TIME Diet/Nutrition

There’s A lot of Junk Food at the School Nutrition Conference

This year's annual conference run by the School Nutrition Association is not without politics

The 68th Annual National Conference of the School Nutrition Association is finishing up today in Boston, and it’s not go on without controversy.

Here’s some backstory: When the Obama administration revamped the school lunch requirements, they received a lot of praise and counted among their champions the School Nutrition Association. But now, the group, which is a national organization of school nutrition professionals, is heading up a lobbying campaign to let schools opt out of the requirements saying they are too restrictive and costly. (You can read in detail what the group is pushing for here.)

Many experts in the school-nutrition world are surprised by the stance the SNA has taken and some of its members have resigned, voicing criticism of SNA for accepting sponsorship money from food companies.

At the same time, Congress is considering legislation to delay by one year some of the school-lunch regulations, as the New York Times reported earlier this month.

Given the ongoing debate about school nutrition, it shouldn’t be surprising that this year’s convention—which brings together 6,000 school nutrition professionals and industry members—has been mired in politics. As Politico reported: Sam Kass, the Executive Director of Let’s Move! was even turned down when he asked to speak at the conference this year.

Though the conference has long allowed food companies to be involved, their new position on the school lunch standards have some nutrition groups and experts skeptical. And that makes the presence of fast food and junk food at the event all the more surprising.

Here are some tweets from public health lawyer Michele Simon:

To be sure, there were certainly booths with healthy food–even a great vending machine idea like this one:

So while the conference highlighted ways to get kids to eat more healthy food, it’s hard to take seriously when Cheetos and pizza are so heavily marketed.

TIME Obesity

The Question of Healthy Obesity Continues

Is the obesity paradox real?

In a new review published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers looked at 36 studies and found that among people with coronary artery disease, those with a high BMI had the lowest cardiovascular mortality risk compared to people with a normal weight.

The researchers say it’s further evidence of an obesity paradox, where being overweight or obese actually protects people from heart-related death.

Now, there are a few things to point out before we accept headlines like “Yes, Healthy Obesity Exists.” For one, the study population already had heart disease, and being obese puts people at a greater risk for heart-related ailments like stroke and high blood pressure. Second, it’s possible that the reasons the obese people had better outcomes was because they are more likely to be prescribed heart medications like statins compared to the normal population. It’s also possible that there is some sort of protective benefit from body fat that makes obese people less likely to have the worst effects from heart disease.

But doctors are not quick to conclude that being obese can protect your health. After all, the new study was looking at people who were already sick. But many in the medical community will agree that there are other factors critical to health that have nothing to do with the number on the scale, and that ultimately, concentrating on a person’s lifestyle behaviors over their size is a good strategy.

Read more of our coverage on the obesity paradox here.

TIME heart

Pigs Can Grow Their Own Pacemakers

And the scientists say that the technique, which involves cutting edge reprogramming of cells, may be tested in people soon

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Pacemakers are remarkable devices that save the lives of 300,000 people in the U.S. each year. They essentially take over for failing hearts, but since the devices require invasive surgery to implant in the heart, researchers have been looking for less invasive approaches to keeping the heart ticking. And now, reporting in the journal Science Translational Medicine, Dr. Eduardo Marban, director of the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute, has a lead—thanks to pigs.

“We were able for the first time to create a biological pacemaker using minimally invasive methods, and show that the new pacemaker cells suffice to support the demands of daily life,” he said. “When the pigs exercised, the hearts beat faster. When they were at rest, their hearts slowed down.”

He and his colleagues say that a single gene can transform existing heart cells to take over the function of ailing pacemaker cells in the heart, The group tested their theory in mice, and were encouraged enough by the results to predict that human trials may be as close as three years away.

MORE: A ‘Vaccine’ for Heart Disease Could Mean No Pills, Lettuce or a Gym

Marban has been working for more than a decade to find a better way to keep pacemaker patients’ hearts pumping at the right rate. In particular, he was focused on the 2% of them who need to go on antibiotics to treat an infection—because the devices are foreign objects implanted into the body, infections are possible—and in the interim have their pacemakers removed to be cleaned. During that time, these patients receive a temporary pacing device connected to a catheter, but the catheter itself may be an additional source of infection and make the antibiotic treatment less effective.

