Does Your Body Know You’re Eating Genetically-Modified Foods?

Yes, according to a new study that could have enormous impact on studies of cross-species communication, predator-prey relationships, and co-evolution.

First, let’s take a trip down memory lane for a brief refresher in high school biology.  Since 1958, molecular biologists have relied upon the Central Dogma to outline the rules of transfer of biological sequential information.  As you may remember from high school biology, DNA makes RNA makes protein.   In special cases, RNA makes DNA, RNA makes RNA, and DNA makes protein.  But protein doesn’t make protein, protein doesn’t make RNA, and protein doesn’t make DNA, or so says the Central Dogma.

Parsing complex studies and understanding the pathways of human DNA is an incredibly complex task.  Even if you are able to do so, it’s extremely difficult to write about such science at a level that laypeople (like myself) can understand.  Today in The Atlantic, Ari Levaux manages to do exactly that in his story, “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Food.”  As a lover of analogies, I admire the way Levaux compares our current understanding of genetics to ordering pizza:

The Central Dogma resembles the process of ordering a pizza. The DNA knows what kind of pizza it wants, and orders it. The RNA is the order slip, which communicates the specifics of the pizza to the cook. The finished and delivered pizza is analogous to the protein that DNA codes for.

We’ve known for years that the Central Dogma, though basically correct, is overly simplistic. For example: Pieces of microRNA that don’t code for anything, pizza or otherwise, can travel among cells and influence their activities in many other ways. So while the DNA is ordering pizza, it’s also bombarding the pizzeria with unrelated RNA messages that can cancel a cheese delivery, pay the dishwasher nine million dollars, or email the secret sauce recipe to WikiLeaks.

One of the primary arguments in favor of the safety of genetically-modified food — the argument that “gene transfer” moves in one direction — has relied on the Central Dogma.  In simple terms, the FDA has trusted the basic idea that when you eat a piece of fruit, that fruit’s genetic material is not able to effect your genetic material.

But the new findings turn this argument on its head.  Lead by  Chen-Yu Zhang of Nanjing University, the Chinese researchers identified microRNA belonging to genetically-engineered plants (such as rice and cabbage) in human blood and tissue.  MicroRNA are fragments of RNA (the messenger between DNA and proteins) that typically silence or repress certain proteins by binding to and destroying the RNA that would have created that protein.  Indeed, the plant microRNA was found to inhibit a protein in human blood, “suggesting that microRNAs can influence gene expression across kingdoms,” writes Cristina Luiggi in her article, “Plant RNAs Found In Mammals,” published by The Scientist: Magazine of the Life Sciences.

Take a moment to note that ‘kingdom’ is the broadest of the seven major divisions of taxonomy.  We’re not talking about species or genus or family or order or class or phylum; we’re talking about genetic transfer across kingdoms — from vegetable to animal.  This is big news in the science world.

If the results of this study are verified, gene transfer is more complicated than humans ever imagined.  When you eat a piece of fruit, the genetic matter of that fruit (microRNA) is, in fact, communicating with — and influencing — your body’s genetic make-up (via protein inhibition).

Are genetically-modified foods unsafe?  The truth is, we don’t know.  We won’t know for several generations, since animal studies suggest that the full effects of consuming genetically-modified foods are not realized until the third generation of consumers.

But while we wait for science to catch up, age-old wisdom tells us, “You are what you eat.”  Today, Americans eat the same food that has been designed to make our cows gain as much weight as quickly as possibly: genetically-modified corn and soy.  And it has: cows that eat GMO corn and soy feed gain more weight faster than cows ever have in agricultural history.  We humans eat this same GMO corn and soy, and some of us even eat the cows raised on a diet of GMO corn and soy.  Doesn’t it stand to reason that this would make us fat, too?  And it has: American obesity has reached an all-time high.

