Here’s a question for you. What’s the best way to live a longer, healthier life? Diet? Exercise? Both—eating healthy while doing jumping jacks? Welcome to the Nutrition Facts Podcast. I’m your host Dr. Michael Greger and I’m here to help you answer that question. We have tremendous power over our health destiny and longevity. The vast majority of premature death and disability is preventable with a healthy enough diet and lifestyle. And, I’m here to bring you the latest peer-reviewed research to give you the tools to put it into practice.
Today, back by popular demand, we present the nutrition facts grab bag with the latest news on a whole variety of topics. First up we figure out which meat is most contaminated with antibiotic-resistant E. coli and ExPEC bacteria that cause urinary tract infections
Millions of Americans come down with bladder infections—urinary tract infections— every year, including more than a million children. Most cases stay in the bladder, but when the bacteria creep up into the kidneys, or get into the bloodstream, things can get serious. Thankfully, we have antibiotics. But there is now a pandemic of a new multi-drug resistant strain of E. coli. Discovered just in 2008, and now this so-called ST131 strain went from unknown to a leading cause of bladder infections the world over, resistant to even some of our 2nd and 3rd line antibiotics. And it’s been found in chicken, retail chicken breasts sampled from across the country, documenting a “persisting reservoir of extensively antimicrobial-resistant ExPEC bacteria,” the extraintestinal pathogenic E. coli—including the ST131 strain—”in retail chicken products in the United States, suggesting a potential public health threat.”
See, urinary tract infections may be foodborne, by which they mean predominantly poultry—chicken and turkey—and so, maybe we shouldn’t be feeding antibiotics to these animals by the ton in poultry production. But wait, foodborne bladder infections? What are you doing with that drumstick? No, eating contaminated chicken can lead to the colonization of the rectum with these bacteria that can then, even months later, crawl up into the bladder to cause an infection.
“The problem of increasing antimicrobial resistance is so dire that some experts are predicting that the era of antibiotics may be coming to an end,…ushering in a ‘post-antibiotic era,’ in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.” More than 80 percent of E. coli isolated from beef, pork, and poultry “exhibited resistance” to at least one antibiotic, and more than half from poultry were resistant to five different drugs. One of the ways this happens is that viruses, called bacteriophages, can transfer antibiotic resistance genes between bacteria. About a quarter of these viruses isolated from chicken meat were found “able to transduce” antibiotic drug resistance into E. coli. And one of the big problems with this is that “disinfectants used to kill bacteria are, in many cases, not able to eliminate these viruses.” Some of these viruses are even resistant to bleach at the kinds of concentrations used in the food industry; and likewise, alcohol, which is what you find in many hand sanitizers, also unable to harm most of them.
The irony is that the industry has tried to intentionally feed these viruses to chickens. Why would they do that? It can boost egg production in hens, and increase body weight gain in broiler chickens to get them to slaughter weight faster. The only thing that seems to dissuade the industry is if anything affects the taste of the meat. That’s why the industry had to stop spraying chickens with benzene to try to kill off all the parasites. The meat ended up with “a distasteful flavor,” described as “strong, acidic, musty, medicinal, biting, objectionable,” and….hmm, tasty.
But, what if you buy organic chicken? For another type of bacteria, enterococcus, antibiotic-resistant bugs were found in both conventional and organically raised chicken, but were less common in organic. Only about one in three contaminated with drug-resistant bugs, compared to nearly one in two. But in a study of hundreds of prepackaged retail chicken breasts tested from 99 grocery stores, being labeled organic or antibiotic-free did not seem to impact the contamination levels of antibiotic-resistant E. coli from fresh retail chicken, though purchasing meat from natural food stores appeared to be safer, regardless of how it was labeled.
Kosher chicken appeared to be the worst, nearly twice the level of antibiotic-resistant E. coli contamination compared to conventional, which goes against the whole concept of kosher. No difference in drug resistance between the E. coli swabbed from conventional chicken versus organic and raised-without-antibiotics-chicken, but either way, kosher was worse. But how could organic and raised-without-antibiotics-chicken not be better? Well, it could be cross-contamination at the slaughter plants; so, bugs just jump from one to the other.
Or, it could be the organic chicken loophole. USDA organic standards prohibits the use of antibiotics in poultry “starting on day two of the animal’s life. This is an important loophole,” since even antibiotics “considered critical for human health” are “routinely injected” into one-day-old chicks and eggs, which has been directly associated with antibiotic-resistant foodborne infections.
