Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

What Makes Us Stray from Eating Right?

April 18th, 2013 at 11:15 am by timigustafson
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Part of our ongoing struggle with weight problems is that most of us eat without thinking, according to Brian Wansink, professor for marketing at Cornell University and author of the landmark book, “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam Books, 2006). “Distractions of all kinds make us eat, forget how much we eat, and extend how long we eat – even when we are not hungry,” he writes.

Although distractions are easy to come by in our busy lives, it doesn’t mean that we keep munching all day long without noticing, although for some that may be the case. Mostly, however, we tend to fall into the mindless eating trap when we are relaxing, for example on a vacation, over a nice dinner out, or when we get a little tipsy. That’s when our control mechanisms seem to break down the fastest.

“Vacations take us away from our regular routine,” says Lori Rice, a nutritionist and health and travel writer. “This is beneficial to our mental wellness because we experience new scenery and can rejuvenate ourselves, but it also can take us away from our healthy habits.”

Of course, you should allow for some splurges when you go on a holiday, but don’t use it as an excuse for getting completely off track, only to be sorry later on for the damage you’ve done to yourself, she advises.

Especially on cruises, vacationers tend to throw all caution to the wind. When the food you’ve already paid for is laid out so seductively, it can take considerable willpower to resist temptations. Seeing your fellow-travelers indulging with abandoned pleasure doesn’t help either.

But even the atmosphere in a simple eatery can lead to overeating. You don’t even have to like the food all that much. A nice ambience with candlelight and soft music can have you dig in more than you should, says Wansink who has conducted numerous experiments on people’s behavior in restaurants, from fast food joints to high-end establishments. We follow our expectations, he says. If we expect to have a good time, or it’s a special occasion, we will make the most of it. And that often means too much of a good thing.

Another factor is alcohol. As a recent study found out, most people eat more unhealthy foods on days they drink. When participants in the research had two or three alcoholic drinks with their meals, they consumed on average 100 to 200 more calories from food (not the drinks) than when they had none. The types of food they chose also changed. Both male and female participants ate about nine percent more fat when they drank alcohol.

The best way to counteract these tendencies is obviously to increase awareness. But instead of becoming your own party-pooper every time you are ready to let loose a bit, it might be more helpful to set a few parameters upfront.

For example, if weight gain is a regular occurrence when you are away from home, you may want to choose a kind of travel that challenges you to be more physically active and less exposed to culinary pleasures.

If you have a lot of time to kill at airports and hotels, be sure you don’t fall for convenience stands, vending machines and snack bars. Instead, bring some healthy snacks and lots of water, in case you need a quick energy boost or get dehydrated.

When it comes to alcohol consumption, you are the only one who can judge your responses. For some, there is a fine line between relaxing and becoming uninhibited or losing control. A lot of people also don’t know or don’t think about how many calories are in their drinks.

Perhaps a good way of keeping things together is to ask yourself: How do I want to feel when this is all over? Will it be an altogether great memory or will I have to deal with regrets and start over?

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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).

Spring Fever Season

April 13th, 2013 at 2:51 pm by timigustafson
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Do you feel energized, restless and impatient? You may have spring fever. Are you irritable, weary, listless and unable to concentrate? You may have spring fever. Or are you in a constant state of tiredness and exhaustion? It may be spring fever as well. Why so many different symptoms that even seem to contradict each other? It can be your body’s reaction to the changing seasons, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as the phenomenon is sometimes called.

During the winter months the body protects itself against lower temperatures and reduced sunlight by adjusting its metabolism and hormonal balance. Body temperature dropsblood pressure rises, and secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin increases, making us more sleepy. As the weather gets warmer and sunnier in the spring, the opposite happens: body temperature goes up, blood pressure goes down, and the feel-good hormone serotonin begins to dominate.

The problem is that the transitions between these different stages don’t always go smoothly. In any case, hormonal imbalances take place that can cause all sorts of physical and mental responses. Some experts say that spring fever or spring fatigue are a bit like having a “hangover” after a period of dormancy, perhaps a lighter version of what hibernating animals go through.

