Categories
POWER SPORT THE-BEAUTY

Why eat lower on the seafood chain?

A white plate with fresh silvery sardines with sliced lemon, parsley, garlic cloves, and olive at the ready to cook

Many health-conscious consumers have already cut back on hamburgers, steaks, and deli meats, often by swapping in poultry or seafood. Those protein sources are better than beef, and not just because they’re linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Chicken and fish are also better for the environment, as their production uses less land and other resources and generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

And choosing seafood that’s lower on the food chain — namely, small fish such as herring and sardines and bivalves such as clams and oysters — can amp up those benefits. “It’s much better for your health and the environment when you replace terrestrial food sources — especially red meat — with aquatic food sources,” says Christopher Golden, assistant professor of nutrition and planetary health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. But instead of popular seafood choices such as farmed salmon or canned tuna, consider mackerel or sardines, he suggests.

Why eat small fish?

Anchovies, herring, mackerel, and sardines are all excellent sources of protein, micronutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, and heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which may help ease inflammation within the body and promote a better balance of blood lipids. And because you often eat the entire fish (including the tiny bones), small fish are also rich in calcium and vitamin D, says Golden. (Mackerel is an exception: cooked mackerel bones are too sharp or tough to eat, although canned mackerel bones are fine to eat).

Small fish are also less likely to contain contaminants such as mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) compared with large species like tuna and swordfish. Those and other large fish feed on smaller fish, which concentrates the toxins.

It's also more environmentally friendly to eat small fish directly instead of using them to make fish meal, which is often fed to farmed salmon, pork, and poultry. Feed for those animals also includes grains that require land, water, pesticides, and energy to produce, just as grain fed to cattle does, Golden points out. The good news is that increasingly, salmon farming has begun using less fish meal, and some companies have created highly nutritious feeds that don’t require fish meal at all.

Small fish in the Mediterranean diet

The traditional Mediterranean diet, widely considered the best diet for heart health, highlights small fish such as fresh sardines and anchovies, says Golden. Canned versions of these species, which are widely available and less expensive than fresh, are a good option. However, most canned anchovies are salt-cured and therefore high in sodium, which can raise blood pressure.

Sardines packed in water or olive oil can be

  • served on crackers or crusty, toasted bread with a squeeze of lemon
  • prepared like tuna salad for a sandwich filling
  • added to a Greek salad
  • tossed with pasta, either added to tomato sauce or with lemon, capers, and red pepper flakes.

Golden is particularly fond of pickled herring, which you can often find in jars in supermarkets, or even make yourself; here’s his favorite recipe.

Bivalve benefits

Bivalves are two-shelled aquatic creatures that include clams, oysters, mussels, and scallops. Also known as mollusks, they’re good sources of protein but are quite low in fat, so they aren’t as rich in omega-3’s as small, fatty fish. However, bivalves contain several micronutrients, especially zinc and vitamin B12. Zinc contributes to a healthy immune system, and vitamin B12 helps form red blood cells that carry oxygen and keep nerves throughout the body healthy. While most Americans get enough B12, some may not.

And from a planetary health perspective, bivalves are among the best sources of animal-based protein. “Bivalves can be ‘nature positive’ because they don’t require feed and they filter and clean up water,” says Golden.

Be aware, however, that bivalves can become contaminated from runoff, bacteria, viruses, or chemicals in the water. So be sure to follow FDA advice about buying and preparing seafood safely.

Although we tend to think of coastal cities as the best places to find seafood, it’s available throughout the United States. For less-common varieties, try larger Asian markets, which often carry a wide variety of fish and bivalves, Golden suggests.

Aquatic plant foods

You can even go one step further down the aquatic food chain by eating aquatic plant foods such as seaweed and kelp. If you like sushi, you’ve probably had nori, the flat sheets of seaweed used to make sushi rolls. You can also find seaweed snacks in Asian and many mainstream grocery stores. The truly adventurous may want to try kelp jerky or a kelp burger, both sold online.

Nutrients in seaweed vary quite a bit, depending on species (kelp is one type of brown seaweed; there are also numerous green and red species). But seaweed is low in calories, is a good source of fiber, and also contains iodine, a mineral required to make thyroid hormones. Similar to terrestrial vegetables, seaweeds contain a range of other minerals and vitamins. For now, aquatic plant foods remain fringe products here in the United States, but they may become more mainstream in the future, according to Golden.

About the Author

photo of Julie Corliss

Julie Corliss, Executive Editor, Harvard Heart Letter

Julie Corliss is the executive editor of the Harvard Heart Letter. Before working at Harvard, she was a medical writer and editor at HealthNews, a consumer newsletter affiliated with The New England Journal of Medicine. She … See Full Bio View all posts by Julie Corliss

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Howard LeWine, M.D., is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD

Categories
POWER SPORT THE-BEAUTY

Preventable liver disease is rising: What you eat — and avoid — counts

A word cloud on fatty liver disease; risk factors, such as alcohol and high fat diet, appear in different colors

In today’s fast-paced world, our waking hours are filled with decisions — often surrounding what to eat. After a long day, dinner could well be fast food or takeout. While you may worry about the toll food choices take on your waistline or blood pressure, as a liver specialist, I also want to put fatty liver disease on your radar.

