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Passport to Health: Greece

health secrets of GreeceThe people of Greece have figured a lot of things out when it comes to knowing how to live a happy, healthy life. It makes sense–Greece is the birthplace of Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine.

Have you ever been to Greece? My husband and I went many years ago, in the BC years (Before Children, of course). We started in Athens and then spent a week island-hopping. And if you’ve never been–go. It’s absolutely gorgeous: sun-washed, distinctive architecture, sparkling sea, incredibly laid-back culture, fabulous food. If it isn’t paradise…well, it comes pretty close.

That said, if a trip to Greece isn’t on the horizon for you anytime soon, the least you can do is steal their secrets for a life well-lived. (It’s not like we haven’t done it before…read this, and this, and this for previous Passport to Health posts.)

So what are the Greek secrets to a healthy life? Some fairly simple stuff, as it turns out. One of the most interesting is this: napping!

Napping for health

In Greece (like many Mediterranean and warm-weather countries, like Spain, Egypt, and Italy), it’s a common thing to take a mid-afternoon siesta. To their benefit.

Researchers have cottoned on to this health habit. In a study of over 23,000 Greek men & women between ages 20 and 86, over the course of 6 years, they found that people who took a 30-minute siesta at least 3 times a week had a 37% lower risk of heart-related death. Other studies have corroborated this: countries where siestas are common tend to have lower levels of heart disease.

One theory why napping helps keep your heart healthy? A regular nap may help you relax more and have lower stress levels.  Or, perhaps nappers are generally getting more rest, more sleep…and there’s plenty of research to now show that getting sufficient sleep is associated with lowered blood pressure, lower rates of obesity, and improved brain health.

“Let your food be your medicine, and medicine be your food.”

Sounds like a mantra for the explosive trend toward organic food, food cures, and holisitic nutrition, right? But that quote belongs to Hippocrates. 4th century BC, baby. Western medicine, you guys.

The Greeks have long practiced this principle, and now the research in favor of the Mediterranean diet is huge. Much of it surrounds the impressive benefit to our hearts. A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Medicine analyzed the results of several studies that pitted the Mediterranean diet and low-fat diets head-to-head. They found that the Mediterranean diet was more effective for weight loss than a low-fat diet, and brought greater improvements to blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol.

The Mediterranean diet has also been shown to protect against the “big C”: many studies have shown the Mediterranean diet to reduce cancer risk.

So what, exactly, do you eat if you’re trying to go Mediterranean? Read this.

Then there’s all that walking…

Like many European cultures, walking is a way of life. When my husband and I visited the island of Santorini, we rented a Vespa one day. (Sidebar–this was so fun, I can’t even tell you. Zipping around a sun-bleached island, making pit stops at little cafes and beaches…). But when we started on the steep hill up to a famous archaeological site, which involved some rather sharp switchbacks…well, people were walking at a faster pace than we were motoring up. They were passing us on the switchbacks. This might have been a little embarrassing. Just maybe.

Anyway, the walking thing is a big deal in Greece. And I think we all know this is a good idea. Here’s how to incorporate more walking in your life.

For more Passport to Health articles, read these next:

Passport to Health: French Paradox

Passport to Slim: Weight Loss Secrets from Around The World

Passport to Health Part Deux

Passport to Health: Norway

Berries For A Healthy Heart?

Bowl of Fresh Strawberries

A new study was released recently that makes a connection between the regular intake of berries, like strawberries and blueberries, and a reduced risk of heart attacks in women.

The study was big: 93,000 subjects strong. The timeline was long: the women were monitored for a period of 18 years. And the benefit was significant: heart attack risk was reduced by 32% in the women who ate the most berries on a regular basis.

One of the things I like about this study is that they looked at a younger subset of women, ages 25-42. (And yes, dammit, 42 is young.) This is the spirit of preventive health–make lifestyle changes early, so you invest in your health and reap the benefit down the road.

So what’s so awesome about berries? Specifically, anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are antioxidants, and they give berries their red, blue, and purple colors. Antioxidants are important in fending off inflammation, and reversing the kind of damage that’s a precursor to heart disease.

