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Medical Compass

Osteoarthritis is a risk factor. METRO photo

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Despite the best efforts of public campaigns and individual physicians, heart disease is still the number one cause of death in the U.S. (1). To put that in perspective, every 33 seconds, one person dies of heart disease.

While some risk factors are obvious, others are not. Obvious ones include family history, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, diabetes and smoking. In addition, age plays a role in risk: men at least 45 years old and women at least 55 years old are at greater risk. Less obvious risks include gout, atrial fibrillation and osteoarthritis. 

The good news is that we have more control than we think. Most of these risks can be significantly reduced with lifestyle modifications.

How much role does weight really play in heart disease risk?

Obesity continually gets play in discussions of disease risk. But how important is it, really?

In the Copenhagen General Population Study, results showed an increased heart attack risk in those who were overweight and in those who were obese – with or without metabolic syndrome, which includes a trifecta of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high sugar levels (2). “Obese” was defined as a body mass index (BMI) over 30 kg/m², while “overweight” included those with a BMI over 25 kg/m².

Heart attack risk increased in direct proportion to weight. Specifically, there was a 26 percent increase in heart attack risk for those who were overweight and an 88 percent increase in risk for those who were obese without metabolic syndrome.

It is true that those with metabolic syndrome and obesity together had the highest risk. However, it is quite surprising that obesity, by itself, can increase heart attack risk when a person is “metabolically healthy.” Because this was an observational trial, the results represent an association between obesity and heart disease. Basically, it’s telling us that there may not be such a thing as a “metabolically healthy” obese patient. If you are obese, this is one of many reasons that it’s critical to lose weight.

Do activity levels really affect heart disease risk?

Let’s consider another lifestyle factor; activity levels. An observational study found that these had a surprisingly high impact on women’s heart disease risk (3). Of four key factors — weight, blood pressure, smoking and physical inactivity — age was the determinant as to which one had the most negative effect. Those under the age of 30 saw smoking as most negatively impactful. For those over the age of 30, lack of exercise became the most dominant risk factor for heart disease, including heart attacks.

For women over age 70, the study found that increasing physical activity may have a greater positive impact than addressing high blood pressure, losing weight, or even quitting smoking. However, since high blood pressure was self-reported, it may have been underestimated as a risk factor. Nonetheless, the researchers indicated that women should make sure they exercise on a regular basis to most significantly reduce heart disease risk.

How long should you suffer with osteoarthritis?

The prevailing thought with osteoarthritis is that it is best to live with hip or knee pain as long as possible before having surgery. But when do we cross the line and potentially need joint replacement? In a study, those with osteoarthritis of the hip or knee joints that caused difficulty walking on a flat surface were at substantially greater risk of cardiovascular events, including heart attack (4). Those who had surgery for the affected joint saw a substantially reduced heart attack risk. If you have osteoarthritis, it is important to improve mobility, whether with surgery or other treatments. Of course, I have written in previous columns about techniques for managing osteoarthritis.

When does fiber matter most?

Studies show that fiber decreases the risks of heart attack and of death after a heart attack. In a recent analysis using data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professional Follow-up Study, results showed that higher fiber plays an important role in reducing the risk of death after a heart attack (5).

Those who consumed the most fiber, compared to the least, had a 25 percent reduction in post-heart attack mortality. Even more impressive is that those who increased their fiber after a cardiovascular event had a 31 percent reduction in mortality risk. The most intriguing part of the study was the dose response. For every 10-gram increase in fiber consumption, there was a 15 percent reduction in the risk of post-heart attack mortality. For perspective, 10 grams of fiber is a little over one cup of raspberries or two-thirds of a cup of black beans or lentils.

How much does lifestyle really affect heart disease risk?

In the Nurses’ Health Study, which followed 120,000 women for 20 years, those who routinely exercised, ate a quality diet, did not smoke and were a healthy weight demonstrated a whopping 84 percent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular events such as heart attacks (6).

We can substantially reduce the risk of heart attacks and even potentially the risk of death after sustaining a heart attack with modifications that include weight loss, physical activity and diet. While there are many diseases that contribute to heart attack risk, most of them are modifiable.


(1) cdc.gov. (2) JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(1):15-22. (3) Br J Sports Med. 2014, May 8. (4) PLoS ONE. 2014, 9: e91286 (5) BMJ. 2014;348:g2659. (6) N Engl J Med. 2000;343(1):16.

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 or consult your personal physician.

METRO photo
Chest pain is only one of many possible symptoms.

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Each year, 805,000 people in the U.S. have heart attacks, or myocardial infarctions —about one every 40 seconds (1). These statistics traverse race and gender lines, even though symptoms may be experienced differently. Outcomes for those having a heart attack are significantly better if they receive immediate medical attention. First, however, you need to recognize the symptoms.

What are symptoms of a heart attack?

The most recognizable symptom is chest pain. However, there are a number of other, more subtle, symptoms such as discomfort or pain in the jaw, neck, back, arms and epigastric, or upper abdominal areas. Others include nausea, shortness of breath, sweating, light-headedness and tachycardia (racing heart rate).

Unfortunately, less than one-third of people know these symptoms (2). About 10 percent of patients present with atypical symptoms — without chest pain — according to one study (3).

It is not only difficult for the patient but also for the medical community, especially the emergency room, to determine who is having a heart attack. Fortunately, approximately 80 to 85 percent of chest pain sufferers are not having a heart attack. More likely, they have indigestion, reflux or other non-life-threatening ailments. However, don’t hesitate to seek immediate medical attention; it’s better to have a medical professional rule out a heart attack than to ignore one.

Are heart attack symptoms different for men and women?

There has been much discussion about whether men and women have different symptoms when it comes to heart attacks. Several studies speak to this topic.

