Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Why We Love Comfort Food So Much

October 23rd, 2013 at 12:45 pm by timigustafson
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Scientist have long searched for answers why food that is fatty, salty or sweet is so popular, in fact to the extent that many of us have a hard time stopping themselves from overindulging in edibles we know are not particularly healthy but give us so much pleasure.

Possible explanations go in all sorts of directions. Some say people reach for comfort food for psychological reasons, both positive and negative, such as feeling happy and in the mood to celebrate or trying to cope with anxiety, boredom, or sadness. Others have suggested that our preferences stem from our evolutionary background, that we are biologically programmed to crave certain foods that used to be hard to come by but are now available in abundance. Others again say it’s our consumer culture that causes us to graze almost constantly. And then there are those who blame the food industry for making us hooked on their products through relentless advertising and even by adding ingredients that work like opiates, turning us practically into addicts.

Overeating is hard to avoid in the environment we live in today, says Dr. Brian Wansink, professor for marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University and author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam Books, 2006). We get our eating cues from multiple sources all the time, he says, from images, sounds and smells that surround us constantly. We are confronted with ever-growing portion sizes, and eventually think it’s normal to consume so much more than our parents’ and grandparents’ generations used to.

The idea that the body knows what’s good for it and when it has enough, as it has been suggested by proponents of the so-called intuitive eating movement, is naïve, says Dr. Marcia Pelchat, a food researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Most of us can’t really rely on our instincts. Rather it is our culture and our lifestyle that determines what, when, and how much we eat.

There is widespread agreement with that assessment. Our eating behavior is largely controlled by social, cultural and other environmental factors, writes Dr. David A. Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and author of “The End of Overeating” (Rodale, 2009). In modern society, we no longer engage in eating for the sole purpose of stilling hunger and replenishing our energy stores but as a hedonic means to satisfy our liking and wanting of food, he argues.

There may be multiple additional factors at play as well, he says, including biochemical processes in the brain, which are not yet fully understood. However, the need for comfort and satisfaction we receive from food is generated outside of us, causing our responses in form of overindulging – with all the detrimental consequences we are faced with today.

The good news is that we are not completely helpless with regards to our temptations. The trick is to avoid triggers that propel you into a craving mode, says Dr. Pelchat. If certain foods make you cave every time despite of your best intentions, don’t go near them – meaning, don’t buy them, don’t store them, try not to even think about them (easier said than done). If you relapse anyway, don’t beat yourself up. Consider it an exception and let it go.

You can also counteract your cravings by distracting yourself with other activities that are not food-related. “Substitute something else until the craving goes away,” Dr. Wansink advises. These are fleeting moments that pass soon if you don’t dwell on them.

An important part of your efforts to resist temptations is not to make food the enemy. If you develop a negative dependency, the power food cravings can have over you will not diminish – on the contrary. It is better to be aware of your weaknesses and befriend them in ways that calm you down and allow you to eventually move 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).

When Choosing a Diet Plan, Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

October 20th, 2013 at 7:22 am by timigustafson
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If your goal is to lose weight, almost any diet that restricts calorie intake will do the trick, at least for a while. What should be met with suspicion are weight loss plans and programs that promise quick results and lasting success with little effort. In the real world, no such thing exists.

So-called “fad diets” hit the market almost daily. In essence, they all make the same claims: You will see positive changes almost immediately, you don’t have to forego your favorite foods, you won’t feel hungry, and, best of all, you don’t have to exercise.

What they also have in common is that it’s nearly impossible to follow them over time. According to a study by the University of Massachusetts, even the most popular diet plans have low long-term adherence. But, as any health expert will tell you, stick-to-itiveness is a central component of successful weight loss.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, there are no foods or pills that let you magically burn fat and lose weight. There are no super foods that can alter your genetic code. Worse yet, some ingredients in weight loss products can be outright dangerous and even deadly. The bottom line, the AND says, is that “if a diet or product sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Rapid weight loss, which is what most commercial plans aim for, is not even a desirable goal. A slow but steady loss of ½ to 1 pound per week is an appropriate pace, according to the AND. If you lose weight more quickly, it will not only affect your body fat but also your muscles, bones and water balance.

Moreover, sudden weight fluctuations make weight loss less sustainable. So-called yo-yo dieting, where lost weight is gained back time and again, can put enormous stress on inner organs and is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

While calorie restriction is an intricate part of dieting, deprivation of essential nutrients by withholding certain foods or entire food groups – e.g. carbohydrates – is not recommended. Also, the ADA says, there is no scientific evidence that certain food combinations or eating particular foods at specific times can support weight loss, as some diet programs advertise.

