Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Living Long, Living Well

August 29th, 2012 at 5:47 pm by timigustafson
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Americans may be less optimistic about the future in general than they once were, but a solid majority still hopes to enjoy a long life. In fact, longevity is considered by most as part of a good life, on par with health, prosperity and loving relationships.

60 percent expect to live at least until they’re 80. 40 percent think 120 to 150 years could be feasible within their own lifetime due to further advancements in medical and biological technology. And one percent believes that death could eventually be eliminated altogether, according to a survey conducted by David Ewing Duncan, a science writer and author of “When I’m 164: The New Science of Radical Life Extension and What Happens If It Succeeds.”

Considering that two thirds of the population are currently dealing with weight problems and a host of lifestyle-related diseases, this may be wishful thinking for many. But the fact is that the average life expectancy has indeed dramatically increased over the last century due to improved hygiene, diet and medical care. In 1900, people could expect to live just under 50 years. In the year 2000, it was nearly 77. The average lifespan was lengthened between 1.5 and 2.7 years per decade, according to data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.

What’s even more stunning is that our chances of living longer seem to go up all the time. How so? “Because the more time you spend in the world, the more time the world gives you,” says Ted C. Fishman, author of “Shock of Gray” (Scribner, 2010). “For every hour we live,” he claims, “the average human lifespan increases between eleven and fifteen minutes. Every day sees the average lifespan grow another five hours.”

Of course, that doesn’t apply for everyone across the globe, Fishman admits. “Your odds are better if you have avoided the obesity epidemic and live in a place that enjoys good health care, education, and freedom from war and terrible poverty.” It also helps if you can manage to stay mentally fit and don’t suffer from memory loss and cognitive decline. A loving family, a circle of friends and other supportive social surroundings add to your chances.

Unfortunately, many of these important factors for longevity cannot be taken for granted. Baby boomers, now entering retirement, are rightly worried about their prospects when it comes to their financial security, health needs and social life.

“It does not bode well for the baby boom generation at all,” warns Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor for public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago who studies longevity, in an interview with Reuters. More recent studies show that life expectancy gains in the U.S. have actually flattened out since the 1960s. Despite of dramatically increasing expenditures for health care, many Americans live with chronic diseases that are left insufficiently treated, especially among the uninsured and those with limited coverage. One study concluded that poorer citizens have on average a shorter lifespan of up to five years than the more affluent.

Obviously, money can’t buy everything and life remains an uncertain enterprise no matter how rich you are. For the rest of us, there are plenty of opportunities to take care of our health and well-being by eating right, exercising, etc. (you know the drill) – and for this, it’s never too early to get started.

Researchers found that physical fitness achieved during middle-age can lower the risk of developing chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure in later years and may be associated with compression of morbidity at old age. Compression of morbidity is what many health experts consider the optimal outcome of aging. The idea is “to delay the onset of age-related disease and inevitable decline without worrying about extending life,” writes Dr. Andrew Weil, author of numerous best-selling health books, including “Healthy Aging” (Knopf, 2005). Not longevity itself should be our first concern, but the quality of life we have as long as we are around, he says.

This reminds me of the late Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc. who died last year at the age of 56, when he spoke of the inevitability of death at his 2005 Stanford Commencement Address.

“No one wants to die,” he said. “Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one ever escaped it. And that is as it should be because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. […] Your time is limited,” he ended, “so don’t waste it…”

Even the longest life can be a waste if it’s not brought to its full potential. Even the shortest life is rich and fulfilled if it’s lived well.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “The High Cost of Living Longer.”

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.

Freedom of Choice Includes the Right to Know

August 26th, 2012 at 2:59 pm by timigustafson
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New Yorkers are divided over Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to limit the size of sodas they can buy, according to a poll conducted by the New York Times. Proponents of the initiative argue that such legislation is necessary to curb obesity and raise awareness about the harmful health effects of sugary drinks. Those opposed to the measure say consumers should have the freedom to make their own choices and not be coerced by an increasingly intrusive “nanny state” mentality of government.

