Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Too Little Sun Exposure Now Found to Be a Health Risk

July 20th, 2014 at 3:33 pm by timigustafson
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For many years, we have been told to avoid prolonged exposure to the sun because of health risks like sunburn and, more seriously, skin cancer. Now a new study found that getting too little sun can cause problems as well. According to recent research, women who consistently avoided direct sunlight had a greater mortality risk from all causes, including skin cancer, than their counterparts with higher sun exposure.

Sunlight is the main source of vitamin D. Deficiencies in this vitamin are linked to multiple health threats, among them cardiovascular disease and aggressive types of skin cancer, the scientists involved in the study said.

The findings, which were published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, run contrary to recommendations by most experts. Excessive sun exposure is a known cause of skin cancer, which is now the most common form of all cancers, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urge people to take preventive measures such as wearing protective clothing and sunscreen to avoid skin damage at all times.

While the authors of this latest study acknowledge the importance of protecting the skin, they say that the established guidelines may be too restrictive, especially in regions of the northern hemisphere where sunshine is limited. In populations living in these areas, there is epidemiological evidence that all-cause mortality is related to low vitamin D levels, the researchers concluded.

For the study, nearly 30,000 Swedish women, ages 25 to 64, were recruited from 1990 for a 20-year follow-up period where their sun exposure habits were recorded and analyzed in connection with their overall health. At the end of the study, 2545 participants had died.

“We have found that all-cause mortality was inversely related to sun exposure habits,” wrote Pelle G. Linqvist, a researcher at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Cintec, Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden, and lead author of the study report. “The mortality rate amongst avoiders of sun exposure was approximately twofold higher compared with the highest sun exposure group. […] Following sun exposure advice that is very restrictive in countries with low solar intensity might in fact be harmful to women’s health,” she added.

The caveat here is that the study only involved women from Sweden who were presumably of light skin color. The amount of sun exposure each individual received was self-reported, and no blood samples for the determination of vitamin D levels, or information about the use of vitamin D supplements were collected.

Other experts have suggested that the importance of sun exposure as a vitamin D source has diminished due to fortification of many foods we consume today, including dairy products. Also, using supplements can make up for some deficiencies that may result from staying indoors or living in places with fewer sunny days.

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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).

How to Make the Most of Your Vacation

July 15th, 2014 at 6:32 pm by timigustafson
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According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans do not only work longer and take less time off than Europeans, and as of late, even the Japanese, they also seem unable to reap the benefits of their holidays as much in terms of recreation and rejuvenation. Studies show that the effects of taking breaks from work can vary dramatically based on how workers choose to unwind.

Perhaps because most people get no or only short periods of paid vacations here, they tend to fill their getaways with as many activities and experiences as possible. Others indulge in what they deem to be the exact opposite of work by doing literally nothing. Neither approach is likely to serve well the primary purpose of vacationing, which is to return refreshed and recovered from one’s daily wear and tear.

“Relaxation and vacation aren’t merely the opposite of work. They are engaging, vital parts of your life that deserve happy thought and careful attention,” says Jan Bruce, CEO and founder of meQuilibrium who writes about issues of stress in the workplace. “If you think of vacation as a big blank, that’s what you’ll get.”

It is of great importance to incorporate relaxation into daily life, not only during holidays but as an integral part of one’s lifestyle, she says. After all, how your vacation unfolds is heavily influenced by your mindset. If adventure or playing sports recharges your batteries best, go for it – if lounging by the pool does the trick, by all means lounge on. The point is to get in the right spirit or mental shape that makes a vacation satisfying and successful, she advises.

Done wrong, going on vacation can cause more stress than it alleviates, according to the findings of a study from the Netherlands.

Most vacations seem to have strong but rather short-lived effects on people’s health and wellbeing, says Jessica de Bloom, a researcher in behavioral psychology at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and lead author of the study. Still, positive experiences associated with vacationing like pleasure, relaxation, savoring, and control over one’s time appear to be especially important for the strength and persistence of vacation after-effects, she says.

Not surprisingly, the length of a vacation also makes a difference. Taking time off for two to four weeks – more common in European countries than here – showed greater benefits in terms of recovery from work-related stress than shorter breaks, according to the study. Among the study participants, those benefits peaked around the eighth vacation day and then decreased gradually towards the end of their holiday.

