The Artificial Sweetener Conundrum

Years ago I attended a Weight Watchers meeting in Brooklyn, NY with the lecturer being their public founder Jean Nidetch. She joked about her sugar free gum, sugar free soda and sugar free snacks contributing to “artificial diabetes.” She drew a big laugh but little did she know her comedy may have a ring of the truth to it.

Researchers have now published reputable data that drinking a diet soda daily greatly increases your chances of having a stroke or developing dementia. In an observational study, researchers using data from the Framingham Heart Study Offspring cohort noticed that individuals who drank diet soda and used artificial sweeteners were at an increased risk of ischemic stroke and all cause dementia when compared to individuals of similar age and risk factor stratification that did not use artificial sweeteners. Their data was published in the neurology journal Stroke. This is an observational study which cannot show cause and effect but uses the analogy and theory “where you see smoke there is fire”.

In an unrelated study, researchers looking at how we metabolize sugars noted that consuming artificial sweeteners may lead to larger food and beverage intake and ultimate weight gain. The data was not much better when they looked at individuals who consumed real sugar in sugary drinks. They noted that sugary drinks accelerated the process of aging in cells. This was somewhat in conflict with the original study referenced in which consumption of sugary beverages did not appear to have an association with stroke or dementia.

Clearly the data is confusing as to what to do. Once again moderation with diets with controlled portion size, limited chemical and antibiotic exposure and; rich in vegetables as well as fruits and nuts with a high quality protein seems to be the direction to go. No matter who studies the Mediterranean type diet the results are favorable.

Once again I lobby for nutritional training in the elementary, middle and high schools with healthy cooking and preparation classes as a sound investment for a healthier population in the future. The classes should go as far as teaching students how to create their own gardens and grow some fruits and vegetables on their own for home consumption. We may not be able to impact the adult population in mass but at least let’s give the children a chance.

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Water versus Diet Drinks for Dieting and Weight Loss

Water and many diet beverages quench your thirst and are listed as providing no energy or calories to your daily intake. With this in mind, researchers at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom set up a definitive study to assess the effect of water on weight loss after a meal versus a diet beverage’s effect on weight loss.

Ameneh Madjid, PharmD and associates looked at 81 overweight and obese women with Type II Diabetes Mellitus. Members of the group were either asked to continue drinking diet beverages five times per week after lunch or substitute water for the diet beverages. The researchers found that over a 24 week period, the water group had greater decreases in weight, body mass index, fasting plasma glucose, fasting insulin homeostasis and two hour post-meal glucose readings compared with the diet beverage group.

A similar study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looking at 89 obese women found that after six months the water group had lost an extra three pounds compared to the diet beverage group.

As a clinician, the idea of putting water into your body as opposed to diet drink chemicals makes great sense. There have been some researchers who felt that diet beverages eliminated calories in soft drinks but that users consumed more dietary food and calories when drinking diet beverages as opposed to water.

I will suggest to my patients that they try water instead of diet beverages but remind them that an occasional diet beverage probably will not hurt their long term goals.

Weight Loss May Prevent Recurrent Atrial Fibrillation

Heart - CopyAtrial fibrillation is a chaotic heart rhythm seen generally in patients with an enlarged left atrium chamber of the heart and or disease of the heart valves. The heart beats irregularly in many cases decreasing the effective pumping ability of the heart muscle. Patients with atrial fibrillation tend to form blood clots in the left heart chambers which are at risk to break off and travel downstream especially to the brain causing embolic strokes. Newly diagnosed patients are placed on anticoagulant medications such as warfarin, dabigatrin, rivaroxaban, or apixaban to prevent these clots from forming in addition to medicines to slow down the heart rate and hopefully shift you back to your normal heart sinus rhythm in time. Other patients are forced to undergo electrical shock cardioversion to re-establish their normal sinus rhythm while others require ablation therapy to do the same. Once these procedures and chemical maneuvers have been successful, and many times they are not, patients are placed on medications to maintain the correct rhythm.

