fitness · nutrition

#InMice and OJ

I finally got to use the hashtag “InMice” on Twitter. What’s it mean?

From It’s just in mice! This scientist is calling out hype in science reporting:

“Mice form the basis of all biomedical research. As the quintessential model organism, they are perfect specimens in which to study all sorts of human conditions. But just because a drug performs well in mice, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll have the same result in humans. Science journalists and press releases — as translators of these findings — often fail to clearly demarcate that line.

A new Twitter account hopes to make that line much clearer. Last Friday, tweets from @justsaysinmice started making the rounds on Twitter and they quickly went viral. Every tweet — all 11 of them so far — follows the same pattern: A news story or press release with a sensational headline is tweeted out, with two simple words tacked on top: “IN MICE.””

The story that caught my eye was on orange juice, partly because of a playful ongoing argument with a friend who is quick to remind me and others that OJ is the nutritional equivalent of coke. Not evil, but not exactly health food.

But this story suggested we’d been missing out.

“A new study from London’s Western University suggests drinking two-and-a-half glasses of orange juice a day could help prevent heart disease and diabetes. Researchers have found a molecule, called nobiletin, in sweet oranges and tangerines that significantly reduces obesity and can reverse its negative side-effects.“Obesity and its resulting metabolic syndromes are a huge burden to our health care system, and we have very few interventions that have been shown to work effectively,” said Murray Huff, PhD professor at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry in a statement.”

Hmm. But read on and the results were only shown in mice.

So I tweeted.

Medical researcher and occasional guest blogger Dr. Savita weighed in.

Sounds like unless you want 20g of sugar and you just want the health benefits, if the results work out in humans and not just #inmice, there are better ways to get it.

OJ coming at you!
OJ coming at you!
eating · food · nutrition

Make-Ahead Lunch Meal Prep: Boxed Lunch

Continuing with the discussion of make-ahead meal preparations, today I thought I’d tackle lunch. Christine nudged me this way during my previous post on oatmeal, and I admit, I started with oatmeal because it was easier to describe and to write about! The trouble with lunch is all the pieces you need to have ready in advance in order to make the prep painless. Over the years, I’ve developed routines to make this pretty easy for me, but it took a while, and many Sundays spent too long in the kitchen, to develop the routine. However, I kept plugging away until it became habitual, and now I spend less than an hour prepping lunches for the week (sometimes a lot less), which works out to under 10 minutes per meal.

So, I am going to write this post with two parts, “Saturday” is going to be the prep that needs to happen before you want to make your meals for the week. This doesn’t have to be Saturday, of course, but at least a day before you need those ingredients. Judicious use of your freezer space can allow you to do this part weeks in advance, and as you develop a meal-prep routine, I strongly suggest you do it that way. “Sunday” is your meal-prep day. I always make enough to eat one of them that day, so then lunch planning is done.

A final note before I get to the recipes–you are going to have to experiment with how much variety you need in the week and from week to week. I do not require much variety to be satisfied with my breakfast and lunches. When I was single, I also ate the same dinner for four or five nights in a row. However, I know many people would be very disappointed in their meals to have so much sameness day to day. You will have to adjust these plans to meet your meal-variety needs, but be aware that the more variety you decide to require, the more time the preparations will take. Easy switches like a different serving of fruit or vegetable may be enough to give you a hit of variation without throwing off the whole week of preparations.

Saturday
Prep your protein. My go-to is boneless skinless chicken breasts and/or thighs cooked in the slow-cooker on low heat for many hours. You can also do these in a low oven 20-30 minutes on a baking pan. I usually fill my slow-cooker to the top and leave it on medium for the day. This gives me enough chicken to last a month or so. Whatever I don’t need this week will be chopped up, placed on a cookie sheet and frozen individually. Then, once it’s frozen, I put it in plastic zipper bags to be pulled out as needed for the next month. You could sub in cooked ground or roasted turkey easily enough. I do not eat red meat, but I’d guess you could do something similar with beef. If you want fish or seafoods, I would recommend you keep them frozen until a day before you want to eat them to avoid spoilage.

