Stand Up to Diabetes and Heart Disease

Think about how much time you spend sitting down. If you are like many Americans you spend hours every day in front of the television or the computer, in the car, on airplanes, in classrooms, and at your desk or in meetings at work.

Sitting or being inactive for long periods of time is referred to as being “sedentary” and it can have serious health implications. It increases your risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. There are several studies that show that more time spent sitting means a shorter life overall.

If you are sitting down you are not exercising your heart, lungs, and muscles but you may also be damaging your blood vessels. Excessive sitting constricts the arteries in your legs.  This means blood flow is blocked and that can raise blood pressure and contribute to heart disease.

I used to believe that this would never be a problem for me because I am good about exercising but studies show an increased mortality risk related to sitting for long periods of time even in people who also engaged in regular physical activity.

I’ve been working at “not sitting” for a while and here are some of the things that have helped me reduce time spent on my butt:

Set an alarm – I have a fitness tracker with an inactivity alert that reminds me to get up and move. You could do the same thing with your phone, an alarm clock, or a kitchen timer.  Set the alarm for 60 minutes at the most (30 would be better). Every time it goes off stand up.  You could even take a little walk.

Walk and watch – Instead of just sitting in front of the TV, stand up and watch or walk around. I sometimes do laps around the basement while listening to the news. You’d be surprised at how little you miss even if you aren’t watching the screen constantly.

Stand up for other things – I am lucky enough to have a standing desk at work. In fact I am standing as I write this.  I’ve also found that, with a little creativity, I can read while standing by placing my phone or tablet on a shelf in the kitchen.

It doesn’t take much effort to improve sedentary behavior and reduce your health risk. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym or even move much.  You just have to stand up!

 

Oh, Oh, Overnight Oats

I eat oats almost every day.  Old- fashioned oats, steel cut oats, quick cooking oats; I like them all. Sometimes I even grind up oats in my high speed blender and turn them into flour to create baked goods. The fiber in oats, a great deal of which is soluble (absorbs liquid) has been shown to help lower total and LDL cholesterol levels and to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Here’s my favorite brand of steel cut oats:

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Overnight oats are a great way to get a head start on breakfast.  You can make cold versions by soaking oats and other ingredients with milk or yogurt but at this time of year I like to throw my oats in the slow cooker and have a nice hot breakfast ready when I get up in the morning.

Here are a couple of slow cooker oatmeal recipes that I love. These recipes make 2 servings each. I have a small slow cooker (1 quart) that I use to make this amount. If you only have a larger slow cooker you may want to multiply the recipe by 2 or 3 to make sure it doesn’t burn.

Chocolate Covered Cherry Oats

  • 1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
  • 1 cup frozen cherries, thawed (I buy no sugar added variety)
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
  • 2 teaspoons sweetener of choice (I use maple syrup)
  • ½ teaspoon almond extract
  • 3 cups water

Add all ingredients except cherries to crockpot and cook overnight on low heat.  Just before eating stir the cherries in. You can top this with coconut, almonds, and your choice of milk.

 

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Banana Bread Crockpot Oatmeal

  • ½ cup steel cut oats
  • 2 very ripe bananas – mashed
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons ground flax seed
  • 2 tablespoons chia seeds
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

Combine all ingredients in crockpot. Cover and cook on low heat for 8 hours. The cinnamon will rise to the top so stir thoroughly before serving.

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One kind of oats that I never buy are the packets of flavored instant oats. While they may be convenient they often have too much sugar and other ingredients I’d rather avoid.  You can save money and control what you put in your body better by buying the big tub of plain old fashioned or quick cooking oats and adding your own fruits and flavorings.

There is no magic to “instant” oats.  I get good results by cooking 1/2 cup of old-fashioned oats and one cup of water in the microwave for 90 seconds. Here’s a tip to control portion sizes. Keep a measuring cup (1/2 cup size) in the oat container so you always serve yourself just the right amount. 

 

Are You “Sugar Sensitive”?

