Diet and Colorectal Cancer

Diet plays an integral role in keeping us healthy. But beyond strong bones, eyes and teeth, a proper diet also helps prevent or reduce the likelihood of contracting a number of serious illnesses, including many kinds of cancers. One specific example is colon (colorectal) cancer, which kills more than 50,000 men and women a year in the United States alone.

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer.  American Cancer Society estimates for the number of newly diagnosed U.S. colon cancer cases exceeds 103,000 men and women, and another 37,000 will be diagnosed with rectal cancer.

Studies suggest that diet is a key contributor to colon cancer risk. Colon cancer is most prevalent in Westernized societies, where diets are higher in animal products and processed foods and lower in unrefined plant foods.  The cells lining the intestinal tract come into direct contact with what we choose to eat, and the substances contained in our food can have profound effects on these cells and tissues. The protective value of fruits and vegetables has been established by several studies following subjects for years, keeping track of dietary patterns and colon cancer diagnoses.

Our nutritional choices can help prevent colon cancer, especially if our diet includes more vegetables and fruits and less refined and processed foods. Nutritious foods are very rich in fiber, and disease-causing foods are generally fiber-deficient. Several food components that may modulate colon cancer risk have been identified: Fiber, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and certain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals all play a partial role. Red meat and processed meats are the most cancer causing, but all meats and dairy products do not contain any fiber, and are also lacking in anti-oxidants and phytochemicals. Foods made from refined grains (such as white bread, white rice, and pasta) are also not only fiber deficient but void of micronutrients and phytochemicals as well – these foods are also associated with colon and rectal cancers.

Prevention starts with awareness

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and the perfect time to become familiar with risk factors and prevention. Risk factors include:

  • Age 50 or older
  • A family history of cancer of the colon or rectum
  • A personal history of cancer of the colon, rectum, ovary, endometrium, or breast
  • History of polyps in the colon
  • A history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestine) or Crohn’s disease
  • Eating a diet high in fat (especially from red meat)
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use

The prognosis and chance of recovery following a colon cancer diagnosis depends on several items, including the stage of the cancer when discovered, damage it may have already caused, blood chemistry and a patient’s general health. If you experience any stomach discomfort, bleeding in your stool, or sudden weight loss, contact your physician immediately.

Beginning at age 50 (age 45 for African Americans), both men and women at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should receive a screening test. These tests are designed to find both early cancer and polyps. There are simple blood and stool tests, and surgical testing such as colonoscopies can be done virtually (using diagnostic imagery) or surgically. Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you.

People once thought that there was little that they could do to protect themselves against cancer. But we’ve learned more about how the disease develops and what biological and environmental factors increase cancer risk. We now have better weapons for fighting the disease, including more options for diagnosis and treatment, improved therapies and new technologies for early detection.

In a world where so much is beyond our control, it’s nice to know that we can still make smart choices that are likely to improve or maintain our health. Research suggests that up to 35 percent of cancers are related to poor diet. Choosing a diet rich in nutrient-dense plant foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds is a simple step we can take to protect ourselves and our loved ones against colon cancer. And by remaining active and exercising regularly, we can reduce our risk of cancer and other health problems.

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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!

The History of Valentine’s Day

Although February 14th may be welcomed by many and reviled by others, it’s hard to ignore.  In fact, it is hard to imagine another day in the year that is simultaneously revered and dreaded . . . and so misunderstood! Sure, we love the chocolate and flowers, romantic dinners and Hallmark missives. There also are plenty of closeted treasure chests filled with children’s painted hand prints and hand-drawn cards. But why does Valentine’s Day actually exist, other than as a blessing for retail stores and our economy?

The history of Valentine’s Day — and the story of its patron saint — is shrouded in mystery. February has long been celebrated as a month of romance, and St. Valentine’s Day, as we know it today, contains vestiges of both Christian and ancient Roman tradition.

The Catholic Church recognizes at least three different saints named Valentine or Valentinus, all of whom were martyred. One legend contends that Valentine was a priest who served during the third century in Rome. When Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families, he outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine allegedly defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When his actions were discovered, Claudius ordered that he be put to death.

Other stories suggest that Valentine may have been killed for attempting to help Christians escape harsh Roman prisons, where they were often beaten and tortured. According to one legend, an imprisoned Valentine actually sent the first “valentine” greeting himself after he fell in love with a young girl –possibly his jailor’s daughter — who visited him during his confinement. Before his death, it is alleged that he wrote her a letter signed “From your Valentine,” an expression that is still in use today.

Some historians claim that the Christian church may have decided to place St. Valentine’s feast day in the middle of February in an effort to upstage the pagan celebration of Lupercalia, a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.

At the end of the fifth century, Pope Gelasius declared February 14 St. Valentine’s Day. It was not until much later, however, that the day became definitively associated with love. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.

Valentine greetings were popular as far back as the Middle Ages, though written valentines didn’t begin to appear until after 1400. The oldest known valentine still in existence today was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London following his capture at the Battle of Agincourt. And the expression, “wearing your heart on your sleeve” was because young men of that era would pin a piece of paper on their clothes with the name of a woman they were interested in, and parade outdoors.

In addition to the United States, Valentine’s Day is celebrated in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. In Great Britain, Valentine’s Day began to be popularly celebrated around the 17th century. By the middle of the 18th, it was common for friends and lovers of all social classes to exchange small tokens of affection or handwritten notes, and by 1900 printed cards began to replace written letters due to improvements in printing technology.

