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  • Mind Over Diet?

    (HealthDay News) -- People's views about what causes obesity may influence both their eating habits and their weight, new research shows. The finding suggests that public health campaigns may need to factor that into the equation to be effective, the study authors noted. To examine the issue, the researchers conducted a series of surveys across five countries on three continents. Published recently in the journal Psychological Science, the study found people in Korea, the United States and France all held similar beliefs that either poor diet or lack of exercise was the leading cause of obesity. And those who linked obesity to unhealthy eating habits had lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than those who blamed lack of physical activity. BMI is a measurement of body fat based on height and weight. "There was a clear demarcation," study author Brent McFerran, of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, said in a news release from the Association for Psychological Science. "Some people overwhelmingly implicated poor diet, and a roughly equal number implicated lack of exercise. Genetics, to our surprise, was a far distant third." However, "what surprised me the most was the fact that we found lay theories to have an effect on BMI over and above other known factors, such as socioeconomic status, age, education, various medical conditions and sleep habits," McFerran pointed out. The study authors noted that the link between views on obesity and exercise may also be associated with how much people eat. They found Canadian participants who felt obesity was the result of physical inactivity ate many more chocolates than those who saw diet as the main culprit. Meanwhile, people in Hong Kong who stressed the importance of exercise also ate more chocolate than those who saw diet as the main cause of obesity. The researchers concluded that people's beliefs about obesity play a role in eating habits and BMI. Anirban Mukhopadhyay, of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, concluded in the news release that this is "the first research that has drawn a link between people's beliefs and the obesity crisis, which is growing as fast as people's waistlines are." Studies show that two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight or obese. Obesity is also a growing problem in many developed nations. More information The U.S. National Library of Medicine provides more information on obesity.

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  • Adopt a Mediterranean die...

    Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter It’s been a big year for the Mediterranean diet. Convincing evidence published in 2013 has shown that this kind of eating pattern is effective at warding off heart attack, stroke, and premature death. While you probably get the biggest payoff by adopting such a diet early in life, a new study shows that doing it during midlife is good, too. Researchers looked at the dietary habits of more than 10,000 women in their 50s and 60s and compared them to how the women fared health-wise 15 years later. Women who followed a healthy diet during middle age were about 40% more likely to live past the age of 70 without chronic illness and without physical or mental problems than those with less-healthy diets. The healthiest women were those who ate more plant foods, whole grains, and fish; ate less red and processed meats; and had limited alcohol intake. That’s typical of a Mediterranean-type diet, which is also rich in olive oil and nuts. The reportappeared yesterday in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Why would your menu in middle age protect your health later in life? “Several mechanisms may be involved, including lowering inflammation and oxidative stress, both systemically and within the central nervous system. These are two general pathways underlying many age-related chronic diseases and health conditions, such as age-related brain diseases and mental health. Other potential mechanisms include notably improving glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity,” explains lead author Cécilia Samieri, a researcher at Université Bordeaux in France, who conducted the study while a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Medical School. Good food is a pretty powerful health booster. Whole grains, legumes, fruit, and vegetables are packed with fiber, which slows digestion and helps control blood sugar. Monounsaturated fats in olive oil, nuts, and fish can have anti-inflammatory effects, which may help stave off heart disease and many other conditions. That Mediterranean-style diets have health benefits isn’t necessarily new. Past research has shown that this type of eating pattern can help lower cholesterol, help with weight loss, improve rheumatoid arthritis, and reduce the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and various types of cancer. What is new is that the fast-growing mountain of scientific evidence about the diet’s benefits is now at Swiss Alps level, and many health experts are hoping you’ll be inspired to start the journey to better health Mediterranean-style. Just do it slowly, cautions Stacey Nelson, a dietitian from Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s not realistic to make the changes overnight, but you can start with small changes,” she explains. First, it’s important to understand the elements of a Mediterranean-type diet: Base every meal on fruits, vegetables, whole grains (whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa and bulgur), olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes (lentils, dried peas and beans), seeds, herbs and spices. Eat fish at least twice a week. Eat moderate portions of cheese and yogurt daily to weekly. Eat moderate portions of poultry and eggs every two days or weekly. Eat red meat sparingly or limit to three-ounce portions. Drink plenty of water each day, and drink wine in moderation—no more than one (5-ounce) glass a day for women, two glasses per day for men. To jump-start your effort, here are five tips: Sauté food in olive oil, not butter. Eat more fruits and vegetables by having them as a snack or adding them to other recipes Choose whole grains instead of refined breads and pastas Substitute a fish meal for red meat at least twice per week Limit high-fat dairy by switching to skim or 1% milk from 2% or whole. It also helps to make small swaps for foods you’re already eating. For example, instead of using mayonnaise on your sandwich, try a hummus spread. Here are some more suggestions: Suggestions courtesy of Stacey Nelson, Massachusetts General Hospital You can eventually work up to swapping entire meals, such as ditching beef burgundy over white rice in favor of sautéed scallops over whole grain penne pasta. Make the transition gradually over weeks or months so your new eating style becomes a habit and not a fad. Permanent lifestyle change in midlife is what will help get you to the goal of good health in old age.

