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Nutrition Linked to Intelligence and Brain Health in Older People

A study of older adults links consumption of a pigment found in leafy greens to the preservation of “crystallized intelligence,” the ability to use the skills and knowledge one has acquired over a lifetime.

Lutein (LOO-teen) is one of several plant pigments that humans acquire through the diet, primarily by eating leafy green vegetables, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, or egg yolks, said University of Illinois graduate student Marta Zamroziewicz, who led the study with Illinois psychology professor Aron Barbey. Lutein accumulates in the brain, embedding in cell membranes, where it likely plays “a neuroprotective role,” she said.

“Previous studies have found that a person’s lutein status is linked to cognitive performance across the lifespan,” Zamroziewicz said. “Research also shows that lutein accumulates in the gray matter of brain regions known to underlie the preservation of cognitive function in healthy brain aging.”

The study enrolled 122 healthy participants aged 65 to 75 who solved problems and answered questions on a standard test of crystallized intelligence. Researchers also collected blood samples to determine blood serum levels of lutein and imaged participants’ brains using MRI to measure the volume of different brain structures.The team focused on parts of the temporal cortex, a brain region that other studies suggest plays a role in the preservation of crystallized intelligence.

The researchers found that participants with higher blood serum levels of lutein tended to do better on tests of crystallized intelligence. Serum lutein levels reflect only recent dietary intakes, Zamroziewicz said, but are associated with brain concentrations of lutein in older adults, which reflect long-term dietary intake.Those with higher serum lutein levels also tended to have thicker gray matter in the parahippocampal cortex, a brain region that, like crystallized intelligence, is preserved in healthy aging, the researchers report.

“Our analyses revealed that gray-matter volume of the parahippocampal cortex on the right side of the brain accounts for the relationship between lutein and crystallized intelligence,” Barbey said. “This offers the first clue as to which brain regions specifically play a role in the preservation of crystallized intelligence, and how factors such as diet may contribute to that relationship.”“Our findings do not demonstrate causality,” Zamroziewicz said. “We did find that lutein is linked to crystallized intelligence through the parahippocampal cortex.”

“We can only hypothesize at this point how lutein in the diet affects brain structure,” Barbey said. “It may be that it plays an anti-inflammatory role or aids in cell-to-cell signaling. But our finding adds to the evidence suggesting that particular nutrients slow age-related declines in cognition by influencing specific features of brain aging.”

How GMOs, Pesticides and Processed Foods Contribute to Common Bowel Disorders

Growing numbers of people are experiencing serious gastrointestinal issues every year.Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) plagues 125 million North Americans and is the most common functional bowel disorder in the world .“Functional” in this context means that there is no organ damage but a change in the way an organ functions.A more serious condition is chronic Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), in which part or all of the digestive tract is in a state of constant inflammation.

Chronic Inflammatory Bowel Disease Is No Joke

Two defined IBDs are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. As we know, internal inflammation is the source of many diseases.

Symptoms of IBD include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Intestinal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Erratic menses
  • Night sweats

More than simple occasional indigestion or stomach ache, IBD doesn’t go away in a short time by itself.Researchers have become interested and concerned about the steady increase in the incidence of this type of disease. There seems to be no one definitive cause but chronic Inflammatory Bowel Disease is the product of several factors, including:


How Diet Affects IBD

It makes sense that what we eat affects our intestines.In the industrial world, the convenience of packaged foods has become such that we rely on them for the bulk of our diets. What’s in these foods is a primary concern. Food additives include preservatives; emulsifiers; artificial colors, flavorings, and sweeteners; refined sugar; and synthetic vitamins and minerals. At a more basic level are the actual food ingredients, like wheat and dairy. Many of these contain genetically modified organisms (GMO) and are raised using toxic pesticides. GMO interfere with the balance of bacteria in the digestive system. A GMO of particular note is the raising of crops using Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). Bt is a bacterium naturally found in soil that is toxic to insects. Agricultural chemical companies have crossed this bacterium with food crop seeds so that the plants grown contain this bacterium in their very DNA. The idea is that if the plant resists harmful insects, there’s no need to spray additional insecticide, which we know can be harmful. What the bacteria does when humans digest them is even worse.

Bt: A Cause Of IBD?

