Thursday, December 22, 2011

Will Exercise Info on Food Labels Make Us Think Twice?

Food labels have come a long way in recent years in terms of the information they provide us with and the ease of their interpretation. The idea of having a clear and concise food label is to give more power to consumers (or is it accountability/blame?) that can help us make more informed decisions about the foods we choose to eat and the potential health outcomes that might be associated with eating those foods. However, despite all that, recent bodies of research have shown that plenty of consumers either don't pay attention to food labels or they still don't know how to read or understand them.

Given that obesity rates have been rising steadily annually, there has never been a more important time than the present to have a basic understanding of nutrition and follow a balanced diet with an appropriate amount of calories to maintain a healthy weight. So if people aren't paying attention to calories on food labels or don't know what those numbers mean for them specifically, maybe a provocative new idea trialed in a U.S. study will be of some use.

In a new study from Johns Hopkin's Bloomberg School of Public Health published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers tested out 3 different nutrition labels on sugary drinks to see how they impacted the number that teens purchased. One label just showed calorie information, another had calorie counts as a percentage of recommended daily intake and the third showed how long you would have to run to burn those calories off.

Since we already know that many people ignore or don't understand calorie information on food or beverage labels, it doesn't come as a total surprise that 'time spent jogging' elicits more of an immediate response from people when they're choosing what to eat or drink. Who wants to drink a 250 kcal bottle of soda and have to run for 50 minutes to burn it off?

The exercise times were calculated based on a 110lb teenager and jogging was chosen because many people don't like doing it and find it tough for any number of reasons. Plus, not too many people like the idea of spending nearly an hour of their valuable time doing something they don't enjoy or can otherwise avoid doing.

Although this study was just preliminary and only looked at the impact of these labels on teenagers, it's easy to guess what the implications might be for more diverse populations. Some critics argue that such a label might be a trigger for eating disorders and overly simplify nutrition concepts, but there are always pros and cons, risks and benefits to rolling out new programs. Ultimately, if more good than harm can be done in terms of better educating or informing consumers, this type of labeling might be a step in the right direction in helping people better manage their weight. Something tells me it will be a long while before we see something like this on our food labels, if ever. What's your take?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Healthy Diets and Whole Foods, not Nutrients, Linked to Lower Stroke Risk

The shifting focus from single nutrients to whole foods for optimal health is becoming increasingly apparent. Once again, research (and a little common sense) is showing that diseases and poor health aren't prevented by singular nutrients in isolation or taken in supplemental forms. In fact, on the contrary, taking supplemental doses of particular nutrients or eliminating others based on outdated associations can do more harm than good to our overall health.

To summarize this point quite nicely, a new Australian study published in the Lancet has demonstrated that particular dietary patterns like the Mediterranean or DASH diets can prevent medical conditions like stroke or heart disease. The authors also noted that supplemental doses of singular nutrients like vitamins A, C, E and calcium don't decrease stroke risk and might in fact increase it. Treating deficiencies of vitamins B and D might lower stroke risk but in situations of adequacy, the relationship isn't as clear cut. When it comes to sodium and potassium, it has been found that high salt intakes (>5g/d) increase stroke risk while high potassium intakes can lower it by lowering blood pressure.

When it comes to macronutrients, more research is pouring in to support the fact that moderate intakes of saturated or naturally occurring trans fats (e.g. CLA) don't raise the risk of heart disease. However, consuming unsaturated fats like the essential fatty acid omega-3 found in fish or MUFAs like those found in meat, avocados and olive oil can lower one's risk of heart disease. So ultimately, a balance of all kinds of fats is not harmful in the context of a healthy diet. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, particularly the refined kind, are becoming increasingly vilified if consumed in large quantities. Pools of research indicate that a high consumption of carbohydrates is associated with heart disease and stroke risk.

Certain whole foods that have been regarded for their medicinal properties still hold their ground according to this study. Chocolate, coffee and tea are among the list of foods that have been associated with lower incidences of stroke. When it comes to whole dietary patterns, once again the DASH and Mediterranean diets have both been associated with lower stroke risks while the DASH is also associated with a lower risk of heart disease. These diets have consistently topped healthy diet lists and make a strong case for focusing on whole foods as well as combinations of foods rather than glorifying or vilifying particular nutrients. Once again, as always, the key message is that balance is necessary in all things, particularly in one's diet, for good health.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Feeling Sore From Working Out? Green Tea Extract Might Help

Green tea has been touted as one of the world's healthiest beverages. It is packed with antioxidants which can help boost your immune system and prevent cellular damage, as well as caffeine to maintain a healthy metabolism and also help with concentration and task performance. One other key 'ingredient' that makes green tea so special is an extract it contains which has demonstrated numerous health benefits. Now, Polish researchers have added one more bullet to the list of feats that green tea, more specifically, green tea extract, is capable of performing. Fitness buffs, new gym-goers and those who just want to stay healthy should take note.

According to a new study from Poland, published in the journal of Nutrition Research, a concentrated supplement of green tea extract providing 640mg of polyphenols might reduce oxidative damage caused by strength training, which can help speed muscle healing. This is particularly useful for individuals who are just starting to strength train and might be more susceptible to muscle damage from oxidative stress as a result. The researchers have noted that this stress has been associated with muscle fatigue as well as a decrease in performance.

In the study, 35 participants were randomly assigned to either the green tea extract group or a placebo group for four weeks. Both groups then followed a short-term exercise regime and the effects of oxidative damage to their muscles during that time was evaluated.

During the trials, signs of oxidative stress was markedly higher in the placebo group, while the antioxidant levels in the blood samples of the participants in the green tea group were significantly higher. The green tea extract group was also more tolerant of exercise but neither group showed increased muscular endurance.

For the best health benefits, enjoy a cup or two of green tea daily along with plenty of water to stay hydrated. If you're interested in trying supplements of green tea extract which are widely available, be sure to speak to your doctor about their safety and choose a reputable brand.