Monthly Archives: July 2013

Are Eggs bad for you?

20 December 2012, 6.49am AEST

Settling the debate about whether eggs are good for you

Eating egg yolks is similar to smoking for the damage it does to your arteries, according to a Canadian study published in the scientific journal Atherosclerosis. But how seriously should you take this finding? The study concluded that regular consumption of egg yolk should be avoided by those at risk…

Eggs are an inexpensive source of high quality protein, as well as being rich in minerals and vitamins. Christopher/Flickr

Eating egg yolks is similar to smoking for the damage it does to your arteries, according to a Canadian study published in the scientific journal Atherosclerosis. But how seriously should you take this finding?

The study concluded that regular consumption of egg yolk should be avoided by those at risk of cardiovascular disease. A similar conclusion was reached in an earlier review article written by the same authors.

But before you consider cutting eggs out of your diet, let’s look at this study more closely. It has a number of weaknesses that might make you pause before changing your egg intake.

The study subjects are patients of a heart disease prevention clinic and the design is cross-sectional. This means that factors suspected of leading to disease are measured at the same time as the signs of the disease itself.

In the course of their examination, patients were asked to recall their liquorice intake, their alcohol intake and their intake of egg yolks over their lifetime. The average age of the patient group was 62 years, and only the information on lifetime egg yolk intake was used, because the other dietary information (and also exercise pattern) proved too difficult to quantify.

Damage to arteries was assessed by using ultrasound to measure the total area of plaque in the carotid artery. Plaque is a waxy substance that builds up on the inside of arteries, hardens over time and narrows the artery. Its presence is associated with future cardiovascular events, although plaque thickness and type are also thought to play a role in this.

In the study, many factors were found to be associated with damage to arteries. A larger plaque area was independently associated with being male, having diabetes, having lower total blood cholesterol, a lower body mass index, higher systolic blood pressure, greater lifetime smoking, and greater lifetime consumption of egg yolks. But the role of exercise or other aspects of dietary intake could not be examined because they were not measured.

The investigators acknowledge their weak study design, stating that the “hypothesis should be tested in a prospective study with more detailed information about diet, and other possible confounders such as exercise and waist circumference.”

Most studies on egg intake and cardiovascular disease have not found evidence that the consumption of up to one egg a day has any adverse effect. These include a study of 912 subjects who were followed for 24 years, a Harvard study of 37,851 men and 80,082 women over eight years, the Physicians’ Health Study of 21,327 over 20 years, a Spanish cohort of 14,185 university graduates followed over six years, and a US cohort of 6,833 men and 8,113 women followed for six to 12 years for coronary heart disease and stroke mortality.

An analysis of these studies reveals that people with diabetes have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease when their egg consumption is high (more than about five eggs a week). This finding is worthy of further investigation, as the metabolism of people with diabetes is different to that of people without diabetes.

Nutritional discussions of eggs often focus on their cholesterol content. But eggs are also an inexpensive source of high quality protein, as well as being rich in minerals, folate and B group vitamins. For people without diabetes, there’s no strong evidence that consuming up to one egg a day is at all harmful.

Dark chocolate improves calmness

Dark chocolate improves calmness

Date posted: Friday 3 May 2013

Dark chocolate improves calmness

Good news for chocolate lovers. New research from Swinburne University of Technology has found that the polyphenols in dark chocolate increase calmness and contentedness.

Polyphenols are found naturally in plants and are a basic component of the human diet. These compounds have been shown to reduce oxidative stress which is associated with many diseases. They may also have beneficial psychological effects.

“Anecdotally, chocolate is often linked to mood enhancement,” Swinburne PhD candidate and lead author of the study Matthew Pase said.

“This clinical trial is perhaps the first to scientifically demonstrate the positive effects of cocoa polyphenols on mood.”

Seventy-two healthy men and women aged 40-65 years took part in the randomised study to receive a dark chocolate drink mix standardised to contain either 500 mg of cocoa polyphenols, 250 mg of cocoa polyphenols or 0 mg of cocoa polyphenols. The drink mixes were given to participants in identical packaging so that both the investigators and participants were unaware of which treatment they were receiving.

Participants drank their assigned drink once a day for 30 days.

After 30 days, those who drank the high dose concentration of cocoa polyphenols reported greater calmness and contentedness than those who drank either of the other drink mixes.

The researchers failed to find any evidence that cocoa polyphenols significantly improved cognitive performance. Additionally, only those who consumed the highest amount of polyphenols (500 mg per day) reported any significant positive effects. Participants who consumed a moderate amount (250 mg per day) reported no significant effects.

The research is published in the May issue of the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
The study was funded by Barry Callebaut.

Cheating Ourselves of Sleep

Personal Health June 17, 2013, 12:01 am266 Comments

Cheating Ourselves of Sleep

Christopher Silas Neal

Think you do just fine on five or six hours of shut-eye? Chances are, you are among the many millions who unwittingly shortchange themselves on sleep.

