Revelations kept coming
From chocolate's charm to fibre's failings,
the nutrition news was often startling
& Mail: By Leslie Beck: Wednesday, December 28, 2005 Page
Like many other years, 2005 brought a mix of good news and
bad news to the world of nutrition. It's fair to say it was a good year for
omega-3, whole grains and chocolate. Even coffee lovers rejoiced when their
daily brew grabbed positive headlines.
But it wasn't all rosy. Along with the news we embraced, came unsettling --
and surprising -- news. Our national waistline suffered a strong blow. And
it was a bad year for vitamin E supplements, low-carb diets and our morning
bowl of bran. Nutrition flip-flops are to be expected. After all, nutrition
is an evolving science. For every positive study, there is usually a
negative study and this year was no exception.
The following is a look at some of the nutritional highlights of the past
Crash of the low-carb diet
Concerned for their health and bored with bacon and eggs, bun-less burgers,
and countless cheese sticks, dieters finally lost faith in the low-carb
lifestyle. This year was the demise of an era in which millions of North
Americans adopted high-protein diets packed with meat and cheese and shunned
breads, pasta, rice, fruit and milk in an effort to shed weight.
The most popular low-carb regime, developed by Robert Atkins, was first
published in 1972 as Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution. The Atkins diet exploded
in the 1990s and remained popular until last year. (Atkins died in 2003
after slipping and hitting his head on an icy sidewalk.) Dr. Arthur
Agatston's South Beach Diet (a version of low carb that's not high in
cholesterol-raising saturated fats like the Atkins plan) hit bookstores in
April of 2003 and flew off the shelves.
But by the end of 2004, the number of North Americans who claimed to follow
a low-carb diet had dramatically declined. Low-carb bars, cookies, candies
and salad dressing gathered dust on store shelves. In August of 2005 Atkins
Nutritionals Inc. - the maker of Atkins-brand nutrition bars, shakes and
candy - filed in New York for bankruptcy protection.
Like other fads, the low-carb craze could not be sustained. So far, there's
no clear contender for the next weight-loss fad.
Healthy carbs come back
Exit low carb, enter whole grains. In the aftermath of the low-carb demise,
health-conscious consumers became interested in carbohydrates and
manufacturers were listening. This year we witnessed a deluge of whole-grain
products flooding grocery store shelves. Whole grains can now be found in
bread, pasta, crackers, cereals, waffles, energy bars, yogurt, even
Plenty of scientific evidence shows that men and women who choose whole
grains instead of their refined cousins have a lower risk of heart disease,
stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. A steady intake of whole grains
may even help keep the pounds off.
Expect to see even more whole-grain foods in stores next year. Health Canada
is evaluating a health claim that, if approved, will allow manufacturers to
highlight the link between whole grains and heart health.
Fibre and colon cancer
This month, bran lovers got disappointing news. A study examining data from
13 studies involving 725,628 men and women found that those who ate higher
amounts of fibre had the same risk of developing colon cancer as those who
consumed lesser amounts.
But the experts contend it's still important to boost your fibre intake. The
study did show a slightly lower risk of rectal cancer among those eating
plenty of fibre. And previous research suggests that fibre can reduce the
risk of heart disease and diabetes. Women are advised to consume 25 grams a
day; men 38 grams.
Vitamin E questioned
There was bad news in 2005 for high-dose vitamin E supplements, once widely
touted to ward off heart attacks and other ailments. In March, a study in
the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that 400
international units of the nutrient did not lower heart or cancer risk in
people with cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Worse, vitamin E pills were
linked with a 13-per-cent increase in the risk of heart failure, a condition
in which the organ's ability to pump blood is weakened.
Then, in July, a study from the Harvard Medical School revealed that 600 IU
of vitamin E provided no overall benefit for protection from heart disease
or cancer in healthy women aged 45 or older. (However, vitamin E users who
were 65 years or older did have a lower risk of heart attack, a finding
probably due to chance.) It seems it's best to get your vitamin E from foods
such as vegetable oils, nuts, seeds and green, leafy vegetables. If you have
heart disease or diabetes, avoid high-dose vitamin E supplements (the amount
in multivitamins poses little risk).
