In the next few weeks, the much-anticipated new report of the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will be published.
In this mammoth document — more than 500 pages and known formally as “Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans” — is advice on portion control, a re-emphasis of the benefits of fruits, vegetables and grains, plus directions for healthful dieting over the long-term.
The report, which is published every five years and is eagerly awaited by nutritionists and other health experts, also includes a section on the pros and cons of the most popular diet plans promoted in the country.
Most of us are aware of the basics (which are tweaked every half-decade to take into account new research): That exercise is essential for everyone. That consuming fruits and vegetables, with their high vitamin, mineral and fiber content — makes them the number-one food choice recommended in the report. We should eat five to 13 servings per day, at least three servings of whole grains per day and eat fish twice a week (to get those heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids).
The new recommendations will also update what we should avoid. Limit salt intake to avoid hypertension, and reduce the amount of fat, calories and carbohydrates consumed.
These, of course, are important aspects of eating and nutrition. The report, however, tends to be conservative in its pronouncements and does not include some of the more cutting-edge research out there, in particular, some of the studies examining foods that have been criticized as unhealthy in the past.
With that in mind, we went on the search for some foods that have health benefits which may not be as well known.
Lowers chances for Parkinson’s disease?During the past decade, medical studies have explored the relationship between caffeine, particularly in coffee, with the development of Parkinson's disease (PD), a neurological disorder that occurs when levels of dopamine, a key neurotransmitter, decrease. PD symptoms that result include trembling, faulty coordination and difficulty in speaking.
Between 1 and 1.5 million Americans have Parkinson's. It affects both men and women (though men are in a slight majority) and all ethnic groups. Most are 60 or older and no cause and no cure are known, although some treatments, from medication to surgery, have proven helpful.
Although the connection between caffeine and PD is not totally understood, scientists do know that caffeine and certain brain chemicals belong to the same group, xanthines. One theory is that caffeine increases the amount of dopamine in the brain. Caffeine occurs naturally in coffee, tea and chocolate, and is added to some medicines and soft drinks.
In the Honolulu Heart Program, a study of 8,004 Japanese-American men over three decades, it was discovered that those who did not drink any coffee were five times more likely to develop Parkinson's than those men who drank coffee every day. (Men of Japanese ancestry were chosen in part because of a low incidence of heart disease among Japanese people in general and to compare the effects of varying diets and environments on health.)
Meanwhile, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke studied 77,000 women during a two-decade period and concluded that caffeine has the same positive effect on women as it does in men.
Rich in antioxidants and “happy” neurotransmitters
Chocolate, it turns out, has many health benefits. It contains, for instance, polyphenols, which are antioxidants that can prevent cancer, inhibit heart disease, enhance our immune system and give us a feeling of well-being.
In particular, polyphenols help the body's cells resist damage from free radicals, which damage cell structure and are formed in our normal body processes. Polyphenols also help inhibit platelet aggregation and activation, meaning they help prevent platelets from clumping together, therefore reducing the risk of arteriosclerosis. Fruit, vegetables, wine, and tea have polyphenolic flavonoids as well, but they are found in much higher abundance in chocolate and cocoa.
It is important to note that dark chocolate contains more than twice the amount of antioxidants than milk chocolate does and has fewer calories. White chocolate, though, contains no cocoa, and therefore holds no real potential for nutritional benefits. Chocolate of all types, of course, tends to contain high amounts of sugar, which can increase weight if eaten in significant quantities.
Other health benefits of chocolate include theobromine, a chemical in chocolate that has been shown to be effective in preventing coughs. It also contains healthful nutrients, such as the minerals calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, potassium, B vitamins, and copper, which are essential for normal biological functions, growth, metabolism and oxygen transport.
Chocolate also can affect mood in several ways. It contains phenethylamine (PEA), which stimulates the nervous system, triggering the release of endorphins, which are opiate-like compounds that dull pain and give a sense of well-being. There are also chemicals in chocolate that increase the activity of dopamine, a neurotransmitter directly associated with feelings of sexual arousal and pleasure.
Additionally, chocolate can boost brain levels of serotonin, the “happy” neurotransmitter, especially in women, who tend to be more sensitive to chocolate than men. And yet another way chocolate can make us feel good is by inhibiting the natural breakdown of anandamide, a neurotransmitter normally found in small amounts in the brain that can produce a feeling of euphoria.
Although chocolate is high in calories, it is not high in cholesterol. In fact, a recent study done by the Mayo clinic showed that flavanoids, such as those found in chocolate's antioxidants, help cut back on "bad" cholesterol while raising the levels of "good" cholesterol.
The superpowered fruitYou’ve probably heard that blueberries are the fruit richest in antioxidants — but do you know just how rich? Consider this: A half cup of blueberries provides the antioxidant equivalent of five servings of other fruits and vegetables.
Antioxidants have made quite a name for themselves. With all the new research linking antioxidants to the prevention of diseases, consumers have been bombarded with a slew of new antioxidant claims and products.
What antioxidants are believed to do is neutralize free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that have lost one electron and are aggressively looking for a replacement. In the body, this leads to oxidative damage as the radicals pluck electrons from important cell structures like genes and membranes. Some examples of free-radical damage include damage to tissues such as blood vessels, which contributes to coronary artery disease, damage to sensitive cells such as in the eye (which can lead to cataracts and macular degeneration), and damage to our DNA (which can lead to cancer). In addition, free radicals can affect all cells, generally accelerating the aging process and hastening those diseases associated with age.
Good for your eyes?One large egg is a significant source of a number of vitamins and minerals. (Eggs are high in cholesterol, but the chief villain in raising blood-cholesterol levels is not the cholesterol in our diets, but saturated fats.) In particular, egg yolks are rich in the pigment zeaxanthin, which seems to help protect eyes from macular degeneration — a deterioration of a key part of the retina at the back of the eye — a leading cause of blindness in people over 65.
New research shows it may help prevent Alzheimer’sThe intake of adequate levels of folic acid has long been associated with healthy pregnancies in women (and many health-care systems prescribe folic acid as a matter of course to women in the early stages of pregnancy).
Scientists now believe that this long-established medical practice may contribute to the significantly lowered rates of Alzheimer's disease noted among women. Studies have found that folic acid breaks down homocysteine, a hormone which is found in high levels among people suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Broccoli is one of the very best sources of folic acids available naturally in food. Increasing intake of broccoli may, therefore, prove one of the most effective and easily administered defenses against this debilitating disease.
Viagra in your breakfast bowl?
Oats, of course, were one of the first foods to be allowed to make health claims, in particular for their ability to lower cholesterol levels. Now, researchers at Tufts University have found that oats may also hinder the ability of blood cells to stick to the walls of our arteries as well as protect against the early stages of hardening of the arteries by preventing fatty buildup. The “stickiness” of fat in the artieries causes inflammation and plaque. Inflammation leads to abnormal growth of the cells under the blood-vessel lining and leads to plaque formation — and as the plaque continues to accumulate, it ultimately blocks the arteries and impedes blood flow.
OK, but what does that have to do with our sex life? Well, blood flow is important for optimum sexual functioning (mostly for men, but also for women). So, as you munch into that bowl of not-so-tasty oats in the breakfast room, just think what they may be doing for you in the bedroom!
Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent