Eat lots of leafy vegetables, oKay?

Vitamin K doesn’t typically get as much media attention as other vitamins, but this lesser known nutritional family plays a key role in helping the blood clot and preventing excessive bleeding.

Vitamin K refers to two naturally occurring fat-soluble vitamins, vitamin K1 and vitamin K2. Vitamin K1 is made by plants and Vitamin K2 is typically produced in the large intestine by bacteria. Vitamins K3, K4 and K5 also exist — they are synthetic forms and are used to inhibit fungal growth as well as by the pet food industry. Vitamin K also is involved in building bone, and low levels of circulating Vitamin K have been linked with low bone density. In fact, research indicates that healthy Vitamin K intake can help reduce incidences of hip fractures from falls as we age and help strengthen bone mass, overall.

Vitamin K helps make four of the 13 proteins needed for blood clotting. Its role in maintaining proper clotting is so important that people who take anticoagulants such as warfarin (Coumadin) must be careful to keep their vitamin K intake stable.

Only one in four Americans gets enough Vitamin K through his or her diet. Produce containing Vitamin K1 includes green leafy vegetables such as kale, spinach, turnip greens, collards, Swiss chard, mustard greens, parsley, romaine, and green leaf lettuce, as well as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus and cabbage. Vitamin K2 compounds are found in meats, cheeses and eggs, and are synthesized by bacteria. Other good sources of Vitamin K include beans and soybeans, strawberries, and fish.

Vitamin K1 is the main form of vitamin K supplement available in the U.S., though it’s not typically prescribed. Low levels of vitamin K can raise the risk of uncontrolled bleeding. While vitamin K deficiencies are rare in adults, they are very common in newborn infants. A single injection of vitamin K for newborns is standard. Vitamin K is also used to counteract an overdose of the blood thinner, Coumadin.

While vitamin K deficiencies are uncommon, you may be at higher risk if you:

  • Have a disease that affects absorption in the digestive tract, such as Crohn’s disease or active celiac disease
  • Take drugs that interfere with vitamin K absorption
  • Are severely malnourished
  • Drink alcohol heavily

Side effects of oral vitamin K at recommended doses are rare. However, many drugs can interfere with the effects of vitamin K. They include antacids, blood thinners, antibiotics, aspirin, and drugs for cancer, seizures, high cholesterol, and other conditions. You should not use vitamin K supplements unless your healthcare provider tells you to. People using Coumadin for heart problems, clotting disorders, or other conditions may need to watch their diets closely to control the amount of vitamin K they take in.

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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!

Putting nature’s ‘super foods’ to work

When you think of comfort foods, mashed potatoes, meatloaf and your grandmother’s fruit pies may come to mind. While all three may satisfy your nostalgic cravings, the pies don’t just taste good; many of them are really good for you, too! That’s because when they’re filled with berries — especially seasonal and locally grown varieties such as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries — they’re loaded in healthy antioxidants that fight disease, reduce stress and help keep you well.

Berries and other fruit are nature’s “super foods.” Whether you enjoy eating wild or domestic berries, cook them, put them in pies, yogurt or fruit salads or eat them right off the plant or bush, you’re getting a boatload of healthy antioxidants, important disease-fighting compounds. Scientists believe they help prevent and repair the stress that comes from oxidation, a natural process that occurs during normal cell function. A small percentage of cells become damaged during oxidation and turn into free radicals, which can start a chain reaction to harming more cells and possibly unleashing disease. Unchecked free radical activity has been linked to cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

Cranberries, blueberries, and blackberries rank highest among the fruits researchers have studied. Apples run a close second, and dried fruits ranked highly, as well. Peaches, mangos, and melons, while scoring lower than berries, still contain plenty of antioxidants as well as other nutrients.

Variety is the key

Even though many fruits and some vegetables have high antioxidant content, the body does not absorb all of it. Bioavailability has to do with how our bodies absorb, or metabolize food, and how different foods interact in our bodies.

That’s why variety in our diet is important. By eating as many antioxidant-rich foods as possible, we’re likely to reap the most benefits. With berries at the top of the antioxidant food chain, the more berries the better our chances of improving our health.

More than 300 studies also cite plentiful antioxidants in red wine, grape juice, grape seed, and grape skin extracts. Red wine is loaded with flavonoids like anthocyanidins and catechins, which, according to studies, slows the process of clogging arteries and heart disease.