Bt produces spores that are comprised of crystalline (“Cry”) proteins. When an insect eats the bacterium, these proteins attach and erode the linings of the digestive system, forming holes. When undigested food and waste products spread throughout the body, the insect dies.When humans eat GMO that contains Bt, the same thing happens. Not only that, mammals recognize Bt bacteria as harmful and produce antibodies to kill it . So do insects. History has shown that spraying Bt insecticides on plants forces the feeders to build up a resistance to it. 

Regularly eating GMO foods containing Bt (including corn and soy) keeps the intestines in overdrive, trying to rid themselves of the toxin, thereby causing chronic inflammation. In addition, Bt enters the bloodstream with direct impacts to the whole body. It has even been found in the blood of fetuses, passed from their mothers and in animals fed GMO corn.

One Brazilian study noted that: “Bt spore crystals presented toxicity for lymphocytes when in higher doses, which varied according to the type of spore crystal studied, besides promoting cytotoxic and genotoxic effects for the erythroid lineage of bone marrow, mainly at highest doses. Although the profile of such adverse side effects can be related to their high level of exposure, which is not commonly found in the environment, results indicated that these Bt spore crystals were not harmless to mice. This suggests that a more specific approach should be taken to increase knowledge about their toxicological properties and to establish the toxicological risks to non target organisms.” Because Bt are living organisms, they will remain in your body for as long as it remains a hospitable environment.

The link between Bt GMO foods and the rise in the numbers of people with IBD is hardly coincidental:
“Genetically modified foods that carry the Bt toxin first came to American households in 1996.  Between the years of 1979 and 1998, the number of Americans to suffer from Crohn’s Disease (a debilitating autoimmune disease of the large bowel) bounced back and forth between 225 per 100,000 people to 300 per 100,000 people. In 2000, that number shot up to 375 per 100,000 people, and has been on the rise ever since.”

“Ambulatory care visits from those who reported inflammatory bowel symptoms went from 275 per 100,000 people to 375 per 100,000 people between the years of 1994 and 1998…The number of Americans suffering from ulcerative colitis (inflammatory bowel disease) hovered between 185 per 100,000 Americans to approximately 210 per 100,000 people between the years of 1979 and 2001.  In 2002, those numbers shot to 225 per 100,000 people and have been on the rise ever since.”

It may come as no surprise that the patent for Bt crops is held by Monsanto. Which leads us to the next topic of toxins in food.

Other Monsanto Food Crimes

Even if a plant is not genetically modified, commercially grown crops are sprayed with insecticides and herbicides, the most common of which is Roundup—its active ingredient is glyphosate. This toxic chemical has been associated with leaky gut syndrome along with a slew of other health concerns, including cancer.

Processed food additives contribute to IBD.

Emulsifiers are added to packaged foods to enhance texture and increase shelf life. Commonly-used emulsifiers polysorbate-80 and carboxymethylcellulose have been found to cause intestinal inflammation and obesity in mice. They have been found to cause colorectal cancer and metabolic syndrome as well .

Healing Your Gut

The alternatives to promote a healthy gut, reducing the risk of chronic Inflammatory Bowel Disease and other digestive disorders:

Plus, don’t forget to manage your stress levels and get enough sleep and exercise.


How To Improve Your Thyroid Condition

It is estimated that 20 million Americans suffer from a thyroid condition and 12 million of them are unaware they have a thyroid problem. Women are 5 times more likely than men to have thyroid problems and 1 out of 8 women will develop a thyroid disorder at some point in life.

Your thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that influences a variety of bodily functions and greatly influences your mood and energy levels. The thyroid gland is sometimes called the body’s thermostat because it controls energy flow. Hypothyroidism, also called low thyroid, means the gland isn’t producing enough hormones to do its job. This shortage of thyroid hormones also makes you feel sluggish at every level.

Low Energy and Low Thyroid

You may be feeling sluggish in the morning and have trouble with your memory, concentration and focus. Your metabolism and digestion may move slower, which causes weight gain, constipation and even high cholesterol. Your hands and feet may feel colder than normal and your hair and skin may feel more dry and coarse (your hair may even fall out). You may start feeling depressed, anxious or moody or experience really bad PMS, cramps or periods. you may have muscle pains and feel more bloated. You may even find that the outer third of your eyebrows are gone. These are all signs of low thyroid.

