Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Lesson in 'If This Won't Kill You, That Will"

Sometimes, figuring out what is healthy is confusing.  The media seems to report something, then scientists come along and contradict it practically the next week.  For example, eggs.  Eggs used to be good, a great source of protein.  Then eggs were bad, too high in cholesterol.  Now eggs are good again, a great source of protein and what do you know, dietary cholesterol doesn't affect our blood cholesterol as much as we used to think (its really trans fat and high sugar that increase blood cholesterol). 

Recently, supplements have been in the category of "contradictory and confusing topics".  Some studies show they are good, while others show they are not so good.  Often, it's just that new technologies are more sophisticated and discount older research.  Sometimes news can be confusing because it's not apples-to-apples comparisons with each story.  For example, fiber lowers cholesterol in people with high blood cholesterol but not in people with lower cholesterol.  A journalist might not know that so they may blast a story that fiber doesn't work in their publication and ignore the fact that the subjects had perfectly healthy cholesterol to begin with.  And other time, a food or supplement may be beneficial for one thing but not another. 

For example, a recent paper just summed up the research on calcium and vitamin D supplements as follows:  "the treatment of 1000 women with calcium plus vitamin D for 5 y would prevent 5 breast cancers and 1 colorectal cancer, and might prevent 1 fracture and 2 deaths, but would cause 4 myocardial infarctions [heart attacks] or strokes".
Make sense?

Um, not so much, right?  But this seems to be how many things net out in nutrition.  Take alcohol for example...1-2 glasses a day can reduce risk for having a heart attack, but it also increase risk for cancer (including breast cancer for women).  It's almost like you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.  

My interpretation of this is a little bit different.  For one, this shows me that we need to do more research to understand what is going on.  What about vitamin D alone...does that show the same thing?  What about if the calcium and vitamin D came from food instead of a supplement, would we see the same thing?  And if its true that calcium and/or vitamin D increases heart attacks, is that in everyone or only people at risk already for a heart attack?  

Second, this suggests that we all need to be savvy with our health and make personal decisions based on our family history.  For example, if your mother had breast cancer, then perhaps taking a calcium plus vitamin D supplement isn't a bad idea.  If both of your parents suffered from cardiovascular disease, then probably not something you want to do (although drinking would be a good idea so you've got that going for you). 

Think it over while enjoying a veggie frittata and high-fiber slice of seems we're all safe eating those foods (allergies not withstanding).  At least this week.  ;)


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Are Girls Worse at Math and Does That Translate to Lower Salaries Later in Life?

One of the best parts about living in Chicago is access to the country's top universities.  Yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by one of the area's top economists on the topic of math performance in girls and boys and future salary potential.  As the mother of three daughters, I'm more than interested in this topic.  As a scientist in a male-dominated career, I feel like somewhat of an expert already.  But here's what I learned:

  • There are no differences in math performance among girls and boys in elementary school.  The evidence showing that boys may be slightly better than girls at math is noted at age 15.
  • Boys are really only better at spatial ability (whereas girls are better at verbal).  Interestingly, this is related to testosterone levels.  Boys (and girls) with more testosterone are better at spatial ability than those with less testosterone. 
  • There is really no connection between spatial ability and math scores, EXCEPT in geometry.  Tests, such as the SAT and ACT, that skew heavy on geometry result in higher scores for boys than girls.  But when it comes to algebra and calculus, which have nothing to do with spatial ability, there are no measurable differences between girls and boys. 
  • When it comes to career salaries, there is a gender gap.  Men make more money than women.  Much of this is explained by the following:
    • Women are less likely to take jobs with long hours or a competitive pay structure.
    • Women are more likely to select jobs that are family-friendly versus those with higher pay.
    • Women are more likely to step out of the work force for family reasons, which results in lower pay at a given point in time.  For example, if you compare a 40 yr old man and woman who are both lawyers, the woman may make less money on paper, but she may have taken 5 years off to raise a kid or care for a sick relative and that is not always accounted for in surveys.
    • In interviews, men tend to over-represent their experience resulting in better opportunities or higher pay, whereas women tend to under-represent their skills. 
At this point in the lecture, a hairy spider walked across my table and I stood up like a crazy person and waved my arms around like an idiot until someone removed it (not even squished it, but gently took it away to live out its days in a planter or toilet).  That is neither here nor there, but was a subtle reminder that you can take the scientist out of the lab, but you can't take the girl out of the scientist. 

The most interesting finding for me was that even after you factor out all of the reasons above, men still make more money than women at a given job.  There is an underlying perception or expectation that men will outperform women.  I'm sure if you compare 2011 to 1961, things are much better today and we are likely moving in the right direction for the future.  But hearing these research results reminds me that women just need to work harder than men in a given career to achieve the same level of success.  This is especially true in male-dominated careers like science and engineering.....and spider catching.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Should You Stop Taking Your Supplements or Not?

I'm a few days late in commenting on two studies that were published this week suggesting that vitamin and mineral supplements are harmful.  One study tracked 38,000 women starting when they were 55-69 years.  The researchers asked them to fill out questionnaires periodically on their supplement usage (and a bunch of other things) and then they just waited for them to die (morbid, but true).  Results showed that after 20 years, those women taking a vitamin and mineral supplement had a 2.4% higher risk of death than those who didn't take a supplement.  Iron seemed to be the nutrient most associated with a higher risk of dying earlier.

A different study looked at 35,000 men who either took a selenium supplement (200 ug/d), a vitamin E supplement (400 IU/day), both supplements, or none.  After tracking these guys for 7 to 12 years, those taking either supplement (or both) had a higher risk of developing prostate cancer (17% higher risk for those taking the vitamin E).  
The fun in being late to report on these studies is that I can respond to many of the comments that are being posted on various news sites and other blogs.  Some range from rather insightful to loony.  And I apologize to anyone who's words I'm using below...but I just couldn't let these go without commentary:

"I would like to know who funded the study. Could it have been a pharmaceutical company?"

Dr. T: Both studies were funded by the National Cancer Institute.  Why on earth would a pharma company pay the millions of dollars needed for these large studies?   

"Big pharma profits down, no new drugs in the pipeline, running out of people to over medicate, time to attack vitamins! The bottom line.This study is a classic example of scientific reductionism being used to fulfil a particular need. In this case, it’s supplement bashing, a well-known preoccupation of Big Pharma."  

Dr. T: Ah of course, this is why.  Pharma companies want people to get sick so they somehow convinced the National Cancer Institute to give  millions of dollars to university professors who then were in on it too and designed a study to make people die more quickly from taking supplements...."a well-known preoccupation of Big Pharma".   I hope this person declines any drugs their physician prescribes to them for a life-threatening disease (all developed and proven effective from a pharma company) since they feel so strongly about "scientific reductionism".  And if someone could kindly explain what that term even means, I would greatly appreciate it. 

"Vitamins should not be taken to INCREASE LIFE SPAN. Vitamins should be taken to enhance life."

Dr. T: This is true, no one ever said vitamins were going to extend your life.  But if they do cut your life short, are they really enhancing your life?  

"Maybe they died in car accidents going to buy more vitamins"

Dr. T:  This is actually the smartest comment in the bunch.  The study looking at women and supplement use did not evaluate whether vitamins CAUSED early death, but rather they were looking for whether there was an association.  It is possible that women who were already sick happened to be taking more vitamins.  Or that these women who take vitamins have other behaviors that increase their risk of death.  That said, the prostate study coming out in the same week, plus earlier studies showing similar results, all suggest that people need to think twice before taking a supplement (see below for more info on that).  

"This is utter BS. Bad science is plaguing the world. Especially that which pertains to the use of vitamins. Countless studies of vitamin megadoses show phenomenally positive effects on human health. Of course, these are predominantly unheard studies as the pharmaceutical industry will stop at nothing to keep people on their meds instead of letting them take preventative measures with vitamins, natural assets that give our bodies the strength to fight disease."

Dr. T: It is possible this is the same person with the same conspiracy theory above.  First off, these two studies are some of the highest quality research out there since they have tens of thousands of people.  There are NO studies with tens of thousands of subjects looking at megadosing of vitamins.  In fact, most of those studies have 10 to 50 people and results seem to always work best in people that are already deficient.  For example, mega-dosing of iron helps children grow and learn in less developed countries (because they are low in iron).  And finally, these studies are being published in top tier journals that are run independently by university professors...not pharma companies.  And what exactly is a "natural asset"?

So back to the title...should you stop taking your supplements?  Maybe.  Some things to consider:

1. Do you drink fancy drinks containing vitamins, eat energy bars with vitamins, have a bowl of fortified breakfast cereal every day?  If so, you really don't need a supplement.  

2. You really don't need more than ~100% of the daily value in a supplement.  If you are taking more than that, you may want to re-consider what you are taking.  

3. You may only need to supplement selected vitamins and minerals.  For example, a vitamin D supplement is really only needed for those living in northern locations or those who are never outside without sunscreen.  Women who are menstruating and do not consume red meat probably need to take iron but men do not.  Those who do not eat any fruits and vegetables (gasp!) should take a vitamin C supplement but if you are smart enough to eat those foods, you probably don't.  

4. Is a "whole-food supplement" better than a regular supplement?  At this point, we don't know.  There are no big studies looking at food-based sources of vitamins and minerals and health.  It may be that it doesn't matter where the vitamins come from.  Or they may be better, but not clear yet.  I would still stick to the 3 principles above until we have more information. 

And I promised a friend I would look at natural remedies for cold and flu so hope to get to that topic next! 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Another Possible Reason Why Girls May be Hitting Puberty Earlier

There's no doubt that young girls these days are maturing a lot faster than when we were little.  On average, puberty is starting as young as 9 years in Caucasions and 8 years in African-Americans (and that's an average, so for some individuals, it starts much sooner).  Just look at the bra section in seems to get bigger each year.

A number of theories exist as to why this is happening, most notably the increase in childhood obesity.  Young girls who are obese have a much higher risk of developing early versus non-obese peers.  Fat cells produce estrogen, which may kick off the puberty process early.  Young boys who are obese may have delayed puberty for the same reason...however the estrogen blocks testosterone from initiating puberty.  Either way, those of you with children would probably agree that they are happiest when they are 'average'.  Early puberty or late puberty does not make for a happy child and therefore by default, a happy parent.

Other theories for why puberty is starting earlier include things like pesticides, hormones in milk, and other contaminants in our environment.  And it may not just be whether the children themselves are exposed to these contaminants, but both parents as well.  

A new study this month is suggesting another possible cause for early puberty: low levels of vitamin D.  The research showed that girls in northern latitudes (where there is much less sun and therefore less vitamin D being made in the skin) are more likely to have their first period earlier than those in southern latitudes.  This is a very important finding because girls who have their first period before age 12 have a much higher risk of breast cancer later in life.  

This study doesn't prove that taking a vitamin D supplement will delay a girl's first period, but it does provide more rationale for why its important for girls to drink milk (which has vitamin D) and/or take a multi-vitamin containing vitamin D.  These results also suggest that children in northern climates may benefit from having vitamin D levels tested at the pediatrician's office to rule out a deficiency.  

