Should you worry about food additives? Yes, but…

Making healthier food choices is something that you should be thinking about every day, so this is a good opportunity to revisit some advice to help you make smart decisions. Eating more fruits and vegetables, limiting added sugar, and focusing on “real food” instead of processed, prepackaged meals and snacks are always good ideas. One reason to avoid processed foods, including restaurant meals, is to avoid food additives. While most food additives are probably safe, some may be harmful. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

food additives


If you have ever read the ingredients on a food package you no doubt realized that much of what we eat isn’t really food. Chemical additives are common in packaged foods as preservatives, coloring agents, flavor enhancers, and even vitamins and minerals. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since these chemicals allow food to last longer, look and taste more appealing, and provide essential nutrients. The assumption is that these additives have been tested and proven safe for us to consume. Unfortunately, that is not the case for many commonly used additives.

 

This may be surprising, but it isn’t new. In the late 1950s Congress required that new food additives must be proven safe before they could be used. That raised the question of what to do with additives that were already widely in use. Since people had been eating these additives with no apparent ill effects the decision was made to classify them as safe, and the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list was created.

 

Now additives may be approved as GRAS by an expert panel without rigorous testing and FDA approval. One study found that in every case these reviewers worked directly for or had financial ties to the companies that manufactured the additives. This raises serious questions about the process and whether or not the chemicals added to our foods really are safe.

 

So, are the additives in our food safe? There is no simple answer to that question, mostly because safety studies haven’t been done. However, it is rare that a food additive is removed from the market for health reasons. Most research showing that a food additive may be unhealthy is conducted in animals. These studies often test amounts that are far higher than people would reasonably consume, so they may not predict the health effects in humans. And some additives, such as iron added to cereal or vitamin D added to milk, for example, are widely thought to be beneficial.

 

To be sure, there are some chemicals in our food that we should avoid, but it isn’t fair to say that all food additives are bad. Even so, eating foods that are free from additives is probably a good idea. Even though each individual additive may not be hazardous, it is possible that exposure to small amounts of these chemicals in combination could be dangerous over time.

 

Much of our exposure to food additives comes in the form of processed, prepackaged foods, including many restaurant meals. Getting back to basics and cooking using “real” food— fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats—is one way to avoid processed foods. Reading food labels can help, too. Look for ingredients that you recognize as food and avoid additives that clearly aren’t.

 

Avoiding all food additives is almost impossible. Even foods that don’t come in packages, such as fruits and vegetables, may contain coatings that prevent damage or preserve freshness. Even canned fruits and vegetables will likely have added salt or sugar, so even apparently healthy foods can contain additives. The best way to limit them is to select as many fresh foods as possible and make an effort to check labels for additives.

 

If you are interested in food additives and other aspects of food safety, nutrition, and health, here are two excellent resources:

The Center for Science in the Public Interest report on food additive safety : http://www.cspinet.com/reports/chemcuisine.htm

Marion Nestle, has an excellent blog about all aspects of nutrition, including food additives and safety:  http://www.foodpolitics.com/


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Calories count, but don’t count calories!

When it comes to losing weight, calories count. Thanks to a host of wearable devices and mobile apps, counting calories has never been easier. This matters because losing weight almost always means cutting the calories that you eat and increasing the calories that you burn. This concept of “eat less, move more” is the foundation of nearly every effective weight loss program. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

fitbit


Modern wearable devices and mobile apps allow you to track your weight, what you eat, and your activity fairly accurately. Many apps can measure the intensity of exercise by using the GPS and accelerometer features of your phone itself or by syncing with a wearable bracelet or belt clip. Some include heart rate to make the estimates even more precise. Using this technology, you can count steps, measure how many miles you walk or run, and estimate how many calories you burn.

Other apps can help you track what you eat. Whether you are counting calories or concerned about the amount of protein you are eating, diet analysis apps can show you what you are really eating. Most require you to enter the foods you eat and the app calculates calories, nutrients, sugar, salt, and water intake based on standard databases. In order to get accurate results, it is important to estimate portion sizes accurately, something that is challenging even for experts. That said, these apps can be useful for tracking what you eat to help you learn about your eating patterns to develop healthier habits or meet specific goals, such as eliminating added sugar from your diet.

Activity trackers and exercise apps are especially popular for improving fitness and promoting weight loss. Both the physical activity that you do throughout the day and dedicated exercise are important for good health, physical fitness, and weight control. This technology can help you know what to do, when to do it, and how much you did at the end of the day.

