Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

A Better Deal?

October 17th, 2012 at 2:43 pm by timigustafson
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I used to have a lot of memberships. Price Club, Costco, Sam’s Club, you name it. Living in the suburbs more than 20 miles away from the next major city, it made sense to buy in bulk and save money. As a family with growing teenagers (and many of their friends as regular house guests) plus three big dogs, we went through mountains of supplies in no time. So there seemed nothing wrong with stockpiling everything from toiletries to hardware goods to frozen foods to snacks. Making fewer shopping trips also helped to keep gas expenses down.

Of course, there were added costs for storage, especially for perishable items that needed refrigeration. A larger fridge and an additional freezer in the garage left their mark on the electricity bill, but still, we thought it was worth it.

What began to concern me more, especially as the kids went off to college and our needs for provisions lessened, was that our shopping habits had become so ingrained that we still tried for the “best deals,” even if it meant overstocking on items we didn’t really need, at least not right away and in such large quantities. Fortunately, we were not “hoarders” by nature and made soon the necessary adjustments. But it became clear to me how seductive the whole concept of “the more you buy, the more you save” really is.

The ability to buy in bulk, as smart as it may be as a strategy for some people and in certain situations, has been shown as a leading contributor to overconsumption that is now all too common in our society. “Overconsumption is as American as apple pie,” says a consumer report by Investopedia, a finance and investment advisory group, calling it a source of many negative financial and health consequences.

“More pressing than the financial problem is what increased consumption does to you and your family’s health,” warns the report. “While using extra shampoo doesn’t exactly harm the environment in a way that is immediately noticeable, consuming more mayonnaise, peanut butter, cereal, frozen meals and other popular items available at the bulk stores will almost certainly affect your health in a way that you will be able to see in a full-length mirror.”

Dr. Lisa Young, a professor of nutrition at New York University and author of “The Portion Teller“, agrees with that assessment. Psychologically, she says, wholesale clubs like Costco compel members to buy more to recoup their membership fees and for the obvious reason of saving money in the long run. It encourages increase in consumption, which may be harmless with items like toilet paper but not a good idea when it comes to food. “The more you buy, the more you eat,” she says.

Some would argue that this shouldn’t be a foregone conclusion. Why would having a well-stocked refrigerator or pantry make us overeat, just because the food is there? Because it is much harder to judge our consumption volume than our food choices, says Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University and author of “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam Books 2006). In other words, even if we have the best intentions to eat more healthily, whether we get the servings right is still another matter.

Our consumption volume – how much food we actually eat – depends on many factors other than the need to still our hunger, Wansink argues. Package size, plate shape and a variety of other outside influences like lighting, sounds, social settings and many more environmental components play a significant role in our eating behavior, many of which affect us on a subconscious level.

Especially package and portion sizes can have a considerable impact. Container sizes can influence our consumption of snack foods like chips and popcorn or inedible products like shampoo and detergent. Stockpiled items are typically used up much faster than those in smaller supply. It’s just how we relate to the things we have at our disposal.

Can we counteract these trends that seem to be all too human? Sure we can, says Dr. Wansink. What’s important is to alter the environment in which detrimental behavior can take place. For some, this can mean to stay away from bulk purchases altogether. For others, solutions can be as simple as repackaging bulk food into single serving containers or plating more modest amounts. As people become increasingly aware of their existing tendencies, they can find ways to work around them until new (and better) habits form.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “Weight Management – Not Just a Matter of Self-Control.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

For Maximum Diet and Exercise Benefits, Timing Is Everything

October 14th, 2012 at 1:38 pm by timigustafson
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Diet and exercise are the two main pillars of a healthy lifestyle. For both weight management and physical fitness, they are equally important and go hand in hand. But how do they relate to one another? Scientists suggest that coordinating your eating and workout schedules can improve results.

Our busy lives make it oftentimes hard, if not impossible, to maintain a health-promoting regimen. We eat at different times, skip meals, snack in between, work out irregularly. While flexibility can be both a necessity as well as a virtue, keeping to a schedule has advantages that are hard to substitute.

“Every organ has a clock,” said Dr. Satchidananda Panda, a researcher at Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. “That means there are times that our livers, intestines, muscles and other organs work at peak efficiency, and other times when they are – more or less – sleeping.”

