Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

Vegsource.jpeg

Pesticides have been classified as probable carcinogens for 25 years. Different pesticides have been associated with different cancers through a variety of mechanisms, including genetic damage--direct hits to our DNA or chromosomes--and epigenetic modification, changes in the way our genes are expressed. These effects have been documented in workers who are spraying the pesticides, but exposure to pesticide residues that remain on food is much smaller.

More recently, higher cancer rates have also been noted in people who live in areas where pesticides are heavily sprayed, but what about the food we buy at the store? Organic fruits and vegetables have fewer pesticides, but even the levels on conventional produce are generally well below acceptable limits. There is still scientific controversy about the safety of some pesticides even under the regulatory limits, however, given the possible additive effects of the mixture of pesticides to which we're exposed. The pesticide approval process also doesn't take into account toxic breakdown products such as dioxins that can form once pesticides are released into the environment.

Cadmium is another issue. In the largest review to date, involving hundreds of studies, not only did organic foods have more antioxidant phytonutrients, but lower concentrations of cadmium. Cadmium is one of three highly toxic heavy metals (along with lead and mercury) found in the food supply. Cadmium accumulates in the body, so we should try to keep intake as low as possible. Organic crops only have about half the cadmium, which is thought to come from the phosphate fertilizers that are added to conventional crops.

Of course, not all organic foods are healthy. The organic food industry is now worth tens of billions of dollars, and they didn't get that way just selling carrots. We can now buy pesticide-free potato chips and organic jelly beans. Organic foods can be even worse because, for example, people falsely judge organic Oreo cookies to have fewer calories than conventional Oreos, and so may eat more. Forgoing exercise was deemed more acceptable when the person had just chosen an organic dessert rather than a conventional one. In fact, leniency toward forgoing exercise was slightly greater after choosing an organic dessert than after eating no dessert at all--organic cookies were effectively viewed as having negative calories! Organic junk food is still junk food.

Not only do people tend to overestimate the nutritional benefits of organic foods, they also overestimate the risks of pesticides. People think that as many people die from pesticide residues on conventional food as die in motor vehicle accidents in the United States. Surveys have found organic food buyers may think eating conventional produce is almost as bad as smoking a pack of cigarettes. That kind of thinking is dangerous because it could potentially lead to a decrease in overall fruit and vegetable consumption.

If just half of the U.S. population were to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by a single serving a day, an estimated 20,000 cancer cases might be avoided each year. That's how powerful produce may be. But, because the model was using conventional fruits and veggies, the pesticide burden from those extra fruits and vegetables might result in 10 additional cancer cases. So overall, if half of us ate one more serving, we'd just prevent 19,990 cases of cancer a year.

Now that was a paper written by scientists-for-hire paid for by the Alliance for Food and Farming, which is a bunch of conventional produce growers, so they probably exaggerated the benefits and minimized the risks, but I think the bottom line is sound. We get a tremendous benefit from eating conventional fruits and vegetables that far outweighs whatever tiny bump in risk we may get from the pesticides. Why not reap the benefits without the risk and choose organic? Great! But we should never let concern about pesticides stop us from stuffing our face with as many fruits and vegetables as possible.

My video, Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?, was the final installment of a 5-part series on organics. The first four videos are:

I've covered the issue of cadmium in our diet before in Cadmium and Cancer: Plant vs. Animal Foods and Male Fertility and Diet. Heavy metals are found concentrated in seafood and organ meats, but can also be found in certain supplements and protein powders.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?

Vegsource.jpeg

Pesticides have been classified as probable carcinogens for 25 years. Different pesticides have been associated with different cancers through a variety of mechanisms, including genetic damage--direct hits to our DNA or chromosomes--and epigenetic modification, changes in the way our genes are expressed. These effects have been documented in workers who are spraying the pesticides, but exposure to pesticide residues that remain on food is much smaller.

More recently, higher cancer rates have also been noted in people who live in areas where pesticides are heavily sprayed, but what about the food we buy at the store? Organic fruits and vegetables have fewer pesticides, but even the levels on conventional produce are generally well below acceptable limits. There is still scientific controversy about the safety of some pesticides even under the regulatory limits, however, given the possible additive effects of the mixture of pesticides to which we're exposed. The pesticide approval process also doesn't take into account toxic breakdown products such as dioxins that can form once pesticides are released into the environment.

