Poor diet is a factor in one in five deaths, global disease study reveals

Study compiling data from every country finds people are living longer but millions are eating wrong foods for their health

Poor diet is a factor in one in five deaths around the world, according to the most comprehensive study ever carried out on the subject.

Millions of people are eating the wrong sorts of food for good health. Eating a diet that is low in whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds and fish oils and high in salt raises the risk of an early death, according to the huge and ongoing study Global Burden of Disease.

The study, based at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, compiles data from every country in the world and makes informed estimates where there are gaps. Five papers on life expectancy and the causes and risk factors of death and ill health have been published by the Lancet medical journal.

It finds that people are living longer. Life expectancy in 2016 worldwide was 75.3 years for women and 69.8 for men. Japan has the highest life expectancy at 84 years and the Central African Republic has the lowest at just over 50. In the UK, life expectancy for a man born in 2016 is 79, and for a woman 82.9.

Diet is the second highest risk factor for early death after smoking. Other high risks are high blood glucose which can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure, high body mass index (BMI) which is a measure of obesity, and high total cholesterol. All of these can be related to eating the wrong foods, although there are also other causes.

causes of death graphic

This is really large, Dr Christopher Murray, IHMEs director, told the Guardian. It is amongst the really big problems in the world. It is a cluster that is getting worse. While obesity gets attention, he was not sure policymakers were as focused on the area of diet and health as they needed to be. That constellation is a really, really big challenge for health and health systems, he said.

The problem is often seen as the spread of western diets, taking over from traditional foods in the developing world. But it is not that simple, says Murray. Take fruit. It has lots of health benefits but only very wealthy people eat a lot of fruit, with some exceptions.

Sugary drinks are harmful to health but eating a lot of red meat, the study finds, is not as big a risk to health as failing to eat whole grains. We need to look really carefully at what are the healthy compounds in diets that provide protection, he said.

undernourishment graphic

Prof John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England, said the studies show how quickly diet and obesity-related disease is spreading around the world. I dont think people realise how quickly the focus is shifting towards non-communicable disease [such as cancer, heart disease and stroke] and diseases that come with development, in particular related to poor diet. The numbers are quite shocking in my view, he said.

The UK tracks childhood obesity through the school measurement programme and has brought in measures to try to tackle it. But no country in the world has been able to solve the problem and it is a concern that we really need to think about tackling globally, he said.

Today, 72% of deaths are from non-communicable diseases for which obesity and diet are among the risk factors, with ischaemic heart disease as the leading cause worldwide of early deaths, including in the UK. Lung cancer, stroke, lung disease (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) and Alzheimers are the other main causes in the UK.

The success story is children under five. In 2016, for the first time in modern history, fewer than 5 million children under five died in one year a significant fall compared with 1990, when 11 million died. Increased education for women, less poverty, having fewer children, vaccinations, anti-malaria bed-nets, improved water and sanitation are among the changes in low-income countries that have brought the death rate down, thanks to development aid.

People are living longer but spending more years in ill health. Obesity is one of the major reasons. More than a billion people worldwide are living with mental health and substance misuse disorders. Depression features in the top 10 causes of ill health in all but four countries.

Our findings indicate people are living longer and, over the past decade, we identified substantial progress in driving down death rates from some of the worlds most pernicious diseases and conditions, such as under age-five mortality and malaria, said Murray Yet, despite this progress, we are facing a triad of trouble holding back many nations and communities obesity, conflict, and mental illness, including substance use disorders.

In the UK, the concern is particularly about the increase in ill-health that prevents people from working or having a fulfilling life, said Newton. A man in the UK born in 2016 can expect only 69 years in good health and a woman 71 years.

This is yet another reminder that while were living longer, much of that extra time is spent in ill-health. It underlines the importance of preventing the conditions that keep people out of work and put their long term health in jeopardy, like musculoskeletal problems, poor hearing and mental ill health. Our priority is to help people, including during the crucial early years of life and in middle age, to give them the best chance of a long and healthy later life, he said.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/sep/14/poor-diet-is-a-factor-in-one-in-five-deaths-global-disease-study-reveals

The truth about superfoods

How hipster is seaweed? Are avocados actually a disaster for the environment? Do goji berries really make you live for ever? We examine the evidence

Few lies can be told in one word, but superfood manages it. It is such an appealing idea: that some foods are healthy, some unhealthy and some superhealthy. Why change your habits, when you can correct them by adding goji berries? Why settle for boring old good health, when chia seeds on your cereal can make you superhealthy? Little wonder that 61% of British people reported buying foods because they were supposed superfoods, according to a 2014 survey conducted by YouGov for Bupa.

Of course, there is always science talk, of omega-3s and glucosinolates and anthocyanins. Many of us may feel we understand the value of antioxidants that mop up the free radicals that damage our cells, causing ageing and cancer. Yet in 2011, the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa) reviewed the evidence and found no actual benefit to health. Indeed, as Ben Goldacre pointed out in his book Bad Science, the body actually uses free radicals to kill bacteria. Does that mean a surfeit of antioxidants might weaken your immune system? The point comes when you have to give up and ask a doctor. (A real one, not Gillian McKeith.)

The truth so unappealing is that nutrition is fabulously complex, different for everybody and mostly mysterious. We know that if you eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables and do regular exercise, nothing is a superfood. And if you dont, no superfood will save you.

Kale

Kale
Kale chips a superfood upgrade on crisps? Photograph: Redphotographer/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Currently one of the coolest superfoods around, kale is also one of the most perplexing. Isnt it just one of the greens people have been told to eat for about as long as they have had a choice? Certainly, you would struggle to find a less exotic vegetable. Kale has grown in northern Europe, and plenty of other places, for thousands of years. In wartime, it was one of the stolid, practical crops that people were advised to grow in their gardens. Along with cavolo nero and red Russian kale, it is one of many cultivars of the magnificent Brassica oleracea species, which also gives us cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi and brussels sprouts, and is closely related to turnips, bok choy and Chinese cabbage.

Kale
Kale. Photograph: jenifoto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Health benefits Well, we know that it is healthy to eat a diet containing plenty of vegetables, so really the question ought to be: is kale significantly better than the rest of them? And that is easy. No, it isnt. Fans of superfoods like to list the things that kale contains a lot of (iron, vitamins, fibre, antioxidants) and point out what those things do (make red blood cells; miscellaneous; help you poo; mop up free radicals/dont know), but that doesnt mean your body gets superpowers if you eat more than you need, especially if youre already getting enough from other sources. Its like trying to make your car go faster by putting in more petrol. All vegetables contain different amounts of vitamins and minerals, which also vary depending on the soil they are grown in, so there is not much point making them compete in a nutrient competition. Sure, by weight, typical kale contains more calcium, vitamin B6 and indeed calories than typical cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, spinach or carrots, but eating more of them will get you to the same place. Typical kale also contains less vitamin A than carrots, less iron, magnesium or potassium than spinach and less fibre than brussels sprouts. Big deal. No good evidence shows that eating plenty of fruit and vegetables with kale is any better than eating plenty of them without.

