Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Money isn't Everything, but…

According to new research, the less you earn, the more stressed out you are. Wealthier people also had more friends, the study found. This forces us all to rethink the image of high-paid executives living lonely lives with a crushing load of stress

The study, published in the journal "Psychosomatic Medicine," and
reported by MSN Health, found that, regardless of race, age, sex or weight, the level of stress hormones in a person's body goes up as their income goes down.

The study also found that poor people smoke more, don't eat breakfast as often, and have "a less diverse social network" than rich folks. "Having a strong social support network is known to reduce stress levels, and eating breakfast regularly is regarded as an indicator of overall healthy behavior."

"Every upward step in socioeconomic status increases the likelihood of better overall health," one of the study authors told MSN.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Skip the Asprin, Pick up the Rolling Stones

Music can reduce chronic pain and depression according to research published this week in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, and reported by the BBC and EurekAlert.

According to the BBC report, listening to music can lower chronic pain by 21 percent and depression by 25 percent.

My first question when reading this was, how can you measure pain? Over at EurekAlert, I learned that study participants rated pain on a scale of one to ten. Pain is a very subjective thing, and a "complex phenomena," explains the BBC.

One researcher told the BBC, "The perception of pain is very complicated, and is influenced by factors such as emotion, experience and mood." The researcher concluded that, "it was possible that music simply provided a distraction which stopped people concentrating on their pain," reports the BBC.

Additional benefit
The BBC article also pointed out that, "previous research published in the same journal found listening to 45 minutes of soft music before going to bed can improve sleep by more than a third."

So, next time you have a back ache, or can't sleep, skip the Advil or the Ambien and reach for the play button on your stereo.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Seven Grocery Shopping Tips

Marion Nestle, author of "Food Politics" is back with a new book, "What to Eat: An Aisle-by-Aisle Guide to Savvy Food Choices and Good Eating." For a sneak peak, you can check out a recent LA Times feature where Nestle accompanies a staff writer to the grocery store.

The basic premise is that Americans are victims of a massive conspiracy that confuses their decisions when it comes to making healthy food choices. According to the LA Times, "[Nestle] blames the powerful food industry's brilliant marketing, federal agencies interested in supporting that industry, and supermarkets," for the confusion.

At the supermarket level, Nestle explains that you might as well be walking into a casino. Everything from the positioning of essential food items to the music is designed to make you spend, spend, spend.

One example is the positioning of milk and other basics like produce and bread. In most grocery stores, these healthful items are at the fringes of the supermarket while unhealthful things like candy and soda clutter the center of the store, read the LA Times piece. As far as the music, it's usually "slow background music… designed to make you linger."

While you're lingering, consider these seven tips from Nestle:

  1. Yogurt's not a health food. "The amount of sugar in these things is staggering," says Nestle. "I call these desserts," she told the LA Times.
  2. When it comes to buying fish, "try to buy wild, not farm-raised."
  3. For produce, buy local, rather than organic, "because the longer it takes to move a food to where you buy it, the less 'fresh' it is.
  4. Looking for a healthy loaf of bread? "Find loaves stating they're 100 percent whole wheat, listing whole wheat flour as the first ingredient, and with at least 2 grams of fiber per ounce."
  5. On the cereal isle, look to the top shelves. "Companies often pay to get their wares placed at eye level, and those that can afford that are usually large companies selling cereals with added sugar in attractive boxes."
  6. If you like orange juice, the pulpier, the healthier, "because nutrients stick to the fiber in the pulp."
  7. And when it comes to eggs, "you don't need to pay a premium for brown eggs. Nutritionally, they are no different than white eggs."

Happy shopping.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

New Weapon in Battle Against Weight Gain: Sleep

In a 16-year study, scientists found the longer you sleep, the less weight you put on, reports CNN. And it doesn't take much. The difference between five hours and seven hours of sleep per night is pretty amazing: 33 pounds or more.

What' more amazing is that women in the study that slept less also ate less, but still managed to gain more weight, said one of the study researchers. While women that slept less exercised slightly less, study researchers told CNN, " it didn't explain the magnitude of our findings.

The study was conducted on 68,183 women by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. It started in 1986, and then followed up with the women every two years.

According to the CNN report, "those who slept 5 hours or less each night were 32 percent more likely to gain a significant amount of weight (adding 33 pounds or more) and 15 percent more likely to become obese during 16 years of follow-up than women who slept 7 hours each night."

Despite the findings, scientists are at a loss to explain the relationship between sleep and weight gain. The article described to possibilities. One, the right amount of sleep may boost the number of calories that your body burns while resting (the basal metabolic rate).

Another possibility is sleeps relationship to something called "NEAT" (non-exercise associated thermogenesis). In plain English, that means, "involuntary activity such as fidgeting or standing instead of sitting," read the CNN piece. It sounds strange, but people who sleep more do more fidgeting which leads to more burning of calories. Enough to keep 33 pounds off over 16 years? It will take more research to tell.

In Brief: Chocolate, Booze & Cigarettes

Recent reports show chocolate can make you smarter, a drink-a-day works mostly for men and cigarettes are more addictive than we originally thought.

