Adesire to turn over a new, more healthful leaf typically accompanies the start of a new year. But the basics of good nutrition have not changed in the new year. Meals replete with vegetables, fruits and whole grains and a small serving of a protein-rich food remain the gold standard of a wholesome diet. Still, at both ends of the age spectrum as well as in between, recent months have held some new findings — and some surprises — that are worth noting.
Perhaps most distressing to a chocoholic like me was a recent report that while dark chocolate can indeed improve coronary circulation and decrease the risk of heart-damaging clots, most dark chocolate on the market is all but stripped of the bitter-tasting flavanols that convey this health benefit. The colour, in other words, tells you nothing. Now its up to manufacturers to label the flavanol content — not just the percentage of cocoa, which may have no flavanol at all.
Here are some other valuable findings of recent months.
START BABIES OFF RIGHT
By now every pregnant woman and new mother probably knows that breast is best for baby for the first six months of life. Unfortunately, as was noted at a recent presentation, many working women find it impossible to breast-feed exclusively when their paid maternity leave (if indeed they have a paid maternity leave) is only weeks long and they cannot afford, monetarily or professionally, to take unpaid leave.
And as one of my former colleagues found, pumping breast milk in the ladies room, then searching for a refrigerator to store it, left so much to be desired that she quit her job. She and her husband sold their Manhattan apartment so they could afford to have her stay home with the baby.
New mothers with jobs they cannot leave should know that any amount of breast-feeding (and feeding of pumped breast milk) is better than none at all, but also that millions of infants have grown up just fine on formula alone when they could not be nursed by their mothers.
To get babies to eat fruits and vegetables, a recent study published in Pediatrics found that what breast-feeding mothers regularly eat influences their babies initial acceptance of foods like peaches and green beans. Nonetheless, repeated exposure to green beans, which initially provoked a grimace, increased the babies consumption of this vegetable whether they were breast-fed or formula-fed.
The researchers, from the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, suggest that mothers ignore their babies facial expressions and keep offering foods that are good for them.
FOCUS ON BRAIN FOOD
As the population ages and the prevalence of dementia rises, increased attention has focused on how diet may help keep cognitive decline at bay. A heart-healthy diet that keeps clogged arteries from limiting the brains supply of oxygen and nutrients has been linked to a lower risk of dementia.
Likewise, omega-3 fatty acids in fish and fish oil, which counter inflammation, appear to protect the brain as well as the heart and joints. A recent analysis of 17 studies in the journal Pain found that daily supplements of these fatty acids significantly reduced inflammatory joint pain.
But now there may be a new kid on the block: vitamin B12. A 10-year study with 1,648 participants in Oxford, England, found an increased risk of cognitive decline in older adults who had low blood levels of vitamin B12. This vitamin is found only in foods from animals, yet it is common for older people, especially those on limited budgets, to cut back on foods like meats and fish.
Strict vegetarians, who have long been cautioned to take B12 as a supplement to prevent a deficiency, can add brain protection to the list of potential benefits. The rest of us should feel comfortable about eating red meat and poultry as long as it is lean and consumed in reasonable amounts. A serving of cooked meat, fish or poultry is only three to four ounces.
The British researchers noted that high blood levels of homocysteine had previously been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimers disease, and that B12 is one of the vitamins, along with folate and B6, that lower homocysteine levels. However, the researchers found no benefit to cognitive function from folate.
FOODS TO FIGHT CANCER
Here we come full circle. A decade after the American Institute for Cancer Research issued its first major report on diet and cancer, a new magnum opus in concert with the World Cancer Research Fund was published late last year. Based on 7,000 studies of 17 kinds of cancer, it concluded that being overweight now ranks second only to smoking as a preventable cause of cancer. Convincing evidence of an increased risk resulting from body fatness was found for cancers of the kidney, endometrium, breast, colon and rectum, pancreas and esophagus.
Other major findings of increased risk included red and processed meats for colon and rectal cancer, and alcoholic drinks for cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, breast, and colon and rectum.
Convincing evidence for cancer protection was found for physical activity against colon and rectal cancers, and for breast-feeding against breast cancer.
Probable protection against various cancers was also found for dietary fibre; non-starchy vegetables; fruits; foods rich in folates, beta-carotene, vitamin C and selenium; milk, and calcium supplements.