Preserving our health

It’s spring, and the colors around us are beautiful, bright, and pleasing. That’s great outdoors, but how about when the color is in our salads, sandwiches, desserts or drinks? What we see and don’t see on our plates or in our cups may make our food more appealing and last longer, but is it good for us or adding any nutritional value?

Understanding and limiting the wide variety of preservatives and additives used in our food is another side to the healthy-eating equation. Food additives are substances that become part of a food product when they are added during the processing or making of that food. “Direct” food additives — which may be man-made or natural — are often added during processing to provide nutrients, help process or prepare the food, 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 anti-caking agents that allow substances to flow freely.

Additionally, many foods and drinks are fortified and enriched to provide vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Examples of commonly fortified foods are flour, cereal, margarine, and milk. This helps to make up for vitamins or minerals that may be low or lacking in a person’s diet.

These aren’t bad or dangerous — but they are substitutes that accommodate us for not regularly eating a healthy assortment of fruits, grains, and vegetables.

Certain preservatives help preserve the flavor in baked goods by preventing the fats and oils from going bad. They also prevent fruits and vegetables from turning brown when they are exposed to air. Finally, they provide color and enhance the taste of food.

Most concerns about food additives have to do with man-made ingredients that are added to foods. Some of these are:

  • Antibiotics given to food-producing animals, such as chickens and cows
  • Antioxidants in oily or fatty foods
  • Artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, saccharine, and sodium cyclamate
  • Benzoic acid in fruit juices
  • Lecithin, gelatins, corn starch, waxes, gums, and propylene glycol in food stabilizers and emulsifiers
  • Many different dyes and coloring substances
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Nitrates and nitrites in hot dogs and other processed meat products
  • Sulfites in beer, wine, and packaged vegetables

Congress defines safe as “reasonable certainty that no harm will result from use” of an additive. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides a list of food additives — many have not been tested, but most scientists consider them to be safe. These substances are put on the “generally recognized as safe (GRAS)” list. This list contains about 700 items. Examples of items on this list are guar gum, sugar, salt and vinegar.

For a comprehensive FDA glossary of food additives, ingredients and labels, go here: http://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm091048.htm

In the supermarket, your best ally is the Nutrition Facts Label on product packages, which lists, for example, how much sodium is in each serving. Sodium is a commonly used preservative and taste enhancer, but too much is unhealthy and contributes to increased blood pressure, heart disease and congestive heart failure.

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.

Unless we grow and prepare everything we eat, we can’t avoid additives and preservatives in our diet. But by limiting intake through conscious shopping, and by eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fiber, we can improve our nutritional health and preserve our lives instead of just our food!

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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!

Calling all nuts

Life can certainly be pretty nutty; but when it comes to our nutritional health, the nuttier the better! That’s because eating nuts as part of a healthy diet can be good for our heart. Nuts, which contain unsaturated fatty acids and other nutrients, are a great snack food, simple to store, and easy to pack when we’re on the go. They’re also high in protein and fiber which delays absorption and decreases hunger, so frequent nut eaters are less likely to gain weight.

Nuts are energy-dense foods rich in bioactive macronutrients, micronutrients and phytochemicals. The unique composition of nuts is critical for their health effects. Patients who eat a “Mediterranean-style” diet rich in nuts or extra virgin olive oil — as well as vegetables and wine — have fewer heart attacks, strokes, or deaths from cardiovascular disease than those who eat a diet that simply lowers their intake of dietary fat.

Nuts, seeds, and pulses have been a regular part of mankind’s diet since pre-agricultural times. In Western countries nuts are consumed as snacks, desserts or part of a meal, and are eaten whole (fresh or roasted), in spreads (peanut butter, almond paste), as oils or hidden in commercial products, mixed dishes, sauces, pastries, ice creams and baked goods.

The type of nut we eat isn’t that important, although some nuts have more heart-healthy nutrients and fats than do others. Almost every type of nut has a lot of nutrition packed into a tiny package. People who eat nuts as part of a heart-healthy diet can lower the low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol level in their blood. High LDL is one of the primary causes of heart disease. Eating nuts may reduce our risk of developing blood clots that can cause a fatal heart attack. Nuts also appear to improve the health of the lining of our arteries.

