Choosing the right sources of carbohydrates is essential for preventing cardiovascular disease

Choosing the right sources of carbohydrates is essential for preventing cardiovascular disease

OVERVIEW

  • Recent studies show that people who regularly consume foods containing low-quality carbohydrates (simple sugars, refined flours) have an increased risk of cardiovascular events and premature mortality.
  • Conversely, a high dietary intake of complex carbohydrates, such as resistant starches and dietary fibre, is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and improved overall health.
  • Favouring the regular consumption of foods rich in complex carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits and vegetables) while reducing that of foods containing simple carbohydrates (processed foods, sugary drinks, etc.) is therefore a simple way to improve cardiovascular health.

It is now well established that a good quality diet is essential for the prevention of cardiovascular disease and the maintenance of good health in general. This link is particularly well documented with regard to dietary fat: several epidemiological studies have indeed reported that too high a dietary intake of saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol levels, an important contributor to the development of atherosclerosis, and is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. As a result, most experts agree that we should limit the intake of foods containing significant amounts of saturated fat, such as red meat, and instead focus on sources of unsaturated fat, such as vegetable oils (especially extra virgin olive oil and those rich in omega-3s such as canola), as well as nuts, certain seeds (flax, chia, hemp) and fish (see our article on this subject). This roughly corresponds to the Mediterranean diet, a diet that has repeatedly been associated with a lower risk of several chronic diseases, especially cardiovascular disease.

On the carbohydrate side, the consensus that has emerged in recent years is to favour sources of complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, legumes and plants in general while reducing the intake of simple carbohydrates from refined flour and added sugars. Following this recommendation, however, can be much more difficult than one might think, as many available food products contain these low-quality carbohydrates, especially the entire range of ultra-processed products, which account for almost half of the calories consumed by the population. It is therefore very important to learn to distinguish between good and bad carbohydrates, especially since these nutrients are the main source of calories consumed daily by the majority of people. To achieve this, we believe it is useful to recall where carbohydrates come from and how industrial processing of foods can affect their properties and impacts on health.

Sugar polymers
All of the carbohydrates in our diet come from, in one way or another, plants. During the photosynthetic reaction, in addition to forming oxygen (O2) from carbon dioxide in the air (CO2), plants also simultaneously transform the energy contained in solar radiation into chemical energy, in the form of sugar:

6 CO2 + 12 H2O + light → C6H12O6 (glucose) + 6 O2 + 6 H2O

In the vast majority of cases, this sugar made by plants does not remain in this simple sugar form, but is rather used to make complex polymers, i.e., chains containing several hundred (and in some cases thousands) sugar molecules chemically bonded to one another. An important consequence of this arrangement is that the sugar contained in these complex carbohydrates is not immediately accessible and must be extracted by digestion before reaching the bloodstream and serving as a source of energy for the body’s cells. This prerequisite helps prevent sugar from entering the blood too rapidly, which would unbalance the control systems responsible for maintaining the concentration of this molecule at levels just sufficient enough to meet the needs of the body. And these levels are much lower than one might think; on average, the blood of a healthy person contains a maximum of 4 to 5 g of sugar in total, or barely the equivalent of a teaspoon. Dietary intake of complex carbohydrates therefore provides enough energy to support our metabolism, while avoiding excessive fluctuations in blood sugar that could lead to health problems.

Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of the two main types of sugar polymers in the plant cell: starches and fibres.

Figure 1. The physicochemical characteristics and physiological impacts of starches and dietary fibres from plant cells. Adapted from Gill et al. (2021).

Starches. Starches are glucose polymers that the plant stores as an energy reserve in granules (amyloplasts) located inside plant cells. This source of dietary carbohydrates has been part of the human diet since the dawn of time, as evidenced by the recent discovery of genes from bacteria specializing in the digestion of starches in the dental plaque of individuals of the genus Homo who lived more than 100,000 years ago. Even today, a very large number of plants commonly eaten are rich in starch, in particular tubers (potatoes, etc.), cereals (wheat, rice, barley, corn, etc.), pseudocereals (quinoa, chia, etc.), legumes, and fruits.

Digestion of the starches present in these plants releases units of glucose into the bloodstream and thus provides the energy necessary to support cell metabolism. However, several factors can influence the degree and speed of digestion of these starches (and the resulting rise in blood sugar). This is particularly the case with “resistant starches” which are not at all (or very little) digested during gastrointestinal transit and therefore remain intact until they reach the colon. Depending on the factors responsible for their resistance to digestion, three main types of these resistant starches (RS) can be identified:

  • RS-1: These starches are physically inaccessible for digestion because they are trapped inside unbroken plant cells, such as whole grains.
  • RS-2: The sensitivity of starches to digestion can also vary considerably depending on the source and the degree of organization of the glucose chains within the granules. For example, the most common form of starch in the plant kingdom is amylopectin (70–80% of total starch), a polymer made up of several branches of glucose chains. This branched structure increases the contact surface with enzymes specialized in the digestion of starches (amylases) and allows better extraction of the glucose units present in the polymer. The other constituent of starch, amylose, has a much more linear structure which reduces the efficiency of enzymes to extract the glucose present in the polymer. As a result, foods with a higher proportion of amylose are more resistant to breakdown, release less glucose, and therefore cause lower blood sugar levels. This is the case, for example, with legumes, which contain up to 50% of their starch in the form of amylose, which is much more than other commonly consumed sources of starches, such as tubers and grains.
  • RS-3: These resistant starches are formed when starch granules are heated and subsequently cooled. The resulting starch crystallization, a phenomenon called retrogradation, creates a rigid structure that protects the starch from digestive enzymes. Pasta salads, potato salads, and sushi rice are all examples of foods containing resistant starches of this type.

An immediate consequence of this resistance of digestion-resistant starches is that these glucose polymers can be considered dietary fibre from a functional point of view. This is important because, as discussed below, the fermentation of fibre by the hundreds of billions of bacteria (microbiota) present in the colon generates several metabolites that play extremely important roles in the maintenance of good health.

Dietary fibre. Fibres are polymers of glucose present in large quantities in the wall of plant cells where they play an important role in maintaining the structure and rigidity of plants. The structure of these fibres makes them completely resistant to digestion and the sugar they contain does not contribute to energy supply. Traditionally, there are two main types of dietary fibre, soluble and insoluble, each with its own physicochemical properties and physiological effects. Everyone has heard of insoluble fibre (in wheat bran, for example), which increases stool volume and speeds up gastrointestinal transit (the famous “regularity”). This mechanical role of insoluble fibres is important, but from a physiological point of view, it is mainly soluble fibres that deserve special attention because of the many positive effects they have on health.

By capturing water, these soluble fibres increase the viscosity of the digestive contents, which helps to reduce the absorption of sugar and dietary fats and thus to avoid excessive increases in blood sugar and blood lipid levels that can contribute to atherosclerosis (LDL cholesterol, triglycerides). The presence of soluble fibre also slows down gastric emptying and can therefore decrease calorie intake by increasing feelings of satiety. Finally, the bacterial community that resides in the colon (the microbiota) loves soluble fibres (and resistant starches), and this bacterial fermentation generates several bioactive substances, in particular the short chain fatty acids (SCFA) acetate, propionate and butyrate. Several studies carried out in recent years have shown that these molecules exert a myriad of positive effects on the body, whether by reducing chronic inflammation, improving insulin resistance, lowering blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease, or promoting the establishment of a diversified microbiota, optimal for colon health (Table 1).

A compilation of many studies carried out in recent years (185 observational studies and 58 randomized trials, which equates to 135 million person-years) indicates that consuming 25 to 30 g of fibre per day seems optimal to benefit from these protective effects, approximately double the current average consumption.

Table 1. Main physiological effects of dietary fibre. Adapted from Barber (2020).

