Posts Tagged ‘Exercise’

Americans Still Eat Too Much and Pick the Wrong Foods, Latest Survey Finds

September 25th, 2013 at 7:36 am by timigustafson

On average, Americans have become more health-conscious in recent year. Fewer of us smoke and more engage in regular exercise, although perhaps still not enough. But when it comes to our eating habits, unfortunately not much has changed, despite enormous efforts to raise greater awareness of the obesity crisis and its dismal effects on people’s health.

While the overall health status has not dramatically deteriorated – in 2010, 65 percent of Americans reported being in good or excellent health, compared to 68.5 percent in 1997 – the number of those struggling with weight problems remains at an all-time high.

In its annual “report card” on the state of America’s physical health, the Centers for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, found that most Americans are still a far cry from the path to healthy living.

“This isn’t a report card you’d want to post on the fridge,” writes Bonnie Liebman, a nutritionist working at the CSPI and author of the report.

She especially laments the fact that fruits and vegetables still don’t fill American lunch- and dinner plates in quantities recommended by the government. Instead, highly caloric and fatty items like processed foods, meats and dairy products still dominate our meals, both when eating out and at home. More importantly, portion sizes, although well known as a leading factor in our national weight-gain malaise, don’t budge, and we are consuming on average 450 calories more per day than we did in 1970, according to the report.

“One way to see the bigger picture is to look at where our calories come from,” Liebman writes. Americans have gone from eating an estimated 2,075 calories a day in 1970 to scarfing down 2,535 calories in 2010. From 2000 to 2007 we were as high as 2,600 calories a day.”

The increasing quantities, however, are not the only problem. We are also eating the wrong kind of foods, like dairy and refined grains. Cheese, in particular, is nearly ubiquitous in many families’ meal plans, including popular items like pizza, burritos, nachos, quesadillas, and on burgers.

Even supposedly healthy choices like salads are routinely laden with dressings, toppings and add-ons that quickly undo the best of intentions to slim things down.

A food group that hasn’t received enough attention so far is grains. Baked goods like breads, pastries and cookies, but also cereal, pasta, rice, crackers, granola bars, pizza, burritos and wraps are all “going gangbusters,” says Liebman. The average American consumes well over 100 pounds of flour every year – and it shows up in people’s ever-expanding waistlines.

Switching from refined grains to whole grains, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), can have some positive effects, but the bottom line is that we need to get everyone to eat less grains, period, says Liebman.

The by far worst grade (D+) on the “report card” was given to sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, well-known culprits in the battles of the bulges. While there has been a slight decrease in sugar consumption in recent years, the overall use in processed foods and sweetened beverages is still so high that most Americans end up with nearly 80 pounds sugar intake per year.

What should we make of these many bad news? Well, the same thing we did as kids when our grades were disappointing: Try harder. Perhaps next time, we’ll do better.

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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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Act Your Age When Exercising

June 23rd, 2013 at 8:22 am by timigustafson

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit China and spend some time in Beijing. One of my favorite morning activities was to go to a public park close to my hotel. Initially, I just went for walks on my own, but soon I was invited by a small group of local seniors to join in their Tai Chi exercise. It was a first for me, so I had some learning to do, but everyone was extremely helpful and showed me the ropes. Although I didn’t continue practicing regularly after returning home, the message I received from the encounter stuck.

Tai chi ch’uan, as the exercise was originally called in China, is in fact a form of martial arts. However, unlike aerobic and weight training, its primary purpose is not to increase athletic ability but rather promote harmony between the physical and mental aspects of our being.

It’s not about being able to run marathons or lift hundreds of pounds. It’s not about winning in competition, says Arthur Rosenfeld, a tai chi master and author of “Tai Chi – The Perfect Exercise: Finding Health, Happiness, Balance and Strength.” It’s a more mature way of accepting one’s body, how it works and how it looks, and also about aging gracefully and with acceptance of one’s inevitable decline.

