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Dr. David Dunaief

The standard American diet is very low in nutrients. METRO photo
Nutrient intake is stunningly low in the United States

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Most chronic diseases, including common killers, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers, can potentially be prevented, modified and even reversed with a focus on nutrients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Here’s a stunning statistic: 60 percent of American adults have a chronic disease, with 40 percent of adults having more than one (1). This is likely a factor in the slowing pace of life expectancy increases in the U.S., which have plateaued in the past decade at around 78.8 years old (2).

The truth is that many Americans are malnourished, regardless of socioeconomic status and, in many cases, despite being overweight or obese. The definition of malnourished is insufficient nutrition, which in the U.S. results from low levels of much-needed nutrients. Sadly, the standard American diet is very low in nutrients, so many have at least moderate malnutrition.

I regularly test patients’ carotenoid levels. Carotenoids are nutrients that are incredibly important for tissue and organ health. They are measurable and give the practitioner a sense of whether the patient may lack potentially disease-fighting nutrients. Testing is often covered by insurance if the patient is diagnosed with moderate malnutrition. A high nutrient intake dietary approach can resolve the situation and increase, among others, carotenoid levels.

High nutrient intake is important

A high nutrient intake diet is an approach that focuses on micronutrients, which literally means small nutrients, including antioxidants and phytochemicals – plant nutrients. Micronutrients are bioactive compounds found mostly in foods and some supplements. While fiber is not considered a micronutrient, it also has significant disease modifying effects. Micronutrients interact with each other in synergistic ways, meaning the sum is greater than the parts. Diets that are plant-rich raise the levels of micronutrients considerably in patients.

In a 2017 study that included 73,700 men and women who were participants in the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, participants’ diets were rated over a 12-year period using three established dietary scores: the Alternate Healthy Eating Index–2010 score, the Alternate Mediterranean Diet score, and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet score (3).

A 20 percent increase in diet scores (indicating an improved quality of diet) was significantly associated with a reduction in total mortality of 8 to 17 percent, depending on whether two or three scoring methods were used. Participants who maintained a high-quality diet over a 12-year period reduced their risk of death by 9 to 14 percent more than participants with consistently low diet scores over time. By contrast, worsening diet quality over 12 years was associated with an increase in mortality of 6 to 12 percent. Not surprisingly, longer periods of healthy eating had a greater effect than shorter periods.

This study reinforces the findings of the Greek EPIC trial, a large prospective (forward-looking) cohort study, where the Mediterranean-type diet decreased mortality significantly – the better the compliance, the greater the effect (4). The most powerful dietary components were the fruits, vegetables, nuts, olive oil, legumes and moderate alcohol intake. Low consumption of meat also contributed to the beneficial effects. Dairy and cereals had a neutral or minimal effect.

Quality of life

Quality of life is also important, though. Let’s examine some studies that examine the impact of diet on diseases that may reduce our quality of life as we age.

A study showed olive oil reduces the risk of stroke by 41 percent (5). The authors attribute this effect at least partially to oleic acid, a bioactive compound found in olive oil. While olive oil is important, I recommend limiting olive oil to one tablespoon a day. There are 120 calories per tablespoon of olive oil, all of them fat. If you eat too much, even of good fat, it defeats the purpose. The authors commented that the Mediterranean-type diet had only recently been used in trials with neurologic diseases and results suggest benefits in several disorders, such as Alzheimer’s. 

In a case-control study that compared those with and without disease, high intake of antioxidants from food was associated with a significant decrease in the risk of early Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD), even when participants had a genetic predisposition for the disease (6). AMD is the leading cause of blindness in those 55 years or older.

There were 2,167 people enrolled in the study with several different genetic variations that made them high risk for AMD. Those with a highest nutrient intake, including B-carotene, zinc, lutein, zeaxanthin, EPA and DHA- substances found in fish, had an inverse relationship with risk of early AMD. Nutrients, thus, may play a role in modifying gene expression. 

Though many Americans are malnourished, nutrients that are effective and available can alter this predicament. Hopefully, with a focus on a high nutrient intake, we can improve life expectancy and, on an individual level, improve our quality of life.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) macrotrends.net. (3) N Engl J Med 2017; 377:143-153. (4) BMJ. 2009;338:b2337. (5) Neurology June 15, 2011. (6) Arch Ophthalmol. 2011;129(6):758-766.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

METRO photo
Avoid calcium supplements and fortified foods

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Kidney stones are relatively common, occurring more often in men than women (1). I have seen many patients who have a history of forming these stones. Unfortunately, once a patient forms one stone, the incidence of another increases significantly over time. However, there are several ways to reduce your risk.

Kidney stones, or nephrolithiasis, can have no symptoms, but more often they present with the classic symptoms of blood in the urine and colicky pain. Pain can be intermittent or constant, ranging from dull to extremely painful, described by some as being worse than giving birth, shot or burned. The pain may radiate from the kidneys to the bladder and even to the groin in males, depending on the obstruction (2). Stones are usually diagnosed through clinical suspicion and abdominal x-rays and/or non-contrast CT scans.

Unfortunately, the first line treatment for passing kidney stones – at least small ones – involves supportive care. This means that patients are given pain medications and plenty of fluids until the stone(s) pass. Usually stones that are <4mm pass spontaneously. Location is an important factor as well, with stones closest to the opening of the urethra more likely to pass (3). In the case of a stone too large to pass naturally, a urologist may use surgery, ultrasound, or a combination of methods to break it into smaller pieces, so it can be passed.

