Leucine And Muscle Gain

Should Your Post-Workout Protein Shake Contain Added Leucine?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

If you are an athlete – or just someone who is exercising to create a lean and healthy body, you are probably interested in increasing your lean muscle mass following each workout. You may leucinealready use leucine.  Of course, if you read any of the “muscle magazines”, you’ve seen the ads. “Explode Your Muscles.” “Double Your Gains.” They all claim to have the perfect post-workout protein shake, backed by science. They all sound so tempting, but you know that some of them have to be scams.

I told you about some of the sports supplements to avoid in previous “Health Tips From the Professor”. In this issue, I’m going to ask “What does the perfect post-workout protein shake look like?

For years athletes have been using protein beverages containing branched chain amino acids after their workouts to maximize muscle gain and recovery. There was some science behind that practice, but the major questions were unanswered. Nobody really knew:

  • How much protein is optimal?
  • What kind of protein is optimal?
  • What amount of branched chain amino acids is optimal?
  • Are some branched chain amino acids more important than others?
  • Does the optimal amount of branched chain amino acids depend on the amount of protein?

As a consequence, after workout protein supplements were all over the map in terms of protein source, protein amount, branched amino acid amount and type of branched chain amino acids. Fortunately, recent research has clarified many of these questions.

How Much Protein Do You Need and What Kind?

  • Recent research has shown that the optimal protein intake for maximizing muscle gain post workout is 15-20 gm for young adults (Katsanos et al, Am J Clin Nutr 82: 1065-1073, 2005; Moore et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 89: 161-168, 2009) and 20-25 gm for older adults (Symons et al, Am J Clin Nutr 86: 451-456, 2007).
  • More protein isn’t necessarily better. The effect of protein intake on post workout muscle gain maxes out at around 25 gm for young adults and 30 gm for older adults (Symons et al, J Am Diet Assoc 109: 1582-1586, 2009).
  • Whey protein is the best choice for enhancing muscle gain immediately after a workout. Other protein sources (soy, pea, casein, chicken) are better choices for sustaining muscle gain over the next few hours.

Leucine: The Only Branched Chain Amino Acid To Stimulate Muscle Protein

  • branched chain amino acidIt turns out that leucine is the only branched chain amino acid that actually stimulates muscle protein synthesis (Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 291: E381-E387, 2006). And protein is what gives muscles their strength and their bulk.
  • Recent research has shown that 2-3 gm of leucine (2 gm for young adults; 3 gm for older adults) is sufficient to maximize post workout muscle gain if protein levels are adequate (Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 291: E381-E387, 2006).

Unanswered Questions About Optimizing Muscle Gain Post-Workout

  • Do the other branched chain amino acids play a supporting role, or is leucine alone sufficient to drive post-workout muscle gain?
  • Can leucine still help maximize post-workout muscle gain if protein intake is inadequate? If so, how much leucine is needed?

Does Leucine Enhancement Improve Low Protein Shakes?

A recent study (Churchward-Venne et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 99: 276-286, 2014) seems to answer those two questions. The authors compared the effect of 5 protein-amino acid combinations on best post workout shakemuscle protein synthesis in 40 young men (~21 years old) following unilateral knee-extensor resistance exercise. The protein shakes contained:

  • 25 gm of whey protein, which naturally contains 3 gm of leucine (high protein)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein, which naturally contains 0.76 gm of leucine (low protein)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 3 gm of leucine (low protein, low leucine)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 5 gm of leucine (low protein, high leucine)
  • 6.25 gm of whey protein with 5 gm of leucine + added isoleucine and valine (the other branched chain amino acids). (low protein, branched chain amino acids).

The results were clear cut:

  • The high protein shake (25 gm of protein) was far superior to the low protein shake (6.25 gm of protein) at enhancing post workout protein synthesis. This is consistent with numerous other published clinical reports.
  • Adding 3 gm of leucine to the low protein shake had no effect on post-workout protein synthesis, but 5 gm of added leucine made the low protein shake just as effective as the high protein shake at supporting post-workout protein synthesis.

In short, leucine can improve the effectiveness of a low protein shake, but you need more leucine than if you chose the high protein shake to begin with.

  • Adding extra branched chain amino acids actually suppressed the effectiveness of leucine at enhancing post-workout protein synthesis. These data suggest:
    • Leucine probably is the major amino acid responsible for the muscle gain reported in many of the previous studies with branched chain amino acids.
    • If the other branched chain amino acids play a supporting role in the muscle gain, the quantities that occur naturally in the protein are probably enough. Adding more may actually reduce the effectiveness of leucine at stimulating muscle gain.

While this is a single study, it is consistent with numerous other recent clinical studies. It simply helps clarify whether leucine can increase the effectiveness of a low protein supplement. It also clarifies the role of branched chain amino acids.

Also, while this study focused on protein synthesis, numerous other studies have shown that optimizing post-workout protein and leucine intake results in greater muscle gain (for example, Westcott et al., Fitness Management, May 2008)

 

The Bottom Line

Research on post-workout nutrition to optimize muscle gain from the workouts has come a long way in recent years. It is now actually possible to make rational choices about the best protein supplements and foods to support your workouts.

  • If you are a young adult (17-30), you should aim for 15-20 gm of protein and about 2 gm of leucine after your workout.
  • If you are an older adult (50+), you should aim for 20-25 gm of protein and 3 gm of leucine after your workout.
  • If you are in between you are on your own. Studies haven’t yet been done in your age group, but it’s reasonable to assume that you should aim for somewhere between the extremes.
  • If you are getting the recommended amounts of whey protein, the leucine level may also be optimal. If you are using other protein sources you may want to choose ones with added leucine.
  • The research cited above shows that you can make a low protein supplement effective by adding lots of leucine, but that’s going to require artificial flavors and sweeteners to cover up the taste of that much leucine. I would recommend choosing one that provided adequate protein to begin with.
  • While the research in this area is still somewhat fluid, I would avoid protein supplements with added branched chain amino acids other than leucine. If the paper I cited above is correct, you probably get all of the other branched chain amino acids you need from your protein and adding more may actually interfere with the effect of leucine on muscle gain.
  • I’d pretty much forget all the other “magic ingredients” in post-workout supplements. If you’re a novice there is some evidence that arginine and HMB may be of benefit, but if you have been working out for more than 6 months, the evidence is mixed at best. As for the rest, the clinical studies are all over the map. There’s no convincing evidence that they work.
  • Whey protein is the best choice for enhancing muscle gain immediately after your workout. Soy, pea, and casein are better choices for sustaining muscle gain over the next few hours. If you’re looking at meat protein, chicken is a particularly good choice. Four ounces of chicken will provide the protein and leucine you need to sustain muscle gain for several hours.

Even if you are not working out, recent research on dietary protein and leucine has important implications for your health. In a recent “Health Tips From the Professor” High Protein Diets and Weight Loss, I shared research showing that optimizing protein and leucine intake helps to increase muscle retention and maximize fat loss when you are losing weight.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Alternatives To Statins

How Do Stanols And Sterols Lower Cholesterol?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

alternatives to statins%BLOG_TITLE%Are there alternatives to statins?  If you have been looking for natural approaches for lowering your cholesterol and protecting your heart, you’ve probably been hearing a lot about plant stanols and sterols lately.

What Are Stanols and Sterols & What Do They Do?

Just what are plant stanols and sterols and why does the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommend them as a natural approach for lowering cholesterol?

Stanols and sterols are natural substances found in plants that have a structural resemblance to cholesterol. Because they look a lot like cholesterol, they compete with cholesterol for absorption from the intestine into the mucosal cells lining the intestine. However, once they get into the intestinal mucosal cells they are recognized as foreign and are immediately pumped back into the intestine so that they never get into the bloodstream.

lower cholesterolLet me give you an analogy. Let’s think of the intestinal mucosal cells as a nightclub. The doorman doesn’t check IDs. He lets everyone into the club. Pretty soon the word gets around and stanols and sterols start lining up at the door. If a cholesterol molecule comes along, he gets discouraged by the line and doesn’t even try to get in. What the stanols and sterols don’t know is that there is a bouncer inside the club who does check IDs throws everyone who doesn’t belong there out the back door.

When you think about it, this is the best of all possible worlds. Cholesterol molecules don’t get into the bloodstream and neither do the stanols and sterols.

 

Alternatives to Statins:  How Do Stanols and Sterols Lower Cholesterol?

stanols and sterols lower cholesterolAs part of their Therapeutic Lifestyle Change Program the NIH recommends that people with elevated cholesterol consume 2 grams of plant stanols and sterols a day because over 80 clinical studies have proven that they work.

Two grams a day of stanols and sterols is sufficient to lower LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) by 9 to 13%. And many other clinical studies have shown that lowering LDL cholesterol by that much will lower your risk of a heart attack by 18-26%.

No wonder the NIH is so bullish on stanols and sterols!

