August 4th, 2015

Move over Paleo and Mediterranean Diet, Here Comes the New Nordic Diet

New Nordic DietIntroduction

The latest “it” diet in medical research is the New Nordic Diet (NND), This diet was created by a group of researchers, nutritionists, and chefs at the University of Copenhagen in 2004. Their goal was to define a new regional cuisine to help address growing obesity rates and non-sustainable farming practices in the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland). Based upon accumulating data from clinical trials, the NND does produce some very interesting health benefits including an ability to reduce gene expression in fat cells that promotes systemic inflammation.

Background Data:

Like the Mediterranean diet, the NND focuses on whole foods and is rich in plant foods especially root vegetables, cabbage (and other cruciferous members), dark leafy greens, apples and pears, berries (e.g., lingonberries and bilberries), and whole grains (especially rye and oats). Fish such as salmon and herring is also a key feature of the NND. The recommended meat consumption is limited in serving size and focuses on wild game such as venison and elk) and small amounts of dairy. Other wild foods include moss, mushrooms, nettles, garlic and even ants. Fresh herbs include dill, chives and fennel.

The overall nutritional profile of the NND is very close to the Mediterranean diet. What olive oil, nuts, beans, and sardines are to the Mediterranean, canola oil, berries, root vegetables and cod are to the NND.

Several studies have validated the NND’s health benefits including an ability to lower cholesterol, reduce systemic inflammation, lower blood pressure, and help people to lose weight. In one study conducted in Denmark with overweight subjects following either the NND or the “average Danish diet (ADD).” Food was supplied free of charge and intake was monitored, but test subjects were allowed to eat as much as they wanted and could deviate from the prescribed plan occasionally. After six months, those that followed the NND had eaten fewer calories each day over a six-month period. The average weight loss was 4.7 kg for the NND compared to 1.5 kg for the ADD. The NND also produced greater reductions in systolic blood pressure (-5.1 mm Hg vs. -2.1 mm Hg) and diastolic blood pressure (-3.2 mm Hg vs. -0.8 mm Hg) than did the ADD.

New Data:

A new study led by the Institute of Public Health and Clinical Nutrition at the University of Eastern Finland demonstrated the NND reduces the expression of inflammation-associated genes in fat cells of the obese subjects with the metabolic syndrome.

For a period of 18 to 24 weeks, half of the study participants followed the NND while the other half consumed a control diet. The participants were asked to maintain their body weight throughout the study. Samples of the study participants’ adipose tissue were taken at the beginning and end of the study, and detailed analysis was performed in order to study the expression of genes.

Results showed differences in the function of as many as 128 different genes in the adipose tissue of NND group compared with the control group. In particular, the expression of several inflammation-associated genes were lower than in the NND group.

Commentary:

The key point that I want to make is that if you look at the medical research on diet and health, there are some obvious principles that are common. Eat more whole, unprocessed natural foods with a focus on low glycemic plant foods and good oils including mono-unsaturated fats and fish oils; while avoiding overconsumption of meat and dairy. The research on the NDD mirrors that with two highly popularized diets – the Mediterranean Diet and the Okinawan Diet. However, I am 100 percent positive that healthful versions of the traditional Latino, African, Asian, Indian and Middle Eastern diets would also show positive effects on overall health as well as genetic markers of inflammation. Again, my point is that these diets are all very similar in food constituents, though they can differ quite significantly in the actual foods.

Reference:

Kolehmainen M, Ulven SM, Paananen J, et al. Healthy Nordic diet downregulates the expression of genes involved in inflammation in subcutaneous adipose tissue in individuals with features of the metabolic syndrome. Am J Clin Nutr. 2015 Jan;101(1):228-39.

Dr. Michael Murray
8/4/15

August 4th, 2015

The Guilty-Pleasure Food That’s Good For You

Dark Chocolate Health BenefitsIt’s not hard to find reasons to love chocolate–and maybe that’s why most people consider it a guilty pleasure. But that perception is changing as research continues to demonstrate chocolate’s impressive list of health benefits.

The fact that chocolate is in a class of its own isn’t exactly news. In fact, the tree from which it is produced (the Theobroma cacao tree) takes its name from the Greek word for “food of the gods.” What is news is that our scientific research is just starting to support what our ancestors knew all along: that chocolate is actually good for us.

Health benefits of chocolate

  • One of the key areas of research into the benefits of chocolate consumption is its effect on cardiovascular disease. A growing amount of recent research points out all of these important benefits.
  • Chocolate is rich in flavonoids. These antioxidants are especially important in protecting against damage to cholesterol and the lining of the arteries.
  • Chocolate flavonoids prevent the excessive clumping together of blood platelets that can cause blood clots.
  • Chocolate can provide significant amounts of arginine. This amino acid is required in the production of nitric oxide–and that helps regulate blood flow, inflammation and blood pressure.

Waist-Trimming with Chocolate?


The above benefits are all-important, but not exactly high profile. However, recent research shows that eating more chocolate may have an effect that many people seek–a slimmer figure. Surprising, since weight concerns are a common reason for limiting chocolate.

A 2012 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that frequent chocolate consumption was associated with lower body mass index (BMI), which is used to measure obesity. After looking at data from 972 participants, researchers found that the high-chocolate/low-BMI link held true even after taking into consideration total calorie intake, exercise activity, and saturated fat intake.

