I'll supply the tar if you supply the feathers

The results of the latest Heart Scan Blog poll are in.


Increased public awareness of medical conditions and their treatment
19 (11%)

Has had little overall effect on health and healthcare
29 (18%)

Needlessly increased healthcare costs
81 (50%)

Further empowered the revenue-obsessed pharmaceutical industry
130 (81%)

Clearly, there's a lot of negative sentiment against direct-to-consumer (DTC) drug advertising.

It looks as if a small minority believe that good has come from DTC advertising, judging by the meager 11% who voted for increased awareness. In fact, the poll results are heavily weighed towards the negative: 50% voted for "needlessly increased healthcare costs," while an astounding 81% voted for "empowered the revenue-obsessed pharmaceutical industry."

It is, indeed, an odd situation: Pharmaceutical agents available only by prescription being hyped directly to the consumer.

Personally, I would vote for choices 1,3, and 4. While awareness has increased, it has come with a hefty price, not all of it well spent. I believe the pharmaceutical industry still adheres to the rule that, for every $1 spent on advertising, $4 is made in revenue. They are, in effect, printing money.

What goes up can't come down

According to conventional wisdom, heart scan scores cannot be reduced.

In other words, say you begin with a heart scan score of 300. Conventional wisdom says you should take aspirin and a statin drug, eat a low-fat "heart healthy" diet, and take high blood pressure medications, if necessary.

If your heart scan score goes up in a year or two, especially at an annual rate of 20% or more, then you are at very high risk for heart attack. If the heart scan score stays the same, then your risk is much reduced. These observations are well-established.

But more than 99% of physicians will tell you that reducing your heart scan score is impossible. Don't even try: Heart scan scores can go up, but they can't go down.

Baloney. Heart scan scores can indeed go down. And they can go down dramatically.

It is true that, following conventional advice like taking a statin drug, following a low-fat diet, and taking aspirin will fail to reduce your heart scan score. A more rational approach that 1) identifies all causes of coronary plaque, 2) corrects all causes while including crucial strategies like omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, vitamin D supplementation, and thyroid function normalization, is far more likely to yield a halt or reduction in score.

While not everybody who undertakes the Track Your Plaque program will succeed in reducing their heart scan score, a growing number are enjoying success.

A small portion of our experience was documented this past summer. (I collected and analyzed the data with the help of Rush University nutrition scientist, Dr. Susie Rockway, and statistician, Dr. Mary Kwasny.)

Effect of a combined therapeutic approach of intensive lipid management, omega-3 fatty acid supplementation, and increased serum 25 (OH) vitamin D on coronary calcium scores in asymptomatic adults.

Davis W, Rockway S, Kwasny M.

The impact of intensive lipid management, omega-3 fatty acid, and vitamin D3 supplementation on atherosclerotic plaque was assessed through serial computed tomography coronary calcium scoring (CCS). Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol reduction with statin therapy has not been shown to reduce or slow progression of serial CCS in several recent studies, casting doubt on the usefulness of this approach for tracking atherosclerotic progression. In an open-label study, 45 male and female subjects with CCS of > or = 50 without symptoms of heart disease were treated with statin therapy, niacin, and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation to achieve low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides < or = 60 mg/dL; high-density lipoprotein > or = 60 mg/dL; and vitamin D3 supplementation to achieve serum levels of > or = 50 ng/mL 25(OH) vitamin D, in addition to diet advice. Lipid profiles of subjects were significantly changed as follows: total cholesterol -24%, low-density lipoprotein -41%; triglycerides -42%, high-density lipoprotein +19%, and mean serum 25(OH) vitamin D levels +83%. After a mean of 18 months, 20 subjects experienced decrease in CCS with mean change of -14.5% (range 0% to -64%); 22 subjects experienced no change or slow annual rate of CCS increase of +12% (range 1%-29%). Only 3 subjects experienced annual CCS progression exceeding 29% (44%-71%). Despite wide variation in response, substantial reduction of CCS was achieved in 44% of subjects and slowed plaque growth in 49% of the subjects applying a broad treatment program.