Need a mental boost? Try chocolate.
CNN reported last week on a study that finds substances present in chocolate like theobromine, phenethylamine, and caffeine have "stimulating effects, which then lead to increased mental performance," according to one of the study's authors. What's interesting is that wasn't dark chocolate, but milk chocolate that showed the best results. So does this mean that we should scale back efforts to pull junk food out of elementary schools? I suppose it depends on what you think is worse: expanding waistlines or lower test scores.

More good news for men who drink daily
Results of a Danish study show that men who have a drink daily "had a 41 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease,"
reports the BBC. Men who only indulged in a single drink per week showed just a 7 percent drop in their risk for coronary heard disease. For women, it doesn't matter if you drink weekly or daily. According to the BBC report, " In women, the risk of heart disease fell by a third with a weekly drink but did not fall further in daily drinkers." But the challenge still remains: can you stop at just one drink? Good luck.

Cigarettes: The story gets worse every day
One of TIME's health blogs, The Daily Prescription, is reporting on a new study which finds that, "the residual effect of smoking a single cigarette for the first time could last for as long as three years." Then it goes on to suggest, " Teachers, health professionals, parents and other adults might help kids from becoming smokers by trying even harder to keep them from that first cigarette." But will that do any good? Doesn't that just make the forbidden fruit look even sweeter? Why not try saying, "go ahead and smoke, kid, but then you [enter favorite smoking-is-the-dumbest-habit-you-could-pick-up fact here]."

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Vegetarian Diet is Better for Environment

What's the difference between a vegetarian and a meat-based diet? How about 1.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year? That's the finding of a report from the University of Chicago reported by Discovery Channel News. One-and-a-half tons is about the difference between driving a Honda Accord and a Chevy Suburban every year.

Most Americans are clueless when it comes to the environmental impact of their diets. The reality is, about 17 percent of all the fossil fuel we burn through goes into food production, then up into the atmosphere. But not all food is created equal. It takes about 10,000 calories from grains to get 100 calories from meat-- say, from beef. So, according to the Discovery Channel News report, "if you choose to cut out the middleman (the cow) and get your 100 calories directly from the grain, you only have to grow one-tenth as much grain."

The impact of a meat-based diet isn't just coming from the tailpipes of trucks and other farming equipment; it's also coming from animal waste. This waste produces methane and nitrous oxide which contribute to global warming, according to a report by ScienceDaily on the University of Chicago study. "An example would be manure lagoons that are associated with large-scale pork production," Gidon Eshel, one of the study authors, told ScienceDaily.

Now, if you're one of those people that think you're doing something pious by eating fish, think again. In the ScienceDaily report, it was revealed that some commercial fishing, "required energy-intensive long-distance voyages." In the end, the studies authors found that, "the impact of producing fish came as the study's biggest surprise," reported ScienceDaily.

And the news gets worse. In the Discovery Channel News story, they briefly explained that developing nations like China were "shifting to an animal product diet." The implications of this could be dire. In one of the greatest articles that I ever read online -- "The Oil We Eat," by Richard Manning and published by Harpers in June, 2004 -- it was said that, " if all of the world ate the way the United States eats, humanity would exhaust all known global fossil-fuel reserves in just over seven years."

Friday, May 26, 2006

Nature's Perfect Killing Machine: The Prion

Most diseases are caused by a virus, bacteria or fungus-- things that you can usually treat with modern drugs. One exception is Mad Cow Disease (otherwise know as BSE), which is caused by the mysterious prion. What's a prion? Both indestructible and fatal, prions are nature's perfect killing machine

According to Wikipedia, prion is short for "proteinaceous infectious particle." If I'm reading the entry right, these are naturally occurring proteins that are somehow mutated into brain-rotting monsters. At PBS's "Nova" website, there's
a feature on Mad Cow disease where one expert says, "[prions] affect the brain, disrupting or destroying neurons in large numbers, which inevitably leads to the death of the infected animal."

Frighteningly, scientists can't say exactly how prions replicate and that's part of the reason they can't say how to destroy them. And believe me, they've tried. According to the "Nova" Mad Cow feature, not chemicals, enzymes nor radiation can destroy prions. This leads them to believe that prions do not contain nucleic acid. And that's odd, because genes are made of nucleic acid, thus they are considered the blueprint of all living and pseudo-living things; from viruses to giraffes. But not prions.

The good news is that Mad Cow disease appears more-or-less contained. According to an article from earlier this month
in the San Diego Union Tribune, the last major outbreak of Mad Cow was in the U.K. and peaked in 1993. Here in the U.S., the USDA said recently, "the data shows the prevalence of BSE in the United States is extraordinarily low," reports the Seattle PI.

Then again,
reports from just last week say more Britons than originally suspected may have been affected by the BSE outbreak in the early nineties. BSE can lay dormant for decades, so it's difficult to tell how big the problem is.

One thing is for sure: medical science ought to figure out how prions behave and how to destroy them before a new threat emerges.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

From Toilets to Taps

The LA Times recently reported on how some communities are using "purified wastewater" to "partially recharge" aquifers. Depending on whom you ask this process is either referred to as "showers to flowers" or "toilets to taps." Either way, the thought of drinking water that once went down some stranger's toilet is enough to give anyone pause.

But is there anything unhealthy about it? In southeast Los Angeles, 3 million people have been drinking treated sewage for 34 years. And since they're still drinking it, I doubt anyone's died from it or gotten sick. (The LA Times didn't report any related sicknesses or deaths.)

