News Briefs – March 2006

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A recent study showed that eating less fat late in life failed to lower the risk of cancer and heart disease among older women, which at first sounds like disappointing news for those who expected greater benefits from a low-fat diet. However, critics of the study said that researchers failed to distinguish between bad fats and healthy fats, limiting their investigation to the overall level of fat in general. The huge cost of the study was therefore a waste, experts have said. During the course of the lengthy research program, ideas on fat intake changed — stressing the reduction of trans and saturated fats instead of fat in general — but the study had already been designed and started.

The researchers themselves suggested that the women in the long-running study — with an average age of 62 — may have started their healthy eating too late. They also didn’t reduce fats as much as the diet demanded and most remained overweight, a major risk factor for cancer and heart problems.

But the scientists declined to call the study a failure, pointing to signs of less breast cancer in women who cut out the most fat and less heart disease in women who ate low amounts of the worst kinds of fats.

Heart and cancer specialists said the overall results were not surprising since scientific thinking on the role fats play in disease prevention has evolved since this study was designed. That is especially true when it comes to good and bad fats and heart disease. So while the results are somewhat disappointing, it’s not time yet to give up on a low-fat regime. Keep saturated and trans fats intake low (ie. hydrogenated oils, fried foods, baked goods, margarine), while getting a regular supply of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as those found in cold pressed olive oil.

The study, published in the February 16, 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is part of the Women’s Health Initiative, a landmark government project involving tens of thousands of postmenopausal U.S. women. An earlier WHI study linked long term use of hormone pills with breast cancer and heart disease risks.


The biggest study ever of calcium and vitamin D supplements for older women showed they offered only limited protection against broken bones.

The supplements seemed to reduce by 21% the risk of broken hips in women over age 60. Supplements of calcium and vitamin D also provided a greater benefit to those who took the supplements most regularly. But they failed to lower the risk of bone fractures overall.

Still, experts are sticking to the guidelines of 1,200 milligrams of bone-building calcium and 400-600 international units of vitamin D daily from diet and, if needed, supplements.

“There’s probably a small benefit,” said Joel Finkelstein, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital, who wrote an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine where the study appeared February 14, 2006. “It’s a good start, but women at higher risk need to know it’s not enough.”

Some critics of the study suggested the results are questionable because scientists did not record which women were already taking the supplements on their own before adding the study supplements to their daily routine. More study would be useful.

Vitamin D may be more important. Researchers in Japan have identified the target for vitamin D, giving a new insight into how the vitamin helps reduce bone loss and osteoporosis. The study, published in the February 2006 issue of The Journal of Clinical Investigation used mice to show that orally administered vitamin D inhibits the production of a protein called c-Fos, indirectly implicated in the development of osteoporosis. It was suggested that vitamin D may be important as a nutrient for the prevention of osteoporosis, especially for the elderly population where a high incidence of vitamin D deficiency is well-documented. (Vitamin D deficiency has also been linked with a greater risk of stroke.)

Does that mean getting more sunshine is a good idea? Not really, says a new study. Vitamin D supplements and food sources may be the safest ways to get this vitamin into your system without running the unnecessary risks of excess sunlight exposure. Food sources include milk, oily fish, beef liver and egg yolk. The Boston research team suggested that “sunbathing intentionally to get more vitamin D is like taking up smoking to lose weight.” The report appears in the February 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.


Four recent studies reported on various aspects of prostate cancer. Taking the vitamins E and C or the nutrient beta-carotene — in the form of supplements as opposed to whole food sources — doesn’t protect against prostate cancer, says the latest study in the February 14, 2006 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Previous research has yielded conflicting results, and even this new study of almost 30,000 men doesn’t settle the issue.

Meanwhile in a second study, Swedish scientists — in a case-control study involving 1,499 patients between the ages of 35 and 79 with recently diagnosed prostate cancer — have studied the correlation between prostate cancer and phytoestrogen. They reported in February that men who had a high intake of phytoestrogen-rich food, such as beans, soy products, linseed, sunflower seeds, berries and peanuts, ran a 26% lower risk of developing prostate cancer.

