10 studies that made us think twice in 2013

Coffee keeps Alzheimer’s at bay, popcorn makes us immune to advertising and drinking makes us live longer — these are just some of the studies covered this year by the media that have been anything but dull.

As we head into 2014, we rounded up some of 2013’s most thought-provoking studies and the lessons that can help us make smarter choices in the New Year.

 

1. So … coffee isn’t bad for you?

One moment it’s going to kill you, and the next it’s being credited for cutting your risk of getting liver cancer or Alzheimer’s. Go figure, right? Researchers from Italy found indications that as many as 3 cups of Joe a day can reduce the liver-cancer risk by — get this — more than 50%. As for the Alzheimer’s claim, researchers at the University of South Florida conducted a study on mice and found that an unidentified ingredient in coffee interacts with the caffeine, which could explain why daily coffee intake protects against the degenerative disease.

The lesson

Don’t run to the supermarket or the local coffee shop to panic-buy all the coffee; don’t hook yourself up to a Java IV; and don’t forget that 1 cup is not that bowl-sized mug you got at the duty-free shop after your trip to Colombia. One cup is 8 ounces. 

In the next few weeks, when coffee is back to killing you again, don’t feel compelled to give it up cold turkey, either — unless your doctor has specifically told you to bid farewell to the stuff, of course. If the articles you are reading seem to be sensationalizing the information they are disseminating, then read the actual studies and see what other scientists have to say. In fact, even if they seem to be reported in a level-headed manner, read the studies anyway.

 

2. Having that handful of nuts may extend your life

A study that analyzed data on nearly 120,000 people collected for a more than 30-year period and which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who eat a handful of nuts every day live longer than those who don’t eat them.

Senior author Charles S. Fuchs — director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School — said, “The most obvious benefit was a reduction of 29% in deaths from heart disease — the major killer of people in America. But we also saw a significant reduction — 11% — in the risk of dying from cancer."

The lesson

If you already have heart disease or cancer, eating nuts is not going to cure you. And even although the study’s findings are encouraging, remember to consume them — and everything you eat and drink, for that matter — in moderation. Some people seem to think that if having a handful of something helps prevent you from getting some scary illness, then tripling that dosage means you won’t get it at all. Don’t make that mistake.

 

3. Popcorn amnesia

A study conducted by the University of Cologne and published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found that chewing popcorn can make people immune to advertising. Well, not popcorn, exactly, but rather, the act of chewing. Because the brain is occupied with chewing, it’s distracted from the stuff that people in the boob tube are trying to sell you.

The lesson

Sounds like good news for your wallet, doesn’t it? And the added bonus is that you can get your daily serving of healthy snacks, such as carrot or celery sticks or, hey, that handful of nuts that might let you live a little longer, while holding those marketers at bay.

Think about it: living in a world where you carry your purse normally or wear whatever colors you want so you don’t drown in a sea of drones all wearing the shade deemed acceptable by page 32 of the hottest glossy fashion magazine.

 

4. Booze it up and live longer

Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin and Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., conducted a study of 1,824 adults ages 55 to 65 and found that moderate — and believe it or not — heavy drinkers lived longer than abstainers throughout a 20-year period. The researchers defined moderate drinkers as those who consumed two or three glasses of wine, beer or cocktails per day, while heavy drinkers were defined as those who had three or more drinks a day.

The lesson

Although the study seems to give drinkers a reason to keep pounding them back, it doesn’t mean that heavy drinkers won’t ever encounter any adverse consequences to their health — if you drink, keep it safe and do it in moderation.

 

5. Multivitamins are a waste of money

A panel of physicians has come out against the reported efficacy of multivitamins in the Annals of Internal Medicine. The authors of the scathing editorial are five physicians from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Warwick Medical School in the U.K., one of whom is a senior editor of the journal. Titled “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements,” the journal article states that multivitamins and minerals do not make you healthy, and some of them, in fact, may be harmful.

The lesson

Rejoice, for you no longer have to spend a small portion on a battery of pills all making claims that are definitively NOT backed by scientific research. Check out the study so you can see for yourself that a balanced diet is your best bet. Cheaper and tastier, don’t you think?  

 

6. Energy drinks affect heart function

Research presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America conducted by Jonas Dörner from the University of Bonn, Germany, and others in his team, shows that “healthy adults who consume energy drinks have ‘significantly increased’ heart contraction rates an hour later.”

The lesson

Teens and young adults who depend on energy drinks (and doubly so if they add alcohol into the mix) should reconsider it — particularly if heart-related illnesses run in the family. Have some coffee instead. It might stave off Alzheimer’s. Not enough because you have too much to do? Look into acquiring some time-management skills, then. Don’t mess with your ticker.

