Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

And You Thought You Were Eating Right Already

April 5th, 2014 at 8:02 am by timigustafson
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Most of us already knew about the importance of eating more fruit and vegetables to stay healthy and control our weight. But now a new study from England suggests that no less than seven servings of fresh produce per day may be required to give us a reasonable shot at good health and old age.

For their research, scientists from University College London (UCL) used data from annual statistical surveys, known as Health Survey for England (HSE), to study the eating habits of over 65,000 Brits, starting in 2001 through 2013.

Based on their findings, they concluded that participants who followed a diet rich in fruit and vegetables could dramatically lower their risk of dying prematurely from any illness, including heart disease and cancer.

For example, people who ate seven or more portions of plant-based foods every day decreased their risk of death from all causes by an astounding 42 percent, from heart disease by 31 percent, and from cancer by 25 percent. These numbers, the researchers observed, held up even after they were adjusted for age, gender, weight, physical activity level, income, education, and lifestyle, including tobacco and alcohol use.

The apparent benefits are staggering, said Dr. Oyinlola Oyebode, the lead author of the study. “The clear message here is that the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die at any age.”

Until now, most official guidelines advised about five servings daily. The World Health Organization (WHO) called increasing consumption of fruit and vegetables to “5 A Day” an important part of its “Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health” in 2004. Australia has a public campaign named “Go for 2&5” that promotes eating two portions of fruit and five of vegetables per day, especially for children. In the United States, a program titled “Fruits & Veggies – More Matters” recommends filling half of every plate with fruit and vegetables.

People shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by these numbers, said Dr. Oyebode. “Whatever your starting point, it is always worth eating more fruit and vegetables. In our study, even those eating one to three portions had a significantly lower risk than those eating less than one,” she added.

Critics have pointed out that these latest recommendations may be unrealistic for most people because of high prices for fresh food items. For example, Dr. Naveed Sattar, a professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, said the seven-a-day message was too challenging for many consumers and would require governmental subsidies and/or additional taxes on less healthy products to make high quality foods available to all in society.

Other experts agree. People were already struggling with the existing targets. Plus, in the real world, eating habits are a complex issue that involves numerous variables such as access, affordability, education, and social and cultural differences. Also, simply focusing on the health effects of one or two food groups leaves out multiple other components, including agricultural and environmental factors. Not many of us can devise their own dietary regimen independent of their surroundings.

The bottom line is that we all have to make the best of what we have to work with. The new study, as dramatic as its findings appear to be, is not really new at all. It says that the healthier you eat – plus do the other important things like exercise, manage stress, get enough sleep, don’t abuse your body – the greater the chances will be for you to stay healthy and fit throughout your life. But you probably already knew that, too.

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

Eat Less, Live Longer?

April 2nd, 2014 at 10:58 am by timigustafson
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Finding ways to extend the human lifespan by observing certain diet and lifestyle regimens has been a centuries-old quest. Indeed, our average life expectancy has dramatically increased over time, at least in the wealthier parts of the world, due to improvements in hygiene, health care, and food supply. Yet science has still not been able to provide definite answers to what we can do to live longer.

Studies on longevity in connection with diet and lifestyle have been undertaken as early as the 16th century, most notably by one Luigi Cornaro, a Venetian who was known for his hard partying until his health failed him before he reached 50. In his autobiographical book, “Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life,” which is still in print today, he claims that a radical change from unrestricted indulgence to Spartan simplicity not only restored his health but also added many more years to his life. He died at 98 – an exceptionally old age at his time.

A more systematic approach to studying the effects of diet on longevity was taken in the 1930s when scientists noticed that lab mice put on a calorie-restricted diet lived up to 40 percent longer than their abundantly fed counterparts. But still nobody knew the exact causes of the dramatic lifespan increases, let alone whether the findings were applicable to humans.

Two relatively recent studies tested independently from each other the impact of calorie restriction on health and mortality in rhesus monkeys. Both came up with opposite results.