Stay hydrated

The good news is there are lifestyle changes that can reduce the risk of kidney stones. First, it is very important to stay hydrated, drinking plenty of fluids, especially if you have a history of stone formation (4).

 

Consume calcium from diet, not supplements

Pain from kidney stones can be intermittent or constant, ranging from dull to extremely painful.

One of the simplest methods is to reduce your intake of calcium supplements, including foods fortified with calcium. There are two types of stones. Calcium oxalate is the dominant one, occurring approximately 80 percent of the time (5). Calcium supplements, therefore, increase the risk of kidney stones. When physicians started treating women for osteoporosis with calcium supplements, the rate of kidney stones increased by 37 percent (6). According to findings from the Nurses’ Health Study, those who consumed highest amount of supplemental calcium were 20 percent more likely to have kidney stones than those who consumed the lowest amount (7). It did not matter whether participants were taking calcium citrate or calcium carbonate supplements.

Interestingly, calcium from dietary sources actually has the opposite effect, decreasing risk. In the same study, those participants who consumed the highest amount of dietary calcium had a 35 percent reduction in risk, compared to those who were in the lowest group. Calcium intake should not be too low, for that also increases kidney stone risk. However, the source of calcium is a key to preventing kidney stones.

Reduce sodium

Another modifiable risk factor is sodium. It’s important to reduce sodium for many reasons, but this provides one more. Again, in the Nurses’ Health Study, participants who consumed 4.5 g sodium per day had a 30 percent higher risk of kidney stones than those who consumed 1.5 g per day (7). The reason is that increased sodium causes increased urinary excretion of calcium. When there is more calcium going through the kidneys, there is a higher chance of stones.

Pain from kidney stones can be intermittent or constant, ranging from dull to extremely painful. METRO photo

Limit animal protein

Animal protein also seems to play a role. In a five-year, randomized clinical trial, men who consumed small amounts of animal protein, approximately two ounces per day, and lower sodium were 51 percent less likely to experience a kidney stone than those who consumed low amounts of calcium (8). These were men who had a history of stone formation. The reason animal protein may increase the risk of calcium oxalate stones more than vegetable protein is that its higher sulfur content produces more acid, which is neutralized by release of calcium from the bone (9).

Reduce blood pressure naturally

Some medical conditions may increase the likelihood of stone formation. For example, in a cross-sectional study with Italian men, those with high blood pressure had a two times greater risk of kidney stones than those who had a normal blood pressure (10). Amazingly, it did not matter if the patients were treated for high blood pressure with medications; the risk remained. This is just one more reason to treat the underlying cause of blood pressure, not the symptoms.

The most productive way to avoid the potentially excruciating experience of kidney stones is to make these relatively simple lifestyle changes. The more changes that you implement, the lower your risk of stones.

References:

(1) Kidney Int. 1979;16(5):624. (2) emedicine January 1, 2008. (3) J Urol. 2006;175(2):575. (4) J Urol. 1996;155(3):839. (5) N Engl J Med. 2004;350(7):684. (6) Kidney Int 2003;63:1817–23. (7) Ann Intern Med. 1997;126(7):497-504. (8) N Engl J Med. 2002 Jan 10;346(2):77-84. (9) J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 1988;66(1):140. (10) BMJ. 1990;300(6734):1234. 

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

*We invite you to check out our new weekly Medical Compass MD Health Videos on www.tbrnewsmedia.com.

METRO photo
Mouthwatering barbeque options can decrease health risks

By Daniel Dunaief

Dr. David Dunaief

What better way than the unofficial launch of summer holidays – and summer barbeques – to kick-start you on the path to preventing chronic diseases? In the past, I have written about the dangers of processed meats in terms of causing chronic diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. These are foods commonly found at barbeques and picnic meals. Therefore, I think it is only fair to talk about healthier alternatives and the evidence-based medicine that supports their benefits. The Mediterranean-style diet is a key to success. It is composed of thousands of beneficial nutrients that interact with each other in synergistic ways. 

The Mediterranean-style diet, as I have mentioned previous articles, includes green leafy vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, whole grains and small amounts of fish and olive oil. We all want to be healthier, but these are the summer holidays – doesn’t healthy mean tasteless? Not at all!

At a memorable family barbeque, we had a bevy of choices that were absolutely succulent. These included a three-bean salad, mandarin orange salad with mixed greens and a light raspberry vinaigrette, ratatouille with eggplant and zucchini, salmon fillets baked with mustard and slivered almonds, roasted corn on the cob, roasted vegetable shish kebobs, and large bowl of melons and berries. I am drooling at the memory of this buffet. Let’s look at the scientific evidence that explains why these foods help us.

Cancer prevention

Fruits and vegetables may help prevent pancreatic cancer. This is very important, since by the time there are symptoms, the cancer has spread to other organs and the patient usually has less than 2.7 years to live (1). Five-year survival is only five percent (2). In a case control (epidemiological observational) study, cooked vegetables showed a 43 percent reduction and non-citrus fruits showed an even more impressive 59 percent reduction in risk of pancreatic cancer (3). Interestingly, cooked vegetables, not just raw ones, had a substantial effect.

Garlic plays an important role in reducing the risk of colon cancer. In the IOWA Women’s Health Study, a large prospective (forward-looking) trial involving 41,837 women, there was a 32 percent reduction in risk of colon cancer for the highest intake of garlic compared to the lowest. Vegetable consumption also showed a statistically significant reduction in the disease, as well (4). Many of my patients find that fresh garlic provides a wonderful flavor when cooking vegetables.

Diabetes – treatment and prevention

Fish plays an important role in reducing the risk of diabetes. In a large prospective study that followed Japanese men for five years, those in the highest quartile of intake of fish and seafood had a substantial decrease in risk of type 2 diabetes (5). Smaller fish, such as mackerel and sardines, had a slightly greater effect than large fish and seafood in potentially preventing the disease. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with some grilled fish on the “barbie” to help protect you from developing diabetes. 

Nuts are beneficial in the treatment of diabetes. In a randomized clinical trial (the gold standard of studies), mixed nuts led to a substantial reduction of hemoglobin A1C, a very important biomarker for sugar levels for the previous three months (6). As an added benefit, there was also a significant reduction in LDL, bad cholesterol, which reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The nuts used in the study were raw almonds, pistachios, pecans, peanuts, cashews, hazelnuts, walnuts and macadamias. How easy is it to grab a small handful of unsalted raw nuts, about 2 ounces, on a daily basis to help treat diabetes?

Stroke prevention

Olive oil appears to have a substantial effect in preventing strokes. The Three City study showed that olive oil may have a protective effect against stroke. There was a 41 percent reduction in stroke events in those who used olive oil (7). Study participants, who were followed for a mean of 5.2 years, did not have a history of stroke at the start of the trial.

Though these are promising results, I caution you to use no more than one tablespoon of olive oil per day, since there are 120 calories in a tablespoon. 

It is not difficult to substitute the valuable Mediterranean-style diet for processed meats, or at least add them to the selection. This plant-based diet offers a tremendous number of protective elements in the prevention of many chronic diseases. So this Independence Day and beyond, plan to have on hand some mouth-watering healthy choices.

References:

(1) Nature. 2010;467:1114-1117. (2) Epidemiol Prev Anno 2007;31(Suppl 1). (3) Cancer Causes Control. 2010;21:493-500. (4) Am J Epidemiol. 1994 Jan 1;139(1):1-15. (5) Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Sep;94(3):884-891. (6) Diabetes Care. 2011 Aug;34(8):1706-11. (7) Neurology. 2011 Aug 2;77(5):418-25.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

Eating a diet rich in high fiber can help relieve the symptoms of hemorrhoids. Pixabay photo
Hydration, fiber and exercise help reduce problems

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Many of us have suffered at one time or another from inflamed hemorrhoids. They affect men and women equally, though women have a higher propensity during pregnancy and child birth. For some reason, there’s a social stigma associated with hemorrhoids, although we all have them. They’re vascular structures that aid in stool control. When they become irritated and inflamed, we have symptoms – and often say we “have hemorrhoids,” when we really mean our hemorrhoids are causing us pain.

When they’re irritated, hemorrhoids may alternate between itchy and painful symptoms, making it hard to concentrate and uncomfortable to sit. This is because the veins in your rectum are swollen. They usually bleed, especially during a bowel movement, which may scare us. Fortunately, hemorrhoids are not a harbinger of more serious disease.

There are two types of hemorrhoids: external, occurring outside the anus; and internal, occurring within the rectum. 

External hemorrhoids

Fortunately, external hemorrhoids tend to be mild. Most of the time, they are treated with analgesic creams or suppositories that contain hydrocortisone, such as Preparation H, or with a sitz bath, all of which help relieve the pain. Thus, they can be self-treated and do not require an appointment with a physician. The most effective way to reduce bleeding and pain is to increase fiber through diet and supplementation (1). However, sometimes there is thrombosis (clotting) of external hemorrhoids, in which case they may become more painful, requiring medical treatment.

Internal hemorrhoids

Internal hemorrhoids can be a bit more complicated. The primary symptom is bleeding with bowel movement, not pain, since they are usually above the point of sensation in the colon, called the dentate line. If the hemorrhoids prolapse below this, there may be pain and discomfort, as well. Prolapse is when hemorrhoids fall out of place, due to weakening of the muscles and ligaments in the colon. 

The first step for treating internal hemorrhoids is to add fiber through diet and supplementation. Study after study shows significant benefit. For instance, in a meta-analysis by the Cochrane Systems Data Review 2005, fiber reduced the occurrence of bleeding by 53 percent (2). In another study, after two weeks of fiber and another two-week follow-up, the daily incidence of bleeding was reduced dramatically (3).

There are several minimally invasive options, including anal banding, sclerotherapy and coagulation. The most effective of these is anal banding, with an approximate 80 percent success rate (4). This is usually an office-based procedure where two rubber bands are place at the neck of each hemorrhoid. To avoid complications from constipation, patients should also take fiber supplementation. 

Side-effects of the procedure are usually mild, and there is very low risk of infection. However, severe pain may occur if misapplication occurs with the band below the dentate line. If this procedure fails, hemorrhoidectomy (surgery) would be the next option.

Preventing hemorrhoid problems

First, sitting on the toilet for long periods of time puts significant pressure on the veins in the rectum, potentially increasing the risk of inflammation. Though you may want private time to read, the bathroom is not the library. As soon as you have finished moving your bowels, it is important to get off the toilet.

Eating more fiber helps to create bulk for your bowel movements, avoiding constipation, diarrhea and undue straining. 

