Health benefits of tea revealed

There is now even more reason to enjoy a cup of tea with a new review of existing research showing the humble cuppa can help prevent a number of diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.

Researchers from Edith Cowan University’s School of Medical and Health Sciences examined more than 100 studies from around the world that have looked at tea consumption.

They found that black, white and green tea can reduce the risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.

The findings could offer some hope to the more than 65 million people expected to be living with Alzheimer’s disease by 2030.

Likewise, some 5.1 million deaths worldwide were attributed to diabetes in 2013, a figure that is growing annually.

Flavonoids key

ECU Centre for Excellence for Alzheimer’s Disease Research and Care Research Fellow Dr Fernando said the review offered new lines of enquiry for scientists.

“There is strong evidence that tea consumption can lower the levels of beta amyloid b (Aβ) in the brain, the build-up of which can cause Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.

“In particular a number of studies have found that the flavonoid Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is found in tea, can reduce the levels of Aβ in the brain, which could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.

Diabetes risk down

The researchers also examined the evidence that tea consumption could be protective against diabetes.

“Both population-based studies as well as human clinical trials have shown a link between tea consumption and a reduced risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes,” Dr Binosha said.

“One study found that drinking tea could result in a significant reduction in the symptoms of diabetes, including a 15-fold increase in insulin activity. Low insulin activity is a major risk factor for diabetes. ”

Next steps

“Overall, tea appears to offer a safe and acceptable approach toward lowering the risk factors associated with diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr Fernando said.

“What is needed now is more randomised, clinical trials which are placebo controlled using standardised doses to determine exactly the manner, type and amount of tea required to achieve these beneficial results.”

Lifestyle factors

ECU’s Centre for Excellence for Alzheimer’s disease Research and Care has also recently identified depression and trouble sleeping as potential risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease.

The Centre is also currently investigating if a combination of the spice circimun and fish oil can potentially delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

‘Diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease: Can Tea Phytochemicals Play a Role in Prevention?’ was recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

 

New banana could save thousands of children

Researchers from QUT have developed a golden-orange fleshed banana, rich in pro-vitamin A which could save the lives of thousands of children who die each year from a deficiency of the vitamin.

According to QUT’s Professor James Dale, who lead the research, an estimated 650,000-700,000 children world-wide die each year with a further several hundred thousand going blind because of this problem.

The decade-long research, which has been published in the Plant Biotechnology Journal, involved extensive laboratory tests at QUT as well as field trials in north Queensland.

Professor Dale said the genetic modification process had resulted in the identification and selection of banana genes that could be used to enhance pro-vitamin A in banana fruit.

The research backed with close to $10 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ultimately aims to improve the nutritional content of bananas in Uganda, where the fruit is the major staple food in their daily diet.

Professor Dale describes the development of the biofortified banana as a significant humanitarian project.

“The East African Highland cooking banana is an excellent source of starch. It is harvested green then chopped and steamed,” Professor Dale said.

“But it has low levels of micronutrients particularly pro-vitamin A and iron. The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are severe.”

Professor Dale explained that the researchers took a gene from a banana that originated in Papua New Guinea and is naturally very high in pro-vitamin A but has small bunches, and inserted it into a Cavendish banana.

“Over the years, we’ve been able to develop a banana that has achieved excellent pro-vitamin A levels, hence the golden-orange rather than cream-coloured flesh.

“Achieving these scientific results along with their publication, is a major milestone in our quest to deliver a more nutritional diet to some of the poorest subsistence communities in Africa.

“Our science works,” Professor Dale said, “and it’s technology that was developed here at QUT.

“We tried and tested hundreds of different genetic variations here in our lab and in field trials in Queensland until we got the best results.

“These elite genes have been sent to Uganda in test tubes where they have been inserted into Ugandan bananas for field trials there.”

Professor Dale said another really pleasing aspect of the project was the fact that young Ugandan students, who came to QUT to undertake their studies, had now completed their PhDs and were overseeing the research and field trials in Uganda.

Image: Jean-Yves Paul

 

Sugary drinks increase diabetes risk regardless of obesity – research

An international study led by ANU has found that as sugary drinks consumption increased the risk of type 2 diabetes also increased, independently of obesity and weight gain.

The study, which used a new statistical technique called mediation analysis, found thousands of cases of type 2 diabetes could be prevented every year in Thailand if people stopped drinking sugary drinks every day.

The results come from the Thai Cohort Study from 2005 to 2013, which involved a nation-wide sample of nearly 40,000 adults.

Lead author Keren Papier from ANU said type 2 diabetes killed millions of people globally every year and evidence from around the world showed that a reduction in sugary drink consumption would reduce rates of type 2 diabetes.

“A reduction in sugary drink consumption is likely reduce rates of diabetes in Australia,” said Ms Papier, a PhD candidate from the ANU Research School of Population Health.

“Several countries including Mexico, the United States, France and Chile have already started acting on sugary drinks by imposing or committing to a sugar tax.

“Findings from the United States and Mexico show that applying the tax has led to a 17 and 21 per cent decrease respectively in the purchase of taxed beverages among low-income households.”

The tax has raised over $US2.6 billion in Mexico.

“Sugary drinks are an ideal target for public health interventions to help control the type 2 diabetes epidemic since they have no nutritional value and do not protect against disease,” Ms Papier said.

“Over 4,000 cases of type 2 diabetes could be prevented annually in the Thai population if people avoided drinking sugary drinks daily. Thai women, who are at double the risk of type 2 diabetes from drinking sugary drinks, would be the main beneficiaries.”

Between 1983 and 2009, the average Thai person’s sugar intake jumped from 13kg to 31kg in a year.

Ms Papier said research in several rich countries had shown that women globally were at higher risk of type 2 diabetes from drinking soft drinks.

“Women are more susceptible because they generally have lower muscle mass and energy needs compared with men,” she said.

ANU conducted the study with QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute and the Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University in Thailand.

It is part of a larger study of the health-risk transition to chronic disease underway in middle-income countries and the information from Thailand is leading to a better understanding of multi-level forces driving the process worldwide.

The research is published in Nutrition & Diabetes.

Giant junk food portions fuelling obesity crisis – research

Australians are eating ever bigger portions of foods laden in fat, sugar, and salt, according to research by The George Institute for Global Health.

Researchers compared data from 1995 to 2012 and found portion sizes for a large proportion of Australia’s most commonly consumed junk foods had risen significantly.

Pizza and cake stood out for being the worst offenders, recording a 66 per cent increase in the average number of kilojoules consumed in one sitting. A typical portion of sausage, cereal bar, processed meat, ice cream and wine also increased in size.

