Mmm, mmm . . . almost good

When you’ve just come into the house from shoveling, working outdoors, sledding in the snow or any winter activity, little is more comforting, nostalgic and pleasing than a nice hot bowl of soup. In fact, it’s hard not to love soup, any time of year. But if you want to add “nutritious” to the list of popular soup accolades, you have to be aware of hidden dangers from excess salt and additives.

That’s not to snow on our parades, but since it’s National Nutrition Month – and soup is part of most American diets – it bears taking a closer look at how to ensure that this popular and diverse staple is as healthy as it is filling.

It’s hard to imagine that any delicious steaming concoction brimming with vegetables, grains, noodles, meat or fish isn’t good for us. But truth be told, there’s typically one prime ingredient hiding in soup that is a major contributor to heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke – if you guessed “salt,” you’re right!

More than 75 percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes from salt added to processed foods. We often don’t even know we’re eating it. And while cutting table salt is wise, it may only be putting a tiny dent in our sodium total.

Sodium is a major flavor additive and preservative in canned soups, and in homemade or restaurant soups that use canned or pre-packaged chicken, beef or vegetable stocks as a base. With so much salt in our food, it’s no wonder the average American gets more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. That’s more than double the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of 1,500 milligrams.

Manufacturers use salt to preserve foods and modify flavor, and it’s included in additives that affect the texture or color of foods. Sodium is an essential nutrient, but very little is needed in the diet – it’s estimated that the body needs less than 500 mg of sodium a day to perform its functions, an amount much lower than what the average American consumes.   

In an ideal world we’d all handpick fresh ingredients and cook them at home, ensuring a limited sodium, fat and preservative intake. In the real world, however, we don’t always have time to cook.  So how can we ensure that we’re consuming soup and other “healthy” products that are truly good for us?  The answer lies in knowledge and smart shopping.

Preserving our health

Food additives help process or prepare soups and foods, keep the product fresh, or make it more appealing. This includes emulsifiers that prevent liquid products from separating, stabilizers and thickeners that provide an even texture, and anticaking agents that allow substances to flow freely. They also prevent fruits and vegetables from turning brown when they are exposed to air. Finally, they provide color, and enhance the taste.

In the supermarket, your best ally is the Nutrition Facts Label on product packages, which lists how much sodium is in each serving, and other content. As a guideline, to include a “sodium free or salt free” claim on the label, a product cannot exceed 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.  A product with a “low sodium” claim must not exceed 140 mg per serving.  A “no salt added or unsalted” claim on the label does not mean the food is “sodium free.”  Compare food labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium.

Also, look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark to find foods that can be part of a heart-healthy diet. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification. You can learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program and find foods that are currently certified by visiting heartcheckmark.org.

The bottom line is to take time and learn about the different products we’re putting in our bodies, and make smart choices that achieve a balance between convenience, cost and content. Making soup and other foods from scratch or knowing how it’s prepared by others is your best option. Ask questions when you’re purchasing meals from restaurants and take-out counters, and read the food labels on prepared products you purchase at the grocery store. You can then make an informed choice and consider product alternatives.  The truth is, if you’re careful and smart, you can still have your soup and eat it, too!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

When it comes to vitamins, C it all clearly

Spring is only weeks away, and the worst of cold and flu season, hopefully, is behind us. But we still can’t let down our guards. It’s a germ jungle out there, and we have to stay on our toes when it comes to nutrition, exercise and general health.

Chances are many of us aren’t eating the right foods to help strengthen our immune systems. We also may be inclined to take supplements to prevent illness, or larger doses of vitamins to fight cold and bugs once they have us in their grasps. If you fall into either of these categories, you’re not alone – supplements are a multi-million-dollar industry. But it’s important to separate fact from fiction, and to understand what works best, why and how.

To start, nothing we take as a supplement beats the benefits of eating healthfully and obtaining the vitamins and minerals we need through our diet. One of the best-known and most-studied examples is Vitamin C, which we get naturally through fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble nutrient that acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, compounds that are formed when our bodies break down food or when we are exposed to tobacco smoke or radiation and air pollution. Vitamin C is also needed for the growth and repair of tissues in all parts of the body, and it helps the immune system work to protect the body from disease. 

Sufficient quantities of Vitamin C must be consumed every day. Unlike fat-soluble vitamins, vitamin C is not stored in the body. That is why eating at least a few servings a day of citrus fruits and other vitamin C-rich food is so important. Luckily, getting the recommended daily amount of Vitamin C is not difficult, since a single orange contains 150 percent of the government’s recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C.

