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does aspartame really cause health problems?

February 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Aspartame is bad for you.  It will give you cancer and make you blind and break into your house late at night and steal all your stuff.  It’s pure evil and it’s out to hurt you.  I’ve always heard and been vaguely familiar with this type of scaremongering about artificial sweeteners, especially aspartame.  I didn’t pay much attention to it and generally dismissed it as a conspiracy theory or the normal type of banter that comes from people who think everything is harmful.  But I’ve been hearing more and more of it and it’s coming from credible sources, so I think it’s time to pay attention.

Artificial sweeteners are especially popular in diet drinks, which have been seeing a boom in sales because of the perception that they are healthier than regular, sugary drinks.  I just read about a study the other day that shows people who consume one diet soft drink per day have a 48% high risk of a heart attack or stroke than those who do drink regular soft drinks or none at all.  If that’s not enough, other research points to a long list of other aspartame related health problems: brain damage, seizures, brain tumors, vision impairment, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, headaches, hypertension and chronic fatigue syndrome. 

Another increasingly popular claim I’m hearing is that sweeteners produce an insulin spike by tricking the body into thinking it is consuming sugar because of its sweet taste.  This means that the body thinks it has extra energy to burn and therefore stops using fat for energy.  So sweeteners end up producing the opposite effect they are supposed to have, making it bad news for anyone who thought their diet drink was going to help them lose weight.

But are any of these claims true?  In short, maybe.  But the jury is still out with regards to aspartame and other sweeteners so it’s hard to tell.  There are arguments for and against sweeteners.  For example, here’s one that says there is no increased risk of cancer, here’s one that says there are no verified health problems associated with aspartame, and here’s one that say there’s no evidence that sucralose causes any health issues.

So, I’ll let you decide for yourself whether you think artificial sweeteners are safe or not.

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are high protein diets safe?

June 2, 2010 1 comment

Diets high in protein have been the staple for many athletes and bodybuilders over the years.  Protein is the essential building block for muscles and increases size, strength and power. A very good thing for athletes and anyone who exercises regularly.  But can we have too much of a good thing?  That seems to be a common belief among people who argue that high protein diets can cause health problems like kidney dysfunction and osteoporosis.

Let’s take a look at what actual research has been done on high protein diets to clear up some of the myths about associated health problems.

There is no evidence linking high protein diets to kidney problems in healthy people

No studies have shown that high protein consumption can cause kidney dysfunction in healthy people.  As Dr John Berardi notes, “there is absolutely no data in healthy adults suggesting that a high protein intake causes the onset of renal (kidney) dysfunction. There aren’t even any correlational studies showing this effect in healthy people.” The only research that shows a correlation between high protein intake and kidney problems is in people who are already suffering from kidney disease.  So for those who have kidney disease, a high protein diet may not be advisable.  But there is no reason to believe that this is the case in healthy people.

Studies actually show health benefits from high protein diets

Bone health:  some people believe that high protein can cause a loss of calcium and lead to problems like osteoporosis.  But when studies were done to test this belief, they actually found the opposite to be true, with a “positive association between protein intake and bone mineral density”.

Blood pressure: large studies in the US [1, 2] and China [3] have found a negative relationship between blood pressure and the amount of protein consumed – indicating that high protein diets are associated with low blood pressure.

Heart disease: a 14 year study of over 80,000 women found “that replacing carbohydrates with protein may be associated with a lower risk of ischemic heart disease”.  This is truer in cases where protein comes from lean sources like chicken, fish and vegetables, and less so in cases where protein comes from high cholesterol and saturated fat sources (pork, beef, lamb, eggs, etc.).

Liver function: protein in needed for liver tissue repair and high protein diets have been found to be beneficial for people suffering from liver disease.

We are genetically designed to consume high protein diets

As mentioned in my previous blog about the caveman diet, proponents argue that developments in food have far outpaced human genes.  We are built to eat unprocessed foods, like fruits, vegetables, nuts and lean meats. Palaeolithic diets were high in protein – around 3 to 4 times more protein that in modern diets.  Arguing in favour of the cavemen diet, Dr Anssi Manninen from University of Oulu in Finland states, “it is implausible that an animal that adapted to a high protein diet for 5 million years suddenly in 10,000 years becomes a predominant carbohydrate burner.”

the caveman diet

April 14, 2010 1 comment

It seems appropriate to start this blog by going back to the beginning.  Back over 2 million years in fact.  In those good ol’ days people didn’t worry about saturated fat, antioxidants, five a day, calorie intake, etc.  They just ate what they could find or kill: nuts, meat, fish, vegetables, roots and fruits.  That’s what proponents of the Palaeolithic (aka caveman, stone-age) diet are proposing – not hunting and gathering our own food but going back to our ancestors’ ways of eating.  Sound like another ridiculous fad diet? Maybe, but read on.  

The thinking behind this diet is that human lifestyle and food preparation changes in the last 10,000 years (since the beginning of agriculture) have far outpaced the development of human genes.  This means that our bodies are still designed to function on a Palaeolithic diet, rather than on the processed grains, sugars and dairy found in modern foods.  These processed foods are supposedly bad for us because they are inedible in their raw format. So eating them means we are ingesting toxins, lacking essential vitamins and spiking blood sugar levels.  Basically, the evolution of our food is not on par with the evolution of our bodies.  There’s lots of research to support this.

Advocates of the Palaeolithic diet also claim that people who eat in this way are stronger, faster, slimmer and healthier than us mortals.  They have far fewer ‘diseases of affluence’, like heart diseases, diabetes and obesity.  This is backed-up by a study in on the island of Kitava in Papua New Guinea, whose inhabitants still maintain a Palaeo diet.  Its author, Staffan Lindeberg (the cheerleader of the Palaeo diet), found that strokes and heart disease were virtually absent among the Kitava population. 

‘Fine’, you may say, ‘but what does this diet actually consist of?  What specifically am I supposed to eat?’  Well, it depends on how strict you want to be – almost like vegetarian vs vegan.  Here’s a condensed version of most guides:

Don’t eat:

  • Grains
  • Beans
  • Potatoes
  • Sugar
  • Processed oils
  • Alcohol, fizzy drinks, fruit juice; (depends on your interpretation of the diet)

Eat:

  • Meat (chicken, beef, fish – lean meats)
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Nuts
  • Eggs

There are plenty of sites with Palaeo diet recipes, but they make for depressing reading.  You’d have to be a pretty creative cook to make exciting caveman food.  Even if you were to ‘go caveman’ (or cavewoman) the food in supermarkets is not an accurate representation of what people ate a couple million years ago. 

Some critics, like the UK’s National Health Service, have officially labelled this a ‘fad diet’.  They claim that studies of this diet have had small numbers of participants, high drop-out rates and no control groups.  Also, participants ate 900 fewer calories everyday, meaning their weight loss is not just from the types of food they ate but also the amount of food they ate. (A noticeable drop in calcium levels was also present in participants).

As you may have noticed by now, the caveman diet is not radically different from most good diets – more fruits, vegetables and lean meats; less sugars, grains and processed food.  This doesn’t mean that you should try to sick to it religiously though.  Actually, the fact that studies have 30% drop-out rates means that trying to be a strict Palaeo dieter is likely to fail. 

Add to that the pressure from friends, colleagues and family to eat ‘modern’ processed foods and you’ll no doubt find your self falling off the wagon in no time.  Could you imagine turning down dinner parties and nights out because the food is not Palaeo?

So, the caveman diet may be a good guide for what to eat more and less of, but trying to stick to it 100% of the time is bound to fail or ruin your social life.