Steps individuals and government are taking to improve health

While not the best option for those who have a fondness for meat, vegetarianism could have benefits for cardiovascular health, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The Atlantic released a follow up article.

In this analysis, which Oxford researchers described as the the largest study ever in the U.K. about the long term effects of vegetarianism compared to eating meat, the eating habits of 45,000 individuals were monitored. Approximately 34 percent of those refrained from eating any meat or fish. The hospitalizations, deaths, blood pressure and cholesterol levels of these participants were tracked over the course of the 11 years of the study. During this period of time, vegetarians displayed a 32 percent less chance of developing heart disease, and a 28 percent reduced risk of having an unhealthy body mass index or diabetes. 

“It’s a very good study,” William Abraham, M.D., director of the cardiovascular medicine division at Ohio State University, who was not involved with the study, told ABC News. “It’s further evidence that vegetarian diets are associated with a lesser risk of developing ischemic heart disease or coronary artery disease.”

He went on to state that significantly lower intake of saturated fat and sodium of a vegetarian diet lessens the odds of heart disease.

St. John Providence Health System cardiologist Peter McCullough, M.D, told the news source that saturated fat leads to more cholesterol production than anything else people normally consume. In addition, unhealthy amount of sodium in a diet is not good for blood pressure.

Government agency pushes for granola bars in schools
While meat has been known to contain its fair share of sodium and saturated fat, the same could certainly be said for some chocolate products. Hoping to improve the nutritional habits of our nation’s youth, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is proposing to remove the candy bars from public school snack machines and replace them with granola. These actions are being taken as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which mandates that the USDA create standards for foods sold in schools, aside from lunches which are already regulated. In addition to other goals, the agency is hoping these new rules could lead to weight loss for some American children. 

“Good nutrition lays the groundwork for good health and academic success,” announced Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Providing healthy options throughout school cafeterias, vending machines and snack bars will complement the gains made with the new, healthy standards for school breakfast and lunch so the healthy choice is the easy choice for our kids.”

Experts applaud USDA proposal
According to a follow up report from Bloomberg, vending machine foods would be held to the same nutritional regulations as regular meal food. Most of the snacks sold in the machines would have to contain less than 200 calories. 

The news provider spoke with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who noted that these proposals may result in taxpayers getting more of what they’re paying for in regards to school lunches. He speculates that taxpayers would prefer that their money go towards healthier foods in schools. 

Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, also voiced her approval of the steps taken by the USDA. She noted that a lot of American students consume as much as 50 percent of their daily calories during the school day. 

The USDA’s regulations on school food wouldn’t apply to anything students bring from home or somewhere else outside the school, nor would they apply to anything served at after school events, fundraisers or similar activities, noted Bloomberg. Commentators have 60 days to register their thoughts on the rule before it goes into effect. 

 

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Regular coffee consumption could lower your risk of depression

A study from the National Institutes of Health in Research (IHR) Triangle Park, North Carolina, recently linked daily coffee intake with a 10 percent reduced chance of developing depression among individuals between 50 and 71 years old. However, the study also found that diet drinks may increase depression risk.

"Sweetened beverages, coffee and tea are commonly consumed worldwide and have important physical – and many have important mental – health consequences," said primary researcher Honglei Chen, M.D., Ph.D., a member of the American Academy of Neurology. 

Chen noted that many studies will need to be conducted in order to verify the findings he and his associates compiled by studying more than 250,000 subjects over the course of 10 years. While participants who drank more than four cups of diet soda or diet fruit a day were as much as 38 percent more likely to develop depression than those who didn't, the same amount of daily coffee consumption was shown to lessen depression risk.

Other foods and drink that could combat depression
While the IHR study makes a case for coffee's ability to combat depression, not all experts are convinced that caffeine itself is the wellness-enhancing ingredient. The Mayo Clinic has stated that too much caffeine could harm an individual's chances of getting a good night's sleep. Chronic lack of sleep, or insomnia, has been linked with anxiety and depression.

Meanwhile, in her list of methods for fending off anxiety and depression through diet, fitness celebrity Kimberly Snyder also speculated that caffeine may ultimately have adverse effects for an individual's stress management. However, she pointed to statistics from the Vitamin D Council indicating that vitamin D intake could be a significant factor in depression risk. During the winter months, many people in the U.S. don't get their recommended dose of vitamin D due to decreased exposure to sunlight. Therefore, Snyder wrote that some people may want to think about taking vitamin D supplements and making sure they spend extra time outdoors.