Many of the same flavonoids are found in black and green tea as well as dark chocolate, but the bulk of research has been on grape flavonoids. Researchers say that flavonoids may help promote heart health by preventing blood clots (which can trigger a heart attack or stroke), prevent cholesterol from damaging blood vessel walls, improve the health of arteries (making them expand and contract more easily), and stimulate the production of nitric oxide, which may prevent hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).

Counting on antioxidants

If you can find them, wild blueberries are the best, overall. Just one cup has 13,427 total antioxidants — vitamins A & C, plus flavonoids (a type of antioxidant) like querticin and anthocyanidin. That’s about 10 times the USDA’s daily recommendation, in just one cup. Cultivated blueberries have 9,019 per cup and are equally vitamin-rich.

Cranberries also are antioxidant powerhouses (8,983 antioxidants). Dried cranberries are great in cereal and salads, in pasta, and trail mixes. Blackberries (7,701), raspberries (6,058), strawberries (5,938), black plums (4,873), sweet cherries (4,873), and red grapes (2,016) are also brimming with vitamins A and C and flavonoids like catechin, epicatechin, quercetin, and anthocyanidin.

Apples are also vitamin- and antioxidant-rich. The classic Red Delicious (5,900), Granny Smith (5,381), Gala (3,903), and many other varieties are available nearly year-round. Applesauce, juice, and jellies are convenient apple sources, though prepared foods often have added sugar, which isn’t good for you.

Orange-colored fruits also are good sources of antioxidants. One naval orange has 2,540; the juice has about half that. Mangoes have 1,653. A peach has 1,826, tangerines, 1,361, and pineapple, 1,229.

Finally, dried versions of these fruits are smaller, but they still have plenty of antioxidants. For instance, here’s the antioxidant content in these dried fruits: Prunes (7,291), dates (3,467), figs (2,537), and raisins (2,490). Some people prefer the taste or texture of certain dried fruits over fresh ones. Dried cranberries are a prime example — they tend to be much less tart than the fresh variety.

So however you eat or drink them, seek out and enjoy berries year round, but especially now, when they’re easy to find, reasonably priced, and locally grown.

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Hold the gluten, please

Chances are, growing up you never heard of glutens or of Celiac Disease. Theories abound for why cases of this digestive disorder have become so prevalent, but there’s no denying that gluten sensitivities, allergies and related maladies such as lactose intolerance, Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and heartburn are tying our stomachs up in knots.

We’re all bombarded by tempting pastries, cakes and cookies, pasta and breads of every sort. For people who have or suspect they may have issues related to grains, eating healthfully poses a problem. But what exactly is “grain sensitivity” such as gluten intolerance or Celiac Disease, and how can you determine if you have it?

May is National Celiac Disease Awareness Month. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease in which a person can’t tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten shows up in bread and pasta, but may also hide in many other foods such as cold cuts, salad dressings, beer and even candy and sweetened drinks.

If a person with Celiac Disease eats gluten, the lining of their small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged. That hampers the absorption of nutrients and can lead to malnutrition and weight loss. Celiac patients also struggle with symptoms such as diarrhea, stomach upset, abdominal pain, and bloating. While only one percent of Americans have Celiac Disease, as many as 10 percent may be gluten sensitive, which often causes similar symptoms, but doesn’t appear to damage the patients’ intestines.

Celiac Disease may take years to diagnose because people don’t seek medical help, and because doctors often mistake it for IBS or other stomach disorders. It’s often a waiting game, and a process of testing and running through a list of possible culprits. For long-term sufferers, years of poor calcium absorption, a related side effect, can lead to joint and tooth problems and, for women, delayed menstruation. Besides gastrointestinal symptoms, gluten-sensitive people often complain of fatigue and headaches, as well.

Celiac Disease is on the rise, with rates doubling about every 20 years in Western countries.  Ironically, researchers suspect that hygiene may play a role in that expansion. Due to far cleaner environments and hygiene, children today aren’t exposed to as many antigens in the environment while their immune systems are developing. This, it’s theorized, may result in our immune systems responding intolerantly toward glutens.

Though Celiac Disease can be diagnosed through a blood test and an intestinal biopsy, there’s no reliable test for gluten sensitivity. Diagnosis requires a historical perspective (it often runs in families) and discussion and tracking of symptoms. In fact, patients are typically asked to eat glutens so the body produces antibodies for the blood test to detect Celiac disease. If a person simply stops ingesting gluten, a Celiac Disease diagnosis can be missed or delayed.

