News Briefs – July 2005

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Pyramid Flips On Side

After a five-year wait, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has finally updated its old food pyramid with food group bands running vertically across the pyramid instead of horizontally. The new version also has a staircase up one side representing the need for about 30 minutes of exercise daily.

The new-look pyramid — released April 19 — emphasizes good carbohydrates over bad; three ounces of whole-grain foods a day; two cups of fruit daily; two-and-a-half cups of vegetables a day; and three cups of fat-free or low-fat milk per day. Only small amounts of meats and beans are suggested. Oils in moderation have been included as well.

Concerned with obesity, the government has finally seen the light and switched to cups, ounces and other household measures instead of the vague and ever-increasing “servings.”

These changes follow the recommendations in a 70-page booklet, Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 that was released in January.

However, the USDA complicated its long overdue, common sense food guidelines by giving Americans 12 individually-tailored models depending on gender, age and level of activity. That’s too much to cram into a symbol that is supposed to be clipped out and stuck to the refrigerator.

So if you want your own personalized pyramid poster — showing specific quantities of each food group that someone of your age, gender and activity level should consume daily — just visit www.choosemyplate.gov and fill in the blanks.

And if you recognize the risks in relying on outdated dietary info — the old food pyramid wasn’t updated for 15 years and is generally blamed for the current obesity epidemic — better check our goodnews pages every month for the latest studies and news you can use today.

Calcium Counters Colon Cancer

According to a new study, long-term use of calcium supplements provides a protective effect against development of potentially precancerous colon polyps — and that protective effect lasts for years after supplementation stops.

Researchers at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire supplied calcium supplements to some patients considered to be at risk of developing colon polyps. These subjects were found to have a 36% reduction in polyp formation during the five years after the end of the trial, compared to patients in the placebo group.

The scientists did not recommend widespread use of calcium supplements for colon cancer prevention. However, this is the second major study to prove the value of calcium in protecting people at risk of developing worrisome polyps.

The study was presented in Anaheim on April 21 at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Surgery: Sunnier Prospects

Lung cancer patients who have surgery in the winter are 40% more likely to die of the disease than those undergoing operations in the summer, says a new study— and scientists think they know why.

Successful outcomes for surgery to treat early stage lung cancer appear to depend on the level of vitamin D present in a patient. And that vitamin D level depends on food sources, supplements, and the amount of sunshine during the period the operation is performed.

Of course, it is not practical to schedule surgeries during only the summer months. But according to Harvard research scientist, Wei Zhou, PhD, there are definite implications for the use of supplements: “It may mean that increasing a patient’s use of vitamin D before [lung cancer] surgery could offer a survival benefit.”

Researchers from Harvard and other institutions presented the new study on April 18 at the 96th annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Anaheim. They stressed that the protective effect of this sunshine vitamin may not extend to healthy individuals without lung cancer.

Lung cancer accounts for one quarter of all cancer deaths.

Pungent Breath — But More Of It

Garlic may prevent primary pulmonary hypertension — potentially deadly high blood pressure in those arteries that bring blood to the lungs — suggests a new study on rats. It may also improve blood circulation in the lungs and assist breathing.

In the study, scientists first increased the risk of this type of high blood pressure in the lungs of rats by using a drug that triggers the constriction of lung-feeding arteries. The human form of the disease puts strain on the heart and can be fatal.

University of Alabama researchers then fed fresh, powdered garlic to some rats and boiled garlic to others. Allicin, a key compound in fresh garlic, disappears when the garlic is exposed to heat through boiling.

The powdered garlic prevented high blood pressure in the lungs. Boiled garlic — lacking allicin — provided no protection. Allicin likely causes the constricted blood vessels to relax. It may also directly protect the vessel walls from damage.

Evidence for the study was delivered April 3 at the Experimental Biology conference in San Diego.

The cause of primary pulmonary hypertension is not known. In human terms, the garlic consumed by the rats translates into about two cloves every day.

Fish Bones

A higher intake of omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFA) appears to preserve bone mineral density (BMD), according to a new study. Over a four-year period, University of California at San Diego researchers studied 1532 men and women aged 45-90.