This is probably something that everyone in Los Angeles, and other communities in desert regions, will someday have to get used to. For some, that day will come sooner rather than later. By the end of 2007, 2 million people in north-central Orange County will be drinking from an aquifer that's pumped with 70 million gallons of cleansed wastewater a day.

Obviously, there's plenty of opposition to this business of sending "purified wastewater" to kitchen taps. In one case, Miller Brewing company stopped a plan to expand the southeast LA program which would have affected the water they use for brewing. Clean or not, can you imagine the Coors ad campaigns? All they'd need is a black screen and a few choice words: "Miller Beer Comes from Toilets. Seriously. Look it up."

This whole issue comes down to this…
Populations are growing, water supplies are not, and purified wastewater provides a good solution. But I don't think people should be forced to drink treated sewage if they don't want to.


So here's my solution…

Make natural-source water more expensive. In the future, when you sign up for water each year, you choose either a) water from a natural source or b) treated sewage. The natural-source water would not be supported by any government-backed infrastructure or subsidies; the treated sewage, however, would.

No, I'm not an economist and yes, this is a half-baked idea. But I do believe that man's desire for wealth is one of the few things that can save him from self destruction. For example, if gas prices weren't so high, SUVs would still be selling like crazy, the President never would have admitted that the U.S. is addicted to oil and talk of "hydrogen highways" would be science fiction fantasy, not mainstream political dialogue.

The big difference is, cruising hydrogen highways sounds cool, drinking recycled toilet water does not. But I guess that's part of living in a growing society, you take the good with the bad.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

You Call that a Cancer Vaccine?

National news headlines this week have been abuzz with headlines trumpeting a "cervical cancer vaccine." But is it really a vaccine against cervical cancer? No, it's not. I believe drug companies billed the drug as a cancer vaccine for marketing purposes and the press took the bait.

Headlines from
Los Angeles to India duped readers like me into thinking a vaccine against cancer had been discovered. "FDA Urged to Approve Cervical Cancer Vaccine," read the LA Times. A headline in India's The Hindu proclaimed, "Cervical cancer vaccine 'will protect older women too.'" But if you actually read the stories you'll find that this vaccine doesn't protect against cervical cancer, but a sexually transmitted nasty called the human papilloma virus or HPV.

True, HPV is responsible for 70 percent of the 15,000 annual cases of cervical cancer diagnosed in the U.S. each year (it kills 4,000 and is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women), according to the LA Times report. But the LA Times also reveals that HPV is responsible for 50 percent of genital wart cases as well.

So why don't headlines say, "FDA Urged to Approve Genital Wart Vaccine," or "Sexually Transmitted Disease Vaccine 'will protect older women too?'"

It's all marketing, folks.

The advertising wizards at drug companies Merck and GlaxoSmithKline probably anticipated the lukewarm response to a vaccine that protects against genital warts; and they were brilliant enough to know that social conservatives would fight tooth-and-nail to scuttle any drug that made sex any safer than it already is.

Does that sound ridiculous? Well, here's the lead from a
Washington Post article published last October, "A new vaccine that protects against cervical cancer has set up a clash between health advocates who want to use the shots aggressively to prevent thousands of malignancies and social conservatives who say immunizing teenagers could encourage sexual activity."

No, calling the drug a cancer vaccine wasn't enough to avoid the controversy all together, but it's probably enough to build a critical mass of public support to get the drug approved. And maybe, just maybe, to the chagrin of social conservatives, this vaccine could become mandatory. Billed as a vaccine against cancer, how can it loose?

For the record, the only news source I found with an accurate title online was NPR. At their website, a story on the vaccine had a headline that read, "FDA to Review Vaccine for Cancer-Causing Virus."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Are Multivitamins a Scam?

A National Institutes of Health committee investigated multivitamins and concluded that, "too few studies exist to say with any certainty whether the products are useful," reports WebMD.

When I started this blog, I didn't intend to focus on news challenging the things that health-obsessed Americans (including myself) do so they can sleep at night -- for example, skipping red meat, drinking green tea and eating soy products. But this kind of news seems to be everywhere and its hard to resist.

The latest news, on multivitamin supplements, is mixed. Basically, it's a lack of information that's fuelling the federal committee's skepticism. “The science base is especially thin with respect to the health impact of multivitamins,” said J. Michael McGinnis, MD, a senior scholar at the National Academies of Science

Misconceptions about multivitamins may rest in who's actually taking multivitamins. According to the WebMD article, "some studies suggest that more health-conscious people are the ones who take vitamins in the first place."

Panelists on the federal committee did endorse three specific supplements: antioxidants for preventing macular degeneration, folic acid (taken by pregnant women) for lowering the likelihood of birth defects and calcium (combined with vitamin D) for building bone density in women.

Can a multivitamin harm you? Yes. Some ingredients in multivitamins can be dangerous in large concentrations, said the report. For example, vitamin E, zinc, selenium, iron and vitamin D (which can cause an unsafe amount of calcium to collect in your blood). Look out for niacin as well. As reported by WebMD, "11 percent of vitamin users exceed safe levels of niacin intake, putting them at potential risk for liver problems."

