Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Not One ‘Plus Size’ Fits All

April 23rd, 2015 at 1:20 pm by timigustafson
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When it comes to treating weight problems, even experts believe that similar methods can be applied almost universally: Put your patients on a diet, have them engage in regular exercise, and, if all else fails, recommend some surgical procedure. What gets rarely looked at are the differences between overweight individuals that may have led to their unhealthy weight gain in the first place. Only one such study has recently been published, and the results are eye-opening.

For the study, scientists from the universities of Sheffield, England, Harvard, United States, and Toronto, Canada, analyzed medical data of over 4,000 overweight or obese men and women in terms of common and distinguishing characteristics. In the end, they came up with six ‘categories’ or ‘types’ that helped them better understand their subjects’ eating behaviors and lifestyle choices.

The first group was identified as “heavy drinking males” whose excessively high alcohol intake resulted in weight problems. Getting members of this category to limit their consumption of alcoholic beverages would obviously be an important step toward successful weight control.

The second group, named “younger healthy females,” consisted of women who were generally healthy except for their weight issues. Eating patterns and exercise levels were viewed as largely acceptable but were interspersed with bouts of binge eating and occasional heavy drinking, which, again, contributed to weight gain. Remedies hereto would be similar to their male counterparts.

A third type was called “the affluent and healthy elderly,” seniors who enjoyed retirement life a bit too much and paid the price with an unhealthily expanding waistline. Tuning it down a little would be the appropriate strategy.

Another group of older individuals was diagnosed with one or more chronic health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, in addition to being overweight. Those “physically sick but otherwise happy” people were often unaware of how their weight aggravated their other ills. Counseling with the aim of diet and lifestyle changes could lead to major improvements in such cases.

Mental dysfunctions like anxiety and depression were also found to be increasingly damaging to people as they grew older. The “unhappy, anxious middle-aged,” as the researchers named this group, often showed a close connection between their inner feelings and their outer appearance, especially in terms of weight. As psychological disorders oftentimes manifest themselves physically, equal attention must be paid to both the roots and symptoms before any progress can be hoped for.

Lastly, the research team focused on those whom they found in the “poorest health.” The prevalence of weight problems and chronic illnesses was especially high in this group, and eating and lifestyle patterns were predictably dismal. Overweight and obese patients of this type require intensive care and should be treated with the most effective methods. Because of the severity of the health conditions typically found in this category, the researchers saw here justification for the clinical weight loss approaches now widely in use.

Obviously, attempts like these to find patterns in complex phenomena have their limits. There might be numerous additional factors leading to weight gain that have not received enough attention in this particular study. But its central take-away is that the overweight and obese are not a homogenous part of the population with the same health needs, says Dr. Mark Green of Sheffield University, the lead author of the study report, in a press release about his findings. If we don’t come up with better solutions and more customized, or as he calls it “bespoke,” forms of treatment, we will continue to fail serving those who need our help most.

As a dietitian and health counselor, I couldn’t agree more. After all, that is what one-on-one counseling entails. But, unfortunately, the system is not set up for this sort of effort. For instance, health insurance companies favor short-term treatments like weight loss surgery over open-ended approaches, including diet and lifestyle coaching. We can only hope that studies like this will eventually bring a different view to the agenda.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Eating out is generally considered a pleasurable experience, not least because of its convenience. Busy lifestyles as well as lack of cooking skills and amenities make it an easy choice for many working-age adults to let others take care of their nutritional needs. Unfortunately, not being in charge of your own food preparation can prove hazardous for your health in the long run.

For example, a new study from Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore showed for the first time a direct link between eating meals away from home and hypertension, a.k.a. high blood pressure.

Hypertension is considered a risk factor for heart disease, heart attack and stroke, all of which are among today’s leading causes of death.

Even young adults were found to suffer from pre-hypertension or full-fledged hypertension if they ate out on several days a week. In fact, just one weekly restaurant visit was associated with a six percent increase in risk of pre-hypertension. The researchers involved in the study advised especially younger males to have their blood pressure checked regularly and, if necessary, modify their eating behavior.

