New Years Renewal

Dear Readers,

A self-described “certifiably cynical realist,” Yoni Freedhoff is a Canadian family physician who specializes in obesity medicine. His blog “Weighty Matters” regularly provides good, unvarnished advice about health and nutrition.

I’m inspired by Freedhoff’s recent post on eight simple things that we do know — as opposed to the mountain of things we do NOT know — about healthy habits and choices we can make. I’ve modified his list a bit and present it here as a kickoff for a healthy 2015.

For a quick skim, see all eight tips in the table of contents on the left, or scroll down for more on each. And for a big fat surprise, look at the last item for some fatty advice NOT on our list.

Cook fresh food and eat it free from distraction

Everybody’s in a hurry, and many of us eat while we’re doing something else — driving, emailing, watching TV…. Taryn Palmer, a registered dietitian writing in the Twin Falls Times-News, calls this multi-tasking “frenzied nutrition habits [that] can be found in the obesity and health epidemics that plague our nation.”

Food tastes better and you enjoy it more if you to engage in what’s called “mindful eating.” That means making mealtime a planned activity, not something to squeeze into your schedule. It means that most of the time, you prepare fresh food, not processed or packaged, and sit down to consume it, whether you’re in your kitchen, the company break room or sitting on a park bench with a sandwich.

Mindful eating usually results in consuming not only fewer calories, but more healthful calories — less salt, sugar and more of the right kinds of fat. Instead of a fast food burger, you chose a turkey sandwich on whole wheat; instead of fries or chips, choose a handful of nuts or brown rice; instead of butter or mayonnaise, choose olive oil or hummus spread.

Here are a few of Palmer’s tips for becoming a more healthful eater.


  • Recognize physical cues. What’s behind your urge to snack? Are you hungry, or just bored or tired? “Emotional eating is one of the biggest triggers of mindless eating,” Palmer says, “and focusing on the ‘why’ often helps reduce overeating tendencies.”
  • Indulge your senses. Focus on the aroma, colors and texture of each bite. Allow yourself to enjoy a meal without rushing.  Eating more slowly usually means you eat less, because your brain and stomach are better tuned to each other to know when you’re full.
  • Be aware of portion size. Split large restaurant meals with another diner, and order an extra vegetable. If you’re eating alone, ask the server to put half your meal in a to-go box before it’s served.

For more information about nutritious eating, visit the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Medline Plus site and that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


Drink fewer sugary beverages

According to Sugar, an initiative of the University of California, San Francisco, sodas, energy drinks and sports drinks are the leading single source of added sugar in the U.S. diet. They represent 36% of the added sugar we eat, and growing scientific evidence indicates that they’re a particularly dangerous sugar delivery system if you’re concerned about diabetes and liver and heart disease.

Bottomless beverages can undermine otherwise healthful eating if they are sugary or creamy. It’s not difficult to consume nearly 1,000 calories just from a couple of beverages — a Starbucks Cinnamon Dolce Frappucino® Blended Coffee has 350 calories; a strawberry smoothie has 300. Make sure you know the ingredients of so-called “healthful” smoothies or juice, which often have lots of sugar.

Drink alcohol only in moderation

According to the NIH, moderate drinking is probably safe for many people, and might even reduce your risk of certain heart problems. But that’s only if you drink in moderation. For most women and people older than 65, that’s no more than three drinks a day or seven drinks per week. For men younger than 65, it’s no more than four drinks a day or 14 drinks per week.

But some people should never drink — alcoholics, children, pregnant women, people taking certain medicines and those with certain medical conditions. If your doctor prescribes medicine, over the counter or prescription, ask if it is safe for you to drink.

Remember, as a story in the Huffington Post made clear, “Alcohol is essentially poison. Sure, it’s a legal poison that probably doesn’t kill you immediately (as long as you drink it in moderation and NEVER drive under the influence), but even mild and moderate imbibers can suffer from serious health consequences.”

Those include short-term issues such as memory problems, and longer-term problems with digestion and high-blood pressure. Heavy drinking can lead to alcoholism and liver failure, not to mention seriously destructive social and work problems.

To learn more about alcohol and its effects, see the NIH site. 


