Eating with the Season

Eating with the season is healthy, fun and practical. The fall harvest offers a multitude of delicious and heart-healthy fresh fruit and vegetables. Apples, pears, broccoli and Brussels sprouts are fresh from the garden or farm, and represent only a few of the many nutrition-rich seasonal foods that can help you feel better, stay healthier and may protect against maladies like heart disease and stroke.

The fall palette includes deep colors like oranges, reds, and purples. Especially prominent in the cooler months, these colorful alternatives like pumpkins, beets, cranberries and squash are readily available, tasty and nutritional masterpieces. Fruits and vegetables with color contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals that have different disease-fighting elements. These compounds may be important in reducing the risk of many conditions, including cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association recommends at least four to five servings per day of fruits and vegetables based on a 2,000-calorie diet as part of a healthy lifestyle that can lower your risk for many diseases.

The autumn months can bring additional health and nutritional challenges. The shorter, cooler days make it harder to get physical activity outdoors. And there are the calorie-packed temptations of post-season baseball gatherings, football parties, Halloween sweets and, before you know it, Thanksgiving buffets. So a good way to avoid those extra seasonal pounds is to keep eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Seasonal favorites are loaded with nutrients

Purchasing produce at its peak guarantees the freshest taste, the greatest nutritional value and the most affordable price. Apples and pumpkins are two popular foods celebrated this time of year, but there’s also an abundance of delicious and hearty greens like kohlrabi, collards, chard, lettuce, cabbage and spinach, as well as colorful carrots, sweet potatoes, peppers, green onions and a variety of squash to enjoy this season. Eating according to the seasons also is better for the environment — seasonal food, especially when purchased locally, requires fewer resources to grow, store, and transport.

  • 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.
  • Apples are a perennial favorite. 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 apples are at their peak from September through November. There are over 100 varieties grown in the United States, and every 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.

  • 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.
  • Beets are another healthy seasonal favorite, though not as popular. Beets 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, beets also are available in golden-yellow, white and red-and-white-striped hues.
  • Fall greens that are packed with nutrition include Brussels sprouts. Closely related to cabbage and broccoli, they have a similar look and taste. Peak season is September through February. Another healthy choice includes chicories. Belgian endive, escarole and radicchio are all chicories. They are related to lettuces, but have sturdier leaves, a stronger flavor and are famous for a bitter edge. They’re typically harvested in late fall and early winter.  In addition, endive and radicchio can be used to perk up any bagged salad, and escarole soup is a classic. For something different, sauté escarole in olive oil with garlic and red pepper, just like you would sauté spinach. The greens won’t cook down as much and can stand up to the heat.
  • Finally, seasonal squash like Butternut and Acorn Squash are hearty and healthy. Covered in a thick rind, these winter squashes are the ultimate storage vegetable. Harvested in early fall and throughout the winter months, roasted squash complement many recipes, are a welcome addition to roasted meats, and make delicious soups and side dishes.

The autumn is a wonderful time of year to eat, recreate and prepare your bodies for the colder months that follow. Enjoy its abundance, indoors and out.

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Pick your ears and berries, squash and tomatoes

When it comes to fresh vegetables and fruit, there’s little thrill in hunting down perfect squash, eggplant, blueberries, cucumbers and native tomatoes in our local grocery store aisle. Sure, it’s easier and convenient, but visiting local farms, picking your own and frequenting farmer’s markets and roadside stands connects us with our food far more intimately than does opening a can or reaching into the freezer and popping frozen peas or corn into the microwave.

Don’t misunderstand: Frozen veggies and fruit are good, too, and often very healthy. But there is nothing quite like fruits and vegetables plucked fresh from the bush or vine, or recently pulled out of the ground or off the stalk. Connecticut is abundant in fresh produce – especially in the summer – and seeking out this unprocessed bounty rich in nutrients and often lower in pesticides or genetic mutations is healthy nutritionally and emotionally.

Connecticut features vegetable and dairy farms and fruit orchards throughout the state. The growing season is long and the climate is perfect for a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Beans, squash, broccoli and cabbages start to come in around May and are available through October. Strawberries ripen in June, and in July the farms explode with produce, especially raspberries, blueberries, peaches and sweet corn. In August, the pepper and tomato crops are ready, and as summer comes to a close in September, pumpkins and seasonal squash are ready in plenty of time to welcome the autumn.

