Tag Archives: new paradigm

Canola Oil: Why Not Just Drink Gasoline?

Fat, fat, fat, fat. So much controversy swirls around various forms of fat. First we’re told coconut oil is deadly—then it’s a healthy miracle food. Then we’re told butter is poison—but now, it, too, has assumed the virtuous glow of health. Margarine is the healthy butter substitute—but now we hear it clogs your arteries. Olive oil, once eschewed by American cooks because it added flavors to food, is now lauded by American cooks because it adds flavors to food (and it’s good for you).

So what about the humble kitchen standby for cooking, canola oil? It’s tasteless and it contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, so it should be good for you, right?

Well, apparently not so much. Canola oil is not only bad for you, it’s horrendously bad for you.

Let’s start at the beginning. Have you ever seen a canola plant? No, you haven’t, because there is no such thing. The word “canola” was made up. Originally, it stood for “Canadian oil low-acid.” This is because growers in Canada believed, with good reason, that Americans would not want to eat something called “rapeseed oil.” It also sounded like “granola,” so the producers reasoned it would be perceived as a healthy food.

Rape is a member of the mustard/cabbage family. It has pretty, bright yellow flowers. It’s grown for its seeds—but unprocessed rapeseed has never been used for food, as has mustard seed. That’s because the seeds contain as much as 45% erucic acid, which is a poison. Insects won’t eat the seeds, and natural, unprocessed rapeseed is poisonous to humans and other animals. It causes deposits of fatty acids in the heart and thickening of the cardiac walls, which can lead to valve dysfunction and heart failure. Erucic acid can cause these effects even in quantities as small as 2%, which is the percentage of erucic acid allowed in canola oil in the United States. Rapeseed also contains glycosides, which interfere with thyroid functioning.

Growers have genetically modified the rape plant to produce lower concentrations of erucic acid and glycosides, but the oil must still be processed before it meets the standards set for food-grade oil. Using heat and hexane (and other solvents) strips more of the erucic acid from the oil, but turns the omega-3 fatty acids rancid. These are solidified and removed by partially hydrogenating the oil, which produce free radicals and some trans-fatty acids (known to create fatty deposits on arterial walls).

When Canadian researchers fed formula containing canola oil to piglets, the piglets developed vitamin E deficiency, even though the formula contained sufficient vitamin E for their nutritional needs. Vitamin E deficiency can lead to a boatload of health problems including anemia, muscular weakness, increased risk of heart disease and cancer, and more.

So what has been marketed to the North American public as heart-healthy oil, high in omega-3 fatty acids, is actually an unhealthy, genetically modified trans-fat that can damage vital organs, deplete vitamin E and promote disease. And it’s everywhere. Even if you don’t use it for cooking, canola oil is in many thousands of processed foods such as salad oils, baby foods, sauces, marinades, canned foods, baked goods, and so on.

So I don’t know about you, but when I learned this, I went through every bottle, can and jar in my kitchen and read the ingredients. Anything that contained canola oil went into the trash, never to be purchased by me again. If you want more details, there’s an excellent article in the November-December 2012 issue of Wellbeing Journal entitled “Canola Oil: Is It Healthy?” by Brian Fife, ND. It’s a pretty scary article—and I bet you, too, will clean out your kitchen after reading it!

Losing Weight Is #$@**!!?> Hard! Here’s Something To Help.

“Up to 60% of the population can be affected by hidden food sensitivities …that can cause symptoms like weight gain.”Dr. Mark Hyman, speaking to Dr. Mehmet Oz in “Are Food Allergies Making You Fat? Part 1”

Maybe you’ve tried dieting and exercise, but nothing works. Perhaps you’ve tried weight-loss groups and paid for the privilege. Maybe you tried Atkins, South Beach, The Zone, Pritikin, Jenny Craig–and nothing works.

Maybe it’s not your fault. Maybe you have undiscovered food sensitivities. We’re not talking about allergies, where you might get hives,  migraine, nausea, or worse. Food sensitivities can go undetected forever because the symptoms may not be obvious.

When you eat a food to which you are sensitive, the body reacts as it does to any stressor; it releases stress hormones. Stress hormones cause inflammation in the body that short-circuits the body’s insulin response, causing two problems:

  • Fat gets released into the bloodstream, an underlying cause of hypertension, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
  • Glucose in the blood gets stored as fat, and your stressed body is determined to hold on to every precious gram of fat as long as it can.

Now there is a way to test yourself for food sensitivities easily and non-obtrusively with the new version of SweetBeat™, the iPhone app from SweetWater Health, LLC.  The test is a pulse test originally developed by immunologist Dr. Arthur F. Coca, who found that when a person eats a food to which he or she is sensitive, the pulse accelerates at least 16 beats per minute over the average resting rate.

With the new camera sensor included in the new version of SweetBeat, you take your pulse first thing in the morning, then right before eating and another three times after eating. (And a final one at night when you go to bed.) If you wear a chest strap monitor instead of using the camera sensor, the testing occurs automatically after you have recorded a meal.

If you have eaten something to which you are sensitive, your meal is given a red “X.” If you ate no offending foods, your meal receives a green check mark. In the event that you discover a red “X,” you will need to test different components of the meal to see what caused the problem—and then you can get rid of the stuff that’s making you fat.

It turns out that stress also causes inflammation, with the same distressing effect on your waistline. The original function of SweetBeat was to monitor and manage stress—and all those features are still included in the new SweetBeat (along with some nifty new features such as heart rate recovery and some cool graphs). The two features—stress management and testing for food sensitivities—are designed to help you lower major causes of inflammation—and assist you in losing those extra pounds.

The new SweetBeat is available in the Apple App Store now for $4.99. Users who have already purchased SweetBeat can upgrade for free.

Here’s our press release that went out today:

October 4, 2012—Los Gatos, CA—A new weight-loss feature has been included in the new, upgraded version of SweetBeat, originally released last February as a stress detection and management app. The dual-purpose app can help people manage food sensitivities, willpower, stamina, resilience, stress and heart rate variability with in-app graphs. The new and improved SweetBeat, from SweetWater Health LLC, is available now from the Apple iTunes Store for $4.99. People who have already purchased SweetBeat can upgrade to the new version for free. The new version of SweetBeat is compatible with the iPhone 4, 4S, and 5. Future versions will be compatible with Android phones.

“Stress management is an important component of a weight-loss program,” said Ronda Collier, the CEO of SweetWater Health and SweetBeat’s developer. “Stress releases hormones such as cortisol that can signal the body to retain fat or even cause fat cells to grow. Combining stress management and weight loss in a single app makes perfect sense.”

SweetBeat offers clinical-grade heart rate variability biofeedback for stress monitoring and management, and now offers a food sensitivity test using a methodology developed by immunologist Dr. Arthur F. Coca. According to Dr. Coca, foods to which the body is sensitive will elevate the heart rate by sixteen beats per minute or more.[1] SweetBeat allows users to measure their hearts’ reactions to different foods and eliminate inflammation by dropping incompatible foods from their diets.

How the Food Sensitivity Test Works

Food sensitivities are a reaction from the immune system or a result of the body’s lack of proper enzymes to digest foods. When the body reacts to a food, it sends out inflammatory messenger proteins, cortisol and adrenaline, to tag the food particles for removal. This sets up a cascade of events, creating low-level inflammation that can affect the body in a number of ways. For example, low-level inflammation may affect the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in impaired digestion, it may cause sore joints or headaches, and it can prevent weight loss. A person with low-level inflammation may never notice the symptoms, or may not connect them with the foods he or she has eaten. By eliminating inflammation caused by food sensitivities, users should find losing weight less difficult. To use the food sensitivity test, a user must first take a morning reading of the pulse to establish a baseline for the day. Before eating a meal, the user records the foods comprising the next meal and performs a pulse test. After the user is finished eating, the app will prompt users to record their heart rates every 30 minutes until 90 minutes have passed. Once testing is complete, the meal will either pass or fail for food sensitivity, indicated by a red “X” or a green checkmark.

The new feature comes with a camera sensor for taking quick and easy heart rate measurements. While customers can also use one of the affordable heart rate monitors compatible with SweetBeat, the camera sensor is a convenient way for consumers to adopt the food sensitivity test into their everyday life. Using the camera sensor merely requires holding the tip of one’s index finger over the iPhone camera lens and flash.

