Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Great Plans for Retirement, but How Much Will Materialize?

March 19th, 2014 at 5:22 pm by timigustafson
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In the 2002 movie, “About Schmidt,” a recently retired insurance agent (portrayed by Jack Nicholson) goes on a road trip in a brand new RV to see his daughter, and a bit of America along the way. What unfolds is a story as complex and convoluted as Schmidt’s new life. He realizes that his work of many years has quickly become irrelevant, and that his ties to family and friends have long frayed. Now he is intent on making up for the many sacrifices and missed opportunities in his past. Even his wife’s sudden and unexpected death doesn’t change that. There is still more to come in his “Golden Years,” or so he hopes.

More so than any other generation before them, today’s retirees have great expectations about what they will be able to accomplish after officially leaving the work force. There are many good reasons for that. People live longer, have a wider variety of skills and interests, are more mobile, and can take advantage of technologies not available only a short time ago.

On the downside, a great number are not financially secure enough to be able to afford retirement. They hope to continue working, at least part-time, to supplement pensions and savings. According to surveys, three fourths of Americans say they plan on working beyond retirement age in some capacity.

But that may be easier said than done. In actuality less than one fifth manage to remain in the work force. Many retire even sooner than they had envisioned – in most cases not by choice. According to the AARP, older Americans may want to continue working because it provides them with much needed income, keeps them busy and engaged, allows them to stay socially connected, and so forth. But often retirees underestimate the difficulties of finding any job, let alone one that fulfills them and gives them pleasure.

True, much of today’s work environment does no longer require hard physical labor, so aging people are not necessarily as disadvantaged as they used to be. But well paying jobs, as scarce as they are, typically demand long work hours as well as skills older workers may not have and find hard to acquire.

Also, while blatant age discrimination is unlawful, many employers are hesitant to hire workers late in their careers, even those with valuable expertise, if they can get their needs met by younger ones for less money and fewer benefits.

There are, of course, numerous examples of retried persons finding meaningful and rewarding things to do. Those who can afford to busy themselves for free are invited to volunteer for countless causes. But for the majority that’s no solution. According to consumercredit.com, more than 70 percent of Americans are financially too insecure to retire without some source of income in addition to their pension plans and/or social security checks.

Among the greatest concerns, unsurprisingly, are rising healthcare costs. This is where many of the elderly feel most vulnerable. Whether the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) will change that remains to be seen, but presently there is much uncertainty about the new law’s impact, particularly on those who suffer from chronic ailments.

For this and other reasons, we all, but especially the now retiring baby boomers, are well advised to pay close attention to our health needs, preferably in terms of disease prevention through diet and lifestyle improvements. Contrary to widespread belief, illness and decline are not inevitable parts of aging. In fact, with few exceptions, we have considerable control over our own aging process. And how well we do health-wise determines greatly what else we can hope to accomplish in every other aspect.

So, to my fellow-retirees who are still highly active and full of plans for the future, I say: let’s keep up our zest for life, but let’s start with the fundamentals, and see where we can go from 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).

Those Pesky Wrinkles, Inevitable or Cause for Concern?

March 14th, 2014 at 5:21 pm by timigustafson
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The skin is the body’s largest organ, and because it is the most visible, it usually gets the most attention. Like every other part of us, our skin changes as we grow older, but nothing shows the signs of aging as much, perhaps with the exception of graying hair.

In fact, we routinely judge not only a person’s age but also general state of health and vitality by the appearance of his or her skin.

“The first sign of wrinkles strikes terror into the hearts of many people,” says Dr. Leonard Hayflick, professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “How and Why We Age” (Ballantine Books, 1994). This, he says, is not because skin wrinkles are a disease – “no one dies of old skin” – but rather because of society’s obsession with youth and devaluation of old age.

Besides wrinkling, aging skin is associated with discoloring, thinning, dryness, and lessening ability to heal from wounds. But these are not inevitable characteristics, according to Dr. Hayflick.