Exercise as much and as often as you can

Any exercise is good. You don’t have to be a gym rat or a distance runner. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator. Park your car at the far end of the mall lot.  It’s all good for you, and makes you feel better too.

Do you have seven minutes? Try this free downloadable “app” of the New York Times 7-minute workout. You can do the whole workout without any equipment. The Times also has a more demanding version that uses two dumbbells.

A recent story on the analyzed a study in The Lancetshowing that people who exercise as few as 15 minutes a day have a 14% lower mortality risk from all causes of death than people who don’t exercise at all.

Work out 15 minutes day, the story says, and you’re 10% less likely to die of cancer than if you don’t. Every additional 15 minutes of daily exercise drops your all-cause mortality risk by another 4%.

Get this: According to the Annals of Internal Medicine, men who exercise vigorously are almost one-third as likely to experience erectile dysfunction as men who exercise very little or not at all. In this case, “vigorous” means a workout that’s equivalent to running at least three hours a week or playing singles tennis at least five hours a week.

And, as a story in the Los Angeles Times noted, even if you have a high body mass index, (BMI, a weight-height calculation that has been used to assess health risks) “studies have shown that aerobic fitness and strength training are more important than BMI in reducing disease risk and that obese people who exercise have a lower mortality rate than obese people who don’t exercise.”

Exercise also helps people with depression feel better. In one study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine patients showed a decline in depressive symptoms by almost half after they had been exercising moderately for 12 weeks. Another group that exercised somewhat less intensively showed a 30% improvement in their symptoms.

Exercise isn’t just about physical exertion and rewards, it’s about brain chemistry. Exercisers are better at regulating emotions, and they’re also better thinkers.

So, even if you’re not a jock or a fan of yoga, you still can rake leaves, take a walk after dinner, vigorously vacuum the house — just get moving, every day. Learn more about exercise and physical fitness and how to incorporate it into your schedule from the NIH.


Sleep well

Sleep is not a treat, it’s a critical component of good health. You might be able to function with a chronic shortage of good-quality sleep, but you’re not fooling your body.

Not sleeping enough compromises your immune system, and, therefore, your ability to fight off colds and infections. Not sleeping enough compromises your ability to think well, and slows your reaction time. And not sleeping enough, says the Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine, can contribute to weight gain, diabetes and cardiovascular disease,

You can’t “make up” for lost sleep during the week by sleeping more on the weekends — sufficient sleep isn’t like a bank account that you draw on and replenish. For optimum health, you must sleep enough every night.

So how do you turn off the pressures that keep you awake?

For one thing, don’t take sleeping pills as a regular way to induce slumber. As our blog explained earlier this year, prescription sleep medication is for short-term use only; if you take it longer than two weeks, you run the risk of addiction and premature death. And drug-induced sleep can interfere with slumber’s natural cycles.

To improve your chances of getting a good night’s sleep:

  • Make your bedroom a welcoming environment for relaxation and sleep (no light, cool ventilation and no electronics or work materials allowed).
  • Exercise, but not in the evening, which can rev you up.
  • Relieve stress — meditate, take a warm bath, get a massage; whatever works for you.
  • Eat right — limit heavy fats, especially late in the day, to avoid digestive problems, and don’t drink alcohol, which can interfere with the brain’s sleep cycle and cause dehydration.

To learn more, read “Are You Sleep Deprived?” on the NIH Medline Plus site. It explains what causes sleep disorders, their symptoms and how to maximize your ability to sleep.


Cultivate and maintain friendships

Humans are social creatures, and it’s hard for us to thrive if we aren’t a part of the social contract. That’s especially true on an interpersonal level. reviewed a lot of research about how relationships affect health, and concluded, “Many studies over the years have found that people generally live longer, happier, healthier lives if they have a strong network of support from friends and family.”

Take the time necessary to connect not just because it helps others, but because it helps you. Feeling isolated or lonely is a threat to longevity. One study of more than 28,000 men published in 2002 showed that the subjects who lacked strong social ties were nearly 20% more likely to die within 10 years, regardless of their health or occupation. They had more accidents, and were more likely to die from suicide and heart disease.

