Dioxins in U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish

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Dioxins are highly toxic pollutants that accumulate in tissue fat. Almost all dioxins found in people who don't work in toxic waste dumps or something similarly hazardous are believed to come from food, especially meat, milk, and fish, which account for about 95% of human exposure. We tend to only hear about it in the news, though, when there's some mass poisoning.

In 1957, for example, millions of chickens began dying, blamed on toxic components in certain feed fats. Factory farming was taking off, and the industry needed cheap feed to fatten up the birds. They ended up using a toxic fleshing grease from hide stripping operations in the leather industry that were using dioxin-containing preservatives. A subsequent outbreak in 1969 resulted from a pipe mix-up at a refinery that was producing both pesticides and animal feed.

In the 1990's, a supermarket survey found the highest concentrations of dioxins in farm-raised catfish. The source of dioxins was determined to be the feed, but that's surprising, since catfish aren't fed a lot of animal fat. Turns out it was dioxin-contaminated clay added to the feed as an anti-caking agent, which may have originally come from sewage sludge. The same contaminated feed was fed to chickens, so what may have started out in sewage sludge ended up on the plates of consumers in the form of farm-raised catfish and chicken.

How widespread of a problem did it become? This affected five percent of U.S. poultry production, that's people eating hundreds of millions of contaminated chickens. And if it's in the chickens, it's in the eggs. Elevated dioxin levels were found in chicken eggs too. When the source of the feed contamination was identified, the USDA estimated that less than 1% of animal feed was contaminated, but 1% of egg production means over a million eggs a day. But the catfish were the worst. More than a third of all U.S. farm-raised catfish were found contaminated with dioxins thanks to that ball clay. So the FDA requested that ball clay not be used in animal feeds. They even asked nicely, writing "Dear producer or user of clay products in animal feeds, continued exposure to elevated dioxin levels in animal feed increases the risk of adverse health effects in those consuming animal-derived food products... we are recommending that the use of ball clay in animal feeds be discontinued...We look forward to the industry's cooperation." (You can see the original letter in my video, Dioxins in U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish).

So how cooperative did the industry end up being? Half a billion pounds of catfish continued to be churned out of U.S. fish farms every year but only recently did the government go back and check. Published in 2013, samples of catfish were collected from all over the country. Dioxins were found in 96% of samples tested. Yeah, but just because catfish are bought in the U.S. doesn't mean they came from the U.S. And indeed some of the catfish were imported from China or Taiwan, but they were found to be ten times less contaminated. And indeed, when they checked the feed fed to U.S. catfish, more than half were contaminated, and so it seems likely that mined clay products are still being used in U.S. catfish feeds. Even "just small amounts of mineral clays added to fish feeds, together with the fact that catfish can be bottom-feeders may lead to higher than acceptable dioxin residues in the final catfish products."

The Institute of Medicine suggests strategies to reduce dioxin intake exposure, such as trimming the fat from meat, poultry, and fish, and avoiding the recycling of animal fat into gravy, but if almost all dioxin intake comes from animal fat, then eating a more plant-based diet could wipe out about 98% of exposure. Thus "a vegetarian diet or even just eating more plants might have previously unsuspected health advantages along with the more commonly recognized cardiovascular benefits and decreased cancer risk."

This is a good illustration of how we can't necessarily rely on regulators to protect our families' health. More on dietary dioxins and what we can do about it in Dioxins in the Food Supply and Counteracting the Effects of Dioxins Through Diet.

Even wild fish are exposed to industrial pollutants spewed into our waterways. See, for example:

Farmed fish is the worst, though: Farmed Fish vs. Wild-Caught.

Other pollutants in our food supply and how to avoid them:

Though the best way to detox is not to tox in the first place, our bodies can eventually get rid of much of the toxin load:

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.

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When Charities Collaborate With the Food Industry

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When the history of the world's attempt to address obesity is written, one researcher writes, "the greatest failure may be collaboration with and appeasement of the food industry." For instance, Yum! Brands, who owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, linked up with a leading U.S. breast cancer charity, to sell pink buckets of fried chicken.

Save the Children, an organization aiming to positively change the lives of children, was initially a staunch supporter of soda taxes. Recently, however, the organization withdrew its support, saying that support of the soda taxes did not fit the way Save the Children works. Perhaps it is only a coincidence that it was seeking a grant from Coca-Cola and had accepted a $5 million grant from Pepsi.

