May
26
2019

The Foods That Are Killing Us

There is an article in a CNN report talking about the foods that are killing us. This review is based on an article in the Lancet. The Lancet study was based on a global review of eating habits in 195 countries. The question in the study was which of 15 food items caused the diseases that killed people. The answer was surprising. There are either omissions or unhealthy components of foods that kill us. Here is a list of 12 food groups that are problematical.

A dozen foods that were found to be problematical in the global review

  • Diet high in sodium (4 grams per day, which is 86% above the optimal level)
  • Low intake of whole grains (only 23% of optimal levels)
  • Low fruit intake
  • Diet high in trans fatty acids
  • Low omega-3 fatty acid diet (due to low intake of sea food)
  • Diet low in calcium
  • Diet low in fiber
  • High intake of sugar beverages or sugary foods (49 grams of sugar per day)
  • Processed meat intake too high (4 grams per day, 90% more than optimal)
  • Red meat consumption too high (27 grams per day, 18% higher than optimal)
  • Nut and seed intake too low (only consuming 12% of desired amount)
  • Diet low in milk (16% of desired amount)

Each of these components or several of them in combination create deficiencies in us or overburden us to the point where we can get sick and disabled.

Different countries have different eating habits

Globally there were 11 million deaths found in 2017 and 255 million years of disability because of various dietary inadequacies.

Here is the lineup of the leading causes of death:

  • cardiovascular disease with 10 million deaths and 207 million years of disability.
  • Cancers caused 913,090 deaths and 20 million years of disability.
  • Type 2 diabetes caused 338,714 deaths and 24 million years of disability.

This was broken down into statistics for each of the contributory countries. Here I am only citing some pertinent data that shows the importance of balanced meals for a healthy life expectancy.

Different death rates in various countries

There were big differences in terms of cardiovascular disease deaths according to various regions. Central Asia had the highest death rate with 613 deaths per 100,000 people per year. In contrast the high-income Asia Pacific group had only a cardiovascular death rate of 68 per 100,000 people per year.

Cancer deaths were highest in East Asia with 41 deaths per 100,000 people. The lowest cancer rate was found in North Africa and the Middle East with 9 deaths per 100,000 people.

Among the 20 most populous countries Egypt had the highest diet-related deaths, namely 552 deaths per 100,000 people. On the other hand Japan had the lowest of all diet related deaths with 97 deaths per 100,000 people. 

Some highlights how unhealthy foods kill us

Globally people only eat 12% of the desirable amount of nuts and seeds. They only drink 13% of what they should consume in terms of milk. People worldwide eat 23% of the desirable amount of whole grains.

Nuts and seeds contain mono- and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids, which lower your risk of getting heart attacks and strokes.

Milk is a good source of calcium, protein, minerals and vitamins. However, milk, yogurt or cheese should be consumed as low fat varieties. Alternatively people who do not consume milk should look for protein carriers such as soy milk or pea milk.

If you eat nuts and vegetables you can largely compensate for low milk consumption. If you don’t get enough whole grains, you are missing a whole lot of nutrients. This makes you more vulnerable of getting cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and obesity.

Other unhealthy foods can kill us

The WHO has labelled red meat and processed meat as being carcinogenic

Studies clearly showed a higher than normal rate of colorectal cancer in those who consumed larger amounts of red meat and/or sausages.

Sugar overconsumption

Sugar overconsumption leads to a variety of conditions. Weight gain with the development of obesity and type 2 diabetes are common when you eat too much sugar. But even cancer like colorectal cancer and pancreatic cancer is more common in people who overindulge in sugar or sugary drinks. Sugar consumption raises your triglyceride and LDL level. This will eventually lead to hardening of the arteries, heart attacks and strokes.

Gout develops with purine containing foods

Gout can be caused by consuming a lot of red meat combined with copious amounts of beer. This is how royalty in the Middle Ages suffered from gout attacks. Gout had the nickname of “Disease of the affluent.” Both beer and red meat contain a lot of purines, which the kidneys cannot handle. The uric acid crystals that precipitate around joints cause excruciating pains.

 What the global health study showed

Researchers of the global health study stated that improving the diet habits could potentially eliminate 1 in 5 deaths globally. Dietary risks for major diseases like heart attacks, strokes and cancer are independent from sex, age and socioeconomic status.

Three dietary factors stood out: too much salt, too little fruit and too little whole grain. These three items were responsible for 50% of diet-related deaths and 66% of “disability-adjusted life years”. The authors used this expression to describe how years of disability had their root in diet deficits (e.g. too little fruit) or overdoses of unhealthy food components (e.g. salt).

The leading dietary risk factors are too much salt, low whole grain, low fruit consumption, low vegetable intake and low omega-3 fatty acid consumption. On top of that come the previously established risks due to sugar overconsumption, excessive fat intake and consumption of red meat and processed meat.

