Greetings friends, and welcome to my blog. The goal of this blog is to provide you with evidence-based information on all things health-related, and to do it from a Christian perspective. By that I mean speaking truthfully for the purpose of helping you be a good steward of your body. While I am not a physician, and am in no way providing medical advice (see disclamer), I am a scientist trained at the doctoral level with many years of research and teaching experience in the biomedical sciences (see resume). In addition, I served as a church elder and bible class teacher. So, I’m not just “speaking out of my hat”, as they say. Most importantly, I strive to be a faithful follower of Christ, and I am committed to using my knowledge and experience to serve him through serving others. If you are looking for a place where you can get scientifically accurate information from a Christian perspective, this blog should be of interest to you. God Bless, and may the Lord give you a long and healthy life so you can serve Him through serving others.
It’s kind of interesting that almost every time you see someone highlighted on TV as having succumbed to COVID-19, the person is young and (ostensibly) in good physical condition. Well, that may be what sells TV adds, but that is certainly not representative of the situation! By far, most people who get seriously sick after contracting the virus are people with at least one pre-existing condition. And that’s important because ALL these conditions can be alleviated to a great extent by lifestyle – making healthy choices like getting the right nutrition, moving regularly and vigorously, de-stressing, and keeping away from cigarettes and excess alcohol. In fact, it’s not age itself that is a risk factor but the simple fact that the pre-existing condition of note tend to be more common in older folks that underlie the correlation of disease severity with age.
I share this with you, friends, not to suggest that a healthy lifestyle is the equivalent of a vaccine against C-19, but only to say it greatly reduces your chances of getting severely ill from the disease. So, let’s keep up our collective guard by doing the public healthy things – social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands, but let’s also take care of our bodies the way the good Lord intended us to. As the Word says, ” So honor God with your body”.
BTW – if you would like to learn more about the why’s and how’s of having a healthy lifestyle, I put together a short course on the subject. You can get to it from the link below. There’s a small charge, basically to cover my expenses. But I truly believe it can be a great investment in your future.
Link to Faith-Based Health Lifesyle Course
Well, it’s been a while since my last post, but I thought – with all the commotion regarding the coronavirus – it’s time to say something. First, let’s understand that I am not an infectious disease specialist. If you’re looking for data, facts, and the present scientific consensus on the virus, your best source is the CDC. Their scientist are the best in the world and, believe me, there is no vast conspiracy for them to give you a snow job. The words below are simply my take on the situation.
That said, I do want to comment on the plan the US has to deal with the virus, as shown in the figure above. You see two scenarios, one in red where people acquire the infection over a short time period and one in blue where people acquire the infection over a more spread out time period. Couple things to note… One is that the overall area bounded by the two curves is about the same. This means that about the same number of people will be infected, overall, for the two scenarios. Ouch! The other feature is that the height of the peak is lower for the more spread out (blue) curve.
The importance of these two features is worth considering. The only way, short of a vaccine, that the disease will stop spreading is when enough people are exposed, recover, and develop antibodies so they are effectively immune from further infection. This is known as “heard immunity” and is similar for the situation for diseases for which children are vaccinated, like mumps, rubella, and measles. Since most people would be immune, they could not acquire and pass on the infection to a non-immune person. And yes, Virginia, in the case of COVID-19 it does mean that the majority of people would get infected.
The hope is that, by slowing the rate at which people get infected, the number of folks who are seriously ill at any one time (the peak) will be less that the maximum the healthcare system can manage. This is key in terms of the number of deaths expected since intensive intervention – such as putting the extremely sick on respirators – can provide the critical time needed for such patients to engage their immune system thus allowing them to recover. But there are only so many respirators.
Based on what we’ve seen in China and South Korea, and considering the intense efforts being made towards social isolation in the US, I suspect that our country will follow the blue curve more closely than the red curve so that the fatality rate for infected individuals will end up being about 1% and the peak incidence will be somewhere in April (I know I’m really sticking my neck out on that last one!).
