Tag Archives: health

Ever feel like the world is working against you. It’s our toxic activity environment

Last week I introduced the idea that we live in a “toxic environment,” which provides easy access to high-calorie, unhealthy, inexpensive food and promotes physical inactivity.  The focus was on the toxic food environment, so now it is time to explore our toxic activity environment which makes easy to be inactive and can discourage activity. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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We live in a toxic food environment. Here are some tips to help you survive.

The term “toxic environment” was popularized 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 is important. For now, let’s focus on our toxic food environment, which I do in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Soda aisle

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Second chance New Year’s resolutions

 

It’s hard to believe, but summer is winding down and a new school year has begun. As teachers, students, and parents know, this is the real beginning of the new year. For those of us involved in education, the start of a new school year is a perfect time to make goals for the upcoming year, whether they are related to school or not.

This is a lot like making New Year’s resolutions on January first. Hopefully, you are still on track with the resolutions you made. Sadly, research suggests that only 8% of people actually achieve their goal (more data here).

There are a host of reasons for this. Some of the most common resolutions—quitting smoking, losing weight, and getting in shape—are also some of the most difficult behaviors to change because they require making significant lifestyle modifications. To make things worse, many people set unrealistic goals or try to take on too much at once.

Many people who fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions this year will recycle them next year and try again. In fact, most people who manage to successfully quit smoking or lose weight have tried many times in the past. Sometimes experience, even a bad experience, is the best way to learn what does and doesn’t work for you.

But there is no need to wait until 2023 to restart your stalled New Year’s resolutions or finally get around to doing what you planned months ago. Setting a date to begin a behavior change is an important step in the process so, why not make the end of summer and the start of a new school year the time to revisit your resolutions and try again?

Here is some advice to help make this second chance to start or restart your New Year’s resolutions successful.

Be realistic. Many people fail to keep their resolutions simply because they don’t set realistic goals or aren’t realistic about what it will take to meet those goals. For example, running a marathon is an ambitious goal for almost anyone, especially someone who doesn’t exercise at all. A resolution to work up to walking or jogging five days per week, with a goal of completing a 5k run/walk is more achievable.

Focus on learning. Making most health behavior changes involves learning as much as doing. Something as simple as eating healthier meals requires learning about the nutrients that make some foods healthier than others, learning to read food labels to select healthy foods, and learning how to cook and prepare healthy meals. If your resolution is to learn about healthy meals, you will be able to achieve that goal and be well on your way to eating a healthier diet.

Manage your time. Most health improvement projects require taking time to learn about, implement, and maintain those healthy behaviors. If you resolve to manage your time to include exercise or meal preparation in your daily schedule you will be much more likely to meet your goals. Trying to add these new activities as “extras” to your already busy day will inevitably lead to them getting squeezed out.

Plan ahead. Most people already know that changing health behaviors can be challenging, even under the best circumstances. It’s no wonder that holidays, travel, and other life events can complicate or even derail an otherwise successful diet or exercise program. Make it your resolution to think about what you can do before, during, and after these (and other) disruptions occur to keep yourself on track.

Hopefully these steps will help you keep your resolutions, achieve your goals, and make this a happy, healthy year. As a bonus, you can take January 1, 2023 off!


 

Healthy back to school, part 2

Last week I wrote about the importance of physical activity and good nutrition for growth, learning, and development. However, most schools do little to provide meaningful opportunities for activity during the day. Similarly, nutrition education is lacking and the quality of food provided in most schools is poor.

To be clear, this is not the fault of teachers or individual school leaders, who are limited in what they can do by local, state, and federal requirements. Knowing that good nutrition and physical activity support health and academic success, families are held responsible for teaching these topics at home. Here are a few suggestions from my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard to help make everyone happier and healthier this school year.

Make sure everyone in the family is active every day. Physical activity is critical for good health for everyone. Importantly, it can improve your immune system, helping you fight viruses of all kinds. Beyond that, being active can help you perform better at work and school and make it easier to do things you enjoy in your leisure time. Adults should be active for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. Everything from taking the dog for a walk to a fitness class at the gym counts. For children, the goal is 60 minutes per day through PE class, sports, and play. As a bonus, you can do at least some of the activity together to make activity a family event!

