The Crowding Out Strategy to Eating Healthier

It may be more expedient politically to promote an increase in consumption of healthy items rather than a decrease in consumption of unhealthy items, but it may be far less effective.

The World Health Organization has estimated that more than a million deaths “worldwide are linked to low fruit and vegetable consumption.” What can be done about it? I explore this in my video Is it Better to Advise More Plants or Less Junk?

There’s always appealing to vanity. A daily smoothie can give you a golden glow as well as a rosy glow, both of which have been shown to “enhance healthy appearance” in Caucasian, Asian, and African skin tones, as you can see at 0:24 in my video.

What about giving it away for free?

A free school fruit scheme was introduced in Norway for grades 1 through 10. Fruit consumption is so powerfully beneficial that if kids ate only an additional 2.5 grams of fruit a day, the program would pay for itself in terms of saving the country money. How much is 2.5 grams? The weight of half of a single grape. However, that cost-benefit analysis assumed this minuscule increased fruit consumption would be retained through life. It certainly seemed to work while the program was going on, with a large increase in pupils eating fruit, but what about a year after the free fruit program ended? The students were still eating more fruit. They were hooked! Three years later? Same thing. Three years after they had stopped getting free fruit, they were still eating about a third of a serving more, which, if sustained, is considerably more than necessary for the program to pay for itself.

There were also some happy side effects, including a positive spillover effect where not only the kids were eating more fruit, but their parents started eating more, too. And, although the “intention of these programs was not to reduce unhealthy snack intakes,” that’s exactly what appeared to happen: The fruit replaced some of the junk. Increasing healthy choices to crowd out the unhealthy ones may be more effective than just telling kids not to eat junk, which could actually backfire. Indeed, when you tell kids not to eat something, they may start to want it even more, as you can see at 2:20 in my video.

Which do you think worked better? Telling families to increase plants or decrease junk? Families were randomly assigned to one of two groups, either receiving encouragement to get at least two servings of fruits and veggies a day, with no mention of decreasing junk, or being encouraged to get their junk food intake to less than ten servings a week, with no mention of eating more fruits and veggies. What do you think happened? The Increase Fruit and Vegetable intervention just naturally “reduced high-fat/high-sugar intake,” whereas those in the Decrease Fat and Sugar group cut back on junk but didn’t magically start eating more fruits and vegetables.

This crowding out effect may not work on adults, though. As you can see at 3:12 in my video, in a cross-section of over a thousand adults in Los Angeles and Louisiana, those who ate five or more servings of fruits and veggies a day did not consume significantly less alcohol, soda, candy, cookies, or chips. “This finding suggests that unless the excessive consumption of salty snacks, cookies, candy, and sugar-sweetened beverages”—that is, junk—“is curtailed, other interventions…[may] have a limited impact….It may be politically more expedient to promote an increase in consumption of healthy items rather than a decrease in consumption of unhealthy items, but it may be far less effective.” In most public health campaigns, “messages have been direct and explicit: don’t smoke, don’t drink, and don’t take drugs.” In contrast, food campaigns have focused on eat healthy foods rather than cut out the crap. “Explicit messages against soda and low-nutrient [junk] foods are rare.”

In the United States, “if one-half of the U.S. population were to increase fruit and vegetable consumption by one serving each per day, an estimated 20,000 cancer cases might be avoided each year.” That’s 20,000 people who would not have gotten cancer had they been eating their fruits and veggies. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends we “fill half [our] plate with colorful fruits and vegetables,” but less than 10 percent of Americans hit the recommended daily target. Given this sorry state of affairs, should we even bother telling people to strive for “5 a day,” or might just saying “get one more serving than you usually do” end up working better? Researchers thought that “the more realistic ‘just 1 more’ goal would be more effective than the very ambitious ‘5 a day’ goal,” but they were wrong.

As you can see at 4:56 in my video, those told to eat one more a day for a week, ate about one more a day for a week, and those told to eat five a day for a week did just that, eating five a day for a week. But here’s the critical piece: One week after the experiment was over, the group who had been told to eat “5 a day” was still eating about a serving more, whereas the “just 1 more” group went back to their miserable baseline. So, more ambitious eating goals may be more motivating. Perhaps this is why “in the US ‘5 a day’ was replaced by the ‘Fruits and Veggies—More Matters’ campaign…in which a daily consumption of 7–13 servings of fruits and vegetables – FVs –  is recommended.” However, if the recommendation is too challenging, people may just give up. So, instead of just sticking with the science, policy makers evidently need to ask themselves questions like “How many servings are regarded as threatening?”


