The term “chocoholic,” usually said with a smile, actually nods to a potentially serious question: can a person become addicted to food? There are three essential components of addiction: intense craving, loss of control over the object of that craving, and continued use or engagement despite bad consequences. People can exhibit all three of these in their relationships with food. It’s most common with foods that deliver a lot of sugar and fat — like chocolate — because they trigger reward pathways in the brain. In some animal studies, restricting these foods induced a stress-like response consistent with the “withdrawal” response seen in addiction. Much of the scientific discussion about food addiction has been sparked by the epidemic of obesity sweeping the U.S. and many other countries. Many people who are overweight crave food, lose control over eating, and experience negative health effects that should, but don’t, serve as a deterrent. The influence of stress on eating provides another link between food and addictive behavior.
An army of nutrition experts is constantly reminding us that most fast food is bad for health. But they’re not around to back you up when your children or grandchildren unleash powerful weapons of cuteness to convince you to stop at a fast-food chain. It’s hard not to give in when the ones you adore put on the pressure, even when they’re older. One new study links several weekly fast-food meals with increased risks of asthma, rhinitis, and eczema. Another shows that when kids eat out they take in up to 300 more calories than when eating at home. Stacey Nelson, a registered dietitian who is a clinical nutrition manager at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital, offers some advice for when fast food is the only option.
“Whole grain” has become a healthy eating buzzphrase, and food companies aren’t shy about using it to entice us to buy products. Browse the bread, cereal, or chip aisle of your favorite grocery store and you’ll see what I mean. Last year, nearly 3,400 new whole-grain products were launched, compared with just 264 in 2001. And a poll by the International Food Information Council showed that 75% of those surveyed said they were trying to eat more whole grains, while 67% said the presence of whole grains was important when buying packaged foods. But some of the products we buy may not deliver all the healthful whole-grain goodness we’re expecting. Identifying a healthful whole-grain food can be tricky. A new study from the Harvard School of Public Health says the best way is to choose foods that have at least one gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbohydrate. Fiber and carbs are both listed on the nutrition label.
What harm can having too little of a vitamin do? Consider this: Over the course of two months, a 62-year-old man developed numbness and a “pins and needles” sensation in his hands, had trouble walking, experienced severe joint pain, began turning yellow, and became progressively short of breath. The cause was lack of vitamin B12 in his bloodstream, according to a case report from Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital published in The New England Journal of Medicine. It could have been worse—a severe vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to deep depression, paranoia and delusions, memory loss, incontinence, loss of taste and smell, and more, according to another article in tomorrow’s New England Journal. Some people, like strict vegetarians, don’t take in enough vitamin B12 every days. Others, like many older people and those who have had weight-loss surgery or live with celiac disease or other digestive condition don’t absorb enough of the vitamin. Daily supplements can help.
It’s easy to get swept up in the holiday season. This combination of religious and national celebrations can help keep the cold winter away. But the feasts and parties that mark it can tax the arteries and strain the waistline. By eating just 200 extra calories a day — a piece of pecan pie and a tumbler of eggnog here, a couple latkes and some butter cookies there — you could pack on two to three pounds over this five- to six-week period. That doesn’t sound like much, except few people shed that extra weight in the following months and years. You don’t need to deprive yourself, eat only boring foods, or take your treats with a side order of guilt. Instead, by practicing a bit of defensive eating and cooking, you can come through the holidays without making “go on a diet” one of your New Year’s resolutions.
Beans, the butt of countless flatulence jokes, are often written off as food for poor people, or cheap substitutes for meat. Given what beans can do for health, they should be seen as food fit for royalty—or at least for anyone wanting to get healthy or stay that way. The beans described here are what botanists call legumes, and others call “pulses.” They include black beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas), lentils, peanuts, soybeans, and others. Legumes are an excellent source of protein and fiber. They are low in fat. They are also nutrient dense, meaning they deliver plenty of vitamins, minerals, and other healthful nutrients relative to calories. An article in the current Archives of Internal Medicine showed that adding more beans to the diet can help people with diabetes lower their blood sugar. These findings are in line with a growing body of evidence on the health benefits of eating beans. They’ve been linked to reduced risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colon and other cancers, as well as improved weight control.
Done just right, Thanksgiving dinner can be good for the heart. The bird at the center of the feast was once in line to be our country’s mascot. Benjamin Franklin and other turkey aficionados thought of this fowl as wild, wary to the point of genius, and courageous. When cooked, it has another excellent quality—turkey meat is much easier on the heart than many other holiday main courses. Other mainstays of traditional Thanksgiving feasts, like cranberries, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and pecans, are healthy on their own, but tend to lose their virtue by the company they keep (butter, brown sugar, whipped cream, marshmallows, and more). If you’re set on a traditional dinner, alternative recipes abound for healthier stuffing, vegetables, and desserts. You can also start your own traditions. After all, today’s Thanksgiving dinner bears little resemblance to the original feast.
Succulent tomatoes are far more than just a delicious fruit. Eating them may also help lower your risk of stroke, likely due to the lycopene they contain. Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant that eliminates dangerous free radicals that can damage DNA and other fragile cell structures. Past research has shown that a diet rich in lycopene-containing foods may help lower the risk of prostate and other cancers. Now, in a report just published in the journal Neurology, a team of Finnish researchers has linked higher lycopene levels in the blood to protection against stroke. The researchers suggested that lycopene, in addition to its ability to attack free radicals, may also reduce inflammation and cholesterol, improve immune function, and prevent blood from clotting. All of these may help reduce ischemic strokes, which are caused by clot-caused blockages in blood flow to the brain. It’s best to get lycopene from food—tomatoes and watermelon are excellent sources—not supplements.
Scientific studies, the media, and even some doctors tout the heart health benefits of red wine. But if controlling blood pressure is important to you, consider this the next time you raise your glass: A new study published online in Circulation Research suggests that non-alcoholic red wine may be better at lowering blood pressure than regular red wine. Powerful antioxidants in red wine called polyphenols may be more effective when there’s no alcohol to interfere with them. Spanish researchers compared the effects of regular wine, non-alcoholic red wine, and gin on blood pressure. Non-alcoholic red wine lowered blood pressure and boosted levels of nitric oxide, which helps relax blood vessels. What the study doesn’t tell us is how non-alcoholic red wine stacks up against regular red wine for preventing heart attacks or other cardiovascular problems.
People buy organic food for three main reasons: they believe they are safer, kinder to the environment, or healthier. The health claims for organic foods have been the most tenuous. In a report released this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers at Stanford University evaluated nearly 250 studies comparing the nutrients in organic vs. traditional foods (fruits, vegetables, grains, poultry, meat, and eggs), and discovered very little difference in nutritional content. Organic produce did have 30% lower pesticide residues than conventional foods, though pesticide levels in both organic and non-organic foods were within allowable safety limits. If you’re buying organic solely for better nutrition, based on this review there’s no evidence you’re gaining any real advantages. But if you’re concerned about pesticides and you can afford organics, it might be worth it to buy them.