And most importantly (for me anyway), this is a darn good reason for a winter vacation in a nice climate! 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Should You Eat Like a Caveman? The Paleolithic Diet

This one goes out to Megan, a personal trainer based in London.  She's been hearing a lot about the Paleolithic Diet and wants to know the real scoop.  Here goes...

The Paleolithic Diet is also called the Caveman Diet, Stone Age Diet, or Hunter-Gatherer Diet.  It is based on what humans used to eat prior to the agricultural revolution and after humans learned to use stone we're talking at least 10,000 years ago.  Although there's considerable debate, most nutritional anthropologists agree that this includes animal flesh (four-legged, two-legged, and finned creatures), vegetables, roots, fruit, and nuts.  

Proponents of the diet claim that our ancestors thrived on these foods and had no evidence of the diseases that plague our society today; most notably, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.  They also claim that our DNA is best suited to utilize these foods and reject foods not available during that period such as grains, dairy, legumes, refined sugars and oils. They argue that our DNA has not changed but the food supply has, and we are not genetically adapted to these "new foods".  Bottom line, they feel we'd all be better off eating the foods that make our DNA happy.

The diet itself ends up being very high in plant foods (good), protein (good), and fiber (good) and contains no processed food (very good).  The downsides are the diet is inherently low in calcium (not good) and vitamin D (not good).  Some minor modification of the diet could increase calcium and vitamin D intake, or a dietary supplement could serve the same role. The diet can also be difficult to follow if you are on a tight food budget or do not have access to the limited list of foods all year round.

What does the research say?  There's really little to go on.  There have been a handful of studies, but all of them are with very few people.  One of the more interesting studies looked at the effects of the Paleolithic Diet compared to a Mediterranean Diet in folks with heart disease.  Those that followed the Paleolithic Diet reported being less hungry and they actually consumed less calories.  The researchers did not report any information about their heart disease symptoms so its difficult to conclude whether the diet is better or worse than the Mediterranean Diet for heart disease.

Other studies have shown that people with type 2 diabetes had better blood sugar control with the Paleolithic Diet versus a higher carbohydrate diet.  But again, there were very few subjects in the study so its hard to generalize these results.

There have been far greater numbers of studies showing that dairy foods, whole grains, and legumes (banned on the Paleolithic Diet) can be part of a healthy diet that reduces the risk for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.  So based on the scientific evidence to date, there does not appear to be a strong rationale for everyone switching to the Paleolithic Diet.  That said, there doesn't appear to be a big risk in following that diet for those who find it appealing.  

Some folks will probably feel awesome on the diet and others will not....this is how our DNA really works.  Based on our individual genetics, which includes how we taste and metabolize food, some diets may be a better fit than others.  If you enjoy eating roots, vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish and poultry/meat, then the Paleolithic Diet may be worth a go for a few weeks to see how you feel.  

Has anyone tried it?  Any insights?

Good luck Megan!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ode to Some K-Cups...and Boo to Others

In 1904, electric washing machines became commercially available, changing the lives of (cringing as I say this) women forever.  In 1919, the blender was invented, which greatly improved the rate at which margaritas could be made in kitchens all over America.  And then in 1992, a small company in Reading, Massachusetts rocked my developing this:
The Keurig Coffee Machine.  Not only does this machine make a fine cup of coffee, but it saves me from dealing with this on a daily basis:

And a ton of $$ from going to this spot every day:

In 2006, Keurig became a subsidiary of Green Mountain Coffee.  And since then, the number of different machines that are available, and the types of coffees (K-cups) and related products that can be purchased for the machine, have skyrocketed. I am a purist.  I like the plain coffee and stumble to that machine every morning to pop in my favorite k-cup and press the button.

However, I am a little skeptical about some of the non-coffee products that are now being sold.  For example, this sounds good, right?

Unfortunately, the ingredient list doesn't sound good:


Recently, Green Mountain has ventured into teas and herbals.  For example:
This K-cup coffee pod has added ginseng and guarana and claims to boost alertness .  Really?  Exactly how much ginseng and guarana are in that little pod?  Are you sure that the high pressure brewing system is sufficient to release those herbs into the actual cup of coffee?  Or what if the heat of the water breaks down the active compounds?  I guess my real question is, why should anyone pay more for this cup?  And I think the answer right now is that you shouldn't. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What is That Liquid on Top of My Yogurt?

Know what I'm talking about?  You open your container of yogurt and there's a thin layer of liquid on top?  It also happens with other dairy products like sour cream and cottage cheese.  What is that and why does it happen?

There are two main reasons:

1. A process called syneresis.  This is a fancy schmancy name that means "watery proteins leaking out of the product".  Yogurt, sour cream, and cottage cheese are all products that are made from milk proteins forming a gel with water.  Some of the proteins are very sticky (like casein) and some are not as sticky (like whey).  As these foods sit on the grocery store shelf and then in your refrigerator, the less sticky proteins leach out over time and collect on the surface.  If it's a large container with multiple servings, it keeps happening each time you take a serving and put it back in the frig because now you've disrupted that gel.  As the gel settles down to the bottom of the container, more watery whey proteins leach out.  

What to do about it?  I've blogged about whey before, but just as a refresher, it's a milk protein that is similar in composition to human muscle, so it's great for your body.  Just mix it back in with the yogurt, sour cream, or cottage cheese, and feel good about yourself.

2. The other reason only applies to products that have already been opened and put back in your frig.  This will not make you feel as good.  

Many dairy products contain a small amount of carbohydrate (especially sweetened yogurts and sour cream).  Human saliva contains enzymes that digest carbohydrates within the mouth.  Imagine a scenario where you take a spoonful of yogurt, stick it into your mouth, and then back into the yogurt.  You decide not to eat the entire container of yogurt and stick it back in the frig.  All of sudden, those lucky enzymes from your spoon are swimming around in their favorite food, digesting it along the way, leaving behind a trail of digested carbohydrates that draw out water. Imagine a scenario where it's not your enzymes in the food you're about to eat, but someone else's.  EWWW!    