Photo description: A cookie sheet with diced, cooked chicken breasts. They have been frozen and are ready to use or store in the freezer.

Prep your grains/beans. Whenever I cook rice, barley, dried beans, lentils, quinoa, etc. for dinner, I make extra. Then I freeze the leftovers in convenient amounts (3 cups, if I’m going to add them to lunches.) Thaw just before you do your prep for the week. I often use canned beans to save time. Just drain and rinse in a colander before using. You can also find cooked grains and beans in the freezer section of the grocery store, and they work well, too.

Consider prepping vegetables. I “cheat” and buy frozen veggies these days, but when I had fewer financial resources and more time, I would buy fresh vegetables, chop and steam them to have ready for lunches all week.

Sunday
Basic “boxed” lunch
This is my go-to lunch. To make it interesting week in and week out, I change which variation of flavorings I use. This is the starting place.

  1. Put out 6 reusable 4 cup containers with good lids.
  2. In each container begin with:
    1 ½ cups chopped, cooked vegetables (I like broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, summer squash, and/or green beans, it’s ok if they’re still frozen)
    4 oz chopped chicken, turkey, or protein of your choice (also fine if frozen)
    ½ cup beans and/or brown rice, quinoa, or other cooked grain (more if you’re vegetarian)

Teriyaki boxed lunch variation
Add the following to each container of the the basic boxed lunch:
Use black beans or small, mild-flavored beans like azuki or black-eyed peas
⅓ 8oz can of sliced water chestnuts, drained (about ¼ cup)
2 Tbs prepared teriyaki sauce (I use Kikkoman Takumi collection original)
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
2-3 tbs cashews
Suggested fruit pairing: tangerines, oranges and/or pineapple

Tex-Mex boxed lunch variation
Use pinto and/or black beans and rice.
Either use a prepared salsa or make a spicy tomato sauce by stirring together:
2-3 cups tomato sauce
2 tsp cumin
2 tsp chili powder
hot pepper flakes to taste

Put ¼ to ½ cup sauce/salsa over the veggies.
Sprinkle with 1 tbs. pumpkin seeds.
Add 1 oz grated monterey jack or pepper jack cheese on top.
Suggested fruit pairing: diced melon and/or papaya (with a squeeze of lime!)

Italian boxed lunch variation
Use garbanzo or white beans.
Either use a prepared marinara sauce or make one by stirring together:
2-3 cups tomato sauce
2 tsp dried basil and oregano
1 tsp dried thyme
1 minced garlic clove

Put ¼ to ½ cup sauce over the veggies.
Sprinkle with 1 oz grated mozzarella cheese and 1-2 tbs. parmesan.
Suggested fruit pairing: grapes or an orange

For each of these, when you’re ready to eat, simply remove the lid and heat them up until hot, 3-4 minutes in the microwave. This is what I’m eating these days, although I’ve gone through periods when I was eating soups, stews or big salads instead. I’d be happy to share some of those recipes and ideas in future posts if folks are interested, so let me know and keep an eye out for them!

Photo description: What you can see in my refrigerator right now–containers of “teriyaki boxed lunch,” scrambled eggs, tangerines, and portions of greek yogurt with chopped apples.

Do you have a go-to lunch that you like to make ahead for the week? Please comment below, and do let me know if you try any of these and what you think!

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found eating out of reusable containers, picking up heavy things, and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

food · habits · nutrition · planning

Make-Ahead Breakfast Meal Prep–Oatmeal!

Catherine recently mentioned her desire to do more meal prep. I love to prep ahead my meals for the week. I have a Sunday routine in which I make enough breakfasts and lunches to last me through Friday. These little containers give me peace of mind–reassurance that I will be well-fed without a hassle all week. If dinner has to be on the fly, that’s somehow more manageable than breakfast or lunch. For me, the hardest part of making meal prep a routine was consistently coming up with the plan before I went to the grocery store on Saturday. If I forgot to think about the entire meal–forgot a serving of fruit, or didn’t think to check if I had enough eggs–then the meal prep would be off for a whole week. So, in the spirit of helping others prep, I thought I’d share some of my recipes and shortcuts.