MORE: Single Gene Responsible for Group of Heart Disease Risk Factors

In Marban’s experiment, he simply loaded deactivated cold viruses, which are able to easily infect cells, with a gene—called TBX18—that is active during fetal development but later shuts off. Earlier studies showed that simply bathing cells in TBX triggered normal heart cells to start morphing into the ones that keep hearts working. That’s exactly what happened in the seven pigs whose hearts were injected with the gene. A small proportion of their normal heart cells, the size of a peppercorn, were transformed into electrically pulsing cells and essentially took over the pacemaker function of the pigs’ hearts.

Dr. Eugenio Cingolani, director of the cardiogenetics-familial arrhythmia clinic at Cedars Sinai and a co-author of the paper, said that while encouraging, more studies on the efficacy of the genetic reprogramming process, as well as a more in-depth analysis of the potential adverse effects are needed.

But the findings represent a promising first step toward a potentially new technique for treating certain life-threatening conditions.

“This development heralds a new era in gene therapy, where genes are used not only to correct deficiency disorders but to convert one cell to another to treat disease,” said Marban. “Now that we and others are hot on the trail of developing therapeutics based on this principle of cell reprogramming, I anticipate that the flood gates will open and people will look for genes of interest to do whatever they want in particular organs or tissues of interest.”

At the very least, he believes that a hardware-free, biological pacemaker based on the technique could become reality.

TIME

5 Groundbreaking Trials Are Testing Ways to Prevent Alzheimer’s

Researchers are testing some promising drug candidates to halt Alzheimer’s dementia – even before symptoms start

At the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Copenhagen, scientists described five trials that taking the unprecedented step of testing drugs that may prevent the onset of the neurodegenerative disease in people not yet experiencing cognitive decline.

The participants in the trial are all at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s either because they carry two copies of the ApoE4 gene, which is associated with a strong chance of developing the disease, or a genetic mutation that triggers the condition much earlier in life, during the 40s.

Most will be testing drugs that target amyloid, the protein that builds up in abnormal amounts in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and triggers other damaging changes that affect memory and cognitive functions. While other scientists reported some encouraging data on the effectiveness of diet, exercise, social support and controlling heart-related risk factors—see our piece about the lifestyle changes that prevented the disease—most experts believe that the best way to prevent Alzheimer’s may involve a combination of such lifestyle approaches with an effective drug.

Here’s the latest information on the five trials.

1. Dominantly Inherited Alzheimer Network Trial (DIAN TU)

Who is enrolled: People with a genetic mutation for Alzheimer’s disease or those who don’t know their genetic status but have a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s-related mutations

When they should enroll: when they are cognitively normal or have mild cognitive impairment

Drugs tested: Two experimental drugs, gantenerumab and solanezumab, both of which are antibodies designed to bind to amyloid and prevent it from forming brain-damaging plaques

2. Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s Study (A4)

Who is enrolled: People aged 65 to 85 years with normal thinking and memory

When they should enroll: Any time they become age eligible

Drugs tested: Solanezumab, an experimental anti-amyloid compound

3. TOMMORROW

Who is enrolled: Healthy seniors

When they should enroll: When they are cognitively normal or have mild cognitive impairment

Drugs tested: The trial will first pilot a screening test for two genes to see if it can accurately predict risk of mild cognitive impairment. The next phase of the trial will test an experimental compound designed to delay symptoms of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease in people without symptoms.

4. Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative Autosomal Dominant Alzheimer’s Disease Treatment Trial

Who is enrolled: 300 people from a family in Columbia affected by a genetic predisposition to developing Alzheimer’s disease early in life

When they should enroll: Before symptoms begin

Drug tested: Anti-amyloid antibody crenezumab

5. Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative APOE4 Treatment Trial

Who is enrolled: people with two copies of APOE4, who are at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease

When they should enroll: Before cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s begin

Drugs tested: An immunotherapy that prompts the body’s immune system to produce antibodies against amyloid protein, and a beta-secretase inhibitor that blocks the production of certain forms of amyloid.

TIME Infectious Disease

Spacing Out Kids’ Vaccines Can Hurt Their Health, Experts Say

Girl getting immunization
Getty Images

All those shriek-inducing pokes may seem excessive but the rewards of following national vaccination guidelines far outweigh the risks, experts say

“Like any parent, I don’t like to see my child get a shot,” says Dr. Michael J. Smith, a pediatrician at the University of Louisville who has studied immunizations and developmental health outcomes among kids. “But these vaccine schedules are in place for a reason.” Smith compares skipping or postponing one of your child’s vaccinations to not buckling him or her in during a car ride. “You never know when you’re going to get hit. And if you delay or space out your child’s shots, not only are you putting your kids at risk, but you’re putting other people’s kids at risk too.”

