Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

How Healthy You Are Also Depends on Where You Live

December 12th, 2012 at 3:21 pm by timigustafson
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Whether you are overweight, have diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol largely depends on your personal lifestyle choices – but not exclusively, according to an annual survey on the health of Americans. Where you live may also play a role in your well-being.

A report titled “America’s Health Rankings” is annually issued by the United Health Foundation under the sponsorship of the UnitedHealth Group to identify state by state which parts of the country are more conducive to healthy living and which are less.

The report is based on telephone interviews with randomly chosen participants about personal lifestyle factors such eating habits, exercise, weight control, smoking, alcohol and drug use as well as social and environmental components like crime rates and air pollution.

According to the survey’s findings, the healthiest state in America is Vermont, followed by Hawaii, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Minnesota (in that order). Mississippi and Louisiana rank at the bottom.

Not surprisingly, the obesity epidemic continues to be one of the greatest health threats in America. Colorado has the lowest percentage of obese people (20.7 percent), while Mississippi has the highest (34.9 percent). The total number of obese adults is currently about 66 million, roughly a quarter of the entire population.

The higher the percentage of obesity, the greater are the challenges states face in terms of health care costs and loss in productivity. Medical costs for the treatment of diseases associated with weight problems amount to nearly $150 billion annually nationwide.

Likewise, diabetes has become so widespread, it is now considered epidemic. The national median percentage of Americans with diabetes is nearly 10 percent and significantly higher in some states. It is estimated that costs for diabetes treatment will amount to 10 percent of total health care spending by the end of the decade, or about $500 billion annually.

The detrimental health effects of the sedentary lifestyles many Americans adhere to are also mentioned in the report. “Sedentary” means no physical activity or exercise outside work for at least 30 days in a row. In Mississippi more than a third of the population fits in this category. The national median is 26.2 percent.

Compared to other countries, tobacco use has significantly decreased in America. But 45 million still light up, the highest number in Kentucky with 29 percent. Smoking in particular is a cause for many avoidable diseases, including respiratory disease, heart disease, stroke, cancer as well as preterm birth and low birth weight.

While the nation as a whole faces these challenges, there are specific reasons why some states do better than others. One is the availability and affordability of healthful foods. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the dietary quality of our food supply varies across households throughout the country.

“This is likely the result of a combination of both supply and demand factors,” concludes a recent report by the agency. “On the supply side, the geography of the food environment, as defined by the number and type of food retailers, can vary across markets. On the demand side, there are differences in local and regional preferences.”

In other words, in some regions it can be harder to find enough outlets for healthy foods, sometimes called “food deserts.” But it can also be the local culture that prevents consumers from making changes. Oftentimes, it may be a question of education.

When it comes to exercise, the situation is similar. In some communities, it is easier to find facilities such as public parks, walk and bike paths, gyms and pools and so forth. In others, they are absent or unsafe.

It is no secret that smoking, alcohol and drug use are more prevalent in areas with high unemployment and poverty rates. These are also the places where large parts of the population have insufficient access to health care. Many of the health problems the report focuses on are indeed connected to economic differences in the country.

“As a nation, we’ve made extraordinary gains in longevity over the past decades, but as individuals we are regressing in our health,” said Dr. Reed Tuckson, medical advisor to the United Health Foundation and chief of medical affairs for the UnitedHealth Group. “What worries us in particular about this year’s report is that some key risk factors that are driving up preventable chronic illness are getting worse,” he added in an interview with CBS News.

Still, most experts, including Dr. Tuckson, believe that improvements to our public health start at the personal level. We can’t wait for the world around us to change, so it gets easier for us to change our lifestyle. “The most common misconception people have about living healthy is that it’s hard,” he said.

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Don’t Get Crazy Busy!

December 8th, 2012 at 5:22 pm by timigustafson
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Whenever I make phone calls or send off e-mails to family members and friends to touch base and inquire about their well-being, the answers are almost always the same: “busy,” “crazy busy,” “insanely busy,” “busy, busy, busy.” I know full well that I’m expected to respond with something like “that’s good,” or “that’s a good problem to have.” Being able to say that there is plenty going on in our lives, even if it drives us nuts, is almost considered an asset in our culture, although it’s made to sound more like a burden.