Today, Oatmeal.

I eat oatmeal at least 6 days a week, sometimes twice a day. Here are some of my favorite ways to prepare it in advance. I make it a complete meal with coffee, a couple eggs, some plain Greek yogurt and fruit, if there isn’t some added to the oats already.

Easiest Apple Oats.
This is my go-to oatmeal. It is endlessly variable, depending on what sounds good to me and what fruit is seasonal at the time. Apples are the easiest, since they stay pleasant all week, whereas pears, bananas, peaches and such can eventually become brown and soggy. Canned or dried fruit are options as well, of course.

1. Set out as many reusable containers with tight lids* as meals you are preparing ahead (I make 6 at a time, eating one the morning I prep).
In each container, place the following:
½ cup old-fashioned oats
¾ cup water
a sprinkle of cinnamon
1 tbs coarsely chopped nuts
1 tbs raisins, dried cranberries, or cherries
½ a chopped tart apple

2. Store covered in the refrigerator. When you are ready to serve the oats, remove the lid and cook in the microwave 2 minutes, or until the oats have soaked up the liquid.

3. Serve with a little brown sugar, milk/nondairy milk, or Greek yogurt on top.

Slow-cooker Steel-cut oats
These are just as easy as the last recipe, you just cook them ahead. Using the slow-cooker allows you to avoid the regular stirring and management that cooking steel-cut oats on the stove-top requires. These cook in about 30 minutes on the stove, if you want them faster, but be aware that they can stick and burn if not regularly stirred.

1. In your slow-cooker, place the following:
1 ½ cups steel-cut oats
6 cups water
Tsp or so of cinnamon and/or anise seeds

2. Cook on low heat overnight, or at least 8 hours, until most of the liquid is absorbed and the oats are chewy.

3. If you want to add fruit, add it now after it has cooked. Otherwise, it breaks down over the long cooking time and becomes unpleasant.
Optional add-ins to stir in now:
6 Tbs raisins or other dried fruit, chopped if appropriate
6 Tbs chopped walnuts or other unsalted nuts
3 chopped apples

4. Divide into 6 containers, cover and refrigerate until needed.

5. Serve warm by reheating in the microwave when you’re ready to enjoy it. This will thicken up considerably when it cools, so I like to serve it with milk (or actually soymilk, since I’m lactose intolerant) and a bit of butter and brown sugar.

Muesli
I like this variation in the warmer months or when I need to pack breakfast somewhere where the extra liquid would be unwelcome. (Note that TSA might give you a side eye on this one, so I don’t recommend it for breakfast on a morning flight in the US.) Multiply the basic recipe by as many servings as you want in advance.

1. Using a wide rubber spatula, stir together in a large bowl:
½ cup old-fashioned or quick oats
¾ cup plain Greek yogurt
½ tsp vanilla (cheap fake vanilla is fine for this)
½ coarsely chopped apple
1 tbs chopped nuts
dash cinnamon
optional but recommended:
½ chopped orange or a whole tangerine
some grated citrus zest

2. Press the mixture into a container that seals well and store up to 5 days. Optional but delicious–drizzle with a little honey before enjoying!

Your turn: do you have a favorite way to prep oatmeal in advance? I’d love to hear about it! And do let me know if you give any of these a try and how it goes!

*Oh, as a side note, any reusable container with a good lid will do for these. We have switched over nearly entirely to a set of Pyrex storage bowls in the last year. The lids are pretty tight (sometimes there’s a little liquid loss in transit, if I’m packing it to work in the morning), and the bowls are nice to reuse since they don’t take on flavors like plastic can. I caution you to not heat the lids, if you have these, though. They do not hold up well in the heat.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found eating oatmeal, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

aging · flexibility · health · illness · injury · nutrition · planning · schedule · self care · training · weight lifting

Sam gets frustrated with midlife precision and the complications of fitting it all in

There’s a story we tell here on the blog. Do the things you love, whatever movement fits into your day is good movement, eat what your body feels like eating.

