Category Archives: Health & Fitness

Hunger games

One of the most powerful motivators we have is hunger. Seeking food when we are hungry is what allowed our ancestors to survive. For most of human history, finding the next meal could be arduous or even dangerous, so a strong physiological drive was necessary to make it happen. Now, though, the problem isn’t usually finding food, it’s having access to too much food. Unfortunately, the regulation of hunger in our brains hasn’t changed.

The physiology behind why and when we eat is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels

Hunger is an internal physiological drive to seek and eat food and is usually experienced as a negative sensation. When you are hungry you may be distracted when your stomach growls. Since most of us have a supply of food that is readily accessible, severe hunger is uncommon. But when people diet to lose weight, especially a restrictive diet, hunger can be a powerful signal to eat.

Often when we think we are hungry, it isn’t hunger at all—it’s our appetite. Appetite is a psychological, as opposed to physiological, sensation that drives us to eat. Hunger and appetite can work together, but not always. The sight or smell of food can trigger can increase our appetite even if we aren’t hungry. Appetite tends to be more specific, too. While hunger will drive you to eat pretty much any food, appetite usually pushes you to eat a certain food.

One of the reasons we overeat is because we confuse appetite with hunger. We may think we need to eat when we see a food advertisement on television or smell someone cooking, but we really don’t have a physiological need for nourishment. Think about eating dessert after dinner. You just ate a full meal, so you can’t possibly be hungry. But when you see the dessert tray you develop an appetite for something sweet, even though you don’t need it.

Satiation and satiety are two other factors that influence what you eat. Satiation is the feeling of satisfaction or fullness that signals the end of a meal. Satiety is the effect of one meal, including the amount and type of food you eat, on how much you eat later. You can use these biological factors to your advantage to help you eat less.

For example, if you eat quickly you will eat more food (and calories) before satiation occurs. If you eat more slowly, you may actually eat less before that same feeling of fullness occurs. Additionally, what you eat for breakfast will impact when you feel ready for lunch and how much you eat when you do. It turns out that protein has a greater effect on satiety that either carbohydrates or fat. If your breakfast is juice and a donut you are likely to feel hungry sooner compared to having something with protein, like yogurt or eggs.

Genetics also play an important role in what we eat. Research suggests that how much we eat and even our food preferences are controlled, at least to some extent, by genes. Of course, some of this has to do with learned behavior, too. Maybe you prefer certain foods because you have a strong positive association with them developed throughout childhood.

One important point to remember is that no matter how strong the effect of genetics on food preferences, eating is a behavior that you can control. Your genes give you a predisposition, not a predetermination, meaning that even though you can’t change your genes, you can make an extra effort to not let them define you.


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Function and fitness follow form.Why doing exercises properly can help you get fitter, faster.

When it comes to exercise, the most important thing is that you do it! When you are starting out, almost anything you do will have health and fitness benefits. As little as 30 minutes per day of moderate aerobic activity can improve your endurance and even one set of a few resistance exercises once or twice per week can increase your strength. Doing more, either longer exercise time or intensity, will result in bigger improvements in fitness.

Getting the most out of your workouts requires doing exercises properly. Using equipment appropriately and having good form can help enhance your gains from training. Proper technique is commonly thought to reduce the risk of injury, but it also has as much to do with the effectiveness of the exercise itself. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Celebrate Walktober by going for a walk outdoors.

Now that cooler fall weather is finally here (at least in our area), being active outdoors is more enjoyable. October is a great time to get outdoors and go for a walk! That is the spirit of Walktober, an initiative adopted by health organizations, companies, and communities around the globe.

Walking is a great way to be active to help you control your weight, increase your fitness, and improve your health. The most common form of exercise for most people is walking, and for good reason: walking doesn’t require any special equipment (beyond comfortable shoes) or skills, and you can do it almost anywhere.

You can meet basic physical activity recommendations by walking briskly for 30 minutes most days of the week. Even this amount of walking can lead to a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers as well as improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of well being.

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Exercise: The secret weapon for cancer prevention and treatment

Exercise has broad and significant health benefits, making it among the most important healthy behaviors you can adopt. These benefits include improved muscular strength and endurance, stronger bones, and better cardiovascular system function. Exercise is also essential for maintaining a healthier body weight and body composition and improving metabolic health through blood glucose and lipid regulation.

But exercise causes changes at the cellular and hormonal levels that have even broader effects. Among these is a reduction in inflammation, which has long been linked to a lower risk of heart attack. Accumulating research suggests that reduced inflammation and improved immune system function may be an important way in which exercise reduces the risk of cancer. The role of exercise in cancer prevention and treatment is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

cancer exercise group


While we typically associate the immune system with communicable diseases like cold or flu (and now COVID), our immune system plays an important role in the body’s defense against cancer. Conditions like obesity, poor nutrition, and a sedentary lifestyle can promote chronic inflammation. Among other negative effects, inflammation can interfere with the normal functioning of the immune system. This impairs your cells’ natural cancer-fighting capacity, making it more likely that cancer will develop and spread. Exercise can reverse the immune system damage caused by chronic inflammation, reducing the risk of cancer development and progression as well as making it less likely you will become sick from a cold or flu.

The idea that exercise can reduce the risk of cancer isn’t new. I have written previously about the fact that regular physical activity can lower breast cancer risk by as much as 30%, improve survival, and reduce the risk of recurrence. One study confirms that high levels of physical activity can significantly lower the risk of breast cancer along with many other common types including colon, bladder, lung, kidney, and endometrial cancers.

In addition to helping reduce the risk of cancer development and recurrence, regular exercise can help you handle cancer treatment better. To be sure, cancer treatment can lead to extreme physical consequences including losses in weight, muscle mass, strength, and endurance. At least some of this is due to more time resting and less time being active, the effects of which occur within days and get worse over time.

You may have noticed this as weakness and fatigue after spending a few days in bed with the flu. Muscle strength declines at a rate of over 1% per day of bed rest, and can be 50% lower following as little as three weeks. That reduction in strength could limit a person who was already deconditioned to a point where he or she would have difficulty completing the most basic activities of daily living. Bed rest can also reduce bone density, exposing patients to a greater risk of fracture.

The fitter you are when you begin treatment, the fitter you will be at the end because you have “saved” more strength and endurance in your fitness bank. You simply have more you can lose before you get to a point at which you can’t complete your normal activities. In fact, maintaining physical activity is a key component of cancer treatment. And post-cancer exercise programs are becoming more common as a way to help women recover from cancer treatment and rebuild strength, endurance, and feelings of wellbeing.

The best approach is to be active now to reduce your risk of cancer (and many other chronic diseases) and build strong muscles and bones to help you successfully handle any cancer treatment or periods of other illness you may encounter later.


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Exercise has benefits at any age, so it’s never too late to start.

 

The benefits of regular exercise for everyone from childhood through old age are well-known. Children who are physically active establish healthy habits and do better in school than their peers who are more sedentary. Young adults who exercise are more likely to be active as they age, reducing their risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Older adults can maintain their memory, cognitive function, and ability to complete everyday activities by improving their fitness.

In many ways, exercise can turn back time on many health and fitness variables that decline with age. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Sports physiology in the Tour de France

The 2020 Tour de France, postponed from the traditional July start due to the COVID pandemic, is underway. This year the race covers over 2100 miles in 21 days of racing, comprised of team and individual time trials as well as stages through the cities, countryside, and mountains of France. The Tour de France is especially interesting to me because it provides an excellent opportunity for a short lesson in sports physiology.

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

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All the riders in the Tour are exceptionally fit since their bodies have adapted to years of dedicated, intense training. Endurance sports like cycling are dependent on the delivery of oxygenated blood to the muscle to produce ATP, the energy needed to sustain exercise.

The riders have large, strong hearts, resulting in the ejection of more blood to the muscle. Within the muscle there is an increase in the number of capillaries, the small blood vessels that deliver blood to the muscle, and mitochondria, the part of the cell that produces most of the ATP. Together, these adaptations allow the muscle to produce more ATP without fatigue, allowing the athlete to exercise at a higher intensity for a longer time.

But training isn’t the only reason these athletes can sustain such intense exercise for so long. Proper nutrition, especially what the athletes eat and drink before, during, and after each stage, also plays an important role. Intense endurance exercise like cycling relies on carbohydrates, in particular, muscle glycogen, as a fuel. Muscle glycogen is a storage form of glucose, sugar that the muscle converts into energy. During prolonged exercise that lasts several hours, muscle glycogen levels can be severely depleted.

