Easy! Just follow Dr. Steinberg’s recent recommendations.
Dr. Daniel Steinberg, author of “The Cholesterol Wars”, has just issued new recommendations proposing that “proposing that aggressive intervention to lower cholesterol levels as early as childhood is the best approach available today to reducing the incidence of coronary heart disease.”
In a review article published in the August 5, 2008 issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation, Steinberg and his colleagues stat that “with a large body of evidence proving that low cholesterol levels equate with low rates of heart disease, “…our long-term goal should be to alter our lifestyle accordingly, beginning in infancy or early childhood” and that “…instituting a low-saturated fat, low-cholesterol diet in infancy (7 months) is perfectly safe, without adverse effects…”
I don’t know whether to scream or cry when I read this stuff. Or both. Why? Because Dr. Steinberg’s dietary recommendations – if embraced by parents – are sure to increase the risk of heart disease and cause developmental problems in the children unfortunate enough to adopt them.
Let’s take a closer look at each part of the article on ScienceDaily.com describing the new recommendations and see if Steinberg’s claims make any sense.
According to Steinberg, progress has been made in the treatment of coronary heart disease in adults with cholesterol lowering drugs like statins. However, while studies show a 30% decrease in death and disability from heart disease in patients treated with statins, 70% of patients have cardiac events while on statin therapy.
Progress in treating heart disease? What progress? Heart disease is the #1 cause of death in the U.S. today. In the early part of the 20th Century, heart disease was relatively unknown. I would hardly call that progress.
As for statins, please refer to my previous article “The Truth About Statin Drugs” for a more accurate appraisal of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of statins. In short, statins don’t reduce the risk of death in 95% of the population, including healthy men with no pre-existing heart disease, women of any age and the elderly. While statin drugs do reduce mortality for young and middle-aged males with pre-existing heart disease, the benefit is small and not without significant adverse effects, risks and costs.
For example, in the six largest studies done on statins and mortality to date, the absolute risk reduction ranged from -0.3% to 3.3%. In two of those studies, statins actually increased the risk of death. In an analysis of this data, the UK Medical Research Council determined that even if you were in the 5% of the population that statins benefit, you’d have to take a statin for 30 years at a cost of $42,000 just to add nine months (best case) to your life.
Even that scenario is entirely hypothetical, because statins cause cancer in lab animals. Although this hasn’t been shown in humans to date, the window between exposure to a carcinogen and development of cancer can be as long as 25 years for humans. Since no one has been on statins for that long, there is still reason to believe that they might have the same effect in humans that they do on animals.
Progress? I don’t think so.
In fact, they propose that lowering low-density lipoproteins (the so-called “bad cholesterol”) to less than 50 mg./dl. even in children and young adults is a safe and potentially life-saving standard, through lifestyle (diet and exercise) changes if possible. Drug treatment may also be necessary in those at very high risk.
“Bad cholesterol”? That’s so 1975. It is well accepted even within the mainstream scientific community today that normal LDL cholesterol (so-called “bad cholesterol”) is not a risk factor for heart disease. Instead, it is the oxidation of the polyunsaturated fatty acid in the membrane of the LDL particle (when the level of antioxidants in the diet is insufficient to protect them) that contributes to heart disease.
Therefore, the only LDL cholesterol that could be called “bad” is oxidized LDL.
And what promotes oxidation of the LDL particle? Eating polyunsaturated fat (found in vegetable oils, nuts and seeds and in almost all processed food). Of course, these are exactly the fats the American Heart Association has promoted as “heart-healthy” for decades.
In addition to promoting oxidation of LDL particles, polyunsaturated fats contribute directly to atherosclerosis and heart attacks. 75% of arterial plaque is made up of unsaturated fat, of which 50% is polyunsaturated (only 25% is saturated). The greater the concentration of polyunsaturated fat in the plaque, the more likely it is to rupture. Such ruptures, and the ensuing blood clots that form, are a primary cause of heart attacks.
Another well-established cause of heart disease is inflammation. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, which constitute a large percentage of caloric intake for most Americans, are known to promote inflammation. Indeed, excess linoleic acid (LA) in the diet from vegetable oil has been shown to contribute directly to heart disease.
So, the notion that saturated fat “clogs arteries” and causes heart attacks is totally false. It is actually polyunsaturated fat – the so-called “heart-healthy fat – which has those effects.
If people’s lives weren’t at stake the irony of such a situation might be almost funny. As it stands it’s one of the great public health tragedies of modern times.
And what about the notion that eating cholesterol raises cholesterol levels in the blood? It turns out to be false – and Steinberg even admits as much in his own book. There are two parts of the hypothesis that cholesterol causes heart disease. The first part, called the “diet-heart hypothesis”, is that eating cholesterol in the diet raises cholesterol levels in the blood. The second part, called the “lipid hypothesis”, holds that high cholesterol levels in the blood cause heart disease.