There is data showing that, although men have heart attacks more commonly, women are more likely to die from a heart attack (4). In a Swedish study, after having a heart attack, a significantly greater number of women died in the hospital or near-term when compared to men. The women received reperfusion therapy, artery opening treatment that consisted of medications or invasive procedures, less often than the men.

However, recurrent heart attacks occurred at the same rate, regardless of sex. Both men and women had similar findings on an electrocardiogram. This was a study involving approximately 54,000 heart attack patients, with one-third being women.

One theory about why women receive less aggressive treatment when first presenting in the ER is that they have different and more subtle symptoms — even chest pain symptoms may be different. But, is this true? Not according to several studies.

In one observational study of 2,500 patients with chest pain, results showed that, though there were some subtle differences, when men and women presented with this main symptom, it was of a similar nature (5). There were 34 chest pain characteristic questions used to determine if a difference existed. These included location, quality or type of pain and duration. Of these, there was some small amount of divergence: the duration was shorter for a man (2 to 30 minutes), and pain subsided more for men than for women. The authors concluded that determination of heart attacks with chest pain symptoms should not factor in the sex of patients.

This trial involved an older population; patients were a median age of 70 for women and 59 for men, with more men having had a prior heart attack. The population difference was a conspicuous weakness of an otherwise solid study, since age and previous heart attack history are important factors.

In the GENESIS-PRAXY study, another observational study, the median age of both men and women was 49. Results showed that chest pain remained the most prevalent presenting symptom in both men and women (6). However, of the patients who presented without distinct chest pain and with less specific EKG findings, significantly more were women than men.

Those who did not have chest pain symptoms may have experienced back discomfort, weakness, discomfort or pain in the throat, neck, right arm and/or shoulder, flushing, nausea, vomiting and headache. If the patients did not have chest pain, regardless of sex, the symptoms were diffuse and nonspecific. 

Some studies imply that as much as 35 percent of patients do not present with chest pain as their primary complaint (7).

What should you do if someone is having a heart attack?

Call 911 immediately, and have the patient chew an adult aspirin (325 mg) or four baby aspirins, provided they do not have a condition that precludes taking aspirin. The purpose of aspirin is to thin the blood quickly, but not if the person might have a ruptured blood vessel. The 911 operator or emergency medical technician who responds can help you determine whether aspirin is appropriate.

What are the most frequently occurring heart attack symptoms to watch for?

Most patients have chest pain, and both men and women have similar types of chest pain. However, this is where the simplicity stops and the complexity begins. The percentage of patients who present without chest pain seems to vary significantly depending on which study you review — ranging from less than 10 percent to 35 percent.

Non-chest pain heart attacks have a bevy of diffuse symptoms, including obscure pain, nausea, shortness of breath and light-headedness. This is seen in both men and women, although it occurs more often in women. It’s important to recognize heart attack symptoms, since quick action can save your life or that of a loved one.


(1) Circulation. 2022;145(8):e153–e639. (2) MMWR. 2008;57:175–179. (3) Chest. 2004;126:461-469. (4) Int J Cardiol. 2013;168:1041-1047. (5) JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Feb. 1;174:241-249. (6) JAMA Intern Med. 2013;173:1863-1871. (7) JAMA. 2012;307:813-822.

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 or consult your personal physician.

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Proton pump inhibitors should be taken at the lowest dose for the shortest possible time.

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Sometimes referred to as “reflux” or “heartburn,” Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is one of the most treated diseases in the U.S. Technically, heartburn is a symptom of GERD, so this is a bit of a misnomer.

Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs), first launched in 1989, have become one of the top-10 drug classes prescribed or taken over-the-counter (OTC). PPIs currently available OTC include Prilosec (omeprazole), Nexium (esomeprazole), Prevacid (lansoprazole), Protonix (pantoprazole), and Aciphex (rabeprazole). These and others are also available by prescription.

Their appeal among physicians has been their possible role in the reduction of esophageal cancer resulting from Barrett’s Esophagus. Interestingly, recent studies note that this perceived benefit may not be real (1).

PPIs are not intended for long-term use, because of their robust side effect profile. The FDA currently suggests that OTC PPIs should be taken for no more than a 14-day treatment once every four months. Prescription PPIs should be taken for 4 to 8 weeks (2).

However, their OTC availability can lead patients to take them too long or too often to manage reflux rebound effects when PPIs are discontinued without physician oversight. In addition, some existing medical risks are heightened by PPIs. 

Among potential associations with long-term use are chronic kidney disease, dementia, bone fractures, increased cardiac and vascular risks, vitamin malabsorption issues and Clostridium difficile, a bacterial infection of the gastrointestinal tract.

PPIs and the kidneys

In two separate studies, results showed that there was an increase in chronic kidney disease with prolonged PPI use (3). All of the patients started study with normal kidney function, based on glomerular filtration rate (GFR). In the Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities (ARIC) study, there was a 50 percent increased risk of chronic kidney disease, while the Geisinger Health System cohort study found there was a 17 percent increased risk.

The first study had a 13-year duration, and the second had about a six-year duration. Both demonstrated modest, but statistically significant, increased risk of chronic kidney disease. But as you can see, the medications were used on a chronic basis for years. In an accompanying editorial to these published studies, the author suggests that there is overuse of the medications or that they are used beyond the resolution of symptoms and suggests starting with diet and lifestyle modifications as well as a milder drug class, H2 blockers (4).

Increased dementia risk

A German study looked at health records from a large public insurer and found there was a 44 percent increased risk of dementia in the elderly who were using PPIs, compared to those who were not (5). These patients were at least age 75. The authors surmise that PPIs may cross the blood-brain barrier and potentially increase beta-amyloid levels, markers for dementia. With occasional use, meaning once every 18 months for a few weeks to a few months, there was a much lower increased risk of 16 percent.

The researchers also suggested that PPIs may be significantly overprescribed in the elderly. Unfortunately, there were confounding factors that may have conflated the risk. Researchers also did not take into account high blood pressure, excessive alcohol use or family history of dementia, all of which influence dementia occurrence.

