Does Red Wine Protect the Cardiovascular System?

Saturday, May 29, 2010
The 'French paradox' rears its ugly head again. The reasoning goes something like this: French people eat more saturated animal fat than any other affluent nation, and have the second-lowest rate of coronary heart disease (only after Japan, which has a much higher stroke rate than France). French people drink red wine. Therefore, red wine must be protecting them against the artery-clogging yogurt, beef and butter.

The latest study to fall into this myth was published in the AJCN recently (1). Investigators showed that 1/3 bottle of red wine per day for 21 days increased blood flow in forearm vessels of healthy volunteers, which they interpreted as "enhanced vascular endothelial function"*. The novel finding in this paper is that red wine consumption increases the migration of certain cells into blood vessels that are thought to maintain and repair the vessels. There were no control groups for comparison, neither abstainers nor a group drinking a different type of alcohol.

The investigators then went on to speculate that the various antioxidant polyphenols in red wine, such as the trendy molecule resveratrol, could be involved. Even though you have to give animals 500 bottles' worth of resveratrol per day to see any effect. But there's another little problem with this hypothesis...

Ethanol-- plain old alcohol. You could drink a 40 oz bottle of malt liquor every night and it would probably do the exact same thing.

No matter what the source, alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease out to about 3-4 drinks per day, after which the risk goes back up (2, 3)**. The association is not trivial-- up to a 62% lower risk associated with alcohol use. Controlled trials have shown that alcohol, regardless of the source, increases HDL cholesterol and reduces the tendency to clot (4).

Should we all start downing three drinks a day? Not so fast. Although alcohol does probably decrease heart attack risk, the effect on total mortality is equivocal. That's because it increases the risk of cancers and accidents. Alcohol is a drug, and my opinion is that like all drugs, overall it will not benefit the health of a person with an otherwise good diet and lifestyle. That being said, it's enjoyable, so I have no problem with drinking it in moderation. Just don't think you're doing it for your health.

So does red wine decrease the risk of having a heart attack? Yes, just as effectively as malt liquor. It's not the antioxidants and resveratrol, it's the ethanol. The reason the French avoid heart attacks is not because of some fancy compound in their wine that protects them from a high saturated fat intake. It's because they have preserved their diet traditions to a greater degree than most industrialized nations.

I do think it's interesting to speculate about why alcohol (probably) reduces heart attack risk. As far as I know, the mechanism is unknown. Could it be because it relaxes us? I'm going to ponder that over a glass of whiskey...

* It may well represent an improvement of endothelial function, but that's an assumption on the part of the investigators. It belongs in the discussion section, if anywhere, and not in the results section.

** The first study is really interesting. For once, I see no evidence of "healthy user bias". Rates of healthy behaviors were virtually identical across quintiles of alcohol intake. This gives me a much higher degree of confidence in the results.

Sweet Potatoes

Tuesday, May 25, 2010
We can measure the nutrient and toxin content of a food, and debate the health effects of each of its constituents until we're out of breath. But in the end, we still won't have a very accurate prediction of the health effects of that food. The question we need to answer is this one: has this food sustained healthy traditional cultures?

I'm currently reading a great book edited by Drs. Hugh Trowell and Denis Burkitt, titled Western Diseases: Their Emergence and Prevention. It's a compilation of chapters describing the diet and health of traditional populations around the world as they modernize.

The book contains a chapter on Papua New Guinea highlanders. Here's a description of their diet:
A diet survey was undertaken involving 90 subjects, in which all food consumed by each individual was weighed over a period of seven consecutive days. Sweet potato supplied over 90 percent of their total food intake, while non-tuberous vegetables accounted for less than 5 percent of the food consumed and the intake of meat was negligible... Extensive herds of pigs are maintained and, during exchange ceremonies, large amounts of pork are consumed.
They ate no salt. Their calories were almost entirely supplied by sweet potatoes, with occasional feasts on pork.

How was their health? Like many non-industrial societies, they had a high infant/child mortality rate, such that 43 percent of children died before growing old enough to marry. Surprisingly, protein deficiency was rare. No obvious malnutrition was observed in this population, although iodine-deficiency cretinism occurs in some highlands populations:
Young adults were well built and physically fit and had normal levels of haemoglobin and serum albumin. Further, adult females showed no evidence of malnutrition in spite of the demands by repeated cycles of pregnancy and lactation. On the basis of American standards (Society of Actuaries, 1959), both sexes were close to 100 percent standard weight in their twenties.
The Harvard Pack Test carried out on 152 consecutive subjects demonstrated a high level of physical fitness which was maintained well into middle-age. Use of a bicycle ergometer gave an estimated maximum oxygen uptake of 45.2 ml per kilogram per minute and thus confirmed the high level of cardiopulmonary fitness in this group.
Body weight decreased with age, which is typical of many non-industrial cultures and reflects declining muscle mass but continued leanness.