Thus, you should try to increase the amount of fiber in your diet, before adding supplementation. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans and legumes have significant amounts of fiber. Grains, beans and nuts have among the highest levels of fiber. For instance, one cup of black beans has 12g of fiber. 

Americans, on average, consume 16g per day of fiber (5). The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends daily fiber intake for those <50 years old of 25 to 38 grams, depending on gender and age (6). I typically recommend at least 40g. My wife and I try to eat only foods that contain a significant amount of fiber, and we get approximately 65g per day. You may want to raise your fiber level gradually; if you do it too rapidly, be forewarned – side-effects are potentially gas and bloating for the first week or two.

Get plenty of fluids. It helps to soften the stool and prevent constipation. Exercise also helps to prevent constipation. It is important not to hold in a bowel movement; go when the urge is there or else the stool can become hard, causing straining, constipation and more time on the toilet. 

If you have rectal bleeding and either have a high risk for colorectal cancer or are over the age of 50, you should see your physician to make sure it is not due to a malignancy or other cause, such as inflammatory bowel disease. 

The message throughout this article is that Americans need to get more fiber, which is beneficial for inflamed hemorrhoid prevention and treatment.

References:

(1) Dis Colon Rectum. Jul-Aug 1982;25(5):454-6. (2) Cochrane.org. (3) Hepatogastroenterology 1996;43(12):1504-7. (4) Dis Colon Rectum 2004 Aug;47(8):1364-70. (5) usda.gov. (6) Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017 Jan-Feb; 11(1): 80–85.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

Pixabay photo

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Many patients say they have been diagnosed with diverticulitis, but this is a misnomer. Diverticulitis is actually a consequence of diverticular disease, or diverticulosis, one of the most common maladies that affects us as we age. For instance, 35 percent of U.S. 50-year-olds are affected and, for those over the age of 60, approximately 58 percent are affected (1). Many will never experience symptoms.

The good news is that it is potentially preventable through modest lifestyle changes. My goal in writing this article is twofold: to explain simple ways to reduce your risk, while also debunking a myth that is pervasive — that fiber, or more specifically nuts and seeds, exacerbates the disease.

What is diverticular disease? 

It is a weakening of the lumen, or wall of the colon, resulting in the formation of pouches or out-pocketing referred to as diverticula. The cause of diverticula may be attributable to pressure from constipation. Its mildest form, diverticulosis may be asymptomatic. 

Symptoms of diverticular disease may include fever and abdominal pain, predominantly in the left lower quadrant in Western countries, or the right lower quadrant in Asian countries. It may need to be treated with antibiotics.

Diverticulitis affects 10 to 25 percent of those with diverticulosis. Diverticulitis is inflammation and infection, which may lead to a perforation of the bowel wall. If a rupture occurs, emergency surgery may be required.

Unfortunately, the incidence of diverticulitis is growing. As of 2010, about 200,000 are hospitalized for acute diverticulitis each year, and roughly 70,000 are hospitalized for diverticular bleeding (2).

How do you prevent diverticular disease and its complications? There are a number of modifiable risk factors, including fiber intake, weight and physical activity.

Fiber’s effects

In terms of fiber, there was a prospective (forward-looking) study published online in the British Medical Journal that extolled the value of fiber in reducing the risk of diverticular disease (3). This was part of the EPIC trial, involving over 47,000 people living in Scotland and England. The study showed a 31 percent reduction in risk in those who were vegetarian. 

But more intriguing, participants who had the highest fiber intake saw a 41 percent reduction in diverticular disease. Those participants in the highest fiber group consumed >25.5 grams per day for women and >26.1 grams per day for men, whereas those in the lowest group consumed less than 14 grams per day. Though the difference in fiber between the two groups was small, the reduction in risk was substantial. 

Another study, which analyzed data from the Million Women Study, a large-scale, population-based prospective UK study of middle-aged women, confirmed the correlation between fiber intake and diverticular disease, and further analyzed the impact of different sources of fiber (4). The authors’ findings were that reduction in the risk of diverticular disease was greatest with high intake of cereal and fruit fiber.

Most Americans get about 16 grams of fiber per day. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends daily fiber intake for those <50 years old of 25-26 grams for women and 31-38 grams for men (5). Interestingly, their recommendations are lower for those who are over 50 years old.

Can you imagine what the effect is when people get at least 40 grams of fiber per day? This is what I recommend for my patients. Some foods that contain the most fiber include nuts, seeds, beans and legumes. In a study in 2009, specifically those men who consumed the most nuts and popcorn saw a protective effect from diverticulitis (6).

The role of obesity

Obesity plays a role, as well. In the large, prospective male Health Professionals Follow-up Study, body mass index played a significant role, as did waist circumference (7). Those who were obese (BMI >30 kg/m²) had a 78 percent increased risk of diverticulitis and a greater than threefold increased risk of a diverticular bleed compared to those who had a BMI in the normal range of <21 kg/m². For those whose waist circumference was in the highest group, they had a 56 percent increase risk of diverticulitis and a 96 percent increase risk of diverticular bleed. Thus, obesity puts patients at a much higher risk of the complications of diverticulosis.

Increasing physical activity

Physical activity is also important for reducing the risk of diverticular disease, although the exact mechanism is not yet understood. Regardless, the results are impressive. In a large prospective study, those with the greatest amount of exercise were 37 percent less likely to have diverticular disease compared to those with the least amount (8). Jogging and running seemed to have the most benefit. When the authors combined exercise with fiber intake, there was a dramatic 256 percent reduction in risk of this disease. 

