Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Eating Barbecued Foods May Increase Cancer Risk, But You Can Take Precautions

June 5th, 2013 at 2:47 pm by timigustafson
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Barbecuing in the backyard during the summer months is a celebrated tradition in millions of American households. Putting a few hamburgers, hot dogs or steaks on the grill is an easy way to throw together a tasty and fun meal, and also a great opportunity to socialize with family members and friends. Unfortunately, the typical barbecue foods are not the healthiest, especially when prepared improperly. Health experts have long warned that consuming grilled meats may be linked to an increased risk of cancer.

The reason is that when meat products are cooked over high temperatures or touched by flames and smoke, they form certain chemical compounds, specifically Heterocyclic Amines (HCA) and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH), which are deemed to be carcinogenic.

HCAs, also found in cigarette smoke, have been reported to cause cancer in a number of inner organs, including the stomach and liver, and also the skin. PAHs, the second type, form when meat juices drip onto coals or other hot surfaces, creating smoke. The carcinogens in the smoke then attach themselves to the outside of the foods they come in contact with.

“The cancer risk from grilling is real,” warns Karen Collins, a registered dietitian who serves as an nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). “But it changes dramatically with what you grill and how you do it,” she says.

There are substances in the muscle proteins of animal food products – whether it’s red meat, poultry or seafood – that react under high heat to form these carcinogenic compounds that can damage the DNA of human genes, potentially leading to cancer development, she explains.

The most common risks in connection with HCAs are cancer of the colon and the stomach. According to Collins, studies have shown that consumption of barbecued red meat almost doubles the risk of growing colon polyps, which can lead to colon cancer. Since carcinogenic compounds travel through the bloodstream, tissues in other parts of the body can be affected as well.

Thankfully, such risks can be mitigated by employing better grilling techniques and perhaps by changing some ingredient choices.

Barbecuing, especially when using a charcoal grill, produces the highest amount of HCAs, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis, Cancer Center, who conducted studies on the subject. Using a gas grill instead, or pan-frying and broiling are somewhat safer but not by much. Baking, poaching, stir-frying and stewing, they say, are considerably less harmful.

Other preventive steps barbecue lovers can take are lowering the heat and making sure the meat does not get charred, or the charred parts get trimmed off. Some recommend zapping meat cuts in the microwave for 30 to 60 seconds beforehand to shorten the time of exposure to open fire.

What kind of food you barbecue also makes a difference. By contrast to animal foods, plant foods don’t develop HCAs when heated. Mixing both, for example in form of kabobs, can cut the risks substantially. Marinating before grilling is also believed to be helpful because it puts an extra layer of coating on the food that can prevent overcooking and charring.

Wrapping grill food in aluminum foil, on the other hand, is not recommended, since the exposure to metal under intense heat can produce its own set of health hazards.

The bottom line here seems that barbecuing can be a reasonably healthy cooking method if done right and enjoyed in moderation. And this can be said about almost anything we do with food.

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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).

Your Fruits and Vegetables May Not Be as Healthy as You Think

June 2nd, 2013 at 4:42 pm by timigustafson
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“Eat your fruits and vegetables” is not only your mother’s advice for your nutritional health but also the core message of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the official recommendations by the United States government for how its citizens should eat to stay healthy and slim.

“Healthy diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases,” say the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those other chronic diseases plague two thirds of our population and, increasingly, the rest of the world. Weight problems, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension keep spreading like wildfire around the globe and are killing tens of millions of people every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). These are mostly diet and lifestyle related ills, and much of the havoc they wreak could be avoided by changing our eating habits to what they once were before fast food and TV dinners. At least, that’s the thought.

While everyone seems to agree that eating fruits and vegetables is good for you, there is precious little knowledge among the public of what exactly makes fresh produce so beneficial. So, here are a few basic facts.

Fruits and vegetables are good sources of carbohydrates, a main component for dietary balance and health. Carbohydrates deliver energy to many bodily functions, including the brain and the nervous system. There are two groups of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are provided by many fruits and also refined sugar. The complex kind are the ones you should opt for. Those are found in whole grains, starchy vegetables and legumes.

Fruits and vegetables also contain many vitamins and minerals. There are two categories of vitamins: fat-soluble, which get stored in the fat tissue, and water-soluble, dischargeable in the urine. Both are essential for growth, development and body functions. Minerals are important for the health of organs, tissue, bones, muscles and cells.