Several studies have indicated that strong friendships seem to have a cardiac benefit. A report in the Journal of the National Medical Association from 2009 showed that social support helped to relieve stress. And because stress can promote inflammation in arteries (a precursor to atherosclerosis, or clogged arteries), it can affect your heart.

“The research is still preliminary,” according to HealthDay, “but some studies have found that people who enjoy close support from friends and family generally have fewer inflammatory chemicals in their blood. The link between social ties and inflammation seems to be especially marked in older people.”

But friends are important to younger people, too. In 2011, the Current Opinion in Psychiatry reported that “Social networks appear to have an important influence on a variety of mental health conditions.”

This year, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley,discovered that oxytocin — a hormone associated with, among other things, social attachments — is necessary to maintain and repair muscles.

So, to paraphrase Barbra Streisand, people who rely on people are the luckiest people in the world.


Don’t smoke

You saw this coming. In case you need reminding, cigarette smoking has been identified as the most important source of preventable disease, illness and premature mortality worldwide.

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), smoking-related diseases take about 443,000 lives each year in the U.S., and some of them are innocent bystanders — babies born prematurely because their mothers smoked, and victims of “secondhand” exposure to tobacco’s carcinogens.

Smoking is responsible for about 9 in 10 deaths from lung cancer, and almost as many from emphysema and chronic bronchitis, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). About 8.6 million people in the U.S. have at least one serious illness caused by smoking — that means for everybody who dies of a smoking-related disease, 20 more are suffering from something associated with it.

Apart from the obvious threats to your lungs, smoking is a risk factor for coronary heart disease, stroke, abdominal aortic aneurysm, acute myeloid leukemia, cataract, pneumonia, periodontitis (gum infection) and bladder, esophageal, laryngeal, oral, throat, cervical, kidney, stomach and pancreatic cancers.

Smokers live shorter lives than nonsmokers — 13.2 years for men, and 14.5 for women.

Yes, nicotine is a powerfully addictive drug, but you can kick the smoking habit. Get help from the ALA here and here, and through the Lung HelpLine, (800) 586-4872 FREE.

What about e-cigarettes? So far it’s the Wild West. Plenty of untested additives that users suck into their lungs, little uniformity, maybe less risk than regular cigarettes, but maybe not.


Wear sunglasses and sunscreen

The sun is a powerful star that provides a lot of things we need to live and a really big thing we don’t need — radiation.

Ultraviolet (UV) rays are one form of radiation, and you can’t see them. Your skin, as wonderful a barrier as it is for many harmful invaders, is no match for UV rays. If you’ve ever gotten a sunburn or a suntan, you have damaged skin cells, and like all radiation, the damage is cumulative; it builds up over your lifetime. The burn heals, the tan fades, but the effects of the radiation stay with you.

UV rays can cause damage during any season or at any temperature. Unless they’re extraordinarily thick, clouds don’t protect you.

UV damage can be cosmetic — wrinkles and dark spots — and serious — damaged eyes and life-threatening melanoma (skin cancer).

Protect yourself from the sun’s rays by wearing sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats and clothing that covers exposed skin. On days you don’t dress like an Eskimo — that is, pretty much every day — apply sunscreen that protects against both forms of UV light, UVA and UVB. Look for the words “broad spectrum” on the product labels.

To learn more about sunscreen, see the American Academy of Dermatology. To learn more about skin cancer, go to the NIH site.


Not in This List: A Big Fat Surprise

I have NO advice this year on how much or little fat you should consume in your diet, and what kind. I would generally try to eat more fats from plants and less fats from animals, but even that advice is challenged by a provocative new book, “The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet.” 

The book is the focus of an admiring recent review in the British Medical Journal, but others with a lot of knowledge about nutrition science say the author makes a decent case AGAINST low-fat diets, which are really hard to stick to anyway, but not a very good case at all in favor of  the saturated fats laden in butter, meat and cheese. And one reviewer says the book is loaded with misquotations, mishandling of evidence, even a bit of cut-and-pasting from prior writers, all in the service of … selling books?

I’m keeping hands off the controversy, at least for this year. But I’m sticking to a mostly plants diet, with the occasional indulgence such as the prime rib we fixed for Christmas Day.


Here’s to a healthful 2015!

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Patrick Malone
Patrick Malone & Associates