Category Archives: Weekly Research Update

This Week in Food, Health, and Fitness

This week, read about how coffee drinkers live longer, anti-odor exercise apparel, how strong legs predict a healthier brain, the Mediterranean diet and breast cancer, healthful holiday baking, and a preview of Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story.

coffee_© Vincent Mo_LatteCoffee drinkers may live longer. Although many people believe that coffee drinking is a bad habit, a growing body of research is showing that coffee can be good for health.  A new study published this week in the journal Circulation adds to this evidence. Researchers from Harvard University studied long-term coffee-drinking habits (3 decades) in three large prospective cohorts that included 208,500 men and women. They found that coffee drinkers lived longer, and had a lower risk of heart disease and neurological conditions. Other research has linked coffee drinking to reduced risk of diabetes, several types of cancer, and neurological conditions including Parkinson’s, MS, and Alzheimer’s. A prospective study such as this can’t prove cause and effect, but given the large body of evidence that corroborates these findings, further research into coffee drinking is warranted. (WebMD reporting on Circulation, Nov. 2015).

What’s the deal with anti-odor exercise apparel? Some high-tech workout clothes have anti-odor properties derived from silver-based compounds and chemical treatments. Grist takes a look at the effectiveness and potential environmental impact of these compounds.  (Grist).

Powerful Female LegsMuscle fitness predicts cognitive aging The link between physical fitness and brain health is an exciting area of research, and this longitudinal study adds the body of literature showing that what’s good for the body is good for the brain.  Researchers studied 10-year health and fitness data of 162 female twin pairs, using leg power as an objective measure of fitness. Women with the most powerful legs 10 years earlier had better thinking and memory skills than their weaker counterparts, and brain scans revealed healthier brains in women with strong legs. (Gretchen Reynolds, reporting on Gerontology, Nov 2015).

nutsEating nuts can lower cardiovascular disease risk.  Nuts contain healthy fats that are associated with favorable blood lipid profiles.  In this meta-analyis, researchers looked at 61 studies that examined the effect of tree nuts on blood lipids (tree nuts include walnuts, pistachios, macadamia nuts, pecans, cashews, almonds, hazelnuts, and Brazil nuts).  They found that tree nut consumption was linked to blood markers associated with lower heart disease risk (lower total cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL cholesterol, and ApoB). The greatest effect was linked with consuming 60 grams of nuts or more daily (60 g nuts is equivalent to about 15 walnut halves). (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition).

Cheerios Protein Healthwashing.  Research shows that many people could benefit from eating more protein in the morning. Cheerios has a new cereal – Cheerios Protein – but don’t be fooled, since it is not a healthy breakfast option. It might be considered a dessert, as it has 17 times more sugar than regular Cheerios.  And although it advertises that it contains 11 grams of protein, 4 of those grams come from the milk. (Center for Science in the Public Interest).

READ  How Much Protein Do You Need?

Why foods that make you fart can be a good thing. New research into the gut microbiome (the bacteria in your intestine) suggests that producing gas means that your body is hosting beneficial bacteria. Resistant starch appears to be a beneficial food component that offers cancer and disease protection. Beans and legumes are one of the best sources of resistant starch.

Mediterranean Diet FoodsMediterranean diet, olive oil & breast cancer risk.  Another study adds to the growing evidence that eating a Mediterranean-style diet helps prevent disease. In this study (Predimed), women eating a Mediterranean diet reduced post-menopausal breast cancer risk by 51% compared to women in a control group.  Karen Collins of the American Institute for Cancer research takes an in-depth look at this study, explaining how research typically characterizes Mediterranean-style diets by the amount of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, whole grains, with olive oil as the primary source of added fat,  and limited red meats or processed meats. The Predimed study found that olive oil consumption offered additional protection against cancer.  Collins suggests that it’s possible that studies linking greater olive oil consumption with lower cancer risk may be “because olive oil use tends to go hand in hand with an overall healthy pattern that involves eating more vegetables and other healthful plant foods” and stressed that it’s important that increased olive oil consumption doesn’t increase overall calories, as being overweight is an established risk factor for breast cancer. (Karen Collins, reporting on JAMA Internal Medicine, Nov 2015.)

sugarsA day’s worth of sugar in a single good.  The current recommended sugar intake for average individuals is about 12.5 teaspoons of sugar daily (average individuals are unfortunately sedentary, which exacerbates the effects of sugar; if you’re active you can get away with eating more sugar). For an overall healthy diet, it’s a good idea to reduce sugar intake, especially when you’re not moving your muscles. This article shows surprising foods that have over 12 teaspoons of sugar . . . and most of them aren’t even desserts! (The Atlantic).

