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    Archive for the ‘cancer’ Category

    Slim Jim: The Last Thing Any “Guy” Needs

    Burger King had its “I Am Man” campaign a few years ago. Dr. Pepper recently marketed a soft drink with ‘manly’ artificial sweeteners. Now, ConAgra has taken its Slim Jim product to new heights of unbridled testosterone with Slim Jim Dare (“made from stuff guys need”).

    The commercials revolve around the problem of “male spice loss”, for which a Slim Jim Dare is the proposed cure. We see the Slim Jim team and its “manbulance” rescue a man who ordered a salad, one who is driven around in a scooter by his girlfriend, and others caught ironing their jeans, among other “temporary lapses of judgment.”

    While Slim Jim may save men from stepping outside the rigid societal confines of masculinity, it can’t say the same about the risk for several cancers (mainly that of the colon, stomach, and pancreas).

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    Cultured Meat Is An Alternative, Not A Solution

    The idea of cultured meat (also known as ‘in vitro’ meat) has been played with for several years, as scientists have attempted to produce meat from cell cultures. Over the past week, this topic created headlines once again thanks to reports that ‘cultured’ sausage and hamburgers are on the way within the next six to twelve months. That is not to say they will be commercially available, but rather that they will serve as tangible proof of this technology’s capabilities.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Broccoli Rabe

    i-broccolirabeFrom a nutrition standpoint, are broccoli florets and broccoli rabe the same?

    — Chris Tozer
    (City withheld), TX

    Ah, broccoli rabe.  One of my favorite vegetables.  Sauteed in olive oil and garlic, topped with a few crushed red pepper flakes and a generous squirt of lemon juice… it’s unbridled culinary beauty.

    Now that I’ve wiped off the drool from my keyboard, let’s talk nutrition.

    Broccoli rabe offers three times the vitamin A and calcium, double the vitamin K, and half the vitamin C that broccoli florets do. It’s also an excellent source of potassium and folate.

    While not super high in calcium or iron, the absence of oxalates (which are prominent in spinach) in broccoli rabe indicate that we are able to efficiently absorb the decent amounts of both those minerals that it contains.

    Its slightly bitter taste hints at more good news — it is loaded with unique antioxidants and phytonutrients!  For example, it offers high amounts of isothiocyanates, compounds that fiercely battle carcinogens in the body.  High isothiocyanate consumption has been shown to significantly reduce risk of developing breast, esophageal, lung, and prostate cancers.

    Isothiocyanates affect thyroid function, so individuals with thyroid complications should carefully monitor their intake of broccoli rabe and other leafy green vegetables.

    PS: Broccoli rabe is also known as rapini.  Chinese broccoli is a milder-tasting variety of broccoli rabe.

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    You Ask, I Answer: More to Bananas than Potassium?

    BananasI don’t hear a lot about bananas, except that they are a good way to get potassium and B vitamins.

    You often write about phytonutrients and antioxidants in fruits.  Do bananas have any?

    Also, why do some diets forbid you from eating bananas the first few weeks?

    — Sandra Talenda
    (Location withheld)

    Let’s get the frustrating things out of the way first.

    I will never, ever, ever understand diet plans that treat bananas (or any other nutritious, whole foods) as if they were radioactive waste.

    A standard medium banana is not only a very good source of fiber, manganese, potassium, vitamin B6, and vitamin C, it also only delivers 105 calories.

    FYI: When it comes to potassium, potatoes and avocados surpass bananas.

    Anyone who recommends banana avoidance in the name of health needs to take a nutrition class.  Stat.

    As far as phytonutrients are concerned, all plant-based foods (grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and spices) contain them.  That’s one significant reason why a diet heavy on plant-based foods is optimal for health!

    Keep in mind that we are still in the process of identifying phytonutrients; the nutrition nerd in me can’t help but feel excited when researchers uncover a new one.

    Bananas provide high amounts of the following phytonutrients, flavonoids, and antioxidants:

    • Glutathione: a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to protect against cellular oxidation and damage
    • Phenolic compounds: a Cornell University study concluded that certain fruits — including bananas — contain phenolic compounds that protect neural cells from oxidative damage, thereby helping slash the risk of neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s
    • Delphinidin: a naturally-occurring pigment that helps lower cancer risk — particularly of the prostate — by causing tumor cells to undergo apoptosis (“cell suicide”)
    • Rutin: a flavonoid also found in asparagus that is associated with blood pressure reduction
    • Naringin: also found in grapefruits, this flavonoids reduces LDL cholesterol oxidation, thereby lowering atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease risk

    For what it’s worth, the riper a banana, the higher its phytonutrient, antioxidant, and flavonoid content.