Although this particular study focused mainly on young Asian adults, the warnings should be heeded worldwide. It is estimated that hypertension affects about one in three Americans to various degrees, based on statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Only half of all patients diagnosed with the disease have their condition under control through medication as well as diet and lifestyle changes, the agency says.

Almost 30 percent of what causes hypertension is attributed to excessive dietary sodium (salt). Processed foods, which are widely used in restaurants like fast food places and other low-cost eateries, are notorious for high sodium contents.

Although consumers have shown greater interest in reducing their salt intake in recent years, and some restaurant chains have pledged to cut back on salt use, there is still not enough progress to make a noticeable difference. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer advocacy group, too many food outlets are making it hard for their patrons to identify how much sodium they are getting with their meals. Items that don’t even taste salty can nevertheless have sodium levels that exceed recommended limits.

Eating out on a regular basis makes it difficult for people to control their salt intake because they don’t know how the food was prepared. And many fast food and fast-casual restaurants don’t monitor the quality of their ingredients, since they often only assemble their meals instead of making them from scratch. So it’s hard to make special requests for less salt use in these places, explains Sarah Krieger, a registered dietitian, professional chef, and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

Still, patrons should be able to ask questions and navigate around the worst pitfalls, she says.

Preferably patronize locally owned eateries where the food is mostly cooked to order. Avoid dressings, toppings, and sauces as much as possible, and stick to whole food items like fresh vegetable dishes and fruits, and go easy on cheese platters and desserts, she advises.

Of course, none of this will give you the kind of control you have in your own kitchen, but a little bit of awareness and caution when eating out can be a good first step.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Look Back Once in a While – With Gratitude

April 9th, 2015 at 1:35 pm by timigustafson
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All therapy is about change. Whether someone seeks professional advice or follows a self-help program, the underlying assumption is always that something is wrong and needs fixing. In my line of work, as a health counselor, it’s usually about diet, exercise, stress management, sleep, etc. that could be improved upon.

But when I find myself coaching clients how to overcome their shortcomings, I often wonder why there is so little attention being paid to what is right and works well in their lives already. Shouldn’t we all be encouraged to draw more often from our strengths rather than constantly be reminded of our weaknesses? Isn’t there anything that’s good enough to learn from and build on? Why not look back on occasion and appreciate what we have already accomplished and what we have been successful at?

Questions like these, of course, go to the heart of what has become known as the power of positive thinking, or positive psychology, and its potential influence on health outcomes, both physical and mental. The very idea that looking at life with a greater sense of optimism, appreciation, and gratitude could enhance a person’s well-being in multiple ways has become increasingly accepted among health experts, and was widely popularized by the work of psychologists like Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of CaliforniaDavis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami who both have done extensive research on the subject.

In their combined research, they found that evoking feelings of gratitude can help people develop other positive emotions that, in turn, can be instrumental in their dealings with issues like weight control, stress management, or relational problems.

Another leader in the field of positive psychology, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, successfully pioneered many psychological intervention methods to treat patients with clinical depression.

In tests conducted by Emmons and McCullough, participants who were asked to focus on their daily misgivings and irritations fared much worse in terms of overall well-being than their counterparts who directed their attention mostly on pleasant experiences. The differences were not just of emotional nature but extended demonstratively to physical symptoms and conditions as well.

Cultivating a grateful and appreciative attitude can be advantageous in almost any situation. People with a positive disposition tend to cope more efficiently and constructively with life’s daily challenges. It’s like they are getting a boost from a source deep within that gives them greater strength and resilience.

Not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to take good care of their physical health and wellbeing, says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do” (William Morrow, 2014). They are motivated to maintain a health lifestyle and get regular medical check-ups because they value themselves, she says.

