Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

For Lasting Weight Loss, Go Fast or Slow?

October 23rd, 2014 at 3:03 pm by timigustafson
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Shedding pounds too rapidly has long been considered by experts as a recipe for short-lived success, almost inevitably leading to reoccurring weight gain, a phenomenon also known as yo-yo dieting. A better approach, so the prevailing thinking went, was to limit the desired weight loss to one to two pounds a week, enough time to let the body adjust and make the changes permanent.

But the idea that slimming down at a reduced rate produces better outcomes long-term may be delusional, according to a new study that found no significant differences for participants in so-called crash diets by comparison to their counterparts who took a slower pace. Eventually, almost all gained much of their original weight back, and in some cases added more.

For the study, which was recently published in the journal The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, researchers from the University of Melbourne, Australia, divided 200 obese adults randomly in two groups and submitted them to either a 12-week rapid weight loss (RWL) regimen on a very low calorie diet, or a 36-week gradual weight loss (GWL) program that required a daily calorie reduction of no more than 500 calories per day.

As expected, the dieters who took the fast approach showed greater initial successes, but surprisingly, they did not regain weight faster than those who went about their weight loss more slowly. After only three years, weight regain was about the same in both groups.

Based on these findings, the authors of the study report concluded that current dietary guidelines recommending gradual over rapid weight loss may be unsupported if considered for lasting results.

This, of course, is an important caveat. Naturally, lasting results are important for any weight loss endeavor. It is no secret that keeping unwanted pounds off for good is the hardest part of any diet, no matter what method is chosen.

But there are other considerations as well. Radical crash diets that prescribe severe calorie restrictions and even exclude entire food groups can imbalance a person’s metabolism – the rate at which the body turns food into energy – thereby preventing important nutrients and vitamins from getting to where they are needed.

Moreover, rapid weight loss affects not just unwanted fat but also lean muscle mass, which is not desirable. When calorie intake is suddenly and substantially diminished, the body uses energy stored in the liver and muscles. Most of the initial weight reduction comes from loss of water and muscle. In other words, people may lose weight, but not in a way that is healthy.

Still, some experts now say that different approaches to weight loss may be suitable for different individuals. In cases of severe obesity, more drastic measures might be called for, at least initially.

“Doctors should, on the base of this study, feel they can suggest a very low calorie diet to obese patients, if they feel that would suit them,” said Dr. Susan Jedd, a professor of public health at Oxford University, in an interview addressing the study results with the British newspaper The Guardian. “Even if they put it all back on, they will have been at a healthier weight for some time, which can only be good,” she added.

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

Chronic Sleep Deprivation Considered a Public Health Threat

October 9th, 2014 at 2:43 pm by timigustafson
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Nearly half of American adults are regularly sleep-deprived, according to a Gallup poll that has been tracking people’s sleep habits for decades. Less than seven hours a night has become the rule rather than the exception, down by more than an hour since the 1940s. Especially those who are starting careers and young parents don’t get the amount of sleep they need, and it has long-term consequences for their health.

43 percent, according to the surveys, say they would feel better if they got more rest. Potential implications of chronic sleep deprivation include inability to focus, accident-proneness, memory loss, overeating, vulnerability to illness, and, more seriously, increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

The widespread lack of sleep among the public has alarmed health experts for some time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has gone as far as calling insufficient sleep “a public health epidemic.”

“Sleep is increasingly recognized as important to public health, with sleep insufficiency linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors. Persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity,” the agency warns.

What adds to the danger of sleep deprivation is that the sleep-deprived are often the worst judges when it comes to their own sleep needs. According to the Gallup polls, most Americans (56 percent) with the least amount of sleep believe they are getting enough.

People don’t understand that messing with their sleep patterns by staying up late or waking up too soon has consequences for their circadian rhythm, their inner clock that regulates wake and rest periods, says Dr. Michael Terman, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and co-author of “Reset Your Inner Clock” (Penguin 2012).

A part in your brain called the hypothalamus functions as your body’s timepiece, telling you when to fall asleep and when to wake up again. This inner clock can be changed, however, only in small increments and over extended periods of time. Otherwise, you will feel jet-lagged, as it is common when travelling long-distance over different time zones. By taking liberties with bedtimes, similar effects take place in the body, with similar symptoms such as tiredness, irritability, eating disorders, and so forth.

