Potatoes: Friend or Foe?

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If you’re trying to eat right, you almost never go wrong with eating more fruits and vegetables.

But what’s the deal with potatoes? They’re a starchy vegetable, with more calories and a higher glycemic index than most of their vegetable counterparts. Potatoes often get a bad rap, but don’t spurn your spuds just yet…

Potatoes on Parade

First, some context. Potatoes are in the spotlight this week due to a study published in the British Medical Journal that found potato eaters have higher rates of hypertension (high blood pressure).

The study looked at over 187,000 subjects from 3 US cohort studies and found that, “higher intake of baked, boiled, or mashed potatoes and French fries was independently and prospectively associated with an increased risk of developing hypertension…”

So are potatoes to be passed off as a hypertension causing tuber? Not so fast.

According to the USDA Economic Research Service, more than 50 percent of potatoes sold in the US are to processors who turn them into things like hash browns, processed mashed potatoes and French fries. We’re not talking healthy serving sizes of roasted pure potato here. These are convenience foods with significant amounts of added fat…and salt.

And that’s where the hypertension piece comes in – the most processed food you eat, the more sodium you consume, and the higher your risk of blood pressure can be.

Potassium and Blood Pressure

Potatoes on their own actually have the potential to LOWER blood pressure. That’s because they contain potassium, an essential mineral that works to reduce elevated blood pressure. Potassium is found in most fruits and vegetables (albeit in higher quantities in potatoes, bananas, and tomatoes). And it’s these same foods – fruits and vegetables – that are also naturally low in sodium. The combination of low sodium and high potassium intake from fruit and vegetables can work to help lower your blood pressure.

The kicker is what you do with foods like potatoes that really matter. If you are more likely to eat your potatoes as French fries, of course your risk of high blood pressure will go up. Even baked and boiled potatoes were associated with higher BP risk….but keep in mind there’s a greater than 50 percent chance those potatoes were processed with added fat and salt.

At the end of the day, the more whole, intact foods you can eat, the better for your health. Stay away from foods that come in packages and keep your added salt and fat to a minimum. And when it comes to picking potatoes, steer clear of the chips, fries and other processed versions.

 

Heart Attack Differences in Women and Men

January 29, 2016 by  
Filed under Consumer awareness, Heart disease

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Despite advances in medicine and knowledge about the relationship between diet and disease, heart disease remains the number one killer of both American men and women.

In fact, heart attacks affect more women than men in the US, and the death rates from all types of heart disease are higher in women than in men.

But heart attack symptoms differ by gender and it’s wise to know what to look for. A new statement published in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation:

  • Chest pain and discomfort are the most common symptoms of heart attack for both sexes
  • Women are more likely to experience nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath and pain in their back or jaws
  • High blood pressure is more strongly associated with heart attacks in women and diabetes in young women increases risk for heart disease 4-5 times compared to young men in a similar situation

The American Heart Association states that heart disease affects 6.6 million American women each year and that helping females prevent and survive heart attacks through research and awareness is a public health priority.

30 Minutes of Exercise Just Doesn’t Cut It!

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While many professional associations and scientific groups differ on minimum exercise requirements, a recommendation you hear thrown around a lot is, “Aim for 30 minutes of exercise a day, 5 days a week“. In fact, the American Heart Association makes the same exercise recommendations for overall cardiovascular health.

But is this enough to help reduce risk for heart failure – events that affect over 5 million people in the US and are responsible for 1 in 9 deaths? A new study seems to show that these exercise levels may not be optimal for reducing risk.

A new meta-analysis published this week in the journal Circulation found that 30 minutes a day most days of the week probably doesn’t cut it when it comes to heart failure event risk reduction.

The researchers looked at 370,460 men and women who had varying levels of physical activity. They were followed over 15 years and collectively experienced more than 20,000 heart failure events.

Activity was self-reported, but analysis of the data indicates that the 30-minutes-a-day exercise adherents had “modest reductions” in heart failure risk compared to “substantial risk reduction” of 20 percent and 35 percent if they exercised twice or four times that amount (respectively).

