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How Foods Impact Our Health: What Do We Know?

A yellow and white pill on a blue background splitting in half, spilling its contents of fruit and vegetables.
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“You are what you eat” is a common cliché. But to what extent is it true? The foods that make up our diet can either provide our bodies with the fuel needed to function properly or have detrimental effects on our health. Being conscious of our food choices is hugely important as this can influence our mood, energy and even our risk of disease.

So, what has recent research revealed about the implications of food consumption on our health?

Sugary Diet and Sedentary Lifestyle More Harmful for Men

A man in a blue and red check shirt eating cheesecake next to a black mug and saucer.

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Resistance to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels, is a common feature of obesity and an important early step in the development of type 2 diabetes. Keeping an eye on signs of insulin resistance is particularly important for men, as research has shown that they are at a significantly higher risk of insulin resistance compared to pre-menopausal women.

Now, a new study has found differences between men and women in the development of insulin resistance in response to harmful lifestyle changes. The study, led by Dr. Camila Manrique-Acevedo, associate professor of medicine at the University of Missouri, recruited 36 young and healthy men and women to the study. Over 10 days, participants reduced their physical activity from 10,000 to 5,000 steps each day and upped their consumption of sugary drinks to 6 cans of soda each day.

After ten days, male participants began to show signs of insulin resistance, such as a drop in levels of the protein adropin, a marker of cardiovascular disease and an important regulator of insulin sensitivity. However, these signs were not observed in the female participants. This provides some of the first evidence in humans for sex-dependent protection against insulin resistance caused by short-term adverse lifestyle changes.

“These findings underscore a sex-related difference in the development of vascular insulin resistance induced by adopting a lifestyle high in sugar and low on exercise,” said Manrique-Acevedo. “To our knowledge, this is the first evidence in humans that vascular insulin resistance can be provoked by short-term adverse lifestyle changes, and it’s the first documentation of sex-related differences in the development of vascular insulin resistance in association with changes in adropin levels.”

Global Spread of Red Meat Consumption Is Bringing Health Concerns With It

Steak with sprigs of rosemary on a wooden chopping board with pots of salt and pepper.Credit: iStock

The consumption of red meats – such as beef, pork and lamb – as well as processed meats is spreading around the world. Many developing countries have seen their red meat consumption rise as they become more prosperous. However, this may be coming at the expense of our health and global sustainability. Diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as colorectal cancers, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are rising, and meat-based diets are increasingly being recognized as less environmentally sustainable than plant-based diets.

Dr. Jianguo “Jack” Liu and colleagues aimed to investigate the links between health and the red and processed meat trade in countries vulnerable to diet-related NCDs. The researchers created a risk assessment framework to explore the trade of red and processed meat items across 154 countries over a 25-year period, also incorporating health data on diet-related NCDs.

Rates of change in diseases were twice as high in developing countries (particularly in the Caribbean and Oceania) compared with developed countries, as new prosperity increased the consumption of imported meat. Northern and eastern European countries also saw rising rates of diet-linked disease due to increased meat imports from European Union trade agreements.

“Trade is about more than economic benefits,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability and director of the Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability. “As foods move over distances, various consequences also show up in distant places. It is essential to understand what happens to people’s health when a shipment of meat arrives in a new place. Examining the true costs of meat consumption through telecouplings such as trade can help avoid or minimize counterproductive consequences.”

Coffee Consumption Linked to a Longer Life

Coffee with latte art in a blue mug and saucer.Credit: Yeh Xintong on Unsplash

Coffee is one of the most widely consumed drinks in the world, with many reaching for a cup to kick-start their energy levels – in fact, it is estimated that 2 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day around the globe. Aside from fueling your productivity with caffeine, coffee has also been proposed to have numerous health benefits. A recent study from the Baker Heart and Diabetes Research Institute in Melbourne, Australia has suggested that drinking two to three cups of coffee daily – regardless of whether it is ground, instant or decaffeinated – is linked to a longer lifespan.

The researchers, led by senior author Professor Peter Kistler, analyzed self-reported questionnaire data gathered from almost 500,000 participants. Almost 30,000 participants passed away during the study follow-up period, and analyzing these data showed that all types of coffee reduced the risk of death from any cause in addition to the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Researchers also grouped the participants according to their level of coffee intake, revealing that those drinking two to three cups daily reaped the most benefit, with ground coffee providing the greatest reduction in the likelihood of death by 27%, followed by decaffeinated at 14% and instant at 11%. Additionally, both ground and instant coffee – though not decaffeinated varieties – were associated with decreased risk of an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).

Professor Kistler said: “Caffeine is the most well-known constituent in coffee, but the beverage contains more than 100 biologically active components. It is likely that the non-caffeinated compounds were responsible for the positive relationships observed between coffee drinking, cardiovascular disease and survival. Our findings indicate that drinking modest amounts of coffee of all types should not be discouraged but can be enjoyed as a heart-healthy behavior.”

Peanut Consumption Reduces Stroke and Cardiovascular Disease Risk for Asians

A person harvesting a bunch of peanuts from the ground.Credit: iStock

Levels of peanut consumption in the US hit an all-time high in 2021 for the second year in a row, with each American consuming on average 7.9 pounds of peanuts. These ground-growing nuts (which are technically classed as a legume) provide a large supply of unsaturated fatty acids that can decrease blood pressure and improve the level of fat molecules – or lipids – in the blood. Previous studies have highlighted the links between peanut consumption and cardiovascular health for Americans. However, for the first time, new research has linked peanut consumption to decreased risk of ischemic stroke (i.e., caused by a blockage to the blood supply, such as a clot) in an Asian population.

Dr. Satoyo Ikehara, associate professor of public health at Osaka University Graduate School of Medicine, led the study. The researchers analyzed the questionnaire data and health information of over 70,000 Japanese study participants, concluding that those who consumed more peanuts in their diet had a lower risk of ischemic stroke and cardiovascular disease, which was the case for both men and women. Compared to people who ate no peanuts whatsoever, the data indicated that those who consumed around 4–5 unshelled peanuts per day had a 20% lower risk of ischemic stroke and a 13% lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

“The beneficial effect of peanut consumption on risk of stroke, especially ischemic stroke was found, despite the small quantity of peanuts eaten by study participants,” Ikehara said. “The habit of eating peanuts and tree nuts is still not common in Asian countries. However, adding even a small amount to one’s diet could be a simple yet effective approach to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Advancing our nutritional knowledge

Overall, evidence from these studies suggests that different foods can not only affect our risk of physical health problems like cardiovascular disease but could also influence our risk of mental health conditions like depression. Research is generating new insights and increasing awareness of how various foods influence our health, ultimately helping us to lead happier and healthier lives.