Posts Tagged ‘Weight Problems’

Exercise Can Make You See the World in a Different Light

August 2nd, 2014 at 8:44 am by timigustafson

Being physically active has countless health benefits. It helps prevent weight problems and reduces the risk of serious illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But according to a recent study from Canada, regular exercise can also improve how people perceive the world around them. Especially those suffering from anxiety or depression can profit from workouts or even just short brisk walks, researchers found.

Exercising and relaxation techniques like Yoga have long been successfully utilized in the treatment of patients with mood and anxiety disorders, said Adam Heenan, a researcher and PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Queen’s University, Ontario, and co-author of the study in a news release by the university. What sets this study apart is that it was able to demonstrate how participants perceived ambiguous events like being approached by an unknown figure. It found that those who had previously exercised, for example by walking or running on a treadmill, felt less apprehensive about the encounter than others who had remained sedentary. The results were similar for those who engaged in relaxation exercises.

Their findings could be useful in the treatment of overly anxious or depressed individuals, the researchers concluded. If physical exercise can indeed manipulate how such persons feel about their surroundings, following an appropriate regimen may have significant therapeutic advantages, they suggested.

Earlier studies have shown that exercising does not only stimulate the brain but, at the same time, can also induce calmness and reduce the effects of stress. Rigorous physical activity increases the secretion of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that can induce a sense of relaxation and wellbeing.

While being exposed to a certain amount of stress is unavoidable and may even be beneficial in some situations, chronic stress can lead to multiple damaging effects, including psychological dysfunctions. Stress-related anxiety disorders rank among the most common psychiatric illnesses, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).

Some studies found that people who maintained a regular exercise routine were up to 25 percent less likely to develop depression and/or anxiety disorders than those who did not.

Other research showed that habitual exercisers have on average more self-esteem, are less prone to mood swings, sleep more soundly, are better equipped to deal with life’s challenges, and run a lower risk of succumbing to age-related cognitive decline, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Naturally, different people respond differently to exercising, and not all activities produce the same results. What experts say they know for certain, however, is that sedentary behavior is harmful in many ways, and is considered a “silent killer” that contributes not only to diseases but also shortens people’s life span. For this reason alone, it would be worthwhile to start moving, wouldn’t it?

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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

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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 Restaurant Food Has Too Many Calories, Studies Find

May 15th, 2013 at 1:59 pm by timigustafson

That too much fondness of fast food can cause weight problems is old news. But the idea that nearly all types of restaurants dish up meals that can expand your waistline has not been as widely discussed – until now.

Two separate studies, one from the University of Toronto, Canada, the other from Tufts University, Boston, Massachusetts, found that most restaurant food is not all that superior to hamburgers and fries when it comes to calorie and fat content.

The researchers who conducted the Toronto study discovered that the average meal in 19 different restaurant chains contained 1,128 calories, or about 56 percent of the recommended daily intake of 2,000 calories for adults. Some popular fast food items have considerably less than that. And excessive amounts of calories are not only found in dinner entrées but in lunch and breakfast servings as well.

Besides calories, the authors of the study report also expressed concern over high salt, fat and cholesterol content, sometimes exceeding between 60 and 150 percent of the recommended limits.

For the Tufts study, the researchers focused on calories in meals purchased at independent and small chain restaurants, which are exempt from having to post nutritional information on their menus, as it is required of larger chains. The results showed even higher counts than what their bigger competitors offered – a whopping 1,327 calories on average.

More than 90 percent of the small chain eateries included in the study served portion sizes that covered at least one third of a day’s worth of calories. 10 percent went beyond that, and a few even exceeded the recommended calorie count of an entire day – on just one plate. (Perhaps Adam Richman of Man v. Food should pay them a visit.)

“Considering that more than half the restaurants in the U.S. are independent or small chain and won’t be covered by labeling requirements in the future, this is something consumers need to pay attention to,” said Dr. Lorien Urban, one of the researchers who was involved in the Tufts study.

