Category Archives: Diet

What is Metabolic Syndrome?

You might have heard the term “metabolic syndrome” and envisioned it as some sort of specific disease, but it’s not quite a “disease” in the typical sense. Metabolic syndrome is better described as a health state in which you are at an increased risk for conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

Metabolic syndrome has been defined in a few different ways. Here are a couple of different explanations:

Depending on how many metabolic risk factors you have, you could be classified as having “metabolic syndrome.” The four health states listed under the NCEP/ATP III definition can be considered as “risk factors” for metabolic syndrome. There are a lot of science-y words in that definition, so let’s break it down.

  • Central obesity: Fat accumulation in the abdominal area, which is particularly associated with obesity and its negative effect on health.
  • Dyslipidemia: Unhealthy levels of lipids (fat) in your body. This could either be too-low levels of “good” HDL cholesterol, too-high levels of “bad” cholesterol “LDL,” or too-high levels of triglycerides (TGs) – a type of fat saved as energy when your body can’t use all of the calories you’ve consumed.
  • Hypertension: It’s basically common knowledge that high blood pressure isn’t a good thing, but why is that again? When you have high blood pressure, it means your heart and arteries are working extra hard to pump blood through the body. Remember, blood carries nutrients and oxygen that all of your cells rely on to survive.
  • Insulin resistance: People develop type 2 diabetes when their cells form a resistance to insulin. Insulin is the hormone that facilitates the use of glucose for energy, so when cells aren’t responding to it, glucose levels in the blood increase. High blood glucose levels cause a myriad of problems, plus it means that your cells aren’t getting the glucose they need.

Mechanisms Behind Metabolic Syndrome

Metabolic changes leading to heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension don’t happen overnight. Lifestyle choices like diet and physical activity levels play a huge role in metabolic syndrome development, but some factors are unavoidable. For example, risk for metabolic syndrome increases with age.

Physiological changes in the body as a result of certain lifestyle choices like poor diet and low exercise levels lead to underlying, systemic inflammation, and oxidative stress. These metabolic changes are what ultimately lead to conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension.

Prevent or Manage

A healthy diet and active lifestyle can help prevent metabolic syndrome (and a lot of disease, really), but these qualities can also help manage metabolic syndrome if you’ve already started to develop it. Healthy food and physical activity support the liver and help your body better manage glucose.

For example, antioxidants found in micronutrients and phytonutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene can address oxidative stress. Antioxidants also promote healthy glucose metabolism and diabetes prevention, and they are associated with reduced risk of heart disease.

Ultimately, the solution here isn’t shocking. Eat healthy food. Be active. Reduce your risk of metabolic syndrome.

(*drops the spinach*)

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To Supplement or Not to Supplement: That Is the Question

TIME reported on a new study this week that ultimately concluded that taking nutritional supplements is not the same as eating a healthy diet. Researchers report that you cannot be truly healthy without getting your nutrients from the source – from fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods.

My first thought: We call them “supplements” for a reason, right? They are intended to be “supplemental” to a mostly healthy diet. They are “supplements” not “replacements.”

A second thought: Not all supplements are created equal. I’m certainly not an expert on what makes a nutritional supplement effective or not, and I’m not sure how the scientists from this study qualified a “supplement,” but I do feel compelled to mention briefly the philosophy behind the nutritional supplements produced at Standard Process, my current employer.

An SP Aside

Standard Process produces nutritional supplements using ingredients from their organic farm in Palmyra, Wisconsin. Unlike other supplement companies, they boast a whole-food philosophy. This is based on the science of a whole food matrix, the idea that macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, protein), micronutrients (vitamins, minerals), and phytonutrients (carotenoids, resveratrol, etc.) are the most bioavailable/biologically active/effective when they are consumed in the natural “matrix” in which they are found in nature. This separates Standard Process and other companies with a similar whole food philosophy apart from supplement companies that simply extract vitamin D or beta-carotene and insert them into a capsule to sell as a supplement.

That being said, I should clarify that my personal philosophy is food first, supplements second (if at all). We may not know for sure what types of supplements are most effective or if any are effective at all at improving nutrition, but you certainly can’t go wrong with getting your nutrition straight from the source (plant foods).

Okay, let’s talk about this new research.

