I know that the news today can be overwhelming, even just mentioning the word facts can trigger all sorts of reactions. I’m Dr. Michael Greger and I happen to really like facts! So, I’ve devoted my life to learning all there is to know about the latest nutrition research, so that you and your family can lead healthier, more productive lives.
Today, back by popular demand, we present the Nutrition Facts grab bag with the latest news on a whole variety of topics.
First up, some dietary approaches to female sexual dysfunction.
“The creation and promotion of ‘female sexual dysfunction’” as a mental disorder seems like “a textbook case of disease mongering by the pharmaceutical industry” harkening back to the first DSM, psychiatry’s diagnosis manual, which listed “frigidity” as a mental disorder, along, of course, with homosexuality. The latest manifestation is “hypoactive sexual desire disorder,” a disease invented by drug companies. It’s like when Prozac was about to go off patent, “the company sponsored the creation of” a new mental illness to market a drug called Sarafem, which was simply Prozac repacked in a pink capsule. “The condition previously known as shyness was…branded as ‘social anxiety disorder’” so they could get kids on Paxil.
“There are certainly women who are troubled by low libido, but there is no reliable scientific evidence that hypoactive sexual desire disorder is a real medical condition.” And, women can get diagnosed with it even with a normal libido. “A woman highly interested in sex, just not [for whatever reason] with her current partner, can still qualify for [the] diagnosis”—and the drug. Even a woman who is perfectly satisfied with her sex life “may still qualify if her partner [isn’t].”
Our story begins in 2009, when a drug company tried to get “a failed antidepressant” called flibanserin approved “to treat hypoactive sexual desire disorder.” The only problem–it didn’t work! It was resubmitted again after more study, and was still rejected, as was the appeal. But, in 2015, the FDA approved the drug. “What changed? Nothing about [its] efficacy.” It didn’t work any better. What changed is that the drug company that bought it “helped launch an [astroturf fake grassroots] advocacy group, “Even the Score,” which lobbied for approval under a feminist rubric.
“Men have their drugs.” Why don’t women get any sex drugs, which was exposed as kind of a bitter irony. But hey, “within 48 hours of FDA approval, [the drug] was sold for [a cool] billion in cash. Very satisfying for the drug company, “but what about the women who take” the drug (now sold now as Addyi)? Not much. The drug just doesn’t work as advertised.
Yes, it may stimulate monkeys to groom each other more. But, when researchers dug up the unpublished data about the drug, any clinical benefit was found to be “marginal,” and the drug was found to have significant adverse side effects. “Besides being ineffective…, [it can be] dangerous.” “[C]ombining [it] with alcohol can cause dangerous hypotension and [fainting]—problems so serious that the FDA put a black box warning, its most serious safety alert, on the label [that, of course, no one reads].” “Even without alcohol, [it] can cause severe drops in blood pressure levels and [cause] sudden prolonged unconsciousness. Now, serious side effects “might be acceptable in [some kind of] cancer [wonder] drug or something, but “are entirely unacceptable in a drug given to healthy women for an invented condition.”
Are there any safe and natural solutions? Well, there’s lots of studies on diet and men’s sexual health, but what about women’s? I’ve previously explored the evidence about women with high cholesterol levels reporting diminished sexual function across a number of dimensions. This could explain why a more plant-based diet, rich in a variety of whole plant foods, “might be effective in ameliorating sexual function [issues] in women,” as it does in men. More whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruit, and less meat, dairy, and sugar “associated with a reduced risk of [erectile dysfunction],” because the anatomy and physiology of sexual responses are actually quite similar between the two, you can have a similar effect. You can measure clitoral engorgement with fancy MRI techniques within minutes of exposure to an erotic video.
And, we know now that lubrication is all about blood flow, too. “Within the sexually-aroused vagina,” it’s the hydrostatic pressure from all the additional pelvic blood flow that forces fluid “to leak [out] onto the surface…as the vaginal lubrication.”
So, how can we improve blood flow? Well, the flavonoid phytonutrients in cocoa can help open up arteries, peaking at about 90 minutes after consumption.
So, can that Valentine’s Day chocolate make a difference? Women who eat chocolate do tend to have higher female sexual function index scores, but the effect disappeared once age was taken into account. So: “Despite all the potential biological mechanisms supporting a role for chocolate as an aphrodisiac food,” the study failed to show a benefit. One would assume that chocolate could improve blood flow, but remember that was with cocoa powder. Maybe the fat and sugar in chocolate is counteracting the benefits.