Gretchen's postprandial diet experiment

Gretchen sent me the results of a little experiment she ran on herself. She measured blood glucose and triglycerides after 1) a low-fat diet and 2) a low-carb diet.

Gretchen describes her experience:

Several years ago I received a windfall of triglyceride strips that would expire in a week or so. I hated to waste them, so I decided to use them to test my triglyceride and BG responses to two different diets: low carb and low fat.

The first day I followed a low-fat diet. For breakfast I ate a lot of carbohydrate, including 1 oz of spaghetti cooked al dente and ¾ cup of white rice. For the rest of the day I ate less carbohydrate but continued to eat low fat.

The second day I followed a low-carb diet. For breakfast I ate a lot of fat, including a sausage, mushrooms fried in butter, 2 slices of bacon, and ¼ cup of the creamy topping of whole-milk yogurt. For the rest of the day I ate less fat, especially less saturated fat, but continued to eat low carb.

Both days I measured both BG and triglyceride levels every hour until I went to bed. On the low-carb day I had 3 meals. On the low-fat day, I was constantly hungry, had 4 meals, and kept snacking.

You can see the results in Figure 1. On the low-fat diet, after a “healthy” low-fat breakfast of low-glycemic pasta with low-fat sauce, my BG levels shot up to over 200 mg/dL and took more than 6 hours to come down. My triglycerides, however, remained low, and at first I thought perhaps the low-fat diet might be better overall. However, after about 6 hours, the triglyceride levels started to increase steadily, and by the next morning, they were higher than they had been the day before.
On the low-carb diet, my BG levels stayed low all day. However, after meals, the triglyceride levels skyrocketed. After meals they came down, and by the next morning they were lower than they had been the day before.

As I interpret these results, the high triglyceride levels after eating the high-fat meals represent chylomicrons, the lipoproteins that transport fat from your meals to the cells of your body. The high triglyceride levels the morning after eating the low-fat meals represent very low density lipoprotein, which takes the cholesterol your liver synthesizes when your intake of dietary cholesterol is low and distributes it to cells that need it, or again, to the fat for storage.

There are several interesting factors to consider here. First, when you have a lipid test done at the lab, it’s usually done fasting, which means first thing in the morning after not eating for 8 to 12 hours. It tells you nothing about what your triglyceride levels were all day.

Second, the low-carb diet resulted in lower fasting triglyceride levels, but much higher postprandial triglyceride levels. Which are more dangerous? I’m afraid I don’t know. You should also note that the high-fat, low-carb breakfast was extremely high in fat, including saturated fat. I don’t normally eat that much fat but wanted to test extremes.

Third, although the low-fat diet didn’t produce the very high postprandial triglyceride levels that the high-fat diet did, it produced extremely high BG levels that persisted for 6 hours. Some people think that it’s oxidized and glycated lipids that are the dangerous ones, so high BG levels and normal triglyceride levels might be more dangerous than very high triglyceride levels and normal BG levels. Note that high BG levels also contribute to oxidation rates.

Fourth, this shows the results of an experiment with a sample size of one. My physiology might not be typical. If you want to know how your own body’s lipids respond to different types of diets, you should get a lipid meter and test yourself. Unfortunately, your insurance is unlikely to want to pay for this, so it will be an expensive experiment.

The main point of this is that the results of different diets are complex. We have to eat. And what we eat can affect many different systems in our bodies. Finding the ideal diet that matches our own physiology and results in the best lipid levels as well as BG levels is a real challenge.

This was a lot of effort for one person. Thanks to Gretchen for sharing her interesting experience.

Gretchen makes a crucial point: Some of the effects of diet changes evolve over time, much as triglyceride levels changed substantially for her on the day following her experiment. Wouldn't it be interesting to see how postprandial patterns develop over time if levels were observed sequentially, day after day?

The stark contrast in blood sugars is impressive--Low-carb clearly has the advantage here. Are there manipulations in diet composition in low-carb meals that we can make to blunt the early (3-6 hour) postprandial lipoprotein (triglyceride) peak? That's a topic we will consider in future.

More of Gretchen's thoughts can be found at:


After-eating effects: Carbohydrates vs. fats

In the ongoing debate over whether it's fat or carbohydrate restriction that leads to weight loss and health, here's another study from the Oxford group examining the postprandial (after-eating) effects of a low-fat vs. low-carbohydrate diet. (Roberts R et al, 2008; full-text here.)

High-carbohydrate was defined as 15% protein; 10% fat; 75% carbohydrate (by calories), with starch:sugar 70:30.

High-fat was defined as 15% protein; 40% fat; 45% carbohydrate, with starch:sugar 70:30. (Yes, I know. By our standards, the "high-fat" diet was moderate-fat, moderate-carbohydrate--too high in carbohydrates.)

Blood was drawn over 6 hours following the test meal.

Roberts R et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2008

The upper left graph is the one of interest. Note that, after the high-carbohydrate diet (solid circles), triglyceride levels are twice that occurring after the high-fat diet (open circles). Triglycerides are a surrogate for chylomicron and VLDL postprandial lipoproteins; thus, after the high-carbohydrate diet, postprandial particles are present at much higher levels than after the high-fat diet. (It would have been interesting to have seen a true low-carbohydrate diet for comparison.) Also note that, not only are triglyceride levels higher after high-carbohydrate intake, but they remain sustained at the 6-hour mark, unlike the sharper decline after high-fat.

It's counterintuitive: Postprandial lipoproteins, you'd think, would be plentiful after ingesting a large quantity of fat, since fat must be absorbed via chylomicrons into the bloodstream. But it's carbohydrates (and obesity, a huge effect; more on that in future) that figure most prominently in determining the pattern and magnitude of postprandial triglycerides and lipoproteins. Much of this effect develops by way of de novo lipogenesis, the generation of new lipoproteins like VLDL after carbohydrate ingestion.

We also see this in our Track Your Plaque experience. Rather than formal postprandial meal-testing, we use intermediate-density lipoprotein (IDL) as our surrogate for postprandial measures. A low-carbohydrate diet reduces IDL dramatically, as do omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil.

The Paleo approach to meal frequency

Furthering our discussion of postprandial (after-eating) phenomenona, including chylomicron and triglyceride "stacking" (Grazing is for cattle and Triglyceride and chylomicron stacking), here's a comment from the recent Palet Diet Newsletter on the closely related issue, meal timing and frequency:

We are currently in the process of compiling meal times and patterns in the worlds historically studied hunter-gatherers. If any single picture is beginning to emerge, it clearly is not three meals per day plus snacking ala the typical U.S. grazing pattern. Here are a few examples:

--The Ingalik Hunter Gatherers of Interior Alaska: 'As has been made clear, the principal meal and sometimes the only one of the day is eaten in the evening.'
--The Guayaki (Ache) Hunter Gatherers of Paraguay: 'It seems, however, that the evening meal is the most consistent of the day. This is understandable, since the day is generally spent hunting for food that will be eaten in the evening."
--The Kung Hunter Gatherers of Botswana. "Members move out of camp each day individually or in small groups to work through the surrounding range and return in the evening to pool the collected resources for the evening meal."
--Hawaiians, Tahitians, Fijians and other Oceanic peoples (pre-westernization). 'Typically, meals, as defined by Westerners, were consumed once or twice a day. . . Oliver (1989) described the main meal, usually freshly cooked, as generally eaten in the late afternoon after the day’s work was over."

The most consistent daily eating pattern that is beginning to emerge from the ethnographic literature in hunter-gatherers is that of a large single meal which was consumed in the late afternoon or evening. A midday meal or lunch was rarely or never consumed and a small breakfast (consisting of the remainders of the previous evening meal) was sometimes eaten. Some snacking may have occurred during daily gathering, however the bulk of the daily calories were taken in the late afternoon or evening. This pattern of eating could be described as intermittent fasting relative to the typical Western pattern, particularly when daily gathering or hunting were unsuccessful or marginal. There is wisdom in the ways of our hunter gatherer ancestors, and perhaps it is time to re-think three squares a day.

In other words, the notion of "grazing," or eating small meals or snacks throughout the day, is an unnatural situation. It is directly contrary to the evolutionarily more appropriate large meal followed by periods of no eating or small occasional meals.

I stress this point because I see that the notion of grazing has seized hold of many people's thinking. In my view, grazing is a destructive practice that is self-indulgent, unnecessary, and simply fulfills the perverse non-stop hunger impulse fueled by modern carbohydrate foods.

Eliminate wheat, cornstarch, and sugars and you will find that grazing is a repulsive impulse that equates with gorging.

The full-text of the Paleo Diet Newsletter can be obtained through www.ThePaleoDiet.com. You can also read and/or subscribe to the new Paleo Diet Blog, just launched in November, 2009.

Even mummies do it

Lady Rai, nursemaid to Queen Nefertari of Egypt, died in 1530 BC, somewhere between the age of 30 and 40 years. Her mummy is preserved in the Egyptian National museum of Antiquities in Cairo.

A CT scan of her thoracic aorta revealed calcium, representing aortic atherosclerosis, reported by Allam et al (including my friend from The Wisconsin Heart Hospital, Dr. Sam Wann, who provided me a blow-by-blow tale of this really fascinating project). Ladi Rai and 14 other Egyptian mummies were found to have vascular calcification of a total of 22 mummies scanned. (The hearts of the mummies were too degenerated to make out any coronary calcium.)

But why would people of that age have developed atherosclerosis?

The authors of the study comment that "Our findings that atherosclerosis was not infrequent among middle-aged and older ancient Egyptians of high social status challenges the view that it is a disease of modern humans. . . Although ancient Egyptians did not smoke tobacco or eat processed food or presumably lead sedentary lives, they were not hunter-gatherers. [Emphasis mine.] Agriculture was well established in ancient Egypt and meat consumption appers to have been common among those of high social status."

Fascinating. But I don't think that I'd blame meat consumption. Egyptians were also known to have cultivated grains, including wheat, and frequently consumed such sweet delicacies as dates and figs. Egyptians were also apparently beer drinkers. Unfortunately, no beer steins were seen in any of the scans.

Life Extension article on iodine

Here's a link to my recent article in Life Extension Magazine on iodine:

Halt on Salt Sparks Iodine Deficiency

Iodized salt, a concept introduced into the U.S. by the FDA in 1924, slowly eliminated goiter (enlarged thyroid glands), along with an enormous amount of thyroid disease, heart attack, mental impairment, and death. The simple addition of iodine to salt ensured that salt-using Americans obtained enough iodine sufficient to not have a goiter.

Now that the FDA, goiters long forgotten from their memories, urges Americans to reduce salt, what has happened to our iodine?

I talk at length about this issue in the Life Extension article.

The healthiest people are the most iodine deficient

Here's an informal observation.

The healthiest people are the most iodine deficient.

The healthier you are, the more likely you are to:

--Avoid junk foods--30% of which have some iodine from salt
--Avoid overuse of iodized salt
--Exercise--Sweating causes large losses of iodine.

So the healthy-eating, exercising person is the one most likely to show iodine deficiency: gradually enlarged thyroid gland (in the neck), declining thyroid function. Over time, if iodine deficiency persists, excessive sensitivity to iodine develops, as well as abnormal thyroid conditions like overactive nodules.

Even subtle levels of thyroid dysfunction act as a potent coronary risk factor.