Thus, preventing diverticular disease is based mostly on lifestyle modifications through diet and exercise.

References:

(1) www.niddk.nih.gov. (2) Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2016; 14(1):96–103.e1. (3) BMJ. 2011; 343: d4131. (4) Gut. 2014 Sep; 63(9): 1450–1456. (5) Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017 Jan-Feb; 11(1): 80–85. (6) AMA 2008; 300: 907-914. (7) Gastroenterology. 2009;136(1):115. (8) Gut. 1995;36(2):276.  

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

Lower meat and higher citrus intake may reduce cataracts

By David Dunaief, M.D

Dr. David Dunaief

We often think of cataracts as a symptom of age, but we can take an active role in preventing them. Cataracts are defined as an opacity or cloudiness of the lens in the eye, which decreases vision over time as it progresses. It’s very common for both eyes to be affected.

They affect a substantial portion of the U.S. population. In the U.S., 24.4 million people over the age of 40 were afflicted, according to statistics gathered by the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health (1). This number is expected to increase approximately 61 percent by the year 2030.

Cataract prevalence varies considerably by gender, with 61 percent of cases being women, and by race. The majority of those affected are white, with 80 percent of those affected. There are many modifiable risk factors including diet; smoking; sunlight exposure; chronic diseases, such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome; steroid use; and physical inactivity. Here, we will focus on the dietary factor.

The effects of different levels of meat intake

In a prospective (forward-looking) study, diet was shown to have substantial effect on the risk reduction for cataracts (2). This study was the United Kingdom group, with 27,670 participants, of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) trial. Participants completed food frequency questionnaires between 1993 and 1999. Then, they were checked for cataracts between 2008 and 2009.

There was an inverse relationship between the amount of meat consumed and cataract risk. In other words, those who ate a great amount of meat were at higher risk of cataracts. “Meat” included red meat, fowl and pork. These results followed what we call a dose-response curve. 

Compared to high meat eaters, every other group demonstrated a significant risk reduction as you progressed along a spectrum that included low meat eaters (15 percent reduction), fish eaters (21 percent reduction), vegetarians (30 percent reduction) and finally vegans (40 percent reduction). 

There really was not that much difference in meat consumption between high meat eaters, those having at least 3.5 ounces, and low meat eaters, those having less than 1.7 ounces a day, yet there was a substantial decline in cataracts. This suggests that you can realize a meaningful effect by simply reducing or replacing your average meat intake, rather than eliminating meat from your diet.

In my clinical experience, I’ve had several patients experience reversal of their cataracts after they transitioned to a nutrient-dense, plant-based diet. I didn’t think this was possible, but anecdotally, this is a very positive outcome and was confirmed by their ophthalmologists.

Antioxidants’ effects

Oxidative stress is one of the major contributors to the development of cataracts. In a review article that looked at 70 different trials for the development of cataract and/or maculopathies, such as age-related macular degeneration, the authors concluded antioxidants, which are micronutrients found in foods, play an integral part in eye disease prevention (3). The authors go on to say that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, as well as lifestyle modification with cessation of smoking and treatment of obesity at an early age, help to reduce the risk of cataracts. Thus, you are never too young or too old to take steps to prevent cataracts.

Among antioxidants studied that have shown positive effects is citrus. The Blue Mountains Eye Study found that participants who had the highest dietary intake of vitamin C reduced their 10-year risk for nuclear cataracts (4).

Surgery as an option

The only effective way to treat cataracts is with surgery; the most typical type is phacoemulsification. 

Ophthalmologists remove the opaque lens and replace it with a synthetic intraocular lens. This is done as an outpatient procedure and usually takes approximately 30 minutes. Fortunately, there is a very high success rate for this surgery. So why is it important to avoid cataracts if surgery can remedy them?

There are always potential risks with invasive procedures, such as infection, even though the chances of complications are low. However, more importantly, there is a greater than fivefold risk of developing late-stage age-related macular degeneration (AMD) after cataract surgery (5). This is wet AMD, which can cause significant vision loss. These results come from a meta-analysis (group of studies) looking at more than 6,000 patients.

It has been hypothesized that the surgery may induce inflammatory changes and the development of leaky blood vessels in the retina of the eye. However, because this meta-analysis was based on observational studies, it is not clear whether undiagnosed AMD may have existed prior to the cataract surgery, since they have similar underlying causes related to oxidative stress.

Therefore, if you can reduce the risk of cataracts through diet and other lifestyle modifications, plus avoid the potential consequences of cataract surgery, all while reducing the risk of chronic diseases, why not choose the win-win scenario?

References:

(1) nei.nih.gov. (2) Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 May; 93(5):1128-1135. (3) Exp Eye Res. 2007; 84: 229-245. (4) Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Jun; 87(6):1899-1305. (5) Ophthalmology. 2003; 110(10):1960.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

 

Image from FDA
Much of our sodium comes from processed foods, including breads and sauces

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

When you hear someone tell you that you should lower your salt intake, how do you respond? Typically, I hear responses like, “I don’t use salt,” “I use very little,” or “I don’t have high blood pressure, so I don’t have to worry.”

Unfortunately, these are rarely true. All of us should be concerned about salt or, more specifically, our sodium intake. Also, approximately 90 percent of Americans consume too much sodium (1).

Why do we care?