The fact is that it doesn’t really take great efforts to reach the point where a positive outlook becomes natural. Simply ask yourself a few questions by the end of your day, suggests Lindsay Holmes who writes for Huffington Post’s “GPS for the Soul” – e.g. What did I learn today? How do I feel about what happened or did not happen? What can I do better tomorrow? Where am I in my pursuit of my goals? Be encouraged about your advances, and forgiving with your setbacks. Making this a habit will not only foster a generally more optimistic perspective but also lead to greater success and fulfillment in the long run.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Growing Inequality in Health and Life Expectancy Between Nations

April 4th, 2015 at 3:57 pm by timigustafson
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April 7 is World Health Day, an annual event sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) to promote greater awareness of global health issues. Conferences and activities all over the world address diverse topics like life expectancy, infant mortality, spread of diseases, access to clean drinking water, healthcare infrastructure, to mention a few. This year’s main focus is on the growing threat of foodborne illnesses.

Life expectancy, in particular, has long been considered a leading indicator for progress or decline of public health, and many changes have taken place in this regard over time. However, the gap between the richest and poorest parts of the world in terms of health status and longevity remains wide and may not significantly narrow in the foreseeable future. For example, most African populations still fall many years short behind their European and North American counterparts.

An outlier turns out to be Qatar, which is now rated the healthiest country in the world, followed by Norway and Switzerland. Why Qatar? Although this relatively small country with a population of just over 2 million has no national healthcare system, easy and affordable access to medical services seems one of the distinguishing factors. With more than three physicians per 1,000 people, the country is better staffed with healthcare professionals than most others. By comparison, the United States has less than two and a half doctors per 1000 inhabitants, while Canada has about two.

Yet, the US is well known for having the highest medical expenditures in the world. According to Forbes, the annual per capita spending on healthcare here is well over $8,000. Canada spends a bit more than half as much.

What do Americans get in return for that kind of money? Unfortunately, a lot less than one would expect. Among 10 of the most developed countries, the US comes in dead last, behind Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and most European nations.

The most striking deficiencies are related to a convoluted healthcare system that is less efficient and less affordable for large parts of the population.

Inequality is a particularly pressing problem. According to the report on healthcare spending and based on data by the WHO, the US ranks clearly last on measures of equal access to healthcare.

“Americans with below-average incomes were much more likely than their counterparts in other countries to report not visiting a physician when sick; not getting a recommended test, treatment, or follow-up care; or not filling a prescription or skipping doses when needed because of costs. On each of these indicators, one third or more lower-income adults in the US said they went without needed care because of costs,” it said in the report.

By contrast, Canada was generally lauded for its universal healthcare system but also faulted for its high costs as well as timeliness and efficiency of care. High marks were given to Australia for quality and cost efficiency.

To turn things around, WHO experts recommend that policymakers in the respective healthcare systems combat first today’s fastest spreading health threats like lifestyle-related chronic diseases, a.k.a. non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cancer, heart disease, and lung disease, largely through preventive measures like reducing tobacco use and dietary improvements.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Social Isolation Is Becoming an Epidemic Health Threat, Experts Warn

March 25th, 2015 at 11:50 am by timigustafson
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Lack of social connections can be as harmful to people’s well-being as suffering from diseases, stress, or poverty, and can even reduce life expectancy. Loneliness and isolation are not only on the rise among the elderly but growing parts of the general population as well. Paradoxically, neither the Internet nor social media – designed to promote communication and connectedness – seem to be able to mitigate these trends, according to several recent studies on the importance of social interactions for good health.

Based on data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, well over a quarter of all households in North America today consist of just one person.

Surveys by the PEW Research Center and others show large-scale shifts away from traditional settings like neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and public spaces that have long functioned as the dominant social networks. Some of this may contribute to both physical and mental health problems not recognized in this context before.

One study from Brigham Young University in Utah that analyzed millions of single-persons households in terms of health and lifespan found that those living on their own had an increased risk of dying prematurely of up to 32 percent over their counterparts who enjoyed a rich social life. The health threats of social disconnectedness are said to be comparable to those of obesity, smoking, or chronic stress.

Several other studies detected that feelings of loneliness and separation can raise stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn can lead to stroke and heart attack.

Mental health issues like age-related memory loss and dementia may also be exacerbated through social isolation and lack of interpersonal stimulation.

