Posts Tagged ‘Health’

Who Teaches Us About Health?

August 11th, 2016 at 12:42 pm by timigustafson

When I was a child, doctors still made house calls. For those too young to understand what I’m even talking about, I have to explain that in those days a physician would actually come to your home, diagnose your medical condition while you were in your own bed, write a prescription, and dispense some advice on how to proceed with the cure.

Family doctors were almost like friends and neighbors who knew everything about you, not just your medical history. Oftentimes, they first met you literally at birth, gave you your vaccines, treated personally all your ills, and kept your records in their heads. No archives, no computers needed.

They were also teachers. Whatever folks learned about medicine, this was their one and only source. They trusted it, sometimes to a fault. The doctor was God, his (mostly his, back then) word was gospel. But this fundamental trust in authority and professional competence was an important component in getting people back on their feet. They also gained some expertise in the process themselves.

I remember my mother, who was not very educated, having conversations with our doctor about how to deal with my childhood illnesses and occasional injuries, how to administer medicines, and how long to enforce bed rest. Nothing ever seemed rushed. It appeared to me almost like gossip what was going on between them. But it was reassuring, even to me, that everything would always turn out all right because the doctor said so.

None of this still exists, of course. The family physician is now the general practitioner (GP) who functions mainly as a gatekeeper between the patient and a specialist. Schedules are tight and waiting rooms are full. Forget taking time for a friendly chat. In-dept consultations are practically unheard of. Anything beyond tests and prescriptions does not get reimbursed by insurance companies. So it doesn’t happen.

I’m not nostalgic about the ‘good old days.’ They had their downsides, too. But being a health counselor myself, I do know first hand that conversing with patients about their concerns can make a real difference in their healing process. Being listened to and taken seriously is something we all want in our everyday lives. How much more so when we are at our weakest and most worried?

Another important aspect is what I call teaching people “health literacy.” Good health ranks at or near the top of almost everyone’s priorities, and yet there is so little knowledge among the public about pro-active, health-promoting measures anybody could take up right away.

Our healthcare system is mainly geared towards treatment of disease after it strikes. It is good at repairing damage, but less so at preventing it in the first place. That is where better education in health matters would come in handy.

The doctors of my youth knew that and they practiced it extensively. Their expertise may have been limited in comparison to today’s standards, but it was acquired over a lifetime of hands-on experience and practice. They not only knew their patients intimately, they also had the skill of communicating with them in ways they themselves could understand and act upon.

Nowadays, we have more information at our fingertips than ever before. The Internet allows us access to almost everything known to mankind, and medical science is no exception. But at the same time, there seems so much disconnect between people’s health needs and their actions.

Somehow I think my mother was better instructed on how to get me back on track after a little tête-à-tête with our doctor than she would have been had she browsed a thousand websites.

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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”®.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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How You Can Reach Your Health Potential

August 2nd, 2016 at 8:25 am by timigustafson

According to polls, most of us think of ourselves as healthy, despite the fact that the obesity crisis keeps growing and multiple diet- and lifestyle-related diseases continue to rise. While the exact causes for this ongoing epidemic are still in dispute, there is general consensus that they are best counteracted by health-promoting measures like diet, exercise and positive lifestyle changes.

But regardless of the information available to all, a great deal of confusion persists about how to implement even the most basic recommendations for healthy living. What many still fail to see is how to apply this knowledge in their daily lives, and how to maximize the benefits for their health and well-being.

Why is diet so important?
For example, understanding and following dietary guidelines. Most people consider dieting, particularly for weight loss, as something restrictive, if not punitive. Having to divide one’s food preferences into dos and don’ts is not especially pleasant. Because most diet programs don’t work in the long run, they usually end up in disappointment and frustration. Including or excluding certain foods or food groups in itself can be problematic. As serious nutrition experts will tell you, a better way is to adhere to a diet that is balanced. (It doesn’t matter whether it has a fancy name or someone famous swears by it.)