These results are very promising. The researchers believe chocolate’s BMI benefits are linked to its heart health components–antioxidant flavonoids. Dark chocolate is higher in flavonoids than milk chocolate, so it offers the greatest health benefits. Most experts agree that the recommended “dose” of dark chocolate is approximately 30 to 60 grams per day (roughly 1 to 2 ounces). Americans already consume an average of about half an ounce of chocolate a day, but this recommendation allows for quite a bit more.

Before you start dipping all your food in chocolate sauce, let’s talk about balance. Most chocolate bars and desserts today contain excess sugar and milk that can undermine chocolate’s benefits. As with all good things, chocolate is best in moderation. Plus, it’s important to eat the most flavonoid-rich chocolate available to reap its health benefits. And no, a caramel and chocolate covered marshmallow bar doesn’t count as a health food.

Five ways to reap chocolate’s health benefits

For the biggest flavonoid bang for your caloric buck, make sure to follow these five guidelines for your chocolate consumption:

1. Choose high-quality dark chocolate. The darker, the better.

2. Limit daily intake to 1 to 2 ounces.

3. Avoid chocolate candies and treats made with hydrogenated fats or refined flour, neither of which promotes health.

4. Pass on products labeled “artificial chocolate” or “chocolate flavored.” These imitations are not even close to the real thing in flavor or texture–and certainly not in health benefits.

5. Skip white chocolate, which has had the beneficial polyphenols removed.

Readers who sign up for “Weekly Natural Facts Newsletter” will receive a free copy of Dr. Murray’s new ebook, Stress, Anxiety and Insomnia! What the Drug Companies Won’t Tell You and Your Doctor Doesn’t Know.

Dr. Michael Murray
8/4/15

August 3rd, 2015

You’ve Heard Gratitude Is Good For You. Here’s What Science Says

Gratitude A growing body of scientific work shows that gratitude and kindness are traits that lead to higher levels of well-being. People who are grateful and kind are happier, less depressed, less stressed and more satisfied with their lives and social relationships.

The research, including two new studies from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, also documents how expressing gratitude leads to other positive emotions, such as enthusiasm and inspiration, because it promotes the savoring of positive experiences. The end result: Gratitude helps people optimize feelings of enjoyment, no matter what their circumstances are in life.

The power of gratitude to improve our lives was well demonstrated in research by positive psychology expert Martin Seligman, PhD. As detailed in a 2005 American Psychology paper, participants were randomly assigned to one of six therapeutic interventions designed to improve their overall quality of life. Of these interventions, the one that resulted in the biggest short-term benefits was a “gratitude visit.” Participants wrote and delivered a letter of appreciation to someone in their lives. This simple gesture caused a significant rise in happiness scores and a significant fall in depression scores, and the positive effects lasted for up to a month after the visit.

Other studies involved the act of keeping “gratitude journals,” in which participants wrote down three things they were grateful for every day. Those had even longer-lasting effects on happiness scores. The greatest benefits usually occurred around six months after starting the journal.

The two recent trials from Utrecht University tested the potential of positive psychological interventions on emotions and academic engagement among university students. One trial focused on “thoughts of gratitude.” Participants were asked to think of people that they were grateful for, and to focus their gratitude each day on a different passage in their lives. For example, on the first day they recalled their years in elementary school and remembered a person they were grateful to in reference to a specific event from that time, such as a friend or family member who helped them with a difficult task. They were also asked to write a short note to the person to whom they wanted to express gratitude, and to explain why.

The other study focused on “acts of kindness.” Participants were instructed to pay close attention to their behavior toward the people around them at the university. They performed at least five acts of kindness per day, reporting on them (including how recipients responded) every night. Examples included holding a door for someone, greeting strangers in the hallway, or helping other students prepare for an exam.

Using sophisticated questionnaires, both studies revealed that the gratitude intervention had a significant positive effect on daily positive emotions, and that it may have a cumulative effect on increasing those emotions as well. But interestingly, the results did not show the same impact as did Seligman’s and other previous studies. One difference: in previous studies, the expressions of gratitude were much deeper. The Seligman participants, for instance, not only wrote a gratitude letter, but actually delivered and read it. It’s possible that this act elicited positive feedback from the letter’s recipient, which may have boosted positive emotions among the participants.

The kindness intervention had a positive influence on both positive emotions and academic engagement. Based upon the researchers’ analysis, the acts of kindness had a much stronger effect than the thoughts of gratitude. One explanation is that the kindness intervention was more intensive (i.e., five acts of kindness per day versus one thought of gratitude per day). Another possibility is that the acts of kindness evoked immediate positive feedback. Positive reactions of people toward the participants were likely to strengthen the effects of the acts of kindness.

The take-away message is that the stronger the act of appreciation or kindness, the bigger the impact on positive emotions and social engagement. While many may argue that the need to feel loved is the greatest emotional need we have, I believe there’s no greater emotional need than appreciation.

The funny thing is that the things we really want in life are usually best obtained by giving more. In other words, if you want to feel more appreciation in your life, begin with expressing more appreciation.

Dr. Michael Murray
8/3/15