question: Is there a linkage between the two conditions? I believe the answer is yes and it may be caused by radical changes in the American diet in the past 40 years. These changes have resulted in what I term the Perfect Nutritional Storm (2). The result is an increase in the levels of inflammation throughout the body and particularly in the brain.

The brain is incredibly sensitive to inflammation, not the type you can feel but the type of inflammation that is below the perception of pain. I term this cellular inflammation. What makes this type of inflammation so disruptive is that it causes a breakdown in signaling between cells. What causes cellular inflammation is an increase in the omega-6 fatty acid known as arachidonic acid (AA). From this fatty acid comes a wide range of inflammatory hormones known as eicosanoids that are the usual suspects when it comes to inflammation. This is why anti-inflammatory drugs (aspirin, non-steroid anti-inflammatories, COX-2 inhibitions and corticosteroids) all have a single mode of action—to inhibit the formation of these inflammatory eicosanoids. These drugs, however, can’t cross the blood-brain barrier that isolates the brain from a lot of noxious materials in the blood stream. So when the brain becomes inflamed, its only protection is adequate levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. But what happens when the levels of omega-3 fatty acids are low in the brain? The answer is increased neuro-inflammation and continual disruption of signaling between nerves.

There are two omega-3 fatty acids in the brain. The first is called docosahexaenoic acid or DHA. This is primarily a structural component for the brain. The other is called eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA. This is the primary anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid for the brain. So if the levels of EPA are low in the blood, they are going to be low in the brain. To further complicate the matter, the lifetime of EPA in the brain is very limited (3,4). This means you have to have a constant supply in the blood stream to keep neuro-inflammation under control.

It is known from work with uni-polar and bi-polar depressed patients, that high-dose fish oil rich in EPA has remarkable benefits (5,6). On the other hand, supplementing the diet with oils rich in DHA have virtually no effects (7).

Since anxiety has a significant co-morbidity with depression, the obvious question becomes is it possible that high levels of EPA can reduce anxiety? The answer appears to be yes (8), according to a study conducted in 2008 using substance abusers. It is known that increased anxiety is one of the primary reasons why substance abusers and alcoholics tend to relapse (9,10). When these patients were given a high dose of EPA (greater than 2 grams of EPA per day), there was a statistically significant reduction in anxiety compared to those receiving a placebo. More importantly, the degree of anxiety reduced was highly correlated to the decrease of the ratio of AA to EPA in the blood (8). In other studies with normal individuals without clinical depression or anxiety, increased intake of EPA improved their ability to handle stress and generated significant improvements in mood (11-13). It may be that depression and anxiety are simply two sides of the same coin of increased cellular inflammation in the brain. Even for “normal” individuals, high dose EPA seems to make them happier and better able to handle stress.

So let’s go back to an earlier question and ask about the dietary changes in the American diet that may be factors in the growing prevalence of both depression and anxiety. As I outline in my book Toxic Fat, it is probably due to a growing imbalance of AA and EPA in our diets (2). What causes AA to increase is a combination of increased consumption of vegetable oils rich in omega-6 fatty acids coupled with an increase in the consumption of refined carbohydrates that generate insulin. When excess omega-6 fatty acids interact with increased insulin, you get a surge of AA production. At the same time, our consumption of fish rich in EPA has decreased. The end result is an increasing AA/EPA ratio in the blood, which means a corresponding increase in the same AA/EPA ratio in the brain creating more cellular inflammation.

Cutting back vegetable oil and refined carbohydrate intake is difficult since they are now the most inexpensive source of calories. Not surprisingly, they are key ingredients for virtually every processed food product. So if changing your diet is too hard, then consider eating more fish to get adequate levels of EPA. Of course, the question is how much fish? If we use a daily intake level of 2 grams of EPA per day that was used the successful trials of using omega-3 fatty acids reduce anxiety, then this would translate into consuming 14 pounds of cod per day. If you prefer a more fatty fish like salmon, then you would only need about 2 pounds per day to get 2 grams of EPA. The Japanese are able to reach that level because they are the largest consumers of fish in the world. These are highly unlikely dietary changes for most Americans. However, it has been demonstrated that following a strict anti-inflammatory diet coupled with purified fish oil supplements can generate an AA/EPA ratio similar to that found in the Japanese population (11).

