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Over the course of the last two decades there have been changes in the American diet. A recent study found that Americans now eat more ultra-processed foods than ever (53.5% of calories), and have decreased their consumption of minimally processed foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, meat). This is not good for health.

Consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to obesity and some chronic diseases. It is also not good for the gut microbiome (the community of millions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live in the intestines). Ultra-processed foods include sugary breakfast cereals, sweets, frozen pizza, soda, fast food, salty snacks, canned soup. They can contain preservatives, additives, artificial ingredients, and emulsifiers (which are linked to gut inflammation).

The study by New York University researchers found that ultra-processed food consumption grew from 53.5 percent of calories in the beginning of the period studied (2001-2002) to 57 percent at the end (2017-2018). They found that ready-to-eat or just heat meals (e.g., frozen dinners) increased the most, while the intake of some sugary foods and drinks (e.g. soda) declined.

Most of the decrease in minimally processed whole foods (from 32.7 percent to 27.4 percent of calories in two decades) was mostly due to people eating less meat and dairy. And who increased their intake of ultra-processed foods the most during this time? Older adults (age 60 and over), who also decreased their intake of whole foods the most over 2 decades.

Bottom line: try to increase your intake of real whole foods, and decrease your intake of ultra-processed foods. This would benefit your gut microbiome (feed the good gut microbes with whole foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, seeds, nuts) and your health.

From Science Daily - Americans are eating more ultra-processed foods

Consumption of ultra-processed foods has increased over the past two decades across nearly all segments of the U.S. population, according to a new study by researchers at NYU School of Global Public Health.  ...continue reading "Americans Are Eating More Ultra-Processed Food Than Ever"

While many doctors encourage routine medical check-ups for healthy adults each year, others have raised doubts whether this is really necessary. There is also the issue of overdiagnosis and overtreatment, which  may actually cause harm.

Doubts about any benefits from annual general medical physicals, medical tests, and screenings for healthy adults (who have no symptoms) have been expressed for years by physicians, researchers, and some studies not finding any benefit (e.g., no decreases in heart disease, stroke, and deaths). Other countries also do not recommend all these routine screenings for healthy adults with no symptoms.

I recently came across the following interesting article by Dr. Jeremy Faust, a physician who writes at Inside Medicine. His background: MD, MS, board-certified emergency physician, founding editor of Brief19 (daily reports by physicians on the frontline of COVID-19), researcher, and author. He recommends a primary care doctor, but not an annual check-up for healthy adults (no symptoms), and discusses research supporting this.

Excerpts from Dr. Jeremy Faust at Inside Medicine: Do you really need a routine medical checkup?

Have decades of medical progress since changed the prognosis for routine checkups? To find out, a group of researchers in the United States recently analyzed the results of all the trials performed by other researchers since. The findings were recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. ...  ...continue reading "Annual Medical Physical May Be Unnecessary for Healthy Adults"

Breastfeeding
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Anton Nosik

Some women struggle with breastfeeding, and wind up breastfeeding for a shorter duration than other women. A recent study suggests one reason for women stopping breastfeeding early - they may have higher levels of PFAS chemicals, called "forever chemicals", in their bodies. These chemicals have many harmful health effects, including reproductive effects (such as endocrine disruption, higher levels of infertility).

The researchers analyzed levels of 5 different PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals in the blood of more than 1000 pregnant Dutch women. They found that those with higher levels  breastfed their babies for a shorter time (up to 20% shorter time) than those with lower levels. [NOTE: almost all humans are contaminated with PFAS chemicals, but levels vary}

Where did the PFOS chemicals come from? These human-made chemicals are used as water and stain repellants, and as coatings in many common products. For example, in rugs and fabrics with added stain resistance, certain dental flosses (e.g., Oral-B Glide floss), non-stick pots and pans (e.g., Teflon coating), water resistant long-lasting make-up, water and stain resistant food packaging, and even many water supplies.

How can we reduce exposures to these chemicals and lower levels in our bodies?  There are reasons they are known as "forever chemicals" - they stick around (persist), and contaminate both humans and the environment! But we can reduce our exposures to these chemicals and then levels in our bodies will go down. It just means making some changes.