Unfortunately, the word “diet,” as it is most commonly used, is almost exclusively associated with “eating less” or “not eating at all.” That by itself may lead to the wrong approach. In its original form, diet means simply “the way someone eats.”

And indeed there are diet plans that don’t focus on weight loss at all, but rather on eating highly nutritious foods, keeping portion sizes in check, and also encourage an all-around health-promoting lifestyle. For example, the Mediterranean diet, which is based on the culinary traditions of countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea and is thought of as one of the healthiest dietary guidelines anywhere, or the DASH diet (acronym for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), developed for heart health, both emphasize healthy eating habits from which weight loss and permanent weight control can follow.

Neither of these, shall we call them “inclusive” diets (as opposed to “exclusive” regimens that eliminate foods in both quantity and quality), will let you shed massive amounts of weight in a hurry, but you will be better off for the rest of your life.

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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).

Scientists Question the Validity of Food Addiction

October 16th, 2013 at 2:06 pm by timigustafson
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As the obesity crisis continues to spread around the world, nutrition scientists keep looking for answers why millions of people eat more than they should. One possible explanation, some have suggested, is food addiction, an inability to stop eating, even when it makes us sick.

There is indeed some evidence of a link between excessive food consumption and addictive behavior, according to the Rudd Center at Yale University, a research institute that specializes in eating disorders, among other food and health-related subject matters. Their findings, they claim, indicate that certain foods (e.g. sugar) may be “capable of triggering an addictive process in susceptible individuals.”

The whole notion that food addiction actually exists, however, has now been called into question at a recent conference held by the British Nutrition Foundation.

“While it is possible that a very small percentage of the population – about five percent – could be ‘food addicts,’ the idea of food addiction is exaggerated,” said Dr. John Blundell, a professor of psychobiology at the Institute of Psychological Sciences at the University of Leeds, England, and chair of the event.

“There has been extensive publicity in the press on the supposition that certain foods are ‘addictive’ and that food ‘addiction’ is contributing to the current obesity crisis,” he said. “[But] as a term, food addiction is confusing and sometimes contradictory. It is a simplification of a very complex set of behaviors and is now being connected with obesity, with the suggestion that it is a clinical explanation for the epidemic.”

The fact is that the reasons why people reach for food can be multiple. Besides stilling hunger, it can be a way to cope with stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, etc. Or it can be linked to traumatic experiences in the past, possibly during childhood. It may also be part of addictive behavior in general, including toward food.

So is a diagnosis of food addiction just a flawed excuse for overeating? There are no easy answers to that, according to Dr. Elizabeth Hartney, a psychologist specializing in addictions and a registrant with the Canadian Register of Health Services Providers in Psychology (CRHSPP).

“In a sense, we are all addicted to food,” she said. Think about what it feels like when you aren’t able to eat. You start to crave food, and become more physically and emotionally uncomfortable the longer the cravings go on for, until eating becomes the most important thing for you to do. This is the constant experience of people struggling with food addiction, even if they have plenty to eat.”

While it is not fully understood what triggers the particular addiction to food, we know that there are similarities between addiction to food and to certain drugs, which also can produce feelings of pleasure and well-being. And like with other substances, satisfaction from eating does wear off and must be renewed by ever greater consumption.

Whatever answers the expert eventually will come up with (if any), the question remains why so many people overeat to the point where they develop life-threatening illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. It is almost unimaginable that they should all be doing this for the same reason. And if so, what could be the underlying cause?

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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 Could Be the Next Frontier of Medical Research, Study Suggests

October 12th, 2013 at 1:50 pm by timigustafson
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Rather than spending all of their time fighting diseases, medical researchers should focus more on how we can enable an aging population to stay healthy for as long as possible, according to a study conducted by some of the country’s top universities.

Rethinking our priorities in terms of medical goals is becoming imperative, simply because of demographic developments, said the study authors. Populations around the world enjoy prospects of longevity unheard of only a few generations ago. Yet, overall health conditions of the aging are not improving as much.