In the meantime, the European Union, Japan, Malaysia, Australia, and other countries require genetically-modified foods to be labeled.  Labeling works on multiple levels, because it also means that special care must be taken to ensure that GMO foods do not contaminate non-GMOs.  With no real need to separate the two, the United States’ regulations on GMO-contamination are inevitably less strict.  In fact, because of this, in 2007, Europe rejected shipments of U.S. rice after discovering that the U.S. rice contained strains of engineered genes that had never been approved for human consumption — neither by the E.U. nor by the U.S.

UPDATE 1/18: Both Slate and the blog at Scientific American have published rebuttals to Levaux’s piece. 

My personal view is that, as American consumers, we should be informed about the contents of our food — that is, whether we are spending our money on genetically-modified food or not — so that we can make the decision for ourselves.

What about you?  Take the poll below to share your thoughts:

Photo Credit: I love the Tim Burton-esque photo accompanying Levaux’s Atlantic article (Dirk Ercken for Shutterstock).


Why The PepsiCo Mouse Story Is Scare-Tactic Journalism

If you have a weak stomach, feel free to skip this story.  In November of 2009, Ronald Ball of Wisconsin purchased a can of Mountain Dew from a vending machine.  Ball claims he took a swig from the can, felt ill, and poured out the contents of the can to find a mouse carcass.  As Ball’s story goes, he sent the mouse to PepsiCo at their request, and they destroyed the evidence.  He’s now suing PepsiCo.  The story was first reported by in July 2010.

Though the lawsuit has been unfolding for more than a year, it’s just now gaining mainstream publicity due to PepsiCo’s stomach-churning defense.  Experts for PepsiCo argue that Ball’s claim must be false because after 30 days in a can of Mountain Dew, the mouse would have morphed into a “jelly-like” substance due to the acidic content of Mountain Dew.

The response of most outlets has been something along the lines of “If Mountain Dew can eat away the carcass of a mouse, what is it doing to the inside of your body?”  There are many reasons not to drink Mountain Dew and soft drinks in general (one of which I wrote about yesterday) but their acidity levels is one of the least causes for concern.

Mountain Dew’s acidic quality is probably due to concentrated orange juice and citric acid — the only natural ingredients it has.  Many natural, healthy foods and drinks are acidic.   Yes, soft drinks can disintegrate bones and teeth, but that’s why we brush our teeth and don’t gargle with them.  A healthy human body is used to ingesting acidic substances.  In fact, our own stomach acid has a pH of 2.00 as compared with Mountain Dew’s 3.22.  As this pH chart shows, lime, lemon, and cranberry juice are more acidic than most soft drinks.  While soft drinks tend to hover at the top of the chart, other fruit juices, teas, and coffee are distributed throughout.

I hate to say this, but a mouse carcass in a variety of citrus juices would probably meet the same “jelly-like” fate.  That doesn’t mean you should give up your daily glass of orange juice.

Now PepsiCo is no angel.  Shame on PepsiCo for destroying evidence.  When you’re the defendant, no evidence is probably best, regardless of innocence or guilt, since our justice system requires proof beyond reasonable doubt and a lack of evidence creates doubt.   Still, if Ball is lying, PepsiCo could probably have won this case without resorting to destruction of evidence.  Though it seems unlikely to me that an in-tact mouse made its way into a can of Mountain Dew, PepsiCo’s destruction of evidence makes me wonder.

Their defense regarding the disintegration of the mouse, however, is a legitimate explanation that does seem to debunk Ball’s claims.  PepsiCo is savvy enough not to admit something incriminating — acidic content is not incriminating.

Disagree?  Leave a comment!

Soft Drinks and Sports Drinks: Would You Drink Flame Retardant?

If you drink soft drinks or sports drinks, such as Mountain Dew or Gatorade, keep reading.  Since the Environmental Health News published this story last month, it has been picked up by Gizmodo (you can read that story here), The Huffington Post (you can read that story here), Scientific American, and many others.

Our story begins with the chemical element called bromine.  Bromine is a toxic, corrosive liquid named after the Greek word for stench (“bromos”).  Pure bromine is a dark red color and gives off an extremely unpleasant odor.  It is considered a hazardous material because it causes severe burns to the skin and its vapor is a strong irritant to the eyes, nose, throat.  Although free bromine doesn’t occur on its own in nature, stores of it exist in the ocean, and it can be extracted through a chemical process.