Regular readers, you know our drill. It’s a relaxed, forgiving tune we sing around here most of the time.

Regular readers know too that I’ve been struggling a bit with that tune. These things are all true, I still sing that song, but at the same time things are getting more complicated with age and with injury. I’ve written before about doing things that aren’t fun (so much painful knee physio!) and about rest. Tl;dr: It’s complicated and sometimes I get frustrated.

Bitmoji Sam pointing at the word “lies”

It’s especially more complicated as we age. It’s especially more complicated for those of us with performance oriented fitness goals. Martha and Marjorie Rose are serious about their lifting. Kim and I have cycling goals. Others run and race. Cate is often preparing for her next big solo adventure. Christine is training for her next martial arts test.

As a group we’ve got a lot going on. We all do some strength work, some aerobic activity for endurance, some aerobic activity for intensity, and some activities for flexibility and mobility. For me, right now, it’s physio, weights, cycling and yoga.

I don’t mean to sound whiney. I’m not really complaining. It is what it is. But what it is is not simple or easy.

Sam’s bitmoji lifting weights.

So we’re busy but what do I mean by “more complicated”?

Do you remember when if you had a big project due for work or school you could just stay up all night, maybe even for a couple of nights, and push through? If you were working late you could skip meals, no problem. Aging takes away that ability for most of us. We need to be more organized and scheduled with our work and with our lives.

There are new rules for everyday eating too. For example, there’s a whole list of foods I don’t eat late in the day not because I’m concerned about my weight but because of heartburn. Oh, midlife. Lots of my friends are pretty scientific about their caffeine consumption. Luckily, I can still drink regular coffee after dinner but I think I’m the last in my friend group who is able.

All of these changes are present as we age as athletes too.

Here’s Abigail Barronian talking about the aging athlete, “It’s no secret that our bodies change as we age. Muscle mass and strength decline, it takes longer to recover from hard efforts, and our capacity to handle high training volumes can diminish. On top of that, mobility decreases and we become more prone to certain injuries. When an older athlete stops training, their fitness deteriorates significantly quicker than it did when they were young—and building it back is much harder.”

So given all the constraints it’s hard to be relaxed about things. Fitness in midlife and beyond requires more structure and thoughtful planning. If it used to be the fun, intuitive, freewheeling part of your life, that’s a tough psychological change too. Mostly it’s still a lot of fun for me but these days I’m finding the planning and organizing a bit stressful.

First, as we age rest becomes more important and it’s harder scheduling workouts and scheduling rest days, not to mention getting enough sleep. Aging athletes need more rest between tough workouts. I love rest but even for me sometimes the recommended amount of rest feels like too much. In recent years we’ve discovered that aging athletes can still work out hard. There’s no need to dial back workout intensity but there is a real need to rest more between workouts. We don’t recover and bounce back the way we used to.

See Recovery and aging athletes: A guide to train smart and stay strong

A colleague of mine, and former bicycle racer, who is now 59 years old, put it something like this: “In my twenties I recall being able to do five or six hard workouts a week and race back-to-back days without any trouble.

In my thirties this changed to three or four hard workouts a week and it was more difficult to race back-to-back days. In my forties, two or three hard workouts a week were more than enough, and racing back-to-back days was a bit of a challenge. In my fifties, one or two hard workouts a week were enough and recovering from a race took me about a week. Now, approaching 60…don’t even ask.”

The rest and recovery time of a 20 year old athlete is significantly different than that of a 45 year old athlete. It’s different again at 55 and so on. But this means that taking training plans off the internet won’t work. Often they don’t allow enough rest.

From Here’s how to get stronger after fifty: “As you age, your body bounces back more slowly from intense exercise. Successful older athletes should take their recovery as seriously as their training. “Younger athletes can get away with a poor lifestyle and still perform, but older athletes cannot,” Swift says.”

When I was younger it was just a matter of juggling, fitting in the activities I wanted to fit in, amid kids and a busy work schedule. But as we age there’s also the matter of resting between workouts which becomes more and more important. I’ve long been a fan of deliberate rest days and every coach I’ve had has talked about their importance. Except now they’re more important and I don’t have a coach to make sure I take them.

Likewise for lifting, as we age there’s more need for rest. I read a study recently that claimed for midlife women lifters the right ratio for strength training is two hard workouts followed by one easier workout with lighter weights. I’m not sure if that’s right or not but the main point stands, it’s complicated.

I’ve read too that after 50 you should move to two rest days a week of which one can be active recovery, gentle cardio or yoga maybe.

What am I trying to fit in? The big and important thing is knee physio and strength training. Say three days a week. Next up is cycling, also three days a week. I would like to do hot yoga twice a week. And I also want to take a complete rest day. Oh and also I have to be flexible and fit things in around a very demanding work schedule.

Wish me luck!

(Update: I see Catherine just purchased a training program that works in all the elements including rest. That’s one solution to fitting it all in. Go Catherine!)

Bitmoji Sam is holding a pillow. The text reads “rest up.”

Second, food is more complicated too. For me, there’s some planning involved. I have medication I have to take each morning on an empty stomach and then wait an hour before breakfast. That’s tricky. I also have medicine I have to take after breakfast because it can’t be taken on an empty stomach. Oh, and I need to get to work sometime.

There’s also this whole thing about aging athletes and muscle loss. Our bodies use protein less effectively so we are supposed to eat more of it, some with each meal. I also need fewer calories to get through the day–thanks also to aging– so protein takes up a good chunk of the calories. Add vegetables. Where’s the room for other food? That’s not easy to organize either.

See Muscle loss is in the news again for more details.

Bitmoji Sam ponders her lunch options

Thirdly, for pretty much all of us there are complications related to injury. My knee is an ongoing thing and recently Tracy injured her Achilles. When that happens you’re doing workouts but also physio and in my case massage therapy too. It can feel like a lot to manage.

Now maybe you might think that one doesn’t need to take it all so seriously. You can walk to work, stretch once in awhile, and do work around the house. And that’s true. You can. But if your goals are more about maintaining fitness as you age and not losing muscle, it’s complicated. Mostly I’m good with that. But I confess that some days I just want to not think about what I’m eating or when I’m next riding or lifting and curl up on the sofa with a mug of hot tea and a book.

Bitmoji Sam on a purple bean bag chair with a red book and a mug.

How about you? How do you fit it all in?

fitness · nutrition

Is soda (sugary or not) life-threatening? What the latest study does/doesn’t show

I don’t know about you, but news headlines with the phrase “early death” tend to capture my attention much more than, say, those with the phrase “second quarter economic forecast”. Here’s one from the Washington Post, warning us against all sodas–with and without sugar. Either way, they lead to our premature demise.

Washington Post headline saying "it doesn't matter if it's sugar or diet: new study links all soda to an early death".
That is one grim headline.

Salon, in its coverage of the study, decided that a picture was worth a thousand words. I think we get it:

Yes, it's a skeleton attempting to drink soda.
Yes, it’s a skeleton attempting to drink soda.

You may be wondering:

Graphic saying "is it true?"
Is it true?

I think the answer is “no, not really”. But of course that’s not the whole story. Why?

Complicated graph of metabolic effects of various fats and proteins, all culminating in my statement that science is complicated.
Because science (of human metabolism) is complicated.

The real and longer answer is “we don’t know, based on the results of the study”. So, let’s take a look at that study and the results.

Here’s the Washington post summary:

The study, one of the largest of its kind, tracked 451,743 men and women from 10 countries in Europe. It found that consumption of two or more glasses of artificially sweetened soft drinks a day was positively associated with deaths from circulatory diseases. For sugar-sweetened soft drinks, one or more glasses a day were associated with deaths from digestive diseases, including diseases of the liver, appendix, pancreas and intestines.

The researchers recruited people from Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden between 1992 and 2000, surveying them on their food and drink consumption. Participants were excluded if they reported incidents of cancer, heart disease, stroke or diabetes. Mean age was 50.8, and 71.1 percent of participants were women.

This sounds fairly clearly true, as reported by the Post. So why am I skeptical?

