Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Nutritional Health Most Valued Among the Young and Affluent

August 13th, 2015 at 12:42 pm by timigustafson
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You would have thought, “the older, the wiser.” But when it comes to diet and lifestyle choices, today’s young people seem to be doing better than any living generation before them. In a survey conducted by Nielsen, an international market research company, it became apparent that consumers in their 20s and early 30s have the greatest interest in the nutritional quality of their food as well as how it is produced and how it impacts the environment.

Asked if they were willing to pay higher prices for quality food like fresh, organic, and minimally processed items, nearly half of Generation Z members (younger than 20 years of age) responded “yes.” By comparison, only about a quarter of Millennials (born after 1980) and Generation X’ers (born between 1965 and 1979) said so.

Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) remain outliers, as they have been known for throughout their lives. They control 70 percent of disposable income and still drive in large measures the growing demand for more health-promoting products, including foods that are functional in preventing age-related decline, according to recent studies.

Changes in people’s relationship to food are taking place not just in the developed world but globally. Concerns over food quality and sustainability of current food production affect consumer behavior also in Asian and South American countries as their citizenry becomes more affluent and better educated. And there is a growing distrust in places where information about domestic products, including foods, has often been found less than trustworthy, according to the Nielsen report.

What is changing everywhere is not only that people are becoming more interested in personal health matters but also how they define what is “healthy,” researchers discover. They are not only concerned about their own wellness but also that of their children and grandchildren as well as the planet they are going to inhabit.

For this matter, it is no coincidence that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has for the first time in its history included studying the environmental impact of food production and consumption in its recommendations.

So, can we hope that in the face of our pandemic obesity crisis, with its barrage of related diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, people will finally alter their diet and lifestyle preferences? Perhaps not yet to the extent that is necessary. But it is already evident that food producers and manufacturers pay close attention to these fledgling trends, as cautious as their responses may seem at this point.

And this is not limited to big companies that dominate the market today. Almost daily new startups in the food and food service industry emerge, building their business model on what they perceive as consumer demands they must meet to survive. Those, of course, will vary time and again. But they all should be embraced as long as they lead in the right direction.

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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).

Body Image Cuts Both Ways for Teenagers, Studies Find

July 30th, 2015 at 2:50 pm by timigustafson
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Satisfaction with one’s physical appearance is at an all-time low among today’s adolescents, and eating disorders are on the rise at an ever-younger age, according to reports by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Much of the blame goes to the media and fashion industry and their standards of beauty and fitness that are nearly impossible to reach for normal mortals.

On the other hand, too many young people don’t take warnings about overweight and obesity seriously enough and underestimate the health risks they will be facing as adults. One recently published study concluded that inaccurate self-perception of body weight among teenagers and young adults often prevents important changes in eating behavior and physical activity.

“Overweight adolescents who do not perceive their weight status properly are less likely to desire weight loss, and are more likely to have a poor diet,” wrote Dr. Jian Zhang, an epidemiologist at Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health, Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, Georgia, and lead author of the study report, in a press release published in the Elsevier journal.

The misperception oftentimes originates with parents who are unaware of or unsure about weight issues concerning their offspring. In fact, one study found that most parents perceived their kids’ weight as “about right,” despite ample evidence to the contrary. And even those who saw a problem believed that it was only a temporary matter that would resolve itself over time.

According to research, people in general derive their norms and ideals from their social environment rather than from set standards. Especially adolescents, who are highly impressionable and vulnerable to peer pressure, tend to measure themselves against their immediate surroundings. If the prevailing message is that only thinness is acceptable, the risk of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia may increase. Likewise, if excess weight is perceived as normal, that message may lead to unhealthy eating habits with their own set of undesirable consequences.

Becoming more conscious of and admitting to existing or developing problems is a necessary first step to adopting behavioral changes for nutritional health as well as successful weight management. It is important to find a good balance from early on. As studies have shown, once the tracks are set, it becomes much harder to implement corrections that produce lasting results later on.

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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).