In other words, going to bed later or setting the alarm earlier than usual causes shifts in the circadian clock that need to be compensated. This can happen in a number of ways, for example by taking an afternoon nap, or by returning to a normal schedule as soon as possible.

Besides wreaking havoc on the inner clock by irregular wake/sleep patterns, there are other disturbances that can interfere with getting a good night’s rest. For instance, working, watching movies, or doing other stimulating things shortly before bed can make it hard to fall asleep. A less than conducive sleep environment like a cluttered bedroom, room temperatures that are too warm or too cold, insufficient darkness – all can contribute to sleep disruptions.

While our busy lifestyles don’t always allow us to maintain regular schedules, there are multiple steps we can take to keep to certain habits that are important to us for our wellbeing. Our sleep should rank high among those priorities.

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

Promoting Bone Health Can’t Start Too Soon, Scientists Say

October 4th, 2014 at 8:23 am by timigustafson
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Insufficient Calcium and Vitamin D intake during childhood and adolescence increases the risk of osteoporosis later in life, according to a new study by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Unfortunately, many youngsters don’t get enough of these important nutrients in their diet, and sedentary lifestyles and indoor activities like watching television or playing video games don’t help.

Children and adolescents should be encouraged to eat more foods containing calcium and vitamin D like milk, yogurt, and cheese. In addition, they should also regularly exercise to promote bone strength, the authors of the study report said. Greater sun exposure, a natural source of vitamin D, is also recommended. A sufficient supply of vitamin D is important because without it, only 10 to 15 percent of dietary calcium is absorbed in the body, they said.

Children who are overweight or obese, are malnourished, and have a sedentary lifestyle run the highest risk of developing weak bones, according to the study. Unsurprisingly, low-income families and minorities are most threatened by these deficiencies.

Bone health has far too long been considered an “age” issue, especially for women.

“Most people don’t start thinking about the health of their bones until midlife or later, by which time it can be too late to do very much to protect against serious bone loss and resulting fractures,” said Jane E. Brody, a columnist who writes on health issues for the New York Times. “Concern about the strength of one’s bones should start in childhood and continue through adolescence, when the body builds most of the bone that must sustain it for the remaining years of life.”

About a quarter of total adult bone mass is accrued around the age of puberty, roughly the same amount that is lost between the ages of 50 and 80. That is why this time of growth spurt is most crucial, Brody said.

“Although nothing can be done about three factors with the greatest influence on bone mass – age, gender, and genetics – two others under personal control can make the difference between suffering crippling fractures in midlife and escaping the effects of osteoporosis. […] Those are physical activity and bone-building nutrients, calcium and vitamin D.”

In addition to widespread dietary deficiencies, today’s children and adolescents also face a serious threat to their bone health from consuming large amounts of sodas. Carbonated drinks contain high levels of phosphoric acid (phosphate) and carbonic acid, which can cause an imbalance of calcium in the blood stream. For growing kids, this imbalance can have especially harmful effects on their still developing bone structure and density.

While dairy products are considered the best source of calcium, many people, including children, are lactose intolerant or choose not to include them in their diet. Fortunately, there is a vast array of calcium-containing food sources that is not dairy-based. Alternatives are calcium-fortified soymilk, tofu, sardines, salmon, turnips, kale, bok choi, broccoli, and almonds. Good sources for vitamin D are found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines, and also, to a lesser degree, in egg yolk.

If all else fails, vitamin supplements can cover some of the gaps. If you feel that you and your family are not getting enough calcium and vitamin D from your regular diet, you may want to consider making up for the difference with a daily multi-vitamin. Before giving children any supplements, however, you should first consult with their pediatrician.

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

In Praise of Doing Less

September 27th, 2014 at 5:25 pm by timigustafson
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Summer is over and it’s back to work, back to school, back to business as usual. Especially for us Americans, who labor longer hours and take fewer days off compared to the Europeans and even the notoriously industrious Japanese, being busy counts as normalcy, while leisure time is considered a luxury most can ill afford.

“The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary,” the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi echoed this national sentiment. The notion that hard work is essential for getting ahead in life is so deeply ingrained in our culture that its validity is hardly ever questioned.

A rare and refreshing exception is Richard Koch, the bestselling author of “The 80/20 Principle – The Secret to Achieving More with Less” (Doubleday, 1998) and other follow-up versions.

As he freely admits, his insights in the importance of working smartly rather than intensely did not originate with him but were drawn from Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th century Italian economist and inventor of what is now known as the “Pareto Rule” or “Pareto Efficiency Concept.”