TIME reporter Jamie Ducharme begins the story with two important facts:

I think it’s fair to extrapolate from those two statistics that many of those 90% of Americans that do not eat enough fruits and vegetables are among the 75% who are taking dietary supplements, likely because they know that they aren’t getting enough nutrients from their diet. Fair – it’s certainly easier to pop a pill than to get enough servings of leafy greens every day, but those 75% might be wasting their money on supplements that aren’t giving them the nutrition they really need.

The Study: Annals of Internal Medicine

The study’s main point is this: “nutrients consumed via supplements do not improve health and longevity as effectively as those consumed through foods.” Pretty simple. Supplements are not as good as food. Anyone surprised?

More specifically, researchers report that nutrients consumed through supplements are not as strongly associated with living a longer life as nutrients consumed through food. The data comes from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2010, including 30,000 American adults as participants who were followed for about six years (at the end of this period, there were more than 3,600 deaths).

Researchers factored in monthly supplement use and dietary habits when establishing nutrient levels for each participant. This data initially led them to the result that dietary supplements are associated with a lower risk of early death, but that result did not hold true with researchers factored in certain other details about the participants: education levels, socioeconomic status, and demographics. After controlling for these variables, researchers found that it was mostly the higher-income and better educated people who were taking supplements, and this group is on average more likely to be healthy anyway. Put another way: for this group, it wasn’t supplement usage that was improving health, it was the impact of wealth and education on health (another story for another day).

The study showed that sufficient consumption of micronutrients like vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper are associated with a lower risk of dying early, but only when obtained from food – not supplements.

Researchers even mentioned potential negative health associations with supplement usage. For example, high doses of calcium via supplement was associated with a 53% higher risk of dying from cancer compared to people who did not take supplements. Excess calcium from food did NOT have that association.

Regulatory Considerations

I think it’s important to note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not does not regulate nutritional supplements as tightly or in the same way as “conventional” foods and drugs are regulated. Whether it’s safety or efficacy that one is worried about, the regulatory difference is a significant factor.

Supplements for Specific Populations

Lastly, I’ll highlight that the study scientists did mention that nutritional supplements may provide positive health benefits particularly for two groups:

  • The elderly: because the ability to absorb nutrients from food can decrease with age
  • People with dietary restrictions (allergies, vegan, vegetarian, etc.): because they are more likely to have nutrient deficiencies from lacking certain foods

Take-home Points

  1. While I acknowledge that it’s certainly easier said than done (I struggle in my own life), I agree with study co-author Fang Fang Zhang (Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy) when she recommends that instead of relying on nutritional supplements, people should just eat a healthy diet rich with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  2. There’s always more to the story. That’s why I included my SP aside earlier. The conclusion is never going to be “all supplements are bad” or “all supplements are good.” There are so many factors that affect what makes an effective nutritional supplement, and the only way to truly determine what’s effective and what’s not is to follow reputable research like this study from Zhang and others at Tufts University.

History of Dietary Recommendations in the United States

In some shape or form, as early as the 19th century Americans have been making dietary recommendations and heeding advice provided by experts.

Early 20th Century

Chemist Dr. Wilbur Olin Atwater’s 1904 publication “Principles of Nutrition and Nutritive Value of Food” was based on:

  • Variety
  • Proportionality and moderation
  • Measuring calories
  • An efficient, affordable diet focusing on nutrient-rich foods and less fat, sugar, and starch

Soon after the initial discovery of individual vitamins in 1910, nutritionist Carolina Hunt’s 1916 “Food for Young Children” created new categories: milk and meat, cereals, vegetables and fruits, fats and fatty foods, and sugars and sugary foods.

Mid-20th Century

The first Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) were created in 1941 for calories, protein, iron, calcium, and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, and D. RDAs are now defined as the “average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all (97%-98%) healthy people.” The Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academy of Medicine also defined “adequate intake” (AI; “established when evidence is insufficient to develop an RDA and is set at a level assumed to ensure nutritional adequacy”) and “tolerable upper intake level” (UL; (maximum daily intake unlikely to cause adverse health effects”).

