Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Following a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Can Add Years to Your Life

March 25th, 2012 at 3:48 pm by timigustafson
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Do you observe a healthy diet, abstain from smoking, watch your cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose levels and do you exercise at least for 30 minutes three times a week? If so, your chances of dying from a heart attack are much lower than those of your contemporaries with less health-promoting lifestyles.

Researchers found that taking a few simple, commonsense steps to protect your heart can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease more substantially than previously thought.

For a recently completed study that followed almost 45,000 adult Americans, scientists looked into data collected by the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and linked them with a database of deaths over three time periods, starting in 1988 and ending in 2010. After almost 15 years of follow-up, the survey showed that participants who adhered most closely to the diet and lifestyle recommendations of the American Heart Health Association (AHA) had a 76 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 51 percent lower risk of all-cause deaths than those who complied less. The details of the study were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA – 3/23/2012).

Unfortunately, the researchers also found that only a small minority of Americans follows all or most of the AHA guidelines for heart health.

“Everyone knows that the heart health of Americans is dismal. Yet, despite of trying hard (really hard), I fail more than 90 percent of the time to get patients to change their heart-healthy behaviors,” laments Dr. John Mandrola, a cardiologist. “Nine in ten patients return just as fat and sedentary as they were at the time of my previous lecture on heart health.”

The problem is not that Americans lack access to information that prevents them from taking better care of their heart health. “Getting people to know [the facts] is not the issue, rather the issue is the implementation of the plan, says Dr. Mandrola.

Heart disease is the most common cause of deaths in the U.S. today, ahead of cancer and stroke. One and a half million Americans die every year from the disease or complications connected to it. While it is true that heart disease can be caused by inherent risk factors such as family history or simply by aging, poor lifestyle choices are to be blamed in most cases. Excess weight, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, smoking, alcohol abuse and insufficient physical activity are all commonly known culprits. Most heart patients have several of these risk factors to deal with – and they tend to “gang up” and aggravate each other’s effects.

Heart disease usually shows no specific warning signs. You have to look at the numbers to find out about your heart’s health condition. “You can and should make a difference in your heart health by understanding and addressing your personal risks,” says Dr. Susan B. Shurin, director at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institute of Health (NIH). For any successful treatment of heart disease as well as for prevention it is crucial to regularly monitor cholesterol levels – LDL (bad) cholesterol, HDL (good) cholesterol and triglycerides –blood pressure and, of course, body weight.

Americans tend to rely too quickly on medications when they encounter heart health problems. In many cases that may be a necessary first step, but the goal should always be to achieve risk reduction by better diet and lifestyle choices. “Good Nutrition and lifestyle are the cornerstones of health,” says Dr. Leslie Cho, director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Center at the Cleveland Clinic. “Pills are supplements. They’re not a substitute for a healthy lifestyle.”

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.

Nutrition Can Greatly Impact Your Child’s Learning Ability

March 21st, 2012 at 12:08 pm by timigustafson
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The nutritional quality of our diet affects our wellbeing throughout our lives, but it has an even greater impact on children whose bodies and minds are still growing. Nutritional deficiencies can seriously damage a child’s neural development, possibly leading to lower IQ and learning disabilities.

Studies by neuroscientists have found that low-quality nutrition during childhood can be detrimental to the development of cognitive capabilities, such as learning, problem solving and memorizing. Early malnourishment can lead to deficiencies in vision, fine motors skills, language and social skills as well as an array of chronic illnesses lasting well into adulthood.

Unfortunately, the crucial role nutrition plays for developmental, cognitive and behavioral outcomes in life’s early stages is often not well understood and appropriately acted upon by schools and parents.

Some scientists see a direct link between high saturated fat intake and mental performance. Tests have shown that many items popular in school cafeterias such as hamburgers, chicken nuggets, pizza and French fries actually lower students’ ability to stay awake and concentrate. A dramatic drop in energy due to digestion of heavy foods leaves kids feeling lethargic, irritable and unable to focus.

According to a study by the American School Health Association (ASHA), students who had consistently insufficient protein intake scored lower on achievement tests than their classmates who had adequate nutrition. Students with chronic iron deficiency were more likely to suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Under- or malnourished children were found more prone to infections and illnesses, causing them to miss school and fall behind in their education.

Pediatricians and pediatric dietitians have long emphasized that giving kids a healthy breakfast plays an especially important role for their nutritional wellbeing. Without a boost at the start of their day, young brains cannot function well. To do its work, the brain needs a sufficient supply of healthy fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water. Sugary cereals or white-flour pancakes with syrup don’t offer many essential nutrients. Eggs (preferably egg whites only), whole grain breads, fruits and low-fat milk are better choices.