“In the last half-century, major life expectancy gains were driven by finding ways to reduce mortality from fatal diseases. But now disabled life expectancy is rising faster than total life expectancy, leaving the number of years that one can expect to live in good health unchanged or diminished,” wrote Dr. Dana P. Goldman, a professor of public health and pharmaceutical economics at the University of Southern California and lead author of the study report. “If we can age more slowly, we can delay the onset and progression of many disabling diseases simultaneously.”

In 2009, the latest year for which data are available, the number of Americans 65 years and older was close to 40 million. By 2030, it will be about 72 million, twice as many as in 2000.

If even a small percentage of the elderly could be kept in reasonably good health, it would make a significant difference, not only in quality of life but also in expenditures for health care and entitlement programs.

“Delayed aging could increase life expectancy by an additional 2.2 years, most of which would be spent in good health. The economic value of delayed aging is estimated to be 7.1 trillion over fifty years,” the study report concluded.

In their assessment, the researchers emphasize that slowing the aging process at least in parts of the population is a realistic goal that should be pursued sooner rather than later. In place of combating individual diseases, they recommend large-scale measures of prevention.

A greater focus on early prevention is also supported by many healthcare organizations, including the American Heart Association (AHA) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

In an article recently published in the AHA journal, “Circulation,” the authors call on doctors and other healthcare professionals to include lifestyle changes more aggressively in their treatment regimens.

“We’re talking about a paradigm shift from treating biomarkers – [e.g.] the physical indicators of a person’s risk for heart disease – to helping people change unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, unhealthy body weight, poor diet quality, and lack of physical activity,” wrote lead author Dr. Bonnie Spring, a professor of preventive medicine and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University.

Taking proactive steps for the prevention of chronic diseases is also recommended as the most effective and affordable method of healthcare by the leading organization of dietitians and nutritionists, especially through dietary intervention.

None of these insights are new, of course. That an apple a day can keep the doctor away is an old mantra. What seems to be increasingly changing now, however, is the belief that healthcare only means treating illnesses after they occur. That wasn’t always the case. For example, in ancient China, people paid their doctors as long as they were well, and stopped paying the moment they fell ill. That way, doctors benefitted from their patients’ health, not their sickness. Food for thought…

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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).


Stress in Midlife May Increase Risk of Dementia, Study Suggests

October 9th, 2013 at 3:28 pm by timigustafson
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People who undergo traumatic experiences or endure stressful situations during their midlife years may be more likely to suffer from cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss as they age compared to their counterparts who manage to sail through life more smoothly, according to a study from Sweden that followed participants over decades, keeping track of their mental health.

The study only included women, but the researchers say there is no reason to assume their observations wouldn’t be applicable to men as well, although, as other studies have shown, the sexes respond to stress differently in a number of ways.

What is remarkable about the findings of this study is that stress-producing events, even if they had taken place long in the past, continued to have a negative impact on people’s mental well-being. Whether they could pinpoint the source to certain incidents like a divorce or the loss of loved ones, or whether they were exposed to high stress levels for extended periods of time, a.k.a. chronic stress, the potential for lasting health damages increased significantly as they grew older.

There also seems to be an accumulative effect: For each additional stressor the participating women reported at the beginning of the study, their risk of later developing Alzheimers’s disease was raised by up to 20 percent.

The researchers do not claim having found a cause and effect connection between stress and age-related mental decline, though.

“Stress and stressors are just one of several risk factors. Not everyone who had stress or stressors developed dementia,” said Dr. Lena Johansson of the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at Gothenburg University in Mölndal, Sweden, one of the authors of the study report.

However, what the study does show, she said, is that common stressors most of us encounter every day can have severe long-lasting physiological and psychological consequences.

One possible explanation for this is that stress hormones like cortisol may cause harmful alterations in the brain. They can also affect blood pressure and blood sugar control. It is well known that high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, which is also suspected to play a role in mental decline. Even if all the connections are not yet fully understood, a larger picture seems to emerge that allows for a better identification of all the components.

For now, however, our best options are to take as many preventive measures as we can, such as eating healthy and exercising plenty. Getting enough sleep and managing stress are equally as important.

While there is no real protection against Alzheimer’s and memory loss available today, and perhaps never will be, we all can take steps to remain mentally active and alert. Lifelong learning and problem solving are most beneficial in this regard. Maintaining an active social life is also important.

As far as stress is concerned, most of us can never escape that for good. Modern life is just that way. That means we must find solutions to deal with the inevitable and counterbalance the impact of stress as best as we can. There is no shortage on advice on how to go about this, including on this blog. What matters in the end is how successful we are in controlling our responses to the obstacles that are thrown in our way, not just for the moment but for the rest of our lives.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Staying Physically Healthy and Mentally Engaged Protects Best Against Dementia, New Studies Finds.”