From 1943 to 1956, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced the “Basic 7” a nutritional guide devoted to maintaining standards during wartime food rationing:

  • Green and yellow vegetables
  • Oranges, tomatoes, grapefruit, cabbage, salad greens
  • Potatoes and other vegetables and fruits
  • Milk and dairy products
  • Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas, nuts, peanut butter
  • Bread, flour, cereals
  • Butter and fortified margarine

Late 20th Century

The list was condensed down to the “Basic Four” between 1956 and 1992:

  • Vegetable and fruits: 4+ servings recommended daily
  • Milk: 4+ servings for teens and 2+ for adults
  • Meat: 2+ servings
  • Cereals and breads: 2-4 servings

In 1992 came the Food Guide Pyramid, with a particular focus on expressing the recommended servings of each food group based on their location within the pyramid. The first version of the infamous pyramid-shaped chart featured fruits and vegetables as the biggest group. But pressure from the grain, meat, and dairy industries led to the final version of the chart featuring brain, cereal, rice, and pasta as the foundation of the pyramid. The Food Guide Pyramid was replaced with “MyPyramid” in 2005, which reverted to colorful vertical wedges and a running ascending the stairs to highlight the importance of exercise.

21st Century

The USDA’s current nutrition guidelines take the form of “MyPlate” – an initiative which began in 2011 and concentrates on five key food groups:

  • 30% grains
  • 30% vegetables
  • 20% fruits
  • 20% protein
  • Small portion of dairy

Additional recommendations include:

  • Portion control
  • Eat whole grains
  • Drink fat-free or low-fat milk over full-fat milk
  • Eat less sodium
  • Drink more water and less sugar-sweetened drinks

Key criticisms of MyPlate stem from the fact that the chart does not highlight plant sources of protein like beans and nuts. A similar but more plant protein-centric chart is Harvard’sHealthy Eating Plate,” which was created in response to deficiencies identified in MyPlate.

This century-long saga of changing recommendations depicts the fickleness of nutrition science and the unfortunate influence of the food industry on governmental dietary recommendations. We’ll never know the full story, but it is likely that nutrition experts in the early nineties involved in developing the Food Guide Pyramid knew full well that the bulk of your plate should be green (i.e. veggies) and not tan (i.e. bread and pasta). But influence from other food industries kept the Food Guide Pyramid from being 100 percent reliable. Who knows how this affected the obesity epidemic that currently plagues our country…

I hope you’ll excuse my rant and accept assurance that I am of course aware that there are a lot of other factors exacerbating the issue of obesity (processed food, fast food, sedentary living and working, etc.). None of us were “in the room where it happens” back in the early nineties (yes, that’s a Hamilton nod), so we can’t say for sure why the Food Guide Pyramid was developed in the way that it was. I also think I’m particularly sensitive about this era of government dietary recommendations because this is the guide that I grew up with, and it was the first major educational exposure I had to what a healthy diet looks like.

All in all, I do think that MyPlate is a great tool and shows that nutrition science (and the USDA) are moving in the right direction. My hope is that nutrition science and governmental recommendations will only get better and more accurate. Plus, did you hear about recent legislation proposed by democratic Congressman Tim Ryan to create a National Nutrition Institute under the National Institutes of Health? So cool.

What’s Killing Us? What We’re NOT Eating

Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017
The Lancet

All the major news media outlets are reporting on this story today as if it’s some big surprise. But is it really surprising that a diet high in sodium, processed food, and sugary beverages and low in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables leads to millions of deaths worldwide?

The new study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and published in The Lancet yesterday, investigated the burden of a diet devoid of healthy foods and its effect on non-communicable diseases.

Non-communicable diseases, also referred to as chronic diseases, are those that are the result of “genetic, psychological, environmental, and behavioral factors,” opposed to being caused by bacteria or other microbial agent. For example, you don’t “catch” heart disease from someone – you develop the disease as a result of factors like what you eat and what genes your parents passed on to you.

More on non-communicable diseases from the World Health Organization.

Researchers evaluated consumption of major foods and nutrients across all of the world’s 195 countries in adults 25 and older, analyzing how a diet lacking healthy food impacts mortality and morbidity.

Note: I didn’t realize that there were 195 countries in the world until I googled it to see how many countries were missing from the study. Here’s one of many resources that said 195 is the correct number.