Dr Miaobing Zheng, of The George Institute for Global Health, said the results were worrying given that discretionary foods contribute about a third of Australia’s daily energy intake. “Over the past two decades we found that foods which provide very little nutritional benefit have surged in size, and this is helping to fuel Australia’s obesity epidemic,” said Zheng.

“We had expected portion sizes to have grown but we were still surprised by just how much. It’s pretty disturbing that an average slice of cake has increased in size so much it now contains almost 1000 kilojoules more than it did two decades ago.”

The study published in the journal Nutrients also found the portion sizes of pastries, snack foods (potato crisps, popcorn, corn chips) and potato fries had actually decreased.

“We aren’t 100 per cent sure why the portion sizes of these foods reduced, but if you take fries, for example, most fast food chains offer small portions, so it could be the case that people recognise these foods are unhealthy and consciously try and eat less of them.  But, unfortunately these foods items were the exception, not the norm,” said Zheng.

“We know that people often under report the amount of food and drink they consume, especially if they consider them ‘bad‘ foods. So the true picture of what Australians are eating could be much worse.”

The team examined data from two different Australia-wide surveys – the 1995 National Nutrition Survey and the 2011-2012 National Nutrition Physical Activity Survey. Participants were asked to record everything they had eaten in a 24 hour period and were given photos and measuring guides to help them asses the size of their portions accurately.

Data was also recorded by age and sex.  Researchers found serves of ice-cream eaten by women had  increased in size by nearly a third.

Co-author Beth Meertens, of The Heart Foundation, said: “There has been some success in this area, but there’s lots of work to do. We need the community to understand how portion size may influence the amount of food they eat, and to think carefully about how they choose their food portions.

“But, more importantly, we need an environment which supports and encourages those choices. We need to work with the food industry to reduce the size of the products which have increased over time, and increase the portions of healthy foods.

“Now, with this Australian-specific information, we are better placed to improve portion size in Australia.”

 

New mushroom meets vitamin D needs

SA Mushrooms’ new product, the Vitamin D mushroom delivers your daily dose of the vitamin in just three mushrooms.

In Australia, nearly one in four people are vitamin D deficient and this can be fixed by eating three vitamin D mushrooms a day.

Managing Director, Nick Femia said the release of vitamin D mushrooms means the era of getting what your body needs through diet is coming.

“With Australians being vitamin D deficient significantly more in winter than in summer, we thought there had to be a better way to help consumers get through the winter months rather than them standing outside trying to catch some sun or taking a supplement,” said Femia.

“Consumers can save money on Vitamin D supplements by eating these vitamin D mushrooms.”

Advanced Accredited Practising Dietitian, Glenn Cardwell said the release of vitamin D mushrooms means people can get their dose of the vitamin without have to strip down in the winter months.

“If you’re sitting at a desk all day, chances are you are vitamin D deficient. We are designed to get vitamin D from sunlight but the desire to get warm will outweigh the desire to strip down to your t-shirt in the middle of winter,” said Cardwell.

“Your regular everyday mushrooms have an average of 2.3 mcg D per serve, which is 23 per cent of your daily requirements. A vitamin D mushroom has at least 10 micrograms of vitamin D per serve (100g or 3 medium mushrooms), the amount most adults need each day.”

Beer that boosts immunity and improves gut health

Beer lovers may soon have a gut-friendly drink to raise a toast to, thanks to the creation of a novel probiotic sour beer by a team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS). This new specialty beer incorporates the probiotic strain Lactobacillus paracasei L26, which was first isolated from human intestines and has the ability to neutralise toxins and viruses, as well as regulate the immune system.

The idea of producing a probiotic beer was first mooted by Miss Chan Mei Zhi Alcine, a fourth-year student from the Food Science and Technology Programme under the NUS Faculty of Science, who consumes dairy-based probiotic beverages daily.

“The health benefits of probiotics are well known. While good bacteria are often present in food that have been fermented, there are currently no beers in the market that contain probiotics. Developing sufficient counts of live probiotics in beer is a challenging feat as beers contain hop acids that prevent the growth and survival of probiotics. As a believer of achieving a healthy diet through consuming probiotics, this is a natural choice for me when I picked a topic for my final-year project,” said Miss Chan, who will be graduating with a Bachelor of Applied Science with Honours (Highest Distinction) from NUS in July 2017.

Infusing beer with health benefits

Studies have shown that consuming food and beverages with live counts of probiotics are more effective in delivering health effects than eating those with inactive probiotics. Currently, the recommendation by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics is to have a minimum of 1 billion probiotics per serving in order to attain the maximum health benefits.

Under the supervision of Associate Professor Liu Shao Quan from the NUS Food Science and Technology Programme, Miss Chan took about nine months to come up with an ideal recipe that achieves the optimal count of live probiotics in the beer.

By propagating the probiotic and yeast in pure cultures, and modifying conventional brewing and fermentation processes, Miss Chan managed to increase and maintain the live counts of the strain of probiotic. “For this beer, we used a lactic acid bacterium as a probiotic micro-organism. It will utilise sugars present in the wort to produce sour-tasting lactic acid, resulting in a beer with sharp and tart flavours. The final product, which takes around a month to brew, has an alcohol content of about 3.5 per cent,” explained Miss Chan. The NUS research team has filed a patent to protect the recipe for brewing the probiotic sour beer.

Assoc Prof Liu said, “The general health benefits associated with consuming food and beverages with probiotic strains have driven demand dramatically. In recent years, consumption of craft or specialty beers has gained popularity too. Alcine’s invention is placed in a unique position that caters to these two trends. I am confident that the probiotic gut-friendly beer will be well-received by beer drinkers, as they can now enjoy their beers and be healthy.”

Looking ahead, Assoc Prof Liu and Miss Chan are keen to collaborate with industry partners to introduce the beer to consumers.

Food makers using cartoon characters to sell kids junk food: research

More than half of supermarket products marketed at kids are unhealthy, according to research from the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC).

The OPC surveyed 186 packaged foods with cartoons or character promotions designed to attract children – 52 percent were classified as unhealthy by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion calculator, which looks at the amount of energy and certain nutrients (e.g. saturated fat, sugars, sodium) present in the food.

OPC Executive Manager Jane Martin said at a time when 27 per cent of Australian children are overweight or obese, it’s shocking to see so many manufacturers directly targeting children with unhealthy food.

“It’s extremely frustrating to see cartoons and animations being used to lure children and create pester power to push parents into buying unhealthy products for kids,” Ms Martin said.

“Children are naturally drawn to fun, colourful characters on foods in the supermarket, and food companies are fully aware of this. They know that children have an incredible amount of power over what their parents buy[i], and that’s why Chile, a country that has been very progressive in obesity prevention, has restricted the use of cartoons on unhealthy food packaging.

