What Do All the Blue Zones Have in Common?

Do Flexitarians Live Longer.jpg

What accounts for the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet? An anatomy of health effects was published, and the single most important component was the high consumption of plant foods. In contrast, fish and seafood consumption, the only animal foods promoted in the Mediterranean diet, did not seem to help.

If you look at four of the major dietary quality scoring systems, which have all been associated with extending lifespan and lowering heart disease and cancer mortality, they all share only four things in common: more fruit, more vegetables, more whole grains and more nuts and beans. They are all built on a common core of a diet rich in plant foods, whereas opposite food patterns, rich in animal foods and poor in plant-based foods (in other words, the Western diet), is associated with higher risks. So we need to optimize the food environment to support whole grains, vegetables, fruit and plant-based proteins.

That's one of the things all the so-called Blue Zones have in common: the longest living populations have not only social support and engagement and daily exercise, but nutritionally they all center their diets around plant foods, reserving meat mostly for special occasions. In fact, the population with perhaps the highest life-expectancy in the world, the California Adventist vegetarians, doesn't eat any meat at all.

So if the primary benefits of the Mediterranean diet are due to all the whole plant foods, what if you went back to the famous PREDIMED study and created a "provegetarian" scoring system? We know vegetarians live longer, but because a pure vegetarian diet might not easily be embraced by many individuals, maybe it would be easier to swallow if we just tell people more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods. But would just moving along the spectrum towards more plants actually enable people to live longer? Researchers thought of this food pattern as a "gentle approach" to vegetarianism, figuring that if it improved survival it would be an easily understandable message for health promotion: more plant foods, less animal foods.

On this scoring system, you get points for eating fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, beans, olive oil and potatoes, but get docked points for any animal fats, eggs, fish, dairy or any type of meat or meat products. Of course that means you get a higher score the more potato chips and French fries you eat. That's why I prefer the term "whole-food, plant-based diet" since it's defined by what you eat, not by what you don't eat. When I taught at Cornell I had "vegan" students who apparently were trying to live off French fries and beer; vegan does not necessarily mean health-promoting.

But did the provegetarian scoring system work? Regardless of healthy versus unhealthy, if you give points to people for any kind of plant food, processed or not, and detract points for any kind of animal product consumption, people with higher scores live longer. The maximum provegetarian score is 60, but even just scoring 40 or more was associated with a 40 percent drop in mortality. In fact, there were so few deaths in the highest category of adherence to the provegetarian diet, they had to merge the two upper categories for their analysis. This is evidence that simple advice to increase the consumption of plant-derived foods with reductions in the consumption of foods from animal sources confers a survival advantage. You can view the graph in my video Do Flexitarians Live Longer?

The researchers conclude, "this modest change is realistic, affordable, and achievable because a sizable proportion of their population was already eating that way. So one can get significant survival benefit without a radical shift to the exclusive consumption of plant foods, a more gradual and gentle approach which is more easily translatable into public policy." A 41 percent drop in mortality rates in the United States would mean saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

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

I've done a few videos on the health of so-called semi-vegetarians or flexitarians ("flexible" vegetarians). See how they rate in:

The Provegetarian Score reminds me of the animal to vegetable protein ratio in Prostate Cancer Survival: The A/V Ratio. My favorite dietary quality index is the one in Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score. How do you rate? Even the healthiest among us may be able to continue to push the envelope.

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

What Do All the Blue Zones Have in Common?

Do Flexitarians Live Longer.jpg

What accounts for the benefits of a Mediterranean-style diet? An anatomy of health effects was published, and the single most important component was the high consumption of plant foods. In contrast, fish and seafood consumption, the only animal foods promoted in the Mediterranean diet, did not seem to help.

If you look at four of the major dietary quality scoring systems, which have all been associated with extending lifespan and lowering heart disease and cancer mortality, they all share only four things in common: more fruit, more vegetables, more whole grains and more nuts and beans. They are all built on a common core of a diet rich in plant foods, whereas opposite food patterns, rich in animal foods and poor in plant-based foods (in other words, the Western diet), is associated with higher risks. So we need to optimize the food environment to support whole grains, vegetables, fruit and plant-based proteins.

That's one of the things all the so-called Blue Zones have in common: the longest living populations have not only social support and engagement and daily exercise, but nutritionally they all center their diets around plant foods, reserving meat mostly for special occasions. In fact, the population with perhaps the highest life-expectancy in the world, the California Adventist vegetarians, doesn't eat any meat at all.

So if the primary benefits of the Mediterranean diet are due to all the whole plant foods, what if you went back to the famous PREDIMED study and created a "provegetarian" scoring system? We know vegetarians live longer, but because a pure vegetarian diet might not easily be embraced by many individuals, maybe it would be easier to swallow if we just tell people more plant-based foods and less animal-based foods. But would just moving along the spectrum towards more plants actually enable people to live longer? Researchers thought of this food pattern as a "gentle approach" to vegetarianism, figuring that if it improved survival it would be an easily understandable message for health promotion: more plant foods, less animal foods.