They took a “comparative risk assessment approach” that accounted for:

  • Intake of each dietary factor
  • Effect size of dietary factor on disease endpoint
  • Level of intake associated with the lowest risk of mortality

Diet factors include:

  • Unhealthy red and processed meats
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Trans fatty acids
  • Salt
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Milk
  • Calcium
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fiber
  • Legumes and beans
  • Omega-3 fatty acids and other polyunsaturated fatty acids

They found that the top three dietary risk factors associated with non-communicable disease are high sodium intake, low whole grains intake, and low fruit intake. These three dietary factors account for more than half of all deaths attributable to diet.

The report showed that the same risks associated with poor dietary choices affected people regardless of age, sex, and “sociodemographic development of place of residence.”

Finally, the study calls attention to the importance of acting in light of these and other similar findings. Experts call for dietary interventions based on evidence, a way to evaluate health and efficacy of dietary interventions on a regular basis. Past efforts have focused largely on salt, sugar, and fat. While high intake of those things definitely isn’t good for health, the current study highlights a second issue, one that now seems more important: yes, lowering intake of salt, but also increasing intake of healthy foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based options.

The Fitbit Philosophy

I bought a Fitbit before my trip to Germany because I wanted to see how many steps we walked each day (and pat myself on the back for all of my 10,000+ days). I have the Fitbit Charge (2?) – the one with the clock display that connects with your phone and reads your texts and notifies you when you have an incoming phone call. I also like to call it “the poor woman’s Apple watch.” It has a plethora of features you can read about on Fitbit.com, but I mostly use it for:

  • Counting steps (more often making myself feel bad for not reaching 10,000 than celebrating for reaching 10,000)
  • Telling the time/date
  • Reading text messages during meetings
  • Looking at my active minutes

This is relatively normal Fitbit activity, and what I really want to talk about today is something I’ve been calling “the Fitbit Philosophy.”

‘If you run three miles but you forgot to wear your FitBit, did you really run three miles?”

You know what I’m talking about. It’s that feeling of disappointment you get when you pull yourself out of bed in the morning or stop at the gym on the way home from work before realizing that you forgot to wear your Fitbit. Yes, you’re going to have an invigorating workout, but your steps, active minutes, calories burned, etc. won’t be calculated and counted by your Fitbit. You won’t get to mentally high-five yourself all day every time you check the time. You won’t get to speak the not-so-humble brag “I’m killin’ my steps today” to coworkers who smile weakly and clearly couldn’t care less. You won’t have the satisfaction of getting a “head start” on the ultimate goal advertised by the Fitbit world – 10,000 steps (on my 10,000+ days this usually occurs around 10:00pm while I’m walking the dog or climbing the stairs to my room one last time. ‘Is that a phone call I’m receiving? No, the computer on my wrist following my movements all day is notifying me of my ten-thousandth step with vibrating fireworks and other celebratory effects.’).

The Fitbit philosophy is born from the classic Fitbit marketing position: walking/running at least 10,000 steps a day will make you a healthier individual, and regularly wearing a Fitbit will help remind you to achieve that goal. There is a lot of research on exercise, physical activity, nutrition, and weight loss, so I’m not writing today trying to say that I have all the answers on fitness and how to lose weight and be healthy. But there is one scientist whose research I’ve read a lot of, and I’ll cite him.

David Nieman, DrPH (Doctor of Public Health), has dedicated his career to the field of exercise immunology, and currently he is the director of the Appalachian State University Human Performance Lab at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, just 30 minutes north of Charlotte.

One of Nieman’s studies (from 2016) found that splitting up long periods of intensive exercise into 3-4 ten or fifteen minute sessions is just as healthy as completing one bout of exercise. For some people, exercising in short bouts as opposed to longer sessions actually reduces the amount of post-exercise unhealthy inflammation, muscle damage, and overall stress on the body.

The Data*

75 percent of the people I polled on the Fitbit philosophy have a Fitbit. Here are some reasons why:

  • Calculating calorie intake and calorie expending
  • Motivation to make healthy choices
  • Insight into running workouts and heart rates
  • Earning badges and competing in challenges

For those who did not own a Fitbit, here are some reasons why:

  • Cost too high
  • No desire for fitness direction
  • Preference for maintaining fitness and health without counting calories

Two-thirds of Fitbit owners wear their device every day. The other one-third only wears the device when they happen to remember to do so. All of the Fitbit users had reached the goal of 10,000 steps at one point in their lives:

Over half of Fitbit users feel the sense of “my exercise doesn’t count today” when they forget to wear their Fitbit.