The “good news,” at least for people with gluten allergies or sensitivities, is that a strict, gluten-free diet can typically allow the intestines to restore themselves to health and alleviate suffering.  Supermarkets and health food stores now carry a variety of gluten-free products, and new labeling requirements on processed foods do a better job of listing ingredients. Many restaurants and take-out food services have gluten-free products, as well.

It’s important to note, though, that while gluten-free eating is life-changing for many, if you don’t have gluten sensitivities or Celiac Disease, going “gluten free” is not good for your health. Contrary to common belief, a gluten-free diet won’t aid weight loss, and can cause deficiencies in iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium, fiber, and other nutrients that we typically gain through bread, cereals and other grains that are fortified. Additionally, gluten-free products on store shelves are typically higher in carbohydrates, fat and sodium, and lower in fiber.

With proper direction, people can bake healthier breads at home, varieties that are higher in fiber and protein and made with gluten-free grains that have been certified to be uncontaminated and gluten-free, such as quinoa, amaranth, or millet. Either way, if you suspect you may be gluten sensitive, talk with your physician – there is hope, and there are many tasty alternatives!

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Big Eyes, Big Plates, Big Bellies

Come spring, there are two feared words certain to cause emotional distress and anxiety, trigger subconscious rumblings, and often motivate us to the equivalent of fight or flight action. Ready? Here they come:  Bathing suits!

If you’re on top of your game physically and nutritionally, you may not have to crack a sweat worrying about your body shape, weight, physical image, and related health factors like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, increased blood pressure, and raised cholesterol levels. But if you’re like many of us, you’re likely coming off the winter months weighing more than you’d like and beyond the healthy weight and body mass index your doctor recommends.

The well-tested and reliable combination of healthy eating and exercise always is a major factor in fighting the battle of bulges. But cutting carbs, salt and sugars, reducing processed foods, increasing proteins and adding fiber is only part of the battle. Understanding what you’re eating – and how much is appropriate – is the other side of the nutritional coin.

Eliminating “portion distortion”

According to the National Institutes of Health, a portion is how much food you choose to eat at one time, whether in a restaurant, from a package, or in your own kitchen. A “serving size is the amount of food listed on a product’s Nutrition Facts.

Sometimes the portion size and serving size match; sometimes they do not. Over the past years, portions have grown significantly in fast-food and sit-down restaurants, as has the frequency of Americans eating out. Subsequently, waistlines across the United States have grown right along with this trend.  

Big portion sizes can mean you’re getting more food than your body can stomach to maintain a healthy weight. It’s important to learn how much to put on your plate to help control how much you eat. Consider these statistics from the American Heart Association study, “A Nation at Risk: Obesity in the United States:”

  • Adults today consume an average of 300 more calories per day than they did in 1985.
  • Americans eat out much more than they used to.
  • Portion sizes for foods and beverages have grown dramatically over the last 40 years, up to five times more than their original size
  • Portions for many of these foods now exceed federal recommended standards by as much as eight times.

Tracking your calories helps you monitor your weight. It helps to know what the appropriate serving size is so you can correctly estimate the calories in your portions, especially if you dine out a lot. Portion sizes that are typically offered in restaurants are often double or triple the standard recommended serving sizes of most foods. Using a food diary can help you pay closer attention to what you’re eating, how much and how often.

You may see that the portions you’re consuming are often more than what you need to eat to keep your body at a healthy weight. It’s critical to establish a total eating pattern which balances calories consumed versus calories expended in one day.

Eating with the season

Seasonally related nutrition requires a quick lesson in anthropology. Winter, unlike the warm-weather growing season, was not a time of caloric abundance. Centuries and millennia ago, food was markedly scarcer in the winter.

Nature made up for this annual caloric shortfall with the final ripening, at the end of the growing season, of carbohydrate-rich produce such as squash, pumpkins, beans and potatoes. Notice that as the growing season draws to a close each fall we enjoy acorn squash, pumpkin pie, zucchini bread and stews made sweet with root vegetables.

All of these are foods designed by nature to provide one more chance to increase the likelihood of our surviving through the winter. Then, when spring finally arrived, we began to restore our nutritional reserves with the first crops to appear:  Small green shoots, like asparagus, and then leaves low in calories but rich in nutrients.

Today we enjoy eating in abundance straight through the winter, and arrive at spring with our winter insulation intact.

But nature, again, has provided a perfect solution. Spring is a great time of the year to eat seasonal, local produce. Greens, parsley, asparagus and rhubarb are coming up. There’s thyme, and rosemary and sage, too, to sprinkle on salads. Eat plenty of greens all year round, but especially in the spring.

And while you’re thinking about healthy eating, here’s an important note on carbs. While some people will embark on low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss in the short run, these are not sustainable. Completely restricting carbohydrates in our diets is often not a realistic or even healthy approach for a long-term weight management plan or a healthy lifestyle. Carbs are what give us energy, so we have to make smart choices when it comes to selecting the best ones for us.


 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!

Our Kidneys Are Important; Take Care of Them

We have two kidneys. They are fist-sized and located in the middle of our back, on the left and right sides of our spine. The kidneys filter our blood, removing wastes and extra water to make urine. They also help control blood pressure and make hormones that our body needs to stay healthy.

When the kidneys are damaged, they can’t filter waste effectively, which then can build up in the body. For most people, kidney damage occurs slowly over many years, often due to diabetes or high blood pressure. This is called chronic kidney disease. When someone has a sudden change in kidney function — because of illness, or injury, or have taken certain medications — this is called acute kidney injury. This can occur in a person with normal kidneys or in someone who already has kidney problems.

Kidney disease is a growing problem. More than 20 million Americans may have kidney disease and many more are at risk. Anyone can develop kidney disease, regardless of age or race. April is National Kidney Month, and a good opportunity to think about improving your diet to prevent damage to your kidneys and a whole host of other nutrition-related health issues. The main risk factors for developing kidney disease include diabetes, high-blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and a family history of kidney failure.

Early kidney disease has no signs or symptoms. You may not feel any different until your kidney disease is very advanced. Blood and urine tests are the only way to know if you have kidney disease. A blood test checks your glomerular filtration rate (GFR), which tells how well your kidneys are filtering. A urine test checks for protein in your urine.

The sooner you know you have kidney disease, the sooner you can get treatment to help delay or prevent kidney failure. Treatment may include taking medicines called ACE inhibitors or ARBs to manage high blood pressure and keep your kidneys healthier longer. Treating kidney disease may also help prevent heart disease.

Lose your salt shaker

What you eat and drink can help prevent or slow down chronic kidney disease. Some foods are better for your kidneys than others. Cooking and preparing your food from scratch can help you eat healthier.

The first steps to eating right involve choosing and preparing foods with less salt and sodium. To help control your blood pressure, your diet should contain less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day. Here are five simple steps for healthier eating:

Step 1: Buy fresh food more often. Sodium (a part of salt) is added to many packaged foods.

  • Use spices, herbs, and sodium-free seasonings in place of salt
  • Check the Nutrition Facts label on food packages for sodium — Daily Value of 20 percent or more means the food is high in sodium
  • Try lower-sodium versions of frozen dinners and other convenience foods
  • Rinse canned vegetables, beans, meats, and fish with water before eating
  • Look for food labels that say “sodium free, salt free, low sodium, reduced or less sodium, no salt added, unsalted or lightly salted.

Step 2: Eat the right amount and the right types of protein. To help protect your kidneys, eat small portions of higher-protein foods. Protein is found in foods from plants and animals. You can talk to your physician, nutritionist or dietitian about how to choose the right combination for you. Animal-protein foods include chicken, fish, meat, eggs and dairy. Plant-protein foods include beans, nuts and grains.

Step 3: Choose foods that are healthy for your heart. To help keep fat from building up in your blood vessels, heart, and kidneys, grill, broil,  bake, roast, or stir-fry foods, instead of deep frying. Cook with nonstick cooking spray or a small amount of olive oil instead of butter. And trim fat from meat and remove skin from poultry before eating. Heart-healthy foods include:

  • Lean cuts of meat, like loin or round
  • Poultry without the skin
  • Fish
  • Beans
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese

Step 4: Choose foods with less phosphorus. Phosphorus helps protect your bones and blood vessels, but too much isn’t good for us. Many packaged foods have added phosphorus. Look for phosphorus — or for words with “PHOS” — on ingredient labels. Deli meats and some fresh meat and poultry can have added phosphorus. Ask your butcher to help you pick fresh meats without added phosphorus.

