Timi Gustafson, R.D.

Helping people to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

More Than Temptation, Stress Causes Overeating During the Holidays

November 10th, 2013 at 3:21 pm by timigustafson
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That many people’s waistlines expand during the holiday season is a well-established fact. But, as a new study found, the reason why most of us overindulge at this particular time may not be so much the countless opportunities for extra munching but rather the need for extra comfort due to heightened stress.

The study, which was conducted at the University of Konstanz, Germany, showed that participants who had a tendency to reach for food when stressed did not continue to do so after they were more relaxed, even though they were given equal access to the comfort foods they craved when they felt tense.

Other participants had reverse reactions. They ate less or stopped eating altogether in acutely stressful situations and compensated (or often overcompensated) for the deprivation afterwards when the tension ebbed. In either case, eating was connected to their stress experience rather than the availability of food.

Stress eating, or emotional eating as it is sometimes called, is not yet fully understood by scientist. In fact, the expression “stress eating” itself should be a contradiction in terms. Acute stress as a short-term response supposedly blocks the desire for food due to hormone releases in the brain that suppress appetite. But when high stress levels persist, as with chronic stress, cortisol, an appetite-stimulating hormone, secretes in the adrenal glands and remains elevated until the stress period ends, which may be indefinite.

Some foods seem to be more effective for stress relief than others. Comfort foods, which are typically highly processed and filled with fat and sugar, are among the favorite choices of the chronically stressed. These are also the kinds of food that one can easily snack on, often mindlessly.

Overeating, of course, is not the only widespread response to stress. Because of its energy-draining and exhausting effects, both physically and mentally, stress prevents many people from exercising and often from getting enough sleep. Alcohol and/or drug use, not unheard of among stress sufferers, add to the likelihood of unhealthy weight gain and other body dysfunctions.

So, what makes us so much more vulnerable and so inclined to succumb to our cravings during the holiday season? The fact is that this is no holiday at all for most people who find themselves burdened with many additional tasks and obligations while their everyday lives still must go on as usual. Thus, stress sources multiply. That, at least, may be one reason.

Still, whatever we do to cope with those challenges, it is important to understand that we are not helpless when it comes to controlling our impulses. The first step towards making positive changes is to become more aware of our tendencies and then take the necessary steps to counterbalance them.

For example, do you have a sweet tooth? If so, you can limit your access to your favorite treats. Do you easily forego exercising and make excuses for staying sedentary? You can draw up a fitness plan and join in with likeminded people who can hold you to it. Are you chronically sleep-deprived? You can make a point of increasing your sleep time. The list can go on and on.

It would be naïve to think that all this can be accomplished with a quick resolution. Far from it. Instead, I recommend to start with one thing, something concrete you can take on right now without further delay. How about, this holiday season, I give myself the gift of an hour daily to take care of my health and my peace of mind? It doesn’t matter what exactly you choose to do. Read a book, go for a walk, meditate, whatever. Stay with it, and that gift might just keep on giving.

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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).

No Time to Be Sick

November 6th, 2013 at 2:51 pm by timigustafson
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It is a well-documented fact that American workers put in longer hours and take less time off than their counterparts in almost any other country in the developed world. Unlike in Europe, for example, where four to six weeks paid vacation time is mandatory, there are no comparable laws in the United States. But in addition to the lack of recreation, most Americans don’t stay home even when they are sick.

According to surveys by Careerbuilder.com, about three in four people come to work while nursing a cold, the flu and something worse. Other statistics indicate the numbers are even higher.

When asked, most of those who decide to toughen it out say they don’t want to fall behind in their workload or be thought of as slackers. Most are also aware that the germs they spread around while sneezing and coughing may infect their coworkers – but still they insist on staying on the job.

It doesn’t help that taking a day off now and then is unaffordable for many Americans. Again, unlike in most European countries, there are no laws here that mandate a minimum amount of paid sick leave.