On this scoring system, you get points for eating fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains, beans, olive oil and potatoes, but get docked points for any animal fats, eggs, fish, dairy or any type of meat or meat products. Of course that means you get a higher score the more potato chips and French fries you eat. That's why I prefer the term "whole-food, plant-based diet" since it's defined by what you eat, not by what you don't eat. When I taught at Cornell I had "vegan" students who apparently were trying to live off French fries and beer; vegan does not necessarily mean health-promoting.

But did the provegetarian scoring system work? Regardless of healthy versus unhealthy, if you give points to people for any kind of plant food, processed or not, and detract points for any kind of animal product consumption, people with higher scores live longer. The maximum provegetarian score is 60, but even just scoring 40 or more was associated with a 40 percent drop in mortality. In fact, there were so few deaths in the highest category of adherence to the provegetarian diet, they had to merge the two upper categories for their analysis. This is evidence that simple advice to increase the consumption of plant-derived foods with reductions in the consumption of foods from animal sources confers a survival advantage. You can view the graph in my video Do Flexitarians Live Longer?

The researchers conclude, "this modest change is realistic, affordable, and achievable because a sizable proportion of their population was already eating that way. So one can get significant survival benefit without a radical shift to the exclusive consumption of plant foods, a more gradual and gentle approach which is more easily translatable into public policy." A 41 percent drop in mortality rates in the United States would mean saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.

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

I've done a few videos on the health of so-called semi-vegetarians or flexitarians ("flexible" vegetarians). See how they rate in:

The Provegetarian Score reminds me of the animal to vegetable protein ratio in Prostate Cancer Survival: The A/V Ratio. My favorite dietary quality index is the one in Calculate Your Healthy Eating Score. How do you rate? Even the healthiest among us may be able to continue to push the envelope.

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 Saturated Fat Studies: Buttering Up the Public

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Time magazine's cover exhorting people to eat butter could be viewed as a desperate attempt to revive dwindling print sales, but they claimed to be reporting on real science--a systematic review and meta-analysis published in a prestigious journal that concluded that current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage cutting down on saturated fat, like the kind found in meat and dairy products like butter.

No wonder it got so much press, since reducing saturated fat intake is a major focus of most dietary recommendations worldwide, aiming to prevent chronic diseases including coronary heart disease. So, to quote the Center for Science in the Public Interest, "What gives? Evidently, shaky science...and a mission by the global dairy industry to boost sales."

They interviewed an academic insider, who noted that some researchers are intent on showing saturated fat does not cause heart disease, which can be seen in my video The Saturated Fat Studies: Buttering Up the Public. In 2008, the global dairy industry held a meeting where they decided that one of their main priorities was to "neutralize the negative impact of milk fat by regulators and medical professionals." And when they want to do something, they get it done. So they set up a major, well-funded campaign to come up with proof that saturated fat does not cause heart disease. They assembled scientists who were sympathetic to the dairy industry, provided them with funding, encouraged them to put out statements on milk fat and heart disease, and arranged to have them speak at scientific meetings. And the scientific publications we've seen emerging since the Mexico meeting have done just what they set out to do.

During this meeting, the dairy industry discussed what is the key barrier to increasing worldwide demand for dairy. There's global warming issues and other milks competing out there, but number one on the list is the "Negative messages and intense pressure to reduce saturated fats by governments and non- governmental organizations." In short, the negative messages are outweighing the positive, so indeed, their number one priority is to neutralize the negative image of milk fat among regulators and health professionals as related to heart disease.

So if we are the dairy industry, how are we going to do it? Imagine we work for Big Butter. We've got quite the challenge ahead of us. If we look at recommendations from around the globe, there is a global scientific consensus to limit saturated fat intake with most authoritative bodies recommending getting saturated fat at least under 10% of calories, with the prestigious U.S. Institute of Medicine and the European Food Safety Authority recommending to push saturated fat consumption down as low as possible.

The latest guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology recommend reducing trans fat intake, giving it their strongest A-grade level of evidence. And they say the same same for reducing saturated fat intake. Since saturated and trans fats are found in the same place, meat and dairy, cutting down on foods with saturated fat will have the additional benefit of lowering trans fat intake. They recommend pushing saturated fat intake down to 5 or 6%. People don't realize how small that is. One KFC chicken breast could take us over the top. Or, two pats of butter and two cubes of cheese and we're done for the day--no more dairy, meat, or eggs. That'd be about 200 calories, so they are in effect saying 90% of our diet should be free of saturated fat-containing foods. That's like the American Heart Association saying, "two meals a week can be packed with meat, dairy, and junk, but the entire rest of the week should be unprocessed plant-foods." That's how stringent the new recommendations are.

So this poses a problem for Big Cheese and Chicken. The top contributors of cholesterol-raising saturated fat is cheese, ice cream, chicken, non-ice cream desserts like cake and pie, and then pork. So what are these industries to do? See The Saturated Fat Studies: Set Up to Fail.

For those unfamiliar with Trans Fat in Meat and Dairy (and refined vegetable oils), that's why I made a video about it.

The U.S. National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine "as low as possible" position, echoed by the European Food Safety Authority, is described in my video: Trans Fat, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol: Tolerable Upper Intake of Zero.