*I’m going to keep my poll open and update the data section as new responses come through

It’s also important to remember that walking 10,000 steps per day won’t necessarily help you lose weight – eating a balanced diet with lots of vegetables and fruits is just as important as (if not more than) regular exercise. If you’re almost completely inactive and obese, walking 10,000 steps would probably make a huge difference. But the more weight you lose, the harder you have to work to continue losing weight – with regular exercise and healthy diet choices. For exercise to make a big difference on weight loss, it really needs to be 45-60 minutes per day, and your heart rate need to be elevated for most of that time.

Read more on this.

Body Love

All that being said, I like to remind people (and myself!) that eating healthy food and exercising regularly is about more than just losing weight – it’s about being healthy and feeling great – physiologically and mentally. Yes, for many people losing weight is a step to being healthier, but in our society (so focused on numbers and standards – think BMI, everyone is different), I think there is always room for a reminder that being healthy isn’t only about what you weigh. In fact, as a foodie, I definitely believe in the mental health factor of eating your favorite foods (for me? Bojangles, fine cheeses, ice cream) and drinking your favorite drinks (for me? Red wine, craft beer) from time to time. What’s life without a little bit of flavor?

Ever wondered, “Why 10,000?” Here’s a comprehensive article from Mayo Clinic on that.

Just for fun, here are some other Fitbit thoughts:

#TFW your 3:50pm 250-step reminder from Fitbit corresponds with your afternoon trip to the toilet

When you and your deskmate at work both check your Fitbits at ten minutes to the hour, you’ll make eye contact but remain speechless. For you both already know it’s step o’clock.

It’s a text message! It’s an Outlook calendar alert! No, it’s 4:50pm and you’ve barely moved in the last hour.

When you know the “step counting technology” is imperfect, because Fitbit says you walked 15 steps but you know for a fact that you’ve been sitting so long, you’ve actually walked -32 steps.

Do you have an “Appetite for Life?”

The University of North Carolina Nutrition Research Institute (NRI) hosts regular events as a part of a program they call “Appetite for Life.” It’s an initiative to “unlock the promise of personalized nutrition for proactive health management.” In other words, their mission is to show people how to eat for their health, specific to individual genetics and environmental experiences.

zeisel-afl

The speaker at the event on September 13 is Steven Zeisel, MD, PhD, and Director of the NRI. Zeisel is world-renowned, a pioneer in the field of personalized nutrition. A nutrient you’ve probably heard of, called choline, is essential for human health, especially concerning pregnant women, and Zeisel is the scientist credited with this discovery.

“I’m not going to tell you what to eat today,” Zeisel says as he begins his talk. Tonight’s event is called “Genetics and Health: Your nutrition needs are as unique as you are,” and the venue, local eatery Restaurant 46, is packed with members of the local community and employees from the neighboring North Carolina Research Campus (NCRC), a 350-acre research center located in Kannapolis, North Carolina.

Zeisel goes on to describe the true meaning of personalized, or precision, medicine and the past, current, and future studies the NRI has in place to make personalized medicine a reality for everyday people concerned with their health.

“Diet can be changed to bypass nutrient deficiencies depicted by the genetic code,” Zeisel goes on. He starts by breaking down the specifics of nutrition science, starting with genetics. He describes single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), common genetic variation that occurs uniquely in all humans, as “spelling errors” in the DNA. Considering that a majority of the audience have a limited understanding of current genetics, Zeisel presents his description of SNPs in an accurate yet simplified manner. After all, what’s the point of talking about bringing personalized medicine to the public if the lay people can’t understand what you’re talking about?

img_0500

Zeisel and his colleagues at the NRI are preparing for the future of genetic testing, a technology they predict as being able to sequence an individual’s genetic code to provide a complete record of specific “spelling errors” in the DNA that might make the individual at risk for certain nutrient deficiencies. Being aware of nutrient deficiencies would then allow the individual to change their diet to eat more or less of a certain type of food.

There are companies that exist now, like 23andMe, that can provide genetic information from a DNA sample. However, the product a 23andMe customer gets in return for their money and a cheek swab is just pages and pages of combinations of “AGTC” that’s essentially meaningless unless the customer also happens to be an expert in nutrigenetics with a lot of free time.

