Finally, healthy foods you want to eat!

If you pay attention to news about food and nutrition you have probably noticed that there is a great deal of controversy about what we should eat. Lists of foods to avoid and foods to eat every day are common. Unfortunately, lists from different sources may not be the same or, worse, a food that is on one “never eat” list is on another “always eat” list.

Often, it seems that the foods we should eat are not the things we enjoy the most. We are told to eat more vegetables and drink more water but avoid sweets and high-calorie restaurant meals. This leads many to develop the notion that good nutrition and good health are about depriving yourself of foods you enjoy. But this is not always the case. Sometimes, the foods we are supposed to eat and the foods we want to eat are the same.

Just in time for the holidays, here are three examples of foods that have health benefits that you can enjoy guilt-free—in moderation, of course!

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Coffee chocolate wine


Chocolate

Chocolate, especially dark chocolate, contains phytochemicals, plant-derived compounds that have certain health benefits. Antioxidant flavonoids in chocolate have been shown to affect a variety of physiological systems. The beneficial effects include dilation of blood vessels, improved blood clotting, and reduced inflammation, all of which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke. Additionally, these flavonoids may lower blood pressure, regulate insulin levels, and reduce stress. These flavonoids are what give dark chocolate more of a bitter flavor than milk or white chocolate. Look for chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa (sometimes listed on the label as cacao or cocoa solids) and remember that a small amount is enough.  Since chocolate does contain sugar and calories, eating more may not be the best idea.

 

Coffee

Coffee also contains many of the same or similar flavonoids as chocolate that have similar effects and benefits. Research shows that moderate coffee consumption (2-3 cups per day) is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Coffee also contains caffeine which can have additional benefits related to alertness, attention, and physical performance. If you choose not to consume caffeine, decaffeinated coffee still contains the beneficial phytochemicals. But make sure you are drinking coffee. Many popular coffee drinks are more like milkshakes, with lots of added sugar and calories.

 

Wine

You have probably heard that red wine is good for you. Because it has many of the same antioxidant phytochemicals found in chocolate and coffee, drinking 1-2 glasses of red wine per day has been shown to reduce the risk of hypertension and heart disease. Obviously, wine contains alcohol so more isn’t better and non-drinkers are not encouraged to start.

 

The good news is that there are some foods you may enjoy that can actually be good for you. With all of these, more isn’t always better, so moderation is the key. Also keep in mind that many fruits contain the same antioxidants as chocolate, coffee or wine, so a serving of berries, for example, may be a better choice. And finally, achieving good health requires more than simply changing one aspect of what you eat, so include these foods as part of an otherwise healthy diet balanced by daily physical activity.


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What’s trending in fitness this year.

There seems to always be something new in the fitness world. Whether it is a new piece of equipment in the gym, a new group exercise class, or a new way to perform traditional exercises, the fitness industry is constantly evolving. Some of these become popular enough that they are considered “trends,” attracting attention from fitness experts and exercise novices alike.

Each year the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) surveys health and fitness professionals to identify exercise trends for the upcoming year. The 2018 report was published recently, so it is a good time to catch up on the leading fitness trends to look for in the upcoming year. While past lists identified truly new types of exercise or technology trends, this year’s list noteworthy for what isn’t new—some trends seems to be sticking around.

Barbell_Group_Fitness_Class


The biggest fitness trend for 2017 is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which uses repeated cycles of short, maximal or near-maximal exercise alternated with short rest periods. These HIIT sessions typically last less than 30 minutes but lead to fitness improvements that exceed those of traditional longer-duration training. Beginning exercisers should note that HIIT training is intense, so starting slow is recommended.

Number two is group training, exercise classes that are led by a trained instructor. Group exercise classes aren’t new, but they are becoming more popular, especially for people who want to try new types of exercise. The group dynamic provides motivation and encouragement and the instructor can teach proper techniques, so these classes are good for beginners and experienced exercisers.

Next on the list is wearable fitness technology, the number one trend from last year. From activity trackers like the Fitbit to heart rate monitors, the newest “wearables” are sophisticated tools for recording your steps per day, distance you run, and calories you burn. Make sure to pick the device that meets your needs… and your budget, as they can get expensive!