I think we can glean the same lessons from this report as the recent reports on soy beans and green tea: there is no silver bullet in the quest for good health and moderation is key.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

To Stay Healthy, Eat Red Meat & Load up on Ice Cream

Two separate studies show that red meat reduces blood pressure and low fat diets have no affect on cancer or heart disease.

Combined with recent news that the health benefits of green tea and soy beans have been discounted, one begins to wonder what the definition of "eating healthy" is anymore.

Eat your steak
In Australia, new research reported by The Australian found substituting red meat for bread lowered the blood pressure of study participants by 20 percent. How could this be? Two things: salt and amino acids (protein).

Red meat has less salt in it than bread. And while
scientists still debate the relationship between salt and high blood pressure, it's likely that salt (or something common to high-salt diets) raises blood pressure.

As far as protein, previous research shows increasing protein can lower blood pressure. I learned this while reading about
a study at News.BBC.co.uk earlier this year. The study actually dealt with how diets rich in vegetables lowered blood pressure. But the BBC's story explained that amino acids -- which are common in both vegetables and meat -- can dilate blood vessels, thus lowering blood pressure.

What about fat?
While you're reaching for a steak, go ahead and snag some french fries, ice cream and maybe a doughnut, too.
The New York Times reported on a study this year finding low-fat diets don't cut down on your risks for heart attacks, strokes, colon cancer or breast cancer.

And this wasn't just any study. Citing the research's size and funding, one doctor called this "the Rolls-Royce" of studies, reports the Times.

Unfortunately, the study's scientists and others interviewed by the Times were short on specifics. The most poignant comment came from Barbara V. Howard, an epidemiologist and principal investigator in the study: "We are not going to reverse any of the chronic diseases in this country by changing the composition of the diet… people are always thinking it's what they ate. They are not looking at how much they ate or that they smoke or that they are sedentary."

In other words, health is a very complex thing and no single factor -- not even ones so broad as diet, activity level or smoking -- can be blamed for any disease. Well, maybe smoking can. But that's another blog entry.

Monday, May 15, 2006

'One of the Classic Mistakes in the History of Science'

For the last 100 years, science told us that lactic acid caused that burning sensation that you get when you're pushing yourself in an exercise routine, but as the New York Times reported today, it turns out science was wrong. Science may have figured out the whole earth-revolves-around-the-sun thing, but it's failed us when it comes to lactic acid and the way our muscles process energy.

It all started with Noble laureate Otto Meyerhof about 100 years ago. Using a bizarre experiment where he sliced a frog in half, then used electric shocks to make one of the parts move, he wrongly surmised that "lack of oxygen to muscles leads to lactic acid, leads to fatigue," read the Times piece.

For the next century, through dozens of Olympics, a couple of World Wars and man landing on the moon, this understanding of lactic acid in muscles guided the workouts of millions. From P.E. teachers telling students to squeeze lactic acid out of their sore muscles by stretching to Olympic coaches submitting their athletes to lactic threshold tests, it turns out they were all mislead.

According to the New York Times, "Lactic acid is actually a fuel, not a caustic waste product. Muscles make it deliberately, producing it from glucose, and they burn it to obtain energy. The reason trained athletes can perform so hard and so long is because their intense training causes their muscles to adapt so they more readily and efficiently absorb lactic acid."

"The understanding now," read the Times, "is that muscle cells convert glucose or glycogen to lactic acid. The lactic acid is taken up and used as a fuel by mitochondria, the energy factories in muscle cells."

According to Brooks, the whole misunderstanding : "It's one of the classic mistakes in the history of science."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

What's wrong with soy?

Yesterday it was green tea, now the humble soy bean is under siege.

The LA Times reports that, "a crop of books and articles are now warning about the dangers, not benefits, of the bean." Among the concerns:
  • Soy supplements, which contain "estrogen-like isoflavones," may promote breast cancer
  • Thyroid function may be inhibited by soy
  • Reproductive problems in women -- like irregular menstrual cycles, ovulation problems and reduced fertility -- may be caused by soy (as shown in lab tests on mice)
  • In babies, soy formula "might possible possibly affect development of the brain and reproductive system."
  • For men, soy puts their sex drive at risk, may compromise muscle tone, raises estrogen levels and may ultimately lead to "man boobs"

Oh, the horror.

Debunked (or near-debunked) soy benefits, pointed out in the LA Times piece are the reducing breast cancer risks and fighting hot flashes.

However, the LA Times is quick to point out that some recent studies show promise for soy. For example, a National Institute of Health report found soy can "preserve bone in the lower part of the lumbar spine in post-menopausal women."

But what about the man boobs? Well, soy is high in isoflavones, a chemical that the LA Times refers to as "estrogen-like." So man boobs may be the risk that males take to get the most complete protein in the pea family, a whole lot of calcium, magnesium, vitamin B and the other good stuff in soy beans.

Like green tea, soy products vary greatly. In time, I'm sure science will determine what the safe, and not-so-safe forms and quantities of soy are. They'll probably be able to tell you what times of day, and when in your life, that soy is healthiest.

