Olive oil for gourmets

"The finest extra-virgin olive oils should not be used as a medium for hot cooking, but rather as a condiment or a finisher on top of your favorite savory foods. They are expensive, but if stored properly they will last for up to a year..."

You all know that olive oil is among the preferred oils to use: rich in monounsaturates, low in saturates, high in polyphenols.

For a fascinating perspective for the olive oil gourmet, go to www.npr.org, the website for National Public Radio. (Scroll down to the article or enter olive oil into their site search.) Their article, "Like fine wines, fine olive oils boast subtle joys" provides an insightful discussion on squeezing maximum enjoyment out of this wonderful "functional food".

As we emerge from the mis-directed low-fat craze of the past 20 years, we're re-discovering the joys of healthy oils. You'll find some great thoughts here

Vitamin D must be oil-based

As part of the Track Your Plaque coronary plaque reversal program, we advocate vitamin D supplementation. Vitamin D has been shown to reduce blood sugar and reduce pre-diabetic tendencies, reduce blood pressure (it's a renin antagonist, a blood pressure hormone), it's far more important for bone health than calcium, and it may help prevent colon cancer, prostate cancer, and multiple sclerosis.

And, oh yes, it may facilitate coronary plaque regression.

One lesson I've learned is that vitamin D MUST be taken as a oil-based capsule or gelcap. You'll recognize it as a transparent or translucent, sometimes opaque, capsule. The list of ingredients may say something like "cholecalciferol [vitamin D] in a base of soybean oil", indicating that the active ingredient is oil-based. Oil-based vitamin D3 skyrockets blood levels of 25-OH-vitamin D3 in to the normal range reliably and easily.

Tablets are a different story. These are generally white powdery tablets. The rise in blood levels of vitamin D3 are minimal, sometimes none. Women will often say "I get vitamin D with my calcium tablets."

People taking this form almost always have blood levels of vitamin D that are low, as if they were taking nothing.
If you're going to take vitamin D, the oil-based tablets are the way to go. They're not necessarily any more expensive. We've had good experiences with the Nature's Life 2000 unit capsule, as well as preparations from Life Extension. We have had negative experiences with the preparations from GNC, Sam's Club, and Walgreen's, all tablets and non-oil-based.

When is LDL cholesterol NOT LDL cholesterol?

Darlene had a high LDL cholesterol, at times as high as 200 mg/dl. Her primary care doctor first tried Mevacor, then Pravachol, then Zocor, then Lipitor. Every statin drug failed to reduce Darlene's LDL below 160 mg/dl, even when maximum doses were used. The higher doses also resulted in nearly intolerable muscle aches and weakness.

When we sent Darlene's blood sample off for lipoprotein analysis, a surprise came back: she had a high lipoprotein(a), or Lp(a). This explained a lot.

LDL cholesterol is not always just LDL cholesterol. One of the particles that can masquerade as LDL is Lp(a). Darlene's story is typical of many people who've had high cholesterol levels poorly responsive to the statin drugs. That's because their LDL conceals Lp(a), which does not respond to these agents. LDL cholesterol does drop some because there's also some real LDL mixed in.

A poor response to statin agents or to nutritional strategies to reduce LDL is a tip-off that Lp(a) may be hidden. The answer: just measure Lp(a)! If you and your doctor don't measure it, you won't know whether or not you have it. Rather than a statin drug, we put Darlen on niacin. Not only did her Lp(a) drop, but her LDL also plummeted.

What is a desirable triglyceride level?

Though well-intended, the National Cholesterol Education Panel's Adult Treatment Panel, or ATP-III, (whew!) guidelines for cholesterol have been responsible for loads of misinformation.

The intention was to educate the internist or family doctor who treats sore throats, performs Pap smears, administers pneumovax vaccine, treats arthritic knees---and dabbles in heart disease prevention. The ATP-III guidelines are the "Cholesterol for Dummies" approach.

