Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

For the first time in many years we are seeing some progress in the fight against childhood obesity in this country, according to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Although the changes are not yet very significant, there is hope that the epidemic is beginning to taper off.

For the study, nearly 12 million preschoolers from 40 states plus Washington D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico had their Body-Mass-Index (BMI) measured. Most came from low-income families who received assistance from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a federal program that gives grants to state-level health and nutrition aid projects.

The majority, 21 states, showed no significant changes in their current obesity rates, while 19 states had a slight decline, and 3 states registered an increase.

One in eight preschoolers (12.5 percent) in the U.S. is diagnosed as obese. Minorities are especially hard hit, with one in five African American and one in six Hispanic children being obese.

Childhood obesity is often considered a precursor of weight problems that persist throughout adolescence and adulthood, giving cause to multiple additional health issues, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But even in their earliest stages in life, obese children can suffer from some of these illnesses as well as learning disabilities and other developmental deficiencies.

The reason why it is so important to look closely at this particular demographic – young children with low-income background – is that they face barriers like limited access to healthy foods, limited places for safe physical activity, and limited educational resources about nutrition that cannot easily be overcome, said Dr. Lindy Christine Fenlason, director of the Pediatric Weight Management Clinic at Vanderbilt University, in an interview with NBC.

The CDC calls for action to be taken on all levels, national, state and local, to provide greater material and structural support for low-income families with overweight children. Far from being a sign of wealth and abundance, as it once may have been, obesity now affects the poor in far greater numbers than the well-off. Their children may be overfed but remain dangerously undernourished.

Civic leaders and government officials should make improvements in their districts and communities wherever they can to promote healthy eating and active living for everyone, the study report says. That includes making healthy foods more affordable and recreation spaces more accessible. Schools have a responsibility to facilitate sufficient physical activity during recess and PE classes. And, most importantly, parents and childcare providers should maintain healthy standards at home and at daycare centers, not least by setting good examples.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Fighting Childhood Obesity in a Complex Environment” and “Childhood Obesity, a Disease with Devastating Effects on Multiple Levels.”

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

Growing Up with a Poor Body Image

August 3rd, 2013 at 3:09 pm by timigustafson
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The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) leadership has announced that it will ban obese members from participating in this year’s national Jamboree, a gathering taking place every four years that includes a number of physically demanding activities, including rock-climbing, whitewater rafting, mountain-biking and strenuous hiking trips. The newly imposed fitness requirements potentially eliminate a growing number of overweight young scouts from such events.

The decision has quickly raised objections from parents and advocacy groups who see it as a form of discrimination against children who struggle with weight problems and already suffer from widespread stigmatization in society.

Setting fitness standards for participation in the Jamboree was not meant to exclude obese kids but rather to motivate them to lose weight and improve their health, according to Dan McCarthy, a high ranking official in the BSA who spoke to Fox News on the subject.

That may be a good intention in theory, but the results can be quite different.

“While the BSA deserves credit for its commitment to the health and well-being of children, and for its efforts to address the difficult issue of childhood obesity, the decision risks perpetuating a stigma, which could in fact make the problem worse,” says Dr. Michael A. Friedman, a clinical psychologist practicing in New York City. “There is perhaps no group that is the subject of more stigma than obese children. This plays out in the form of teasing, ridicule for their appearance, blame for their condition, and assumption that they are lazy or lack willpower. All this, despite evidence of powerful genetic, biological and environmental forces that maintain childhood obesity.”

These assessments are supported by a study from the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, Canada, that found obese children to be twice as likely to develop low self-esteem, compared to their normal-weight peers.

“The current childhood obesity epidemic may trigger an increase in the prevalence of low self-esteem in the future. [It] may increase the prevalence of not only chronic diseases but also poor mental health,” the authors of the study report concluded.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 17 percent, or 12.5 million, of American children and adolescents are currently diagnosed as obese. Obesity prevalence among the young has nearly tripled since the 1980s, and there seem no measurable improvements in sight.

Self-esteem and body image become more closely connected as children move into adolescents, about at the age of 14, says Dr. Richard Strauss, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and author of a study on childhood obesity and self-esteem. He found that “obese children with decreasing self-esteem demonstrate significantly higher rates of sadness, loneliness and nervousness, and are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as smoking and consuming alcohol.”