Fruits and vegetables are high in fiber, a carbohydrate, which paradoxically cannot be digested but is nevertheless important for the digestive process. A fiber-rich diet is believed to prevent cardiovascular disease and diabetes as well as certain types of cancer (although the latter has been disputed).

Fruits and vegetables are the main source of carotenoids (as in carrots) in most people’s diet. Carotenoids are responsible for the bright colors staring at you in the produce department and are believed to be highly beneficial, especially for eyesight.

Part of the nutritional value that sets fruits and vegetables apart are phytochemicals and antioxidants. Phytochemicals are plant chemicals whose multiple advantages are still being discovered. Antioxidants are substances that are believed to protect the body from so-called “free radicals,” metabolic byproducts that can cause cell damage, possibly leading to certain forms of cancer.

Unfortunately, many of these enormously valuable characteristics of the fruits and vegetables we commonly consume today have been diminished or altogether lost over time due to modern breeding and farming methods. In a recent article published in the New York TimesJo Robinson, an investigative journalist and author of “Eating on the Wild Side: The Missing Link to Optimum Health” (Little, Brown & Co, 2013), reported on the substantial nutritional losses in our produce over the past 50 to 100 years. Because we largely abandoned gathering wild plants in favor of growing them domestically, she says, many of the nutrients were bred out to increase flavor and yield.

“Unwittingly, we have been stripping phytonutrients from our diet since we stopped foraging for wild plants some 10,000 years ago and became farmers,” she writes. “Throughout the ages, our farming ancestors have chosen the least bitter plants to grow in their gardens. It is now known that many of the most beneficial phytonutrients have a bitter, sour or astringent taste. […] The more palatable our fruits and vegetables became, however, the less advantageous they were for our health.”

As a case in point, Robinson points out that corn, the way we prefer it today, namely sweet and of light or almost no color, has only a small fraction of the nutrients its ancestors had to offer.

“After reducing the nutrients in the majority of the fruits and vegetables we eat today, how can we recoup the losses,” she asks. Thankfully, there are still a few species around that have survived more or less intact, among them arugula salad leaves, green onions and a variety of herbs, now mostly used to enhance taste but still adding nutritional value.

In the end, of course, we have to work with what is available to us today. Compared to our dismal choices that dominate the so-called “Western diet,” consisting mainly of animal products and highly processed food, filling our plates with fruits and vegetables as much as possible remains the next best thing we can do to keep us healthy and properly nourished.

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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).

Why Taking Vacations Is Important for Your Health

May 29th, 2013 at 7:55 am by timigustafson
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Memorial Day weekend used to be the traditional kickoff for summer getaways. But for millions of Americans, going on a vacation or even taking a few days off here and there is a luxury they can ill afford. Among the 20 most developed countries in the world, the United States ranks dead last when it comes to recreation.

Unlike in Europe, where paid vacations of 20 to 30 days annually are the norm and guaranteed by law, the labor standards in this country generally do not require employers to provide such benefits. What’s more, even those lucky Americans who are entitled to paid time off often forego part of it.

There is no doubt that American workers, including millions of immigrants who have chosen the American way of life, have a particularly strong work ethic. But countries like Sweden or Germany, not exactly known as slackers, have fared well with their mandatory vacation policies, without losing their competitive edge. In fact, according to the latest report on global economic competitiveness by the World Economics Forum, the U.S. came in only fourth behind Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore. And even Canada, a country that is arguably closest to us in culture and lifestyle, mandates a minimum of 10 days vacation time per year for all its workers.

So, what makes Americans so much less inclined to quit work and relax for a few weeks or even just days on end?

For low-income workers it’s primarily a question of money. Those are typically the ones with the least benefits, including paid vacation or sick leave time. For others it’s fear they could be passed over for promotions or even lose their jobs if they are absent too often or too long. Some think it’s not worth the extra hassle to tie up loose ends before they leave or catch up after they return. And there may be a few who just don’t know what to do with themselves outside of work.

What’s often not discussed is that not taking time off regularly can lead to serious health problems. The results are comparable to chronic stress, when there is no reprieve not just from one’s workload but also from repetitive routines.

