Tag Archives: food

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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It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.

Eating well and being physically active are two of the most important things you can do to promote good health. But knowing you should do these things does not always mean it is easy to actually do them.

Despite the simplicity of the message “eat healthy and exercise,” many people struggle with knowing exactly what to do and how to do it. This is largely due to the complicated and ever-changing nature of nutrition and exercise information and the fact that most people receive no education in these areas.

You may even feel like the information you read and hear is designed to confuse you. That may be true, considering that much of the nutrition information we get comes from food companies that are trying to convince us to buy their products. Even scientific research can yield conflicting results, challenging even the most knowledgeable professionals, myself included, to make sense of it. And even if you do decide to make eating or activity changes, the “best” diet or exercise program claims may make you wonder if you made the right choice.

Given this, it’s not your fault if you struggle to understand basic health information and recommendations. But it is your responsibility to learn as much as you can to make the best choices for you and your family.

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

Man shopping in supermarket

This won’t be easy, of course. The popular media, as well as social media, promote confusion and false promises about nutrition by making claims that some foods are “toxic” while others are “superfoods.” The old good carb, bad carb or good fat, bad fat arguments have been given a new life as eat this, not that lists. The problem is that many of these claims are not supported by science. The research that is done often yields complicated or conflicting results that aren’t explained in a way that actually helps people make good decisions.

The same is true for exercise. No one doubts that exercise and physical activity are essential for good health, but there are conflicting claims about specific benefits of exercise and what the best form of exercise really is. This can lead to the idea that if you aren’t doing the right exercise, it doesn’t count. Nothing could be further from the truth! While there are reasons why some athletes might want specific types of training, the majority of people can benefit from simply spending less time sitting and going for a walk each day.

So, what can you do? Given the confusing and changing nutrition recommendations it’s best to focus on what hasn’t changed. That is, to focus on eating real food rather than processed, prepackaged foods. Planning meals and snacks to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, lean meat, eggs, and dairy should give you plenty of healthy fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.

Instead of worrying about the “perfect” exercise, make it your goal to do something active for at least 30 minutes every day.  Beyond that, dedicating time for aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercise will bring greater benefits. Remember, the best exercise for you is the one you will do! Seek advice from people you trust and credible professionals, but remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Your responsibility isn’t to understand all of the nutrition, exercise, and health information you hear. It’s to make an effort to make a few simple, healthy choices despite that confusing information: Sit less, move more, and eat real food.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Go green for Earth Day

As Earth Day approaches we should 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.


Bicycle commuting

 

First, you can go green by replacing car trips with walking or cycling. Every mile you drive releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the environment. Additionally, spending more time sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your health and happiness. Walking or biking has no such effects on the environment and has important health benefits including improved fitness, weight control, and greater feelings of wellbeing. Despite the potential environmental and health benefits of replacing car trips with active transportation, 37% of Americans report not walking for transportation at all in a given week.

Obviously, walking or biking everywhere isn’t practical. But you could probably replace some car trips with active transportation. Most people commute less than five miles to work and nearly half of all car trips are less than two miles. Both are reasonable distances to bike or walk. If you have several places to go, you can always park in a central location and walk to each destination.

The second way you can go green is by eating 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 with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. You should also try to buy from area farmers. 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. Did you know that the food items that make up a typical meal travel 22,000 miles 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.

Finally, you can literally “go green” when you exercise. Being active outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention in adults and children. Another advantage of exercising outdoors is that you might get a better workout because you will likely walk or run faster outdoors. Research shows that even though people tend to exercise at a higher intensity outside, it may feel easier. Much of the psychological benefit of outdoor exercise occurs in the first five minutes, so even short bouts of activity, like walking instead of driving a short distance, are meaningful.

So, as you celebrate Earth Day this week, think about all the ways you can go green—it’s good for you and the environment.

Driving yourself to the doctor.

Have you ever thought about how much time you spend in your car? On average, Americans face a 50-minute round-trip drive each day just for their jobs, and nearly thee-quarters of commuters drive alone. In suburban and metropolitan areas the commute can be much longer. Even in Aiken the average commute time is about 23 minutes. When you include driving to work, taking the kids to school, and doing errands, sitting in a car can easily account for an hour or more each day.

You can find the average commute time in your area using this really cool interactive map from WNYC.

You are probably very aware of the time you spend in the car. What you may not know is that sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your health and happiness. This is the conclusion of several studies that examined the relationship between commuting time and indicators of health. One of these studies suggests that vehicle miles traveled is a strong predictor of obesity. In another study, commuting a greater distance was associated with lower levels of physical activity and fitness as well as a higher waist circumference and blood pressure.

This makes sense because spending more time sitting in your car means you have less time to dedicate to being physically active, something we know is good for your health. Add to that the fact that driving is sedentary. There is accumulating evidence that spending more time sitting in the car, at work, or at home is a predictor of poor health, regardless of how active you are the rest of the day.

