Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

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.

Is Eating Alone Becoming the Norm?

November 7th, 2012 at 7:11 am by timigustafson
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It’s a familiar picture: People eating while talking on the phone, reading e-mails, staring at computer screens, hurrying from appointment to appointment. Our hectic lifestyles rarely allow for lunch breaks exclusively dedicated to nourishment or sit-down dinners to reconnect with loved ones.

Nearly half of all adults in America now eat most of their meals alone, according to a new survey by the Hartman Group, a marketing research firm that specializes in consumer culture. “In fact, 46 percent of all adults eating occasions happen alone, with nobody else present; 40 percent of all adult meals (not just snacks) are eaten alone; and 51 percent of all adult snacking is done alone,” it says in the report.

The changes in eating habits are most obvious in the workplace where long, uninterrupted working hours have become the norm rather than the exception. But also hard-to-coordinate family schedules are impacting the way we used to have our meals at home, says Laurie Demeritt, the Hartman Group’s president.

Although it’s now more common than ever, the trend toward eating solo began a long time ago. As women joined the workforce in great numbers after World War II, preparing elaborate meals at home became less attractive, even as modern kitchen appliances eased the task. The ability to eat out or pick up frozen dinners offered much-welcomed relief.

Today, we have what Demeritt calls the “snackification of meals,” where frequent eating of snack items and smaller dishes has taken the place of the traditional three-meals-a-day pattern. Consumers are looking for flexible meal schedules that fit their demanding lifestyles. Oftentimes, this is only feasible when they eat by themselves.

While eating without company is not necessarily a bad thing and can from time to time be quite enjoyable, there are certain downsides. When you’re all by yourself, nobody will judge you, your table manners, your food choices or your portion sizes. You can focus on your meal or do a thousand other things at the same time. But that’s where it can get tricky, according to Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam, 2006). If you are not paying attention or there is no one else to give you any cues about your eating behavior, you may end up overdoing it – and gain weight in the process, he says.

To be sure, not all snacking, even if it occurs frequently, is automatically unhealthy. The trick is to stay away from the salty, sugary and highly processed items that unfortunately dominate the snack food sections from supermarkets to gas stations. And as with all foods, moderation is key.

And what about the social interactions solitary eaters miss out on? “Some of us love eating alone,” says Diane Shipley who writes for the British paper, The Guardian. Eating alone should not make you feel awkward, not even as a women going on her own to a bar or a restaurant or when travelling, she says. “Spending time with someone whom you have little in common with can feel far more alienating than being alone.”

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “Despite of the Obesity Crisis, the Eating Habits of Most Americans Remain Unchanged.”

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.

Chronic Malnutrition May Cause Dire Consequences Later in Life

November 4th, 2012 at 1:09 pm by timigustafson
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Large parts of the American population are diagnosed as overfed but malnourished, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s called the obesity paradox. While we have easy access to calorie-dense, highly processed foods, a balanced, nutritious diet is much harder to come by.

“The mistake is to think that if you eat an abundance of calories, your diet automatically delivers all the nutrients your body needs,” says Dr. Mark Hyman, author of “The Blood Sugar Solution” (Little, Brown & Co., 2012). “The problem is that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is energy dense (too many calories) but nutrient poor (not enough vitamins and minerals).” As a result, “Americans are suffering from massive nutritional deficiencies,” Hyman adds.

For years and years consumers were told by the food industry that it really doesn’t matter where calories come from. “A calorie is a calorie” is an often-heard mantra. Not so, says Dr. David Ludwig of Boston’s Children Hospital. In his studies, he found that from a metabolic perspective, all calories are not alike. Wholesome, nutrient-rich foods offer innumerous health benefits their high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt, highly processed and refined counterparts cannot match.

New research suggests that the adverse consequences of malnutrition due to calorie-dense but nutrient-poor diets become even more evident as we age. One study from Sweden concluded that the “consumption of fat laden foods can have huge implications for the risk of malnourishment in older age.” Participants in the study who had the highest fat intake during middle age showed the greatest risk of malnutrition as seniors.

Many of the symptoms of malnutrition worsen when people reach an age where they become more frail and vulnerable to diseases. These are not isolated instances. Surveys have found that about 25 percent of Americans age 65 and older suffer from some degree of malnutrition. Common results are unhealthy weight loss and diminishing muscle strength, weakening of the immune system as well as declining mental health.