Because our experience of seasonal changes has become so much mitigated through artificial light and heating, our natural reactions may be even less predictable.

In addition, weather conditions can fluctuate to a larger degree in the spring than at any other time of the year. Global climate change may only intensify these variations. Extreme weather changes have become the new normal in recent years. 2012 had the warmest spring on record in the United States, with over five degrees above average. It also had some of the coldest winters months. As I write this article, temperatures at the east coast are approaching 90 degrees, while western states like Colorado report freezing conditions.

The effects of seasonal changes on the body’s equilibrium are stress-producing, says Karina Seizinger, a homeopath and yoga teacher who recommends taking a number of measures for the treatment of spring fatigue symptoms. Among them are eating a healthy, balanced diet consisting of lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, drinking plenty of water, exercising, exposing the body to sunlight and engaging in calming practices like yoga and meditation.

“First and foremost, just be aware, and know that your body is in a state of transition,” she emphasizes. “Be kind and patient with yourself, and give yourself some time to adjust.”

While feeling fatigued for some time due to seasonal changes is no cause for concern, chronic tiredness may have other roots. Feeling drained or exhausted from stress or lack of sleep can be a normal response. It can also be a sign of a more serious physical or mental condition that should be examined by a doctor.

Outside of that possibility, getting enough sleep, watching your diet, exercising, managing stress and avoiding alcohol, nicotine and drugs should get you back on track for the coming summer.

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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 Pros and Cons of Competitive Workouts

April 10th, 2013 at 3:10 pm by timigustafson
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I always enjoyed a competitive spirit. Throughout my life, I was convinced I could accomplish more when I was challenged by formidable rivals, both at work and sports. Playing in the streets of my childhood neighborhood in London taught me that. Only as I grew older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I gradually allowed myself to keep to my own pace, although I still welcome a good contest because it brings out the best in me.

So it naturally peeked my interest when I heard the other day about a gym opening in my neighborhood that offers competitive workouts. Actually, it is part of a chain called “CrossFit” with over 3,000 affiliations worldwide.

CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program that includes endurance training, weight lifting, gymnastics and other exercises. It is rigorous, to say the least. Originally designed for police and military training, CrossFit has developed an almost cult-like following.

According to the founder’s website, anybody can benefit from the training sessions, regardless of age or initial fitness level. There are also seminars and certifications for those who want to teach others. Even competitive CrossFit games are conducted annually to determine “the fittest human beings on earth.”

What sets CrossFit apart from other fitness regimens is mainly its intensity. The studio, or as followers call it, “the box,” in my area has an ominous slogan on its homepage that says, “You can rest when you’re dead.” Critics say that’s only half joking because participants are regularly driven to utter exhaustion.

Even that may be putting it too mildly. Injuries are to be expected when people constantly push themselves to (and sometimes over) the limit of what their bodies can tolerate. But there are reports of rhabdomyolysis (among fitness extremists also known as “rhabdo” or “uncle rhabdo”), an event where muscle fiber breaks down from overexertion, releasing protein myoglobin into the blood stream, which can lead to kidney damage and even kidney failure.

Regardless of warnings by health experts, extreme workout schedules such as CrossFit are becoming increasingly popular not just among athletes and fitness enthusiasts but also in today’s corporate culture.

“For us, CrossFit was a major teambuilding exercise,” said Jonathan Hefter, the C.E.O. of a New York City-based software startup company who expects all of his employees to partake in workout sessions at least three times a week. “If someone didn’t join in, it caused problems,” he revealed in an interview with the New York Times.

Proponents of corporate fitness programs agree that there are more than just physical health benefits to working out as a team. “If you can sweat and groan and moan with your co-workers you’ll have no problems working with them in a meeting,” said Karin Eisenmenger, a director of order management at Datalogix, a company in Colorado that specializes in data transactions, who was interviewed for the same article.

There is no doubt that employees should take advantage of corporate-sponsored health policies whenever they are offered to them. Things become more complicated when undue pressure is exercised to join in because it fosters the corporate culture and benefits the company in other ways.

