Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

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).

Salt and Sugar Contribute to Rise in Heart Disease, Studies Find

February 12th, 2014 at 11:26 am by timigustafson
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Several new studies focusing on heart health confirm that following certain dietary guidelines is crucial for preventing heart disease, one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Many, if not most, of these deaths could be avoided with appropriate diet and lifestyle changes.

High amounts of sodium (salt) and added sugars in processed and packaged foods are believed to be among the main culprits for the dramatic rise of the disease over the past few decades.

High sodium levels in the blood stream are a cause for high blood pressure, which, in turn, is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke. Decreasing sodium intake could prevent thousands of deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Consuming sugary foods and beverages also apparently adds to the risk of heart disease. A recent study on the health effects of added sugars in sodas, cakes, candy, and other sweetened foods found that participants were more likely to develop heart disease as their percentage of total calorie intake from sugars went up. In fact, those whose diet included more than 25 percent from added sugars almost tripled their risk.

According to the CDC, most of us consume way too much of both ingredients.

On average, Americans have a daily sodium intake of about 3,400 mg, significantly above the recommended limit of 2,300 mg, and more than twice the amount considered adequate, which is about 1,500 mg.

An estimated 16 to 20 percent of total daily calories in the typical American diet come from added sugars, according to the CDC. Curbing consumption could reduce calorie intake from nutritionally deficient sources and help prevent diseases associated with overweight and obesity, including heart disease.

Unfortunately, trying to make such reductions may prove difficult for consumers because the sources of sodium and sugars are not always easily identifiable. Even items that don’t taste especially salty or sweet may still have high sodium and/or sugar contents.

Nutrition experts recommend to carefully read food labels. If the sodium amount per serving is 5 percent daily value or less, it is a low-sodium product. Everything over 20 percent daily value is considered high.

Because sugars are not required nutrients, there are no official limits or guidelines available. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that consumption should not exceed 25 percent of daily calories, an amount some experts still consider excessively high.

The best way to lower the risk of heart disease may be making gradual improvements to your meal plans by adding more fruits, vegetables and other fresh ingredients, while limiting or eliminating processed items as much as possible.

Another recent study on the subject revealed that a so-called “whole diet approach” that focuses on increased consumption of healthful foods can be more effective than, for example, being too concerned with fat content. Diet plans like DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or the Mediterranean-style diet seem especially helpful in this regard.

Like with most other diet and lifestyle-related health problems, it is unlikely that we will alter the current trends anytime soon. But better education and willingness to overcome ingrained preferences could eventually move us in the right direction.

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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).

The Flexitarian Diet – Not as Simple as It Sounds

February 8th, 2014 at 9:04 am by timigustafson
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As more Americans are getting concerned about their nutritional health, loading up on fruits and vegetables while cutting back on meat products is becoming increasingly popular. These so-called “flexitarians” – not complete vegetarians but discriminating omnivores – are receiving a lot of attention lately from nutrition and health experts who notice the benefits of this rather loose diet prescription.

The term “Flexitarian Diet” was first coined by Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Registered Dietitian and author of a book she published in 2009 under the same title. Based on her experience as a nutrition counselor, she advocates a mostly plant-based eating regimen for people who don’t want to give up meat altogether.

Eating flexitarian-style is about adding more nutritious food groups to your existing diet, rather than taking away items you like and are used to, she explains. For this, she offers fixed weekly meal plans or lets you pick and choose as you make gradual improvements. For example, going meatless at least once or twice a week can be a good start.

Once a meat-lover gets used to the idea that plant foods can be equally as tasty and satisfying, the “conversion” process can continue until a pattern is established where the nutritionally healthiest foods dominate – but not at the exclusion of all others.

Research has shown time and again that plant food eaters tend to consume fewer calories and are far less likely to develop weight problems compared to their meat-eating counterparts. They are also, generally speaking, in a better position to receive essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals. But that doesn’t mean all vegetarians automatically meet their dietary needs.

Essential nutrients are the kind the body must have on a regular basis and cannot make on its own. Therefore, they have to come from food. Among these are dietary vitamins and minerals as well as carbohydrates, certain fats, and amino acids.

