Posts Tagged ‘Lifestyle’

Hypertension for Beginners

July 18th, 2015 at 1:54 pm by timigustafson

More than half of people who have hypertension, a.k.a. high blood pressure, don’t know enough about the condition and are unable to control it properly, according to a new survey.

Oftentimes patients don’t even correctly understand the meaning of the word “hypertension,” and think of it more in terms of stress, anxiety, or other psychological disturbance rather than what it actually is, namely a physiological dysfunction that can turn into a chronic disease if untreated, the researchers found.

Many healthcare professionals use the words “hypertension” and “high blood pressure” interchangeably when talking to their patients, which can be confusing for some, said Dr. Barbara Bokhour, a professor of health policy and management at Boston University School of Public Health and co-author of the study report, to Reuters.

Explained in a nutshell, blood pressure is the force exerted by the blood against the walls of blood vessels. It is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). Measuring involves two readings: systolic, indicating the pressure as the heart pumps blood out, and diastolic, the remaining pressure as the heart relaxes and refills with blood.

Normal blood pressure ranges below 120 systolic and 80 diastolic. Readings of 120 to139 systolic or 80 to 89 diastolic are considered “pre-hypertension,” meaning there is a risk of developing hypertension without intervention. Everything above 140 over 90 is categorized as hypertension of various stages, with 180+ over 110+ seen as a medical emergency.

Hypertension can build up for years without ever showing discernable symptoms. But left uncontrolled, it can lead to life-threatening complications like kidney disease and heart disease as well as heart attack and stroke.

Hypertension is a growing worldwide epidemic. The number of people living with the disease has crossed the 1 billion mark in 2008 and is predicted to reach well over 1.5 billion within the next ten years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The causes are seen to a large degree as diet and lifestyle-related, including excessive consumption of salt and alcohol as well as excess weight and lack of physical activity.

Against widely shared assumption, hypertension is not a disease that predominantly occurs with age. Recent studies found that young adults in their 20s and 30s are now increasingly at risk as well, facing complications much sooner than generations before them.

For this reason it is extremely important to keep blood pressure as low as possible, especially in the first half of adult life, said Dr. Joao Lima, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and lead author of one such study, ideally even below the recommended limits.

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


Creating a Culture of Health and Fitness

May 29th, 2015 at 6:11 pm by timigustafson

People who live in California spend on average almost 90 minutes per week on running, swimming, bicycling, lifting weights and other measures to stay healthy and fit, which is close to the minimal amount of time recommended by the U.S. government, and more than the residents of all other states seem able to manage, according to data collected by MapMyFitness, a manufacturer of activity tracking software with over 20 million users. Runner-ups are Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

Some of these findings seem unsurprising. California offers good weather conditions for outdoor activities almost all year round, and the other leading states are known for their natural beauty as well. A comparatively high standard of living and an educated populace add to the advantages. And there are other important benefits, such as a health-promoting infrastructure that includes sidewalks, bike paths, public pools and other spaces for recreation, which are not as ubiquitous elsewhere.

None of this, however, can fully explain the sometimes dramatic differences within the country in terms of public health and fitness. While personal wellness depends on multiple factors that can be hard to calculate, it is clear that besides geographic diversity, culture also plays a role.

Much has been reported about the ‘über-generous’ perks the employees of giant tech companies like Google and Microsoft (headquartered in California and Washington respectively) receive, including cafeterias stocked with health food for free, state-of-the-art gyms on campus, all-inclusive healthcare plans, and more. But an ever-increasing number of mid-size and small businesses also realize how imperative it is, including for their own bottom line, to invest in the well-being of their staff – so much so that corporate wellness has become a multi-billion industry in and of itself.

Ideally, corporate health and fitness programs continue to influence people’s behavior outside the workplace as well. Studies have shown that once workers buy into a culture that emphasizes wellness, they stand a much better chance of succeeding long-term on their own.

Company policies work best when those whom they are designed for participate freely, not because they feel they are expected to but because they recognize the benefits they are reaping for themselves. Prying, prodding or punishing only gets you so far, says Al Lewis, a lawyer and consultant on issues of workplace wellness. He is critical of programs he considers unreasonably intrusive in people’s private affairs. Under federal law participation in all employer-sponsored wellness plans must be voluntary and non-discriminatory.

Still, nurturing a culture that favors healthy over unhealthy behavior can serve as an effective tool for the prevention of many illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Prevention should be woven into all aspects of our lives, including where and how we live, learn, work, and play,” the agency states in its recommendations, titled National Prevention Strategy. “Everyone – businesses, educators, health care institutions, government, communities, and every single American – has a role in creating a healthier nation.”

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


Not One ‘Plus Size’ Fits All

April 23rd, 2015 at 1:20 pm by timigustafson

When it comes to treating weight problems, even experts believe that similar methods can be applied almost universally: Put your patients on a diet, have them engage in regular exercise, and, if all else fails, recommend some surgical procedure. What gets rarely looked at are the differences between overweight individuals that may have led to their unhealthy weight gain in the first place. Only one such study has recently been published, and the results are eye-opening.

For the study, scientists from the universities of Sheffield, England, Harvard, United States, and Toronto, Canada, analyzed medical data of over 4,000 overweight or obese men and women in terms of common and distinguishing characteristics. In the end, they came up with six ‘categories’ or ‘types’ that helped them better understand their subjects’ eating behaviors and lifestyle choices.

The first group was identified as “heavy drinking males” whose excessively high alcohol intake resulted in weight problems. Getting members of this category to limit their consumption of alcoholic beverages would obviously be an important step toward successful weight control.

The second group, named “younger healthy females,” consisted of women who were generally healthy except for their weight issues. Eating patterns and exercise levels were viewed as largely acceptable but were interspersed with bouts of binge eating and occasional heavy drinking, which, again, contributed to weight gain. Remedies hereto would be similar to their male counterparts.

A third type was called “the affluent and healthy elderly,” seniors who enjoyed retirement life a bit too much and paid the price with an unhealthily expanding waistline. Tuning it down a little would be the appropriate strategy.

Another group of older individuals was diagnosed with one or more chronic health conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, in addition to being overweight. Those “physically sick but otherwise happy” people were often unaware of how their weight aggravated their other ills. Counseling with the aim of diet and lifestyle changes could lead to major improvements in such cases.

Mental dysfunctions like anxiety and depression were also found to be increasingly damaging to people as they grew older. The “unhappy, anxious middle-aged,” as the researchers named this group, often showed a close connection between their inner feelings and their outer appearance, especially in terms of weight. As psychological disorders oftentimes manifest themselves physically, equal attention must be paid to both the roots and symptoms before any progress can be hoped for.

Lastly, the research team focused on those whom they found in the “poorest health.” The prevalence of weight problems and chronic illnesses was especially high in this group, and eating and lifestyle patterns were predictably dismal. Overweight and obese patients of this type require intensive care and should be treated with the most effective methods. Because of the severity of the health conditions typically found in this category, the researchers saw here justification for the clinical weight loss approaches now widely in use.

Obviously, attempts like these to find patterns in complex phenomena have their limits. There might be numerous additional factors leading to weight gain that have not received enough attention in this particular study. But its central take-away is that the overweight and obese are not a homogenous part of the population with the same health needs, says Dr. Mark Green of Sheffield University, the lead author of the study report, in a press release about his findings. If we don’t come up with better solutions and more customized, or as he calls it “bespoke,” forms of treatment, we will continue to fail serving those who need our help most.

As a dietitian and health counselor, I couldn’t agree more. After all, that is what one-on-one counseling entails. But, unfortunately, the system is not set up for this sort of effort. For instance, health insurance companies favor short-term treatments like weight loss surgery over open-ended approaches, including diet and lifestyle coaching. We can only hope that studies like this will eventually bring a different view to the agenda.

