Health Studies

Lower Birth Defects Linked with Moms Who Eat Healthy Med Diets

Congenital heart defects (heart problems that occur before birth) affect nearly 1% of newborns in America. In a study of over 19,000 American women, researchers compared mothers of babies with congenital heart defects to mothers of babies without this condition. Scientists analyzed the mothers’ diets in the year before pregnancy using both the Mediterranean Diet Score and the Diet Quality Index for Pregnancy. Babies whose moms’ diets ranked healthy on both scores were significantly less likely to suffer from certain specific subgroups of congenital heart defects, such as tetralogy of Fallot (a defect in heart structure which causes oxygen poor blood to flow throughout the body), but not all heart defects. The relationship between diet and congenital heart defects was stronger with the Diet Quality Index for Pregnancy than with the Mediterranean Diet.
Archives of Disease in Childhood. Fetal and Neonatal Edition. 2015 August 24. pii: fetalneonatal-2014-308013. [Epub ahead of print.] (Botto LD et al.) 

Mediterranean Meals with Olive Oil Can Improve Blood Sugar Control, Cholesterol

In a small Italian study, researchers assigned 25 healthy adults to a Mediterranean meal (pasta, chicken breast, salad, bread, and an apple) prepared either with or without olive oil, then measured their cholesterol and blood sugar. After 30 days, the participants switched groups and ate the other meal, serving as their own control. The scientists found that 2 hours after eating, the meal without olive oil was associated with higher glucose and insulin levels, as well as higher “bad cholesterol” (LDL-C). In the second part of the experiment, the participants were assigned to a Mediterranean meal prepared with either olive oil or corn oil, switching groups after a 30 day washout period. Their blood sugar and cholesterol was tested after the meals as well. Two hours after eating, the meals with olive oil were associated with a lower increase in blood sugar and improved markers of blood sugar control (such as lower DPP, and higher GLP1 & GIP), as well as a smaller increase in “bad cholesterol” (LDL-C and oxidized LDL). These experiments indicate that meals with olive oil can help regulate blood sugar, and may help improve cholesterol.
Nutrition & Diabetes. 2015 July 20;5:e172. [Epub ahead of print.] (Violi F et al.)

Whole Plant Foods, Not Specific Nutrient Profiles, Best for Heart Disease Risk

Evidence is mounting that the healthiest diets are built around a variety of minimally processed, whole foods, and can’t be reduced to specific nutrients. To determine saturated fat’s role in heart disease risk, researchers from California reviewed the existing literature about saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, carbohydrates, and heart disease. The scientists found that when saturated fat (found mostly in red meat and milk fat) is replaced with polyunsaturated fat (found mostly in nuts, seeds, and fish), heart disease risk decreases. However, when saturated fat is replaced with sugary refined carbohydrates, heart disease risk remains the same, if not worsens. The researchers also note a small, yet growing body of research that dairy fat (especially in fermented dairy, like yogurt), may be neutral (or even decrease risk) for heart disease. The researchers concluded that “overall dietary patterns emphasizing vegetables, fish, nuts, and whole versus processed grains form the basis of heart-healthy eating, and should supersede a focus on macronutrient composition.”
Annual Review of Nutrition. 2015 July 17;35:517-43. (Siri-Tarino PW et al.) [Epub]

Med Diet Can Preserve Brain Structure, Delay Cognitive Aging

The link between healthy aging and the Mediterranean diet is well established, but emerging research sheds new light onto this mechanism. Scientists analyzed the eating patterns and brain scans of 146 French adults (average age 73). They found that the brain structure (white matter) of those most closely following the Mediterranean diet was significantly more preserved 9 years later than those who didn’t follow a Mediterranean diet. To put this in perspective, the researchers concluded that “higher adherence to the [Mediterranean Diet] appeared to delay cognitive aging by up to 10 years.”
Alzheimer’s & Dementia. 2015 July 16. (Pelletier A et al.) [Epub ahead of print]

Med Diet Cuts Risk of Womb Cancer by Half

Endometrial cancer, also known as womb cancer, is largely determined by hormone levels in the body. However, new research shows that diet can play an important role in prevention. Combining the results of three large studies, Italian researchers analyzed the eating patterns of over 5,000 women in Europe (1411 with endometrial cancer, and 3668 controls) for their adherence to the Mediterranean diet. Those most closely following the Mediterranean diet were over 50% less likely to develop endometrial cancer than those with the lowest adherence to the Mediterranean diet. Additionally, researchers found that “the Mediterranean diet as a whole is a stronger determinant of endometrial cancer risk than the single dietary components,” emphasizing the importance of overall diet.
British Journal of Cancer. 2015 May 26;112(11):1816-21. (Filomeno et al.) 