What does the corona crisis mean to us as Christians? Some think it portends the end of the world, Armageddon. I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I think this virus is a call to the world to be diligent in preparing for the possibility of even more lethal global pandemics in the future. To us, as individual believers, we should look at the situation with hopeful eyes. Jesus tells us “Do not let your hearts be troubled” and “Do not worry”. Worrying is a waste of time and eats away at our joy in life. Instead let’s take God’s word seriously, be thankful, brave, and courageous, and live by faith!
Funny thing with us Americans, we tend to see ourselves as the movers and shakers in the world, the ones with all the answers. But there are times when that is simply not the case. Take for instance our health-care system. Not so good, right? Well, according to a U S News and World Report study, the United Kingdom and Australia are way ahead of us. Yet we don’t look to them as a model worth following. So too with our personal health. America’s obesity situation is horrendous, despite the proliferation of US-based gyms and named diets. In fact, the US ranks only 43 among countries of the world in terms of life expectancy. It’s a case of the Blue Zone Blues!
So where might we find advice for following a lifestyle that leads to a long and healthy life? Well, much of the work in this area has been done by a fellow named Dan Buettner. Dan looked around the world and found 5 distinct geographic areas where people have unusually long lifespans and, more importantly, they live the latter part of life with health and vigor. Buettner reported his results in a 2009 book called “Blue Zones”.
What Buettner observed after spending time with the residents is a handful of traits that were common across the areas. His work does not directly show cause-and-effect, but rather associations, so it can be difficult to know which of the traits matter most, and of course, genetics no doubt have a role. The diagram below lists the key findings of Buttner’s studies.
The list might be summarized as follows: Have a predominantly plant-based diet, move throughout the day, have a few close friends, and have a strong sense of purpose and the divine. Another common feature of most of the Blue Zones is that the areas tended to be hilly. That means the residents have to exert themselves occasionally as part of their comings and goings. What’s interesting, especially compared to the US way of doing things, is that there are no gym memberships, mindfulness, centers, or paleo/keto/you-name-it diets, or “cleanses”! (You may be wondering about the use of alcohol. Yes, most people of the Blue Zones imbibe regularly some sort of alcoholic beverage, most commonly wine. But let us address that controversial issue in another post!)
What we discover is that simplicity is the key. The Blue Zone folks are not on a “diet”, they are not preparing for an “event”. They are living life in a natural and consistent manner. For the rest of us this means setting up our environment and schedules so that… eating right is what happens when we partake of the healthy foods in our refrigerators, taking the stairs and walking to and from work is just what we do to get around, taking time to meditate on God’s word and talking with close friends is just part of our daily routine. The Bible tells us “I know the plans I have for you”, so an abiding sense of purpose and God’s presence is a given in our lives.
We Americans know a lot, but we can learn a lot as well. Maybe the people of Buttner’s Blue Zones can teach us something!
Stress – who needs it? Well, actually we do, at least the right kind of stress, at the right time, and in the right amount. We are wired by the Lord with physiological mechanisms to handle stress. Remember the “Fight or flight” response? The hormone adrenalin is released by our body to help us get through some of the challenges of daily living. It helps us breathe and pump our blood more efficiently and think in a more intense focused way. Like the times when we need to perform at our best, maybe as part of an athletic competition or in response to someone in need of help. But this same system can hurt us when it remains chronically activated. When stress is prolonged and intense the fight or flight hormone adrenalin is overtaken by the long-term response hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol over a long period of time can weaken out immune system, weaken bone and muscle, and even impair our brain’s function, leading to confusion, loss of memory and poor judgement.
So what is stress anyway? Well a good working definition is the inability to respond adequately to a situation, or the feeling one gets when he or she senses a lack of control to an adverse situation. Psychologists break down stress into two basic categories, eustress – the kind of happy stress we feel in anticipation of a joyful event like a wedding, and distress – the overwhelming feeling of anxiety we feel over situations that are overwhelming us. I’m sure you can tell which the potentially harmful one is.
A good example of the impact of stress comes from a British study done long ago in which the death rate of people in government was followed across several years. What they found, unexpectedly, was that the people who were at the top of the hierarchy (administrators) actually lived longer than people who were at the lower rungs of the organization (clerics). The study investigators proposed that this inverted relationship between level in the organization and likelihood of dying was related to the participants’ ability to control their circumstances. Those at the top had a lot of control while those at the bottom had little. Many other studies went on to support this concept.