There is simply no easy way out of this problem created by the Perfect Nutritional Storm, which will only intensify with each succeeding generation due to the insidious effect of cellular inflammation on fetal programming in the womb. Unfortunately for most Americans this will require a dietary change of immense proportions. This probably means that Valium and other anti-anxiety medications are here to stay.

References

  1. Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Merikangas KR, and Walters EE. “Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of 12-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication”. Arch Gen Psychiatry 62:617–627 (2005)
  2. Sears B. Toxic Fat. Thomas Nelson. Nashville, TN (2008)
  3. Chen CT, Liu Z, Ouellet M, Calon F, and Bazinet RP. “Rapid beta-oxidation of eicosapentaenoic acid in mouse brain: an in situ study.” Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids 80:157-163 (2009)
  4. Chen CT, Liu Z, and Bazinet RP. “Rapid de-esterification and loss of eicosapentaenoic acid from rat brain phospholipids: an intracerebroventricular study.” J Neurochem 116:363-373 (2011)
  5. Nemets B, Stahl Z, and Belmaker RH. “Addition of omega-3 fatty acid to maintenance medication treatment for recurrent unipolar depressive disorder.” Am J Psychiatry 159:477-479 (2002)
  6. Stoll AL, Severus WE, Freeman MP, Rueter S, Zboyan HA, Diamond E, Cress KK, and Marangell LB. “Omega 3 fatty acids in bipolar disorder: a preliminary double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.” Arch Gen Psychiatry 56:407-412 (1999)
  7. Marangell LB, Martinez JM, Zboyan HA, Kertz B, Kim HF, and Puryear LJ. “A double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexaenoic acid in the treatment of major depression.” Am J Psychiatry 160:996-998 (2003)
  8. Buydens-Branchey L, Branchey M, and Hibbeln JR. “Associations between increases in plasma n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids following supplementation and decreases in anger and anxiety in substance abusers.” Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry 32:568-575 (2008)
  9. Willinger U, Lenzinger E, Hornik K, Fischer G, Schonbeck G, Aschauer HN, and Meszaros K. “Anxiety as a predictor of relapse in detoxified alcohol-dependent patients.” Alcohol and Alcoholism 37:609-612 (2002)
  10. Kushner MG, Abrams K, Thuras P, Hanson KL, Brekke M, and Sletten S. “Follow-up study of anxiety disorder and alcohol dependence in comorbid alcoholism treatment patients.” Alcohol Clin Exp Res 29:1432-1443 (2005)
  11. Fontani G, Corradeschi F, Felici A, Alfatti F, Bugarini R, Fiaschi AI, Cerretani D, Montorfano G, Rizzo AM, and Berra B. “Blood profiles, body fat and mood state in healthy subjects on different diets supplemented with Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.” Eur J Clin Invest 35:499-507 (2005)
  12. Fontani G, Corradeschi F, Felici A, Alfatti F, Migliorini S, and Lodi L. “Cognitive and physiological effects of Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation in healthy subjects. “Eur J Clin Invest 35:691-699 (2005)
  13. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Belury MA, Andridge R, Malarkey WB, and Glaser R. “Omega-3 supplementation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: A randomized controlled trial.” Brain Behav Immun 25:1725-1734 (2011)

Hard times are ahead

Last month was a red-letter month for the future of mankind as the world population passed 7 billion. Unfortunately, this fact dovetails with recent research that indicates it is likely that one-half of all Americans will be diabetic by 2050 (1).

The combination of these two trends does not bode well for the future. To begin with, how are we going to feed all these people? Most of the arable land on the planet is already under cultivation. Furthermore, urbanization is destroying prime cropland at a rapid pace.

Added to these facts is that the diversity of most of the world’s calories is rapidly decreasing. Currently the five top sources of calories in the world are corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and potatoes (as well as its kissin’ cousin cassava, which is incredibly poor in protein and nutrients). The first two crops (corn and soy) are rich sources of omega-6 fatty acids. In addition, corn, wheat, and rice provide extremely high-glycemic carbohydrates that can be easily refined to last forever and make thus a wide variety of processed foods. (Potatoes and cassava tend to decompose rapidly and can’t be easily refined, except perhaps as potato chips). As a consequence, omega-6 fatty acids and refined carbohydrates are now the cheapest form of calories in the world. In fact, it is estimated that they are 400 times less expensive per calorie than fresh fruits and vegetables.

