Monday, August 19, 2013

Epigenetics Explained -- Sort Of

Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype, caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence. It refers to functionally relevant modifications to the genome that do not involve a change in the nucleotide sequence. Gene expression can be controlled through the action of repressor proteins that attach to silencer regions of the DNA. These changes may remain through cell divisions for the remainder of the cell's life and may also last for multiple generations. However, there is no change in the underlying DNA sequence of the organism.

Eyes glazed over? Have a look at this video for a simple and entertaining explanation of epigenetics for those of us who are not research scientists.

Monday, August 12, 2013

5 Good Reasons to Eat Less (Or No) Red Meat

A nice rare steak or a hamburger with the works is so American one might easily assume it is a right enshrined in the Constitution. "Meat and Potatoes" defines a certain sort of person. And seriously, can you picture the Marlboro Man  chowing down on a juicy tofu burger? Of course not. But then the Marlboro Man is dead. And according to a 2012 Harvard School of Public Health study the people who eat the most red meat have a 30% greater chance of joining him in any given year than the people who eat the least. "Eating red meat increases the chance of dying early," says study co-author Adam Bernstein. "We estimated that ... 10% of deaths in men could be prevented if they consumed less than half a serving of red meat per day. That's remarkable."

And if that is not remarkable enough for you, evidence that red meat threatens public health in other significant ways is both surprising and disturbing.

So here are my 5 Top Reasons to eat less red meat - or swear off it altogether.

1. Antibiotic Resistance
    Margaret Chan is the Director-General of the UN World Health
    Organization. Last year she issued a dire warning that got almost
    no media coverage. The world is facing, she said, "and end to
    modern medicine as we know it. Strep throats could once again
    kill people, and hip replacements, organ transplants and cancer
    chemotherapy would become far more difficult, or even too
    dangerous to undertake." The cause of this alarming suggestion?
    We are losing our first line of antibiotic drugs to ever increasing
    strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria. As for new drugs to fight
    the threat, Chan was not optimistic. "The pipeline is virtually dry.
    The cupboard is bare."

    Part of the problem is simply overuse by doctors and patients
    (even for things that the drugs have no impact on, like viruses,
    and as a preventive step of dubious value). But 3/4 of the
    antibiotics used in the US today are given not to people but to
    livestock. And antibiotic resistant bacteria are now showing up
    with regularity in the meat at your local supermarket. E-coli
    has been detected in around 3/2 of the beef and 40% of the pork
    tested at markets. And about half of the samples were resistant
    to antibiotics - about triple the percentage found in 2002.

    Antibiotics are not only used to treat sick animals but also given
    in low doses to encourage faster, larger growth. In the 1990s,
    Denmark banned the use of antibiotics in animals other than to
    treat the sick ones. The impact on their livestock industry was
    approximately nothing. Why can't we do that in the US? Good
    question. Meanwhile, if you intend to continue eating red meat,
    be sure it is thoroughly cooked before you do - this kills most
    bacteria. And maybe spring for organically raised, antibiotic free
    meat. Its not just about you, this effects us all.

2. Live a Healthier Life
    The list of serious health issues to which red meat is a significant
    contributor is long. Vascular and heart disease, stroke, cancer and
    diabetes top the list. Meat eaters as a group also tend to be more
    overweight than non or occasional consumers. If you would rather
    die than give up red meat, there is some good news. "You don't
    have to stop eating meat entirely," says Walter Willett, chair of the
    nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health.
    "Eating meat only once a week eliminates most of the risk." Try to
    remember though what a "serving" is. Its about 4 ounces. Not a 24
    ounce porterhouse.

3. Live a Longer Life
    In addition to the Harvard study cited earlier, a 2012 National
    Institutes of Health study reaches similar conclusions. The study
    estimated that replacing just 1 serving per day of red meat with
    other foods (including fish and poultry) reduces mortality 7% -
    19%. As a bonus, your longer life will also be a healthier one.

4. Live on a Healthier Planet
    The beef industry is a major contributor to climate change and
    global warming. Deforestation, water use (it takes about 1,300
    gallons of water to produce one pound of beef), methane
    production (23 times the heat trapping capacity of carbon
    dioxide), pollution from nitrate fertilizers used to grow feed,
    solid waste and the transportation of feed, animals and meat
    products are all significant environmental issues.

5. Save Money
    Since I have cut back on eating red meat to one or two times per
    month (hey, what can I say?) my weekly grocery bill has
    declined by about 15%. I've also been forced to be more creative
    about finding tasty, satisfying dishes with which to replace the
    steak and hamburgers. The good news is there are lots of them.