“It’s a shame that this powerful marketing tactic is not being used to sell more healthy products instead.”

Among the unhealthy products which used cartoons to appeal to children were Kellogg’s Frosties, which are 41 percent sugar, and Kraft Cheestik Sticks which contain 17.5g of saturated fat per 100g.

Food advertising in Australia is basically self-regulated, leaving food and advertising industries to make and break their own rules. Current industry-led regulations do not cover food packaging.

“In Australia, the use of cartoons and characters on food and drink packaging is allowed, even under weak self-regulation, providing an unfettered marketing tool for food advertisers to target children,” Ms Martin said.

“We want food manufacturers to stop using animations to promote junk food in any way to kids and for the Federal Government to extend and strengthen existing junk food marketing regulations.

“Peak health bodies, such as the World Health Organization, recognise that restricting junk food marketing to children is a vital step in improving children’s diets and slowing our serious obesity problem. Urgent action is required to protect our children from the plethora of junk food promotion that surrounds them.”

One company which uses cartoon characters in its marketing, Kelloggs, is resisting the call for change.

“Beloved Kellogg characters like Coco the Monkey, Sam Toucan and Tony the Tiger have been around for many years and are part of our heritage. Tony is the eldest and will be turning 67 this year. To get rid of them would be akin to asking Qantas to get rid of the Flying Kangaroo,” a Kellogg spokesperson said.

“The OPC is effectively saying to parents that they have less influence on their kids than a picture of a tiger or a monkey on a box of cereal, which is hugely discrediting to what parents decide to choose or don’t choose for their kids.”

New food allergy resource website for young people

Teens and young people living with severe food allergies are being encouraged to start a conversation with their peers via a new website that could potentially save their lives.

Federal Assistant Minister for Health, Dr David Gillespie said the new Coalition Government funded website, www.250k.org.au, was developed under the National Allergy Strategy.

“Around 250,000 young Australians live with severe – and potentially life threatening – allergies,” Minister Gillespie said.

“Managing severe food allergies can be a significant challenge for teens and young adults, particularly in social situations, or when starting new relationships.

“If others are aware of their allergy and what to do, it can potentially save their lives in the event of a severe allergic reaction.”

Minister Gillespie said research had found many young people feel too embarrassed to talk about their allergy with their peers.

“The website operates just like an app, and allows young people to develop their own avatar and use it to talk to their friends or others with severe allergies about their experiences,” Minister Gillespie said.

“It’s a step removed from having a face-to-face conversation that may make them uncomfortable, and the avatars can even be used to show how an EpiPen works, without the person having to demonstrate it themselves.

“There’s also practical information for young people on how they can manage their severe allergy.”

Minister Gillespie also announced that the Coalition Government would provide $1.1 million next financial year for the National Allergy Strategy, to help progress the implementation of allergy prevention strategies.

“This new funding demonstrates our commitment to people living with allergies and the challenges they face,” Minister Gillespie said.

He said the Coalition Government also provided support for management and treatment of allergies.

“There are specific Medicare Benefits Schedule items for subsidised chronic disease management consultations and allied health services, while in 2015-16 we spent $37.2 million under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Schedule on subsidised allergy medications,” Minister Gillespie said.

“We are also investing in allergen research through the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Government’s new Biomedical Translation Fund.

“Other government initiatives to help people to manage severe allergies include allergen information on food labels and guidelines on preventing or managing food allergies in food for infants and in school canteens.”

New niche beverage category expands quickly

In mainstream grocery, strong sales performance is critical to hit hurdle rates and avoid deletion. In less than one year since launching in Woolworths, Mojo Crafted kombucha has achieved this, according to the company. Woolworths has also doubled the product range  with new flavours Passionfruit and Turmeric.

Mainstream grocery is not the only retailer expanding probiotic beverages for customers.  Independent grocery is also cashing in on the market in Australia, at a retail level pushing around $70 to $80 million a year.

Metcash Convenience recently selected Mojo Classic as the first kombucha nationally available through the independent network. IGA, Foodland, Super IGA, The Friendly Grocer and Foodworks stores will offer 13 Mojo kombucha flavours under the Classic and Mojo Crafted ranges, all in 330ml bottles.

The product is a fermented, sparkling tea containing active enzymes, organic acids and proven probiotics. According to the company, the certified organic, vegan friendly and gluten free beverage offers a range of health benefits, including gut health, vitamin B12 and immune support.

“Launching our full range of flavours in more channels means consumers win and we do too,” said Andrew Buttery, business development manager for Mojo Crafted.

“It’s a huge investment in refrigerated space in independent stores with a traditionally smaller footprint.”

Beneo Foods looks to satisfy a sweet tooth – the healthy way

Food is often a highlight in our social activities. It helps to bring families and friends together, business meetings are conducted over lunch and dinners, and we have get-togethers and parties that are filled with food and drinks. Desserts, especially, hold a special place in our hearts – and on the dining tables – of Asian households. There is no denying that desserts give a befitting end to any meal. They have become an integral part of the region, be it cuisine-wise, or culturally as well as socially.

Rich desserts fit the mood of indulgence. Unfortunately, rich Asian-style desserts are commonly high in high glycaemic sugars. Also, they are often made available at joyous events and celebratory occasions when consumers tend to let their guard down and over eat.

In recent years, consumers globally have been linking sugar with health concerns like diabetes, obesity and tooth decay. Consumers are getting mindful of how much sugar they consume as they grow increasingly concerned over the harmful effects that too much sugar can have on their health. For instance, a recent survey conducted by research company Ipsos revealed that consumers in Indonesia are wary of sugar. More than two out of three consumers (69 per cent) in the country said they try to avoid sugar. Interestingly, Indonesia’s consumers still rely on sugary food and drinks for ‘taste’ (53 per cent) and more than half of them (53 per cent) also agree there are some sugars that are healthier than others.

So how then can consumers enjoy and indulge in sweet treats without feeling guilty?

Healthy food that tastes good

Consumers today have more choices than ever before when it comes to healthy and nutritious food options. Many manufacturers are already incorporating healthier ingredients into their recipes to replace sugar partly or fully. Specifically, chicory root fibres inulin and oligofructose, as well as functional carbohydrates from sugar beet such as the sugar replacer Isomalt and the alternative sugar Palatinose have been proven to be successful for replacing high glycaemic sugars in foods like confectioneries, dairy dessert and baked goods. At the same time, these derived-from-nature ingredients maintain the widely-loved tastes and textures of sweet treats.