It seems a bit like the Goldilocks fairy tale the best stress is that which is not too hot, not too cold but just right. Again, we were created to have the ability to deal with adversity. But it’s one thing to activate our stress response to help run away when being chased by a tiger, and another thing altogether to sit on the couch all day and fret about paying our overextended credit-card! And not only does chronic stress have an adverse effect on us as individuals, it has an effect on those around us. One surprising example of this is the effect that stress has on mothers-to-be may have on their children. Studies show that pregnant animals who are stressed tend to their offspring less than pregnant animals who are not stressed. But what’s interesting is that the offspring of stressed mothers grow up to be less attentive to their offspring than offspring of non-stressed mothers. Talk about the sins of the fathers (or in this case the mothers) being passed on to the children!
Of course the fact that we have to deal with stressful situation is no surprise to people of faith. Jesus himself tells us we will have trouble in this world. But he also provides the comfort of knowing that he has overcome the world. Question is, how do we tap into that comfort when the world seems to be falling apart around us?
Here’s my list of “Top 10” suggestions, in no particular order.
- Respond in faith. As Paul advises us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. In other words be confident in knowing that the Lord has your back. He is in control.
- Avoid getting into the trap of persistent worrying or fretting. It only gets in the way of responding to the situation. Consider setting aside a period of time, maybe one hour a day, to “worry” if you find it just can’t be avoided. As Jesus says, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?”
- Get a pet. Animals like cats and dogs are ‘nephesh’, or soulish, creatures, created to have a relationship with people. They love unconditionally. Take advantage of that gift from God. Studies show that having a pet near your side lowers your blood pressure and the level of stress hormones in your body
- Downsize and delegate. In many cases, worry results from trying to balance too many responsibilities. Get rid of those things you don’t “have to do” or find someone else to do them. Better yet, leverage your activities by combining them. For example, use cooking time as a time to be with the children giving them a small part of the meal preparation.
- Get organized. Tame the chaos by putting your activities in order. Set aside one day of the week, perhaps early in the morning, to make your plans for the coming week. Schedule activities and goals on the calendar. Review your plans each morning or evening. Then do what you planned to do, follow through.
- Carve our time for recreation, or more properly “Re-creation”. Maybe for you that’s a half-hour each night watching your favorite show, or it may be going out for a jog, or working in the garden or shed. The key is that the activity is intentional, a reward of sorts, and something that brings you a sense of peace.
- Find support. “Plans fail for lack of advisors” is a worthwhile proverb to consider. Find a small group of close friends and share your concerns. You may find that you have solutions for each other’s problems.
- Get your rest. Start by setting your wake-up alarm for the same time each day, no matter what. In time that will force you to go to bed at a decent hour and help lay the foundation for a tranquil life.
- Count your blessings. Yes, it sounds trite and a bit corny, but just living in the USA where we have laws and basic freedoms and having food, shelter, and clothing are realities of our day-to-day lives that most people in the world can only hope for.
- And, of course, no de-stressing plan can be complete without prayer and reflection. Consider setting aside times to do what I call PRINK, that is to “PRayerfully thINK”. Maybe on your way to work or your walk home from the store, PRINK over specific issues you face under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
On a personal note, I am reluctant to even post this blog entry. Stress is something that plagues me from time to time and I don’t pretend to have the final answer. And much of the advice listed here is based on personal experience and not hard scientific findings. I would love to hear from you if you have any thoughts or suggestions on coping with stress, particularly from a faith perspective. My final word of encouragement in dealing with stress is from God’s Word, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity (anxiety, stress) but one of power, love, and self-discipline.” God Bless, Jim
One of the gifts people will be thinking about giving and getting this Christmas is a do-it-yourself (partly) genetics test kit, otherwise known as a Direct To Consumer (DTC) genetics test kit. To help you decide whether it’s a good idea or not, I put together this little blog entry. Hope you find it helpful.