To “brominate” something is to combine it with bromine.   Somewhere along the line, scientists decided to “brominate” vegetable oil and found that the resulting compound — brominated vegetable oil — worked really well as a flame retardant for plastics, a lead-eating additive for gasoline, a swimming pool sanitizer, etc.

Around the world, the use of brominated vegetable oil (BVO) as a flame retardant is raising health concerns.   Research shows that mammals exposed to brominated vegetable oil store up bromine in fat and muscle tissue.  A study of 20 American mothers found that all had detectable levels of brominated flame retardant in their breast milk.

Because bromine is a member of the halogen group, it displaces iodine.  Iodine is a requirement to human life, and especially important in thyroid functioning.  A deficiency of iodine is considered one of the leading causes of preventable mental disability.  In animal studies, BVO exposure has caused reproductive damage; neurological damage; severe behavioral problems; and permanent organ damage to the heart, kidneys, and testicles.

Most countries are clear on the fact that BVO is NOT a food. More than 100 countries have banned its use in food, including Europe, Japan, and India, and many are working to ban its use altogether — as a flame retardant in plastics, etc.  The United States missed the memo and approved BVO as a food additive.

In 1970, unable to ignore serious health concerns, the FDA pulled brominated vegetable oil from it’s GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) food list and placed the substance on a special “Interim” list.  According to the FDA, the Interim list was designed for cases when “new information raises a substantial question about the safety [of a substance].”  The substance in question would remain on the list “while the question raised is resolved by further study.”

What happened next?


The FDA never revisited brominated vegetable oil, never took into account the countless new studies that have emerged since the 1970s, including reports of its horrifying side effects on the unfortunate humans who have consumed too much Ruby-Red Squirt, and never re-evaluated the safety of brominated vegetable oil.  As a result, since 1970, brominated vegetable oil has been hanging out on the FDA’s Interim list and added to American soft drinks and sports drinks.

In the United States, food manufacturers found a special role for brominated vegetable oil in citrus-flavored soft drinks and sports drinks.  Lightweight citrus flavors tend to float to the top of a drink, but bromine atoms are very heavy and help weight down the lightweight citrus flavors, so BVO is used a stabilizer that helps citrus flavors stay suspended in the drink for an even distribution of flavor.  BVO also helps maintain the cloudy appearance of artificial citrus drinks that consumers equate with fresh-squeezed lemons.  Even I have fallen to prey to believing that the lemon-colored haze of sodas has something to do with citrus juice.  In actuality, that’s the magic of brominated vegetable oil.

In fairness, when elements are combined, the properties of the individual elements may change; theoretically, harmful elements can become tolerable compounds and harmless elements can become dangerous compounds.  Still, if we know bromine is harmful, who wants bromine atoms in their body?

The same manufacturers using BVO as a food additive in the United States have found alternatives to brominated vegetable oil — better or worse, we don’t know — which are currently used in Europe.  The decision to continue using brominated vegetable oil in the United States is a blatant disregard for public health.

My prediction is that American soft drink companies will find a replacement for BVO very soon — not because new studies will surface that are any more damning than those already in existence, but because anyone who does a quick Google search of brominated vegetable oil will probably stop drinking citrus-flavored soft drinks and sports drinks.  With the recent coverage of BVO gaining maintstream publicity so swiftly, that’s going to hurt sales.  Cast your vote next time you go to the grocery store.

Here are some alternatives to consider:

Need your caffeine fix?  Brew a cup of organic coffee.  (Yes, tea is probably healthier than coffee, but if you’re used to soft drinks, the level of caffeine in coffee will give you a more comparable caffeine kick.)

Like the sweet taste of sports drinks?  Add a splash of 100% fruit juice to your good old H20.

Do you prefer drinks with carbonation?  Add carbonated water to your 100% fruit juice.