Americans began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s. In the 1840s, Esther A. Howland began selling the first mass-produced valentines in America. Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine,” made elaborate creations with real lace, ribbons and colorful pictures known as “scrap.” Today, according to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated 1 billion Valentine’s Day cards are sent each year, making Valentine’s Day the second largest card-sending holiday of the year. Women purchase approximately 85 percent of all valentines.

Why chocolate?

In the 1840s, Richard Cadbury, descendant of a British chocolate manufacturing family, was responsible for sales at a crucial point in his company’s history. Cadbury had recently improved its chocolate-making technique to extract pure cocoa butter from whole beans, producing a more palatable drinking chocolate than most Britons had ever tasted. This process resulted in an excess amount of cocoa butter, which Cadbury used to produce many more varieties of what was then called “eating chocolate.” Cadbury recognized a great marketing opportunity for the new chocolates and started selling them in beautifully decorated boxes that he himself designed.

While Richard Cadbury didn’t actually patent the heart-shaped box, it’s widely believed that he was the first to produce one. Cadbury marketed the boxes as having a dual purpose: When the chocolates had all been eaten, the box itself was so pretty that it could be used again and again to store mementos, from locks of hair to love letters. The boxes grew increasingly elaborate until the outbreak of World War II, when sugar was rationed and Valentine’s Day celebrations were scaled down. But Victorian-era Cadbury boxes still exist, and many are treasured family heirlooms or valuable items prized by collectors.

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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!

Got coffee?

When we were little tykes watching our parents drink coffee, they told us we couldn’t have any because the caffeine would stunt our growth. When we got a little older, they poured an ounce of coffee in a cup, filled the rest with milk, loaded in the sugar, and we thought we were big shots.  Later in the day, we may have drunk soda or eaten chocolate — which also have caffeine — but most of us grew up little the worse for the wear.

Adding to the mystery, the health benefits of caffeine often are touted, and myths abound about coffee’s healing properties for headaches, hangovers and as a tonic for keeping us awake. It’s easy to see why we grew up confused about this incredibly popular beverage.  So, is caffeine bad for us, and if so, why?

The answer, like the question, is complicated. But the bottom line is that – as in many things – moderation and information are the keys to healthy caffeine consumption.

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, alleviating fatigue, increasing wakefulness, and improving concentration and focus.  As a stimulant, regular use of caffeine does cause mild physical dependence. But caffeine doesn’t threaten our physical, social, or economic health the way addictive drugs do. For most healthy adults, moderate doses of caffeine – 200 to 300 milligrams (mg), or about two to four cups of brewed coffee a day – aren’t harmful. But some circumstances may warrant limiting or even ending our caffeine routine.

If you drink four or more cups a day, take note. Although moderate caffeine intake isn’t likely to cause harm, too much can lead to some unpleasant effects. Heavy daily caffeine use – more than 500 to 600 mg a day – may cause

  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Stomach upset
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Muscle tremors

Coffee and caffeine in other forms — such as in tea, soda and chocolate — may make us jittery. Some people are more sensitive to caffeine than are others. If you’re susceptible to the effects of caffeine, just small amounts may prompt unwanted effects, such as restlessness and sleep problems.

How we react to caffeine may be determined in part by how much caffeine we’re used to drinking. Caffeine content can range from as much as 160 milligrams in some energy drinks to as little as 4 milligrams in a one-ounce serving of chocolate-flavored syrup. Even decaffeinated coffee isn’t completely free of caffeine. People who don’t regularly drink caffeine tend to be more sensitive to its negative effects. Other factors may include body mass, age, medication use and health conditions such as anxiety disorders or heart disease. Research also suggests that men are more susceptible to the effects of caffeine than are women.

Women who are pregnant often are advised to avoid or limit caffeine because some studies have indicated a higher potential incidence of miscarriage. People with high blood pressure should watch their caffeine intake, as it increases the risk of stroke; and because caffeine does act as a mild diuretic, it will cause us to urinate more often. But studies show drinking caffeinated drinks in moderation doesn’t actually cause dehydration, especially if we drink water and other liquids during the day.

And finally, as for stunting childrens’ growth, there’s an irony to that misconception:  The added sugar that children and many adults consume in flavored coffees and caffeinated energy drinks promotes obesity, and caffeine can aggravate anxiety or irritability, in children and in adults.

Caffeine and sleep

Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. But caffeine can interfere with this much-needed sleep. Chronically losing sleep – whether it’s from work, travel, stress or too much caffeine – results in sleep deprivation. Sleep loss is cumulative, and even small nightly decreases can add up and disturb your daytime alertness, overall health and performance.

Our body quickly absorbs caffeine. But it also gets rid of it quickly. Processed mainly through the liver, caffeine has a relatively short half-life. This means it takes about five to seven hours, on average, to eliminate half of it from our body. After eight to 10 hours, 75 percent of the caffeine is gone. For most people, a cup of coffee or two in the morning won’t interfere with sleep at night.

But using caffeine to mask sleep deprivation can create an unwelcome cycle. For example, we drink caffeinated beverages because we have trouble staying awake during the day. But the caffeine keeps us from falling asleep at night, shortening the length of time we sleep. Additionally, certain medications and herbal supplements may interact with caffeine, including some antibiotics and other specialty drugs, and certain herbal supplements like Echinacea, which people take to ward off colds.