Any big population epidemiology study on nutrition and mortality risk that states some categorical claim is automatically going to raise my antennae. It’s notoriously hard to do this kind of research and get clear results. Why? Think about it for a moment: trying to isolate the contribution to better or worse health over time of the occasional intake of some substance for a whole population is incredibly difficult. For some substances, like tobacco, it turns out it’s pretty easy to establish that it’s harmful in just about any amount. But for, say, alcohol intake, when we graph the risks for drinking it, we get what’s called a J-curve. It looks like this:

Graph showing how the risk for alcohol consumption decreases and then increases with amount.
Graph showing how the risk for alcohol consumption decreases and then increases with amount.

What we see here is that, as alcohol consumption increases from zero to about one drink a day, the risk of death drops, and then starts to increase slowly. Looking at it without any other information, you would think that drinking up to say, 5 drinks a day is actually beneficial for your health. Pro health tip: it’s not. But there’s a lot more needed than just this data on this graph in order to understand alcohol consumption and health. If you’re interested in more about J curves, public health and what to do when you get one, look at this nice JAMA article (which is where the graph came from).

Back to the soda study: when we look carefully at the data presented here in the article, what we see is another J-curve. That is, the people in the study who drank between 1 glass a month and 6 glasses a week of soda (either sugar-sweetened or artificially sweetened) had a LOWER risk of all-cause mortality than those who drank less than one soda per month. The risk was a bit higher for those who drank 1–2 glasses of soda (either kind) per day and then higher again for the group who drank more than 2 glasses per day.

When you look at their disease-specific mortality risk data, results are mixed, but there are still J-curves. For women who drank between 1 glass a month and 6 glasses a week of soda, their cancer risks were lower. For men, the risks were mixed, but not appreciably higher. Ditto (almost) for heart-related disease risks (it’s a little more mixed, but a similar pattern).

I would like to thank both Samantha for pointing me to sources and Health Nerd on Twitter for his very detailed analysis of the study (which saved me some time and directed me to particularly interesting data patterns). Here’s the J-curve we see in this study, compliments of Health Nerd):

Curve tracking mortality risk with soda consumption, where you see reduced risk with some consumption.
Curve tracking mortality risk with soda consumption, where you see reduced risk with some consumption.

Does this mean we should all start drinking a little soda a day, to keep the grim reaper away? NO. What this means is that we need to look at the data a lot more closely. Health Nerd points out that the researchers didn’t control for income or ethnicity. We know from various studies that soda intake is higher among Latinx and African-American populations than among White populations, and it’s also higher among lower-income populations. We also know that there are major health disparities in the US both for lower-income and for non-white populations. So, is the soda playing some role in the health of these populations, or not? This is a very important question, and researchers are working on it. But it’s not easy to find a clear answer. And this JAMA study is not, in my view, giving us one.

Lots of people (including me) believe that sodas (either kind) are unhealthy-for-them (according to their views of what healthy-for-them means). There is some scientific evidence that supports this view. What headlines like this do, though, is provide an excuse to scare people and to demonize or blame those who drink soda for whatever happens to their health over time. Looking more closely at what drinking soda means to people seems a good place for public health to start, if the goal is to help people make their own lives healthier-to-them.

Here’s to your health!

Two people, toasting with glasses of ice water.
Two people, toasting with glasses of ice water.

Readers– what do you think about soda? Is it a daily part of your life? An occasional drink? Totally off your radar? Do you think it’s the devil, or the pause that refreshes? I’d love to hear from you.

fitness · nutrition

In remembrance of eggs past, or: not bad egg news again!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the breakfast table: eggs are in the news again, and this time the news ain’t good. This week the nutritional research ouija board people once again asked the eternal question:

The ouija board, asking if eggs are good or bad.
The ouija board, asking if eggs are good or bad.

And the answer (for this week) is:

The ouija board, asking if eggs are good or bad.
A woman in front of a purportedly crystal ball, seeing the badness of the dietary cholesterol found in eggs.