For more on appealing to vanity to improve fruit and vegetable consumption, see my videos Eating Better to Look Better and Beauty Is More Than Skin Deep.

What does the science say about smoothies? See:

The flipside of free fruit programs is to tax instead of subsidize. Learn more by checking out my video Would Taxing Unhealthy Foods Improve Public Health?

For more on the paternalistic attitude that you don’t care enough about your health to be told the truth, see my videos Everything in Moderation? Even Heart Disease? and Optimal Diet: Just Give It to Me Straight, Doc.

I explore this same patronizing attitude when it comes to physical activity in How Much Should You Exercise?

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

 

Dark Chocolate Put to the Test for Peripheral Artery Disease

One of the problems with publishing research on chocolate is that the press jumps on it, oversimplifying and sensationalizing the message, and then the money starts rolling in from candy companies and the message is muddied even more. As a result, an important idea is lost in all the frenzy: The flavanol phytonutrients in cocoa appear to be beneficial, as I discuss in my video Chocolate and Stroke Risk. Though the sugar, fat, and excess calories in chocolate aren’t good for us, “natural cocoa powder can be a health food.” So, adding cocoa to a smoothie or oatmeal, for example, would be health-promoting. Try to use unprocessed, undutched cocoa, though. The beneficial flavanols are what give cocoa its bitterness, so manufacturers try to process cocoa with alkali to destroy them on purpose. Thus, when it comes to cocoa, bitter appears to be better.

In my previous video Dark Chocolate and Artery Function, you can see how high-tech angiography showed that dark chocolate could improve the function of coronary arteries in the heart within two hours of consumption, but there are some blood vessels you can visualize with your own eyes: the blood vessels in your eyes. Two hours after eating dark chocolate, as I show at 1:18 in my Chocolate and Stroke Risk video, you can observe a significant improvement in the ability of the little veins in your eyes to dilate.

What about the blood vessels in our legs? Peripheral artery disease (PAD) is atherosclerosis in the arteries feeding our limbs, which leads to claudication, a crampy pain in our calf muscles when we try to exercise, due to impaired blood flow. So, maximal walking distance and time were studied in 20 PAD patients two hours after subjects ate either dark chocolate with at least 85 percent cocoa or milk chocolate with no more than 35 percent cocoa. After eating the dark chocolate, the subjects could walk about a dozen more yards and about 17 seconds longer than before they had the dark chocolate. In comparison, after the milk chocolate, they weren’t even able to walk as far as baseline and not for a single second longer. So, there does seem to be something in cocoa that’s helping, but a few seconds here and there isn’t much to write home about. How about reversing the atherosclerosis, which we didn’t even think was even possible until 1977.

1977? Dean Ornish didn’t start publishing on heart disease reversal until 1979. In actuality, the first demonstration of atherosclerosis reversal with a cholesterol-lowering diet and drugs wasn’t on the coronary arteries going to the heart, but on the femoral arteries going to the legs.

What have researchers observed regarding the arteries going to the brain? There is a noninvasive way to measure arterial function within the brain using transcranial ultrasound. At 2:49 in my video, you can see a chart of what happens when we hold our breath. Once we start, our brain starts opening up the arteries to increase blood flow to compensate. If the arteries in our brain are stiffened and crippled by atherosclerosis, however, they’re unable to open as much and as fast as they should, and so are said to have a smaller “breath holding index,” which can be a risk factor for stroke. So, researchers designed an experiment in which they compared the results of a target food to something neutral, like oatmeal. What target food did they choose? A spoonful of cocoa powder or something? No. They chose a randomized crossover trial of oatmeal versus a deep-fried Mars bar.

Why a deep-fried Mars bar? The study was published in the Scottish Medical Journal, and, evidently, the “deep-fried Mars bar (DFMB) is a snack…strongly associate[d] with Scotland.” Really? Yes, really. Researchers phoned a total of 627 fish and chips shops in Scotland “to ascertain the delicacy’s availability.” More than one in five shops said they did carry deep-fried Mars bars and sold up to 200 a week. (Batter-dipped and deep-dried Snickers was evidently less popular.) The researchers “conclude[d] that Scotland’s deep-fried Mars bars is not just an urban myth. Encouragingly, [they] did also find some evidence of the penetrance of the Mediterranean diet into Scotland, albeit in the form of deep-fried pizza.”