Lab tests showed that when mice were allowed to eat any time they wanted, they soon gained weight. But others who had access to food for only eight hours a day did not, although they consumed roughly the same amounts. “Metabolic cycles are critical for processes such as cholesterol breakdown, and they should be turned on when we eat and turned off when we don’t,” Dr. Panda said in an interview with MSNBC Today/Health. Squeezing in quick bites or snacking throughout the day and at night can throw off these normal metabolic cycles, he warned.

What about exercise? While there is no ideal time for running or lifting weights – early risers may prefer the wee hours before the day starts, night owls may put it last on their to-do-list – there is the question of how to maximize the benefits.

For those who aim for weight loss, it can be important to coordinate their food intake, both in terms of quality and quantity, with their work-out schedule. Studies have suggested that intense physical activity like running, swimming or bicycling on an empty stomach can increase fat burn and therefore promote weight loss.

Other experts, however, caution against pre-exercise fasting. They say running on empty may help you get rid of fat faster, but you won’t have enough energy for a more rigorous training. “If you have a long, hard run without breakfast once a week, that hard run will train you to burn fat,” said Dr. Ron Maughan, a sport science professor at Loughborough University in Great Britain. For the rest of the week, however, he recommends eating plenty of carbohydrates, provided you can keep exercising. Also, if you allow your body to become too depleted, you may be tempted to overeat afterwards, thereby undoing all your good efforts.

“People often skip pre-exercise meals due to lack of time or not knowing what to eat,” said Manuel Villacorta, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics. He recommends consuming appropriate amounts of carbohydrates and protein to keep you fueled and give you energy and a steady stomach. But be careful: “Even the best foods can come back to haunt you mid-workout if not allowed to properly digest,” he said, “so it’s best to eat 45 minutes to an hour before you work out – longer after heavy meals.”

Some foods settle more easily and enter the bloodstream faster than others, he explains. These should be your preferred choices. Avoid those that make you feel sluggish or cause you having stomach cramps.

After you finished exercising, your muscles need to recover and nutrients need to be replenished. Focus on protein, especially after resistance training, and carbohydrates for refueling. Even if you are not hungry after being active, you must rehydrate by drinking plenty of water and perhaps some diluted juice or sports drink.

Obviously, there are no clear-cut rules that satisfy everyone’s needs. Experts recommend you pay attention to how you feel during exercise and how your performance is affected. Only your own experience can guide you and help you get optimal results.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

In Praise of Taking Naps

September 29th, 2012 at 1:39 pm by timigustafson
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Many Americans are chronically sleep deprived. Our busy work schedules, long commutes and countless demands at home don’t leave us enough time for a good night’s rest, let alone daytime breaks. In contrast to other cultures, taking siestas is often associated here with laziness and lax work ethics. We rather push through and, if necessary, fuel up on caffeine and power bars when our energy level goes down.

In terms of productivity, that may be a virtuous attitude, but staying awake all day followed by six to eight hours of slumber is not necessarily “natural” for human beings. In fact, we are in the minority among mammals when it comes to sleep habits. Studies on sleep patterns of animals have found that 85 percent of mammalian species are polyphasic sleepers, meaning they sleep for several shorter periods of time in a 24-hour cycle. Monophasic sleepers like us adhere to two distinct periods of wakefulness and rest. But that may have developed culturally rather than out of biological necessity.

Historically speaking, the idea that we should ideally spend long stretches of uninterrupted sleep is relatively recent. It’s a narrow concept, according to David K. Randall, author of “Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep,” and we don’t even share it with all of the world’s population.

With regards to productivity, there is no guarantee that working longer and harder always produces better results. Some of the greatest achievers in history, among them Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison, insisted on regular afternoon naps.

Even corporate America is discovering the benefits of allowing workers to doze off a bit when they feel sluggish. There is an increased tolerance for napping and other alternative schedules at many of today’s workplaces, says Randall. He names Google as an example where napping is not only permitted but even encouraged because the company believes it promotes creativity.

Health experts agree. “You can get incredible benefits from 15 to 20 minutes of napping” said Dr. Sara C. Mednick, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, and author of “Take a Nap! Change Your Life,” in an interview with WebMD. “You reset the system and get a burst of alertness and increased motor performance. That’s what most people really need to stave off sleepiness and get an energy boost.”