Much is being talked about the new way of aging as the Baby Boomer generation approaches retirement. Unlike their parents and grandparents, today’s retirees are not ready to spend their twilight years quietly. Those who have worked hard and played hard all their lives, we are told, will continue to do so – and many actually try. But that doesn’t mean we can defy the laws of nature forever. The fact that there are many more senior athletes who can run a marathon in their 70s and 80s doesn’t make aging a thing of the past. The fact that modern medical technology can treat most ailments and control symptoms nearly indefinitely doesn’t make us immune to disease. On the contrary, some studies have found that Boomers are aging worse than past generations in a number of respects.

Of course, staying physically active at any age is an important ingredient for good health. Exercising regularly can prevent many age- and lifestyle-related ills, including diabetes, heart disease, and also help reduce stress, anxiety and depression, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Endurance and strength training continue to be important as the body ages, perhaps increasingly so. Stretching for flexibility and balance exercises to prevent falls should be added. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend for older adults to spend at least 150 minutes on moderately intense aerobics and 60 minutes on resistance training per week.

Naturally, more time in the gym or on the bike path can yield higher benefits. But equally crucial is acting age-appropriately, knowing one’s limitations, avoiding injuries, and accepting (grudgingly) that things are not the same as they used to be. There is no point in denying nature taking its course.

What I learned from my brief encounter with the Chinese Tai Chi practitioners was that there can be joy in doing less and achieving little – such as finding pleasure in simply moving one’s body with grace and gratitude. Realizing that didn’t make me feel old, it made me feel rich.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Healthy Aging: Exercising the Body Benefits the Mind, Too” and “Adjusting Diet and Exercise to a Slowing Metabolism.”

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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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The Healthiest Places to Live in the U.S.

June 8th, 2013 at 5:17 pm by timigustafson

How healthy you are depends largely on the diet and lifestyle choices you make. It also matters how educated and financially secure you are. And where you live – not only in what kind of neighborhood but also in which part of the country – plays a role as well.

If you are looking for the most health-promoting environment in America today, Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the place to be, according to a survey conducted by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), titled the American Fitness Index™ (AFI).

The report, which has been issued annually since 2007, measures the state of health and fitness at the community level throughout the U.S. Among the considered factors are opportunities to exercise and be physically active, including access to safe sidewalks and bike paths, athletic facilities, playgrounds, public parks and so on.

“What Minneapolis does so well – they are firm believers in the ‘if you build it, they will come’ attitude,” said Dr. Walter Thompson, a professor at Georgia State University and chair of the AFI advisory board in an interview with NBC. “They spend a lot of money on their parks. They spend $227 per capita on their parks. […] So you can see they put their money where it needs to be to create a healthy environment,” he added.

By contrast, the least proactive places in terms of fitness promotion on the AFI list spend about $62 per capita on parks and other recreational facilities.

Runner-ups were Washington D.C., Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco, California. Seattle, Washington, came in eighth.

The existence of public parks is an especially important indicator because it provides people with the lowest hurdle preventing them from exercising. Unlike many sports facilities such as gymnasiums, swimming pools, basketball courts, running tracks or golf courses, parks don’t require memberships or have limited opening hours.

When you provide the environment for people to exercise, there is no excuse to be a couch potato, said Thompson. And that translates to lower personal health indicators such as obesity and diabetes as well as poor lifestyle choices like smoking.

Minneapolis was also found to be especially conducive for the health of seniors. According to the United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Ranking Senior Report, more older people report being in very good to excellent health in Minnesota than in all other states. Also, the poverty rate among the elderly is lower here than elsewhere.

The aspect of senior health in our communities is of growing importance because the baby boomer generation, a large segment of the population, is about to retire. It is also a group of people plagued by considerable health problems, many due to less-than-perfect lifestyle habits. Creating environments that allow for the betterment of their health status is in all our interest and should be given much attention.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “How Healthy You Are Also Depends on Where You Live.”