Body weight training is next. Popular for building strength and endurance with minimal equipment, body weight training goes far beyond the push-ups and pull-ups you may remember doing in PE class. Now the focus is on dynamic movements to build strength and endurance. This type of training can be done almost anywhere, which is good news for people who are on a budget or want to train at home.

Strength training still ranks highly, at number five, and for good reason. In addition to building or toning muscles, strength training can make everyday activities easier, help maintain bone mass, and promote weight loss. Strength training is often incorporated into other types of exercise, so you don’t necessarily need to “pump iron” to build strength.

Sixth on the list is educated and experienced fitness professionals. You should look for a facility that requires the staff to have fitness certifications that involve both education and experience. Finding a personal trainer or group exercise instructor who has experience working with people like you is important, so ask for recommendations and references to get the best match.

Rounding out the top ten are yoga, personal training, fitness programs for older adults, and functional fitness, all of which have been on the list for some time. While this list does not include every popular or “trendy” type of exercise, it does capture the components of most types of training. CrossFit, for example, is a combination of body weight, strength, and functional training involving high-intensity intervals in a group setting.

Whether you decide to follow a fitness trend or not, make sure you dedicate time every day to be active. Health and fitness will always be trendy!


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Bah, humbug! It’s holiday weight gain season. Here’s how NOT to celebrate.

Now that Thanksgiving has passed, the holiday season is in full swing. In addition to spending time with family and friends, the big events of the season also seem to involve shopping and eating. This will almost certainly result in big numbers on your credit card bill. And, because holiday weight gain is a reality for most people, on your bathroom scale, too!

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Christmas cookies


 

Research shows that, on average, people gain about one pound between Thanksgiving and the new year. The problem is that this extra weight may not be lost during the spring or summer, meaning that holiday weight gain can be a contributor to the gradual increase in weight, about one pound per year, that most people experience over time.

The good news is that the weight gain that typically occurs during the holidays can be prevented. Since people tend to gain less than one pound, even small changes to what you eat and your activity can make a difference, without taking away from your holiday cheer. Here are some strategies:

Stay active. The average holiday weight gain could be prevented by walking about one mile, or about 20 minutes, per day. Since time may be a factor, you can turn a shopping trip into a chance to be active by taking an extra lap around the mall or parking further away in the parking lot. Go for a walk before or after a family meal or party—and take your family and friends with you.

Stay away from the food. Most holiday parties include lots of food, and usually not the healthiest choices. You can reduce the amount you eat by limiting your time near the food—literally, fill your plate and move away from the food. Using a smaller plate will reduce the amount of food you take, too. Getting rid of the candy dish on your desk at work or the plate of treats on the countertop at home are also smart ideas.

Don’t drink your calories. Alcoholic beverages, soda, and juice all contain calories and can add up to a big part of your total calorie intake. Many beverages, including hot chocolate and coffee drinks, can easily contain hundreds of calories. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your favorite drinks, but enjoy them in moderation.

Plan ahead. If you are trying to watch what you eat, have a healthy snack before you go to a party. You will feel less hungry so you will probably be less inclined to eat as much. If you are bringing a dish to the party, make it something healthy that you like.

Focus on family and friends, not food. The holidays are a time to enjoy special meals and events with family and friends, and that should be your focus. You should enjoy your favorite foods and drinks, just do it in moderation.

Give yourself a break! Healthy eating and exercise are always important, but they are more difficult to do around the holidays. In research, even people who said they were trying to lose weight over the holidays ended up gaining about a half pound. So, do your best maintaining your healthy habits, accept that you may struggle, and make a commitment to get back on track after the holidays!

The bottom line is that you can prevent holiday weight gain by watching what you eat and staying active. It is easier to keep the weight off than it is to lose it later, so a little extra effort now is worth it in the long run. Considering that many people plan to exercise and lose weight after the holidays, you could get a jump-start on your New Year’s resolutions along with making this a happy and healthy holiday season.