Through these partnerships, the food industry seeks to emphasize that inactivity -- not the promotion and consumption of its calorie-rich products -- is the prime cause of obesity. But studies showing that obesity is rising even in areas where people are exercising more are most likely explained by the fact that the rate of physical activity levels are being outstripped by our eating activity levels. We can outrun our mouths.

As stated by researcher, Bruce Neal, from the University of Sydney (highlighted in my video, Collaboration with the New Vectors of Disease), "The message is plain - the primary driver of the obesity epidemic in the United States is now the food supply, and interventions targeting physical activity are not going to resolve it. So, while physical activity is good regardless, it will not address most of the burden of ill health caused by obesity. That is going to require a new focus on the root cause of the problem--the American diet."

This researcher adds, "At the heart of the 'energy in' side of the obesity problem is the food and beverage industry. Put simply, the enormous commercial success enjoyed by the food industry is now causing what promises to be one of the greatest public health disasters of our time. As fast as we rid the world of the microbial causes of pestilence and famine, they are replaced by new vectors of disease in the form of trans-national food corporations that market salt, fat, sugar, and calories in unprecedented quantities. So policy makers should work on pricing strategies that subsidize the cost of healthier foods."

First, we need to shift relative prices to make it more expensive to consume animal products compared to fruit, vegetables and beans. Second, we need to increase demand for plant foods, which is not as easy given the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies - our tax payer dollars going to make animal products artificially cheap.

Dr. Bruce Neal then concludes, "The food industry will rail against the 'nanny state' and fight tooth and nail for its right to market a range of options to responsible individuals able to make choices for themselves-it's the American way. For context though, these arguments are no different to those used by the tobacco industry, which also markets habituating unhealthy products in pursuit of profit. In the case of tobacco, the American people have agreed that controls must be applied to limit the harms caused. Poor diet is now responsible for an even greater burden of disease than tobacco, and food companies must be controlled in the same way if the harms are to be reduced. As unpalatable as this may be, the food industry would do well to strengthen their public health conscience, given that consumers are always going to need their goods, something that cannot be said for the tobacco industry." You hear that a lot in public health circles, how we have to work with the companies, because unlike tobacco, we have to eat. But just like yes, we need to breath, but we don't need to breathe smoke, yes we need to eat, but we don't need to eat junk.

Is it our physical activity or eating activity? See Diet vs. Exercise for Weight Loss and How Much Exercise to Sustain Weight Loss?

I touched on the pink buckets of KFC in my video Breast Cancer Survival, Butterfat, and Chicken.

For more on the idea of subsidizing healthy foods or at least stopping tax money to supporting junk, check out my video Taxpayer Subsidies for Unhealthy Foods.

It's sad when non-profits collaborate with companies that contribute to suffering, but seems particularly egregious when the Registered Dietitian group does it. See Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Conflicts of Interest.

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, and From Table to Able.

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Drugs vs. Lifestyle for Preventing Diabetes

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In just one decade, the number of people with diabetes has more than doubled. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, by 2050, one out of every three of us may have diabetes.

What's the big deal?

Well, the "consequences of diabetes are legion." Diabetes is the number one cause of adult-onset blindness, the number one cause of kidney failure, and the number one cause of surgical amputations.

What can we do to prevent it?

The onset of Type 2 diabetes is gradual, with most individuals progressing through a state of prediabetes, a condition now striking approximately one in three Americans, but only about one in ten even knows they have it. Since current methods of treating diabetes remain inadequate, prevention is preferable, but what works better: lifestyle changes or drugs? We didn't know until a landmark study, highlighted in my video, How to Prevent Prediabetes from Turning into Diabetes, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Thousands were randomized to get a double dose of the leading anti-diabetes drug, or diet and exercise. The drug, metformin, is probably the safest diabetes drug there is. It causes diarrhea in about half, makes one in four nauseous, about one in ten suffer from asthenia (physical weakness and fatigue), but only about 1 in 67,000 are killed by the drug every year.

And the drug worked. Compared to placebo, in terms of the percentage of people developing diabetes within the four-year study period, fewer people in the drug group developed diabetes.

But diet and exercise alone worked better. The lifestyle intervention reduced diabetes incidence by 58 percent, compared to only 31 percent with the drug. The lifestyle intervention was significantly more effective than the drug, and had fewer side-effects. More than three quarters of those on the drug reported gastrointestinal symptoms, though there was more muscle soreness reported in the lifestyle group, on account of them actually exercising.

That's what other studies have subsequently found: non-drug approaches superior to drug-based approaches for diabetes prevention. And the average 50 percent or so drop in risk was just for those instructing people to improve their diet and lifestyle, whether or not they actually did it.

In one of the most famous diabetes prevention studies, 500 people with prediabetes were randomized into a lifestyle intervention or control group. During the trial, the risk of diabetes was reduced by that same 50-60 percent, but only a fraction of the patients met the modest goals. Even in the lifestyle intervention group, only about a quarter were able to eat enough fiber, meaning whole, plant foods, and cut down on enough saturated fat, which in North America is mostly dairy, dessert, chicken and pork. But they did better than the control group, and fewer of them developed diabetes because of it. But what if you looked just at the folks that actually made the lifestyle changes? They had zero diabetes--none of them got diabetes. That's effectively a 100 percent drop in risk.

I often hear the diet and exercise intervention described as 60 percent effective. That's still nearly twice as effective as the drug, but what the other study really showed it may be more like 100 percent in people who actually do it. So is diet and exercise 100 percent effective or only 60 percent effective? On a population scale, since so many people won't actually do it, it may only be 60 percent effective. But on an individual level, if you want to know what are the chances you won't get diabetes if you change your lifestyle, then the 100 percent answer is more accurate. Lifestyle interventions only work when we do them. Kale is only healthy if it actually gets into our mouth. It's not healthy just sitting on the shelf.


How about preventing prediabetes in the first place? See Preventing Prediabetes By Eating More and my video How to Prevent Prediabetes in Children.

Some things we may want to avoid can be found in my videos Eggs and Diabetes and Fish and Diabetes.

And what if we already have the disease? See Diabetics Should Take Their Pulses and my live presentation From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Diet.

What if you don't have time for exercise? Check out Standing Up for Your Health.

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, and Food as Medicine.

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Why are Chickens Fed Prozac?

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Between 1940 and 1971, the synthetic estrogen DES was prescribed to several million pregnant women with the promise that it would "help prevent miscarriages." Problems were first highlighted in 1953 when it became clear that DES was not only ineffective but potentially harmful. However, a powerful and emotive advertising campaign ensured that its use continued until 1971, when it was found to cause cancer of the vagina in the daughters of the mothers who took it. DES was also used to stunt the growth of girls who were predicted to grow "abnormally tall." As one pediatric textbook put it in 1968, "excessive tallness in girls can be a handicap ... it provides difficulty in the purchase of smart clothes; the victim is ineligible for certain sought-after professional positions such as air line hostess; and poses problems in selecting suitable dancing partners."

What most people don't know is that the greatest usage of DES was by the livestock industry, used to improve "feed conversion" in cattle and chickens. Within a year of approval, DES was fed to millions of farm animals. Although it was shown to be a human carcinogen in 1971, DES used in meat production was not completely banned until 1979. (Now, the meat industry just uses different synthetic estrogen implants.) Even decades after DES was banned, we're still seeing its effects--an elevation of birth defects even down to the third generation.

Arsenic is another human carcinogen that was fed to chickens. This time by the billions. The arsenic not only ends up in the meat (as I've talked about previously in Arsenic in Chicken and How Many Cancers Caused by Arsenic Laced Chicken?), but also in the feathers, which are fed back to the animals. Because a third of the bird is inedible, the industry takes billions of pounds of heads, bones, guts, and feathers and uses them as fertilizer and animal feed. This feather meal is fed back to chickens, pigs, cows, sheep, and fish. Straight feathers are not particularly nutritious; so guts, heads, and feet may be added for a little extra protein, and manure added for minerals. The problem is that feather meal used as animal feed could contribute to additional arsenic exposure in persons who consume meat. This gave researchers at John Hopkins University and Arizona State an idea. By testing feather meal, they might be able to find out what else chickens are fed. In their study, "Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products," (highlighted in my video, Illegal Drugs in Chicken Feathers) they found that all feather samples tested positive for antibiotic type drugs (between two and ten different kinds in each sample), including fluoroquinolones, which have been banned for years. Either the poultry industry is illegally still using the stuff, or it's being used in other animals fed to the chicken. Regardless, when feather meal is fed back to chickens, they are getting exposed to this drug that is against the law to feed to chickens, creating a cycle of re-exposure to banned drugs.

Then it just gets weirder. The feathers contained a half dozen other drugs: Prozac, an antihistamine, a fungicide, a sex hormone, and caffeine. Why doesn't the poultry industry just say no? Evidently, the antihistamines are to combat the respiratory problems from packing so many tens of thousands into the confinement sheds, and the caffeine helps keeps the chickens stay awake so they eat more and grow faster.

The drugs fed to chickens are one reason used to explain why poultry has been tied to increased cancer risk. See Chicken Dioxins, Viruses, or Antibiotics?.

The most concerning drugs currently in the U.S. poultry supply are the antibiotics, though. See, for example:

Ironically, not only may antibiotics in chicken contribute to antibiotic resistant infections, but to the infections in the first place. Check out my video Avoiding Chicken to Avoid Bladder Infections.

Then as if adding potentially harmful chemicals to the chickens themselves wasn't bad enough, more are added in the processing plant: Phosphate Additives in Chicken.

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: U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr

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Do Dietary Toxins Contribute to Hand Tremors?

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Essential tremor, affecting 1 in 25 adults over 40 and up to 1 in 5 of those in their 90s, is one of the most common neurological diseases. In addition to the potentially debilitating hand tremor, there can be other neuropsychiatric manifestations, including difficulty walking and various levels of cognitive impairment.

Might beta-carboline neurotoxins play a role in essential tremor? Harmane is one of the most potent of the tremor-producing neurotoxins. Expose people to harmane, and they develop tremors; take it away, and the tremors disappear. What if we're exposed long-term? A recent study at Columbia University, highlighted in my video, Essential Tremor and Diet, found that those with essential tremor have much higher levels of this toxin in their bloodstream compared to those without tremor. Furthermore, the higher the harmane levels, the worse the tremor. The highest levels are found in those who have both essential tremor and cancer, suggesting harmane may be playing a role in both diseases.

How did folks get exposed to these chemicals? Primarily through meat: beef, pork, fish, and especially chicken. So if this potent, tremor-producing neurotoxin is concentrated in cooked muscle foods, is meat consumption associated with a higher risk of essential tremor? Another Columbia University study found that men who ate the most meat had 21 times the odds of essential tremor. To put that in context, if we go back to the original studies on smoking and lung cancer, we see that smoking was only linked to about 14 times the odds, not 21.

Blood levels of this neurotoxin may shoot up within five minutes of eating meat. Five minutes? It's not even digested by then. This rapid uptake is indicative of significant absorption directly through the mouth straight into the bloodstream, bypassing the stomach and, most importantly, bypassing the detoxifying enzymes of the liver. This may lead to higher exposure levels in peripheral organs, like the brain.

Due to its high fat solubility, harmane accumulates in brain tissue, and, using a fancy brain scan called "proton magnetic resonance spectroscopic imaging," higher harmane levels have been linked to greater metabolic dysfunction in the brains of essential tremor sufferers.

Harmane is also found in certain heated plants, like tobacco. A broiled chicken breast has about 13 micrograms of harmane, and cigarettes average about one microgram, so a half pack of cigarettes could expose us to almost as much of this neurotoxin as a serving of chicken. Harman is created when tobacco is burned, and also when coffee beans are roasted. However, coffee intake has not been tied to increased risk (and neither has tobacco for that matter), so it may be something else in meat that's to blame for the 2,000 percent increase in odds for this disabling brain disease.

I also have a few videos about the other major tremor condition, Parkinson's Disease: Preventing Parkinson's Disease with Diet and Treating Parkinson's Disease with Diet

Other compounds created in cooked meats may also have implications for cancer risk:

-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.

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How Learning to Cook Can Save Your Life

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The eating habits of modern Americans have been described as, "eating breakfast in their cars, lunch at their desks and chicken from a bucket." Within the last few decades, Americans are eating out more and more, and cooking fewer meals at home, which are typically healthier. Home-cooled meals tend to contain less saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, and more fiber. Therefore, the benefits to preparing healthy food at home may include the prevention of chronic disease. Just because food is prepared at home doesn't mean it's healthy, though. Microwaving a frozen pizza isn't exactly home cooking.

