“There’s good news and bad news. Although Americans are suffering fewer heart attacks as a whole, the rate of heart attacks for people under 40 is increasing.
For the last several decades, aging has been established as one of the biggest risk factors for heart attacks, typically affecting men 50+ and women 65+. Now, people in their 20s, 30s and 40s are more often falling victim to these cardiovascular attacks.” Healthessentials; Cleveland Clinic, April 26, 2019
Prevention is so important – and a healthy lifestyle is the key.
Over the past 20 years, many observational studies have found that people who regularly eat red or processed meats have higher rates of several cancers, notably of the colon and rectum. And lab studies have shown that compounds formed when meat is processed (that is, smoked, salted, or cured) or cooked at high temperatures can cause cancer in animals or cells. One of these compounds is called Advanced Glycation Endproducts or simply AGE’s. They may be a piece of the puzzle as to why meats are often associated with certain cancers.
That said, there are plenty of other reasons to moderate your intake of red and/or processed meats. There’s strong evidence linking them to cardiovascular disease. Also eating more plant-based foods and less meat is better for the environment resulting in less greenhouse gas production.
Why is what pregnant women eat before, during, and after pregnancy so important to the development of the unborn embryo/fetus? Recent evidence indicates that environmental factors may play an important role during early life development with potential long-term effects on health in later life. How do these factors influence the genes we already have in place?
There is an emerging concept called “early programming” that simply states that the fetus adapts to its existing environment when it is less than optimal, e.g., when the diet is lacking in essential nutrients for its development. This results in suboptimal development with long-term implications leading to increased risk of diseases such as heart disease, obesity, metabolic syndrome, glucose intolerance, or insulin resistance in adulthood. We now know that genes are switched on and off leading to functional physiological differences between individuals.
How are our genes modified? The most common alteration is a change in the nucleotide called single nucleotide (polymorphism (SNPs). For example, a SNP may replace the nucleotide C (cytosine) with the nucleotide T (thymine) in a certain position in a person’s DNA. This change is permanent.
Another way is through epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of any change to our DNA that modulates a gene’s activity by turning them on and off. They result from exposure to the world – everything we eat, drink, breathe, feel and do, i.e., our environment. They are temporary so it is possible to correct our previous behaviors such as smoking cessation, exercising more or improving our diets to provide a more favorable health status.
The nutrients we extract from food enter metabolic pathways where they are formed into the molecules the body can use. One such pathway is responsible for making methyl groups. The methyl groups are epigenetic tags that attach to our DNA to modulate its activity to silence genes. Another epigenetic process is the production of acetyl groups (acetylation) to DNA histones that enhances the expression of the gene. So one pathway “turns off” the gene and the other “turns it on.” These modifications are particularly important during development of the fetus. Some modifications continue to have an effect into adulthood.
Nutrients like folic acid, B vitamins, and others are key nutrients in these processes. Diets of pregnant women high in these nutrients can rapidly alter gene expression, especially during early development when the epigenome is first being established.
What foods are rich in epigenetic nutrients? The list may sound familiar.
Leafy vegetables, seeds, nuts, liver, meats, whole grains, egg yolks, red wine, soy, broccoli and garlic provide methyl groups or are involved in acetylation. For example, sulphoraphane in broccoli increases acetylation turning on anti-cancer genes. Butyrate (a compound produced in the intestine when dietary fiber is fermented) turns on protective genes. Folic acid, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 provide methyl groups.
Animal studies have shown that a diet with too little methyl-donating folate or choline before or just after birth causes certain regions of the genome to be under-methylated for life. This can produce permanent changes.
For adults too, a methyl-deficient diet leads to a decrease in DNA methylation, but the changes are reversible when methyl is added back to diet. So changes in the diet can create a healthier environment to help to prevent chronic diseases, but the behaviors need to change.
To fully illustrate the epigenetic process, one must tell the story of the agouti gene. All mammals have a gene called agouti. When a mouse’s agouti gene is completely unmethylated, its coat is yellow and has a high risk for obesity. When the agouti gene is methylated (as it is in normal mice), the coat color is brown, the mouse has a normal weight and less disease risk. The mice are genetically identical but the fat yellow mice are different because they have an epigenetic “mutation.” in this case the presence or absence of methyl groups in its DNA.
In a study pregnant yellow mice were fed a a methyl-rich diet; most of her pups were brown and stayed healthy for life. These results show that the environment in the womb influences adult health.
The Emerging Field of Nutrigenomics
Possibly in the future of diet and nutrition there may come a time when we can use the concept of nutrigenomics to better understand why one person reacts to a particular dietary intervention more than another does. This may also explain why nutrition research is so erratic with studies reporting conflicting results and conclusions. In the future, there is the potential for genetic testing that will result in genetic profiles that can aid in forming personalized diets and fitness plans, which will help minimize risks for disease.
We all know that a nutrient-rich diet is healthy and it is becoming increasingly clear that it is not only what we eat in a lifetime but what our parents ate before our conception that can make a difference in our health status in adulthood.
NOTE: There are so many diet books out there as well as information on the Web. Most are focused on weight loss (fine for many us), but not the whole picture of why we need sound diet and nutrition advice. I found an excellent book written by people I trust to offer this advice – with its main goal of not just weight loss, but our nutritional health. Check out: How to Eat: All Your Food and Diet Questions Answered by Mark Bittman and David L. Katz, MD. 2020. Its format is Question and Answer form, so it is easy to find just what you may want to know. Sally J. Feltner, M.S., PhD.
Consuming fewer calories has a protective effect against developing hepatocellular carcinoma ( primary liver cancer) associated with hepatitis C virus infection, and non alcoholic fatty liver disease, according to a rodent study published in the Journal liver cancer.
Editor’s Note: Recently, worldwide increases in obesity and metabolic syndrome have raised the prevalence of primary liver cancer derived from non alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and non alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH), Indicating a close relationship between overnutrition and liver tumorigenesis, the authors stated.
The study used mice with the liver cancer core gene that spontaneously developed fatty liver and tumors. For 15 months, the animals were given either a control diet that allowed them to eat as much as they liked, or a diet that contains 30% fewer calories than the controls.
At the end of 15 months, animals that received calorie restricted diets had fewer and smaller liver tumors, less liver oxidative stress, lower inflammation, downregulation of pro- cancer mediators, increased autophagy(cell self degradation), as well as other improvements, compared to the control group.
In the News: Lower Alzheimers’ Risk with Flavonols
What are Phytochemicals?
Phyto chemicals are biologically active substances in plants that have positive effects on health They are also called phyto- nutrients. They perform a variety of functions including these roles:
Inhibitors of inflammation
Preventers of infectious disease
Flavonols act as antioxidants in the body and the good news about flavanols has made chocolate a health food. Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate is a rich source of flavonols.. Regular intake of flavonols such as a daily consumption of a cup of hot chocolate made with cocoa powder is related to improved blood flow, reduced blood pressure, and decreased risk of heart disease and stroke. Flavonols are also found in good amounts in foods such as berries, wine, and tea.
An article in the Journal Neurology reported an association between consuming more compounds known as flavanols, and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Flavanols are found in many fruits and vegetables as well as in tea and chocolate.
The study included 921 participants with an average age of 81. The subjects the subjects did not have Alzheimer’s disease at the beginning of the study. Questionnaires that were completed at enrollment and then annually during a six year average follow-up period, provided data on dietary intake that was analyzed for flavonol content. Participants were also evaluated yearly for the presence of Alzheimer’s disease. Over the course of follow up , 220 individuals developed the disease. Participants were then divided into five groups, according to their level of flavonol intake. Among those whose intake was highest, at an average of 15.3 milligrams per day, 15% developed Alzheimer’s disease , compared to 30% whose intake was lowest, at approximately 5.3 milligram per day.
The authors stated that “eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking more tea could be a fairly inexpensive and easy way for people to help stave off Alzheimer’s dementia.”
There is no real Mediterranean Diet – you know, the ones you read in diet books that offer set meal plans and do’s and don’ts with endless lists of breakfasts, lunches, dinners and of course, let’s not forget the snacks. (or maybe we should). The more recent habit of the American Diet is the increased eating opportunities fueled by the fact that we can eat just about anywhere and that mainly was the desire of big food companies (for more profits). But more about that in a future post.
“Over the span of more than eight decades, clinical research has continued to confirm that eating the Mediterranean way is a sound strategy for lifelong health. At its heart, The Mediterranean diet is precisely the way nutrition experts have been urging us to eat. It’s built on a foundation of whole, mostly unprocessed foods like whole grains, beans, and nuts. It embraces fruits and vegetables with abandon while being stingier with red meat and sweet treats. It includes moderate amounts of fish, eggs and dairy products though vegan and vegetarian versions are doable. It’s sprinkled with heart healthy vegetable oils , mostly olive oil, rather than saturated fat rich butter or lard and it can even include, if desired, a little alcohol traditionally red wine, enjoyed in moderation as part of a meal.”
“People who follow a Mediterranean diet also tend to live longer and perhaps age more gracefully. A recent meta analysis of four studies involving elderly patients found that those who adhered most closely to a Mediterranean style eating pattern had significantly less risk of becoming frail, an important measure of quality of life for older adults.”
The components of the diet are generally plant-based that give us ample vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, fiber, and good fats and carbohydrates. Long-term studies have shown lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and a reduced risk of some cancers (breast, prostate, and colorectal).
