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Healthy living at Yuletide

By Chukwuma Muanya and Stanley Akpunonu
24 December 2020   |   4:14 am
Tomorrow is Christmas! The festive season is a period associated with overindulgence in unhealthy diets and excessive intake of alcohol among others.

Jollof rice

*NCDC lists COVID-19 containment measures for Christmas, New Year
*Artificially sweetened drinks increase risk of heart disease by 20%
*High-fat diet impairs immune function, accelerates cancer growth
*Diet modifications ameliorate hypertension, cognitive decline
*Drinking cup of coffee before exercise improves peak performance

Tomorrow is Christmas! The festive season is a period associated with overindulgence in unhealthy diets and excessive intake of alcohol among others.

Research has shown that many people tend to put on extra weight that predispose them to chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney problems and stroke, among others.

Meanwhile, scientists have harped on the need for healthy eating during Yuletide because stress, sadness and over-indulgence during the festive season could be deadly.

However, scientists have made major breakthroughs on natural ways to prevent and reverse damages caused by over indulgence as well as optimize well being. They found that artificially sweetened drinks and sugary beverages increase risk of heart disease by 20 per cent; high-fat diet impairs immune function and accelerates cancer growth, diet modifications including more wine, cheese can help ameliorate hypertension and cognitive decline; and drinking cup of coffee before working out could improve peak performance.

Meanwhile, in response to the increase in cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), and poor adherence to public health and social measures across the country, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) is escalating its ongoing public communications efforts through a new campaign themed #CelebrateResponsibly. This is part of the #TakeResponsibility campaign which began in February 2020 and focuses specifically on measures Nigerians need to take to protect themselves and loved ones during the Christmas and New Year period.

Also, a research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) showed on an average day, 50 heart attacks were recorded, but on Christmas Eve the number jumped to 69, a 37 per cent increase, with incidents clustering around 10 pm, after a day of coping with relatives, eating and drinking too much.

According to the study, the risk of suffering a heart attack also rises by 22 per cent on Boxing Day while the New Years’ Eve, had no associated risk, possibly because symptoms of a heart attack were masked by alcohol.

Interestingly, the study suggests that the risk of heart attack was 20 per cent higher on New Year’s Day, which researchers speculate could be brought on by the after-effects of too much alcohol and food, exposure to cold temperatures at night, or sleep deprivation.

Dr. David Erlinge of Department of Cardiology, Clinical Sciences, Lund University, Sweden, said the main findings in the study were that traditional holidays were associated with the risk of a heart attack.

Erlinge said the peak was very pronounced exactly on Christmas Eve and the following two days, suggesting something specific, the way people celebrate these holidays.

However, proffering solutions, the Executive Director, Nigerian Heart Foundation (NHF), Dr. Kingsley Akinroye, advised the populace to embrace healthy eating during the Yuletide.

He said that healthy eating entails being aware of the food content you consume. “We should be aware of the sugar content, how much cholesterol the food contains, how much-saturated fat it contains, how much of salt is in the food, likewise fibre. All these food items are quantified for health.

“If you check the criteria that we use in the Nigeria Heart Foundation to quantify that, we advise that the sugar content must not be in excess, salt intake must be limited and the fibre intake in food should be very high. Do not indulge in taking bottled and tin foods instead take natural food and avoid the excessive intake of alcohol.”

The cardiologist said it is important to avoid unnecessary stress and avoid excessive eating and drinking. Akinroye, however, explained that eating food goes beyond providing sustenance adding that healthy food has curative properties.

He stated that scientific evidence has established the fact that some food nutrients cure certain diseases noting that an unhealthy diet, inadequate daily physical activity and a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits are responsible for some chronic non-communicable diseases.

Administrative Secretary and Head, Education, Research, Nigeria Union of Allied Health Professionals, Comrade Godwin Ogbonna, said: “As we approach the festive season, there is bound to be celebrations, parties where food, drinks, and alcohol may likely be consumed with exuberance.”

He said dietary guidelines and patterns are often disregarded during merry moments like this urging the populace to be careful about what one eats and drinks this season.

Ogbonna said the excessive consumption of food and alcohol predisposes an individual to non-communicable diseases like high cholesterol, diabetes, heart problems, arthritis and hypertension.

He disclosed that healthy eating entails eating in moderation with the five components of nutrients in their right quantitative and qualitative proportions. (Carbohydrates, proteins, fats/ oils, vitamins and minerals and water)

The nutritionist stressed that anything done in excess is injurious to the body and it will affect its functional capacity and if it is not checked could lead to acute physiological imbalance.

His words: “Constipation, stooling even excessive vomiting could happen as a result of excessive consumption of food. Excessive consumption of alcoholic drinks could lead to unpleasant health conditions or aggravate an existing health condition. Diabetic patients or people with elevated blood pressure should be wary of alcoholic beverages at this season.”

