Tag Archives: healthy eating

A Thanksgiving dinner that is good and good for you.

This is Thanksgiving week, and people throughout the country are planning a feast that includes traditional dishes and family favorites. Even though many of these are not the healthiest choices, they make an appearance on the table each year. For many, Thanksgiving dinner is a day marked by overindulgence and  poor nutrition choices.

In an effort to make Thanksgiving dinner healthier, recommendations for modifying or replacing traditional dishes are a common theme in magazines, on the morning TV shows, and on the web. While these suggestions are meant to be helpful, I’m not sure they actually serve to make a significant impact on health. In fact, the foods we eat and the way we eat them may be the healthiest part of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


thanksgiving-dinner

After all, Thanksgiving is one day, and if there was ever a day to give yourself license to indulge, this is it! Of course, trying new foods and cooking techniques is always good, but the impact of replacing the butter in your mashed potatoes with fat-free sour cream or taking the marshmallow topping off Granny’s famous sweet potato dish for one day isn’t realistically going to make you any healthier in the long run.

The truth is that if you eat a healthy diet every day, or even most days, and you have an active lifestyle you can get away with a day—or weekend—of overeating. (Obviously, you should always follow dietary restrictions for any medical conditions you have.) The problem comes when Thanksgiving dinner is yet another unhealthy meal in addition to the others that week or month.

Some of these recommendations are worth trying, for sure. Making an alternative to a traditional dish can get your family to try new foods they might not otherwise consider. And cooking using different ingredients or techniques on Thanksgiving can give you ideas for other meals, too.

However, focusing on modifying your Thanksgiving dinner may distract you from appreciating the greatest potential health benefit of this meal. Given the current confusion about how much and what type of carbohydrates and fats we should eat, there is an increased push to get us to eat less processed food and more real food.

For many of us, Thanksgiving dinner is one of the only times we cook and eat real food. A real turkey, vegetables, and home-made dessert are a huge improvement over the processed foods most of us eat on a daily basis. While we eat turkey at other times, it is almost always in a processed form such as ground turkey or deli meat, which frequently includes other additives. Cooking and eating a whole turkey is, for most families, relatively rare. So is eating a meal that doesn’t come from a restaurant or isn’t heated in a microwave.

Additionally, Thanksgiving dinner is shared simultaneously around a common table (and maybe a kids’ table, too). All too often, meals are consumed away from the family table, frequently at different times. The benefits of eating together as a family are well-known, and can have a positive impact on nutrition, psychological well-being, and health in general. Maybe Thanksgiving dinner isn’t about the food as much as it is the company. Why not make this a habit at other meals?

This week, let’s all give thanks for family, friends, and a shared meal. Let’s also take a lesson from the day and try to prepare and eat more real food as a family. This may be the best part of Thanksgiving. That, and a second serving of pumpkin pie!


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Tomorrow is Healthy Lunch Day. Here’s why it matters and why you should do it every day.

Tomorrow is National Healthy Lunch Day, an event promoted by the American Diabetes Association to raise awareness about the need to make healthy choices at lunchtime. We all know that eating breakfast is an important way to start the day. What we may not appreciate is the role a good lunch plays in promoting good health, from helping with weight control to managing diabetes. A healthy lunch can also affect your focus and attention, helping your performance at work or school.


lunch

A healthy lunch is important for treating and preventing many health problems. Diabetes is a perfect example. Perhaps the most important aspect of managing diabetes is to control blood glucose levels throughout the day. Obviously, eating a meal will raise blood glucose. But eating a meal that is relatively low in carbohydrates, especially sugar [https://drbrianparr.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/sugar-and-your-health/], can provide energy without contributing to a spike in blood glucose. The glycemic index (GI) is a useful tool for selecting foods that have a lower impact on blood glucose. Keep in mind that the amount of carbohydrates you eat is important, too, so focusing only on GI isn’t enough. This is especially important for diabetics who take medications, including insulin, to help manage their diabetes.

The idea that eating lunch promotes weight loss sounds counterintuitive, but it works! Skipping a meal can lead to stronger feelings of hunger later in the day. And if you are hungrier you will likely eat more. So, an appropriate midday meal can help you eat less later in the day. Combined with regular exercise, eating appropriate meals and snacks is an essential aspect of weight loss and weight control.

