Posts Tagged ‘Mediterranean Diet’

It’s the time of the year again when purveyors of diet and weight loss programs vie most fiercely for our attention, hoping to convince customers that their product can do the trick much faster and more effortlessly than the competition. But the fact is that what makes one approach more promising than another depends on a variety of factors, many of which have little to do with what’s being sold to consumers.

According to an annual report published by U.S. News, some diets are indeed superior to others in terms of effectiveness, success rates, and health benefits. A panel of experts with professional backgrounds in nutrition, weight loss, diabetes, heart disease, and psychology of eating behavior reviewed 32 of the most popular diet programs and rated them in different categories, including short-term and long-term effects, safety, user-friendliness, and nutritional completeness.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) came in first as the overall best program, followed by Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC). Weight Watchers won in the best weight-loss diet category, ahead of the Biggest LoserWeight Watchers also beat its competitors as the best commercial diet plan. The DASH diet showed the most health benefits, while the Mediterranean Diet ranked highest among vegetarian regimens. The so-called Paleo or Caveman Diet and the Dukan Diet took last places.

Letting independent experts rate commercial diet programs and products is certainly not a bad idea, especially when considering the onslaught of fad diets with their oftentimes unrealistic and unfounded claims that can border on outright fraud. Thankfully, the government is increasingly scrutinizing such deceptive practices and has recently imposed serious fines on several companies.

But ratings alone cannot guarantee success when it comes to the individual consumer who is trying to lose weight, treat an illness, or simply wants to feel better. The members of the panel readily admit they did not take into account the importance of exercise and other lifestyle changes.

Also, the high costs of many commercial weight loss products were not part of their investigation, although money concerns prevent many would-be-followers from taking up or sticking to these plans long-term.

It is a simple fact that when it comes to weight management, food is only part of the equation. What and how much we eat is just one thing to consider. Why we reach for food even when we are not hungry – e.g. to cope with stress, boredom or addiction, or for other physical or psychological reasons – is an equally important question. Some people may find it hard to make the smallest lifestyle changes because of work-related circumstances such as travel, lack of sleep, or being forced to frequently eat out. Or they don’t get enough support at home, which can be crucial for their chances to make improvements. And then there is lack of education. It is no secret that many of us (experts included) are ignorant or confused about the ins and outs of staying healthy and fit. Also, what works well for one person can result in total failure for another – because, as they say, the devil is in the details.

So, instead of looking for one-fits-all solutions, my recommendation for this year’s resolution season is this:

• If you had successes in the past, try to recall what happened then and re-implement what you did. Also, ask yourself what made you fall off the wagon again.

• If a particular commercial program has worked for you once, go back to it. If it left you unconvinced, try another, but carefully study the differences.

• Most importantly, keep in mind that everything you do in your life is connected. You may have to cut back on your calorie intake, but you also want to eat more nutritiously. Regular exercise is a must, no matter how closely you watch your diet. Stress management and getting enough sleep count as well. The more you step back and look at the whole picture, the more likely you will reach your goal and be able to maintain your achievements.

I wish you a happy and healthy New Year.

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

October 20th, 2013 at 7:22 am by timigustafson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 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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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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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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