Despite our extensive communication infrastructure, we are now seeing the highest rates of people living alone and oftentimes more disconnected from their social environments than perhaps ever before, the Brigham Young researchers say.

Some experts argue that innovations like the Internet and social media are in fact partly responsible for the gradual disappearance of personal interactions. A study from Stanford University stipulates that the technological developments over the past decades may have improved our quality of life in many ways but also led to less desirable changes in our social behavior.

There are fewer and fewer interactions that require face-to-face contact, both for work and daily living, says Norman H. Nie, a professor of political science at the Stanford Institute for Quantitative Study of Society (SIQSS) that conducted the study.

“The world is more connected than ever before, but people spend less time in person with those they care about. With regards to social interactions, quantity has replaced quality,” Nie warns.

With single people under the age of 65 representing the fastest growing household type and the dramatic changes in the ways we work and communicate with one another, it is imperative that we invent better social environments than those many of our contemporaries are currently finding themselves in, the Stanford study suggests.

While they are very real, the effects of loneliness are hard to gauge, though. People are hesitant to admit they need greater interaction with others, writes Jessica Olien of Slate magazine in an article on the subject.

“In a society that judges you based on how expansive your social networks appear, loneliness is difficult to fess up to. It feels shameful,” she explains.

But, she says, “in terms of human interactions, the number of people we know is not the best measure. In order to be socially satisfied, we don’t need all that many people. […] The key is in the quality, not the quantity of those people. We just need several on whom we can depend and who depend on us in return.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

No Need for Weight Gain When You’re Away from Home

March 16th, 2015 at 3:30 pm by timigustafson
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It’s almost a foregone conclusion. Travel – for business or pleasure – likely results in unwanted weight gain, and not much can be done to avoid it.

True, once you venture outside your own kitchen, it gets harder to make optimally healthy choices, and who wants to constantly think about diet restrictions anyway, especially on vacation.

So, shall we just accept the inevitable and try to undo the damage after returning home, or is there a better way to stay on track regardless of the circumstances? I believe the latter is possible and deserves to be pursued.

Maintaining your weight is a realistic goal during your getaways, whether it’s work- or vacation-related, says Dawn Jackson-Blatner, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and author of “The Flexitarian Diet” (McGraw-Hill, 2009).

While traveling may not be the best time to begin a weight loss regimen, it doesn’t mean your good intentions and otherwise reasonably sound eating habits have to fall completely by the wayside the moment you leave home.

When you are on the road, you probably eat out a lot. But besides dining at restaurants, you can find other ways to exercise at least a bit of control over your eating pattern – for example by going to a grocery store and bringing your food back to your hotel room where you can keep items in the fridge or even cook small meals from scratch, if a small kitchen or microwave is available.

Being prepared often makes all the difference, says Kathleen M. Zelman of WebMD.

Whenever you travel, whether by plane, train, or automobile, bring a few healthy edibles along so you won’t have to make do with whatever is available, she recommends. Don’t wait until you become too ravenous, only to fall victim to the next temptation that comes your way, like fast food or snacks out of a vending machine.

Instead, make sure you eat a healthy breakfast that carries you through the day until you have a chance to eat a proper meal. For ‘in-between’ eating occasions, keep some high-quality, easy-to-pack foods on hand, such as nuts and dried fruit, to give you a quick boost if your energy level falls too low.

Also remember that even when you can finally relax at your destination, the opportunities to deviate from your regular diet are plentiful. Excuses like “It’s happy hour,” or, “I’m on vacation,” easily lead to the assumption that, at least for the time being, anything goes.

Vacations are there to re-energize and refresh you, not to take a break from your health, says Zelman. Use the time when there are no demanding work schedules to fit in more health- and fitness-promoting activities than you normally can, she suggests.

For instance, you may want to stay at hotels that offer lots of facilities for exercise like well-equipped gyms, swimming pools, tennis courts, etc. Patronize only restaurants that accommodate your particular dietary needs and allow for modifications of ingredients and cooking techniques. Don’t be shy to ask. Any professionally run kitchen should be able to satisfy reasonable requests of this kind.