Sadly, prejudice, stereotypes, stigma and discrimination towards obese persons of all ages remain a socially acceptable form of bias in our culture, says Dr. Rebecca Puhl, a research scientist at Yale University and co-author of a study on the effects of stigmatization of obese people.

Based on her findings, Dr. Puhl says, weight stigma is not a beneficial tool to promote health or reduce obesity. “Rather, stigmatization generates health disparities, and interferes with implementation of effective obesity prevention efforts.”

Especially in growing children, negative thinking about one’s body can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Dr. Helen Pavlov, a radiologist and frequent contributor to Huffington Post on a variety of health issues. Instead of adding to the insecurities youngsters inevitably go through, parents, teachers and other adults in their lives should help instill feelings of self-worth to contribute to their becoming healthier and more confident adults, she says.

Perhaps, the Boy Scouts could schedule an event next time that includes exercises in tolerance and support for those who need it the most.

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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 There, It’s Not Healthy!

July 31st, 2013 at 12:40 pm by timigustafson
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Health experts have long warned that a sedentary lifestyle can contribute to a number of diseases and even shorten people’s lifespan. Several recent studies have confirmed that sitting for hours while working, commuting or relaxing at home can result in serious damage that cannot easily be offset even with regular exercise.

One study found that sitting for six to eight hours significantly increases the risk of chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and certain forms of cancer. These findings are particularly relevant for office workers and people driving for a living, like taxi-, bus- and truck drivers, according to Dr. Richard R. Rosenkranz, a professor of nutrition science at Kansas State University and co-author of the study report.

“We know with very high confidence that more physically active people do better with regard to chronic disease compared to less physically active people, but we should also be looking at reduced sitting. A lot of office jobs that require long periods of sitting may be hazardous to your health because of inactivity and low levels of energy expenditure,” Rosenkranz said in an interview with Medical News Today. “It’s not just that people aren’t getting enough physical activity, but it’s that they’re also sitting too much.”

What’s significant here is that sitting for hours on end by itself can form a health hazard. For example, as one study found, those who sit uninterruptedly for most of their work days nearly double their risk of developing colon cancer. This is independent of how physically active they are in their free time. It’s a bit like smoking – the damage occurs no matter how healthily you live otherwise.

The risks are the same for everyone who sits too long, regardless of age, says Dr. Mark Tremblay, professor of pediatrics at the University of Ottawa, Canada, and director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Institute (HALO).

“People tend to think they’re okay as long as they get their ‘dose’ of working out each day, [but] getting your 30 minutes of physical activity five times a week is no insurance against chronic disease,” he said to Reuters.

Why sitting especially contributes to such a wide range of health risks is not yet altogether clear, however, experts believe that sitting too much may adversely affect blood vessels and metabolism by increasing fat content in the blood stream and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.

“When you are standing or walking, your leg muscles are constantly working, which helps to clear blood glucose and blood fats from the blood stream,” said Dr. Hidde van der Ploeg, a researcher at the University of Sydney who conducted a separate study on the subject in Australia. “If you are sitting, this is not happening because the muscles are not active.”

More companies are beginning to realize that a health-conducive work environment can benefit not only their workers but also their own bottom-line. To minimize rising insurance costs by preventing health problems before they develop, some are redesigning work stations and offer in-house facilities where employees can move, bend and stretch multiple times during the day. Elevated desks where work can be performed standing and even treadmills in individual office spaces are becoming more common.

There are also less cumbersome adjustments people can do on their own. Taking breaks for a few minutes every one or two hours by walking the hallways or climbing the stairs to loosen one’s muscles is a good start. Unfortunately, there is not much to be done about long, slow-moving commutes other than finding housing closer to work, which is not always an option. But moving and stretching after coming home, instead of immediately collapsing in the lazy chair, can offer at least some compensation.

Those who travel long-distance by plane should also pay close attention to their need for movement before and after their flight. Layovers offer great opportunities for walking airport terminals. Instead of sitting at the bar, the lounge or the waiting area, you can go for a long stroll. While airborne, you should get up at least once every hour and walk the aisles as far as possible.

The benefits from moving, even the slow and leisurely kind, should not be underestimated or dismissed as insignificant. If nothing else, you burn a few calories and prevent stiffness and back pain and, in the long run, more serious problems. So, don’t just sit there, do something for your health…

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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).