Could this be contributing to Scotland having among the highest stroke rates in Europe?  Interestingly, there was a significant drop in men compared to women, which you can see at 4:29 in my video. Maybe men are from Mars and women are from Snickers? Regardless, what about chocolate that’s not deep-fried? There have been a few population studies that have followed people over time that found that those who ate chocolate appeared to have lower stroke rates, which has since been confirmed by another study. Is it possible, though, that chocolate consumption just happens to be related to other behaviors that are heart- and brain-healthy? Maybe people who exercise a lot have to eat more food, so maybe they eat more chocolate? Researchers didn’t see any evidence of that, but you can’t account for everything. To prove cause and effect, people would need to be randomized into two groups, with half eating chocolate and the other half not, and then followed for a decade or two. To this, one researcher replied that “it would be hard to gain consent from most people to the possibility of being randomized to a ‘no chocolate’ arm. How many people would agree to forego chocolate for a ‘sufficiently long follow-up period’?” Ten to twenty years without chocolate is a pretty long time.


Want more chocolate? See:

For more on stroke prevention, check out:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

 

How to Get the Benefits of Aspirin Without the Risks

For people without a personal history of cardiovascular disease, aspirin’s risks may outweigh its benefits, but aspirin may have additional benefits. “We have long recognized the preventative role of daily aspirin for patients with atherosclerotic [heart] disease; however, it now appears that we can hatch 2 birds from 1 egg. Daily low-dose aspirin may help prevent certain forms of cancer, as well, as I discuss in my video Should We All Take Aspirin to Prevent Cancer? In an analysis of eight different studies involving more than 25,000 people, “the authors found a 20 percent decrease in risk of death from cancer among those randomized to daily aspirin…” The researchers wrote, “[T]he search for the most efficacious and safe treatments for malignant disease remains an enormous and burdensome challenge. If only we could just stop cancer in its tracks—prevent it before it strikes. Perhaps we can.” Indeed, perhaps we can with salicylic acid, the plant phytonutrient that’s marketed as aspirin.

How does aspirin affect cancer? The Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to the team who discovered how aspirin works. Enzymes named COX (cyclooxygenase) take the pro-inflammatory, omega-6, fatty-acid arachidonic acid our body makes or we get directly in our diet (primarily from eating chicken and eggs), and turns it into inflammatory mediators, such as thromboxane, which produces thrombosis (clots), and prostaglandins, which cause inflammation. Aspirin suppresses these COX enzymes. Less thromboxane means fewer clots, and less prostaglandin means less pain, swelling, and fever. However, prostaglandins can also dilate the lymphatic vessels inside tumors, allowing cancer cells to spread. So, one way cancer tries to kill us is by boosting COX activity.

We think one way aspirin can prevent cancer is by counteracting the tumor’s attempts to pry open the lymphatic bars on its cage and spread throughout the body. Indeed, reduction in mortality due to some cancers occurred within two to three years after aspirin was started. That seems too quick to be accounted for by an effect only on tumor formation . Cancer can take decades to develop, so the only way aspirin could work that fast is by suppressing the growth and spread of tumors that already exist. Aspirin appeared to cut the risk of metastases in half, particularly for adenocarcinomas, like colon cancer.

Given this, should we all take a daily baby aspirin? Previous risk-benefit analyses did not consider the effects of aspirin on cancer, instead just balancing cardiovascular benefits with bleeding risks, but these new cancer findings may change things.

If daily aspirin use were only associated with a reduction of colon cancer risk, then the benefits might not outweigh the harms for the general population, but we now have evidence that it works against other cancers, too. “[E]ven a 10% reduction in overall cancer incidence…could tip the balance” in favor of benefits over risks.

How does the cancer benefit compare? We know that using aspirin in healthy people just for cardiovascular protection is kind of a wash, but, by contrast, the cancer prevention rates might save twice as many lives, so the benefits may outweigh the risks. If we put it all together—heart attacks, strokes, cancer, and bleeding—aspirin comes out as protective overall, potentially extending our lifespan. There is a higher risk of major bleeding even on low-dose aspirin, but there are fewer heart attacks, clotting strokes, and cancers. So, overall, aspirin may be beneficial.