Besides restoring alertness and enhancing performance, napping also has a number of psychological benefits. A nap can have similar effects as a mini-vacation or a spa treatment and can provide an easy way to get some relaxation and rejuvenation, according to researchers at the Sleep Foundation.

Especially older people can profit from taking daytime rests, not only for their physical but also their mental well-being. “People who nap generally enjoy better mental health and mental efficiency than people who do not,” says Dr. Andrew Weil, author of numerous best-selling books, including “Healthy Aging” (Knopf, 2005). But, he cautions, the “timing and duration of naps are important: Too much, too often, or at the wrong time of day can be counterproductive.” That is particularly true for seniors who suffer from sleep disturbances that come with aging. Still, napping, Dr. Weil says, is a good way to take care of the body’s need for rest, which increases with age.

To get the most out of your naps, Dr. Mednick recommends to keep them short, about 20 to 30 minutes max; to make them a regular habit and schedule them roughly at the same time; to take them in a place that is protected from light and noise and has a sleep-conducive room temperature, that is slightly cooler than your work environment but warm enough that you don’t freeze.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “The Importance of Sleep for Your Health.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

The New Great Divide: Longevity

September 26th, 2012 at 1:08 pm by timigustafson
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The United States of America have often been called a divided nation, separated by race, class, political affiliation, values, you name it. Now, one study has found that we are also drifting apart in terms of life expectancy. While the better-off can hope to live longer than ever, the rest falls behind and may even die at a younger age than their parents.

Educated white males seem to have the edge on longevity. Conversely, the least educated and often poorest Americans, regardless of gender or race, are moving in the opposite direction. The average life expectancy for them has fallen by four years since 1990.

The disparities are most dramatic between highly educated white men and the least educated black men, about 14 years, according to Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and lead author of the study report.

These widening gaps within our society have lead to “at least two Americas, if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy, demarcated by level of education and racial-group membership,” said Dr. Olshansky.

The causes behind these trends are not altogether clear, although unhealthy lifestyles like alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, poor diets, obesity and lack of health care coverage are among the most likely factors.

A separate study predicts that obesity, along with multiple related diseases, will continue to rise across the nation, but especially in states with the poorest populations. The report, sponsored by Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), concluded that the numbers of diet and lifestyle-related illnesses could increase tenfold by 2020 and double again by 2030.

Currently, more than 25 million Americans suffer from diabetes, 27 million from chronic heart disease, 68 million from hypertension and 50 million have arthritis. Every year, almost 800,000 have a stroke, and about one in three deaths from cancer are related to weight problems, poor eating habits and physical inactivity.

While many Americans are becoming more health-conscious, the majority continues on a dismal path. “This study shows us two futures of America’s health,” said Dr. Risa Lavizzo, president and CEO of RWJF. “At every level of government, we must pursue policies that preserve health, prevent disease and reduce health care costs,” she said. “Nothing less is acceptable.”

Treating obesity and related diseases already costs an estimated $147 to $210 billion annually in health care, and these numbers will increase by another $48 to $66 billion if current trends persist, according to TFAH. The only way to change course is “to invest in obesity prevention programs that match the severity of the problem,” said Jeff Levi, TFAH’s executive director, at a news conference for the study release. The report included a series of policy recommendations such as swift implementation of existing legislation (e.g. the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) as well as creation of additional prevention strategies and action plans.

Government can definitely play an important role in the fight against the obesity epidemic, said Dr. Thomas A. Farley, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Government regulations are a justifiable option when they lead to preventing excess calorie consumption and obesity-related health problems and deaths, he wrote in an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

In this country, we have long treated lifestyle choices as personal matters that should not be regulated or interfered with, even if they produce undesirable results. It’s a part of our individualistic culture. There is much to be said for that, but, as it is becoming increasingly apparent on so many levels, our attitudes have consequences, and sometimes they make the difference between life and death.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Food Companies Use Latest Technologies to Market Directly to Children

September 23rd, 2012 at 1:13 pm by timigustafson
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Parents have long felt outgunned when battling the food industry for the hearts and minds of their children. Whenever they try to limit exposure to advertisements on TV, the Internet and in supermarkets, marketers have already found new ways to interact with their youngest customers.

The latest frontier: Ads on smartphones and tablets. New technologies allow companies to directly reach children by placing their products in games and other displays designed for touch-screen devices.

This is an especially fertile ground. Mobile apps are extremely popular with young kids as well as teenagers. And what’s even better for the industry, so far they are completely unregulated.

“The mobile games demonstrate how new technology is changing U.S. commerce, drawing tighter bonds between marketers and young consumers,” writes Anton Troianovski in an article for the Wall Street Journal.

This provides many new opportunities for food companies that have long been pressured by government agencies and advocacy groups to limit their advertising efforts aimed at children. “If [kids] have their phone with them, they can be playing these games that are basically advertisements in school and basically 24/7,” warned Jennifer Harris of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity in an interview for the article.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has made a number of attempts to impose more regulations on advertisers who target underage audiences but has never been able to get beyond issuing a few “voluntary guidelines.” In its latest initiative, the agency hopes to at least “shine some light” on current industry practices. It is unclear what that will entail.

Past proposals for regulatory measures have been rejected by Congress as too strict or burdensome, and several government agencies have eventually dropped their combined efforts to tighten control. Still, over a dozen major food companies, among them McDonald’s, Burger King, Mars Inc. and Kraft, have committed themselves to promoting more healthy foods to children, a somewhat vague but welcome step in the right direction. However, product placements on apps are not affected by this agreement.

Other increasingly common approaches marketers take are so-called cross-promotions where foods and beverages are simultaneously tied to movies, TV shows, product packaging, the Internet and in-store displays. According to one report by the FTC, film characters like Superman or Pirates of the Caribbean reappear in video games (a.k.a. “advergames”) and free downloads (a.k.a. “Webisodes”) from websites. The agency has recently asked media and entertainment companies to be more discriminatory when licensing such characters and to restrict campaigns to healthier foods and beverages when they are directed towards children. Again, there are no mandatory rules in any of these matters.

What concerns me most about these new technologies and their ability to help reach children by bypassing parental supervision is just that. Parents are supposed to be gatekeepers who protect their children from outside influences, at least in the early stages of their lives.

You may say it is still up to the adults to decide what foods are being bought and served in the home. But companies know very well about the “nag factor” and how persuasive children can be in their demands. They know that snack foods and candy are widely used as pacifiers to stave off temper tantrums. They know that their youngest targets are unable to distinguish between advertising and truth-telling, and that they can easily be manipulated. As I said before, parents find themselves routinely outgunned against this onslaught.

It would be naïve to think we can completely control the impact of new technologies on our lives and how they will be used. But that still does not absolve us from acting responsibly, especially on behalf of our children. It’s a battle worth fighting.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Eating Together as a Family Has Multiple Benefits

September 19th, 2012 at 1:49 pm by timigustafson
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Is the traditional family dinner a thing of the past? Is it overvalued as an institution that was once a cornerstone of the American home but has become obsolete with changing times? In today’s households where both parents go to work and kids have busy schedules with school, homework and an array of afternoon activities, finding time for a gathering at the table seems all but impossible.

Yet, studies have shown time and again that eating together has multiple benefits for everyone involved, but especially for children, and not only for nutritional purposes but in many other aspects as well.

According to a number of study reports issued by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), children who eat at least five times a week with their family are at lower risk of developing poor eating habits, weight problems or alcohol and substance dependencies, and tend to perform better academically than their peers who frequently eat alone or away from home.

To be sure, the iconic family meal, as for example depicted by the painter Norman Rockwell, came only into American life in the mid-20th century. In the 6os and 70s, profound social, economic and technological changes quickly dissolved that short-lived idyll. Restaurant visits, take-out and TV dinners have since become the norm rather than the exception.

There are indications, however, that the old customs are coming back, at least in parts. According to the latest CASA reports, 59 percent of surveyed families said they ate dinner together at least five times a week, a significant increase from 47 percent in 1998. Whatever drives this trend, it is a development that should be welcomed.

Eating together as a family is not just about food and nutrition. It is about civilizing children, about teaching them how to become members of their society and culture, says Robin Fox, a professor who teaches anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Food has become such an ubiquitous commodity, so easily and cheaply available, we no longer appreciate its significance, he says. We have to rediscover its importance and its value. Sharing a meal with loved ones should be considered a special event, he says, that can almost take on the form of a ritual or a ceremony, as it was practiced by our ancestors for whom finding food was a constant struggle.

Besides appreciation for the value of food and the work that goes into preparing it, there are also many social elements that come into play when families share meals, says Miriam Weinstein, author of “The Surprising Power of Family Meals”. The dinner table can be the perfect environment where kids learn how to conduct conversations, observe good manners, serve others, listen, solve conflicts and compromise.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the simple act of eating at home surrounded by family will save children from developing unhealthy lifestyles or making regrettable choices down the road. It may not make them more virtuous or socially more responsible. But it can lay the groundwork for a lot of things that point them in the right direction.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “Healthy Eating Habits Can Be Learned – Mostly by Example.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Emotional Eating – A Widespread But Poorly Understood Health Problem

September 16th, 2012 at 7:21 am by timigustafson
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There is no general agreement among the experts on the exact causes of the growing obesity crisis in America and around the world. Easy access to inexpensive calorie-dense but nutritionally poor food and sedentary lifestyles are often named as leading factors. Our culture that promotes ever-increasing consumption my also play a role. But could it be that our eating habits can make us not only physically ill but also harm our psychological and emotional well-being?

In her book, titled “Emotional Overeating” (2012), Dr. Marcia Sirota, a Toronto-based psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of addiction, says that constant eating, especially when it leads to weight problems, is actually a form of psychotic behavior.

“It seems as though we’ve become a society of addicts,” she says. “In particular, we’ve become a nation of compulsive overeaters, hyper-focused on everything having to do with food and eating.”

Even our efforts to control our weight through dieting can fit this pattern, says Dr. Sirota. “We’re compulsive in our eating behaviors, whether this means binge eating, restricting, purging, or a combination of all these. […] Both compulsive eating and compulsive food restricting (dieting) cause a behavioral vicious circle in which overeating leads to remorse, self-recrimination, heightened obsessions and further overeating.” The result is enormous emotional suffering, “suffering from a constant preoccupation with food and weight.”

Dr. Sirota believes that it is actually not desire for food that lies at the root of this kind of addiction but rather an inner emptiness, hurt or loss that needs to be filled. In other words, emotional eating is not about stilling hunger but numbing a pervasive state of unhappiness.

“When it comes to our relationship with food, there is much more going on than we would often assume,” says Dr. Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist in Santa Barbara, California. Like any addictive substance, food is often used to cover over or subdue emotional pain.”

But that’s not necessarily the case with all people who eat for emotional reasons. We should not assume that food, especially so-called “comfort food,” is only there to help us get out of a funk, when we are depressed, bored or lonely, says Dr. Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam, 2006). Food can just as well evoke feelings of safety, love or belonging and reconnect us with happy memories of loved ones and past events. Also, most people eat more than they should when they are celebrating, when they eat out or gather at the table on holidays. Fewer than half reach for the munchies when they have the blues or the blahs, he says.

Still, he concedes, there are significant differences between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Physical hunger builds gradually and recedes when the stomach is filled. By contrast, emotional hunger arises suddenly, unrelated to the time you last ate, and it persists even after sufficient food intake, thereby often leading to overindulgence. Also, there is no negative psychological fall-out after eating in response to physical hunger. But there can be feelings of shame and guilt after bouts of emotional overeating.

Using food to satisfy our emotional needs every so often does not necessarily have to be considered problematic. “We all eat for emotional reasons sometimes,” says Jane Jakubczak, a Registered Dietitian at the University of Maryland. “When eating becomes the only or main strategy a person uses to manage emotions, then the problems arise – especially if the foods a person is choosing to eat to satisfy emotions aren’t exactly healthy.”

By dealing constructively with our emotions, we can achieve a healthy relationship with food as well, says Deborah Kotz, a health writer from Silver Spring, Maryland. She advises people with tendencies toward emotional overeating to pay close attention to their reactions to stress, sadness or boredom. What actions can you take to avoid eating when temptation arises? Establish some rules before a craving attack takes place and follow through with your plan. Engage in activities that distract you. Avoid dieting, since it can lead to other forms of negative food addiction. The more you learn about the nature of your tendencies, the better you will be prepared to exercise restraint and stay in control when you need to.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

What Do You Really Know About Healthy Eating?

September 12th, 2012 at 7:07 am by timigustafson
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Most Americans think they’re healthier than they actually are. Considering that well over 60 percent of the U.S. population is struggling with weight problems, that is quite surprising. Yet 80 percent of participants in a recent survey identified themselves as “extremely healthy” or “very healthy.” But only 20 percent claimed to have what is considered an all-around healthy diet, according to the NPD group, a leading market research company that conducted the study.

Despite of the overly positive self-assessment, about half of the almost 2,000 adults who were interviewed agreed that their existing diet could use some help. Roughly half of those said that changing their eating habits would require some exclusion of certain foods (presumably of lesser nutritional quality) as well as inclusion of others (presumably of higher nutritional quality). 26 percent saw the need to add more healthy foods, and only 19 percent thought they needed to cut back on what they usually ate. There were slightly fewer respondents claiming to be on a weight loss diet than in previous years when similar research was done.

Other studies have found that it is not rare for people who are overweight or obese to misjudge their size, sometimes considerably. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found in a study on weight problems among young Hispanics that only a minority of overweight or obese participants judged their body size accurately. Nearly 60 percent of those whose BMI identified them as overweight described themselves as normal weight, while 75 percent of those who were obese thought they were merely overweight. One in three women does not realize when she gains five pounds and 15 percent aren’t aware of weight increases of more then 10 pounds, according to a survey by the University of Texas in Galveston.

Even for Americans who are interested in eating better and keeping their waistline from expanding, maintaining a healthier lifestyle remains an uphill battle. Food prices, especially for fresh produce, are high and keep rising. Contradictory messages like a recent study that questioned the benefits of buying organic add more uncertainty. Many consumers either give up altogether or make inconsistent dietary decisions. “There’s complete confusion,” said Maria Mogelonsky, a food analyst for a global marketing firm in an interview with the New York Times on the subject. “Most people have a randomly arranged set of diet principles. They buy organics sometimes. They buy based on price sometimes. Very few people are completely committed to one cause,” she said.

So what advice is there to give?

• The first thing I tell my clients is not to make their dietary improvements too complicated. If your new regimen doesn’t fit your lifestyle, it won’t stick, no matter how hard you try.

• Learn a few basic facts about nutrition (your body needs over 40 different nutrients every day), and how you can achieve and maintain balance in your diet.

• Don’t start controlling your food intake by counting calories. Rather, watch your portion sizes. Your stomach’s size is roughly equivalent to the size of your fist. Your servings should not exceed that.

• Gradually increase your consumption of healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. At the same time, decrease your intake of processed and packaged foods.

• Buy fresh produce as much and as often as it fits your budget. To save costs, choose locally grown, seasonal items whenever possible. Farmers markets can offer better quality at lower prices than supermarkets.

• Prepare most of your meals from scratch. Eating out or grabbing some take-out on the way home should be the exception, not the rule.

• Make water your primary beverage. Avoid sodas and keep caffeine and alcohol to a minimum.

• Get enough exercise to burn off calories your body doesn’t need.

If all or some of this is too challenging for you right now, take the steps you can manage and work toward the rest as you go.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “Will Rising Food Prices Change America’s Eating Habits.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Fight Over Sweeteners Is About Profit, Not Health Issues

September 9th, 2012 at 12:58 pm by timigustafson
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A group of food companies has filed a lawsuit against the Sugar Association, a trade group representing the sugar industry, for making false claims in advertising that allegedly caused loss of profit and other damages. Their action comes on the heels of an earlier complaint issued by the sugar industry against makers and users of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) for saying that their product was essentially identical to sugar and should be marketed as such. Last year, the Corn Refiners Association (CRA) had asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the name HFCS to “corn sugar,” a request that was ultimately rejected.

HFCS is derived from corn and is cheaper to produce than natural sugar made from sugarbeets and sugarcane. Both are present in countless foods and beverages Americans consume every day, and some experts believe there is a strong connection between these sweeteners and the current obesity crisis. In fact, studies have linked the consumption of large amounts of added sweeteners to widespread illnesses, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease and dental problems. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends an upper limit of 100 calories for women (about 6 teaspoons) and 150 calories for men (about 9 teaspoons) from added sugar per day.

