How Margarine and its seed oil filled brothers give us Multiple Sclerosis

By | Big Fat Lies, Charts, Vegetable Oils | 25 Comments

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) was once a rare disease that mainly affected Scandinavians or people who otherwise didn’t get much sunlight.  But that has all changed.  Its prevalence is accelerating wildly and sunlight is much less relevant than what you shove in your gob.  If you’d rather not get MS then it is vital you avoid consuming the Omega-6 fats found in most processed foods.

Our central nervous system is our electrical wiring.  If our brain wants to tell our fingers to move, an electrical signal is sent along the nervous system and the fingers move.  Just like electrical cables nerve cells have an insulating cover (called myelin).  Electrical signals travel much faster (and are much more certain to get to the destination) in insulated nerves than in non-insulated nerves.

Seventy percent of the insulation is fat and a fair chunk of that is polyunsaturated fat.  Unfortunately this means that the insulation is prone to damage from oxidation.  But not to worry, we have a perfectly good repair system.  The cells which make myelin (called oligodendrocytes for those who want to get all technical) are very handy at continuously patching up any damage.

MS is disease caused by our immune system attacking and destroying the myelin insulation.  This damage disrupts the ability of parts of the nervous system to communicate and it results in an array of symptoms which range from fatigue, physical incoordination, spasms, partial blindness as well as learning and memory problems (depending on which part of the nervous system is damaged).

Unfortunately people with MS can’t completely repair the damage being inflicted by their immune system and over time the cumulative damage means that the symptoms become progressively worse.

According to the World Health Organisation the biggest risk factors for MS are living in a place with little sunlight or a place exposed to processed food (the Western Diet).  In the 1950s the biggest risk factor by a country mile was latitude, but as processed food has infiltrated the diet of more and more countries, those countries have caught up to the rates in countries with low sunlight exposure.   In Iran for example the incidence rate quadrupled in just the two decades between 1989 and 2008.  But there is (and always has been) plenty of sunlight there.

In countries exposed to the Western Diet for most of the last five decades (such as Australia), the number of new cases of the disease recorded per year (after adjusting for population increases) has also quadrupled.  Make no mistake MS is an epidemic on the march.

Our immune system attacks parts of the body largely because the component (T regulatory cells or just TRegs) which is supposed to stop that happening becomes disabled.  One of the most efficient ways to disable TRegs is to consume too much omega-6 fat.

The Western Diet is stuffed to the brim with Omega-6 fat courtesy of the steady replacement of animal fats with seed oils (such as canola, sunflower soybean etc).  So every time you eat processed food or tuck into fried food you are taking on a massive dollop of omega-6 fat.

For example if you were drop a serving (20g) of Praise Mayonnaise onto your bacon and egg sarnie you would be consuming around 5 grams of Omega-6 fat (just from the mayo).  That’s about three times what your body needs for the day (and that’s before we take into account the margarine, the bread, the grain fed bacon, the factory farmed egg or anything else you eat that day).

Sunshine (or, at least its ability to make us make Vitamin D) is a partial remedy to this problem because Vitamin D boosts the numbers of TRegs.  This gives us a fighting chance at stopping our own immune system in its tracks.  And that is why, before the advent of a seed oil filled diet, the exposure to sunlight, more or less determined your likelihood of having MS.

We aren’t born with a completely myelinated nervous system.  It takes us about 20 years to finish the job.  This means that when people move from a place with low rates of MS to places of high rates of MS (or the other way round), their age when they move is an important factor.  If they are over 15 when they move they will have the same risk of developing MS as the place where they were born.  If they are 10 or younger it will be the same as the place where they move to.

It’s likely that this strange age-related phenomenon is because of another characteristic of our seed oil filled diets.  Overconsumption of omega-6 fats causes the body to enter a state called oxidative stress.  This is where the highly reactive omega-6 fats overcome our anti-oxidant defences.  Oxidative stress is known to be lethal to the cells which produce our nerve insulation.

It is therefore probable that constant exposure to omega-6 fats while a child is growing those very cells, will result in insulation which is not up to spec.  And a weakened insulation makes them much more susceptible to the immune system attacks which will almost inevitably happen if they stay on that diet.

MS is a truly horrendous disease that is striking more people, younger.  It is clear that the cause is the massive increase in the use of seed (vegetable) oils in our food.  MS was once a disease that struck only susceptible people who were not exposed to enough sunlight.  Seed oils are now ensuring it is something that all of us must fear.

If you have MS, I’m sorry.  If you can stop eating seed oils (and get some Sun), it may help with symptoms.  If you don’t have MS, stop eating seed oils (and get some Sun) and you will dramatically reduce your chances of getting it.  If you have children, don’t let them anywhere near seed oils, ever, but especially not before they’re 20.

Graphic from:  WHO – Atlas multiple sclerosis resources in the world 2008.

The Four Drugs that Aussies can’t live without.

By | Big Fat Lies, Charts, Sugar | 18 Comments

Last week the Australian Health Department published its annual hit parade of Australia’s most used drugs.  It revealed that just two ‘diseases’ accounted for eight of the top 10 places, high cholesterol and high blood pressure.

