60-year old man dies of high cholesterol

Never saw a headline like this? Neither have I. That's because it doesn't happen.

Cholesterol doesn't harm, maim, or kill. It is simply used as a crude--very crude--marker. It is, in reality, a component of the body, of the cell wall, of lipoproteins (lipid-carrying proteins) in the bloodstream. It is used a an indirect gauge, a "dipstick," for lipoproteins in the blood to those who don't understand how to identify, characterize, and quantify actual lipoproteins in the blood.

Cholesterol itself never killed anybody, any more than a bad paint job on your car could cause a fatal car accident.

What kills people is rupture of atherosclerotic plaque in the coronary arteries. For all practical purposes, you must have atherosclerotic plaque in order for it to rupture (much like a volcano erupts and spews lava). It's not about cholesterol; it's about atherosclerotic plaque. Plaque might contain cholesterol, but cholesterol is not the thing itself that causes heart attack and death.

So why do most people obsess about cholesterol? Good question. It is, at best, a statistical marker for the possibility of having atherosclerotic plaque that ruptures. High cholesterol = higher risk for heart attack, low cholesterol = lower risk for heart attack. But the association is weak and flawed, such that people with high cholesterol can live a lifetime without heart attack, people with low cholesterol can die at age 43.The same holds true for LDL cholesterol, you know, the calculated value based on flawed assumptions about LDL's relationship to total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and VLDL cholesterol.

A crucial oversight in the world of cholesterol: There are many other factors that cause atherosclerotic plaque and its rupture, such as inflammatory phenomena, calcium deposition, artery spasm, hemorrhage within the plaque itself, degradative enzymes, etc., none of which are suggested by cholesterol measures.

But one observation has held up, time and again, over the past 40 years of observations on coronary disease: The greater the quantity of coronary atherosclerotic plaque, the greater the risk of atherosclerotic plaque rupture. An increasing burden of atherosclerotic plaque along the limited confines of coronary arteries, just a few millimeters in diameter and a few centimeters in length, is like a house of cards: It's bound to topple sooner or later, and the bigger it gets, the less stable it becomes.

If you are concerned about future potential for heart disease and heart attack, don't get a cholesterol panel. Get a measure of coronary atherosclerotic plaque.

Back to basics: Coronary calcium

After having my attentions pulled a thousand different directions these past 6 months, with the release of Wheat Belly and all the wonderful media attention it has attracted, I've decided to pick up here with a series of discussions about the fundamental issues important to the Track Your Plaque program and prevention and reversal of coronary atherosclerotic plaque.

I fear the discussions at times have drifted off into the exotic. This is great because this is how we learn new lessons, but we can never lose sight of the basics, else we risk losing control over this disease.

Imagine you've got a beautiful new car. You wax it, gap the spark plugs, rotate the tires, etc. and it looks brand-new, just like it came off the dealer's lot. 50,000 miles pass, however, and you realize you've forgotten to change the oil. Ooops! In other words, no matter how meticulous the attention to transmission, tires, and paint job, neglect of the most basic responsibility can ruin the whole thing. We can't let that happen with heart health.

If we propose to reverse coronary atherosclerotic plaque, we've got to have something to measure. First, it tells us whether we have atherosclerotic plaque in the first place, the stuff that accumulates and blocks flow and causes anginal chest pains, and ruptures like a little volcano and causes heart attacks. Second, it gives us something to track over the years to know whether plaque has grown, stopped growing, or been reduced. Without such a measure, you will be driving without a speedometer or odometer, just guessing whether or not you've gotten to your destination.

Of course, the conventional approach to heart disease and heart attack is not to track atherosclerotic plaque in your coronary arteries, but to track some distant "risk factor" for atherosclerotic plaque, especially LDL cholesterol. But LDL cholesterol is flawed at several levels. First, it is calculated, not measured. The nearly 50-year old Friedewald equation used to calculate LDL cholesterol is based on several flawed assumptions, yielding a value that can be 20, 30, or 50% inaccurate as a rule, only occasionally generating a value close to the real value. (No point in publicizing this problem, of course: Why compromise a $27 billion annual cash cow?) It also ignores the effect of diet. (No, cutting fat does not reduce LDL for real, only the calculated value. Cutting carbohydrates, especially wheat--"healthy whole grains"--slashes measured LDL values like NMR LDL particle number and apoprotein B.)

But all risk factors are, at best, snapshots of the situation at that moment in time. They change from day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year. If you do something dramatic in health, like lose 50 pounds, you can substantially change your risk factors values, like LDL cholesterol and HDL cholesterol. But you may not modify the amount of atherosclerotic plaque in your heart's arteries.