There are a number of commercial players in the field, most notably 23andme, Ancestry.com and MyHeratage, among others. All of these vendors provide information about your heritage, but only one (23and me) provides health related information, as explained below. Cost for test are generally about $100, but closer to $200 for the 23andme test, since it provide a more comprehensive report. Watch out for discounts, however. Most of these vendor offer up to half off the price around the holidays, particularly on Black Friday.
How the testing works
The actual test procedure is simple. No blood involved! You just spit I a tube, add the supplied preservative, and mail the kit back to the company. Sometime later, typically a few weeks, they send you the results electronically, through access to your private account on the company website.
Essentially, the company labs have robotic machines and instruments that extract the DNA from the few cells that are in the saliva sample, having sloughed off your mouth tissue. As it turns out every cell of your body has the same DNA so it really does not matter what part of your body the sample came from. That’s also why forensic scientists can use hair, blood or semen samples to do genetic testing. Since our DNA composition does not change throughout life, the test results are good from the day you are conceived until death.
Once the DNA is extracted it’s replicated using a nifty procedure called “PCR” and analyzed. In essence, your DNA sample is compared to other DNA samples that come from people who have known geographic origin and known health conditions. It’s a kind of a matching game (genotyping), more than an analysis of the individual letters of your DNA alphabet (sequencing). For the most part, the DNA of individuals is identical by more than 99%. And this is important to believers because it affirms the truth of the bible that we are all human beings, we are all created in the image of God. There are no subspecies of people! But the small differences among us are what makes us all unique and that’s what the tests look for. In generally, genetic testing companies compare over 500,000 variations in a person’s genes as part of their testing.
The genetic heritage report provides information regarding ancestry for about five generations back. Generally you receive a breakdown of where your forefathers (and formothers) originated as a table with percentages for each geographical region. The most accurate and precise results are for people of European decent, because those are the people most well characterize in the companies DNA matching database.
One interesting feature of the tests is that you can compare your results with those of family members. The extent to which two people have matching DNA depend on how close they are related. Parents and children have about 50% matching DNA, while first cousins have about 25% matching DNA.
The testing companies provide a means for you to opt in if you want to be alerted when possible relatives are identified from their test results. Of course, every now and then, it turns out that the test results for two supposedly related people have virtually no matching DNA. This can be something of a challenge when the people tested believe they are parent and child, leading to a “is that really you dad?” crisis. Of course for most of us, the easiest way to find out about our heritage and our relatives is to simply ask the people we already know in our family tree. For orphans it’s another matter.
All of the three genetic testing companies mentioned earlier have strict internal confidentiality rules and they do not release personal genetic information to anyone, according to their corporate documentation and to the best of my knowledge. Any data they do share is anonymized so that it cannot be traced back to an individual. In fact, many participant in 23andme testing (about 80%) agree to answer questions about their health status so the company can make correlations that can potentially be used for drug development. Again, this information is not linked to the individual. In general, personal genetic information can be compromised when someone sends their genetic raw-data file to a third party, like Gedmatch. Many people do this as a way of finding relatives across testing companies. The stories you hear about in the media about the government tracking down criminals are based on these share public platforms, not data obtained from the genetic testing companies themselves.
Of course the other aspect of security that people are often concerned about is the use of genetic data by an employer of insurer. Fortunately, there is a federal law, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, often referred to as GINA, that explicitly prohibits the use of genetic information for assessing a person’s health insurance applicability or cost as well as for job hiring or job promotions. In my opinion, personal security in genetic testing is a bit of an overhyped issue.
Trait and Health Information
But heritage is not the only information that can be obtained from genetic testing. Information about your traits, health status, and disease susceptibility can also be teased out of the raw data and reported. And while all the testing companies determine essentially the same data set, only one company, 23andme, has authorization to release health information to the public based on that data. The reason for this is that 23anme took the time and made the effort to show the FDA that their health-related predictions are valid. For people who use the other genetic test companies, it is possible to get trait and health information by downloading your raw data file and sending it to a third party service, like Promethease, but there is less certainty about privacy and the correct interpretation of the genetic results.