Also, it does not always seem clear how closely monitored these workouts and how experienced trainers are. Critics warn that CrossFit, for example, certifies trainers after just one short introductory seminar, which entitles them to start their own gym and train as many members as they want. Every month, the company says, it receives 150 applications for affiliation with new gyms, or about five a day. (At its peak expansion, Starbucks opened an average of six stores per day). That’s a lot of new “boxes” opening up. It can’t be easy to ensure they all play by the rules. But then, competition is what these guys are looking for.

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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).

Healthcare Costs for Alzheimer’s Disease Will Top All Others, Study Predicts

April 6th, 2013 at 5:11 pm by timigustafson
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One of the most feared health problems the aging Baby Boomer generation will face is dementia. And it won’t just affect those suffering from mental decline but also those who care for them and society at large, at least in financial terms.

A new study predicts that healthcare costs in connection with age-related dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, will soon surpass almost all other medical expenses, including for heart disease and cancer, two of today’s leading causes of death.

The study, which was conducted by economists at the RAND Corporation and sponsored by the federal government, found that expenditures for dementia patients will at least double by 2040.

3.8 million Americans age 71 and older are now diagnosed with some form of age-related cognitive decline. In another generation, the researchers say, there will be over 9 million.

Direct healthcare costs, including nursing home care, per dementia patient run currently between $41,000 and $56,000 a year. Total expenses in the United States in 2010, the year the study collected its data, ranged from $159 billion to 215 billion. It is projected that these numbers will increase to well over $500 billion annually by mid-century.

Not included in these calculations are the costs of what is considered “informal care,” which is usually provided by family members and voluntary caregivers. It is hard to put a price tag on their efforts, but the study estimates a total of $50 billion to $106 billion spent per year.

“The long-term care costs associated with people with dementia are particularly high because of the nature of the disease,” said Donald Moulds, assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in an interview with the New York Times. “People eventually become incapable of caring for themselves, and then in the vast majority of cases, their loved ones become incapable of caring for them.”

So far, there is no cure or effective treatment for dementia. However, there are numerous studies suggesting that certain preventive measures may be helpful, at least in terms of delaying or slowing the debilitating effects.

For instance, certain health and lifestyle factors associated with the risk of Alzheimer’s disease can be controlled, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Scientists are exploring whether prevention strategies like physical exercise, diet and intellectual stimulation can counteract deterioration. Controlling body weight and blood pressure are among the most common recommendations experts give in this regard. Also, keeping the brain engaged by constant learning and participating in a lively social environment are thought to be helpful.

Unfortunately, most of this is guesswork. The truth is that we don’t know why dementia is so dramatically on the rise. Is the reason that we live longer, that we eat the wrong foods, that we exercise too little, that we watch too much TV, that we find ourselves increasingly isolated as we grow older – all of the above and more? We don’t know.

Still, we cannot sit idly and ignore the facts. In any case, adherence to a healthy lifestyle will do no harm. We may not find out the specific causes, if there are any, and there may not be an effective treatment available for the foreseeable future.

But in the meantime, we can and should do everything in our power to stay as healthy and active as possible for as long as we can. A good way of going about that is to satisfy all our health needs in every aspect by eating right, exercising regularly, reducing stress, getting enough sleep, nursing relationships, reading books, learning foreign languages and computer programs and so forth. Not one but all of these together make for what I have called the “pillars of our wellbeing.” Until there are better options, that’s all we can do, and that’s not nothing.

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). You can follow Timi on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest

Pillars of Wellbeing

April 3rd, 2013 at 10:51 am by timigustafson
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I practice a special kind of meditation on an almost daily basis. Perhaps meditation isn’t the right word since it doesn’t require me to sit in silence with my eyes closed and legs crossed or anything like that. It’s more a form of taking stock of where my life is going at any particular time.

For this, I have five issues to consider: my physical health, my diet, my emotional state, my intellectual rigor and my social/relational life. These I think of as the pillars of my wellbeing. Each one matters greatly by itself, but each must also be in balance with all the others. If one goes missing, the rest will suffer as well.

