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Broccoli for Healthy Joints

There's new hope in the search for a way to help slow or prevent arthritis: eating broccoli. Researchers in England are examining evidence suggesting that sulforaphane, a compound in broccoli, helps deter the arthritic process and provides long-term benefits for joint health. Initial laboratory research indicated that sulforaphane can block the enzymes that cause joint destruction. The same substance is also thought to suppress tumors, which would make it protective against cancer as well. We know that eating broccoli leads to a high level of sulforaphane in the blood, but the British researchers want to determine how it gets into joints, and how much would be needed to prevent or treat osteoarthritis, a joint disease that gradually destroys cartilage leading to pain, swelling and loss of mobility. The same British team is also investigating the effects of other dietary compounds on arthritis, including diallyl disulphide, which is found in garlic.

My take? Every child is aware that eating broccoli is good for you. Population studies have shown that people who eat a lot of broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables have lower rates of cancer than those who don't. We don't yet know, however, which constituents in these vegetables are responsible for their protective effects. It may be indole-3 carbinol, which some lab studies show inhibits growth of some types of cancer, the carotenoid pigments, vitamin C, or the sulforaphane. The cancer-protective effects observed could also be due to two or more of these components acting together. I'll be interested in the outcome of the British study, but in the meantime, eating plenty of broccoli (and other cruciferous vegetables) seems a simple and prudent strategy to support a healthy lifestyle.

Find broccoli recipes in my healthy kitchen.


Preparing for Lifelong Health, Part 2

Get a complete annual physical examination that includes measurement of blood pressure, urinalysis, and complete blood work, as well as an electrocardiogram (EKG). A physical will screen for such common conditions as hypertension, diabetes, elevated serum cholesterol, anemia, and liver or kidney problems. Keep the results in your personal medical record. Discuss how often to have physicals with your health care provider.

More on physical exams.


Aggressive Breast Cancer Linked to Low Vitamin D

This news comes from a University of South Carolina research team studying breast cancer, who found that women with aggressive and late stage breast cancer were more likely to be deficient in vitamin D than women with less dangerous types of breast cancer. The investigators looked at vitamin D levels in 107 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in the previous five years. Of this group, 60 women were African-American; the other 47 were white. Blood samples showed that the vitamin D levels among the African-American women were about one third lower than they were among the white women. One reason for the difference might be that darker skin can block production of vitamin D in response to sun exposure. Levels of "D" also tend to be lower among those who are overweight or aren't very physically active. The study results were presented at a conference of the American Association for Cancer Research and are considered preliminary until they're published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

Information on lowering breast cancer risk.


Vegan Coconut Flan

Dessert lover? This light tofu pudding is very much like an egg custard made with coconut milk - a very common Southeast Asian dessert (but good with any tropical menu, including Latin American). I like to serve it with chunks of pineapple and fresh mint sprigs as an edible decoration. Fans of traditional flan will find this to be a delicious and healthful substitute. If you don't tell your guests about the switch, it's likely they won't even know the difference! There is an option, too, for vegan crème caramel.


5 tablespoons brown sugar or Sucanat or Rapadura
3 tablespoons water

2/3 cup medium-firm tofu (or use extra-firm silken tofu), crumbled
2 tablespoons light unbleached sugar or white beet sugar
1 tablespoon of the Syrup, above
3/4 teaspoons coconut extract
Pinch of salt
2 1/2 cups (reduced fat, if you like) soymilk or other non-dairy milk, such as rice or almond milk
3/4 teaspoons agar powder or 1 ½ tablespoons agar flakes


To make the Syrup: 
1. Bring the water and sugar to a boil in a small saucepan with a heavy bottom, over low heat. Simmer uncovered for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. 

2. Working quickly, place in the blender the tofu, 1 tablespoon of Syrup, 2 tablespoons sugar, coconut extract and salt. Set this aside and pour the remaining syrup evenly into 6 custard molds. Rotate each one to coat the base and sides with the syrup. Set aside. 