By lunchtime, most children’s bodies are depleted and in dire need of another energy provider. Highly caloric and fatty foods with little or no nutritional value only worsen the situation. Soups, salads, fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources and whole grains can do the job much better. If your child’s school cafeteria does not offer healthy lunch choices, prepare a box lunch for him or her to take along.

An afternoon snack before play or study time is recommended, but, again, sugary items like candy, pastries and sodas should be avoided. Instead, you can serve a fruit salad or a tray of raw veggies and yogurt dips.

Dinner should help your child to wind down and relax before bedtime. Fatty foods like pizza or cheeseburgers are not a good idea. Items that contain high amounts of sugar late in the day can lead to sleep disruptions. Age-appropriate portions of pasta topped with a hearty vegetable sauce (preferably made from scratch), fish, chicken and other lean meats combined with healthy side dishes complete your child’s nutritional needs for the day.

Eating habits develop early. Most children acquire them from their parents and older siblings. Kids don’t develop food preferences on their own, not even for candy. They learn what to like or dislike by observing others. What you as the parent buy and bring in the house is what they will have access to. How you treat your own body in terms of diet, exercise and lifestyle choices will influence their own behavior.

Considering the potentially grave consequences of malnutrition during childhood, parents have a great responsibility to invest in their offspring’s nutritional health. Unfortunately, budgetary limitations and lack of knowledge about basic dietary facts prevent many parents from making better choices. They should not be expected to do it all on their own. A concerted effort involving families, schools, government agencies and community services is necessary to improve the nutritional welfare of all members of society, and especially the young.

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.

Childhood Obesity, a Disease with Devastating Effects on Multiple Levels

March 18th, 2012 at 8:19 am by timigustafson
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The physical health effects of childhood obesity are well researched and documented. They include type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and certain forms of cancer. Less talked about are the psychological damages children and adolescents with weight problems often suffer. But the truth is that low self-esteem, discrimination and isolation in connection with obesity can be just as devastating as the physical aspects and can make matters even worse.

Too many overweight kids find themselves being teased and made fun of because of their physical appearance, according to psychologist Dr. Kelly Brownell, the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Teasing, he says can come from classmates, teachers, even from family members. More so than adults, children tend to internalize criticism or scorn, which can make them feel inferior, unattractive or out of place. In response, many lose their aspirations and motivations to better themselves. They withdraw and become socially isolated. Some develop behavioral dysfunctions, depression or addictions.

The psychological consequences of weight problems at a young age are not easily outgrown. As adults, many continue to carry the scars from their earlier struggles. A study conducted by epidemiologists at the University of Michigan found that people who were overweight during their high school years were significantly less likely to pursue higher education or professional carriers and were more at risk of unemployment and dependency on welfare programs than their normal-weight peers.

One of the reasons why overweight kids are discriminated against may be the still widespread assumption that all weight problems are caused by lack of personal discipline and restraint. “People think that overweight adults have only themselves to blame. They should eat less and exercise more,” says Dr. Brownell. “But blame is simply unreasonable when it comes to children, especially in low-income neighborhoods where markets are often inadequate and places to exercise are nearly nonexistent. So, it’s unfair to put people in an environment where weight gain is a very strong possibility and then blame them for having problems.”

Another issue often mentioned in connection with childhood obesity is the powerful influence of food marketing. Children and adolescents are extremely impressionable and don’t know how to respond to the conflicting messages they are receiving from society, popular culture and the media. On the one hand, they are constantly challenged to comply with physical beauty ideals, which can put a lot of pressure on them to be thin, especially on girls, thereby increasing the risk of developing eating disorders. On the other hand, they are constantly exposed to food and soda ads on TV, encouraging them to consume more. A 2006 study by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) found compelling evidence that food advertisements had a direct impact on childhood obesity. On average, American children watch up to 10,000 food, soda and snack commercials every year, according to a survey by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), titled “Children, Adolescents and Advertising.” For the food and beverage industry, this is a multi-billion dollars investment worthwhile making. Under these circumstances, the notion that it’s up to the kids themselves to exercise self-control is just laughable.

In an ideal world, parents would be best equipped to prevent childhood obesity from occurring in their families in the first place. But parents are often too busy to control their offspring’s eating habits or are having weight issues themselves. Statistics show that if one parent is overweight, the children have a 40 percent chance to follow in his or her footsteps. If both parents are struggling, the chances increase to 80 percent.