Let me give an example. When I injured my shoulder in a tennis game a few years ago, I realized how much was taken away from me, not just because I had to give up playing for a while but also because a dear routine was interrupted with all sorts of consequences.

During my prolonged absence from the court, I lost my tennis buddies whose comradeship I had enjoyed tremendously. One of them, a university professor and a true intellectual, had not only been a great partner in doubles but also a stimulating presence in my life that gave me many insights in a vast variety of subjects. Due to the reduced physical activity, I felt less energetic and not as motivated in my work. And I had to watch my diet more carefully to prevent unwanted weight gain.

Needless to say, I was saddened about losing a part of my life that was more important to me than I had been aware of. In fact, it made me miserable for quite some time.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said: “Health is not everything, but without it, nothing is anything.” I am a great believer in that. I know now that my physical health is the foundation of what I can do in life, whether it concerns work or leisurely activities. It also affects my state of mind, my interest and participation in the world around me, and my ability to relate to others. And it works both ways: The happier I am, the more fulfilled I feel, the easier it seems to stay healthy and fit.

Obviously, my little meditational routine is nothing original. If you are interested in taking up this kind of exercise, I can recommend using the so-called “Wellness Wheel”, which follows a similar pattern. As the name indicates, the different components of wellness relate to each other like spokes in a wheel. Each is necessary to hold the whole thing together, none is expendable.

Wellness Wheel

Good nutrition, regular exercise, weight management as well as avoidance of smoking and alcohol and drug abuse are at the core. But so are stress management and getting enough sleep. Our emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs must be cared for. Having goals, a sense of purpose and satisfaction and fulfillment in what we do are all part of it, just like having good relationships with loved ones, colleagues and community.

Not all areas will always be at peak performance. And that’s not even necessary. We can focus on work and put our social life on the backburner for some time. We can take a break from our exercise routine for a day or two and make up for the missed time on the weekend. We can overindulge for a special occasion and then go right back to a healthy diet afterwards. What we can’t do is neglecting or sacrificing entire segments of our wellbeing because, sooner or later, it will affect the whole person.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Creating a Health-Promoting Work Environment” and “Healthy Eating – A Never-Ending Learning Curve.”

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook and on Pinterest.

Why Eggs for Easter?

March 29th, 2013 at 12:30 pm by timigustafson
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I clearly remember a scene when my then two-year-old granddaughter participated in her first Easter egg hunt. We were invited to the home of a friend whose beautiful garden offered endless hiding opportunities for treats. My granddaughter had never been to such an event and was a little overwhelmed by the dozens of fellow-toddlers with parents in tow, all competing for the best treasures.

Every time she detected a colored egg, or a chocolate bunny, or whatever else the hostess had hidden behind grass bushels and tree trunks, she shrieked with delight. It was up to her father, my son, to collect all her findings and keep them safely stored in a hand basket given to him for the occasion. To ensure there was enough for everyone, he every so often put some of the growing bounty back in the grass only to be picked up by the child for a second time with undiminished joy. She had no idea she was having déjà vu experiences.

Only afterwards she asked me why she had gotten so many eggs. Because it’s Easter, I said. On Easter people like to eat eggs. Oblivious to the historical roots of Easter egg hunting, I hoped she wouldn’t want me to go into further detail. I was mistaken. She was at the age when everything had to have a specific reason for its existence. Why eggs? Why are they hidden in the grass? Who put them there? – she demanded to know.

I didn’t want to lie to my own grandchild, not in such important matters anyway, so I did some research. Here, in a nutshell, is what I found out. Mind you, this is the adult version.

Although Easter is a Christian holiday, commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, many of its traditions predate Christianity. Even the name goes back to pre-Christian beliefs when early Saxons celebrated an annual feast in honor of the goddess Eostre on Equinox, around March 21. She was depicted holding a spring hare, symbolizing fertility and the return of life after the cold winter months – perhaps a precursor of today’s Easter bunny.

The Easter egg has similar pagan roots. Many cultures around the world have long regarded the egg as a symbol for life and fertility. Engraved and decorated ostrich eggs found in Africa date back thousands of years. The early Christian communities adopted the custom of painting eggs, usually in bright red, as a reminder that the blood of Jesus was shed on the cross for them. Over the following centuries, the evolving Christian church often made use of symbols, rituals and festivities of other traditions and incorporated them as its own.