Because the vast majority of drugs prescribed here are heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, the Federal Government keeps a very accurate tally of what our doctors are putting in our shopping bags.

This year’s top of the (pill) pops tells us that on any given day 32 out of every 100 men, women and children in Australia will be knocking back one of the pills in the top ten.

#1 with a bullet – Anti-hypertensives.

13.4 of those 32 people will be downing a pill for their blood pressure with their morning orange juice.  They’ll probably be studiously avoiding salt as well on doctor’s orders.

The only problem is that research published just this week tells us the OJ is more likely to be causing the blood pressure problems than any amount of salt they might be consuming.

This confirms a long line of studies which have concluded that the fructose half of sugar is the cause of high blood pressure and not the salt.

#2 – Statins, the drug without a disease.

Riding hard on the heels of the blood pressure pills, 12.9 of those 32 people will be taking some sort of Statin, a drug that treats exactly nothing, but which is supposed to lower the risk of future heart attacks.

Statins are powerful drugs that alter the function of important liver enzymes, and the evidence suggests that the only class of people who benefit are younger men who’ve already had a heart attack.

The only people who should be given statins should be this very small group (and then only if their doctor feels the benefit outweighs the risk of diabetes and dementia).

#3 – Paracetemol

If this list is giving you a headache then you’ll likely be joining the 3.4 out of every hundred of us who will pop a Panadol today.

#4 – Reflux medication

Rounding out our list is a medication to treat heartburn and GERD (Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease). Just 2.5 in every 100 of us will be getting into those pills, but recent data tells us it a class of drugs with a big future.

GERD is likely to be caused by a combination of the obesity caused by eating too much sugar and the bacterial overgrowth caused by, yep you guessed it, eating too much sugar.  It won’t come as too much of a surprise then to discover the percentage of the population suffering from GERD has significantly increased in the last two decades.

More than 1 in 10 Australians now suffer from the disease and almost 7 million scripts a year are written for the one drug (for GERD that makes the Top 10) alone.  It is the fourth most expensive medicine funded by the Australian taxpayer (who shells out more than $200 million a year for it).

Taken together, the Top 10 list accounts for a serious chunk of Australia’s pharmaceutical budget.  It’s a budget that is under constant pressure. And there are many unfunded drugs that don’t make the cut, not because they don’t work, but because too few people will benefit.

Instead we’re spending our precious drug dollars on massively overprescribed statins and drugs to treat diseases of sugar consumption (oh and headache pills).  Wouldn’t it be better if we just stopped eating the sugar and listening to drug company marketing around statins?

Margarine makes your kids stupid enough to eat margarine

By | Big Fat Lies, Vegetable Oils | 3 Comments

A significant component of what makes us intelligent is created from our mother’s fat stores.  Unfortunately the fats which dominate margarines and processed food stop that absorption happening and impair intelligence in children to a greater degree than was ever caused by lead. If you want your kids to be as smart as they can be then they (and you) need to immediately stop eating those fats.

About 10% of our brain is made from an Omega-3 fat called DHA (docosahexaenoic acid for the biochemists amongst us).  We can make DHA from a simpler omega-3 fat called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid).  That’s the form of omega-3 which exists in most of our food.

Unfortunately we are not very good at converting dietary omega-3 ALA into DHA.  Less than half a percent of the ALA we consume ends up as DHA.  This means that relying on mum to eat enough omega-3 ALA while she’s pregnant would be a disastrous strategy for baby brain building.

Luckily we have a plan.  As soon as a woman reaches puberty her body starts storing up as much Omega-3 fat as it can.  Uniquely among animals (because we are the only ones who need to build relatively gigantic brains), female humans store all that omega-3 ALA in a baby pantry located at the top of the legs and in the buttocks.

Unfortunately for girls who wish to become Supermodels, the body cannot tell the difference between the various sorts of fat, so it just stores all the fat it can find in the hope that enough of it will be the good stuff.

Since the point of storing the fat is to ensure there is enough (ALA to make) DHA to make a baby’s brain, the body will not easily let go of it.  That is, until the third trimester of pregnancy.  Then the floodgates are opened and the fat is released.  Because brain construction doesn’t finish when a child is born, it’s also important that the supply of DHA continues after the baby is born.  Breast milk (and now formula) contains large amounts of DHA.  In total, 80% of the fat used in construction of a child’s brain comes from the mother’s stores (rather than her current diet).  So perhaps the old saying should be ‘A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips in your child’s brain’

We know from animal studies that if there is not enough DHA, animals end up with brains that don’t have enough neurons, the cells that do all the work in our brains.  That lack of basic circuitry in turn impairs the child’s development and intelligence.   And it looks like the results hold in humans as well.

Just last month, a study in humans was able to show that the amount of DHA in breast milk was the strongest predictor of test performance across samples drawn from 28 OECD countries.

But before you start force-feeding teenage girls, mothers and kids fish oil tablets, you should know that there is a little twist in this tale.  Omega-6 fats stop us using DHA to make us brainy.  So it doesn’t matter how much Omega-3 you have if you also consume too much Omega-6.

