Five organizations made an announcement a few weeks ago—one that holds profound and historic implications for your health and lifespan.
The biggest of them is computer giant Apple, which has integrated an open source software into its mobile platform that allows scientists to carry out research with participating users remotely. Other organizations are the well-known Silicon Valley genome sequencing company 23andMe, New York’s Icahn School of Medicine, Stanford Medical, and LifeMap Solutions (the company behind the mHealth app).
Don’t let the word “app” fool you, though. LifeMap Solutions is a company with deep ties to the world’s leading stem cell company, BioTime (*see disclosure below), as well as the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
Before telling you what this amazingly diverse group is doing, let me tell you why you need them to do it.
Let’s start with the chocolate problem
Studies have confirmed chocolate is good for your health
You’ve probably seen—and clicked on—links to articles that regularly appear on various websites touting the health benefits of chocolate. In fact, significant evidence has confirmed that moderate doses of chocolate are good for several important predictors of health and life span, including insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, and LDL or “bad” cholesterol.
These claims have scientific support, too. An article that appeared in The Journal of Nutrition showed that chocolate improves blood pressure and insulin sensitivity. Another Journal of Nutrition article showed a number of benefits in terms of cardiovascular disease.
There’s one “but,” though.
We never know for sure how reliable any study really is. Researchers can make basic mistakes in study design. Fraud also happens in the world of peer-reviewed literature. This is why meta-analysis (a statistical technique for combining the findings from independent studies) can be helpful in validating studies such as the ones I just cited.
Meta-analysis looks at many individual studies about a single research area to draw conclusions, which are more statistically significant due to the larger amounts of data. So I read through the meta-analysis of studies looking at chocolate’s effects on cholesterol, which appeared last year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
It provides pretty compelling evidence that “intervention with dark chocolate/cocoa products significantly reduced serum low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and total cholesterol (TC) levels.”
So that’s a good thing, right?
I’d like to say it is. And for many people, it could be, but it would be inaccurate to say that it’s necessarily a net positive for everybody.
Chocolate could be harmful to people with a certain genotype
I have, for example, a pretty rare form of the CETP gene that gives me a healthy cholesterol profile.
So my risk/benefit calculation is different from most people’s. This is important. We all have different genomes and metabolisms. So we should all make decisions about dietary and supplement options based on our individual genotypes.
The truth is that some people will experience no real benefits from lowering LDL levels with chocolate. It’s even possible that adding chocolate to their diets could do more harm than good. Especially, if they can’t limit themselves to the absurdly small doses given to subjects in most clinical trials.
I mean, seriously, who can eat just a few squares of chocolate bar? In the interest of my waistline, I tend to avoid chocolate altogether.
This is why I think so many studies and articles focus on “dark chocolate.”
Milk chocolate carries the same health benefits
There’s another misconception about chocolate, which I find irritating but understandable.
The chemical actions of the cocoa flavanols believed to be responsible for the health benefits of chocolate are the same regardless of whether they are delivered as bitter dark chocolate or creamy milk chocolate.
Milk chocolate consists of the same flavanols. You just have to eat more milk chocolate to get the same amount of it. And that, of course, comes with additional fat, sugar, and milk, but that is essentially irrelevant.
Allow me to quote my nutritional-biologist wife who says the same thing when somebody asks if some food is healthy or unhealthy. “There are no healthy or unhealthy foods,” she says. “There are only healthy and unhealthy diets.”
This is true. You can eat almost anything in moderation if your overall diet is adjusted accordingly. People don’t understand this, and as a result there is the common misperception that dark chocolate is better for you than milk chocolate.
I’ve got a good example to illustrate the absurdity of this misconception.
I’ve seen people eating chunks of unpleasantly bitter dark chocolate with a sugar- and fat-loaded Frappuccino that has more calories than most people need in a single day. It would be far better, instead, to eat a little high quality milk chocolate with a cup of black coffee and adjust the rest of your diet accordingly.
Is chocolate good or bad for me?
I didn’t take chocolate seriously as a dietary supplement until a new study showed it significantly improves athletic performance and training.
I don’t believe, however, that chocolate is as effective as a training aid as nitrate-rich vegetables, which I’ve written about at length. Nevertheless, I’m adding a little chocolate to my diet because of the evidence that it enables more effective training.
But I’m not saying you should do the same.
Everybody’s calculations are different based on health, genetics, and goals. This is the problem, of course, with all supplements and drugs. Most people, however, think in binary terms. Is it good or bad? Even our institutions, such as the NIH and the FDA tend to think in terms of the average person instead of the individual.
My point is that there’s no single answer in health care. A drug or supplement can be life-saving for one person… but lethal for another.
This is not an entirely academic issue.
Omega-3 supplements and vegetarian diets aren’t necessarily good for you
The general support for Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation was based in large part on research done on a population that has subsisted mostly on fish for many centuries. Therefore, it had adapted to the diet.
More recent research hints that Omega-3s may increase the risk of prostate cancer in men whose genetics aren’t adapted to a fish diet. Similarly, a recent study shows that the much-discussed health advantages of vegetarian diets may accrue primarily to populations that have adapted genetically to meat-free diets. Such a diet, however, may put others at risk for heart disease and cancer.
So your personal decision about diet should be based on the risks that you are personally prone to. If diabetes is in your genes, it might be smart to eat a lot more vegetables. If heart disease and cancer are the big risks in your genetic cards and you come from a long line of meat eaters, maybe you should put some chicken on the grill.
I realize that this isn’t what people want to hear. Most people want a simple universal recommendation, which would probably be wrong for many people.
Everything is about to change
Vast genomic and health data have to be available in order for scientists to create an optimal regimen for individuals. That information will help them predict with increasing accuracy how individual genetics effect a huge number of variables—from exercise and diet, to chocolate and other revolutionary supplements that have come onto the scene in the last few years.
Everything we knew about these issues in the past came from a disappointingly small number of patients, many lacking the sequenced genomes needed to develop personalized guidelines. To make rapid progress, scientists need the cooperation of many more people who can supply their sequenced genomes to researchers along with information about their health.
History was made just a few weeks ago when the five organizations I described in the opening paragraph found a way for 1.2 million customers to upload their genomes—along with information about their health status—through an app to researchers at Mount Sinai Asthma Health and Stanford Medicine’s MyHeart Counts.
Obviously, this will initially benefit the fields of asthma and cardiovascular health research. It is, however, a revolutionary development that will speed up the progress regarding many complicated questions about health that have been impossible to answer until now.
My congratulations and thanks go out to everybody who made this happen. The 23andMe press release can be accessed here.
(*Disclosure: The editors or principals of Mauldin Economics have a position in this security. They have no plans to sell their position at this time. There is an ethics policy in place that specifies subscribers must receive advance notice should the editors or principals intend to sell.)