But even calorie postings on menus and billboards where they are required by law have been proven to be unreliable in prior investigations by Tufts and others. In fact, fast food places with their largely automated apportioning methods can find it easier to determine accurate measurements than restaurants that rely on estimates by kitchen personnel. There is only so much accuracy you can expect when dishes are individually crafted by hand, said one executive of Olive Garden, a nationally operating restaurant chain.

Still, restaurant patrons don’t have to feel completely helpless if they want to exercise some measure of control over their calorie intake. Dr. Lisa Young, professor for nutrition at New York University (NYU) and author of the blog “The Portion Teller”, recommends following an easily applicable restaurant survival guide she has compiled for her readers.

Being aware that portion sizes in most restaurants have exponentially grown over the past few decades is an important start, she says. It may look like you’re getting more value for your money, but the fact is that you will likely overindulge when you’re faced with an overflowing plate. Instead, she advises to order only half portions whenever available, or just an appetizer. Or you can split one entrée with a dinner partner.

Choose a salad or soup if they offer healthier alternatives to, let’s say, meat dishes. But be careful with dressings and creams – that’s where extra, unnecessary calories come in.

Don’t forget that your drinks have calories, too, sometimes lots of them. Sodas are notorious for high sugar content, and so are fruit juices and milk shakes. Alcoholic beverages count as well. The more you have of these, the more likely you’ll lose your inhibitions and end up overeating, she warns.

Desserts, of course, are always hard to say ‘no’ to, but you are not without choices. A few pieces of fresh fruit can be refreshing and they come without much regret.

What matters most – especially if you eat out often – is to keep track of your consumption, just like you would on any weight management program, if necessary with the help of a food diary. With the necessary precautions, you should still be able to enjoy a nice meal that someone else prepared for you.

If you liked this article, you may also enjoy reading “Why You Need a Dining Out Strategy” and “A Restaurant Guide for Healthy Eating.”

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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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What Makes Us Stray from Eating Right?

April 18th, 2013 at 11:15 am by timigustafson

Part of our ongoing struggle with weight problems is that most of us eat without thinking, according to Brian Wansink, professor for marketing at Cornell University and author of the landmark book, “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam Books, 2006). “Distractions of all kinds make us eat, forget how much we eat, and extend how long we eat – even when we are not hungry,” he writes.

Although distractions are easy to come by in our busy lives, it doesn’t mean that we keep munching all day long without noticing, although for some that may be the case. Mostly, however, we tend to fall into the mindless eating trap when we are relaxing, for example on a vacation, over a nice dinner out, or when we get a little tipsy. That’s when our control mechanisms seem to break down the fastest.

“Vacations take us away from our regular routine,” says Lori Rice, a nutritionist and health and travel writer. “This is beneficial to our mental wellness because we experience new scenery and can rejuvenate ourselves, but it also can take us away from our healthy habits.”

Of course, you should allow for some splurges when you go on a holiday, but don’t use it as an excuse for getting completely off track, only to be sorry later on for the damage you’ve done to yourself, she advises.

Especially on cruises, vacationers tend to throw all caution to the wind. When the food you’ve already paid for is laid out so seductively, it can take considerable willpower to resist temptations. Seeing your fellow-travelers indulging with abandoned pleasure doesn’t help either.

But even the atmosphere in a simple eatery can lead to overeating. You don’t even have to like the food all that much. A nice ambience with candlelight and soft music can have you dig in more than you should, says Wansink who has conducted numerous experiments on people’s behavior in restaurants, from fast food joints to high-end establishments. We follow our expectations, he says. If we expect to have a good time, or it’s a special occasion, we will make the most of it. And that often means too much of a good thing.

Another factor is alcohol. As a recent study found out, most people eat more unhealthy foods on days they drink. When participants in the research had two or three alcoholic drinks with their meals, they consumed on average 100 to 200 more calories from food (not the drinks) than when they had none. The types of food they chose also changed. Both male and female participants ate about nine percent more fat when they drank alcohol.

The best way to counteract these tendencies is obviously to increase awareness. But instead of becoming your own party-pooper every time you are ready to let loose a bit, it might be more helpful to set a few parameters upfront.

For example, if weight gain is a regular occurrence when you are away from home, you may want to choose a kind of travel that challenges you to be more physically active and less exposed to culinary pleasures.

If you have a lot of time to kill at airports and hotels, be sure you don’t fall for convenience stands, vending machines and snack bars. Instead, bring some healthy snacks and lots of water, in case you need a quick energy boost or get dehydrated.

When it comes to alcohol consumption, you are the only one who can judge your responses. For some, there is a fine line between relaxing and becoming uninhibited or losing control. A lot of people also don’t know or don’t think about how many calories are in their drinks.

Perhaps a good way of keeping things together is to ask yourself: How do I want to feel when this is all over? Will it be an altogether great memory or will I have to deal with regrets and start over?

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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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Searching for the Cause(s) of Obesity

March 13th, 2013 at 12:08 pm by timigustafson

Two thirds of Americans are overweight. One third is obese. Obesity and a host of illnesses related to weight problems kill more people than any other disease. Experts are scrambling to find answers for what causes the epidemic and seem to come up with new explanations every day, only to be contradicted by the next study. Unsurprisingly, consumers are confused and stop paying attention.

How is it that we are eating ourselves to death, not just here but increasingly around the world? Does the so-called “Western diet,” consisting of cheap, highly processed, highly caloric foods, make us fat? Or is it sugary sodas? Are portion sizes too big? Does the food industry turn us into addicts? Do we just not exercise enough?

So far, none of the countless studies on these subjects have had much impact in practical terms. Lobbying efforts and political gridlock are oftentimes blamed for the maddeningly slow progress. But that may not be the only reason. Some experts warn that despite of all the research, finding definite answers may prove elusive for some time to come.

“If we can find the causes of obesity, we can try to eliminate or counter them,” wrote Christopher Chabris, a professor of psychology at Union College, together with his colleague Daniel Simons of the University of Illinois in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. “Unfortunately, finding causes is easier said than done, and causes we think we see can turn out to be illusions.”

Hoping for a smoking gun that lets us clearly identify causation may not be in the cards, ever. As an example, the authors cite a study that analyzed potential connections between food advertising on billboards and prevalence of obesity in certain parts of Los Angeles and New Orleans. The study results showed that areas with more outdoor food advertisements had a higher proportion of obese people than those with fewer ads. So, there seems to be a direct link.

Not so fast, say the professors. Studies like these have a significant problem: They can show association between separate phenomena but not causation. In this particular scenario, interpretations of the findings could go in totally different directions. Even if you accept the existence of a correlation between food advertisements and obesity, you still have to consider a wide field of possible explanations. One could be that food vendors tend to invest more of their advertising budget in places where they believe food consumption is especially high. Obesity then may be an indicator that this is a good market for them. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

So does this mean there is no proof that food advertising influences people’s eating habits, and not necessarily in a good way? Studies like these can at best provide some indication that there may be a link, but they don’t provide evidence for causation, the professors conclude. Only the gold standard of scientific research, which is the randomized controlled trial, could prove such connections, they say. And these standards are often not achievable in the real world.

The question is what does that mean in terms of taking anti-obesity measures. Do we have to remain indolent in the face of this alarming health crisis just because we can’t pinpoint its causes with the highest standards of certainty? Food manufacturers and restaurant operators support that view. But if no compelling evidence can be had that advertising works, why would they keep spending billions of dollars every year on doing just that?

With all due respect for scientific standards, I can’t help but think that calling for more and more studies on the causes of obesity only delays critical action that ought to be taken now. We may not know whether food ads influence everyone’s eating habits, but we still can ban them from children’s programs on TV. We may never be sure whether drinking sugary sodas or consuming sweet snacks cause diabetes, but we still can stop offering them on school campuses. It may be unclear whether posting calorie counts in restaurants will make patrons order smaller portions, but we should at least give them the option, so their choices can be better informed. How many more studies and trials do we really have to conduct before we take at least a few steps in the right direction?

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.”

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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Obesity Must Be Addressed on Multiple Levels

February 24th, 2013 at 2:36 pm by timigustafson

Obesity has grown into an alarming public health crisis, and there is no telling when or even whether we will be able to get this epidemic under control. Over two thirds of Americans now struggle with weight problems, and there is no consensus among the experts over the precise causes. Recommendations for countermeasures range from calls for more government involvement to greater responses from food manufacturers and restaurant operators to better health education of the public.

Recent legislation for the improvement of nutrition standards of school lunches and initiatives like “Let’s Move” to reduce childhood obesity have gotten some traction, but progress remains slow and uncertain, according to the latest report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Overall, there is no significant change in the current trends, and so the battle for America’s health continues unabated. There is general agreement that more, much more needs to be done.

Demands for tougher regulation of industry and policies to influence the behavior of consumers have become louder in recent years, but we have not seen the results we had hoped for. In a recent op-ed articleNew York Times columnist Mark Bittman has faulted the current Surgeon General, Dr. Regina Benjamin, for being “missing in action” in the fight against obesity, especially childhood obesity. On this issue, he writes, “Benjamin, like most of her predecessors, is virtually invisible.” Even with regards to seemingly straight forward measures like curbing children’s exposure to junk food via advertisements on TV or banning soda sales from school campuses, the government remains inexplicably passive. Instead, it still lays most of the blame at the feet of the victims by overemphasizing personal accountability.

Voluntary commitments by food manufacturers and restaurant operators have not produced much success either, despite of ample promises to show more cooperation by making food labels less confusing, offering healthier alternatives on fast food menus, or limiting exposure of kids to food advertisements.

But there is another aspect to this discussion that is often neglected. It is people’s real life experience that is not taken enough into account. By this I don’t mean to lend credence to oversimplifying statements that people are responsible for their own actions and should not blame others for their demise. Those who read my columns and blog posts know very well that I am a strong supporter of many of the measures Mr. Bittman and others are proposing.

Asking folks to make better nutritional choices makes no sense if they live miles and miles away from food outlets that carry fresh produce or in neighborhoods where getting physical exercise is difficult because of safety concerns and lack of public facilities like bike paths and parks. It is also futile to make dietary recommendations that completely ignore financial limits or access to health education.

But still, no matter what we will try from here on in terms of legislation and policy making, changing individual behavior will always play a predominant role. Eating habits are rarely just about food. They are also about stress, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, addiction, past traumatic experiences, and more. By exclusively focusing on the quality and quantity of our food supply, we will not be able to really understand these concerns and make them part of the equation, as they need to be. As they say, all politics are local. And all health issues are personal.

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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Your Eating Habits May Keep You from Getting a Good Night’s Rest

February 13th, 2013 at 1:03 pm by timigustafson

Do you feel permanently tired? Do you get less sleep than you would like? Do you have a hard time falling asleep at night? Is your sleep frequently interrupted? Do you wake up from a deep slumber when your alarm clock goes off? Are you still sleepy or groggy in the morning? Are you regularly exhausted in the afternoon or evening? If so, it may not only be your lifestyle but also your diet that wreaks havoc on your sleep.

Millions of Americans are chronically sleep deprived. For many there seems never enough time for rest, and it takes a toll on people’s health. One often-seen response to sleep deprivation is increased food consumption, which can lead to unhealthy weight gain. While clinical research has long shown connections between sleeplessness and weight problems, a new study has found that eating habits also influence sleep in ways that were previously not considered.

Researchers from Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania studied how various diet and sleep patterns correlate by evaluating self-reported data from a survey by the National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES), involving thousands of participants.

According to the study’s findings, people who slept fewer hours also had different eating habits and food preferences than those who allowed themselves more rest. For instance, short sleepers (usually five to six hours per night) consumed more calories on average but had less variety in their food choices than normal (seven to eight hours) and long sleepers (nine or more hours). Long sleepers consumed the least amount of calories but had a less varied diet than normal sleepers.

The reasons for these differences are not altogether clear. Short sleepers may generally have less time to take care of their dietary needs, such as food shopping, cooking and taking breaks for meals. Normal and long sleepers may have a more leisurely lifestyle.

Prior studies on diet and sleep have primarily focused on how sleep, or lack thereof, influences eating habits. There is growing evidence that overeating and binge eating are frequently linked to sleep problems. One particular study showed that participants whose sleep was restricted for a specific period of time increased their food intake by up to 500 calories per day. Poor sleep made them vulnerable to overeating and weight gain over time, says Dr. Virend Somers, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and lead author of the study. Surprisingly, the additional waking hours did not allow them to burn more calories than their better-sleeping counterparts.

How exactly insufficient sleep leads to greater appetite is not yet fully understood. One possible explanation is that many important functions in the body are affected by sleep deprivation, including hormonal functions that regulate appetite and satiety. A reduction in the hormone leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone that is released by fat cells during the night, may be a cause. The hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin, which responds to sleep restriction with increased secretion, may also play a role. Furthermore, lack of sleep can reduce sensitivity to insulin, thereby weakening blood sugar regulation and the ability to metabolize blood sugar.

Obviously, it is not always easy to make changes to one’s sleeping habits because of pressures from work, long commutes and other chores. Still, there can be room for improvement by setting priorities.

Here are some suggestions: Neither food nor drink, especially alcohol, should be consumed later than two hours before bedtime. A full stomach is not conducive to restful sleep. Caffeine may keep you awake. Late intake of liquids may have you go to the bathroom during the night.

There are also issues that are not diet-related. The final hours of the day should be spent with as little exposure to stimulating events as possible. That includes late night exercising, watching TV, dealing with e-mails or discussing controversial subjects.

Observing good sleep hygiene is equally as important. Setting the right temperature, dimming the lights and keeping the bedroom uncluttered are just a few examples.

Some changes will require experimentation. What matters most is that your actions as well as your environment help you getting the rest you need.

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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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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Weight Issues Not as Harmless as Study May Suggest

January 5th, 2013 at 2:12 pm by timigustafson

Obesity may have multiple negative health effects, but higher mortality rates are not among them, according to a study that was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Researchers found that people with weight problems don’t necessarily have shorter life expectancies than their normal-weight contemporaries. In fact, a few extra pounds could even lower the risk of an untimely death.

The findings were greeted with great interest in the press and welcomed as good news for the two-thirds of all Americans who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are considered overweight or obese.

Based on the results of this study, the government ought to redefine the meaning of “overweight” and “obese” and re-categorize a large part of the population as normal-weight and healthy, writes Paul Campus, author of “The Obesity Myth: Why America’s Obsession with Weight Is Hazardous to Your Health” (Penguin Group, 2004), in an op-ed piece in the New York Times.

“If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that doesn’t increase the risk of death, then 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead,” he says.

If only it were that easy.

What this particular study does say is that among all causes of mortality, not overall health risks, being overweight does not seem to stand out as a particularly significant factor. But that doesn’t mean the obesity crisis should no longer be treated as such.

In fact, the study, which investigated the causes of 270,000 deaths from around the world, also found that the morbidly obese had a 29 percent increased risk of dying prematurely compared to normal-weight and moderately overweight people.

It would be a mistake to conclude from this one study that Americans can keep overeating, says Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC department that conducted the research. “I don’t think anyone would disagree with the basic fact that being more physically active and eating a healthier diet is very important for your health,” he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

Other experts agree. The body mass index (BMI) by which weight levels are commonly measured is an imperfect assessment of the risk of mortality, and additional factors like blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar must also be considered, says Dr. Samuel Klein, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, in an interview with the New York Times in response to the study release.

But many of these diseases are diet and lifestyle related, and together they amount to over 60 percent of all causes of death in the world today, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Maintaining a healthy weight range may not automatically produce longevity. It may have little or no influence on one’s life expectancy at all, as this study seems to indicate. But we can say with certainty that struggling with weight problems and other related health issues significantly takes away from the quality of life a person can enjoy, and increasingly so with age. A report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (AJPM) found that “Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) lost to U.S. adults due to morbidity and mortality from obesity have more than doubled from 1993 to 2008 and the prevalence of obesity has increased 89.9 percent during the same period.”

If we only look at statistics, we may not understand how weight problems affect people in so many ways. Being unable to move without pain, being dependent on medications, getting out of breath at the slightest physical strain, those are the consequences that may not actually shorten life but make it so much harder – and unnecessarily so.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading  “Nearly Half of All Americans Will Be Obese Within Two Decades, Study Projects.”

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

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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