One of the problems is many people no longer know how to cook. For example, one study reported that 25% of the men in the study had absolutely no cooking skills whatsoever. Another study in the UK compared the nutritional content of meals created by television chefs to TV dinners, and both were then compared to the nutritional guidelines published by the World Health Organization. The researchers looked at a hundred of each, and not a single one complied with the nutrition standards. And the TV chef recipes were even less healthy than the TV dinners!

Many people don't know how to make healthy food taste good. This is not a new problem; an editorial in the Journal of the American Medical Association bemoaned the same issue back in 1913. In the United States, "vegetables are frequently boiled in a way which deprives them of their characteristic odor and their toothsomeness. 'Villainous and idiotic' are the only adjectives that can describe our methods of cooking vegetables."

Researchers in Taiwan recently found that in a group of elderly Taiwanese people, those who cooked their own food were not only healthier, but also lived longer. In a ten year study, highlighted in my video, Cooking to Live Longer, those who cooked most frequently had only 59% of the mortality risk. This took into account the exercise people got grocery shopping, physical function, and chewing ability. So why did they live longer? Those that cooked typically ate a more nutritious diet with a higher consumption of vegetables.

The effect on mortality was much more evident in women than in men. It turns out that "men were, with doubtful justification, more positive about the nutritional value of convenience foods compared with women." Women who cooked made better food choices in general.

As one author noted in the book Something from the Oven, over the last century:

"we began the long process of turning over to the food industry many of the decisions about what we eat...Today our staggering rates of obesity and diabetes are testimony to the faith we put in corporations to feed us well. But the food industry is a business, not a parent; it doesn't care what we eat as long as we're willing to pay for it. Home cooking these days has far more than sentimental value; it's a survival skill."

With the onslaught of health information out there, access to simple, healthy recipes has never been easier. While cooking at home requires more effort, energy, and cleaning, the results, health aside, are often more rewarding. Learning to cook is a simple art, and with the right amount of patience and delicious ingredients, it can help us take back control of our own lives.

Check out your local public library for cookbooks--I've been amazed at the selection in all of the cities I've lived. Or for those for which books are just so 20th century, the online Rouxbe Cooking School holds healthy cooking classes.

More on fast food:

Some other unsavory bits about the food industry:

I think this is the only other mention of celebrity chefs I have:
Paula Deen: diabetes drug spokesperson

-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.

Picture by Moyan Brenn on Flickr

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How to Reduce Your Dietary Cadmium Absorption

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Cadmium is known as a highly toxic metal that represents a major hazard to human health. It sticks around in our body for decades because our body has no efficient way to get rid of it and may contribute to a variety of illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Most recently, data suggests that cadmium exposure may impair cognitive performance even at levels once thought to be safe. Recent studies also suggest that cadmium exposure may produce other adverse health effects at lower exposure levels than previously predicted, including increased risk of hormonal cancers. For example, researchers on Long Island estimated that as much as a third of breast cancer in the U.S. might be associated with elevated cadmium levels.

Inhalation of cigarette smoke is one of the major routes for human exposure to cadmium. Seafood consumption is another route of human exposure. The highest levels, though, are found in organ meats. But how many horse kidneys do people eat? Since people eat so few organs, grains and vegetables actually end up contributing the largest amount to our collective diets.

However, don't drop the salad from the menu yet.

Whole grains and vegetables are among the major dietary sources of fiber, phytoestrogens, and antioxidants that may protect against breast cancer. Indeed, even though the risk of breast cancer goes up as women consume more and more cadmium, and even though on paper most cadmium comes from grains and vegetables, breast cancer risk goes down the more and more whole grains and vegetables women eat. So are animal sources of cadmium somehow worse, or do the benefits of plant foods just overwhelm any adverse effects of the cadmium?

A study out of the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand highlighted in my video, Cadmium and Cancer: Plant vs. Animal Foods, may have helped solve the mystery. It's not what we eat, it's what we absorb.

Cadmium bioavailability from animal-based foods may be higher than that from vegetable-based foods. There appears to be something in plants that inhibits cadmium absorption. In fact, researchers found when they added kale to boiled pig kidneys, they could cut down on the toxic exposure. Just one tablespoon of pig kidney, and we may exceed the daily safety limit--unless we add kale, in which case we could eat a whole quarter cup. The pronounced effects of the inhibitory factors in kale point out, as the researchers note, "the importance of vegetable foods in terms of prevention of health hazard from [cadmium] ingested as mixed diets in a real situation."

Reesearchers have concluded: "Even if a vegetarian diet contains more lead and cadmium than a mixed diet, it is not certain that it will give rise to higher uptake of the metals, because the absorption of lead and cadmium is inhibited by plant components such as fiber and phytate." Having whole grains in our stomach up to three hours before we swallow lead can eliminate 90% of absorption, thought to be due to phytates in whole grains, nuts, and beans grabbing onto it.

So vegetarians may have lower levels of lead and cadmium even though they have higher intakes.

In fact, there is a significant decrease in the hair concentrations of lead and cadmium after the change from an omnivorous to a vegetarian diet, indicating a lower absorption of the metals. Researchers took folks eating a standard Swedish diet and put them on a vegetarian diet. The vegetarians were encouraged to eat lots of whole, unrefined plant foods, with no meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. Junk food was also discouraged. Within three months on a vegetarian diet, their levels significantly dropped, and stayed down for the rest of the year-long experiment. The researchers came back three years later, three years after the subjects stopped eating vegetarian, and found that their levels of mercury, cadmium, and lead had shot back up.

Since the cadmium in plants is based on the cadmium in soil, plant-eaters that live in a really polluted area like Slovakia, which has some of the highest levels thanks to the chemical and smelting industries, can indeed build up higher cadmium levels, especially if they eat lots of plants. It's interesting that, "in spite of the significantly higher blood cadmium concentration as a consequence of a greater cadmium intake from polluted plants, all the antioxidants in those same plants were found to help inhibit the harmful effects of higher free radical production caused by the cadmium exposure." Still, though, in highly polluted areas it might be an especially good idea not to smoke or eat too much seafood or organ meats. But even if we live in the Slovak Republic's "black triangle of pollution," the benefits of whole plant foods would outweigh the risks. For people in highly polluted areas, zinc supplements may decrease cadmium absorption, but I'd recommend against multi-mineral supplements, as they have been found to be contaminated with cadmium itself.

There are other toxins in cigarette smoke also found in food. See:

Toxic metals have also been found in dietary supplements. See for example, Get the Lead Out and Heavy Metals in Protein Powder Supplements.

Mercury is also a serious problem. See:

More on pollution in seafood can be found in:

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.

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Hives from Tick Bite-Induced Meat Allergies

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In a previous video Alpha Gal and the Lone Star Tick, I started talking about a tick bite-induced meat allergy, called Alpha-Gal, that is unlike any other food allergy we know. The most interesting feature of the reactions may be that first symptoms can occur hours after eating meat. Normally, an allergic reaction to a bee sting, for example, happens within minutes. With this meat allergy, we could have a piece of bacon for breakfast and our throat wouldn't start closing off until the afternoon. Because the cause and effect are temporarily separated, we often blame other factors, such as what we ate for lunch, or we just call it "spontaneous" or "idiopathic" anaphylaxis, which is just doctor-speak for "we have no idea what the cause is."

The delay likely occurs because the alpha-gal is probably absorbed along with the fat in meat, given that the allergic reaction occurring four to five hours after meat ingestion corresponds to the peak absorption time of fatty acids from the intestinal tract.

What makes the allergy even more difficult to diagnose is that the majority of victims experience only occasional overt reactions, despite regular meat consumption. Fattier meats, like pork rinds, may provoke episodes more consistently and severely, but still don't trigger a reaction every time.

Tick bite-induced meat allergy is on the rise. Ten years ago we didn't even know this thing existed, but now in tick-ridden states as many as 20% of the population have these anti-meat allergic antibodies (See Tick Bites, Meat Allergies, and Chronic Urticaria). And more and more people are coming in affected, though probably no more than 10% who test positive go on to experience hives or serious allergic reaction to meat.

We're also seeing it more and more in kids. Researchers in Virginia have found that it is not uncommon, though identification of the allergy may not be straightforward. Unlike in adults, who frequently present with systemic reactions, the majority of children with this syndrome present with just skin manifestations, such as hives. However, this doesn't mean it's not serious. In fact, nearly half the kids ended up in the ER, and about 1 in 12 needed to be hospitalized.

Up to a quarter of the population breaks out in hives at some time in their lives, but some children can be affected for weeks or months. It can be triggered by infections, foods, drugs, parasites, or be autoimmune, but in a large subset of cases we don't know what the trigger is, and so, call it chronic "idiopathic" urticaria. It's a common thing pediatricians see. The only cure is avoiding and eliminating whatever is triggering it, but in three quarters of cases we have no clue.

We now know that many children who had been diagnosed with mysterious hives or allergic reactions and may have been specifically told that the reactions were not a result of a food allergy, may have actually been suffering from anti-gal meat allergies. The serious nature of the reactions and the rising frequency of allergic swelling and hives across all age groups underscore the importance of identifying what's going on, and physicians should keep this new diagnosis in mind.

Allergies to meat might be more common than previously thought, as much as 2% of the population (which would mean millions of people). But to put this in context, Americans are much more likely to suffer an anaphylactic reaction due to seafood, tick bite or not, no matter where they live. A national survey of emergency rooms found shellfish was by far the most frequently implicated food, and unlike many other allergies, kids don't tend to outgrow fish and shellfish allergies.

Some fish allergies are actually allergies not to the fish, but to worms in the fish, like anisakis, which are found particularly in cod, anchovies, and squid. Exposure to these parasites in fish, living or dead, is a widespread problem. In fact, we can even have an allergic reaction to the parasitic fish worm when we eat chickens that were fed on fishmeal. This is one of the ways someone who's allergic to fish could get triggered by chicken.

Because of these worms, researchers recommend that people stop eating seafood and sushi altogether, because besides inducing allergenic reactions, the worms may cause a leaky gut syndrome, which often is unrecognized and can predispose someone to other, more important pathologies than just being itchy all over.

I previously covered anisakis in Allergenic Fish Worms and other allergenic parasite reactions in Chronic Headaches and Pork Tapeworms.

The worms might not the only thing increasing allergies in fish. See:

I also did a 4-part series on allergies in general if anyone's interested:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 - 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

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Dr. Greger’s 2015 Live Year-in-Review Presentation

Food as Medicine

View my new live presentation here: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet

Every year I scour the world's scholarly literature on clinical nutrition, pulling together what I find to be the most interesting, practical, and groundbreaking science on how to best feed ourselves and our families. I start with the thousands of papers published annually on nutrition (27,000 this year--a new record!) and, thanks to a crack team of volunteers (and now staff!), I'm able to whittle those down (to a mere 8,000 this year). They are then downloaded, categorized, read, analyzed, and churned into the few hundred short videos. This allows me to post new videos and articles every day, year-round, to NutritionFacts.org. This certainly makes the site unique. There's no other science-based source for free daily updates on the latest discoveries in nutrition. The problem is that the amount of information can be overwhelming.

Currently I have more than a thousand videos covering 1,931 nutrition topics. Where do you even begin? Many have expressed their appreciation for the breadth of material, but asked that I try to distill it into a coherent summary of how best to use diet to prevent and treat chronic disease. I took this feedback to heart and in 2012 developed Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, which explored the role diet may play in preventing, arresting, and even reversing our top 15 killers. Not only did it rise to become one of the Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2012, it remains my single most viewed video to date, watched over a million times (NutritionFacts.org is now up to more than 1.5 million hits a month!).

In 2013 I developed the sequel, More Than an Apple a Day, in which I explored the role diet could play in treating some of our most common conditions. I presented it around the country and it ended up #1 on our Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2013. Then in 2014 I premiered the sequel-sequel, From Table to Able, in which I explored the role diet could play in treating some of our most disabling diseases, landing #1 on our Top 10 Most Popular Videos of 2014.

Every year I wonder how I'm going to top the year before. Knowing how popular these live presentations can be and hearing all the stories from folks about what a powerful impact they can have on people's lives, I put my all into this new 2015 one. I spent more time putting together this presentation than any other in my life. It took me an entire month, and when you see it I think you'll appreciate why.

This year, I'm honored to bring you Food as Medicine, in which I go through our most dreaded diseases--but that's not even the best part! I'm really proud of what I put together for the ending. I spend the last 20 minutes or so (starting at 56:22) going through a thought experiment that I'm hoping everyone will find compelling. I think it may be my best presentation ever. You be the judge.

You can watch it at no cost online, but it is also available on DVD through my website or on Amazon. If you want to share copies with others, I have a five for $40 special (enter coupon code 5FOR40FAM). All proceeds from the sales of all my books, DVDs, downloads, and presentations go to the 501c3 nonprofit charity that keeps NutritionFacts.org free for all, for all time. If you want to support this initiative to educate millions about eradicating dietary diseases, please consider making a donation.

After you've watched the new presentation, make sure you're subscribed to get my video updates daily, weekly, or monthly to stay on top of all the latest.

-Michael Greger

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Why Deep Fried Foods May Cause Cancer

NF-Jul21 Cancer Risk from French fries.jpg

In the latest study on dietary patterns and breast cancer risk among women, healthier eating was associated with eliminating three-quarters of the odds of breast cancer, whereas less healthy eating was associated with up to nearly eight times the odds. Included in the unhealthy eating pattern was the consumption of deep-fried foods, which have previously been linked to breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, oral and throat cancers, esophageal cancer, and cancer of the voicebox. No deep fried foods? What's a Southern belle to do? Instead of deep fried foods, how about the traditional Southern diet, characterized by high intakes of cooked greens, beans, legumes, cabbage, sweet potatoes and cornbread, which may reduce the risk of invasive breast cancer significantly.

What about the consumption of deep-fried foods and risk of prostate cancer? Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington found that eating French fries, fried chicken, fried fish, and doughnuts was associated with about a third greater odds of prostate cancer. After stratifying for tumor aggressiveness, they found slightly stronger associations with more aggressive disease, suggesting that regular intake of deep-fried foods may contribute to the progression of prostate cancer as well.

What in deep fried foods is so bad for us? Just heating oil that hot can generate potentially carcinogenic compounds, and then known carcinogens such as heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons form when the muscles of chickens and fish are cooked at that temperature. Deep-fried plants, on the other hand, can form acrylamide.

I did a video about acrylamide back in 2008, suggesting it's a probable human carcinogen (See Acrylamide in French Fries). Since then, studies have suggested pregnant women may want to cut back on French fries to protect the growth of their baby's body and brain. Based on a study (highlighted in my video, Cancer Risk from French Fries) feeding people a little bag of potato chips every day for a month, it now seems acrylamide may also cause inflammation as well, which could explain its purported role in cancer progression.

Acrylamide intake has been associated with endometrial cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, kidney cancer, and esophageal cancer. How much cancer risk are we talking about? Taiwanese researchers examined lifetime cancer risk and French fry consumption. The researchers picked on French fries because they comprise by far the greatest percentage contribution of acrylamide to the diets of children. They estimated that, at most, one or two boys and girls out of every ten thousand would develop cancer eating French fries that they would otherwise not have developed if they hadn't eaten French fries. So it's not as bad as eating something like fried fish, or fried chicken, but how much is that saying?

The level of cancer risk in both boys and girls associated with French fries depends on how long and hot they're fried. In Europe, the food industry swore that they'd self-regulate and control fry times to decrease acrylamide levels, but we've yet to see any subsequent change in acrylamide levels in French fries.

Researchers continue to urge that the cooking temperature should be as low as possible and the cooking time should be as short as possible, "while still maintaining a tasty quality" of course. We wouldn't want to reduce cancer risk too much--they might not taste as good!

Blanching the potatoes first reduces acrylamide formation, but potato chip companies complain that, not only would it muck with the flavor, but it would reduce the nutritional properties by leaching away some of the vitamin C. But if we're relying on potato chips to get our vitamin C, acrylamide is probably the least of our worries.

More on heterocyclic amines:

There are some things we can do to counteract the effects of these carcinogens, though:

I touch on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in Meat Fumes: Dietary Secondhand Smoke and Is Liquid Smoke Flavoring Carcinogenic?
Certain fats may play a role in breast cancer survival as well: Breast Cancer Survival, Butterfat, and Chicken and Breast Cancer Survival and Trans Fat.

-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, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Kim Love / Flickr

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