Probiotics for Healthy Blood Pressure

In a new report published in the American Heart Association’s journal, Hypertension, consuming probiotics as part of a healthy lifestyle appears to significantly lower blood pressure levels, especially in those with hypertension. The analysis combined the results of nine previously published clinical trials and found that regular consumption of probiotics for eight weeks or longer lowered systolic blood pressure (the “top” number) by an average of 3.56 points and diastolic blood pressure (the “bottom” number) by 2.38 points relative to study subjects not consuming probiotics. Study subjects with high blood pressure had the greatest benefit. Probiotics are the “beneficial bacteria” residing in our GI tracts that continue to emerge as key players in all aspects of human health, including metabolic health. Given that metabolic health is fundamental to normal artery functioning, these results are not surprising. (Hypertension, 2014; 64:00-00. DOI: 10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.114.03469)
I remain highly enthusiastic about the potential benefits that can come from maintaining an abundance of good bacteria in our GI tracts, particularly for gastrointestinal health, cardiometabolic health, and mental health. Eating an abundance of plant foods is the number one strategy for getting there. Click here get the rest of my best advice on how to maintain a healthy gut “microbiome”.

The Lowdown on Sugars

  • We are consuming record amounts of sugars in our diets. Based on the latest scientific reports, the average American consumes 350-475 calories a day of “added” sweeteners. That is the equivalent of 22-30 teaspoons! (“Added” sugars are those that are put into processed foods and beverages – not the “natural” sugars already present in foods like whole fruit and plain yogurt.)
  • Consuming excess sugar has been consistently linked to weight gain, obesity, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, and gout (all of which have dramatically increased in the past 30 years commensurate with our increased intakes of  sugars).
  • For optimal health, sugars/sweeteners should be limited in the diet. Current recommendations from the American Heart Association are that women consume no more than 100 calories (6 teaspoons) a day of “added” sugars and for men, no more than 150 calories (9 teaspoons) a day. Children should consume even less. I concur with these recommendations.
  • Because of their unique metabolic and hormonal effects, sugars are especially fattening.  In fact, sugary beverages have emerged as the most fattening form of calories on the planet. In other words, 200 calories of a sugary beverage, like a soda, leads to more potential weight gain than 200 calories of a solid food. Keep in mind that virtually all of the calories in sugary beverages (soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, etc.) are from sugar. Sugars in this “naked” liquid form are rapidly   absorbed into the blood stream when consumed. Rapidly absorbable sugars give rise to sudden and large elevations of blood glucose and blood fructose (the two simple sugars that comprise the sweeteners used in our foods and beverages) which   creates biochemical havoc at many levels. We are especially concerned with large elevations of blood fructose. Rapid and large excursions of blood fructose seem to be even worse than those of blood glucose. Bottom line -   The fall out from too much sugary foods and beverages is disrupted metabolism and deleterious effects in our arteries and in our livers.
  • It is very important to be aware that sugar has many different names or “aliases.”  When you see any of the following names on a food or beverage product label or ingredients’ list , know that they are ALL “sugar:”
    • Table sugar
    • Honey
    • Fruit juice concentrate; example: apple juice concentrate or grape juice concentrate
    • Maple syrup
    • Molasses
    • Raw sugar
    • Crystalline fructose
    • Agave syrup or nectar (almost pure fructose!)
    • Brown sugar
    • High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
    • Dextrose
    • Corn syrup
    • Evaporated cane juice
    • Brown rice syrup
      sugar bowl

Despite their different names, all of these sweeteners are made up of the exact same thing – various proportions (generally about 50:50) of glucose and fructose.  They are ALL unhealthy and bad for you beyond small amounts. The heavier and less active you are, the more vulnerable you will be to the adverse effects of these sweeteners.