Another study published in the February 9, 2006 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine reported saw palmetto had no effect on non-cancerous prostate problems such as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). But the American Botanical Council pointed out the study subjects had more advanced illness than those in previous studies on the herb. Also, the American Herbal Products Association complained that the new study needs to be considered in the totality of past clinical research on saw palmetto, much of which was positive.

Coincidentally, a fourth recent study has found that vitamin D can slow down the spread of prostate cancer by limiting the activity of certain enzymes. The American and Taiwanese researchers’ report is the most recent — but not the first — study to make this connection.


Eating a red grapefruit a day could reduce cholesterol by 15% and triglycerides by 17% — thus protecting you against heart disease — according to research from Israel.

Researchers from the Hebrew University’s Hadassah Medical School performed both in vitro and human studies on the antioxidant effects of red and white grapefruits. The results were published in the February 2006 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Grapefruits and other citrus fruits contain high concentrations of antioxidants like vitamin C and polyphenols, especially flavonoids. The new study is the first to look at different grapefruit types and their influence on humans who suffer from high blood cholesterol and hardening of the arteries, both of which play major roles in heart disease.


A new milestone has been reached in the battle against cancer: The absolute number of cancer deaths dropped in 2003, the first time this has happened in 70 years, according to a recently completed review of U.S. death certificates by the National Center for Health Statistics.

The cancer death rate has been declining for more than a decade — annual drops of about 1% in the cancer death rate per 100,000 people — but the actual, or absolute, number of cancer deaths still rose each year because the growth in total population outpaced the falling death rates. Finally, the declining rates have surpassed the increasing size of the population. The review does not suggest the causes of this increasing success against cancer fatalities, although an increasing trend away from smoking may be a factor.


A small, double-blind study found that those who took 3 grams of fish oil per day had lower levels of anger, potentially reducing tendency towards aggressive behaviour.

Emerging evidence suggests that low levels of omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) — especially eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — play a role in the pathophysiology of anger as well as depressive, suicidal and aggressive behaviours.

The adult male subjects were randomly assigned to two groups: one receiving three grams (five capsules) per day of purified fish oil containing 2250 mg of EPA, 500 mg of DHA and 250 mg of other omega-3 EFAs. The other group received a placebo.

An abstract reporting the results was published in Neuropsychopharmacology.


Scientists may have discovered why eating too much red meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer.

By studying cells from volunteers eating different diets, they discovered that red meat raises levels of certain compounds in the large bowel — compounds that can alter DNA and increase the likelihood of cancer.

“It is the first definite link between red meat and the very first stage in cancer,” said professor Sheila Bingham of the Medical Research Council Dunn Nutrition Unit in Cambridge, England.

In earlier research, Bingham and her team showed there was a strong correlation between eating red and processed meat and the risk of colon cancer.

The researchers found that the chance of developing colorectal cancer was a third higher in people who regularly ate more than two portions of red or processed meat a day compared to someone who ate less than one portion a week.

In their latest study, published in the February 2006 issue of the journal Cancer Research, the scientists studied cells from the lining of the colon from people who consumed red meat, vegetarian, high red meat or high fibre diets for 15 days.

The study looked at whether eating red meat alters the DNA of these cells. It was found that red meat consumption was linked to increased levels of substances called N-nitroso compounds, which are formed in the large bowel. The compounds may stick to DNA, making it more likely to undergo mutations that increase the odds of cancer.

The DNA damage may be repaired naturally in the body; fibre in the diet may help that process. But if it isn’t, cancer can develop.

The scientists said the findings could help to develop a screening test for very early changes related to the disease.

Colorectal is one of the most common cancers in developed countries. More than 940,000 cases are diagnosed each year and about 492,000 people die from the illness, according to the International Agency for Cancer Research in Lyon, France.