Ogbonna added that moderation is the keyword and most importantly, choosing food from the vegetables and fruits groups with little carbohydrates, fats and protein sources.

He continued: “The economy of the country is very bad, eat wisely and spend wisely. School fees, increased house rents should be envisaged in the New Year. So meticulous and sagacious financial engineering is sacrosanct. Go out with your facemasks, wash and sanitize your hands and keep safe. COVID-19 pandemic is still around.”

The expert said for all the meals that would be consumed during the festive period and going forward, the importance of having a glass of 100 per cent fruit juice alongside meals cannot be overstated because the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines include 100 per cent juice as part of the fruit group and note that up to half of the daily fruit intake could come from it.

“Adequate nutrition is essential for health and well being at every stage of life. No single food by itself, except breast-milk, provides all the nutrients in the right amount that will promote growth and maintain a healthy life. Hence, you must be sure to consume the right foods daily to achieve the right calorie intake. This in turn must be complemented with optimum energy expenditure to achieve good health,” he said.

Meanwhile, critically, Nigerians are being urged to adhere to recommended measures by NCDC and other public health authorities, as they celebrate Christmas and New Year. According to the NCDC, “Please avoid all non- essential travel within and outside Nigeria to reduce the risk of transmission. The virus that causes COVID-19 is more likely to spread in mass gatherings especially when held indoors. We advise that people avoid mass gatherings during this time, or hold them outdoors with physical distancing, compulsory use of facemasks and provision of handwashing facilities or hand sanitizer.”

The campaign titled ‘Celebrate Responsibly’ is being implemented with the Federal Ministry of Information and other Government Institutions and partners involved in the COVID-19 response. It emphasises the responsibility of Nigerians, the government, private sector, institutions, associations, communities and individuals in implementing and adhering to the COVID-19 prevention and response measures.

The campaign is specifically focused on the next four weeks, which includes the Christmas, New Year holiday and start of the New Year, as there is a need to reinforce to Nigerians that now is not the time to let down our guard. COVID-19 has continued to threaten lives and livelihoods and we must take all precautions necessary. It will include the production of audio and visual materials, which have been translated to local languages, for wide dissemination. The NCDC urges all individuals, traditional and religious leaders, business owners, the media and other institutions to join the campaign.

The “Celebrate Responsibly” campaign calls on all Nigerians to take all necessary precautions for a safe and healthy Christmas celebration. To download materials for the campaign, please visit or contact

Meanwhile, high blood pressure appears to accelerate a decline in cognitive performance in middle-aged and older adults, according to new research published Monday in Hypertension, an American Heart Association journal.

Nearly half of adults have high blood pressure or hypertension. Having high blood pressure is a risk factor for cognitive decline, which includes such things as memory, verbal fluency, attention and concentration. Blood pressure of 120 mmHg – 129 mmHg systolic (the top number in a reading) or higher is considered elevated. Systolic pressure above 130 mmHg, or diastolic pressure (the bottom number) of 80 mmHg or higher is considered hypertension.

Barreto and colleagues analyzed findings from an existing study that included blood pressure and cognitive health information for more than 7,000 adults in Brazil, whose average age was about 59 years old at the study’s start. The study participants were followed for an average of nearly four years; testing included analysis of memory, verbal fluency and executive function, which includes attention, concentration and other factors associated with thinking and reasoning.

Meanwhile, the foods humans eat may have a direct impact on cognitive acuity in later years. This is the key finding of an Iowa State University research study spotlighted in an article published in the November 2020 issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Here are four of the most significant findings from the study:
Cheese, by far, was shown to be the most protective food against age-related cognitive problems, even late into life;

The daily consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine, was related to improvements in cognitive function; Weekly consumption of lamb, but not other red meats, was shown to improve long-term cognitive prowess; and

Excessive consumption of salt is bad, but only individuals already at risk for Alzheimer’s Disease may need to watch their intake to avoid cognitive problems over time.

Also, a study has found diet drinks are just as bad for your heart as the full-sugar versions. French researchers tracked more than 104,000 people over ten years, looking at how many sugary or sugar-free soft drinks they consumed.

They found the consumers of both sugary and artificially sweetened drinks are up to 20 per cent more likely to suffer heart disease, stroke or heart attacks than those who avoid soft drinks.

The scientists, at Sorbonne University in Paris, split people into three groups based on their consumption of sweetened beverages.
These categories were labelled as non-consumers, low consumers and high consumers and drinks split into either artificially sweetened or sugary.

A sugar content equalling or exceeding five per cent meant it was considered sugary whereas a sub-five percentage and the presence of ‘non-nutritive sweeteners’ was enough to be classified as an artificially sweetened beverage.