Malnutrition also becomes of greater concern with age because of changes in body composition, according to studies by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As muscle mass decreases, the percentage of body fat often rises, therefore elevating the risk of stroke, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Involuntary loss of weight caused by dietary deficiencies may lead to negative energy balances. Low energy may be compounded by loss of appetite or inability to maintain a healthy diet regimen.

Other risk contributors can be a diminishing sense of smell and taste, gastrointestinal disorders (e.g. malabsorption), interactions with medications, physical disability and other inhibiting factors. Psychological components like suffering from social isolation, depression, bereavement and anxiety can make things worse. Lifestyle issues such as lack of knowledge about food, cooking and nutrition facts, reduced mobility and financial constraints may also play a role.

The key to prevention or treatment of malnutrition is early diagnosis and appropriate countermeasures, including adherence to sound dietary guidelines and regular physical exercise for muscle strength and enhancement of metabolic health. Implementing these cannot start too soon but is also never too late.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “How Malnutrition Causes Obesity.”

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.

Enhancing the Quality of Life Wherever We Can

October 31st, 2012 at 12:45 pm by timigustafson
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For the longest time, there has been nothing but bad news coming from Greece: An economy in complete shambles, high unemployment, drastic tax hikes and cutbacks in social services, unrest in the streets, a society at the brink of collapse. And yet it is precisely in this region where people seem to live longer, healthier lives than about anywhere else on the planet. What’s their secret?

Based on years of research, Dan Buettner, best-selling author of “The Blue Zones: Lessons in Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest” (National Geographic Society, 2008), and two of his colleagues found that the inhabitants of the Greek island of Ikaria were reaching the age of 90 at two and a half times the rate Americans do.

“Ikarian men in particular are nearly four times as likely as their American counterparts to reach 90, often in better health. But more than that, they were also living about 8 to 10 years longer before succumbing to cancers and cardiovascular disease, and they suffered less depression and about a quarter the rate of dementia.” By contrast, Buettner says, almost half of American seniors show signs of Alzheimer’s by the age of 85.

Despite of its remoteness and rugged, mountainous landscape, the island has been known for centuries for its health-promoting climate and soothing hot springs. A slow-pace, leisurely lifestyle is still prevalent among the people here who savor tasty meals and long afternoon naps. Time seems to stand still – most villagers don’t even wear watches.

Many of the young people who once left the island in search of better paying jobs in the cities have returned, disillusioned with their fading prospects. Because of high unemployment rates, some have no choice but to move back in with parents and grandparents, but others see the lifestyle of their forbearers as a viable alternative.

Besides tourism, small-scale agriculture is the only industry on Ikaria. When it comes to food supply, most families are self-sufficient. Gardening and tending to livestock fills the day that starts late in the morning and ends with dining and socializing with family, neighbors and friends.

The latter is as crucial as the diet the Ikarians adhere to. The social structures might turn out to be even more important, says Buettner. The cultural attitude that honors and celebrates old age keeps seniors more engaged in their communities. Studies have shown that the concept of retirement, common in industrialized countries, actually reduces life expectancy. Such “artificial punctuations” in life, as he calls it, deprive retirees unnecessarily of a sense of purpose and meaningful existence.

Another puzzling phenomenon is that Ikarians also live longer than other islanders in the region who share a comparable environment. Obviously it’s not one specific thing that sets these people apart, says Buettner, but rather a host of “subtly powerful, mutually enhancing and pervasive factors are at work” such as a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, lack of stress and time pressure, daily physical activity through walking and manual labor, and being part of a functional community. In other words, it’s the high quality of life that results in the extraordinary longevity.

Obviously, not everyone can move to an idyllic island and grow vegetables, milk goats, bake bread and snooze the afternoon away. But what we all can do is to stop once in a while and consider whether our days really have to be as hectic and exhausting as they often are. Perhaps we would be better off if we took regularly inventory and separated what’s necessary from what just crept in on us.

We don’t have to aim at living forever. Longevity itself doesn’t have to be the primary goal. Being around a few years longer is not worth the effort if we’re only getting more of the same. A better quality of life, on the other hand, is something we can always strive for at any time and anywhere.

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.

Creating a Health-Promoting Work Environment

October 28th, 2012 at 12:48 pm by timigustafson
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More and more companies are enrolling their workforce in health and wellness programs to cut staggering health care costs, reduce absenteeism and foster productivity as well as morale and loyalty, according to several studies on recent changes in employer-based health care policies. There is a fast growing interest in taking preventive measures such as promoting weight control, physical activity and cessation of tobacco use, not only among big corporations but also small and mid-size businesses.