We’ve already addressed the “lipid hypothesis” above. As for the “diet-heart hypothesis”, Steinberg clearly states in his book that there is little evidence to support it. Tightly controlled egg-feeding studies have shown that eating cholesterol only raises cholesterol levels in about 30% of the population (”hyper-responders”).
However, these same studies showed that egg consumption led to an increase in “light, fluffy LDL” that was actually protective against heart disease. Why? Because these large, buoyant LDL particles are protected against oxidation.
Finally, what about saturated fat? Does it cause heart disease as Steinberg suggests? Once again, the evidence squarely contradicts Dr. Steinberg’s claim. In 22 of 26 published studies there was no significant relationship between saturated fat intake and either coronary or all-cause mortality. Among the studies that Dr. Steinberg failed to mention in his book or in his recent recommendation:
- Rose, et al. (1965): Replacing animal fat with corn oil for two years lowered serum cholesterol by 23 mg/dL but quadrupled cardiac and total mortality.
- Sydney Diet-Heart Study (1978): Replacing animal fat with vegetable fat for five years lowered cholesterol by five percent but increased total mortality by 50 percent.
What’s more, in the few studies where saturated fat restriction did reduce deaths from heart disease, deaths from cancer, brain hemorrhage, suicide & violent death went up! In his book The Great Cholesterol Con, Anthony Colpo concludes:
“If saturated fats caused even a portion of the damage for which they are frequently blamed, their negative effects should be readily and repeatedly demonstrable in controlled clinical trials. However, after excluding the results of the poorly designed and sloppily conducted northern European studies, it quickly becomes apparent that there does not exist a single tightly controlled trial which shows that saturated fat restriction can save even a single life.”
There are two more claims made by Dr. Steinberg that I need to address.
“lowering low-density lipoproteins to less than 50mg/dL even in children and young adults is a safe and potentially life-saving standard.”
As stated above, there is absolutely no evidence that lowering LDL protects against heart disease. More than 40 trials have been performed to see if cholesterol lowering can prevent heat attacks. When all the results were pooled together, just as many died in the treatment groups as the control groups.
But what is most disturbing to me about Steinberg’s statement is the idea that lowering LDL to such unnatural levels is a “safe and potentially life-saving standard”. Cholesterol is a vital substance in our bodies. 50% of all cell membranes are made up of cholesterol; it is a precursor to sex hormones which govern fertility, reproduction and sexual development; it is an antioxidant that helps prevent free radical damage; and it is needed particularly by infants and children to ensure proper development of the brain and nervous system.
In fact, evidence in adults shows that low cholesterol levels can be dangerous and even life-threatening:
- Low cholesterol is associated with increased total mortality in elderly people.
- Framingham (1987): “There is a direct association between falling cholesterol levels over the first 14 years and mortality over the following 18 years.” In other words, as cholesterol fell death rates went up.
- Honolulu Heart Program (2001): “long-term persistence of low cholesterol concentration actually increases the risk of death. Thus, the earlier the patients start to have lower cholesterol concentrations, the greater the risk of death.”
- J-LIT (2002): The highest death rate was observed among those with lowest cholesterol (under 160mg/dl); the lowest death rate was observed with those whose cholesterol was between 200-259mg/dl.
Low cholesterol has also been associated with increased rates of cancer, depression, violent and aggressive behavior, and suicide.
With that in mind, how could anyone possibly claim that reducing cholesterol to extremely low levels in children is “safe”?
“Drug treatment may also be necessary in those [children] at very high risk.
I’m not even sure where to start with this one, except to recommend that people like Dr. Steinberg be prosecuted for making such unfounded, irresponsible and dangerous recommendations.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
“Also, data supporting a particular level of childhood cholesterol that predicts risk of adult CVD do not exist, which makes the prospect of a firm evidence-based recommendation for cholesterol screening for children elusive.
It is difficult to develop an evidence-based approach for the specific age at which pharmacologic treatment should be implemented. . . . It is not known whether there is an age at which development of the atherosclerotic process is accelerated.”
Which is to say there is no evidence suggesting that cholesterol levels in kids are a risk factor for adult heart disease.
Furthermore, as we have already discussed, cholesterol is absolutely essential for brain development. Lowering brain levels of cholesterol in children, whose brains are still developing at a rapid rate, could have dire consequences.
Surely Dr. Steinberg must be aware of this? There is nothing controversial about the role of cholesterol in brain development. You can find this information in any physiology or biochemistry textbook. So why – especially in light of the lack of evidence linking cholesterol to heart disease in kids – is he suggesting that we give statins to children?
I really have no idea. In all likelihood Dr. Steinberg means well and believes he’s acting in the interest of our children. But I cannot understand how a respected medical doctor and researcher could overlook such an elementary and important fact and ignore the weight of scientific evidence.
We’ve all heard the saying “when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” When someone like Dr. Steinberg has invested so much of their life and energy into the theory that cholesterol causes heart disease, I guess it’s hard to let it go.