I’m not exactly surprised at the finding that berries are healthy for you, but it is nice to have more scientific evidence for the benefit of this “superfood”.

Also, it’s nice to have more ammo in conversations with my husband, so he doesn’t freak out quite so much when I spend $6 for a teeny-tiny container of raspberries.

What the heck is with the exorbitant price of fruit, these days, anyway? Now that’s something I’d like to understand.

More Good Health News About Chocolate

I’m always happy to report when there’s good news about chocolate. And here’s the latest: a recent study found an association between chocolate consumption and a reduced risk of stroke.

The study was conducted in Sweden and examined the dietary habits of more than 37,000 men aged 45-79. Researchers found that the men who ate the most chocolate weekly were 19% less likely to suffer a stroke, compared to the men who ate the least.

Interesting, here, is that in Sweden, most chocolate is milk chocolate. In the past, this sort of research has put the spotlight on dark chocolate. So good news, people, if milk chocolate is your preference.

(Not mine, by the way. I love a good, bittersweet dark chocolate. With sea salt if at all possible…Lindt dark with sea salt…OMG….)

Want to read more good stuff about chocolate? Here, here, and here.

More stuff about heart, stroke & cardiovascular health? Here, here, and here.

For Healthier Bones: Drink Up?

We already know that wine is full of antioxidants, is good for your heart, and reduces your risk of stroke…but now a recent study has suggested that wine may actually improve your bone health, too.

I’m going to go ahead and file this news under Y for Yesss.

In fact, this isn’t the first study to show the connection between wine and bone density, but until now it’s been unclear whether it’s just an association or an actual causative effect.

This was a small study, but the design was interesting. The study subjects were entirely female, and the women were instructed to abstain from alcohol for two weeks. After this period, they were asked to start drinking again. During the abstinence phase, researchers found blood markers of negative changes in bone formation and turnover. When alcohol intake resumed, there were blood markers that showed positive bone changes and rebuilding.

As with everything, moderation is the key. If drinking two glasses of wine a day is a good idea, what’s not a good idea is quickly tossing back those two drinks, then stumbling over your strappy sandals and falling, thus breaking a bone—no matter how good your bone density is.

Still, I’m a fan of the wine-for-health idea, as you may know. It’s a key part of the Mediterranean diet, and the Sonoma diet–both of which I like and recommend.

More about bone health, here: Are You Getting Enough Calcium?

More about wine, here: Secret Benefits of Wine

More Wicked Healthy “vices”, here: 

7 Cancer Fighting Foods

April is Cancer Awareness Month. (Watch for me on Breakfast Television in Vancouver on Friday morning, we’re talking about cancer prevention!)

Here, I’ve rounded up a few delicious things that can help you prevent cancer. Feast on these:

Garlic

Garlic is bursting with phytonutrients and antioxidants. Several large studies have found that people who eat more garlic have a lower risk of developing cancer, especially cancer in the digestive organs. Freshly crushed garlic is your best bet–probably better than supplements.

Cruciferous veggies

Think: broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and kale. These nutritional powerhouses are packed with anticancer phytonutrients that have been shown in studies to reduce inflammation, inhibit carcinogens, and slow cancer cell growth. With cruciferous veg, you should cook them lightly and chew them thoroughly to release all the active molecules.

Green tea

Green tea is full of potent antioxidants. One subset of antioxidants–catechins–are particularly noteworthy in the fight against cancer. Lab studies have found that catechins can shrink tumors and reduce tumor cell growth, and may have a protective effect against cancer, breast cancer especially. Black tea and green tea both contain catechins, but green tea has approximately three times the amount.

Citrus fruit

Oranges, mandarins, and grapefruit are well-known to contain tons of vitamin C, which is a powerful antioxidant. But it turns out there are useful phytonutrients in the peel of citrus fruits, too–these nutrients are called limonoids, and one recent study showed a reduction in skin cancer rates with limonoid consumption. You’re probably not going to start munching on orange peel, straight-up…but you could use the zest for sauces and baking, no?