Most of these symptoms may sound like a normal part of growing old. It’s not unusual for a woman between 30 and 50 years old to feel tired, bummed out, and a little bit overweight. This is why thyroid health is often ignored by doctors. Most doctors specialize in acute illness, but they often fail miserably when it comes to addressing subtle changes in your body that affect the quality of your life.

In many cases, doctors assume a woman is simply going through perimenopause or suffering mild depression. “It’s all too common for a doctor to hear ‘tired, moody, forgetful’ and offer the patient a prescription for antidepressants,” explains Richard Shames, M.D., of San Rafael, California, a thyroid specialist.

Thyroid disease puts you at risk for cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and infertility. Pregnant womenwith undiagnosed or inadequately treated hypothyroidism have an increased risk of miscarriage, preterm delivery, and severe developmental problems in their children.


What Causes Low Thyroid?

Chronic thyroid problems can be caused by many factors, including what you eat, what you don’t eat, your environment and your stress levels.

Your stress levels, or cortisol levels, are probably the biggest influencers on your thyroid gland. There is an intimate interaction between stress hormones and thyroid function. Studies have shown that chronic stress suppresses thyroid function. So the more stress you are under, the worse your thyroid functions.

Another important factor that leads to hypothyroidism is exposure to environmental toxins, like pesticides. Pesticides act as hormone or endocrine disruptors and interfere with thyroid hormone metabolism and function. Heavy metals, like lead and mercury, can also disrupt thyroid function.

Another factor leading to hypothyroidism is iodine deficiency. Not giving our bodies the nutrients that are important for a healthy thyroid will also slow your thyroid down. Since the body does not make iodine, it relies on the diet to get enough. Some people can maintain adequate iodine through their diets by using table salt that is fortified with iodine, but most of us are trying to limit our sodium intake.

Many medications also slow down the thyroid and also cause iodine deficiency. Pain medications, antihistamines and antidepressants are thought to slow the thyroid down, as well as all medications that make you feel sleepy or slow.

What To Do

There are a number of things you can do to boost your thyroid function. Thankfully, most of them do not involve medications, although some people choose a prescription too. Here is my five step plan to boosting your thyroid.
1. Focus On The Cause

The first thing you should do is identify the underlying causes of your thyroid conditions or hypothyroidism. Food allergies, gluten intolerance, heavy metals, nutritional deficiencies, and stress are all factors that need to be focused on and tested.
2. Eat Better

The second thing you can do to support your thyroid is eat foods that are high in iodine, zinc, omega-3 fats and selenium. Eat more low fat cheeses, undenatured whey protein, eggs, low fat yogurt and ice cream, saltwater fish, seaweed (including kelp, dulce, nori), shellfish and soy sauce.

At the same time, you should avoid foods that slow your thyroid. These foods are called goitrogens, which are chemicals that lower thyroid function. Even though they are very good for you, you should really only eat these foods once every four days or so. They include almonds, cauliflower, broccoli, pears, turnips, Brussels sprouts, corn, mustard, pine nuts, cabbage, kale, spinach, peanuts, canola oil and soy products.
3. Reduce Stress

The third thing you can do to strengthen your thyroid is reduce your stress. Meditation, guided visualizations and yoga are certainly helpful, but so is a general positive outlook on life. Trust that you have the strength to improve your health. There will be bumps in the road but when you expect a healthier life for yourself, you begin to live it.
4. Exercise

The fourth thing you can do for optimal thyroid function is exercise. Doing my bounce and shake or even walking every day will give your thyroid a boost.
5. Supplement

Supplementing is the best way to keep your thyroid running at an optimal rate and to keep your weight under control. You should choose very potent high quality supplements with high levels of iodine, selenium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin B, D, E and at least 2 grams of vitamin C. Omega-3 as well as amino acids can also help regulate the thyroid. High quality formulas that combine many of these vitamins and minerals can be very helpful too.


Is Capitalism To Blame for Worldwide Obesity?