Until science has all the answers, treat yourself to a balanced diet. I think that's the safest bet. Moderation. As the LA Times reported, "if anything is problematic, nutritionists say, it is the quintessentially American habit of assuming that if a little of something is good, then a lot must be really good."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Green Tea: Not so Hot

From losing weight and fighting cancer to cleaning hard-disk drives, the benefits of green tea are many. But according to the FDA, you can now cross heart benefits off the list, CNN reports.

After looking into claims that green tea fights cardiovascular disease (CVD), the FDA concluded that, "there is no credible evidence to support qualified health claims for green tea or green tea extract and a reduction of a number of risk factors associated with CVD."

CNN also reports the FDA has yet to back claims that green tea helps to prevent cancer.

Green tea is rich in antioxidants called catechins, which are thought to help prevent cancer. In animals, it works.
But studies have yet to replicate the effect on humans. At best, results in humans are "contradictory," reads the National Cancer Institute "Tea and Cancer Prevention Fact Sheet."

So should you give up on green tea? Well, there are a lot of studies from reputable sources out there showing promise for green tea in
fighting cancer. And green coffee and tea (yes, there is such a thing as green coffee that is made from unroasted coffee beans) is believed to boost metabolism and promote weight loss.

What we can say for sure is that green tea is a very complex mixture full of all kinds of different compounds. Not only that,
there are many different types of green tea made using different processes. In some combination, with certain lifestyles and diets, it's probably just a matter of time before science nails down the best way to unlock green tea's potential.

On an interesting side note, did you know that green, black, oolong and white tea all come from the same plant? What makes them different is the processing of the leaf.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

'Blinged-out SUVs' & Life Expectancy

"From the tail of the peacock to the blinged-out SUV, males compete aggressively for female attention, and that costs them something," reads the press release for a University of Michigan (UM) study linking evolutionary forces to life expectancy.

According to researchers, gender roles in reproduction are key. While females have spent more time nurturing, and are more limited in the number of offspring they can have; males over time have engaged in risky competition to attract more mates. And they live shorter lives because of it.

"Shaped by eons of sexual competition," males are left with a weaker immune system and are less capable of processing fat than women, says a UM researcher.

Researchers came to these conclusions while seeking modern factors to explain differences in life expectancy between men and women. Instead, they found that a disparity in life expectancy "isn't a recent trend; it originates from our deep evolutionary history."

Monday, May 08, 2006

Eat Less, Live Longer… Seriously… Well, Maybe

Calorie restrictive (CR) diets are back in the news. This time around, a University of Florida (UF) study (which I found by way of ScienceDaily) finds even small cutbacks in calories can stretch lifespans. How small? Eight percent, though it doesn't say how much time that buys you. Also, this study was performed on rats. As far as I know, the affects of a calorie restrictive diet have yet to be observed on human lifespans.

However, a study by the Washington University School of Medicine,
reported in the summer of 2004 by the Genome News Network (GNN) , shows that people on a diet restricted to between 1,000 and 2,000 calories "scored vastly better on all major risk factors for heart disease," compared to those on a normal diet. The people on a calorie restricted diet also had low levels of CRP, a protein that cause inflammation. According to the report, CRP "is strongly believed to be a factor in diseases."

The University of Florida study also brought up inflammation. Said Christiaan Leeuwenburgh, an associate professor of aging and geriatric research at the UF College of Medicine, “in a calorie-restricted environment, you reduce the inflammatory response and prevent cell death." In other words, you slow the aging process which, according to Leeuwenburgh, is also spurred by "unstable molecules known as free radicals" and, of course, cellular oxidation.

The free-radical theory of aging is nothing new.
According to Wikipedia, "The free-radical theory of aging is that organisms age because cells accumulate free radical damage with the passage of time." Free radicals are created when the body converts oxygen to energy. And there's less of that going on when you eat less. Whether or not that's actually prolonging life is debatable. Back in 2002, MIT reported that one of its biologists, Leonard Guarente, found evidence that free radicals do not cause aging.

But don't stock up on potato chips and ice cream yet. Guarente still found that calorie restriction prolonged life-- not by reducing free radicals, but by increasing respiration. Sound bizarre? Well, increased respiration, according to Guarente, causes increased production of a "silenced information regulator," or SIR2, gene. This SIR2 is what slows aging. Yes, that's utterly confusing.
I suggest you read the MIT report, which I read about 10 times-- and its still a little hazy to me.

Alas, the question still remains. How much longer can you live by starving yourself? Well, according to data from studies on rodents, Dean Pomerleau, a man on a calorie restricted diet, estimates that each calorie spared adds 30 seconds to his life. That equals three hours per piece of pizza. For more on Dean's philosophy,
visit the aformentioned Genome News Network report here.

Friday, May 05, 2006

When a Nut isn't a Nut, or it's Radioactive

Two things here. One you can file under useless knowledge, the other you can file under, "remind me to not eat so many of those next time you see me binging on a bowl of them."

Under useless knowledge: Peanuts and Cahews aren't nuts. They're beans, or legumes. This is useless knowledge until I can find an article that tells me there's something significant about this.
Read more about peanuts here. For more on cashews, which incidentally are related to poison ivy, check this out.

After visiting
Wikipedia's definition on nuts, it turns out that defining nuts is a source or particular confusion. Not only is there confusion between nuts and some legumes, but nuts and seeds as well. According to Wikipedia, "A nut is a seed, but not all seeds are nuts. A seed comes from fruit and can be removed from the fruit. A nut is a compound ovary that is both the seed and the fruit, which cannot be separated."

