EN‘s Annual A-to-Z Guide to Better Health: Herbal Cures, South Beach and Coffee News

As 2004 comes to a close, EN takes a look back plus peeks into the future. Over this past year we?ve covered nutrition news as varied as the possible role of vitamin D in helping people with multiple sclerosis to the hidden health benefits in your morning cup of coffee. Here are some of this year’s highlights.



A high pollen count may not be the only reason for your chronic stuffed-up nose. Researchers in Italy have found that the relatively common food additive monosodium benzoate can trigger rhinitis (a runny nose and sneezing) even in people who don’t have other allergies. Where is monosodium benzoate found?  Fruit juice, fruit drinks, pie filling, pickles, olives, salad dressings, to name a few.  


Brain Boosters

To keep your brain healthy and sharp you?ve got to feed it well. Pay particular attention to B6, B12 and folic acid, which lower homocysteine levels (high homocysteine levels are related to cognitive impairment), as well as iron and zinc. And be sure to get enough vitamins C and E. Both vitamins fend off free radicals, which can damage brain cells. Finally, give yourself regular mental and physical workouts. Mental workouts stave off memory loss and physical activity increases blood flow to the brain.



Feeling guilty about drinking that morning or afternoon cuppa joe? New research suggests you don’t have to. Coffee may even have beneficial effects, like keeping diabetes at bay and reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease and Parkinson’s disease. Though not a prescription to start upping your java intake’there is still some controversy brewing? those who regularly take coffee breaks can rest easier, particularly if intake is moderate, say a cup or two a day.         


Vitamin D

Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin because its production is triggered by a chemical reaction in the skin with the help of sunlight. In the body, it’s best known for partnering with calcium to build strong bones and to prevent osteoporosis. Adequate intakes prevent muscle weakness, curb colon cancer and may even decrease the risk of multiple sclerosis.  Unfortunately, half of all Americans are chronically deprived of D. To get what you need, drink D-fortified milk and orange juice, get 5 to 10 minutes of unprotected sun every day and take a multivitamin with 400 International Units (IU) or more of D (600 IU for older people). But don’t exceed 2,000 IU of D daily.



First eggs were bad, then good, then bad again. What’s the deal? Not long after the American Heart Association gave this food the green light, a Japanese study linked eggs to higher death rates in women. Despite these seemingly dire findings, which the egg industry denounced for faulty statistics, the majority of research supports eggs as a healthy food that has only a marginal impact on blood cholesterol and, hence, heart disease. An egg a day is still okay.



Now there’s another reason to avoid sugary drinks like sodas and fruit drinks: diabetes. A four-year follow-up of women in the Nurses? Health Study who drank just one soda a day found they not only gained weight, but their risk of diabetes more than doubled compared to those who drank less than one soda a week. Experts blame high intakes of high-fructose corn syrup, the main sweetener in sodas. The World Health Organization recommends no more than 10% of your day’s calories come from such added sugars.



Healthy gums give you more than just a great smile; they can protect you from heart disease, stroke and respiratory illness too. A Swedish study found chronic infection of the gums, or periodontal disease (PD), lowers high density lipoproteins (HDL’s) and raises C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation. PD may even lead to lung infections.  Poor diet and obesity are among the factors to blame. EN‘s advice for keeping your gums in the pink: Follow a healthy, high-fiber diet; take a multivitamin; stay physically active.


Herbal First Aid

Tired of resorting to pills when you?re not feeling up to par? Maybe you need to take an herbal approach. Many herbal teas, tinctures and extracts have proved to be safe and effective for common minor ailments. Ginger is used to treat motion sickness, licorice for a cough and sore throat, peppermint for relief from gas or bloating and chamomile tea for indigestion. There are times when a well-stocked herbal medicine cabinet may be just what the doctor ordered.   



Inflammation, the body’s normal defense mechanism in response to a cut, a  bruise or an infection, may be responsible for more than just redness and swelling. Researchers think chronic low-grade inflammation inside the body can lead to insulin resistance, heart disease, arthritis and cancer. Overeating, especially of fatty foods, triggers this response, as does consumption of trans fatty acids. On the other hand, small meals, omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood plus vitamins C and E help keep inflammation under control.


Joint Disease

There are plenty of ways to reduce the aches and pains of joint diseases like arthritis. Exercise is important, of course, along with a healthy diet rich in vitamin D, calcium, seafood, fiber and fruits and vegetables. You can also take a supplement of glucosamine and chondroitin. Based on a recent National Institutes of Health study, such supplements significantly improve function in people with osteoarthritis. Beware, however, because quality varies. Read labels and look for 1,500 milligrams of glucosamine plus 800 to 1,200 milligrams of chondroitin. Osteo Bi-Flex (Rexall), Cosamin DS (Nutramax) and TripleFlex (Nature Made) are all recommended by EN.



When it comes to nutritional prowess, kasha excels. Another name for the roasted kernels of buckwheat groats (buckwheat without the inedible hull), kasha has a pleasant nut-like flavor and is an excellent substitute for rice or pasta. It  is rich in complex carbohydrates, fiber and manganese and is a good source of the phytonutrients rutin and quercetin, not to mention minerals like copper, selenium and zinc. In supermarkets, kasha can be found in the rice, cereal or ethnic food aisle.



In a study of veterans with age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in older Americans, those taking a lutein supplement showed significant improvement in vision. If you want healthy eyes, focus on spinach, kale and other leafy greens, which are loaded with the natural antioxidant lutein.


