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Posts Tagged ‘Obesity’

The True Causes of Obesity Remain Elusive

May 28th, 2014 at 12:21 pm by timigustafson

Despite of modest gains in the fight against the obesity epidemic in recent years, health experts still don’t seem to have a definite answer to what exactly causes weight problems on such a large scale, not only here in the United States but, progressively, around the world.

A new study published in CA – A Cancer Journal for Clinicians examined an array of potentially contributing factors such as changing eating and lifestyle habits, larger portion sizes, availability and affordability of food, to mention just a few.

The latter – availability and affordability – seemingly stand out among possible culprits, according to this study.

Not only are we eating more highly caloric foods, we eat more of all types of food, mainly because food has become much cheaper, nearly ubiquitous, and more convenient to prepare, said Dr. Roland Sturm, an economist at RAND Corporation, a non-profit organization that specializes in public policy research, in a press release that came with the study.

In cooperation with his fellow-researcher, Dr. Ruopeng An, a professor at the Department of Kinesiology and Public Health of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Sturm investigated what percentage of their income average Americans spend on food today, and found that it is proportionally much less than their parents and grandparents had to.

Food in America is cheaper now than it has ever been in history, the researchers concluded. In the 1930s, most people spent about one-quarter of their income on food. In the 1950s, it dropped to one-fifth. Today, it is around one-tenth.

“Not only has the cost of food dropped, but it has become even more available,” wrote Dr. An in the press release. “So a smaller share of Americans’ disposable income now buys many more calories,” he added.

The argument that greater availability and lower prices help increase consumption is certainly valid. Yet, does that really explain why so many people can’t stop eating to the point where they get seriously ill?

I think the picture is much bigger.

The fact is that not all foods are equal. The cheapest items often have the least nutritional value – like processed meals and snacks that are typically high in calories as well as fat, sugar, and salt content. The healthiest kind, on the other hand, like fresh produce, lean protein sources, and whole grains, are not only out of reach financially for low-income families, they are not even always available where they live – in so-called food-deserts.

Besides economic constraints, lack of awareness and education in health matters also plays a role. The public is quite confused about which diet and lifestyle guidelines to follow, considering the oftentimes contradictory messages people are given.

Having cheap and abundant food available by itself should not automatically lead to unhealthy consumption, as the study seems to suggest. As consumers, we are ceaselessly bombarded with food advertisements, prodding us to eat far more than our bodies can possibly need.

In addition, government policies that subsidize large-scale production of commodities like corn and sugar, but give nothing to fresh produce farmers, may keep prices down for some (mostly processed) foods but also contribute indirectly to our public health crisis.

To improve the current situation, the research duo agrees that changing our existing food environment has to be part of the equation. Appealing to personal responsibility alone will not do. Influencing pricing for unhealthy foods through taxation may be one way. But while they don’t reject outright certain forms of intervention through policy changes, they don’t believe those to be effective enough.

Unfortunately, as long as we cannot agree on the causes of the obesity crisis, real solutions will remain elusive as well.

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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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Education, the Best Protection Against Obesity and Related Diseases

March 12th, 2014 at 12:43 pm by timigustafson

With growing wealth in many developing countries around the world, diet and lifestyle changes are showing dramatic increases in obesity and related diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. From Central and South America to the Middle East to Asia, weight problems are now among the leading causes of morbidity and mortality. But more than rising standards of living, lack of education seems to contribute to these dismal trends.

In China, India and Brazil, where economic growth has been especially dramatic but has also created vast inequalities in their populations, diet and lifestyle changes have had a particularly profound impact on the risk of obesity, according to one study that investigated the effects of rising incomes on people’s health.

In Mexico, which is considered a middle-income country, prevalence of obesity proved to be the highest among those who were better off financially but had little education. Similar findings were made in Egypt, a low-income country, where obesity has become a fast growing problem, especially among women. Here too, increasing wealth is a predictor – but even more so, lack of schooling.

