Can Diet Protect Your Mind?

Which Diet Is Best?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

can diet prevent alzheimer'sAlzheimer’s is a scary disease. There is so much to look forward to in our golden years. We want to enjoy the fruits of our years of hard work. We want to enjoy our grandkids and perhaps even our great grandkids. More importantly, we want to be able to pass on our accumulated experiences and wisdom to future generations.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have the potential to rob us of everything that makes life worth living. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia don’t happen overnight. The first symptoms of cognitive decline are things like forgetting names, where you left things, what you did last week. For most people it just keeps getting worse.

Can diet protect your mind? Recent studies have given us a ray of hope. For example, several meta-analyses have shown that adherence to the Mediterranean diet was associated with a 25-48% lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia.

However, there were several limitations to the studies included in these meta-analyses. For example:

  • For most of the studies the diet was assessed only at the beginning of the study. We have no idea whether the participants followed the same diet throughout the study. This means, we cannot answer questions like:
    • What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet?
    • Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet?
  • These studies focused primarily on the Mediterranean diet. This leaves the question:
    • What about other healthy diets? Is there something unique about the Mediterranean diet, or do other healthy diets also reduce the risk of cognitive decline?

This study (C Yuan et al, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 115: 232-243, 2022) was designed to answer those questions.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical studyThe investigators utilized data from The Nurse’s Health Study. They followed 49,493 female nurses for 30 years from 1984 to 2014. The average age of the nurses in 1984 was 48 years, and none of them had symptoms of cognitive decline at the beginning of the study.

The nurse’s diets were analyzed in 1984, 1986, and every 4 years afterwards until 2006. Diets were not analyzed during the last 8 years of the study to eliminate something called “reverse causation”. Simply put, the investigators were trying to eliminate the possibility that participants in the study might change their diet because they were starting to notice symptoms of cognitive decline.

The data from the dietary analyses were used to calculate adherence to 3 different healthy diets:

  • The Mediterranean diet.
  • The DASH diet. The DASH diet was designed to reduce the risk of high blood pressure. But you can think of it as an Americanized version of the Mediterranean diet.
  • The diet recommended by the USDA. Adherence to this diet is evaluated by something called the Alternative Healthy Eating Index or AHEI.

Adherence to each diet was calculated by giving a positive score to foods that were recommended for the diet and a negative score for foods that were not recommended for the diet. For more details, read the article.

In 2012 and 2014 the nurses were asked to fill out questionnaires self-assessing the early stages of cognitive decline. They were asked if they had more trouble than usual:

  • Remembering recent events or remembering a short list of items like a grocery list (measuring memory).
  • Understanding things, following spoken instructions, following a group conversation, or following a plot in a TV program (measuring executive function).
  • Remembering things from one second to the next (measuring attention).
  • Finding ways around familiar streets (measuring visuospatial skills).

The extent of cognitive decline was calculated based on the number of yes answers to these questions.

Can Diet Protect Your Mind?

Vegan FoodsHere is what the investigators found when they analyzed the data:

At the beginning of the study in 1984 there were 49,493 female nurses with an average age of 48. None of them had symptoms of cognitive decline.

  • By 2012-2014 (average age = 76-78) 46.9% of them had cognitive decline and 12.3% of them had severe cognitive decline.

Using the data on dietary intake and the rating systems specific to each of the diets studied, the investigators divided the participants into thirds based on their adherence to each diet. The investigators then used these data to answer two important questions that no previous study had answered:

#1: What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet? To answer this question the investigators averaged the dietary data obtained every 4 years between 1984 and 2006 to obtain cumulative average scores for adherence to each diet. When the investigators compared participants with the highest adherence to various healthy diets for 30 years to participants with the lowest adherence to those diets, the risk of developing severe cognitive decline was decreased by:

  • 40% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 32% for the DASH diet.
  • 20% for the USDA-recommended healthy diet (as measured by the AHEI score).

#2: Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet? To answer this question, the investigators looked at participants who started with the lowest adherence to each diet and improved to the highest adherence by the end of the study. This study showed that improving from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet over 30 years decreased the risk of developing severe cognitive decline by:

  • 20% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 25% for the DASH diet.

There were a few other significant observations from this study.

  • The inverse association between healthy diets and risk of cognitive decline was greater for nurses who had high blood pressure.
    • This is an important finding because high blood pressure increases the risk of cognitive decline.
  • The inverse association between healthy diets and risk of cognitive decline was also greater for nurses who did not have the APOE-ɛ4 gene.
    • This illustrates the interaction of diet and genetics. The APOE-ɛ4 gene increases the risk of cognitive decline. Healthy diets reduced the risk of cognitive decline in nurse with the APOE-ɛ4 gene but not to the same extent as for nurses without the gene.

This study did not investigate the mechanism by which healthy diets reduced the risk of cognitive decline, but the investigators speculated it might be because these diets:

  • Were anti-inflammatory.
  • Supported the growth of healthy gut bacteria.

The investigators concluded, “Our findings support the beneficial roles of long-term adherence to the [Mediterranean, DASH, and USDA] dietary patterns for maintaining cognition in women…Further, among those with initially relatively low-quality diets, improvement in diet quality was associated with a lower likelihood of developing severe cognitive decline. These findings indicate that improvements in diet quality in midlife and later may have a role in maintenance of cognitive function among women.”

Which Diet Is Best?

Mediterranean Diet FoodsIn a sense this is a trick question. That’s because this study did not put the participants on different diets. It simply analyzed the diets the women were eating in different ways. And while the algorithms they were using were diet-specific, there was tremendous overlap between them. For more specifics on the algorithms used to estimate adherence to each diet, read the article.