For Low-Income Families, Healthy Choices Are No Easy Choices

July 27th, 2013 at 5:00 pm by timigustafson
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In 2008, Congress authorized a test project to determine whether increasing monetary incentives would improve the eating habits and subsequently the overall nutritional health of low-income families. For the study, titled the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP), additional financial help was provided to several thousand beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, to promote the purchase and consumption of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods.

Under the program, participating households were allowed an extra 30 cents for every SNAP dollar they were already receiving that could be spent on SNAP-eligible foods and beverages of their choice.

According to an interim report, the initial impact on the participants’ behavior was considerable. On average, families bought 25 percent (worth about $12 per month) more fresh produce than they did before, amounting to roughly a fifth of a cup per day. This may sound miniscule, but it adds up to about six cups of healthy food a month. Still, it remains far below the two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables per day recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

When asked about their experience with the HIP program, 70 percent of the participants said that healthier foods had come within their reach due to the extra support. 95 percent said they would like to see the incentives go on indefinitely. However, 40 percent complained that the program had not been well advertised and that they first heard about it long after its inception. They also found it hard (or didn’t know whether it was hard or easy) to understand how it worked and who would be eligible.

This points to a notorious problem with well-intended programs like HIP. They are primarily geared towards audiences that are hard to reach. Many if not most of the potential beneficiaries have no access to the Internet or other media outlets, or have the necessary education to understand complex government programs.

Even long-established aid programs like SNAP that people are familiar with and depend on are under constant threat of being reduced or altogether eliminated, adding to the already widespread food insecurity among the poor in this country. Chances are that in the current political climate HIP will be discontinued, regardless whether it turns out a success or a failure.

In truth, for poor families it will never be easy to make healthier diet and lifestyle choices, no matter how hard they try. Food prices keep rising, supermarkets and grocery stores are absent from many low-income neighborhoods, and people lack basic information about their health needs.

It is one thing to criticize food stamps recipients for buying junk food and sodas that make them overweight and sick, it’s another to offer them realistic alternatives to turn their lot around. Cutting people’s lifelines they desperately need to make it halfway through is certainly not the way to go. If additional incentives can achieve even better results, we should increase instead of end 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).

Don’t Waste Those ‘Later Years’ in Life

July 24th, 2013 at 12:12 pm by timigustafson
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Time flies, whether we have fun or not. Time also seems to pass more quickly as we age. In our childhood memories, time was always abundant. Afternoons spent at the playground or the pool seemed longer. Summer vacations felt endless. Every new experience unfolded as if in slow motion. But as adults, we are barely able to keep up with the challenges life throws at us day in and day out. Before we know it, ten, twenty years have gone by without a moment to catch our breath. How can our perception of time change so dramatically?

Scientists have long asked this question but have not been able to come up with a satisfying answer. Of course, the notion that time goes by with greater speed in our later years is nothing but an illusion. Yet it appears so to most of us as we look back, wondering what has happened.

Some experts believe that our time perception is strongly influenced by two mental functions, namely attention and memory. When we first encounter or learn about something new, a high level of alertness and retention of information is required of us. Once we become more familiar and develop certain routines, our efforts become less strenuous. In hindsight, we may even wonder why the initial learning curve had been so steep. That also applies to our perception of the time we had to invest in the learning process.

“The greater the cognitive demands of a task, the longer its duration is perceived to be,” said Dr. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, in an interview on the subject with the New York Times. Conversely, “repeated stimuli appear briefer in duration than novel stimuli of equal duration.”

Since we have most of our first encounters with the world as children, it could explain the difference in how we experience time then compared to adulthood.

“First-time events – your first date, the birth of your first child, that first big vacation, etc. – are novel events and we tend to make more detailed and lasting memories of those first times,” says Dr. Ronald E. Riggio, a psychology professor at Claremont McKenna College, California. “When we repeat the event, year after year, it is less likely to make unique or lasting impressions.”

Additional explanations for our distorted time perception are offered by Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. He says that most of us simply misjudge time distances. In our memory, some things that are important to us appear much closer than others that went, for whatever reason, by the wayside. For instance, we may remember a significant person or an event for a lifetime, while we hardly can recall last night’s dinner.

As we pass through life, we likely come across fewer novelties but more routines that leave no marks. So we don’t form as many memories, giving us the impression that time is vanishing before our eyes.

If we have too many uninspiring stretches of time, we’ll get bored, which is actually not a relaxing experience but rather a form of stress. A study conducted by the York University, Toronto, Canada, found that boredom has similarly damaging health effects as stress. There are the same symptoms of an inability to focus, function and engage in satisfying activities.

So what can we do to make the most of whatever we have left on the clock? If you are overworked and stressed to the max, take breaks and slow down as often and much as you can, advises Dr. Riggio. Dare to expose yourself to new experiences. Travel. Learn a foreign language or a computer program. Envision your future as another exciting adventure instead of a twilight zone.

Most importantly, don’t waste your time. Embrace life as you did when it was all new – because it can be again if you make it so.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Aging Well – A Profile of Health and Vitality in Your Later Years.”

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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).

Protect Your Family from the Summer Heat

July 20th, 2013 at 7:45 am by timigustafson
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As yet another heat wave with record-breaking temperatures grips much of the country, people are trying to cope as best as they can. Especially young children, the elderly, and those working or exercising outdoors are vulnerable to dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

The dangers are real. In recent years more Americans have died from extreme heat than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods and earthquake combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Children
Children get more easily dehydrated and overheated than adults. When they play outdoors, they are distracted and don’t necessarily recognize the signs of thirst. They also sweat less and produce more body heat. That’s why it is important for parents to closely monitor their kids’ fluid intake. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children rehydrate every 20 minutes or so when they are physically active, regardless whether they feel thirsty or not.

Plain water should be the preferred choice, but fortified sports drinks also have a place for older children and adolescents who engage in athletic sports. Energy drinks, however, are not advisable for youngsters because of their concentrated caffeine content, which can have diuretic effects, a report by the AAP warns.

If a child is already dehydrated, making water available as quickly as possible is the first thing to do. Adding fruit juice can enhance the rehydration process. But giving too many fluids can be harmful, particularly when the child is very young.

“It’s actually quite dangerous for infants six months and younger to be given straight water, nor should they have their formula diluted with water,” said Dr. Nathan Timm, an emergency physician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center in an interview on the subject with ABC News. “They will get water intoxication, where the water dilutes the sodium in their body and leads to seizure and coma and sometimes even death. If the infant is thirsty, [he or she] should be given more formula or Pedialyte, but not straight water.”

Seniors
As we age, our body becomes ever more affected by temperature changes. In hot weather, the ability to cool off by sweating is reduced, and the kidneys are less efficient in handling fluids and electrolytes. Chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease can inhibit these functions even further. Also, many seniors take medications that have diuretic effects, thereby adding to the risk of becoming dehydrated.

Older people often underestimate the potential dangers in connection with dehydration and heat exhaustion and don’t take necessary precautions. Most victims of the 2003 heat wave that killed tens of thousands in Europe were seniors who lived alone and had no air-conditioning and not enough drinking water in their homes. Making sure older family members, neighbors and friends are provided with all they need to stay safe in the summer heat can save lives.

People working or exercising outside
Even being moderately physically active in hot and humid weather substantially heightens the potential for dehydration and overheating. Strenuous exercises like running, biking or lifting heavy weights can accelerate those processes. The body may lose more fluids than it can absorb within a short period of time, and the losses can accumulate to the point where serious damage occurs. High humidity may hinder normal sweating, preventing the natural cooling system from functioning properly.

Athletes should refrain from training in the midday heat. For those who have to be outdoors because of work, it is advisable to stay in the shade as much as possible and to drink plenty of water. Caffeine and alcohol should be avoided, as these will only add to the negative effects.

Food for hot weather
Besides water, there are countless other sources that can help you replace lost fluids and keep you from getting overheated. Salads and cold soups like gazpacho are perfect for rehydration and can be more enjoyable than a warm meal on a hot day. Serve plenty of fresh fruit and raw vegetables with delicious chilled dips. Or, you can try the other way around and eat hot and spicy foods – it’s said that raising your body temperature this way can make you feel less uncomfortable in hot surroundings.

Whatever you do, keep in mind that your body is under greater stress at this time of the year and needs your attentive care.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Risks from Extreme Heat Are Widely Underestimated.”

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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).

Immigrants Changing American Food Preferences

July 17th, 2013 at 9:42 am by timigustafson
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It is a well-known fact that immigrants to the United States tend to adapt to our eating habits rather quickly, which is not always to their advantage from a health perspective. But it is also true that our established food preferences are being continuously transformed and expanded due to new influences from around the world.