Fruits and vegetables ripen at different times over the course of the summer. Farms and farmers’ markets are not grocery stores, so not everything is available every week. Even when a crop is in season, there can be shortages due to weather and growing conditions or just high demand. Buying in large quantities is tempting, but unless you’re prepared to freeze or can the fresh fruits and vegetables, what is not immediately consumed will spoil, and spoil quickly. Proper preparation is a must, and if planning to store fresh fruits and vegetables you should do your research and stock up on the appropriate supplies (jars, lids, pectin, freezer bags, etc.).

Beyond the psychological value of searching out and eating locally grown food, there are practical and healthy reasons to celebrate foods that are in season. That’s when you get the most flavor and nutritional value. It’s also the time when it is the most affordable. Additionally, you’ll enjoy the greatest freshness when you look for foods that are both locally grown and are in season.

All of the world’s healthiest foods are seasonal. For ecologists, seasons are considered a source of natural diversity. Changes in growing conditions from spring to summer or fall to winter are considered essential for balancing the earth’s resources and its life forms. But today it’s so easy for us to forget about seasons when we eat. Modern food processing, high-tech storage and worldwide distribution networks make foods available year-round, and grocery stores shelves look much the same in December as they do in July. And with the growth of supermarkets and an ever-widening smorgasbord of imported food, the link between what we eat and when it’s in season has almost disappeared.

Consequently, nutritionists and environmentalists are increasingly concerned that what we gain in choice and convenience we lose in health benefits, leading to a call for a movement back towards seasonal eating. Food that’s in season not only tastes better, but may contain ingredients that suit the body’s needs for that time of year, such as summer fruits with their high fluid content.

Buying locally sustains our State’s farmers, supports the economy and helps remind us about the importance of understanding food sources and nutritional value. Besides, a trip to the farm or a produce stand is fun, and many children have never enjoyed the experience of picking their own berries or vegetables right off the plants, bushes or trees. It’s eye-opening, healthy and a good catalyst for discussing nutrition with the entire family.

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If you’re going to sweat it, wet it!

Paying careful attention to proper hydration, especially in the warmer months, is critical to our health. When it’s warm, our bodies perspire more to help cool us down, draining fluids important to the flow of oxygen and red blood cells to our muscles and organs. During exercise and activity, we also lose valuable nutrients and minerals. These include sodium, magnesium and potassium, which help keep our muscles working properly, reduce fatigue and prevent dehydration.

Thirst alone shouldn’t be our barometer for measuring fluid loss. The rule of thumb is if you’re thirsty, you’re already becoming dehydrated. Drink plenty of liquids before, during and after each activity. A good guideline to use when preparing for an outdoor workout is to drink about two cups of fluid two hours before the activity. That helps make sure we are well-hydrated before we even go outdoors. Then, during the activity, we should drink four to six ounces every 15 to 20 minutes to keep our muscles well-hydrated. If planning an hour-long walk or gym workout, take a water bottle with about 16 ounces (two cups). Then, after exercise, drink again.

Fluids are vital to help our muscles function throughout our activity, but so is our blood sugar. Eat a light meal or snack of at least 100 calories about an hour or so before an activity. The nutrients from the snack will help keep hunger from interfering. The best snacks combine healthy carbohydrates, protein, and a small amount of fat. Fruit, yogurt, nuts, and granola bars are all good examples.

Water or sports drinks?

For most outdoor activities, regular tap or bottled water does the trick. If activity lasts an hour or more, either fruit juice diluted with water or a sports drink will provide carbohydrates for energy, plus minerals to replace electrolytes lost from sweating.

Sports drinks like Gatorade, Powerade, and All Sport can provide a needed energy boost during activity. They are designed to rapidly replace fluids and to increase the sugar (glucose) circulating in our blood. However, read the label to determine which sports drinks are most effective. Ideally, it will provide around 14 grams of carbohydrates, 28 mg of potassium, and 100 mg of sodium per eight-ounce serving. The drink’s carbohydrates should come from glucose, sucrose, and/or fructose, rather than from processed sugar or corn syrup. These are more easily and quickly absorbed. It shouldn’t be carbonated, as the bubbles can lead to an upset stomach.

Most sports beverages are well-diluted and contain relatively few calories. If the flavor of a sports drink helps you maintain hydration, diluting it with water or pouring it into a thermos packed with ice will cut down even more on excess calories. “Fitness waters” such as Propel are lightly flavored and have added vitamins and minerals. The additional nutrients are meant to supplement a healthy diet — not replace losses from exercise.