In essence, both Pareto and Koch suggest that relatively little effort (about 20 percent) produces the greatest amount of results (about 80 percent). For example, only a small number of human beings are responsible for most of the good and the bad that happens in the world every day. Individual innovators in technology change nearly single-handedly how we work and communicate with one another. A few dictators and terrorist leaders threaten the entire world through their violent acts time and again. The rest of us benefit or suffer from their actions but are not directly responsible for them.

Similarly, Koch says, things work in our personal lives. Only a handful of the choices we make and actions we take really make a difference. The rest is just routine, repetition, and triteness. But still, we remain convinced that almost all our efforts matter, and that the harder we try, the better the outcome will be.

Even most companies, and certainly most managers, focus too much on inputs rather than on outputs, despite the fact that the most meaningful results are usually achieved through relatively little action and energy expenditure, Koch says.

To apply these observations in everyday life, he recommends to his readers to take stock in how they conduct themselves at work, at home running their households, even at sports or play.

For instance, one of the “secrets” to working less while achieving more, he says, is to maintain open spaces that are uncluttered with daily chores. These are necessary for innovative and creative thinking, whether professionally or for personal purposes.

Second, there must be times and places where relaxation and literally doing nothing are allowed and appreciated as important elements of one’s productivity. We routinely underestimate the role downtime plays in our work habits, so much so that we almost have to force ourselves to take these constructive breaks, Koch laments.

The most highly effective people are not the one’s who are “married” to their jobs, but those who know when to disconnect. They are not necessarily available 24/7 via cell phone and email. They don’t easily permit interruptions of their workflow or leisurely activities. They focus on priorities and clearly set goals, while less urgent matters can be attended to in due time.

Critics may say that such freedoms are only afforded to those who are in leadership positions or work for themselves. That may be so, but the question arises, how did they get there? Could it be that they worked a little less frenzied and gave themselves more time to work a little smarter? Koch would agree to the latter.

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

Can Weight Loss Make You Smarter?

September 6th, 2014 at 1:51 pm by timigustafson
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Being overweight is associated with multiple negative health effects, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Conversely, weight loss can lower the risk of developing such illnesses, or lighten their burden. Now, a new study from Brazil found that besides physical improvements, slimming down can also produce positive outcomes for the mind.

For the study, researchers followed a group of morbidly obese women who were planning to have gastric bypass surgery to lose weight. Six month after the procedure their average Body-Mass-Index (BMI) had dropped from over 50 to about 37 – still overweight but not considered as severely obese.

Before the operation, the women agreed to a series of exams to assess their memory and other cognitive functions. They also underwent brain scans and blood work. The same tests were repeated six months after the event.

A roughly equal number of normal-weight women (with a BMI of 22 to 23) served as a control group. Both groups took the same tests at the outset of the study. All participants scored by and large the same in the cognitive exams before the surgery, but six months later, as they lost weight, all of the formerly obese women improved their test results in at least one category.

Their brain scans also showed significant differences. Before weight loss they showed greater risks of mental decline than afterwards. The blood tests indicated improvements in insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation.

Overall, the researchers concluded, weight loss can have positive effects on brain health and may play a role in the prevention of cognitive degeneration and age-related dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

This is not the first time scientists have tried to shed light on the impact of excessive body weight on the brain. A study from France, conducted in 2006, investigated the relation between changes in BMI and cognitive functions but couldn’t determine any significant associations between the two in middle-aged, healthy, non-demented adults. More recent research, however, found some indication that weight problems – including underweight, overweight, and obesity – in midlife do in fact increase the risk of dementia in later years.

While there may be no definite answers yet to what extent body weight influences brain health, more and more findings point in the direction that there are indeed connections. At the very least, we do know that chronic conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease, both often directly resulting from weight problems, can contribute to the inhibition of blood flow to the brain, especially when blood vessels become narrowed or blocked. One possible outcome is what is called vascular dementia, which is different from other forms of dementia but nevertheless can lead to similar symptoms. It is the second most common cause of age-related mental decline after Alzheimer’s.

In any case, while there is no certain way to increase mental health or even prevent decline, most experts agree that healthy diet and lifestyle choices combined with consistent weight management and other health-promoting steps can reduce unnecessary risks and should be pursued as much as possible.

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

Our Estranged Relationship with Food

August 30th, 2014 at 7:37 pm by timigustafson
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Americans feel less assured about the quality of their food than they used to. In a recent survey by Consumer Reports magazine, over 90 percent of respondents said they wanted to know more about what they were eating and would welcome detailed information about food production, including country of origin and genetic modifications.

