PBS Series: "Rx for Survival" Starts Tomorrow

Tomorrow evening PBS will launch a major television series about global health.

They have already launched a comprensive "Rx for Survival" website, which has lots of interesting information, essays, maps, statistics, and other fodder for discussion.

The site emphasizes infectious diseases in developing nations. One of the non-infectious diseases that is shown to be leading killer the world over, including in the world's most modern countries, is malnutrition.

As the site explains, that is not the same as starvation, and in some cases it's quite the opposite:

Malnutrition (from the French mal, meaning "bad") doesn't just mean lack of food. It might surprise some to learn that it refers to obesity, too. In addition, malnutrition describes a lack of micronutrients, including a range of vitamins and minerals.

One of the most powerful micronutrients for child survival is vitamin A. Found naturally in carrots and green and yellow vegetables, or supplied in vitamin capsules or liquid drops taken orally, vitamin A can improve children's health by preventing deaths caused by diarrheal dehydration and measles, dry eye, and nightblindness. Severe deficiencies of vitamin A can ultimately result in total blindness. Vitamin A supplement pills or drops administered twice a year in Africa were able to avert approximately 400,000 cases of childhood blindness per year. Worldwide, it's estimated that the supplements are boosting children's immune systems and saving up to a million lives a year among children at risk of infectious disease.

Pregnant women also benefit from vitamin A supplements, which help reduce maternal mortality dramatically. In a study done in Nepal, maternal mortality rates dropped by more than one-third when women took vitamin A supplements during their pregnancies. It was famously said by nutritionist EV McCollum, who identified vitamin A in 1913, that "Green leafy vegetables are unbottled medicine."

Dr. Fuhrman echoes McCollum's sentiment, but is not a fan of vitamin A supplements. He advocates getting vitamin A from vegetables instead of supplements whenever possible. From a longer post discussing supplements, here's what Dr. Fuhrman has to say about Vitamin A:
Ingesting vitamin A or beta-carotene in isolation�from supplements, instead of from food�may interfere with the absorption of other crucially important carotenoids, such as lutein and lycopene, thus potentially increasing cancer risk.

The precursor to vitamin A, beta-carotene once was regarded as a safe and beneficial antioxidant and even recommended as an anti-cancer vitamin, but it has recently been shown to increase the risk of certain cancers when administered as an isolated supplement. Scientists now suspect that problems may result when beta-carotene is ingested without other carotenoids that would have been present had it been ingested from real food. Beta-carotene is only one of about 500 carotenoids that exist. Beta-carotene supplements are poor substitutes for the broad assortment of carotenoid compounds found in plants.

Thursday Thoughts

Study: Reduced Meat May Aid Weight Control

Research suggests a little less meat on the plate could mean less bulk on your frame. In a study, women who consumed few or no animal products were less likely to be overweight or obese than self-identified meat eaters.

In their American Journal of Clinical Nutrition article, researchers PK Newby, Katherine L Tucker and Alicja Wolk conclude:

Even if vegetarians consume some animal products, our results suggest that self-identified semivegetarian, lactovegetarian, and vegan women have a lower risk of overweight and obesity than do omnivorous women. The advice to consume more plant foods and less animal products may help individuals control their weight.

Make fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes your diet staples. For a protein fix, opt for low- or non-fat dairy, skinless chicken, nuts, or fish to control saturated fat.

Plant-based diets consisting of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are high in fiber and nutrients and low in fat and calories, all of which may help you lose weight. This study suggests that people who classify themselves as vegetarian, semivegetarian, or vegan are much less likely to be overweight or obese than meat eaters.

However, you don't need to go completely meatless if that doesn't suit your lifestyle. Just choose appropriate portion sizes and low-fat cooking methods. A serving of meat is equal to three ounces, about the size of a deck of playing cards. If you eat red meat, limit consumption to no more than one serving per week. Also, limit intake of meats high in saturated fat, such as bacon, sausage, and fatty cuts of beef.

A New Group to Analyze in the Next China Study

As we have discussed before, The China Study is a long-term epidemiological study that teaches us a lot about which foods inspire long-term health. It was completed by studying different groups all over China, who make sense to study because they have different diets but similar genetics.

According to a Xinhua news article (via Eastday) studying young people in Beijing today would reveal an unhealthy trend:

A survey shows that about 80 percent of Beijing middle and primary school students are fond of foreign snacks, 43.6 percent of them go to McDonald's, KFC or other foreign fast food eateries every month, and 6.1 percent go every week or every day.

Incidentally, there is also evidence that the Chinese government--which reportedly makes 10% of state revenues from a tobacco monopoly--is encouraging citizens to smoke! According to Harper's magazine, this is one of may incredible quotes from Chinese government publications:
The smokers all around us now are also people of outstanding character. They have a great deal of determination and strength. The courage that they show in the face of unforeseen events�a courage that many nonsmokers are unable to muster�is unforgettable.

As the smoking and fast food trends collide in the decades to come, China could be cruising for a long-term health care crisis.

