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Sugary Drinks and Your Liver

Drinking just one sweetened beverage a day may be all it takes to increase the risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). As the name suggests, this disorder, marked by an accumulation of fat in liver cells, has nothing to do with alcohol consumption, and many people with NAFLD have no symptoms. However, it affects approximately 25 percent of Americans and puts them at greater risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.  Researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University reported the risks of developing liver disease posed by sweetened beverages after analyzing 2,634 questionnaires from middle-aged men and women enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study’s Offspring and Third Generation cohorts. The beverages at issue include both caffeinated-and caffeine-free colas, other carbonated drinks containing sugar, fruit punches, and lemonade or other non-carbonated fruit drinks.  All of these beverages are significant dietary sources of fructose, a compound that may increase the risk of NAFLD because of the way it is processed in our bodies, the researchers said. The study participants underwent CT scans to assess the amount of fat in their livers. The link to sweetened beverages remained after the researchers accounted for age, gender, body mass index, calorie intake, alcohol consumption and smoking.

My take: This isn’t the first study to find a link between NAFLD and sugar-sweetened beverages. In 2010 researchers at Duke University Medical Center linked foods and beverages sweetened with high fructose corn syrup to NAFLD and scarring of the liver. Researchers there looked at dietary questionnaires completed by 427 adults with NAFLD. Only 19 percent of these patients reported no consumption of fructose containing beverages. The more of these drinks study participants consumed, the more liver scarring was seen. There's no treatment for NAFLD - all you can do is lose weight and lower your triglycerides if they're elevated. These beverages have no place in a healthy diet.


Seniors’ Fitness Age v. Chronological Age

You could be over 60 and have a “fitness age” decades younger. It all depends on the shape you’re in and how hard you’re working to stay fit. This news comes from a study of participants in this year’s Senior Olympics for athletes over 50 showing that their fitness age is typically 25 years younger than their chronological age. More than 4,200 of the nearly 10,000 men and women who qualified for the games entered information about themselves on an online calculator designed to assess fitness age. Results showed that their average chronological age was 68, but their fitness age averaged 43. According to a New York Times’ interview with Dr. Pamela Peeke, M.D., a Senior Olympics board member and a competitor in the games, few of the athletes who qualified had begun to exercise and train seriously until they were middle-aged or older. The calculator was developed using health and fitness data gathered from more than 5,000 Norwegian adults, and was designed to quickly calculate aerobic capacity and relative fitness age based on gender, resting heart rate, waist size and exercise routine.


The Downside of Reusable Shopping Bags

Toting a reusable bag on your shopping trips is the environmentally friendly thing to do. But it also seems to affect shopping behavior – in both good and bad ways. On the plus side, a two-year study from researchers at Harvard and at Duke University, found that people who bring their own bags are more likely to buy organically grown fruits and vegetables. But you may also feel so good about your shopping habits and environmental consciousness that you can justify a reward – adding some junk food to your shopping cart. The investigators collected data from shoppers at a single location of a large California grocery chain between May 2005 and March 2007. They compared the same shoppers’ choices when they brought their own bags and when they didn’t. The researchers concluded that their findings might hold a commercial lesson for grocery store managers – marketing organic and sustainably produced foods as treats might especially appeal to this group of shoppers and boost store sales. There’s also a lesson for the rest of us, too – if you brought your own bags, be mindful to stay out of the junk food aisles.


Your Diet, Your Brain and Your Microbiome

What you eat can affect your ability to adapt and adjust to changing situations in your day-to-day environment, at least if you’re a mouse. New research from Oregon State University suggests that diets high in fat and sugar have an undesirable effect on the microbiome, the 100 trillion or so microorganisms that populate our digestive system. And that influence seems to impact the brain’s ability to adapt and adjust to new problems, a trait known as cognitive flexibility. Although this study was done in mice (which the researchers said are a “good model” for humans on a variety of topics), it suggests that these particular diets can affect the way we respond to unexpected changes. The real-world example lead investigator Kathy Magnusson gave was how quickly you would adapt if you were driving home and your usual route was closed. No problem plotting an alternate course as a solution if you have normal cognitive flexibility. If not, your trip home could be pretty stressful. With the mice, four weeks on a high sugar or high fat diet affected the way they performed on a variety of challenging tests compared to animals on a normal mouse diet. One of the most pronounced changes seen was in cognitive flexibility. The study was done with young mice. Dr. Magnusson said the effect of the high sugar or high fat diet might be more dramatic in older animals (or humans).


My take: These new findings mirror the results of other studies about the impact of fat and sugar on cognitive function and behavior, suggesting that some of these problems may be linked to dietary influences on the microbiome. We’re just beginning to understand the health consequences of our microbiomes, but based on what we know so far, they are becoming increasingly unbalanced in this country compared to other populations that eat traditional diets. This is likely due to growing reliance on processed products in addition to regular exposure to antibiotics from medical treatment and residues in foods. These changes in the microbiome may underlie an increased incidence of a wide range of diseases and conditions including psychological and behavioral disorders. 


