Tag Archives: nutrition

What Your Naturally Occurring Iron Levels Say About You

Iron: too much and you’re at risk for liver disease; too little and you’re anemic. As much as 18% of Americans use a supplement containing iron, but a new study published in both the Journal of the American Heart Association and PLoS Medicine made connections between naturally occurring iron levels and more than 900 health conditions.

With more than half a million individuals’ genetic data making it possible, the study focused only on naturally occurring iron levels (as opposed to iron levels impacted by supplementation). Genetic variation leads to different levels of naturally occurring iron among individuals, just like genetic variation leads to blonde and brunette hair or short and tall people.

Interestingly, naturally higher iron levels were associated with potential benefits and potential risks that seemed, at least in part, contradictory. 

Potential Benefits of More Naturally Occurring Iron

People with genetic variants leading to naturally higher iron levels were also (on average) associated with having a lower risk of high cholesterol levels. Too much cholesterol and it’ll build up in the arteries and increase the risk of blocking blood flow. More here

Additionally, naturally higher iron levels were associated with a reduced risk of clogged arteries, like what can happen with excessive cholesterol levels in the blood, which can lead to health conditions like stroke, deep vein thrombosis, and atherosclerosis. 

Potential Health Risks Associated with More Naturally Occurring Iron

The study also found that higher naturally occurring iron levels were linked to higher risk of blood clots as a result of slow blood flow. More on poor circulation here

Higher naturally occurring iron levels was also found to be associated with higher risk of bacterial skin infection.

Making Sense of the Results

In a very unsatisfying conclusion, lead study author Dr. Dipender Gill essentially said that there is still a lot scientists don’t understand about how iron levels influence the relationship between cholesterol levels, circulation, and blood flow-related health conditions like stroke, deep vein thrombosis, and atherosclerosis. 

It’s likely that the same genetic variation responsible for different levels of naturally occurring iron influences individual risk for conditions like high cholesterol, poor circulation, or stroke. Perhaps in future studies, Gill and the research team will control for different factors (age, sex, BMI, etc) to see what health differences make higher naturally occurring levels of iron beneficial versus potentially harmful.

Iron Basics*

As a component of hemoglobin, iron helps carry oxygen around to the body’s tissues like the wheels of a taxi carrying humans from point A to point B. In addition to being oxygen’s preferred form of transportation, iron provides support for:

  • Metabolism
  • Growth and development
  • Normal cellular functioning
  • Hormone production
  • Connective tissue production

So yeah, iron is pretty important. But the name of the game when it comes to iron intake is balance. Too much? Liver damage. Too little? Anemia.

Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs) for iron intake vary based on age and, for women, pregnancy status (PSA: these recommendations were developed by the Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) at the Institute of Medicine (IOM) of the National Academies (formerly National Academy of Sciences)).

Image credit: National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements

You can get iron from all sorts of dietary sources. Plants like nuts, beans, and vegetables along with iron-fortified foods contain nonheme iron, while meat, seafood, and poultry contain both nonheme and heme iron, which is more biologically available, or bioavailable, for absorption during digestion. Think of it like this: an amount of iron in a piece of steak is more “valuable” to you than the same amount of iron in your spinach salad. Heme iron gives you more bang for your buck. That being said, vegetarians and vegans need to eat a lot more to get enough iron for good health.

Iron Supplements: Synthetic and Whole Food

The average iron supplement provides 18 mg of iron. However, multivitamins for women most always contain iron while multivitamins intended for men and for seniors often do not. Iron-only synthetic supplements typically deliver more than the RDA, as much as 360% (65 mg). 

Whole food iron supplements usually contain a percentage of iron that’s closer to the RDA, closer to 10%. Ingredients in natural supplements based on whole foods are arguably more bioavailable than synthetic supplements because they imitate how those ingredients are found in nature. So the 10% of iron in a whole food supplement will be absorbed in the body at a higher rate than the 360% in the synthetic supplement. Natural supplements that deliver a nutrient in its “natural habitat” – a whole food matrix. This delivery method is more aligned with what the body needs. Although, ultimately a whole food source of iron is the superior choice to any sort of supplementation.

What other questions do you have about iron? Let me know at ScienceKara@gmail.com

*Courtesy of the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements

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.

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.

