In my sixteen years of family medicine, I think the most frustrating disease I treat is obesity. It’s frustrating because as a doctor I feel great compassion for these patients, trying so hard to lose weight, and yet I feel almost shameful that as a primary care physician I can’t offer much in terms of medicines to help. And now that I’m back in the USA after ten years in China, I’m very concerned that America’s struggle is even worse, with more than two thirds overweight or obese. So now, driven to seriously tackle this epidemic, I’ve scoured the literature for the most up-to-date, evidence-based advice on losing weight. Please feel free to print and share this.
Let me jump right in to perhaps the most controversial point: I think that many, many more people should consider weight loss surgery. It literally is the most effective way not only to permanently cause weight loss, but it also literally can put diabetes in remission, lower your overall death rates, and lower your heart disease risks. A huge percentage of people can stop taking diabetes medicines after surgery. Don’t believe me? Feel free to read up on it, including a 2015 meta-analysis from JAMA, and the Cochrane library review from 2014. There are three major options:
- Sleeve gastrectomy: This involves stapling off much of the stomach, leaving around 25% of the stomach. Average weight loss is 56%. This is now the most popular of the three.
- Roux-en-Y gastric bypass: This is the most radical surgery, with the most complications, but also the most effective, with a weight loss up to 67%
- Adjustable gastric banding: This involves putting a flexible silicone band around the top of the stomach, which essentially limits intake of food and makes you feel full with less food. The average weight loss for this is 44%, less than the other surgeries, and is now less commonly done.
Of course there are risks to these surgeries, and weight loss is disappointing for many afterwards. But in general, this is a far, far better option than the usual lifestyle struggles leading to maybe 10-20% loss at the most, with many gaining the weight back, and still having diabetes and other diseases. In fact, a recent 5-year study comparing weight loss surgery to lifestyle interventions showed a clear winner in the surgery group, with far more people losing much more weight, as well as putting diseases like diabetes in remission — totally stopping insulin injections and diabetes pills.
I seriously hope many people, especially in the high-risk categories, make an appointment with your local bariatric surgery teams and just talk with them, to discuss your options. If you’re in my Swedish system here in the Seattle area, you can sign up for their weight loss seminar and hear them out.
In terms of who should consider bariatric surgery, the current recommendations are:
- Everyone — and I mean everyone — with a BMI (Body Mass Index) over 40, even without any other medical conditions, should consider bariatric surgery.
- Anyone with a BMI 30-40 with diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, or severe arthritis, can also greatly benefit. Insurance companies usually would cover it if your BMI is over 35.
Do you know your BMI? A BMI over 25 is overweight, over 30 is obese. Here’s a calculator:
My second main point, and perhaps even more controversial among physicians, is that prescription medicines can also help with weight loss. There now are four prescriptions and one OTC supplement which actually are FDA approved for weight loss, and these expanding choices are encouraging for us family physicians on the front lines. Most work by decreasing your hunger urges. All have side effects, of course, and weight loss varies from 7-12% on average, and people often regain the weight after stopping. But since even a 5% reduction in weight loss can greatly help reduce risks for diabetes, heart disease and arthritis, I think these are definitely worth considering, and I’m using more and more of these in my practice. I strongly suggest interested people (and doctors) read the 2016 meta-analysis in JAMA, comparing all five. The take-home message from this review is as follows:
- The medicine phentermine/topiramate (Qsymia) is the most effective at weight loss, losing an average of 8.8 kg over a year, with side effects in the middle of the pack. This is currently my first choice for many. But one side effect is severe: birth defects, so all younger women have to take birth control and get monthly pregnancy tests while on this.
- The combo medicine naltrexone/bupropion (Contrave) was less effective than Qsymia, with an average 5.0 kg weight loss, and more side effects — and also some debate about its safety with heart disease.
- The OTC medicine orlistat (Xenical/Alli) is the least effective (2.6 kg weight loss), but has relatively fewer severe side effects (stomach issues), and also is the only one available without a prescription. You take it with each meal, and it decreases fat absorption.
- The diabetes medicine Liraglutide (Saxenda) is second most effective for weight loss (5.3 kg), but has the most side effects. But it’s certainly a great option for those who have type 2 diabetes.
- Lorcaserin (Belviq) has the least side effects but was second to last in effectiveness (3.2 kg weight loss).