Pumpkin Spice Bread_Evan_small
Healthy Pumpkin Spice Bread

Healthful holiday baking.  I do believe it is possible to produce great-tasting baked goods that are healthier than the typical holiday fare.  Some smart ingredient substitutions can reduce the sugar, fat, and calories and add a bit of nutrition to traditionally empty calories. Leslie Beck offers some clever substitutions in Globe and Mail column (a year old, but still relevant!). Also check out the baked goods in my recipe section.

READ  Ginger Bars with Chocolate

Healthy Or Hype Gluten FreeNew in my Healthy or Hype Series: Gluten-Free Diets. There is certainly a lot of hype about gluten-free diets.  In terms of diet trends assessed by Google,  “gluten-free diet” searches have risen dramatically over the last 10 years.  Gluten-free/grain-free diet books remain bestsellers.  And along with the interest is a multi-million dollar industry catering to the growing demand for gluten-free products.  But will going gluten-free benefit your health?

Canadian filmmakers feast for 6 months on discarded food.  Did you know we are throwing out about 50% of food produced? Jen Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin stopped grocery shopping and set a rule that they would only consume food in the trash (or destined to be thrown out). They document their experiment of eating discarded food in their documentary Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story. (NPR).

Be sure to check out their website, which has educational materials and more.  Here is the movie trailer:

Just Eat It – A food waste story (Official Trailer) from Grant Baldwin on Vimeo.








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This Week in Food, Health, and Fitness

This week, learn more about headlines linking processed meat to cancer, why sugar’s not toxic, race starts that give some sprinters an unfair advantage, Gary Player’s fitness tips, maintaining swimming speed as you age, how stress makes you sick, and more.

Cooked bacon stripsProcessed meat and cancer – what you need to know.  This week, the World Health Organization classified red meat and processed meats as carcinogens.  Bold headlines put meats in the same category as cigarettes and created plenty of confusion.  As someone who’s been involved in cancer and diet research for over 20 years, the link between red meats, processed meats, and cancer is nothing new.  Unlike many headlines, this is not one study but reflects decades of research.  Cancer Research UK does a great job explaining the WHO classification, and puts this information in perspective, and their article is worth reading.  Here is their summary:

“So if you’re someone who has a very meaty diet, and you’re worried about cancer, you may want to think about cutting down. That doesn’t mean you need to start stocking up on tofu, unless you want to, it just means trying to eat smaller and fewer portions, or choosing chicken or fish instead. As we said above, there’s no strong evidence linking fresh white meats such as chicken, turkey, or fish to any types of cancer.

So our advice on diet stays the same: eat plenty of fibre, fruit and vegetables; cut back on red and processed meat, and salt; and limit your alcohol intake. It might sound boring but it’s true: healthy living is all about moderation.”

Why Do People Favor Opinion Over Scientific Evidence? This is something that frustrates me to no end, so understanding what’s going on might make me more tolerant! Keith E. Stanovich (University of Toronto) explains the kind of thinking and brain regions involved when faced with a complex problem: type 1 (least tiring cognitive process) vs type 2 thinking (slower, processes environmental cues).  It can be difficult for many to ignore persuasive opinions, especially for those untrained in science who have trouble objectively evaluating evidence: these people often default to type 1 thinking.  Stanovich argues that we can override a tendency toward type 1 thinking by practicing scientific thinking “to the point of automaticity, eventually making it our go-to option.” (Scientific American)

sugarsIs sugar toxic?   A new study published in the journal Obesity this week received much press proclaiming the extreme dangers of sugar.  In the small study, researchers reduced the sugar in the diets of obese children, and replaced it with starch, which led to improvements in metabolic health in 10 days.  The study provides new evidence related to sugar consumption and metabolic health in obese children, but should be interpreted with caution because it has many methodological flaws,  as outlined here and here (i.e., no control group, study participants lost an average of 2 pounds in just 10 days –  weight loss typically leads to metabolic improvements, so you can’t attribute outcomes to the decreased sugar intake). (Obesity, October 2015).

