Ann Fernholm, Debate

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Unreliable Dietary Guidelines For Babies Have Done More Harm Than Good

Since the 1980s, the recommendations for when to introduce gluten to children have changed four times – and scientists still disagree on how to prevent gluten intolerance among small children. The unreliable dietary advice for babies appear to be the result of scientific carelessness. Scientists have neglected to test the hypothesis using well-conducted and controlled studies.

The Swedish newspaper SvD recently published a number of articles about dietary guidelines, written by medical journalist Gunilla Eldh and myself. Last Friday, they printed our articles about dietary guidelines for small children. The first one was about Celiac disease, and the advice to introduce gluten to babies before six months. For some children, if worst comes to worst, this may actually have triggered the development of Celiac disease. The second article was about the advice to delay the introduction of allergenic foods to children at high risk of allergy. Current advice is moving away from delaying the introduction of potential allergens, but it is still possible that previous advice contributed to the development of allergies in children.

All dietary guidelines must be scientifically valid

In one of the first articles published by Swedish Svd, some scientists claimed it is difficult to assess the effects of dietary advice using so called randomized controlled trials (RCTs), the form of study that evaluate results and side-effects. According to many scientists, the participants don’t follow the advice they are given, they quit, also, randomized controlled trials are expensive to conduct. This is how they justify the fact that so many dietary guidelines lack scientific credibility.

When it comes to dietary advice for small children, none of these excuses will work. Already back in the 1990s, when these guidelines were introduced, it would have been fairly easy to test the hypothesis that early exposure to gluten may help babies avoid Celiac disease. Scientists could have divided a couple of hundred babies into two groups, and introduced only one of them to gluten. Instead, we had to wait almost 20 years before some other scientists proved the guidelines wrong. If worst comes to worst, the advice to introduce gluten to babies before six months may have triggered the development of Celiac disease.

The same goes for food allergies. In the beginning of the 1990s, specialists issued warnings about allergenic foods, saying that parents should delay the introduction of allergenic foods to children at high risk of allergy. Today – 20 years later – well-conducted scientific studies show that

early introduction to allergenic foods like peanuts, fish and egg, might actually be key to preventing kids’ allergies. Previous advice has probably contributed to the development of allergies in children.

Scientific carelessness can lead to mistakes

Unfortunately, the Swedish National Food Administration won’t learn from mistakes. Once again, we have new recommendations on gluten introduction to prevent Celiac disease. According to the new guidelines, parents should introduce gluten slowly and step-by-step. However, once again, they fail to inform us about the scientific evidence for this advice.

Yet another example of scientific carelessness. Scientists claim they know what they are talking about, even when they have no clue.

In our bodies, there’s a machinery of molecules, developed by millions of years of evolution. Step-by-step, we begin to grasp how this enormous machine works, but there is still so much more to learn. I think it’s time to be a bit more humble and admit that we don’t know everything. Nevertheless, we have invented an incredibly powerful instrument to help us learn more about the world around us: the scientific method. When scientists follow the rules of the scientific method they tend to discover extraordinary things; when they fail to follow the rules, they make mistakes.

When it comes to dietary guidelines for babies, it’s incredibly important that the scientists do their job. Both Celiac disease and food allergy will affect the wellbeing of the child. No one should suffer because of someone else’s carelessness.

Science journalist and writer Ann Fernholm runs the blog annfernholm.se. Now and then, she writes here at Food Pharmacy.

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Ann Fernholm, Debate

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The sugar industry stopped research showing that sugar can cause cardiovascular disease

Just like the tobacco industry, the sugar industry has influenced the research around it. In 1971, they halted a study that showed how sugar negatively affects intestinal flora and upsets blood-fat levels in lab rats. For half a century, the sugar industry has managed to prevent this important knowledge from being publicized.

In 1965, researchers at Harvard were paid by the Sugar Research Foundation, an American organization sponsored by the sugar industry, to write an article claiming that sugar is harmless for the heart. This cover-up was finally revealed just last year by Cristin Kearns, researcher at UCSF in San Francisco..