Who’s a candidate for these prescription medicines? The FDA says that anyone with a BMI over 30, regardless of any illnesses, and also those with BMI 27-20 with risks (the usual ones mentioned above) could benefit from trying these medicines, at least for three months to see if you can get to 5% weight loss. If you do, great! Keep going! Hopefully your insurance will cover the cost (many do not).
Besides these medicines, I should also mention metformin. This common prescription medicine for type 2 diabetes also has the great side effect of weight loss, and while the overall loss is less than 5% in the studies, and thus is not FDA-approved for weight loss, it’s still a fantastic first choice for pre-diabetic people who are overweight. The famous Diabetes Prevention Program showed how even after ten years, the overweight group who took metformin 850 mg twice a day had an impressive 18% reduction in developing diabetes. (That’s impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the 34% risk reduction in the group that stuck to lifestyle changes: weight loss of 7%, 150 minutes a week of exercise, and diets focused on fewer calories and less fat.)
And now we finally arrive at the third controversial issue: diets. There’s so much overwhelming confusion out there, but I like to simplify it a lot by saying that it’s not so much what you eat, but how much you eat. In other words, calorie restriction is key. If you want to lose a pound a week, you need to eliminate 500 calories each day. This is basic biochemistry. (check out your specific needs using my weight loss calculator at the top right of this article). If you can do this daily calorie restriction, especially by decreasing simple carbs, great! Keep going!
But there’s an interesting newer option you may have heard about, called intermittent energy restriction (IER; the 5:2 diet). This has been trendy since 2013, with a BBC documentary, best selling book, and a British study showing how a twice a week regimen of cutting your calories (especially carbs) had similar or better results for insulin resistance and body fat than the group that followed daily calorie restriction. When we fast, even if only for 12-16 hours (nothing between dinner and lunch the next day), insulin resistance improves and fat starts to get reabsorbed. A recent review of all IER studies showed that the evidence for IER is promising — but still premature to fully endorse, with much more to learn about which pattern is most ideal, as well as long-term effects. Also, people who aren’t overweight and are trying this actually have a lot more side effects than benefits.
Otherwise, in terms of “diet”, it’s just overwhelming out there for people searching for the “right one”. An excellent review article this year does detail quite convincing evidence that a low-carb high-fat Atkins-style diet not only reduces the hunger urge, but also has clear benefits in insulin resistance, cardiac markers, and weight loss. The DASH diet really does help to lower blood pressure and weight, and the Mediterranean diet also seems to help with heart disease and some weight loss.
But again, the main issue for all of this diet talk is to focus not on food categories, but food quantity. It’s simple biochemistry: you have to have less energy intake to lose weight. Or you could increase energy output, which leads us to:
For decades, the usual doctor spiel is to get 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise. But that hasn’t really translated into any meaningful changes nationally, has it? So here’s where another trendy (uh oh) regimen is gaining popularity, mostly because the growing research is impressive. It’s called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), and it basically means you go all out for 30-60 seconds on any activity, getting to maximum exertion, then take a few seconds break, then do another all-out effort, etc etc. You do this 15 minutes tops, twice a week only (typically). Check out an example in the image below from a New York Times article about a 7-minute workout, which I also blogged about in my New York Times column in China. This HIIT routine is great because it requires zero fancy equipment, and you can do it absolutely anywhere. Click here to access the online workout app.
Supplements, Diets and Herbals:
This topic is actually less controversial for me, mostly because there’s an easy answer: most of those supplements have almost no hard evidence that they work well. I’m not confident enough about recommending any of the trendy ones, and that includes CLA, chromium, 5-HTP, and garcinia. I’m sure many of you are already taking some of these. You’re welcome to read the evidence, including some excellent supplement reviews by the Natural Medicines Database (paid); The Encyclopedia of Natural & Alternative Treatments (free); The Cochrane Library; and The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH).
Personally I’d much rather have my patients focus not on supplements but on calorie restriction. I’d also rather give them one of the prescription medicines above, which all have more evidence than any supplement.
If you must choose a supplement, at least you could try that OTC Orlistat with meals. And you could also consider soluble fiber such as blond psyllium. Used especially for constipation, it also helps lower cholesterol, control diabetes a tiny bit, and also help a bit with weight loss. You’d take it with food, and it absorbs fat from that meal. In fact, it’s now recommended that Orlistat users also take blond psyllium with each dose of Orlistat, as it prevents some of those unfortunate gastric effects.