Hypertension for Beginners

July 18th, 2015 at 1:54 pm by timigustafson
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More than half of people who have hypertension, a.k.a. high blood pressure, don’t know enough about the condition and are unable to control it properly, according to a new survey.

Oftentimes patients don’t even correctly understand the meaning of the word “hypertension,” and think of it more in terms of stress, anxiety, or other psychological disturbance rather than what it actually is, namely a physiological dysfunction that can turn into a chronic disease if untreated, the researchers found.

Many healthcare professionals use the words “hypertension” and “high blood pressure” interchangeably when talking to their patients, which can be confusing for some, said Dr. Barbara Bokhour, a professor of health policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health and co-author of the study report, to Reuters.

Explained in a nutshell, blood pressure is the force exerted by the blood against the walls of blood vessels. It is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). Measuring involves two readings: systolic, indicating the pressure as the heart pumps blood out, and diastolic, the remaining pressure as the heart relaxes and refills with blood.

Normal blood pressure ranges below 120 systolic and 80 diastolic. Readings of 120 to139 systolic or 80 to 89 diastolic are considered “pre-hypertension,” meaning there is a risk of developing hypertension without intervention. Everything above 140 over 90 is categorized as hypertension of various stages, with 180+ over 110+ seen as a medical emergency.

Hypertension can build up for years without ever showing discernable symptoms. But left uncontrolled, it can lead to life-threatening complications like kidney disease and heart disease as well as heart attack and stroke.

Hypertension is a growing worldwide epidemic. The number of people living with the disease has crossed the 1 billion mark in 2008 and is predicted to reach well over 1.5 billion within the next ten years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The causes are seen to a large degree as diet and lifestyle-related, including excessive consumption of salt and alcohol as well as excess weight and lack of physical activity.

Against widely shared assumption, hypertension is not a disease that predominantly occurs with age. Recent studies found that young adults in their 20s and 30s are now increasingly at risk as well, facing complications much sooner than generations before them.

For this reason it is extremely important to keep blood pressure as low as possible, especially in the first half of adult life, said Dr. Joao Lima, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of one such study, ideally even below the recommended limits.

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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).

Lack of Awareness Heightens Diabetes Risk, Study Finds

July 4th, 2015 at 4:58 pm by timigustafson
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Only about 10 percent of people who are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes know about their condition, which makes it hard to take proactive measures while there is still time to prevent the full-blown disease, according to a new study.

Lack of awareness keeps a vast part of the population with elevated blood sugar that is not yet diabetic but can lead to worsening outcomes from making important lifestyle changes, such as cutting back on sodas and sugary foods as well as losing weight and getting more exercise, says Dr. Anjali Gopalan of the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, the lead author of the study.

“People with pre-diabetes who lose a modest amount of weight and increase their physical activity are less likely to develop diabetes. Our study importantly shows that individuals with pre-diabetes who were aware of this diagnosis were more likely to engage in some of these effective and recommended healthy lifestyle changes,” she told Reuters.

The prevalence of type 2 diabetes has dramatically increased in recent years and is estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to affect now about 9 percent of the adult world population. It has become the seventh leading cause of death.

Once considered a disease of older adults, it is fast spreading among children and adolescents, primarily in the developed parts of the world like North America and Europe, but also increasingly elsewhere.

Pre-diabetes is considered a precursor to diabetes, a chronic disease that occurs when the pancreas does not produce sufficient amounts of insulin or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it is provided with. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar. Hyperglycaemia, or elevated blood sugar, is a common result of uncontrolled diabetes that can lead to irreversible harm, including to the nerves and blood vessels.

Although the causes of pre-diabetes and diabetes are well known, there is still much confusion and myth creation among the public that make it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

It is important to understand that diabetes comes mainly in two forms: type 1, which is caused by genetics and perhaps some other factors that are not yet fully understood; and type 2 diabetes, where genetic makeup can also play a role, but which is more often connected to diet and lifestyle.

The latter can usually be prevented or at least controlled through weight management, healthy eating and regular exercise as well as medication where necessary.

Unfortunately, pre-diabetes has no specific signs or symptoms, which makes timely detection so much harder. However, increased thirst, frequent urination, fatigue, and problems with vision can be red flags and should be brought to a doctor’s attention.

Experts recommend that especially people who are overweight, have a family history of type 2 diabetes, suffer from high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol, are over the age of 45, or belong to certain ethnic groups should be tested for pre-diabetes as part of their regular physical, regardless of symptoms.

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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).

Don’t Grow Old Sick, Experts Warn Baby Boomers

June 17th, 2015 at 11:57 am by timigustafson
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As more and more members of the Baby Boomer generation – those born between 1946 and 1964, about 75 million in all – enter retirement age and move from commercial healthcare plans to Medicare, the national insurance program for Americans over the age of 65, the question becomes more urgent how the ever-rising medical costs will be absorbed by society.

Roughly three million people will be added annually to the program over the next two decades or so, and it will affect and likely change every part of healthcare as we know it, according to experts.

Cause for concern does not come from these changing demographics per se but rather the fact that Baby Boomers have turned out to be less healthy and less prepared to shoulder (at least part of) their medical expenses by themselves than previously hoped.

Although the average life expectancy has dramatically increased over the last half century, Boomers are not necessarily better off in terms of their health status than those before them. Many have to cope with serious health issues for decades, and the existing medical system is not prepared for such drawn out crises.

Two-thirds of today’s Medicare beneficiaries suffer from multiple chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, kidney disease, and pulmonary problems, according to surveys. The sickest among them, about four million, or 15 percent, account for almost half of the current annual costs of about $324 billion.
Medicare data show that healthcare spending on one person with just one chronic disease amounts to nearly three times that of someone who has no long-terms ailment.

The good news is that much of these expenses could be reduced with diet and lifestyle improvements. Unfortunately, too many Boomers tend to overindulge, and adhere to a predominantly sedentary lifestyle, says Dr. Dana E. King, a family physician and researcher at West Virginia University who has studied chronic conditions among Baby Boomers for many years. Nearly 40 percent are obese, and more than half don’t get any regular exercise at all, he laments.

Also, he says, patients often rely exclusively on medications as their remedy, when in fact the drugs they are taking should be used in conjunction with lifestyle changes.

In one of his studies, involving 15,000 Baby Boomers, Dr. King found that participants who implemented health-promoting diet and lifestyle changes over a period of just four years reduced their risk of dying from a heart attack by an impressive 40 percent.

With better information and greater awareness of the importance of such changes, we could still stave off the otherwise impending crush on the medical system that will surely occur if the chronic diseases these people are now plagued with are not brought under control, he says.

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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).

Noise Pollution, a Widely Underestimated Health Hazard

June 10th, 2015 at 1:44 pm by timigustafson
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You may get a headache, be unable to concentrate, become annoyed over seemingly simple things. Your heart races, you break a sweat, feel anxious and unsettled for no particular reason. And then you realize that it’s just awfully loud where you are. It’s called noise pollution, and it can do serious damage to both your physical and mental well-being.

Some experts have called noise pollution “a modern plague” because it’s ubiquitous and nearly impossible to escape. In their 2007 study, the authors Lisa Goines, RN, a nurse, and Louis Hagler, MD, a physician at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, California, have found that environmental noise is a growing threat on par with water and air pollution that can lead to wide-ranging negative outcomes in public health, especially among the poor, the elderly, and young children.

“Noise produces direct and cumulative adverse effects that impair health and that degrade residential, social, working, and learning environments with corresponding real (economic) and intangible (well-being) losses,” the authors say.

Far from being just another inevitable nuisance in modern-day life, excessive noise can interfere with sleep, concentrated work, communication, and recreation. In many ways, it can be as damaging as exposure to second-hand smoking and other environmental health hazards, and should be treated as such, Goines and Hagler recommend.