Recent trials at the Beneo Technology Centre found that by including isomalt and inulin, the sugar content of a milk chocolate can be reduced by more than 2/3 while conveying the same sweet and indulgent taste as the full-sugar equivalent. There was also no difference in the manufacturing process, in areas like refining, conching and tempering, to create this healthier chocolate variant. Additionally, a recipe for chocolate chip cookie with 30 per cent less sugar was developed using chicory root fibre. The results showed that sweetness, taste and crunchiness were the same as the full sugar variant, yet the cookies were higher in fibre and can carry clean labels.

Christian Philippsen, Managing Director at BENEO Asia Pacific

Additionally, Beneo’s alternative sugar Palatinose helps to lower the blood glucose response of sweet treats. Using Palatinose, the team at the Beneo-Technology Centre developed a low glycaemic chocolate mousse that conveys the same creamy indulgence as traditional with a mild sugar-like sweet taste. This is recommendable as a low glycaemic diet allows us to better manage blood sugar levels, lowers the risks of developing diabetes and supports weight management effectively.

Celebrating healthy choices

The market for “functional foods” in Asia was estimated to be worth AU$93.5 billion in 2014, and is expected to continue growing at 5.9 per cent over the next 10 years.

This is not surprising as consumers today prefer food that supports a healthy lifestyle while satisfying sweet cravings. They are go for a diet that aligns with their fitness goals, that does not derail their weight management programs, and that can help them keep their metabolism in balance. Consumers are more informed than ever, and are wary of mere marketing claims. Instead, they are choosing to look at ingredient labels on food products and doing their own research on health products online. These days, consumers also want to know the specifics on food ingredients and their natural origin.

Ingredients such as Beneo’s range of chicory root fibres and functional carbohydrates allow manufacturers to offer healthier options of traditional food products. They make ideal ingredients for baked goods, confectioneries and many popular desserts. Consumers can now enjoy these sweet favourites without feeling guilty.

[Christian Philippsen (pictured) is Managing Director of BENEO Asia Pacific]

 

Professionally formulated snack product

This month, professionally formulated low GI (Glycemic Index) snack bar, enrGIsustain provides consumers a healthy go-to snack.

The product is designed to keep consumers’ blood sugar steady, maintain a healthy weight and ensure sustained energy, the in-between meals bar is the perfect snack for the health conscious, pre-diabetics and those with Type 2 Diabetes.

Brother – sister duo, Adam and Sascha Jones, established enrGIsustain to combat and the obesity epidemic. The product provides a convenient low GI snack option for consumers.

“The enrGIsustain bar has been specially designed and formulated by professionals to ensure that it packs a nutritional punch and still tastes delicious. We wanted to bring to light the health benefits of living a low GI life and keeping blood sugar levels balanced. As a result, we crafted a product that can keep you feeling full for longer, keep your cravings at bay and will also provide sustained energy and concentration throughout the day,” said co-founder Adam Jones.

A tastier low GI alternative, enrGIsustain Dark Chocolate Coconut Cashew bar is sweetened with low GI bee honey and all natural Xylitol (to help reduce cavities).

Intermittent fasting leads to new flexi diet

CSIRO has launched a new diet that includes intermittent fasting three days a week.

The weight loss program is based on research carried out by CSIRO scientists which found that fasting can be an effective way to lose weight and stay healthy.

Participants in the 16 week trial lost an average of 11kg and saw improvements in cholesterol, insulin, glucose and blood pressure.

“This was the largest study exploring the effects of an intermittent fasting style of diet on weight loss, health and nutrient status,” CSIRO Research Dietitian Dr Jane Bowen said.

“In addition to improvement in weight loss and overall health, we also observed psychological improvements, with participants indicating better control over eating habits.”

Intermittent fasting (and the similar style – alternate day fasting) has recently gained scientific and consumer interest.

The research combined intermittent fasting with meal replacement shakes and a ‘Flexi’ day where participants had one day a week to enjoy the food or drinks they love.

Traditional diets rely on energy to be restricted every day in order to achieve weight loss, which can be difficult for people to maintain long term.

A number of relatively short studies have shown that intermittent fasting results in equivalent weight loss and metabolic improvements, including loss of fat mass, blood pressure, glycemic control and markers of cardiovascular disease risk.

Few studies have compared the effects of intermittent fasting and continuous energy restriction longer term.

The CSIRO study took a novel look at using meal replacements as part of an intermittent fasting regimen to measure the effects of intermittent fasting for weight loss on nutritional status.

The new Flexi diet has been launched today in collaboration with industry partner and creators of the Impromy weight loss program, Probiotec.

“Losing weight can be challenging with results often limited by an individual’s ability to stick with a diet,” Dr Bowen said.

“The Flexi program offers a flexible alternative to traditional diets, which could help Australians to fit a weight loss diet around their busy, social lifestyles.”

The “Flexi” program includes a recipe book and a website that includes personalised meal plans, progress tracking tools and a tailored virtual consultation designed by CSIRO dietitians and behavioural scientists.

As dieters progress through the program towards their goals, meal plans can be modified to incorporate more whole foods for a long term approach to weight maintenance.

The Flexi program is available now in pharmacies.

One alcoholic drink a day can increase breast cancer risk

Drinking just one alcoholic drink a day can increase breast cancer risk, a new report by World Cancer Research Fund has revealed.

The report found strong evidence that drinking just the equivalent of a small glass of wine or half a pint of beer a day (about 10g alcohol content), could increase your pre-menopausal breast cancer risk by 5 percent and your post-menopausal breast cancer risk by 9 per cent.

World Cancer Research Fund estimates that about 12,000 cases of breast cancer could be prevented in the UK each year if nobody drank alcohol.

This robust scientific report evaluated all of the research worldwide on how diet, weight and exercise affect breast cancer risk. It also found that vigorous exercise that increases heart rate such as cycling, swimming or running can decrease the risk of pre-menopausal breast cancer and both moderate exercise, such as walking, and vigorous exercise can decrease the risk of post-menopausal breast cancer.

In addition the report showed that being overweight or obese increases the risk of post-menopausal breast cancer, the most common type of breast cancer. Being overweight or obese is also linked to several other cancers, including liver, pancreatic and bowel cancers.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women in the UK with over 55,000 new cases each year. It is responsible for more than half a million deaths worldwide each year.

The UK government recommends drinking no more than 14 units a week equivalent to seven drinks a week, spread across at least three days.

“To help prevent breast cancer, one of the most important steps women can take is to not drink alcohol or reduce the amount of alcohol they drink,” said Dr Rachel Thompson, Head of Research Interpretation at World Cancer Research Fund.

“Maintaining a healthy weight and getting enough exercise are also important for preventing breast cancer.