Often people get into a mindless routine at work and home, which can be broken if they distance themselves once in a while, says Dr. Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard University, in an interview on the health benefits of vacationing and travel with CNN. Uninterrupted routines tend to result in boredom, which hinders creativity and mindfulness, she says, and is therefore counterproductive. By contrast, having new and interesting experiences on a trip, for example, can be brought back to the workplace and enhance one’s performance.

But it’s not just mental health that must be restored on occasion. Chronic stress takes its toll on the body’s ability to resist infections, maintain vital functions and even the ability to avoid injuries, according to Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor for psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and contributor to Psychology Today.

“When you’re stressed out and tired, you are more likely to become ill, your arteries take a beating, and you’re more likely to have an accident. Your sleep will suffer, you won’t digest your food as well, and even the genetic material in the cells of your body may start to become altered in a bad way.”

And mentally, she says, “not only do you become more irritable, depressed and anxious, but your memory will become worse and you’ll make poorer decisions. You’ll also be less fun to be with, causing you to become more isolated, lonely and depressed.”

For these reasons and others, your vacation, should you decide on taking one, must not end up causing you even more stress.

If you travel somewhere away from home, I recommend choosing a destination that is truly different from your familiar surroundings. It doesn’t have to be a deserted island, just unlike what you’re used to.

Leave your smart phone and laptop behind, so you cannot be reached from the office and won’t be tempted to “check in” every so often.

Don’t get involved in too many activities, even though they seem fun, if they turn your vacation into another hectic event.

Live in the moment and make the most of each day. Focus on all the things you never seem to have enough time for such as leisure, pleasure, conversation, etc.

If all or most of this seems impossible to you, perhaps it’s time to rethink your priorities.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Even Going on Vacation Can Be Scary.”

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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).

Can Travel Make You Smarter?

May 26th, 2013 at 7:34 am by timigustafson
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I never feel more enlightened, more inspired, more educated than when I travel, especially to far-flung and exotic places. Without fail, I come back a different person, feeling enriched and full of gratitude for what life has to offer.

That travelling can broaden our horizon, both literally and figuratively speaking, is nothing new. As Mark Twain once famously said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” But can it also improve our mental capacities? Scientists in Germany, who conducted a recent study of how our minds respond to new experiences that come with travel and exploration, say yes. And it does not only apply to humans. Even the tiny brains of lab mice seem to benefit from roaming around.

For the study, the researchers kept 60 adult, female, genetically identical mice in a large enclosure that provided what they called an “enriched environment” where multiple objects and arrangements challenged the animals to interact with unfamiliar and changing surroundings. They divided them in three groups, one of which they exposed to the richest environment, providing numerous learning opportunities; the second group was limited to smaller, much less stimulating spaces; the third was used as the control group. To measure the amount of encounters with new events each group faced for the duration of the experiment, a total of 105 days, the mice were outfitted with tracking devices and monitored with sensors placed all around them.

As it turned out, the group that was allowed the most exploratory activity clearly developed a greater amount of hippocampal neurogenesis, meaning they showed significantly more activity in the hippocampus, a region in the brain that is primarily responsible for learning, than their less adventurous, more homebound counterparts.

“Those who move around a lot have many more experiences,” said Dr. Gerd Kempermann, a neurologist and one of the authors of the study, in an interview with the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “The brains of active individuals produce additional neurons in anticipation of more experiences to come and to deal with them effectively.”

What are the implications for us humans, if any? “If experiences and lifestyle choices have such a great influence on the individual structure of the brain in mice, chances are that this happens for us even more so,” Dr. Kempermann added.

Other clinical studies have long suggested that stimulating the mind through lifelong learning can slow down, if not prevent, age-related mental decline like memory loss and dementia. A high level of education acquired early in life seems to be of advantage as well because already established neural connections become reinforced with later learning, a process that is known as “neural redundancy.”

Obviously, filling one’s passport with more stamps by itself does not add more IQ points. But openness and curiosity, the willingness to question old views and convictions, and seeing the world from different angles can keep us young at heart, which includes the mind.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Healthy Aging: Exercising the Body Benefits the Mind, Too“ and Modern Day Travel.”

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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).

 

For many generations, immigrants from all over the world have come to the United States hoping for greater opportunities and better living conditions compared to their home countries. Through hard work and frugal spending they aimed for “the American dream” of prosperity and happiness, if not for themselves, then for their children and grandchildren. Many succeeded. But for many more it turned out to be an elusive mirage.

