Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Power of Positive Thinking: Truth or Myth?

You might call Maarten van der Weijden the anti-Lance Armstrong. Last week, the Dutch Olympic long-distance swimming champion and cancer survivor told the British newspaper The Telegraph that he didn't want to be compared to the American cycling star.

"Armstrong says that positive thinking and doing a lot of sports can save you. I don't agree," said van der Weijden. "I even think it's dangerous because it implies that if you are not a positive thinker all the time you lose ... The doctors saved me. I am just lucky."

Van der Weijden's comments cut to the heart of an ongoing debate in the medical community. Can patients really improve their chances of survival by staying upbeat and happy? Experts say the American public has largely accepted this as fact. But, scientifically speaking, questions remain regarding whether this works, how it would work, and what such a connection would mean for patients who don't get better.

Appeal and promise

There certainly is an appeal to believing that you have some level of control over a debilitating illness. "I think it's part of the American spirit," said James Coyne, director of the behavioral oncology program at the Abramson Cancer Center and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. "There's this idea that you can succeed and conquer anything, even illness, on the basis of your character."

And studies showing a possible connection between positive thinking and health are frequently in the news. For instance, work by researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel suggested that women who've faced several life challenges, such as a death in the family or divorce, are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than peers who've had more stable, happy lives. The results were detailed in the Aug. 21 issue of the journal BMC Cancer.

The same study also found that women with cancer were more likely to report that, prior to diagnosis, they had been anxious or depressed and that bad things had happened in their lives.

Ronit Peled, one of the Ben-Gurion University researchers, said this was evidence for a relationship between emotional well-being and the risk of contracting cancer. "The main message from my point of view is that young women who have severe life events at a young age should be considered a risk group for breast cancer and treated accordingly," she said. "But general feelings of happiness and optimism in one's life can play a protective role."

Coyne said the public often takes news like this to mean that positive thinking has been unequivocally proven to be good for your health.

But the truth is a little more complicated.

How do you feel?

In reality, there is no clear-cut answer yet on whether being upbeat can keep you healthy or cure anything, Peled and Coyne both said. Research on the subject is divided between studies like Peled's and studies like the one Coyne did, detailed in December 2007 in the journal Cancer, which found that emotional well-being wasn't an accurate predictor of whether or not patients with neck and head cancer survived.

Coyne is particularly skeptical of positive thinking's power over cancer. "The problem with cancer is that it's so complex. By the time you're diagnosed it may have been building for decades," he said.

For other diseases, though, the scientific outlook is sunnier. Coyne said there's evidence that mood can predict whether someone who has had one heart attack will have another. And he said there is a biological explanation for why this might be possible.

Little research has been done on the biological basis of positive thinking as a therapeutic treatment for illness, but Coyne said scientists know the brain and the immune system communicate. Given that scientists also know the immune system plays a role in inflammation of the arteries, which can play a role in heart attack, it's reasonable to think that heart attacks could be tied back to things going on in the brain.

Good, bad

However, when Coyne and other researchers tried to intercede and treat depression among heart attack patients, they found the patient's moods improved, but the rates of second heart attack didn't. Ironically, Coyne said, the most evidence for emotion affecting health actually favors negative emotions, not positive ones. For instance, he said, we know anger and depression are correlated with having a second heart attack, however, what's unproven is whether being positive can reduce the risk.

Another way emotion could affect health, even for complicated illnesses such as cancer, is by affecting the patient's willingness to stick to the treatment plan. "It could be an indirect effect," said Anne Harrington, chair of Harvard University's history of science program and author of "The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine" (W.W. Norton, 2008). "If a person is positive, he or she is more likely to show up for all the treatments to have a better diet to exercise. And if you're deeply depressed you sleep badly and that's bad for your health."

But Harrington and Coyne echoed the concerns of Maarten van der Weijden, saying that findings about emotions and health shouldn't be used to pressure patients into feeling a certain way.

In fact, Harrington said, that could hurt the patient more than if they'd been left alone. "Misinterpretations of this research can make people afraid to have the feelings they have," she said. "I have a colleague who's studied this and it's very clear from his work that it's just as stressful to keep up a performance of positivity as it is to [keep up] a bad mood. It's very stressful to be inauthentically upbeat all the time."