For example, avoid using non-stick pots and pans, use plain waxed dental floss, cook more at home, and eat less take-out or fast-food (to avoid the water and grease resistant package coatings). For more tips:  Avoiding Harmful Chemicals.

From Science Daily: PFAS exposure can affect women’s ability to breastfeed

Women with higher levels of PFAS in their system may be 20% more likely to stop breastfeeding early, according to a new study published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.  ...continue reading "Certain Chemicals May Have An Effect On Breastfeeding"

Over the years many studies have found that eating nuts is good for health and good for the gut microbiome. Now, a study that looked at the effect of adding pecans to the daily diet can be added to the list.

The Univ. of Georgia researchers found that adding about 1/4 cup (68 grams) pecans to the daily diet for 8 weeks improved cholesterol levels. A conclusion is that pecans can be viewed as good for the heart or "cardioprotective".

In the study they randomly assigned 52 adults who were at risk for heart disease (they were overweight or had hypercholesterolemia) to 1 of 3 groups, including a control group with no pecan intake. As one of the researchers (Dr. Cooper) said: "We had some people who actually went from having high cholesterol at the start of the study to no longer being in that category after the intervention.

After 8 weeks of eating 1/4 cup pecans daily, there were lower levels of fasting total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, TC/HDL cholesterol ratio, non-HDL cholesterol, and apolipoprotein B in the blood There were no changes in the control (no pecan) group.

By the way, do you remember years ago when doctors cautioned people about eating nuts?  That they were very high calorie and should be avoided? Hah! ... The view nowadays: Pecans are high in healthy fatty acids and fiber, both of which are linked to lower cholesterol. Eating nuts frequently also reduces the risk of several chronic diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers, and are beneficial for cognitive health.

From Science Daily: Pecan-enriched diet shown to reduce cholesterol

While the proper pronunciation of pecan remains a subject of debate, University of Georgia researchers have shown the tree nut can dramatically improve a person's cholesterol levels.  ...continue reading "Pecans Are A Healthy Addition to the Diet"

Something protective that we all can do! A large study of patients found that getting an annual flu shot appears to provide some protection from severe COVID-19 effects.

The study suggested that the annual flu vaccine reduces the risks of stroke, sepsis, and deep vein thrombosis (DVT) in persons with COVID-19. These patients are also less likely to visit the emergency department and to be admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) in persons with COVID-19.

The Univ. of Miami researchers looked at medical records of 74,754 persons throughout the world with COVID-19. Patients either received a flu shot within the 6 months to 2 weeks before receiving a COVID-19 diagnosis, or no flu shot.

Why is this occurring? The researchers propose a number of reasons for the protective effect, including that perhaps the flu vaccine stimulates the activation of natural killer cells (these cells are decreased in moderate and severe COVID-19 cases).

From Science Daily: Flu shot protects against severe effects of COVID-19, study finds

In a newly published study, physician-scientists at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine have shown that the flu vaccine may provide vital protection against COVID-19. ...continue reading "Annual Flu Vaccine Reduces Risk of Severe COVID-19 Effects"

It has been known for a while that eating fermented foods and high fiber foods is healthy for us. A recent study confirms this view. Researchers at the Stanford Univ. of Medicine found that eating fermented foods actually reduces inflammation and increases the diversity of gut microbes (gut microbiome).

Researchers randomly assigned volunteers to one of 2 groups for 10 weeks: the fermentation foods group, and the high fiber group. Surprisingly, the group eating the high fiber diet for 10 weeks did not have changes in microbial diversity or changes in the 19 inflammatory markers studied. Instead, the researchers reported that the high-fiber diet "changes microbiome function and elicits personalized immune responses".

The fermented foods group ate a diet rich in yogurt, kefir, fermented cottage cheese, kimchi and other fermented vegetables (e.g. sauerkraut, traditional dill pickles), vegetable brine drinks, and kombucha tea. Each day they ate 6 servings (1/2 cup = 1 serving generally). The high fiber diet was rich in legumes, seeds, whole grains, nuts, vegetables, and fruits (increased their fiber intake from about 22 grams per day to 45 grams).