Best to never contaminate your food with your saliva-ridden spoon, don't you think?  Here endeth the lesson.  :)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Frozen Spinach is Not Always a Substitute for Fresh....and Other Tips

Imagine you once made the best breakfast smoothie that was a blend of non-fat yogurt, blueberries, orange juice and fresh spinach.  It was so delicious, that you wanted to make it again.  However, you didn't have any fresh spinach so you substituted with frozen spinach.  The result?  AWFUL!

This is a true story from a friend of mine.  Her experience is not an unlikely one.  Most people know some cooking basics, such as substituting margarine for butter, but healthy foods come with a slightly different set of rules.  

As such, I've started a list of "Considerations for Healthy Eating/Cooking":

1. Not everything will taste good in a smoothie.  Juicers and fancy blenders make it seem like any combination of something healthy can be successful mixed up into a frothy, yummy treat.  Alas, this is not true.  Luckily, there are about a billion recipes out there for smoothies to make your life easier (and some where you can sneak in foods like salmon...aka, The Bass-a-Matic).  Follow the recipe, and chances are that it will be delicious or at least, delicious to someone.  

2. Frozen spinach is a great substitute for fresh, so long as you're cooking with it.   Frozen spinach is fabulous to have on hand to throw in soups, sauces, with egg dishes, etc.  In these applications, fresh will work too.  But it doesn't work well the other way.  Frozen spinach is much more concentrated, so a cup of frozen spinach is equivalent to practically 3 times that of fresh.  I think this is why the smoothie my friend made was not very good...too much spinach relative to the other ingredients.

3.  Don't be afraid to use the salt shaker on healthy foods.  Salt and fat (especially butter) greatly improve most foods.  And here's the thing with a salt shaker...salting the top of a food does not get you into trouble with salt.  This is because very little salt is needed when it's directly on the food.  With each bite, the salt comes into direct contact with salt receptors on the tongue.   When the salt is mixed in the food (like soups or frozen entrees or cheese), it cannot directly contact the tongue which means food companies have to add a whole lot more to make the food taste salty.  Even people on a salt-restricted diet (due to high blood pressure or another condition) can enjoy adding salt to their healthy foods in moderation.

4.  Don't be afraid of fat with your healthy food!  Over the past 10 years, experts have slowly been increasing the recommendations for intake of fat.  Why?  Because as it turns out, fat is not the devil food that everyone thought it was.  Sure, some fats are bad (trans fats especially) and some are good (fats from fish and oils), and it still has more calories than protein or carbohydrate on a gram for gram basis.  But fat itself does not cause heart disease or cancer or diabetes.  Unhealthy diets and lifestyles do.  There is nothing unhealthy or wrong with adding olive oil to a salad or eating a full-fat yogurt with fruit.  And here's the thing...fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants that require fat to be absorbed into the body.  I cringe whenever I see a woman eating a beautiful salad of vegetables with lemon juice or only balsamic vinegar.  A little oil will greatly improve the flavor and allow your body to harness all the disease-fighting compounds in those veggies.

5.  Healthy foods taste better when they are in season.  Forcing a fruit or vegetable to grow under less than ideal conditions or shipping them from another continent affects the quality of the food.  Some vegetables produce more bitter compounds, some fruits can develop thicker rinds and plants like tomatoes make fruit that are mealy and gritty.  January in Chicago is not the best time to make a tomato-cucumber salad and it's especially not the best time to introduce a lot of these seasonal-type foods to picky eaters.  If #s 3 and 4 above cannot help, then I say save those foods for a different time of year and enjoy what's fresh. 


Monday, August 15, 2011

Snacking for Back-to-School

It's that time of year again.  Time to pack up the kiddos in the morning and send them off to school.  

Along with their backpacks, lunches, special assignments, a check for the fundraiser-du-jour, water bottles (I don't remember bringing this much stuff when I was little)....many teachers encourage sending in a snack.  

Before I actually had kids, I used to always recommend fruit as a snack.  It seemed so easy to me to just send in an apple or banana with your child.  While I'm sure many children can successfully bring in fresh fruit as a snack, none of my 3 kids can do so without a high degree of smushing, crushing, bruising, or leaking which results in an icky snack and disgusting backpack.  [And as a side note, even a nanoparticle of a banana on a backpack causes my small, placid dog to eat said backpack in a matter of seconds.]

In the event that this is a problem in your household, I have started a list of some alternative snack options that will provide long-lasting energy and  transport easily, even under jarring or backpack-as-cushion-on-the-bus conditions:

Frozen tubes of yogurt work perfectly as a snack.  Even if they are not completely thawed by snack time, they still taste great.  Simply Gogurt or Stoneyfield Farm are my favorites.  Plus, yogurt tubes are peanut free. 

 Chex mix isn't the healthiest snack option out there, but is a better alternative to chips and other related snacks.  This one is not peanut free, so may not work in every classroom.   

I wish Fig Newtons were cooler.  If only they would dress up a fig in big underwear and make him sing and dance on TV, kids would actually request fig newtons for a snack.  They are a wonderful, peanut-free option that taste great, even when flattened under a text book. 

I absolutely love these VitaTops.  They are packed with fiber and protein and come in a variety of flavors.  They are frozen, but do well when thawed over time in a backpack.  Some flavors are also peanut free.

Popcorn is always a great option as a snack.  This new Skinny Pop Popcorn tastes great and only contains popcorn, sunflower oil, and salt as ingredients.   No peanuts!