Worried about electrolyte balance?  Although electrolyte balance may become important in extreme cases (marathons, ultramarathons, Ironman competitions, etc.), many sports drinks don’t have the appropriate ratio of electrolytes to effect levels of electrolytes anyway.  Good news: Your body is designed to balance its own electrolyte levels.  In fact, some of the so-called “performance boost” athletes find from sports drinks may come from the brain’s response to the taste of sugar.  If you’re an extreme athlete, consult with your coach, but remember, humans got along just fine before Gatorade.

Just can’t give up sweetened drinks?  At the very least, check the label. Don’t buy drinks with brominated vegetable oil (or BVO) listed as an ingredient. Even better, choose all-natural and organic drink brands.

Drinks to Avoid: Mountain Dew, Squirt, Fanta Orange, Sunkist Pineapple, Gatorade Thirst Quencher Orange, Powerade Strawberry Lemonade and Fresca Original Citrus.

Update: This issue is finally gaining mainstream attention!  Read the New York Times article “Drink Ingredient Gets A Look,” published Dec. 13, 2012.

Sodium: The Scapegoat

Cardiologists and chefs don’t always agree, so Michael Fenster, who is both a professional chef and an interventional cardiologist, offers a unique perspective in his article, “Don’t Hold The Salt: Attempts to Curb Sodium Intake Are Misguided,” published today on The Atlantic website.

Fenster’s article will likely prove controversial.  For years, salt has been the scapegoat of the American diet.  The FDA’s blame of salt for high blood pressure is like finding a correlation between wearing skydiving gear and falling to one’s death in a skydiving accident.  Sure, most people who die while skydiving are wearing skydiving gear; however, the act of wearing skydiving gear does not cause death.  While salt is found in most processed foods at extraordinarly high levels, abundant research shows that salt is not the culprit.  Salt is merely one ingredient in the chemical cocktail of processed foods, and processed foods are the problem.

It is an undisputed fact that the majority of Americans’ salt intake comes from processed foods and pre-prepared foods (think: Kraft, General Mills, McDonalds, and any restaurant chains where food is uniform at every location, not restaurants with actual chefs), not from table salt or home-cooked meals.  Perhaps because the FDA is well-connected to food manufacturers, the administration has generally avoided suggesting that overweight Americans eat less processed foods (such a simple recommendation!).  Instead, the FDA recommends that Americans eat more fruits and vegetables (a stance that is less upsetting to their food manufacturing friends).  In the interest of your health, you should consider the FDA primarily an undercover ally of food manufacturers, with a side interest in American health.  Indeed, almost every head of the FDA comes from a background in food manufacturing, or is highly connected within that world.

To start, a little history on salt:

The mineral salt (NaCl) is Planet Earth’s oldest food seasoning.  For thousands of years, salt has been and continues to be the safest, most natural method of food preservation.  Across diverse populations, salt consumption is surprisingly consistent, though rates of disease vary.  Over the past 50 years, salt consumption by Americans has remained roughly the same — about 3.7 grams of sodium per day, on average — according to the results of a 2010 Harvard study.  The same study noted that the rates of high blood pressure and heart disease in America have increased over the past 20 years, which perplexed the researchers.  A 2009 study conducted by UC Davis professor David McCarron analyzed the urine samples of more than 19,000 people in 33 countries over a 24 year period and found that individuals averaged about 3.72 grams of sodium per day.  A 12 year study conducted in Switzerland turned up a similar number — 3.68 grams of sodium per day.

Salt is a requirement of animal life.  Sodium deficiency or low levels of salt in the bloodstream, also known as hyponatremia results in neurological symptoms and organ failure in humans.  A 2010 article by Robert Schrier, “Does Asymptomatic Hyponatremia Exist?”  published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Nature Reviews Nephrology found that even mild — and often undiagnosed — hyponatremia is associated with increased risk of bone fracture and bone disease.  A study of patients being treated for hip fracture found that these patients had a 67-fold higher risk of showing low blood levels of sodium.  Do low levels of sodium in the blood cause bone disease then?  We don’t know the answer for sure, since an association does not guarantee a causal relationship.