Cadmium is another issue. In the largest review to date, involving hundreds of studies, not only did organic foods have more antioxidant phytonutrients, but lower concentrations of cadmium. Cadmium is one of three highly toxic heavy metals (along with lead and mercury) found in the food supply. Cadmium accumulates in the body, so we should try to keep intake as low as possible. Organic crops only have about half the cadmium, which is thought to come from the phosphate fertilizers that are added to conventional crops.

Of course, not all organic foods are healthy. The organic food industry is now worth tens of billions of dollars, and they didn't get that way just selling carrots. We can now buy pesticide-free potato chips and organic jelly beans. Organic foods can be even worse because, for example, people falsely judge organic Oreo cookies to have fewer calories than conventional Oreos, and so may eat more. Forgoing exercise was deemed more acceptable when the person had just chosen an organic dessert rather than a conventional one. In fact, leniency toward forgoing exercise was slightly greater after choosing an organic dessert than after eating no dessert at all--organic cookies were effectively viewed as having negative calories! Organic junk food is still junk food.

Not only do people tend to overestimate the nutritional benefits of organic foods, they also overestimate the risks of pesticides. People think that as many people die from pesticide residues on conventional food as die in motor vehicle accidents in the United States. Surveys have found organic food buyers may think eating conventional produce is almost as bad as smoking a pack of cigarettes. That kind of thinking is dangerous because it could potentially lead to a decrease in overall fruit and vegetable consumption.

If just half of the U.S. population were to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by a single serving a day, an estimated 20,000 cancer cases might be avoided each year. That's how powerful produce may be. But, because the model was using conventional fruits and veggies, the pesticide burden from those extra fruits and vegetables might result in 10 additional cancer cases. So overall, if half of us ate one more serving, we'd just prevent 19,990 cases of cancer a year.

Now that was a paper written by scientists-for-hire paid for by the Alliance for Food and Farming, which is a bunch of conventional produce growers, so they probably exaggerated the benefits and minimized the risks, but I think the bottom line is sound. We get a tremendous benefit from eating conventional fruits and vegetables that far outweighs whatever tiny bump in risk we may get from the pesticides. Why not reap the benefits without the risk and choose organic? Great! But we should never let concern about pesticides stop us from stuffing our face with as many fruits and vegetables as possible.

My video, Are the Benefits of Organic Food Underrated or Overrated?, was the final installment of a 5-part series on organics. The first four videos are:

I've covered the issue of cadmium in our diet before in Cadmium and Cancer: Plant vs. Animal Foods and Male Fertility and Diet. Heavy metals are found concentrated in seafood and organ meats, but can also be found in certain supplements and protein powders.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Organic versus Conventional: Which has More Nutrients?

Organic versus Conventional - Which has More Nutrients?.jpeg

Are organic foods safer and healthier than conventional alternatives? Those are two separate questions. Some consumers are interested in getting more nutrients; others are more concerned about getting fewer pesticides. Let's do nutrition first.

As seen in my video, Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?, hundreds of studies have been reviewed and researchers didn't find significant differences for most of the traditional nutrients like vitamins and minerals. They concluded that despite the widespread perception that organically produced foods are more nutritious, they didn't find robust evidence to support that perception. They did, however, find higher levels of phenolic phytonutrients in organic.

These so-called "secondary metabolites" of plants are thought to be behind many of the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables. Organic fruits and vegetables had between 19 and 69% more of a variety of these antioxidant compounds. The theory was that these phytonutrients are created by the plant for its own protection. For example, broccoli releases the bitter compounds like sulforaphane when the plant is chewed to ward off those who might eat it. Bugs take one bite and say, "Ew, this tastes like broccoli!" But pesticide-laden plants are bitten less by bugs and so may be churning out fewer of these compounds. Plants raised organically, on the other hand, are in a fight for their lives and may necessarily have to produce more protection. That was the theory anyway, but we don't have good evidence to back it up. The more likely reason has to do with the fertilizer; plants given high dose synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may divert more resources to growth rather than defense.