The fermented foods group ate six servings daily (e.g. 1/2 cup yogurt, kefir, fermented cottage cheese, kimchi, sauerkraut, traditional dill pickles, and kombucha tea). The high fiber group increased their fiber intake from about 22 grams per day to 45 grams, by eating a diet rich in legumes, seeds, whole grains, nuts, vegetables, and fruits.

High-fiber diets are associated with numerous health benefits such as lower rates of numerous chronic diseases and mortality. The consumption of fermented foods can help with weight maintenance and may decrease the risk of diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

From Futurity: Fermented Food Diet Boosts Microbiome and Cuts Inflammation

In a clinical trial, 36 healthy adults were randomly assigned to a 10-week diet that included either fermented or high-fiber foods. The two diets resulted in different effects on the gut microbiome and the immune system. 
...continue reading "Fermented Foods Are Good For Your Gut Microbiome"

Credit: NSF

Once again it is summer – the weather is hot, flowers are blooming, and pesticide application signs appear on lawns throughout the United States.

Americans love their lawns, and there seems to be a national obsession for one that looks like a lush weed-free carpet. Lawns can be thought of as the largest crop in the country, since they cover more area than any irrigated crop, even more than corn.

This has led to Americans applying nearly 80 million pounds of lawn care pesticides each year. One of the most common weed-killers is 2,4-D, a chemical used in Agent Orange, and linked to several types of cancers. It is found in many weed and feed products.

There are different types of pesticides. Harmless sounding “weed-killers” are actually herbicides, and “bug-killers” and “bug sprays” are insecticides. The purpose of pesticides is to kill or repel whatever is viewed as a pest, whether insects or weeds. Lawn care pesticides are considered to be “cosmetic” or non-essential use pesticides – meaning they are only used for aesthetic purposes.

There is a dark side to pesticides

Unfortunately, pesticides have effects beyond whatever was targeted. We may not see or smell pesticides after they have dried, whether applied to our lawns, gardens, crops, or homes, but they are still there and getting into our bodies.

We can breathe them in, absorb them through our skin and eyes, and ingest them in food, water, and dust. When children and pets are walking or rolling around on the grass after a pesticide application, they are absorbing those chemicals into their bodies. As far back as the early 1990s, studies showed that pesticides such as 2,4-D get into people and pets walking on treated lawns, especially on the first day they are sprayed (applied).

Pesticides are found in our air, water, soil, “drift” from neighboring properties and farms, and even in rain and fog. We track pesticides into our homes from the outside, where they linger in house dust and carpets. Scary, isn’t it?

Every year more evidence accumulates that pesticide exposures have harmful effects on humans, pets, wildlife, birds, bees, and other beneficial insects. Even on microbes in the soil, as well as microbes in the human gut microbiome!

Exposure to pesticides can be acute – a big amount at once, such as when a toddler walks over a recently treated lawn and winds up severely ill and possibly hospitalized. Yes, that actually happened to a child in my town. Or exposure to pesticides can be continuous and at low levels (chronic exposure).

Did you know that over 90% of all Americans, including pregnant women, have pesticide residues in their bodies? Pesticides can be measured in our blood and urine, breast milk, and even meconium (an infant's first feces). Studies show that while we are being exposed less to some now banned pesticides, other pesticide levels, such as glyphosate (which is used in Roundup), are rapidly increasing in human bodies.

The bad news is that we don’t really know what all the chronic low-level pesticide mixtures that we are exposed to are doing to us. Studies are finding health problems such as cancers, endocrine (hormone) disruption, reproductive problems, effects on mental development and behavior, and even effects on semen quality. Being exposed to pesticides at certain times of development can have the biggest effects, especially during pregnancy when the fetus is developing and during childhood.

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement in December 2012 warning of the dangers of pesticide exposure (including in the home) to children and during pregnancy. They stated that this includes common pesticides considered by many as “safe”, such as pyrethroids.

Our pets are at risk too. Dogs exposed to lawn pesticides develop the same cancers as humans. Researchers consider them early warning systems for human health because cancers take only a few years to show up in dogs, but many years in humans. ...continue reading "Are Lawn and Garden Pesticides Harming Us?"