Healthy Eating Begins at the Supermarket

Navigating the Aisles

The typical American consumer hits the grocery store at least twice a week. Why, then, does it feel like we never have anything to eat at home? Follow the advice below to make sure you not only have a well-stocked pantry for healthful eating, but are buying the right products at the right time in the right way.

You'll notice, by the way, that many of the tips below have you looking at a food product's nutrition label and ingredients list for information. If you haven't become expert at this, time to study up. Go straight to the source -- the U.S. Food and Drug Administration -- via the Internet at, put "nutrition facts" into the search line, then click on "go" for a full menu of food-labeling information.

1. Rule number one: Buy fresh food! There is no simpler, no easier, no plainer measure of the healthiness of your food than whether it comes in boxes and cans or is fresh from the farm or the fields. If more than half your groceries are prepared foods, then you need to evolve your cooking and eating habits back to the healthy side by picking up more fresh vegetables, fruits, seafood, juices, and dairy.

2. Shop the perimeter of the store. That's where all the fresh foods are. The less you find yourself in the central aisles of the grocery store, the healthier your shopping trip will be. Make it a habit -- work the perimeter of the store for the bulk of your groceries, then dip into the aisles for staples that you know you need.

3. Think of the departments (dairy, produce, meat, and so on) as separate stores within the supermarket. You wouldn't shop at every store at a mall the same way, would you? You know better than to idly browse through a jewelry store, don't you? So apply the same approach to the grocery store. Target the sections that are safe to browse through -- the produce section, primarily -- and steer clear of the dangerous sections (the candy, ice cream, and potato chip aisles).

4. Shop with a list. Organize your shopping list based on the tip above -- that is, by the sections of the store. This will have you out of the supermarket at the speed of light. If you're a woman, consider getting your husband or son to do the food shopping, says Joan Salge Blake, R.D., clinical assistant professor of nutrition at Boston University's Sargent College. The latest survey from the Food Marketing Institute shows that compared to women, men are more likely to buy only what's on the grocery list. But shopping with a list has benefits beyond speed and spending. By lashing yourself to the discipline of a well-planned shopping list, you can resist the seductive call of aisle upon aisle of junk food, thereby saving your home, your family, and yourself from an overload of empty calories.

5. Food-shop with a full stomach. We're sure you've heard this one before, but it's worth repeating. Walking through the grocery store with your tummy growling can make you vulnerable to buying anything that isn't moving, says Blake. If you can't arrange to shop shortly after a meal, be sure to eat an apple and drink a large glass of water before heading into the store.

6. Buy a few days before ripe. There's no point in trying to buy fresh vegetables and fruits for your family if the bananas turn brown and the peaches mushy two days after you get them home. Buy fruit that's still a day or two behind ripeness. It will still be hard to the touch; bananas will be green. Feel carefully for bruises on apples, check expiration dates on bagged produce, and stay away from potatoes or onions that have started to sprout. If the produce on the shelves looks a bit beyond its peak, don't walk away; ask to speak to the produce manager. Chances are, there's a fresh shipment in the back just waiting to be put out on store shelves. For a real taste treat, if you're going to eat them within the next couple of days, pick up a bunch of vine-ripened tomatoes. There's just no comparison.

7. Buy in season. Sure, it's tempting to buy strawberries in December, and once in a while that's fine. But fresh fruit and vegetables are best when purchased in season, meaning they've come from relatively close to home. They often cost less, are tastier, and have less risk of pathogens such as E. coli.

8. Buy organic whenever possible. Sure, it costs a few dollars more. But a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that organically grown fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of cancer-fighting antioxidants than conventionally produced foods. However, if organic is too pricey for you, don't worry; organic or not, fruits and veggies are key to a healthy larder.

9. Buy frozen. Frozen fruits and vegetables are often flash frozen at the source, locking in nutrients in a way fresh or canned can't compete with. Stock your freezer with bags of frozen vegetables and fruits. You can toss the veggies into soups and stews, microwave them for a side dish with dinners, or thaw them at room temperature and dip them into low-fat salad dressing for snacks. Use the fruits for desserts, smoothies, and as ice cream and yogurt toppings.

