Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Flu jab ‘can halve heart attack risk’: Vaccine ‘also cuts cardiac deaths and chances of stroke’

Meta-analyses have to be done well to inspire confidence and we have no published data on this one.  Bias in the studies selected for inclusion is their besetting sin.  Still, the conclusion is reasonable.  Flu puts stress on the body and preventing it might well prevent heart attacks too

The flu jab may ward off heart attacks as well as offering protection from the infectious disease, according to a study.  Researchers found that the jab can reduce the risk of a heart attack by 50 per cent and cardiac deaths by 40 per cent.

They said the influenza vaccine could be an important treatment for maintaining heart health and protecting against cardiovascular events, such as strokes and heart attacks.

Cardiologist Jacob Udell and his team looked at published clinical trials on the subject dating back to the 1960s.  ‘For those who had the  flu shot, there was a pretty strong risk reduction,’ he said.

The flu vaccine provided an approximate 50 per cent reduction in the risk of a heart attack or stroke compared with a placebo after one year of follow-up.  The vaccine reduced the risk of such cardiovascular events as well as actual deaths from them in those with or without heart disease.

The combined studies examined a total of 3,227 patients, with an almost  equal split between patients with and without established heart disease.  Half of the participants were randomly assigned to receive flu vaccine.  The others received a placebo vaccine.

Dr Udell said the results provide support for current guideline recommendations for giving the flu jab to those who have previously had a heart attack, but for a different reason than simply reducing flu risk.

While the reason for the link is not clear, Dr Udell said that it may be that when people develop heart disease some factor ‘tips them over the edge’, such as plaque clogging arteries or lower levels of oxygen, as a result of the flu.  The flu vaccine may stop  this by preventing flu, or  by actually breaking up plaque in the arteries.

He said that  he believed a bigger study  would comprehensively  demonstrate the vaccine’s effectiveness to reduce fatal cardiac events.  The research could also boost take-up of the vaccine.

Dr Udell, a cardiologist at Women’s College Hospital and Toronto University, said: ‘The use of the vaccine is still much too low, less than 50 per cent of the general population.  It’s even poorly used among health care workers.  ‘Imagine if this vaccine could also be a proven way to prevent heart disease.’

Dr Udell carried out his  study with a team from the TIMI Study Group and Network for Innovation in Clinical Research.

The findings were presented at the 2012 Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Toronto.


Why traffic light labels on food will make us all fatter AND ruin our farmers

The great British breakfast is about to get a whole lot more complicated, thanks to a new Government-backed ‘traffic light’ food labelling scheme due to come into effect next year.

If you want to pour whole milk on your cereal — as millions of us still do — you’re likely to have to ignore a red label prominently displayed on the carton.  That’s red for stop. Milk, we are told, has too much fat.

It will be the same when we scrape a layer of butter onto our toast. Another red light: too much fat again. Fancy a rasher or two of bacon instead? Sorry, but you’ll have to ignore more red lights: one for too much salt, another for too much fat.

Or maybe you like to wake yourself up with a bowl of creamy yoghurt with some nuts or maybe some prunes. Well, tough. You could be looking at another three red lights — one each for the fat in the yoghurt and nuts, and a further red for the sugar in the prunes.

That’s before you’ve even left the house, and all for a meal that’s been getting people off to work — happy and well fed — for decades.

As my granny used to say, a proper breakfast, by which she meant porridge (eaten with whole milk and sometimes even cream) or something else substantial such as bacon and/or eggs ‘kept you going’, and she was right.

So will we really be able to trust the traffic lights, which will label foods according to the amount of fat, saturated fat, salt, sugar and calories they contain.

Though the actual amounts of those elements per 100g will be shown on the pack, it will be the eye-catching and easy-to-read traffic light graphics most shoppers turn to for guidance.

Red, of course, the traditional colour for danger, means you should probably avoid it, or at least think again because the food has too much of something that the Government considers unhealthy.

Amber means go-ahead, but in moderation, while green is so obvious it will surely become visual shorthand for healthy eating.

It all sounds simple: surely this is the breakthrough so-called health campaigners have sought for more than two decades, which will allow us all to eat more healthily as a result?

Many food and health campaigners — people I often find myself in agreement with — certainly think so. But I don’t. Why?  Because I can’t have faith in a system that sees a can of Diet Coke and a carton of popcorn scoring green lights, the former because it contains little more than colourings and artificial sweeteners and the latter, of course, because it’s mainly air.

And I’m not alone — the nation’s livestock farmers feel similarly aggrieved.  To see so many of these products, together with the ham, bacon and pork from British pigs, being unceremoniously labelled with ‘unhealthy’ red traffic lights must be infuriating.

We ought to be encouraging shoppers to buy British farm produce, not to avoid it.

So the problem with this new system is that it isn’t so much simple as simplistic, and therefore, potentially, highly misleading.