As much as 80 percent of a nut is fat. Even though most of this fat is healthy fat, it’s still a lot of calories. That’s why we should eat nuts in moderation and use nuts as a substitute for saturated fats, such as those found in meats, eggs and dairy products. The American Heart Association recommends eating four servings of unsalted nuts a week.

Select raw or dry-roasted nuts rather than those cooked in oil. A serving is a small handful (1.5 ounces) of whole nuts or two tablespoons of nut butter. But again, do this as part of a heart-healthy diet. Just eating nuts and not cutting back on saturated fats found in many dairy and meat products won’t do our hearts any good.

Walnuts are one of the best-studied nuts, and it’s been shown they contain high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Almonds, macadamia nuts, hazelnuts and pecans are other nuts that appear to be quite heart healthy. And peanuts — which are technically not a nut, but a legume, like beans — seem to be relatively healthy. Keep in mind, though, we cancel out the heart-healthy benefits of nuts if they’re covered with chocolate, sugar, or salt.

Besides being packed with protein, most nuts contain at least some of these heart-healthy substances:

  • Unsaturated fats. It’s not entirely clear why, but it’s thought that the “good” fats in nuts — both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — lower bad cholesterol levels.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids. Many nuts are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s are a healthy form of fatty acids that seem to help our heart by, among other things, preventing dangerous heart rhythms that can lead to heart attacks. Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in many kinds of fish, but nuts are one of the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
  • All nuts contain fiber, which helps lower our cholesterol. Fiber makes us feel full, so we eat less. Fiber is also thought to play a role in preventing diabetes.
  • Vitamin E. Vitamin E may help stop the development of plaques in our arteries, which can narrow them. Plaque development in our arteries can lead to chest pain, coronary artery disease or a heart attack.
  • Plant sterols. Some nuts contain plant sterols, a substance that can help lower our cholesterol. Plant sterols are often added to products like margarine and orange juice for additional health benefits, but sterols occur naturally in nuts.
  • L-arginine. Nuts are also a source of l-arginine, which is a substance that may help improve the health of our artery walls by making them more flexible and less prone to blood clots that can block blood flow.

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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!

Time to don your sunscreen and hats

After a long, cold winter, little feels better than being outdoors in the mild weather. Sunshine beckons, motivates us, and seems to physically and mentally replenish our spirits. And while those bountiful beams help stimulate chemical and physical reactions in our bodies and contribute to our health, it’s important to remember that as we savor the sun’s warmth and work on our tans, we’re also soaking up damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays.

May is UV and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, UV radiation from the sun is classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. Each year, more new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. than new cases of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and one American dies from skin cancer every hour.

Chronic exposure to the sun suppresses our natural immune system and also causes premature aging, which over time can make the skin become thick, wrinkled and leathery. Since it occurs gradually, often manifesting itself many years after the majority of a person’s sun exposure, premature aging is often regarded as an unavoidable, normal part of growing older. However, up to 90 percent of the visible skin changes commonly attributed to aging are caused by the sun. With proper protection from UV radiation, many forms of skin cancer and most premature aging of the skin can be avoided.

How to protect ourselves from extra UV exposure

The best way to lower our risk of skin cancer is to protect our skin from the sun and ultraviolet light. Using sunscreen and avoiding the sun helps reduce the chance of many aging skin changes, including some skin cancers. However, it is important not to rely too much on sunscreen alone. Also, we should also not use sunscreen as an excuse to increase the amount of time we spend in the sun – remaining outside too long during peak sunlight hours is very dangerous, and UV rays penetrate our clothes and skin.

When possible, avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 am to 4 pm, when UV rays are the strongest. Clouds and haze do not protect you from the sun, so use sun protection even on cloudy days. Use sunscreens that block out both UVA and UVB radiation. Products that contain either zinc oxide or titanium oxide offer the best protection.