Employers, of course, are keenly aware that workers who show up ill can do more harm than good, not only because the viruses they carry are contagious, but also because they are likely less focused and productive than normally. In other words, it affects businesses’ bottom line, probably more so than if people stayed at home. Luckily, in this day and age, many of us can do at least some of their work remotely and don’t have to be physically present in their workplaces.

Either way, as this year’s cold and flu season approaches, it may be a good idea to make some plans for how to cope with the inevitable before it strikes.

Your first step should be getting a flu shot. It may not protect you against every strand that’s out there, but it increases your chances to escape some.

Second, you are well advised to wash your hands every time you leave common areas like conference rooms or cafeterias, or touch items like door handles, staircase railings or elevator buttons. Thorough washing and sanitizing of hands after bathroom visits should go without saying.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to eliminate all germ threats and can only minimize the risk of getting infected so much. Still, it makes sense to take as many precautions as you can think of. However, you don’t want to become paralyzed with fear and develop paranoid behavior (Melvin Udall, the obsessive-compulsive character portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the movie “As Good As It Gets” comes to mind).

Your best weapon, besides vaccination, is to strengthen your immune system as much as possible. Especially in the winter months, it is important to eat healthily and get lots of vitamins from fruits and vegetables. Go outdoors and exercise, even if the weather is less than inviting. An enclosed gym may provide many more health hazards than cold but fresh air. Make sure you get enough sleep, since tiredness and exhaustion make you more vulnerable to infections. Manage your stress as well as you can.

Should you still fall ill despite of your best efforts, see what can be negotiated in terms of staying at home and, if necessary, doing some work over the phone and via email. Your boss and colleagues should thank you for your wise decision.

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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).

Growing Up in Poverty Affects Brain Development, Study Finds

November 2nd, 2013 at 12:06 pm by timigustafson
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That children who are exposed to the hardships of poverty suffer many disadvantages is of no surprise. But now a recent study found that lack of financial security, especially when it involves hunger and nutritional deprivation, can lead to stunted brain growth, making it harder to ever develop mental skills most of us take for granted.

In their study report, the researchers concluded that childhood poverty was often associated with smaller white and cortical gray matter, nerve tissues in the brain, and hippocampal and amygdala volumes, areas in the brain that are responsible for regulating memory and emotions.

“Generally speaking, larger brains within a certain range of normal are healthier brains. Having a smaller brain within a certain range of normal is generally not healthy, [and] it’s associated with poorer outcomes,” explained Dr. Joan Luby, a professor of child psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and lead author of the study, to Reuters Health.

For their study, the researchers analyzed data from an existing project that involved 145 children, ages 6 to 12, who grew up in low-income neighborhoods around St. Louis, and whose brains were imaged annually from preschool through 8th grade.

In addition to the screenings, the tests also included observations of interactions between the children and their parents. While most kids from poor families showed signs of stunted brain growth, those who had the least parental support seemed to do worse.

Children do better with parents who are sensitive, nurturing, attentive and emotionally available, even when basic material resources are missing, said Dr. Luby. “Biology is very much influenced by the environment,” she added. “The question is what period might be the time when the brain is most sensitive to influence.”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), early childhood is the most intensive period of brain development. “Adequate stimulation and nutrition are essential for development during the first three years of life. It is during these years that a child’s brain is most sensitive to the influences of the external environment,” says one WHO report.

The latest statistics by the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP) show that more than 16 million children (22 percent of all children) in America live in families below the federal poverty line ($23,550 annual income for a family of four). Almost all of them face food insecurity at least on some days each month.

The experience of food shortages during childhood has also other long-term effects. A separate study found that people who were brought up with poor eating habits because of constricted food budgets don’t readily make dietary improvements later in life, even if they can afford to. The habits they developed early on continue to influence their preferences as adults – often with devastating outcomes for their health.

The findings of these studies and many others underline the importance of poverty and hunger intervention. Tragically, current government measures move us further in the opposite direction. As this blog post is being written, millions of Americans who depend on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, will lose some or all aid, forcing them to get by on even less. Most likely, many of the youngest members of our society will pay the heftiest price. Considering the consequences, these policies are not only cruel but also shortsighted.

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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 Holiday Season, A Time for Emotional Eating

October 30th, 2013 at 7:07 am by timigustafson
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As the holidays are nearing, even those among us who mostly manage to stay in shape have to wonder how they can prevent serious damage to their waistline this time of the year. It’s no secret: from Thanksgiving (or earlier) through New Year’s Day, we all indulge in lots of parties, festive meals, and treats all abound. The aftermath, of course, is filled with regrets and renewed vows never to succumb to such temptations again – a.k.a. resolution season. But as many know from experience, those efforts will likely be just as futile next time around as they were in the past. So is there no escape from this vicious cycle?

Holiday bingeing is hard to avoid, not only because of the many opportunities (and excuses) to indulge more than usual, but also because the holidays are a rather emotional time. It may be meant to be a joyous season, however, it also brings negative emotions such as anxiety, depression and loneliness closer to the surface and makes them even harder to bear. Add the extra stress that holiday preparations inevitably produce, and you have the perfect set of conditions where emotional eating can thrive.

Not all indulgence is automatically dysfunctional, of course. In some ways, we as humans are genetically programmed to overdo it now and then. Our forbearers of hundreds of years ago had little choice but to eat as much and as fast as they could on the rare occasions when food was plentiful, to be followed by periods of near starvation. But those times are long gone and, for most of us, every day is a feast by comparison. Combined with our predominantly sedentary lifestyle, the negative consequences of our now considered “normal” food consumption should not surprise anyone.

But there is a much darker side to overeating when it becomes compulsive. Only recently, binge-eating disorder (BED) has been recognized as a medical condition. It is now defined as “a serious mental illness in which emotions and thinking patterns cause a person to adopt harmful eating habits, such as overeating or starvation. Often, these habits are a way of coping with depression, stress, or anxiety.” BED differs from other eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia, as it does not typically include purging (mostly by vomiting or using laxatives) to avoid weight gain. But like those other behaviors, BED is often rooted in serious emotional conflicts.

Not everyone who engages in emotional eating will lose control and end up self-destructing. But if the underlying causes remain unaddressed and untreated, dysfunctional behavior may become harder and harder to overcome.

Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than physical hunger, explains Jane Jakubczak, a Registered Dietitian at the University of Maryland. Studies have shown that 75 percent of overeating, that is eating without being hungry, is caused by emotions. So dealing with emotions appropriately is most important, she says.

So it would make sense to think that because the holidays not only stir up both positive and negative emotions and give us also good excuses to feed them (literally and figuratively), we are more at risk than at any other time to fall into the well-known traps.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Learning what triggers your emotional responses is key to avoid them from happening. There are many ways this can be achieved. For example, if being around food and treats is too tempting, try to avoid being in their presence as best as you can. There are many ways to get into the holiday spirit without surrounding yourself with edibles. Resist buying urges. Ask to have food platters or candy jars placed in parts of your office space where you can’t see or smell them. Busy yourself with thoughts other than about food. Instead of partaking in every lunch or dinner party you are invited to, suggest some alternative events like going on a ski trip or some other outdoor activity. For those eating events you cannot escape from, make a plan how to navigate them, including how much you will allow yourself to eat no matter how often you are urged to dig in.

Most importantly, feed your emotions with what they really need: fun, laughter, companionship, compassion… You can never overindulge in these.

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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).

Not Getting Enough Sleep May Contribute to Mental Decline in Later Years

October 26th, 2013 at 4:47 pm by timigustafson
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Chronic sleep deprivation and poor sleep quality have been linked to a number of health problems, but now a new study has identified one more potential risk, namely cognitive decline at old age, including Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

While it has not been determined yet whether people who don’t sleep well are more likely to suffer from dementia as they get older, or whether it is a symptom of mental illness already on its way, scientists have long known that both sleep hygiene and mental well-being are closely connected.

