Monday, November 16, 2015

The Benefits of Prunes - Prepare to be Surprised

Besides their laxative effect, can prunes help prevent osteoporosis and colon cancer?  Can they help with weight loss?  Read on.

Osteoporosis – Studies form Florida State University, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, showed that in rats subjected to treatments that produced osteoporosis, prunes in the diet were able to reverse bone loss.  In a human study, a group of post-menopausal women was given 100 grams of prunes per day (about 10 prunes) and a comparison group was told to consume 100 grams of dried apples.  After 12 months, the group eating the prunes had significantly higher bone mineral density in the ulna (an arm bone) and spine.  Authors of the study said that prunes are able to suppress bone breakdown, which tends to exceed new bone growth as people age.  This effect may be due to good levels of the mineral boron in prunes.  Other foods high in boron are plums, grapes, avocados almonds and peanuts.  

Laxative Effect – Prunes are well known for their ability to help with constipation.  They are a safe laxative for most people. This is due to their fiber and high sorbitol content, which retains fluid in the intestines.  Sorbitol is a natural sugar found in many fruits.  It is metabolized relatively slowly, so that prunes do not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar.  Many people with diabetes can eat them in moderation (but check with your health care provider). 

Colon Cancer – Research from Texas A&M University and the University of North Carolina has shown that prunes can positively affect gut bacteria (the microbiome) and help to reduce the risk of colon cancer. There are trillions of bacteria in the intestinal tract – more than 400 individual species have been identified.  Disruptions to the microbiome are involved in intestinal inflammation, which can promote the development of colon cancer. Prunes contain antioxidant compounds that can neutralize free radicals that damage DNA.  In a rat study on colon cancer antecedents, rats fed with prunes (and their regular chow!) showed significantly reduced numbers of precancerous changes in the intestinal walls compared to a control group.

Weight Loss – Research by the University of Liverpool found that eating prunes as part of a weight loss diet helped in weight control.  100 overweight or obese men and women were tested for 12 weeks.  Half the subjects were given about 14 prunes per day along with their diet, and the other half got advice on healthy snacks.  The group that ate prunes lost 4.4 pounds and an inch from their waist.  The control group lost 3.5 pounds and .7 inches from the waist.  Also, the group eating prunes experienced greater feelings of fullness during the weight loss diet.  The diets were matched for calories.

Prunes are now called dried plums by some nutritionists, and prune makers, because of their negative image as a medicinal food for the elderly.  Additionally, some people don’t like their taste, and may need to disguise them in shakes and stir-fries.  The benefits listed in this column may change these views.  If you have colon cancer in your family, or are eating a diet high in red or processed meat, if you have osteoporosis in your family, or have low bone density yourself, you may want to give prunes a chance. 

Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH  past issues on this blog

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Food on the Menu at UN Climate Talks

Sam Kass was the director of Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign and the Senior Policy Advisor for her Healthy Food Initiatives.  He assisted Michelle Obama in creating the first major vegetable garden at the White House since Eleanor Roosevelt’s Victory Garden.  Kass is now preparing to be a senior food analyst on the NBC news team. 

Kass’s plans for working at the UN Conference on climate change in December may surprise many of the delegates from 190 countries, whose goal is to achieve a binding and universal agreement on climate.  Kass is planning meals for the delegates – meals that will send a message on the crucial role that food and agriculture will play in either reducing or worsening climate change.  Methane is produced by livestock and food waste; nitrous oxide escapes from manure and fertilizer; carbon dioxide is left unabsorbed when rainforests are cut down to make way for cattle and soybeans.   “If it were a nation, rotting food would be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas (after the US and China) and takes 28% of the planet’s agricultural land to produce” says Kass.  He plans to serve a meal on two different plates – one made with typical, resource depleting, greenhouse gas emitting ingredients (such as corn-fed beef) and one made with truly sustainable ingredients.  Kass is hoping to compel leaders to place the food system on the list of sectors requiring action, along with energy and transportation

Kass recently co-hosted a sustainably focused meal with a Peruvian chef  and with Sean Penn at the World Bank, International Monetary Fund meetings in Lima, and spoke to the power of food to inspire sustainable policy.  For his work at the Paris conference, Kass will be working with allies such as the Center for Food Safety (CFS), who will be there to highlight the importance of carbon capture through agroecological practices.   CFS maintains that this kind of carbon capture can be started immediately, carries no risk and will increase crop yield, minimize erosion, and help the water carrying capacity of soil.  (Agroecology is the study of the interactions between plants, animals, humans and the environment within agricultural systems. It includes organic farming, traditional framing methods, crop rotation and polyculture rather than monoculture.) 

President Hollande of France and the French Minister of Agriculture have expressed an interest in putting soil carbon sequestration among the actions to be recommended at the UN conference.  Kass hopes to inspire high-profile chefs throughout the world to keep in mind the issues of food, agriculture and climate.

What we can do about these issues? I suggest reading and ultimately subscribing to Civil Eats, an online news source from which most of this column is taken. It is fascinating reading on many subjects related to food policy, highlighting good practices as well as bad ones.  Compost, feed your leftovers to a neighbor’s chickens (or your own), and eat lower on the food chain.  Enjoy our organic farmers’ wonderful produce.  They are agroecologists!

Sadja Greenwood, MD, MPH
 past columns on this blog