Eco rating Close to perfect you can grow it easily yourself (under a net to keep off the cabbage white butterflies).

Hipster rating Sky-high.

Stars in Crispy chips, colcannon, not-very-nice salads.

Avocado

Avocado
Avocado toast: an ecological disaster. Photograph: Vladislav Nosick/Getty Images/iStockphoto

A true delicacy, when just ripe, and now one of the most popular fruits in the US. (It is technically a fruit rather than a vegetable. Very technically, its a large berry.) So high is the demand for avocados, in fact, that the crop has recently caught the attention of Mexicos criminal gangs. To look at, use, and taste and, indeed, in its nutritional content avocado is certainly unusual. Whether it has superpowers is another matter.

Avocado:
Avocado. Photograph: FotografiaBasica/Getty Images

Health benefits The high fat content stands out immediately. It is monounsaturated fat, which helps to protect your cardiovascular system, but you can also get that from oily fish, nuts, uncooked olive oil, sunflower oil loads of things. And you should. As result, despite seeming so light and barely filling you up at all, avocados are hugely calorific. A whole one provides about 240 calories. (A Mars Bar provides 228.) An excellent way of getting fat by mistake is to go on a misguided avocado binge. A review of eight preliminary studies in 2013 found that eating hass avocados may benefit the cardiovascular system. However, this is far from established and, more importantly, the review was paid for by who else? the Hass Avocado Board. Currently, there are no good-quality independent systematic reviews of the effects of avocados on health. There have been reports that an extract of avocados might treat leukaemia, but the extract in question avocatin B comes from the seed in the middle, so youll get none from eating it.

Eco rating Not good, Im afraid. Deforestation to make way for avocado trees is now a problem in Mexico. Even those trees that already exist need a very large amount of water perhaps as much as 272 litres for every half-kilo of fruit (two or three avocados). In California, where there is a long-term water shortage, this is an even more serious problem. On top of all this, avocados are heavy, have to be shipped from the tropics and kept cool en route.

Hipster rating Low. So predictable.

Stars in Guacamole, avocado toast, milkshakes, ice-cream, prawn cocktail (dont knock it).

Pomegranates

Pomegranate
Pomegranate syrup with pomegranate seeds and prosecco. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

Pink, sweet, tasty and a little bit exotic, pomegranates are an easy fruit to like especially when someone has already juiced them for you and removed the seeds (which contain all the fibre, by the way). Grenadine, the red syrup you last saw at the bottom of a tequila sunrise in 1992, was traditionally made from sweetened pomegranate juice. It is often replaced with less expensive fruit these days, since no one really notices.

Pomegranates:
Pomegranates. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Health benefits In 2012, a US judge ordered POM Wonderful to stop making bold health claims for its products. As things stand, studies only hint at benefits for people with existing health problems. It has been suggested that drinking lots of pomegranate juice might help to reduce the artery damage caused by cholesterol and improve blood flow to damaged hearts, but the evidence is neither decisive nor well understood. There is also a very faint suggestion that it may slow the progress of prostate cancer. You will not be surprised to hear that there are lots of antioxidants in pomegranates (especially in the peel, which you cant eat), but that means exactly nothing until large doses of antioxidants, per se, are shown to improve peoples health.

Eco rating Pomegranate trees grow easily in hot places and manage well with limited water. Even so, the rush to get into the pomegranate business has left many central Indian farmers in trouble after years of inadequate rain.

Hipster rating Low, now that you can get it in washing-up liquid. Pomegranate molasses, which is basically sugar, is very cool.

Stars in Juice, couscous, and Persian, Indian and Pakistani stews.

Goji berries

Granola
Granola with goji berries: no healthier than any other fruit. Photograph: Elenathewise/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Once known as wolfberries, this fruit of the boxthorn has become highly prized, and fairly expensive, under its sort-of Chinese name. When fresh, the fruits look like pink, elongated grapes. When dried, they look like pink raisins. As such, they are very easy to snack on and mix into things. The Chinese herbalist Li Ching-Yuen was said to have lived for 197 (or even 256 years) on a diet high in goji berries, but didnt.

Goji
Goji berries. Photograph: Alamy

Health benefits Goji berries have played a big part in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, but dont take that as an endorsement. The best evidence suggests that traditional Chinese medicine, like traditional European medicine, was and is mostly a reassuring waste of time or actually harmful. Eating goji berries, or drinking the juice, almost certainly isnt bad for you, but there is simply no evidence that they do anything more useful than any other fruit. Studies claiming they treat cancer, heart disease and various other things have been tiny, badly run and generally based on large doses of goji extract that you couldnt possibly get by eating them normally.

Eco rating Fine. You can even grow your own, although most are shipped from China.

Hipster rating Good, especially if you can talk about how you grew them.

Stars in Juice, granola.

Chia seeds

Chia
Chia pudding: gloopy but good for you? Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images/Westend61

An obscure Central and South American seed with an ancient history and a weirdly high omega-3 content: chia seeds were destined to become a superfood long before anyone knew what, if any, good they did. They also behave quite excitingly in the kitchen, forming a gloopy kind of gel when mixed with liquids, which means you can use them to thicken drinks or even make strange jellies. Otherwise, you can scatter them on almost anything or grind them into a flour to bake with. They dont taste of very much.

Chia
Chia seeds. Photograph: Marek Uliasz/Alamy

Health benefits Chia seeds are all about the small print. Omega-3 fatty acids, in case you hadnt heard, are found in oily fish, and a broadly Mediterranean diet including oily fish seems to be a very healthy way to eat. One hundred grams of chia seeds contain about 17g of omega-3s, which is enormous about eight times as much as salmon. However the omega-3s in chia are different from the ones in fish, and your body turns the chia kind into the fish kind very inefficiently, meaning that you will actually absorb less, by weight about 1.8g per 100g, compared with 2.3g. Nor is it easy to eat a full 100g of chia seeds, which, by the way, also contain 486 calories, almost as much as a Big Mac. And however part two: why do you want to eat lots of omega-3s? Fish is definitely good for you, helping to protect against cardiovascular disease. (The government recommends two portions, one oily, a week.) But the evidence for omega-3s from other sources is vague, and there is little evidence to suggest health benefits for chia in particular.

Eco rating Certainly an ecological improvement on fish, if youre determined to get omega-3s from somewhere.

Hipster rating Getting a bit pass now.

Stars in Bread, granola bars, smoothies, weird jelly.

Beetroot

Beetroot
Beetroot salad: dont eat more than two beets a day. Photograph: MarynaVoronova/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Not long ago, beetroot was a relic. You would see mushy spheres of it sealed in plastic, maybe soaked in vinegar. Only old people still had a taste for beetroot, like condensed milk or tongue. Now, like so many relics, it is cool again, and deserves to be. Freshly roasted, or grated, or pickled (carefully), or juiced, it is one of the great vegetables. You can eat the leaves, which are basically chard, and the classic purple beetroot has the jolly side-effect of dyeing you, your plate, your kitchen and your excreta red for the rest of the day.