These antioxidants may protect the plant, but what about us? More antioxidant phytonutrients are found in organic vegetables and so yes, they displayed more antioxidant activity, but also more antimutagenic activity. Researchers exposed bacteria to a variety of mutagenic chemicals like benzopyrene, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon found in barbecued meat, or IQ, the heterocyclic amine found in grilled/broiled/fried meats (as well as cigarette smoke), and there were fewer DNA mutations in the petri dishes where they added organic vegetables compared to the petri dishes where they added conventional vegetables.

Preventing DNA damage in bacteria is one thing, but what about effects on actual human cells? Organic strawberries may taste better, and have higher antioxidant activity and more phenolic phytonutrients, but what happens when you stack them up head-to-head against human cancer cells? Extracts from organically grown strawberries suppressed the growth of colon cancer cells and breast cancer cells significantly better than extracts from conventional strawberries. Now this was dripping strawberries onto cancer cells growing in a petri dish, but as I showed in Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer, there are real life circumstances in which strawberries come into direct contact with cancerous and precancerous lesions, and so presumably organic strawberries would work even better, but they haven't yet been tested in clinical trials.

Although in vitro studies show higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, clinical studies on the impact of eating organic on human disease simply haven't been done. Based on antioxidant phytonutrient levels, organic produce may be considered 20 to 40% healthier, the equivalent of adding one or two serving's worth to a five-a-day regimen. But organic produce may be 40% more expensive, so for the same money you could just buy the extra servings worth of conventional produce. From a purely nutrients-per-dollar standpoint, it's not clear that organic foods are any better. But people often buy organic foods to avoid chemicals, not because they are more nutritious. For more on the best available science comparing the nutritional content, pesticide risk, heavy metal toxicity, and food poisoning risk of organic versus conventionally raised foods )including practical tips for making your own DIY fruit and veggie wash), see:

I imagine that the reaction to this series will be similar to that for the one I did on GMO foods, riling up critics on both sides of the debate:

More on the nutritional implications of stressed-out plants here:

Production method aside, in vitro, Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better?

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

Organic versus Conventional: Which has More Nutrients?

Organic versus Conventional - Which has More Nutrients?.jpeg

Are organic foods safer and healthier than conventional alternatives? Those are two separate questions. Some consumers are interested in getting more nutrients; others are more concerned about getting fewer pesticides. Let's do nutrition first.

As seen in my video, Are Organic Foods More Nutritious?, hundreds of studies have been reviewed and researchers didn't find significant differences for most of the traditional nutrients like vitamins and minerals. They concluded that despite the widespread perception that organically produced foods are more nutritious, they didn't find robust evidence to support that perception. They did, however, find higher levels of phenolic phytonutrients in organic.

These so-called "secondary metabolites" of plants are thought to be behind many of the benefits ascribed to eating fruits and vegetables. Organic fruits and vegetables had between 19 and 69% more of a variety of these antioxidant compounds. The theory was that these phytonutrients are created by the plant for its own protection. For example, broccoli releases the bitter compounds like sulforaphane when the plant is chewed to ward off those who might eat it. Bugs take one bite and say, "Ew, this tastes like broccoli!" But pesticide-laden plants are bitten less by bugs and so may be churning out fewer of these compounds. Plants raised organically, on the other hand, are in a fight for their lives and may necessarily have to produce more protection. That was the theory anyway, but we don't have good evidence to back it up. The more likely reason has to do with the fertilizer; plants given high dose synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may divert more resources to growth rather than defense.

These antioxidants may protect the plant, but what about us? More antioxidant phytonutrients are found in organic vegetables and so yes, they displayed more antioxidant activity, but also more antimutagenic activity. Researchers exposed bacteria to a variety of mutagenic chemicals like benzopyrene, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon found in barbecued meat, or IQ, the heterocyclic amine found in grilled/broiled/fried meats (as well as cigarette smoke), and there were fewer DNA mutations in the petri dishes where they added organic vegetables compared to the petri dishes where they added conventional vegetables.

Preventing DNA damage in bacteria is one thing, but what about effects on actual human cells? Organic strawberries may taste better, and have higher antioxidant activity and more phenolic phytonutrients, but what happens when you stack them up head-to-head against human cancer cells? Extracts from organically grown strawberries suppressed the growth of colon cancer cells and breast cancer cells significantly better than extracts from conventional strawberries. Now this was dripping strawberries onto cancer cells growing in a petri dish, but as I showed in Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer, there are real life circumstances in which strawberries come into direct contact with cancerous and precancerous lesions, and so presumably organic strawberries would work even better, but they haven't yet been tested in clinical trials.

