Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Obesity and Health Don’t Go Together, Study Finds

December 7th, 2013 at 3:32 pm by timigustafson
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For quite a while some experts believed that a little extra body fat would not necessarily trigger health problems like metabolic syndrome, a cluster of diseases that often accompanies weight gain. There was even talk of an “obesity paradox,” meaning that some people could derive certain benefits from being obese. But all that may just be fantasy, according to a recent study from Canada.

“Obese persons are at increased risk for adverse long-term outcomes even in the absence of metabolic abnormalities, suggesting that there is no healthy pattern of increased weight,” wrote Dr. Caroline K. Kramer of Mount Sinai Hospital’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto and lead author of the study report.

Whether being overweight is immediately harmful depends on a number of factors, including a person’s genes, activity level, hormonal functions, and the source of calories, said Dr. David L. Katz, founder and director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, to HealthDay. Fat accumulation, especially when it affects inner organs like the liver, can do serious damage even at low levels, he warned.

The notion that fat and fit are not necessarily exclusive of one another stems in part from studies that found overweight but physically active people to be healthier than normal-weight folks who never exercised.

Also, judging someone’s health status based on body-mass index (BMI) alone has been widely criticized as an inaccurate measure in terms of overall health. Instead, most healthcare providers now prefer waist circumference as an indicator for weight-related health issues.

According to guidelines published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), overweight people can be considered healthy if their waist size does not exceed 40 inches for men, or 35 inches for women, and if they don’t have high blood pressure, high blood sugar, or high cholesterol.

However, when it comes to obesity (BMI of 30 and above), almost all studies agree that even being relatively fit cannot offset the health risks.

The issue is not so much the extra weight itself but what is called “metabolic health.” For any person – obese, overweight, or normal-weight – to be metabolically healthy, his or her blood pressure must be less than 130/85 mmHg, triglycerides under 150 mg/dL, fasting blood sugar equal to or lower than 100 mg/dL, and HDL (“good”) cholesterol above 40 mg/dL in men and 50 mg/dL in women.

But what about the so-called “obesity paradox,” a finding that overweight and moderately obese patients who suffer from chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease sometimes outlive their normal-weight counterparts with the same disease? There may be a number of explanations for this, including genetic differences and access to treatment options. Either way, the fact remains that both weight management and fitness are important factors for good health, as is dietary quality.

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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).

Healthy Aging: To Stay Physically Active, Better Start Early

December 4th, 2013 at 1:32 pm by timigustafson
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Unlike their predecessors, baby boomers will remain as physically and mentally active as ever, even as they retire from their day jobs. 60 and 70-year-olds will continue to push boundaries, explore and experiment, travel the world, play sports, and stay healthy and fit far longer than what has been considered possible only a generation or two ago – or so we are told by an onslaught of literature, advertisements and workshops for active retirement, declaring the twilight years as the best of all times.

The truth is that many retirees find it hard to stay active at all after having lived sedentary lifestyles for most of their lives.

How active people will continue to be largely depends on the kind of jobs they are retiring from, according to Dr. Stephen Kritchevsky, a professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine and director of the Sticht Center of Aging at Wake Forest Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

For most people, retirement is a very important change in life, which can bring about new opportunities but also pitfalls. Retirees have more time on their hands to take care of their health needs, which can yield important dividends long-term, he said to Reuters Health. But it’s not a given that everyone will begin a healthy exercise regimen if he or she has not done so before.

study from England examined differences in physical activity habits between working and retired participants and found that most of those who lead a sedentary life continued to do so after retiring, and that those who were more active in their younger years usually kept to their routines after they stopped working.

Although it seems that sedentary working conditions and lifestyles prime many people for lack of movement as they grow older, the slower pace of retirement can also be a “critical window” for encouraging older adults to become more active, according to Dr. Alan Godfrey, a researcher at the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University and lead author of the study report.

One of the most important things retiring people must do is to plan carefully how they intend to fill their days. Pursuing old dreams, developing new interests, taking up new sports and other activities may sound wonderful, but some of those projects may be unrealistic for a number of reasons, including physical limitations and other health concerns.

Naturally, the healthier and fitter you are by the time you get to your golden years, the more you will be able to accomplish. But acting age-appropriately should also be a consideration, no matter how well you have (or think you have) been able to preserve your vigor.

But regardless of personal history, physical exercise is a crucial component of healthy aging. Whether you just want to feel better and have more energy, or whether longevity is your goal, age-appropriate exercise can be beneficial on multiple levels. It helps you control your weight, strengthens your immune system, enhances mobility, promotes better sleep, keeps your sex life going, and may even protect you against age-related memory loss and dementia. But the earlier you start a regular program and stick with it, the better your chances will be that it will do you a lot of good.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Adjusting Diet and Exercise to a Slowing Metabolism” and “Healthy Aging: Exercising the Body Benefits the Mind, 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).

Walking, a Simple Yet Highly Effective Health Measure

November 30th, 2013 at 5:33 pm by timigustafson
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At a time when extreme sports are all the hype, mundane activities like walking don’t get much attention. It’s just too basic, too boring to even think about it. Yet walking can be a great indicator of both physical and mental wellbeing. In addition, walking is considered by health experts as one of the most effective ways to stay fit and fend off illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease, and even dementia.

A recent study from England found that taking a long walk every day can help decrease the risk of stroke, especially in older men. It doesn’t seem to matter as much how fast someone walks, just how often and for how long.

“Our study suggests that maintaining an active lifestyle, specifically by spending more time on all forms of walking, could be an important part of stroke prevention strategies in older people,” said Dr. Barbara J. Jefferis, a epidemiologist from University College London and lead author of the study, in an interview with Reuters.

According to her findings, men who walked four to seven hours each week were 11 percent less likely to suffer a stroke than those who walked three hours or less. Participants in the study who walked the most – more than three hours daily – had a 60 percent lower risk than those who spent the least amount of time walking.

Although this particular study included only men, there is no reason to assume that walking wouldn’t benefit women in similar ways.

Walking seems to provide other advantages as well. A number of studies have found that losing the ability to walk at a reasonably brisk pace can be an indication not just for physical but also mental decline. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic looked at stride length, cadence and velocity of older adults and concluded that gait changes and slowing pace can be early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of age-related dementia. Some of these effects may be delayed, if not prevented, in people who maintain a regular walking regimen.

Of course, there is no need to wait until old age to take up walking as a form of exercise. At any time in life, going on hikes or just strolls around the block can help with overall fitness, weight management, bone and muscle strength, balance and flexibility, and also stress management, sleep, and emotional wellbeing.

Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans are notoriously averse to walking and prefer driving even for short distances. This is especially true in rural areas and cities that lack a walkable infrastructure. Nevertheless, in its recommendations for greater public health, the agency urges everyone to get a minimum of two and a half hours moderate exercise per week. It may take some creativity and rethinking of lifestyle, but the sooner you start, the better the results will be, now and long-term.

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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 Go All Nuts Just Yet

November 27th, 2013 at 5:31 pm by timigustafson
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Once in a while there’s some good news for people who want to eat right and keep their weight in check but are also tired of hearing about all the foods they can or should no longer enjoy because of health concerns. What’s the good news? Nuts! Consuming all sorts of nuts, including peanuts, which are actually legumes, is good for you, according to a study that was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

For the study, scientists analyzed data from two big research projects, namely the Nurses’ Health Study, with120,000 participants, and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, involving more than 50,000. Both have been started decades ago and are still ongoing.

What the scientists found was that participants who ate nuts several times a week tended to be healthier, thinner and longer living. They were less likely to develop diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and certain forms of cancer. Even if taking into account other factors like diet and exercise, the nut-eaters seemed better off in almost every category.

It also didn’t seem to matter what kind of nuts people preferred. The benefits apparently spanned across all varieties. The most decisive factor was the frequency of nut consumption.

For full disclosure, it deserves to be mentioned that the study was sponsored in part by the International Tree Nut Council, a trade group that represents nut growers, but no undue influence was exerted, the scientists involved assured.

Somewhat counterintuitive is the notion that eating nuts could help with weight control. While nuts have many important nutrients and other biological benefits like anti-inflammatory effects, they are also rather caloric and contain substantial amounts of fat.

It’s not altogether clear yet what makes nuts so beneficial, said Dr. Charles Fuchs of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, one of the study leaders. The scientists are still trying to understand the bioactive compounds in nuts.

That is also the position of Dr. David L. Katz, the founding director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University who was not involved in the study. He cautioned that the study, which is only observational, meaning it cannot prove cause and effect, provides no proof that the consumption of nuts will keep people healthier or let them live longer. Still, he says, the findings are “healthy food for thought.”

“One potentially important reason why nuts reduce disease and death risk is what they add to the diet, another is what they remove from the diet. People who eat more nuts are likely eating them instead of other foods, perhaps snack foods apt to be far less nutritious,” he said to ABC News.

As for the downside of nuts, it is common knowledge that many varieties carry a substantial fat content. Granted that it is the heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated kinds, they still can add to your waistline if you don’t restrict portion sizes. Nuts range from 160 to 200 calories per ounce, depending on the variety of your choosing. Also, like most snack foods, nuts invite “mindless eating,” meaning they tend to disappear in your mouth without you noticing. So, overeating is a clear and present danger.

To avoid these pitfalls, I recommend that you take the exact amount you wish to eat out of the bag, jar or can and put it on a plate in front of you. This way, you can focus on your movie or whatever else you do while munching away – and you won’t exceed your limit.

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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 Such Thing as a “Natural Diet” for Humans, Scientists Say

November 23rd, 2013 at 4:36 pm by timigustafson
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Diet plans like to make all sorts of claims in terms of their effectiveness for weight loss and better health. Most emphasize certain food groups while eliminating others. Almost all assert their guidelines work best because they reflect how we should eat.

One of the regimens that has been growing in popularity in recent years is called the paleo diet, a.k.a. the caveman-, stone age-, or warrior diet. Its premise is that we ought to return to the eating styles of our ancestors from way back – because it’s more in keeping with our genetic makeup.

The underlying theory is that civilization has corrupted our food supply through unsound food production and manipulation, which has lead to the onslaught of diet-related illnesses like obesity, diabetes and heart disease we are facing today. The only way out of this misery, proponents say, is to mimic the eating behavior that once ensured the survival of our species for many thousand years.

For humans, ancient or modern, the paleo diet is the optimum diet, says Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor in the health department of Colorado State University and author of “The Paleo Diet,” who calls himself the “world’s foremost authority on the evolutionary basis of diet and disease.”

Genetically we have not been able to adapt to our modern food choices, i.e. the so-called Western diet, which is largely based on processed foods and laden with fat, salt and sugar, he says. Consequently, we are now plagued with diseases that are caused by our acting against our nature.

The solution would be to dispense with most, if not all, man-made foods, especially carbohydrates and dairy products. Instead, followers are encouraged to eat meats, seafood (wild caught) as well as certain vegetables and fruits, as long as they can be found in their original, unmodified state. Intermittent fasting is also recommended.

Some nutrition experts and biologists, however, are skeptical of these restrictions.

The paleo diet is basically a fantasy, according to Dr. Marlene Zuk, a professor of ecology, evolution and behavioral science at the University of Michigan, who gave an interview on the subject to the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

“Its supporters assume that, at a certain point in time, our ancestors were perfectly adapted to their environment. But those conditions presumably never existed,” she said.

Other scientists agree.

“Scientists find it appalling that a number of proponents of the supposed stone-age diet claim to be knowledgeable about a period of time that lasted around 2.5 million years and ended in about 8,000 B.C.,” said Dr. Alexander Ströhle, a nutrition physiologist at the University of Hannover, Germany. “On the whole, the feeding behavior of prehistoric man […] was very flexible.”

Besides that, “our modern food products are well removed from their wild ancestors. They have been extremely modified and, as a result, are more calorie-rich, easier to ship, or simply better-tasting than the original. So, even if we wanted to, we couldn’t live exactly the way our ancestors did,” said Dr. Zuk.

As far as the health benefits of the paleo diet are concerned, they are so far undetermined. Some studies have linked the regimen to reducing blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides (a fatty substance in the arteries that can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke). But the strong emphasis on eating meat, including red meat, has its own well-known disadvantages. Also, followers of vegetarian eating styles (for religious, cultural or other reasons) will not easily be able to adhere to this diet.

That doesn’t mean there are no benefits to be had from the paleo diet. For those who are interested, there are plenty of food guides available on the Internet, like the Ultimate Paleo Guide, to name just one. More importantly, however, dieters should still focus on the healthiest food choices, no matter what philosophy appeals to them.

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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).

Lion Share of Medical Spending Goes to Services and Treating Chronic Diseases

November 19th, 2013 at 4:39 pm by timigustafson
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It is a widespread belief that the aging baby boomer generation is going to break the bank when it comes to medical costs. But while it is true that the elderly on average have greater healthcare needs than younger people, it is not where the bulk of the money goes, according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

There are mainly two factors that make the American healthcare system more expensive, albeit not more efficient, than any other in the world, the study found. One is that the costs of medical and administrative services as well as drugs and devices have risen astronomically over the last decade or so. The other is that treating patients with chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease is expensive, no matter what their age is. In fact, the majority of those suffering from these illnesses is under 65.

Paradoxically, today’s healthcare consumers pay a much smaller percentage of the actual costs to the system than they did 30 or 40 years ago – about 11 percent compared to 23 percent in the 1980s. That also means that most people don’t have the slightest idea how expensive medical services are because they never see 90 percent of the bills, says Dr. Hamilton Moses, chairman of the Alerion Institute, a consulting firm in Virginia, and a professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University who wrote the study report.

The other issue is the sharp increase in diet and lifestyle-related diseases, which are now affecting ever-larger parts of the population. In 2011 (the year of the most recent numbers available), treating chronic illnesses absorbed 84 percent of all medical spending, two-thirds of which went to patients younger than 65 years of age.

“Chronic illness is a problem for everyone, not just the elderly,” says Dr. Moses. “That’s another reminder to follow a healthy lifestyle to reduce your chances of developing common health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.”

Unfortunately, our current system with its almost exclusive focus on treating existing health problems instead of preventing them is not well equipped to address these challenges.

“There are lessons to be learned from other countries,” says Dr. Moses. Chronic illness is where the misery is, it is where the money is, and it is where the greatest opportunity lies.”

A recent memo issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) points in that direction. In it, the agency urges doctors to include “intensive behavioral therapy” for obese patients in their treatment, meaning more screening for weight problems, nutritional assessment, and counseling on diet and exercise. Unlike in the past, the CMS says it will authorize reimbursement for this kind of counseling sessions from here on.

Similarly, the American Heart Association (AHA) has called for medical service providers to evaluate their patients’ physical activity habits as routinely as they check blood pressure and other risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.

Recommending measures like these are geared towards prevention and that can be a good first step, acknowledges Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. Unfortunately, most doctors are not well versed in weight management counseling, partly because it is still not a subject matter that medical schools spend much time on.

“Bad counseling can be worse than none at all,” he writes in an opinion piece in the Huffington Post.

Still, enlisting doctors in the fight against the obesity epidemic can be a good start if it leads to a comprehensive solution that goes beyond their practice. In any case, it is better to make the current system part of the solution instead of the problem.

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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).

Who Wants to Be Called an “Inner Beauty”?

November 16th, 2013 at 2:58 pm by timigustafson
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When the singer and actress Beyonce was named the “World’s Most Beautiful Woman” by People Magazine in 2012, she responded that it was in fact “inner beauty” she valued the most. Whatever she meant by that, it’s safe to say that she and celebrities like her can easily afford such displays of humility. To the rest of us mere mortals, being beautiful only on the inside doesn’t sound especially appealing.

According to a survey by Glamour magazine, 97 percent of women who were asked about their body image declared they were less than satisfied with the way they looked. “Too fat,” “too thin,” “ugly,” “gross,” and other descriptions to that effect revealed a widespread sense of low self-esteem among women when it comes to their bodies.

“I’m not totally surprised [about the survey results],” says Dr. Ann Kearney-Cooke, a psychologist specializing in issues of body image and self-esteem, who was involved in the design of the survey. “It’s become such an accepted norm to put yourself down that if someone says she likes her body, she’s the odd woman out,” she says. “It’s actually more acceptable to insult your body than to praise it.”

It’s not just outside pressure by the media and the beauty ideals women are constantly bombarded with, we do it also to ourselves, she explains. Whatever we focus on, it eventually shapes our perception. If we keep having all these negative thoughts about the way we look, those thoughts become habitual. We actually can train ourselves to be this way.

A negative self-image often develops very early in life. It’s not just women who go through pregnancies, gain weight, or see their skin wrinkle as they get older. Even children and adolescents can be uncomfortable with their looks, especially if they get teased or bullied by their peers, or if they don’t feel they measure up to the fashion and show biz icons of the day.

The diet and health industry is also not beyond reproach when it comes to creating unrealistic expectations, thereby setting their clients up for disappointment. Weight loss companies defend themselves by saying they don’t have much of a choice if they want to stay in business.

“I regularly find myself tip-toeing around the issue of body image because I’ve been told that women want to hear one thing, and one thing only on a sales call: I can make you thin,” says Isabel Foxen Duke, a health coach and emotional eating expert and author of “How Not to Eat Chocolate Cake.”

Health experts know full well that acceptance of one’s body as it is in all its frailty and with all its imperfections is an important part of the healing process. Whether someone is obsessed with false beauty ideals or with self-loathing doesn’t matter. Both attitudes are equally self-destructive. By contrast, understanding and appreciating the body’s value, no matter how it looks, is a first step in the right direction.

Don’t get lost in all the details of what and what not you must do to get or stay in shape, what you can eat and what you must avoid, how often and how much you must exercise, etc. etc. “I want you to listen to and trust your body’s needs. I want you to get a big old life outside of food. That’s what I’m really trying to do,” says Foxen Duke.

Being your own whole person in body and mind, that would be truly beautiful – from the inside out.

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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, the Hidden Killer

November 13th, 2013 at 12:28 pm by timigustafson
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Like many other so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs), diabetes is on the rise worldwide. Here in the United States, 17 million have been diagnosed with the condition, but more strikingly, about one third of those affected don’t even know about it, according to surveys by the Centers for disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Not unlike heart disease, diabetes is considered a “silent killer” because it cannot be detected through clearly identifiable symptoms, which contributes to the discrepancy between diagnosed and actual cases.

Diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death among Americans, after heart disease, cancer, stroke, accidents and Alzheimer’s disease. It is the leading cause of blindness, kidney failure, lower extremity amputations, and also increases the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to the CDC.

Diabetes alone accounts for well over $100 billion in direct medical costs and an additional $60 billion in indirect costs such as loss of productivity and disability annually.

Researchers say that the most common form of the disease – type 2 diabetes – is preventable in large parts through lifestyle improvements like weight control, healthy eating and regular exercise.

The easiest way to diagnose diabetes is through a simple blood sugar test. Outside of that, there are a number of symptoms that can indicate whether someone either has or is at risk of developing the disease.

One common sign is frequent urination as well as excessive thirst. The urge to urinate is caused by the kidneys’ struggle to get rid of high amounts of glucose in the blood. The heightened thirst is a response to the need for replenishing the lost fluids. So, for example, having to go to the bathroom repeatedly during the night can be, among other reasons, an indication that the body has difficulties managing high blood sugar.

Other possible symptoms are rapid weight loss (without diet or lifestyle changes), excessive hunger pangs due to sudden drop in blood sugar level, fungal infections (including yeast infections), slow healing of wounds, skin problems like dry skin and skin darkening around the neck and armpit areas, blurry vision, and tingling and numbness in hands and feet, along with pain and swelling because of progressive nerve damaging.

There are several exams available to determine whether a person is diabetic or pre-diabetic, which is a serious health condition in itself. The most common is a blood sugar test administered after a minimum of eight hours fasting. Amounts under 99 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered normal. 100 to 125 mg/dL indicates you may be pre-diabetic. Levels above 126 mg/dL means you have the disease.

Untreated diabetes can have dangerous, even life-threatening outcomes. Besides medical intervention, dietary improvements can make a significant difference. While there is no such thing as a specific diet plan for diabetes patients, cutting back or eliminating processed foods that are filled with fat and sugar, and following a regimen that includes plenty of fresh produce is an important step. Weight management (and weight loss, if necessary) as well as fitness training are also essential. Of course, as always, prevention is preferable to any treatment, medical and otherwise.

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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).

More Than Temptation, Stress Causes Overeating During the Holidays

November 10th, 2013 at 3:21 pm by timigustafson
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That many people’s waistlines expand during the holiday season is a well-established fact. But, as a new study found, the reason why most of us overindulge at this particular time may not be so much the countless opportunities for extra munching but rather the need for extra comfort due to heightened stress.

The study, which was conducted at the University of Konstanz, Germany, showed that participants who had a tendency to reach for food when stressed did not continue to do so after they were more relaxed, even though they were given equal access to the comfort foods they craved when they felt tense.

Other participants had reverse reactions. They ate less or stopped eating altogether in acutely stressful situations and compensated (or often overcompensated) for the deprivation afterwards when the tension ebbed. In either case, eating was connected to their stress experience rather than the availability of food.

Stress eating, or emotional eating as it is sometimes called, is not yet fully understood by scientist. In fact, the expression “stress eating” itself should be a contradiction in terms. Acute stress as a short-term response supposedly blocks the desire for food due to hormone releases in the brain that suppress appetite. But when high stress levels persist, as with chronic stress, cortisol, an appetite-stimulating hormone, secretes in the adrenal glands and remains elevated until the stress period ends, which may be indefinite.

Some foods seem to be more effective for stress relief than others. Comfort foods, which are typically highly processed and filled with fat and sugar, are among the favorite choices of the chronically stressed. These are also the kinds of food that one can easily snack on, often mindlessly.

Overeating, of course, is not the only widespread response to stress. Because of its energy-draining and exhausting effects, both physically and mentally, stress prevents many people from exercising and often from getting enough sleep. Alcohol and/or drug use, not unheard of among stress sufferers, add to the likelihood of unhealthy weight gain and other body dysfunctions.

So, what makes us so much more vulnerable and so inclined to succumb to our cravings during the holiday season? The fact is that this is no holiday at all for most people who find themselves burdened with many additional tasks and obligations while their everyday lives still must go on as usual. Thus, stress sources multiply. That, at least, may be one reason.

Still, whatever we do to cope with those challenges, it is important to understand that we are not helpless when it comes to controlling our impulses. The first step towards making positive changes is to become more aware of our tendencies and then take the necessary steps to counterbalance them.

For example, do you have a sweet tooth? If so, you can limit your access to your favorite treats. Do you easily forego exercising and make excuses for staying sedentary? You can draw up a fitness plan and join in with likeminded people who can hold you to it. Are you chronically sleep-deprived? You can make a point of increasing your sleep time. The list can go on and on.

It would be naïve to think that all this can be accomplished with a quick resolution. Far from it. Instead, I recommend to start with one thing, something concrete you can take on right now without further delay. How about, this holiday season, I give myself the gift of an hour daily to take care of my health and my peace of mind? It doesn’t matter what exactly you choose to do. Read a book, go for a walk, meditate, whatever. Stay with it, and that gift might just keep on giving.

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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 Time to Be Sick

November 6th, 2013 at 2:51 pm by timigustafson
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It is a well-documented fact that American workers put in longer hours and take less time off than their counterparts in almost any other country in the developed world. Unlike in Europe, for example, where four to six weeks paid vacation time is mandatory, there are no comparable laws in the United States. But in addition to the lack of recreation, most Americans don’t stay home even when they are sick.

According to surveys by Careerbuilder.com, about three in four people come to work while nursing a cold, the flu and something worse. Other statistics indicate the numbers are even higher.

When asked, most of those who decide to toughen it out say they don’t want to fall behind in their workload or be thought of as slackers. Most are also aware that the germs they spread around while sneezing and coughing may infect their coworkers – but still they insist on staying on the job.

It doesn’t help that taking a day off now and then is unaffordable for many Americans. Again, unlike in most European countries, there are no laws here that mandate a minimum amount of paid sick leave.

Employers, of course, are keenly aware that workers who show up ill can do more harm than good, not only because the viruses they carry are contagious, but also because they are likely less focused and productive than normally. In other words, it affects businesses’ bottom line, probably more so than if people stayed at home. Luckily, in this day and age, many of us can do at least some of their work remotely and don’t have to be physically present in their workplaces.

Either way, as this year’s cold and flu season approaches, it may be a good idea to make some plans for how to cope with the inevitable before it strikes.

Your first step should be getting a flu shot. It may not protect you against every strand that’s out there, but it increases your chances to escape some.

Second, you are well advised to wash your hands every time you leave common areas like conference rooms or cafeterias, or touch items like door handles, staircase railings or elevator buttons. Thorough washing and sanitizing of hands after bathroom visits should go without saying.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to eliminate all germ threats and can only minimize the risk of getting infected so much. Still, it makes sense to take as many precautions as you can think of. However, you don’t want to become paralyzed with fear and develop paranoid behavior (Melvin Udall, the obsessive-compulsive character portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the movie “As Good As It Gets” comes to mind).

Your best weapon, besides vaccination, is to strengthen your immune system as much as possible. Especially in the winter months, it is important to eat healthily and get lots of vitamins from fruits and vegetables. Go outdoors and exercise, even if the weather is less than inviting. An enclosed gym may provide many more health hazards than cold but fresh air. Make sure you get enough sleep, since tiredness and exhaustion make you more vulnerable to infections. Manage your stress as well as you can.

Should you still fall ill despite of your best efforts, see what can be negotiated in terms of staying at home and, if necessary, doing some work over the phone and via email. Your boss and colleagues should thank you for your wise decision.

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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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