10. Stock up on canned tomato products. Here's one major exception to the "fresher is better" rule. Studies find that tomato sauces and crushed and stewed tomatoes have higher amounts of the antioxidant lycopene than fresh, because they're concentrated. Canned tomatoes are a godsend when it comes to quick dinners in the kitchen. Warm up a can with some crushed garlic for a chunky pasta sauce; pour a can over chicken breasts and simmer in the crock pot; add to stews and sauces for flavor and extra nutrients.

11. Stock up on canned beans. Although they may have a bit more sodium than we like, that's easy enough to get rid of with a good rinse in the sink. Beans can be mixed with brown rice, added to soups and stews, pureed with onions and garlic into hummus for dipping, or served over pasta for a traditional pasta e fagioli. In fact, all the hype about pasta raising blood sugar really comes down to this: What are you putting on your pasta? The soluble fiber in beans lowers blood sugar and insulin, making the combination of pasta and beans a healthful -- as well as delicious -- dish.
12. Spend some time in the condiment aisle. With the following basic ingredients you have the underpinnings for wonderful sauces, low-fat marinades, and low-salt flavorings. These delightful flavorings enable you to stay away from the less-healthy condiment items, such as mayonnaise, butter, stick margarine, creamy salad dressings, and so on: flavored ketchups and barbecue sauces (look for sugar-free varieties), horseradish, mustards, flavored vinegars, extra-virgin olive oil, jarred bruschetta and pesto sauces (luscious spooned atop salmon and baked), capers, jarred olives, sun-dried tomatoes, jarred spaghetti sauce, anchovies, roasted red peppers, Worcestershire sauce, chili sauce, hot pepper sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, walnut oil, teriyaki sauce, jarred salsas, and various kinds of marmalades.

13. Try some of the new whole grain alternatives. Today you can find wonderful whole grain pastas and couscous, instant brown rice that cooks up in 10 minutes instead of the old 50, even whole grain crackers. Hodgson Mills makes a delicious whole wheat pasta with flaxseeds. It really tastes great, and you can scarcely do any better when it comes to nutrition. While you're at it, pick up a bag of whole wheat flour to replace the white stuff in your canister.

14. Choose prepared foods with short ingredient lists. We don't expect you to cut out prepared foods entirely. Just remember: The shorter the ingredient list, the healthier the food usually is. Of course, if the ingredients are sugar and butter, put the item back on the shelf.

15. Reject foods and drinks made with corn syrup. Corn syrup is a calorie-dense, nutritionally empty sweetener perhaps even worse than refined sugar. A shocking number of foods and drinks are thick with it, including such apparently healthy foods as fruit juices, premade spaghetti sauces, and even bread. Some experts argue that corn syrup is one of the main causes of America's obesity problem. If a food has corn syrup in its first four ingredients, then it lacks the wholesomeness and healthiness you want.

16. Look for fiber. You want at least 1 to 2 grams of fiber for every 100 calories you consume.

17. If partially hydrogenated oil, or trans fats are listed on the label, step away from the box and nobody will get hurt.

18. Pick up a jar of dried shiitake mushrooms. They may look weird, but toss them in some hot water for half an hour and you have a meaty, healthy addition to soups, stews, and sauces, not to mention a unique filling for tarts and omelets. Plus, they keep forever.

19. Whenever you find yourself reaching for a package of ground meat, switch over to the poultry section instead and pick up ground turkey, ground chicken, or soy crumbles. Works just as well as ground beef for meatballs, meat loaf, or chili. This little substitution can cut more than 30 percent of the calories and at least half of the fat and saturated fat in a three-ounce serving, says Blake. When it's smothered in a zesty tomato sauce or flavored with seasonings, you'll never be able to tell the difference. If you're feeling a little gun-shy about abandoning the beef, use half turkey and half lean beef, or half soy crumbles and half beef.

20. Choose strong cheeses. Instead of American, cheddar, or Swiss, pick up feta, fresh Parmigiano-Reggiano, or a soft goat cheese. These strongly flavored cheeses will satisfy your yen for cheese without damaging your waistline, says Blake.