Complex carbohydrates could reduce anxiety
While excessive carbohydrate consumption has been shown to have poor effects on health, information from Middle Tennessee State University shows that complex carbohydrates with smaller amounts of sugar – like whole grain bread and cereal, make it easier for the body to convert amino acids into serotonin. In addition to improving mood, increased serotonin levels could lead to healthier sleep, said the source.

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News source point to best diets

Perhaps you've made a New Year's resolution to change your diet, either to lose weight, or with a more specific goal like improving your cardiovascular health in mind. In light of this, a handful of news sources have examined which diets may have the most benefits.

DASH diet
According to U.S. News and World Report, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) Diet, which was originally designed to lower blood pressure, is the simplest to understand, most nutritious, low-risk and overall most effective diet their panel of experts was able to identify.

The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute explains that the DASH diet calls for moderate physical activity, eating certain healthy foods and reducing the amount of fatty or sugary foods consumed on a daily basis. It's possible these minor lifestyle changes will heighten the amount of potassium, calcium, protein and fiber in an individual's body, which could lead to a reduced risk for developing hypertension.

Other top diets
Another diet cited at the top of U.S. News and World Report's list of effective diets includes the Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) Diet, created by the National Institutes of Health and endorsed by the American Heart Association. The TLC Diet is thought to have benefits for cardiovascular health and high cholesterol. It's said that the level of low-density lipoprotein, or bad cholesterol, in an individual's blood stream could be reduced by 8 to 10 percent in six weeks if he or she follows the guidance of the TLC Diet. This strategy largely revolves around reducing saturated fat intake, according to the U.S. News and World Report.

Also included in the top five is the Mediterranean Diet, which requires the consumption of plenty of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish and a reasonable amount of red wine. This diet is a favorite among some people who want to improve their health while continuing to eat especially tasty foods.  According to the Mayo Clinic, regular adherence to the Mediterranean Diet has been linked to a lessened risk of heart disease death.

In addition to reducing the unhealthy fat individuals consumes, the Mediterranean Diet instructs them to stay physically active, replace butter with olive and canola oil, and doing away with salt in favor of herbs and spices.

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Bugs take their place on the American plate

As a growing world population creates a shortage of farmland, those interested in sustainable eating practices have argued that mealworms could be an effective replacement for animal proteins. According to researchers, when taking up the same acreage of farmland, a beetle larvae "meat alternative" produces significantly more edible protein compared to chickens, pigs or cows. The bug in question is called the mealworm beetle, or Tenebrio molitor. Verdicts are still out as to mealworms' effects on weight loss and health management, although researchers claim they are a good source of vitamins. 

Scientists from the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands compared the environmental impact of meat production to that of mealworm farming. The most important considerations in determining sustainable practices were land usage, energy needs and greenhouse gas emissions.

"Since the population of our planet keeps growing, and the amount of land on this earth is limited, a more efficient, and more sustainable system of food production is needed," said study author Dennis Oonincx. "Now, for the first time it has been shown that mealworms, and possibly other edible insects, can aid in achieving such a system."

National Public Radio (NPR) claims that livestock take up about three-quarters of the world's agricultural space, accounting for 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities. Mealworms needed only 10 percent of the land required by cattle to produce the same amount of protein, including the land needed for feed grains and foraging. Some of mealworms' favorite foods are grains and carrots.

Roadblocks with development
Because they need warmth to grow, mealworms take up more energy than pork or beef, requiring lighting and heating additions. Researchers claim that over half the energy used during the cultivation of these bugs resulted from the electricity used for warmth.

The primary roadblock to the development of bug-based proteins is the meal itself. Rarely do people in America consider bugs an appropriate or normal foodstuff, and more often than not, bugs are considered dirty, spending most of their lives close to the ground or in the dirt.

But bugs for industrial purposes are cleaner, healthier and bigger, offering more bang for their buck. When processed into patties or desserts, consumers might not be able to tell that they're even eating them.

Global meat demand rising
The demand for animal protein is skyrocketing globally, causing food shortages and leading to economic troubles for those used to more meat in their retail establishments.

"The livestock system we have is just so grossly inefficient, it really is like an artifact of an older, pre-industrial age," Jason Matheny, founder of New Harvest, told LiveScience.

More bugs equal… more fish?
The future may see bugs being used for more than just human consumption, says British entrepreneur Jason Drew, who is using fly larvae to feed salmon in fisheries. According to Drew, using flies in aquaculture is a much-needed safety net for a fishing economy that is dwindling fast. One of the biggest problems with human-made fisheries is that feeding expenses stack up and cause the price of fish to rise accordingly.

