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.
Picture an old-fashioned roller coaster with plenty of ups and downs. That’s what your blood sugar and insulin levels look like over the course of a day. The highs that follow meals and snacks drop to lows later on. Learning to eat in a way that makes your blood sugar levels look more like a kiddie coaster with gentle ups and downs than a strap-’em-in, hang-on-tight ride with steep climbs and breathtaking drops can make a difference to your health. How can you do this? A tool called the glycemic index (GI) can help. It rates carbohydrate-containing foods by how much they boost blood sugar (blood glucose). Using the glycemic index to choose a healthier diet is easier than you might think. Focus on foods with a low glycemic index (55 or less), and try to limit those with a high glycemic index (70 or higher).
Is there a spring in your step—or a wobble in your walk? The speed and stability of your stride could offer important clues about the state of your brain’s health. According to new research, an unsteady gait is one early warning sign that you might be headed for memory problems down the road. A group of studies reported last week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Vancouver, Canada, revealed a strong link between walking ability and mental function. What’s behind this connection? Walking is a complex task that requires more than just moving the leg muscles. Walking requires scanning the environment for obstacles and safely navigating around them, all while talking and carrying out various other tasks. The studies found that walking rhythm was related to information processing speed; walking variations and speed were associated with executive function (the mental processes we use to plan and organize); and walking speed became significantly slower as mental decline grew more severe.
By offering the taste of sweetness without any calories, artificial sweeteners seem like they could be one answer to effective weight loss. The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Diabetes Association (ADA) have given a cautious nod to the use of artificial sweeteners in place of sugar to combat obesity, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease. As with everything, there’s more to the artificial sweetener story than their effect on weight. One concern is that people who use artificial sweeteners may replace the lost calories through other sources, possibly offsetting weight loss or health benefits. It’s also possible that these products change the way we taste food. Research also suggests they may prevent us from associating sweetness with caloric intake. In addition, the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners on health have not been fully determined.
Like millions of Americans, I plan to fire up the grill today for a Fourth of July cookout. But I’ll be adding an extra step to my routine: checking the grate for bristles that may have fallen off my cleaning brush. An article in this week’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report describes six people injured by consuming grill-cleaning bristles hidden in grilled meat. Three had abdominal pain from wire bristles poking through the small intestine or colon. Three others had bristles stuck in the neck. All of the wire bristles were safely removed with open surgery or laparoscopy (“keyhole” surgery). The same team had published a report of six other cases earlier this year in the American Journal of Roentgenology. Twelve cases from one medical center over a three-year period does not an epidemic make. But it’s enough to suggest that ingesting wire bristles happens wherever home grilling is going on. Keep your grill bristle free by using a brush that’s in good shape. After you use a brush to clean your grill rack, use a towel or wadded up bunch of paper towels to wipe it down.
A new book from First Lady Michelle Obama, “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America,” details the challenges and joys the First Lady has experienced with her now-famous White House garden. It also looks at community gardens all across America, and how they can improve health. The book contains helpful hints for starting your own vegetable garden, as well as a school or community garden. This effort dovetails with Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative. In addition to getting more physical activity, so the thinking goes, eating more food harvested from the ground and less from packages can help kids — and adults — become healthy or stay that way. The health benefits of growing your own food range from helping you eat more fresh fruits and vegetables to deciding what kinds of fertilizers and pesticides come in contact with your food.
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy has been taboo for some time, largely because drinking too much can cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Because no one has been able to identify a clear threshold for “safe” drinking during pregnancy, doctors tell women to steer away from alcohol entirely. A series of five studies from Denmark published in BJOG An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology found that “low” (1-4 drinks per week) to “moderate” (5-8 drinks per week) alcohol consumption in early pregnancy did not harm the neuropsychological development of children evaluated at age five. Drinking more appears to be a different story. In one of the studies, five-year-olds whose mothers consumed higher levels of alcohol (9 or more drinks per week) during pregnancy were significantly more likely to have lower attention spans. The authors of the study do not argue that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is wise or to be encouraged. In fact, most doctors will continue to advise pregnant women not to drink alcohol. is there a middle ground? Perhaps. Deciding to have a sip (or glass) of champagne at a special occasion during pregnancy may not be an unreasonable or unsafe choice–one that each woman has to make for herself, ideally after talking with her obstetrician or midwife about this issue.