Your Health Resolutions

The New Year brings hope that the impossible can be made possible. I love to ring in the New Year and to feel the special anticipation of the unknown.  I have always been a future-oriented person. I’m all for miracles and surprises, taking steps two-at-a-time, and accomplishing the impossible.

Your health is a unique puzzle filled with unexpected challenges and solutions.  In our lifetimes, most of us will face an unexpected health crisis.  While we can’t control the events that come into our lives, we can control the arsenal of tools we have compiled to fight these battles.  Investing in your health now will provide you with the best chance of overcoming your future health battles.

Motivation is a wonderful thing, and I hope the new year lights a fire of positive change under you.  If you’re making resolutions this year, I’d like to share a piece of diet advice with you that my mother shared with me years ago: Only commit to New Years resolutions you plan to maintain your whole life.

When it comes to health, the tortoise wins the race.  We all know fad diets don’t work.  So why do millions of Americans embrace them with zeal each January?  Why are gyms crowded in January and empty by March?  Why do so many people fail to continue their New Year’s resolutions past the first month?

To help you maintain and achieve your New Year’s resolutions, here are a few more tips:

  • Don’t commit to the impossible.  Do challenge yourself – but make small, do-able goals. Do record or keep track of your successes and improvements.
  • Don’t eliminate all your favorite foods this year.  Do commit to eating consciously.  Do commit to learning how to make your favorite dish from scratch.
  • Don’t tell yourself you have to be a gym rat.  Do commit to learning a new sport or physical activity — something that pushes you slightly out of your comfort zone.
  • Perhaps most important: Don’t eliminate a behavior or habit without a back-up plan. As they say, you can’t stop bad habits – but you can replace them.  Do replace bad habits with some other behavior.  When you feel the urge to go back to the habit you would like to stop, occupy yourself with the new habit.

When designing your new year’s resolutions, know yourself.  I love Gretchin Rubin’s quiz “Are you a moderator or an abstainer?” published on her blog, The Happiness Project.

My New Year’s resolution?  To incorporate 20 minutes of physical exercise into my life 3 days a week.  Years ago, I used to run half marathons, but in my current life, exercise has become almost nonexistent.  Since the winter in my city will make it difficult to exercise outside, I’m going to learn new indoor exercises such as hand weight routines and floor exercises.

Wishing you all the best for 2012 and your New Year’s resolutions!

Please leave a comment below to share your health resolutions for the New Year.

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6 Ways To Improve the Health of Your Holidays

If you’re like most Americans, you probably associate the holiday season with stress.  From family tension to financial pressure, there’s no doubt that the holidays can increase stress.  Some studies even suggest that American mortality rates increase during the holidays.  Holiday stress is a serious issue.

Let’s talk about how you can use the holidays to boost your wellness.  Taking time off from the daily grind, engaging in conversations with those you love, spending time with family, giving gifts, and strengthening ties with your social community are all behaviors that improve your quality of life — and prolong it, too.

Here are five ways to improve the health of your holidays:

1.  Sleep

If the holidays mean you will have a day or two off work, take an extra hour for yourself each day to unwind a little earlier and/or rise later.  Sleep is one of the most important factors — if not the most important factor — in your health.

2. Indulge… In Home-Made Treats

Striking a balance between indulgence and restraint during the holidays can be tricky.  “Expert” holiday food suggestions like this infographic printed by the Huffington Post are often unrealistic.  While I agree with Ms. Gans’ assertion that portion control is everything, the “small changes” she promotes will not work for most people.  Let’s be honest: A handful of pecans just isn’t the same as a slice of pecan pie!  Ms. Gans also discourages “leftovers.”  I believe it’s fine to eat your leftovers as long as you create clean, healthy dishes.

Attending holiday parties?  At parties and holiday festivities, pass on store-bought and indulge in home-made goodies.  By doing so, you will eliminate most of the toxic chemicals found in processed foods that can wreak havoc on your health.  In addition, eliminating store-bought desserts will inevitably cut down on the calories you consume and save those calories for the more nutritious components of holiday meals.

