Will Non-GMO Foods Be Less Nutritious?

The Unintended Consequences of the Proposed Non-GMO Labeling Laws

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

CerealPost Foods recently announced that their Grape Nuts cereal will be completely non-GMO. General Foods followed suit by announcing that their Original Cheerios will also be non-GMO. That’s good news, right?

Maybe, but it turns out that the new non-GMO Grape Nuts will no longer contain vitamins A, D, B12 or riboflavin, and the amount of riboflavin in a serving of Cheerios decreased from 25% of the daily recommended value (DV) to 2% of the DV.

The cereal manufacturers claim that their new cereals are more wholesome, but one nutrition expert said “The new products are arguably less healthy given their lower vitamin content.”

I’ve never been one to claim that throwing a few vitamins into a serving of cereal turns it into a nutrition powerhouse, but the decreased vitamin content of the new non-GMO cereals does raise a few questions.

  • Why were the vitamins removed?
  • Did it have anything to do with the cereals being non-GMO?
  • Does this mean that the non-GMO processed foods of the future will be less nutritious than the foods they replace?

The cereal manufacturers were mum when asked these questions, so we will need to rely on some scientific sleuthing and a bit of intuition to get the answers.

The Flaw in The Proposed Non-GMO Labeling Laws

I first discussed this topic a few months ago in a “Health Tips From The Professor” article titled “When is GMO Non-GMO?” I received a lot of irate comments from people who take every word on the non-GMO websites and videos as the gospel truth. (The professor has never been one to shy away from controversy when he sees claims that aren’t based on good science.)

However, I think my article was misunderstood by some of my readers, so let me review my conclusions briefly:

  • There are definitely environmental concerns around the widespread use of GM crops – especially those that allow heavy pesticide and herbicide usage.
  • There are potential health concerns related to the consumption of unprocessed GM foods and proteins derived from GM foods – although those heath concerns have been blown way out of proportion in the media.

If the proposed Non-GMO labeling laws stopped there, they would be scientifically justified. But they go one step further by requiring that processed foods labeled as non-GMO cannot contain any ingredient obtained from a GM source. There is no scientific justification for this.

  • Nutrients (sugars, oils & vitamins) derived from GM sources are chemically and biologically indistinguishable from those same nutrients derived from non-GMO sources.

The intentions of the proposed non-GMO labeling laws are good, but whenever you go beyond what good science supports there are often unintended consequences – such as the vitamin-depleted non-GMO cereals that the food manufacturers have just announced.

Will Non-GMO Foods Be Less Nutritious?

Non-GMOTo understand the answer to that question, let’s look at what probably happened to the vitamins in the non-GMO cereals.

In today’s world many vitamins are purified from genetically modified microorganisms – bacteria & yeast that have been modified to overproduce certain vitamins. In evaluating the significance of that statement, here are a few facts to consider:

1)     We have gotten vitamins from these sources for many years.

    • B vitamins have been obtained from yeast for at least a hundred years.
    • A significant portion of the vitamins we absorb on a daily basis are made by bacteria in our gut.

2)     The only difference today is that these microorganisms have been genetically modified to overproduce the vitamins.

3)     These are naturally sourced vitamins.

  • The microorganisms are the same ones that have provided these vitamins for generations.
  • The enzymes used by the microorganisms to make the vitamins are the same.

4)     There is no downside to the use of GM organisms as a source of natural vitamins.

    • There is no environmental risk from the use of these GM microorganisms. They don’t contain any dangerous genes that could wreak havoc if they escaped from the food processing plants.
    • Because the purified vitamins are indistinguishable from those obtained from non-GMO sources, there are also no health risks.

5)     The advantage of using these GM organisms is clear. It substantially lowers the cost of vitamins and allows them to be used in the mass market – for example, in popular breakfast cereals.

6)     Most food manufacturers can’t simply use non-GMO sourced vitamins and raise their prices.

    • A recent poll showed that 53% of Americans prefer non-GMO foods, but only 11% are willing to pay more for those foods

What Does the Future Hold?

Even though they are scientifically flawed, the proposed non-GMO labeling laws will probably become the law in several states in the near future. (Good science has never played much of a role in political decisions.)

Currently, there simply aren’t enough non-GMO vitamins available to supply the mass market – even if price were no concern. So, in the short term, many non-GMO processed foods are likely to be less nutritious than the foods they will replace – as we just saw with Grape Nuts and Cheerios.

However, most people feel that American ingenuity and the law of supply and demand will eventually result in a bigger supply of reasonable priced non-GMO vitamins. When that happens non-GMO processed foods will be just as nutritious as the older GM versions.

However, at this point nobody knows how long that will take.

The Bottom Line:

1)     There is a scientific basis for environmental and potential health concerns regarding genetically modified whole foods and the protein extracted from these foods.

2)     However, proposed non-GMO labeling laws would require that a processed food be labeled as genetically modified if it contains any nutrient purified from a genetically modified organism.

3)     There is no scientific justification for this requirement. Purified vitamins from GM and non-GM microorganisms are chemically and biologically indistinguishable. Furthermore, the GM microorganisms used to produce the vitamins pose no environmental or health risks.

4)     Non-GMO vitamins (vitamins prepared from non-GMO microorganisms) are currently in short supply and are very expensive compared to vitamins prepared from GM microorganisms.