“It may be the most common cancer in women worldwide, but our evidence shows that there are steps that women can take to significantly reduce their breast cancer risk.”

No juice for babies, say US doctors

Fruit juice is of no nutritional benefit to children under one year of age and should not be given to them, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Previously, the Academy had advised that juice should not be given to babies under six months, so the latest statement extends the advised time period of abstinence.

The statement, “Fruit Juice in Infants, Children, and Adolescents: Current Recommendations,” to be published in the June issue of Pediatrics examines the rising rates of obesity and concerns about dental health based on evidence accumulated over recent years.

“Parents may perceive fruit juice as healthy, but it is not a good substitute for fresh fruit and just packs in more sugar and calories,” said Melvin B. Heyman, MD, FAAP, co-author of the statement. “Small amounts in moderation are fine for older kids, but are absolutely unnecessary for children under 1.”

The new recommendations state that 100-percent fresh or reconstituted fruit juice can be a healthy part of the diet of children older than one year when consumed as part of a well-balanced diet. Consumption, however, should be limited depending on a child’s age.

The statement also said that, instead of fruit juice, it is better for children to eat whole fruits. This is because, unlike whole fruit, juice lacks dietary fiber and may contribute to excessive weight gain.

“We know that excessive fruit juice can lead to excessive weight gain and tooth decay,” co-author Steven A. Abrams, MD, FAAP said. “Pediatricians have a lot of information to share with families on how to provide the proper balance of fresh fruit within their child’s diet.”

Aussies spending most of food budget on junk food

Australian households spend the majority (58 per cent) of their food budget on discretionary or ‘junk’ foods and drinks, including take-aways (14 per cent) and sugar-sweetened beverages (4 per cent), according to new research.

According to Professor Amanda Lee, who is presenting her research at the Dietitians Association of Australia’s National Conference in Hobart this week, healthy diets are more affordable than current (unhealthy) diets – costing households 15 per cent less.

But according to Australian Health Survey data, few Australians consume diets consistent with national recommendations.

“Less than four per cent of Australians eat adequate quantities of healthy foods, yet more than 35 per cent of energy (kilojoule) intake comes from discretionary foods and drinks, which provide little nutrition – and this is hurting our health and our hip pocket,” said Professor Lee, from the Sax Institute.

She said the figures are particularly worrying because poor diet is the leading preventable cause of ill health in Australia and globally, contributing to almost 18 per cent of deaths in Australia, while obesity costs the nation $58 billion a year.

Professor Lee, an Accredited Practising Dietitian, added that ill health due to poor diet is not shared equally, with some population groups, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people who are disadvantaged socioeconomically, more at risk.

Her research found that, although healthy diets cost less than current (unhealthy) diets, people in low income households need to spend around a third (31 per cent) of their disposable income to eat a healthy diet, so food security is a real problem in these households.

She added that policies that increase the price differential between healthy and unhealthy diets could further compromise food security in vulnerable groups.

“At the moment, basic healthy foods like fresh vegetables and fruit are except from the GST, but there’s been talk of extending this to all foods. If this were to happen, the cost of a healthy diet would become unaffordable for low-income families,” said Lee.

Lee said Australia needs a coordinated approach to nutrition policy – a call echoed by the Dietitians Association of Australian, the Public Health Association of Australia, the Heart Foundation and Nutrition Australia.

Viewpoints: is saturated fat really the killer it’s made out to be?

A recent editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine dismissed the widely held belief that a diet rich in saturated fats increases our risk of heart disease as “just plain wrong”. The Conversation

The authors concluded we have been concentrating on reducing one type of fat in our diet when instead we should be promoting a Mediterranean diet, exercise and reducing stress to reduce our chances of heart disease.

So, is saturated fat really the killer it’s made out to be. Or, as the editorial suggests, have we really got it all wrong?


The case for saturated fat’s role in heart disease

David Sullivan, Clinical Associate Professor, University of Sydney

According to evidence collected over more than five decades, the level of saturated fat in our diet is one of the most powerful environmental risk factors for the inflammatory process in the artery wall that leads to heart attack and stroke.

Science and medicine have never suggested saturated fat itself, for instance from a diet rich in fatty meat or processed foods, blocks your arteries (vessels that carries blood from the heart to other organs).

What we know is eating too much saturated fat raises levels of blood cholesterol, in particular the type commonly called “bad” cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol or LDL.

LDL and related particles enter the artery wall where they are chemically modified, triggering a vicious cycle of inflammation and cholesterol accumulation. It is this cycle of inflammation and cholesterol accumulation that leads to heart disease and stroke.

That’s why doctors like to keep an eye on your blood cholesterol levels, as part of assessing your risk of heart disease.

But it’s not just LDL particles that contribute to the inflammatory process; other related particles do so too. So doctors look beyond simple measures of LDL cholesterol to measure your risk. It’s better to start with your total level of blood cholesterol, then take away levels of so-called “good” cholesterol – the high-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol. This gives you an idea of the level of damaging particles (or non-HDL cholesterol).

If we understand that raised blood cholesterol levels (in particular, raised LDL) increase your risk of heart disease and stroke, then it stands to reason that reducing their levels might decrease your chances.

This is exactly what two recent studies showed. These provided the highest form of evidence in over 40,000 patients; they looked at how two cholesterol-lowering drugs significantly reduced cardiovascular events, like heart attacks and stroke.

Neither drug has anti-inflammatory effects. Instead, their success is attributed to reduced levels of harmful cholesterol-carrying particles, including LDL cholesterol.

In one study, participants swapped butter for polyunsaturated margarine as a way of reducing their saturated fat intake.
from www.shutterstock.com

So, what role does diet play in all this? Two landmark studies in people who ate Mediterranean-style diets show what happens when you eat less saturated fat. Replacing saturated fat in the diet with foods containing healthier unsaturated fat, like the fats in nuts, extra virgin olive oil, polyunsaturated margarine – but not processed carbohydrates – reduced levels of heart attacks and premature death.

Downplaying the role of dietary saturated fat in heart disease prevents health care workers from managing cardiovascular risk using diet. Any recommendation to not be so focused on saturated fat will therefore increase population levels of blood cholesterol, increasing the need for statins and other cholesterol-lowering drugs.


Some things you should know about statins and heart disease


The implication, that one of the most thoroughly researched areas of medical science – that excess saturated fat puts you at risk of heart disease and stroke – is a hoax, misrepresents the evidence.


The case against labelling saturated fat ‘bad’

Yutang Wang, Senior Lecture at Federation University Australia

Saturated fat (for instance high in fatty meat or full-fat dairy) is thought to clog the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease. But currently available evidence does not support these common beliefs.