Less expensive products that have the same ingredients work as well as expensive ones. Older children and adults (even those with darker skin) benefit from using SPFs (sun protection factor) of 15 and over. Many experts recommend that most people use SPF 30 or higher on the face and 15 or higher on the body, and people who burn easily or have risk factors for skin cancer should use SPF 50+.

Here are helpful tips on when and how to use sunscreen:

  • Adults and children should wear sunscreen every day, even if they go outdoors for only a short time.
  • Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors for best results. This allows time for the sunscreen to be absorbed.
  • Remember to use sunscreen during the winter when snow and sun are both present.
  • Reapply at least every two hours while you are out in the sunlight.
  • Reapply after swimming or sweating. Waterproof formulas last for about 40 minutes in the water, and water-resistant formulas last half as long.

Wearing sunscreen is critical, but only half the battle. Here are additional safety tips and information for protecting yourself from harmful UV radiation:

  • Adults and children should wear hats with wide brims to shield from the sun’s rays.
  • Wear protective clothing. Look for loose-fitting, unbleached, tightly woven fabrics. The tighter the weave, the more protective the garment.
  • Buy clothing and swimwear that block out UV rays. This clothing is rated using SPF (as used with sunscreen) or a system called the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) index.
  • Avoid surfaces that reflect light, such as water, sand, concrete, snow, and white-painted areas.
  • Beware that at higher altitudes you burn more quickly.

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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’s a great time for company activities

Spring heralds charitable walks, runs, bicycling and all manner of fundraisers that offer great team-building options and promote healthy activities. Softball, volleyball, tennis, basketball and many other team-related recreational opportunities are starting as well. If you haven’t already, now might be a good opportunity to see what events and activities appeal to your workforce, and support or sponsor one or more team endeavors.

Employers also can encourage individual recreational pursuits — for example, offering support to employees who are interested in community gardening, and for planting flower boxes around their communities. Other outdoor activities can include hiking, bird-watching, nature walks, park and river clean-up days, rock climbing and much more. People can do things on their own, as groups, and even find opportunities through organizations like the Audubon and Sierra Clubs, local YMCA or YWCA facilities, Boys and Girls Clubs, and private gyms.

The bottom line is that whatever employers do to support employee activities can be good for morale and teamwork. And improved teamwork and attitudes boost productivity, retention and quality, reduce absenteeism and accidents, and increase voluntary participation. Not to mention the health and wellness benefits!

Of course, activities aren’t limited to the outdoors. There are bowling and indoor fitness workouts, spinning, swimming, cooking, art and pottery classes…there’s no limit if you apply your imagination. Additionally, many organizations are bringing guest presenters to the workplace to talk about stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, massage therapy and yoga. Team weight-loss efforts and competitive programs also are trending.

One great example is a program by Charkit Chemical Corporation, which sponsored an employee “Biggest Loser” program. Their effort lasted 12 weeks and included 16 employees divided into four teams. Every week each participant weighed in privately, and the team weight-loss percentage was reported. One team and one individual received top honors at the end of the program.

Teams had the opportunity to add workouts and win trivia contests for additional weight-loss value, scored every other week. The workouts needed to be a minimum of 30 minutes and had to include all team members. The trivia contests were held every other week as well, and the winning team earned a two-pound advantage. All trivia was taken from emails and health-related articles that were emailed and posted around the office. Most of the trivia focused on food and portion size information. Each week the winning team received prizes such as Amazon gift cards, funded by the company. The final winners won Visa gift cards and were announced during a special ceremony.

While their Biggest Loser contest was running, Charkit also offered a series of employee nutrition seminars held onsite by a licensed nutritionist. They held three group sessions, and offered employees one-on-one planning meetings so individuals could address personal nutrition and health issues. Topics for the group sessions included reducing sugar and fat intake, portion control, and increasing healthy eating.

According to a Charkit leader, many of the employees who participated in the seminars have applied their learning to their everyday nutritional behavior. Overall, she added, the programs got people thinking about their health in a far more comprehensive way, and resulted in many positive changes.

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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!