Harvard Health Blog

Join the discussion with experts from Harvard Health Publications and others like you on a variety of health topics, medical news and views.

How much protein do you need every day?

Protein is essential to good health. The very origin of the word — from the Greek protos, meaning “first” — reflects protein’s top-shelf status in human nutrition. You need it to put meat on your bones and to make hair, blood, connective tissue, antibodies, enzymes, and more. It’s common for athletes and bodybuilders to wolf down extra protein to bulk up. But the message the rest of us often get is that we’re eating too much protein. The conclusion from a “Protein Summit” held in Washington, D.C., is that Americans may eat too little protein, not too much. The potential benefits of higher protein intake include preserving muscle strength despite aging and maintaining a lean, fat-burning physique. Based on the totality of the research presented at the summit, getting 15% to 25% of total daily calories from protein is a good target, although it could be above or below this range depending on your age, sex, and activity level. Healthful sources of protein — like fish, poultry, nuts, beans, and whole grains — are best when adding protein to the diet.

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., 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.

Ticks can transmit a new Lyme-like disease

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

There are several good reasons to keep ticks off your body. One is that they are creepy and suck your blood. Others are the 14 diseases they are known to transmit. A report published online this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine describes the newest tick-borne disease in North America, which is caused by a bacterium known as Borrelia miyamotoi. This spiral-shaped bacterium is related to the one that causes Lyme disease. Like Lyme disease, Borrelia miyamotoi disease is spread by small, hard-bodied deer ticks. Infection with Borrelia miyamotoi often causes a recurring fever, as well as headache, muscle aches, and chills. It does not usually cause the “bull’s eye” rash seen in some people with Lyme disease. According to the Annals report, nearly one-quarter of people diagnosed with Borrelia miyamotoi disease are so sick they need to be hospitalized. The best therapy so far is the oral antibiotic doxycycline. Experts aren’t sure how common Borrelia miyamotoi disease is because it isn’t on doctors’ radar screens, and because some people who develop it never see a doctor.

Cognitive behavioral therapy offers a drug-free method for managing insomnia

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Many people with insomnia turn to sleeping pills, which often have unwanted side effects. Few of them know about an equally effective therapy that targets the root cause of insomnia without medications. Called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-i, this short-term talk therapy teaches people to change the unproductive thinking patterns and habits that get in the way of a good night’s sleep. While this therapy can’t “cure” insomnia, it does provide tools to better manage it. In a review article in this week’s Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found that people treated with CBT-i fell asleep almost 20 minutes faster and spent 30 fewer minutes awake during the night compared with people who didn’t undergo CBT-i. These improvements are as good as, or better than, those seen in people who take prescription sleep medications such as zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta). And unlike medications, the effects of CBT-i last even after the therapy ends.

Oral appliances may work for mild but not severe sleep apnea

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

The search for an effective, easy-to-use treatment for sleep apnea has been going on for years. The gold standard is a breathing machine known as continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). A report published online this week by JAMA Internal Medicine describes a mouth-guard-like device that may work for people with mild sleep apnea, but that may not be much help for those with severe sleep apnea. The 18 million Americans with obstructive sleep apnea sufferers are a powerful incentive for device manufacturers, and there are myriad alternatives to CPAP in the marketplace and under development. Swedish researchers tested a custom-fitted mandibular advancement device among people with self-reported sleep apnea. It worked, but a placebo device worked almost as well.

Tight blood sugar control in type 2 diabetes linked to fewer heart attacks and strokes

Urmila Parlikar, Senior Content Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Diabetes damages every part of the body, from the brain to the feet. High blood sugar, the hallmark of diabetes, wreaks havoc on blood vessels. It makes sense that keeping blood sugar under control should prevent diabetes-related damage — but how low to push blood sugar is an open question. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) provides reassuring evidence that so-called tight blood sugar control is good for the heart and circulatory system. A 10-year follow-up of the Veterans Affairs Diabetes Trial showed that participants who aimed for tight blood sugar control had lower blood sugar and fewer heart attacks and strokes than participants whose blood sugar was allowed to float a bit higher. Although tight blood sugar control can help prevent diabetes-related damage, it can have drawbacks such as bouts of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), which can be dangerous. Current guidelines from the American Diabetes Association recommend tight blood sugar control, but also recognize there’s no one-size-fits-all rule.

Combination of a cholesterol-lowering statin and ezetimibe lowers risk of a heart attack or stroke

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

High cholesterol is a key culprit in the development of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States and many other developed countries. We know that lowering cholesterol helps prevent heart attacks and strokes. But an unanswered question remains: how low should you go? New research published online today in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that lower is better. In a large clinical trial, participants who took a cholesterol-lowering statin plus ezetimibe, a different type of cholesterol-lowering drug, had lower levels of harmful LDL cholesterol and experienced fewer heart attacks and strokes than participants taking a statin alone. The new findings provide a strong rationale for using ezetimibe when a statin alone isn’t enough.

Report proposes new “vital signs” to measure the nation’s health

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

Doctors use vital signs as a relatively straightforward way to detect an illness or monitor a person’s health. Key ones include blood pressure, body temperature, breathing rate, and heart rate. A report from the newly christened National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) proposes using 15 “vital signs” to track how health care in the United States measures up. These include life expectancy, well-being, access to care, patient safety, evidence-based care, and others. Why bother creating such a list? Health care costs in the U.S. are the highest in the world, yet people in many countries that spend less on health care are in better health overall and have better health care outcomes. In order to improve the performance of health care, we need to measure how it is doing in a logical, sustainable way. These vital signs will help us answer questions about what we are doing well and where we must improve.

Can hospice care reduce depression in the bereaved?

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

Hospice care improves quality of life in the dire circumstances of a person’s last days. It can enable the dying to spend this time in peace, surrounded by family and friends, and in little pain. Studies confirm what many know intuitively. Family members are likely to experience major depression following the loss of a loved one. A recent study published in today’s online JAMA Internal Medicine looked at whether hospice care reduces the severity of bereavement-related depression in people who had recently lost a spouse. While the researchers saw no difference between spouses whose partners were enrolled in hospice and those how weren’t, major depression was less common in spouses who received support from a hospice program.