Eating lunch provides energy and reduces hunger at a time when your breakfast is likely “wearing off.” This may help you feel more energetic and can enhance your attention, focus, and productivity. Of course, what you eat for lunch is as important as when you eat. Lots of sugar can make you feel sluggish, both physically and mentally. Unfortunately, added sugar is a big part of many restaurant meals and convenience foods, so the afternoon slump is a reality for many of us. Limiting sugar in both food and drinks can help you make healthier choices at lunch that can make you feel and work better in the afternoon.

“That afternoon slump you feel may be due to what you ate for lunch.”

A good lunch is especially important for children. In addition to providing energy to support growth and learning, lunch also presents an opportunity to teach children about healthy eating. This is critical since formal nutrition education isn’t part of the curriculum at most schools. Sadly, most school lunch programs provide meals that include too much added sugar and refined carbohydrates, inappropriate for growing and learning kids.

Many adults don’t fare much better with their lunch. For a lot of people, the two key criteria for lunch are that it is quick and convenient. And as we know, quick and convenient foods are rarely considered healthy, so this requires some effort to plan ahead and make careful choices.

What makes a healthy lunch? Pretty much the same recommendations for other meals also apply for lunch: low in added sugar and refined carbohydrates and high in fiber. Your lunch should include vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and protein, all of which are foods that can make you feel full longer. In the end, the effort and planning pay off by making you a healthier you!


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Follow the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans? Would if I could.

The most recent update to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released earlier this month. This is the latest attempt to provide us with information about what we should eat—and not eat—to stay healthy. The new guidelines, and why they may be difficult for many people to follow, are the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Good food display


Like past updates, there is some debate about the recommendations in the current guidelines. Uncertainly about the role that specific foods and nutrients (saturated fat, for example) play in promoting health and political influence from segments of the food industry are causes for criticism of these guidelines.

Despite the controversy, the guidelines do provide some good advice for us to follow. For example, they recommend that we eat a variety of fruits and vegetables, something that almost everyone agrees is healthy. Refined and processed grains should be limited in favor of whole, unrefined grains. Furthermore, added sugars should be avoided. There is good support for these recommendations, and the distinction is a welcome one. The recommendations for fat are a bit less clear, but the guidelines steer us toward “healthier” fats from plants, including nuts and seeds.

No doubt, everyone could experience some health benefits from eating more fruits and vegetables, favoring whole grains over refined, and limiting the consumption of processed foods containing added sugars. In my mind, the problem isn’t the recommendations themselves (although I might make some changes), it’s the fact that following them is challenging, if not impossible, for many people.

First, access to fresh fruits and vegetables is limited for many people, either by availability or by cost. The well-meaning advice to shop the perimeter of the grocery store avoids many of the unhealthy processed foods that are found in the center aisles of most stores, but it also results in a cart filled with more expensive produce, dairy, and meat. Many people simply can’t afford or shop this way, so the prepackaged, processed foods and meals are practically a necessity.

Second, making smart decisions in the grocery store and in restaurants requires that you have some nutrition knowledge. At the very least, reading food labels is essential. Unfortunately, the “label language” used to make nutrition claims on the front of packages and the less-than-complete information on the Nutrition Facts panel makes this challenging. Claims like “fat free” and “no high-fructose corn syrup” may seem to indicate a healthier choice, when in reality these foods are often no better than the alternatives on the next shelf.

Even though interpreting and following the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans can be challenging, it is still important to try. Making real food, as opposed to processed, prepackaged “food,” your first choice whenever possible will go a long way toward making your diet healthier. This will certainly involve putting more thought into what you eat, and you may find yourself preparing more meals at home rather than eating out.

And try not to worry too much about the debate about which foods and nutrients are the healthiest. If you select food that is as close to its natural state as possible you are likely to make good choices. For example, choose plain beef, poultry, and fish as opposed to flavored, cured meats. The same is true for dairy products like yogurt—watch out for lots of added sugar!

