By some estimates, the state of American health looks pretty grim. And much of it is directly tied to poor diets.
Based on current trends, one in three American adults—about 146 million people—will be suffering from type 2 diabetes by 2050, according to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That year, say researchers at Harvard University, 42 percent of Americans will be obese, up from the current figure of 35 percent.
The problem isn't only that we're eating too much, but that we're eating a lot of bad stuff: According to the CDC, more than 11 percent of the American diet comes from fast food. Could the gloomy 2050 predictions be averted? A hopeful sign is the growing interest in healthy diets and in particular, superfoods. New research by Mintel, a market research firm, has found that between 2011 and 2015, the number of new food and drink products to hit the marketplace containing the terms “superfood," “superfruit" or “supergrain" increased more than 200 percent worldwide. Just a cursory glance at your local Whole Foods will give you a sense of how ubiquitous the word has become to sell various foods and drinks.
And while the term superfood has been used aggressively as a marketing tactic, it's a real concept. The Oxford Dictionary defines a superfood as "a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being." But that doesn't mean superfoods should be treated as panaceas. While Cancer Research UK points out that superfoods are often marketed as having the power to prevent or even cure various diseases and ailments, it warns that consumers "shouldn't rely on so-called 'superfoods' to reduce the risk of cancer. They cannot substitute for a generally healthy and balanced diet." But that doesn't mean they can't be a part of a healthy and balanced diet.
Interested in making the most of what you eat? Try including these five "superfoods" in your diet. (And as with any change in diet, check with your doctor before trying anything new).
What has more protein than yogurt, more calcium than milk, more B vitamins than peanuts, more potassium than bananas and more vitamin A than carrots? Moringa.
People in Africa and Asia have long known the health properties of moringa, a tree whose seed pods taste like a sweeter version of green beans and whose leaves have a peppery flavor. "In India, we call moringa the drumstick tree, for its long, drumstick-like seed pods," wrote Maanvi Singh on NPR.org. "It's easy to come by in Mumbai, where I grew up. My mother would use the young, tender pods to make this amazing lentil stew called sambhar."
Packed with protein and phytochemicals (compounds that may reduce the risk of chronic disease), moringa also has all eight essential amino acids. And while there's also compelling evidence that moringa can help diabetes and function as an anti-carcinogen, Singh points out that the current research is preliminary.
Still, the plant punches way above its weight in nutrients. "Milligram for milligram, it outperforms many of the classic sources of vitamins and minerals by multiples, such as 25 times the amount of iron as spinach or seven times the amount of vitamin C as oranges," wrote Jonathon Engles, a food writer and eco-gardener who first discovered it in Guatemala, where it is being used to fight malnutrition.
If you can't find moringa locally, buy it online, but be sure to look for the responsibly sourced, fair-trade variety. But the best option is simply to grow your own. If you live in USDA Hardiness Zones 9, 10 or 11, you can easily grow moringa trees. And next time you go camping, you might want to bring some dried moringa seeds with you: Just a few crushed up seeds can purify a bottle of contaminated water.
Here's an easy recipe to try: Moringa pizza.
Google searches for turmeric have surged by 300 percent over the last five years, according to the company's 2016 Food Trends Report. In fact, turmeric latte (aka “Golden milk), a drink made of juiced turmeric root and nut milk that is fast becoming a cultish, healthy alternative to coffee, may be 2016's drink of choice, notes Saba Imtiaz of the Guardian. She adds, "Turmeric lattes are now being sold at cafes from Sydney to San Francisco and the drink is gaining fans in the UK."
A member of the ginger family whose root is widely used as an ingredient in medicines, turmeric is a superfood that has many health properties. Since ancient times, turmeric has been used to fight inflammation, a power given to it by the compound curcumin, which has been found to inhibit several molecules that play a role in inflammation in human clinical trials.
It has also been used to treat a wide number of ailments, including arthritis, heartburn, ulcerative colitis, diarrhea, high cholesterol, headaches, bronchitis, fibromyalgia and depression. Curcumin may also help fight cancer, as its antioxidants may help prevent free radicals from damaging cellular DNA.
The fact that its wide-ranging health properties may be used as a potential treatment for a number of afflictions common to older people means that turmeric isn't just a hipster fad. “Turmeric has potential as an ingredient in supplements and functional food and drink products, particularly within products aimed at the growing senior population," said Stephanie Mattucci, a global food science analyst at Mintel.