Zeisel goes on to talk about choline, folate, and other studies from the NRI and other institutions concerned about health and nutrition. He leaves plenty of time for community members to ask their own questions, many about their health and the health of their loved ones.

The NRI’s story is far from over, but after a while questions subside. For now, people head home with a new perspective on individualized nutrition. The next Appetite for Life event is now something to look forward to, a talk by NRI scientist Stephen Hursting on October 18.

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Images from UNC NRI and Kara Marker

What’s the deal with probiotics?

When I googled “probiotics,” the first couple of sites that showed up (after two paid ad links for probiotic supplements) were WebMd, MedicineNet, LabDoor, MayoClinic, and Wikipedia. I’m not necessarily saying that these sites are illegitimate and shouldn’t be trusted. I am however saying that the link that showed up after these results, a link to the National Insitutes of Health, is by far more trustworthy than those other sources. I’ll continue about probiotics next, but the first lession here is this: What you read and what media you trust as “the truth” will make a huge difference in what you believe and the educated choices you make. Some people/institutions just want to make money. Make sure you are trusting the sources whose contributors desire to educate the public, not make a profit.

Let’s continue with some facts.

What exactly are probiotics?

The NIH Center for Complementary and Integrative Health lists probiotics as live, beneficial bacteria that have a positive impact on human health. You may have seen the words “contains probiotics!” on your favorite brand of yogurt or on dietary supplements. Although it is possible to ingest products with probiotics in them, most people with normal immune systems already have probiotic bacteria already residing in their bodies.

This popuation of naturally-occuring, beneficial bacteria in our bodies is referred to as “gut bacteria,” “the human microbiome,” “our microflora,” and more. Essentially, you should know that there’s millions of bacteria living in you, helping you with digestion and metabolism, contributing to overall homeostasis, and boosting your immune system when harmful pathogens invade the body. These colonies of diverse bacteria are handed down to us during childbirth from our mothers.

Consuming extra probiotics via supplements, yogurt, or other dairy products has the potential to enhance the diversity of bacterial growth within our bodies. However, probiotic foods and supplements need a certain population size to achieve the desired effects of boosting the immune sytem, enhancing digestion, etc. A lot the high-priced supplements you see on the market may not have a high enough concentration of probiotic cultures to make a difference in your health. Some probiotic cultures in these supplements may not even be alive anymore. Even more, according to the NIH, these dietary supplement claiming to provide probiotics “do not require FDA approval before they are marketed.” 

What should I believe?

Studies on probiotics continue to this day. North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University’s Center for Excellence in Post-Harvest Technologies recently published a probiotic study in the Journal of Nutritional Health and Food Engineering in July. These scientists showed that two polysaccharides, xanthan and carrageenan, could enhance the resiliency of probiotic cultures in food products and dietary supplements. Xanthan and carrageenan are commonly used as food thickening agents in products like gum. Their chemical composition enable them to be energy sources to bacterial metabolic activity.

If you’re not a science person, the previous paragraph might have gone over your head. What you should know (and this is true in a lot of realms of biomedicine) is that nothing is certain I.E. dietary supplements and dairy products claiming to have beneficial amounts of probiotics. Is yogurt dangerous? No! But don’t pay extra for products claiming to have health benefits that aren’t completely scientifically proven. Even the NIH adds that “there are certain uncertainties about the safety of probiotics…there isn’t enough information right now.”

The North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, North Carolina investigates the functionality of probiotics. The NCA&T Center for Excellence in Post Harvest Technologies recently published a study showing how additive ingredients make probiotic cultures more viable. Check out the article here.

That’s all on probiotics for now. If you have any questions, feel free to send me a tweet @ScienceKara, or an email – kmarker2@gmail.com.

#ScienceKara #GoScience

FDA Alert On Cilantro From Puebla, Mexico

The recent report of a cyclosporiasis outbreak from cilantro plants is not the first to be issued. Outbreaks also occurred in 2012, 2013, and 2014, all pointing to cilantro from the Mexican state of Puebla.

Cyclospora cayetanensis is a protozoan pathogen that specifically infects humans (cyclosporiasis). Protozoan infections are generally more difficult to treat than bacterial or viral infections since protozoa are eukaryotes, just like us. Fewer anti-protozoa treatments exist since there are more similarities between humans and protozoa (and thus less unique targets for drugs) than there are between humans and bacteria (bacteria are prokaryotes – because there are so many differences between human cells and bacteria cells we have a lot of targets for antibacterials).

Cyclosporiasis infections cause diarrhea (like other food-poisoning-related illnesses). In addition to being infected directly from eating contaminated cilantro, people can also become ill through contamination from feces of someone already infected.

Since 2013, the FDA has investigated “11 farms and packing houses that produce cilantro in the state of Puebla” and found 8 farms to either be carrying C. cayetanensis or to be exhibiting dangerous conditions capable of harboring the parasite. The FDA report said these suspect farms contained “human feces and toilet paper found in growing fields and around facilities.”

Because of these findings, the FDA concluded that cilantro products from Puebla are “subject to refusal of admission,” meaning companies receiving cilantro from Puebla can refuse shipments without examination. It is important to note that this FDA report does not include “multi-ingredient processed foods” containing cilantro (only fresh cilantro, intact or cut/chopped).

For the next couple of months if you are buying fresh cilantro, make sure to check the origin of its cultivation. Until the FDA lifts the alert on cilantro from Puebla, it’s not safe to eat. However if you do develop food-poisoning symptoms after eating cilantro, you will be okay. Refuel your body with electrolytes and water – and maintain strict hygiene! You want to flush the parasite out of your system without infecting anyone else.

 

#ScienceKara #GoGuacamole

For more on this issue, check out the following resources:

LabRoots Coverage

Direct access to FDA report

The Truth About Antioxidants

Continuing with my series devoted to uncovering the truth in health trends, today I am going to discuss a common feature of food advertisements. Antioxidants are compounds that delay some types of cell damage, which is why they are portrayed as healthy in certain food ads. Foods with antioxidants are also marketed to prevent disease, like in this Fitness Magazine article about healthy eating:

http://http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/recipes/healthy-eating/tips/top-antioxidant-healthy-foods/

Although this sounds good when making a smoothie purchase, knowing the facts about antioxidants is imperative to truly understanding what benefits you are reaping when potentially paying extra for food containing antioxidants. Does a diet high in antioxidants truly prevent disease? Read more to find out.

Look familiar?
Look familiar?

Don’t worry. Everything you thought you knew about antioxidants is not a lie. Vegetables and fruits are major sources of these substances. Research done at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has shown that people maintaining a regular diet high in antioxidants are generally the healthiest population. However, the same research cannot conclude that it is the action of the antioxidants that is preventing disease in the lives of these people. Other factors under consideration are “other components of these foods, other factors in people’s diets, or other lifestyle choices.”

In addition, similar studies showed that antioxidants did not help in the prevention of chronic disease like cancer and heart problems. In fact, high doses of supplements like beta-carotene were actually shown to increase lung cancer risk in smokers, and high doses of vitamin E supplements increased risk of prostate cancer. That being said, it seems the antioxidant consumption follows the theme of “healthy in moderation.” In addition, consuming your daily dose of antioxidants will always be better through eating an apple or some broccoli, as opposed to an artificial supplement.

My next question to explore is this: How exactly do antioxidants prevent cell damage?

An "Antioxidant Recipe" (image source: Viosan Health)
An “Antioxidant Recipe” (image source: Viosan Health)

When you metabolize food into energy your body can use or when you exercise, unstable molecules called “free radicals” are formed. Free radicals are also present in the environment from sunlight and from air pollution. Free radicals are dangerous because they trigger oxidative stress, which can then cause cell damage. The danger surrounding oxidative stress revolves around a chemical imbalance in the body and a failure to detoxify the effects of free radicals (News Medical). Still confused? Check out this creatively organized video by Active Beat that explains the connection between free radicals, oxidative stress, and the action of antioxidants:

Essentially, antioxidants help counter the harmful effect of oxidative stress due to high free radical levels in the body (hence the name anti-oxidant). Without the counteractive impact of antioxidants, oxidative stress is shown to increase risk of chronic diseases (cancer, heart problems) and age-related diseases (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Macular Degeneration).