Tales of rags to riches, or at least of humble beginnings to comfortable living, are a solid part of our national narrative and are told in countless versions, often laden with romanticizing overtones. But historically speaking, this has always been the exception rather than the rule.

With growing income inequality over the past few decades, the notion of the American dream for all has lost ever more of its luster. Becoming an American nowadays may not only disappoint you in terms of your socio-economic prospects, it may even be bad for your health, according to several recent studies on the subject.

“A growing body of mortality research on immigrants has shown that the longer they live in this country, the worse their rates of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes,” a report on the health toll of immigration in the New York Times concludes.

In terms of diet and lifestyle, assimilation among newcomers does not happen too slowly, it happens too fast, some experts say. The standard American diet (SAD), which is not particularly conducive to anyone’s health, seems to affect immigrants at disproportionally higher rates. Eating processed foods that have little nutritional value and are high in fat, sugar and salt content is common especially among poor immigrants because of low cost and convenience.

“In Mexico, we ate healthily and didn’t even know it,” said one immigrant who had become diabetic since her move to the U.S. “Here, we know the food we eat is bad for us. We feel guilty. But we eat it anyway.”

Even more disturbing is that the second generation – the children of immigrants born and raised in the U.S. – doesn’t seem to fare better but worse. Although American-born children of immigrants are on average better off financially, they often have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. The reasons for this are not altogether clear, but experts believe that poor diet and lifestyle choices as well as a widespread lack of education in health matters may play a role.

To shed some light on these health disparities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report in 2011 that investigated economic, racial/ethnic and other social factors such as healthcare, exposure to occupational and environmental hazards and behavioral risks, among others.

The CDC researchers found that health education together with access to healthcare and preventive health services would have the greatest impact on reducing health disparities between immigrants and the rest of the population. For school children, enrollment in breakfast and lunch programs may also be effective.

The U.S. is by no means the only country that struggles with addressing the health problems of immigrants. A report published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health (RCSP), the official publication of the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA), found that even newcomers to Canada who were well educated in their mother tongue still faced substantial barriers because of lacking language skills and understanding of cultural differences, affecting them on multiple levels, including their health. A panel of experts at the CPHA recommended a health literacy strategy for immigrants with English or French as a second language, as well as training programs for healthcare providers to increase awareness of their diverse clientele’s needs.

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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).

Reintroducing Cooking in American Households an Unlikely Prospect, Study Finds

May 18th, 2013 at 7:53 am by timigustafson
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Americans don’t like to cook. They don’t want to spend the time it takes for food shopping, food preparation and clean up, especially when it’s so much easier to stop for a quick bite at a restaurant or drive-thru or bring home some take-out. Yet, experts are convinced that making home cooking fashionable again would be one of the most effective steps we could take to address the nation’s obesity crisis.

The United States ranks at the bottom of industrialized countries not only in terms of time spent on meal preparation but also on consumption, according to surveys conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international group that analyzes economic data worldwide. In other words, we not only don’t cook, we also don’t set much time aside to enjoy our food. Instead, more and more of us skip breakfast, work through lunch and sustain ourselves throughout the day by snacking.

The percentage of calories from snacks in the American diet has doubled since the 1970s, as more people have turned into all-day grazers while foregoing sitdown meals on most days, a study by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) found.

Over half of American adults say they have three or more snacks a day. Almost a third of children and adolescents eat chips, popcorn, pretzels and the likes on a daily basis. The amount of pizza eaten, both in restaurants and at home, has nearly tripled over the past thirty years. Meanwhile, the number of calories in pizzas has increased by 25 percent on average since the late 1970s. Over the same time period vegetable consumption has declined from 2.6 to just 1.9 servings per day – and that includes French fries.

The easiest way to turn these developments around would be to start preparing our meals from scratch again, says Mark Bittman, food writer and author of “Cooking Solves Everything: How Time in the Kitchen Can Save Your Health, Your Budget, and Even the Planet” (Kindle edition, 2011). Millions of Americans don’t ever cook. The rest cooks on occasion, often just microwaving. Many don’t bother with sitting down at the dinner table but rather eat in the car, at a counter, or in front of a screen. “And that’s a shame, because cooking is a basic essential, worthwhile and even enjoyable task,” he writes.

Bittman applauds others who are trying to get the message out about the many benefits of home cooking, like his fellow-book-author Michael Pollan who just published a new book on the same subject, titled, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (Penguin Press, 2013). In a review on the then upcoming publication he writes: “Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet.”