Many people do consume too much sugar and would be better off cutting down, but extremely restrictive diets aren’t necessary and often backfire.  Also, studies investigating sugar and carbohydrate intake don’t often rigorously evaluate physical activity, which can have a dramatic influence on how the body metabolises carbohydrates and sugars.  (I often think it’s not that we eat too many carbs or too much sugar, it’s that most people don’t move enough!).  Bodies that move are much better equipped to handle sugars: when diabetics exercise, they require less insulin to control their blood sugar; endurance athletes rely on sugar to fuel fast performances.  Here are two good articles on the topic:

Women Run 200mW At Josef Odlozil Memorial In Prague 14June2010 064 Pub DomainRace starts could give some athletes an unfair advantage.  A typical race start is . .


A new study shows that the Gap between the ‘R of the ready’ and the ‘B of the bang of a gun or horn can be the difference between 1st and 5th in a sprint race. The gap between the initial cue and the starting signal varies depending on the starter, and varies between different heats. Racers in heats that are held longer between the Ready and the Starting cue are at a disadvantage. The researchers advocate for a computerized fixed ready-start interval.  (Frontiers in Psychology, October 28 2015).

fad_diet_shutterstock_81459505 (640x427)The science is clear: most diets don’t work. Julia Beluz ( looks at a systematic review and meta-analysis published this week that assessed the effectiveness of low-fat diet vs higher fat-diet on weight loss. Investigators looked at 53 studies and found that typical weight loss  was about 5-7 lbs over 1 year, a loss not clinically significant given the intensity of most interventions, and starting weights of the obese participants. The lead investigator is quoted “people need to look beyond restricting certain macronutrients (like fat or protein or carbohydrates) and instead try to incorporate healthy foods into their diets.”

Although many press reviews of this study boast headlines like Time Magazine’s  “Don’t Cut Fat if You Want to Lose Weight”, given that the higher fat diet had only a slight edge (1-2 lbs) over the lower fat diet, the Vox article offers a better interpretation and significance of the research.  Obesity expert Yoni Freedhoff offers a similar perspective in a series of tweets here.

READ  Thinking of Trying a New Diet?

Gary Player’s 10 fitness tips for tearing it up even after 80 years old.  Exercise physiologist Micheal Joyner looks and comments on seemingly ageless golfer Gary Player’s tips for fitness. (Sports Illustrated)

dumbbellLifting weights twice a week helps the brain. Strength training is a hard sell for older women, who tend to prefer walking as their form of exercise. Although any form of exercise is good, resistance exercise is much better for bone and muscle health, which deteriorates rapidly with aging if they aren’t stimulated. A new study reveals that strength training is also good for the aging brain. Researchers divided 65 to 75-year-old women into these 3 groups prescribed these routines for 1 year:

  1. flexibility and balance training
  2. strength training once a week; and
  3. strength training twice a week.

Brain scans revealed typical aging progression (number and size of white matter lesions) in groups 1 and 2, but the brains of women in group 3 who strength trained twice weekly looked much healthier and didn’t age as much. Their walking gate was also noticeably better than groups 1 and 2.  This study adds to the growing evidence of the benefits strength training for overall physical and mental health. (New York Times)

Dara Torres could still outsprint most competition in her 40's.
Dara Torres could still outsprint most competition in her 40’s.

Theoretical Reasons for Decreased Swimming Velocity with Aging other than Power Decline! As the age of elite swimmers continues to rise, explores reasons for declines in swimming performance with age unrelated to power.  They include the following:

  • decreased training volume/intensity;
  • decreased coaching on biomechanics;
  • decreased training intensity;
  • altered body (aka poor range of motion for performing biomechanics):
  • increased stress;  and
  • decreased sleep.

