Posts Tagged ‘Weight Management’

Can Weight Loss Make You Smarter?

September 6th, 2014 at 1:51 pm by timigustafson

Being overweight is associated with multiple negative health effects, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Conversely, weight loss can lower the risk of developing such illnesses, or lighten their burden. Now, a new study from Brazil found that besides physical improvements, slimming down can also produce positive outcomes for the mind.

For the study, researchers followed a group of morbidly obese women who were planning to have gastric bypass surgery to lose weight. Six month after the procedure their average Body-Mass-Index (BMI) had dropped from over 50 to about 37 – still overweight but not considered as severely obese.

Before the operation, the women agreed to a series of exams to assess their memory and other cognitive functions. They also underwent brain scans and blood work. The same tests were repeated six months after the event.

A roughly equal number of normal-weight women (with a BMI of 22 to 23) served as a control group. Both groups took the same tests at the outset of the study. All participants scored by and large the same in the cognitive exams before the surgery, but six months later, as they lost weight, all of the formerly obese women improved their test results in at least one category.

Their brain scans also showed significant differences. Before weight loss they showed greater risks of mental decline than afterwards. The blood tests indicated improvements in insulin sensitivity and reduced inflammation.

Overall, the researchers concluded, weight loss can have positive effects on brain health and may play a role in the prevention of cognitive degeneration and age-related dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

This is not the first time scientists have tried to shed light on the impact of excessive body weight on the brain. A study from France, conducted in 2006, investigated the relation between changes in BMI and cognitive functions but couldn’t determine any significant associations between the two in middle-aged, healthy, non-demented adults. More recent research, however, found some indication that weight problems – including underweight, overweight, and obesity – in midlife do in fact increase the risk of dementia in later years.

While there may be no definite answers yet to what extent body weight influences brain health, more and more findings point in the direction that there are indeed connections. At the very least, we do know that chronic conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease, both often directly resulting from weight problems, can contribute to the inhibition of blood flow to the brain, especially when blood vessels become narrowed or blocked. One possible outcome is what is called vascular dementia, which is different from other forms of dementia but nevertheless can lead to similar symptoms. It is the second most common cause of age-related mental decline after Alzheimer’s.

In any case, while there is no certain way to increase mental health or even prevent decline, most experts agree that healthy diet and lifestyle choices combined with consistent weight management and other health-promoting steps can reduce unnecessary risks and should be pursued as much as possible.

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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 Flexitarian Diet – Not as Simple as It Sounds

February 8th, 2014 at 9:04 am by timigustafson

As more Americans are getting concerned about their nutritional health, loading up on fruits and vegetables while cutting back on meat products is becoming increasingly popular. These so-called “flexitarians” – not complete vegetarians but discriminating omnivores – are receiving a lot of attention lately from nutrition and health experts who notice the benefits of this rather loose diet prescription.

The term “Flexitarian Diet” was first coined by Dawn Jackson Blatner, a Registered Dietitian and author of a book she published in 2009 under the same title. Based on her experience as a nutrition counselor, she advocates a mostly plant-based eating regimen for people who don’t want to give up meat altogether.

Eating flexitarian-style is about adding more nutritious food groups to your existing diet, rather than taking away items you like and are used to, she explains. For this, she offers fixed weekly meal plans or lets you pick and choose as you make gradual improvements. For example, going meatless at least once or twice a week can be a good start.

Once a meat-lover gets used to the idea that plant foods can be equally as tasty and satisfying, the “conversion” process can continue until a pattern is established where the nutritionally healthiest foods dominate – but not at the exclusion of all others.

Research has shown time and again that plant food eaters tend to consume fewer calories and are far less likely to develop weight problems compared to their meat-eating counterparts. They are also, generally speaking, in a better position to receive essential nutrients like vitamins and minerals. But that doesn’t mean all vegetarians automatically meet their dietary needs.

Essential nutrients are the kind the body must have on a regular basis and cannot make on its own. Therefore, they have to come from food. Among these are dietary vitamins and minerals as well as carbohydrates, certain fats, and amino acids.

Some are easier to come by than others. For example, B-12, an essential vitamin, can only be found in animal food products. Strict vegetarians, a.k.a. vegans, must find ways to avoid B-12 deficiency, e.g. by taking supplements.

Likewise, vitamin C is limited to plant foods. If you don’t eat enough of these, you may encounter health problems in the long run, such as a weakened immune system.

Carbohydrates may have gotten a bad rap among dieters, but they provide necessary fuel for many parts of the body, including the brain. They are abundantly present in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. They are also the only source of dietary fiber there is.

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. A sufficient supply of complete protein, which contains all essential amino acids, is important for any number of health reasons, including muscle mass, bone density, organ tissue replacement, and the healing of wounds. It is not impossible to cover your needs for complete protein solely from plant-based sources, but it is easier for someone who eats meat, fish or poultry once in a while.

Obviously, a healthy human body is sturdy enough to endure shortages of certain nutrients for short periods of time. Unfortunately, the so-called Western diet – which is increasingly becoming today’s most popular eating style, not just here but worldwide – is notoriously lacking in wholesome nutrients. The consequences are plain to see.

But even for those who want to make changes for the better, maintaining a perfectly balanced diet is not always easy. The oftentimes inconsistent, if not contradictory, messages conveyed by the latest diet ideas leave people more confused than educated. Experimenting in a ‘flexitarian’ way may be one of the better options we have left – until we get it eventually right.

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

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Most Americans Don’t Exercise Enough – But Who Can Blame Them?

May 8th, 2013 at 1:01 pm by timigustafson

Despite plenty of encouragement from the government and health experts to move more, Americans still find it hard to adopt a less sedentary lifestyle. Merely 20 percent are in compliance with the government’s recommendations for physical activity, which advise getting at least two and a half hours per week of moderately intense aerobic exercise like brisk walking as well as some strength training such as lifting weights or doing pushups.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), call being physically active “one of the most important steps that Americans of all ages can take to improve their health.”

The Physical Activity Guidelines are meant to complement the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a joint effort of the HHS and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). They are directed towards policy makers and health care professionals as well as the public at large.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published in the May 2013 issue of the journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 52 percent of respondents to phone interviews reported meeting the recommended guidelines for aerobics, and 29 percent said they did with muscle-strength training.

The survey also came up with some other noticeable statistics. Less than a third of 18 to 24 year-olds met both aerobic and strength-training recommendations. Only 16 percent of over 65 year-olds came close. Hispanics did worse than other ethnicities. Education also seemed a contributing factor. Those with college degrees did on average better than those without. Normal-weight persons were more active than the overweight and obese. Americans living in the Northeast and the West outperformed Southerners. Colorado beat all other states. West Virginia and Tennessee came in last.

Similarly to the Dietary Guidelines, the Physical Activity Guidelines have been criticized as unrealistic and unattainable for many Americans, especially for low-income earners and those living in unwalkable and unsafe neighborhoods.

Multiple studies have shown that walkability in residential areas has a significant impact on people’s health. One study found that residents of neighborhoods with sidewalks, bike paths and public parks had a much lower risk of becoming overweight or obese than those who lived in areas without such amenities.

But unfortunately, issues of walkability and bikeability are still not included in the planning processes of many cities around the country. Walk Score, a Seattle-based company that evaluates major cities and midsized towns in the U.S., releases annual rankings of the most, and least, walkable places and rates them on a scale from 0 (= “car-dependent”) to 100 (= “walker’s paradise”). While New York City and San Francisco routinely qualify as most pedestrian-friendly and are lauded for their extensive public transportation system, smaller towns, especially in rural areas, still make it hard to get around other than by driving your own vehicle.

Physical fitness – like weight control – is considered by many as a matter of personal choice and responsibility. And to a certain extent that is true. However, other factors such as income, residence, access to grocery outlets and opportunities to be physically active within reasonable distance have all been shown to be decisive. If too many of these elements are missing, no appeal to behavioral change will suffice.

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

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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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Instead of Dieting, Build a Healthy Lifestyle

January 9th, 2013 at 12:00 pm by timigustafson

Just in time for resolution season when many Americans try hard to lose the extra weight they gained over the holidays, a surprising study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has come out, seemingly suggesting that a few additional pounds may not do too much harm after all, and being a bit overweight may even reduce a person’s mortality risk. The findings, which were widely publicized in the press, quickly proved controversial and evoked some strong reactions from health experts and the public. Is this the end of the need for weight control?

“Not all weight is the same,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC department that conducted the study, in an interview with USA TODAY. “If you work out and build muscle mass, you may increase weight and that’s healthy.”

Whether a few extra pounds matter much or not depends on how someone has acquired them, said Dr. Walter Willet, professor at Harvard School of Public Health, in the same interview. “If someone has always been muscular and is active and strong, and their blood pressure and levels of blood glucose and cholesterol are fine, then their health risks are probably minimal. However, if someone has gotten to this weight by putting on 10 pounds or more, has increased their waistline by more than two inches, or has elevations in blood pressure, glucose or cholesterol, then this weight can be a serious health risk.”

The problem is that the large majority of overweight people develop metabolic abnormalities such as high blood pressure, diabetes and many other conditions. That’s why most will benefit from losing weight, even if it’s only a modest amount, he added.

Even those who are still within a healthy weight range should take proactive steps to avoid weight increase by eating right and exercising regularly. Obviously, it is much easier to prevent any damage than to repair it.

Either way, successful weight management does not come in form of quick and temporary fixes but with a firm commitment to your overall health and well-being that lasts a lifetime. This may entail paying careful attention to your eating habits and, if necessary, making some changes, which can range from cutting back on portion sizes to learning entirely different eating styles. It can require going on more walks or making the gym your new obsession.

Those who are significantly overweight and face health threats because of that may have to take some immediate action. Even losing relatively small amounts of weight can be a lifesaver. In extreme cases, more drastic measures under medical supervision may be necessary.

Unfortunately, most dieters still focus too much on calorie reduction, in spite of the fact that deprivation rarely works. That’s why so many encounter a so-called ‘yo-yo’ effect, where they regain the weight they’ve lost and sometimes add more once the dieting is over.

No matter how extensive your efforts will need to be, they don’t have to be complicated. Most experts recommend to start small and set more ambitious goals over time. Aim for balance, variety and moderation in your eating pattern. Develop an exercise regimen that matches your needs and that you enjoy enough to stick with it.

Don’t try changing everything all at once. Allow for occasional treats, count on lapses, but don’t lose sight of your long-term goals. Ask for support from loved ones or seek professional help when the going gets too tough. In the end, what matters most is that you own your new and improved lifestyle and that it becomes part of who you are. And it will, if you try long and hard enough.

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 Start Dieting Just Yet

December 26th, 2012 at 7:56 am by timigustafson

The holidays are nearly over. It’s time to assess the damage caused by delicious treats, fun cocktail parties and festive dinners that made us feel so good but now give us a sense of regret. It’s time to repent, shed quickly the extra pounds we gained and return to the path of nutritional righteousness. Or is it?

In fact, no. I don’t recommend dieting after the holidays. Going on a diet right after putting on more weight may be the worst thing you can do. Why?

Numerous studies have shown that starving yourself after periods of overindulging can be highly counterproductive. One study from the University of CaliforniaLos Angeles (UCLA) found that people who diet not only regain the weight they lost but actually tend to add more.

“We found that the average percentage of people who gained back more weight than they lost on diets was 41 percent, says Dr. Traci Mann, a professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in psychology of eating disorders, in an interview with WebMD. She believes these numbers are conservative and the statistics may be even bleaker because the study’s data are based on self-reporting, which notoriously skews the results.

One of the reasons why diets don’t work, especially after a time of overeating, is that it’s hard for most people to change even recently acquired habits. If you can’t continue with something that provides you with so much gratification, it feels like cruel deprivation. It can be difficult to overcome that sudden void.

And even if you initially succeed at losing some weight, the returns inevitably diminish over time, says Dr. Mann. “When you keep to a reduced-calorie diet, your body makes metabolic adjustments that make it harder and harder for you to lose weight. Your body becomes very efficient, and you have to eat less and less to continue to lose weight. If you had the will to go on a diet, the fact that it steadily becomes less and less effective makes it even harder to stick to it,” she says.

People often underestimate how difficult it is to change their lifestyle, says Dr. Robert M. van Dam, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who specializes in obesity studies. “People think diets are something you do for a little while before going back to your old lifestyle. But if you do a crash diet, you will only regain the weight,” he warns.

So what is the right way to get us out of the holiday spirit and let us down gently?

“People who want to achieve and maintain a healthy weight should start working at lifestyle changes they can maintain, even if it means not losing weight but just staying at the same weight,” says Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, a professor for psychiatry and epidemiology and director the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh. In other words, instead of jumping on another fad diet that promises quick results, it is better to gradually ease back into your regular routine and go from there if additional weight loss measures are needed.

This is not just a physical exercise but a mental one as well. If the holidays caused you to engage in some bouts of emotional eating – meaning you ate for reasons other than hunger – you must find ways to cope with those issues as well. Just because the season is over doesn’t mean those needs go away.

Lifestyle changes that produce lasting results include a number of different elements, says Dr. Fernstrom, including moderation of food intake, increasing physical activity, managing stress and, if necessary, getting counseling and treatment for depression and other illnesses that may get in the way.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “How Damaging Is Yo-Yo Dieting?.”

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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Healthy Eating But Not Dieting Recommended for Pregnant Women

June 21st, 2012 at 6:38 am by timigustafson

A new study on dietary recommendations for pregnant women concluded that healthy eating and calorie control during pregnancy can help prevent obstetric complications. Also, pregnant women who are overweight or obese can lose weight safely by improving their eating habits but not by dieting.

The study, which was funded by the National Institute for Health in the United Kingdom and published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), was based on the results of research involving more than 7,000 women. Both in Europe and North America, up to 40 percent of women gain more than the normal amount of additional weight due to pregnancy, which can cause a number of health problems associated with excess weight.

The researchers said that following a healthy diet instead of “eating for two” can help prevent the risk of a host of complications during pregnancy. However, current guidelines do not advocate dieting for weight loss during that time. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) warns that calorie restriction for the purpose of weight loss during pregnancy may harm the health of the unborn child.

Observing healthy eating habits, of course, is important at any time in life, but it matters even more for women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant. A low-calorie, nutrient-dense diet that includes lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean protein sources is beneficial for both mother and child. While there is no specific “pregnancy diet,” nutritional balance in both quality and quantity of the food an expecting mother eats is key.

Most women feel more often hungry than they did before their pregnancy, tempting them to overeat on occasion. To prevent this from happening, it is perfectly permissible to break with one’s usual eating pattern of three daily meals and nibble instead on several smaller servings throughout the day. Healthy snack foods can help with sudden hunger pangs. This approach can also work if nausea, food aversions or indigestion make it uncomfortable to eat and digest regular-size meals.

The most important issue is to eat as nutritionally healthy as possible. This includes having good sources of protein, calcium, folic acid and iron as well as vitamins and minerals. Going through pregnancy on a strictly vegetarian diet is possible as long as a sufficient supply of complete protein is maintained. To avoid nutritional gaps, it can be useful to take a multivitamin supplement. Before taking supplements, however, pregnant women should consult with their physician. The same goes for prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications.

There are also certain foods that should be restricted or completely avoided during pregnancy. For instance, raw seafood like oysters or sushi, undercooked meat, raw eggs (in dressings and sauces), unpasteurized milk and cheese made from unpasteurized milk are all potential carriers of bacteria that can harm a fetus. Some fish species (both wild-caught and farmed) may have high amounts of methyl-mercury from environmental pollution. It has been shown that traces of metals such as mercury in the food supply can be harmful to the developing brain and nervous system of fetuses and infants. For this reason, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advises pregnant women to limit their fish consumption to two serving per week.

Alcoholic beverages in any form should be completely avoided during pregnancy. Cutting back on caffeine, including coffee, tea, cacao, colas and even chocolate (ouch!) is also highly recommended. The best choices for drinks are plenty of water (non-chlorinated), fruit juices (made from real fruit) and low-fat or non-fat milk. Empty calories and excessively high amounts of sugar from sodas benefit neither the mother nor the baby and should be kept to a minimum.

Last but not least, it is a good idea to create a health-promoting environment. That includes a thorough inspection of the refrigerator and pantry. If necessary, nutritionally inferior items should be tossed out and replaced with better ones – before temptation strikes.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian 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.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.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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