The holiday season may be an especially challenging time when we try to get many extra chores squared away in addition to our already overloaded schedules. But, let’s face it, being swamped with work and activities has become a way of life for many of us all year round. It is so much part of us, it would be hard to get off the treadmill, even if we tried.

“Without intending for it to happen or knowing how it got started, many people now find that they live in a rush they don’t want and didn’t create, or at least didn’t mean to create,” says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and author of “Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life” (Ballantine Books, 2006).

While being active and engaged can be a positive experience, losing sight of what we want and what’s important to us should not be the outcome. “Being too busy […] can become a habit so entrenched that it leads you to postpone or cut short what really matters to you, making you a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but can’t escape,” says Dr. Hallowell.

Much of today’s hurry, bustle and agitation has been created, or at least accelerated, by the arrival of communication technologies allowing us to stay connected with the outside world at all times. We have even adopted a term that originated in the computer industry to describe our responses to our many pressing demands: “multitasking,” says Christine Rosen, editor at The New Atlantis who writes about the social and cultural impact of technology. “Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible,” she says.

In recent years, scientists have begun to pay more attention to potentially adverse effects of the multitasking phenomenon on people’s health, not only in terms of stress management but also with regards to mental health. When neurologists studied brain functions through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, they were able to observe the inner workings of multitasking as blood flowed to different brain regions whenever test participants shifted their focus. Multitasking, or task-switching, as the process is sometimes called, requires time and energy, and if too much of it is required at any given time, a “bottleneck” effect may occur while the brain struggles to respond simultaneously to several stimuli, according to research conducted by Dr. René Marois, professor at the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. The reason is that the human brain can only focus sequentially, not simultaneously, on different tasks at hand. It must disengage from one before engaging in another. This limits it to a finite amount of goals it can pursue before its capacity maxes out.

“For example, someone who is writing a report might be able to take on a second task, like checking e-mail, without losing their train of thought. But if that e-mail asked for a decision about something, that would amount to a third task, and the brain would be overwhelmed,” he said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) about his findings.

Yet, many of us, especially when we are good at it, take pride in our ability to get lots of stuff done within a short period of time, and find it very rewarding. The question is, at what price?

Besides giving us toxic stress, making us sick, causing accidents and errors and turning us into rude and irritable people, the greatest damage from being too busy is that it prevents us from controlling our own lives,” says Dr. Hallowell.

Chronically overworked and overtired, we often don’t have enough energy left for doing the things we really want, such as spending more quality time alone or with loved ones. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can question our behavior from time to time in terms of what we want to achieve and how important our goals really are to us. The holiday season can be a good opportunity to re-examine our priorities.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “A Season to Slow Down.”

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Can Marital Bliss Make Us Healthier? (Emphasis on Bliss)

December 5th, 2012 at 12:36 pm by timigustafson
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Do married people live longer, healthier lives than their single counterparts? This is not an issue that came up only recently, e.g. in connection with the increasing acceptance and legalization of same sex marriage or statistics that show unmarried people outnumbering married ones for the first time in America’s history. In fact, as far back as in the mid 1800s, scientists have investigated the potential benefits of marriage, not only in terms of economics and social status but specifically for health.

A British epidemiologist named William Farr was one of the first to study what he called “conjugal condition,” by which he meant the impact of marital status on people’s health. He found that married couples had on average longer life expectancies than the unmarried or the widowed. His findings, although now outdated in methodology and scope, still hold and have been confirmed by multiple studies on the subject that is known as the “marriage advantage”.

Obviously, it would be a mistake to credit marriage itself as the sole source of such benefits. Back in William Farr’s days, as today, it is tempting to exaggerate the importance of the institution while underestimating the difference that quality and character of a marriage makes, says Tara Parker-Pope, a health writer for the New York Times/Well blog. “The mere fact of being married, it seems, isn’t enough to protect your health,” she says.

In fact, clinical studies have found that being in stressful relationships or marriages can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease. In other words, you can actually die of a broken heart, quite literally.

Marital distress can be a chronic stressor, concluded one study that focused on couples facing problems early on in their marriages. Among other effects, some spouses showed “poorer immunological responses,” meaning their immune system weakened, leaving them less protected against any number of diseases.