Are you hosting?  If your guests will be commuting locally, make it potluck and ask each guest to bring a treasured home-made recipe.   You will be surprised by how much guests love potlucks (as long as they have advance notice) and the unique recipes/dishes make for great conversation as well!  If your guests are traveling from afar, enlist their help in day-of cooking.

3. Give Cards, Letters, & Home-Made Gifts

Shopping doesn’t help anyone (except maybe the economy), but writing does.  And so does reading expressions of love and gratitude!  Choose cards and write notes to your loved ones.  One of the most cherished gifts received this year by my mother, who works with children, was a postcard-size hand-drawn hand-written card from a family describing just how much she means to them.  The children drew a picture on the front of the card.  They dictated their thoughts to their mother, who wrote a note on the back of the card.  My mother treasured their thoughtfulness.

If gifts are a tradition for your family, suggest a gift exchange.  Each person or family member who would like to participate draws the name of another and purchases a gift for that person only.  Everyone receives a gift and everyone has to shop for only one gift.  Agree on a reasonable amount to spend, and stick to it.

Letters, cards, and home-made or home-baked gifts will all be cherished.  It truly is the thought that counts.  This year, as a guest at a holiday celebration, I made fudge and packaged it in holiday tins.  I will post my simple 10-minute fudge recipe in an upcoming post.

4.  Make volunteering part of your holiday tradition.

Donate time or money, whichever you have.  Both help.   You may be busy all year, but if you make volunteering part of your holiday tradition, you can squeeze in the extra time and feel good about yourself.  Furthermore, volunteering for causes you value can increase your overall wellness.

One of my colleagues hosts a food-drive holiday party each year.  She hosts the party, provides treats, music, and alcohol.  In exchange, guests are asked to bring nonperishable food to donate.  Then she carts the food to a charity organization.  Be the conduit between friends and family who want to help, but don’t know how.

5. Take a hike or go jump in the lake. Really. 

Incorporating exercise into your holiday traditions is a no-brainer.  Take a long evening walk around the neighborhood to look at holiday lights.  If you have older relatives, take a short walk. Or invite the young sprites over for an early stroll before older relatives arrive.  Appreciate the beauty of the holidays — the lovely lights, the warmly-lit windows, the cheer of holiday decorations.

Do you have tension with your relatives and/or can’t convince anyone to join you?  Take a stroll by yourself.  Need an excuse?  Suggest that Fido needs a break from the chaos.

6.  Save the memories. 

The years are passing quickly.  If you’re lucky enough to have your family in the same place at the same time, take photos. Your holiday photos will bring you — and your children, and their children — happiness for many holidays to come.

Have photos?  Use the holidays as an opportunity to reflect on them.  Bring out the photo albums.  Have older relatives explain the stories behind photos and name unidentified people in the photos; write down their stories.

I hope these suggestions improve the happiness and health of your holidays.  Do you have additional suggestions?  Please leave a comment below.

Wishing you and yours happy and healthy holidays from Wellness and Equality!

Can you drink your way to beauty?

In the New York Times today, Stephanie Rosenbloom discusses a recent onslaught of edible and drinkable cosmetics in her article “Beauty By the Bite.”  One such product is io Beauty Booster, the creation of  Australian makeup artist Sue Devitt and Miss Universe dietition Tanya Zuckerbrot.  Devitt claims she “noticed her skin was more luminous after snacking on goji berries, raspberries and wild blackberries at a friend’s farm.”  So the two concocted an elixir “loaded with antioxidants and minerals” and designed to improve the skin. Rosenbloom writes that the mix “tastes sweet,” but she also notes that the potion is sugar-free and calorie-free.

Too good to be true?

Yes!

No matter what benefit you might take from the antioxidants and minerals, if this potion tastes SWEET and has zero calories, I don’t have to look at the ingredients to know that there is something sinister lurking in it.