We most often hear that excessive sodium in our diets increases the risk of high blood pressure (hypertension), which has consequences like stroke and heart disease.

Now comes the interesting part. Sodium also has a nefarious effect on the kidneys. In the Nurses’ Health Study, approximately 3,200 women were evaluated in terms of kidney function, looking at the estimated glomerular filtration rate (GFR) as related to sodium intake (2). Over 14 years, those with a sodium intake of 2,300 mg had a much greater chance of an at least 30 percent reduction in kidney function, compared to those who consumed 1,700 mg per day.

Why is this study important? Kidneys are one of our main systems for removing toxins and waste. The kidneys are where many initial high blood pressure medications work, including ACE inhibitors, such as lisinopril; ARBs, such as Diovan or Cozaar; and diuretics (water pills). If the kidney loses function, it can be harder to treat high blood pressure. Worse, it could lead to chronic kidney disease and dialysis. Once someone has reached dialysis, most blood pressure medications are not very effective.

How much is too much?

Ironically, the current recommended maximum sodium intake is 2,300 mg per day, or one teaspoon, the same level that led to negative effects in the study. However, Americans’ mean intake is twice that level.

If we reduced our consumption by even a modest 20 percent, we could reduce the incidence of heart disease dramatically. Current recommendations from the American Heart Association indicate an upper limit of 2,300 mg per day, with an “ideal” limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day (3).

Where does sodium hide?

If the salt shaker is not the problem, what is? Most of our sodium comes from processed foods, packaged foods and restaurants. There is nothing wrong with eating out or ordering in on occasion, but you can’t control how much salt goes into your food. My wife is a great barometer of restaurant salt use. If food from the night before was salty, she complains of her clothes and rings being tight.

Do you want to lose 5 to 10 pounds quickly? Decreasing your salt intake will allow you to achieve this. Excess sodium causes the body to retain fluids.

One approach is to choose products that have 200 mg or fewer per serving indicated on the label. Foods labeled “low sodium” have fewer than 140 mg of sodium, but foods labeled “reduced sodium” have 25 percent less than the full-sodium version, which doesn’t necessarily mean much. 

Soy sauce has 1,000 mg of sodium per tablespoon, but low-sodium soy sauce still has about 600 mg per tablespoon. Salad dressings and other condiments, where serving sizes are small, add up very quickly. Mustard has 120 mg per teaspoon. Most of us use far more than one teaspoon of mustard. 

Caveat emptor: Make sure to read labels on all packaged foods very carefully.

Breads and rolls are another hidden source. Most contain a decent amount of sodium. I have seen a single slice of whole wheat bread include up to 200 mg. of sodium.

If you are working to decrease your sodium intake, become an avid label reader. Sodium hides in all kinds of foods that don’t necessarily taste salty, such as breads, soups, cheeses and salad dressings. I also recommend getting all sauces on the side, so you can control how much — if any — you choose to use.

What about sea salt?

Are fancy sea salts better than table salt? High amounts of salt are harmful, and the type is not important. The only difference between them is slight taste and texture variation. I recommend not buying either. In addition to the health issues, salt tends to dampen your taste buds, masking the flavors of food.

As you reduce your sodium intake, you might be surprised at how quickly your taste buds adjust. In just a few weeks, foods you previously thought didn’t taste salty will seem overwhelmingly so, and you will notice new flavors in unsalted foods.

If you have a salt shaker and don’t know what to do with all the excess salt, don’t despair. There are several uses for salt that are actually beneficial. According to the Mayo Clinic, gargling with ¼ to ½ teaspoon of salt in eight ounces of warm water significantly reduces symptoms of a sore throat from infectious disease, such as mononucleosis, strep throat and the common cold. Having had mono, I can attest that this works.

Remember, if you want to season your food at a meal, you are much better off asking for the pepper than the salt.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2010;5:836-843. (3) heart.org.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

Switching to a Mediterranean diet will help treat elevated blood pressure. Metro Photo
Treating early with lifestyle changes can improve your long-term outcomes

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

We have focused a large amount of effort on the treatment and prevention of hypertension (high blood pressure) in the U.S, where it’s pervasive: it affects approximately 45 percent of adults over 18 in the U.S. (1).

Since 2017, this insidious disorder’s severity has been categorized into three stages, each with its recommended treatment regimen. One of the most interesting shifts with this recategorization was the recategorization of what we used to call “prehypertension” into what we now call “elevated” blood pressure and “hypertension stage 1.” 

Elevated blood pressure is defined as systolic blood pressure (the top number) of 120-129 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) of less than 80 mmHg, while Stage 1 includes systolic blood pressure of 130-139 mmHg or diastolic blood pressure of less than 80-89 mmHg (2).

The consequences of both are significant, even though there are often no symptoms. For example, they increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack dramatically. In an analysis of the Framingham Heart Study, researchers found a 3.5-fold increase in the risk of heart attack and a 1.7-fold increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease among those with prehypertension (3). This is why it’s crucial to treat it in these early stages, even before it reaches the more severe levels of hypertension.

Another study, the Women’s Health Initiative, which followed more than 60,000 postmenopausal women for an average of 7.7 years, showed an increase in heart attack deaths, heart attacks and strokes compared to those with normal blood pressure (less than 120/80 mmHg). In the Strong Heart Study, prehypertension independently increased the risk for cardiovascular events at 12 years significantly (4).

This may or may not impact mortality, but it certainly does impact quality of life, which can be dramatically reduced with heart disease, heart attack and hypertension.