At a meeting of the American College of Cardiology, Rajeev K. Pathak, MBBS, of Australia’s Royal Adelaide Hospital, presented data showing patients who went on a diet and lost 10% of their body weight were six times more likely to be free from the arrhythmia without having to use antiarrythmic medication at five years (rate 46% versus 13% with less than a 3% weight loss.) The results were presented at the ACC meeting and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

The study looked at 355 patients who had atrial fibrillation and a body mass index of 27kg/m2 or greater. They were offered a low fat, low carbohydrate weight loss program plus an exercise program at a weight loss clinic. They determined freedom from recurrent atrial fibrillation by using a seven day Holter monitor recording. The evaluations showed that those patients who kept the weight off with less than a 2% fluctuation in weight were 85% more likely to not have recurrent atrial fibrillation or require medication use to control their rhythm.

Lifestyle modification in the form of weight loss is always preferable to the use of medication and procedures. Bernard Gersh, J. MBChB, DPhil, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota was adamant in saying, “Bottom line is this is a very simple strategy for people with atrial fibrillation. They must lose weight.” He went on to say that weight loss should be considered and tried before a patient is sent for an ablation procedure.

It is important to note that this study is an observational study and did not actually prove that losing weight caused atrial fibrillation to disappear. A further study is underway to prove this point. The article additionally did not specify if the researchers discontinued anticoagulants in the weight loss group no longer exhibiting atrial fibrillation.

Benefits of Exercise on Blood Pressure and Prevention of Atrial Fibrillation

Senior Citizens, exercise v2Junxiu Liu, MD, of the University of South Carolina published an article in the September 15 , 2014 edition of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology showing that exercise and improving fitness levels prevented an age related expected rise in patient systolic blood pressure. His study followed 14,000 men for 35 years. Sedentary men started to see their systolic blood pressure rise at about age 46. Men who were fit delayed this rise in blood pressure until they were 54 years of age. The effect on the diastolic blood pressure was even more pronounced when looking at fitness levels. Men with low fitness ratings elevated their diastolic blood pressure to above 80 by age 42. Those men with a high fitness level did not see the rise in diastolic BP until they were beyond age 90. His research suggests that “highly fit men are likely to reach abnormal BP readings a decade later or more than sedentary men.

In an unrelated study published in the same issue, researchers in Texas found that regular aerobic exercise prevented the hearts left ventricle or main pumping chamber from developing stiffness. The stiff ness of the ventricle contributes too many common cardiovascular conditions effecting older patients. They found that low levels of casual lifelong exercise such as four (4) sessions of 30 minutes per week throughout adult hood was sufficient to keep the ventricle from stiffening.

Marco Perez, MD of Stanford University looked at exercise levels in women and the development of the heart arrhythmia atrial fibrillation. He found that sedentary women were much more likely to develop this pathologic arrhythmia than women who exercised regularly. Obesity and being overweight is a risk factor that increases your chances of atrial fibrillation. Regular exercise by obese women reduced this risk by about nine percent (9%).

The message is very clear that keeping moving and being active improves your blood pressure control and reduces your risk of developing many cardiovascular related problems. My advice is find some activity you enjoy doing and make sure you try it several times per week to gain the natural benefits the exercise provides.

Skipping Breakfast May Be Fine For Weight Loss

Scale and foodEmily Dhurandhar, Ph.D, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham is a nutritionist who does not believe in following myths and dogma unless there is sufficient research and evidence to back it up. She recently led a team of researchers who looked at the question of whether skipping breakfast was a hindrance to weight loss. Her group conducted the first controlled randomized study on the topic looking at 309 overweight and obese patients over a 16 week period. Patients were assigned to one of three groups:

1.            An intervention group told to eat breakfast

2.            An intervention group told to skip breakfast

3.            A control group not specifically instructed to do eat or skip breakfast

They were all placed on a caloric restricted diet. The results of the study showed that the only thing that mattered in weight loss was whether your intake of calories was less than calories used during the day. The time of day we first eat had no effect on weight loss in this study.

Dr. Dhurandhar reasoned that none of us actually skip breakfast since our first meal of the day after a prolonged overnight fast is still breakfast. The study only looked at weight loss related to skipping or eating breakfast. It did not answer the other age old dietary question of whether eating a large calorie amount late at night and then retiring affects your weight. For those of you who enjoy sleeping in, this is excellent news.

New Diet Drugs Not Being Used

Diet DrugsA joint survey was conducted by the online medical news service MedPage Today, Everyday Health and The Daily Meal to evaluate physicians’ methods of treating obesity. They surveyed almost 1000 providers and found that the newer drugs such as Qsymia (phentermine/topiramate) are only being used by about 6% and Belviq (lorcaserin) in only 3.3%. Several of the survey respondents cited the high cost of the medications as barriers to use. One provider noted that “middle class (patients) and below cannot afford “these medications so he prescribes generic phentermine 37.5 mg one half tablet each morning with generic topiramate 25 mg twice a day with similar effectiveness.

Fat absorption blockers such as orlistat in it’s over the counter form “Alli” or its prescription form xenical were popular with over 20 % of respondents using those products. Generic phentermine was used alone by 16%. Other medications frequently mentioned included metformin the diabetic drug, and victoza another diabetic drug not yet approved for weight loss therapy.

The majority of the respondents prescribe diet and exercise to begin with. Weight Watchers is their favorite commercial diet with over 75% of those surveyed noting that it works steadily and safely. The South Beach Diet was the clear runner up. When the Atkins Diet was mentioned there was concern and controversy.

In our local clinical practice we are asked frequently about medication to lose weight. The survey did not look at the average age of the patients the respondents treated and their associated medical issues. Locally we have many elderly individuals using multiple medications for heart disease, elevated lipids, diabetes, heart rhythm control and other complex problems. It is much more difficult to find any oral medications for weight loss that do not adversely react with their prescribed medicines or that are not contraindicated due to their underlying medical problems.

Are Diet Sodas Unhealthy for Your Heart?

SodaI was eating lunch reading a report from the American College of Cardiology meetings stating that women who drank two or more diet sodas per day of 12 ounces or more were 29% more likely to have a cardiac event than those who consumed a lower quantity of no more than 3 diet drinks per month. The report was prepared by Ankur Vyas, MD, of the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. The 5% of women with the highest consumption of diet beverages in the Women’s Health Initiative also had 26 % elevated all-cause mortality. Cardiac deaths were 52% more likely with two or more diet sodas or other diet drinks per day.

Jeffey Kuvin, MD, vice chair of the program committee for the ACC meeting, called the results “provocative” but not yet compelling. Clearly these results are convincing enough to plan another study with a larger group and stricter design to determine if it is the caffeine, the artificial sweetener or some other constituent causing this increased risk? Could it be that the individuals drinking two or more diet beverages are already practicing a relatively heart unhealthy lifestyle and are overweight, less active, diabetic, hypertensive and or smokers? This all needs to be determined before we condemn diet beverages. Dr. Kurvin pointed out that sugary non diet beverages are well known to cause weight gain, diabetes and eventually coronary artery disease.

What does one drink then? I chose to have an old fashioned unhealthy sugary soda with my heart healthy lunch. While I was sipping that sweet delicious beverage, but feeling extremely guilty about it, my computer sent me a medical alert, “Soda associated with increased heart attack and stroke risk.”. The soda came flying out of my mouth and nose instantly as if had coughed and it splattered everywhere moments before I read the full message closely and noted that they were referring to cocaine not soda.

This study will surely raise questions from my patients in my practice. I will advise them to avoid diet beverages if possible, just like I advise them to avoid sugary beverages in large quantities if possible. Drink water or drink diet beverages in extreme moderation until the data is clear. Moderation would mean no more than 36 ounces per week.