Tag Archives: cardiovascular disease

Ultra-processed foods are hurting your heart

Credit: Flickr, Ted Eytan.

Eating a diet mainly composed of ultra-processed food is associated with a significantly increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality, according to a new study published today.

The average American gets half of their daily calories from ultra-processed food, which include many foods that are marketed as healthy, such as protein bars, breakfast cereals and most industrially produced breads.

“As poor diet is a major modifiable risk factor for heart disease, it represents a critical target in prevention efforts,” said Filippa Juul, a faculty fellow at the New York University School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “Our findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting cardiovascular benefits of limiting ultra-processed foods.”

The term ‘ultra-processed foods’ was first coined by a team of Brazilian nutritionists in a 2016 study that made waves internationally after it linked this type of food with cancer.

According to the International Food Information Council, “any deliberate change in a food that occurs before it is ready for us to eat” makes it ‘processed food’. Ultra-processed foods are defined as “industrial formulations with five or more ingredients.”

What typically sets ultra-processed foods apart from other types of processed foods is the widespread use of flavors, added sugars, fats, and chemical preservatives. The purpose of these ultra-processed foods is convenience since many such products are ready-to-eat, require very little prep to be palatable, and are cheap.

Some examples of ultra-processed foods included in the original 2016 study from Brazil include:

  • Soft drinks
  • Packaged bread and buns
  • Chips
  • Candy
  • Store-bought ice cream
  • Boxed cake mix
  • Instant noodles
  • Infant formula
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Energy bars
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Chicken nuggets
  • Fast food burgers
  • Hot dogs

Besides cancer, consuming ultra-processed foods is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, and now cardiovascular disease.

Juul and colleagues analyzed data from the Framingham Offspring Study, which included 3,003 middle-aged adults with an average age of 53.5 years. Diet was assessed by mail using a food questionnaire where participants reported the frequency of consumption of certain foods in the previous year, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrient database was used to calculate nutrient intakes from reported dietary intakes.

During an average of 18 years of follow-up, the researchers observed 648 instances of hard cardiovascular events, meaning sudden and non-sudden coronary death, heart attack, and fatal/non-fatal stroke. They also recorded 713 deaths during the follow-up period, including 108 deaths attributed to cardiovascular disease.

Those who had the highest intake of ultra-processed foods also had the highest incidence rate of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Each daily serving of ultra-processed food was associated with a 7% increase in the risk of hard CVD, a 9% increase in the risk of hard coronary heart disease (CHD, a 5% increase in overall CVD and a 9% increased risk in cardiovascular disease mortality. 

“Population-wide strategies such as taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages and other ultra-processed foods and recommendations regarding processing levels in national dietary guidelines are needed to reduce the intake of ultra-processed foods. Of course, we must also implement policies that increase the availability, accessibility and affordability of nutritious, minimally processed foods, especially in disadvantaged populations. At the clinical level, there is a need for increased commitment to individualized nutrition counseling for adopting sustainable heart-healthy diets,” Juul said in a statement.

Buy art not cocaine.

Scientists successfully undo cocaine-induced cardiovascular damage in mice

Researchers at the Miller School of Medicine, University of Miami, discovered a potential new pathway to treat the devastating effect of cocaine on the cardiovascular system. They found out that excess levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS), molecules known to be found in the aortas of hypertensive animals and humans, are also involved in cocaine-related cardiovascular disease.

Buy art not cocaine.

Image credits Dave O / Flickr.

ROS are a type of unstable molecules that contain oxygen and rapidly react with other chemical molecules in a cell. An excess of reactive oxygen species inside cells may cause DNA, RNA, and protein damage, and can lead to cell death.

Scientists discovered that cocaine activates the molecule microRNA (miR)-30c-5p, increasing ROS levels in the circulatory system. The team also found that by blocking the activation of miR-30c-5p, they could dramatically reduce damage to the cardiovascular system.

“The biggest surprise to us was that the modulation of a single miRNA-mRNA pathway could have such a profound effect on cardiovascular function,” says Chunming Dong, M.D., study senior author and professor of medicine at the University of Miami.

“This also suggests that targeting this one pathway may have significant therapeutic benefit, which is an exciting possibility.”

The team performed their research using mice. They injected the animals with cocaine and assessed their circulatory health: the mice had high blood pressure, excess levels of ROS, and stiff blood vessels. All these are markers of cardiovascular disease. Researchers also observed a buildup in the miR-30c-5p molecule. When scientists administered cocaine but treated the mice with antioxidants, they managed to inhibit the excessive accumulation of miR-30c-5p and the mice showed no changes in blood pressure, vessel elasticity, or ROS levels.