The good news is that it has generally become much easier these days to find healthier options where they didn’t exist before. Even cruise ship operators, once notorious enablers of gluttonous behavior, now offer countless wellness programs, including for weight loss, as well as menus designed to keep you from getting off course, but without making you feel deprived and left out of the fun.

If despite your best efforts you realize that you’ve failed in some ways, there is no need to get upset about it. First, find out how much extra weight you’ve actually put on. Perhaps you are just dealing with some minor weight fluctuations due to higher than usual sodium (salt) intake that causes you to retain more water in your body. If you have gained more than that, simply go back to your former eating habits and gradually shed the unwanted pounds.

What you shouldn’t do in your remorse is to aggressively start dieting by restricting your calorie intake too extensively, warns Dr. Mike Roussell, author of “Your Naked Nutrition Guide.” Radical diet changes like these can cause metabolic disturbances and even lead to serious eating disorders long-term, he says.

Of course, how successful you will be in maintaining your diet and fitness routine outside your home depends on many factors, not all of which are controllable or foreseeable. But the better prepared and the more proactive you are, the better you will fare, leaving you only with happy memories about your trips.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

In the Fight Against Obesity, the Odds Are Stacked Higher Than Ever, Experts Say

March 3rd, 2015 at 4:18 pm by timigustafson
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By the end of this decade, diseases stemming from poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle choices will top all other causes of death worldwide. At the same time, there are no effective policies in place to tackle the most pressing problems such as the obesity epidemic and other so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs) that are now affecting billions of people around the globe. Even in developed countries, these challenges are not yet fully understood and are not met with the necessary countermeasures to prevent further deterioration, experts say.

One study that analyzed the eating habits of nearly 4.5 billion people in 187 countries found a steadily rising popularity of the “Western diet” – which is dominated by highly caloric, processed foods and sugary drinks – in many parts of the world over the past few decades.

Ironically, the wealthiest regions like Northern America, Western Europe, and Australia have the lowest-quality nutrition standards despite of significant efforts to better educate their populations about diet and health matters.

Global progress in the fight against obesity and nutrition- and lifestyle-related illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer has been “unacceptably slow,” according to a series of reports in the medical journal The Lancet.

The reasons are multifaceted and not always easily identifiable, experts concede. But it seems clear that the odds against our ability to turn these developments around are almost insurmountably high.

“Today’s food environments exploit people’s biological, psychological, social, and economic vulnerabilities, making it easier for them to eat unhealthy foods. This reinforces preferences and demands for foods of poor nutritional quality, furthering the unhealthy food environments,” the reports say.

Especially the epidemic spread of childhood obesity is of great concern. Oftentimes, together with overeating comes malnutrition, which leads to stunted growth and other developmental problems in young children and adolescents. Many of these early in life occurring damages persist and worsen during adulthood and are hard to undo even with treatment.

“Our understanding of obesity must be completely reframed if we are to halt and reverse the global epidemic,” says Dr. Christina Roberto, a professor of social and behavioral sciences and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and one of the authors involved in The Lancet series. “It’s time to realize that this vicious cycle of supply and demand for unhealthy foods can be broken with smart food policies by governments alongside joint efforts from industry and civil society to create healthier food systems.”

Unfortunately, we have long ways to go in order to achieve this kind of concerted action, not least because there is no universal agreement on the root causes of the obesity crisis and many other related issues.

Policy and environmental changes by themselves are unlikely to address the multiple problems with obesity we are facing today when even the experts can’t agree on how to treat them, says Dr. William Dietz, director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention Wellness at George Washington University.

“Successful clinical interventions exist, but innovative approaches to delivery of care have only just begun, he wrote in an article also published in The Lancet.

Also, he laments, the medical community is not fully positioned yet to deal effectively with the obesity phenomenon.

“Health professionals are poorly prepared to manage obesity, have biases and unfounded assumptions about obesity, and are inadequately trained in various modalities of obesity treatment.”

