Everyone wants to live healthier, if only to avoid the distress and danger of having serious problems like diabetes and blocked arteries. Unfortunately that's not always enough to get Americans to eat better, even when they know what's at stake. Last month a much publicized study in the New England Journal of Medicine confirmed that a "Mediterranean diet" is a clear winner for heart health, but try wrestling a steak away from a Texan with the lure of olive oil, nuts, and fruit instead. That's why University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio (UTHSCSA) research scientist Reto Asmis is studying the biochemical basis of the Mediterranean diet with the aim of producing a food supplement that does what the healthy diet does without a wholesale change in our eating behavior.
[Ingredients in a Mediterranean, heart smart diet, courtesy of the California Walnut Commission, which donated all of the walnuts for the European study]
Dr. Asmis and his lab focus their research on a component in many of the foods of the Mediterranean diet called ursolic acid, which he sees as being even more important than antioxidants or mono-unsaturated fatty acids to explain the diet's heart-healthy benefits. A recent $1.86M NIH grant will allow Asmis to work on isolating, testing, and understanding what makes these certain foods so good for us, towards a whole new kind of therapeutic approach. He says in a HSC news release:
“We predict that ursolic acid is a member of a new class of anti-atherosclerotic compounds with a mechanism of action distinct from drugs currently used for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.”
What Asmis has observed about ursolic acid in cell cultures is that it upsets a key phase of atherosclerosis wherein white blood cells (monocytes) migrate to the blood vessel injury site as a result of metabolic stress. Given that cardiovascular disease affects as many people as it does, an affordable food supplement that would interrupt that dysfunctional chemoattractive process could save and improve a lot of lives. In the meantime, you can consume more extra-virgin olive oil and fewer processed foods, especially sweets. Go to the farmer's market, and opt for grilled fish over those barbecued ribs. Eat fruit and nuts too. If that sounds like work, remember that red wine with meals is also recommended.
[Harvesting olives, courtesy of the New York Times' article on the Mediterranean diet]
Dr. Asmis is an Associate Dean at UTHSC San Antonio Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, a Professor of Biochemistry, an investigator in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, and a researcher at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies. His lab is in the newly-opened South Texas Research Facility, which we reported on in an earlier blog.
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