For the study, the researchers scanned the brains of 70 participants, ages 53 to 91, looking for clusters of beta-amyloid plaques, proteins that when building up in the brain may cause the kind of damage associated with AD.

This is not the first time scientists have investigated the role of sleep, or lack thereof, for mental health. Studies on lab animals have suggested that the damaging effects can work both ways, meaning that sleep deprivation and sleep fragmentation can increase the levels of beta-amyloid, which in turn may be a factor in further sleep disturbance. The result may be a vicious circle with potentially dire outcome.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 50 and 70 million Americans are chronically sleep-deprived. In surveys conducted by the agency from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2007 to 2008, 23 percent of participants reported having difficulties with concentrating and 18 percent with remembering. 11 percent said they sometimes had problems driving safely due to insufficient rest.

The effects of sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may be less apparent in younger people, but they are nevertheless real. Besides being more prone to engage in hazardous behavior when overtired, even young adults increase their risk of developing chronic diseases like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes as well as emotional and mental illness if they remain in a prolonged state of sleeplessness.

A person’s circadian rhythm, the cycling of sleep and wakefulness as well as body temperature and metabolism throughout the day and night, can get progressively unbalanced when sleep needs are neglected. In older adults, difficulties to maintain regular rest periods may increase. Especially the deep sleep stages, when the body does most of its healing and repair work of tissue, bones and muscles from daily wear and tear, lessen with age.

While, generally speaking, aging is often associated with shorter and lighter sleep, it doesn’t have to be this way. Older adults can benefit from the same sleep hygiene as everyone else. Eating a light dinner, avoiding alcohol consumption late at night (nightcaps), creating a calm, sleep-conducive environment before bedtime, lowering temperatures in the bedroom, and shutting off the lights are all part of it. For more information on how to improve your sleep pattern, see these recommendations.

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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).

Why We Love Comfort Food So Much

October 23rd, 2013 at 12:45 pm by timigustafson
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Scientist have long searched for answers why food that is fatty, salty or sweet is so popular, in fact to the extent that many of us have a hard time stopping themselves from overindulging in edibles we know are not particularly healthy but give us so much pleasure.

Possible explanations go in all sorts of directions. Some say people reach for comfort food for psychological reasons, both positive and negative, such as feeling happy and in the mood to celebrate or trying to cope with anxiety, boredom, or sadness. Others have suggested that our preferences stem from our evolutionary background, that we are biologically programmed to crave certain foods that used to be hard to come by but are now available in abundance. Others again say it’s our consumer culture that causes us to graze almost constantly. And then there are those who blame the food industry for making us hooked on their products through relentless advertising and even by adding ingredients that work like opiates, turning us practically into addicts.

Overeating is hard to avoid in the environment we live in today, says Dr. Brian Wansink, professor for marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University and author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam Books, 2006). We get our eating cues from multiple sources all the time, he says, from images, sounds and smells that surround us constantly. We are confronted with ever-growing portion sizes, and eventually think it’s normal to consume so much more than our parents’ and grandparents’ generations used to.

The idea that the body knows what’s good for it and when it has enough, as it has been suggested by proponents of the so-called intuitive eating movement, is naïve, says Dr. Marcia Pelchat, a food researcher at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Most of us can’t really rely on our instincts. Rather it is our culture and our lifestyle that determines what, when, and how much we eat.

There is widespread agreement with that assessment. Our eating behavior is largely controlled by social, cultural and other environmental factors, writes Dr. David A. Kessler, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and author of “The End of Overeating” (Rodale, 2009). In modern society, we no longer engage in eating for the sole purpose of stilling hunger and replenishing our energy stores but as a hedonic means to satisfy our liking and wanting of food, he argues.

There may be multiple additional factors at play as well, he says, including biochemical processes in the brain, which are not yet fully understood. However, the need for comfort and satisfaction we receive from food is generated outside of us, causing our responses in form of overindulging – with all the detrimental consequences we are faced with today.

The good news is that we are not completely helpless with regards to our temptations. The trick is to avoid triggers that propel you into a craving mode, says Dr. Pelchat. If certain foods make you cave every time despite of your best intentions, don’t go near them – meaning, don’t buy them, don’t store them, try not to even think about them (easier said than done). If you relapse anyway, don’t beat yourself up. Consider it an exception and let it go.

You can also counteract your cravings by distracting yourself with other activities that are not food-related. “Substitute something else until the craving goes away,” Dr. Wansink advises. These are fleeting moments that pass soon if you don’t dwell on them.

An important part of your efforts to resist temptations is not to make food the enemy. If you develop a negative dependency, the power food cravings can have over you will not diminish – on the contrary. It is better to be aware of your weaknesses and befriend them in ways that calm you down and allow you to eventually move on.

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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).

When Choosing a Diet Plan, Separate the Wheat from the Chaff

October 20th, 2013 at 7:22 am by timigustafson
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If your goal is to lose weight, almost any diet that restricts calorie intake will do the trick, at least for a while. What should be met with suspicion are weight loss plans and programs that promise quick results and lasting success with little effort. In the real world, no such thing exists.

So-called “fad diets” hit the market almost daily. In essence, they all make the same claims: You will see positive changes almost immediately, you don’t have to forego your favorite foods, you won’t feel hungry, and, best of all, you don’t have to exercise.

What they also have in common is that it’s nearly impossible to follow them over time. According to a study by the University of Massachusetts, even the most popular diet plans have low long-term adherence. But, as any health expert will tell you, stick-to-itiveness is a central component of successful weight loss.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals, there are no foods or pills that let you magically burn fat and lose weight. There are no super foods that can alter your genetic code. Worse yet, some ingredients in weight loss products can be outright dangerous and even deadly. The bottom line, the AND says, is that “if a diet or product sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

Rapid weight loss, which is what most commercial plans aim for, is not even a desirable goal. A slow but steady loss of ½ to 1 pound per week is an appropriate pace, according to the AND. If you lose weight more quickly, it will not only affect your body fat but also your muscles, bones and water balance.

Moreover, sudden weight fluctuations make weight loss less sustainable. So-called yo-yo dieting, where lost weight is gained back time and again, can put enormous stress on inner organs and is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

While calorie restriction is an intricate part of dieting, deprivation of essential nutrients by withholding certain foods or entire food groups – e.g. carbohydrates – is not recommended. Also, the ADA says, there is no scientific evidence that certain food combinations or eating particular foods at specific times can support weight loss, as some diet programs advertise.

Unfortunately, the word “diet,” as it is most commonly used, is almost exclusively associated with “eating less” or “not eating at all.” That by itself may lead to the wrong approach. In its original form, diet means simply “the way someone eats.”

And indeed there are diet plans that don’t focus on weight loss at all, but rather on eating highly nutritious foods, keeping portion sizes in check, and also encourage an all-around health-promoting lifestyle. For example, the Mediterranean diet, which is based on the culinary traditions of countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea and is thought of as one of the healthiest dietary guidelines anywhere, or the DASH diet (acronym for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), developed for heart health, both emphasize healthy eating habits from which weight loss and permanent weight control can follow.

Neither of these, shall we call them “inclusive” diets (as opposed to “exclusive” regimens that eliminate foods in both quantity and quality), will let you shed massive amounts of weight in a hurry, but you will be better off for the rest of your life.

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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).

Scientists Question the Validity of Food Addiction

October 16th, 2013 at 2:06 pm by timigustafson
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As the obesity crisis continues to spread around the world, nutrition scientists keep looking for answers why millions of people eat more than they should. One possible explanation, some have suggested, is food addiction, an inability to stop eating, even when it makes us sick.

There is indeed some evidence of a link between excessive food consumption and addictive behavior, according to the Rudd Center at Yale University, a research institute that specializes in eating disorders, among other food and health-related subject matters. Their findings, they claim, indicate that certain foods (e.g. sugar) may be “capable of triggering an addictive process in susceptible individuals.”

The whole notion that food addiction actually exists, however, has now been called into question at a recent conference held by the British Nutrition Foundation.

“While it is possible that a very small percentage of the population – about five percent – could be ‘food addicts,’ the idea of food addiction is exaggerated,” said Dr. John Blundell, a professor of psychobiology at the Institute of Psychological Sciences at the University of Leeds, England, and chair of the event.

“There has been extensive publicity in the press on the supposition that certain foods are ‘addictive’ and that food ‘addiction’ is contributing to the current obesity crisis,” he said. “[But] as a term, food addiction is confusing and sometimes contradictory. It is a simplification of a very complex set of behaviors and is now being connected with obesity, with the suggestion that it is a clinical explanation for the epidemic.”

The fact is that the reasons why people reach for food can be multiple. Besides stilling hunger, it can be a way to cope with stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness, etc. Or it can be linked to traumatic experiences in the past, possibly during childhood. It may also be part of addictive behavior in general, including toward food.

So is a diagnosis of food addiction just a flawed excuse for overeating? There are no easy answers to that, according to Dr. Elizabeth Hartney, a psychologist specializing in addictions and a registrant with the Canadian Register of Health Services Providers in Psychology (CRHSPP).

“In a sense, we are all addicted to food,” she said. Think about what it feels like when you aren’t able to eat. You start to crave food, and become more physically and emotionally uncomfortable the longer the cravings go on for, until eating becomes the most important thing for you to do. This is the constant experience of people struggling with food addiction, even if they have plenty to eat.”

While it is not fully understood what triggers the particular addiction to food, we know that there are similarities between addiction to food and to certain drugs, which also can produce feelings of pleasure and well-being. And like with other substances, satisfaction from eating does wear off and must be renewed by ever greater consumption.

Whatever answers the expert eventually will come up with (if any), the question remains why so many people overeat to the point where they develop life-threatening illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. It is almost unimaginable that they should all be doing this for the same reason. And if so, what could be the underlying cause?

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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).

 

Healthy Aging Could Be the Next Frontier of Medical Research, Study Suggests

October 12th, 2013 at 1:50 pm by timigustafson
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Rather than spending all of their time fighting diseases, medical researchers should focus more on how we can enable an aging population to stay healthy for as long as possible, according to a study conducted by some of the country’s top universities.

Rethinking our priorities in terms of medical goals is becoming imperative, simply because of demographic developments, said the study authors. Populations around the world enjoy prospects of longevity unheard of only a few generations ago. Yet, overall health conditions of the aging are not improving as much.

“In the last half-century, major life expectancy gains were driven by finding ways to reduce mortality from fatal diseases. But now disabled life expectancy is rising faster than total life expectancy, leaving the number of years that one can expect to live in good health unchanged or diminished,” wrote Dr. Dana P. Goldman, a professor of public health and pharmaceutical economics at the University of Southern California and lead author of the study report. “If we can age more slowly, we can delay the onset and progression of many disabling diseases simultaneously.”

In 2009, the latest year for which data are available, the number of Americans 65 years and older was close to 40 million. By 2030, it will be about 72 million, twice as many as in 2000.

If even a small percentage of the elderly could be kept in reasonably good health, it would make a significant difference, not only in quality of life but also in expenditures for health care and entitlement programs.

“Delayed aging could increase life expectancy by an additional 2.2 years, most of which would be spent in good health. The economic value of delayed aging is estimated to be 7.1 trillion over fifty years,” the study report concluded.