Eating carbohydrates before exercise can boost muscle glycogen levels, so cyclists eat carbohydrate-rich foods for breakfast before each stage. They also consume carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks (think Gatorade) and energy bars prior to starting. In fact, they start replenishing their muscle glycogen immediately after finishing the previous day’s ride. This usually begins with a recovery beverage, which may contain some protein for more rapid muscle glycogen synthesis, and extends through carbohydrate-rich meals and snacksthat afternoon and evening.

During exercise it is crucial to maintain adequate blood glucose levels, which tend to drop since the muscle is using so much as a fuel. Failure to replenish blood glucose results in what cyclists call “hitting the wall” or “bonking,” which is like your car running out of gas. To prevent this, glucose must be replenished, typically with sports drinks, energy bars, or a sugary mixture called goo.

Prolonged, intense exercise, especially in the heat, results in a high sweat rate which can lead to dehydration. Sweat loss of several liters per hour is not uncommon during cycling, so fluid intake is essential. This means that cyclists spend a lot of time drinking water while they ride. Sports drinks are also commonly used since they contain carbohydrates and electrolytes in addition to water.

Endurance events like cycling, especially multi-stage events like the Tour de France, highlight important concepts of sports physiology. Even though you may never compete at that level, understanding how training can improve your endurance is relevant if you cycle—or run, walk, or swim—for exercise. Knowing how proper nutrition before, during, and after exercise can improve performance can help you make better decision about what to eat. Hopefully, it also gives you a greater appreciation for the science that goes into a performance like the Tour de France.


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Know your nutrients: Protein

For the last two weeks, I have written about carbohydrates and fats. This week in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard I am covering protein, another essential macronutrient in your diet.

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Protein is part of all cells and is the main component of muscles. Proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. The human body requires 20 amino acids for the synthesis of its proteins. Your body can produce some of these amino acids, so they are called non-essential because you do not need to get them from your diet. There are nine essential amino acids that cannot be made by the body and are obtained only from food. If the protein in a food supplies enough of the essential amino acids, it is called a complete protein. An incomplete protein is one that does not supply all the essential amino acids.

All meat and other animal products are sources of complete proteins. These include beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, and milk products. Protein in plant foods (such as grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables) are either low in or lack one or more of the essential amino acids. These food sources are considered incomplete proteins. One exception is soy protein, which contains all of the essential amino acids.

Plant proteins can be combined to form a complete protein. This is called complementing. Examples of complementing plant proteins are food combinations such as rice with beans or black-eyed peas, beans with corn or wheat tortillas, and hummus, which combines chick peas with sesame paste. Since plant sources of protein are lower in fat and higher in fiber than meat, there are health benefits from getting more protein from plants.

A diet low in protein could lead to poor growth in children or result in muscle loss. For this reason, many people, especially athletes, are concerned about their protein intake. The typical diet for most people contains more than enough protein, so this concern is often unwarranted. People who follow vegetarian or vegan diets do need to pay extra attention to their protein intake. This is especially true for vegetarian athletes.

The amount of recommended daily protein depends on age, medical conditions, and activity level. The recommended intake for protein is 0.8 g protein per kg of body weight (or about 0.4 g protein per pound), so a 200 lb. person would require about 80 g protein per day. In general, two to three servings of protein-rich food will meet the daily needs of most adults. For example, four ounces of meat contains about 40 g protein, one cup of cooked beans contains about 15 g protein, and two slices of whole wheat bread have about 6 g protein.

Protein needs are higher for children, pregnant women, and athletes. That said, the average American’s protein intake is sufficient for most of these special situations. While athletes who are training to add muscle require much more protein than the typical adult, the average intake of most athletes is sufficient to meet these needs. In cases when it is not, the recommendation is to get extra protein from food, not supplements.

Since you probably get enough protein in your diet already, you should focus on healthier sources of protein. Select lean meat, poultry without skin, fish, lentils, and legumes often. Also try adding soy protein to your diet by eating tofu, soy milk, and soy beans (edamame) since soy protein contains beneficial compounds called phytochemicals. As always, you should get your protein by eating naturally protein-rich foods rather than through supplements or processed foods with added protein.


 

Know your nutrients: Fats

Last week I provided information about carbohydrates, the major energy source in our diets. This week the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard  is fats, including saturated fats, unsaturated (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans) fats, omega-3 fats, and cholesterol.