Discussion of the meaning of these results

Deaths from heart attacks and strokes

We know for some time that high sugar and high starchy food intake cause elevated triglycerides and elevated LDL cholesterol. This leads to hardening of the arteries and eventually to strokes and heart attacks.

High sodium intake

Sodium intake of more than 2300 mg per day is considered high and can cause high blood pressure. heart attacks, strokes and aneurysms.

Eating not enough fruit

If you eat too little fruit, your system does not get enough vitamin C and other vitamins. Heart disease, cancer and anemia could develop from that.

Eating not enough vegetables

People who do not eat enough vegetables do not have enough antioxidants that protect them from free radicals. Free radicals are unstable chemicals that attack cells and DNA. Mutated cells can cause cancer. If you eat too little vegetables, you are at a higher risk of getting cancer. But there is another aspect of vegetables: phytonutrients protect from hardening of the arteries and blockages of heart and brain vessels. When someone does not eat enough vegetables, the risk for heart attacks and strokes is higher. Eating vegetables also protects you from diabetes and keeps the blood sugar more stable.

Not eating enough whole grain

Whole grain was identified as missing in a lot of people’s diet. When you incorporate whole grains into your food, you reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer, and obesity.

There are vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and lignans in whole grain. Other nutrients are beta-glucan, several phytochemicals, phytosterols, phytin, and sphingolipids. All of these are necessary to maintain good health.

Low omega-3 fatty acid consumption

Omega-3 fatty acids are important for healthy skin, brain development (neurodevelopment of children) and prevention of heart attacks. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of cancer because of their anti-inflammatory action and inhibition of cell growth factors. In one study rectal cancer showed a 21% reduction comparing the highest omega-3 fatty acid intake to the lowest intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Colon cancer showed no effect to omega-3 consumption, but breast cancer showed a reduction with omega-3 fatty acid supplementation. Researchers showed that omega-3 fatty acid supplementation can slow down dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Protein deposits called amyloids were found less in the brain of patients with omega-3 fatty acid supplementation; in addition the brain volume was preserved more with the omega-3 supplement. Low omega-3 fatty acid consumption also has a detrimental effect on macular degeneration of the eyes and on joint pains of rheumatoid arthritis patients.

The Foods That Are Killing Us

The Foods That Are Killing Us

Conclusion

I have reviewed a global health study that described various risks that led to deaths from different diseases. It was noticeable that death and disability rates varied significantly according to different countries. The authors also looked into food habits and could pinpoint certain food deficiencies that caused diseases that prematurely disabled or killed people. I have described the various one-sided food habits that led to specific diseases.

What we should all learn from this complicated study is that we all can strive to eat more balanced meals. You want to eat a low sodium diet, eat enough fruit and vegetables, to which you add some nuts. Eat enough whole grains and add omega-3 fatty acids. This way the risk of getting cancer, cardiovascular diseases or other problems can be significantly reduced.

Dec
06
2014

Regrets Following Holiday Foods

Countless blogs have been written about gaining pounds with holiday food. This is not my topic in this blog. I am looking at the medical evidence of what is happening to our bodies, some of which is permanent. I like to focus on the gallbladder, blood pressure, heart function and gout. I will provide little clinical vignettes that make my points clear.

Gallbladder disease

Many patients are unaware that their gallbladder has developed stones that accumulate over several years, perhaps even several decades. But, if infection sets in there is an acute flare-up of gallbladder pain, which can be excruciating. Also, when one of the stones is transported into the gallbladder duct, there is a sudden colicky pain similar to labor pains. In cases where the migrating stone blocks the common bile duct, the patient can get jaundiced and the pancreatic juice can get backed up leading to an acute pancreatitis.

What does that have to do with overindulging during a Thanksgiving meal? Fatty sauces, ham, and gravy can all lead to more cholesterol deposits in the gallbladder and make stones larger. Add to this a rich dessert with ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream and you’ve got yourself a fairly fatty feast. So, this one fatty meal can make a difference by bringing on symptoms of a previously undiagnosed condition, and you spend hours in an emergency room of a hospital.

The scenario could look like this case:

Fred is a 40-year-old teacher, somewhat overweight who enjoyed a holiday meal at his parent’s place for Thanksgiving. His health has been good with no surgeries. Following the turkey dinner, which he enjoyed he noticed right upper abdominal pain, and he started to vomit. As the pain did not improve, his parents called an ambulance that brought him to a hospital. The emergency physician said that he was concerned about Fred’s gallbladder. He ordered a CT scan and this showed multiple stones with one of the stones being stuck in the cystic duct. Despite pain medication and bed rest the situation did not resolve (the stone did not pass). A surgeon was called in and a laparoscopic cholecystectomy was performed. Fred recovered within only 3 days and could return to teaching. The fatty food of the Thanksgiving dinner was only the tip of the iceberg in this case. The fact that there have been many pre-existing gallbladder stones tells us that this patient had the chronic habit to eat foods with too much fat and cholesterol. Here is a blog that I found containing sensible eating suggestions.