“Most skin lesions afflicting the elderly are preventable,” he says. “With few exceptions, they are not the result of normal aging but represent an accumulation of environmental insults.”

For example, exposure to sunlight is considered a major cause of skin damage (photoaging), especially for fair-skinned people. But so are air pollution and smoking.

Besides environmental assaults, some scientists believe that skin wrinkles may also be caused by an age-related loss of a protein called “collagen” and/or an overgrowth of another protein known as “elastin,” which seems to take place in both sun-damaged and aging skin.

Other possible causes are habitual facial expressions like frowning or laughter, or how someone sleeps at night, resulting in imprints and creases.

But there can be hidden, more serious health issues at play as well. Studies have shown that elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure, and heart disease can leave their mark on the body’s surface. For instance, velvety brownish patches can be a sign of diabetes; dull, dry skin can come from nutritional deficiencies, including lack of certain vitamins or omega-3 fatty acids.

Fortunately, there are a number of steps one can take to mitigate skin degeneration. In addition to avoiding excessive exposure to sun light (or UV rays in tanning studios), and applying sunscreen before going outside, experts recommend eating certain foods that are deemed especially helpful for preserving healthy skin.

Generally speaking, any balanced diet regimen is good for the skin, as it is for all organs. One of the most important nutrients for skin health is vitamin A, which is found in dairy products like yogurt and cheese. For obvious reasons, it is advisable to stick to low-fat versions and to keep serving sizes in check. Also, beta-carotene, richly present in carrots, sweet potatoes, yams, and dark, leafy greens, adds to the package.

Fruits and vegetables in general are always good choices, and for multiple reasons, among them their high content in antioxidants and phytochemicals. These are chemical compounds able to fight so-called “free radicals,” which are molecules known to attack cells and believed to contribute to aging. Especially berries seem to have high antioxidant capacities.

Essential fatty acids are considered skin-friendly nutrients as they can help protect cell membranes. They are found in numerous sources, including fish (especially salmon and herring), walnuts, flax seed, and canola oil. Most oils are beneficial for the skin, but be sure to use them sparingly because of their relatively high calorie content.

The mineral selenium seems to play a crucial role in the healing process of damaged skin. It is present in a variety of foods, including whole-wheat breads and cereals, turkey, tuna, and some nuts.

But nothing is more important for healthy skin than sufficient hydration. Water is the obvious choice. Green tea is also thought of as a beneficial beverage because of its anti-inflammatory properties (polyphenols).

Lastly, it deserves to be mentioned that too little exposure to the sun can cause problems of its own, specifically a deficiency in vitamin D. If your lifestyle keeps you indoors most of the time, or if you live in an area with few sunny days (as I do), you may want to consider taking a supplement – just to be safe.

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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).

Education, the Best Protection Against Obesity and Related Diseases

March 12th, 2014 at 12:43 pm by timigustafson
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With growing wealth in many developing countries around the world, diet and lifestyle changes are showing dramatic increases in obesity and related diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. From Central and South America to the Middle East to Asia, weight problems are now among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality. But more than rising standards of living, lack of education seems to contribute to these dismal trends.

In China, India and Brazil, where economic growth has been especially dramatic but has also created vast inequalities in their populations, diet and lifestyle changes have had a particularly profound impact on the risk of obesity, according to one study that investigated the effects of rising incomes on people’s health.

In Mexico, which is considered a middle-income country, prevalence of obesity proved to be the highest among those who were better off financially but had little education. Similar findings were made in Egypt, a low-income country, where obesity has become a fast growing problem, especially among women. Here too, increasing wealth is a predictor – but even more so, lack of schooling.

“For the first time, we have studied the interaction between wealth and education and found they have fundamentally different effects on obesity,” said Dr. Amina Aitsi-Selmi, the lead author of the Egypt study.

Greater exposure of emerging economies to global food markets and rising buying power of consumers lead to these consequences. The best way to prevent this from happening would be to invest in education, especially in women who are in charge of food shopping, cooking, and taking care of the health needs of their families, she said.

“Our study suggests that investing in women’s education protects against this effect by empowering individuals to look after their health,” she said to Science Daily.

As ‘gatekeepers’ in their households, women have the most influence on the nutritional wellbeing of children, which is our best hope for breaking the vicious circle that begins with childhood obesity and subsequent, often chronic, health issues during adulthood.

Scientific evidence leaves no doubt that the environment we live in is largely responsible for the obesity epidemic, Dr. Aitsi-Selmi said. We can only change the environment by changing the behavior of individuals. And that is best accomplished through education.

Obviously, providing even a basic amount of health education in different socio-economic and cultural settings is no easy task in one country, let alone on a global scale. But, as this study and others have shown, increase in literacy and greater opportunities for learning have many benefits and can provide the groundwork for attitude and behavior modifications, including improving eating habits.

It also means that greater affordability of food does not automatically lead to better health outcomes – sometimes to the contrary. Only when people understand how their diet and lifestyle choices affect them, they can make appropriate changes and take control of their wellbeing.

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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).

Is It Me or Is It Just SAD?

March 8th, 2014 at 7:25 am by timigustafson
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I’m generally an upbeat person, not given to bouts of sadness or melancholy, and, luckily, I’ve never suffered from serious depression. Bad weather doesn’t drag me down. In fact, I like the rain – I better, I live in Seattle. But this year, the winter months seem to last longer than usual, and slowly but surely even I begin to yearn for a change of season.

I’m not alone in this regard. Many of my clients tell me how much harder they find it to get out of bed when it’s still dark outside on their way to work and dark again when they get home.

“I just don’t have the energy, not even for the things I normally like to do,” one of them told me. “Everything seems to depress me.”

While it is perfectly normal to feel down from time to time, mood swings, even if they don’t persist for too long, should not be ignored. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), sometimes more casually called the “winter blues,” can seriously affect how a person is able to function and carry symptoms not unlike depression. The point is not to underestimate SAD, which can get worse over time, potentially resulting in difficulty with concentration, anxiety, social withdrawal, alcohol and substance abuse, even suicidal thoughts and behavior.

“SAD is a mood disorder, and although it is generally thought of as a winter problem, it can also occur in other seasons,” says Jonathan Alpert, a Manhattan-based psychotherapist and life coach. “The major distinction between SAD and other forms of depression is that it occurs at the same time every year, for at least two years, and there’s a remission of symptoms off-season.”

One of the causes, he says, is lacking sun exposure for people who live in the northern hemisphere. Shortage of vitamin D may play a role but also low serotonin levels, a brain chemical that affects our moods, as well as an unbalance of melatonin, a hormone responsible for our sleep patterns. It may also be that our inner biological clock, known as the circadian rhythm (the thing that gets out of whack when you are jet-lagged), is disrupted when days are shorter and nights are longer.

So, how worried should you be about SAD? First off, you want to make sure you are not experiencing the symptoms of something more serious. If you have suffered from emotional disorders or depression in the past, or if there is a family history concerning depression, you should definitely tell your doctor about it. But before you ask for anti-depression medicines, you may want to consider some alternative remedies. Perhaps you will respond to light therapy, a procedure where your body gets exposed to artificial light that simulates sunshine. Or you may take a larger amount of vitamin D supplements, or try St. John’s wort, an herb traditionally used to treat depression, although not without side effects.

In any case, spending as much time outdoors, exercising regularly, and eating a healthful diet can make a significant difference. You may also benefit from Yoga, acupuncture, meditation, and massage therapy.

Stress management and practicing sound sleep hygiene are especially important during such times. So be extra kind to yourself, and when you regain your strength and optimistic outlook, remember what helped you through the doldrums and return to your practices as needed. It can only get easier that way.

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

Food Label Updates Only Make Sense if Consumers Pay Attention

March 5th, 2014 at 2:24 pm by timigustafson
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The recent announcement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of its plans to redesign Nutrition Facts labels on food packages has been widely welcomed by health experts who see it as an important step in the fight against obesity and other diet-related diseases. It would be the first revision in 20 years, and some say an update is long overdue considering both advances in nutrition science and shifts in consumer behavior.

Consumer advocates have often lamented that the way food manufacturers convey nutritional data is confusing, leaving people less, not more, empowered to make informed choices.

“Unless you had a thesaurus, a microscope, a calculator, or a degree in nutrition, you were out of luck. So you felt defeated and you just went back to buying the same stuff,” said the First Lady, Michelle Obama, at a White House event where she revealed the proposed changes. “As parents and as consumers, we have a right to understand what’s in the food we’re feeding our families,” she added.

For this, the new panels will emphasize the most important data consumers should know about, including easily identifiable serving sizes, calories, total fat, sugar, sodium, and calories from fat. Especially serving sizes are too often calculated in seemingly arbitrary ways and can be hard to decipher. A more intuitive approach would help.

But the question remains whether and how people will make use of the information they’re given. According to a survey by the NPD Group, a research agency, less than half of American food shoppers check labels regularly. 48 percent say they read labels to determine whether food items have ingredients they try to cut back on or avoid altogether – down from the nearly 65 percent in 1990 when the current labels were first introduced.

The decline leaves room for interpretation. We could see the changes as a success in educating the public, said Harry Balzer, the NPD Group’s chief industry analyst. “After all, how many times do you need to look at the Nutrition Facts label on your favorite cereal, or your favorite juice, and any other food you routinely consume,” he asked.

Perhaps, but it could also be that people are fed up with too many, and oftentimes contradictory, messages about what and what not to eat. They know that some of their favorites may not be the healthiest, but they find it exhausting to keep their guard up at all times. It is also unclear from the report whether demographic shifts play a role in the trends.

The new labels, if they become law, don’t satisfy all demands health advocates have made over the years. For example, consumers would greatly benefit if they knew not only which nutrients they should limit – like saturated fat, sodium, added sugar, etc. – but also which ones they are at risk of not getting enough – such as calcium, fiber, vitamin D, etc., said Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies at the Whole Grains Council (WGC), in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA.

Also, with its current proposal, the FDA has apparently shied away from a bolder approach of placing some key data on the front of food packages, as Australia and several European countries have done. In addition to panels, some use visual rating systems like stars, traffic light colors or numerical scales.

Still, the updates could not only help consumers but also give food manufacturers incentives to improve the quality of their products, according to David Kessler, the former FDA commissioner who was responsible for implementing the original labeling mandate in 1990. “No one wants their product to look bad on labels,” he said.

Hopefully, we wont have to wait another 20 years to make further progress.

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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).

For Better or Worse, Relationships Have Enormous Effects on Health

March 1st, 2014 at 8:05 am by timigustafson
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Loving relationships can produce countless benefits in terms of both mental and physical well-being. Unfortunately, a successful marriage or partnership is not easy to come by – and when it happens, there is no guarantee it will last. Nearly half of all marriages in America end in divorce, often with devastating consequences for everyone involved. The ramifications are not easily measured and often manifest themselves long afterwards. Even people who seem able to recover can suffer long-term damages, including to their physical health.

Losing a partner through divorce or death is one of the most extreme forms of stress anyone can go through, according to Dr. Linda Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago who has conducted several studies on health issues in connection with marriage and divorce.

“People who lose a marriage take such damage to their health,” she said in an interview on the subject with CNN. “It’s financially, sometimes, ruinous. It’s socially extremely difficult. What’s interesting is if people have done this and remarried, we still see, in their health, the scars or marks, the damage that was done by this event.”

Depression is a common response to the loss of a spouse or partner. So is sleeplessness. Dr. Waite also found that divorced and widowed people tend to suffer in greater numbers from chronic diseases and are overall of poorer health compared to others who have not had the experience, regardless of other factors like age, race, gender, and education.

Even people who haven’t ended a relationship but feel ambivalent about their partner seem to have their health affected. A recently published study conducted at the University of Utah found that couples who were unsure about their marriage had on average a higher risk of developing heart disease than their happily married counterparts.

Widowhood, especially at an advanced age, can have even greater implication. According to a study from England, the risk of a heart attack is the highest in the first month after bereavement. The high level of stress caused by the loss of a loved one can result in a depressed immune system, which may add to or aggravate existing health conditions.

The fact is that losing someone who was close to you, whom you shared your life with, and who is now gone is an ongoing stress event. It never really goes away because it is, or at least once was, part of a person’s identity. There is a deep void to be filled, and that effort takes time and may never be completed. It can lead to chronic stress with multiple negative side effects, some of which may not easily be identified.

As at all times of heightened stress, it is particularly important in these situations to pay attention to one’s health needs and be proactive by taking some extra health-promoting measures. Eating nutritious food is one of those and so is daily exercise. Divorce or bereavement counseling is highly recommended.

Especially when people are at their most vulnerable, they can find it hard to reach out to others and ask for support. Offering a helping hand or just being present in a loving, nonintrusive way can prevent a grieving person from falling into isolation, which is the worst that can happen. Recovery from great loss depends not only on what’s happening on the inside but also on someone’s chances to rejoin the world of the living.

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

A Responsibility Not to Get Sick

February 26th, 2014 at 11:39 am by timigustafson
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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), no other current health threats spread as fast as so-called ‘non-communicable diseases’ (NCDs) like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. What distinguishes these from infectious illnesses is that humans bring them mostly upon themselves through poor diet and lifestyle choices. Nevertheless, the impact is very real and there is no letting up in sight.

How can that be? How can we self-inflict debilitating and potentially life-threatening diseases on a pandemic scale? How can this happen when we have a pretty good understanding of the causes and how they could be averted? And why is it that the countless messages about diet and lifestyle changes produce such meager results?

Unsurprisingly, there is great uncertainty among the experts about how to address these issues. For example, only last year, the American Medical Association (AMA) decided to classify obesity as a “disease,” with the goal to bring greater attention to the urgency of the matter. Yet some have expressed skepticism about the helpfulness of such a move.

In a recent op-ed article in the New York Times, psychology professors Dr. Crystal L. Hoyt and Dr. Jeni L. Burnette, both of the University of Richmond, Virginia, suggested that the classification may in fact be counterproductive because it potentially diminishes incentives to deal effectively with weight problems.

“Calling obesity a disease provides a clear warning of the significant health risks associated with excessive weight,” they wrote. “We wondered, however, if there also might be psychological ramifications inherent in that message. Would it reduce or add to the burden of body-image concerns and shame? Would it empower people to fight back, or lead to a fatalistic acceptance of being overweight?”

They both agreed that stigmatization and discrimination of any kind have no place in how we view obesity and other related health issues. On the other hand, we ought not simply relieve people of all responsibility for their own well-being.

Suggesting that someone’s weight is his or her unfortunate fate, a “fixed state like a long-term disease,” can make efforts of weight loss and dietary improvements seem futile and may indeed undermine them, the professors warned.

As a dietitian and health counselor, I have no problem with declaring obesity a disease, especially considering the complexity of potential causes, some of which are indeed beyond an individual’s control. Having said that, I also believe that the only appropriate response to illness is to make every effort to overcome it as quickly possible. An even better approach would be prevention, so that damages don’t occur in the first place. For this, I believe, we all have a duty, a personal responsibility not to get sick as a consequence of our own actions.

Yes, there is much confusion around diet and lifestyle issues. Many people have given up and are tired of listening to oftentimes inconsistent, if not contradictory, messages. But there is also some certainty. Eating healthily by adding more fresh fruits and vegetables and cutting back on processed foods is part of that. So is observing portion sizes. Regular exercise is a must without question. Reducing stress and getting enough sleep matter as much. All these we know to be true. If we acted upon just this bit of knowledge each and every day, things could improve real fast.

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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).

Public Health, a Leading Indicator of National Wealth

February 26th, 2014 at 11:36 am by timigustafson
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A country’s gross domestic product (GDP) has long been the predominant measure for its wealth and standard of living of its citizens. But that’s a relatively small element of the entire picture, according to Paul Bulcke, CEO of Nestlé, a multinational food and beverage company, the world’s largest of its kind. What remains largely neglected are additional important aspects, including the state of public health.

More than any other indicator, the health and well-being of the population should be of interest to us when we talk about the wealth of nations, he writes in a recent article published in the German edition of the Huffington Post.

Amounts of healthcare spending alone do not tell us how healthy people are in any given part of the world. It is well known that the United States has by far the highest expenditure per capita worldwide, yet falls dramatically behind in terms of access to healthcare, infant mortality, and longevity. Canada, for example, spends about 40 percent less but has a slightly higher average life expectancy. Leading European nations like Germany, France and Switzerland do much better as well – at about half the cost. And even notoriously welfare-oriented Scandinavian countries like Norway, Denmark and Sweden all seem to offer much more bang for the buck.

There can be countless speculations about these discrepancies, but in the end, everyone has to look at the same situation: Despite of record-high spending on medical services, people get sicker everywhere in greater numbers. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more people die every year from so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer than ever before, and the trends are worsening. Even more tragic is that most of this could be prevented with better diet and lifestyle choices.

One of the reasons why we seem unable to address these issues more effectively is our culture and the policies we have put in place to deal with illnesses as they occur, rather then finding better ways to prevent them from taking hold in the first place, says Bulcke.

“We need to focus on a culture of healthful living and disease prevention,” he urges.
“Unfortunately, we have a tendency to value our health only after we’ve lost it. This position has to change. We have to protect and improve our public health. […] That means that healthcare systems must be developed further in terms of prevention and improvement of health standards. This is what we must concentrate on.”

As the CEO of a leading food manufacturing company, Bulcke sees a clear mandate for his industry to contribute more forcefully to the creation of health-promoting environments through education and, if necessary, sensible regulation.

Consumers must also take responsibility to lead healthy lives as best as they can. But industry and government should support those efforts and not hinder or inhibit them by remaining on the sidelines.

“There cannot be any healthy industry within an unhealthy society,” he writes. Both are interdependent, and progress will only be made if all parties work together for the common good.

Amen to that.

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

A Good Night’s Sleep Gets Harder to Come by with Age

February 19th, 2014 at 1:47 pm by timigustafson
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In our busy lives, getting enough rest can be challenging at any age. But for older people it becomes even more difficult, perhaps not so much because of stress-related sleep deprivation but because of changing sleep patterns. As we age, we not only need less sleep, we also don’t sleep as deeply and wake up more often during the night.

While these changes are not always cause for concern, they can become problematic if they lead to persistent sleep disorders with potentially serious health effects.

As younger adults, we typically spend much of our sleep time in a state called “deep sleep.” Closer to the morning hours, we enter a different phase named “REM” (rapid eye movement), a lighter form of sleep where the eyes move rapidly behind closed lids. Usually, there are several back-and-forth switches between deep sleep and REM periods throughout the night, but the latter gradually dominate and let us eventually wake up.

Not so with older folks. Deep sleep phases become shorter and turn more often into lighter REM sleep and actual awakening, possibly three to four times per night.

It is this repeated awakening that can do long-term damage. Deep sleep is the most restorative phase when both body and mind can heal from their daily wear and tear. If it is interrupted or cut short too many times, these necessary healing processes are prevented from taking place. On the outside, you may just feel groggy and tired in the morning, but on the inside much of the repair work meant to keep you healthy remains undone.

There can be a number of causes for sleep disruption. Besides age-related changes of sleep patterns, you may be dealing with the effects of late-night consumption of food, alcohol or caffeine, interference from medications, chronic disease like high blood pressure and heart disease, sleep apnea, need for frequent urination, and others.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the health consequences from sleep-related disorders are far from benign. Studies have shown associations between disturbed or insufficient sleep and unhealthy weight gain and other diet-related ills. For older adults, the results can be even more dire. Researchers have found that frequent sleep disruption in the elderly is a leading cause for depression and other detrimental effects on mental health.

Regrettably, sleep disturbance, especially when it affects older patients, is not taken seriously enough by many healthcare providers. The fact is, it is not an inevitable part of aging.

Helpful steps to prevent sleep interruptions during the night are:

• Avoiding heavy meals, alcohol, and caffeine close to bedtime
• Avoiding large amounts of water and other liquids late at night
• Avoiding strenuous exercise and other physical activities shortly before sleep
• Avoiding stimulating or aggravating interactions (like problem solving, arguing, watching movies, listening to loud music, etc.)
• Practicing good sleep hygiene (like keeping bedrooms dark and at low temperature)
• Using relaxation practices (like meditating, yoga, massage, etc.)

Many people with sleep troubles are tempted to take sleeping pills or supplements containing melatonin and the likes, and that may indeed be part of the solution. But there can also be a risk of addiction. Be advised that most of these remedies have side effects and should not be taken without consulting a physician. For these reasons, most experts recommend not to take sleep medicines for extended periods of 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).

Being “Over the Hill” Can Have Its Upside, Too

February 15th, 2014 at 5:40 pm by timigustafson
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Despite the fact that people live longer and are more active in their later years than ever before, aging is still associated with decline, loss, and debilitation. That’s nature’s way, like it or not. But does that mean older folks should despair over their impending fate? Perhaps, but few actually do, according to a series of studies on age and happiness. In fact, feelings of happiness, or at least contentment, seem to be most common among the maturing crowd.

That happiness can peak late in life is nothing new, but no systematic research was conducted before to explain why that is the case. A possibility may be that older people find it easier to derive pleasure from relatively ordinary experiences such as taking a walk, sharing a meal with loved ones, or pursuing a hobby. By contrast, younger generations are more likely to seek satisfaction from extraordinary, exciting experiences, e.g. at work or in sports. But these unique and rare moments are harder to come by and require greater efforts and also expenditures. That could be one reason why, on balance, the aging are better off in terms of finding their rewards.

Another explanation may be a little bit more complex. In his milestone publication, “A Theory of Human Motivation” (1943), the psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced his now classic theory of “Hierarchy of Needs,” where he distinguished between a number of human needs, reaching from basic survival to self-actualization when nearly all human potential can be realized.

To illustrate the hierarchical relationship between the different kinds of needs, Maslow famously used a graphic depicting the shape of a pyramid. More basic needs – like food, shelter, health, safety – support higher ones – like self-esteem, respect, creativity, etc. Higher needs cannot be met if there is significant deficiency among the more basic ones, e.g. confidence or self-esteem will not likely grow without a degree of material security.

Although he does not explicitly use the term, we can assume that Maslow would consider the quest for happiness as part of the higher needs, perhaps on par with self-actualization, a level that requires a lot of fulfillment in many other areas. It is easy to see that this can only be achieved with time – in other words, with age.

But what’s also important to see is that the hierarchical structure of our needs is not static but rather is made up of constantly changing priorities. What seems to matter most today, may be forgotten tomorrow. What once counted as must-have, eventually becomes an afterthought. The importance we lend to most things tends to have a short shelf life.

That doesn’t mean everything is relative and therefore meaningless, not even when we look back from long distance. In my own life, I continuously revisit my needs in multiple departments to see if they are sufficiently attended to. Whether it concerns my physical health, my emotional well-being, my work, my relationships to family and friends, they all matter equally, and if one is neglected for too long, I know that others will eventually suffer as well. But I have also enough experience to realize when to be patient, when to relax, when to set priorities, and when to find pleasure and comfort in simple things – like taking a walk.

That doesn’t mean I have no longer any ambitious goals to pursue or dreams to chase. But I also know how to take a break when the chase is over. And that has its rewards, too.

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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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