Lets take a moment to really consider the truth about why people get fat? Doctors have proven this increases  their personal risk of heart disease, diabetes and other “lifestyle” diseases and society’s risk of fiscal collapse from the expense of treating millions of people with those ailments.  Conventional wisdom, favored by governments and a vast and growing  ” Wellness Industry” around the world, is that it’s because individuals can’t control themselves. Accordingly ( “trillions” / with a T)  of dollars, euros, yen, rupees and other monies will be spent in the next few decades to nudge people into jogging and giving up potato chips and dessert, for their sake and their nation’s fiscal capacity . It would be a damn shame if that turned out to be a colossal waste of money. But it may be, if we learn years hence that obesity wasn’t caused by individual choices at all. A number of researchers have been making this argument, pushing against received opinion, and of them, the most striking is probably this new paper :


The key cause of the global obesity epidemic, it says, is capitalism.

It’s a striking paper (perhaps the only one you’ll ever read that references both receptor pathways for the hormone leptin and data on the size of the Indian economy before and after the British took over). There is, for example, where it was recently published: Not in some obscure pool of Marxist theorizing, but in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Human Biology. The author, Jonathan C.K. Wells, is an expert on fat metabolism in humans who works at the Childhood Nutrition Research Centre at the Institute of Child Health of University College London. On the evidence of this paper, he is as far from an ideological ranter as a human being can be. He seems instead to be a scientist who has been driven to exasperation by conventional wisdom, which looks to explain obesity only within the narrow viewpoint of individuals and the calories they consume.

Let me paraphrase Wells’ intricate argument as a multigenerational saga. It begins with you, a poor farmer growing food crops in a poor country. Capitalism appears with your colonial masters when Europeans take control of your economy. The new system encourages you and your neighbors to stop growing your own food and instead produce, say, coffee for export. Now that you aren’t growing food, you need to buy it. But since everyone in a capitalist economy is out to maximize profit, companies strive to pay you as little as possible for your crop, and to pay your factory-worker children as little as possible for their labor. So capitalism has, first, removed various traditional protections against starvation by changing your farming system, and, second, made sure you aren’t paid enough to eat well.

Cut to 80 years later. Thanks to globalization and outsourcing, your descendants have risen out of the ranks of the poor and joined the fast-growing ranks of the world’s 21st century middle-class consumers. Capitalism welcomes them. They are now targets for efforts to get them to buy things they don’t need, which of course includes foods and beverages that you could never have afforded. They’ve been put at risk of obesity because capitalism encourages them to over-eat.

But that’s not the worst of it. As Wells describes in detail, there is a lot of recent research to suggest that a body’s physiological response to food is heavily influenced by experiences in the womb and in early life. Moreover, it’s also influenced by the environment that a person’s mother lived in—not just when that mother was pregnant, but also when she was a child, and even a fetus in the womb of her mother. So the effects of under-nutrition last a lifetime, and are even passed across generations. And those effects appear to promote obesity.

It seems under-nutrition in a person’s early life, or even similar food deprivation in the life of that person’s parents, can set the metabolism to create fat reserves quickly and keep them. In other words, if you or your parents or their parents were under-nourished, you’re at a higher risk of becoming obese in a rich-food environment. (As Wells explains, when food is insufficient, evolution favors bodies that make and keep fat reserves, and once this adaptation is set it can’t be turned off when food becomes more plentiful.) Moreover, obese people, when they have children, pass on changes in metabolism that can predispose the next generation to obesity as well. Like the children of under-fed people, the children of the over-fed have their metabolism set in ways that tend to promote obesity.

So a past of undernutrition, combined with a present of overnutrition, is an obesity trap (Wells memorably calls the “metabolic ghetto”) that can’t be escaped by turning poor people into middle-class consumers. In fact, that turn to prosperity is what sets off the trap. In India, China and many other rapidly expanding economies, capitalism itself caused under-nutrition in previous generations and now causes over-nutrition today.

In other countries (Wells cites Ethiopia, where he has done research), the two forces are at work at the same time, making some poor workers unable to eat well even as their richer compatriots switch to a diet of processed foods.) Since capitalism is the driver of both past and current under-nutrition and today’s over-nutrition, Wells has concluded that capitalism itself is a long-lasting world-wide “obesogenic” force. “Obesity,” Wells writes, “like under-nutrition, is thus fundamentally a state of malnutrition, in each case promoted by powerful profit-led manipulations of the global supply and quality of food.”

He buttresses this claim with some detailed theorizing about the biochemistry, physiology and epigenetics that link poor nutrition in early life and later obesity. As the environmental epidemiologist Paolo Vineis  pointed out in his review for the F100 website , Wells’ theory suggests plenty of questions that could be answered by both lab and field experiments. This is not an ideological screed; it’s a peer-reviewed proposal for a theory that connects work on the economics of food with work on the way that environment affect bodies and behaviors.

But aren’t we all free to choose not to participate in this fattening system? As Wells sees it, the “unifying logic of capitalism” is exactly the opposite of this cliché about free markets. We may think we’re free to choose what to eat and how to eat it, but, he writes, food companies maximize their profits by restricting our choices, “both at the behavioral level, through advertising, price manipulations and restriction of choice, and at the physiological level through the enhancement of addictive properties of foods” (by which he means those sugars and fats that make processed foods so habit forming as well as fattening).

What is to be done, then?

Rather than harping on personal responsibility so much, Wells argues, we should be looking at the global economic system, seeking to reform it so that it promotes access to nutritious food for everyone. Also, we need to develop policies to fight hunger that don’t send people into the “obesogenic niche,” and, finally, regulate commercial interests so that they pay poor people better and market less fattening shlock to the better off.

I admit, I read that list and thought, Good luck with that. You can get rich people to fund efforts to get others to jog and watch their diet and be disciplined about check-ups (which amounts to trying to get the population to act more like rich people, so it’s an easy sell). But who is going to fund work that questions the very basis of their power to fund things?

Still, maybe I’m too pessimistic. It’s increasingly clear that the current consensus—people are obese because they individually decide to eat too much—is unsatisfactory. (To cite just one reason, that explanation doesn’t account for why in the 21st century animals are also becoming obese along with our species.) A number of alternative theories are circulating, which locate the cause of our “obesity epidemic” in society’s collective activities rather than in individual decisions about exercise and cookies.

One candidate, as Kristin Wartman   recently explained , is all the chemicals we modern people ingest, specifically organic pollutants like BPA. Another, as Beatrice Golomb  (search the page for her name to find the post), are industrial metals. Others have cited the stresses of modern life, including loneliness and lack of sleep. Wells’s idea is, to my mind, the most mind-blowing of all these alternative ideas about obesity. Whether or not he’s right, this paper will scrub your mind of unexamined assumptions and leave you thinking more clearly about a major global problem.



Your Genes Respond To The Foods You Eat

What should we eat? Answers abound in the media, all of which rely on their interpretation of recent medical literature to come up with recommendations for the healthiest diet. But what if you could answer this question at a molecular level — what if you could find out how our genes respond to the foods we eat, and what this does to the cellular processes that make us healthy — or not? That’s precisely what biologists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have done.

If you could ask your genes to say what kinds of foods are best for your health, they would have a simple answer: one-third protein, one-third fat and one-third carbohydrates. That’s what recent genetic research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) shows is the best recipe to limit your risk of most lifestyle-related diseases.

Food affects gene expression

NTNU researchers Ingerid Arbo and Hans-Richard Brattbakk have fed slightly overweight people different diets, and studied the effect of this on gene expression. Gene expression refers to the process where information from a gene’s DNA sequence is translated into a substance, like a protein, that is used in a cell’s structure or function.

“We have found that a diet with 65% carbohydrates, which often is what the average Norwegian eats in some meals, causes a number of classes of genes to work overtime,” says Berit Johansen, a professor of biology at NTNU. She supervises the project’s doctoral students and has conducted research on gene expression since the 1990s.

“This affects not only the genes that cause inflammation in the body, which was what we originally wanted to study, but also genes associated with development of cardiovascular disease, some cancers, dementia, and type 2 diabetes — all the major lifestyle-related diseases,” she says.

Common dietary advice and chronic disease

These findings undercut most of the underpinnings for the diets you’ve heard will save you. Dietary advice abounds, and there is a great deal of variation as to how scientifically justified it is. But it is only now that researchers are figuring out the relationship between diet, digestion and the effect on one’s health and immune system — so they can now say not only what kinds of foods are healthiest, but why.

“Both low-carb and high-carb diets are wrong,” says Johansen. “But a low-carb diet is closer to the right diet. A healthy diet shouldn’t be made up of more than one-third carbohydrates (up to 40 per cent of calories) in each meal, otherwise we stimulate our genes to initiate the activity that creates inflammation in the body.”