It gets worse. Many people eat in their cars during long commutes. Much of the time these “meals” consist of fast food and other prepackaged foods—not many people eat salads while they drive! Since these foods are typically of questionable nutritional quality and high in calories, this alone can contribute to obesity and poor health. The combination of inactivity and eating behind the wheel can easily shift the balance toward weight gain. Plus, eating while you drive is dangerous!

Beyond the direct impact on health through eating and activity behaviors, commuting alone in a car is a form of social isolation. Research suggests that this can lead to depression, itself an important factor leading to poor health.

The problems with long commute times are well established and easy to appreciate. Unfortunately, the solutions are not. Most people can’t move in order to have a shorter commute and relying on public transportation isn’t practical or even possible for many people, especially in our area. Replacing driving a car with active modes of transportation simply isn’t practical.

Aside from the time requirement—imagine how long a 25 minute drive would take on a bike or on foot!—our environment doesn’t adequately support active travel. Being able to walk or bike requires access to safe bike lanes and sidewalks that connect people’s homes to work, school, and other destinations. Even public transportation increases activity over driving and enhances social connections. Sadly, this infrastructure doesn’t exist in most communities, which were built to support cars, not people.

But we can take steps to undo some of the damage that so much driving can cause. Making activity at other times of the day a priority is a good start. This could include exercise at the gym, going for a walk, or even yard work or housework. When possible, replace car trips with walking or biking. Planning these activities with others can strengthen social connections as well as improve health and fitness. Finally, act as an advocate for changes in the community that will make active transportation more realistic.

The attack of our toxic food environment. And how to fight back!

The term “toxic environment” was popularized by Kelly Brownell, an obesity and weight loss researcher, years ago to refer to conditions that promote the consumption of high-calorie, unhealthy food and encourage being physically inactive. This combination is thought to be a major factor that contributes to obesity and other chronic diseases, so understanding both aspects deserves our attention. Hy Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week  focuses on our toxic food environment. (Next week I will explore our toxic activity environment)


Fastfood One characteristic of the toxic environment is that food is available almost everywhere. Gas stations have evolved into convenience stares that happen to sell gas, tempting you as you enter to pay. Displays of candy, soda, and other snacks are present at nearly every checkout lane in nearly every store, even stores that have nothing to do with food. You can find vending machines that sell candy and soda most places you go, even hospitals and schools. Many workplaces have a common area where you can typically find a candy dish or a break room with vending machines. Even going to a meeting at work may mean sitting around a table with a plate of donuts in the center. Sure, you don’t have to buy a soda when you pay for gas or take a donut from the plate, but resisting can be difficult. The more you are around food, the more likely you are to eat it, even if you aren’t hungry. Whether your goal is to eat less food or to eat healthier food, the world we live in makes it difficult. It’s not just willpower, either. We are all susceptible to marketing, whether done by a store, restaurant, or a friend with a plate of freshly baked brownies. The power of marketing, combined with the fact that most of us don’t really understand food or nutrition, is difficult to overcome. It gets worse. It turns out that much of the food we are continually exposed to is of poor nutritional quality. Convenience foods such as candy, snacks, and drinks tend to be high in calories, mostly from added sugar and/or fat, and low in nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Many restaurant meals, both fast food and casual dining, are similar in this way. Even prepackaged meals that you eat at home tend to be high in calories and low in healthy nutrients. So, not only are we almost always around food, much of that food is unhealthy. It also turns out that these unhealthy, calorie-dense foods come in portions that contain a shocking number of calories that can contribute to weight gain. Think about soda, for example. It used to be that you could buy a soda in a 12 oz. can or a 16 oz. bottle. Now 20 oz. bottles are common and even larger sizes are almost always an option. The same is true for candy and snacks, like chips. As portions increase, so do the calories we consume. To be fair, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with having so many foods and drinks available to us. We don’t need to eat these foods, right? But, all too often, we do. And when the excess calories from all of this food are combined with a low level of physical activity, a “perfect storm” is created that almost always leads to weight gain. Changing our food environment is difficult, maybe even impossible. But we can change the way we interact with our environment. This includes being more mindful of what, when, and why we are eating. Being aware of internal signals like hunger and external forces like advertising and peer pressure can help us make smarter decisions within our toxic food environment.

Eat slow, then fast. How and when you eat may be as important as what you eat for weight control.

What you eat is an essential part of achieving and maintaining good health. What you may not know is that when and how you eat can be just as important. This is especially true if your goal is to lose weight.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week describes  two ways that changing the way you eat can help you lose weight and keep it off. Neither of these are necessarily new ideas, but implementing them together may help you eat less.

First, eating more slowly can help you limit the amount of food you eat. Perhaps your mother admonished you to “slow down” at meals when you were young. This was good advice, for both practical and physiological reasons. In addition to controlling how much food you consume, eating more slowly is a good way to enjoy meals, both the food and the company, more fully.