Metabolic Syndrome

The Mediterranean diet has lots of proven health benefits. Now we can add one more to the list: alleviating metabolic syndrome, a condition characterized by excess fat around the abdomen, elevated blood lipids, high blood pressure and abnormal blood sugar. In a recent Italian study, the Mediterranean diet lessened metabolic syndrome in 45% of people following the diet, while the condition abated in only 15% of those not on the diet. If you want to stay healthy, opt for the Mediterranean way, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil, nuts and whole grains.



An emerging new field, nutrigenomics combines the science of molecular biology and genetics with nutrition and health. Rather than have our genes dictate our nutritional destiny, in the future we may be able to tailor our diets specifically to make the most of our unique genetic make-up.   


Organic Junk Foods

Organic foods are grabbing the attention of corporate giants like Heinz, General Mills and Kellogg. Unfortunately, many of them have begun to churn out organic junk food. Although organic candy or potato chips may be better for you than their nonorganic counterparts, they still lack nutritional value. Look past the organic label to the Nutrition Facts label and the product itself, then make your decision. 


Phytonutrients and Fat

If you want to get the most phytonutrients from your salad, you may need to add a little fat. A small study from Iowa State and Ohio State Universities found that absorption of the phytonutrients alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and lycopene rose significantly when reduced-fat dressings were used. Fat-free dressings came in at virtually zero absorption, while full-fat dressings resulted in the highest absorption. The reason: Carotenoids dissolve only in fat. So the next time you toss a salad, add olive oil or avocado oil for health as well as flavor.     


Quality Seal

The new USP (United States Pharmacopeia) seal on some dietary supplements is a step in the right direction, albeit a small one. The voluntary seal attests to contents, purity, disintegration and good manufacturing practices.  What it doesn’t do is tell whether the product is effective or is safe for you (some supplements are contraindicated for certain conditions). Other certification seals are also on the market, but none assure effectiveness or safety.


Regulate Appetite

Everyone knows breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Here’s one more reason why: Skipping breakfast may cause you to overeat late at night. A recent study showed that people who ate breakfast ate fewer calories during the day than those who skipped the a.m. meal. And the more calories eaten in the evening, the larger the day’s total calorie intake. Researchers think satiety, the mechanism that tells you to stop eating, is more effective in the morning than at night. 


South Beach Diet

Of all the wildly popular low-carb diets, South Beach (or SoBe) is the one to try. Developed by a Florida cardiologist, it is based on the glycemic index, which ranks foods by how much they raise blood sugar levels. Unlike other low-carb diets, SoBe differentiates between highly processed carbs and healthy, high-fiber ones. Rather than favoring all fats, this diet focuses on unsaturated fats like olive oil, canola oil and fatty fish. While not perfect (the book ignores exercise), it is one of the most sensible of the low-carb genre.


Tai Chi

Tai chi is an ancient form of Chinese martial arts. Rather than kicking and punching, it calls for slow rhythmic movements, requiring concentration, balance and coordination. While tai chi offers many physical and mental health benefits, it is particularly helpful with balance. One study from the University of Alabama found it made frail older people 40% less likely to fall than their counterparts who did not practice tai chi. It also improves flexibility, posture, agility and self-confidence.



Vitamin B12 absorption naturally declines with age, but if you have an ulcer, it declines even faster. That’s because B12 uptake is impaired by H. pylori,  the bacteria responsible for most ulcers. Regular use of Pepcid and other acid blockers only compounds the problem. The solution: Get six micrograms of B12 in its synthetic and most absorbable form from fortified cereals or in a basic multivitamin everyday.  


Veggie Burgers

Looking for an alternative to beef burgers? Veggie burgers are made to order. Compared to ground beef, they contain significantly less saturated fat and some offer high-quality soy protein as well as a good dose of fiber. Now you can find a variety of flavored versions like black bean or feta, which can turn even meat eaters into converts. Just beware of sodium levels, which can creep up as high as 700 milligrams per burger; look for those that provide no more than 400 milligrams each.


Weight Loss

Weight-loss diets come and go, but the best method is still the tried and true old-fashioned way: Reduce portion sizes, exercise regularly and eat balanced meals.  Even cutting fat is not the holy grail of weight loss it was once thought to be. In a study funded by the Peanut Institute, two groups were assigned weight-loss diets, one high in monounsaturated fats (33% fat) and one low (18% fat). After six weeks, both groups lost 15 pounds and lowered total cholesterol and low-density lipoproteins (LDL’s), the bad cholesterol. But, the low-fat group also lowered high-density lippoprotein (HDL’s), the good choles­terol.The moral? It pays to add a bit more good fat to your diet.



Xylitol is a ‘sugar alcohol.? Manufacturers use it because it adds bulk and sweetness to foods, with only about half the calories of sugar. And foods with sugar alcohols can be labeled ‘sugar-free.? Xylitol in sugarless gum and hard candy has an extra perk?it stimulates saliva flow, suppressing cavity formation and flushing away food particles and dead cells that can cause bad breath.



Cultured milk products like yogurt are an important source of vitamins and minerals; they may also fight disease. In a recent animal study with arthritic rats, those fed yogurt had considerably less inflammation than those not given yogurt. The bacterial cultures in yogurt may have anti-inflammatory properties. Another recent study linked cultured milk to lower blood pressure in men and women, reducing the risk of stroke.



It wasn’t too long ago that zinc lozenges hit the market promising to reduce the severity and duration of the common cold. Unfortunately, despite zinc’s crucial role in immunity, most lozenges haven’t lived up to expectations. Now a new form of zinc, a nasal gel, claims to fill the bill.  Recent research from the Cleveland Clinic found zinc nasal gel kept cold symptoms at bay. Only time will tell if this kind of zinc will be more effective than the lozenges.


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