Many readers of this blog know that this is definitely not my first eggs rodeo. I follow egg news very closely and make sure Fit is a Feminist Issue followers are always informed of the latest in good-egg-bad-egg research. Here are some of my previous forays into ovo-journalism:

The new US dietary guidelines, or just tell me– are eggs good or bad this year?

Fake egg news? More on the eggs-good-eggs-bad controversy

Tracy has also written often on food morality: not demonizing foods, avoiding all-or-nothing thinking about nutrition.

Okay, time to give y’all the 411 on the newest egg nutrition results. There is a serious question that nutrition researchers have been wrestling with for decades: what, if any, relationship is there between dietary cholesterol intake and mortality risk? The answer is (as it always is in real science, especially nutrition science): it’s complicated. Here’s some background from the New York Times coverage of the new study, that came out in JAMA on Friday:

Eggs are a leading source of dietary cholesterol, which once was thought to be strongly related to blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. Older studies suggesting that link led to nutrition guidelines almost a decade ago that recommended consuming no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol daily; one egg contains about 186 milligrams.

Newer research questioned that relationship, finding that saturated fats contribute more to unhealthy levels of blood cholesterol that can lead to heart problems.

The latest U.S. government nutrition guidelines, from 2015, removed the strict daily cholesterol limit. While eating as little cholesterol as possible is still advised, the recommendations say eggs can still be part of a healthy diet, as a good source of protein, along with lean meat, poultry, beans and nuts. Nutrition experts say the new study is unlikely to change that advice.

So what’s new about this study? Here’s what CNN had to say about it:

The researchers examined data from six US study groups including more than 29,000 people followed for 17½ years on average. Over the follow-up period, a total of 5,400 cardiovascular events occurred, including 1,302 fatal and nonfatal strokes, 1,897 incidents of fatal and nonfatal heart failure and 113 other heart disease deaths. An additional 6,132 participants died of other causes.

Consuming an additional 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day was associated with a 3.2% higher risk of heart disease and a 4.4% higher risk of early death, Zhong’s analysis of the data showed. And each additional half an egg consumed per day was associated with a 1.1% higher risk of cardiovascular disease and 1.9% higher risk of early death due to any cause, the researchers found.

Here’s where things get a bit interesting and more complicated. News sources are not consistent in their reporting of these results. The New York Times said this about the results:

The researchers calculated that those who ate 300 milligrams of cholesterol daily — about 1 ½ eggs — were 17 percent more likely to develop heart disease than whose who didn’t eat eggs.

So which is it? Eating 300mg of dietary cholesterol a day, or 300mg MORE of dietary cholesterol (than what?) a day is bad for me? I think the New York Times got it wrong this time.

I went to the original paper, which is long (15 pages, a lot for a medical journal), and has loads of tables with loads of data. In the discussion section (which is always what you want to read when tackling these technical papers), they raise a bunch of issues that bear directly on how to interpret their results, how to understand their results in contrast with eggs-good research results, and what they think is really going on with respect to eggs, dietary cholesterol consumption, and mortality risk:

  • previous meta-studies have been all over the place, finding positive, negative and no correlations between more frequent (more than one a day) egg consumption and risks of death from various diseases.
  • Apparently egg consumption has been associated with low physical activity, smoking, and “unhealthy dietary patterns” (according to the paper). So it’s hard to separate egg consumption effects from these other effects.
  • The associations found between egg consumption and mortality risk were modest, but statistically significant.
  • Researchers claim a dose-response effect of egg consumption, which means the more eggs you eat, the higher the effect.

Their discussion raised some questions for me:

  • Do the researchers think there is a “safe/normal” intake amount of dietary cholesterol? They say the mean intake in the US is 289mg/day, and that taking in 300mg more per day (which would be 1.5 eggs, including half the extra yolk) increases all-cause mortality. But what is their nutritional goal here?
  • When researchers say egg consumption should be reduced, what do they have in mind for its substitutes? Eggs are a big source of animal protein, and lots of other sources have more saturated fat, which has its own scary back story.
  • As always, I am wondering to what extent statistical or research significance translates to clinical or medical significance?
  • All eating happens in social and cultural and economic contexts– if you ask people to reduce eating X, will substituting Y make things better or worse?