Measuring the amount of atherosclerotic plaque in your heart's arteries is, in effect, a cumulative expression of the effects of risk factors up until the moment of measurement.

There are several stumbling blocks, however, in the concept of measuring coronary atherosclerotic plaque. We cannot measure all the unique components of plaque, such as fibrous tissue like collagen, or degradative enzymes like collagenases, or inflammatory proteins like matrix metalloproteinase, or the debris of hemorrhage and inflammation. We struggle to contemporaneously mix in measures of bloodborne inflammation, coagulation and viscosity, and physiological phenomena of the artery itself, like endothelial dysfunction, medial (muscle) tone, and adventitial fat.

So we are left with semi-static measures of total coronary atherosclerotic plaque like coronary calcium, obtainable via CT heart scans as a calcium "score." No, it is not perfect. It does not reflect that moment's blood viscosity, it does not reflect the inflammatory status of the one nasty plaque in the mid-left anterior descending, nor does it reflect the irritating sheer effects of a blood pressure of 150/95.

But it's the best we've got.

If anyone has something better, I invite you to speak up. Carotid ultrasound, c-reactive protein, ankle-brachial index, stress nuclear studies, myoglobin, skin cholesterol, KIF6 genotype . . . none of them approach the value, the insight, the trackability of actually measuring coronary atherosclerotic plaque. And the only method we've got to gauge coronary atherosclerotic plaque that is non-invasive and available in 2012? Yup, a good old CT heart scan calcium score.

Myocardial infraction

I've seen a few heart attacks this past year . . . but none in the people who follow this program.

I saw a heart attack in a priest, a wonderful man who was unable to say "no" to his parishioners who insisted on bringing pies, cakes, and cookies every day.

I saw an impending heart attack in a 74-year old man, a football coach who thought the whole wheat-free, low-carb thing was some wacko trend. Four stents later, he's changed his mind.

A 69-year old woman had to be hospitalized for heart failure due to partial closure of an artery. She repeatedly told me that she simply could not follow the diet because it was "too restrictive."

There were a few others. Interestingly, all felt they were eating healthy, minimizing junk foods and avoiding fatty foods. None were wheat-free nor restricted carbohydrates.

In other words, in the people who follow the basic advice of the Track Your Plaque program to do such simple things as eliminate wheat, don't indulge in junk carbohydrates, normalize vitamin D status, supplement omega-3 fatty acids, supplement iodine and correct any thyroid dysfunction . . . well, they have no heart attacks.

Diet is superior to drugs

Might-o’chondri-AL left this wonderful record of his lipoprotein experience in the comments to the last Heart Scan Blog post. It is a great example of what is achievable with diet and a few supplements . . . without drugs.

(A) Jan. 2011 1st ever NMR lipo-protein analysis was done after 4 months of consistent home food prep of pretty low fat (only olive oil and 1 tablespoon coconut oil daily) but plenty of whole wheat and half potatoes:
* LDL # of particles (P) = 1,676 in nmol/L————being a LDL cholesterol (C) reading of 139 mg/dL
* small LDL # P = 1,021 nmol/L —————yikes! you advise smLDL be less than 117 nmol/L
* HDL # of particles = 28.8 umol/L ————–being a HDL C reading of 45 mg/dL
* Triglycerides = 90 mg/dL ————– true, I never struggled with my weight

(B) May 2011 2nd NMR after another 4 months but added in more fat (1 teaspoon highly concentrated fish oil daily, 90% chocolate, handfulls of nuts, more olive oil and kept coconut oil at 1 tablespoon daily for a controlled experiment), added 500 mg Niacin 3 times a day (in stages up to1,500 mg. total daily), 6000 IU daily vitamin D, deliberately cut out all grains except for social politeness and substituted in daily Koji fermented brown rice (rustic Amazake):
** LDL # P……………= 976 nmol/L ——————————– being LDL C of 100 mg/dL
** small LDL # P …. = 96 nmol/L ——————————– nice surprise
** HDL # P ………… = 27.3 umol/L ——————————being an increase to HDL C of 64 mg/dL
** Triglycerides …… = 42 mg/dL ——————————– despite daily carbs over 150 gr. daily

(C) Dec. 2011 3rd NMR after another 7 more months thinking Doc’s advice is worthwhile I added in yet more fat (mainly daily 2 tablespoons of coconut oil, more 90% chocolate), bumped Niacin up to 1,000 mg twice a day (2,000 mg. total daily), cut out the Amazake, kept up the vitamin D adding daily vitamin K & daily ate main mid-day meal out as lunch on spicy Thai & Chinese fish/shrimp/soup/rice meals (my next control):
*** LDL # P ………. = 764 nmol/L ————— being LDL C of 107 mg/dL ( 2x coconut’s saturated fat)
***small LDL # P… = less than 90 nmol/L ——–surprised me NMR can’t count lower
***HDL # P ……… = 41.4 umol/L ——————– being an increase to HDL C of 88 mg/dL
*** Triglycerides ….= 43 mg/dL ——————- daily carbs below ~ 120 gr. & lost too much weight

Isn't that great? Spectacular job, Might!

MIght achieved values that are superior to that achievable with, say, a high-dose statin strategy. Statins only reduce total LDL particles, reducing small LDL in a non-selective way. And, of course, this diet does not cause muscle aches, memory loss, nor liver problems.

Something to consider: As the diet has become so effective, we can reduce our reliance on niacin. In fact, the benefits of niacin diminish substantially, as small LDL is reduced, HDL increased, triglycerides decreased, and postprandial lipoproteins subdued with the diet only.

Low-carb is heart healthy

Anybody following the discussions in these pages know that: Limiting carbohydrate intake reduces risk for coronary heart disease and heart attack.

First of all, why do conventional diets advocate restricting saturated and total fat? From the standpoint of surrogate markers of cardiovascular risk, cutting saturated and total fat reduces total cholesterol; reduces calculated LDL cholesterol; and may reduce c-reactive protein modestly (an index of inflammation). It also increases blood sugar and HbA1c (reflecting the prior 60 days blood sugars), increases glycation of the proteins of the body leading to cataracts, arthritis, and hypertension.

Problem: Total cholesterol is a combination of HDL cholesterol, an estimate of VLDL cholesterol (triglycerides), and LDL cholesterol. It is a composite of both "good" things (HDL) and "bad" things (LDL and VLDL). Cutting saturated and total fat results in reduced HDL, increased VLDL/triglycerides, and a reduction in calculated LDL. Pretty weak stuff. The last item, i.e., reduction in calculated LDL, is not even a real phenomenon. In fact, the net effect in most genotypes (genetic types) may be negative: increased heart disease risk.

In contrast, what is the effect of reducing carbohydrate without restricting fat? (In the approach I use, we start with elimination of the most destructive of carbohydrates, wheat, followed by reducing exposure to other carbohydrates, especially cornstarch and corn products, sugar, and oats.) If, say, we cut carbohydrate intake into the range of a truly low-carbohydrate diet of 10-15 grams per meal ("net" carbs, or total carbohydrates minus fiber), then we witness a number of metabolic transformations:

Reduced fasting triglycerides and VLDL
Reduced postprandial (after-eating) triglycerides, chylomicrons, and chylomicron remnants
Increased HDL and shift towards large HDL particles (presumably more protective)
Reduced small LDL particles
Reduced glycation and oxidation of small LDL particles
Reduced hemoglobin A1c
Reduced c-reactive protein and other inflammatory markers
Reduced blood pressure

By slashing carbohydrates, we also witness weight loss from visceral fat, reversal of pre-diabetes and diabetes, and reduced phenomena of glycation. And, if the wheat-free part of low-carb is maintained, you can also see marked improvement in gastrointestinal health, relief from joint pains, relief from leg edema, relief from migraine headaches, improved behavior and ability to concentrate in children with impaired learning, ADHD, and autism, better mood, deeper sleep. You will see multiple inflammatory and autoimmune diseases improve or completely relieved, such as rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis.

Having personally gone down the diabetic path and back by cutting the fat in my diet, now maintaining a HbA1c of 4.8% with fasting glucose 84 mg/d; (without medications), there should be no remaining doubt: Low-carb diets, especially if wheat-free, dramatically reduce the factors leading to heart disease; low-fat diets worsen the factors leading to heart disease.

Mocha Walnut Brownies

Richer than a cookie, heavier than a muffin, brownies are ordinarily an indulgence that leaves you ashamed of your lack of restraint. Have one . .  . or two or three, and you will surely pack on a pound of belly fat.

But these mocha walnut brownies, as with other recipes I provide, will not pack on the pounds. With no wheat to trigger appetite, nor any readily-digestible carbohydrate to generate blood sugar highs and lows, you can have a nice brownie or two or three and nothing bad happens: You don’t send blood sugar sky-high, don’t trigger formation of small LDL particles and triglycerides, you don’t trigger appetite, you don’t gain a pound of belly fat. You simply have your brownie(s) and enjoy them.

