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Soda Tax Passes, More to Come?

Berkeley, Calif., voters gave a big win to a penny-per-ounce tax on sodas in the November 4 election. They approved the tax by a margin of three-to-one despite big spending by the beverage industry, which poured $2.1 million into an effort to defeat the tax. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg supported the Berkeley soda tax with a $650,000 contribution to help finance the ballot initiative. A soda tax was also on the ballot in San Francisco, where it passed by a majority, 54.5 percent, but this fell short of the two-thirds vote needed to approve the tax. The passage of the Berkeley soda tax is considered likely to spur other localities in California and the Pacific Northwest to impose similar soda taxes. In other food-related electoral news, efforts to require labeling of GMO foods were defeated in Oregon and Colorado after a campaign in which the food industry spent a reported $60 million to oppose the labeling initiative.

My take? I think a tax on sodas is a worthwhile experiment. We know that raising taxes on cigarettes has deterred use, especially among young people. Berkeley, Calif., has long been ahead of the curve on common-sense public health measures, such as smoke-free areas in bars and restaurants, so it isn't a big surprise that it took the lead here as well. However, I'm still not convinced a soda tax will pick up sufficient public and legislative backing to be enacted nationwide. As far as GMO labeling is concerned, I support it simply because I believe people have the right to know what their foods and supplements contain.


Mind Games: Giving Seniors a Beneficial Boost

Using positive subliminal messages can help cancel out some of the negative societal stereotypes of aging, and even improve physical functioning in seniors, according to a new study. Researchers at Yale University recruited 100 seniors (average age 81) from the New Haven, Conn., area and placed a group of them in front of computers screens that were flashing words like "spry" and "creative." The messages were shown at speeds too fast to read or grasp consciously, but slow enough that their meanings were perceived and stored in the minds of the study participants. Interaction with those positive words and phrases improved balance and other physical functions among the seniors involved, strengthened their positive outlook on age, and diminished negative stereotypes of age compared to study participants in a control group who didn't have exposure to the subliminal messages. The same research team had previously shown that negative stereotypes of age can weaken seniors' physical functioning, but this study was the first to show that positive subliminal messages can actually affect seniors' physical functioning with benefits that lasted for weeks.


Tea, Citrus May Lower Ovarian Cancer Risk

Here's some good news for women from the U.K.: a report showing that women who drank a few cups of tea per day and ate some citrus fruit or drank citrus juice (mostly orange juice) had a 31 percent lower risk of the most common type of ovarian cancer than others in the study whose consumption of tea and citrus was low. The researchers reviewed three decades of health data from 171,940 women age 25 to 55 participating in the long-running Nurses' Health Studies in the U.S., and analyzed food frequency questionnaires submitted by the study participants every four years. They credited the antioxidants called flavanols (found in tea, red wine, apples and grapes) as well as the flavanones found in citrus fruit and juices with the risk reduction. This was the first investigation to look at the effect of these antioxidants in the diet on ovarian cancer risk. Ovarian cancer strikes over 6,500 women in the U.K. and 20,000 women in the U.S. annually. In the U.S. it is now the fifth leading cause of death in women.


Milk May Increase Bone Fractures

If you've been drinking milk daily to help strengthen your bones, you might be on the wrong track, new research from Sweden suggests. The study found that drinking milk doesn't boost bone strength. Instead, the opposite can occur. The investigation suggested that drinking three or more glasses of milk daily increased the risk of bone thinning (often a precursor of osteoporosis), bone fractures - and death - in women. Milk consumption also slightly increased deaths from cardiovascular disease in men who drank three glasses a day compared to men who drank less than a glass of milk a day. Drinking milk didn't benefit men's bones either. To reach their conclusions, the researchers followed 61,433 women (aged 39-74 years in 1987-1990) for an average of 20 years and 45,339 men (aged 45-79 years in 1997) for an average of 11 years. The participants completed food frequency questionnaires for 96 common foods including milk, yogurt and cheese. This isn't the first investigation to conclude that drinking milk doesn't build bones in adults. In fact, this new analysis showed that instead of milk, you're better off eating cheese or fermented milk products (yogurt) - each serving reduced hip fractures and death rates by 10-15 percent.