Turmeric

A staple in curries and Indian food, the active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin–which is a potent antioxidant. It’s a compound that’s under a lot of investigation currently, as it’s showing great promise in the fight against cancer. (Plus: yum!)

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are off the chart on antioxidants and phytochemicals, but it’s especially lycopene–the compound that gives tomatoes their red color–that’s been shown to be anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer, notably against prostate cancer. The interesting thing about lycopene is that it becomes even more bioavailable after cooking and processing.

Dried beans & peas

Legumes contain flavonoids–and research shows that flavonoids protect against cancer by affecting cell growth, and also via antioxidant activity. They’re also high in fiber, which is known to reduce the risk of colon cancer. Also these are foods that help you maintain a healthy weight–and obesity is an independent risk factor for cancer.

Interested in other ways to prevent cancer? Read this next: 10 Tips to Prevent Cancer. And then this: Cut Your Cancer Risk With This One Simple Thing.

What to Snack On When You’re Stressed

I know–when life is throwing you curveballs, your impulse is to bee-line for the freezer (chocolate chip cookie dough Haagen-Dazs, anyone?) or the snack cupboard (hello, Sea Salt & Vinegar Kettle chips…).

But that’s not going to make anything better. Especially not your coronary arteries. Or your muffin top.

So I’ve rounded up some healthier options–and snack choices that may actually help you cope with that stress.

Try these:

Spinach salad. The magnesium in spinach can help regulate cortisol (a key stress hormone).

Walnuts. These yummy nuts have been shown to decrease blood pressure during stressful events.

Mandarin oranges. Vitamin C can decrease cortisol levels.

Gum. Okay, technically not a snack, but certainly something you can chew on–and studies have shown that chewing gum improves mental performance and decreases stress and anxiety.

Oatmeal. Complex carbs can help lower stress.

Tea, green or black. Tea, among its many health benefits, has been shown to decrease cortisol levels.

Guacamole & baked pita chips. The potassium in avocado can help lower your blood pressure, and the crunch in the pita chips will help satisfy that need for…well, something crunchy.

Salmon. Fatty fish is an excellent source of omega-3, and studies show that people with anxiety may be deficient in the omega-3 department. Replacing this insufficiency can improve symptoms of stress and anxiety.

You Say Tomato…

People bat around the word superfood pretty blithely these days, which is easy, because there’s no real definition. Scientists tend to use the term “functional food” (meaning: food which provides a clinically proven and documented health benefit) but it’s not quite as sexy, is it?

Anyway, I like the term superfood, but I try to reserve it for only the best cases. And today I’m going to talk about one such case. The gorgeous food known as: the tomato.

Tomatoes are packed full of antioxidants. Carotenoids, flavonoids, vitamin C, vitamin E…basically, tomatoes are off the chart when it comes to phytochemicals. In particular, though, it’s lycopene that gets the most attention. Lycopene is the compound that happens to give tomatoes their luscious red color, and it confers all sorts of health benefits. It’s also unusual in one property: it becomes even more bioavailable after cooking and processing. So you can benefit from tomato consumption even if you’re having tomato sauce or tomato paste.

The tomato has been shown to be anticancer. This is primarily due to the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity of the nutrients in tomatoes. The evidence is strongest for prostate cancer–much research shows that regular tomato consumption can reduce a man’s risk of prostate cancer. But there are also studies showing that tomatoes can help prevent pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, and certain types of lung cancer, too.

Tomatoes are also good for your heart: they have been shown to improve cholesterol profile. They have anti-platelet activity. And it’s probably no coincidence that the tomato features heavily in the Mediterranean diet, well-known to be a heart-healthy way to go (and delish, besides).

Interestingly, there’s also some early research to indicate that tomatoes are good for our bones, specifically due to carotenoids and lycopene. Recent studies have shown that these antioxidants may be beneficial for bone density, and that poor intake correlates to low bone density and increased risk of fracture. (For more about bone health, read this.)

Another thing that’s great about tomatoes? They are just so damn easy to incorporate into your diet. Throw some fresh tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, and sea salt onto toasted baguette…world’s best bruschetta.