Some are easier to come by than others. For example, B-12, an essential vitamin, can only be found in animal food products. Strict vegetarians, a.k.a. vegans, must find ways to avoid B-12 deficiency, e.g. by taking supplements.

Likewise, vitamin C is limited to plant foods. If you don’t eat enough of these, you may encounter health problems in the long run, such as a weakened immune system.

Carbohydrates may have gotten a bad rap among dieters, but they provide necessary fuel for many parts of the body, including the brain. They are abundantly present in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. They are also the only source of dietary fiber there is.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. A sufficient supply of complete protein, which contains all essential amino acids, is important for any number of health reasons, including muscle mass, bone density, organ tissue replacement, and the healing of wounds. It is not impossible to cover your needs for complete protein solely from plant-based sources, but it is easier for someone who eats meat, fish or poultry once in a while.

Obviously, a healthy human body is sturdy enough to endure shortages of certain nutrients for short periods of time. Unfortunately, the so-called Western diet – which is increasingly becoming today’s most popular eating style, not just here but worldwide – is notoriously lacking in wholesome nutrients. The consequences are plain to see.

But even for those who want to make changes for the better, maintaining a perfectly balanced diet is not always easy. The oftentimes inconsistent, if not contradictory, messages conveyed by the latest diet ideas leave people more confused than educated. Experimenting in a ‘flexitarian’ way may be one of the better options we have left – until we get it eventually right.

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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).

Most Seniors Adapt Well to Reduced Mobility and Other Ailments, Survey Finds

February 5th, 2014 at 1:08 pm by timigustafson
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Despite of the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, a majority of older Americans find ways to manage life’s challenges and keep their independence, according to a study recently published in the American Journal of Public Health. Unlike most previous studies of this kind, this one tried to take a more nuanced approach to issues of age-related disability and dependence of assistance.

Age-related disability is commonly defined as a reduced capability of performing everyday activities like maintaining basic hygiene, getting oneself dressed, moving around without help, or other routines like shopping and cooking.

According to the study, which looked at 38 million older adults enrolled in Medicare, including residents of nursing homes, about 12 million (31 percent) were fully able to manage on their own without any assistance; 9 million (25 percent) successfully learned to cope with limitations by using devices like electric wheelchairs, walkers, canes, hearing aides, and by making other adjustments to their homes; about 2 million (6 percent) were unaware of or failed to acknowledge their diminishing independence; 7 million (18 percent) found it hard to keep functioning without support but tried anyway; and nearly 8 million (20 percent) relied on caregivers, with about 1 million living in nursing homes.

Those who took precautionary measures like downscaling their households and simplifying their living environment were considered “successful adapters,” while others who either struggled to get through their day or depended at least part-time on outside help were found at the greatest risk of losing their independence.

Most seniors fear the loss of independence and having to move into a nursing home more than death, according to several studies on the subject. A vast majority (89 percent) hope to die in their own home, and more than half are concerned about not being able to do so. Most also don’t expect or desire to receive support from their children or other relatives. Only 1 percent reported wanting or actually receiving financial aid.

On the other hand, especially now retiring baby boomers are very keen on utilizing technological advances like computers and other devices and appliances in their homes to maintain an independent lifestyle.

But despite of such unprecedented opportunities, health concerns do weigh heavily on today’s seniors. Because of rising rates of chronic illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and others, older Americans are actually less healthy than the generations that came before them. This may have potentially devastating consequences for how well they age, and so far the signs are not encouraging.

Other leading health concerns for the elderly include arthritis, osteoporosis, respiratory problems, and of course, cognitive decline like memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

The good new is that at least some of these trends could be turned around through better diet and lifestyle choices, and for implementing those, it is never too soon or too late. It would be surprising if Americans who have the most to lose could not find ways to protect what’s dearest to them.

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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).

Childhood Obesity Has Lasting Consequences, Study Finds

February 1st, 2014 at 2:34 pm by timigustafson
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Parents of overweight children may think that a little baby fat is harmless and will disappear over time as their kids grow older, and often that is indeed the case. However, according to a new study, kindergartners with weight problems are four times more likely to become obese as adolescents than their normal-weight peers. The sad fact is that certain tracks are set early, and they can lead to struggles with weight and related diseases for a lifetime.

