Vitamin D Deficiency

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

What Is The Real Vitamin D Story?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Vitamin DIf you are like most people, you probably don’t know what to believe about vitamin D deficiency. Some experts tout vitamin D as a miracle nutrient that will help you lead a longer, healthier life. They leave you with the impression that everyone should be supplementing with vitamin D.

Other experts tell you that the supposed benefits of vitamin D are all hype. They tell you not to waste your money on vitamin D supplements.

When you pull back the curtain and look at the clinical studies behind the headlines, a pattern begins to emerge.

Most of the studies that support a role for vitamin D in preventing heart disease, preventing cancer and extending life have been population studies. They have compared populations with low vitamin D intake with populations with adequate vitamin D intake. While population studies are good for suggesting associations, they have their limitations:

  • Population studies are good at suggesting associations, but they do not prove cause and effect.
  • With population studies it is also very difficult to eliminate what scientists call “confounding variables”. Let me give you an example. Suppose someone had low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in their blood because they sat around all day watching TV and never got out in the sun. If they got sick you wouldn’t really know whether it was due to low 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels or due to inactivity. In this case, inactivity would be a confounding variable.

On the other hand, most of the studies that fail to find any benefit of vitamin D are double blind, placebo-controlled intervention studies in which one group was given supplemental vitamin D and the other group was given a placebo. While these studies are considered the most reliable clinical studies, they have their limitations as well.

  • In the case of vitamin D many of these studies were done with a cross section of the population in which most of the participants already had adequate blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D at the start of the study. Those studies are incapable of telling us whether correcting a vitamin D deficiency would have been beneficial.
  • Even when the intervention studies focus on participants with low vitamin D status at the start of the trial they have another significant limitation. They are all short term studies. Typically, the best of these studies last no more than a couple of years. Longer term studies are far too expensive. In contrast, diseases such as heart disease and cancer take decades to develop. A one or two year intervention with vitamin D simply may not be sufficient to correct the damage caused by decades of vitamin D deficiency

This is the current dilemma that is creating all of the confusion in the vitamin D story. For the most part, population studies and intervention studies are coming to very different conclusions. And both kinds of studies have inherent limitations that are difficult to overcome.

Fortunately, a new kind of clinical study has been developed in recent years that overcomes the limitations of both population studies and intervention studies.

A New Kind of Clinical Study

Bad GenesThe new approach is something called mendelian randomization. I apologize for the scientific jargon, but let me explain. In this case you are separating your population based on genetic variation rather than on the basis of biochemical or behavioral differences.

 

For example, in the clinical study I will describe in a minute the population was separated into groups based on genetic variations in the DHCR7 and CYP2R1 genes. The first gene is involved in the biosynthesis of cholesterol, which is a precursor of vitamin D, and the second gene converts vitamin D to 25-hydroxyvitamin D. Both genes affect blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D.

This kind of study has several unique strengths:

  • Genetic variations are unaffected by confounding variables such as sun exposure, obesity, smoking, inactivity, and poor diet. If the study population is large enough, those confounding variables will be equally distributed among groups that are selected solely on the basis of genetic variations.
  • These studies are long term by definition. If someone has a genetic variant that lowers their 25-hydroxyvitamin D level, it will do so for their entire lifetime. They can increase their vitamin D status by sun exposure, for example, but their blood levels of 25 hydroxyvitamin D will always be less than someone with equal sun exposure who does not have that genetic variant.
  • Because these studies reflect lifelong exposure to 25-hydroxyvitamin D they are ideally suited for measuring the effect of vitamin D status on mortality and diseases that take decades to develop.

Do Vitamin D Genes Affect Mortality?

This study (S. Afzal et al, The British Medical Journal, 2014;p 349:g6330 doi: 10.1136/bmj.g6330) combined the data from three clinical studies conducted in Copenhagen between 1976 and 2013. The age of the participants ranged from 20 to 100 years and the follow-up was 6-19 years. 95,766 participants in these studies were genotyped for variants in the DHCR7 and CYP2R1 genes which were known to affect 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels. 35,334 of those participants also had blood 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels determined. By the end of the study 10,349 of the participants had died.

  • The individual genetic variants included in this study caused a relatively small (1.9 nmol/L) decrease in blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D. However, because this was a very large study and the participants with those genetic variants were exposed to lower 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels for their entire lifespan, the decreased 25-vitamin D levels were associated with significant increases in all cause mortality and cancer mortality, but not with increased cardiovascular mortality.
  • When they extrapolated to a genetically caused 20 nmol/L decrease in 25-hydroxyvitamin D, the decrease in 25-hdroxyvitamin D was associated with a 30% increase in all cause mortality and a 30% increase in cancer mortality.

What Kind Of Studies Are Needed Next?

The authors noted that this is the first study of its kind, so it obviously needs to be confirmed by other large mendelian randomization studies that test the link between vitamin D status and mortality.

Ideally, it should also be verified by double blind, placebo controlled intervention studies, but that may not be possible. If one really wanted to verify this study, the intervention study should start with a population group with 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels at least 20 nmol/L below what is considered adequate and provide them with enough supplemental vitamin D to increase their 25-hydroxyvitamin D to the adequate range. That is difficult, but doable.

However, the intervention study would also need to be long enough (decades perhaps) to prevent cancer from developing. That kind of study will probably never be done.

 

The Bottom Line

  • The relationship between vitamin D status and mortality has been investigated with a new type of clinical study based on what is called mendelian randomization. Population groups were segregated based on genetic variations in two genes that affect blood 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels (a measure of vitamin D status).
  • This study concluded that a genetically determined decrease of 20 nmol/L in blood 25-hydroxyvitamin D was associated with a 30% increase in all cause mortality and a 30% increase in cancer mortality, but had no significant effect on cardiovascular mortality.
  • This kind of study is particularly strong because it measures the affect of lifelong exposure to 25-hydroxyvitamin D. This is important when assessing the effect of vitamin D status on mortality and diseases such as cancer that take decades to develop. In contrast, the double blind, placebo controlled intervention studies that are consider the “Gold Standard” for clinical studies may be too short term to adequately assess the effect of vitamin D status on cancer or all cause mortality.
  • This study supports the benefit of maintaining optimal vitamin D status, but it is the first clinical study of its kind and needs to be confirmed by other studies.
  • In the meantime, there is no harm to in maintaining your blood levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D in the optimal range through diet, sun exposure and supplementation. This study suggests it just may help you live a longer, healthier life.

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 (1)

  • Doreen Harrison

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    Love your newsletter, Health Tips From The \professor. I am on you list and want to continue to be so. Thank you for the work you do. I would like to include some of your work in my monthly newsletters if that is OK with you,

    greetings from Canada

    Doreen

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Latest Article

A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

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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