Top 10 Health Breakthroughs of 2013

Thanks to advancements in technology and science, health news today is continuously revealing fascinating discoveries.

From discovering the key to slowing the aging process to solving the mystery of your metabolism, 2013 made quantum leaps toward understanding the human body—in all its complicated glory.

Here’s a look at the top 10 health breakthroughs of the year:

Top 10 Health Development of 20131. Oreos Are as Addictive as Crack

If you’ve ever found yourself binging on a bag of Double Stuffed Oreos at 2 a.m. there may be a scientific reason behind why you can’t stop. Researchers at Connecticut College found that Oreos stimulate the brain in the same way that drugs like cocaine or morphine do, lending credence to the idea that sugary, high-fat foods are, indeed, addictive.

Why you should care: The study offers scientific evidence that some people can’t resist junk food – even when they want to. If you’re already prone to splurging, reaching for unhealthy snacks can reinforce brain circuitry that keeps you in the addictive cycle.

2. You Can Take a DNA Test From Your Desktop

While 23andMe was founded in 2007, the company made headlines this year when its customer database reached 400,000 people. For just $99, you could obtain a DNA test that gave comprehensive information about the genetic factors that might influence your health—just by taking a quick mouth swab. Recent interference from the FDA has suspended 23andMe’s health-related genetic tests, but the company still offers ancestry-related tests and raw genetic data.

Why you should care: Since high healthcare premiums and minimal face time with a doctor are now the norm, the average person can benefit from knowing their congenital risk factors, inherited traits, allergic tendencies, and other genetic-related health factors that might pose a problem. These types of preventative health assessments are one of the best uses of technology the world has seen this year

3. Red Meat Could Give You Diabetes

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine this June found that increasing red meat consumption by over a half-serving per day could raise your diabetes risk by 48 percent. Red meat has long been associated with heart disease and high cholesterol, but now we know it can also influence factors that lead to insulin resistance and, therefore, diabetes.

Why you should care: The study also found that decreasing your red meat consumption by more than a half-serving per day could lower your diabetes risk by about 14 percent.  So simply opting for leaner proteins or reducing portion sizes once a day will help not only your waistline, but your blood sugar and heart health, too.

4. Endocrine Disruptors Are Making You Fat

A study published in Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology this year supports a growing body of research that links endocrine disruptors to weight gain. Commonly called “obesogens,” these synthetic chemicals are found in things like insecticides, cleaning products, and plastics, and they’re plentiful in our water, food, and air. By stimulating hormones that can increase appetite and reduce metabolism, they create the perfect storm for exercise- and diet-resistant weight gain.

Why you should care: While it’s impossible to entirely avoid endocrine disruptors, you can minimize your exposure by buying non-toxic, earth-friendly cleaning supplies, soaps and shampoos that are free of parabens and phthalates, and natural beauty products that don’t contain synthetic chemicals.

5. Air Pollution Is Linked to Autism

While the cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) remains one of the most elusive health mysteries of our time, a large-scale Harvard study found that air quality could be one explanation. Researchers found that women in areas with high pollution are twice as likely to give birth to a child with autism. Even after adjusting for things like education, income, or smoking habits, the 22,000-women study found that high exposure to certain pollutants still increased a woman’s chances for having an autistic child.

Why you should care: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 88 children have autism spectrum disorder—and the percentage is growing every year. If air pollution is indeed a cause, pregnant women who live in urban areas should be vigilant about prenatal care and their exposure to environmental pollutants.

6. Your Microbiome May Determine Your Health

What if the bacteria in your body have a specific blueprint that governs your health?

If you haven’t seen microbiome research making headlines this year, brace yourself: it involves getting friendly with your own germs by testing bacteria levels in your skin, mouth, and yes—your feces. The interesting thing is that everyone has a unique “germ print” that can affect immunity, disease resistance, or even weight gain.

Why you should care: The makers of uBiome, a company that performs microbiome testing for consumers, note that for every one human cell in the body, there are 10 microbes. By testing your own microbiome, you’re helping to further scientific research on the link between bacteria and human health. And you may garner some fascinating insights for yourself in the process.

7. Diet Soda Wrecks Your Metabolism

Forget the idea that you can swap regular soda for the diet version in order to lose weight. Research published this year in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism reviewed recent literature on the subject—and the results aren’t good. Diet soda may actually make you gain weight, as the artificial sweeteners found in these types of drinks interfere with satiety and hunger cues.

Why you should care: In addition to interfering with your metabolism, the study also found that people who drink diet soda tend to perceive themselves as healthier—and then overindulge in non-healthy foods as a result. Instead of drinking “diet” anything, opt for sparkling water with a squeeze of fresh fruit juice or, better yet, plain water.

8. The Key to Living Longer May Lie in Your Telomeres

The “end-caps” on chromosomes, telomeres essentially help to protect your cells from degrading. While we’ve known about telomeres since the 1970s, a study published in The Lancet Oncology this year showed that changes in diet, exercise, and stress can affect the length of these cell “bodyguards,” which could affect your lifespan.

Why you should care: Shortened telomeres can play a role in heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, dementia, and premature death. Current research suggests that the more positive lifestyle changes you make, like eating mostly plant-based foods, exercising 30 minutes a day, and practicing stress management techniques, the longer your telomeres (and potentially, your lifespan) will be.

9. GMOs Upset Your Gut

If there’s anything in the world of food and health that’s dominated the news cycle this year, it’s GMOs. Genetically modified organisms – crops that have been altered for a desired trait, like insect resistance, starch content or, ripening speed – have been linked to fertility issues, autism, and now, serious damage to your gut. Researchers from the University of Minnesota discovered that Round Up seeds (which are used to grow 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton on the market) contain chemicals that kill beneficial gut bacteria.

Why you should care: In order to fight off disease, prevent obesity, and digest food, you need a delicate balance of “good” intestinal bacteria. GMOs upset this balance, so always opt for organic produce, beef, poultry, and dairy products. By U.S. law, organic foods aren’t allowed to be labeled as such if they contain any genetically modified ingredients.

10. Counting Carbs, Not Calories, Is The Key to Weight Loss

If only “eat less” and “exercise more” were the answers to the obesity epidemic. The author of Why We Get Fat, Gary Taubes argues that weight gain is a hormonal problem rooted in what we eat – not how much we consume. This year, his essay in the British Medical Journal titled “The Science of Obesity: what do we really know about what makes us fat?” shed light on why you should be counting carbohydrates, not calories, if you want to lose weight.

Why you should care: Low-carb diets aren’t new, but Taubes’ work turns conventional weight-loss wisdom about “calories in, calories out” on its head. The answer lies not in eating less, Taubes says, but in restricting refined carbohydrates, eating more healthy fats, and scaling back on sugar.

While we may have ways to go before finding a cure for autism or solving the obesity epidemic, this year’s advancements suggest that we’re well on our way. The main takeaways? Eat clean, minimize your exposure to toxic chemicals, learn to manage stress, steer clear of GMOs, and definitely ditch your diet soda and Oreos addiction.

Your body will thank you.