Mediterranean Diet FoodsThe Mediterranean diet: Is it the food or the lifestyle? A large body of research points to a Mediterranean-style diet as promoting good health. A Mediterranean diet typically focuses on plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains; healthy fats from nuts, seeds, and olive oil; moderate intake of fish and poultry, and low intake of dairy products, red meat, processed meats, and sweets. This eating plan can include many delicious foods, and is not restrictive.  A new movie explores other factors of a Mediterranean lifestyle that might contribute to good health such as savoring food and socializing over meals with friends and family, spending time outdoors getting fresh air, engaging in leisurely physical activity, and having low levels of chronic stress. (New York Times)

Keep in mind that documentaries are telling a story, and can be quite convincing but not necessarily objective: scientific studies are still the best tool we have to determine health benefits of various health behaviors.

Healthy Or Hype Protein PowderHealthy or Hype? Protein Powder

I added another article to my Healthy or Hype? Series this week, investigating protein powder, a supplement that is growing in popularity. I look at the evidence for protein powder health claims, safety, and the latest research investigating how much protein individuals need. You’ll also find an infographic that lists protein amounts in a variety of foods.

How stress makes you sick

The Atlantic profiles a terrific animated video by Sharon Bergquist, Emory University professor of medicine that explains how stress affects our body.

The final message bears repeating, so if you don’t watch the video to the end, here it is:

“Your life will always be filled with stressful situations, but what matters to your brain and entire body is how you respond to that stress. If you can view those situations as challenges you can control and master, rather than as threats that are insurmountable, you will perform better in the short run, and stay healthy in the long run.”


  • Sprint start photo by Erik van Leeuwen [GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Swimmer Dara Torres By Bryan Allison (This file was derived from:  Dara Torres 2.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons


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This Week in Food, Health, and Fitness

This week, read about how wind resistance affects performance in cycling and running, Herbalife, Shakeology, new research on muscle cramps, nutritious foods you should stop throwing away, beet juice for high altitude, eating to heal sports injuries, dietary supplement regulation, and more.

Shakeology: Nutrition Scam & Waste of Money.  A look at the nutrition in the shake, and the multi-level marketing scheme. (Fooducate)

Herbalife. Dietitian Diana Chard provides a nice review of Herbalife, summing it up with “Herbalife is a company with a dubious sales model, selling questionable products (I’m being generous here) that’s run by a doctor with a clear lack of integrity. If you want soy nuts, go to the Bulk Barn. Don’t waste your money supporting a despicable company like Herbalife.” (Diana Chard, Bite My Words)

Find more News and Reviews of Popular Diets here.

Can reducing wind resistance improve your performance? Drag is a big deal in some sports. This week Alex Hutchinson looks at how professional cyclists are working on reducing drag without sacrificing power by making small adjustments that lead to considerable gains in performance. (Globe and Mail).  He also goes further in his Runners’ World column wondering how much drag can influence running performance. While not as pronounced as cycling because of reduced speeds, drafting behind other runners has significant benefits, and swift runners (faster than 4:00/km) may see benefits with small adjustments, though this hasn’t been studied.  Other sports with faster speeds (i.e., cross country skiing) would likely see benefits from drag reductions (better tucks on downhills, maybe even hats instead of headbands with ponytails . . .).

Peeled ApplesNutritious foods you should stop throwing away. A lot of food waste happens at home. Beyond better purchasing and food storage, you can reduce your food waste by changing some eating habits.  This article offers good tips for celery leaves, apple peels, broccoli stalks, citrus rind, beet greens, and squash seeds.  (Washington Post)

Social media content may hold keys to important health information.  A new study shows that the language individuals use in their social media posts may have a strong connection to their health. (BMJ Quality & Safety, 2015).

Muscle Cramps and side stitches. . .

Two articles this week looked at muscle cramping – a frustrating experience for many athletes.