This is not the kind of inflammation that you would experience as pain or an illness, but instead it is as if you are battling a chronic light flu-like condition. Your skin is slightly redder, your body stores more water, you feel warmer, and you’re not on top mentally. Scientists call this metabolic inflammation.

A powdered diet

Johansen and her colleagues conducted two studies. The first was to determine what type of research methods they would use to answer the questions they had. In the pilot study (28 days) five obese men ate real food, while in the second study, 32 slightly overweight men and women (mainly students) ate specially made powdered food.

Participants in the latter study were randomly assigned to go six days on a diet with 65 percent of calories from carbohydrates, with the rest of the calories from protein (15 percent) and fat (20 percent), then a week with no diet. Then came the six days on a diet with half the carbs and twice as much protein and fat as in the first diet. There were blood tests before and after each dieting period.

The amount of food each person ate was calculated so that their weight would remain stable and so that equal portions were consumed evenly over six meals throughout the day.

The researchers had help developing diets from Fedon Lindberg, a medical doctor who specializes in internal medicine and who promotes low-glycaemic diets, Inge Lindseth, an Oslo dietician who specializes in diabetes, and Ann-Kristin de Soysa, a dietician who works with obese patients at St. Olavs Hospital in Trondheim.

“We wanted to know exactly what the subjects were getting in terms of both macro- and micronutrients,” says Johansen, -“A tomato doesn’t contain a consistent amount of nutrients, or antioxidants, for example. So make sure we had a handle on the health effects, we had to have accurate accounting of nutrients. That’s why we chose the powdered diets for the main study.”

Solving the control problem

Diet studies that compare different diets with different amounts of fat are often criticized with the argument that it is difference in the amount of omega-3 fatty acids that causes the health effects, not the rest of the food intake.

The researchers addressed this problem by having the same amount of omega-3 and omega-6 in both diets, although the amount of fat in general was different in the diets that were tested. The researchers also avoided another common problem: the natural variation in gene expression between humans.

“Each of our study subjects was able to be his or her own control person, ” Johansen says “Every subject was allowed to go on both diets, with a one-week break in between the diets, and half began with one diet, while the rest started with the other diet.”

Blood tests were conducted before and after each diet period. All of the measurements of changes in gene expression were done so that each individual’s difference in gene expression was compared with that person alone. The results were then compiled.

Johnson says the studies resulted in two important findings. One is the positive effect of many meals throughout the day, and the details about the quality and composition of components in an optimal diet, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. The second is that a carbohydrate-rich diet, regardless of whether or not a person overeats, has consequences for genes that affect the lifestyle diseases, she says.

A way to measure genetic temperature

Throughout the study, researchers surveyed the extent to which various genes were working normally or overtime. An aggregate measure of the results of all of this genetic activity is called gene expression. It can almost be considered a measurement of the genetic temperature of the body’s state of health.

“We are talking about collecting a huge amount of information,” says Johansen.

“And it’s not like there is a gene for inflammation, for example. So what we look for is whether there are any groups of genes that work overtime. In this study we saw that an entire group of genes that are involved in the development of inflammatory reactions in the body work overtime as a group.”

It was not only inflammatory genes that were putting in overtime, as it would turn out. Some clusters of genes that stood out as overactive are linked to the most common lifestyle diseases.

“Genes that are involved in type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and some forms of cancer respond to diet, and are up-regulated, or activated, by a carbohydrate-rich diet,” says Johansen.

Johansen is not a cancer researcher, and is not claiming that it is possible to eliminate your risk of a cancer diagnosis by eating. But she thinks it is worth noting that the genes that we associate with disease risk can be influenced by diet.

“We’re not saying that you can prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s if you eat right, but it seems sensible to reduce the carbohydrates in our diets,” she suggests.

“We need more research on this,” Johansen adds. “It seems clear that the composition and quantity of our diets can be key in influencing the symptoms of chronic disease. It is important to distinguish between diet quality and quantity, both clearly have very specific effects.”

The body’s arms race

Johansen argues that diet is the key to controlling our personal genetic susceptibility to disease. In choosing what we eat, we choose whether we will provide our genes the weapons that cause disease. The immune system operates as if it is the body’s surveillance authority and police. When we consume too many carbohydrates and the body is triggered to react, the immune system mobilizes its strength, as if the body were being invaded by bacteria or viruses.