Vitamin C is cited as effective for fighting infections including gum disease, acne and other skin infections, bronchitis, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) disease. It is used for infections of the bladder and prostate, and people also put vitamin C on their skin to protect it against the sun, pollutants, and other environmental hazards. Vitamin C is also applied to the skin to help with damage from radiation therapy.

Additionally, Vitamin C is used for fighting depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, physical and mental stress, fatigue, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s also believed that Vitamin C might help the heart and blood vessels. It is used for hardening of the arteries, preventing clots in veins and arteries, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Other uses include improving physical endurance and slowing aging, as well as counteracting the side effects of cortisone and related drugs, and aiding drug withdrawal in addiction.

Where to find it, and where not

Most experts recommend getting Vitamin C from a diet high in fruits and vegetables rather than taking supplements. Fresh-squeezed orange juice or fresh-frozen concentrate is a better pick than ready-to-drink orange juice. The fresh juice contains more active Vitamin C. Drink fresh-frozen orange juice within one week after reconstituting it for the most benefit. It you prefer ready-to-drink orange juice, buy it three to four weeks before the expiration date, and drink it within one week of opening.

People may view supplements such as Airborne and Emergen-C as quick and easy fixes; each contains 1,000 milligrams (mg) of Vitamin C along with other vitamins and minerals. And while Vitamin C has been seen as a potential remedy for the common cold, research shows that for most people, Vitamin C supplements or Vitamin-C- rich foods do not reduce the risk of getting a cold. And once you have a cold, rest, fluids and a healthy diet stimulate recovery. However, people who take Vitamin C supplements regularly might have slightly shorter colds or somewhat milder symptoms when they do have a cold.

The minimum daily requirement of Vitamin C for adults is 75 mg for women and 90 mg for men, with an extra 35 mg needed by smokers.  Citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruit, along with their juices, have high amounts of Vitamin C. Five servings a day of fruits and vegetables – or about 2 1/2 cups – averages out to between 200 mg to 250 mg of Vitamin C. Besides citrus, the fruits that have high amounts of Vitamin C include: 

  • Cantaloupe
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Mango
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple
  • Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries
  • Watermelon

Vegetables that have the highest amounts of Vitamin C include: 

  • Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower
  • Green and red peppers
  • Spinach and other leafy greens
  • Sweet and white potatoes
  • Tomatoes and tomato juice
  • Winter squash

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Spring into action on your personal health plan

It’s hard to believe March is already here . . . which means spring, warmer weather and a return to outdoor activities aren’t far behind.  As many of us shed heavy jackets and winter clothes, we also may need to shed winter pounds or consider other healthy behaviors that may have gone by the wayside during our winter hibernation. Fortunately, March is a great time to renew our personal wellness resolutions and goals, well before we start to unpack our bathing suits, tank tops and shorts.

At least half of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Maybe we intended to lose weight, or exercise more, or quit smoking. But the vast majority of Americans who made such resolutions won’t meet their goals. Polls have found that by springtime, 68 percent of Americans who made a New Year’s resolution have broken it.  After one year, only 15 percent claim success.

But that’s okay – as philosophers and quality gurus remind us, it’s the journey not the destination! The secret to self-improvement is persistence, not perfection.  Now is our opportunity to see what we’ve done or haven’t done, set new goals and get started – or started again.

A more feasible strategy might be to set goals we can measure – and achieve – on a quarterly basis. For example, losing 10 pounds between April and June, cutting back coffee, smoking or alcohol consumption by a certain percentage, getting to the gym three times a week, consciously reducing sugar and fat intake every time we eat, walking on the weekends . . . whatever works for you.

Additionally, this is a good time to think about walks, runs and other charitable or competitive events that traditionally take place in the late spring. If you set a goal to walk or run in a 5k coming up in a few months, you can begin your training now. Or you can adjust your diet by eliminating pasta and bread from one or more meals a day and substituting more fruit and vegetables. The trick is to modify your strategy – especially if you haven’t been successful at meeting your goals over the past few months.

The challenge, of course, is that wanting to lose weight and knowing how to lose weight are different objectives, and achieving and sustaining that weight loss requires smart planning, dedication, and good information.

We can cut carbs and sugar, eat lots of raw veggies, replace a meal with a protein shake, or count calories.  Diets will take off weight, but staying healthy and not regaining the weight is another matter. Instead of simply dieting, we need to focus on nutrition, health and exercise, and to recognize that there are benefits to be gained from a healthful diet besides just weight loss.

Simplicity is a useful tool for altering your diet. Vegetables, experts stress, can be eaten raw or cooked in the microwave just as easily as heating processed food. And there is an enormous amount of self-help literature available online and in book stores, and through nutritionists, your physician and other health professionals.

