Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Don’t Go All Nuts Just Yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Such Thing as a “Natural Diet” for Humans, Scientists Say

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other scientists agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Wants to Be Called an “Inner Beauty”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diabetes, the Hidden Killer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Than Temptation, Stress Causes Overeating During the Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Time to Be Sick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing Up in Poverty Affects Brain Development, Study Finds

November 2nd, 2013 at 12:06 pm by timigustafson
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That children who are exposed to the hardships of poverty suffer many disadvantages is of no surprise. But now a recent study found that lack of financial security, especially when it involves hunger and nutritional deprivation, can lead to stunted brain growth, making it harder to ever develop mental skills most of us take for granted.

In their study report, the researchers concluded that childhood poverty was often associated with smaller white and cortical gray matter, nerve tissues in the brain, and hippocampal and amygdala volumes, areas in the brain that are responsible for regulating memory and emotions.

“Generally speaking, larger brains within a certain range of normal are healthier brains. Having a smaller brain within a certain range of normal is generally not healthy, [and] it’s associated with poorer outcomes,” explained Dr. Joan Luby, a professor of child psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and lead author of the study, to Reuters Health.

For their study, the researchers analyzed data from an existing project that involved 145 children, ages 6 to 12, who grew up in low-income neighborhoods around St. Louis, and whose brains were imaged annually from preschool through 8th grade.

In addition to the screenings, the tests also included observations of interactions between the children and their parents. While most kids from poor families showed signs of stunted brain growth, those who had the least parental support seemed to do worse.

Children do better with parents who are sensitive, nurturing, attentive and emotionally available, even when basic material resources are missing, said Dr. Luby. “Biology is very much influenced by the environment,” she added. “The question is what period might be the time when the brain is most sensitive to influence.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), early childhood is the most intensive period of brain development. “Adequate stimulation and nutrition are essential for development during the first three years of life. It is during these years that a child’s brain is most sensitive to the influences of the external environment,” says one WHO report.

The latest statistics by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) show that more than 16 million children (22 percent of all children) in America live in families below the federal poverty line ($23,550 annual income for a family of four). Almost all of them face food insecurity at least on some days each month.

The experience of food shortages during childhood has also other long-term effects. A separate study found that people who were brought up with poor eating habits because of constricted food budgets don’t readily make dietary improvements later in life, even if they can afford to. The habits they developed early on continue to influence their preferences as adults – often with devastating outcomes for their health.

The findings of these studies and many others underline the importance of poverty and hunger intervention. Tragically, current government measures move us further in the opposite direction. As this blog post is being written, millions of Americans who depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, will lose some or all aid, forcing them to get by on even less. Most likely, many of the youngest members of our society will pay the heftiest price. Considering the consequences, these policies are not only cruel but also shortsighted.

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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 Holiday Season, A Time for Emotional Eating

October 30th, 2013 at 7:07 am by timigustafson
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As the holidays are nearing, even those among us who mostly manage to stay in shape have to wonder how they can prevent serious damage to their waistline this time of the year. It’s no secret: from Thanksgiving (or earlier) through New Year’s Day, we all indulge in lots of parties, festive meals, and treats all abound. The aftermath, of course, is filled with regrets and renewed vows never to succumb to such temptations again – a.k.a. resolution season. But as many know from experience, those efforts will likely be just as futile next time around as they were in the past. So is there no escape from this vicious cycle?

Holiday bingeing is hard to avoid, not only because of the many opportunities (and excuses) to indulge more than usual, but also because the holidays are a rather emotional time. It may be meant to be a joyous season, however, it also brings negative emotions such as anxiety, depression and loneliness closer to the surface and makes them even harder to bear. Add the extra stress that holiday preparations inevitably produce, and you have the perfect set of conditions where emotional eating can thrive.

Not all indulgence is automatically dysfunctional, of course. In some ways, we as humans are genetically programmed to overdo it now and then. Our forbearers of hundreds of years ago had little choice but to eat as much and as fast as they could on the rare occasions when food was plentiful, to be followed by periods of near starvation. But those times are long gone and, for most of us, every day is a feast by comparison. Combined with our predominantly sedentary lifestyle, the negative consequences of our now considered “normal” food consumption should not surprise anyone.