Mediterranean Diet Can Improve Cognitive Function

The Mediterranean diet has long been studied for its role in heart health and aging, but emerging research suggests that it may also be protective for brain health. In a follow up to the PREDIMED study (where Spanish adults at risk for heart disease were randomly assigned to either a Mediterranean diet with four tablespoons of olive oil daily, a Mediterranean diet with one ounce of nuts daily, or a low fat controlled diet) researchers analyzed the relationship between diet and cognitive function. Of the 334 participants in this study with data on cognitive function, the scientists found that overall brain function significantly improved for both Mediterranean groups over the 4-year experiment, compared with the control group. Specifically, the nuts group significantly improved on tests of memory, while the olive oil group significantly improved on tests of reasoning, planning, and problem solving. This adds to the growing body of research that the Mediterranean diet is an important factor in healthy aging.
JAMA Internal Medicine. 2015 May 11. [Epub ahead of print] (Valls-Pedret C et al.) 

Traditional African Diet May Reduce Colon Cancer Risk

Colon cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the US, affects a greater proportion of African Americans than rural Africans, indicating that diet plays an important role in disease prevention. To see how traditional diets affect risk factors for colon cancer, researchers assigned 20 middle aged African Americans to a traditional, African heritage diet (averaging 55g fiber daily and 16% calories from fat, with foods like mangos, bean soup, and fish) and 20 middle aged rural South Africans to a typical American diet (averaging 12g fiber daily and 52% calories from fat, with foods like pancakes, burgers, fries, and meatloaf). In just 2 short weeks, the African Americans reduced the inflammation of their colons, improved their markers for cancer (including increased levels of butyrate, an anti-cancer chemical), and increased the diversity of their healthy gut bacteria. On the other hand, the rural Africans eating an American diet fared worse, producing more bile acid (a risk factor for colon cancer), while decreasing the diversity of healthy gut bacteria. These results indicate that an African heritage diet can help promote a healthy digestive tract (potentially reducing colon cancer risk), and that rapid improvements can come with a change to healthier foods.
Nature Communications. 2015 Apr 28;6:6342. (O’Keefe SJ et al.)

Leafy Greens Can Keep Your Brain Young

It is no secret that green vegetables are some of the healthiest foods for our bodies, but new research shows that they are also good for our brains. Researchers in Chicago and Boston analyzed the eating patterns and cognitive abilities of over 950 older adults for an average of five years. The scientists found a significant decrease in the rate of cognitive decline for people who ate more green leafy vegetables (like spinach, kale, collards, and mustard greens). In fact, people who ate just one to two servings of leafy greens per day had the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who ate none.

Presentation at the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) Annual Meeting during Experimental Biology. Boston MA. March 30, 2015.

Doctors May Not Be Equipped for Diet Counseling

One of the great ironies of the healthcare system is that doctors are often untrained in the most basic of wellness practices: nutrition. In a survey of 236 physicians at a large US medical center (including cardiologists and internal medicine doctors and trainees), fewer than 14% felt adequately trained to discuss nutrition with their patients. Nearly all doctors (90%) recognized the Mediterranean Diet as protective against heart disease, but fewer than half (46%) realized that low-fat diets have not been proven to reduce heart disease risk. Additionally, many doctors had trouble identifying foods high in various nutrients, such as which fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids. These data highlight the importance of making reliable nutrition resources (specifically those relating to well researched eating patterns, such as the Mediterranean diet) available to the medical community. (Note: If you’re a healthcare professional who would like to learn more about the Mediterranean Diet, see here.)
Presentation at the American College of Cardiology’s 64th Annual Scientific Session. San Diego CA. March 15, 2015. 

Med Diet Cuts Heart Disease Risk by Nearly Half

Researchers have given us yet another reason to fill our plates with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, olive oil, and nuts! A European study followed more than 2,500 Greek adults for over a decade, tracking their medical records, lifestyle habits, and eating patterns. Those who most closely followed the Mediterranean Diet were 47% less likely to get heart disease, regardless of their smoking habits, age, family history, or other lifestyle factors. The scientists estimate that every one-point increase on the Mediterranean Diet score (a measure of how closely participants followed the Mediterranean Diet, on a scale of 1 to 55) is associated with a 3 percent drop in heart disease risk, so every little bit counts. In fact, the researchers found that the Mediterranean Diet was even more protective against heart disease than physical activity!
Presentation at the American College of Cardiology’s 64th Annual Scientific Session. San Diego CA. March 15, 2015.

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