Physiological effectsBeneficial health impacts
MetabolismImproved insulin sensitivity
Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
Improved blood sugar and lipid profile
Body weight control
Gut microbiotaPromotes a diversified microbiota
Production of short-chain fatty acids
Cardiovascular systemDecrease in chronic inflammation
Reduced risk of cardiovascular events
Reduction of cardiovascular mortality
Digestive systemDecreased risk of colorectal cancer

Overall, we can therefore see that the consumption of complex carbohydrates is optimal for our metabolism, not only because it ensures an adequate supply of energy in the form of sugar, without causing large fluctuations in blood sugar, but also because it provides the intestinal microbiota with the elements necessary for the production of metabolites essential for the prevention of several chronic diseases and for the maintenance of good health in general.

Modern sugars
The situation is quite different, however, for several sources of carbohydrates in modern diets, especially those found in processed industrial foods. Three main problems are associated with processing:

Simple sugars. Simple sugars (glucose, fructose, galactose, etc.) are the molecules responsible for the sweet taste: the interaction of these sugars with receptors present in the tongue sends a signal to the brain warning it of the presence of an energy source. The brain, which alone consumes no less than 120 g of sugar per day, loves sugar and responds positively to this information, which explains our innate attraction to foods with a sweet taste. On the other hand, since the vast majority of carbohydrates produced by plants are in the form of polymers (starches and fibres), simple sugars are actually quite rare in nature, being mainly found in fruits, vegetables such as beets, or even some grasses (sugar cane). It is therefore only with the industrial production of sugar from sugar cane and beets that consumers’ “sweet tooth” could be satisfied on a large scale and that simple sugars became commonly consumed. For example, data collected in the United States shows that between 1820 and 2016, the intake of simple sugars increased from 6 lb (2.7 kg) to 95 lb (43 kg) per person per year, an increase of about 15 times in just under 200 years (Figure 2).

 

 

Figure 2. Consumption of simple sugars in the United States between 1820 and 2016.  From Guyenet (2018).

Our metabolism is obviously not adapted to this very high intake of simple sugars, far beyond what is normally found in nature. Unlike the sugars found in complex carbohydrates, these simple sugars are absorbed very quickly into the bloodstream and cause very rapid and significant increases in blood sugar. Several studies have shown that people who frequently consume foods containing these simple sugars are more likely to suffer from obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. For example, studies have found that consuming 2 servings of sugary drinks daily was associated with a 35% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease. When the amount of added sugars consumed represents 25% of daily calories, the risk of heart disease nearly triples. Factors that contribute to this detrimental effect of simple sugars on cardiovascular health include increased blood pressure and triglyceride levels, lowered HDL cholesterol, and increased LDL cholesterol (specifically small, very dense LDLs, which are more harmful to the arteries), as well as an increase in inflammation and oxidative stress.

It is therefore necessary to restrict as much as possible the intake of simple sugars, which should not exceed 10% of the daily energy intake according to the World Health Organization. For the average adult who consumes 2,000 calories per day, that’s just 200 calories, or about 12 teaspoons of sugar or the equivalent of a single can of soft drink.

Refined flour.  Cereals are a major source of carbohydrates (and calories) in most food cultures around the world. When they are in whole form, i.e., they retain the outer shell rich in fibre and the germ containing several vitamins and minerals, cereals are a source of complex carbohydrates (starches) of high quality and beneficial to health. This positive impact of whole grains is well illustrated by the reduced risk of coronary heart disease and mortality observed in a large number of population studies. For example, recent meta-analyses have shown that the consumption of about 50 g of whole grains perday is associated with a 22–30% reduction in cardiovascular disease mortality, a 14–18% reduction in cancer-relatedmortality, and a 19–22% reduction in total mortality.

On the other hand, these positive effects are completely eliminated when the grains are refined with modern industrial metal mills to produce the flour used in the manufacture of a very large number of commonly consumed products (breads, pastries, pasta, desserts, etc.). By removing the outer shell of the grain and its germ, this process improves the texture and shelf life of the flour (the unsaturated fatty acids in the germ are sensitive to rancidity), but at the cost of the almost total elimination of fibres and a marked depletion of several nutrients (minerals, vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids, etc.). Refined flours therefore essentially only contain sugar in the form of starch, this sugar being much easier to assimilate due to the absence of fibres that normally slow down the digestion of starch and the absorption of released sugar (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Schematic representation of a whole and refined grain of wheat.

Fibre deficiency. Fortification processes partially compensate for the losses of certain nutrients (e.g., folic acid) that occur during the refining of cereal grains. On the other hand, the loss of fibre during grain refining is irreversible and is directly responsible for one of the most serious modern dietary deficiencies given the many positive effects of fibre on the prevention of several chronic diseases.

Poor-quality carbohydrates
Low-quality carbohydrate sources with a negative impact on health are therefore foods containing a high amount of simple sugars, having a higher content of refined grains than whole grains, or containing a low amount of fibre (or several of these characteristics simultaneously). A common way to describe these poor-quality carbohydrates is to compare the rise in blood sugar they produce to that of pure glucose, called the glycemic index (GI) (see box). The consumption of food with a high glycemic index causes a rapid and dramatic rise in blood sugar levels, which causes the pancreas to secrete a large amount of insulin to get glucose into the cells. This hyperinsulinemia can cause glucose to drop to too low levels, and the resulting hypoglycemia can ironically stimulate appetite, despite ingesting a large amount of sugar a few hours earlier. Conversely, a food with a low glycemic index produces lower, but sustained, blood sugar levels, which reduces the demand for insulin and helps prevent the fluctuations in blood glucose levels often seen with foods with a high glycemic index. Potatoes, breakfast cereals, white bread, and pastries are all examples of high glycemic index foods, while legumes, vegetables, and nuts are conversely foods with a low glycemic index.

Glycemic index and load
The glycemic index (GI) is calculated by comparing the increase in blood sugar levels produced by the absorption of a given food with that of pure glucose. For example, a food that has a glycemic index of 50 (lentils, for example) produces a blood sugar half as important as glucose (which has a glycemic index of 100). As a general rule, values below 50 are considered to correspond to a low GI, while those above 70 are considered high. The glycemic index, however, does not take into account the amount of carbohydrate in foods, so it is often more appropriate to use the concept of glycemic load (GL). For example, although watermelon and breakfast cereals both have high GIs (75), the low-carbohydrate content of melon (11 g per 100 g) equates to a glycemic load of 8, while 26 g of carbohydrates present in breakfast cereals result in a load of 22, which is three times more. GLs ≥ 20 are considered high, intermediate when between 11 and 19, and low when ≤ 10.

PURE study
Results from the PURE (Prospective Urban and Rural Epidemiology) epidemiological study conducted by Canadian cardiologist Salim Yusuf have confirmed the link between low-quality carbohydrates and the risk of cardiovascular disease. In the first of these studies, published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, researchers examined the association between the glycemic index and the total glycemic load of the diet and the incidence of major cardiovascular events (heart attack, stroke, sudden death, heart failure) in more than 130,000 participants aged 35 to 70, spread across all five continents. The study finds that a diet with a high glycemic index is associated with a significant (25%) increase in the risk of having a major cardiovascular event in people without cardiovascular disease, an increase that reaches 51% in those with pre-existing cardiovascular disease (Figure 4). A similar trend is observed for the glycemic load, but in the latter case, the increased risk seems to affect only those with cardiovascular disease at the start of the study.

Figure 4. Comparison of the risk of cardiovascular events according to the glycemic index or the glycemic load of the diet of healthy people (blue) or with a history of cardiovascular disease (red). The median glycemic index values were 76 for quintile 1 and 91 for quintile 5. For glycemic load, the mean values were 136 g of carbohydrates per day for Q1 and 468 g per day for Q5. Note that the increased risk of cardiovascular events associated with a high glycemic index or load is primarily seen in participants with pre-existing cardiovascular disease. From Jenkins et al. (2021).

The impact of the glycemic index appears to be particularly pronounced in overweight people (Figure 5). Thus, while the increase in the risk of major cardiovascular events is 14% in thin people with a BMI less than 25, it reaches 38% in those who are overweight (BMI over 25).

 

Figure 5. Impact of overweight on the increased risk of cardiovascular events related to the glycemic index of the diet. The values shown represent the increased risk of cardiovascular events observed for each category (quintiles 2 to 5) of the glycemic index compared to the category with the lowest index (quintile 1). The median values of the glycemic indices were 76 for quintile 1; 81 for quintile 2; 86 for quintile 3; 89 for quintile 4; and 91 for quintile 5. Taken from Jenkins et al. (2021).

This result is not so surprising, since it has long been known that excess fat disrupts sugar metabolism, especially by producing insulin resistance. A diet with a high glycemic index therefore exacerbates the rise in postprandial blood sugar already in place due to excess weight, which leads to a greater increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease. The message to be drawn from this study is therefore very clear: a diet containing too many easily assimilated sugars, as measured using the glycemic index, is associated with a significant increase in the risk of suffering a major cardiovascular event. The risk of these events is particularly pronounced for people with less than optimal health, either due to the presence of excess fat or pre-existing cardiovascular disease (or both). Reducing the glycemic index of the diet by consuming more foods containing complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts) and fewer products containing added sugars or refined flour is therefore an essential prerequisite for preventing the development of cardiovascular disease.

Refined flours
Another part of the PURE study looked more specifically at refined flours as a source of easily assimilated sugars that can abnormally increase blood sugar levels and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Researchers observed that a high intake (350 g per day, or 7 servings) of products containing refined flours (white bread, breakfast cereals, cookies, crackers, pastries) was associated with a 33% increase in the risk of coronary heart disease, 47% in the risk of stroke, and 27% in the risk of premature death. These observations therefore confirm the negative impact of refined flours on health and the importance of including as much as possible foods containing whole grains in the diet. The preventive potential of this simple dietary change is enormous since the consumption of whole grains remains extremely low, with the majority of the population of industrialized countries consuming less than 1 serving of whole grains daily, well below the recommended minimum (half of all grain products consumed, or about 5 servings per day).

Wholemeal breads are still a great way to boost the whole-grain intake. However, special attention must be paid to the list of ingredients. In Canada, the law allows up to 5% of the grain to be removed when making whole wheat flour, and the part removed contains most of the germ and a fraction of the bran (fibres). This type of bread is superior to white bread, but it is preferable to choose products made from whole-grain flour which contains all the parts of the grain. Note also that multigrain breads (7-14 grains) always contain 80% wheat flour and a maximum of 20% of a mixture of other grains (otherwise the bread does not rise), so the number of grains does not matter, but what does matter is whether the flour is whole wheat or ideally integral, which is not always the case.

In short, a simple way to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events and improve health in general is to replace as much as possible the intake of foods rich in simple sugars and refined flour with plant-based foods containing complex carbohydrates. In addition to carbohydrates, this simple change alone will influence the nature of the proteins and lipids ingested as well as, at the same time, all the phenomena that promote the appearance and progression of atherosclerotic plaques.

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are ineffective for the prevention of cardiovascular disease

Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are ineffective for the prevention of cardiovascular disease

OVERVIEW

  • The VITAL study in participants who did not have cardiovascular disease and the ASCEND study in diabetic patients did not show a beneficial effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplements on cardiovascular health.
  • The REDUCE-IT study reported a beneficial effect of an omega-3 fatty acid supplement (Vascepa®), while the STRENGTH study reported no effect of another supplement (Epanova®).
  • The divergent results of the REDUCE-IT and STRENGTH studies have raised scientific controversy, mainly about the questionable use of mineral oil as a neutral placebo in the REDUCE-IT study.
  • Overall, the results of the studies lead to the conclusion that omega-3 fatty acid supplements are ineffective in preventing cardiovascular disease, in primary prevention and most likely also in secondary prevention.

Consuming fish on a regular basis (1–2 times per week) is associated with a reduced risk of death from coronary heart disease (see these meta-analyses here and here). In addition, favourable associations between fish consumption and the risks of type 2 diabetes, stroke, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline have also been identified.

A large number of studies have suggested that it is mainly omega-3 (O-3) fatty acids, a type of very long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid found in high amounts in several fish species, that are the cause of the positive health effects of eating fish and other seafood. For example, a meta-analysis of 17 prospective studies published in 2021 indicates that the risk of dying prematurely was significantly lower (15–18%) in participants who had the most circulating O-3s, compared to those who had the least. In addition, favourable associations of the same magnitude were observed for cardiovascular and cancer-related mortality.

Since eating fish is associated with better cardiovascular health, why not isolate the “active ingredient”, i.e. the omega-3 fatty acids it contains and make supplements with them? This seemed like a great idea; the same pharmacological approach has been applied successfully to a host of plants, fungi and microorganisms, which has made it possible to create drugs. One such example is aspirin, a derivative of salicylic acid found in the bark of certain tree species, quinine extracted from the cinchona shrub (antimalarial), digitoxin extracted from purple digitalis (treatment of heart problems), paclitaxel from yew (anticancer), etc.

Are marine O-3 supplements just as or even more effective than the whole food from which they are extracted? Several randomized controlled studies (RCTs) have been carried out in recent years to try to prove the effectiveness of O-3s. Meta-analyses of RCTs (see here and here) indicate that O-3 supplements (EPA and DHA) have little or no effect in primary prevention, i.e. on the risk of developing cardiovascular disease or dying prematurely from cardiovascular disease or any other cause. In contrast, data from some studies indicated that O-3 supplements may have beneficial effects in secondary prevention, i.e. in people with cardiovascular disease.

In order to obtain a higher level of evidence, several large, well-planned and controlled studies have been carried out recently: ASCEND, VITAL, STRENGTH and REDUCE-IT. The VITAL study (VITamin D and omegA-3 TriaL) in 25,871 participants who did not have cardiovascular disease and the ASCEND study (A Study of Cardiovascular Events in Diabetes) in 15,480 diabetic patients did not demonstrate any beneficial effects of O-3 supplements on cardiovascular health.

The results of the REDUCE-IT (REDUction of Cardiovascular Events with Icosapent ethyl-Intervention Trial) and STRENGTH (Outcomes Study to Assess STatin Residual Risk Reduction With EpaNova in HiGh CV Risk PatienTs With Hypertriglyceridemia) studies were then published. The results of these studies were eagerly anticipated since they tested the effect of O-3 supplements on major strokes at high doses (3000–4000 mg O-3/day) in patients at risk treated with a statin to lower blood cholesterol, but who had high triglyceride levels.

The results of these two studies are divergent, which has raised scientific controversy. The REDUCE-IT study reported a significant reduction of 25% in the number of cardiovascular events in the group of patients who took daily O-3 supplementation (Vascepa®; ethyl-EPA), compared to the group of patients who took a placebo (mineral oil). The STRENGTH study reported an absence of effect of O-3 supplements (Epanova®; a mixture of EPA and DHA in the form of carboxylic acids) on major cardiovascular events in patients treated with a statin, compared to the group of patients who took a corn oil placebo.

Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain the different results between the two large studies. One of them is that the mineral oil used as a placebo in the REDUCE-IT study may have caused adverse effects that would have led to a false positive effect of the O-3 supplement. Indeed, mineral oil is not a neutral placebo since it caused an average increase of 37% of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of systemic inflammation in the control group, as well as a 7.4% increase in LDL cholesterol and 6.7% in apolipoprotein B compared to the group that took Vascepa. These three biomarkers are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events.

Two other hypotheses could explain the difference between the two studies. It is possible that the moderately higher plasma levels of EPA obtained in the REDUCE-IT study could be the cause of the beneficial effects seen in this study, or that the DHA used in combination with EPA in the STRENGTH study may have counteracted the beneficial effects of EPA.

To test these two hypotheses, the researchers responsible for the STRENGTH study performed post-hoc analyses of the data collected during their clinical trial. Patients were classified according to their plasma EPA level after 12 months of daily supplementation with O-3. Thus, in the first tertile, patients had an average plasma EPA concentration of 30 µg/mL, those in the second tertile: 90 µg/mL, and those in the third tertile: 151 µg/mL. The mean plasma concentration of EPA in the third tertile (151 µg/mL) is comparable to that reported in the REDUCE-IT study (144 µg/mL). Analyses show that there was no association between the plasma concentration of EPA or DHA and the number of major cardiovascular events. The authors conclude that there is no benefit to taking O-3 supplements for secondary prevention, but they suggest that more studies should be done in the future to compare mineral oil and corn oil as placebos and also to compare different formulations of omega-3 fatty acids.

Overall, the results of recent studies lead to the conclusion that O-3 supplements are ineffective in preventing cardiovascular disease, in primary prevention and most likely also in secondary prevention. It should be noted that, taken in large amounts, O-3 supplements can have unwanted effects. In fact, in both the STRENGTH and REDUCE-IT studies, the incidence of atrial fibrillation was significantly higher with the use of O-3 supplements. In addition, bleeding was more common in patients who took ethyl-EPA (Vascepa®) in the REDUCE-IT study than in patients who took the placebo. It therefore seems safer to eat fish once or twice a week to maintain good health than to take ineffective and expensive supplements.

Association between chronic stress and heart attacks

Association between chronic stress and heart attacks

OVERVIEW

  • Cortisol concentration in recent hair growth was measured in middle-aged people shortly after suffering a heart attack, and in people of the same age group who were in apparent good health.
  • The median concentration of cortisol in the hair of people with a myocardial infarction was 2.4 times higher than that measured in the control group.
  • The risk of myocardial infarction was approximately 5 times higher in people with high cortisol levels compared to those with normal cortisol levels.
  • These results indicate that chronic stress appears to be an important risk factor for myocardial infarction.

It is well established that acute physical and/or emotional stress (accident, anger, fear) is a risk factor for heart attack (see our article on the subject). However, it is not clear whether high levels of chronic stress also contribute to the risk of myocardial infarction. One of the reasons that little is known about this potential risk factor is that until recently, it was only possible to measure acute stress, not chronic stress. The stress response involves activation of the corticotropic axis (or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) and the autonomic nervous system, including the secretion of cortisol, one of the main stress hormones. Chronic stress can now be objectively and conveniently assessed in people by measuring cortisol levels in hair. As the hair grows, an amount of cortisol proportional to the blood concentration is incorporated into the hair. A 1 cm hair cut at the base of the scalp will have taken 4 to 6 weeks to grow, and its cortisol content will reflect the level of chronic stress the person has experienced during that time. The last 5–10 days of hair growth is in and under the scalp.

In a retrospective study of women and men under the age of 65 in Sweden, the levels of cortisol in the hair of 174 people who had suffered a myocardial infarction were compared to those of 3156 people in apparent good health. The median concentration of cortisol in the hair of people with a myocardial infarction was 2.4 times higher (53.2 pg/mg) than that measured in the control group (22.2 pg/mg).

Analysis of the data shows a very clear dose-response relationship, i.e. that the higher the levels of cortisol detected in the participants’ hair, the greater the risk of a heart attack. This dose-effect relationship is not linear, as can be seen in Figure 1: the cortisol levels of the first 3 quintiles are not associated with a significantly higher risk of myocardial infarction, but this risk increases very significantly for cortisol levels in quintiles 4 and 5.

Figure 1. Relative risk of myocardial infarction as a function of the concentration of cortisol in the hair of the participants. *Very significant (p <0.001). From Faresjö et al., 2020.

 

This retrospective study shows an association between high cortisol levels and myocardial infarction, but this type of study does not establish a causal link. Results from other studies also suggest that cortisol may cause myocardial infarction. For example, the elevated cortisol levels seen in people with Cushing’s syndrome or in patients receiving glucocorticoid therapy are linked to an increased prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors and myocardial infarction. It is therefore plausible that increased cortisol levels cause metabolic disorders that lead to atherosclerosis and, in the long term, to coronary artery blockage and myocardial infarction. Increased blood cortisol levels also have direct effects on the cardiovascular system, including increased contractility of blood vessels, inhibition of angiogenesis, and increased platelet activation, which can lead to thrombosis.

Exposure to chronic stress is typical of our modern societies and can be the cause of many illnesses. We have to learn to manage this chronic stress, for example by practicing cardiac coherence or meditation. I encourage readers to learn more on this subject; there are many very accessible books: Christophe André: Looking at Mindfulness, Matthieu Ricard: The Art of Meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn: Full Catastrophe Living, and Rick Hanson: Hardwiring Happiness.

The benefits of extra virgin olive oil on cardiovascular health

The benefits of extra virgin olive oil on cardiovascular health

OVERVIEW

  • In addition to being an excellent source of monounsaturated fat, olive oil is the only vegetable oil that contains a significant amount of phenolic compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • These molecules are found in much larger quantities in extra virgin quality oils compared to refined olive oils.
  • Several studies indicate that the presence of these phenolic compounds contributes to the many positive effects of extra virgin olive oil on cardiovascular health.

The traditional Mediterranean diet has several positive effects on cardiovascular health by improving the lipid profile (cholesterol, triglycerides) and by reducing chronic inflammation, blood pressure, blood sugar and the risk of diabetes. Several studies have clearly established that these effects result in a significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The Mediterranean diet is characterized by the abundant consumption of plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereals, legumes, nuts, herbs), a moderate intake of fermented dairy products (yogurt, cheese), fish, seafood and red wine as well as a low consumption of red meat and added sugars. It is therefore an exemplary diet, in which complex plant sugars are the main sources of carbohydrates and where the proteins come mainly from fish and legumes instead of red meat.

Another important feature of the Mediterranean diet is the daily use of large amounts (60–80 mL) of olive oil as the main source of fat for cooking. Several studies have reported that countries that are heavy consumers of olive oil have a much lower incidence of cardiovascular disease than those that consume mainly animal fats, suggesting a positive role of olive oil in this protective effect. Traditionally, these beneficial properties of olive oil have been attributed to its very high content (around 80%) of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that contributes to its antioxidant properties. However, and unlike most vegetable oils, olive oil also contains a host of minor compounds (1–3% of the oil) that also play very important roles in its positive effects on cardiovascular health (see below). This is particularly the case for several phenolic compounds found exclusively in olive oil, including phenolic alcohols such as hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol and polyphenols of the secoiridoid family such as oleuropein, ligstroside, oleacein and oleocanthal (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Molecular structures of the main phenolic compounds of olive oil.


One fruit, several types of oils
Most vegetable oils come from seeds that have been extracted with an organic solvent (e.g. hexane) and subsequently heated to a high temperature to evaporate this solvent and remove impurities that give them an undesirable smell and flavour. These drastic procedures are not necessary for olive oil as the olives are simply pressed and the oil in the pulp is extracted by mechanical pressure, without using chemical processes or excessive heat.

Olive oils are classified according to the quality of the oil that is obtained by the pressing procedure (Figure 2). Good quality oils, i.e. those with low acidity (<2% free oleic acid) and that meet certain taste, bitterness and spiciness criteria are called “virgin” olive oils or, if their acidity is less than 0.8%, “extra virgin” olive oils. These oils contain the majority of the polyphenols in the starting olives and, after centrifugation and filtration, can be consumed as is.

On the other hand, some olive varieties give an inferior quality oil due to too high acidity (> 2%) and/or an unpleasant smell and taste that does not meet the established criteria. These oils, which are unfit for consumption, are called “lampantes” (a name which comes from their ancient use as fuel in oil lamps) and must be refined as is done for other vegetable oils, i.e. using different physicochemical procedures (neutralization with soda, high temperature bleaching and deodorization, hexane extraction, etc.). These steps remove the compounds responsible for the excess acidity and the unpleasant taste of the oil and produce a “neutral” olive oil that has lost its acidity and its flaws, but that is now devoid of the smell, flavour, colour and most of the phenolic components of the starting virgin olive oil. To stabilize these oils and improve their taste, a certain proportion (15–20%) of virgin olive oil is subsequently added and the final product, which is a mixture of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil, is what is sold in grocery stores as “pure olive oil” or simply “olive oil”.

In short, there are three main types of olive oil on the market: virgin olive oil (VOO), extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), and regular olive oil (OO).

Figure 2. The different types of olive oil. From Gorzynik-Debicka et al. (2018).

 

These manufacturing differences obviously have a huge impact on the amount of polyphenols present in virgin, extra virgin, and refined oils (Table 1). For OO-type olive oils (which contain refined oils), the polyphenols come exclusively from virgin olive oil that has been added to restore a minimum of taste and colour (from yellow to greenish) to the chemically treated oil. The amount of these polyphenols is therefore necessarily less than in VOO and EVOO and, as a general rule, does not exceed 25–30% of the content of these two oils. This difference is particularly striking for certain polyphenols of the secoiridoid family (oleuropein, oleocanthal, oleacein and ligstroside) whose concentrations are 3 to 6 times greater in EVOO than in OO (Table 1). It should be noted, however, that these values ​​can vary greatly depending on the origin and cultivar of the olives; for example, some extra virgin olive oils have been found to contain up to 10 times more hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol than regular olive oils. The same goes for other polyphenols like oleocanthal: an analysis of 175 distinct extra virgin olive oils from Greece and California revealed dramatic variations between the different oils, with concentrations of the molecule ranging from 0 to 355 mg/kg.

It should also be mentioned that even if the quantities of phenolic compounds in regular olive oil are lower than those found in virgin and extra virgin oils, they nevertheless largely exceed those present in other vegetable oils (sunflower, peanut, canola, soy), which contain very little or none at all.

FamilyMoleculesOO (mg/kg)VOO (mg/kg)EVOO (mg/kg)
Secoiridoidsoleocanthal38.95 ± 9.2971.47 ± 61.85142.77 ± 73.17
oleacein57.37 ± 27.0477.83 ± 256.09251.60 ± 263.24
oleuropein (aglycone)10.90 ± 0.0095.00 ± 116.0172.20 ± 64.00
ligstroside (aglycone)15.20 ± 0.0069.00 ± 69.0038.04 ± 17.23
Phenolic alcoholshydroxytyrosol6.77 ± 8.263.53 ± 10.197.72 ± 8.81
tyrosol4.11 ± 2.245.34 ± 6.9811.32 ± 8.53
Flavonoidsluteolin1.17 ± 0.721.29 ± 1.933.60 ± 2.32
apigenin0.30 ± 0.170.97 ± 0.7111.68 ± 12.78
Phenolic acidsp-coumaric -0.24 ± 0.810.92 ± 1.03
ferulic -0.19 ± 0.500.19 ± 0.19
cinnamic - -0.17 ± 0.14
caffeic -0.21 ± 0.630.19 ± 0.45
protocatechuic -1.47 ± 0.56 -
Table 1. Comparison of the content of phenolic compounds in olive oil (OO), virgin olive oil (VOO) and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Please note that the large standard deviations of the mean values reflect the huge variations in polyphenol content depending on the region, cultivar, degree of fruit ripeness, and olive oil manufacturing process. Adapted from Lopes de Souza et al. (2017).

 

Anti-inflammatory spiciness
The amounts of polyphenols contained in a bottle of olive oil are not indicated on its label, but it is possible to detect their presence simply by tasting the oil. The polyphenols in olive oil are indeed essential to the organoleptic sensations so characteristic of this oil, in particular the sensation of tickling or stinging in the throat caused by good quality extra virgin oils, what connoisseurs call “ardour”. Far from being a defect, this ardour is considered by experts as a sign of a superior quality oil and, in tasting competitions, the “spiciest” oils are often those that receive the highest honours.

It is interesting to note that it is by tasting different olive oils that a scientist succeeded, by coincidence, in identifying the molecule responsible for the sensation of spiciness caused by extra virgin olive oil (see box).

Plant ibuprofen

Chance often plays a role in scientific discoveries, and this is especially true when it comes to the discovery of the molecule responsible for the typical irritation caused by olive oil. On a trip to Sicily (Italy) to attend a conference on the organoleptic properties of different foods, Dr. Gary Beauchamp and his colleagues were invited by the organizers of the event to a meal where guests were encouraged to taste extra virgin olive oil from olive trees cultivated on their estate. Even though it was the first time he had tasted this type of olive oil, Dr. Beauchamp was immediately struck by the tingling sensation in his throat, which was similar in every way to that caused by ibuprofen, and that he had experienced multiple times as part of his work to replace acetaminophen (paracetamol) with ibuprofen in cough syrups. Suspecting that olive oil contained a similar anti-inflammatory drug, Dr. Beauchamp and his team subsequently managed to isolate the molecule responsible for this irritation, a polyphenol they called “oleocanthal”. They subsequently discovered that oleocanthal had, like ibuprofen, a powerful anti-inflammatory action and that regular consumption of extra virgin olive oil, rich in oleocanthal, provided an intake equivalent to about 10 mg of ibuprofen and therefore may contribute to the well-documented anti-inflammatory effects of the Mediterranean diet. 

But why is the stinging sensation of olive oil only felt in the throat? According to work carried out by the same group, this exclusive localization is due to a specific interaction of oleocanthal (and ibuprofen, for that matter) with a subtype of heat-sensitive receptor (TRPA1). Unlike other types of heat receptors, which are evenly distributed throughout the oral cavity (the TRPV1 receptor activated by the capsaicin of chili peppers, for example, and which causes the burning sensation of some particularly hot dishes), the TRPA1 receptor is located only in the pharynx and its activation by oleocanthal causes a nerve impulse signalling the presence of an irritant only in this region. In short, the more an olive oil stings in the back of the throat, the more oleocanthal it contains and the more anti-inflammatory properties it has. As a general rule, extra virgin olive oils contain more oleocanthal (and polyphenols in general) than virgin olive oils (see Table 1) and are therefore considered superior, both in terms of taste and their positive effects on health.

The superiority of extra virgin olive oil
Several studies have shown that the higher polyphenol content in extra virgin olive oil is correlated with a greater positive effect on several parameters of cardiovascular health than that observed for regular olive oil (see Table 2). For example, epidemiological studies carried out in Spain have reported a decrease of about 10–14% in the risk of cardiovascular disease among regular consumers of extra virgin olive oil, while regular consumption of olive oil had no significant effect. A role of phenolic compounds is also suggested by the EUROLIVE study where the effect of daily ingestion, over a period of 3 weeks, of 25 mL of olive oils containing small (2.7 mg/kg), medium (164 mg/kg), or high (366 mg/kg) amounts of polyphenols was compared. The results show that an increased intake of polyphenols is associated with an improvement in two important risk factors for cardiovascular disease: an increase in the concentration of HDL cholesterol and a decrease in oxidized LDL cholesterol levels. Collectively, the data gathered from the intervention studies indicate that the polyphenols found in extra virgin olive oil play an extremely important role in olive oil’s positive effects on cardiovascular health.