Drew claims that in addition to injecting these flies into the artificial fish environments, he now has a fly factory running near Cape Town, producing a combination of maggot and fly larvae protein called "magmeal" – of which salmon, apparently, can't get enough.

"What we've done is just industrialize a natural food source," he said. "It takes a fair bit of cash to get off the ground, but I believe small-stock farming is going to be one of the greatest businesses of the next 20 years."

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Eating with family raises produce consumption

There are some major differences between food you cook for yourself and food you eat with family. To save time or for weight loss reasons, you're likely to make pretty standard dishes when dining alone. But when kids, parents or grandparents come knocking, you'll often take more time and make a meal you can truly be proud of.

Even when eating family meals only once or twice weekly, children in families that dine  together consume more fruits and vegetables than children who eat alone, researchers at the University of Leeds have found. According to their study, children model consumption behavior based on that of parents and older siblings, so time spent dining with family leads children to have better eating habits.

Attitude matters
That said, the theory works in the opposite direction, too. When other family member have poor eating trends, children are likely to adopt poor standards for themselves.

"Even if it's just one family meal a week, when children eat together with parents or older siblings they learn about eating," said senior author Janet Cade. "Watching the way their parents or siblings eat and the different types of food they eat is pivotal in creating their own food habits and preferences."

Researchers found that 65 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 11 don't reach the World Health Organization's recommendation of five daily fruit and vegetable servings, potentially leading to heart health problems or insufficient fiber in their diets. Children who eat at a family table consume on average 1.5 more of these servings than those who never eat with family. The benefits are true for those who only eat with family once a week, too, with these children consuming 1.2 portions more – 95 extra grams, researchers claim.

Cutting fruits and veggies can increase consumption
Parents who cut their children's apples and pears for them may be helping their kids to be more healthy in general. According to the University of Leeds research, parents who do so help their children consume more fruit and vegetables. While this fact could point to a larger trend of such parents to provide more of these foods, it's also possible that it leads children to be happier with produce-packed meals.

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Fast food becomes healthy in 2013

Federal food regulators have been celebrating a subtle yet important aspect of Obamacare that has fast food vendors making healthier meals – the part where it says that these food providers must, under penalty of law, offer their customers nutritional information.

After the Affordable Care Act took effect, restaurateurs began attending to their higher labor costs, leading some to adopt worse food policies as a result. But with Obamacare's new mandate taking effect on January 1st, fast food vendors across the country are redoing their menus to lower fat counts, pump up on protein and vitamins and take out preservatives.

If chains were to continue upping fat while lowering costs, eating habits would likely stay similar to today's, Slate notes. However, if labeling regulations remain in effect, helping show people the danger of their 500-calorie bacon burgers as well as the benefits behind their salads and apple slices, people could actually begin to change their consumption in meaningful ways – improving weight management as a result.

More salads?
Fast food vendors like Sweetgreen and Chop't Creative Salad Company have effectively made business strategies out of fast food salads, helping people in DC, Philadelphia and New York eat more lean greens as well as cruciferous vegetables.

While these salads tend to be more expensive than most fast food meals, they're considerably more healthy. With salads usually containing just a few ingredients and almost all of these good for you, it'll be easy for these companies to adapt to changing law, meaning that they're likely to have more success than fast food vendors at the onset of its adoption in early 2013.

"The days of secret sauce are over," said Tony Shure, founder of Chop't Creative Salad Company.

As Slate points out, chain restaurants are the factories of our time, specializing in delivering fast, delicious meals that workers could gorge on quickly before heading back to work for extra income. This saves people time in the mornings putting together a lunch worth eating and also offers them cost benefits. With the health drawbacks made near-invisible, people have continued eating fast food since it became widespread in the 50s.

Knowing that this gap between consumer and his or her food wouldn't last forever, McDonalds made the decision to launch its labeling campaign even before the election. Others are following with their own lean and low-fat menus, some of them geared specifically toward children.

Fruits and veggies added
First, McDonald's began by offering cinnamon-sugar on top of palm-sized apple pies. Gradually, this led to kids meals containing plastic-wrapped apple slices and carrots. 2013 is likely to see the rise of fast food fruits and veggies that are considerably more fresh and perhaps even from local farms.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims that fruits and vegetables should make up half of the human diet. Most are low in fat and calories, making them particularly good for weight management. Additionally, the CDC notes that fruits and vegetables may help ward off chronic disease, providing essential vitamins, fiber and other substances that can improve immune health and other bodily functions.