There was no evidence of coronary heart disease or diabetes. Average blood pressure was on the high side, but did not increase with age. Investigators administered 100 gram glucose tolerance tests and only 3.8 percent of the population had glucose readings above 160 mg/dL, compared to 21 percent of Americans. A study of 7,512 Papuans from several regions with minimal European contact indicated a diabetes prevalence of 0.1 percent, a strikingly low rate. For comparison, in 2007, 10.7 percent of American adults had diabetes (1).

I'm not claiming it's optimal to eat nothing but sweet potatoes. But this is the strongest evidence we're going to come by that sweet potatoes can be eaten in quantity as part of a healthy diet. However, I wish I knew more about the varieties this group ate. Sweet potatoes aren't necessarily sweet. Caribbean 'boniato' sweet potatoes are dry, starchy and off-white. In the US, I prefer the yellow sweet potatoes to the orange variety of sweet potato labeled 'yams', because the former are starchier and less sweet. If I could get my hands on locally grown boniatos here, I'd eat those, but boniatos are decidedly tropical.

Instead, I eat potatoes, but I'm reluctant to recommend them whole-heartedly because I don't know enough about the traditional cultures that consumed them. I believe there are some low-CHD, low-obesity African populations that eat potatoes as part of a starch-based diet, but I haven't looked into it closely enough to make any broad statements. Potatoes have some nutritional advantages over sweet potatoes (higher protein content, better amino acid profile), but also some disadvantages (lower fiber, lower in most micronutrients, toxic glycoalkaloids).

Pastured Dairy may Prevent Heart Attacks

Saturday, May 22, 2010
Not all dairy is created equal. Dairy from grain-fed and pasture-fed cows differs in a number of ways. Pastured dairy contains more fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamin K2, vitamin A, vitamin E, carotenes and omega-3 fatty acids. It also contains more conjugated linoleic acid, a fat-soluble molecule that has been under intense study due to its ability to inhibit obesity and cancer in animals. The findings in human supplementation trials have been mixed, some confirming the animal studies and others not. In feeding experiments in cows, Dr. T. R. Dhiman and colleagues found the following (1):
Cows grazing pasture and receiving no supplemental feed had 500% more conjugated linoleic acid in milk fat than cows fed typical dairy diets.
Fat from ruminants such as cows, sheep and goats is the main source of CLA in the human diet. CLA is fat-soluble. Therefore, skim milk doesn't contain any. It's also present in human body fat in proportion to dietary intake. This can come from dairy or flesh.

In a recent article from the AJCN, Dr. Liesbeth Smit and colleagues examined the level of CLA in the body fat of Costa Rican adults who had suffered a heart attack, and compared it to another group who had not (a case-control study, for the aficionados). People with the highest level of CLA in their body fat were 49% less likely to have had a heart attack, compared to those with the lowest level (2).

Since dairy was the main source of CLA in this population, the association between CLA and heart attack risk is inextricable from the other components in pastured dairy fat. In other words, CLA is simply a marker of pastured dairy fat intake in this population, and the (possible) benefit could just as easily have come from vitamin K2 or something else in the fat.

This study isn't the first one to suggest that pastured dairy fat may be uniquely protective. The Rotterdam and EPIC studies found that a higher vitamin K2 intake is associated with a lower risk of heart attack, cancer and overall mortality (3, 4, 5). In the 1940s, Dr. Weston Price estimated that pastured dairy contains up to 50 times more vitamin K2 than grain-fed dairy. He summarized his findings in the classic book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. This finding has not been repeated in recent times, but I have a little hunch that may change soon...

Vitamin K2
Cardiovascular Disease and Vitamin K2
Can Vitamin K2 Reverse Arterial Calcification?

Malocclusion Posts Translated into German

Thursday, May 20, 2010
It's nice to see on my website statistics program that Whole Health Source has a solid international following. As commonly as English is spoken throughout the world however, there are many people who do not have access to this blog due to a language barrier.

A gentleman by the name of Bertram has translated/summarized my series on the causes and prevention of malocclusion (misaligned teeth) into German. His site is, and you can find the first post here, with links to the subsequent 8. It looks like an interesting site-- I wish I could read German. Thanks Bertram!