 

Answers To The Questions You Didn’t Think To Ask

Here are answers to some questions that you haven’t even thought of yet:

#1: If 2 grams a day is good, would more be better?

No. Studies clearly show that 2 grams/day is optimal. Higher intakes do not lead to a significantly greater reduction in LDL cholesterol.

#2: Are there any side effects from consuming plant stanols & sterols on a daily basis?

No. That’s the great thing. Plant sterols and stanols are natural substances that we consume every day – and clinical studies have shown that they have no side effects.

#3: Is there some magical stanol/sterol combination that is more effective than others (as some supplement manufacturers would have you believe)?

fruits and vegetables lower cholesterol naturallyNo. Numerous studies have shown that stanols and sterols from many different sources have exactly the same effect and that it doesn’t matter whether they are esterified or not.

#4: Can I get 2 grams a day of stanols and sterols from my diet?

It’s unlikely. Even the best natural sources (usually fruits and vegetables) only have 5 to 40 mg per serving. If you are a vegetarian you can expect to get around 700 mg from your diet. If you consume a typical American diet you get around 250 mg and if you eat a lot of fast food you are probably getting less than 100 mg.

#5: I’ve noticed that food manufactures have started fortifying foods with stanols and/or sterols. Is this a good choice for me?

Not necessarily. You need to remember that Big Food Inc is not always your friend. To get 2 grams of stanols from Benecol you would need to consume 280 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat and 1.2 grams of trans fat. Two grams of stanols from Promise activ Super-Shot only costs you 70 calories, but it comes with artificial colors and 8 grams of sugar plus sucralose.

#6: When should I consume stanols and sterols if I want to maximize my LDL cholesterol reduction?

Any time from 30 minutes prior to your meal to with your meal is ideal – but the plant sterols and stanols will exert their beneficial effects for several hours so the time that you take the stanols & sterols is not critical.

#7: Are plant sterols and stanols a source of dietary fiber?

No. Plant stanols & sterols and dietary fiber work by different mechanisms – but they do complement each other in lowering LDL cholesterol. As a matter of fact, the NIH Therapeutic Lifestyle Program recommends 10-25 grams/day of soluble fiber along with the 2 grams/day of stanols and sterols. You should consider stanols/sterols and dietary fiber as a powerful one-two punch in your battle to lower your LDL cholesterol naturally.

#8: I’m already taking a statin drug. Is it OK to take plant stanols & sterols as well?

Absolutely. The NIH recommends that people using statin drugs also follow their Therapeutic Lifestyle Change Program – which includes 2 grams of plant stanols and sterols a day. In fact, because the effects of statins and plant sterols & stanols are additive, you may be able to reduce your dosage of statins or eliminate them entirely – which means less cost and less risk of side effects to you. [Note: You should partner with your physician in determining the dosage of statins to take.]

What I do not recommend is that you go off your statin drug and switch to a supplement containing stanols and sterols without consulting your doctor. Stanols and sterols have a more modest cholesterol lowering effect (and fewer side effects) than statin drugs. So if you were to just go off your statin and switch to a stanol/sterol supplement, your cholesterol levels might actually go up.

#9: Should I ask my doctor before taking plant stanols & sterols?

I always recommend that you keep your doctor informed about what you are doing. However, because the NIH recommends plant sterols and stanols for people with elevated cholesterol, your doctor is very likely to approve.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • Plant stanols and sterols can be an important part of a holistic approach to lowering cholesterol naturally. In fact, the NIH recommends 2 grams/day of plant stanols and sterols as part of its Therapeutic Lifestyle Change Program  for lowering cholesterol.
  • 2 grams/day of plant stanols and sterols lowers LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) by an average of 9 to 13%, which is sufficient to decrease your heart attack risk by 18-26%.
  • Here are the answers to the most common questions I receive about stanols and sterols (for the full response read the article above)
  • 2 grams of stanols & sterols a day is optimal. More is not better.
  • There are no side effects to adding stanols & sterols to your diet.
  • There is no “magical” sterol/stanol formulation. They all work about the same.
  • It is very unlikely that you can get 2 grams/day of stanols & sterols from your diet.
  • It is best to consume stanols & sterols before or with a meal, but the exact timing isn’t crucial.
  • Stanols & sterols are not the same as dietary fiber, but stanols/sterols and dietary fiber complement each other as part of a holistic approach to lower cholesterol.
  • It is OK to take stanols & sterols along with a statin drug. In fact, this is part of the approach recommended by the NIH Therapeutic Lifestyle Change Program. However, I do not recommend going off of a statin drug and substituting stanols & sterols without the permission of your doctor.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

How To Prevent Memory Loss?

 A New Study Shows B Vitamins and Omega-3s May Prevent Memory Loss

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

how to prevent memory lossWant to know how to prevent memory loss? Every once in a while a breakthrough study comes along that has the potential to change paradigms. A recent study (Jerneren et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 102: 215-221, 2015) looking at the potential of B vitamins and omega-3s to slow brain shrinkage in the elderly is just such a study. It has the potential to forever change the way we think about preserving brain health as we age.

One of the most terrifying aspects of aging is the thought that we might literally lose our minds. On one hand, it seems to be an almost inevitable part of the aging process. Every year millions of older Americans develop mild cognitive impairment, and as they age many of them progress on to dementia or Alzheimer disease. In fact, one recent study (Plassman et al, Ann Neurol, 70: 418-426, 2014) estimated that for individuals 72 and older in the United States every 6 years:

  • 8 million will develop mild cognitive impairment.
  • 4 million will develop dementia.
  • 3 million will develop Alzheimer disease.

Unfortunately, there is no effective drug treatment for preventing this cognitive decline, and there don’t appear to be any promising new drugs on the horizon. So it is only natural to ask whether there are diet and lifestyle changes that might reduce the rate of cognitive decline as we age.

As I discussed in previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” there are clinical studies suggesting that B vitamins  and omega-3 fatty acids can both slow the brain shrinkage and cognitive decline associated with aging. Unfortunately, there are also clinical studies that have come up empty. They have found no effect of B vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids on brain shrinkage or cognitive decline. Because of these conflicting clinical results, many experts are simply not ready to endorse natural approaches for preventing cognitive decline.

That’s what makes the current study (Jerneren et al, Am J Clin Nutr, 102: 215-221, 2015) paradigm-changing. If this study is correct, you need both B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids together to prevent cognitive decline. Neither one will work without the other.

That would explain a lot! The previous studies have not been designed to test the effects of both B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids simultaneously. Whether or not the diets of previous study participants were adequate with respect to B vitamins and omega-3s was a matter of pure chance. If the diets were adequate in both B vitamins and omega-3s, the study outcome might be positive. If the diets were only adequate in just one or the other, the outcome would almost assuredly be negative.

Why Might B Vitamins and Omega-3s Both Be Required for Brain Health?

It is easy to understand why B vitamins and omega-3s each might be important for preventing cognitive decline individually. Cognitive decline is closely associated with elevated levels of homocysteine, a toxic amino acid metabolite, and multiple clinical studies have shown that the combination of folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin B6 is effective at lowering homocysteine levels.

The omega-3 fatty acids are an integral part of the myelin sheath that coats our neurons. You can think of myelin as being like the plastic coating on an electrical wire that allows the electrical current to travel from one end of the wire to the other without shorting out. Myelin plays essentially the same role for our neurons.

But what is the possible connection between B vitamins and omega-3s with regard to brain health? The authors of this study had an interesting hypothesis. It turns out that when homocysteine levels are elevated due to B vitamin deficiency methionine levels and the levels of a number of downstream metabolites, including phosphatidylcholine, are reduced – and phosphatidylcholine is what delivers omega-3 fatty acids to the brain.

If their hypothesis is correct, adequate levels of B vitamins are required to deliver omega-3 fatty acids to the brain. That means that omega-3 fatty acids would only be effective at preventing brain shrinkage and/or cognitive decline in studies where the subjects were receiving adequate B vitamins as well.

Conversely, if we assume, as the authors suggested, that the real role of B vitamins is to assure the presence of enough phosphatidylcholine to deliver omega-3 fatty acids to the brain, B vitamins would be effective only in clinical studies where the subjects were also getting sufficient omega-3s from their diet.

B Vitamins and Omega-3s Together May Be How To Prevent Memory Loss

vitamins help reduce cognitive declineThe study itself included 168 adults over the age of 70 (average age = 77) with mild cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study. Half of them were given a high dose B vitamin supplement (800 ug folic acid, 500 ug vitamin B12, and 20 mg vitamin B6), and the other half were given a placebo.

Brain MRI scans were performed at the beginning of the study and again 2 years later to measure brain volume. Blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids were assessed at the beginning of the study. When the data were analyzed at the end of the study, the subjects with blood omega-3 levels of >590 umole/L were classified as having high omega-3 status, and subjects with blood omega-3 levels <390 umole/L were classified as having low omega-3 status.