Research shows that most people require seven or eight hours of sleep to function optimally. Failing to get enough sleep night after night can compromise your health and may even shorten your life. From infancy to old age, the effects of inadequate sleep can profoundly affect memory, learning, creativity, productivity and emotional stability, as well as your physical health.

According to sleep specialists at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, among others, a number of bodily systems are negatively affected by inadequate sleep: the heart, lungs and kidneys; appetite, metabolism and weight control; immune function and disease resistance; sensitivity to pain; reaction time; mood; and brain function.

Poor sleep is also a risk factor for depression and substance abuse, especially among people with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to Anne Germain, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. People with PTSD tend to relive their trauma when they try to sleep, which keeps their brains in a heightened state of alertness.

Dr. Germain is studying what happens in the brains of sleeping veterans with PTSD in hopes of developing more effective treatments for them and for people with lesser degrees of stress that interfere with a good night’s sleep.

The elderly are especially vulnerable. Timothy H. Monk, who directs the Human Chronobiology Research Program at Western Psychiatric, heads a five-year federally funded study of circadian rhythms, sleep strength, stress reactivity, brain function and genetics among the elderly. “The circadian signal isn’t as strong as people get older,” he said.

He is finding that many are helped by standard behavioral treatments for insomnia, like maintaining a regular sleep schedule, avoiding late-in-day naps and caffeine, and reducing distractions from light, noise and pets.

It should come as no surprise that myriad bodily systems can be harmed by chronically shortened nights. “Sleep affects almost every tissue in our bodies,” said Dr. Michael J. Twery, a sleep specialist at the National Institutes of Health.

Several studies have linked insufficient sleep to weight gain. Not only do night owls with shortchanged sleep have more time to eat, drink and snack, but levels of the hormone leptin, which tells the brain enough food has been consumed, are lower in the sleep-deprived while levels of ghrelin, which stimulates appetite, are higher.

In addition, metabolism slows when one’s circadian rhythm and sleep are disrupted; if not counteracted by increased exercise or reduced caloric intake, this slowdown could add up to 10 extra pounds in a year.

The body’s ability to process glucose is also adversely affected, which may ultimately result in Type 2 diabetes. In one study, healthy young men prevented from sleeping more than four hours a night for six nights in a row ended up with insulin and blood sugar levels like those of people deemed prediabetic. The risks of cardiovascular diseases and stroke are higher in people who sleep less than six hours a night. Even a single night of inadequate sleep can cause daylong elevations in blood pressure in people with hypertension. Inadequate sleep is also associated with calcification of coronary arteries and raised levels of inflammatory factors linked to heart disease. (In terms of cardiovascular disease, sleeping too much may also be risky. Higher rates of heart disease have been found among women who sleep more than nine hours nightly.)

The risk of cancer may also be elevated in people who fail to get enough sleep. A Japanese study of nearly 24,000 women ages 40 to 79 found that those who slept less than six hours a night were more likely to develop breast cancer than women who slept longer. The increased risk may result from diminished secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin. Among participants in the Nurses Health Study, Eva S. Schernhammer of Harvard Medical School found a link between low melatonin levels and an increased risk of breast cancer.

A study of 1,240 people by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland found an increased risk of potentially cancerous colorectal polyps in those who slept fewer than six hours nightly.

Children can also experience hormonal disruptions from inadequate sleep. Growth hormone is released during deep sleep; it not only stimulates growth in children, but also boosts muscle mass and repairs damaged cells and tissues in both children and adults.

Dr. Vatsal G. Thakkar, a psychiatrist affiliated with New York University, recently described evidence associating inadequate sleep with an erroneous diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children. In one study, 28 percent of children with sleep problems had symptoms of the disorder, but not the disorder.

During sleep, the body produces cytokines, cellular hormones that help fight infections. Thus, short sleepers may be more susceptible to everyday infections like colds and flu. In a study of 153 healthy men and women, Sheldon Cohen and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University found that those who slept less than seven hours a night were three times as likely to develop cold symptoms when exposed to a cold-causing virus than were people who slept eight or more hours.

Some of the most insidious effects of too little sleep involve mental processes like learning, memory, judgment and problem-solving. During sleep, new learning and memory pathways become encoded in the brain, and adequate sleep is necessary for those pathways to work optimally. People who are well rested are better able to learn a task and more likely to remember what they learned. The cognitive decline that so often accompanies aging may in part result from chronically poor sleep.

With insufficient sleep, thinking slows, it is harder to focus and pay attention, and people are more likely to make poor decisions and take undue risks. As you might guess, these effects can be disastrous when operating a motor vehicle or dangerous machine.

In driving tests, sleep-deprived people perform as if drunk, and no amount of caffeine or cold air can negate the ill effects.