At the same time, the vast majority of consumers buys its food supply from places that offer convenience and low prices. Those are not organic grocery stores or local farmers markets. One study on changing consumer trends listed Walmart and Target as the new top destinations for food shoppers. Despite the hype in recent years over locally grown fare, farmers markets only came in seventh.

“Its not the places selling organic quinoa and Swiss chard that are getting the grocery business, it’s big box stores, convenience stores, and even pharmacies,” says Anna Brones, a food writer and founder of Foodie Underground.

And it’s not just people on a limited budget who frequent these places. As it turns out, even wealthy people buy their groceries increasingly from non-grocers, according to a report published by Forbes.

What this means is that not only traditional retail categories are more and more blurring, but that food itself is no longer considered and treated as something different from all the other commodities we avail ourselves of.

We don’t think much about where our food comes from and how it gets to our tables, or what has to happen so that our supermarkets’ produce and meat sections can be filled, says Harvey Blatt, a professor of geology and author of “America’s Environmental Report Card” (MIT Press). In most people’s minds, edibles just miraculously appear on shelves. But the fact that our food consumption has become so far removed from agriculture has serious consequences, he warns.

For decades, the American food industry has fought tooth and nails to keep the mechanics of modern food production hidden from the public. Meanwhile, consumers have developed a blissful ignorance of what exactly goes into their meals, whether it’s packaged items from the supermarket or burgers from the fast food chain, writes Rachel Kalisher, a Florida-based food columnist.

Although there are many reports and documentaries shedding light on the darker side of mass food production, it doesn’t seem to dissuade enough people from buying these products. Consequently, the respective industries are not motivated to offer better solutions to feeding a growing world population, Kalisher explains.

Still, she says, not all has to be lost. Consumers have more control than they think. Mindless eating habits and ignorance about food quality is not something we should be willing to live with indefinitely.

Healthy eating is not just a matter of money, although rising food prices are becoming an ever-greater concern. Equally or perhaps more important is education. Here, the damage of much neglect has to be undone.

Especially children and adolescents in America today are perfectly clueless about food, laments Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and self-appointed crusader for health education in schools. There are virtually no classes in nutrition taught anywhere in the country, and less than 25 percent of high school students receive even a minimum of information about consumer science, formerly known as home economics.

Learning the basics of how food is produced and which foods provide essential nutrients especially young bodies need to grow and function properly should be the first goal for schools and parents to aim for, according to the Jamie Oliver’s Food Foundation, which organizes initiatives and programs that teach children the importance of healthy eating early in life.

Reconnecting with our most fundamental needs such as food may be hard, considering how much we have become estranged, however by supporting and guiding the next generation, we may have a chance to start over.

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

It Takes a Town to Be Healthy

August 23rd, 2014 at 4:49 pm by timigustafson
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How healthy you are, or can hope to be, depends on multiple factors, including where you live.

For example, if you call Minneapolis-St. Paul home, you breath cleaner air and will find it easier to exercise outdoors than in most other American metropolitan areas because there are more walk- and bike paths than almost anywhere else. Washington D.C. has the highest number of swimming pools, tennis courts, and recreational centers in the nation, and health care providers are abundant here. Denver has the lowest obesity rate among big cities and the highest percentage of residents who are in excellent or very good health.

Of course, metropolises offer plenty of opportunities to stay healthy and fit smaller communities just can’t afford. But that doesn’t mean that small town residents are doomed.

Any place, the smaller, the better, can become a model in health-promoting living, according to Esther Dyson, a healthcare technology investor and founder of the Health Initiative Coordinating Council (HICCup), a nonprofit organization that sponsors health and lifestyle initiatives in communities all over the country.

So far, her organization has chosen five towns for a five-year trial run named “Way to Wellville,” a program to raise greater awareness of health risks such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer – all mostly lifestyle-related ills that could be avoided.

While HICCup will cover initial administrative costs, the selected towns will be responsible for running the program independently.

“First, we want places that can succeed. The Wellville Challenge is not a random selection but a search for places that can make the most of the help HICCup can provide and the connections we can help them to establish,” says Dyson. “But in the end, the communities themselves will be doing the heavy lifting.”

As investors, HICCup and its partners will support Wellville communities in much the same way startup investors support promising business ideas. “In this case, the community is the startup – and the community’s product is health,” says HICCup CEO Rick Brush.

Obviously, the actions of a handful of hamlets won’t have much of an impact on big issues like the ever-worsening obesity crisis. But Dyson hopes that they will establish a model for other small and mid-size communities elsewhere.

“The programs by and large won’t be remarkable,” she concedes. “What’s remarkable is doing them together, reinforcing one another in small, self-contained communities where they will have maximum impact.”

The ultimate challenge these localized initiatives will have to grapple with is how to address the concrete health problems that are most pervasive in the country. Poor diet and lifestyle choices are certainly at the forefront and must be addressed through education and other preventive measures. But so must poverty and limited access to healthcare. Even when more people have access to insurance coverage, doctors and hospitals must make greater efforts to keep people from getting sick, not just treat their ailments. Civic and business leaders can provide incentives and infrastructure, but they cannot make everyone take advantage of them.

Still, the idea of enlisting entire communities in the fight against debilitating diseases that occur unnecessarily and are perfectly preventable is laudable, even if it takes one small patch at a time.

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

Good Snacking Versus Bad Snacking

August 16th, 2014 at 4:14 pm by timigustafson
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America is a nation of snackers. According to a survey by Nielsen, a consumer research group, 91 percent of respondents admitted to snacking daily. 25 percent reported having snacks three to five times a day, and 3 percent said they grazed almost constantly. 31 percent indulged in binge snacking on occasion, while 8 percent did so quite frequently.

The reasons why people reach for snack food are numerous and complex. For men it’s mostly a means to satisfy hunger or cravings between meals, while for women it can be a way to cope with stress, boredom, or other emotional disturbances. On average, women also snack more often and choose different kinds of foods than men, like sweet versus salty items, according to the study.

As with most eating habits, a propensity for snacking develops early in life. Half of all American children eat snacks about four to five times a day, adding hundreds of extra calories to their diet, based on the findings of one study.

“My fear is that we are moving away from being hungry and eating for satiation to just eating,” said Dr. Barry M. Popkin, director of nutrition epidemiology at the University of North Carolina and co-author of the study report, in an interview with the New York Times.

Young children, ages 2 to 6 years old, show the biggest increase in snacking habits. There also seems to be a trend away from regular meals like breakfast and lunch in favor of all-day grazing, which impacts the overall nutritional quality of what these kids eat.

“They are eating more times, and they’re not eating healthy foods,” said Dr. Popkin. “It would be great if they were eating fruits and vegetables, and reduced-fat milk, and every now and then a cookie or two. But the foods are going from bad to worse.”

Adults are not faring much better in this regard. Most Americans receive almost a third of their calorie intake from snacks, nearly 600 calories per day. Snack food has grown into a huge industry with total annual sales of well over $60 billion. This doesn’t include so-called “snackables” in fast food and pizza places. Latest trends are snack items available in restaurants between the hours when regular meals are served.

“The business plan of the modern food company has been to put their foods on every street corner, making it socially acceptable to eat 24/7,” said Dr. David Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and author of “The End of Overeating.” The result has been a nutritional disaster, he added.

Of course, the mere fact that people like to eat more often is not necessarily a lamentable change. A classic study once concluded that frequent consumption of small portions of food may be more conducive to weight loss than a standard three-meals-a-day pattern. The emphasis here, obviously, is on small portion sizes and also nutritional quality. Unfortunately, neither standards have been kept up very well since the study was first published in 1966.

Still, nibbling here and there can be a good thing, even for weight loss, if it keeps you from becoming too ravenous, which then can lead you to raiding the vending machine or refrigerator later, said Dr. Joan Salge Blake, professor of nutrition at Boston University and author of “Nutrition and You: Core Concepts for Good Health” (Cummings 2010). The key is to make sure your snacks don’t consist of empty calories but include nutrients your body really needs, she advises.

Also, by eating more often, you should not increase your overall calorie intake. The problem is that when people multiply their eating occasions, they often keep the same serving sizes they are used to, which can quickly result in overeating and subsequent weight gain.

The best way to schedule your snacking regimen is to listen to your body. “Eat when you feel slightly hungry and stop when you feel just slightly full,” Dr. Blake suggests. But pace yourself. It takes about 20 minutes for your mind to register when your stomach has had enough.

For healthy snacks ideas, continue reading here.