Measured parameterResultsSources
Incidence of cardiovascular disease10% reduction in risk for every 10 g/day of EVOO. No effect of regular OO.Guasch-Ferré et al. (2014)
14% reduction in risk for each 10 g/day of EVOO. No effect of regular OO.Buckland et al. (2012)
Lipid profileLinear increase in HDL cholesterol as a function of the amount of polyphenols.Covas et al. (2006)
Increase in HDL cholesterol only observed with EVOO.Estruch et al. (2006)
Blood glucoseEVOO improves postprandial glycemic profile (decrease in glucose levels and increased insulin).Violo et al. (2015)
Polyphenol-rich EVOO reduces fasting blood glucose and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) levels in diabetic patients.Santagelo et al. (2016)
InflammationEVOO, but not OO, induces a decrease in inflammatory markers (TXB(2) and LTB(4)).Bogani et al. (2017)
EVOO, but not OO, induces a decrease in IL-6 and CRP.Fitó et al. (2007)
EVOO, but not OO, decreases the expression of several inflammatory genes.Camargo et al. (2010)
EVOO, but not OO, decreases levels of inflammatory markers sICAM-1 and sVCAM-1.Pacheco et al. (2007)
Oxidative stressStrong in vitro antioxidant activity of phenolic compounds of olive oil.Owen et al. (2000)
Linear decrease in oxidized LDL levels as a function of the amount of polyphenols.Covas et al. (2006)
Lower levels of oxidized LDL after ingestion of EVOO compared to OO.Ramirez-Tortosa et al. (1999)
EVOO phenolic compounds bind to LDL particles and protect them from oxidation.de la Torre-Carbot et al. (2010)
EVOO induces the production of neutralizing antibodies against oxidized LDL.Castañer et al. (2011)
EVOO decreases urinary levels of 8-isoprostane, a marker of oxidative stress.Visioli et al. (2000)
EVOO positively influences the oxidative/antioxidant status of blood plasma.Weinbrenner et al. (2004)
Blood pressureEVOO causes a decrease in systolic and diastolic pressures in hypertensive women.Ruíz-Gutiérrez et al. (1996)
EVOO, but not OO, causes a decrease in systolic pressure in hypertensive coronary patients.Fitó et al. (2005)
EVOO improves postprandial endothelial dilation.Ruano et al. (2005)
EVOO increases the NO vasodilator and decreases systolic and diastolic pressures.Medina-Remón et al. (2015)
EVOO, but not OO, improves vessel dilation in pre-diabetic patients.Njike et al. (2021)
EVOO, but not OO, decreases systolic pressure by 2.5 mmHg in healthy volunteers.Sarapis et al. (2020)
Table 2. Examples of studies comparing the effect of EVOO and OO on several cardiovascular health parameters.

 

In addition to its multiple direct actions on the heart and vessels, it should also be noted that extra virgin olive oil could also exert an indirect beneficial effect, by blocking the formation of the metabolite trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) by intestinal bacteria. Several studies have shown that TMAO accelerates the development of atherosclerosis in animal models and is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events in clinical studies. Extra virgin olive oils (but not regular olive oils) contain 3,3-dimethyl-1-butanol (DMB), a molecule that blocks a key enzyme involved in TMAO production and prevents development of atherosclerosis in animal models fed a diet rich in animal protein. Taken together, these observations show that there are only advantages to favouring the use of extra virgin olive oil, both for its superior taste and its positive effects on cardiovascular health.

Some people may dislike the slightly peppery taste that extra virgin olive oil leaves in the back of the throat, but interestingly, this irritation is greatly reduced when the oil is mixed with other foods. According to a recent study, this attenuation of the pungent taste is due to the interaction of the polyphenols in the oil with the proteins in food, which blocks the activation of the heat receptors that are normally activated by these polyphenols. People who hesitate to use extra virgin olive oil because of its irritant side can therefore get around this problem and still enjoy the benefits of these oils simply by using it as the main fat when preparing a meal.

Why do the Japanese have the highest life expectancy in the world?

Why do the Japanese have the highest life expectancy in the world?

OVERVIEW

  • The Japanese have the highest life expectancy at birth among the G7 countries.
  • The higher life expectancy of the Japanese is mainly due to fewer deaths from ischemic heart disease, including myocardial infarction, and cancer (especially breast and prostate).
  • This exceptional longevity is explained by a low rate of obesity and a unique diet, characterized by a low consumption of red meat and a high consumption of fish and plant foods such as soybeans and tea.

Several diets are conducive to the maintenance of good health and to the prevention of cardiovascular disease, for example, the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), the vegetarian diet, and the Japanese diet. We often refer to the Mediterranean Diet in these pages, because it is well established scientifically that this diet is particularly beneficial for cardiovascular health. Knowing that the Japanese have the highest life expectancy among the G7 countries, the special diet in Japan has also captured the attention of experts and an informed public in recent years.

Japanese life expectancy
Among the G7 countries, Japan has the highest life expectancy at birth according to 2016 OECD data, particularly for women. Japanese men have a slightly higher life expectancy (81.1 years) than that of Canadian men (80.9 years), while the life expectancy of Japanese women (87.1 years) is significantly higher (2.4 years) than that of Canadian women (84.7 years). The healthy life expectancy of the Japanese, 74.8 years, is also higher than in Canada (73.2 years).

The higher life expectancy of Japanese people is mainly due to fewer deaths from ischemic heart disease and cancers, particularly breast and prostate cancer. This low mortality is mainly attributable to a low rate of obesity, low consumption of red meat, and high consumption of fish and plant foods such as soybeans and tea. In Japan, the obesity rate is low (4.8% for men and 3.7% for women). By comparison, in Canada 24.6% of adult men and 26.2% of adult women were obese (BMI ≥ 30) in 2016. Obesity is an important risk factor for both ischemic heart disease and several types of cancers.

Yet in the early 1960s, Japanese life expectancy was the lowest of any G7 country, mainly due to high mortality from cerebrovascular disease and stomach cancer. The decrease in salt and salty food intake is partly responsible for the decrease in mortality from cerebrovascular disease and stomach cancer. The Japanese consumed an average of 14.5 g of salt/day in 1973 and probably more before that. They eat less salt these days (9.5 g/day in 2017), but it’s still too much. Canadians now consume on average about 7 g of salt/day (2.76 g of sodium/day), almost double the intake recommended by Health Canada.

The Japanese diet
Compared to Canadians, the French, Italians and Americans, the Japanese consume much less meat (especially beef), dairy products, sugar and sweeteners, fruits and potatoes, but much more fish and seafood, rice, soybeans and tea (Table 1). In 2017, the Japanese consumed an average of 2,697 kilocalories per day according to the FAO, significantly less than in Canada (3492 kcal per day), France (3558 kcal per day), Italy (3522 kcal per day), and the United States (3766 kcal per day).

Table 1. Food supply quantity (kg/capita/year) in selected countries in 2013a.

              aAdapted from Tsugane, 2020. FAO data: FAOSTAT (Food and agriculture data) (http://www.fao.org/).