Increased fracture risk

In a meta-analysis of 18 observational studies, results showed that PPIs can increase the risk of hip fractures, spine fractures and any-site fractures (6). Interestingly, when it came to bone fractures, it did not make a difference whether patients were taking PPIs for more or less than a year.

They found increased fracture risks of 58, 26 and 33 percent for spine, hip and any site, respectively. It is not clear what may potentially increase the risk; however, it has been proposed that it may have to do with calcium absorption. PPIs reduce acid, which may be needed to absorb insoluble calcium salts. In another study, seven days of PPIs were shown to lower the absorption of calcium carbonate supplements when taken without food (7).

Vitamin absorption issues

In addition to calcium absorption issues, PPIs may have lower absorption effects on magnesium and B12. In one observational study, PPIs combined with diuretics caused a 73 percent increased risk of hospitalization due to low magnesium (8). Diuretics are commonly prescribed for high blood pressure, heart failure and swelling.

A second study, a meta-analysis of nine studies, confirmed these results: PPIs increased the risk of low magnesium in patients by 43 percent, and when researchers looked only at higher quality studies, the risk increased to 63 percent (9). The authors note that a significant reduction in magnesium could lead to cardiovascular events.

Another study’s results showed long-term use of over two years increased vitamin B12 deficiency risk by 65 percent (10).

The bottom line

It’s best if you confer with your doctor before starting PPIs. You may not need PPIs, but rather a milder medication, such as an H2 blocker (Zantac, Pepcid). In addition, PPIs may interfere with other drugs you are taking, such as Plavix (clopidogrel).

Even better, start with lifestyle modifications including diet, not eating later at night, raising the head of the bed, losing weight and stopping smoking, if needed, and then consider medications (11).

If you do need medication, recognize that PPIs don’t give immediate relief and should only be taken for a short duration to minimize their side effects.


(1) PLoS One. 2017; 12(1): e0169691. (2) fda.gov. (3) JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(2). (4) JAMA Intern Med. 2016;176(2):172-174. (5) JAMA Neurol. online Feb 15, 2016. (6) Osteoporos Int. online Oct 13, 2015. (7) Am J Med. 118:778-781. (8) PLoS Med. 2014;11(9):e1001736. (9) Ren Fail. 2015;37(7):1237-1241. (10) Mayo Clinic Proceedings. 2018 Feb;93(2):240-246. (11) Am J Gastroenterol 2015; 110:393–400.

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 or consult your personal physician.

Bone health. METRO photo

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

The medical community doesn’t universally agree about the value of milk and dairy consumption for preventing osteoporosis and fractures later in life. The prevalence of osteoporosis in the U.S. is increasing as the population ages. If you are over 50, your risk for osteoporosis should be on your radar. Fifty percent of women and 25 percent of men will break a bone due to osteoporosis in their lifetimes, according to the Bone Health & Osteoporosis Foundation (1).

Hip fractures are most concerning, because they increase mortality risk dramatically. In addition, more than 50 percent of hip fracture survivors lose the ability to live independently (2).

Does dairy consumption make a difference for osteoporosis risk?

The importance of drinking milk for strong bones has been drilled into us since we were toddlers. Milk has calcium and is fortified with vitamin D, so milk could only be helpful, right? Not necessarily.

The data is mixed, but studies indicate that milk may not be as beneficial as we have been led to believe. Even worse, it may be harmful. The operative word here is “may.”

The results of a large, observational study involving men and women in Sweden showed that milk may actually be harmful (3). When comparing those who consumed three or more cups of milk daily to those who consumed less than one, there was a 93 percent increased risk of mortality in women between the ages of 39 and 74. There was also an indication of increased mortality based on dosage.

For every one glass of milk consumed there was a 15 percent increased risk of death in these women. There was a much smaller, but significant, three percent per glass increased risk of death in men. For both men and women, biomarkers that indicate higher levels of oxidative stress and inflammation were found in the urine.

This 20-year study was eye-opening. We cannot make any decisive conclusions, only associations, since it’s not a randomized controlled trial. It does get you thinking, though. The researchers surmise that milk has high levels of D-galactose, a simple sugar that may increase inflammation and ultimately contribute to this potentially negative effect.

Ironically, the USDA recommends that, from 9 years of age through adulthood, we consume about three cups of dairy per day (4).

Previous studies show milk may not be beneficial for preventing osteoporotic fractures. Specifically, in a meta-analysis that used data from the Nurses’ Health Study for women and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study for men, neither men nor women saw any benefit from milk consumption in preventing hip fractures (5).

In a 2020 meta-analysis of an array of past studies, researchers concluded that increased consumption of milk and other dairy products did not lower osteoporosis and hip fracture risks (6).

Does calcium supplementation reduce risk?

We know calcium is a required element for strong bones, but do supplements really prevent osteoporosis and subsequent fractures? Again, the data are mixed, but supplements may not be the answer for those who are not deficient.

In a meta-analysis involving a group of observational studies, there was no statistically significant improvement in hip fracture risk in those men or women ingesting at least 300 mg of calcium from supplements and/or food daily (7).

The researchers did not differentiate the types of foods containing calcium. In a group of randomized controlled trials analyzed in the same study, those taking 800 to 1,600 mg of calcium supplements per day also saw no increased benefit in reducing nonvertebral fractures. In fact, in four clinical trials the researchers actually saw an increase in hip fractures among those who took calcium supplements. A weakness of this large study is that vitamin D baseline levels, exercise and phosphate levels were not considered in the analysis.

Does supplementing vitamin D reduce risk?