The urgency of Smith’s warnings are borne out in the recent outbreaks of measles and pertussis, diseases that had been almost totally eradicated in the U.S. but have made a frightening comeback since the turn of the century—right around the time two now-discredited scientific papers suggested a possible link between vaccines and autism. Dozens of subsequent studies have demonstrated there are no links between vaccinations and autism. But while stats show most parents understand the importance of immunizing their kids, research from the University of Michigan indicates plenty of moms and dads—roughly 1 in 4—worry that current immunization guidelines may overburden their babies’ tiny immune systems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommend that all healthy babies be vaccinated against 12 different diseases or viruses during the first two years of life. That’s compared to eight back in the early 1990s. Recently added to the list are vaccinations against potentially deadly illnesses like hepatitis and chicken pox.

But while the number of vaccines (and needle pricks) has grown during the last two decades, the amount of antigen in those shots, which is the substance that triggers a response from your child’s immune system, has plummeted, Smith explains. “The actual burden on your child’s immune system is far lower that it was 10 or 20 years ago, even though kids now receive more shots,” he says. That’s credited to advances in protein science and a better understanding of the way diseases and children’s immune systems interact.

In an effort to provide some answers for concerned parents, Smith and his colleagues looked at kids’ scores on tests related to motor skill, verbal memory, attention span, and several other neuropsychological factor to see if vaccine timing had any impact—good or bad—on a child’s brain development. His research shows kids vaccinated on time score the same or better than children who receive their vaccinations late or not at all.

Related research from Canada looked specifically at the immunization decisions made by parents of children diagnosed with autism. “Our study found that roughly 60 percent of parents who had a child with autism delayed or declined vaccinations for a later-born child,” says Dr. Jessica Brian, a developmental psychologist at the University of Toronto. According to Brian’s research, those children who did not receive their shots on time or altogether were slightly more likely to develop autism. “I don’t want to suggest that vaccines offer some protection against autism,” she says. “But our data show that there’s no increased risk of autism among kids who are vaccinated on time.”

Brian, Smith and other vaccine researchers repeatedly point to the Internet as a source of misinformation and, in some cases, unsubstantiated fear mongering when it comes to vaccines. Not uncommon are conspiracy theories involving pharmaceutical companies and the CDC. But travel overseas, and the picture changes slightly.

In Europe, where some diseases were never eradicated as thoroughly as they were in the U.S., health officials say there isn’t as much “too much, too soon” concern among parents when it comes to immunizations. Still, European moms and dads do harbor fears about potential vaccine side effects, says Niklas Danielsson, deputy head of the vaccine-preventable diseases program for the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Danielsson says the “unprecedented success” of vaccination programs has created a generation of young parents who aren’t familiar with the reality of something like a measles outbreak, so they’re focus is on a shot’s rare risks as opposed to its many proven benefits.

The lingering presence of diseases in other countries is one of the big reasons having your children vaccinated on time is so important, says Dr. Simon Hambidge, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Colorado. “We live in a world of international travel, and people are coming into our country all the time who may be carrying these diseases,” Hambidge says. “Unfortunately, the vast majority of the new outbreaks we’re seeing involve unvaccinated children.”

Hambidge has looked closely at one possible vaccine side effect that has parents worried: seizures. The CDC recommends that all healthy infants receive their first measles vaccination between the ages of 12 and 15 months, and some research has linked the measles vaccine to higher rates of febrile seizures. Though frightening for parents, seizures of this type are relatively common and almost never cause lasting damage, Hambidge explains. “About one in 2,000 to 4,000 kids will experience one of these febrile seizures after receiving the measles vaccine,” he says. “But we found that that seizure rate rises to one in 1,000 or 2,000 if the measles vaccine is given late, or between 16 and 23 months of age.” Hambidge says this is just one example of how a slight deviation from the CDC’s vaccination schedule can put your child’s health at risk.

“The risk of measles is far, far more serious than the risk for febrile seizures,” Hambidge says. “Even if your child is unlucky enough to have a seizure after a vaccination, these seizures are short-lived and don’t lead to any long-term issues, while measles is a life-threatening disease.”

Despite the overwhelming amount of research and real-world evidence that points to the reliable safety of vaccines, experts acknowledge that parents will continue to worry about the chemicals and additives in immunization shots. To those who have doubts, Dr. Smith says, “Vaccines are one of the most rigorously tested and effective health products on the planet. Nothing involving them is done lightly.”

