Heart Disease Risk and Multivitamins

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Health Current Events, Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Living, Supplements and Health, Vitamins and Health

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

heart disease riskIt’s so confusing. One week vitamins are going to reduce your heart disease risk and cancer risk. The next week they are worthless. They might even kill you. So when you saw the recent headlines suggesting that multivitamin-mineral supplement use might decrease heart disease risk in women, you probably weren’t sure what to think.

More to the point, you may be thinking “Why is it so hard to get this right? Why can’t scientists decide once and for all whether vitamins are beneficial or not?”

Perhaps, the best way to understand the significance of the present study is to look at the strengths and limitations of previous studies. Then we can start to gain perspective on why it is so difficult to come to a definitive conclusion about this very important question.

How Good Is The Evidence That Multivitamin Use Doesn’t Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

heart disease and multivitaminsMedical authorities are fond of telling you, with a great deal of confidence, that studies have conclusively proven multivitamin use does not decrease heart disease risk. However, in fact, that conclusion is based on only a few studies, and those studies have their limitations.

For example, the Physician’s Health Study II (Sesso et al, JAMA, 308: 1751-1760, 2012) reported that use of a multivitamin-mineral supplement for 11 years did not decrease cardiovascular incidence or mortality. It was a double-blind, placebo controlled clinical study. That’s the best kind of study, so it would be tempting to consider the case closed.

However, this study looked at a very small segment of the population. The participants were all male, primarily non-Hispanic whites, well to do, highly educated and health conscious. It also turns out that the participants that were in the poorest health and had the poorest health habits tended to drop out of the study and were not included in the final data analysis.

That means that the vast majority of participants in the study were at low risk of heart disease and were eating relatively healthy diets. Those are the people who would be least likely to benefit from supplementation. In short, this study proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the people least likely to benefit from supplementation did, in fact, not benefit from supplementation.

The studies that medical authorities quote as proving their case for women have all looked at antioxidant supplements and cardiovascular disease. There are three double-blind, placebo controlled studies that have all come to the conclusion that antioxidant supplements do not decrease cardiovascular risk in women. Once again, it might be tempting to consider the case closed.

However, in two of those studies (Lee et al, JAMA, 294: 56-65, 2005; Cook et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, 167: 1610-1618, 2007) when they looked at the subset of women who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease (either because of age or pre-existing disease), antioxidant supplements significantly decreased the risk of cardiovascular events and cardiovascular deaths. In short, these studies showed that those people most likely to benefit from supplementation, did, in fact, benefit from supplementation.

Finally, medical authorities have chosen to completely ignore a recent study reporting that multivitamin use significantly decreased heart attack risk in women, especially if they had been using the multivitamins for 5 years or more (Rautiainen et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92: 1251-1256, 2010). In short, previous studies have not conclusively proven much of anything except that it is really hard to get definitive answers to this kind of question.

Does Multivitamin Use Decrease Cardiovascular Disease Risk In Women?

cardiovascular disease in womenThe current study (Bailey et al, Journal of Nutrition, 145: 572-580, 2015) compared multivitamin use in 8678 adults(65% women) 40 years or older, from the USDA’s NHANES III database and compared it with cardiovascular death reports in the National Death Index 18 years later.

At the time of the NHANES III study, 45% of the adults surveyed had used some kind of supplement within the past 30 days. When the researchers broke the data down further:

  • 21% were using multivitamin-mineral supplements (3 or more vitamins and 1 or more minerals)
  • 14% were using multivitamin supplements (3 or more vitamins, no minerals).
  • Among multivitamin-mineral and multivitamin supplement users, only 46% had been using them for 3 years or more.

When they compared supplement usage with cardiovascular deaths 18 years later, the results were as follows:

  • When they asked if multivitamin-mineral or multivitamin use at the beginning of the study affected cardiovascular mortality 18 years later, the answer was a clear no.
  • When they looked at women, use of a multivitamin-mineral supplement for 3 years or more was associated with a 35% decreased risk of cardiovascular mortality.
  • However, they did not find any cardiovascular benefit from long term use of a multivitamin supplement alone for women. From this, they concluded that the beneficial effects of the multivitamin-mineral supplement came from one of the minerals, most likely magnesium or calcium.
  • There was a slight hint that multivitamin use might be beneficial for men, but the number of cardiovascular deaths in that group was too small for the results to be statistically significant.

What Does This Study Mean?

