Posts Tagged ‘prostate cancer’

Risk Factors of Prostate Cancer

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Nutritiion, Vitamins and Health

Vitamin D Deficiency?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Vitamin D

Is vitamin D deficiency one of the risk factors of prostate cancer? What if something as simple as maintaining optimal vitamin D status could decrease your risk of prostate cancer? There is a lot of indirect evidence suggesting that vitamin D deficiency might affect your risk of developing prostate cancer. For example:

  • Prostate cancer incidence and vitamin D deficiency parallel each other. Both are highest in northern latitudes, in African American men, and in older men.
  • Prostate cancer mortality rates are highest for patients diagnosed in the winter and at Northern latitudes.

However, clinical studies looking at the correlation between 25-hydroxy vitamin D (the biologically active form of vitamin D in the blood) and prostate cancer incidence have been inconsistent. Because of this there has been considerable controversy in the scientific community as to whether or not there was any correlation between vitamin D deficiency and prostate cancer.

Vitamin D Deficiency and Cancer

That’s what makes the recent headlines suggesting that vitamin D is associated with decreased risk of aggressive prostate cancer so interesting. Does this study show low vitamin D to be one of the risk factors of prostate cancer? Have the conflicting data on vitamin D deficiency and prostate cancer finally been resolved or is this just another case of dueling headlines? Let’s start by looking at the study itself.

This study (Murphy et al, Clinical Cancer Research, 20: 2289-2299, 2014) enrolled 667 men, aged 40-79 (average age = 62), from five urology clinics in Chicago over a four year period. These were all men who were undergoing their first prostate biopsy because of elevated serum PSA levels or an abnormal DRE (that’s doctor talk for digital rectal exam – the least favorite part of every guy’s physical exam). The clinics also drew blood and measured each patient’s 25-hydroxy vitamin D level at the time of the prostate biopsy.

This study had a number of important strengths:

  • It was conducted at a northern latitude. Because of that 41.2% of the men in this study were vitamin D deficient (<20 ng/ml) and 15.7% were severely vitamin D deficient (<12 ng/ml). That’s important because you need a significant percentage of patients with vitamin D deficiency to have any chance of seeing an effect of vitamin D status on prostate cancer risk.
  • The study had equal numbers of African American and European American men. That’s important because African American men have significantly lower 25-hydroxy vitamin D status and significantly higher risk of prostate cancer than European American men.
  • All of the men enrolled in the study had elevated PSA levels or abnormal DREs. That’s important because it meant that all of the men enrolled in the study were at high risk of having prostate cancer. That made the correlation between vitamin D status and prostate cancer easier to detect.
  • This was the first study to correlate 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels with prostate biopsies at the time of biopsy. That’s important because it allowed the investigators to distinguish between aggressive tumors (which require immediate treatment and have a higher probability of mortality) and slow growing tumors (which may simply need to be monitored).

The results were pretty dramatic:

  • In African American men vitamin D deficiency (<20 ng/ml) was associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer diagnosis at time of biopsy.
  • In both European American and African American men severe vitamin D deficiency (<12 ng/ml) was associated with increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer diagnosis at time of biopsy.

The authors concluded: “Our work supports the hypothesis that 25-hydroxy vitamin D is a potential biomarker that plays a clinically significant role in prostate cancer, and it may be a useful modifiable risk factor in the disease”.

That’s “science speak” for “adequate vitamin D status may help prevent prostate cancer” or “low vitamin D may indeed be one of the risk factors of prostate cancer.”

VitaminD-smashes-cancer

Why Have Some Studies Failed To Find A Correlation Between Vitamin D Deficiency and Prostate Cancer?

The authors of the current study had an interesting hypothesis for why some previous studies have not seen an association between vitamin D status and prostate cancer risk. When you compare all of the previous studies, the strongest correlations between vitamin D deficiency and prostate cancer were the studies conducted at northern latitudes, in African American men, or focusing on aggressive prostate cancer as an end point.