Even a few hours outside of the refrigerator should not be a concern with individual, packaged servings of cheese.  This could also be paired up with a side of whole grain crackers.  Another peanut free option!

Emerald has a bunch of new products that make for great snacking.  Here's one that is dried fruit with granola.  I love these things and throw them in my purse.

Any other snacks that folks like to send in with their kids?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Whey for Stealth Weight Loss

Protein is good.  I've blogged a lot about the research showing that increasing protein intake (to about 80-100 grams per day for most women), while decreasing carbohydrate intake, is associated with feeling more full, losing more weight, having more energy, amongst other things.  I'm not talking about low-carb diets or anything, just a subtle shift in what foods you eat during the day.  For example, instead of a bagel and cream cheese for breakfast, a scrambled egg on toast.  Instead of pasta and sauce for dinner, fish tacos with side of spinach. 

Case in point, a new study was just published where overweight and obese people were divided into 3 groups and asked to drink two beverages a day for 5 months.  One group received beverages that were all carbohydrate.  One group received beverages that were whey protein (one of the main proteins in milk).  And the other group received beverages that were soy protein.  They weren't told to try to lose weight or change anything else in their life; just to drink these beverages on two occasions a day.

After 5 months, one group gained weight, one group lost weight, and one group stayed the same.  Care to guess what beverage did what???

Of course, the whey beverage led to weight loss!  Not a lot (only 4 lbs), but remember these folks were not trying to lose weight.  The carbohydrate beverage caused people to gain about 4 lbs and the soy beverage did not alter weight at all.  

What to make of this?  In my opinion, I think this means that whey definitely has an advantage over carbohydrates and maybe even soy in terms of making people feel more full.  There may not be big differences in fullness in the short term, but over 5 months, whey may be just filling enough to cause people to consume fewer calories and slowly lose weight without even trying.  

Here's something kind of cool to think about...most people gain, on average, 1-2 lbs per year as they age.  What if eating more whey can prevent that from happening?   Even more interesting...beverages tend to be less filling than foods in general.  What would have happened if the study participants ate the whey versus drank the whey (like in cottage cheese or a sports bar)?  Would they have lost more weight? 

And it is because of these questions that I have a job.  :)

Happy weekend everyone!!!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Tall People Are More Likely to Get Cancer

Tall people are pretty lucky.  According to experts, they are smarter, make more money, and even live longer.  But here's something for short people to hang their hat on....they are less likely to get cancer than tall people.  

A study this past week in The Lancet Oncology reported that for every 4 inches above 5 feet, women had a 16% higher risk of developing cancer.  Men were not studied in this particular report, but other studies have shown the same thing in men.  And it's all types of cancers that are increased, not just one particular site.  

The obvious question is why are tall people more prone to developing cancer?  Unfortunately, no one really knows.  There are several theories, but nothing concrete.  One theory is that tall people just have more cells than short people.  All it takes is one cell to go awry to start cancer so if you simply have more cells, there's a greater chance that one will go sour.  

Another theory is that tall people have higher levels of hormones, specifically the hormones that stimulate growth in childhood.  These hormones (called insulin-like growth factors) have been shown to increase cancers in laboratory animals and test tubes.  But really, it could be something completely different...for example, maybe tall people consume more pesticides over a lifetime (because they presumably consume more food) or have greater exposure to electromagnetic fields...or maybe this is Mother Nature's way of tossing short people a bone?  

Short or tall, skinny or fat, man or woman, black or white or other...the best we can do against cancer is eat lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise, use sunscreen, and avoid cigarettes.  And of course, encourage all those smart tall people to find a cure!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Italian American Inspiration

It's been a while since my last post.  And I feel bad about that.  Friends would ask why I wasn't posting anything, and I would just shrug my shoulders.  Sure, I was busy (who isn't), but that really wasn't the reason I wasn't blogging.  My blogging spark fizzled out.  Nothing was able to light the fuse.  But I finally found a Italy.

No, it wasn't the food (which I didn't think was that great), or culture, or nice looking young Italians (more on that another time).  It wasn't the constant second-hand smoke coming off every Italian's cigarette (what's up with that?)  It was a man named Paul.  

We flew thousands and thousands of miles to celebrate his 80th birthday.  Here in Illinois, we live about 2 hours from Paul.  But he wanted to celebrate his birthday in the small village where his parents were born.  And so off we went over the ocean for a birthday party.  And so did 300 other people from around the world.

I have always been a believer in you get what you give, good karma, what-comes-around-goes-around...whatever you want to call it.  I just hadn't seen it on the scale that was apparent at the party....every person in attendance was there because Paul helped them, inspired them, taught them a valuable life lesson.  

As a college professor, Paul is in a good position to do this.  He interfaces with hundreds of different people each week, so many of whom are eager to learn from him whether they are 20 or 50 years old.  What's different about Paul is that he goes above and beyond what so many professors do, so that when he has a birthday party on a different continent, people update their passports and fly 10 hours to attend.

Whether it's the Italian in him or the American in him or the Midwest in him or just him, I'm inspired.  And so because of Paul, I'm back to blogging.  And from here forward, I'm going to focus on what I know...the science of food and nutrition and how it can improve lives.  It is my hope that I can teach, inspire, or help others live healthier lives by discussing new research studies and myths about diet and health.   

And mark your calendars for December, 2051!  European location, TBD.  :)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Guest Blogging About Kids and Food

Last week I guest posted at The Desperate Housemommy all about what a huge Dr. Dork I am, but mostly about kids nutrition.  In general, I think certain moms beat themselves up worrying about what their kids eat...and by "certain moms" I mean those who are making a concerted effort to feed their kids healthy foods.  Chances are that if you're reading my blog and a mom, you fall into this category.  Check out that posting...I guarantee you'll feel better. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Eggs and Other Happies...

