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People often wonder if there are any health benefits to buying organic milk versus conventional milk. And further, how about grass-fed organic milk? Now a recent study answers that question nicely with regards to beneficial fatty acids. Keep in mind that ideally (for health benefits) want fewer omega-6 fatty acids, and more omega-3 fatty acids, with a ratio close to 1. Guess which is the healthiest? The 100% grass-fed organic milk (ratio of .95 - just about 1) is best, then the organic milk, and in last place - conventional milk. Why is that? It's due to different food and grazing requirements (see below). From Beyond Pesticides:

Study Finds Grass-Fed and Organic Milk to be Healthier Than Conventional

Milk from 100% grass-fed cows has higher levels of beneficial fatty acids than conventional and even organic milk, according to a study published by an international team of scientists in the journal Food Science and Nutrition. The research follows up on data published in 2013, which compared only conventional and organic milk, finding organic milk contained 62 percent more omega-3 fatty acids and 25 percent fewer omega-6s

The study compared the composition of several fatty acids within the three types of milk tested (conventional, organic, and grass-fed). Of primary concern was the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acids. Although omega 6s are not necessarily bad fats, high amounts or unbalanced ratios of omega-6 to omega-3s has been linked to a range of health problems, from cardiovascular disease, to cancer and other illnesses. High consumption of omega 3s, on the other hand, is linked to reduced risks of a number of diseases, including diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, cancer, and many other chronic disorders. The diet of early humans maintained a ratio of 1, but modern Western food production, with its focus on processed and hydrogenated fats, has raised that ratio to an average of 15.

Looking at over 1,600 milk samples over a 3-year span, results found ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 to be .95 for 100% grassfed milk, 2.28 for organic milk, and 5.77 in conventional milk ...continue reading "Differences Between Grass-Fed Organic, Organic, and Conventional Milk"

Once again, a study finds that a supplement has no benefit - here omega-3 supplements did not slow cognitive decline in older adults. On the other hand, studies find that eating foods with omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish) has beneficial health effects. Regular consumption of fish is associated with lower rates of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), cardiovascular disease, and possibly dementia.  From Science Daily:

No benefit of omega-3 supplements for cognitive decline, study shows

While some research suggests that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids can protect brain health, a large clinical trial by researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that omega-3 supplements did not slow cognitive decline in older persons. With 4,000 patients followed over a five-year period, the study is one of the largest and longest of its kind.

Dr. Chew leads the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), which was designed to investigate a combination of nutritional supplements for slowing age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a major cause of vision loss among older Americans. That study established that daily high doses of certain antioxidants and minerals -- called the AREDS formulation -- can help slow the progression to advanced AMD.

A later study, called AREDS2, tested the addition of omega-3 fatty acids to the AREDS formula. But the omega-3's made no difference. Omega-3 fatty acids are made by marine algae and are concentrated in fish oils; they are believed to be responsible for the health benefits associated with regularly eating fish, such as salmon, tuna, and halibut.* Where studies have surveyed people on their dietary habits and health, they've found that regular consumption of fish is associated with lower rates of AMD, cardiovascular disease, and possibly dementia. "We've seen data that eating foods with omega-3 may have a benefit for eye, brain, and heart health," Dr. Chew explained.

Omega-3 supplements are available over the counter and often labeled as supporting brain health. A large 2011 study found that omega-3 supplements did not improve the brain health of older patients with preexisting heart disease.

With AREDS2, Dr. Chew and her team saw another opportunity to investigate the possible cognitive benefits of omega-3 supplements, she said. All participants had early or intermediate AMD. They were 72 years old on average and 58 percent were female....Participants were given cognitive function tests at the beginning of the study to establish a baseline, then at two and four years later.... The cognition scores of each subgroup decreased to a similar extent over time, indicating that no combination of nutritional supplements made a difference.

* Other omega-3 fatty acids are found in plant foods such as flaxseed, walnuts, soy products, and canola and soybean oils. Specific omega-3 fatty acids from these sources were not studied.

The following is a list of nutrients that some researchers (from the Institute of Food Technology) think of as especially beneficial to the brain. Other researchers may (or probably will) focus on other nutrients. I am posting it even though I generally dislike articles that talk about "superfoods" or an itemized list of foods that one should eat to the exclusion of others. Because, of course, focusing on some nutrients may leave out many just as important nutrients.