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

#ScienceKara is Back

After a 2-month hiatus, I have returned to my beloved science blog devoted to debunking scientific myths in public discourse.

Although I regret that I had to take a hiatus, I am glad that I used the time to get settled in a new location: Charlotte, North Carolina! After an acceptance into a graduate program for Technical and Professional Writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I quickly relocated to the area and looked for a job.

Full-time writing jobs for biology majors are not so common in this area, though (maybe if I was into business or banking it’d be a different story). I did manage to put together a series of gigs to pay the bills and give me some great insight into the potential of my impending career.

First, in June I started writing for LabRoots.com, the leading scientific social networking website and producer of educational virutal events and webinars. I love what I do for this company and truly appreciate their mission of connecting both scientific and non-scientific communities.

Next, in August I started working for SkinnyMs.com, a delightful health and fitness website providing “busy women with easy access to healthy living tools including clean eating recipes, menu planning and effective workouts and fitness programs.” I do social media management and article writing for Skinny Ms., and I love every second of it. I get to learn so much every day.

For a few weeks, I’ll be an after-school program instructor for Mad Science, a national franchise that brings science education to millions of children each year. I get to perform fun scientific experiments 2 afternoons a week to elementary aged children.

Lastly, I am a marketing intern for the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, NC (just a half hour north of Charlotte). This campus, created by David H. Murdock (owner of Dole Foods), miraculously combines public and private institutions based on one mutual goal: enhancing human health, nutrition and agriculture through innovate research and development. As marketing intern, I’ll be writing articles and doing whatever I can to help get the word out to the scientific community and to the public about the aims of this campus.

My passion for telling the truth about science and nutrition only grows stronger each day as I work in these 4 different roles – communicating, writing, and thinking. With your help, we can build a more educated public. Let’s get started. Next post in 30 minutes.

#GoScience  #ScienceKara

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

Gluten: The Protein, The Trend, The Choice

In the five years since her rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis, Bailey Brislin can attest to the increase of gluten’s appearance in public discourse and on social media. A poll I conducted asking 34 random participants various questions about gluten revealed a lot about public opinion and knowledge surrounding the gluten-free trend. Collectively, it seems like these are the two opposing misconceptions about gluten:

  1. Gluten is an unhealthy component of food and should be avoided by everyone
  2. The gluten-free diet is entirely a conspiracy; no one should have to avoid gluten

Although a strong majority of the participants did not actually follow a gluten-free diet themselves, 90% knew at least one other person who did. Two-thirds of these people known to be gluten-free either had celiac disease or another gluten intolerance. Other participants listed their gluten-free friends as simply following the fad or trying “to be healthy.”

“I think people who are gluten free by choice with no medical need for it just don’t understand the science of gluten very well.” Becky Turner, a senior biology major at UNC-Chapel Hill, has often pondered with me the cause behind the growing popularity of the gluten-free diet. “Your diet is your choice, but uninformed choices are causing those who don’t have a choice to suffer from the subsequent bad reputation of being gluten-free.”

Although true gluten-free individuals like Brislin may receive criticism from a few skeptics, at least the growing trend in the gluten-free diet is increasing the number of gluten-free products on grocery shelves. In 2014, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defined “gluten-free” as products containing less than 20 parts per million of gluten (FDA, allergens). However, since this labeling is voluntary, there has been an increase of marketing products as “gluten-free” even though their contents have always been naturally absent of gluten (example: hummus).

Rebecca Houser, a weight-loss consultant with a degree in nutrition science from North Carolina State University, predicts the future of the gluten-free trend: “Unless you have an actual sensitivity to gluten, the hype will die down and we will move on to the next fad diet.”

So, after all of this clarification on what gluten is and who is truly impacted by it, how do we ascertain how the craze began? Ultimately, the beginning of the focus on gluten when talking about nutrition cannot be pinpointed to one study or one patient. However, it is possible and reasonable to think that technology and research have enhanced in the past decade to the point where disorders like celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis are better understood. I hypothesize that it is this increased understanding that has led to a new light being shined upon gluten as a harmful product. When scientists were able to pinpoint gluten as a cause of illness, people with celiac disease and other gluten intolerance disorders begin to eat gluten-free as instructed by their doctors. Friends and family who heard about their lifestyle change may not have connected the aversion to gluten to become healthier with a unique medical condition. Hence, the association of “gluten” with “unhealthy.”

