Heart disease is a popular health topic on social media. Everyday on Facebook, Twitter, and other popular social sites hundreds of thousands of people share articles with titles like “5 Foods that Prevent Heart Disease” or “To Avoid Heart Disease, Make this One Simple Change.” So while we may spend far too much time watching funny videos or talking about popular television shows, we’re also taking time to talk about the important things, which is good.
There’s only one problem: There’s a lot of misinformation out there. There’s a lot of useless advice, and it all gets shared. With the click of a mouse, people can instantly share the most attention-grabbing headlines with hundreds—or even thousands—of other people, who in turn share it with hundreds and thousands more. Soon we have a tsunami of bad information sweeping across the internet and influencing public opinion, often to the detriment of our health.
What doesn’t get shared enough is valid, science-backed information. Because as important as it is, hard science rarely has click-bait headlines. And it’s much harder to read “Coronary Artery Disease as Clogged Pipes: A Misconceptual Model” than it is to read “The Top 25 Alkaline Foods on the Planet for Preventing Heart Disease.” (Hint: alkaline foods probably aren’t going to help prevent heart disease. Sorry, Facebook.)
However, once in a while an article strikes the perfect balance: a catchy, clickable title combined with good information that captures our ever-shrinking attention spans. One such article is making the rounds now. It’s the most-shared heart disease article on Facebook, garnering nearly half a million shares in the past year. It was written by a heart doctor and former Chief of Surgery at Banner Heart Hospital in Mesa, Arizona and is sensationally titled, “World Renowned Heart Surgeon Speaks Out On What Really Causes Heart Disease.”
And here’s where it gets interesting. Because this year’s half-million Facebook shares aren’t the first time this article has rocked social media. It made a bit of a splash back in 2014, when it was published under a different title. It also made the rounds in 2012. And possibly even earlier. Every year or two it resurfaces and gets shared all over again. What makes this particular article so compelling? Let’s take a look at what it has to say.
Speaking out on the real cause of heart disease again…and again
Like most things that really go viral, the article is a bit melodramatic. It has a subtle conspiracy-theory vibe—a “we’ve been lied to” tone—that appeals to many people. Though in the author’s defense, the article appears to have been written well before 2012 to promote his 2007 book “The Cure for Heart Disease.” At the time, his opinions were very much in the minority and the article was a shot across the bow of established treatment and guidelines. Today, ten years later, his ideas are more widely accepted but have yet to make it into the official narrative.
Which is probably why this article keeps getting resurrected.
The main idea is this: Dietary fat doesn’t cause heart disease. Cholesterol doesn’t cause heart disease. And the low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet recommended to prevent heart disease may instead make the problem worse. The real, root cause of heart disease, the article claims, is inflammation. And chronic inflammation, it continues, is a direct consequence of this diet plus an overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids like those found in vegetable oils—the very things we’ve been told to eat for the past 40 years.
The article explains it like this:
“When we consume simple carbohydrates such as sugar, blood sugar rises rapidly. In response, your pancreas secretes insulin whose primary purpose is to drive sugar into each cell where it is stored for energy. If the cell is full and does not need glucose, it is rejected to avoid extra sugar gumming up the works.
So far so good, this is basic science.
When your full cells reject the extra glucose, blood sugar rises producing more insulin and the glucose converts to stored fat.
Again, this is basic science; this is how a high-carb diet contributes to obesity. The article continues:
What does all this have to do with inflammation? Blood sugar is controlled in a very narrow range. Extra sugar molecules attach to a variety of proteins that in turn injure the blood vessel wall. This repeated injury to the blood vessel wall sets off inflammation. When you spike your blood sugar level several times a day, every day, it is exactly like taking sandpaper to the inside of your delicate blood vessels.”
That’s a very graphic picture. And while we might not be able to see it ourselves, the author says, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. “Rest assured,” he tells us, “it is there. I saw it in over 5,000 surgical patients spanning 25 years who all shared one common denominator — inflammation in their arteries.” And that inflammation, he says, is what causes cholesterol to stick to artery walls–without inflammation it would simply pass on through blood vessels without causing any problems.
He then goes on to explain the dangers of too much omega-6 fatty acids:
“While omega-6’s are essential -they are part of every cell membrane controlling what goes in and out of the cell — they must be in the correct balance with omega-3’s.
Omega-3’s are the beneficial fatty acids we find in fatty fish such as salmon. Among other positive qualities, they have anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-6’s are found in vegetable and seed oils, and many of the “healthy” fats we’ve been advised to eat are very high in omega-6’s–which are strongly linked to inflammation. In a truly balanced diet, the benefits of omega-3’s cancel out the inflammatory properties of omega-6’s. But when we eat too many omega-6’s, inflammation results:
If the balance shifts by consuming excessive omega-6, the cell membrane produces chemicals called cytokines that directly cause inflammation.
Today’s mainstream American diet has produced an extreme imbalance of these two fats. The ratio of imbalance ranges from 15:1 to as high as 30:1 in favor of omega-6. That’s a tremendous amount of cytokines causing inflammation. In today’s food environment, a 3:1 ratio would be optimal and healthy.”
Finally, the article speaks briefly about how obesity and overweight promote chronic inflammation:
“To make matters worse, the excess weight you are carrying from eating these foods creates overloaded fat cells that pour out large quantities of pro-inflammatory chemicals that add to the injury caused by having high blood sugar. The process that began with a sweet roll turns into a vicious cycle over time that creates heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and finally, Alzheimer’s disease, as the inflammatory process continues unabated.”
No longer medical heresy
While these ideas might have been unorthodox in 2007 and 2008, today they’re fairly well-supported by science. Study after study demonstrates that saturated fats are not the cause of heart disease, that cholesterol is a poor predictor of death by heart disease, and that inflammation does play a major role not just in heart disease but in other chronic diseases too.
That doesn’t mean that the official guidelines have changed; once a treatment or lifestyle advice becomes routine care, medicine is very slow to adopt new practices no matter how sound the science behind them. We’re seeing this now in the arena of type 2 diabetes and carbohydrate recommendations, or type 2 diabetes and significant weight loss, where the effects of lifestyle change are swift and dramatic.
In heart disease, where the results are less obvious and slower to happen (fewer heart attacks as opposed to dramatically reduced blood glucose), the changes in policy are incremental—but they are happening. The latest USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for example, no longer list dietary cholesterol as a concern.
So—should you believe what this viral post has to say? While the language may be a bit sensational (“Foods loaded with sugars and simple carbohydrates, or processed with omega-6 oils for long shelf life,” the article says at one point, “have been slowly poisoning everyone”), the basic message is not. And the bottom line is right in line with what other cutting-edge researchers and doctors are now saying:
Stop using medicine to treat food.
And that’s the real takeaway from this article. The final recommendation is this:
“What you can do is choose whole foods your grandmother served and not those your mom turned to as grocery store aisles filled with manufactured foods.” (Emphasis added)
In other words—eat real food. And that’s a message we all need to take to heart.