Also, medical thinking changes over time and what was once considered "unhealthy" may later be considered a wonderful food (remember when eggs, nuts, and coconuts were almost considered evil?). And vice versa (remember when margarine with partially hydrogeneated oils and trans-fats was considered healthier than butter?) And study after study says it is better to eat the foods, rather than take supplements. So keep in mind that the following nutrients are found in whole foods and in a varied diet. And when they mention a specific food such as blueberries, remember that ALL berries have benefits (though they vary), so eat a variety of berries. Same with nuts - eat a variety and not just walnuts. From Science Daily:

Eight nutrients to protect the aging brain

Brain health is the second most important component in maintaining a healthy lifestyle according to a 2014 AARP study. As people age they can experience a range of cognitive issues from decreased critical thinking to dementia and Alzheimer's disease. In the March issue of Food Technology published by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), contributing editor Linda Milo Ohr writes about eight nutrients that may help keep your brain in good shape.

1. Cocoa Flavanols: Cocoa flavanols have been linked to improved circulation and heart health, and preliminary research shows a possible connection to memory improvement as well. A study showed cocoa flavanols may improve the function of a specific part of the brain called the dentate gyrus, which is associated with age-related memory (Brickman, 2014). {NOTE: good sources are cocoa and dark chocolate}

2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids have long been shown to contribute to good heart health are now playing a role in cognitive health as well....Foods rich in omega-3s include salmon, flaxseed oil, and chia seeds.

3. Phosphatidylserine and Phosphatidic Acid: Two pilot studies showed that a combination of phosphatidylserine and phosphatidic acid can help benefit memory, mood, and cognitive function in the elderly (Lonza, 2014). {NOTE: good sources are fish and meat}

4. Walnuts: A diet supplemented with walnuts may have a beneficial effect in reducing the risk, delaying the onset, or slowing the progression of Alzheimer's disease in mice (Muthaiyah, 2014).

5. Citicoline: Citicoline is a natural substance found in the body's cells and helps in the development of brain tissue, which helps regulate memory and cognitive function, enhances communication between neurons, and protects neural structures from free radical damage.... {NOTE: Citocoline is synthesized in the body from choline, so see foods high in choline}

6. Choline: Choline, which is associated with liver health and women's health, also helps with the communication systems for cells within the brain and the rest of the body. Choline may also support the brain during aging and help prevent changes in brain chemistry that result in cognitive decline and failure. A major source of choline in the diet are eggs. { NOTE: Good sources of choline are eggs, meat, fish, beans, and cruciferous vegetables.}

7. Magnesium: Magnesium supplements are often recommended for those who experienced serious concussions. Magnesium-rich foods include avocado, soy beans, bananas and dark chocolate.

8. Blueberries: Blueberries are known to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity because they boast a high concentration of anthocyanins, a flavonoid that enhances the health-promoting quality of foods. Moderate blueberry consumption could offer neurocognitive benefits such as increased neural signaling in the brain centers.

After reading this article, I looked over my last year's posts and realized that the recent studies posted all found that eating fish showed health benefits (and they did not look at supplements). Once again, a food shows benefits while the supplement is debatable. Current advice: try to eat fish at least twice a week. From the NY Times:

Fish Oil Claims Not Supported by Research

Fish oil is now the third most widely used dietary supplement in the United States, after vitamins and minerals, according to a recent report from the National Institutes of Health. At least 10 percent of Americans take fish oil regularly, most believing that the omega-3 fatty acids in the supplements will protect their cardiovascular health. But there is one big problem: The vast majority of clinical trials involving fish oil have found no evidence that it lowers the risk of heart attack and stroke.

From 2005 to 2012, at least two dozen rigorous studies of fish oil were published in leading medical journals, most of which looked at whether fish oil could prevent cardiovascular events in high-risk populations. These were people who had a history of heart disease or strong risk factors for it, like high cholesterol, hypertension or Type 2 diabetes. All but two of these studies found that compared with a placebo, fish oil showed no benefit.

In theory at least, there are good reasons that fish oil should improve cardiovascular health. Most fish oil supplements are rich in two omega-3 fatty acidseicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — that can have a blood-thinning effect, much like aspirin, that may reduce the likelihood of clots. Omega-3s can also reduce inflammation, which plays a role in atherosclerosis. And the Food and Drug Administration has approved at least three prescription types of fish oil — Vascepa, Lovaza and a generic form — for the treatment of very high triglycerides, a risk factor for heart disease. But these properties of omega-3 fatty acids have not translated into notable benefits in most large clinical trials.

Like many cardiologists, Dr. Stein encourages his patients to avoid fish oil supplements and focus instead on eating fatty fish at least twice a week, in line with federal guidelines on safe fish intake, because fish contains a variety of healthful nutrients other than just EPA and DHA. “We don’t recommend fish oil unless someone gets absolutely no fish in their diets,” Dr. Stein said.

