Nuts and berries clean up the aging brain

August 31, 2010 by  
Filed under AGING

In Germany, there is a snack called “Studentenfutter” which can be translated into English as “students’ food”. It simply consists of different nuts, raisins and other dried fruit. There are lots of explanation as to how the snack got its name. One is that it is cheap and therefore a favourite among students on a tight budget. Another is that it is a very handy snack – packed in a little plastic bag that can fit in pockets of jeans and jackets– and is therefore ideal for on-the-go students. My favourite explanation, however, is that the snack gives the much needed extra brain power for students during the exams period.

Recent evidence from research studies indicates that there is some truth to the 3rd explanation. It seems that certain compounds found in nuts and berries may have positive effects on the brain. These compounds supposedly “activate the brain’s natural “housekeeper” mechanism that cleans up and recycles toxic proteins.” The result is the slowing down of memory loss and mental decline that comes with aging.

According to Dr. Shibu Poulose, a researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agriculture Research Service’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (source WebMD):

“The good news is that natural compounds called polyphenols found in fruits, vegetables and nuts have an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effect that may protect against age-associated decline.”

In aging brain tissue, waste products accumulate with time. Due to this build up, the brain cells that are supposed to clean up the waste become overactivated and can cause damage to healthy cells. The polyphenols in the berries, however, come to the rescue and restore normal cleaning up function. Poulose and his team of researchers demonstrated this in a study using mouse brain tissue.

Among the berries, blueberries, strawberries and acai berries are especially rich in polyphenols whereas walnuts are the champions among nuts. This is rather timely considering that it is the season for berries and nuts. The berries season is about to end and the nuts are about to fall.

However, polyphenols can also be found in other fruits and vegetables, especially those with deep red, orange, or blue pigments. Thus, even when the berries go out of season, we still have tomatoes to supply us with polyphenols the whole year round.

As to walnuts, the shelled nut closely resembles the brain, doesn’t it? At any rate, each time I see a walnut, I would remember that this nut is a good brain food and pop it into my mouth. Walnuts keep longer than berries and are available always in the supermarket.

So next time you find yourself forgetting something, maybe your brain just needs some cleaning up. And you know just what foods to eat to get the job done right.

Photo credit: wikicommons

Popcorn has antioxidants, too

September 9, 2009 by  
Filed under HEART AND STROKE

popcornSnacking is not bad as long as they are the right food and the right amount. And a recent study by researchers at the University of Scranton reveals that even popcorn has some redeeming qualities.

Whole grain cereals seem to be especially recommended because they contain lots of healthy things including fiber and polyphenols. Polyphenols are strong anti-oxidants which are also found in fruit and vegetables. And would you believe it – some whole-grain breakfast cereals have comparable polyphenol content per gram to fruit and vegetables.

According to lead author Dr. Joe Vinson

“Early researchers thought the fiber was the active ingredient for these benefits in whole grains — the reason why they may reduce the risk of cancer and coronary heart disease. But recently, polyphenols emerged as potentially more important. Breakfast cereals, pasta, crackers and salty snacks constitute over 66 percent of whole grain intake in the U.S. diet.”

Polyphenols occur naturally and abundantly in plants. They have been reported to have health benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties, benefits to cardiovascular health, and anti-cancer properties.

Food products other than fresh fruit and vegetables which are rich in polyphenols are

  • Tea
  • Red wine
  • Nuts

The current study looked at the following snacks and cereals and reported the following polyphenol content:

  • whole-grain corn or oats – about 0.2% by weight per box
  • wheat-based cereals – 0.07 %
  • rice cereals – 0.05%
  • raisin bran – 3%
  • popcorn – 2.6%
  • whole grain crackers – 0.45%
  • processed tortilla chips – negligible

It seems that the food manufacturing process does not destroy but rather retain the polyphenols in the plant products.

Vinson continues

“We always think of fruits and vegetables as the primary sources of polyphenols. But many people, especially students, don’t eat enough of them. Here we have a product that is very familiar in the diet and that people like to eat. We can push kids to eat more whole grains.”

Caveat: although this is good news, nutritionists give the following warning:

  • It is easy to binge on snacks and cereals. Practice moderation and stick to the serving size recommendations.
  • A lot of breakfast cereals contain lots of sugar. Go for the low sugar or sugar-free whole grain sort.
  • Some snacks contain lots of salt (thus high sodium content).
  • It’s not only what is in the food that matter. What’s not in there is also important. Aside from sugar and salt, processed food products usually contain preservatives and additives.
  • Finally, despite the comparable polyphenol content, these processed foods are still no substitute for fresh fruit and vegetables. It’s not only the polyphenols that matters. Think about essential vitamins, minerals, and other types of antioxidants that our body needs.

