Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Natural, Organic, Ecological – What’s the Difference, Should You Care?

August 29th, 2011 at 5:41 pm by timigustafson
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If you are like me and get your produce as much as possible from your local farmers market, you probably expect to receive the best quality food money can buy. After all, you are going directly to the source where you can see, smell, touch and sample real food, just as nature made it.

The demand for “natural” food has steadily grown in the U.S. since the 1970s and is now at an all-time high. The underlying assumption is that “natural” is superior to processed, altered or packaged.

Food manufacturers and retailers love using terms that appeal to people’s longing for the real thing, even if it’s nothing of the kind. There is supposed to be 100% natural fruit- or vegetable juice in aluminum cans. Milk and cheese come from “happy” cows that are allowed to roam freely on luscious meadows. Eggs are laid by “free-ranging” chickens frolicking around the old farmhouse. Of course, much of this is mere fantasy, but it sells.

So, how can consumers really know what they are actually buying when labels say “all natural,” “organic” or “ecological”?

Unfortunately, many food products can be sold as “natural,” regardless whether the facts back up the claim or not. In the U.S., there is no legal definition of terms and phrases like “natural,” “100% natural,” “all natural ingredients,” etc. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually discourages food manufacturers from using these words because consumers may believe that “natural” is equal or even superior to “organic,” which is clearly not the case.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes the meaning of “natural” somewhat vaguely as food that has undergone “minimal processing,” which also excludes the use of artificial ingredients and added colors. But meat from animals that were treated with artificial hormones and that was injected with saline solution to add flavor may still be advertised as “natural,” to name just one example among countless others. In other words, the predicate “natural” is often not worth the shiny label it’s printed on.

By contrast, the term “organic” is clearly defined and highly regulated in most countries, although standards vary. Organic food production is a system that is managed in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) of 1990 by the USDA.

For food products to be certified “organic,” the producers have to comply with a number of strictly controlled conditions and processes, such as avoidance of synthetic chemicals and substances like fertilizers, pesticides, antibiotics, additives. The land on which “organic” plant foods are grown have to be free from prohibited synthetic chemicals for at least three years or more.

Also excluded are the uses of genetically modified organism, irradiation and biosolids. Certification for organic animal food products forbids the use of growth hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified feed or animal by-products in raising of livestock. Organic eggs have to come from chickens that are both cage-free and free-range.

“Organic” products have to be physically separated from their non-certified counterparts to avoid cross-pollution. Keeping detailed written production and sales records, including documentation of storage, processing, packaging and shipping is also required. Periodic on-site inspections are conducted to make sure that no violations occur.

In the U.S., for processed foods to be labeled “organic,” they must contain at least 95 percent organic ingredients. Products that have a minimum of 70 percent organic ingredients can use the label “contains organic ingredients.”

Principally, any business involved in food production can be certified “organic,” including seed suppliers, growers, food processors, retailers and even restaurants as long as they remain in compliance with the requirements. The certification process, however, is expensive and many small farm operators choose to forgo certification even if their practices meet or exceed those required by the USDA.

“Ecological” farming, a.k.a. “sustainable” agriculture is, like “natural,” a much less defined description. Generally speaking, “ecological” farming uses principles that are based on the desire to maintain harmonious relationships between food production and the environment. Central elements are sensible and prudent use of natural resources, such as soil, water and livestock; respect for biological cycles and controls; long-term economic viability of farm operations as well as enhancement of life for farmers and society as a whole.

The issue of “ecological” or “sustainable” agriculture was briefly addressed by congress in the 1990 farm bill, but not much has been done about it ever since. Private organizations like the Food Alliance and Protected Harvest have started to establish some standards and bestow their own certifications, which, of course, have no legal binding power.

So, the question for consumers remains: Is it worth buying foods that may be healthier, more trustworthy and kinder to the environment – but are often much more costly than their regular counterparts? There is no easy answer to that.

I personally try to eat as healthy as I can. To stay within a reasonable budget, I mostly buy locally grown foods when they are in season. Foods I eat raw, like fruits, carrots, tomatoes etc., I preferably buy “organic” to avoid exposure to pesticides. With produce I can wash, peel and cook, I feel comfortable using the regular kind. Animal products are another matter. I usually buy wild-caught fish (not farmed) and poultry that (I think) comes from reliable sources. Other than that, I have to trust that doing my best to shop smartly will more or less keep me out of harms way.

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 at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

Malnutrition During Childhood Can Cause Lifelong Health Problems

August 26th, 2011 at 5:28 pm by timigustafson
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Pediatricians in almost every part of the country report seeing undernourished children in greater numbers than at any time in recent memory. More and more parents who have fallen on hard times due to the ongoing economic downturn are unable to afford enough food to give to their kids. Entire families subsist on junk food and go hungry for several days each month, according to a survey conducted by researchers at Boston Medical Center (BMC).

“Before the economy soured in 2007, 12 percent of youngsters age 3 and under whose families were randomly surveyed in the hospital’s emergency department were significantly underweight. In 2010, that percentage jumped to 18 percent, and the tide does not appear to be abating,” said Dr. Megan Sandel, professor of pediatrics and public health at BMC and investigator with Children’s Health Watch, a network of researchers who track children’s health in the U.S. “Food is costing more and dollars don’t stretch as far. It’s hard to maintain a diet that is healthy,” she added.

Doctors at hospitals in Baltimore, Little Rock, Minneapolis and Philadelphia also reported dramatic increases in the ranks of malnourished kids that show up in their emergency rooms with nutrition-related health problems.

Nearly 40 million people, including 14 million children, are currently facing hunger or the risk of hunger in America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s surveys on domestic food security. 3.5 percent of American households experience hunger on a regular basis, meaning that families are forced to skip meals and go without food for entire days. Three million children live under these severe conditions. Another eight percent of households are affected by chronic food insecurity, which means they are periodically at risk of hunger, eat low-quality diets and depend heavily on outside help, such as food stamps and food banks. 10.5 million children live currently in this kind of situation.

When children experience hunger, even temporarily, it is a much more serious problem than when adults suffer from shortages. A lot of irreversible damage can be done when growing kids are deprived of essential nutrients. A recently published study on the exposure to famine and under-nutrition during childhood and adolescence found that serious health problems persist throughout adulthood among those who were exposed to malnutrition early in life. The study, which was conducted by researchers from the University Medical Centre Utrecht and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and published in the European Heart Journal, found “direct evidence that acute under-nutrition during childhood has an important impact on future health.”

For the study, the researchers investigated the medical history of almost 8,000 women who lived as children, teenagers or young adults during the so-called “Dutch famine” right at the end of World War II. “The Dutch famine of 1944 to 1945 is a ‘natural experiment’ in history, which gave us the unique possibility to study the long-term effects of acute under-nutrition during childhood,” wrote Dr. Annet van Abeelen from Utrecht, one of the lead authors of the study report. “Our findings suggest that a relatively short period of severe under-nutrition is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease in adult life, in a dose-dependent manner,” she added.

The women who were between 10 and 17 years old at the start of the famine, and who had been severely exposed to food shortages, were found to have a 38 percent higher risk of developing heart disease later in life, compared to others who were only moderately or not at all affected.

“The contemporary relevance of our findings is that famine and under-nutrition are still a major problem worldwide,” Dr. Abeelen wrote.

Depending on a child’s age, malnutrition can be extremely harmful both mentally and physically. Symptoms of nutritional deficiencies can include poor (stunted) growth of the brain and vital organs, mental retardation, muscle weakness, compromised immune system, fragile bone structure (rickets, osteoporosis), decaying teeth, delayed growth spurts and puberty, delayed menstrual cycle for young girls, and many chronic conditions, like asthma, anemia and pneumonia. A vast array of illnesses that develop later in life, like diabetes, heart disease and failure of key organs to function properly, can also be traced back to poor nutrition during childhood.

In other words, from a perspective of public health, the myriad effects of poverty and hunger on today’s children will stay with us for a very long time, possibly for a generation. Even proponents of austerity programs to reduce the national deficit acknowledge that cutting back on government spending on behalf of the most vulnerable members of society will make the current situation only worse. For the millions who already struggle to survive, shrinking the economy further is a recipe for disaster. In the end, we all will pay the price in terms of higher health care costs – just to keep a significant part of the population alive.

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 at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

Both Marriage and Divorce Can Cause Weight Gain

August 25th, 2011 at 12:18 pm by timigustafson
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After marriage, both men and women tend to gain some weight, but men tend to gain even more after divorce, according to a study that followed over 10,000 people to better understand the impact of people’s marital status on their health.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth – a biannual survey of men and women from 1986 to 2008 – researchers tracked the body mass index (BMI) of folks who were never married, were married or were divorced. The results showed that within two years of marriage most couple’s BMI values increased. But divorce also turned out to be a significant marker.

“After marriage, women will take care of their families and maybe eat the way their husband does or their children do,” said Dr. Zhenchao Qian, a sociology professor at Ohio State University and one of the lead authors of the study. The change in routine that comes with married life can trigger weight gain, at first more so for women than for men. “Men tend to be healthier after marriage in terms of diet,” said Dr. Qian.

With regards to their overall health, men clearly benefit from marriage. Married men are more likely to go for routine medical checkups and take better care of their health needs than bachelors. After divorce, however, things can quickly turn for the worse.

“Joy and grief are strong emotions that can lead to an increase or decrease in appetite,” said Susan Heitler, a marriage counselor and writer for poweroftwomarriage.com. “Newlyweds often gain small amounts of weight because they’re content. But in people who are newly divorced, depression can cause substantial weight gain,” she said.

Of course, there are other factors besides change of marital status that must be considered. Pregnancy, parenting, career changes, financial problems, aging and widowhood all leave their own mark on people’s health and wellbeing.

Interestingly enough, it doesn’t seem to get easier with age. On the contrary. People who get married and/or divorced while they are still young seem to be less affected by weight gain in response to their experiences. “Both marriages and divorces increase the risk of weight changes from about age 30 to 50, and the effect is stronger at later ages,” said Dmitry Tumin, a doctoral student in sociology at Ohio State University and co-author of the study. “As you get older, having a sudden change in your life like a marriage or a divorce is a bigger shock than it would have been when you were younger, and that can really impact your weight,” he added.

Weight gain affects relationships
Weight problems do not only affect people’s physical health but also their relationships. In a different study conducted at Cornell University, researchers found that physical appearance plays an especially significant role at the dating stage but also throughout marriage. According to the study, young normal-weight women are more willing to date overweight men than the other way around. Once married, overweight wives seem to be happier in their marriages than many normal-weight ones. Still, females tend to be more concerned about weight issues than males, regardless of marital status. At any age, men seem less tolerant of overweight partners and less comfortable in dating overweight people than women.

“While the population of this country – and the world for that matter – is getting fatter, ideals about body weight increasingly emphasize slimness. Society tends to reject obese individuals and subjects them to severe stigmatization and discrimination,” says Dr. Jeffrey Sobal, a nutritional sociologist at Cornell University who studies the sociology of obesity and one of the authors of the study, which was subsequently published in a book titled “Overweight and Weight Management” (ASPEN 1997).

While the study found that body weight was not associated with most aspects of marital quality, several connections were identified as significant. For instance, men who gained weight while they were married reported more marital problems than men who kept their weight down. By contrast, married women did not seem to be as affected by their weight changes.

“One theory about why obese women are happier with their marriages is related to recognizing their decreased value in the marriage market in a society that stigmatizes obesity. As a result, obese women are more likely to be satisfied with their current marital condition compared with opportunities for seeking a new partner. In other words, women appear to internalize and accept the negative assessments of their obesity [better than men],” the study concludes.

Weight gain and sex
While many women are concerned about losing their man because of weight issues, some also use sex to pressure their partners into weight loss. “Women often withhold sex as a weapon of last resort when their partners refuse to or don’t lose weight,” said Dr. Laura Triplett, a professor at California State University in Fullerton who conducts research on body image and social implications of physical appearance. She found that especially women in their 20s stop having sex with partners who don’t meet their expectations of what a man should look like.

It’s not just a matter of vanity or loss of respect when Mr. Right turns wrong because his waistline expands. “When men gain weight and become physically unattractive to their partner, what usually happens is the woman takes it much more as a sign that he doesn’t love her. Women tend to personalize things, said Mary Jo Rapini, a psychotherapist specializing in intimacy and sexuality at the Methodist Weight Management Center in Houston, TX. “At one point, women feel like their partners don’t care,” she said.

Women are not all that different from men when it comes to aesthetics, according to Veronica Monet, a sexologist who does research in relationship dynamics. “It’s great that women are realizing that we are also visual creatures and that we are sexually stimulated by what we see and that we have the right to ask our partners to gift us with the benefit of good grooming and regular visits to the gym. But any time we threaten our partners with withholding sex or love, whether we are male or female, we take the relationship in a negative direction.”

Instead, she suggests, couple should share their feelings and talk frankly about weight problems with one another. “It’s extremely important to avoid negative statements, name-calling or accusations,” Monet said. “Ultimately, you have to realize that your overweight partner is only going to lose weight when he [or she] wants to.”

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 at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

Why Bill Clinton Became a Vegetarian

August 22nd, 2011 at 1:36 pm by timigustafson
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As the 42nd president of the United States, Bill Clinton has changed positions a few times before. But that the man who famously favored fast food for breakfast and countless other occasions has turned to veganism is a noteworthy shift.

In a highly publicized interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon and frequent anchor/correspondent at CNN, Clinton said that he now considers himself a devout vegan and abstains from eating meat, dairy products, eggs and most oils. The main reason for his adherence to a strictly plant-based diet is to slow down the progression of heart disease, which has plagued the former president for quite some time.

“I essentially concluded that I had played Russian roulette,” Clinton said in the interview, “because even though I had changed my diet some and cut down on the calorie total of my ingestion and cut back on much of the cholesterol in the food I was eating, I still […] was taking in a lot of extra cholesterol. So that’s when I made a decision to really change.”

In 2004, four years after leaving office, the 58-year old Clinton had to undergo quadruple bypass surgery to restore blood flow to his heart. “I was lucky I did not die of a heart attack,” he told Dr. Gupta. But last year, he needed another heart procedure, having two stents implanted to re-open one of the veins from his bypass surgery. After consulting with his physicians, Clinton realized that moderate diet- and lifestyle changes were just not enough to keep his disease from further progressing. More radical steps were required – measures that actually could help reverse some of the damage that had already been done.

Two of the president’s medical advisors are Dr. Dean Ornish, director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, who directs the cardiovascular prevention and reversal program at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. Both doctors are strong advocates for a plant-based diet to prevent and, in many cases, reverse the damage from heart disease.

If you consider following a similar dietary regimen, you need to know that keeping to a strict vegan diet is easier planned than done. “‘Vegan’ is not a synonym for ‘healthy,’” said Dawn Jackson Blatner, a registered dietitian and author of “The Flexitarian Diet.” It’s a common mistake among newbie vegans to remove meat from their diets without knowing how to add sufficient amounts of complete plant-based proteins.

According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), a strictly vegetarian diet can be healthy, but vegetarians, and especially vegans, need to make sure they’re getting enough of the important nutrients that are mostly present in animal food products. A vegan diet (the strictest form of vegetarianism) may lead to an increased risk of deficiency in vitamin B12, vitamin B2, calcium, iron and zinc. Some of this can be avoided by taking supplements.

A particular challenge for vegans is access to high-quality protein. Only animal- and soy proteins are considered “complete” proteins because they contain all the essential amino acids the human body requires. Amino acids are the building blocks that make up protein. Plant foods, such as grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, are “incomplete” because they lack one or more of these essential amino acids.

Fortunately, vegans can make up for the missing nutrients by taking a mix and match approach. For instance, grains consumed with legumes (beans, peas) make complete proteins. So do combinations of vegetables and legumes, vegetables and nuts as well as grains and nuts. Because amino acids stay in the blood stream for several hours, complementary proteins don’t have to be eaten all at once but can be stretched over several meals throughout the day.

A healthful vegan diet should more or less look like a healthy non-vegan one, according to Blatner. “The plate should be about half veggies and fruits, a quarter whole grains and a quarter protein. And vegans should be sure to include healthful fats like guacamole, nut butter or tahini dressing in their diets,” she said.

Also, keeping tabs on calories is still a must. You can gain too much weight from any kind of food if you overindulge. Surely, the president has been reminded of that little fact, too.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also be interested in reading “Vegan Nation,” “Are Vegetarians at Higher Risk for Iron Deficiency?” and “Strictly Vegetarian, Too Radical?

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 at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD


Watching Too Much TV Can Kill You

August 19th, 2011 at 1:02 pm by timigustafson
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Spending excessive amounts of time in front of the tube has long been considered a factor for weight gain. But now researchers in Australia say there’s evidence that watching TV can shorten your lifespan.

For every hour spent sitting and watching TV after the age of 25, your life expectancy falls by approximately 22 minutes, according to a just released study. That means that if you watch six hours a day – not an uncommon habit – you shave off around five years of your life. By comparison, smoking after the age of 50 cuts you short 11 minutes for every cigarette or four years in total.

So, is watching TV deadlier than smoking? Not quite, said Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine. “The harms of TV are almost certainly indirect. The more time we spend watching TV, the more time we spend eating mindlessly in front of the TV, and the less time we spend being physically active. More eating and less physical activity, in turn, mean greater risk for obesity, and the chronic diseases it tends to anticipate, notably diabetes, heart disease and cancer.”

There is also the argument to be made that people who spend much of their time at home with nothing else to do than surfing the channels are often lonely, isolated and depressed, which are all factors that can contribute to premature mortality, according to Dr. Katz.

For the study, which was published in the “Journal of the American Heart Association,” the researchers analyzed data on thousands of Australians aged 25 and older from a national diabetes-, obesity- and lifestyle survey that also included information about the people’s TV watching habits.

Critics of the report caution that the researchers have only shown an association between the amounts of time people spend watching TV and their lifespan but not a cause and effect relationship. Others have pointed out that it doesn’t really make a difference whether you sit in front of a TV, a computer, or a lazy-boy chair reading a book. It’s our sedentary lifestyle that makes us sick. We sit in our cars commuting, sit in the office all day and then sit down and relax at home. Humans are not made for this kind of lifestyle and the negative consequences are becoming more and more obvious. The answer is exercise and more exercise.

“There is increasing evidence that the amount of time spent in sedentary activity […] may adversely impact health,” said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a cardiologist at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Staying active and reducing time spent sedentary may be of benefit in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and may be considered as part of a comprehensive approach to improve cardiovascular health,” he added.

In an unrelated study, Taiwanese researchers found that people who exercise as little as 15 minutes per day, can reduce their risk of dying from cancer by 10 percent. That gives them a three-year longer life expectancy over those who don’t exercise at all.

A 30-minute daily exercise routine, which is widely considered a healthy regimen, would be more desirable, but not all people can fit that in their busy days. “Finding a slot of 15 minutes is much easier than finding a 30 minute slot in most days of the week,” said Dr. Chi-Pang Wen of Taiwan’s National Health Research Institute, who is the lead author of the study. The best impact comes from the first 15 minutes and they can be “very beneficial,” according to Dr. Wen. His research also found that every additional 15 minutes of exercise per day can reduce the risk of cancer by another one percent. (The study report was published in the medical journal “The Lancet.”)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults get no less than 150 minutes moderate to intensive aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. (Moderate aerobic activities can include brisk walking or climbing stairs, while vigorous training involves running, jogging, long-distance swimming or bicycling and the likes.)

“There are a myriad number of ways we can engineer exercise into our lives,” said Dr. Paul Thomson, director of the Athlete’s Heart Program at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. It’s the little things that add up and make a real difference in the long run. He recommends taking the stairs instead of using the elevator, parking at a far corner of the parking lot instead of the closest spot, or mowing the lawn on weekends instead of hiring someone else to do it. All it takes is a little imagination and the will to follow through.

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

Even Going on Vacation Can Be Scary

August 19th, 2011 at 12:55 pm by timigustafson
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Americans used to take time off and kick back during the summer months. Not so any more. In bad economic times, many people are too afraid to leave the workplace for a few weeks or even just a few days.

Those who already feel apprehensive about their job security don’t want to take any unnecessary chances. Especially when many businesses undergo downsizing or restructuring, employees are extremely hesitant to leave work behind. For some, it can be more stressful to be absent from the office than to stay put. “People are worried that a temporary vacation could lead to permanent time off,” wrote Cindy Goodman, a business columnist at the Miami Herald. “The people who still have a job are really feeling overwhelmed and overworked. But they’re afraid to take vacations […] at a time when they need them more than ever.”

Not all employees actually believe they would be fired for using their hard-earned vacation time. But many do fear that the company could come to consider their position as redundant, that co-workers could sabotage their projects or take otherwise advantage of their absence, or that important decisions could be made without their knowledge and input, among other concerns.

Many older workers still think of vacations as a luxury that does not sit well with their conservative work ethic. There is a long-held belief that working harder than anyone else is what has made America great. And then, of course, there are the hard-charging, never-tiring, always-doing-what-it-takes workaholics who think that taking breaks is only for sissies. “Forfeiting vacations can be a ‘macho thing,’ said Mitchell Lee Marks, a psychologist, management consultant and president of JoiningForces.org, a consulting firm in San Francisco.

Today, the U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not have labor laws that include minimum leave. The European Union, for example, requires that all workers take a minimum of four weeks vacation time every year. Many member states exceed that mandate. Those numbers are unfathomable for most Americans.

Expedia.com, a travel reservation company, conducted a survey that compared the vacation habits of citizens around the world. According to this research, 34 percent of Americans don’t take the full vacation time they earn each year. By contrast, only 22 percent of French and 24 percent of German workers don’t use up their allotted time. Only the Japanese vacation less than we do – just 8 percent take off every day they’re owed.

There are multiple reasons why Americans are less inclined to enjoy their holidays. “In countries where vacation time is mandated by law, it’s not something that people think about in terms of their relationship with their employer,” said Jennifer Schramm, a manager at the Society for Human Resource Management, an organization that serves human resources professionals. “In the U.S., our vacation allotment is part of the employment relationship. Given that our paid leave is closely tied to our relationship to our employer, our willingness to take advantage of it is likelier to change in response to external factors, especially the economy or the job market,” she added.

That doesn’t mean that workers here would not like more paid time off than they are getting from their jobs – if they get any at all. Survey after survey has shown that Americans are dying to have more quality time for themselves and their families, even if it would mean a cut in pay.

Still, “sacrificing your vacation won’t necessarily save your job,” said Joe Robinson, author of “Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life,” who is also an advocate for a federal paid-leave law. “I talked to a woman who worked at a company for 25 years and had five or six weeks of paid leave. She only used three, four or five days a year – and she got laid off like everyone else. This does not insulate you from layoffs. It does leave you wondering why you gave up your life,” said Robinson.

Even those who dare to venture off once in a while don’t always know how to separate themselves entirely from their work place. Many workers find it unthinkable to leave their laptops and smart phones permanently switched off during vacations. “Because of modern technology, it has become almost impossible to completely disengage ourselves from the office,” said Daniel H. Pink, author of “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.” “The border between what is work and what is personal is more porous than ever. Whereas the transition from working to going on vacation used to be like an on-off switch, it’s now more of a dimmer switch.”

Not everyone thinks that “working vacations” are a good idea. “Workers who don’t take vacations hurt themselves and their companies,” said Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of “The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World.” “Overworked employees get sick more often and place themselves at risk for long-term illnesses, such as heart disease. Companies suffer because their employees are too tired or ill to be productive.”

Today, many companies understand better the importance of a health-promoting work environment and establish their policies accordingly. But often it is easier to make structural changes than to overcome the habits of individuals. If people don’t know how to silence their inner taskmaster once in a while, encouraging flexibility and offering more options won’t be enough. For many, it’s a cultural issue, or perhaps it’s generational, according to Dan Ryan, head of a business consulting firm in Nashville, Tennessee. “I’m a baby boomer… and I’m accustomed to working. My kids have a different perspective. They’re more likely to take a vacation,” he said. Well, as they say, you can teach even an old dog new tricks.

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

Sleep Apnea Linked to Memory Loss and Dementia

August 13th, 2011 at 2:48 pm by timigustafson
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People who suffer from sleep apnea are at a high risk of developing memory problems and dementia as they get older, according to a recent study by the University of California, San Francisco and California Medical Center.

Sleeping disorders, and sleep apnea in particular, have long been associated with dementia, but this is the first time researchers have suggested that sleep problems may actually contribute to the development of cognitive impairment as we age.

For the study, a team of scientists followed almost 300 women in their early eighties for an average period of five years. At the outset, all participants tested normal in terms of cognitive abilities. The researchers found that the women who were diagnosed with sleep apnea were twice as likely to develop memory decline and other symptoms of dementia.

Although this particular study involved only women, there is no reason to believe that the results won’t apply to men as well. The disorder affects between 10 and 20 percent of middle-aged and older adults in the U.S., according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Sleep apnea causes sufferers to literally stop breathing while they’re asleep, sometimes hundreds of times a night. The reason is blockage of the airways. Consequently, blood oxygenation levels fall lower and lower until the body wakes up and normal breathing is resumed again – but only for a while. Typically, the person does not fully awake and is not aware that this is happening.

For their tests, the researchers looked at a number of specific factors connected with sleep apnea, including oxygen flow during sleep, duration of sleep and frequency of interruptions throughout the night. The risk of developing dementia appeared to be directly linked to the amount of time the women experienced a decrease of oxygen flow – not to the hours of sleep they had or the number of sleep interruptions they went through.

“The findings indicate that people with sleep apnea should be screened for cognitive problems,” said Dr. Kristine Yaffe, professor of psychiatry, neurology and epidemiology and lead author of the report that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Although additional research is required, the study has already been acknowledged as an important step toward a better understanding of the seriousness of sleep apnea and the need for more effective treatment. “It makes sense that good sleep is going to be protective to the brain,” said Dr. Robert Thomas of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, who is an expert on the subject but was not involved in this study.

The most common way to treat sleep apnea is to force oxygen up a patient’s airways to prevent blockage with the help of a device that is placed in the mouth, a.k.a. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP). Unfortunately, not everyone gets easily used to this procedure.

The disease affects often people who are overweight or have heart- and blood pressure problems. “There is only one cure for apnea so far we’ve found, and this is weight loss,” said Dr. Seva Polotsky, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Aside from the issue of effective treatment, the study also gives rise to questions about the importance of sleep for both physical and mental health. The problem is that we don’t really understand yet what sleep does for us. “There is quite a broad consensus that supports the notion that memories are consolidated during sleep. But obviously the field is still not clear about what the mechanisms for memory formation are,” said Dr. Luis de Lecea, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University in California, who studies sleep disorders and their effects on memory and other brain functions in lab animals. “The new research shows a much more dramatic effect from sleep disorders than simple memory loss. Cognitive impairment is a whole different ballgame,” he added.

Of course, treating sleep apnea does not prevent all age-related decline of cognitive functions. But these latest results could change how the medical profession views the importance of sleep for both physical and mental health in general. The hope is that early diagnosis and effective treatment of chronic sleep disorders could at least help to slow down the spreading development of dementia as the average life expectancy continues to rise.

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

The Older, the Merrier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not All Healthy Foods Let You Lose Weight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healthy Eating Is Too Expensive for Most Americans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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