Of course, America has always been a hodgepodge of different cultures and ethnicities. That makes us the rich and vibrant society we are. However, that hasn’t always fully translated into our culinary achievements. But times are changing.

From 2010 to 2012, sales in ethnic foods rose by 4.5 percent, or nearly $9 billion, according to the Mintel Group, an international market research firm. It predicts additional growth of more than 20 percent over the next five years.

“While the effect of changing demographics has been seen in voting patterns and employment trends, the growing influence on America’s palate of the influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia has been more subtle,” writes Stephanie Strom of the New York Times. “But as the buying power of Latino and Asian consumers expands, fruit flavors, hotter spices, different textures and grains, and even packaging innovations are becoming essential for big food manufacturers trying to appeal to diverse appetites.”

Even Campbell’s, America’s soup maker, has a new product line called “Go Soup,” offering spicy Moroccan-style chicken, spicy Chorizo, Shiitake mushrooms, and more.

And it’s not just the demographic changes in ethnicity that food manufacturers are aware of. They also want to appeal to younger customers who have grown up in a culturally diverse environment. Also, today’s consumers have a much better educated palate than their parents and grandparents and take it for granted to have access to all kinds of foods from around the world without having to go far.

Time is of the essence as well. People snack more or grab a bite on the run. Sushi or tacos fit the need for speed much better than a sit-down meal involving several courses.

More and more Americans are getting bored with the bland diets and dining experiences of past generations, according to surveys conducted by the Hartman Group, a consumer research institute. This is in part because of greater exposure to foreign countries through travel, multicultural neighborhoods, and also popular TV shows on the Travel Channel and Food Network.

The trend clearly goes from the “typically bland mouth feel of traditional American foods, which center on salty, sweet or fatty richness, toward spicy notes and aromas of a wide range of different foods and beverages – a significant part of which includes those from other cultures,” their report concludes.

In addition to taste, there is also a heightened sense of the importance of dietary wellness. Many ethnic foods are considered to be healthier, including by experts, because of their ingredient choices and cooking techniques. Just advising people to eat more fruits and vegetables will not suffice if they don’t know how these can be incorporated into a diet that is healthful but also appealing in taste and presentation. Many ethnic foods offer these advantages in spades.

Race, ethnicity and ancestry are complex topics and come with a lot of baggage, and so does food, says Hanna Kang-Brown, a writer who grew up in Los Angeles in a Korean-American neighborhood. Eating is our most interactive activity, she says, involving all our senses and linking us back to our memories. It taps into our gut reactions and lets us experience our identity and place with ease and pleasure – something we all can benefit from.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Food Trends to Keep: Small, Simple, Fresh and Healthy.”

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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).

The “Slow” Diet

July 13th, 2013 at 5:40 pm by timigustafson
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The Mediterranean diet is praised by its proponents as one of the healthiest eating styles around. Dominated by fruits and vegetables, it is considered well suited for the prevention of heart disease, stroke, cancer and even mental decline. What gets rarely mentioned, however, is that it is not so much the dietary principles but rather the underlying lifestyle that sets the Mediterranean diet apart. For example, not rushing things too much and enjoying a leisurely clip are just as important as the food itself. And that does not only apply to food preparation or consumption but to life in general.

The Mediterranean diet as we know it today is inspired by many, often ancient, culinary traditions from southern European and northern African countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s not a specific cuisine but rather the product of centuries-old struggles for survival in lands that can be harsh and barren.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, the Mediterranean population never had it particularly easy. The region is by no means a bountiful breadbasket. The landscapes that surround the sea, mostly mountainous peninsulas and islands and narrow coastal plains, do not easily yield a livelihood to their inhabitants. The food supply comes mostly from small farms that have been operated by the same families for eons. Industrial farming methods are neither practical nor welcome.

“For all the sun-drenched ease we associate with the Mediterranean – in reality little more than a vacationer’s fantasy – there is an undertone of harshness to the region’s beauty,” writes Ayla Alger, co-author of “Mediterranean – The Beautiful Cookbook” (Harper Collins, 1994). “It is indeed remarkable that agriculture has flourished at all in the Mediterranean, the result not only of skillful cultivation but also of the peasant tenacity and hardiness of its peoples.”