At your next health checkup, tell your doctor how long and how well you sleep. Be honest: Sleep duration and quality can be as important to your health as your blood pressure and cholesterol level.

Honey as a medicine.

19 April 2013, 2.29pm AEST

Honey could be a potent medicine as well as a tasty treat

Honey has been regarded as a delicious and natural sweetener for at least 4,000 years. As well as a food, ancient peoples also regarded honey as an ointment and its antibacterial properties are currently bringing excitement to some researchers. Honey’s place as the main sweetener of food was displaced…

Plenty of research shows that some varieties of honey have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits that are unrelated to nutrients. toholio/Flickr

Honey has been regarded as a delicious and natural sweetener for at least 4,000 years. As well as a food, ancient peoples also regarded honey as an ointment and its antibacterial properties are currently bringing excitement to some researchers.

Honey’s place as the main sweetener of food was displaced to a large extent when sugar was produced from sugar cane, and later from sugar beet (especially in Europe) and as a syrup from corn (in the United States).

As a food, Food Standards Australia New Zealand reports that 100 millilitres of honey contains 117.4 grams sugars, made up of 58.1 grams of fructose, 47.5 grams of glucose, 2.3 grams of sucrose and 9.6 grams of maltose. Vitamins are virtually absent and levels of protein and most minerals are insignificant.

Although honey appears to be a collection of sugars, it contains a range of unusual simple sugars as well as oligosaccharides (complex sugars), natural compounds known as phenols and an enzyme called glucose oxidase that can produce hydrogen peroxide and gluconic acid from glucose. These features have little nutritional relevance but may be important in the topical use of honey.

On the downside, honey can harbour the spores of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum (which causes botulism) and infant feeding guidelines recommend that babies under 12 months of age should not consume honey.

The newly-released Australian Dietary Guidelines (2013) advise us to limit foods and drinks containing added sugars. Although honey doesn’t rate a specific mention, it is considered an added sugar. But unless you sweeten foods extensively with honey at home, it can probably be ignored since per capita consumption of honey in Australia averages less than two grams a day.

Down the long list

Food companies recognise that honey may attract customers because it sounds healthier than sugar. If honey appears in the name of a product, the percentage must be included in the ingredient list on the food’s label. But don’t expect to find it near the top. Processed breakfast cereals that include honey usually contain between 2% and 6%, much less than their content of other sugars.

One popular “honey cereal” lists sugar, wheat, dextrose (a form of glucose), honey, vegetable oil, salt, caramel colour, soy lecithin, BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene, an industrially-produced antioxidant) and various vitamins and minerals. Honey is pipped in prominence by two other sugars.

Among products considered to be healthier, a “cluster” muesli with honey lists cereals (70%) [wholegrains (53%) (wheat, oats, wheat flour), corn, puffed wheat, wheat bran, rice], sugar, macadamia nuts (6%), corn maltodextrin (a starch), honey (2%), minerals (calcium, iron), sunflower oil, maize starch, barley malt extract, salt, flavours, then five vitamins.

In most yoghurts, ice creams and confectionery that feature honey, the quantities are again dwarfed by sugar.

Honey may cause technical problems in some processed foods, but the major reason for its low usage is its cost. Ordinary sugar (sucrose), dextrose and other sugars are much cheaper.

Indeed, honey provides a good example of why we should look at a food in its entirety rather than picking on the presence or absence of particular nutrients. Plenty of research shows that some varieties of honey have anti-inflammatory and antibacterial benefits that are unrelated to nutrients.

Manuka and other medicinal honeys

Manuka honey from bees that access certain varieties of Leptospermum (a plant from the myrtle family Myrtaceae), especially Leptospermum Scoparium (tea tree). It contains methylglyoxal, a phenolic compound with potent antibacterial properties.

Among its actions, manuka honey has the potential to act against the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This alone could make it a valuable addition to the medical armoury needed to combat potentially deadly infections.

Manuka honey also appears to have antibacterial factors other than methylglyoxal. Several groups are researching its properties, including at the University of Amsterdam, University of Technology, Sydney, and at the University of Thassaly in Greece where Greek and Cypriot honeys are showing some of same benefits attributed to manuka honey.

Researchers at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia are also testing their honeys, as are others in Malaysia, Canada and South Africa.

More studies are obviously needed, but with increasing levels of antibiotic resistance causing problems throughout the world, treatment of chronic wounds and infections with something as simple as a particular type of honey has profound implications for the future.

Sadly, there’s little quality research to suggest major benefits from eating honey. It does contain polyphenols (although their value in the human diet is unclear), but to get sufficient quantities, you’d need to consume a lot of honey. For most of us, that’s not good news for the waistline. Honey is also a potential dental hazard. Enjoy it in small quantities.

Published: 4/17/2013

Is Honey Healthier Than Sugar?