They found that a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is associated with a reduced density of the hip bone. Conversely, those individuals with a more balanced ratio between the two EFA types — those who have a higher relative intake of omega-3 — have a higher BMD at the hip. These results were independent of age, body mass index, and lifestyle factors.

The team concluded that a more balanced intake of omega-6 oils to omega-3 oils “may play a vital role in preserving skeletal integrity in older age.” The study appears in the April 2005 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In a separate study, supplementation with omega-3 EFA from either fish oil or soy oil increased heart rate variability — a measure of cardiac function — in elderly patients. This research appears in the April 2005 edition of Chest.

Previous studies suggested that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of some chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Other research, mainly in animals, had also suggested a possible role in bone health.

Omega-3 oil is found in ground flax seeds, dark leafy greens, fatty fish, almonds, walnuts, soy, free-range eggs and fish oil supplements.

Cancer Research Breakthrough

New research has discovered a natural compound that can actually stop — and in some cases, kill — certain cancer cells. This breakthrough may one day result in an all-natural childhood cancer cure in the form of a fruity cocktail that, unlike anti-cancer drugs, has no toxic side effects.

Citrus fruit is known to be a vast reservoir of anti-cancer compounds. The most promising are limonoids. Research in the lab has now shown that citrus limonoids can target and stop neuroblastoma. Scientists now hope to learn the reasons for the stop-action behaviour and eventually test a concentrated citrus concoction in humans.

Neuroblastomas are malignant tumours composed of undeveloped nerve cells. They occur mainly in infants and young children and account for about 10% of all cancer in children. Neuroblastomas are usually solid tumours in the neck, chest, spinal cord or adrenal gland.

Texas Agricultural Experiment Station biochemist Ed Harris, PhD, hopes studies will be funded for the next research phase, which would include trials on the purification of limonoids and then bioactivity studies on neuroblastoma in animals and, finally, in humans.

Harris says it is not clear yet whether limonoids work by preventing cancer cells from forming, by slowing their growth or by killing the cells. But toxicity is not a problem, he stressed.

“Unlike other anti-cancer drugs that are toxic, limonoids apparently do not hurt a person. That’s the beautiful potential.”

The study was a collaboration between scientists at the Experiment Station and Texas A&M University. The finding was published in the April 2005 issues of both the Journal of Nutrition and the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.

Limonoids are unique to citrus. They are not present in any other fruits or vegetables.

Reducing Stroke Damage

A diet rich in spinach, blueberries and spirulina limits brain cell death and loss of movement during a stroke, according to a new study conducted on rats. Spirulina is edible blue-green algae.

Long-term adherence to this diet appears to reduce the number and activity of free radicals, charged particles associated with brain damage.

The study was published in the May 2005 issue of the journal Experimental Neurology. It was carried out by researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Baltimore.

Previously, a study by the same team had found that the same diet reduces neurodegenerative changes in aging animals — essentially, helping to prevent senility.

News Notes

Safe Foods in Unsafe Packages: Compounds found in plastic food packaging — BPA and BBP, widely used estrogenic plasticizers that can leach into food, especially when heated — may be cancer-causing agents, according to a worrying new study from Philadelphia‚s Fox Chase Cancer Center that has shaken nutritionists and the food industry alike.

Cancer Linked To Links: Hot dogs, sausages, luncheon meats and other forms of processed meat have been linked with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer in a massive study — that looked at 190,545 people — reported April 21 at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Strong Medicine: New German research suggests that garlic may help prevent arteriolosclerosis. The study was presented April 29 at the 6th Annual Conference on Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology in Washington, DC.

Californians Are Healthiest: California is ahead of most of the country when it comes to overall health, according to a study released April 19, with five of its cities in the top 10 of the 50 cities ranked. San Jose took first place; Washington DC, second; and New Orleans, 50th. The Centrum Healthiest Cities Study was based on 50 factors covering health status, nutrition and exercise, mental health and life balance.

But Can They Read The Eye Chart? Supplementing baby formula with essential fatty acids appears to increase visual acuity significantly, according to a study published in the April 2005 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that checked vision at six, 17, 26 and 52 weeks.

Hey, Touch That. . . It’s Dirty! Sending babies to daycare in the first few months of life could protect them against leukemia, says a 10-year UK study. The protective effect appears to stem from early exposure to infections, which “primes” or teaches young immune systems.