In 2009, a study report issued by researchers from the University of Wisconsin claimed that a calorie-restricted diet regimen did actually favor longevity in the monkeys. But three years later, scientists at the National Institute of Aging laboratory in Baltimore who conducted similar studies found no evidence that providing their monkeys with less food made any difference in terms of lifespan, as they documented in their own report.

A subsequent dispute between the two research teams over their differing study results continues today.

Regardless of what animal tests are (or are not) able to show, it remains unclear how the outcomes can be made useful for humans.

To understand the effects of calorie restriction, one has to be careful to distinguish between undernutrition, in which all the essential nutrients the body needs to function properly and stay healthy are provided – albeit by using fewer calories, and malnutrition, where at least some nutrients are missing, potentially resulting in harmful deficiencies over time. The latter is certainly not recommended and is not likely to have any health benefits, including for longevity.

In the light of what we know about the health effects of diet to date, we can say with reasonable certainty that moderate calorie restriction in support of weight control is healthy and in any case preferable to excessive weight gain, one of the largest health threats looming today. To what extent that implicates life expectancy remains to be seen. More important to realize, however, is the fact that health-promoting diet and lifestyle choices contribute to the quality of life at any age and become even more significant as we grow older.

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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).

Bottling Up Negative Emotions Can Be Just as Harmful as Acting on Them

March 29th, 2014 at 3:30 pm by timigustafson
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Having been born and raised in England, I am intimately familiar with the habit of keeping a “stiff upper lip.” As a cultural phenomenon, this means that emotions – positive or negative – are not readily expressed, at least not in public. Some may take this as good manners, others as signs of rigidity and unnatural restraint. In any case, researchers warn that perpetual emotional suppression is nothing benign but can lead to potentially serious mental and physical health problems and even premature death.

One study conducted by psychologists from Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Rochester found that suppressing emotions may increase the risk of dying from heart disease and certain forms of cancer. This confirms earlier studies that have linked negative emotions like anger, anxiety, and depression to the development of heart disease.

The health risks increase, it seems, when people have no way of expressing or acting on their feelings, the researchers say. We know that stress can build up and become chronic when our “natural” fight-or-flight responses meant to help us survive in conflictous situations are frustrated. Similarly detrimental effects may occur when negative emotions remain unexpressed.

Some experts suggest that acknowledging emotions, especially distressing ones, and airing them from time to time is an important component of mental health.

In our culture, people quickly feel guilty or ashamed when they appear as being overly negative or critical, says Tori Rodriguez, a psychotherapist and writer based in Atlanta. We are biased toward positive thinking, which is worth cultivating, but problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time, she says.

“Anger and sadness are an important part of life, and new research shows that experiencing and accepting such emotions are vital to our mental health. Attempting to suppress thoughts can backfire and even diminish our sense of contentment. Acknowledging the complexity of life may be an especially fruitful path to psychological well-being.”

But how about positive emotions? Can they make us healthier? Yes, especially if we allow ourselves to express them, a separate study from Harvard found.

Individuals with great emotional vitality have a much lower risk of developing heart disease compared to the less emotionally expressive, according to Dr. Laura Kubzansky, a professor of human health and development at Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study report. There are mechanisms at play we don’t fully understand yet, she says, but there is evidence that positive emotions can provide some sort of “restorative biology.”

Obviously, neither positive nor negative feelings arise in a vacuum. An essential part of emotional well-being is our ability to create and maintain a conducive environment where our various needs are satisfied and our bodies, minds and souls are nourished. Not all, but a great deal of that is within our control and can benefit from our care. That in itself should give us cause to feel 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).

It’s Not Always the Food that Makes Us Eat

March 26th, 2014 at 5:54 pm by timigustafson
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What is more likely to cause overeating – a quick bite on the run or a sit-down meal in a relaxed atmosphere? Surprisingly, it’s the rushed eating event that most often seduces us to overindulge. Why? For a number of reasons, most of which we are completely unaware of, according to scientists who study our eating behavior.

If you serve people the same kind of food but provide a different atmosphere, such as lighting and music, they will not only have a different dining experience but will also respond differently in terms of how fast and how much they eat, said Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and consumer behavior at Cornell University in New York.

Together with his co-researcher, Dr. Koert van Ittersum of the Georgia Institute of Technology, he experimented with alterations in fast food restaurants, like toning down lights and playing soft jazz music in the background, to see if it influenced how customers ate their meals. As it turned out, not only did patrons find their meals better tasting and spend more time eating, they also consumed on average about 200 fewer calories!

“The more relaxed environment increased satisfaction and decreased consumption,” Dr. Wansink observed. “Making simple changes away from brighter lights and sound-reflecting surfaces can go a long way toward reducing overeating and increase customers’ satisfaction at the same time,” he said.

Similar effects were found in other studies on food presentation. Adding decorative flourishes, as it is customary in high-end restaurants, can make a significant difference on how people relate to the food they are served, according to one study conducted at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.

Here, patrons were served the very same meal two nights in a row, however with dramatically altered plating styles. On the first night, an entrée consisting of chicken breast, brown rice and green beans was presented in what is considered a traditional style. The following night, the chefs arranged the ingredients more creatively. Overwhelmingly, the second presentation was judged as more pleasing and, although both meals were virtually identical, the food was found to be superior.

These are simple tricks people can use at home just as effectively to make their meals more attractive, said Dr. Debra Zellner, a professor of psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey and lead author of the study report.

One of the reasons why nutrition experts recommend sit-down family meals over TV dinners is atmosphere. When people of all ages take time to focus on their food, enjoy each other’s company, and do it in a place that is reserved for eating occasions only, it reflects on their behavior – and the benefits can be substantial, not the least for nutritional health and weight control.

Distracted food consumption, or as Dr. Wansink calls it, “mindless eating,” is considered to be one of the causes for overeating and unwanted weight gain. Paying greater attention not only to what we eat but also how much and how quickly can be an effective countermeasures to overeating. For some, this may take a few lifestyle changes. But it is not complicated, and the results are well worth the effort.

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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).

Is the Public Not Confused Enough Yet?

March 22nd, 2014 at 7:45 am by timigustafson
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It was the kind of report news outlets pounce on because it apparently offers one of those ‘gotcha’ moments their audience seems to crave so much. So you’ve probably already heard about the latest study on dietary fats and their limited impact on heart health.

If not, here are a few details. For their research, an international team of scientists undertook what is known as a ‘meta-analysis,’ meaning they reviewed a number of previous investigations (as opposed to doing their own) to determine the effects of diet changes with regards to fat intake. In the end they concluded that cutting back on saturated fat or adding polyunsaturated fatty acids, as recommended by many health experts, was not as beneficial as widely believed.

In layperson’s terms, the study results could be interpreted as saying that for heart health it doesn’t really matter all that much what kind of fat you eat – whether it comes from meat products (mostly saturated), oils (mono- and polyunsaturated), plant foods like vegetables, beans and grains (polyunsaturated), fish (omega-3), or nuts and seeds (omega-6 polyunsaturated).

This, of course, sharply contradicts existing nutritional guidelines – including those by the American Heart Association (AHA) – most of which urge limiting saturated fats and replacing them with the other varieties, especially for heart disease patients.

To be sure, studies like these (including studies of studies) are important and instrumental for the progress of science. They help us refine and, if need be, correct the knowledge we claim to have. On the other hand, if they are reported in the press and elsewhere in ways that misread or distort the facts and only add to the confusion of an already weary public, we may need to look for a more careful approach.

The findings of studies that solely focus on particular nutrients cannot readily be translated into nutritional guidelines, warns Dr. David L. Katz, the founding director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University and the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital in Derby, Connecticut, and author of several books on nutritional health, most recently, “Disease Proof – The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well” (Penguin, 2013).