What standard guidelines definitely do not represent are the ideal values to achieve. They do not ensure protection from heart disease. This is particularly true of the ATP-III advice to keep triglycerides at or below the "desirable" level of 150 mg/dl.

In the Track Your Plaque program, we ask "What is necessary to tip the odds in favor of coronary plaque regresion or reduction of heart scan score?" This is not achieved with a triglyceride of 150. In fact, triglycerides at this level are associated with flagrant abnormalities of lipoprotein patterns. It usually means that processed carbohydrates, particularly wheat products, are occupying too prominent a role in your food choices. It could mean that you're making excessive use of processed foods containining high-fructose corn syrup. It will not respond to a low-fat diet. It will, however, respond vigorously to fish oil.

Triglycerides are a crucial aspect of your plaque control program. We aim for 60 mg/dl or less. The ideal level is actually 45 mg/dl. At this level, all abnormal triglyceride-containing lipoproteins finally go away.

Super size me in little bits and pieces

Alvin came into the office for consultation on his cholesterol values: LDL 198 mg/dl, HDL, 43 mg/dl, triglycerides 143 mg/dl. He says that he doesn't really try to choose healthy foods but he restricts his overall calorie intake by following the Weight Watcher's exchange approach.

Every morning, 7 days a week, Alvin eats a Sausage McMuffin for breakfast. He justified this by skipping lunch to make up for the 450 calories in the Sausage McMuffin, and not eating anything until dinner.

Can this work? Can you eat foods with unhealthy ingredients but make up the excessive calories by cutting back elsewhere?

The nutritional composition of McDonald's Sausage McMuffin includes 27 grams of total fat (10 gm saturated); 255 mg cholesterol; 950 mg sodium; 31 gm carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber. In other words, it's essentially the same as butter with sugar on it--pure fat, processed wheat, with little fiber or nutritive value.

For Alvin, this is an extremely unhealthy way to eat. His lipid patterns are just the tip of the iceberg: multiple hidden factors are also at work to create heart disease, atherosclerosis in other territories outside the heart, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cancer.

I think the effects are not much different than what Morgan Spurlock achieved in his Super Size Me documentary, but in little bits and pieces. Eating at McDonald's "restaurants" three times a day yielded frightening changes in his lipids, liver function, kidney function, not to mention his appearance and the way he felt. Alvin is doing the same thing, though in less dramatic fashion.

I see this very frequently: people mimicking the experience of Spurlock, just a little at a time, with overindulgence in processed fats and starches.

When you seen a set of Mcdonald's golden arches (or any fast food restaurant, for that matter), run as fast as you can in the other direction. Such indulgences, even in small bits and pieces, still creates a mess of your health.

View from the precipice

Many people, upon first learning of their CT heart scan score, feel like they're on the edge of a sharp drop. It can feel like you're facing a vast, unknown abyss. At the bottom, all those dreaded things that can happen to you: heart attack, heart failure, hospitals, even dying.

I've encountered this "deer in the headlights" look many times. It truly can be frightening to hear that your heart scan score is 300, or 500, or whatever.

What I find truly frightening, however, is when your score prompts the usual array of misinformation commonly dispensed by physicians: "That's so bad you need a heart catheterization", "Nobody knows why people get calcified plaque", or "Reversal is impossible". All absolute bunk.

Let your fear motivate you to do something about your risk for heart disease. Aim for reversal of your coronary plaque and seek out the tools to achieve this. It is possible and, in fact, we do it all the time. I can't claim 100% success, but the majority of people who engage in an effort like the Track Your Plaque program to reverse coronary plaque succeed. Even a substantial slowing of plaque growth from the expected 30% per year is better than submitting to the conventional approach.

At the very least, get both LDL and HDL cholesterol around 60 mg/dl. This alone is a major plus in reducing the risks associated with your heart scan score. It doesn't guaranteee reversal, but it sure tips the odds in your favor.

Organic Rice Krispies?