That offers a few clues as to why other studies may have failed to find a link between vitamin D status and prostate cancer risk. For example:

  • The clue that the correlation between vitamin D deficiency and prostate cancer risk was strongest at northern latitudes and with African American men suggests that you need to have a significant percentage of subjects with deficient or very deficient levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D before you can see a correlation. Other studies may have failed to show a correlation simply because most of the men in the study had normal vitamin D status.
  • The clue that the correlation is strongest for aggressive prostate cancer is more subtle. The authors hypothesized that prostate cancer develops over a lifetime. If that is the case, measuring vitamin D deficiency at the time of diagnosis may not represent the lifetime vitamin D status. The vitamin D status could have decreased because the men were older or had become overweight, or the vitamin D status could have changed simply because they moved from one geographical location to another.

In contrast, the progression from benign to aggressive prostate cancer is generally short term, so it would be affected by the most recent vitamin D status. If that is the case, then the vitamin D status measured at the time of diagnosis may more accurately reflect the vitamin D deficiency that affected the aggressiveness of the cancer.

 

The Bottom Line

1)     The latest study suggests that vitamin D deficiency (<20 ng/ml serum 25-hydroxy vitamin D) may significantly increase the risk of prostate cancer. The correlation between low vitamin D status and prostate cancer risk is strongest for African American men.

2)     The study also suggests that severe vitamin D deficiency (<12 ng/ml serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D) may significantly increase the risk of aggressive prostate cancer in both African American and European American men.

3)     This is a very well done study, and it is consistent with many, but not all, of the previous studies. Clearly more research needs to be done. Future research should be focused on high risk subjects and subjects with low vitamin D status so that the correlation between vitamin D status and prostate cancer risk can be adequately tested.

4)     This is another example of why I recommend that you have your serum 25-hydroxy vitamin D level measured on a regular basis and that you aim to keep it in the normal range (20-80 ng/ml). Some experts believe that 30-80 ng/ml is optimal.

5)     If you are African American, overweight, live in northern latitudes or it is winter, you may need supplemental vitamin D3. 1,000 – 4,000 IU/day of vitamin D3 is generally considered to be safe. If higher amounts are needed to normalize your 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels I recommend that you consult your physician for the appropriate dose.

 

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.

Does Grilled Meat Increase Prostate Cancer Risk?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 Want Cancer With That Burger?

 backyard-bbq

Its summer and you have most likely already visited a backyard bbq. One question that you probably won’t hear from your host or hostess is “Would you like some cancer with that burger?” But, perhaps that is exactly the question that they should be asking.

You probably already knew that red meat consumption may increase your risk of cancer. But, did you know that grilling that red meat may increase your risk of cancer even more?

  • You probably didn’t really want to know that when fat from the meat hits the hot coals, carcinogens form that are deposited on the meat.
  • You probably also didn’t want to know that when you cook meat to high temperatures the amino acids in the meat combine to form cancer causing substances.
  • And you really didn’t want to know that a recent study showed that people who consume well-done red meat were 60% more likely to develop advanced pancreatic cancer.

Does Grilled Meat Increase Prostate Cancer Risk?

This study compared 531 people ages 40-79 who had recently been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer with 527 matched controls. Both groups were asked about their dietary intake of meats, usual meat cooking methods and doneness of the meat.

The results were quite striking:

  • Increased consumption of hamburgers was associated with a 79% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.
  • Increased consumption of processed meat was associated with a 57% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.
  • Grilled red meat was associated with a 63% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.
  • Well done red meat was associated with a 52% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.

However, those percentages are a little bit difficult to compare, because “increased consumption” was defined relative to what the usual consumption or cooking practice was. So put another way, weekly consumption of…

  • 3 or more servings of red meat or…
  • 1.5 or more servings of processed meat or…
  • 1 or more servings of grilled or well done red meat…

…were associated with a 50% increased risk of advanced prostate cancer.

In contrast, consumption of white meat was not associated with increased cancer risk, no matter what the cooking method was used.

how-you-can-reduce-cancer-risk

Is It Possible To Enjoy Your Cookouts Without Increasing Cancer Risk?