Even if you aren’t concerned about exactly how many calories your burned in an exercise class or how many steps you took during the day, these devices can help you develop healthier habits. Many people are simply unaware of how sedentary they are during the day or are unrealistic about how intense their workouts really are. For many people, an accurate report of how many steps they took or how many calories they burned is helpful for gauging their success and identifying things they can improve.

While these tools can be helpful, it is important to emphasize the importance of developing healthy habits in order to improve fitness, lose weight, or keep it off. A focus on “micromanaging” steps or calories may cause you to lose sight of the “big picture” changes you want to make. For example, you should strive to be as active as you can throughout the day, even if you have already met your step or calorie goal.

Keep in mind that there are very few people who failed to meet their fitness or weight loss goal because they didn’t have the latest activity tracker or fitness app. Real success comes from making lifestyle changes to incorporate healthy eating and activity habits that you can maintain without constant reminders. While technology can help you make those changes, it does not replace the dedication needed to develop lasting eating and activity habits to promote good health.


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It’s not just for kids, adults need recess, too.

Last week I wrote about the importance of daily physical activity for children. Unfortunately, we miss opportunities for children to be active. This lack of regular activity is a major contributor to the childhood obesity epidemic and a host of other health conditions. Even something as simple as a chance to run and play at recess can have a big impact on children’s’ bodies and minds.

 

Research shows that including activity in the school day improves attention and learning. Some schools incorporate short activity breaks or integrate movement in the classroom through active learning exercises. Others let kids use standing desks or stability balls as chairs. Importantly, this should be in addition to, not in place of, planned recess times or physical education.

 

Far from being a distraction, many teachers report that kids learn better when they have a chance to move. This is reflected in higher test scores when learning and studying includes activity. Best of all, this is in addition to the long list of health benefits of daily activity.

 

The same is true for adults, too. Prolonged sitting has been linked to negative health effects that are similar to those of not exercising. Even among people who do exercise, those who spend more time sitting tend to have more health problems than those who are more active during the day. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

walking-meeting


Taking short breaks at work improves attention and productivity. In fact, many time management and productivity techniques include periods of focused work separated by breaks. Since most work is done sitting at a desk or in front of a computer, these breaks can be used to get up and move. Some companies have formal programs that include activity breaks, standing desks, treadmill desks, and walking meetings to get their employees moving.

 

Most employers who embrace and encourage an active workplace find that their employees are happier at work, more productive, have lower rates of absenteeism, and lower medical costs. In most cases, the savings outweigh the real or perceived costs of implementing active workplace initiatives.

 

There is a wonderful initiative called Instant Recess that encourages short activity breaks throughout the day. Just as children need a chance to move around, adults benefit from these short bouts of activity. Since the biggest barrier to meeting even the most modest physical activity recommendation—30 minutes per day—is time, these activity breaks can add up to serious health benefits.

 

While the focus is often on activity in the workplace, these same concepts apply at home, too. Many people spend several hours each evening engaged in “screen time,” either watching TV or sitting in front of a computer or other electronic device. Short “recess” breaks can limit sitting time and help meet physical activity goals.

 

One study shows that getting off the couch and stepping in place during TV commercials results in nearly 25 minutes of activity per hour and burns about 150 calories, compared to 80 calories just sitting the entire time. Of course, this isn’t a replacement for dedicated time for exercise, and you won’t get in great shape doing this, but every step counts!

 

You can learn more about “recess” for adults and the Instant Recess initiative at http://www.instantrecess.com/.


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Physical activity is essential for children. Here’s how they can (and should) get it.

Regular physical activity is essential for optimal growth, development, and health in children. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, first published in 2008, recommend that all children and adolescents should do at least one hour of physical activity each day. Most of this time should be spent in moderate or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity.

Additionally, children should include muscle and bone-strengthening activity at least 3 days a week as part of the 60 or more minutes per day. The importance of physical activity for children and solutions for how to make it work is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Kids on playground


These activities should be appropriate for their age, be enjoyable, and offer variety. In younger children, active play that involves running, jumping, and climbing meets the call for aerobic as well as muscle and bone-strengthening activity. Older kids can get these types of exercise through sports, physical education in school, or other active pursuits.

Unfortunately, most kids don’t meet these recommendations. According to one survey, only about 30 percent of high school students participated in at least 60 minutes per day of physical activity during the week prior to the survey. That means that less than a third of high school students meet the recommendation! Worse, 14 percent of high school students did not participate in 60 or more minutes of physical activity on any day in the week leading up to the survey.