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about whether caffeine might affect your medications. He or she can say whether you need to reduce or eliminate caffeine from your diet.

Curbing our caffeine habit

Whether it’s for one of the reasons above – or because we want to trim spending on pricey coffee drinks – cutting back on caffeine can be challenging. An abrupt decrease in caffeine may cause caffeine withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, irritability and nervousness. Fortunately, these symptoms are usually mild and resolve after a few days.

To change caffeine habits more gradually, try these tips:

  • Note intake. Start paying attention to how much caffeine you’re getting from foods and beverages. It may be more than you think. Read labels carefully. Even then, your estimate may be a little low because not all foods or drinks list caffeine. Chocolate, which has a small amount, doesn’t.
  • Cut back. But do it gradually. For example, drink one fewer can of soda or drink a smaller cup of coffee each day. Or avoid drinking caffeinated beverages late in the day. This will help your body get used to the lower levels of caffeine and lessen potential withdrawal effects.
  • Go decaf. Most decaffeinated beverages look and taste the same as their caffeinated counterparts.
  • Shorten the brew time or go herbal. When making tea, brew it for less time. This cuts down on its caffeine content. Or choose herbal teas that don’t have caffeine.
  • Check the bottle. Some over-the-counter pain relievers contain caffeine – as much as 130 mg of caffeine in one dose. Look for caffeine-free pain relievers instead.

For most adults, caffeine is a part of our daily routine. And most often it doesn’t pose a health problem. But curtailing our caffeine habits can be better for our health – and our wallets!

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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!

 

Cleansing for a healthier 2016

As we’re already waist-deep into the annual season of gluttony, it’s a good time to practice moderation, but not deprivation. And it’s also a perfect opportunity to restart our personal health and wellness planning for 2016, including nutritional changes if required, exercise and other smart lifestyle choices.

Enjoying ourselves during the holidays may not sound like sage nutritional advice, but it’s a stressful time of year without additional pressure. Eat and drink consciously and reasonably, try substituting healthy snacks like vegetables and fruit when possible, and think about personal goals. Whether it’s eating more healthfully, exercising more, finding time to relax or whatever suits us, change takes place progressively and through conscious choice.

As people contemplate nutritional changes, the topic of “cleansing diets” often arises, typically as a precursor to jumping into a more comprehensive diet. The idea is that if we “cleanse” our bodies by purging all the toxins and bad stuff in us, we’ll have a cleaner slate upon which to rebuild. Many popular “juice cleansing” or all-liquid diets are available in stores, or touted online, but they aren’t necessarily healthy or safe, or the best path to true wellness.

There’s nothing wrong with drinking juice, although it’s not as healthful as eating fresh fruits and vegetables, which are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and plenty of fiber, especially in their skins and pulp.  But when a person is sucking down only fruit and vegetable juice as part of a juice cleanse — usually 16 ounces of juice every few hours, plus unlimited water — and often forgoing food for three to five days or longer, that’s an extreme approach, according to many nutrition experts.

And juice cleanses often don’t involve the typical juice carton found in the supermarket. They require expensive, prepackaged bottles of pulverized produce blends, or they can be homemade in a juicer or blender. The trendy beverages might be a green mixture containing kale, spinach, green apple, cucumber, celery and lettuce, or a red concoction made with apple, carrot, beets, lemon and ginger. While popular, there’s no scientific research that proves these cleansing diets provide short- or long-term benefits, nor are they a healthy or safe approach to weight loss.

The scoop on cleansing diets

The body detoxifies itself naturally, primarily through the actions of the liver, kidneys and gastrointestinal (GI) tract. These organs help remove toxins or harmful substances that should not be stored in the body, and since our bodies are always in a natural state of cleansing, a person does not need to do a juice cleanse or follow a liquid detox diet to be healthy.

One of the most well-known detox diets instructs people to drink lemon juice and water spiked with maple syrup and cayenne pepper — supposedly this helps the body remove toxins and aid in speedy weight loss. Though touted by many entertainers, physician worry that any 10-day liquid diet, regardless of the combination of liquids you imbibe, could pose serious health risks, especially for people who use it for longer periods of time.

During the first few days of a juice cleanse, a person initially burns their glycogen stores for energy. Using glycogen (the stored form of glucose) pulls a lot of water out of the body, which causes weight loss. But the loss of water weight comes at the expense of a loss of muscle, which is a steep price to pay. Weight loss is not always about the numbers on a scale, it’s also about the ratio of body fat compared to lean muscle mass.

A cleansing diet is low in dietary protein and calories. Having more lean muscle and less body fat means burning more calories and boosting metabolism, in the long run. Additionally, a cleanse could also lead to side effects such as a lack of energy, headaches and shakiness due to low blood sugar. Over time, it may lead to constipation from a lack of fiber, as well as irritability. Physicians also caution against any diet that uses natural or synthetic laxatives.

Once we come off a cleansing diet and returns to solid foods, it’s easy – and very common — to regain the weight we’ve just lost.  Some people may experience a psychological lift from a cleanse, such as feeling ready or motivated to adopt healthier eating habits, but it doesn’t replace smart, common sense nutritional practices and healthy lifestyle changes. That includes setting simple goals, taking the time to determine how we’ll achieve them, and figuring out how to measure our success.