Logically, most naturally produced fruits, for instance, would merit amber or red lights because they have a high sugar content.

Tellingly, the scheme’s proponents accept this and say we should ignore the red light for sugars on fruit. But what sense does this make?  If it’s acceptable to ignore one red light, how long will it be before we’re ignoring all of them, like reckless motorists crashing through a junction?

Equally, if it’s safe to ignore some red lights, how much faith can we place in those green lights: should we ignore the suggestion that they mean something is healthy?

But even more depressing is the fact that the new scheme, despite not yet having come into effect, is already lagging badly behind the latest dietary research.

The idea that fats, and saturated fats in particular, are bad for you is melting away faster than a pat of anchovy butter (red lights for salt in the anchovy and for fat in the butter) on a sizzling slab of rib-eye steak (red light for the fat in that, too).

The truth is our bodies need fat. Saturated fat is a key component of our cells, needed for hormone production and other biological processes. It also acts as a carrier for important vitamins and helps us absorb minerals.

Yet anything with fat in it, including omega-3-rich oily fish we are constantly encouraged to eat for our health, could be branded ‘unhealthy’ by the new traffic light scheme.

So anyone following the traffic light scheme too assiduously, avoiding red meat and other red and amber light foods, could easily end up short not only of essential fats, but protein, iron and key vitamins such as vitamin B12.

Teenage girls, a group that pays close attention to what they eat, and the elderly could easily develop serious dietary deficiencies such as anaemia, fatigue and even brain function problems if they follow the traffic light labels too closely.

Health campaigners have been hammering home their anti-fat message for decades, yet it cannot have escaped anyone’s notice that over exactly the same period, Western nations — with Britain at the fore — have been getting fatter than ever before, with rates of obesity and diseases related to poor diet, such as Type 2 diabetes, rocketing.

The reasons behind this are complex, but there is a growing body of evidence that the changes are linked to official dietary advice which, for decades, has steered people away from foods containing fats and towards foods containing carbohydrates — processed and refined carbs in particular.

While this has been good news for the food processing industry — and, by strange coincidence, so much of what happens with food labelling turns out to be good for the food processing industry — it has been disastrous for our weight and wellbeing.

As any GCSE biology student will tell you, carbohydrates are metabolised by our bodies into sugars, and it is the excess of dietary sugar that is thought to be doing us so much long-term damage.

There’s another problem with these carbohydrate-rich diets. All this cereal, all this pasta, all this easy-cook rice (all likely to be green light foods) doesn’t fill you up for very long or deliver what dietitians would describe as ‘satiety’.

As a result, there are probably two generations who have grown up always feeling slightly hungry and unsatisfied, making them the perfect customers for all those tempting, snacks between meals.

Once again, the food-processing, junk-food companies win out, while trusting shoppers, trying to eat healthily, will be the losers.  Because all those refined carbohydrates have to go somewhere, and normally they head straight to our straining waistbands.

The truth is that food processing companies love food labels, because they can safely own up to whatever is in their processed foods, knowing that the vast majority of us will simply never look at them.

And who can blame us?  Even a qualified dietitian, armed with a calculator and magnifying glass, would struggle to make sense of the bewildering complexities of modern food labelling. So will the new, supposedly simpler labelling finally catch them out?

Not a bit. The food processors can endlessly fine-tune their nutritionally impoverished recipes — cutting here, replacing there, tossing in another additive when the end result doesn’t look or taste very nice — to ensure they get lots of green and amber lights.

But that is something that farmers — the producers of natural foods — really can’t do.  Yes, they can selectively breed animals to reduce the fat content of beef or pork (removing flavour as they do so), but there’s a limit to how far that can go.

As for low-fat cheese and yoghurt, they’re the work of food processors (using skimmed and semi-skimmed milk), not farmers.

Our European counterparts seem to realise the importance of this more than we do.  One of the reasons the new scheme will be voluntary in Britain (that said, under pressure from the Government, all but one of the major supermarkets are committed to it) is that to make it compulsory would have required legislation across the European Union.

French farmers wouldn’t have stood for red lights on their meat or their beloved full fat cheese for a moment, and nor, I suspect, would the French public, who have been enjoying their rich but well- balanced diet for centuries, and — apart from a recent jump in junk-food related obesity — seem no worse for it.

I refuse to believe Mother Nature is some sort of dietary psychopath, and foods we’ve been eating happily for hundreds, indeed thousands of years, are suddenly to be considered unhealthy or even dangerous.

The recipe for healthy eating is very simple — avoid processed food and base your diet on fresh, raw, unprocessed ingredients that you cook yourself.

That’s why I’m so concerned about the new labelling scheme. Those red lights will unfairly stigmatise perfectly healthy, natural foods, while the green lights will offer false reassurance to consumers, rewarding the food- processing companies that make us fatter and sicker every day.

The whole idea should be stopped permanently at its own red light, before it’s too late


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