Breakfast cereal manufacturing giant, Kelloggs, is launching a line of three cereals that will carry the "organic" designation: Organic Rice Krispies, Organic Raisin Bran, and Organic Frosted Mini-Wheats.

This reminds me of the advertisements I've seen for "fresh fried chicken", or "fresh from the can", or "contains only pure cane sugar". How about organic tobacco? Would that make cigarettes healthier?

The TV ad ends with the slogan "Childood is calling!" Oh, those marketers are a shrewd, clever bunch. I worry that they're so clever that most people will fall for these ludicrous tricks.

Don't fall for these thinly-shrouded marketing shenanigans. Organic? Who cares. These foods remain unhealthy whether or not they contain pesticide residues. Take a look at the nutritional composition: Rice Krispies, organic or not, is sugar to your body. It is the sort of food that creates pre-diabetes, diabetes, makes us fat, and fans the flames of lipoprotein patterns like small LDL, VLDL, and postprandial particles, all of which is like throwing cow manure on the weed patch of your coronary plaque.

Nuts as functional foods

Food manufacturers gave nuts a bad name when they started adding evil ingredients to them. "Party mix", "honey-roasted", mixed nuts, etc., are made with added hydrogenated oils, salt, sugar, excessive quantities of raisins, or other added ingredients that turned a healthy food--nuts--into something that made us fat and hypertensive, raised LDL, dropped HDL, and raised blood pressure.

But nuts themselves are, for the most part, very healthy foods. The very best are nuts with a brown fiber coating like almonds, walnuts, and pecans. Nearly all nuts also come rich in monounsaturated oils similar to that in olive oil. Although calorie-dense, nuts tend to be very filling and slash your appetite for other foods. I have never seen anyone gain weight by adding raw nuts to their diet. In fact, I find adding raw nuts cuts craving for sweets.

Nuts are also among the most concentrated sources of magnesium, containing around 150 mg per 1/2 cup serving. As most Americans are at least marginally if not severely deficient in magnesium, this really helps. Magnesium deficiency is a prominent aspect of "metabolic syndrome" and resistance to insulin.

Some nuts have added benefits like the l-arginine content of almonds or the linolenic acid content of walnuts. However, I think the real health "punch" comes from the fiber and monounsaturate content.

Add 1/4-1/2 cup of raw almonds, walnuts, or pecans per day to your diet and what can you expect? The effects that I see every day that are relevant to plaque control/heart scan score-reducing efforts include:

--Reduction in LDL--usually a 20 mg/dl drop, sometimes more.

--Reduction in triglycerides, especially if nuts replace processed carbohydrate calories. This may be because the fiber and monounsaturate content of nuts reduces blood sugar and the effective glycemic index of any accompanying foods.

--Modest blood pressure reduction.

--Though somewhat inconsistent, partial suppression of the dreaded small LDL particle pattern. We struggle with turning off the small LDL pattern in some people, and raw nuts can provide a real advantage.

If that isn't enough, the fiber content also makes your bowels regular.

Unless there's some reason to avoid nuts (e.g., allergy), nuts should be a part of your heart scan score reducing program. Shop around, as prices can vary wildly. I've been paying $12.99 for a 3 lb bag of raw almonds from Sam's Club, though I've seen almonds elsewhere for up to $12.99 per pound.

For additional commentary, go to one of my favorite Blogs, http://fanaticcook.blogspot.com. The Fanatic Cook's recent post, The Season for Walnuts , provides additional discussion on walnuts and the recent study showing how they improve "endothelial function". The nutritionist behind this Blog has fabulous insights into food, including the concept of "functional foods", i.e., using foods as a treatment tool. She is also unfailingly entertaining.

Can you tell the difference?

Stan is 55 years old. He feels fine, is in moderately good physical condition. His LDL cholesterol is 135 mg/dl, HDL 43 mg/dl, triglycerides 167 mg/dl, total cholesterol 211 mg/dl.