What happened when a country tried to put the lower saturated fat guidance into practice? See the remarkable results in Dietary Guidelines: From Dairies to Berries.

Don't think the dietary guidelines process could be undermined by underhanded corporate tactics? Sad but true:

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--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

Image Credit: Johnathan Nightingale / Flickr

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How to Mitigate and Prevent Crohn’s Disease with Diet

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Crohn's disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects more than a million Americans. It is an inflammatory bowel disease in which the body attacks the intestines. There is currently no known cure for Crohn's disease; current research focuses on controlling symptoms. There is no definitive medical or surgical therapy. The best we have is a plant-based diet, which has afforded the best relapse prevention to date.

Researchers got the idea to try a plant-based diet because diets rich in animal protein and animal fat have been found to cause a decrease in beneficial bacteria in the intestine. So, researchers designed a semi-vegetarian diet to counter that, and 100 percent of subjects stayed in remission the first year and 92 percent the second year. These results are far better than those obtained by current drugs, including new "biological agents" that can cost $40,000 a year, and can cause progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, a disabling and deadly brain disease. And a healthy diet appears to work better.

But what about preventing Crohn's disease in the first place? A systematic review of the scientific literature on dietary intake and the risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease found that a high intake of fats and meat was associated with an increased risk of Crohn's disease as well as ulcerative colitis, whereas high fiber and fruit intakes were associated with decreased risk of Crohn's.

These results were supported more recently by the Harvard Nurse's Health Study. Data revealed that long-term intake of dietary fiber, particularly from fruit, was associated with lower risk of Crohn's disease. Women who fell into in the highest long-term fiber consumption group had a 40 percent reduced risk, leading the accompanying editorial to conclude, "advocating for a high-fiber diet may ultimately reduce the incidence of Crohn's disease."

The irony is that the highest fiber group wasn't even eating the official recommended daily minimum of fiber intake. Apparently, even just being less fiber deficient has a wide range of benefits, including a significant reduction in the risk of developing Crohn's disease, but why? The authors suggest it's because "fiber plays a vital role in the maintenance of our intestinal barrier function."

Our skin keeps the outside world outside, and so does the lining of our gut, but in Crohn's disease, this barrier function is impaired. You can see this under an electron microscope as shown in my video Preventing Crohn's Disease With Diet. The tight junctions between the intestinal cells have all sorts of little holes and breaks. The thought is that the increase in prevalence of inflammatory bowel diseases may be that dietary changes lead to the breakdown of our intestinal barrier, potentially allowing the penetration of bacteria into our gut wall, which our body then attacks, triggering the inflammation.

We know fiber acts as a prebiotic in our colon (large intestine), feeding our good bacteria, but what does fiber do in our small intestine where Crohn's often starts? We didn't know, until a landmark study was published. Researchers wanted to find out what could stop Crohn's associated invasive bacteria from tunneling into the gut wall. They found the invasion is inhibited by the presence of certain soluble plant fibers, such as from plantains and broccoli at the kinds of concentrations one might expect after eating them. They wondered if that may explain why plantain-loving populations have lower levels of inflammatory bowel disease. But, the researchers also found that there was something in processed foods that facilitated the invasion of the bacteria. Polysorbate 80 was one of them, found predominantly in ice cream, but also found in Crisco, Cool Whip, condiments, cottage cheese--you just have to read the labels.

What about maltodextrin, which is found in artificial sweeteners like Splenda, snack foods, salad dressings, and fiber supplements? Maltodextrin markedly enhanced the ability of the bacteria to glob onto our intestinal cells, though other additives. Carboxy-methyl cellulose and xanthan gum appeared to have no adverse effects.

This may all help solve the mystery of the increasing prevalence of Crohn's disease in developed nations, where we're eating less fiber-containing whole plant foods and more processed foods. What we need now are interventional studies to see if boosting fiber intake and avoiding these food additives can be effective in preventing and treating Crohn's disease. But until then, what do we tell people? The available evidence points to a diet low in animal fat, with lots of soluble fiber containing plant foods, and avoiding processed fatty foods that contain these emulsifiers. We also want to make sure we're not ingesting traces of dishwashing detergent, which could have the same effect, so make sure to rinse your dishes well. Researchers found that some people wash dishes and then just leave them to dry without rinsing, which is probably not a good idea. We don't currently have studies that show that avoiding polysorbate 80 and rinsing dishes well actually helps. Nevertheless, advice based on 'best available evidence' is better than no advice at all.

Here's a video about using a more plant-based diet to reduce the risk of relapses: Dietary Treatment of Crohn's Disease.

I get a lot of questions about additives like polysorbate 80. I'm glad I was finally able to do a blog about it. Here are some videos on some others:

If you, like me, used to think all fiber was good for was helping with bowel regularity you'll be amazed! See for example, Dr. Burkitt's F-Word 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--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

Image Credit: Graphic Stock

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What to Eat to Protect Against Kidney Cancer

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58,000 Americans are diagnosed with kidney cancer every year, and 13,000 die. And the numbers have been going up. Approximately 4 percent of cases are hereditary, but what about the other 96 percent? The only accepted risk factor has been tobacco use, but cigarette smoking has been declining.

