Are you a skinny fat person?

AT 186 lbs. and 5 feet 10 inches, Doug did not regard himself as overweight. Sure, he had a little extra "love handles", a small bulge in the belly and a waist of 34 inches. But he was by no means fat, particularly compared to most of his friends, neighbors, and co-workers, many of whom were 50-100 lbs heavier.

But examine Doug's lipoprotein patterns and, if you didn't know what he looked like, you'd guess that he's at least 50 lbs or more overweight. His prominent patterns included low HDL, small LDL, high triglycerides, the after-eating IDL, and borderline high blood sugar of 116 mg/dl. His blood pressure usually ranged around 138/82.

In other words, Doug is among the 5-10% of people who have most of the features of the so-called "metabolic syndrome", but don't look the part. They usually (though not always) have a modest excess of visceral abdominal fat. While some people have to be 100 lbs overweight before they express these patterns, someone like Doug could do it with minimal excess weight, sometimes as little as 5-10 lbs.

Several specific genetic patterns can account for this exagerrated sensitivity to weight, but the solutions remain much the same. Heightened sensitivity to processed carbohydrates, particularly those containing wheat, is commonly present. A sharp reduction in processed carbohydrates like breads, breakfast cereals, and pretzels yields a huge benefit. Reduction in weight, of course, can also yield marked improvement in these patterns. This means that Doug should consider achieving his truly ideal weight of <175 lbs and become a truly skinny skinny person. Though his patterns might not be fully corrected, he will see substantial improvement across the board.

These patterns are also potent triggers for coronary plaque growth. Correction of low HDL, small LDL, etc. is crucial if you are to seize hold of your heart scan score.

Heart disease "reversal" gives health a bad name

Put the search phrase "reverse heart disease" into your internet search engine, and you'll uncover an astonishing range of sites, all making extravagant promises.

The treatment programs offered range from the bizarre (colonic irrigation, magnetism, etc.), to centers using conventional approaches like statin drugs and low-fat diets, to sites that make lofty predictions with few unique tools (slash the fat and heart disease dissolves).

95% or more of the sites you turn up are clearly pandering to the unknowing, the unsophisticated, the hopeless, or other helpless niche groups. Homeopathic preparations, chelation, magnical combinations of herbals, you name it, you'll find it attached to claims for heart disease reversal.

I've seen people use many of these treatments. Is there any effect on the rate of increase of the heart scan score? Do they impact on the 30% per year expected rate of increase? Absolutely not.

Unfortunately, this gives anyone practicing truly effective methods to reverse coronary plaque a bad name. Just associating with this suspect group of "practitioners" can make us look bad--guilt by association.

Whenever someone claims to have the secret of heart disease reversal, I ask "Can you prove it?" Show me some evidence. It doesn't necessarily have to be $30 million drug company sponsored study, but some evidence of effectiveness should be available. The only thing we should take on faith is our religion, not our health care.

Our growing number of people who have, indeed, reversed their heart scan scores--reversed heart disease--to me is persuasive evidence of the value of the Track Your Plaque approach. Not foolproof, not 100%, but the best damned approach I'm aware of, by a long shot.

Trans fats to be banned

Sometimes good may come from legislation.

The City of New York is contemplating a ban on trans-fat use by restaurants, bakeries, and other food establishments in preparation of their foods. (Trans-fats are also known as hydrogenated fats.)

At this point, I believe it's unclear, should this pass, what the response will be. If food preparers turn to butter, that's not much better. (Don't get fooled by the non-sensical argument of which is better, butter or margarine--they're both terrible.) Subtracting hydrogenated fats will no doubt cause major disruption of food preparation habits. It may even increase the cost of food slightly.

I believe that the true positive effect of this situation, however, will be the tremendously heightened awareness it will raise in the public, both in New York and elsewhere, on just how bad and pervasive trans-fats are. It may increase awareness that foods like donuts and pastries are not just about excessive quantities of sugars, but also trans-fat content.

If you're already a Track Your Plaque follower, you already know that the easiest way to dodge trans-fats in your diet is to minimize your use of processed foods--the cellophane-wrapped, pulverized, dried, just-add-water, microwavable and ready-to-eat foods that line supermarket shelves. Trans-fats are purely man-made. You won't find them--not a stitch--in green peppers, lettuce, olive oil, almonds. . .unprocessed foods. Watch for an in-depth report on trans-fats on the Track Your Plaque website in which we will detail the scientific evidence behind this movement, how to recognize when foods contain trans-fats, etc.

