Preserving our health

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

Understanding and limiting the wide variety of preservatives and additives used in our food is another side to the healthy-eating equation. Food additives are substances that become part of a food product when they are added during the processing or making of that food. “Direct” food additives — which may be man-made or natural — are often added during processing to provide nutrients, help process or prepare the food, keep the product fresh, or make it more appealing. This includes emulsifiers that prevent liquid products from separating, stabilizers and thickeners that provide an even texture, and anti-caking agents that allow substances to flow freely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a guideline, to include a “sodium-free or salt-free” claim on the label, a product cannot exceed 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.  A product with a “low sodium” claim must not exceed 140 mg per serving.  A “no salt added or unsalted” claim on the label does not mean the food is “sodium free.”  Compare food labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium. Also, look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark to find foods that can be part of a heart-healthy diet. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification. You can learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program and find foods that are currently certified by visiting heartcheckmark.org.

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

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

Calling all nuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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!

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.

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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!

Mmm, mmm . . . almost good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preserving our health

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

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

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

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

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

When it comes to vitamins, C it all clearly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where to find it, and where not

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

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

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

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

Vegetables that have the highest amounts of Vitamin C include: 

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

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

Spring into action on your personal health plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is butter better?

So when you drop your slice of bread on the kitchen floor, does it land butter side down — or margarine side up?!  Does it matter? “Only if you eat it,” might be the prudent answer. . .since there’s a significant health difference, nutritionally speaking, between butter, margarine and the oils and spreads we use for cooking and food preparation.

Taste, of course, is often the driving force, as well as what kind of food you’re cooking and how you’re cooking it. But the truth will set you nutritionally free…and it typically has more to do with understanding the difference between good and bad fats.

But to answer our initial question, both butter and hard margarine have drawbacks. They each contain a lot of fat and calories. They also contain some of the worst types of fat, both saturated fat and trans fat. Butter has a high amount of saturated fat and some trans fat, while many hard margarines are made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils so they contain a high amount of trans fat in addition to saturated fat. Both of these bad fats can raise your blood cholesterol and contribute to atherosclerosis (when plaque is created that can block arteries leading to the heart and brain).

A better choice for your health is a liquid margarine, or a soft margarine in a tub. These are made with less partially hydrogenated fat than hard stick margarine. Look for margarines that are free of trans fat. 

Ultimately, though, understanding which fats raise LDL cholesterol and which ones don’t is the first step in lowering our risk of heart disease. In addition to the LDL produced naturally by our body, saturated fat, trans-fatty acids and dietary cholesterol can also raise blood cholesterol. Monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats appear to not raise LDL cholesterol; some studies suggest they might even help lower LDL cholesterol slightly when eaten as part of a low-saturated and trans-fat diet.

Know your fats

Saturated fat: This is the main dietary cause of high blood cholesterol. Saturated fat is found mostly in foods from animals and some plants. Foods from animals include beef, beef fat, veal, lamb, pork, lard, poultry fat, butter, cream, milk, cheeses and other dairy products made from whole and 2 percent milk. All of these foods also contain dietary cholesterol. Foods from plants that contain saturated fat include coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil (often called tropical oils), and cocoa butter.

Hydrogenated fat: During food processing, fats may undergo a chemical process called hydrogenation. This is common in margarine and shortening. These fats also raise blood cholesterol.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats: Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are the two unsaturated fats. They’re found mainly in many fish, nuts, seeds and oils from plants. Some examples of foods that contain these fats include salmon, trout, herring, avocados, olives, walnuts and liquid vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive and sunflower.

Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats may help lower your blood cholesterol level when you use them in place of saturated and trans fats. Keep total fat intake between 25 and 35 percent of calories, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids such as fish, nuts and vegetable oils.

Trans Fatty Acids and Hydrogenated Fats: Trans-fatty acids (TFA) are found in small amounts in various animal products such as beef, pork, lamb and the butterfat in butter and milk.

TFA are also formed during the process of hydrogenation, making margarine, shortening, cooking oils and the foods made from them a major source of TFA in the American diet. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils provide about three-fourths of the TFA in the U.S. diet. The trans fat content of foods is printed on the package of the Nutrition Facts label. Keep trans fat intake to less than 1 percent of total calories. For example, if you need 2,000 calories a day, you should consume less than 2 grams of trans fat.