A balanced diet is one that has all the important nutrients the body needs to function properly. It helps prevent diseases and infections, and supports healing and recovery when injury or illness strikes. It is at the core of all successful weight management. It is essential for healthy growth and development during childhood and adolescence, lasting physical and mental health throughout adulthood, and healthy aging in later years. It is an instrumental part of reaching a person’s health potential at all times and in every way.

A balanced diet includes a great variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats. These offer invaluable benefits in form of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants – all of which are necessary for the body to perform at its best. An optimal diet also requires good sources of protein from lean meats and seafood for growth, maintenance and repair of muscles, bones and organs. Carbohydrates provide energy, dairy products support bone health, and dietary fiber helps with the metabolic process. All of these must be supplied and replenished regularly because prolonged depletion can lead to detrimental consequences for the entire system.

Why is exercise so important?
Like healthy eating, if you are not into it, regular exercise can seem like a nuisance. But it matters just as much. Still, there can be countless reasons (or excuses) for not exercising enough. It’s too time-consuming, too painful, doesn’t produce the desired results, and so on. But the fact is that a sedentary lifestyle does not only increase the likelihood of unwanted weight gain, it is downright unhealthy and can even lead to premature death. As a recent study showed, being unfit due to lack to physical activity is as dangerous to people’s health as smoking and similarly harmful habits.

In addition, exercise has been proven as the best antidote to stress there is. It helps to protect the body from multiple diseases like heart diseasediabetes, and even cancer. It strengthens muscles and bones, which becomes ever more important with age. And it benefits the mind as well by preventing or slowing age-related decline in memory and other cognitive functions.

Why are lifestyle improvements so important?
We all have our dear habits and routines, some of which serve us well, but also others that can do us harm. Smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and drug use are the obvious culprits. But tastes for overly sweet, fatty or salty foods should also be examined. My clients often hear me say when we address diet and lifestyle changes: “Nothing is forbidden, but everything counts.”

Small, incremental steps are a good approach when it comes to making improvements. Stopping ‘cold turkey’ is not for everyone. All ingrained habits, good or bad, serve (or have served at one point) a purpose, which must be taken into account and replaced with something that fills the void.

Aiming to reach one’s full health potential – that is consciously trying to stay or become as healthy as possible at any given time in life – is foremost a choice, a commitment that must be renewed again and again through successes and failures alike. It is an open-ended, never fully completed project. But it is the best thing anyone can ever set out to do.

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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”®.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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For Better or Worse, Relationships Have Enormous Effects on Health

March 1st, 2014 at 8:05 am by timigustafson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obesity and Health Don’t Go Together, Study Finds

December 7th, 2013 at 3:32 pm by timigustafson

For quite a while some experts believed that a little extra body fat would not necessarily trigger health problems like metabolic syndrome, a cluster of diseases that often accompanies weight gain. There was even talk of an “obesity paradox,” meaning that some people could derive certain benefits from being obese. But all that may just be fantasy, according to a recent study from Canada.

“Obese persons are at increased risk for adverse long-term outcomes even in the absence of metabolic abnormalities, suggesting that there is no healthy pattern of increased weight,” wrote Dr. Caroline K. Kramer of Mount Sinai Hospital’s Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute in Toronto and lead author of the study report.

Whether being overweight is immediately harmful depends on a number of factors, including a person’s genes, activity level, hormonal functions, and the source of calories, said Dr. David L. Katz, founder and director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, to HealthDay. Fat accumulation, especially when it affects inner organs like the liver, can do serious damage even at low levels, he warned.

The notion that fat and fit are not necessarily exclusive of one another stems in part from studies that found overweight but physically active people to be healthier than normal-weight folks who never exercised.

Also, judging someone’s health status based on body-mass index (BMI) alone has been widely criticized as an inaccurate measure in terms of overall health. Instead, most healthcare providers now prefer waist circumference as an indicator for weight-related health issues.