“A lot of risk may be set by the age of five, so you really have to focus on those very young ages,” said Dr. Solveig Cunningham, professor of global health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and lead author of the study report. “What we are seeing is, among the kids that become obese, a lot of that happens the first few years in elementary school,” she added.

Even an excessively high birth weight may be associated with obesity risk, said Dr. Cunningham. Her research found that obesity rates at kindergarten age were twice as high for babies weighing more than 8.8 pounds at birth compared to those whose birth weight was lower.

The findings confirmed previous studies on correlations between obesity during childhood and throughout adolescence and adulthood. All concluded that the earlier children become overweight, the harder it will be to overcome weight problems and undo health damages later on, which can include diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and cancer.

Childhood obesity has more than doubled in young children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The percentage of obese children aged 6 to 11 years in the United States increased from 7 to 18 percent; similarly, the percentage of obese adolescents aged 12 to 19 years went from 5 to 18 percent over the same time period.

In order to curb these dismal trends, parents, healthcare providers, schools and policy makers must work together to create a health-promoting environment from the start.

“It will take a groundswell effort from all partners to make a lasting impact on getting kids to eat right,” says Jill Castle, a Registered Dietitian who specializes in pediatric nutrition.

Parents are bombarded with information about nutrition for their young ones, but it is a hodge-podge of ever-changing and sometimes contradictory advice, which leaves them more confused than educated, she says. It is up to pediatricians and other healthcare professionals to fill in the gaps and help parents better understand the extraordinary importance of nutritional well-being at a young age.

Parents need to lead by example, meaning that their own actions matter greatly when it comes to cultivating good eating habits at home. That starts with making healthy choices at the grocery store. All kids can find in the fridge or pantry is what parents put there. At least as long as their children are too young to buy their own food, parents function as gatekeepers – and they should take that job seriously.

Schools also play a major role, and much more work needs to be done here. Despite of increased legislative efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches, not enough funding is made available to make a real difference. Especially children from low-income families desperately need these meals, which are oftentimes the only food source they can depend on all day.

Last but not least, as a society, we must come to a clearer understanding that millions of overfed and undernourished children are a concern for all of us. As the First Lady, Michelle Obama, once put it, “Childhood obesity isn’t just a public health issue, or just an economic threat, it’s a national security threat as well.”

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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).

FDA Plans to Update Food Labels, but Will It Help Consumers?

January 29th, 2014 at 12:58 pm by timigustafson
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It has been 20 years since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last issued guidelines for food labels as they appear on bags and packages in supermarkets and grocery stores. Since then, consumer behavior has significantly changed and advocates have long called for making the information more user-friendly.

“The food environment has changed and our dietary guidance has changed,” said Michael Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods who worked at the agency in the early 1990s when a universal labeling system was first introduced. “It’s important to keep this updated, so what is iconic doesn’t become a relic,” he added.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s that food manufacturers offered any nutrition information at all. Since people still cooked most of their meals from scratch at home, there was no real need for it. However, as consumers sought greater convenience, the demand for processed foods increased. Eventually those trends prompted congress to impose regulations.

But it wasn’t an easy process, and to some extent, it still isn’t. Especially the listings of serving sizes are utterly confusing to most people who often don’t realize that many food containers hold multiple servings, which can distort other data on the so-called Nutrition Facts labels as well.

“The agency is working toward publishing proposed rules to update the nutrition facts labels and serving size information to improve consumer understanding and use of nutrition information,” said Julie Putnam, a media spokesperson for the FDA, to TIME magazine. “For example, the initial nutritional facts label focused on fat and diet. There is now a shift to focus on calories to help consumers construct healthy diets.”

Also the positioning of food labels needs reviewing. Most labels are placed on the back or one side of the packages and can be hard to read, especially for seniors. A front-of-package design using sufficiently large fonts could be more helpful.

While today’s consumers are arguably better informed about issues of nutrition and nutritional health than ever before, they also get sometimes overwhelmed with data they don’t readily understand. For instance, the metric system that measures ingredients in grams and milligrams is not familiar to many Americans and often leaves them at a loss for what the numbers truly mean.