Now, Cristin Kearns has been digging deeper into the archives, and has discovered that the Sugar Research Foundation, in the years of 1967-1971, funded animal-tested research at Birmingham University, in which scientists investigated whether or not sugar affects the risks of developing cardiovascular disease. The study in fact showed that sugar upsets blood-fat levels, and that intestinal flora are involved in the process: Sugar industry sponsorship of germ-free rodent studies linking sucrose to hyperlipidemia and cancer: An historical analysis of internal documents. In addition, sugar-levels were increased by a protein that is associated with bladder cancer.

These negative results caused the sugar industry to hurriedly withdraw their money from the research project.

The sugar industry therefore, has done exactly what the tobacco industry did. They have directly impeded any research that could affect their sales.

It’s making me so upset just thinking about it, and there are things I want to write that I probably shouldn’t, so let’s just move on.

Sugar, intestinal flora and blood fats

The interesting thing, which the unfinished study shows, is the connection between sugar, a compromised intestinal flora, and an unhealthy level of blood-fat. In my book My Sweet HeartI talk about how fat increases in the liver whenever we eat a large amount of the sugar known as fructose (found in white sugar). The build-up of fat in the liver upsets blood-fat levels, and may in the end cause fatty-liver. In one chapter of the book, you can read the following (for those who haven’t read my books, metabolic syndrome is the disrupted metabolism that people with abdominal obesity and type 2 diabetes experience):

Bowel incontinence and bacterial toxicity seems to contribute to a fatty liver.

As you’ve probably read before, people with metabolic syndrome are more likely to have a depleted intestinal flora, with a high number of inflammatory bacteria. This condition is also associated with a bowel incontinence. The bacteria have special molecules, called endotoxins (shorthand for internal toxins), located in a membrane that surrounds the bacteria. The levels of these toxins found in the blood are increased in those suffering from metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Some researchers believe that this is a contributing factor to the fatty-liver condition that I describe in chapter 3. For instance, if mice are fed with fructose, they soon develop bowel-incontinence, more bacterial infections in the blood, and, in the long run, fatty-liver. But if the mice are given antibiotics at the same time, it seems to protect them from fatty liver. Antibiotics can cause unbalance among healthy intestinal flora, but at the same time, it is also true that antibiotics help get rid of unhealthy bacteria. In the case of the mice, the antibiotic counteracted the poison-producing bacteria. The experiment suggests that an upset intestinal flora may accelerate the development of fatty liver and metabolic syndrome.

With that said, it should be known that the research I refer to was published in 2008 and 2009. But the sugar industry knew about the link between sugar, intestinal flora and upset blood fats already, in the early 1970s.

Further animal experiments in May this year showed that fructose causes leaky intestines in mice. In September, researchers also published a new article about fructose, intestinal flora and the risk of fatty liver.

It’s tempting to think that this is all exciting new knowledge, but the truth is that the sugar industry knew about it 50 years ago. For half a century, they’ve managed to prevent this knowledge from spreading, and as a result are complicit in decades of disease and needless suffering. Is there anyone else out there who finds all of this a little depressing?

Science journalist and writer Ann Fernholm runs the blog annfernholm.se. Now and then, she writes here at Food Pharmacy.

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Sugar – a fertilizer for growth in our bodies 

What? – Can it be true? That’s what ran through my mind last week when I realized that it had been five years since my book My Sweet Heart was released, and I started blogging. Five years! And there is still so much to write about. For example, there is new research that reinforces some of the claims I make in My Sweet Heart. In particular, this research supports the idea that carbohydrates work in the body a little like …

… a fertilizer, for the body and for cancer cells.

Yes, it’s true. More and more research is showing that our bodies grow faster when we eat a lot of sugar, wheat flour and other refined carbohydrates. With this type of diet, blood sugar tends to rise quickly, resulting in a high insulin peak, which then stimulates the body’s growth system. You can read about exactly how this works in My Sweet Heart.

In fact, these insulin spikes can be linked to a whole series of unhealthy signs, including: babies born bigger and heavier, obese children who often grow tall earlier in life, children for whom puberty comes earlier, and even an increased susceptibility to cancer. Recently, a report was published in the United States showing that 40 percent of all cancer in the U.S. is associated with obesity. That’s 630,000 cancer cases per year. Crazy.