Elevated blood pressure treatment

In my view, it would be foolish not to treat elevated blood pressure. Updated recommendations for treatment, according to the Joint National Commission (JNC) 8, the association responsible for guidelines on the treatment of hypertension, are lifestyle modifications (5).

Lifestyle changes include a Mediterranean-type diet or the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. It’s important to focus on fruits, vegetables, reduction in sodium to a maximum of 1500 mg (2/3 of a teaspoon on a daily basis), exercise, weight loss and no more than moderate amounts of alcohol (1 or fewer drinks for women and 2 or fewer drinks for men on a daily basis) (6). Some studies have also shown that a diet rich in potassium helps to reduce blood pressure (7). 

Fortunately, foods like fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes have significant amounts of potassium. However, do not take potassium supplements unless instructed for other reasons by a physician; high potassium can be very dangerous and may precipitate a heart attack.

The danger in treating elevated blood pressure comes only when medication is used, due to side effects. For example, the Trial of Preventing Hypertension (TROPHY), suggests the use of a hypotensive agent, the blood pressure drug Atacand (candesartan) to treat prehypertensive patients (8)(9). The drug reduced the incidence of hypertension significantly compared to placebo over two years. However, after stopping therapy, the following two years showed only a small benefit over placebo. Still, the authors implied that this may be a plausible treatment. The study was funded by Astra-Zeneca, the makers of the drug. 

In an editorial, Jay I. Meltze, M.D., a clinical specialist in hypertension at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, noted that the results were interpreted in an unusually favorable way (10). 

Elevated blood pressure is an asymptomatic disorder that has been shown to respond well to lifestyle changes — why create symptoms with medication? Therefore, I don’t recommend treating elevated blood pressure patients with medication. Thankfully, the JNC8 agrees.

However, it should be treated — and treated with lifestyle modifications. The side effects from this approach are only better overall health.

References:

(1) cdc.gov. (2) heart.org. (3) Stroke 2005; 36: 1859–1863. (4) Hypertension 2006;47:410-414. (5) Am Fam Physician. 2014 Oct 1;90(7):503-504. (6) J Am Coll Cardiol. 2018 May, 71 (19) 2176–2198. (7) Archives of Internal Medicine 2001;161:589-593. (8) N Engl J Med. 2006;354:1685-1697. (9) J Am Soc Hypertens. Jan-Feb 2008;2(1):39-43. (10) Am J Hypertens. 2006;19:1098-1100.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

Stock photo
Fiber has very powerful effects on our overall health

By David Dunaief

Dr. David Dunaief

Americans are woefully deficient in fiber, getting between eight and 15 grams per day, when they should be ingesting more than 40 grams daily.

Still, many people worry about getting enough protein, when they really should be concerned about getting enough fiber. Most of us — except perhaps professional athletes or long-distance runners — get enough protein in our diets. Protein has not prevented or helped treat diseases to the degree that studies illustrate with fiber. 

In order to increase our daily intake, several myths need to be dispelled. First, fiber does more than improve bowel movements. Also, fiber doesn’t have to be unpleasant. 

The attitude has long been that to get enough fiber, one needs to eat a cardboard box. With certain sugary cereals, you may be better off eating the box, but on the whole, this is not true. Though fiber comes in supplement form, most of your daily intake should be from diet. It is actually relatively painless to get enough fiber; you just have to become aware of which foods are fiber-rich.

All fiber is not equal

Does the type of fiber make a difference? One of the complexities is that there are a number of different classifications of fiber, from soluble to viscous to fermentable. Within each of the types, there are subtypes of fiber. Not all fiber sources are equal. Some are more effective in preventing or treating certain diseases. Take, for instance, a 2004 irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) study (1). 

It was a meta-analysis (a review of multiple studies) study using 17 randomized controlled trials with results showing that soluble psyllium improved symptoms in patients significantly more than insoluble bran.

Reducing disease risk and mortality

Fiber has very powerful effects on our overall health. A very large prospective cohort study showed that fiber may increase longevity by decreasing mortality from cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases and other infectious diseases (2). Over a nine-year period, those who ate the most fiber, in the highest quintile group, were 22 percent less likely to die than those in lowest group. Patients who consumed the most fiber also saw a significant decrease in mortality from cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases and infectious diseases. The authors of the study believe that it may be the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects of whole grains that are responsible for the positive results. 

Along the same lines of the respiratory findings, we see benefit with prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) with fiber in a relatively large epidemiologic analysis of the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities study (3). The specific source of fiber was important. Fruit had the most significant effect on preventing COPD, with a 28 percent reduction in risk. Cereal fiber also had a substantial effect but not as great.

Fiber also has powerful effects on breast cancer treatment. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, soluble fiber had a significant impact on breast cancer risk reduction in estrogen negative women (4). Most beneficial studies for breast cancer have shown results in estrogen receptor positive women. This is one of the few studies that has illustrated significant results in estrogen receptor negative women. 

The list of chronic diseases and disorders that fiber prevents and/or treats also includes cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, diverticulosis and weight gain. This is hardly an exhaustive list. I am trying to impress upon you the importance of increasing fiber in your diet.

Where do we find fiber?