5)     Consequently, the unintended consequence of these proposed non-GMO labeling laws will likely be that many of the new non-GMO processed foods will contain fewer vitamins and, therefore, will be less nutritious than the foods they replace – at least in the short term. The new non-GMO Grape Nuts and Cheerios may be just the tip of the iceberg.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?

Does Fish Oil Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fish OilOne of my readers recently sent me a video titled “Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?” and asked me to comment on it. The doctor who made the video claimed that the most recent studies had definitively shown that omega-3 fatty acids, whether from fish or fish oil, do not decrease the risk of heart attack, stroke or cardiovascular death. He went on to say that the case was closed. There was no point in even doing any more studies.

My reader, like many of you, was confused. Wasn’t it just a few years ago we were being told that clinical studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduce the risk of heart disease? Hadn’t major health organizations recommended omega-3 fatty acids as part of a heart health diet? What has changed?

The answer to the first two questions is a resounding YES, and “What has changed?” is THE story.  Let me explain.

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Healthy People

If we look at intervention studies in healthy people (what we scientists refer to as primary prevention studies) the results have been pretty uniform over the years. In a primary prevention setting, fish oil cannot be shown to significantly reduce the risk of heart disease (Rizos et al, JAMA, 308: 1024-1033, 2012).

That’s not unexpected because it is almost impossible to show that any intervention significantly reduces the risk of heart disease in healthy populations. For example, as I pointed out in recent Health Tips From the Professor (“Do Statins Really Work?” and “Can An Apple A Day Keep Statins Away?”) you can’t even show that statins significantly reduce heart attack risk in healthy populations.

If you can’t prove that statins reduce the risk of heart attacks in a healthy population, it should come as no surprise that you can’t prove that fish oil reduce heart attacks in a healthy population. To answer that question we need to look at whether fish oil reduces the risk of heart attacks in high risk populations.

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Sick People – The Early Studies

Most of the early  studies looking at the effect of fish oil in patients at high risk of cardiovascular disease (what we scientists refer to as secondary prevention studies) reported very positive results.

For example, the DART1 study (Burr et al, Lancet, 2: 757-761, 1989) and the US Physician’s Health Study (Albert et al, JAMA, 279: 23-28, 1998) reported a 29% decrease in total mortality and a 52% decrease in sudden deaths related to heart disease in patients consuming diets rich in omega-3 containing fish.

Even more striking was the GISSI-Prevenzione study (Marchioli et al, Lancet, 354: 447-455, 1999; Marchioli et al, Eur. Heart J, 21: 949-952, 2000; Marchioli et al, Circulation, 105: 1897-1903, 2002). This was a very robust and well designed study. It looked at the effect of a fish oil supplement providing 1 g/day of omega-3 fatty acids on the risk of a second heart attack in 11,323 patients who had survived a non-fatal heart attack within the last 3 months – a very high risk group.

The results were clear cut. Over the next 3.5 years supplementation with fish oil reduced overall death by 15% and sudden death due to heart disease by 30% compared to a placebo. And, if you looked at the first 4 months, when the risk of a second heart attack is highest, the fish oil supplement reduced the risk of overall death by 41% and sudden death by 53%.

The authors estimated that treating 1,000 heart attack patients with 1 g/day of fish oil would save 5.7 lives per year. That is almost identical to the 5.2 lives saved per 1,000 patients per year by the statin drug pravastatin in the LIPID trial (NEJM, 339: 1349-1357, 1998).

No wonder the American Heart Association said that patients “could consider fish oil supplementation for heart disease risk prevention.”

Fish Oil And Heart Disease Risk In Sick People – The Latest Studies

Heart Health StudyHowever, the most recent studies have been uniformly negative. For example, the ORIGIN trial (Bosch et al, NEJM, 367: 309-318, 2012) treated 12,536 patients who were considered at high risk of heart disease because of diabetes or pre-diabetes with either 1 g/day of fish oil or a placebo. This was also a robust, well designed study, and it found no effect of the fish oil supplement on either heart attacks or deaths due to heart disease.

Similarly, a recent meta-analysis looking at the combined effects of 14 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials in patients at high risk of heart disease found no significant effect of fish oil supplements on overall deaths, sudden death due to heart disease, heart attacks, congestive heart failure or stroke (Kwak et al, Arch. Int. Med., 172: 686-694, 2012).

No wonder you are confused by all of the conflicting studies. You must be wondering: “Is the American Heart Association wrong?” “Are fish oil supplements useless for reducing heart disease risk?”

What Has Changed Between The Early Studies & The Latest Studies?

When a trained scientist sees the outcome of well designed clinical studies change over time, he or she asks: “What has changed in the studies?” It turns out that a lot has changed.

1)     In the first place the criteria for people considered at risk for heart attack and stoke have changed dramatically. Not only has the definition of high cholesterol” been dramatically lowered, but cardiologists now treat people for heart disease if they have inflammation, elevated triglycerides, elevated blood pressure, diabetes, pre-diabetes or minor arrythmia.

For example, the GISSI-Prevenzione study recruited patients who had a heart attack within the past three months, while the ORIGIN study just looked at people who had diabetes or impaired blood sugar control. While both groups could be considered high risk, the patients in the earlier studies were at much higher risk for an imminent heart attack or stroke – thus making it much easier to detect a beneficial effect of omega-3 supplementation.