The American Beverage Association, in collaboration with restaurant chains and other retail outlets that risk losing millions of dollars in revenue if the Bloomberg plan gets approved next month, have launched a formidable counter-campaign, insisting that liberty itself is at stake if the government gets its way.

Meanwhile in California, an entirely different scenario is taking shape. Voters will decide in the November election whether consumers should have the right to know what goes in their food. Proposition 37, if it passes, will require food manufacturers to disclose whether their products contain genetically modified organisms (GMO).

Genetic engineering is a process by which the DNA of living organisms is changed to improve certain qualities such as faster growth or resistance to pests. It is estimated that 40 to 70 percent of foods currently sold in grocery stores in California contain some genetically altered ingredients.

Countless food items like baby formula, corn flakes or soymilk have such components, although they are not labeled as such. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require safety studies, and no long-term research on potential health effects has been conducted yet, although there are reports of preliminary studies that have linked GMOs to allergies and other health risks.

There are also environmental concerns. Critics say that GMO crops have led to an overall increase in pesticide use and unintentional contamination of non-GMO crops.

Proposition 37 does not intend to impose any bans. “It’s simply saying: Let’s give consumers information so we can choose for ourselves whether or not we want to eat genetically engineered foods. Consumers in 50 other countries – including all of Europe, Japan, China and Russia – all have this right,” argued Grant Lundberg, the CEO of Lundberg Family Farms, and Kathryn Phillips, Director of the Sierra Club California, both strong supporters of the measure, in an op-ed article in the San Francisco Chronicle’s online publication, SFGate.

Having started as a grassroots movement, Proposition 37 has a good chance of succeeding. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, a whopping 65 percent of registered voters in California say they support the measure.

But so far, less than 3 million dollars have been raised by the organizers, mostly from organic farmers and environmental activists and their supporters. Opponents, mainly chemical and food-processing companies, including Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Nestle, Coca Cola and Pepsico, have raised more than nine times as much, almost $25 million to date.

The question in both cases – the fight over New York City’s ban on supersized sodas and the disclosure requirement for GMO in California – is whether they are just another reflection of our political and social divisions or whether they are signs of a major shift in our relationship to our food and, in turn, to our health.

Food manufacturers are keenly aware that they are increasingly becoming a target for stricter legislation, like the tobacco industry before them. They are already facing a barrage of lawsuits brought by individual consumers and advocacy groups who feel mislead by false advertisement or worse. Their campaigns in defense of the status quo appear like last stands in a losing battle. Ignoring facts and keeping information secret is not a sustainable strategy in the long run. Once the paste is out of the tube, there is no putting it back in. California’s Right-to-Know movement could morph into something like that with the potential of spreading across the whole country.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “The Right to Know What’s in Your Food.”

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.

Taking Time Off Can Improve Health and Productivity

August 22nd, 2012 at 1:02 pm by timigustafson
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Americans are overworked, stressed out, anxiety-ridden. Our fast-paced lifestyles are wearing us out. Persistent uncertainty about the economy is paralyzing us. Fear is a common response. Prescriptions for medications against anxiety and depression outrank for the first time all others, including drugs to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, according to the latest reports on spending for health care in the U.S.

In 1980, between two and four percent of Americans suffered from anxiety disorder, according to surveys conducted by the American Psychiatric Association on mental disorders. By 2009, follow-up studies showed a dramatic rise to 49.5 percent. That means 117 million U.S. citizens have been affected by disabling anxiety at least once in their lives.

What is happening? Why are we becoming suddenly a nation of nervous wrecks? Our lifestyle has certainly something to do with it. We don’t value free time and leisure as much as other cultures do. Two-hour lunches, midday siestas, weeks of paid vacations may be cherished customs elsewhere, but not here. We work longer hours with fewer breaks than almost any other developed nation. Even industrial powerhouses like Germany and France have 35-hour workweeks, but their productivity levels are among the highest in the world. On average, people there may have lower income rates, but their standard of living and quality of life are in many ways above the U.S.

Considering the price we pay in terms of our health and well-being, it may be time to question whether our traditional work ethic – which is essentially chasing the dime, no matter what – is still a worthy or even sustainable concept. In a recently published book, titled “How Much Is Enough,” (Other Press, 2012), the authors, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky, a father-son team, argue that people who work too hard miss out on the “good life,” although that is supposedly the ultimate goal of their intense efforts, ideally becoming rich enough to enjoy a happy, carefree existence.

Skidelsky senior, a historian, and Skidelsky junior, a philosopher, cite the idea of the economist John Maynard Keynes that increasing per capita productivity through technological progress and other factors would eventually lead to a sharp decline in work hours, a theory that has clearly not been verified yet.

Yes, we have reduced our official workweek to 40 hours, but that is just the time we are required to spend in the office cubicle or at the assembly line. Long commutes, chores around the house, extracurricular activities for the kids, etc. cut deep into what’s left of the day. Doing nothing once in a while, lying in a hammock, listening to music, reading a book, painting a picture, playing an instrument, going on a trip – all that, it seems, has become an impossible dream. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Fortunately, the ability to change our way of life is not just stuff made up by academics. Forward-thinking companies like Google are well known for their efforts to enhance creativity by giving employees time off to pursue ideas of their own, regardless the outcome. Some of their most successful innovations have come out of that policy.

Much smaller enterprises are beginning to understand the advantages of allowing their people more space to play and explore as well. Jason Fried, co-founder and C.E.O. of 37signals, a software company, found that giving employees an entire month off to work on whatever they wanted was not only a great moral-booster but also resulted in an unprecedented burst of creativity, very much to the benefit of his business (see his article in the New York Times, 8/19/2012).

The all-American creed that hard work will make us successful may still linger for a long time to come. But eventually, we will have to accept our limits. Work alone does not guarantee success, as taking time off and pacing ourselves is not equivalent to laziness. There must be time for both to make the whole person.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “In Praise of Play.”

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 Egg Controversy Revisited

August 19th, 2012 at 2:22 pm by timigustafson
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Eating eggs can almost be as bad for your health as smoking, according to Canadian researchers whose findings reignited a long-standing controversy over the nutritional benefits and detriments of eggs, or more specifically, egg yolks.

For the study, which was published in the journal Atherosclerosis, a team of scientists from the University of Western Ontario’s medical school interviewed over 1,200 participants about their egg consumption as well as smoking habits, and then used ultrasound technology to measure the plaque build-up in their arteries.

Why the combination of egg eating and smoking? To give a better perspective on the magnitude of the effects of high cholesterol intake from egg yolk, a comparison to smoking appeared to be an appropriate marker, the researchers wrote in their report.

Egg yolk is well known for its high dietary cholesterol content – about 185 to 210 milligrams, depending on size. (The recommended limit is 300 milligrams per day.)

Over time, high cholesterol levels can cause plaque buildup in the arteries – as smoking does. In fact, the potential damage from egg yolk is about two-thirds as bad as that from tobacco use, said Dr. David Spence, the lead author of the study report, in a press release.

In response to the study, some critics have rejected its findings, calling the research “flawed.” As an example, Dr. Steven Nissen, chair of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, expressed misgivings about the “very poor quality” of the study “that should not influence patients’ dietary choices.” According to Dr. Nissen, the research depended too heavily on participant’s self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable, and other dietary and lifestyle factors were not or only insufficiently included.

Similar concerns were raised by Dr. David Frid, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic. He didn’t think egg consumption should be equated to smoking, even though both can contribute to ill heart health. Smoking, he said in an interview with ABCNews.com, causes arteries to become inflamed, which can result in the build-up of plaque, however, in a different way than from cholesterol. Moreover, he said, people who like eggs, often have a preference for other fatty foods. That possibility must be taken into account as well, he added.

In defense of the egg’s reputation, the Egg Nutrition Center and American Egg Board have released a statement, emphasizing the wide range of health benefits from essential vitamins, minerals, protein and antioxidants richly provided by eggs, combined with a relatively low calorie count of 70 calories on average. Even the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recognizes eggs as “a nutrient-dense food that can be part of a healthful diet,” it says in the statement. Canada’s Food Guide also changed its recommendations to allow for higher egg consumption after the Canadian Egg Marketing Agency voiced objections to the originally proposed guidelines.

Unfortunately, this recent controversy still leaves consumers uncertain about the safety of their egg dishes. In the face of all the pros and cons, it would appear that – as it is so often the case when it comes to food – moderation is the best way to go. Discarding the yolk and eating egg whites only is one possibility. Adding healthy items like spinach, mushrooms, peppers and the likes to your omelet can help balance potential downsides. Ultimately, until the experts come to a consensus, using our best judgment is pretty much all we have.

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.

Hollywood has decided to invest once more in a movie specifically aimed at baby boomers. After the considerable successes of “Something’s Gotta Give” (2003), “The Bucket List” (2007), and this year’s long-running box office hit, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” “Hope Springs,” now in theaters, addresses another topic that is very much of concern for this aging generation: How does one maintain a decades-old marriage, including a decent sex life, when mutual attraction can no longer be taken for granted?

For those who haven’t seen the movie (yet), here’s a brief synopsis: Like many empty-nesters, Kay (Meryl Streep) and Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones) have settled into a comfortable but mind-numbing, soul-destroying routine. He goes to work every morning as an accountant, albeit with retirement plans not far off. She takes care of the house and earns a little extra money from a part-time job in a clothing store. While he’s resigned to the status quo, she wants more, in fact, she wants a different life that includes a loving relationship and – if it’s not too much to ask – a little action in the bedroom. Seeking the help of a marriage counselor seems the only way to salvage whatever is left of their former bliss.

Obviously, the film’s message stands in stark contrast to the “Fifty Shades” book series by E. L. James, often dubbed as ‘mommy porn,’ where women of all ages can find inspiration for their erotic endeavors in and outside of marriage. By comparison, “Hope Springs” is almost a turnoff, considering the long-term prospects.

In any case, talking (let alone making a film) about intimacy between older people has never been easy in our youth-oriented culture. This may be changing now in response to demographic shifts. But timeliness alone will not guarantee that a truly meaningful conversation can take place.

The way we deal with the subject of sex at the later stages in life is almost exclusively focused on issues like erectile dysfunction and other unfortunate effects of the natural aging process. Performance-enhancing drugs like Viagra and Cialis may sell better than almost any other pharmaceutical product on the planet, but in terms of treatment they offer a purely mechanical solution: As long as the plumbing keeps working, everything’s supposed to be fine. What they can’t do is to help preserve a satisfying relationship with a partner who has seemingly been around forever and offers little hope for many more surprises. Even if the desired effect kicks in every time, the ability to perform in bed is not the same as making love.

Like many couples whose marriage has come to a crossroad, Kay and Arnold take stock of all their unmet needs and expectations. Being sexually unfulfilled, although initially high on the list of their mutual misgivings, turns out only to be a symptom of a far deeper disconnect. Soon they have to realize that the deterioration of their relationship is not caused by a poor sex life, but rather the other way around. There is no love to express because there is no love to be had. Instead, an empty space is widening between them – symbolized by separate schedules, separate interests, separate bedrooms – and by the time they can no longer ignore it, they are unable to bridge it.

It is a strength of the movie to show how a ‘Me First’ attitude, common among but not limited to baby boomers, leaves us terribly unequipped to deal with these kinds of problems. Bookstores and websites overflow with professional guidance and self-help materials, but divorce rates remain high and more people are now single than married. The filmmakers were too smart to try giving any definite answers themselves. One thing, however, becomes clear: Love is still a matter of giving over taking, creation over expectation, dialogue over demand. In a way, we are warned not to expect too much and yet make the most of what we have. Not bad advice from a simple boomer flick.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “The Secret of Healthy Aging.

