Vitamin E And Heart Disease

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

Does Vitamin E Reduce Heart Attack Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

vitamin e and heart diseaseSince February is “Heart Health Month”, I thought I would share some information with you that might change how you think about vitamin E and heart disease risk. You’ve seen the headlines: “Vitamin E Does Not Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease”. In fact, these headlines have been repeated so many times that virtually every expert thinks that it has to be true. Let me share the opinion of one expert who disagrees. This week I’m going to share some information with you that I learned from a seminar by Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg from Tufts University.

But first let me tell you who Dr. Blumberg is. Dr. Blumberg is a Professor in the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. Dr. Blumberg has over 200 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals. He is considered one of the world’s top experts on supplementation.

Now back to what I learned at his seminar. Dr. Blumberg’s specialty is conducting and analyzing clinical studies, and his perspective on some very influential clinical studies is a bit different from what you may have heard from media reports. He believes that the media has seriously misinterpreted several recent studies. You might call this “The Rest of the Story” because you (and your doctor) definitely did not hear this part of the story in the news.

Does Vitamin E Reduce Heart Disease Risk In Women?

cardiovascular disease in womenLet’s start with vitamin E and the risk of cardiovascular disease in women. The most influential study on this subject was the Women’s Health Study (Lee et al., JAMA, 294:56-65, 2005). This was a major study in which 39,876 women were given either 600 IU of vitamin E every other day or a placebo and followed for 10 years.

The headlines said “Vitamin E Supplements Do Not Reduce Risk Of Cardiovascular Death, Heart Attack And Stroke In Women”. That was true if you looked at the total population of women in the study.

But Dr. Blumberg pointed out that when you looked at women who were 65 or older in that study vitamin E supplementation caused a…

  • 24% decrease in cardiovascular deaths,
  • 26% decrease in major cardiovascular events,
  • 21% decrease in venous thromboembolism (blood clots forming in the veins),

…and all of these decreases were statistically highly significant. That’s important because the risk of heart disease in pre-menopausal women is extremely low. It’s the over 65 group who have a high risk of heart disease.

Perhaps the headlines should have said: “Vitamin E reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular deaths in those women at high risk of heart attacks”. But, of course, they didn’t. Perhaps that wasn’t considered newsworthy.

Other Studies On Vitamin E and Heart Disease Risk In Women

heart disease riskIf this were the only study suggesting the vitamin E might benefit women at high risk of having a heart attack or stroke, it might be easy to dismiss it, but it’s not the only study showing this effect.

For example, a subsequent study called the “Women’s Antioxidant Cardiovascular Study” looked at the effect of 600 IU of vitamin E every other day on cardiovascular events in 8171 women health professionals (Cook et al, Archives of Internal Medicine, 167:1610-1618, 2007).

Once again the headlines said that vitamin E supplementation had no effect on cardiovascular events in women. But, when the authors looked at those women who already had cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study (and were, therefore, at high risk of suffering a cardiovascular event during the study) vitamin E supplementation caused a 23% decreased risk of heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular death.

Another important study was the HOPE (Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation) study (Levy et al, Diabetes Care, 27: 2767, 2004). The overall study results were similar to several other recent trials – no significant effect of vitamin E supplementation on cardiovascular health in the population group as a whole.

However, by the time that study was performed it was clear that a particular genetic variation in the haptoglobin gene called the haptoglobin 2-2 genotype lead to a significant increase in oxidative damage to the vascular wall (the professor will collect your quizes at the end of this email).

When the data were reanalyzed by genotype, it became clear that people with the haptoglobin 2-2 genotype experienced a significant decrease in both heart attack and cardiovascular death with vitamin E supplementation. This finding has been confirmed by a subsequent double-blind, placebo-control study specifically designed to look at the cardioprotective effects of vitamin E in people with different haptoglobin genotypes (Milman et al, Arterioscler. Thromb. Vasc. Biol., 24: 136, 2008).

In short, the headlines from all three studies should have said: “Vitamin E reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and cardiovascular deaths in those women at high risk of heart attacks” – and, it doesn’t appear to matter whether the increased risk is due to age, pre-existing disease, or genetic predisposition.