Some of those had important practical implications. For instance, during lent (also a tradition shared among many cultures and religions), believers were required to abstain from most animal products, including dairy. Eating eggs on Easter then also signaled the end of the fasting period.

Our contemporary ways of celebrating the Easter holiday is also a hodgepodge of customs and practices. Easter egg hunts and egg rolling were brought here by European immigrants. The idea of hiding eggs for children to hunt after is similar to a component of Seder, the Jewish Passover ritual, where a piece of matza bread is hidden by the head of the household and searched for by other family members.

Obviously, my granddaughter would not have known what to make of all these complex explanations at the time. But what intrigued me in my research was that although many of these traditions have become more or less opaque over time, they still have not lost their appeal entirely.

For example, I was struck by how important the time of lent must have been for our forbearers who had to carve out a living off their land and by their hard labor. Unlike for us, for many of them it was not merely a voluntary act of self-deprivation but also a necessity when food supplies ran low. Easter then was the end of a worrisome time and the beginning of a new season when all life returned – a resurrection, if you will. I’m sure, no matter what this holiday means to us now, we all can relate to that to some extent. Happy Easter.

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook and on Pinterest.

Feeding Solid Foods Too Early May Cause Nutritional Problems Later in Life

March 27th, 2013 at 11:07 am by timigustafson
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Nearly half of all newborns in the United States are introduced too soon to solid foods, causing them digestive problems and nutritional deficiencies that can have lasting health effects as they grow older.

According to a recently published study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 40 percent of interviewed mothers said they gave their babies solid food before they were four months old. Nine percent started as early as four weeks.

Pediatricians recommend that infants should be given nothing but breast milk or, if that is not an option, baby formula or a combination of both at least until the age of six months.

The researchers found that many young parents were either unaware of these guidelines or found them hard to follow, often for financial reasons. Those who turned to solid foods too early were primarily young, less educated and single mothers, according to the study.

Expenses for baby formula can be quite high, between $50 and $100 for the first month and between $1,138 and $1,188 for the first year, according to one cost calculator. Many low-income families cannot easily afford them, especially when there are other children at different growing stages.

Still, nothing good can come from feeding babies food they cannot handle yet, said Dr. T. J. Gold, a pediatrician at Tribeca Pediatrics in Brooklyn in an interview with the New York Times. Before they can sit and hold their heads up without help, it can be difficult if not outright dangerous to put solid food in their mouths. They also don’t have the right gut bacteria for digesting it yet, which can lead to gastroenteritis and diarrhea and interfere with proper nutrient absorption. Long-term problems can include obesity, diabetes, eczema and celiac disease, he added.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), formerly the American Dietetic Association (ADA), recommends breastfeeding as an “important public health strategy for improving infant and child morbidity and mortality.” In a position statement, the AND says it regards exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and breastfeeding with complementary foods from six months until at least one year of age as the ideal feeding pattern for infants.

What makes breast milk the ideal source of nutrition for newborns is that it offers a good balance of important nutrients that are easily digestible. Moreover, the mother’s milk changes its composition over time to fit the changing needs of her growing child.

There are also important benefits from breastfeeding for the health of the mother, including bonding with the child, increased energy expenditure, leading to faster return to pre-pregnancy weight, decreased risk for postpartum depression and improvement of parenting skills, among others.

The AND advocates a number of measures for the promotion of breastfeeding, including professional counseling for pregnant and postpartum women and their families as well as public policy changes and legislation that favors and facilitates breastfeeding.

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

 

Good Health: A Matter of Choice or Fate?

March 24th, 2013 at 3:08 pm by timigustafson
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Now that “Obamacare” has become the law of the land and the political disputes over healthcare reform are largely settled, many Americans are worried about the costs of the new insurance policies, especially considering the dismal health status of millions of our citizens.