The results were pretty striking:

  • B vitamin treatment reduced brain shrinkage by up to 70% over a two year period in adults over the age of 70.
  • The B vitamin treatment was only effective when the subjects were deficient in B vitamins at the beginning of the study, as indicated by elevated homocysteine levels.
  • The B vitamin treatment was also only effective in subjects with high omega-3 status. The B vitamin treatment had no benefit in subjects with low omega-3 status.

What Is The Significance Of This Study?

In today’s scientific world, “gold standard” clinical studies are considered to be those in which a single variable is evaluated in a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial. Unfortunately, this reductionist approach can sometimes lead to misleading and confusing results.

For example, I once attended a session in which a world renowned expert was giving his talk on colon cancer. He said, “I can show you, unequivocally, that colon cancer risk is significantly decreased by a lifestyle that includes a high-fiber diet, a low-fat diet, adequate calcium, adequate B-vitamins, exercise and weight control. But I can’t show you that any one of them, by themselves, is effective.”

The question that came to me as I heard him speak was: “What’s the message that a responsible scientist or responsible health professional should be giving to their patients or the people that they’re advising?” You’ve heard experts saying: “Don’t worry about the fat” “Don’t worry about calcium.” “Don’t worry about B-vitamins.” “Don’t worry about fiber.” “None of them can be shown to decrease the risk of colon cancer.” Is that the message that we should be giving people? Or should we really be saying what that doctor said many years ago – that a lifestyle that includes all of those things significantly decreases the risk of colon cancer?

Similarly, in a recent “Health Tips From the Professor” I shared a study, Alzheimers Hope, showing that a holistic program involving exercise, a healthy diet, socialization and memory training significantly reduced cognitive decline in the elderly. Once again, it has been very difficult to reproducibly show that any of those interventions individually prevent cognitive decline.

That is what makes the current study so exciting. It is a single study, and it is a relatively small study. It definitely needs to be repeated. However, it has the potential to be a paradigm-shifting study.

Previous studies looking at the effect of B vitamins and omega-3s on brain shrinkage and/or cognitive decline have been inconsistent. Many have shown a benefit, but some have not. But, until now, none of the studies have looked at B vitamins and omega-3s together. If this study is correct, all future studies should examine the effect of both B vitamins and omega-3s together. The paradigm will have been forever changed.

Does It Matter?

The important question is whether this is just an academic discussion or does it really matter? If most older adults were getting adequate amounts of omega-3s and B vitamins in their diet, this would merely be an academic discussion. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

omega-3s help prevent cognitive declineOur oceans and rivers are becoming more and more polluted, and many people are avoiding fish because of concerns about heavy metal or PCB contamination. There is also an increasing emphasis on eating “sustainable” fish. That usually means the fish are farm raised, and farm raised fish are the most likely to be contaminated with PCBs, which is unfortunate. For example, I recently went to a nice restaurant that had a delicious sounding salmon dish on their menu. They could guarantee that the salmon was sustainably raised, but they couldn’t guarantee it was PCB-free. I chose not to eat the salmon.

It is no wonder that many adults aren’t getting enough omega-3s in their diet. In a recent “Health Tips From the Professor,” Do women get enough omeg-3 during pregnancy I reported a study showing that a shocking 75% of pregnant and lactating Canadian women were not getting enough omega-3s in their diet! Other studies suggest those of us in the United States don’t do much better.

We don’t do much better with respect to B vitamins either. For example:

  • The most frequent cause of B12 deficiency is the age related loss of the ability to absorb vitamin B12 in the upper intestine. This affects 10-30% of people over the age of 50.
  • Chronic use of acid-suppressing medications such as Prilosec, Nexium, Tagamet, Pepcid and Zantac also decreases B12 absorption and increases the risk of B12 deficiency. Millions of Americans use those drugs on a daily basis.
  • Overall, B12 deficiency has been estimated to affect about 40% of people over 60 years of age.
  • Deficiency of the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR) substantially increases the requirement for folic acid. About 10% of the US population has this enzyme deficiency.
  • About 25% of Americans have low blood levels of B6

Clearly, this is not just an academic argument. Millions of older Americans are deficient in B vitamins or omega-3s or both.

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recently published study looked at the effect of high dose B vitamin supplementation on brain shrinkage over a two year periods in adults over 70 (average age 77) with mild cognitive impairment at the beginning of the study. This study differed from all previous studies in that it also measured omega-3 fatty acid levels in the blood at the beginning of the study to assess omega-3 status.
  • B vitamin treatment reduced brain shrinkage by up to 70% over the two year period compared to placebo.
  • The B vitamin treatment was only effective when the subjects were deficient in B vitamins at the beginning of the study, as indicated by elevated homocysteine levels.
  • The B vitamin treatment was also only effective in subjects with high omega-3 status at the beginning of the study. If they had low omega-3 status, the B vitamin supplementation was ineffective.
  • This study has the potential to forever shift the paradigm for preventing cognitive decline in the elderly. Past studies have looked at the effect of B vitamins and omega-3s at reducing cognitive decline separately, and these studies have been inconsistent. If this study is correct, consistent benefits will only be seen when both B vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids are present at adequate levels.
  • This is a concern because millions of older Americans are deficient in B vitamins or omega-3s or both.
  • How to prevent memory loss? Of course, B vitamins and omega-3s are just part of a holistic approach for preventing cognitive decline. Weight control, exercise, a healthy diet, adequate sleep, socialization, and memory training (mental exercise) are also important if we want to retail our full mental capacity into our 90s and beyond.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Iron and Brain Development

Iron and the Teen Brain
Author: Dr. Steve Chaney

 

iron and brain development in teensFor those of you with teenagers – or who have had teenagers in the past – you may suspect that there’s nothing between their ears. But actually there is a lot going on between their ears, and some of the neural contacts laid down in the brain during the teen years influence the health of their brain during their adult life.  Let’s look at the association between iron and brain development.

And – no surprise here – what they eat can affect the health of their brain as well.

Which brings me to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences January 9, 2012 (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1105543109) that looks at the adequacy of dietary iron intake during the teenage years and their brain health as adults.

Basics of Iron Metabolism

Before I describe the study perhaps a little bit of what I call Biochemistry 101 is in order.

Free iron is toxic to living cells. For that reason, our body produces multiple proteins to bind and transport the iron. The protein that binds and transports iron through the bloodstream is called transferrin. Under normal conditions 2/3 of the transferrin in our bloodstream has iron bound to it and 1/3 does not. And that is the ideal ratio of bound and unbound transferrin for delivery of iron to brain cells and other cells in our body.

When our diet is iron deficient (or we have excessive blood loss) the percent iron saturation of transferring decreases. The body tries to compensate by producing more transferrin, but this doesn’t really help since the problem was inadequate iron supply, not inadequate transferrin supply. As a consequence elevated transferrin levels are generally indicative of an iron-deficient diet.

Iron and Brain Development in Teens

iron and brain developmentThe study was led by Dr. Paul Thompson of the UCLA Department of Neurology. He and his team performed brain scans on 631 healthy young adults with an average age of 23. The brain scans were of a type that measured strength and integrity of the connections between the nerves in the brain – in other words, the brain’s wiring. They then went back and looked at the amount of iron available to each subject’s brain during adolescence by looking at their blood transferrin levels from routine physical exams performed at ages 12, 14 and 16 (blood transferrin levels are often measured as part of routine physical exams).

The results were pretty clear cut. Elevated transferrin levels during the teenage years were associated with reduced brain-fiber integrity in regions of the brain that are known to be vulnerable to neurodegeneration. These individuals did not show any cognitive impairments as young adults, but the concern is that they might be more likely to develop cognitive impairments as they age.

Dr. Thompson summarized his team’s findings by saying that “Poor iron levels in childhood erode your brain reserves which you need later in life to protect against aging and Alzheimer’s. This is remarkable, as we were not studying iron deficient people, just around 600 normal healthy people. It underscores the need for a balanced diet in the teenage years, when your brain command center is still actively maturing.”

Questions Every Parent Should Ask

If you have teenagers you might want to ask yourself questions like:

  • What is your teenager’s diet like?
  • Is it balanced?
  • Are you sure that it meets their nutritional needs?
  • Should you consider supplementation to make sure that they are getting all of the nutrients that they need?