The reasons are obvious. If you are in charge of the ingredients that go into your food, you already are going to eat better because you won’t include extra fat, salt, sugar, preservatives, dyes and other additives. You also won’t eat as many highly caloric items like French fries, which are cumbersome to make at home. The same goes for pizza (made from scratch, not the ones you just heat up).

One of the central problems with cooking is that we don’t value it enough any more. We are used to having tasks like these done for us by outside service providers. But unlike getting your car or computer fixed by someone else, cooking is much more intimate. It connects us with our bodies, nature and loved ones.

Michael Pollan even thinks that the experience of cooking brings us closer to the most basic elements that surround us: fire, water, air and earth and also tightens our social and ecological relationships. All that has deeply transformational characteristics that can change us on multiple levels, but all for the better.

That is much to hope for – perhaps too much. Still, it is a fact that an increasing number of people are looking for ways to eat more healthily and also reduce stress on the environment, e.g. by cutting back on meat consumption and buying more produce from local farms. A rediscovery of home cooking would fit squarely within these trends. Whether it will be enough to transform or currently predominant way of life remains doubtful.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Home Cooking for Healthy Eating” and “Tips for Leaner Cooking Techniques

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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).

Most Restaurant Food Has Too Many Calories, Studies Find

May 15th, 2013 at 1:59 pm by timigustafson
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That too much fondness of fast food can cause weight problems is old news. But the idea that nearly all types of restaurants dish up meals that can expand your waistline has not been as widely discussed – until now.

Two separate studies, one from the University of Toronto, Canada, the other from Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts, found that most restaurant food is not all that superior to hamburgers and fries when it comes to calorie and fat content.

The researchers who conducted the Toronto study discovered that the average meal in 19 different restaurant chains contained 1,128 calories, or about 56 percent of the recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories for adults. Some popular fast food items have considerably less than that. And excessive amounts of calories are not only found in dinner entrées but in lunch and breakfast servings as well.

Besides calories, the authors of the study report also expressed concern over high salt, fat and cholesterol content, sometimes exceeding between 60 and 150 percent of the recommended limits.

For the Tufts study, the researchers focused on calories in meals purchased at independent and small chain restaurants, which are exempt from having to post nutritional information on their menus, as it is required of larger chains. The results showed even higher counts than what their bigger competitors offered – a whopping 1,327 calories on average.

More than 90 percent of the small chain eateries included in the study served portion sizes that covered at least one third of a day’s worth of calories. 10 percent went beyond that, and a few even exceeded the recommended calorie count of an entire day – on just one plate. (Perhaps Adam Richman of Man v. Food should pay them a visit.)

“Considering that more than half the restaurants in the U.S. are independent or small chain and won’t be covered by labeling requirements in the future, this is something consumers need to pay attention to,” said Dr. Lorien Urban, one of the researchers who was involved in the Tufts study.

But even calorie postings on menus and billboards where they are required by law have been proven to be unreliable in prior investigations by Tufts and others. In fact, fast food places with their largely automated apportioning methods can find it easier to determine accurate measurements than restaurants that rely on estimates by kitchen personnel. There is only so much accuracy you can expect when dishes are individually crafted by hand, said one executive of Olive Garden, a nationally operating restaurant chain.

Still, restaurant patrons don’t have to feel completely helpless if they want to exercise some measure of control over their calorie intake. Dr. Lisa Young, professor for nutrition at New York University (NYU) and author of the blog “The Portion Teller”, recommends following an easily applicable restaurant survival guide she has compiled for her readers.

Being aware that portion sizes in most restaurants have exponentially grown over the past few decades is an important start, she says. It may look like you’re getting more value for your money, but the fact is that you will likely overindulge when you’re faced with an overflowing plate. Instead, she advises to order only half portions whenever available, or just an appetizer. Or you can split one entrée with a dinner partner.

Choose a salad or soup if they offer healthier alternatives to, let’s say, meat dishes. But be careful with dressings and creams – that’s where extra, unnecessary calories come in.

Don’t forget that your drinks have calories, too, sometimes lots of them. Sodas are notorious for high sugar content, and so are fruit juices and milk shakes. Alcoholic beverages count as well. The more you have of these, the more likely you’ll lose your inhibitions and end up overeating, she warns.