Laura Landro on Flu Prevention: Fruits and Veggies

Laura Landro is an assistant managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, who wrote a well-reviewed book about her own struggle with breast cancer.

In her column today, she addresses something lots of people are worried about these days: cold and flu season. She cites good research in recommending lots of fruits and vegetables, limiting saturated fat, avoiding processed and junk foods, exercising, and maintaining a normal weight.

As cold-and-flu season arrives, so do the pitches for products that claim to increase the body's natural immunity and ward off infection. And with alarming reports about avian flu and a threatened global pandemic, it may be tempting to load up on mega doses of vitamins, minerals and herbal supplements as an added precaution.

But as scientists delve more deeply into how the immune system works, they are finding evidence that it is the complex interaction of nutrients in food that helps the body build its defenses against disease and infection, in part by controlling some types of inflammation that can weaken the immune system. Single nutrients and cocktails of nutrients consumed alone can't provide the same benefit, they warn, and large doses of some supplements such as selenium, zinc, vitamin A, vitamin B6 and vitamin E may even harm and suppress the immune response.

The best defense against influenza is getting vaccinated as soon as possible -- and the most important way to prevent the spread of colds is frequent hand washing. But experts say that following the most basic tenets of good nutrition -- consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fats, and eliminating highly processed and junk foods -- can actually help ward off illness.

"There is lot people can do with proper nutrition to improve their chances of warding off the flu or making the disease less pathogenic," or harmful, says Simin Nikbin Meydani, director of the nutritional immunology laboratory at Tufts University's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.

Exercise and maintaining a normal weight are equally important, Dr. Meydani adds, because obesity can also impair immune function and make people more susceptible to many types of infections. Tufts researchers have shown that moderate caloric restriction in humans appears to be beneficial for immunity.

Dr. Fuhrman's take on all this? He could talk all day. His books are essentially all about how to use the lessons of the best research to get your immune system performing at a high level. Certainly his approach is consistent with the core recommendations: lots of fruits and vegetables, limiting saturated fat, avoiding processed and junk foods, exercising, and maintaining a normal weight--but he makes many more specific recommendations about what exactly to eat for optimum health.

For instance, in Disease-Proof Your Child he discusses phytochemicals, which are a recently discovered class of more than 12,000 nutrients that are the subject of a lot of new research. Phytonutrients do all sorts of good things, from detoxifying certain harmful compounds, deactivating free radicals, and enabling DNA-repair mechanisms. From the book:

We cannot acquire a sufficient amount and diversity of phytochemicals in supplements; we must get them from real food, especially because many of them have not been discovered yet. When we pass up eating fruits and vegetables, we are turning our backs on a host of nutrients that can keep us from developing disease.

(In another part of Disease-Proof Your Child he adds that "cold breakfast cereals have as much phytochemical nutrition as the cardboard box they are found in.")

In case you needed another reason to eat your broccoli... (And what if you don't like broccoli? There are plenty of good, healthy recipes in his books, and right here on Followhealthlife.)

Fast-Growing Kids Face Health Risks

Patricia Reaney writes for Reuters about a new study showing quick growth among the very young can lead to obesity.

Big babies and infants who gain weight very quickly early in life have a higher risk of suffering from obesity.

A review of 24 studies published online by the British Medical Journal on Friday showed that size early in life has a life-long impact.

"In the majority of studies the infants who were heaviest or those with the highest body mass index (BMI), and those who gained weight more rapidly in the first two years of life were more at risk of obesity," Dr Janis Baird, of the University of Southampton, in southern England, told Reuters.

"This was true for obesity in childhood, adolescence and adulthood."

In Disease-Proof Your Child, Dr. Fuhrman talks extensively about the merits of children's growing slowly. Parents may be scratching their heads about how they can control their children's growth. In the book, Dr. Fuhrman goes into some detail about how some foods, like dairy, promote fast growth. The book also describes how fast growth can increase the likelihood of other health problems, including some cancers.


Americans Eating More Vegetables

Eureka! Some good news about the health of Americans. The website of the magazine Cooking Light offers these numbers:

The new USDA guidelines recommend we eat between five and 13 servings of fruit and vegetables a day, and we're starting to hear the message. The average American consumed roughly 332 pounds of fresh produce in 2004, up from 287 pounds in 1990. Plus, with the growth of America's farmers' markets, the introduction of Consumer Supported Agriculture, where community members buy produce from local farmers each month, and home delivery from many supermarkets, opportunities for Americans to have fresh produce abound.

The article also references the work of Dr. Frank Hu.

The Lancet: Chronic Disease Preventable

The current issue of the British medical journal The Lancet has a series of articles on "the neglected epidemic" of chronic disease. One of the central premises of Dr. Fuhrman's work is that many of the most prevelant deadly diseases are preventable with healthy lifestyle choices like stopping smoking, exercising, and eating the healthiest foods. A Lancet article called "Preventing chronic diseases: how many lives can we save?" (by Kathleen Strong, Colin Mathers, Stephen Leeder, and Robert Beaglehole) addresses the entrenched resistance to this approach.