Intervew with Chris Kresser of The Healthy Skeptic

Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Last week, I did an audio interview with Chris Kresser of The Healthy Skeptic, on the topic of obesity. We put some preparation into it, and I think it's my best interview yet. Chris was a gracious host. We covered some interesting ground, including (list copied from Chris's post):
  • The little known causes of the obesity epidemic
  • Why the common weight loss advice to “eat less and exercise more” isn’t effective
  • The long-term results of various weight loss diets (low-carb, low-fat, etc.)
  • The body-fat setpoint and its relevance to weight regulation
  • The importance of gut flora in weight regulation
  • The role of industrial seed oils in the obesity epidemic
  • Obesity as immunological and inflammatory disease
  • Strategies for preventing weight gain and promoting weight loss
Some of the information we discussed is not yet available on my blog. You can listen to the interview through Chris's post here.

Sometimes You Just Get Lucky

Thursday, May 13, 2010
I went fishing last Saturday on Fidalgo island with some friends.

That's a picture of the trophy minnow I caught after a full day of fishing. I'm thinking about having it mounted.

We made out a little better the next day.

Here are two of my other hunter-gatherer adventures for those who are interested:


Saturated Fat and Insulin Sensitivity, Again

Tuesday, May 11, 2010
A new study was recently published exploring the effect of diet composition on insulin sensitivity and other factors in humans (1). 29 men with metabolic syndrome-- including abdominal obesity, low HDL, high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and high fasting glucose-- were fed one of four diets for 12 weeks:
  1. A diet containing 38% fat: 16% saturated (SFA), 12% monounsaturated (MUFA) and 6% polyunsaturated (PUFA)
  2. A diet containing 38% fat: 8% SFA, 20% MUFA and 6% PUFA
  3. A diet high in unrefined carbohydrate, containing 28% fat (8% SFA, 11% MUFA and 6% PUFA)
  4. A diet high in unrefined carbohydrate, containing 28% fat (8% SFA, 11% MUFA and 6% PUFA) and an omega-3 supplement (1.24 g/day EPA and DHA)
After 12 weeks, insulin sensitivity, fasting glucose, glucose tolerance, and blood pressure did not change significantly in any of the four groups. This is consistent with the majority of the studies that have examined this question, although somehow the idea persists that saturated fat impairs insulin sensitivity. I discussed this in more detail in a recent post (2).

The paper that's typically cited by people who wish to defend the idea that saturated fat impairs insulin sensitivity is the KANWU study (3). In this study, investigators found no significant difference in insulin sensitivity between volunteers fed primarily SFA or MUFA for 12 weeks. You wouldn't realize this from the abstract however; you have to look very closely at the p-values in table 4.

One of the questions one could legitimately ask, however, is whether SFA have a different effect on people with metabolic syndrome. Maybe the inflammation and metabolic problems they already have make them more sensitive to the hypothetical damaging effects of SFA? That's the question the first study addressed, and it appears that SFA are not uniquely harmful to insulin signaling in those with metabolic syndrome on the timescale tested.

It also showed that the different diets did not alter the proportion of blood fats being burned in muscle, as opposed to being stored in fat tissue. The human body is a remarkably adaptable biological machine that can make the best of a variety of nutrient inputs, at least over the course of 12 weeks. Metabolic damage takes decades to accumulate, and in my opinion is more dependent on food quality than macronutrient composition. Once metabolic dysfunction is established, some people may benefit from carbohydrate restriction, however.

Traditional Preparation Methods Improve Grains' Nutritive Value

Tuesday, May 4, 2010
Soaking or Germinating Grains

The most basic method of preparing grains is prolonged soaking in water, followed by cooking. This combination reduces the level of water-soluble and heat-sensitive toxins and anti-nutrients such as tannins, saponins, digestive enzyme inhibitors and lectins, as well as flatulence factors. It also partially degrades phytic acid, which is a potent inhibitor of mineral absorption, an inhibitor of the digestive enzyme trypsin and an enemy of dental health (1). This improves the digestibility and nutritional value of grains as well as legumes.

I prefer to soak all grains and legumes for at least 12 hours in a warm location, preferably 24. This includes foods that most people don't soak, such as lentils. Soaking does not reduce phytic acid at all in grains that have been heat-treated, such as oats and kasha (technically not a grain), because they no longer contain the phytic acid-degrading enzyme phytase. Cooking without soaking first also does not have much effect on phytic acid.