Can you tell me whether Stan has heart disease or not?

How about Charles? Charles has an LDL cholesterol of 127 mg/dl, HDL of 44 mg/dl, triglycerides of 98 mg/dl, and total cholesterol of 191 mg/dl. He is also reasonably fit and feels fine. Can you tell whether Charles has heart disease?

If you can't, don't feel bad. Neither can your doctor. But this is the folly of using cholesterol for risk prediction.

Stan's heart scan score: 0

Charles' heart scan score: 978

Look even more closely at Stan's and Charles' cholesterol numbers. Is there some fine distinction we overlooked? What if we calculated total cholesterol to HDL ratio? Or LDL/HDL ratio?

No matter how you squeeze it, shake it, beat it with a stick, you simply cannot use cholesterol numbers to predict heart disease in specific individuals. Yes, the higher your LDL cholesterol and lower your HDL, the higehr your total cholesterol to HDL ratio, the greater the likelihood of heart disease. But you can simply cannot tell in a specific individual at a specific point in time. If you've seen your doctor puzzle over the numbers, understand that he/she is trying to make sense out of something that doesn't make sense, no matter how hard he/she tries.

You simply need to measure the disease itself: get a CT heart scan, the only measure of atherosclerotic coronary plaque that you have access to.

By the way, if you haven't seen it yet, go to the Track Your Plaque website (www.cureality.com) to see the news piece reporting the American Heart Association's much overdue position statement on CT heart scanning. The AHA has finally released a statement which, in effect, provides their "official" endorsement. Blocked by political shenanigans behind the scenes for several years, the guidelines finally made it to press. The only real difference it makes to me is that my patients may finally get their heart scans paid for by insurance, once the insurance companies realize that it's getting tougher and tougher to dodge their responsibility.

Statin agents and muscle aches

How common are muscle aches with the statin drugs?

It depends on who you ask. If you ask the drug manufacturers, they will tell you no more than 2% of people who take them. They back this up with the experience in tens of thousands of people in published clinical trials.

What if we ask people who take them outside of clinical trials. How many then? I estimate, from my large experience, over 80%! In other words, muscle aches are inevitable in nearly everyone who takes them. The longer you take them, the higher your dose, the more likely muscle aches are going to be.

Why the disconnect between published data and real-world experience? I really don't know. In some instances, the differences are dramatic. The ASTEROID trial, for instance, in which Crestor, 40 mg, was given for two years, only resulted in 8% of people dropping out because of side-effects. My experience: everybody--nobody can tolerate this dose for any length of time.

Let me qualify what "muscle aches" mean. It means achiness and/or weakness, usually mild, occasionally moderate to severe, worse upon awakening and less with use. It can affect many muscles or it can involve only one. Rarely is it incapacitating but it is commonly annoying and frightening. It commonly shows up as gradually diminishing strength with exercise. Strength usually returns promptly upon stopping the offending drug.

"Rhabdomyolysis", or true muscle destruction is, fortunately, very unusual in otherwise well people. People with abnormal kidney function, diabetes, and other concurrent illnesses are somewhat more prone. But in reality, rhabdomyolysis is unusual. I've personally seen it twice, both in people sick for other reasons.

Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) supplementation has been a godsend for us. At least 4 out of 5 people who require statins and develop muscle aches respond favorably, but it requires 100 mg per day. The preparation must be oil-based to work, not powder in a capsule which exerts no effect. Some people get by with less; some require as much as 300 mg per day. I've had favorable experiences with the CoQ10 from Sam's Club, GNC, Vitamin Shoppe, and Life Extension (www.LEF.org).

The Track Your Plaque target for LDL cholesterol is 60 mg/dl. Many people do indeed use statins to achieve this level, the level of LDL that amplifies your chances of heart disease reversal, i.e., reduction of heart scan score. The only drawback that I'm aware of with CoQ10 replacement is cost. Beyond this, it's a benign supplement that even supplies higher energy for some people who take it.