food

RECENT POSTS

Forbidden Fruit: Pesticide-Laden Produce Linked To Lower Semen Quality, Study Finds

(Robert S. Donovon/Flickr)

(Robert S. Donovon/Flickr)

That apple a day? Consider choosing it wisely: If it’s laden with pesticide residues, it could mess with your sperm.

That’s the analysis from researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health in a study published online this week in the journal Human Reproduction.

The study found that men who ate a range of fruits and vegetables, including strawberries, peppers, spinach and apples, with higher levels of pesticide residues had a lower sperm count and a lower percentage of normally-shaped sperm compared to men who ate produce with less pesticide residue. (This finding was true even after fruit was washed before eating.) Researchers said it’s the first study to examine exposure to pesticides and semen quality.

Senior study author Jorge Chavarro, assistant professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the research doesn’t mean people should eliminate fruits and vegetables from their diet — on the contrary; rather consumers should simply choose more carefully. In an email, he wrote:

I think there are two main takeaways from this work. The first one is that, as interesting and potentially alarming these findings may be, this is the first time that pesticide residues in foods have been linked to an adverse reproductive health outcome in humans. It is therefore very important that these results are replicated in other studies, and ideally in randomized trials, before firm conclusions can be made one way or the other.

On the more practical end, the other important point is that our results point to a very specific role of high pesticide residue produce, rather than to intake of fruits and vegetables in general which means that strategies specifically aimed at avoiding high residue produces, such as consuming organic produce if budget allows or selecting fruits and vegetables known to have low levels of pesticide residues may be the preferred way to address this issue…

Chavarro said the easiest way to determine produce safety is to check the dirty dozen/clean fifteen list that the Environmental Working Group releases each year. Continue reading

The Buffet Phenomenon: Researchers Find More Food Choices Linked To Fatter Mice

(Alpha/Flickr)

(Alpha/Flickr)

This is why I hate buffets: Too many food choices make my head spin. For weight control, I prefer the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach — keep the oversized muffins and pepperoni pizzas out of the house altogether. Call me rigid, but it seems to work.

Apparently, mice have similar issues, according to a study published in the journal Endocrinology.

The study tried to tease out the relative importance of genetics vs. environment when it comes to obesity risk. So, baby mice born to mothers with a defined high-fat or low-fat diet were randomly assigned to one of three diet groups: either a high-fat diet, a low-fat diet or to an “eat what you want” diet in which they got to pick and choose among the various options.

Researchers from Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine report that:  “Offspring displayed negative outcomes of increased body weight, body fat, serum leptin, and blood glucose levels when given the choice diet compared with offspring on the [low-fat diet].”

This begs the question whether a child’s environment can indeed trump genetics when it comes to obesity.

The Virginia Tech news release quotes one of the study authors who wraps up the findings simply:

“We like variety,” said Deborah Good, an associate professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise at Virginia Tech. “But when there is a choice, we eat more than when there is not any variety.”

Though the study was done using mice, it can help inform researchers of how human’s natural environment can affect food choices and ultimately a person’s weight. In a country where one-third of adults and 17 percent of children are obese, understanding the root causes of the problem is imperative.

One apparent upside found among mice in the choice group, according to the report: they had “improved energy expenditure” compared to the low-or high-fat diet groups. “Essentially,” the news release says, “the mice burned more energy as they wandered around and evaluated which food they were going to eat.”

This recalls the food and environment research of Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. A recent Psychology Today article on how we eat (and overeat) called, “Why Out of Sight is Really Out Of Mind,” discusses how we can slip into mindless eating in a world where food is everywhere. But there are ways to eat smarter, if you think about what you’re doing:

Wansink found that slim people approach an “all you can eat” buffet by “scouting out” what is available — “getting the lay of the land,” as it were — before they grab their plates and pile on food. They are also more likely to sit facing away from, and to choose a table farther away from a buffet; more likely to choose small plates; and, if eating Chinese food, eat with chopsticks.

Jean Fain, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist who runs “mindful eating” training sessions, has offered some tips on how to curb excessive eating, particularly during the holidays, when tables are brimming with tempting sweets and heavy dishes loaded with nostalgia. In a December post, she wrote:

If you find yourself automatically reaching for another piece of pumpkin cheesecake, step back from the dessert table and ask yourself: “How do I feel? What do I need? Do I really want another piece of cheesecake?” If you do, by all means, enjoy. But if you feel full, better to interrupt the automatic urge for more. It’ll taste better when you’re hungry. What’s more, a short interruption can give you back control.

Embrace The Eggnog, And Other Tips To Curb Holiday Eating (And Guilt)

(Theen Moy/Flickr)

(Theen Moy/Flickr)

It’s peak season for overeating — and then beating yourself up for doing it.

Clearly, you’re not the only one treating yourself to pumpkin and pecan pie, egg nog and, yes, fruitcake. Yet it’s no comfort that everyone else and their Weight Watchers’ leader is also riddled with guilt and enduring a personal thrashing for the extra calories and potential weight gain. While this self-flagellation goes on, you’re missing out on enjoying the holidays.

If only there were a better approach to holiday eating, maybe then you’d be able to stop beating yourself up, enjoy eating what you love and savor everything else you really do love about this season.

Happily, you don’t need an emergency gastric bypass to stop the vicious cycle: putting an end to both overeating and self-criticism might be easier than you think. It might be as easy as reviewing some research-based strategies honed from a group training I lead for people with eating issues. It revolves around practicing a variety of mindful eating and self-compassion meditations.

Here are five proven tips for happier, healthier holiday eating:

1. Redefine Holiday Eating

You’ll need a better working definition of “normal holiday eating” if your definition sounds anything like my esteemed colleague and family eating expert Ellyn Satter’s:

Most people get caught up in what they should and shouldn’t eat. They’re anxious and ambivalent about eating. They might try to resist at holiday parties, but the table is laden with ‘forbidden food,’ and they throw away all control and overdo it. Many times they’re over-hungry because they’re trying to restrict themselves and lose weight. So the standard definition of holiday eating becomes eating way too much.

If you’d prefer to take fewer bites and ease the anxiety and ambivalence, now’s the time to do the exact the opposite, starting with eating regular meals and snacks. Then, come party-time, permit yourself to eat the foods you enjoy. You’re probably going to eat them anyway, so you might as well as enjoy them, without the guilt and other uncomfortable emotions that predictably fuel emotional eating.

2. Go Easier On Yourself

If, like most dieters, you’re hoping that feeding yourself a steady diet of self-criticism will inspire you to rein in your eating, think again. You’ve actually got it backward. Self-criticism — calling yourself fat, disgusting and other mean, nasty names — is really a recipe for emotional overeating and holiday weight gain. Continue reading

The Politics Of Gluten

LaShawn Wiltz/flickr

LaShawn Wiltz/flickr

A close kid relative of mine can die if he eats gluten. Actually, this child is so allergic to gluten that you can’t even cook pasta if he’s in the room or he’ll break out in a rash, or worse. He’s been to emergency rooms, both in the U.S. and abroad, due to his allergies, and it usually happens when someone hands him a so-called “gluten-free” cookie or snack that actually wasn’t.

So gluten is a hot topic in our family. Recently, though, skepticism has been rising about the very notion of gluten allergies, or sensitivities. Exhibit A in this arena is Michael Specter’s latest New Yorker story on the current gluten-free craze, which has enraged more than a few parents whose kids have real and scary reactions to gluten. Specter writes:

While there are no scientific data to demonstrate that millions of people have become allergic or intolerant to gluten (or to other wheat proteins), there is convincing and repeated evidence that dietary self-diagnoses are almost always wrong, particularly when the diagnosis extends to most of society. We still feel more comfortable relying on anecdotes and intuition than on statistics or data.

Speaking on Here & Now yesterday, Specter reiterated the article’s takeaway that the national gluten-free obsession is mostly just the latest fad diet.

Maybe. But here’s some reaction from a parent who thinks Specter should have taken a broader view:

“My son has gone into anaphylaxis from accidentally ingesting gluten four different times over the course of his life.  Each time we had to administer an emergency Epipen injection and rush him to the ER.  I don’t think he was reacting to a fad…

It is fine to debate the merits of going gluten free as a diet or lifestyle choice for some. But for others it is a clear medical issue, with the most serious consequences. The number of Americans suffering from celiac or severe gluten allergy seems to be growing fast, and that merits substantial funding and research to figure out why and find cures. It would be a mistake if that fact were to be lost amid the current efforts at “de-bunking” the risks of eating gluten for some.”

Fat Stigma Fading? Fewer See Obesity As Problem Of Bad Personal Choices, Survey Says

Are public perceptions and stereotypes around obesity beginning to shift?

Maybe.

New research presented this week in Boston suggests that the general public and health care providers are starting to view obesity more as a “community problem of shared risks” as opposed to a personal problem stemming from “bad choices.”

These findings were presented as part of The Obesity Society’s Annual Meeting.

Americans’ view on fat has been evolving for some time, spurred by a robust “fat acceptance movement” and a decision last year by the American Medical Association to officially recognize obesity as a disease.  Also, a wave of media and advocacy revolving around healthier eating and lifestyles, from Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to the film Fed Up, has focused the national attention on the nitty gritty of food and weight.

The Obesity Society

The Obesity Society

The latest research shows that bias against fat people may also be evolving.

Here’s more from the Obesity Society news release:

…For adults in the United States, perception has moved away from seeing obesity as a personal problem resulting from bad choices. Healthcare professionals were already less likely than the public to view obesity as a personal problem of bad choices.

“Despite the high prevalence of obesity in the U.S. and worldwide, weight bias and stigma continue to complicate clinical and policy approaches to obesity treatment,” said study author Ted Kyle, RPh, MBA, of ConscienHealth in Pittsburgh, PA. “The goal of our study was to measure any shifts that might affect or result from public policy changes.” Continue reading

Good Potato, Bad Potato: War Over Starchy Spud Rages On

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

Hideya HAMANO/flickr

By Alvin Tran
Guest Contributor

Potatoes, it turns out, are political.

At least in the cutthroat world of food and nutrition where, increasingly, what we eat is a highly partisan, hotly debated and frustratingly gridlocked battle pitting health policy types against one another.

Here’s where the potatoes come in:

On one side of the battle, you’ll find politicians, farmers and advocates lobbying for potatoes to become a part of the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, saying they are cheap and potentially nutritious. On the other, you’ll find researchers, including many doctors from the Institute of Medicine, steering patients away from potatoes and saying that Americans are currently consuming too much of the starchy vegetable.

As a doctoral student in nutrition, I often find myself caught in the crossfire of such food battles, whether they’re over the health benefits of dark chocolate, red wine, coffee or my current fixation: potatoes. All too often, friends, family members and even strangers on the bus beg for a little simplicity: they just want to know if certain foods are “good” or “bad.”

Unfortunately, things are rarely so simple and, like many foods that have become mired in controversy, nuances around the relative benefits or ills of potatoes have been obscured in the rhetoric.

Some specifics:

For starters, potatoes contain a large amount of carbohydrates and they have a high glycemic load – meaning they are quickly digested. Foods that have high glycemic loads generally cause blood sugar and insulin levels to rapidly spike and may cause a person to feel hungry again shortly after eating a meal.

According to The Nutrition Source, a publication of the Harvard School of Public Health that acts as a source of research-based nutrition information, previous research studies have linked diets high in potatoes and other rapidly digested carbs to chronic health outcomes, including diabetes and heart disease.

The findings from a new study, published in early September, suggested that a low-carb diet, compared to one that is low-fat, may be more effective for weight loss and in reducing the risk of heart-related health problems.

Nutrition researchers, however, have raised concerns over the study’s findings. For example, in a recent opinion piece in The New York Times, David L. Katz, a nutritionist and the founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, is quoted saying that diets focused on eliminating solely one item, such as carbs, aren’t always good and can actually be harmful: “Our fixation on a particular nutrient at a time has been backfiring for decades…”
Continue reading

More Evidence For ‘Stinking Rose’ Garlic’s Cancer-Fighting Potential

By Judy Foreman
Guest Contributor

This may be the most delightful of all medical prescriptions: Chew a little raw garlic a couple of times a week and the risk of lung cancer drops by almost half. It drops by almost a third even if you’re a smoker.

richard_north

(richard_north/Flickr)

News this good, not to mention this tasty, is rare in medicine, but that’s the conclusion of a large Chinese study published recently in Cancer Prevention Medicine.

The researchers compared 1,424 lung cancer patients with 4,543 healthy adults and asked them about their lifestyle and dietary choices. Granted, just asking people to recall their own behavior is hardly the ideal form of research. (Far more informative are studies that randomly divide people into two groups, give one group a treatment and the other group a placebo without revealing who’s getting what, and then compare the results.)

That said, the results from Jiangsu Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Nanjing are noteworthy, said John Milner, who has studied garlic chemistry for decades. Continue reading

Study: Genetic Damage Linked To Arsenic In Rice

(Dano/flickr)

(Dano/flickr)

It was big news last year when both the FDA and Consumer Reports came out with studies showing alarming levels of arsenic in brown rice. (At least I thought it was alarming, as did scores of readers who commented here on the findings.)

A little background from Consumer Reports should remind you of the problem:

Rice absorbs arsenic from soil or water much more effectively than most plants. That’s in part because it is one of the only major crops grown in water-flooded conditions, which allow arsenic to be more easily taken up by its roots and stored in the grains. In the U.S. as of 2010, about 15 percent of rice acreage was in California, 49 percent in Arkansas, and the remainder in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. That south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle…

Inorganic arsenic, the predominant form of arsenic in most of the 65 rice products we analyzed, is ranked by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as one of more than 100 substances that are Group 1 carcinogens. It is known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.