The point is that if you ask people to change just one thing in their diet, you are not necessarily improving their overall nutritional health. For example, it doesn’t suffice to recommend reducing consumption of meat (saturated fat) but say nothing about excessive intake of refined carbohydrates and sugar, which is equally common in the American diet, and has equally menacing health outcomes.

When people decide to eat less of certain foods, they usually compensate for the deficit by eating more of something else. The question is, what is that something else, says Dr. Katz.

To give meaningful dietary guidelines people can trust and follow in practical terms, scientists have to stop taking a “one-nutrient-at-a-time” approach and rather focus on the larger picture, he demands in an article he wrote in response to the study.

“Dietary guidance must be about the whole diet, and should be directed at foods rather than nutrients. If we get the foods right, the nutrients take care of themselves,” he argues.

So what should be the take-away from this study and others of its kind? To everyone who is interested in health-promoting eating habits, I suggest you continue with your regimen of a balanced diet as best as you can. The benefits are clear and so are the risks of deviating from what we know to be healthful. There is nothing to be confused about.

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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).

Great Plans for Retirement, but How Much Will Materialize?

March 19th, 2014 at 5:22 pm by timigustafson
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In the 2002 movie, “About Schmidt,” a recently retired insurance agent (portrayed by Jack Nicholson) goes on a road trip in a brand new RV to see his daughter, and a bit of America along the way. What unfolds is a story as complex and convoluted as Schmidt’s new life. He realizes that his work of many years has quickly become irrelevant, and that his ties to family and friends have long frayed. Now he is intent on making up for the many sacrifices and missed opportunities in his past. Even his wife’s sudden and unexpected death doesn’t change that. There is still more to come in his “Golden Years,” or so he hopes.

More so than any other generation before them, today’s retirees have great expectations about what they will be able to accomplish after officially leaving the work force. There are many good reasons for that. People live longer, have a wider variety of skills and interests, are more mobile, and can take advantage of technologies not available only a short time ago.

On the downside, a great number are not financially secure enough to be able to afford retirement. They hope to continue working, at least part-time, to supplement pensions and savings. According to surveys, three fourths of Americans say they plan on working beyond retirement age in some capacity.

But that may be easier said than done. In actuality less than one fifth manage to remain in the work force. Many retire even sooner than they had envisioned – in most cases not by choice. According to the AARP, older Americans may want to continue working because it provides them with much needed income, keeps them busy and engaged, allows them to stay socially connected, and so forth. But often retirees underestimate the difficulties of finding any job, let alone one that fulfills them and gives them pleasure.

True, much of today’s work environment does no longer require hard physical labor, so aging people are not necessarily as disadvantaged as they used to be. But well paying jobs, as scarce as they are, typically demand long work hours as well as skills older workers may not have and find hard to acquire.

Also, while blatant age discrimination is unlawful, many employers are hesitant to hire workers late in their careers, even those with valuable expertise, if they can get their needs met by younger ones for less money and fewer benefits.

There are, of course, numerous examples of retried persons finding meaningful and rewarding things to do. Those who can afford to busy themselves for free are invited to volunteer for countless causes. But for the majority that’s no solution. According to consumercredit.com, more than 70 percent of Americans are financially too insecure to retire without some source of income in addition to their pension plans and/or social security checks.

Among the greatest concerns, unsurprisingly, are rising healthcare costs. This is where many of the elderly feel most vulnerable. Whether the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) will change that remains to be seen, but presently there is much uncertainty about the new law’s impact, particularly on those who suffer from chronic ailments.

For this and other reasons, we all, but especially the now retiring baby boomers, are well advised to pay close attention to our health needs, preferably in terms of disease prevention through diet and lifestyle improvements. Contrary to widespread belief, illness and decline are not inevitable parts of aging. In fact, with few exceptions, we have considerable control over our own aging process. And how well we do health-wise determines greatly what else we can hope to accomplish in every other aspect.

