Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Food Industry Works Hard to Improve Its Tarnished Image

June 28th, 2014 at 10:59 am by timigustafson
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Some leading food and beverage companies have announced new measures to improve their industry’s reputation and win back the trust of consumers. For example, advertising of unhealthy junk food to minors is scheduled to be phased out within this decade, and less confusing food labeling is also in the works, according to Consumer Goods Forum (CGF), an international network organization for hundreds of retailers and manufacturers that just held its annual summit in Paris, France.

“The consumer goods industry acknowledges its role in the health and wellness of society, the issues around it, and the imperative need for actions. We have to scale up our efforts. We have to accelerate existing initiatives. We have to engage in multi-stakeholder dialogues and efforts,” said Paul Bulcke, the C.E.O. of Nestle, one of the world’s biggest food and drink manufacturers at the meeting. “We need to show [consumers] we are a responsive and responsible industry, now more than ever,” he added.

Besides working towards greater protection of children and more user-friendly labeling, the CGF also called for the industry to increase awareness of the impact modern food production has on the environment such as greenhouse gas emission and deforestation, and to employ effective countermeasures.

At the center of criticism directed at food companies is, of course, the obesity crisis that keeps worsening around the globe. Processed food products that are high in sugar, salt and fat content are seen as leading causes of health problems such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.

While it would be most desirable if manufacturers made healthier foods – the kinds people used to eat – the problem is that real food isn’t really profitable, said Mark Bittman, a food writer for the New York Times. By processing food, instead of selling it in its natural state, companies are able to “add value,” not necessarily for consumers but for retailers who can warehouse and shelf them almost endlessly. For example, potatoes may rot within weeks, but chips last forever; fresh bread may go stale overnight, but the enriched varieties remain soft almost indefinitely. Unfortunately, extending shelf life and reducing spoilage makes processed foods not only more profitable but also much inferior, if not outright harmful, in terms of their nutritional quality.

It would be naïve to think the industry would be willing to abandon the business practices it so successfully developed over many decades only because the public has become more concerned over health issues in connection with their products.

“Food companies are well aware of the health crisis their products cause, and recognize that the situation is unsustainable,” Bittman said. “But […] as long as even one of the big food companies remains cynical and uncaring about its market, they all must remain so.”

And yet, there are changes happening behind the scenes and put in place without much fanfare, even though they are somewhat revolutionary. For instance, industry giants like Nestle and General Mills have begun reducing sugar content in cereals and beverages without publicly saying so, according to reports by the Wall Street JournalRestaurant chains from Applebee’s to Starbucks include more and more low-calorie options in their menus. And both manufacturers and restaurant operators are making what they call “stealth health” modifications in their recipes, from cookies to fast food favorites, cutting back on salt and fat and finding alternatives to maintain taste.

The companies proceed with these changes gradually and even secretly because they don’t always know how far they can go without loosing customers. Later on, if they succeed in reformulating their products to people’s liking, they then can put out additional health claims, expand their market shares, and polish their image, said Julie Jargon, a food writer for the Wall Street Journal who follows these trends.

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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).

Convenience Is No Longer a Priority in Consumers’ Food Choices

June 25th, 2014 at 11:10 am by timigustafson
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People used to spend as little time as possible on their grocery shopping. Most supermarkets could satisfy whatever nutritional needs a typical family had. But that get-it-all-done-in-one-stop experience may no longer be as important as it once was. Although their daily lives remain as busy as ever, if not more so, today’s consumers increasingly diversify their food sources.

A new study by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an advocacy group for the food retail industry, found that for a growing part of the population, the “primary store” now gives way to any number of smaller specialty places. Also, in many households there is no longer a “primary shopper,” meaning that more than one person makes shopping decisions.

“The grocery industry in the U.S. is undergoing some of the most dramatic changes since supermarkets emerged in the 1940s,” says Hayley Peterson, a retail reporter for Business Insider. “Whereas a single store once served all of shoppers’ food and beverage needs, consumers are now buying groceries across more than a dozen retail channels.”

Why the changes? Obviously, spreading out one’s shopping list over several outlets is less convenient and more time-consuming. To be sure, surveys find that the vast majority of food shoppers still go to traditional supermarkets and supercenters for staples, but they can’t always find the precise mix of value, quality, and private label brands they are looking for, according to market researchers, says Peterson. Especially private label groceries are rapidly gaining in popularity and are projected to grow by over 60 percent to $133 billion in annual sales by 2016, up from $83 billion in 2008.

Private labels can be cheaper, although not reliably, compared to their national brand counterparts, but price is not the only reason for their greater acceptance. Most consumers believe – justifiably or not – that smaller labels offer higher quality and better value, according to one report.

But it’s freshness that is the main driver for consumers in deciding where to shop, says Peterson. People who are suspicious of processed and genetically modified foods and want to know where their food comes from will seek out outlets that make them feel safe with their choices. For this, they are not only willing to pay higher prices, they also go (or drive) the extra mile to get what they want.

“It’s no secret that health and wellness have become key drivers of today’s food culture,” says Maggie Hennessy, a senior correspondent for FoodNavigator-USA in Chicago. “For a growing number of consumers, health is equated with less processed. Indeed, many have become savvy readers of product labels, avoiding foods that contain preservatives, chemicals, long or unpronounceable ingredient lists and artificial sounding ingredients.”

As they face these shifts in consumer demands, food manufacturers and retailers of all sizes would do well to take these trends seriously and respond accordingly.

“By increasing selection of and calling attention to locally sourced products, retailers can leverage the value of fresh foods and quality products to build trust and demonstrate that they understand and match up with consumer values,” Hennessy advises.

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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).

A Healthy Lifestyle Protects Best Against Stroke, Study Finds

June 20th, 2014 at 6:04 pm by timigustafson
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Of course, you knew already that you should eat right, exercise regularly, not smoke, and not drink too much alcohol. Now a new study from Germany found even more evidence that you are well advised to follow these guidelines. In fact, your life could depend on it. Among countless other health benefits, people who maintain a healthy lifestyle have a significantly reduced risk of stroke, the study concluded.

stroke occurs when one of the arteries carrying blood from the heart to the brain is either blocked or bursts. As a result, part of the brain does not get the blood it needs, and starts to die. When this happens, the brain either temporarily or permanently malfunctions, depending on the severity of the damage that has been caused.

While previous studies honed in on individual risk factors for stroke, this one looked at the effects of an overall health-promoting lifestyle. Conversely, by analyzing the combined risks from less health-conducive behavior, a more complete picture emerges of what may actually lead to a stroke and how it could be prevented, the researchers suggested.

After reviewing medical data from nearly 24,000 people, and analyzing each person’s stroke-related risk factors, the researchers found that improving diet and lifestyle choices could significantly lower the number of strokes that occur every year.

“Our combined risk factor analysis indicated that about 38 percent of primary stroke occurrences could have been prevented in our study population if all study participants had maintained the healthiest risk profile,” said Kaja Tikk, an epidemiologist at the Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg, Germany, and lead author of the study report, to Reuters.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 800,000 people suffer a stroke per year in the United States alone.

The most significant contributors to stroke-related risks were found to be smoking and weight problems. Fortunately, these are areas in their lives where people have a great deal of control, said Ms. Tikk. Weight loss and smoking cessation can be done successfully by the individual, and taking such steps has almost immediate benefits.

For instance, while smoking effectively doubles the risk of stroke compared to not smoking, most ex-smokers can return to risk levels similar to lifetime non-smokers after a relatively short period of time.

The same is true for weight loss. Staying within (or returning to) a normal weight range, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly to keep the weight off rank among the best measures for stroke prevention, according to the CDC.

In terms of healthcare, prevention of stroke should be considered a priority. And, as this study shows, it can be achieved by maintaining a healthy lifestyle pattern, Ms. Tikk said.

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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).

Kids Gain More Weight When Out of School, Study Finds

June 18th, 2014 at 11:34 am by timigustafson
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The summer months should be a time when children are especially active, play sports, enjoy the outdoors, and perhaps even eat better because there are more occasions for family dinners. In other words, it should be a time when they are their healthiest. Not so, a new study found. In fact, it is during school vacations that many kids put on extra pounds, according to scientists from Harvard University who took a closer look at the phenomenon.

For their research, they analyzed several studies on weight gain among children ages 5 to 17, and found on average a faster rate of weight increase during vacation times compared to the rest of the school year.

Most vulnerable were youngsters who already struggled with weight issues. Their weight accelerated the fastest while they were out of school.

Obviously, there are no simple answers to why this is happening, said Rebecca Franckle, a doctoral student and research assistant at Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the study report, to HealthDay Reporter.

It’s possible that children have more opportunities to be sedentary while they stay at home. Especially kids who live in unsafe neighborhoods may be spending more time watching TV or playing video games. Or perhaps, it’s a lack of structure when they are not having classes and other activities, and they get bored, passing the time with snacking. Lack of supervision in the daytime hours may also play a role.

The researchers noted that weight gain took place more predominantly among poor minority children.

“There may be a trend in increased rate of weight gain during summer school vacation, particularly for high-risk groups, including certain racial/ethnic populations and overweight children and adolescents,” wrote Ms. Franckle in her report.

Although the nutritional quality of school breakfasts and lunches has often been the target of criticism, for many poor children those are the only substantial meals available to them all day. During vacations, that security net is absent. Fast food and snack items are oftentimes the only alternatives, which, of course, is detrimental to their health.

Without greater access to recreational facilities, physical activity programs, and summer food programs, the resulting weight gain may further exacerbate health disparities between poor children and their better-off peers, Ms. Franckle suggested.

The effects of these trends are serious. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity rates have more than doubled among children and quadrupled among adolescents in the United States over the past 30 years. One third of children and teenagers are now overweight or obese.

Recent studies found that serious health complications can come from weight problems at young ages, including diabetesheart disease, and liver damage. It will take enormous efforts on behalf of the youngest victims of the obesity crisis to turn these developments around.

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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).

Diabetes – Easily Preventable Yet Tragically Unstoppable

June 13th, 2014 at 4:29 pm by timigustafson
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 29 million Americans suffer from diabetes today, an increase of more than 10 percent since 2010 when the agency issued its last report. The actual numbers may still be higher because a quarter of all diabetics don’t even know they have the disease, according to the survey. Other research predicts that more than half of the U.S. population will be affected by the end of this decade.

Worldwide, the statistics are equally as discouraging. The World Health Organization (WHO) thinks that globally nearly 350 million people have diabetes. The vast majority of those, about 80 percent, live in low- and middle-income countries. The disease is projected to be the seventh leading cause of death by 2030.

Alarmingly, more and more people develop diabetes at a younger age. 1.7 million Americans aged 20 years and older, and nearly a quarter of a million children and adolescents, have been newly diagnosed in 2012 alone, according to the CDC study. A whopping 86 million adults have pre-diabetes, meaning they are at an elevated risk of getting sick in the near future. Minorities, including African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, seem especially vulnerable.

In 2012, treating diabetes and related health complications accounted for $245 billion in medical costs and lost work and wages. Overall productivity loss could be much higher and reach well over one trillion, the researchers suggest.

Diabetes is an illness that occurs when the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin, or when the body cannot effectively use the insulin it produces. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood sugar. If untreated, diabetes can lead to hyperglycemia, chronically elevated blood sugar, which can cause irreversible damage to blood vessels and nerves, and, in advanced stages, result in loss of limb and blindness.

There are two kinds of diabetes. One is called Type 1 diabetes, an insulin deficiency that is usually linked to a damaged pancreas and is not considered preventable. The other, Type 2 diabetes, results from ineffective use of insulin, and is presumably acquired through diet and lifestyle. It is often seen in connection with weight problems. The vast majority of diabetes cases is of this type.

While the occurrence of Type 2 diabetes is mainly blamed on poor diet choices, overeating, and sedentary lifestyle, it is less clear why the disease has been spreading so fast and even seems to accelerate. Experts warn that unless we succeed in implementing more effective countermeasures, we won’t be able to stop this looming pandemic.

“We need a sense of urgency,” said Dr. Dennen Vojta, a senior vice president of the UnitedHealth Center for Health Reform and Modernization in Minneapolis to WebMD. “There is a lot of money and human suffering at stake. The good news is that we know what works, and if we work together in a concerted national way, we can win.”

But what would such concerted action entail? Past attempts have been less than encouraging. For example, proposals to raise taxes on fast food and sugary beverages, which are known to contribute to weight problems, or posting warning labels and detailed nutritional information on such items have not gone far in most places, despite of growing support among consumers.

The tragedy of it all is that we have at least some answers to these problems, but are – for whatever reasons – unable or unwilling to apply them. Soon enough, the consequences of today’s inaction will become overwhelming.

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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).

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).

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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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