My take? These findings don't surprise me. They're not the first - and I doubt they'll be the last - to suggest that drinking milk doesn't prevent the bone thinning that can lead to osteoporosis. I do not recommend consuming milk to prevent osteoporosis. The notion that milk is good for all of us throughout life has been fostered by the dairy industry. Although we all need calcium and vitamin D, you can obtain calcium from cooked greens (especially collards) as well as broccoli and tofu, molasses and sesame seeds. As for vitamin D, I recommend that all adults take a daily supplement of 2,000 IU since our need for this important nutrient is difficult to meet from diet alone (your body makes vitamin D with exposure to sunlight, but many people remain deficient). To build bone mass when you're young, eat plenty of green vegetables that provide calcium and vitamin D, get adequate physical activity and avoid smoking and consuming large amounts of soda, coffee, alcohol and sugar, all of which promote loss of bone density. To preserve bone mass in midlife and old age, you need regular strength training (sometimes called resistance exercise).


How Alcohol Can Help Your Brain

If you're age 60 or older and still have your wits about you, having a cocktail or two may enhance your episodic memory - the ability to remember events, whether they're recent or happened years ago. An example of useful episodic memory is the ability to remember where you parked your car. A new study from researchers in Texas, Kentucky and Maryland found that moderate alcohol consumption is also associated with a larger hippocampus, the brain area considered critical for episodic memory. Data from surveys of 660 patients enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort revealed the link through the review of the participants' alcohol consumption, demographics, neuropsychological evaluations, MRIs of their brains and whether or not they were genetically at risk for Alzheimer's disease. The researchers noted that results of earlier animal studies suggest that moderate alcohol consumption may promote generation of new nerve cells in the hippocampus. They added, however, that having five or more drinks on any single occasion would do your brain more harm than good.


Walnuts to Slow Alzheimer's

Eating a few walnuts a day may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer's and even slow the progression of the disease, at least in mice. A new study from the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities found that adding walnuts to the diets of mice with the mouse version of Alzheimer's boosted the animals' learning skills, memory, reduced anxiety and improved motor development. The amount of walnuts added to the mouse diet was the equivalent of a human portion of one ounce to one and a half ounces per day. The researchers performed this study following laboratory findings that walnut extracts showed activity against the oxidative damage caused by amyloid protein, the major component of amyloid plaques characteristic of Alzheimer's disease. The investigators said that the high antioxidant content of walnuts may have helped protect the mouse brain from the degeneration seen with Alzheimer's. The study also suggested that adding walnuts to their diet delayed the onset or prevented Alzheimer's in the mice.


Drinking Soda May Accelerate Aging

We know that habitually sipping sugary sodas can lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, but new research suggests that consuming sugar-sweetened drinks daily may have a negative effect on telomeres, the repeating DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes that shorten with age. Investigators from the University of California, San Francisco looked at telomeres in the white blood cells of stored DNA from 5,309 individuals who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 1999-2002. They calculated that the telomere shortening observed among individuals who consumed one 20-ounce soda daily was comparable to the effect of smoking. Over time, these changes were associated with 4.6 years of additional biological aging. In addition to the link between short telomeres and decreased human lifespan, the length of telomeres within white blood cells has been associated with development of heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. Study leader Elissa Epel, Ph.D., noted that the association between drinking sugar-sweetened soda and telomere shortening "held regardless of age, race, income and education level."

My take? These new findings don't surprise me. Earlier research has shown that drinking a single sugar-containing soda per day is linked to weight gain. A daily soda habit also increases a woman's risk of developing diabetes by 83 percent compared to women who have less than one sweetened drink per month. Sodas of any kind don't belong in a healthy, well-balanced diet. Opt instead for filtered water, tea or sparkling water mixed with natural fruit juice.


Trying to Lose Weight? Read This

Eating out too often can interfere with your diet, lead to weight gain and an unhealthy boost in your cholesterol levels. This finding, from a study at Queens College in New York City, doesn't come as a big surprise since restaurant meals are often high in calories and fat, and the portion sizes are much larger than you might serve yourself at home. Between 2005 and 2010 the researchers collected information from more than 8,300 adults. Their analysis of this data showed that individuals who ate six or more meals a week away from home had a higher body mass index, lower levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol and lower blood concentrations of vitamins C and E. While the researchers found that men eat more meals in restaurants than women, the negative effects of too many restaurant meals hit women harder, and were also more marked in individuals older than age 50. The study team reported that men who ate meals in restaurants frequently were in their 20s and 30s and had college degrees and higher incomes than occasional restaurant patrons. Nutritionists not involved with the study were quoted in news reports as saying that some restaurant portion sizes often have three to four servings-worth of calories.