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  • Green tea may lower heart...

    Green tea may lower heart disease risk Here's what studies have revealed about this popular beverage. Lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease may be as easy as drinking green tea. Studies suggest this light, aromatic tea may lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, which may be responsible for the tea's association with reduced risk of death from heart disease and stroke. What the evidence shows A number of studies have looked at possible links between green tea and cardiovascular disease. A study of 40,530 Japanese adults found that participants who drank more than five cups of green tea a day had a 26% lower risk of death from heart attack or stroke and a 16% lower risk of death from all causes than people who drank less than one cup of green tea a day. Last year, a meta-analysis of observational studies—13 conducted in green tea drinkers and five in black tea drinkers—found that people who drank the most green tea had a 28% lower risk of coronary artery disease than those who drank the least green tea. Black tea had no effect on heart risk. Another 2011 meta-analysis of 14 randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials found that green tea significantly lowered LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Many of the studies had been conducted with capsules containing catechins, the active polyphenols in green tea, rather than with the beverage itself. The bottom line "The limited data available on green tea support a potential association between green tea and beneficial properties in relationship to risk factors for cardiovascular disease," says Kathy McManus, director of the department of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Although no serious side effects were reported in the studies, catechins have been reported to raise liver enzymes in animals. Green tea is also a major source of oxalate, which can cause kidney stones. This suggests that drinking more than five cups of green tea a day (or taking the equivalent in catechin capsules) might have more risks than benefits. When consumed wisely, though, green tea may improve your cardiovascular health. "The bottom line is that no serious red flags were seen in the amount of tea they were testing. It appears that a few cups a day may be beneficial," says McManus.

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  • Do you really need that d...

    Do you really need that diet soda? Research connects the drinks to higher heart risks. You may think you're doing yourself a favor by opting for an ice-cold diet soda every afternoon instead of the sugar-sweetened version and all the calories that go with it. Not so fast: recent research suggests that diet sodas may also lead to problems. In a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, researchers found that people who drank diet sodas daily were at a higher risk for vascular events, such as heart attack and stroke, compared with those who drank fewer diet sodas or even those who drank regular sugar-sweetened sodas. The results of the study do not necessarily mean that drinking diet sodas causes vascular disease. Rather, the study suggests people who drink diet sodas may also be consuming other foods and drinks that contain lots of sweet but empty calories. Drinking diet beverages may "condition the human taste buds to crave very sweet foods," says Dr. Eric Rimm, associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. Diet soda signals Dr. Rimm says that people who drink sodas of any kind tend to have a sweet tooth. So the diet sodas don't give you calories, but the sweet tooth they cause can lead you to eat and drink other foods that have plenty of calories. Dr. Rimm says that previous research has shown that those who drink diet sodas are usually different from those who drink regular sodas. "For many, drinking diet soda is a marker of someone who is trying to lose weight or potentially already has existing health conditions."   Taking out the fizz Dr. Rimm says he knows of no obvious reason why the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas might directly raise cardiovascular risks. On the other hand, we do know that sugar-sweetened beverages lead to weight gain and chronic disease. For some people, sugary soda consumption can represent 10% to 20% of their total daily calories. "And they're all empty calories," he points out. "Most studies show that exchanging soda of any kind with water, tea, or coffee is where you see the greatest benefit," he says.

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  • Meditation offers signifi...

    Meditation offers significant heart benefits It helps reduce stress and anxiety, which can lower heart rate and blood pressure while reducing harmful hormones. There's more to heart attack and stroke prevention than medications, exercise, and diet. The latest research confirms that people who practice meditation are significantly less likely to have a heart attack or stroke or die within five years. "Meditation can be a useful part of cardiovascular risk reduction," says cardiologist Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a professor at Harvard Medical School. "I do recommend it, along with diet and exercise. It can also help decrease the sense of stress and anxiety." How does meditation affect you physiologically? "It appears to produce changes in brain activity. It also can lower your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, adrenaline levels, and levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress," says Dr. Bhatt. There are many types of meditation that can result in physiological benefits, such as guided meditation, which uses mental images to help you relax; transcendental meditation, which uses a repeated sound or phrase to help you empty your mind; and mindfulness meditation, which focuses on the present moment and helps you to accept it without judgment. To get in on the benefits, take the advice of Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Herbert Benson, a world-renowned expert in mind-body medicine. "Getting started is easy. You can learn in one minute. But you'll have to do it for at least 10 minutes a day to get the physiological effects," he says. Give it a try with this quick start guide A basic meditation exercise from Harvard's Dr. Herbert Benson: 1. Sit quietly and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. 2. Relax all of your muscles, starting with your feet, legs, and thighs. Shrug your shoulders, roll your neck to the left and right. 3. On each "out" breath, say the word "peace." 4. When thoughts come to mind, decide to come back to them later, and repeat the word "peace." 5. Continue the exercise for at least 10 minutes. Repeat daily.

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  • FDA gets with the evidenc...

    Trans fats, once seen as harmless additives that ended up in everything from Twinkies to French fries, are finally getting the reputation they deserve—bad for health. For years, the FDA has labeled trans fats as“generally recognized as safe.” That term applies to substances added to foods that experts consider safe, and so can be used without testing or approval. Yesterday the FDA proposed removing trans fats from the generally recognized as safe list, a step that would eliminate artificial trans fats from the American food supply. The move comes as a victory for Dr. Walter Willett and his colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health, who have long highlighted the health harms of trans fats. Research on the health hazards of trans fats goes back four decades. In our 2001 book,Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy, Dr. Willett and I wrote that “Only one type of dietary fat is worse for you than saturated fat—the increasingly common trans fats.” Since then, communities from Tiburon, California to New York City banned the use of trans fats as evidence continued to mount against them. Many companies have already removed trans fats from their products. The FDA’s proposal, if finalized, would speed that process. You can see an interview with Dr. Willett about the FDA’s proposal on the Harvard Gazette website. Why the ruckus? Trans fats are a type of unsaturated fat. Think of them as the evil cousins of the healthy omega-3 fats in fish, flaxseeds, and walnuts. Once upon a time, the only sources of trans fats were bacteria living in the forestomach of ruminants. As a result, beef, lamb, buffalo, deer, and dairy products have small amounts of trans fats. By the end of the 20th century, though, they were everywhere, thanks to the ingenuity of early 20th-century chemists who discovered that they could turn a liquid vegetable oil into a solid or semi-solid by bubbling hydrogen gas through it. Partially hydrogenated oils don’t spoil or turn rancid as readily as non-hydrogenated fats and can withstand repeated heating without breaking down. Those characteristics made trans fats a workhorse of the food industry. The FDA has estimated that in the late 1990s, 95% of prepared cookies, 100% of crackers, and 80% of frozen breakfast products contained trans fats. Frying oils used in restaurants were also rich in them. The problem for us is that trans fats are bad for the heart and the rest of the body. Eating trans fats boosts LDL (bad) cholesterol, especially the small, dense LDL particles that are most damaging to arteries. It depresses protective HDL, which trucks LDL to the liver for disposal. Trans fats have unhealthy effects on triglycerides; make blood platelets stickier than usual and so more likely to form artery-blocking clots in the heart, brain, and elsewhere; and feed inflammation, which plays key roles in the development of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard School of Public Health researchers once estimated that removing trans fats from the U.S. food supply would prevent between 72,000 and 228,000 heart attacks each year. The FDA’s proposal to reclassify trans fats is a move that should have little impact on what we eat, as food companies have been finding successful—and healthier—alternatives. But it could have a beneficial impact on our health.

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  • Docs Urged to Treat Unhea...

    (HealthDay News) -- Doctors need to treat patients' unhealthy lifestyle habits -- such as smoking, poor eating and being overweight -- as aggressively as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other cardiovascular disease risk factors, a new American Heart Association policy statement says. As part of this approach, doctors need to implement "five A's" when caring for patients: assess their risk behaviors for heart disease; advise change, such as weight loss or exercise; agree on an action plan; assist with treatment; and arrange for follow-up care. "We're talking about a paradigm shift from only treating biomarkers -- physical indicators of a person's risk for heart disease -- to helping people change unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, unhealthy body weight, poor diet quality and lack of physical activity," statement lead author Bonnie Spring, a professor of preventive medicine and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, said in an AHA news release. "We already treat physical risk factors that can be measured through a blood sample or a blood pressure reading in a doctor's office, yet people put their health at risk through their behaviors. We can't measure the results of these behaviors in their bodies yet," she added. Doctors also need to refer patients to behavior change specialists such as dieticians or psychologists, and insurance reimbursement policies need to be changed so these specialists become part of the primary care team, according to the statement published in the Oct. 7 issue of the journal Circulation. "This isn't a problem that can be solved alone by the patient or the doctor who is strapped for time," Spring said. "We need to break out of our silos and get ahead of the curve in prevention." She added that cardiovascular-disease prevention has to be made a priority to achieve the AHA's goals of a 20 percent improvement in the cardiovascular health of all Americans and a 20 percent reduction in deaths from cardiovascular diseases and stroke by 2020. More information The U.S. National Institutes of Health outlines steps you can take to reduce heart risks.

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  • Exercise: How Much? How O...

    Exercise: How Much? How Often? Exercise during pregnancy has many benefits, including reducing a woman's risk of complications such as gestational diabetes. Almost any form of exercise is safe when done with caution and not overdone. But many doctors advise against activities such as downhill skiing, rock climbing and other sports that could cause you to fall, hit your abdomen or otherwise injure yourself or your baby. Although swimming (in pools, lakes or the ocean) is safe, scuba diving should be avoided, as the bends (a condition caused by ascending too fast from diving depths) can cause special problems in pregnancy. It is unwise to start a new strenuous exercise routine during pregnancy. The sports and exercises you can do during pregnancy depend on your own health and, to some extent, on how active you were before you became pregnant. There are a few conditions or complications of pregnancy in which exercise is generally not recommended. Such conditions include: Cervical incompetence Preterm labor Preterm rupture of the membranes Bleeding, especially from a placenta previa (placenta covering the cervix) or placental abruption (separation of the placenta from the uterus), may also lead your doctor to recommend against exercise. High blood pressure that develops during pregnancy (toxemia or preeclampsia) may be treated with bed rest. Finally, some maternal conditions including some diseases of the heart and lungs may make exercise in pregnancy unwise. Your doctor or midwife can help you be sure that new or continued exercise is appropriate and will help select the best and safest forms of exercise. Exercise guidelinesThe American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists encourages sensible patterns of exercise during pregnancy. Following are some guidelines to keep in mind: Exercise for at least 30 minutes on most, if not all, days of the week. Avoid spurts of heavy exercise followed by many days of no activity. Avoid exercise that requires lying on your back after your third month of pregnancy. Avoid long periods of motionless standing. Avoid brisk exercise in hot, humid weather or when you are sick with a fever. If something doesn't feel right while exercising, don't do it. Avoid jerky, bouncy or high-impact motions. Low-impact exercise is best. Wear a bra that fits well and gives lots of support to help protect your breasts. You will likely have to buy larger cup sizes throughout your pregnancy. Wear the proper shoes for the activity to be sure your feet are well cushioned and to give your body good support. Be aware of your changing center of gravity. Avoid deep knee bends, full sit-ups, double leg raises and straight-leg toe touches. Always begin with five minutes of slow walking or stationary cycling with low resistance to warm your muscles. Follow intense exercise with 5 to 10 minutes of gradually slower activity that ends with gentle stretching in place. Don't exhaust yourself. Get up from the floor slowly and gradually to avoid feeling dizzy or fainting. Once you are standing, walk in place briefly. Drink water often — before, during and after exercise — to be sure your body gets enough fluid. Increase the number of calories to meet the needs of your pregnancy (300 extra calories per day) and exercise program. You should not exercise to lose weight. Stop exercising and consult your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms: pain, vaginal bleeding, dizziness or feeling faint, shortness of breath, irregular or rapid heart beat, difficulty walking, pain in your back or pubic area, or uterine contractions. Of course, you will recognize that you will tire more easily and tolerate less exertion as your pregnancy progresses. The most important advice one can follow is to listen to your body. If running becomes too tiring, walk. After delivery, your doctor will advise you when it is safe to return to your pre-pregnancy exercise routine. In general, exercise can be gradually resumed, starting at four to six weeks after delivery. However, some women may require longer periods of recovery.

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  • Fish oil: friend or foe?

    Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical EditorInternet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications News out of Seattle is sure to fuel confusion about fish oil supplements. Take this email I got yesterday from a friend. “Ok, I give up. Should I take them? Throw them away? June 29 — Fish oil may prevent breast cancer. Today (July 11) — Fish oil may increase risk of prostate cancer.” First, the latest news. A study by scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle linked eating a lot of oily fish or taking potent fish oil supplements to a 43% increased risk for prostate cancer overall, and a 71% increased risk for aggressive prostate cancer. Their report was published online in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. They came to this conclusion by looking at blood samples of men taking part in the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial. (That trial, dubbed SELECT, found that selenium supplements did nothing to prevent prostate cancer, while vitamin E supplements slightly increased prostate cancer risk. Blood samples from men who had developed prostate cancer over the course of the trial had more omega-3 fats than those of men who didn’t develop prostate cancer. Omega-3s in balance What’s so special about fish oil? It’s loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. These must come from food, since our bodies can’t make them. The two key omega-3 fatty acids are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines are rich in these omega-3s. Some plants are rich in another type of omega-3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, which the body can convert to DHA and EPA. Good sources of these are flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, and canola oil. Omega-3 fatty acids play important roles in brain function, normal growth and development, and inflammation. Deficiencies have been linked to a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, some cancers, mood disorders, arthritis, and more. But that doesn’t mean taking high doses translates to better health and disease prevention. Fish oil supplements have been promoted as easy way to protect the heart, ease inflammation, improve mental health, and lengthen life. Such claims are one reason why Americans spend more than $1 billion a year on over-the-counter fish oil. And food companies are adding it to milk, yogurt, cereal, chocolate, cookies, juice, and hundreds of other foods. The report from the Fred Hutchinson researchers is the latest to sound a warning about too much omega-3 fatty acids. Back in May, for example, Italian researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that omega-3 fatty acid supplements did nothing to reduce heart attacks, strokes, or deaths from heart disease in people with risk factors for heart disease. This work follows similar warnings about vitamin E supplements, beta carotene supplements, and other high-dose dietary supplements. Evidence linking fish oil and cancer has been all over the map. Some research suggests diets high in fatty fish or fish oil supplements might reduce the risk of certain cancers,including prostate cancer. Other research shows no such association. Take home message How food, and its component molecules, affect the body is largely a mystery. That makes the use of supplements for anything other than treating a deficiency questionable. Despite this one study, you should still consider eating fish and other seafood as a healthy strategy. If we could absolutely, positively say that the benefits of eating seafood comes entirely from omega-3 fats, then downing fish oil pills would be an alternative to eating fish. But it’s more than likely that you need the entire orchestra of fish fats, vitamins, minerals, and supporting molecules, rather than the lone notes of EPA and DHA. The same holds true of other foods. Taking even a handful of supplements is no substitute for wealth of nutrients you get from eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. What should you do if you currently take fish oil? If your doctor prescribed them—they are an approved and effective treatment  for people with high blood triglyceride levels—follow his or her instructions until you can have a conversation about fish oil. If you are taking them on your own because you believe they are good for you, it’s time to rethink that strategy. If you don’t eat fish or other seafood, you can get omega-3s from ground flaxseed or flaxseed oil, chia seeds, walnuts, canola oil, and soy oil. One to two servings per day can help you avoid a deficiency of omega-3s. Experts will surely remain divided on their opinions about fish oil supplements for the general population. And don’t expect any clarity about what to do any time soon. I expect other studies with flip-flopping results in the future. Following food author Michael Pollan’s simple advice about choosing a diet may be the best way forward: “Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants.”

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