Technically, the first artificial sweetener was lead acetate, which caused lead poisoning.  In more recent American history, the first artificial sweetner was saccharine, one of Monsanto’s earliest products.  The historical pattern of artificial sugars is this: The artificial sugar is introduced, touted as safe, backed by a powerful biotechnology corporation or food manufacturer (Monsanto, Coca-Cola, etc.), and slap-dashedly approved by the FDA.  Further studies link the sweetener to cancer and public outcry ensues.  Just when concern reaches a crescendo and sales of the sweetener slow, a new artificial  sweetener emerges, and the cycle continues.

So what is in Devitt’s and Zuckerbrott’s health elixir?  Is it aspartame?  Sucralose? Acesulfame-K? Neotame? Saccharin?

A quote from Zuckerbrot: “Juices have a ton of calories… Who wants to sacrifice their behind for their face?”  Even if Zuckerbrot’s potion did magically work, I would ask the question:  “Who wants to risk an internal organ tumor for their face?”

But these elixirs and potions don’t work.  The best liquid you can put in your body is free: water.

Hydration — that is, water — is the single most important catalyst for improving your health.   Rosenbloom quotes Dr. Wahida Karmally, director of nutrition at the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Columbia:  “If you are adequately hydrated, skin looks moist and healthy [because] water will carry the nutrients from foods to the body tissues and organs to keep them healthy.”

Bingo.  Save your money, save your body, drink water.  Don’t believe me?  Try this special offer for free:  Drink 8 glasses of water every day for one week and see if you feel the difference!

Photo Credit: Tony Cenicola, Erin Baiano, and William P. O’Donnell for the New York Times.

7 Foods So Unsafe Farmers and Doctors Won’t Eat Them

When experts (in this case, farmers and doctors) were asked what foods they consider unsafe, the top 7 winners spanned multiple food groups (produce, dairy, meat) and were mostly healthy, fresh foods.   For many people, making your own spaghetti and pasta sauces, buying unprocessed meats and preparing them at home, avoiding processed foods with high fructose corn syrup, eating fresh fish once in a while, and filling up on fruits and veggies is a HUGE step in the right direction.  But if you’re already doing these things, how can you take your health further?  Read below to find out how you can upgrade the foods you already thought were healthy.

1. CANNED TOMATOES

In 2010, Canada became the first country to declare BPA a toxic substance.  Both Canada and the European Union have banned its use in infant bottles. Out of concern for public health, Japan replaced much of its BPA with alternatives. The United States has yet to catch up.  Resins containing bisphenol A (BPA) coat the inside of almost all food and beverage cans in the United States. BPA is also used in the manufacturing of our plastics.  Because BPA is known to be estrogenic (this is nothing new — scientists discovered BPA’s effects on the estrous systems of mammals in the 1930s), it is especially harmful to unborn children, infants, and young children whose estrous systems are not fully formed.  Even very low doses of BPA have been linked to increased obesity, neurological damage, hormone changes, thyroid disruption, breast and prostate cancer, and at least one study linked BPA to heritable genetic changes (yikes!).  This isn’t your great-grandmother’s autumnal canning tradition.  Whenever possible, choose fresh tomatoes or those that have been “canned” in glass jars. 

Want to take action without spending a penny?  Despite federal support of BPA, several states and cities are outlawing BPA in some products on their own, including Oregon, Washington, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Chicago (as of July 2011).  Write to your representative or senator and ask what they’re doing to support anti-BPA legislation.
2. CORN-FED BEEF

If cows are naturally designed to graze on grass, why are they fed corn, grain, and soy?  (A) It’s cheaper.  (B) Cattle fed on grain, corn, and soy fatten for slaughter exponentially faster.  (Just like humans.)  (C)  You could make an argument that Monsanto — widely considered the world’s most evil corporation — had a hand in manipulating farmers into using this crazy diet for cattle;  Monsanto just so happens to have a monopoly on corn and soy seeds in America.