Wellness Therapies

If you are trying to reduce your intake of refined sugar, honey is one alternative to consider. Honey has some health benefits over sugar, as it:

  • Is sweeter than refined sugar, so you can use less.
  • Contains trace enzymes; minerals, including calcium, magnesium and potassium; amino acids; and vitamins, including a wide range of B vitamins such as riboflavin, pantothenic acid, niacin, thiamin and pyridoxine.

Raw honey may even help promote wound healing – research indicates it can be an excellent first aid measure when applied topically to burns, even very severe ones. (Don’t treat a wound with the honey you get at the supermarket or health food store – you need a medicinal honey and someone with expertise to treat you.)But honey also has its drawbacks. It is handled by the body in a similar way as sugar, and should be moderated. Its sticky consistency contributes to cavity formation, and can be worse for the teeth than refined sugar. Honey also should never be given to infants under one year of age, as it may contain bacterial spores that can cause infant botulism, a rare but serious disease that affects the nervous system. While honey may not provide major health advantages over sugar, if you like it I recommend buying raw honey, which is tastier and has a better texture than heated and processed commercial honey.

This Is Your Brain on Coffee

I am back at work again, although my right arm is in a sling, and I am typing left handed slowly, it is working OK. The main thing is I am coping and able to continue seeing patients, and everyone has been understanding. My attitude to coffee has changed, as a result of articles like the one below
WellJune 6, 2013, 12:01 am<!– — Updated: 1:01 pm –>302 Comments

This Is Your Brain on Coffee

Illustration by Ben Wiseman

This column appears in the June 9 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

For hundreds of years, coffee has been one of the two or three most popular beverages on earth. But it’s only recently that scientists are figuring out that the drink has notable health benefits. In one large-scale epidemiological study from last year, researchers primarily at the National Cancer Institute parsed health information from more than 400,000 volunteers, ages 50 to 71, who were free of major diseases at the study’s start in 1995. By 2008, more than 50,000 of the participants had died. But men who reported drinking two or three cups of coffee a day were 10 percent less likely to have died than those who didn’t drink coffee, while women drinking the same amount had 13 percent less risk of dying during the study. It’s not clear exactly what coffee had to do with their longevity, but the correlation is striking.

Other recent studies have linked moderate coffee drinking — the equivalent of three or four 5-ounce cups of coffee a day or a single venti-size Starbucks — with more specific advantages: a reduction in the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, basal cell carcinoma (the most common skin cancer), prostate cancer, oral cancer and breast cancer recurrence.

Perhaps most consequential, animal experiments show that caffeine may reshape the biochemical environment inside our brains in ways that could stave off dementia. In a 2012 experiment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, mice were briefly starved of oxygen, causing them to lose the ability to form memories. Half of the mice received a dose of caffeine that was the equivalent of several cups of coffee. After they were reoxygenated, the caffeinated mice regained their ability to form new memories 33 percent faster than the uncaffeinated. Close examination of the animals’ brain tissue showed that the caffeine disrupted the action of adenosine, a substance inside cells that usually provides energy, but can become destructive if it leaks out when the cells are injured or under stress. The escaped adenosine can jump-start a biochemical cascade leading to inflammation, which can disrupt the function of neurons, and potentially contribute to neurodegeneration or, in other words, dementia.

In a 2012 study of humans, researchers from the University of South Florida and the University of Miami tested the blood levels of caffeine in older adults with mild cognitive impairment, or the first glimmer of serious forgetfulness, a common precursor of Alzheimer’s disease, and then re-evaluated them two to four years later. Participants with little or no caffeine circulating in their bloodstreams were far more likely to have progressed to full-blown Alzheimer’s than those whose blood indicated they’d had about three cups’ worth of caffeine.

There’s still much to be learned about the effects of coffee. “We don’t know whether blocking the action of adenosine is sufficient” to prevent or lessen the effects of dementia, says Dr. Gregory G. Freund, a professor of pathology at the University of Illinois who led the 2012 study of mice. It is also unclear whether caffeine by itself provides the benefits associated with coffee drinking or if coffee contains other valuable ingredients. In a 2011 study by the same researchers at the University of South Florida, for instance, mice genetically bred to develop Alzheimer’s and then given caffeine alone did not fare as well on memory tests as those provided with actual coffee. Nor is there any evidence that mixing caffeine with large amounts of sugar, as in energy drinks, is healthful. But a cup or three of coffee “has been popular for a long, long time,” Dr. Freund says, “and there’s probably good reasons for that.”

Why must childbirth be such hard labour?