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recent study suggested that inadequate iron intake in the teenage years may affect how our brains are wired in our adult years. The authors of the study interpreted the study as suggesting that an inadequate diet during the teen years could predispose us to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s as adults.
  • This study only looked at structural differences in the brain circuitry. We can’t conclude from this study alone that inadequate iron intake as a teenager will doom somebody to cognitive impairment and increased Alzheimer’s risk as they age. But we can conclude that adequate iron intake during adolescence is required for normal brain development.
  • And it’s probably not just iron. This study focused on iron status because transferrin levels are routinely measured during physical exams so it was easy to go back and determine what each subject’s iron status was during their teenage years. Many other important nutrients are required for normal brain development, but we don’t have an easy way of going back and determining what someone’s nutritional status was for those nutrients in their teen years. What was shown to be true for iron in this study is likely to be true for other nutrients as well.
  • These were normal teens eating a normal American diet. They weren’t from a third world country and there was nothing weird about what they were eating. But, clearly some of the subjects in the study weren’t getting the iron that they needed from diet alone.
  • The teen years are a time of rapid growth and maturation. It’s not just the brain that needs the proper balance of nutrients during the teen years. All of their tissues require proper nutrition.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Are All Calories Created Equal?

Are Food Choices More Important Than Calories?Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Most adult Americans gain a pound or two each year. That may not sound like much on a yearly basis, but over a lifetime it is huge – if you’ll pardon the pun.

are all calories created equalBecause the health consequences of weight gain are so devastating, everyone has their favorite dietary advice for keeping those extra pounds away. For some it is diet plans – low fat, low carb, paleo, Mediterranean – you name it. For others it is counting calories or avoiding sugars of all kinds. The list goes on. Are all calories created equal?

But what if all of these approaches were wrong? What if we could keep our weight under control solely based on the foods we eat? A recent study seemed to suggest that we just might.

How Was The Study Designed?

A group of scientists from Tufts University and Harvard decided to look at how the food choices we make on a daily basis influence our weight gain or loss over time (Smith et al, AJCN 101: 1216-1224, 2015). However, they designed their study in a very unique way, and it is important that I explain the study design so that you can understand the strengths and limitations of the study.

Most studies of this kind look at what foods people are eating and compare that to how much they weigh. These scientists looked at changes that people made in their diets and correlated that with how much weight they gained or lost over time.

When you think of it, that’s the information most of us really want to know. We are less interested in why the foods we used to eat got us into trouble in the first place than we are in how the changes we make in our diet might influence future weight loss or gain.

This study combined the data from three very large, long term studies – the Nurses’ Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study II, and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. Altogether that is a group of 120,784 men and women who were followed for 16-24 years. All three of these studies measured weight and evaluated dietary habits using food-frequency questionnaires every 4 years.

The scientists conducting the study measured changes in food choices and changes in weight for each individual in 4-year increment over the total time duration of the studies. In analyzing the data, they looked at choices of protein foods, total carbohydrate, and the glycemic load (GL) of the carbohydrates.

Glycemic load is the glycemic index (effect on blood sugar) of the carbohydrates in a particular food times the total amount of carbohydrate in that food. You can think of glycemic load as a measure of carbohydrate quality. For example, white bread, pastries, muffins, pancakes, white rice, chocolates, candy bars, cookies, brownies, cakes, pies, and pretzels would all be examples of foods with a high glycemic load. Fruits, whole grain foods and starchy vegetables would be examples of foods with a moderate glycemic load. Vegetables and beans would be examples of foods that generally have a low glycemic load.

The authors of the study did not measure calories or fat intake for this study, but those factors are indirectly included in food choices – more about that later.

Are All Calories Created Equal?

Now let’s get to the good stuff – the results of this study. When the authors analyzed the data they found that:

  • Most of the subjects did not exchange one protein food for another over the course of the study. They exchanged protein foods for carbohydrate-rich foods and vice versa.

This was a surprise. Since many experts have been recommending that people substitute chicken and fish for red meat, they had expected to see that kind of dietary shift when they analyzed the data. Apparently, people have not been listening to the experts!

  • high carbohydratesWhen the subjects replaced a serving of carbohydrate-rich foods with a serving of red meats, processed meats, chicken with skin or most cheeses they gained between 0.5 to 2.3 pounds per year. Within this category the greatest weight gain was seen when hamburgers were substituted for carbohydrates, and the least weight gain was seen when cheese was substituted for carbohydrates.
  • When the subjects replaced a serving of carbohydrate-rich foods with a serving of milk, peanuts or eggs there was no net change in weight. These appear to be substitutions that are good for weight maintenance.
  • When the subjects replaced a serving of carbohydrate-rich foods with a serving of yoghurt, peanut butter, beans, walnuts, other nuts, chicken without skin, low-fat cheese or seafood they lost between 0.5 and 1.5 pounds/year. Within this category the greatest weight loss was seen when plain yoghurt was substituted for carbohydrates, and the least weight loss was seen when low-fat cheese was substituted for carbohydrates.
  • When they focused on carbohydrate-rich foods, replacing one serving of high glycemic load foods with low glycemic load foods was associated with one pound of weight loss per year. Simply put, if you switch from cookies, pastries and candies to fruits and vegetables, you are likely to lose weight. No surprise here.

The study really got interesting when they looked at the effect of adding different proteins in the context of the carbohydrate-rich foods that the subjects were eating. For example,

  • When the subjects added a serving of red meat to a diet containing carbohydrate foods with a high glycemic load, they gained an average of 2.5 pounds per year. When they added that same serving of red meat to a diet containing carbohydrate foods with a low glycemic index, they gained only around 1.5 pounds per year.

Simply put, that means eating a hamburger on a white flour bun with fries is going to pack on more pounds than a hamburger patty with brown rice and a green salad.

  • The effect of glycemic load was particularly interesting when you looked at the protein foods that were good for weight maintenance overall. For example, adding a serving of eggs to a high glycemic load diet resulted in a 0.6 pound/year weight gain, while adding that same serving of eggs to a low glycemic load diet resulted in a 1.75 pound/year weight loss. The results were similar for cheeses.
  • Finally, glycemic load also influenced the effectiveness of protein foods associated with weight loss. For example, addition of a serving of beans to a high glycemic load diet resulted in 0.5 pound/year weight gain loss, but adding a serving of beans to a low glycemic load diet resulted in a 1.5 pound/year weight loss.

New Insights From This Study

good proteinThis study broke new ground in several areas. For example,

  • We have heard over and over that substituting beans, chicken and fish for red meats is healthier. This is the first study I have heard of that says those same substitutions can prevent or reverse weight gain.
  • Many people advocate a high protein diet for weight control or weight loss, but many of them will tell you the type of protein doesn’t matter. This study suggests that the type of protein foods we eat are important in determining whether we lose or gain weight.
  • Everyone knows that switching from white grains, pastries and candy to whole grains, fruits and vegetables will help you lose weight, but this is the first study I’m aware of that suggests those same changes will influence whether the protein foods we eat lead to weight gain or weight loss.
  • Many people focus on fats and calories when trying to avoid weight gain. While this study is not really fat and calorie neutral (see below), it does suggest that if we focus on eating healthy foods we don’t need to be counting every fat gram and every calorie.
  • Finally, this study suggests that if we forget all of those crazy diets and focus on eating healthy foods, our weight will take care of itself. Not exactly a novel concept, but one worth repeating.

Limitations of the Study

The head author of this study stated in an interview “The idea that the human body is just a bucket for calories is too simplistic. It’s not just a matter of thinking about calories or fat. What’s the quality of the foods we are eating? And how do we define quality.” This has been picked up by the media with statements like “not all calories are created equal”.

That is a bit of a hyperbole, because this study is not really fat and calorie neutral. The protein foods (red and processed meats) that pack on the most calories are higher in fat and calories per serving than those protein foods (skinless chicken, fish and beans) that cause the least weight gain. Similarly, the carbohydrate foods with the highest glycemic load (pastries, cakes and candy) are higher in fat and calories per serving than those carbohydrate foods with the lowest glycemic load (fruits and vegetables).

The real message is not that fat content and calories don’t count. Nor is it that calories in some foods count more than the same calories in other foods. The take home lesson from this study should be that we don’t have to focus on fat and calories. If we focus on healthy foods, the fat and calories tend to take care of themselves.

But, even that message is a bit too simplistic. Choosing healthy foods is not all that there is for weight control. We also need consider:

  • Portion sizes. Half a chicken could easily add more calories than a small hamburger.
  • How the food is cooked. Fish cooked in a cream sauce may not be any better for weight control than a slab of red meat.
  • Exercise. We need to maintain muscle mass to keep metabolic rate high.

 

The Bottom Line

  • A recent study has broken new ground and provided some new insights into how to prevent those extra pounds from sneaking up on us over time. This study evaluated how some simple changes we could make in the foods we eat can influence whether we gain or lose weight.
  • One part of the study looked at the effects of replacing a serving of carbohydrate rich foods with a serving of protein rich foods. If that protein rich food were a hamburger, we could expect to gain about 2.3 pounds/year. If that protein rich food were seafood, we could expect to lose about 1.5 pounds/year. Other protein foods fall in between those extremes. The specifics are covered above.

This a new insight. Many people advocate a high protein diet for weight control or weight loss, but many of them will tell you the type of protein doesn’t matter. So, are all calories created equal?  This study suggests that the type of protein foods we eat are important in determining whether we lose or gain weight.