If you are a meat-eater, one of the best things you can do for yourself is pay attention to the quality of the meat you’re eating.  Environmentalists and animal-rights groups have long advocated for the improved diets and treatment of animals.  Whether you’re an animal lover or not, the diet and treatment of the animals you eat significantly impacts your health.  Meat from grass-fed cows is leaner, higher in healthy fats, lower in bad fats, and has significantly more vitamins and minerals.  A study by Cornell University found that grain-fed cattle have as much as 80% less of the strain of e. coli responsible for food-born illness as compared with their grain-fed counterparts.  Furthermore, the e. coli that grass-fed cattle do have is unlikely to survive human stomach acid.   Clearly, there is some magic in feeding animals the diets they were meant to eat.  Trust nature.  If you buy or eat beef, be sure it’s grass-fed.

Want to take action but spend less?   Go meat-free several days a week — but don’t replace the meat with soy products like tofu.  Instead, opt for legumes, or dark leafy greens .

3. MICROWAVE POPCORN

If you haven’t had the luxury of tasting organic made-at-home popcorn, you are missing out!  Make it a treat.  Top those organic kernels with real butter and salt.  If you prefer, you can use olive oil, salt, and other seasonings.  I promise you: Real popcorn tastes better.  And no matter how much butter, olive oil, and salt you add at home, you cannot possibly match the levels of fat and salt in store-bought microwave popcorn.

Not only is corn one of the most common genetically engineered organisms in the American diet (it’s right up there with soy — always buy organic corn and soy!), the even larger problem with microwave popcorn comes down, once again, to the packaging.  The chemically-saturated lining of the bag leeches onto the popcorn during the microwave process, coating the kernels before they make their way to your mouth.  That chemical cocktail includes perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a compound linked to infertility.  There is no debate about the danger here.  Food manufacturers know PFOA is extremely dangerous and many have voluntarily promised to phase out its use out by 2015.  But do you really trust the replacement they will come up with?  If food manufacturers’ track records are any indication, it will be worse than PFOA.  Make your own popcorn with organic corn kernels, not just because it’s fun and it tastes better, but becuase it’s dangerous not to. 

Good news:  If you buy organic corn kernels, olive oil, and salt in bulk, this probably won’t cost you much more anyway! 

4. CONVENTIONALLY GROWN POTATOES

I hate advising people against conventional fresh fruits and vegetables!  My concern is that instead of buying the organic alternative, you might become discouraged and skip buying produce altogether.  Please don’t.  Potatoes are one of the least expensive vegetables you can buy and splurging on organic potatoes is a prudent use of your pennies.  They are also an excellent replacement for grains, pastas, and breads.  Overall, I believe the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables outweigh the known risks of exposure to pesticide residues, but knowledge is power and you should be armed with information before putting anything in your body.

Here’s the scary truth about potatoes: Remember how when you were little, in elementary school, you would stick tooth picks in a potato and the potato would grow thick, foot-long green roots?  Try that today with conventional potatoes, and the results will most likely be a feeble reproduction.  Our fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides are stronger than ever, and potatoes are exposed to many chemicals, multiple times, to be sure they don’t sprout those unseemly roots.  They consistently rank on the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen.”  Recent USDA tests have found more than 35 pesticides in conventional potatoes, including a dozen known carcinogens.  Take the lead from potato farmers: they have separate plots of land where they grow potatoes for themselves and their families.  Grow your own or buy organic potatoes.

Want to take action by spending less?   Choose conventional sweet potatoes instead.