New SweetBeat Features

SweetBeat has been updated with several new measurements based on heart rate variability. Using a compatible heart rate monitor, the user can now measure willpower and resilience. At the end of an exercise session, the user can also measure stamina through heart rate recovery. This is helpful to those who want to see how quickly the heart recovers its normal resting rate. The faster the heart recovers, the greater the stamina.

Users can now view their sessions over time to see specific trends in heart rate variability, stress or heart rate. The monitor screen with heart rate variability and stress management, the breath pacer, and the sensitivity and personality settings are still available in the upgraded version.

The calendar is available to registered users through the secure and private MySweetBeat page on SweetWater Health’s website. For more detail on using SweetBeat’s weight-loss feature, please download our whitepaper: “Five Easy Steps to Weight Loss.”




[1] Dr. Coca’s Pulse Test document is available free at http://www.soilandhealth.org/02/0201hyglibcat/020108.coca.pdf


Is Yoga Just New-Age Nonsense? Science Says No.

Yoga has a somewhat mixed reputation. I recently saw a flier from a group warning against “satanic traps” that listed yoga as one of the traps. (They listed vegetarianism and meditation, too, which just goes to show.) Some people view yoga as a physical exercise. Others see it as a spiritual exercise, or something mystical (pro-mystical believers like this; others see it as more new-age nonsense). Regardless of which view you take, science has found that yoga bestows some significant health benefits on the practitioner.

Science Daily reported a couple of years ago that yoga reduces inflammation in the body.[i] If you know something about inflammation, you know that it causes a host of health issues. Inflammation is the body’s response to infection or injury, and it serves a useful purpose when there is an infection to fight or a wound to heal. However, inflammation is the body’s knee-jerk response to anything it doesn’t like, such as stress, and chronic inflammation can cause serious, and sometimes deadly diseases such as periodontitis, atherosclerosis, hay fever, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer (such as gallbladder carcinoma).[ii] Chronic low-level inflammation can also prevent weight loss—even when you are doing everything else right.

In the study reported by Science Daily, Ohio State University researchers found that women who regularly practiced yoga had lower levels of the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) in their blood than women of the same age and weight who did not practice yoga. IL-6 is key to the body’s inflammation response, so practicing yoga on a habitual basis should help protect against chronic inflammation.

The researchers also saw that when experiencing stress, the yoga practitioners’ inflammatory response was lower than non-practitioners, which means they were able to handle life’s stressors better, experiencing less bodily damage as a result.

The study at Ohio State University is just one of a wealth of clinical studies that reveal yoga’s many benefits. Studies have shown that yoga raises heart rate variability (HRV), a critical vital sign used as an indicator of a person’s state of health. HRV is the variation in the time interval between one heartbeat and the next. Your heart rate changes from beat to beat. When you inhale your heart rate speeds up, and when you exhale it slows down. So rather than referring to a fixed pulse of, say, 60, the heart rate will actually vary between, say, 55 and 65. HRV is a measure of this naturally occurring irregularity in the heart rate. About 30 years of clinical research has shown that when HRV levels are high, a person experiences lower levels of stress and greater resiliency. When HRV levels are low, this is an indication of greater stress and lower resiliency.

So anything that raises HRV is good for your health, and yoga is an effective means of doing that. A study of healthy people who practices Iyengar yoga showed that during yoga practice, the subjects’ HRV was significantly higher compared to placebo and control groups.[iii] Because yoga strengthened the vagal tone necessary for high HRV and had no negative side effects, the researchers recommended that yoga be considered as an intervention in cardiac rehabilitation programs.

Another study looked at the effect of what the researchers called “rhythmic formulas such as the rosary and yoga mantras” on HRV and “baroreflex sensitivity”—scientists’ cute little way of saying “maintaining a healthy blood pressure.” As you may have guessed, yoga mantras and rosary recitals had pretty much the same effect: HRV went up, blood pressure maintenance improved.[iv] Of course, not all yoga practitioners chant mantras, but maybe they should start. Either that, or take up saying the rosary.