According to guidelines published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), overweight people can be considered healthy if their waist size does not exceed 40 inches for men, or 35 inches for women, and if they don’t have high blood pressure, high blood sugar, or high cholesterol.

However, when it comes to obesity (BMI of 30 and above), almost all studies agree that even being relatively fit cannot offset the health risks.

The issue is not so much the extra weight itself but what is called “metabolic health.” For any person – obese, overweight, or normal-weight – to be metabolically healthy, his or her blood pressure must be less than 130/85 mmHg, triglycerides under 150 mg/dL, fasting blood sugar equal to or lower than 100 mg/dL, and HDL (“good”) cholesterol above 40 mg/dL in men and 50 mg/dL in women.

But what about the so-called “obesity paradox,” a finding that overweight and moderately obese patients who suffer from chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease sometimes outlive their normal-weight counterparts with the same disease? There may be a number of explanations for this, including genetic differences and access to treatment options. Either way, the fact remains that both weight management and fitness are important factors for good health, as is dietary quality.

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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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Walking, a Simple Yet Highly Effective Health Measure

November 30th, 2013 at 5:33 pm by timigustafson

At a time when extreme sports are all the hype, mundane activities like walking don’t get much attention. It’s just too basic, too boring to even think about it. Yet walking can be a great indicator of both physical and mental wellbeing. In addition, walking is considered by health experts as one of the most effective ways to stay fit and fend off illnesses like high blood pressure, heart disease, and even dementia.

A recent study from England found that taking a long walk every day can help decrease the risk of stroke, especially in older men. It doesn’t seem to matter as much how fast someone walks, just how often and for how long.

“Our study suggests that maintaining an active lifestyle, specifically by spending more time on all forms of walking, could be an important part of stroke prevention strategies in older people,” said Dr. Barbara J. Jefferis, a epidemiologist from University College London and lead author of the study, in an interview with Reuters.

According to her findings, men who walked four to seven hours each week were 11 percent less likely to suffer a stroke than those who walked three hours or less. Participants in the study who walked the most – more than three hours daily – had a 60 percent lower risk than those who spent the least amount of time walking.

Although this particular study included only men, there is no reason to assume that walking wouldn’t benefit women in similar ways.

Walking seems to provide other advantages as well. A number of studies have found that losing the ability to walk at a reasonably brisk pace can be an indication not just for physical but also mental decline. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic looked at stride length, cadence and velocity of older adults and concluded that gait changes and slowing pace can be early signs of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of age-related dementia. Some of these effects may be delayed, if not prevented, in people who maintain a regular walking regimen.

Of course, there is no need to wait until old age to take up walking as a form of exercise. At any time in life, going on hikes or just strolls around the block can help with overall fitness, weight management, bone and muscle strength, balance and flexibility, and also stress management, sleep, and emotional wellbeing.

Unfortunately, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans are notoriously averse to walking and prefer driving even for short distances. This is especially true in rural areas and cities that lack a walkable infrastructure. Nevertheless, in its recommendations for greater public health, the agency urges everyone to get a minimum of two and a half hours moderate exercise per week. It may take some creativity and rethinking of lifestyle, but the sooner you start, the better the results will be, now and long-term.

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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 is common knowledge that eating healthy is conducive to our well-being, including our natural aging process. But can adherence to a vegetarian diet actually add to our life span? One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found evidence that vegetarians have a slightly better chance at living longer than omnivores.

There are clearly beneficial effects of vegetarian diets in the prevention of chronic diseases and the improvement of longevity, according to Dr. Michael Orlich of the Loma Linda University Medical Center in California, the lead author of the study report.

For the study, the researchers interviewed over 70,000 participants about their eating habits. Those who identified themselves as vegetarians were divided into different categories of vegetarianism, including vegans (eating nothing but plant foods), lacto-ovo vegetarians (eating plant-foods as well as dairy products and eggs), and semi-vegetarians (eating mostly plant-foods but also some animal products like fish and poultry).

Using national databases, the researchers then determined differences in mortality rates during a follow-up time of six years. They found that over one year five to six per 1,000 vegetarians had died compared to seven per 1,000 meat eaters.

Since all causes of death were included in the analysis, it is not altogether clear what made the differences in the mortality rates, but critics have pointed out that the vegetarian groups had other health-promoting advantages as well such as overall healthier lifestyles, abstinence from smoking, lower average body weight and higher education levels than their omnivorous counterparts. But the vegetarians also tended to be older.

Still, the study’s findings confirm that people who eat mostly plant-based foods are less likely to develop chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and certain forms of cancer.

So, should we all consider becoming vegetarians for the sake of a longer life? Not necessarily. Longevity is not dependent on just one aspect of our existence but rather on all the things we do for the benefit of our well-being. You may eat all the health food you want, but if you have a hard time handling your stress at work or at home, it will still affect your heart. If you put off exercise for too long, you can gain weight on a vegetarian diet as well.

The trick is to understand that all our actions are interconnected. If we get run down in one area, it has consequences for all the others. I know that if I don’t eat right, I feel sluggish and without energy. The same happens if I don’t get enough physical activity or I’m sleep deprived. If my mind is not stimulated and I’m bored, I lose focus. If I allow myself to get stressed out, it impacts my work as well as my relationship with family and colleagues.

So, of course, it’s a good idea to eat foods that offer the greatest benefits and the least detriments in terms of good health and perhaps also a longer life. But the point is that it has to come in one whole package called healthy living. As I have emphasized many times before, longevity alone should not be the goal, but the highest possible quality of life to the very end.

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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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Why Taking Vacations Is Important for Your Health

May 29th, 2013 at 7:55 am by timigustafson

Memorial Day weekend used to be the traditional kickoff for summer getaways. But for millions of Americans, going on a vacation or even taking a few days off here and there is a luxury they can ill afford. Among the 20 most developed countries in the world, the United States ranks dead last when it comes to recreation.

Unlike in Europe, where paid vacations of 20 to 30 days annually are the norm and guaranteed by law, the labor standards in this country generally do not require employers to provide such benefits. What’s more, even those lucky Americans who are entitled to paid time off often forego part of it.

There is no doubt that American workers, including millions of immigrants who have chosen the American way of life, have a particularly strong work ethic. But countries like Sweden or Germany, not exactly known as slackers, have fared well with their mandatory vacation policies, without losing their competitive edge. In fact, according to the latest report on global economic competitiveness by the World Economics Forum, the U.S. came in only fourth behind Switzerland, Sweden and Singapore. And even Canada, a country that is arguably closest to us in culture and lifestyle, mandates a minimum of 10 days vacation time per year for all its workers.

So, what makes Americans so much less inclined to quit work and relax for a few weeks or even just days on end?

For low-income workers it’s primarily a question of money. Those are typically the ones with the least benefits, including paid vacation or sick leave time. For others it’s fear they could be passed over for promotions or even lose their jobs if they are absent too often or too long. Some think it’s not worth the extra hassle to tie up loose ends before they leave or catch up after they return. And there may be a few who just don’t know what to do with themselves outside of work.

What’s often not discussed is that not taking time off regularly can lead to serious health problems. The results are comparable to chronic stress, when there is no reprieve not just from one’s workload but also from repetitive routines.

Often people get into a mindless routine at work and home, which can be broken if they distance themselves once in a while, says Dr. Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard University, in an interview on the health benefits of vacationing and travel with CNN. Uninterrupted routines tend to result in boredom, which hinders creativity and mindfulness, she says, and is therefore counterproductive. By contrast, having new and interesting experiences on a trip, for example, can be brought back to the workplace and enhance one’s performance.

But it’s not just mental health that must be restored on occasion. Chronic stress takes its toll on the body’s ability to resist infections, maintain vital functions and even the ability to avoid injuries, according to Dr. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor for psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and contributor to Psychology Today.