Confused? I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. If you visit the link up there for Cashews, be sure to check out the section on Brazil nuts. As it turns out, these are actually radioactive. So, as I mentioned earlier, remind me not to eat so many of those when you see me with a bowl full of them (usually around Christmas).

According to
an old Washington Post article, "The Brazil nut tree absorbs radium from the soil and concentrates it in the meat of the nut." Radium, as its name suggests, is radioactive stuff, and there's enough of it in Brazil nuts that they emit 33 percent more radiation than an almond. This puts Brazil nuts on the list of radioactive consumer products with kitty litter, smoke detectors and tape dispensers.

One other thing, if you get a case of diarrhea after eating some brazil buts, stay away from Kaopectate, that's radioactive too.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

God's Latest Prank: Healthy Chocolate

Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate… how could something that so many people love be good for them? Some scientists say (dark) chocolate can improve cardiovascular health, and a growing stack of research backs them up. Most recently it’s a Dutch study that shows men who consume cocoa have lower blood pressure and are less likely to die from heart disease.

But God has a sense of humor. Chocolate is still high in fat and calories, so if you eat too much, you still gain weight and probably negate any of cocoa's health benefits. So, if you take this research, er, to heart, and approach chocolate as a health food, beware that self-control is imperative.

And that got me to thinking. With all these amazing findings where bad foods end up being good foods -- chocolate, wine, etc -- the people that get the health benefits are the ones consuming just one or two servings. That's pretty hard for most folks. How many people do you know that can stop at one third of a chocolate bar? Well, maybe that's the key. People with a physiology or psychology that can actually stop at one or two servings of decadent foods are simply more likely to live longer.

Then again, these studies wouldn't be on the evening news if there wasn't a better, more precise explanation. For chocolate, it’s the presence of flavanols and antioxidants.

According to the BBC,
which reported on the Dutch study, flavan-3-oils "have been linked to lower blood pressure and improved function of the cells lining the blood vessels." The story also explains that cocoa is packed with antioxidants that "limit the tissue damage caused by highly reactive chemicals called free radicals, which are released by the body's energy-producing processes."

So, have your chocolate, but please, don't overdo it. How much is the right amount? The Dutch study wasn't clear on that. However,
a 1998 study by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that three servings per month is the sweet spot. In the study, "people who eat chocolate and sweets up to three times a month live almost a year longer than those who eat too much or those who steer clear of the substance altogether."

Three servings per month? Good luck. The average American
eats about a pound of chocolate per month (11.5 per year). That means that, to get the health benefits of chocolate you need to A) switch to bitter, dark chocolate and, B) cut back by about .75 pounds. I can hear God laughing now.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The Sunscreen Epiphany @ The Magic Kingdom

Last week, Reuters reported, "Skin Cancer Epidemic Sweeping U.S." I only noticed this as I did a bit of research for this posting. Is there not enough time in a news cast to cover this kind of story? Or do people just not care about skin cancer? Mix of the two?

Well, if you don't care about skin cancer, how about keeping a younger, not-so-wrinkled appearance? I'll explain. Let me tell you about a trip I took to Disneyland last year.

As I was loitering outside of one of those really crappy, disgustingly expensive, but really filling restaurants at the Magic Kingdom, where there are like four choices on the entire menu, I noticed an older woman sitting by herself with a strange pattern on her arm. She wore a tank top, so the entire arm was exposed. From the shoulder to the elbow, the skin was smooth and white; from the elbow to the hand, it was brown and wrinkled like a prune. The skin on her face was also leathery and wrinkled, but not the exposed patch from the shoulder to the elbow. Get it?

Not only is it a good idea to avoid the sun for reasons related to skin cancer, but it ages your skin. If you're not afraid of dying from skin cancer, maybe you're vain enough to protect yourself. For me it's a mix of both. And now I put sunscreen on my exposed skin every single morning. No joke. It's as regular as brushing my teeth. Then again, I live in southern California. And no amount of lotion is going to save me from the carcinogens in the air. You just can't win.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What Makes Whole Grain the Right Grain?

Unlike its more refined counterpart, whole grain doesn't have a lot of beneficial nutrients stripped away. Also, because of their make up, whole grains are broken down and digested more slowly by your body.

What's meant by digested more slowly?
At the molecular level, carbohydrates are made up of long chains of sugar. In order to be absorbed into your bloodstream, these chains must be broken down into single sugar molecules. The slower carbohydrates are broken down, the better. Carbs that breakdown slowly are said to have a low-glycemic-index (GI). Diets rich with high GI carbs are linked to an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes. I learned all this at the Harvard School of Public Health's website. For a complete description,
visit them here.

Whole grain nutrients and health benefits
As you guessed, whole grain foods have a low GI. That coupled with more nutrients than non-whole grains makes for a very healthy choice.
According to Wikipedia, whole grains are rich in dietary fiber (which lowers GI), antioxidents, protein, minerals (like magnesium and phosphorus) and vitamins (like niacin, B6 and E). The Whole Grains Council also points out that whole grains contain magnesium and iron.

All of these variables, the low GI and rich nutrients, "reduce the incidence of some forms of cancer, digestive system diseases, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and obesity," reads Wikipedia.