Finally, though the data are not always consistent for vitamin D, when it comes to fracture prevention, it appears it may be valuable. In a meta-analysis involving 11 randomized controlled trials, vitamin D supplementation resulted in a reduction in fractures (8). When patients were given a median dose of 800 IUs (ranging from 792 to 2,000 IUs) of vitamin D daily, there was a significant 14 percent reduction in nonvertebral fractures and an even greater 30 percent reduction in hip fractures in those who were 65 years and over. However, vitamin D in lower levels showed no significant ability to reduce fracture risk.

Where does that leave us?

Our knowledge of dietary approaches is continually evolving. Milk and dairy may be an example of this. No definitive statement can be made about calcium, although even in randomized controlled trials with supplements, there seemed to be no significant benefit. However, the patients in these trials were not necessarily deficient in calcium nor vitamin D.

In order to get benefit from vitamin D supplementation to prevent fracture, older patients may need at least 800 IUs per day, which is the Institute of Medicine’s recommended amount for a population relatively similar to the one in the study.

Remember that studies, though imperfect, are better than tradition alone. Treatment and prevention approaches should be individualized, and deficiencies in vitamin D or calcium should usually be treated, of course. Please, talk to your doctor before adding or changing any supplements.


(1) www.bonehealthandosteoporosis.org. (2) EndocrinePractice. 2020 May;26(supp 1):1-46. (3) BMJ 2014;349:g6015. (4) health.gov. (5) JAMA Pediatr. 2014;168(1):54-60. (6) Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2020;60(10):1722-1737. (7) Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Dec;86(6):1780-1790. (8) N Engl J Med. 2012 Aug. 2;367(5):481.

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 or consult your personal physician.

We still have a lot to learn with diabetes, but our understanding of how to manage lifestyle modifications, specifically diet, is becoming clearer. METRO photo
Soy puts less stress on the kidneys than animal protein

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

There are many myths about managing type 2 diabetes that circulate. Fortunately, our understanding of diabetes management is continually advancing, and some older guidance deserves to be retired. Let’s review a few common myths and the research that debunks them.

Should fruit be limited or avoided?

Fruit in any form, whether whole, juiced, or dried, has been long considered taboo for diabetes patients. This is only partly true.

Yes, fruit juice and dried fruit should be avoided, because they do raise or spike glucose (sugar) levels. This includes dates, raisins, and apple juice, which are often added to “no sugar” foods to sweeten them. The same does not hold true for whole fresh or frozen fruit. Studies have demonstrated that patients with diabetes don’t experience sugar level spikes, whether they limit whole fruits or consume an abundance (1). In a different study, whole fruit was shown to actually reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes (2).

In yet another study, researchers looked at the impacts of different types of whole fruits on glucose levels. They found that berries reduced glucose levels the most, but even bananas and grapes reduced these levels (3). That’s right, bananas and grapes, two fruits people associate with spiking sugar levels and increasing carbohydrate load, actually lowered these levels. The only fruit tested that seemed to have a mildly negative impact on sugars was cantaloupe.

Whole fruit is not synonymous with sugar. One of the reasons for the beneficial effect is the fruits’ flavonoids, or plant micronutrients, but another is their fiber.

Do all carbohydrates raise your sugars?

Fiber is one type of carbohydrate that has distinct benefits. We know fiber is important for reducing risk for a host of diseases and for managing their outcomes. This is also true for type 2 diabetes. 

In the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and NHS II, two very large prospective observational studies, plant fiber was shown to help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes (4). Researchers looked at lignans, a type of plant fiber, specifically examining the metabolites enterodiol and enterolactone. They found that patients with type 2 diabetes have substantially lower levels of these metabolites in their urine, compared to the control group without diabetes. There was a linear, or direct, relationship between the amount of metabolites and the reduction in risk for diabetes. So, the more they ate, and the more metabolites in their urine, the lower the risk. The authors encourage patients to eat more of a plant-based diet to get this benefit.

Foods with lignans include cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cauliflower; an assortment of fruits and whole grains; flaxseed; and sesame seeds (5). The researchers could not determine which plants contributed the greatest benefit. They wrote that they believe antioxidant activity drives this effect.

Should you avoid soy when you have diabetes?

In diabetes patients with nephropathy (kidney damage or disease), soy consumption showed kidney function improvements (6). There were significant reductions in urinary creatinine levels and proteinuria (protein in the urine), both signs that the kidneys are beginning to function better.

This was a small, randomized control trial over a four-year period with 41 participants. The control group’s diet consisted of 70 percent animal protein and 30 percent vegetable protein, while the treatment group’s diet consisted of 35 percent animal protein, 35 percent textured soy protein and 30 percent vegetable protein.

This is very important, since diabetes patients are 20 to 40 times more likely to develop nephropathy than those without diabetes (7). It appears that soy protein may put substantially less stress on the kidneys than animal protein. However, those who have hypothyroidism and low iodine levels should be cautious about soy consumption, since some studies suggest it might interfere with synthetic thyroid medications’ effectiveness (8).

Is bariatric surgery a good alternative to changing my diet?

Bariatric surgery has grown in prevalence for treating severely obese (BMI>35 kg/m²) and obese (BMI >30 kg/m²) diabetes patients. In a meta-analysis of 16 randomized control trials and observational studies, the procedure illustrated better results than conventional medicines over a 17-month follow-up period in treating HbA1C (three-month blood glucose measure), fasting blood glucose and weight loss (9). During this time period, 72 percent of those patients treated with bariatric surgery went into diabetes remission and had significant weight loss.

However, after 10 years without proper management involving lifestyle changes, only 36 percent remained in remission with diabetes, and a significant number regained weight. Thus, even with bariatric surgery, altering diet and exercise are critical to maintaining long-term benefits.

We still have a lot to learn with diabetes, but our understanding of how to manage lifestyle modifications, specifically diet, is becoming clearer. Emphasizing a plant-based diet focused on whole fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes can improve your outcomes. If you choose a medical approach, bariatric surgery is a viable option, but don’t forget that you need to make significant lifestyle changes to accompany the surgery in order to sustain its benefits.


(1) Nutr J. 2013 Mar. 5;12:29. (2) Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Apr.;95:925-933. (3) BMJ online 2013 Aug. 29. (4) Diabetes Care. online 2014 Feb. 18. (5) Br J Nutr. 2005;93:393–402. (6) Diabetes Care. 2008;31:648-654. (7) N Engl J Med. 1993;328:1676–1685. (8) Thyroid. 2006 Mar;16(3):249-58. (9) Obes Surg. 2014;24:437-455.

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 or consult your personal physician.

Kidney health. METRO photo
Walking routinely can reduce your risk of dialysis

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Last week, I wrote that 37 million U.S. adults have chronic kidney disease (CKD) and that roughly 90 percent of them don’t know they have it (1).

This seems like a ridiculous number. How can this happen? It’s because CKD tends to be asymptomatic, initially. Only in the advanced stages do symptoms become evident, although there can be vague symptoms in moderate stages such as fatigue, malaise and loss of appetite. Those at highest risk for CKD include patients with diabetes, high blood pressure and those with first-degree relatives who have advanced disease. But those are only the ones at highest risk.

Why is CKD a concern?

Your kidneys function as efficient little blood filters. As I mentioned last week, they remove wastes, toxins and excess fluid from the body. In addition, they play roles in controlling blood pressure, producing red blood cells, maintaining bone health, and regulating natural chemicals in the blood.  

When they’re not operating at full capacity, the consequences can be heart disease, stroke, anemia, infection and depression, among others.

According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American College of Physicians, those who are at highest risk should be screened regularly, including patients with diabetes or hypertension (2)(3). 

Fortunately, there are several options available, ranging from preventing CKD with specific exercise to slowing the progression with lifestyle changes and medications.

Does basic exercise help?

The results of a study show that walking reduces the risk of death by 33 percent and the need for dialysis by 21 percent (4).

Those who walked more often saw greater results. So, the participants who walked one-to-two times a week had a 17 percent reduction in death and a 19 percent reduction in kidney replacement therapy, while those who walked at least seven times per week experienced a more impressive 59 percent reduction in death and a 44 percent reduction in the risk of dialysis. There were 6,363 participants with an average age of 70, who were followed for an average of 1.3 years.

How does protein intake affect CKD?

With CKD, more protein is not necessarily better, and it may even be harmful. In a meta-analysis of 17 Cochrane database studies of non-diabetic CKD patients who were not on dialysis, results showed that the risk of progression to end-stage kidney disease, including the need for dialysis or a kidney transplant, was reduced 36 percent in those who consumed a very low-protein diet, rather than a low-protein or a normal protein diet (5).

Should you limit sodium consumption?

Good news! In a study, results showed that a modest sodium reduction in our diet may be sufficient to help prevent proteinuria (protein in the urine) (6). Here, less than 2000 mg per day was shown to be beneficial, something all of us can achieve.

Are some high blood pressure medications better than others?

We routinely give certain medications, ACE inhibitors or ARBs, to patients who have diabetes to protect their kidneys. What about patients who do not have diabetes? ACEs and ARBs are two classes of anti-hypertensives — high blood pressure medications — that work on the kidney systems responsible for blood pressure and water balance (7). Results of a study show that these medications reduced the risk of death significantly in patients with moderate CKD. Most of the patients were considered hypertensive.

However, there was a high discontinuation rate among those taking the medications. If you include the discontinuations and regard them as failures, then all who participated showed a 19 percent reduction in risk of death, which was significant. However, if you exclude discontinuations, the results are much more robust with a 63 percent reduction. To get a more realistic picture, this result, including both participants and dropouts, is probably close to what will occur in clinical practice unless patients are highly motivated.

Should you take NSAIDs?

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which include ibuprofen and naproxen, have been associated with CKD progression and with kidney injury in those without CKD (1). NSAIDs can also interfere with the effectiveness of ACE inhibitors or ARBs. Talk to your doctor about your prescription NSAIDs and any other over-the-counter medications you are taking.

What should I remember here?

It’s critical to protect your kidneys, especially if you have hypertension, diabetes, or a family history of kidney disease. Fortunately, basic lifestyle modifications can help; lowering sodium modestly, walking frequently, and lowering your protein consumption may all be viable options. Talk to your physician about your medications — both prescription and over-the-counter — and about whether you need regular screening. High-risk patients with hypertension or diabetes should definitely be screened; however, those with vague symptoms of lethargy, aches and pains might benefit, as well.


(1) cdc.gov. (2) uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org (3) aafp.org. (4) Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2014;9(7):1183-9. (5) Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2020;(10):CD001892. (6) Curr Opin Nephrol Hypertens. 2014;23(6):533-540. (7) J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;63(7):650-658.

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 or consult your personal physician.

Vegetables and fruits.
Dietary changes can help control or reverse chronic kidney disease

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

Your kidneys are workhorses; they perform an array of critical functions for you. Primarily, they filter waste and fluid from your body and maintain your blood’s health. They also help control your blood pressure, make red blood cells and vitamin D, and control your body’s acid levels.

When your kidney function degrades, it can lead to hypertension or cardiovascular problems and it may require dialysis or a kidney transplant in later stages. For the best outcomes, it’s critical to identify chronic kidney disease (CKD) early and adopt techniques to stop its advance. However, of the estimated 37 million U.S. adults who have CKD, as many as 9 in 10 are not aware they have it (1).

One of the challenges with identifying early-stage CKD is that symptoms are not obvious and can be overlooked. Among them are high blood pressure, hand or feet swelling, urinary tract infections, and blood in your urine (2).

Fortunately, there are simple tests, such as a basic metabolic panel and a urinalysis, that will indicate whether you may have mild CKD. These indices for kidney function include an estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR), creatinine level and protein in the urine. eGFR is a calculation and, while the other two indices have varying ranges, depending on the laboratory used, a patient with an eGFR of 30 to 59 is considered to have mild disease. The eGFR and the kidney function are inversely related, meaning as eGFR declines, the severity of CKD increases.

What can be done to stem early-stage CKD, before complications occur? There are several studies that have looked at lifestyle modifications and their impacts on its prevention, treatment and reversal.

How do other medical issues affect your kidneys?

Among the greatest risks for your kidneys are uncontrolled diseases and medical disorders, such as diabetes and hypertension (1). If you have – or are at risk for – diabetes, be sure to control your blood sugar levels to limit kidney damage. Similarly, if you currently have hypertension, controlling it will put less stress on your kidneys. 

For these diseases, it’s crucial that you have your kidney function tested at least once a year.

In addition, obesity and smoking have been identified as risk factors and can be managed by making lifestyle changes to reduce your risk.

Can diet help protect your kidneys?

Fruits and vegetables may play a role in helping patients with CKD. In a one-year study with 77 patients, results showed that fruits and vegetables work as well as sodium bicarbonate in improving kidney function by reducing metabolic acidosis levels (3).

What is the significance of metabolic acidosis? It means that body fluids become acidic, and it is associated with CKD. The authors concluded that both sodium bicarbonate and a diet including fruits and vegetables were renoprotective, helping to protect the kidneys from further damage in patients with CKD. Alkali diets are primarily plant-based, although not necessarily vegetarian or vegan. Animal products tend to cause an acidic environment.

In the Nurses’ Health Study, results show that animal fat, red meat and sodium all negatively impact kidney function (4). The risk of protein in the urine, a potential indicator of CKD, increased by 72 percent in those participants who consumed the highest amounts of animal fat compared to the lowest, and by 51 percent in those who ate red meat at least twice a week. With higher amounts of sodium, there was a 52 percent increased risk of having lower levels of eGFR.

The most interesting part with sodium was that the difference between higher mean consumption and the lower mean consumption was not that large, 2.4 grams compared to 1.7 grams. In other words, a difference of approximately a quarter-teaspoon of sodium was responsible for the decrease in kidney function.

The National Kidney Foundation recommends diets that are higher in fruit and vegetable content and lower in animal protein, including the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet and plant-based diets (5). 

In my practice, when CKD patients follow a vegetable-rich, nutrient-dense diet, there are substantial improvements in kidney functioning. For instance, for one patient, his baseline eGFR was 54. After one month of lifestyle modifications, his eGFR improved by 9 points to 63, which is a return to “normal” functioning of the kidney. Note that this is anecdotal, not a study.

What are our takeaways?

It is important to have your kidney function checked with mainstream tests. If the levels are low, you should address the issue through medications and lifestyle modifications to manage and reverse early-stage CKD. If you have common risk factors, such as diabetes, smoking, obesity or high blood pressure, or if you are over 60 years old, talk to your doctor about testing. 

Don’t wait until symptoms and complications occur. In my experience, it is much easier to treat and reverse a disease in its earlier stages, and CKD is no exception.


(1) CDC.gov. (2) kidneyfund.org. (3) Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2013;8:371-381. (4) Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2010; 5:836-843. (5) kidney.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 or consult your personal physician.

Even if you don’t use a salt shaker, you’re likely getting more sodium than the current guidelines. METRO photo
Eating whole foods can improve your odds of victory

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

We hear a lot about sodium and the importance of limiting your sodium intake. But what if you don’t have a health condition like hypertension? Should you still be concerned? The short answer is, “yes.” Most of us consume far too much sodium, as much at 3,400 mg per day, without even trying (1). Even if we don’t have hypertension, the impact of sodium on our health can be dramatic.

Sodium is everywhere, including in foods that don’t taste salty. Bread products are among the worst offenders. Other foods with substantial amounts of sodium include cold cuts and cured meats, cheeses, pizza, poultry, soups, pastas, sauces and, of course, snack foods. Processed foods and those prepared by restaurants are where much of our consumption occurs (2).

On the flip side, only about two percent of people get enough potassium from their diets (3). According to the National Institutes of Health, adequate intake of potassium is between 2600mg and 3400mg for adult women and men, respectively.

Why do we compare sodium and potassium intakes?

A high sodium-to-potassium ratio increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by 46 percent, according to a study that looked at more than 12,000 Americans over almost 15 years (4). In addition, both may have significant impacts on blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. To improve our overall health, we need to shift the sodium-to-potassium balance so that we consume more potassium and less sodium. And if you struggle with high blood pressure, this approach could help you win the battle.

Can sodium intake be too low?

Before we dive in too far, let’s address an “elephant in the room.” I’ve read several commentaries where experts warn that too-low sodium levels can be a problem. While this is true, it’s quite rare, unless you take medications or have a health condition that depletes sodium. We hide sodium everywhere, so even if you don’t use a salt shaker, you’re likely getting more sodium than the current guidelines.

Why lower your sodium consumption?

Two studies illustrate the benefits of reducing sodium in high blood pressure and normotensive (normal blood pressure) patients, ultimately preventing cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke.

The first used the prestigious Cochrane review to demonstrate that blood pressure is reduced by a significant mean of −4.18 mm Hg systolic (top number) and −2.06 mm Hg diastolic (bottom number) involving both normotensive and hypertensive participants (5). When looking solely at hypertensive patients, the reduction was even greater, with a systolic blood pressure reduction of −5.39 mm Hg and a diastolic blood pressure reduction of −2.82 mm Hg.

This was a meta-analysis that evaluated data from 34 randomized clinical trials, totaling more than 3,200 participants. Salt reduction from 9-to-12 grams per day to 5-to-6 grams per day had a dramatic effect. The researchers believe that the more we reduce the salt intake, the greater the effect of reducing blood pressure. The authors recommend further reduction to 3 grams per day as a long-term target for the population and concluded that the effects on blood pressure will most likely result in a decrease in cardiovascular disease.