Omega-6 fats are the dominant fat in seed oils (canola, soybean, grapeseed, corn, sunflower etc).  These are the fats that margarine is made from.  These are the fats which are now used in every packaged food on the supermarket shelf.  And these are the foods in which every fried food is boiled.  We now eat 10-20 times as much omega-6 fat as omega-3 fat.

Omega-6 fats compete with Omega-3 fats for the same enzymes.  Critically one of those is the enzyme which turns garden variety omega-3 ALA into DHA.  If we have equal amounts of omega-3 and omega-6 in our diet, just the right amount of DHA is created and all is good, but if we have too much omega-6, we fail to make enough DHA.

You might predict from that, that countries that eat a lot of seed oils loaded with omega-6  would tend not to do so well in tests and you’d be right.  The researchers in the most recent study found that there was a very strong correlation between the amount of omega-6 in the diet and how poorly 15 year olds did on standard international benchmark tests.

This confirmed the findings of five previous human studies which showed that higher omega-6 intakes impaired cognition (made us dumb – translation provided in case you’ve been hitting the margarine).  Indeed one 2011 study determined that the impairment was greater than the effect of lead!! (double exclamation points are well and truly warranted on that statement)

Just like omega-3 fats, omega-6 fats are stored in the baby pantry, ready to use when needed.  So the fats used to construct a baby’s brain are not just the fats a woman is eating when she’s pregnant or breastfeeding.  They are every fat she has stored since puberty (or since the last baby used them up).  Babies being constructed today are having brains built from the fats used in processed food for the last 20 years.

We now use unleaded petrol because of the damage lead in petrol did to developing brains. If we want the next generation not to be ‘cognitively impaired’ by seed oils, we need to act now.

We need to ensure that (at the very least) young women are not consuming foods overloaded with omega-6 fats.  This means no margarine, almost no processed food and no commercially fried food.  In other words they need to eat real food and they need to do it now.

If they do this their children will be smart enough to thank them for it.

Image courtesy of Phaitoon at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How Margarine breaks your bones

By | Big Fat Lies, Vegetable Oils | 5 Comments

Scientists have known for more than a decade that the omega-6 fats contained in vegetable oils (like those used to manufacture margarine) degrade human bone density.  Now new research has thrown light on how that happens and why anyone concerned about osteoporosis needs to immediately stop consuming them.

One in twenty Australians have osteoporosis (Greek for ‘porous bones’) and 1 in 4 have low bone density (the precursor to osteoporosis). The number of people affected is accelerating wildly. In the last 10 years the number of GP visits related to osteoporosis has doubled in Australia.

Our bones are not static lumps of rock.  They are living tissue which constantly accumulate and dispose of minerals.  Osteoporosis occurs when bones lose minerals, such as calcium, more quickly than the body can replace them.  This causes a loss of bone thickness (bone density or mass).

As bones become thinner and less dense, even a minor bump or fall can cause a serious fracture. Unfortunately most people don’t know they have the disease until after they suffer a break.  Eight out of ten cases are recorded in people over the age of 55 but the age of onset is becoming progressively younger.

Osteoporosis medicines work by making the cells that break down bone (osteoclasts) less active.  This tips the balance towards accumulation of minerals by the cells that form bone (osteoblasts).

A long series of animal studies have clearly established that polyunsaturated fats are important drivers of the bone recycling process.  We know that omega-3 polyunsaturates which dominate some fish oils, flax seeds and kelp help us build up bone density.  While the omega-6 fats which dominate seed oils (like sunflower, soybean, canola, safflower and rice-bran) destroy bone density.

In 2005 researchers at the University of California confirmed that the same rules were at work in a large human population.  In that study 1,532 people were observed for 4 years.  The results were spectacularly consistent.  The more omega-6 a person consumed (or the higher their omega-6 to omega-3 ratio), the lower their bone density was.  It really was that black and white.

The results were independent of medication use, their BMI or the amount of exercise they did or didn’t do.  This means that all the things which we are told affect our chances of getting osteoporosis were rendered irrelevant by just one thing, the amount of omega-6 fat in the diet.

Unfortunately (for our health) nobody in the Health Community wants to hear that they should stop telling people to eat seed oils, so there has been precious little publicity about that line of studies.  That is, until bone density started mattering to people who breed animals for a living.

As we feed more and more of our farmed fish, diets which are high in omega-6 fats, they are becoming more and more fragile.  It seems that just like humans (and rats).  Their bones go to pot if we ramp up the omega-6.

This latest proof of the bone destroying power of omega-6 comes courtesy of an aquaculture study out of the Norwegian National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research. In that study, the scientists observed a rise in the level of activity of the enzyme that breaks down bone, in line with the rise in omega-6 concentrations.

We don’t know exactly how omega-6 works its destructive magic but the scientists suspect that it relates to the production of PGE2, the prostaglandin responsible for bone metabolism.  We make PGE2 from omega-6 fats, but the presence of omega-3 fats stops it being produced.  This is because omega-3 and omega-6 compete for the same enzymes.  If we make just the right amount, everything is tickety-boo but if we make too much, say, because we have too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3, then we start breaking down our bones.