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10 Tips to Prevent Cancer

It’s like Voldemort. It strikes such fear into people’s hearts, some of us are afraid to even speak the word, for fear of invoking the name…but let’s just say it: Cancer.

Everybody is afraid of cancer.

It’s the elephant in the room for many, many of my patient visits. Occasionally people will vocalize their fear, but often it’s lurking there, unsaid. 

One of the scary things about cancer is the feeling that it could strike us down, randomly, like winning some horrible lottery. And that makes us feel like we’re out of control. 

Fact is, there are lots of things we can do to stay healthy. To counteract feelings of helplessness, here are my top tips on how to prevent cancer:

1.Eat a Mediterranean diet.

This diet, rich in fruit & veggies, fish, whole grains, nuts and olive oil has been repeatedly linked with lower rates of cancer. The Mediterranean diet is my personal fave, and it’s not just about cancer prevention…there are other health reasons to adopt this way of eating (and lifestyle), like heart disease prevention. And then there’s the pleasure factor, something the Mediterranean diet has in spades. 

2.Quit smoking.

Do I really need to go into detail on why this one is a good idea? Of course, easier said than done, I know. Quitting smoking is huge-ola. But help is out there. See your friendly doctor as a starting point! If you’re in BC, check out QuitNow. Or check out Health Canada’s advice. Also, the American Cancer Society has some ideas.

3.Wear sunblock.

Preventing skin cancer is definitely within your control. Wear the highest SPF you can get your hands on. Also? Sport a hat, slide on those sunglasses. Another benefit of sunblock: wrinkle prevention. Leathery skin is so 1986. A caveat: if, like me, you wear sunblock like a religion…think about your vitamin D level–you could be deficient (which is easily fixed, though–see below).  

4.Drink green tea.

Green tea is chock full of antioxidants. Those are the compounds that fight free radicals and reduce inflammation–underlying mechanisms that cause cancer. Early research on green tea is showing some promise in terms of cancer prevention, but some study results have been mixed. Still, green tea is safe, and if you find a blend you like, it’s a pleasurable ritual. Plus there are other health benefits to tea. While the scientists are busy sorting out the full story, I say enjoy a cup or two of green tea a day.

5.Eat superfoods.

If you’ve adopted a Mediterranean diet, you’ll already be getting many of these superfoods shown to reduce cancer risk, but as extra weapons in your arsenal, try adding these yummies to your diet: blueberries, broccoli, beans, apples, garlic, grapes, tomatoes, and…wait for it: dark chocolate. Oh yes, people, I said chocolate.

6.Aim for a healthy weight.

There is a clear connection between excess body fat and cancer risk. Why? Fat cells don’t just sit there, merely thwarting your desire to squeeze into last year’s jeans. They produce estrogen. And estrogen promotes cell growth. They also secrete various chemicals and proteins that trigger inflammation and insulin resistance. Which also encourages cell growth. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the best things you can do to prevent cancer. But…easier said than done. Need assistance? Start with portion control. Belly fat your issue? Here’s help in that department.

7.Take an Aspirin and call me in the morning.

A fascinating thing was discovered recently–a daily aspirin seems to reduce the risk of some big-time cancers: colon, lung, prostate, and more. And in this study, it reduced them by a lot. Why might this be? Aspirin is a potent anti-inflammatory, and it may also cause DNA-damaged cells to die. But aspirin is not for everyone–it can cause stomach lining irritation and bleeding. If you’re considering this route, talk to your doctor first. 

8.Exercise.

Beyond keeping our weight under control, physical activity itself helps prevent cancer. It regulates hormone levels, boosts our immune systems, helps the digestive tract function smoothly…and we call that winning. Of course, shoe-horning exercise in to our busy lives is no small challenge. Here’s how to do it.

9.Take Vitamin D.

Studies have recently shown a higher cancer risk when vitamin D levels are low. Many of us are walking around deficient in vitamin D with no idea (ahem, count me as one of those). Consider a blood test to check your level, consider a little more sunshine in your life (but not too much!), consider supplements.