Back to basics!

Harold is energetic and highly motivated. His heart scan score of 997 really threw him for a loop: his view of himself as a healthy, slender, 58-year old clearly needed revision.

So Harold set himself on a quest to find new ways to help him deal with his heart disease risk. He enrolled in the Track Your Plaque program. Unfortunately, he skimmed through the information but didn't really put much of it to use.

Instead, he wanted the "secret" information that other people didn't know about, "insider" information that couldn't be found in magazines, wasn't know by doctors.

He'd read that hawthorne was useful for opening coronary arteries, so he bought hawthorne at the health food store. He read that coenzyme Q10 was a little know way to strengthen the heart, so he added that. A Chinese doctor in town was advertising chelation therapy that "dissolved plaque". He subscribed to a once-a-week intravenous infusion at the doctor's holistic clinic of Eastern medicine. He'd heard that testosterone opened up arteries, so he purchased a preparation of chrysin, horny goat weed, yohimbine, and saw palmetto. He was suspicious of many conventional medicines, but he didn't want to ignore his LDL cholesterol of 172 mg/dl. So he added guggulipid and a combination cholesterol-reducing product that contained about 10 ingredients.

Harold pursued his quest, often adding new agents that came with promising stories. One year later, Harold eagerly got another heart scan, certain that his extraordinary efforts were sure to yield a dramatic drop in his heart scan score. The score: 1372, a 37% increase.

Harold was therefore several thousand dollars poorer and several steps closer to taking the plunge, allowing a potentially fatal disease to cut his life short.

The message: There's no need to re-invent the wheel. There are no top-secret ways to reverse atherosclerotic plaque.

Don't neglect the basics. You can't do calculus until you learn how to add, subtract, and divide. From a heart scan score reducing perspective, achieving 60-60-60 in basic lipids, normalizing blood pressure and blood sugar, identifying any hidden lipoprotein patterns like small LDL and Lp(a), losing weight to your ideal weight, taking fish oil, normalizing vitamin D blood levels to 50-70 ng/ml--these are the necessary prerequisites to achieve control over your coronary plaque and stop the increase in your heart scan score.

You don't need to waste your time with the rants of some supplement-hawker eager to sell you the next cure for heart disease. I'm often amazed at the number of people who do so yet have never even taken care of someone with heart disease. Would you allow someone to try and repair your car if they've never actually laid their hands on an engine before? Then why would you entrust such a person with your health?

The Track Your Plaque approach is not fool-proof, but it's the best there is by a long shot.

I don't care about hard plaque!

I ran into a cardiology colleague this weekend. He was aware of my interest in CT heart scanning and plaque reversal.

Out of the blue, he declared "I don't care about hard plaque! I only care about soft plaque." He then proceeded to describe to me how everyone--EVERYONE--needs a CT coronary angiogram to identify "soft plaque".

Is there any truth to this view? Are we only identifying "hard plaques" by focusing on calcium and calcium scores on simple CT heart scans?

Several issues deserve clarification. First of all, CT heart scans don't identify hard plaque. They identify total plaque. Because calcium is a component of the majority of atherosclerotic plaque, comprising approximately 20% of its volume, a calcium "score" can be used to indirectly quantify total plaque, both "hard" and "soft".

Anyone cardiologist who performs a lot of the procedure, intracoronary ultrasound, knows that most human plaque is also not purely soft or hard, it is mixture of both. (I've been performing this procedure since 1995.) Quantifying only soft or only hard plaque is therefore only possible in theory, not in practice.

I believe my colleague does have a valid point in one regard, however. There is indeed a small percentage of people, probably around 5% of all people who have CT heart scans, who have scores of zero yet have a modest quantity of pure "soft" plaque. These people may be misled by having a zero score. How can these people benefit from better information?

Several ways. First, people like this tend to have very high LDL cholesterols, generally 180 mg/dl or greater. They may have a very worrisome family history, e.g., father with heart attack in his 30s or 40s. This small proportion of people with zero heart scan scores may benefit from receiving X-ray dye with their heart scan, i.e., a CT coronary angiogram. Keep in mind that we're assuming everyone is without symptoms, also. If symptoms are part of the picture, everything changes.

But should everybody get a CT coronary angiogram? I don't believe so. A CT coronary angiogram involves far more radiation exposure, greater expense (usually $1800 to $4000), and, with present day technology, does not yield quantitative (measurable) information that is useful for longitudinal use for repeated scans. You don't want to undergo yearly CT coronary angiograms, for instance.