As far back as 1971, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued warnings about the impact of environmental disturbances on humans, including increasing noise levels from traffic and industrial activities, and called for regulations.

In its 1999 Guidelines for Community Noise, the organization lists specific risks from excessive noise exposure to hearing, person-to-person communication, sleep, cardiovascular health, mental health, cognitive development in children, task performance, and social behavior.

More recent studies have shown that especially the growing rate of heart disease may be linked, among other factors, to environmental noise. Like other stressors, noise can affect the cardiovascular system by elevating blood pressure and releasing stress hormones such as cortisol.

Tragically, children who grow up in noisy surroundings are especially vulnerable to some of the repercussions. Attention span, learning, problem solving and memory can be severely affected by noise. The cognitive development of young ones can be hindered when homes and schools are located near sources of loud noise such as highways and airports, according to the WHO report and other studies.

Despite the many effects of noise pollution on the public’s health we know about, not much consideration has been given to the issue to date, according to Dr. Richard L. Neitzel, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health in Ann Arbor and co-author of a study on environmental noise pollution and the need for effective public health responses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) first published a set of recommendations for protecting the public from environmental noise in 1974, but its research was discontinued in the 1980s and only recently renewed.

What we need is to raise greater awareness that noise does not only damage people’s hearing but that the potential risks to their well-being are much graver, said Dr. Mathias Basner, a professor of Sleep and Chronobiology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia to Reuters. Installing new windows and insulation at home and protecting one’s hearing from loud noise sources as much as possible can be very effective, but it should not be our only resort, he said. “Noise that is not produced cannot have effects.”

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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).

Creating a Culture of Health and Fitness

May 29th, 2015 at 6:11 pm by timigustafson
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People who live in California spend on average almost 90 minutes per week on running, swimming, bicycling, lifting weights and other measures to stay healthy and fit, which is close to the minimal amount of time recommended by the U.S. government, and more than the residents of all other states seem able to manage, according to data collected by MapMyFitness, a manufacturer of activity tracking software with over 20 million users. Runner-ups are Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

Some of these findings seem unsurprising. California offers good weather conditions for outdoor activities almost all year round, and the other leading states are known for their natural beauty as well. A comparatively high standard of living and an educated populace add to the advantages. And there are other important benefits, such as a health-promoting infrastructure that includes sidewalks, bike paths, public pools and other spaces for recreation, which are not as ubiquitous elsewhere.

None of this, however, can fully explain the sometimes dramatic differences within the country in terms of public health and fitness. While personal wellness depends on multiple factors that can be hard to calculate, it is clear that besides geographic diversity, culture also plays a role.

Much has been reported about the ‘über-generous’ perks the employees of giant tech companies like Google and Microsoft (headquartered in California and Washington respectively) receive, including cafeterias stocked with health food for free, state-of-the-art gyms on campus, all-inclusive healthcare plans, and more. But an ever-increasing number of mid-size and small businesses also realize how imperative it is, including for their own bottom line, to invest in the well-being of their staff – so much so that corporate wellness has become a multi-billion industry in and of itself.

Ideally, corporate health and fitness programs continue to influence people’s behavior outside the workplace as well. Studies have shown that once workers buy into a culture that emphasizes wellness, they stand a much better chance of succeeding long-term on their own.

Company policies work best when those whom they are designed for participate freely, not because they feel they are expected to but because they recognize the benefits they are reaping for themselves. Prying, prodding or punishing only gets you so far, says Al Lewis, a lawyer and consultant on issues of workplace wellness. He is critical of programs he considers unreasonably intrusive in people’s private affairs. Under federal law participation in all employer-sponsored wellness plans must be voluntary and non-discriminatory.

Still, nurturing a culture that favors healthy over unhealthy behavior can serve as an effective tool for the prevention of many illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Prevention should be woven into all aspects of our lives, including where and how we live, learn, work, and play,” the agency states in its recommendations, titled National Prevention Strategy. “Everyone – businesses, educators, health care institutions, government, communities, and every single American – has a role in creating a healthier nation.”