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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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Most Americans Don’t Exercise Enough – But Who Can Blame Them?

May 8th, 2013 at 1:01 pm by timigustafson

Despite plenty of encouragement from the government and health experts to move more, Americans still find it hard to adopt a less sedentary lifestyle. Merely 20 percent are in compliance with the government’s recommendations for physical activity, which advise getting at least two and a half hours per week of moderately intense aerobic exercise like brisk walking as well as some strength training such as lifting weights or doing pushups.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), call being physically active “one of the most important steps that Americans of all ages can take to improve their health.”

The Physical Activity Guidelines are meant to complement the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a joint effort of the HHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). They are directed towards policy makers and health care professionals as well as the public at large.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published in the May 2013 issue of the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 52 percent of respondents to phone interviews reported meeting the recommended guidelines for aerobics, and 29 percent said they did with muscle-strength training.

The survey also came up with some other noticeable statistics. Less than a third of 18 to 24 year-olds met both aerobic and strength-training recommendations. Only 16 percent of over 65 year-olds came close. Hispanics did worse than other ethnicities. Education also seemed a contributing factor. Those with college degrees did on average better than those without. Normal-weight persons were more active than the overweight and obese. Americans living in the Northeast and the West outperformed Southerners. Colorado beat all other states. West Virginia and Tennessee came in last.

Similarly to the Dietary Guidelines, the Physical Activity Guidelines have been criticized as unrealistic and unattainable for many Americans, especially for low-income earners and those living in unwalkable and unsafe neighborhoods.

Multiple studies have shown that walkability in residential areas has a significant impact on people’s health. One study found that residents of neighborhoods with sidewalks, bike paths and public parks had a much lower risk of becoming overweight or obese than those who lived in areas without such amenities.

But unfortunately, issues of walkability and bikeability are still not included in the planning processes of many cities around the country. Walk Score, a Seattle-based company that evaluates major cities and midsized towns in the U.S., releases annual rankings of the most, and least, walkable places and rates them on a scale from 0 (= “car-dependent”) to 100 (= “walker’s paradise”). While New York City and San Francisco routinely qualify as most pedestrian-friendly and are lauded for their extensive public transportation system, smaller towns, especially in rural areas, still make it hard to get around other than by driving your own vehicle.

Physical fitness – like weight control – is considered by many as a matter of personal choice and responsibility. And to a certain extent that is true. However, other factors such as income, residence, access to grocery outlets and opportunities to be physically active within reasonable distance have all been shown to be decisive. If too many of these elements are missing, no appeal to behavioral change will suffice.

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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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It’s a proven fact that most people change their eating habits and lifestyle choices only after a serious health scare such as a heart attack or a diabetes diagnosis. Still, in many cases that may not be enough. Old habits tend to die hard, but often there are also not many alternatives to what they’ve been doing in terms of eating right and taking care of themselves.

A recent study found that most consumers after being confronted with a major health crisis were still influenced in their choices by factors other than what’s good for their health. For example, people can find it difficult to change their long established eating habits, says Dr. Yu Ma, an economics professor at Alberta School of Business and author of the study. Another highly influential factor is price, he says. If they get a good deal on a particular item, they will go for it, and if it’s too expensive, they will stay away, no matter how much they would benefit healthwise.

Another issue is what he calls the “health halo effect.” Most people divide foods simply into two categories: healthy and unhealthy, he says. If something is considered healthful, e.g. a salad or a breakfast cereal, as opposed to a cheeseburger or a sugar-laden donut, people tend to overindulge in the “healthy” stuff without much further thought. We have seen that phenomenon when, for example, fat-free cookies came on the market and many believed they could consume those in almost unlimited quantities because of the absence of fat. Of course, eliminating the fat did not make those cookies less caloric, and the results became apparent soon thereafter.

Another study, this one on heart attack and stroke patients, showed that nearly 15 percent did not alter their eating and lifestyle habits after the incident, including poor diet choices, lack of exercise and smoking. Less than half of all participants in the study reported having made at least one change, and less than a third said they made several improvements. Only 4 percent claimed they did everything that was recommended to them to prevent further deterioration of their health.

Much of the unwillingness or inability to make healthier diet and lifestyle choices can be blamed on the widespread confusion among the public due to the ceaseless onslaught of sometimes contradictory messages in the media about health matters. In addition, many of the warnings issued by experts are hard to heed by consumers who are oftentimes ignorant, if not intentionally kept in the dark, about the nutritional quality of their food supply. For instance, recommendations to avoid high fat, salt and sugar content may be well-meaning, but they are by and large useless when ingredients lists are hard to decipher or when restaurants aren’t required to follow any dietary guidelines or to post nutritional information on their menus.

“I think people are interested in making changes and they are heeding the warnings,” said Dr. Sara Bleich, an associate professor of health policy at the John Hopkins School of Public Health to NBCNews. “But when it comes to food, it’s much more complicated. Cereal, for example, has a tremendous amount of added sugar. And not everyone understands that breakfast foods like muffins and pastry, things that people don’t consider to be a dessert or an indulgence, pack a lot of sugar.” Similar concerns apply to salt in countless processed foods, many of which don’t even taste salty, and certain types of fats, some of which are obscured by arbitrary serving descriptions on food labels.

Undoubtedly, more and more people want to be better informed about nutritional health and be empowered to make the right choices. With growing consumer demand for further regulation and protection, that may be feasible over time. But for now, it’s an ongoing uphill battle, and most of us have to fend for ourselves as well as we can.

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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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Lifestyle-Related Ills Tend to Multiply with Age, Study Finds

April 24th, 2013 at 7:13 am by timigustafson

Seniors who suffer from chronic health conditions like high blood pressure or heart disease often develop a host of other, seemingly unrelated health problems, including cognitive impairment like memory loss and dementia, according to a new study based on data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics.

For the study, the researchers analyzed the medical records of hundreds of thousands of seniors residing in assisted-living facilities and found that most had at least one chronic health condition. What was more alarming, however, was that many had overlapping ailments. While high blood pressure and heart disease were most common, nearly half of the assisted-living residents showed signs of dementia.

“These findings suggest a vulnerable population with a high burden of functional and cognitive impairment,” the authors of the study report wrote.

Many studies have suggested a link between vascular disease and dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s, said Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, a professor for psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS). Therefore it may not be possible to treat dementia without treating vascular problems, he added.

But that may be easier said than done. “We don’t universally do a great job of how we treat conditions that overlap, for example Alzheimer’s and high blood pressure,” said Dr. Cythia M. Boyd, an associate professor of geriatric medicine at the John Hopkins University Center on Aging and Health, to the New York Times. “Much of the way we practice medicine is looking at disease by disease. We aren’t doing enough thinking about how to add them together and really integrate care.”

What makes things more complicated is that most doctors are not sufficiently trained in preventing or reducing lifestyle-related illnesses – not in the general public and certainly not in older patients – other than through medicating. For instance, the importance of nutrition as a part of preventive care is rarely ever mentioned in medical schools. The approximate time devoted to nutrition science over the first two years of medical education is six hours, which is clearly inadequate, according to the National Academy of Sciences. The same goes for other health-promoting measures such as exercise, especially for the aging population.

Yet many studies have provided compelling evidence that diet and exercise play a significant role for physical and mental health at any time in life but increasingly so as we age.

For example, a more recent study from Britain concluded that the so-called “Western diet,” which typically includes fried, sweet and processed foods, red meat, refined grains and high-fat dairy products, increases the risk of chronic diseases, which in turn can adversely affect both physical and mental health in later years. Eating a Western diet makes it less likely to have an ideal aging process, says Dr. Tasnime Akbaraly, a researcher at the University College of London and lead author of the study report. Conversely, making dietary improvements can yield multiple benefits in this regard.