5. FARMED SALMON

You are what you eat and farmed salmon are fat, due to a diet of genetically-modified “soy, poultry litter, hydrolyzed chicken feathers… [contaminated with] carcinogens, PCBs, brominated flame retardants, and pesticides (like DDT),” according to doctor David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany.  Another reason to avoid farmed salmon: A year ago, AquaBounty Companies was awaiting approval from the FDA to begin selling its genetically modified salmon whose growth hormone never turns off (see photo at left), and it appears the FDA has granted that approval.  However, since there are no laws in the United States requiring the labeling of genetically engineered food, consumers may never know whether their salmon has been engineered to grow 30 times faster than its natural rate.  We were the first generation of humans to consume genetically modified fruits and veggies, but AquaBounty’s salmon is/will be the first genetically engineered animal ever eaten by humans.  This raises enormous health concerns since most studies of GMOs suggest that the ill effects are more pronounced in the second and third generations of GMO-consumers, meaning we simply haven’t had time to conduct thorough studies yet on humans.  Don’t want to be the FDA’s guinea pig?  Always check the label to be sure you are purchasing wild-caught salmon. 

Want to take action by spending less?   Buy frozen instead of fresh.

6. MILK PRODUCED WITH SYNTHETIC HORMONES

Once the FDA finally allowed dairy farmers and manufacturers who didn’t use rBGH to label their milk in 2008 (of course, only if they included the FDA-written statement ‘no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-supplemented and non-rBST supplemented cows’), consumer demand for rBGH-free milk skyrocketed!  Even Walmart sells hormone-free milk now.  rBGH and rBST — growth hormones fed to cows in America — are banned in most industrialized countries.  I will spare you the stomach-churning details of rBGH-produced milk (the cows have higher incidences of infected udders due to the increased milk production… you connect the dots), but rest assured, you don’t want to be drinking it.  (Once you’ve dropped milk produced with synthetic hormones, give synthetic hormones the boot altogether and consider alternatives to your synthetic-hormone birth control pill.) If you can afford it, buy organic milk.  

Can’t afford organic milk?  At a minimum, be sure you are buying rBGH-free and rBGS-free milk.

7. CONVENTIONAL APPLES

Another food that makes the Dirty Dozen!  Apples, unfortunately, top the Dirty Dozen list at #1.  These aren’t your grandma’s apples; the amount of pesticides in and on apples is increasing like crazy.  Experts believe that the huge increase is due to manufacturers spraying them with chemicals after the harvest (as well as before and during) to improve their shelf life so they still have that shiny-fresh look weeks after you buy them.  And you thought apples were just pretty young things forever naturally?  Nope.  Guess that’s something Hollywood and conventional apples have in common.  Fortunately, like potatoes, apples are one of the more affordable fruits. Let’s rewrite the old adage:  Spend more money on organic apples today, and keep your doctor’s bills at bay. 

Can’t afford organic fruits and veggies?   Choose conventional fruits and veggies that are thought to have the least amount of pesticide.  Veggies like onions, asparagus, and broccoli face fewer threats from pests, which lead to fewer pesticides.  Avocados, pineapples, kiwis, mangos, eggplants, and some melons are thought to have less pesticides due to their thick skins. 

You can find the original list here.

The bottom line?  Food, on its own, is not the culprit.  The way that food is grown and packaged creates the problem.

Food Lobbyists: 1, American Children: 0

Here’s a bit of Sunday humor.  Seth Meyers and Kermit the Frog do a nice job analyzing Congress’s recent contribution to school lunches in a skit on Saturday Night Live:

Why would Congress do something like this?  Oh, you know, just as a little favor for their friends over at ConAgra and Schwan Foods.  ConAgra and Schwan are two of the largest manufacturers of frozen and processed foods, whose lobbyists no doubt played an important role in this decision.  That’s just what friends do for friends!

You can read a more serious report on the decision here.

Health and Genetic Individuality

There are many absolutes we know about health – for example: whole, natural foods are better for you than processed foods – but personal health is not all absolutes.  One enormous variable is genetics.

Genetics determine more than an individual’s predisposition to certain diseases.  Each of our bodies responds to food and exercise differently.  Knowing your body’s individual needs, preferences, food sensitivities, and allergies is an important part of owning your health.