Serve these brownies plain or topped with cream cheese, natural peanut or almond butter, or dipped in coffee.

8 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate (100% chocolate)
4 tablespoons coconut oil or butter, melted
2 large eggs, separated
½ cup coconut milk (or sour cream)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups ground almonds
2 tablespoons coconut flour
1 cup chopped walnuts
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons instant espresso
Sweetener equivalent to 1 cup sugar or to taste (e.g., liquid stevia, Truvía, erythritol)

Preheat oven to 350º F.

Melt chocolate using double boiler method or in 15-second increments in microwave. Stir in melted coconut oil or butter.

In small bowl, beat egg whites until frothy. Add egg whites, egg yolks, coconut milk, and vanilla extract to chocolate mixture and mix thoroughly by hand.

In separate bowl, combine ground almonds, coconut flour, walnuts, cocoa powder, espresso, and sweetener. Mix thoroughly.

Add dry mix to chocolate mix and mix together thoroughly. If dough is too stiff, add additional coconut milk, one tablespoon at a time.

Place mixture in 9-inch baking pan and bake for 25 -30 minutes or until toothpick withdraws dry.

Are you hungry?

Eliminate modern high-yield semi-dwarf Triticum aestivum . . . and what is the effect on appetite?

A reduction in appetite is among the most common and profound experiences resulting from wheat elimination. I know that I have personally felt it: Wake up in the morning, little interest in breakfast for several hours. Lunch? Maybe I'll have a few bites of something. Dinner . . . well, I'd like to exercise first.

The wheatless report that:

--Appetite diminishes to the point where you can't remember whether you've eaten or not. It is not uncommon to miss a meal, perfectly content. Calorie intake drops by 400 calories per day, on average, calories you otherwise would not have needed but all went to . . . you know where.
--Hunger feels different: It's not the gnawing, rumbling hunger that plagues you every 2 hours. In its place, you will find that hunger feels like a soft reminder that, gee, maybe it's time to have something to eat because you haven't had anything in--what?--4 to 6 hours. And it's a subtle reminder, not a desperate hunt that makes you knock people aside at the food bar, steal coworkers' lunches stored in the refrigerator, salivating at the mere thought of food.
--The simplest foods satisfy--It no longer requires an all-you-can-eat buffet to satisfy, but a few small pieces of healthy food. (Yeah, but what happens to revenues at Kraft, Nabisco, and Kelloggs, not to mention the revenues at agribusiness giants ADM and Monsanto? Slash consumption by, say, 30%, you likewise slash revenues by 30%. What would shareholders say?)
--Even prolonged periods of not eating, i.e., fasting, is endured with ease.

Hunger and the relentless search for something to eat disappear for most people. By eliminating the appetite-stimulating properties of wheat, we return to a natural state of eating for sustenance, to satisfy physiologic need. We are no longer victims of this incredibly powerful appetite-stimulant called gliadin from wheat.

This is why many diets fail: They fail to remove this powerful appetite stimulant. You might eat only lean meats, limit your calories, and exercise 90 minutes per day, but as long as the gliadin protein is pushing your appetite button, you will want to eat more or you will have to mount monumental willpower to resist it. You can lose 20 pounds on phase 1 of the South Beach diet, for instance, only to regain it in phases 2 and 3 when "healthy whole grains" are added back.

So the key is to remove the gliadin protein from your life, i.e., eliminate all things wheat.


Chocolate . . . for adults only

If you've got a serious chocolate addiction and you'd like to make it as healthy as possible, give this X-rated dark chocolate a try.
I call it X-rated because it is certain to not satisfy young, sugar-craving palates, but is appropriate for only the most serious chocolate craver. This is a way to obtain the rich flavors and textures of cocoa, the health benefits (e.g., blood pressure reduction, antioxidation) of cocoa flavonoids, while obtaining none of the sugars/carbohydrates . . . and certainly no wheat!

It is easy to make, requiring just a few ingredients, a few steps, and a few minutes. Set aside and save for an indulgence, e.g., dip into natural peanut or almond butter.