So how can you feed this growing population of more than 7 billion people? The answer is easy—produce even more refined carbohydrates and omega-6 fatty acids.

Unfortunately, feeding the growing population of the world with cheap omega-6 fatty acids and refined carbohydrates is exactly the best way to increase cellular inflammation and drive the development of diabetes (2). It is estimated that by 2050 diabetes will be the primary non-infectious disease on the planet. This is equally bad news as it is also the most expensive chronic disease to treat on a long-term basis.

Today, more than 26 percent of all Americans older than 65 has diabetes. If the estimates of increased diabetes are correct (1), then it is likely that the number of Americans older than 65 in 2050 with diabetes may be greater than 50 percent. The current level of diabetes is the primary reason why our health-care expenses are spiraling out of control. If you double number of older Americans with diabetes by 2050, there is no way the current health-care system, as we know it can possibly survive. Add to the fact that once you have diabetes, you are 2-4 times more likely to develop heart disease and Alzheimer’s. It is not a very pleasant picture of the future of health care in America.

What can you do about it? On a global basis, not much unless you would like to see an apocalyptic event that reduces the population from 7 billion to a more manageable 1-2 billion individuals. Of course, this is highly unlikely. However, on the individual basis there is a lot you can do to protect yourself in the future. Simply take control of your future by focusing on managing cellular inflammation for a lifetime by following an anti-inflammatory diet. This may be your only real health security in times of increasing demands on the planet’s resources to produce food. There is no question that we have other troubles brewing like climate change, decreasing water supplies, and decreasing cheap energy, all of which will also impact the cost of food, driving more individuals toward inexpensive sources of calories no matter what the health consequences. But the rise of diabetes will occur first.

Old folks like myself will probably be OK, but the future generations will take the brunt of trouble brewing ahead.

References

  1. Boyle JP , Thompson TJ, Gregg EW, Barker LE, and Williamson DF. “Projection of the year 2050 burden of diabetes in the US adult population: dynamic modeling of incidence, mortality, and prediabetes prevalence.” Population Health Metrics 8:29 (2010)
  2. Sears B. “Toxic Fat.” Thomas Nelson. Nashville, TN (2008)

“Biggest Loser” or best Zoner?

A few weeks ago I spoke at the American Society of Bariatric Physicians. Later in the day I heard an interesting lecture from the lead dietician for the TV series “The Biggest Loser”. In this lecture, she disclosed all the keys for successful weight loss in the individuals on the show.

The first was incredibly careful screening just like you would do for a clinical trial. This is to make sure you have incredibly motivated people, who aren’t depressed or have other existing medical conditions, such as heart disease. In other words, you stack the deck. Considering that after the first pilot show in 2004, there were 225,000 applications for the 2005 series, there is no problem in recruiting motivated people. Just to make sure the motivation is maintained, the contestants get paid while they are on the show in addition to the big payoff for the winner at the end of the series.

Next contestants are isolated in a “camp”. Consider this to be like a metabolic ward where they only have access to good food for the next 10 to 16 weeks. This means no white carbohydrates and no artificial sweeteners other than stevia and all the meals made for them.

According to the speaker, the real secret is that they are fed a Zonelike Diet with 45 percent of the calories coming carbohydrates (primarily non-starchy vegetables and fruits) with a very limited amount of whole grains, 30 percent of the calories from low-fat protein, and 25 percent from good fats, such as olive oil or nuts. The typical calorie intake for the females is 1,200 to 1,600 and for the males about 1,800-2,400. The typical 300-pound contestant will consume about 1,750 calories per day. Finally, you spread the balanced calories over three meals and two snacks during the day.

Of course, you never see the contestants eating their Zone meals and snacks or the dietician discussing nutrition with them because that makes for boring TV. So most of the time you see them being yelled at by their trainers. That makes for exciting TV. In fact. the more tears they shed by being intimidated, the better the ratings.