Photo by Loong Ken from Pexels


Fats tend to get a bad reputation since they are higher in calories than carbohydrates and protein and have traditionally been associated with obesity and heart disease when eaten in excess. In reality, some dietary fats are detrimental to your health, while others have health benefits. These consequences are partly linked to the effect of the fats on the LDL (“bad”) and HDL (“good”) cholesterol in your blood and partly to other factors, including blood clotting and inflammation.

Traditionally, cholesterol and saturated fats have been linked to heart disease because they raise levels of LDL cholesterol. Cholesterol is only found in animals, whereas saturated fats are in animals and tropical oils such as palm and coconut oil. This is why you may have heard that you should avoid foods that contain these fats, including red meat and eggs.

It turns out that the link between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease isn’t what we long believed, so these dietary recommendations are being revisited. There has been much discussion in the media and scientific literature about the basis for our current recommendations leading to spirited debate among nutritionists and other health professionals. It seems that high fat intake along with excessive sugar and refined carbohydrates is particularly problematic, so fats themselves may not be to blame for poor health.

Unsaturated fats are found in plant oils. Polyunsaturated fats tend to lower both LDL and HDL cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats are associated with lower LDL but they do not lower HDL cholesterol–this is better. Oils high in polyunsaturated fats include corn and soybean oil while olive and canola oils are rich in monounsaturated fats.

Trans fats are found mostly in modified oils which are hydrogenated to make them more solid and have a longer shelf life. For example, when corn oil (unsaturated fat) is partially hydrogenated it becomes more trans and is more solid—margarine. Trans fats are used in baked and fried foods and can be identified on food labels (most of the time) or by the words “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredient list. Trans fats have the effect of raising LDL while lowering HDL cholesterol, a bad combination! Fortunately, trans fats are less common now than they were even a few years ago, but staying away from fried foods and checking the labels on prepackaged snacks will help you avoid trans fats.

There are three essential omega-3 fats in the diet: ALA, EPA, and DHA. Two of these, EPA and DHA, are primarily found in fish and are associated with reduced risk of heart attack due to their beneficial effects reducing inflammation and blood clotting. Other sources of omega-3 fats include flax seeds, which are high in ALA. The evidence is strongest for beneficial health effects of EPA and DHA, so eating fish or taking fish oil supplements is a common recommendation.

Dietary fat should account for 20–35% of your total calories. The typical American diet is a bit too high in total fat, mostly from unhealthy sources. Your goal should be to make food choices that will shift your intake of fat away from unhealthy sources (trans fats) to more healthy sources (monounsaturated and omega-3 fats). Keep in mind that “fat-free” foods aren’t necessarily healthy options.

Just as with carbohydrates, you should get your dietary fats from real food (like olive oil or butter), not processed foods (margarine). If you do that, you won’t need to worry so much about the types of fats you eat. And don’t forget that all fat contains calories, so don’t overeat even the healthier fats, especially if you are trying to control your weight!


							

Know your nutrients: Carbohydrates

Nutrition and healthy eating are common themes in my writing, so it seems appropriate to provide more information about the major nutrients in our diets: carbohydrates, fats, and protein. These nutrients provide nearly all of the calories we eat and have a large impact on our health. Given the importance of these nutrients, there tends to be much confusion about the different forms they come in and how much of each we should eat. Carbohydrates are the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Starchy-foods

Carbohydrates are an important energy source in your diet. All carbohydrates contain four calories per gram. Grains, fruits, and vegetables are good sources of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates include starches, naturally occurring and added sugars, and fiber.

Carbohydrates are produced as a result of photosynthesis in plants and are stored as complex carbohydrates or starches in grains and many vegetables and as simple sugars in other vegetables and fruits. When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks down the starches and converts the sugars to glucose, or blood sugar, which is used for energy.

The extent to which a food affects blood glucose is called the glycemic index, or GI. Refined carbohydrates, like white rice, pasta, and flour, and sugars typically have a high glycemic index, meaning they cause spikes in blood glucose. Whole grains, like whole wheat, whole oats, and brown rice, have more of a “low and slow” effect on blood glucose. This can help with blood glucose control and may affect appetite.

For these reasons, low GI foods like complex carbohydrates from whole grains are called “good carbs,” in contrast to high GI refined grains and sugars, known as “bad carbs.” In reality, the glycemic index can provide a guide for selecting carbohydrates in the diet, but is no guarantee you are making healthy choices.

