Posts Tagged ‘Stress’

More Than Temptation, Stress Causes Overeating During the Holidays

November 10th, 2013 at 3:21 pm by timigustafson

That many people’s waistlines expand during the holiday season is a well-established fact. But, as a new study found, the reason why most of us overindulge at this particular time may not be so much the countless opportunities for extra munching but rather the need for extra comfort due to heightened stress.

The study, which was conducted at the University of Konstanz, Germany, showed that participants who had a tendency to reach for food when stressed did not continue to do so after they were more relaxed, even though they were given equal access to the comfort foods they craved when they felt tense.

Other participants had reverse reactions. They ate less or stopped eating altogether in acutely stressful situations and compensated (or often overcompensated) for the deprivation afterwards when the tension ebbed. In either case, eating was connected to their stress experience rather than the availability of food.

Stress eating, or emotional eating as it is sometimes called, is not yet fully understood by scientist. In fact, the expression “stress eating” itself should be a contradiction in terms. Acute stress as a short-term response supposedly blocks the desire for food due to hormone releases in the brain that suppress appetite. But when high stress levels persist, as with chronic stress, cortisol, an appetite-stimulating hormone, secretes in the adrenal glands and remains elevated until the stress period ends, which may be indefinite.

Some foods seem to be more effective for stress relief than others. Comfort foods, which are typically highly processed and filled with fat and sugar, are among the favorite choices of the chronically stressed. These are also the kinds of food that one can easily snack on, often mindlessly.

Overeating, of course, is not the only widespread response to stress. Because of its energy-draining and exhausting effects, both physically and mentally, stress prevents many people from exercising and often from getting enough sleep. Alcohol and/or drug use, not unheard of among stress sufferers, add to the likelihood of unhealthy weight gain and other body dysfunctions.

So, what makes us so much more vulnerable and so inclined to succumb to our cravings during the holiday season? The fact is that this is no holiday at all for most people who find themselves burdened with many additional tasks and obligations while their everyday lives still must go on as usual. Thus, stress sources multiply. That, at least, may be one reason.

Still, whatever we do to cope with those challenges, it is important to understand that we are not helpless when it comes to controlling our impulses. The first step towards making positive changes is to become more aware of our tendencies and then take the necessary steps to counterbalance them.

For example, do you have a sweet tooth? If so, you can limit your access to your favorite treats. Do you easily forego exercising and make excuses for staying sedentary? You can draw up a fitness plan and join in with likeminded people who can hold you to it. Are you chronically sleep-deprived? You can make a point of increasing your sleep time. The list can go on and on.

It would be naïve to think that all this can be accomplished with a quick resolution. Far from it. Instead, I recommend to start with one thing, something concrete you can take on right now without further delay. How about, this holiday season, I give myself the gift of an hour daily to take care of my health and my peace of mind? It doesn’t matter what exactly you choose to do. Read a book, go for a walk, meditate, whatever. Stay with it, and that gift might just keep on giving.

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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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No Time to Be Sick

November 6th, 2013 at 2:51 pm by timigustafson

It is a well-documented fact that American workers put in longer hours and take less time off than their counterparts in almost any other country in the developed world. Unlike in Europe, for example, where four to six weeks paid vacation time is mandatory, there are no comparable laws in the United States. But in addition to the lack of recreation, most Americans don’t stay home even when they are sick.

According to surveys by Careerbuilder.com, about three in four people come to work while nursing a cold, the flu and something worse. Other statistics indicate the numbers are even higher.

When asked, most of those who decide to toughen it out say they don’t want to fall behind in their workload or be thought of as slackers. Most are also aware that the germs they spread around while sneezing and coughing may infect their coworkers – but still they insist on staying on the job.

It doesn’t help that taking a day off now and then is unaffordable for many Americans. Again, unlike in most European countries, there are no laws here that mandate a minimum amount of paid sick leave.

Employers, of course, are keenly aware that workers who show up ill can do more harm than good, not only because the viruses they carry are contagious, but also because they are likely less focused and productive than normally. In other words, it affects businesses’ bottom line, probably more so than if people stayed at home. Luckily, in this day and age, many of us can do at least some of their work remotely and don’t have to be physically present in their workplaces.

Either way, as this year’s cold and flu season approaches, it may be a good idea to make some plans for how to cope with the inevitable before it strikes.

Your first step should be getting a flu shot. It may not protect you against every strand that’s out there, but it increases your chances to escape some.

Second, you are well advised to wash your hands every time you leave common areas like conference rooms or cafeterias, or touch items like door handles, staircase railings or elevator buttons. Thorough washing and sanitizing of hands after bathroom visits should go without saying.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to eliminate all germ threats and can only minimize the risk of getting infected so much. Still, it makes sense to take as many precautions as you can think of. However, you don’t want to become paralyzed with fear and develop paranoid behavior (Melvin Udall, the obsessive-compulsive character portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the movie “As Good As It Gets” comes to mind).

Your best weapon, besides vaccination, is to strengthen your immune system as much as possible. Especially in the winter months, it is important to eat healthily and get lots of vitamins from fruits and vegetables. Go outdoors and exercise, even if the weather is less than inviting. An enclosed gym may provide many more health hazards than cold but fresh air. Make sure you get enough sleep, since tiredness and exhaustion make you more vulnerable to infections. Manage your stress as well as you can.

Should you still fall ill despite of your best efforts, see what can be negotiated in terms of staying at home and, if necessary, doing some work over the phone and via email. Your boss and colleagues should thank you for your wise decision.

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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 in Midlife May Increase Risk of Dementia, Study Suggests

October 9th, 2013 at 3:28 pm by timigustafson

People who undergo traumatic experiences or endure stressful situations during their midlife years may be more likely to suffer from cognitive decline such as Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss as they age compared to their counterparts who manage to sail through life more smoothly, according to a study from Sweden that followed participants over decades, keeping track of their mental health.

The study only included women, but the researchers say there is no reason to assume their observations wouldn’t be applicable to men as well, although, as other studies have shown, the sexes respond to stress differently in a number of ways.

What is remarkable about the findings of this study is that stress-producing events, even if they had taken place long in the past, continued to have a negative impact on people’s mental well-being. Whether they could pinpoint the source to certain incidents like a divorce or the loss of loved ones, or whether they were exposed to high stress levels for extended periods of time, a.k.a. chronic stress, the potential for lasting health damages increased significantly as they grew older.

There also seems to be an accumulative effect: For each additional stressor the participating women reported at the beginning of the study, their risk of later developing Alzheimers’s disease was raised by up to 20 percent.

The researchers do not claim having found a cause and effect connection between stress and age-related mental decline, though.

“Stress and stressors are just one of several risk factors. Not everyone who had stress or stressors developed dementia,” said Dr. Lena Johansson of the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology at Gothenburg University in Mölndal, Sweden, one of the authors of the study report.

However, what the study does show, she said, is that common stressors most of us encounter every day can have severe long-lasting physiological and psychological consequences.

One possible explanation for this is that stress hormones like cortisol may cause harmful alterations in the brain. They can also affect blood pressure and blood sugar control. It is well known that high blood pressure can lead to heart disease, which is also suspected to play a role in mental decline. Even if all the connections are not yet fully understood, a larger picture seems to emerge that allows for a better identification of all the components.

For now, however, our best options are to take as many preventive measures as we can, such as eating healthy and exercising plenty. Getting enough sleep and managing stress are equally as important.

While there is no real protection against Alzheimer’s and memory loss available today, and perhaps never will be, we all can take steps to remain mentally active and alert. Lifelong learning and problem solving are most beneficial in this regard. Maintaining an active social life is also important.

As far as stress is concerned, most of us can never escape that for good. Modern life is just that way. That means we must find solutions to deal with the inevitable and counterbalance the impact of stress as best as we can. There is no shortage on advice on how to go about this, including on this blog. What matters in the end is how successful we are in controlling our responses to the obstacles that are thrown in our way, not just for the moment but for the rest of our lives.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Staying Physically Healthy and Mentally Engaged Protects Best Against Dementia, New Studies Finds.”

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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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Spring Fever Season

April 13th, 2013 at 2:51 pm by timigustafson

Do you feel energized, restless and impatient? You may have spring fever. Are you irritable, weary, listless and unable to concentrate? You may have spring fever. Or are you in a constant state of tiredness and exhaustion? It may be spring fever as well. Why so many different symptoms that even seem to contradict each other? It can be your body’s reaction to the changing seasons, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as the phenomenon is sometimes called.

During the winter months the body protects itself against lower temperatures and reduced sunlight by adjusting its metabolism and hormonal balance. Body temperature dropsblood pressure rises, and secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin increases, making us more sleepy. As the weather gets warmer and sunnier in the spring, the opposite happens: body temperature goes up, blood pressure goes down, and the feel-good hormone serotonin begins to dominate.

The problem is that the transitions between these different stages don’t always go smoothly. In any case, hormonal imbalances take place that can cause all sorts of physical and mental responses. Some experts say that spring fever or spring fatigue are a bit like having a “hangover” after a period of dormancy, perhaps a lighter version of what hibernating animals go through.

Because our experience of seasonal changes has become so much mitigated through artificial light and heating, our natural reactions may be even less predictable.

In addition, weather conditions can fluctuate to a larger degree in the spring than at any other time of the year. Global climate change may only intensify these variations. Extreme weather changes have become the new normal in recent years. 2012 had the warmest spring on record in the United States, with over five degrees above average. It also had some of the coldest winters months. As I write this article, temperatures at the east coast are approaching 90 degrees, while western states like Colorado report freezing conditions.

The effects of seasonal changes on the body’s equilibrium are stress-producing, says Karina Seizinger, a homeopath and yoga teacher who recommends taking a number of measures for the treatment of spring fatigue symptoms. Among them are eating a healthy, balanced diet consisting of lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, drinking plenty of water, exercising, exposing the body to sunlight and engaging in calming practices like yoga and meditation.

“First and foremost, just be aware, and know that your body is in a state of transition,” she emphasizes. “Be kind and patient with yourself, and give yourself some time to adjust.”

While feeling fatigued for some time due to seasonal changes is no cause for concern, chronic tiredness may have other roots. Feeling drained or exhausted from stress or lack of sleep can be a normal response. It can also be a sign of a more serious physical or mental condition that should be examined by a doctor.

Outside of that possibility, getting enough sleep, watching your diet, exercising, managing stress and avoiding alcohol, nicotine and drugs should get you back on track for the coming summer.

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

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Pillars of Wellbeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wellness Wheel

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

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

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

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

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To Prevent Heart Disease, Follow a Mediterranean Lifestyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Most Weight Gain Comes from Stress, Scientists Say

February 20th, 2013 at 12:08 pm by timigustafson

People get fat from eating too much and exercising too little. At least that’s the most widely held explanation for the growing obesity crisis around the world. But it’s not that simple, says Dr. Achim Peters, a professor of neurology at the University of Lübeck in Germany and author of “The Selfish Brain – Why Our Brain Sabotages Dieting and Resists the Body” (Ullstein, 2011).

The worldwide obesity epidemic is in truth a stress epidemic, and unhealthy weight gain is just one of the ills that plague an increasingly stressed population trying to cope with the ever-growing demands of modern life, he says in an interview with the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” (2/9/2013).

In reality, weight issues are often rooted in socio-economic difficulties like job loss, poverty, rising food prices and other existential uncertainties, he says. It puts tremendous pressure on people. Stress-producing situations can be immensely damaging to our health, especially when they persist over long periods of time with no reprieve in sight.

Dr. Peters is best known for the “Selfish Brain Theory,” which he developed together with an interdisciplinary team of scientists over a decade ago when researching the origins of obesity. In essence, the theory describes how the brain takes care of its own needs first when regulating energy distribution throughout the body. It is “selfish” in the sense that it always wins out in any competition for energy resources, at the expense of all other organs if necessary.

In times of stress, the brain spends particularly high amounts of energy, which requires an increase in food intake. During acute stress situations, a rapid spike in energy demand is natural and not harmful. It is different when stress is prolonged. Then it can become a chronic state and as such quite dangerous.

To shed some light on these dynamics, it is important to understand our body’s hormonal responses to stress. Energy in the body is regulated and mobilized by a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol selects the right type and amount of energy to meet the body’s demands when responding to a particular situation. Cortisol is also responsible for mobilizing energy by tapping into the body’s fat stores and moving it to where it’s most needed, primarily in the brain.

Studies in animals and humans have shown that heightened secretion of cortisol is associated with increased appetite, especially for sugar. In cases of enduring stress, this can stimulate food consumption to the point of overeating with all the detrimental consequences we are so familiar with. Moreover, too much cortisol can slow the metabolism, causing more weight gain than would normally occur. It can also affect fat distribution. Fat in the stomach area is considered a greater health risk than when it’s stored around the hips and thighs.

Ultimately, we will not be able to address the obesity crisis effectively if we continue to ignore the effects of chronic stress on our hormonal system, says Dr. Peters. Asking people to diet and force themselves to lose weight through deprivation can only make things worse. The solution is to de-stress our lives. This doesn’t mean more yoga and meditating, although that can help too, but mostly better socio-economic security and, as a result, peace of mind for more people.

As a point in case he cites a study conducted by the University of Chicago that compared two groups of single mothers from low-income neighborhoods. One group of women was moved to a more upscale area with safer streets, greater job opportunities and better schools, the other was left in place. Within a few years, most of the women who had moved away showed considerable improvement in their health, especially in reduction of diabetes and obesity. As their stress lessened, their well-being increased on every level.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading Can’t Lose Weight? t Could Be Stress

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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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 amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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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 amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

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

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