  • Another part of the study looked at the effect of different carbohydrate foods based on their glycemic load (the effect they have on blood sugar). Simply replacing 1 serving of high glycemic load foods (refined grain foods, cookies, cakes, candy) with low glycemic load foods (whole grains, fruits and vegetables) was associated with a one pound/year weight loss. This should surprise no one.
  • Finally, one part of the study looked at the influence of glycemic load on the effect that various proteins have on weight gain or loss. For example, adding a serving of eggs to a high glycemic load diet resulted in a 0.6 pound/year weight gain, while adding that same serving of eggs to a low glycemic load diet resulted in a 1.75 pound/year weight loss. Other examples are given above.

This is also a new insight. Everyone knows that switching from white grains, pastries and candy to whole grains, fruits and vegetables will help you lose weight, but this is the first study I’m aware of that suggests those same changes will influence whether the protein foods we eat lead to weight gain or weight loss.

  • Some in the media have interpreted this study as saying that fat and calories don’t count. However, this study was not really fat and calorie neutral. The protein and carbohydrate rich foods that packed on the most calories were also the foods highest in fat and calories. The real take home message from this study is that we may not need to focus so much on fat and calories. When we focus on eating healthy foods the fat and calories tend to take care of themselves.
  • Even that message is a bit too simplistic. It is not enough to just focus on healthy foods. We need to consider things like portion size, how the food is prepared, and our exercise habits among other things.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Restaurant Chains Beginning To Serve Healthy Fast Food?

Would You Like Hydrocolloids In Your “Healthy Fast Food?”

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

The fast food industry is changing. Some of the changes are good. Some of the changes are bad. Some of the changes are downright ugly. Let’s start with the good.

healthy fast foodIn recent months Panera, MacDonald’s and Subway have all announced that they are switching to ingredients that people can recognize – ingredients that you might actually use in your own kitchen. Chipotle has recently announced that they have removed all genetically modified organisms from their foods.

This week Pizza Hut said that it will remove artificial colors and preservatives from its food. Taco Bell pledged to remove artificial colors, artificial flavors, high-fructose corn syrup and palm oil from its foods.

For example, Taco Bell will start using real pepper instead of “black pepper flavor” in its food (I didn’t even realize that there was an artificial pepper flavor. Come on! Real pepper can’t be that expensive!). They also plan to remove Yellow No. 6 from their nacho cheese, Blue No. 2 from their avocado ranch dressing, and carmine from their red tortilla strips.

Are restaurants making healthy fast food? Or is this all for show?

Will Healthy Fast Food Be Available At  Ordinary Fast Food Chains?

Now let’s look at the bad. Perhaps the first question to ask is: “Why is the fast food industry making these changes? Have they suddenly decided that they want to become part of the health food industry?”

One clue to those questions is the name of the parent company that owns both Pizza Hut and Taco Bell. They call themselves Yum Foods. You will notice that they don’t call themselves Health Foods. Their name alone speaks volumes about their priorities.

When the CEO of Yum Foods was describing these changes, he didn’t speak about any desire to make healthy fast food. He spoke about responding to shifting consumer attitudes and the desire of consumers for “real food” as driving these kinds of changes. The bottom line is that fast food companies are realizing that consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers of artificial ingredients and are making their buying choices accordingly. The companies simply don’t want to lose market share.

The second question to ask is: “Are these foods actually healthier?” The answer is: “Not really”. None of these companies are talking about removing fat, sugar, salt or calories from their foods. They are more concerned with retaining the “yum” factor than they are in actually making healthy fast food.

Do You Want Hydrocolloids With That Pizza?

hydrocolloidsNow let’s talk about the ugly. Perhaps the most important questions you should be asking are: “What is behind the curtain?” “What aren’t they telling us about?” The answer is: “You probably don’t want to know.”

For example, I came across an interesting article in a food industry journal. A Spanish company called Premium Ingredients was announcing that they had developed a new “food” product from hydrocolloids and melting salts that could be used to replace casein in pizza toppings.

But, first a bit of background:

You’ve heard nutritionists claim that pizza is a perfect food because it contains foods from all four food groups. Of course, that’s ignoring the fact that pizza is generally made with white flour and contains lots of fat – mostly saturated, calories and sodium.

But, when you look at many of the frozen and fast food pizzas on the market it gets even worse.

You noticed that Premium Ingredients didn’t say that their hydrocolloids/melting salts mixture could be used to replace cheese. They said that it could be used to replace casein. That’s because many pizza manufacturers haven’t used real cheese in years.

Instead they are using casein (milk protein) and a chemical smorgasbord to manufacture a cheese “food” with the taste and consistency of cheese.

Cheese is a good source of protein and calcium, and it supplies a lot of other essential nutrients as well – such as vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin B12, riboflavin, folic acid, magnesium & zinc. Some of the artificial cheeses on the market do supply the calcium found in real cheese, but almost none of them provide the other essential micro-nutrients. But, because the artificial cheeses have been made with casein up to now, we could at least count on them to supply the protein found in real cheese.

Now, thanks to Premium Ingredients, the manufacturers of frozen and fast food pizzas won’t even have to use casein-containing artificial cheeses. In their trade journal article Premium Ingredients boasted that their product will help manufacturers cut costs (and cut protein and essential nutrients in the process).  Is this creating healthy fast food?

Lucky us?

 

The Bottom Line

  • A number of fast food chains have recently announced that they are removing some artificial ingredients from their foods.
  • These changes appear to arise from a desire to respond to changes in consumer preferences rather than to actually make healthy fast food.
  • For example, most of the fast food chains that are removing artificial ingredients from their foods are making no effect to reduce fat, sugar, salt and calories. Fast foods are not becoming health foods.
  • Even worse are the hidden ingredients you don’t know about. For example, a fast food supplier recently announced that it had developed a mixture of hydrocolloids and melting salts that could be used in place of casein (milk protein) for the “cheese food” that fast food chains for their pizza topping.
  • That saves the fast food chains money, but it leaves you with a pizza that gives you no milk, no calcium, no vitamin D and less of many other essential nutrients.
  • Pizzas are just the tip of the iceberg. Most of us no longer make complex foods like pizza from scratch. We count on manufacturers to use the same natural ingredients that we would use. But, in fact we have no idea of what they are putting in the foods that we are eating. That is why our food supply is becoming depleted of essential nutrients in ways that we don’t even know about. That’s one reason why I use food supplements and why I recommend food supplements for others.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

What Is Epigenetics

Can What We Eat Affect Our Kids?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

what is epigeneticsWhat is epigenetics?  For me, the first stages of understanding came a while back.  When I was a young graduate student (which is more than just a few years ago), I was taught that all genetic information resided in our DNA. During conception, we picked up some DNA from our dad and some from our mom, and that DNA was what made us a unique individual.

We knew that environmental influences such as diet, lifestyle and exposure to toxic chemicals could affect our health personally. However, we never dreamed that the effects of those environmental influences could actually alter our gene expression, and that those genetic alterations could be passed on to our children.

Today we know that environmental influences can actually modify our DNA and that those modifications can be passed on to our offspring – a process called epigenetics.

What Is Epigenetics & How Does It Affect Gene Expression?

Simply put, epigenetics involves modifications to our DNA. DNA can be methylated or acetylated and the proteins that bind to our DNA can be modified in multiple ways. That is important for two reasons:

  • These alterations can turn genes on and off. That means that epigenetic modifications can alter gene expression.
  • These alterations can be influenced by our environment – diet, lifestyle, and exposure to environmental chemicals

In a previous “Health Tips From the Professor” article titled “Can Diet Alter Your Genetic Destiny?”  I discussed recent research suggesting that a healthy diet and lifestyle causes epigenetic changes in the DNA that may reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

That alone was a monumental discovery. Even more monumental is the recent discovery that at least some of those epigenetic changes can be passed on to our children, which brings me to the question I posed in the title of this article: “Can what we eat affect our kids?”

Animal Studies Showing That Epigenetic Changes Can Be Inherited

epigenetic changes are inheritedAs is often the case, the first definitive study showed that epigenetic changes were heritable was an animal study. This study was done with a mouse strain called agouti (Waterman and Jirtle, Mol. Cell. Biol. 23: 5193 – 5300, 2003). Agouti mice can have two remarkably distinctive phenotypes. They can either have a yellow coat, become obese as adults and be prone to cancer and diabetes as they age or they can have a brown coat and grow up to be lean and healthy.

It had been known for some time that these phenotypic differences were controlled by the epigenetic methylation of a specific gene called the agouti gene. The agouti gene codes for a genetic regulator that controls coat color, feeding behavior, and body weight set-point, among other things. When the agouti gene is under methylated it is active. As a consequence the mice have yellow coats and are prone to obesity. When the agouti gene is highly methylated it is inactive. The mice have brown coats and are lean and healthy.