Yogurt is also one of my favorite recommendations, not just for the way the probiotics help our microbiome and immune system, but also because the literature shows that yogurt helps to manage weight loss and waist circumference. I actually prefer higher fat than the low fat versions, and adding fresh fruit to non-sweetened yogurt is a great way to start your day. Add a pack of instant oatmeal, microwaved with soy milk, and you’ve got a healthy and filling breakfast.
Did you know that sitting all day at work literally is harmful to your health? Recent data, including this 2015 meta-analysis of sedentary lifestyles, shows that the more you sit, the higher your risks for heart disease, obesity, diabetes and overall death rates. I just ordered a standing desk for my office! Here are more tips on how not to be a couch potato.
Use Smaller Plates
Americans definitely have suffered “portion distortion” over decades, as sizes for all types of food creep up and up. Remember how soda machines used to carry 12 ounce cans, and now all have 20 ounce bottles? How about a small popcorn at the movies? If we can’t control these external factors, at least at home we can control portion size, and one interesting step is to replace all of your usual large dinner plates with smaller plates, like the appetizer or salad plates. Recent studies, including the 2016 meta-analysis, do show that when people switch to smaller plates, they actually eat less. How easy is that?
Keeping It Off
It’s actually not super hard to lose weight — it’s keeping it off that’s the problem for most. Unfortunately, that’s a totally normal problem because our “hunger hormones” ghrelin and leptin reset to a new balance when we gain weight, and when we lose that weight, that hormone imbalance doesn’t reset well to the lower weight, and it thinks “I’m starving!” and compels you to eat more. Some tips to control this include healthy carbs, fiber, yogurt and protein (and not a high fat diet). Also, getting a good night’s sleep literally helps to reset those hunger hormones (that’s one reason why people with sleep apnea are at risk for gaining weight).
And for those who are in the higher obese categories with BMI over 35 or 40, gastric bypass surgery actually can permanently improve some of that hunger urge. How? Removing the top of the stomach in these surgeries removes the stomach tissues that secrete grehlin; less grehlin = less hunger signals = less eating = weight loss. That’s another important reason why I urge people to consider weight loss surgery.
My Bottom Line
After writing this article, I personally feel much more empowered as a doctor to help my patients lose weight. There are a lot more options than I had realized, and I’m definitely giving all of my overweight patients this article, and I look forward to working closely with my patients to help them lose weight in a healthy and permanent way. And hopefully I’ve helped you, as well!
Isn’t it humbling that we have no cure for the world’s most common illness? Yes, the common cold, globally the #1 cause of sick days and doctor visits, still stampedes across the world, blissfully immune to any Eastern or Western prescriptions. As a family doctor, I’m always a bit frustrated that I can’t offer much to these patients, at least in terms of Western allopathic medicines. So, I decided to scour the literature again to see if any new research has shown benefits from herbals and supplements. And the good news is yes: there may actually be a couple of supplements which can help you get better, quicker. Here’s my advice below. (Please note that this research is for treating, and not preventing, colds and flu.)
Evidence-Based Literature Search
When it comes to supplements and natural therapies, I use only a tiny handful of resources that I consider trustworthy. All are certified by the Health on the Net Foundation as sources of trustworthy medical information. All these sites would review only the best, most unbiased research, which usually means the gold standard of all research: placebo-controlled, randomized controlled trials. I strongly recommend that everyone use HONCode’s search engine anytime you’re looking for medical advice, especially regarding supplements. For example, you’ll never see the anti-vaccine snake-oil salesman Dr. Mercola on their list. Here are my favorite medical resources, and their evaluations of therapies for the common cold:
- The Natural Medicines Database, a fantastic resource for doctors, on their review of the common cold, doesn’t rank anything as “effective” or even “likely effective”. Their next level, “possibly effective,” lists andrographis, vitamin C, zinc logenzes, echinacea, and elderberry.
- The Encyclopedia of Natural & Alternative Treatments has a common cold review which concludes that zinc logenzes, echinacea, and andrographis all have fair evidence to shorten a cold and lessen symptoms. Others such as vitamin C, ginseng and garlic perhaps may help to prevent colds, but do not improve symptoms.
