Healthy Eating

The long goodbye: FDA ruling will eliminate trans fats from U.S. foods

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Partially hydrogenated oils, once a workhorse of the food industry, have gotten an official heave-ho from the U.S. food supply. In a long-awaited decision, the FDA ruled yesterday that partially hydrogenated oils, which are the main source of harmful trans fats, are no longer “generally recognized as safe.” That means any food company wanting to use partially hydrogenated oils must get the FDA’s approval to do so. Companies have until 2018 to stop using partially hydrogenated oils or to petition the FDA for approval. The move is a good one for individual and public health. Trans fats have been a favorite of the food industry because they increase the shelf life of liquid oils and make margarine easier to spread. But trans fats are bad for arteries. Removing them from the U.S. food supply would prevent between 72,000 and 228,000 heart attacks each year.

Sweet dreams: eating chocolate prevents heart disease

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

If you’re a chocoholic, the news out of England is tantalizing: middle-aged and older adults who eat up to 3.5 ounces of chocolate a day (that’s more than two standard Hershey bars) seem to have lower rates of heart disease than those who spurn chocolate. At least that was the conclusion of a study that followed the health of nearly 21,000 resident of Norfolk, England, for 11 years. Most of the previous studies on the chocolate-heart connection found that only dark chocolate offered any cardiovascular protection. In the Norfolk study, any type of chocolate, including milk chocolate, seemed to have the same beneficial effect. I routinely write my patients a prescription for exercise, and sometimes for eating more vegetables and fruits. I won’t be writing any prescriptions for chocolate in the foreseeable future. But I won’t be telling them not to eat chocolate—in moderation of course.

Mediterranean diet may help counteract age-related declines in memory and thinking skills

Julie Corliss
Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Can a Mediterranean-type diet with extra servings of nuts and extra-virgin olive oil help protect memory and thinking skills with age? A study in this week’s JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that it might. The findings come from a small substudy done as part of the PREDIMED trial, which showed that a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra-virgin olive oil or nuts reduced heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular problems among people at high risk for them. Although the results of the new PREDIMED study are promising, its small size and the fact that it wasn’t designed to look at connections between diet and brain health mean the results need to be taken with a grain of salt. That said, since there’s no downside to following a Mediterranean diet, an added bonus beyond great taste could be protecting memory and thinking skills.

Should alcoholic drinks come with calorie labels?

Beverly Merz
Beverly Merz, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Calorie counts adorn the exterior of cans and bottles of sodas, juices, sports drinks, and many other beverages. Should alcoholic beverages and drinks also come with calorie counts? Yes, argues Dr. Fiona Sim, chair of the United Kingdom’s Royal Society for Public Health, in an editorial in The BMJ. She explores well-supported links between alcohol drinking and obesity. Beginning in December 2015, alcohol-related calorie counts will be available in the United States to some people who dine out. The Food and Drug Administration is requiring restaurant chains with 20 or more outlets to provide calorie information for food and some alcoholic drinks. The calorie counts may come as a wake-up call for drinkers who are accustomed to thinking of an average drink as containing 100 to 150 calories. That figure may be true for the standard 1.5-ounce shot of distilled spirits, 12-ounce bottle of beer, or 5-ounce glass of wine, but the “generous pour” at many bars and restaurants often doubles the amount. Moreover, concoctions containing syrups, liqueurs, juices, cream, and other ingredients can send the calories soaring.

Switching to a fiber-rich diet may lower colon cancer risk in blacks

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Switching from a “Western” diet with lots of fat and meat to a fiber-rich diet for just two weeks makes conditions in the large intestine less favorable to the development of colon cancer. The opposite switch may promote the formation of cancer. That’s the conclusion from a small but elegant study done in urban Pittsburgh and rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. In the study, 20 volunteers from each area switched diets. For two weeks, the Americans ate a traditional high-fiber African diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and beans, while the Africans ate a Western diet with more fat, protein, and meat. In just two weeks, significant changes occurred in the lining of the colon and in its chemical and bacterial make-up in both groups, but in different directions. Those following the African diet showed improvements in colon health likely to protect against colon cancer, while those following the Western diet showed changes that could lead to colon cancer.

An apple a day may not keep the doctor away, but it’s a healthy choice anyway

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

This week’s inaugural April Fool’s Day edition of JAMA Internal Medicine carried a report entitled “Association Between Apple Consumption and Physician Visits: Appealing the Conventional Wisdom That an Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away.” Based on actual national nutrition data collected from nearly 8,400 men and women it concludes, “Evidence does not support that an apple a day keeps the doctor away; however, the small fraction of US adults who eat an apple a day do appear to use fewer prescription medications.” Apples may have failed this critical scientific test, but they are still an excellent choice as a snack, pick-me-up, or dessert.

Vegetarian diet linked to lower colon cancer risk

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Looking for ways to ward off colorectal cancer? According to a new study, a pescovegetarian diet — that’s a vegetarian diet that includes fish — was linked to a 43% reduction in the risk of developing colorectal cancer. The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, adds more support to the notion that something in red meat, or the way it is cooked, encourages the growth of colorectal cancer. It’s also possible that eating more plant foods provides extra beneficial nutrients such as folate, calcium, and fiber that may protect against colorectal cancer. Fish contain healthful omega-3 fats and vitamin D. Another good strategy for preventing harm from colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States? Have colonoscopies as needed.

Peanuts linked to same heart, longevity benefits as more pricey nuts

Daniel Pendick
Daniel Pendick, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Nuts have been gaining traction as an all-natural health food. Tree nuts like almonds, pecans, and walnuts are especially prized for their rich cargo of vitamins, minerals, and mono- and polyunsaturated fats. The downside is that tree nuts tend to be pricey. But a study published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine puts the humble peanut squarely in the same nutritional league as its upscale cousins. This work makes the health benefits of nuts more accessible to lower-income shoppers. An international team of researchers found that in more than 200,000 people from Savannah to Shanghai, those who regularly ate peanuts and other nuts were substantially less likely to have died of any cause — particularly heart disease — over the study period than those who rarely ate nuts. A key take-home message from this study is that eating peanuts appears to be just as potent for preventing heart disease as eating other nuts.

Children who eat peanuts at an early age may prevent peanut allergies

Gregory Curfman, MD
Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

Peanut allergies can cause severe and sometimes deadly allergic reactions. A new study holds out the possibility that peanuts themselves may prevent peanut allergies. An international team asked parents of infants who were prone to a peanut allergy to give their children a peanut-based snack called Bamba or peanut butter three times a week until age five. The parents of another group of peanut allergy-prone infants were asked to make sure their children didn’t eat any peanuts, peanut butter, or other peanut-based products until age five. The results were surprising and dramatic. A peanut allergy developed in 1.9% of children who ate Bamba or peanut butter, compared with 13.7% of those who didn’t eat peanuts. This new work suggests that preventing peanut allergies may be a possibility in the near future.

Making one change — getting more fiber — can help with weight loss

Nancy Ferrari
Nancy Ferrari, Senior editor, Harvard Health

Getting to a healthy weight and staying there isn’t always easy. Many complicated diets offer solutions. A study published in today’s Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that something as simple as aiming to eat more fiber each day can be just as good as a more complicated diet. In a head-to-head study of a simple diet (eat more fiber) and a complex one (eat more fruits, vegetables, high-fiber foods, fish, and lean protein but also cut back on salt, sugar, fat, and alcohol), participants lost almost the same amounts of weight on either diet. Both diets led to similar improvements in blood pressure the body’s response to insulin. The results of the study don’t prove that a high-fiber diet is necessarily as good (or better) for health than the AHA diet or the highly in-vogue Mediterranean diet. But it does suggest that one simple step can make a difference and that encouraging healthy behaviors may be more effective than discouraging unhealthy ones.