Make healthy eating a family project. There is a lot of confusion about what makes a healthy diet, but there are a few guidelines almost everyone agrees on. First, eat more fruits and vegetables. At a minimum, eat at least five servings each day, but try for twice that. Second, limit added sugars and salt. This is tricky since salt, sugar, and other sweeteners are added to most processed foods. Eating too much sugar is known to contribute to obesity, heart disease, and some cancers, so this is among the smartest nutrition moves you can make. Salt, by itself, isn’t necessarily harmful, but less salt almost always means less processed food and more “real” food. Finally, be mindful of portion sizes. Super-sized servings and second (and third) helpings are the primary reason why people gain weight over time.

Plan to eat at least one meal together each day. Most experts agree that family dinners are important for promoting good communication and healthy eating habits. Given that our days are busy with work, school, and other activities, eating dinner together every night is unrealistic for many families. So, start with planning at least one family dinner at home each week. This is also a good opportunity to teach children about food and cooking, so it is even better if you prepare the meal together.

Make getting enough sleep a priority. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can affect children’s growth, development, and learning.  It can also have an impact on an adult’s productivity at work. The effect of chronic stress on health is well known and we should recognize a lack of sleep as a form of stress. A good goal for adults is 7–9 hours of sleep each night. School-aged children need 8–12 hours, with younger kids requiring more. As difficult as it may be, earlier bedtimes can benefit everyone in the family. Limiting screen time (TV, computer, tablet) before bed can help improve sleep, too.

Obviously, these ideas are easier read than done, especially for busy families. But moving more, eating better, and getting more sleep—especially if it is done together—can help your family enjoy a happier and healthier year.

On second thought: Nutrition advice that seemed like a good idea at the time.

If you follow nutrition news you have no doubt noticed that recommendations change over time. Foods you thought were good for you can suddenly show up on a “never eat” list and foods you had learned to avoid might be recommended as healthy. This makes it challenging to follow a healthy diet, for sure. It may also make you question the advice of nutrition experts, who seem to change their minds periodically.

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


There are several reasons for this. First, carefully designed long-term studies of food and health are difficult to conduct. This means that small differences can appear to be more important than they really are, and meaningful effects may not be statistically significant.

Additionally, it is unreasonable to carefully control what people eat over years or decades, so “proving” that a food is either beneficial or harmful to health is almost impossible. This leads to health claims that probably shouldn’t be made as well as missed opportunities to make useful recommendations.

There are also political reasons why nutrition advice can change over time. The long-held belief that eating fat causes obesity and heart disease was largely based on decisions made by politicians. Importantly, these decisions were not based on good research. This led to a recommendation to eat more carbohydrates instead, something the food industry embraced.

Low-fat foods that were high in sugar became known as health food, despite evidence to the contrary. Even as research linking sugar intake with poor health accumulated, Congress forbid U.S. dietary guidelines to include an “eat less” recommendation. Only now are we changing our thoughts and behaviors to consume less added sugar and be less fearful of fats in our diet.

Here are two examples of nutrition advice that was well-meaning at the time but didn’t work out in the long run. In fact, these recommendations may actually have made us less healthy.

Low-Fat and Fat-Free Foods

The recommendation to eat less fat resulted in foods that normally would contain fat to be reformulated to have less, or no, fat. The fat was replaced by sugar and other additives leading to ingredient lists that read more like a chemistry experiment than food. We know now that these highly-processed foods were no healthier and are thought to be a major cause of the obesity epidemic.

Sugar Free foods

Now that we have embraced the idea that we should eat less added sugar, there are sugar-free alternatives to most foods and beverages. The problem is that foods containing sugar are meant to taste sweet, so something must be added to replace the sugar. More often than not, the sugar is replaced by artificial sweeteners that contain no calories but still add sweetness.

There are two problems with this. First, although these foods may be calorie-free, they are still associated with weight gain. Second, they may be sweeter than the food they replace and alter our expectation of what food should taste like. This is especially true for children, who learn to expect that all food should be sweet. Furthermore, the alternative sweeteners used to replace sugar may not be as safe as we initially thought.

The bottom line is that all nutrients—carbohydrates, fat, and protein—are healthy within relatively broad ranges. And getting these nutrients, fats and sugar included, from real food is always preferable to eating processed foods.

The key to good health is to balance what you eat with daily physical activity at work, at the gym, or at home. And remember that nutrition researchers and experts are doing their best to bring you reliable recommendations, even if it doesn’t come across that way in the news!


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Mindfulness matters for making meaningful and lasting health behavior changes

Mindfulness can be described as an awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the surrounding environment. This is most commonly explored through mindful meditation, a practice that is credited with improving physical and mental health. Beyond meditation, being mindful can help to improve attention and focus in nearly every aspect of life. This is important for making meaningful and lasting health behavior changes. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Mindful brain

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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.

father and son walking in woods

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That’s not coffee! It’s your morning milkshake.

Breakfast is often thought of as the most important meal of the day, for good reason. Eating a healthy breakfast provides energy to start the day and can be helpful for weight control. In children, a healthy breakfast is essential for proper growth and development and is linked to improved attention and learning in school. Unfortunately, many common breakfast foods are more like candy and soda than a healthy meal to start the day.

This is also true for breakfast drinks, including coffee drinks. Many popular coffee drinks are more similar to a milkshake than to actual coffee!

Take, for example, the grande (16 oz) Mocha Frappuccino blended coffee drink from Starbucks. This drink has 410 calories, 15 grams of fat, 61 grams of sugar, and 5 grams of protein. To put this in perspective, 61 grams of sugar is more than most people should have in an entire day!

You could order this drink with nonfat milk and no whipped cream. That’s a good idea, but it will still have 270 calories, 1 gram of fat, and 59 g sugar. That’s still a lot of sugar!

Let’s compare that to a small (16 oz.) McCafe Mocha Frappé from McDonald’s, which is essentially a coffee milkshake. It has 500 calories, 20 grams of fat, 66 grams of sugar, and 8 grams of protein.

Sure, the calories and sugar in the coffee drink aren’t quite as outrageous as the milkshake, but it’s close. This is especially clear when you compare the coffee drink to actual coffee. A grande (16 oz.) Pike Place Roast from Starbucks has 5 calories and no fat or sugar. If you like cream and sugar in your coffee, that adds 5 grams of sugar, 3 grams of fat, and about 50 calories, still way less than either “coffee” drink.

If you don’t want plain coffee a better choice might be a grande Starbucks Cappuccino, which has 140 calories, 7 g fat, and 10 g sugar. Get one with nonfat milk and you cut out 60 calories from fat. If you are worried about how much sugar you consume and how many calories you drink (you probably should be!), this is a much better coffee drink choice than a milkshake!

This isn’t specific to Starbucks. A medium (16 oz.) iced coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts has 130 calories and 28 grams of sugar. And that doesn’t include a donut.

Does this mean you can’t enjoy a delicious coffee drink? Of course not. But don’t try to fool yourself by calling it coffee. Depending on what you order, it may essentially be a milkshake! I think we can all agree that is not part of a healthy breakfast.

I call this idea that unhealthy food makes its way onto our breakfast table Candy & Soda for Breakfast. Foods like donuts and pastries are often topped with icing and it would be difficult to distinguish many muffins from cupcakes. Many “fruit” drinks contain little to no juice but plenty of added sugar, so they are essentially soda without bubbles.

And it’s not just breakfast, either. Lunch, dinner, and snacks frequently include foods that look like a healthy choice—yogurt, nuts, and granola bars are a few examples—but really are candy and soda in disguise.

Staying healthy when going back to school, part 2

Last week I wrote about how to make returning to school healthier for children and families. The focus was on preventing the spread of COVID through vaccinations and mask use. Unfortunately, schools in our community cannot require children and teachers to wear masks and be vaccinated when eligible, so many schools are already seeing outbreaks leading to quarantines, closure of some schools, and some serious illnesses and deaths. Keeping children and families safe from COVID remains the top priority when it comes to making this school year a healthy one.

But there is more we all should do to stay healthy this year.  Here are a few suggestions to improve the health and wellbeing of our children and families.

 Make sure everyone in the family is active every day. Physical activity is critical for good health for everyone. Importantly, it can improve your immune system, helping you fight viruses of all kinds. Beyond that, being active can help you perform better at work and school and make it easier to do things you enjoy in your leisure time. Adults should be active for a minimum of 30 minutes per day. Everything from taking the dog for a walk to a fitness class at the gym counts. For children, the goal is 60 minutes per day through PE class, sports, and play. As a bonus, you can do at least some of the activity together to make activity a family event!

Make healthy eating a family project. There is a lot of confusion about what makes a healthy diet, but there are a few guidelines almost everyone agrees on. First, eat more fruits and vegetables. At a minimum, eat at least 5 servings each day, but try for twice that. Second, limit added sugars and salt. This is tricky since salt, sugar, and other sweeteners are added to most processed foods. Eating too much sugar is known to contribute to obesity, heart disease, and some cancers, so this is among the smartest nutrition moves you can make. Salt, by itself, isn’t necessarily harmful, but less salt almost always means less processed food and more “real” food. Finally, be mindful of portion sizes. Super-sized servings and second (and third) helpings are the primary reason why people gain weight over time.

Plan to eat at least one meal together each day. Most experts agree that family dinners are important for promoting good communication and healthy eating habits. Given that our days are busy with work, school, and other activities, eating dinner together every night is unrealistic for many families. So, start with planning at least one family dinner at home each week. This is also a good opportunity to teach children about food and cooking, so it is even better if you prepare the meal together.

Make getting enough sleep a priority. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Many American adults and children don’t get enough sleep. Lack of sleep can affect children’s growth, development, and learning.  It can also have an impact on an adult’s productivity at work. The effect of chronic stress on health is well known and we should recognize a lack of sleep as a form of stress. A good goal for adults is 7–9 hours of sleep each night. School-aged children need 8–12 hours, with younger kids requiring more. As difficult as it may be, earlier bedtimes can benefit everyone in the family. Limiting screen time (TV, computer, tablet) before bed can help improve sleep, too.

Obviously, these ideas are easier read than done, especially for busy families. But moving more, eating better, and getting more sleep—especially if it is done together—can help your family enjoy a happier and healthier year.

Staying healthy when going back to school, part 1

It’s the time of year when summer is winding down and kids are heading back to school. After two years of learning that was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, parents, students, and teachers were hoping for a more normal return to school. As we know, all children need to be healthy to learn and grow at school. Staying healthy includes avoiding illness, of course, but it also includes regular physical activity, good nutrition, and getting enough sleep.

When it comes to the health of students, teachers and their families, the biggest concern this year is still the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The predominant virus now is the delta variant, which spreads more readily and tends to lead to more serious infections, including in children. The best way to prevent infection and illness is through vaccinations, masking, and physical distancing.

While vaccinated people can still spread the virus, they are less likely to get seriously ill and require hospitalization. In recent weeks, over 95% of people who have been hospitalized or died due to the delta variant were unvaccinated. This strongly suggests that vaccination can prevent serious illness.

The fact that the delta variant can be easily spread, even by vaccinated people, explains the continued need for masking. The CDC recommends mask use indoors for all people regardless of vaccination status. This is especially, important in schools, since many school-age children who are under the age of 12 are not eligible for the vaccine.

Unfortunately, in our area and others around the country, vaccination rates are relatively low, putting many children and adults at risk. Adding to the problem, in some places mask use cannot be required in schools or is not encouraged among students and teachers. For example, at my kids’ school, parents were told that children who wear masks would be “welcomed” on campus.  

This is far short of the recommendation given by other local school leaders that actively promote vaccinations and mask use for students and staff, despite a prohibition of making these steps requirements for attendance. Already there are some schools that do not require mask use in our area and elsewhere that have had to make changes to their face-to-face teaching plan due to COVID outbreaks at their school.

The first step in making this a healthy return to school by protecting children, teachers, and their families from serious illness is to get vaccinated, wear masks, and physically distance when possible in schools. The COVID vaccinations are safe, effective, and free, so with very few exceptions there is no good reason for everyone not to get vaccinated.

We are all tired of wearing masks, but they are an easy way to allow people to more safely gather indoors whether that is at school, work, or other settings. Physical distancing, while not always easy, is also a good way to limit the spread of COVID and other viruses in crowded environments like classrooms. These same steps allowed many schools to open for in person learning last year and are the key to keeping kids in school this year.

Keeping children safe from COVID to allow them to stay in school is only the first step in a healthy start to the new school year. Next week I will explore how physical activity and exercise, good nutrition, getting enough sleep, and managing stress are essential for good performance at school. The good news is these same steps can help keep everyone healthy and happy this year.