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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).

Independent Living Considered a Top Priority Among Seniors

May 22nd, 2015 at 2:32 pm by timigustafson
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Every day, roughly 10,000 members of the Baby Boomer generation – those born between 1946 and 1964 – reach the official retirement age of 65. Many will continue to enjoy a high level of physical and mental health and be better off in multiple aspects than preceding generations. But a growing number will suffer from steep decline and be plagued by debilitating illnesses, some of which could have been prevented in time.

One of the most dramatic consequences of age-related deterioration is loss of independence, and it is more feared by seniors than almost any other outcome. For many, even an untimely death seems preferable to becoming beholden to others, according to surveys.

Not only do most older adults not want to become a burden to their loved ones, nearly all – 90 percent of respondents to polls – plan to live out their days in their own homes instead of entering a retirement facility.

“Aging in place,” as it is now widely called, is particularly popular among seniors who cherish the lifestyle they have become accustomed to and wish to maintain for as long as possible. Besides staying indefinitely within one’s four walls, it also includes being able to move around safely in neighborhoods and communities as well as having access to vital resources such as food outlets, public transportation, day-to-day services, places of entertainment, etc.

The concept has also given birth to a fast-growing industry that caters to these exact needs and desires. According to a new report by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, an advocacy group with focus on community building, eliminating obstacles and breaking down barriers that tend to isolate older citizens are important first steps for an aging population’s ongoing participating in communal life. Efforts to make urban and suburban surroundings more senior-friendly – for example by facilitating greater walkability – can benefit members of all ages and should therefore be universally embraced, the report suggests.

On the other hand, as critics have pointed out, staying put for as long as possible may not always be the best option. The prospect of ending up in an assisted-living establishment, separated from loved ones and surrounded by strangers, is so repulsive to some people that they would rather rot away in their own place before accepting much-needed help, says Dr. Steven M. Golant, a professor of gerontology at the University of Florida.

Despite their advanced age, older people tend to overestimate their strength and ability to cope with everyday challenges on their own. Some of it may have to do with the messages we receive in the media about aging and how much better we all fare compared to our forbearers. It makes some folks feel close to invincible when that is definitely not the case.

The whole “aging-in-place” model is probably being oversold, Dr. Golant argues. It may be a profitable idea for home healthcare providers, builders specializing in home modifications for senior residents, financial institutions offering reverse mortgages, etc. But it is not a one-fits all solution for an aging generation.

“There are many downsides to the aging-in-place experience,” he adds. “Obviously there’s a good side. […] But older people are a really diverse lot. Their ability to count on family members is very variable. Their ability to cope with their declines and their losses in health and people is very variable. So to suggest indiscriminately that aging in place is good for everyone is an irresponsible position to take.”

On the upside, one might add, it is also welcome news that living independently at any age has become easier in many ways, including through technological innovations and improved services. As everyone else, today’s seniors have countless opportunities to stay connected and get assistance if needed. Food can be ordered online, as can transportation and most other services. All this can secure a large degree of independence. What it cannot do is to overcome loneliness and isolation, which unfortunately are also part of aging for so many…

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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).

Facing the Facts of Childhood Obesity

May 13th, 2015 at 3:13 pm by timigustafson
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As childhood obesity rates continue to rise worldwide, we are now approaching the level of a major public health crisis. While that is common knowledge among experts, the alarming news doesn’t seem to reach millions upon millions of parents who keep overfeeding their offspring with unhealthy meals and fattening treats. In fact, many of those whose children have been diagnosed as overweight or obese insist that there is nothing wrong with a little chubbiness at a young age.

A recent study published in the medical journal Childhood Obesity found that most parents perceived their kids’ weight as “about right,” even when there was ample evidence to the contrary.

For the study, which was conducted by the New York University Langone Medical Center, researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a project of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), involving thousands of children between 1988 and 1994, and again between 2007 and 2012.