One variant, officially called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), now affects one in four adults globally. Sometimes it progresses to extensive scarring known as cirrhosis, liver failure, and higher risk for liver cancer. The good news? Fatty liver disease can be prevented or reversed.

What is fatty liver disease?

Fatty liver disease is a condition caused by irritation to the liver. Liver tissue accumulates abnormal amounts of fat in response to that injury. Viral hepatitis, certain medicines (like tamoxifen or steroids, for example), or ingesting too much alcohol can all cause fatty liver disease.

However, NAFLD has a different trigger for fat deposits in the liver: a group of metabolic risk factors. NAFLD is most common in people who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol, insulin resistance (prediabetes), or type 2 diabetes. It is also common among people who are overweight or obese, though it is possible to develop NAFLD even if your body mass index (BMI) is normal.

What helps prevent or reverse NAFLD?

Diet can play a huge role. Because NAFLD is so closely tied to metabolic health, eating more healthfully can help prevent or possibly even reverse it. A good example of a healthful eating pattern is the Mediterranean diet.

Overweight or obesity is a common cause of NAFLD. A weight loss program that includes activity and healthy eating can help control blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar. Among the many healthful diet plans that help are the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet. Talk to your doctor or a nutritionist if you need help choosing a plan.

To vigorously study any diet as a treatment for fatty liver disease, researchers must control many factors. Currently, no strong evidence supports one particular diet over another. However, the research below highlights choices to promote a healthy liver.

Avoid fast food

A recent study in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology linked regular fast-food consumption (20% or more of total daily calories) with fatty liver disease — especially in people who had type 2 diabetes or obesity. Fast foods tend to be high in saturated fats, added sugar, and other ingredients that affect metabolic health.

Steer clear of soft drinks and added sugars

Soft drinks with high-fructose corn syrup, or other sugar-sweetened beverages, lead directly to large increases in liver fat deposits, independent of the total calories consumed. Read labels closely for added sugars, including corn syrup, dextrose, honey, and agave.

Instead of sugary drinks, sip plain water. Black coffee or with a splash of cream is also a good pick; research suggests coffee has the potential to decrease liver scarring.

Avoid alcohol

Alcohol directly damages the liver, lacks nutritional value, and may affect a healthy microbiome. If you have NAFLD, it’s best to avoid any extra cause for liver injury. We simply do not know what amount of alcohol is safe for those with fatty liver disease — even social drinking may be too much.

Eat mostly whole foods

Vegetables, berries, eggs, poultry, grass-fed meats, nuts, and whole grains all qualify, but cutting out red meat may be wise. An 18-month trial enrolled 294 people with abdominal obesity and lipid imbalances such as high triglycerides. Regular activity was encouraged, and participants were randomly assigned to one of three diets: standard healthy dietary guidelines, a traditional Mediterranean diet, or a green-Mediterranean diet. (The green-Med diet nixed red and processed meats and added green tea and a dinner replacement shake rich in antioxidants called polyphenols.)

All three groups lost some weight, although the Mediterranean diet groups lost more weight and kept it off for a longer period. Both Mediterranean diet groups also showed reduced liver fat at the end of 18 months, but liver fat decreased twice as much in the green-Med group as in the traditional Mediterranean diet group.

Healthy fats are part of a healthy diet

We all need fat. Dietary fats help your body absorb vitamins and are vital in the protection of nerves and cells. Fats also help you feel satisfied and full, so you’re less likely to overeat. Low-fat foods often substitute sugars and starches, which affect blood sugar regulation in our bodies. But all fat is not created equal.

It’s clear that Mediterranean-style diets can help decrease liver fat, thus helping to prevent or possibly reverse NAFLD. These diets are high in healthful fats, such as monounsaturated fats found in olive oil and avocados and omega-3 fats found in walnuts and oily fish like salmon and sardines.

With so many choices, it’s hard to know where to start in the healthy eating journey. Let’s strive to eat whole foods in their natural state. Our livers will thank us for it.

About the Author

photo of Kathleen Viveiros, MD

Kathleen Viveiros, MD, Contributor

Dr. Kathleen Viveiros is a clinical hepatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital who sees patients in Boston and in Foxborough and Westwood, MA. She is an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. Her professional interests … See Full Bio View all posts by Kathleen Viveiros, MD

Categories
POWER SPORT THE-BEAUTY

A muscle-building obsession in boys: What to know and do

A shadowy, heavily-muscled superhero in a red cape strikes an action pose against a red and orange background; concept is body dysmorphic disorder

By the time boys are 8 or 10, they’re steeped in Marvel action heroes with bulging, oversized muscles and rock-hard abs. By adolescence, they’re deluged with social media streams of bulked-up male bodies.

