Better Health: Smart Health Commentary Better Health (TM): smart health commentary



Latest Posts

Dr. Val’s Health Tips: Causes And Cures For Childhood Insomnia

3 Comments »

Thanks to support from OTCSafety.org, I’ve created a series of health tips for common medical concerns. This week’s article is about how to diagnose and treat sleep difficulties in children and adolescents. There are many possible causes of insomnia, which include everything from emotional distress to bad dreams, breathing problems, stomach pains, medical conditions or behavioral problems.

In my article I discuss how you can work with a healthcare professional to determine the cause of your child’s sleep difficulties (this includes details on how to keep a sleep diary). I offer instructive do’s and don’ts to promote healthy sleep, and offer examples of symptoms that may require medical intervention.

For the full article, please click here. I promise it won’t put you to sleep! 😉

GMO Paranoia And The Hollow Health Claims Of Cheerios

6 Comments »

Make no mistake about it. General Mills’ introduction of Cheerios sporting the label “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients” is a mere marketing ploy and has nothing to do with health or nutrition. Let’s start the dissection of this blatant attempt to capitalize on the anti-GMO paranoia by looking at the main ingredient in Cheerios, namely oats. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century writer who compiled the first authoritative dictionary of the English language whimsically defined oats as the grain “eaten by people in Scotland, but fit only for horses in England.” A clever Scot supposedly retorted “that’s why England has such good horses, and Scotland has such fine men!”

Modern science, as it turns out, supports the ancient Scotch penchant for oats. A form of soluble fiber in the grain known as beta glucan has been shown to reduce levels of cholesterol in the blood which in turn is expected to reduce the risk of heart disease. You couldn’t tell this by the Scottish experience, though. Scotland has one of the highest rates of heart disease in the world. It seems all that haggis, refined carbs and a lack of veggies is too great a challenge for Scotch oats to cope with. Actually you need at least 3 grams of beta glucan daily to have any effect on blood cholesterol and that translates to roughly a cup of cooked oat bran or a cup and a half of oatmeal. Or about three servings of Cheerios. And that makes the cholesterol lowering claims prominently featured on the Cheerios box ring pretty hollow. There are far better ways to reduce cholesterol than gorging on Cheerios.

At least, though, the cholesterol lowering claim has some scientific merit. The “no GMO” claim has none. To start with, there are no genetically modified oats grown anywhere, at least not in the current sense of the term which refers to the splicing of specific foreign genes into the DNA of a seed. Such “recombinant DNA technology: is generally used to confer resistance to herbicides or protection from insects, but resistance to drought and enhancement with nutrients hold great potential. Although it is this new-fangled technology that garners attention these days, the fact is that virtually everything we eat has been genetically modified in some fashion over the years, either by traditional crossbreeding or through the use of chemicals or radiation both of which can scramble the genetic material in crops. The latter processes are based on the hope that a useful mutation will occur by chance, but basically it comes down to a roll of the dice. Just do enough experiments and a valuable mutant may surface. Radiation breeding has produced many varieties of rice, wheat, peanuts and bananas that are now widely grown. If you are eating red grapefruit, or sipping premium Scotch whisky made from barley, you are enjoying the products of this technology.

So if “genetically modified” oats do not exist, what sort of monsters is General Mills protecting us from? As is the case with any commercial cereal, Cheerios contains a number of ingredients with nutritious whole grain oats at the top of the list. Next come modified corn starch and sugar. It is to these two ingredients that General Mills refers when it talks about “GMO-free.” Much of the corn and some of the sugar beets grown in North America are genetically modified to resist herbicides and ward off insects. But by the time the highly processed starch and sugar extracted from these plants reach the food supply, they retain no vestige of any genetic modification. There is no way to distinguish the starch or sugar derived from genetically modified plants from the conventional varieties. The GMO-free Cheerios will not differ in any way from the currently marketed version except that the price may eventually reflect the greater cost of sourcing ingredients from plants that do not benefit from recombinant DNA technology.