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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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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!

Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the sneeziest of them all?

Sneezy, Sleepy, and Grumpy may have been three of the seven dwarves of Disney fame, but Itchy, Runny, and Miserable could be their springtime cousins. The flowering trees in New England are a colorful and welcome break from the bleak winter landscape. However breathtaking, though, they can take our breath away… literally. For all its beauty, this is a difficult time of year for millions of Americans, and the severity of allergy season can vary according to where you live, the weather, indoor contaminants and many other elements.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by mold spores in the air or by trees, grasses, and weeds releasing their pollens. Outdoor molds are very common, especially after a spring thaw. They are found in soil, some mulches, fallen leaves, and rotting wood. Everybody is exposed to mold and pollen, but only some people develop allergies. In these people, the immune system, which protects us from invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen (allergy-causing compound). Specialized immune cells called mast cells and basophils then release chemicals like histamine that lead to the symptoms of allergy: sneezing, coughing, a runny or clogged nose, postnasal drip, and itchy eyes and throat.

Asthma and allergic diseases, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), food allergy, and atopic dermatitis (eczema), are common for all age groups in the United States. For example, asthma affects more than 17 million adults and more than 7 million children. It’s estimated that one-fifth of all Americans are allergic to something, whether seasonal, airborne or food related. Nasal allergy triggers can be found both indoors and outdoors, and can be year-round or seasonal. It’s important to be aware of the times of day, seasons, places, and situations where your nasal allergy symptoms begin or worsen. If you can identify your triggers, and create a plan for avoiding them when possible, you may be able to minimize symptoms. Here are a few points to remember:

  • You may be reacting to more than one type of allergen. For example, having nasal allergies to both trees and grass can make your symptoms worse during the spring and summer, when both of these pollens are high.
  • Molds grow in dark, wet places and can disperse spores into the air if you rake or disturb the area where they’ve settled.
  • People with indoor nasal allergies can be bothered by outdoor nasal allergies as well. You may need ongoing treatment to help relieve indoor nasal allergy symptoms.

If avoidance doesn’t work, allergies can often be controlled with medications. The first choice is an antihistamine, which counters the effects of histamine. Steroid nasal sprays can reduce mucus secretion and nasal swelling. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that the combination of antihistamines and nasal steroids is very effective in those with moderate or severe symptoms of allergic rhinitis. However, always consult with your physician before taking even over-the-counter medicines for allergies, as they may conflict with other medications or aggravate symptoms of other illnesses or chronic conditions.

Another potential solution is cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray that inhibits the release of chemicals like histamine from mast cells. But you must start taking it several days before an allergic reaction begins, which is not always practical, and its use can be habit forming. Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is an option if the exact cause of your allergies can be pinpointed. Immunotherapy involves a long series of injections, but it can significantly reduce symptoms and medication needs.

Your physician can help pinpoint what you are allergic to, and tell you the best way to treat your nasal allergy symptoms. Provide detailed information about your lifestyle and habits to your healthcare providers. It will help them to help you with an appropriate treatment plan for relieving your symptoms.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology has some useful tips for those who suffer from seasonal allergies:

  • Wash bed sheets weekly in hot water.
  • Always bathe and wash hair before bedtime (pollen can collect on skin and hair throughout the day).
  • Do not hang clothes outside to dry where they can trap pollens.
  • Wear a filter mask when mowing or working outdoors. Also, if you can, avoid peak times for pollen exposure (hot, dry, windy days, usually between 10 am and 4 pm). Although pollens are usually emitted in early morning, peak times for dissemination are between around 10 am and 4 pm.
  • Be aware of local pollen counts in your area (visit the National Allergy Bureau Website).
  • Keep house, office and car windows closed; use air conditioning if possible rather than opening windows.
  • Perform a thorough spring cleaning of your home, including replacing heating and A/C filters and cleaning ducts and vents.
  • Check bathrooms and other damp areas in your home frequently for mold and mildew, and remove visible mold with nontoxic cleaners.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and off of furniture, since they may carry pollen if they have been outdoors (or exacerbate your allergies if, for example, you’re allergic to cat dander).

For allergy information from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, visit www.niaid.nih.gov/publications/allergies.htm. For prevention strategies from NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, visit www.niehs.nih.gov/airborne/prevent/intro.html.