Although in vitro studies show higher antioxidant and antimutagenic activity as well as better inhibition of cancer cell proliferation, clinical studies on the impact of eating organic on human disease simply haven't been done. Based on antioxidant phytonutrient levels, organic produce may be considered 20 to 40% healthier, the equivalent of adding one or two serving's worth to a five-a-day regimen. But organic produce may be 40% more expensive, so for the same money you could just buy the extra servings worth of conventional produce. From a purely nutrients-per-dollar standpoint, it's not clear that organic foods are any better. But people often buy organic foods to avoid chemicals, not because they are more nutritious. For more on the best available science comparing the nutritional content, pesticide risk, heavy metal toxicity, and food poisoning risk of organic versus conventionally raised foods )including practical tips for making your own DIY fruit and veggie wash), see:

I imagine that the reaction to this series will be similar to that for the one I did on GMO foods, riling up critics on both sides of the debate:

More on the nutritional implications of stressed-out plants here:

Production method aside, in vitro, Which Fruit Fights Cancer Better?

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

The Two Most Active Ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet

Which Parts of the Mediterranean Diet Extended Life.jpg

Olives and nuts are plant foods, and as such, are packed with antioxidants, raising the antioxidant level of our bloodstream resulting in lower fat oxidation and free radical DNA damage, but what's happening inside people's arteries?

Researchers measured the amount of atherosclerotic plaque in the neck arteries going to the brain in folks who for years were eating added nuts, added extra virgin olive oil or neither to their daily diets. In the control group, the plaque got worse, which is what happens when one continues to eat an artery-clogging diet, but there were no significant changes in the added extra virgin olive oil group, and the plaque in the added nut group appeared to get better. The nuts appeared to induce a regression of the disease, or at least a significant delay in the progression. The nut group was still suffering strokes, but only half as many, perhaps because the reduction in plaque height within the arteries on extra nuts was indicating a stabilization of the plaque, rendering them less likely to rupture. You can see these results in my video Which Parts of the Mediterranean Diet Extended Life?

Adding nuts to our diet may also improve endothelial function, boosting the ability of our arteries to dilate naturally by about 30 percent. If you look at the baseline adherence to Mediterranean diet principles and control for things like smoking and exercise, there were only two factors significantly associated with reduced heart attack and stroke risk: more vegetables and more nuts. No significant association with the olive oil, wine, fish or cutting back on soda and cookies. Among the individual components, only increased consumption of vegetables and nuts were related to reduced cardiovascular events.

On the one hand, cutting stroke risk in half just by eating a handful of nuts a day is pretty amazing, but those in the added nut group didn't appear to live any longer overall. This is in contrast to other studies that suggested that frequent nut consumption may extend life. For example, the Harvard health professionals studies, involving a whopping three million person-years of follow-up over decades, found nut consumption associated with fewer deaths from cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease and most importantly fewer deaths overall. This was confirmed by all the other big major prospective studies in a recent review.

So what's going on here with the study showing no longevity benefit from nuts? Did they just not wait long enough? Just because people were randomized to the nut group didn't mean they actually ate more nuts, and those randomized to the other groups didn't necessarily stay away.

If you re-analyze the data comparing the death rates of those who actually ate more nuts to those who actually didn't, nut consumption was indeed associated with significantly reduced risk of death. If you do the same kind of post hoc analysis with olive oil, even with the extra virgin, there is no benefit in terms of living longer. This is consistent with how Ancel Keys, the so-called Father of the Mediterranean diet, viewed olive oil. He thought of its benefit more as a way of just replacing animal fats; anything to get people to eat less lard and butter.

What is the best kind of nut? The greatest benefits were attributed to walnuts, particularly for preventing cancer deaths. Those eating more than three servings of walnuts a week appeared to cut their risk of dying from cancer in half.

Now it's just a matter of communicating the research to the public. All the major cancer groups emphasize a more plant-based diet, remarkably consistent with the World Health Organization guidelines for healthy eating. The far-reaching positive effects of a plant-based diet--including walnuts--may be the most critical message for the public.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

Think the effects of adding a few nuts to one's daily diet are too good to believe? Check out my video Four Nuts Once a Month. For more on Walnuts and Artery Function check out the video, and for more on nuts and cancer prevention, see Which Nut Fights Cancer Better?