 

7. Artificial sweeteners can lead to Type 2 diabetes in obese people

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine reported in the journal Diabetes Care that sucralose — known better by its brand name, Splenda — affects the body’s insulin response. Led by first author M. Yanina Pepino, research assistant professor of medicine, the study looked at 17 severely obese people who didn’t consume artificial sweeteners often and didn’t have diabetes.

The lesson

Dr. Pepino said, “Our results indicate that this artificial sweetener is not inert — it does have an effect,” but in all fairness, considering the small sample size, added, “And we need to do more studies to determine whether this observation means long-term use could be harmful.”

In this group of obese people, the researchers found that taking sucralose combined with glucose over time might lead to Type 2 diabetes. So don’t panic, but try to not overdo it, either, even if you aren’t obese. You might just get used to having your coffee sans sugar and sweetener.

 

8. Oreos are like … cocaine?

A study on rats conducted by Connecticut College students and a professor of psychology found that Oreo cookies are just as addictive as cocaine. The purposes of the study were to highlight the potential addictiveness of high-fat and high-sugar foods. 

The lesson

Although the study’s results are preliminary and subject to further scientific review, it’s interesting to look at the amount of sugar we consume. Take a look at those labels. Yeah, Oreo cookies are obviously going to have a lot of sugar. But take a look at labels of items like soup, baked beans and even bread, which you might assume are not loaded with sugar. You might find that even a regular loaf of presumably healthy 12-grain bread has a lot more sugar than one would expect.

 

9. Meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria

According to an Environmental Working Group analysis of recently released government tests, as much as 81% of raw ground turkey, 55% of raw ground beef and 39% of raw chicken parts were infected with antibiotic-resistant microbes.

The lesson

Hork. We’re not saying go vegan. We’re not even saying go vegetarian. But Meatless Mondays don’t sound half bad now, do they?

 

10. Wildlife crime is on the rise

An article in the Guardian about wildlife crime listed several grim statistics. Among them, “Africa could lose one-fifth of its elephants in the next decade if the continent's poaching crisis is not stopped. By the end of September, a record 704 rhinos had been killed by poachers in South Africa and 47 in Kenya this year. Figures showed two-thirds of forest elephants had been killed by ivory poachers in past decade.”

The lesson

Yes, these stories are difficult to read, and readers often feel helpless so they simply shut down and continue turning a blind eye. But it’s time we start caring. The impact of these crimes is causing a chain reaction of bad stuff that may affect us a lot more directly than you think.

 

Comments

Submitted by Jackie on

Excellent article. Thank you for your words of wisdom over the year.......very witty too !

Submitted by Suzanne Shelton on

I'm kind of shocked that you would include advice to stop taking multivitamins in your list of 10 studies that made you think twice. As health writers, shouldn't you look deeper?

Notice what they were looking for: vitamins to cure disease, not support allover heath.

In the first study cited, a review of 27 studies, only 3 were on multivitamins; the rest were on singular nutrients. The subjects of the second paper was physicians, who are likely to be the best-nourished demographic. In the US, only about an estimated 5% of the population gets a nutritionally satisfactory diet, meaning there is much need to fill in nutritional gaps with multivitamins. A recent review of the very same Physicians Health Study II trial found the opposite conclusion - that vitamins were in fact good for preventing cancer for this group! The “nonadherence rate” in the third study was more than 50%, meaning more than half the study group did not even take their vitamins. The authors themselves said any “interpretation is very difficult.”

The mainstream medical establishment benefits financially when people are unhealthy, and they are neither interested in, nor educated on, keeping them well.

Right. If you look at the study, the five physicians are voicing frustration over people who take a battery of supplements and expect too much from them. The same principle I wrote about in the study about nuts applies here: they aren't going to cure a disease you already have. They won't stop you from getting it if you are genetically predisposed.

So no, if your doctor prescribed vitamin D, as mine did for me, these studies (nor the lesson we learn from it) are not saying, "hey, don't bother." It means that I shouldn't spend a small fortune on a bunch of supplements that I decide (without checking with my doctor) are going to help protect me from x, y and z.

The real lesson with these 10 studies and ALL studies is basically to exercise common sense. Apologies since that idea obviously didn't come across for this particular study, and thanks for reading!

Submitted by Paul on

Blame China for the Ivory poaching. Stupid superstition and "ancient Chinese Secrets" are to blame for the senseless deaths of Elephants and Rhinos.

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