What we do know is that the levels of sodium found in your blood probably have little to do with how much salt you consume.  This is good news!  With appropriate amounts of water, your body will largely regulate your blood sodium levels on its own.   Full-blown hyponatremia is not typically caused by a lack of consumption of sodium since the mineral is so abundant and our bodies are such sophisticated regulators; hyponatremia is more commonly the result of complications from other ailments.  Just as hyponatremia is not caused by undersalting your food (though it can be caused by drinking too much water — generally only a problem for athletes and formula-fed infants), hypernatremia (that is, too much sodium in your blood) is not caused by oversalting your food.  If you try to prove me wrong by drinking excessive amounts of seawater, you will more likely make yourself sick before succeeding.

If our bodies are built to regulate salt intake, why all the hype about salt?

Good question.

Here’s why the FDA has been allowed to get away with using salt as a scapegoat:  because of the association between blood sodium and high blood pressure.   Since high blood pressure is associated with increased mortality, the medical industry has long hunted for a culprit, and ultimately settled on salt and cholesteral.  The reason for such a conclusion is that some studies have found increased salt intake can increase blood pressure.  (This finding is not surprising since many high-salt diets are the result of a diet of highly-processed foods).  Since it’s generally accepted that people with low-to-normal blood pressure have lower mortality rates than those with high blood preassure, the assumption is that a reduction in salt, and therefore a decrease in blood pressure, will translate to a decrease in mortality.

Unfortunately, the transitive property doesn’t seem to apply here.  Just as you won’t save any lives by telling skydivers to stop wearing skydiving gear, recommending against salt is no solution to the American health crisis.  In fact, dietary salt reduction does not lower mortality rates, and might even increase mortality rates.  Consider the evidence: A 2011 analysis of randomized clinical trials published in the American Journal of Hypertension explored the link between dietary salt reduction and mortality rates and found “no strong evidence of any effect of salt reduction [on] morbidity… and also showed no strong evidence of benefit.”  According to the analysis, “Salt restriction increased the risk of all-cause mortality in those with heart failure.”

Fenster references one study that finds the highest mortality rates among people with the lowest levels of sodium intake, and another that shows the safest range of salt intake lies somewhere between 2.3 and 7 grams of sodium intake per day — well within the natural regulations of your tastebuds!  The FDA’s current recommendation is 2.3 grams per day for healthy young adults and 1.5 grams per day for blacks, those with health problems, and older adults.

One of the only studies ever to suggest a relationship between salt consumption and increased illness and death was the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which found rates of illness and death related to salt intake increased only among the overweight.  (The study used “personal recall,” not urine samples, to estimate salt intake.)  In other words, the study found that if you eat too much salt and you’re overweight, you have increased risk of illness and death as compared with those who are not overweight.  Again, to use our skydiving analogy: If you wear skydiving gear and you go skydiving, you are more likely than someone who does not go skydiving to die in a sky-diving related accident.  Common sense tells us that the gear is irrelevant to this equation.

By choosing one component of processed foods to vilify (in this case, salt), the FDA gives food manufacturers an escape route.  Lawmakers want to pass laws that seem to support health — but they don’t want to lose the backing of powerful corporations.  Blaming salt is an excellent compromise for lawmakers and food manufacturers.  If such regulations limiting sodium become law, food manufacturers can simply pump their products full of artificial flavors and additives that mimic the taste of salt, label these Frankenfoods as “low sodium,” and voila — problem solved!  Whereas chefs who use real ingredients — including the age-old and time-tested seasoning of salt — will have much more trouble abiding by such regulations.

Another win for food manufacturers, and one more step in the wrong direction for American health.

The bottom line on salt?  Leave your food prep to nature and to human beings — not machines and scientists — and you should be just fine.

Photo Courtesy: Leigh Beisch for Sunset.

Who Loses Weight and Keeps It Off?

