On 5th December 2013 I travelled to London to give a talk at the Cardiovascular Research Trust’s Symposium on Diet, Active Lifestyle and Cardiovascular Health.
My presentation was entitled The Lifestyle Heart Study: 23 years on, how far have we progressed? I was interested to ask the audience if anyone had heard of the Lifestyle Heart Study before, and quite surprised when only Professor Singer – who had read my abstract – put his hand up. We are starting from the beginning in Europe and the UK: it goes to show that important knowledge does not always easily cross the Atlantic. I have written in more detail about my talk in a separate post, here.
The late afternoon was given over to the 2013 Healthy Heart Awards, co-ordinated by Wendy French. These are awarded annually to schools that have produced creative works relating to what the heart is and how to keep it healthy. The four schools that won this year made a variety of colourful, entertaining and insightful artworks, poems and games. These were all on display and the children themselves made a special visit to the Medical Society of London to receive their certificates and meet the grown-up delegates.
The awards were given out by Professor Ramon Estruch, from Barcelona, who also gave an interesting presentation detailing the results of his PREDIMED study looking at the efficacy of eating a Mediterranean diet for cardiovascular disease prevention. You can read more about this study here: Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet.
Donald Singer, Professor of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Warwick and trustee of the Cardiovascular Research Trust, spoke about what does and does not seem to work in the world of weight loss, reviewing some of the fad diets out there and also some of the more sensible ideas.
Other speakers included Professor Dame Carol Black, Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge, who gave a talk entitled Working for a Healthier Tomorrow, about engaging employers and leveraging workplaces with healthier lifestyle initiatives, and Professor Chris Imray, a vascular surgeon from Coventry, who used his experience of altitude medicine to draw a parallel between the metabolic demands of climbing and those of undergoing major surgery, and to make an argument for reducing peri-operative mortality through pre-operative fitness assessments and subsequent preparatory training.
The event was sponsored by Venture Life, a company that is “currently developing a line of food supplements that reduce serum LDL cholesterol by an average of 10% in as little as two to three weeks. The supplements will be available in a capsule presentation, ensuring the correct dosing amounts. The key ingredient works by displacing cholesterol molecules to reduce absorption into the bloodstream.”
Dr Ingmar Wester, research and development director at Raisio in Finland, gave a related talk about the benefits of plant sterols and stanol esters (that’s Benecol, and its compatriots, to you and me) in reducing blood cholesterol. He showed us his own blood lipid profile, which although improved after he started consuming Benecol, unfortunately remained above the safe level (4.0 mmol/l – see here for more details on this) for ensuring that heart disease does not develop.
My understanding is that plant sterols and stanols work by preventing cholesterol from being absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream by competing for binding sites (because they are structurally similar to cholesterol, but without its harmful effects). They certainly do seem to be effective in this, and if you want to have your cholesterol and eat it too then go ahead and buy Benecol.
It is worth noting however that cholesterol only exists in animal foods, and so if you do not consume animal foods you do not need to consume Benecol. It makes perfect sense that not consuming the disease-causing agent in the first place will be more effective in lowering blood cholesterol than eating it and then trying to prevent it from entering your system with expensive “functional” foods.
So my apologies to Dr Wester, but my advice? Just eat plants – they are much better for you than margarine.