Nuts May Help Prevent Death and so may beans; see Increased Lifespan from Beans. What about Fruits and Longevity: How Many Minutes per Mouthful?

More on protecting ourselves from "brain attacks" in Preventing Strokes with Diet.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: garlandcannon / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

The Two Most Active Ingredients of the Mediterranean Diet

Which Parts of the Mediterranean Diet Extended Life.jpg

Olives and nuts are plant foods, and as such, are packed with antioxidants, raising the antioxidant level of our bloodstream resulting in lower fat oxidation and free radical DNA damage, but what's happening inside people's arteries?

Researchers measured the amount of atherosclerotic plaque in the neck arteries going to the brain in folks who for years were eating added nuts, added extra virgin olive oil or neither to their daily diets. In the control group, the plaque got worse, which is what happens when one continues to eat an artery-clogging diet, but there were no significant changes in the added extra virgin olive oil group, and the plaque in the added nut group appeared to get better. The nuts appeared to induce a regression of the disease, or at least a significant delay in the progression. The nut group was still suffering strokes, but only half as many, perhaps because the reduction in plaque height within the arteries on extra nuts was indicating a stabilization of the plaque, rendering them less likely to rupture. You can see these results in my video Which Parts of the Mediterranean Diet Extended Life?

Adding nuts to our diet may also improve endothelial function, boosting the ability of our arteries to dilate naturally by about 30 percent. If you look at the baseline adherence to Mediterranean diet principles and control for things like smoking and exercise, there were only two factors significantly associated with reduced heart attack and stroke risk: more vegetables and more nuts. No significant association with the olive oil, wine, fish or cutting back on soda and cookies. Among the individual components, only increased consumption of vegetables and nuts were related to reduced cardiovascular events.

On the one hand, cutting stroke risk in half just by eating a handful of nuts a day is pretty amazing, but those in the added nut group didn't appear to live any longer overall. This is in contrast to other studies that suggested that frequent nut consumption may extend life. For example, the Harvard health professionals studies, involving a whopping three million person-years of follow-up over decades, found nut consumption associated with fewer deaths from cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease and most importantly fewer deaths overall. This was confirmed by all the other big major prospective studies in a recent review.

So what's going on here with the study showing no longevity benefit from nuts? Did they just not wait long enough? Just because people were randomized to the nut group didn't mean they actually ate more nuts, and those randomized to the other groups didn't necessarily stay away.

If you re-analyze the data comparing the death rates of those who actually ate more nuts to those who actually didn't, nut consumption was indeed associated with significantly reduced risk of death. If you do the same kind of post hoc analysis with olive oil, even with the extra virgin, there is no benefit in terms of living longer. This is consistent with how Ancel Keys, the so-called Father of the Mediterranean diet, viewed olive oil. He thought of its benefit more as a way of just replacing animal fats; anything to get people to eat less lard and butter.

What is the best kind of nut? The greatest benefits were attributed to walnuts, particularly for preventing cancer deaths. Those eating more than three servings of walnuts a week appeared to cut their risk of dying from cancer in half.

Now it's just a matter of communicating the research to the public. All the major cancer groups emphasize a more plant-based diet, remarkably consistent with the World Health Organization guidelines for healthy eating. The far-reaching positive effects of a plant-based diet--including walnuts--may be the most critical message for the public.

Here are some of my previous videos on the Mediterranean diet:

Think the effects of adding a few nuts to one's daily diet are too good to believe? Check out my video Four Nuts Once a Month. For more on Walnuts and Artery Function check out the video, and for more on nuts and cancer prevention, see Which Nut Fights Cancer Better?

Nuts May Help Prevent Death and so may beans; see Increased Lifespan from Beans. What about Fruits and Longevity: How Many Minutes per Mouthful?

More on protecting ourselves from "brain attacks" in Preventing Strokes with Diet.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: garlandcannon / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Original Link

How to Prevent Ulcerative Colitis with Diet

Preventing Ulcerative Colitis with Diet.jpg

What has driven the dramatic increase in prevalence of the inflammatory bowel disease Crohn's disease in societies that rapidly westernized--a disease practically unknown just a century ago? What has changed in our internal and external environment that has led to the appearance of this horrible disease?

