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 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 Additionally, if you’d like to find farmer’s markets close to where you live, check out

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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!

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:

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

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.


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!

Drink this in: What we should know about alcohol consumption

We humans are social animals. We like to mingle, compete, laugh, love and enjoy life. Consuming alcoholic beverages often plays a fairly significant role in that enjoyment by lowering inhibitions; for relaxing; and when involved in social activities. Many adults feel drinking wine or beer enhances a meal, and people often like how it feels when they are under the influence of alcohol.

In moderation, alcohol consumption isn’t considered bad for your health. But alcohol can fuel dangerous or addictive behaviors and contribute to a variety of life-threatening risks and illnesses, loss of productivity, poor judgment and other activities with potentially negative consequences.

So, how much is too much, and what detrimental effects of alcohol consumption should we know and avoid if we prefer to live a healthy lifestyle?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. Heavy drinking for women is considered eight or more drinks per weeks, or 15 or more for men. Binge drinking is when a woman consumes four or more alcoholic beverages in a sitting, and for men, five or more. Although men are more likely to drink alcohol and drink in larger amounts, gender differences in body structure and chemistry cause women to absorb more alcohol, and take longer to break it down and remove it from their bodies.

Drinking too much can harm your health. Excessive alcohol use leads to approximately 88,000 deaths each year in the United States.  Further, excessive drinking was responsible for one in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years. The economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption are estimated in excess of $223.5 billion, or $1.90 a drink.

Over the past several decades, many studies have been published in science journals about how drinking alcohol may be associated with reduced mortality due to heart disease in some populations.

Researchers are examining the potential benefits of components in red wine such as flavonoids and other antioxidants in reducing heart disease and clotting risk. Some of these components may be found in other foods such as grapes or red grape juice. The linkage reported in many of these studies also may be due to other lifestyle factors rather than alcohol, such as increased physical activity, and controlling our weight through a diet high in fruits and vegetables and lower in saturated fats. There is no scientific proof that drinking wine or any other alcoholic beverage can replace these conventional measures.

How it works, and physical consequences

Alcohol enters our bloodstream as soon as we take our first sip. Alcohol’s immediate effects can appear within about 10 minutes. As we drink, it increases the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level, which is the amount of alcohol present in our bloodstream.  The higher our BAC, the more impaired we become by alcohol’s effects.

Drinking too much — on a single occasion or over time — can take a serious toll on our health.  Here’s how alcohol can affect our body.

Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.  Additionally, drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including:

  • Cardiomyopathy — stretching and drooping of heart muscle
  • Arrhythmias — irregular heart beat
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure

Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including steatosis, or fatty liver; alcoholic hepatitis; fibrosis; and cirrhosis. Alcohol also causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion. 

Drinking too much alcohol can increase our risk of developing certain cancers, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver and breast. And finally, drinking too much can weaken our immune system, making our body a much easier target for disease.  Imbibing, even on a single occasion, slows our body’s ability to ward off infections — even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.

Here are a few other items to consider. Even though it may help us fall asleep, alcohol consumption interferes with restful sleep, and promotes dehydration. It can cause or contribute to depression and anxiety, affect sexual performance, may disrupt menstrual cycling, and increase the risk of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery.

So, while there appear to be many negative consequences linked to alcohol consumption, that isn’t necessarily a prescription for teetotaling or avoidance — it’s a personal choice. Alcohol plays a significant role in our culture. As in so many things that we consume and other health- and wellness-related behaviors, it’s about moderation, information, common sense and understanding the risks and benefits associated with anything we do or put in our bodies.


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!

Good fish, bad fish

When you stop to consider that most of the earth is covered by water, it’s a wonder that our diets aren’t primarily made up of seafood. But we’re land dwellers, and it’s far easier to chase something on the ground or dig it out of the garden than to rustle up dinner from the ocean. Still, fish are an inherently healthy food source — or were, at least, before we started polluting the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes. Much of our “fresh” fish is now farmed, as well, and can be treated with antibiotics or fed contaminants that aren’t good for us in larger quantities.

So how do we know what is safe to consume, how much, and when it’s good or bad for us?

Fish is a good source of protein and, unlike fatty meat products, it’s not high in saturated fat. Fish also is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.  Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the heart of healthy people and those at high risk of — or who have — cardiovascular disease.  Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids decrease risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats), which can lead to sudden cardiac death. Omega-3 fatty acids also decrease triglyceride levels, slow the growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque and lower blood pressure.

Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are high in two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids which have demonstrated benefits at reducing heart disease.

That’s all positive. But here’s the negative: Some types of fish may contain high levels of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins and other environmental contaminants. Levels of these substances are generally highest in older, larger predatory fish and marine mammals.

The benefits and risks of eating fish vary depending on a person’s stage of life:

  • Children and pregnant women are advised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to avoid eating those fish with the potential for the highest level of mercury contamination (e.g., shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish); to eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) per week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury (e.g., canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, catfish).
  • For middle-aged and older men and postmenopausal women, the benefits of eating fish far outweigh the potential risks when the amount of fish that are eaten is within the recommendations established by the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Eating a variety of fish will help minimize any potentially adverse effects due to environmental pollutants.

Nutritional experts recommend eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times (two servings) a week. Each serving should be approximately 3.5 ounces cooked, or about three-quarters of a cup of flaked fish.  Enjoy fish baked or grilled, not fried.  Choose low-sodium, low-fat seasonings such as spices, herbs, lemon juice and other flavorings in cooking and at the table. 

For many people, tuna is a lunchtime staple. The FDA and EPA continue to recommend that no more than six ounces of fish per week (of your 8 to 12 ounces weekly) should be white (albacore) tuna. Although canned light tuna is lower in mercury, albacore tuna has more of it.

Five of the most commonly eaten fish or shellfish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.   

Avoid eating shark, swordfish, king Mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury. Also, be careful when buying canned seafood, as cans often are lined with a BPA-plastic coating. Look for seafood packed in shelf-stable, flexible pouches, as this is the environmentally preferable packaging.

Regardless of your age or gender, check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in local lakes, rivers and coastal areas. If local advice isn’t available, you should eat six ounces or less of these locally caught fish per week, and children should eat no more than one to three ounces per week. Then avoid eating other fish for the rest of the week.

Potential exposure to some contaminants can be reduced by removing the skin and surface fat from these fish before cooking. Consumers should also check with local and state authorities about types of fish and watersheds that may be contaminated and visit the FDA website for the most up-to-date information on recommendations for specific subgroups of the U.S. population such as children and pregnant women.

Last, but not least, another important consideration when you consume fish should be about environmental sustainability. Some varieties of seafood have been overfished or caught in ways that may cause lasting damage to our oceans and marine life. Here are some basic rules to make smart seafood shopping choices that are good for your health and the health of our oceans.

  • Eat fish that are lower on the food chain – typically, smaller fish are more plentiful and contain less mercury.
  • Know how sustainable your seafood choices are. This link to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide provides valuable information on which fisheries provide the most sustainable seafood choices, based on health and a variety of other measurements.
  • Buy American. The United States has stricter fishing and farming standards than do other parts of the world.
  • Know how it’s caught. Hook and line is a low-impact method of fishing that does not damage the seafloor and let’s fisherman use intelligently designed traps and throw back unwanted species.
  • Eat Local. You’re usually better off eating the local variety of a particular type of fish instead of its counterpart from across the country or another part of the world, unless that species has been depleted in local waters. Even out of season, the local fish that has been frozen is preferable, since fresh fish must be transported by air, the most energy-intensive method of shipping.
  • Look for the label. The Marine Stewardship Council certifies seafood that is caught or raised in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner. Items that meet its criteria are marked with a MSC-certified label.


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!

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

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!