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Know Your (New) BP Numbers. Then take steps to lower them.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, has been in the news recently. Hypertension has long been known to be a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke, so diagnosing and treating high blood pressure has always been important. A new report has changed the blood pressure classifications to reflect research suggesting that what was previously considered “too high” is really too high. Given the new report, this is a good time to review the diagnosis, health effects, and treatment of high blood pressure. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

blood pressure


Hypertension is called the “silent killer” because it often has no symptoms but contributes to many heart attacks and strokes and is associated with type 2 diabetes, heart failure, and kidney disease. Since the risk of these conditions is related to the severity and how long your blood pressure has been high, blood pressure should be measured regularly.

 

The new guidelines lower the blood pressure at which more aggressive treatment is recommended for some patients who are at high risk for a heart attack or stroke. The guidelines also change the classifications of blood pressure, which may mean your doctor could start treatment sooner.

 

Know your numbers

Your blood pressure includes two numbers, both measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). The top number, systolic, is the pressure in your arteries while your heart is contracting and pumping blood. The bottom number is the diastolic pressure, which occurs between beats when the heart is relaxed. Both numbers are important.

According to the new guidelines, normal blood pressure is less than 120 mmHg systolic and less than 80 mmHg diastolic. If your blood pressure is between 120–129 mmHg systolic and 80–89 mmHg diastolic, you have elevated blood pressure. Stage 1 hypertension is 130–139 mmHg systolic or 80–89 mmHg diastolic and stage 2 hypertension is a blood pressure 140/90 and higher.

What is now called elevated BP and stage 1 hypertension used to be called “prehypertension.” The new classification should draw attention to the fact that the blood pressure is too high and prompt doctors and patients to begin treatment.

 

Get it down

If your blood pressure is above normal you should take treatment seriously. Lifestyle changes including eating a healthy diet, regular physical activity, weight control, and quitting smoking are all effective and essential for lowering blood pressure.

There are also many effective (and affordable) medications that your doctor can prescribe to lower your blood pressure. Take them as directed and don’t forget that they are designed to work with healthy lifestyle habits.

 

Keep it down

The aim, of course, isn’t simply to reduce your blood pressure using medications. Your ultimate goal should be to keep your blood pressure low without relying on medications, all of which have at least some negative side effects.

The best way to maintain a normal blood pressure is through daily exercise, eating a healthy diet, losing weight if you are overweight, and quitting smoking. A good place to start is the DASH diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber and low in sodium and added sugar. The DASH diet has been shown to modestly lower blood pressure and lead to weight loss.

Since blood pressure tends to increase with age, even if you have normal blood pressure now you should take steps to prevent high blood pressure in the future. Adopting a lifestyle that includes daily physical activity, healthy eating habits, managing stress, and not smoking is essential for preventing high blood pressure. Additionally, these same health habits will help you prevent most other chronic disease including diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers.


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Take steps (literally) to prevent the flu.

It’s time to get a flu shot if you haven’t already. Getting vaccinated is the most important thing you can do to prevent seasonal influenza (flu). But did you know that regular exercise is important for a healthy immune system and can make your flu shot more effective? This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Flu vaccine


Exercise can have a positive effect on your immune system. People who participate in moderate exercise on a daily basis have fewer and less severe colds and have up to 50% fewer sick days than those who aren’t regularly active. Research in animals and humans shows that exercise increases the activity of certain immune cells called helper T cells. This makes the immune system response to viruses, like the cold and flu, more robust. The strongest evidence is seen when the exercise is moderate in intensity and duration, such as a 30–60 minute walk or jog.

More exercise isn’t always better, though. Very vigorous and prolonged exercise can have the opposite effect. Athletes who engage in long, intense training tend to be more susceptible to upper respiratory infections. Research shows that immune function is depressed in the weeks leading up to and after running a marathon, leading to an increased risk of becoming sick. The bottom line is that regular exercise improves your immune system, but very vigorous exercise may not.

Regular exercise also enhances the immune system response to the influenza vaccine. This means that the flu vaccine can be more effective in people who exercise. If you don’t exercise already, you can still benefit: One study showed that a single 45 minute exercise session can improve the immune response to the flu vaccine. You can get this benefit by going for a brisk walk before your flu shot.

There are other steps you can take to reduce your chance of getting sick this cold and flu season beyond getting a flu shot and regular exercise. You should avoid close contact with people who are sick since the flu can be spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. You can also protect yourself by not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth and by washing your hands frequently with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Good nutrition is also important for optimal immune system function. Deficiencies of certain nutrients can have a negative effect on immune function, so eating a balanced diet is essential. That said, there is no support for “boosting” the immune system by taking high doses of vitamins, minerals, or other supplements, despite the claims made by supplement companies. In fact, the majority of nutritional supplements have not undergone appropriate testing and for those supplements that have been tested, the results are not consistent with the claims.

Poor sleep habits are associated with suppressed immunity and more frequent illness. Sleep deprivation can also reduce the positive immune response to a flu shot. High levels of stress increase susceptibility to colds and the flu and can lead to more sick days from work or school. Stress and poor sleep habits tend to occur together, creating a double negative effect on the immune system.

In order to have your best chance of staying healthy this year you should exercise every day, eat a healthy diet, manage your stress, and get enough sleep. Additionally, follow the traditional advice to get a flu shot, wash your hands frequently, stay away from people who are sick, and stay home yourself if you are ill.


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Diabetes 101: What you need to know for American Diabetes Month.

Diabetes is among the fastest-growing health conditions in the United States. Over 30 million adults have diabetes, with 1.5 million new cases each year. If you include prediabetes, which tends to lead to diabetes if untreated, over 115 million Americans are affected. Fortunately, most cases of diabetes can be treated or prevented through healthy eating, weight control, and regular exercise.

Since November is American Diabetes Month, this seems like a good time to raise awareness about the prevention, treatment, and consequences of this serious medical condition.  If you want to learn more about diabetes, a great place to start is American Diabetes Association. This is also the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

diabetes


Diabetes mellitus is a metabolic disorder characterized by high blood glucose (sugar) caused by a lack of insulin production or impaired insulin action. The lack of insulin production can be caused by an autoimmune disorder that damages the pancreas. This typically occurs during childhood, as in type 1 or “juvenile” diabetes, but it can occur in adults, a condition called latent autoimmune diabetes of adulthood (LADA). For both types, injected insulin is required to control blood glucose.

More commonly, diabetes is caused by the body’s cells not responding to the insulin that is produced, a condition called insulin resistance. This is called type 2 diabetes and is thought to be caused by some combination of obesity, particularly excess abdominal fat, and physical inactivity.

Diabetes can be diagnosed based on a fasting blood glucose test, taken 8–12 hours after a meal, usually in the morning. Another test is an oral glucose tolerance test in which blood glucose is measured for two hours after drinking a special beverage containing glucose. This measures the body’s response to glucose. The hemoglobin A1C test is a long-term measure of blood glucose control. This is important because the higher the hemoglobin A1C level, the greater the risk of diabetes complications.

For most diabetics, the main treatment goal is to control blood glucose level to prevent serious complications including nerve damage, blindness, infection and amputation, heart attack, and stroke. This is typically accomplished through a combination of diet, exercise, and medications, with varying degrees of success. But “curing” diabetes is rare, so most patients require continued treatment.

Exercise is important for blood glucose control because exercise causes an increase in the uptake of glucose into cells and can improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity. In addition, exercise has the added benefits of promoting weight loss and improving strength and fitness. Both aerobic and strength training are recommended, with a minimum goal of 30 minutes per day, every day.

Meal planning involves selecting healthy foods to help maintain consistent blood glucose levels while meeting energy needs for exercise and other activities. The dietary recommendations for preventing and treating diabetes are almost identical to the general recommendations for good health: Emphasize whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and low-fat meat and dairy and reduce unhealthy fats, added sugars, and salt. The diet should also promote weight loss and weight maintenance, especially for overweight patients. The glycemic index (GI), a measure of how much a food raises blood glucose, can be helpful in dietary planning, but it is not the only meal planning tool that should be used.

Proper diet, blood glucose testing, medication use, and regular exercise can improve blood glucose control, reduce the risk of other health problems, and improve quality of life in diabetics. In those with prediabetes these efforts can delay the progression to diabetes and may even result in a return to normal blood glucose. In fact, diet and exercise have been shown to be more effective than medications in preventing diabetes. Plus, these lifestyle changes lead to weight loss and improved fitness, benefits that no medication can match.


