Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Why Breakfast Is an Important Part of Healthy Eating

June 11th, 2014 at 12:31 pm by timigustafson
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For the longest time, nutrition experts have emphasized the importance of eating breakfast. But while numerous studies have been conducted on the subject, it has never been scientifically proven that having a meal at the start of the day can make a significant difference for our nutritional health and wellbeing. Now, two studies have questioned just that.

Most of the past research focused on the eating habits of study participants and observed certain advantages among those who ate breakfast by comparison to those who didn’t.

For instance, several studies, including some sponsored by the government, found that school children who came to class hungry were less attentive and scored lower in academic tests than their well-fed peers, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Still, as scientists like to say, research of this kind can only reveal correlative but not necessarily causal relationships. In other words, we don’t really know whether having empty stomachs actually turned these kids into poor students or whether other factors played a role as well. Yet, one study suggested that feeding young children a healthy breakfast every day could increase their IQ.

Among adults, taking time for breakfast seems most beneficial for those who try to lose weight. A number of studies have found that breakfast eaters have an easier time to control their cravings than their breakfast-skipping counterparts, thereby keeping them from overeating later in the day.

But again, these are observational studies that don’t really tell us whether having breakfast can actually contribute to weight loss, although many health experts like to think so.

By contrast, the latest studies first mentioned above tried to shed some light on the actual effects of breakfast on the body in terms of metabolic and cardiovascular health.

One study, conducted at the University of Alabama, concluded that neither eating nor foregoing breakfast had any discernable impact in terms of weight control.

The other, this one from the University of Bath in England, also found that breakfast habits didn’t produce noticeable differences in metabolic or cardiovascular health either way, although it seemed that breakfast eaters fared better in controlling their blood sugar levels in the afternoons and evenings, and seemed overall more energetic and physically active.

As it is so often the case with nutrition science, these latest findings are likely to leave the public as confused as ever. There is, however, I think, another point to be made that researchers routinely either overlook or consider beyond the scope of their work.

As with all habits, the effects, good or bad, intended or not, manifest themselves only over time. Most studies, the most recent included, are limited in their number of participants and their duration. They also have a specific focus that prevents them from looking at the larger picture.

For example, if we want to know more about the importance of breakfast for overall nutritional health, shouldn’t we also be interested in how it influences people’s eating behavior in other ways?

We could ask whether individuals who eat breakfast are more health-conscious to begin with than others who don’t. What food choices do they make? If they adhere to a nutritious, well-balanced diet in the morning, do they stick to a similar regimen all day? Or conversely, if they eat poorly later on, why should we expect them to do better at breakfast?

In other words, the distinguishing feature here is probably not whether people choose to have breakfast or not, but rather whether they follow an altogether healthy lifestyle, of which breakfast may or may not be a part.

If health is the overriding principle, as it should be, a health-conscious person will give his or her body what it needs and when it needs it. And yes, there is plenty of indication that a good start requires appropriate fueling – a.k.a. breakfast. But more importantly, it can set the tone for sound eating habits throughout the day.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Older Adults More Vulnerable to Effects of Bad Relationships, Study Finds

June 6th, 2014 at 3:00 pm by timigustafson
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Being in a relationship that has soured or become dysfunctional is stressful and can take a serious toll on people’s emotional health. But it doesn’t end there, according to a new study that investigated the physical impact such distress can have.

The research showed that especially older adults – and women more so than men – are at greater risk of developing high blood pressure when exposed to antagonistic situations for prolonged periods of time in their lives.

For the study, psychologists from the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, followed over 1,500 men and women over the age of 50, focusing on their physical responses to negative interactions with family members and friends like disagreements, criticism, voicing of disappointments, etc.

For the selection of their participants, they used data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a longitudinal study of health, retirement, and aging, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

The study results showed that “negative social interactions,” as the researchers called it, increased the participants’ chances of developing hypertension by nearly 40 percent over just four years of follow-up tests.

“This demonstrates how important social networks are as we age – constructing strong, positive relationships are beneficial to prolonged health,” said Dr. Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at CMU and one of the authors of the study in a press release.

It is less clear why women are seemingly more vulnerable to stress from relational issues than men, as the study suggests. While it would be hard to find the exact reason for these differences, it could be that females are more invested in their relationships, and are more deeply affected when these break down. Other studies on this subject have also pointed in this direction.