When it comes to reasonable health and wellness planning, here are some tips to help guide our steps:

  • Acknowledge a realistic vision of success. If losing weight is a top goal, set a realistic number and timetable to achieve this mission safely. Take the time to learn about potential problems, such as vitamin deficiencies or other health risks that accompany weight loss, and read about sugar, fat, carbs, and the chemistry of food. Also, talk with a physician, fitness expert and/or a licensed nutritionist about longer-term lifestyle changes that will help you pursue this task successfully.
  • Adopt an effective strategy. Focus on relatively short-term goals, like eating vegetables four times a day, cutting back on carbs and sugar, eating healthy snacks, and doing at least 20 minutes of cardio a day for the next few weeks. Keep track of efforts daily and weekly by writing on a calendar or maintaining a journal, and create simple “rewards” for weekly or monthly successes, such as buying a gift or doing something personally meaningful.
  • Review and adjust each commitment. To be successful we have to set goals, measure our progress, and adjust. Be flexible — if, for example, walking every day is impossible, walk four days a week, or longer on the weekends. Sign up for a yoga or fitness class. And when we give in to that yummy, calorie-rich dessert, don’t despair … tomorrow is a new day. We know ourselves better than anyone, and can make adjustments to get back on track after we’ve fallen off the wagon.
  • Use the “buddy system.” We should tell a friend about our goals and see if we can work out, walk, or practice our new diets together. Share helpful articles and tips, check in regularly, support each other when a goal is missed, and celebrate individual and mutual successes.

Ultimately, the best advice about getting healthier is to just get started, remain diligent, and don’t give up. By setting realistic goals and a simple, formal plan, the gift of improved health and wellness is ours to keep.

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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!

 

 

Hey, sugar, whatcha doin’ for the holidays?!

So it’s almost the end of the year, and we all deserve a break, right? From thanksgiving until early January, it’s a blitz of eating and drinking. Everywhere we turn there are home-made cookies, cake, breads, candies and desserts. We may try to resist, but it’s like keeping up with the weeds in our gardens – by late July or early August, they’re getting the better of us, and we learn to live with them.

The problem, of course, is that living with decadent desserts, alcohol-based drinks, sweet punches, soda and holiday beverages comes with a cost – to our waistlines, to our bodies’ ability to process sugar, and to our overall health.

November is National Diabetes Awareness Month. Diabetes mellitus refers to a group of diseases that affect how our body uses blood sugar (glucose). Glucose is vital to our health because it’s an important source of energy for the cells that make up our muscles and tissues. It’s also our brain’s main source of fuel.

Insulin is a hormone that comes from a gland situated behind and below the stomach (pancreas).The pancreas secretes insulin into the bloodstream, which circulates, enabling sugar to enter our cells. Insulin lowers the amount of sugar in our bloodstream — as our blood sugar level drops, so does the secretion of insulin from our pancreas.

If we have diabetes, no matter what type, it means we have too much glucose in our blood, although the causes may differ. Too much glucose can lead to serious health problems. In type 2 diabetes, our cells become resistant to the action of insulin, and our pancreas is unable to make enough insulin to overcome this resistance. Instead of moving into our cells where it’s needed for energy, sugar builds up in our bloodstream.

Exactly why this happens is uncertain, although it’s believed that genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of type 2 diabetes. Being overweight is strongly linked to the development of type 2 diabetes, but not everyone with type 2 is overweight.

Here are just a few of the recent statistics on diabetes:

  • Nearly 30 million children and adults in the United States have diabetes.
  • Another 86 million Americans have pre-diabetes and are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
  • The American Diabetes Association estimates that the total national cost of diagnosed diabetes in the United States is $245 billion.

Nutritional tips for a healthier holiday season

Try these tips this holiday season. They can help us manage our sweet tooth when dessert and other foods high in calories, sugar, fat and salt are served:

  • Decide ahead of time what and how much you will eat and how you will handle social pressure.
  • Eat a healthy snack early to avoid overeating at the party.
  • Bring a nutritious snack or your own healthy dessert such as plain cookies, baked apples, or sugar-free puddings.
  • Watch out for heavy holiday favorites such as hams with a honey glaze, turkey swimming in gravy and side dishes loaded with butter, sour cream, cheese, or mayonnaise. Instead, choose skinless turkey without gravy, or other lean meats.
  • Look for side dishes and vegetables that are light on butter and dressing, and other extra fats and sugars such as marshmallows or fried vegetable toppings.
  • If there is someone else at the party who is trying to watch what they eat, buddy up! Avoid tempting sweets and ask your fellow conscious eater to join you for a walk while dessert is out on the table.
  • Choose low-calorie drinks such as sparkling water, unsweetened tea or diet beverages. If you choose to drink alcohol, limit the amount, and have it with food.

Additionally, there are ways to revise dessert recipes so they are healthier and still tasty. Often, we can replace up to half of the sugar in a recipe with a sugar substitute. We can also try cutting down on sugar and increasing the use of cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, and other sweet-tasting spices and flavorings. Another trick is to replace half of the fat in a recipe with applesauce or baby-food prunes when making chocolate brownies, cakes, or cookies.

Many traditional Thanksgiving and holiday foods are high in carbohydrates. Don’t feel like you have to sample everything on the table. Have a reasonable portion of your favorites and pass on the rest. For example, if stuffing is your favorite, pass on rolls. Choose either sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes. If you really want to try everything, make your portions smaller.