There is also further evidence that exercise can give a boost to the aging brain. Scientists at the University of British Columbia found that older women who suffered from mild cognitive impairment could improve their memory through weight training and brisk walking.

The connections between physical and mental decline may not yet be completely understood, but it seems clear that chronic diseases play a major role in the process. While these are widespread, the encouraging news is that many, if not all, are preventable by healthier lifestyle choices.

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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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The Pros and Cons of Competitive Workouts

April 10th, 2013 at 3:10 pm by timigustafson

I always enjoyed a competitive spirit. Throughout my life, I was convinced I could accomplish more when I was challenged by formidable rivals, both at work and sports. Playing in the streets of my childhood neighborhood in London taught me that. Only as I grew older, and hopefully a bit wiser, I gradually allowed myself to keep to my own pace, although I still welcome a good contest because it brings out the best in me.

So it naturally peeked my interest when I heard the other day about a gym opening in my neighborhood that offers competitive workouts. Actually, it is part of a chain called “CrossFit” with over 3,000 affiliations worldwide.

CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program that includes endurance training, weight lifting, gymnastics and other exercises. It is rigorous, to say the least. Originally designed for police and military training, CrossFit has developed an almost cult-like following.

According to the founder’s website, anybody can benefit from the training sessions, regardless of age or initial fitness level. There are also seminars and certifications for those who want to teach others. Even competitive CrossFit games are conducted annually to determine “the fittest human beings on earth.”

What sets CrossFit apart from other fitness regimens is mainly its intensity. The studio, or as followers call it, “the box,” in my area has an ominous slogan on its homepage that says, “You can rest when you’re dead.” Critics say that’s only half joking because participants are regularly driven to utter exhaustion.

Even that may be putting it too mildly. Injuries are to be expected when people constantly push themselves to (and sometimes over) the limit of what their bodies can tolerate. But there are reports of rhabdomyolysis (among fitness extremists also known as “rhabdo” or “uncle rhabdo”), an event where muscle fiber breaks down from overexertion, releasing protein myoglobin into the blood stream, which can lead to kidney damage and even kidney failure.

Regardless of warnings by health experts, extreme workout schedules such as CrossFit are becoming increasingly popular not just among athletes and fitness enthusiasts but also in today’s corporate culture.

“For us, CrossFit was a major teambuilding exercise,” said Jonathan Hefter, the C.E.O. of a New York City-based software startup company who expects all of his employees to partake in workout sessions at least three times a week. “If someone didn’t join in, it caused problems,” he revealed in an interview with the New York Times.

Proponents of corporate fitness programs agree that there are more than just physical health benefits to working out as a team. “If you can sweat and groan and moan with your co-workers you’ll have no problems working with them in a meeting,” said Karin Eisenmenger, a director of order management at Datalogix, a company in Colorado that specializes in data transactions, who was interviewed for the same article.

There is no doubt that employees should take advantage of corporate-sponsored health policies whenever they are offered to them. Things become more complicated when undue pressure is exercised to join in because it fosters the corporate culture and benefits the company in other ways.

Also, it does not always seem clear how closely monitored these workouts and how experienced trainers are. Critics warn that CrossFit, for example, certifies trainers after just one short introductory seminar, which entitles them to start their own gym and train as many members as they want. Every month, the company says, it receives 150 applications for affiliation with new gyms, or about five a day. (At its peak expansion, Starbucks opened an average of six stores per day). That’s a lot of new “boxes” opening up. It can’t be easy to ensure they all play by the rules. But then, competition is what these guys are looking for.

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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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Pillars of Wellbeing

April 3rd, 2013 at 10:51 am by timigustafson

I practice a special kind of meditation on an almost daily basis. Perhaps meditation isn’t the right word since it doesn’t require me to sit in silence with my eyes closed and legs crossed or anything like that. It’s more a form of taking stock of where my life is going at any particular time.