  • With the exception of diabetics, I prefer that everyone use small amounts of sugar vs. artificial sweeteners. When you feel the need to sweeten a food or beverage (which should not be often!), I recommend that you use molasses, especially the black strap variety. Although, it does contain rapidly absorbable glucose and fructose like all of its cousin sweeteners noted above , it is also chock full of polyphenol antioxidants and  minerals including iron, zinc, magnesium, and potassium. If you use molasses, at least you are getting some  good along with the bad. Honey contains some antioxidant and antibacterial compounds which make it a “better” choice also, but I would still put molasses above it in my options. Raw sugar also contains some minerals and polyphenols, but not on the same level as molasses.

 

Benefits of Organic Food Documented

In the largest and most rigorously conducted study to date, organic foods came out on top. This new evaluation included an unprecedented 343 peer-reviewed publications comparing the nutritional quality and safety of fruits, vegetables, and grains grown in organic vs. conventional conditions. The researchers noted three very clear areas of superiority for the organic crops including: fewer pesticides, more antioxidants, and less cadmium. Here were the specifics:
  • Levels of pesticides in crops grown organically were 10 to 100 fold lower relative to those conventionally grown.
  • Organic crops had 18 to 69 percent higher levels of beneficial plant antioxidants (polyphenols). Measure for measure you would have to eat two extra portions of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables to get the same levels of antioxidants as organic varieties.
  • In an unexpected finding, conventional crops had about twice as much cadmium vs. the organic versions. Cadmium is a potentially toxic heavy metal. (The British Journal of Nutrition, onlineJuly 2014)
My advice? Although conventionally grown fruits, vegetables, and whole grains clearly offer a host of nutritional benefits that overall outweigh their shortcomings, choose organic when possible, particularly for those most notorious for the highest pesticide loads.Click here to see this list. 

8 Great Reasons to Eat Beans

I consider beans the most underutilized and under-appreciated superfood.  Here are 8 compelling reasons to include them in your diet every day.

 beans 1

  1. Beans have megawatt nutritional power.  They provide a hefty dose of vegetable protein, more fiber and folate than any other food group, a load of potent antioxidant flavonoids, and key minerals including iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.
  2. Beans fill you up without filling you out.  Their high fiber and protein make-up provides a powerful 1-2 punch for appetite suppression, while their difficult-to-digest starch keeps your glucose and insulin levels lower and steadier. Studies prove that beans are particularly helpful for staving off hunger!
  3. Beans provide awesome disease protection.  Enjoying them regularly can lower your cardiovascular risk, lower your cholesterol, lower your blood pressure, lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, “feed your brain”, and provide protection from colon and breast cancer.
  4. Beans are cheap.  You can get a serving of beans for as little as 9 cents.
  5. Beans are convenient.  Enjoy them canned, fresh, frozen, or dried in any variety – they are ALL great for you.
  6. Beans are versatile – bean dips, bean soups, beans in your salads, beans in your burritos, beans in your rice, beans in your eggs,  beans as a side dish, or  whatever suits your fancy.
  7. Beans may help your live longer.  They are a cornerstone in the diets of all the world’s longest living inhabitants, including the 7th Day Adventists of Loma Linda, California, the Nicoyans of Costa Rica, the Sardinians of Italy, and the Okinawans of Japan.
  8. Beans are a highly sustainable crop that offer a host of environmental benefits relative to most other foods.

Superstar Foods for Breast Health

As the daughter of a breast cancer survivor and a proud member of the board of directors of the Prevent Cancer Foundation, I want to share my top food picks for maximizing breast health:

 

  • Beans/Lentils - This category of food is uniquely high in several nutrients important for breast cancer protection, including fiber, folic acid and phytoestrogens called lignin’s.  According to Harvard’s Nurses’ Study, those who consumed beans or lentil at least twice a week were 24% less likely to get breast cancer then those who consumed them less than once a week.

 

  • Cruciferous Vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower) – Phytochemicals found in this class of vegetables, namely sulforaphane and indoles are among the most potent naturally occurring anti-breast cancer agents ever identified.  It’s best to eat cruciferous vegetables raw or lightly cooked, as their phytochemicals can be destroyed by heat.

 

  • Carotenoid-rich vegetables (carrots, tomatoes, bell peppers, collards, spinach and sweet potatoes) – This delicious and super-nutritious group gets their anti-cancer punch from plant pigments called carotenoids.  In addition to providing yellow, red and orange hues, carotenoids offer broad-spectrum, natural chemoprevention.  Light cooking actually increases the bioavailability of carotenoids, so enjoy this group of veggies cooked for optimal results.

 

  • Oily Fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, herring) - Oily fish are loaded with the superstar omega 3 fats and the only food that naturally contains significant amounts of vitamin D.  Vitamin D plays a critical role in breast cancer protection and deficiencies are quite common.  You can now get Wild Alaskan Salmon in single serving, convenient shelf-stable vacuum sealed packets.  I dump this on a big plate of greens for lunch 2-3x per week.

For those concerned with breast cancer, my Healthy Breasts Grocery Lists are now available.

 

The Dangers of Belly Fat

It is now firmly established that not all body fat is created equal when it comes to making us sick.  Although we may not like the appearance of fat deposited on our arms, legs, hips and thighs — this fat is a rather benign metabolic slug that basically just its sits there.  This is in sharp contrast to the fat deposited within the abdominal cavity, also known as visceral fat that gives rise to the “pot belly” appearance that has sadly become the national norm, especially for adult males and post-menopausal females.  I call this fat the Tasmanian Devil Fat because we now recognize that it is highly active metabolically, secreting a huge array of nasty chemicals that can do the following:  promote inflammation, block arteries, cause blood clots, increase blood pressure, promote insulin resistance, promote cellular growth, raise bad blood fats (LDL cholesterol, triglycerides) and lower good (HDL) cholesterol.  Real life translation — heart attacks, stokes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, obesity and accelerated aging.obesity Personally, I find this Tasmanian Devil fat so frightening that I keep a colorful blown up picture on my desk that scientifically depicts what this metabolic-torture-device fat can do as a daily reminder to adhere to the following anti-belly fat strategies:

  1. Exercise as much and as often as possible — If you don’t accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate aerobic activity most days of the week you are virtually guaranteed to accumulate belly fat.  (I can always tell who is active and who is not active enough by looking at their bellies!)
  2. Eat tons of non-starchy veggies and fruits
  3. Enjoy beans daily
  4. Avoid the Great White Hazards – white flour, white rice, white potatoes and sugar.  These foods are belly fat magnets.  Substitute whole grains instead.
  5. Avoid trans fat and saturated fats — These are the Tasmanian Devil’s favorite foods.
  6. Include omega 3 fats in your diet regularly.  These happy fats are the Taz’s bane.

 

For optimal health, maintain your waist size (measured at the level of the hips) in the following ranges:

  • males < 36 inches (panic zone 40 inches or >)
  • females < 32 inches (panic zone 35 inches or >)

 

Quick Tip

broccoli2All vegetables have something beneficial to offer the body, but dark leafy greens and cruciferous veggies tend to always shine most brightly in the studies. Make a point to include a serving from both of these stellar veggie groups in your diet each day.

 

Exercise for “Pleasure” to Eat Less

Hitting the gym for better weight control? Try thinking about it as ”fun and pleasurable” and not “exercise” for best results. In an intriguing series of two separate experiments, researchers from Cornell’s famed Food and Brand Lab found that we eat significantly more after physical activity perceived as “exercise” vs. the same activity perceived as “a pleasurable pastime”. In the first experiment, 56 adults were led on a 2 km walk around a lake and were told the activity was either for “exercise” or to enjoy the natural scenery. Afterwards, they were all served lunch. The walkers who believed they were moving for exercise ate 35% more chocolate pudding for dessert vs. those who believed they were on a scenic stroll. In the second experiment, 46 adults were offered a mid-afternoon snack of M&Ms after the same 2 km walk. Those thinking they walked for “exercise” ate 206 additional calories of M&Ms (124% more!) than the group that walked for scenic beauty. These results likely explain why most people that take up “exercise” for weight loss often fail and drives home the importance of moving for the pleasure and vitality it can give you vs. for “burning calories”.treadmills