Carbohydrates also include fiber, the nondigestible portion of plants. Whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are rich sources of fiber while refined grains and sugars contain little, if any, fiber. Fiber comes in two forms, soluble and non-soluble. Non-soluble fiber, also called roughage, promotes good digestive health. Soluble fiber, like that found in oats, may help lower blood cholesterol. Studies show that diets higher in fiber tend to promote weight loss over time.

You should make an effort to reduce your intake of sugars, especially added sugars, in your diet. Even though all sugars have the same number of calories, foods and beverages containing added sugars should be avoided. Look for “corn syrup” and “high fructose corn syrup” on the label to identify added sugars. You may be surprised how much added sugar you consume! Fruits or 100% fruit juices are a healthy choice since they are rich in vitamins and minerals, even though they contain sugar.

Carbohydrates can be a major part of your diet. Current recommendations call for 45–65% of your daily calories to come from carbohydrates, so a person who eats 2000 calories per day should consume about 300 grams of carbohydrate. Sugars should be limited to less than 10% of calories, so the majority should be complex carbohydrates.

You can meet this goal by reducing your intake of sugars, especially added sugars, and refined grains while increasing your consumption of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables that are high in fiber. When comparing food labels, look for foods that contain whole grains (the first ingredient should be something like “whole wheat flour”) and higher levels of fiber. But be aware that some foods, like many breakfast cereals, contain whole grains but are also high in added sugar.

The best advice is to get the majority of your carbohydrates from real food, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, rather than from processed foods.


Invest in your health

Making smart investments that pay off over time is a key to creating wealth and sustaining financial wellbeing as we age. Warren Buffett is widely regarded as a successful investor and financial leader. His careful investment strategies have allowed him to amass an impressive personal fortune and lead to him be considered one of the foremost experts on investing.

For these reasons, Buffett’s business and financial advice is respected and followed by many people to achieve wealth and financial security. This same strategy can be applied to health with the same good results. Here is how following Buffett’s investing strategy can help you achieve good health now and maintain it long into the future. Just like saving for retirement, you will be glad you have plenty of good health in the bank when you get older.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week. Since I am not an expert in the world of finance and investing, I did run this by a colleague from the School of Business to make sure I was on the right track!

couple jogging on beach


Make smart, not popular, choices.  Many of Buffett’s investments have been in industries or companies that others have overlooked in favor of more trendy options. However popular, these investments may not be smart choices in the long run. Similarly, new exercise trends and popular dietary supplements may seem appealing for weight loss, but the results are often disappointing. Sometimes the best approach for health is something much less exciting: making smart diet choices and daily exercise will almost always pay off for years to come.

Plan for the long-term success, not quick results.  Investments promising that you will get rich overnight are appealing. While you may make money initially, in the long run you may not have anything to show for it or you may end up losing money. Many fad diets and exercise trends are the health equivalent of get rich quick schemes. For example, they may promote weight loss right away, but fall short when it comes to keeping the weight off. Some popular high-intensity training programs can lead to rapid increases in fitness and strength. But for some people they can lead to injury or, at the very least, a negative experience that may turn them off from exercise in the future. Just as Warren Buffett makes investment decisions that will promote long-term income, you should make diet and exercise choices that will pay off for years to come. Even though the health “income” may accumulate more slowly, it is more likely to be lasting.

Diversify your investments.  Buffett’s strategy has been to invest in multiple industries. This allows him to maximize income and insulates his portfolio from losses in any one area. Similarly, you should diversify your health investments. Instead of focusing only on your diet or just on exercise, include both diet and exercise in your health portfolio. That way you will get the benefits of both treatments and maximize your return on investment. This works because the health benefits of good nutrition and physical activity are additive. In fact, in some cases the activity is essential for the diet to be effective, and vice versa.

Your goal should be to make smart investments in your health by choosing diet and activity strategies that you can live with and that will pay off long into the future. Applying Warren Buffett’s investment strategies can help guide you toward making these prudent decisions.

But a healthy, happy life involves more than good nutrition and exercise. You need to take time for yourself and do things you enjoy. Fortunately, there is another Buffett we can take inspiration from: Jimmy Buffett. Sometimes, escaping to Margaritaville is just what the doctor ordered!


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