For this, I have five issues to consider: my physical health, my diet, my emotional state, my intellectual rigor and my social/relational life. These I think of as the pillars of my wellbeing. Each one matters greatly by itself, but each must also be in balance with all the others. If one goes missing, the rest will suffer as well.

Let me give an example. When I injured my shoulder in a tennis game a few years ago, I realized how much was taken away from me, not just because I had to give up playing for a while but also because a dear routine was interrupted with all sorts of consequences.

During my prolonged absence from the court, I lost my tennis buddies whose comradeship I had enjoyed tremendously. One of them, a university professor and a true intellectual, had not only been a great partner in doubles but also a stimulating presence in my life that gave me many insights in a vast variety of subjects. Due to the reduced physical activity, I felt less energetic and not as motivated in my work. And I had to watch my diet more carefully to prevent unwanted weight gain.

Needless to say, I was saddened about losing a part of my life that was more important to me than I had been aware of. In fact, it made me miserable for quite some time.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said: “Health is not everything, but without it, nothing is anything.” I am a great believer in that. I know now that my physical health is the foundation of what I can do in life, whether it concerns work or leisurely activities. It also affects my state of mind, my interest and participation in the world around me, and my ability to relate to others. And it works both ways: The happier I am, the more fulfilled I feel, the easier it seems to stay healthy and fit.

Obviously, my little meditational routine is nothing original. If you are interested in taking up this kind of exercise, I can recommend using the so-called “Wellness Wheel”, which follows a similar pattern. As the name indicates, the different components of wellness relate to each other like spokes in a wheel. Each is necessary to hold the whole thing together, none is expendable.

Wellness Wheel

Good nutrition, regular exercise, weight management as well as avoidance of smoking and alcohol and drug abuse are at the core. But so are stress management and getting enough sleep. Our emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs must be cared for. Having goals, a sense of purpose and satisfaction and fulfillment in what we do are all part of it, just like having good relationships with loved ones, colleagues and community.

Not all areas will always be at peak performance. And that’s not even necessary. We can focus on work and put our social life on the backburner for some time. We can take a break from our exercise routine for a day or two and make up for the missed time on the weekend. We can overindulge for a special occasion and then go right back to a healthy diet afterwards. What we can’t do is neglecting or sacrificing entire segments of our wellbeing because, sooner or later, it will affect the whole person.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Creating a Health-Promoting Work Environment” and “Healthy Eating – A Never-Ending Learning Curve.”

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook and on Pinterest.

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To Prevent Heart Disease, Follow a Mediterranean Lifestyle

February 27th, 2013 at 12:46 pm by timigustafson

Southern Europeans are among the healthiest and longest living humans on the planet, according to studies on quality of life and longevity in different parts of the world. Considering the economic crisis that has taken hold of the region over the past few years, this seems almost a paradox. Experts have long suspected that good eating habits as well as a slower-paced lifestyle are largely responsible for these advantages.

A recently completed study from Spain has now confirmed some of these assumptions. It found that people who followed what is called the “Mediterranean diet” could lower their risk of heart disease by up to 30 percent.

As the name indicates, the Mediterranean diet is based on the culinary cultures of countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. It consists mainly of fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, lean meats, whole grains, olive oil, nuts and also wine with most meals.

Even by comparison to Northern Europeans who have a similar or even higher standard of living, Southerners show overall lower rates of heart disease. One of the reasons for this may be that olive oil and nuts contain monounsaturated fats, which are more conducive to maintaining artery health than saturated fats in butter and lard, more commonly used in the north.

For the study, over 7,400 participants between the ages of 55 and 80 were assigned slightly different diet regimens. All were at an increased risk of developing heart disease at the outset of the study because of other illnesses such as diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure as well as weight problems, family history and poor lifestyle choices. Surprisingly, those who were given olive oil and a selection of nuts in addition to their regular food intake did best in improving their health condition.