The evidence continues to mount that eating a lot less red meat would make us all healthier people.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Attitude is a Choice

People who know me well would not say that I am the most optimistic person on the planet. I've often taken a perverse pride in being a "realist" and avoiding "excessive enthusiasm". As The Who said so well, "If I smile tell me some bad news, before I laugh and act like a fool". A recent experience has prompted me to reconsider my whole attitude about attitude.

I was in Orlando after an exciting Reliv 25th Anniversary International Conference. As I sat in the hotel lobby waiting for my airport shuttle, my phone rang. It was the airline letting me know that my flight was delayed 35 minutes because of a "minor mechanical issue". Uh oh! I've traveled often enough to know that where airlines are concerned there are no "minor" issues, and I had a tight 55 minute connection to make if I was going to get home that day. Noon arrived and no shuttle. A call to the company resulted in an unsympathetic dispatcher telling me that the shuttle had been there, I must have been at the wrong entrance (maybe mention that when I reserved the ride?), and the next one would be by in an hour.

I was now an unhappy person, and spinning all sorts of plausible scenarios in which I didn't make it home till the next day. Then it occurred to me that the 35 minute flight delay just might save the day! Without it the missed shuttle was an automatic loser. 

All along here so far, I was assuming the worst case scenario - several worst case scenarios actually. But why was the best case not possible? On paper, at least, I could still make the flights. So I had a 20 minute argument with myself about it (I must have sounded like Gollum to passers-by) and made a decision that, since these matters were mostly out of my control, I would do the best I could and assume that things would work out for the best.

Suffice it to say that the trip home was much more of an adventure than I'd have preferred. But when I finally walked through my door, I was only 58 minutes later than scheduled. I'd had a chance to meet several people on the way home who were interested to hear more about what Reliv could do for them who I would not have met otherwise. And as I stood in Chicago waiting out weather delays, my new attitude spared me from the stress and anger that was all around me.

But suppose things had not worked out so well? Suppose one of those worst case scenarios had played out? I might well have been presented with new and different opportunities that I would have missed out on had things gone smoothly. Second, the experience could have provided valuable lessons and learning experiences for use next time. And finally, by relaxing, doing what I could and assuming the best, the trip would have been far less stressful and aggravating than it otherwise would have. What was my other choice? Congratulate myself on expecting the worse and being right? Scant comfort that.

The big lesson for me? Attitude is a choice! I can choose to see things from a negative filter or a positive one. I can expect happy outcomes or miserable ones. Being positive and optimistic about things doesn't change the outcome, but it does change the experience. Being a "glass half full" person is just more fun. And I bet it attracts a whole different sort of person to me. Try it yourself.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Studies Show

The food and nutrition industry has fallen head-over-heels in love with clinical studies. Everyone has them now. Even those late night TV infomercials for the diet pills that "make the fat melt away without you having to make any changes in your daily routine!" are now "supported by clinical studies". Should you pay any attention to any of this?

As with nearly everything in nutrition and wellness these days, you need to take claims of clinical evidence skeptically. According to a January 2007 study by Boston Children's Hospital and published in the Public Library of Science Medicine, industry supported studies were 4 to 7 times more likely to be favorable to their sponsors than research paid for by disinterested parties. To be fair, the study suggests that such bias may not always be deliberate, citing the study design, what data is collected and how it is analyzed, and even the way the questions themselves are framed can all influence the results. And this bias is not limited to the food industry or even commercial organizations. Studies funded by government and advocacy groups show similar levels of bias.

Unfortunately, given the opportunity to gain favorable publicity for their position or products, few organizations are able to resist trumpeting their clinical proof - whether it proves anything or not. The media quickly and uncritically publicize such study results, which in turn drives consumer behavior. And this assumes that a study was actually done in the first place. The food and nutrition industry is notorious for taking the results of other, unrelated studies, extracting one out-of-context item, and then using it as "clinical proof" that their Sugar Coated Flax Seed Flakes are good for you.

What is a consumer to do? First of all, the double blind clinical study is still the gold standard for medical and wellness research. Just be aware that what someone tells you that "studies show", they may or may not have a clue what they are talking about. Who conducted the study? Who paid for it? Who analyzed the results? Independent, credible, research based organizations such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest or Consumers Union are unlikely to produce unreliable results. Studies sponsored or heavily supported by anyone with something to gain from the results, including universities, should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Caveat emptor.