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Healthy snacks make kids fuller, faster

Children's diets are waning in health value, often including fat-laden foods and sugar-rich drinks to wash them down. New research from the American Academy of Pediatrics has found that childhood snacks consisting of vegetables and cheese could significantly lower the risk of obesity as well as satisfy a child's appetite more quickly than fat-heavy snacks otherwise would. The study has widespread implications for school lunch programs as well as children who are undergoing weight management.

The study followed children's snacking habits as they watched television, determining that those who consumed potato chips had to eat more to feel as satiated as their vegetable-eating counterparts, consuming more calories as a result. The health effects of poor snacking choices were greater in children who were already overweight.

Snacking conditions reveal insights
Researchers used a sample size of 183 children made up of 104 females and 79 males at an average age of 9. Among the participants at the study's onset, 38 were considered overweight and 43 were considered obese, according to guidelines released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The majority of overweight and obese children belonged to low-involvement families – ones in which parents rarely regulated children's diets.

Scientists randomized one of four snacking conditions for children at different times. These conditions included potato chips, vegetables, cheese and a combination of cheese and vegetables. To measure children's satiety, researchers allowed them to freely snack after their television-watching sessions had commenced, asking participants 20 minutes later to report on fullness and snacking preference. Researchers concluded that children consumed 72 percent fewer calories when eating a combined snack of vegetables and cheese.

Lunch programs vary in regulation and health
School lunch programs are notorious for their habit of tip-toeing around federal regulations, and recently have come under scrutiny for not providing enough healthy snacking options. Among other tactics, some school will provide french fries (vegetables) or ice cream desserts that are topped with berries (fruits) to meet federal requirements.

According to the Huffington Post, parents can improve their children's digestive health as well as health overall by choosing to pack their lunches rather than purchasing school-made meals. The Post notes that new regulations have come into effect across much of the country, asking schools to include more whole grains that are rich in fiber as well as more vegetables and fewer fried foods.

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Salty foods could make sugar appear more appealing

Occasionally, salty foods can be delicious and even healthy. However, too much salt can lead to high blood pressure and further cardiovascular health risks, and a new study from Deakin University has found that children who eat salty snacks regularly are more likely to wash them down with sugary beverages.

The study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that children's consumption of salty foods leads them to drink more fluids overall. These results are at first expected, because salt dehydrates the body and necessitates more fluid intake. However, scientists were surprised to find that children are hydrating with sugary drinks 62 percent of the time after consuming salty foods.

American children love salt
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American children eat as much salt as American adults and are at risk for high blood pressure and other ailments.

To determine linkages between dietary salt consumption, fluid intake and sugar ingestion, scientists gathered data from 4,283 Australian children aged 2 to 16. The data came from the 2007 Australian National Children's Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey.

Participants' incomes and salt intake were widely ranged and revealed that those of lower socioeconomic status consumed more sugary drinks than others. Older children were also more likely to drink these beverages, with more salt in almost every case leading to more sugar intake.

Children who consumed more than one sugar-laden beverage each day were at 26 percent increased risk for obesity, a sign that those who are undergoing weight loss efforts may want to cut back on salt to reduce sugar cravings. However, this was not true across the board, as children who exercised but also drank sugary liquids daily were not at increased risk for gaining weight.

Where it all comes from
Americans get their daily allowance of salt from snacks like potato chips, pretzels and popcorn, but even more so from bread and rolls. According to a CDC report published in February, technically, bread consumption more than snack consumption leads to increased sodium intake. That said, bready foods may spur much of our fiber consumption as well.

Much of the salt we consume also comes from what we place between these bread slices. Cold cuts and cured meats are packed with salt, and poultry, soups, pizza, cheese and pasta dishes often have salt added for taste. The study claims that cutting sodium intake from these sources (which account for 44 percent of Americans' salt intake) could prevent as many as 28,000 deaths each year.

The report added that only one in ten people in the U.S. consumes optimal salt levels, with the rest overconsuming, achieving on average 3,300 milligrams (mgs) a day. The recommended daily allowance is 2,300 mgs daily (about a tablespoon). The guideline for those over the age of 51 is even lower, at 1,500 mgs. The CDC notes that those who are overweight or with high blood pressure should limit and manage salt intake.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no chemical difference between sea salt and table salt, with the exception that sea salt is regularly marketed as a health food while table salt is not. Sea salt is produced through water evaporation, leaving trace minerals and elements that depend on its source and can add to the taste. Table salt comes from underground salt deposits and is more processed to remove trace minerals, leaving a more traditionally "salty" taste.