Moreover, methylation of the agouti gene is not a purely random event. Mothers with the yellow, obese phenotype tended to produce a preponderance of offspring with the same phenotype and vice-versa. In short, the epigenetic methylation pattern of the agouti gene could be passed from generation to generation. It was heritable.

Waterman and Jirtle’s research broke new ground by showing that the methylation of the agouti gene could be strongly influenced by what the mother ate while the fetal mice were still in the womb.

When they fed agouti mothers a diet with extra folic acid, B12, betaine and choline (all nutrients that favor DNA methylation) during conception and pregnancy the agouti gene of their offspring became highly methylated. A high percentage of those offspring had brown coats and grew up to be lean and healthy.

However, when Waterman and Jirtle put agouti mothers on a diet that was deficient in folic acid, B12, betaine and choline during conception and pregnancy the agouti gene of their offspring was under methylated. Many of those offspring had yellow coats and grew up to be fat and unhealthy.

Subsequent studies from the same laboratory have shown that:

  • Addition of genistein, a phytonutrient from soy, to the maternal diet also favors methylation of the agouti gene and protects against obesity in agouti mice (Dolinoy et al, Environmental Health Perspective, 114: 567-572, 2006).
  • The addition of the environmental toxin bisphenol A to maternal diets causes under methylation of the agouti gene and predisposes to obesity in agouti mice, but this effect can be reversed by also feeding the mother genistein or folic acid and related nutrients during pregnancy (Dolinoy et al, PNAS, 13056-13061, 2007).

The agouti mice studies provide a dramatic example of how diet and environmental exposure during pregnancy can cause epigenetic changes in fetal DNA that have long term health consequences for the offspring. However, they are animal studies. Does the same hold true for humans?

Diet, Epigenetic Changes, and Obesity in Humans

diet-epigenetic-changes-obesityWith humans, it is really difficult to determine whether epigenetic changes that occur during conception and pregnancy affect our children. That is because when you measure an epigenetic effect in a child or adult, it is difficult to sort out how much of that effect was caused by what the mom ate during pregnancy and how much was caused by how the family ate as the kids were growing up.

Unfortunately, there is a tragic human experiment that shows that the same kind of epigenetic changes are heritable in humans. I’m referring to what is known as the “Dutch Hunger Winter”. This was a period of starvation during 1944-1945, the final year of World War II, when the Germans set up a blockade that prevented food from reaching western Holland. During that few months even pregnant women were forced to live on food rations providing a little as 500 calories a day.

This was an event without parallel in human history. Holland is not a third world country. Once the blockade was lifted children born during the Hunger Winter had the same plentiful supply of food as every other Dutch citizen. This has allowed generations of research scientists to ask what were the effects of a brief exposure to malnutrition during conception and pregnancy.

The health consequences were dramatic. 50 years later individuals who were conceived during the Hunger Winter weighed about 14 pounds more, had waists about 1.5 “ larger, and were three times more likely to have heart disease than those born to mothers who were in their second or third trimester of pregnancy during that time. By the time they reached age 63, they experienced a 10% increase in mortality.

What caused those health consequences? Could the cause have been epigenetic? Recent research suggests that the answer might be yes.

A recent study analyzed epigenetic changes in DNA from blood samples of survivors born during the Hunger Winter that had been collected when they were 59 years old (Tobi et al, Int. J. Epidemiology, doi: 10.1093/ije/dyv043, 2015). This study showed:

  • A distinct pattern of DNA methylation was observed in survivors who were conceived during the Hunger Winter. This pattern of DNA methylation was not observed in survivors who were in their second or third trimester during the Hunger Winter. It was also not seen in people who were conceived immediately before or after the Hunger Winter.
  • Some of the genes with distinctive methylation patterns were genes that affected things like cholesterol levels and insulin sensitivity, which have the potential to increase disease risk.
  • Other genes with distinctive methylation patterns were genes that affected metabolism. They were “thrifty” genes that increased the efficiency of metabolism. Increased efficiency of metabolism is beneficial when calories are scarce, but can lead to obesity when calories are plentiful.

That is a truly remarkable finding when you think about it. If these data are true, they suggest that starvation during early pregnancy caused the fetus to make epigenetic changes to its DNA that allowed it to become more efficient at energy utilization, and those epigenetic changes have lasted a lifetime – even when food was abundant throughout the rest of that lifetime.

What Is Epigenetics And Can What We Eat Affect Our Kids?

can what we eat affect our kidsThe studies I featured in this article are powerful “proof of concept” that diet and environmental exposure during conception and pregnancy can result in epigenetic changes to the DNA of the offspring that can persist throughout their life and dramatically affect their health. However, it is not yet clear how they apply to you and me.

  • Agouti mice are a very special strain of mice. It is not yet clear what effect folic acid, genistein and bisphenol A have on epigenetic modification of specific human genes, and whether those epigenetic modifications will have health consequences in humans.
  • The specific circumstances of the Dutch Hunger Winter are unlikely to be repeated on any significant scale. The closest approximation I can envision would be a woman who becomes pregnant while on a very low calorie fad diet.

There are, of course, many other examples of heritable epigenetic modifications. For example:

  • When female rats are maintained on a “junk-food diet” high in fat and sugar during pregnancy and lactation their offspring show a marked preference for high fat foods (Ong & Muhlhausler, FASB J, 25: 2167-2179, 2011). They also show epigenetic alterations of the central reward pathways that may pre-condition them to require higher intakes of fat to experience pleasure from eating.
  • When rats are fed diets deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, adolescent rats from the second and subsequent generations display marked increases in hyperactivity and anxiety (For more details, see my “Health Tips from the Professor” article titled “The Seventh Generation Revisited”.
  • In a clinical trial of 162 obese Canadian mothers who had children before and after weight loss surgery, the children born after weight loss surgery were half as likely to grow up overweight or obese as the children born before the weight loss surgery (Smith et al, Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 94: 4275-4283, 2009), and this correlated with epigenetic modification of genes that play a role in obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease (Guernard et al, PNAS 110: 11439-11443, 2013).

Taken together, the existing data suggest that our diet and environmental exposure during conception and pregnancy can cause epigenetic changes to our children’s DNA that may affect their future health in ways that we can only begin to understand at present. It is a sobering thought.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • The term epigenetics describes modifications to our DNA that turn our genes off and on.
  • In this article I discussed two powerful “proof of concept” studies, one in rats and the other in humans, showing that diet and environmental exposure during conception and pregnancy can result in epigenetic changes to the DNA of the offspring that can persist throughout their life and dramatically affect their health.
  • The health consequences of these epigenetic modifications include obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, hyperactivity, anxiety and many more.
  • This is a new paradigm. Most prenatal nutrition advice is currently based on what it takes to have a healthy baby – not on what it might take for your child to experience better health throughout their life.
  • Of course, the science of epigenetics is relatively new. It will be many years before we will be able to make specific recommendations as to what your diet should be like during pregnancy and lactation if you wish to make beneficial modifications to your baby’s DNA.
  • However, you should be aware that what you eat during pregnancy & lactation may influence the health of your children – not just at the time of their birth – but throughout their life, and that a high calorie, “junk-food” diet or a fad weight loss diet just may not be your best choice.

*The agouti mice picture is by Randy Jirtle and Dana Dolinoy (E-mailed by author) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Can Food Affect Your Mood?

An Apple A Day Keeps The Blues Away

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Can food affect your mood? In rural North Carolina you still occasionally see bumper stickers that say “Life Happens”. Of course, the word they use isn’t exactly “Life”, but you get the point.

can food affect your moodWe can’t always control what happens to us. What is important is how we react when bad things happen to us. Do we brush them off and move on, or do we let them get us down? There is no shortage of experts telling us how we can keep the blues away. We are told to count our blessings, meditate, think happy thoughts, develop support groups – the list goes on and on.

But is there perhaps one important parameter that most of these experts are missing? Could the foods we eat make us blue?

The standard American diet (S.A.D.) is high in processed foods, fat (especially saturated and trans fats), refined grains, simple sugars, salt and calories. As I’ve said before, almost anything would be better.

You probably already know that the S.A.D. leads to obesity and a whole host of diseases – including heart disease, cancer and diabetes – just to name a few. But did you know that the S.A.D. could make you sad? That’s what two recent studies suggest.

Can Foods Affect Your Mood? Does Junk Food Make You Sad?

The first study by Akbaralay et al (British Journal of Psychiatry, 195: 408-413, 2009) looked at the dietary patterns and mental health outcomes of 3486 participants in the Whitehall II Prospective Study.

In case you didn’t know it, Whitehall is the central district in London where most of the British government offices are located. So the 3486 participants in this study were bureaucrats. They were middle aged (average age 55.6 years old) office staff (74% men, 26% women) who spent most of their day sitting and really didn’t like their jobs very much. (I made up the part about not liking their jobs. It is hard to imagine that kind of job would be deeply fulfilling, but I’m sure that some of the bureaucrats liked their jobs better than others – which is the whole point of this study.)