The findings that people get more physically affected by stress and upheaval as they age may be explained by the fact that their overall health and resilience weakens, including when dealing with negative emotions. Also, as they retire and undergo other changes in their later years, the risk of social isolation can increase and become a source of anxiety. If existing social connections are less than perfect, those prospects only worsen.

As a number of studies have shown, seniors who are lonely and isolated tend to be in poorer physical and mental health than their contemporaries who are in loving relationships. In other words, it is worthwhile to keep working on your family- and social life while you still can…

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Eating Right for Healthy Skin

June 3rd, 2014 at 6:26 pm by timigustafson
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Beauty may only be skin deep, as the 1966 hit song by The Temptations famously reminds us, but the fact is that the appearance of our skin does tell quite a bit about our health and wellbeing.

It is not just age-related decay, or cellular damage from too much sun exposure, but also our diet that affects how our skin looks.

The skin is the body’s largest organ, and as all other parts, it must constantly be nourished.

Through its complex, layered system, the skin has multiple functions, including protecting us from microbes and the elements, regulating body temperature, and registering touch, heat, and cold. All these tasks require regular rejuvenation and replenishment.

Basically, our skin complexion is a window to the condition our health is in. If nutrients are plentiful, our skin feels smoother, nails grow faster and stronger, and hair is shinier. But these are not among the body’s highest priorities. If nutritional deficiencies persist, whatever nutrients are left go to the foremost life-sustaining organs like the brain, the heart, the lungs, etc. So, if the skin is less than flawless, nails become brittle, or hair looks dull, something is probably amiss.

Although, it is not altogether clear whether there are specifically skin-healthy foods, most experts would agree that consuming lots of fresh fruits and vegetables – mainly because of their antioxidants and phytochemicals – is recommended. Particularly, intensely colorful plant foods like carrots, squash, tomatoes, peppers, deep green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale, apricots, berries, as well as beans, peas, lentils, and nuts are nutrient-rich and contain plenty of these properties.

Processed foods, on the other hand, especially when they are high in fat, salt, and sugar content, can contribute to dietary imbalances that also leave their mark on the health status of the skin. Especially simple carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, pasta, potatoes, and sweets, many of which are at the base of the so-called “Western diet,” can wreak havoc not only on inner organs but can also lead to breakouts in the skin.

For instance, although we have not yet found ironclad scientific proof that acne is caused by certain foods, most experts will tell you that diet plays probably a role, said Dr. Ellen Marmur, a dermatologist and dermatology surgeon at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, to WebMD.

“The body, skin included, is constantly under construction. And it uses vitamins and nutrients from food to repair and rebuild,” she explains. If these healing processes are interrupted or disabled, a disorder called “keratinization” can develop, where glands and pores get blocked, thereby trapping proteins and oils, which can lead to inflammation in the skin cells.

Of course, diet is not the only cause of skin damage. Insufficient hydration is a major culprit. Other potential factors are hormonal imbalances, stress, sleep deprivation, and environmental pollution.

But while there are no super foods that can help prevent damage to the skin, it is important to know that good eating habits can help, Dr. Marmur says.

“Remember, many of the best foods for healthy skin also promote good health overall,” says Dr. Lawrence E. Gibson, a dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. “Rather than focusing on specific foods for healthy skin, concentrate on a healthy diet in general,” he recommends.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Even Light Exercise Has Significant Health Benefits for Older Adults

May 30th, 2014 at 5:57 pm by timigustafson
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That regular exercise is important for good health is old news. From controlling weight and staying in shape, to fending off disease, to aging well, being physically active is a central component of wellbeing. As much as this message is considered to be self-evident, surprisingly, there has never been actual scientific proof that it is true.

For instance, while countless studies have suggested that exercise can be beneficial in many ways, including for slowing the aging process in older adults, it can only be said with certainty that most people who are healthy do in fact exercise – but not that their exercising makes them healthier. Now, a new study tried to show just that.

Unlike other research projects of its kind, this one specifically sought out participants who were not especially fit but adhered to a mostly sedentary lifestyle and even showed signs of age-related physical decline.

“For the first time, we have directly shown that exercise can effectively lessen or prevent the development of physical disability in a population of extremely vulnerable elderly people,” said Dr. Marco Pahor, the director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Florida in Gainesville and lead author of the study report, to the New York Times.