2)     Secondly, the standard of care for people considered at risk for heart disease has also changed dramatically. In the earlier studies patients were generally treated with one or two drugs – generally a beta-blockers and/or drug to lower blood pressure. In the more recent studies the patients generally receive at least 3 to 5 different medications – medications to lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, lower triglycerides, reduce inflammation, reduce arrhythmia, reduce blood clotting, and medications to reduce the side effects of those medications.

Since those medications perform many of the beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids, it is perhaps no surprise that it is now very difficult to show any additional benefit of omega-3 fatty acids in patients on multiple medications.

The bottom line is that we are no longer asking the same question. The earlier studies were asking whether fish oil supplements reduce the risk of heart attacks or cardiovascular death in patients at high risk of heart disease. The more recent studies are asking whether fish oil supplements provide any additional benefits in a high risk population that is already on 3-5 medications to reduce their risk of heart disease.

However, the people who are writing the headlines you are reading (and the videos you are watching) are not making that distinction. They are pretending that nothing has changed in the way the studies are designed. They are telling you that the latest studies contradict the earlier studies when, in fact, they are measuring two different things.

Is Fish Oil Really Snake Oil?

Was the doctor who made the video “Is Fish Oil Just Snake Oil?” correct in saying that omega-3 fatty acids are ineffective at reducing the risk of heart disease? The answer is yes and no.

If you take the medical viewpoint that the proper way to treat anyone at the slightest risk of heart disease is with 3-5 medications – with all of their side effects, the answer seems to be pretty clear cut that adding fish oil to your regimen provides little additional benefit.

However, that is not the question that interests me. I’d like to know whether I can reduce my risk of heart attack and cardiovascular death by taking omega-3 fatty acids in place of those drugs – as the original studies have shown.

I’m sure many of my readers feel the same way.

The Bottom Line

  • Studies performed prior to 2000 have generally shown that fish oil supplements reduce the risk of a second heart attack in patients who have previously had a heart attack. One study even suggested that they were as effective as statin drugs at reducing heart attack risk in this population.
  • Recent studies have called into question the beneficial effects of fish oil supplements at reducing the risk of heart disease. However, these studies were performed with lower risk patients and the patients were on 3-5 medications to reduce their risk of heart attack or stroke.
  • The recent studies are no longer evaluating whether fish oil supplements can reduce the risk of heart disease. They are asking whether they have any additional beneficial effects for people taking multiple medications. That’s a totally different question.
  • So ignore the headlines saying that fish oil is snake oil. If you are content taking multiple medications to reduce your risk of heart disease, it is probably correct to say that omega-3 fatty acids provide little additional benefit.
  • However, if you are interested in a more holistic, drug-free approach to reducing your risk of heart disease, I still recommend omega-3 fatty acids as part of a heart healthy diet, as does the American Heart Association.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Does An Apple A Day Keep Statins Away?

The Latest On Diet And Heart Health

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

AppleIn a previous “Health Tips From the Professor” I talked about how difficult it has been to prove that statins significantly reduce the risk of heart attack or cardiovascular deaths in a low risk population group. Now let’s look at the other side of the coin – lifestyle change –and ask how effective lifestyle change is at reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

You’ve all heard the saying “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”. It dates back to Victorian England. It was the public health message of the day – much simpler and more concise than our current food guide plate.

A prominent British doctor and his research team recently decided to see how accurate that saying really was. But they took their study one step further. They compared the effectiveness of an apple a day versus a statin a day at reducing the risk of cardiovascular deaths (Briggs et al, British Medical Journal, 3013;347:f7267 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f7267).

The results of that comparison may surprise you.

Does An Apple A Day Keep Statins Away?

They used the data from the Cholesterol Treatment Trialist meta-analysis to estimate the effectiveness of statin drugs at reducing cardiovascular deaths. They used the data from the PRIME comparative risk assessment model to estimate the effectiveness of apple a day at reducing cardiovascular deaths.

They asked what would happen if each of them were the primary intervention for the entire British population over 50 who were not currently taking statin drugs (17.6 million people).

They assumed a 70% compliance rate for both interventions. In simple terms that means they assumed that 70% of the population would actually do what their doctors told them. (Patients must be more compliant in England than in the US).

The results were interesting. They estimated that:

  • Giving a statin drug each day to 17.6 million people would reduce the number of cardiovascular deaths by 9,400.
  • Giving an apple each day to the same 17.6 million people would reduce the number of cardiovascular deaths by 8,500 (not significantly different).

But when they looked at side effects and cost the two interventions were significantly different.

  • Giving a statin drug each day to 17.6 million people would also cause some significant side effects. The authors estimated that it would lead to:
    • 1,200 excess cases of severe muscle pain and weakness
    • 200 excess cases of rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown, which can lead to irreversible kidney failure)
    • 12,300 excess cases of diabetes
  • On the other hand, there are no known side effects to an apple a day.
  • The statin intervention would cost an estimated $295 million. In the case of apples, you would presumably be substituting a more healthy food for a less healthy food so there would be little or no net cost.

And the 70% compliance rate is probably wildly optimistic. Some experts have estimated that up to 50% of patients discontinue their statin medications within the first year because of side effects or cost.

Is There A Scientific Basis For Those Estimates?

Of course, we all know that the “apple a day…” saying was never meant to be taken literally. It was just a simple way of saying that a good diet will reduce the risk of disease.

It turns out that there was another major study on the effect of dietary fiber on reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease in the very same issue (Threapleton et al, British Medical Journal, 2013;347:f6879 doi: 10.1136/bmj.f6879). It was a meta-analysis that combined the data from 22 previously published studies.

This study showed:

  • For every 7 g/day increase in dietary fiber the risk of both heart attacks and cardiovascular disease decreases by 9% (7 grams of dietary fiber could come from one serving of whole grains plus one serving of beans or lentils or from two servings of fruits or vegetables).
  • For every 4g/day of fruit fiber (equivalent to one apple) the risk of heart attacks decreases by 8% and the risk of cardiovascular disease decreases by 4%.
  • The numbers are similar for every 4 g/day of vegetable fiber.

Another recent study showed that consumption of 75 g/day of dried apple (equivalent to two apples a day) lowered total cholesterol by 13% and LDL-cholesterol by 24% in post-menopausal women (Chai et al, J. Acad Nutr Diet, 112: 1158-1168, 2012). That’s comparable to the cholesterol reduction achieved with statin drugs.

The Bottom Line

  • If you have not previously had a heart attack and are at relatively low risk, something as simple as adding an apple a day (in place of less healthy foods) may just as effective as statin drugs at reducing your risk of cardiovascular death without the side effects and cost of the drugs.
  • This is not really new information. For years both the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health have recommended that Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (weight loss, healthy diet and exercise) should be tried BEFORE drug treatment to reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • So if you want to avoid statins, tell your doctor that you are willing to make the needed lifestyle changes to reduce your risk of heart disease and stick with it. Lifestyle changes are hard, but clinical studies clearly show they can often be just as effective as drug therapy, without the cost and side effects.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating avoiding statin drugs if they are absolutely necessary. If you have had a heart attack or are at high risk of heart disease, it is clear that statins can save lives. Even here I would recommend talking with your physician about incorporating therapeutic lifestyle change into your regimen. It may allow them to minimize the dose, and therefore the side effects, of the statin drugs.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

What Causes Food Cravings?

Is Your Body Trying To Tell You Something?

Author: Dr. Pierre DuBois

What Causes Food Cravings?

food cravingsFor some years, researchers had believed that having cravings for a particular type of food may be an indication that you are missing a particular nutrient in your diet. For example, if you crave red meat then you may have an iron deficiency, or if you crave ice cream you must need calcium.

Studies have shown, however, that cravings have nothing to do with a nutritional deficiency, but are actually caused by chemical signals in the brain. Nutritionist Karen Ansel says, “If cravings were an indicator of nutritional deficiency, we’d all crave fruits and vegetables. The fact that we all want high carb, high fat comfort foods, along with the research, is a pretty good indicator that cravings aren’t related to deficiencies.” Yes–it’s really all in your head.

Fat, Sugar and Salt Fuel Food Cravings

When you crave a food, the same reward centers in the brain that are responsible for drug and alcohol addiction are more active: the hippocampus (memory), the insula (emotion and perception) and the caudate (memory and learning). These areas are all very receptive to dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that are responsible for feeling relaxed and calm and which spur reward-driven learning.

The reason you crave things such as ice cream, potato chips and chocolate is that these items are full of fat, sugar and/or salt. Both fat and sugar are involved in an increased production of serotonin and other chemicals that make us feel good.

Food Cravings Are Also Learned

There is a large societal aspect to cravings as well. For instance, women in Japan tend to crave sushi and only 6 percent of Egyptian women say they crave chocolate. Approximately half of American women claim that their cravings for chocolate reach a peak just before their period. However, research has found no correlation between fluctuations in women’s hormones and cravings. In fact, postmenopausal women do not report a large reduction in cravings from their premenopausal levels.

Will Power Alone Is Not Enough

Studies have found that the more people try to deny their cravings, the greater the craving they have for the forbidden food. Researchers suggest that it is better to give in to the craving in a controlled way rather than denying yourself altogether. Just be sure to restrict what you consume to a reasonable amount. If your dopamine receptors are constantly bombarded with high-fat and high-sugar foods (or drugs and alcohol), they shut down to prevent an overload. This makes your cravings even greater and you end up eating more in an attempt get the same reward, but you never really feel satisfied.

How To Bust Your Food Cravings

Exercise and distraction are the two best ways to reduce food cravings. One study found that a morning workout can reduce your cravings for the whole day. Other studies suggest that distracting your mind with other pleasurable stimuli can be effective. For example, smelling a non-food item that you really like can also help. Keep a small vial of your favorite perfume with you when a craving comes on and take a whiff when the craving hits you. It will occupy the aroma receptors that are involved in food cravings.

The Bottom Line

  • In most cases food cravings are not due to nutritional deficiencies. They are a physiological response of the “pleasure center” in the brain to fat, sugar & salt.
  • Food cravings are different in different cultures, which indicates that food cravings are also a learned response.
  • Willpower alone is not sufficient to overcome food cravings.
  • The best strategy to avoid food cravings is to exercise regularly and distract your attention with other pleasurable stimuli.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Brain Health

Is it How Much You Eat, or How Much You Keep?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Brain HealthWhy do some studies conclude that omega-3 fatty acids are essential for a strong mind, a strong heart and will wipe out inflammation – while other studies suggest that they are ineffective? The simple answer is that nobody really knows.