    If you don’t like the texture of a very ripe banana, I suggest peeling, slicing, freezing, and incorporating it into a smoothie.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Beets

    beetAnything in particular worth knowing about the nutrition of beets?

    I love them in salads.  In the summer, it’s not out of the ordinary for me to have beets every single day.

    — Paula Seeley
    (Location withheld)

    Beets are a wonderful addition to any diet.  Make sure to NOT wear white when eating them (if you think permanent marker stains are bad, wait until you get a tiny smudge of beet on you; even Tide-To-Go sticks raise a white flag).

    When mass media went bonkers over the antioxidants in blueberries a few years ago, beets were treated like the redheaded stepchild.

    Betacyanin, the antioxidants that gives blueberries their pigment, is also found in very high quantities in beets!

    Betacyanin is a big deal because studies have found it to be super powerful when it comes to reducing inflammation (the main factor behind many degenerative diseases) and slowing down tumor proliferation.

    Beets offer a one-two punch because they also contain another pigment known as betanin.

    Betanin is especially effective at lowering heart disease risk because it reduces levels of homocysteine.  High homocysteine levels are problematic because they damage the inside of arteries, thereby allowing blood clots to form and LDL to build up as plaque, thereby heightening cardiovascular disease risk.

    A study by Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization found that “a relatively low concentration of betanin was found to inhibit lipid peroxidation of membranes or linoleate emulsion catalyzed by the free iron redox cycle, H2O2-activated metmyoglobin, or lipoxygenase.”  Laymen translation: betanin is your heart’s friend.

    Apart from being a low-calorie food (like all vegetables), beets also offer folate, manganese, and potassium.

    Whenever possible, aim for fresh — rather than canned — beets.  If raw beets aren’t your thing, roast them — along with other root vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots, and radishes — in olive oil and salt.

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    Numbers Game: Answer

    fruit_vegAccording to figures from the National Cancer Institute, thirty percent of all cancer cases can be attributed to tobacco, while 35 percent are caused by dietary factors.

    While it is true that one explanation for increased cancer rates over the past 100 years is the mere fact that we are living longer, it is also abundantly clear that as diets have become hypercaloric and largely composed of highly processed and refined foods, our cancer risk has significantly increased.

    The thousands of clinical studies that have looked into the effects of diet on cancer point to these factors being most important for cancer risk reduction:

    • Maintaining a healthy weight
    • Consuming a diet high in fruits and vegetables
    • Prioritizing monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids
    • Strictly limiting added sugars and trans fats
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    Numbers Game: Here’s To Your Health!

    87243131.XAzFVHOi.IMG_1086copyAccording to figures from the National Cancer Institute, thirty percent of all cancer cases can be attributed to tobacco, while ____ percent are caused by dietary factors.

    a) 18
    b) 26
    c) 35
    d) 44

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Thursday for the answer.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Free Radicals

    antioxidant-protecting-cellWhat exactly are free radicals, and how worried should I be about them?

    I realize I have barely a kindergarten concept of them.

    — @Beth_Pettit
    Via Twitter

    The concept of free radicals within the scope of health and nutrition can get super complicated, but here is an informative, simple-as-I-can-make-it “101” crash course.

    Free radicals are compounds with both positive and negative characteristics.

    Their main positive function relates to our immune system.  Our body actually deploys free radicals when it detects a foreign substance in the body.

    Without free radicals, our bodies would have a harder time combating most viruses and bacteria.

    Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends.

    Free radicals have what is called a “free-floating electron”.  This makes free radicals very upset, since they want that electron to be paired off with another one.

    In their quest to find another electron, they scour all over the place, damaging cells and DNA in the process.

    DNA damage is particularly disturbing, as it is the chief cause behind degenerative diseases like cancer.

    While our cells have some built-in protection against free radicals, there is only so much they can take before they basically become powerless.

    What makes the issue of free radicals complicated is that there is no way to avoid them.  Most free radicals are byproducts of necessary metabolic processes (like digesting food and cell regeneration).