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.

Fatter, Slower, Sicker

August 12th, 2012 at 7:09 am by timigustafson
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Just by looking at the medal count from this year’s Olympics in London, one might think of the United States as a country of athletes. If only it were so. Yes, Americans are still dominating many sports, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that a dismal state of health and physical fitness plagues the country.

According to a survey conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2011, the U.S. population is the third heaviest in the world, behind the Pacific islands of Kiribati and American Samoa. Over two thirds of all Americans are overweight, over one third are obese and struggle with numerous weight- and lifestyle-related illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease.

While the obesity crisis continues to worsen across the nation, some parts are harder hit than others. Based on a Gallup poll taken in 2011, the city of Evansville, Indiana, has the fattest population in the U.S., with nearly 40 percent of its residents being obese.

What’s even more alarming is that few Evansvillers seem to see this as a problem. In fact, many take great pride in calling their town “the nicest place to live in the U.S.”

Among the things that make Evansville so nice is the annual “West Side Nut Club Fall Festival,” a week-long binge fest specializing in fried foods, including fried brain sandwiches, a local specialty. The place is also known as a test market of sorts for the restaurant industry. “Ever heard of the McDiner? Did you ever eat pizza at McDonald’s? […] That was just one of the many perks about dining in Evansville: We were guinea pigs,” wrote Jessica Levco, a writer who grew up in what she still calls her “sweet River City.”

Not everyone in town, however, thinks that being “fat and happy” is a sustainable formula. Sam Rogers, a PR manager at a local hospital, says the high rate of obesity creates lots of problems for the city. “When I’m walking around the halls, here’s what I see: Bigger wheelchairs, bigger beds, and bigger ambulances. We had to get a lift team to move bigger patients. […] The cost of our lift team is $150,000 annually.” But, he added, “Our bariatric business is booming. We have three to five surgeries each week.”

Still, city officials say they are determined to have Evansville lose its title as the American obesity capital. “I don’t think it is particularly good news in our area,” said Stephen Austin, the mayor of neighboring Henderson, which is part of the larger metropolitan region that was included in the poll, in an interview with the Daily Mail Reporter.

And indeed, some initiatives to curb Evansville’s particularly high obesity rate have already been taken. Under the leadership of Lacy McNear, a Registered Dietitian at the local St. Mary’s Medical Center, a program called “Smart Futures Pediatric Weight Management” has been designed to help both children and parents to make healthier food choices and engage in more regular exercise.

“We’re hoping that [following the program] is a lifestyle change,” said McNear in an interview with the Evansville Courier & Press, a local newspaper. Participating families are given consultation in basic dietetics over the course of six weeks. The hope is that when parents see positive changes in their kids, they will follow suit. It could be the beginning of major turnaround, who knows.

Evansville’s story, of course, is America’s story. On the one hand, there is growing awareness that obesity is a great threat to our public health (and health care system) and that something must be done. On the other hand, there are the agricultural-, food manufacturing- and restaurant industries that cannot conceive any changes in our eating habits as anything other than loss of business. So they fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. And then, there are ingrained habits and preferences that are hard to break. The vast majority of Americans still consider their food choices as a personal matter and exercise of individual freedom that should not be regulated or interfered with. That’s understandable, but the consequences are plain to see.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in “Making America’s Cities More Walkable – The Benefits Are Endless.”

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.

How Golden Will Your “Golden Years” Be?

August 4th, 2012 at 4:28 pm by timigustafson
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As they enter retirement age, baby boomers are once again at the center of the attention of marketers and industry. I speak from experience. Hardly a day passes by on which I don’t receive a letter, brochure or magazine in the mail, inviting me to go on a trip to far-flung places, continue my adult education, or join a community of like-minded, active seniors. Aging has never been so much fun and so full of promise, it seems.