And when it comes to the CDC’s recommendations regarding vaccination schedules, he adds, “As a pediatrician and as a parent, if my family’s on vacation and we have to put off my daughter’s doctor visit, I get anxious each day that she goes unvaccinated. I think the timing is that important.”

TIME Healthcare

We’re One Step Closer to Better Sunscreen

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Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

A bill for better sunscreen is on its way to Congress

The approval process by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can be woefully slow, and for over a decade, new sunscreen ingredients—some of which are widely used in other countries—have been trapped in an FDA backlog. But on July 15, those ingredients got one step closer to market when the House Energy and Commerce’s Health Subcommittee approved a bill that would speed up the process.

As we reported in May, sunscreen innovation advocates are hopeful that the a bipartisan bill called the Sunscreen Innovation Act—which is currently under review—could pass this summer. There are eight ingredients currently waiting for FDA approval, and the majority have been used in European and Asian countries for years. Some of the ingredients appear to offer better protection from UVA rays than those currently used in U.S. products.

The House Energy and Commerce’s Health Subcommittee approved the bill, which means it’s one step closer to getting passed by the House, something advocates think could happen before Congress’ recess in August. After that the bill heads to Senate. If the bill passes, the FDA is will have to respond to the current pending ingredients within a year, and all new applications will have to be responded to within one and half years.

Since skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., having the most up-to-date products is important to keep people safe. For now, here are some shopping tips.

Read our full coverage of the bill, here.

TIME

3 Skin Products You Need to Stop Using

Girl with skincare product
Marili Forastieri—Getty Images

You may think that as long as an item is on store shelves, it’s got a proven health and safety record. But the truth is, the long-term impact of personal-care creations aren’t always fully understood until years after they go to market.

That’s the case with several high-profile health and beauty products on the market today: Doctors and scientists are discovering that despite their popularity and “healthy” image, they may not be so good for us, or for the planet. So we asked Lisa Donofrio, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University, for her take on the recent headlines. Here’s her advice on which ingredients to avoid, plus her recommended alternatives.

Health.com: 15 Biggest Sunscreen Mistakes

Antibacterial soaps and body washes
Liquid hand and body soaps that boast “antibacterial” claims often contain an ingredient called triclosan, which has been linked to antibiotic resistance and hormone disruption. (Triclosan is also present in some toothpastes and cosmetics.) “It gets into the water supply and kills off beneficial bacteria,” says Dr. Donofrio. Plus, she adds, research hasn’t shown a true health benefit to antibacterial products. “We need to be a little dirty; it’s good to give our immune systems something to do so they don’t turn on us.”

The FDA has warned manufacturers that in the coming years, they’ll need to prove that products containing triclosan are more effective in preventing illness and reducing the spread of infection than regular soap and water, or they’ll have to reformulate their products. And Minnesota recently issued a ban on triclosan, which will go into effect in 2017.

Antibacterial bar soaps can contain a similar chemical, called triclocarban, that should be avoided as well. Instead, says Dr. Donofrio, choose bars, liquid soaps, and body washes with natural antimicrobials (she likes formulas that contain benzoyl peroxide or sulphur, which are gentler on the environment and don’t foster drug resistance), or use an alcohol-based sanitizer to clean your hands when you’re not near soap and water.

Health.com: 16 Hair Myths You Should Stop Believing

Face and body scrubs with microbeads
These tiny plastic beads are added to face and body washes as an exfoliant, and they help scrub away dead skin. The problem is, recent studies have shown that they also slip through water filtration systems and are making their way into our streams and oceans, potentially hurting fish and wildlife. The synthetic ingredient was recently banned by Illinois, and several other states are following suit.

In light of this news, a “natural” exofoliant may seem like the way to go—but Dr. Donofrio cautions against face and body washes that contain ground up pieces of nuts, seeds, and pits, which can have jagged edges and scratch or irritate skin. Her best alternative? “A coarse washcloth is a great exfoliator, as are scrubs that contain fine sea salt or sugar.”

Health.com: 13 Everyday Habits That Age You

Anything with parabens
These preservatives are found in everything from shampoos to soaps to lotions, and are used to prevent bacteria growth and extend shelf life. But they are also absorbed into our bodies, and research suggests that they may be tied to hormone disruption and certain cancers. “They bind to estrogen receptors and pose a potential health risk since they are stored in body fat,” says Dr. Donofrio. “Since we are uncertain if they pose a real or theoretical health problem, why tempt fate?”