A diet rich in fat, animal protein and refined carbohydrates as well as a lack of exercise, are risk factors for cancer. Most cases are in people over 60 years old and about 5% of them are inherited.

Health experts estimate that about 70% of colorectal cancers could be prevented by changes in diet and nutrition — including a reduction in red meat consumption. Diarrhea, constipation and rectal bleeding can be symptoms.


Non-stick cancer risk: A group of scientific advisers to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency voted unanimously on February 15 to approve a recommendation that a chemical used in the manufacture of Teflon and other nonstick and stain-resistant products should be considered a likely carcinogen. The compound is perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C-8, and contains fluoride. It is also used in stain-resistant textiles and grease-resistant food wrapping.

Eczema cream warning: The U.S. Federal Drug Administration has announced that two prescription eczema creams will need to bear “black box” warnings of possible cancer risks. The creams — Elidel and Protopic — are now recommended for use only as a last resort. There have been nearly 80 reported cases of cancer in patients treated with the two drugs.

Half of heart attacks undiagnosed: Mild heart attacks in four out of nine people are undetected because patients do not recognize or dismiss the symptoms, Dutch scientists reported in the February, 2006 edition of European Heart Journal. Women, particularly those who are overweight, diabetics and the elderly are more likely to have an undiagnosed heart attack which increases their risk of suffering future cardiac problems. Cardiovascular disease accounts for 29.2% of total global deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Avian flu watch: The disease has been conclusively found in wild birds in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Azerbaijan, suggesting a firm foothold in Europe. France and Germany have recently reported avian flu cases and Denmark is testing its first possible case. Also, Nigeria confirmed the first African case of bird flu, with Egypt close behind with several more cases. The bird flu originated in Asia and has not yet become a factor in North America, but authorities in Europe are now bracing for a quick spread through Europe, an eventuality now seen as “inevitable.” Because the virus has still not mutated to a human-to-human transmissible form and can only be caught from birds and fowl, the risk of a pandemic that could cost millions of human lives is still only a theoretical one. However, the risk to all wild birdlife and fowl farming is real and massive.

Alzheimer’s risk largely genetic: Many readers may be disappointed to learn a new study has found that — although a number of options have been suggested to reduce the risk, or slow the progress, of  Alzheimer’s —  80% of the risk of developing the disease is genetic and thus, unalterable at present. The research appears in the February 2006 edition of the Archives of General Psychiatry. A separate study has suggested that those with higher education may be at a slightly higher risk of rapid decline.

Red wine slows weight gain: Modest intake of red wine may help prevent weight gain in those on a fatty diet, according to a study on rats published in the February 2006 edition of the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry.

Non-drug asthma relief: Fish oil supplementation may reduce the severity of inflammatory attacks in those suffering from exercise-induced asthma, according to a study published in the February 2006 issue of Chest. Also, recent studies have suggested people with asthma who eat a lot of salt can benefit from cutting their consumption; a University of Nottingham team plans to study the salt-asthma link further.

Pine tree bark for the knee: According to a study published in the January 2006 issue of Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy, German researchers found that pycnogenol — pine tree bark extract — has a beneficial effect on the pain associated with osteoarthritis of the knee.

Melatonin at bedtime: According to a report in the December 2006 issue of the American Journal of Hypertension, Italian researchers have found that melatonin taken at bedtime may enhance the nocturnal decline of blood pressure in women, which may provide cardiovascular protection. The researchers used 18 women in a placebo-controlled crossover study receiving slow release melatonin, or placebo, for three weeks prior to cross over.

How to reduce mercury toxicity: Taking vitamin E and selenium supplements could reduce the toxicity of mercury from fish, indicates an animal study in the February 2006 issue of Neurotoxicology and Teratology. If replicated in humans, the findings may mean pregnant women could consume more fish. Then they and their babies could benefit from more omega-3 oil. Supplemental fish oil capsules are available in stores and are mercury-free.