Omega-3 fats go mainstream
Found naturally in cold-water fish, flaxseed, walnuts and canola oil,
omega-3 fats were in high demand this year. And for good reason. The
evidence linking a steady intake of omega-3 to a healthy heart continued to
mount in 2005. In January, American researchers reported that omega-3 fats
from both seafood and plant sources reduced the risk of heart disease in
healthy men. Another study found that men who ate fish three to four times a
week were 31-per-cent less likely to develop heart failure compared with
those who ate fish less than
Don't like fish? You're in luck. This year omega-3 fats made their way into
milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, margarine, bread and soy beverages. No doubt
we'll see a wider variety of omega-3 enriched foods in 2006.
Sweet news about chocolate This year was exceptionally kind to chocolate
makers and chocolate lovers. In August, a small study published by the
American Heart Association found that a daily 100-gram serving (470 calories
worth) of dark chocolate lowered blood pressure, reduced LDL (bad)
cholesterol and improved how the body used insulin in men and women with
high blood pressure.
Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, natural compounds shown to inhibit
blood-clot formation, help blood vessels relax, and slow the oxidation of
LDL cholesterol (oxidized LDL cholesterol is thought to be a more dangerous
form of cholesterol).
Eating a bar of dark chocolate won't make up for a diet that's high in fat
and low in fruits and vegetables. But if you're going to indulge, choose
chocolate that contains at least 70 per cent cocoa solids (the more cocoa
solids, the higher the flavonoid content).
Coffee might be good for you
The buzz on coffee was pretty good this year. In August, researchers from
the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported that coffee surpassed
fruits and vegetables as a source of antioxidants in the American diet. In
other words, most Americans don't consume enough fruits and vegetables and
glean most of their antioxidants from coffee.
It's probably no different for Canadians. Like our southern neighbours, more
than half of Canadians drink coffee daily -- an average of 2.6 cups a day.
What's more, only 36 per cent of Canadians consume the daily recommended 5
to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables.
Antioxidants are believed to play a role in warding off numerous chronic
diseases. But high levels of antioxidants in coffee don't necessarily
translate into high levels in the body. Researchers still don't understand
how antioxidants in different foods are absorbed and used by the body.
Nevertheless, other studies suggest that drinking coffee can guard against
type 2 diabetes, gallstones, Parkinson's disease and liver cancer.
While one or two cups of coffee a day may be beneficial, fruits and
vegetables offer more in the way of vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Obesity rates at an all-time high
There was no sign of the obesity epidemic slowing this year. In July,
Statistics Canada announced results from the 2004 Canadian Community Health
Survey, which measured the body mass index of more than 35,000 Canadians.
And the news wasn't good. During the past 25 years, obesity rates rose for
every age group, except people age 65 to 74.
Today, 23 per cent of adults are obese, up from 14 per cent in 1979. Among
youth aged 12 to 17, the obesity rate rose to 9 per cent from 3 per cent.
(BMI is calculated as your weight in kilograms divided by the square of your
height in meters. For adults, a BMI of 25 or more signals being overweight;
30 or more indicates obesity.) Another study, released earlier in the year,
presented a grim outlook for obesity should the current trend continue. The
findings: almost one-quarter of Canadians who had been overweight in 1995
had become obese by 2003. Only 10 per cent who were overweight in 1995 were
in the healthy weight range eight years later. It seems that once you're
overweight it's much easier to pack on more pounds than it is to take them
Today 59 per cent of Canadian adults are classified as overweight or obese.
Waist-to-hip ratio beats BMI
Last month, Canadian researchers reported that how your waistline compares
with the size of your hips (waist-to-hip ratio or WHR) is a better predictor
of heart attack than your body mass index. In the study of 27,000 men and
women from 52 countries, those who had suffered a previous heart attack had
a significantly higher WHR than people in the non-heart-attack group. WHR
was three times stronger than BMI in forecasting heart attack.
To calculate your WHR, measure your waist and hips with a tape measure. Then
divide the waist number by the hip number. For women, WHR should be less
than 0.85; for men less than 0.9.