It's the score, stupid

Sal has had 3 heart scans. (He was not on the Track Your Plaque program.) His scores:

March, 2006: 439

April, 2007: 573

October, 2009: 799

Presented with the 39% increase from April, 2007 to October, 2009, Sal's doctor responded, "I don't understand. Your LDL cholesterol is fine."

This is the sort of drug-driven, cholesterol-minded thinking that characterizes 90% of primary care and cardiologists' practices: "Cholesterol is fine; therefore, you must be fine, too."

No. Absolutely not.

The data are clear: Heart scan scores that continue to increase at this rate predict high risk for cardiovascular events. Unfortunately, when my colleagues hear this, they respond by scheduling a heart catheterization to prevent heart attack--a practice that has never been shown to be effective and, in my view, constitutes malpractice (i.e., performing heart procedures in people with no symptoms and with either no stress test or a normal stress test).

It's the score, stupid! It's not the LDL cholesterol. Pay attention to the increasing heart scan score and you will know that the disease is progressing at an alarming rate. Accepting this fact will set you and your doctor on the track to ask "Why?"

That's when you start to uncover all the dozens of other reasons that plaque can grow that have nothing to do with LDL cholesterol or statin drugs.
My life is easy

My life is easy

In the old days (the 1980s and 1990s), practicing cardiology was very physically and emotionally demanding. Since procedures dominated the practice and preventive strategies were limited, heart attacks were painfully common. It wasn't unusual to have to go to the hospital for a patient having a heart attack at 3 am several times a week.

Those were the old days. Nowadays, my life is easy. Heart attacks, for the most part, are a thing of the past in the group of people who follow the Track Your Plaque principles. I can't remember the last time I had a coronary emergency for someone following the program.

But I am reminded of what life used to be like for me when I occasionally have to live up to my hospital responsibilities and/or cover the practices of my colleagues. (Though I voice my views on prevention to my colleagues, the most I get is a odd look. When a colleague recently covered my practice for a weekend while I visited family out of town, he commented to me how quiet my practice was. I responded, "That's because my patients are essentially cured." "Oh, sure they are." He laughed. No registration that he had witnessed something that was genuine and different from his experience of day-to-day catastrophe among his own patients. None.)

I recently had to provide coverage for a colleague for a week while he took his family to Florida. During the 7 days, his patients experienced 4 heart attacks. That is, 4 heart attacks among patients under the care of a cardiologist.

If you want some proof of the power of prevention, watch your results and compare them to the "control" group of people around you: neighbors, colleagues, etc. Unfortunately, the word on prevention, particularly one as powerful as Track Your Plaque, is simply not as widespread as it should be. Instead, it's drowned out in the relentless flood of hospital marketing for glitzy hospital heart programs, the "ask your doctor about" ads for drugs like Plavix, which is little better than spit in preventing heart attacks (except in stented patients), and the media's fascinating with high-tech laser, transplant, robotic surgery, etc.

Prevention? That's not news. But it sure can make the slow but sure difference between life and death, having a heart attack or never having a heart attack.

Comments (3) -

  • Jeff

    2/19/2007 11:23:00 PM |

    Dr. Davis, I'd like to invite you to visit ad comment on my blog: http://wordworks2001.blogspot.com


    Jeff Brailey

  • Dr. Davis

    2/19/2007 11:30:00 PM |

    Hi, Jeff-
    I took a look at your Blog and congratulate you on takin the time and effort to talk about the bizarre state of affairs in heart disease. We know that the principle that explains much of what happens is "follow the money". I see it as my role to facilitate this conversation.

  • katkarma

    2/21/2007 12:54:00 AM |

    Dr. Davis - I have been trying to follow your recomasmendations on diet and supplements and am really confused today as the new studies on Women and Heart Disease have contridicted the use of folic acid.  I take 2mg a day and it has brought my homocysteine down below 7 for the first time.   Do you think Women should be treated entirely differently than men as far as heart disease and plague is concerned.   Do you find a difference in the genders in your studies?   If so, how and what?   Thanks so much,
    Noreen Boles