All this impairs the quality of care, he says, and if we can’t reach beyond that, we won’t get to the right therapeutic approaches for a long time to come. In the meantime, it’s pretty much every man and woman for him- and herself.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Can Meditation Make You Smarter?

February 25th, 2015 at 10:38 am by timigustafson
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People who meditate regularly over long periods of time in their lives suffer smaller age-related decreases in brain volume than those who don’t, according to a new study on the long-term effects of practices like transcendental meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other relaxation techniques.

Some of the study’s outcomes confirm what prior research has shown, namely that meditating may be helpful for improving one’s concentration, memory, verbal fluency, and creativity. Surprisingly, though, this latest investigation also found that loss of brain volume – especially grey matter – due to aging was less significant in habitual meditators compared to their non-meditating counterparts.

Although most forms of meditation are rooted in religious and spiritual traditions, millions now practice purely for the enhancement of their health and wellbeing, according to statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Health Statistics (NCHS). Most commonly, meditation and other relaxation techniques are thought of as an essential part of stress management.

While not all experts are convinced of the effectiveness of meditation in promoting both mental and physical health, it is by and large accepted that therapeutic measures to induce calmness can be instrumental in easing psychological stresses like anxiety and depression as well as physical pain. Some studies have suggested that symptoms of medical conditions like asthma, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), high blood pressure, and even heart disease and cancer can be better managed with meditation. Also smoking cessation and recovery from alcohol and drug abuse show higher success rates when meditation is included in the process.

Even though the jury may still be out on whether, or to what extent, meditation and other practices of mindfulness can materially alter the brain, it is certain that chronic stress causes real damage. Neuroscientists have long discovered that cortisol, the stress hormone, can indeed create lasting changes to the brain structure and detrimentally affect brain functions. Reducing the impact of stress by engaging in effective countermeasures such as meditation can mitigate at least some of those injuries.

Beginners may find it hard to establish a meditation routine. Not everything works for everyone. While there are many types of exercises, all recommend the following:

First, find a time and place where you won’t be interrupted or distracted. Second, choose a style that makes you most comfortable. You may prefer to sit, lay down, move, or walk. Third, choose a focal point that is easier for you to maintain such as a particular word, object, or sensation like your breathing. Fourth, keep an open mind towards all that happens during your session. Let inevitable distractions and loss of focus pass. Do not judge or allow yourself to be discouraged. Fifth, do not measure your progress in terms of what you can achieve by outside standards. This is something you do only for your own benefit and your personal growth.

Regardless whether you turn out smarter or not, it will be worth the effort if it makes you feel better, calmer, happier, and lets you enjoy life. What could be more important?

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Going Gluten-Free by Choice Is Not Always a Good Idea

February 18th, 2015 at 12:51 pm by timigustafson
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There are plenty of people who must avoid gluten for health reasons. But there are also many who only follow a gluten-free diet because that’s the message they are given in the media, from daytime TV shows to celebrity endorsements.

The rapidly growing popularity of wheat-free and gluten-free food products over the past few years is not necessarily an indication that an ever-larger part of the population is actually suffering from food sensitivities like celiac disease, wheat allergies, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It just means that there is now a greater awareness that such intolerances indeed exist and that diet restrictions can be helpful in easing the symptoms.

People with celiac disease have an adverse reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains. If you carry the disease and eat gluten, it will trigger an autoimmune response that inflames and damages the lining of your small intestine, which can make it harder to absorb nutrients and potentially lead to nutritional deficiencies, osteoporosis, and even cancer, says Dr. Sue Shepherd, who teaches dietetics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, and who has developed a line of gluten-free foods.

A strict gluten-free diet is the only recognized treatment for celiac disease at this point. Even in the absence of obvious symptoms, sufferers from the disease must adhere to the required dietary restrictions for life, she says.

There are also other intolerances based on allergies to a protein in grains such as wheat that is not gluten, she adds, some of which are developed at a young age. Abdominal pain, distension, constipation, diarrhea, or excessive gas can be caused by an inability to break down a group of naturally occurring sugars called FODMAPS (fermentable oligo-, di- and mono-saccharides, and polyols), she explains. A low FODMAP diet can provide relief, but it is important to consult with your physician first, she says, before you change your diet, since the symptoms can be similar to other sensitivities.