The reason for the addition of sugar to Cheerios, actually in small doses compared with other cereals, is obvious. But why is corn starch added, and why is it modified? Nobody likes soggy cereal, and a thin layer of modified starch sprayed onto the little “O”s helps keep the interior dry. The modification in this case has nothing to do with genetic modification. Starch is a mixture of essentially two “polymers,” or giant molecules, both composed of units of glucose joined together. In amylose, the glucose units form a straight chain, while in amylopectin, the main glucose strand features many branches of shorter glucose chains. The properties of any starch depend on the relative proportion of amylose and amylopectin as well as on the degree of branching.

Starch has many uses in the food industry. It can thicken sauces, prevent French dressing from separating, substitute for fat or keep cereals dry. But these uses require starches of specific composition, either in terms of the length of the glucose chains or the degree of branching. In other words, the native starch has to be “modified” by treatment with acids, enzymes or oxidizing agents. There is no safety issue here, modified starches are approved food additives. Of course that doesn’t prevent scientifically illiterate alarmists from scaring the public by blathering on about modified starch being used as wallpaper glue and insinuating that any food made with it will literally stick to our ribs. The modified starch used in glue, namely a “carboxymethylated” version, is not the same as used in food, but even if it were, so what? Just because water can be used to clean garage floors and is found in tumours doesn’t mean we can’t drink it. Talking about washing garage floors, Cheerios also contains tripotassium phosphate, a powerful cleaning agent. It is added in small amounts to adjust the acidity of the mix used to formulate the cereal. This too has raised the ire of some ill-informed activists who do not realize that we consume all sorts of naturally occurring phosphates regularly in our diet. Quacking about the dangers of tripotassium phosphate in Cheerios makes about as much sense as hyping Cheerios that are “Not Made With Genetically Modified Ingredients.”

***

Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society and teaches a variety of courses in McGill’s Chemistry Department and in the Faculty of Medicine with emphasis on health issues, including aspects of “Alternative Medicine”.  He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging.  Using stage magic to make scientific points is one of his specialties.

More Evidence That The Mediterranean Diet Is Healthiest

No Comments »

We’ve known for quite some time that weight loss can reduce the risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. However, a healthy diet alone (without weight loss) may also help to reduce risk. In a recent Spanish study (published in the Annals of Internal Medicine), 3,541 men and women ages 55-80 at risk for diabetes were followed for an average of 4.1 years. Those who ate a diet rich in fish, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and olive oil were less likely to develop diabetes than those following other diets of similar caloric value.

This is interesting for a few reasons. First of all, it provides us with insight into the importance of what we eat (and not just how much we eat) for optimum health. When considering how to follow a Mediterranean diet, I think it might be easiest to focus on what is NOT on the menu, rather than what we need to add to our diet. Notice that the Mediterranean diet has very low sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods and animal fat (with the exception of fish oil). This is not a low carb or low fat diet. It is a low glycemic-index and unprocessed food diet.

Secondly, calorie-restriction alone may not be the optimal way to reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In the past we have focused primarily on fat loss for diabetes prevention – through calorie restriction and exercise. We’ve often heard that “a calorie is a calorie” and that folks can lose weight effectively on a low-carb, low-fat, or high protein diet. While it’s true that studies have been equivocal regarding the most effective type of diet for weight loss, and people have been able to lose weight on everything from a bacon and grapefruit to a cookie diet, a deeper look suggests that certain diets really are healthier for us in the long run.

Thirdly, what we eat can have a profound effect on our health, and food is an easily modifiable risk factor for illness. Unlike many diseases and conditions (such as type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune disorders) where we have little to no control over whether or not we contract them, it is exciting to know that a healthy diet is a powerful weapon against disease that does not rely on pharmaceutical products or medical interventions.

