Category Archives: Health & Fitness

Halloween is over, so what will you do with all that candy?

This weekend marked the end of several weeks of Halloween preparation, events, and celebrations. But even after the lights in the jack-o-lanterns have been extinguished and the costumes have been packed away, the Halloween horrors continue. It’s not ghosts or witches or black cats you need to worry about, though. It’s the leftover candy.

And not just the candy that gets brought home by (or is left over from) trick-or-treaters. What you really need to worry about is the candy that remains, either in the cabinet or in the dish on the table. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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If your home is like mine, you have probably been accumulating candy for several days now. Despite our best intentions, most of it will get eaten, probably in the few days after Halloween. There are several ways in which a Halloween candy binge could be bad for our health.

First, it can add up to a lot of calories, which could contribute to weight gain. As a rough estimate, a typical “fun size” candy bar has about 75–100 calories. Look in your kids’ candy bags or the bowl of leftover candy at your front door and think about how many calories that adds up to.

Second, eating lots of candy could replace healthier foods. Candy is considered “empty calories,” meaning that there is little nutritional value beyond calories—typically no vitamins, minerals, or fiber. And if you eat less at meals because of the extra candy you are consuming you may not be getting enough essential nutrients. However, since the candy binge will probably only last a few days, this shouldn’t cause long-term health problems.

Third, the high sugar intake can contribute to cavities. Bacteria in the mouth produce acid when they come in contact with sugar, and this acid erodes tooth enamel to cause cavities. Sticky candy like gummies or hard candies that are in the mouth a long time are of particular concern. Obviously, brushing after eating can reduce the risk of cavities and chewing sugarless gum may help, too.

Many parents try to reduce some of these potential health concerns by limiting how much candy their children can eat at a time. This makes sense since spreading out the candy consumption—a few pieces each day—means less sugar intake at any one time.

Others solve this problem by letting their kids eat as much candy as they want on Halloween, then taking the rest away or letting their kids keep just a few pieces. Many times kids don’t even miss the candy when it is gone. This is probably a smart approach, but it does require some creativity to get the candy away. Replacing the candy with books, toys, or other gifts might help.

For many people, the real problems begin after Halloween when the leftover candy ends up in a bowl at home or in a dish on a desk at work. While there are some people who can resist reaching into the bowl, most of us can’t. It’s just too tempting to grab a piece of candy as we walk by, and we likely do it more often than we think. In fact, sometimes the candy dish is set out for the purpose of getting rid of the candy!

As the end of the Halloween candy season nears we will probably find ourselves eating more candy than we should. The good news is that as long as we get back to a routine of healthy eating and regular exercise, a Halloween candy binge shouldn’t do any lasting harm our health.

 

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

Boo! Since Halloween is this weekend, 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! Here are three common examples:

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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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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.

Tour de France


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!