And it doesn’t have to come to open conflict to diminish the advantages that may or may not come after tying the knot. No matter how happy and excited couples are at the outset, wedded bliss has a limited shelf life, writes Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, in a recent op-ed article on the issue in the New York Times. “New love seems nearly as vulnerable […] as a new job, a new home, a new coat and other novel sources of pleasure and well-being,” she says. “The special joy wears off and [newlyweds] are back where they started, at least in terms of happiness.”

So, is there any chance for lasting marital bliss with all its promises? There can be, according to Dr. Lyubomirsky, if couples stick it out and get over the hurdles that inevitable come when reality sets in. What sometimes happens is that spouses rediscover each other once the kids are grown and out of the house. So-called empty-nesters have a chance to fall in love all over again, but this time on more solid ground and with fewer expectations. That can be healthier and still enhance their overall well-being.

Of course, there are no specific rules how to keep the proverbial fires going or rekindle them if necessary. What often goes missing as marriages endure is an element of surprise and variety, says Dr. Lyubomirsky. Eventually routines dominate our lifestyles and we settle for the status quo. We know who we are and think we know all there is to know about our partners. While familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, it certainly can foster a growing degree of indifference.

This is where couples can and should become creative and engage in activities both partners enjoy to bring back a bit of excitement into their lives. The curiosity and keen interest in each other they once had when love was young does not have to be lost. On the contrary. Some say, those who play together, stay together. So, let’s explore…

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “Both Marriage and Divorce Can Cause Weight Gain

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Navigating the Flu Season

December 1st, 2012 at 6:36 pm by timigustafson
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While most of us are out and about doing our gift shopping, attending parties, going on vacations or visiting loved ones, we are also increasingly at risk of falling prey to the countless health hazards we encounter in public places – most commonly a cold or the flu. Against widespread opinion, foul weather and cold temperatures have little to do with our heightened chances of catching something this time of the year. It’s rather our being in crowded places like shopping malls, restaurants and airports that causes our undoing.

The flu season starts in October and lasts through April, which happens to coincide with the school year rather than changes in temperature, said Dr. Jon Abramson, a specialist in infectious disease at Wake Forest Baptist Health, North Carolina, in an interview with ABC News/Health. He points to studies that have shown how the flu spreads mostly from school-age children who are in close physical contact with one another and who subsequently pass it on to adults. That can happen in any climate zone, including where it’s warm all year round.

That’s also one of the reasons why shopping malls rank among the germiest public places anywhere. It’s not just the restrooms you should be weary of, it’s also the food court tables, door handles, escalator handrails, checkout counters – and especially toys. “All those sniffling tots inside toy stores […] who just like to put everything in their mouths, can leave invisible coatings of germs behind – not to mention what they spew into the air when they sneeze or cough,” said Jane E. Allen, a health writer for ABC.

Of course, adults disseminate bacteria and viruses just as much. “The great hazard is being that close to so many people and being in everyone’s breathing space,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, to ABC. He recommends washing hands often and especially before touching food. “We live in a world that’s not sterile, but what we’d like to do is to be hygienic,” he added. Better than using soap from dispensers in public bathroom are hand sanitizers you can carry with you.

Getting vaccinated against the flu and other contagious diseases such as whooping cough is certainly advisable, although there is no guarantee that you will escape the entire flu season unscathed. Studies found that flu shots are effective only about 60 percent of the time, but are still considered the best defense we have available today. The reason for the mixed success rate is that there are literally hundreds of strains of the flu virus. Vaccines offered to the public are geared towards the most common types that are in seasonal circulation. And those change constantly, making a catch-all approach impossible. Also, even after vaccination, the body needs some time to build-up enough antibodies to fend off infections, which can take several weeks. Sometimes, it can then already be too late.

Besides frequent hand washing, health experts also recommend adherence to a highly nutritious diet, exercise and sufficient amounts of sleep to strengthen the immune system. It is also important not to get too paranoid in our efforts to stay healthy. Ultimately, we can only do so much to protect ourselves and stay functional at the same time.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “Surviving the Travel Season

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Don’t Let Holiday Stress Wear You Out

November 28th, 2012 at 1:17 pm by timigustafson
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It’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.” But for many Americans the holiday season brings considerable stress, anxiety and even depression. What should be an opportunity to slow down, take a vacation, focus on family and friends, often turns into an annually reoccurring hassle that is more of a burden than a relief.