Beetroot:
Beetroot. Photograph: Melanie Major/Getty Images/Flickr RF

Health benefits As vegetables go, beetroot is a fairly unspectacular source of vitamins and minerals. (Not that this matters. See kale.) Yet, like many vegetables, it is rich in nitrates, which somehow manage to make it a superfood, a sports supplement and a health scare, all at the same time. The good part is that beetroot juice does seem to lower blood pressure, a little, probably because of the nitric oxides that your body converts nitrates into. In practice, this is is not much use, however. If your blood pressure needs to be lowered, you are much better off doing exercise, eating less salt and taking the drugs your doctor gives you. Other research suggests that drinking beetroot juice before exercise improves the endurance of casual athletes by allowing more oxygen to be delivered around the body (but has little effect on serious ones). When added to red meat, however, nitrates worry people, as they form nitrosamines, and do lead to an increased risk of bowel cancer (from about a 5.6% lifetime risk in people who eat almost none, up to about 6.6% in people who eat lots). It is possible that the nitrates in beetroot could also form nitrosamines in your body, so Efsa recommends eating no more than about two beetroots a day.

Eco rating Excellent. Grow it yourself.

Hipster rating High, given its traditional unpopularity.

Stars in Everything. Salt-baked slabs with cheese, pickled in a jar, julienned in a salad, juiced for breakfast You can even make beetroot cakes, or turn puddings pink with the dye.

Seaweed

Seaweed-wrapped
Seaweed-wrapped maki sushi: rich in vitamin B12. Photograph: Glow Cuisine/Getty Images

Seaweed is definitely having a moment right now. It plays a big part in east Asian food, especially in Japan, and also crops up in the Philippines and in Welsh laverbread which, in case youve never tried it, is very unlike bread. Given its weirdness to those not used to eating algae, it is surprising that seaweed hasnt had its moment sooner. It comes in many edible forms laver or nori (they are similar), kelp, sea grapes, dulse and plenty more. All are different, and some have special claims attached to them, but it is possible to generalise a bit.

Forget five a day, eat 10 portions of fruit and veg to cut risk of early death

Scientists say even just 2.5 portions daily can lower chance of heart disease, stroke, cancer and premature death

Five portions of fruit and veg a day is good for you, but 10 is much better and could prevent up to 7.8 million premature deaths worldwide every year, say scientists.

The findings of the study led by Imperial College London may dismay the two in three adults who struggle to manage three or four portions perhaps some tomatoes in a sandwich at lunchtime, an apple and a few spoonfuls of peas at dinner.

All of that is good because a daily intake of even 200g, or two and a half standard 80g portions, is associated with a 16% reduced risk of heart disease, an 18% reduced risk of stroke, a 13% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, 4% reduced risk of cancer and a 15% reduction in the risk of premature death.

But the study suggests we should be piling up platefuls of vegetables and raiding the fruit bowl every day if we want the best chance of avoiding chronic diseases or an early death.

We wanted to investigate how much fruit and vegetables you need to eat to gain the maximum protection against disease, and premature death. Our results suggest that although five portions of fruit and vegetables is good, 10 a day is even better, said Dr Dagfinn Aune, lead author of the research from the School of Public Health at Imperial.

Eating up to 800g of fruit and vegetables equivalent to 10 portions and double the recommended amount in the UK was associated with a 24% reduced risk of heart disease, a 33% reduced risk of stroke, a 28% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, a 13% reduced risk of total cancer, and a 31% reduction in premature deaths.

What does 800g look like?

And not all fruit and veg are created equal. Apples and pears, citrus fruits, salads and green leafy vegetables such as spinach, lettuce and chicory, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower were found to be best at preventing heart disease and stroke.

To reduce the risk of cancer, however, the menu should include green vegetables, such as green beans; yellow and orange vegetables such as peppers and carrots; and cruciferous vegetables.

The researchers did not find any difference between the protective effects of cooked and raw fruit and vegetables.

Fruit and vegetables have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and to boost the health of our blood vessels and immune system, said Aune. This may be due to the complex network of nutrients they hold. For instance they contain many antioxidants, which may reduce DNA damage, and lead to a reduction in cancer risk.

Compounds called glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, activate enzymes that may help prevent cancer. Fruit and vegetables may also have a beneficial effect on the naturally occurring bacteria in our gut, he said.

Toddler
Most people struggle to eat three or four portions a day, the study shows. Photograph: Simon Masters/Getty Images/Vetta

And it will not be possible to bottle the effects of fruit and vegetables or put them in a pill, he said. Forget the supplements. Most likely it is the whole package of beneficial nutrients you obtain by eating fruits and vegetables that is crucial to health, he said. This is why it is important to eat whole plant foods to get the benefit, instead of taking antioxidant or vitamin supplements (which have not been shown to reduce disease risk).

The analysis in the International Journal of Epidemiology pooled the results from 95 different studies involving a total of approximately 2 million people. They assessed up to 43,000 cases of heart disease, 47,000 cases of stroke, 81,000 cases of cardiovascular disease, 112,000 cancer cases and 94,000 deaths.

Aune said more research was needed, but it is clear from this work that a high intake of fruit and vegetables hold tremendous health benefits, and we should try to increase their intake in our diet.

Sarah Toule, from the World Cancer Research Fund, said: This interesting research shows just how incredibly important vegetables and fruit are as part of a healthy diet. In fact, theyre essential for maintaining a healthy weight, which our own evidence has shown reduces the risk of 11 common cancers.

People should aim to eat at least five portions of vegetables and fruit a day but the more the better. If people find this hard, why not start by adding an extra portion of fruit or veg a day to your lunch or try swapping one of your naughty snacks for a piece of fruit?

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/23/five-day-10-portions-fruit-veg-cut-early-death

A New Year resolution that’s good for you and the planet: stop eating meat

Raising beef cattle requires 160 times more land and causes 11 times more greenhouse gas emissions when compared to crops like wheat, rice or potatoes

Choosing to live a life with less in an eco-friendly way goes far beyond what you consume, what you drive or whether you use plastic bags. It can also be drastically affected by what you choose to eat or avoid eating, for that matter. Yep, you guessed it: Im talking about meat.

In addition to being an unapologetic hippie, a toy denier and one step away from joining a commune and singing Kumbaya, I am also vegetarian just like 4 million others in the UK, 7.3 million in the US, and 1.3 million in my home and native land of Canada.

As the rush of the Christmas season fades away and New Years Day rapidly looms, consider avoiding resolutions you wont keep (are you really going to the gym five times a week?) and try a meatless (or even meat-reduced) diet instead. You may find that the benefits work for you, just like they work for millions of others around the globe.