- The Cochrane Library, a well respected independent review board, reviewed common cold treatments and found poor evidence for most supplements, including vitamin C bursts. However, they did find that zinc lozenges at a total dose more than 75 mg during a cold can quicken recovery time. There was “weak evidence” for echinacea. They also reviewed a popular European herbal treatment for colds, pelargonium sidoides, and concluded that this herb may help with symptoms of acute rhinosinusitis and the common cold in adults, “but doubt exists.”
- The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the official governmental agency, has a review of common cold products and supports oral zinc for treatment; it finds no strong benefit for vitamin C, echinacea or probiotics as treatments.
Let’s break it down into the supplements that have the most evidence:
- Zinc: This seems to have the most support, especially higher doses (>75 mg daily) of lozenges containing zinc gluconate or zinc acetate. Some good studies show reduction in cough, runny nose, headache, sore throat and overall time of illness. But side effects are common, especially nausea and a bad taste in the mouth. Also, definitely do not do the zinc nasal sprays, which have clear evidence to permanently cause loss of smell. The data suggests you should stick with lozenges and not pills. I see a few brands of logenzes up to 30 mg each, which at three times a day would help. I see a few popular brands with only 5 mg zinc each, which seems far too low to work. I wouldn’t advise using these for children.
- Echinacea: This is probably the one you’ve heard about, and the evidence is encouraging — but not totally clear. Some “double-blind, placebo-controlled studies have found that various forms and species of echinacea can reduce the symptoms and duration of a common cold, at least in adults. The best evidence is for products that include the above-ground portion of E. purpurea rather than the root.” But it’s very difficult for me to recommend a proper dose, as studies have used multiple regimens via drops, pills and teas, also using many types of echinacea, as well as different combinations of root and plant. Here’s a useful list of test results from ConsumerLab showing which brands in the USA have proper amounts of the herb.
- Andrographis peniculata: An Indian herb very popular in Ayurvedic medicine and now in Europe, I think this actually has some good evidence. A handful of double-blind, placebo-controlled have shown benefit in reducing the duration and severity of cold symptoms, especially cough. An excellent meta-analysis of herbals from Germany showed significant improvement in severity and duration of a cough, especially via liquid formulation. The usual dose seems to be 48-500mg of the andrographolide aerial parts, usually divided three times a day. You can find a good list of andrographis brands on iherb.com. I keep reading about a Swedish patented combination with eleutherococcus and sambucus (Kan Jang Plus), but I don’t see it sold anywhere in the USA.
- Pelargonium sidoides (Umckaloabo): This is an interesting herbal, very popular in Europe and perhaps should be more popular here in the USA. That same German meta-analysis I mentioned above found strong evidence that it helped with cough, fevers, and sore throat — including for children as young as one year old, although the German independent Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care says it shouldn’t be used for children under six years. The Cochrane Library also reviewed this herb and concluded, “P. sidoides may be effective in alleviating symptoms of acute rhinosinusitis and the common cold in adults, but doubt exists.” As with andrographis, the liquids and syrups were better than tablets. I see on iHerb a series of pelargonium products called Umcka with good reviews.
- Probiotics: Probiotics actually have pretty good evidence that taking them for months, especially over the winter, can markedly improve both the frequency and the severity of colds — for kids and for adults (as does vitamin D). That’s great news! But for symptom relief during a cold, the evidence is much more scant. I couldn’t find one good study for this; none of the groups above recommend probiotics as treatment.
- Vitamin C: Here’s another super popular supplement, which many people swear by. But again the evidence isn’t conclusive, and the few studies that do show a benefit show only mild improvement. Still, at least it seems safe for adults and children, and evidence is even stronger as a preventive during the cold seasons.
My Bottom Line
For immune boosting, don’t forget the most important advice: get a good’s night sleep; eat a lot of anti-oxidant foods; and stay well hydrated.
In terms of supplements, I think it’s appropriate for adults (not kids) to try some of the above supplements — and the sooner, the better, within 24 hours of your symptoms starting.
For what it’s worth, here’s my plan for myself and my wife the next time we get a cold: we’re going to continue our usual vitamin C + zinc bursts, usually using Airborne effervescent tablets, three times a day. Emergen-C and Wellness Formula also are similar, all three with a ton of vitamin C, some zinc and an assortment of herbals, many of which are mentioned above. I’m also adding andrographis 400mg twice a day and also pelargonium; and I’ll continue doubling up on my probiotic supplement, despite the lack of evidence. (One small note: last week my wife tried andrographis for the first time and had a horribly itchy rash for days. I was fine.)