“For the first time, we have studied the interaction between wealth and education and found they have fundamentally different effects on obesity,” said Dr. Amina Aitsi-Selmi, the lead author of the Egypt study.

Greater exposure of emerging economies to global food markets and rising buying power of consumers lead to these consequences. The best way to prevent this from happening would be to invest in education, especially in women who are in charge of food shopping, cooking, and taking care of the health needs of their families, she said.

“Our study suggests that investing in women’s education protects against this effect by empowering individuals to look after their health,” she said to Science Daily.

As ‘gatekeepers’ in their households, women have the most influence on the nutritional wellbeing of children, which is our best hope for breaking the vicious circle that begins with childhood obesity and subsequent, often chronic, health issues during adulthood.

Scientific evidence leaves no doubt that the environment we live in is largely responsible for the obesity epidemic, Dr. Aitsi-Selmi said. We can only change the environment by changing the behavior of individuals. And that is best accomplished through education.

Obviously, providing even a basic amount of health education in different socio-economic and cultural settings is no easy task in one country, let alone on a global scale. But, as this study and others have shown, increase in literacy and greater opportunities for learning have many benefits and can provide the groundwork for attitude and behavior modifications, including improving eating habits.

It also means that greater affordability of food does not automatically lead to better health outcomes – sometimes to the contrary. Only when people understand how their diet and lifestyle choices affect them, they can make appropriate changes and take control of their wellbeing.

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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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A Responsibility Not to Get Sick

February 26th, 2014 at 11:39 am by timigustafson

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), no other current health threats spread as fast as so-called ‘non-communicable diseases’ (NCDs) like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. What distinguishes these from infectious illnesses is that humans bring them mostly upon themselves through poor diet and lifestyle choices. Nevertheless, the impact is very real and there is no letting up in sight.

How can that be? How can we self-inflict debilitating and potentially life-threatening diseases on a pandemic scale? How can this happen when we have a pretty good understanding of the causes and how they could be averted? And why is it that the countless messages about diet and lifestyle changes produce such meager results?

Unsurprisingly, there is great uncertainty among the experts about how to address these issues. For example, only last year, the American Medical Association (AMA) decided to classify obesity as a “disease,” with the goal to bring greater attention to the urgency of the matter. Yet some have expressed skepticism about the helpfulness of such a move.

In a recent op-ed article in the New York Times, psychology professors Dr. Crystal L. Hoyt and Dr. Jeni L. Burnette, both of the University of Richmond, Virginia, suggested that the classification may in fact be counterproductive because it potentially diminishes incentives to deal effectively with weight problems.

“Calling obesity a disease provides a clear warning of the significant health risks associated with excessive weight,” they wrote. “We wondered, however, if there also might be psychological ramifications inherent in that message. Would it reduce or add to the burden of body-image concerns and shame? Would it empower people to fight back, or lead to a fatalistic acceptance of being overweight?”

They both agreed that stigmatization and discrimination of any kind have no place in how we view obesity and other related health issues. On the other hand, we ought not simply relieve people of all responsibility for their own well-being.

Suggesting that someone’s weight is his or her unfortunate fate, a “fixed state like a long-term disease,” can make efforts of weight loss and dietary improvements seem futile and may indeed undermine them, the professors warned.

As a dietitian and health counselor, I have no problem with declaring obesity a disease, especially considering the complexity of potential causes, some of which are indeed beyond an individual’s control. Having said that, I also believe that the only appropriate response to illness is to make every effort to overcome it as quickly possible. An even better approach would be prevention, so that damages don’t occur in the first place. For this, I believe, we all have a duty, a personal responsibility not to get sick as a consequence of our own actions.

Yes, there is much confusion around diet and lifestyle issues. Many people have given up and are tired of listening to oftentimes inconsistent, if not contradictory, messages. But there is also some certainty. Eating healthily by adding more fresh fruits and vegetables and cutting back on processed foods is part of that. So is observing portion sizes. Regular exercise is a must without question. Reducing stress and getting enough sleep matter as much. All these we know to be true. If we acted upon just this bit of knowledge each and every day, things could improve real fast.