Parabens are listed on ingredient labels—as methylparaben, propylparaben, or other words ending in -paraben—so it’s easy to choose products that don’t contain them, says Dr. Donofrio, or to limit your exposure by keeping their use to a small amount of skin area. Preservative-free products, or those with natural preservatives (such as grapefruit-seed extract, rosemary extract, or citric acid), likely won’t last as long, but if you use them regularly you should still finish them before their expiration date.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

TIME Infectious Disease

Girl, 9, Killed by Brain-Eating Parasite in Water

Kansas and Florida officials issue health warnings about swimming in fresh water

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Kansas health and environment officials have issued a health warning after a 9-year-old girl died from a brain-eating amoeba that lives in fresh water.

Hally Yust is reported to have been a regular water-skier who frequently swam in freshwater areas. She died last week after encountering the parasite Naegleria fowleri which is found in warm, still water.

Florida officials have provided similar warnings following Yust’s death. Last summer Florida resident Zachary Reyna, 12, died after he picked up the parasite while playing in a ditch near his home.

The Department of Health and Environment in Kansas said that it’s not clear where Yust, a resident of Johnson County, contracted the parasite. This is the second such case in Kansas.

“We are very saddened to learn of this unfortunate circumstance, and our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends during this difficult time,” said Robert Moser, Department Secretary and State Health Officer.

He added: “It is important for the public to know that infections like these are extremely rare and there are precautions one can take to lower their risk – such as nose plugs.”

From 1962 to 2013 there have been 132 similar cases reported in the U.S. The infection usually happens when the amoeba enters a person’s nose whilst they’re underwater and travels to the brain. Symptoms usually appear five days after exposure.

Officials recommend keeping your head above water when swimming in warm freshwater, wearing nose clips or avoiding freshwater activities altogether.

TIME

You Asked: Are All Calories Created Equal?

Are all calories equal?
Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME

Kale or corn dogs, bananas or beer, a calorie is still a calorie. At least, that’s what dieters have been told for the past half-century. Now, experts don't agree

“By and large, we’ve been taking an accounting approach to weight loss,” says Dr. David Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. By that he means, health scientists have traditionally focused on the number of calories coming in versus the number of calories going out. But there are a lot of problems with that approach, he says. For one thing, it’s really tough to accurately keep track of your daily calorie intake. “Being off by just 100 calories a day could add up to a hundred pounds over a lifetime,” he says.

If burning more calories than you consume would keep you skinny, a low-fat diet should be the answer to all your diet prayers. That’s because, compared to protein or carbohydrates, fat contains roughly twice the number of calories, ounce for ounce. But Ludwig says low-fat diets have proved ineffective when it comes to losing weight. “Mediterranean or low-carbohydrate diets outperform a low-fat diet every time, and that wouldn’t be true if calories were the only measure that mattered,” he adds. (Mediterranean diets and others like the now-trendy Paleo diet are both high in fat, comparatively speaking.)

In reality, Ludwig says the body responds differently to calories from different sources. “Your weight is regulated by a complex system of genetic factors, hormonal factors, and neurological input, and not all calories affect this system the same way,” he explains.

As for fat: “Some naturally high-fat foods are among the most healthful we can eat in terms of promoting weight loss and reducing risk for diabetes and heart disease,” he explains, listing off foods like nuts, avocados, and many types of fish. “If you’re counting calories, you would want to eat these foods sparingly because they’re dense in calories. But they’re also very filing.”

Refined carbohydrates, on the other hand—like those found in white bread, cookies, crackers, and breakfast cereals—raise your blood’s level of the hormone insulin, which signals to your body that it needs to store fat cells. Also referred to as high-glycemic foods, these refined carbs pass through your digestive system quickly—which is why you can eat a whole bag of potato chips and feel hungry 15 minutes later, Ludwig says.

Dr. Richard Feinman, a professor of cell biology at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, compares insulin to a faucet handle. The more your blood’s amount of the hormone rises, the more the faucet opens and the more fat your body stores.

Feinman has looked at calories from the perspective of thermodynamics—or the laws that govern heat and energy. Like Ludwig, he says the idea that calories from different macronutrient sources would have the same effect on your body is silly. Put simply, it doesn’t make sense that “a calorie is a calorie” because your body uses the energy from different foods in a variety of ways, Feinman explains.

The big lesson here is that people need to look at food as not just a collection of calories, experts say. By cutting out refined carbs and eating more protein and healthy fats, which help you stay full without triggering the storage of fat cells, “You can work with, as opposed to against, your body’s internal weight-control systems,” he says. “That will make weight loss more natural and easy.”

The best part: You can put away the calculator. No more calories counting.

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