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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 Weight, Body Fat Raises Health Risks, Studies Find

October 5th, 2013 at 5:14 pm by timigustafson
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To determine the risk of diet and lifestyle–related illnesses in their patients, such as diabetes or heart disease, doctors have traditionally looked at the Body-Mass-Index (BMI), a number calculated from a person’s weight and height. But that may soon be a thing of the past because more precise indicators are becoming increasingly common in medical care.

The BMI formula is not a very good tool when it comes to gauging body fat because it doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle mass. Many people with a “normal” BMI can still carry dangerously high amounts of body fat, which increases their risk of developing a number of potentially life-threatening diseases, especially as they get older, according to Dr. John Batsis, a geriatrician at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, and one of the authors of a recent study report on mortality rates among normal-weight and overweight heart disease patients.

“Just because someone has a normal BMI does not necessarily mean they are metabolically normal,” he told Reuters Health.

Participants in his study who had the highest percentages of body fat were also most likely to suffer from high blood pressure and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of risk factors that are indicators for illnesses like diabetes and heart disease.

A better method of measuring body fat would be a scanning procedure known as DEXA (acronym for dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry), by which fat levels and fat distribution can be viewed inside the body, although the technology may currently be too expensive for wider use.

Other alternative measuring types to BMI are waist circumference and waist-hip ratio, which can easily be performed at home.

Multiple studies have shown that extended waist circumference is often associated with coronary heart disease. One of the reasons for this is that excess fat, particularly around the waist, is believed to cause inflammation.

“It is well known that obesity […] is closely linked with heart disease,” said Dr. Tongjian You, a researcher at Wake Forest University medical school, to WebMD in an interview about his own study on connections between body fat and heart disease.

“While we don’t fully understand the link between obesity and heart disease, our study suggests that inflammatory proteins produced by fat itself may play a role,” he said.

More specifically, by producing these proteins, fat cells in the body may help to fuel harmful inflammatory processes that potentially lead to heart disease and stroke.

In short, there is more to body fat than what scales and mirrors can reveal. Fat doesn’t just sit idly, it does real damage to people’s health.

While it is not clear yet whether the threats – caused by inflammatory proteins from fat or otherwise – diminish with weight loss, shedding extra pounds has multiple benefits and should be pursued for better health in any case.

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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).

Consumers are more interested in where their food comes from, how it is produced, and how they can protect themselves against chemical and biological pollutants – and they are willing to pay higher prices for items they believe are of better quality in these regards.

Researchers from Colorado State University (CSU) asked participants in a study about their motivation to spend more money on organic and/or locally-grown produce and other food products and found to their surprise that taste or appearance were not among the priorities.

Part of that attitude is an increasing distrust in the work of government agencies that are supposed to oversee and regulate the agricultural industry. In essence, the researchers found, there is a stronger prejudice against conventional foods, rather than a preference for alternative farming methods.

“A lack of trust in the effectiveness of food regulatory agencies is a key trigger of valuation for local and organic,” said Dr. Marco Costanigro, a professor at the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at CSU and author of the study report.

Even when confronted with scientific evidence about differences, or lack thereof, between organic and conventional products, most participants disregarded the information or used it selectively. Some were not willing to trade their organic or locally-grown choices for conventional versions (e.g. apples), even when they liked the latter more in a blind-tasting experiment.

“The observed behavior is consistent with a polarization of preferences against conventional production,” said Dr. Costanigro.

In a separate study two years ago, he and his colleagues found a profound transformation in consumer behavior in relation to food in general.

“Consumer expectations for quality are increasing and, at the same time, consumer demand increasingly customized products.”

To illustrate this point, the researchers examined consumers’ responses to the explosive expansion of coffee beverages people nowadays can choose from.

“Coffee used to come with two options: cream and sugar. Now there are thousands of combinations, and consumers are willing to pay for them.”

These developments do not only apply to coffee. Many commodity markets have evolved into highly differentiated product markets, according to Dr. Costanigro.

People are skeptical of the status quo on many fronts, and not without reason. Naturally, this is also reflected in their food choices. Most people are inclined to believe that higher quality requires extra pay and, visa versa, that they should get something more upscale if they are willing to spend more money. Sometimes these assumptions are justified, but oftentimes they are not.

When it comes to our food supply, there really are no sure bets in terms of safety and quality. Even “organic” products can contain pollutants, depending on where they are grown and how they are handled. “Locally-grown” means nothing more than that the food comes from the region you live in. It doesn’t say whether or not the farmer who produced it follows sound agricultural methods.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit the organic section in your grocery store or go to the farmers market. However, at some point you have to trust that the entire food industry is not conspiring against you. No matter what your beliefs are, in the end you still have to eat.

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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).

Keeping a Healthy Diet and Lifestyle in the Cold Season

September 28th, 2013 at 7:33 am by timigustafson
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It’s easier to eat right and be active outdoors during the summer months when the weather is warm and dry, and fresh fruits and vegetables are plentiful. It’s a different story when the temperatures drop, the rain sets in, and there are no more farmers markets to go to. But that doesn’t mean your healthy lifestyle has to change as well.

If you had a nice summer vacation, spent more time with family and friends, or just followed a slower pace, you probably found it easier to sit down for breakfast, enjoy a leisurely lunch, or cook a more elaborate dinner to be shared with loved ones. Now that it’s back to school or back to work, those pleasant and also healthy habits are in danger of becoming extinct again.

The same goes for your workout schedule. Longer daylight made it less forbidding to get up early for a run or swim, or go to the gym later in the evening. It’s much harder to continue with that regimen when it’s pitch dark outside and the weather is nasty.

Still, not all has to be lost.

For instance, eating a healthy breakfast should remain part of your morning routine all year round. It is one of the most important things you can do for your nutritional health. It is also an essential element of successful weight management.

If you have started taking lunch breaks where you focused on eating a healthy meal, instead of stuffing something absentmindedly in your mouth while working or doing other things, stick with your new habit. Mindless eating is one of the major causes of weight gain and should be avoided as much as possible.

When all family members go back to their busy schedules, it may be harder to gather them around the dinner table. Still, you should make the effort, not only because home-cooked meals are preferable to eating out or snacking but also for social reasons. If you had a chance to reconnect with your spouse and children during summer vacation, don’t let that slip away again because of time pressures.

As far as your physical fitness is concerned, you should build on the foundation you have laid over the summer – or undo the damage if your leisurely activities have led you in the other direction. Running, bicycling or swimming outdoors may no longer be possible, but there is the treadmill, the stationary bike or an indoor pool nearby. Don’t let lame excuses creep in and keep a regular exercise program as best as you can.

Your grocery list may or may not be as much affected, since today’s supermarkets stock most food items all year round, including those not in season in your region. But you can also focus on fruits and vegetables that are harvested late.

Fall is also a good time to make heartier meals like soups and stews that give you a cozy feeling when rain and wind bluster outside.

Keep in mind that the cold season requires your body to spend more energy to stay warm and protected. Eating highly nutritious foods, filled with vitamins and minerals, are essential to keep your immune system strong and get you as unscathed as possible through the flu season and other health hazards.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “The Cold Season Diet – Foods That Strengthen Your Immune System” and “Eat to Beat the Cold and Flu Season.”

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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).

Americans Still Eat Too Much and Pick the Wrong Foods, Latest Survey Finds

September 25th, 2013 at 7:36 am by timigustafson
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On average, Americans have become more health-conscious in recent year. Fewer of us smoke and more engage in regular exercise, although perhaps still not enough. But when it comes to our eating habits, unfortunately not much has changed, despite enormous efforts to raise greater awareness of the obesity crisis and its dismal effects on people’s health.

While the overall health status has not dramatically deteriorated – in 2010, 65 percent of Americans reported being in good or excellent health, compared to 68.5 percent in 1997 – the number of those struggling with weight problems remains at an all-time high.

In its annual “report card” on the state of America’s physical health, the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, found that most Americans are still a far cry from the path to healthy living.

“This isn’t a report card you’d want to post on the fridge,” writes Bonnie Liebman, a nutritionist working at the CSPI and author of the report.

She especially laments the fact that fruits and vegetables still don’t fill American lunch- and dinner plates in quantities recommended by the government. Instead, highly caloric and fatty items like processed foods, meats and dairy products still dominate our meals, both when eating out and at home. More importantly, portion sizes, although well known as a leading factor in our national weight-gain malaise, don’t budge, and we are consuming on average 450 calories more per day than we did in 1970, according to the report.

“One way to see the bigger picture is to look at where our calories come from,” Liebman writes. Americans have gone from eating an estimated 2,075 calories a day in 1970 to scarfing down 2,535 calories in 2010. From 2000 to 2007 we were as high as 2,600 calories a day.”

The increasing quantities, however, are not the only problem. We are also eating the wrong kind of foods, like dairy and refined grains. Cheese, in particular, is nearly ubiquitous in many families’ meal plans, including popular items like pizza, burritos, nachos, quesadillas, and on burgers.

Even supposedly healthy choices like salads are routinely laden with dressings, toppings and add-ons that quickly undo the best of intentions to slim things down.

A food group that hasn’t received enough attention so far is grains. Baked goods like breads, pastries and cookies, but also cereal, pasta, rice, crackers, granola bars, pizza, burritos and wraps are all “going gangbusters,” says Liebman. The average American consumes well over 100 pounds of flour every year – and it shows up in people’s ever-expanding waistlines.

Switching from refined grains to whole grains, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), can have some positive effects, but the bottom line is that we need to get everyone to eat less grains, period, says Liebman.

The by far worst grade (D+) on the “report card” was given to sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, well-known culprits in the battles of the bulges. While there has been a slight decrease in sugar consumption in recent years, the overall use in processed foods and sweetened beverages is still so high that most Americans end up with nearly 80 pounds sugar intake per year.

What should we make of these many bad news? Well, the same thing we did as kids when our grades were disappointing: Try harder. Perhaps next time, we’ll do better.

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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).

Too Much Food Is Wasted, In Part Because of Confusing Labeling

September 22nd, 2013 at 3:32 pm by timigustafson
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About 40 percent of the food produced in the United States remains uneaten and goes to waste. Much of that comes from supermarkets and restaurants, but individual households also discard more food than necessary. Billions of pounds of perfectly good food, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, are thrown out every year due to overstocking and confusion over expiration dates, according to a recent study by the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

One of the main culprits in this colossal wastefulness is the convoluted labeling system that is supposed to determine expiration dates for perishable goods, according to the researchers. The dates printed on packaged food products, which are designed to let manufacturers indicate peak quality, help retailers with stocking, and inform consumers about the best time period for use are vastly inconsistent and even misleading.

“All those dates on food products – sell by, use by, best before – almost none of those dates indicate the safety of food, and generally speaking, they’re not regulated in the way many people believe,” the study report concludes.

Surprisingly, the U.S. government has never established a national standard for expiration date labeling and has instead left these matters in the hands of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The result is a hodgepodge of (mostly state-level) regulations that vary considerably not only geographically but also between food categories. Moreover, different methods are in use to determine expiration dates, from lab tests to consumer satisfaction reports.

For example, in Florida, milk must have a shelf-life date, but it is not defined what that means in terms of freshness and safety. In California, the milk processor decides how long quality is ensured, but that doesn’t restrict sales. In Montana, milk must have a “sell-by” date within 12 days of pasteurization. In Pennsylvania, it’s 17 days. A number of states have no such requirements whatsoever.

Many dates printed on food packages are not meant for consumers at all. Some are put in place for communication between manufacturers and retailers. For instance, “pack date” means the date on which an item was made or packaged. “Sell by” indicates the date or time frame the manufacturers recommends for sale at peak quality. It doesn’t necessarily mean the product is unsafe for consumption thereafter.

Information that is directed to consumers can be worded as “use by,” “best by,” “freeze by,” “guaranteed fresh until,” and so on. Again, these are recommendations given by manufacturers who are keen to see their products being used at their highest quality to ensure customer satisfaction and protect brands.

In terms of food safety, of much greater concern for consumers than expiration dates should be warehousing and transportation of the products they buy. While they as individuals have no way of knowing what has happened to their food before they pick it off the shelf, consumers should make certain to bring their purchases home and refrigerate them properly without unnecessary delay. Leaving grocery bags in the car for extended periods of time, especially on hot summer days, can cause enough spoilage to render some foods unsafe for consumption right there and then. Especially vulnerable to heat are seafood, poultry and dairy products.

Despite all the confusion and inconsistencies, experts still recommend to check expiration date labels and go with the date that’s furthest ahead. If there is any doubt about food safety, e.g. because something looks or smells a bit suspicious, it is always better to err on the side of caution. There is no point in getting food poisoning, just because you don’t want to be wasteful either.

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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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