When cooking, casseroles taste just as good with fat-free or light sour cream and fat-free dairy products. We can steam green beans or other veggies instead of sautéing them in butter. When going to a party, offer to bring a green salad or a side of steamed vegetables that have been seasoned. Non-starchy veggies are low in carbs and calories. They will help fill you up and keep you from over-eating other high-calorie and high-fat foods on the table.

We don’t have to give up all of our holiday favorites if we make healthy choices and limit portion sizes. At a party or holiday gathering, follow these tips to avoid overeating and to choose healthy foods.

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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!

Champion healthy eating, especially during the holidays

The final weeks of 2015 are coming at us like a runaway freight train. In addition to the stress of year-end results, deadlines, 2016 planning and never-ending customer demands, we know we’re going be competing to keep our employees focused as the holidays loom. It may be early November, but advertisers are already amping up, parties are being booked, Thanksgiving-themed foods are lining the supermarket shelves and we’re all steeling ourselves for the chaos to come.

This is an unhealthy time of year, from an eating and exercise perspective. It’s likely that many of us will throw caution to the wind and indulge more than we might normally, skipping workouts and allowing ourselves to be swayed toward the darker side of nutritional sanity. But if we’ve been working hard at our health all year – or for those who don’t want to let themselves go to seed for the next two months or start the New Year at a serious deficit – eating carefully now is more important than ever.

As employers, our employees’ health matters all year round, so why let it slip come November? Obesity is a huge issue, pun intended. Fewer than one-third of Americans are currently at a healthy weight. Obesity is related to increases in diabetes, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol, all of which converge as an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Closer to home, this means many employees aren’t eating properly, exercising regularly or taking care of themselves. That translates into more sick time, reduced productivity, quality issues, stress, and morale problems.

Sounds like a perfect opportunity for an intervention, doesn’t it?! Since we want to encourage year-round healthy eating and exercise, this is a great opportunity to make the workplace the healthy holiday place. Encourage employees to bring in sugar-free or reduced-fat desserts only. Host contests for the best-tasting, healthiest, alternative treats. Promote healthy recipe swaps, and discourage people from sharing candy, cookies and other sweets at their desks and in the kitchen or lunch room.

If that sounds too Scrooge-like, consider offering incentives for maintaining personal or team weight between mid-November and mid-December. That way, people can find clever, creative ways to eat healthfully, and then eat whatever they want as the actual holidays approach in late December. Reward individuals or teams with gift cards – or even “go off the wagon” together as a team with your own holiday party. And surprise the troops with anonymous vegetable platters, fruit and healthy snacks in the common room, instead of cookies, bagels and pizza.

Remind employees of the importance of exercise, as well, especially with the change in weather driving us indoors. Schedule walks, investigate fitness center or gym memberships for the New Year, or look for charitable activities employees can adopt and pursue as a team.

If we’re creative, motivated and dedicated, we can use this time of year as a positive catalyst for maintaining our health and wellness now, into 2016, and beyond.

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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!

Can the healthy stuff

The fall harvest offers a bounty of delicious and hearty native fruit and vegetables. With only a few weeks left before the first frost, apples, pears, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are fresh at the farm, in the market or in our gardens. Not only are these domestic treats tasty, but they can help us feel better, become healthier and may protect against heart disease and stroke.

Colorful fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals that have different disease-fighting elements. These compounds may be important in reducing the risk of many conditions. The American Heart Association recommends at least four to five servings per day of fruits and vegetables, based on a 2,000-calorie diet, as part of a healthy lifestyle that can lower our risk for many diseases.

Now’s the time to fill up on all things orange, which are nutrient-rich and high in beta-carotene, a potent carotenoid that’s converted to vitamin A in the body. These compounds are associated with helping to protect the eyes, prevent macular degeneration and cataracts, diminish inflammatory conditions such as asthma and arthritis and even possibly reduce the risk of many cancers.

It’s also easy to find sweet potatoes and pumpkins, carrots and winter squash in local markets.  Other seasonal fruits and vegetables including persimmons and citrus, cantaloupe, tangerines and clementines are rich in vitamin C. This important nutrient helps build strong bones, skin, blood vessels, muscle and cartilage. Vitamin C also aids in the absorption of iron. Rich in fiber, these foods, like apples, help to make us feel full and aid in digestion.

Alas, the saddest part of autumn – besides the shorter days and imminent cold weather – is the end to fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables. Frozen produce can offer many of the same nutritional benefits when items are picked at their nutritional prime, and particularly if you watch for excess sodium, especially with canned goods. But wouldn’t it be nice if you could keep these garden treats for months without them spoiling?

Preserving your own

A viable and popular alternative to store-bought processed foods is preserving fruits and vegetables from your garden or local markets for consumption later in the year or throughout the winter. There are many common, safe food-preservation methods you can practice at home, but it’s important to know what you’re doing and to practice safe canning, pickling, freezing and drying methods.