What you get from 23andme is information regarding your traits, your carrier status, and your disease risks. We will look at each of these individually below. But there is a problem: It turns out that the relationship between health and genes is not as simple as what Mendel found for his peas. Most traits and diseases are polygenic, meaning that they are influence by a number of genes working together in complex ways that are not precisely understood. Things like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression are not dependent on single gene, even though trends can be seen within a family. So what you get from the genetic report is not deterministic but rather probabilistic, a type of educated guess, an estimation or your risk.
Traits are simply definable distinguishing characteristics for an individual. Most of the traits that can be predicted from genetics are, shall we say, inconsequential, like the ability to taste cilantro, and to curl your tongue. If you want to know if your and your spouces genetics predicts that your kids will be geniuses forget it, there are just too many genes involves and the science is not there yet. One trait that often gets peoples attention is the presence of fast and slow twitch fibers as predicted from genetics. The problem with this trait is that it has only a very tiny impact on ones sports performance, so it has very little value in helping a person decide which sports to enter.
As mentioned earlier, a finding of a “health risk” does not mean that you will go on to develop the health problem in question. Rather it means you have a statistically higher (or lower) chance of developing the problem. Generally the increase or decrease in risk is relatively small, somewhere between half to twice that of the general population. And of course, in almost all situations, your behaviors also factor into the risk, since both nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) factor into one’s health. A report may state that you are at 25% greater risk for obesity, but rest assured, reducing your caloric intake or increasing your caloric output can compensate for this tendency.
For a few genetic findings the risk can be higher, by as much as 10 fold, as in the case of Alzheimer’s disease and a particular type of breast cancer. In the case of breast cancer, the test is looking for particular variants of the BRCA gene that are highly associated with the development of the disease. The kicker is that, with the exception of women of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, most cases of breast cancer are unrelated to BRCA. Also not all the impactful variants of the BRCA gene are tested for. So a positive finding having a high-risk BRCA variant) is a strong signal that you might have a problem and you should see a physician for a confirmatory test. On the other hand a negative finding (not having a high-risk BRCA variant) does NOT rule out the possibility of developing breast cancer. If this seems confusing, it is. That’s why the FDA is reluctant to allow health information to be disseminated by genetic test providers.
An interesting bit of information also provided by 23andme is disease carrier status. This is for conditions that are predominantly associated with a single gene (like Mendel’s peas) and are considered “recessive”. Two examples are cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia. If you have two bad copies of the gene you know it because you have the disease condition, but if you have one copy the condition is generally silent, you are a carrier. It can be useful to know if you are a carrier because marrying someone who is also a carrier gives a 1 in 4 chance that a child of the couple will have two bad copies of the gene and will manifest the actual disease. Generally speaking, though, the carrier status reporting involves diseases that are relatively rare, so it is unlikely that a person would use it to screen potential mates!
So what is the bottom line for personal genetic testing? Well, I would say it’s basically a recreational exercise at this point. Knowing your roots can be heartwarming and, for some, reassuring. Health wise, there is little most of us will gain that couldn’t be obtained from a careful family history. Indeed, that’s why your doctor asks about your mom and dad and not your 23andme results. But the ability to make predictions about health is improving and the testing companies send updates when new discoveries are made and applied to your genetic (raw) results on file. Also, as time goes on more precise DNA analysis, such as sequencing, will become available at an affordable price and will provide a more detained and comprehensive picture of one’s genetic profile. In the meantime, why not have the test run and have some fun learning a little about yourself. If nothing else, just experiencing first-hand the impact of the amazing DNA molecule on our lives gives us an appreciation for the Psalmist’s thought “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made”.
A good review of DTC genetic testing, in both text and audio format, can be found at the website: https://www.bmj.com/content/367/bmj.l5688
A colleague recently recommended that I consider joining a church small-group doing the “Daniel Fast”. Here’s what the fast is all about, according to Wikipedia… “The Daniel Fast is a religious partial fast that is popular among Evangelical Protestants in the United States in which meat, wine, and other rich foods are avoided in favor of vegetables and water for typically three weeks in order to draw the believer closer to God” Sound good? You bet. But in reality this is a great example of a poor health practices. What will happen on the fast is that followers will lose 10 pounds at the end of the three weeks. They will be very happy with that and tell all there friends. But the plan is intentionally short term and unintentionally non-sustainable. So the followers go back to eating as they had before, and one month later, they’ve gained back the 10 pounds and 5 pounds more. Do they tell others about that? Not so much, and the plan is perceived by the congregation as a “success”.