8 ounces 100% unsweetened cocoa
5 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
1/2 cup dry roasted pistachios
1/4 cup whole flaxseeds or chia seeds
Truvia or other non-aqueous sweetener

Using double-boiler method, melt cocoa. Alternatively, melt cocoa in microwave in 15-20 second increments. Stir in coconut oil, pistachios, and flaxseeds or chia seeds. Stir in sweetener, mixing thoroughly. (Note that the sweetener must be non-aqueous, as water-based sweeteners will separate in the oils.)

Lay a sheet of parchment paper out on a large baking pan. Pour chocolate mixture slowly onto paper, tilting pan carefully to spread evenly until thickness of thick cardboard obtained. Place pan in refrigerator or freezer for 20 minutes.

Remove chocolate and break by hand into pieces of desired size.

"Friday is my bad day"

At the start, Ted had a ton of small LDL particles. His starting (NMR) lipoprotien values:

LDL particle number: 2644 nmol/L

Small LDL: 2301 nmol/L

In other words, approximately 85% of all LDL particles were abnormally small. I showed Ted how to use diet to markedly reduce small LDL particles, including elimination of wheat, limiting other carbohydrates, and even counting carbohydrates to keep the quantity no higher than 15 grams per meal ("net" carbs).

Ted comes back 6 months later, having lost 14 pounds in the process (and now with weight stabilized). Another round of lipoproteins show:

LDL particle number: 1532 nmol/L

Small LDL: 799 nmol/L

Better, but not perfect. small LDL persists, representing nearly 50% of total LDL particle number.

So I quiz Ted about his diet. "Gee, I really stick to this diet. I have nothing made of wheat, no sugars. I count my carbs and I almost never go higher . . . except on Fridays."

"What happens on Friday?" I asked.

"That's when I'm bad. Not really bad. Maybe just a couple of slices of pizza. Or I'll go out for a big custard cone or something. That wouldn't do it, would it?"

That's the explanation. Your liver is well-equipped to recognize normal, large LDL particles. Large LDL particles therefore "live" for only a couple of days in the bloodstream. But the human liver does not recognize the peculiar configuration of small LDL particles, so it lets them pass--over and over and over again. The result: Once triggered by, say two slices of pizza, small LDL particles persist for 5 days, sometimes longer.

So Ted's one "bad" day per week is enough to allow a substantial quantity of small LDL particles to persist. While a fat indulgence (if there is such a thing) pushes large LDL up, the effect is relatively short-lived. Have a carbohydrate indulgence, on the other hand, and small LDL particles persist for up to a week. It means that Ted's one "bad" day per week is enough to allow his small LDL particles to persist at this level, preventing him from gaining full control over coronary plaque.

It also means that, if you have blood drawn for lipoprotein analysis but had a carbohydrate goodie within the previous week, small LDL particles may be exaggeratedly high.

HDL 80 mg/dl

More and more people in my clinic are showing HDL cholesterol values of 80 mg/dl or higher, males included.

Think about it: Nationwide, average HDL for males is 42 mg/dl and for females 52 mg/dl. Even though these average values are generally regarded as favorable, HDL cholesterol values at these levels are nearly always associated with higher levels of triglycerides, postprandial (after-eating) lipoprotein abnormalities, and excessive quantities of small LDL particles.

HDL particles are, of course, protective and are powerfully anti-oxidative. Higher levels of HDL have been associated with reduced potential for cancer, as well as reduced risk for heart disease.

Following the simple regimen that we follow to gain control over coronary plaque has therefore increased levels of HDL to heights that are uncommon in the rest of the population, levels that readily top 80, 90, or 100 mg/dl. That regimen includes:

1) Elimination of all wheat--Yes, consumption of "healthy whole grains" sets you up to have lower HDL levels; elimination of wheat increases HDL.
2) Limited carbohydrate consumption--While eliminating wheat is a powerful nutritional strategy to increase HDL, non-wheat carbohydrates like quinoa, millet, beans, rice, and fruit can still cause high triglycerides that lead to reduced levels of HDL. Limited exposure helps keep HDL at higher levels.
3) Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation--Because omega-3 fatty acids reduce both triglycerides and blunt the postprandial rise in lipoproteins that can cause HDL degradation, HDL rises with omega-3s from fish oil.
4) Vitamin D supplementation--The effect is slow, but it is BIG. HDL just goes up and up and up over about 2 years of supplementation. Before vitamin D, HDL levels of 60 mg/dl were the best I could hope for in most people. Now 80 mg/dl is an everyday occurrence.

Other factors can also be used to increase HDL levels, such as weight loss, red wine and alcohol, exercise, cocoa flavonoids, green tea, and niacin. But following the regimen above sends HDL through the roof in the majority.