Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

The Many Health Benefits of Yoga

September 9th, 2011 at 7:35 am by timigustafson
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Yoga has been practiced around the world for thousands of years. Between 12 and 15 million Americans do it regularly and swear by its numerous benefits for their health and well-being. Followers practice at home or join classes for pure relaxation.

Most yoga styles focus on physical poses, called “asanas.” They also include breathing techniques and forms of meditation. There are other versions that teach you to move your body in unfamiliar ways. These are meant to build greater flexibility, strength and balance.

Now, researchers are finding that there may be many more health benefits in connection with yoga than previously thought. One small study involving 123 middle-aged and older adults concluded that diabetic yoga practitioners might be able to control their blood sugar levels better than their non-practicing counterparts. The study results were published in the journal “Diabetes Care.”

The researchers said they did not mean to suggest that yoga should be considered as an alternative to traditional treatments of diabetes, such as weight loss and medical blood sugar control. “To really lose weight and rein in blood sugar, more vigorous exercise would work better,” wrote Dr. Shreelaxmi V. Hedge of the Shrinivas Institute of Medical Science and Research Center in Mangalore, India and leader of the study. Still, she said, “it should be noted that yoga controlled the blood sugar levels, which otherwise rose in the [non-yoga-practicing] control group.”

The yoga style her research was based on is a relatively “gentle” version among yoga practices. It was chosen because it is easy to get into. Some more vigorous styles involving complicated poses would not be appropriate for older adults and those with chronic health conditions, according to Dr. Hedge.

In fact, a lot of people shy away from taking up yoga because they consider themselves as too old, too stiff and too unfit to perform even the most basic poses. Yoga instructors generally disagree with such preconceptions. The consensus is that nobody is ever too old or too out of shape to improve flexibility.

Stretching releases the lactic acid built up in the muscles, which can cause stiffness, tension, pain and fatigue. It also increases the range of motion in the joints and promotes their lubrication. This results in more ease and fluidity throughout the body. Yoga stretches do not only benefit the muscles and joints but all tissues in the body, including ligaments, tendons and the fascia sheath that surround the muscles.

More rigorous yoga styles are focused on building muscle mass. They are called “ashtanga” or “power yoga.” But even tamer versions, such as “Iyengar” or “hatha,” which are designed to achieve optimal alignments in their poses, can help improve strength and endurance. Poses that strengthen the lower back and abdominal muscles are especially helpful for people who spend many hours sitting. More strength and flexibility afford better posture, which counterbalances the potential damages from extended immobility.

Perhaps the most studies on the benefits of yoga have been conducted with regards to its effect on heart health. Practicing yoga is highly recommended as a non-medical tool to help lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. Again, it is not to be taken as an alternative to other forms of hypertension- or heart disease treatment but as a useful support element.

The same goes for measures to control cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Studies have shown that yoga helped lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and improve blood circulation in patients with cardiovascular disease. Some hospitals have incorporated yoga into their post-cardiac rehabilitation program.

There is also evidence that yoga helps to release antioxidant agents into the blood stream. In Dr. Hedge’s study, participants who practiced yoga suffered significantly less from what is called “oxidative stress,” a condition that is caused by molecules, also know as “free radicals,” that damage cells and contribute to a host of diseases. “Yoga may curb oxidative stress because it stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system – the part of the nervous system that acts as a brake against the gas pedal of the sympathetic nervous system,” said Dr. Hedge.

The calming effects of yoga are certainly among its best-known qualities. Even beginners and infrequent practitioners appreciate the anti-stress benefits. Some say that doing yoga exercises in the morning improves their mood and ability to concentrate for the rest of the day. Others claim that they have been able to overcome addictions and improve their lives in countless more aspects, including in the bedroom.

Needless to say, there is little chance to scientifically prove the validity of all these assertions. What matters more is that people experience a sense of well-being when they engage in the practice. “Yoga helps reduce stress. That can impact your overall health,” said Dr. Deepak Chopra, world-renowned author of wellness books and advocate of alternative medicine. “While yoga won’t cure everything that ails you – or make your boss nicer – it will help you deal with stress better. And that could make a big difference,” he added.