  • Canningis the process in which foods are placed in jars or cans and heated to a temperature that destroys microorganisms and inactivates enzymes. This heating and subsequent cooling forms a vacuum seal. The vacuum seal prevents other microorganisms from decontaminating the food within the jar or can. Acidic foods such as fruits and tomatoes can be processed or “canned” in boiling water (also called the “water-bath method”), while low-acid vegetables and meats must be processed in a pressure canner at 240°F (10 pounds of pressure at sea level).
  • There are many less safe canning methods that people use, from no processing at all (filling the jars and seal, called “open kettle” canning) to oven canning, microwave canning and even using the dishwasher.  Click here fora description of these unsafe methods, why they are dangerous and links to references about them.
  • Picklingis another form of canning. Pickled products have an increased acidity that makes it difficult for most bacteria to grow. The amount of acid present is very important to the safety of the product. Pickled products are also heated in jars at boiling temperatures to destroy any other microorganisms present, and form a vacuum in the jar.
  • Jams and Jellieshave a high sugar content. The sugar binds with the liquid present making it difficult for microorganisms to grow. To prevent surface contamination after the product is made and possible yeast or mold growth, these should be canned, frozen, or refrigerated.
  • Freezingreduces the temperature of the food so that microorganisms cannot grow, however many will survive. Enzyme activity is slowed down, but not stopped during freezing.
  • Drying removes most of the moisture from foods. As a result, microorganisms cannot grow and enzyme action is slowed down. Dried foods should be stored in airtight containers to prevent moisture from rehydrating the products and allowing microbial growth.

Canning guidelines were revised in 1989 following extensive research. Canning instructions printed before 1989 may be unsafe. Here are some of the newer recommendations you should be using, based on USDA  recommendations:

  • Bottled lemon juice should be added to all canned tomatoes.
  • Jellies, jams, and preserves should be processed in a boiling water bath.
  • Pickles and pickled products should be processed in a boiling water bath.
  • The pressure for your pressure canner and the time for processing in a boiling water bath should be adjusted according to your local altitude.

For more information and general descriptions of common, safe home food preservation methods, and a glossary of terms, recipes and directions, visit http://www.pickyourown.org. Click here for a glossary of terms used in home preserving.

And click here for why you should use a canner and how to choose one.

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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!

A sweet deal

As autumn approaches, one’s thoughts may turn to maple syrup. But while delicious, real syrup lacks the medicinal qualities of a common historic remedy that also tastes great, is easily accessible, and compared to the costs of syrup is a honey of a deal!

In pre-Ancient Egyptian times, honey was used to treat wounds and as an embalming fluid. It also was a common ingredient in a number of medicinal compounds. The ancient Greeks believed that consuming honey could help people live longer. And honey was used as a traditional ayurvedic medicine, which is one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems developed 3,000 years ago in India. Then, and even today, it’s thought to be effective at treating material imbalances in the body.

The possible health benefits of consuming honey have been documented in early Greek, Roman, Vedic, and Islamic texts, and the healing qualities of honey were referred to by philosophers and scientists as far back as Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) and Aristoxenus (320 BC).

Honey has high levels of monosaccharides, fructose and glucose, containing about 70 percent to 80 percent sugar, which gives it its sweet taste. Minerals and water make up the rest of its composition. Honey possesses antiseptic and antibacterial properties, and in modern-day medicine, has useful applications in chronic wound management. It’s also used as a cough suppressant and for soothing sore throats, and some people claim it’s effective at reducing the effects of allergies, though research on that benefit is inconclusive.

If you’re debating between using sugar or honey as a sweetener, it’s important to remember that sugar is sugar — and excess sugar isn’t good for us. Honey is primarily sugar. But if we’re choosing between the two from a health perspective, option “bee” is the better choice.

Our body breaks food down into glucose in order to use it for fuel. The more complex a food, the more work it takes to break it down. Sugar is made of 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, the sugar typically found in fruits, and is broken down very easily, leading to a surge of blood glucose. What our body doesn’t use right away gets stored as fat. Honey is also made mostly of sugar, but it’s only about 30 percent glucose and less than 40 percent fructose. And there are also about 20 other sugars in the mix, many of which are much more complex, and dextrin, a type of starchy fiber. This means that our body expends more energy to break it all down to glucose. Therefore, we end up accumulating fewer calories from it.

Honey also has trace elements that bees picked up while going from plant to plant. These will vary by region, so depending on the source of our honey it could contain small amounts of minerals like zinc and selenium, as well as some vitamins. And because honey doesn’t break down in nature, it doesn’t contain preservatives or other additives.

When we shop for honey, some are lighter, others are darker. In general, the darker the honey, the better its antibacterial and antioxidant power. Honey is natural and considered harmless for adults. But pediatricians strongly caution against feeding honey to children under one year old due to the risk of contracting botulism, a bacteria with spores found in dust and soil that may make their way into honey. Infants do not have a developed immune system to defend against infection.

So if we’re going to use a spoonful of something in our tea, go for honey over sugar. But don’t stop there . . . smear a little on bread, add some to cereal and smoothies, and keep a jar handy as cold and flu season approach!

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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!

Be fresh. Eat locally grown, raised and produced food

Are you a locavore? Would you like to be one? It’s simple and painless — just eat food grown locally whenever possible! First appearing in Webster’s in 2005, the term locavore reflects the growing movement toward eating fresh, locally produced vegetables, fruit, dairy products and meats. It also means patronizing restaurants and grocers who buy locally as well, growing your own, and taking advantage of seasonal bounty.

There’s something truly special about eating vegetables and fruit that have been picked in the past 24 hours, or which you’ve picked yourself. In Connecticut, local produce and fruit, dairy products, eggs and meats can be purchased at farms, through specialty stores, and in restaurants that promote “farm to table” sustainability. But beyond the importance of supporting our local farmers and regional economy, there are a variety of other advantages to eating fresh and local.

Locally grown produce is fresher and more diverse.  Produce that is purchased in the supermarket or a big-box store has been in transit or cold-stored for days or weeks. On the other hand, produce that we buy at our local farmer’s market, farm or stand has often been picked within 24 hours of our purchase. This freshness not only affects the taste of our food, but the nutritional value and varietal choices, which decline with time and when fruit and vegetables are processed. Additionally, local farms are more likely to produce atypical varieties and hybrids of fruits and vegetables that you may not find in large grocery stores.

Locally grown fruits and vegetables have longer to ripen. Because local produce requires less handing and shipping time, it is picked at its nutritional height, when it’s ripe and most delicious. Eggs and milk purchased in supermarkets are weeks old — when purchased locally, they are likely only a few days old. And with less handling, the food you buy will have fewer bruises, mildew or other damage, and won’t be treated with preservatives that enhance looks but neutralize taste and nutritional value.

Local, sustainably produced farm fruits and vegetables do not require long distances for transport, and can be harvested closer to peak ripeness. Many fruits and vegetables contain more nutrients when allowed to ripen naturally on the parent plant. Meat from animals raised sustainably on pasture is also more nutritious. For example, grass-fed beef is higher in “good” cholesterol (and lower in “bad”), higher in vitamins A and E, lower in fat, and contains more antioxidants than factory-farmed beef.  Sustainably produced food also means fewer agricultural chemicals (such as pesticides), antibiotics, and hormones, all of which are common in conventional farm products.

Locally produced food is more nutritious. The global industrial food system relies on crops that have been bred primarily for higher yield and ease of transport, while farmers involved in local food systems often place a higher value on plant varietals that are more nutritious by virtue of their variety or by their method of production.

Eat with the seasons. Nature offers us an abundance of food each season that meets our physiological and nutritional needs — if we tune in. Fruits and vegetables that help keep us hydrated are readily available in the summer. Berries available this time of year top the antioxidant charts. Root vegetables and squashes help us prepare for the coming colder months, and are more easily stored. Apples, which become available later in the summer, are high in antioxidants as well, and best when eaten fresh.

Help protect the environment. The side effects of energy consumption and pollution can be considered “collateral damage” when it comes to food that is produced elsewhere and shipped. It takes a lot of fossil fuel-based products and services to harvest, prepare, freeze, process and ship food. This is bad for the environment, and can be limited by buying locally.

Another good reason to purchase locally is that by supporting our farms, we protect the land and green spaces. This is important for preserving air and water quality, and for preventing overbuilding and the tax on resources that comes with congestion and the loss of open, undeveloped or farmed land.

Know the source. It’s also important to know where our food is produced. Fruit, vegetables, meat and fish originating in other countries may not be subject to the same tough regulatory requirements found on U.S. farms and processing centers. That includes pesticides and fertilizers used, water sources for irrigation, and how safely — in terms of germs, bacteria and other contaminants — the food has been handled prior to shipping.

As food-production networks have become increasingly consolidated and globalized, the risk of food safety problems, such as food-borne illness, has also increased. The consolidation of meat and produce production, including animal slaughter and processing, means that there are more possibilities of improper processing, handling, or preparation affecting vast quantities of food. Tracing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses also becomes more difficult because the production and distribution of conventional food products often involves multiple farms, food processors, and food distributors.

Supporting sustainable growth and food distribution

Local food production/distribution networks often start on smaller, sustainable family farms. Farm products are transported over shorter geographic distances, generally processed either on the farm itself, or with smaller processors. Sustainable local food distribution networks rely on the direct-to-consumer market and the direct-to-retail, foodservice, and institutional market.

The direct-to-consumer market is currently the most established sector of local food distribution.  Direct-to-consumer means that all middlemen are cut out of the food distribution equation – farmers sell their products directly to consumers, rather than through third parties, such as grocery stores. Common direct-to-consumer operations include:

  • Farmers’ Markets: These are communal spaces in which multiple farmers gather to sell their farm products directly to consumers. Farmers’ markets may be municipally or privately managed and may be seasonal or year-round. Farmers may have to pay a vendor’s (or other similar) fee to participate, and usually transport their own farm products to the farmers’ market site.
  • Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs): These are direct-to-consumer programs in which consumers buy a “share” of a local farm’s projected harvest. Consumers are often required to pay for their share of the harvest up front; this arrangement distributes the risks and rewards of farming among both consumers and the farmer. CSA participants often pick up their CSA shares in a communal location, or the shares may be delivered directly to customers.
  • Other Direct-to-Consumer Programs: A much smaller proportion of the direct-to-consumer market are options such as pick-your-own farms, on-site farm stands and stores, and gleaning programs, in which consumers are invited to harvest crops that are left in fields, usually after harvest.

For information on locally grown food, and a listing of what’s available when and where across Connecticut, visit http://www.pickyourown.org/CT.htm. Additionally, if you’d like to find farmer’s markets close to where you live, check out http://www.visitconnecticut.com/state/farmers-markets/

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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!

Milking it

Whole milk, low-fat, two percent, silk, goat, almond, lactose free . . . there’s even coconut milk! Confused? If you’re wondering what is what and which is better — or best for you and your family — here’s a quick primer to help you sort out the fat from the soy in your dairy products.