“Why should we pick up the tab when so much disease in our country stems from unhealthy behavior like smoking and overeating,” asked one commentator in the New York Times. I’m sure such sentiments are widely shared. Many Americans would welcome higher premiums for those who indulge in unhealthy lifestyles, thereby punishing them for their lack of personal responsibility.

“But personal responsibility is a complex notion, especially when it comes to health,” says Dr. Sandeep Jauhar, a cardiologist and director at the Heart Failure Program at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York. “Unhealthy habits are one factor in disease, but so are social status, income, family dynamics, education and genetics. […] When people advocate the need for personal accountability, they presuppose more control over health and sickness than actually exists.”

The same goes for those who enjoy excellent health. Their advantages are not based on virtue alone. A report that was commissioned a few years ago by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, titled “Reaching America’s Health Potential,” concluded that the greatest differences in people’s health status are determined by their education levels, which, of course, also reflects to a large extent socio-economic differences. Even life expectancy is affected by educational standards, one study found.

Education is a marker for an array of opportunities and resources that can lead people to better or worse health, says Dr. David Williams, the staff director of the commission tasked with the report. A good education can offer greater job and career opportunities, higher income, more meaningful and creative work, a wider social network and support system. And access to healthcare is more likely.

When the sociologist Robert K. Merton of Columbia University first coined the term “Accumulated Advantage,” a.k.a. the “Matthew Effect” (taking the name from the Gospel of Matthew, verse 25:29), he described these dynamics as applicable to nearly every part of our lives, including our health.

Getting an education, and particularly health education, is not necessarily a matter of formal learning. It starts in the home, in early childhood. If healthy eating is encouraged, if food is valued, if sharing meals is a part of family life, chances are a solid foundation is laid for a lifetime of nutritional wellbeing. The same applies for physical activity and weight management. One leads to the other. Conversely, if fast food and pizza are the usual choix du jour, if smoking, drinking or drug abuse are considered acceptable behavior, if exercise is rare or nonexistent, then the consequences are predictable from the start.

But let’s be honest. There are poor eating habits, but there are also food-deserts where nutritious food is hard to come by. There is lack of exercise, but there are also not enough safe sidewalks, bike paths and public parks in low-income neighborhoods. There are dysfunctional families, but there are also countless parents working sometimes multiple low-paying jobs while desperately trying to provide their kids with a sense of home.

Universal health care must address all these issues, not just in terms of giving access to treatment for everyone who needs it but, even more importantly, in terms of preventing illness as much as possible. We cannot afford less.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “What Your Neighborhood Says About Your Health.”

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

 

Even Small Amounts of Alcohol May Cause Cancer, Study Finds

March 15th, 2013 at 3:05 pm by timigustafson
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Moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages can have a place in a healthy lifestyle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The question is what counts as moderate. Two drinks for men and one drink for women per day are permissible, says the agency. Excluded from these recommendations are children and adolescents, women who are pregnant or trying to conceive, and individuals who cannot control their alcohol intake, are on certain medications, or plan to drive or operate machinery.

All that is well known and widely accepted. But a new study found that even smaller amounts of alcohol than what is deemed acceptable by the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans may be too much when it comes to preventing certain diseases, including cancer. In fact, having just one drink per day can increase the risk.

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) determined that alcohol-related cancer accounted for three to four percent of all cancer deaths in the United States annually and that even light drinkers were at an increased risk.

Well over half a million Americans die from cancer every year. Of these, approximately 20,000 cases are linked to alcohol, according to the study.

We talk a lot about tobacco and poor diets, but alcohol use is a factor that is often missed in the discussion over preventable diseases and deaths, says Dr. David Nelson, director of the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the NCI and lead author of the study report. While the majority of cancer-related deaths from alcohol occurred in people who consumed substantially more than what is considered moderate drinking, Dr. Nelson’s team found that 33 percent of the diseased had no more than one alcoholic drink per day on average.

Although only 18 percent of men and 11 percent of women are heavy drinkers, meaning they have more than the recommended daily amount on any given day, it is still a significant health concern, said Patricia Guenther, a nutritionist at the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and author of a separate study on the issue, in an interview with Reuters

Among men, 31 to 50 year olds consume the most alcohol, according to the study. Among women, the heaviest drinking takes place between ages 51 and 70. The researchers did not investigate the reasons for the differences in age.