A 2012 study backs up her view. Researchers described three patients with Alzheimer's disease whose behavioral symptoms were “improved remarkably" after consuming 764 milligrams of turmeric for 12 weeks. The researchers concluded that turmeric is "effective and safe" for the treatment of the behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia in Alzheimer's disease patients.
"After bubbling under the surface for many years, with those of us immersed in the world of curcumin saying 'any minute now,' it finally broke into the mainstream in a big way two years ago," wrote Shaheen Majeed in Natural Products Insider in December. "We believe it was propelled by an overwhelming growth in the body of science on its safety and efficacy."
Generating more than $20 million in revenue in 2014, curcumin is the top-ranking natural herbal supplement. (As a dietary supplement, curcumin extracts are generally preferred, since in its raw state, turmeric has low bioavailability).
Here's an easy recipe to get your turmeric on: Iced turmeric latte.
Native to the Great Lakes region and northeastern U.S., aronia (aka chokeberry) have been used in many food products, from jam, salsa and syrup to ice cream, beer and wine. But this dark, sour berry that has long been prized by Native Americans as a miracle fruit has emerged as a potent superfood.
The primary reason is its high anthocyanin content. A class of more than 600 naturally occurring plant pigments, anthocyanins, a type of phytochemical, confer a dark red or purple color to many fruits and vegetables, such as purple berries, red grapes, eggplant and purple corn. There is a growing body of evidence of anthocyanins' wide-ranging health benefits.
"Based upon many cell-line studies, animal models and human clinical trials, it has been suggested that anthocyanins possess anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic activity, cardiovascular disease prevention, obesity control and diabetes alleviation properties, all of which are more or less associated with their potent antioxidant property," according to a 2010 Ohio State University study.
While anthocyanins are present in all those purple fruits and vegetables, none contain nearly as much as aronia. According to USDA figures, aronia has 2,147 milligrams of anthocyanin per 100 grams of berry. That outperforms the second-place elderberry (1,993 mg), as well as eggplant (750 mg), blackberries (353 mg), Concord grapes (192 mg) and red cabbage (113 mg).
If you live in USDA Hardiness Zone 3, you can grow your own and eat them right off the bush. But they're also perfect in smoothies. Here's a video on how to make one:
4. Mung Beans
A popular food in India, China and Southeast Asia, the mung bean has a nutty, sweet flavor that complements sweet and savory dishes. While they are packed with potassium, iron, magnesium and fiber, it's the protein content that is amazing: 24 percent. It's no surprise that they are popular, even for breakfast, in India, where 40 percent of the population is vegetarian.
While most other legumes lose their vitamin C content after cooking, mung beans retain most of it. Also, studies have shown that fermented mung bean extracts can help lower bad cholesterol levels and also blood sugar levels, which is good news for diabetics.
And there's more: A 2012 study showed that mung beans have the ability to suppress the growth of cancer cells in the liver and cervix. A 2005 study revealed that mung beans have antifungal properties as well.
"Sprout mung beans overnight (using a simple sprouting vessel) and eat over rice," suggested Rich Roll, a vegan athlete who Men's Fitness Magazine dubbed one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World."
"Alternatively, you can make a broth with turmeric or even brew a coffee-like drink in a French press with nutritional yeast," he wrote.
Learn how to grow mung bean sprouts at home with this video:
5. Maple Syrup
It was hiding in plain sight all along. An American kitchen staple, maple syrup is now being hailed as a superfood because it contains anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory compounds that can also help manage type 2 diabetes. As a recent Daily Mail headline heralded, “Maple syrup joins the ranks of broccoli and blueberries as new 'one-stop shop' superfood."
While you might eat it with pancakes, new research suggests you should be eating it a lot more. "We don't know yet whether the new compounds contribute to the healthy profile of maple syrup," said Navindra Seeram, who led the research at the University of Rhode Island. "But we do know that the sheer quantity and variety of identified compounds with documented health benefits qualifies maple syrup as a champion food."
The finding puts maple syrup alongside such known superfoods as berries, red wine (in moderation), tea and flaxseed.
“We found a wide variety of polyphenols in maple syrup," said Seeram. “We discovered that the polyphenols in maple syrup inhibit enzymes that are involved in the conversion of carbohydrate to sugar. In fact, in preliminary studies, maple syrup had a greater enzyme-inhibiting effect compared to several other healthy plant foods such as berries."