Now, if you're one of those people that can't get used to the taste of whole grains, here are numbers -- reported by the Whole Grains Council -- that may change your mind:

  • whole grains have been shown to reduce their risk of heart disease by 25-36 percent
  • stroke by 37%
  • Type II diabetes by 21-27 percent
  • digestive system cancers by 21-43 percent
  • and hormone-related cancers by 10-40 percent
Bon Appetite.

Monday, May 01, 2006

And the Healthiest Oil is…


With so many choices for cooking oil at the grocery store, and so many reports in health news, I've often been perplexed when trying to decide which oil I should buy.

Based on a couple hours of research, I found that a mix of oils (especially olive oil, a monounsaturated fat and canola oil, a polyunsaturated fat) -- used in moderation -- is best. And if you think that's a complicated statement, you're right. But it's appropriate for the subject. If I learned anything in the time I spent researching this issue, it's that nutritional matters are deeply complex and greatly confusing.


Coconut oil?
I started my quest by googling the phrase "healthiest oil." Try it, and you'll find that the first few pages are packed with content singing the praises of coconut oil. Surprised? I was. First of all, coconut oil is a saturated fat. Second of all, where was olive oil? I was pretty sure that olive oil would be the healthiest, but it was nowhere to be seen.


After digging into some of the coconut oil articles, I found most of them were published at new age or alternative medicine websites. You won't find the American Heart Association, the Food and Drug Administration or many mainstream doctors encouraging coconut oil (though I learned that coconut oil is used to feed newborns and in I.V. drips).

Another thing I noticed is that some of the most persuasive writing on coconut oil, at a website called Mercola.com (as in Dr. Joseph Mercola), led straight to a page where you could buy coconut oil. And though I was able to corroborate a lot of the writing at Mercola.com with other websites, I was skeptical -- any time an article is connected to a shopping cart, a caution light starts flashing in my head. For a sanity check, I went to WebMD.

At WebMD, I did find an article sorting out
the facts on coconut oil. And there are some benefits there. But as I widened my search to more mainstream news sources, most of the content supported olive oil and canola oil as healthiest.

The health benefits of fat
Before getting into which oil is best, let's look at why you need fat in the first place.

Here's what Cindy Moore, MS, RD, director of nutrition therapy for the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association
told WebMD:


"Fats and oils provide a concentrated source of energy for the body. Fats are used to store energy in the body, insulate body tissues, and transport fat-soluble vitamins -- A, E, D, and K -- through the blood. They also enhance the taste, aroma, and texture of food, and contribute to a feeling of satiety, or fullness." (1)

Over at Mercola.com, Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon point out that fats also "provide the building blocks for cell membranes and a variety of hormones and hormonelike substances." (2)


Types of fat
There are three basic types of fat: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. For a technical explanation of the differences between these,
visit Dr. Mary Enic and Sally Fallon here-- be warned, you need to brush up on your chemistry if you expect this to make sense.

If you're not ready for a chemistry exercise, all you need to know is that saturated fat can raise your bad (LDL) cholesterol level (which puts you at greater risk for heart disease) while monounsaturated and polyunsaturated can lower bad cholesterol. For a laymen's breakdown on different fats,
visit the American Diabetes Association here.

Saturated fat may also cause cancer. For example, a
2003 study linked saturated fats to breast cancer.

That narrows the search for healthiest oil down to monounsaturated and polyunsaturated, but in those categories there a lot of choices (in fact, many oils contain both polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and saturated fat). For example, there's canola, corn, flaxseed, olive, peanut, safflower, sesame seed, soybean, sunflower, vegetable, and others. So, which to choose? Whether it's because these oils are widely available, or that most research has focused on them because they're so popular, the two that came up most in my research were canola oil and olive oil.

Olive Oil
Every day, it seems that another study reveals more benefits of olive oil. It lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of heart disease and helps prevent cancer. But it's not the fat, its plant compounds that deserve the credit.

According to
a recent article at MSNBC.MSN.com, "Research now shows that many of olive oil’s health benefits may actually come from the more than 30 plant compounds it contains. These compounds’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects promote heart health and protect against cancer." (5)

In a study of 22,000 Greeks, cited by WebMD, "those who followed a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in olive oil, lowered their risk of death from heart disease by 33 percent and their cancer rate by 24 percent compared with volunteers who ate other foods." (
1)

The power of olive oil seems to come from what it does and does not cause the body to make. According to the MSNBC piece, olive oil increases enzymes that block cancer and decreases the production of bile, which promotes colon cancer. (
5)

While reports on olive oil are usually glowing, there was a report in 2000 suggesting olive oil had some negative affects. The small study,
which you can find at WebMD, showed that olive oil constricts arteries enough to restrict blood flow by 34 percent after meals.

That's the same amount as a Big Mac and fries.

Some doctors believe that constriction of this amount can cause damage to arterioles. By contrast, canola oil only restricted arteries by 11 percent.

But don't drop your olive oil in the trash just yet. Instead, try picking up a carrot, and maybe some broccoli. In the study, "when olive oil is combined with foods rich in antioxidants, such as vegetables, the vessel-constricting effect disappears."