Why? A meatless diet boasts improved overall health, reduces grocery bills and provides a helpful boost to our struggling ecosystem. Ill readily admit, however, that turning my back on hot dogs and chicken breasts wasnt initially an environmental choice for me, but an ethical one. As a curious 18-year-old, I researched how a pig becomes a pork chop and it turned my stomach. I couldnt face the true cost of my diet the unimaginable cruelty, suffering and loss of life simply so I could enjoy a hamburger.

The horrifying conditions endured by the animals we eat is still the biggest motivating factor in my choice to be a vegetarian, but in the past few years the effects of a meatless diet have been shown to benefit far more than the collective consciences of bleeding hearts like me.

It turns out that raising animals for slaughter isnt just bad for the unlucky cows, pigs, chickens and lambs; studies are increasingly shown that it takes a drastic toll on the environment too. As a result, someone who eats a diet high in meat accounts for almost double the climate-killing carbon dioxide emissions of a typical vegetarian.

When you break it down further into environmental cost per calorie, the impact of beef, for example, is monstrous. Raising beef cattle requires 160 times more land and causes 11 times more greenhouse gas emissions when compared to crops like wheat, rice or potatoes (finally a reason to ditch the carb-free diet!).

The environmental benefits of eliminating or even reducing meat from your diet are compelling, but dont think you have to ditch the bacon for purely altruistic motives the benefits will quickly kick back to you too.

Numerous studies demonstrate that vegetarians have lower incidences of heart disease, lower BMI and lower blood pressure than their meat-eating counterparts. And according to the World Cancer Research Fund, if you stop eating red meat, youll also be avoiding the only convincing dietary association with colon cancer.

Of course, I can sit here spouting statistics all day demonstrating the benefits of a vegetarian diet to the environment and to you they certainly exist in spades but is that really likely to change your mind? Are numbers and percentage points enough to change how your dinner table looks after 30, 40 or 50 years?

Change can be terrifying, even when (or perhaps especially when) you know its good for you. For many, the idea of a table without meat simply looks like a whole lot of side dishes. Vegetables have long been relegated to boring lead-ups to the main event, middling sidekicks to beefy superheros delicious, maybe, but just not quite enough. And for men especially, giving up meat and labelling themselves a capital-V vegetarian feels so drastic, like adopting a whole new persona, or wearing a wild new wardrobe that doesnt quite fit.

If the thought of giving up meat whole-hog overwhelms you, dont feel like you need to go all-in right from the start. Try just dipping your toe in at first. As with all environmental endeavors, it pays to start small and keep it sustainable. The online world is rich with hearty, filling and scrumptious recipes with nary an ounce of meat required, so try just one or two meatless meals a week to start. A few of my favourites are black bean and spinach enchiladas, spaghetti squash chow mein, and an Asian quinoa slaw dish that is easily 10 times as good as the name makes it sound.

All of your tiny choices add up even decreasing your meat intake by just one less burger a week can result in the same environmental benefit as taking your car off the road for 320 miles.

You dont need to make drastic change in your life in order to create change in the world around you, and lady magazines be damned, you dont need a whole new you as we enter the new year.

Lets throw that nonsense out the window and settle for a few new traditions instead. A little less shopping here, a few more reusable bags there, a meatless meal on the table a few times a week and the knowledge that you are making a difference.

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/dec/15/new-year-resolution-stop-eating-meat-vegetarian

Eating cheese does not raise risk of heart attack or stroke, study finds

Consumption of even full-fat dairy products does not increase risk, international team of experts says

Consuming cheese, milk and yoghurt even full-fat versions does not increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke, according to research that challenges the widely held belief that dairy products can damage health.

The findings, from an international team of experts, contradict the view that dairy products can be harmful because of their high saturated fat content. The experts dismiss that fear as a misconception [and] mistaken belief.

The results come from a new meta-analysis of 29 previous studies of whether dairy products increase the risk of death from any cause and from either serious heart problems or cardiovascular disease. The study concluded that such foodstuffs did not raise the risk of any of those events and had a neutral impact on human health.

This meta-analysis showed there were no associations between total dairy, high- and low-fat dairy, milk and the health outcomes including all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease, says the report, published in the European Journal of Epidemiology.

Ian Givens, a professor of food chain nutrition at Reading University, who was one of the researchers, said: Theres quite a widespread but mistaken belief among the public that dairy products in general can be bad for you, but thats a misconception. While it is a widely held belief, our research shows that thats wrong.

Theres been a lot of publicity over the last five to 10 years about how saturated fats increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and a belief has grown up that they must increase the risk, but they dont.

However, the governments health advisers urged consumers to continue to exercise caution about eating too many products high in saturated fat and to stick to low-fat versions instead.

Dairy products form an important part of a healthy balanced diet; however, many are high in saturated fat and salt. Were all consuming too much of both, increasing our risk of heart disease, said a spokesman for Public Health England. We recommend choosing lower-fat varieties of milk and dairy products or eating smaller amounts to reduce saturated fat and salt in the diet.

Givens and colleagues from Reading, Copenhagen University in Denmark and Wageningen University in the Netherlands analysed 29 studies involving 938,465 participants from around the world undertaken over the last 35 years, including five done in the UK.

No associations were found for total (high-fat/low-fat) dairy and milk with the health outcomes of mortality, CHD or CVD, they said. In fact, they added, fermented dairy products may potentially slightly lower the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Doctors, public health experts and official healthy eating guidelines have for many years identified saturated fats as potentially harmful for heart and cardiovascular health and advised consumers to minimise their intake.

That has led to consumers increasingly buying lower-fat versions of dairy products. For example, 85% of all milk sold in the UK is now semi-skimmed or skimmed.

Givens said consumers were shunning full-fat versions of cheese, milk or yoghurt in the mistaken view that they could harm their health. Young people, especially young women, were now often drinking too little milk as a result of that concern, which could damage the development of their bones and lead to conditions in later life including osteoporosis, or brittle bones, he said. Consuming too little milk can deprive young people of calcium.

Pregnant women who drank too little milk could be increasing the risk of their child having neuro-developmental difficulties, which could affect their cognitive abilities and stunt their growth, Givens added.

The most recent National Diet and Nutrition Survey, the governments occasional snapshot of eating habits, found that dairy products, including butter, accounted for the highest proportion of saturated fat consumption in British diets 27%, compared with meats 24%. But if butter was not counted then dairy products together were the second largest source of saturated fat, at 22%.

Saturated fat is a vital part of diet. The NDNS found that adults typically got 34.6% of their total energy from fats as a whole, just below the 35% the government recommends. However, while total fat consumption was just within target, saturated fats still made up an unhealthily large proportion of total food energy 12.6%, against the recommended maximum of 11%.

Givens said: Our meta-analysis included an unusually large number of participants. We are confident that our results are robust and accurate.