In general, for children, I’m still hesitant about using any of these herbals for children under 6 years old, and I remain cautious about what I use with my own kids, both under 4 years of age. I still like probiotics during a cold, and I’m a big fan of honey for cough for all ages above one year, which studies show works better than any OTC syrup. I’m encouraged with the European studies using pelargonium and also ivy/primrose/thyme syrups, some of which are partially included in American brands like Zarbees. For more age-specific advice, please look at the recommendations in my previous article about curing a cough.
What herbals and supplements have you used? Please leave comments below.
I love the unique taste of salmon, which is fortunate for me as it’s truly one of nature’s superfoods. Salmon is packed with heart-healthy omega-3 oils EPA and DHA, protein and vitamin D and also is low in dangerous metals such as mercury. I oftentell people to eat oily fish such as salmon at least once a week to dramatically decrease their risk for heart disease. A 2006 review study in JAMA shows that a daily dose of only 250-500 mg of omega-3 fatty oils can lower your risk of sudden death from heart disease by 36%, and from all-cause mortality by 17%; more than 500 mg daily actually provides very little extra benefit. And as 100 grams (3 ounces) of farmed salmon has over 2 grams of omega-3 (more than wild salmon has), even one serving a week may be enough because the healthy oils can remain in our tissues forweeks. This is all great news, right? But when I tell my patients in Beijing this fantastic news, they usually reply the same way: “I’d love to eat more fish here, but I never know which store I can trust.”
When my wife and I first arrived in Beijing nine years ago, we first bought our fish and other meat from the large international supermarkets Carrefour and Walmart, mostly because we assumed (for better or worse) that these stores would have superior quality control and safety standards, especially with imported foods. And that worked well for many years, especially as these markets slowly started to sell more organic options. Later on, we discovered the German-run Metro 麦德龙 hypermarket, and we immediately switched almost all our meat and produce purchases there, due to their outstanding logistics and traceable food chain. In other words, we trust them, and trust is a really big deal here in China. Metro’s salmon is mostly from farmed ponds in Faroe Island, a very safe area in the north Atlantic which is antibiotic-free and also certified by the non-profit Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). Ikea, just up the street from Metro, also has an impressive selection of imported frozen salmon from Scandinavian waters, again all certified by the ASC or MSC (Marine Stewardship Council), and at very reasonable prices. Both stores sell their salmon for ~60-70 RMB/500g. So for those of you who don’t trust your fish in Beijing: there’s my answer.
We still love Metro and Ikea but our #1 choice now for salmon is the monthly group buy, called GroupBuyByBianca, organized by the staff formerly from the Chef Too restaurant. Once a month they’ll trek to Beijing’s wholesale fish market; choose farmed salmon from Norway, Canada, or Faroe Island; de-bone and vacuum pack and then deliver to your door in chilled containers. It’s a fantastic service, and we usually get half a salmon every couple of months which we store in our freezer. Bianca and the team also sell imported cod and other meats in season. To sign up and order, follow their WeChat ID “GroupBuyByBianca” or email [email protected]. The cost depends on market prices but recently is usually ~45RMB/500g plus 10% and a flat 65 RMB processing fee.
Our other newer options for buying fish and meat are again online. The first is the wonderful local organic farm TooToo, which I’ve mentioned before as a very trustworthy, internationally certified local organic farm with a terrific distribution chain, easy online payment, professional delivery service and unbeatable value of organic produce. It’s an awesome resource for Beijingers — plus their website at tootoo.cn has English and Chinese! You can buy 200g bags of Norwegian salmon for 36-50 RMB each. Besides salmon, they now offer a large selection of meats from many different sources — check out their long list of imported fish here. We’ve had particular success with shellfish from Europe — mussels from Scotland and shrimp from Ecuador were delicious.