There have been a number of studies of the effect of yoga on people suffering from type 2 diabetes. All have shown beneficial changes in glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, lipid profiles, blood pressure, oxidative stress, etc.[v] If that’s what yoga can do for people who are truly ill, think what it can do for a reasonably healthy person.

Yoga has even come to work with us as studies show that worksite-based yoga programs improve HRV and relieve stress on the job. Work-related stress is on the rise, accompanied by an increase in cardiovascular and metabolic diseases created by a sedentary work environment. A recent study looked at the effects of yoga and mindfulness sessions in the workplace. Participants in either session experienced higher HRV and lowered stress in comparison with the control group.[vi] The degree of improvement in HRV and stress was equivalent for both the yoga and the mindfulness groups; one wonders what might have happened if they had combined them?

This is just a tiny fraction of all the studies that show that yoga strengthens the body, relieves stress, raises HRV, combats inflammation, and is just generally very, very good for your health. If yoga is a satanic trap, it’s going to be hard to figure out just what old Beelzebub is up to this time.

[i] “Yoga Reduces Cytokine Levels Known To Promote Inflammation, Study Shows,” Science Daily, January 14, 2010.

[iii] “Iyengar Yoga Increases Cardiac Parasympathetic Nervous Modulation Among Healthy Yoga Practitioners,” K. Khattab, A.A. Khattab, J. Ortak, G Richardt, H.Bonnemeier; eCAM2007;4(4)511–517.

[iv] “Effect of Rosary Prayer and Yoga Mantras on Autonomic Cardiovascular Rhythms: Comparative Study,” L. Bernardi, P. Seight, G. Bandinelli, S. Cencetti, L. Fattorino, J. Wdowczyc-Szulc, A. Lagi; BMJ, v.323, December 2001.

[v] “The Influence of Yoga-Based Programs on Risk Profiles in Adults with Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Systematic Review,” K.E. Innes and H. K. Vincent; eCAM2007;4(4)469–486.

[vi] Effective and Viable Mind-Body Stress Reduction in the Workplace: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” R.Q Wolever, K.J. Bobinet, K. McCabe, E.R. Mackenzie, E. Fekete, C.A. Kusnick, M. Baime; Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Vol 17(2), Apr 2012, 246-258.


More News about the Food/Health Connection

There have been a number of interesting articles in the news lately about food and health. Here’s a compilation of some of the ones we have seen.

Scientists have discovered a way to “turn on” brown fat to burn energy more quickly, potentially resulting in another approach to combatting obesity. Wait a minute—isn’t fat supposed to be whitish? Most of the fat in an adult human is whitish, but there are also small deposits in the upper chest and neck. Brown fat, which is associated with skeletal muscle, is brown because it is rich in iron-containing mitochondria, which provide its brown color. It is particularly important to newborns (who have about 5% brown fat) and hibernating mammals. The mitochondira, which are the cells’ powerhouses, burn energy at a higher rate than white fat, and are essential to protect animals from hypothermia. A research team found that brown fat could be activated by a hormone called irisin that is normally produced by muscles during exercise. Other hormones have also been identified as brown-fat stimulators. Eventually, these studies may lead to a practical way to stoke our internal fires to burn away unwanted pounds. For more information, see Science News.

Dr. Mark Hyman, best-selling author and advocate of functional medicine, has written extensively about how food sensitivities can make you gain weight. His three-week anti-allergy plan involves removing all dairy the first week, take probiotics the second week to repair the digestive tract, then add dairy products back in one at a time the third week. If bloating, fatigue, or fluid retention occur you may have found the culprit. For more detail, see dr.hyman.com

Forbes.com reports that scientists have discovered a way to turn on the enzyme that burns fat, lipase. It turns out that enzymes only work a set number of hours during the day. Researchers were able to make lipase work three times harder, upping fat digestion activity from 15% to 45% of the time. This has the potential to be lifesaving for people whose metabolism makes it difficult to lose weight with diet and exercise. Also, it turns out that all enzymes can be manipulated in this manner, with enormous implications for enzyme-based diseases. To read the Forbes story, see forbes.com