“Encouraging research suggests that a Mediterranean pattern of eating may also have benefits for the brain. Several studies have linked the eating patterns to lower rates of depression, others notice a small but significantly lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and of progressing to Alzheimer’s disease.”
Source: Joyce Hendley. Mediterranean Diet: A delicious path to lifelong health. Eating Well Magazine.
According to David Sinclair, PhD in his recent book, Lifespan:Why We Age and Why We Don’t Have To, “Aging is a disease and that disease is treatable.” What if you could have some control over how many years you can live and live that life with reasonable health?
There is now a fascinating new surge in aging research and a lot of attention paid to the contribution of healthy lifestyles. According to Dr. Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, the key is “activating newly discovered genes, the descendants of an ancient survival circuit that is both the cause of aging and the key to reversing it.” Sounds a little mystical? It makes a lot of sense (after reading the book). New ideas can change the way we think about aging and what we can do about it. Anyone who ages must read about these new concepts.
Spoiler Alert: From the article and study: Researchers estimated participants who didn’t follow any of the habits had a life expectancy at age 50 of 29 years for women and 25.5 years for men. Yet for those who did adopt these guidelines, after age 50 women could expect to live another 43.1 years, compared to 37.6 years on average for men. Ben Renner, Harvard Study: Adopting These 5 Healthy Habits can Add Decade To Your Life. Study Finds, June 16, 2018,
Hooked on Food: A Battle in the Brain? The Reality of Food Addiction
Our brains maintain a healthy body weight by signaling when to eat and when to stop. Hormones regulate feeding circuits that control appetite and satiety, but fatty sugary foods can motivate some people to overeat. The more they have the more they want, a sensation common in drug addiction.
Sugar in the form of glucose provides the body with quick energy. But lately, we’ve gone way beyond the Call of Duty. 200 years ago, the average American ate about 2 pounds of sugar per year. Today we each eat about 152 pounds a year according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. This sharp increase in the consumption of sugar is no mystery. Sugar is cheap, plentiful, and it tastes great.
Some doctors and researchers classify sugar as an addictive drug because this refined white crystal triggers the pleasure and reward centers in our brain much like a drug does. It was already well established that sugar consumption will light up the nucleus accumbens and other areas of the brain that are collectively known as the reward centers, generating intense feelings of pleasure when we engage in acts like eating. Doctors are trying to curb our out-of-control sweets habit. The American Heart Association recommends that adult men consume no more than 38 grams or 9 teaspoons of sugar daily, women only 6 teaspoons, and children even less. The latest 2025 dietary guidelines recommends even smaller amounts for daily consumption: no more than 30 grams of added sugar a day for an adult male. However, these numbers fall far below what a typical American actually consumes. An average soda is 39 grams and a bowl of cereal is 20 grams and that’s without dumping more spoonfuls of sugar on top of it.
Is Sugar Addictive?
A recent study showed that rats can be addicted to foods, too. Actually, these foods sound very similar to those found in the Standard American Diet. The researchers gave rats unlimited access to standard chow as well as to a mini cafeteria full of appetizing high calorie foods: sausage, cheesecake, chocolate. The rats decreased their intake of the healthy but bland items and switched to eating the cafeteria food almost exclusively. They gained weight. They became obese.
The research then warned the rats as they were eating by flashing a light that they would receive a nasty foot shock. Rats eating the bland chow would quickly stop and scramble away, but time and again the obese rats continued to devour the rich food, ignoring the warning that they had been trained to fear. Their hedonic desire overruled their basic sense of self preservation.
“We now have the evidence for just how easy this is. People eating ultra processed, palatable foods are likely to eat more calories and no surprise, gain weight. We know this from a clinical trial run by Kevin Hall and his colleagues at the National Institutes of Health. They managed to convince 20 adults to live in a controlled metabolic ward for a month period. They gave the volunteers one of two diets unprocessed or ultra processed that were matched for calories, fats , carbohydrates, protein, and fiber. For two weeks the volunteers could eat as much as they wanted of the assigned diet; they then could eat as much as they wanted of the other diet for two weeks. The results were stunningly clear. On the ultra processed diet, the volunteers consumed many more calories – 500 — more a day than when eating the unprocessed diet. They also gained a pound week.
This experiment tells us that there is something about sweet, salty, and fatty foods that makes us want to eat more of them and to be unaware of how much more we’re eating. Salads and fruits do not trigger this kind of response.” Source: Marion Nestle. Let’s Ask Marion: What you need to know about the politics of food, nutrition, and health. California Study in Food and Culture. 2020.
Did they become “hooked on food”? An inability to suppress a behavior, despite the negative consequences, is common in addiction. Scientists are finding similar compulsiveness in certain people. Almost all obese individuals say they want to consume less, yet they consume or continue to overeat even though they know that doing so can have shockingly negative health or social consequences. Studies show that overeating juices up the reward systems in our brain so much so in some people that it overpowers the brain’s ability to tell them to stop eating when they have had enough. As with alcoholics and drug addicts, the more they eat the more they want. Whether or not overeating is technically an addiction if it stimulates the same brain circles as drug use in the same way, people also can possibly be “addicted to food.”
