Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

Healthy Eating Habits Can be Learned – Mostly by Example

October 6th, 2009 at 2:55 pm by timigustafson
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Many parents have a hard time making their kids eat “healthy” foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Apples and pears – no way! Brussels sprouts and spinach – forget it! Broccoli – that will be the day!

You may know the scenario. It’s war! Little jaws lock, small mouths refuse to open. You try every trick in the book and still don’t get any cooperation. Neither your parental authority, nor bribery, nor bargaining make a difference. Eventually, you give up, accept defeat and go along with whatever your little darlings demand.

Needless to say that everybody loses when parents forego their responsibilities – especially when it comes to healthy eating habits. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Kids learn mostly by example. They model their own behavior after their parents and their older siblings. If your kids have bad eating habits, ask yourself how that happened in the first place. If you eat a poor diet yourself, neglect your health and physical fitness or smoke and drink in front of them, you shouldn’t be surprised if your children go down the same road. So, be a good role model and set the stage for healthy eating at home and when you eat out as a family. Let your actions speak louder than your words.

Do not expect your kids to know for themselves what is good for them. They don’t have “natural” instincts they can trust. At times, they need your guidance and, if necessary, your willingness to draw the line. Don’t be an enabler. If your kids nag you to buy them snacks or candy and you give in despite of better knowledge, you can only blame yourself for the consequences.

It’s never too early to start teaching your kids the art of healthy eating. Take your children with you to the grocery store or, even better, to your local farmers market. Explain to them the benefits of the foods you’re buying. You may want to visit a working farm where they can see first hand how produce is grown and harvested. Among other things, it will help them appreciate the value of their food.

Kids are more likely to try foods they can help to prepare. Sharp knives and hot boiler plates notwithstanding, there is plenty to do around the kitchen table for kids of all ages. So encourage them to lend a helping hand once in a while. Who knows, you may lay the foundation for your child’s career as a culinary rock star or at least a skilled hobby chef.

Eat together as a family whenever possible. Sit down for dinner and don’t allow your children to eat mindlessly while their attention is focused on other things, such as watching TV, playing video games or doing homework. Mealtimes are great opportunities for them to learn social skills, table manners and healthy eating habits.

Offer your kids portion sizes that are appropriate for their age. Let them know that they can have seconds if they are still hungry, but encourage them to eat slowly. It takes the stomach about twenty minutes to send a signal to the brain that it is full.

Keep in mind that children don’t have the same tastes as adults. For instance, many kids don’t like spicy food, certain textures or even colors. As a parent, you should never nag or force them to clean their plates. Don’t bargain with them or bribe them either. Dessert should be treated as what it is, a part of a meal, not a reward for good behavior. Generally speaking, it is never a good idea to use any kind of food as a bargaining chip.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun®”, available in bookstores, at http://www.timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You can also follow Timi on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

The Meaning of Good Health

October 5th, 2009 at 5:11 pm by timigustafson
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I love the Internet. I don’t miss the days when one had to go to the bookstore or the library to read up on anything and everything. Whatever there is to know about almost any subject, it’s right at our fingertips. I can see a difference in my clients too. They are so much better informed about their aches and pains – even before they come to my practice, and every so often they give me a heads up on the latest news too.

Never before in our history had we so much knowledge available to us in an instant. Search the word “health” on Google and you find no less than one and a quarter billion hits. Narrow that down to “good health” and you still have more than 200 million hits to sift through. A search for “fitness” gets you to nearly half a billion. Search results for “weight loss” number well over 100 million.

So, how is it possible that we find ourselves so confused about seemingly simple matters, such as eating right, staying fit, managing weight, dealing with stress etc? Some people argue that we may be “overeducated” in these matters and that we are bombarded with too much information which only adds to our confusion. Frankly, I don’t believe that. I don’t think there is such a thing a being “overeducated.” That’s like being considered “overqualified” for a job because you have more than the minimal qualifications required for a certain position. What’s the harm in having as much knowledge as possible?

I think the confusion comes from something else, something more fundamental. While most people would say that good health is extremely important or even the most important thing in life, it is not always as clear what constitutes good health and wellbeing. Absence of illness and pain is certainly part of it. Being free from any dependencies on toxic substances is. But does it go beyond the physical? Is happiness also a part of good health? Is living one’s life to the fullest and realizing one’s potential important? Are meaningful relationships with friends and family a factor? How about a positive attitude, optimism and a sense of humor? How about faith and spirituality? Aren’t they all components that make up a healthy life?

