To Your Health: Lessons From the Chinese Diet

Eastern cultures and diets have lower blood cholesterol than American counterparts, and the American Medical Association develops consensus on what a basic medical insurance policy should cover. Plus: help for low-fat/low-cholesterol living, engineering an anticancer tobacco, an exercise program for asthmatics, preventing exercise injuries, tips to prevent bullying, the connection between allergies and bed-wetting, and new information about gum disease.

Stir Fry Vegetables

A six-year study of Chinese diet and disease patterns links a traditional Eastern diet—with its greater emphasis on vegetables and small amounts of animal products—to lower rates of heart disease and colon cancer.


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When blood cholesterol is under 180 mg/dl, heart disease is uncommon; below 150, it's practically nonexistent. In China, the average level is 127. In Western countries, it's 212. Dietary differences between China and the West—such as fat intake, which health experts advise us to keep under 30% of our daily caloric intake—may account for much of that difference. A six-year study of Chinese diet and disease patterns, the most comprehensive ever undertaken on diet and health, has also shown that, except for high levels of sodium, the Chinese diet—which, as you probably know, is largely vegetarian with small amounts of animal products—is nutritionally superior, even in iron intake.

Surveying the Chinese enabled researchers to evaluate what effects such low cholesterol levels have on the human system. It turns out that not only does heart disease decline, but colon cancer does too; this suggests that earlier studies that linked low cholesterol levels to colon cancer were misleading. In fact, the rate of heart disease among men in China is one-sixteenth that in the U.S. (among women, one-sixth), while the rate for colon cancer is only about 40%.

Help for Low-Fat, Low-Cholesterol Living

Unlike other nutrition-oriented newsletters, Easy Low Fat Living offers little news or reporting, but it does have food charts and plenty of recipes, plus tips on lowering the fat content of your own favorite recipes.

For further guidance, Cholesterol Control: An Eater's Guide offers a half-hour tour of one family's successful approach to low-fat shopping, cooking, eating out and entertaining. At the 19th annual National Educational Film and Video Festival, the video won a Bronze Apple award. 

Anticancer Tobacco?

A California biotech firm hopes to field-test a genetic engineering process that makes tobacco plants mass-produce proteins used in anticancer drugs. If successful—and financially practical—the technology could turn tobacco farmers into allies in the war on cancer.

Biosource Genetics Corporation of Vacaville, California, has developed a genetic engineering technique that "hijacks" the tobacco plant's genetic machinery and forces it to produce the cancer-fighting proteins interferon and interleukin 2. According to the company, the plant could even be used to produce melanin, a natural pigment that protects skin from the cancer-causing effects of ultraviolet radiation; it could be the ultimate sunscreen.

The so-called "transient gene expression system" consists of spliced-together pieces of RNA viruses that do little on their own. However, once sprayed on a growing plant, they behave like genes and temporarily turn the plant into a "factory" for producing useful protein products. Biosource considers the process safe because the virus can't get inside the plant's seeds or reproductive machinery.

According to the biotech firm, a farmer would simply plant a normal crop of tobacco or grain, peppers, tomatoes or potatoes then, during the growing season, would decide which protein to produce. (Although nearly any major crop plant can be used, the tobacco plant is preferred because so much is known about its genes and growth.) At some point the plants would be harvested, and the proteins extracted through another patented process.

Basic Health Insurance Coverage 

We should expect more from health insurance than just the standard basic coverage for doctor's office diagnoses, hospitalization, X-rays and other tests, says the Health Policy Agenda for the American People. This health-care think tank, established by the American Medical Association, has come up with a consensus on just which health insurance benefits should be included in the basic package. Some benchmark benefits are well-child checkups and immunizations; periodic medical screenings; inpatient substance-abuse treatment; 30 days of mental health hospitalization; up to 50 visits a year for mental health services; up to 30 visits for home care; 45 days at a nursing home; and hospice care.

With the coalition's model policy in hand, consumers can more easily comparison shop for insurance or check existing plans for specific types of coverage and services. For a copy of the policy, contact the American Medical Association.

Aerobic Exercise for Asthmatics

Though conventional medical wisdom advises asthmatics to avoid physical exertion on the basis that it can trigger attacks, Aerobics for Asthmatics—a program started two years ago by Silver Spring, Maryland, allergists Stanley Wolf and Kathy Lampl—has shown that moderate exercise can actually help patients breathe easier. The twice weekly, 45-minute aerobic dance sessions don't change the patients' lung capacity, but the strength of their voluntary chest muscles improves substantially.