Lifestyle-related (and therefore preventable) illnesses make up approximately 80 percent of the burden of health care costs for companies and 90 percent of all health care costs, according to one study.

Health and wellness incentives have long been considered a luxury only large corporations can afford, not a strategic imperative for all businesses to keep ever-increasing health care costs at bay, say the authors of a study published in the Harvard Business Review. That view is rapidly changing.

There is no shortage of examples where investments in employees’ social, mental and physical health has paid off. For instance, Johnson & Johnson has estimated that their wellness program, which started out in 1995, saved the company about $250 million in health care costs over a decade, according to the report.

Despite of these encouraging case studies, many wellness programs continue to evolve and companies are still trying to figure out exactly how or if their initiatives affect their bottom line, according to analyses by business insurance companies.

To be sure, not all employees welcome these programs in their place of work. Sometimes additional incentives such as reductions in premiums and co-payments and other cash bonuses are needed to get them to join.

A few employers have begun requiring health risk assessments and biometric screening for their workers to qualify for health care coverage, a step some may consider an undue intrusion in their private affairs.

Experts warn against an antagonistic climate around the issue of health in the workplace. Employers should design their policies and programs around the needs of their employees, advises Judith A. Monroe, MD, State Health Commissioner of Indiana. If there are a number of smokers in a company, offering cessation counseling may be important. If weight problems are of concern, access to exercise and nutrition programs could be provided.

“One of the components that is key to the overall success of wellness programs is the development of a culture of health within the organization,” says Dr. Steven Noelder, a consultant with Total Health Management in Newport Beach, California. “Not only do you need top-down support, you also need support at the grassroots level.” In other words, only when everyone feels that the measures taken are in his or her own best interest can health and wellness programs produce the desired outcome and make a difference for the better.

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.

Did I Gain Weight?

October 24th, 2012 at 4:27 pm by timigustafson
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Many Americans find it hard to judge whether they are successfully managing their weight or not. Despite of increasing awareness of the obesity crisis in this country and around the world, most people don’t see themselves as being affected by weight issues. What’s more, misperceptions – some call it denial – about weight changes are widespread, according to a recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.

“If people aren’t in touch with their weight and changes in their weight over time, they might not be motivated to lose weight,” says Dr. Catherine Wetmore, a former Fellow at IHME and now a biostatistician at Children’s National Medical Center, who is the lead author of the study report.

For the study, Dr. Wetmore and her colleagues compared self-reported changes in body weight between 2008 and 2009 by using data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), an annual survey that was designed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to track health and lifestyle indicators in American adults. The survey included data from almost 400,000 participants in both years.

Based on their self-reporting, most participants actually gained weight between the 2008 and 2009 surveys but were not aware of it or even thought they had slimmed down a bit, although they hadn’t.

There may be many reasons why people misjudge their weight. It’s not always the case that they deliberately lie or live in denial. “It may be related to optimism or vanity or a real lack of awareness,” says Dr. Wetmore.

According to her findings, women seem more in tune with their body weight than men, and younger adults also do a better job than older ones.

Still, she calls the study results “surprising and alarming.” Self-awareness of one’s body weight is an important factor in the fight against the obesity epidemic, she said in an interview with WebMD.

Misperceptions and denial are also common among those who are already overweight or obese. This is particularly unfortunate because other health problems such as diabetes or high blood pressure often occur in connection with weight gain and can remain undiagnosed and untreated until it’s too late.

For some people accepting their unhealthy weight and not doing anything about is an option they think they can live with. Also, as a society we are increasingly becoming accustomed to obesity and are beginning to see it as an unfortunate but unavoidable part of modern life. According to another recently published study, the number of severely or morbidly obese people (with a BMI of over 40) in the U.S. has increased by a whopping 70 percent over the last decade, making it the fastest growing segment of Americans with weight problems.

As a result, there are many more folks who suffer from weight-related disabilities to the point where they cannot live productive lives anymore. “People may basically be forced into retirement because they can’t work,” says Dr. Roland Sturm, an economist at the RAND Corporation and leader of the study.

Experts estimate that treatment of obesity and related illnesses add annually close to $200 billion to health care costs in the U.S. It is self-evident that these trends are not sustainable.

Obviously, there are no simple solutions and well-meaning measures like curbing soda consumption through taxes and limiting serving sizes, or posting calorie counts in restaurants can only scratch the surface, if that. But something needs to happen and soon. What comes to mind is a song by the late Michael Jackson: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.”

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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