This study suggests that long term use of a multivitamin-mineral supplement may decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease deaths in women. Whether long term multivitamin use also reduces risk of cardiovascular disease in men is an open question. This study is consistent with another recent study looking at multivitamin use in women (Rautiainen et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92: 1251-1256, 2010). However, these studies are just a piece of the puzzle. It will take time and more studies before we will really be able to definitively say whether or not multivitamin use can decrease the risk of heart disease, or any other disease.

How Can You Reduce Your Heart Disease Risk?

The surest way to reduce your risk of heart disease is to develop a heart healthy lifestyle.

  • reduce heart disease riskLose weight and/or maintain ideal body weight. Overweight and obesity dramatically increase all of the major risk factors for heart disease – LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, diabetes, hypertension and inflammation.
  • Exercise for more than 30 minutes – 3 times or more/week. Regular exercise reduces the risk of heart disease by 30-40%.
  • Follow a diet low in saturated fat and trans-fat (substitute monounsaturated fats like olive oil and omega-3 fats); low in sugars and artificial sweeteners; and high in fiber, whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables, and fish.
  • Work with your physician to control predisposing diseases such as diabetes and hypertension.

What about supplementation? What role does it play in a heart healthy lifestyle? At present it’s pretty clear that the scientific community cannot definitively prove whether supplementation reduces the risk of heart disease or not. All the available evidence suggests that supplementation is most likely to prove beneficial for those who are at highest risk for heart disease and/or are most likely to be deficient in key nutrients – either because of poor diet or genetic variations that increase nutrient requirements.

In the best of all possible worlds we would know who was at high risk for heart disease and who was deficient in key nutrients. We would know who would benefit from supplements and who would not, but we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.

  • Most people don’t know they are at risk for heart disease until it is too late. For far too many people the first symptom of heart disease is sudden death.
  • Genetics can greatly increase the need for key nutrients, and most people are completely unaware of those genetic predispositions until it is too late. In the future, we may be able to design genetic tests to determine individual nutritional requirements with precision, but we are decades away from that Utopian age at present.
  • Finally, many people are either blissfully unaware how unhealthy their diet is, or they just don’t want to do anything about it.

For all of the reasons above, I recommend a balanced supplementation program as part of a heart healthy lifestyle. The supplements most likely to be beneficial are a multivitamin-mineral supplement, antioxidants, omega-3s, and B vitamins. I have covered the evidence for the role of each of these nutrients in preserving heart health in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”. Of course, I do not recommend supplementation as an alternative to a heart healthy lifestyle. Taking a multivitamin along with your Big Mac is probably not going to do much for your heart health.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study reported that women who used a multivitamin – mineral supplement for 3 years or more decreased their risk of dying from heart disease over the next 18 years by 35%. The men in the study may have received some benefit from multivitamin – mineral supplementation, but the numbers were not large enough to be statistically significant.
  • This study is fully consistent with the results of a previous study with women. However, when we look at all of the available studies it is not possible to definitively conclude whether supplementation decreases the risk of heart disease or not.
  • All of the available evidence suggests that supplementation is most likely to be beneficial for those people who are at highest risk of heart disease and/or are most likely to be deficient in key nutrients.
  • In the best of all possible worlds we would know who was at high risk for heart disease and who was deficient in key nutrients. We would know who would benefit from supplements and who would not, but we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds.
  • Most people don’t know they are at risk for heart disease until it is too late. For far too many people the first symptom of heart disease is sudden death.
  • Genetics can greatly increase the need for key nutrients, and most people are completely unaware of those genetic predispositions until it is too late. In the future, we may be able to design genetic tests to determine individual nutritional requirements with precision, but we are decades away from that Utopian age at present.
  • Finally many people are either blissfully unaware how unhealthy their diet is, or they just don’t want to do anything about it.
  • For the reasons above, I recommend a balanced supplementation program as part of a heart healthy lifestyle. The supplements most likely to be beneficial are a multivitamin-mineral supplement, antioxidants, omega-3s, and B vitamins.
  • Of course,I do not recommend supplementation as an alternative to a heart healthy lifestyle. Taking a multivitamin along with your Big Mac is probably not going to do much for your heart health.

 

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

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Comments (2)

  • denise

    |

    is magnesium good for the heart

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Magnesium is indeed good for the heart. That doesn’t mean we need mega-doses of it. However, many Americans do not get the recommended intake of magnesium from their diet. For most people a multivitamin providing 50% of the DV for magnesium should be sufficient, although some people may need more.

      Reply

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Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, read the article above.

 

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

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