The study required participants to fill in three daily diet diaries every six months. A decade of records from 2009 to 2019 looked for any relationship between intake and heart-related issues, such as stroke, transient ischemic attack (TIA), myocardial infarction, acute coronary syndrome and angioplasty.

It revealed people who drank lots of low-sugar diet drinks had the same elevated heart disease risk as those who drank the full-sugar versions.

People who are considered to be high consumers of either artificially sweetened or sugary drinks were 20 per cent as likely to suffer heart problems than people who avoided both types of soft drinks, sticking to other options such as water, tea or coffee.

There was no difference between the two types of drink. Diet drinks such as Diet Coke, and the artificial sweeteners they contain, are often marketed as a way of reducing calorie and sugar intake.

But experts are concerned at growing evidence that artificial sweeteners alter the body’s metabolism, increasing the speed at which sugar is absorbed.

Lead author Eloi Chazelas concluded: “Higher intakes of sugary drinks and artificially sweetened beverages were associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, suggesting that artificial sweeteners might not be a healthy substitute for sugary drinks.

“These data provide additional arguments to fuel the current debate on taxes, labeling, and regulation of sugary drinks and artificially sweetened beverages.’

“To establish a causal link, replication in other large-scale prospective cohorts and mechanistic investigations are needed.”

Meanwhile, having a cup of coffee can do more than wake you up in the morning; a new study found it could also improve your peak performance before working out.

Researchers from the University of Coventry recruited 46 amateur cyclists who had trained one to three times a week for a year and had them track their coffee intake.

The findings were published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. People who have a cup of coffee before exercising perform better than others, whether they are caffeine junkies or not, the British scientists discovered.

They found this out by giving one group of cyclists, coffee before they cycled for three miles on an exercise bike and another group a placebo before the ride and those given coffee performed 1.7 per cent better than the placebo group.
Drinking coffee before the trial improved people’s physical performance by on average 1.7 per cent; regardless of how much coffee participants usually drank

Drinking coffee before the trial improved people’s physical performance by on average 1.7 per cent; regardless of how much coffee participants usually drank

The team looked at the impact of habitual caffeine intake on three mile cycling time-trial performance to better understand the link between caffeine and performance

The team looked at the impact of habitual caffeine intake on three mile cycling time-trial performance to better understand the link between caffeine and performance

Previous research found coffee could boost physical endurance by suppressing pain, reducing fatigue and improving neuromuscular performance.

Also, a new study in mice finds that a high-fat diet allows cancer cells to outcompete immune cells for fuel, impairing immune function and accelerating tumour growth. Cancer cells do so by rewiring their metabolisms to increase fat consumption. Blocking this rewiring enhances anti-tumor immunity. The findings suggest new strategies to target cancer metabolism and improve immunotherapies.

Obesity has been linked to increased risk for over a dozen different types of cancer, as well as worse prognosis and survival. Over the years, scientists have identified obesity-related processes that drive tumour growth, such as metabolic changes and chronic inflammation, but a detailed understanding of the interplay between obesity and cancer has remained elusive.

Now, in a study in mice, Harvard Medical School researchers have uncovered a new piece of this puzzle, with surprising implications for cancer immunotherapy: Obesity allows cancer cells to outcompete tumour-killing immune cells in a battle for fuel.

Reporting in the journal Cell on December 9, the research team shows that a high-fat diet reduces the numbers and antitumor activity of CD8+ T cells, a critical type of immune cell, inside tumors. This occurs because cancer cells reprogram their metabolism in response to increased fat availability to better gobble up energy-rich fat molecules, depriving T cells of fuel and accelerating tumor growth.

The team found that blocking this fat-related metabolic reprogramming significantly reduced tumor volume in mice on high-fat diets. Because CD8+ T cells are the main weapons used by immunotherapies that activate the immune system against cancer, the study results suggest new strategies for improving such therapies.

The researchers found that tumours grew much more rapidly in animals on high-fat diets compared to those on normal diets. But this occurred only in cancer types that are immunogenic, which can contain high numbers of immune cells; are more easily recognized by the immune system; and are more likely to provoke an immune response.

Experiments revealed that diet-related differences in tumor growth depended specifically on the activity of CD8+ T cells, immune cells that can target and kill cancer cells. Diet did not affect tumor growth rate if CD8+ T cells were eliminated experimentally in mice.

Strikingly, high-fat diets reduced the presence of CD8+ T cells in the tumour microenvironment, but not elsewhere in the body. Those remaining in the tumor were less robust — they divided more slowly and had markers of decreased activity. But when these cells were isolated and grown in a lab, they had normal activity, suggesting something in the tumor impaired these cells’ function.