At the beginning of the study the participants were given a 127 item food frequency quiz to fill out. Interestingly enough, the food preferences of the participants in this study clustered neatly into two groups.

The diets of the processed foods groups predominantly consisted of sweetened desserts, chocolates, fried foods, processed meats, refined grains and high fat dairy products. In short the diet of this group was pretty similar to what we think of as the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.). In contrast, the diets of the whole foods group consisted mostly of vegetables, fruits, fish and whole grains.

Five years later the study participants were analyzed for depression using a 20 item standardized depression scale.

The results were pretty eye-catching. The processed food group was 58% more likely to suffer from depression than the whole food group! And this was after correction for age, gender, weight, marital status, education, employment grade, physical activity, smoking and diseases (high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke).

The reasons for this astounding correlation between diet and depression are not clear. Can food affect your mood? Does this give us more insight?

The authors speculated that the diets of the whole food group were likely higher in antioxidants, folic acid and omega-3 fatty acids than the diets of the processed food group – and studies have suggested that each of these nutrients may protect against depression.

The authors also suggested that it might be an indirect effect. Diets that are high in saturated fats and refined grains and low in omega-3 fatty acids increase inflammation, and studies have suggested that inflammation can lead to depression.

Can Food Affect Your Mood? Does Healthy Food Make You Glad?

an apple for healthy fruitThe previous study suggested that junk food may make you sad. So you might be asking: “Does that mean that healthy foods can make you glad?” According to one recent study (Br J Health Psychol, Jan 24, 2013, doi: 10.1111/bjhp.12021) the answer may be yes.

A team from the University of Otago in New Zealand enrolled 281 young adults (average age = 20) in a study that looked at the effect of diet on their mood. Each day for 21 consecutive days they recorded their mood and what foods they ate using an online questionnaire. In particular, they reported the number of servings of fresh fruit and vegetables and of several unhealthy foods such as biscuits or cookies, potato chips or French fries and cakes or muffins.

The investigators correlated the foods eaten with the moods reported by the participants on the same day, and again on the day after those foods were eaten. Once again, the results were pretty impressive.

On the days when people ate more fruits and vegetables they reported feeling calmer, happier and more energetic than they did on other days (p = .002 – anything less than .05 is considered a statistically significant difference). And the good effects of fruit and vegetable consumption carried over to the next day as well (p < .001).

Can food affect your mood? While I paraphrased the “apple a day” quote to introduce this study, one apple won’t quite do it. According to this study it takes about 7-8 servings of fruits and vegetables to positively affect mood. In addition, it probably wasn’t just the fruits and vegetables that made the difference. Based on the previous study I would guess that the participants in the study may have eaten other healthy foods such as whole grains and fish on their good days.

Can Food Affect Your Mood?

Taken together these two studies suggest that the next time you feel a little blue you may want to look at your diet. You may want to include a healthier diet along with the meditation and positive thinking.

Of course, these studies both measured correlations between diet and mood, and any good scientist will tell you that correlations do not prove cause and effect. It could be that when people are “down in the dumps” they just naturally reach for junk foods rather than fruits and vegetables.

However, since there is no downside to consuming fruits and vegetables, I feel fully comfortable recommending more fruits and vegetables in our diets. If their health benefits aren’t enough to motivate you, maybe the possibility of improving your mood will!

There are some things you just can’t control. To paraphrase those country songs, you can’t keep your girl and dog from running off. Life happens to all of us. Can food affect your mood? If you want to keep your mood where it should be, you can always reach for those fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

 

The Bottom Line

  • Two recent studies have suggested what we eat can affect our mood.
  • The first study showed that people who habitually consumed a diet consisting of sweetened desserts, chocolates, fried foods, processed meats, refined grains and high fat dairy products were 58% more likely to suffer from depression than people who habitually consumed a diet consisting mostly of vegetables, fruits, fish and whole grains.
  • The second study showed that the subjects in their study reported feeling calmer, happier and more energetic on the days when they ate more fruits and vegetables than they did on the days they ate junk foods.
  • Of course, these studies both measured correlations between diet and mood, and any good scientist will tell you that correlations do not prove cause and effect. It could be that when people are “down in the dumps” they just naturally reach for junk foods rather than fruits and vegetables.
  • However, since there is no downside to consuming a healthier diet, I feel fully comfortable recommending more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and omega-3s in our diets. If their health benefits aren’t enough to motivate you, maybe the possibility of their improving your mood will!

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Do Women Get Enough Omega-3 During Pregnancy?

Should Pregnant Women Take Omega-3 Supplements?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

  • omega-3 during pregnancyLong Chain Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Especially DHA, Are Essential For Normal Brain Development

Long chain omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, have been shown to be very important during pregnancy, especially during the third trimester when DHA accumulates in the fetal brain at a very high rate. It is during that third trimester that the fetus forms the majority of brain cells that they will have for an entire lifetime.

Inadequate intake of long chain omega-3 during pregnancy and lactation has been shown to be associated with poor neurodevelopmental outcomes. These include poor developmental milestones, problem solving, language development and increased hyperactivity in the children (Coletta et al, Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 3, 163-171, 2010).

  • The Current Recommendation is 200 mg DHA/day During Pregnancy & Lactation.

In order to support brain development in the fetus, some experts have recommend intake of 300 mg per day of DHA during pregnancy. The best dietary sources of long chain omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA are fish and fish oil supplements. However, because of concerns about seafood contamination with heavy metals and PCBs (both of which are neurotoxins), the FDA recommended in 2004 that pregnant women limit seafood consumption to two servings a week, which amounts to about 200 mg/day of DHA – and this has been subsequently adopted by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the European Union as the amount of DHA recommended during pregnancy and lactation (Coletta et al, Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 3, 163-171, 2010).

Even that recommendation for DHA from seafood could be overly generous. A recent study using the EPA risk assessment protocol concluded that some farmed salmon were so contaminated with PCBs that they should be eaten no more than once a year (Hites et al, Science, 303: 226-229, 2004).

  • Most Pregnant & Lactating Women In The US Are Probably Not Getting The Recommended Amount of DHA In Their Diet

Many pregnant women avoid seafood because of concerns about mercury and PCBs. Unfortunately, the other food sources of omega-3 fatty acids in the American diet, even many omega-3 fortified foods and supplements, are primarily composed of the short chain omega-3 fatty acid linolenic acid (also called alpha-linolenic acid or ALA), and only 1-4% of linolenic acid is converted to DHA in the body (Coletta et al, Reviews in Obstetrics & Gynecology, 3, 163-171, 2010).

Consequently, experts have been concerned for some time that American and Canadian women may not be getting enough DHA during pregnancy and lactation, but it was not clear how serious an issue this was.

Do Women Get Enough Omega-3 During Pregnancy?

women take enough dha omega-3 during pregnancyA group of scientists decided to test the adequacy of DHA intake by comparing DHA intake with the recommended 200 mg/day in a group of 600 pregnant and lactating women enrolled in the Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition study (Jia et al, Applied Physiology, Nutrition & Metabolism, 40: 1-8, 2015). The average age of the women in this study was 31.6. They were primarily Caucasian and married. 92% of them breastfed their infants. Most of them were taking a multivitamin or prenatal supplement on a daily basis. Approximately 1/3 of them were also taking a long chain omega-3 supplement.

The majority of women had completed college and had annual household incomes in excess of $100,000/year. In short, this was a very affluent, well-educated group of women. This is the kind of group one might consider most likely to be getting enough DHA from their diet.

DHA intake was based on 24 hour food recalls and supplement intake questionnaires collected in face-to-face interviews 2-3 times during pregnancy and again 3 months after delivery. The DHA content of the diet was determined from these data using well established methods.

The results were both dramatic and concerning.

  • Only 27% of pregnant women and only 25% of postpartum women who were breastfeeding met the recommendation of 200 mg of DHA/day. In short, nearly three-quarters of the women in the study were not getting enough (DHA) omega-3 during pregnancy and lactation.
  • When the women who were taking DHA-containing supplements were excluded from the data analysis, only 13% of pregnant and lactating women were getting enough DHA from their diet. In short, nearly 90% of the women relying on diet alone were not getting enough DHA.
  • Taking a DHA-containing supplement increased the likelihood of achieving the recommended 200 mg DHA/day by 10.6 fold during pregnancy and 11.1 fold during breastfeeding.
  • Not surprisingly, seafood, fish and seaweed products were the major contributors to the total dietary DHA intake.

The authors concluded “Our results suggest that the majority of participants in the cohort were not meeting the EU recommendations for DHA during pregnancy and lactation, but taking a supplement significantly improved the likelihood that they would meet the recommendations.”