Do whatever it takes to build FUN and ENJOYMENT into your exercise.  I consider my daily morning exercise the highlight of my day and a never failing source of joy, escape, and pleasure-which is why I never miss doing it! (Marketing Letters, 2014; DOI 10.1007/s11002-014-9301-6)

Key Strategies for Preventing Loss of Muscle Mass

Maintaining muscle mass is paramount  for weight control, metabolic health, and overall functionality and quality of life.

The International Osteoporosis Foundation recently sought to review past, worldwide studies to identify the most effective nutritional avenues for preventing loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia. Their scientific review identified the following key strategies:

  • Optimal protein intake: As we age, it takes higher doses of protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Unfortunately, most people eat less, not more protein as they age. The ideal intake of daily protein based on this evaluation was 1 to 1.2 grams/kilogram of body weight a day. For clearer perspective – that is about ½ your body weight in pounds. In other words, if you weight 150 pounds you would need 75 grams of protein a day. Based on my experience, I would estimate that less than 10% of the elderly are getting optimal intakes of protein for maintaining or building muscle. (Those with kidney disease need to consult with their healthcare provider about optimal protein requirements).  Z
  • Adequate vitamin D intake: Vitamin D plays a pivotal role in preservation of muscle mass and muscle function. To ensure adequate intakes, get regular, safe sun exposure, consume vitamin D rich foods regularly (fortified dairy products, eggs, and oily fish), and take a daily vitamin D supplement. I recommend 2000 IU’s of vitamin D3 a day for adults or as directed by your healthcare provider based on your blood level measurements.
  • An alkaline-based vs. an acid-based diet: Meats, sweets, and processed grains and carbohydrates give rise to acidic metabolic by-products. Consuming fruits and veggies provides an alkalizing effect in the body. For best results, consume an abundance of fruits and veggies while restricting meats, sweets, and processed foods.

There is growing evidence that vitamin B12 and folic acid are also important for improving muscle mass and strength. If you are age 50 or older, get your blood levels periodically checked to be sure you do not need supplements. Please also note that resistance exercise (yoga, bands, Pilates, free weights, andweight machines) is essential for maintaining muscle mass with aging and the most powerful of all muscle-preserving strategies! Strive for 15-20 minutes (that is about a minute a muscle) twice a week.

 

weight lift

Stress Slows Metabolism

We already know that acute stress can trigger risky “emotional” eating, and new research suggests slowing down metabolism may an additional way that stress piles on the pounds. For this new study, scientists carefully questioned a group of female adult study subjects about their previous days’ stressors and then fed them a single high-calorie, high-fat meal in a controlled laboratory setting. The make up of the test meal was equivalent to a typical fast food double burger and fries. After consuming the test meal, the researchers measured the subjects’ fat burning abilities (metabolism) for seven straight hours along with other key markers of metabolic function. Women who reported one or more previous day stressors burned 104 fewer calories after the test meal vs. women who reported no stressful events. To correlate with the study subject’s impaired fat burning, the stressed women also released significantly more of the “fat hormone”, insulin, after the test meal relative to the unstressed women. (Insulin is called the “fat hormone” because it promotes fat-storage and blocks fat burning.) The researchers concluded that over a one-year period, daily stress combined with even a single high calorie meal could result in more than 10 extra pounds of weight gain! (Biological Psychiatry, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.05.018)

I have no doubt that chronic stress is a huge driver of unhealthy weight gain along with virtually all chronic diseases. Here are my favorite stress-relieving tips.