First, let’s look at whether saturated fat really clogs the heart’s arteries leading to coronary atherosclerosis (when plaque builds up inside your arteries, in time hardening and narrowing them). In a surprise finding, one study in women who had been through the menopause found a diet richer in saturated fat was linked with less, not more, progression of coronary atherosclerosis.

Second, whether eating saturated fat increases your chances of dying from heart disease. When researchers combined the results from 41 research papers published from 1981 to 2014, eating saturated fat was not linked with dying from heart related diseases, like heart attack, stroke or type 2 diabetes.


Health Check: are saturated fats good or bad?


Many of us think saturated fat is bad for us because it increases levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol or LDL in our blood. But is LDL-cholesterol really that bad?

When researchers studied all the research papers written in English that investigated the effects of LDL-cholesterol on the deaths in people over 60, they had some surprising results. In most of the papers (representing 92% of participants), LDL-cholesterol was linked with a lower death rate, and there was no link in the remaining 8% of participants.

It is not the level of LDL itself that predicts people’s risk of heart disease, but the ratio of total cholesterol and another type of cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, that’s the key.

While LDL is largely responsible for delivering cholesterol to cells around the body, HDL cholesterol transports extra cholesterol back to the liver for recycling. So LDL and HDL work together to ensure cells in our body maintain the right levels of cholesterol.

Eating three eggs a day increased levels of HDL cholesterol in the short term.
from www.shutterstock.com

A higher ratio of total cholesterol against HDL-cholesterol is commonly associated with higher incidence of heart disease because a higher ratio reflects that more cholesterol will be deposited into the blood vessel and less will be removed from it.

But when we eat saturated fat, both LDL and HDL cholesterol levels increase. So, eating normal amounts of saturated fat will not tip the balance. We need saturated fat in our diet to form the building blocks for the cells in our body and to help our cells communicate with each other.

The long-term effect of eating too much cholesterol on the ratio of total against HDL cholesterol is not clear. A short-term study suggests eating moderately high levels of cholesterol may not be bad. Researchers found that eating three eggs a day (containing 640 mg cholesterol) for 12 weeks did not increase LDL-cholesterol.

Instead it significantly increased HDL-cholesterol by 20% compared to those who ate an egg substitute without cholesterol.

So, we may need to stop thinking about “bad” saturated fat and “bad” cholesterol. Rather, we should enjoy our meals containing moderate amounts of saturated fat and be physically active. That will be more effective in keeping us healthy.


David Sullivan:

The author mentions the study of progression of artery disease in women who have gone through the menopause. This shows women with the highest saturated fat intake had the lowest LDL cholesterol levels (despite taking less lipid-lowering treatment). This might be explained, as some researchers suggest, by genetic factors that allow some people to tolerate saturated fat better, leading to a lower LDL and a reduced risk of heart disease.

And rather than eating moderate amounts of saturated fat, as the author suggests, there is ample evidence for avoiding saturated and trans fats, replacing them with healthier ones and reserving saturated fats as treats.

We also differ in our opinions of the best marker of heart-disease risk that your doctor might consider when analysing blood test results.

Use of the total cholesterol to HDL ratio, as the author proposes, has declined because levels of HDL cholesterol itself may not be a marker of heart disease protection. And raising HDL has not reduced the risk of heart disease. Instead, non-HDL cholesterol has been introduced as a superior measure to LDL, as I have mentioned.

Finally, there’s confusion over how the terms cholesterol and saturated fat are used. Saturated fat is chain-shaped and consumed in much greater amounts than the ring-like cholesterol. And it’s saturated fat in the diet that’s the main determinant of cholesterol levels in the blood.


Yutang Wang:

Despite decades of research on whether eating saturated fat increases our chances of dying from heart disease, the results are not consistent. Some show eating high saturated fat is bad, whereas others do not.

For instance, as recently as 2016, a study showed higher total saturated fat intake was linked to lower levels of heart disease.

Yes, LDL cholesterol can be chemically modified and involved in the inflammation process. However, this does not mean non-modified LDL cholesterol in the blood is bad.

There is no doubt that cholesterol-lowering drugs can lower your risk of a heart attack or stroke. These drugs can decrease LDL-cholesterol. However, the beneficial effect of cholesterol-lowering drugs may be largely because of the favourable change in the balance between total cholesterol and HDL-cholesterol, rather than lowering “harmful” LDL-cholesterol alone.

David Richmond Sullivan, Clinical Associate Professor, University of Sydney and Yutang Wang, Senior Lecturer, Federation University Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Top image: www.blogchef.net

The protein gap – nutritional science’s biggest error

In the three decades following World War II it became an almost universal belief of nutritional scientists that protein deficiency was the most serious and widespread dietary deficiency in the world. Improving protein nutrition became a high priority for UN agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation. The Conversation

This problem was perceived to be so serious and widespread that in many developing countries most children were thought to suffer some degree of protein malnutrition – a condition the medical establishment called “kwashiorkor”. (Kwashiorkor is a word from the Ga language of West Africa that means “the disease of the deposed child”.)

For several decades, protein was a major teaching and research focus in human nutrition. This focus on protein and protein deficiency has persisted in many minds, even though official recommended daily allowances (RDA) suggest that deficiency is very unlikely. Some foods, including eggs, milk (especially skimmed milk) mushrooms, lentils and Quorn are still prized and afforded “superfood” status as rich sources of high-quality protein.

As late as 1972, Hugues Gounelle de Pontanel, later the president of the French National Academy of Medicine, made the following claim in his opening address at a scientific conference on the generation of protein from oil in France:

Every doctor, nutritionist or political leader concerned with the problem of world hunger has now concluded that the major problem is one of protein malnutrition.

When estimates of world protein needs were made using official estimates of protein requirements, there appeared to be a huge and rapidly increasing shortfall in supplies that was termed the “protein gap”. The low quality of many vegetable proteins and uneven worldwide distribution of protein amplified the problem. The protein gap seemed unbridgeable unless alternative – and previously untapped – sources of high-quality protein could be found.

Billions of pounds at today’s prices were invested in measures to try and close this protein gap. Some of the efforts included:

• Developing high-protein strains of cereals or adding synthetic amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) to increase the quality of wheat protein.

• Making so-called single-cell protein from micro-organisms (Quorn is one such product produced from a microscopic fungus and now marketed as a meat substitute for vegetarians).

• Mass producing palatable high-protein foods from products such as cotton seeds, sesame seeds, fish meal and soya beans.

The Protein Advisory Group, a UN agency, was established in 1955 to advise on the “safety and suitability” of these new protein-rich foods.