Our local newspaper recently carried some tips by Dr. Denise Snyder from the Duke University School of Nursing in Durham, NC on how you could reduce the risk of giving your guests cancer the next time you are the chef at your backyard bbq.

Here are her suggestions:

  • Grill fruits and vegetables instead of meat. That was her idea, not mine. My editorial comment would be that grilling white meat (fish or chicken) is also OK.
  • Use the lowest temperature that will cook your food thoroughly and keep the grill rack as high as possible.
  • Use a meat thermometer so that you can make sure that as soon as the meat is thoroughly cooked you remove it from the grill. We usually overcook the meat to make sure that it is done.
  • Shorten your grill time by microwaving the meat first, using thinner leaner cuts of meat or cutting up the meat and making kabobs.
  • Trim as much fat from the meat as possible before you cook it.
  • Line your grill rack with aluminum foil poked with holes. This allows the fat to drip down but minimizes the exposure of the meat to the carcinogens formed when the fat hits the coals.
  • Marinate your meats before grilling. That has been shown to reduce the formation of cancer causing chemicals.
  • And, of course, avoid processed meats like hot dogs and sausage completely because they have been shown to increase the risk of cancer and diabetes (British Journal of Cancer, 106: 603-607, 2012; American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.111.018978, 2011) no matter how they are cooked.

So here’s to a healthier backyard bbq. Bon appétit!

The Bottom Line

1)     You already knew that red meat and processed meats may increase your risk of cancer, but how you cook your red meat also matters. Grilling your meat and/or cooking it until it is well done appear to significantly increase your risk of developing advanced prostate cancer.

2)     In contrast, consumption of white meat was not associated with increased cancer risk, no matter what the cooking method was used.

3)    I’ve included several tips on how you can reduce the cancer risk associated with grilling red meats in the article above so you can enjoy both your cookouts and your 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.

Do Selenium & Vitamin E Increase Prostate Cancer Risk?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Issues, Supplements and Health

Should Men Avoid Those Supplements?

 Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Vitamin EYou’ve probably seen the headlines saying “Supplementation with selenium and vitamin E increases the risk of prostate cancer.” The authors of the study even said “Men aged greater than 55 should avoid supplements with either vitamin E or Se (selenium) at doses that exceed recommended dietary intakes.”

In a recent “Health Tips From The Professor” I debunked the headlines saying “Omega-3 fatty acids increase prostate cancer risk“.

What about vitamin E and selenium? Is it true that they increase prostate cancer risk? If you are a man over 55, should you be concerned? Should you stop using supplements containing vitamin E and selenium?

Do Selenium & Vitamin E Increase Prostate Cancer Risk?

Previous Studies On Selenium, Vitamin E And Prostate Cancer Risk

The study that generated the initial excitement in the field was the Nutrition Prevention of Cancer (NPC) Trial that ended in 1998 (Clark et al, British Journal of Urology, 81: 730-734, 1998; Duffield-Lillico et al, British Journal of Urology, 91: 608-612, 2003).

That study showed that supplementing men who had low blood levels of selenium with 200 ug/day of selenium decreased their prostate cancer risk by 65%.

It was followed by a second, much larger trial called the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT) (Lipmann et al, JAMA, 301: 39-51, 2009). It looked at supplementation with 200 ug/day of selenium and/or 400 IU/day of synthetic alpha-tocopherol.

The SELECT study found no protective effect of either selenium or vitamin E on prostate cancer risk, but did suggest that vitamin E might actually cause a slight increase in prostate cancer risk.

The Study That Generated The Headlines

The authors of the study that generated the recent headlines (Kristal et al, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, doi: 10.1093/jnci/djt456, 2014) were attempting to find a simple explanation for the unexpected results of the SELECT study.

They hypothesized that the baseline selenium status at the beginning of the study might have influenced the outcome of supplementation. Kristal et al reanalyzed the data from the SELECT trial, comparing the effect of selenium and vitamin E supplementation in men with low selenium status and men with high selenium status.

However, at face value their data were confusing rather simplifying. They found:

  • Supplementation with selenium had no effect on prostate cancer risk in men with low selenium status, but increased prostate cancer risk by 91% in men with high selenium status.
  • Conversely, supplementation with 400 IU of vitamin E had no effect on prostate cancer risk in men with high selenium status, but increased prostate cancer risk by 63% in men with low selenium status.

Based on this hodge-podge of data, they concluded that “Men aged greater than 55 should avoid supplements with either vitamin E or Se (selenium) at doses that exceed recommended dietary intakes.” That was the statement that generated the headlines. Was that recommendation justified?

What Do Other Experts Say?

There was an editorial evaluation of the paper by some of the top expects in the field in the same journal (Frankel et al, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, doi: 10.1093/jnci/dju005, 2014) that provided thoughtful explanations of the confusing data in the paper by Kristal et al. They examined three questions:

1)     Why did the SELECT study find no effect of selenium supplementation in men with low selenium status, while the earlier NPC trial found a 65% decrease in prostate cancer risk?

  • The authors of the editorial pointed out that the lowest baseline selenium status in the SELECT trial was much higher than the lowest baseline selenium status in the previous NPC trial. In fact the baseline selenium status in the SELECT trial was at a level in which no effect of selenium supplementation would have been expected based on the results from the NPC trial.

The authors speculated that the addition of selenized yeast to animal feed has improved selenium status in the US population to the point where selenium supplementation can no longer be expected to reduce prostate cancer risk.

2)     Why did selenium supplementation increase prostate cancer risk in men with high selenium status, but not in men with low selenium status?

  • The authors pointed out that for selenium there is a very narrow range between sufficient intake and toxicity. The daily value (DV) for selenium is 90 ug/day and the recommended upper limit (UL) for selenium intake is 400 ug/day.

The average selenium intake for adult men in this country is 151 ug/day. That’s just the average. It’s not hard to imagine that adding 200ug/day of selenium to men at the highest selenium intake could move them into the toxic range.

3)     Why did vitamin E supplementation increase prostate cancer risk in men with low selenium status, but not in men with high selenium status?

  • In part, the authors felt that the pure alpha-tocopherol used in the SELECT trial was not optimal. Pure alpha-tocopherol interferes with the absorption of the other naturally occurring forms of vitamin E, such as gamma-tocopherol – which is the form of vitamin E that decreases prostate cancer risk in animal studies.
  • The authors also noted that vitamin E and selenium work together to inactivate free radicals in cell membranes. Vitamin E reduces the free radicals to a chemically unstable intermediate that still has the potential to damage membranes. A selenium-containing enzyme is required to convert that unstable intermediate into a completely harmless compound.

So when vitamin E is present in much higher levels than selenium, as it was in the group with low baseline selenium status, unstable radicals can accumulate and membrane damage can occur. The authors felt that this was the most likely explanation of the increased prostate cancer risk when men with low selenium status were supplemented with high dose vitamin E.

The authors of the editorial had a much more nuanced interpretation of the data reported by Kristal et al. If you read their evaluation carefully you would likely conclude that you should avoid high dose selenium supplements. However, rather than simply avoiding vitamin E supplements, you should choose vitamin E supplements that contain all of the naturally occurring vitamin E forms and contain near DV amounts of selenium.

These recommendations would be a much better fit to the data, but don’t lend themselves to dramatic headlines – so the editorial has been largely ignored by the press.

The Bottom Line:

1)     Ignore the scary headlines about selenium and vitamin E causing prostate cancer. You can continue to use your supplements as long as you choose ones that are well balanced.

2)     Conversely, if you are at risk of prostate cancer, there is no good evidence that supplementation with either selenium or vitamin E will reduce your risk.

3)     The results of this study are fully consistent with my longstanding recommendation to follow a holistic approach to supplementation and to avoid high dose single nutrient supplements.

4)     There is no reason to supplement with 200 ug/day of selenium. If you are already getting good amounts of selenium from your diet, that dosage could be toxic and may actually increase your risk of cancer. Make sure that your supplements have no more than the DV (70 ug) of selenium.

