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Saviour of the couch potato

Saviour of the couch potato

Our health correspondents report on the latest scientific breakthroughs

Our health correspondents report on the latest scientific breakthroughs

April/May 2016

BUGS KEEP YOU SLIM

Scientists are beginning to understand how much influence the 100 trillion microbes in our guts have on everything from immunity through digestion to brain development. Recently, their impact on weight has been identified, a development that will give hope to couch potatoes everywhere. A study on mice has shown that a drop in the ambient temperature dramatically altered the composition of intestinal bacteria. More fat was burnt, the glucose metabolism improved and body weight fell. While exposure to the cold has long been known to mimic the effects of exercise, it now turns out that this response is mediated by our gut flora. If you are partial to cosier environments, there is hope: the researchers triggered the bugs’ beneficial effects simply by transplanting them from chilly mice into warm ones. They’ve yet to try this on humans, though.

DOSE UP ON D

In the past few years, scientists have begun to realise how important vitamin D is. Higher levels in the blood may offer protection from some cancers, Alzheimer’s disease and heart attacks, as well as strengthen the bones. Deficiencies of the vitamin, which is both eaten and produced in the skin, are common in America and Britain, in winter and among people with dark skin. They increase north of the 40th parallel. Recently a group of researchers investigated whether supplements could avert the bone degeneration that accompanies vitamin D deficiency. A group of older women did indeed benefit, but only when they took very high doses of vitamin D – 25-40 micrograms a day. That’s around twice what America’s FDA currently recommends, though there’s no evidence that such levels are bad for you.

TAKING CHOCOLATE TO HEART

Chocolate is not only delicious but, some say, good for memory and circulation. The catch is that to get any health benefits from it, you need to eat two bars of dark chocolate a day. Big chocolate companies are keen to promote the the advantages, but they are also aware that telling people to eat two bars of chocolate for the sake of their health is a non-starter. Instead, they are looking to supplements. Mars, an American chocolate giant, is seeking approval to sell its cocoa-extract supplements in Europe. Barry Callebaut, one of the world’s largest cocoa producers, is doing the same. Both companies want to flog little pills containing flavanols, a compound found in cocoa, as the way to a healthier life. Do cocoa supplements work? At worst, they do no harm, according to the European Food Safety Authority, which weighed up the evidence at the request of Callebaut. Some studies suggest positive benefits, and Mars wants more solid evidence. It has announced a partnership with Harvard University to run a five-year, placebo-controlled trial on 18,000 people to investigate the long-term effects of cocoa flavanols.

BERRY GOOD

Goji berries, goldenberries and acai berries have all been hailed as wonder fruit. Maqui berries are the latest to burst onto the scene. Native to Chile and Argentina, they look like blueberries, only slightly smaller and slightly blacker. You won’t find them fresh in your supermarket: a non-domesticated plant, they must be collected in the wild and have a limited shelf-life. They have been available as powders and tablets. Now capsules made with purified maqui-polyphenol extract, as opposed to dried maqui berries, have reached the market. Polyphenols are antioxidant compounds found in spinach, kale, turmeric, rosemary, red wine and berries, which proponents maintain stave off all sorts of health problems, from cancer to cardiac arrest. Yet questions have been raised over their bioavailability (the success with which they are absorbed by the body). The maqui, in this regard, is the cream of the crop. According to Dr Giovanni Scapagnini, assistant professor at the Institute of Neurological Sciences at the Italian National Research Council, the type of polyphenols found in maqui berries is “the most soluble and bioavailable of all”. Whether they’ll make you young again is another matter.

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DinerGuy - April 3rd 2016

"TAKING CHOCOLATE TO HEART": From what I've read, you have to eat at least 500 calories (of your daily caloric count,) a day of the darkest chocolate you can find. Milk chocolate will not help. The amount of sugar and other ingredients destroy the benefits of eating the dark chocolate. Although it's not emphasized enough in the article, but you have to remember to eat the darkest chocolate you can find. I've tried 92% and it's edible, but it certainly took effort to eat the 500 calories! I can handle without difficulty in the 70% range! I found a 72% with bits of roasted almonds tasty!