What often strikes me the most when I see new clients is their attitude towards their health needs. Many come for quick fixes, the way one brings a car to a repair shop for a tune-up. Those with more serious health problems may be willing to undergo the required treatments, but then they find it hard to make the necessary lifestyle changes. So, the larger picture of what it means to live a healthy life does not get addressed.

What would the larger picture look like? To me, it’s making a conscious choice to be healthy. It starts with what I call “health literacy,” that is the explicit effort of informing ourselves about the ins and outs of an all-around health-promoting lifestyle. All the information we need is readily available. What really matters, however, is to turn our knowledge into action.

This is not about depriving and restricting ourselves and saying good bye to our dear old habits. It’s actually about freedom – our freedom to choose what is good for us over helplessly and fatalistically continuing what we know is detrimental. Yes, in some cases it may require making changes in someone’s eating habits, which can be a challenge. It may require taking up physical activities, which, at first can be uncomfortable and painful. It may take some re-evaluation of priorities in order to achieve a more sustainable stress level, which may seem impossible. In the long run, however, these efforts will be rewarded by the positive effects they have on the entire person.

Yes, I do believe that good health is first and foremost a choice. It has to be an informed choice though – not another fad, a short-lived resolution or a quick-fix measure. No one else can do the work for us. The choice to live our lives to the full measure of our potential, in every aspect, can only be made by each one of us and only for ourselves. But once we take ownership, there is a better chance that the accomplishments will last.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun®”, available in bookstores, at http://www.timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You can also follow Timi on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

When it Comes to Your Health, Knowledge is Power – Or is it?

October 2nd, 2009 at 1:22 pm by timigustafson
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Few occupations enjoy as much respect and authority as the medical profession. This is not only true in our society where only academically trained and licensed professionals can practice what is known as Western medicine. Most cultures around the world hold the practitioners of medicine in high esteem as people whose knowledge and skill endow them with special powers.

This attitude is quite understandable. We all are deeply invested in our faith in the art of medicine. There’s little else that is as important to us as our health. When we fall ill, we’re ready to give anything to get well again. Almost all other concerns in life pale by comparison.

So, it is only natural that, when we get sick, we are all too willing to hand ourselves over to the care of medical professionals and institutions that we trust to have the knowledge and power to restore our health. In my experience, most patients have nearly unlimited trust in the abilities of the medical profession once they depend on it. I certainly was brought up in the belief that doctors “knew exactly what to do” and that their “orders” had to be followed without questioning – and, for the most part of my life, I did just that.

Things have changed in recent years, at least to a certain extent. In his book “How Doctors Think,” Dr. Jerome Groopman M.D. of Harvard Medical School encourages the public to adopt a different view of his profession. He argues that the traditional boundaries between the role of medical professionals as care-givers and patients as care-receivers may have been drawn too sharply in our existing system. Therefore, patients should try to engage more actively in a partnership with their doctors and get more involved in the diagnostic and therapeutic process than it is mostly the case.

Dr. Groopman’s book was an instant best-seller. It showed that there is a tremendous interest in “do-it-yourself” medical research out there – probably for a number of reasons. The public is generally better educated and comfortable with scientific terminology. Direct access to information about health matters is instantly available through the Internet with tens of thousands of websites and blogs dedicated to the subject of health and wellness. Because of widespread lack of health care coverage and HMO-imposed time limits for face-time with their physicians, more people find it necessary to do some research of their own. And, of course, the pharmaceutical industry also spares no effort to keep us continuously updated on its latest breakthrough achievements – so patients can share these “news” with their doctors at their next visit.

In general, I think this is a positive development, not only for patients but for the medical profession as well. Doctors should not see it as a threat to their authority when they are being asked questions by an informed clientele. In fact, most physicians I know welcome and encourage more active patient involvement. Better informed patients feel more empowered and are more likely to take responsibility in the therapeutic process.

But there is a downside as well. Not everyone handles information the same way. Patients (and their loved ones) are usually extremely motivated to learn everything there is to know about the illness they’ve been diagnosed with – especially when they face something serious. Some get overwhelmed, some get paranoid. As soon as they hear or read about certain symptoms, they identify them as their own. In some cases, that can do more harm then good.

The goal is to strike a balance. A functional relationship between physicians and patients can only be developed and maintained if both sides do their part. Even the best-educated patients must be able to trust that their doctors are competent and will do everything in their power to help them. Doctors need to take into account that their clients are not necessarily ignorant about the medical facts and that they want to be taken seriously as partners in their own therapy with a vested interest in the outcome.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun®”, available in bookstores, at http://www.timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You can also follow Timi on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

For Weight Loss, Lifestyle Changes Matter More Than Dieting

September 30th, 2009 at 3:49 pm by timigustafson
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Americans love to diet. Nearly 40 percent of women and 25 percent of men in America are on a weight-loss diet at any given time. Nationwide, we spend over 15 billion dollars annually on dieting-related products and services. And yet, we have the highest rates of obesity, heart disease and diabetes anywhere in the world. It is the sad truth that the vast majority of dieters eventually fail, despite their earnest efforts to control their weight.

Quick fixes are naturally more attractive than long term strategies. Diets that promise immediate results and don’t require too much effort enjoy the highest popularity. The problem is that fast results are rarely sustainable over time. The word “diet” itself suggests an only “temporary” break from one’s regular lifestyle. There is the implicit assumption that the diet will end as soon as the intended goals (i.e. weight loss, lower blood pressure, etc.) are accomplished. Dieting may be hard, but at least it’s not permanent. It is needless to say that this kind of attitude makes relapsing into old habits almost inevitable.

Of course, dieting is not altogether to be dismissed as futile because of lousy success rates. If the goal is to lose a few pounds in a hurry for swimsuit season, almost any weight loss program will do the trick. However, instead of looking for a magic bullet that does the job as quickly and as efficiently as possible, I think, it would be more beneficial to have a long-term strategy that goes beyond instantly gratifying results. In other words, instead of focusing on dieting for the single purpose of weight loss, I would rather favor a systematic development of (and permanent adherence to) an overall healthy lifestyle.

A diet plan I’m particularly fond of is called the Mediterranean diet, especially since it is rather a “lifestyle” than a “diet.” As the name suggests, Mediterranean-style cooking takes its cues from countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea, such as Southern France, Spain, Italy, Greece, parts of Turkey and also Northern Africa. Mediterranean food includes an abundance of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts and legumes. Olive oil is the primary fat source. Meat consumption is minimal. So is poultry. Fish, on the other hand, is frequently served. Eggs and dairy products are used sparingly.

By contrast, our diet is typically heavy on animal foods, processed carbohydrates and sugar, but devoid of fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Food items are too often chosen for convenience rather than for their nutritional value. Instead of setting time aside for sit-down meals, too many of us skip breakfast, work through lunch, snack all day and get dinner from a pizza parlor or fast-food joint.

Unlike in our culture, speed and efficiency are not at the core of Mediterranean cooking. Most meals are made from scratch using only fresh ingredients. People enjoy eating. Sharing food with family and friends is a central part of the social fabric and spending time eating together is highly valued. Eating while watching TV or working at the same time is almost unheard of and so is snacking between meals.

Experts have looked at these lifestyle differences between our cultures for a long time. Some have pointed out that unhealthy lifestyle habits also exist in the Mediterranean region, including high alcohol consumption and smoking. Yet the overall health status of the public seems better than ours, including the average life expectancy.

So, we have to ask ourselves what do they know that we don’t. Or, more to the point, what do they do right that we do wrong? Obviously, there are no simple answers. But besides the preference for fresh ingredients over processed foods and slow cooking styles over fast food and ready-to-eat meals, I think, it is the lifestyle that makes a difference. We should re-learn to look at food as something more than fuel to keep us going or as comfort to get us over our frustration or boredom. Buying food and cooking dinner should not be considered as additional chores we have to squeeze in after a busy day, but rather as a time to relax and to connect with loved ones. Sitting down at the dinner table instead of mindless munching in front of the TV should enrich our day, not complicate it. Food does not have to be the enemy that wreaks havoc on our waistline but can be a part of life that makes it good and worthwhile. Small changes like these can go a long way and a lot of positive results may come along without too much extra effort.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun®”, available in bookstores, at http://www.timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You can also follow Timi on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

Healthy Eating Habits Can Be Learned – Mostly By Example

September 29th, 2009 at 4:02 pm by timigustafson
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Many parents have a hard time making their kids eat “healthy” foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Apples and pears – no way! Brussels sprouts and spinach – forget it! Broccoli – that will be the day!