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

“MyPlate” – The First 100 Days

September 7th, 2011 at 12:14 pm by timigustafson
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It’s been almost a hundred days since the government released the latest update of its Dietary Guidelines. For the last thirty years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have jointly given their recommendations for healthy eating to the American public – obviously without much success.

Today, weight problems are affecting two thirds of the American population. Obesity rates have skyrocketed from 15 percent to well over 30 percent. Just by looking at these numbers, it is obvious that the government’s efforts to improve our eating habits have been a dismal failure.

In June 2011, the traditional “Food Pyramid” was replaced with a new icon, named “MyPlate,” which supposedly resembles a dinner plate divided in four segments of various sizes. Each part is dedicated to a different food group: Vegetables, fruits, grains and protein as well as a serving of dairy products on the side.

So far, reactions have been mixed. Many nutrition experts have praised the simplicity of the graphic, which they believe will make the guidelines more intelligible and user-friendly than its predecessors. Others have criticized it as too simplistic to explain the intricacies of important dietetic principles. All of this may be true, however, the main question should be: Are consumers better off than they were with the older versions – or without following any of the government’s guidelines for that matter?

A great deal of attention was given this time to the “primary suspects” that most likely cause Americans to get fatter and fatter. Added sugars in sodas and processed foods belong to this group of offenders. So do fats, solid (butter) or liquid (oils). Sodium (salt) is seen as a major culprit, not only for weight gain but more so for high blood pressure and heart problems. Portion sizes are also of great concern. Americans do not only eat badly, they also eat way too much, the guidelines conclude.

So, the “MyPlate” recommendations call for a radical departure from all that. Forget the meat and potato diet of generations past. Instead, we are urged to eat at least five servings of vegetables, four servings of fruit, three cups of low-fat dairy products and six ounces of whole grains every day. Besides cutting back on fat, salt and sugar, we also better not indulge too much in alcohol and caffeine. Exercise, on the other hand, is something we can never get enough of: A minimum of 30 minutes daily is a must (60 to 90 minutes would be ideal).

Sounds good. But is it realistic? Considering our busy lifestyles and – with food prices constantly rising – our budget constraints, can the government seriously expect that people are willing or even able to follow its advice?

“I think there’s a risk of these guidelines setting people up for failure,” said Dr. Annette Dickinson, president of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association of dietary supplement manufacturers. “We know that people already aren’t doing what the last guidelines said. Yet these are more stringent. It is good to have a goal to shoot for. But this is just not a real-life solution.”

People don’t change their eating habits because somebody tells them to. For most of us, it takes a heart attack to get us thinking about our diet, according to Mark Bittman, a New York Times columnist and author of the book “How to Cook Everything.” “I couldn’t follow those guidelines. I look at [them] and I’m going to adapt to as many of them as I can. But am I going to let this stuff scare me and run my life? Not unless I have to,” said Bittman.

Someone who famously changed his diet in radical ways is former president Bill Clinton. As he stated himself in a highly publicized interview with neurosurgeon and part-time CNN anchor/commentator Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Clinton decided to become a strict vegetarian to better control his heart disease. For people like him, eating right is a matter of life and death. But that’s an extreme situation. For the rest of us, there must be room for some flexibility, according to Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD, director of nutrition for WebMD Health.

“Start where you are today and look toward guidelines as goals. If you are eating one serving of vegetables, eat two or three. If you are not exercising, 90 minutes a day is too much. Take baby steps. Make the changes in your lifestyle that help you incorporate some of these recommendations a little at a time,” said Zelman.

Bittman recommends a similar strategy. Seeing the larger picture of your nutritional needs is more important than following the recommendations to the letter, he said. “Set a rough limit for yourself. Be aware of the calories in different kinds of food, but don’t get obsessed counting them. Say, I’m going to try to eat two cups each of vegetables and fruit every day and a cup or two of whole grains every day. Even if you get 600 calories from a Big Mac and 450 calories from a medium order of fries, if the rest of your day’s diet were broccoli and apples and bulgur, you wouldn’t be that bad off.”

So, here are your more workable guidelines: Eat your burger or steak once in a while, if you must. But then make sure you’re getting plenty of the healthy stuff for balance. And that workout schedule? Stop putting it off.

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

Anti-Soda Campaigns Make Progress Despite of Pushback from Beverage Industry

September 2nd, 2011 at 12:47 pm by timigustafson
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Sodas add hundreds of calories a day to the typical American diet, according to a new government investigation. Over half of all Americans drink varying amounts of sugary beverages on most days. Adults consume daily an average of 336 calories from sodas and kids are not far behind.

These are the findings of a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as part of its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which is widely acknowledged among experts as the gold standard for evaluating food- and beverage-related consumer habits. The results are based on over 17,000 interviews between 2005 and 2008.

“Sugar-sweetened beverages are the number one single source of calories in the American diet and account for about half of all added sugars that people consume,” said Dr. Rachel Johnson, a nutrition expert at the University of Vermont, speaking on behalf of the American Heart Association (AHA). The association advises that people should consume not more than 36 ounces or about 450 calories from sugary drinks – a week.

The CDC study has been released less than two weeks after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) withheld its support for a proposal to exclude soda drinks from New York City’s food stamp program, which was championed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is also known for his strong anti-smoking advocacy.

With anti-soda legislation still facing a rough road ahead, consumer advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) say it’s time to think of more effective strategies to increase awareness of the health risks from excessive soda consumption. “Reducing the consumption of sodas and other sugary drinks would be a major public health victory and would help reduce health care costs for all levels of government,” the group wrote in a statement. CSPI announced a new campaign called “Life’s Sweeter With Fewer Sugary Drinks.”

What’s required in this ongoing battle against the health hazards from sodas is an involvement of health experts, civic organizations, youth groups, civil rights groups and many others, according to CSPI director Michael F. Jacobson. He pointed out that the worst health problems caused by excessive soda consumption occur among minorities, the poor and the young. “Not since the anti-tobacco campaigns has there been a product so worthy of a national health campaign,” he said.

Despite of New York City’s recent setback, there are signs that the anti-soda movement is catching on in many more parts of the country. In Boston, soda sales have recently been banned from city property. Public schools are no longer allowed to sell sugary beverages on campus. An extensive media campaign against soda consumption that specifically targets parents of young children is in the works. Later this month, the Los Angeles County Health Department plans to implement a host of similar policies.

In the meantime, there has been considerable pushback coming from the beverage industry. Soda makers have sued health departments from New York to California. The industry, which insists that it only defends itself against baseless attacks, has filed numerous requests for scientific proof of the claims made by government agencies.

Anti-soda advocates say that these requests for documentation, which often require hundreds of staff hours from cash-strapped governments on the local and state level, are only made to sabotage new health policies before they can get off the ground. They come directly from the tobacco industry’s playbook, according to Ian McLaughlin, an attorney at the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity in Oakland, California. “It is, in our opinion, an effort to overwhelm or smother government employees, who already have too much to do,” he said.

Santa Clara County in California received subpoena letters asking for records relating to its “Rethink Your Drink” education program. Similar notifications were sent to Chicago and Seattle county governments for their publications connected to beverage education efforts, according to Reuters (“Soda Makers Escalate Attacks Over Obesity,” 7/29/2011).

The American Beverage Association (ABA) says that food and beverage makers are being unfairly singled out. “Sugar-sweetened beverages are not driving health issues like obesity and diabetes. In fact, recently published data from CDC researchers show that sugar-sweetened beverages play a declining role in the American diet, even as obesity is increasing,” said Christopher Gindlesperger, director of communications for the ABA.

From 2009 to 2010, the ABA, Coke and Pepsi, two of the largest producers of sodas, have collectively spent $60 million on lobbying efforts against raising taxes on sugary beverages to cover obesity-related health care costs, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics (Reuters ibid.).

In going after public health campaigns, the ABA is taking its cues from the tobacco wars of the 1990s. Back then, tobacco companies embarked on a Freedom of Information effort, targeting government agencies for their anti-smoking legislation, according to a report by the National Cancer Institute.