“Genes respond immediately to what they have to work with. It is likely that insulin controls this arms race,” Johansen says. “But it’s not as simple as the regulation of blood sugar, as many believe. The key lies in insulin’s secondary role in a number of other mechanisms. A healthy diet is about eating specific kinds of foods so that that we minimize the body’s need to secrete insulin. The secretion of insulin is a defense mechanism in response to too much glucose in the blood, and whether that glucose comes from sugar or from non-sweet carbohydrates such as starches (potatoes, white bread, rice, etc.), doesn’t really matter.”

Avoid the fat trap!

The professor warns against being caught up in the fat trap. It’s simply not good to cut out carbs completely, she says. “The fat/protein trap is just as bad as the carbohydrate trap. It’s about the right balance, as always.”

She says we must also make sure to eat carbohydrates, proteins and fats in five to six smaller meals, not just for the main meal, at dinner.

“Eating several small and medium-sized meals throughout the day is important. Don’t skip breakfast and don’t skip dinner. One-third of every meal should be carbohydrates, one-third protein and one-third fat. That’s the recipe for keeping inflammatory and other disease-enhancing genes in check,” Johansen explains.

Change is quick

Johansen has some encouraging words, however, for those of us who have been eating a high carbohydrate diet. “It took just six days to change the gene expression of each of the volunteers,” she says, “so it’s easy to get started. But if you want to reduce your likelihood of lifestyle disease, this new diet will have to be a permanent change.”

Johansen stressed that researchers obviously do not have all the answers to the relationship between diet and food yet. But the trends in the findings, along with recent scientific literature, make it clear that the recommendation should be for people to change their dietary habits.

Otherwise, an increasing number of people will be afflicted with chronic lifestyle diseases.

The new food balance sheet

Most of us think it is fine to have foods that you can either eat or not eat, whether it comes to carbohydrates or fats. So how will we know what to put on our plates?

Do we have to both count calories and weigh our food now?

“Of course you can be that careful,” says Johansen. “But you will come a long way just by making some basic choices. If you cut down on boiled root vegetables such as potatoes and carrots, and replace the white bread with a few whole meal slices, such as rye bread, or bake your own crispbread, you will reduce the amount of bad carbohydrates in your diet quite significantly. Furthermore, remember to eat protein and fat at every meal, including breakfast!”

Salad also contains carbohydrates

Johansen explains that many of us do not realize that all the fruits and vegetables we eat also count as carbohydrates — and that it’s not just sweet carbohydrates that we should watch out for.

“Salad is made up of carbohydrates,” says Johansen. “But you have to eat a lot of greens to get a lot of calories. Steamed broccoli is a great alternative to boiled potatoes. Fruit is good, but you have to be careful not to eat large quantities of the high-glycemic fruits at one time. Variety is important.”

The best is to cut down on potatoes, rice and pasta, and to allow ourselves some of the good stuff that has long been in the doghouse in the refrigerator.

“Instead of light products, we should eat real mayonnaise and sour cream,” Johansen says, “and have real cream in your sauce, and eat oily fish. That said, we should still remember not to eat too much food, either at each meal or during the day. Fat is twice as calorie-rich as carbohydrates and proteins, so we have to keep that in mind when planning the sizes of our portions. Fat is also different. We shouldn’t eat too much saturated animal fat, but monounsaturated vegetable fats and polyunsaturated marine fats are good.”

Fountain-of-youth genes

Johansen’s research also shows that some genes are not up-regulated, but rather the opposite — they calm down rather than speed up.

“It was interesting to see the reduction in genetic activity, but we were really happy to see which genes were involved. One set of genes is linked to cardiovascular disease. They were down-regulated in response to a balanced diet, as opposed to a carbohydrate-rich diet,” she says. Another gene that was significantly differently expressed by the diets that were tested was one that is commonly called “the youth gene” in the international research literature.

“We haven’t actually stumbled on the fountain of youth here,” Johansen laughs, “but we should take these results seriously. The important thing for us is, little by little, we are uncovering the mechanisms of disease progression for many of our major lifestyle-related disorders.”

Johansen’s research has been supported by NTNU and Central Norway Regional Health Authority. Other key partners have been Mette Langaas, a statistician and associate professor of mathematics at NTNU, Dr. Bard Kulseng of the Regional Center for Morbid Obesity at St Olavs Hospital, and Martin Kuiper, a professor of systems biology at NTNU.