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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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Stress and Anxiety Among the Leading Causes of Obesity, Studies Find

September 20th, 2013 at 11:21 am by timigustafson

Being well fed was once a sign of wealth, but obesity is now most prevalent among poor people. Surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show a close connection between obesity rates and socioeconomic status in American adults. Particularly women at low income and education levels are at a high risk of developing weight problems at some time in their lives.

While most studies on the subject have been focusing mainly on the economic aspects of food-buying and eating habits of low-income earners – e.g. poor people buy food that’s bad for their health because it’s cheap and calorie-dense – more attention is now being paid to psychological responses to economical insecurity and how it can lead to dysfunctional behavior such as overeating and food addiction.

One particular study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), found that obesity may indeed be associated with mood and anxiety disorders, although the relationship can be complex and hard to pinpoint. Obesity may also be connected with other psychological disturbances such as depression, bipolar disorder and panic disorder, the study concluded.

Undoubtedly, economical hardship is one of the most stress-producing situations anybody can be exposed to. Researchers at the University of Manitoba, Canada, found that participants in a study who lived near or below the poverty line were at a substantially higher risk of developing anxiety disorders compared to their financially more secure counterparts.

Stress and anxiety are also well known as triggers of food cravings, especially for so-called “comfort foods.” Tests with lab rats have shown that stress increases the release of “endogenous opioids” in the brain, neurotransmitters that resemble opiates with similar addictive properties. They stimulate cravings for foods that can make you feel good in an instant, especially for those tasting sweet, salty and fatty that are so richly present in our Western diet.

Stress and anxiety-evoking experiences, of course, are not limited to acute financial difficulties. Our busy lives are filled with potential stressors in many ways. The effects are all the same, even when your daily challenges are more manageable. It is at times when you are not stressed to the hilt that you should put a plan in place that allows you to resist temptations when the going gets tough again.

Since food cravings in response to stress will inevitable occur, whether you fight them or not, it seems more helpful to keep food items around that are healthy and non-fattening, like fruits and vegetables, and to stay away from the chips and candy you may prefer at the moment but will cause you regrets later on.

What you don’t want to do is make matters worse either by artificially energizing your body with caffeine and sugar or by numbing yourself with alcohol or junk food. These are actually “stress-feeders,” even if they seem to bring contemporary relief.

If you need a boost or just something to make you feel better or let you cope more effectively, look for healthy “stress-busters.” Complex carbohydrates found in whole-grain breads, cereals and pastas, as well as oatmeal are good choices and nutritionally far superior to the simple versions you get from white breads and pastries. Carbohydrates help the brain produce serotonin, a chemical that relaxes you. Fresh fruits provide many vitamins and help strengthen the immune system, which is especially important when you are under heightened pressure. Almost all vegetables, cooked or raw, are beneficial for your nutritional health, and should be part of your daily diet, no matter what your state of mind is.

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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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Growing Up with a Poor Body Image

August 3rd, 2013 at 3:09 pm by timigustafson

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) leadership has announced that it will ban obese members from participating in this year’s national Jamboree, a gathering taking place every four years that includes a number of physically demanding activities, including rock-climbing, whitewater rafting, mountain-biking and strenuous hiking trips. The newly imposed fitness requirements potentially eliminate a growing number of overweight young scouts from such events.

The decision has quickly raised objections from parents and advocacy groups who see it as a form of discrimination against children who struggle with weight problems and already suffer from widespread stigmatization in society.

Setting fitness standards for participation in the Jamboree was not meant to exclude obese kids but rather to motivate them to lose weight and improve their health, according to Dan McCarthy, a high ranking official in the BSA who spoke to Fox News on the subject.

That may be a good intention in theory, but the results can be quite different.

“While the BSA deserves credit for its commitment to the health and well-being of children, and for its efforts to address the difficult issue of childhood obesity, the decision risks perpetuating a stigma, which could in fact make the problem worse,” says Dr. Michael A. Friedman, a clinical psychologist practicing in New York City. “There is perhaps no group that is the subject of more stigma than obese children. This plays out in the form of teasing, ridicule for their appearance, blame for their condition, and assumption that they are lazy or lack willpower. All this, despite evidence of powerful genetic, biological and environmental forces that maintain childhood obesity.”

These assessments are supported by a study from the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, Canada, that found obese children to be twice as likely to develop low self-esteem, compared to their normal-weight peers.

“The current childhood obesity epidemic may trigger an increase in the prevalence of low self-esteem in the future. [It] may increase the prevalence of not only chronic diseases but also poor mental health,” the authors of the study report concluded.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 17 percent, or 12.5 million, of American children and adolescents are currently diagnosed as obese. Obesity prevalence among the young has nearly tripled since the 1980s, and there seem no measurable improvements in sight.

Self-esteem and body image become more closely connected as children move into adolescents, about at the age of 14, says Dr. Richard Strauss, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and author of a study on childhood obesity and self-esteem. He found that “obese children with decreasing self-esteem demonstrate significantly higher rates of sadness, loneliness and nervousness, and are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as smoking and consuming alcohol.”

Sadly, prejudice, stereotypes, stigma and discrimination towards obese persons of all ages remain a socially acceptable form of bias in our culture, says Dr. Rebecca Puhl, a research scientist at Yale University and co-author of a study on the effects of stigmatization of obese people.

Based on her findings, Dr. Puhl says, weight stigma is not a beneficial tool to promote health or reduce obesity. “Rather, stigmatization generates health disparities, and interferes with implementation of effective obesity prevention efforts.”

Especially in growing children, negative thinking about one’s body can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Dr. Helen Pavlov, a radiologist and frequent contributor to Huffington Post on a variety of health issues. Instead of adding to the insecurities youngsters inevitably go through, parents, teachers and other adults in their lives should help instill feelings of self-worth to contribute to their becoming healthier and more confident adults, she says.

Perhaps, the Boy Scouts could schedule an event next time that includes exercises in tolerance and support for those who need it the most.

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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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Officially, the United States has no longer the heaviest population in the world. Mexico does now. Nearly 33 percent of Mexicans are diagnosed as obese, compared to just under 32 percent of Americans, making our neighbor to the south the fattest country on earth, if you don’t count the Pacific Islands region, where rates can go as high as 71 percent, according to a recent report by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).

These latest developments should not come as a surprise. Western-style eating habits are rapidly conquering the entire globe. The ongoing economic crisis in Europe forces more families to limit their food choices to cheaper products like fast food, with predictable consequences. In parts of Africa, where hunger has long been the predominant problem, obesity rates are now skyrocketing as children are being overfed on unhealthy food supplies but remain dangerously undernourished. In South America a widespread departure from indigenous diets in favor of imported processed foods already causes tremendous health problems, especially among the young.

Why is all this happening at once? According to the FAO’s assessment, obesity is a result of a series of changes in diet, physical activity and other factors, collectively known as ‘nutrition transitions.’ These trends are now prevalent in developing countries, and also in places suffering from severe economical downturns.

Big cities, where work is less physically demanding and motorized transportation is common, are particularly affected. Also, as women enter the workforce in greater numbers, they have less time to prepare meals for their families at home and instead seek more convenient options like eating out or microwaving frozen foods.

Rural areas are not immune to these lifestyle shifts either. There, too, obesity rates are on the rise because of agricultural mechanization and a diminishing need for physical labor.

The greatest impact, however, seems to come from the import of poor eating habits from industrialized countries, most of all the U.S. Our preferences for meat products and processed foods now affect the health of those who are trying to imitate our way of life. And the food industry is more than happy to comply.

“As food companies watch income rise in the developing world, they are setting their sights on new markets. From Mexico to Morocco, the same foods that jeopardize health in wealthy countries are now tempting poor ones,” says the FAO report.

Other dietary changes are taking place regardless of outside influences. With dramatic economical growth in Asian countries comes greater demand for a richer diet. There are now about 100 million obese people in China, five times as many as there were only a decade ago.

Obesity, of course, is only one aspect of this global health crisis. Diabetes, heart disease and cancer, a.k.a. “non-communicable diseases” (NCDs) because they don’t spread from person to person but are mostly caused by poor living conditions and lifestyle choices, are now identified by the United Nations as the greatest threat to world health. About 36 million people die every year from NCDs, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

As a small silver lining on the horizon may count the fact that nutritional health is on the mind of a growing number of people, and to some extent, the food industry is responding. But switching to healthier diets is difficult, if not outright impossible, for most of the world population because of high prices for fresh foods. Only sweeping policy changes in our existing food production and distribution processes could bring significant improvements – unfortunately, that is not a likely scenario in the near future.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “United Nations Vow to Combat Lifestyle-Related Diseases Worldwide” and “Despite of the Obesity Crisis, the Eating Habits of Most Americans Remain Unchanged

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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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As a child, my mother taught me many popular sayings. One of them was: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” That was back in London, England, where I grew up.

In many European countries, especially in the southern regions, that was the way most people planned their meals. A big breakfast allowed for an energetic start. Lunch was the main eating event of the day, often followed by a siesta for digestion. Dinner, on the other hand, was more like an afterthought, consisting of little else than a sandwich or some leftovers. Only on holidays a more elaborate meal would be served later in the day.

Here in the United States, the schedule is almost reversed. Many Americans skip breakfast, work through lunch and then make up for the day-long deprivation with a big helping in the evening. Or people don’t observe any regular mealtimes at all any more and graze all day on snack foods instead.

study from the Czech Republic, which was recently presented at the American Diabetes Association Scientific Sessions Conference in Chicago, found that participants who had only two large meals during the day and no dinner at night were more likely to lose weight than their counterparts who ate three regular meals plus three small snacks, despite the fact that the amount of calories consumed in each group were the same and other factors like exercise and lifestyle remained unaltered.

These findings stand in sharp contrast to the idea that distributing food intake in form of smaller portions throughout the day may be a better way to control weight. Yet, experts on the subject are not too surprised by the study outcome. Eating six times or more a day makes it much harder to keep track of your calorie counts than if you only have to deal with two meals or so.

The concept of spreading out your food consumption may not be such a bad idea if it didn’t lead to constant grazing, as it often does. “Six mini meals turn into six major meals, and people wonder why they’re not losing weight,” said Madelyn Fernstrom, the diet and nutrition editor of NBC’s TODAY show, in a comment about the study. “The real-life takeaway here is less about skipping dinner, and more about simply eating less frequently.”

To be sure, snacking, even frequent snacking, by itself is not automatically a bad thing. What makes snacking healthy or unhealthy is what you eat and how it fits into your daily lifestyle, said Dr. Richard D. Mattes, a professor of nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, to WebMD. “If your snacks add a lot of calories that are not offset by eating less at other times or increasing physical activity, it will cause weight gain.”

The reason why snacking is now considered one of the likely causes of the obesity epidemic is that it occurs with growing frequency. Today, the average American eats almost five snacks in addition to regular meals, an increase of nearly 30 percent since the 1970s. By comparison, portion sizes of sit-down meals, although often lamented, have only grown by about 12 percent, according to U.S. government surveys.

The ubiquity of snack food is what seduces people to consume so much of it, according to Dr. Lisa Young, a professor of nutrition at New York University and author of the blog “The Portion Teller.” Wherever you go, gas stations, drugstores, you name it, there is food staring you in the face, she says. In this food-filled environment, “we need to be conscious of when we eat, how much we eat, and what we eat.”

Eating the European way may not be feasible or even desirable for many Americans. Taking long lunch breaks, let alone afternoon naps, doesn’t go very well with our busy lifestyles. Constant snacking, on the other hand, is not a good alternative and can cause problems over time.

There are many ways to find a workable middle-ground, though. For example, you don’t want to allow yourself to get too hungry during the day to avoid overeating later on. If snack foods are an irresistible temptation for you, you shouldn’t keep them within reach. Whenever you eat breakfast or lunch or anything in between, choose only highly nutritious ingredients that give you energy but don’t fill you up too much. If you need a small snack now and then, make it a healthy one as well. And drink plenty of water. Your hunger pangs may actually be symptoms of dehydration.

How you time all of this is up to you. You just have to make it work in your favor.

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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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As obesity rates continue to rise rapidly in the United States and many other countries, health experts wonder how to convey more effectively the seriousness of the crisis to the public. While many seem to be resigned to the fact that the world population is getting heavier, the growing numbers of obese people are burdening health care systems in unprecedented ways.

Societies around the world are woefully unprepared for the changing realities and lack the resources to meet the coming challenges. Insurers and healthcare providers warn that the additional costs of treating millions upon millions of overweight patients are unsustainable.

Yet, despite the flood of obesity-related health messages in recent years, it has been proven difficult to create a sense of urgency in the public’s perception of the issue. One study found that obesity-related media campaigns can be perceived as motivating but also as discouraging and even stigmatizing.

When participants in this study were asked to view obesity awareness programs from the U.S., England and Australia and rate them based on their responses, most favored positive messages that recommended making small improvements over negative ones that laid blame squarely on the lack of personal responsibility.

But not everyone agrees with taking a soft approach. “A shock of recognition” is in order because we “need to understand that obesity is a national health problem, one that causes lethal diseases, shortens lives and contributes substantially to rising health care costs,” warns Dr. Daniel Callahan, a bioethicist and cofounder of the Hastings Center, a think tank specializing in bioethics in the public interest.

A report he authored recently, titled “Obesity: Chasing an Elusive Epidemic,”, has quickly evoked fierce protests from obesity acceptance and antidiscrimination advocates, mainly because of his suggestion that social stigmatization and shaming could be a useful tool in the fight against the obesity epidemic. Similar measures, he points out, have been highly successful during the anti-smoking campaigns a few decades ago.

Trying to get the obesity crisis under control has turned out to be “the most difficult and elusive health problem this country has ever encountered” Callahan laments. Addressing it effectively requires profound changes in our personal behavior but also in the ways we allow food and beverage commerce to operate. The respective industries spend billions of dollars on marketing less-than-healthy products, often aimed at children, and on lobbying to prevent much needed regulations from being enacted.

There are limits to how much government can do to influence people’s behavior. But government can impose regulations and taxes to coerce both industry and consumers into making changes that can produce desirable results over time.

And here we can indeed take cues from the anti-smoking crusades. For instance, we don’t allow smoking in most public areas and means of transportation any more. We certainly don’t allow cigarettes to be sold to minors. We no longer have cigarette advertisements on television. Placing warning signs and sometimes deterring images on cigarette packages is mandatory. High taxes on tobacco products have made them less affordable. Considering how dramatically smoking has declined in this country, these measures have turned out largely successful.

The question is whether there will be enough political will to take similar steps towards the causes of obesity. For instance, can we agree to ban fast food outlets from residential areas? Can we forbid the sale of junk food to minors unaccompanied by adults? Can we outlaw TV ads for snacks and sodas, at least during daytime hours? Can we impose high taxes not only on sodas but also on unhealthy foods and snacks to curb consumption? Can we require warning signs on packaged foods containing unhealthy ingredients?

Proposals like these may sound radical and outlandish now. But the same was said about the smoking restrictions we take for granted today. Some of the measures mentioned here are in fact already being experimented with. What’s most important is that we finally convey a consistent message that doesn’t confuse us any longer about what we should and what we shouldn’t do.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “How Serious Is the Food Industry About Helping in the Fight Against Obesity?” and “Obesity Must Be Addressed on Multiple Levels.”