And although there is some evidence that more people are interested in food labels nowadays, studies have shown that only a fraction – fewer than 10 percent – actually looked at calorie counts, and only a miniscule number – about 1 percent – viewed additional components like fat, trans fat, added sugar and serving sizes. Still, well over one-third claimed to check at least for one ingredient they deemed important.

Regardless of these rather disillusioning findings, a recently released report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revealed that more Americans indeed consume slightly fewer calories, prepare more of their own meals, and want to know about the quality of the foods they buy. The report also found that a growing number are aware of nutrition guidelines and pay attention, at least to some degree, to what they recommend.

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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).

Workers’ Health, a Priority for Business Leaders

January 25th, 2014 at 5:55 pm by timigustafson
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At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, issues of health and wellness are at the center of numerous events and gatherings. Those topics have been addressed here before – an initiative called Workplace Wellness Alliance was started in 2009 – but interest has increased substantially since then and has now gotten the attention of leaders and representatives of businesses and countries from around the world.

“In today’s environment of economic uncertainty, individuals, institutions and countries are striving for greater adaptability and resilience against setbacks while continuing towards improving competitiveness in an ever-changing world,” wrote Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chairman of the Forum in the opening statement of this year’s program. “In this context, organizations, in their role as employers, have an even greater responsibility to nurture employee resilience; there is strong evidence that a healthy workforce is vital to a country’s competitiveness, productivity and well-being.”

Dismal statistics about growing stress and burnout at work underline the importance of paying greater attention to work-related health problems. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 350 million people suffer from mostly stress-related depression worldwide. It is one of the leading causes of disability and a contributing factor in multiple so-called non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like high blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer.

While a certain amount of stress in the workplace is considered unavoidable and can even be an integral part of productivity, unhealthy stress levels are reached when workers face demands and pressures that exceed their abilities or are beyond their control or leave them feel unsupported. By contrast, the WHO states, “a healthy working environment is one in which there is not only an absence of harmful conditions but an abundance of health-promoting ones.” This includes, but is not limited to, the “availability of health-promoting organizational support practices and structures.”

As self-evident as some of these descriptions may seem, employers have not always been quick to recognize their role in addressing the health concerns of their workforce. Traditionally, even employer-sponsored healthcare systems like in the United States have not systematically engaged in preventive measures to reduce illnesses and injuries in the workplace. But with rising insurance premiums and other healthcare-related costs, businesses feel the need to invest more in the welfare of their workers, not only because it is the right thing to do but also because it is in their own interest.

According to Buck Consultants, a global consulting firm specializing in human resources, work-related stress is now considered a top health risk and drives workplace wellness programs in many parts of the world. In addition to skyrocketing direct healthcare expenses, absenteeism (sick leave) and presenteeism (workers show up for work but are not fully productive) cost companies billions of dollars in annual losses, much of which could be prevented.

The issue should not only concern the business world. The last thing any society can afford is to have a large part of its working population burned out and forced into early retirement because of disability, said Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s former labor minister who became lately the country’s first female defense secretary. “These cases are no longer just the exception. It’s a trend that we have to do something about,” she said in an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP), the French news agency.

Nearly one out of every 10 sick days is due to psychological illness, yet labor protection still covers almost exclusively physical health problems, even in Germany where labor laws are already relatively strict compared to other countries, including the U.S.

Under von der Leyen’s leadership, the German government has launched a campaign to raise awareness of the risk of burnout among workers and vowed to explore possible solutions.

But ultimately it will be up to business leaders to create more health-conducive work environments where workers can thrive instead of being used up for the sake of increased but short-lived productivity.

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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 Timi Gustafson, R.D. As a clinical dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and, as of late, blogger, she has been able to reach millions of people, addressing their concerns about issues of health, lifestyle and nutrition. As Co-founder and Director of Nutrition Services for Cyberdiet.com (now Mediconsult.com), she created the first nutrition-related interactive website on the Internet in 1995. Many of the features you find on her blog, www.timigustafson.com, are based on the pioneering work of those days. Today, her goals remain the same: Helping people to achieve optimal health of body and mind. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from San José State University in California and completed a Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. She is a registered dietitian and Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Dietitians in Business and Communications, Healthy Aging, Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition, and the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Groups. For more information about Timi Gustafson R.D. please visit: www.timigustafson.com

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