Healthy Eating

A healthy diet is the key to getting the iron you need

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

Nearly 2 billion people around the world are anemic, meaning they don’t get enough iron to produce the red blood cells and oxygen-carrying hemoglobin needed to nourish their myriad cells. In developed nations like the United States, though, iron-poor blood is uncommon. The body stores most of its iron in hemoglobin inside red blood cells and in ferritin, a protein that latches onto iron and sequesters it in the liver, spleen, and bone marrow. Most Americans get all the iron they need from food. The body absorbs iron from meat more easily than it absorbs it from plants. Getting enough vitamin C helps the body absorb iron from food. Because the body does not excrete iron rapidly, it can build up over time and possibly cause problems. That’s why it’s a good idea to ask your doctor if you need to take an iron supplement.

Using the glycemic index to stave off holiday weight gain

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

One way to avoid adding extra pounds over the holiday season is by relying on the glycemic index to choose your foods and snacks. The glycemic index is a measure of how fast carbohydrates are turned into sugar. The higher a food’s glycemic index, the faster your body turns that food into sugar, and the sooner the “hunger bell” rings again. This can set into motion the cycle of holiday overeating. One way to go low glycemic: Choose foods your grandmother used to eat—ones that resemble things in nature, and don’t come with long lists of ingredients.

Low fat? Low carb? Almost any healthy diet can work for losing weight

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

The results of a clinical trial reported in yesterday’s Annals of Internal Medicine showed that low-carb diets helped people lose weight better than low fat diets. A report in today’s Journal of the American Medical Association tells a somewhat different story. A review of 48 head-to-head diet trails showed that average weight loss on either a low-carb or low-fat diet for 12 months was the same, about 16 pounds. And when the researchers compared named diets, which ranged from the low-carb Atkins and South Beach diets to moderates like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig and low-fat approaches like the Ornish diet, all yielded similar weight loss. The main message from careful comparisons of different diets is that there’s no single diet that’s right for everyone. Any healthy diet can help people lose weight. And there’s more to a diet than weight loss. What’s needed for long-term health is an eating plan that can be followed day in and day out that is good for the heart, bones, brain, and every other part of the body. One eating strategy that can provide all that is the so-called Mediterranean diet.

Sodium studies blur the picture on what is heart healthy

Robert H. Shmerling, MD
Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

We often look to science to solve life’s difficult questions. But sometimes it hands us more uncertainty. Take three reports in today’s New England Journal of Medicine. One shows that eating less sodium (a main component of salt) could save more than a million lives a year worldwide. A second came to a nearly opposite conclusion — that current average sodium intake is okay for cardiovascular health while getting either too little or too much is a problem. The third study essentially agreed with the second, but found that getting too little potassium may be as bad as getting too much sodium. The findings are certain to fuel the already heated debate on sodium and the international efforts to get people to take in less of it. But until there are good answers to the questions raised by the studies, it’s too soon to throw out recommendations to reduce sodium intake, especially in high-risk groups. Another lesson from the three New England Journal articles worth keeping in mind: getting more potassium from fruits, vegetables, and other foods is a good way to help keep your heart and arteries healthy.

Crowdsourcing app can help users choose healthy foods

2 Minute Medicine®

People who want to follow a healthy diet sometimes need a little help knowing where a meal or snack falls on the healthfulness scale. Several apps let you snap a photo of what you’re about to eat and post it for all to see — and rate. And though many of the “raters” are regular folks without training in nutrition, a new study shows they do a pretty good job gauging whether foods are likely to make you fitter or fatter.

Raising beef creates more pollution than raising pork, poultry, dairy, or eggs

Patrick J. Skerrett, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

An report in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculates several environmental costs of raising cows for meat and milk, poultry and pork for meat, and chickens for eggs. According to the report, per calorie of food that we consume, dairy, poultry, pork, and eggs have similar environmental costs. Compared with their average, beef production generated five times more greenhouse gases, needed six times more fertilizer and 11 times more irrigation water, and used 28 times the land. The same four costs for growing potatoes, wheat, and rice were two-fold to six-fold lower than the nonbeef foods in land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and fertilizer use, and about the same for irrigation water.

FDA’s proposed changes to the Nutrition Facts label are good, but could be better

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Every day, millions of Americans use the Nutrition Facts labels on food packages to make healthy choices. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently proposed changes to make the labels even more useful. It’s an important move that could help curb the skyrocketing number of Americans with type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, and other weight-related conditions. The proposed new label will list information about added sugars, update daily values for sodium and dietary fiber, list the amount of potassium and vitamin D, and remove the “Calories from Fat” category while continuing to list types of fat. For foods that come in larger packages but could be consumed in one sitting, manufacturers would have to use a two-column label showing calorie and nutrition information for both a single serving and the entire package. These changes are a step in the right direction, but don’t go far enough with sugar, ingredient listing, and nutrient claims.

Caffeine and a healthy diet may boost memory, thinking skills; alcohol’s effect uncertain

Stephanie Watson

A study published in this month’s Journal of Nutrition suggests that drinking caffeinated beverages, having the occasional alcoholic drink, and eating a healthy diet may help preserve memory and thinking skills long into old age. In particular, foods that are part of the Mediterranean diet—fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, olive oil, and whole grains—show promise for preserving memory and preventing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Daily protein needs for seniors still unsettled

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

A new study that linked eating more protein to lower risk of stroke isn’t the last word on the subject. But that doesn’t make dietary protein any less vital, especially in older adults who are at greater risk for malnutrition and illness. How much protein is enough? Current guidelines for adults of any age recommend 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Do older people need more protein than younger ones? That’s still an open question.

Diet rich in resveratrol offers no health boost

Heidi Godman
Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red wine and certain foods, has been touted as a natural way to slow aging and fight cancer, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. As promising as it sounds, we don’t really know how resveratrol affects humans, since most studies have been conducted on animals and microbes. A study out this week from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine found no link between consumption of resveratrol from food and rates of heart disease, cancer, and death in a study of older men and women living in Italy’s Chianti region. The disappointing results don’t mean that resveratrol and other molecules like it won’t help extend the lifespan or protect against the development of aging-related diseases. Higher doses may be needed to do that. What’s needed now are trials to determine if taking high-dose resveratrol supplements is safe.