Desserts, of course, are always hard to say ‘no’ to, but you are not without choices. A few pieces of fresh fruit can be refreshing and they come without much regret.

What matters most – especially if you eat out often – is to keep track of your consumption, just like you would on any weight management program, if necessary with the help of a food diary. With the necessary precautions, you should still be able to enjoy a nice meal that someone else prepared for you.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Why You Need a Dining Out Strategy” and “A Restaurant Guide for Healthy Eating.”

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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).

Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 through 1964 – will live longer than any other generation before them, but they will not necessarily be healthier. In fact, many are already burdened with more chronic illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes than their parents and grandparents were. Most of these health problems are lifestyle-related and could be prevented through changes in diet, exercise and weight management, but for some reason these messages seem hard to get across.

A recent study conducted by the West Virginia University School of Medicine found that despite of better education and greater awareness in health matters as well as advancements in medicine, baby boomers will likely face more sickness in their twilight years than generations before them.

The study found that the number of boomers who have high cholesterol has more than doubled compared to the previous generation. Nearly 40 percent are obese, an increase of over 10 percent in just 12 years. Less than half exercise regularly, and a rapidly growing number can’t walk without using a cane or a walker. Boomers are also reported to suffer more from mental illness and alcohol and drug addiction than their parents did. In other words, baby boomers appear to be heading for retirement in worse shape than those born before World War II.

According to a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit research organization specializing in economic studies, some of the lifestyle choices of this generation are resulting in “hazardous trends” in terms of health and aging. Especially the drastic increase in weight problems and obesity over the last few decades raise serious concerns about the future health and physical functioning of aging baby boomers, the report concludes.

At the same time, a large percentage is woefully unprepared for retirement in terms of finances and coverage of their health care needs. Nearly 90 percent are not sure they will have enough money to live out their years in comfort and financial security. 44 percent have little or no faith that they can sustain themselves without outside help, and 25 percent don’t think they will ever be able to retire, according to a survey by the Associated Press.

That is why health concerns are a priority for baby boomers not just per se but also for financial reasons. When Merrill Lynch, a wealth management company, asked in a recent survey thousands of Americans age 45 and older about their perspectives on retirement, the prospect of serious health problems topped the list of worries, followed by becoming a burden on loved ones and running out of money.

Health disruption is especially worrisome because it’s unpredictable, can be very expensive and can force people to retire earlier than they had planned or were ready to because of disabilities, says Dr. Ken Dychtwald, a gerontologist and bestselling book author who took part in conducting the survey.

The good news is that baby boomer retirees have more and better tools at their disposal to improve their health and age better than any of their predecessors. The keyword is prevention. Just as important as putting money aside for a rainy day is to take care of one’s health by eating right, exercising, staying within a healthy weight range and keeping the mind sharp. For this, it is never too soon or too late to start.

Undoubtedly, baby boomers are about to face many unprecedented challenges as they approach retirement in great numbers. But they are also well equipped to handle them with the same adventurous and pioneering spirit that got them through life so far.

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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).

Most Americans Don’t Exercise Enough – But Who Can Blame Them?

May 8th, 2013 at 1:01 pm by timigustafson
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Despite plenty of encouragement from the government and health experts to move more, Americans still find it hard to adopt a less sedentary lifestyle. Merely 20 percent are in compliance with the government’s recommendations for physical activity, which advise getting at least two and a half hours per week of moderately intense aerobic exercise like brisk walking as well as some strength training such as lifting weights or doing pushups.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), call being physically active “one of the most important steps that Americans of all ages can take to improve their health.”

The Physical Activity Guidelines are meant to complement the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a joint effort of the HHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). They are directed towards policy makers and health care professionals as well as the public at large.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published in the May 2013 issue of the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 52 percent of respondents to phone interviews reported meeting the recommended guidelines for aerobics, and 29 percent said they did with muscle-strength training.

The survey also came up with some other noticeable statistics. Less than a third of 18 to 24 year-olds met both aerobic and strength-training recommendations. Only 16 percent of over 65 year-olds came close. Hispanics did worse than other ethnicities. Education also seemed a contributing factor. Those with college degrees did on average better than those without. Normal-weight persons were more active than the overweight and obese. Americans living in the Northeast and the West outperformed Southerners. Colorado beat all other states. West Virginia and Tennessee came in last.