Canola Oil
While the health benefits of olive oil are numerous, it is missing compounds called essential fatty acids. What makes them essential is the fact that your body needs them, but can not make them. According to WebMD, these essential compounds are needed for cell structure and making hormones. (
1) And while monounsaturated fats like olive oil do not contain them, polyunsaturated fats like canola oil are a great source of essential fatty acids.

"[Canola oil] has what is considered to be an almost ideal balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, two essential fatty acids that are vital in for health," reports WebMD. (
1)

One affect of omega 3s is reduced inflammation, according to MSNBC's Karen Collins, R.D. Reduced inflammation lowers risks for heart disease and cancer. (
5)

Another benefit of canola over olive oil is the fact that it's lower in saturated fat (both canola and olive oil contain some saturated fat).

For cooking, canola oil also has the edge over olive. According to Collins, "From a cook’s perspective, olive oil may not be the best choice for cooking at a high temperature. The sediment naturally found in extra virgin olive oil can make it more likely to burn or smoke. Canola and peanut oils have a higher smoke point." (
5)

Not everyone agrees with Collins on her cooking advice. For example, medical advice site Ask Dr. Sears suggests olive oil is best for cooking. While the site acknowledges that, "Cooking at high temperatures can damage oils," it points out that, "oils that are higher in saturated fats or monounsaturates are the most stable when heated. These include peanut oil and olive oil." (
5)

If you can't use olive oil to prepare your next stir fry, Ask Dr. Sears suggests a cooking technique called wet-sauté.

From Ask Dr. Sears: "Try the 'wet-sauté,' a technique that is practiced by gourmet chefs. Pour around one-fourth of a cup of water in the stirfry pan and heat just below boiling. Then add the food and cook it a bit before adding the oil. Wet-sauté shortens the time oil is in contact with a hot pan. Stir frequently to further reduce the time the oil is in contact with the hot metal." (
5)

I just tried this technique and found that I didn't even need to use oil. Besides, after doing this report, I'm questioning all the oil in my cupboards.

By the way, you may be questioning canola oil. What is it? The word "canola" is a mix of "Canada" and "oil." WebMD explains, "Canola is a form of rapeseed that was specially bred in Canada by traditional plant breeding techniques to change the chemical composition of rapeseed." (
1)

Since both canola and olive oil have unique properties, a mix of both is probably best.

K.C. Hayes, professor of biology at Brandeis University tells WebMD, "While we should do what we can to stay away from saturated fats and trans fatty acids, taking in a combination of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats keeps us nutritionally balanced.

Choosing the right Olive or Canola oil
Now that you know you should be using both olive and canola oil to promote good health, an important question arises: which olive or canola oil should I buy? If you've paid attention to the choices in supermarket lately, you know there are many varieties of both canola and olive oil

For olive oil, Karen Collin's MSNBC column explains, "All types of olive oil provide the monounsaturated fat linked with health benefits, but to get the highest levels of the protective plant compounds, choose 'extra virgin' or 'virgin' oil, the least processed forms." (
5)

When it comes to oil, it pays to buy organic as well. According to Ask Dr. Sears,

"It's definitely worthwhile to pay extra for organic oils. Many oils come from plants that are sprayed with pesticides, which are usually fat-soluble, and thus concentrate in the oil portion of the plant. One of the safest oils is extra virgin oil, which is not refined or deodorized, and may even be organically grown." (
6)

Another thing to look out for is how oil is refined. According to Ask Dr. Sears, heat processing and refinement with "potentially toxic substances" can "leave chemical residues behind." "If the label does not boast that the oil is "unrefined," you can assume that it has been through some kind of chemical process that makes it worse for your health," the site explains.

The problem with excessive heat used in refining, according to Ask Dr. Sears, is that it can "damage oils and alter the fatty acids, creating harmful substances, so the best oils are produced with minimal heat." Look for "omegaflow process" on a label. Basically, this means that high temps were not used in processing.

Once you've purchased the right oil, there's still more to know. First of all, oil has a short shelf life. According to WebMD, "levels of antioxidants in olive oil fell sharply after 12 months in storage -- even under the best of storage conditions." (
3)

Oil is also sensitive to light. WebMD, Karen Collins' MSNBC column and Ask Dr. Sears all warn consumers not to keep oil in cool, dark places. If possible, do not buy oil in glass or clear plastic bottles.

According to Ask Dr. Sears, "Clear glass or plastic bottles allow light to penetrate the oil and oxidize the fatty acids in a chemical process similar to metal rusting. If the oil comes in a clear bottle, wrap it with a dark covering. Keep the lid on tightly between uses, as contact with air will affect the quality of the oil." (
6)

Now, my only question is, when I find a bottle of organic, extra virgin, omegaflow processed, unrefined olive oil in a dark bottle, how much is it going to cost? With my current income, how sustainable will a diet based on such specific oils be? Also, I hope I can leave my obsession with oil at the door; I would hate to be the waiter that has to answer half of the questions I raised in this article.


Resources
(1) Time For An Oil Change? [WebMD]

(2) The Truth About Saturated Fat [Mercola.com]

(3) All About Olive Oil [WebMD]

(4) Say No to Olive Oil? [WebMD]

(5) Olive oil brings more than flavor to your diet [MSNBC]

(6) All About Oils [Ask Dr. Sears]

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About Me

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.