Stay tuned for more on this issue. In the meantime, I continue to try and inform my colleagues about what is right, what is wrong, what is preferable for patient safety and yields truly empowering information, and try to impress on them that the practice of cardiology is not just about enriching their retirement accounts.

Try an experiment in a wheat-free diet

Years back, I'd heard some people argue that wheat-based products were detrimental to health. At the time, I thought they were nuts. After all, wheat is the principal ingredient in a huge number of American staples like breakfast cereals and bread.

What changed my mind was the low-fat movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Proponents of low-fat diets claim that heart disease is caused by excess fat in the diet. A diet that is severely restricted in fat therefore might cure or reverse heart disease.

But low-fat diets evolve into high-carbohydrate diets. This nearly always means an over-reliance on wheat products. People will say to me "I had a healthy breakfast: shredded wheat cereal in skim milk and two slices of whole wheat toast." Yes, it is low-fat, but is it healthy?

Absolutely not. Followers of the Track Your Plaque program know that low-fat diets ignite the formation of small LDL particles (a VERY potent trigger of coronary plaque growth), drops HDL, raises triglycerides, causes resistance to insulin and thereby diabetes, raises blood pressure. They also make you fat, with preferential accumulation of abdominal visceral (intestinal lining) fat.

Look at people with gluten enteropathy, a marked intolerance to wheat products that results in violent bowel problems, arthritis, etc. if unrecognized. These people, if the diagnosis is made early, are strikingly slender and commonly unusually healthy otherwise. There's a message here.

If you need convincing, try an experiment. Eliminate--not reduce, but eliminate wheat products from your diet, whether or not the fancy label on the package says it's healthy, high in fiber, a "healthy low-fat snack", etc. This means no bread, pasta, crackers, cookies, breads, chips, breading on chicken, rolls, bagels, cakes, breakfast cereal...Whew!

You won't be hungry if you replace the lost calories with plentiful raw almonds, walnuts, pecans, sunflower and pumpkin seeds; more liberal use of healthy olive oil, canola oil and flaxseed oil; adding ground flaxseed and oat bran to yogurt, cottage cheese, etc.; and more lean proteins like lean beef, chicken, turkey, and fish.

I predict that, not only will you lose weight, sometimes dramatically, but you will feel better: more energy, more alertness, sleep better, less moody. Time and again, people who try this will tell me that the daytime grogginess they've suffered and lived with for years, and would treat with loads of caffeine, is suddenly gone. They cruise through their day with extra energy.

Success at this can yield great advantage for your heart scan score control and reversal efforts. It will give you greater control over small LDL and pre-diabetic patterns, in particular.

Bigger, faster plaque reversal

Perhaps it's too early to tell whether it's true, but believe that we're seeing coronary plaque reversal--i.e., reduction of CT heart scan score--that is BIGGER and FASTER than ever before. We are now witnessing 20-30% reductions in score, even in the first year.

Early in our experience, I was thrilled with a slowing of plaque growth. Recall that coronary plaque grows at the rate of 30% per year. We would often seen slowing to 10-15% per year in the first year, then a levelling off to little or no increase in the 2nd or 3rd year. Regression, or reduction of score, was less common.

Now, with some further tweaking of our program, we are seeing these large magnitudes of coronary plaque reversal routinely. Not in everybody, of course. There are exceptions that mostly includes people who are less motivated and occasional people with more difficult to control lipoprotein patterns.

I believe that part, or perhaps most, of our recent success is from normalizing blood levels of 25-OH-vitamin D3 levels to 50-70 ng/ml. I'm unable to tell you why this occurs, but I am convinced that it has added huge advantage. Raising blood vitamin D levels to normal carries enormous implication: reduction of colon and prostate cancer risk, reduction of blood pressure, sensitization to insulin, prevention of arthritis and multiple sclerosis, and--I believe--control over coronary plaque calcification and growth.

Watch for a profile of one of our latest success stories, a physician who was experiencing 20% per year plaque growth three years in a row until he followed the Track Your Plaque approach and promptly experienced an 18% reduction in heart scan score. You'll find it in our next newsletter. To subscribe, go to the homepage and click on the free book download.

I need to do more procedures!

I sat next to a cardiology colleague of mine last evening at a dinner. He was lamenting the fact that, because of changes in hospital affiliations of his several-member cardiology group, he'd seen a drop in the volume of heart catheterizations he was performing.

