BY RAINA GOLDSTEIN BUNNAG
Many of us hope to better our health in 2014, but even with the best intentions, resolutions can be hard to stick to and motivation may wane quickly. Last year was a breakthrough year for health science research and it brought several important discoveries that can be useful to tweak or focus your goals for the New Year. Here I break down a few of these findings to help you be healthier and happier in 2014.
1. Nut eaters live longer
A November 2013 study conducted at Harvard University concluded that people who eat nuts may live longer. The study analyzed diets of over 100,000 health professionals over 30 years from the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. The results were clear: The more nuts people ate, the lower their mortality rate was. Compared with people who never ate nuts, those who consumed nuts once a week reduced their mortality risk by 7%! Additionally, those who ate nuts seven or more times a week reduced mortality risk by 20%.
The study authors are not sure exactly what makes nut eaters live longer, and scientists have not yet demonstrated a causal relationship between health benefits of nuts themselves and prolonged lives. However, nuts do have a host of nutrients. They contain healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, magnesium and vitamin E, among others. We can learn some lessons from nut eaters who tended to be healthier than other participants: They weighed less, smoked less, exercised more and ate more fresh fruits and vegetables.
Lesson for 2014: Include a fistful of nuts as a healthy addition to your daily diet. Instead of high sugar trail mix, make your own mix with nuts and fruit. One great combination is almonds, cashews, dried cranberries, and dark chocolate. Pre-measure them into single servings for easy transport and to prevent overeating.
2. Trans fats aren’t safe
Trans fats have been in the news a lot over the last decade due to publicity highlighting their harmful health effects. In November 2013, the FDA took extreme action to issue a federal register notice to recommend that trans fats are taken off of the “Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS)” list of food additives. If the ruling is finalized (as is expected by most health professionals), trans fat will be gradually eliminated from all food production. The ruling comes from years of research that show trans fats have harmful effects on cholesterol levels which in turn may contribute to heart disease.
The average American eats about 1 gram of trans fat a day (down from 4.6 in 2006) and the FDA report estimated that 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year could be prevented by completely eliminating trans fat from the diet. The trans fat that is most popular in our food system is partially hydrogenated oil. This is oil that has hydrogen added to it to make it solid, which is useful for prolonging the shelf life of processed and packaged foods. It is important to note that the trans fat proposed for the GRAS list is the type added to foods, not the naturally occurring type that is present in some meats.
Lesson for 2014: Cut your trans fat intake by limiting processed foods such as frozen meals, baked goods, vegetable shortening and pastries. Check your food labels for trans fats and be aware that companies are allowed to list “0 grams of trans fats” when the foods actually contain up to 0.5 g. To get the full picture, make sure to also look at the ingredient list and do not purchase foods with partially hydrogenated oil. Choose to eat foods with healthier and less processed fats such as olive oil, nut butters, lean meat and fish.
3. Exercise can be as good as drugs
Researchers from London School of Economics, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute at Harvard Medical School, and Stanford University School of Medicine analyzed 340,000 participants in 305 drug and/or exercise studies that treated heart disease, stroke, diabetes or chronic heart failure. They sought to discover whether exercise itself could be a treatment for prevention of death from chronic diseases. The results were huge. They demonstrated that exercise was shown to be equally as effective as common prescription drugs in reducing death of people with a history of heart disease and diabetes. Exercise was even more effective than drugs in preventing death in people who had a history of strokes. Chronic heart failure was the one condition studied in which drugs (namely diuretics) were more effective than exercise.
This is exciting news that will hopefully put the spotlight on a subject that deserves more attention. Drugs are prohibitively expensive for many people and often have a host of side effects. If exercise is indeed as effective, hopefully it will be seen as an alternative or first choice to treat and prevent specific chronic diseases. In the future, more research needs to be conducted on the type and duration of exercise that is most effective. The study authors even suggest that pharmaceutical companies be required to test their drugs against physical activity so patients have information on what is most effective when deciding what treatment to pursue.
Lesson for 2014: This analysis provides even more evidence of the health benefits of exercise. Although the research focused on patients with chronic diseases, exercise can be beneficial for everyone, with or without chronic conditions. From previous research we also know that it offers a host of additional benefits like weight loss, mood improvement and blood sugar control. Incorporate more exercise into your life this year by being active for a few minutes at a time throughout the day. Choose the stairs instead of elevator, walk around the office during lunch, and do jumping jacks and crunches during commercial breaks.
4. Sleep cleans the brain
Most people agree the sleep is important to be productive and to look and feel our best. Experts have long known that sleep is crucial for brain function, but they did not have a clear idea of why until this year. An innovative study performed on mice at the University of Rochester demonstrated that the brain actually has a self-cleaning system. During sleep, the flow of cerebral spinal fluid into the brain is increased and the fluid is used to clear out toxins in the brain. Scientists postulate that this system evolved as a way to maintain brain function.
So far this research has only been conducted on mice but many scientists think the results are extremely promising for understanding the human brain. Not only is this crucial for learning the power of sleep on brain functions, but it also offers a starting point for innovations on research and treatment for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease which is caused by buildup of certain proteins in the brain that were not properly cleared out.
Lesson for 2014: While research is still being conducted to fully understand these findings, we can reap some benefits now. Prioritize sleep in your life this year. Most adults need 7-9 hours each night to function optimally. If falling asleep is difficult, improve your sleep environment by removing all electronics and lights from your bedroom. Other ideas include eliminating caffeine in the afternoon and meditating for 10 minutes before going to bed.
Incorporate these suggestions into your routine and look out for new science to guide more healthy habits. Here’s to a New Year free of trans fat and full of sleep, nuts and exercise.
Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and is currently a master’s candidate in nutrition and public health at the University of North Carolina. She keeps abreast of the latest health news and addresses relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.