Doctor Dong says that this is the first study to identify the role of miR-30c-5p in cocaine-related cardiovascular disease. He also notes that the study has some limitations due to the fact that the experiments were only conducted on mice. His research team plans to examine human patients as well, to see if this targeted pathway is viable.

The paper was published in the journal Hypertension, on February 26, 2018.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away – more so than pills

If all people over 50 in the UK would eat an apple a day, over 8,500 vascular deaths such as heart attacks and strokes every year in the UK would be prevented. This is even better than giving everyone (who is not already taking them) statins – a class of drugs used to lower cholesterol levels.

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Credit: © Photographee.eu / Fotolia

An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is able to match more widespread use of modern medicine, and certainly has fewer negative side effects. The researchers initially showed that lifestyle changes are the recommended first step to prevent heart disease, but statins can also reduce the risk of any vascular diseases, irrespective of a person’s underlying risk. They recommended statins for virtually all people 50+.

The, using mathematical models, the team of researchers from Oxford set out to test how the age-old proverb which suggests eating an apple a day fares against the modern drugs. They looked at the common causes of vascular mortality and analyzed what the effects would be of prescribing statins to everybody, compared to eating an apple. They found that in people over 50, apples are just as, if not more effective.

“This study shows that small dietary changes as well as increased use of statins at a population level may significantly reduce vascular mortality in the UK,” say the authors. This research adds weight to calls for the increased use of drugs for primary prevention of cardiovascular disease, as well as for persevering with policies aimed at improving the nutritional quality of UK diets,” they conclude.

According to their calculations, offering a daily statin to 17.6 million more adults would reduce the annual number of vascular deaths by 9,400. Offering an daily apple to people over 50 would avoid 8,500 vascular deaths – but the side effects from the statins would cause at least a thousand extra cases of muscle disease (myopathy) and over ten thousand extra diagnoses of diabetes – which means that overall, when taking into consideration all the factors and potential side effects, for this age group, apples are simply better than modern drugs.

Dr Adam Briggs of the BHF Health Promotion Research Group at Oxford University said:

“The Victorians had it about right when they came up with their brilliantly clear and simple public health advice: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” It just shows how effective small changes in diet can be, and that both drugs and healthier living can make a real difference in preventing heart disease and stroke.

Mummies revealed that clogged arteries plagued the ancient world

You’d be tempted to think that clogged arteries are a problem of the modern world, with all the lack of exercise and unhealthy eating; but as ancient mummies revealed, even when we were hunter-gatherers, people still had arterial issues.

“There’s a belief that if we go back in time, everything’s going to be OK,” says cardiologist Greg Thomas of the University of California, Irvine, a senior member of the study team. “But these mummies still have coronary artery disease.” The paper is published in the current issue of The Lancet.

A lack of exercise and a diet rich in saturated fat — both of which increase levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood — are thought to increase the risk of plaque building up. These plaques are made up of cholesterol and immune cells called macrophages that can build up in arterial wall arteries. If this happens, the risk of heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases increases dramatically.

Thomas and his colleagues performed CT scans on 137 mummies from four very different ancient populations: Egyptian, Peruvian, the Ancestral Puebloans of southwest America and the Unangans of the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Egyptian mummies were artificially embalmed, while the other ones were simply well preserved by very dry or cold conditions.


The four groups studied did not only live in very different areas, but they also had very different lifestyles. Ancestral Puebloans were forager–farmers, while Unangans were hunter–gatherers with an exclusively marine diet. Researchers were searching for calcified plaques in the wall of an artery or along the expected course of an artery. They successfully identified atherosclerosis in 47 (34%) of the 137 mummies, and in all four populations, ranging from 25% of the 51 ancient Peruvians to 60% of the five Unangans.

What’s extremely interesting about that is that the disease levels are about as big as modern ones, which comes as a big shock. However, despite the fact that elite people then ate a diet that resembles that of today’s gluttons, the cause for the disease may be different:

“Now we’ve scanned the common man and woman and they’ve got the same disease,” says Thomas. Rather than excess cholesterol, he suggests that high levels of inflammation — caused by smoke inhalation or chronic infection, for instance — may have triggered the disease in these individuals.

The study also puts modern cardiovascular diseases in perspective, as Thomas explains:

“We’ve oversold the ability to stop heart disease,” he says. “We can slow it down, but to think we can prevent it is unrealistic.”