The research was part-funded by the three pro-dairy groups Global Dairy Platform, Dairy Research Institute and Dairy Australia but they had no influence over it, the paper said. Givens is an adviser to the Food Standards Agency.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/may/08/consuming-dairy-does-not-raise-risk-of-heart-attack-or-stroke-study

A danger to public health? Uproar as scientist urges us to eat more salt

Exclusive: In a new book a US scientist claims eating more salt will make us healthier. But UK experts have condemned the advice as potentially dangerous

Public health experts in the UK have spoken out against a new book that claims many of us should be eating more salt, not less claiming the advice could endanger peoples health.

New York scientist James DiNicolantonio says in his book The Salt Fix that the World Health Organisation and the US and UK advisory bodies on diet have got it wrong with their advice to cut down on salt.

Salt is necessary and good for us, he says. Eating more salt will reduce the amount of sugar in our diet and help us lose weight, he says. Indeed low-salt diets may be causing brittle bones and memory loss and more salt could fix diabetes, he claims.

Instead of ignoring your salt cravings, you should give in to them they are guiding you to better health, he argues in his book, which has won attention for his ideas in the UK media. Most of us dont need to eat low-salt diets. In fact, for most of us, more salt would be better for our health rather than less.

Meanwhile, the white crystal weve demonized all these years has been taking the fall for another, one so sweet that we refused to believe it wasnt benign. A white crystal that, consumed in excess, can lead to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and chronic kidney disease: not salt, but sugar.

But Public Health England (PHE), speaking out as promotion of DiNicolantonios book gathered pace in the UK, said his advice was not only wrong but dangerous. Prof Louis Levy, head of nutrition science at PHE, said: Diet is now the leading cause of ill health. By advocating a high-salt diet this book is putting the health of many at risk and it undermines internationally recognised evidence that shows a diet high in salt is linked to high blood pressure, a known risk for heart disease.

Our work with the food industry to cut the salt in food has already seen consumption in the UK reduce by 11% and is seen as the model to aspire to globally.

The row follows other diet controversies, such as the renewed debate over saturated fat and cholesterol. But the evidence on salt is incontrovertible, according to Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardiovascular medicine, who led the campaign for action on salt and health (CASH). That succeeded in persuading the government to take action by putting pressure on fast food companies to reduce the salt levels in their ready-meals, the biggest source of salt in our diets.

He is entitled to his views but it is all based on a few studies and they are misplaced, said MacGregor. It you look at the totality of the evidence on salt, it is much stronger than for sugar or saturated fat or fruit and vegetables in a positive way. Its overwhelming because weve got all the epidemiology, migration studies [where people have gone to live in another country and changed their diet], treatment trials, mortality trials and now outcome trials in countries.

Finland has reduced salt. The UK has and there have been big drops in heart deaths. You cant really argue against the importance of salt but you always get one or two people who deny it.

MacGregor, who now also runs Action on Sugar, says DiNicolantonio is probably quite well-meaning but is one of those who think every death on the world is because of sugar.

But DiNicolantonio, who is an associate editor of the journal BMJ Open Heart and a cardiovascular research scientist at Saint Lukes Mid America Heart Institute, says the evidence does not stack up, whatever bodies such as PHE and the American Heart Association (AHA) say. The AHA recommends no more than a teaspoon of salt a day equating to 2,300 milligrams of sodium and says most Americans should cut down to not much more than half of that.

Because the average Americans sodium intake is so excessive, even cutting back to no more than 2,400 milligrams a day will significantly improve blood pressure and heart health, it says, noting that 75% of intake comes from processed, packaged or restaurant food.

DiNicolantonio says there is no evidence that a low-salt diet will reduce blood pressure in the majority of people. Evidence in the medical literature suggests that approximately 80% of people with normal blood pressure (less than 120/80 mmHg) are not sensitive to the blood-pressure-raising effects of salt at all. Among those with prehypertension (a precursor to high blood pressure), roughly 75% are not sensitive to salt. And even among those with full-blown hypertension, about 55% are totally immune to salts effects on blood pressure, he writes.

The governments scientific advisory committee on nutrition (SACN), which backed a reduction to 6g of salt a day in the UK diet from around 9g, lists a large number of trials in animals and humans that suggest high salt levels do lead to higher blood pressure in its 2003 report. However, it could not come to conclusions on the numbers of cases of heart disease and deaths that might be caused, because the data was hard to collect.

But the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which looked at the impact of salt reduction for the population in 2013, said the governments strategy could lead to 20,000 fewer heart deaths each year.

DiNicolantonio also claims that we lose too much salt when we exercise or sweat in heatwaves. MacGregor says that is not so. There was a very good experiment with the SAS, parachuted into a desert, which found they needed quite a low salt intake. If you have a higher salt intake it is more dangerous. They had to carry more water with them because of thirst, he said.

Speaking to the Guardian, DiNicolantonio rejected the criticism from PHE that his book would make people risk their health, saying he was advocating for a normal salt intake, which he claims is between 3,000 and 6,000 mg of sodium per day. As sodium accounts for 40% of salt, that would equate to 7.5g to 15g of salt a day. But he says that is not a high salt diet. Moreover, if a high salt diet really put peoples health at risk then why are the highest salt-eating populations (Japan, South Korea, and France) living the longest with the lowest rates of coronary heart disease in the world? he said.

Low-salt diets are putting the population at risk as there are literally millions of people who are at risk of salt deficiency, with over six million people in the US alone diagnosed with low sodium levels in the blood every year.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/aug/08/a-danger-to-public-health-uproar-as-scientist-urges-us-to-eat-more-salt

Coffee cuts risk of dying from stroke and heart disease, study suggests

Coffee a day keeps the doctor away? Perhaps, but benefits may be down to lifestyles rather than the brew itself, researchers say

People who drink coffee have a lower risk of dying from a host of causes, including heart disease, stroke and liver disease, research suggests but experts say its unclear whether the health boost is down to the brew itself.

The connection, revealed in two large studies, was found to hold regardless of whether the coffee was caffeinated or not, with the effect higher among those who drank more cups of coffee a day.

But scientists say that the link might just be down to coffee-drinkers having healthier behaviours.

It is plausible that there is something else behind this that is causing this relationship, said Marc Gunter, a co-author of one of the studies, from the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

But, he added, based on the consistency of the results he would be surprised if coffee itself didnt play a role in reducing the risk of death.

About 2.25bn cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every day. While previous studies have suggested coffee might have health benefits, the latest research involves large and diverse cohorts of participants.

The first study looked at coffee consumption among more than 185,000 white and non-white participants, recruited in the early 1990s and followed up for an average of over 16 years. The results revealed that drinking one cup of coffee a day was linked to a 12% lower risk of death at any age, from any cause while those drinking two or three cups a day had an 18% lower risk, with the association not linked to ethnicity.

We found that coffee drinkers had a reduced risk of death from heart disease, from cancer, from stroke, respiratory disease, diabetes and kidney disease, said Veronica Setiawan, associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California and a co-author of the research.