 

The Bottom Line

  • Long chain omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, are essential for normal brain development. Inadequate DHA intake during pregnancy and lactation is associated with poor developmental milestones, problem solving, language development and increased hyperactivity in the children.
  • There is no established Daily Value for omega-3 fatty acids. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the European Union recommend 200 mg DHA/day during pregnancy and lactation.
  • This recommendation is based partly on the amount of DHA needed for brain development and partly on the FDA warning that pregnant women should not consume more than 2 servings of fish/week due to heavy metal and PCB contamination.
  • This recommendation can be met by 1-2 six ounce servings/week of fish or a fish oil supplement containing 550 – 600 mg of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Many pregnant women avoid fish because of concerns about contamination with heavy metals and PCBs, both of which are neurotoxins. Therefore, the major source of omega-3s in the American and Canadian diets are short chain omega-3 fatty acids that are only inefficiently (1-4%) converted to DHA.
  • Consequently, experts have been concerned for some time that American and Canadian women may not be getting enough DHA during pregnancy and lactation, but it was not clear how serious an issue this was.
  • A recent study done with a group of 600 women enrolled in the Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition study found that:
  • Only 27% of pregnant women and only 25% of postpartum women who were breastfeeding met the recommendation of 200 mg of DHA/day. In short, nearly three-quarters of the women in the study were not getting enough (DHA) omega-3 during pregnancy and lactation.
  • When the women who were taking DHA-containing supplements were excluded from the data analysis, only 13% of pregnant and lactating women were getting enough DHA from their diet. . In short, nearly 90% of the women relying on diet alone were not getting enough DHA.
  • Taking a DHA-containing supplement increased the likelihood of achieving the recommended 200 mg DHA/day by 10.6 fold during pregnancy and 11.1 fold during breastfeeding.
  • This was a very affluent, well-educated group of women. If any women anywhere are getting enough DHA during pregnancy and lactation, this should have been the group that was.
  • The authors concluded “Our results suggest that the majority of participants in the cohort were not meeting the EU recommendations for (DHA) omega-3 during pregnancy and lactation, but taking a supplement significantly improved the likelihood that they would meet the recommendations.”

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Food Ingredients To Avoid List

Food Ingredients to Avoid Part 2: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

food additivesIt is getting really hard to find a food or food supplement that doesn’t have any ingredients on the internet “naughty list”. The problem is that many of the internet warnings about food ingredients are what I call “urban nutrition myths”.  Want to know the truth about which additives should be on the  food ingredients to avoid list?

Last week I identified the top 25 food ingredients on the internet “naughty list” and told you which ones were actually “good” – OK for most people most of the time. This week I’m going to tell which ones are “bad” and which ones are truly “ugly”.

Food Ingredients to Avoid List?  The Bad

food ingredients to avoid badThe term “bad” for the food ingredients in this list is a bit of a misnomer. These are food ingredients that some people will want to avoid, but are perfectly OK for many people. In some cases, the type of food the ingredients are added to determines whether the ingredient is OK or should be avoided.  So, the following could possibly be on your food ingredients to avoid list.

Sodium Nitrate and Nitrite: This is a topic I have covered in a previous article titled “Nitric Oxide Benefits and Side Effects” . It is a perfect example of a food ingredient that can be “bad” in certain foods and “good” in others. Briefly:

  • When sodium nitrate and/or sodium nitrate are added to processed meats, they can combine with the amino acids from the meat in the intestine to form cancer-causing nitrosamines. As you might suspect, this is not a good thing.
  • On the other hand, when sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite are found in fruits are vegetables or combined with natural antioxidants such as vitamin C, they are converted to nitric oxide, which has a number of beneficial effects in the body. So when they are present in these foods or food supplements, they are actually beneficial.

Sugar & High Fructose Corn Syrup: As I said in my video “The Truth About Sugar” , there are no sugar villains and there are no sugar heroes. For example, high fructose corn syrup has been particularly vilified in recent years, but its chemical composition is not significantly different from honey and agave nectar, which are considered to be “good” sugars.

The problems associated with sugars of all types in the American diet are related to the amount of sugar in our diet (too much) and the kinds of foods they are found in. Let’s focus on that last one for a minute.

  • When sugars are consumed as a part of foods that are rich in fiber and/or protein they have much less of an effect on blood sugar levels (a lower glycemic index) than when they are consumed in sodas, juices and highly processed foods. That’s important because the bad health consequences of sugars are primarily caused by foods that lead to high blood sugar levels. See, for example, my article “Can Soft Drinks Cause Heart Disease?” .
  • Consequently, we should be focusing on the glycemic index (the effect on blood sugar levels) of the foods we eat rather than obsessing about the amount or kinds of sugar on the label.

MSG: MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a particularly interesting case. MSG is the sodium salt of the amino acid glutamate.

Glutamate is a neurotransmitter.

  • When MSG is used as a flavor enhancer in foods with a low protein content, the glutamate is very rapidly taken up by the brain and can overstimulate some neurons.
  • For most people this is no problem, but a small number of people experience what used to be called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” due to the large amounts of MSG used in some Chinese foods.
  • The common symptoms associated with “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” are headache, sweating, skin flushing, nausea & fatigue. Allergic reactions to MSG can even be life threatening in some individuals.

Glutamate is also found in every protein we eat. Consequently, we create lots of MSG in our intestine every time we eat and digest protein. In this situation it is no more harmful than any other amino acid in the proteins we eat.

  • The most logical explanation for this phenomenon is that when all of the amino acids are in our bloodstream simultaneously they compete with glutamate for uptake into the brain. This slows the entry of glutamate into the brain and prevents overstimulation of neurons.

The bottom line is that MSG as a flavor enhancer is harmless for most people, but problematic for some. MSG as a component of hydrolyzed vegetable protein or sodium caseinate is harmless because it is in balance with the other naturally occurring amino acids. Some websites claim that MSG is found in maltodextrin and citric acid. It is not.

Salt (Sodium): I could, and probably should, write a whole article on sodium intake. Suffice it to say that 1) most of us consume too much sodium, 2) most of that sodium is hidden in the foods we eat rather than added at the table, and 3) some people are more sensitive to the bad effects of sodium than others.

Refined Grains: Again, this could be a whole article. Suffice it to say that 1) whole grains are better than refined grains and 2) most of us would benefit from eating fewer grains in any form and more fruits and vegetables in their place.

Food Ingredients to Avoid List: The Ugly

Finally, there are some food ingredients that most experts (except for those in the food industry) agree should be avoided. I call them the dirty dozen. All should be on everyone’s food ingredients to avoid list.  They are:

food ingredients to avoid ugly

  • Trans fats (also known as partially hydrogenated vegetable oils).
  • Aspartame
  • Acesulfame-K
  • Sucralose
  • Artificial colors
  • Artificial flavors
  • BHA & BHT
  • Propyl gallate
  • Sodium and potassium benzoate
  • Potassium bromate
  • Potassium sorbate
  • Polysorbate 80

 

The Bottom Line

If you were to believe everything you read on the internet about food ingredients that you should avoid, you could end up spending most of your day reading food labels and still find very few foods that you could eat. Some of those warnings are true, some are partially true, and some are mostly myths.

To help you determine which to place on your food ingredients to avoid list,  I have identified the top 25 food ingredient warnings and have divided them into the good, the bad and the ugly.

  • The “good” are those food ingredients that are perfectly OK for most people, most of the time. Here are some examples (see the article above for a full explanation).
  • Soy: The supposed dangers of soy have been disproven by numerous clinical studies, but the myths persist. I do recommend that you choose non-GMO soy protein.
  • GMO: GMO foods and proteins are a concern but purified food ingredients obtained from GMO foods pose no health risks. There are, however, possible environmental concerns due to the overuse of Roundup.
  • Carrageenan and Caramel Color: In this case it is contaminants rather than the food ingredients themselves that are the problem. As long as you choose a manufacturer who performs rigorous quality control tests on their ingredients, you need not be concerned about these ingredients.
  • Canola Oil, Maltodextrin and Soy lecithin: The supposed dangers of these food ingredients are myths. They are not backed up by credible clinical studies. However, they are generally derived from GMO foods, so there is a possible environmental concern.
  • The “bad” are the food ingredients that do pose a problem for some people, particularly when those ingredients are found in the wrong kinds of foods. However, those same ingredients are OK for many people when they are in the right foods.
  • Sodium nitrate and nitrite: Those ingredients are a concern when added to processed meats, but are actually healthy when found in fresh fruits and vegetables or combined with antioxidants such as vitamin C.
  • Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup: We definitely need to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. However, when looking at individual foods we should focus more on glycemic index than on the amount or kind of sugar.
  • MSG: MSG is a concern for some individuals when used as a flavor enhancer in low protein foods. However, it poses no risk when it is present as a component of partially digested proteins such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein or sodium casseinate.
  • The “ugly” are those ingredients that most experts agree we should avoid. They include trans fats, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors, artificial flavors, artificial preservatives and a few others listed above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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