Diet and Weight Loss

Daniel Pendick

6 healthy protein choices when cutting back on red meat

Red meat hasn’t been getting very good press lately. Meat-heavy diets have been linked to increased risks of developing heart disease, diabetes, and some cancers. New findings from two long-term studies now indicate that eating lots of meat, especially processed meat, may also shorten your life. The new research involved nearly 125,000 female nurses and male health professionals, whose diet and health have been followed by Harvard School of Public Health researchers for more than two decades. Compared to eating less than one serving a day of red meat, adding one daily serving increased the chances of dying during the study period by 13%. (A serving is three ounces, about the size of a deck of cards). Red meat meant beef, pork, lamb, and hamburger. For every extra serving of processed meat (foods like hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts), the increase was 20%.

Heidi Godman

Natural “exercise” hormone transforms fat cells

Exercise makes cells burn extra energy—that’s one way it helps control weight. It also generates a newly discovered hormone, called irisin, that transforms energy-storing white fat cells into energy-burning brown fat cells. Irisin also appears to help prevent or overcome cellular changes that lead to type 2 diabetes. The hormone does this by helping transform energy-storing white fat cells into energy-burning brown fat cells. White adipose tissue, more commonly known as body fat, is the tissue that dimples thighs, enlarges waists and derrieres, and pads internal organs. Each white fat cell stores a large droplet of fat. Brown fat, in comparison, is chock full of energy-burning mitochondria. Its main function is to generate body heat by burning fat. A team led by Dr. Bruce Spiegelman, professor of cell biology and medicine at Harvard Medical School, has identified irisin in mice and humans and showed how irisin transforms white fat cells into brown ones, at least in mice.

Heidi Godman

Eating for pleasure easier to overdo than eating when hungry

When you polish off a piece of chocolate cake and immediately start thinking about having another, you might suspect that eating for pleasure may trigger overeating. A new study out of Italy, where they know a thing or two about good food, supports this notion. Researchers from Naples and Salerno found that eating for enjoyment […]

Anthony Komaroff, M.D.

Are artificial sweeteners a healthy substitute for sugar?

Although short-term studies suggest that switching from sugar to calorie-free sweeteners can help people lose weight, the December 2011 Harvard Health Letter explores the possibility that it may actually promote weight gain. Use of super-sweet artificial sweeteners may desensitize users to sweetness. Healthful foods like fruits and vegetables may become unappetizing by comparison. As a result, the overall quality of the diet may decline. The calories removed from the diet by the sugar-for-sweetener swap may sneak back in, in the form of refined carbohydrates and low-quality fats. Another concern is that artificial sweeteners could cause weight gain by directly stimulating the development of new fat cells.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Studies hint at limits when reducing salt

“Limit salt” has been a key part of dietary advice for decades. Once aimed at individuals, the FDA is hoping to persuade food companies to cut back on salt added to prepared foods. That’s probably a good idea, since the average American gets more salt—and thus sodium—than needed, most of it from prepared foods. But the question of how low we should go with sodium hasn’t been answered. Two studies suggest that getting too little sodium could pose problems, just as eating too much does. Trials to determine the safest range for sodium aren’t in the offing. What to do in the interim? Aiming for the recommended target of 2,300 milligrams per day from all sources is probably good for most people.

Anthony Komaroff, M.D.

Social networks can affect weight, happiness

The new science of social networks is demonstrating how personal interconnections can affect our health. Ideas and habits that influence health for better or for worse can spread through social networks in much the same way that germs spread through communities. An article in the December issue of the Harvard Men’s Health Watch explores how social networks can affect weight and mood. A study of people taking part in the Framingham Heart Study found that among participants who had a friend become obese, their chance of becoming obese rose by 57%. A different study from Framingham showed that happiness can also spread across social networks. Research into social networks could help experts some day use them to improve public health.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Does fitness offset fatness?

At least for men, being more fit may have a bigger health payoff than losing weight, according to a new study of more than 14,000 well-off middle-aged men who are participating in the Aerobics Center Longitudinal Study. Researchers followed their health, weight, and exercise habits for 11 years. Compared with men whose fitness declined over the course of the study, those who maintained their fitness levels reduced their odds of dying from cardiovascular disease or any other cause by about 30%, even if they didn’t lose any excess weight. Those who improved their fitness levels saw a 40% reduction. For optimal health, being fit and maintaining a healthy weight are best. But if you are overweight and inactive, this study and others suggest that getting more activity is the best place to start to improve your health.

Christine Junge

Eat your way to a healthy heart

Your kitchen cabinets—along with your pantry, refrigerator, and grocery list—are probably more important than your medicine cabinet for maintaining or improving your heart’s health. That’s because what you eat influences many of the things that contribute to heart disease, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, inflammation, and electrical instability and function of the heart. The foods you choose can make these factors better, or worse. Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart, a newly revised Special Health Report from Harvard Health Publications, details a heart-healthy eating plan that you can follow for the rest of your life—while still enjoying the foods you eat. Some of the best choices include fish, vegetables, and whole grains. Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart also includes 39 recipes of healthy, delicious, and easy-to-make foods.

Annmarie Dadoly

Want to make a healthy change? Start with the right goal

Replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthier ones usually isn’t easy, and many ambitious attempts often fall short. But you’re more likely to succeed if you start by choosing the right goal—the one you are most likely to accomplish—rather than the goal you think you should make. Breaking a goal into bite-sized pieces also helps. So does making your goal a SMART one (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based).

Patrick J. Skerrett

Harvard to USDA: Check out the Healthy Eating Plate

Back in June, federal authorities unveiled MyPlate, an icon designed to help Americans follow healthy eating patterns. It’s a nice, colorful image that was a welcome successor to the misguided MyPyramid. But it doesn’t offer much in the way of useful information. A group of my colleagues at Harvard Health Publications worked with nutrition experts […]