That is why the investigators concluded that all three diets they analyzed reduced the risk of cognitive decline rather than highlighting a specific diet. However, based on this and numerous previous studies the evidence is strongest for the Mediterranean and DASH diets.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the MIND diet. While it was not included in this study, the MIND diet:

  • Was specifically designed to reduce cognitive decline.
  • Can be thought of as a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets.
  • Includes data from studies on the mind-benefits of individual foods. For example, it recommends berries rather than all fruits.

The MIND diet has not been as extensively studied as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, but there is some evidence that it may be more effective at reducing cognitive decline than either the Mediterranean or DASH diets alone.

Which Foods Are Best?

AwardThe authors of this study felt it was more important to focus on foods rather than diets. This is a better approach because we eat foods rather than diets. With that in mind they analyzed their data to identify the foods that prevented cognitive decline and the foods increased cognitive decline. This is what they found:

  • Fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) reduced the risk of cognitive decline.
  • Red and processed meats, omega-6 fatty acids (most vegetable oils), and trans fats increased the risk of cognitive decline.

While this study did not specifically look at the effect of processed foods on cognitive decline, diets high in the mind-healthy foods listed above are generally low in sodas, sweets, and highly processed foods.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Question MarkThe question, “Can diet protect your mind”, is not a new one. Several previous studies have suggested that healthy diets reduce the risk of cognitive decline, but this study breaks new ground. It shows for the first time that:

  • Long-term adherence to a healthy diet can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by up to 40%.
    • This was a 30-year study, so we aren’t talking about “diet” in the traditional sense. We aren’t talking about short-term diets to drop a few pounds. We are talking about a life-long change in the foods we eat.
  • If you currently have a lousy diet, it’s not too late to change. You can reduce your risk of cognitive decline by switching to a healthier diet.
    • This is perhaps the best news to come out of this study.

Based on current evidence, the best diets for protecting against cognitive decline appear to be the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets.

And if you don’t like restrictive diets, my advice is to:

  • Eat more fruits, fruit juices, vegetables, fish, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, and omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil).
  • Eat less red and processed meats, omega-6 fatty acids (most vegetable oils), and trans fats.
  • Eat more plant foods and less animal foods.
  • Eat more whole foods and less sodas, sweets, and processed foods.

And, of course, a holistic approach is always best. Other lifestyle factors that help reduce your risk of cognitive decline include:

  • Regular exercise.
  • Weight control.
  • Socialization.
  • Memory training (mental exercises).

The Bottom Line 

Alzheimer’s is a scary disease. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

A recent study looked at the effect of diet on cognitive decline in women. The study started with middle-aged women (average age = 48) and followed them for 30 years. The investigators then used these data to answer two important questions that no previous study had answered:

#1: What is the effect of long-term adherence to a healthy diet? When the investigators compared participants with the highest adherence to various healthy diets for 30 years to participants with the lowest adherence to those diets, the risk of developing severe cognitive decline was decreased by:

  • 40% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 32% for the DASH diet.
  • 20% for the USDA recommendations for a healthy diet.

#2: Can you reduce your risk of cognitive decline if you switch from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet? This study showed that improving from an unhealthy diet to a healthy diet over 30 years decreased the risk of developing severe cognitive decline by:

  • 20% for the Mediterranean diet.
  • 25% for the DASH diet.

The investigators concluded, “Our findings support the beneficial roles of long-term adherence to the [Mediterranean, DASH, and USDA] dietary patterns for maintaining cognition in women…Further, among those with initially relatively low-quality diets, improvement in diet quality was associated with a lower likelihood of developing severe cognitive decline. These findings indicate that improvements in diet quality in midlife and later may have a role in maintenance of cognitive function among women.”

For more details on the study, which diets, and which foods are best for protecting your mind, and what this study means for you, read the article above.

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 Processed Food Give You Gas?

Why Does Processed Food Give You Gas?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney 

Does it feel like a war is going on in your belly every time you eat? It could be IBD (inflammatory bowel disease). IBD can take several forms, but the two most common are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

What do we know about IBD?

  • The symptoms of IBD can make you miserable. They include:
    • Abdominal pain and cramping.
    • Diarrhea with occasional bouts of constipation.
    • Gas and bloating.
    • Loss of appetite and/or unexpected weight loss.
  • There are about 1.6 million Americans with IBD and 70,000 new cases/year.
    • The prevalence of IBD in the United States has increased by 34% between 2006 and 2016.
  • As you might suspect from its name, IBD is a chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.
    • It is thought to be caused by “dysbiosis of the gastrointestinal track” (In layman’s terms that means damage to your intestine caused by too many bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria).
    • There is also a genetic component to the disease. Some people are much more susceptible to IBD than others.

If you watch TV, you know that there are drugs for treating IBD. The ads make them sound like miracle drugs. But if you listen carefully, you also know that these drugs have a long list of side effects. And some of the side effects are pretty scary.

Are There Natural Approaches For Controlling IBD?

BacteriaSo, if your belly is a bit rumbly, you might be wondering if there is a more natural approach you could take. We know that diet affects the balance between bad and good bacteria in our intestine. Could something as simple as changing your diet, quell the fire in your belly?

While the answer seems obvious, it has been hard to prove. The results of previous studies have been inconclusive. That is because previous studies:

  • Included too few people. 1.6 million people in the US with IBD may sound like a lot, but that represents only 0.4% of the population. Unless you have a really big study, there won’t be enough people who develop IBD to give you statistically significant results.
  • Were too short. IBD doesn’t develop overnight.
  • Did not include a diverse enough population. Previous studies were confined to individual countries or specific regions within a country.

This study (N Narula et al, British Medical Journal, 2021;374:n1554) was designed to overcome the limitations of previous studies. It also looked at the effect of diet on IBD from a different perspective than most previous studies.

