Obesity epidemic in the US: What to do?

By Maureen Aylward

One third of Americans are overweight and nearly a third of people under 20 are obese. We asked our Zintro experts to discuss the current leading ideas, approaches, or policies that are being developed to address the obesity epidemic in the US.
Sandra Ham, an expert in epidemiology and obesity, says that the obesity epidemic requires a systems approach because its causes and solutions are interrelated across multiple sectors of society including the food system, schools, the built environment, and healthcare system. “The environment in the US is obesogenic, meaning that it is easier to become obese than to maintain a healthy weight because unhealthy foods are cheaper than healthy foods and physical activity has been engineered out of everyday life, Ham says. “Current leading ideas and approaches target some key interactions between policy, the physical environment, social environment, healthcare system and individual behavior.”

Ham says that childhood obesity is the primary target for several reasons:

  • Overweight and obese kids are more likely to become obese adults than to become healthy weight adults.
  • Research is showing that some obesity-related diseases including type 2 diabetes are more severe and difficult to manage when they occur in youth versus adults.
  • Kids who adopt healthy habits for eating and physical activity are more likely to continue those habits throughout their lives.

“One strategy is to empower youth to make healthy choices that affect their environment. Farm-to-school programs purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers to serve for school breakfasts and lunches. Kids learn about sustainable and local agriculture while also learning how to choose to eat a healthy diet that includes locally-grown foods,” Ham says. “The potential long-term benefits go beyond healthy weight—youth may become more educated consumers with a taste for farm-fresh produce that supports the local and regional economy.”

Another strategy Ham suggests is to promote healthy eating at the policy level. “The USDA recently revised the minimum nutrition standards for school breakfasts and lunches and is working on standards for snack foods and beverages that are sold in schools outside mealtimes,” she says. “The aim of these policies is to make schools a safe haven from the obesogenic food environment where it is easier for kids to choose to consume healthy foods and beverages than junk foods and sugar-loaded beverages.”

David Koivuranta, an expert in corporate health and wellness, says that quite often the focus is on looking outside ourselves for a solution to weight problems; however, the cause or the source of the obesity epidemic is actually inside of us. “It relates to physical, chemical and emotional stress from our environments that are creating a chronic stress response in our bodies. Because of this, our nervous systems and endocrine systems are stuck in habits and patterns that suppress the immune systems, digestive systems, and reproductive organs. This sets the stage for weight gain that cannot be lost until these underlying problems are addressed,” he says.

Koivuranta explains that a return to lifestyle choices that promote optimum physical, chemical, and emotional well being on a maintenance level will foster an environment in the body that can not only decrease body fat and increase lean muscle, but also heal chronic illnesses and diseases. “There is hope and there is a step-by-step process to get it done. Society can benefit, but it will take a a paradigm shift from our crisis care model of health care to one of prevention and proactive choices that meet our expectations of health, happiness and prosperity in life.”

Karen Russell, a registered dietetic technician and health coach, thinks the obesity epidemic has gotten out of hand. “Diabetes is also on the rise in the US. I see overweight men and women along with their children. The only way to stop this epidemic is to make changes in how we shop, cook and eat,” she says. “Dieting is the old way of doing things and is a negative approach that is temporary most of the time. Dieting is restrictive and unbalanced.

Russell suggests a more positive approach, which is to incorporate small changes in the ingredients used in recipes. “People benefit from learning what to do step by step so changes can be made to live the right way without deprivation or starving. Also getting rid of inflammatory foods so that the digestive system can function at it’s best is best practice and can lead to losing weight,” she says.

What do you think?

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Cutting red meat out of the diet: Part 2

By Maureen Aylward

Recent studies from the Harvard School of Public Health say that eating red meat may shorten a person’s lifespan. It says that cutting back on red meat by one serving a day could lower the risk of dying. We asked our Zintro experts to dig into the study and explain what elements in the study are most important to pay attention to.

Megan Ware, a registered dietician, says that it’s no surprise that a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that increased red meat consumption is associated with a higher mortality rate. “There have been numerous previous studies linking higher intakes of red meat with an increased risk of heart disease, certain types of cancer, and diabetes, in which this study is also in agreement. The new research showed an even higher risk of death with intake of processed red meats such as hot dogs, bacon, and salami,” notes Ware.

Ware points out that it is important to consider that the Harvard study participants who ate more red meat were also more likely to be overweight, smoke, drink alcohol, and less likely to be physically active. These men and women were shown to have an overall higher caloric intake and to consume less whole grains, fruits, vegetables, poultry, and fish. “Researchers that conducted the study have been criticized as confusing correlation with causation, and that the study only demonstrates that those participants who followed an overall unhealthy lifestyle were more likely to have a shorter lifespan,” Ware summarizes.