The program has been so successful that Wolf and Lampl have packaged it as a videotape for home use. (Be sure to obtain your doctor's permission before starting any exercise program.) If you're asthmatic and need more encouragement to get off the couch, consider this: Of the 611 U.S. athletes who competed in the Seoul Summer Olympics, 52 were asthmatic. Fifteen of these athletes—including superstar Jackie Joyner-Kersee—won medals. 

Prevent Aerobics Injuries

Although the benefits of aerobics are indisputable, keep this in mind: A new study from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill has found that the more often you take an aerobics class, the more likely you are to get hurt. It seems that 60% of the people who take aerobics classes four or more times a week report being injured, while only 43% who take less than four classes a week get hurt. The most common injuries occur in the lower extremities—the shin, calf and ankle.

Stop Bullying in Schools

It's been estimated that 4.8 million American children are either bullies or victims of bullying. However, the traditional adult response has been to ignore bullying or to regard it as an inevitable rite of passage. Lately, due to bullying attacks that ended with the suicides of their young victims, educators here and in Japan, Sweden and Norway are waking up to the long-term consequences of bullying. The bullies themselves do not go unscathed: The same children who rough up others and talk back to teachers are likelier as adults to commit crimes, abuse spouses, work at menial jobs—and raise a new crop of bullies. Yet, when Norwegian teachers and parents joined forces, they cut bullying incidents in half.

School officials, however, can't solve a problem if they don't know it exists. George Butterfield of the National School Safety Center advises parents to report incidents promptly and to be aware of signs of victimization, such as torn clothing and bruises, stomachaches, dropping grades or unexplained anxiety. Parents seem only to make matters worse by confronting the bully or his parents or telling their children to fight back. After all, bullies rarely pick on anyone their own size.

For more information on parental involvement in besting bullies, contact the National School Safety Center.

Stop Bed-Wetting: The Allergy Connection

Because an allergic reaction can irritate the detrusor muscle in the lining of the bladder, causing it to spasm and contract, an increasing number of doctors believe that many bed wetters are reacting to something they've eaten or even inhaled in the past day or so. An allergy can also cause the sphincter muscle at the mouth of the bladder to swell, preventing it from tightening enough to stop the flow of urine until the child wakes. This means the bed wetter may respond to sudden urges successfully during the daytime but sleep right through them at night. It doesn't help that many allergic children are very heavy sleepers.

If your child wets the bed, you can test the allergy theory yourself. Feed your young one only five of the least allergenic foods—lamb, rice, cherries, spinach and carrots—for five days. A dry bed at the end of that time almost surely means an allergy, probably to something eaten regularly. To identify the problem food, add one of the following greatest offenders every day, in its pure form: a glass of milk, an apple, roasted peanuts, plain popcorn, a few spoons of wheat germ, a soft-boiled egg, a pork chop, a piece of bittersweet chocolate, an orange. If the bed stays dry for two days after your child has eaten a particular food, you can consider that food safe and keep it a part of your child's diet. However, if your child wets the bed after having been served one of the major offenders, you've found the culprit—or one of them.

A child who wets during the test-diet interval may be allergic to one of the tester foods, so eliminate them, one by one. The problem may also be something in the air, so try changing the feather pillow and putting out the cat. If these measures fail, allergies probably aren't the cause of the problem.

Almost all bed-wetting disappears about two years before puberty begins, when the pelvic cavity expands and there's less pressure on the bladder. This usually occurs earlier for girls than boys, since girls mature faster.

Causes of Periodontal Disease

As microbiologists link specific bacteria (or "bug combos") to specific gum problems and treatments, it's now clear that periodontal disease is actually a group of diseases with different causes, targets and rates of progression. Of some 300 good and bad bugs that inhabit the mouth, eight to 20 have been linked to gum disease so far.

Gingivitis—an early and reversible form—is characterized by bleeding, inflamed gums and persistent bad breath. Left unchecked, gingivitis can progress into full-blown disease. The symptoms and bacteria vary depending on the cause. For example, the most common form is associated with poor oral hygiene and plaque buildup. Other factors contributing to the development of gingivitis—and more serious gum disease—include smoking or the use of smokeless tobacco, pregnancy, the Pill, epilepsy drugs, steroids, stress, reduced saliva flow (a side effect of some 400 drugs), anemia, diabetes and eating disorders.

Because we now know the bacteria are disease-specific, it's important to get a correct diagnosis and treatment plan from your dentist or periodontist.