I had my operation yesterday, and it appears to have been successful -I am here writing  this to you after all, aren’t I. I must wonder again at modern medicine and the efficiency and the wonderful care all the staff, from the porters to the surgeon,  give.  I would never go anywhere else but Holy Spirit Northside, as I think they are incredibly good at all they do. The discoverer of Anesthesia deserves a special place in Heaven – one moment you are awake, and the next it is all over without feeling a thing. People who are anti-science or anti-modern medicine, try having an operation without an anaesthetic! A new innovation is the anesthetist putting a strip on my forehead during the op. This is to read my brainwaves, so he could be aware if I was becoming too light and being aware of the op. Also, this can avoid too much anesthetic being given. I wouldn’t mind one of these myself, so I can read Doriann’s brainwaves at any one time and find out what she is thinking.  Again, perhaps not -some things may be best left alone! :))

Thanks to all those of you who sent me messages of support for the op.- very much appreciated. I should be back at work on Mon as usual.

Why must childbirth be such hard labour?

New evidence about why women give birth when they do has turned received opinion on its head

alice roberts on science

Alice Roberts with a human pelvis: it was thought that the needs of walking and childbirth had led to a design compromise.

Anyone who has given birth to a baby, or watched someone else doing it, knows that it’s a tight squeeze. The birth canal, framed by the bones of the pelvis, is barely larger than the baby’s head. The joint between the two pubic bones at the front of the pelvis softens during pregnancy and can stretch a little during labour. The bones of the baby’s skull, separated by fibrous membranes, can overlap a bit as the baby’s head makes its way out into the world, which is why so many newborn babies have slightly odd-shaped heads. But even with these concessions, it’s a difficult process – much more difficult than in most other animals.

Last December, in the throes of filming a Horizon programme, I flew to New York to meet Holly Dunsworth. I was looking forward to meeting her: she’d authored a paper, published last September, which had caused something of a stir in the anthropological community.

It’s always exciting when something like this paper is published. You read it knowing that your worldview will have shifted a little by the time you’re finished. I think this is what I love most about science – every now and then something comes along which challenges an existing paradigm, turning ideas on their heads, shaking up your thinking.

The “obstetric dilemma” was an entrenched idea, a neat hypothesis that explained the difficulty of childbirth in humans as well as accounting for another apparently uniquely human phenomenon: our incredibly helpless babies. Whereas chimpanzees are born with brains around 40% of adult size, a human newborn’s brain is only 30% of adult size.

The OD hypothesis pitted the demands of walking on two legs against childbirth in an evolutionary tug-of-war over the width of the female pelvis. The idea was that efficient bipedalism – walking and running on two legs, as we humans are wont to do – requires as narrow a pelvis as possible, while the enlargement of the human brain means that we have big-headed babies – which need a wider pelvis to be born. The female pelvis was therefore a design compromise: just wide enough to accommodate a baby’s head on its passage to the outside world but nevertheless narrow enough to make childbirth difficult. And babies had to be born “early”, while they could still fit through the gap. As for bipedalism, everyone knows men can walk and run faster than women, and they’re presumably more energetically efficient at it as well, given their slim-hipped build.

It was an attractive hypothesis but Dunsworth had been suspicious about some of its underlying assumptions. Studying the length of gestation in other primates, she found that human pregnancy didn’t seem to be truncated. Then, at a conference, she met up with a couple of other researchers who were looking at the efficiency of bipedalism.

In a lab on the corner of a block in Hunter College, with panoramic views out over New York, Dunsworth introduced me to Herman Pontzer – who co-authored the paper. As Pontzer demonstrated for me with a couple of students walking and running on a treadmill, wearing masks to allow him to measure oxygen consumption, women were just as efficient as men – even with their relatively wider hips.

This finding effectively removed one of the supposed design constraints on the pelvis – it didn’t look like there was an advantage in having narrow hips. So why haven’t female hips got wider, allowing the baby to stay inside longer?

Before I went to New York I had spent two weeks collecting and freezing small samples of urine after drinking some isotopically labelled water. The samples had been flown to the States, ahead of my trip. Pontzer had analysed my results and now he showed me my data points superimposed on a graph. My metabolic rate was about double what you’d expect – for a non-pregnant woman. But I was five months pregnant: I was providing energy for the developing foetus too. When my metabolic rate rose to 2.1 times the normal rate, I would go into labour – my body would no longer be able to provide the energy being demanded by the foetus.

So it was this “energetic crisis” which seemed to limit the length of pregnancy, not pelvic size. It appears that human babies – like all other placental mammals – are born at a point where the energy demands of the foetus threaten to outstrip the mother’s capacity. And at that point, human babies’ brains still have a lot of growing and developing to do, simply because our adult brains are so large.