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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!

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.

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

The Enduring Myths and Traditions of St. Valentine’s Day

It’s probably not an accident that Valentine’s Day falls right in the middle of Heart Health Month. Whether you love February 14th or hate it, it’s a hard event to ignore. After Christmas, it’s the largest card-exchanging event of the year, involving close to a billion correspondences. And, like most holidays or celebrations, if you study its history you might find it as interesting as any dramatic series you’d watch on TV.

The celebrations of St. Valentine’s Day are steeped in legend and mystery, and embrace a time of year that is historically associated with love and fertility. It encompasses the sacred marriage of Zeus and Hera in Ancient Athens and the Ancient Roman festival of Lupercus, the god of fertility.

One popular belief is that the first official Saint Valentine’s Day was declared on the 14th of February by Pope Galasius in 496, in memory of a 3rd-century martyred priest in Rome.  According to legend, the young priest rose to distinction after betraying Emperor Claudius in 270 AD by conducting illegitimate wedding ceremonies in the capital. Emperor Claudius claimed that married men made poor soldiers and consequently decreed that all marriages of younger citizens would be outlawed. Bishop Valentine, however, continued to conduct marriages in secret between young people in love.

His success gained him unwelcome notoriety, which became his downfall. He was jailed and ultimately beheaded, but not before he fell in love with the jailer’s daughter. Legend holds that on the evening of his execution, the bishop passed her a note which read “from your Valentine.” This story has blossomed into the defining tradition of Valentine’s Day.

The origin of Valentine’s Day hearts                

Around the 12th century, people were not aware that the heart circulated blood inside the human body. However, they believed that the heart was the seat of emotions and feelings. Poets eulogized the role of the heart in feelings of love and romance, and even though we understand that emotions come from the brain, hearts remain a powerful symbol of love and Valentine’s Day.

The red heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow is a traditional symbol of Valentine’s Day. Hearts symbolize love, and a heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow means that when someone presents a heart, the person takes the risk of being rejected and feeling hurt.

As for Cupid, this winged and mischievous little angel traces its origin from the Roman mythology where Cupid has been described as the son of Venus – the Goddess of Love. In Greek mythology, Cupid is known by the name of Eros and as the son of Aphrodite – the Greek Goddess of Love. In Roman and Greek mythology, Cupid is always shown as a youth and not as a fat baby with wings. In Latin, however, the meaning of the word “Cupid” is desire. Latin mythology shows Cupid as a chubby, naked, winged boy or youth with a mischievous smile. 

On a related historical note, the popular expression, “Wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve,” comes from the tradition prevalent in America and Britain around the 1800s when young men wore slips of paper pinned on their sleeves that had their girlfriend’s name written on them.

So as you prepare for Valentine’s Day this year, remember it really isn’t about shelling out big bucks for fancy dinners, overpriced flowers and chocolate – even though chocolate, especially dark chocolate loaded with antioxidants, is good for our health. It’s about the centuries-old links between hearts and our emotions, about attraction and disappointment and the fragility – and enduring strength – of love and friendship.

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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!

Tips for Staying Healthy Throughout the Winter Months

When winter hits, our bodies change. Our lips get chapped, our skin dries out, and our mood may vary like the weather. Often, we don’t get as much exercise as we did in the warmer weather, our exposure to the sun is limited, and the contrast between the extreme cold outdoors and the constant dry air indoors from radiators and heating systems plays havoc with our skin, respiratory and circulatory systems.

Here are suggested practices that can help us feel healthier in the winter, physically and mentally:

  • For chapped lips, drink plenty of water to stay hydrated, and use a humidifier at home – especially in your bedroom – or in your office and other living areas, if possible. Liberally apply a lip balm with sunscreen, beeswax or petroleum jelly to your lips every time you go outside, and try to avoid licking your lips, which may crack the skin.
  • For dried skin and hands, it’s important to replace essential oils that treat and preserve the skin, and to wear gloves when outdoors. Try to keep hands as dry as possible, though don’t stop washing your hands regularly to avoid germs. Apply glycerin-based moisturizer when you awake, before you retire for the evening, and whenever your hands feel dry throughout the day.