What are some whole-food sources of flavonoids? Well, onions have a lot and, indeed, “fresh onion juice enhanced copulatory behavior…in…rats,” but for those of us less interested in increasing “the percentage of ejaculating rats,” and looking for something other than onion juice for our hot date, how about that apple?
But, “there [wasn’t] a study addressing the potential correlation between daily apple consumption and women’s sexual function”… until, now. Women were split into regular daily apple consumers versus those consuming less than an apple a day, and the hundreds of apple eaters in the study scored “significantly higher” on the female sexual function index.
Now, note they only included women eating unpeeled apples, because the phytonutrients are concentrated in the peel. So, we don’t know if there’s a link with peeled apples. And, this was just an observational study, so “further studies will be necessary to clarify…the relationship between apple intake
and female sexuality.” “However, the present data can allow the development of future research for identifying new compounds and food supplements to use in female sexuality recovery.” Uh, or, you can just try eating an apple.
In our next story we discover the secret to unlocking the benefits of chia seeds.
In my latest literature review on the “health promoting properties and therapeutic applications of chia seeds,” I ran into a lot of “Strategies for incorporation of chia…in frankfurters as a health-promoting ingredient.” After all, in “[r]ecent years [we] have seen increasing pursuit of healthier lifestyles,” healthier “dietary habits. In response to this, there has been a great deal of interest…in…compounds originally present in plants to provide health benefits in [real] foods,” like hot dogs. And, indeed: “Reformulated frankfurters with chia contained significantly greater amounts of [plant] protein, fiber, minerals.” In fact: “Given this [new] nutritional profile, [such hot dogs] could qualify for labelling with a variety of nutrition and health claims.” And, what do you know, the “chia-…enriched restructured pork [a]ffects aged rats fed [bad] diets.” So, let’s slap on a health label.
Chia has been eaten for thousands of years, so that would suggest it’s at least safe to eat. But, does it have any special benefit? It’s certainly nutritious; got lots of fiber, antioxidants—black chia seeds perhaps more than white, plant protein (of course), “a source of B vitamins,” a source of minerals. So, yeah, nutritious, sure; but, just like nearly any whole plant food. But, again, any special benefits? There’s all sorts of claims out there by people trying to sell you chia seeds, but to “definitively establish their actual beneficial effects,” we need a little something called “scientific evidence instead of [just] cultural traditions, personal beliefs, or inaccurate advertising,” which is a redundant term if I’ve ever heard one.
For example, there are about 50,000 videos on YouTube on chia seeds and belly fat. But what does the science say? Dietary chia seed does reduce belly fat…in rats. Does apparently reduce the weight…of chickens. Evidently, people don’t like smelling or tasting fishy chicken; so, by feeding chickens chia seeds, you can boost their omega-3 levels without it turning into funky chicken. But what happens if you just cut out the middle-hen, and eat chia yourself?
What happens if you add a teaspoon or two of chia seeds to yogurt as a snack? After the yogurt with the chia, participants reported significantly less hunger, and that then later translated to eating fewer calories two hours later at lunch. Now, my initial thought was, uh, give people more food—add chia to whatever they’re eating—and they’re less hungry; duh! But, no, they gave people less yogurt to compensate; so, each snack had the same number of calories. So, we can say at least that chia seeds are more satiating than yogurt. But, at lunch two hours later, they didn’t just eat a little less food, but like 25% fewer calories after the chia. A teaspoon of chia seeds only has like 50 calories; yet, they ended up eating nearly 300 calories less at lunch, way more than compensating. So, if you did that every day, ate some chia seeds as a snack—and one teaspoon seemed to work as well as two—you’d expect to lose weight over time. You don’t know, though, until you put it to the test. “Subjects were randomized” to a whole tablespoon of chia seed twice a day for months “before the first and last meal for 12 weeks.” And, they found: “Chia seed does not promote weight loss” after all. Huh?
Well, we know from the flax seed literature, if you give people muffins made out of whole flax seeds, they don’t seem to really absorb all the benefit, compared to ground flax seed muffins. And, the same appeared to be true with chia seeds. Eat whole chia seeds for 10 weeks, and no increase in short-chain omega-3 levels or long-chain omega 3s. But, eat the same amount of chia seeds ground up, and levels shoot up. So, maybe the problem with this study is that they gave people whole chia seeds. But, there’s never been a study on ground chia and weight loss…until, now.
A randomized controlled trial, about two tablespoons of ground chia a day versus a fiber-matched control made of mostly oat bran. That’s how you know it wasn’t funded by a chia seed company, because they put it head-to-head against a real control, not just a sugar pill or something, to control for the fiber content. So, then, if there was weight loss, we’d know it wasn’t just the fiber, but something particular to the chia. And, those eating the ground chia lost significantly more weight, significantly more waist, in terms of waist circumference (a measure of belly fat), and, as a bonus, C-reactive protein levels—suggesting an anti-inflammatory effect, as well. So, maybe some of those 50,000 YouTube videos weren’t completely off.
There is one form of chia powder I’d stay away from, though. I’ve talked about using chia gel to replace eggs or oil in baking; you mix a teaspoon of seeds with a quarter-cup of water, and let it sit for half an hour. Certainly, a way to lower cholesterol, but here you are cutting down on your salmonella risk and, there was an international outbreak of salmonella “linked to sprouted chia seed powder.” Sprouting can create “an ideal environment for bacterial growth.” Ninety-four people infected across 16 states. Granted, not as bad as salmonella-tainted eggs, which may sicken 79,000 Americans every year, but still, I would recommend staying away from sprouted chia seed powder.
In our last story today we discover what dietary change can simultaneously help detoxify mercury, lead, and cadmium from the body.
We’ve previously explored the issue of lead contamination in calcium supplements like bone meal, but it wasn’t just bone meal. Substantial quantities of lead were found in other, more common, over-the-counter supplements. Still, testing revealed continued public health concern over bone meal, but thankfully it’s not as popular these days. So, many of us are not likely to get directly exposed to the lead in bone meal anymore, but may get indirectly exposed through the animals we eat.
In the U.S., five billion pounds of meat and bone meal are produced as slaughterhouse by-products every year. What do we do with these millions of tons every year? We feed it back to farm animals, particularly chickens. Now, most of the lead in the bone meal passes right through the animals into their waste, but then we take that waste (cow, pig, and chicken feces) and feed it back to the animals again. You guessed it! So, you can see how the levels of contaminants might build up in their bodies.
I’ve talked previously about what that might mean for making something like chicken soup, but the original concern about these kinds of feeding practices, feeding cows to cows, and pigs and chickens, was the spread of prion diseases, like mad cow disease. But it’s not just prions that this kind of recycling can magnify, but other toxic substances, including lead. So, a more plant-based diet may be able to lower lead exposure, and an even more plant-based diet could theoretically lower exposure even more. But you’ve got to put it to the test.
But should we expect to find a benefit? Yes, lead is one of the toxins found in meat, but half of our dietary exposure probably comes from plant foods. Dietary modeling studies in Europe suggest that vegetarians would be exposed to about the same amount of lead compared to the general population, with the exception of those who eat a lot of wild game, which can end up with a thousand times more lead than most other foods.
In fact, a vegetarian diet may even be higher in lead.
But, it’s not what you eat; it’s what you absorb. As we learned from the cadmium story, the uptake of toxic heavy metals from animal food sources into the human intestinal lining cells may be higher than that from vegetable sources. That’s how you have a vegetarian with some of the lowest concentrations of lead and cadmium in their blood, despite higher concentrations in their diet. But, you don’t know, until you…put it to the test.
There seemed to be a tendency towards higher fecal elimination of lead following a change to a vegetarian diet, with nine subjects on average tripling their elimination of lead, three unaffected, and four dropping by about half. But the study only lasted a few months, the difference wasn’t statistically significant. So, let’s try a year. A shift towards a diet characterized by large amounts of raw vegetables, fruits, and unrefined foods, whole grains, with the exclusion of meat, poultry, fish, and eggs (though it did include fermented dairy, like a type of soured milk), as well as cutting back on processed food and junk. They took clippings of hair before and after the shift, and got significant reductions in heavy metals, including cutting their lead level nearly in half. Same thing with a different group after two years. The drop in mercury, easy to explain, presumably due to the drastic drop in fish consumption, and the drop in alcoholic beverages may have contributed to the drop in lead, but it also could have been a cadmium-like effect, where the decrease in hair lead content could be due to the dietary shift resulting in less absorption of lead into the body in the first place.
To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images or studies mentioned here, please go to the Nutrition Facts podcast landing page. There, you’ll find all the detailed information you need – plus links to all the sources we cite for each of these topics.
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