Although you can ask your doctor to test your levels of an array of vitamins and minerals (the results of which may be less due to your diet and more to your body’s natural ability to absorb certain nutrients over others), these tests can be expensive and may not be covered by your insurance provider.   Regardless, I think it’s imperative to develop a habit of thinking consciously about your health.  You don’t need tests to start understanding your unique needs.

Chances are high that your genetic background is complex — and that’s a good thing.  The fact that your mother and father brought two very different sets of genes to the table ensures your health.  Here are some suggestions to help you understand your genetic individuality and use it to your advantage:

  • Research your family.  Did your parents or grandparents have any food allergies and intolerances?  What health problems run in your family?  If any of your close relatives are unhealthy today, or died prematurely, learning about their diets may also help you understand what not to eat.
  • Research your racial and ethnic background.  Did you know that the Irish and people of Irish descent have the highest incidence of gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity?  (If you think you may be gluten sensitive or intolerant, try replacing wheat products in your diet with gluten-free foods like potatoes, organic corn, brown rice, and quinoa for two weeks.  Remember that almost all processed foods contain gluten.)  Did you know that people of African and Asian decent are more likely to be lactose-intolerant?  (If you are lactose-intolerant, be sure to eat calcium-rich foods from non-diary sources, such as broccoli, almonds, brazil nuts, and leafy greens including many dried herbs.)
  • Pay attention to how you feel after you eat different types of foods.  An hour or two after a meal, do you have more or less energy?  If you have stomach pain, can you pinpoint the types of foods that typically cause your irritation?  Do any foods make you irritable?  When I began paying more attention to the relationship between what I ate for breakfast and how I felt throughout the day, I learned that I have more energy when I eat a hearty breakfast with both fat and protein.  As a result, I make a 2-egg omelet with avocado for breakfast several times per week.   However, some people feel sluggish after a hearty breakfast and prefer a lighter meal.  (Whether you do best with a light or hearty breakfast, ideally your first meal of the day should include at least two food groups.)
  • Most importantly, listen to your body.  Remember that every person’s body is different. Regardless of your family history, race, or ethnicity, you are an individual with unique needs.  You are the person with the best chance of positively impacting your own health. Listen to yourself.

When mothers introduce children to new foods, they typically ask “Do you like that?” or “Did that taste good?”  As children grow older, we need to emphasize more than the pleasures of eating.  We need to encourage children to know and understand their individual dietary needs, and to recognize how different foods affect their energy levels and personal health.

Understanding your individual health needs – including your personal strengths and weaknesses as related to health – is one more step toward taking charge of your overall wellness.

Welcome!

The United States is facing an unprecedented crisis in public health. Americans are more ill than they have ever been in history. Recent studies predict that by 2020, more than 80 percent of American men and more than 70 percent of American women will be overweight or obese. Not only are Americans as a population more ill than they have ever been, but the neediest among us are suffering most of all.

The disparity in health among social classes is growing rapidly. The gap in premature death rates between the poorest and richest Americans has almost doubled since 1980.  This disparity begins in the womb — low socioeconomic status is strongly linked to low birthweight — and the disadvantages continue throughout life. In 2009, 600,000 of Chicago’s 3 million residents lived in urban neighborhoods with limited or no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, new studies are pulling back the curtain on food deserts, and challenging the old assumption that poor people choose unhealthy food voluntarily.  In reality, they often do not have access to healthier options. In America today, the best predictor of health is social class.

Food is one part of the health equation, but it is only one part. Wellness is about more than diet and exercise. It’s about our daily patterns and activities. It’s about exposure to toxins and chemicals. It’s about education, and awareness.

WELLNESS & EQUALITY is a progressive health blog.  Health, at it’s core, is simple. Our modern world, however, is complex; simple, natural living has become nearly impossible without thoughtful effort. The goals of this blog are to bring awareness to contemporary health concerns, including health-related inequalities, and to encourage a conversation about how we can alter the fate of millions of Americans — including ourselves.