Of course heart disease is a multi-faceted condition, and heart failure events aren’t the only objective endpoints researchers can study. But if you’ve been looking for a reason to ramp your physical activity – this study shows it can’t hurt – and may in fact be worth your while!

Alcohol and Heart Health: What’s the Real Deal?

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A recent study published in the American Journal of Cardiology found that about 1/3 of people surveyed believe that alcohol is heart healthy, despite a lack of published research to support such a claim.

The researchers from the University of California San Francisco surveyed over 5,000 people and found that:

  • 30% of respondents viewed alcohol as heart healthy
  • 39% of respondents viewed alcohol as unhealthy
  • 31% of respondents were unsure about the health effects of alcohol

The study authors also found that those who view alcohol as being heart healthy tend to be heavier drinkers. They cite the lack of rigorous controlled trials about the effects of alcohol as problematic when compared to the lay press’s portrayal of alcohol being “heart healthy”.

Like many individual components of the diet, alcohol in moderation may be beneficial to health – although, like anything, too much of a good thing is not a good thing! Moderate alcohol intake (defined as no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men) is thought to slightly elevate HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.

To be fair, most dietitians and health experts would agree that it’s not worth taking up drinking alcohol if you don’t already drink in order to get a few point bump in your HDL levels. Engaging in regular cardiovascular exercise is for many people, a more feasible approach to elevating HDL cholesterol.

Fighting Inflammation with Anti-Inflammatory Foods

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With the new year upon us, many people are looking to exclude unhealthful foods. But this year, why not try a healthy twist – and focus on more foods you CAN include?

One area where you can make small inroads into health and wellness is through the inclusion of more anti-inflammatory foods.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation is a part of the body’s natural immune response to heal itself from an injury. However chronic inflammation in the body, such as rheumatoid arthritis, can cause pain, fatigue and damage to blood vessels. According to the American Heart Association, people with heart disease often have markers for inflammation.

What Foods are Pro-Inflammatory?

Many foods found in the typical American diet, such as foods high in sugar, saturated and trans fat can promote inflammation in the body. High fat animal foods and packaged and processed foods with lots of added sugars may convey an inflammatory effect.

So how do we protect ourselves against chronic inflammation? By eating a diet rich in antioxidants and healthy fats, we can provide anti-inflammatory properties and protect our bodies from the harmful effects of inflammation.

Top Seven Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Incorporating foods known to have anti-inflammatory properties into your regular diet plan can be both easy and delicious! Here are seven foods to try today:

  1. Fatty fish: Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. Aim to eat baked or broiled fish twice a week to get the maximum anti-inflammatory benefits. Don’t eat fish? Consider taking a daily fish oil supplement for the same benefits.
  2. Whole grains: Consuming mostly whole grains, such as whole-wheat flour, bulgur, oatmeal, whole cornmeal, and brown rice is a great way to reduce inflammation because it is packed with fiber. Try eating a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast and switching to whole wheat bread versus refined white bread. Be sure to check that whole grain is the first ingredient in the product.
  3. Dark leafy greens: Studies have shown that consuming foods rich in Vitamin E, which is found in dark leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, broccoli, and collard greens protect the body from pro-inflammatory molecules. Add dark leafy greens to soups and stews or make a green smoothie for easy ways to sneak greens into your diet.
  4. Nuts: heart healthy nuts, such as almonds and walnuts are packed with antioxidants shown to protect against heart disease and inflammation. Take a handful of nuts to work or school as a heart healthy mid afternoon snack.
  5. Red tomatoes: lycopene, an antioxidant compound that gives tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables their
    bright red color, has been shown to reduce inflammation in the lungs and throughout the body. Also, cooked tomatoes contain even higher amounts of lycopene than raw. Pour cooked tomato sauce over pasta for a quick dinner packed with antioxidants!
  6. Olive oil: widely known as a staple in the Mediterranean diet, extra-virgin olive oil, has been associated with a decreased risk of heart disease and anti-inflammatory properties. Mix with vinegar to make a quick vinaigrette or use for sauteéing vegetables on low heat.
  7. Berries: raspberries, blueberries and strawberries among other berries have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Add fresh berries to yogurt or cereal for a quick breakfast or buy frozen and use to make a berry smoothie.

The bottom line:

 There is limited research on specific foods and their anti-inflammatory effects, so be aware of “super foods” marketed as one-food wonders. Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and heart healthy fats is the best way to protect the body against the effects of chronic inflammation and promote overall health. Lifestyle factors including regular exercise and adequate sleep will also protect against chronic inflammation along with a healthy diet.

Special thanks to Dietetic Intern Jenny Legrand for her contributions to this post.

 

Tracking Tools For a Better You

It pays to keep track!

A recent study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 69% of American adults keep track of at least one health indicator and 60% of US adults track weight, diet, or exercise routine.

Although people with chronic conditions are most likely to track health indicators – plenty of healthy people are keeping tabs too.

How are People “Keeping Track”?

Of those surveyed who consider themselves “trackers”:

  • 49% track progress in their heads
  • 34% track progress by writing it down on paper or in a journal
  • 21% track progress using some sort of technology

There are a variety of electronic resources out there to help track food intake and energy expenditure. Some of the most popular ones include:

Whether or not these health trackers are more successful at losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight remains to be seen. But if you know you are at risk for the development of certain types of chronic disease – such as heart disease – it may pay to keep tabs on yourself.

For a list of other fitness and food tracking resources, click here.

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If Polar Bears (and Eskimos) Can Eat a Very High-Fat Diet (and be healthy), Why Can’t I?

Many of us probably know that eating a very-high-fat diet will not only make us gain weight, but it will also increase our risk of heart disease. But surprisingly, there are 2 disparate population groups that, notably, consume very high quantities of dietary fats, yet have a very low incidence of cardiovascular disease, polar bears and traditional Alaskan Eskimos. How is that possible? Does it have to do with the types of fats they eat, or to specific physiological adaptations? The answer is yes, to both of these questions.

A recent study published in the highly touted scientific journal Cell (Polar Bear Study), showed that polar bears and brown bears diverged in evolutionary history less than 500,000 years ago. This is a surprisingly short time, in evolutionary terms. During this time, polar bears moved north, subsisted on a blubber-rich diet of primarily marine mammals and fish, and became profoundly obese. Interestingly though, these bears do not develop fatty deposits in blood vessels (atherosclerotic plaques) or suffer from cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) that afflict most humans with diets rich in fat. How can that be? The answer to this seemingly paradoxical question was revealed by the gene studies in this publication, and was discussed recently in Science Daily (Researcher Interviews). The researchers found that polar bears had evolved several gene variants that helped them adapt to the high-fat diet. These variants were in genes which related to fatty acid metabolism and cardiovascular function. The researchers concluded that this study may provide insight into how to protect humans from the ill effects of consuming too much dietary fat.

The second group mentioned above, arctic Eskimos called the Intuits, also eat high-fat diets and have traditionally had very low incidence of CVD. This has been referred to as the ‘Intuit Paradox’ (Discover Magazine). The Intuits historically ate a high-fat diet consisting of seal and walrus meat and other blubbery marine mammals. Although we don’t know about specific gene variants in this population relating to heart disease, we do know that the composition of fat they consumed is very different from fat consumed today by most Americans. The Intuit diet was traditionally high in mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids (and protective omega-3 fatty acids), and low in saturated and trans fats. This seems rather unexpected since most of us know that animal fats are high in saturated fat. It had to do with the source of the fats. It turns out the wild-animal fats are different (less saturated fat; higher in monounsaturated fats, like in olive oil) from farm-animal fats and processed fats (which also contain damaging trans fats). Moreover, cold water fishes and marine animal fats are particularly rich in polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids.

So this then leaves us with 3 options if we choose to consume lots of dietary fats and still want to be healthy: 1) hope that we rapidly evolve like the polar bears; 2) consume more fat from wild-caught animals; or 3) focus on fats derived from plant foods like seeds, nuts and whole grains. What will your choice be?

Not All Fish Are Created Equal

You have probably heard that we all should eat more fish and seafood, right? What you probably haven’t heard as much about is how the source and the type of fish you eat can influence not only nutrient intake levels but also the levels of certain contaminants you consume. This is a particular concern as some fish contain antibiotics, pesticides, or other chemicals, including mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins. For some individuals, for example pregnant women, this is an issue of real importance as these substances can cause harm to the developing fetus.

Despite these potential risks, it is generally accepted in the nutrition community that fish is a healthy dietary choice and regular consumption can have a positive impact on overall health. For example, the American Heart Association recommends eating fatty fish at least two times a week (AHA Omega-3 FAs), and diets such as the Mediterranean and DASH diet also promote fish consumption. Certain fish (e.g. salmon) contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids which have anti-inflammatory properties, and may decrease risk of heart arrhythmias and blood clotting, and thus be protective against heart disease. Fish is also high in protein yet low in saturated fats.

This then leaves us in a quandary. How are we to eat more fish and other seafood, yet avoid exposing ourselves to dangerous environmental contaminants? The answer lies in the type of fish we consume, whether it was farm raised or caught in the wild and the frequency with which we consume the fish. Let’s look at species first. Contaminants are most likely to be present in older, larger predatory fish, such as shark, swordfish, king Mackerel and tilefish (Mayo Clinic Fish Info). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) thus recommends that young children and pregnant and lactating women avoid eating these fish. It is also important to keep in mind, that not all fish and other seafood are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Some however, contain significant levels of omega-3 fatty acids and also have lower levels of environmental contaminants. These include salmon, canned light tuna, shrimp, pollock and catfish, which then are the best choice for consumers.

Two other issues to consider are the source of the fish and whether taking fish oil supplements is a good alternative. As you may or may not know, many fish such as tilapia are raised in “fish farms”. These aquaculture facilities raise large numbers of fish in relatively tight quarters. This leads to an increase in the risk for infection and other illnesses; antibiotics are thus routinely used in this setting. It is also important to consider whether the fish was imported into the U.S. from another country, as the inspection process may not be so robust. Moreover, there is some evidence that the nutrient content of wild caught fish is higher, but the price may also be higher. And lastly, there is emerging evidence in the nutritional sciences world that fish oil supplements do NOT provide the same health benefits that regular consumption of certain fish.

In summary, eating fish is good for us, but we have to be educated to realize the greatest health benefits. This general rationale also applies to many other aspects of healthy eating, such as choosing fruits and vegetables with the lowest levels of contaminating pesticides. So, learn, procure, cook and enjoy!

(written with the creative assistance of Avery Bramnik and Nicole Solomon, both University of Florida undergraduate students)

Is saturated fat bad for your health?

March 27, 2014 by  
Filed under Fat, Heart disease

Welcome to the latest and greatest wrinkle in the world of nutrition science: a recent study has suggested that saturated fat – long considered a primary culprit in the development of heart disease – is perhaps no more than an innocent bystander. The meta-analysis, published March 18th in the Annals of Internal Medicine, found no association between saturated fat intake and increased risk of heart attacks or other cardiac events.

To be clear, the researchers did find a link between trans fat intake and heart disease. But they found no evidence that saturated fat increased the risk of heart disease, or that unsaturated fats decreased the risk of heart disease. Does this mean that you can now inhale steak, butter, and whole milk with abandon? Or stop taking those expensive flaxseed and/or fish oil supplements? Well, it depends.

On one hand, some folks believe that this study demonstrates a need to more specifically analyze individual types of saturated and unsaturated fats (e.g., some saturated dairy fats are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, whereas some unsaturated vegetable fats are associated with a higher risk of heart disease).

On the other hand, some folks believe that this study demonstrates a need to stop focusing on nutrients altogether and start focusing on whole foods. For instance, Dr. Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health who was not involved with the study at hand opined that “The single macronutrient approach is outdated. I think future dietary guidelines will put more and more emphasis on real food rather than giving an absolute upper limit or cutoff point for certain macronutrients.”

Food for thought

The whole food approach is nothing new. For instance, take a look back at Jamie’s October blog post about the Mediterranean Diet. Or, for a more lengthy review, read Michael Pollan’s essay, Unhappy Meals, that was originally published in the January 2007 edition of the New York Times Magazine. Pollan’s take-home message is definitely good food for thought: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

What do you think? Should saturated fat be avoided like the plague? Or is it more complicated than that?… Or perhaps more simple?