Less red meat, more fish and seafood
The Japanese eat on average almost half as much meat as Canadians (46% less), but twice as much fish and seafood. This considerable difference translates into a reduced dietary intake of saturated fatty acids, which is associated with a lower risk of ischemic heart disease, but an increased risk of stroke. On the contrary, dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and seafood is associated with a reduced risk of ischemic heart disease. The lower consumption of red meat and higher consumption of fish and seafood by the Japanese could therefore explain the lower mortality from ischemic heart disease and the higher mortality from cerebrovascular disease in Japan. Experts believe that the decline in death from cerebrovascular disease is associated with changes in the Japanese diet, specifically increased consumption of animal products and dairy products, and consequently of saturated fat and calcium (a consumption which remains moderate), combined with a decrease in salt consumption. Indeed, contrary to what is observed in the West, the consumption of saturated fat in Japan is associated with a reduction in the risk of hemorrhagic stroke and to a lesser extent of ischemic stroke, according to a meta-analysis of prospective studies. The cause of this difference is not known, but it could be attributable to genetic susceptibility or confounding factors according to the authors of the meta-analysis.

Soybeans
Soy is a food mainly consumed in Asia, including Japan where it is consumed as is after cooking (edamame) and especially in processed form, by fermentation (soy sauce, miso paste, nattō) or by coagulation of soy milk (tofu). It is an important source of isoflavones, molecules that have anticancer properties and are beneficial for good cardiovascular health. Consumption of isoflavones by Asians has been linked to a lower risk of breast and prostate cancer (see our article on the subject).

Sugar
The Japanese consume relatively few sugars and starches, which partly explains the low prevalence of obesity-associated diseases such as ischemic heart disease and breast cancer.

Green tea
The Japanese generally consume green tea with no added sugar. Prospective studies from Japan show that green tea consumption is associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality and cardiac death.

Westernization of Japanese eating habits
The westernization of the Japanese diet after World War II allowed the inhabitants of this country to be healthier and to reduce mortality caused by infectious diseases, pneumonia and cerebrovascular diseases, thereby considerably increasing their life expectancy. A survey of the eating habits of 88,527 Japanese from 2003 to 2015 indicates that this westernization continues. Based on the daily consumption of 31 food groups, the researchers identified three main types of eating habits:

1- Plant foods and fish
High intakes of vegetables, fruits, legumes, potatoes, mushrooms, seaweed, pickled vegetables, rice, fish, sugar, salt-based seasonings and tea.

2- Bread and dairy
High intakes of bread, dairy products, fruits and sugar. Low intake of rice.

3- Animal foods and oils
High intakes of red and processed meat, eggs, vegetable oils.

A downward trend in the “plant foods and fish” group (the staple of the traditional Japanese diet or washoku) was observed in all age groups. An increase in the “bread and dairy” group was observed in the 50–64 and ≥65 years age groups, but not among the youngest. For the “animal foods and oils” group, an increasing trend was observed during the thirteen years of the study in all age groups except the youngest (20–34 years). The Japanese are eating more and more like Westerners. Will this have an adverse effect on their health and life expectancy? It is too early to know, only the next few decades will tell.

Contribution of genes and lifestyle to the health of the Japanese
Some risk factors for cardiovascular disease and cancer are hereditary, while others are associated with lifestyle (diet, smoking, exercise, etc.). At the turn of the 20th century, there was significant Japanese immigration to the United States (especially California and Hawaii) and South America (Brazil, Peru). After a few generations, the descendants of Japanese migrants adopted the way of life of the host countries. While Japan has one of the lowest incidences of cardiovascular disease in the world, this incidence doubled among the Japanese who migrated to Hawaii and quadrupled among those who chose to live in California according to a 1975 study. What is surprising is that this increase has been observed regardless of blood pressure or cholesterol levels, and seems rather directly related to the abandonment of the traditional Japanese way of life by migrants.

Since the 1970s, the average cholesterol level of the Japanese has nonetheless increased, but despite this and the high rate of smoking in this country, the incidence of coronary heart disease remains substantially lower in Japan than in the West. To better understand these differences, a 2003 study compared the risk factors and diets of Japanese living in Japan with third- and fourth-generation Japanese migrants living in Hawaii in the United States. Men’s blood pressure was significantly higher among Japanese than among Japanese-Americans, while there was no significant difference for women. Far fewer Japanese were treated for hypertension than in Hawaii. More Japanese people (especially men) smoked than Japanese-Americans. Body mass index, blood levels of LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, glycated hemoglobin (an indicator for diabetes), and fibrinogen (a marker of inflammation) were significantly lower in Japan than in Hawaii. HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) was higher in the Japanese than in the Japanese-Americans. The dietary intake of total fat and saturated fatty acids (harmful to cardiovascular health) was lower in Japan than in Hawaii. In contrast, the intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids (beneficial for good cardiovascular health) was higher in Japan than in Hawaii. These differences may partly explain the lower incidence of coronary heart disease in Japan than in Western industrialized countries.

In other words, even if these migrants have the same basic risk as their compatriots who have remained in the country of origin (age, sex and heredity), the simple fact of adopting the lifestyle of their host country is enough to significantly increase their risk of cardiovascular disease.

Although the Japanese diet is different from those of Western countries, it has similar characteristics to the Mediterranean diet. Why not prepare delicious Japanese soy dishes from time to time (for example, tofu, edamame, miso soup), drink green tea, eat less meat, sugar and starch and more fish? Not only will your meals be more varied, but you could enjoy the health benefits of the Japanese diet.

Reducing calorie intake by eating more plants

Reducing calorie intake by eating more plants

OVERVIEW

  • Twenty volunteers were fed a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet in turn for two weeks.
  • Participants on the low-fat diet consumed an average of nearly 700 fewer calories per day than with the low-carbohydrate diet, a decrease correlated with a greater loss of body fat.
  • Compared to the low-carbohydrate diet, the low-fat diet also led to lower cholesterol levels, reduced chronic inflammation, and lowered heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Overall, these results suggest that a diet mainly composed of plants and low in fat is optimal for cardiovascular health, both for its superiority in reducing calorie intake and for its positive impact on several risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

It is estimated that there are currently around 2 billion overweight people in the world, including 600 million who are obese. These statistics are truly alarming because it is clearly established that excess fat promotes the development of several diseases that decrease healthy life expectancy, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer. Identifying the factors responsible for this high prevalence of overweight and the possible ways to reverse this trend as quickly as possible is therefore essential to improve the health of the population and avoid unsustainable pressures on public health systems in the near future.

Energy imbalance
The root cause of overweight, and obesity in particular, is a calorie intake that exceeds the body’s energy needs. To lose weight, therefore, it is essentially a matter of restoring the balance between the calories ingested and the calories expended.

It might seem simple in theory, but in practice most people find it extremely difficult to lose weight. On the one hand, it is much easier to gain weight than to lose weight. During evolution, we have had to deal with periods of prolonged food shortages (and even starvation, in some cases) and our metabolism has adapted to these deficiencies by becoming extremely efficient at accumulating and conserving energy in the form of fat. On the other hand, the environment in which we currently live strongly encourages overconsumption of food. We are literally overwhelmed by an endless variety of attractive food products, which are often inexpensive, easily accessible, and promoted by very aggressive marketing that encourages their consumption. The current epidemic of overweight and obesity thus reflects our biological predisposition to accumulate reserves in the form of fat, a predisposition that is exacerbated by the obesogenic environment that surrounds us.

Eating less to restore balance
The body’s innate tendency to keep energy stored in reserve as fat makes it extremely difficult to lose weight by “burning” those excess calories by increasing the level of physical activity. For example, a person who eats a simple piece of sugar pie (400 calories) will have to walk about 6.5 km to completely burn off those calories, which, of course, is difficult to do on a daily basis. This does not mean that exercise is completely useless for weight loss. Research in recent years shows that exercise can specifically target certain fat stores, especially in the abdominal area. Studies also show that regular physical activity is very important for long-term maintenance of the weight lost from a low-calorie diet. However, there is no doubt that it is first and foremost the calories consumed that are the determining factors in weight gain. Moreover, contrary to what one might think, levels of physical activity have hardly changed for the last thirty years in industrialized countries, and the phenomenal increase in the number of overweight people is therefore mainly a consequence of overconsumption of food. Exercise is essential for the prevention of all chronic diseases and for the maintenance of general good health, but its role in weight loss is relatively minor. For overweight people, the only realistic way to lose weight significantly, and especially to maintain these losses over prolonged periods, is thus to reduce calorie intake.

Less sugar or less fat?
How do we get there? First, it’s important to realize that the surge in the number of overweight people has coincided with a greater availability of foods high in sugar or fat (and sometimes both). All countries in the world, without exception, that have adopted this type of diet have seen their overweight rates skyrocket, so it is likely that this change in eating habits plays a major role in the current obesity epidemic.

However, the respective contributions of sugar and fat to this increase in caloric intake and overweight are still the subjectof vigorous debate:

1) On the one hand, it has been proposed that foods high in fat are particularly obesogenic, since fats are twice as high in calories as carbohydrates, are less effective in causing a feeling of satiety, and improve the organoleptic properties of foods, which generally encourages (often unconscious) overconsumption of food. Therefore, the best way to avoid overeating and becoming overweight would be to reduce the total fat intake (especially saturated fat due to its negative impact on LDL-cholesterol levels) and replace it with complex carbohydrates (vegetables, legumes, whole-grain cereals). This is colloquially called the low-fat approach, advocated for example by the Ornish diet.

2) On the other hand, the exact opposite is proposed, i.e. that it would be mainly carbohydrates that would contribute to overconsumption of food and to the increase in the incidence of obesity. According to this model, carbohydrates in foods in the form of free sugars or refined flours cause insulin levels to rise markedly, causing massive energy storage in adipose tissue. As a result, fewer calories remain available in the circulation for use by the rest of the body, causing increased appetite and overeating to compensate for this lack. In other words, it wouldn’t be because we eat too much that we get fat, but rather because we are too fat we eat too much.

3) By preventing excessive fluctuations in insulin levels, a diet low in carbohydrates would thus limit the anabolic effect of this hormone and, therefore, prevent overeating and the accumulation of excess fat.

Less fat on the menu, fewer calories ingested
To compare the impact of low-carb and low-fat diets on calorie intake, Dr. Kevin Hall’s group (NIH) recruited 20 volunteers who were fed each of these diets in turn for two weeks. The strength of this type of cross-study is that each participant consumes both types of diets and that their effects can therefore be compared directly on the same person.

As shown in Figure 1, the two diets studied were completely opposite of each other, with 75% of the calories in the low-fat (LF) diet coming from carbohydrates versus only 10% from fat, while in the low-carb (LC) diet, 75% of calories were in the form of fat, compared to only 10% from carbohydrates. The LF diet under study consisted exclusively of foods of plant origin (fruits, vegetables, legumes, root vegetables, soy products, whole grains, etc.), while the LC diet contained mainly (82%) animal foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products).

Figure 1. Comparison of the amounts of carbohydrates, fats and proteins present in the low-carbohydrate (LC) and low-fat (LF) diets consumed by study participants. Adapted from Hall et al. (2021).

The study shows that there is indeed a big difference between the two types of diets in the number of calories consumed by participants (Figure 2). Over a two-week period, participants who ate an LF (low-fat) diet consumed an average of nearly 700 calories (kcal) per day less than an LC (low-carbohydrate) diet. This difference in calorie intake is observed for all meals, both at breakfast (240 calories less for the LF diet), at lunch (143 calories less), at dinner (195 calories less), and during snacks taken between meals (128 calories less). This decrease is not caused by a difference in the appreciation of the two diets by the participants, as parallel analyses did not find any difference in the level of appetite of the participants, nor in the degree of satiety and satisfaction generated by the consumption of either diet. However, the LF diet was composed exclusively of plant-based foods and therefore much richer in non-digestible fibres (60 g per day compared to only 20 g for the LC diet), which greatly reduce the energy density of meals (quantity of calories per g of food) compared to the high-fat LC diet. It is therefore very likely that this difference in energy density contributes to the lower calorie intake observed for the low-fat diet.

Overall, these results indicate that a diet consisting of plants, and thus low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates, is more effective than a diet consisting mainly of animal products, high in fat and low in carbohydrates, to limit calorie intake.

Figure 2. Comparison of the daily calorie intake of participants on a low-carbohydrate (LC) or low-fat (LF) diet. From Hall et al. (2021).

Weight loss
Despite the significant difference in calorie intake observed between the two diets, their respective impact on short-term weight loss is more nuanced. At first glance, the LC diet appeared to be more effective than the LF diet in causing rapid weight loss, with about 1 kg lost on average in the first week and almost 2 kg after two weeks, compared to only 1 kg after two weeks of the LF diet (Figure 3). However, further analysis revealed that the weight loss caused by the LC diet was mainly in the form of lean mass (protein, water, glycogen), while this diet had no significant impact on fat loss during this period. Conversely, the LF diet had no effect on this lean body mass, but did cause a significant decrease in body fat, to around 1 kg after two weeks. In other words, only the LF diet caused a loss of body fat during the study period, which strongly suggests that the decrease in calorie intake made possible by this type of diet may facilitate the maintenance of astable body weight and could even promote weight loss in overweight people.

Figure 3. Comparison of changes in body weight (top), lean mass (middle), and body fat (bottom) caused by low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets. From Hall et al. (2021).

Cardiovascular risk factors
In addition to promoting lower calorie intake and fat loss, the LF diet also appears to be superior to the LC diet in terms of its impact on several cardiovascular risk factors (Table 1):

Cholesterol. It is well established that LDL cholesterol levels increase in response to a high intake of saturated fat (see our article on the issue). It is therefore not surprising that the LF diet, which contains only 2% of all calories as saturated fat, causes a significant decrease in cholesterol, both in terms of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. At first glance, the high-fat LC diet (containing 30% of the daily calorie intake as saturated fat) does not appear to have a major effect on LDL cholesterol; however, it should be noted that this diet significantly modifies the distribution of LDL cholesterol particles, in particular with a significant increase in small and dense LDL particles. Several studies have reported that these small, dense LDL particles infiltrate artery walls more easily and also appear to oxidize more easily, two key events in the development and progression of atherosclerosis. In sum, just two weeks of a high-fat LC diet was enough to significantly (and negatively) alter the atherogenic profile of participants, which may raise doubts about the long-term effects of this type of diet on cardiovascular health.

Table 1. Variations in certain risk factors for cardiovascular disease following a diet low in carbohydrates or low in fat. From Hall et al. (2021).

Branched-chain amino acids. Several recent studies have shown a very clear association between blood levels of branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) and an increased risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, two very important risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. In this sense, it is very interesting to note that the levels of these amino acids are almost twice as high after two weeks of the LC diet compared to the LF diet, suggesting a positive effect of a diet rich in plants and poor in fats in the prevention of these disorders.

Inflammation. Chronic inflammation is actively involved in the formation and progression of plaques that form on the lining of the arteries and can lead to the development of cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction and stroke. Clinically, this level of inflammation is often determined by measuring levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP), a protein made by the liver and released into the blood in response to inflammatory conditions. As shown in Table 1, the LF diet significantly decreases the levels of this inflammatory marker, another positive effect that argues in favour of a plant-rich diet for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

In addition to these laboratory data, the researchers noted that participants who were fed the LF diet had a slower heart rate (73 vs. 77 beats/min) as well as lower blood pressure (112/67 vs. 116/69 mm Hg) than observed following the LC diet. In the latter case, this difference could be related, at least in part, to the much higher sodium consumption in the LC diet compared to the LF diet (5938 vs. 3725 mg/day).

All of these results confirm the superiority of a diet mainly composed of plants on all the factors involved in cardiovascular health, whether in terms of lipid profile, chronic inflammation, or adequate control of calorie intake necessary to maintain body weight.