In our ancient ancestors, the pelvis certainly got wider to accommodate bigger-brained babies, but only up to a point – the point at which that energy crunch kicks in. Now mothers the world over may wish that their hipbones were just that little bit wider but it seems that, as far as natural selection is concerned, they’re wide enough. And it may be that difficult childbirth is a very recent phenomenon, perhaps due to improved nutrition in affluent societies. In which case, it’s a problem which is unlikely to disappear: where women have access to obstetric care, there’s no selection pressure against small pelvises. Mothers and babies survive even in cases where a mismatch between the size of the baby’s head and the width of the pelvis makes vaginal delivery dangerous or even impossible. The scalpel of the obstetrician is sharper than the scythe of natural selection

The Slow Eating Movement

15 April 2013, 6.10am AEST

Forget fast food, slow down for better well-being

There’s an old saying, you are what you eat. If you look at the average Australian diet, we’re in trouble. The rise of the 24/7 society, unsocial work hours and an accelerating pace of life have led the consumption of fast food to soar. Nearly one in four of the meals we eat are prepared outside the…

The Slow Food movement has arisen to counteract fast food and fast life. French Tart

There’s an old saying, you are what you eat. If you look at the average Australian diet, we’re in trouble.

The rise of the 24/7 society, unsocial work hours and an accelerating pace of life have led the consumption of fast food to soar. Nearly one in four of the meals we eat are prepared outside the home and they tend to contain more fat, salt and sugar than the homemade equivalent.

Alongside the negative health outcomes of fast food are the environmental impacts of industrialised food production and packaging, and management of food waste.

Time to slow down

A slow food movement has arisen to counteract fast food and fast life, by encouraging us to revalue the time we spend on preparing, sharing, and consuming food. It aims to enhance the personal connection between food producers and consumers, and reduce our reliance on mass-produced foods purchased from supermarket monopolies.

Slow Food is a global alternative food network, founded in 1989 in Italy by left-wing food activist Carlo Petrini (though its origins can be traced back to 1986), which has grown to over 100,000 members across 153 countries, including 31 local branches within Australia. These branches, known as convivia, are run by volunteers who coordinate activities in their area: shared meals and tastings, visits to local producers and farms, and educational events about the source of food, farming methods and sustainability.

Local convivia have also become involved in school kitchen garden projects and supported the growth of farmers’ markets.

More broadly, Slow Food promotes the purchase of local produce with a reduction in food miles and a celebration of regional cuisines and local food traditions.

Fair trade is a central concern, with the aim to reduce worker/farmer exploitation and facilitate equitable trading relationships between developing and developed nations.

The movement also advocates for sustainable agricultural techniques and encourages the reduction of food additives, irradiation, and genetic modification.

Perhaps most importantly, Slow Food attempts to show how we can revalue the time we spend on food so as to invest in quality food time for our personal (health and pleasure) and collective (social, cultural, and environmental) benefit.

Studying Slow Food

We have explored what motivates or deters people from engaging in ethical (slow) consumption, and their experiences with the Slow Food movement.

Our first study explored the representation of Slow Food within the Australian print media to provide insights into how public opinion may be formed. Slow Food was portrayed in a positive but largely uncritical, apolitical way, despite the left-wing origins of the movement.

In examining the theme of time in our data, we found an emphasis on slowing down the pace of life. Time was both an opportunity to be taken, and a harsh master:

The Slow Food philosophy enjoins us to take the time to enjoy one of life’s daily pleasures… there’s no doubt that cooking, eating and life in general is a lot more enjoyable when we’re not slaves of time.

Australian Slow Food branches have helped support local farmers’ markets. WBUR

Our second study explored the experiences and motivations of consumer and producer participants in a Melbourne-based Slow Food festival. From our interview data, “time” emerged as a key theme underlying people’s interest in Slow Food as a form of virtuous consumption, but also a key challenge in terms of adopting a Slow Food lifestyle.

As one participant said:

I think that is why everybody is in a hurry because they don’t actually value that that’s the important thing to stop and do.

Another participant put the time challenge this way:

I’m still part of the rush of modern life but… I would want to eventually live that way. I just have to figure out how to do it… it’s a time issue. It’s a matter of changing my life to go into that time mode.

Why isn’t everyone slowing down?

Our participants acknowledged many barriers to adopting a Slow Food lifestyle, such as cost, time, and inconvenience. Slowing down requires a major investment of time in educating oneself about food and then procuring ethically produced food.

While many of our study participants said they supported the movement and held ethical consumer values, they weren’t necessarily prepared to change their behaviour.

Critics of Slow Food have argued the movement caters to the privileged and wealthy who can afford the time and cost involved. They suggest that its focus on gourmet experiences reflect elitist connotations of “good taste”, luxury goods, and social distinction. One study in the United States reports that Slow Food members tended to favour gastronomic experiences over political action.

What can we learn from Slow Food?

For individuals, the movement reminds us of the need to be aware of the origins of our food, including the implications of food production on personal health and the wider environment.

But individual action can only go so far, and the barriers are likely to be too great for most.

At the societal level, Slow Food highlights the need for changes to our food system. Our continuing studies in this area aim to gain an understanding of what attracts people to Slow Food and how this attraction may be translated into behavioural and wider social change.

