Tag Archives: heart disease in women

Mummies had heart disease

An Egyptian mummy kept in the Vatican Museums.

Image via Wikipedia

Even the ancient Egyptians had heart disease.  I’m not sure why this is such a surprise, but the researchers who conducted the study seemed to be very surprised.

Traditional medical thinking on heart disease goes like this; heart disease is caused by eating too much fat, mainly from meat, and a sedentary lifestyle.  That’s basically it.  Yes, there are other risk factors to take into consideration like smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc, but talk to your average medical doctor and they will tell you that eating high levels of animal fat coupled with too much TV is a recipe for disaster.

I couldn’t disagree more and this new study confirms my thoughts.  I agree that lack of exercise is a big issue with heart health.  That one is not debatable.  I also agree that smoking, high blood pressure and diabetes are big players.  I disagree that eating too much animal fat is a problem.

Dr. Greg Thomas is part of a team of scientists that recently discovered the earliest known case of atherosclerosis — clogged arteries — in ancient Egyptian mummies.

Dr. Thomas said, “Our hypothesis was that they wouldn’t have [heart disease], because they were active, their diet was much different, they didn’t have tobacco.”

One of the mummies the team scanned was a princess in her 40s, who presumably ate fresh food and wasn’t sedentary. “That she would have atherosclerosis,” Thomas says, “I think we’re missing a risk factor.”

According to scientists the ancient Egyptians had access to meat, but not a lot of it.  Their diet consisted mainly of fruits, vegetables and grain.

Perhaps the problem isn’t meat.  I would contend that a diet high in grains, as is the case with the pharaohs, could lead to atherosclerosis.  Grains are high in the inflammatory group of fatty acids called omega-6.  Meats are also high in omega-6s.  The difference? When grains are consumed the hormone insulin is secreted which funnels all of the omega-6s in that meal into a very potent pro-inflammatory pathway.  It is this inflammation that leads to heart disease.  When one consumes animal fat no insulin is secreted thereby allowing those omega-6s to actually be driven into a protective and anti-inflammatory pathway.

I also have a problem with the assumption that a princess in ancient Egypt was not sedentary.  If you look throughout history, the upper class has been historically, well, lazy.  They’ve had slaves, servants and serfs to do everything for them.

The combination of low activity levels and a diet high in grain leads people to be unhealthy.  A person does not need to be overweight to be unhealthy either.  There are plenty of people in this country who are considered to be ‘healthy’ in terms of body weight but are actually not very healthy at all.

In my opinion, the fact that an ancient Egyptian princess had atherosclerosis is not earth shattering.  Human physiology has not changed over the last 2,000+ years.  A diet that is high in grains, whole or otherwise, will lead to a pro-inflammatory state.  This pro-inflammatory state will lead to heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s to name a few.

If you want to avoid heart disease, or any other inflammatory disease for that matter, make sure grains are a smaller part of your diet.  Get your carbohydrates from fruits like berries and eat plenty of vegetables.  Make sure you consume plenty of protein as well.  Eat the diet of our ancestors from 10,000 years ago not 2,000.  That’s before human beings learned to cultivate grain, mill it and refine it.  Once that happened, as was the case in ancient Egypt, inflammatory diseases began to rise including atherosclerosis.


Filed under Diet, Public Health

Refined Carbs Boost Heart Disease in Women

A new study conducted in Italy showed that women who ate more processed carbohydrates such as rice, white bread

High glycemic foods cause a sharp rise and fall of blood sugar (and insulin). This makes it difficult to regulate appetite, weight and many other health factors.

and pizza have 2.25 times the risk of developing heart disease.

Interestingly enough, this trend was not seen in the men involved in the study.

The study lead by Sabina Sieri of the Fondazione IRCCS Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori, a national institute for cancer research in Milan, Italy analyzed data from a large, ongoing study of nutrition and cancer risk. The researchers surveyed roughly 48,000 Italian adults about their diets in detail, noting the amount and types of carbohydrates they consumed on a regular basis. (People with diabetes, who have abnormal levels of blood sugar and insulin, were excluded.) Not surprisingly — the study was conducted in Italy, after all — bread, pasta, and pizza were common sources of carbs.

They found that high glycemic foods were highly associated with heart disease in women.  The glycemic index of a food measures the affect it has on blood sugar and, therefore, insulin.  A food with a high glycemic index causes a very rapid and steep spike in blood sugar and insulin and a low glycemic food causes a slow, more gradual effect.

Glycemic Scores

The glycemic index ranks the food with a numeric scale.  It ranks on a scale from 1 to 100 how quickly (or slowly) carbohydrates affect your blood-sugar levels. (White bread scores 100.) Foods that rank below 55 are considered to have a low glycemic index and produce only small fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin levels; foods that rank above 70 are said to have a high glycemic index and tend to cause unhealthy spikes in blood sugar. Along with these spikes of blood sugar come spikes in insulin as well.

This study followed participants for a span of 8 years and found a relationship of refined carbohydrates and heart disease in women but not men.  Why?  I have a couple of theories.

Why Didn’t It Affect Men?

It is known that refined carbohydrates lower HDL levels (good cholesterol) and raises blood fats called triglycerides.  It is also known that this occurs slower it men than it does in women.  It is likely that the period in which they followed the participants was not long enough to produce heart disease in men.  I suspect if this was a 25 or 30 year study we would see similar rates of heart disease in women and men attributed to refined carbohydrates.

Secondly, men have significantly higher muscle mass than women do.  Why is this important?  This muscle mass serves as a reservoir for sugar in the body.  It stores sugar in the form of glycogen for use later.  It does not store days worth of energy, more like hours.  However, it may be enough to offset the effects of higher glycemic foods over shorter periods of time.  This effect, however, is likely minimal over intervals of time like 25 or 30 years.  Eight years is probably not enough time to offset this advantage that men have.

High GI foods are known to be detrimental to health.  Documented studies have shown that high GI foods increase the risk of several chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.

If you’ve read this blog before you know that I am not a huge proponent of carbohydrates.  I believe that they should be a smaller portion of the human diet and that when they are consumed, they should be of the low glycemic variety.

What are the benefits of low GI carbs?

  • Low GI diets help people lose and manage weight
  • Low GI diets increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin
  • Low GI carbs improve diabetes management
  • Low GI carbs reduce the risk of heart disease
  • Low GI carbs improve blood cholesterol levels
  • Low GI carbs can help you manage the symptoms of PCOS
  • Low GI carbs reduce hunger and keep you fuller for longer
  • Low GI carbs prolong physical endurance

What are examples of low glycemic foods to consume?

  • Ezekiel Bread
  • Lentils
  • Raw Apples
  • Quinoa
  • Barley
  • Chickpeas
  • Grapefruit
  • Couscous
  • Raw milk
  • Sweet potato

The above list is, of course, not all encompassing.  There are many more foods that fit in this category.  I always recommend, however, that my patients never make any of the above their entire meal.  It should be roughly 30%-40% of their meal.  The remaining calories should be from protein and healthy fats.

Keeping your carbohydrates low in the diet is the best way to stay healthy.  Study after study continues to confirm this.  If you are looking to lose weight and improve your health you should go after those carbs and get the high glycemic ones out!  You may leave the low GI carbs in, but always in balance with protein and healthy fats.

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Filed under Diet, Public Health