Is there a way to prevent muscle cramps during exercise?  Although many believe dehydration and sweating is at the root of most muscle cramps, the most recent studies don’t support this. Most new evidence points to fatigue and overexcited nerve endings as causing muscles to spasm. Strengthening and stretching the affected muscles are the current recommended treatments. (New York Times)

Can some foods prevent muscle cramps? Here is a list of 5 foods showing some evidence at reducing cramping, but the research isn’t solid, and it seems that the fatigue issue noted above in the New York Times article has more support. (Fooducate)

Some people call side stitches cramps, but this is likely a different phenomenon than a cramping calf or hamstring muscle. Clinically known as “exercise related transient abdominal pain,” this condition can be persistent and difficult to treat. Here’s a very thorough and recent review of the research,  and a popular press article based on this research on side stitches here. Side stitches are likely caused by irritation of the parietal peritoneum, a membrane that wraps around the center of your body and abdomen.

Though at this point the research isn’t clear, some recommendations include improving core stability and posture (especially in the thoracic region), integrating core strength into a warmup routine, and running tall for good posture.  (Some evidence suggests that side stitches are worse in cold-weather running races). Also avoiding large volumes of food/drink before might help – sports drinks might be best tolerated since athletes need the calories and carbs for their workout and they are well generally absorbed. If a stitch strikes during an event, deep belly breathing or pushing the affected area might help.


Supplements cause more than 23,000 ER visits a year. Although many consider supplements “natural” and “safe,” they are unregulated and many adverse side effects likely go unreported. A study this week in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that an estimated 23,000 emergency department visits in the US yearly are attributed to adverse events related to dietary supplements. (New England Journal of Medicine).

Why aren’t dietary supplements regulated? Here’s a great explanation.

Enter the rockstar scientist, exit trust in science.  This article comments on two scientists whose personal beliefs have led them to disregard evidence-based science (or any study that doesn’t support their view). Sarah Wild provides the example of Tim Noakes, a popular exercise physiologist, who endorses a very low carbohydrate diet (limiting daily carb intake to the equivalent of 1 apple) as the best diet for health, and supporting his views on social media with anecdotes that lack good science. Previously Noakes has been criticized for disregarding science (that doesn’t support his opinions), promoting his high-fat low-carb diet as evidence-based, and stating that a proven link between vaccines and autism have been covered up.

Can what you eat help heal sports injuries? Muscle and tendon injuries are common in athletes, and new studies are uncovering new rehabilitation and diet strategies that can help muscle and tendon heal faster.  Exercise physiologist Asker Jeukendrup summarizes evidence presented at a recent conference for muscle injury and tendon injury. (Asker Jeukendrup,

tomato_public domain_nci-vol-2642-72Increasing lycopene absorption.  Lycopene is an antioxicant compound belonging to carotenoid family that gives tomatoes, papayas, and watermelon a red hue. A large body of research has investigated lycopene for its health-promoting properties. Tomatoes are especially recognized for their lycopene content, and some research  suggests that eating tomato products can decrease inflammation, an important underlying contributor to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.   This article offers tips on increasing your body’s absorption of lycopene. Although many people believe “fresh is always best,” processing and heating actually improve lycopene absorption (think canned tomatoes/tomato sauces). So does eating tomatoes with fat – which makes olive oil and tomatoes a winning combination for more than taste! (American Institute for Cancer Research).

A placebo can make you run faster.  Another study reveals the power of the mind on athletic performance (Gretchen Reynolds, New York Times).

New study helps explain why eating disorders are so difficult to treat.  Although many people make poor food choices, anorexia nervosa is a serious illness where maladaptive food choices can lead to starvation. In a new study, researchers from UC San Diego look at the neural mechanisms underlying anorexia nervosa with brain scanning techniques, and show that brain circuits involved in habitual behavior might help explain the destructive choices. When presented with images of food, brain areas of women with anorexia were more involved than in women without anorexia, suggesting that anorexics weren’t weighing the pros and cons of the food, but choosing based on past experience.  The findings emphasize the importance of seeking treatment early. (Nature Neuroscience, October 2015).