Also, avoid soaps that further dry out your skin. Replace them with super-fatted, fragrance-free soaps, whether bar or liquid, for cleansing, and moisturizers. Humectants – like urea, glycerin, hyaluronic acid, and propylene glycol – absorb water from the air. They are oil-free. Emollients like baby or mineral oil, plant oils (like jojoba oil), petroleum jelly, lanolin, stearic acid – replace oils in the skin. Many moisturizers contain a combination. You may want to skip some anti-aging moisturizers in winter. Those that contain retinoids can further irritate already dry, sensitive skin.

  • Exfoliate. To get the most out of your moisturizer, exfoliate. Clearing away dead skin cells lets a moisturizer better penetrate dry skin. Exfoliate gently with a moisturizer that contains lactic acid or salicylic acid. If your skin is really dry or irritated, ask your doctor before starting a new skin care product or regimen. Don’t forget feet and heels, too, which tend to get dry and chapped in the winter.
  • Adjust showers. Long, hot showers can actually draw water from our skin. Appealing as a hot shower is on a cold morning, lukewarm water is a better choice. It won’t strip away skin’s natural oils. And a glycerin- or hyaluronic acid-based moisturizer can increase the amount of water that’s drawn into your skin. Baby oil (mineral oil) is also a good choice, because it prevents water from evaporating from your skin. Also, if possible, shampoo every other day instead of daily. Shampoos and excess shampooing can strip hair of moisture. Use warm water and a mild shampoo with sunscreen. Apply extra conditioner to keep your hair hydrated, shiny and soft. Don’t over-style with the blow dryer or flat iron, and protect your hair from the elements by wearing a hat.
  • Wear sunscreen when outdoors. Skiers and other winter athletes are at special risk of sunburn because snow reflects sunlight. In fact, it bounces 80 percent of the sun’s rays back to us, compared to less than 20 percent for sand and surf. Even if you’re not exercising or recreating outdoors, you still need the protection of a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more. Apply daily, and reapply at least every two hours if you’re outside.
  • Dress for the weather. It sounds like obvious advice, but look around you when you’re outdoors, and you’ll notice many people dressed improperly for the cold. Frostnip – a mild form of frostbite – tends to affect the earlobes, cheeks, nose, fingers, and toes. Signs of frostnip include pale skin, numbness, or tingling in the affected area. Avoid frostnip by dressing warmly – including hat, ear muffs, and gloves. The best treatment is to re-warm the affected areas; although frostnip is uncomfortable, it doesn’t cause any damage to skin.

Frostbite, however, is far more serious and can cause lasting damage. Deeper tissues freeze, causing skin to become hard, pale, and cold. It may ache but lack sensitivity to touch. As the area thaws, it becomes red and painful. Hands, feet, nose and ears are most vulnerable, but any body part can be affected. Treat frostbite by getting to a warm place, wrapping affected areas in sterile dressings (separate fingers and toes) and going to an emergency department immediately. Don’t rewarm affected areas if there’s a chance they could freeze again.

  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids, especially water. If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated! Also, be aware of liquids like coffee and alcohol that do not hydrate. To the contrary, they have dieretic effects, which cause you to lose more fluid from your body or, in the case of alcohol, lower your body temperature. Dehydration also weakens our immune system, making our bodies less effective in fighting off colds, flu and other infections. 
  • Get plenty of rest. When we sleep, our body recovers, refreshes and recharges. Sleep is crucial for our body to replenish and boost our immune system to fight off infections and keep us healthy. When we are run down, sleep deprived, and/or stressed, our immune defenses are down and our body is more susceptible to illness. 
  • Eat properly and healthfully. Eating a balanced diet is a key to staying healthy. Getting essential nutrients by eating fruits and vegetables and limiting unhealthy fats will keep our immune systems strong and healthy. Drink more milk, particularly low-fat if possible, and include five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Avoid sugary treats, and try winter vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, and turnips. Also, ingesting foods with essential fatty acids like omega-3s help make up skin’s natural, moisture-retaining oil barrier. Add essential fatty acid boost with omega-3-rich foods like flax, walnuts, and safflower oil, as well as cold-water fish such as tuna, herring, halibut, salmon, sardines, and mackerel.
  • Continue exercising. No matter the weather, walking, at the very least, is important to cardiac and respiratory health and to help us maintain a healthier weight. Walk indoors, go to a gym, mall or fitness center, or dress properly for the weather and walk, hike, cross-country or downhill ski, ice skate . . . it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you remain active!

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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!