And finally, I found this study interesting because it confirms what I have noticed in my own life recently – that cutting out refined carbohydrates and sugars can have a very positive effect on body composition and overall health. I have always had a very difficult time with hunger during calorie restriction, and I finally realized that it had to do with being sensitive to blood sugar spikes and drops from too many refined carbs. Once I cut out all added sugars and white flours from my diet (replacing them with lean protein and whole grains) my chronic hunger resolved and I could settle in to a comfortable relationship with food without constantly battling the scale.

If you haven’t tried the Mediterranean diet, there’s no time like the present. While evidence suggests you’ll be healthier for it, my experience tells me you’ll feel a whole lot better too. Say goodbye to the food craving and hunger cycle, and hello to a new way of healthy eating that can be comfortably maintained for a lifetime.

Fit Family Challenge 2013: Ten Tips For Fast, Healthy, And Affordable Meals

1 Comment »

I’m very excited to be the nutrition coach for the Boys & Girls Clubs’ Fit Family Challenge again this year. In surveying the finalist families, I discovered that the two most important nutrition issues on their minds were cooking speed and food affordability. Far down the list were things like food allergies, weight loss, and nutrition basics.

Contrary to popular belief, healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive. A new study showed that a healthful diet only costs an average of $1.50/day more than an unhealthy diet, and the additional cost is mostly related to the expense of leaner protein sources. So with a little bit of shopping savvy, you can change your family’s nutrition without breaking the bank.

Since busy moms and dads are always looking for ways to provide fast, nutritious meals for their children, I thought I’d provide some tips for doing so on a budget. These are strategies that I also use when I’m traveling across the country, working long hours at hospitals with only a microwave and small refrigerator available, and very little time for meal prep. If your day is frantic, and you don’t have much time to cook, then these tips are for you! (I’m not saying we’re going to win any culinary awards for these meals, but they are very practical. Please use your own favorite herbs and spices for flavor. I have added links throughout this post to show you examples of products I’ve used and like – but there are many other good ones out there!) 😀

1. Tupperware. Make sure you have lots of plastic storage containers (Tupperware or other brand) and baggies in various sizes. You can reuse the containers and portion out food into single serving sizes in advance. Don’t worry about finding containers that are “BPA-free” – they may cost more and fifty+ years of scientific studies (reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) have determined that they are safe for microwave use and food storage.

2. Prepare meals ahead of time. Set aside one day a week where you will fill containers and baggies with single serving sizes of 1) protein, 2) fruits/veggies, 3) nuts/fats, and 4) complex carbohydrates. Each meal should include one of each. Snacks can contain two or three of the four groups. Each family member can quickly grab portions for their meals, lunch boxes, or snacks, and you can make up plates for dinner by reheating them in the microwave.

3. Fast protein. Pre-cooked, grilled chicken or turkey strips can be found in the refrigerated or frozen section of your local discount store. Four ounces of grilled chicken is a good serving size, and make sure you choose the chicken without sauce or chemical flavorings as your healthiest option. One serving takes about a minute to reheat in the microwave. Other great sources of protein include plain Greek yogurt (a serving is 1 cup), protein powder (whey, egg, or vegan sources), pre-packed hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna or fish in water, smoked salmon, and low-fat cheese sticks.

If you have a stove and 4-8 minutes to spare, quick-fry pork chops, lean beef, fish fillets, or egg beaters (plain, liquid egg whites in a carton are even better) with low-fat shredded cheese with a few chopped veggies can make a great omelet that’s fast and affordable.

You can make egg whites in a microwave (spray a microwave container with a little bit of pure olive oil cooking spray) and cook for one and a half minutes per serving. Top with salt, pepper, cheese, and maybe a little ketchup if you like that. Super fast, super healthy.

In a pinch, beef, pork, and natural turkey jerkies are very portable protein sources. However, they can be expensive, and you must look for the all natural varieties (not the jerky full of salt and chemicals at various truck stops across the country).