In clinical studies, TFA or hydrogenated fats tended to raise total blood cholesterol levels. Some scientists believe they raise cholesterol levels more than saturated fats. TFA also tend to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol when used instead of natural oils. These changes may increase the risk of heart disease.

Based on current data, the American Heart Association recommends that consumers follow these tips:

  • Choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole-grain, high-fiber foods, and fat-free and low-fat dairy.
  • Keep total fat intake between 25 and 35 percent of calories, with most fats coming from sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as fish, nuts, seeds and vegetable oils most often.
  • Use naturally occurring, unhydrogenated vegetable oils such as canola, safflower, sunflower or olive oil as often as possible.
  • Look for processed foods made with unhydrogenated oil rather than partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated vegetable oils or saturated fat.
  • Use soft margarine as a substitute for butter, and choose soft margarines (liquid or tub varieties) over harder stick forms. Look for “0 g trans fat” on the Nutrition Facts label.
  • French fries, doughnuts, cookies, crackers, muffins, pies and cakes are examples of foods that are high in trans fat. Avoid them as much as possible. 
  • Limit the saturated fat in your diet. If you don’t eat a lot of saturated fat, you won’t be consuming a lot of trans fat.
  • Limit commercially fried foods and baked goods made with shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. Not only are these foods high in fat, but that fat is also likely to be very hydrogenated, meaning a lot of trans fat.

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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!

Bacon-wrapped scallop or a carrot? Why not both?!

As you’re about to dip your lemon square into the chocolate fondue, stop for a moment and contemplate what you’re doing. Yes, it’s going to taste fantastically yummy, and you’ll love every bite. But you’re probably going to feel guilty later, especially if you washed it down with some eggnog and cheesecake. Plus, it’s likely going right to your hips and arteries and, without doubt, will make losing weight come January that much tougher. Guilt is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

Well, no, actually it isn’t! In fact, placating our guilt is one of the reasons we overindulge, so finding alternative nutritional options and setting achievable goals are critical.

Awareness and compromise are factors within our control. American adults on average gain between two and seven pounds every holiday season. It’s easy to see how with wall-to-wall parties, sweet treats, alcohol consumption, and gatherings with friends, family and co-workers. But nobody’s suggesting you have to starve or deny yourself some enjoyment; moderation and common sense can prevail, and you’ll still have a great time!

Setting the simple goal of trying to maintain your current weight is one easy option. Eating healthy foods every chance you get is another. And turning down desserts or fattening beverages, and substituting healthy alternatives like fruit and veggies, yogurt, water and low-fat alternatives will help. Finding time to walk and exercise, especially in the midst of December chaos, is truly beneficial. And ensuring you get enough sleep, eat at regular intervals and carve out some “me time” will help fight stress, mental fatigue and physical exhaustion.

Here are some basic tips for enjoying yourself at the holidays and for not overindulging:

  • Practice awareness. Be conscious of what you eat and how much. Allow yourself some special treats at the holidays but have moderate servings. When there’s a lot of food available, try appetizer-sized helpings instead of dishing up a full serving. Don’t deprive yourself, but be aware of content and calories. When possible, avoid foods rich in fats, salt, sugar and preservatives. And remember, alcohol reduces your will to practice good eating habits.
  • Be realistic. December is not the best time for weight loss. Try to maintain weight instead of losing it. Keep it all in perspective — you don’t have to indulge every minute from Thanksgiving until the Super Bowl. Allow some treats for those special days, then get back into your healthy routine the next day.
  • Manage stress and emotions. One way to keep stress at a minimum is to lower your expectations about holidays. Ask for help to lighten your holiday schedule. Host a potluck holiday meal instead of cooking dinner. Or serve it buffet style instead of having a sit-down meal. Learn to say “no,” in a courteous manner, to activities and food that aren’t in your best interest. And at social events, don’t fill silence with food. Talk and make new friends, and even if you’re sad, try turning to people for comfort instead of food.
  • Plan in advance. Eat a little before you go to a holiday gathering — hunger can undo the best intentions. Also, avoid sources of temptation whenever you can. After visiting a buffet, leave the room that’s filled with food. If there are sweets in the office break room, don’t go there. If you’re given unhealthy food as a gift, bring it to the office or to a friend’s house to share. Also, if you’re traveling for the holidays, pick up some healthy, portable snacks before you leave so you’re less likely to be tempted by unhealthy options.
  • Remain physically active. That doesn’t mean running to the store every five minutes — it’s walking on the treadmill, working out at home or at your favorite gym, keeping your yoga appointments, and taking a hike on a mild winter day. Exercise is great for reducing stress and working off some of those extra holiday calories!
  • Make a personal wellness plan. Since January is right around the corner, start thinking now about exercise, nutrition, health and weight goals for the New Year. Make appointments with your physician or a nutritionist. Look for fitness-related classes like spinning, swimming or yoga, or a gym that’s right for you. Write down your goals, post them where you’ll see them every day, and share them with another person.