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Trick or treat? More like getting tricked by treats! Watch out for candy and soda dressed up as health food.

Boo! Since Halloween is this week, it’s a good time to think about what makes this holiday so scary. It’s not the ghosts or zombies that come to your door in the evening seeking candy that you should be scared of, though. In fact, you don’t even need to wait until dark to get spooked. You are likely to see the scariest costumes on your breakfast table on Halloween morning—candy and soda dressed up as healthy food!

candy corn


Here are three of the most common frightening “costumes”:

Fro-yo dressed as healthy yogurt

Most people would consider yogurt to be a healthy breakfast. And it is, provided you aren’t getting tricked! Low-fat and fat-free flavored yogurt is almost always sweetened with sugar. This is true for the yogurt tubes that kids love and much of the Greek yogurt that is so popular. Sure, it contains protein and beneficial bacteria, but the added sugar makes it equivalent to frozen yogurt or ice cream in terms of calories and sugar . Some of these yogurts even come with toppings, like bits of chocolate, just like fro-yo! A healthier alternative is plain yogurt with real fruit. Sure, it’s not as sweet, but you will be getting the benefits of eating yogurt without all the added sugar.

Soda dressed as fruit juice

Many “fruit” drinks contain less than 5% juice but plenty of added sugar, so they are essentially soda without bubbles. For example, the orange drinks like Hi-C or Sunny D are a popular substitute for orange juice, but they are far from a nutritional equivalent. The same is true for other drinks, including juice boxes and pouches, which are commonly part of breakfast, lunch, or snacks. Even scarier is the fact that these drinks are much sweeter than real fruit. Children may develop an expectation that oranges or orange juice should taste as sweet as soda and prefer the sugar-sweetened version over the real fruit. A better choice is to make real fruit and fruit juice, not soda disguised as juice, a part of meals and snacks

Candy bars and cookies dressed as cereal and breakfast bars

Many popular breakfast foods targeted at children include sugar-sweetened cereals, pastries, and bars. Some breakfast bars and cereals that seem healthy are really candy bars in disguise. Some even skip the disguise and actually look like candy or dessert. Pop Tarts and some granola bars are covered in chocolate or frosting, and favorite cereals often contain marshmallows or are shaped like cookies. No surprise that these foods are as high in calories and sugar as cookies or some candy bars. Worse, a child who is used to breakfast or snack foods that taste like candy or cookies may resist real food when it is offered. Now that’s scary!

When you think you are eating something healthy but it’s really not—I call this Candy and Soda for Breakfast. And it’s not just breakfast, it happens at every meal.

While the focus here is on food for kids, it really isn’t much different for adults. Breakfast foods like donuts and pastries are almost always topped with icing and it would be difficult to distinguish many muffins from cupcakes. For many people, coffee isn’t just coffee anymore, but a drink that contains as much sugar and as many calories as a milkshake, sometimes with whipped cream on top. What’s really scary is that this is how many people eat every day.

The good news is that you can make your breakfast healthier without too much effort. While there is much debate about what constitutes a healthy breakfast, there is agreement about what it doesn’t include—lots of added sugar! Look for cereals that are low in added sugars and high in fiber. Include real fruit, fruit juice, and milk (or soy milk) whenever possible. If you have time, eggs are an excellent source of protein and healthy fats. Yogurt is good, too, but watch out for added sugars in flavored yogurt. Whole grain toast or a bagel with peanut butter makes a good alternative to Pop Tarts or breakfast bars.

As a general rule, steer clear of foods that look like dessert. Frosting, marshmallows, chocolate chips, and sprinkles simply aren’t part of a healthy meal!

If you are worried about the big bags of candy that get brought home on Halloween night, keep this in mind.  While eating a lot of candy is never healthy, a typical Halloween candy binge lasts a few days, after which time the candy is gone or the kids are literally sick of eating it.  The long-term effects on your kid’s health (and teeth) can be offset by a good diet, regular activity, and diligent brushing and flossing. The same applies to you, too, if you find yourself digging into the big bowl of candy that is inevitably left over.


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