I have long been a fan of Tara Parker-Pope’s writing, but her recent article, “The Fat Trap,” published in last week’s edition of The New York Times Magazine, was particularly intriguing. In the days since it’s publication, almost every newspaper and magazine has weighed in (pun intended) to promote or critique the article.  In “The Fat Trap,” Parker-Pope seamlessly weaves personal anecdotes with statistics and studies as she delves into one of the most serious health questions facing America: Why are we failing to lose weight?

Although I’m not overweight, I write “we” because we are all affected by the obesity epidemic.  On a philosophical level, I believe the world’s problems are interconnected and that we solve our own problems when we have compassion for others and work together to solve one others’ problems.  On a literal level, if you are an American taxpayer, obesity is your problem, too, regardless of your weight.

I have always had compassion for overweight people.  First, I feel fortunate for the health education I’ve had in my life, and I feel it’s quite possible I could have been overweight without it.  Second, as a woman, I have certainly felt the shame of feeling fat.  In my opinion, it’s a given that the vast majority of overweight people don’t want to be overweight.  If you desperately don’t want to be fat, and are working as hard as you possibly can not to be fat, is it really your fault that you’re still fat?  Although conventional wisdom takes issue with my premise that most overweight people are working hard not to be overweight,  I believe many are.  And in so many, many ways, I feel that we could be doing more as a nation to help overweight people reach their health goals.

According to the studies referenced in Parker-Pope’s article, once people gain weight, they are statistically unlikely to lose the weight and keep it off.  If they do manage to lose the weight, they will have to work harder — for their entire lives — in order to maintain that new weight than a person who never gained and lost the weight to begin with.  Parker-Pope’s article shadows this select and successful few, and lists their characteristics.  People who maintain a significant weight loss for the long-term share these 5 traits:

  • Eat breakfast every day
  • Exercise daily
  • Weigh themselves daily
  • Eat consistent foods and don’t “cheat” on holidays or weekends
  • Watch less television than the average American (about half as much)

I found this to be one of the most fascinating parts of the article!  Who is winning the weight game?  It’s not people who are dieting in the traditional use of the word — that is, temporary depravation; instead, it’s people who have made positive changes in their lives and are committed to maintaining these changes forever.

(Slate Magazine‘s response to Parker-Pope’s piece pointed out that in normal or underweight people, these behaviors may seem disordered.  You can find Parker-Pope’s response to the Slate piece here.  Eating disorders are a complicated subject, but I mostly agree with Parker-Pope’s response.)

It’s unfortunate news for those hoping for a get-thin-quick scheme — but it’s important for overweight people to know that the only diet that will work is a diet that can be maintained over the course of one’s entire life.  For overweight people, the 3000-calories-to-a-pound rule is a myth.  For you, there may be more calories, or fewer.  The only way to find out is to know yourself, and to work at maintaining a healthy weight — learning along the way — until you succeed.

My only issue with the article is its quiet acceptance of Columbia University researcher Rudolph Leibel’s dismissal that slowing the pace of weight loss could make a difference in the body’s ability to sustain lost weight.  According to Parker-Pope, Leibel claims that “the body’s warning system is based solely on how much fat a person loses, not how quickly he or she loses it.”  I’m interested to know what research Leibel has to back up that sweeping claim.  My understanding is that long-term studies on the subject haven’t yet been completed.  Indeed, anecdotal evidence and expert opinion has historically suggested that slow weight loss is more sustainable than quick weight loss.  Why is Leibel so quick to dismiss a natural, sustainable path to weight loss?

Clearly, permanent weight loss is a complicated task.  Perhaps the real message in this article is the importance of prevention.  Childhood obesity is a preventable condition, and grossly unfair to our nation’s children, who have so little say in the matter.

Regardless of your weight, this article is a worthwhile read.  If you have lost weight and kept it off, what has helped your success?  Please leave a comment and share your thoughts below.

UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic seems to have similiar concerns regarding Rudolph Leibel’s quick dismissal of slow weight loss.  In his brief opinion piece, Coates provides more anecdotal evidence (his own) in support of weight loss at “a glacial pace.”

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.

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!