Alcohol “underestimated” cause of cancer: Along with smoking and chronic infections, alcohol consumption is an important cause of several types of cancer, researchers reported in the February 13, 2006 issue of Lancet Oncology journal. Excessive drinking raises the risk of cancer of the mouth, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon and breast. It may also be linked with cancer of the pancreas and lung. But the study team advised people to drink moderately — no more than two drinks a day for a man and one drink a day for a woman — rather than give up alcohol completely, because of its protective benefits against cardiovascular disease.


What Exactly is a Comfort Food?

Many people think that real comfort foods must be high-fat, high-calorie and bad for your health. Yet research now suggests that calling a food a “comfort food” has less to do with its qualities than with its ability to trigger happy memories and feelings. Consequently, the foods that people choose as comfort foods vary depending on their age, cultural background and gender.

Studies show that men are most apt to want comfort foods as part of a celebration or a reward. They often like warm, hearty foods, like soups, casseroles, steak, pizza, or pasta. These foods tend to be main-dish entrées their mothers prepared for them.

Women, in contrast, often crave comfort foods when they are unhappy. Their choices are less likely to require cooking. Ice cream, chocolate and cookies are frequent women’s favourites. More often than men, women express guilt over their comfort food choices.

Since many main-dish comfort foods like chili come from a time when we knew less about food’s relation to health and people were more active, they can cause a weight problem today, unless you alter them.

For example, add or increase the amount of vegetables in soups, stews, casseroles and chilies you love. Or try replacing some of the meat in these dishes with beans. You can reduce the fat in sauces and soups and retain a thick, creamy texture by using evaporated non-fat milk or puréed vegetables like potatoes instead of heavy cream.

Although main dishes like pizza can be made healthier by adding vegetables, a better option is a green salad or vegetable side dish to avoid eating too much of your comfort food.

Cookies and other bakery items can be made more healthful by reducing the amounts of fat and sugar, but studies suggest that women who crave these comfort foods are unlikely to prepare healthier versions. A more practical plan is to focus on portion control. For example, try eating small wrapped pieces of chocolate, or place a few cookies on a plate instead of holding the entire package.

Some researchers contend that after about four bites of a food your brain reaches its maximum ability to savour and remember it. Since four bites may be enough to satisfy your craving, don’t eat your comfort food while doing something that distracts you from fully savouring it. By turning to another activity after eating a small amount, you may get the comfort you want without the guilt, extra calories, or fat.

Besides explaining why we want comfort foods, research on stress hormones suggests that there are alternative ways to deal with stress. Exercise, yoga, meditation and even a relaxing bath can all bring stress relief to the brain. It makes more sense to choose one of these healthier alternatives instead of one that can hurt our physical health.

But once in a long while when you’re feeling unusually low, you just got to have real comfort food, don’t you?

The Eyes Have It

Myth: Eating carrots will improve your vision.

Fact: Carrots are rich in vitamin A — which is important for maintaining eye health — but eating large quantities of carrots or other foods containing vitamin A will not give you 20/20 vision if you don’t already have it. In fact, too much vitamin A can be harmful to your health. Maintaining a well-balanced diet, including carrots, can protect your eyesight, but won’t make it any better.

Bugs in Your Food?

The red or orange colouring in many food products is often listed on the label as “cochineal extract,” or “carmine,” or even just “artificial colouring”. But what is it? In fact, it’s the tiny, dried bodies of the cochineal beetle.

Not specifying that the reddish colouring comes from bugs can leave vegetarians, Jews who try to keep Kosher, and anyone else who might not care to eat extracts of six-legged critters, in the dark. There have been calls to legally require labels to specify that the contents contain “insect-based colouring.”

Don’t let this fact bug you. Unless you have an allergy to insects, the ingredient is harmless. The colouring is used in juice drinks, yogurts, and candies; it also gives the Italian apertif Campari its signature red colour.

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