The next level of grain preparation is germination. After soaking, rinse the grains twice per day for an additional day or two. This activates the grains' sprouting program and further increases their digestibility and vitamin content. When combined with cooking, it reduces phytic acid, although modestly. Therefore, most of the minerals in sprouted whole grains will continue to be inaccessible. Many raw sprouted grains and legumes are edible, but I wouldn't use them as a staple food because they retain most of their phytic acid as well as some heat-sensitive anti-nutrients (2).

Grinding and Fermenting Grains

Many cultures around the world have independently discovered fermentation as a way to greatly improve the digestibility and nutritive value of grains (3). Typically, grains are soaked, ground, and allowed to sour ferment for times ranging from 12 hours to several days. In some cases, a portion of the bran is removed before or after grinding.

In addition to the reduction in toxins and anti-nutrients afforded by soaking and cooking, grinding and fermentation goes much further. Grinding greatly increases the surface area of the grains and breaks up their cellular structure, releasing enzymes which are important for the transformation to come. Under the right conditions, which are easy to achieve, lactic acid bacteria rapidly acidify the batter. These bacteria are naturally present on grains, but adding a starter makes the process more efficient and reliable.

Due to some quirk of nature, grain phytase is maximally active at a pH of between 4.5 and 5.5, which is mildly acidic. This is why the Weston Price foundation recommends soaking grains in an acidic medium before cooking. The combination of grinding and sour fermentation causes grains to efficiently degrade their own phytic acid (as long as they haven't been heat treated first), making minerals much more available for absorption (4, 5, 6, 7). This transforms whole grains from a poor source of minerals into a good source.

The degree of phytic acid degradation depends on the starting amount of phytase in the grain. Corn, rice, oats and millet don't contain much phytase activity, so they require either a longer fermentation time, or the addition of high-phytase grains to the batter (8). Whole raw buckwheat, wheat, and particularly rye contain a large amount of phytase (9), although I feel wheat is problematic for other reasons.

As fermentation proceeds, bacteria secrete enzymes that begin digesting the protein, starch and other substances in the batter. Fermentation reduces lectin levels substantially, which are reduced further by cooking (10). Lectins are toxins that can interfere with digestion and may be involved in autoimmune disease, an idea championed by Dr. Loren Cordain. Grain lectins are generally heat-sensitive, but one notable exception is the nasty lectin wheat germ agglutinin (WGA). As its name suggests, WGA is found in wheat germ, and thus is mostly absent in white flour. WGA may have been another reason why DART participants who increased their wheat fiber intake had significantly more heart attacks than those who didn't. I don't know if fermentation degrades WGA.

One of the problems with grains is their poor protein quality. Besides containing a fairly low concentration of protein to begin with, they also don't contain a good balance of essential amino acids. This prevents their efficient use by the body, unless a separate source of certain amino acids is eaten along with them. The main limiting amino acid in grains is lysine. Legumes are rich in lysine, which is why cultures around the world pair them with grains. Bacterial fermentation produces lysine, often increasing its concentration by many fold and making grains nearly a "complete protein", i.e. one that contains the ideal balance of essential amino acids as do animal proteins (11, scroll down to see graph). Not very many plant foods can make that claim. Fermentation also increases the concentration of the amino acid methionine and certain vitamins.

Another problem with grain protein is it's poorly digested relative to animal protein. This means that a portion of it escapes digestion, leading to a lower nutritive value and a higher risk of allergy due to undigested protein hanging around in the digestive tract. Fermentation followed by cooking increases the digestibility of grain protein, bringing it nearly to the same level as meat (12, 13, 14, 15). This may relate to the destruction of protease inhibitors (trypsin inhibitors, phytic acid) and the partial pre-digestion of grain proteins by bacteria.

Once you delve into the research on traditional grain preparation methods, you begin to see why grain-eating cultures throughout the world have favored certain techniques. Proper grain processing transforms them from toxic to nutritious, from health-degrading to health-giving. Modern industrial grain processing has largely eschewed these time-honored techniques, replacing them with low-extraction milling, extrusion and quick-rise yeast strains.

Many people will not be willing to go through the trouble of grinding and fermentation to prepare grains. I can sympathize, although if you have the right tools, once you establish a routine it really isn't that much work. It just requires a bit of organization. In fact, it can even be downright convenient. I often keep a bowl of fermented dosa or buckwheat batter in the fridge, ready to make a tasty "pancake" at a moment's notice. In the next post, I'll describe a few recipes from different parts of the world.

Further reading:

How to Eat Grains
A Few Thoughts on Minerals, Milling, Grains and Tubers
Dietary Fiber and Mineral Availability
A New Way to Soak Brown Rice