You Can Do This Now: Simple Steps to More Healthful Living in 2014

Dear Readers,

We’re constantly bombarded with seemingly contradictory advice for how to live a longer, more healthful life.

But there’s good news amid all the confusion: There is a genuine consensus about important — and not that hard — steps you can take – starting today! – to live more healthfully.

Here with, my personal list of top health tips for the new year.  These really work. Plus, you’ll find that some of them are downright delicious!

Top Tips: The Short List

I’ve divided this into three categories.  This isn’t meant to be comprehensive, just some good ideas in each.

Eating 

* Consume extra virgin olive oil every day.

* Eat a handful of nuts daily.

* Try a Mediterranean diet.

Moving

* Add strength training to your exercise program.

* Help your vision with the 20/20/20 rule.

Health Care

* Wash your hands.

* Take someone with you to the doctor, every time.

Healthy Eating: Olive Oil and Nuts

Olive oil should be on your dinner table every night. Use good extra virgin olive oil — the green stuff that comes out when the olives are pressed — as a condiment to dress cooked vegetables, salads, lean meats, anything where you want a flavor boost.

You can cook with olive oil too, but the flavor nuances will get cooked away, so you can use a more basic entry level olive oil for cooking. (Yellow olive oil comes from the second-wave chemical extraction from crushed olives which have already given up their best green extra-virgin oil in the first pressing.)

How much is enough to lower your risk of heart attack and stroke (the two biggest non-cancer killers in western societies)? In the study from Spain published in 2013 that proved the benefit of a Mediterranean diet, the participants swallowed on average 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil a day.  (Read the original research article here.)

That’s easy if you have a good quality oil and a good recipe or two.

I buy Tuscan single-orchard extra virgin olive oils from this importer, which has a good discussion on its website of the joys of good olive oil. Trying one or two bottles from them or any other good purveyor will introduce your palate to the wonderful complex flavors in good olive oil.

Here’s a recipe for bruschetta, the great Italian way to eat bread.

Take a piece of good bread and toast it. Cut a garlic clove in half and rub the cut edge all over one side of the toasted bread. Drizzle with good olive oil.  Eat as is, or top the bread with your choice of cooked white beans, cooked green vegetables like rapini or Swiss chard, chopped tomatoes, or anything else that fits on the bread.

The Nut Story

The Mediterranean diet study from Spain mentioned above found that participants who ate nuts every day (plus about half as much olive oil as the olive oil alone group) got comparable benefits in lowered risks of heart attack and stroke. The nuts used in the study were walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts. The participants who were randomly assigned to the nut-eating group ate nuts an average of six times a week, and also consumed more olive oil than the control group.

The Spanish study took about 8,000 people and randomly assigned each to one of three groups: (1) Mediterranean diet plus olive oil alone; (2) Mediterranean diet plus nuts, (3) control group that got advice about a low-fat diet but no specific dietary changes. The power of the study was that it only took five years of following the three groups to see a big difference — the control group participants had such higher death rates that the study was stopped early so the control group volunteers could be advised about what they were missing out on.

A study published near the end of 2013 was done in a different way but had comparably positive results for the health benefits of nut consumption. This study didn’t stick volunteers into separate study groups by a roll of the dice. Instead it just followed people for a very long time, thirty years on average, and asked questions about health habits and tracked death rates.  The researchers found very impressive and consistent results: lower death rates across the board, but especially for heart disease and cancer, in the group of folks who ate a serving of nuts (a handful or so)  six or seven days a week.  (Read the original study here.)

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago that showed readers how to understand the statistical charts — called “forest plots” — published with the article, and why they show such impressive results.

Nuts continue to get great press in the healthy living sphere. A story a couple of weeks ago in the New York Times followed researchers who are trying to figure out if nuts can help keep off extra pounds, even though they’re packed with calories and fats.  Turns out that nuts may have just the right balance of proteins, fiber, chewability, and good  unsaturated fats to send a signal “I’m full!” to the brain after consumption of a modest amount.

Postscript on Nut Allergies in Kids

What about nut allergies? Some children have allergies so bad they can be life-threatening.  Turns out an effective way to lower a child’s risk for nut allergies is for Mom to eat nuts frequently during pregnancy, especially the early months. The early exposure to the allergens in the nuts is thought to increase the child’s tolerance, according to the research published in JAMA Pediatrics.

What Is a “Mediterranean Diet” and How Does It Work?

The Mediterranean diet was shown in the Spanish study to produce measurable benefits for heart health in as little as three months. That’s because extra virgin olive oil has fatty acids that lower blood pressure, reduce levels of the bad kind (LDL) of cholesterol, and have other cardiovascular benefits.

There are no calorie restrictions in a Mediterranean diet. You just eat more – a lot more – of some foods and less – a lot less – of others.

MORE: Olive oil, tree nuts and peanuts, fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, white meats, legumes, wine with meals.

LESS (or none): Soda drinks, red meats, bakery goods and sweets, and dairy products.

Here are the specific recommendations that the Spanish researchers asked their volunteers in the Mediterranean diet groups to follow:

Olive oil: 4 tablespoons (or more) a day.
Tree nuts and peanuts: 3 or more servings a week.

Fresh fruits: 3 or more servings a day.

Vegetables: 2 or more servings a day.

Fish (especially fatty fish like bluefish or mackerel): 3 or more servings a week.

Legumes (beans, peas, other round edible things): 3 or more servings a week.

White meat: Instead of red meat.

Wine: Only with meals: 7 or more glasses a week (and only if you already imbibe and don’t have a problem with booze).

Moving Around: Why Strength Is a Big Deal

You’ve seen feeble elderly folks tottering around so much it may seem like an inevitable end-of-life prospect.  Not so. One key prevention tip is to add strengthening exercises to your weekly routine.

We lose muscle mass and strength if we don’t regularly exert our muscles beyond the daily norm.  Aerobic exercise that pumps up the heart is not enough to prevent loss of strength.  Loss of muscle mass starts to accelerate in your 60s.

The good news is you don’t have to do strength training every day. Two or three times a week is good. Twenty to thirty minutes is a good length of time.

Strength training can include any of these:

  • Free weights: barbells, dumbbells, kettle bells.
  • Ankle cuffs with varying amounts of weight. Weighted vests apply same concept.
  • Elastic bands to add resistance to flexing arms and legs.
  • Using your body and gravity to create resistance.

I like this last type especially, because you can do body positioning exercises anywhere without any fancy equipment. One is “the plank” — you hold yourself in position on the floor supporting your body in a straight line between your toes and your forearms, for at least a minute. Google it on YouTube and give it a try.

Some muscle soreness is normal, even good, between sessions. But you should never force yourself and you shouldn’t try to work through pain. Anybody with joint problems needs to check with their doctor before doing any of these.

What Desk Workers Need to Do 

If you’re deskbound most or all of the day, it’s important to:

1. Follow the 20/20/20 rule for eye health. Every 20 minutes, look at least 20 feet away, for 20 seconds.

2. Get up and move around at least once an hour. You’ll be more mentally alert, and movement is good for skin, muscles and all body tissues that don’t like stillness.

Wash Your Hands

Our top national watchdog over infectious disease is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC recommends washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. That’s about as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. Scrub your hands vigorously; use friction while covering all surfaces of the hands, including fingers.

Wash your hands:

  • Before eating
  • Before, during, and after preparing food
  • After using the restroom
  • After coughing, sneezing, or caring for someone who is ill
  • After taking out the garbage
  • After petting animals
There’s not enough evidence of a clear benefit  using antibacterial soap compared to regular soap. And there’s some new safety information that antibacterial soaps are contributing to the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.  So bottom line: Regular soap is fine.

Why You Should Have Someone with You at Every Health Care Encounter

This is a big deal. Don’t go alone to the doctor’s office, unless it’s a really routine encounter. And never go alone to a hospital.

As I wrote in my health care book, The Life You Save, this is one of the “Necessary Nine” steps for getting the best medical care.  Why?

First (and I’m quoting myself here): When you are sick, it’s not only your physical defenses that are down. Your mental defenses — your ability to think things through, to exercise good judgment, to hear the advice people are giving you — suffer too.

Second, your companion can advocate for you and ask the tough questions that you might be worried will come across as too impolite coming out of the patient’s mouth.  Such as:

“Doctor, how much experience do you have doing the exact kind of surgery you’re proposing to do on my [husband/wife/mother/friend]?”

“Nurse, the pill yesterday was blue and round. The pill today looks different. Did they change the medicine? If so, what is it, and why?”

Third, a good lay advocate can keep you honest. Lots of us want to downplay scary symptoms — it’s called “denial” and it’s a common but self-destructive defense mechanism. Your advocate can help explain to the doctor how severe the pain was, exactly what symptoms came with it, and other details that you might have forgotten because you don’t want to remember.

Fourth, it’s emotionally very comforting to have an ally with you at scary medical encounters.

All of the above applies in reverse too. When you have a friend or loved one who needs medical attention, become an advocate and companion. They’ll appreciate it, and you’ll get a lot out of it too.

Here’s a blog piece we did recently on a new video that helps train people to be effective lay advocates for loved ones in health care encounters.

 

Here’s to a healthy new start for 2014!

Sincerely,
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Patrick Malone
Patrick Malone & Associates