    Of course, certain factors increase free radical content in our bodies.  These include:

    • Air and water pollution
    • Smoking
    • Emotional stress
    • Exposure to radiation
    • Pesticides
    • Excessive intakes of omega-6 fatty acids
    • Aging

    The best thing you can do to limit as much damage possible?  You guessed it — eat a healthy diet.

    Consider this: most of the enzymes our body sends out to attack free radicals are created from nutrients like manganese, selenium, and zinc.

    Diets low in these nutrients are unable to create as good of a defense against free radical damage as diets where these nutrients are consistently consumed in adequate amounts.

    While vitamins C and E are well-known for their antioxidant (that’s code for “free-radical-neutralizing”) capacities, keep in mind that the thousands of phytonutrients in whole, unprocessed foods also help minimize cellular damage.

    FYI: to read more about antioxidants, I HIGHLY recommend you read this post.

    This is precisely why you want to be sure to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes — all those foods are packed with unique and exclusive compounds that provide plenty of assistance.

    It is also crucial to eat whole foods that intrinsically contain these compounds (as opposed to supplements that isolate certain ones) since clinical research has clearly demonstrated that in order to work effectively, these compounds need to work in tandem.

    As morbid as it sounds, free radicals are also the body’s way of guaranteeing eventual death.  A person in their eighties produces much higher amounts of free radicals than someone in their thirties.

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    Numbers Game: Answer

    cauliflowerDecades of studies on cruciferous vegetables and cancer risk have consistently demonstrated that in order to significantly lower our risk for colorectal, lung, protate, and breast cancers, we should aim for at least 5 – 6 servings per week of cruciferous vegetables.

    It’s not as much as you may think.

    A mere half-cup (raw or cooked) of broccoli, brusels sprouts, or cauliflower once a day is all you need!

    In the case of arugula, bok choy, kale, mustard greens, and swiss chard, one serving is considered one cup when raw and a half-cup if cooked.

    For optimal benefits, the recommended way to cook cruciferous vegetables is to lightly steam them, since exposure to high heat for long periods of time deactivates many of the health-promoting active compounds.

    As if the health benefits mentioned at the beginning of this post weren’t enough, there is also a significant body of research that links frequent and consistent consumption of cruciferous vegetables with lower risk of cardiovascular disease!

    It turns out many of the intrinsic phytonutrients in these foods help reduce cellular inflammation (one of the prime causes of heart disease).

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    Numbers Game: Behold the Marvelous Cruciferous

    bok_choyDecades of studies on cruciferous vegetables and cancer risk have consistently demonstrated that in order to significantly lower our risk for colorectal, lung, protate, and breast cancers, we should aim for at least _____ servings per week of cruciferous vegetables.

    Examples of cruciferous vegetables: arugula, bok choy (pictured at left), broccoli, brusels sprouts, cauliflower, daikon, kale, mustard greens, and Swiss chard.

    a) 2 – 3
    b) 3.5 – 4
    c) 5 – 6
    d) 6.5 – 8

    Leave your guess in the “comments” section and come back on Tuesday for the answer.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Nutrition and Cancer Risk

    10_foods_berries_raychel_deppeWhat foods reduce the risk of cancer the most?

    — Ronald (Last name unknown)
    (Location unknown)

    In terms of overall cancer risk, it is pretty clear that diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices appear to have a more protective effect than those high in red meat and dairy products.

    FYI: many people — nutritionists included — often forget the power of consistent intakes of herbs and spices, all of which are loaded with phytonutrients and antioxidants.

    That is not to say, of course, that cancer can be prevented simply by eating healthy, since other factors like stress, pollution, and genetics play a prominent role as well.

    Also, I am not stating that meat or dairy cause cancer.  As I have explained in previous posts, part of the dilemma with nutrition research lies in determining if a certain diet increases cancer risk because of what it is high in or because of what it offers little of.

    What is absolutely obvious, though, is that phytonutrients and biochemical compounds (like flavonoids and antioxidants) play crucial roles in cancer risk reduction, and diets low in plant foods offer much lower amounts of these compounds.