The benefits of the Mediterranean diet seem also applicable to age-related mental health. In a separate study, researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center in New York found that participants who followed the dietary guidelines most strictly could cut their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 40 percent. The reasons are similar to those for heart disease. Experts believe that uninhibited blood flow to the brain, enabled by good heart functions and unobstructed arteries, is crucial for the prevention of mental decline.

Of course, it would be naive to assume that dietary improvements alone would make us altogether healthier and let us live longer. For instance, to prevent heart disease, it is not only important to eat right but also to exercise regularly, manage stress, get enough sleep and also have loving relationships in one’s life. We affect our health not only by the way we eat but also how we behave, said Dr. Dean Ornish, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California. It’s not just one thing that will make us well but a “spectrum program” of choices, as he calls his comprehensive approach to disease prevention and better health.

One of the most important aspects of the Mediterranean lifestyle is having close ties with family and friends. Sharing meals, taking time for conversation, celebrating special occasions surrounded by loved ones – all of that contributes to people’s well-being.

“Study after study has shown that people who are lonely and depressed and isolated – and I think that’s a real epidemic in our culture – are three times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love and connection and community,” he said in an interview. “In part this is because when you are feeling lonely and depressed, you’re more likely to smoke, overeat, drink, work too hard, abuse yourself in different ways, as a way of just getting through the day.” In the end, he added, what matters most is your overall way of living.

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Heart Health Awareness Has a Long Way to Go

February 6th, 2013 at 7:34 am by timigustafson

Every February, the American Heart Association (AHA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health organizations remind the public to pay more attention to the issue of heart health – and for good reason. Heart disease remains the number one cause of death in the United States, ahead of cancer and respiratory diseases.

Well over half a million Americans die every year from heart problems, according to data collected by the CDC. Poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, stress and sleep disorders are among the contributing factors. Smoking and alcohol/drug abuse also play a role.

The “Standard American Diet” (SAD), also known as the “Western Diet,” is notorious for its preferences for meat products and processed foods, which often contain high amounts of sugar, salt and refined grains. There is mounting evidence that the changing dietary trends of the past few decades, not only in America but also increasingly around the world, are responsible for the growing prevalence of heart disease.

Diet changes are among the first steps experts recommend for better heart health. A recent study from Great Britain showed that participants who adhered to a strictly vegetarian diet were less at risk of developing heart disease than their non-vegetarian counterparts. Lower levels of dietary cholesterol, which is only present in animal food products, was one likely reason, as was a smaller intake of saturated fat and sodium. Especially sodium, often added in high doses to processed foods, is believed to contribute to high blood pressure and heart disease.

While the researchers did not investigate other factors than diet that could have benefitted the vegetarians, they are confident that the abstinence from meat, in particular red meat, has made the difference.

“The effect is probably at least partly due to the lack of red meat – especially meat high in saturated fat – in vegetarian diets,” said Dr. Francesca Crowe, professor of nutritional epidemiology at Oxford University, England, who led the study. “The extra fruits and vegetables and higher fiber in a non-meat diet could also play a role,” she added.

Besides diet, insufficient physical activity is most often named as a cause of heart disease. In fact, studies have found that sedentary behavior can be as harmful as smoking. If nothing else, there is at least a “statistically significant association between a lack of exercise and coronary heart disease,” said Dr. Carl Caspersen, a researcher at the CDC.

None of these findings are surprising. We have long known that heart disease is a mainly lifestyle-related illness, as is diabetes. The good news is that we are not helpless in the fight against health problems that are, at least in part, of our own making.

Raising awareness is an important first step, but it can’t stop there. Showing sympathy and expressing support for heart patients by wearing red clothing is laudable, and I applaud all those who take up the cause. But we also have to turn our insights into action through education, policy changes and regulations.

Many Americans still know too little about the potentially catastrophic consequences their diet and lifestyle choices can have for their health and what they can do differently to avoid further damage. As with most bad things in life, we tend to believe that they only happen to others – until they happen to us. When it comes to the heart, it may then be too late.

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). You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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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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