It’s important to note that the age categories in that study only went up to 74 years, though. Why? Because the “risk of bleeding on aspirin increases steeply with age,” so the balance may be tipped the other way at 75 years and older. But, in younger folks, these data certainly have the research community buzzing. “The emerging evidence on aspirin’s cancer protection highlights an exciting time for cancer prevention…”

“In light of low-dose aspirin’s ability to reduce mortality from both vascular events and cancer to a very notable degree, it is tempting to recommend this measure…for most healthy adults…However, oral aspirin, even in low doses, has a propensity to damage the gastroduodenal mucosa [linings of our stomachs] and increase risk for gastrointestinal bleeding; this fact may constrain health authorities from recommending aspirin use for subjects deemed to be at low cardiovascular risk”—that is, for the general population. “Recent meta-analyses estimate that a year of low-dose aspirin therapy will induce major gastrointestinal bleeding (requiring hospitalization) in one subject out of 833…”

If only there were a way to get the benefits without the risks.

Those who remember my video Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods already know there is. The aspirin phytonutrient salicylic acid isn’t just found in willow trees, but throughout the plant kingdom, from blackberries and white onions to green apples, green beans, and beyond. This explains why the active ingredient in aspirin is found normally in the bloodstream even in people not taking aspirin. The levels of aspirin in people who eat fruits and vegetables are significantly higher than the levels of those who don’t. If we drink just one fruit smoothie, our levels rise within only 90 minutes. But, one smoothie isn’t going to do it, of course. We need to have regular fruit and vegetable consumption every day. Are these kinds of aspirin levels sufficient to suppress the expression of the inflammatory enzyme implicated in cancer growth and spread, though? Using umbilical cord and foreskin cells—where else would researchers get human tissue?—they found that even those low levels caused by smoothie consumption significantly suppressed the expression of this inflammatory enzyme on a genetic level.

Since this aspirin phytonutrient is made by plants, we might expect plant-eaters to have higher levels. Indeed, not only did researchers find higher blood levels in vegetarians, but there was an overlap between people taking aspirin pills. Some vegetarians had the same level in their blood as people actually taking aspirin. Vegetarians may pee out as much of the active metabolite of aspirin as those who take aspirin do, simply because vegetarians eat so many fruits and vegetables. “Because the anti-inflammatory action of aspirin is probably the result of SA [salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin], and the concentrations of SA seen in vegetarians have been shown to inhibit [that inflammatory enzyme] COX-2 in vitro, it is plausible that dietary salicylates may contribute to the beneficial effects of a vegetarian diet, although it seems unlikely that most [omnivores] will achieve sufficient dietary intake of salicylates to have a therapeutic effect.”

Aspirin can chew away at our gut. With all that salicylic acid flowing through their systems, plant-eaters must have higher ulcer rates, right? No. Both vegetarian women and men appear to have a significantly lower risk of ulcers. So, for the general population, by eating plants instead of taking aspirin, we may not only get the benefits without the risks, we can get the benefits with even more benefits. How is this possible? In plants, the salicylic acid can come naturally pre-packaged with gut-protective nutrients.

For example, nitric oxide from dietary nitrates exerts stomach-protective effects by boosting blood flow and protective mucus production in the lining of the stomach—“effects which demonstrably oppose the pro-ulcerative impact of aspirin and other NSAIDs.”

The researcher notes that while “[d]ark green leafy vegetables…are among the richest dietary sources of nitrate…it may be unrealistic to expect people to eat ample servings of these every day,” so we should just give people pills with their pills, but I say we should just eat our greens. People who’ve had a heart attack should follow their physician’s advice, which probably includes taking aspirin every day, but what about everyone else? I think everyone should take aspirin—but in the form of produce, not a pill.


To see the pros versus cons for people trying to prevent or treat heart attacks and stroke, see my video Should We All Take Aspirin to Prevent Heart Disease?.

Does the COX enzyme sound familiar? I talked about it in my Anti-Inflammatory Life Is a Bowl of Cherries video.

Where does one get “dietary nitrates”? See Vegetables Rate by Nitrate and Veg-Table Dietary Nitrate Scoring Method. I also discuss nitrates in Slowing Our Metabolism with Nitrate-Rich Vegetables and Oxygenating Blood with Nitrate-Rich Vegetables.

Do some plant foods have more aspirin than others? Definitely. In fact, some foods have the same amount as a “baby” aspirin. Check out Plants with Aspirin Aspirations.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: