Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Fatter, Slower, Sicker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

How Golden Will Your “Golden Years” Be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is all this actually achievable or just wishful thinking?

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

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

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

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Will Rising Food Prices Change America’s Eating Habits?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Rising Food Prices Will Make It Even Harder to Eat Healthily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Controversy Over Health Effects of Sodas Heats Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Lack of Physical Activity Found as Harmful as Poor Diet and Smoking

July 22nd, 2012 at 2:04 pm by timigustafson
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Spending too many hours sitting at work, commuting or relaxing on the couch can wreak as much hazard on your health as being overweight or even smoking, according to a new study published in the journal The Lancet.

Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, found that sedentary lifestyles are responsible for millions of premature deaths globally, on par with so-called non-communicable diseases like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. In fact, more people may die from inactivity than from tobacco use – a somewhat surprising discovery.

For the study, the scientists used a statistical model to analyze how lifestyle-related diseases and early deaths could be prevented if people moved more. Because much of the world population is increasingly becoming sedentary due to greater availability of private and public transportation as well as changes in the work place, inactivity is rapidly becoming a major public health concern.

Worldwide, it is estimated that inactivity is the cause for 6 percent of coronary heart disease cases, 7 percent of type 2 diabetes, 10 percent of breast cancer and 10 percent of colon cancer. As a contributor to premature mortality, it has lead to well over 5 million deaths, or about 9 percent of all deaths, in 2008, the year the data were collected. By comparison, smoking was estimated to have killed about 5 million people worldwide in the year 2000, a number that has gradually come down since.

If people became more active, it could increase the average life expectancy of the world population by 0.68 years, according to the report. In the United States those numbers would even be higher: 1.3 to 3.7 years from the age of 50, just by getting enough daily exercise.

Physical inactivity, as defined in the study, is an activity level below the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which call for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate exercise such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of a more vigorous regimen each week.

I-Min Lee, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study report, who calls her estimates “likely to be very conservative,” said that the issue of inactivity should be considered as “pandemic with far-reaching health, economic, environmental and social consequences.” She said one of the key messages of her report is to make this problem a global health priority.

While some progress has been made to reduce tobacco use and alcohol consumption and to promote healthier eating habits, the lack of regular physical activity has not yet been widely recognized as a standalone health threat, despite of being the fourth leading cause of death in the world.

The good news is that more awareness of the importance of exercising can have an accumulative effect on other health and lifestyle issues as well. As people understand better how the different aspects of well-being are connected, they can see the benefits on multiple levels. Exercise and healthy eating make us feel better, give us more energy, help us control our weight, protect us from illness, and may let us live longer and stay fit at old age. None of this is rocket science. It makes you wonder how we could have gotten so far off course in the first place.

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.

Healthy Aging: Exercising the Body Benefits the Mind, Too

July 18th, 2012 at 4:47 pm by timigustafson
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While regular physical activity has long been regarded as an important component of healthy aging, its impact on mental health has remained less explored – until now. Several new studies on the role of exercise for the prevention of mental decline in older adults have been presented at this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in Vancouver, Canada.

For these studies, researchers from the United States, Canada and Japan conducted 6 to 12 month clinical trials with focus on potential benefits of different types of exercising, including weight lifting, aerobics and balance-stretching training, for maintaining cognitive abilities at old age.

The results showed that even low-impact activities such as walking can help improve memory and other mental functions. What’s most striking is that the human brain seems to be able to grow and develop even late in life if sufficiently stimulated, not only by staying mentally active but physically as well.

Strength training, in particular, had positive effects on attention and memory and other higher brain functions. One study from the University of British Columbia, Canada, found that participants with higher levels of intellect, and perhaps education, reaped the most benefits.

The scientists involved in the respective studies agreed that their findings are preliminary at best at this point in time. “Very little is understood regarding the molecular processes that contribute to enhanced brain health with exercise, or the impact that greater brain volume has on cognitive function,” said Dr. Kirk Erickson of the University of Pittsburgh, who worked on one of the studies. But he also pointed to some immediate implications. “Our findings suggest that the aging brain remains modifiable, and that sedentary older adults can benefit from starting a moderate walking regimen,” he said.

Walking, not for the purpose of exercising but as a normal daily function, was the subject of another study presented at the conference. It found that older people’s slower gait could also be a symptom for mental decline. A reduced pace has always been considered as a natural part of aging. But the results of this study seem to indicate that being less swift and steady on one’s feet may be a sign that cognitive functions are suffering as well.

This is potentially a new perspective for health care professionals who treat older patients with mental health issues. “People who are focused on cognition largely never watch people move,” said Dr. Stephanie Studenski, a geriatrician at the University of Pittsburgh who did not take part in the study, in an interview with the New York Times (7/17/2012). “The tests are all done sitting down.”

Simply by observing how older people walk could provide doctors with an additional tool for diagnosing impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Although the studies reported at the conference have yet to undergo peer reviews before being released for publication, they have already generated a considerable buzz in the medical community and beyond. The AAIC is the world’s largest of its kind and is sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association, the world’s leading health organization in Alzheimer care, support and research.

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.

Counting Calories Is Not Enough

July 15th, 2012 at 7:09 am by timigustafson
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Most diet programs for weight loss are mainly focused on managing calories. Of course, there is good reason for that. A surplus of calorie intake versus expenditure eventually leads to weight gain. Only about 500 additional calories a day can result in an extra pound of body weight per week – and, of course, the opposite applies just as much. However, it is also important to know where those calories come from, a fact that is not always communicated as well.

According to the laws of physics, calories are all the same. Thus, in theory, it shouldn’t matter whether you drink sugary sodas or eat apples as long as both have the same calorie count. So, the kind of diet you choose – e.g. high-protein/low-carb, high-carb/low-fat, or anything in between – shouldn’t matter either, provided more calories are burned off than consumed. Still the discussion over the effectiveness of different weight loss approaches continues. But is this even the right conversation to have?

Obesity is undoubtedly one of the most pressing health problems of our time. But so is – paradoxically – malnutrition. “Americans are overfed and undernourished,” says Dr. Mark Hyman, author of the “Blood Sugar Solution – The UltraHealthy Program for Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Feeling Great Now!” (Little, Brown, 2012). In fact, he says, “most obese children and adults in the country are also the most nutritionally deficient.”

The so-called “Standard American Diet” (SAD) is notoriously caloric but too often nutrient poor, lacking many essential vitamins and minerals. People who eat large amounts of highly processed foods and ingest lots of sugar, refined grains and hydrogenated fats (trans-fats) may gain weight but remain hungry because their nutritional needs are not met. But instead of altering their food choices, they simply keep munching on more of the same.

When they eventually decide to go on a diet, they may starve themselves, but all they often do is deprive their body further by cutting back on (empty) calories without replacing them with more and better nutrients, which is what a healthy diet (for weight loss or otherwise) should be all about.

Nutrition experts have long known that one of the best ways to achieve and maintain a healthy weight range is to focus on nutritional quality first. Yes, portion sizes do matter, but they become less important as you switch from empty calories to nutrient-dense ones. An extra helping of fresh fruit or vegetables is harmless by comparison to a supersized cheeseburger, pizza slice or order of French fries. The same goes for snack foods. While potato chips, candy bars and cookies may give you some instant gratification, they will not satisfy you for long (that’s why you keep reaching for them). Healthy snacks, on the other hand, like apples, citrus fruits, bananas or berries, will do the job much better, and the health benefits are of course much greater.

The bottom line is that single strategies like counting calories won’t work if they don’t go hand in hand with a health-conscious change of eating habits and food choices. Part of that process is educating yourself about nutritionally superior foods and the many advantages they can provide, not just for managing body weight but, more importantly, for all-around good health.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

Many Unmet Health Care Needs of Aging Baby Boomers

July 12th, 2012 at 12:23 pm by timigustafson
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Baby boomers will likely face an array of health conditions as they grow older but will find in many cases only insufficient treatment options. According to a report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), health care providers are currently not prepared for the coming challenges of what has been called a “silver tsunami” because of the sheer size of this aging generation. These challenges include both physical and mental health care needs, the latter of which have so far been mostly ignored or neglected.

As many as eight million Americans age 65 and older suffer from mental health problems, including depression, memory loss and diminished cognitive functions. Substance abuse was also mentioned as a growing contributing factor to age-related mental decline. These numbers will only go up as the elderly population will grow from just over 40 million in 2010 to well over 70 million by 2030.

At a time when there is already great concern over the affordability of health care in general, finding funds for the treatment of mental illness and substance abuse will be even more difficult. Nevertheless, the IOM calls for an overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid payment rules in favor of covering care, counseling and other services for older patients with mental health problems. At this point, both programs rather deter treatment of such conditions, based on their existing coverage and reimbursement policies.

A lack of national attention to these issues combined with an ill-equipped health care work force that doesn’t understand the special needs of older adults only worsens the situation, according to Dr. Dan G. Blazer, a professor for psychiatry and behavioral science at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, who chaired the IOM panel that wrote the report. He calls the findings a “wake-up call that we need to prepare now or our older population and their extended families will suffer the consequences.”

Geriatric health care is in many ways different from general health care and requires specialized training. Older people undergo metabolic changes, making it more difficult for them to tolerate certain medications and thereby increasing the risk of overdosing. Also, age-related cognitive impairments can affect the ability to comply with medication instructions. Other existing physical health problems can mask or distract from mental health needs and leave those undiagnosed and untreated. Grief and depression caused by loss of loves ones, social isolation or alcohol and drug abuse can accelerate the mental decline.

All health care workers, including primary care physicians, nurses and social workers, who are in frequent contact with older patients must be able to recognize the symptoms of mental health problems and provide at least some basic form of treatment, says the report. Regrettably, there are relatively few opportunities for medical professionals to get more training in geriatric mental health care. There are also not enough financial incentives that would encourage them to enter this field.

The report concludes with a warning to lawmakers about the significant shortcomings of the nation’s health care force facing a rapidly aging population. The IOM panel urges Congress to provide additional funding of resources to evaluate, coordinate and facilitate the efforts of health care workers taking on these enormous challenges.

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.

Fast Food Consumption Around the World Linked to Health Risks

July 8th, 2012 at 1:23 pm by timigustafson
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A growing preference for Western-style fast food in Asian and Southeast Asian countries shows already an impact on their populations’ health, and not in a good way, according a newly released study by the University of Michigan (UM).

Researchers of the university’s School of Public Health found that Chinese residents in Singapore were at a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease since fast food restaurant chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC started setting up shop in the 1980s. Prior to that time, American-style fast food was practically unknown there and diseases like these were comparatively rare.

“What we found was a dramatic public health impact by fast food, a product that is primarily a Western import into a completely new market,” Odegaard said in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune (7/5/2012), a local Minnesota newspaper.

According to the study report, which was published online in the journal Circulation by the American Heart Association (AHA), people who consumed fast food even as little as once a week, increased their risk of developing coronary heart disease by 20 percent compared to those who never touched it. The rate jumped to 50 percent for those who indulged two to three times per week, and to 80 percent for those who went beyond that. Regular consumption of fast food also seemed to lead to a substantially higher risk of type 2 diabetes, according to the study.

Until now, there has been surprisingly little research on potential links between fast food and health risks and that was mainly focused on the United States. Andrew Odegaard, a post-doctoral researcher at UM and study leader said he wanted to look at a Southeast Asian population because of the relatively small time frame since fast food was introduced there and also because the population there is quickly becoming a hotbed for diet and lifestyle diseases similar to the U.S.

In cooperation with the National University of Singapore, the UM team analyzed medical records and questionnaires about diet and lifestyle habits of over 50,000 Chinese Singapore residents. During the study’s 16-year follow-up period, 2,252 participants developed diabetes and 1,397 died of heart attacks or heart-related diseases.

Although focused on a relatively small group, the study results could be relevant for future research in public health on a global scale. “The consumption of Western-style fast food is really growing in Asia and South and Southeast Asia, in countries where there are a lot of developing economies,” said Odegaard in the interview. [For the major fast-food chains], “this is their primary engine of growth. What the companies have going on in North America is steady, the market is saturated, but there is real growth in the growing economies.”

Critics of the report have called the results inconclusive because many of the applied data were largely based on self-reporting by participants, which is often considered imprecise and unreliable. Also, critics say that unhealthy eating habits tend to go hand in hand with other poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, drinking and sedentary behavior. Poverty and lack of access to healthcare may also play a role. Singling out fast food as the one culprit would therefore be unreasonable.

Still, it is undeniable that the growing popularity of Western eating styles is coinciding with a dramatic increase in obesity and related illnesses in many parts of the world. Even in places like Brazil, where the government has made serious efforts to limit access to fast food in schools and residential areas to protect the public’s health, especially of children, the rates of diabetes and heart disease are going up. Apparently even some of the most stringent existing regulations don’t suffice.

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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