“When you’re stressed out and tired, you are more likely to become ill, your arteries take a beating, and you’re more likely to have an accident. Your sleep will suffer, you won’t digest your food as well, and even the genetic material in the cells of your body may start to become altered in a bad way.”

And mentally, she says, “not only do you become more irritable, depressed and anxious, but your memory will become worse and you’ll make poorer decisions. You’ll also be less fun to be with, causing you to become more isolated, lonely and depressed.”

For these reasons and others, your vacation, should you decide on taking one, must not end up causing you even more stress.

If you travel somewhere away from home, I recommend choosing a destination that is truly different from your familiar surroundings. It doesn’t have to be a deserted island, just unlike what you’re used to.

Leave your smart phone and laptop behind, so you cannot be reached from the office and won’t be tempted to “check in” every so often.

Don’t get involved in too many activities, even though they seem fun, if they turn your vacation into another hectic event.

Live in the moment and make the most of each day. Focus on all the things you never seem to have enough time for such as leisure, pleasure, conversation, etc.

If all or most of this seems impossible to you, perhaps it’s time to rethink your priorities.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Even Going on Vacation Can Be Scary.”

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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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Use of Pesticides Continues to Make Some Foods Unsafe for Consumption

April 28th, 2013 at 4:58 pm by timigustafson

An apple a day used to keep the doctor away, at least according to folk wisdom. But not any more – unless it’s organically grown. Apples top the list of foods contaminated with pesticides, says the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental health research and advocacy organization, in its annual report called “The Dirty Dozen™.”

The listing of foods that may have toxic levels of pesticides is part of the group’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide in Produce, which draws its data from tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Even after washing, more than two thirds of the tens of thousands of food samples tested by the agencies showed pesticide residues. The most contaminated fruits were apples, strawberries, grapes, peaches and imported nectarines. Among vegetables, the most contaminated were celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes and hot peppers.

The contamination levels varied significantly between different foods. Potatoes had a higher total weight of pesticides than any other food crop. A single grape tested for 15 different pesticides. So did sweet bell peppers.

Corn, which is widely used as an ingredient in processed foods, does not appear in the EWG’s guide because as such it’s no longer considered a fresh vegetable. Neither is soy. Still, concern over pesticide contamination should also include processed items.

In addition to its notorious “Dirty Dozen™” rating, the EWG also publishes a list of the least contaminated foods, called the “Clean Fifteen™.” These show the lowest levels of pesticide residues and are generally safe for consumption. They include pineapple, papaya, mango, kiwi, cantaloupe, grapefruit, corn, onion, avocado, frozen sweet peas, cabbage, asparagus, eggplant, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.

Pesticides have long been linked to a number of health concerns, particularly to developmental problems in young children. Some pesticides have been found to be carcinogenic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

There are currently about 350 different pesticides registered with the government and permitted for use on food crops. Among the most toxic ones are organophosphate, a potent neurotoxin that can adversely affect brain development in children, even at low doses; and organochlorine, a once widely used pesticide that is now officially banned but still persists in the environment and continues to pollute plant foods grown in contaminated soil.

Particularly disconcerting is that pesticides have been found in processed baby food. For example, green beans used for baby food tested positive for five pesticides, including organophosphate, and pears showed more than twice as many.

While there is only so much consumers can do to protect themselves and their loved ones against the exposure to pesticides and other toxins in their food supply, it is important to have the information available that allows for better-informed choices. Buying organically grown produce may be the best option, but it’s not affordable for everyone. Mixing both organic and regular foods can be a workable compromise, thereby avoiding the worst offenders and limiting the damage to your budget with the rest.

In addition, you may also want to visit your local farmers market once in a while. Ask the farmers about their farming methods and whether they use pesticides. Some small farms may not be certified “organic” because of the costs involved but still adhere to eco-friendly procedures.

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

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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