News Flash: The Joy-Boosting Effect of Talking to Strangers, and Paleo and Keto Might Be Bad for Your Heart

Every week, we’re bringing you a roundup of the latest health and wellness news to hit the wire. This week, we find out about the mental health perks of talking to strangers and why Paleo and keto diets might not be a healthy long-term eating strategy.

In a sad mood? Try talking to a stranger.

If you’re like most people, staring at your smartphone is the go-to move when you find yourself in a crowded room or elevator with strangers. But we may be shortchanging our happiness by avoiding interactions, even if we think we don’t want them, according to this NPR article.

The most trivial of interactions at the coffee shop or grocery store—even making eye contact—can boost feelings of happiness and human connection, studies show. If this is true, wondered Nicholas Epley, Ph.D., a University of Chicago behavioral scientist, why do so many of us ignore each other?

Either solitude is really enjoyable, he figured, or mistaken assumptions were keeping us from connecting. What he found through a series of experiments was that train and bus commuters who interacted with other passengers experienced a more pleasant ride, even if they believed they would prefer reading a book or other solitary pursuits. What Epley found was that it was the fear that the person sitting next to us wouldn’t enjoy talking to us that makes us keep to ourselves, but when we do talk to each other, those conversations were far less awkward and more enjoyable than predicted.

Even the act of making eye contact—with or without a smile—made not only the individual looking but also the one being seen feel a greater sense of inclusion and belonging. Happiness, Epley argued, is like a leaky tire on a car: You have to keep pumping it up with these small positive interactions to maintain it.

He suggested putting down the smartphone and just saying “hello” or “good morning” to get the ball rolling when you get on the elevator or place your order at Starbucks.

Some cautionary news about keto and Paleo

Low-carb Paleo and keto diets might be effective for weight loss, but new research suggests that this way of eating, which eschews grains, dairy and legumes, might be putting many people at greater risk for heart disease.

Those who adhered to a Paleo diet in the yearlong study had twice the amount of a biomarker that’s commonly associated with heart disease than people who ate a typical diet, according to a new report published in the European Journal of Nutrition and covered by Healthline. This is the first major study to look at how a Paleo diet can affect gut bacteria and what impact this style of eating has on long-term health.

Investigators measured the levels of trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), an organic compound produced in the gut that is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. In fact, a 2017 study by the Journal of the American Heart Association found that TMAO increases a person’s risk for a major cardiovascular event by 62 percent and the risk of dying by 63 percent.

Moreover, beneficial bacteria species were lower in the guts of those eating a Paleo diet, as a result of reduced carbohydrate intake, which may, the study’s authors said, have consequences for other chronic diseases long term.

What was lacking was fiber from whole grains, researchers said, because a diet rich in fiber can promote better gastrointestinal health, reducing the risk for stroke, heart attack, obesity and Type 2 diabetes, as well as a reduced risk of some cancers. Most Americans, not just those on Paleo diets, are lacking in this nutrient.

While you can meet your daily fiber requirement from fruit and vegetables, nutritionist Rachel Fine said it’s the insoluble fiber in whole grains rather than the soluble fiber in veggies and fruit that plays a bigger role in digestive health and regularity.

If you are going to cut whole grains from your diet, nutritionists advise reducing your intake of meat and upping your intake of plant-based sources of fat such as nuts and seeds, as well as non-starchy vegetables such as artichokes, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Photo credit: Dusan Petkovic, Getty Images