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

More People Are Using Antidepressants, Just to Keep Going

August 9th, 2014 at 11:36 am by timigustafson
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In 1994, when Elizabeth Wurtzel wrote “Prozac Nation,” an autobiographical account of her struggles with severe depression, which was later adapted into a feature film under the same title, her story was considered an extreme case of a troubled life. What she described then, however, was already a widespread phenomenon that has now morphed into a national malaise and beyond.

Antidepressants and painkillers rank among the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States today. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics published a report that identified about 11 percent of the American public as antidepressant users, a 400 percent increase since the 1980s when previous surveys were taken.

Worldwide, consumption of antidepressants has been dramatically on the rise over the past decade, and there are no signs of abating. On the contrary, the pharmaceutical industry predicts ever-increasing demands in the U.S. and globally.

According to the CDC report, people who take antidepressants do so not only to treat depression but also anxiety and other disorders in response to stress. In fact, about 8 percent of those taking antidepressant drugs had no current symptoms of depression at all.

Women between the ages of 40 and 59 make up the largest group of antidepressant drug users – about 23 percent. Females in general are more likely to take such medications than males; whites do it in greater numbers than other ethnicities; most users stay on antidepressants for two or more years; less than half ever seek professional help in form of hospitalization or counseling.

Experts have offered a wide range of explanations for the growing demand for psychotherapeutic drugs. The heightened economic struggles over the last few years have added substantially to the stress levels vast parts of the population are exposed to. In the media, pharmaceuticals of all kinds, including antidepressants, are aggressively marketed, and many insurance plans cover them. There is also suspicion that many doctors tend to over-diagnose when it comes to psychological disorders, even in cases where they appear to be temporary and mild in nature.

The truth is that antidepressant drugs are not harmless and can cause a number of unpleasant side effects, among them nausea, weight gain, loss of sexual desire and erectile dysfunction, insomnia, fatigue, agitation, suicidal thoughts, and even greater anxiety.

Experts recommend to switch between different types of antidepressant drugs if debilitating symptoms persist, but they also warn not to take such steps without consulting one’s physician.

Generally speaking, taking medications against depression or anxiety should not always be the first measure to find relief. A health-promoting lifestyle that includes eating a balanced diet, regular exercise, and enough sleep can be very helpful in dealing with many disturbances, both of body and mind. That does not mean to underestimate their seriousness, but at least it can provide a much-needed foundation for recovery.

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

Exercise Can Make You See the World in a Different Light

August 2nd, 2014 at 8:44 am by timigustafson
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Being physically active has countless health benefits. It helps prevent weight problems and reduces the risk of serious illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But according to a recent study from Canada, regular exercise can also improve how people perceive the world around them. Especially those suffering from anxiety or depression can profit from workouts or even just short brisk walks, researchers found.

Exercising and relaxation techniques like Yoga have long been successfully utilized in the treatment of patients with mood and anxiety disorders, said Adam Heenan, a researcher and PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Queen’s University, Ontario, and co-author of the study in a news release by the university. What sets this study apart is that it was able to demonstrate how participants perceived ambiguous events like being approached by an unknown figure. It found that those who had previously exercised, for example by walking or running on a treadmill, felt less apprehensive about the encounter than others who had remained sedentary. The results were similar for those who engaged in relaxation exercises.

Their findings could be useful in the treatment of overly anxious or depressed individuals, the researchers concluded. If physical exercise can indeed manipulate how such persons feel about their surroundings, following an appropriate regimen may have significant therapeutic advantages, they suggested.

Earlier studies have shown that exercising does not only stimulate the brain but, at the same time, can also induce calmness and reduce the effects of stress. Rigorous physical activity increases the secretion of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that can induce a sense of relaxation and wellbeing.

While being exposed to a certain amount of stress is unavoidable and may even be beneficial in some situations, chronic stress can lead to multiple damaging effects, including psychological dysfunctions. Stress-related anxiety disorders rank among the most common psychiatric illnesses, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

Some studies found that people who maintained a regular exercise routine were up to 25 percent less likely to develop depression and/or anxiety disorders than those who did not.

Other research showed that habitual exercisers have on average more self-esteem, are less prone to mood swings, sleep more soundly, are better equipped to deal with life’s challenges, and run a lower risk of succumbing to age-related cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Naturally, different people respond differently to exercising, and not all activities produce the same results. What experts say they know for certain, however, is that sedentary behavior is harmful in many ways, and is considered a “silent killer” that contributes not only to diseases but also shortens people’s life span. For this reason alone, it would be worthwhile to start moving, wouldn’t it?

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

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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