The dark side of chocolate: healthy and heart-friendly

January 6, 2009 by  
Filed under HEART AND STROKE

Resource post for January

Have you ever looked at the chocolate section in the supermarket lately? I’m sure many of us do not, to avoid temptation. After all, chocolate is the number enemy of weight watchers, diabetics, heart patients, and health-conscious parents. Or is it? Lately, more and more studies indicate that chocolate can have a healthy side – and it is the dark side.

No wonder chocolate manufacturers are reinventing chocolate. We now have dark chocolates with up to 90% cacao content, chocolates which are sugar-free, with low-fat. And yes – even chocolate for diabetics.

Chocolate research

Now, before we go on, let’s take a look at the research studies on the health effects of chocolate.

Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide
This study by German researchers evaluated the effect of dark chocolate on the blood pressure of adults with prehypertension and stage 1 hypertension. The 44 study participants were randomly assigned into two groups. One group was given 6.3 g of dark chocolate per day (equivalent to 30 kcal, with 30 mg of polyphenols) for 18 weeks. The other group was given polyphenol-free chocolate of the same quantity for the same duration. The study results showed that from baseline to 18 weeks, dark-chocolate intake reduced mean systolic BP by 2.9 mm Hg (p<0.001) and diastolic BP by 1.9 mm Hg (p<0.001) without changes in body weight, lipids, glucose, or 8-isoprostane. Hypertension prevalence decreased from 86% to 68%.”

Dark chocolate improves coronary vasomotion and reduces platelet reactivity
This study by Swiss researchers at the Zurich University Hospital investigated the effect of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate in the health outcomes of 22 heart transplant patients. An intake of 40 g of dark chocolate with 70% cocoa “induces coronary vasodilation, improves coronary vascular function, and decreases platelet adhesion 2 hours after consumption. These immediate beneficial effects were paralleled by a significant reduction of serum oxidative stress and were positively correlated with changes in serum epicatechin concentration.”

Cocoa consumption for 2 wk enhances insulin-mediated vasodilatation without improving blood pressure or insulin resistance in essential hypertension
This study by American researchers investigated the effects of effects of dark chocolate on insulin sensitivity in people with high blood pressure. The study participants were given 150 mL flavanol-rich cocoa drink two times a day equivalent to approximately 900 mg of flavanols per day for two weeks. The results showed that cocoa treatment at the said dose “did not significantly reduce blood pressure or improve insulin resistance and had no significant effects on skeletal muscle capillary recruitment, circulating plasma concentrations of adipocytokines, or endothelial adhesion molecules… [and] … wasnot sufficient to reduce blood pressure or improve insulin resistance in human subjects with essential hypertension.” However, it was shown to enhance insulin-mediated vasodilation.

Dark chocolate fights heart woes
A study by Japanese researchers showed that eating dark chocolate improves blood flow to the heart muscles. The study participants were 39 male adults who were given either dark chocolate (with 550 mg polyphenols) or white chocolate (no polyphenols) every day for 2 weeks. It was observed that coronary blood circulation significantly improved after 2 weeks in the group given dark chocolate but not those who ate white chocolate.

Cocoa could be a healthy treat for diabetic patients
Yet another study by American researchers evaluated the effect of chocolate on the functioning of vessels among diabetic patients. The study reported that after diabetic patients drank specially formulated high-flavanol cocoa for one month, blood vessel function went from severely impaired to normal.” The vascular improvement observed was comparable to those brought about by exercise and common diabetic medications.

What makes dark chocolate healthy?

For chocolate, the darker, the better and the darkest secret of chocolate is in the cacao polyphenol. Cocoa, the raw powder from the cacao plant, is rich in polyphenols, compounds which have cardioprotective and antioxidation properties. Polyphenols are also found in many plant products such as tea, grapes, walnutsolive oil, and many other fruits and vegetables.

Cacao polyphenol is a flavonoid, which is a subgroup of polyphenols. It is estimated that cacao polyphenol contains four times as much flavonoids per serving than either tea or red wine.

Caveat

Does this mean we can gobble as much chocolate as we want?

Not really. Remember: “Life is just like a box of chocolates. You never know what you get.”

The studies described here were performed under strict conditions where the quality of the chocolate, the sugar as well as the fat content, are controlled and standardized. This is not like that in the real-life chocolates as we know them – the ones that come in boxes. In other words, we really don’t know what we are getting in terms of flavonoid content. This is because chocolate flavonoid content depends on many things, including:

  • The type of cacao beans
  • The processing (e.g. roasting, temperature, fermentation)
  • The additives

Thus, the percentage of cacao in a bar of chocolate is not really a sure indication of flavonoid content.

And, we know that too much of a good thing can be bad and that also applies to chocolates. Chocolate may have flavonoids but it also contains fat and calories that can make you gain weight.

So, no, we cannot use chocolate as the next “wonder health food” and go on an “all-chocolate diet.” But we can indulge ourselves every now and then without feeling guilty or concerned for our health.

Photo credit: stock.xchng

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.