It’s no wonder that so many people have a sense of dread rather than excitement about the holidays and find themselves completely frazzled by the time it’s over, says Elisabeth Scott, a stress management expert at about.com. According to a poll she conducted, 80 percent of respondents said they were more stressed during the holidays than they would like to be.

“All of the baking and entertaining, shopping, wrapping, relatives we don’t often see (sometimes for good reason), and holiday cards can add up to a schedule packed with extra activity and responsibility. Pair that with high expectations that most of us carry for the season, as well as the debt that often lasts for months afterwards, and you have a recipe for stress,” says Scott.

Stress is also one of the reasons why so many people get sick around the holidays. It’s not just flu season that catches up with you, it’s also that the heightened stress weakens your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria. Studies have shown that when test participants were subjected to elevated stress levels, their bodies almost stopped producing infection-fighting antibodies and their natural defenses went down.

Stress can make you more susceptible to illnesses from colds and flu to chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, according to WebMD. Studies found that chronic stress can ‘age’ the immune system and potentially increase the risk of any number of serious health conditions, including cancer.

It doesn’t have to be this way. “This year can be different,” says Scott. “Try a combination of cutting back on activities, taking shortcuts, and adjusting your own expectations for the season. You can enjoy the holidays to the fullest without maxing out your energy, schedule and credit cards.”

Most importantly, you need to take care of your health, if you want to make it through the holidays in one piece. That starts with sound eating habits, regular exercise and getting enough rest.

Stress increases your need for nutrients because stress makes it more difficult for the body to digest properly, says Cindy Heroux, a registered dietitian and author of “The Manual That Should Have Come With Your Body” (Speaking of Wellness, 2003). “The more malnourished you become, the more severely stress will impact both your body and your mind,” she warns.

To prevent that from happening, health experts recommend eating plenty of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables to keep so-called “free radicals” at bay. Free radicals are reactive biological compounds that can damage DNA and suppress the immune system and are associated with many diseases. It is believed that stress plays a significant role in the increasing presence of these compounds.

Exercise, of course, is a great way to find relief from stress. “Exercise can decrease stress hormones like cortisol and increase endorphins, your body’s feel-good chemicals, giving your mood a natural boost. [It] can take your mind off your problems and either redirect it on the activity at hand or get you into a zen-like state,” says Scott.

In addition to following a balanced diet and exercise regimen, you also must set time aside for rest and relaxation. If necessary, you have to say ‘no’ and cut back on preparations or activities if they overwhelm you. “You don’t need to try every activity offered, go to every party thrown, or do everything the ‘Martha Stewart’ way in order to make your holiday special,” says Scott. Don’t become so busy that you no longer enjoy what is supposed to be fun and give you pleasure. Stick to what’s important to you, the things you would really miss if they weren’t included, and don’t measure yourself by other people’s expectations. After all, it should be a wonderful time for you, too.

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Food Safety First

November 25th, 2012 at 1:54 pm by timigustafson
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Enjoying delicious food is at the center of nearly all holiday celebrations, regardless of social, cultural or religious background. Festive banquets, sumptuous buffets and overflowing dinner tables invite to indulge. However, with so much food put out, there is also a heightened danger of contamination that can result in sometimes serious, even fatal food-borne illness. Whether you eat out in a restaurant, partake in a catered office party or cook up a storm at home, chances are you encounter items that are not agreeable with your digestive system.

Fortunately, most food-borne infections only cause stomach cramps, vomiting and a day or two of diarrhea – but nothing more serious. Still, out of the nearly 50 million Americans who on average fall sick from spoiled food every year, 128,000 were hospitalized and 5,000 died in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Treating cases of acute food poisoning costs the United States a whopping $152 billion per year in healthcare, missed work and other economic losses, says a report by the Produce Safety Project (PSP), an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trust.