4. Fast fruits & veggies. Fruits are pretty easy because you can chop them up or peel them quickly, but if you don’t want to chop them too far in advance, pre-made fruit cups are a little more expensive, but very convenient. Make sure you choose the fruit that is packed in its own juice, not syrup.

As far as veggies are concerned, some can be enjoyed raw (celery, carrot sticks, lettuce, tomatoes etc.) but others need cooking. The fastest way to cook most fresh veggies is to steam them in a microwave. Stores now pack veggies (such as green beans, broccoli, and snow peas for example) in “steam-in bags” where you can just puncture the bag with a fork and then microwave the veggies for a couple of minutes. If you’re buying veggies in bulk, you can purchase  “Zip n’ Steam” bags and use those instead. I’ve used these bags for everything from butternut squash to corn on the cob. They lock in all the vitamins and minerals that you may loose in a boiling or canning process.

Otherwise, frozen veggies are very convenient and are pre-chopped. Canned vegetables are also rich in vitamins (though they tend to lose the water soluble A&B vitamins so you’ll need to get those from your fruits or a squeeze of lemon in your water) and very easy to heat and are affordable.

5. Fast fat. Mostly, what I mean by healthy fats is nuts, seeds, and vegetable oils (especially olive). Fats are rarely cost-prohibitive and it doesn’t take much to “prepare” them. Healthier nuts and nut butters are plain (no sugar or salt added). Avoid candy-coated nuts, sugary spreads, or trail mixes that have “yogurt-covered” anything or chocolate added. Go easy on the dried fruit as it is a simple sugar. Cook with olive oil or olive oil spray when you can. Limit your animal fat intake (butter, high-fat cheese, lard, bacon) as it is not as healthy for you as vegetable sources.

6. Fast complex carbohydrates. I’m a big fan of brown rice. It’s very inexpensive and reheats well with a little moisture in the microwave. You can purchase the rice dry (this is the most affordable way, but you’ll need to cook up a big batch once a week), or pre-cooked in microwavable bags or containers. Brown rice grits, corn grits, cream of wheat, and oats all make quick, microwavable portions of carbs. Whole grain tortillas take 15 seconds to heat in the microwave and can be used as a wrap or side-dish. Whole grain breads, sugar-free whole wheat cereal, canned beans, hummus, and sweet potatoes (not in syrup) are all fast and affordable.

7. Drink water. It’s free, it’s everywhere, it has no calories. Water is the healthiest fluid source available, so make use of it. To save money, you can re-use plastic water bottles by refilling them with tap water. If your tap water doesn’t taste great, a squirt of fresh lemon or lime juice (along with keeping it colder) should solve the problem. Sugary sodas, juices, and energy drinks should be limited. Club soda, sparkling water, or diet sodas are a better choice if you are craving carbonation. Skim milk, almond, rice, or soy milk are healthy options as well.

8. Buy in bulk. So now that we have broken down the healthy, affordable diet into its four components and fluids – it’s time to stock up! Buying large quantities of your favorite non-perishable items can save money. Consider cost-sharing with another family, coupon-clipping, and price-shopping. Some items that you normally don’t think of as frozen goods actually store very well in the freezer – bread, tortillas, nuts, and bananas for example can last for months in the freezer. For a review of the best grocery items to buy in bulk, see this slide show.

9. Skip the organic food. Organic products are very expensive and do not provide a significant nutritional advantage over regular foods. You may wish to buy organic food to support your local farmers or because the items are fresher-looking or their packaged goods may have fewer preservatives or added ingredients, but don’t spend your last penny on organic foods because you think it’s the only way to keep your kids well-nourished. As far as reducing your potential exposure to pesticides, organic foods may reduce pesticide exposure by 30%, not exactly the “pesticide-free” level that some would lead you to believe. Most experts (including the FDA) agree that the amount of potential pesticide residue found on fresh fruit and vegetables is too low to pose a significant risk human health. Washing fresh produce with soap and water, or removing the skin, can further reduce levels if you have concerns.