According to the findings, 95 to 97 percent of parents of overweight boys, and 88 to 93 percent of parents of overweight girls thought their kids were within a normal weight range. And although many children in the later study were significantly heavier than in the earlier one, the parental perception did not noticeably change.

The study results are of particular concern because eating habits tend to form early in life and parents have the greatest influence on young children’s eating behavior. But when parents adhere to poor diets themselves or are ignorant about the nutritional needs of their little ones, the consequences can be dire. Eating disorders that develop during childhood can lead to a number of diet-related diseases, which can continue and potentially worsen in adolescence and adulthood.

One of the problems we’re facing is that many parents compare their own children to other kids in deciding whether they are overweight, instead of consulting with pediatricians or using science-backed growth charts. They rather look to neighbors and peers as the standard, according to Dustin Duncan, ScD, an assistant professor at the Department of Population Health at NYU School of Medicine and lead author of the study report.

Another issue is that children with weight problems often find themselves stigmatized, which makes it even harder to address those constructively. Parents will be hesitant to add to the embarrassment young ones already feel by signaling their disapproval, explains David L. Katz, MD, the director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center and editor-in-chief of the Childhood Obesity journal. Oftentimes, this results in parents ignoring the long-term consequences before it’s too late.

The best approach to fighting childhood obesity, experts say, is educating the adults in the household. They are supposed to decide what kinds of food are purchased, what portion sizes are served, and how many meals and snacks are made available throughout the day. If they lead by example, their youngsters will follow suit – and everyone will benefit.

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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).

Lessons in Positive Thinking

May 9th, 2015 at 3:13 pm by timigustafson
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For most of my career as a dietitian and health counselor I have paid much attention to the deficiencies in my clients’ diet and lifestyle choices and how these could be changed for the better. Over the years, however, I began focusing more on what went right in their lives and how their strengths could be utilized in order to overcome their weaknesses. You may say I applied (unknowingly) what is now known as “positive psychology.”

When I say, “what went right in their lives,” I do not necessarily mean whether they were successful at their work, were financially secure, or had stable marriages and relationships – although these may be important aspects as well – but rather, on a more intimate level, whether they had a sense of self-esteem, fulfillment, gratitude, purpose, and looked optimistically to the future.

This is in fact what practitioners of positive psychology are also most interested in. Their goal is to overcome existing negative thinking styles, mainly by fostering positive ones. They try to achieve this by having their clients recall pleasant past experiences, build on advantageous traits and characteristics, cultivate supportive relationships, and so forth. The desired end result is what proponents call “living the good life,” which, again, is not simply to be equated with material wealth.

The “good life” is happy, engaged, and meaningful. To realize it, one must mobilize inherent strengths, thereby increasing positive emotions while decreasing negative ones, according to Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several best-selling self-help books who is widely credited as one of the founders and early developers of positive psychology as its own academic branch.

Traditional psychology has almost always been concerned with mental and emotional disorders and malfunctions and ways to treat them, he explains. By contrast, positive psychology adds an important emphasis on the human potential for building and maintaining highly functional and constructive lives.

A number of distinct theories have entered this relatively new field lately. Some focus on basic emotions like joy and happiness, others on the human capacity to create purpose and meaning. The ability to blissfully immerse oneself in one’s work, to flourish while encountering challenges, or to stay resilient in the face of adversity – these are all elements that can contribute to a person’s well-being and are worthy of further exploration.

And the positive effects are not limited to the mind but benefit the body as well. Plenty of research has already shown that a positive attitude can be enormously advantageous for good health, and even longevity. One study from the Netherlands found that heart disease patients who maintained a generally optimistic outlook were able to slow down the progress of their illness and extend their life expectancy by several years.

Of course, the reason why some people continue to thrive while others quickly succumb in similar situations is still a mystery. However, clearly distinguishable ways of thinking seem to make at least some difference that can determine outcomes.

And no doubt, in my own work as a health counselor, I have also reaped the benefits from seeing the glass more often as half-full than half-empty. And because optimism tends to be contagious, there lies some healing power for my clients in that, too.

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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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