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Life Imitates TV, The Healthy Ikea Diet

by Andrea Widener
February 24, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 8


Credit: Juergen Schaefer/The Lancet
Toxic hip replacement: Cobalt leached from a metal implant, which is a bit bigger than a golf ball.
This is a photo of a metal hip implant like one that was implicated in a German patient’s cobalt intoxication.
Credit: Juergen Schaefer/The Lancet
Toxic hip replacement: Cobalt leached from a metal implant, which is a bit bigger than a golf ball.

It’s not often—if ever—that a television show helps a doctor diagnose a severely ill patient. But that’s just what happened for Juergen R. Schaefer, a physician at the University of Marburg, in Germany.

Schaefer runs the Center for Undiagnosed Diseases at the university’s hospital. His 55-year-old patient had been sick for more than a year before he was referred to Schaefer’s center with hearing and eyesight loss, plus swollen lymph nodes and a fever of unknown origin. But his most immediate problem was his failing heart.

Schaefer knew within five minutes what the patient’s problem was: cobalt intoxication from a hip replacement he had more than one year earlier. That’s because Schaefer had brushed up on heavy-metal poisoning just months before teaching a seminar for medical students. During his lecture, he discussed a similar case from the TV show “House.”

Schaefer started using the medical drama series around 2009 to attract more students to his seminar on rare diseases. He calls the class “Dr. House Revisited.” But it’s really about getting students to ask the question, “Would we have saved the patient at Marburg?” Schaefer explains.

In this particular show, the 11th episode of season seven, title character Dr. Gregory House identifies a metal hip replacement as the cause of cobalt poisoning in his patient. So when Schaefer heard his patient had been having problems since a hip implant, he knew what it was right away. Blood tests confirmed the patient had a cobalt level 1,000 times the normal amount. Schaefer and his colleagues published the case in The Lancet (2014, DOI: 10.1016/s0140-6736(14)60037-4).

Most metal hip replacements are thought to be safe, Schaefer says. This particular patient had a previous ceramic hip that shattered, and ceramic pieces had been left behind during replacement surgery. These bits scratched the metal implant, leaching cobalt into the patient’s body.

Schaefer and his colleagues have since identified five other patients in the Marburg area alone with cobalt intoxication from hip replacements. “I am so convinced there are many, many people out there with this problem,” he says.

One of the few places people in the U.S. find lingonberries on the menu is Ikea, where lingonberry jam gets glopped onto a plate next to Swedish meatballs. But they might be more popular in the future: A recent mouse study reports that the Scandanavian staple has fat-fighting capabilities in mice.

Credit: Shutterstock
Lingonberry lunch: The Nordic berry might be the next diet fad.
This is a photo of lingonberries.
Credit: Shutterstock
Lingonberry lunch: The Nordic berry might be the next diet fad.

Karin Berger and a team at the Antidiabetic Food Centre at Sweden’s Lund University studied berries as part of a quest to identify obesity-curbing foods. Berries are rich in polyphenols, which reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The researchers fed eight types of berries to separate groups of mice as part of a high-fat diet. They also gave two control groups of rodents either a high-fat diet without berries or a low-fat diet.

Before the study began, Berger predicted that blueberries, black currants, or even acai berries, a health food favorite, would rise to the top.

But it turned out that lingonberries were the berry best. The mice eating the high-fat lingonberry diet were as healthy as those on the low-fat diet (J. Nutr. Metab. 2014, DOI: 10.1155/2014/403041).

“We are now trying to find out what is in the lingonberries, especially, that causes this effect,” Berger says. The researchers are working with chemists to identify the active, fat-fighting component, and they are also planning a human study of a lingonberry diet.

Until then, you’ll have to get your lingonberry fix at Ikea or at IHOP, where Swedish pancakes are on the menu.

Andrea Widener wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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