Also, celiac disease and IBS can be difficult to diagnose because they affect individuals differently, showing severe symptoms in some, or none at all in others.

What’s important to know for those who decide to cut back on grain-based foods or take up a gluten-free diet regimen by choice, not by necessity, is that grains, especially whole grains, provide a host of essential nutrients that the body shouldn’t be deprived of.

A recent study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health found that eating more whole grains can decrease the risk of death, particularly from heart disease, by 15 percent. Much of the benefits come from the bran, the fibrous coating that is unfortunately removed by food manufacturers in the processing and refining of wheat and rice. Higher bran intake alone was linked in the study with up to 20 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

People are mistaken if they think of a gluten-free, wheat-free diet as healthy eating, warns Dr. Shepherd. Many food items that happen to be free of gluten are nutritionally deficient, and people who observe these diet restrictions lack some of the most essential nutrients, including fiber, folate, vitamin A, magnesium, calcium, and iron.

So if you choose to eliminate certain foods or food groups for whatever reason, it matters greatly that you still diversify your diet as much as possible to make up for the losses you inevitably incur.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Even the Health-Conscious Prefer the Fast Lane

February 11th, 2015 at 2:48 pm by timigustafson
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Fast food seems to be losing its grip on America’s eating culture. The industry’s behemoth, McDonald’s, is struggling with reportedly significant drops in profits, leading to the recent resignation of its top executive. The reason? It’s called the “Chipotle effect.”

Chipotle, the Mexican restaurant chain, has come to define the category of what is now called “fast casual,” an industry section between fast food and full-service casual dining. Since the late 1990s, it has grown by over 500 percent, ten times as much as its fast food competitors during the same time period, according to Euromonitor International, a leading consumer research firm.

What makes fast casual so attractive? Price, for one thing. Average prices per meal range from $9 to $13, roughly twice what one would typically spend at a fast food joint. But there is also the perception of better value in terms of food quality, service, and ambiance. In addition, there are other elements now more predominantly on customers’ minds like transparency of food production and sustainability. Also, flexible offerings and the ability to customize nearly all items on the menu are welcomed.

Especially Millennials, those who came of age around the year 2000, have embraced the fast casual dining idea. They are less inclined to eat junk food because they view it as unhealthy, but they still expect quick service and affordable prices, according to surveys by the NPD Group, a market research company.

The economic downturn beginning in 2007 lead to an uptick in fast casual dining among people who tried to spend less on eating out but were also conscious about their dietary health needs, the researchers say. Companies like Chipotle, Panera, Boston Market, Noodles & Company, and Zoe’s Kitchen all benefited from these trends.

But fast food places like McDonald’s and Wendy’s did not just sit idly watching their customer base diminish, according to CIT, a commercial financing, lending, and insurance firm. Traditional fast food chains now increasingly mimic their new competitors by offering some similar features. For example, McDonald’s recently introduced a “build-your-own-burger” format, and Wendy’s tries to provide a more inviting atmosphere in its restaurants.

“[All this] points to a future in which the quick service food industry looks a lot more like Chipotle and a lot less like, well, McDonald’s,” says Roberto A. Ferdman, a reporter for Wonkblog who covers issues of food and economics.

The question is whether the desire for healthier eating is met by these newly favored outlets, or whether the greater value they claim to offer is merely perceived as such.

When you visit a Chipotle restaurant or go on the company’s website, you can find a vast variety of food choices, many of which can indeed be categorized as healthy. I also applaud their efforts to make nutritional information easily accessible with their nutrition calculator that includes data not only on calorie amounts but also on fat, sodium, and sugar content, all of which are of concern when it comes to fast food.

But still, it is important to remember that all restaurant food is ultimately beyond your control. Even being able to make multiple modifications doesn’t give you the same kind of control over ingredients and cooking techniques you have when preparing meals from scratch at home. For optimal health, this is and remains your best option.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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