In September, I read an article that focused on the unique metabolism of cancer cells; how it’s affected by obesity and how high insulin levels in the blood can trigger tumor growth. That’s really something we should be talking about more. An American science journalist recently wrote a piece for the LA times about the role of insulin in cancer: It’s getting clearer – the diet-cancer connection points to sugar and carbs.

More growth during the fetal stage

High insulin spikes in pregnant women’s blood is another likely explanation as to why obesity and/or diabetes generally causes babies to grow more during the fetal stage. The number of children weighing more than 11 pounds (5 kilograms) at birth has doubled since the 1970s. This, of course, also increases the risk of complications during childbirth. Just this summer, I wrote an article for the Swedish newspaper SvD about how researchers believe that these complications are related to the mothers’ serious obesity, which increases the risk of childhood epilepsy or CP injury.

In fact, research shows that babies can be so affected by their mother’s obesity that they continue to grow at a faster pace even after birth. Some animal studies have suggested this, and researchers in Singapore have now shown a relationship between the mother’s sugar intake and the baby’s growth rate during the first year of life. In the study, it was found that the more cookies, desserts, ice cream and sweetened drinks the mother consumed during pregnancy, the faster the baby grew and the higher the BMI during their first year.

One weakness of the study was that scientists only recorded what the mothers ate during one day of pregnancy. More research is needed to really prove this relationship, but there are still plenty of reasons to suspect that a diet high in sugar and fast carbohydrates can affect babies in utero.

So, all you pregnant mothers out there: don’t do what I did during my first pregnancy. Get rid of the sweetened apple juice at lunch, and throw out all the damn candy (it made me gain a lot of weight). Instead, do as I did during my second pregnancy: eat low-glycemic foods and enjoy a good cheese or some dark chocolate every now and then. Both you and your future child are worth taking care of with proper and nutritious food.

Is there something I wish for as a jubilee gift? Of course. The Dietary Science Foundation swish number is 123 900 42 43. A contribution might just encourage me to blog for at least five more years.

Ann Fernholm runs the blog annfernholm.se and has written the best-selling book My Sweet Heart. Now and then, she writes here at Food Pharmacy.

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Vegetables can actually prevent disease

Once you start looking into how much food can affect your health, it’s easy to get hopelessly confused. At first glance, it appears that experts disagree about almost everything?

One day you might read that milk is harmful and that the Swedish National Food Agency has changed its dairy recommendations; the next day you may find an article about how much nutrition milk contains and how it is vital for our bodies.

Or to take another example: many nutritionists will tell you to remove gluten from your diet; others argue that the gluten-free trend is just a fad that is not supported by science. And on it goes.

But do these differing opinions, which were all on display in the recent debate on SVT (Swedish Television) “Opinion” mean that, as Giles Yeo says, “Food-as-Medicine” statements are based on pseudoscience that degrades truth and fact? The answer is no. It’s not about pseudoscience.

Though it’s true that researchers do not agree on all the “details,” they are united on some very important overall conclusions. Most notably: a large, varied intake of vegetables every day is important for our health and, in fact, can prevent disease.

There’s a lot of telling research in this field. An exceptionally interesting recent study from Imperial College London shows that eating 800 grams of fruit and vegetables every day can reduce the risk of dying prematurely.

According to the study, 7.8 million deaths could be prevented each year if every individual consumed 10 fruits and/or vegetables per day.

The study also demonstrates that overall health improves the closer you get to 800 grams per day. For instance, eating just 200 grams per day reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease by 13 percent, while eating 800 grams of fruits and vegetables per day reduces the risk by 28 percent, compared to eating no fruits or vegetables at all.

Another significant result of eating lots of fruits and vegetables is that your cholesterol levels and blood pressure are both lowered, and, according to the study, the risk of damage to DNA and the risk of cancer also decrease.

It’s easy to despair when it seems like you only ever hear from one extreme or the other – the “blueberries can cure cancer” crowd or the “food as medicine” skeptics. We tend to focus on the details of disagreement and forget that both parties still agree on many issues – including the positive correlation between a largely vegetable diet and good health.

It’s important that researchers continue to debate and figure out exact scientific relationships, but if the reporting is not done properly, we run the risk of internalizing the idea that no consensus exists among scientists, and that there is no evidence at all to prove that what we eat affects us both physically and mentally.

And that would be a pity, especially for our health.

The text above was published on SVT Opinion yesterday.

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