According to the CDC, food-borne illness, also known as “food poisoning,” is a common but largely preventable public health problem. There can be many different kinds of infections caused by a wide range of pathogens that contaminate food. In addition, there are poisonous chemicals and other harmful substances that can do equal damage. Currently, over 250 different food-borne diseases have been identified by the agency. Besides through food, infections can spread through unsafe drinking water, water people swim in, and even person-to-person contact.

Raw animal food products spoil the easiest and fastest. Raw meat, seafood (especially shellfish), poultry, eggs and unpasteurized milk are prime candidates for contamination. The risks multiply when items consist of parts from many individual animals such as ground beef or raw milk that often come from hundreds of different sources.

Fruits and vegetables are also of concern when they are consumed uncooked, unpeeled, unwashed or washed in unclean water. Exposure to fertilizers, especially manure, can result in E. coli and salmonella, to name just two of the most common illnesses. If there are pathogens in or on fruit used for fruit juices, even those can be contaminated if they are not pasteurized.

Contamination can also occur when the people who handle the food don’t take the necessary precautions. Dirty kitchens and unsound cooking techniques are often a cause for food spoilage. And so is improper refrigeration.

While you can only hope for the best when eating out, you can reasonably safeguard your food at home, especially when you are in charge of the kitchen. Here are a few rules you should always observe, according to the CDC:

Cook meats and seafood thoroughly. Even if you like your steak less than well done, make sure it gets exposed to heat high enough to kill bacteria on the outside and avoid contamination of the center from improper handling.

Wash lettuce and all salad ingredients you consume raw in clean water and peel fruits whenever possible.

Always clean hands, utensils, cutting boards, plates and kitchen counter surfaces after they’ve come in touch with raw meat or fish.

Refrigerate perishables as soon as possible and don’t keep them unnecessarily exposed to room temperature during preparation.

If you get sick and have symptoms of food poisoning, see your doctor.

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Beware of Hidden Calories in All the Good Holiday Cheer

November 21st, 2012 at 2:01 pm by timigustafson
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Whether we celebrate at home with family and friends, attend lots of parties or take a vacation to get away from it all, the holidays always tempt us to consume more food and drink than we normally would – and more than may be good for us.

The average American adult devours about 3,000 calories and 229 grams of fat in one Thanksgiving meal alone, according to surveys by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), a non-profit fitness advocacy organization. Those figures can quickly swell to 4,500 calories and more when all the feasting is considered.

Many people start by snacking throughout the day, which combined with the meal can lead to substantial overeating, according to Dr. Cedric Bryant, an exercise physiologist at ACE. However, those casually added calories are rarely remembered.

Another source of uncounted calories are often alcoholic beverages. It’s no secret that alcohol consumption escalates during the holiday season. The distilled spirits industry alone makes more than 25 percent of its annual profits from Thanksgiving to New Year, according to reports by Forbes, based on data from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS).

“Many may not realize that even a little daily drinking can lead to weight gain over time,” says Dr. Samara Joy Nielsen, a senior fellow at the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

She admits that even health experts tend to forget how many calories from beverages contribute to the total calorie intake among adults. “Although the risks of excessive alcohol consumption in terms of injury and chronic disease are well known, less is known about the calories consumed from alcoholic beverages. As with calorically sweetened beverages, alcoholic beverages are a top contributor to calorie intake but provide few nutrients,” says Dr. Nielsen in a study report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While people are becoming increasingly aware of the effects of sodas in terms of weight gain, alcoholic beverages have so far escaped similar scrutiny.

Of course, the impact of alcohol on the waistline is not limited to the holidays. About one-third of men and one-fifth of women in America consume calories from alcoholic beverages on most days, according to the CDC report. For most Americans, the average intake is less than 100 calories per day, however, 20 percent of men and 6 percent of women consume more than 300 calories from alcohol on any given day.

One of the reasons why the consequences of alcohol consumption are not always understood may be that many people don’t even know what constitutes a “drink,” says the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). A “standard drink” in the U.S. is defined as any drink that contains 0.6 fluid ounces or 14 grams of pure alcohol. For regular beer that is equivalent to 12 fl oz, for table wine 5 fl oz, and for 80-proof spirits 1.5 fl oz. For beer that’s about 150 calories and for wine 100 calories. For hard liquors, especially when mixed or combined with other ingredients in cocktails, those numbers can be much, much higher.