How to Flourish

I am having an operation on Wed the 17th to repair a torn Triceps tendon right elbow.  This occurred while playing tennis fixtures – who says tennis is a “safe” sport? I will be returning to work on Monday the 22nd, but will have my right arm in a sling, for about 3-4 months. I should be able to manage, but bear with me if I am a bit slow and clumsy – I am not good with my left hand. I have also stopped taking on new patients for the moment, due to the  demand for my services and my regular patients having trouble getting appointments. I hope to reopen my books again in the near future.

I am not a good patient, so have advised my wife, Doriann, to move into a motel for the next few months while I recover! 🙂  She has refused, so if our marriage survives the next 3 months it will all be due to her stoicism in the line of fire.

The secret to flourishing? Science says it’s in the numbers

Amie Gordon, doctoral candidate, psychology | 12/5/12 | One comment | Leave a comment
Amie GordonWhen it comes to human flourishing, science is getting pretty specific. Over the course of our daily lives, we have a variety of positive and negative experiences. And I think most of us would agree that we are likely to be happiest when we maximize the positive and minimize the negative. But researchers suggest that it is not just about having more positive and less negative in our lives – it is the ratio of positive to negative that matters.

flourishing photo

Flourishing is in the numbers

So what is that magical ratio? At or above 3:1. Researchers Fredrickson and Losada tracked people’s daily experiences over the course of a month and found that people who are flourishing (as opposed to languishing) report experiencing at least three times as many positive emotions as negative emotions in their daily lives.

And that magic ratio it is not just for your personal well-being, Dr. Gottman found that stable, happy couples had about five times more positivity than negativity during conflict conversations (5:1). On the other hand, couples who were heading towards divorce had a ratio more like .8:1. That is, more negative than positive.

balance scale


One reason that I really like this research is because it doesn’t simply show “the more the better” for positive emotions. Instead, the researchers note that it shouldn’t all be good. Fredrickson and Losada found that there is an upper limit to the ideal ratio of positive to negative emotions. The benefits of positivity started to break down when people were experiencing a ratio higher than 11:1. That is, more than eleven positive emotions for every negative emotion. This is important because it helps us understand the vital role that negative emotions play in our lives. It also makes me feel better because despite my best efforts, I know that there are times when I’m just going to feel down, angry, and unhappy. And this research says that that is okay!

While some negative emotions should be avoided at all costs (see this post for a list of the four worst negative behaviors you can display in your relationship), other negative emotions such as guilt or sadness, when experienced in the appropriate setting, may be adaptive and help us change for the better. For example, feeling guilty when you’ve done something wrong can help you correct your behavior in the future and make the proper amends. Feeling sad about growing apart from a good friend may help you realize you still care about that relationship. In relationships, conflict can help you negate bad patterns and work through issues.

In addition, it seems to me that the good is not as good if you aren’t occasionally contrasting it with something bad. We need some emotional variety – feeling good all the time might just get boring!

Finally, people who are forcing themselves to feel positively all the time when it isn’t genuine may not reap the same benefits as those who are experiencing genuine positive emotions.

So what can you do to increase your ratio?Here are a few suggestions from previous posts on Psych Your Mind:

Focus on approach goals
Get a pet
Get enough sleep
Figure out what good feels like to you
Reappraise your negative emotions
Be more mindful
Buy some happiness
Give to others
Promote happiness in your relationship

Fredrickson, B., & Losada, M. (2005). Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing. American Psychologist, 60 (7), 678-686 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678
Losada, M. (1999). The complex dynamics of high performance teams Mathematical and Computer Modelling, 30 (9-10), 179-192 DOI: 10.1016/S0895-7177(99)00189-2

Cross-posted from Psych Your Mind, a UC graduate-student blog on psychological science.

Superfoods: not so super after all?

17 June 2013, 6.28am EST

Superfoods: not so super after all?

Superfoods is a buzzword now part of mainstream food and health language, often touted as miracle foods that cure all ills, stave off ageing and disease, or aid weight loss. In practice, superfoods are more readily evoked when it comes to exotic and ancient fruits. Goji berry and acai berry, for example…

The term superfood is often evoked for exotic and ancient fruits, such as these acai berries. Seema Krishnakumar

Superfoods is a buzzword now part of mainstream food and health language, often touted as miracle foods that cure all ills, stave off ageing and disease, or aid weight loss.

In practice, superfoods are more readily evoked when it comes to exotic and ancient fruits. Goji berry and acai berry, for example, or pomegranate and mangosteen are all famously regarded as being super. Liver is actually more dense in nutrients than any of these foods, but have you ever heard it called a superfood?

As you may have guessed by now, superfood is not a scientifically or technically defined term. It’s not a word that medical professionals or researchers really use. Indeed, it has little meaning in the medical research community.