So, to my fellow-retirees who are still highly active and full of plans for the future, I say: let’s keep up our zest for life, but let’s start with the fundamentals, and see where we can go from here.

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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).

Those Pesky Wrinkles, Inevitable or Cause for Concern?

March 14th, 2014 at 5:21 pm by timigustafson
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The skin is the body’s largest organ, and because it is the most visible, it usually gets the most attention. Like every other part of us, our skin changes as we grow older, but nothing shows the signs of aging as much, perhaps with the exception of graying hair.

In fact, we routinely judge not only a person’s age but also general state of health and vitality by the appearance of his or her skin.

“The first sign of wrinkles strikes terror into the hearts of many people,” says Dr. Leonard Hayflick, professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “How and Why We Age” (Ballantine Books, 1994). This, he says, is not because skin wrinkles are a disease – “no one dies of old skin” – but rather because of society’s obsession with youth and devaluation of old age.

Besides wrinkling, aging skin is associated with discoloring, thinning, dryness, and lessening ability to heal from wounds. But these are not inevitable characteristics, according to Dr. Hayflick.

“Most skin lesions afflicting the elderly are preventable,” he says. “With few exceptions, they are not the result of normal aging but represent an accumulation of environmental insults.”

For example, exposure to sunlight is considered a major cause of skin damage (photoaging), especially for fair-skinned people. But so are air pollution and smoking.

Besides environmental assaults, some scientists believe that skin wrinkles may also be caused by an age-related loss of a protein called “collagen” and/or an overgrowth of another protein known as “elastin,” which seems to take place in both sun-damaged and aging skin.

Other possible causes are habitual facial expressions like frowning or laughter, or how someone sleeps at night, resulting in imprints and creases.

But there can be hidden, more serious health issues at play as well. Studies have shown that elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, and heart disease can leave their mark on the body’s surface. For instance, velvety brownish patches can be a sign of diabetes; dull, dry skin can come from nutritional deficiencies, including lack of certain vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids.

Fortunately, there are a number of steps one can take to mitigate skin degeneration. In addition to avoiding excessive exposure to sun light (or UV rays in tanning studios), and applying sunscreen before going outside, experts recommend eating certain foods that are deemed especially helpful for preserving healthy skin.

Generally speaking, any balanced diet regimen is good for the skin, as it is for all organs. One of the most important nutrients for skin health is vitamin A, which is found in dairy products like yogurt and cheese. For obvious reasons, it is advisable to stick to low-fat versions and to keep serving sizes in check. Also, beta-carotene, richly present in carrots, sweet potatoes, yams, and dark, leafy greens, adds to the package.

Fruits and vegetables in general are always good choices, and for multiple reasons, among them their high content in antioxidants and phytochemicals. These are chemical compounds able to fight so-called “free radicals,” which are molecules known to attack cells and believed to contribute to aging. Especially berries seem to have high antioxidant capacities.

Essential fatty acids are considered skin-friendly nutrients as they can help protect cell membranes. They are found in numerous sources, including fish (especially salmon and herring), walnuts, flax seed, and canola oil. Most oils are beneficial for the skin, but be sure to use them sparingly because of their relatively high calorie content.

The mineral selenium seems to play a crucial role in the healing process of damaged skin. It is present in a variety of foods, including whole-wheat breads and cereals, turkey, tuna, and some nuts.

But nothing is more important for healthy skin than sufficient hydration. Water is the obvious choice. Green tea is also thought of as a beneficial beverage because of its anti-inflammatory properties (polyphenols).

Lastly, it deserves to be mentioned that too little exposure to the sun can cause problems of its own, specifically a deficiency in vitamin D. If your lifestyle keeps you indoors most of the time, or if you live in an area with few sunny days (as I do), you may want to consider taking a supplement – just to be safe.