However, in the process of reviewing two recent studies on omega-3 fatty acids and brain health I made an interesting observation that offers a possible explanation for the discrepancies between studies. And if my hypothesis is correct, it suggests that the design of many of the previous studies with omega-3 fatty acids is faulty.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids And Brain Health

The first study (J.K. Virtanen et al, J Am Heart Assoc, 2013, 2:e000305 doi: 10.1161/JAHA.113.000305) looked at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on brain function in older adults (>65 years old). It concluded that high omega-3 levels were associated with better white matter grade and a 40% reduction in subclinical infarcts (Sorry for the technical jargon – but both of those are good things in terms of brain function for those of us who are getting a bit older).

The second study (C. M. Milte et al, J of Attention Disorders, 2013, doi: 10.1177/1087054713510562) looked at the effect of omega-3 fatty acids on children (ages 6-13) with ADHD. It concluded that high omega-3 levels were associated with improved spelling and attention and reduced oppositional behavior, hyperactivity, cognitive problems and inattention.

What Is The Common Thread In These Studies?

Why, you might ask, am I comparing a study in the elderly, where the concern is retention of cognitive skills, with a study on ADHD in children?

That’s because there is a very important common thread in those two studies. It wasn’t the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in their diet that counted. It was the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood that made the difference.

The first study included a detailed dietary history to estimate the habitual intake of omega-3 fatty acids in the participants.

  • There was no correlation between estimated dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids and any measure of brain function in those older adults.
  • However, there was a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3s and brain health in that population group.

The second study was actually a placebo controlled intervention study in which the children were given 1 gm/day of either omega-3 fatty acids or omega-6 fatty acids.

  • Once again, there was no correlation between dietary intake of omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids and any outcome related to ADHD.
  • However, there was a strong correlation between blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids or omega-3/omega-6 ratio and improvement in multiple measures of ADHD.

How Could The Effect of Dietary Intake And Blood Levels Of Omega-3s Be So Different?

Fish OilBoth studies were relatively small and suffered from some technical limitations, but the most likely explanations are:

  • Inaccurate recall of the participants as to what they eat on a habitual basis. (study 1)
  • Individual differences in the ability of participants to convert short chain omega-3 fatty acids (found in foods such as canola oil, flaxseed oil and walnuts) to the beneficial long chain fatty acids (found in cold water fish). (study 1)
  • Poor compliance in taking the supplements. (study 2)

Why Are These Studies Important?

The most important insight to come out of both of these studies is that it is essential to actually measure blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids and not just rely on dietary intake or supplementation for a valid clinical trial.

That’s a concern because blood measurements of omega-3 fatty acids are expensive and have not been a part of many of the clinical studies that have been performed to date. Even the largest, best designed clinical study is worthless if the dietary recalls aren’t accurate or people don’t take their capsules.

We need to go back and reevaluate many of the clinical studies that have been published.

We need to ask:

  • Are their conclusions valid?
  • Did some studies fail to show that omega-3s were effective simply because they only measured dietary intake and not how much of the omega-3s actually accumulated in the blood?

The Bottom Line

  • High blood levels of omega-3s in the blood correlated with improved brain health in the elderly and reduced ADHD symptoms in children
  • These studies were small, but they are consistent with a number of other studies that have come to similar conclusions.
  • Blood levels of omega-3s are better predictors than dietary intake for evaluating the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Many previous studies that failed to find an effect of omega-3 fatty acids on brain health, heart health or inflammation did not actually measure blood levels of the omega-3 fatty acids. These studies should be reevaluated.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Healthy Thanksgiving

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Healthy ThanksgivingWhile “Healthy Thanksgiving” doesn’t quite have the appeal of the more familiar “Happy Thanksgiving” greeting, I used it here to make the point that Thanksgiving dinner (and many other holiday meals) doesn’t have to be an unhealthy affair.

After all, there is a lot to like about the ingredients in Thanksgiving dinner.  Turkey can be a healthy, low- fat meat, if prepared correctly.  Sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash and pumpkin are all loaded with vitamin A and other important nutrients.  And cranberries are a nutrition powerhouse.

Healthy Thanksgiving

Here are some tips to make your Thanksgiving meal one that contributes to your health:

1) Skip the basting.  Choose a plain bird and cook in a bag to seal in the moisture.  Remove the skin before serving.

2) Refrigerate the turkey juices and skim off the hardened fat before making gravy and use a gravy cup that pours from the bottom to minimize fat.

3) Use ingredients like whole wheat bread, vegetables, fruits (cranberries, raisins, dates or apples), nuts and your favorite spices for the stuffing and bake it in the oven rather than in the turkey.

4) Serve your sweet potatoes or yams baked rather than candied and let your guests add butter to taste.

5) Use skim milk or buttermilk rather than whole milk and skip the butter for your mashed potatoes.

6) Give your meal gourmet appeal by cooking your green vegetables with garlic, nuts and herbs rather than creamy or fat-laden sauces.

7) Don’t serve the meal on your largest plates. By using smaller plates you ensure smaller portion size and even that second helping isn’t quite so damaging.

8) Use the Shaklee 180 meal replacement products for one or more meals the day before and/or after Thanksgiving so that your total caloric intake over the three day period is not excessive.

By now you have the idea.  There are lots of little things that you can do to make your Thanksgiving dinner one that your waist and your heart will thank you for. Bon Appetit and have a Happy, Healthy Thanksgiving!

The Bottom Line

  • If you make healthy food choices and choose your portion sizes wisely, you can make this a healthy Thanksgiving as well as a Happy Thanksgiving.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Should GMO Labeling Be Required For All Food Ingredients?

When Is GMO Not GMO?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

GMO-freeI’m probably going to get lots of hate mail for this week’s “Health Tips from the Professor” because I’m finally going to tackle the GMO controversy.

You see, the GMO controversy is very much like Washington politics. On one side of the aisle, you have the people who are absolutely convinced that anything GMO is terrible. On the other side of the aisle, you have people who are absolutely convinced that there are no problems with GMO foods. And both sides are convinced that their opponents have absolutely nothing of intelligence to say on the topic.

So almost anything I say about GMO is bound to offend somebody. But nobody ever accused me of being timid, so let’s get started.

What Are The Health Risks Of Genetically Modified Foods?

I’m going to start with the supposed health risks of GMO foods because that’s my area of greatest expertise, and I’m going to evaluate those health risks from the viewpoint of a card-carrying biochemist. I’ve seen the scary pictures and alarming statements posted on many anti-GMO web sites, but objective evidence that genetically modified foods are harmful to humans is underwhelming at present.

Modifications to DNA And Health Risks

Let’s start at the beginning. Genetic modification occurs in the DNA, and on that basis GMO foods have some potential, but yet unproven, risks. Let me give you an example:

  • Some genetically modified foods carry genes for naturally occurring pesticides so that if bugs try to eat the leaves of those plants they will die.
  • When we eat foods occasionally small pieces of their DNA will find their way into our intestinal track.
  • We have bacteria in our intestinal tracts that excel at picking up small pieces of DNA and inserting them into their genome.
  • So it is theoretically possible that those bacteria might start producing in our intestines the same pesticides produced by the genetically modified foods we ate.

It is an interesting idea, but to my knowledge one that has not yet been shown to have actually occurred in a human being.

Modifications to Proteins And Health Risks

A more likely risk comes from the proteins contained in genetically modified foods:

  • Genetic modifications in the DNA result in the production of modified proteins, so GMO foods, GMO protein powders and foods made from GMO protein sources can be a source of unsuspected food allergies.
  • Unfortunately, food allergies, especially those from genetically modified protein sources, are very difficult to quantify, so we have no good data on how big a problem this actually is.

However, it would be very surprising if there weren’t some individuals with food allergies to genetically modified proteins.

When Is GMO Not GMO?

Many of the GMO opponents take it one step further and want to label as GMO any food or supplement that contains any ingredient made from a genetically modified food. This is where the science is clearly on the other side of the aisle. With respect to purified sugars, purified oils, vitamins and other purified nutrients obtained from foods there is no difference between GMO and non-GMO because these purified nutrients contain neither DNA nor protein.

 Should GMO Labeling Be Required For All Food Ingredients?

For the most part, it isn’t even possible for most manufacturers to produce foods or supplements with all non-GMO ingredients. When the whole GMO issue first entered public awareness the food industry was guided by the science. It made good business sense for them to create a capacity, a pipeline if you will, to make sure that non-GMO protein sources were available to meet the market demand for companies that wanted to make non-GMO protein products for this new GMO-adverse market.

But, nobody anticipated the emotional demand for non-GMO sugars, oils and the like. There was no scientific basis for that demand, so none of the suppliers created the capacity to meet that demand. Currently there is only enough of those kinds of non-GMO ingredients to meet the needs of the bit players in the market. There simply aren’t enough of those ingredients to satisfy the requirements of any manufacturer who deals in the mass market. That, for example, is the reason big players in the market lobbied against the recent California and Washington State propositions that would have required a food product to be labeled GMO if any ingredient in the food was GMO.

Genetically Modified Foods And The Environment

Now that I have managed to alienate almost everyone, I should point out that there are some non-health issues around GMO foods.

  • The biggest issue is that many of the genetically modified foods contain modifications that make them resistant to herbicides, and that encourages overuse of those herbicides with the resultant pollution of air, soil, and water.
  • Another concern is that the increasing reliance on genetically modified food crops is leading to a decrease in the genetic diversity of those crops, which could make them more susceptible to a new virus or pest in the future. This is a theoretical concern, but there is historical precedence for believing that it could happen.
  • Finally, laws that prevent subsistent farmers from saving their own seed for next season’s planting is a major concern in Third World countries. But, that is more an issue of corporate greed than it is of genetic modification.

The Bottom Line:

What is the take-home lesson for you?

From a health perspective:

  • Genetically modified proteins are likely to be a food allergy risk for some people, but we have no good data on how many people are affected by this kind of food allergy
  • Genetically modified DNA is a theoretical concern because of the ability of intestinal bacteria to pick up pieces of DNA, but we have no evidence at present that this has actually ever caused a problem in people.
  • With respect to sugars, oils, and other nutrients extracted from foods it makes no difference whether the food was GMO or non-GMO

From an environmental perspective:

  • Genetic modifications leading to herbicide resistance are a significant environmental concern because it encourages overuse of herbicides.
  • Lack of genetic diversity from the overuse of GMO food crops is a theoretical concern, but one with historical precedence.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Are Dietary Polyphenols Associated With Longevity?

Are Polyphenols The Fountain of Youth?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Merlot Grapes HDRYou’ve probably heard that resveratrol and other polyphenols in red wine can help mice live longer. But what about us? Are dietary polyphenols associated with longevity in humans?

Until recently nobody knew the answer to that question. However, a recent study (Zamora-Ros et al, J. Nutr. 143: 1445-1450, 2013) suggests that polyphenols may just help us live a bit longer.

Of course, the news headlines make it sound like a sure thing, and many of the manufacturers of polyphenol-containing supplements are already citing the study as “proof” that their products will make you live forever.

Polyphenols Are Everywhere:

So, let me give you some background information before I start diving into the study.

  • The term polyphenols includes some names you may recognize, such as flavonoids, isoflavones, anthrocyanidins and resveratrol, and many more that might look like the kind of names you might expect to find on a processed food label.
  • Polyphenols don’t just come from red wine. There are several hundred polyphenols in edible foods. Many fruits, vegetables (including beans like soybeans) and whole grains – the kinds of foods that every expert recommends for a healthy diet – are also great sources of polyphenols.
  • Most polyphenols are excellent antioxidants. Studies suggest that they may also exert antiinflammatory effects and may reduce the risk of heart disease, neurodegenerative disease and cancer. So it is not unreasonable to assume that they might enhance longevity.

An In-Depth Analysis Of The Study:

The study enrolled 807 men and women over the age of 65 (average age = 74, range = 67-81) from the Chianti region of Italy and followed them for 12 years. At the beginning of the study polyphenol intake of the participants was analyzed from a dietary recall form (polyphenol intake based on what they remembered eating) and from a 24 hour urine specimen (actual polyphenol intake).

During the 12 year follow-up, 34% of the participants died. Based on the dietary recall, there was no association between dietary polyphenol intake and mortality. However, based on urinary polyphenol content there was a 30% decrease in mortality for those with the highest dietary polyphenol intake (>650 mg/day) compared to those with the lowest polyphenol intake (<500 mg/day).

Strengths of the Study:

  • This is the very first study to actually investigate the relationship between dietary polyphenols and longevity in a meaningful way. The study was well designed and well executed.
  • The measurement of urinary polyphenol content is a strength of this study. Dietary recalls are often inaccurate. In fact, this study suggests that dietary recalls should probably not be used to estimate dietary polyphenol intake in future studies.

Weaknesses of the Study:

  • This was a first study of its kind, and like any other first study it needs to be confirmed by additional studies.
  • The study only measured associations, not cause and effect. Of course, it would be almost impossible to conduct a double blind, placebo controlled study of this duration – especially if one is using urinary excretion as a measure of polyphenol intake.
  • The study did not report the dietary sources of the polyphenols, although this information was presumably available from the dietary recalls. Because the study was conducted in the Chianti region of Italy it is probably pretty safe to assume that red wine contributed to the polyphenol intake. However, people in that region of Italy also tend to consume diets rich in fruits and vegetables. Hopefully, future studies will help determine whether some polyphenols are more important for longevity than others.

The Bottom Line:

1)     Eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. They’ll make you healthier, and you just may live longer.

2)     If you like red wine, drink it in moderation. Just don’t assume that it can substitute for a healthy diet. This study measured total polyphenols, not just red wine polyphenols.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Soy And Breast Cancer Recurrence

The Truth About Soy And Breast Cancer

 Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

SoybeanYou’ve probably heard the warnings: “Soy may increase the risk of breast cancer!” “Women with breast cancer shouldn’t use soy!”

The first warning was never true. Numerous clinical studies have shown that consumption of soy protein is associated with a lower risk of developing breast cancer.

Furthermore, the science behind the second warning has never been very strong. The concerns that soy might stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells was based primarily on cell culture experiments and one experiment in mice – even though a second experiment in mice came to the exact opposite conclusion.

Was The Hypothesis That Soy Could Increase The Risk Of Breast Cancer Recurrence Plausible?

The possibility that soy isoflavones could stimulate the growth of estrogen- responsive breast cancer was biochemically plausible because soy isoflavones bind to the estrogen receptor and have a very weak stimulatory effect (much weaker than estrogen itself).

Even that evidence was not definitive because soy isoflavones also turn on several tumor suppressor pathways in breast cells and help strengthen the immune system – so they could just as easily inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.

However, because the concerns were plausible and had not been definitively disproved, most experts, including me, recommended for several years that women with estrogen- responsive breast cancer might want to avoid soy protein.

Has The Hypothesis Been Rigorously Tested?

In fact, the definitive clinical studies have been performed, and it turns out for women who are breast cancer survivors, consumption of soy foods does not increase either the risk of breast cancer recurrence or of dying from breast cancer.

The first of these studies was reported in the December 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers at Vanderbilt University and Shanghai Institute of Preventive Medicine (Shu et al, JAMA, 302: 2437-2443, 2009).

It was a large, well designed, study that enrolled 5042 Chinese women aged 20 to 75 years old who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and followed them for an average period of 3.9 years.

The women were divided into four groups based on the soy content of their diet (ranging from 5 grams/day to 15 grams/day). The results were clear cut. Breast cancer survivors with the highest soy intake had 25% less chance of breast cancer recurrence and 25% less chance of dying from breast cancer than the women with the lowest soy intake.

The effect was equally strong for women with estrogen receptor-positive and estrogen receptor negative cancers, for early stage and late stage breast cancer and for pre- and post-menopausal women. In short this was a very robust study.

The study also showed that soy protein intake did not interfere with tamoxifen, a drug that blocks the binding of estrogen to its receptor on cancer cells. Tamoxifen is used for both for treating estrogen-responsive breast cancer and preventing its recurrence. In this study, the reduction in the risk of breast cancer recurrence & death was just as great whether the breast cancer survivors were taking tamoxifen or not.

In fact, tamoxifen was protective only for women with low soy intake. It conferred no extra protection for the women at the highest level of soy intake because the soy isoflavones were also blocking the binding of estrogen to its receptor.

Other Clinical Studies

If that were the only published clinical study to test the soy-breast cancer hypothesis, I and other experts would be very cautious about making definitive statements. However, at least four more clinical studies have been published since then, both in Chinese and American populations. The studies have either shown no significant effect of soy on breast cancer recurrence or a protective effect. None of them have shown any detrimental effects of soy consumption by breast cancer survivors.

A meta-analysis of all 5 studies was published earlier this year (Chi et al, Asian Pac J Cancer Prev., 14: 2407-2412, 2013). This study combined the data from 11,206 breast cancer survivors in the US and China. Those with the highest soy consumption had a 23% decrease in recurrence and a 15% decrease in mortality from breast cancer.

The Bottom Line:

What does this mean for you if you are a breast cancer survivor?

1)     There are many reasons to include soy protein foods as part of a healthy diet. Soy foods are one of the highest quality vegetable protein sources and provide a great alternative to many of the high fat, high cholesterol animal proteins in the American diet.

2)     I personally feel that these studies are clear cut enough that breast cancer survivors no longer need to fear soy protein as part of a healthy diet.

3)     The responsible websites agree with this assessment. For example, WebMD and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) both say that breast cancer survivors need no longer worry about eating moderate amounts of soy foods.

4)     The irresponsible websites (I won’t name names, but you know who they are) are still warning breast cancer survivors to avoid soy completely. As a scientist I really have problem with people who are unwilling to change their opinions in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

5)     Of course, some of those bloggers have now shifted their arguments to say that it is unfermented or genetically modified soy that causes breast cancer. Those statements are equally bogus – but that’s another story for another time.

6)     Finally, I want to emphasize that the published studies merely show that soy does not increase the risk of breast cancer and is safe to use for breast cancer survivors. None of those studies suggest that soy is an effective treatment for breast cancer. The protective effects of soy are modest at best. If you have breast cancer, consult with your physician about the best treatment options for you.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Do Omega-3 Fatty Acids Decrease Risk Of Depression In Women?

Do Happy Fish Make Happy Women?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Woman playing with autumn leaves The days are getting shorter, and those shorter days can lead to depression. You may have seen the recent headlines saying “Omega-3 fatty acids may decrease the risk of depression in women”. If you suffer from seasonal depression, should you be stocking up on fish oil capsules? Let’s look at the study behind the headlines.

The Theory Behind The Study

Depression appears to be increasing in modern society. For example, between 1991 and 2002, the prevalence of major depression has more than doubled in the United States from 3.3% to 7.1%.

There are many causes of depression, but some experts blame the dramatic increase in omega-6 fatty acids in the diet.  For example, per capita consumption of soybean oil, much of it in processed foods, has increased 1000-fold during the past century. That’s a concern because omega-6 fatty acids interfere with the body’s ability to convert vegetable sources of omega-3 fatty acids into the longer chain omega-3 fatty acids thought to be effective in reducing depression.

This has lead to the hypothesis that omega-3 fatty acids in the diet may help prevent depression, and a number of clinical studies have supported that hypothesis.

How Was The Study Designed?

The study (M. A. Beydoun et al, J. Nutr., doi: 10.3945/jn.113.179119, 2013) looked at 1,746 adults age 30-64 living in Baltimore Maryland. The participants were a representative sample of African Americans and whites, men and women. Omega-3 fatty acid intake was based on two 24-hour dietary recalls. Depressive symptoms were based on something called CES-D, which is a 20 item, self-reporting symptom rating scale.

What Did The Study Actually Show?

The results were pretty dramatic for women:

  • Women with the highest intake of omega-3 fatty acids/day were 49% less likely to suffer from depression than women with the lowest intake.
  • No significant effect of omega-3 fatty acid intake on the prevalence of depression was seen for the men in this study. This was the first study to look at men and women separately, so it’s not yet clear whether this is a true sex-specific difference or simply due to the relatively small sample size and reduced incidence of depression in men.

Limitations Of The Study:

There were numerous limitations to this study, but the most important were:

  • It did not ask whether the participants were taking fish oil supplements, and it did not substantiate the dietary recalls by measuring actual levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the blood.
  • It just measured associations, not cause and effect.

The Bottom Line:

This is not a particularly strong study, but it is consistent with a least half a dozen other studies that have obtained similar results. So, based on the total body of published studies my recommendations are:

1)     If you are a woman and you’re suffering from mild depression you might want to talk with your doctor about increasing your omega-3 fatty acid intake before you start taking an anti-depressive medication. Omega-3 fatty acids may reduce heart disease risk, lower inflammation and provide other benefits. The drugs generally have side effects rather than side benefits.

2)    We don’t have any good data yet on what dose of omega-3 fatty acids are needed, but the 500-1,000 mg/day that the NIH recommends for heart health might be a good starting place.

3)     If you’re a guy, this paper suggests that the jury is out about whether omega-3s can help you with depression. More studies will be required. In the meantime, just remember that omega-3s have lots of other health benefits.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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