|Where?||Cost (RMB) per jin||Notes|
|Ikea||69/500g||ASC certified, Atlantic|
|Metro market||60-70/500g||ASC (Faroe Island: Bakkafrost)|
|Carrefour market||128/500g||Faroe Island|
|Tootoo.cn online store||90/500g (36 RMB/200g)||Norway|
|Group Buy by Bianca||~70/500g (~95/kg+10% + 65RMB)||Farmed: Faroe Island, Norway or USA|
|April Gourmet||123/500g (245/kg)||Norway|
Besides TooToo, there are now a bewildering number of players in China selling foods online via apps and websites, with ridiculous amounts of investments from all the big internet players and finance companies. One such store my wife uses often is called yiguo (易果) at yiguo.com. We liked them initially for their imported fruits but they also have a decent selection of meat, including a special section for imported beef. Other large sites like yihaodian, Womai and JD.com’s grocery store are notable because they both have their own supply chains and distribution centers, which in theory could provide consumers better quality and more traceable products (with quicker deliveries, I’ve noticed). Amazon China also has their own online grocery store. All of these e-markets carry a big selection of imported foods of all types, far more than you would ever see in any local market.
Many expats get their salmon and meat from the small international markets such as April Gourmet or Jenny Lou’s, and that’s fine of course, and it’s certainly convenient for many on the way home from work. I just think the prices can be a lot higher than other options (see the comparison chart below), and I also worry about low sales volumes in small markets in terms of food safety. Many people also buy salmon at local markets like the popular Sanyuanli market, but I personally feel they have extremely inadequate food safety there; most vendors’ meats sit in the open air at room temperature, uncovered, on wooden slabs, with flies buzzing around. Do I really need to break down how many violations of basic food safety I just mentioned in that one sentence? I wouldn’t recommend buying meat from any market anywhere in the world if it’s sitting at room temperature for more than two hours.
Besides making your own salmon, eating in restaurants is definitely the next best option. All you sushi lovers can easily get your weekly omega-3 fix with even a few slices of salmon. Beijing is blessed with plenty of excellent Japanese restaurants and salmon dishes. Our favorite sushi place is a small Japanese market called yuqing (鱼清) just next to Yotsuba along the Liangma canal waterfront across from the Four Seasons Hotel; you can choose your raw fish from their shelf and the chef will prepare it right there for you to eat in the store.
What about the big percentage of readers who take a daily supplement of fish oil, including myself? This indeed has been long recommended even by the American Heart Association, but unfortunately the most recent studies, much larger than earlier studies, disturbingly show very little benefit from the supplement. There must be something else besides omega-3 in the actual fish that provides the heart-healthy benefit. Anyway, when my supply runs out, I won’t be continuing that anymore.
So there you have it; I hope I’ve convinced some of you that healthy fish = healthy heart. And for Beijingers, it’s not nearly as hard as you may have thought to add safe salmon into your diet, even at a reasonable price. For those of you in China out of the tier one cities or not near a good market, now there are plenty of online options to get salmon delivered right to your door. If you’re really worried about trust, sustainable fishing, and seafood free of chemicals and antibiotics, just stick with vendors that have ASC, BAP or MSC certification stickers on the fish packaging — Ikea and Metro would be your safest bets.
In terms of general value, here’s a nice graph from the JAMA review showing relative money spent on different types of fish to get your daily 250 mg of omega-3:
I’ve blogged a couple of times about this, and now a trio of studies seriously underscores what I previously mentioned: a multivitamin is a waste of money for the vast majority of people taking them. Including myself.
I actually had stopped taking them a couple of years ago but recently restarted — not for any particularly good reason, I admit. But now we have three very strong, enormous research studies involving over 450,000 persons which may indeed warrant the blunt editorial title: Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.
To recap these studies, published in the new issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine:
- A large literature search aimed to find out if long-term use of a multivitamin helped to prevent deaths from heart disease or cancers. They analyzed data from over 400,000 persons and concluded that “limited evidence supports any benefit from vitamin and mineral supplementation for the prevention of cancer or cardiovascular disease. Two trials found a small, borderline-significant benefit from multivitamin supplements on cancer in men only and no effect on cardiovascular disease.” This last comment refers to the tiny decrease in cancers in older men, when used for over 10 years. But this relative risk of 0.93 is debatably insignificant — and how does it make sense for men only, and not women?
- The second study tested multivitamins in people who had recently suffered from a heart attack, following them for over five years and measuring how many died or had more heart attacks or other cardiovascular problems. This study showed no statistically significant improvement, but so many people stopped taking the multivitamins (46%) that it’s difficult to be truly definitive here.
- The third study tested over 5,000 doctors for more than 12 years, assessing whether the group taking a daily multivitamin had less problems with age-related memory loss and cognitive decline than the placebo group. Again, there was no difference in mental ability between these two groups.