Japan suffered one of the most dramatic increases, and out of all the changing dietary components, animal protein appeared to be the strongest factor. There was an exponential increase in newly diagnosed Crohn's patients and daily animal protein intake, whereas the greater the vegetable protein, the fewer the cases of Crohn's, which is consistent with data showing a more plant-based diet may be successful in both preventing and treating Crohn's disease (See Preventing Crohn's Disease With Diet and Dietary Treatment of Crohn's Disease). But what about other inflammatory bowel diseases?

In the largest study of its kind, shown in my video Preventing Ulcerative Colitis with Diet, 60,000 people were followed for more than a decade. Researchers found that high total protein intake--specifically animal protein--was associated with a significantly increased risk of the other big inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis. It wasn't just protein in general, but the "association between high protein intake and inflammatory bowel disease risk was restricted to animal protein."Since World War II, animal protein intake has increased not only in Japan but also in all developed countries. This increase in animal protein consumption is thought to explain some of the increased incidence of inflammatory bowel disease in the second half of the 20th century.

Other studies found this as well, but why? What's the difference between animal protein and plant protein? Animal proteins tend to have more sulfur containing amino acids like methionine, which bacteria in our gut can turn into the toxic rotten egg smell gas, hydrogen sulfide. Emerging evidence suggests that sulfur compounds may play a role in the development of ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the colon and rectum characterized by bloody diarrhea.

The first hint as to the importance of our gut flora was in the 1970's when "analysis of stools showed that their bulk was made up of mostly bacteria, not undigested material." We're pushing out trillions of bacteria a day and they just keep multiplying and multiplying. They do wonderful things for us like create the protective compound, butyrate, from the fiber we eat, but unfortunately, the bacteria may also elaborate toxic products from food residues such as hydrogen sulfide "in response to a high-meat diet."

Hydrogen sulfide is a bacterially derived cell poison that has been implicated in ulcerative colitis. We had always assumed that sulfide generation in the colon is driven by dietary components such as sulfur-containing amino acids, but we didn't know for sure until a study from Cambridge was published. Researchers had folks eat five different diets each with escalating meat contents from vegetarian all the way up to a steak each day. They found that the more meat one ate, the more sulfide; ten times more meat meant ten times more sulfide. They concluded that "dietary protein from meat is an important substrate for sulfide generation by bacteria in the human large intestine."

Hydrogen sulfide can then act as a free radical and damage our DNA at concentrations way below what our poor colon lining is exposed to on a routine basis, which may help explain why diets higher in meat and lower in fiber may produce so-called "fecal water" that causes about twice as much DNA damage. Fecal water is like when researchers make a tea from someone's stool.

The biology of sulfur in the human gut has escaped serious attention until recently. Previously it was just thought of as the rotten egg smell in malodorous gas, but the increase in sulfur compounds in response to a supplement of animal protein is not only of interest in the field of flatology--that is, the formal study of farts--but may also be of importance in the development of ulcerative colitis.

I have several videos on our microbiome, including:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: illustrator © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

Original Link

How to Prevent Ulcerative Colitis with Diet

Preventing Ulcerative Colitis with Diet.jpg

What has driven the dramatic increase in prevalence of the inflammatory bowel disease Crohn's disease in societies that rapidly westernized--a disease practically unknown just a century ago? What has changed in our internal and external environment that has led to the appearance of this horrible disease?

Japan suffered one of the most dramatic increases, and out of all the changing dietary components, animal protein appeared to be the strongest factor. There was an exponential increase in newly diagnosed Crohn's patients and daily animal protein intake, whereas the greater the vegetable protein, the fewer the cases of Crohn's, which is consistent with data showing a more plant-based diet may be successful in both preventing and treating Crohn's disease (See Preventing Crohn's Disease With Diet and Dietary Treatment of Crohn's Disease). But what about other inflammatory bowel diseases?

