Atherosclerosis is the build-up of cholesterol-rich plaques in artery walls. It is the leading cause of heart attacks and strokes.
LDL (“bad” cholesterol) particles appear to be the primary source of the cholesterol in these plaques. Lowering LDL by diet and/or drugs has been shown to slow and sometimes even reverse (regress) the build-up of atherosclerotic plaques.
Potent statin drugs appear to cut the risk of a heart attack or stroke by no more than one third. Used alone, these drugs rarely produce regression of cholesterol-rich plaque or get rid of angina – a symptom of severely clogged coronary arteries.
By contrast, a very low fat, near vegetarian (VLFNV) diet has been shown to regress atherosclerosis, reduce or eliminate angina, and reduce total mortality.
Despite the demonstrated safety and effectiveness of VLFNV diets for treating and preventing atherosclerotic disease, the American Heart Association has warned Americans to avoid diets with less than 15% of calories from fat. Why? They believe the drop in HDL may promote atherosclerosis. They also site data from studies showing increased fasting triglyceride levels and a shift toward smaller more dense LDL particles on very-low-fat diets.
However, the studies showing presumably adverse changes in blood lipids from very low fat diets have some flaws. First these diets get most of their carbohydrate from refined sugars and grains. No one who advocates a VLFNV diet to treat atherosclerosis recommends mostly refined carbohydrate.
Secondly, these studies require subjects to consume the same calorie level on the high-carbohydrate diet as they consumed willingly on an American Heart Association-style or even on a high fat diet. When fed ad libitum, people generally eat fewer calories on low fat diets than higher fat diets. This is especially true if the low-fat diet is high in fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Lower calorie consumption is one of the most impor
tant benefits of consuming a low-fat diet!
It is hard to rectify the belief of the American Heart Association that diets very low in fat promote pro-atherogenic changes in blood lipids with data demonstrating people following VLFNV diets usually see dramatic improvements for angina, regression of atherosclerosis and reduced coronary artery disease and total mortality.
Physicians are trained to assess the risk of atherosclerotic-related heart attacks and strokes by looking at the ratio of “bad” LDL or total cholesterol to “good” HDL in the blood. Because lower HDL have been associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis it is assumed when HDL drops on a VLFNV diet this may promote atherosclerosis.
However, Pfizer recently withdrew a drug that markedly elevates HDL levels (and lowers (LDL too) because this drug was shown in a clinical trial to increase total mortality by 49%.
Clearly atherosclerosis is far more complicated than simply looking at fasting levels of blood lipids.
UCLA researchers reported the impact on blood lipids and other coronary artery disease risk factors in 22 overweight and obese men, most of whom had several risk factors for the metabolic syndrome. Subjects adopted a VLFNV diet and exercised for 3 weeks. The diet was fed ad libitum with the only limitation on animal products.
Not surprisingly, HDL dropped 10% on average. However, the HDL removed from their blood and tested in vitro was found to be pro-inflammatory before the intervention but became anti-inflammatory when measured again after 3 weeks.
The authors conclude their “data indicate that intensive lifestyle modification improves the function of HDL even in the face of reduced levels.”1
It seems unlikely that a drop in HDL, as a result of adopting a VLFNV diet, is dangerous. Claims that very-low-fat diets promote atherosclerosis simply because they lower HDL is without scientific merit. On the contrary, very low fat diets have been shown to reverse atherosclerosis. They also help individuals control their weight and blood sugar for diabetes. And there is much evidence that this diet will reduce the risk for certain cancers as well.
By James J. Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN
1. J Appl Physiol. 2006;101:1727-32
The Staples of a Very low-fat Near Vegetarian Diet
• Tossed green salad (low-fat) and vegetables
• Sweet potatoes and potatoes (baked)
• Fruit (unsweetened)
• Whole cooked grains: oatmeal, brown rice, whole-grain pasta, 100% whole grain cereal, whole wheat couscous, quinoa, wild rice
• Beans/legumes/nuts (easy on the nuts)
• Fish or chicken/turkey breast (skinless)
• Fat-free dairy (low in sugar)
Avoid or Limit:
• Sugar and foods made primarily of sugar (cake, candy, desserts)
• Foods made with white flour (breads, crackers, bagels, baked goods, pizza)
• Foods high in fat (fatty meats, fried foods, butter, cheese, oil, sauce)
• Foods high in sodium (most canned, boxed or frozen foods)
The key to a better diet is to shop for simple whole foods that are low in fat and sodium and prepare them yourself. When you do eat out, specify it “your way” which is baked or steamed, sans sauce or salt.
Judy’s passion for cooking began with helping her grandmother make raisin oatmeal for breakfast. From there she earned her first food service job at 15, was accepted to the world-famous Culinary Institute of America at 18 (where she graduated second in her class), and went on to the Fachschule Richemont in Switzerland where she focused on pastry arts and baking. After a decade in food service for Hyatt Hotels, Judy launched Food and Health Communications to focus on flavor and health. She graduated with Summa Cum Laude distinction from Johnson and Wales University with a BS in Culinary Art, holds a master’s degree in Food Business from the Culinary Institute of America, 2 art certificates from UC Berkeley Extension, and runs a food photography studio where her love is creating fun recipes.
Judy received The Culinary Institute of America’s Pro Chef II certification, the American Culinary Federation Bronze Medal, Gold Medal, and ACF Chef of the Year. Her enthusiasm for eating nutritiously and deliciously leads her to constantly innovate and use the latest in nutritional science and Dietary Guidelines to guide her creativity, from putting new twists on fajitas to adapting Italian brownies to include ingredients like toasted nuts and cooked honey. Judy’s publishing company, Food and Health Communications, is dedicated to her vision that everyone can make food that tastes as good as it is for you.