Needless to say, drinking alcohol – at any time, but especially during the holidays when there are so many opportunities – can also be hazardous in other ways. Multiple health problems and potential addiction are well documented. And, of course, there are safety concerns. Nearly half of all driving fatalities on Christmas Day are alcohol-related, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), disasters that could easily be avoided.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “Your Drinks Count, Too

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

For Heart Disease Patients, Meditation Can Be a Lifesaver, Study Finds

November 18th, 2012 at 2:30 pm by timigustafson
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New research, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), found that people with heart disease who regularly meditate may be able to reduce their risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke nearly by half.

For the study, which was published in the journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease patients were enrolled in a stress-reducing program based on Transcendental Meditation (TM). The participants were required to meditate for about 20 minutes twice a day, practicing specific techniques that allowed their bodies and minds to experience a sense of deep rest and relaxation.

“Transcendental Meditation is a simple, effortless and natural way to settle down to a quiet state of mind,” said Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, a research institute at the Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa, and leader of the program.

But achieving calmness and emotional balance are not the only potential benefits. Meditating can have a positive impact on the body as well, such as lowering blood pressure, and can thereby play an important role in the treatment or prevention of cardiovascular disease. “It’s a way to utilize the body’s own internal pharmacy,” said Dr. Schneider in an interview with WebMD.

Meditation has been practiced in various forms for thousands of years all around the globe. Practitioners use it to reach a state of tranquility, inner peace, awareness and balance but also for the treatment of medical conditions, especially when they are aggravated by stress and anxiety.

Transcendental meditation, as applied in the study, is only one of many types of the practice. Yoga, which focuses on posture and breathing exercises, primarily for physical flexibility, can also help relax the mind and reduce stress.

“Those who meditate can choose among a wide range of practices, both religious and secular,” said Dr. Charles L. Raison, clinical director of the Mind-Body Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, who participated in a study on the healing effects of meditation on both body and mind. “What they have in common is a narrowing of focus that shuts out the external world, which usually [also] stills the body.”

Some experts have warned that drawing conclusions like these may be premature. Dr. Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School who studied mindful meditation practices, finds it hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation. “The field is very, very young, and we don’t really know enough about it yet,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “I would say these are still quite preliminary findings. We see that there is something there, but we have to replicate these findings and find out what they really mean.”

Still she acknowledges that meditating can increase a sense of well-being and improve the quality of life, even if it’s hard to determine how precisely these effects come about. And she agrees that meditation has its place if for no other reason than to provide some much needed rest.

“It does not require any particular education and does not conflict with lifestyle, philosophy or beliefs,” said Dr. Schneider. “It’s a straightforward technique [that] helps to reset the body’s own self-repair and homeostatic mechanisms.” That’s a lot for the simple act of sitting still.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “Self-Care for Heart Disease Patients.”

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Weight Gain During the Holidays Is Hard to Undo

November 14th, 2012 at 2:51 pm by timigustafson
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Millions of Americans will again become heavier over the holidays. For many it’s an experience as reoccurring as the Season itself. It seems almost inevitable that we overeat too often and exercise too little this time of the year. While the resulting weight gain is not always dramatic, getting rid off the extra pounds afterwards can be a real challenge.

“Americans probably gain only a pound during the winter holiday season, but this extra weight accumulates through the years and may be a major contributor to obesity later,” finds one study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In other words, even a little uptick in body weight each holiday season can add up over time until it becomes a potential health problem. For people who are already overweight or obese, the situation can be worse. Research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that the average weight increase in this group was as much as five times higher. “These results suggest that holiday weight gain may be an important contributor to the rising prevalence of obesity,” the NCBI study concluded.

Most Americans who gain weight between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve generally don’t lose that weight ever again, says also Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiologist and talk show host on ABC. Some meals people eat during the holidays can add up to 2,000 calories or more, according to Dr. Oz, so they could actually put on an extra pound every day if they keep indulging like this. Once they become used to the higher calorie intake, it may seem like normal and they continue on that level.