Nonetheless, enter superfood in any internet search engine and it will return millions of hits – mostly from news, magazines, blogs and sales sites. Repeat the search in the US National Library of Medicines online database of biomedical research publications, PubMed, and you get a grand total of three hits along with the helpful suggestion that you may have, in fact, intended to search for “superfund”.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no scientific research into superfoods. Researchers just don’t call them “super”. And there’s a good reason for this: the giant leap from testing foods in the lab to their amazing marketed powers is simply too far to be scientifically or ethically sound.

Just because a component of a superfood may kill cancer cells in a dish in the lab doesn’t mean that eating lots of a food containing this component will prevent you from getting cancer.

What’s more, the assumptions behind superfood science can be problematic. Much of the available evidence comes from cell culture or animal models. While these models are good tools for scientists, they don’t automatically apply to humans.

Humans have considerable environmental and genetic variances that make us much more complicated.

Even when these studies are done in humans, they’re often tested in very high concentrations over short durations that are not reflective of regular balanced diets. There simply aren’t enough long-term, realistic studies to support the claim that superfoods can stave off illness or old age.

It’s easy to see why the concept is popular; being able to consume superfoods that protect you from all kinds of harm are a seductive notion. But the idea may be doing more harm than good. At best, it’s a misleading marketing tool, at worst, it may encourage bad habits.

Superfoods can give people a false sense of security, letting them believe that they can somehow balance out other unhealthy habits.

The prohibitive cost of superfoods is also an issue. The average price of “super” berries such as goji and acai is tens of times higher than humble raspberries, blackberries or apples. But they certainly don’t have ten times the nutritional value.

A common feature of superfoods is that they contain large amounts of antioxidants.

Antioxidants protect cells in the body from free radicals, which are reactive molecules originating from sources such as cigarette smoke, processed foods and normal metabolism. Too many free radicals damage cells, leading to age-related diseases, such as cancers.

Most of the research on the health benefits of dietary antioxidants comes from cell and animal models. This research is, again, not necessarily transferable into the regular dietary context.

The studies that have been done in humans generally show short-term elevations of antioxidants after consuming particular foods in very high concentrations, as you would expect. Avoiding sources of free radicals to start with is probably more beneficial than trying to balance them out with antioxidants.

Nutrients are clearly important for good health but seeking out large doses from any one source is not likely to be beneficial. Simply having more of a particular vitamin or mineral is not necessarily better.

Indeed, too much can sometimes be just as harmful as not enough. Also, the body cannot store certain nutrients so there’s no benefit in consuming large amounts of them; they will only be expelled as waste.

A fixation on superfoods can distract people from the benefits of healthy everyday foods. What most western diets are lacking is not any one super source of nutrients, but variety. Everyday fruits, vegetables and whole foods each have their own unique nutrient profile and contain individual factors that can be said to promote health and wellbeing.

No single food item, or even the top ten superfoods combined, have enough superpowers to replace a balanced, varied and healthy diet. Couple this with avoiding excessive consumption of processed and refined foods and alcohol, and you will have done everything you can, nutritionally speaking, to help you stay healthy and well into old age.

Testosterone could combat dementia in women

Testosterone could combat dementia in women

18 June 2013

Professor Susan Davis

Professor Susan Davis has discovered that testosterone therapy may protect women against cognitive decline.

In a new study, post-menopausal women on testosterone therapy showed a significant improvement in verbal learning and memory, offering a promising avenue for research into memory and ageing.

Led by Director of the Women’s Health Research Program at Monash University, Professor Susan Davis, and presented at ENDO 2103, the research is the first large, randomised, placebo-controlled investigation into the effects of testosterone on cognitive function in postmenopausal women.

Testosterone has been implicated as being important for brain function in men and these results indicate that it has a role in optimising learning and memory in women.

Dementia, which was estimated to affect more than 35 million people worldwide in 2010, is more common in women than men. There are no effective treatments to prevent memory decline.

In the study, 96 postmenopausal women recruited from the community were randomly allocated to receive a testosterone gel or a visually identical placebo gel to be applied to the skin. Participants underwent a comprehensive series of cognitive tests at the beginning of the study and 26 weeks later.

All women performed in the normal range for their age at the beginning of the trial. There was a statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvement in verbal learning and memory amongst the women using the testosterone gel after 26 weeks.

Professor Davis said the results indicated that testosterone played an important role in women’s health.

“Much of the research on testosterone in women to date has focused on sexual function. But testosterone has widespread effects in women, including, it appears, significant favourable effects on verbal learning and memory,” Professor Davis said.

“Our findings provide compelling evidence for the conduct of larger clinical studies to further investigate the role of testosterone in cognitive function in women.

Androgen levels did increase in the cohort on testosterone therapy, but on average, remained in the normal female range. No negative side-effects of the therapy were observed.

The study was supported by the Judith Jane Mason & Harold Stannett Williams Memorial Foundation and Biosante Pharm USA, which provided the testosterone gel. Professor Davis is an NHMRC Principal Research Fellow.