The second study the largest of its kind involved more than 450,000 participants, recruited between 1992 and 2000 across ten European countries, who were again followed for just over 16 years on average. We felt this analysis would capture some of [the] variation in coffee preparation methods and drinking habits, said Gunter.

After a range of factors including age, smoking status, physical activity and education were taken into account, those who drank three or more cups a day were found to have a 18% lower risk of death for men, and a 8% lower risk of death for women at any age, compared with those who didnt drink the brew. The benefits were found to hold regardless of the country, although coffee drinking was not linked to a lower risk of death for all types of cancer.

The study also looked at a subset of 14,800 participants, finding that coffee-drinkers had better results on many biological markers including liver enzymes and glucose control. We know many of these biological factors are related to different health outcomes, so it is another piece of the puzzle, said Gunter.

But experts warn that the two studies, both published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, do not show that drinking coffee was behind the overall lower risk, pointing out that it could be that coffee drinkers are healthier in various ways or that those who are unwell drink less coffee.

In addition, levels of coffee-drinking were self-reported, some participants consumed both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, and the European study only looked at coffee consumption levels at one point in time all factors which could have affected the results.

It is not necessarily the coffee drinking per se, it is that fact that there are other things about your lifestyle or the lack of ill-health that might be causing the association, said Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, pointing out that while coffee might have beneficial effects, it would take randomised trials to be sure.

Authors of both studies also agreed more work is needed, and said that it was unclear which of the many biologically active components within the coffee might potentially be driving the health benefits. This is an observational study, said Setiawan. We cannot say, OK, [if] you drink coffee it is going to prolong your life.

Gunter agreed. I wouldnt recommend people start rushing out drinking lots of coffee, but I think what it does suggests is drinking coffee certainly does you no harm, he said. It can be part of a healthy diet.

Sattar also urged caution. If people enjoy their coffee they can relax and enjoy their coffee, he said, adding that people should not imagine that drinking extra coffee would militate against other bad health behaviours.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jul/10/coffee-cuts-risk-of-dying-from-stroke-and-heart-disease-study-suggests

Coconut oil: are the health benefits a big fat lie?

Its the latest superfood, endorsed by wellness bloggers and celebrities, yet contains more saturated fat than lard

It wasnt that long ago that the closest most Britons got to a coconut was at the fairground or on the inside of a Bounty bar. Yet in the past three years, this hard, hairy drupe (thats the official term) of the coconut palm tree has emerged as the latest superfood extolled by celebrities and health food shops for its nutritional, healing and mind-enhancing powers.

Aisles of health food shops are packed with bags of flour, snacks, milk, sugar and drinks made from its meat and milk. And leading the way is coconut oil, a sweet smelling, greasy fat used for frying, baking, spreading on toast, adding to coffee or simply rubbing into your skin.

Its hard to exaggerate how much hype surrounds coconut oil on health food websites, blogs and YouTube channels. Wellness Mama lists 101 uses including as a mental stimulant, hair conditioner and treatment for insomnia, heartburn, cuts, acne, haemorrhoids, mosquito bites and sunburn. Everdine recommends using coconut oil to cook with at every meal due, while Holland & Barrett claims coconut oil is very healthy, adding: Coconut oil is the little black dress of wellbeing everyone should have some!

Sites such as these, along with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Kourtney Kardashian, have helped UK sales of coconut oil rise over the past four years from around 1m to 16.4m last year, according to consumer research group Kantar.

When it comes to superfoods, coconut oil presses all the buttons: its natural, its enticingly exotic, its surrounded by health claims and at up to 8 for a 500ml pot at Tesco, its suitably pricey. But where this latest superfood differs from benign rivals such as blueberries, goji berries, kale and avocado is that a diet rich in coconut oil may actually be bad for us.

Earlier this month, the American Heart Association (AHA) warned that coconut oil contains the same level of saturated fat as beef dripping. In fact, its so oozing with artery-clogging saturated fat that lard is a healthieroption.

The AHA alert, which has followed similar observations from scientists over the years, has triggered an online battle between those who claim the science of coconut oil is more complex and more sophisticated than food scientists acknowledge and those who say food faddists have been duped by clever marketing.

So who is right? Even if coconut oil really is full of saturated fats, are all saturated fats bad? And why do we get such conflicting messages about the fat in our diet?

Coconut oil is pressed from the meat of a coconut. It has been used in Africa, Asia and South America for centuries and was routinely used in American processed food in the middle part of the 20th century. In the 1940s, it was the main source of non-dairy fat in the US diet until it was replaced by vegetable oils, particularly soya bean oil. Concerns about its high saturated fat content emerged in the middle of the last century and are rife today, even as the oil makes a revival among health foodlovers.

Priya Tew, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, says: Coconut oil is a high saturated fat. Its about 92% saturated fat so more than lard or butter. If a woman has two tablespoons, she is eating 20g of saturated fat, her recommended dailyamount.

In the long-established pecking order of fats laid down over many years by public health officials, trans fats are classed as the least healthy. The chemical transformation makes them hard for our bodies to process. They raise levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower good (HDL) cholesterol, increasing the risk of developing heart disease and strokes; they are also linked to type 2 diabetes. In contrast, unsaturated fats are pretty universally accepted as beneficial because they raise levels of good HDL cholesterol. That leaves saturated fats somewhere in the middle.

Since the 1970s, the message from public health bodies has been that they raise bad cholesterol, fur up arteries and increase the risk of strokes, heart disease and heart attacks. Thats the view of the UK government, the World Health Organisation and virtually every other public health body in the world. So where does the idea of coconut oil, one of the richest sources of saturated fat available, being a health food come from?

One branch of evidence often cited by the pro-coconut oil lobby is work done by Dr Marie-Pierre St-Onge, associate professor of nutritional medicine at Cornell University Medical School, in the early 2000s. Her team was looking at the impact on health of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a form of fat molecule that has shorter chains of fatty acid than most and which is found in coconut oil in higher concentrations than any other natural food.

In 2003, her team published research comparing the effects of diets rich in MCTs or long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) on 24 overweight men. She found that eating more MCTs over the month-long study led to losing an extra pound in weight compared with those eating a similar amount of LCTs. Further studies had similar findings. In 2008, she showed that a diet containing MCTs led to more weight loss than a similar diet containing olive oil.

It was a fascinating result and a reminder that not all saturated fats are the same. And it was leapt upon by coconut oil supporters. Holland & Barretts website, for instance, claims that the majority of fat in coconut oil is made up of MCTs. But the link from these studies to coconut oil was arguably a leap too far. Recent studies suggest that coconut oil actually comprises just 13-15% MCTs. The rest are traditional LCTs.

From what I can tell, my research is being used to say that coconut oil is healthy, but this is a very liberal extrapolation of what weve actually studied, says Dr St-Onge.

In her tests, volunteers were given a concoction made from 100% MCTs.

We dont know if the amount in coconut oil is sufficient to have similareffects as pure MCT oil in releasing energy expenditure and improving satiety and weight management. From recent studies, it seems that it is not.

Coconut
Coconut flesh, to be made into oil, drying in Papeete, French Polynesia. Photograph: Gregory Boissy/AFP/Getty Images

If theres little evidence that coconut oil is less fattening than other saturated fats, what about another often made claim that it lowers levels of harmful cholesterol? Some studies appear to show that people who eat more coconut in their diets have higher levels of HDL cholesterol the healthy version linked to lower rates of strokes and heart disease. One reason for this cholesterol boost is likely to be the high level of a substance called lauric acid in coconut oil. A meta-analysis of 60 trials in 2003 found lauric acid increased good HDLcholesterol.

But before you are tempted to celebrate by smearing some coconut oil on toast, theres a caveat. The same analysis found it also raised harmful LDL cholesterol. And theres little evidence that the rise in good cholesterol from eating coconut oil outweighs the rise in the bad stuff.

There is nothing unusual about coconut oil in this respect all saturated fats raise both good HDL and bad LDL cholesterol levels. What seems to matter is the ratio of these two types of cholesterol in our blood. So while Lauric acid may raise good cholesterol, the increase could be offset by a rise in the bad stuff.

Theres an added complexity. Tew points out that not all HDL cholesterol is necessarily good. As the science of cholesterol is explored in more detail, researchers are discovering that some types of HDL are protective, while others are non-functional and do nothing for the heart. She suspects that some of the rise in good HDL associated with lauric acid may be an increase in the non-functional type of cholesterol, which, while looking good on paper, wont protect us from heart attack or stroke.

The presence of this non-functioning HDL cholesterol and the rise in bad cholesterol when we consume lauric acid could help to explain other studies that show lauric acid in our diets as being associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

Its not just the claims about weight loss and cholesterol that dont stack up. A paper in the British Nutrition Foundations Nutrition Bulletin last year concluded that there is simply not enough evidence for any health claim based on coconut oil.

Dr Stacey Lockyer and Dr Sara Stanner of the BNF wrote: Claims relating to potential health benefits ofcoconut oil are often based solely on animal or in vitro studies or humanstudies feeding one componentof coconut oil rather than the whole food.

There is, for instance, no good evidence that it helps boost mental performance or prevent Alzheimers disease, they say.

The theory is that the fat in coconut oil metabolises more quickly than other fats because of the high MCT content. The argument goes that the brain cells of people with Alzheimers disease are unable to use glucose properly and so starve. Coconut oil is an easier to use source of energy and so keeps brain cells going. Its an interesting idea, but not one based on evidence, according to the Alzheimers Society. A clinical trial into the potential impact was discontinued because there were not enough people taking part.

Coconut oil is also said to be a good source of antioxidants. Although this is true, its nowhere near as good as fruit and vegetables. Tom Sanders, emeritus professor of nutrition and dietetics at Kings College London, says: It is a poor source of vitamin E compared with other vegetable oils. Coconut oil is also deficient in the essential fatty acids, which makes it much worse than lard or palm oil.

As for its much touted antimicrobial qualities that help restore gut bacteria, theres virtually no evidence either way. For Tew, the coconut oil issue is another example of the perils of classifying some foods as superfoods. She, like most dietitians, believes its an unhelpful concept, used by marketers. Labelling products as superfoods can fool people into thinking they are eating well when they are not. Munching a handful of goji berries after fried steak and chips wont make the meal healthy.

The obsession with expensive, exotic superfoods also means we forget the easy, cheap foods that are more likely to keep us healthy apples, oranges, broccoli and milk. But if canonising foods is unhelpful, then perhaps so is demonising them. And here, public health officials may have been guilty of oversimplification and an unfair assessment of fats. In the past few years, the debate over whether fats have been wrongly turned into villains has become intense and polarised.

At one extreme are cardiologists such as Dr Aseem Malhotra, who last year told the media, during the launch of a controversial National Obesity Forum report into fat: Eat fat to get slim. Dont fear fat. Fat is yourfriend.

But even more moderate voices acknowledge that the low-fat diet health message is too crude and not always supported by the evidence. One of the best studies into saturated fats and heart disease was a Cochrane review of 15 clinical trials covering 59,000 people, which found that cutting out saturated fat and replacing it with carbs and proteins made no difference to cardiovascular disease. Yet when the saturated fats were replaced with unsaturated fats, there was a 27% drop in heart disease.

It seemed to be showing that saturated fats are no worse for us than carbs but that the real benefits come when we swap them for olive oils, nut oils and the fats in avocado.

Sanders believes not all saturated fats are the same. It is nuanced and it depends where they come from, he says. A high intake of processed and red meat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, but dairy seems to be quite neutral. Dairy provides other things magnesium, calcium and nutrients that may counteract the effects of saturated fat.

But while not all fats are equal, Sanders, like most food scientists, remains unconvinced by the health claims for coconut oil or the suggestion that the saturated fat in coconut oil is less harmful than other saturated fats. There is, he says, insufficient evidence for such claims.

There is an incredible amount of hype around the coconut that is driven by marketing, not science, he adds.

Christine Williams, professor of human nutrition at the University of Reading, agrees.

There is very limited evidence of beneficial health effects of this oil and marketing has won out over science again, she says.

Coconut oil may be no superfood, but equally, it is no villain. What it is is a reasonable tasty if overpriced occasional alternative to other equally unhealthy saturated fats and one that, unusually, you can rub into your face without smelling like a butchers shop or cheese counter. But if youre after a miracle cure for obesity, insomnia or piles youll probably have just as much success with a Bounty bar.

David Derbyshire is a former Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph science correspondent. He has written for the Observer on acupuncture, mindfulness and the science of wine-tasting

Coconut claims debunked

According to health food websites, coconut oil can be used to treat everything from thyroid disorders to thrush, via brittle bones and dementia. But in a recent report, the British Nutrition Foundation said: There is no strong scientific evidence to support health benefits from eating coconut oil. So where has this idea come from? Coconut oil advocates believe that it has powerful antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties because it contains lauric acid, a fatty acid also found in breast milk. It is true that lauric acid derived from coconut oil acts as an antibiotic, but this has only been seen in vitro and at super-concentrated doses. So while lauric acid can kill bacteria, it seems coconut oil cant. In studies where the two have been directly compared, coconut oil was shown to be as useful as water at killing bacteria. Here are three more of the most commonly cited, scientifically dubious health uses for coconut oil to be wary of. Agnes Donnelly

Woman
Photograph: Alamy

Skin
While it is true that coconut oil is found in many sunscreens, coconut oil on its own has an SPF of around 1. The NHS recommends that when you are in the sun you should be using a sunscreen with SPF 15 at the very least. Therefore coconut oil alone is notgoing to be enoughto protect your skin from the suns UV rays, a major cause of skin cancer.