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Weight loss could get tough with these two unhealthy foods

We've all been told that something we're eating is bad for us, but have you ever wondered what the worst foods in the world are? According to Jonny Bowden, M.D., there are two: french fries and soda. Here are some reasons why.

French fries
Fast food french fries are often potato "products" that are deep-fried for a potato-like effect. They are seasoned with salt and sugar to make it easier to chomp down one after the next, and are often fried in omega-6 oils, which have inflammatory effects inside the body. The same oil is often used repeatedly for about a week, which Bowden claims increases its levels of trans fat and carcinogenic compounds.

But don't lose all hope for french fries, because you can make them yourself at a fraction of the health cost. Switching out omega-6 oil or even the traditional lard for canola oil can reduce inflammatory effects, and while frying has been considered a primary cooking method perhaps since the inception of french fries, baking may prove better for cardiovascular health.

Potatoes in their natural state contain simple sugars that are converted into insulin-raising glucose when consumed, and therefore may not be the best food for weight loss. Fried in polyunsaturated fats, glucose levels only increase, and there have been arguments in recent years as to whether the genetically modified crops that go into the oils commonly used for fried foods may have negative side effects on health. More research is needed, however, in order to fully determine the effects of genetically modified ingredients.

Soda pop
Canned, bottled or from the tap – it doesn't matter when it comes to soda, because it's all bad for you.

Diet sodas may also be packed with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, which Bowden says can act like a neurotoxin. These drinks also include high-fructose corn syrup, the sugar-like substance that accounts for as much as a quarter of our total calories, and has in recent years been pummeled by media and regulators claiming it has adverse health effects. With the recent corn shortage in the United States, desperate farmers have even turned to feeding their cattle and other feedstock candy that's loaded with high-fructose corn syrup. It's a no-brainer to say that sodas are unlikely to benefit your digestive health.

Sodas also contain chemicals and artificial compounds to add to their color. Think about any soda you've purchased from a glass or clear plastic bottle. It's likely the color of the liquid has been altered to make more of an impression.

Weight management to prevent blood disorders and other health concerns has become an important American focus in recent years, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Healthy eating is associated with reduced risk for many diseases, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those in the best position to advocate for dietary progress are schools because they can partially regulate student diet.

Further information from the CDC reveals that many American youths do not meet minimum recommendations for fruits, vegetables or whole grains, and that "empty calories" from sodas has become a major problem for overall health and even academic performance. The average male aged 12 – 19 in the United States consumes on average 22 ounces of full-calorie soda each day, according to a study published by the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.

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Office foods putting a damper on your weight management plans?

It's your birthday, and somebody decided to bring a giant pan of rainbow-frosted cupcakes into the office to celebrate. Do you share them all, or eat half and distribute the rest? More importantly, every time you turn your head, do the chocolate dishes seem to refill themselves?

According to Elisa Zied, R.D., C.D.N., founder and president of Zied Health Communications, foods found at or near the office can contribute to poor health. However, there are strategies for dealing effectively with the flood of gourmet food trucks, bowls of candy and cupboards of free soda pop in the workplace.

Your diet is your concern
Zied recommends coming into the office with your dietary objectives in order. If you're looking to get lean, or to get buff, or even to just stay exactly as you are, it can be helpful to know your goals before entering a situation in which your rational mind may shut off, briefly, in the presence of a savory treat.

Google stands at the forefront of the office foods revolution. Making minor alterations to its snacks policies, the company was able to lower consumption of unhealthy foods by 3.1 million calories in the New York Office. So what did Google do that had such a huge impact?

"We didn't take the M&M's away. We just made them a little more difficult to get to," said Google's People & Innovation Lab Manager Jennifer Kurkoski.

Eating to be cool
Zied warns against the pressure to eat when you aren't hungry or don't feel the need, citing the desire to be "cool" as a major reason for dietary changes in the office. According to Zied, it can be as simple as telling your fellow employee that you had a big breakfast or have a history of heart disease.

The fattier the food, the more appealing it may look when you're stressed and low on sleep, because at that time your body will be seeking calories wherever it can find them. While candies and other snacks may seem like a good idea at the time, Zied warns against the effect of such foods to actually reduce energy levels by giving you a brief surge and then leaving you feeling drained after your sugar crash.

In the end, the best strategy for preventing unhealthy snacking at the office is to prepare your own healthy foods at home. Pack a cranberry juice and a salad with cruciferous vegetables, or if you're aiming for weight management, you could test some strategies and see what works best. Either way, it's your body, and you don't have to let your colleagues dictate what you eat. 

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