Red meat consumption in the US has been decreasing for the past 20 years, with the U.S beef cattle herd the smallest it’s been since the 1950s. The decrease in consumption has been linked to growing health concerns among consumers, along with droughts and other factors. Ware shares some facts:

  • Most red meats are generally higher in calories, saturated fat, and cholesterol than leaner proteins such as nuts, fish, chicken, turkey, low fat dairy products, and beans.
  • The results of this study simply give more testimony that substituting leaner proteins for higher fat meats when possible is beneficial for overall health.
  • However, that is not to say that red meats cannot also be considered lean, and integrated into a healthy diet when served in appropriate 3 oz portions.
  • The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests looking for meat cuts that include the words loin or round, trimming off the visible fat before cooking, and choosing ground meats labeled as 95% lean.
  • The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends limiting red meat intake to 18 ounces per week for optimal health and using low fat cooking methods such as grilling, baking, stewing, and braising.

Ray Blumenfeld, a publisher of the magazine Canadian Meat Business, says that many of its U.S. and Canadian industry representatives were quick to refute the study’s claims, saying that the study is flawed and the results have little significance to meat eaters in North America. “We as consumers eat red meat products that are within national and international guidelines and are based on a large and significant body of scientific evidence,” he says. “Red meat continues to be part of a balanced diet and nutrition decisions should be based on the total body of evidence, not on single studies that include weak and inconsistent evidence.”

Blumenfeld states that industry experts say the Harvard study was an observational study, meaning it could not be used to determine cause and effect. “The American Meat Institute Foundation said the study ‘tries to predict the future risk of death from cancer or cardiovascular disease by relying on notoriously unreliable self-reporting about what was eaten and obtuse methods to apply statistical analysis to the data.’”

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The benefits of gut bacteria: Part 3

By Maureen Aylward

Recent articles in science magazines extol the benefits of bacteria in the gut. Most recently, that gut bacteria affect mood and behavior. We wanted to know how this research affects industries such as food science, medicine, and others. We asked our Zintro experts to comment and the comments kept coming from many different perspectives! Here is Part 3 in a three part series on gut bacteria and its implications and potential.

Shobhana Natarajan, PhD, an expert in genetics, says that homemade yogurt and other fermented foods have been a part of the diet in ancient civilizations and some modern cultures for several generations. “Yogurt is made by inoculating warm milk with a small amount of fresh yogurt and allowing it to ferment overnight. Fermentation of milk requires the activity of the Lactobacillus species of bacteria present in the inoculum. Lactobacilli convert the sugars in milk to lactic acid. The increase in acidity leads to precipitation and solidification of milk solids to form yogurt. Consumption of yogurt by humans introduces lactobacilli into the gut and these bacteria have recently been found to aid digestion, reduce the risk for cancer, and affect mood and behavior. Understandably, probiotics (foods that contain helpful bacteria) have made their way onto the shelves of grocery stores,” he says.

Research on gut bacteria has shown that it is the metabolic products of these bacteria that have a profound effect on health. “Basic fermentation products like acetic acid, propionic acid, and butyric acid are formed by the bacteria using undigested parts of the food consumed by humans as substrates,” Natarajan says. “Needless to say, the products formed by fermentation of undigested good foods like fibrous vegetables are better than the products formed by undigested foods like red meat. The adage ‘we are what we eat’ now has an addendum: ‘It also depends on what our gut bacteria eat and the molecules they produce!’”

Lisa Mittry, a nutrition consultant, points out that this is not new information. “We live or die through our gut. I see patients daily that have a myriad of digestive issues that can be remedied once the gut flora has been brought into balance,” she says. “If micronutrients are not being absorbed properly, if elimination is not efficient, if GERD is disrupting life and sleep as a result of an imbalance, of course there will be health effects and it will include mood and behavior including neurotransmitter balance.”

Mittry explains that probiotics are one of the top five recommended supplements. “The word probiotic is derived from the Greek meaning for life. Probiotics consist of live, beneficial, healthy bacteria that help us in many ways. Friendly bacteria reside in the intestinal tract and contribute to our health by improving nutrition and protecting against disease. Antibacterial soaps, washes and wipes, impure water, processed foods, stress, chronic dehydration, oral contraceptives, mercury amalgams, total toxic load and nutrient-deficient diets disrupt healthy flora,” she says. “Stress upsets the delicate balance of the intestinal flora and causes imbalances of friendly bacteria which can lead to Candida, autoimmune, and inflammatory diseases. A low or insufficient population of good bacteria can produce serious health problems, and can lead to an inability to absorb nutrients.”