A different survey showed that only 42 percent of younger children participated in at least 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous activity on most days of the past week. This is surprising considering that, for younger children, pretty much anything that involves being active counts!

So why aren’t kids getting enough activity? As much as it would be nice to blame television and video games, this isn’t the only problem. While it is true that many kids spend nearly as much time sitting in front of a computer or TV screen as they do in school, the real issue is that adults, including parents and educators, don’t encourage participation in activity.

Almost all elementary, middle, and high school age children are in school for at least 6 hours per day, yet less than 10% have access to daily physical education. Other opportunities, including activity breaks during and between classes, recess, and active transportation to and from school are limited. In fact, in an effort to dedicate more time for test preparation, PE and other activities are among the first to be cut.

At home, parental example and encouragement are important determinants for children’s activity. Active parents are likely to have kids who are active, and this lifestyle tends to persist through adolescence and into adulthood. Kids who are encouraged by their parents to play sports or engage in active play or other activities are 65% more likely to do so. Considering that less than half of U.S. adults are active on a daily basis, this positive influence may be missing.

What can we do to promote activity in children in our community? First, most of us could stand to be more active ourselves, so we should start by modeling good activity habits and include our children and grandchildren. Going for a walk in the neighborhood, to the playground, or doing yard work is a good start. Second, we should demand that kids be provided with opportunities for activity in school. Not only is it good for their health, but children who are active in school tend to learn more and do better on tests. Finally, we should limit sedentary pursuits such as video games or watching TV and encourage kids to do something active.


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Think globally, eat locally.

Since Earth Day just passed, this is a good time to think about the impact we have on our environment. We should also think about what we can do to reduce that impact. The good news is there are ways we can “go green” that are good for our health and the health of our planet, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Farmers_Market


You can go green by eating green—more vegetables and fruits. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. At a minimum, you should eat five servings per day, but more is better especially green leafy and brightly colored vegetables. Ideally, you would eat fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables, but frozen is a good alternative.

Eating locally grown food is good for you and the environment. Food production and delivery is second only to cars for fossil fuel use  and is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. According to one estimate,  the food items that make up a typical meal travel about 1,500 miles each (as much as 100,000 miles for a whole meal in some places) to get to your table? Food from local farms is associated with fewer “food miles” and a lower environmental footprint.

Additionally, produce grown locally is picked at the peak of freshness, meaning it is richer in nutrients, not to mention flavor. By contrast, produce that is grown far away is picked before it is ripe, resulting in lower nutritional value. As an added benefit, the money you spend on food from local farms stays in our area, supporting farmers who live in our community.

Since you are eating more veggies, you can eat less meat. Raising animals for meat, milk, and eggs has a major impact on the environment. Over a quarter of land is dedicated to raising livestock, and almost 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. These animals also produce tons of manure every minute, at least some of which ends up polluting water supplies.

What about organic? Organic food, including produce, milk, and meat, are becoming more popular among consumers each year. There are many reasons to account for this increase, including potential health benefits and environmental impact. Despite the popularity of organic foods, there is little evidence that eating organic has significant health benefits.

There are some studies that show that organic fruits and vegetables contain higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants, but this finding is not consistent. Organically produced milk and meat may have higher level of omega-3 fats, which are associated with heart health. The take-home message is that organic foods are at least as healthy as conventional foods.

Although reduced exposure to pesticides is a common reason to go organic, there is no direct evidence that consuming organic food improves health or lowers the risk for disease. But they do note that organic foods, with lower pesticide levels, may be a smart choice for children who are more likely to be harmed by chemical exposures.

But there are other reasons why you may choose to buy organic beyond the potential health benefits. Organic farming may be better for the environment due to reduced water contamination by pesticide run-off and healthier soil. Pesticide application also poses potential risks for farm workers. Additionally, there are issues of animal welfare that some consider important. Many people also feel that organic farming is more traditional and the way food “should be” produced.

So, as you reflect on the meaning of Earth Day, try to eat locally to improve your health and reduce your impact on the environment. Most importantly, make sure your food choices are part of a lifestyle that includes and regular physical activity getting enough sleep.


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Time is on your side. The benefits of incidental physical activity…quickly!

Regular physical activity is essential for good health and wellbeing. Despite the clear benefits of being active, only half of Americans meet even minimum recommendations for exercise and other activity.

As a way to get people moving, they are encouraged to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine. This includes taking the stairs instead of the elevator or parking further away and walking to their destination. However, the perception that these “steps” take longer than the less active alternative may serve as a disincentive for many people.