But some experts say the case for fish oil remains open. Dr. JoAnn Manson, the chief of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said the large clinical trials of fish oil focused only on people who already had heart disease or were at very high risk. Fish oil has also been promoted for the prevention of a variety of other conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer’s and depression. Dr. Manson is leading a five-year clinical trial, called the Vital study, of 26,000 people who are more representative of the general population. Set to be completed next year, it will determine whether fish oil and vitamin D, separately or combined, have any effect on the long-term prevention of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other diseases in people who do not have many strong risk factors.

Dr. Manson says that although she recommends eating fatty fish first, she usually does not stop people from taking fish oil, in part because it does not seem to have major side effects in generally healthy people“But I do think people should realize that the jury is still out,” she said, “and that they may be spending a lot of money on these supplements without getting any benefit.”

Get your omega-3 fatty acids from either fish or flaxseed (or other seeds).From Science Daily:

Nothing fishy about health benefits of plant-based omega-3 fatty acid

Increasing the amount of omega-3s in your diet, whether from fish or flax, will likely decrease your risk of getting heart disease, according to Penn State nutritionists. A substantial amount of evidence exists supporting the heart-health benefits of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid (EPA and DHA), marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids. However, much less evidence exists to demonstrate the positive effects of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid.

EPA and DHA can be found in seafood and fish oil, and are often consumed in the form of dietary supplements. ALA is found in flaxseed and its oil, vegetable oils, and some nuts, and is now available in supplement form. EPA and DHA have been available for much longer. Other sources of ALA, EPA and DHA are fortified foods such as orange juice, eggs, peanut butter, margarine and bread, among others. While there are many other omega-3 fortified foods in the market place, most are relatively low in omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids are considered essential for human health, but the body does not produce them -- therefore they must be consumed in order to maintain appropriate levels.

In reviewing existing literature on the subject, the researchers have come to the conclusion that ALA is likely just as effective in preventing cardiovascular disease as EPA and DHA have proven to be, as they report on the current issue of Advances in Nutrition.

Once again, research finds that eating highly processed foods is not the best, this time for cognitive performance of 17 year olds. From Medical Xpress:

Western diet leads to poorer performance

Higher intake of a western diet by 14-year-olds has been linked with diminished cognitive performance at age 17.

Researchers found that participants with a western dietary pattern—characterised by high intakes of takeaway food, red and processed meat, soft drink, fried and refined food—scored lower in cognitive tasks, particularly those involving reaction time/psychomotor function, visual attention, learning and memory.

Chips and crisps came in for a particular drubbing: their high consumption was significantly associated with longer reaction times on detection tasks. In contrast to their peers, study participants with a high intake of fruits and leafy vegetables had better cognitive performance, which lead researcher Dr Anett Nyaradi says could be due to increased micronutrient content. This includes folate from leafy green vegetables, which previous research has linked to enhanced cognitive development.

Led by UWA and the Telethon Kids Institute, the study involved 602 members of the Western Australian Pregnancy Cohort (Raine) Study....Dr Nyaradi says several factors may be at play in this diet-related decline in cognitive skills, including the level of omega-6 fatty acids in fried foods and red meat.

Metabolic pathways function best with a balanced 1:1 ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, but the western diet can shift this to a 1:20 or 1:25 ratio.High intake of saturated fat and simple carbohydrates has been linked to impairment in the functioning of the hippocampus, a brain structure centrally involved in learning and memory that increases its volume during adolescence, Dr Nyaradi says.

"Adolescence represents a critical time period for brain development. It is possible that poor diet is a significant risk factor during this period…indeed, our findings support this proposition."

The study results suggest that the effect of higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids on brain volume is the equivalent of delaying the normal loss of brain cells that comes with aging by one to two years. The researchers suggest that these higher levels can be achieved through diet or the use of supplements (about 1000 mg of EPA + DHA daily, or by eating a portion of fish such as salmon or sardines every day).  From the January 22, 2014 Science Daily:

Can fish oil help preserve brain cells?

People with higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may also have larger brain volumes in old age equivalent to preserving one to two years of brain health, according to a study published in the January 22, 2014, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Shrinking brain volume is a sign of Alzheimer’s disease as well as normal aging.

For the study, the levels of omega-3 fatty acids EPA+DHA in red blood cells were tested in 1,111 women who were part of the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study. Eight years later, when the women were an average age of 78, MRI scans were taken to measure their brain volume.

Those with higher levels of omega-3s had larger total brain volumes eight years later. Those with twice as high levels of fatty acids (7.5 vs. 3.4 percent) had a 0.7 percent larger brain volume.

Those with higher levels of omega-3s also had a 2.7 percent larger volume in the hippocampus area of the brain, which plays an important role in memory. In Alzheimer’s disease, the hippocampus begins to atrophy even before symptoms appear.