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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).

Education, the Best Protection Against Obesity and Related Diseases

March 12th, 2014 at 12:43 pm by timigustafson
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With growing wealth in many developing countries around the world, diet and lifestyle changes are showing dramatic increases in obesity and related diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. From Central and South America to the Middle East to Asia, weight problems are now among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality. But more than rising standards of living, lack of education seems to contribute to these dismal trends.

In China, India and Brazil, where economic growth has been especially dramatic but has also created vast inequalities in their populations, diet and lifestyle changes have had a particularly profound impact on the risk of obesity, according to one study that investigated the effects of rising incomes on people’s health.

In Mexico, which is considered a middle-income country, prevalence of obesity proved to be the highest among those who were better off financially but had little education. Similar findings were made in Egypt, a low-income country, where obesity has become a fast growing problem, especially among women. Here too, increasing wealth is a predictor – but even more so, lack of schooling.

“For the first time, we have studied the interaction between wealth and education and found they have fundamentally different effects on obesity,” said Dr. Amina Aitsi-Selmi, the lead author of the Egypt study.

Greater exposure of emerging economies to global food markets and rising buying power of consumers lead to these consequences. The best way to prevent this from happening would be to invest in education, especially in women who are in charge of food shopping, cooking, and taking care of the health needs of their families, she said.

“Our study suggests that investing in women’s education protects against this effect by empowering individuals to look after their health,” she said to Science Daily.

As ‘gatekeepers’ in their households, women have the most influence on the nutritional wellbeing of children, which is our best hope for breaking the vicious circle that begins with childhood obesity and subsequent, often chronic, health issues during adulthood.

Scientific evidence leaves no doubt that the environment we live in is largely responsible for the obesity epidemic, Dr. Aitsi-Selmi said. We can only change the environment by changing the behavior of individuals. And that is best accomplished through education.

Obviously, providing even a basic amount of health education in different socio-economic and cultural settings is no easy task in one country, let alone on a global scale. But, as this study and others have shown, increase in literacy and greater opportunities for learning have many benefits and can provide the groundwork for attitude and behavior modifications, including improving eating habits.

It also means that greater affordability of food does not automatically lead to better health outcomes – sometimes to the contrary. Only when people understand how their diet and lifestyle choices affect them, they can make appropriate changes and take control of their wellbeing.

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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).

Is It Me or Is It Just SAD?

March 8th, 2014 at 7:25 am by timigustafson
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I’m generally an upbeat person, not given to bouts of sadness or melancholy, and, luckily, I’ve never suffered from serious depression. Bad weather doesn’t drag me down. In fact, I like the rain – I better, I live in Seattle. But this year, the winter months seem to last longer than usual, and slowly but surely even I begin to yearn for a change of season.

I’m not alone in this regard. Many of my clients tell me how much harder they find it to get out of bed when it’s still dark outside on their way to work and dark again when they get home.

“I just don’t have the energy, not even for the things I normally like to do,” one of them told me. “Everything seems to depress me.”

While it is perfectly normal to feel down from time to time, mood swings, even if they don’t persist for too long, should not be ignored. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sometimes more casually called the “winter blues,” can seriously affect how a person is able to function and carry symptoms not unlike depression. The point is not to underestimate SAD, which can get worse over time, potentially resulting in difficulty with concentration, anxiety, social withdrawal, alcohol and substance abuse, even suicidal thoughts and behavior.

“SAD is a mood disorder, and although it is generally thought of as a winter problem, it can also occur in other seasons,” says Jonathan Alpert, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist and life coach. “The major distinction between SAD and other forms of depression is that it occurs at the same time every year, for at least two years, and there’s a remission of symptoms off-season.”