In the largest study of its kind, shown in my video Preventing Ulcerative Colitis with Diet, 60,000 people were followed for more than a decade. Researchers found that high total protein intake--specifically animal protein--was associated with a significantly increased risk of the other big inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis. It wasn't just protein in general, but the "association between high protein intake and inflammatory bowel disease risk was restricted to animal protein."Since World War II, animal protein intake has increased not only in Japan but also in all developed countries. This increase in animal protein consumption is thought to explain some of the increased incidence of inflammatory bowel disease in the second half of the 20th century.

Other studies found this as well, but why? What's the difference between animal protein and plant protein? Animal proteins tend to have more sulfur containing amino acids like methionine, which bacteria in our gut can turn into the toxic rotten egg smell gas, hydrogen sulfide. Emerging evidence suggests that sulfur compounds may play a role in the development of ulcerative colitis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the colon and rectum characterized by bloody diarrhea.

The first hint as to the importance of our gut flora was in the 1970's when "analysis of stools showed that their bulk was made up of mostly bacteria, not undigested material." We're pushing out trillions of bacteria a day and they just keep multiplying and multiplying. They do wonderful things for us like create the protective compound, butyrate, from the fiber we eat, but unfortunately, the bacteria may also elaborate toxic products from food residues such as hydrogen sulfide "in response to a high-meat diet."

Hydrogen sulfide is a bacterially derived cell poison that has been implicated in ulcerative colitis. We had always assumed that sulfide generation in the colon is driven by dietary components such as sulfur-containing amino acids, but we didn't know for sure until a study from Cambridge was published. Researchers had folks eat five different diets each with escalating meat contents from vegetarian all the way up to a steak each day. They found that the more meat one ate, the more sulfide; ten times more meat meant ten times more sulfide. They concluded that "dietary protein from meat is an important substrate for sulfide generation by bacteria in the human large intestine."

Hydrogen sulfide can then act as a free radical and damage our DNA at concentrations way below what our poor colon lining is exposed to on a routine basis, which may help explain why diets higher in meat and lower in fiber may produce so-called "fecal water" that causes about twice as much DNA damage. Fecal water is like when researchers make a tea from someone's stool.

The biology of sulfur in the human gut has escaped serious attention until recently. Previously it was just thought of as the rotten egg smell in malodorous gas, but the increase in sulfur compounds in response to a supplement of animal protein is not only of interest in the field of flatology--that is, the formal study of farts--but may also be of importance in the development of ulcerative colitis.

I have several videos on our microbiome, including:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: illustrator © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

Original Link

How to Protect Our Telomeres with Diet

NF-Apr21 Telomeres - Cap It All Off with Diet.001.jpeg

In my video, Does Meditation Affect Cellular Aging?, I discussed how stress reduction through meditation might be able to lengthen telomeres, the protective caps at the tips of our chromosomes that tend to deplete as we age.

What about exercise? We can't always change our situation in life, but we can always go out for a walk. London researchers studied 2,400 twins, and those who exercised more may have pumped up their telomeres along with their muscles. Apparently it doesn't take much either. The "heavy" exercise group was only averaging about a half-hour a day.

These were mostly folks in their 40's, but does it still work in your 50's? Yes. A study out of South Korea found that people in their 50's who work out three hours a week had longer telomeres.

In my video, Telomeres: Cap It All Off with Diet, you can see the telomere lengths of young healthy regular folk controls at around age 20, and then at age 50. As we'd expect, the older subjects' telomeres were significantly shorter. What about athletes? The young athletes started out in the same boat, with nice, long, young, healthy telomeres capping all their chromosomes. The older athletes, in contrast to the controls, appeared to still have the chromosomes of 20-year-olds. But these were marathon runners, triathletes running 50 miles a week for 35 years.

What was it about the Ornish intervention that so powerfully protected telomeres after just three months? We saw that stress management seems to help, but what about diet and exercise? Was it the plant-based diet, was it the walking 30 minutes a day, or was it just because of the weight loss? In 2013 a study was published that can help us anser just that question.

The researchers took about 400 women and randomized them into four groups: a portion-controlled diet group, an exercise group, a portion controlled diet and exercise group, and a control group for a full year. In the video, you can see a comparison of the length of each group's telomeres. After a year of doing nothing, there was essentially no change in the control group, which is what we'd expect. The exercise group was 45 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise like jogging. After a year of that, they did no better. What about just weight loss? Nothing. The same thing for exercise and weight loss, no significant change either.