If you’ve ever traipsed through the dairy aisle at your local grocer, you know there’s a wide assortment of milk choices. But the contents and differences can be confusing, and misleading to the uninformed. Some people (including babies) can’t digest whole milk — fortunately, there are many non-dairy “milk” products available to help provide critical proteins and nutrients typically found in milk. But for those of us who can’t imagine an Oreo, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or bowl of cereal without cold milk, here’s some facts that might help narrow your healthy choices.

The primary types of milk sold in stores are whole milk, reduced-fat milk (2%), low-fat milk (1%), and fat-free milk. The percentages included in the names of the milk indicate how much fat is in the milk by weight.

Whole milk is 3.5 percent milk fat and is the closest to the way it comes from the cow before processing. Consumers who want to cut calories and fat have multiple options: Reduced-fat milk contains 2 percent milk fat and low-fat milk contains 1 percent milk fat. Fat-free milk, also called nonfat or skim, contains no more than 0.2 percent milk fat.

All of these milks contain the nine essential nutrients found in whole milk, but less fat. The U.S. government sets minimum standards for fluid milk that is produced and sold. Reduced-fat milks have all of the nutrients of full-fat milk; no water is added to these types of milk.

There are many types of milk – different fat levels, lactose-free, flavored and plain, rBST-free, organic and conventionally produced. This variety allows consumers to choose the milk product that best matches their nutritional needs and personal preferences.  All milk and milk products have an irreplaceable package of nutrients that cannot be found in any other single food or beverage. Cup for cup, organic and regular milk contain the same nine essential nutrients – such as calcium, vitamin D and potassium – that make dairy products an essential part of a healthy diet.

Organic labeling is not a measure of the quality or safety of a product. As with all organic foods, it’s the process that makes milk organic, not the final product. Any differences between organic and conventionally-produced milk are not likely to have an impact on our health. According to the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA), milk and milk products can be labeled “organic” if the milk is from cows that have been exclusively fed organic feed with no mammalian or poultry by-products, have access to pasture throughout the grazing season, are not treated with synthetic hormones and are not given antibiotics. Due to the pasture feeding requirement, organic milk can have more omega-3 fatty acids. However this will vary depending on the season and other factors.

Milk is among the most highly regulated and safest foods available. Both conventionally produced and organic milk are routinely tested for antibiotics and pesticides and must comply with very stringent safety standards, ensuring that both organic milk and conventional milk are pure, safe and nutritious.

What’s most commonly referred to as simply “milk” is cow’s milk, a product of the cow’s mammary gland. As with all other animal-based foods, it’s a complete protein; that is, it supplies people with all the necessary amino acids to form proteins. Cow’s milk contains 8 grams of protein and 12 grams of carbohydrates per 8-ounce cup.

Cow’s milk is a rich source of other nutrients as well. One cup provides adults with about 30 percent of their daily calcium needs and about 50 percent of their vitamin B12 and riboflavin requirements. Often, milk is fortified with vitamin D to facilitate the absorption of calcium. Vitamin A is usually added to milk as well. But as already mentioned, depending on the selection, cow’s milk can have a significant amount of fat. (See chart )

Soy and non-dairy substitutes

Lactose, the primary carbohydrate in cow’s milk, poses a digestive problem for some people. These folks are deficient in the lactase enzyme that’s needed to break down this milk sugar, causing gas, bloating, and diarrhea after consuming some forms of dairy products. The solution is to purchase products with the lactose already broken down, to take the enzyme in the form of a pill or drops, or to find a substitute for these foods.

Soymilk is not technically milk, but a beverage made from soybeans. It is the liquid that remains after soybeans are soaked, finely ground, and then strained. Since it doesn’t contain any lactose, soymilk is suitable for consumers who are lactose-intolerant. It’s also a popular cow’s milk substitute for vegans and vegetarians since it’s based on a plant source (others include rice, oat, almond, coconut, and potato milk).

One cup of unfortified soymilk contains almost 7 grams of protein, 4 grams of carbohydrate, 4½ grams of fat, and no cholesterol. Although soymilk supplies some B vitamins, it’s not a good source of B12, nor does it provide a significant amount of calcium. Since many people substitute soy beverages for cow’s milk, manufacturers offer fortified versions. These varieties may include calcium and vitamins E, B12, and D, among other nutrients. If you do choose to use soymilk instead of cow’s milk, read labels carefully to be sure you’re getting enough of these important nutrients or consider getting them from alternative food sources.

Soymilk may help some people reduce their risk for heart disease. Soy naturally contains isoflavones, plant chemicals that help lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol) if taken as part of a “heart healthy” eating plan. The recommendation is to take in about 25 grams of soy protein per day. One cup of soymilk has about 7 to 10 grams of protein, depending on the brand. If you’re going to buy soy, go for the unflavored, organic soymilk in order to preserve the protein it contains.

Almond milk sales have climbed over the past few years, as it has been touted as a healthier alternative to milk and soymilk. It contains fewer calories than soy (90 calories in 8 ounces), no saturated fat or cholesterol, about 25 percent of our daily vitamin D, and almost half of our vitamin E requirement. Though almond milk has also been recognized for preventing heart disease, researchers don’t believe it has the same nutritional value as conventional milk, and it has very little protein.

Rice milk is processed, milled rice, blended with water until it transforms into a liquid. During the process, carbohydrates become sugar, giving it a natural sweetened taste. This sugary alternative is very low in nutrient value unless vitamins and calcium are added to it. It’s the least likely to trigger allergies, but contains almost no protein and has twice as many carbohydrates.

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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!