And, there was no difference in the presence of ExPEC bacteria between organic and conventional, the bacteria implicated in urinary tract infections. “These findings suggest that retail chicken products in the United States, even if they are labeled ‘organic,’ pose a potential health threat to consumers because they are contaminated with extensively antibiotic-resistant…E. coli.” And even if we were able to get the poultry industry to stop using antibiotics, the contamination of chicken meat with ExPEC bacteria could still remain a threat.
In our next story, ground ginger powder is put to the test for weight loss and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Ginger has been used in India and China to treat illnesses for thousands of years. But, they also used mercury, so that doesn’t really tell you much. That’s what we have science for. But, when you see titles on the “beneficial effects of ginger…on obesity,” for example, you may not be aware they’re talking about the beneficial effects of ginger on fat rats. Wait; why don’t they just do human clinical studies? The “lack of clinical studies may be attributed to for example ethical issues and limited commercial support.” Limited commercial support I can see. Ginger is dirt cheap; who’s going to pay for the study. But ethical issues? We’re just talking about feeding people some ginger!
Studies like this are relatively cheap and easy to do: cross-sectional studies where you take a snapshot in time of ginger consumption and body weight. And, you do see that people who are obese tend to eat significantly less ginger. And so, they suggest this “demonstrates that the use of ginger could have relevance for weight management.” But maybe ginger consumption is just a marker of more traditional, less Westernized, junk food diets. You don’t know…until you put it to the test.
A randomized, controlled trial to assess “the effects of a hot ginger beverage”—by which they just meant two grams of ginger powder in a cup of hot water. So, about one teaspoon of ground ginger stirred into a teacup of hot water. That’s about five cents worth of ginger. And…after the ginger, the participants reported feeling significantly less hungry. And, in response to the question, “How much do you think you could eat?” described “lower prospective food intake.”
Now the control was just “hot water alone,” so the participants knew when they were getting the ginger. So, there could be a placebo effect. They considered just stuffing the ginger into capsules to do a double-blinded study, but they think part of the effect of ginger may actually be through taste receptors on the tongue. So, they didn’t want to interfere with that.
Not all the effects were just subjective, though. Four hours after drinking, the metabolic rate in the ginger group was elevated compared to control—though in a previous study, when fresh ginger was added to a meal, there was no bump in metabolic rate. The researchers suggest this may be “due to the different method of ginger administration”—giving fresh instead of dried. And, there are dehydration products that form when you dry ginger that may have unique properties.
Now although satiety and fullness were greater with ginger compared to control, the researchers didn’t then follow the participants out to see if they like actually ate less for lunch. The problem is, there’s never been a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of that much ginger and weight loss…until now.
Twelve weeks of that same teaspoon of ginger powder a day, but this time hidden in capsules. And, consumption of ginger for 12 weeks significantly reduced body mass index. Check it out. No change in the placebo group, but a drop in the ginger group—though body fat estimates didn’t really change, which is kind of the whole point.
What about using ginger to pull fat out of specific organs, like the liver? Evidently, “treatment with ginger ameliorates fructose-induced fatty liver…in rats.” You know what else would have worked? Not feeding them so much sugar in the first place. But there’s never been a human…you know where this is going…until now. “Ginger supplementation in nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study”—a teaspoon of ginger a day or placebo for 12 weeks.
They were all told “to limit their dietary cholesterol intake” and get more fiber and exercise. So, even the placebo group should improve. But did the ginger group do any better? Yes, “daily consumption” of just that teaspoon of ground ginger a day “resulted in a significant decrease in inflammatory marker levels,” and improvements in liver function tests, and a drop in liver fat. All for five cents worth of ginger powder a day.
And, what are the side effects? A few gingery burps? I searched for downsides, and didn’t find any other than, of course, “ginger paralysis.” What?! “In 1930, thousands of Americans were poisoned” by a ginger extract. First of all, who drinks ginger extract? Oh, 1930, it was Prohibition, so they bought ginger extract as a legal way to get their hands on alcohol. “Little did he realize that the bootleggers had been taking advantage of the demand,” swapped in a cheaper ginger substitute, a varnish compound, in order to make greater profits. The moral of the story being…don’t drink varnish.