For the study, the researchers recruited 1,635 men and women between the ages of 70 and 89, who were mostly sedentary but still able to walk independently a distance of at least 400 meters (a quarter-mile). Then they split the participants up in two groups, assigning one to a regular exercise regimen, the other to a health education program that did not include exercising.

Over a period of about two and a half years, the exercising group showed 18 percent fewer incidences of temporary physical disability and 28 percent reduced likelihood of long-term to permanent disability compared to their non-exercising counterparts. But still, both groups had about the same number of periodical impairments. Also, more of the exercisers had to be hospitalized at one or more times, perhaps due to underlying medical conditions that were discovered over the course of the study. And some of the participants who underwent health education started exercising on their own account as well, which makes the distinction between the groups less clear.

Still, the findings of the study are valuable. For starters, they show that it is never too late to become physically more active and reap the benefits. Second, they demonstrate that even low-impact exercise like walking can be effective if done regularly. For seniors, in particular, it is important to focus, besides weight control and muscle and bone health, on flexibility and gait – not only to maintain physical fitness but to counteract mental decline as well.

As a number of studies have found, exercise can play a crucial role in the prevention of age-related dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease. That in itself should motivate everyone to take a few extra steps…

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

The True Causes of Obesity Remain Elusive

May 28th, 2014 at 12:21 pm by timigustafson
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Despite of modest gains in the fight against the obesity epidemic in recent years, health experts still don’t seem to have a definite answer to what exactly causes weight problems on such a large scale, not only here in the United States but, progressively, around the world.

A new study published in CA – A Cancer Journal for Clinicians examined an array of potentially contributing factors such as changing eating and lifestyle habits, larger portion sizes, availability and affordability of food, to mention just a few.

The latter – availability and affordability – seemingly stand out among possible culprits, according to this study.

Not only are we eating more highly caloric foods, we eat more of all types of food, mainly because food has become much cheaper, nearly ubiquitous, and more convenient to prepare, said Dr. Roland Sturm, an economist at RAND Corporation, a non-profit organization that specializes in public policy research, in a press release that came with the study.

In cooperation with his fellow-researcher, Dr. Ruopeng An, a professor at the Department of Kinesiology and Public Health of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Sturm investigated what percentage of their income average Americans spend on food today, and found that it is proportionally much less than their parents and grandparents had to.

Food in America is cheaper now than it has ever been in history, the researchers concluded. In the 1930s, most people spent about one-quarter of their income on food. In the 1950s, it dropped to one-fifth. Today, it is around one-tenth.

“Not only has the cost of food dropped, but it has become even more available,” wrote Dr. An in the press release. “So a smaller share of Americans’ disposable income now buys many more calories,” he added.

The argument that greater availability and lower prices help increase consumption is certainly valid. Yet, does that really explain why so many people can’t stop eating to the point where they get seriously ill?

I think the picture is much bigger.

The fact is that not all foods are equal. The cheapest items often have the least nutritional value – like processed meals and snacks that are typically high in calories as well as fat, sugar, and salt content. The healthiest kind, on the other hand, like fresh produce, lean protein sources, and whole grains, are not only out of reach financially for low-income families, they are not even always available where they live – in so-called food-deserts.

Besides economic constraints, lack of awareness and education in health matters also plays a role. The public is quite confused about which diet and lifestyle guidelines to follow, considering the oftentimes contradictory messages people are given.

Having cheap and abundant food available by itself should not automatically lead to unhealthy consumption, as the study seems to suggest. As consumers, we are ceaselessly bombarded with food advertisements, prodding us to eat far more than our bodies can possibly need.

In addition, government policies that subsidize large-scale production of commodities like corn and sugar, but give nothing to fresh produce farmers, may keep prices down for some (mostly processed) foods but also contribute indirectly to our public health crisis.

To improve the current situation, the research duo agrees that changing our existing food environment has to be part of the equation. Appealing to personal responsibility alone will not do. Influencing pricing for unhealthy foods through taxation may be one way. But while they don’t reject outright certain forms of intervention through policy changes, they don’t believe those to be effective enough.

Unfortunately, as long as we cannot agree on the causes of the obesity crisis, real solutions will remain elusive as well.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Just the Right Amount of Stress

May 24th, 2014 at 4:00 pm by timigustafson
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Being regularly overworked and stressed out likely leads to health problems long-term, but feeling bored or having too much time on your hands can also have negative effects, a government-sponsored study from Germany on health and safety issues in the workplace concluded.

Unlike here in the United States, labor laws in many European countries, including Germany, impose strict limits on how much time people can spend at work. 35-, 32- or even 30-hours workweeks are not uncommon, and month-long annual vacations are mandatory in some states. Yet it is not altogether clear whether a lighter workload and more free time automatically lead to greater quality of life.

Boredom and monotony produce their own kind of stress, which can be just as harmful as exhaustion from work overload. A study by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that uninspiring occupations can elicit considerable stress, especially when coupled with a need for high alertness, e.g. in security and surveillance jobs.

Like unemployment, underemployment or part-time work can cause stress, and not just because of financial concerns. Not having enough structure in one’s life, or feeling left out in terms of work-related opportunities can lead to loss of self-esteem, anxiety, and depression, according to a report by the American Psychological Association (APA).

So, is there such a thing as a healthy middle when it comes to stress at work?

Most people who work between 35 and 40 hours a week don’t experience significant health damages related to stress, said Dr. Monika A. Rieger, a professor of medicine at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and an expert in work-related health matters who was not involved in her country’s government study, to the German news magazine “Der Spiegel.” However, consistently laboring beyond 40 hours can potentially lead to health problems. It seems that those who work harder are also more vulnerable to disease, she added.

Still, experts agree that there is such a thing as “good stress.” Especially when work involves variety and creativity, it can be a rewarding experience. The more control people can exercise over their activities, and the more they benefit from the results, the more likely they will enjoy what they are doing, even if it entails a lot of personal effort.

There is indeed a kind of stress that is good for you, one that makes you excited and let’s you push harder. But even stress that is motivating and enhances performance can cause harm if it’s not kept in check, according to Elizabeth A. Scott, a wellness coach specializing in stress management who wrote extensively about the subject.

For instance, workaholics may pride themselves in getting lots of work done, but that doesn’t mean their behavior is healthy. Good stress can turn into bad stress, especially when it develops into chronic stress that offers no reprieve. That’s the kind of stress we really have to worry about, says Scott.

So while there is no precise measure by which we can determine when work-related stress becomes damaging, it is clear that there is a limit of what is tolerable. To keep workers from reaching that, it is important for companies to add as much quality to their workplaces as possible – for example by allowing their staff to take frequent breaks, do a variety of different tasks, partake in wellness programs, etc. After all, a work environment where people thrive instead of suffer is in everyone’s best interest.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

How Dietary Needs Change with Age

May 20th, 2014 at 5:07 pm by timigustafson
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Healthy aging entails multiple aspects, among them eating right, exercising regularly, and preventing mental decline. Achieving some of these may be easier than others. No matter how well we do our part, nature has a say in all of them, too.

While the outward signs of aging are usually quite apparent, the inner transformations our bodies go through as we grow older – e.g. slowing metabolism, diminishing muscle mass, thinning organ tissue, decreasing bone density – are less evident. Yet, these changes are very real and deserve close attention. Thankfully, their impact on our overall health and wellbeing can be mitigated with appropriate adjustments in diet and lifestyle.

Meeting altering health needs is not always easy for older adults, though. For example, due to reduced metabolic rates and sedentary behavior, most seniors use up significantly fewer calories than they did in their midlife. At the same time, the risk of malnutrition grows because of a lessening ability to absorb important nutrients, dehydration, lack of appetite, loss of taste, difficulty with chewing, and so forth. So, while reduced food intake is quite normal, it is crucial not to confuse the need for fewer calories with the need for fewer nutrients.

Energy requirements decrease with every decade, explains Dr. Connie Bales, a professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center and associate director of the Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center at Durham VA Medical Center to WebMD. But, while eating less overall, the challenge is to eat more nutrient-rich foods, which, calorie for calorie, pack more of a nutritional punch, she says.

Although maintaining healthy eating habits is recommended at any stage in life, it becomes even more instrumental in later years to prevent diet and lifestyle-related illnesses whose effects only worsen with age, including obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and type-2 diabetes as well as mental decline, for as much and as long as possible.

The fact is that, as we grow older, our body requires the same amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals as it always has, if not more, says Dr. Bales. For instance, after the age of 50, the ability to absorb essential nutrients like vitamin B12 or vitamin D gradually diminishes due to reduced acidity in the stomach, which is needed to break them down from food. The solution is to add to one’s diet food sources that are especially rich in these components.

And it’s not just the digestive system that weakens. Aging skin is less able to convert vitamin D from sunlight, which also affects the absorption of calcium, a necessary nutrient to prevent bone loss. For these reasons and others, older adults are well advised to take daily multi-vitamin and mineral supplements, she says.

The danger of dehydration is another problem that gets worse with age. Older people tend to drink less not because they don’t need as many fluids but because they don’t sense thirst as well as they used to. Regulatory processes are just not as sharp as they used to be in younger years, says Dr. Bales. So, an older person may not feel thirsty, although he or she may already be borderline dehydrated. The solution is to make it a habit of drinking about six 8-ounce glasses of water every day, regardless of thirst sensation.

One of the greatest risks of malnutrition among the elderly stems from lack of access to healthy food sources. It may be too hard to get to a grocery store, especially when driving is no longer possible. It may be that cooking facilities are missing or too cumbersome to operate. It may be loss of appetite, forgetfulness, or lack of motivation due to loneliness or depression. But skipping meals for whatever reason has negative health implications and may backfire in terms of serious nutritional damages, Dr. Bale warns.

The best solution would be not to eat alone but to enjoy the company of family and friends while preparing and eating meals. That way, loved ones can also keep an eye on an older person’s eating regimen. Services like Meals on Wheels and the likes can be useful to fill in some of the gaps. Regrettably, for too many people, aging goes hand in hand with progressive social separation and isolation, which can have far-reaching negative consequences on multiple levels. It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Seven Important Numbers You Need to Know to Protect Your Health” and “Eating Healthy Becomes Even More Important with Age.”

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Grumpy on a Sunshiny Day? It May Be Dehydration

May 17th, 2014 at 4:23 pm by timigustafson
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Summer is officially about to begin. Sunshine and warm weather should put a smile on your face and make you happy. Well, it does not work for everyone. As temperatures rise, many people are at greater risk of becoming dehydrated, which not only affects their physical wellbeing but also their moods.

A new study found that feeling unsettled, fatigued, or unable to focus may be caused by lack of fluids in the body. Especially women seem to be prone to mood changes stemming from insufficient hydration, the study report, which was published in the Journal of Nutrition, concluded.

Even when only mildly dehydrated, study participants experienced headaches, feelings of exhaustion, and inability to concentrate. They also felt irritable and less sociable.

Although only women were enrolled in this particular research, experts say there is no reason to assume the findings were not applicable to men.

Dehydration often takes place insidiously, meaning most people don’t even feel thirsty when the effects set in. But if lost fluids are not replenished in a timely manner, it can get progressively worse to the point where dehydration can lead to lasting damage, especially to the kidneys.

The fact is that the body cannot function properly without enough fluids. Those are needed to keep its temperature normal, to lubricate and cushion joints, to protect the spinal cord and other sensitive tissues, and to enable waste removal through urination, perspiration, and bowl movements.

Symptoms of mild to moderate dehydration include dry mouth, thirst, decreased output of urine, constipation, dry skin, as well as sleepiness, dizziness and lightheadedness. Severe dehydration has many of the same symptoms but to a much higher degree. Additionally, there can be disorientation, rapid heartbeat, hyperventilation, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and, in extreme cases, loss of consciousness.

The risk of dehydration is not the same for everyone. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable, and so are people with chronic illnesses like kidney disease and heart health problems.

Those who work or exercise outside in warm or hot weather are strongly advised to closely monitor their hydration needs. The sensation of thirst is not always a reliable indicator. By the time someone gets thirsty, the dehydration process may have already advanced.

Water is the logical choice to rehydrate the body. Adding fruit juice for quicker absorption or a sports drink like Gatorade to boost electrolytes can provide additional benefits. It is important, however, to limit sugar intake when using such beverages, most simply by diluting them with water.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

One Third of Premature Deaths in the U.S. Preventable, Health Agency Says

May 14th, 2014 at 12:23 pm by timigustafson
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Hundreds of thousands of Americans die every year from diseases that could be successfully treated or altogether prevented, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Poor diet and lifestyle choices are among the leading causes of untimely deaths, but lack of health education and access to healthcare also play a significant role, the agency found.

If all Americans had the best preventive care available in the country today, between 20 and 40 percent would not fall victim to life-threatening illnesses or events such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, stroke, and accidents.

For the study, the researchers identified mortality rates for each of the five leading causes in all 50 states and compared the best outcomes with all others. The difference between the ideal and actual rates was taken as an indicator for how many deaths could be deemed preventable. Excluded were people over the age of 79, which is the current average life expectancy in the United States.

Accordingly, nearly 92,000 Americans die unnecessarily from heart disease every year; over 84,000 from cancer; nearly 29,000 from chronic respiratory diseases; 17,000 from stroke; and 37,000 as a result of preventable accidents like not wearing seatbelts or helmets.

In a separate study, the CDC warned that excessive alcohol consumption is the cause of about 88,000 deaths annually in the U.S., including alcohol-related disease and fatalities from driving under the influence and other accidents.

This is not a problem specific to America. Worldwide, well over three million people have died from alcohol abuse in 2012, according to reports by the World Health Organization (WHO). The so-called “Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health” investigated the impact of alcohol use on public health as well as policy responses by governments and lawmakers in 194 countries.

In the U.S., older people were found to be at higher risk of suffering from alcohol-related health problems than other parts of the population. More men succumb to alcoholism than women. Poorer people are generally more affected by negative consequences, not only for their physical health but also their mental and social wellbeing. For instance, domestic violence is routinely connected with excessive drinking.

Smoking still constitutes one of the greatest health threats around the globe. Despite of decreasing numbers of smokers here in the U.S., there is much less progress in other parts of the world. To the contrary. According to WHO projections, smoking-attributable deaths will rise to about 10 million annually by 2030, more than double the current rate.

“Much needs to be done to protect populations from negative health consequences,” said Dr. Oleg Chestnov, assistant director for non-communicable diseases (NCDs) at the WHO. This must include appeals to personal responsibility but also far-reaching policy and regulatory measures. “There is no room for complacency,” he added.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

Extreme Longevity – Progress or Worrisome Prospect?

May 10th, 2014 at 7:45 am by timigustafson
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Alexander Imich is officially the oldest man alive. A few weeks ago he turned 111, still living independently in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He is not the currently longest-living human, though. 66 women surpass him, including the eldest, Misao Okawa, a 116-year-old lady from Japan, as recently reported by the New York Times. But despite of the noteworthiness of these examples, extreme longevity is no longer a rare exception but is becoming a growing trend.

According to the most recent data collected by the Census Bureau, over 53,000 people are now 100 years and older in the United States alone.

The “oldest old” – those who are 90 and beyond – are the fastest expanding segment of the U.S. population. Today there are nearly two million nonagenarians. That number will likely increase to 10 to 12 million by mid-century, a prospect that raises multiple concerns in terms of healthcare and retirement issues.

A study titled “90+,” conducted by the University of California, Irvine and sponsored by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), has followed this demographic since 2003. As reported by 60 Minutes, the news magazine on CBS, it is the largest study on the subject of old age to date, and includes clinical, pathological, and genetic research, involving more than 1,600 participants.

While the study is still ongoing, it has already produced some surprising results. For example, putting on a little extra weight late in life does not as much harm as previously thought and may even have some benefits. Eating right is still important, but adding more nutrients, e.g. by taking vitamin supplements, seems to have no noticeable effects. On the other hand, drinking moderate amounts of alcohol and coffee can indeed promote healthy aging and increase longevity, the researchers found.

Mental health, however, is less assured, no matter what action is taken. Over 40 percent of nonagenarians suffer from dementia, and about half of those are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The causes are not fully understood yet, but experts say that lack of physical activity may be a contributing factor. Naturally, most 90-year-olds do not or are not able to exercise rigorously.

What we learn from the longest living among us is that they generally make healthy diet and lifestyle choices, but they don’t obsess over them. Education, access to healthcare, and standard of living are clearly important components, but so are good marriages, friendships, and an active social life. Purpose and meaningful work also play a role. Communities, neighborhoods, and even climatic and geographic differences seem to contribute to longevity. In other words, it is not one thing or set of rules people who age well live by – but usually a whole package that fulfills their needs and lets them thrive over long periods of time.

We are witnessing an extraordinary growth of aging populations throughout the world, and the current trends will likely accelerate in the future. How we handle the challenges that come with longer life expectancy, demographic changes, age-related disease, and many others, depends on how well we understand the natural aging process and meet its demands. Extending the human life span further and further, just because our medical and pharmaceutical advances enable us to do so, may not be the best way to go – it may not even be the right way.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.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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