Every processed food on the supermarket shelves is loaded with omega-6 fats (in the form of seed oils).  Every fried food has been boiled in omega-6 fats (seed oils again). Our National Heart Foundation actively encourages us to eat margarines brimming with omega-6 fats (yep, seed oils).  And the charity responsible for advice about Osteoporosis doesn’t even mention the known link between omega-6 fats and the disease.

In this environment it is not strange that the number of people affected has doubled in just a decade, it’s a bloody miracle it hasn’t tripled.  But stay tuned, at the rate we are increasing the consumption of omega-6 fats, there is much more pain to come.

Image courtesy of Boaz Yiftach at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

If the Heart Foundation and Dietitians Association didn’t exist, would the food industry need to invent them?

By | Big Fat Lies, Conflicts of Interest, Sugar, Vegetable Oils | 7 Comments

The Dietitians Association of Australia and the Australian Heart Foundation spend quite a bit of their time attacking what they call “Fad Diets”.  Unfortunately, their flat out disregard for the evidence is making their statements sound more and more like press releases issued by the processed food industry.

I don’t pretend to know what is motivating either of them, but I do know that both have financial backing from the industries which stand to lose the most if there is widespread adoption of many of the diets they declare to be fads (for example reducing sugar, seed oils, or more recently paleo).

The Dietitians Association’s sponsors include Nestle (the second largest manufacturer of breakfast cereals in Australia and no slouch when it comes to moving other forms of sugar either), Unilever (largest margarine manufacturer in Australia) and the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council (a lobby group funded by all the major breakfast cereal manufacturers)

The Australian Heart Foundation is not overtly sponsored by anyone.  But the processed food industry has found a way to rent the Heart Foundation’s healthy halo.

It’s called the Tick Program. Processed foods can gain endorsement from the Heart Foundation by doing what they were going to do anyway. They wanted to use seed oils instead of animal fats because they are loads cheaper. Tick – foods that use seed oils are given preference. They wanted to use tons of sugar because food with sugar sells better than food without. Tick – sugar is not a criteria. They want to sell breakfast cereals because they are vehicles for sugar (and the margins are stupendous). Tick – whole grains are encouraged for their fibre.

The program is a nice little earner for the Heart Foundation, pulling in $2.8m in 2013 alone. The only problem is that, through the Tick Program, the Heart Foundation now finds itself in the position of having endorsed hundreds of products that the science says are very dangerous to our health.

The World Health Organisation, the Canadian Heart Foundation and the American Heart Association all regard sugar as a dangerous additive to food because there is convincing evidence that it is “associated with heart disease, stroke, obesity, diabetes, high blood cholesterol, cancer and tooth decay.”  But the Australian Heart Foundation is earning millions from its endorsement of products like ‘Mayonnaise’ that has more sugar than Coke, a children’s snack which is 73% sugar and spreads made of the very oils which science says almost doubles the risk of heart disease death.

That is what we lawyers call a conflict of interest. When doctors experience a conflict of interest (say by accepting gifts from pharmaceutical companies), the regulators tighten the rules and (no matter how much it hurts the doctors) attempt to put the brakes on the gravy train.

The same thing happens in just about any profession we depend upon for expert knowledge. We have to be able to trust paid specialists. And no matter how morally astute they believe they are, we cannot allow them be led into temptation by conflicts of interest. If we do, we can never be sure if they are giving us advice based on the best evidence or on their own financial interest.

And if by chance you think that the existence of, say, a tick program makes no difference to the advice being dispensed, you need look no further than the Canadian Heart Foundation.  In June, they killed off their tick program.  Before June, they were happily handing out ticks to Slush Puppies and children’s snacks where sugar was the primary ingredient.  After June they were attacking the sugar sellers like they were on commission for the sale of Sweet Poison.

So when the Dietitians Association and the Heart Foundation fly into a frenzy to decry a diet which asks people to avoid processed food, any thinking person would ask, why?  Is there science behind this or have these two venerable organisations simply become mouthpieces for the processed food industry that provides them with such significant financial support?  Such is the corrosive power of conflicts of interest.

There are now very persuasive reasons to worry about their advice that we should consume seed oils (vegetable oils). And there is just as compelling evidence that ignoring sugar is taking a daily toll on the health of all Australians.

We need the Heart Foundation to follow the lead of the Canadian Heart Foundation and immediately trash its Tick program. And we need our dietitians to throw off the yoke of corporate sponsorship and provide evidence based dietary advice untainted by the smell of food industry money.

We don’t need the guardians of our health attacking a scientifically (and logically) defensible aversion to processed food. We need them guarding our health without fear or favour (especially without favour).

How to ensure you’re not firing blanks (a cautionary tale for men and anyone who cares about the quality of their sperm)

By | Big Fat Lies, Vegetable Oils | No Comments

Sperm counts are dropping rapidly in all Western countries.  In one, the situation is so dire that finding a man who is capable of reproducing is likely to be impossible by 2030.  For the rest of us, that reality is not that much further into the future. New science suggests the cause is clear and the solution is even clearer.  Don’t let men (or boys) eat vegetable oil.

A sperm count is an old fashioned, but still highly reliable way of measuring a man’s, well, potency.  Anything over 100 million sperm cells per ml is considered a premium vintage and anything under 15 million means the man is very unlikely to reproduce.  The only trouble is that men with high octane semen are getting harder and harder to find.

In 1992 researchers from the University of Copenhagen published a study of sperm quality trends over the preceding half century.  After reviewing 61 trials, the scientists came to the shocking conclusion that the average sperm count had halved in just 50 years (from 113 million in 1940 to 66 million in 1990).   Yep, men really were more manly in the olden days.

An even more comprehensive analysis of almost 27,000 French men published in 2005 confirmed the trend is continuing.  In that study average sperm counts dropped from 74 million in 1989 to 50 million in 2005.  If the decline continues at the same rate, there will be no French men capable of making babies by 2072.  And no matter how you feel  about the French, that is a catastrophe of unprecedented scale.

Similar numbers and rates of decline are now being reported in all Western countries (although alarmingly at 3% per annum, Australia is at the high end).   But in one country, the sperm count disaster makes the French look pretty damn virile.

Sperm banks in Israel are reporting that the alarming drop in sperm quality amongst Jewish inhabitants. Sperm banks that would have rejected about a third of applicants in the 1990s (because of low sperm count) are now turning away 80 to 90%.  With a measured rate of sperm count decline approximately twice that of any other Western country, experts are predicting that by 2030, average Jewish Israeli sperm counts will drop to a level where reproduction is likely to be impossible.

There are many theories about why this is happening as there are scientists researching the problem.  Perhaps it is the increased levels of oestrogen in the diet, perhaps it is exposure to pesticides or perhaps it is the use of BPA plastics.  But only one has produced convincing evidence of causation – dietary omega-6 fat consumption.

Omega-6 fat is the dominant fat in the ‘vegetable oils’ used in every processed food.  These oils are not made from vegetables at all.  Rather they come from seeds (like Canola, Soybean, Sunflower, Safflower, Rice Bran and Grape).  Western consumption of Omega-6 fats has at least tripled in the last century and perhaps more importantly, the ratio of Omega-6 fats to Omega-3 fats has soared from about 3:1 to 25:1.

We’ve known for some time that in experimental animals, high omega-6 fat consumption lowers sperm count and significantly impairs the quality of those that remain.  But a 2009 study in humans has taken that research one step further.

In that study, 82 infertile men were compared with 78 (proven) fertile men.  Detailed profiles of the fatty acid makeup of each man’s blood plasma were prepared.  The results were unequivocal.  Infertile men had a significantly higher ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3  (15 to 1 versus 6 to 1 in fertile men).  And critically, the higher the omega-6, the lower the sperm count.

It is likely that the reason for the sperm cell destruction relates to rampant oxidation caused by the overconsumption of omega-6 fats.  Unfortunately that kind of oxidation damage leads to the wholesale DNA destruction that can result in cancer.  Perhaps then it won’t shock you to discover that the incidence of testicular cancer (the most common cancer in men under 50) has more than doubled in the last 40 years.

Because of a decided preference for non-animal fat sources, Israeli Jews have the highest consumption of Omega-6 fat in the world (about 12% of calories).  The science says this is why they are at the bleeding edge of the decline in male fertility.  It is also likely to be why the incidence of testicular cancer has almost doubled in just 10 years (compared to the 4 decades it took the rest of us).

Before you tell me you’re ok because you always cook in olive oil, you should know that the oil we add is a very small part of the fat we actually consume.  Vegetable oils made from seeds are much cheaper than animal or fruit fats (such as Olive, Avocado or Coconut Oils).  Because of this, they are now an integral part of margarine and baked goods and bread and salad dressings and pestos and meal bases and frozen food and, well, every other product (with a label) in our supermarkets.

It is also increasingly a significant component of grain fed meat (most of the meat in a supermarket) and even farmed fish (most of the fish in a supermarket). And it is just about the only fat used to fry take-away food in 21st century Australia.  In other words, it is almost impossible to avoid unless you grow and assemble your own food.

There are as many good reasons not to consume seed oils, but I reckon the future of the human race probably tops the list.  Food companies are doing nothing less than committing biochemical genocide by filling every food we eat with omega-6 fats. We are having our reproductive capacity disabled en masse and far from protesting against it, our health authorities are actively encouraging us to consume more.  Ask the Australian Heart Foundation whether it thinks you should consume more of these poisons and you will be told most definitely ‘yes’.

Fortunately there is one thing you can do if you care about your ability to reproduce (or avoid testicular cancer). Stop eating Vegetable Oils made from seeds or any food made from, or fried in, them.

Image courtesy of Carlos Porto at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why is the ABC censoring debate on anti-cholesterol drugs?

By | Big Fat Lies, Conflicts of Interest | 5 Comments

Last week the British Medical Journal did something that the ABC, our so called independent broadcaster, was terrified to do just a few months earlier. It stared down an attack from the pharmaceutical industry over articles it had published on the dangers of statins (cholesterol lowering drugs). But it’s not too late for the ABC to stop behaving like a drug company marketing department and start behaving like an independent national broadcaster.