Not sure what macular degeneration is? Check out this article here:

http://labroots.com/trending/id/1410/inhibiting-mast-cell-degranulation-a-new-therapy-for-macular-degeneration/health-and-medicine

Take-away messages from this blog post:

  1. Antioxidants are not bad. Just get as many from fruit as you can, and don’t overdo it with your vitamin supplements.
  2. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” may or may not be true – scientists aren’t actually sure if it’s specifically antioxidants in “healthy” foods that prevent disease. It could very well be that people who keep high amounts of fruits and vegetables in their diet are much more likely to also exercise regularly, drink less alcohol, and participate in other destructive habits like smoking.
  3. When you’re at the grocery store and are convinced to purchase something because of a label promising healthy antioxidants (or any other current health trend for that matter), know what you are spending your money on. Shop smart, know your food!
Fruit and vegetable juices are popular choices for antioxidant intake. These particular bottles of V8 also advertise no high fructose corn syrup. See my previous blog to find out why HFCS isn't so bad.
Fruit and vegetable juices are popular choices for antioxidant intake. These particular bottles of V8 also advertise no high fructose corn syrup. See my previous blog to find out why HFCS actually isn’t so bad.

For a complete analysis of antioxidants, check out this NIH page where I got most of my information for this post:

https://nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants/introduction.htm

#ScienceKara

The Truth About High Fructose Corn Syrup

In 2010, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) began producing TV commercials defending and promoting the usage of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as a sweetener. What is it about HFCS that gave it a bad reputation in the first place? My guess is that it’s the “syrup” part. That word doesn’t exactly scream “healthy.” Regardless, I’ve done the research and made my conclusion about HFCS – read more for the answer! For now, check out of the CRA’s promotional advertisements:

First, let’s think about what HFCS is. What makes it different from table sugar?

In the 1970s, there were increased taxes on sugar but subsidies on corn, “making it a much cheaper sweetener than table sugar” (American Chemical Society). Using advanced chemical processes, sweetener manufactures began to break down corn into corn starch, then into corn syrup, and then into glucose, a monosaccharide (basic building block of carbohydrates). However, fructose (also a monosaccharide) is naturally sweeter than glucose, so they broke the glucose down even further. Think about it like this:

Corn diagram

Table sugar is sucrose, a polysaccharides (poly = many, polysaccharides = many monosaccharides). The connection: there’s no nutritional difference between using sucrose as a sweetener verses using fructose! My information comes from a video produced by the American Chemical Society on March 31, 2015 and seen on BusinessInsider.com just last week. Check it out here:

Does it seem like I’ve made it pretty clear that HFCS is no worse than sugar to sweeten your favorite foods? I hope so, because that was my goal. However, the topic has historically been controversial in the medical community. On his blog in 2014, Dr. Mark Hyman strongly criticizes HFCS as a sweetener option and condemns the CRA for funding a commercial campaign to promote the safety of HFCS as a viable sweetener. Hyman’s main points denouncing HFCS are two questionable claims:

  • HFCS consumption causes obesity, diabetes, and other problems
  • HFCS contains mercury

First of all, Hyman should not be so quick to shun HFCS for causing obesity. Table sugar (sucrose) does the exact same thing when overconsumed. The key is that both HFCS and sugar are acceptable sweeteners when used in moderation. HFCS is included by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the list of “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) food. The FDA also states that they “are not aware of any evidence… that there is a difference in safety between foods containing [high fructose corn syrup] and foods containing similar amounts of other nutritive sweeteners with approximately equal glucose and fructose content, such as sucrose, honey, or other traditional sweeteners.”

The FDA is undoubtedly reliable, but if you would like to hear more about the claim that HFCS contains mercury, Dr. Jim Laidler explains in further detail in this short video:

http://sweetsurprise.com/hfcs-faqs#108

In addition, the video produced by the ACS and posted by Business Insider cites multiple reliable scientific journals, including a study published in Advances in Nutrition just two years ago.

The average American consumes 23 tablespoons of sugar a day, when you should consume less than 10 (According to the video)! Whether you are eating food sweetened by table sugar (sucrose) or high fructose corn syrup, the dangers of overconsumption are the same. Eat your sweets in moderation!

Sources: American Chemical Society, Corn Refiners Association, United States Food and Drug Administration, Business Insider