"I'm used to doing 5 cases a day! Now I'm down to 3 or 4 a day." He went on to tell me how he's working to increase his volume. "I'm branching out into doing carotid stents and anything I can find in the legs." He also described how he was cultivating referring physicians to send him more procedural patients.

Now, this colleague, I believe, is a hard-working, conscientious physician. But his attitude reflects the perverse logic of many physicians: I need to do more procedures, not because it benefits patients, but because that's what I want to do--to be busy, make more money, acquire more experience, build my ego, etc.

Doing more procedures has nothing to do with an altruistic goal of doing more good for society. It is purely for selfish reasons. Beware of this shockingly common, pervasive attitude. There's a proper time and place for heart procedures, or any procedure, for that matter. But feeding your doctor's ambitions is not a good reason.

Fast food and quick plaques

Such was the title of Dr. William Roberts' editorial back in 1987 discussing the health effects of fast foods.

If you need a graphic illustration of the extraordinarily damaging health effects of fast foods, take a look at trends in mainland China. A recent editorial in the American Journal of Cardiology written by Dr. Tsung Cheng of George Washington University makes several points:

--The popularity of fast food in China is booming, with Chinese now more likely than Americans to eat in a fast food restaurant. Each week, 41% of Chinese eat in a fast food restaurant at least once, compared to 35% in the U.S.

--Average total cholesterol levels have skyrocketed from 150 mg/dl in 1958 to 230 mg/dl in 2003.

--50% of Chinese with normal blood pressure in 1992 are now hypertensive.

--Hospitalization for heart disease rose from the 5th most common diagnosis to #1, now constituting nearly 50% of all hospital admissions.

McDonald's and KFC dominate the fast food landscape in China, but up and coming competitors are growing at exponential rates. A media conversation that will surely be reported in the near future is the boom in obesity and diabetes in China as these trends express themselves in weight gain, as it has in the U.S.

I hope you've all seen the entertaining but frightening documentary, Supersize Me chronicling the travails of 30-something Morgan Spurlock as he eats all his meals for one month at McDonald's restaurants in 20 cities. Though focusing on McDonald's, the movie is about a lot more than that. It paints a picture of how fast food as well as food manufacturers in general have changed--distorted--our eating habits.

If you haven't yet seen it, I would urge you to do so and watch it with the rest of the family. My kids (ages 8, 12, and 14) were shocked (and entertained) and they haven't set food in a fast food restaurant since.

But fish oil is too drastic!

Ted is a 74-year old physician, still conducting a busy practice. He came to me because of some vague fatigue and breathlessness. He also got himself a CT heart scan. His score: 1277.

When he came to my office, he clearly became breathless with just minimal effort. A stress test confirmed an area of much reduced blood flow to the front of his heart muscle. A heart catheterization identified a severe blockage of 95% in the left anterior descending artery and a stent was inserted. This resulted in relief of Ted's symptoms.

When Ted returned to the office after his discharge from the hospital, I advised him that some major changes in his prevention program were overdue. "After all, Ted, you were lucky this time. You were provided some warning. It doesn't always work that way." So I advised Ted to make a number of changes in his diet (he was following an old-fashioned, and quite self-destructive, low-fat diet), have lipoproteins assessed to identify hidden causes of coronary plaque, and take fish oil.

"Fish oil? I don't think so. That's pretty drastic!" he exclaimed. He felt that all the nutrition he needed was contained in the food he ate. Even after several lipoprotein abnormalities were uncovered like small LDL and excessive after-eating (post-prandial) patterns, he still resisted any changes. "I'm going to just wait and see how I feel. But I will take aspirin."

Such is the state of mind of the older physician: procedures are okay, low-fat diets prevent heart disease, and the Beatles are touring America. But fish oil? No way!

Unfortunately, Ted's attitude encapsulates the attitudes of many of my medical colleagues who don't share the excuse of age. They still practice the woefully outdated ways of physicians like Ted, clinging to notions of "balanced diets", nitroglycerin representing a rational treatment for coronary disease, and adequate rest being curative for heart conditions.

The world is changing. We're entering an exciting age of self-empowerment. The ridiculous notions of health practiced in the last half of the 20th century are withering and dying. Poor Ted. He must view the current healthcare landscape as increasingly incomprehensible to a guy who started out delivering babies at home. Perhaps, in some respects his world was better. But, in coronary disease prevention, attitudes like this need to go the way of steam engines and racial segregation--good riddens!