Exciting studies have been published recently that reflect back on issues we’ve previously discussed, so I want to share these updates with you. And having just returned from several speaking engagements, some of the questions posed to me there reminded me that you may be wondering about the same things.
So here’s our dash through a variety of interesting topics that have significant meaning for the day-to-day choices you make impacting your health….
Protein and What You Need to Keep, Build or Re-build Muscle
In a past column, Protein: Why total amount isn’t the key, we looked at research showing that even if you eat the recommended total amount of protein for the day, if it’s distributed as small bits throughout the day and one big lump at one meal, you may not be able to use all that protein effectively to keep or build muscle. This Smart Bytes® post included a video interview with Douglas Paddon-Jones, PhD, whose research focuses on this issue.
The body can use about 30 grams of protein consumed at one time to build muscle. You get that in a three- or four-ounce portion of fish, poultry or meat (the size of a deck of cards or slightly bigger) served with the other three-quarters of your plate full of vegetables and whole grains. You can also get there or nearly there by combining various dairy and/or vegetarian food choices if you choose well. Anything beyond 30 grams of protein can be used as a source of calories, but does not seem to help build muscle.
Update: Dr. Paddon-Jones and his colleagues have a newly published study that adds more to the picture. It was a small trial, including just eight adults, which is not unusual in studies of this intensity. These healthy normal-weight or overweight (but not obese) men and women were given the same total amount of protein for two seven-day blocks of time, but each block distributed that protein differently. When protein was divided into three approximately equal amounts (about 30 grams at each of three meals), markers of muscle building activity were higher than when the same people ate the same amount of protein distributed in a pattern typical of many Americans, with about 11 grams at breakfast, 16 grams at lunch and 63 grams at dinner. This total amount of protein is well beyond the recommended amounts for healthy adults, and represents average U.S. adult intake. Total calories were also the same between the two conditions.
Bottom line take-home: More research is needed to confirm these findings and understand what factors may add influence, but this message – that it’s not just total protein but how it’s distributed through the day – is important to many people. I’m thinking of people (like me!) from middle age onward who tend to lose muscle every year, people losing weight and trying to minimize the amount of muscle lost in the process, and people (including cancer survivors) trying to rebuild muscle as part of their recovery from illness or surgery. In implementing these findings, remember that healthy eating habits still focus on plant foods as the core of our eating choices – it just reminds us to be intentional about how the protein we eat is distributed. For practical tips on including protein at breakfast and lunch in healthful ways, check this Smart Bytes® post with ideas my colleagues shared.
How People Who Aren’t Mediterranean Eat a Mediterranean Diet
Among my most popular columns, and something that is always of interest if I mention it in a presentation, is the New Nordic Diet. This is an effort underway in Scandinavian countries, especially Denmark and Sweden, to translate the principles of the Mediterranean diet into an eating pattern that fits Scandinavian food availability and traditions. The current Nordic diet tends to be low in legumes (dried beans and peas) and most vegetables; and high in animal foods, sweets and relatively processed foods. In other words, the opposite of eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet built around nutrient-rich plant foods and healthful choices of fat.
The New Nordic Diet favors fish, cabbage and other commonly eaten cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts), root vegetables, whole grain rye bread (a classic Scandinavian favorite that is super-high in dietary fiber), oatmeal, and fruits like apples, pears and berries. Limited studies highlighted in my previous blog post found that when people switched to this pattern, it decreased blood pressure, insulin resistance and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and promoted modest weight loss. In a classic example of what happens when people can eat all they want of foods that are filling but low-calorie, calorie consumption dropped without any calorie-counting effort.
Update: Two studies published since my original post show a longer-term look at implementing the New Nordic Diet. A six-month study included adults classified as “centrally obese” – meaning their waist size exceeded recommended limits, which is of special concern since abdominal fat seems to pose most health risk. Support for planning healthy meals and free food were supplied to two groups, one assigned to the New Nordic Diet and one to the Average Danish Diet. Those on the New Nordic Diet – who again, were not given any calorie consumption limits – lost more weight and reduced blood pressure more than those following the eating pattern representing current typical habits.
Another new study shows what happened after a year without the free food and support. Both groups from the previous study – whether initially assigned to the New Nordic Diet (NND) or Average Danish Diet (ADD) – were encouraged to follow the New Nordic Diet, but were not given any help in doing so. Unfortunately, many of the people originally assigned to the NND strayed from these choices over the year and regained about two-thirds of weight originally lost. Across both groups, the closer people’s eating habits came to the NND, the less weight they regained. Regardless of group, those who increased physical activity regained about 7 ½ pounds less than those who did not. (No surprise, regardless of how someone loses weight.)
Bottom line take-home: The “magic” of the Mediterranean diet is not in the artichokes and arugula. Although they are delicious, the key is centering your eating around a wide variety of nutrient-rich vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, with health-wise choices of protein and fat. The long-term study suggests that even after six months of healthy eating, living in a society with abundant unhealthy foods, if eating habits of friends, family and co-workers are not-so-healthy, it’s tough to stay on target. Other research has suggested that six months is not enough to create a permanent change in habits. How can we create a community of support to help us keep and build healthy lifestyles?
Q & A: Does the omega-3 fat content of grass-fed beef mean it does not have to be counted within the recommended limit on red meat in a healthful diet?
Yes, even grass-fed beef counts toward the recommended maximum of 18 ounces per week of all red meat (beef, lamb and pork) combined. Grass feeding does increases meat’s content of omega-3 fat two- to four-fold compared to grain feeding. However, three ounces (raw weight) of grass-finished beef contains from 20 to 90 milligrams (mg) of the omega-3 fats known as EPA, DHA and DPA, according to the latest version (Release 26) of the USDA National Nutrition Database and several peer-reviewed journal articles. That’s a substantial change from “conventionally-raised” beef fed a mixture of grain and soybeans the last four to six months of life, and has produced measurable changes in omega-3 fat levels in people consuming 18 ounces a week. However, compared to the amount of omega-3’s we get by eating fish, it is very little. The naturally high-fat fish considered major sources of omega-3 fat contain about 400 to 1000 mg in three ounces (raw weight). The same size of even lean white fish contains 100 to 300 mg.
Current research suggests that fat content is not responsible for the link between risk of colon cancer and excessive amounts of red meat. Focus now is the high content of a particular form of iron in red meat, called heme iron. While offering the advantage for people who need more iron of being easily absorbed, it seems linked to damage within the digestive tract and greater formation of free radicals that can damage cell DNA. Emerging evidence also points to a shift in the bacteria in our colon with high red meat consumption, favoring a less health-promoting type of bacteria.
Please share: What are some topics you’d like addressed in upcoming Smart Bytes® posts – either with an in-depth look or a quick Q & A? I’d love to hear from you in the Comments section below!