Studies conducted by my students at USC Aiken show that these forms of what I call incidental physical activity do not necessarily take longer than the less active alternatives. In fact, in most cases the active way is quicker! This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

B&E stairs elevator


In one study, we examined the time required to ascend and descend one floor using either the stairs or elevator in a building on the USC Aiken campus. The results showed that the time required to take the elevator was about twice that to use the stairs (36 vs. 16 seconds). The increased time on the elevator was due to waiting, in some cases almost one minute, for it to arrive.

It is worth mentioning that this study was conducted in a building with two floors. To be sure, the elevator would be quicker if you were going up or down several floors. But let’s be honest, not many buildings in our area have enough floors for this to be relevant. For most of us, the stairs will be quicker most places we go.

In another study we compared the time required to park in the first convenient parking space in the parking lot as opposed to driving around searching for a space closer to the destination. We asked several people to record the time required to enter their destination after either parking in the first convenient space compared to searching for a parking space closer to the destination on campus and at businesses in the community.

The time required to search for a parking space closer to the destination was significantly greater than the time required to park in the first convenient parking space on campus and at stores. Driving around looking for a closer spot meant that it took an average of three minutes to enter the destination building. It took people about half that long if they parked further away and walked.

These studies show that taking a few extra steps in the parking lot or on the stairs is actually quicker than driving around and parking closer or using the elevator. This information might help people decide to be more active. And these small changes may lead to further healthy choices.

Of course, simply using the stairs instead of the elevator or talking the first available parking spot isn’t going to replace regular exercise. But making activity a part of your everyday routine is an important part of developing a healthy lifestyle. In fact, a recent study suggests that multiple bouts of activity as short as a few minutes can add up to equal the health effects of a single prolonged exercise session each day. Now that you know that active choices won’t necessarily slow you down, what ways will you save time by being active?


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Say what? A health and fitness vocabulary lesson.

When I write about health I routinely use terms like exercise, activity, and fitness. I often get asked why I use these different words since they all have a similar meaning. That is an excellent question, since these terms are related they have different applications for health and wellness. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

vocabulary crossword


Physical activity (PA) is defined as any movement produced by muscles that expends energy. Physical activity can be classified as occupational, what you do at work, and leisure-time, what you do in your free time. Occupational PA can vary greatly depending on the job, but it is low for most of us who spend much of our work day sitting. Leisure-time PA is all activity outside of work. This is of great interest to researchers since it reflects how we chose to spend our discretionary time. Physical activity can be measured by questionnaires or using devices such as pedometers, which count the steps you take, or accelerometers, which measure how much you move.

Exercise is a type of physical activity that involves planned, structured, and repetitive movement to improve or maintain physical fitness. Physical fitness, then, is a set of attributes that relate to the ability to perform physical activity and exercise. The components of physical fitness include endurance, strength, and flexibility. Basically, participation in physical activity and exercise improves your fitness and the greater your fitness, the better able you are to participate in physical activity. This is true for completing occupational tasks as well as traditional exercise, such as jogging or lifting weights.

The good news is that both physical activity and exercise have health and fitness benefits. Physical activity can vary in intensity, from light (slow walking), moderate (brisk walking), or vigorous (exercise like running). The 2008 U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines recommend that, at a minimum, all adults participate in moderate-intensity physical activity for 2 hours and 30 minutes per week or vigorous activity for 1 hour and 15 minutes per week along with strengthening exercises at least 2 days per week. You can meet this recommendation by going for a brisk walk for 30 minutes on 5 days per week or running for 25 minutes on 2 days per week or some combination of the two. Additional benefits come from doing more, either higher intensity or longer duration activity.

Vigorous exercise is the best way to improve fitness while moderate-intensity activity is strongly linked to health benefits. Fitness benefits result from adaptations in the heart and muscles, which get stronger and become better able to resist fatigue. These changes also lead to health benefits including lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose as well as helping with weight loss and weight control.

Research suggests that health and fitness benefits also result from light-intensity or intermittent activity, especially if it replaces sitting. At home or at work, the more time you spend sitting, the poorer your health, even if you exercise every day. One study shows that getting off the couch and stepping in place during TV commercials results in nearly 25 minutes of activity per hour and burns about 150 calories, compared to 80 calories just sitting the entire time. You won’t get in great shape doing this, but it will increase your overall activity.

With this is mind, a good recommendation is to reduce sitting time in favor of light activity—stand while you read the paper or walk around while you talk on the phone—and participate in moderate or vigorous activity each day by going for a brisk walk or doing other exercises, including strength training.


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