And finally today we look at how much does sweating via sauna or exercise gets rid of toxic heavy-metals like lead and mercury?
In my video on henna, I talked about the study that proved lead could be absorbed through skin and into the body. Researchers applied lead to someone’s left arm, and then they measured the level of lead in the sweat coming off their right arm over the next few days. There was a big spike, proving that lead can go into your body, but also proving that lead can go out of your body. If we can lose lead through sweat, how about using sweating for detoxification?
Look: “No person is without some level of” toxic heavy metals in their blood, “circulating and accumulating,” and hey, cultures around the world have viewed sweating as health-promoting, from Roman and Turkish baths, to sweat lodges and saunas. But what does the science say?
When I looked up saunas, I was surprised to see this: a study on the detoxification of 9/11 rescue workers, with a regimen of exercise, sauna bathing, and supplements. They reported on seven individuals, and evidently during the month before the treatment, PCB levels in their blood stayed about the same. “In contrast, all rescue workers had measurable decreases in these PCBs following treatment.” And, they reportedly felt better too. They had all sorts of symptoms—respiratory, neurological, musculoskeletal—but felt better after the treatment. Improvements “consistent with” nearly 400 others they treated with the same protocol.
Wait a second. If they treated 400, why are they only reporting the results from seven? That’s a bit of a red flag, but not as red as this: the “detoxification regimen was developed by Hubbard.” As in, L.R. Hubbard—L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the infamous Church of Scientology. And the lead author of the detoxification paper also appears to have failed to disclose his financial conflict of interest for presumably profiting off the treatments.
Sweating does, however, represent a “time-honored treatment” in the field of medicine for mercury poisoning going back centuries. But, time-honored medical treatments include drilling people’s skulls open to release evil spirits, or even giving people mercury itself. Remember mercurochrome? What do you think the mercuro- stood for? In fact, some believe Mozart died of mercury poisoning trying to cure his syphilis—though, of course, all the bloodletting he got probably didn’t help either— another time-honored medical treatment that makes scientology saunas look pretty mild in comparison. But, a case report was described of a person who apparently recovered from mercury poisoning after six months of sweats and physical therapy. But maybe he would have gotten better anyway? You don’t know…until you put it to the test.
Mercury wasn’t formally studied, but lead was. Put people in a 200-degree dry sauna for 15 minutes, and based on sweating rates, those 15 minutes in the sauna would force out about 40 micrograms of lead from the body, with some people getting rid of 100 or more per session. So, you could drink like a gallon of chicken broth, and even if you absorbed all the lead, you could be back to baseline after just one sauna session, even after drinking bone broth.
Is it safe for children? Based on what we know now, ‘sauna bathing poses no risks” to healthy folks throughout the life cycle, though medical supervision couldn’t hurt. Now, this doesn’t mean it would be as effective in children, as adults sweat a lot more than kids. And, of course, kids are the ones who need lead detoxing the most. “There is a clear need for robust clinical trials” to test all this.
But even if it works, it’s not like some poor kid in Flint is going to have access to a sauna. That’s why I was so excited to find this paper: “The change in blood lead levels of basketball players after strenuous exercise.” Saunas aren’t the only way to sweat; what about strenuous physical activity? Evidently, there was a study that found that “aerobic endurance training” lead to a drop in lead levels, with rowing better than cycling. But for how long? How intense? I don’t know; I don’t read German. But I did find the study, and it looks like they ramped up the stationary bike 50 watts every two minutes until exhaustion; so, probably just a few minutes, with no significant before-and-after difference in blood or urine lead levels, whereas an hour-long endurance exercise row did seem to drop lead levels about 12%.
This one I can read, though. A single intense training session on the court, and college basketball players blood levels dropped down to… Wait a second, they went up? A significant increase in blood levels, in fact by nearly 300%. They suspect it’s because where they were playing was so contaminated. The study was done in Turkey, where the lead levels in the air are evidently so high that all that extra breathing evidently made things worse, which I think underscores an important point.
All the dietary tweaks I’ve talked about for lead poisoning, and sweating it out, could be thought of as more expedient and cost less than primary prevention—getting at the root cause. This, however, represents “a retreat of sorts” from a commitment to cleaning up the environment and getting rid of these hazardous pollutants in the first place. Lifestyle interventions “should only be thought of as temporary solutions, and continued emphasis must be placed on eliminating lead in children’s environments” in the first place.
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