Take, for example, the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” which turned out to be one of the longest-running box office hits this year. In it, a group of retirees from England goes off to India (of all places) to start a new life that appears to be easier and more enjoyable than everything they’ve left behind. There is affordable health care, cheap housing, and, surprisingly enough, even job opportunities open up for those who have the courage to seek them. Some things may be a little chaotic, but that’s all part of the fun when you no longer need to stress over small stuff.

Unlike for its forbearers, retirement for this generation – so we are told – is a new beginning rather than a move closer to the end. The defining word now is “adventure,” which, of course, comes from the Latin term for “arrival.” Instead of fading away, this is the time to (finally) come into one’s own.

This unprecedented optimism about the prospects of old age is also big business. Just look at the self-help industry that thrives on people’s willingness to change their lives and start over again and again. Instead of the twilight zone, the later stages in life are now called the “Power Years” (to quote one title among countless best-selling books on the subject), a time to break with traditional roles and an opportunity for reinvention and creativity.

“Due to longer life spans, economic uncertainty, and the mass rejection of yesterday’s model of old age, yesterday’s model of retirement is being transformed,” wrote the two lifestyle gurus and bestselling authors of “Power Years” (Wiley, 2005), Ken Dychtwald and Daniel J. Kadlec. “Instead of viewing the years ahead as a time of decline, retreat, and withdrawal, we are coming to see this as a terrific new opportunity to reevaluate our lives, consider new options, and chart new courses. The next chapter in our life’s journey can be one of personal reinvention, financial liberation, career innovation, new relationships, and social and spiritual fulfillment.”

The authors suggest that the new retirees should consider themselves as “ageless explorers” who travel the world, start businesses and live life to the fullest at every moment they have left.

Americans are especially receptive for messages like these. The idea that our best days are always ahead of us is an important part of our fabric, both individually and as a nation.

But is all this actually achievable or just wishful thinking?

A much different, one might say, pessimistic, take on aging comes from Susan Jacoby, author of “Never Say Die – The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age” (Vintage Books, 2011). Jacoby agrees that baby boomers have many advantages that were unheard of in the past.

“Many old people today – if they are in sound financial shape, if they are in reasonably good health, and if they possess functioning brains – can explore an array of possibilities that did not exist even a generation ago.” However, she continues, “at some point, nearly every baby boomer will have to cope with the shattering of vanity and self-delusion about the capacity to remain, as the song goes, forever young.”

To be sure, there is nothing wrong with trying one’s utmost to stay physically fit, mentally sharp, socially engaged and curious about the world. But we must also remain realistic about our natural limitations. More importantly, we must be aware that our aging process starts at birth. While this may sound a bit dramatic, it is undoubtedly true that taking care of our well-being is equally important at every stage in life. The healthier we eat and the more we exercise, the better in shape we are, the better we can deal with life’s challenges, the more intact we come out at the other end. Life is what you make it, as the saying goes. So, let’s not wait until it’s almost too late, let’s make life as good as it can be right now.

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.

Will Rising Food Prices Change America’s Eating Habits?

August 1st, 2012 at 7:08 am by timigustafson
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The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has predicted substantial price increases for numerous food items in 2013, if not sooner, due to the devastating impact of the current drought on farms across the country. According to its latest Food Price Outlook, the agency expects prices to go up substantially, especially for meat and poultry because of reduced inventory and higher feed expenses.

Average beef prices are already 6.9 percent above last year’s. Steaks cost 8.1 percent and ground beef 7.3 percent more than 12 months ago. The price of chicken is now 4.2 percent higher, and turkey is a whopping 8.3 percent more expensive. Consumers will also have to pay more for eggs and dairy products. Even fats and oils are becoming more costly due to surging corn and soybean prices.

There has already been some speculation whether the impending sticker shock will cause Americans to change their food preferences from a mostly meat-centered to a more plant-based diet. Since prices for fresh fruit and vegetables have steadily been climbing over the last few years and are unaffordable as they are now for many families on a tight budget, it is not likely that we are going to see a mass conversion to vegetarianism, not even close. If anything, Americans will look even harder for the biggest bang for their buck, and that, in many cases, means fast food, pizza, snacks and other low-cost eats.

Most Americans are aware, to various degrees, that their eating habits are less than ideal and may cause many serious health problems, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease. According to one study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly American Dietetic Association), only about 20 percent of Americans who were asked why they ate fast food said they thought it was healthy and nutritious. Still, the popularity of fast food remains as high as ever. It’s an attractive choice compared to other kinds of food, including home cooked meals, because it’s convenient, inexpensive, tasty and fun.

In any case, changing deeply ingrained habits such as our food preferences is extremely hard to do. People form their likes and dislikes early in life and they stick to them unless they are forced to make changes for compelling reasons such as bad health. That’s why the fast food industry spends so much money on marketing to children to turn them into lifetime customers, said Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” (HarperCollins, 2002), in an interview with CBS News.

Also, many of the ingredients in fast food (as in almost all processed foods) have been identified as addictive. Salt, fat and sugar are hard to wean oneself from once a taste for them has been established. For many of us, undoing all that would require changing our entire food environment, according to Dr. Simone French, director of the Obesity Prevention Center at the University of Minnesota. That has consequences not only for what we eat but also how much we eat. “We’ve gotten desensitized about supersized portions,” said Dr. French in an interview with the Star Tribune. “There is no moderation in our food environment.”

At least, not yet, one might say. Perhaps there will be one positive aspect to rising prices, namely a chance to rethink our attitude toward the value of food, real food that is, and a commitment to quality over quantity and convenience.

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.

Rising Food Prices Will Make It Even Harder to Eat Healthily

July 29th, 2012 at 6:46 am by timigustafson
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A record drought is destroying America’s harvest this year. Over 50 percent of farmland is now in moderate to severe drought condition, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. In some states it’s well over 60 percent and rising.

As a consequence, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicts substantial price increases for food next year, if not sooner. In its just released Food Price Outlook, the agency forecasts inflationary trends for food costs across the board.

Animal food products will be especially affected due to more expensive feed. Inventories of beef have already been low this year and are being further reduced because of dried up pastures. Indirectly, this will drive up prices for dairy products as well. The ripple effect is widespread and it is impossible at this point to see how far it will reach, according to USDA food economist and spokesperson Richard Volpe.

Because of the use of corn and soy in many processed products, even canned and packaged foods could become more expensive. This leaves individuals and families who are already struggling to make ends meet in an ever greater bind.

“We are deeply concerned about the impact of rising food prices on low-income households,” said Sophie Milam at Feeding America in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR). “Poor households are already forced to make tradeoffs between what they can afford and the nutritional value of the food they buy – at higher prices, even in small percentages are a challenge.” She warned that food banks for the needy could seriously become impacted as well.

In terms of worldwide food supply, the potential damage is even less predictable. Because America is a major supplier of a wide range of agricultural goods, lower yields mean shortages for countries around the world that depend on imports. Prices for staples like wheat, soy and rice could dramatically increase if international markets begin to panic.

While there is not much to be done about price hikes on the consumer level, taking prudent action can mitigate some of the fallout. The USDA has compiled several guidelines for smart shopping to keep items like fruit and vegetables affordable even on a tight budget. Here are some examples:

• Careful planning is an important part of limiting one’s grocery expenses. Make shopping lists for several days or longer and stick to them while you are in the store.

• Some foods are better bought in bulk. Rice, beans, soups and other canned goods are in this category. Perishables like fresh produce, meats and fish should be purchased in appropriate amounts, so nothing goes to waste. Preferably, buy items you can use for a number of meals, such as side dishes, salads, soups and stews.

• Always get produce that is in season. Imports are more costly and often less fresh than their locally grown counterparts.

• Frozen dinners or deli foods may be more convenient and save you time. But the preparation done by someone else adds to the price. So, put in the little extra work and make your meals from scratch whenever possible. It’s worth it.

• Look for sales and use coupons. There is no shame in being a smart shopper. Stores wouldn’t offer these incentives if they still didn’t make a profit off you.

• Eating out is expensive. Whether you patronize a gourmet restaurant or a burger joint, you almost always pay more than you would if you ate at home. So, be discriminating. Going out to celebrate or to take a break once in a while is important. But when you face budget concerns, you are better off running your own kitchen.

What matters most is not to neglect your nutritional needs. It is better to stick to simple but wholesome meals than trying to cut corners with junk food that only makes you sick. Nothing would be worse than losing your health at a time when everything else is getting tougher.

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.

Controversy Over Health Effects of Sodas Heats Up

July 25th, 2012 at 11:06 am by timigustafson
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Are sodas going down the same path as tobacco did a few years ago? The issue of sugary drinks as a major contributor to the obesity epidemic has certainly gained more traction in recent months and not only in places like New York City where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed an outright ban on supersized soft drinks in bars and restaurants to curb overindulgence.

Cash-strapped towns all over the country like El Monte, California, are considering raising surtaxes on sweetened beverages sold within their city limits. The hope is that measures like these could serve as a source of much-needed revenue and also send a clear message that sodas are bad for your health. Consumers have a choice to cut back or pay more.

For Andre Quintero, El Monte’s mayor, there’s a clear connection between excessive soda consumption and health problems, comparable to tobacco use. “These drinks have a similar secondary impact,” he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times (7/24/2012). “It may not be to the lungs, but it will be obesity and diabetes and dental decay.” He said he was optimistic that the tax proposal of one cent per ounce of soda would be passed by voters, potentially generating as much as $7 million in annual income for the city coffers.

Whether taxing sodas by miniscule amounts will reduce people’s consumption is questionable. A recent Gallup poll found that soda drinks are still widely popular, with almost half of all Americans reporting to have at least one drink a day. Soda consumption was the highest among young adults, with 56 percent of 18 to 34 year olds drinking sodas daily, compared to 46 percent of people ages 35 to 46. Health experts say that even one glass daily is too much and may contribute to obesity, diabetes and other health problems.

In the meantime, health advocates are trying to find new ways to educate the public and influence behavior. As reported by the Los Angeles Times (7/20/2012), over 100 health organizations and public health departments, including the American Heart Association, the Boston Public Health Commission, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and the New York City and Philadelphia health departments, as well as more than two dozen renowned scientists, have signed a letter to the Surgeon General of the United States, requesting an official report on the health impact of sodas, similar to the one about tobacco in 1964.

“Soda and other sugary drinks are the only food or beverage that has been directly linked to obesity, a major contributor to coronary heart disease, stroke, type2 diabetes, and some cancers and a cause of psychosocial problems,” it says in the letter. “Yet, each year, the average American drinks about 40 gallons of sugary drinks, all with little, if any, nutritional benefit.” The petitioners expressed hope that a report issued by the Surgeon General “would pave the way for policy measures at all levels of government.”

Regardless whether government policies and other measures can be implemented and whether they even will have any substantial effects, it is clear that soda drinks are beginning to be viewed differently today than they were only a short while ago. “I think people are coming around to the notion that sugary drinks aren’t healthy, and one of the astonishing things is that per capita consumption of carbonated drinks has gone down […], a big under-the-radar change in people’s drinking habits,” said Dr. Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and one of the organizers of the letter, to the L.A. Times (ibid.).

In response to the letter, the American Beverage Association (ABA) said in a statement that the exclusive focus on sodas as a cause for obesity is misguided because the epidemic is worsening despite of already diminishing soda consumption in the U.S.

In truth, we don’t really know whether we are witnessing the beginning of a major shift in consumer behavior or just a flicker of interest in a subject that happens to show up in the news these days. In any case, right now it seems a step in the right direction, and little steps have a way of adding up…

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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