That high sugar consumption, whatever the source may be, can be detrimental to people’s health is not disputed, not even by the respective industries. In a public statement referring to the lawsuit, the CRA says that “vilifying one kind of added sugar [in this case, HFCS] will not reduce American’s waistlines. Reducing all added sugars and reducing calorie intake in general will.” The real issue is, the statement continues, that “Americans should reduce their consumption of all added sugars and calories in general.”

Considering that sweeteners in all forms are added to so many food products, including those that don’t necessarily taste sweet, it is hard to see how consumers could control their intake on their own. The question is not whether sweeteners are “nutritionally equivalent” and “indistinguishable once they are absorbed in the blood stream,” as the CRA statement claims, but how consumers can be protected from potential harm to their health and be helped to make better choices.

Whether it’s HFCS or added sugar, the fact that they are almost ubiquitous ingredients in our highly processed food and drink supply leaves consumers without much chance to improve their diet. And besides, are we really to believe that food manufacturers whose profitability depends on ever-increasing sales are serious about encouraging the public to buy fewer of their products? If that was the case, why do they keep spending billions of dollars in advertising, including to children?

What’s at stake here is consumer spending – not health concerns. The damages that are being claimed are price erosion and lost profits – not damages done to people’s nutritional and physical well-being from products that may be associated with some of the most widespread health problems we are confronted with today.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “Why It’s So Hard to Escape the Sugar Trap.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Why Are We So Confused About Our Health Needs?

September 2nd, 2012 at 2:24 pm by timigustafson
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Two out of three Americans would benefit from losing weight and becoming more physically fit. For one out of three, it could be a lifesaver. Weight problems and obesity, combined with other diet- and lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer, are at the forefront of our ever-worsening public health crisis. All this is well documented and communicated, and yet, it seems, there is no turning point in sight.

What would it take to persuade Americans to take better care of their health? One would think that fear of debilitating illnesses or premature aging would be enough motivation to get the ball rolling, but nothing of the kind seems to materialize.

For decades, we have been bombarded with messages that health-promoting behavior is important, and most folks agree with those goals – but without much consequence for their actions, according to Jane E. Brody, a health columnist for the New York Times. She suggests that health experts should reframe the messages they’ve been giving and make them more relevant to everyday life.

People are thoroughly confused about the often-contradictory messages they’re receiving. Those who follow health news at all must be especially frustrated with the so-called “new findings” that regularly invalidate their efforts to live more healthily.

There is still general agreement that our weight problems come from overeating and lack of exercise. But we also hear that this may or may not be true, or at least it may not be the whole story.

For example, “Eat up,” was the headline of a recent article on the benefits of calorie-restriction, which was based on one study’s conclusion that slim monkeys did not have a longer life expectancy than their overweight peers. In other words, if eating less doesn’t let you live longer, why not dig in while you can? “Exercise is not enough when it comes to weight loss,” says another. So why bother getting sweaty?

In the face of such inconsistencies in our health messages, who can blame those who simply give up and let the chips fall wherever they may?

Both dieting and exercising are thought of as temporary measures (primarily for weight loss) by many who hope for quick fixes, as opposed to making permanent lifestyle changes. When a particular goal – e.g. shedding a few pounds for a wedding or a reunion – is achieved, the return to old habits is almost inevitable. The motivation is gone and so is the stick-to-itiveness. But it’s also the confusion that comes with the mixed signals we’re constantly confronted with.

A proper diet is important for health and exercise is necessary to keep our bodies strong, says Carrie Burrows, founder of thebootcampblog.org. There should be no confusion about that. But then the experts have us believe that getting enough exercise is the only thing that matters because we can burn off calories, no matter where they come from or how many we consume. Or, that the kind of foods we eat makes all the difference, whether we exercise or not.

“Food manufacturers and food product suppliers depend on you eating crappy food. They have a vested interest in you eating more. Gym facilities depend on you spending your money there but never walking through the doors,” she says. If those were our only sources of information to take care of our health needs, we would be clearly out of luck.

What’s the alternative? Educating ourselves as much as possible. Cutting through the confusion and overcoming our own limitations, including our ingrained habits, preferences and biases, is a continuing task each and every one of us has to perform. It takes our entire lifetime and we can’t count on much help from the outside.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “The Meaning of Good Health.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), 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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