Mittry offers a list of 21 examples of how a probiotics can contribute to healthy gut flora balance, which is essential for good overall health.

1.      Enhanced intestinal health and improve digestion

2.      Promotes regular bowel function

3.      Restores flora and lessens side effects after a course of antibiotics. Antibiotics disrupt the normal bacteria of the gut and cause behavioral changes, such as depression and anxiety. Antibiotics deplete your body of essential nutrients.

4.      Helpful in the reduction of inflammation

5.      Can have an integral role in normalizing and decreasing serum cholesterol and triglycerides

6.      Fights infectious diseases

7.      Helps prevent production and absorption of toxins produced by disease-causing bacteria which reduces the toxic load of liver

8.      Improves nutrient absorption

9.       Prevents against vaginal and urinary tract infections

10.  Boosts immune function- 70% of your immune system is located in your gut. If your gut is overloaded with bad bacteria, there is a good chance your immune system is not functioning optimally. Bacteria residing in the gut influences brain chemistry and behavior.

11.  Protects against invasion of pathogenic viruses, yeasts, Candida, parasites and bacteria

12.  Reduces of hospital infections after surgery

13.  Supports healthy skin (eczema, psoriasis and rashes)

14.  Addresses gastrointestinal syndromes (helpful for diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, IBS, leaky gut)

15.  Produces digestive enzymes and B-vitamins, including B-12

16.  May reduce incidence of lifelong allergies, asthma and atopic eczema when taken during pregnancy and after birth

17.  May decrease production of intestinal carcinogens

18.  Taken during the first trimester of pregnancy will help women lose weight after their child’s birth

19.  Improves enzymatic activity

20.  According to new research reported in the journal Gut Pathogens, supplementing with probiotics may reduce symptoms of anxiety, and helpful for stress and autoimmune diseases.

21.  Protects against cancer development and progression (e Pylori)

Dave Zuro, a health and wellness consultant, says that the introduction of oral antibiotics can disrupt the normal gut flora, and this can cause people to become more anxious and less cautious. “This can lead to an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which has been linked to depression and anxiety,” he says. “Once the oral antibiotics are discontinued, the bacteria content in the gut returns to normal and normal behavior and brain chemistry is restored.”

Katherine Sanchez, health and nutrition communication consultant, says that gut bacteria can be helpful or harmful to humans, depending on its make-up. For example, high levels of Lactobacillus bacteria are helpful for digestion, weight control, and producing B-vitamins (which we then absorb and use); whereas high levels of bacteria such as E-coli can sicken or even kill us. How do we get the right bacteria into our gut? “Eat healthy (yogurt and milk, fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans, peas and other legumes) and cut down on foods with lots of refined carbs (breads, cookies, cakes, muffins, donuts, bagels, crackers, and other floury foods that are not 100 percent whole-grain), sweets and fatty foods,” she recommends.

Sanchez believes that for food companies, this research translates into a world of opportunity. “Companies that will benefit the most will incorporate latent good bacteria into food formulations without adversely impairing taste or texture. Prebiotics (insoluble fibers such as bran, whole grains, and fruit and vegetable matter) help gut bacteria to grow and do their job. There are opportunities in this market,” she says. “Companies that want to be on the cutting edge of the probiotic/prebiotic trend should find ways to replace product formulations calling for refined flours with whole-grain versions. Using pea flour, soy flour and other legume flours are inexpensive ways to up the prebiotic potential of foods. Plus, they’ll help a company earn food label bragging rights for being healthier than competitors’ products in other ways, such as cholesterol reduction and preventing heart disease.”

Taylor Reid, an expert in agriculture, says that in general, traditional food manufacturers are unlikely to know about recent studies or have much interest in them. The growing supplements industry, on the other hand, is likely to seize on it. “Likewise, traditional medicine is unlikely to be affected. But, there is also a growing demand for naturopathic physicians, herbalists, and natural healers who are likely to have known about these connections for a number of years. There’s a reason Sandor Katz’s book Wild Fermentation sells well,” says Reid. “Mainstream nutritionists tend to focus on excesses (fats, sugar, salt) and deficiencies (vitamins, fiber, water, protein). Some may take notice, many may not.”

Reid points out the power that media can have on promoting healthy gut bacteria.  “What happens can depend on whether the national press or daytime talk shows (never underestimate the Oprah Factor) pick up on this research or not. If they do, then you might start seeing commercial formulations in drug stores, or even proprietary formulations manufactured by pharmaceutical corporations and sold by prescription,” he says.

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