In the second study, a meta-analysis of 42 clinical trials, there was a similarly significant reduction in both systolic and diastolic blood pressures (6). This study included both adults and children. Both demographics saw a reduction in blood pressure, though the effect was greater in adults. Interestingly, an increase in sodium caused a 24 percent increased risk of stroke incidence but, more importantly, a 63 percent increased risk of stroke mortality. The risk of mortality from heart disease was increased alongside an increase in sodium, as well, by 32 percent.

Is potassium consumption important?

In a meta-analysis involving 32 studies, results showed that as the amount of potassium was increased, systolic blood pressure decreased significantly (7). When foods containing 3.5 to 4.7 grams of potassium were consumed, there was an impressive −7.16 mm Hg reduction in systolic blood pressure with high blood pressure patients. Anything more than this amount of potassium did not have any additional benefit. Increased potassium intake also reduced the risk of stroke by 24 percent. This effect was important.

The reduction in blood pressure was greater with increased potassium consumption than with sodium restriction, although this was not a head-to-head comparison. The good news is that potassium is easily attainable; it’s found in many whole foods and is richest in fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes.

The bottom line: decrease your sodium intake by almost half and increase potassium intake from foods. Lowering sodium intake may have far-reaching benefits, and it is certainly achievable. First, consume less and give yourself a brief period to adapt — it takes about six weeks to retrain your taste buds, once you cut your sodium. You can also improve your odds by increasing your dietary potassium intake, striking a better sodium-to-potassium balance.


(1) Dietary Reference Intakes for Sodium and Potassium. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2019 Mar. (2) www.cdc.gov. (3) www.nih.gov. (4) Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(13):1183-1191. (5) BMJ. 2013 Apr 3;346:f1325. (6) BMJ. 2013 Apr 3;346:f1326. (7) BMJ. 2013; 346:f1378.

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 or consult your personal physician.

METRO photo
Diet and exercise together are the key to success

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

If you suffer from osteoarthritis, you know it can affect your quality of life and make it difficult to perform daily activities. Osteoarthritis (OA) most often affects the knees, hips and hands and can affect your mood, mobility, and sleep quality.

Common first-line medications that treat arthritis pain are acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen or naproxen. Unfortunately, these medications have side effects, especially with long-term use. Also, while they might relieve your immediate symptoms of pain and inflammation, they don’t slow osteoarthritis’ progression.

Fortunately, there are approaches you can use to ease your pain without reaching for medications. Some can even help slow the progression of your OA or even reverse your symptoms.

What role does weight play?

Weight management is a crucial component of any OA pain management strategy. In a study involving 112 obese patients, those who lost weight reported easing of knee symptoms (1). Even more exciting, the study authors observed disease modification, with a reduction in the loss of cartilage volume around the medial tibia. Those who gained weight saw the opposite effect.

The relationship was almost one-to-one; for every one percent of weight lost, there was a 1.2 mm3 preservation of medial tibial cartilage volume, while the opposite occurred when participants gained weight. A reduction of tibial cartilage is often associated with the need for a knee replacement.

Does vitamin D help?

In a randomized controlled trial (RCT), vitamin D provided no OA symptom relief, nor any disease-modifying effects (2). This two-year study of almost 150 men and women raised blood levels of vitamin D on average to 36 ng/ml, which is considered respectable. Researchers used MRI and X-rays to track their results.

In another study of 769 participants, ages 50-80, researchers found that low vitamin D levels – below 25 nmol/l led to increased OA knee pain over the five-year study period and hip pain over 2.4 years (3). The researchers postulate that supplementing vitamin D might reduce pain in those who are deficient, but that it will likely have no effect on others.

How does dairy factor into OA?

With dairy, specifically milk, there is conflicting information. Some studies show benefits, while others show that it may contribute to the inflammation that makes osteoarthritis pain feel worse.

In the Osteoarthritis Initiative study, researchers looked specifically at joint space narrowing that occurs in those with affected knee joints (4). Results showed that low-fat (1 percent) and nonfat milk may slow the progression of osteoarthritis in women. Compared to those who did not drink milk, patients who did saw significantly less narrowing of knee joint space over a 48-month period.

The result curve was interesting, however. For those who drank from fewer than three glasses a week up to 10 glasses a week, the progression of joint space narrowing was slowed. However, for those who drank more than 10 glasses per week, there was less beneficial effect. There was no benefit seen in men or with the consumption of higher fat products, such as cheese or yogurt.

However, the study was observational and had significant flaws. First, the 2100 patients were only asked about their milk intake at the study’s start. Second, patients were asked to recall their weekly milk consumption for the previous 12 months before the study began — a challenging task.

On the flip side, a study of almost 39,000 participants from the Melbourne Collaborative Cohort Study found that increases in dairy consumption were associated with increased risk of total hip replacements for men with osteoarthritis (5).

Getting more specific, a published analysis of the Framingham Offspring Study found that those who consumed yogurt had statistically significant lower levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a marker for inflammation, than those who didn’t eat yogurt, but that this was not true with milk or cheese consumption (6).

Would I recommend consuming low-fat or nonfat milk or yogurt? Not necessarily, but I might not dissuade osteoarthritis patients from yogurt.

Does exercise help with OA pain?

Diet and exercise trumped the effects of diet or exercise alone in a well-designed study (7). In an 18-month study, patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who lost at least 10 percent of their body weight experienced significant improvements in function and a 50 percent reduction in pain, as well as reduction in inflammation. This was compared to those who lost a lower percent of their body weight.

Researchers used biomarker IL6 to measure inflammation. The diet and exercise group and the diet-only group lost significantly more weight than the exercise-only group, 23.3 pounds and 19.6 pounds versus 4 pounds. The diet portion consisted of a meal replacement shake for breakfast and lunch and then a vegetable-rich, low-fat dinner. Low-calorie meals replaced the shakes after six months. The exercise regimen included one hour of a combination of weight training and walking “with alacrity” three times a week.

To reduce pain and possibly improve your OA, focus on lifestyle modifications. The best effects shown are with weight loss and with a vegetable-rich diet. In terms of low-fat or nonfat milk, the results are controversial, at best. For yogurt, the results suggest it may be beneficial for osteoarthritis, but stay on the low end of consumption, since dairy can increase inflammation.


(1) Ann Rheum Dis. 2015 Jun;74(6):1024-9. (2) JAMA. 2013;309:155-162. (3) Ann. Rheum. Dis. 2014;73:697–703. (4) Arthritis Care Res online. 2014 April 6. (5) J Rheumatol. 2017 Jul;44(7):1066-1070. (6) Nutrients. 2021 Feb 4;13(2):506. (7) JAMA. 2013;310:1263-1273.

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 or consult your personal physician.

By focusing on developing heart-healthy habits, we can improve the likelihood that we will be around for a long time. METRO photo
Modest dietary changes can have a big impact

By David Dunaief, M.D.

Dr. David Dunaief

With all of the attention on infectious disease prevention these past two years, many have lost sight of the risks of heart disease. Despite improvements in the numbers in recent years, heart disease in the U.S., making it the leading cause of death (1).

I have good news: heart disease is on the decline in the U.S. due to a number of factors, including better awareness, improved medicines, earlier treatment of risk factors and lifestyle modifications. We are headed in the right direction, but we can do better. It still underpins one in four deaths, and it is preventable.

Manage your baseline risks

Significant risk factors for heart disease include high cholesterol, high blood pressure and smoking. In addition, diabetes, excess weight and excessive alcohol intake increase your risks. Unfortunately, both obesity and diabetes are on the rise. For patients with type 2 diabetes, 70 percent die of cardiovascular causes (2).

Inactivity and the standard American diet, rich in saturated fat and calories, also contribute to atherosclerosis, fatty streaks in the arteries, the underlying culprit in heart disease risk (3).

Another potential risk factor is a resting heart rate greater than 80 beats per minute (bpm). In one study, healthy men and women had 18 and 10 percent increased risks of dying from a heart attack, respectively, for every increase of 10 bpm over 80 (4). A normal resting heart rate is usually between 60 and 100 bpm. Thus, you don’t have to have a racing heart rate, just one that is high-normal. All of these risk factors can be overcome.

How does medication lower heart disease risk?

Cholesterol and blood pressure medications have been credited to some extent with reducing the risk of heart disease. Unfortunately, according to 2018 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data, only 43.7 percent of those with hypertension have it controlled (5). While the projected reasons are complex, a significant issue among those who are aware they have hypertension is a failure to consistently take prescribed medications, or medication nonadherence.

Statins also have played a key role in primary prevention. They lower lipid levels, including total cholesterol and LDL (“bad” cholesterol) but they also lower inflammation levels that contribute to the risk of cardiovascular disease. The JUPITER trial showed a 55 percent combined reduction in heart disease, stroke and mortality from cardiovascular disease in healthy patients — those with a slightly elevated level of inflammation and normal cholesterol profile — with statins.

The downside of statins is their side effects. Statins have been shown to increase the risk of diabetes in intensive dosing, when compared to moderate dosing (6).

Unfortunately, many on statins also suffer from myopathy (muscle pain). I have had a number of patients who have complained of muscle pain and cramps. Their goal is to reduce and ultimately discontinue their statins by following a lifestyle modification plan involving diet and exercise. Lifestyle modification is a powerful ally.

What lifestyle changes help minimize heart disease?

The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, a prospective (forward-looking) study, investigated 501 healthy men and their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. The authors concluded that those who consumed five servings or more of fruits and vegetables daily with <12 percent saturated fat had a 76 percent reduction in their risk of dying from heart disease compared to those who did not (7). 

The authors theorized that eating more fruits and vegetables helped to displace saturated fats from the diet. These results are impressive and, to achieve them, they only required a modest change in diet.

The Nurses’ Health Study shows that these results are also seen in women, with lifestyle modification reducing the risk of sudden cardiac death (SCD). Many times, this is the first manifestation of heart disease in women. The authors looked at four parameters of lifestyle modification, including a Mediterranean-type diet, exercise, smoking and body mass index. The decrease in SCD that was dose-dependent, meaning the more factors incorporated, the greater the risk reduction. SCD risk was reduced up to 92 percent when all four parameters were followed (8). Thus, it is possible to almost eliminate the risk of SCD for women with lifestyle modifications.

How can you monitor your heart disease risk?

To monitor your progress, cardiac biomarkers are telling, including inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein, blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index. 

In a cohort study of high-risk participants and those with heart disease, patients implemented extensive lifestyle modifications: a plant-based, whole foods diet accompanied by exercise and stress management (9). The results showed an improvement in biomarkers, as well as in cognitive function and overall quality of life. Most exciting is that results occurred over a very short period to time — three months from the start of the trial. Many of my patients have experienced similar results.

Ideally, if a patient needs medications to treat risk factors for heart disease, it should be for the short term. For some patients, it may be appropriate to use medication and lifestyle changes together; for others, lifestyle modifications may be sufficient, as long as patient takes an active role.

By focusing on developing heart-healthy habits, we can improve the likelihood that we will be around for a long time.


(1) cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts. (2) Diabetes Care. 2010 Feb; 33(2):442-449. (3) Lancet. 2004;364(9438):93. (4) J Epidemiol Community Health. 2010 Feb;64(2):175-181. (5) Hypertension. 2022;79:e1–e14. (6) JAMA. 2011;305(24):2556-2564. (7) J Nutr. March 1, 2005;135(3):556-561. (8) JAMA. 2011 Jul 6;306(1):62-69. (9) Am J Cardiol. 2011;108(4):498-507.

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 or consult your personal physician.