21. Buy macadamia nut oil. It has more good-for-you monounsaturated fats than any other oil in the world and a higher smoke point than olive oil, so there's no trans fatty acid formation when you cook. It makes any dish you make heart-healthier, says Fred Pescatore, M.D., author of The Hamptons Diet.

22. Confirm that a wheat bread is whole wheat. Some of the folks selling bread are trying to pull the wool (or is it wheat chaff?) over your eyes. Sure, a wheat bread is made from wheat. But if the first ingredient is refined wheat flour, then it's made from the same wheat as white bread -- which means, stripped of fiber and nutrients, and in some cases, dyed brown for a fake healthy appearance. What you're really looking for are the words "whole wheat." That's the stuff with minimum refining and maximum beneficial nutrients.

23. Buy plain yogurt and flavor it at home. Pre-flavored yogurts have oodles of sugars that destroy any healthy benefits they once had. If you add a teaspoon of all-fruit jam at home, it'll still taste yummy, you'll consume far fewer useless calories, and you'll save lots of money.

24. Buy healthy add-ins for plain cereals. These include raisins, fresh berries, dried berries, almond slivers, pumpkin seeds, sesame sticks, and bananas. The best breakfast-cereal strategy is to buy unsweetened cereals and then add in your favorite flavors. That helps you bypass all the empty sugary calories -- and lets you enjoy the cereal more. For ease, keep a wide-mouth, well-sealed jar on your counter with shelf-stable ingredients for quick mix-ins. Keep a scoop and ziplock bags handy, and you've got a handy, nutritious meal or snack for home or on the go.

25. Read juice labels carefully. Orange juice, although quite healthy, often has 20 grams of sugar in the average 8-ounce glass. Instead, try guava juice. It has three times more vitamin C, and is loaded with potassium (a great blood pressure regulator) and beta-carotene.

The Top Ten Strange and Unusual Japanese Chewing Gums

Chews your poison...

These Ten Strange and Unusual Japanese Chewing Gums are really not bad as chewing gum goes - some are actually quite good!

Japanese chewing gum differs from American chewing gum in many ways, and that probably is a result of the practical way Japan looks at chewing gum. Since it's merely chewed for a while and then disposed of, it just makes sense for chewing gum to serve some function, ANY function before being spat out. This way of thinking can produce some VERY strange and unusual types of chewing gum, and from them we've assembled this Top Ten list! Now then, let's get down to the good, the bad and the sticky!

10) No Time Gum: Eat Your Toothbrush!

No time to brush your teeth? No problem - if you've got No Time Gum! This multifunctional minty mélange contains tiny granules that scrub your teeth clean as a whistle while you chew. Is this cool, or what? Gum that works as hard as you do while saving you time and, presumably, dentist visits. I can just hear Mom now... "Chew your gum before going to bed!" (chewing gum via J-List)

9) "Man Smell" Gum - Not Just for Athletic Supporters

Yes, the title threw me too, but that's what "Otoko Kaoru" translates to. Luckily there's much more to it than that - like the previously mentioned Fuwarinka Scented Gum, Man Smell gum contains those special Rose oils that escape through your skin after chewing. This one exudes a manly Menthol Rose aroma, not just your average sweaty-guy funkiness. Let's be thankful for that, at least. (chewing gum via Food for Thought)

8) Chewing Gum with After-Wrappers - A Neat Idea

Perhaps frightened by word of the infamous Singapore Chewing Gum Ban and Caning Bylaw, the manufacturers of Xylish (pronounced "Zee-Lish") gum decided to add a packet of after-wrappers to their plastic jug o' gum. When you're ready to ditch your chaw, just wrap & toss into the nearest trashcan. This is actually a wonderful idea that other gum manufacturers should follow, it would save the look of our streets by giving people a viable gum disposal option instead of just spitting it out. (chewing gum via Betterdays)

7) Digi-Gum: 4 out of 5 Nutty Professors Agree!