So what happens to them after they leave the show, no longer get paid, and are surrounded by their favorite foods? About 50 percent regain the lost weight. But the other 50 percent have found out that the Zone Diet isn’t that hard, and now they have a clear dietary plan for a lifetime without being yelled at by drill sergeant-like trainers.

Eat Less, Get Hungry

Telling an obese person simply to eat less rarely succeeds. Is it because they are weak-willed individuals or is there something more complex going on? New research indicates the latter. A new article in Cell Metabolism showed that during extreme calorie restriction, the levels of fatty acids begin to rapidly rise in the blood as the body begins breaking down stored fat for energy. These newly released fatty acids from the fat cells can then enter into the brain (the hypothalamus to be exact) and cause the self-digestion of cells in the hunger neurons (1). This self-digestion of the cells in the hunger neurons produces a rise in the very powerful hunger hormone (AgRP) from the same bundle of neurons. Not surprisingly, the urge to eat becomes almost overpowering. This begins to explain why very low calorie diets can cause rapid weight loss, but are rarely successful in keeping the weight off.

This is why very low calorie diets that promise quick weight loss invariably cause the rapid release of stored fatty acids that promotes constant hunger. This is clearly not a sustainable way to maintain long-term weight management.

Of course the question might be whether it is all fatty acids or just one that causes the problem of cellular death in the hunger neurons? I believe the answer comes back to the usual suspect, arachidonic acid (2). It has been known for 20 years that when you put obese individuals on a very low calorie diet there is a rapid increase in the levels of arachidonic acid levels in the blood (3). Arachidonic acid can easily cross the blood brain barrier and enter into the hypothalamus. Since arachidonic acid is a powerful promoter of cell death (4), increased concentrations inside the hypothalamus may be the primary accelerator of the death of the hunger neurons. Increased levels of arachidionic acid in the blood are also the underlying cause of insulin resistance because of its effect on the generation of cellular inflammation (2). So as you build up the levels of stored arachidonic acid in the fat cells, caused by the Perfect Nutritional Storm (2), you are almost ensuring constant hunger when you try to lose weight quickly by following very low calorie diets. To make matters even worse, as arachidonic acid levels also build up in the brain increasing the production of endocannabinoids (5). These are the hormones that give you the continual munchies (they are related to the active ingredient in marijuana).

So is there any good news in all of this research? Yes as long as you develop a lifetime dietary strategy for reducing arachidonic acid and the cellular inflammation it causes as well as following a reasonable low calorie diet that supplies adequate levels of fat to moderate the release of stored fatty acids from the fat cells. It means following an anti-inflammatory diet with adequate protein using low-glycemic load carbohydrates and fats very low in omega-6 fatty acids, but adequate in monounsaturated and omega-3 fats.

That’s why you never want to start any type of weight loss program without adding omega-3 fatty acids to counteract the released of stored arachidonic acid from the fat cells. Not only will these omega-3 fatty acids reduce the degradation of the hunger neurons thereby reducing the release of powerful hunger hormones during calorie restriction, but they will also inhibit the release of endocannabinoids in the brain (6). The combination of the two events will ensure weight loss without hunger and that’s sustainable.

References

  1. Kaushik S,Rodriguez-Navarro JA, Arias E, Kiffin R, Sahu S, Schwartz GJ, Cuervo AM, and Singh R. “Autophagy in hypothalamic AgRP neurons regulates food intake and energy balance.” Cell Metabolism 14: 173-183 (2011)
  2. Sears B. Toxic Fat. Thomas Nelson. Nashville, TN (2008)
  3. Phinney SD, Davis PG, Johnson SB, and Holman RT. “Obesity and weight loss alter serum polyunsaturated lipids in humans.” Amer J Clin Nutr 53: 831-838 (1991)
  4. Pompeia C, Lima T, and Curi R. “Arachidonic acid cytotoxicity: can arachidonic acid be a physiological mediator of cell death?” Cell Biochemistry and Function 21:97-104 (2003)
  5. Kim J, Li Y, and Watkins BA. “Endocannabinoid signaling and energy metabolism: A target for dietary intervention.” Nutrition 27: 624-632 (2011)
  6. Oda E. “n-3 Fatty acids and the endocannabinoid system.” Am J Clin Nutr 85: 919 (2007)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.