Foods that are high in fiber are part of a plant-rich diet. They are whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds. Overall, beans, as a group, have the highest amount of fiber. Animal products don’t have fiber. Even more interesting is that fiber is one of the only foods that has no calories, yet helps you feel full. These days, it’s easy to increase your fiber by choosing bean-based pastas. Personally, I prefer those based on lentils. Read the labels, though; you want those that are solely made from lentils without rice added.

If you have a chronic disease, the best fiber sources are most likely disease-dependent. However, if you are trying to prevent chronic diseases in general, I would recommend getting fiber from a wide array of sources. Make sure to eat meals that contain substantial amounts of fiber, which has several advantages, such as avoiding processed foods, reducing the risk of chronic disease, satiety and increased energy levels. Certainly, while protein is important, each time you sit down at a meal, rather than asking how much protein is in it, you now know to ask how much fiber is in it. 

References:

(1) Aliment Pharmacology and Therapeutics 2004;19(3):245-251. (2) Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(12):1061-1068. (3) Amer J Epidemiology 2008;167(5):570-578. (4) Amer J Clinical Nutrition 2009;90(3):664–671. 

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com. 

Moderation is the key. Photo from Pexels
Modest alcohol consumption may decrease stroke risk in women

By David Dunaief

Dr. David Dunaief

Alcohol is one of the most widely used over-the-counter drugs, and there is much confusion over whether it is beneficial or detrimental to your health. The short answer: it depends on your circumstances, including your family history and consideration of diseases you are at high risk of developing. 

Several studies have been published – some touting alcohol’s health benefits, with others warning of its risks. The diseases addressed by these studies include breast cancer, heart disease and stroke. Remember, context is the determining factor for alcohol intake.

Breast Cancer Impact

In a meta-analysis of 113 studies, there was an increased risk of breast cancer with daily consumption of alcohol (1). The increase was a modest, but statistically significant, four percent, and the effect was seen at one drink or less a day. The authors warned that women who are at high risk of breast cancer should not drink alcohol or should drink it only occasionally.

It was also shown in the Nurses’ Health Study that drinking three to six glasses a week increases the risk of breast cancer modestly over a 28-year period (2). This study involved over 100,000 women. Even a half-glass of alcohol was associated with a 15 percent elevated risk of invasive breast cancer. The risk was dose-dependent, with one to two drinks per day increasing risk to 22 percent, while those having three or more drinks per day had a 51 percent increased risk.

Alcohol’s impact on breast cancer risk is being actively studied, considering types of alcohol, as well as other mitigating factors that may increase or decrease risk. We still have much to learn.

Based on what we think we know, if you are going to drink, a drink several times a week may have the least impact on breast cancer. According to an accompanying editorial, alcohol may work by increasing the levels of sex hormones, including estrogen, and we don’t know if stopping diminishes the effect, although it might (3).

Stroke Effects

On the positive side, the Nurses’ Health Study demonstrated a decrease in the risk of both ischemic (caused by clots) and hemorrhagic (caused by bleeding) strokes with low to moderate amounts of alcohol (4). This analysis involved over 83,000 women. Those who drank less than a half-glass of alcohol daily were 17 percent less likely than nondrinkers to experience a stroke. Those who consumed one-half to one-and-a-half glasses a day had a 23 percent decreased risk of stroke, compared to nondrinkers. 

However, women who consumed more experienced a decline in benefit, and drinking three or more glasses daily resulted in a non-significant increased risk of stroke. The reasons for alcohol’s benefits in stroke have been postulated to involve an anti-platelet effect (preventing clots) and increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Patients shouldn’t drink alcohol solely to get stroke protection benefits. 

Moderation is the key.
METRO photo

Heart effects

In the Health Professionals follow-up study, there was a substantial decrease in the risk of death after a heart attack from any cause, including heart disease, in men who drank moderate amounts of alcohol compared to those who drank more or were non-drinkers (5). Those who drank less than one glass daily experienced a 22 percent risk reduction, while those who drank one-to-two glasses saw a 34 percent risk reduction. The authors mention that binge drinking negates any benefits. This study has a high durability spanning 20 years.

Citrus benefits rival alcohol benefits for stroke risk

An analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study recently showed that those who consumed more citrus fruits had approximately a 19 percent reduction in stroke risk (6). These results were similar to the reduction seen in the Nurses’ Health Study with modest amounts of alcohol.

The citrus fruits used most often in this study were oranges and grapefruits. Of note, grapefruit may interfere with medications such as Plavix (clopidogrel), a commonly used antiplatelet medication used to prevent strokes (7). Grapefruit inhibits the CYP3A4 system in the liver, thus increasing the levels of certain medications.

Alcohol in Moderation

Moderation is the key. It is very important to remember that alcohol is a drug that does have side effects, including insomnia. The American Heart Association recommends that women drink up to one glass a day of alcohol. I would say that less is more. To get the stroke benefits and avoid the increased breast cancer risk, half a glass of alcohol per day may be the ideal amount for women. Moderate amounts of alcohol for men are up to two glasses daily, though one glass showed significant benefits. 

Remember, there are other ways of reducing your risk of these maladies that don’t require alcohol. However, if you enjoy alcohol, moderate amounts may reap some health benefits.

References:

(1) Alc and Alcoholism. 2012;47(3)3:204–212. (2) JAMA. 2011;306:1884-1890. (3) JAMA. 2011;306(17):1920-1921. (4) Stroke. 2012;43:939–945. (5) Eur Heart J. Published online March 28, 2012. (6) Stroke. 2012;43:946–951. (7) Medscape.com.

Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com.