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New Dietary Guidelines Give Little New Guidance

There isn’t much new in the latest iteration of the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” Three years in the making, the 2010 guidelines (released a tad late, on January 31, 2011) offer the usual advice about eating less of the bad stuff (salt; saturated fat, trans fats, and cholesterol; and refined grains) and more of the good stuff (fruits and vegetables; whole grains; seafood, beans, and other lean protein; and unsaturated fats). I’ve listed the 23 main recommendations below. You can also find them on the “Dietary Guidelines” website.

The guidelines do break some new ground. They state loudly and clearly that overweight and obesity are a leading nutrition problem in the United States, and that a healthy diet can help people achieve a healthy weight. They also ratchet down sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day (about two-thirds of a teaspoon of salt) for African Americans and people with high blood pressure or risk factors for it, such as kidney disease or diabetes. But the guidelines also leave the recommendation for sodium at 2,300 milligrams a day for everyone else, a move that the American Heart Association and others call “a step backward.”

Vague language spoils the message

One big problem with the guidelines is that they continue to use the same nebulous language that has made previous versions poor road maps for the average person wanting to adopt a healthier diet.

Here’s an example: The new guidelines urge Americans to eat less “solid fat.” What, exactly, does that mean — stop spooning up lard or Crisco? No. Solid fat is a catchphrase for red meat, butter, cheese, ice cream, and other full-fat dairy foods. But the guidelines can’t say that, since they are partly created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture USDA), the agency charged with promoting the products of American farmers and ranchers, which includes red meat and dairy products. “Added sugars” is another circumlocution, a stand-in for sugar-sweetened sodas, many breakfast cereals, and other foods that provide huge doses of sugar and few, or no, nutrients. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Head Lice: FDA Approves New Treatment

Good news for parents, teachers, pediatricians, and others engaged in the ongoing battle against lice: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just approved a new treatment for head lice in children age four and older. Called Natroba, it’s a liquid that is rubbed into the hair and allowed to sit for 10 minutes before being rinsed off. Natroba is a useful addition to the anti-lice arsenal, since some head lice have become resistant to permethrin and pyrethrins, the active ingredients in over-the-counter anti-lice products such as Nix and Rid.

Head lice are tiny insects that go by the big name Pediculus humanus capitis. They thrive in the warm tangle of human hair, feeding off blood in the scalp and breeding with abandon. A female lays eggs called nits that she attaches to strands of hair. Nits hatch after about eight days, become adults in another week or so, feed for awhile, then begin to make more lice.

CDC photo of the stages of the life of a head louse, with a penny for size comparison.

What To Do

First off, here’s what not to do: Don’t shave your or your child’s head, or coat it with petroleum jelly or mayonnaise or anything else designed to “suffocate” the parasite. You’ll probably end up with greasy, smelly, lice-infested hair.

Current guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics call for the use of an over-the-counter product containing permethrin or pyrethrins as a first salvo against head lice. Shampoos and rinses made with these substances are generally effective. Most treatments for head lice need to be used twice, seven to 10 days apart, along with combing wet hair with a fine-toothed nit comb. Some lice are resistant to pyrethrin and permethrin. Stronger prescription drugs, such as malathion and lindane, also work but aren’t as safe for humans. That’s where Natroba comes in. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

Shoveling Snow? How To Protect Your Heart

After shoveling the heavy, 18-inch layer of snow that fell overnight on my sidewalk and driveway, my back hurt, my left shoulder ached, and I was tired. Was my body warning me I was having a heart attack, or were these just the aftermath of a morning spent toiling with a shovel? Now that I’m of an AARP age, it’s a question I shouldn’t ignore.

Snow shoveling is a known trigger for heart attacks. Emergency rooms in the snowbelt gear up for extra cases when enough of the white stuff has fallen to force folks out of their homes armed with shovels or snow blowers. 

What’s the connection? Many people who shovel snow rarely exercise. Picking up a shovel and moving hundreds of pounds of snow, particularly after doing nothing physical for several months, can put a big strain on the heart. Pushing a heavy snowblower can do the same thing. Cold weather is another contributor because it can boost blood pressure, interrupt blood flow to part of the heart, and make blood more likely to form clots.

When a clot forms inside a coronary artery (a vessel that nourishes the heart), it can completely block blood flow to part of the heart. Cut off from their supply of life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients, heart muscle cells begin to shut down, and then die. This is what doctors call a myocardial infarction or acute coronary syndrome. The rest of us call it a heart attack.

The so-called classic signs of a heart attack are a squeezing pain in the chest, shortness of breath, pain that radiates up to the left shoulder and down the left arm, or a cold sweat. Other signs that are equally common include jaw pain, lower back pain, unexplained fatigue or nausea, and anxiety. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

“Just In Case” Heart Tests: Can They Do More Harm Than Good?

Here’s an important equation that all of us — doctors include — should know about healthcare, but don’t:

More ≠ Better

“More does not equal better” applies to diagnostic procedures, screening tests meant to identify problems before they appear, medications, dietary supplements, and just about every aspect of medicine.

That scenario is spelled out in alarming detail in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Clinicians at the Cleveland Clinic describe the case of a 52-year-old woman who went to her community hospital because she had been having chest pain for two days. She wasn’t having symptoms of a heart attack, such as shortness of breath, unexplained nausea, or a cold sweat, and her electrocardiogram and other tests were fine. The woman’s doctors concluded that her chest pain was probably due to a muscle she had pulled or strained during her recently begun exercise program to lose weight.

To “reassure her” that she wasn’t having a heart attack, the emergency department team recommended she have a CT scan of her heart. This noninvasive procedure can spot narrowings in coronary arteries and other problems that can interfere with blood flow to the heart. When it showed a suspicious area in her left anterior descending artery (a key artery nourishing the heart), she underwent a coronary angiogram. This involves inserting a thin wire called a catheter into a blood vessel in the groin and deftly maneuvering it into the heart. Once in place, equipment on the catheter is used to make pictures of blood flow through the coronary arteries. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

A Chia Pet For Diabetes?

Like swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano in the spring, Chia Pets begin appearing every December on late-night television and in the gift aisles of many stores. (Full disclaimer: I bought one for the Yankee Swap at Harvard Health Publication’s annual Christmas party.) Water these ceramic figures and they sprout a green “fur” from seeds embedded on the surface. Silly? Sure, that’s why they are such a hit. What you might not know is that the seeds may someday be a real gift for people with diabetes.

Chia seeds come from a plant formally known as Salvia hispanica, which is a member of the mint family. It gets its common name from the Aztec word “chian,” meaning oily, because the herb’s small, black seeds are rich in oils. It was a staple food for the Aztecs, and legend has it that their runners relied on chia seeds for fuel as they carried messages one hundred or more miles in a day. Chia seeds contain more healthy omega-3 fats and fiber than flax or other grain seeds. They are also a good source of protein and antioxidants. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

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