More Xylish gum, this time in "Funky Orange" flavor. The gum itself isn't odd, but the character on the pack is... it sure looks a lot like Jerry Lewis in full-out Nutty Professor mode. Why "Digi-Gum"? Who knows, but doesn't that sound hip & trendy? The gum's active ingredient, Xylitol, is very popular in Japanese gums - it's sweet but doesn't cause tooth decay. (chewing gum via My So-Called Japanese Life)

Check out this cool Japanese TV chewing gum commercial!

6) Sparkle Ninja Chewing Gum, for Flamboyant Ninjas

Strawberry flavored Sparkling Ninja Chewing Gum isn't Japanese, it's just acting that way. I mean, who ever heard of a ninja in a pink outfit? Not that there's anything wrong with that... but isn't being un-noticeable the whole point of being a ninja? Then again, walking down most any major Japanese city street clad in sparkling pink tights isn't going to draw much attention these days anyway. (chewing gum via Mcphee)

5) Black Black Gum - Bigger and Blacker than Before

Didn't they used to sell black gum on the back pages of comic books? Or was it black soap? In any case, Black Black Gum is not for the faint of heart. Just ask Jean-Claude van Damme... the "Muscles from Brussels" promoted the macho chew in a series of Japanese TV ads. According to the print on the package, Black Black Gum has a "Hi Technical Taste". It also has caffeine, niacin and a really powerful licorice-mint taste, making it ideal for those late night cram sessions before a high technical college exam. (chewing gum via 3-Yen)

4) Xylish Platinum Mint Chardonnay Flavor - Smell Drunk, Stay Sober

So you're driving along on a dark evening, not a care in the world, until those telltale flashing lights appear - you've been pulled over by The Law. What NOT to do? Pop a stick of Xylish Platinum Mint "Chardonnay" Flavor Gum in your mouth while waiting for Officer Smith to sidle up alongside. Imagine the fun you'll have, watching him puzzle over the Breathalyzer readings while you exhale wine-breath into the tester yet one more time! Wine-flavored gum... puts those English "Wine Gums" to shame! And, it's the perfect way to disguise a visit to a bar. (chewing gum via Giant Jeans Parlor)

3) Fuwarinka Scented Gum: Come Out Smelling Like a Rose

Now here's a radical idea that, curiously, hasn't caught on outside Japan: gum that makes your breath AND your body smell good! Futuristic Fuwarinka Scented Gum contains the aromatic compounds geraniol and linalool which, when swallowed, waft either Fresh Citrus or Fruity Rose aromas through your skin! Just imagine how much money you'll save on cologne, aftershave and deodorant? (chewing gum via Compact Impact)

2) Sex Gum for Men: Like Chewable Viagra?

Suplitol Tongkat Ali Gum for Men contains a variety of natural herbs and extracts proven (they say) to improve blood flow and muscular function - and they don't mean in your arms, regardless of what the ad photo displays. The gum also contains something called "plant testosterone"... hey, have you ever seen a limp tree? (chewing gum via Get Bust Up Gum)

1) Bust Up Gum: It Blows Up Your Bubbles!

Sorry ladies, if you thought that a Japanese "sex gum for women" was going to be the complement of the just mentioned Suplitol Tongkat Ali Gum for Men, you're going to be sadly disappointed - and probably more than a little annoyed. Bust Up Gum, the female sex gum from B2UP, just makes the fairer sex more sexy - in the eyes of the opposite sex!

None of that blood flow stuff, noooo... according to B2UP, the special ingredients, "extracts from the Pueraria mirifica (Kwao Krua) plant, makes a woman's breasts grow as well as improving their shape and tone." I didn't know breasts HAD a tone - unless it's High C (or B Flat). Still, it's amazing... boob-enhancing gum. They could call it Double Bubble if the name wasn't already taken.

Bust Up gum is just the latest Japanese food product containing Pueraria extracts - others include F-Cup Tea and F-Cup Cookies. Can't say they're not confident in their products! Y'know, Bust Up gum has the potential to replace Ex-Lax chocolate as the snack schoolyard pranksters offer their unsuspecting targets. Can you imagine the expression on some poor proto-geek's face after being told he just chewed Bust Up gum? Let's hope that scenario remains in the field of imagination! (chewing gum via Medical News Today)