You mother may also have told you to “chew your food.” too. This was probably to remind you to eat more slowly.  Almost 100 years ago Horace Fletcher recommended a process that involved chewing each bite of food 100 times. “Fletcherizing,” as it was called, was a way to reduce how much people ate, among other more dubious health claims.

There is a physiological reason to slow down, too. Your appetite is regulated by a host of factors, including the act of eating and the presence of food in your stomach. As you eat, your stomach fills. This triggers the release of hormones that signal your brain to reduce your appetite. The result is that as your stomach fills, you feel less hungry.

Once you start eating, it takes time for your stomach to release these hormones. Eating quickly, like many of us do, allows you to take in lots of calories before your brain gets the message that you are full. This is one factor that leads to overeating. But if you slow down at meals, you start to feel full before you eat as much. Research shows that this can lead to lower calorie intake during the meal.

Second, the time between meals may affect your metabolism in ways that result in less fat accumulation. Again, the concept of fasting between meals isn’t new, but recent research helps explain why eating less frequently may help prevent obesity and related conditions, including diabetes.

While this research was done using rats, the physiological concept may well apply to humans. In these studies, rats were put on a diet that included an overnight fast ranging from 8–12 hours. The researchers found that the rats that experienced a longer fasting period between meals had better insulin levels and less fat storage.

The reason for this seems to do with the gut microbiome, the bacteria that live in the intestine and play an important role in regulating metabolism. A longer period without food changes the nature of these good bacteria, promoting these benefits.

I first heard about this on Science Friday, which provides an excellent summary of this research.

It is unclear whether this same effect occurs in humans. Even without this evidence, adopting a fasting period between dinner and breakfast, which should be about 12 hours, seems prudent. At the very least, it will keep you from snacking in the evening, which almost certainly involves unhealthy choices.

An additional finding of this research is that the benefits of the 12-hour fast seem to persist, even through a day or two of more frequent eating. This is relevant, since many people do well to modify their eating habits during the week, but tend toward less restrained eating on the weekends. The fact that the benefits of an overnight fast most days of the week are maintained despite a “wild weekend” is good news!

The combination of what, when, and how you eat can make an important difference in how much you eat, the key to losing weight and keeping it off. As you try to make healthier food choices, consider eating more slowly and making dinner the end of your eating day.

The five pillars of good health

What does it really take to live a healthy lifestyle? This is the topic of me Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Confusing and conflicting information can make improving your health especially challenging. Some advice is straightforward—quit smoking, for example. But other recommendations, especially those regarding nutrition and exercise, are less clear. In an effort to stay focused on the “big picture” I have created what I call the Five Pillars of Good Health. These are five habits that are the basis for achieving and maintaining good health.

Don’t Smoke.

Smoking doubles your risk of heart attack and stroke and is the leading cause of lung cancer. Second-hand smoke can affect the health of others, so these risks are not limited to the smoker.

If you smoke, quit now…no excuses! Newer prescription medications and over-the-counter nicotine replacement products can help, but quitting will require dedication, effort, and support.

Eat Smart.

Good nutrition is essential for preventing and treating most chronic diseases including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Perhaps the best way to cut through the conflicting nutrition information and diet claims is to simplify healthy eating to it’s most basic form: Eat real food, not processed “food.”

This isn’t easy, of course. One sure way to make better choices is to limit added sugars and salt, which are almost always present in processed foods. Strive to eat more whole fruits and fruit juices, vegetables, whole grains, legumes (like beans), lean meat, dairy, and nuts. If weight loss is a goal for you, reducing portion sizes will absolutely help you cut calories.

Move More.

This is a three-step process. First, sit less. Limit sedentary time at work and home and make opportunities to get up and move. The health effects of prolonged sitting are similar to not exercising. If you find yourself in stuck a chair for an hour, at least get up and stretch for a minute.

Second, move more. Look for ways to add activity to your everyday routine. This can include yard work and house work as well as using the stairs and parking further away in parking lots. Every additional step counts!

Third, dedicate time to be active every day. This can include activity such as taking the dog for walk as well as more structured exercise that includes endurance, resistance, and flexibility training. Strive for 30 minutes per day, but know that more is better.

Chill Out.

Chronic stress can have a powerful effect on your health. While it is not possible to eliminate all stress from your life, you should dedicate yourself to identifying and modifying sources of stress at work and home and learning to control your stress response.

Much of the stress of life comes down to not having enough time. Good time management, planning carefully, and setting priorities will certainly help reduce both long and short-term stress. You should also know that inadequate sleep adds to the health effects of stress, so strive to get enough sleep.

Make It Work For You.

This is the tricky part—how to actually make these changes. The first step is to make good health a priority and dedicate time and energy to your efforts. No doubt you have tried some of these changes before, you probably have an idea of what does and doesn’t work for you. Try something different this time around. The support of others is essential, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Get your friends and family involved, too. They will certainly benefit from joining you on your journey toward better health.