The Truth About Cholesterol Lowering Drugs: Is Diet a Better Option?

Cholesterol lowering drugs—also known as statins—are one of the most commonly prescribed medications in the world. Almost one quarter of Americans 45 years and older are on a statin drug. You probably know many people who are on a statin or perhaps you are taking one yourself.

It makes a lot of sense to lower your cholesterol since heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States. However there are a lot of concerns about whether taking statin drugs is worth the risk.

Studies have found that statins do not decrease mortality rates in healthy people who do not have heart disease. A recent analysis of 11 studies, which included 65,229 healthy but high-risk men and women, found that taking statins did not decrease the risk of dying. A 2011 Cochrane review found similar results.

In addition, when a healthy person takes a statin, the risk of a heart attack or stroke drops from 3 or 4 percent to 2 percent—not very impressive!

The downside to taking statins is they can cause muscle pain, kidney and liver damage, and fatigue. They have also been linked with memory loss and 1 out of 200 people on statins will develop diabetes. In women, the diabetes risk may even be higher. The Women’s Health Initiative found a 48 percent adjusted increased risk of diabetes for women who were taking statins.

Recent animal research has found that rats given these drugs could not run as far as non-medicated rats. The levels of oxidative stress (a marker for possible cell damage) increased by 226% in exercising rats. And the rats had less stored carbohydrate in their muscle (glycogen). Also, the mitochondria—the mechanism in the cell that produces energy—were not working as well or correctly. This probably explains the fatigue that can come with taking statins. Ironically, these drugs make it harder to exercise for the very people who need it the most!

Let’s take a look at the research around diet. There are many published studies but I am only going to mention two. The “Lifestyle Heart Trial” found that a low-fat vegetarian diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes, lowered cholesterol as much as statin drugs. And the study proved that diet and lifestyle changes could actually reverse heart disease.

The second study compared two diets. One diet was vegetarian, low in fat, and included fiber from bread. This group also took a statin. The other group ate a low-fat vegetarian diet which included a “dietary portfolio of cholesterol-lowering foods” such as beans, lentils, oats, psyllium, almonds, and other veggies and fruit high in water-soluble fiber. The group that ate the “portfolio of foods” lowered their cholesterol as much the group taking statin drugs.

When you consider the potential side effects, and that you can get the same decrease in cholesterol by changing your diet and lifestyle, I can’t help but wonder why anyone without a history of heart disease would take these drugs. You would get more benefit from eating a healthy diet and exercising. Not only will these lifestyle changes lower your cholesterol, they will also help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, decrease inflammation, make the plaque in your arteries more stable, slow or halt the progression of atherosclerosis (blocked arteries), lower your risk of cancer and improve your mood. Need I say more?

If you are on a statin, and you have never had a heart attack, stent, or bypass surgery, I would seriously consider changing your diet instead of taking this drug. If your doctor recommends that you take a statin, talk with him or her about holding off so you can try making significant changes to your diet for a month or two and then retest your cholesterol.

Physicians Rita Redberg, MD and Mitchell Katz, MD sum it up nicely by saying: “Advising healthy patients to take a drug that does not offer the possibility to feel better or live longer and has significant adverse effects with potential decrement in quality of life is not in their interest.”

Disclaimer: Talk with your health care provider for advice regarding your particular situation.

Copyright © 2012 Carole Bartolotto, MA, RD. All rights reserved.

Food Labeling Lies: Are Snapea Crisps Healthy?

By Carole Bartolotto, MA,RD

I think we all know that food manufacturers care more about their bottom line—money—than they do about our health. They will say just about anything to sell their products including manipulating serving sizes and making outrageous claims. Let’s take a look at one example.

If you’ve ever had Snapea Crisps, you’d know they are tasty and they seem to be healthy—at least based on the claims on the packaging. But can these claims be trusted?

The package says it’s a “snack salad” and is “baked.”

On the back it says, “Your Salad Never Got Such a Lift!” and that the company, Calbee, has a “….Mission of delivering the farm fresh goodness of vegetables to your table.”

I checked out their website and it says that, “SnackSalad was developed for the many customers who wish to get the healthy benefits of eating salad and fruit more often, but to do so in a more delicious way.”

All of these claims lead you to believe that you are eating something that is healthy and equivalent to a salad. In fact, this product is often found in the produce section of the market.

I think many people believe that Snapea Crisps are puffed peas. But actually they are ground-up green peas, genetically modified corn oil, white rice, salt, and preservatives, formed into a pea shape, and baked! A review of the Nutrition Facts reveals that 1 ounce of these crisps has 150 calories and 8 grams of fat. The more information I gathered about Snapea Crisps, the less they sounded like a salad. And the more they sounded like a bag of potato chips.

Both Snapea Crisps and Lay’s potato chips have 150 calories, similar grams of fat per ounce, and are highly processed. The difference between Lay’s potato chips and Snapea Crisps is that you know you are eating junk food when you grab a bag of chips. However, many people think they are making a healthy choice if they choose Snapea Crisps.

Is there a better option? Why not try sugar sugar snap peassnap peas? With just 41 calories for an entire cup, you can get a tasty, crunchy, low-calorie snack without any processed carbs, white rice, or calorie dense fat.

The moral of this story is to pay attention to the labels and claims on processed foods. More importantly, stick with whole foods as often as you can. I love Michael Pollan’s quote from his book Food Rules, which certainly applies in this situation.

“If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t.

See my update on Snapea Crisps here.

For more info, follow me on Twitter:


Copyright © 2012 Carole Bartolotto, MA, RD. All rights reserved.

Five Diet and Lifestyle Changes That Can Lower Your Cancer Risk

By Carole Bartolotto, MA, RD

It seems like more and more people that I know are being diagnosed with cancer. Seven years ago, my mom died of ovarian cancer. Two years later my dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. Cancer does not run in either side of the family, which caused me to wonder what increased their risk. I also wanted to know what I could do lower my risk.

The good news is that there is a lot we can all do to decrease our chances of getting cancer. What you eat, how active you are, and how much you weigh are things you can influence and improve on every single day of your life.

These 5 changes will help to decrease your risk of getting cancer. There is emerging research that they can also decrease your risk of a recurrence if you are a cancer survivor.

1. Maintain a healthy weight. This is one of the most important things you can do. Aim for a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 21 and 23. (This link will help you calculate your BMI.) That is easier said than done considering that over ⅔ of the population in the U.S. is either overweight or obese—but it is possible!

Cutting out calorie-dense foods such as sugary drinks, sweets, fast foods, and foods high in fat is a good place to start. For example, the Panda Express Two Entrée meal with double orange chicken and chow mein has 1,330 calories! For some people, that is how many calories they should have in the entire day. If you replace it with a large salad with lots of veggies with 1 tablespoon of salad dressing, a bowl of lentil soup, and a cup of strawberries, you would save over 900 calories.

2. Be physically active. Aim for 30 minutes, 5 days a week of some form of exercise you enjoy such as walking, running, hiking, swimming, or biking.

3. Eat mostly plant foods. Eat at least 3 pieces of fruit a day. Think of it as dessert after every meal. Eat as many veggies as you can. Aim for at least a few cups a day. In particular, go for the nonstarchy vegetables. Examples include kale, spinach, chard, romaine lettuce, baby greens, tomatoes, carrots, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cucumber, radishes, jicama, artichokes, onions, beets, celery, cauliflower, asparagus, hearts of palm, peppers (green, red, or yellow), sprouts, or sugar snap peas.

Also add beans, peas, and lentils to your diet. Choose whole grains instead of processed grains, such as oatmeal instead of corn flakes. Be adventurous and try things like quinoa or whole-wheat bulgur.

4. Avoid or limit red meat and totally avoid processed meats. Red meat includes beef, pork, and lamb. I know that the ads say pork is the “other white meat”, but remember that food manufacturers like to twist the truth to make a sale.

5. It is best to avoid alcohol. If you do drink, only have 1 drink per day for women or 2 drinks per day for men. But if you have a history of breast cancer, having 3 to 4 drinks per week is associated with a 30-percent increased risk of breast cancer recurrence, so avoiding it may be your best option.

More Good News

If you do the hard work to make these changes, you will also have a lower risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Good luck and remember, if I can do it, you can too!

Copyright © 2012 Carole Bartolotto, MA, RD. All rights reserved.

The Truth About Agave Nectar

A few weeks ago I popped into my local Whole Foods Market because I wanted to buy an organic barbecue sauce. As I was looking at the different brands, it was interesting to see that agave nectar was in a few of them. I was chatting with one of the girls who worked there and she commented, “Well, agave is better than sugar.”

But is it really?

Somehow agave nectar has become the darling and healthy option for sugar lovers everywhere. It is in everything from breakfast cereals to soy ice cream. But it turns out that agave nectar may not be healthy after all because it’s really high in fructose.

Sugar is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is about 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose (although the amount of fructose in sugary drinks can be as high as 65 percent). Yet agave nectar can contain as much as 92 percent fructose!

So what’s wrong with fructose? Since fructose is metabolized in the liver, eating too much can cause fatty liver and high triglycerides. Fatty liver can negatively affect liver function. High triglycerides can increase your risk of heart disease. Fructose can also make insulin, the hormone that lowers blood sugar, less effective. Therefore, if you are choosing agave instead of other sweeteners for health reasons, you are missing the boat.

There are a few good points about agave nectar. One is that it’s sweeter than sugar. So you could use less and consume fewer calories with the same level of sweetness as sugar. Interestingly, I have seen many companies switch to agave, but I don’t see fewer grams of sugar on the label. Also, because it is high in fructose agave has a low glycemic index, which means it does not cause a big spike in your blood sugar.

Another good point about agave is that it is not genetically modified (see past post “What You Need to Know About GMOs”), at least not yet. High fructose corn syrup, because it comes from corn, is genetically modified. Sugar beets are now also genetically modified so most of the sugar you are eating is genetically modified as well.

The bottom line is agave nectar is not better for you than any other sweetener. And just like sugar, it will add calories, increase your desire for sweet foods, and help you gain weight. It doesn’t mean you should never eat it, but don’t kid yourself that it is somehow better than other sweeteners. All forms of sugar, including agave nectar, should be eaten in moderation.

Probably the best option is to have fruit for dessert or to add fruit to other foods for sweetness. For example, in place of adding agave nectar to your oatmeal, try adding blueberries or strawberries instead. Once your palate adapts to the less sweet taste of foods minus all the sugar, fruit will taste a lot sweeter.

Here is a frozen dessert recipe that hits that sweet spot without added sweeteners:

  • Peel and slice one really ripe banana and put it in the freezer.
  • Add the frozen banana to a blender or food processor with a little liquid such as rice or soy milk or even water
  • Add a teaspoon of vanilla (optional).
  • Blend till smooth and enjoy!

Do you have any ideas for incorporating more fruit into your diet in place of sugar and other sweeteners?

For more information on fructose, check out Dr. Lustig’s talk on YouTube called “Sugar: The Bitter Truth” here.

Copyright © 2012 Carole Bartolotto, MA, RD. All rights reserved.