How to Eat and Drink Like an Olympian

Many American households, have got their  TV  tuned to one thing since August 5: the Olympic Games in Rio. It’s always fun to watch the athletes really going for it and there has been plenty to keep us tuned in, like the colorful rivalry between American swimmer Michael Phelps and his South African foe, Chad le Clos.

Fueling for Fitness

While the athletes always make everything look effortless, so much goes into their training in order to prepare them for competition. Not only does it take hours of exercise to hone their muscles, improve their speed and sharpen their mental focus , they also spend a lot of time fueling up before practice and eating to properly recover so they can train again the next day. Diet is a key part of an athlete’s training program.

The U.S. women’s soccer team was unfortunately knocked out of the competition by Sweden last week. But Julie Johnston, a pro soccer player for the Chicago Red Stars and a defender for the U.S. women’s national team trained hard to get to Rio. I had a chance to speak with Johnston leading up to the games and was impressed with the focus she places on eating healthy. In fact, she looks at it as her secret weapon. “You’re trying to find your edge in the sport and obviously, nutrition is one of them,” she says.

With about four hours of daily training, Johnston likes to fuel up with a big breakfast that consists of eggs  and toast or cereal, then she eats fruit closer to game time. Immediately after a game, her strength and conditioning coach serves the team smoothies with protein powder to help the athletes refuel quickly and get muscle repair underway. Following the smoothie, Johnston eats diced fresh mango to re-energize and get her appetite back before eating a full meal later on. Prior to Rio, she also worked on upping her hydration by adding electrolyte packets to her water bottles. She also focuses on foods with anti-inflammatory properties, such as turmeric.

Energy to Burn

Bob Seebohar is a sports dietitian who works with Olympic-level and recreational athletes of all ages, abilities and sports through eNRG Performance. I picked Seebohar’s brain to get a glimpse into what really goes into an athlete’s body before and after those important training sessions.

According to Seebohar, a typical pre-training meal is about two to three hours before the workout or event and contains a mix of carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats to maintain steady blood sugar levels. For example:

  • Granola with yogurt and fruit
  • Oatmeal with fruit, nuts and a scoop of almond butter
  • Toast and eggs
  • Smoothies and purees are ideal, especially closer to an event, as they are digested more quickly than solid food

Hydration – It’s Not Just About the Water

While carbs are necessary fuel for energy and protein is paramount for muscle growth and repair, the role of hydration  is something that can’t be underestimated. In fact, when some professional athletes are in training camp, they have to submit a daily urine sample to monitor their hydration status.

Loss of electrolytes in sweat can lead to cramping during events. Dehydration can also impede recovery and make athletes feel more sluggish and sore after training or competition. Sodium is the major electrolyte lost in sweat. Others include potassium, magnesium and calcium.

Electrolytes are charged particles that bind to water in our cells, which helps our bodies retain water. They also help move water into the blood and cells through osmosis. While we usually hate the thought of retaining water, it’s important to do so after intense exercise to help with rehydration. If athletes only replace the water they’ve lost, but not the sodium, the water will simply pass through their body without being absorbed. Athletes can add electrolyte packets to their water bottles, but generally you can replace the sodium you lose in your workouts simply through the meal you eat following exercise. Products like Clif Hydration Electrolyte mix can also be helpful, especially in the crazy hot and humid weather we’ve experienced this summer.


Refueling, ideally within a 30-minute window post exercise, is incredibly important for athletes, especially when they have back-to-back events. Carbohydrates are needed to replenish glycogen stores and protein is necessary to help repair the small muscle tears that happen during exercise. Antioxidant-rich foods are helpful to combat the oxidative stress that occurs from intense activity.

While you don’t need to pay as much attention to each pre-workout snack as U.S. gymnast Simone Biles, it’s smart to think about your fuel and hydration to maximize your performance during workouts. And it’s not as complicated as you might think. As Seebohar says, “Many recreational athletes think that Olympians follow different nutritional plans. At the end of the day, they are usually just better at planning, preparing and implementing their food plan to align [with their training schedule].” After all, even mere humans like us like to go a little bit faster and feel just a smidge stronger, too.