The results of a large study adds more evidence to what we have long suspected: eating a Southern-style diet (fried foods and sugary drinks!) increases the risk for sudden cardiac death (up to 46% higher risk), while eating a plant-based or Mediterranean style diet appears to lower that risk.

Sudden cardiac death (SCD) occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating, and death occurs within one hour from the onset of symptoms. Heart disease (coronary artery disease) is the most common underlying cause of SCD (75 to 80% of cases), but it can also have other causes (e.g. heart failure, valve disease). Sudden cardiac death is quite common in the US - about 1 in every 7.5 deaths (or nearly 367,000 deaths in 2016).

Univ. of Alabama researchers looked at 5 dietary patterns that people ate over a 10 year period:  plant-based (Mediterranean), Southern, convenience food, alcohol & salad, and sweets. People generally eat foods from all 5 groups, but what is significant is the primary pattern - what the person mostly eats. The Southern diet is most prevalent in the southeastern US, which is also known as the "Stroke Belt", due to the higher stroke death rate there.

A Southern-style dietary pattern is characterized by fried foods, added fats,  eggs, organ meats (such as liver or giblets), processed meats (e.g. bacon, hotdogs, cold cuts), and sugar-sweetened beverages. A plant-based or Mediterranean dietary pattern is rich in fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, whole grains, legumes (beans), and fish, and low in processed meats, added fats, and fried foods.

The bottom line here is that what you eat has an effect on your health, including heart health. Best is a diet rich in plant-based foods - which also happens to be fiber rich and best for feeding beneficial microbes in the gut. Try to eat at least a minimum of 5 to 6 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, but more (up to 8 or 9 servings) might be even better.

From Science Daily: The Southern diet - fried foods and sugary drinks - may raise risk of sudden cardiac death

Regularly eating a Southern-style diet may increase the risk of sudden cardiac death, while routinely consuming a Mediterranean diet may reduce that risk, according to new research published today in the Journal of the American Heart Association, an open access journal of the American Heart Association.  ...continue reading "A Southern Style Diet Linked to Increased Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death"

The findings of a recent study caught my eye - that eating milk chocolate daily was beneficial for health a number of ways. Consuming a 3.5 oz bar of milk chocolate daily did not cause weight gain, that it actually resulted in reducing hunger and desiring fewer sweets the rest of the day, increased beneficial polyphenols, improved the gut microbiome, and morning consumption decreased fasting glucose (good). Overall, it was best to eat the chocolate in the morning (as compared to the evening before bedtime). Yes!!!

The researchers studied postmenopausal women (48 to 62 years old) in Murcia, Spain who ate milk chocolate daily, or no chocolate for 2 weeks while eating as usual (regular dietary pattern), and then did the opposite for 2 weeks after a one week break. (Thus everyone ate chocolate daily at some point). This meant that the chocolate eaters actually ate slightly more calories during the study than those not eating chocolate.

The researchers state that a 2018 review of chocolate studies (clinical trials) found that overall eating chocolate daily for 2 to 24 weeks (each study lasted a different length) "does not change body weight or body fat distribution". Some studies also find that eating chocolate daily slightly reduces waist size (waist circumference reduction). And this is what they also found in this study.

How much chocolate? The women in this study ate 100 grams per day (3.5 ounces) - a normal sized chocolate bar! Chocolate lovers - rejoice!

From Medical Xpress: Starting the day off with chocolate could have unexpected benefits

A new study of postmenopausal women has found that eating a concentrated amount of chocolate during a narrow window of time in the morning may help the body burn fat and decrease blood sugar levels.  ...continue reading "Milk Chocolate Has Health Benefits"

Some good news. A recent study found that eating just 2 servings (a cup) of fruit per day is associated with a 36% lower risk for type 2 diabetes after 5 years (as compared to those who eat less than 1/2 a serving) . Doesn't sound like so much fruit, but appears to have a big effect.

However, in this Australian study, the association did not hold for fruit juice. Only for eating whole fruits.

From Science Daily: People who eat a healthy diet including whole fruits may be less likely to develop diabetes

A new study finds people who consume two servings of fruit per day have 36 percent lower odds of developing type 2 diabetes than those who consume less than half a serving. The research was published in the Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.  ...continue reading "Eating Fruit Linked To Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes"