Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

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Olive Oil and Alzheimer’s Disease?

A few days ago, I posted an article that  described a study that showed that the Mediterranean diet enhanced brain health. Now another study associated extra virgin olive oil with the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease (at least in mice). Read about it HERE.



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Processed Foods and Health


When discussing healthy diets, the advice is often to stay away from processed foods. Actually, this is almost impossible since most foods undergo some form of processing to ensure food safety of perishable foods. I think that a better message would be that we should attempt to avoid ultra-processed foods, many of which have high levels of sodium, fat or sugar. At a glance, these foods are easily identified by their extremely long ingredient lists. A recent report from the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) found that more than 60% of the food purchased annually in the U.S. is highly processed, This trend will continue as long as consumers buy these boxed and bagged products that fill our landfills and detract from environmental responsibility.

The highly processed foods are those found in the center aisles of the supermarket and include frozen and ready-made meals, cereals, snacks, cheese spreads, and other packaged items. These foods are commonly filled with additives or preservatives to improve flavor, texture and extend shelf life.

What effects can these foods have on our health and why?

Obesity, Metabolic Syndrome, Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disea  

Obesity has been associated with our excessive intake of sugar and linked to a plethora of adverse health issues that include metabolic syndrome, diabetes type 2, and cardiovascular disease. If you look at the ingredient lists, you may find on some products sugar listed by many names. Sugar means sucrose but is contained in brown sugar, granulated, raw or powdered sugars. However, your sugar vocabulary should include high fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, dextrose, glucose, maltose, lactose and fructose. There is also corn syrup, honey, molasses, malt syrup, sugar syrup, and fruit juice concentrate. Some research suggests that sugar triggers the same sense of pleasure and cravings within the brain that also triggers drug addiction.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Inflammatory bowel disease encompasses two major diseases: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. The blame may go to additives called emulsifiers. They are found in many processed foods like breads, peanut butter, cake mixes, salad dressings, sauces, yogurt, pudding, processed cheese, and ice cream. Emulsifiers function to keep water and oil mixed in food products that contain ingredients that would normally separate.

Emulsifiers used in processed foods function in the same way as those found in household soaps or detergents.  When mice were fed diets high in common food emulsifiers, they developed diseases similar to ones already discussed (obesity and metabolic syndrome, as well as IBD. The conclusions of the authors were that bacteria in the microbiome  affected the mucus protective layer that separates them from the intestinal wall, similarly to how a detergent works to remove dirt in industrial applications. It is thought by some that this process causes an inflammatory reaction that may contribute to the incidence of these diseases.

Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases are characterized by when the body attacks its own cells. At last count, there are about 100 of these diseases and the more common ones include; diabetes type 1, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

The intestine is lined with epithelial cells that function to serve as a protective membrane to prevent  toxins, harmful bacteria, or other substances called antigens that could cross this barrier and cause an immune reaction in the body.  Intestinal permeability is a term describing the control of material passing from inside the gastrointestinal tract through the cells lining the gut wall, into the rest of the body. (Wikipedia). The media refers to intestinal permeability  as “leaky gut syndrome,” but is debunked by many in the medical profession, due to a lack of quality research to support it. Nevertheless, the possibility of emulsifiers and other processed food additives conceivably could damage or affect intestinal permeability leading to an autoimmune disease. Other additives that could affect this permeability in addition to emulsifiers are glucose, salt, organic solvents, and gluten and all are used in processed food products.  (WebMD, Digestive disorders/leaky gut syndrome).

Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer has been associated with processed meats like hot dogs, sausage, deli meats or any other meat product chemically treated with preservatives. This also can include red meat consumed daily. The chemicals used have been linked to have carcinogenic properties.

The link between sodium nitrites and cancer may be the culprit. Processed meats are manufactured using sodium nitrite. During the process of cooking certain meats, sodium nitrites combine with naturally present amines in the meat to form carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds.

Eating a diet of primarily whole foods rather than reliance on highly processed foods may help prevent some of the common diseases of our culture from food intolerance to cancer prevention. Processed foods may have subtle effects on our bodies that are difficult to assess or determine. Listen to your brain-gut reactions that may help you identify some of the effects that some unknown additive may have on your health. Digestive distress can be an indication that your body is sensitive to a certain ingredient and can be simply alleviated by consuming fewer ultra processed foods.


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What is a Healthy Diet? An Update

The following post is an excellent source for links to the discussion of healthy diets.  It is a brief summary of what nutrition science “knows” at the present time.


For the complete discussion found in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (March, 2017), click HERE. It is a long article; however, it provides a lot of details on the latest recommendations about “healthy” diets and the research behind them. It can be read as a PDF.

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Got Chickens?


Being a food safety fanatic, I think we should be all reminded that poultry does have its drawbacks in that it carries the dreaded bacterial cause of food poisoning, Salmonella species. Recently, a current trend is to raise your own chickens that provide us those wonderful fresh eggs daily. One might forget that those adorable birds could be a source of Salmonella. What to do? It’s simple. No need for paranoia,  just wash your hands often with soap and warm water, especially after handling any raw meat or those pets who just might live in our backyards.

From the Centers for Disease Control Morbidity Tables, there were 46,367 reported cases of Salmonellosis from all sources or causes in 2015.


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Should We Avoid High Fructose Corn Syrup?

Public relations of high-fructose corn syrup

Public relations of high-fructose corn syrup (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is perhaps one of the most successful ingredients used in processed foods at least for the food producer; however, it remains one of the most controversial additives concerning its safety and its effects on health. Its development in the 1960’s has led it be the most commonly added sweetener in food products. From 1970 to 1990, its consumption increased more than 1000%. The increased consumption has now been associated with the rise in obesity, diabetes type 2, and heart disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Is it a health threat or just another convenient and inexpensive way to sweeten our foods?

HFCS is manufactured by extracting starch from corn. Starch molecules are made of chains of glucose molecules. Further treatment then breaks the bonds between the resulting glucose molecules with a little over half of the glucose molecules being converted to fructose, thus high fructose corn syrup. Food manufacturers benefit from using HFCS due to its lower cost and its storage stability features. Although in 1970, sucrose was the predominant sweetener is soft drinks, it has been replaced with HFCS. It is used in other products such as cereals, canned soups, and salad dressings and condiments.

Fructose may be implicated in obesity due to the following physiological processes: Simply, when compared to glucose, fructose consumption contributes more to body fat deposition and less to hormonal appetite suppression which has the potential to contribute to weight gain

Supporters of HFCS contend that fructose is contained in many foods and has been part of our diets for many decades. Fructose is known as fruit sugar and is found in fruits and vegetables. Also, sucrose is composed of glucose bound to fructose in equal proportions, which makes it chemically similar to HFCS. So why is fructose thought to be the demon? One reason may be that the fructose in HFSC is unbound making it more easily absorbed for use in the body. The bound molecules found in sucrose have to be released by digestion before it can be used.

Does fructose contribute to obesity? Studies on humans are few and give us no conclusive evidence. However, in animal studies, rats that received HFCS in water for 8 weeks compared to sucrose gained more weight, more body fat and had higher triglyceride levels than those fed sucrose despite consuming fewer calories.

We are beginning to see some manufacturers eliminate HFCS from their products. Time will tell if this removal will affect obesity rates. However, the causes of obesity are multifactorial and it is highly unlikely that the elimination of one of the potential factors will make much of a difference. However, there are other health problems with fructose.

See a previous post HERE.

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The Mediterranean Diet and Aging


Telomere (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Sally J. Feltner

The purpose of the study was to determine if adherence to a Mediterranean diet could maintain a longer telomere length, a biomarker of aging.Telomeres (DNA sequences) occur at the ends of chromosomes that often undergo a reduction of length each time a body cell divides. Their purpose is to prevent DNA loss to protect the cell’s integrity. Telomere length is proposed to be associated with life expectancy; i.e., shorter length suggests a shorter life and increased rate of developing chronic diseases as we age. The length of telomeres is variable and can be modified by many factors, but generally decreases with age. Since they can be modified, lifestyle factors such as diet may have some effect on the length. On the other hand, telomere length can be restored and elongated during each cell division cycle by an enzyme called telomerase which is also variable. The gene expresssion of this enzyme may also be modified by extrinsic factors.

This study involved 4676 healthy middle-aged women as a subset within the Nurses’ Health Study. They completed food frequency questionnaires and had blood drawn for telomere length analysis. The main outcome measure was to detect an association between telomere length in leukocytes (white blood cells) and self-reported adherence to the Mediterranean diet using a scoring system of the diet called Alternative Mediterranean Diet score.

The Mediterranean diet components primarily include a high intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains along with a high intake of olive oil. It is also associated with a low intake of saturated fat in meats and dairy foods, a moderately high intake of fish and alcohol (especially wine with meals).

A positive adherence to this dietary pattern has consistently shown that there is less risk to develop chronic diseases such as heart disease, dementia, or accelerated aging.

The study also compared the Med diet to other dietary patterns such as the prudent diet (basically a low fat diet) and a so-called Western diet (e.g. the standard American diet) for their effects on leukocyte telomere length.


Greater adherence to the Mediterranean Diet was associated with a weak positive association with longer telomeres (p=0.02). The difference in telomere length for each one point change in the Alternative Mediterranean Diet score was calculated to be on average 1.5 years of aging. A three point change corresponded to an on average 4.5 years of aging. This is similar to findings when non-smokers are compared to smokers (4.6 years). These results were reported after adjustment for potential co-founders. The results showed no significant positive associations for the prudent diet (p=0.09) or Western diet (p=0.32) patterns and telomere length.

There have been other studies that associated other dietary factors with telomere length. You can read these results in a previous POST.

Strengths of the study:

  • Large population size
  • Detailed dietary records using a validated food frequency questionnaire and dietary score

Limitations of the study:

  • It is not yet been established that telomere shortening is predictive of life expectancy and aging, so this association should be verified.
  • The Nurses’ Health Study results cannot be generalized to other populations, since this group of women was predominantly of European ancestry.
  • The data from food frequency questionnaires was self-reported.

This study was one of the first to  suggest that telomere length variability may be partially explained by lifestyle factors. Oxidative stress and inflammation reduction may have been involved since there is evidence to support that these conditions may accelerate telomere shortening. Again, this was just one study, so a great deal more research is needed.

Source: BMJ 2014; Mediterranean diet and telomere length in Nurses’ Health Study: population based cohort study, 349:g6674

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Magnesium Deficiency and Pancreatic Cancer?

English: Pancreatic Cancer Action logo

English: Pancreatic Cancer Action logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Description and Function 

Magnesium is a mineral that affects the metabolism of calcium, sodium, and potassium. About 50-60% is in bone. Most of the rest is inside cells. It is a cofactor for over 300 enzymes, many of which participate in the generation of energy as ATP from carbohydrate, fat and protein. It is necessary for the proper functioning of the nerves and muscles, including the heart. It is important for DNA and RNA synthesis and for almost every step in protein synthesis.

Food Sources

Magnesium is a component of chlorophyll and therefore found in leafy greens such a spinach and kale. Nuts, seeds, bananas and the germ and bran of whole grains are also good sources. Processed foods are generally poor sources. For example, removing the bran and germ of a whole wheat kernel reduces the magnesium content of a cup of white flour to only 28 mg, compared with the 166 mg in a cup of whole-wheat flour. One cup of whole grain cereal, spinach or legumes contain about 100 mg of magnesium.


According to my textbook, deficiency is rare in the healthy population, but does occur in alcoholism, kidney disease, and gastrointestinal disease. Some medications such as diuretics (commonly taken for hypertension) can contribute by increasing magnesium loss in the urine. Proton pump inhibitors (PPI‘s) taken to prevent GERD, may cause low blood magnesium by interfering with magnesium absorption. Talk to your doctor about any medications you take and their drug-nutrient interactions.

Deficiency symptoms include muscle weakness and cramping, irritability, anxiety and changes in blood pressure and heartbeat. Low blood levels of magnesium affect levels of blood calcium and potassium so some of the symptoms may be due to alterations in these minerals as well.

Nevertheless, the typical intake of magnesium in the U. S. is below the RDA of 400 mg/day for young men and 310 mg/day for young women. After 30 years of age, the recommended intake increases to 420 and 320 mg/day for men and women, respectively.

There has been no large systematic study of the adequacy of magnesium body stores in Americans. In 2009, the World Health Organization published a report that stated that 75% of Americans consumed less magnesium than needed. Some say that we have a nationwide magnesium deficiency, especially those who sell supplements. It would be helpful if the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could fund serious research to determine the status of Americans’ magnesium body stores. I fully have supported getting our nutrients from the diet and not from supplements, most of which are unnecessary. However, the current American processed food diet as well as our fast food intake may warrant magnesium supplementation for some consumers.

Low intakes of magnesium have been associated with heart disease; type 2 diabetes, hypertension and osteoporosis.

Magnesium Supplements

There are no adverse effects of magnesium intake from foods, but supplements of all types may have some side effects. Some elderly patients who have impaired kidney function may suffer from toxic effects of magnesium-containing laxatives and antacids such as milk of magnesia. The Tolerable Upper Intake Levels (UL) for adults and adolescents over 9 years of age is 350 mg from nonfood sources of magnesium.

Calcium in the diet decreases absorption in the digestive tract; therefore, the use of calcium supplements can reduce the absorption of magnesium.

Source: Smolin, Grosvenor: Nutrition, Science and Applications, Third Edition, Wiley.

Little is known about the relationship of diet and pancreatic cancer. Mortality rates from pancreatic cancer are increasing and there is a great need for more research in its prevention.   FYI article follows on magnesium deficiency and its proposed association with pancreatic cancer.