And what’s ironic is that the plan leaves out a food that is not only healthy but a frequent part of Jesus’ diet – fish. Furthermore, the “Plan” focuses on food choices only, and totally missies the equally important aspect of movement when it comes to health.
But alias, you say, the plan makes no claim regarding either weight or health, it is simply a way to draw near to God. Here’s what the official website says in its FAQ section “Many people do use the Daniel Fast eating plan to improve their health and for weight loss”, and the homepage includes a prominent link to the book “The Daniel Fast for Weight Loss”. So, let’s be honest here, the underlying message is that the plan helps you lose weight and is good for you. That certainly was the case for Daniel and his compatriots when they were placed in surroundings that encouraged gluttony, but what does it mean for us in our day to day lives?
What seems to underlie all such short-term fixes is the notion that, somehow, the intervention is going to “fix” our body, to change us in some fundamental – and lasting – way. But that’s not how reality works. Jesus says we are to pick up our cross daily, and that goes for physical disciplines well as spiritual discipline. We have to develop behavioral changes that are sustainable and part of our day-to-day world, hence the tem ‘life-style’ changes.
Needless to say, I don’t plan to join a Daniel Fast group. I hope that the community of faith will abandon these short term fixes and move towards more lasting and meaningful changes that improve not only our relationship with the Lord, but our ability to serve Him through serving others with healthy capable minds and bodies.
Take a look at the chart. What is the one common characteristic among all animal species represented?
Not weight, heartrate, or longevity. The one common feature is that all among this diverse listing of species, including humans, live until their heart beats about 1 billion times and then – they die. The reason for this heart beat phenomenon is unknown. One theory is that the heart rate is a measure of general intermediary metabolism. In other words, how fast a creature “burns” food. The burning (oxidation) involves the generation of nasty oxygen radicals which damage cells, and this may well be an inevitable part of living. Or maybe, like an elastic band, there are only so many times you can stretch out the walls of the heart before something snaps.
So what can we learn from this? Is this limitation fate, something we are stuck with and can’t do anything about? Well in a sense yes, the book of Hebrews tells us “it is appointed unto men once to die”. And despite all the hype about immortality being just around the corner with advances in biology and genetics, this is simply a pipe dream.
Yet Proverbs tells us “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life”. So how do we guard our heart, in practical terms, especially when their’s an almost universal limit on its ability to function? Well, the answer is save those heartbeats! In other words, slow down your heartrate and live longer.
How to do this? Well one obvious way is to chill out. Find ways to deal with the everyday stress of life. As Jesus says, “Do not let your heart be troubled”. Yes, the occasional stressful situation is going to be there and we have to deal with that, it’s what our “fight or flight” hormones, most notably adrenalin are meant for. But constant stress is a killer. It accelerates our heart and steals those precious beats a little each day. And for anyone looking for a quick fix to weight loss, stimulants that are “metabolism boosters”, increase the heart rate much the same as our own adrenalin. This is potentially a high price to pay for the loss of a few pounds.
And what about exercise? Clearly it increases heart rate, which would be entirely the opposite of what we are striving for. But there’s an interesting twist to the exercise story, a paradox really. While our heart rate indeed goes up during exercise, two maybe even three times the normal rate, our heart rate while we are not exercising, the “resting” heart rate, goes down in a way that more than compensates for the short increase during exercise.
For example, consider a 50 year old “nonexerciser” (I’ve been told to keep away from the couch-potato term, but you know what I mean!) vs. a person who exercises vigorously a half-hour a day. Let’s assume the nonexerciser experiences a heart rate of 80 beats per minute (BPM) through the day for a total of 115,2000 beats in 24 hours. And let’s assume the exerciser experiences a heart rate 140 BPM during a half-hour of exercise and 60 beats per minute for the remaining 23.5 hour in the day for a total of 88,000 beats. That’s about 25% less beats in the day for our exerciser. Of course this does not translate directly into 25% longer life, but that is the general direction. And of course, the bigger value, which is harder to quantify, is the better quality of life, especially in the later years, for the exerciser. But more on that in another post.