Most importantly, consider what really matters during this busy time of year, and plan accordingly. Figure out what you absolutely have to do, then let go of the rest. Our overall goal should be trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle both in and outside of the fall and winter feasting season. Constant weight gains and losses can be harmful to our health and our psyches. Balance, moderation, and flexibility are keys to better health…and celebrations are really about family and friends, not 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!

Tell the fairy to keep the sweet tooth

Oh, how we love our sugar. As we come off our annual Halloween high and contemplate the approaching holidays, now would be a good time to take stock of how our individual and collective sweet teeth are affecting our personal health and the healthcare costs we all help shoulder.

In the United States alone, 25.8 million children and adults — 8.3 percent of the population — have diabetes. Only 18.8 million have been diagnosed, meaning another 7 million are walking around sick, and medical researchers estimate that 79 million people are pre-diabetic, with 1.9 million new cases of diabetes diagnosed annually in people aged 20 and older.

According to the National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, Type 2 diabetes has become one of the most common and costly diseases in the United States and around the world, creating an enormous, and costly, strain on the U.S. healthcare system.

Beyond the physical and quality-of-life costs, the costs of diagnosed diabetes in the United States are approximately $245 billion, including $176 billion for direct medical costs. Complications include heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, kidney and nervous system diseases, blindness and an increased risk of amputation of lower limbs from complications including poor circulation and wounds.

According to researchers, the side effects of diabetes also represent $69 billion in reduced productivity. And after adjusting for population age and sex differences, average medical expenditures among people with diagnosed diabetes were 2.3 times higher than what expenditures would be in the absence of diabetes.

With November being Diabetes Awareness Month, this is a good time to take stock of your diet and exercise routines. Studies by the National Diabetes Research Foundation have determined that just 30 minutes of moderate physical activity daily, and a 5 percent to 10 percent reduction in body weight can reduce the risk of diabetes by almost 60 percent. To help you achieve these goals, here are healthy living tips for the whole family:

  • Try to eat regular, balanced meals every four to five hours. Smaller amounts eaten more often are better for healthy blood-sugar levels
  • Eat carbohydrates in moderation. Carbohydrates raise blood sugar more than foods with protein or fat. Carbohydrates include milk, fruit, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, corn and peas.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Eat more fiber from whole grains and dried beans.
  • Eat less fat and less saturated fat. Choose lean meats, low-fat dairy products and low-fat snack foods.
  • Use drinks that do not raise blood sugar such as water, diet soda, coffee and tea.
  • Choose desserts occasionally. Look for dessert foods that are lower in carbohydrates and fat.
  • Read labels, and be aware of your sugar intake – for example, one teaspoon of granulated sugar equals 4 grams of sugar. To put it another way, 16 grams of sugar in a product is equal to about 4 teaspoons of granulated sugar.
  • As possible, avoid or limit products with high fructose corn syrup, a commonly added sweetener found in most processed foods.
  • Look for healthy substitutes, such as mustard in place of ketchup, and avoid condiments like barbeque sauce, sweet relish and other flavor enhancers high in calories, fat, sodium and sugar.

While watching your nutritional intake and snacking is important, walking and moderate exercise every day or every other day also plays a critical role in preventing weight gain, reducing stress, strengthening heart health and reducing chances for diabetes later in life. We don’t have to punish ourselves — a little candy and dessert is good for our souls — but if eaten in moderation, your chances of avoiding sugar-related health issues will improve exponentially and that’s pretty sweet!

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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!