Maybe it was the glory of our neighborhood community garden in June that inspired us to write this piece for the next issue of the New York Buyers’ Club newsletter, THE SUPPLEMENT:
Is it just our imagination, or have we detected a growing public interest in the impact of food on our health? Maybe you’ve heard about our new first family, the Obamas, and the vegetable garden they’ve planted at the White House to supply their kitchen with locally grown, healthy vegetables and berries. Or—not such cheerful news–maybe you’ve read about the obesity epidemic sweeping the US, caused largely by mass consumption of fast food and highly processed food products, and linked to devastating increases in diabetes and cardiovascular disease across the population. Or maybe you’ve dipped (or dug) into the writings of food revolutionary Michael Pollan, who’s become celebrated for urging us to eat real food (like our great-great-grandparents ate), shun the supermarket and shop the greenmarket whenever possible, and even plant a garden.
Though the New York Buyers’ Club is a nutritional supplements co-op, we understand very well that food is first. The food we eat every day, what kind and how much, has an enormous impact on our health, and research on diet has brought to light ever more clearly the effects of nutrition on both our physical health and our mental well-being. A few things have been obvious for a while: traditional diets, such as the “Mediterranean diet” or the “Chinese diet,” are much better for you than the standard modern American diet with its refined carbohydrates, bad fats (saturated or trans), excessive salt, super-sized portions of red meat, and mighty rivers of high fructose corn syrup. It’s simple epidemiology: populations that eat lots of whole grains, fruits, nuts, vegetables, moderate amounts of fish and poultry (and little red meat), and rely on traditional seasonings (from rosemary to turmeric) and good fats (like olive and fish oils) end up having significantly lower rates of heart disease, cancer, and even mental health conditions like depression.
Can the clear health benefits of traditional diets be translated in any useful way to the field of supplements? (Supplements are, to repeat, a supplement to food, not a replacement.) One obvious “yes” comes in the increased study and use of fish oil/omega-3 fatty acid supplements over the last few decades, first of all for cardiovascular health, but also—as has been highlighted more recently—to reduce susceptibility to depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Here’s a case in which an individual nutrient within a healthful diet has been isolated and can be delivered as a supplement that bestows health benefits. (Fish oil supplements have a particular advantage over food sources, too: they can be refined to eliminate mercury or other contamination, a growing concern these days, whether you’re eating fresh or canned fish.)
We also know that it’s possible to extract a component from food and use its particular properties to confer a health benefit, while leaving behind other parts that you don’t want or need. This is the case with whey protein powders, which leave behind milk fat, but keep the whey protein with its high nutritional value. It’s not news that whey protein can help to build and sustain the body’s lean muscle mass (crucial for maintaining long-term health, and especially important for people with chronic conditions like HIV that may impair absorption of nutrients), but research has uncovered as well several important indications of its value in supporting immune function, decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and even serving as an anti-cancer agent.
Foods found in traditional diets continue to be the focus of scientific research on what’s healthy in what we eat, and why. Recently, we looked into a study showing that Chinese women who regularly ate mushrooms and drank green tea had lower rates of breast cancer, or less severe manifestations of breast cancer, than those who didn’t. This kind of nutrition research is about putting two and two together. It was known that the rate of breast cancer in China is four to five times lower than that in most Western industrialized countries; and there had been previous lab studies suggesting the anti-cancer properties of green tea and mushrooms—so why not investigate more rigorously the relationship between breast cancer rates and consumption of these traditional foods?
And here’s another bit of evidence-based food advice. A few months ago our hometown newspaper, The New York Times, featured a piece entitled “The Power of Berries” (Jan. 22, 2009), which detailed the accumulating research on how these fruits help ward off cancers of the colon, esophagus, and mouth. This research built on the well-documented association between diets rich in berries (including black and red raspberries, blackberries, strawberries and elderberries) and lower rates of cancer. One new suggestion emerging from the recent studies is that berries may exert a “genome-wide” anti-cancer effect, meaning that, unlike many current cancer treatments that target only one cancer-promoting gene at a time, berries may target a whole spectrum of cancer-promoting genes, causing them to shut down development of pre-cancerous and cancerous growths. Exciting stuff from the berry researchers! And, there’s a further, practical note: investigations have demonstrated that freeze dried berries and berry powders are as effective as fresh fruit in terms of anti-cancer effect. So even if you can’t eat fresh berries several times a week (an obvious problem for those of us who don’t live where the growing season is year-round), mixing a powdered berry supplement into a smoothie could be just as useful to your health.
We gave this piece a somewhat tongue-in-cheek title, asking if you, dear reader, were ready to join the “food revolution.” Actually, it strikes us that the current revolution in thinking about our eating habits in many ways involves returning to the old days—to the traditional diets of previous generations, to the old-fashioned idea of raising your own food, or to shopping for locally-grown produce at a greenmarket. Of course we return to these older ways armed with a store of advanced knowledge about why some dietary traditions are healthful, and how they can be adapted to our modern lives. If that’s the definition of the “food revolution,” we at NYBC heartily encourage you to sign up—for your health!