Now comes a study of heavy rice-eaters in West Bengal, India that links high levels of arsenic in the rice to elevated genetic damage in humans.

From the news release:

Over the last few years, researchers have reported high concentrations of arsenic in several rice-growing regions around the world.

Now, University of Manchester scientists, working in collaboration with scientists at CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Biology in Kolkata, have proven a link between rice containing high levels of arsenic and chromosomal damage, as measured by micronuclei in urothelial cells, in humans consuming rice as a staple.

The researchers discovered that people in rural West Bengal eating rice as a staple with greater than 0.2 mg/kg arsenic showed higher frequencies of micronuclei than those consuming rice with less than this concentration of arsenic.

The study, published in Nature Publishing Group’s Scientific Reports, looked at the frequency of ‘micronuclei’ — a tell-tale sign of chromosomal damage (that has been shown by others previously to be linked to cancer) Continue reading

The Bagged Lettuce Backlash: Say It Isn’t So!

My heart sank when I saw this Mother Jones headline yesterday: “The Truth About Bagged Lettuce.”

The piece, unfortunately, is what I feared: a bunch of new concerns being raised about the kind of lettuce I’ve learned to love: pre-packaged and easy-to-use. It enables my family to eat far more, and more varied, greens than we would if I had to clean and tear them myself.

baby kale

In the post, Kiera Butler cites Jo Robinson, author of the new book “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health,” who recently “trash bagged lettuce on Fresh Air:”

“Many of these prepackaged greens might be two weeks old,” said Robinson ruefully. “They’re not going to taste as good, and many of their health benefits are going to be lost before we eat them.” Instead, she suggested, I should buy my lettuce whole and coddle it a bit. “If you take your lettuce right from the store and rinse it and dry it—and then if you rip it into bite-sized pieces before you store it—you’re going to increase the antioxidant activity…fourfold.”

Ouch.

Personally, I favor the triple-washed boxed lettuce, which may or may not be any better from an antioxidant perspective.

Either way, Butler lays out the environmental argument against bagged lettuce (excessive water use in some cases), as well as the threat of all kinds of contaminants — remember that organic baby spinach recall earlier this year due to possible E. coli contamination?

Despite all of this, I think I’ll take my chances. But to reinforce my own inclinations, I spoke with Sean Cash, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts.

Cash raised all the same concerns: some possible slight breakdown in Vitamin C in bagged lettuce, a low level of E. coli risk, more plastic packaging in the environment, concerns over excessive water use in places like Salinas, Calif. where drought is an ongoing problem.

But overall, Cash said, these worries are pretty much trumped by the health benefits of just eating lots of lettuce, particularly if it means the difference between having it often or not at all. Continue reading

NYT: Surgeon General Is Missing In Action

Ouch!

Mark Bittman, the smart, pithy New York Times columnist and food activist comes down hard on the U.S. Surgeon General today in a piece called “Our M.I.A Surgeon General.” It’s true, the nation’s doctor, Regina Benjamin can be frustratingly on-message when speaking to the press and is clearly not a risk-taker with her public health campaigns (more on our experience with this later). But Bittman is relentless here, calling her “virtually invisible” and questioning her courage. (It probably didn’t help that Benjamin declined Bittman’s request for an interview.) Here’s more from his column:

Benjamin, like most of her predecessors, is virtually invisible. Whether that is a personality trait, a lack of courage (hard to believe — she’s a Catholic who supports abortion rights), a lack of qualification or a sign of the impotence of her office is something she won’t help us figure out: her representative declined my request for an interview.

But her most public work, the 2010 document called “The Surgeon General’s Vision for a Healthy and Fit Nation,” has a decidedly mild Michelle Obama-ish tone. In discussing the obesity crisis, it lays the blame squarely at the feet of … the victims: “In addition to consuming too many calories and not getting enough physical activity, genes, metabolism, behavior, environment, and culture can also play a role in causing people to be overweight and obese.”

Put aside the imprecise, non-grammatical writing. Instead of talk about curbing the marketing of junk to children, we get a discussion of “limiting television viewing”; instead of banning soda from schools, we get “Make sure water is available throughout the school setting.” In short, instead of criticizing the industry for peddling and profiting from poison, it criticizes us for falling prey to it.

We’ve interviewed Benjamin several times and have always come away wishing she’d be a bit more out there and aggressive about her message, whether it’s on the importance of prevention or on exercise. Continue reading