Carbs and Depression

We know that refined sugar and heavily refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, rice and sweetened soda affect insulin production and insulin-like growth factors, changes which promote inflammation and its negative effect on health. Here’s another good reason for women, in particular, to avoid refined carbs: researchers at Columbia University Medical Center in New York have reported that a diet high in these foods may increase the risk for depression in post-menopausal women. The team compared the dietary glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) of carbohydrates consumed and incidence of depression in data gathered from more than 70,000 women participants in the National Institutes of Health’s Women’s Health Initiative Observational Study. They reported that the higher GI scores and the more sugars and refined grains the women ate, the higher their risk of depression. The study found a lower risk of depression among women who reported eating more whole grains, vegetables and non-juice fruits, all good sources of fiber. The researchers wrote that their findings suggest that a glycemic-based dietary approach might help treat and prevent depression, but more study in the broader population is needed to gauge its effectiveness. 


Yo-Yo Dieting and Cancer

The suspicion that yo-yo dieting – repeated weight loss and regaining, also termed “weight cycling” – could be linked to cancer comes from a number of studies in both animals and humans. The results of those studies suggested that weight cycling might negatively affect key biological processes that protect and repair cells, which could lead to cancer. Now dieters concerned about this potential effect may be able to rest a bit easier. A newly published report has found no association between weight cycling and any type of cancer in men or women. A team of American Cancer Society researchers examined this issue by reviewing data from an investigation that lasted 17 years. They accumulated detailed dietary information on more than 132,000 men and women ages 50 to 74 who were participating in the Cancer Prevention Study II, which was focused on the effect of nutrition on cancer incidence and deaths. The researchers reviewed weight cycling and the incidence of cancer in general and for 15 individual cancers. Over the 17 years of the Cancer Prevention Study more than 25,000 participants did develop cancer, but based on the investigation’s findings lead researcher Victoria Stevens, Ph.D. said that the last thing people struggling to lose weight need worry about is that regaining might lead to cancer. Yo-yo dieting may not be the threat we thought it was.


A Spicy Route to a Longer Life

The more spicy foods you eat, the longer you’re likely to live compared to folks whose diets lack fiery ingredients like chili peppers. A team of Harvard researchers looked into the question of whether or not spicy foods had any influence on the risk of death among some 199,000 men and 288,000 women ages 30 through 79 who lived in 10 regions of China. None had a history of cancer, heart disease or stroke when the study began. The team surveyed the participants’ diet and health histories between 2004 and 2008. After seven years of follow up, results indicated that regular consumption of spicy foods was linked to decreased chances of dying during the study. Eating spicy foods once or twice a week was associated with a 10 percent decline in the overall risk for death compared to consuming spicy foods less than once a week. Consuming spicy foods even more often - between three and seven days a week - was linked to a risk of death 14 percent lower than the others in the study. Fresh chili peppers in particular were associated with a lower incidence of dying from cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The researchers noted that while the study didn’t prove cause and effect, it did show an association between spicy foods and a lower risk of death.

My take: This is good news for those of us who enjoy spicy foods. Earlier studies have indicated that capsaicin, a compound in chili peppers that gives it its heat, is a natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent and may enhance the metabolism of fat. Red chili peppers also have been shown to reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Most varieties are high in vitamin C, a potential cancer fighter. Here in the American Southwest, chili peppers and cayenne are staples. Many healthy traditional cuisines incorporate chili pepper into both savory and sweet dishes - and it's a delicious addition to hot chocolate. 


Insulin Resistance and Alzheimer’s disease

Insulin is the hormone that facilitates the transport of blood sugar (glucose) from the bloodstream into cells for use as fuel. In healthy individuals it is secreted by the pancreas in response to the normal increase in blood sugar that occurs after a meal. With insulin resistance, the normal amount of insulin secreted is not enough to move glucose into the cells - thus the cells are said to be "resistant" to its action, and the pancreas is prompted to secrete higher amounts. This excess insulin drives the body to store fat and can lead to diabetes, a risk factor for heart disease. And new research suggests that insulin resistance may also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Investigators at Iowa State University examined brain scans of 150 middle age adults whose average was 60 who showed no signs of memory loss. The scans were aimed at determining if study participants with higher levels of insulin resistance used less blood sugar in particular regions of the brain, especially those areas most susceptible to Alzheimer’s. If so, the brain would have less energy to deal with information and function. The results showed that insulin resistance was associated with significantly lower regional cerebral glucose metabolism, which in turn may predict worse memory performance. Based on their findings, the researchers noted that problems regulating blood sugar might affect cognitive function regardless of age. Even people with mild or moderate insulin resistance might have an increased risk for Alzheimer’s because they’re showing many of the same sorts of brain and memory relationships wrote lead researcher Auriel A. Willette, Ph.D. Fortunately, you can help restore normal insulin sensitivity with diet – emphasize low-glycemic index food – and exercise.