“For beverage manufacturers, the issue of obesity is kind of Armageddon,” said Tom Pirko, an industry consultant. He may have hit the nail on the head. Once the evidence that tobacco use causes cancer became overwhelming, people finally started paying attention and smoking went down dramatically. When the connection between sugary drinks and obesity becomes similarly clear, a large-scale change of consumer behavior will likely follow. In other words, if it’s no longer considered cool to smoke today, it may no longer be cool to guzzle sodas tomorrow. Obviously, there is a long way to go.

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

In Praise of the Mighty Blueberries

August 31st, 2011 at 1:19 pm by timigustafson
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Blueberries have long been popular for their tangy flavor and multiple uses in desserts, yogurts, juices and baked goods. They also rank among the healthiest foods you can possibly eat. In fact, the list of possible health benefits from blueberries grows longer every year, as more medical studies uncover their incredible healing power.

Here is a short list of the more recent findings:

• Blueberries have been shown to shrink cancerous tumors and prevent the development and growth of cancer cells.

• Blueberries can slow down and even reverse age-related memory loss.

• Blueberries can help improve physical coordination and balance at an advanced age.

• Blueberries reduce cholesterol levels.

• Blueberries prevent urinary tract infections.

• Blueberries are low in calories and high in fiber, vitamin C and antioxidants, all of which makes them extremely nutritionally beneficial.

This seems a lot of punch to pack for such a plain little berry, but all these claims are backed up by growing evidence.

For example, a study conducted at Ohio State University in 2009 found that when lab rats with blood vessel tumors were fed blueberry extract, their cancer growth was halted and even reversed. The blueberry-fed rats lived on average twice as long as those that were given none. Blood vessel tumor is among the most common cancer types affecting young children and occurs in about three percent of all infants. Researchers hope that the use of blueberries may some day be part of the treatment of these usually inoperable tumors.

A separate study that was conducted in 2007 at Rutgers University in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that a specific compound in blueberries, named pterostilbene, was able to inhibit the spread of cancer cells in the colon of lab rats. And in 2005, researchers at the University of Illinois reported that antioxidants in wild blueberries, called anthocyanins, could prevent certain cancers from forming and proliferating in the prostate and the liver. “Blueberries seem to have “cancer-fighting properties at all stages: Initiation, promotion and proliferation,” said Dr. Mary Ann Lila, the lead author of the study report. “Wild blueberry compounds offer a multi-pronged attack against cancer,” she added.

Blueberries have also been praised for their ability to reduce age-related deterioration of brain functions and memory. A research team from England concluded in 2008 that eating blueberries can actually reverse problems with memory and other cognitive functions. Almost ten years earlier, a USDA-sponsored study found that blueberries improved the physical coordination and balance in aging lab rats.

USDA researchers also reported findings of cholesterol-lowering properties in blueberries, based on animal studies they conducted in 2004. In fact, their experimentation showed that blueberries were more effective in lowering cholesterol levels than many widely prescribed cholesterol medications.

A 2004 study from Rutgers University confirmed that blueberries, like cranberries, can be helpful in preventing and healing urinary tract infections. A compound, called epicatechin, keeps infectious bacteria from attaching themselves to the bladder wall.

Besides these astounding health benefits, blueberries are also nutritional powerhouses. They are low in calories – one cup is 82 calories – high in fiber and loaded with vitamins, especially vitamin C. They rank among the top providers of antioxidants, which are essential to nutritional health. Antioxidants like anthocyanin, vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E and mineral selenium, and also copper (a highly effective anti-bacterial agent), zinc and iron (which raises hemoglobin and the concentration of oxygen in the blood), among other important micronutrients, boost the immune system and help to prevent infections.

In addition to its rich nutritional qualities, blueberries have the ability to neutralize so-called “free radicals,” which are unstable molecules that can cause many diseases and accelerate the aging process. This is mainly due to the concentrated presence of anthocyanin, the pigment that gives these berries their dark bluish color.

Some believers in the multiple powers of this “superfruit” think of blueberries also as an effective anti-depressant, although, to my knowledge, no conclusive research has yet been done in this regard. But it wouldn’t surprise me at all. I personally eat a bowl of blueberries every morning as part of my breakfast – and I haven’t had a bad day in a very long time. Maybe it’s the berries.

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

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

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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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