Here are 11 new ways to ways to include maple syrup in your diet.
By Andrew Rosenberg
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By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
- Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
- Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
- New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
How Do Resident Bacteria Keep You Healthy?<p>Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.</p><p>Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019378108" target="_blank">combating viral infection and modulating the immune response</a>.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184976" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In another study</a>, mice were fed <em>Lactobacillus</em> bacteria, commonly used as probiotic in fermented food. These microbes reduced the severity of influenza infection. The <em>Lactobacillus</em>-treated mice did not lose weight and had only mild lung damage compared with untreated mice. Similarly, others have found that treatment of mice with <em>Lactobacillus</em> protects against different <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/srep04638" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">subtypes of</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-17487-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">influenza</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">virus</a> and human respiratory syncytial virus – the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-39602-7" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">major cause of viral bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children</a>.</p>
Chronic Disease and Microbes<p>Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.</p><p>In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">immune cells</a> that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1002601107" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">babies delivered by cesarean section</a>, individuals consuming a poor <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12820" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">diet</a> and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nature11053" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elderly</a>.</p><p>In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them</a>. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.</p><p>Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.</p><p>Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, <a href="https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/melody-trial-info/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">my lab studies show how diet can be used</a> as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.</p><p>A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Old age</a> and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.</p><p><a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.jada.2008.12.019" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Black and Latinx people are disproportionately affected by obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease</a>, all of which are linked to poor nutrition. Thus, it is not a coincidence that <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6933e1.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these groups have suffered more deaths from COVID-19</a> compared with whites. This is the case not only in the U.S. but also <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/blacks-in-britain-are-four-times-as-likely-to-die-of-coronavirus-as-whites-data-show/2020/05/07/2dc76710-9067-11ea-9322-a29e75effc93_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">in Britain</a>.</p>
Discovering Microbes That Predict COVID-19 Severity<p>The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.</p><p>My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates <a href="https://theconversation.com/exercise-may-help-reduce-risk-of-deadly-covid-19-complication-ards-136922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">acute respiratory distress syndrome</a>.</p><p>Acute respiratory distress syndrome, a life-threatening lung injury, in SARS-CoV-2 patients is thought to develop from a <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cytogfr.2020.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">fatal overreaction of the immune response</a> called a <a href="https://theconversation.com/blocking-the-deadly-cytokine-storm-is-a-vital-weapon-for-treating-covid-19-137690" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cytokine storm</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">that causes an uncontrolled flood</a> <a href="http://doi.org/10.1016/S2213-2600(20)30216-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of immune cells into the lungs</a>. In these patients, their own uncontrolled inflammatory immune response, rather than the virus itself, causes the <a href="http://doi.org/10.1007/s00134-020-05991-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">severe lung injury and multiorgan failures</a> that lead to death.</p><p>Several studies <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.trsl.2020.08.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">described in one recent review</a> have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.</p><p>To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.</p><p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.01.05.20249061" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">We demonstrated</a>, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient's clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em>– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, <em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> has been associated with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2011.05.035" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">chronic</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/S0002-9440(10)61172-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammation</a>.</p><p><em>Enterococcus faecalis</em> collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an <em>E. faecalis</em> test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.</p><p>But it is not yet clear from our research what is the contribution of the altered microbiome in the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. A recent study has shown that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.12.11.416180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">SARS-CoV-2 infection triggers an imbalance in immune cells</a> called <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/imr.12170" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">T regulatory cells that are critical to immune balance</a>.</p><p>Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the <a href="https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.30916.001" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">proper activation</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1198469" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">of those T-regulatory</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nri.2016.36" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cells</a>. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.</p><p>As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/ana-maldonado-contreras-1152969" target="_blank">Ana Maldonado-Contreras</a> is an assistant professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Ana Maldonado-Contreras receives funding from The Helmsley Charitable Trust and her work has been supported by the American Gastroenterological Association. She received The Charles A. King Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellowship. She is also member of the Diversity Committee of the American Gastroenterological Association.</em></p><p><em style="">Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/a-healthy-microbiome-builds-a-strong-immune-system-that-could-help-defeat-covid-19-145668" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
By Jeff Masters, Ph.D.
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