The underlying messages about power and worth prompt many boys to worry and wonder about how to measure up. Sometimes, negative thoughts and concerns even interfere with daily life, a mental health issue known body dysmorphic disorder, or body dysmorphia. The most common form of this in boys is muscle dysmorphia.

What is muscle dysmorphia?

Muscle dysmorphia is marked by preoccupation with a muscular and lean physique. While the more extreme behaviors that define this disorder appear only in a small percentage of boys and young men, it may color the mindset of many more.

Nearly a quarter of boys and young men engage in some type of muscle-building behaviors. “About 60% of young boys in the United States mention changing their diet to become more muscular,” says Dr. Gabriela Vargas, director of the Young Men’s Health website at Boston Children’s Hospital. “While that may not meet the diagnostic criteria of muscle dysmorphia disorder, it’s impacting a lot of young men.”

“There’s a social norm that equates muscularity with masculinity,” Dr. Vargas adds. “Even Halloween costumes for 4- and 5-year-old boys now have padding for six-pack abs. There’s constant messaging that this is what their bodies should look like.”

Does body dysmorphic disorder differ in boys and girls?

Long believed to be the domain of girls, body dysmorphia can take the form of eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Technically, muscle dysmorphia is not an eating disorder. But it is far more pervasive in males — and insidious.

“The common notion is that body dysmorphia just affects girls and isn’t a male issue,” Dr. Vargas says. “Because of that, these unhealthy behaviors in boys often go overlooked.”

What are the signs of body dysmorphia in boys?

Parents may have a tough time discerning whether their son is merely being a teen or veering into dangerous territory. Dr. Vargas advises parents to look for these red flags:

  • Marked change in physical routines, such as going from working out once a day to spending hours working out every day.
  • Following regimented workouts or meals, including limiting the foods they’re eating or concentrating heavily on high-protein options.
  • Disrupting normal activities, such as spending time with friends, to work out instead.
  • Obsessively taking photos of their muscles or abdomen to track “improvement.”
  • Weighing himself multiple times a day.
  • Dressing to highlight a more muscular physique, or wearing baggier clothes to hide their physique because they don’t think it’s good enough.

“Nearly everyone has been on a diet,” Dr. Vargas says. “The difference with this is persistence — they don’t just try it for a week and then decide it’s not for them. These boys are doing this for weeks to months, and they’re not flexible in changing their behaviors.”

What are the health dangers of muscle dysmorphia in boys?

Extreme behaviors can pose physical and mental health risks.

For example, unregulated protein powders and supplements boys turn to in hopes of quickly bulking up muscles may be adulterated with stimulants or even anabolic steroids. “With that comes an increased risk of stroke, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, and liver injury,” notes Dr. Vargas.

Some boys also attempt to gain muscle through a “bulk and cut” regimen, with periods of rapid weight gain followed by periods of extreme calorie limitation. This can affect long-term muscle and bone development and lead to irregular heartbeat and lower testosterone levels.

“Even in a best-case scenario, eating too much protein can lead to a lot of intestinal distress, such as diarrhea, or to kidney injury, since our kidneys are not meant to filter out excessive amounts of protein,” Dr. Vargas says.

The psychological fallout can also be dramatic. Depression and suicidal thoughts are more common in people who are malnourished, which may occur when boys drastically cut calories or neglect entire food groups. Additionally, as they try to achieve unrealistic ideals, they may constantly feel like they’re not good enough.

How can parents encourage a healthy body image in boys?

These tips can help:

  • Gather for family meals. Schedules can be tricky. Yet considerable research shows physical and mental health benefits flow from sitting down together for meals, including a greater likelihood of children being an appropriate weight for their body type.
  • Don’t comment on body shape or size. “It’s a lot easier said than done, but this means your own body, your child’s, or others in the community,” says Dr. Vargas.
  • Frame nutrition and exercise as meaningful for health. When you talk with your son about what you eat or your exercise routine, don’t tie hoped-for results to body shape or size.
  • Communicate openly. “If your son says he wants to exercise more or increase his protein intake, ask why — for his overall health, or a specific body ideal?”
  • Don’t buy protein supplements. It’s harder for boys to obtain them when parents won’t allow them in the house. “One alternative is to talk with your son’s primary care doctor or a dietitian, who can be a great resource on how to get protein through regular foods,” Dr. Vargas says.

About the Author

photo of Maureen Salamon

Maureen Salamon, Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Maureen Salamon is executive editor of Harvard Women’s Health Watch. She began her career as a newspaper reporter and later covered health and medicine for a wide variety of websites, magazines, and hospitals. Her work has … See Full Bio View all posts by Maureen Salamon

About the Reviewer

photo of Howard E. LeWine, MD

Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Howard LeWine, M.D., is a practicing internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Chief Medical Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, and editor in chief of Harvard Men’s Health Watch. See Full Bio View all posts by Howard E. LeWine, MD