In October 2013, Dr Maryanne Demasi, produced a two part series for the ABC’s Catalyst program. The first part suggested saturated fat and cholesterol do not cause heart disease. The show was enormously popular, pulling an audience of 944,000, something which is unheard of for the staid science doco. But it was the promo for Part 2 that really lit up the switchboard.

The Second Part promised to delve into statins, the ubiquitous anti-cholesterol drugs prescribed to a third of Australian adults over the age of 50. Even before it was aired there were strident calls for the show to be killed. One particularly hysterical radio presenter even warned that watching the show may cause people to stop taking statins – something that “could kill them.”

Nevertheless, in a rare display of courage, the ABC risked our lives and ran the show anyway. As promised, it dared to suggest that statins are not everything the marketing spin would have us believe. They are frequently prescribed for people where there is no demonstrated benefit, and they present significant and potentially life threatening side effects. Almost a million Australians tuned in and, as you might expect when a multi-billion dollar revenue stream is on the line, the backlash was intense.

The ABC did what it should do in such circumstances, it launched an independent investigation. Six months later, the ABC’s independent Audience and Consumer Affairs unit presented the results. They found the first show was accurate and impartial and neither the ‘for’ or ‘against’ arguments were misrepresented. But when it came to the second part they found the show failed to mention that statins have benefits when it comes to non-fatal outcomes (for people who have already had a heart attack).

As the problem was a failure to disclose relevant information, the recommended remedy was to provide that information on the ABC’s website. Unfortunately at this point the ABC went to water. Instead of uploading a statement to that effect and moving on, the ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, decided censorship was the way to go.

He ordered the immediate removal of both programs from the ABC website and also hunted down the copies which were by then appearing on YouTube. They were to cease to exist. Everybody should immediately forget there was ever any such thing.

I get it. The ABC copped a lot of flak from the drug companies and they are very big and very scary. But that is no reason start behaving like a third world despot. The whimpering failure of the ABC to stand up for its story (and the journalist who produced it) is all the more pathetic when compared to the steely resolve displayed by the British Medical Journal over the same issue just last week.

At the same time as the Catalyst show was airing, the BMJ had published an article which questioned the evidence behind statin use in Britain. Like the Catalyst story, the paper claimed that the risks (from side-effects) outweighed any potential benefit. A related article published the same week suggested side effects occur in 18% of people taking statins.

The expected complaints flooded in. Leading the charge was Sir Rory Collins head of an organisation which had received well over a quarter of a billion pounds in drug company funding in the previous two decades. He wanted the ABC solution – immediate disappearing of the articles.

As you might expect, the BMJ launched an independent investigation. Their report, delivered last week, found a minor correction was needed and that nothing else was required. There was certainly no cause to remove the papers. They also pointed out that it was very difficult to determine whether statins were safe or not because the drug companies refuse to make the trial data publicly available.

Statins now consume 1 in every 7 taxpayer dollars spent on drugs in this country. When we choose to spend that much on statins, we are choosing to deny patients access to many other potentially lifesaving treatments.  But statins are not cures for anything, they are a barely effective preventative measure. For most of the people taking them there will be no benefit whatsoever. Worse, there are increasingly obvious signs that statins could inflict serious harm.

But this is not a story about statins. It is a story about censorship.

Rather than promoting an honest discussion of the evidence (well, at least the evidence the drug companies will let us see), our National Broadcaster purged the internet of even the remotest suggestion there is anything wrong.

ABC, we depend on you to display the backbone shown by the BMJ. We need you not to cave into crass commercial interest at the first whiff of controversy. You made the wrong call. The BMJ has made that abundantly clear. But it’s not too late to salvage your reputation. Reinstate the programs and do it now.

Oh, and just to show you haven’t been bought off, you could commission a Third Part to the story. It could investigate why taxpayers are paying for drugs whose side effects data are being actively suppressed. How’s that for an idea? You know where to send the royalty cheque.

When Fructose Free means Full of Fructose

By | Big Fat Lies, Sugar | 3 Comments

Freedom Foods is being cute with legalistic definitions but the discerning fructose avoider should avoid their products.  The company known for its “Free From” range of foods is now touting a Muesli product which it boldly boasts is “Fructose Free”.  

3 Grains closeup

The 3 Ancient Grains Super Muesli has a giant fructose free logo emblazoned across the front of the pack, but close inspection of the fine print on the back tells you that one of the ingredients is “Sugar” and that the product is actually 5.8 per cent sucrose (which is of course half fructose).

When a concerned customer asked what was going on, he was told “The fructose free claim on pack meets current labelling regulations as the product contains no fructose”.  Strictly that’s true, the product does not apparently contain any free fructose, but what about the sucrose?

Ah well, say Freedom, “Sucrose needs to go through a conversion process in the stomach to convert to glucose and fructose.”  

Oh I see.  That’s where the misunderstanding lies.  Apparently they apply an ‘outside the body’ definition of metabolism.  But strangely this doesn’t seem to apply to fat.  

When it comes to fat they don’t just say it contains fat, they break it up into saturated fat and total fat.  Saturated fat does not of course appear as a discrete substance (separated from other fats) until it hits our lymph system.  I’m sure that if I were to ask them about that, they’d point out to me that they are required by law to separately identify the saturated fat.

So is that the difference?  They get to play amateur lawyer and be cute with definitions because at the moment the law lets them get away with it?  It would seem so.  Never mind that by the time sucrose hits our bloodstream (in other words, where it actually becomes useful to us) it is indeed fructose.

Slapping a ‘fructose free’ label on a product you know will be fructose by the time it hits the bloodstream is just plain deceptive.  It pushes the legal boundaries almost to the absolute breaking point.  I expected better from a company that boasts it will  “never stop pushing ourselves to bring you the very best”

Magda proves commercial diet programs are a waste of money.

By | Big Fat Lies, Sugar | 5 Comments

According to the Australian Women’s Weekly actress and comedian Magda Szubanski was paid $32,692 per kilo to lose 26 kilos in 2009 ($850,000). It appears the solution was temporary so now Magda is reportedly receiving $1.25 million to have another go.

Magda joins a long list of celebrities who’ve fallen off the Jenny Craig wagon. But continuous failure doesn’t seem to harm their brand at all. Indeed failure seems to sell more, Magda’s first attempt increased Jenny Craig sales by 307 per cent.

So, does Jenny Craig work (for people who are not celebrities)?

The Jenny Craig diet has been tested in only one randomised, controlled trial.  That is a little surprising (and dare I say, suspicious), given it is one of the largest diet programs in the world.

In this kind of trial, the participants are randomly assigned either to a group following the diet or a group not following the diet (the controls), and the progress of each group is directly measured against the other. The trial compared Jenny Craig with what they called a ‘self-help group’. The self-helpers were given information on losing weight and offered a follow-up counselling session with a dietitian, but otherwise left to their own devices.

The study was funded by Jenny Craig, who also provided all the meals and counselling sessions free of charge. Participants also had access to free weekly one-on-one counselling sessions with a Jenny Craig consultant. If they’d had to pay for all this luvin, it would have cost them $718 for the counselling and $6,240 for the food. Because of all these factors, the study is not a completely real-world example. Throw in $1,500 a month for a personal trainer and a million dollar pay day and you might almost replicate the experience of a celebrity dieter.

In the real world, we’re supposed to pay for the diet, not the other way around. Given that, this study probably represent the best possible scenario in terms of keeping people motivated and sticking to the diet for the entire length of the study, which was two years. Even so 9 per cent of participants had dropped out by the end.

After two years of free Jenny Craig meals, intense calorie restriction (the diets were between 42 and 68 per cent of their normal calorie intake) and weekly counselling, the average dieter managed to drop from 92.2 kilograms to 84.8 kilograms (which means they were still obese – in this trial defined as anything above 81 kilograms). Even the self-helpers managed to drop 2 kilograms!

The good news is that if you can convince Jenny Craig to pay for your food and weekly counselling (don’t hold your breath), you can expect to lose about 7 kilograms in two years. If you started out obese, you’d still be obese and you’d have been starving for two whole years but your pants might fit a little better.

And it seems this astounding lack of success is not a one-off observation.

A 2007 UCLA review of 31 credible long term weight loss studies found that most people on calorie restricting diets (such as that promoted by Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers) initially lost 5 to 10 percent of their body weight. But they also found that the majority of people regained all the weight (plus a bit more) within 12 months. Sustained weight loss was found only in a very, very small minority of participants.

Clearly Jenny Craig understand that since their diet doesn’t work very well, people need to be assured that their inevitable failure is something shared by the best and brightest (by that I mean celebrities, in case it wasn’t obvious).

All of this relies on the punter buying into the myth propagated by the Health and Diet industry that being fat is a character defect. They need us to believe that we put on weight because we are weak willed or lazy (or both). This means that any failure of a diet product is those character defects overcoming our willpower and not that the product was a load of rubbish.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. We are fat because we are addicted to a substance (sugar) which makes us fat. This addictive substance is embedded in everything we eat by the processed food industry so they can move more product (if they could use nicotine they would, but sugar will have to do). We are not fat because we are gluttonous or slothful (or any of the five remaining deadly sins).

If a product doesn’t actually work as promised and the company selling it knows this, then we are well on the way to outrageously unethical (if not downright immoral) corporate behaviour. But I won’t hold my breath waiting for any corporate regulator to do anything about it. Luckily we don’t have to. We have a choice. We can buy into the latest Jenny Craig (or any other diet program’s) weightless yo-yo. Or, we can just stop eating sugar.

Image by Eva Rinaldi from Sydney Australia www.evarinaldi.com (Magda Szubanski) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Stop the Statin madness

By | Big Fat Lies | 9 Comments

It’s official. According to an OECD report released last week, Australians now consume more cholesterol lowering drugs per person than any other developed country. Prescribing rates are 40 per cent above the OECD average. Worse than that, we have tripled our consumption in just the last 10 years.

If you know ten people over the age of 50, then you probably know at least three people taking statins. This class of drugs are now the single most profitable drugs ever made. But they are significantly overprescribed and come with devastating side effects. When unnecessary drugs cause measurable harm, the doctors writing the prescriptions need to check their liability insurance.

Statins are drugs used to lower LDL cholesterol. LDL is often described as bad cholesterol and HDL as good cholesterol. This is because studies have shown that people with proportionally higher levels of HDL and lower levels of LDL in their blood are less prone to heart disease. That message has been pounded home by drug companies because their product, statins, only affects LDL cholesterol.

When a doctor says you have a high ‘bad cholesterol’ reading, they’re talking about your LDL cholesterol being outside a target range of 2.6–3.3 mmol/L. If you get too far out of that range – greater than 6.5 mmol/L (at the moment) – out will come the prescription book and there’s a good chance you’ll be prescribed statins.

The drug manufacturers have met with considerable success driving home this message (via your local family doctor). Australians now spend 1,400 per cent more on statins than they did just two decades ago. The drugs now consume one in every eight dollars spent on medicine by our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS).

And while there is no doubt that consumption of statins will reduce your LDL cholesterol there is no evidence that they will have any effect on your likelihood of suffering a fatal heart attack – unless you are a man who has already survived one.

But ‘men who’ve already suffered a heart attack’ (and lived to tell the tale) is a very small market. The only way statin use could grow as rapidly as it has, was to convince doctors to prescribe them as a preventative measure among people whose only apparent sign of ill health is a higher than ‘normal’ blood-cholesterol reading.

Due to progressive widening of the definition of ‘abnormal cholesterol’, worldwide sales of the drugs broke through the US$ 34 billion mark in 2008. And one of the most popular statins, Lipitor is now responsible for one in every four dollars earned by the World’s largest drug company, Pfizer. But even that is not enough. The marketing machine continues to roll on. Just this month, the latest marketing victory (an arbitrary shifting of the definition of normal) has seen the number of potential users of statins in the US expand by up to 70 percent.

Recent comprehensive reviews of all of the major high-quality trials on statins have concluded that for people without known heart disease (who make up around 90% of those being treated) taking statins did not alter the overall risk of dying at all.

The risk of these people suffering a non-fatal heart attack was 1.6 per cent lower, but that’s an extraordinarily small improvement, especially given the overall risk of death was unchanged. It means that 60 otherwise healthy people have to be treated with statins for five years in order to prevent just one of them suffering a non-fatal heart-disease event. This puts the drugs in the category of being almost completely ineffective for such people. By way of comparison, we need to treat 11 people with antibiotics in order to completely cure 10 of them.

When the data are broken down by gender and age, the results became even less impressive. Statins do not reduce total death rates in women at all. And men aged over 70 (those most at risk of fatal heart attacks) enjoyed no benefits either (indeed they may have been harmed). The only people the drug appeared to help were men aged 30–69 who had already suffered a heart attack, and then only by a very small absolute margin.

If there were no side-effects from statin drugs then this would merely mean that we are all the victims of shameless (and shameful) profiteering. But there is now growing evidence of significant harm.

Statin use increases the risk of developing Type II diabetes by an average of 9% (but it could be as high as 50% in some women). One in ten statin users experience muscle damage with up to 75 per cent experiencing some form of muscle pain. And there is emerging evidence that the drugs are linked to memory impairment.

Going back to our hypothetical 60 healthy people being treated for five years (so that one of them avoids a non-fatal heart attack), at least 1.2 will develop diabetes (who would not otherwise), 6 will experience muscle damage, up to 45 will suffer serious muscle pain and there is a reasonable risk some of them will suffer memory loss. Worse than that, these risk calculations largely come from studies sponsored by the drug companies, so it’s safe to assume they represent best case scenarios.

The evidence of harm has become so clear that last year, the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) required manufacturers to include warnings of these risks on the labels and prescribing information datasheets.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what turns profiteering into negligence. Negligence occurs when someone who owes you a duty of care takes action which they could reasonably foresee would be likely to cause you injury. Are the drug company’s negligent? Nup. They are simply providing a medicine which has been approved by our regulators for sale in very limited circumstances.

No, the legal blame will land squarely at the feet of the professionals we rely upon to first do us no harm. Doctors clearly owe patients a duty of care. And in cases where the likelihood of harm exceeds any potential benefit the prospect of a successful claim becomes very real.

Doctors would be well advised to ensure their use of statins is as conservative as the evidence says it should be.  In general the evidence says they should only be prescribed for men aged 30–69 who have a history of coronary heart disease – a very small subset of the approximately 1 million Australians currently taking the drugs.

Statins are not harmless placebos. They are powerful medications which significantly reduce our body’s ability to produce two of our primary repair molecules, cholesterol and co-enzyme Q10. They should not be handed out like lollies at the school fete. Patients given an ineffectual drug which causes lifelong harm (in the form of Type II Diabetes) will rightly seek redress from the medical professional who prescribed it.

The growing public awareness of the risks and (lack of) benefits to these drugs will almost certainly result in significant litigation in the not very distant future. If doctors don’t wish to be the fall guy for the billion-dollar drug company pay-day then they need to think very carefully about how many of their statin consumers really should be taking the drugs.

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