Cocoa powder may sharpen the aging brain, according to a study published in Hypertension. (Full disclosure: the study was sponsored by Mars, Inc., one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world.) The study included 90 elderly people who had mild cognitive impairment. They drank a cocoa drink for eight weeks that had high, medium, or low levels of flavenols, a type of antioxidant. Those who drank high or medium levels of flavenols performed better on tests of cognition than did those who received low levels. However, the improvements were measurable but mild, and many scientists think that exercise yields much greater benefits than flavenols. For the whole story, see webmd.com

HuffPost asked its experts in medicine and nutrition to come up with a list of the 50 healthiest foods. The top 10 are:

  • Strawberries
  • Water
  • Blackberries and raspberries
  • Almonds
  • Olive oil
  • Blueberries
  • Cherries
  • Oranges
  • Apples
  • Pistachios

To find out the rest of the foods deemed healthiest and why these foods are so good for you, see huffingtonpost.com

Eustress, or YOU Stress?

You may have heard that stress is good for you. Or you may have heard that stress is bad for you. Confusing? That’s because not all stress is equal. Hans Selye, who was one of the first researchers to focus on stress, coined the term “eustress” to refer to stress that gives you a feeling of fulfillment, success, or other positive feelings. An example of eustress is the stress you feel when competing in a contest for which you are well prepared, or when you are engaged in a challenging job that you enjoy.

Eustress enhances your functioning and is good for you because it makes you feel more alive, interested, and engaged with life.

Distress is the bad kind of stress. It can either be acute (you encounter a hostile dog that chases you) or chronic. Acute stress is the normal and helpful reaction of the body to a threat, when the body releases adrenalin and cortisol into the system, helping you to react more rapidly, run faster, and think faster. While it may leave you feeling shaken, you needed that extra oompf to escape the threat.

Chronic stress is the kind of stress imposed by modern life. The body actually doesn’t know the difference between a rabid dog and a difficult boss; any threat will cause the body to release stress hormones, and the body will react accordingly with elevated blood pressure, accelerated heart rate, and other symptoms of stress. The problem is that when a person is chronically stressed, it can cause a lot of health problems.

Selye mentions that chronic stress leads to anxiety, withdrawal and depression, but there is as much or more physical damage caused by chronic stress as psychological damage. Many respected medical institutions, including Stanford University Medical Schools, the National Institutes of Health and Mayo Clinic, estimate that as much as 90% of preventable disease is caused by stress.

This is because those stress hormones—so helpful when we are confronted by real danger—can cause damage to our tissues when they are always present in our systems. They can cause:

  • High blood pressure
  • Head and muscle aches
  • Immune system impairment
  • Asthma
  • Heart attacks
  • Breathing dysfunction
  • Constricted arteries, high cholesterol
  • Stroke
  • Weight gain
  • Digestive issues such as ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome
  • Accelerated aging

And these are just some of the physical issues created by chronic stress. Clearly, the less chronic stress we feel and the more time we spend in eustress, the better off we are.

If you are aware you are chronically stressed, then you can take steps to do something about it. But many people accept a state of chronic stress as normal. That’s the way they always feel, so they cannot recognize or accept they are in a state of continual stress. Most people are not going to proactively address a problem they think they don’t have.

So how do you determine whether or not you’re stressed? Consider whether you experience any of the physical issues mentioned above. Do you have a lot of indigestion? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you find it impossible to lose weight, even though you eat carefully and exercise? Do you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure? These conditions may indicate chronic stress, especially if you find you have a lot of these issues.

You can also detect stress through heart rate variability, or HRV. HRV is the variation in the time interval between one heartbeat and the next.

When we think of our heart rate, we generally think of a number between 60 and 90 beats per minute. This number represents the range for the average heart rate. In fact, your heart rate changes from beat to beat. When you inhale your heart rate speeds up and when you exhale it slows down. So rather than referring to a fixed pulse of, say, 60, the heart rate will actually vary between, say, 55 and 65. HRV is a measure of this naturally occurring irregularity in the heart rate. Nearly a quarter-century of clinical research has shown that when HRV levels are high, a person experiences low levels of stress and greater resiliency. When HRV levels are low, this is an indication of greater stress and lower resiliency.

General practitioners and internists are generally not set up to measure HRV, even though it’s been studied for about 30 years and is an accepted vital sign. You can measure your own HRV using a commercially-available heart monitor such as Wahoo or 60-Beat and an app like SweetBeat™ for the iPhone, which was designed specifically to monitor stress levels using HRV.