Another more insidious myth about the chronic disease burden is that we can do nothing to prevent these conditions because they are caused by unhealthy behaviours that people choose to have. The reality could hardly be more different. Human behaviour is shaped by many factors, including environment and economic pressures, which with increasingly urbanised populations in low-income and middle-income countries may result in poor diet choices and limited physical activity. Fortunately, many of these diseases are amenable to successful intervention.

The experience of high-income countries clearly shows what can be achieved with sustained interventions. Death rates from heart disease have fallen by up to 70% in the past three decades in Australia, Canada, Japan, the UK, and the USA. Between 1970 and 2000, 14 million deaths due to cardiovascular disease were averted in the USA alone. During the same period, the numbers of deaths averted in Japan and the UK were 8 million and 3 million, respectively. These data correspond to a reduction in chronic disease death rates of 1-3% per year over a 30-year period. Estimates of the joint effects of the leading chronic disease risk factors (tobacco use, raised blood pressure, and poor diet) indicate that more than 30% of the burden of chronic diseases and more than 50% of deaths from chronic disease are attributable to a relatively small number of modifiable risks.


Study: Cheap Produce Improves Body Mass Index in Kids

This is a bit from left field, but the Rand Corporation--a non-profit think tank in California--did a study that looked at factors contributing to high body mass index scores in children. They looked at things like proximity to fast food restaurants. The research found one of the most important factors was the price of fruits and vegetables:

Lower real prices for vegetables and fruits were found to predict a significantly lower gain in BMI between kindergarten and third grade; half of that effect was found between kindergarten and first grade. Lower meat prices had the opposite effect, although this effect was generally smaller in magnitude and was insignificant for BMI gain over 3 years.


Diet-Sensitive Chronic Diseases are Top Global Killers

Shaoni Bhattacharya of the NewScientist.com news service passes along news of a major new report of the World Health Organization, which says chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are causing far more deaths around the globe than all other causes combined.

By the end of 2005, twice as many people will have died from chronic diseases as from all infectious diseases, starvation and pregnancy and birth complications combined, international experts have warned.

The "neglected epidemic" of chronic disease will take 35 million lives in 2005, out of the total 58 million who will die globally. And contrary to popular belief, most of the deaths - 80% - from chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer will be in low to middle-income countries.

The two factors behind this epidemic are smoking and obesity, says Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, in a commentary accompanying four studies published on Wednesday. "These risks and the diseases they engender are not the exclusive preserve of rich nations."

If action is taken now, 36 million lives could be saved by 2015, says a major World Health Organization (WHO) report on chronic diseases also published on Wednesday.

If you poke around Onlyourhealth.com a bit, you'll see that Dr. Fuhrman has had a lot of success treating and preventing these exact same chronic diseases with a healthy diet. This "silent epidemic" is a terrible thing. The only good news: as the WHO acknowledges, we already have the knowledge we need to reverse the epidemic. It's just a question of spreading the word and putting what we know into practice.

Low Cholesterol and Vegan Diets Go Head to Head

According to this Reuters story, researchers had two groups of women. One group was instructed to eat a low-carbohydrate diet. The other was intructed to eat a diet free of animal products including, meat, eggs, and milk. Even though the vegan group had no portion restrictions, they ended up losing significantly more weight.

Researchers found that of 64 postmenopausal, overweight women, those assigned to follow a low-fat vegan diet for 14 weeks lost an average of 13 pounds, compared with a weight loss of about 8 pounds among women who followed a standard low-cholesterol diet.

The weight loss came despite the fact that the women were given no limits on their portion sizes or daily calories -- and despite the fact that the vegan diet boosted their carbohydrate intake.

Please note, Dr. Fuhrman's diet, as described in his books, isn't vegan, and isn't even necessarily vegetarian. But his diet does involve a lot of the same healthy foods that the women in the vegan group of this study reported eating, including vegetables, beans, fruit, and nuts.

CORRECTION: In the first paragraph, I should have said low-cholesterol. My mistake, and thanks for the comment catching it. (The confusion came from the the line saying the vegan diet "boosted their carbohydrate intake.")

Research: A New Theory About Red Meat and Milk

Red meat has been linked to heart disease and cancer in a number of studies. Most of that research has focused on saturated fat and toxins that arise from cooking.

A new study from the University of San Diego School of Medicine, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, investigates another theory: that a cell-surface molecular sugar called N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), which exists in fairly high levels in milk and red meat, might build up in human tissue and inspire disease. This is from a UCSD press release on the study:

The study's senior author, Ajit Varki, M.D., UCSD professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine, and co-director of the UCSD Glycobiology Research and Training Center, said that although it is unlikely that the ingestion of Neu5Gc alone would be primarily responsible for any specific disease, "it is conceivable that gradual Neu5Gc incorporation into the cells of the body over a lifetime, with subsequent binding of the circulating antibodies against Neu5Gc (the immune response), could contribute to the inflammatory processes involved in various diseases."

Thanks VegSource for the heads up.