Healthy Eating

Overweight and healthy: the concept of metabolically healthy obesity

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Carrying too many pounds is a solid signal of current or future health problems. But not for everyone. Some people who are overweight or obese mange to escape the usual hazards, at least temporarily. This weight subgroup has even earned its own moniker—metabolically healthy obesity. Most people who are overweight or obese show potentially unhealthy changes in metabolism, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance. But some people who are overweight or obese manage to avoid these changes and, at least metabolically, look like individuals with healthy weights. Such individuals have near-normal waist sizes, blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar, as well as good physical fitness. Metabolically healthy obesity isn’t common. And it may not be permanent.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

Nighttime overeating can throw weight and health out of sync

Michael Craig Miller, M.D., Senior Editor, Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

For many people, a late-night “snack” is a daily habit. There are two types of nighttime eating disorders. Sleep-related eating disorder is a highly-publicized though uncommon malady. People with this problem eat while sleepwalking or while in a twilight state between sleep and wakefulness. A better-documented problem is night eating syndrome, in which people do the majority of their eating late at night. It may affect 1 or 2 out of 100 people in the general population. Sleeping and eating are almost certainly connected, given the link between lack of sleep and weight gain. So getting plenty of sleep may be a helpful substitute for nighttime trips to the refrigerator. Being mindful of the problem and trying to identify its triggers, or stress-reduction techniques, may help avert trips to the refrigerator. Some people benefit from talk therapy.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Fish oil: friend or foe?

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

News out of Seattle is sure to fuel confusion about fish oil supplements. A study by scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle linked eating a lot of oily fish or taking potent fish oil supplements to a 43% increased risk for prostate cancer overall, and a 71% increased risk for aggressive prostate cancer. Fish oil loaded with omega-3 fatty acids, which play important roles in health. Deficiencies in them have been linked to a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, some cancers, mood disorders, arthritis, and more. But that doesn’t mean taking high doses translates to better health and disease prevention. Despite this one study, you should still consider eating fish and other seafood as a healthy strategy. Twice a week is a good goal.

Daniel DeNoon

Cities can learn lessons about diabetes from rural areas

Daniel DeNoon, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

City dwellers often think of rural America as a throwback to past “good old days.” But when it comes to obesity and diabetes, people living outside urban areas offer a frightening glimpse of the future. While more than 8% of Americans now have diabetes, in some rural counties 20% of the residents have diabetes. Those counties also tend to have high rates of obesity. Barriers to healthy living contribute to both obesity and diabetes. So does lack of primary care physicians. One answer may be greater reliance on community health workers—lay people trained to provide diabetes education and outreach. In Birmingham, Alabama, the Cities for Life program has doctors refer people with diabetes to “patient navigators” who help them find local resources such as nearby exercise classes or mobile farmers’ markets.

Daniel Pendick

Healthy fats may fight early-stage prostate cancer

Each year, nearly a quarter of a million American men learn they have prostate cancer. Most are diagnosed with early-stage cancer that has not spread beyond the prostate gland. Traditional treatments include surgery, radiation therapy, and a “watch and wait” strategy called active surveillance. A new study published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine indicates that diet may be an important add-on. The study, part of the ongoing Harvard-based Health Professionals Follow-up Study, suggests that eating more foods that deliver healthy vegetable oils can help fight the second leading cause of cancer death in men. Earlier studies have implicated the traditional Western diet, which is relatively high in red meat and other sources of animal fats, with a higher risk for developing prostate cancer in the first place, while eating more vegetable oils and vegetable protein may help prevent it.

Heidi Godman

Move over Mediterranean—a vegetarian diet is equally good for health

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

The Mediterranean diet has been getting a lot of press as being the very best for health. But there’s another diet that appears to be equally good: a vegetarian diet. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who ate a vegetarian diet were 12% less likely to have died over the course of the five-year study than nonvegetarians. The benefits were especially good for men, who had a significant reduction in heart disease. This study underscores the idea that meat consumption influences long-term health, and not in a good way. Should you consider ditching the Mediterranean diet and becoming a vegetarian instead? Either one is healthier than the typical American diet, so it’s really a matter of personal choice.

5 tips for healthy grilling

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Memorial Day marks the unofficial beginning of summer and the official beginning of grilling season. From northern Maine to southern California, the backyard barbeque will be a key part of the holiday weekend. Whether your menu includes simple burgers or something more elaborate, several simple steps can help you serve up a healthy meal: Start with a clean grill. Limit the formation of potential cancer-causing compounds by marinating meat, poultry, or seafood before cooking, cooking for longer at a lower temperature, and having a spray bottle filled with water handy to control fatty flare-ups. Give veggies and fruit equal billing with meat. And practice safe grilling by keeping raw meat, poultry, and seafood separate from vegetables and other foods, using a food thermometer to check the internal temperature of grilled meat, poultry, and seafood, and placing grilled food on a clean plate, not on the ones that held them when they were raw.

Daniel Pendick

Sodium still high in fast food and processed foods

• Fast-food restaurants deliver filling, inexpensive meals and snacks. But there’s usually a hidden added cost: a wallop of salt (sodium) that isn’t good for cardiovascular health. Even with the current clamor for reducing sodium in the American diet, and industry promising to do just that, the amount of sodium in prepared foods hasn’t changed much since 2005, according to a report published in the latest issue of JAMA Internal Medicine. The average sodium in chain restaurant items increased 2.6% between 2005 and 2011. In packaged foods, it fell on average 3.5%. While some are calling for tighter government regulation on the sodium content in processed and restaurant foods, you can take action now.

Heidi Godman

Extra protein is a decent dietary choice, but don’t overdo it

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Adding more protein to the diet and cutting back on carbohydrates, especially highly processed carbs, is an eating strategy adopted by a growing number of people. A new study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that 43% of women surveyed are using the practice of eating more protein to prevent weight gain, and this strategy was associated with weight loss. It isn’t necessary to eliminate all carbohydrates and focus only on protein. Such an eating strategy may have a short-term payoff for weight loss, but it may also come with some long-term risks. Tips for getting a healthful mix of nutrients include adding the healthful trio of fat, fiber, and protein to each meal; avoiding highly processed foods; and choosing the most healthful sources of protein, such as fish, poultry, eggs, beans, legumes, nuts, tofu, and low-fat or non-fat dairy products.

Daniel DeNoon

Benefit to improving diet and exercise at the same time

Daniel DeNoon, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

When you decide it’s time to live a healthier lifestyle, you’re likely to get better long-term results if you start improving your diet and increasing physical activity at the same time. It may seem better to improve just one thing at a time.  But while you don’t have to make drastic changes overnight, a new […]