I have to admit that these studies, especially the first study, are quite conclusive, and now I think I’ll just stop taking my daily pill (again). There really isn’t any reason why any reasonably healthy person, eating basically normal food, in any developed country, should take a daily multivitamin. But does this new evidence convince you at all? A huge and growing percentage of people all over the world are taking daily multivitamins, despite all of these increasingly broadcast studies. Why? Why are so many of us simply ignoring science? Read their final statement:
“The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided. This message is especially true for the general population with no clear evidence of micronutrient deficiencies, who represent most supplement users in the United States and in other countries.”
Are you really not going to change your habits?
It’s hard to think of common medical folklore more ingrained than PSA tests for men and calcium supplements for women. And yet last week we had a couple of very strong studies which are questioning both of these fundamentals, causing an uproar for both sexes. So what’s the real deal here? Do I really have to change my practice? Actually, yes, I think I do — and I already have.
I will discuss PSA later and focus today on calcium, one of the most common supplements in the world. It seems that every woman takes calcium for “bone health”, including all the women in my family — both young and old. But a very disturbing new study says maybe most younger healthy women shouldn’t, as the risk of heart disease may outweigh any benefit in protecting bones from thinning. This recently published study followed over 24,000 women for 11 years and found that women who had calcium from their diet had a very encouraging decrease in risk of heart attacks. But those women who got their calcium mostly from supplements had a much higher risk of a heart attack — an 86% increase, in fact! And those women who totally avoided calcium foods and only got calcium from supplements had a very scary 239% increase in heart attacks. The take-home message, which was hinted at in previous studies, is now more clear: every woman should get their calcium from foods, not supplements! Here’s a good explanation from ScienceDaily.com:
The evidence that dietary calcium is helpful while calcium supplements are not can be explained by the fact that dietary calcium is taken in small amounts, spread throughout the day, so is absorbed slowly, they say.
Supplements, on the other hand, cause calcium levels in the blood to soar above the normal range, and it is this flooding effect which might ultimately be harmful, they suggest.
“Calcium supplements have been widely embraced by doctors and the public, on the grounds that they are a natural and therefore safe way of preventing osteoporotic fractures,” they write.
“It is now becoming clear that taking this micronutrient in one or two daily [doses] is not natural, in that it does not reproduce the same metabolic effects as calcium in food,” they say. Given that it is neither safe nor effective, boosting calcium intake from supplements should be discouraged, they contend. And they conclude: “We should return to seeing calcium as an important component of a balanced diet, and not as a low cost panacea to the universal problem of postmenopausal bone loss.”
What To Do? Foods…And Exercise
I’ve been discussing this study with my wife, and we’re now cutting back on her calcium supplements and trying to focus on more diet sources. I think this really should be a game-changer for the majority of younger women who are healthy and taking calcium supplements simply to protect their bones, especially those who avoid dairy products; it seems clear that they need to reconsider this and to seriously review their food choices for proper protection. I think the risk-benefit ratio is still favorable for older women and women who actually have osteoporosis, but in all cases the healthier approach for calcium intake is via foods. And please don’t forget exercise! Regular exercise is crucial to protect bone health as well.
How much calcium does a woman need, and which foods are best for this? Here’s a nice summary from WebMD:
Know Your Needs and Vitamin D
The Institute of Medicine recommends 1300mg calcium for anyone 9-18 years old, 1000mg for 19-70 year old men and 19-50 year old women, and 1200 mg for women over 50 and men over 70.
If vitamin D levels are too low, calcium may not be fully absorbed. It’s a good idea to check your levels at annual physicals.
Digging into Diet
Dairy is a simple way to meet calcium needs: 1 cup of low-fat milk or yogurt and 1 1/2oz of cheese contains about 300mg of calcium.
Other non-dairy foods that contain calcium include 1/2 cup tofu made with calcium sulfate (250mg); 1/2 cup greens like kale, collards, mustards (100mg); 1 cup fortified orange juice (500mg); 3oz canned salmon with bone (181mg); and calcium-fortified soy beverages and cereals (amount varies)
Other unlikely sources include nuts. For example, 1 cup of sliced almonds contains about 240mg while the same amount of mixed nuts and walnuts contain 100mg. Now, a cup is a lot, but the point is these healthy foods can help fill in calcium gaps.