Back
Photograph: Alamy

Hair
Coconut oil is believed to moisturise, provide nutrients, kill bacteria and improve circulation of blood in the scalp. Some websites even promote it as a way to slow hair loss. In truth, coconut oil contains tiny amounts of nutrients and its antibacterial properties are unproved. Any effect it has on your hair is purely cosmetic.

Woman
Photograph: Alamy

Health
Pulling is a practice where people swill liquid oil around their mouths for up to 30 minutes because they believe it draws harmful bacteria and toxins out of their mouth. There is no evidence that this works. However, there have been cases of lipoid pneumonia, when the oil is accidentally inhaled into the lungs and causes disease.

Know your fats

Dietary fat can be divided into two camps the solid, mostly animal-derived saturated fats such as lard, dripping and butter and the liquid, unsaturated fats such as olive oil and nut oil, mostly derived from plants.

We are so used to bandying around words such as saturated and trans fat that many of us (or at least those of us without a chemistry A-level) rarely consider what the words mean.

Whether a fat is saturated or unsaturated depends on the way that carbon atoms in the long chains of fatty acids found in fat molecules are connected to one another.

In an unsaturated fat molecule, one or more carbon atoms are linked by double bonds. If the circumstances are right, one of these bonds can loosen and connect to a passing hydrogen atom, adding another hydrogen atom to the molecule. However, in a saturated fat such as lard, all the carbon atoms are held together with single bonds. There is no spare capacity for the fat molecule to take on any more hydrogen atoms and so the fatty acid is said to be saturated with hydrogen.

The ability of unsaturated fats to take on hydrogen atoms is exploited when vegetable oils are hydrogenated converted into solid trans fats by exposing them to hydrogen gas and a catalyst. Trans fats are cheaper than normal saturated fats, more suitable for industrial scale baking and have a longer shelf life.

A fat is monounsaturated if it contains just one double bond among its carbon atoms. If it has many double bonds, it is polyunsaturated.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/jul/09/coconut-oil-debunked-health-benefits-big-fat-lie-superfood-saturated-fats-lard

Should link between dementia and artificial sweeteners be taken with a pinch of salt?

How peoples capacity for forgetfulness and lies may have impacted on research tying stroke and dementia to diet drinks

They were supposed to be the healthy alternative to their sugar-rich siblings. But now lovers of diet colas and other low-calorie drinks have been hit by news that will radically undermine those credentials: a counterintuitive study suggesting a link to stroke and dementia.

The study in the journal Stroke may cause a rethink among those worried about obesity, diabetes or a possible early heart attack from sugar-rich drinks who have been considering making a change. It comes to the alarming conclusion that people polishing off one can a day of artificially sweetened drink are nearly three times as likely to have a stroke or develop dementia.

Its a shocking conclusion. But the first reason to pause is that the study found no such risk in people who drank standard sugary lemonades and colas.

There is little previous evidence with regard to dementia, which is why the researchers were looking at it, but the link between sugar and stroke is very well known. Too much sugar raises the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and stroke. Its altogether a bad thing, which is why the World Health Organisation is telling us all to cut down. So what was going on in this study?

The evidence it analyses is pulled from the well-respected Framingham Heart Study a cohort of more than 5,000 people in Massachusetts, US, whose diets and lifestyles have been monitored for nearly 50 years, with the main objective of finding out more about heart disease. Along the way, researchers have looked at other health outcomes.

What they are up against is peoples capacity for forgetfulness and lies. This is the case with every study into the food we eat except for those rare ones, almost impossible to do today, which have in effect imprisoned their subjects and controlled every sip and mouthful they took.Researchers understand this and try to take account of it, but it is difficult.

There are several possible other reasons why an increased stroke risk was associated with diet drinks and not sugary drinks. One is what is called reverse causality. People who come to realise that they are ill and have a high risk of a stroke then switch their behaviour by choosing diet drinks long after sugary drinks have helped cause the problem.

When it came to dementia, the link with diet drinks that researchers saw disappeared once they took some elements of the health of the people in the study into account. When the researchers accounted for other risk factors for Alzheimers, such as risk genes, diabetes, heart disease, cholesterol levels and weight, this significant association was lost, suggesting that these drinks are not the whole story, said Dr Rosa Sancho, head of research at Alzheimers Research UK.

The researchers point to it themselves: We are unable to determine whether artificially sweetened soft drink intake increased the risk of incident dementia through diabetes mellitus or whether people with diabetes mellitus were simply more likely to consume diet beverages, they write. But they call for more research and others will support them in that.

Artificial sweeteners have been viewed with suspicion by a lot of consumers for many years and not entirely deservedly. They are not natural, in the way that sugar is natural, being grown from beet or cane. Some of the hostility comes from those who worry about ingesting man-made chemicals. But while some artificial flavourings have been shown to carry health risks, studies have failed to find similar problems with artificial sweeteners.

Aspartame has been extremely controversial since its approval for use by several European countries in the 1980s, says NHS Choices. In 1996, a study linked it to a rise in brain tumours. However, the study had very little scientific basis and later studies showed that aspartame was in fact safe to consume, says the NHS.

Large studies have also been carried out to look at whether the sweetener increased cancer risks, and gave it a clean bill of health. The European Food Safety Authority said in 2013 it was safe even for pregnant women and children, except for anyone with a rare genetic condition called phenylketonuria.

Dumping aspartame from its low calorie bestseller did not give PepsiCo the halo effect it hoped. In 2015, it announced it was taking the sweetener some people love to hate out of Diet Pepsi and replacing it with sucralose. A year later, when it became clear Coca Cola would not follow suit and that fans preferred their drink the way it used to be, it did a U-turn and put aspartame back in.

There have been huge efforts to develop artificial sweeteners that will taste as good as sugar and be acceptable to the doubters. Stevia, a plant extract, is marketed as a natural sweetener to the increasingly sceptical health-conscious.

Now it is not just drinks. Public Health England is putting pressure on food companies to cut 20% of sugar from their products by 2020. That will probably mean smaller chocolate bars, where artificial sweeteners just wont deliver the same taste. But they will be part of the answer in other foods.

Sweeteners such as sucralose, which is 650 times sweeter than sugar, have long been in breakfast cereals and salad dressings, while saccharin is in store-bought cakes, despite a scare over bladder cancer which caused the Canadian government to ban it as an additive in 1977. It lifted the ban in 2014. The safety debate will go on, but artificial sweeteners are likely to play a bigger part in our diet as the squeeze on sugar ramps up.

There are those, however, who think artificial sweeteners will never be the answer to obesity and the diseases that follow in its wake. The problem, in their view, is our sweet tooth and the answer is to reduce our liking for sweetness. So they want to see the gradual reduction of the amount of sugar in our drinks and our food and snacks without it.

It worked with salt, says Cash, the campaign for action on salt and health, which did much to bring down the salt levels in our food without our noticing it. The same should be possible for sugar. But not if artificial substitutes are used to keep our food and drinks tasting just as sweet as they did before.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/apr/21/link-dementia-stroke-diet-drinks-artificial-sweeteners-study