    I consider the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research two top-notch sources for information regarding nutrition and cancer.  Here are some of their conclusions based on reviews of thousands of large-scale long-term clinical studies:

    • Non-starchy vegetables are most helpful in reducing risk of mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, and stomach cancers
    • Allium vegetables (garlic, onions, scallions, leeks, etc.)  have been found to be most effective against stomach cancers
    • There is also substantial evidence of garlic having a protective effect against colorectal cancer
    • Fruits (this includes avocados!) are implicated in risk-reduction of mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, lung, and stomach cancers
    • Nuts and seeds have a protective effect against prostate cancer

    As you may suspect, one rather frustrating issue — at least for me — with large-scale nutrition research studies (the ones that receive significant funding and often make significant discoveries) is that, understandably, they tend to focus on commonly-consumed foods.  It makes sense; after all, it’s most helpeful to determine what effect mainstream dietary patterns have on health, since those literally affect tens of millions of individuals.

    However, this means that a lot of wonderful, but not as commonly consumed, foods chock-full of nutrition (think quinoa, maca, ginger, cumin, wild rice, goji berries, tempeh, kale, hemp seeds, etc.) are barely investigated.  Heck, even sweet potatoes have largely been ignored.

    It’s clear these foods have health-promoting properties and offer plenty of nutrition, but I wish there were more clinical studies looking at their effect on health.

    In conclusion, though, you can never go wrong with whole, minimally processed foods.

    Keep in mind my “dartboard” visual:

    • The center circle is for foods you want to eat on a daily basis.  This circle should be mainly made up of minimally processed plant-based foods.
    • The second outer circle is for foods that can be enjoyed four or five times a month.
    • The third outer circle is for foods that are best consumed no more than once or twice a month

    PS: One of my absolute biggest pet-peeves is rankings of healthy foods.  I consider articles or television segments which state that an apple is healthier than an orange, which in turn is healthier than a banana a complete joke.  The fact that a fruit has 10 percent more vitamin C than another does not make it superior (because, chances are, that other fruit contains unique phytonutrients).

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    You Ask, I Answer: Nitrates, Nitrites… and then Some!

    Cold cutslargeA recent post on cured meats, cancer risk, and nitrates sparked a significant number of comments and personal e-mails.

    Alas, here is a compilation of all the questions I received on the subject — and the appropriate answers.

    What are nitrates?

    Although they can be manufactured in laboratories (mainly to cure meats), nitrates are a type of inorganic (jargon for “carbon-free”) chemical found in nature.

    Fertilizers and sewerage contain significant amounts of nitrates (they contain high amounts of nitrogen, which bacteria feast on and, among other things, convert into nitrates).

    Is there a difference between nitrates and nitrites?

    Not really.  Most food manufacturers prefer nitrites because they present fewer complications from a processing standpoint.

    It’s akin to asking if there is a significant difference, nutritionally speaking, between the artificial sweeteners Splenda and aspartame.  Although their makeup is different, they are used in similar ways.

    Are nitrates only found in cold cuts?

    No.  Certain vegetables — including spinach, celery, lettuce, and eggplant — contain nitrates.

    So, then, why do we only hear about nitrates and cold cuts?

    For two reasons.  One: cold cuts contain higher amounts of nitrates/nitrites than vegetables.

    Number two: the average American consumes more cold cuts than celery, spinach, or eggplant.

    What are the health risks of consuming too many nitrates?

    This is where it all gets interesting — and slightly complicated.

    A large portion of nitrates are converted into nitrites by our bodies.

    Obviously, if you consume ham that contains nitrites, this first step is a moot point.

    Nitrites can then combine with particular compounds known as amines in the stomach.

    This combination forms a new hybrid compound: nitrosamines.

    Due to the cellular damage they cause, nitrosamines have been linked with higher risks of a wide array of cancers — particularly that of the prostate, colon, and pancreas.

    Earlier this summer, a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease concluded that frequent consumption of nitrates and nitrites relates to higher risks of developing the neural disorder.

    Some research also suggests that when nitrites in food are exposed to high heat — as they are, say, when you fry bacon — their chemical structure morphs into that of nitrosamines.

    PS: Another reason why you don’t hear much about nitrites in vegetables?  All nitrate-containing vegetables also provide vitamin C, which has been shown to reduce the formation of nitrosamines in the body.

    Are there any guidelines for what amount of nitrates is safe to consume?

    The Environmental Protection Agency has come up with a “parts per million” guideline in reference to the water supply, but there is no exact amount in regards to food.

    The general idea with cold cuts is: the less, the better.  Conservative guidelines recommend no more than two ounces per week, while more liberal recommendations place the limit at six ounces per week.

    Since vitamins C and E appear to reduce nitrite-to-nitrosamine conversion, one “safety measure” you can always take is to include a food high in either of those nutrients in a meal that contains processed meats.