What do you think, dear readers? Is this new egg news throwing a monkey wrench into your brunch plans? Are you vegetarian or vegan and don’t care? Is this a reason to increase our vegetarian or vegan eating? Are you inclined to just turn the page and dismiss the nutritional research as a mass of confusion? Should we short-sell egg futures (I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I think it sounds business-y)? I’d love to hear from you.

3 eggs in jars of water-- one bad floater, one so-so lurker, and one good one lying at the bottom of the jar.
3 eggs in jars of water– one bad floater, one so-so lurker, and one good one lying at the bottom of the jar.
fitness · nutrition

The newest processed food nutrition studies: more to chew on

This past Tuesday apparently was Ultra-Processed Food Study Release Day; two studies– one big and one small– were released for the consideration of the Internet. Both of them have bad news about the effects of eating ultra-processed foods: they result in weight gain and contribute to earlier death.

First of all, what is “ultra-processed food”? Yoni Freedhoff, in his Weighty Matters blog, offers two definitions: one fancy, one non-fancy. The fancy one is this:

formulations mostly of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives, using a series of processes

What does this mean? “think of them as the boxes and jars of ready-to-eat and ready-to-heat foods.” Okay. Not that we really need these definitions. As US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said in 1964 about the definition of obscenity, “I know it when I see it”.

Back to the studies. Here’s CNN on the big study:

…the researchers enlisted the help of 44,551 French adults 45 and older for two years. Their average age was 57, and nearly 73% of the participants were women. All provided 24-hour dietary records every six months in addition to completing questionnaires about their health (including body-mass index and other measurements), physical activities and sociodemographics. The researchers calculated each participant’s overall dietary intake and consumption of ultraprocessed foods.

Over the study period, 602 participants died. After adjusting for factors such as smoking, the researchers calculated an associated 14% higher risk of early death for each 10% increase in the proportionof ultraprocessed foods consumed.

This study doesn’t investigate why ultra-processed foods increase mortality risk; maybe it’s the chemicals in the packaging, or other features of the manufacturing processes.

The small study, however, provides some interesting detail for further study. Here are its details, courtesy of Yoni Freedhoff:

[Researchers] admitted 10 male and 10 female weight stable adults as inpatients to the Metabolic Clinical Research Unit at the NIH where they lived for 28 days. They were randomly assigned to either the ultra-processed or unprocessed diet for 2 weeks at which point they crossed over to the other diet for two weeks.

During each diet arm, participants were offered 3 daily meals and they were instructed to eat as much or as little of them as they wanted. Menus were designed to be matched for total calories, energy density, macronutrients, fibre, sugar, and sodium, but differed in the percentage of calories coming from ultra-processed sources.

When consuming ultra-processed food diets people ate on average 508 more calories per day. And not surprisingly given this finding, people gained weight on the ultra-processed diet (1.7lbs in just 2 weeks) and lost weight on the flip side (2.4lbs in just 2 weeks).

He adds, “Wow! That’s huge!” Yes, it is. But you might think, this isn’t surprising. People love junky food, and it’s designed to be addictive. Well, the researchers found that the participants didn’t find the ultra-processed food tastier. They just ate more of it. But why?

Here’s something I hadn’t heard about: the protein leverage hypothesis. The idea is that the participants ate more of the ultra-processed foods because their bodies wanted more protein. The amount of protein they consumed on both diets was about the same (also surprising), but the processed stuff had less protein in it, so they ate more to compensate. Of course they didn’t know this– it just happened. Wow. Here’s Yoni again with more detail:

[The researchers] believe might help to explain up to 50% of the increased caloric intake by way of something called the protein leverage hypothesis which suggests our bodies attempt to maintain a constant protein intake, and so people consuming less protein from ultra-processed foods may be eating more of them to try to maintain some predetermined physiologically-desired/governed protein intake. 

We don’t know if this hypothesis is true, but if it is, that is very very interesting news about human metabolism.

I’m still chewing on this, so more as the story unfolds.