High blood pressure

Extra salt intake leads to an elevation of blood pressure. If a person has borderline high blood pressure, the extra salt intake from holiday meals can get the blood pressure out of control and this in turn can cause a stroke (typically a hemorrhagic stroke) or is a strain to the heart leading to a heart attack or to congestive heart failure.

Janice is a 50-year-old janitor who has had problems with borderline high blood pressure readings. Normally her blood pressure was 140 over 90, and when she watched her salt intake it would go down to 125 over 80. She bought a blood pressure monitoring device, just so she could measure her own blood pressure at home. Following the Thanksgiving turkey dinner she noticed that she developed fullness in her head and a headache and her face looked flushed. She took her blood pressure with a reading of 160 over 100. It had never been that high. When she saw her doctor he asked her what she had for Thanksgiving dinner: they sat together with friends and had potato chips with dip and drank some red wine with it. Next for the meal she enjoyed the roasted, brined turkey and ham. Yes, she did add some more salt to the mashed potatoes too.

The doctor found her blood pressure to be 165 over 100. He explained to her that she needs to go on a DASH diet, which is low in salt. He also started her on blood pressure pills. Here is another link for a low salt diet.

Heart attack following turkey dinner

When working as an intern in teaching hospitals of McMaster University of Hamilton/Ont. during my training in 1975 to 1978 I noticed a strange correlation between holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas and intensive care unit admissions with acute heart attacks. Later a formal study was published that there is indeed such a correlation between consuming a big meal with fat, salt and refined carbohydrates and the development of a heart attack.

This likely does not develop without prior silent conditions of high triglycerides, high cholesterol and insulin resistance leading to inflammatory substances circulating in the blood. The C-reactive protein is one of the substances that has emerged as a useful monitoring device and a fasting insulin level. Both should be low or the person is at a higher risk of developing a heart attack.

Add to this a festive, large meal and you got troubles at your hand like in the next case:

Joan is a 62-year-old high school principal who developed chest pain within 2 hours of having enjoyed her Christmas dinner. She was known to have high cholesterol levels for about 5 years and she had been taking statins for 4 years as diet alone could not control it. But she loved food in general and was about 20 pounds overweight. The doctor had discussed exercise with her, but she felt too busy doing other things. Now all of this came back to her as she was recovering in a hospital bed from an emergency stent procedure. They had to insert two stents to overcome narrowing of the coronary arteries. She was now pain free and felt that she needed to do something about her lifestyle. She would see a dietician and record her weights daily. She wanted to loose 20 pounds and yes, she wanted to start mild exercise when her doctor allowed it and gradually build it up to a maintenance program.

Regrets Following Holiday Foods (Gout Patient)

Regrets Following Holiday Foods (Gout Patient)

Gout attack following rich meal

It is known since the Middle Ages that feasting on a large meal of beef combined with lots of beer or wine can cause a gout attack. Gout at this time was known as a disease of the affluent. The poor obviously could not afford big feasts. Today we know that purines are the end product of meats and this gets excreted in the kidneys. However, alcohol prevents the purines to be excreted in the urine so that uric acid levels exceed a certain limit beyond which uric acid crystals are precipitated in soft tissues like around joints, which is very painful.

The following case will illustrate this:

Carl, a 45-year-old sales person suddenly developed excruciating pain and swelling in his left big toe. He went to the emergency room of the closest hospital. After some tests he was told that he had come down with acute gout. His blood tests showed a high uric acid level and biopsy samples from the left toes also revealed uric acid crystals. With the help of colchicine and allopurinol things turned back to normal within 3 days.

The gout episode occurred just 4 hours after his holiday meal consisting of a few beers and copious amounts of turkey meat. He also seems to be addicted to soft drinks which are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup which he consumes freely all day long.

It is known that sugar from soft drinks make a person 85% more prone to develop gout than a person who uses diet drinks or water.

Here is a diet sheet for Carl to prevent his next gout attack.

Conclusion

Who would have thought in the past that food could be a dangerous substance with the potential of making us sick? But this is exactly what I wanted to point out in this blog. Of course, it does not stop at holidays where we tend to eat more of what we normally eat. It pays dividends watching what we consume even in the days between feasts. For instance a DASH diet is a good idea for those of us who may have developed borderline high blood pressure. Avoiding excessive red meat is a good idea for prevention of heart attacks and strokes, as your cholesterol stays lower. Avoiding soft drinks with sugar and fructose is good prevention for avoiding obesity, cancer, heart attacks and strokes. Get the greens going (vegetables, salads etc.) to live longer without disabilities.

Last edited Dec. 6, 2014