I recently read about a woman who drop kicked a birthday cake in the grocery store because she was unhappy with the way it was decorated.  She was already in trouble for a separate incident; she slapped the clerk at an ice cream establishment because they ran out of her favorite flavor.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both occasions involved sugary desserts.

Dr. Kathleen DesMaisons, author of “Potatoes Not Prozac” and “The Sugar Addict’s Total Recovery Program”, studied brain chemistry and discovered that some people are born with low levels of the mood regulating chemicals serotonin and dopamine. Low serotonin levels are tied to depression, aggression, poor attention, and poor impulse control. Low levels of dopamine are linked to addiction, low self-esteem, violence, and anger.

The foods we eat change the level of serotonin and dopamine in our brain. Sugar and refined carbohydrates (highly processed foods and things made with white flour) change the levels quickly because they are quickly digested.

Of course what goes up must come down. Dr. DesMaisons found that people with low levels of serotonin and dopamine experience extremes of this cycle. She says these extreme lows and highs manifest as diabetes, fatigue, moodiness, feeble concentration, and emotional outbursts.

Whether they realize it or not, these people use foods containing sugar, simple carbs, and caffeine to regulate their mood.  Dr. DesMaisons was once an addictions counselor and recognized the same patterns that she had seen with other substance abusers. She coined the term “sugar sensitive” to describe it and developed a step by step approach to help people to heal from their addiction.

Dr. DesMaison doesn’t suggest going “cold turkey”. As with any addictive substance sugar withdrawal symptoms can be fierce. She focuses first on behaviors that help to normalize blood sugar levels. The first step in her approach is simply to get in the habit of having breakfast every morning.  She also offers an online support network and weekly newsletter called Radiant Recovery for people who are working through the steps.

Anyone can become “hangry”; a term that describes crankiness resulting from low blood sugar. But if you experience mood swings, turn to sweets and junk food when you are upset, or if you can’t control your consumption of these foods it might be worth investigating further.

I can say from personal experience that you will be surprised by how good you feel with less sugar in your diet.

Is Orange the New Pink?

There’s a whole lot of “pink” going on in October in honor of breast cancer awareness but orange may be a better color choice for women who want to reduce their risk.

Orange is the new

“Orange is the New Pink” is the theme of the breast cancer prevention campaign recently launched by The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. This organization of physicians and other health promoters would like to change the way we treat chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer by focusing on prevention rather than drugs and surgery. Their goal is to teach people how to take control over their own health through better nutrition.

The “orange” in their message refers to the color of some vegetables and fruits containing carotenoids, specifically beta carotene, which are potent cancer fighters. Beta carotene is found in foods like carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin, and sweet potatoes so it’s easy to see why orange was chosen as the theme color. Beta carotene is also present in in dark, leafy greens (spinach, kale) and in red fruits and vegetables like bell peppers and tomatoes. (Maybe red and green will be the new pink for the holiday season?…)

Research shows that women who consume the most carotenoid-rich fruits and vegetables may reduce their risk of breast cancer by about 19 percent. According to The Institute of Medicine consuming just 3 to 6 milligrams of beta-carotene each day reduces the risk of breast cancer. One medium sweet potato contains two to three times the recommended intake.

To decrease the risk of breast cancer even further women can follow the advice of the American Institute for Cancer Research. Breast cancer risk was reduced by 60% in women who met at least 5 of their “Ten Recommendations for Preventing Cancer”.  The recommendations are as follows:

  1. Be as lean as possible without being underweight
  2. Be physically active for 30 minutes every day. Avoid being sedentary.
  3. Avoid sugary drinks.
  4. Eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (beans).
  5. Limit consumption of red meats and avoid processed meats.
  6. If you consume alcohol; limit to one drink per day.
  7. Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with sodium.
  8. Don’t rely on dietary supplements to prevent cancer.
  9. New mothers should breast feed exclusively for the first 6 months.
  10. Cancer survivors should follow the recommendations (#1-8) for cancer prevention.

