Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

The Older, the Merrier

August 11th, 2011 at 11:18 am by timigustafson
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We all know that our outlook on life changes over time. Scientific studies, however, show that many people grow happier or at least more content as they mature. That seems to be a counterintuitive notion, since aging is rarely considered a positive thing in our society. And yet, researchers found that feelings of happiness peak for most folks after the age of 50 plus.

The authors of one study, which was recently published online in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, readily admit that much of their findings boil down to how people define what being happy means for them. “The study indicates that there are at least two different kinds of happiness,” said Dr. Cassie Mogilner, professor of marketing at Wharton University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in the study. “One is associated with peacefulness and one is associated with being exited.” The difference is that the young are more focused on the future and are more hopeful about their prospects. As people age, they learn to place higher value on the present, perhaps because they are more satisfied with their lives or because their expectations have diminished.

For this study, the researchers conducted several tests, including one where participants of different age groups were asked on what they would spend $100. Not altogether surprisingly, the 20 and 30 year olds opted for buying possessions or fun experiences, while the older folks were more interested in something calmer, like a spa treatment and the likes.

Dr. Mogilner warned that her research should not lead to further stereotyping of generational differences. Individuals vary considerably in how much excitement or tranquility affects their sense of happiness. “People should expect the things that make them happy and their experience of happiness to change,” she said.

Still, strikingly similar results were reported after a 2008 Gallop poll, which found that people tend to become happier as they get older “by almost any measure.” In a telephone survey that covered 340,000 people between the ages 18 to 85 from every part of the country, pollsters asked various questions about personal interests, aspirations, concerns, worries as well as overall life satisfaction. The data showed that most people start out at the age of 18 feeling pretty good about their lives. Things change for the worse in the mid- to late 20s and it’s downhill from then until the age of 50. At that point, there seems to occur a sharp reversal. People start getting happier, seemingly independent of their particular circumstances. By the time they reach 85, they are more satisfied with themselves than they were at 18.

“It’s a very encouraging fact that we can expect to be happier in our early 80s than we were in our 20s,” said Dr. Andrew J. Oswald, professor of psychology at Warwick Business School in England, who has published several studies on the subject of human happiness. “It’s not being driven predominantly by things that happen in life. It’s something very deep and quite human that seems to be driving this,” he added.

There may be more than just one reason for a possible connection between aging and increasing contentment. “It could be that there are environmental changes, or it could be psychological changes how we view the world, or it could even be biological – for example brain chemistry or endocrine changes,” said Dr. Arthur Stone, author of a separate study based on the Gallup survey.

If you don’t buy the idea that happiness grows over time, you are not alone. When asked, older participants in similar surveys often report having been the happiest in their 30s. By contrast, younger participants mostly anticipate a decline of happiness when they reach old age.

“It is possible that people misremember how happy they were in the past, putting rose-colored glasses on as they reflect on bygone years,” said Dr. Heather Pond Lacey of the University of Michigan’s Center for Behavioral and Decision Sciences in Medicine, who conducted her own research on the subject, which was published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. “After all, old age is associated with real deterioration […], including failing health and diminishing financial resources, as well as the onset of widowhood and other social losses. So the question remains, given the difficulties of old age, why don’t people become less happy as they get older?”

While no one has come up with any definite answers yet, there are plenty of theories why the inevitable decline through aging does not necessarily dim people’s spirits. They may get better at handling the curve balls life throws at them. They may become more patient. Their past experiences may help them to put things in perspective. They may be able to focus more on the positive and overlook setbacks. And, as the years pass, people may lower their expectations and set more realistic goals, which makes success and satisfaction more likely.

Another reason may be that we are just surprised to realize that life is not necessarily over after a certain age. Perhaps, cultural influences play a role here. In our youth-oriented society, it seems unfathomable to think that older folks should be happier than younger ones, despite the loss of physical beauty and vitality.

But there is also an element of comfort in this for all of us. No matter how dire the warnings and predictions about the graying of America may sound, there is a good chance that an aging America will be the happiest America we have ever seen. And that’s something to look forward to as well.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

Not All Healthy Foods Let You Lose Weight

August 11th, 2011 at 11:13 am by timigustafson
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Eating healthy is commonly associated with successful weight control. While many healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, are indeed less fattening than their processed counterparts, it is still important to understand that being nutritious does not automatically equate to being low in calories or even fat content.

Overindulging in healthful foods, regardless of the nutritional benefits they provide, can sabotage your weight loss goals just as much as having bad eating habits. Therefore, calorie density should always be a consideration when you try to eat right and also hope to shed a few (or more) extra pounds. Here are a few examples.

Most nuts contain several important nutrients, including protein and fiber. They are also high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. The bad news is that nuts pack lots of calories. Almonds, peanuts, cashews and walnuts have about 160 calories per ounce; pecans have twice that amount. Trail mixes are notoriously caloric because they are meant to provide you with energy while you are hiking the trails – not to serve as a snack to get you through the afternoon slump at the office.

Because nuts are mostly eaten by the handful, it is especially hard to keep track of your intake. To avoid overeating, you may want to divide the original bag into smaller portions and enjoy only an ounce or so at a time. This way you receive a healthy boost that is also kind to your waistline.

Dried Fruit
Depending on the variety or assortment, dried fruit can have up to 500 calories and 100 grams of sugar per cup. Although the nutritional benefits are considerable, including plenty of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, they don’t change the fact that each serving has the equivalent of more than 20 sugar packets. With loads of sugary carbohydrates, munching on handfuls of dried fruit can quickly leave you getting hungry again and you’ll reach for more.

Fruit juices
Even 100% fruit juices, freshly made from scratch, are loaded with calories from sugar. Yes, it is naturally occurring fructose and you get lots of health benefits from vitamin C and other nutrients, but the calories from juices don’t fill you up like those from whole fruits, which also provide important fiber.

The same goes for the popular fruit ‘smoothies.’ Most of those are loaded with sugar but offer little or no protein or fiber to keep you feeling full and satisfied for a while. Some brands are extremely high in calories thanks to added sugars and artificial ingredients.

While a glass of real fruit juice (not from concentrate) can be part of a healthy breakfast, having several drinks throughout the day is not recommended. One glass (8-ounces) of orange juice has 112, grapefruit juice has 96 and apple juice (unsweetened) has 114 calories.

Breakfast cereals
Starting your day with a healthy breakfast is an important part of any health-conscious lifestyle. If you normally skip breakfast, try to change your habit. Cereals are popular because they’re considered nutritious and they don’t require much preparation. There are many brands and varieties to choose from. Some are better than others, some are not healthy at all. Check the sugar content per serving on the Nutrition Facts panel and go with a low amount. Also, if you eat only a bit more than the recommended portion sizes each day, the extra calories can quickly add up. For example, one 30g serving of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has 111 calories. A 50g serving has 185 calories – a difference of 74 calories if your pour is just a little heavy-handed.

Wraps are widely thought of as a healthier alternative to traditional deli sandwiches, tacos, burritos and the likes. Still, most restaurant-style wraps carry up to 300 calories for the wrap alone before any filling is added. Depending on your choice of ingredients, the complete wrap can contain 800 calories or more. By comparison, you are better off with some lean lunchmeat, a slice of tomato and some lettuce on whole wheat bread.

Even the most diet-friendly looking salad can turn into a treacherous minefield if you don’t watch your add-ons and dressings. So, be careful with cheese, bacon, nuts, avocado, oils and creamy toppings. Depending on the brand, Caesar dressings can have between 60 and 80 calories per tablespoon (restaurants typically pour on more – so better ask for your dressing on the side). Ranch-, French- and Italian dressings have on average 70 to over 80 calories per tablespoon. Olive oil contains nutritious unsaturated fat, which is considered heart-healthy. But each tablespoon carries about 135 calories. Olive oil should therefore be used sparingly for both cooking and as dressing.

Yogurt and cheese
Both yogurt and cheese are widely recommended as good providers of calcium. Still, you should be discriminating in your choices. There are countless brands and styles of yogurts on the market today – regular, natural, low-fat, fat-free, Greek style plain, vanilla, with honey, with real fruit, etc. Be careful, though. Whatever version you pick, they all have calories. An 8-ounce (1 cup) serving can easily top 250 calories.

Cheese contains more saturated fat than nuts or olive oil, but it gives you a good amount of protein and calcium as well. An ounce of cheddar or mozzarella has about 100 calories. Preferably choose the low-fat or part skim versions because they have less saturated fat.

The bottom line is that even healthy foods should be enjoyed in moderation. While it is undoubtedly better to fill up on nutrient-dense foods than on empty calories, you need to keep track of your portions to avoid weight gain, even when you think you’re doing everything right.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

Healthy Eating Is Too Expensive for Most Americans

August 8th, 2011 at 11:23 am by timigustafson
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Most Americans are unable to follow their government’s recommendations for healthy eating, simply because they can’t financially afford to do so, says a study that was recently published in the journal “Health Affairs.”

The updated food pyramid, now called “MyPlate,” encourages higher consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are typically more expensive than processed foods. Purchasing food items that provide important nutrients like potassium, dietary fiber, vitamin D and calcium, could add up to $380 annually to consumers’ grocery bills, according to the lead author of the study, Dr. Pablo Monsivais, professor at the Department of Epidemiology and the School of Public Health at the University of Washington.

Only the people who are able to spend considerable amounts of money on food get close to meeting the federal recommendations, the study found. “Given the times we’re in, the government really needs to make [its] dietary guidelines more relevant to Americans,” Dr. Monsivais said.

His assessment is based on a survey of about 2,000 residents of King County in the State of Washington, which included random telephone calls and printed follow-up questionnaires. Participants were asked to list the grocery items they typically bought, which then were analyzed for nutrient content and estimated costs.

The study results are at odds with the widespread assumption that people make their food choices primarily based on individual tastes and preferences. “Almost 15 percent of households in America say they don’t have enough money to eat the way they want to eat. Estimates show 49 million Americans make food decisions based on cost,” said Dr. Hilary Seligman, professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, who was not involved in the study. “Right now, a huge chunk of America just isn’t able to adhere to these [government] guidelines,” she added.

Dr. Seligman agrees with the study’s conclusion that the government could and should do more to help people who struggle with ever-rising food prices. Government can affect the cost of food in a number of ways. Subsidies are available for big agricultural industries that specialize in corn, soy and sugar production but not for small farms that grow fresh produce. Those policies could be changed if there was enough political courage.

For now, it seems, a lot of people won’t have the luxury to improve their eating habits even if they understand the need to do so. According to a 2010 report published in the journal “Psychological Science,” the cost of fresh produce has almost quadrupled since the 1980s. Prices for processed foods, on the other hand, have hardly changed over the same time period. Sodas are now just 30 percent more expensive than they were 30 years ago.

When it comes to meeting daily calorie requirements, it is much cheaper to make do with lesser nutritional quality. According to a study published in the “Journal of the American Dietetic Association” (2007), consumers can buy 1,000 calories worth of processed foods for less than 10 percent of the price for the same amount of calories from fresh produce. Fruits and vegetables don’t only cost more, they are also less calorie-dense than processed items, which makes it necessary to buy larger quantities, just to meet one’s calorie needs.

So, is it illusory to expect Americans to better their diet because of financial constraints? Some experts have suggested that educating the public not only in terms of healthy eating but also smart shopping is a necessary first step.

Fast food and pizza are often falsely thought of as cheap. While you can get a basic meal at a drive-through for a couple of bucks, the costs can add up quickly when you order the bigger sizes, side-orders and soft drinks. A large pizza can easily set a family back $20 or more. For the same amount, you can buy at least a few potatoes, frozen vegetables and some chicken pieces to prepare at home.

Being a smart shopper can indeed make a difference in your pocket book. Grocery stores always have sales events going on, especially in the produce department where the most perishable items are offered. Look for coupons and specials in local newspapers and online. And you can get better deals at discount stores.

Planning ahead for several days reduces spoilage and waste. Leftovers can be reused for soups and stews. It is also important to understand portion sizes. For instance, a large banana or a whole grapefruit may be more than one serving. A fruit salad can give a healthy boost to a whole family.

There are countless ways to maintain high nutritional standards without breaking the bank. Does that make the issue of healthful eating versus affordability go away? Of course not. But, since these are the times we’re in, we have to start somewhere.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

Healthy, Fit and Overweight – Can You Have It All?

August 4th, 2011 at 6:38 pm by timigustafson
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According to a new movement known as “Health At Every Size” (HAES), it is possible and even appropriate to carry a little extra weight as long as you exercise regularly and keep your eating habits within reason.

This seems good news for the countless folks who struggle, often for their entire lives, to keep the pounds from piling on. Most HAES followers have had prior experiences with dieting and exercise for weight loss – usually bad ones. “Diets don’t work,” is the consensus in the groups that meet all over the country at workshops and in summer camps where participants stop caring about their body size and just have fun being active and eating the foods they like without getting paranoid over the consequences. “Decades of yo-yo dieting have left me each time heavier than I was before,” said one HAES fan. “Eventually, I lost the will to exercise or watch my diet.”

The central idea behind the program is that not all health-promoting behavior has to result in weight loss. Besides physical fitness through exercise that is fun and not forced, much emphasis is placed on “intuitive eating,” which means paying close attention to personal tendencies like eating habits, cravings and emotional responses to food. “Intuitive eating is trusting in the wisdom of the body to know and choose what is good and avoid what isn’t,” said one HAES camp participant.

Love and respect for one’s body “just as it is,” no matter what shape, form or size, is at the core of the movement’s philosophy. Adherence to society’s ideals of physical health and beauty is not only seen as unsustainable but also as a bad idea.

By now, the HAES movement has gained both popular and scientific credence. For instance, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) sponsored a study where 80 women were assigned to different diet programs, one of which was HAES. The members of the HAES group were given general instructions how to adopt healthy eating patterns, be physically active and make a few other health-promoting lifestyle choices. Besides that, they were not subjected to specific rules or restrictions. They were also encouraged to join support groups to discuss issues of body image and self-acceptance. By the end of the study, almost all of the women in the HAES group showed improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol levels, physical fitness and emotional health. Unlike many of the participants in the other diet plans, the HAES followers also maintained or further improved these results over a period of at least two years.

Dr. Steven Blair, P.E.D. of the Cooper Institute, which is renowned for its aerobics research, is convinced that the HAES philosophy is on the right track. “We’ve studied this from many perspectives in women and men and we get the same answer: It’s not the obesity [that is the problem] – it’s the fitness,” he said. “If the height/weight charts say you are five pounds too heavy, or even 50 pounds or more too heavy, it is of little or no consequence healthwise – as long as you are physically fit.”

One study that was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition goes even further. It concluded that “unfit, lean men had twice the risk of all-cause mortality as did fit, lean men and also had higher risk of all-cause mortality when compared to fit, obese men. The all-cause mortality rate of fit, obese men was not significantly different from that of fit, lean men.” The study report recommended that “for long-term health benefits, we should focus on improving fitness by increasing physical activity rather than relying only on diet for weight control.”

“Not so fast,” said Dr. Johan Arnlov, M.D., the lead author of a study recently completed in Sweden. He and his fellow-researchers examined the medical records of some 1,700 middle-aged men. The participants were measured and tested periodically between the ages of 50 to 80. They were divided into several groups based on their body-mass indexes and metabolic profiles, which is a commonly used marker for physical health and fitness. Some were within their healthy weight range, some were overweight, some were obese. In each category, there were men who had normal metabolic profiles, while others were afflicted with a variety of health conditions known as “metabolic syndrome.” A diagnosis of metabolic syndrome means that a person suffers from three or more health conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and low HDL (“good”) cholesterol, elevated triglycerides and large waist circumference.

The Swedish team found that having metabolic syndrome was quite serious for the overweight and obese men. Those who were overweight had a 74 percent higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease by the time they turned 80. Those who were obese with metabolic syndrome had a 155 percent higher risk. And the men who were within a healthy weight range but had high cholesterol and blood pressure readings had still a 63 percent higher risk of heart disease than those with normal weight and no metabolic problems.

The study also showed that those who were overweight but were otherwise healthy had nevertheless a significantly higher potential for developing heart disease. “Men who were overweight (not obese) with healthy blood pressures, cholesterol readings, blood glucose levels and so on, still had a 52 percent higher risk of developing heart disease within 30 years than men who were of normal weight and had similar metabolic profiles. That risk rose to 95 percent among obese men who didn’t suffer from metabolic syndrome,” according to the report. In other words, those who had weight problems but were otherwise healthy based on their blood work readings were still left with a 50 percent greater chance of developing heart disease than those who managed to control their weight.

A much larger women’s health study in the U.S. that involved 40,000 participants concluded that women with a higher BMI faced a greater risk of coronary heart disease than those of normal weight, even if they were active and physically fit. “Being fit lessened but did not fully mitigate the health problems associated with being fat,” said the authors of that study report.

So, what’s the takeaway from all these contradictory messages? The bottom line, I think, is that it would be a mistake to underestimate the seriousness of health risks that come from weight problems. Those are real issues and can’t be ignored simply by hitting the gym a little more often. If you are overweight or obese, you eat (or have eaten) more than your body can burn off. The only logical conclusion is to reduce your food intake, improve the quality of your nutrition and exercise as much as necessary until you find a healthy balance. Once you achieve all that, weight loss should result almost automatically.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

Taking Vitamins May Boost Your Memory

August 1st, 2011 at 4:31 pm by timigustafson
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French researchers say they found a definite link between vitamins and cognitive performance in maturing adults. There is clear evidence that getting sufficient amounts of important nutrients can help to boost thinking- and memory skills as people get older, said Dr. Emmanuelle Kesse-Guyot of the University of Paris, the lead author of the study.

For the research, 4,500 French men and women between the age of 45 and 60 were randomly split into two groups. One half was given a daily dose of vitamin- and mineral supplements, the other a nutrient-free placebo. After eight years, the researchers stopped assigning pills and left it up to each individual to continue taking supplements or not. Another six years later, both groups were invited back for a series of memory tests. Those included word- and number quizzes to measure different types of mental activities. Most participants performed similarly in a number of tests, however, those who had taken the supplements did better when it came to long-term memory performance in comparison to those who were given the placebo.

The researchers involved in the study were quick to caution against overreaching conclusions. “Our results have to be considered carefully,” wrote the authors of the final report, which was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Higher cognitive performance may indeed be based on a better diet, however, it may also be the case that people who have better thinking skills adhere to better eating habits as well, which may include taking vitamin supplements. At this point, it is hard to tell which one is the chicken and which one the egg.

Critics of the study report have warned that relying on vitamin supplements as mental performance enhancer is not warranted. “Boosting brainpower requires more than just taking a pill every day,” said Dr. Barbara Shukitt-Hale, a nutrition researcher at Tufts University in Boston. “Vitamins and minerals are important for memory, but they are not the only thing. The most important thing is eating a healthy diet, being active and keeping your brain sharp,” she said.

Still, there is general agreement among nutrition experts that taking vitamin supplements can bridge the gap if eating a balanced diet is not always possible. People who travel and dine out a lot or who rely mostly on take-out and TV dinners can certainly benefit from taking supplements to prevent nutrient deficiencies.

Which foods are good for your brain?
Research has shown that foods high in antioxidants (chemicals that eliminate so-called “free radicals” causing cell deterioration) can slow down age-related loss of memory, motor coordination and balance. Good food sources of antioxidants are apples, berries, cherries, prunes, grapes, raisins, and also dark-green leafy greens like spinach. Similar benefits can be derived from foods that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids. They include seafood, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and herring, and also walnuts and flax seed oil. Complex carbohydrates are also helpful. Peanuts, dried fruits, dried beans, whole grain breads and oat bran cereal are all good providers of complex carbohydrates. Selenium, a mineral found in grains, garlic, meat, seafood and some nuts is known as a “mood-enhancer.” Ginkgo Biloba is believed to improve memory by increasing blood circulation to the brain.

But most instrumental for keeping the brain healthy is a sufficient supply of B vitamins,
especially B6, B12 and Folic Acid (B9). They are readily available through a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, except for B12, which is only found in animal products. Taking B vitamin supplements can help prevent deficiencies.

Which foods are detrimental for your brain?
Certain types of fat are unhealthy, including for the brain. Polyunsaturated fats can cause chronic inflammation in the brain tissue. They are also harmful to the blood vessels and can inhibit blood circulation. These fats include safflower-, sunflower- and corn oils. Unfortunately, these oils are present in many processed foods. Even worse are the hydrogenated vegetable oils, the so-called trans fats.

Sugar is another menace for the brain. High sugar intake can lead to insulin resistance, which imbalances the glucose level in the blood. Processed foods as well as sodas are typical sources of sugar, and so are simple carbohydrates, such as refined baked goods, white rice, pasta and the likes. Some food scientists believe that white potatoes should also be used only sparingly or altogether avoided for the same reasons.

The bottom line is that a balanced diet provides the best protection against age-related diseases, including those affecting the brain. Supplements can offer additional benefits, but they are no substitute.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

“Truth Is, We Are Always Changing,” Says McDonald’s

July 28th, 2011 at 8:11 am by timigustafson
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When President Obama first ran for office, he insisted that his candidacy would not even have been possible at any other time in history or anywhere else on earth. He banked on the possibility of the – until then – unthinkable. He knew that change, no matter how unlikely, would come if enough people believed in it, and he was right. A similarly implausible event just happened a few days ago. On July 27, 2011, McDonald’s, the biggest fast food chain in the world, took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times praising the virtues of cutting back on calories, fat and sodium for the benefit of its youngest customers.

“Happy Meals,” one of the most popular fast food items for kids, is getting a makeover. There will be smaller portions of French fries and some added fruit. The chicken nuggets will stay the same, but there will be a choice of low-fat milk as an alternative to the traditional soda drinks. As a result, calorie content will be reduced by 20 percent and sodium levels will be lowered by 15 to 23 percent in most meals by 2015.

While some health advocates dismiss these steps as a “sham” and too insignificant to make a dent in the fight against childhood obesity, others see it as an important move. “McDonalds’ is not giving the whole loaf, but it is giving a half or two thirds of a loaf,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

To be sure, McDonald’s has not exactly taken on a leadership role within the restaurant industry. In fact, the “Happy Meals” modifications look more like a delayed reaction. Burger King, IHOB and Denny’s, among others, have already announced plans to add healthier meals for kids to their standard menus as part of a voluntary program, called “Kids Live Well,” which was sponsored by the National Restaurant Association (NRA). It was widely noted in the press that McDonald’s did not take part in this initiative.

Still, the sheer fact that an industry giant like McDonald’s would concern itself with issues like calorie- or sodium content shows a major shift. There is no doubt that the company is also responding to upcoming regulations by the federal government that will require larger restaurant chains to post calorie counts and the likes on their menus. But that’s not the only reason.

If you pay closer attention to the ad in the New York Times, you get a better idea what drives the policy changes. There are slogans like “It started with you,” or “Changing. Together.™” And then, full disclosure: “The truth is, we’re always changing. Because our customers are always changing.” There you have it! In other words, it’s because of public demand – not because of government regulations, not because of scientifically proven facts, not because it’s the right thing to do ¬– that McDonald’s et al. finally come around and acknowledge that their products are not as good as they could (and should) be.

The obesity rate in this country has reached proportions that begin to frighten significant parts of the population. Parents look at their children and realize that unhealthy eating habits are making them sick and may even cut their lives short. We are approaching a tipping point. McDonald’s has to act before its “Happy Meal” becomes a bad name.

Those who say that the industry must do more than simply worry about its image are right, of course. And tweaking the ingredients of their products a little bit here and there won’t make much of a difference. But this is only the beginning.

I remember TV ads for cigarettes (yes, they once existed) where actors dressed up as medical doctors discussed the “health benefits” of smoking lighter brands with their patients. One tobacco company claimed that its products were actually recommended by physicians. Today, it’s hard to imagine that stuff like this ever happened, but it did. Anti-smoking campaigns, legal actions and legislative measures eventually turned things around. Once the public caught on, smoking dropped by almost 60 percent in just two decades.

The fast food industry knows full well that it is on a similar path. The McDonald’s campaign sounds like the last hurrah at the end of a lost battle. It’s a small skirmish in the midst of a large-scale retreat.

Of course, there are differences between the tobacco- and the food industry. People can live without smoking but not without eating. But with heightened public awareness, the demand for food products that don’t make us sick will eventually become strong enough to force the industry’s hand. We may still have long ways to go, but change will come.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

A Positive Attitude May Protect You from Heart Problems and Even Stroke

July 26th, 2011 at 2:04 pm by timigustafson
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It’s not far-fetched to think that optimistic people are not only happier but also healthier. Some scientists now believe that keeping a positive attitude may even reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

“Past research has linked optimism with a range of health benefits, including cardiovascular outcome,” said Eric Kim, a doctoral student in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan and lead author of a study that was recently published in the medical journal, “Stroke,” a publication of the American Heart Association. What always remained a mystery is exactly how a sunny temperament affects a person’s health.

“Optimism could be working by reducing blood pressure, or the extent to which blood pressure spikes when [someone is] stressed out, or it could be that those who are optimistic are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors such as good eating and exercise,” said Dr. Redford Williams, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University who has studied connections between personality and health.

Critics have pointed out that there may be a correlative relationship between people’s psychological characteristics and their biological functions, rather than a causal connection. “This doesn’t mean that all optimistic people will have a lower risk of stroke,” cautioned Dr. Joseph Broderick, a professor of neurology at the University of Cincinnati. “Optimism can also work against making healthier decisions – you can be optimistic and feel like everything will work out, and so you don’t change your behavior for the better.”

Still, Kim and his colleagues are convinced they have found solid evidence for a strictly biological impact of positive thinking. For the study, a group of more than 6,000 adults over the age of 50 were rated on a 16-point scale in terms of their general outlook on life. The researchers measured optimism levels with a modified “Life Orientation Test,” a widely used assessment tool in which participants rank their responses to a questionnaire on a numeric scale. The results showed for each point increase in optimism a corresponding 9 percent decrease in acute stroke risk over a two-year follow-up period. Adjustments were made for an array of other factors, like race, gender, marital status, body mass index, blood pressure, level of physical activity, alcohol use, smoking, chronic illnesses and other health issues.

“Optimism seems to have a swift impact on stroke,” wrote Kim in a press release after the publication of his report. “In a similar way that depression can impact functioning, we think optimism can as well.”

Kim’s line of thinking, of course, is by no means revolutionary or even all that new. In “Anatomy of an Illness,” a famous autobiographical account of overcoming a life-threatening illness, Norman Cousins describes in diary-style detail how keeping a positive attitude helped him to beat the odds and led him to complete recovery. His personal experience made him a strong believer in the power of hope, faith, humor, laughter and the will to live. He considered those to be biochemical components that can actually help to combat serious diseases. Mr. Kim and his colleagues would most likely agree.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

Would Raising Taxes on Sugary Sodas and Fatty Foods Make Us Healthier?

July 25th, 2011 at 11:32 am by timigustafson
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What would it take to make Americans eat better and live healthier lives? The answer may be higher taxes, according to a provocative article recently published in the New York Times (7/24/2011).

The author, food writer Mark Bittman, suggests that a 20 percent increase in the price of sugary drinks by adding a federal soda tax would result in a 20 percent decrease in consumption over a decade. This alone could prevent one and a half million Americans from becoming obese and almost half a million from becoming diabetic, which in turn could save the government a whopping 30 billion dollars in health care costs. Could it really be so easy?

There is little disagreement that radical changes in the typical American diet are necessary if we can ever hope to win the fight against our obesity crisis. Banking on the food industry’s “voluntary” measures has long been proven fruitless. Food manufacturers are not concerned with issues of public health but their bottom line. They will continue to sell products that are most profitable, whether they are damaging to people’s health or not. And they will keep doing so – until another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” could be the federal government acting in the interest of the common good.

Taking on the role of a powerful public health advocate would indeed be a departure for our government as we know it. The production of unhealthy foods has long been heavily subsidized with tax dollars. The beneficiaries are farms (or rather large agricultural corporations) where corn is grown for making high-fructose corn syrup, an ubiquitous ingredient of most processed foods.

Rather than supporting the making of foods of poor nutritional quality, the federal government could turn the tables and impose heavy taxes on sodas, French fries, doughnuts, candy and other snack items. The resulting revenues then could be applied to subsidize produce prices and make staples like seasonal greens, vegetables, fruit and whole grains more affordable. Healthy items that are now prohibitively expensive could be offered not only cheaper but also in many more locations, including low-income neighborhoods, which are notoriously underserved by supermarkets chains and grocery stores.

A program like this, of course, would upset the food industry, which is well connected in Washington, to put it mildly. It would also cause a great deal of resentment among those who are principally opposed to tax increases of any kind or for any purpose and who would see such a step as another attempt of the “nanny state” to meddle in their private affairs. We all have heard these arguments ad nauseam.

Still, safeguarding the public’s health is one of the responsibilities government is entrusted with. Why would the food we eat be of less concern than the water we drink or the air we breathe? There is no good reason why government should not get involved when the nutritional health of its citizens is at risk, which is no different from any other dangerous threat (like oil spills or acts of terrorism).

As it has been shown time and again, appealing to individual responsibility does not suffice. Especially poor people are disproportionally disadvantaged in their abilities to make better dietary choices by themselves. For many it is harder to find fresh fruit than Froot Loops. Junk food is often the only option, not because it’s cheap (that too), but because there is nothing else within reach for the elderly, the handicapped and those who depend on public transportation to get around. What’s needed are structural changes, and those can only take place with new public policies.

Some states have already imposed taxes on sodas, but those are mostly ineffective sales taxes. A better way would be to incorporate higher taxes into the shelf price, so-called excise taxes, so customers realize the cost increases before they make their purchasing decisions, not afterwards.

Even in today’s anti-tax climate, there is a growing realization that generating extra revenues from soda- and fast food consumption could lead to a welcome windfall for cash-strapped state- and city governments, comparable to legalized gambling. New York, San Francisco and Philadelphia have already taken steps in this direction. One study conducted by Columbia University predicted that adding a single penny tax per ounce of sugary soda drinks would save the State of New York three billion dollars in health care costs over the course of a decade. Another study showed that a two cents tax increase per ounce would reduce the obesity rate among children and adolescents in the state of Illinois by 18 percent, save $350 million in health care expenditures and add $800 million to the state’s coffers annually. This money could be returned to the local communities for spending on public gyms, pools, parks and bike paths as well as for providing food banks with better quality supplies.

The costs for treating weight problems and other related diseases are staggering. They are already in the hundreds of billions and they keep rising. The lion share will be borne by the federal government, meaning all of us taxpayers. So it is in our interest that these catastrophic developments will be stopped by any means necessary.

We have been here before. In the historic tobacco settlement of 1998, American tobacco companies finally gave in to the government’s demands to curtail their marketing efforts and cooperate with anti-smoking campaigns. Many other factors have contributed as well to the radical decline of smoking in the U.S., including federal and state tax policies. The overall results are quite impressive: Between the mid 1970s and the mid 2000s, cigarette use fell by 57 percent. We have no reason to think that this success story cannot be repeated in the fight against obesity.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

The Importance of Talking to Kids About Weight Problems

July 22nd, 2011 at 12:49 pm by timigustafson
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When I started out as a dietitian in private practice, I saw one or two patients in their teenage years. Today, it’s a different story. Some of my colleagues say that half of their clientele is under the age of 18. Childhood obesity has been on the rise for more than a decade, but now it’s out of control.

Parents often find it hard to address their youngsters’ weight issues. They don’t want to embarrass them or don’t think it’s that much of a big deal. In many cases, the adults in the family are overweight as well. They themselves feel helpless and confused in their efforts to cope with eating problems at home. The younger kids nag them for their favorite snacks and treats and the older ones make their own choices when they go out with their friends.

Many doctors are also ill-equipped to talk about nutrition, exercise and weight management. These subjects are still considered peripheral in most medical schools, although there have been some notable changes in recent years. Especially pediatricians seem to have difficulties discussing weight problems with their young patients. In a recently published study on the subject, researchers found that doctors often miss important opportunities to deal with early signs of unhealthy weight gain. That is highly unfortunate. “Focusing on these issues in overweight adolescents [could] give doctors a chance to stop unhealthy behavior that could be setting kids up for obesity before it’s too late. Once kids are obese, these behaviors are entrenched, and it’s much more difficult,” said the author of the study, Dr. Carolyn Bradner Jasik.

Nutrition experts agree that prevention of weight problems is the best option, especially when it comes to children. The American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly recommends that doctors do “preventive screening for the benefit of kids’ weight and health.” According to the study by Dr. Jasik, more obese children reported to have talked with their doctors about dieting and weight control, but that wasn’t the case with overweight kids. “There’s an increased recognition that obesity is a problem and physicians are starting to do more with the population that is defined as obese. But they still are neglecting this population that is on a trajectory toward developing obesity,” said Dr. Randall Stafford of Stanford University in California, an expert on obesity counseling.

Most pediatricians agree that preventive measures through counseling would greatly benefit children with weight problems as well as their parents who are ultimately responsible for implementing positive diet- and lifestyle changes in their homes. “It’s not like physicians don’t want to do these things, but whether they have the tools, have the time, and get reimbursed for these things makes a lot of difference,” said Dr. Stafford.

Of course, that is one of the big problems with prevention. Most insurance companies don’t pay doctors for preventive visits. The same goes for dietitians or nutritionists. Morbidly obese adolescents may be covered for weight loss surgery but not for weight-related counseling sessions. Parents who seek professional help for their kids before things get out of hand have to pay out of pocket.

Still, Dr. Jasik hopes that the alarming rise in childhood obesity will eventually change the current policies. Health experts and policy makers know full well that prevention would be the best solution – health-wise and bottom line – but so far there is not enough political will to follow that path.

Well-meaning initiatives like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program are laudable, but they don’t reach far enough. What is badly needed is a heightened awareness that childhood obesity has become a serious crisis with the potential of destroying the future of an entire generation. What is needed is a sense of urgency to take on this threat on every level and make it a priority for government, the medical community, parents, teachers and the kids themselves who suffer the consequences if we don’t stop this trend. “Preventing obesity needs to be a lot bigger, “ wrote Dr. Jasik in her report. “It requires efforts from the whole healthcare system and the community.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

Consumer Advocacy Group Names Restaurants With the Worst Foods for Your Health

July 22nd, 2011 at 12:47 pm by timigustafson
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The Center for Science in the Public Interest has published a list of the worst meals served in restaurants in terms of calorie-, fat- and sodium content. The Cheesecake Factory, a restaurant chain popular with families, has been named as one of the worst offenders, followed by Denny’s and IHOP, both fast food places.

The Cheesecake Factory’s “Farmhouse Cheeseburger” contains a whopping 1,530 calories and 36 grams of saturated fat – that is without the humongous pile of French fries that comes with it. The biggest punch comes from the smoked pork belly meat that is topped with cheddar cheese, a fried egg, onions, lettuce, tomato, plus a spread of mayonnaise on the buns.

If that doesn’t fill you up, there is always dessert. The “Ultimate Red Velvet Cake Cheesecake” packs 1,540 calories – even more than the cheeseburger – not including the whipped cream and frosting for decoration.

The runner-up, Denny’s, offers a really big bang for the buck with its “Fried Cheese Melt,” which consists of mozzarella sticks wrapped in cheese (!) and sandwiched between two slices of fried (!) sourdough bread, adding up to 1,260 calories, not to mention the 21 grams of fat and the 3,010 milligrams of sodium. Of course, you can have fries with that, too.

IHOP’s “Monster Bacon ‘N Beef Cheeseburger” comes with two beef patties wrapped in bacon and a thick layer of American and Provolone cheese. If you eat it all, you have a fill of 1,250 calories and 42 grams of saturated fat.

These are just three examples. There are plenty of others that deserve to be on this list. What this shows is that portion sizes in restaurants have completely gone out of control. The Dietary Guidelines of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommend a maximum daily calorie intake of 3,000 calories for men and 2,400 for women. By eating items like those named above, you can easily exceed these limits with just one meal.

It’s not hard to see why restaurants offer supersized portions. The differences in costs between smaller and larger sizes are minimal to them, but consumers feel they get lots of “extra value” if the food on their plates is stacked to the ceiling. “All you can eat” is no longer just an advertising slogan, it is now an expectation people have when they place their orders. “Pigging out” has become a popular pastime. What used to be a special occasion is now an everyday occurrence. Studies on the subject show that Americans eat at least a third of their meals outside the home.

The government is trying to push restaurant operators to disclose more nutritional information, such as calorie counts, on their menus. New rules to that effect are expected to become law nationwide by the end of the year. Some of these measures may be helpful, but they are not the solution to the entire problem. They can’t be.

Interest groups and organizations of the food service industry keep stressing that they only respond to customers’ demands. It is up to the individuals themselves, they say, to act responsibly and control their impulses.

It is true that dining out is often seen as an occasional indulgence and a time when one has to be less concerned with weight issues – even if it takes place regularly.
What is more concerning is that unhealthy eating habits have become acceptable as somewhat “normal.” People almost expect to overeat when they sit down at a restaurant table or order take-out.

Much of that has become plausible because of cultural shifts. The way many of us value (or rather don’t value) food itself has changed. Just look at popular TV shows like “Man v. Food” on the Travel Channel. Its host, Adam Richman, travels around the country to take on so-called “food challenges,” which means devouring impossibly large quantities of food in record time. Mr. Richman enjoys a growing following (no pun intended). He has a large network of fan clubs whose members mimic his example to “find and destroy food wherever they can find it” (quote from a fan’s website). Now in the fourth season, the producers of the show are inviting others to join in and turn the whole thing into a team effort. No shortage of willing candidates, of course.

All this may sound like a lot of harmless fun. It isn’t. The underlying messages conveyed by spectacles like these impact the ways we view our relationship to food, to our bodies, to our health. They change the conversation and there is a price to be paid for all this. Our current obesity crisis together with the vast array of lifestyle-related health problems we are facing today has not emerged in a vacuum. We have met the enemy, and it is us, all of us.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of  “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” which is available on her blog  http://www.timigustafson.com and at amazon.com. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format, also at www.amazon.com

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About timigustafson

About Timi Gustafson, R.D. As a clinical dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and, as of late, blogger, she has been able to reach millions of people, addressing their concerns about issues of health, lifestyle and nutrition. As Co-founder and Director of Nutrition Services for Cyberdiet.com (now Mediconsult.com), she created the first nutrition-related interactive website on the Internet in 1995. Many of the features you find on her blog, www.timigustafson.com, are based on the pioneering work of those days. Today, her goals remain the same: Helping people to achieve optimal health of body and mind. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from San José State University in California and completed a Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. She is a registered dietitian and Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Dietitians in Business and Communications, Healthy Aging, Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition, and the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Groups. For more information about Timi Gustafson R.D. please visit: www.timigustafson.com

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