Healthy eating and lifestyle habits do not just appear out of nowhere. They must involve the entire family but also social surroundings like schools, work places and communities. Instead of further stigmatizing people of all ages because of their weight problems, we as a society must find ways to address the issues at hand constructively by creating an environment that is conducive to the health and wellbeing of all its members.

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.

Lifelong Learning May Be the Best Defense Against Alzheimer’s Disease

March 11th, 2012 at 5:00 pm by timigustafson
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Exercising the brain as much as exercising the body to keep both fit and healthy has become the new mantra for the aging baby boomer generation. Scientists seem to agree. Studies show that people who were cognitively active throughout their lives are less likely to experience mental decline as they grow older.

Age-related dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease is the most feared health condition among older Americans today, second only to cancer. It is also one of the most significant health threats of the 21st century, according to a report by the Alzheimer’s Association and the Harvard School of Public Health that was first published at an international conference on the subject in Paris, France, last year.

The causes for Alzheimer’s are not yet fully understood and there are currently no effective treatments that can halt or reverse the progressively debilitating disease. Researchers have suggested that diet and exercise as well as mental stimulation may serve as preventive measures, but there is not enough scientific evidence that these have a significant impact.

There are a number of health conditions, however, believed to promote the development of dementia. One is inflammation of the brain caused by stress hormones such as cortisol, which is toxic to nerve cells in the brain and especially to those responsible for memory. Another contributing factor is cardiovascular disease because it can prevent the brain from receiving sufficient blood supply, thereby damaging it.

A more controversial suggestion is that education, or lack thereof, can make a difference in the likelihood of someone becoming demented later in life. Obviously, the notion that the well-educated have a better shot at staying mentally healthy while the unschooled run the risk of losing their minds is hard to accept because it sounds elitist and snobbish. That makes it difficult to raise the issue without provoking strong reactions. Still, we have to look at the evidence.

Neuroscientists say that the reason why education can help prevent or at least slow down an aging person’s cognitive decline is that during learning processes structural changes in the brain’s neural network take place as neurons connect with one another. This is only possible because the central nervous system is in constant dynamic flux, which enables it to respond and adapt to changing requirements.

The more learning experiences we undergo over the years, the more neural connections we develop in the brain. This does not only happen when we learn something brand new – like a foreign language or a computer program – but even when we do routine work or play our favorite games. The already established neural connections just multiply as we repeat similar mental processes. That is why most tasks become easier to master over time, which is what learning is. This process is called “neural redundancy,” meaning that many neural connections become redundant through repetition – but not obsolete because when some connections get damaged or degenerate, others take over and continue to function in their place. In other words, the more “redundant” connections we develop over a lifetime through constant learning, the less likely we will lose our skills and abilities as we age.

So the question arises whether we can avoid the decline of our mental capacities by, let’s say, learning Mandarin, reading philosophical books or mastering programming software? Not if you start late, scientists say. Being mentally active from early on and throughout life, not just when you reach old age, is what makes the difference, according to Dr. William Jagust, a professor of public health and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley. What you do at 40 or 50 is more important than what you take on at 75.

“Older people seem to have less efficient brains [than younger people] and have to work their brains harder,” said Dr. Jagust in an interview on the subject with the New York Times (3/8/2012). “People who stay cognitively active may be able to use their brains more efficiently,” he added.

Does it then still make sense to strive for mental fitness when you are already approaching retirement age or even later? Within limits, yes, Dr. Jagust agrees. Memory usually diminishes with age, even with people who do not have dementia, he said. It’s more about preserving the abilities you have than acquiring new ones, although both go hand in hand.

For those looking for learning opportunities in their later years, there is no shortage of programs offered by universities and colleges throughout the country. And these are not the only options. Educational travel programs are becoming extremely popular among retirees and the travel industry is more than happy to accommodate them.

They say, a good education is wasted on the young – well, it’s certainly not wasted on those who see lifelong learning as yet another fountain of youth. It may not be able to prevent mental decline in the end, but, in the meantime, it clearly does no harm.

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.

Better Than Your Mother’s Workout DVD?

March 7th, 2012 at 12:34 pm by timigustafson
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The so-called “active video games” that run on Microsoft’s Xbox or Nintendo Wii were supposed to make a big difference in the way people, especially kids, exercise at home and, hopefully, lose weight and get back in shape. That hasn’t happened yet, at least not on a large scale, according to researchers who studied the impact of these relatively recent innovations on children’s health.

Active video games offer virtual tennis, track and field or dancing experiences, which are meant to encourage consumers to get off the couch and move their bodies. In areas where opportunities for outdoor activities are sorely missing, where going to the gym requires a long drive, or where schools don’t offer physical education (PE), health advocates had hoped for an alternative tool to fill the gap. That expectation has so far been frustrated.

For the study, a research team from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, distributed free active as well as inactive video games among a group of 9 to 12 year olds who were all above average weight. As it turned out, the children who played the active games lost no more weight than those who stuck to the inactive versions, like sing-alongs.

“We expected that playing the [active] video games would in fact lead to a substantial increase in physical activity in the children,” said Dr. Tom Baranowski, one of the researchers at Baylor in an interview with Reuters Health. “Frankly, we were shocked by the complete lack of difference.”

Over a time period of roughly 3 months, the children were tracked and monitored for their physical activity levels through a motion-measuring device called an accelerometer. The results showed an average of 25 to 28 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity among the kids who played active videos and 26 to 29 minutes for those who only played inactive ones.

Active video games “might increase caloric expenditure a bit more than a traditional sedentary video game, and if you do that on a daily basis that could have a cumulative effect that might be beneficial,” said Dr. Jacob Barkley, an exercise scientist from Kent State University who was not involved in the study. [But it] isn’t going to increase physical activity a whole heck of a lot,” he added.

In the meantime, sales of traditional workout DVDs remain strong, and not just among the Jane Fonda fans from decades ago. According to Reuters, 18 to 34 year olds account for 35 percent of fitness DVD buyers, followed by 35 to 50 year olds at 33 percent and people 55 and older at 20 percent.

Only lately has the weight loss and fitness industry begun focusing on children due to the ever-growing childhood obesity rates in the U.S. and much of the world. Workout DVDs can be cheaply produced and are easy to use, which makes them a viable alternative to more sophisticated and more expensive formats.

Still, health experts warn that we should not expect too much from the low-impact exercises you can do in front of your TV screen. All this virtual jumping, throwing and dancing or even the pushups people do on the living room floor do not compare to the impact you get from running in the park, swimming laps in an Olympic-size pool or working out in a well-equipped gym. But, I agree, it’s better than nothing.

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 Is Gaining Weight So Much Easier Than Losing Weight?

March 4th, 2012 at 1:40 pm by timigustafson
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One of the hardest things about weight gain is that it can happen so easily. Losing weight, on the other hand, can be a never-ending struggle. Some people say they put on a pound or two merely by looking at food. But no matter how much they deprive themselves or how hard they exercise, the numbers on the scale only seem to go up.

This experience is as common as it is counterintuitive. If you eat more calories than your body burns off, you will gain weight. The same should be true the other way around. Use up more than your intake and you will lose weight.

One pound of body fat represents 3,500 calories. You can increase or reduce that amount – it would seem – by equal measures. But that is not necessarily so. A great number of additional factors must be taken into consideration to understand the difference between weight gain and weight loss.

For example, your actual weight determines how many calories you burn. The heavier you are, the more calories your body requires to function properly. If you are overweight or obese, you need more calories to maintain your weight and, paradoxically, you can also lose some faster than if you were normal-weight – but only to a certain extent.

Dr. David Ludwig, director of the “Optimal Weight for Life” program at Children’s Hospital Boston and co-author of a commentary on the subject of weight gain versus weight loss in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), explained the difference like this:

“Our bodies don’t gain or lose weight indefinitely. Eventually, a cascade of biological changes kicks in to help the body maintain a new weight. A person who eats an extra cookie a day will gain some weight, but over time, an increasing proportion of the cookie’s calories also goes to taking care of the extra body weight. Similar factors come into play when you skip the extra cookie. You may lose a little weight at first, but soon the body adjusts to the new weight and requires fewer calories. Regrettably, however, the body is more resistant to weight loss than weight gain. Hormones and brain chemicals that regulate your unconscious drive to eat and how your body responds to exercise can make it more difficult to lose weight. You may skip the cookie but unknowingly compensate by eating a bagel later on or an extra serving of pasta at dinner.”

Unconscious or “mindless” eating, as Dr. Brian Wansink called it in his landmark book, “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think,” can contribute substantially to unwanted weight gain or the inability to lose weight. Indulging in some tasty but less-than-healthy snacks or downing a few sodas or alcoholic beverages on the side can add on unaccounted calories real quick. But burning those off can take a lot longer and require serious efforts.

Another issue is whether your weight gain was rapid due to some exceptional occasion or event (e.g. a party or a vacation) or whether you put on more pounds over time. The former can usually be undone by returning to your healthier eating and lifestyle habits. The latter is a different story. In that case, some self-evaluation may in order. Did your eating pattern change for any particular reason such as stress at work, a move, financial issues or domestic problems? Did you stop exercising? Age may also be a factor. As you get older, your metabolism slows down and you require less food than you used to – but your habits have not kept up with your biological changes.

One of the greatest frustrations people with weight problems can go through is the so-called weight cycling or yo-yo dieting – losing weight successfully, only to gain it all back. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is quite common. Over 80 percent of dieters regain some or all of their former weight back within two years and two-thirds of once successful dieters end up heavier than they were before their initial weight loss, according to a study by the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

Yo-Yo dieting is not only emotionally frustrating, it can also have serious consequences for a person’s physical well-being. “The more diets you’ve been on, the harder it becomes to lose weight,” said Dr. Kelly Brownwell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.

Even on a sensible diet, your body is reluctant to let go of some of its mass. When you are dieting, it may perceive it as impending starvation and a threat to its survival. In cases of rapid weight loss (e.g. crash diets), a metabolic overcompensation can kick in, resulting in a slower metabolism and greater difficulty to lose additional weight.

Weight cycling can actually change your physiology, according to Dr. Brownwell. One of the reasons for this is that through dieting a hunger hormone called ghrelin increases, and a fullness hormone called leptin decreases, so you feel hungrier and less satiated every time around. Also, frequent yo-yo dieting lets you lose muscle mass and replaces it with fat as you regain weight. Because muscle burns many more calories than fat does, your metabolism slows down even further.

“Losing and regaining weight regularly takes a huge toll on your body,” said Dr. Keith Ayoob, professor at Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York, not just aesthetically by loss of skin elasticity but, more importantly, by the damage being done to the inner organs, the arteries and the skeletal system, and by a host of potentially life-threatening illnesses resulting from unhealthy weight gain like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and cancer.

Of course, there are cases where the body is resistant to weight loss because of an underactive thyroid or other disorders. But those are relatively rare by comparison to diet- and lifestyle-induced weight fluctuations. In the absence of such medical conditions, the best way to prevent weight gain and promote weight loss (if necessary) is, as always, healthy eating, regular exercise, managing stress and getting enough sleep – in other words, opting for an all-around healthy lifestyle.

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.

Obesity and Diabetes – The Plague of Our Time

February 28th, 2012 at 6:00 pm by timigustafson
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When Michelle Obama announced “Let’s Move,” her signature initiative to combat childhood obesity, she emphasized that major diet and lifestyle changes were not required in her view to turn this growing health crisis around. “Small changes add up,” she said. “We don’t need to totally evaporate our way of being as we know it today.” In other words, if we just cut a few calories here and there and exercise a bit more, things will be fine before long. A comforting thought.

But that may be wishful thinking, according to Mark Hyman, MD, chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine and medical director of the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, and author of several bestselling health books, including his latest, titled “The Blood Sugar Solution.” The way he sees it, we are in the middle of an explosive epidemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes that will touch almost everyone in one way or another. He does not hesitate to call it “the modern plague.”

Obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia and cancer are ultimately all rooted in one and the same problem: Our dismal diet- and lifestyle choices. Diagnosing and treating these diseases separately as if they were not interconnected misses the whole picture. Instead, Dr. Hyman proposes using a more comprehensive term to describe the continuum of which all these health problems are part of: “Diabesity.”

Diabesity can range from slight weight problems and mild insulin resistance to morbid obesity and severe diabetes. Because the disease is not well understood as a continuum, millions of those affected by it remain undiagnosed and untreated. As a consequence, more people all over the world die now from chronic illnesses than from infectious diseases. The real tragedy is that the causes are almost always environmental and lifestyle-related, which would make them perfectly preventable or curable through public education and enough political will to implement the necessary changes.

“This is a lifestyle and environmental disease and won’t be cured by medications,” Dr. Hyman writes. “Billions and billions have been wasted trying to find the ‘drug cure,’ while the solution lies right under our nose. Shouldn’t the main question we ask be why is this happening? Instead of what new drug can we find to treat it?

Since most of our modern-day ailments are primarily caused by poor diet choices, chronic stress and sedentary lifestyles, as well as toxins and allergens in the environment, we must address these problems from the ground up (literally). Instead of looking for quick fixes through medication and surgical procedures, we can make many important corrections by ourselves and without delay by using the right ingredients that make us healthy again, including whole, fresh food, vitamins and minerals, water, fresh air, exercise, stress reduction, etc. “When we take out the bad stuff and put in the good stuff, the body knows what to do and creates health and disease goes away,” writes Dr. Hyman. Care for the environment is part of that, too. Here, he strongly agrees with Sir Albert Howard, who is by many considered the founder of the organic agriculture movement, when he wrote in his landmark book, “The Soil and Health,” that we must “treat the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.”

Finding our way back to wholesome nutrition is one of the greatest challenges we face today. “In America, we eat more than we ever have, yet we are nutritionally depleted,” writes Dr. Hyman. The epidemic of diabesity and other chronic illnesses is paralleled by an epidemic of nutritional deficiencies. Most of us don’t eat enough the kind of food that protects us from diseases and too much of the kind that makes us sick.

“Food literally speaks to our genes,” he writes in a chapter titled “Nutrigenomics.” “The information your body receives from the foods you eat turns your genes on and off.” Whole-foods and plant-based diets have been shown in clinical studies to be able to turn off cancer-causing genes or turn on cancer-protective genes. No medication can do this. “What you put on your fork is the most powerful medicine you can take to correct the root causes of chronic disease and diabesity,” he writes.

“The Blood Sugar Solution” is a highly informative but, thankfully, also a very accessible book for both professionals and the laypersons. Some readers may find Dr. Hyman’s positions to be somewhat radical, if not utopian, especially where he seeks to offer hands-on solutions. Admittedly, he writes with passion and a sense of urgency – and rightly so. The obesity crisis keeps growing unabatedly worldwide and the time for “small steps” may have passed. Something has to change on a fundamental level. Unfortunately, that makes it so much less likely that we will see significant successes in the near future, if ever.

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.

A Renewed Effort to Fight Alzheimer’s Disease

February 25th, 2012 at 5:12 pm by timigustafson
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The Obama administration has tasked the science community with finding some effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. Experts consider the quest as ambitious. Still, health advocates applaud the government’s initiative, calling it an important step towards prevention, delay and, eventually, cure of the disorder.

Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most feared health conditions among Baby Boomers, second only to cancer, according to a survey conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association and the Harvard School of Public Health, which was first published at an international conference in Paris, France, last year. However, because of stigma and misinformation about Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, too many cases still remain undiagnosed. As a first step, the government has announced a major campaign to better educate both the medical community and the public at large about the disease.

“Alzheimer’s is the most significant social and health crisis of the 21st century,” said Dr. William Thies, the Chief Medical and Scientific Officer of the Alzheimer’s Association. “The overwhelming numbers of people whose lives will be altered by the disease, combined with the staggering economic burden on families and nations, make Alzheimer’s the defining disease of this generation. However, if governments act urgently to develop national research and care strategies with appropriate smart investments, the impact of Alzheimer’s and dementia can be managed,” he added.

Currently, over five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementias, a toll that is expected to triple by 2050. The numbers may be much higher yet because as many as half of those affected have not been formally diagnosed. According to the American Health Assistance Foundation (AHAF), almost half a million new cases are added annually. Over 80,000 patients die from the disease every year, making Alzheimer’s the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S.

The annual costs for treatments and care of Alzheimer’s patients in the U.S. amounted approximately to $183 billion in 2011; they are expected to reach over one trillion dollars by 2050. The vast majority of people with Alzheimer’s receive home care by relatives, which is not covered by Medicare and most health insurance plans. For this reason, the new government initiative also aims at providing some form of relief for overwhelmed families who carry the burden of caring for loved ones, although the details hereto are still unclear.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. The disease worsens as it progresses and leads to death within four to seven years on average, although 20 years are not unheard of. It was first described in 1906 by the German psychiatrist and neuropathologist, Alois Alzheimer, and was named after him.

Early symptoms are often overlooked or misinterpreted as age- or stress-related phenomena such as forgetfulness or confusion. Since the disease affects each individual differently, predicting its course is difficult.

What causes Alzheimer’s in the first place is not yet fully understood. Currently available treatments can only help with its symptomatic effects but are not able to halt or reverse progression. Some have suggested that diet, exercise and mental stimulation can have a positive impact, however, there is no clinically proven evidence that such measures have a real effect in terms of prevention.

Still, most experts agree that healthy diet and lifestyle choices are the best weapons we currently have against all age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and dementia.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “The Right Food for Your Brain” and “Reducing Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease.”

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.

Your Eating Habits – What Makes Them, What Breaks Them

February 22nd, 2012 at 2:08 pm by timigustafson
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Charles Duhigg wanted to lose weight. Luckily for him, he was well-equipped to achieve his goal. As a journalist writing for the New York Times and author of an upcoming book on the science of habit formation, he is an expert on the subject of self-control. What he found out through his research and how he managed to turn his findings into action for the benefit of his own health is remarkable and may have significant implications for millions of people struggling with weight issues.

Getting his weight under control was not the original purpose of studying the inner workings of habit building. Duhigg’s first interest was to report on how today’s marketing researchers examine the behavior of consumers and influence their decision-making processes. He found that the success, if not the survival, of entire industries depends on increasingly detailed analysis of the behavior patterns of their clientele. “The push to understand how daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting topics in research,” he says, quoting from a study conducted at Duke University, which estimated that habits, rather than conscious decision-making, shape almost half of the choices we make on a daily basis. This view may change the way we think about dieting to how doctors conceive treatments for a variety of illnesses, including emotional stress and addictions.

Clinical lab tests have shown that, as we encounter an unfamiliar territory or try to learn new skills, our brain activity first increases dramatically and then decreases gradually as we begin to find our way around. We become familiar with the tasks at hand and our actions and reactions become more automatic. Eventually, many of them turn into habits.

The process in which the brain converts certain actions into an automatic routine is known to neuroscientists as “chunking.” There can be hundreds of behavioral chunks we rely on every day, from brushing our teeth to backing our car out of the driveway. And there is good reason for that. “Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any repeated behavior into a habit, because habits allow our minds to conserve effort,” Duhigg explains. In other words, we form habits and routines for the brain to keep functioning. It would crash if kept in perpetual overdrive.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to all that too. If brain activity is reduced to conserve energy too soon or at the wrong moment, we can miss out on something important or fail to re-examine our actions when necessary. Old habits, even counter-productive ones, can be persistent and difficult to change.

Exploring the intricacies of habit-forming is also the specialty of a team of neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.). According to their research, the habit creating process in the brain can be seen as a “three-step loop.” The forming of a new habit requires (1) a cue that triggers the brain to go into automatic mode, (2) a routine or automatic reaction that follows in response, and (3) a reward, which also helps the brain to decide whether a particular experience is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward – becomes more and more automatic and neurologically intertwined. The results can reach from a simple tendency to cravings to a full-blown addiction.

What exactly turns an event into a cue and what constitutes a reward depends on the individual as well as on the situation. Both, cues and rewards, can be obvious or subtle, they can take place quickly and be barely noticeable, we may not even realize their presence at all, but our neural system registers and uses them to form automatic behaviors.

I remember a good example from my own practice as a health counselor. One of my clients who tried hard to get her weight under control described herself as addicted to sweet pastries, especially donuts. On her way to my office for our bi-weekly appointments, she had to pass by a bakery, which she had often patronized in the past and which she now had a hard time to avoid.

Needless to say, the cue (bakery) was still there every time she approached the area. Her old routine would have made her stop without question to satisfy her cravings. The rewards were obvious. Now that she was on weight loss regimen, she had to find a way to interrupt what the M.I.T. scientists identified as her “loop.” Instead of exposing herself any longer to the cue that would inevitably trigger her routine response, she had to a take a different route to see me. It took her several months until she was able to come near that bakery again without going in – but eventually she succeeded. How? Her cue was still there, but she developed a different routine in response, and the awards were for the world to see when she eventually lost over 50 pounds.

This is the good news. “Habits aren’t destiny,” says Duhigg. “They can be ignored, changed or replaced.” Still, old habits die hard. Actually, they never fully disappear. Once a habit is established, it will rear its head at any chance it gets. “Unless you deliberately fight a habit – unless you find new cues and rewards – the old pattern will unfold automatically,” he cautions.

In the end, Mr. Duhigg was successful in his quest for weight loss. He knew that his habit of eating a chocolate-chip cookie during his daily afternoon break caused him to put on the extra pounds. So he looked into his cues: Was it the place (he liked going to the cafeteria where the cookies were), the time (during the afternoon doldrums), his emotional state (he was tired or bored), other people (he liked chatting with his colleagues) or was it something that happened (right before he started craving a cookie)? Eventually, he found that the strongest cue was his desire for company. Once his needs for socializing were satisfied, the cookie monster disappeared.