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


Chronic Sleep Deprivation Considered a Public Health Threat

October 9th, 2014 at 2:43 pm by timigustafson

Nearly half of American adults are regularly sleep-deprived, according to a Gallup poll that has been tracking people’s sleep habits for decades. Less than seven hours a night has become the rule rather than the exception, down by more than an hour since the 1940s. Especially those who are starting careers and young parents don’t get the amount of sleep they need, and it has long-term consequences for their health.

43 percent, according to the surveys, say they would feel better if they got more rest. Potential implications of chronic sleep deprivation include inability to focus, accident-proneness, memory loss, overeating, vulnerability to illness, and, more seriously, increased risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some forms of cancer.

The widespread lack of sleep among the public has alarmed health experts for some time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has gone as far as calling insufficient sleep “a public health epidemic.”

“Sleep is increasingly recognized as important to public health, with sleep insufficiency linked to motor vehicle crashes, industrial disasters, and medical and other occupational errors. Persons experiencing sleep insufficiency are also more likely to suffer from chronic diseases, increased mortality, and reduced quality of life and productivity,” the agency warns.

What adds to the danger of sleep deprivation is that the sleep-deprived are often the worst judges when it comes to their own sleep needs. According to the Gallup polls, most Americans (56 percent) with the least amount of sleep believe they are getting enough.

People don’t understand that messing with their sleep patterns by staying up late or waking up too soon has consequences for their circadian rhythm, their inner clock that regulates wake and rest periods, says Dr. Michael Terman, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and co-author of “Reset Your Inner Clock” (Penguin 2012).

A part in your brain called the hypothalamus functions as your body’s timepiece, telling you when to fall asleep and when to wake up again. This inner clock can be changed, however, only in small increments and over extended periods of time. Otherwise, you will feel jet-lagged, as it is common when travelling long-distance over different time zones. By taking liberties with bedtimes, similar effects take place in the body, with similar symptoms such as tiredness, irritability, eating disorders, and so forth.

In other words, going to bed later or setting the alarm earlier than usual causes shifts in the circadian clock that need to be compensated. This can happen in a number of ways, for example by taking an afternoon nap, or by returning to a normal schedule as soon as possible.

Besides wreaking havoc on the inner clock by irregular wake/sleep patterns, there are other disturbances that can interfere with getting a good night’s rest. For instance, working, watching movies, or doing other stimulating things shortly before bed can make it hard to fall asleep. A less than conducive sleep environment like a cluttered bedroom, room temperatures that are too warm or too cold, insufficient darkness – all can contribute to sleep disruptions.

While our busy lifestyles don’t always allow us to maintain regular schedules, there are multiple steps we can take to keep to certain habits that are important to us for our wellbeing. Our sleep should rank high among those priorities.

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


The “Slow” Diet

July 13th, 2013 at 5:40 pm by timigustafson

The Mediterranean diet is praised by its proponents as one of the healthiest eating styles around. Dominated by fruits and vegetables, it is considered well suited for the prevention of heart disease, stroke, cancer and even mental decline. What gets rarely mentioned, however, is that it is not so much the dietary principles but rather the underlying lifestyle that sets the Mediterranean diet apart. For example, not rushing things too much and enjoying a leisurely clip are just as important as the food itself. And that does not only apply to food preparation or consumption but to life in general.

The Mediterranean diet as we know it today is inspired by many, often ancient, culinary traditions from southern European and northern African countries bordering on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s not a specific cuisine but rather the product of centuries-old struggles for survival in lands that can be harsh and barren.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, the Mediterranean population never had it particularly easy. The region is by no means a bountiful breadbasket. The landscapes that surround the sea, mostly mountainous peninsulas and islands and narrow coastal plains, do not easily yield a livelihood to their inhabitants. The food supply comes mostly from small farms that have been operated by the same families for eons. Industrial farming methods are neither practical nor welcome.

“For all the sun-drenched ease we associate with the Mediterranean – in reality little more than a vacationer’s fantasy – there is an undertone of harshness to the region’s beauty,” writes Ayla Alger, co-author of “Mediterranean – The Beautiful Cookbook” (Harper Collins, 1994). “It is indeed remarkable that agriculture has flourished at all in the Mediterranean, the result not only of skillful cultivation but also of the peasant tenacity and hardiness of its peoples.”