According to my dear friend Lori, "happies" are things that make you feel...wait for it....HAPPY.  They can be gifts, they can be things you buy for yourself, or anything else that gives you that warm fuzzy feeling of happiness.  My two happies for this week are eggs and fairy gardens. 

These aren't just any eggs, but special eggs of different sizes and colors.  They were given to me as a gift from a friend who is part of a grass-fed beef CSA called Trail's End Organic Farm.  Although it's not indicated on their website, I have to believe that the chickens were raised in different conditions than conventional eggs.  Most eggs are from chickens crammed into cages, versus those allowed to stretch their legs (called "free range" but in the U.S., this just means chickens have access to the outside).  Most farmers using organic growing practices take the term "free range" seriously and allow chickens to be pasture fed.

The different shell colors likely indicates that more than one breed of chickens contributed to this dozen.  The shell color varies by breed.  For example, the Araucana chicken lays blue eggs.  And it's quite attractive.  

Here's another interesting fact about eggs.  The color of the egg yolk is a function of the carotenoid content (carotenoids are antioxidants...good stuff).  Look at the difference in yolk color between a conventional egg (left) and my special blue egg (right):

The darker color means there are likely more antioxidants in the special egg.  It could just be that the breed of chicken makes eggs with more carotenoids in the yolk, but more likely, they were raised on feed that contained either red peppers or marigold.  These are two common ingredients added to chicken feed (or found in the pasture) to increase the color of the yolk.  

Another interesting factoid...all eggs are considered to have the same nutrition content regardless of chicken breed and what they are fed.  A large egg has only 70 calories and 6 grams of protein...pretty darn great.  Even better, the cholesterol and saturated fat content of eggs has declined over the years, making them even healthier.    

But how can a chicken raised on a conventional diet in small cages produce eggs with the same nutrition as a chicken raised on pasture?  I doubt they do!  Although the USDA doesn't recognize this evidence, an independent group looked at the nutrition content of eggs from pasture fed chickens and conventional chickens and what do you know, it looks like the pasture fed chickens make healthier eggs.  

Best part, they were YUMMY.  Much more flavorful than a conventional egg and prettier because of that dark yolk.  I'm sold on the fancy eggs!

Here is my other new fairy garden.

I think this is the green-thumb-adult equivalent of having a doll house.  If you google fairy gardens, you soon realize that this is an obsession for many people.  I just like how peaceful it looks.  I have it sitting in a large white pot outside my front door and I smile every time I look at it. 

If only my real children were as quaint and quiet as these three. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

Melting the Pounds Away with Green Tea

Yesterday I was interviewed by a journalist from a popular woman's magazine.  They are doing a story on green tea and somehow found a paper I recently published (in a biochemistry journal, no less) on green tea and weight loss. The journalist was very nice on the phone and asked me a lot of good questions, but I'm pretty confident that this will be the headline in her magazine:

Drinking green tea helps shed extra pounds, especially around the middle.

In reality, here's what the research says:

1. Drinking the equivalent of 6-12 cups of green tea a day may lead to weight loss over several months, especially if you are:
  • Asian and don't drink a lot of caffeine on a regular basis (~3 lb weight loss in Asians vs. about 1.5 lbs in Caucasians).
  • An exerciser that consistently works out on a weekly basis (~5 lb weight loss).  
2. Green tea may have this effect because of the combination of green tea antioxidants (called catechins) and caffeine naturally present in green tea.  They appear to work together to stimulate the nervous system to burn more calories.  The combination may also cause the body to burn more energy as fat, which may be why some studies show more fat loss from the belly region.

3. Black tea and other varieties have much less of the catechins, and therefore would likely be less effective.

Doesn't seem like a lot of weight loss, does it?  Especially if you have to drink 6 to 12 cups of tea a day.  But here's the thing...these numbers are from research studies that are 3 months long and because the studies are so short, the Dr. Dorks give high amounts of green tea to produce an effect.  It is entirely possible that just a few cups of a green tea a day has a similar effect over a longer period of time...say a year.  And even if it doesn't, green tea is a zero calorie beverage and has been linked to other good stuff, like lower risk for cancer and heart disease. 

As such, I think green tea is definitely a "do" for summer....completely on trend with other fashion statements like feathers in the hair and maxi-dresses....hmmmmm....I wonder how it tastes over ice with a little vodka???  

Wait, check this out:

I guess someone else thinks it tastes good!  Cheers!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Attractiveness Leads to Happiness...Make That Botox Appointment Now!

Last month a colleague of mine sent me a paper published by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany.  The paper looked at data from the US, UK, Canada and Germany and found that personal beauty (rated by a researcher on a 1-5 scale) leads to greater levels of happiness (measured by a quality of life questionnaire).  In fact with every increase in personal beauty, there was an incremental increase in happiness in men and even more so in women.  Much of this relationship can be explained by the fact that personal beauty improves other things, including income potential, likelihood of having a significant other, likelihood of having a strong social network.  But even when these things were accounted for, personal beauty was still strongly associated with happiness in women.

I'm not a psychologist, but I have always been intrigued by the research on happiness.  Recently, there was a great overview in The Economist (of all places) on how happiness is greatest early in life and then late in the life.  In the middle, happiness is low.  The data on antidepressant use in the US mirrors this same finding.  Approximately 12% of young woman take an antidepressant but 22% of women ages 45-65 yr take one.  

What if one solution to greater happiness in those middle years is merely investing in one's personal beauty?  Maybe a new outfit, a few sticks of Botox or Juviderm, a bootcamp class or personal trainer?  

Here's a scenario I'm just throwing out there:

SHE: Gosh, I'm feeling more 'glass half empty' these days.
HE: Honey, what you need is a partial highlight and oxygen facial.  I just bought a few Groupons that you can use to get discounts on both of these things.  
SHE: I feel happier already.
HE: I'm sure you do, because I am familiar with the research showing that you will be happier if you look more beautiful.  And I know that "happy wife means happy life".  Money spent on these treatments is just an investment in our overall well-being as a household and that's money well spent. 

Feel free to forward this along...and you're welcome!  ;)


Friday, April 22, 2011

Check Out This Magazine

When anyone mentions the name "Martha Stewart", I immediately have feelings of inadequacy.  The way she effortlessly frosts a ridiculously beautiful cake while fashioning some doily out of crystallized sugar, all the while her  dogs are all perfect and not crapping on her carpet.  Not my life.  

But I just discovered Whole Living. It's been around in some capacity since 1974, when it was called New Age Journal.  Then it was rebranded as Body+Soul in 2002 and acquired by Martha's media company in 2004.  A year ago, the name was changed to Whole Living. 

Don't let the former name, New Age Journal, scare you.  There is nothing new age about this mag.  It's a combination of fitness, health, beauty and green living.  The recipes are easy to follow with pretty pictures (and nutrition information).  Plus, the website has a bunch of good stuff.  Really, it's the closest I've ever felt (and ever will) to Martha Stewart.  

Here's the best can actually leave the magazine out in the open!  I have to cancel my Women's Health  because I don't think my 3 pre-teen daughters need to know "26 New Tips to Drive Your Man Wild".

Any other magazines out there that folks recommend?   

Friday, April 15, 2011

It's Hard to Get Fat Eating Nuts

My friends often ask me what I do at my job.  I don't see patients, I don't stand in a laboratory playing with test tubes, and I don't cook/serve people food.  So what do I do all day?  Well today, I looked at pictures of feces.

I know, I know, it's SO glamorous.  You want to be me.  I get that a lot.  
Why was I looking at such pictures?  Because I was reading a new research study on nuts.  Turns out a good portion of nuts are not digested after you eat them.  So the undigested nuts come out the other end, so to speak.  So far, this has been shown for almonds and most recently, pistachios.  This was presented at the Dr. Dork conference I attended last weekend. 

That's not to say it isn't true for all nuts.  Other nuts just haven't been tested yet.  

What does this mean?  It means that the calories that are listed on the labels for nuts are an over-estimation.  In the case of almonds, there are about 150 calories for 20 of those suckers as indicated on the label.  But in reality, they only provide 120-140 calories.  Why do the calories vary?  Because as it turns out, the amount of undigested nuts in feces varies person to person.  It could relate to differences in the digestive process between people, the speed at which food moves from end-to-end, and how well the nuts are chewed in the mouth. 

So if you feed someone nuts and then collect their poop and then magnify the poop so you can see it up real close and personal, there will be little pieces of nuts in there and then scientists will take pictures and cut and paste the pictures into a slide show and present it at a meeting in a room full of Dr. Dorks hanging on the edge of their seats all excited to see microscopic poop. 

Jealous?  ;)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

New Research in Nutrition Science

In the past 6 weeks, I've been to 2 scientific conferences on nutrition.  One was targeted to physicians to get them up to speed on nutrition topics and the other was for Dr. Dorks like myself to present new research.  As you can imagine, there is lots of stuff going on in nutrition these days.  Here are a few of the learnings from these meetings:

  1. There is a LOT of concern over people eating too much of specific vitamins and minerals.  Bad things could cancer.  It seems that folks get into trouble when they combine highly fortified foods and supplements.  For example, eating a bowl of Total cereal, taking a multivitamin and then having a sports bar will exceed the recommended upper limit for many nutrients.  It would be wise to just choose one of these.  So on the days that you eat a bowl of Total cereal, you may consider skipping the vitamin and sports bar.  Teenage boys are notorious for over-eating certain vitamins so if you have one of these creatures living in your home, you may want to mention this. 
  2. Dr. Dorks all agree that it's good to have more healthy bacteria growing in your colon (the good bacteria are called bifidobacteria or lactobacillus).  New research suggests that the best way to get more healthy bacteria in there is by eating the bacteria's favorite food....fiber.  This is very counter-intuitive right?  You would think that eating the good bacteria would be the best way.  But alas, it appears that is not true.  
  3. 90% of all male Dr. Dorks wear the same outfit:  khaki pants, light blue button-down shirt, navy blue jacket.     
  4. At least 30% of the Dr. Dorks at these meetings were overweight or obese, providing evidence that it is really darn hard to attain and maintain a healthy body weight, even when you know how.  
  5. This should come as no surprise, but people that eat the least amount of processed food are skinnier and healthier.  There was much discussion around this with scientists pointing fingers in all directions.  Some feel that the obesity epidemic was caused by women going back to work and relying more on processed foods.  Others are blaming the previous generation for not properly instructing their offspring on how to cook.  And there are still folks blaming air conditioning for the rise in body weights.  
 I will post more learnings later this week....

Friday, March 25, 2011

3 Things an Expert in Nutrition Wants You to Know

I've been such the lame blogger lately!  I've seen so many interesting things that I keep filing away as blog topics, but no blogging occurs.  It's been a crazy few weeks with my dog eating raisins (note to self: conduct research on why dogs eat things which make them die a slow painful death without $500 of medical intervention), professional commitments (Dr. Dork conferences), and then amidst it all, there's my feeble attempts to combat my own personal suburban sprawl (aka, my ever-growing back side).  

Whenever I get busy, I turn to music to alleviate that suffocating feeling.  Here's what I've been singing:

I'm busy busy dreadfully busy
You've no idea what I have to do.
Busy busy shockingly busy
Much much too busy for you.