Nitrosamines are one of the most potent carcinogens in cigarette smoke. One hot dog has as many nitrosamines and nitrosamides as five cigarettes. And these carcinogens are also found in fresh meat as well: beef, chicken and pork. So even though smoking rates have dropped, perhaps the rise in kidney cancer over the last few decades may have something to do with meat consumption. But would kidney cancer just be related to the processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs and cold cuts that have nitrate and nitrite additives, or fresh meat as well?

The NIH-AARP study featured in my video Can Diet Protect Against Kidney Cancer? is the largest prospective study on diet and health ever performed--about 500,000 followed for nine years. In addition to examining nitrate and nitrite intake from processed meat, they also looked at intake from other sources such as fresh meat, eggs and dairy. Nitrite from animal sources, not just processed meats, was associated with an increased risk of kidney cancer, and total intake of nitrate and nitrite from processed meat sources was also associated with kidney cancer risk. The researchers found no associations with nitrate or nitrite intake from plant sources, but nitrates from processed meat was associated with cancer.

When meat producers advertise their bacon or lunch meat as "uncured," this means no nitrites or nitrates added. But if you look at the small print you'll see something like, "except for celery juice." That's just a sneaky way to add nitrites. Processed meat producers ferment the nitrates in celery to create nitrites, then add it to the meat; a practice even the industry admits "may be viewed as incorrect at best or deceptive at worst."

But that same fermentation of nitrates to nitrites can happen thanks to bacteria on our tongue when we eat vegetables. So why are nitrates and nitrites from vegetables on our tongue harmless, but nitrates and nitrites from vegetables in meat linked to cancer? The actual carcinogens are not nitrites, but nitrosamines and nitrosamides. In our stomach, to turn nitrites into nitros-amines, and nitros-amides we need amines and amides, which are concentrated in animal products. And vitamin C and other antioxidants in plant foods block the formation of these carcinogens in our stomach. That's why we can safely benefit from the nitrates in vegetables without the cancer risk. In fact some of the highest nitrate vegetables like arugula, kale, and collards are associated with decreased risk of kidney cancer. The more plants, it appears, the better.

Plant-based diets and fiber-rich diets are recommended to prevent cancer directly, as well as chronic conditions associated with kidney cancer, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. It's similar to sodium intake and kidney cancer. Sodium intake increases kidney disease risk, but that's not just because sodium intake increases blood pressure. It appears the salt is associated with increased cancer risk even independently of hypertension. What about plant-based diets? Turns out the protective association remains even in people who are not obese and have normal blood pressure. So overall, plant-based and fiber-rich diets appear to do both: decrease cancer risk directly and indirectly.

I briefly address kidney health in Preventing Kidney Failure Through Diet and Treating Kidney Failure Through Diet, but have a whole series of more in-depth videos dealing with various kidney issues.

More on the fascinating nitrate/nitrite story in my 17-part series about improving athletic performance with nitrate-rich vegetables such as beets and arugula. Here are a few short highlights:

More on carcinogens caused by cooking meat in videos like:

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--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

Image Credit: RDSVS / Flickr

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Paleo Diet May Undermine Benefit of CrossFit Exercise

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Much of the low-carb and paleo reasoning revolves around insulin. To quote a paleo blogger, "carbohydrates increase insulin, the root of all evil when it comes to dieting and health." So the logic follows that because carbs increase insulin, we should stick mostly to meat, which is fat and protein with no carbs, so no increase in insulin, right?

Wrong.

We've known for half a century that if you give someone just a steak: no carbs, no sugar, no starch; their insulin goes up. Carbs make our insulin go up, but so does protein.

In 1997 an insulin index of foods was published, ranking 38 foods to determine which stimulates higher insulin levels. Researchers compared a large apple and all its sugar, a cup of oatmeal packed with carbs, a cup and a half of white flour pasta, a big bun-less burger with no carbs at all, to half of a salmon fillet. As you can see in the graph in my video Paleo Diets May Negate Benefits of Exercise, the meat produced the highest insulin levels.

Researchers only looked at beef and fish, but subsequent data showed that that there's no significant difference between the insulin spike from beef, chicken, or pork--they're all just as high. Thus, protein and fat rich foods may induce substantial insulin secretion. In fact, meat protein causes as much insulin release as pure sugar.

So, based on the insulin logic, if low-carbers and paleo folks really believed insulin to be the root of all evil, then they would be eating big bowls of spaghetti day in and day out before they would ever consume meat.

They are correct in believing that having hyperinsulinemia, high levels of insulin in the blood like type 2 diabetics have, is not a good thing, and may increase cancer risk. But if low-carb and paleo dieters stuck to their own insulin theory, then they would be out telling everyone to start eating plant-based. Vegetarians have significantly lower insulin levels even at the same weight as omnivores. This is true for ovo-lacto-vegetarians, lacto-vegetarians, and vegans. Meat-eaters have up to 50% higher insulin levels.

Researchers from the University of Memphis put a variety of people on a vegan diet (men, women, younger folks, older folks, skinny and fat) and their insulin levels dropped significantly within just three weeks. And then, just by adding egg whites back to their diet, their insulin production rose 60% within four days.

In a study out of MIT, researchers doubled participants' carbohydrate intake, and their insulin levels went down. Why? Because the researchers weren't feeding people jellybeans and sugar cookies, they were feeding people whole, plant foods, lots of whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables.

What if we put someone on a very-low carb diet, like an Atkins diet? Low carb advocates such as Dr. Westman assumed that it would lower insulin levels. Dr. Westman is the author of the new Atkins books, after Dr. Atkins died obese with, according to the medical examiner, a history of heart attack, congestive heart failure, and hypertension. But, Dr. Westman was wrong in his assumption. There are no significant drop in insulin levels on very low-carb diets. Instead, there is a significant rise in LDL cholesterol levels, the number one risk factor for our number one killer, heart disease.

Atkins is an easy target though. No matter how many "new" Atkins diets that come out, it's still old news. What about the paleo diet? The paleo movement gets a lot of things right. They tell people to ditch dairy and doughnuts, eat lots of fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and cut out a lot of processed junk food. But a new study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science is pretty concerning. Researchers took young healthy people, put them on a Paleolithic diet along with a CrossFit-based, high-intensity circuit training exercise program.

If you lose enough weight exercising, you can temporarily drop our cholesterol levels no matter what you eat. You can see that with stomach stapling surgery, tuberculosis, chemotherapy, a cocaine habit, etc. Just losing weight by any means can lower cholesterol, which makes the results of the Paleo/Crossfit study all the more troubling. After ten weeks of hardcore workouts and weight loss, the participants' LDL cholesterol still went up. And it was even worse for those who started out the healthiest. Those starting out with excellent LDL's (under 70), had a 20% elevation in LDL cholesterol, and their HDL dropped. Exercise is supposed to boost our good cholesterol, not lower it.

The paleo diet's deleterious impact on blood fats was not only significant, but substantial enough to counteract the improvements commonly seen with improved fitness and body composition. Exercise is supposed to make things better.

On the other hand, if we put people instead on a plant-based diet and a modest exercise program, mostly just walking-based; within three weeks their bad cholesterol can drop 20% and their insulin levels 30%, despite a 75-80% carbohydrate diet, whereas the paleo diets appeared to "negate the positive effects of exercise."

I touched on paleo diets before in Paleolithic Lessons, and I featured a guest blog on the subject: Will The Real Paleo Diet Please Stand Up?

but my favorite paleo videos are probably The Problem With the Paleo Diet Argument and Lose Two Pounds in One Sitting: Taking the Mioscenic Route.

I wrote a book on low carb diets in general (now available free full-text online) and touched on it in Atkins Diet: Trouble Keeping It Up and Low Carb Diets and Coronary Blood Flow.

And if you're thinking, but what about the size of the cholesterol, small and dense versus large and fluffy? Please see my video Does Cholesterol Size Matter?

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--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

Image Credit: Vincent Lit / Flickr

Original Link

Side-Effects of Aspartame on the Brain

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The National Institutes of Health AARP study of hundreds of thousands of Americans followed for years found that frequent consumption of sweetened beverages, especially diet drinks, may increase depression risk among older adults. Whether soda, fruit-flavored drinks, or iced tea, those artificially sweetened drinks appeared to carry higher risk. There was a benefit in coffee drinkers compared to non-drinkers, but if they added sugar, much of the benefits appeared to disappear, and if they added Equal or Sweet-and-Low, the risk appeared to go up.

Various effects of artificial sweeteners, including neurological effects, have been suspected. For example, aspartame--the chemical in Equal and Nutrasweet--may modulate brain neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, although data have been controversial and inconsistent. Scientific opinions range from "safe under all conditions" to "unsafe at any dose." The controversy started in the 80's soon after aspartame was approved. Researchers at the Mass College of Pharmacy and MIT noted:

"given the very large number of Americans routinely exposed, if only 1% of the 100,000,000 Americans thought to consume aspartame ever exceed the sweetener's acceptable daily intake, and if only 1% of this group happen coincidentally to have an underlying disease that makes their brains vulnerable to the effects, then the number of people who might manifest adverse brain reactions attributable to aspartame could still be about 10,000, a number on the same order as the number of brain and nerve-related consumer complaints already registered with the FDA before they stopped accepting further reports on adverse reactions to the sweetener."

Those with a history of depression might be especially vulnerable. Researchers at Case Western designed a study I highlighted in my video Aspartame and the Brain to ascertain whether individuals with mood disorders are particularly vulnerable to adverse effects of aspartame. Although they had planned on recruiting 40 patients with depression and 40 controls, the project was halted early by the Institutional Review Board for safety reasons because of the severity of reactions to aspartame within the group of patients with a history of depression.

It was decided that it was unethical to continue to expose people to the stuff.

Normally when we study a drug or a food, the company donates the product to the researchers because they're proud of the benefits or safety of their product. But the Nutrasweet company refused to even sell it to these researchers. The researchers managed to get their hands on some, and within a week there were significantly more adverse effects reported in the aspartame group than in the placebo group. They concluded that individuals with mood disorders may be particularly sensitive to aspartame, and therefore its use in this population should be discouraged.

In a review of the direct and indirect cellular effects of aspartame on the brain, it was noted that there are reports of aspartame causing neurological and behavioral disturbances in sensitive individuals, such as headaches, insomnia and seizures. The researchers go even further and propose that excessive aspartame ingestion might be involved in the development of certain mental disorders and also in compromised learning and emotional functioning. They conclude that "due to all the adverse effects caused by aspartame, it is suggested that serious further testing and research be undertaken to eliminate any and all controversies," to which someone responded in the journal that "there really is no controversy," arguing that aspartame was conclusively toxic.

But what do they mean by excessive ingestion? The latest study on the neuro-behavioral effects of aspartame consumption put people on a high aspartame diet compared to a low aspartame diet. But even the high dose at 25 mg/kg was only half the adequate daily intake set by the FDA. The FDA says one can safely consume 50mg a day, but after just eight days on half of that, participants had more irritable mood, exhibited more depression, and performed worse on certain brain function tests. And these weren't people with a pre-existing history of mental illness; these were just regular people. The researchers concluded that "given that the higher intake level tested here was well below the maximum acceptable daily intake level [40mg in Europe, 50mg here] careful consideration is warranted when consuming food products that may affect neurobehavioral health."

Easier said than done, since it's found in more than 6,000 foods, apparently making artificial sweeteners "impossible to completely eradicate from daily exposure." While that may be true for the great majority of Americans, it's only because they elect to eat processed foods. If we stick to whole foods, we don't even have to read the ingredients lists, because the healthiest foods in the supermarket are label-free, they don't even have ingredients lists--produce!

I've previously touched on artificial sweeteners before:

The healthiest caloric sweeteners are blackstrap molasses and date sugar (whole dried powdered dates). The least toxic low-calorie sweetener is probably erythritol (Erythritol May Be a Sweet Antioxidant).

Coffee may decrease suicide and cancer risk (Preventing Liver Cancer with Coffee? and Coffee and Cancer) but may impair blood flow to the heart (Coffee and Artery Function).

Other ways to improve mood include:

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--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

Image Credit: Mike Mozart / Flickr

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How Big Food Twists the Science

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Just like mosquitos are the vectors of spread for malaria, a landmark article published last year in one of the most prestigious medical journals, Lancet, described large food corporations as the vectors of spread for chronic disease. Unlike "infectious disease epidemics, however, these corporate disease vectors implement sophisticated campaigns to undermine public health interventions." Most mosquitoes don't have as good PR firms.

A key message was that "alcohol and ultra-processed food and drink industries use similar strategies as the tobacco industry to undermine effective public health policies and programs." What they mean by ultra-processed is things like burgers, frozen meals, chicken nuggets, fish sticks, potato chips, doughnuts and soda pop.

But how is the food industry like the tobacco industry? The "first strategy is to bias research findings." For example, Philip Morris implemented the Whitecoat project to hire doctors to publish ghost-written studies purporting to negate links between secondhand smoke and harm, publishing biased cherry-picked scientific reports to deny harm and suppress health information. In my video Food Industry-Funded Research Bias, you can see the actual industry memo describing the Whitecoat Project, designed to reverse the scientific "misconception" that secondhand smoke is harmful.

Similarly, funding from these large food corporations biases research. Studies show systematic bias from industry funding, so we get the same kind of tactics--supplying misinformation, use of supposedly conflicting evidence and hiding negative data.

The same scientists-for-hire that downplayed the risks of secondhand smoke are the same hired by the likes of the National Confectioner's Association to say candy cigarettes are A-OK as well. Of course, they declared "no conflict of interest."

The similarities between strategies used by the tobacco, alcohol, and food and drink corporations are unsurprising in view of the flow of people, funds and activities across these industries, which also have histories of joint ownership--like Philip Morris owned both Kraft and Miller Brewing.

So what's their strategy? As a former FDA commissioner described:

"The tobacco industry's strategy was embodied in a script written by the lawyers. Every tobacco company executive in the public eye was told to learn the script backwards and forwards, no deviation was allowed. The basic premise was simple-- smoking had not been proven to cause cancer. Not proven, not proven, not proven--this would be stated insistently and repeatedly. Inject a thin wedge of doubt, create controversy, never deviate from the prepared line. It was a simple plan and it worked."

Internal industry memos make this explicit, stating "doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the mind of the general public." The internal industry memos list objective number one as "to set aside in the minds of millions the false conviction that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer and other diseases; a conviction based on fanatical assumptions, fallacious rumors, unsupported claims and the unscientific statements and conjectures of publicity-seeking opportunists... [We need] to lift the cigarette from the cancer identification as quickly as possible, and to establish--once and for all--that no scientific evidence has ever been produced, presented or submitted to prove conclusively that cigarette smoking causes cancer," similar to what's now coming out from the food industry, from the same folks that brought us smoke and candy.

This is part of a series of "political" blogs which includes my video, Collaboration with the New Vectors of Disease. Why don't I just "stick to the science"? When there are billions of dollars at stake, the body of evidence can be skewed and manipulated. Funders can determine which studies are performed, how they're performed and whether or not they get published at all. That's why I think it's important to take a broader view to account for the ways the scientific method can be perverted for profit.

Here are some examples:

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--2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, 2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

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Aluminum Levels in Tea

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While aluminum is the third most abundant element on Earth, it may not be good for our brain, something we learned studying foundry workers exposed to particularly high levels. Although the role of aluminum in the development of brain diseases like Alzheimer's is controversial, to be prudent, steps should probably be taken to lessen our exposure to this metal.

There are a number of aluminum-containing drugs on the market (like antacids, which have the highest levels), though aluminum compounds are also added to processed foods such as anti-caking agents in pancake mix, melting agents in American cheese, meat binders, gravy thickeners, rising agents in some baking powders and dye-binders in candy. Therefore, it's better to stick to unprocessed, natural foods. Also, if you cook those natural foods in an aluminum pot, a significant amount of aluminum can leach into the food (compared to cooking in stainless steel).

When researchers tried the same experiment with tea, they got a few milligrams of aluminum regardless of what type of pot they used, suggesting that aluminum was in the tea itself. Indeed, back in the 1950's researchers noticed that tea plants tended to suck up aluminum from the soil. But it's the dose that makes the poison. According to the World Health Organization, the provisional tolerable weekly intake--our best guess at a safety limit for aluminum--is two mg per healthy kilogram of body weight per week, which is nearly a milligram per pound. Someone who weighs around 150 pounds probably shouldn't ingest more than around 20 mg of aluminum per day.

Up to a fifth of aluminum intake may come from beverages, so what we drink probably shouldn't contribute more than about four mg a day, the amount found in about five cups of green, black, or oolong tea. So should we not drink more than five cups of tea a day?

It's not what you eat or drink, it's what you absorb. If we just measured how much aluminum was in tea, it would seem as though a couple cups could double aluminum intake for the day. But if we measure the level of aluminum in people's bodies after they drink tea, it doesn't go up. This suggests that the bioavailability of aluminum in tea is low, possibly because most of the extractable aluminum in brewed tea is strongly bound to large phytonutrients that are not easily absorbed, so the aluminum just passes right through us without actually getting into our bodies. Probably more than 90 percent of the aluminum in tea is bound up.

One study out of Singapore, highlighted in my video, Is There Too Much Aluminum in Tea? did show a large spike in aluminum excretion through the urine after drinking tea compared to water. The only way for something to get from our mouth to our bladder is to first be absorbed into our bloodstream. But the researchers weren't comparing the same quantity of tea to water. They had the study subject chug down about eight and a half cups of tea, or drink water at their leisure. Therefore, the tea drinkers peed a lot more, so the aluminum content cup-for-cup was no different for tea versus water. This suggests that gross aluminum absorption from tea is unlikely and that only a little aluminum is potentially available for absorption.

So although as few as four cups of tea could provide 100 percent of our daily aluminum limit, the percentage available for absorption in the intestine may be less than 10 percent. It is therefore unlikely that moderate amounts of tea drinking can have any harmful effects--for people with normal aluminum excretion. Tea may not, however, be a good beverage for children with kidney failure, since they can't get rid of aluminum as efficiently. For most people, though, tea shouldn't be a problem.

On a special note, if you drink tea out of a can, buy undented cans. The aluminum in dented cans can leach into the liquid, boosting aluminum levels by a factor of eight while sitting on store shelves for a year.

What about the levels and absorbability of the aluminum in my other favorite type of tea? Find out in my video, How Much Hibiscus Tea is Too Much?

The tea plant also sucks up fluoride. So much so that heavy tea drinking can stain the teeth of children. See my video Childhood Tea Drinking May Increase Fluorosis Risk.

Why should we go out of our way to drink tea? See:

Is Caffeinated Tea Dehydrating? Find out by watching the video!

For more on metals in our food supply, 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: Toshiyuki IMAI / Flickr

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Plant-Based Diets for Hypertension

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Recently, researchers from Taiwan pitted the herbal tea hibiscus against obesity. They gave hibiscus to overweight individuals and reported that subjects showing reduced body weight. However, after 12 weeks on hibiscus subjects only lost about three pounds, only one and a half pounds over placebo. Hibiscus is clearly no magic fix for obesity.

The purported cholesterol-lowering property of hibiscus tea looked a bit more promising. Some older studies suggested as much as an 8% reduction from drinking two cups a day for a month. When all the studies are put together, though, the results are pretty much a wash. This may be because only about 50% of people respond at all to drinking the equivalent of between two to five cups a day, though those that do may get a respectable 12% drop. That's nothing like the 30% one can get within weeks of eating a healthy, plant-based diet, though.

Hibiscus may really shine in treating high blood pressure, a disease affecting a billion people and killing millions. Up until 2010, there wasn't sufficient high quality research to support the use of hibiscus tea to treat hypertension, but there are now randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled studies where hibiscus tea is compared to artificially colored and flavored water that looks and tastes like hibiscus tea, and the tea lowers blood pressure significantly better.

We're still not sure how it works, but hibiscus appears to boost nitric oxide production, which could help our arteries relax and dilate better. Regardless, an updated review acknowledged that the daily consumption of hibiscus tea may indeed significantly lower blood pressures in people with hypertension.

How does hibiscus compare to other blood pressure interventions? The premier clinical trial when it comes to comprehensive lifestyle modification for blood pressure control is the PREMIER Clinical Trial. Realizing that nine out of ten Americans are going to develop hypertension, researchers from John Hopkins randomized 800 men and women with high blood pressure into one of three groups. One was the control group, the so-called "advice only group," where patients were just told to lose weight, cut down on salt, increase exercise and eat healthier. In the two behavioral intervention groups the researchers got serious. Eighteen face-to-face sessions, groups meetings, food diaries, physical activity records, and calorie and sodium intake monitoring. One intervention group just concentrated on exercise; the other included exercise and diet. Researchers pushed the DASH diet, which is high in fruits and vegetables and low in full-fat dairy products and meat. In six months subjects achieved a 4.3 point drop in systolic blood pressure, compared to the control, slightly better than the lifestyle intervention without the diet.

A few points might not sound like a lot--that's like someone going from a blood pressure of 150 over 90 to a blood pressure of 146 over 90--but on a population scale a five point drop in the total number could result in 14% fewer stroke deaths, 9% fewer fatal heart attacks, and 7% fewer deaths every year overall.

A cup of hibiscus tea with each meal didn't just lower blood pressure by three, four, or five points, but by seven points, from an average of 129 down to 122. In fact, tested head-to-head against a leading blood-pressure drug, Captopril, two cups of strong hibiscus tea every morning (five tea bags for the two cups) was as effective in lowering blood pressure as a starting dose of 25mg of captopril taken twice a day.

So hibiscus tea is as good as drugs, without side-effects, and better than diet and exercise? Well, the lifestyle interventions in the PREMIER study were pretty wimpy. As public health experts noted, the PREMIER study was only asking for 30 minutes of exercise a day, whereas the World Health Organization recommends a minimum of an hour a day.

Diet-wise, the lower the animal fat intake, and the more plant sources of protein the PREMIER participants were eating, the better the diet appeared to work. This may explain why vegetarian diets appear to work even better, and the more plant-based, the lower the prevalence of hypertension.

On the DASH diet, subjects cut down on meat, but were still eating it every day, so would qualify as nonvegetarians in the Adventist 2 study (highlighted in my video Hibiscus Tea vs. Plant-Based Diets for Hypertension) which looked at 89,000 Californians. It found that those who only ate meat on a weekly basis had 23% lower rates of high blood pressure. Those who cut out all meat except fish had 38% lower rates. Those eating no meat at all, vegetarians, have less than half the rate. The vegans--cutting out all animal protein and fat--appeared to have thrown three quarters of their risk for this major killer out the window.

One sees the same kind of step-wise drop in diabetes rates as one's diet gets more and more plant-based, and a drop in excess body weight, such that only those eating completely plant-based diets in the Adventist 2 study fell into the ideal weight category. Could that be why those eating plant-based have such great blood pressure? Maybe it's just because they're so skinny. I've previously shown how those eating plant-based just have a fraction of the diabetes risk even at the same weight. but what about hypertension?

The average American has what's called prehypertension, which means the top number of our blood pressure is between 120 and 139. We don't have hypertension yet, which starts at 140, but we may be well on our way. Compare that to the blood pressure of those eating whole food plant-based diets. In one study, those eating plant-based didn't have blood pressures three points lower, four points lower, or even seen points lower, but 28 points lower. However, the group eating the standard American diet was, on average, overweight with a BMI over 26, still better than most Americans, while the vegans were a trim 21--that's 36 pounds lighter.

Maybe the only reason those eating meat, eggs, dairy, and processed junk had such higher blood pressure was because they were overweight. Maybe the diet per se had nothing to do with it?

To solve that riddle we would have to find a group still eating the standard American diet, but as slim as vegans. To find a group that trim, researchers had to use long-distance endurance athletes, who ate the same crappy American diet, but ran an average of 48 miles per week for 21 years. Anyone who runs almost two marathons a week for 20 years can be as slim as a vegan--no matter what they eat!

How did the endurance runners compare to the couch potato vegans? It appears that if we run an average of about a thousand miles every year our blood pressures can rival some couch potato vegans. That doesn't mean we can't do both, but it may be easier to just eat plants.


Those who've been following my work for years have seen how my videos have evolved. In the past, the hibiscus results may have been the whole article or video. But thanks to everyone's support, I've been able to delegate the logistics to staff and concentrate more on the content creation. This allows me to do deeper dives into the literature to put new findings into better context. The posts are a bit longer, but hopefully they're more useful--let me know what you think!

For such a leading killer, hypertension has not gotten the coverage it deserves on NutritionFacts.org. Here's a few videos, with more to come:

So should we all be drinking hibiscus tea every day? This is the first of a four part series on the latest on hibiscus. Stay tuned for the next three:

For another comparison of those running marathons and those eating plants, see: Arteries of Vegans vs. Runners

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: Amy / Flickr

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