But there is a much darker side to overeating when it becomes compulsive. Only recently, binge-eating disorder (BED) has been recognized as a medical condition. It is now defined as “a serious mental illness in which emotions and thinking patterns cause a person to adopt harmful eating habits, such as overeating or starvation. Often, these habits are a way of coping with depression, stress, or anxiety.” BED differs from other eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia, as it does not typically include purging (mostly by vomiting or using laxatives) to avoid weight gain. But like those other behaviors, BED is often rooted in serious emotional conflicts.

Not everyone who engages in emotional eating will lose control and end up self-destructing. But if the underlying causes remain unaddressed and untreated, dysfunctional behavior may become harder and harder to overcome.

Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than physical hunger, explains Jane Jakubczak, a Registered Dietitian at the University of Maryland. Studies have shown that 75 percent of overeating, that is eating without being hungry, is caused by emotions. So dealing with emotions appropriately is most important, she says.

So it would make sense to think that because the holidays not only stir up both positive and negative emotions and give us also good excuses to feed them (literally and figuratively), we are more at risk than at any other time to fall into the well-known traps.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Learning what triggers your emotional responses is key to avoid them from happening. There are many ways this can be achieved. For example, if being around food and treats is too tempting, try to avoid being in their presence as best as you can. There are many ways to get into the holiday spirit without surrounding yourself with edibles. Resist buying urges. Ask to have food platters or candy jars placed in parts of your office space where you can’t see or smell them. Busy yourself with thoughts other than about food. Instead of partaking in every lunch or dinner party you are invited to, suggest some alternative events like going on a ski trip or some other outdoor activity. For those eating events you cannot escape from, make a plan how to navigate them, including how much you will allow yourself to eat no matter how often you are urged to dig in.

Most importantly, feed your emotions with what they really need: fun, laughter, companionship, compassion… You can never overindulge in these.

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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).

Not Getting Enough Sleep May Contribute to Mental Decline in Later Years

October 26th, 2013 at 4:47 pm by timigustafson
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Chronic sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality have been linked to a number of health problems, but now a new study has identified one more potential risk, namely cognitive decline at old age, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

While it has not been determined yet whether people who don’t sleep well are more likely to suffer from dementia as they get older, or whether it is a symptom of mental illness already on its way, scientists have long known that both sleep hygiene and mental well-being are closely connected.

For the study, the researchers scanned the brains of 70 participants, ages 53 to 91, looking for clusters of beta-amyloid plaques, proteins that when building up in the brain may cause the kind of damage associated with AD.

This is not the first time scientists have investigated the role of sleep, or lack thereof, for mental health. Studies on lab animals have suggested that the damaging effects can work both ways, meaning that sleep deprivation and sleep fragmentation can increase the levels of beta-amyloid, which in turn may be a factor in further sleep disturbance. The result may be a vicious circle with potentially dire outcome.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 50 and 70 million Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. In surveys conducted by the agency from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2007 to 2008, 23 percent of participants reported having difficulties with concentrating and 18 percent with remembering. 11 percent said they sometimes had problems driving safely due to insufficient rest.

The effects of sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may be less apparent in younger people, but they are nevertheless real. Besides being more prone to engage in hazardous behavior when overtired, even young adults increase their risk of developing chronic diseases like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes as well as emotional and mental illness if they remain in a prolonged state of sleeplessness.

A person’s circadian rhythm, the cycling of sleep and wakefulness as well as body temperature and metabolism throughout the day and night, can get progressively unbalanced when sleep needs are neglected. In older adults, difficulties to maintain regular rest periods may increase. Especially the deep sleep stages, when the body does most of its healing and repair work of tissue, bones and muscles from daily wear and tear, lessen with age.

While, generally speaking, aging is often associated with shorter and lighter sleep, it doesn’t have to be this way. Older adults can benefit from the same sleep hygiene as everyone else. Eating a light dinner, avoiding alcohol consumption late at night (nightcaps), creating a calm, sleep-conducive environment before bedtime, lowering temperatures in the bedroom, and shutting off the lights are all part of it. For more information on how to improve your sleep pattern, see these recommendations.

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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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