It’s also important to choose high-quality foods over low-quality foods. Fast food and snack foods are low quality, which means they have a lot of calories without a lot of nutrients. And when we try to appease ourselves by adding processed cheese sauce to the broccoli or deep frying our veggies, we’re not improving our diet. 

It starts by making up our minds to eat better, and by experimenting with changes that we can sustain, unlike those offered in fad diets. Actually engaging our brains, paying attention to what we’re eating, how much and when are important first steps. Frequency and understanding the chemistry of food, what we’re putting into our bodies and how it affects us, will make a big difference. And changing our diets without adding exercise is not going to be as effective a means of losing weight or achieving improved overall health.

Success is incremental, but you can reward yourself as you make changes. Once you start substituting vegetables and fruit for heavy carbs and prepared foods high in fat, sugar and sodium, you’ll get used to the healthier eating style and smaller portions will become enough. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy pizza, ice cream and fast food once in awhile – as long as it becomes the exception, not the rule.

Healthful living is a lifestyle choice, and extra weight a prime contributor to most chronic diseases. Set reasonable goals – both in terms of nutrition and exercise – track your progress, involve family members or friends in setting and sharing goals, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to make simple changes that will have a profound effect on your long-term health and wellness.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Investing in employee health and wellness

It’s often said that to succeed, you have to walk before you run. In the case of C.M. Smith, it might be seen as the other way around: Employees started with a marathon and, in short order, followed that effort by walking themselves toward a wide variety of health and wellness programs that has morphed into a year-round sprint.

Since 1974, the C.M. Smith Agency, Inc. and C.M. Smith Financial have provided businesses and individuals with a broad range of employee benefits, insurance, and retirement services. Focused on their customers’ financial health and wellness, it made sense to target their own employees’ health and wellness, too.  And they were able to find creative ways to both encourage wellness and enhance employee engagement through programs designed and implemented by employees, with the blessing, support and encouragement of C.M. Smith management.

Brigid Gunn is the company’s Human Resources and Operations Director, and their Wellness Champion. She explained that when the company moved its offices from Glastonbury to Hartford in 2013, some employees were discouraged by the longer commute and perceived inconvenience of working in the city. A CBIA Health Connections member since the 1990s, the company wanted to find a way to improve morale, support team activities, encourage wellness, and link employee interests with the advantages of working in downtown Hartford.

An employee wellness committee was formed, and meets bi-monthly to brainstorm creative health ideas and to examine activities that were conducive to being downtown. It also was important, she explained, to offer a diverse selection of events, programs and activities that would appeal to differing employee interests, while being convenient and easily accessible.

“We already were a reasonably healthy population,” Gunn observed, “with few smokers and pretty active employees. But not surprisingly, reducing life and work stress was typically mentioned by staff as a key goal. So we set about finding ways to help reduce stress and encourage participation across the board. We also were hoping that every employee would participate in at least one activity in 2015.

“Not everyone likes to walk or run recreationally, and some people want to go home right after work, or exercise early in the day or at lunch, Gunn added. “Like most organizations, we’re a real melting pot, so we needed to make sure we offered something that would appeal to every employee at some point. Also, with two related but separate businesses, we wanted to encourage people to ‘play’ together, as possible, but also feel free to pursue activities on their own.”

The company created an activity budget of $50 per employee, and also arranged to pay for employees to use a fitness center located in their building. Three offsite employees who are on-staff personal health coaches are available to their associates, and the wellness committee sponsored lunchtime learning sessions; lunchtime yoga classes are now planned for March.

“There’s no shortage of clever, fun and interesting ideas to try when you’re committed and have management support,” said Marah Block, Marketing & Data Reporting consultant, whose responsibilities include managing internal employee communication. “We held our own, very successful ‘Biggest Loser’ contest for employees and most of the office attended a UCONN hockey game at the XL Center. We’re also planning downtown clean-up days, and a variety of contests and exercise opportunities. Once you get started, it becomes contagious, and employees have responded very positively to our efforts.”

The company still supports employee participation in The Hartford Marathon and gathers donations for local charities and events. Their medical director recently gave a presentation on healthy dieting, and walking challenges, downtown scavenger hunts, UV and sun protection education, and a harvest fruit and vegetable month are all in the works.

“For us, wellness started by encouraging our team to complete the CBIA Healthy Connections health assessments, but to work effectively and keep people engaged, it has to escalate into a far more comprehensive and energetic effort,” Gunn concluded. “Our employees are heathier, downtown has become an asset, and having this program in place makes coming into work a lot more fun!”

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!