It's a Veggie Tales classic.  I think it was #1 on the Vegetable Pop Charts-Cruciferous and Leafy in the late '90s.  

What I've been WANTING to do with this blog is a series of posts around what experts in a number of different areas want you to know.  So I'm going to kick it off with my perspective as a Dr. Dork Nutrition Scientist:

1. Just because it's sunny out does not mean you are making vitamin D.  Yes, it's the sunshine vitamin, but your skin can only make vitamin D when the sun is in the right position.  So a sunny day in February will yield no vitamin D for those of us that live in Chicago.  In fact, we're really not making any vitamin D here until around April.  It has nothing to do with how hot it is outside, but more about how many of the sun's UVB rays can actually make it to earth.  My recommendation is that if you're wearing a coat most days (which means it's cold), you'll need to be sure to get vitamin D from your diet (foods or supplements).  From April-October, just a few minutes of sun without sunscreen will make all the vitamin D you need for almost everyone.  

2. There is no substitute for a healthy diet.  I hate even saying this because it's an eye roller...who likes to hear this?  But if you look at the science,  people that eat more vegetables and other plant-based foods and are physically active are healthier and live longer.  It doesn't matter how many smoothies or cleanses or herbs that you take.  Our bodies are pretty smart after all these years and they are not fooled easily.

3. More is not better when it comes to vitamin, mineral, and other supplements.  In fact, more can be bad.  I was at a Dr. Dork conference last month and there was a lot of concern over people's vitamin and mineral intakes.  For example, too much folic acid has been shown to increased risk for breast cancer.  Similarly, calcium supplements have been linked to increased risk of heart attacks.  Vitamin E supplements have also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.  And here's the important doesn't matter if the vitamin or mineral is a chelated form, or that it's from some mine in the ocean, or that it's a concentrated form derived from vegetables...your body doesn't care.  They can all be equally harmful.  The supplement companies don't want you to know this and often, they will mis-represent the scientific evidence.  Sometimes they don't disclose that a study on their product was done in a test tube or rat.  Other times, they talk about how people in a certain tribe or part of the world have been so healthy for GENERATIONS because of this secret, special product.  It seems to get crazier each year.

For most adults (19-60ish years of age), most experts recommend a basic multi-vitamin most days of the week.  I eat my kid's generic chewables when I remember (3-4 days/week) and that works out just fine.  The best place to get information on how much of a certain vitamin or mineral you need is from the Institute of Medicine.  They review the scientific evidence on a regular basis and publish guidelines.  Here is the link.   

And happy Spring everyone!!!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Do You Eat More or Less When You See the Calories on the Menu?

First off, I'm about 7 days behind in every aspect of my life.  I went on a girl's trip to Jackson Hole, WY for 4 days and it set me back almost double that time.  My suitcase is still packed and sitting in my bedroom and my toiletries are in plastic bags in the bathroom.  That is why there's been no blogging this week.  But it was all worth it (see pictures below).

What I have been wanting to blog about all week is a new study that was published this week.  But first, a little background:

States like New York and California started requiring fast food establishments to post the calories of their products on the menu in the hopes that people will use this information to lose or maintain their body weight.  The regulators pushing this legislation "felt" that it was a good idea.  There was no data to suggest that it was a good idea, but they just thought it was.  Dr. Dorks of Nutrition (like me) were a little apprehensive about it all.  Without data, how do we know what the impact would be on the public at large?  Plus, it costs the food industry A LOT of money to not only generate that information, but to place it on their menus (not to mention that the information can vary widely depending on ingredients used and preparation method).  And of course, they are going to pass the costs on to their consumers.  So who wins?

Well, it appears that everyone loses.  The restaurants spent all that time and money to provide that information and the studies are showing that the posted calories either have no effect or in some cases, make people eat MORE calories.  No one really knows why people eat more calories, but it may have to do with people's perceptions of how many calories they really need.  For example, if you thought you should eat 2500 calories a day to lose weight, an 800 calorie salad for lunch sounds like a fine choice.  Why pick the dry lettuce and vinegar salad for 400 calories when the 800 calorie salad sounds a lot better and heck, it's only 800 calories!  

But unfortunately, most people do not know how many calories they really need to maintain or lose weight.  And even fewer people really want to count them; they may roughly estimate in their heads and forrgettabboutit.  

The only establishment (based on the few studies that have been conducted to date) where people made better choices after seeing the calories is Starbucks!  And it wasn't on the drinks, but on the food...and I get that.  The last time I had a Reduced Fat Banana Chocolate Chip Coffee Cake was the day that I found out it had almost 400 calories.  But here's the thing...the people that frequent Starbucks are, on average, the people that don't need to lose a lot of weight.  They tend to be more interested in their health.  So the healthy become healthier and those that are really overweight and with poor health do not benefit.  There must be a way to help everyone, regardless of race and socioeconomic status and genetics...I just don't know how yet.  But this is what I think about every day that I go to work.      

Do you read the calories on menus?  Do you choose your order based on the calorie information?  Just wondering...I actually like to see that information and I do make choices based on the calories.  Anyone else?

And now for the personal stuff...

If you haven't been to Jackson Hole, I highly recommend it.  Its at the bottom of the Grand Tetons (and I learned that teton means breast in French).  The people are fabulous (except for our maitre d at this fancy restaurant who hilariously, didn't know the specials because he "missed the meeting" and didn't know the desserts they severed either...yet he'd been working there for quite a while...and still I bought a bottle of soap that cost $30).  

I didn't ski, but it was still amazing.  I saw my first moose in the wild:

Here we are hanging with girlfriends at the house, who are some of the most fabulous women that I know:

And I even went to a cowboy bar where the bar seats were saddles:

All and all, a great girl's weekend!