5)     Avoid high purity alpha-tocopherol supplements. Look for vitamin E supplements containing the full spectrum of tocopherols and tocotrienols in addition to alpha-tocopherol. In addition, make sure that your vitamin E supplement also contains selenium at near DV levels.

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.

Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Cause Prostate Cancer?

Written by Steve Chaney on . Posted in Food and Health, Issues

Fish, Fish Oils And Prostate Cancer

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Pure Fish OilMy phone has been ringing off the hook. My email in-box is full. It seems that everyone wants to know if the headlines about omega-3 fatty acids and prostate cancer are true.

In case you have just gotten back from a vacation on some deserted island with no newspapers and no internet, let me bring you up to date. The headlines are saying things like “Fish Oils May Increase Your Risk of Prostate Cancer” and “Latest Study Links Fish Oils to Prostate Cancer”.

Once again, it seems like just when you’ve figured out which foods that are good for you, someone tells you they could actually kill you. It’s no wonder so many of you have been asking me to cut through the hype and put this latest study in perspective.

What the study actually says:

As usual, let me start with the study itself (Brasky et al., Journal of the National Cancer Institute, doi: 10.1093/jnci/djt174). On the surface, it appears to be a reasonably well designed study, and the conclusions were dramatic. They reported that subjects with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood were 43% more likely to develop prostate cancer, 44% more likely to develop low grade prostate cancer, and 71% more likely to develop high grade prostate cancer compared to those with low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood.

The flaws in the study:

Case closed you might be tempted to say. However, once you dig a little deeper, the study does have two important weaknesses.

1)     It used data from another study that was designed for a totally different purpose. They went back and analyzed blood samples from a previous study that was actually designed to measure the association between vitamin E and selenium intake and prostate cancer. That’s a scientific no-no.  Let me explain why.

If they had designed a study to investigate the association between omega-3 fatty acids and prostate cancer, they probably would have selected participants with a wide range of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood at the beginning of the study. The subjects in this study actually had a very narrow range of omega-3 fatty acids in their bloodstream.

They also would probably have done a diet analysis and found out whether the subject’s omega-3 fatty acids were coming from fish or fish oil supplements. They might have even asked whether the omega-3 fatty acids were from farm-raised fish or inexpensive fish oil supplements known to be contaminated with PCBs. This study collected none of these data.

2)     This is a single study, and individual studies often provide misleading results. For example, if you examine their data closely, it looks like heavy drinkers and smokers might have a decreased risk of prostate cancer. I think that’s unlikely, but weird associations like that often pop up in individual studies.

What do you find when you look at other studies?

Expert scientists aren’t swayed by individual studies. We prefer to look at the “big picture” that emerges when you combine the results of many studies. For example, a meta-analysis of 24 studies with 461,402 subjects (Symanski et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 92: 1223-1233, 2010) found no association between fish consumption and prostate cancer risk.

Individual studies ranged from a 61% decrease in risk to a 77% increase in risk, but the overall effect was zero! Even more importantly, fish consumption decreased prostate cancer deaths by 63%.

The Bottom Line:

1)     Don’t panic. Don’t change what you are doing based on the latest sensational headlines. This study has been way overblown. We have come to expect sensational headlines and hype from journalists and bloggers because that’s how they get people to read what they write.

However, I find the comment from the senior author that “We’ve shown once again that use of nutritional supplements may be harmful” to be very irresponsible, especially since they have no data showing that anyone in their study actually used fish oil supplements.

2)     The benefits of assuring optimal omega-3 fatty acid intake clearly overshadow the risks. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to lower triglycerides and blood pressure, reduce inflammation and depression, and may even help prevent dementia.

3)     This study does raise a caution flag, but I would not recommend reducing your omega-3 fatty acid intake on the basis of these data alone – especially since most published studies show no increased risk of prostate cancer. There are much better designed studies underway that should clearly show an increase in prostate cancer risk if it is a real effect. I will monitor those studies closely and keep you abreast of any new developments.

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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Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, 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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