Regardless of what the current and future Dietary Guidelines say, you should strive to follow advice of author Michael Pollan: Eat food, not too much.


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The truth about restaurant salads

If you are looking for a healthy option for lunch or dinner at a restaurant, especially if you are trying to lose weight, chances are you will consider a salad. It turns out that at most fast-food and casual dining restaurants, salads may not be the low-calorie or low-fat choice you were expecting. However, ordering a salad can still be a healthy option, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Big salad


We think of salads as being a healthy choice because they contain lots of vegetables which are low in calories and high in vitamins, minerals, and fiber. But most restaurant salads are more than just vegetables. At a minimum, you would add salad dressing and many salads also include nuts, fruit, chicken, bacon, or cheese, all of which add fat and calories.

Salad dressing alone can add hundreds of calories. Creamy dressings like ranch and blue cheese tend to be higher in both calories and fat than vinaigrettes. In many cases the salad has more calories than the sandwich or entree you would have ordered instead.

As an example, consider the Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Crispy Chicken at McDonald’s. This popular salad contains 490 calories and 29 grams of fat. Compared to a Big Mac, which has 540 calories and 29 grams of fat, this salad doesn’t seem like such a healthy option. You could improve the salad by switching from fried chicken to grilled chicken and save 180 calories and 15 grams of fat.

The real problem is the ranch dressing—one packet contains 200 calories and 17 grams of fat. You could skip the dressing altogether, but a more reasonable approach is to switch to the Low-Fat Balsamic Vinaigrette, with only 35 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. Want to really cut calories? The salad with the vinaigrette dressing and no chicken has only 230 calories, almost 300 fewer than the version with crispy chicken with ranch dressing or the Big Mac!

Despite the fact that many restaurant salads have calorie and fat content similar to burgers and other entrees, it doesn’t make them a bad choice. The salad does contain several cups of vegetables, which means it is higher in vitamins, minerals, and fiber than a burger. The salads at McDonalds have about twice as much fiber as most sandwiches.

Think of it this way: the salad may be equivalent to a burger as far as fat and calories go, but it comes with a serving (or more) of vegetables. And the salad is even healthier when you consider that the sandwich would undoubtedly come with fries! One more point: I use McDonald’s as an example here, but the same holds true for salads at other fast food and casual dining chain restaurants.

What if you are at a restaurant and want to order a salad? What can you do to make it healthier? You could order a side salad. Given the huge portions at most restaurants, this smaller serving might be enough. You can also limit the toppings, especially meat and cheese, and choose a lower-calorie dressing. Another tried and true option is to ask for the dressing on the side so you can add just as much as you want. And don’t forget, you can always share one of the large salads with a friend or save half for another meal.

The bottom line is that salads at restaurants can be as high in calories and fat as other “unhealthy” menu items, but they do provide a serving of vegetables you might otherwise miss. And by making a few choices, you can create a salad that is a healthy, low-calorie option.


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Are the additives in your food safe?

Making healthier food choices is something that you should be thinking about every day. Since November 4 is National Eating Healthy Day, this seems like a good opportunity to revisit some advice to help you make smart decisions. Eating more fruits and vegetables, limiting added sugar, and focusing on “real food” instead of processed, prepackaged meals and snacks are always good ideas. One reason for this is to avoid food additives, some of which may be harmful.

food additives


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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New reasons why it is so easy to gain weight. And what you can do to stop it.

If you have been gaining weight or find it more and more difficult to maintain your weight, you are not alone. According to current statistics, one-third of U.S. adults are obese and two-thirds are considered overweight. Being overweight is now the norm in America, since only about 3 in 10 people are at a healthy body weight.