Still, despite all the difficulties (or, perhaps, because of them), there has always been a deep appreciation for nature’s gifts. People’s relationship to their food is profoundly personal. Those who don’t farm themselves buy locally grown produce at the market and prepare their meals at home from scratch. Hardly anyone ever eats alone. Having food is a communal affair that involves families, neighbors, friends and visiting guests.

By contrast, our lifestyles demand ever-greater speed and efficiency in nearly all aspects of our lives, including our mealtimes. Many of us skip breakfast or grab something from the coffee shop on the way to the office. We work through lunch and watch TV or spend more time on computers and other devices while having dinner, which is usually take-out or something microwavable.

Fast food, an icon of Western culture, is the quintessential opposite of the home-cooked family meal. It is available almost anywhere and at all times; it comes ready to eat; it can be consumed alone; it doesn’t require a table or even a plate; and its non-descript taste never varies. Instead of bringing us together, it allows us to keep to ourselves, we don’t even have to get out of our cars if we don’t want to. As such, it doesn’t just impact our physical health but our entire well-being, including the quality of our familial and social life.

We must pay more attention to the consequences of our constantly accelerating world, warns Jay Walljasper, a contributing editor to National Geographic and author of “All That We Share.”

“The human time world is no longer joined to the incoming and outgoing tides, the rising and setting sun, and the changing seasons,” he says. “Instead, humanity has created an artificial time environment punctuated by mechanical contrivances and electronic impulses.”

Our eating habits are a direct reflection of our lifestyle that is becoming increasingly unsustainable, says Walljasper. Feeding ourselves has become just one of the countless activities we engage in day in and day out. It has no special meaning. There is no attention being paid, no gratitude felt. It’s just consumption.

It wasn’t always like this – and it doesn’t have to continue this way. “People want to slow down because they feel that their lives are spinning out of control,” he says. Polls have shown that a majority of Americans would accept pay cuts if they were given more time off in return.

There is also a growing hunger for getting back to basics. More young people now consider farming – the small kind – as a career option, and also because they want to do something meaningful with their lives. And their sentiments are widely shared. The popularity of farmers markets all over the country speaks for itself.

The desire to slow down and take more time for things that really matter can become a reality at any moment and without much ado. Walljasper describes his own “conversion” to a slower-paced existence like this: “I’ve started the “Slow Is Beautiful” revolution in my own life – right in the kitchen, scaling back my busy schedule to find more time for cooking good meals and then sitting down to enjoy them in a festive, unrushed way with my wife, son and friends. Even cleaning up after dinner can offer a lesson in the pleasures of slowness, as I learned a while back when our dishwasher went on the fritz. […] I’d put some jazz or blues on the stereo and sing along, or just daydream as I stacked dishes and glasses on the drying rack.”

Who says you can never go home again?

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


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


Even Small Amounts of Alcohol May Cause Cancer, Study Finds

March 15th, 2013 at 3:05 pm by timigustafson

Moderate drinking of alcoholic beverages can have a place in a healthy lifestyle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The question is what counts as moderate. Two drinks for men and one drink for women per day are permissible, says the agency. Excluded from these recommendations are children and adolescents, women who are pregnant or trying to conceive, and individuals who cannot control their alcohol intake, are on certain medications, or plan to drive or operate machinery.

All that is well known and widely accepted. But a new study found that even smaller amounts of alcohol than what is deemed acceptable by the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans may be too much when it comes to preventing certain diseases, including cancer. In fact, having just one drink per day can increase the risk.

Researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) determined that alcohol-related cancer accounted for three to four percent of all cancer deaths in the United States annually and that even light drinkers were at an increased risk.

Well over half a million Americans die from cancer every year. Of these, approximately 20,000 cases are linked to alcohol, according to the study.