You may know the scenario. It’s war! Little jaws lock, small mouths refuse to open. You try every trick in the book and still don’t get any cooperation. Neither your parental authority, nor bribery, nor bargaining make a difference. Eventually, you give up, accept defeat and go along with whatever your little darlings demand.

Needless to say that everybody loses when parents forego their responsibilities – especially when it comes to healthy eating habits. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Kids learn mostly by example. They model their own behavior after their parents and their older siblings. If your kids have bad eating habits, ask yourself how that happened in the first place. If you eat a poor diet yourself, neglect your health and physical fitness or smoke and drink in front of them, you shouldn’t be surprised if your children go down the same road. So, be a good role model and set the stage for healthy eating at home and when you eat out as a family. Let your actions speak louder than your words.

Do not expect your kids to know for themselves what is good for them. They don’t have “natural” instincts they can trust. At times, they need your guidance and, if necessary, your willingness to draw the line. Don’t be an enabler. If your kids nag you to buy them snacks or candy and you give in despite of better knowledge, you can only blame yourself for the consequences.

It’s never too early to start teaching your kids the art of healthy eating. Take your children with you to the grocery store or, even better, to your local farmers market. Explain to them the benefits of the foods you’re buying. You may want to visit a working farm where they can see first hand how produce is grown and harvested. Among other things, it will help them appreciate the value of their food.

Kids are more likely to try foods they can help to prepare. Sharp knives and hot boiler plates notwithstanding, there is plenty to do around the kitchen table for kids of all ages. So encourage them to lend a helping hand once in a while. Who knows, you may lay the foundation for your child’s career as a culinary rock star or at least a skilled hobby chef.

Eat together as a family whenever possible. Sit down for dinner and don’t allow your children to eat mindlessly while their attention is focused on other things, such as watching TV, playing video games or doing homework. Mealtimes are great opportunities for them to learn social skills, table manners and healthy eating habits.

Offer your kids portion sizes that are appropriate for their age. Let them know that they can have seconds if they are still hungry, but encourage them to eat slowly. It takes the stomach about twenty minutes to send a signal to the brain that it is full.

Keep in mind that children don’t have the same tastes as adults. For instance, many kids don’t like spicy food, certain textures or even colors. As a parent, you should never nag or force them to clean their plates. Don’t bargain with them or bribe them either. Dessert should be treated as what it is, a part of a meal, not a reward for good behavior. Generally speaking, it is never a good idea to use any kind of food as a bargaining chip.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun®”, available in bookstores, at http://www.timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You can also follow Timi on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

 

More Supermarkets in Poor Neighborhoods

September 28th, 2009 at 5:27 pm by timigustafson
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New Yorkers know a good thing when they see it. As the New York Times recently reported, the Big Apple wants to make healthy nutrition more available for everyone. It is common knowledge that fresh groceries are harder to come by in poor neighborhoods than in affluent places, not only in big cities but almost everywhere in the country.

This is why the New York City Planning Commission is now taking steps to attract more grocery stores and supermarkets to set up shop in under-served communities by changing zoning laws and adding tax incentives. If things go according to plan, a significant number of new grocery outlets will soon be opened in northern Manhattan, central Brooklyn, the South Bronx and in Queens.

Underprivileged neighborhoods have long suffered from a scarcity of supermarkets and grocery outlets. Fresh produce, meat, dairy products and other perishables are among the most expensive items those stores carry. Many of the foods with high nutritional value are unaffordable for people who have to get by on a limited budget.

Moreover, as critics of the proposed program are quick to point out, it is unclear whether easier access to healthier foods would automatically improve people’s health. This is not a simple “supply and demand” issue. Although the underprivileged are disproportionately hard hit by diet-related illnesses, such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension, it is by no means guaranteed that the availability of better quality foods will make them change their existing eating habits. Poor diets are common among poor people, but so are alcohol and drug abuse.