Besides cancer, other well-known health risks from alcohol use are high blood pressure, heart disease, liver damage, pancreatitis, nerve damage, depression and dementia.

Moderate alcohol use has long been considered as harmless if not beneficial. Especially red wine is thought of by some as heart healthy. But conflicting messages like these only confuse consumers, says Dr. Nelson.

“The purported benefits of alcohol consumption are overrated when compared to the risks,” he says. “Even if you take into account all the potential benefits of alcohol, it causes 10 times as many deaths as it prevents worldwide.”

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Almost Half of All Cancer Cases May Be Preventable.”

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Searching for the Cause(s) of Obesity

March 13th, 2013 at 12:08 pm by timigustafson
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Two thirds of Americans are overweight. One third is obese. Obesity and a host of illnesses related to weight problems kill more people than any other disease. Experts are scrambling to find answers for what causes the epidemic and seem to come up with new explanations every day, only to be contradicted by the next study. Unsurprisingly, consumers are confused and stop paying attention.

How is it that we are eating ourselves to death, not just here but increasingly around the world? Does the so-called “Western diet,” consisting of cheap, highly processed, highly caloric foods, make us fat? Or is it sugary sodas? Are portion sizes too big? Does the food industry turn us into addicts? Do we just not exercise enough?

So far, none of the countless studies on these subjects have had much impact in practical terms. Lobbying efforts and political gridlock are oftentimes blamed for the maddeningly slow progress. But that may not be the only reason. Some experts warn that despite of all the research, finding definite answers may prove elusive for some time to come.

“If we can find the causes of obesity, we can try to eliminate or counter them,” wrote Christopher Chabris, a professor of psychology at Union College, together with his colleague Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. “Unfortunately, finding causes is easier said than done, and causes we think we see can turn out to be illusions.”

Hoping for a smoking gun that lets us clearly identify causation may not be in the cards, ever. As an example, the authors cite a study that analyzed potential connections between food advertising on billboards and prevalence of obesity in certain parts of Los Angeles and New Orleans. The study results showed that areas with more outdoor food advertisements had a higher proportion of obese people than those with fewer ads. So, there seems to be a direct link.

Not so fast, say the professors. Studies like these have a significant problem: They can show association between separate phenomena but not causation. In this particular scenario, interpretations of the findings could go in totally different directions. Even if you accept the existence of a correlation between food advertisements and obesity, you still have to consider a wide field of possible explanations. One could be that food vendors tend to invest more of their advertising budget in places where they believe food consumption is especially high. Obesity then may be an indicator that this is a good market for them. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

So does this mean there is no proof that food advertising influences people’s eating habits, and not necessarily in a good way? Studies like these can at best provide some indication that there may be a link, but they don’t provide evidence for causation, the professors conclude. Only the gold standard of scientific research, which is the randomized controlled trial, could prove such connections, they say. And these standards are often not achievable in the real world.

The question is what does that mean in terms of taking anti-obesity measures. Do we have to remain indolent in the face of this alarming health crisis just because we can’t pinpoint its causes with the highest standards of certainty? Food manufacturers and restaurant operators support that view. But if no compelling evidence can be had that advertising works, why would they keep spending billions of dollars every year on doing just that?

With all due respect for scientific standards, I can’t help but think that calling for more and more studies on the causes of obesity only delays critical action that ought to be taken now. We may not know whether food ads influence everyone’s eating habits, but we still can ban them from children’s programs on TV. We may never be sure whether drinking sugary sodas or consuming sweet snacks cause diabetes, but we still can stop offering them on school campuses. It may be unclear whether posting calorie counts in restaurants will make patrons order smaller portions, but we should at least give them the option, so their choices can be better informed. How many more studies and trials do we really have to conduct before we take at least a few steps in the right direction?

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “How Serious Is the Food Industry About Helping in the Fight Against Obesity?” and “Obesity Must Be Addressed on Multiple Levels.”

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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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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