An emperor’s new clothes moment

However, the protein gap was finally exposed as a myth in 1974 when Donald McLaren, of the American University in Beirut, published a paper in The Lancet titled: “The great protein fiasco”. In a 2011 interview, reflecting on his life and career, McLaren described the belief in the protein gap as “one of the greatest errors committed in the name of nutrition science in the past half-century”.

A year after McLaren’s paper appeared in The Lancet, John Waterlow and Philip Payne from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published an analysis of diets of children in developing countries. Their analysis revealed that protein deficiency was rare, and when it occurred it was caused by a simple lack of food, rather than the low-protein content of food. Even diets based on low-protein staples, such as yams and cassava, contain enough protein for human needs. Waterlow and Payne concluded that neither the protein-gap theory nor the diagnosis of kwashiorkor as a disease caused by protein deficiency remained tenable. It is still unclear why some malnourished children develop kwashiorkor.

Sources of protein.
Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Fake crisis

Three major factors led to the false belief in a world protein crisis: exaggerated official estimates of human protein requirements, especially those of growing children; overemphasis of the importance of the protein quality of individual foods; and the assumption that kwashiorkor was caused by protein deficiency and was the most common worldwide manifestation of malnutrition in children.

In 1943, the US RDA for protein for a two-year-old child was 40g a day. It is now only 18g a day. Using the 1943 RDA, protein deficiency would have seemed almost inevitable for children in many developing countries and a distinct possibility even in developed countries. The adult male RDA has fallen from 65g a day in 1943 to 55.5g a day now.

Back in 1959, Dr Mark Hegsted of the Harvard School of Public Health warned that estimated human protein requirements were excessively reliant on animal studies. Rats double their birth weight in four to six days and baby rats need five times more protein than adults when allowance is made for size differences. Breastfed human babies may take four to six months to double their birth weight, so their extra protein needs for growth are much more modest than those of a baby rat. Rat milk also has seven times as much protein as breastmilk, so animal comparisons tended to exaggerate the extra protein needs of a growing child.

Despite the fact that the protein gap theory has been thoroughly debunked, the focus on protein deficiency still persists in many minds. As recently as 2015, the Times of India ran an article with the headline: “Nine out of ten Indians lack proper protein intake”.

Sometimes bad ideas simply refuse to die.

Geoff Webb, Senior Lecturer, University of East London

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Food as medicine: how what you eat shapes the health of your lungs

This article is part of a three-part package “food as medicine”, exploring how food prevents and cures disease. Read other articles in the series here. The Conversation


We all understand that eating too much of the wrong foods – those that are high in energy and low in nutrients, such as fast foods, processed foods and takeaways – causes weight gain and can lead to obesity. These foods are often high in saturated fat, refined carbohydrates (or sugars) and sodium, which increase the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

But eating poorly has other, somewhat more surprising ramifications. Recently we have come to understand that unhealthy eating patterns can affect our lungs. Switching your diet to one rich in fruit and vegetables could help you breathe easier.

Healthy diets and healthy lungs

Most of the epidemiological evidence linking diet with lung function has focused on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Linked to smoking, COPD causes progressive lung deterioration and asthma.

Several large studies have observed people over time, and found that an unhealthy eating pattern (including refined grains, cured and red meats, desserts and French fries) increases the risk of lung function decline and COPD onset, compared to a healthy eating pattern (including fruit, vegetables, fish and wholegrains).

A recent study followed more than 40,000 men for 13 years, and found a high fruit and vegetable intake was associated with reduced risk of COPD. Current and ex-smokers eating five or more serves a day of fruit and vegetables were 30 to 40% less likely to develop COPD compared to those eating fewer than two serves per day.

A three year study in patients with existing COPD revealed those consuming a high fruit and vegetable diet had an improvement in lung function.

In asthma, there is evidence westernised diets, fast foods and processed foods increase the risk of asthma attacks, lung function decline, wheeze and breathlessness.

We have tested the effect of a high fruit and vegetable diet in asthma sufferers over three months. We found people consuming seven or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day had a reduced risk of asthma attacks, compared to people who consumed a low fruit and vegetable diet (fewer than three servings per day).

Another intervention study in asthma used a diet originally designed to reduce high blood pressure – the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet – for six months. One of the DASH dietary goals was to consume seven to 12 servings of fruit and vegetables, as well as two to four servings of low-fat/fat-free dairy products, and limiting daily fat and sodium intake. This led to improvements in asthma control and quality of life.

How do fruit and vegetables improve lung health?

People with respiratory diseases such as COPD and asthma typically suffer from inflamed airways. The airway tissue becomes swollen and hypersensitive, excess mucus is produced and the breathing tubes become damaged, sometimes irreversibly. The resulting narrowing of the airways makes it difficult for air to pass in and out of the lungs.

Failure to breathe freely can very quickly become life threatening. Restricted airflow can also have a debilitating effect on day-to-day activities, causing symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, breathlessness and chest tightness in people with asthma and COPD.

Fruit and vegetables are a rich source of several nutrients, in particular soluble fibre and antioxidants, that have been shown to reduce inflammation in the airways.

Dietary fibre reduces lung inflammation

Dietary fibre exists in soluble and insoluble forms. Soluble fibre is fermented by gut bacteria to produce short chain fatty acids. These can bind to specific receptors on the surface of immune cells, which suppress airway inflammation. We have shown a single dose of soluble fibre activates these receptors and reduces inflammation in human airways within just four hours.

Short chain fatty acids can also inhibit expression of the genes that cause airway inflammation, through a process known as epigenetic modification. So a high soluble-fibre intake has the potential to protect against airway inflammation through both activation of anti-inflammatory immune receptors, and inhibition of genes controlling inflammation.

Antioxidants are also anti-inflammatory

Antioxidants present in fruit and vegetables – such as vitamin C, carotenoids and flavonoids – are also beneficial, as they can protect against the damaging effects of free radicals, which are highly reactive molecules produced by activated inflammatory cells that can damage asthmatic airways. Many observational studies have linked antioxidants with lung health.

However, data from antioxidant supplementation trials in asthma are not convincing. Few studies show a beneficial effect, likely due to the use of individual nutrients. Multiple antioxidants exist together in fruit and vegetables, which have interdependent roles that are likely to be critical for their protective effects. So dietary modifications using whole fruit and vegetables is a better strategy.

Sometimes we can become overwhelmed by the nutrition messages in the media, which tell us to eat this and not eat that. Sometimes the advice seems contradictory and confusing. So here is a very simple and focused message for people with respiratory disease – eat more fruit and vegetables!

There’s really nothing to lose and everything to gain. As well as helping to maintain or achieve a healthy weight and reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, you will also be improving your lung health.