What to Do? Protein to the Rescue
Many peoples’ relationship with sugar typically starts when they wake up in the morning. Many start the day with a sweet bowl of cereal or a muffin (at 600 calories) for breakfast. But this pattern can set you up to fail, so many nutritionists recommend to focus more on protein.
Protein helps stabilize blood sugar which helps keep you out of fight or flight reactions and protein also provides the building blocks for your brain neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine. Many nutritionists advise their patients to eat protein such as eggs, cheese, nuts, peas, beans, and or even a protein shake at least an hour after they get up, and with every meal. If you snack before bed, make sure that it has protein too. Even if we strive to avoid sugar, it is often ubiquitous in our food culture appearing in many processed foods. If you have trouble saying no to sweets, it is recommended to eat protein proactively to keep temptations in check. This way you can help to avoid another binge on your favorite indulgence promoted by the American food industry and your brain, which is actually in on the hijacking, by the way.
ARC Journal of Addiction, Vol. 4, Issue 2, 2019, pp. 1-11
“Unprocessed or minimally processed foods are whole foods in which the vitamins and nutrients are still intact. The food is in its natural (or nearly natural) state. Unprocessed or minimally processed foods would include carrots, apples, raw chicken, melon, and raw, unsalted nuts.
Processing changes a food from its natural state. Processed foods are essentially made by adding salt, oil, sugar, or other substances. Examples include canned fish or canned vegetables, fruits in syrup, and freshly made breads.
Some foods are highly processed or ultra-processed. They most likely have many added ingredients such as sugar, salt, fat, and artificial colors or preservatives. They may also contain additives like emulsifiers or stabilizers. Examples of these foods are frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.” Source: Harvard Health Letter
The growing widespread use of fast food among Americans is of concern due to the high fat and energy intake, which may cause obesity and subsequently obesity related chronic diseases. Added fat sugar and salt create a taste that makes people crave these foods, a sensation that many described as an addiction. US fast food sales increased exponentially between 1970 and 2000, from $6 billion to $10 billion. During this time, obesity rates among US adults doubled and it is expected that 85% of US citizens will be affected by obesity by 2030.
Fast foods in particular are known to cause many of the chronic diseases that have become the leading causes of death in the United States. What are some of the effects of fast food on the body? Most of the fast foods contain a large amount of sugar, fats and carbs and less minerals and vitamins. This means that people are taking in large amounts of unhealthy calories in the shape of fast food which leads to weight gain and ultimately obesity. Obesity is linked to several long-term health conditions that include premature death, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gall bladder disease, fatty liver, arthritis and joint disorders and some cancers. One study showed that consumption of fast foods greater than two times a week increased the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Frequent consumption of fast foods was accompanied with overweight and abdominal fat, impaired insulin and glucose homeostasis, lipid and lipoprotein disorders, induction of systemic inflammation and oxidative stress.
Supersize Me was a 2004 American documentary film directed by and starring Morgan Spurlock, an American independent filmmaker. Spurlock’s film follows a 30-day period from February 1 to March 2, 2003, during which he ate only McDonald’s food. The results showed that his physician became concerned when his liver enzymes became alarmingly high and he had gained considerable weight in that short period of time.
A new study in PLOS Medicine finds eating unhealthy food is associated with a higher risk of developing cancer. People who ate the most junk food showed a higher risk of stomach, colorectal, and surprisingly lung cancers. Separately, men showed a higher risk of lung cancer and women showed a higher risk of liver and post-menopausal breast cancers. Nitrate and nitrite, which are abundant in processed meats are potential carcinogens found in breast, prostate, pancreas, and colorectal cancers along with non alcoholic fatty liver disease and insulin resistance.
Sugar overload – what happens in your body?
“20 minutes after drinking a soda, your blood sugar spikes, causing an insulin burst. Your liver responds to this by turning any sugar into fat. 40 minutes later, caffeine absorption from the soda is complete. Your pupils dilate; your blood pressure rises, and as a response your liver dumps more sugar into your bloodstream. 45 minutes later, your body ups your dopamine (a neurotransmitter) production stimulating the pleasure centers of your brain; this is physically the same way heroin works by the way.“
Fast food in particular was first popularized in the 1970s in the United States, which is today the largest fast food industry in the world. Fast food restaurants serve as popular sites for their meals eaten outside the home. Current approaches suggest that fast food restaurants should be required to clarify nutrition information such as calorie and fat content on their menu boards and on product packaging. Studies have shown mixed results as to whether consumers’ choices are affected by this information on packaged and fast foods.