Statin users may be mistaking the cholesterol-lowering drugs for a free pass to pig out. New research published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people taking statins in 2009 and 2010 consumed 10 percent more calories and 14 percent more fat than statin users did 10 years prior. By contrast, calorie and fat intake among non-statin users stayed the same over the decade. This suggests that, rather than eating a heart-healthy diet, many patients think popping a pill is all they have to do to stave off strokes, heart attacks, and cardiovascular disease.
"Since we didn't see increased calorie or fat intake among non-statin users, our findings may mean that people on statins aren't trying as hard to eat healthy," says Dr. Martin Shapiro, co-author of the study and an internist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "Once you see your LDL [bad cholesterol] levels fall from taking a statin, it's human nature to become less careful about what you eat. You might think it's okay to go for that ice cream sundae or eat lots of steak."
But getting lax on diet can have huge cardiovascular consequences beyond high cholesterol, says Shapiro. According to his research, along with consuming more fat and calories, statin users today have higher body-mass indexes and more diabetes than those taking the drugs a decade earlier. So although statins are helping people get their cholesterol in check, by not watching what they eat, they may be developing other, equally serious risk factors for heart disease.
"Besides cholesterol, statin users also need to pay attention to elevated blood pressure and triglyceride levels, which can occur if you don't eat a healthy diet and exercise," says Dr. Neil Stone, a professor of medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "Job number one is sticking to a healthy lifestyle. That means eating a diet that's high in fiber, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes and low in high-fat animal and dairy products. You also have to watch your portion sizes and exercise regularly. This study is a powerful wake-up call for people to whom statins have given false sense of security."