Still, despite all the difficulties (or, perhaps, because of them), there has always been a deep appreciation for nature’s gifts. People’s relationship to their food is profoundly personal. Those who don’t farm themselves buy locally grown produce at the market and prepare their meals at home from scratch. Hardly anyone ever eats alone. Having food is a communal affair that involves families, neighbors, friends and visiting guests.

By contrast, our lifestyles demand ever-greater speed and efficiency in nearly all aspects of our lives, including our mealtimes. Many of us skip breakfast or grab something from the coffee shop on the way to the office. We work through lunch and watch TV or spend more time on computers and other devices while having dinner, which is usually take-out or something microwavable.

Fast food, an icon of Western culture, is the quintessential opposite of the home-cooked family meal. It is available almost anywhere and at all times; it comes ready to eat; it can be consumed alone; it doesn’t require a table or even a plate; and its non-descript taste never varies. Instead of bringing us together, it allows us to keep to ourselves, we don’t even have to get out of our cars if we don’t want to. As such, it doesn’t just impact our physical health but our entire well-being, including the quality of our familial and social life.

We must pay more attention to the consequences of our constantly accelerating world, warns Jay Walljasper, a contributing editor to National Geographic and author of “All That We Share.”

“The human time world is no longer joined to the incoming and outgoing tides, the rising and setting sun, and the changing seasons,” he says. “Instead, humanity has created an artificial time environment punctuated by mechanical contrivances and electronic impulses.”

Our eating habits are a direct reflection of our lifestyle that is becoming increasingly unsustainable, says Walljasper. Feeding ourselves has become just one of the countless activities we engage in day in and day out. It has no special meaning. There is no attention being paid, no gratitude felt. It’s just consumption.

It wasn’t always like this – and it doesn’t have to continue this way. “People want to slow down because they feel that their lives are spinning out of control,” he says. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans would accept pay cuts if they were given more time off in return.

There is also a growing hunger for getting back to basics. More young people now consider farming – the small kind – as a career option, and also because they want to do something meaningful with their lives. And their sentiments are widely shared. The popularity of farmers markets all over the country speaks for itself.

The desire to slow down and take more time for things that really matter can become a reality at any moment and without much ado. Walljasper describes his own “conversion” to a slower-paced existence like this: “I’ve started the “Slow Is Beautiful” revolution in my own life – right in the kitchen, scaling back my busy schedule to find more time for cooking good meals and then sitting down to enjoy them in a festive, unrushed way with my wife, son and friends. Even cleaning up after dinner can offer a lesson in the pleasures of slowness, as I learned a while back when our dishwasher went on the fritz. […] I’d put some jazz or blues on the stereo and sing along, or just daydream as I stacked dishes and glasses on the drying rack.”

Who says you can never go home again?

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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).

Obesity Crisis Spreads to Other Countries – Similar Causes as in the U.S.

July 10th, 2013 at 2:12 pm by timigustafson
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Officially, the United States has no longer the heaviest population in the world. Mexico does now. Nearly 33 percent of Mexicans are diagnosed as obese, compared to just under 32 percent of Americans, making our neighbor to the south the fattest country on earth, if you don’t count the Pacific Islands region, where rates can go as high as 71 percent, according to a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

These latest developments should not come as a surprise. Western-style eating habits are rapidly conquering the entire globe. The ongoing economic crisis in Europe forces more families to limit their food choices to cheaper products like fast food, with predictable consequences. In parts of Africa, where hunger has long been the predominant problem, obesity rates are now skyrocketing as children are being overfed on unhealthy food supplies but remain dangerously undernourished. In South America a widespread departure from indigenous diets in favor of imported processed foods already causes tremendous health problems, especially among the young.

Why is all this happening at once? According to the FAO’s assessment, obesity is a result of a series of changes in diet, physical activity and other factors, collectively known as ‘nutrition transitions.’ These trends are now prevalent in developing countries, and also in places suffering from severe economical downturns.

Big cities, where work is less physically demanding and motorized transportation is common, are particularly affected. Also, as women enter the workforce in greater numbers, they have less time to prepare meals for their families at home and instead seek more convenient options like eating out or microwaving frozen foods.

Rural areas are not immune to these lifestyle shifts either. There, too, obesity rates are on the rise because of agricultural mechanization and a diminishing need for physical labor.