10.Get regular checkups & screening.

Paps, mammograms, colonoscopies…we’ve got all kinds of tools now to help us detect cancer early. Recommendations for screening will vary based on age and individual risk factors, so see your doc about this.

There you go, you’re on your way to a healthier future. Nothing to fear. Now…say it with me: Voldemort.

Mad About Nuts

When I was younger I used to avoid nuts because of their high fat content. You too?

Fortunately, we now know about the blissful thing called “healthy fat“. There’s no doubt, nuts do contain a lot of fat, but most of it is the monounsaturated kind (same stuff that’s in olive oil). And that sort of fat is good for your cholesterol profile, and protects against heart disease. But the good news about nuts doesn’t stop there. Nuts are also a great source of protein, and contains tons of beneficial nutrients, like magnesium, vitamin E, and flavonoids. Research has shown many health benefits to consuming nuts, like reducing your risk of developing blood clots and improving the lining of your arteries. All this definitely places nuts in the “superfood” category.

But are some nuts better than others? Here’s a field guide.

Almonds seem to get a lot of press. And for good reason. They are a rich source of vitamin E (an antioxidant), magnesium, flavonoids, and calcium.

Walnuts (my current fave) are chock full of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA) which is an omega-3 fatty acid. And omega-3 is a very good thing. I have walnuts with greek yogurt, just about every day. Also, walnuts have almost twice the antioxidant levels of other nuts.

Peanuts (which, technically, aren’t nuts but legumes…if you’re into that sort of Cliff Calvin/Cheers type trivia…) are a rich source of folic acid, which is super-important for pregnant (or trying!) women for preventing birth defects. Peanuts also contain resveratrol–yes, that’s the selfsame antioxidant found in red grapes and red wine.

Cashews have got lots of oleic acid (monounsaturated fat), calcium, and copper which is beneficial for red blood cell formation.

Pistachios are high in phytosterols and heart-lovin’ monounsaturated fats. Pistachios are also a great source of potassium, vitamin B6, and calcium.

Chestnuts are one of the lower-calorie, lower-fat nuts. They’re also rich in potassium, folate, and vitamin C (the only nuts with C). Roasted chestnuts are one of my favorite winter treats, and in Italy they soak chestnuts in wine before roasting. Yes please.

Bottom line: because each type of nut carries its own nutrient cocktail, and no shortage of health benefits, I think that leaves us free to choose the ones we like best. After all, this is food, people, and it’s about taste! Also, I’m a believer in variety.

Mixed nuts, then?

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Natural Ways to Boost Your Metabolism

It sounds like the holy grail: Boost your metabolism, lose weight without even trying!

Is such a thing even possible? All manner of supplements trumpet this claim. But to my mind, that seems pretty dubious. Chemicals to boost metabolism are out there for sure (meth, anyone?)…but they’re not always healthy

So, instead of that, are there natural ways to accomplish this goal?

Indeed there are. Here are some of them:

Increase muscle mass.

As in weight training. Muscle burns more calories than fat. Which means it’s just math from here on in: if that bod contains proportionately more muscle, you’ll burn at a higher metabolic rate. Pump that iron, people.

Drink green tea.

Research is beginning to show promise in this department. It’s the epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) in green tea that may improve bellyfat distribution, boost metabolism, and curb appetite.

Get NEAT.

This stands for non-exercise activity thermogenesis, and basically it’s a way to get more activity (thus more metabolic burn) in your day without having to resort (gasp!) to hitting the gym. Excellent primer on NEAT right here.

Spice things up.

Studies are increasingly demonstrating that spices can help with weight loss efforts. Capsaicin (that’s the fiery stuff in hot peppers) appears to improve fat oxidation and metabolic rate and curb appetite. A new study showed a blend of turmeric, cinnamon, rosemary, oregano, garlic powder, and paprika reduced post-meal insulin and triglyceride levels.

Looking for more sneaky ways to jack up your weight loss efforts? Read this. And this. And, um, this.

Dr. Kim Foster, MD. (photo credit: Tamea Burd Photography)

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