Regardless of how you choose to detect stress, it is critical to lower stress levels in pursuit of better health. The good news is that there are many simple and inexpensive ways to reduce stress, including deep breathing, meditation, nutrition, exercise, yoga, and much more. Do the things that help you to experience eustress, and avoid the things that cause you distress. A simple concept, but one that may bolster your health and prolong your life.

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Do you wonder whether you are experiencing chronic stress? Download SweetBeat™, the iPhone stress management app: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/sweetbeat/id492588712?mt=8


Maybe, Baby, It’s Those Baby Steps That Work!

Some of us at SweetWater Health recently attended the 2012 Mobile Health Conference on the Stanford University campus. The theme was “Baby Steps.” The conference was oriented to mHealth entrepreneurs, but what the speakers had to say about baby steps really applies to any human being seeking to make changes in his or her life—especially those really difficult changes, like trying to lose weight or live a healthier lifestyle.

Part of the message was that behaviors are hard to change. They’re even harder when we take on a whole raft of changes at once, which is what we usually do when we’re trying to lose weight. Here’s a sample of what many of us try to do all at once:

  • Give up anything with sugar in it
  • Reduce fat in our diet
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables
  • Cut down on or give up red meat
  • Give up or cut down on bread, cereals, rice, pasta, etc.
  • Eat smaller portions
  • Exercise for an hour a day
  • Always take the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Attend some sort of weight-loss meeting every week
  • Journal what we eat/count points/count calories or carbs every day
  • Walk at least 10,000 steps a day (in addition to exercising)
  • Some diets demand things like eating only cabbage soup, drinking a supplement twice a day instead of eating, eating only prepackaged meals, or following a complicated diet regimen based on blood type—an endless array of exotic and difficult behavior changes.

That’s a HUGE number of changes for most people! Somehow, we think we can squeeze all this in to our routine day, which includes taking care of our families, working, shopping, cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Talk about feeling stressed. And the results are predictable; we blow another weight-loss effort and feel guilty. (More stress. And if you’ve been following this blog, you know stress can make you gain and retain weight.)

The underlying message was that it’s easier to change behaviors if you just take baby steps, and when something doesn’t work, don’t keep trying to make it work; try a different baby step instead.

Not everyone can walk every day, for instance. So walk when you can, and on the days when you can’t, just try to get in 10,000 steps. If you always forget your pedometer, go up and down the stairs a few times; tomorrow, as Scarlett O’Hara famously remarked, is another day.

Another thing we tend to do is beat ourselves up if we eat something not on the “approved” list. Because we’re feeling bad anyway, we figure what the heck, in for a dime in, for a dollar, and throw the rest of the Oreos down the hatch after the first guilty cookie. Although the experts tell us truthfully that it’s better not to have temptations around the house in the first place, circumstances aren’t always ideal, and some of us have spouses and children who don’t share our issues. Look, it was just a cookie, it’s not like you stole a car. Enjoy that one cookie to the absolute maximum, and go do something else—like take a walk.

You wouldn’t begin training for a marathon by running 26 miles and 385 yards the first day. Add a step, do something else if it doesn’t work, and cut yourself some slack if you slip up. Eventually, all those baby steps add up to real progress in behavioral change.

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 As we’ve mentioned before, stress is a major cause of illness—responsible for up to 90% of preventable disease, according to medical institutions like Stanford University Medical Center and Mayo Clinic. And as mentioned previously, stress can actually cause weight gain and retention, even when eating habits don’t change. One baby step you can take to reduce stress is SweetBeat™, the stress management iPhone app from SweetWater Health. Learn more about SweetBeat on our website, http://www.beathealthy.com. You can read the app description and download SweetBeat here.

What Swedish Chickens Tell Us About DNA

For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that our DNA is fixed; whatever genetic characteristics we were born with are the traits that will characterize us throughout our lives. While DNA changes do occur, we have thought that they occur only very slowly—over millions of years, like the evolutionary changes that enabled small-brained primitive primates to develop into homo sapiens. This means if we were born with the genes that predispose us to heart attack or obesity, we are doomed to be fat and short-lived.