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This Week in Food, Health, & Fitness

This week, read about exercise pills, the health benefit of tea, musicians and the cocktail party phenomenon, online buddies to promote fitness, iron and female athletes, canned vs fresh fish, a growing placebo effect, 4 kinds of anti-vaxers, a great pumpkin spice bread, and more.

Can “exercise pills” replace physical activity? Let’s hope not! While the thought of people taking pills that mimic the benefits of exercise is depressing, the article highlights that exercise has numerous molecular benefits that can help promote health and prevent chronic disease. Investigators outline compounds and the potential mechanisms  by which being active improves health.  (Cell, in press October 2015).

256px-Tea_in_different_grade_of_fermentationWhat are the potential health benefits of tea? Many studies have looked at the health-promoting benefits of tea drinking. This article is a nice review of the evidence. Overall it seems that tea is a healthful drink, but the benefits don’t rival those of coffee.  (New York Times Upshot).

How agriculture controls nutrition guidelines. Meat producers showed dominance over scientists this week, preventing discussion of sustainability of the US Dietary Guidelines. (The Atlantic)

Physical activity: more is better for heart failure prevention.  A new study shows that the recommended amount of physical activity (2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity/week) was associated with only a modest reduction in heart failure risk, and  higher levels of physical activity (up to twice the minimum recommended dose), are needed to reduce the risk of heart failure.  (Time, reporting on Circulation, October 2015).

Online buddies beat ads for promoting fitness.  An online social media intervention looks at the best ways to promote physical activity. Although promotional messages encouraged initial physical activity, the effects wore off. Program assigned “buddies” were much more effective at promoting long-term compliance.  (Preventive Medicine Reports, October 2015).

food sources of ironIron and the female athlete: a review of dietary treatment methods for improving iron status and exercise performance. This is a new thorough review article on iron needs and iron deficiency in female athletes.  It is still unclear whether the higher prevalence of iron deficiency in female athletes is the result of the intense physical activity or inadequate iron intake. The authors look at the impact of dietary iron interventions on exercise performance, but note that studies in female athletes are scarce.  (Journal of the International Society for of Sports Nutrition, Oct 2015).

For practical tips on increasing the iron in your diet, see this article.

Does canned fish like tuna and salmon have the same nutritional value as fresh fish? A good look at the advantages and disadvantages of canned vs fresh fish.   (New York Times).

The 4 kinds of people who don’t vaccinate their kids. To change the mind of anti-vaxers, it’s important to understand their reasoning.  New research classifies 4 different types of non-vaccinators, in the hopes of finding effective strategies to change their minds. (The Atlantic, reporting on Behavioral and Brain Sciences).

musicMusic and running: what if you can’t choose your tunes? Researchers looked at gender differences in endurance running performance when listening to preferred vs non preferred music. Not being able to choose your music had a great effect on women, but didn’t influence men’s running. (Perceptual and Motor Skills, October 2015).

Cocktail party phenomenon: Can musicians better understand speech in a crowded social setting? Scientists show that musicians have an enhanced ability to pick out voices in a crowded room, in most situations (except in an experimental setting when voices are played backwards . .  .).  Understanding these cognitive and sensory abilities might help design interventions or devices for people with hearing loss. (Nature Scientific Reports, June 2015).

HarperForeign scientists call on Stephen Harper to restore science funding, freedom. We need a leader who values science.  Vote for science!





Placebo effect grows in U.S., thwarting development of painkillers. Analgesics struggle to get through clinical trials as the response to sham treatments has become stronger. (Scientific American)

Getting the most out of what you do: your body’s strategyHow food and cooking can help teach fundamental concepts in physiology and biophysics to students (including nonscience majors). (I Spy Physiology Blog, reporting on Advances in Physiology Education, Sept 2015).

Pumpkin Spice Bread_Evan_smallRecipe – Pumpkin Spice Bread

This is one of my favourite quick bread recipes. It tastes great, is pretty healthful, and your house will smell incredible! In this recipe, I’ve used as much pumpkin as possible to produce a tasty and moist bread without the loads of oil or other fat that most recipes call for (which quickly adds to the calorie count without adding many nutrients).  More pumpkin also means you’ll get more of this healthful vegetable in every bite.


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