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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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Americans don’t like to cook. They don’t want to spend the time it takes for food shopping, food preparation and clean up, especially when it’s so much easier to stop for a quick bite at a restaurant or drive-thru or bring home some take-out. Yet, experts are convinced that making home cooking fashionable again would be one of the most effective steps we could take to address the nation’s obesity crisis.

The United States ranks at the bottom of industrialized countries not only in terms of time spent on meal preparation but also on consumption, according to surveys conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international group that analyzes economic data worldwide. In other words, we not only don’t cook, we also don’t set much time aside to enjoy our food. Instead, more and more of us skip breakfast, work through lunch and sustain ourselves throughout the day by snacking.

The percentage of calories from snacks in the American diet has doubled since the 1970s, as more people have turned into all-day grazers while foregoing sitdown meals on most days, a study by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES) found.

Over half of American adults say they have three or more snacks a day. Almost a third of children and adolescents eat chips, popcorn, pretzels and the likes on a daily basis. The amount of pizza eaten, both in restaurants and at home, has nearly tripled over the past thirty years. Meanwhile, the number of calories in pizzas has increased by 25 percent on average since the late 1970s. Over the same time period vegetable consumption has declined from 2.6 to just 1.9 servings per day – and that includes French fries.

The easiest way to turn these developments around would be to start preparing our meals from scratch again, says Mark Bittman, food writer and author of “Cooking Solves Everything: How Time in the Kitchen Can Save Your Health, Your Budget, and Even the Planet” (Kindle edition, 2011). Millions of Americans don’t ever cook. The rest cooks on occasion, often just microwaving. Many don’t bother with sitting down at the dinner table but rather eat in the car, at a counter, or in front of a screen. “And that’s a shame, because cooking is a basic essential, worthwhile and even enjoyable task,” he writes.

Bittman applauds others who are trying to get the message out about the many benefits of home cooking, like his fellow-book-author Michael Pollan who just published a new book on the same subject, titled, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” (Penguin Press, 2013). In a review on the then upcoming publication he writes: “Cooking is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your diet.”

The reasons are obvious. If you are in charge of the ingredients that go into your food, you already are going to eat better because you won’t include extra fat, salt, sugar, preservatives, dyes and other additives. You also won’t eat as many highly caloric items like French fries, which are cumbersome to make at home. The same goes for pizza (made from scratch, not the ones you just heat up).

One of the central problems with cooking is that we don’t value it enough any more. We are used to having tasks like these done for us by outside service providers. But unlike getting your car or computer fixed by someone else, cooking is much more intimate. It connects us with our bodies, nature and loved ones.

Michael Pollan even thinks that the experience of cooking brings us closer to the most basic elements that surround us: fire, water, air and earth and also tightens our social and ecological relationships. All that has deeply transformational characteristics that can change us on multiple levels, but all for the better.

That is much to hope for – perhaps too much. Still, it is a fact that an increasing number of people are looking for ways to eat more healthily and also reduce stress on the environment, e.g. by cutting back on meat consumption and buying more produce from local farms. A rediscovery of home cooking would fit squarely within these trends. Whether it will be enough to transform or currently predominant way of life remains doubtful.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Home Cooking for Healthy Eating” and “Tips for Leaner Cooking Techniques

Connect with us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+ and Pinterest

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

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About timigustafson

About Timi Gustafson, R.D. As a clinical dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and, as of late, blogger, she has been able to reach millions of people, addressing their concerns about issues of health, lifestyle and nutrition. As Co-founder and Director of Nutrition Services for Cyberdiet.com (now Mediconsult.com), she created the first nutrition-related interactive website on the Internet in 1995. Many of the features you find on her blog, www.timigustafson.com, are based on the pioneering work of those days. Today, her goals remain the same: Helping people to achieve optimal health of body and mind. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from San José State University in California and completed a Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. She is a registered dietitian and Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Dietitians in Business and Communications, Healthy Aging, Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition, and the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Groups. For more information about Timi Gustafson R.D. please visit: www.timigustafson.com

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