We are obviously still at the beginning of our understanding of habits and how they develop, but the implications are potentially enormous, especially in the field of dietetics. In order to get the growing obesity crisis under control, we have to look far beyond calorie counts and portion sizes. Based on what we now know about our habits and how they drive our behavior, we need to work toward a much deeper understanding of who we are and what makes us act the way we do.

Charles Duhigg is the author of “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” The quotes used for this article are taken from a piece he wrote in the New York Times Magazine (2/19/2012).

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.

Americans Prefer Eating at Home But Still Don’t Cook and Don’t Eat More Healthily

February 19th, 2012 at 12:55 pm by timigustafson
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The average American family eats at home on most days but is too rushed to make meals from scratch, according to a survey by Gallup-Healthways. In terms of nutritional quality, overall eating habits in America are not improving and have in some ways become even worse.

Fewer Americans reported eating healthily by including fruits and vegetables on a weekly basis last year than the year before. Produce consumption is down especially among young adults, seniors, women and Hispanics, according to the Gallup poll.

“The trend has been toward eating more meals at home. It’s just that we’ve been getting more and more of those meals we’ve been eating at restaurants to eat at home,” said Harry Balzer, a vice president at The NPD Group, a consumer market research firm. “Frozen and pre-prepared foods have gotten more popular. [People] want to spend as little time as possible preparing meals and that’s the driving force in the way we’re eating right now,” he added.

The results of the Gallup survey have been largely confirmed by another recent study, this one conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service (ERS), titled “How Much Time Do Americans Spend on Food?” While many of the ERS’s findings came as no surprise – Americans like to eat quickly, tend to skip breakfast, take shorter lunch breaks, don’t spend much time on preparing and enjoying elaborate meals, make spontaneous food shopping choices, etc. – what stands out is the growing dominance of what the study calls “secondary eating patterns,” that is eating and drinking while simultaneously doing other things. Just focusing on your meals and enjoying them is becoming a thing of the past, especially among the younger generations, according to the report.

“On an average day [in 2006 to 2008 – the time period the survey took place], Americans age 15 and older spent about 2.5 hours daily eating or drinking. Slightly less than half of that time was spent eating and drinking as a primary or main activity, while the remaining time was spent eating and drinking while doing something else such as watching television, driving or working and waiting to eat or traveling to meal destinations,” said the report.

The ERS study also found that Americans who adhered predominantly to “secondary eating patterns” had on average a higher Body Mass Index (BMI) than those who kept mostly to “primary eating patterns” by setting time aside for their meals.

In his landmark book, “Mindless Eating,” Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor for marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University, pointed out that the average American makes well over 200 decisions about food every day, although when asked, most people initially believe they make only about 15 food-related decisions daily. Many of these decisions are made more or less unconsciously and even inexplicably. The reason is that we are often too distracted to pay attention to our eating. “If we knew why we ate the way we do, we could eat a little less, eat a little healthier, and enjoy it a lot more,” said Dr. Wansink.

Needless to say that this would not be an easy exercise. In a world where we all are constantly surrounded by a thousand things competing for our attention, it is hard to shut everything down and focus only on what we eat, when we eat, where we eat, how much we eat and how fast we eat. Yet, these are the quintessential elements of healthful eating habits.

As a dietitian and health counselor I’m often asked by my clients what changes they should make in their way of eating. There are many possibilities, of course, but much comes down to paying closer attention to your actions.

For instance, you can start by making grocery shopping lists and sticking to them once you’re at the store. Don’t buy food items spontaneously. For this reason, you should not go food shopping when you’re hungry.

Lay out a meal plan for a few days or an entire week if you have enough storage space. Prepare your meals as much as possible from scratch using fresh ingredients and lean cooking techniques. If you don’t have enough time to cook every day, prepare what you can in advance over the weekend or whenever you have the time.

Eat only in your dining room or whichever part of your home is set up for eating. Before you sit down, make sure to switch off your television, cellphone, computer, everything that can interfere with the enjoyment of your meal.

If possible, try to keep conversations light. Sharing a meal with loved ones should be a pleasurable experience. If the atmosphere around the dinner table is tense and stressful, it will affect everyone’s nutritional benefits as well.

Use food to celebrate. Although Thanksgiving is only once a year, there are plenty more opportunities to be grateful throughout the year. Having good food available itself is a cause for gratitude, being able to share it with others even more so.

There is little chance that we Americans will ever become quite like the French, the Greeks or the Italians, sitting down for hours on end over multi-course meals and wine in midday. And there is no reason why we should adopt other people’s lifestyles. But we should make ours as healthful as we can. And there we have plenty of room for improvement.

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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