So think of those heartbeats as a treasure to be guarded (by exercise and tranquility) and spent (by living) wisely. Remember – the objective is to serve the Lord, and you have to be here to do that!
Often I come across nutrition advice that warns people to avoid foods with “Added sugar”. Even the American Heart Association guidance on sugar intake is restricted to “Added sugar”. The implication seems to be that there is something different – toxic – about this particular version of sugar. The idea is a bit bewildering to me.
Consider the case of an individual cell in your body, maybe a heart cell, a liver cell, a brain cell, or a cell lining a blood vessel, doesn’t matter. The cell is basically swimming in a sea of blood and the blood is carrying the nutrients absorbed in the intestine. So our little cell is sitting there and reacting to the presence of sugar in the blood. But how does the cell know where the sugar came from? Fact is, it doesn’t. Too much sugar in the blood is bad, period. Sugar (or more properly its components, glucose and fructose, as described below) reacts with certain key molecules to form product that impair essential cell functions, and it does this in an irreversible, i.e., permanent, way. In fact, these reaction products are referred to as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. And as the name implies, these products are known to accelerate, functionally, the aging process, primarily by damaging blood vessels. And that’s true whether the sugar came from table sugar, cane sugar, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), honey, fruit or any other substance eaten. HFCS is approximately an equal mixture of glucose and fructose, and these are the same products formed when regular sugar (sucrose) is broken down in the intestine.
Consider the sugar impact of eating a piece of fruit, say an apple or an orange, compared to drinking a glass of fruit juice. One typical glass of juice contains the sugar found in 3 to 4 whole fruits. From the point of view of “added sugar” neither the fruit of the juice is a concern. But from the perspective of our little cell friend, eating a piece of fruit is the much better alternative, exposing the cell to much less sugar overall. Of course the fruit has the added benefit of slowing the absorption of the sugar, moderating the concentration in blood, as an added bonus.
The upshot of all this: The best advice is to limit the TOTAL amount of sugar we eat each day. A good working limit, according to the World Health Organization 2015 guidance is 50 grams. The trick is to pick foods that give the best nutritional bang for the sugar buck. Many health drinks labelled as healthy and natural are loaded with sugar. Yet they can claim to have no “added” sugar. With a little careful searching, however, you can find nutritious drinks that have only a fraction of that amount of sugar.
Compare the three single-portion beverages shown below…
Of course you would expect the soda pop to have a lot of sugar – and it does, 35 grams. But look at the two veggie juice products. One has 47 gram of sugar and the other has only 6 – wow – big difference! And neither has any added sugar. It pays to check the label. Downside of low sugar drinks and foods of course is that they are not as sweet tasting, of course! If you’re a sweet-fiend like I am, consider sprinkling in/on a little stevia. While stevia is not completely innocuous, there are numerous studies that show it is safe to use at the small quantities generally consumed (the bulk of a stevia packet is inulin filler).
Finally, let’s consider a natural product generally considered by the Christian community to be a bastion of clean and healthy living , honey. Honey is over 80% sugar, and while none of it is “Added”, it’s still there. A single tablespoon contains nearly 20 grams of sugar. Yes, the trace nutrients in honey do make it a better choice of sweetener than straight sugar, but it’s not better by much! So, let me close by paraphrasing the proverbial admonition, “Do you like sugar [honey]? Don’t eat too much, or it will make you sick”!
The other day my wife and I were passing by Burger King and we gave into the temptation of stopping for an Impossible Burger®. You see, we’ve pretty much managed to ween ourselves away from conventional hamburgers, given the fat and high calories. But this no-meat burger sounded, and later tasted, great. The question is, is it healthy? Or more exactly, more healthy than a conventional meat (beef) hamburger?
Well there is of course no simple way to answer that question based on human health or death outcomes at this point. Clearly the Impossible Burger is not overtly toxic, but it is too early to discover if it has long term adverse health effects. Even the most nasty of all commercial products, cigarettes, has a lag time of about 20 years between the time someone starts smoking and when develop clearly discernible health problems. So we have to kind of infer an answer based on indirect evidence.