The greatest impact, however, seems to come from the import of poor eating habits from industrialized countries, most of all the U.S. Our preferences for meat products and processed foods now affect the health of those who are trying to imitate our way of life. And the food industry is more than happy to comply.

“As food companies watch income rise in the developing world, they are setting their sights on new markets. From Mexico to Morocco, the same foods that jeopardize health in wealthy countries are now tempting poor ones,” says the FAO report.

Other dietary changes are taking place regardless of outside influences. With dramatic economical growth in Asian countries comes greater demand for a richer diet. There are now about 100 million obese people in China, five times as many as there were only a decade ago.

Obesity, of course, is only one aspect of this global health crisis. Diabetes, heart disease and cancer, a.k.a. “non-communicable diseases” (NCDs) because they don’t spread from person to person but are mostly caused by poor living conditions and lifestyle choices, are now identified by the United Nations as the greatest threat to world health. About 36 million people die every year from NCDs, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

As a small silver lining on the horizon may count the fact that nutritional health is on the mind of a growing number of people, and to some extent, the food industry is responding. But switching to healthier diets is difficult, if not outright impossible, for most of the world population because of high prices for fresh foods. Only sweeping policy changes in our existing food production and distribution processes could bring significant improvements – unfortunately, that is not a likely scenario in the near future.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “United Nations Vow to Combat Lifestyle-Related Diseases Worldwide” and “Despite of the Obesity Crisis, the Eating Habits of Most Americans Remain Unchanged

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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).

Ingrained Eating Habits Are Hard to Change, Studies Find

July 6th, 2013 at 2:06 pm by timigustafson
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Americans may be better informed about matters of diet and nutrition than ever before, but that does not necessarily change their behavior, according to a number of studies, including several conducted by the restaurant industry. Although many popular chain restaurants are trying to give consumers healthier alternatives to their traditional fares, the better-for-you stuff doesn’t sell very well.

For example, McDonald’s reports that sales of its least caloric items remain flat. “Although the chain devoted one-sixth of its advertising time to salads, they make up 2 to 3 percent of sales, and don’t drive growth,” said Don Thompson, the company’s president and CEO in an interview with the New York Times.

Consumers are not trying to do something for their health when they eat out, let alone when they go to a fast food place. They want to indulge and get the biggest bang for their buck. That’s what they expect and the industry is happy to comply.

Fast food also sells well because it is filled with fat, sugar and salt, ingredients that can trigger a sense of comfort and satisfaction and may even be addictive.

And it is not just the food itself that proves irresistible for some, but also the act of indulging. Especially in times of stress, which in the lives of many people is nearly constant, we tend to fall back into old habits we have picked up over the years, some of which may be unhealthy and destructive.

Experiments have shown that high levels of stress and fatigue can bring back once-established routines and make us act as if on autopilot. Scientists Wendy Wood and David T. Neal of Duke University found that both good and bad habits can be mobilized in stressful situations, but that willpower almost always loses out.

“Willpower is a finite resource. In the face of multiple stressful stimuli, our willpower wears out and it takes time […] to recover,” said Neal in an interview with CNN. “If you’ve grown up with bad habits or formed them later in life, yes, the phenomenon is that it’s a net negative for you. If a majority of your routines are unhealthy, then lacking willpower is really a problem. It becomes a double whammy because you are forced more into those patterns.”

These findings confirm what behavioral psychologists have known for a long time, namely that stress experiences and eating patterns are closely related. When stress is unrelenting (a.k.a. chronic stress), craving rich food can become an almost natural response. And if these responses become habitual, it can be increasingly hard to break them after some time.

To overcome detrimental habits and replace them with better ones, Wood and Neal recommend changing the environment. For example, many of our reactions are triggered by visual cues. If they can be avoided, half the battle may already be won. “There is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind element here,” said Neal.

With the nearly ubiquitous presence of fast food places, that may not be an easy task. But packing a nutritious lunch at home or keeping some healthier snacks in the car may help prevent some spontaneous missteps. Also, intentionally changing one’s daily routines to disrupt established behavior can be useful.

Unfortunately, we are not aware of many of our habits, and they must first be brought to our attention. The good news is that by reexamining them, we can regain a lot of power and start anew.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Your Eating Habits – What Makes Them, What Breaks Them.”

Connect with us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+ and Pinterest

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

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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