 

Own Your Health

Note: This appeared in the Sauk Valley Newspapers under the title “A Cure for What Ails You: Healthier Living”.

I work with some very dedicated and caring medical professionals and our organization as a whole has been recognized for quality care in many areas. We do our very best to fix whatever illness you might have but we should all realize that modern medicine has its limitations.

If you come to your doctor’s office or the hospital with symptoms of disease your physician will treat the symptoms according to established standards of care.  They will use medications and/or procedures to lower your blood pressure, control your blood sugar, improve your lung function, reduce your cholesterol numbers, unclog your arteries, etc., etc. Most of the medications prescribed will have unwelcome side effects and all surgical procedures come with some degree of risk. And unfortunately, these treatments do not address the underlying cause of the illness.

The top 10 causes of death in the United States are: heart disease*, cancer*, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder)*, stroke*, accidents, Alzheimer’s, diabetes*, pneumonia*, kidney disease*, and suicide. At least 7 of these (the ones with asterisks) are related to our own unhealthy behaviors.  Smoking, poor diet, and lack of physical activity are the primary contributors.

We may not like to accept the responsibility for our poor health. We’d like to blame our parents or our genetics but science is showing that what we do with our fingers (smoking), forks (eating), and feet (exercise) can turn “on” or “off” the genes that might predispose us to cancer, heart disease, and other illnesses.

As an example I refer you to the work of Dr. Dean Ornish, one of the pioneers of preventive medicine.  He has done clinical trials with heart patients and with prostate cancer patients.  In both groups he was able to show a reversal of symptoms with a lifestyle related prescription.  Patients consumed a plant based diet, participated in regular physical activity, and were taught how to manage stress.  Another very famous physician who has had great success in reversing existing heart disease is Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn of the Cleveland Clinic. I encourage you to look into their research.

While drugs and procedures can address symptoms of lifestyle related diseases, we can’t expect our illness to go away if we continue to practice unhealthy behaviors. Most importantly we should realize that we can prevent, and in some cases even reverse, most of the diseases that kill us before our time.

 

Pay Attention to Artificial Food Colors

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You may have seen television commercials recently for kid’s cereals proclaiming that artificial colors have been removed from their products.  Another current commercial for a popular brand of macaroni and cheese makes the statement “Earlier this year, we started quietly selling Kraft macaroni and cheese with no artificial flavors, preservatives or dyes. And guess what? It still tastes like Kraft macaroni and cheese.”

Why are food manufacturers removing these ingredients from their products? And maybe the better question would be why were those ingredients added in the first place?

According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, artificial colors are added to foods in order to “offset color loss due to exposure to light, air, temperature extremes, moisture, and storage conditions; correct natural variations in color; enhance colors that occur naturally; (and) provide color to colorless and “fun” foods”.

While manufacturers believe that they are making foods more palatable there is evidence that the chemicals used to create artificial colorings contribute to symptoms of hyperactivity in children.  Some are also linked to allergic reactions. The first studies on this were actually done in the 1970’s but there have been at least 8 analyses (comparing data compiled from multiple studies) done since 2011 that show that eliminating artificial food dyes reduces hyperactive behavior in some children.

How much artificial coloring does it take to create a noticeable difference in behavior? In one study it took as little as one serving of a beverage containing artificial coloring.

Artificial coloring is present in a wide variety of packaged food.  It is obvious in some; things like candy, cereals, and fruity beverages, but also surprisingly present in things like pickles, yogurt, frozen dinners, and flavored oatmeal. Because these colorings are so prevalent in our food supply an average child will consume multiple foods in any given day that contain artificial coloring.

In a perfect world we would cook our own meals using whole fresh ingredients and we would not need to artificially enhance the color or rely on chemical flavorings and preservatives.  But the fact is that most Americans will buy at least some processed and packaged foods.  To avoid these chemicals the best advice is to read labels.