    For example, add plenty of sliced tomatoes to a ham sandwich, or make bacon the accompaniment to a broccoli and red pepper frittata.

    Do organic cold cuts contain nitrites?

    Some of them don’t.  As with everything else, it’s always good to check the ingredient list.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Turkey Bacon

    g25825828a52574bb2a79cf8342ce45836cd560d6733ce5Is turkey bacon/ham really better for you than regular bacon and ham?

    — @Beth_Pettit
    Via Twitter

    No.

    Both are high in sodium (approximately 325 milligrams of sodium per measly ounce!) and highly processed.

    Turkey bacon and ham are lower in total and saturated fat, but not in amounts significant enough to classify it as healthier.

    An ounce of turkey ham contains 0.4 grams of saturated fat; an ounce of conventional ham provides 0.8 grams.

    Classifying turkey bacon and ham as healthier than conventional varieties is like saying that Coca-Cola is healthier than orange soda because it has 12 fewer grams of sugar.

    I recommend taking it easy with all processed meat products — including soy-based faux cold cuts.  They are low on nutrients, high in sodium, and most contain troublesome preservatives (mainly nitrites and nitrates).

    My advice?  Keep the bacon to two strips with brunch every Sunday.

    As far as cold cuts go — if you love them in a sandwich, treat yourself to two slices a week — no more.

    The evidence linking frequent consumption of processed meats with increased risk of stomach, colon, and prostate cancer is too strong to ignore.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Body Mass Index

    bmi-comparisonHow accurate is the Body Mass Index?

    Mine is on the very highest edge of the “normal” spectrum, but just from looking at myself I can tell that I am not close to being overweight.

    — Corey Clark
    (Location Unknown)

    Body Mass Index (BMI) is a popularly used calculation based on height and weight that provides an estimate for an individual’s percentage of body fat.

    If interested, you can easily calculate your BMI online.

    The results are then interpreted in the following way:

    • < 18.5 = Underweight
    • 18.5 – 24.9 = Healthy weight
    • 25.0 – 29.9 = Overweight
    • 30.0 – 34.9 = Obesity (Class 1)
    • 35.0 – 39.9 = Obesity (Class 2)
    • >40.0 = Hyper Obesity

    Although BMI is usually accurate, it has its drawbacks.

    The main one?  Height and weight alone leave out important information.

    As the accompanying illustration (property of HowStuffWorks.com) shows, a muscular athlete may have the same BMI as a sedentary individual with a high amount of adipose tissue.  While both may classify as overweight according to BMI, the sedentary individual is at a much higher risk for developing certain diseases (including heart disease and cancer) than the muscular athlete.

    This is why, except in the case of high obesity, most nutrition professionals like to compound BMI calculation with waist circumference measurements.

    Scientific research has found an undeniable link between waist circumference and disease risk.

    In that case, here are the values to keep in mind:

    • In women, waist circumference of 30 inches or less is deemed healthy.  31 – 35 inches points to an increased disease risk, while measurements over 35 point to high disease risk.
    • In the case of men, waist circumference should be at 36 inches or below.  Measurements between 37 and 40 inches indicate increase disease risk.  Any values over 40 indicate high disease risk.

    For example, a muscular male athlete may have a BMI of 28 (considered ‘overweight’) but a waist circumference of 32.

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    You Ask, I Answer: Red Meat Consumption

    raw-meat-1This past weekend, one of my family members said that the consensus among nutritionists is that people should not eat any red meat.

    It sounds too extreme to be true, but I thought I would check with you.

    — Steve Hamilton
    (City withheld), KY

    What your family member said is indeed extreme — and incorrect.

    Does the presence of red meat make a diet healthier than one devoid of it?  Absolutely not.

    Do you need to shun red meat entirely in order to have a healthy diet?  Nope.

    That said, a good number of strong studies have indicated a link between high consumption of red meat and higher risks of heart disease and certain cancers (what is still being researched is whether there is an intrinsic component in meat that causes this, or if this risk increase is simply because diets rich in red meat are usually low in fiber and vegetable intake).

    The general consensus is that consumption of red meat should not exceed 18 ounces per week.

    I am often asked, “Is [insert name of food here] bad for you?”

    My usual response? “Depends.  How do you cook it, how often do you eat it, and how much of it do you eat?”

    A six-ounce steak once a week is very different from a steady diet of hamburgers, roast beef sandwiches, and cheesesteaks.

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