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A Bad Marriage Can Hurt Your Heart

Having an unhappy marriage can raise your risk of heart disease, particularly if you're female. Hui Liu, a sociologist at from Michigan State University, looked at five years of data from 1,200 couples - ages 57 to 85 - in order to discern how happy or unhappy marriage affected heart health. She found that bad marriages have a bigger impact on heart health than good ones - they have a negative effect while good marriages don't necessarily have beneficial effects. Participating couples were asked to respond to survey questions about the quality of their marriages and their heart health - whether or not they had had heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, and whether lab tests had shown high blood levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation in the body. Lui suggested that over time, stress from a bad marriage may worsen heart health because of age-related increased frailty and declining immune function and concluded that bad marriages have greater impacts on women's heart health than on men's, possibly because "women tend to internalize negative feelings and thus are more likely to feel depressed and develop cardiovascular problems."


Can Fiber Promote Weight Loss?

A new study from the University of Illinois suggests that adding fiber to the diet can influence the growth of two kinds of bacteria in your gut (known collectively as the microbiome) toward a ratio typically seen in lean people.  Unfortunately, the researchers observed, most Americans consume only 12 to 14 grams of fiber a day, which is half the recommended amount of 25 to 38 grams. The investigative team had previously studied whether adding fiber to the diet would cause gut bacteria to shift toward "lean." They gave snack bars to 20 men whose reported daily fiber intake was about 14 grams a day. About one third of the men received snack bars with no fiber; another third were given bars containing 21 grams of polydextrose, a common fiber food additive, and the remainder of the participants received bars with 21 grams of corn fiber. The researchers reported significant positive shifts in the ratio of gut bacterial populations toward more bacteriodetes (associated with being lean) and fewer firmicutes (associated with overweight and obesity) with the addition of fiber. However, they also found that the beneficial changes didn't last when the participants went back to their normal diets. Earlier research had shown that a high fiber diet is protective against obesity. The take-home message from lead researcher Kelly Swanson is that if you want a healthier gut and hope to lose weight, you have to make lasting changes to your diet.

My take? It's well established that a diet high in fiber influences health for the better: it prevents constipation, and reduces the risks of colon cancer, heart disease and diabetes. We've also known for some time that fiber helps to maintain ideal weight. This new study adds to the growing body of evidence demonstrating the importance of fiber in the diet, and especially as it pertains to weight. I recommend getting 40 grams a day from bran cereals, beans, vegetables, fruit and whole grains. Freshly ground flaxseed and psyllium seed are also excellent sources of fiber.


Coffee Compound Offsets Obesity Effects

The compound under investigation is chlorogenic acid (CGA, for short) and in studies with mice researchers at the University of Georgia found that it can reduce insulin resistance and the accumulation of fat in the liver, two harmful side effects of obesity. Untreated, these side effects can lead to type 2 diabetes and compromised liver function. The researchers noted that earlier studies indicate that regular consumption of coffee may help lower the risks of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in some individuals. For their study, the investigators fed mice a high-fat diet for 15 weeks and injected them twice a week with a solution of CGA. They report that the mice didn't gain the weight normally expected as a result of their high fat diet and that the animals maintained normal blood sugar levels and healthy liver composition. In addition to coffee, CGA is found in apples, pears, tomatoes and blueberries." But don't reach for that second cup just yet - the dose of chlorogenic acid given the mice was much higher than amounts humans would get from drinking coffee and eating the fruits and vegetables that provide the compound, and the researchers don't suggest boosting your coffee intake to get more CGA. Instead, they're hoping to create a CGA based treatment that would provide benefits for humans similar to those observed in mice.


Statins for Fibroids?