Similarly to the Dietary Guidelines, the Physical Activity Guidelines have been criticized as unrealistic and unattainable for many Americans, especially for low-income earners and those living in unwalkable and unsafe neighborhoods.

Multiple studies have shown that walkability in residential areas has a significant impact on people’s health. One study found that residents of neighborhoods with sidewalks, bike paths and public parks had a much lower risk of becoming overweight or obese than those who lived in areas without such amenities.

But unfortunately, issues of walkability and bikeability are still not included in the planning processes of many cities around the country. Walk Score, a Seattle-based company that evaluates major cities and midsized towns in the U.S., releases annual rankings of the most, and least, walkable places and rates them on a scale from 0 (= “car-dependent”) to 100 (= “walker’s paradise”). While New York City and San Francisco routinely qualify as most pedestrian-friendly and are lauded for their extensive public transportation system, smaller towns, especially in rural areas, still make it hard to get around other than by driving your own vehicle.

Physical fitness – like weight control – is considered by many as a matter of personal choice and responsibility. And to a certain extent that is true. However, other factors such as income, residence, access to grocery outlets and opportunities to be physically active within reasonable distance have all been shown to be decisive. If too many of these elements are missing, no appeal to behavioral change will suffice.

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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).

Even Health-Conscious Consumers Find It Hard to Maintain a Healthy Diet

May 5th, 2013 at 1:47 pm by timigustafson
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It’s a proven fact that most people change their eating habits and lifestyle choices only after a serious health scare such as a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis. Still, in many cases that may not be enough. Old habits tend to die hard, but often there are also not many alternatives to what they’ve been doing in terms of eating right and taking care of themselves.

A recent study found that most consumers after being confronted with a major health crisis were still influenced in their choices by factors other than what’s good for their health. For example, people can find it difficult to change their long established eating habits, says Dr. Yu Ma, an economics professor at Alberta School of Business and author of the study. Another highly influential factor is price, he says. If they get a good deal on a particular item, they will go for it, and if it’s too expensive, they will stay away, no matter how much they would benefit healthwise.

Another issue is what he calls the “health halo effect.” Most people divide foods simply into two categories: healthy and unhealthy, he says. If something is considered healthful, e.g. a salad or a breakfast cereal, as opposed to a cheeseburger or a sugar-laden donut, people tend to overindulge in the “healthy” stuff without much further thought. We have seen that phenomenon when, for example, fat-free cookies came on the market and many believed they could consume those in almost unlimited quantities because of the absence of fat. Of course, eliminating the fat did not make those cookies less caloric, and the results became apparent soon thereafter.

Another study, this one on heart attack and stroke patients, showed that nearly 15 percent did not alter their eating and lifestyle habits after the incident, including poor diet choices, lack of exercise and smoking. Less than half of all participants in the study reported having made at least one change, and less than a third said they made several improvements. Only 4 percent claimed they did everything that was recommended to them to prevent further deterioration of their health.

Much of the unwillingness or inability to make healthier diet and lifestyle choices can be blamed on the widespread confusion among the public due to the ceaseless onslaught of sometimes contradictory messages in the media about health matters. In addition, many of the warnings issued by experts are hard to heed by consumers who are oftentimes ignorant, if not intentionally kept in the dark, about the nutritional quality of their food supply. For instance, recommendations to avoid high fat, salt and sugar content may be well-meaning, but they are by and large useless when ingredients lists are hard to decipher or when restaurants aren’t required to follow any dietary guidelines or to post nutritional information on their menus.

“I think people are interested in making changes and they are heeding the warnings,” said Dr. Sara Bleich, an associate professor of health policy at the John Hopkins School of Public Health to NBCNews. “But when it comes to food, it’s much more complicated. Cereal, for example, has a tremendous amount of added sugar. And not everyone understands that breakfast foods like muffins and pastry, things that people don’t consider to be a dessert or an indulgence, pack a lot of sugar.” Similar concerns apply to salt in countless processed foods, many of which don’t even taste salty, and certain types of fats, some of which are obscured by arbitrary serving descriptions on food labels.

Undoubtedly, more and more people want to be better informed about nutritional health and be empowered to make the right choices. With growing consumer demand for further regulation and protection, that may be feasible over time. But for now, it’s an ongoing uphill battle, and most of us have to fend for ourselves as well as we can.

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

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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