Foods lower in phosphorus include:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Breads, pasta, rice
  • Rice milk (not enriched)
  • Corn and rice cereals
  • Light-colored sodas/pop

Foods higher in phosphorus include:

  • Meat, poultry, fish
  • Bran cereals and oatmeal
  • Dairy foods
  • Beans, lentils, nuts
  • Colas

Step 5: Choose foods that have the right amount of potassium. Potassium helps our nerves and muscles work the right way. Salt substitutes can be very high in potassium, so it’s important to find a balance, since too much salt isn’t good for us, either. Read the ingredient label, and check with your provider about using salt substitutes.

Foods lower in potassium include:

  • Apples, peaches
  • Carrots, green beans
  • White bread and pasta
  • White rice
  • Rice milk (not enriched)
  • Cooked rice and wheat cereals, grits

Foods higher in potassium include:

  • Oranges, bananas
  • Potatoes, tomatoes
  • Brown and wild rice
  • Bran cereals
  • Dairy foods
  • Whole wheat bread and pasta
  • Beans and nuts


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!

Folic Acid Helps You B Healthier — and Happier

Vitamin B9, also called folate or folic acid, is one of eight B vitamins. All B vitamins help the body convert food (carbohydrates) into fuel (glucose), which is used to produce energy. These B vitamins, often referred to as B-complex vitamins, also help the body use fats and protein. B-complex vitamins are needed for healthy skin, hair, eyes, and liver. They also help the nervous system function properly. Folic acid is the synthetic form of B9, found in supplements and fortified foods, while folate occurs naturally in foods. All the B vitamins are water-soluble, meaning that the body does not store them.

Folic acid is crucial for proper brain function and plays an important role in mental and emotional health. It aids in the production of DNA and RNA, the body’s genetic material, and is especially important when cells and tissues are growing rapidly, such as in infancy, adolescence, and pregnancy. Folic acid also works closely with vitamin B12 to help make red blood cells and help iron work properly in the body.

Alcoholism, inflammatory bowel disease, and celiac disease can cause folic acid deficiency. Also, certain medications may lower levels of folic acid in the body. Folic acid deficiency can cause poor growth, tongue inflammation, gingivitis, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, diarrhea, irritability, forgetfulness, and mental sluggishness.

Folic acid is used for preventing and treating low blood levels of folic acid (folic acid deficiency), as well as its complications, including “tired blood” (anemia) and the inability of the bowel to absorb nutrients properly. Folic acid is also used for other conditions commonly associated with folic acid deficiency, including ulcerative colitis, liver disease, alcoholism, and kidney dialysis.

Women who are pregnant or might become pregnant take folic acid to prevent miscarriage and “neural tube defects,” birth defects such as spina bifida that occur when the fetus’s spine and back don’t close during development.

Some people use folic acid to prevent colon cancer or cervical cancer. It is also used to prevent heart disease and stroke, as well as to reduce blood levels of a chemical called homocysteine. High homocysteine levels might be a risk for heart disease.

Additionally, folic acid is used for memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, age-related hearing loss, preventing eye disease such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD), reducing signs of aging, weak bones (osteoporosis), jumpy legs (restless leg syndrome), sleep problems, depression, nerve pain, muscle pain, AIDS, a skin disease called vitiligo, and an inherited disease called Fragile-X syndrome. It is also used for reducing harmful side effects of treatment with the medications lometrexol and methotrexate.

Folic acid is often used in combination with other B vitamins. Some people apply folic acid directly to the gum for treating gum infections. Foods with folic acid in them include:

  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Dried beans, peas, and nuts
  • Enriched breads, cereals and other grain products

Rich sources of folate include spinach, dark leafy greens, asparagus, turnip, beets, and mustard greens, Brussels sprouts, lima beans, soybeans, beef liver, brewer’s yeast, root vegetables, whole grains, wheat germ, bulgur wheat, kidney beans, white beans, lima beans, mung beans, salmon, orange juice, avocado, and milk. In addition, all grain and cereal products in the U.S. are fortified with folic acid.

If you don’t get enough folic acid from the foods you eat, you can also take it as a dietary supplement. But like all supplements, you should check with your physician before adding it to your diet.

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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!

Improving Our Health, From A to Zinc

It’s almost the end of the year, so turning to the end of the alphabet for an important but often misunderstood common mineral seems like a fitting exercise and good holiday gift to ourselves.

