Health News Digest

heart disease

January 11, 2016

Did Cavemen Get Heart Disease?

By Michael D. Shaw

In some ways, this piece is a follow-up to last week’s article. For starters, the much-delayed 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines are now available! The politics of food being what they are, don’t expect too much from this work. Indeed, few people–other than the nutritionists who put it together–are terribly pleased with the content.

Here are the key points, with commentary added…

1.     Cut way back on sugar–even if they give a blank check to fruits, which can contain plenty of the stuff, albeit “natural.”

2.     Eggs are OK. You mean dietary cholesterol does not affect serum cholesterol? Great work, guys, since this has been known since the 1930s. Heck, Ancel Keys, who created the saturated fat/cholesterol = heart disease meme admitted as much 25 years ago. Still, the Guidelines warn us about high cholesterol foods, as they are often also high in sat fat.

3.     As to sat fat, we are told to limit this to 10 percent of your calorie intake. Never mind that there really is no science connecting sat fat or cholesterol with coronary heart disease. A meme is a meme, after all. Good guy Malcolm Kendrick, MD discusses a devastating study that should put a stake through this nonsense, but probably won’t. In the process, Kendrick reminds us of Karl Popper’s black swans–a fun read.

4.     Limit sodium to 2300 milligrams per day. This is very bad advice, as low salt diets are known to be harmful, and the supposed anti-hypertensive properties of low salt are ludicrously de minimis. Another ridiculous meme based on no data, and contradictory to hundreds of studies.

Dr. Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, said the science behind the Guidelines is weak and that these are really a best guess. “They give broad recommendations and broad ranges,” he said, calling the science inadequate and calling on the government to conduct well-controlled studies that ask the right questions.

Right, Steve, all you need to do is find thousands of people you can observe 24 hours a day to make sure they are eating what they tell you they’re eating. Maybe, you could almost do that in a penal population. On the other hand, you can simply look at what the low fat craze has wrought. In the words of Gary Taubes: “We put the whole country on a low-fat diet, and–lo and behold–we have an obesity epidemic.”

Which brings us to the cavemen. It was probably inevitable that the quest for the perfect diet would meet up with the myth of the Noble Savage. In this romantic affectation, we are presented with an idealized concept of uncivilized man, who symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization. The central conceit of the so-called paleo diet, as expressed by Mark Sisson, is that “while the world has changed in innumerable ways in the last 10,000 years (for better and worse), the human genome has changed very little and thus only thrives under similar conditions.”

The paleo diet eschews grains and dairy, and to the extent that it is low carb and free of overly processed foods, has healthy aspects. Advocates insist that caveman’s diet and lifestyle made him practically immune to the modern ravages of coronary heart disease. Nonetheless, there have always been at least two major problems with this “paleo” concept. Paleolithic man’s diet varied greatly, depending on the region, and many of the foods available then are quite different these days.

Alas, an even bigger problem has emerged. According to a 2013 article in The Lancet, entitled “Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations”—

[A]therosclerosis was common in four pre-industrial populations, including a pre-agricultural hunter-­gatherer population, and across a wide span of human history. It remains prevalent in contemporary human beings. The presence of atherosclerosis in pre-modern human beings suggests that the disease is an inherent component of human ageing and not characteristic of any specific diet or lifestyle.

Of course, the diet/heart Kool-Aid drinkers are having none of it. Unmoved that the research team included cardiologists, radiologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists, they disgrace themselves arguing against this gigantic black swan: Either the disease observed is not really atherosclerosis, or the diet is not really “paleo”–given the too recent (only 4000 years ago) time frame.

But, according to the Ebers Papyrus, dating back to 1550 BC Egypt: “If thou examinst a man for illness in his cardia, and he has pains in his arms, in his breast and on one side of his cardia…it is death threatening him.”

So much for the Noble Savage. And yes, sharks surely do get cancer.