So as long as we're eating the same diet, it doesn't appear to matter how small our portions are, or how much weight we lose, or how hard we exercise. After a year, the subjects saw no benefit. On the other hand, the Ornish group on the plant-based diet, who lost the same amount of weight after just three months and exercised less than half as hard, saw significant telomere protection.

It wasn't the weight loss or the exercise: it was the food.

What aspects of a plant-based diet make it so protective? Studies have associated more vegetables and fruit, and less butter, with longer telomeres. From the latest review, foods high in fiber and vitamins are strongly related to longer telomeres. However, the key may be avoiding saturated fat. Swapping just 1% of saturated fat calories in our diet for anything else can add nearly a whole year of aging's worth of length onto our telomeres.

Saturated fats like palmitic acid, the primary saturated fat in salmon, and found in meat, eggs, and dairy in general, can be toxic to cells. This has been demonstrated in heart cells, bone marrow cells, pancreatic cells, and brain cells. The toxic effects on cell death rates happen right around what you'd see in the blood stream of people who eat a lot of animal products. It may not be the saturated fat itself, however, as saturated fat may just be a marker for the increased oxidative stress and inflammation associated with those foods.

With this link to saturated fat, it's no wonder that lifelong low cholesterol levels have been related to longer telomeres and a smaller proportion of short telomeres--in other words, markers of slower biological aging. In fact, there's a rare congenital birth defect called progeria syndrome, where children age 8-10 times faster than normal. It seems associated with a particular inability to handle animal fats.

The good news is that "despite past accumulated injury leading to shorter telomere lengths, current healthy behaviors might help to decrease a person's risk of some of the potential consequences like heart disease." Eating more fruit and vegetables and less meat, and having more support from friends and family, attenuate the association between shorter telomeres and the ravages of aging.

To summarize: inflammation, oxidation, damage and dysfunction are constantly hacking away at our telomeres. At the same time, our antioxidant defenses, healthy diet, exercise and stress reduction are constantly rebuilding them.


I've asked this diet versus exercise question in a few other contexts. See:

Though dietary change appears more impactful, I'm a big fan of walking. See Longer Life Within Walking Distance and for my personal favorite exercise, Standing Up for Your Health.

For more on the role saturated fat may play in disease, see, for example, my videos Heart Disease Starts in Childhood and Treating Multiple Sclerosis with the Swank MS Diet.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: AJC ajcann.wordpress.com / Flickr

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How Many Minutes of Daily Meditation to Combat Stress?

NF-Apr19 Does Meditation Affect Cellular Aging.jpeg

In the film The Holiday, Cameron Diaz exclaims "Severe stress ... causes the DNA in our cells to shrink until they can no longer replicate." Did Hollywood get the science right?

The enzyme that builds and maintains the caps at the tips of our chromosomes (called telomeres) appear to slow the aging of our cells. Do people who are stressed have shorter telomeres? To answer that question, researchers from the University of California, San Francisco measured the telomere lengths in mothers of chronically ill children--what could be more stressful than that? The longer a woman had spent being the main caretaker of her ill child, the shorter her telomeres. The extra telomere shortening in the most stressed mothers was equivalent to that caused by at least a decade of aging. We see the same thing in caregivers of Alzheimer's patients and those suffering severe work-related exhaustion. Even those abused as children may grow up with shorter telomeres.

There's not much we can do about our past, but if we manage our stress now, can we grow some telomeres back? If we go on a meditation retreat and meditate for 500 hours, we can indeed boost our telomerase activity (the enzyme that restores our telomeres)--but there's got to be a quicker fix.

In an exciting study from UCLA and UC San Francisco (highlighted in my video, Does Meditation Affect Cellular Aging?, caregivers of family members with dementia were randomized to just 12 minutes of daily meditation for eight weeks, or just about ten hours in total. The meditators experienced significant benefit, including better mental and psychological function accompanied by an increase in telomerase activity, suggesting an improvement in stress-induced cellular aging.

Here's a link to the backgrounder video that presents the original Ornish study: Research Into Reversing Aging. I cover the comparable effects of diet and exercise in my video Telomeres - Cap It All Off with Diet.

I have a few videos on using aromatherapy and other modalities to help deal with stress:

For life extension in general, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: Nickolai Kashirin / Flickr

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