Does Vitamin E Reduce Heart Disease Risk In Men?

heart disease in menFor men the most influential study was called the “Physician’s Health Study II” (H. D. Sesso et al, JAMA, 300: 2123-2133, 2008). In this study male physicians aged 40-84 were invited to participate in a double-blind clinical trial in which they were randomly assigned into groups who were given 400 IU of vitamin E every other day or placebo. They were followed for an average of 8 years during which data on both total mortality and cardiovascular mortality were obtained.

Once again, the headlines read “Vitamin E Does NotPrevent Cardiovascular Disease in Men”. But let me tell you what Dr. Blumberg said so that you understand “The Rest of the Story”. It starts by looking at the selection process for the Physician Health Studies.

Dr. Sesso and his colleagues sent out a letter asking 261,248 male physicians in the US if they would be willing to participate in the study. Only 112,528 responded and, of those responding, only 59,272 indicated that they were willing to participate. Of those who said that they were willing to participate only 32,223 met the selection criteria.

The exclusion criteria eliminated anyone who already had suffered a heart attack, stroke, angina or was on a blood thinner – in other words those people who were at greatest risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke during the study.

Finally, the study had an 18 week “run in” period to eliminate those people who were unwilling or unable to comply with the study protocol. This eliminated another 10,000 participants, leaving only 22,071 participants – less than 10% of the original.

This is where it gets really interesting. Dr. Sesso and his colleagues used publicly available databases to evaluate total and cardiovascular mortality in each group (H. D. Sesso et al, Controlled Clinical Trials, 23: 686-702, 2002). It turns out that at each stage of the selection process the incidence of both total and cardiovascular mortality during the 8-year period decreased.

In fact, the doctors who were actually included in the study were 67% less likely to die from all causes and 73% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than the male physician population as a whole.

The bottom line is that the selection process eliminated almost all of the physicians at significant risk of having a heart attack or stroke during the study. The only ones who were actually enrolled in the study were those physicians who were at very low risk for having a fatal heart attack or stroke – or dying from any cause – during the study.

So the headlines describing this study should have read “Vitamin E Does Not Prevent Cardiovascular Disease in Men Who Are At Very Low Risk Of Heart Attack And Stroke”.The irony is that there was nothing wrong with the design of the study. It’s probably just a male ego thing. Guys who were unhealthy just didn’t want to participate in a study that might show how unhealthy they really were.

What Does This Mean For You?

These studies illustrate the true story of supplementation. For those of us who are at low risk of disease, supplementation is just a form of health insurance. But for those of us at high risk of disease, supplementation can make a huge difference in our health. That increased risk can be due to many things, as we have seen in the studies above. It can be due to poor diet, age, pre-existing disease, and/or genetic predisposition.

The problem is that most of us don’t really know whether we are at low risk or high risk until it’s too late. For millions of Americans the first sign of heart disease is sudden death.

 

The Bottom Line

  • The experts have been saying for years that vitamin E does not reduce the risk of heart disease. That claim is true, if you look at the general population, most of which is at low risk of developing heart disease – at least during the time frame of the clinical studies. However, when you look at people who are at high risk of developing heart disease, the answer is different.
  • For example, when you look at clinical studies with women, vitamin E significantly decreased the risk of heart attacks in women who…
  • Were over 65,
  • Had pre-existing heart disease at the beginning of the study,
  • Or, had a genetic predisposition to heart disease.

The headlines from these studies should have read “Vitamin E reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease in those women at high risk of heart attacks”, but they didn’t.

  • For men the story is a bit different. The Physician’s Health Study is considered the definitive study on the subject. However, most of the unhealthy male physicians either didn’t enroll in the study or dropped out before its completion. In fact, the doctors who were actually included in the study were 67% less likely to die from all causes and 73% less likely to die from cardiovascular disease than the male physician population as a whole. The headlines describing this study should have read “Vitamin E Does Not Prevent Cardiovascular Disease in Men Who Are At Very Low Risk Of Heart Attack And Stroke”.
  • These studies illustrate the true story of supplementation. For those of us who are at low risk of disease, supplementation is just a form of health insurance. But for those of us at high risk of disease, supplementation can make a huge difference in our health. That increased risk can be due to many things, as we have seen in the studies above. It can be due to poor diet, age, pre-existing disease, and/or genetic predisposition.
  • The problem is that most of us don’t really know whether we are at low risk or high risk until it’s too late. For millions of Americans the first sign of heart disease is sudden death.

 

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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Latest Article

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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