This, my friends, is an example of a classic health misconception. The bigger picture lesson here: ask why. If someone (not a doctor) tells you gluten is bad, do not take their word for it. Do the research yourself – be informed! And if eliminating gluten from your diet makes you feel better, that’s great! Shrug off any criticism. You know how you feel better than anyone else.

Autoimmune Disorders and Gluten Intolerance

Some medical conditions require a patient to eliminate gluten from their diet.

Celiac disease, which affects about 1% of the population of the United States (Mayo Clinic), is an autoimmune disorder based on an intolerance of gluten proteins. Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system attacks particles that are normally not harmful to the body, either ingested food proteins or the body’s own cells.

Celiac disease occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s own cells after gluten is ingested. Specifically, the cells of the small intestine are targeted. Celiac disease-related attacks on the small intestine damage the cells that absorb nutrients during digestion (Celiac Disease Foundation).

Celiac disease is hereditary, meaning it runs in families. The pattern of inheritance is unknown (NIH). However, 95% of people with celiac disease have the same gene specific for celiac disease predisposition (Medscape, Genetics of Celiac Disease).

Rheumatoid arthritis is another autoimmune disorder relating to gluten intolerance. However, gluten is only one of many potential signals that can lead to an autoimmune attack. Rheumatoid arthritis causes inflammation of the joints – resulting in swelling, pain, and decreased movement ability (Arthritis Foundation).

Bailey Brislin, a UNC-Chapel Hill sophomore biology major preparing for medical school, was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis during her first year in high school. “My ankle had been swollen for months. We went to multiple doctors that couldn’t tell me what was wrong,” Brislin recalls of the time before her diagnosis. Finally, an ankle specialist ordered an MRI and referred Brislin to a rheumatologist after blood test results indicated Rheumatoid factor (RF) in her system. RF is an antibody characteristic of rheumatoid arthritis patients as well as people with other autoimmune disorders (Medscape, Rheumatoid Factor).

The next step to calculating Brislin’s proper treatment was a 5-week series of food sensitivity testing. Although the cause of rheumatoid arthritis is not fully known, potential factors triggering joint inflammation are food proteins, pathogens, female hormones, obesity, stress, and other environmental factors (Arthritis Foundation).

The results of Brislin’s sensitivity tests showed intolerance of gluten and dairy: typical occurrences among rheumatoid arthritis patients. After a while, Brislin realized that eliminating gluten from her diet had a much stronger impact on reducing  her joint inflammation than eliminating dairy.

“After a month off of gluten, I felt better. I was able to stop taking pain medication just by eliminating gluten alone,” Brislin says, “but I should be dairy-free too.” Many years later, Brislin still regularly takes immunosuppressant drugs to improve her condition.

After many years of maintaining a gluten-free diet to ensure her joint inflammation does not return, Brislin has also gathered an opinion on the growing trend of a gluten-free diet. Brislin compares people going gluten-free for no necessary reason to people trying a vegetarian diet just to see if they can do it. “There are people glorifying the gluten-free diet. It’s just bread,” Brislin says, in response to people going gluten-free for supposed “just to be healthy” reasons.

“So gluten-free becomes this very popular trend… and I get all of this criticism for being gluten-free. My rheumatologist always talks about how you don’t have to find the specific scientific data you want, just work with what has been proven in your own case,” Brislin says as she describes her encounters with gluten-free skeptics. Brislin experienced the growth of the gluten-free trend from a very unique perspective. She understands the necessity of eliminating gluten from the diet in certain circumstances but is also critical of the diet in other instances.

Her evaluation below perfectly sums up my goal in writing this series on the growing obsession with gluten:

“There are a lot of people who are very healthy who also eat gluten. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with gluten – it’s not an evil food. Not eating a lot of bread is probably a good thing, but stopping eating bread and replacing it with gluten-free bread doesn’t make much sense… I’m not sure what dietary benefits people think that’s providing…”

Stay tuned for my third and last segment of my series on the gluten-free trend. This last post will contain further analysis on the development of the gluten-free trend, data from a poll of opinions about it, and an interview with Raleigh allergist Dr. Vaishali Mankad.