Zinc is found in every tissue in the body, aids cell division, is a powerful antioxidant, helps to prevent cancer, and maintains healthy hormone levels. Zinc is an essential trace mineral that’s important for the immune system and the brain, as well as other parts of the body. Zinc also helps wounds heal and is important for proper senses of taste and smell. In infants, zinc deficiency can delay normal development. At any age, serious zinc deficiency can lead to risk of infections.      

Topical zinc ointments are used to treat diaper rash and skin irritations and to reduce UV sun exposure. Zinc also has been shown to help with ulcers, ADHD, acne, sickle cell anemia, and other conditions. In addition, zinc has also been studied as a treatment for herpes, high cholesterol, rheumatoid arthritis, HIV and more. It also may be part of an effective treatment for age-related macular degeneration and for the common cold, but research continues in each of these areas.

Health care providers may recommend zinc supplements for people who have zinc deficiencies. Strict vegetarians, breastfeeding women, alcohol abusers, and people who have a poor diet are at higher risk for zinc deficiency. So are those with certain digestive problems, such as Crohn’s disease.

Getting Z facts straight         

Zinc is believed to be important for vision because high levels of the mineral are found in the macula, part of the retina. Zinc enables vitamin A to create a pigment called melanin, which protects the eye. Some studies show that getting enough zinc can help you see better at night.

Zinc has antioxidant effects and is vital to the body’s resistance to infection. It’s also important for tissue repair, and may decrease the ability of cold viruses to grow on or bind to the lining of the nose.

Zinc is found naturally in shellfish, beef and other red meats, nuts and seeds, beans, and milk and cheese. Tea, coffee, and certain medications may interfere with zinc absorption in the intestines.

Researchers have studied the use of zinc as a way to treat or reduce symptoms of the cold virus, though the data from years of scientific studies are mixed. Taking zinc either as a syrup or lozenge through the first few days of a cold may shorten the length of the illness. However, supplementing natural doses found in foods such as eggs, red meat and seafood with higher doses of zinc, particularly long term, can be toxic. Signs of too much zinc include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and headaches. When people take too much zinc for a long time, they sometimes have problems such as low copper levels, lower immunity, and low levels of HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol).

As in the case with all supplements, medicines or nutritional remedies, consult with your physician before adding extra zinc to your diet.

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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!

Taming the Ogres of Holiday Overabundance

If you’re like most Americans during the holidays, our capacity for gluttony seems endless. No matter how well we think we’re going to eat, how much we plan to exercise, and how we’re determined to not let stress get the better of us, we overindulge — whether by feast, drink, being constantly on the run, or other excesses. It’s like trying to keep up with the weeds in our garden…by late summer they have the best of us, and it’s only knowing the frost isn’t far away that allows us to relax.

Statistics for how much weight Americans tend to gain during this end-of-the-year smorgasbord vary from one pound to 10, but it’s undoubtedly a tough time for anyone trying to eat healthfully. But it’s more than just overeating; exercise substantially reduces, as well. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, most Americans (approximately 60 percent) do not engage in vigorous, leisure-time physical activity. Add in the time demands of the holidays and the urge to stay inside because of the weather, and you have a recipe for even more inactivity.

With all this working against us, how can we keep from overeating, under-exercising and getting totally stressed out this time of year? It begins with understanding and making small changes that can result in big improvements.

Don’t feed the ogres!

Many factors combine to increase the urge to overeat during this season. Holiday feasting, as well as stress, exhaustion and cold weather can dampen the best of workout intentions. To make this holiday season a healthier one, it’s important to be conscious of what you’re eating, and to manage your stress and emotions.

  • Practice awareness.  It’s important to be conscious of what we eat and how much. Allow yourself some special treats on the holidays but consider moderate servings. When there’s a lot of food available, try an appetizer-sized helping of each dish instead of 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. Remember, we don’t have to indulge every minute. We can allow some treats for those special days, and then get back into our healthy routines the next day.
  • Manage stress and emotions.  For some people it’s an abundance of friends and family coming out of the woodwork that has them down. In contrast, you may be alone, not have your family or friends nearby, and feel isolated. The holidays are very nostalgic, but for every good memory there also may be memories of family members and friends now deceased or living far away, and traditions no longer possible. Spending time with difficult family members, grieving the loss of a loved one, feeling pressure to give gifts when finances are tight, and loneliness can leave people feeling sad, angry, or even depressed. And these feelings are aggravated by the shorter, colder days and reduced sunlight.
  • Outreach and consistency are good. It’s always beneficial to try and continue our normal routines to help feel like we’re still in control. We can consciously try to not over-eat and make time for exercise and rest. Additionally, personal outreach, especially socializing and connecting with old friends and associates, is important for our emotional health. We humans are social creatures, and while digital outreach is valuable and sometimes our easiest option, the Internet tends to act as a buffer between us and real intimacy.
  • Dealing with the holiday blues. Though depression as the holidays near is common, there is a difference between the holiday blues, which are often temporary and go away once the season ends, and more serious conditions. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a psychological state that literally changes your biology and can cause or add to depression. Depressed individuals tend to feel helpless and hopeless about changing their situation. If the holiday blues seem to linger or become more intense, seek help from a mental health professional.

There are many ways we can resist being tempted by unhealthy options. Think about what really matters during this busy time of year, and plan accordingly. While you’re making the effort to visit friends and attend parties and gatherings, contribute personal time through charitable efforts, eat and drink sensibly, and carve out some time for yourself. Figure out what you absolutely have to do, then let go of the rest — you’ll be happier and healthier for the effort!

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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!

Don’t Let Your Sweet Tooth — Or Genetics — Bite You

Sugar. It’s in just about everything we eat or drink, prevalent naturally and in synthetic disguises, and sneaks into foods in a variety of forms, even in seemingly healthy fruits and vegetables. It suits our cravings, creates our cravings, and makes certain foods and drinks more palatable. And in another of nature’s mystifying ironies, sugar is necessary for life and terrible for our health.

November is American Diabetes Month. The most serious form of diabetes, called Type 1, is genetically inherited. The more common Type 2 form of diabetes can be inherited, but often is the result of poor nutrition, lack of exercise, smoking and other man-made causes. Understanding the warning signs and how to prevent, or limit the onset of Type 2 diabetes is critical to your health, and to holding down exploding healthcare costs.

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.

Beyond the physical and quality-of-life costs, the costs of diagnosed diabetes in the United States in 2012 were $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.

Understanding diabetes causes and symptoms

Diabetes is a problem with your body that causes blood glucose (sugar) levels to rise higher than normal. This is also called hyperglycemia. Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes. If you have Type 2 diabetes your body does not use insulin properly. This is called insulin resistance. At first, your pancreas makes extra insulin to make up for it. But, over time it isn’t able to keep up and can’t make enough insulin to keep your blood glucose at normal levels.

Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes have different causes. Yet two factors are important in both: We inherit a predisposition to the disease then something in our environment triggers it. One trigger might be related to cold weather. Type 1 diabetes develops more often in winter than summer and is more common in places with cold climates.

Another trigger might be viruses, and early diet may also play a role. Type 1 diabetes is less common in people who were breastfed and in those who first ate solid foods at later ages.

In many people, the development of Type 1 diabetes seems to take many years. In experiments that followed relatives of people with Type 1 diabetes, researchers found that most of those who later got diabetes had certain auto-antibodies in their blood for years before.

Type 2 diabetes has a stronger link to family history and lineage than Type 1, although it too depends on environmental factors. While genetics play a very strong role in the development of Type 2 diabetes, lifestyle also influences the development of Type 2 diabetes. Obesity tends to run in families, and families tend to have similar eating and exercise habits.

Early detection and treatment of diabetes can decrease the risk of developing the complications of diabetes. The following symptoms of diabetes are typical. However, some people with Type 2 diabetes have symptoms so mild that they go unnoticed. 

Common symptoms of diabetes include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Excessive thirst
  • Hunger – even though you are eating
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Blurry vision
  • Cuts/bruises that are slow to heal
  • Weight loss – even though you are eating more (Type 1)
  • Tingling, pain, or numbness in the hands/feet (Type 2)

Women with gestational diabetes often have no symptoms, which is why it’s important for at-risk women to be tested at the proper time during pregnancy.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom on the diabetes front. People with both types live long, active lives, and studies show that it is possible to delay or prevent Type 2 diabetes by exercising and losing weight. Through the use of medical insulin, physical activity and diet management, we can control the side effects of diabetes, prevent onset, or limit related illnesses and co-morbidities.

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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!

Rocking your diet with seasonal fruits and veggies

Even if eating with the seasons may sound like the name of an alternative rock band, it’s wise nutritional counsel. Late summer and early autumn offer a bounty of fruits and vegetables that are rich in nutrients and vitamins, fresh, and often locally grown. Beyond nutritional value, supporting local produce helps the farming community by requiring fewer resources to grow, store and transport fruit and veggies. As the weather cools, it’s fun to incorporate seasonal varieties in meal planning. Many of us savor traditional autumn favorites like apples, pears, pumpkins, and certain kinds of squash, but there are many other healthy seasonal choices like beets, turnips, cranberries, dates, almonds, mushrooms, peppers, grapes, potatoes, and hearty greens like kohlrabi, collards, and spinach.

Pumpkins aren’t just for chucking or carving

The bright orange color of pumpkin is a dead giveaway that pumpkin is loaded with an important antioxidant, beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is one of the plant carotenoids converted to vitamin A in the body. In the conversion to vitamin A, beta carotene performs many important functions in overall health. Current research indicates that a diet rich in foods containing beta-carotene may reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer and offers protection against heart disease. Beta-carotene offers protection against other diseases as well and reduces some degenerative aspects of aging. There are dozens of great, easy recipes online for using pumpkins as side dishes, soups, and breads, or for integrating it into salads, desserts, and much more.

An apple a day

While we all remember that popular refrain, apples are a perpetual favorite and just one part of a healthy diet. Though available year-round, they are especially crisp and flavorful when the newly harvested fall crop hits the market. Ranging in flavor from sweet to tart, locally grown U.S. apples are at their peak from September through November. There are over 100 varieties grown in the United States, and every single state, including Connecticut, has multiple orchards, so an apple-picking outing is usually within convenient reach.

Apples are delicious, easy to carry for snacking, low in calories, a natural mouth freshener, inexpensive, and a source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber such as pectin actually helps to prevent cholesterol buildup in the lining of blood vessel walls, reducing the incident of atherosclerosis and heart disease. The insoluble fiber in apples provides bulk in the intestinal tract, holding water to cleanse and move food quickly through the digestive system.

It’s a good idea to eat apples with their skin. Almost half of the vitamin C content is just underneath the skin. Eating the skin also increases insoluble fiber content. Most of an apple’s fragrance cells are concentrated in the skin and as they ripen, the skin cells develop more aroma and flavor.

Here are some hints on how to purchase apples for maximum value:

  • Select firm apples with unbroken, well-colored skins and no bruises. Brown streaks on the skins (called scald) do not affect quality.
  • Apples will keep in a cool, dry place for up to one week. For longer storage, refrigerate in a plastic bag for four to six weeks.
  • Select types of apples based on how they will be used:  Raw (for eating out of hand and adding to salads); cooked (for applesauce, pies and other desserts); or baked whole.
  • All-purpose apples can be used for both eating raw and cooking. Varieties include: Braeburn, Cortland, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Jonathan, and McIntosh.
  • Red Delicious apples are strictly for eating raw and Rome Beauty apples are best for baking whole. Crisp, tart Macouns and Macintosh tend to be favorite eating apples, but every variety is healthy and often can be picked fresh at farms, or purchased at farm stands or in your local market.

Other seasonal veggies to consider

Sweet potatoes are a healthy complement to any meal. They are rich in carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, and supply about twice the recommended daily amount of vitamin A. They are also a good source of dietary fiber, potassium and vitamin C. One medium baked sweet potato has only 103 calories.

Freshly dug sweet potatoes are uncured. They are good boiled, mashed, candied, fried and in many cooked dishes, but uncured potatoes do not bake successfully. Sweet potatoes must be cured two or three weeks before they will bake. Store cured potatoes in a cool, dry place where the temperature is about 55 F or 60 F. Do not store them in the refrigerator. Chilling the vegetable will give it a hard core and an undesirable taste. Well-matured, carefully handled and properly cured potatoes will keep for several months if the temperature and storage conditions are ideal.

Another healthy seasonal favorite, though not as popular, are beets, which are low in calories and fat, cholesterol free, and a good source of folates, a B vitamin which supports red blood cell production and helps prevent anemia. Fresh beets, in season from late summer through October, have a sweet flavor and tender texture. While traditionally a garnet-red color, today’s beets are available in golden-yellow, white and red-and-white-striped hues. In addition to serving them as a vegetable side dish, toss beets into autumn salads and soups for extra color and flavor.

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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!