We talk a lot about tobacco and poor diets, but alcohol use is a factor that is often missed in the discussion over preventable diseases and deaths, says Dr. David Nelson, director of the Cancer Prevention Fellowship Program at the NCI and lead author of the study report. While the majority of cancer-related deaths from alcohol occurred in people who consumed substantially more than what is considered moderate drinking, Dr. Nelson’s team found that 33 percent of the diseased had no more than one alcoholic drink per day on average.

Although only 18 percent of men and 11 percent of women are heavy drinkers, meaning they have more than the recommended daily amount on any given day, it is still a significant health concern, said Patricia Guenther, a nutritionist at the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and author of a separate study on the issue, in an interview with Reuters

Among men, 31 to 50 year olds consume the most alcohol, according to the study. Among women, the heaviest drinking takes place between ages 51 and 70. The researchers did not investigate the reasons for the differences in age.

Besides cancer, other well-known health risks from alcohol use are high blood pressure, heart disease, liver damage, pancreatitis, nerve damage, depression and dementia.

Moderate alcohol use has long been considered as harmless if not beneficial. Especially red wine is thought of by some as heart healthy. But conflicting messages like these only confuse consumers, says Dr. Nelson.

“The purported benefits of alcohol consumption are overrated when compared to the risks,” he says. “Even if you take into account all the potential benefits of alcohol, it causes 10 times as many deaths as it prevents worldwide.”

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Almost Half of All Cancer Cases May Be Preventable.”

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  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” ( You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.




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  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” ( You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


A Season to Slow Down

December 16th, 2012 at 2:57 pm by timigustafson

In principle, I guess, one can get addicted to anything. I’m not just talking about drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or food. People can develop addictions to other people, their work, shopping, television or the Internet. The latter seem especially prone to cause addictive behavior. In this past year, the media outlets of every kind have been selling us “the news” like junk food, thereby creating yet another addiction. “News junkies suffer from withdrawal symptoms after the election,” I read the other day in the paper. I wonder why?

Certain addictions are hard to avoid in our culture where more is always considered better. We take it for granted to think of progress exclusively in terms of “growth.” So we find ourselves in a never-ending chase of things that supposedly make our lives more comfortable and more exciting. We live in larger homes, drive bigger and faster cars and surround ourselves with more possessions than any generation before us – and yet, there remains this nagging feeling that we don’t have enough to be content.

Inevitably, our relentless “pursuit of happiness” comes at a steep price. It’s called stress. True, most people suffer from stress and anxiety at one time or another. That’s life, some would say. Yet, what we are seeing today seems somewhat different. More and more people exhaust themselves, just by trying to keep up. They are reaching the end of their rope. Doctors and psychologists have already come up with new terminology to describe the stress symptoms they find in their patients with increasing frequency, using terms such as “time stress,” “chronic overscheduling” or “time poverty.”

To be sure, having goals and ambitions does not automatically make anyone sick. There is such a thing as “good stress” where people can thrive on a certain amount of pressure and even derive pleasure from it. But being constantly pressed for time without relief is not healthy, no matter how we may rationalize it. In fact, the idea that a “normal” life has to be filled with constant activity is a concept that should not remain unquestioned. Why should it be “the norm” that we always work harder, earn more money, buy more stuff, increase our standard of living? Why is having the newest and the latest to be considered a must? Why can’t we imagine living without gadgets that did not even exist a little while ago? Why don’t we ever feel that we have accomplished enough and that we can enjoy what we already have?

The Holiday Season is supposedly a time when we stop the rat race and focus on family, friends and all the good things that really matter in life. Of course, most of us end up doing the exact same thing as last year and the year before. We get caught up in the Holiday rush, no matter how much we wish it was different this time.

There are better ways to deal with our perpetual time crunch – there must be! Merely wishing life was different is not enough. All lifestyle changes, great and small, require will power and determination. Here are a few ideas that may help things along:

First: Let’s establish some rules. No matter how much pressure we may receive from the outside, let’s not forget that we are responsible for the ways we spend our time. Only we can find ways to organize our time better and use it more wisely. Instead of running around like crazy trying to put out fires all day, let’s set up a healthier routine and stick to it.