Not true. Or rather, it is true that the DNA we were born with doesn’t change, but it turns out that DNA isn’t the whole story. A new field called epigenetics has shown that lifestyle and conditions you are exposed to in life can change how your DNA is expressed—and those changes can sometimes be inherited by your offspring.

Epigenetics refers to heritable changes in the “wrapper” of proteins that surround the DNA. It does take many generations for the genome to change, but the epigenome can be changed by the addition or subtraction of a methyl group. A good analogy is that DNA, or the genome, is the hardware (hard to change) and the epigenome is the software (easy to change).

A methyl group is one carbon atom attached to three hydrogen atoms. When a methyl group attaches to a specific spot on a gene, it can change how the gene is expressed; it can dampen the gene’s effect or turn it off–or it can turn a gene on or boost its effect. This process is called DNA methylation.

So where do the Swedish chickens come in? In 2007, researchers at the University of Linköping in Sweden created the henhouse from hell, designed to stress the chickens that lived in it. The experimenters manipulated the lighting, causing the chickens to lose track of when to sleep, when to eat, and so forth. The discombolulated birds demonstrated a significant decrease in their ability to negotiate their way through a maze to find food.

When the chickens were moved back to a non-stressful environment, they conceived and hatched chicks that also demonstrated poor skills at finding food in a maze—even though they had never been stressed. The research went on to demonstrate that the mothers’ exposure to stress had resulted in a gene expression that the chicks inherited.

The chicken experiment is only one of many animal studies that have proved the validity of epigenetic theory. Another study, this time focusing on human beings (coincidentally, Swedish humans), also proves the point. In the 1980s, a preventive health specialist, Dr. Lars Olov Bygren, studied the effects of feast and famine years during the 19th Century in a remote population of people living in northern Sweden. He wanted to see if there were long-term effects, not just on the people who had experienced the feast or famine years, but also on their children and grandchildren.

Bygren discovered that people who had gone from normal eating to over-eating during the times of overproduction produced children and grandchildren who lived significantly shorter lives than those whose progenitors had endured famines.

So what does this all mean to us on a day-to-day basis? Epigenetics is a new science, and while the human genome has been mapped, the human epigenome has not yet been fully deciphered. We don’t really know enough to be able to say, “Do this” and “Don’t do that.” But we do know—thanks to the Swedish chickens and people—that stress and nutrition play major roles in epigenetics.

The best we can do with this new knowledge is actually old wisdom:

  • Eat a wide variety of fresh foods and stay away from highly processed foods such as sugar to assure getting enough vitamins and minerals, and also to avoid additives (whether or not additives can influence epigenetics is not known)
  • Don’t eat too much
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Reduce stress as much as possible

The last point—stress reduction—has a previously unrealized link to weight loss. As we mentioned last week, researchers have discovered that dieting—especially crash dieting—can inhibit weight loss or even cause weight gain. This is because the stress created by dieting triggers the body to produce cortisol. Cortisol is the “fight or flight” hormone, and it can inhibit weight loss in a variety of ways—especially in an individual who is chronically stressed (and may not even be aware of it because “stressed out” feels normal). Cortisol floods the body with glucose, delivering a quick jolt of energy to the large muscles needed for flight. At the same time, cortisol suppresses insulin to prevent glucose from being stored, as the body under stress needs to use that energy immediately. (Remember, all these mechanisms evolved when a threat meant more than being a few pounds overweight; it meant becoming someone’s dinner.)

Elevated cortisol levels can retrieve triglycerides from storage and relocate them to visceral fat cells (those that lie under the muscles deep in the abdomen), causing the fat cells to grow. Cortisol can also stimulate appetite and craving for high-calorie foods. This is because the body’s logic tells it that if you are under threat, you need to keep the calories coming.

So reducing stress can have a positive effect on weight loss, especially if you follow a reasonable regimen aimed at losing weight gradually over a long period of time. Weight lost quickly via crash diets merely triggers the body’s cortisol mechanisms, resulting in the yo-yo weight loss/weight gain cycle we all know so well.

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Tired of being stressed? Download SweetBeat™, the iPhone stress management app: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/sweetbeat/id492588712?mt=8