The researchers also looked into the sleep patterns of vacationers. Getting a minimum of eight hours sleep during vacation is strongly recommended, they say, because sleep is an essential part of the recovery process, especially for workers who are chronically sleep-deprived. The effects of getting more rest have also been shown to last beyond the vacation period, which further underlines its importance.

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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).

Foodborne Illnesses Keep Rising, Government Report Finds

July 9th, 2014 at 11:15 am by timigustafson
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Summer is the time for picnics, barbecues and outdoor cooking. Unfortunately, it is also a time when more people fall ill from food poisoning due to warm temperatures and unsafe storing and handling of perishable foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some foodborne illnesses have increased by 75 percent since the agency conducted its last survey less than a decade ago.

The CDC estimates that every year about one in six Americans (or 48 million) get sick from eating spoiled food items; 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from food-related diseases. Children and the elderly are most vulnerable.

While the number of salmonella cases, the most common foodborne illness, has actually slightly dropped in recent years, vibrio infections or vibriosis from uncooked seafood like raw oysters and sushi have become much more widespread, possibly due to the growing popularity of these fares.

Attributing any illness to certain foods is complicated, experts say, simply because there are thousands of different edibles we consume in many varieties and combinations even in a single meal. Therefore, in most cases, it is difficult if not impossible to identify what particular food is responsible for someone to get sick, says the CDC.

However, individual food items can be categorized in different groups, which can help investigate the origins of outbreaks, alert consumers, and draft better food safety regulations, according to the agency. For this, it has developed a list of 17 categories, also called commodities, based on the nature of the food source in question. In every outbreak analysis, scientists try to determine in hierarchical order whether the source came from livestock or livestock products, seafood, or plant-foods.

The best approach to limiting food poisoning occurrences, of course, is prevention through careful storage and handling. The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends that people thoroughly wash their hands before and after touching food, especially raw animal products like meat, fish, and poultry. The same goes for the utensils and cooking ware that are used to prepare them.

Proper refrigeration of perishable foods – such as all uncooked or undercooked meat and seafood as well as eggs and dairy products – is equally as important. Leaving these items exposed to warm temperatures for too long, whether on route from the grocery store or during preparations, can cause spoilage that may not be immediately noticeable but can still have negative consequences. Experts recommend never to consume foods you are not certain about in terms of freshness or time of expiration. Do not hesitate to discard anything that looks or smells suspicious, or you know has been stored unsafely. Your and your loved ones wellbeing is not worth the risk.

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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 Just Sit and Watch, Go Out and Play

July 4th, 2014 at 4:17 pm by timigustafson
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Whether you are a diehard fan of football – or, as Americans call it, “soccer” – or not so much, it is impossible to escape the World Cup fever that has gripped the globe again this summer. With the competition in full swing, millions spend hours sitting in front of TVs and computer screens, while their teams engage in grueling matches. For the players it may be one of the most physically challenging sport events of any kind, but for the rest of us, it is basically party time for a month.

Even if you discount all the drinking and snacking that typically comes with watching games on television, the fact that people sit for extended periods of time is disconcerting enough, according to studies on the health effects of sitting. Recent research from Spain found that adults who spend three or more hours in front of the tube per day may double their risk of premature death compared to those who watch less.

For their project, the research team followed over 13,000 adults for an average of eight years, studying their physical activity level and sedentary behavior. They found that participants who watched television for an hour or less per day had approximately half the mortality risk of those who watched three hours or longer.

The results took into account diet and lifestyle differences as well as age. It is possible that other factors like existing illnesses played a role in some cases, but it also became clear that prolonged inactivity contributed to increase resistance to insulin, reduced lean muscle mass, and increased body fat.

“These mechanisms are related to a higher risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers, such as colon, rectum, and breast,” said Dr. Miguel Martinez-Gonzales, a researcher at the Department of Public Health at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain, and lead author of the study report, to Reuters.

Other experts on the subject who commented on the study said that these latest findings confirmed prior research that also saw a connection between sedentary behavior and greater mortality risks.

It would be unfortunate if the excitement over major sport events like the World Cup or the Olympic games didn’t trigger more engagement in physical activity, especially among the young. These are occasions when parents could have a better shot at motivating their kids (and themselves) to exercise or just play together.

“One big advantage is that children get to see many sports and athletes in a condensed time frame. It’s the perfect time for parents to encourage their children to consider what [sport] interests them,” said Karen Magnussen, herself a figure skater from Canada who won three World Championship medals and Olympic silver.

Parents should listen and observe how their youngsters react, and support the ambitions they may develop based on what they see in the accomplishments of others, she added.

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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).

Diet for a Healthier Planet

July 2nd, 2014 at 10:34 am by timigustafson
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While the exact causes of climate change continue to be disputed, there is general consensus among scientists that the phenomenon is real and that human activity plays a significant role in it. But surprisingly, it is not only large-scale industrial enterprise or modern-day transportation that has led to the current warming of the earth’s atmosphere but also very personal behavior like the diet and lifestyle choices we all make every day, according to a new study.

One thing that stands out in particular is meat consumption. The production, transportation and storage of animal food products, especially red meat, greatly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, affecting the amount of heat retained by the atmosphere.

The study report, which was published in the journal Climatic Change, found that the carbon footprint of meat eaters can be twice as high as that of strict vegetarians, a.k.a. vegans.

Included in the study’s calculations of greenhouse gas emissions were multiple sources, ranging from the use of farm equipment to methane released by livestock.

Reducing meat consumption in favor of plant-based eating would therefore help mitigate the environmental damage stemming from our dietary preferences, the study concluded.

These findings are not altogether new. Past research on the subject showed similar results. Earlier this year, one study found that annual carbon emissions from global agriculture could be reduced by as much as 90 percent by 2030, the equivalent of removing all cars in the world, based on data gathered by two environmental advisory groups, Climate Focus and California Environmental Associates.

The study report includes strategies for mitigating the agricultural impact on climate through reduced food waste, improved farming methods, and ensuring greater food security.

The report also found that 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture come from farm animals, in particular from cows, sheep, and other grazing livestock. Much of these emissions could be eliminated if the demand for animal food products like beef, lamb and pork could be lessened, especially in Western countries but also in fast developing places like China.

The United States is currently the world’s biggest consumer of red meat. Public awareness campaigns like “Meatless Monday” that call for eating less meat have made some progress in recent times. Beef consumption per capita has dropped from its peak at nearly 90 pounds in 1976 to under 60 pounds in 2009, according to statistics.

Cutting back on steaks and burgers has similar environmental benefits as using your car less often or air-drying your laundry instead of putting it in a dryer, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
For example, in terms of reducing environmental impact, having just one less burger a week is like driving 320 fewer miles. Skipping meat and cheese one day a week equals not driving for five weeks. If a family of four foregoes eating steak once a week, it’s the equivalent of leaving their car in the garage for three months. And if every American observed just one meatless day per week, it would be the same as taking 7.6 million cars off the road for good. Something worth thinking about, isn’t it?

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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).

Food Industry Works Hard to Improve Its Tarnished Image

June 28th, 2014 at 10:59 am by timigustafson
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Some leading food and beverage companies have announced new measures to improve their industry’s reputation and win back the trust of consumers. For example, advertising of unhealthy junk food to minors is scheduled to be phased out within this decade, and less confusing food labeling is also in the works, according to Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), an international network organization for hundreds of retailers and manufacturers that just held its annual summit in Paris, France.

“The consumer goods industry acknowledges its role in the health and wellness of society, the issues around it, and the imperative need for actions. We have to scale up our efforts. We have to accelerate existing initiatives. We have to engage in multi-stakeholder dialogues and efforts,” said Paul Bulcke, the C.E.O. of Nestle, one of the world’s biggest food and drink manufacturers at the meeting. “We need to show [consumers] we are a responsive and responsible industry, now more than ever,” he added.

Besides working towards greater protection of children and more user-friendly labeling, the CGF also called for the industry to increase awareness of the impact modern food production has on the environment such as greenhouse gas emission and deforestation, and to employ effective countermeasures.

At the center of criticism directed at food companies is, of course, the obesity crisis that keeps worsening around the globe. Processed food products that are high in sugar, salt and fat content are seen as leading causes of health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.

While it would be most desirable if manufacturers made healthier foods – the kinds people used to eat – the problem is that real food isn’t really profitable, said Mark Bittman, a food writer for the New York Times. By processing food, instead of selling it in its natural state, companies are able to “add value,” not necessarily for consumers but for retailers who can warehouse and shelf them almost endlessly. For example, potatoes may rot within weeks, but chips last forever; fresh bread may go stale overnight, but the enriched varieties remain soft almost indefinitely. Unfortunately, extending shelf life and reducing spoilage makes processed foods not only more profitable but also much inferior, if not outright harmful, in terms of their nutritional quality.

It would be naïve to think the industry would be willing to abandon the business practices it so successfully developed over many decades only because the public has become more concerned over health issues in connection with their products.

“Food companies are well aware of the health crisis their products cause, and recognize that the situation is unsustainable,” Bittman said. “But […] as long as even one of the big food companies remains cynical and uncaring about its market, they all must remain so.”

And yet, there are changes happening behind the scenes and put in place without much fanfare, even though they are somewhat revolutionary. For instance, industry giants like Nestle and General Mills have begun reducing sugar content in cereals and beverages without publicly saying so, according to reports by the Wall Street JournalRestaurant chains from Applebee’s to Starbucks include more and more low-calorie options in their menus. And both manufacturers and restaurant operators are making what they call “stealth health” modifications in their recipes, from cookies to fast food favorites, cutting back on salt and fat and finding alternatives to maintain taste.

The companies proceed with these changes gradually and even secretly because they don’t always know how far they can go without loosing customers. Later on, if they succeed in reformulating their products to people’s liking, they then can put out additional health claims, expand their market shares, and polish their image, said Julie Jargon, a food writer for the Wall Street Journal who follows these trends.

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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).

Convenience Is No Longer a Priority in Consumers’ Food Choices

June 25th, 2014 at 11:10 am by timigustafson
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People used to spend as little time as possible on their grocery shopping. Most supermarkets could satisfy whatever nutritional needs a typical family had. But that get-it-all-done-in-one-stop experience may no longer be as important as it once was. Although their daily lives remain as busy as ever, if not more so, today’s consumers increasingly diversify their food sources.

A new study by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an advocacy group for the food retail industry, found that for a growing part of the population, the “primary store” now gives way to any number of smaller specialty places. Also, in many households there is no longer a “primary shopper,” meaning that more than one person makes shopping decisions.

“The grocery industry in the U.S. is undergoing some of the most dramatic changes since supermarkets emerged in the 1940s,” says Hayley Peterson, a retail reporter for Business Insider. “Whereas a single store once served all of shoppers’ food and beverage needs, consumers are now buying groceries across more than a dozen retail channels.”

Why the changes? Obviously, spreading out one’s shopping list over several outlets is less convenient and more time-consuming. To be sure, surveys find that the vast majority of food shoppers still go to traditional supermarkets and supercenters for staples, but they can’t always find the precise mix of value, quality, and private label brands they are looking for, according to market researchers, says Peterson. Especially private label groceries are rapidly gaining in popularity and are projected to grow by over 60 percent to $133 billion in annual sales by 2016, up from $83 billion in 2008.

Private labels can be cheaper, although not reliably, compared to their national brand counterparts, but price is not the only reason for their greater acceptance. Most consumers believe – justifiably or not – that smaller labels offer higher quality and better value, according to one report.

But it’s freshness that is the main driver for consumers in deciding where to shop, says Peterson. People who are suspicious of processed and genetically modified foods and want to know where their food comes from will seek out outlets that make them feel safe with their choices. For this, they are not only willing to pay higher prices, they also go (or drive) the extra mile to get what they want.

“It’s no secret that health and wellness have become key drivers of today’s food culture,” says Maggie Hennessy, a senior correspondent for FoodNavigator-USA in Chicago. “For a growing number of consumers, health is equated with less processed. Indeed, many have become savvy readers of product labels, avoiding foods that contain preservatives, chemicals, long or unpronounceable ingredient lists and artificial sounding ingredients.”

As they face these shifts in consumer demands, food manufacturers and retailers of all sizes would do well to take these trends seriously and respond accordingly.

“By increasing selection of and calling attention to locally sourced products, retailers can leverage the value of fresh foods and quality products to build trust and demonstrate that they understand and match up with consumer values,” Hennessy advises.

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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).

A Healthy Lifestyle Protects Best Against Stroke, Study Finds

June 20th, 2014 at 6:04 pm by timigustafson
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Of course, you knew already that you should eat right, exercise regularly, not smoke, and not drink too much alcohol. Now a new study from Germany found even more evidence that you are well advised to follow these guidelines. In fact, your life could depend on it. Among countless other health benefits, people who maintain a healthy lifestyle have a significantly reduced risk of stroke, the study concluded.

stroke occurs when one of the arteries carrying blood from the heart to the brain is either blocked or bursts. As a result, part of the brain does not get the blood it needs, and starts to die. When this happens, the brain either temporarily or permanently malfunctions, depending on the severity of the damage that has been caused.

While previous studies honed in on individual risk factors for stroke, this one looked at the effects of an overall health-promoting lifestyle. Conversely, by analyzing the combined risks from less health-conducive behavior, a more complete picture emerges of what may actually lead to a stroke and how it could be prevented, the researchers suggested.

After reviewing medical data from nearly 24,000 people, and analyzing each person’s stroke-related risk factors, the researchers found that improving diet and lifestyle choices could significantly lower the number of strokes that occur every year.

“Our combined risk factor analysis indicated that about 38 percent of primary stroke occurrences could have been prevented in our study population if all study participants had maintained the healthiest risk profile,” said Kaja Tikk, an epidemiologist at the Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg, Germany, and lead author of the study report, to Reuters.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 800,000 people suffer a stroke per year in the United States alone.

The most significant contributors to stroke-related risks were found to be smoking and weight problems. Fortunately, these are areas in their lives where people have a great deal of control, said Ms. Tikk. Weight loss and smoking cessation can be done successfully by the individual, and taking such steps has almost immediate benefits.

For instance, while smoking effectively doubles the risk of stroke compared to not smoking, most ex-smokers can return to risk levels similar to lifetime non-smokers after a relatively short period of time.

The same is true for weight loss. Staying within (or returning to) a normal weight range, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly to keep the weight off rank among the best measures for stroke prevention, according to the CDC.

In terms of healthcare, prevention of stroke should be considered a priority. And, as this study shows, it can be achieved by maintaining a healthy lifestyle pattern, Ms. Tikk said.

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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).

Kids Gain More Weight When Out of School, Study Finds

June 18th, 2014 at 11:34 am by timigustafson
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The summer months should be a time when children are especially active, play sports, enjoy the outdoors, and perhaps even eat better because there are more occasions for family dinners. In other words, it should be a time when they are their healthiest. Not so, a new study found. In fact, it is during school vacations that many kids put on extra pounds, according to scientists from Harvard University who took a closer look at the phenomenon.

For their research, they analyzed several studies on weight gain among children ages 5 to 17, and found on average a faster rate of weight increase during vacation times compared to the rest of the school year.

Most vulnerable were youngsters who already struggled with weight issues. Their weight accelerated the fastest while they were out of school.

Obviously, there are no simple answers to why this is happening, said Rebecca Franckle, a doctoral student and research assistant at Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study report, to HealthDay Reporter.

It’s possible that children have more opportunities to be sedentary while they stay at home. Especially kids who live in unsafe neighborhoods may be spending more time watching TV or playing video games. Or perhaps, it’s a lack of structure when they are not having classes and other activities, and they get bored, passing the time with snacking. Lack of supervision in the daytime hours may also play a role.

The researchers noted that weight gain took place more predominantly among poor minority children.

“There may be a trend in increased rate of weight gain during summer school vacation, particularly for high-risk groups, including certain racial/ethnic populations and overweight children and adolescents,” wrote Ms. Franckle in her report.

Although the nutritional quality of school breakfasts and lunches has often been the target of criticism, for many poor children those are the only substantial meals available to them all day. During vacations, that security net is absent. Fast food and snack items are oftentimes the only alternatives, which, of course, is detrimental to their health.

Without greater access to recreational facilities, physical activity programs, and summer food programs, the resulting weight gain may further exacerbate health disparities between poor children and their better-off peers, Ms. Franckle suggested.

The effects of these trends are serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity rates have more than doubled among children and quadrupled among adolescents in the United States over the past 30 years. One third of children and teenagers are now overweight or obese.

Recent studies found that serious health complications can come from weight problems at young ages, including diabetesheart disease, and liver damage. It will take enormous efforts on behalf of the youngest victims of the obesity crisis to turn these developments around.

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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).

Diabetes – Easily Preventable Yet Tragically Unstoppable

June 13th, 2014 at 4:29 pm by timigustafson
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 29 million Americans suffer from diabetes today, an increase of more than 10 percent since 2010 when the agency issued its last report. The actual numbers may still be higher because a quarter of all diabetics don’t even know they have the disease, according to the survey. Other research predicts that more than half of the U.S. population will be affected by the end of this decade.

Worldwide, the statistics are equally as discouraging. The World Health Organization (WHO) thinks that globally nearly 350 million people have diabetes. The vast majority of those, about 80 percent, live in low- and middle-income countries. The disease is projected to be the seventh leading cause of death by 2030.

Alarmingly, more and more people develop diabetes at a younger age. 1.7 million Americans aged 20 years and older, and nearly a quarter of a million children and adolescents, have been newly diagnosed in 2012 alone, according to the CDC study. A whopping 86 million adults have pre-diabetes, meaning they are at an elevated risk of getting sick in the near future. Minorities, including African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, seem especially vulnerable.

In 2012, treating diabetes and related health complications accounted for $245 billion in medical costs and lost work and wages. Overall productivity loss could be much higher and reach well over one trillion, the researchers suggest.

Diabetes is an illness that occurs when the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin, or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar. If untreated, diabetes can lead to hyperglycemia, chronically elevated blood sugar, which can cause irreversible damage to blood vessels and nerves, and, in advanced stages, result in loss of limb and blindness.

There are two kinds of diabetes. One is called Type 1 diabetes, an insulin deficiency that is usually linked to a damaged pancreas and is not considered preventable. The other, Type 2 diabetes, results from ineffective use of insulin, and is presumably acquired through diet and lifestyle. It is often seen in connection with weight problems. The vast majority of diabetes cases is of this type.

While the occurrence of Type 2 diabetes is mainly blamed on poor diet choices, overeating, and sedentary lifestyle, it is less clear why the disease has been spreading so fast and even seems to accelerate. Experts warn that unless we succeed in implementing more effective countermeasures, we won’t be able to stop this looming pandemic.

“We need a sense of urgency,” said Dr. Dennen Vojta, a senior vice president of the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform and Modernization in Minneapolis to WebMD. “There is a lot of money and human suffering at stake. The good news is that we know what works, and if we work together in a concerted national way, we can win.”

But what would such concerted action entail? Past attempts have been less than encouraging. For example, proposals to raise taxes on fast food and sugary beverages, which are known to contribute to weight problems, or posting warning labels and detailed nutritional information on such items have not gone far in most places, despite of growing support among consumers.

The tragedy of it all is that we have at least some answers to these problems, but are – for whatever reasons – unable or unwilling to apply them. Soon enough, the consequences of today’s inaction will become overwhelming.

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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 Timi Gustafson, R.D. As a clinical dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and, as of late, blogger, she has been able to reach millions of people, addressing their concerns about issues of health, lifestyle and nutrition. As Co-founder and Director of Nutrition Services for Cyberdiet.com (now Mediconsult.com), she created the first nutrition-related interactive website on the Internet in 1995. Many of the features you find on her blog, www.timigustafson.com, are based on the pioneering work of those days. Today, her goals remain the same: Helping people to achieve optimal health of body and mind. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from San José State University in California and completed a Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. She is a registered dietitian and Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Dietitians in Business and Communications, Healthy Aging, Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition, and the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Groups. For more information about Timi Gustafson R.D. please visit: www.timigustafson.com

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