So what can be done to prevent us from falling into the same trap year after year? While the holiday season is no time to start dieting because of all the temptations around us, there are a few tricks you can apply, says Registered Dietitian Marisa Moore. She suggests to keep tempting treats as much out of sight as possible. “Just seeing food can trigger the desire to eat,” she warns.

Especially beware of calorie-laden drinks like eggnog, which can have 450 calories or more per glass. When you attend a party where lots of food will be served, “ruin your appetite” before you get there, Moore advises. Rather than arriving ravenous, grab a handful of protein and carbohydrate-rich snacks like nuts or cheese with some fruit. It will leave you less inclined to overload on heavier foods later.

Also, don’t forget to maintain your exercise schedule between your partying. In fact, you may want to increase your workout efforts a bit for counterbalance.

Last but not least, don’t forget to get enough sleep. Your full social calendar can wreak havoc on your body, says Moore. Lack of sleep and resulting exhaustion can contribute to weight gain as well because you are less likely to exercise restraint and keep your eating habits under control.

The more you are aware of your inclinations (some call it weaknesses), the easier it will be to work around them. Always have a plan ready for how much you are willing and able to consume without having to deal with dire consequences later.

Remember that the holidays are primarily there to reconnect with family and friends and to celebrate good times. Enjoying delicious food is certainly part of that, but it shouldn’t be the main focus. Instead of standing around the buffet, you can hit the dance floor, or simply enjoy a good conversation with old and new friends that doesn’t require more than you being your lovely self.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “‘Tis the Season for Weight Gain – And What (Not) to Do When Celebrating the Holidays

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

The Many Health Benefits of a Good Belly Laugh

November 11th, 2012 at 8:14 am by timigustafson
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It feels good to laugh once in a while. Everyone knows that. But laughter as a health-promoting exercise is not as widely practiced, despite of the fact that scientists have long known about the healing effects of good humor.

In his best-selling book, “Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient” (W.W. Norton & Co., 1979), Norman Cousins describes his own recovery from a life-threatening disease, which he credits in large parts to laughter.

What at first sounds like a good story – man cures himself by watching funny movies – is in fact an account of what scientists call the “natural recuperative mechanism” of the body, a.k.a. “homeostatic response,” meaning that the body is able to heal itself and return to a state of normalcy from injuries suffered at a time of illness.

Of course, proper medical care can support and accelerate the natural healing process, but recovery almost always also depends on the body’s own defense mechanisms. Among these defenses is the patient’s state of mind. In Cousins’ case, it seemed that a positive attitude and specifically a great sense of humor helped him muster the inner resources needed to overcome his ailments.

This, obviously, is a dramatic and rare example of the potential benefits of positive thinking. More common are reports that laughter has helped ease pain and suffering, not just the mental but also the physical kind. A recent study conducted at the University of Oxford, England, found that belly laughs caused the body to release endorphins, which act like opiates by inducing emotional calm and enhancing an overall sense of well-being.

During my internship as a clinical dietitian, I observed these effects more than once. I distinctly remember one occasion around Mardi Gras when a nurse dressed up in a clown costume tried her best to cheer up patients, some of whom were desperately ill. That night, the nursing staff reported having dispensed significantly less pain medication than on other days. The laughter in response to the nurse’s performance worked just like a painkiller.

Even if you are not seriously ill but just feel a bit run down, laughing can be good medicine for you, says R. Morgan Griffin who writes for WebMD. We change physiologically when we laugh, she says, our blood pressure goes up and we breathe faster, sending more oxygen through our system – “like a mild workout.” Laughing may actually offer similar benefits as physical exercise.

Other possible side effects of laughter include stress relief, sounder sleep, better blood sugar regulation and strengthening of the immune system.

As plausible as some of these claims about the health benefits of laughter may sound, it is hard to prove any of them scientifically, warns Dr. Robert R. Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore and author of “Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.” It’s difficult to determine cause and effect when it comes to understanding what laughter actually does, he says in an interview with WebMD. “But we all know that laughing, being with friends and family, and being happy can make us feel better and give us a boost – even though studies may not show why,” he concludes.

P.S. If you liked this article, you may also enjoy watching the movie “Patch Adams” (1998) with Robin Williams, which is based on the true story of a medical student trying to improve hospital patients’ quality of life through humor.

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.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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