Second: Let’s set priorities. Let’s ask ourselves what value we get in return for our time and effort. Is our only reward more money to buy more stuff? So what if we don’t have all the latest fads? Those will be outdated and obsolete tomorrow. Instead, let’s focus, perhaps with a sense of gratitude, on what we already have – and not just in material terms.

Third: Let’s include regular down-time in our schedules, so we can recover and recharge our batteries. There are benefits in doing nothing once in a while. Allowing ourselves to slow down should not make us feel guilty. So, let’s switch off the cell phone, get off the Internet, stop listening to the News. Instead, let’s go for long walks, find a quiet place where we can spend time alone, meditate or write a journal – these are the gifts we can give to ourselves that will make for a truly Happy Holiday Season.

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.


Don’t Get Crazy Busy!

December 8th, 2012 at 5:22 pm by timigustafson

Whenever I make phone calls or send off e-mails to family members and friends to touch base and inquire about their well-being, the answers are almost always the same: “busy,” “crazy busy,” “insanely busy,” “busy, busy, busy.” I know full well that I’m expected to respond with something like “that’s good,” or “that’s a good problem to have.” Being able to say that there is plenty going on in our lives, even if it drives us nuts, is almost considered an asset in our culture, although it’s made to sound more like a burden.

The holiday season may be an especially challenging time when we try to get many extra chores squared away in addition to our already overloaded schedules. But, let’s face it, being swamped with work and activities has become a way of life for many of us all year round. It is so much part of us, it would be hard to get off the treadmill, even if we tried.

“Without intending for it to happen or knowing how it got started, many people now find that they live in a rush they don’t want and didn’t create, or at least didn’t mean to create,” says Dr. Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and author of “Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked, and About to Snap! Strategies for Handling Your Fast-Paced Life” (Ballantine Books, 2006).

While being active and engaged can be a positive experience, losing sight of what we want and what’s important to us should not be the outcome. “Being too busy […] can become a habit so entrenched that it leads you to postpone or cut short what really matters to you, making you a slave to a lifestyle you don’t like but can’t escape,” says Dr. Hallowell.

Much of today’s hurry, bustle and agitation has been created, or at least accelerated, by the arrival of communication technologies allowing us to stay connected with the outside world at all times. We have even adopted a term that originated in the computer industry to describe our responses to our many pressing demands: “multitasking,” says Christine Rosen, editor at The New Atlantis who writes about the social and cultural impact of technology. “Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible,” she says.

In recent years, scientists have begun to pay more attention to potentially adverse effects of the multitasking phenomenon on people’s health, not only in terms of stress management but also with regards to mental health. When neurologists studied brain functions through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, they were able to observe the inner workings of multitasking as blood flowed to different brain regions whenever test participants shifted their focus. Multitasking, or task-switching, as the process is sometimes called, requires time and energy, and if too much of it is required at any given time, a “bottleneck” effect may occur while the brain struggles to respond simultaneously to several stimuli, according to research conducted by Dr. René Marois, professor at the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. The reason is that the human brain can only focus sequentially, not simultaneously, on different tasks at hand. It must disengage from one before engaging in another. This limits it to a finite amount of goals it can pursue before its capacity maxes out.

“For example, someone who is writing a report might be able to take on a second task, like checking e-mail, without losing their train of thought. But if that e-mail asked for a decision about something, that would amount to a third task, and the brain would be overwhelmed,” he said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) about his findings.

Yet, many of us, especially when we are good at it, take pride in our ability to get lots of stuff done within a short period of time, and find it very rewarding. The question is, at what price?

Besides giving us toxic stress, making us sick, causing accidents and errors and turning us into rude and irritable people, the greatest damage from being too busy is that it prevents us from controlling our own lives,” says Dr. Hallowell.

Chronically overworked and overtired, we often don’t have enough energy left for doing the things we really want, such as spending more quality time alone or with loved ones. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can question our behavior from time to time in terms of what we want to achieve and how important our goals really are to us. The holiday season can be a good opportunity to re-examine our priorities.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “A Season to Slow Down.”

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, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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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

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