3. Into the same saucepan pour the non-dairy milk and the agar. Bring this quickly to a boil, stirring constantly, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Continue stirring. Add this hot milk mixture to the ingredients in the blender and immediately blend it to a smooth cream. Stir down the bubbles. Pour the blended mixture into the coated molds, and skim off any remaining foam. Cover the molds with plastic wrap, and refrigerate them until serving time. 

To unmold the puddings:
Dip the bottom of each mold briefly into boiling water, then remove the plastic wrap and turn upside down on a dessert plate. The pudding should slide out easily. Pour any syrup left in the bottom of the mold over the pudding. Decorate each plate with fruit and mint or lemon balm sprigs. 

Variation: Vegan Crème Caramel or Individual Spanish-Style Flans: 
Omit the coconut extract and add 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract (you could use some orange extract or orange zest in the pudding and/or the syrup, if you like, and use less vanilla). I like this version less sweet, so I leave out the extra 2 tablespoons sugar in the pudding mixture, but you can leave it (or part of it) in, if you prefer.

Food as Medicine: Those who worry that vegan foods are iron deficient, note that tofu is an excellent source of iron, providing more than 33 percent of the Daily Value for this vital mineral.

Nutritional considerations for vegans to take into account.


What's a Whole Grain?

Most people - including your average health-food enthusiast - consider whole-grain breads to be examples of "whole-grain foods."  But in terms of glycemic load, only intact, unpulverized grains should qualify as whole grains. Here's why:

More on true whole grains vs. whole-grain flour products.


Lose Weight to Ease Aches and Pains

We all know that excess weight increases the risks of chronic health concerns - cancer, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and asthma. But that knowledge hasn’t been very effective in motivating individuals to lose weight. Now, in hopes that other benefits would be more motivating than the danger of future disease, researchers at the University of Cincinnati have documented a more immediate perquisite of weight loss: relief of the musculoskeletal aches and pains that often accompany excess pounds. The investigators recruited 32 women between the ages of 22 and 76 who already were enrolled in a local weight-loss clinic. At the start of the 12-week study, they collected data on the women's weight and any associated pain in the neck, shoulders, elbows, hands and wrists, upper back, lower back, hips, knees, lower legs and feet. They tracked each woman's weight loss weekly and asked the participants to rate their pain on a scale of 0 to 10. After losing an average of 10 pounds, 21 percent of the women reported significantly less pain in their lower extremities and back. Overall, the participants reported a 20 to 30 percent reduction in pain after losing weight. 

My take? Earlier studies have shown that weight loss improves quality of life, including increased energy and less physical pain. If you have arthritis, excess weight puts additional stress on the hip and knee joints, and you're likely to feel better if you can lose even a few pounds. Losing weight to relieve pain is a worthwhile and achievable goal - you'll feel better even after relatively small losses. And, incidentally, you'll also lower your risks for the diseases that can endanger your long-term health.

More on diet and weight loss.


To Sleep Better, Get More Exercise

Here's further proof that regular aerobic exercise can help middle aged and older adults overcome insomnia. Researchers at Northwestern University recruited 23 sedentary adults, mostly women of ages 55 and older, who had problems falling or staying asleep, to take part in a 16-week study. The participants were divided into three groups; the first group performed two 20-minute sessions of aerobic activity four times per week; the second group completed a 30 to 40 minute workout four times a week; the third group did not engage in any physical activity, but instead took cooking classes, attended lectures at museums or took part in other recreational or educational programs three to five times a week. Those who exercised reported that their sleep quality improved from "poor" to "good" and that the duration of their sleep lengthened as well. What’s more, the participants reported fewer depressive symptoms, more vitality and less daytime sleepiness than they had in the past. The study was scheduled for publication in the October, 2010, issue of Sleep Medicine.

Hate to exercise? Here's my advice.


Preparing for Lifelong Health, Part 1

Keep a personal medical journal that includes a record of past illnesses, injuries, treatments, tests and screenings, hospitalizations, current medications and family history. Based on family history, identify the categories of age-related disease you are most at risk for, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease, and know the preventive lifestyle strategies to help keep these at bay.