10. Don’t waste money on vitamins and supplements. Although it seems like a good idea to provide your children with extra vitamins in pill-form, the majority of U.S. children and adults (according to large CDC nutrition studies) are not deficient in any vitamin or mineral. Our fortified food sources, even with sub-optimal diets, are doing a surprisingly good job of getting us all the nutrition we need. If your doctor has determined that you or a family member has a nutritional deficiency, then please follow their advice regarding supplementation. As for herbal supplements, be very careful of those since recent studies have shown that they often don’t contain the active ingredients on their labels and may even contain harmful allergens instead.

There are probably many other terrific ideas that you’ve discovered on the path to feeding your family quickly and affordably. Please share them on the blog so we can expand our creative meal planning together! I’ll be thinking of the Fit Family finalists as I enjoy my brown rice and green pepper chicken fajitas in my hospital microwave this week!

A Historical Review Of The Toilet And Its Contribution To International Sanitation Efforts

No Comments »

November 19 is International Toilet Day. That may sound funny, but it is a serious event. It is a day to contemplate what we have and others don’t. As we sit in privacy on our comfortable flush toilets today, it is hard to imagine that a scant two hundred years ago sewage disposal meant emptying chamber pots into the nearest convenient place, which was often the street.

If you were out for a walk in Britain in the 18th century and heard the cry “gardy-loo,” you had better scamper across the street because the contents of a chamber pot were set to be hurled your way from a window. The expression derives from the French “regardez l’eau” and was commonly heard as chambermaids carried out their duties. Some even suggest that the custom of a gentleman walking on the outside when accompanying a lady can be traced to the desire to protect the fair sex from the trajectory of the chamber pot’s contents.

What may be even harder to imagine than the sidestepping of flying fecal matter is that roughly a third of the world’s population today cannot easily sidestep the problems associated with exposure to untreated sewage because of a lack of access to a toilet. As a consequence, diarrheal disease is rampant, killing more children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. In developing countries a child dies every twenty seconds as a result of poor hygiene. Mahatma Gandhi recognized the problem when he proclaimed in 1925 that “sanitation is more important than independence.”

The invention of the flush toilet and the introduction of plumbing for sewage disposal mark two of the most significant advances in history. Let’s get one of the toilet myths out of the way right away. Contrary to numerous popular accounts, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet! It is easy to see how connecting his name with the invention would make for a compelling tale, but what we actually have here is a prime example of the classic journalistic foible, “a story that is too good to check.”

Almost all accounts of the Crapper saga claim that a 1969 book by Wallace Reyburn, cleverly titled “Flushed with Pride-The Story of Thomas Crapper” establishes Crapper as the inventor of the flush toilet. Reyburn actually says no such thing. The book is an entertaining celebration of the life and times of Crapper, the man who “revolutionized the nations’ water closets.” Indeed, that he did do. But flush toilets were around long before Thomas Crapper ever got into the game in the 19th century.

The first flush toilet appeared as early as 1700 B.C. The Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, built around that time featured a toilet with an overhanging cistern that dispensed water when a plug was removed. Curiously it would take another three thousand years until the next step in flushing technology was taken by Sir John Harrington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1596 Harrington installed a “water closet” in the Royal Palace that featured a pipe fitted with a valve connected to a raised water tank. Opening the valve released the water that would carry waste into a cesspool. Apparently the Queen was not overly pleased with the invention because odours from the cesspool wafted up into the Royal powder room. It would take another couple of centuries before this problem was addressed.