In their assessment, the researchers emphasize that slowing the aging process at least in parts of the population is a realistic goal that should be pursued sooner rather than later. In place of combating individual diseases, they recommend large-scale measures of prevention.

A greater focus on early prevention is also supported by many healthcare organizations, including the American Heart Association (AHA) and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).

In an article recently published in the AHA journal, “Circulation,” the authors call on doctors and other healthcare professionals to include lifestyle changes more aggressively in their treatment regimens.

“We’re talking about a paradigm shift from treating biomarkers – [e.g.] the physical indicators of a person’s risk for heart disease – to helping people change unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, unhealthy body weight, poor diet quality, and lack of physical activity,” wrote lead author Dr. Bonnie Spring, a professor of preventive medicine and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University.

Taking proactive steps for the prevention of chronic diseases is also recommended as the most effective and affordable method of healthcare by the leading organization of dietitians and nutritionists, especially through dietary intervention.

None of these insights are new, of course. That an apple a day can keep the doctor away is an old mantra. What seems to be increasingly changing now, however, is the belief that healthcare only means treating illnesses after they occur. That wasn’t always the case. For example, in ancient China, people paid their doctors as long as they were well, and stopped paying the moment they fell ill. That way, doctors benefitted from their patients’ health, not their sickness. Food for thought…

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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).

 

Stress in Midlife May Increase Risk of Dementia, Study Suggests

October 9th, 2013 at 3:28 pm by timigustafson
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People who undergo traumatic experiences or endure stressful situations during their midlife years may be more likely to suffer from cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss as they age compared to their counterparts who manage to sail through life more smoothly, according to a study from Sweden that followed participants over decades, keeping track of their mental health.

The study only included women, but the researchers say there is no reason to assume their observations wouldn’t be applicable to men as well, although, as other studies have shown, the sexes respond to stress differently in a number of ways.

What is remarkable about the findings of this study is that stress-producing events, even if they had taken place long in the past, continued to have a negative impact on people’s mental well-being. Whether they could pinpoint the source to certain incidents like a divorce or the loss of loved ones, or whether they were exposed to high stress levels for extended periods of time, a.k.a. chronic stress, the potential for lasting health damages increased significantly as they grew older.

There also seems to be an accumulative effect: For each additional stressor the participating women reported at the beginning of the study, their risk of later developing Alzheimers’s disease was raised by up to 20 percent.

The researchers do not claim having found a cause and effect connection between stress and age-related mental decline, though.

“Stress and stressors are just one of several risk factors. Not everyone who had stress or stressors developed dementia,” said Dr. Lena Johansson of the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at Gothenburg University in Mölndal, Sweden, one of the authors of the study report.

However, what the study does show, she said, is that common stressors most of us encounter every day can have severe long-lasting physiological and psychological consequences.

One possible explanation for this is that stress hormones like cortisol may cause harmful alterations in the brain. They can also affect blood pressure and blood sugar control. It is well known that high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, which is also suspected to play a role in mental decline. Even if all the connections are not yet fully understood, a larger picture seems to emerge that allows for a better identification of all the components.

For now, however, our best options are to take as many preventive measures as we can, such as eating healthy and exercising plenty. Getting enough sleep and managing stress are equally as important.

While there is no real protection against Alzheimer’s and memory loss available today, and perhaps never will be, we all can take steps to remain mentally active and alert. Lifelong learning and problem solving are most beneficial in this regard. Maintaining an active social life is also important.

As far as stress is concerned, most of us can never escape that for good. Modern life is just that way. That means we must find solutions to deal with the inevitable and counterbalance the impact of stress as best as we can. There is no shortage on advice on how to go about this, including on this blog. What matters in the end is how successful we are in controlling our responses to the obstacles that are thrown in our way, not just for the moment but for the rest of our lives.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Staying Physically Healthy and Mentally Engaged Protects Best Against Dementia, New Studies Finds.”

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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

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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