The first thing to look at is the fat content. As it turns out, conventional hamburgers and the Impossible Burger have about the same fat content, and for that matter similar caloric content (1). And contrary to what you might have heard about butter and bacon being health foods, fat is generally something best to be avoided, at least in excess. Foods high in fat contribute to obesity and the attendant problems such as cardiovascular disease (2).
The other issue, and the one that bothers me most, is the problem of cancer. We know that red meat, which presumably includes the beef in conventional hamburgers, is associate with an increased risk of cancer. It’s not a real strong relationship, as in the case of smoking, but it’s real. Unfortunately the reason, or mechanism as scientist like to all it, for this nasty effect of meat is not well established. But one of the fairly well established possible mechanisms is that cancer in red meat results from the presence of what’s known as heme-iron, a complex of molecules that enhances the production of biologically reactive free radicals in the body (3). Among other toxic consequences, free radicals damage the DNA in cells leading to loss of cell reproductive control, i.e., cancer.
Problem is that, in order to make the Impossible Burger look and taste like meet, the fabricated product actually contains heme-iron as an added ingredient (1). The heme-iron is produced through genetic engineering in plants. Now I don’t have a beef (pun-intended!) with the fact that the heme-iron is genetically engineered, a rose by any other name smells as sweet. I have a health concern about the ingredient itself.
So while the Impossible Burger may taste delicious, avoids the killing of animals, and is environmentally better for the planet than razing meat, from a health perspective, I am – shall we say – a bit skeptical. As the Bible says “Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor 6:12). So for the time being I’ll stick with chicken and salmon as my “meat substitutes”, neither of which contains heme-iron (or at least not much). Of course, only time will tell. Too bad, that Impossible Burger was so damn tasty too!
The Health section of Good Morning America last week focused on a recent study which showed, among other things, that people are spending lot of time – prolonged time – just sitting around. Not that they aren’t doing anything during those times, maybe their working at the jobs, having a discussion with others, or just watching TV. Problem is they’re just not moving. I myself can fall into this behavioral trap. Why does it matter? Because it’s unhealthy! As the saying goes, “Sitting is the new smoking”. It seems that the Good Lord built us to move. Interesting isn’t it… most mechanical devices wear out more quickly when they are used. We, in essence, “wear out” when we aren’t used. So how do we fix the situation? Well, some people use a bouncy ball to sit on and some people have a stand-up desk. Let’s face it, in today’s technology-driven world, with computers, and cars, and elevators. There’s really no compelling reason to be physically active.
The interesting thing though, is that we can largely circumvent the ill effects of prolonged sitting by occasionally walking around. And the maximum “safe” time for straight sitting seems to be about one hour. At least that’s the time it takes for our blood vessels to adapt to sitting and go into a kind of dormant state. And that’s what we want to prevent. You see it’s all about the blood vessels. They feed every organ and tissue of the body. When they’re not working properly, everything else suffers. And preventing that is pretty easy. A recent study showed that just getting up every hour or so and taking a 5 minute walk (or about 250 steps) does the trick. That’s like a good walk around the block or two to three times around the floor of a typical building. This amount seems to reactivate the blood vessels. Personally, I like (maybe I should say, am willing) to take a walk down the hallway of the building where I work, go down two flights of stairs, come back up the other side stairwell in the building and return to my desk. That also gets in a bit of aerobic activity mixed in. And a great way to be reminded to get up and going is to use a fitness tracker, one that has a vibrating or audible alarm that goes off if you haven’t accumulated the proscribed amount of steps in any given hour.
Oh – here’s the other interesting tidbit. The bad effects of prolonged sitting can’t be undone by a short high-intensity activity. You’ve got to keep moving throughout the day. It’s like a garden, you have to tend to it regularly, you can’t just pull up the weeds once they overwhelm the plants.
The Lord made us in a remarkable way. Unlike man-made machines, the bodies the Good Lord gave us actually improve with use! Sorry – got to run – or more precisely walk – my Fitbit just rang!