The first patent for a flushing toilet designed to keep sewer gases from seeping back was issued to Alexander Cummings in 1775. Cummings designed a system that allowed some water to remain in the bowl after each flush, preventing the backflow of odours. Joseph Bramah attempted to improve upon this system with a sophisticated valve that was supposed to seal the waste pipe after each flush. While it didn’t work perfectly, Bramah’s toilet was introduced at just the right time because London was beginning to install sewage systems. Some 6000 Bramah toilets soon dotted the city’s landscape. And then about a hundred years later, along came Thomas Crapper.

In 1861 the Thomas Crapper plumbing company opened for business in London. The time was ripe for the sale of plumbing supplies because the need for proper sanitation was being firmly established. A public report issued in the city of Leeds claimed a significantly higher death rate among children who lived in “dirty” streets where sewage flowed openly. And in 1854 physician John Snow had pinpointed the homes in London where someone had contracted cholera during an epidemic and traced the problem to water contaminated with sewage being dispensed from a pump in Broad Street. The need to flush away problems associated with sewage was becoming clear.

There is no question that Crapper made significant improvements in toilet technology. He invented a pull-chain system for flushing, and an air tight seal between the toilet and the floor. Crapper was also responsible for installing plumbing at Westminster Abbey where to this day visitors can view the manhole covers clearly displaying the name “Thomas Crapper Co.” What he was not responsible for was the introduction of the word “crap” into our vocabulary. That term meaning “refuse” predates Crapper by several centuries.

It is virtually impossible to attribute the numerous improvements in toilet technology since Crapper’s time to individuals. There are patents galore for eliminating overflow, reducing water usage, curbing noise, improving waste removal from the side of the bowl, devices to alert night time users if the seat is up and gimmicks to encourage men to aim properly. And the future may belong to toilets equipped with biosensors that automatically monitor urine and feces for health indicators such as sugar and blood. But for now, just think of the amazing technology that allows for the removal of the roughly 200 grams of poo we deposit per person per day. That’s a stunning 600,000 kilos in a city of three million!

So on November 19, as we get comfy on our high tech toilets, ready to flush away the remnants of a scrumptious meal, a roll of soft toilet paper and fragrant soap by our side, let’s give a thought to how we can help those unlucky enough to have been born in a place where “gardy-loo” still rings true.

***

Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society and teaches a variety of courses in McGill’s Chemistry Department and in the Faculty of Medicine with emphasis on health issues, including aspects of “Alternative Medicine”.  He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging.  Using stage magic to make scientific points is one of his specialties.

Latest Interviews

IDEA Labs: Medical Students Take The Lead In Healthcare Innovation

It’s no secret that doctors are disappointed with the way that the U.S. healthcare system is evolving. Most feel helpless about improving their work conditions or solving technical problems in patient care. Fortunately one young medical student was undeterred by the mountain of disappointment carried by his senior clinician mentors…

Read more »

How To Be A Successful Patient: Young Doctors Offer Some Advice

I am proud to be a part of the American Resident Project an initiative that promotes the writing of medical students residents and new physicians as they explore ideas for transforming American health care delivery. I recently had the opportunity to interview three of the writing fellows about how to…

Read more »

See all interviews »

Latest Cartoon

See all cartoons »

Latest Book Reviews

Book Review: Is Empathy Learned By Faking It Till It’s Real?

I m often asked to do book reviews on my blog and I rarely agree to them. This is because it takes me a long time to read a book and then if I don t enjoy it I figure the author would rather me remain silent than publish my…

Read more »

The Spirit Of The Place: Samuel Shem’s New Book May Depress You

When I was in medical school I read Samuel Shem s House Of God as a right of passage. At the time I found it to be a cynical yet eerily accurate portrayal of the underbelly of academic medicine. I gained comfort from its gallows humor and it made me…

Read more »

Eat To Save Your Life: Another Half-True Diet Book

I am hesitant to review diet books because they are so often a tangled mess of fact and fiction. Teasing out their truth from falsehood is about as exhausting as delousing a long-haired elementary school student. However after being approached by the authors’ PR agency with the promise of a…

Read more »

See all book reviews »