Artificial colors are listed in the ingredient label as the color and a number, i.e. red 40, yellow 6, etc. Other additives may also be listed, things that do everything from increasing shelf life to artificially increasing fiber and vitamin content.  Look for foods that contain the fewest ingredients possible and preferably ingredients that you recognize.

Eating More Than You Think

Our ancestors probably spent a lot of time walking around looking for food. Food was scarce and if they found something they would eat as much as possible because they never knew where the next meal might be found.

That was very poor conditioning for our modern world.  In these times food is plentiful and you don’t have to go far to find it.  More calories and less activity means too many pounds for most of us.  Ergo, we need to give more thought to our eating habits (and figure out how to move more, of course.)

At the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, Dr. Bryan Wansink studies why and how we overeat. He believes that developing an awareness of environmental factors that influence our consumption can help us to avoid excess calories. Here are some examples of his work:

Bottomless Soup Bowl – In this study some participants ate soup from a bowl that was being surreptitiously filled from the bottom.  Others ate from a normal bowl. Individuals who ate soup out of self-refilling bowls ate more than those who ate out of normal bowls, but did not feel any more satisfied than the other group.

Bad Popcorn/Big Buckets – Movie goers were randomly given either a medium or a large container of free popcorn. Some of the popcorn was fresh; some was stale. The moviegoers who got the large buckets ate more, even if they received stale popcorn.

Candy Dish – A candy dish in an office setting was moved each day farther and farther away from the participants; and finally to a place where it could not be seen.  The further the distance from the participants to the dish, the less candy consumed.

These studies illustrate several things:

  • We rely on visual clues (like whether our plate is “clean”) rather than fullness clues to tell us when to stop eating.
  • The portion we are served (or serve ourselves) determines how much we eat; even if the food is not palatable.
  • The distance to food or visibility of food can affect how much we eat.

Some things you can do to change your “environment” and reduce overeating include:

  • Eat slowly and pay attention to your body’s “fullness” cues.
  • Use smaller plates, glasses, and utensils.
  • Serve meals from the stove; do not bring serving dishes to the table.
  • Keep kitchen counters clear and free of unhealthy foods (including sugary cereals.)
  • Don’t purchase “bulk” or economy size packages of unhealthy foods.
  • Never eat directly from a package – portion out small servings and put the rest away.

For more information about this research and other helpful tips please visit Dr. Wansink’s site mindlesseating.org.

Surviving Picnics, Parties, Barbecues

The fall and winter holidays are thought of as a time for feasting but there are lots of opportunities to overeat during the summer, too.  I thought I would share some of the tactics I use to control my calorie intake at events like this.  Most can be applied to any party or celebration involving food.

Eat before you go – You may be tempted to skip a meal or two during the day to compensate for extra calories. This can mean that you arrive at the party so hungry that you just fill a plate with everything that looks good.  To avoid this eat your regular meals during the day and consider eating a snack just before you go to take the edge off.

Take something healthy – If it’s a potluck and you’re taking a dish, make sure it’s something you can fill up on if there are no other good options.  You won’t be the only one who appreciates it.

Survey the spread – When you are standing in line with someone breathing over your shoulder you can feel pressured to move quickly and take a spoonful of everything.  Before you grab a plate take a moment to look over the offerings. This gives you an idea of what’s there to choose from and some time to think about what you are going to take.

Use a small plate – The size of your plate can influence how much food you take by as much as 30-40%.  If the only plates provided are platter sized ask your hostess if she has a smaller one (or take your own.)

Map your plate – A great visual for building a healthy plate is to picture your plate divided into quarters. Attempt to fill an entire half of your plate with fruits and vegetables; one quarter with a lean protein; and the remaining quarter with some type of starch.  For more information about this concept please refer to the USDA’s ChooseMyPlate information.

Be a picky eater – To fill your plate as I have described you may need to get creative.  Maybe the only vegetables available are the cherry tomatoes and broccoli in a pasta salad.  Don’t be shy about picking them out.  You can bet there is somebody behind you who is going to pick out only the pasta because they don’t want the vegetables.

These are just some of the habits I’ve adopted to navigate food related events.  I will share more of these “behavioral” tips in my next column.

Inflammation is Hot

Inflammation sounds like a bad thing but it’s actually part of your body’s immune system response to injury. Your white blood cells and the substances they produce rush to the area of insult to defend against bacteria and viruses. There is generally heat, redness, swelling, and some pain involved.

Arthritis is one example of a disease where the inflammatory response can cause pain and discomfort.  Other diseases and conditions linked to inflammation include asthma, premature aging, and multiple sclerosis. I’ve even read recently about a study that linked inflammation to depression.

Sometimes inflammation occurs when there is no obvious reason or triggering event and sometimes inflammation can become chronic, outpacing and wearing out your immune system.  Chronic inflammation is a hot topic right now as it is believed to be linked to major diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Our first response to dealing with inflammation, whether it be joint pain or high LDL cholesterol that contributes to plaque, might be to reach for a pill. By doing that you are just treating the symptoms; not addressing the cause of the inflammation. Not surprisingly I am going to suggest that you look at what you eat as means to preventing and controlling inflammation.

There are foods that seem to contribute to the body’s inflammatory response and others that have been shown to calm and/or prevent it.

Foods That Hurt – Sugar, saturated fats, and trans fats, have been shown to promote inflammation. Sugar in particular has been linked to increased arthritis symptoms. Removing these foods from the diet should be the first step in calming chronic inflammation.

Foods That Heal – You may have read or heard about the benefits of cherries and cherry juice in alleviating the symptoms of gout. Another substance that is garnering attention is curcumin, a compound that is found in dried spices and especially prevalent in the spice turmeric. Curcumin has even been shown to reduce pain and inflammation after surgery. It turns out that many plant foods that are highest in anti-oxidants are helpful in reducing inflammation. These foods include fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and spices.

Physical activity also plays a role in strength of your body’s immune system and the manifestation of inflammation. Studies have shown that people who are more active have lower levels of inflammation.

My advice? Eat better, move more, and stay cool.

Where’s the Harm?

“First do no harm” is a reminder to health care practitioners that every decision related to caring for a patient has the potential to do harm. How might this apply to what you eat and how you exercise?

People who want to control their weight often concentrate on adding healthy foods or intense exercise. Maybe more protein, the latest supplement/super food, or insane workout will miraculously improve their waistline.

Food wise it only makes sense that you can’t just add things to your diet and expect to control your weight.  Something has to come out. Why not focus first on substances that might actually be harmful? These examples come readily to my mind:

Sugar – Excessive sugar in our diet has been linked to obesity, tooth decay, and some cancers as well as chronic inflammation, which contributes to heart disease, arthritis, etc. Eliminating most of the added sugar from your diet will reduce calorie intake and is a good first step toward improving your weight and your health.

Fat – Saturated fats and trans fats contribute excess calories and also affect cholesterol levels.  Trans fats are especially troubling because they have been shown to both raise bad cholesterol levels and lower good cholesterol levels.  Eat less meat, poultry, and dairy (cheese is one of the largest sources of saturated fat in the American diet) to reduce your fat intake.  Read the labels on all packaged foods and look for the word(s) “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” to avoid foods that contain trans fats.

Salt – We need a tiny bit of salt to maintain our body’s fluid balance. Too much increases blood pressure and risk for kidney cancer, osteoporosis, and other problems. Preparing your own meals from fresh whole ingredients and eating out less can help to reduce the amount of sodium you consume.

As far as exercise is concerned, study after study shows that while it is important, it cannot be relied upon for weight loss. Furthermore, people who are not used to exercise often injure themselves by attempting to work longer or harder than they are able.

Being completely inactive is one of the most harmful things you can do for your health. In this case “first do no harm” means getting up out of your chair and moving more.  But don’t cause harm by overdoing it.  If you need to move more, gradually increase your activity so that you do not become injured or discouraged.