One of the causes, he says, is lacking sun exposure for people who live in the northern hemisphere. Shortage of vitamin D may play a role but also low serotonin levels, a brain chemical that affects our moods, as well as an unbalance of melatonin, a hormone responsible for our sleep patterns. It may also be that our inner biological clock, known as the circadian rhythm (the thing that gets out of whack when you are jet-lagged), is disrupted when days are shorter and nights are longer.

So, how worried should you be about SAD? First off, you want to make sure you are not experiencing the symptoms of something more serious. If you have suffered from emotional disorders or depression in the past, or if there is a family history concerning depression, you should definitely tell your doctor about it. But before you ask for anti-depression medicines, you may want to consider some alternative remedies. Perhaps you will respond to light therapy, a procedure where your body gets exposed to artificial light that simulates sunshine. Or you may take a larger amount of vitamin D supplements, or try St. John’s wort, an herb traditionally used to treat depression, although not without side effects.

In any case, spending as much time outdoors, exercising regularly, and eating a healthful diet can make a significant difference. You may also benefit from Yoga, acupuncture, meditation, and massage therapy.

Stress management and practicing sound sleep hygiene are especially important during such times. So be extra kind to yourself, and when you regain your strength and optimistic outlook, remember what helped you through the doldrums and return to your practices as needed. It can only get easier that way.

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

Food Label Updates Only Make Sense if Consumers Pay Attention

March 5th, 2014 at 2:24 pm by timigustafson
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The recent announcement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of its plans to redesign Nutrition Facts labels on food packages has been widely welcomed by health experts who see it as an important step in the fight against obesity and other diet-related diseases. It would be the first revision in 20 years, and some say an update is long overdue considering both advances in nutrition science and shifts in consumer behavior.

Consumer advocates have often lamented that the way food manufacturers convey nutritional data is confusing, leaving people less, not more, empowered to make informed choices.

“Unless you had a thesaurus, a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition, you were out of luck. So you felt defeated and you just went back to buying the same stuff,” said the First Lady, Michelle Obama, at a White House event where she revealed the proposed changes. “As parents and as consumers, we have a right to understand what’s in the food we’re feeding our families,” she added.

For this, the new panels will emphasize the most important data consumers should know about, including easily identifiable serving sizes, calories, total fat, sugar, sodium, and calories from fat. Especially serving sizes are too often calculated in seemingly arbitrary ways and can be hard to decipher. A more intuitive approach would help.

But the question remains whether and how people will make use of the information they’re given. According to a survey by the NPD Group, a research agency, less than half of American food shoppers check labels regularly. 48 percent say they read labels to determine whether food items have ingredients they try to cut back on or avoid altogether – down from the nearly 65 percent in 1990 when the current labels were first introduced.

The decline leaves room for interpretation. We could see the changes as a success in educating the public, said Harry Balzer, the NPD Group’s chief industry analyst. “After all, how many times do you need to look at the Nutrition Facts label on your favorite cereal, or your favorite juice, and any other food you routinely consume,” he asked.

Perhaps, but it could also be that people are fed up with too many, and oftentimes contradictory, messages about what and what not to eat. They know that some of their favorites may not be the healthiest, but they find it exhausting to keep their guard up at all times. It is also unclear from the report whether demographic shifts play a role in the trends.

The new labels, if they become law, don’t satisfy all demands health advocates have made over the years. For example, consumers would greatly benefit if they knew not only which nutrients they should limit – like saturated fat, sodium, added sugar, etc. – but also which ones they are at risk of not getting enough – such as calcium, fiber, vitamin D, etc., said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council (WGC), in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA.

Also, with its current proposal, the FDA has apparently shied away from a bolder approach of placing some key data on the front of food packages, as Australia and several European countries have done. In addition to panels, some use visual rating systems like stars, traffic light colors or numerical scales.

Still, the updates could not only help consumers but also give food manufacturers incentives to improve the quality of their products, according to David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who was responsible for implementing the original labeling mandate in 1990. “No one wants their product to look bad on labels,” he said.

Hopefully, we wont have to wait another 20 years to make further progress.

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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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