  • It did not focus on the effect of individual foods on IBD. Since consumption of processed foods is known to affect the population of intestinal bacteria, the authors of this study asked whether processed food consumption might influence the likelihood of developing IBD.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe authors of this study used data collected from the PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology) study between January 1, 2003, and December 31, 2016. The PURE study collected data from a very diverse population. Specifically, it collected data from 21 low-, middle-, and high-income countries across 7 geographical regions (Europe, North America, South America, Africa, Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China).

  • This study followed 116,087 adults aged 35-70 years (average age 50, percent women = 60%) in the PURE study for an average of 9.7 years. During that time, 467 participants (0.4%) developed IBD.
  • All participants filled out a baseline food-frequency questionnaire that had been designed and validated for foods specific to their country.
  • Participants were asked if they had a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis as part of an annual follow-up questionnaire. To assure the accuracy of these answers they were validated with medical records whenever possible.

Does Processed Food Give You Gas?

Does processed food give you gas? Does it give you abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloating? In short, does it give you IBD? That is the question this study was designed to answer. Here are the results of the study:

  • When comparing those eating the most processed food (≥5 servings/day) to those consuming the least (≤1 serving/day), processed food consumption increased the risk of developing IBD by 1.82-fold. This finding was equally true for:
    • Both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
    • Adults <50 and adults >50.
    • Every region of the world included in the PURE study.
  • When the investigators looked at different categories of processed foods:
    • Processed meat intake increased the risk of IBD by 2.07-fold.
    • Soft drink intake increased the risk of IBD by 1.94-fold.
    • Refined sweetened food intake increased the risk of IBD by 2.58-fold.
    • Salty food and snack intake increased the risk of IBD by 2.06-fold.
  • When the investigators looked at different categories of unprocessed foods:
    • White meat, red meat, dairy, starchy foods, fruits, vegetables, and legumes had no effect on the risk of developing IBD.
    • Sodium intake (as measured by urinary excretion of sodium) also had no effect on the risk of developing IBD.

Why Does Processed Food Give You Gas?

Question MarkYou may be wondering why does processed food give you gas – and other symptoms of IBD.

The simplest explanation is that whole grains, unprocessed fruits & vegetables, and legumes provide the fiber that supports the growth of friendly gut bacteria. Processed foods displace these foods from our diet.

But these investigators think something else about processed foods may be contributing to the increased risk of IBD. That is because in their study:

  • Processed meat increased the risk of IBD, but unprocessed white and red meat had no effect on IBD.
  • Processed sweetened foods increased the risk of IBD, but unprocessed starchy foods and naturally sweet fruits had no effect on IBD.
  • Processed salty foods and snacks increased the risk of IBD, but sodium intake had no effect on IBD.

The investigators also noted that in mouse studies:

  • Some food additives found in processed foods cause bacteria to stick to the epithelial lining of the intestine and/or cause leaky gut syndrome, both of which can lead to chronic inflammation of the intestine.

The investigators concluded, “In this study, higher ultra-processed food intake was associated with a higher risk of IBD.”

They went on to say, “As white meat, unprocessed red meat, dairy, starchy foods, fruits, vegetables, and legumes were not found to be associated with development of IBD, this study suggests that it may not be the food itself that confers this risk but rather the way the food is processed or ultra-processed…Further studies are needed to identify specific potential contributing factors among processed foods that might be responsible for the observed associations in our study.”

[Note: This is a fancy way of saying that the detrimental effects of processed foods may be due to more than the fact that they displace healthier foods from the diet. It may also be due to the effect of food additives on the risk of developing IBD.]

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanIBD is a rare disease (0.4% of the population). If you don’t have digestive issues, it would be easy to ignore this study and continue with a diet of highly processed foods.

However, I would remind you that in recent issues of “Health Tips From the Professor”, I have shared recent studies showing that highly processed foods increase your risk of:

And these studies are just the tip of the iceberg. We know that diets rich in whole grains and unprocessed fruits and vegetables decrease the risk of heart attack, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. And a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is the antithesis of a processed food diet.

The evidence is overwhelming. Highly processed foods may be convenient and tasty. But if you value your health, they are not your friends.

The Bottom Line 

A recent study looked at the effect of consuming processed foods on the risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The study found:

  • When comparing those eating the most processed food (≥5 servings/day) to those consuming the least (≤1 serving/day), processed food consumption increased the risk of developing IBD by 1.82-fold. This finding was equally true for:
    • Both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
    • Adults <50 and adults >50.
    • Every region of the world included in the study.

The investigators concluded, “In this study, higher ultra-processed food intake was associated with a higher risk of IBD.”

They went on to say, “…This study suggests that it may not be the food itself that confers this risk but rather the way the food is processed or ultra-processed…Further studies are needed to identify specific potential contributing factors among processed foods that might be responsible for the observed associations in our study.”

[Note: This is a fancy way of saying that the detrimental effect of processed foods may be due to more than the fact that they displace healthier foods from the diet. It may also be due to the effect of food additives commonly found in processed foods on the risk of developing IBD.]

For more details on the study and what it means for you, read the article above.

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 Diabetes Increasing In Our Children?

Why Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Last week I shared a study documenting the alarming increase in ultraprocessed food consumption by our children and the effect it was having on their health (https://chaneyhealth.com/healthtips/are-we-killing-our-children-with-kindness/). For example, childhood obesity is closely linked to ultraprocessed food consumption.

In case you don’t understand why that is, here is what I said last week: “Because ultraprocessed foods are made in a factory, not grown on a farm:

  • They are high in fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. That means they have a high caloric density. Each bite has 2-3 times the calories found in a bite of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Even worse, the food industry has weaponized our natural cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods. They feed their prototypes to a series of consumer tasting panels until they find the perfect blend of sugar, salt, and fat to create maximum craving.
  • And if that weren’t enough, they add additives to create the perfect flavor and “mouth appeal”.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and obesity in both children and adults.
    • It is also no wonder that the rate of childhood obesity has almost quadrupled in the last 40 years.”

Unfortunately, whenever you see an increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes is not far behind. Several studies have reported a dramatic increase in type 2 diabetes in our children over the last 20 years.

Because diabetics can manage their blood sugar levels with insulin and/or a variety of drugs, many people consider it as just an inconvenience. Nothing could be further from the truth. Diabetes is a deadly disease, and it is even deadlier when it appears early in life.

You probably already know that long-term complications of diabetes include heart disease and irreversible damage to nerves, kidneys, eyes, and feet. But you may not have known that childhood diabetes is more dangerous than diabetes in adults because:

  • It is more challenging to manage in children.
  • The complications of diabetes start to show up much earlier in life and affect quality of life at a much earlier age. For example:
    • Cardiovascular events occur 15 years earlier in someone with diabetes.
    • On average, a 50-year-old with diabetes will die 6 years earlier than someone without diabetes.
    • On average, a 10-year-old with diabetes will die 19 years earlier than a child without diabetes.

The study (JM Lawrence et al, JAMA, 326: 717-727, 2021) I will discuss today is the largest and most comprehensive study of childhood diabetes to date.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from the SEARCH For Diabetes In Youth Study. This study collected data on physician-diagnosed cases of diabetes in 3.47 million children ages 19 or younger from 6 geographical areas in the US in 2001, 2009, and 2017.

The 6 geographical areas were:

  • Southern California (7 counties, including Los Angeles).
  • Colorado (14 counties, including Denver).
  • Ohio (8 counties, including Cincinnati)
  • South Carolina (4 counties, including Columbia).
  • Washington State (5 counties, including Seattle).
  • Indian Health Service users in select areas of Arizona and New Mexico.

The data on diabetes diagnoses were obtained by creating active surveillance networks composed of pediatric and adult endocrinologists, other clinicians, hospitals, and health plans in the study areas.

Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children?

IncreaseTo answer this question let’s start with a historical perspective:

  • In 1950 obesity in US children was rare and type 2 diabetes in children was practically unknown.
    • Since then, obesity rates have skyrocketed, and type 2 diabetes has followed along behind it.
  • Between 1925 and 1950 the prevalence of type 1 diabetes in US children remained constant, but it has been steadily increasing since 1950.
    • Type 1 diabetes remains more prevalent than type 2 diabetes in our children, but the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has been increasing faster than type 1 diabetes.

Now let’s look at the results from the SEARCH For Diabetes In Youth Study:

Prevalence of Type 2 Diabetes:

  • The prevalence of type 2 diabetes in US children aged 10-19 increased from 0.34/1000 youths in 2001, to 0.46/1000 youths in 2009, to 0.67/1000 youths in 2017.
    • This is a 94% increase between 2001 and 2017. Put another way, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes in our children has almost doubled in just 16 years!
    • The greatest increase was seen among Black (0.85/1000 youths), Hispanic (0.57/1000 youths), and American Indian (0.42/1000 youths) population groups.
  • These data are consistent with 3 previous studies reporting a doubling of type 2 diabetes in children over similar time periods.

Note: Since data collection ended in 2017, this study does not take into account the increase in type 2 diabetes caused by increased body weight and reduced activity in children during the pandemic. There are no firm data on the increase in type 2 diabetes in children during the pandemic, but some hospitals have reported increases of 50% to 300% in new diagnoses of type 2 diabetes in 2020.

Prevalence of Type 1 Diabetes:

  • The prevalence of type 1 diabetes in US children aged 19 and younger increased from 1.48/1000 youths in 2001, to 1.93/1000 youths in 2009, to 2.15/1000 youths in 2017.
  • This is a 45% increase between 2001 and 2017.
    • The greatest increase was seen among White (0.93/1000 youths), Black (0.89/1000 youths), and Hispanic (0.59/1000 youths) population groups.
    • These data are consistent with a similar study of type 1 diabetes in children in Holland.

In summary:

  • This study documents a dramatic increase in the prevalence of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes in US children between 2001 and 2017.
  • Type 2 diabetes is still less prevalent than type 1 diabetes in US children, but it is increasing twice as fast.

Why Is Diabetes Increasing In Our Children?

Question MarkWhen it comes to type 2 diabetes, the experts agree:

  • The increase in type 2 diabetes in children is directly related to the obesity epidemic, which is now impacting our children. The obesity epidemic is, in turn, caused by:
    • Decreased exercise. Video games and social media have replaced actual games played outside.

However, when it comes the increase in type 1 diabetes, the experts are perplexed. There is no easy explanation. Let’s start with the basics:

  • Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease. With type 1 diabetics, their immune system starts attacking the insulin-producing beta cells in their pancreas. Consequently, they lose the ability to produce insulin.
  • The autoimmune response seen in type 1 diabetes is caused by a combination of genes and environment. Specifically:
    • Certain genes predispose to type 1 diabetes. However:
      • Only some people with those genes develop type 1 diabetes.
      • Our genetics doesn’t change with time, so genetics cannot explain the increases in type 1 diabetes we are seeing.
  • That leaves the environment. There are many hypotheses about how our children’s environment influences their risk of developing type 1 diabetes. However:
    • Some of these hypotheses involve things that have not changed over the last 15-20 years. They cannot explain the increase in type1 diabetes we are seeing in children.
    • Some of these hypotheses are not supported by good data. They are speculative.

With that in mind, I will list the top 5 current hypotheses and evaluate each of them.

#1: The viral infection hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis states that type 1 diabetes can be triggered by child with flucommon viral infections such as the flu.

  • This is a plausible hypothesis. Whenever our immune system is stimulated by invaders it sometimes goes rogue and triggers autoimmune responses.
  • It is also supported by good data. The onset of type 1 diabetes is often associated with a viral infection in genetically susceptible children.
  • However, prior to the pandemic viral infections have been constant. They haven’t changed over time. Therefore, they cannot explain an increase in type 1 diabetes between 2001 and 2017.

#2: The hygiene hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis states that when we raise our children in a sterile environment, their immune system doesn’t develop normally. Essentially the hypothesis is saying that it’s not a bad thing if your toddler eats some dirt and moldy fruits. However:

  • The data linking hygiene to food allergies is better than the data linking hygiene to autoimmune responses.
  • There is no evidence that hygiene practices have changed significantly between 2001 and 2017.

#3: The vitamin D hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis states that vitamin D deficiency is associated with the autoimmune response that causes type 1 diabetes.

  • One of the functions of vitamin D is to regulate the immune system.
  • As I have reported previously, suboptimal vitamin D levels are associated with increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
  • While we know that up to 61% of children in the US have suboptimal vitamin D levels, we don’t know whether that percentage has changed significantly in recent years.

happy gut bacteria#4: The gut bacteria hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis suggests that certain populations of gut bacteria increase the risk of developing type 1 diabetes. This is what we know.

  • Children who develop type 1 diabetes have a unique population of gut bacteria.
  • This population of gut bacteria also triggers inflammation, and chronic inflammation can lead to autoimmune responses.
  • A diet rich in highly processed foods supports growth of the same gut bacteria found in children with type 1 diabetes.
  • Consumption of highly processed foods has increased significantly in the last twenty years.

#5: The obesity hypothesis: Basically, this hypothesis suggests that obesity increases the risk of developing type 1 diabetes.

  • While the mechanism is not clear, childhood obesity is associated with both inflammatory and autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes.
  • Childhood obesity has increased dramatically in the past few years.

As you may have noticed, there are weaknesses to each of these hypotheses. This is why there is no current agreement among experts as to why type 1 diabetes is increasing in our children.

My guess is that none of these hypotheses can fully explain the increase in type 1 diabetes in our children, but that several of them may contribute to it.

What Can We Do?

Family Riding BicyclesWhatever the mechanism, the increase in both type 1 and type 2 diabetes in our children is troubling. Unless this trend is reversed, we may be dooming our children to short, unhealthy lives. So, what can we, as concerned parents and grandparents, do?

For type 2 diabetes, the answer is clear.

1) Reverse the dominance of ultraprocessed foods in children’s diets. Encourage the consumption of whole, unprocessed or minimally processed foods, and include lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Set a good example as well.

2) Encourage more activity. Get them outside and moving. Create family activities that involve exercise.

3) Reverse the obesity epidemic. If we succeed in reversing the dominance of ultraprocessed foods in their diet and encouraging more activity, we can reverse the obesity epidemic without putting our children on crazy diets.

For type 1 diabetes, the answer is less clear because the cause for the increase in type 1 diabetes is uncertain. However, I will point out that:

1) Increased consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes supports the growth of friendly gut bacteria that reduce inflammation and the risk of autoimmune diseases. For more detail on an anti-inflammatory diet, click here.

2) Reversing the obesity epidemic also reduces inflammation and the risk of autoimmune diseases.

3) Adequate vitamin D levels reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes. My recommendation is to get your 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels tested and supplement with vitamin D3 as needed, especially during the winter months.

The Bottom Line

Last week I shared a study documenting the alarming increase in ultraprocessed food consumption by our children and the effect it was having on their health. For example, childhood obesity is closely linked to ultraprocessed food consumption, and the rate of childhood obesity has almost quadrupled in the last 40 years.

Unfortunately, whenever you see an increase in obesity, type 2 diabetes is not far behind. This week’s study looked at the prevalence of childhood diabetes in 3.47 million children from 6 geographical areas of the United States between 2001 and 2017. This study found:

  • The prevalence of type 2 diabetes in US children increased 94% between 2001 and 2017. It almost doubled.
  • The prevalence of type 1 diabetes in US children increased 45% between 2001 and 2017.

These statistics are tragic because diabetes is a deadly disease.

You probably already know that long-term complications of diabetes include heart disease and irreversible damage to nerves, kidneys, eyes, and feet. But you may not have known that childhood diabetes is more dangerous than diabetes in adults because:

  • It is more challenging to manage in children.
  • The complications of diabetes start to show up much earlier in life and affect quality of life at a much earlier age. For example:
    • Cardiovascular events occur 15 years earlier in someone with diabetes.
    • On average, a 50-year-old with diabetes will die 6 years earlier than someone without diabetes.
    • On average, a 10-year-old with diabetes will die 19 years earlier than a child without diabetes.

For more details about this study, why the prevalence of diabetes in US children is increasing, and what we can do about it, read the article above.

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 We Killing Our Children With Kindness?

The Danger Of Ultraprocessed Foods 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

fast foodIt breaks my heart when I see a mom and her children in the checkout line of a supermarket with a cart filled with sodas, sweets, and convenience foods and devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables – or when I see fast food restaurants packed with parents and their children.

I get it. Our kids love these foods. It seems like an act of kindness to give them the foods they crave. But are we killing our children with kindness?

Let me explain. The human brain is hardwired to crave sweets, salt, and fat. In prehistoric times each of these cravings had a survival benefit. For example:

  • Mother’s milk is naturally sweet. It only makes sense that babies should crave the nutrition source that is essential for their early growth and development.
  • Fruits provide a cornucopia of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. But fruits were scarce and seasonal in prehistoric times. Their sweetness provided an incentive for early man to seek them out.
  • Some salt is essential for life. Yet in early history it was scare. It was worth its weight in gold.
  • In prehistoric times it was feast or famine. The human body has an unlimited capacity to store fat in times of plenty, and those fat stores carried early man through times of famine.

Today most Americans live in a time of food abundance. There are fast food restaurants on almost every street corner and in every shopping mall. We think of famine as the days we skipped lunch because we were busy.

Yet these cravings remain, and the food industry has weaponized them. They are churning out an endless supply highly processed foods and beverages. These foods are not being designed to improve their nutritional value. They are designed to satisfy our cravings and lure us and our children into consuming more of them every year.

Scientists have developed a classification system that assigns foods in the American diet to different groups based on the degree of processing of that food. As you might expect, the best classification is unprocessed foods. The worst classification is called “ultraprocessed foods”. [I will describe this classification system in more detail in the next section.]

It is time we asked how much ultraprocessed foods our children are eating and what it is doing to their health. That is the topic of the study (L Wang et al, JAMA, 326: 519-530, 2021) I will discuss today.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were obtained from NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) dietary data collected from 33,795 American children (ages 2-19, average age = 10) between 1999 and 2018.

NHANES is a program conducted by the CDC to survey the health and nutritional status of adults and children in the United States. The survey has been conducted on a continuous, yearly basis since 1999.

The dietary data are collected via 24-hour dietary recalls conducted by trained interviewers, with a second recall administered over the phone 3-10 days later to improve the accuracy of the data.

  • Children aged 12-19 completed the dietary survey on their own.
  • For children aged 6-11, a parent or guardian assisted them in filling out the survey.
  • For children aged 2-5, a parent or guardian filled out the survey for them.

The foods and beverages consumed by the children were divided into 4 major groups based on the extent of processing using a well-established classification system called NOVA. The 4 groups are:

1) Unprocessed Or Minimally Processed Foods.

  • This includes whole foods and foods that are minimally processed without the addition of oils, fats, sugar, salt, or other ingredients to the food.
  • Examples of minimally processed foods include things like oatmeal, nut butters, dried fruit, frozen fruits or vegetables, and dried beans.

2) Processed Culinary Ingredients.

  • This includes recipes from restaurants or in-home cooking that add small amounts of oils, fats, sugar, salt, and seasonings to whole foods.

3) Processed Foods

  • This includes foods made in factories by the addition of salt, sugar, oil, or other substances added to whole or minimally processed foods.
  • Examples include tomato paste, canned fruits packed in sugar syrup, cheese, smoked or cured meat.

4) Ultraprocessed Foods

  • These are industrial formulations created in factories mostly or entirely from substances extracted from foods (oils, fats, sugar, starch, and proteins), derived from food constituents (hydrogenated fats and modified starch), or synthesized in laboratories (flavor enhancers, colors, and food additives).
  • Examples include sugar sweetened beverages; sweet or savory packaged snacks; chocolates and candies; burgers, hot dogs, and sausages; poultry and fish nuggets, pastries, cakes, and cake mixes.

Are We Killing Our Children With Kindness?

Obese ChildAs I said above, the important question is, “Are we killing our children with kindness when we give them the sugary drinks, sweets, convenience foods, and fast foods they crave?” After all, the foods we give them when they are young are the ones they are most likely to select when they get older.

Let’s start by looking at how pervasive these foods have become. That was the purpose of the study I am discussing today, and the results of this study are alarming. When they looked at the changes in food consumption by our children between 1999 and 2018:

  • The percentage of calories from ultraprocessed foods increased from 61.4% to 67%. That means:
    • Today, more than 2/3 of the calories our children consume daily come from ultraprocessed foods!
  • The percentage of calories from unprocessed and minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. That means:
    • In the span of just 19 years the diets of our children have gone from bad to worse!
  • Ultraprocessed foods were more likely to be consumed away from home and at fast food restaurants.

When the investigators looked at individual categories of ultraprocessed foods:

  • The percentage of calories coming from ready to heat and eat dishes like frozen pizzas and other frozen meals or snacks increased from 2.2% to 11.2%.
  • The percentage of calories coming from sweet snacks and desserts increased from 10.7% to 12.9%.
  • The percentage of calories coming from sugar sweetened beverages decreased from 10.8% to 5.3%.
    • This is potentially the only good news from this study.

The authors concluded. “Based on NHANES data from 1999 to 2018, the estimated energy intake from consumption of ultraprocessed foods has increased among youths in the US and has consistently comprised the majority of their total energy intake.”

“These results suggest that food processing may need to be considered as a food dimension in addition to nutrients and food groups in future dietary recommendations and food policies.”

The Danger Of Ultraprocessed Foods

Fast Food DangersThis study clearly shows that ultraprocessed foods have become the mainstay of our children’s diets. Forget a balanced diet! Forget “Eat your fruits and vegetables”! Our children’s diets have been fundamentally transformed by “Big Food, Inc”.

You might be saying to yourself, “So, they are eating their favorite processed foods. What’s the big deal? How bad can it be?” My answer is, “Pretty Bad”. I chose the title, “Are we killing our children with kindness”, for a reason.

When you look at what happens to children who eat a diet that is mostly ultraprocessed foods:

#1: Their nutrition suffers. When the investigators divided the children into 5 groups based on the percentage of calories coming from ultraprocessed foods, the children consuming the most ultraprocessed food had:

  • Significantly higher intakes of carbohydrates (mostly refined carbohydrates); total fats; polyunsaturated fats (mostly highly processed omega-6-rich vegetable oils); and added sugars.
  • Significantly lower intakes of fiber; protein; omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids; calcium; magnesium; potassium; zinc; vitamins A, C, D, and folate.
    • The low intake of fiber means our children will be less likely to have health-promoting friendly bacteria and more likely to have disease-promoting bad bacteria in their guts.
    • The low intake of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D means they will be less likely to achieve maximum bone density as young adults and will be more likely to suffer from osteoporosis as they age.

#2: They are more likely to become obese. Remember, these are foods that are made in a factory, not grown on a farm.

  • They are high in fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates. That means they have a high caloric density. Each bite has 2-3 times the calories found in a bite of fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • As I said earlier, the food industry has weaponized our natural cravings for sweet, salty, and fatty foods. They feed their prototypes to a series of consumer tasting panels until they find the perfect blend of sugar, salt, and fat to create maximum craving.
  • And if that weren’t enough, they add additives to create the perfect flavor and “mouth appeal”.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and obesity in both children and adults.
    • It is also no wonder that the rate of childhood obesity has almost quadrupled (5% to 18.5%) in the last 40 years.

#3: They are more likely to become sick as adults and die prematurely.

  • Obesity; high intake of fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates; and low intake of fiber, omega-3s, and essential nutrients all contribute to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
    • It is no wonder that clinical studies have found a strong correlation between high intake of ultraprocessed food and increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and premature death in adults.
    • It is also no wonder a recent study found that type 2 diabetes in children has almost doubled between 2001 and 2017.

The data are clear. When we allow our children to subsist on a diet mostly made up of the ultraprocessed foods they crave, we may be giving them, not love, but a lifetime of obesity and declining health instead. And yes, we may be killing them with kindness.

Instead, my recommendations are:

  • expose your children to a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and minimally processed foods at an early age.
  • They will reject some of them, and that’s OK. Introduce others until you find whole, minimally processed foods they like. Reintroduce them to some of the foods they initially rejected as they get older.
  • Don’t keep tempting ultraprocessed foods in your house.
  • You may just succeed in putting your children on the path to a healthier diet and a healthier, longer life.

The Bottom Line

It breaks my heart when I see a mom and her children in the checkout line of a supermarket with a cart filled with sodas, sweets, and convenience foods and devoid of fresh fruits and vegetables – or when I see fast food restaurants packed with parents and their children.

I get it. Our kids love these foods. It seems like an act of kindness to give them the foods they crave. But are we killing our children with kindness?

It is time we asked how much ultraprocessed foods our children are eating and what it is doing to their health. A recent study did just that. When they looked at the changes in food consumption by our children between 1999 and 2018:

  • The percentage of calories from ultraprocessed foods increased from 61.4% to 67%. That means:
    • Today, more than 2/3 of the calories our children consume daily come from ultraprocessed foods!
  • The percentage of calories from unprocessed and minimally processed foods decreased from 28.8% to 23.5%. That means:
    • In the span of just 19 years the diets of our children have gone from bad to worse!

This study clearly shows that ultraprocessed foods have become the mainstay of our children’s diets. Forget a balanced diet! Forget “Eat your fruits and vegetables”! Our children’s diets have been fundamentally transformed by “Big Food, Inc”.

You might be saying to yourself, “So, they are eating their favorite processed foods. What’s the big deal? How bad can it be?” My answer is, “Pretty Bad”. I chose the title, “Are we killing our children with kindness”, for a reason.

When you look at what happens to children who eat a diet that is mostly ultraprocessed foods:

  • Their nutrition suffers.
  • They are more likely to become obese.
  • They are more likely to become sick as adults and die prematurely.

For more details about this study, read the article above.

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 Processed Foods Increase Your Risk Of Diabetes?

Why Do We Keep Eating Processed Foods?

Fast Food DangersUnless you are Rip Van Winkle and have been asleep for the past 20 years you probably know that the highly processed foods in the typical American diet are bad for your health. But perhaps you didn’t realize just how bad they were.

But first, let’s start with a bit of perspective. Scientists like to be precise. Even healthy foods go through some processing.

  • The oatmeal you ate this morning was either steel-cut or ground. That is processing.
  • The almond butter you put on your whole grain toast this morning was made by roasting and grinding. That is processing.

So, scientists have developed the term “ultra-processed food” to describe the worst of the worse. In short, ultra-processed foods:

  • Usually go through several physical and chemical processes, such as extruding, molding, prefrying, and hydrogenation that can lead to the formation of toxic contaminants. One example you may have heard about recently would be acrylamide in French fries.
  • Typically contain ingredients of no or little nutritive value, such as refined sugar, hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers, artificial sweeteners, thickening agents, and artificial colors. Some of these ingredients have been linked to cancer, heart disease, and premature death.
  • Have long shelf-lives because of added preservatives. This allows migration of chemicals such as bisphenol A from the packaging materials into the food.

Examples of ultra-processed foods include:

  • Sodas
  • Chips
  • Candy and packages of cookies or crackers
  • Most breakfast cereals
  • Boxed cake, cookie, and pancake mix
  • Chicken nuggets and fish sticks
  • Fast food burgers
  • Hot dogs and other processed meats
  • Infant formula
  • Instant noodles
  • Most store-bought ice cream
  • Flavored yogurt

In short, ultra-processed foods include sodas and the junk and convenience foods Americans hold so dear. Even things like infant formula and flavored yogurt make the list.

Evidence of the ill effects of ultra-processed foods on our health is becoming overwhelming. In previous issues of “Health Tips From the Professor” I have shared recent studies that have shown that heavy consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to increased risk of obesity and cancer. Other studies have linked ultra-processed food consumption with increased risk of depression, heart disease, and premature death.

In this issue of “Health Tips From the Professor” I:

  • Ask the important question, “If we know these foods are so bad for us, why do we still keep eating them?”

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data from this study were taken from an ongoing study in France (the NutriNet-Sante study) looking at associations between nutrition and health. This study began enrolling French adults 18 and older in 2009.

This is a web-based study. Participants are prompted to go to a dedicated website and fill out questionnaires related to things like sex, age, height, weight, smoking status, physical activity, health status, and diet.

With respect to diet, participants filled out a series of 3 nonconsecutive 24-hour dietary records at the time of enrollment and every 6 months. This is a particularly strong feature of this study. Many studies of this type only analyze participant’s diets at the beginning of the study. Those studies have no way of knowing how the participant’s diets may have changed during the study.

Diagnosis of type 2 diabetes for study participants was obtained from the French centralized health records.

The study enrolled 104,708 participants, 20% men and 80% women, and followed them for an average of 6 years. The average age of the participants was 43 years.

Do Processed Foods Increase Your Risk Of Diabetes?

High Blood SugarIn this study the range of ultra-processed foods in the French diet ranged from 7% to 27% (average = 17%). High intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with:

  • Younger participants. Simply put, young people were more likely to drink sodas and eat junk food than older adults.
  • Increased caloric intake. Ultra-processed foods have a higher caloric density than whole, unprocessed foods.
  • No surprise here. Previous studies have shown that ultra-processed food consumption increases the risk of obesity.
  • Poorer diet quality. Again, no surprise. Junk foods tend to crowd healthier foods out of the dirt. Specifically, ultra-processed food consumption was associated with:
    • Higher intake of sugar and salt.
    • Lower intake of fiber.
    • Higher intake of sugary drinks, red and processed meats.
    • Lower intake of whole grains, yogurt, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

However, even after statistically correcting for all these factors, there was a significant association between ultra-processed food consumption and the onset of type 2 diabetes in the 6-year follow-up period.

  • There was a linear relation between ultra-processed food consumption and the development of type 2 diabetes. Simply put, the more ultra-processed food the participants consumed the more likely they were to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
  • There was a 15% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption.

The authors concluded:

“In this large observational prospective study, a higher proportion of ultra-processed food in the diet was associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. Even though these results need to be confirmed in other populations and settings, they provide evidence to support efforts by public health authorities to recommend limiting ultra-processed food consumption.”

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Questioning WomanYou might be tempted to say that a 15% increase in the risk of developing diabetes is a small price to pay for continuing to eat the foods you enjoy. However, you should be alarmed by this study. Here is why.

The French diet is much healthier than the American. Remember that ultra-processed foods only comprised 17% of the French Diet. In contrast, a recent survey found that:

  • Ultra-processed foods make up 58% of the average American’s diet.
  • Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugar in our diet.

It is no wonder that obesity and diabetes are reaching epidemic proportions in our country.

You might also be tempted to think that you can just take some medications and live with type 2 diabetes. However, you should think of type 2 diabetes as a gateway disease. It increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney damage, and neuropathy, just to name a few. These are diseases that make your life miserable and ultimately kill you.

More importantly, type 2 diabetes is completely reversible if you catch it early enough. Just lose some weight, exercise more, give up the ultra-processed foods, and eat a healthy diet. I recommend a whole food, primarily plant-based diet.

Why Do We Keep Eating Processed Foods?

Fast FoodsWe all know that ultra-processed foods are bad for us. Study after study show that they make us sick. They kill us prematurely. And, unlike most topics in the field of nutrition, this is not controversial.

For example, there have been lots of bizarre diets that have come and gone over the years. There have been books written on “The Steak Lover’s Diet” and “The Drinking Man’s Diet”. But nobody has written a book on “The Junk Food Lover’s Diet”. It simply would not be believable.

So why do we Americans keep eating such unhealthy foods. Part of the answer is physiological. A preference for sweet, salty, and fatty foods is hardwired into our brain. That’s because they had great survival value in prehistoric times.

If we think back to the time when we were hunters and gatherers:

  • Fruits are healthy foods. They are a great source of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber, but there were no orchards or grocery stores back then. We had to search for fruits in the wild. Our desire for sweet tasting foods provided the motivation to seek them out.
  • Game was seasonal and sometimes scarce. We had to be prepared to go for days or weeks without eating except for the leaves and roots we could gather. Our bodies are designed to store fat as the primary energy source to get us through the lean times. Our preference for fatty foods encouraged us to store as much fat as possible in times of plenty so we would be prepared for times of scarcity.
  • If we fast forward to our early recorded history, salt was scarce. It was worth its weight in gold. Yet some salt is essential for life. Our preference for salty foods encouraged us to search out supplies of salt.

Unfortunately, the food industry has weaponized these food preferences to create the ultra-processed foods we know today. Their ads entice us by associating these foods with youth and good times. And ultra-processed foods have become ubiquitous. There are fast food restaurants on almost every street corner and shopping mall in the country.

Fortunately, we do not have to let the food industry destroy our health. We can retrain our taste buds to appreciate the sweetness of fresh fruits and vegetables. We can substitute healthy fats for the kinds of fat found in most ultra-processed foods. We can also retrain our taste buds to appreciate herbs and spices with just a pinch of salt.

The Bottom Line

Ultra-processed foods, such as sodas, junk foods, and convenience foods have become the biggest food group in the American diet. A recent study found:

  • Ultra-processed foods make up 58% of the average American’s diet.
  • Ultra-processed foods account for 90% of the added sugar in our diet.

That is scary because ultra-processed foods are deadly. Previous studies have shown that consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

The study discussed this week looked at the association between ultra-processed food consumption and type 2 diabetes. It showed:

  • There was a linear relation between ultra-processed food consumption and the development of type 2 diabetes. Simply put, the more ultra-processed food the participants consumed the more likely they were to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
  • There was a 15% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes for every 10% increase in ultra-processed food consumption.

You might be tempted to think that you can just take some medications and live with type 2 diabetes. However, you should think of type 2 diabetes as a gateway disease. It increases your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, kidney damage, and neuropathy, just to name a few. This are diseases that make your life miserable and ultimately kill you.

More importantly, type 2 diabetes is completely reversible if you catch it early enough. Just lose some weight, exercise more, give up the ultra-processed foods, and eat a healthy diet. I recommend a whole food, primarily plant-based diet.

For more details and a discussion of why Americans continue to eat ultra-processed food even though we know it is bad for us, read the article above.

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.

Health Tips From The Professor