New research suggests that statin drugs commonly prescribed to lower high cholesterol levels may do double duty in women with benign fibroid tumors of the uterus. Fibroids, the most common tumors in the female reproductive system, account for half the annual hysterectomies in the U.S. Earlier research has shown that statins have anti-tumor effects on breast, ovarian, prostate, and lung cancers, but until recently, their effect on fibroids was unknown, researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston said. They collaborated on the investigation with teams from Baylor College of Medicine, the Georgia Regents University and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. Their study in laboratory tissue cultures showed that the statin simvastatin blocks the growth of fibroid tumor cells and also promotes calcium-dependent cell death mechanisms in the tumor cells themselves. More research is needed before we know whether or not treatment with statins can elicit positive effects in fibroid tumors in women, but studies in animals are currently underway.


Exercise vs. Diet for Weight Loss

Sad, but unfortunately true - exercise alone is not enough to ensure weight loss. In a recent small study, most of the 81 overweight and sedentary women who volunteered for a 12-week supervised exercise program ended up putting on weight, in the form of fat. Some gained as much as 10 pounds despite walking on treadmills three times a week for 30 minutes at a pace representing 70 percent of their maximum endurance. The upside here is that when the program ended, all of the women were aerobically more fit than they had been at the start. In addition, several of the participants had more positive results: some of the women were losing weight four weeks into the program and continued to do so after the exercise program ended. The probable explanation for the varied results of the participants is caloric intake. When they joined the study, the women were asked not to make any changes in their diets, but study leader Glenn Gaesser suggested that the 70 percent of the women who gained weight were likely to have eaten more and moved less than they usually did when they weren't on the treadmills. Dr. Gaesser noted that if you really want to lose weight when undertaking an exercise program, keep checking your bathroom scale and if you're not losing weight, cut back on your food intake.

My take? My own experience is that exercise alone is much less effective at promoting and maintaining weight loss than exercise combined with a positive change in eating habits. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), to maintain weight you have to perform between 150 - 250 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week - that translates to between 2 1/2 and about four hours per week. But if your goal is to lose significant weight, the ACSM says you'll have to put in more than 250 minutes (four hours plus) per week. And to prevent regaining any weight you do lose, you'll need to continue to exercise more than four hours a week.


Lactose Intolerance May Lower Cancer Risk

There aren't many perks to lactose intolerance - being unable to digest the sugar lactose in dairy products without developing bloating and abdominal pain - but new research from Sweden suggests that people with this condition may have lower risks of breast, ovarian and lung cancer. Although there is a genetic component to lactose intolerance, the researchers reported that relatives of lactose intolerant individuals did not have lower risk of the three types of cancer. The investigators also emphasized, however, that their findings do not prove that avoiding dairy products would necessarily lower the risk of the cancers in normal people. The investigators used data from two Swedish health registers to identify 22,788 lactose intolerant individuals and reviewed their incidence of cancer. They found that the risks of developing the cancers were "significantly lower" among the lactose intolerant compared to people who are not lactose intolerant, regardless of their country of birth and gender. "By contrast, the risks in their siblings and parents were the same as in the general population. This suggests that the lower cancer risk in people with lactose intolerance may be due to their diet," the researchers wrote. However, they noted that a recent review by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute of Cancer Research found a lack of evidence linking consumption of dairy products to breast cancer risk.


Secondhand Smoke Promotes Weight Gain

As if secondhand smoke didn't do enough harm - increasing the risk of lung cancer, other respiratory diseases, heart disease and stroke - it can also make you put on fatty tissue and is particularly hard on kids. Researchers from Brigham Young University wanted to know why smokers become insulin resistant, which leads to weight gain, so they exposed mice to secondhand smoke and observed them for changes in their physiology. The mice exposed to the smoke soon began to put on weight, and further research showed that the smoke disrupted normal cell function. The mechanism appears to involve triggering a constituent of fat called ceramide, which alters the metabolism of mitochondria, inhibiting their ability to respond normally to insulin. Once you become insulin resistant, your body needs and produces more insulin to meet metabolic needs, which drives weight gain. The researchers were able to inhibit ceramide in mice with a substance called myriocin and are now trying to find a ceramide inhibitor that is safe and effective for humans.


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.

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