Old Formula, New Use? Researchers have discovered that derivatives of indirubin — a compound in the 11-plant Chinese formula, danggui longhui wan, traditionally used to treat leukemia — causes breast and prostate cancer cells to shut down and die. The study was published in the April 2005 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Good News Outweighs Bad: Despite red wine’s link to general heart-health benefit, all alcohol — whether from wine or beer — raises blood pressure slightly and raises the sleeping heart rate, report Australian scientists. They suggest red wine’s phytochemicals may yet prove to have antioxidant effects that relax the blood vessels.

Blaming Mom: A University of Glasgow study found that children deemed unhealthy eaters tend to come from deprived backgrounds and have mothers with fewer academic qualifications. Unhealthy eaters tend to have homemaker mothers rather than working moms — shattering the stereotype of working mothers dishing out ready-made, less healthy meals.

So It Wasn’t Too Good To be True: U.S. researchers have finally worked out how an ingredient found in dark chocolate seems to exert anti-cancer properties, findings that might be used to design new cancer treatments. A natural compound found in cocoa — entameric procyanidins — appears to deactivate proteins that likely push a cancer cell to continually divide.

Smoke Destroys Vitamin E: The higher lung cancer risk among smokers may be due — partly — to vitamin E loss. An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found blood-plasma levels of vitamin E deplete much faster in smokers than non-smokers. Also, it was already known that smoking reduces vitamin C levels; now, scientists say vitamin C helps prevent vitamin E itself from being changed into a free radical.

Ephedra Ban Overturned: A federal court has struck down the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban on ephedra — the weight-loss aid banned 15 months ago after being linked to dozens of deaths. The US District judge ruled the FDA failed to establish that, at low doses, ephedra posed a “significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury,” as required by law.

Go Easy On That Water: A study confirms that drinking too much water is dangerous — even deadly. Researchers studying 2002 Boston Marathon runners found over one in eight had a serious fluid and salt imbalance from drinking too much water or sports drink. One runner died of hyponatremia, in which excess water dilutes the salt level in the body.

130 million: That’s the number of Americans who swallow, inject, inhale, infuse, spray or pat on prescribed medication every month, according to a new report from the Atlanta-based U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

34%: This portion of American adults is simply overweight, reports the CDC, the National Institutes of Health and other sources. But an additional 31% rank as downright obese. That means 65% of Americans tip the scales at more than their ideal weight.

Overweight is defined as having a body mass index or BMI — a measure of height-to-weight ratio — of 25-29. You’re obese if that index reaches 30. A new government study concludes that obesity kills 112,000 Americans yearly.

One Potato, Two
Myth: Potatoes are fattening.
Truth: Spuds are not an especially fattening food as long as you don’t smother them in butter or sour cream. Potatoes furnish fewer calories per ounce than rice and less than half the calories per ounce of bread. Think „jackets required‰˜tater skins provide good fibre. And in your quest to eat at least nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day, one medium-size potato counts as two servings.

Vitamins for Energy?
Myth: Vitamins can give you extra energy.
Truth: A shelf full of supplements can make you healthier — and might even impress that aerobics instructor you’ve been dating. But vitamins don’t contain any calories. So they can’t supply energy.

Delay of Game
Elapsed time before your body converts an energy bar into usable energy: 30 minutes.

Thick and Tired of It All?
Too tired to hit the gym? Then pop in a Marx Brothers DVD and yuck your way to fitness. Laughing 100 times is the physiological equivalent of working out on a rowing machine for 10 minutes.

Supplements Boost Exercise Benefit
Think you have to grunt and sweat for an hour at the gym to stay healthy? Give yourself a break. One UCLA study found that moderate exercise alone was sufficient to provide benefit to mice bred to be prone to heart disease.

And the right supplements can boost the cardio benefit of a shorter workout. Exercise was found to have a much greater effect on animals that were also given the amino acid L-arginine, and vitamins C and E. The combination of exercise and these supplements boosted levels of nitric oxide˜which is known to protect the arteries and heart from damage.

Michael Downey is a columnist with Vitality Magazine, contributing his News Briefs column every month.

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