Further reading:

Food as medicine: why do we need to eat so many vegetables and what does a serve actually look like?

Food as Medicine: your brain really does want you to eat more veggies

Lisa Wood, Professor, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Gluten-free diet could be bad for you – study

Restricting gluten may lead to low intake of “heart healthy” whole grains and be bad for your health, according to a new study.

The research, published in British Medical Journal, also found that people without celiac disease who consume gluten have no increased risk of heart disease.

Therefore, the researchers say, the promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged.

Dietary gluten triggers inflammation and intestinal damage in people with celiac disease – and is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease, which is reduced after treatment with a gluten-free diet.

But avoidance of gluten among people without celiac disease has also increased in recent years, partly owing to the belief that gluten can have harmful health effects.

Yet despite the rising trend in low gluten or gluten free diets, no long term studies have assessed the relation of dietary gluten with the risk of chronic conditions such as coronary heart disease in people without celiac disease.

So a team of US based researchers decided to examine the association of long term intake of gluten with the development of coronary heart disease.

They analysed data on 64,714 female and 45,303 male US health professionals with no history of coronary heart disease who completed a detailed food questionnaire in 1986 that was updated every four years through to 2010.

Consumption of gluten and development of coronary heart disease was monitored over this 26-year period. After adjusting for known risk factors, no significant association between estimated gluten intake and the risk of subsequent overall coronary heart disease was found.

However, further analyses suggest that restricting dietary gluten may result in a low intake of whole grains, which are associated with lower cardiovascular risk.

The authors point out that this is an observational study, so no firm conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect, and they outline some limitations that could have introduced bias.

Nevertheless, they conclude that their findings “do not support the promotion of a gluten restricted diet with a goal of reducing coronary heart disease risk.”

Food as medicine: your brain really does want you to eat more veggies

This article is part of a three-part package “food as medicine”, exploring how food prevents and cures disease. Read other articles in the series here. The Conversation


As well as our physical health, the quality of our diet matters for our mental and brain health. Observational studies across countries, cultures and age groups show that better-quality diets – those high in vegetables, fruits, other plant foods (such as nuts and legumes), as well as good-quality proteins (such as fish and lean meat) – are consistently associated with reduced depression.

Unhealthy dietary patterns – higher in processed meat, refined grains, sweets and snack foods – are associated with increased depression and often anxiety.

Importantly, these relationships are independent of one another. Lack of nutritious food seems to be a problem even when junk food intake is low, while junk and processed foods seem to be problematic even in those who also eat vegetables, legumes and other nutrient-dense foods. We’ve documented these relationships in adolescents, adults and older adults.

Diet has an impact early in life

The diet-mental health relationship is evident right at the start of life. A study of more than 20,000 mothers and their children showed the children of mothers who ate an unhealthier diet during pregnancy had a higher level of behaviours linked to later mental disorders.

We also saw the children’s diets during the first years of life were associated with these behaviours. This suggests mothers’ diets during pregnancy and early life are both important in influencing the risk for mental health problems in children as they grow.

This is consistent with what we see in animal experiments. Unhealthy diets fed to pregnant animals results in many changes to the brain and behaviour in offspring. This is very important to understand if we want to think about preventing mental disorders in the first place.

Teasing out the cause from the correlation

It’s important to note that, at this stage, most of the existing data in this field come from observational studies, where it is difficult to tease apart cause and effect. Of course, the possibility that mental ill health promoting a change in diet explains the associations, rather than the other way around, is an important one to consider.

What comes first, the junk food or the depression?
from shutterstock.com

Many studies have investigated this and largely ruled it out as the explanation for the associations we see between diet quality and depression. In fact, we published a study suggesting that a past experience of depression was associated with better diets over time.

But the relatively young field of nutritional psychiatry is still lacking data from intervention studies (where study participants are given an intervention that aims to improve their diet in an attempt to affect their mental health). These sorts of studies are important in determining causality and for changing clinical practice.

Our recent trial was the first intervention study to examine the common question of whether diet will improve depression.

We recruited adults with major depressive disorder and randomly assigned them to receive either social support (which is known to be helpful for people with depression), or support from a clinical dietitian, over a three-month period.

The dietary group received information and assistance to improve the quality of their current diets. The focus was on increasing the consumption of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, legumes, fish, lean red meats, olive oil and nuts, while reducing their consumption of unhealthy “extra” foods, such as sweets, refined cereals, fried food, fast food, processed meats and sugary drinks.

The results of the study showed that participants in the dietary intervention group had a much greater reduction in their depressive symptoms over the three months, compared to those in the social support group.

At the end of the trial, 32% of those in the dietary support group, compared to 8% of those in the social support group, met criteria for remission of major depression.

These results were not explained by changes in physical activity or body weight, but were closely related to the extent of dietary change. Those who adhered more closely to the dietary program experienced the greatest benefit to their depression symptoms.

While this study now needs to be replicated, it provides preliminary evidence that dietary improvement may be a useful strategy for treating depression.

Depression is a whole-body disorder

It’s important to understand researchers now believe depression is not just a brain disorder, but rather a whole-body disorder, with chronic inflammation being an important risk factor. This inflammation is the result of many environmental stressors common in our lives: poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, overweight and obesity, lack of sleep, lack of vitamin D, as well as stress.

Many of these factors influence gut microbiota (the bacteria and other microorganisms that live in your bowel, also referred to as your “microbiome”), which in turn influence the immune system and – we believe – mood and behaviour.

In fact, gut microbiota affect more than the immune system. New evidence in this field suggests they are important to almost every aspect of health including our metabolism and body weight, and brain function and health. Each of these factors is relevant to depression risk, reinforcing the idea of depression as a whole-body disorder.

What is the human microbiome?

If we do not consume enough nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats, this can lead to insufficiencies in nutrients, antioxidants and fibre. This has a detrimental impact on our immune system, gut microbiota and other aspects of physical and mental health.

Gut microbiota are particularly reliant on an adequate intake of dietary fibre, while the health of the gut may be compromised by added sugars, fats, emulsifiers and artificial sugars found in processed foods.

A diet high in added fats and refined sugars also has a potent negative impact on brain proteins that we know are important in depression: proteins called neurotrophins. These protect the brain against oxidative stress and promote the growth of new brain cells in our hippocampus (a part of the brain critical for learning and memory, and important to mental health). In older adults we have shown that diet quality is related to the size of the hippocampus.

Now we know diet is important to mental and brain health as well as physical health, we need to make healthy eating the easiest, cheapest and most socially acceptable option for people, no matter where they live.


Further reading:

Food as medicine: why do we need to eat so many vegetables and what does a serve actually look like?

Felice Jacka, Principal Research Fellow, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.