This is consistent with other reports that show that the waistlines of Americans are expanding. One recent study looked at the percentage of adults who had a high waist circumference (over 35 inches for women and over 40 inches for men). Overall, the average American added over one inch to their waist circumference over the past decade. As of 2012, over half of U.S. adults meet the criteria for abdominal obesity. This is bad news, since excess fat, especially around the waist, increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

It wasn’t always this way. As recently as the 1980s the prevalence of obesity was much lower, around 15%. There has been much interest in figuring out why this widespread weight gain has occurred. While there is no single cause, there are a host of factors that contribute to the obesity epidemic. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Obesity


Among the forces that seem to be working against you are your genetics and our environment, specifically as it relates to eating and activity behaviors.  Over the past several decades our “food environment” has changed so that now low-quality, high-calorie food is readily accessible and more nutritious food is harder to find and more expensive. Our “activity environment” has changed, too. For most of us, the physical activity that was common at work and home years ago has been replaced by lots of sitting. While there are genes that influence our eating and activity behaviors, these genes have not changed enough over time to explain the obesity epidemic.

A practical explanation for weight gain, both for individuals and the population as a whole, is that we are eating more and expending less energy through activity. Indeed, even small changes in energy balance can add up to increased weight over time . A new study, however, suggests that there may be other factors that may have contributed to the rise in obesity beyond eating and activity.

Among these factors are exposure to certain chemicals in the environment, the use of prescription drugs that cause weight gain, and how our current diet has changed the bacteria in our intestines, that we now know regulate our physiology in surprising ways. For example, bisphenol A (BPA), still found in some plastics, food containers, and receipts, alters normal hormone activity in a way that may increase fat storage.

There is some good news, though. Eating a healthy diet and being active everyday can help you lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. This is true whether your concern is changes in your own eating and activity habits or these other potential causes of weight gain. Indeed, regular exercise may help treat many conditions, like depression, for which prescription medications that may cause weight gain are often used. And a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in added sugar may help restore more normal gut bacteria which might help with weight control.

Until we know otherwise, eating smart and moving more is still your best approach to weight control and good health.


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How low should you go?

When it comes to your health, making even small changes can lead to big improvements. Whether you are trying to eat a healthier diet, get in shape, or lose weight, a little effort can go a long way. But doing more can produce even more meaningful changes.

The same is true for risk factors including blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose. For example, if you have high blood pressure, you can reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke by lowering it, even if it doesn’t get into the “normal” range. This is often a goal for patients with high cholesterol or diabetes, too.

According to recent news reports, a major study suggests that treating risk factors—specifically, hypertension—to bring them well below previous targets has even greater benefits. This study, and how it applies to other health indicators, is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

blood pressure


The study, which examined the effect of lowering blood pressure on heart attack and stroke risk, produced such remarkable findings that the results will be published two years ahead of schedule. The researchers found that lowering systolic blood pressure (the top number) to less than 120 mmHg resulted in a risk of heart attack or stroke that was significantly lower than that of treating blood pressure to a typical goal of below 140 mmHg.

This suggests that getting your blood pressure out of the “high” category isn’t enough and that lowering it more is beneficial. Not only is this is good news for people with hypertension, but it also likely applies to other conditions as well. For example, the goal for people with type 2 diabetes is to get blood glucose level, frequently determined by the “A1c” number, as low as possible to prevent complications like blindness, kidney failure, and amputations. And it seems that the risk of heart problems are reduced proportionally to how low LDL cholesterol gets.

This concept can also be applied to health behaviors. For people who are mostly sedentary, something as simple as a 30 minute walk each day can lead to big improvements in fitness. And simply swapping high-calorie drinks like soda or sweet tea for water or other calorie-free beverages can result in noticeable weight loss for many people. And overweight individuals can reduce their risk of diabetes by losing as little as 10% of their excess weight.

But greater changes to activity level or diet almost always have even bigger benefits. Cutting back on calories from drinks is a good start, but losing significant weight almost always requires making other changes in what you eat and how active you are. Walking is an excellent exercise, but greater improvements can be achieved by doing more, either longer duration or a higher intensity. And building muscle will require doing some form of resistance training—walking typically isn’t enough.

It’s true that every pound of weight loss matters, and many people notice changes in how they feel or how their clothes fit after losing as few as 10 pounds. But real transformations in appearance or health require more significant weight loss, especially for people with greater obesity.

Although the SPRINT study focused on only one factor, blood pressure, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to making only one change when it comes to our health. Indeed, the benefits of increasing activity, losing weight, and eating healthier together far exceed doing only one. And, while even small changes make a difference, doing more will almost always result in bigger benefits.