What needs to be taken into account as well is a widespread lack of knowledge and education about issues of health and nutrition. Without accompanying educational efforts to raise nutritional awareness, we can’t expect behavioral changes to take place by themselves.

Yet despite of all these obstacles, accepting the dismal existing situation is no longer an option. Health care for the poor on an emergency basis is unsustainable. Access to healthy nutrition for everyone is the best preventive health care measure we have. In other words, instead of treating people only when they are sick, we have to do everything we can to keep them healthy. Sound nutrition is the cornerstone in this effort.

Government can play an instrumental role in providing preventive health care, especially for those in society who are the most vulnerable. But whatever course of action government officials will eventually decide to take, it must be practical and it must be reality-based.

This should be quite feasible! For instance, I read recently with great satisfaction about the increasing acceptance of food stamps at farmers markets. As a friend of mine once said, local farmers markets are candy stores for health nuts. So are the “urban farms” that are springing up in inner cities all over the country. For inexperienced food shoppers, these small, individually owned outlets are far less overwhelming and intimidating than the upscale supermarkets – and, of course, much more affordable.

The great success of Alice Water’s “Edible School Yard” project, which she started to help improve the quality of school lunches for inner city kids, did not come from the food that she grew on a deserted lot in downtown Oakland. It came from the spirit she awakened in everyone she engaged and challenged to spread the idea of healthy nutrition in their homes and their communities until it took hold and changed people’s lives.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun®,” available in bookstores, at http://www.timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You can also follow Timi on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

Why We Should Be Worried About Sodas

September 27th, 2009 at 5:52 pm by timigustafson
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We are having a brand new food fight on our hands. This time, it is about beverages – soft drinks and sodas, to be more precise. A new tax has been proposed for sodas based on the rationale that they may significantly contribute to our national obesity crisis. Advocates for the tax argue that additional revenues are needed to pay for health care costs and that it would be justified to hold the soft drink industry responsible for the damage caused by its hazardous products. They also predict that resulting price increases would cause consumers to cut back on consumption, which would have positive effects on their health.

Opponents say that people should be free to make their own choices and that it would be unfair to single out individual items, such as sodas, as culprits for widespread health problems. Weight issues, they argue, are caused by overindulgence in all food products, not just soft drinks.

The “war on sodas” is actually not all that new. Schools across the country have long made efforts to remove soda vending machines from their premises, often against their own financial interests. State legislators and school boards have endured immense struggles against the soda industry.

The whole tax issue aside, as a dietitian and health counselor who has worked with children for many years, I believe indeed that sodas are harmful to our health and should not be consumed in large quantities, especially at a young age. And not just because their high sugar content can make us fat. What bothers me as much is the fact that almost all diet and regular sodas are carbonated.

Carbonated drinks have high levels of phosphoric acid (phosphate) and carbonic acid. Elevated acidic levels can cause an imbalance of calcium (an alkaline mineral) in our blood stream. Under normal circumstances, our body’s natural mechanism maintains a steady ratio of calcium to phosphate in the blood (also known as “acid base balance” or “blood pH”) with the help of a healthy diet.

However, if we overindulge in foods and beverages that throw off the delicate acid-alkaline balance, the body has to struggle hard get it back by adding calcium. The more phosphate from carbonated drinks is ingested, the more calcium is needed. If that calcium is not supplied in sufficient quantities from food products, such as milk, cheese, salmon and sardines (with bones), dark green leafy vegetables and the like, calcium that is already stored in the body will be “pulled” from bone mass and teeth, thereby damaging their density. Severe osteoporosis and premature loss of teeth may result in later years.

To growing kids, an acid-alkaline imbalance is especially harmful. Potentially serious damage to their bone structure is being done at a critical time when they build up their bone mass that has to last for a lifetime. The consumption of large amounts of carbonated drinks can jeopardize this process. Once the damage is done, it is hard to reverse.

Supporters of the soda tax are right to compare the consumption of carbonated drinks to tobacco products and alcohol as equally harmful to minors. In the absence of any meaningful government regulation efforts of the soft drink industry, we consumers have to educate ourselves about the facts of carbonated sodas, so we can make better informed choices to protect ourselves and our children.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun®,” available in bookstores, at http://www.timigustafson.com and at Amazon.com. You can also follow Timi on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD

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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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