How processed foods affect our health

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(photo by yoppy)
(photo by yoppy)

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We’re at war with processed foods, blaming them for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. But a processed food by definition just means a food product that has had something done to it, any food consumed in an altered state, one that has been chilled or cooked or strained or jarred. Cheese, tofu, wine, flour and chocolate are all processed foods. However, to call something “processed” gives it the air of being riddled with additives, usually scary ones, like the dimethylpolysiloxane in Chicken McNuggets, a silicone anti-foaming agent. But it’s the degree of processing that’s bad.

I haven’t seen Food, Inc., yet, or Super Size Me, or read any Michael Pollan, although I know I should. I’m not a food faddist or on the cutting edge of nutrition. I’m just not that interested in the trendy food scares du jour. We love to fall in love with a food product — like oat bran, açai and chia seeds — and fall in hate with evil demon ingredients like MSG, high fructose corn syrup or trans fat.

I try not to stay awake at night worrying about stuff like that, whatever bad additive is making the rounds in the media. My philosophy is that probably variety is key, not too much of any one thing. If you eat Chicken McNuggets three or four times a week that is probably not too good for you, but if you have one order, once a year, because you’re hanging out that day with someone who insists on visiting the golden arches, it is probably not going to kill you.

However, I know that for the best health, and for the best looking body, and the best flavor, the ideal is a plant-based based diet of great variety, based on the season and the proximity and purity of the ingredients. Somehow you can taste when something is heavily processed (unless that’s all you eat) and it just doesn’t quite give you the same satisfaction. I enjoy the occasional hot dog (albeit for me it has to be one that’s garlicky and natural casing for snap) for the aesthetic benefits, but if that were my main form of daily protein it wouldn’t be good.

It’s a stretch

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Photo by lululemon athletica
Photo by lululemon athletica

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“If you put yourself in a position where you have to stretch outside your comfort zone, then you are forced to expand your consciousness.”

— Les Brown

Actually, a physical stretch of your limbs should stay within your comfort zone. Going for the burn is not what you want to do when stretching your muscles to improve your flexibility. And contorting yourself like a Cirque de Soleil performer won’t expand your mind, either.

There are right and wrong ways to stretch. According to the American Academy of Sports Medicine, each stretch should be held for ten to 30 seconds, just “to the point of tightness or slight discomfort,” to repeat two to four times. Stretching to the point of pain (beyond that comfort zone) can lead to muscle or ligament tears or even dislocation.

The experts say flexibility exercises are more effective when the muscles are warm, so that pre-run stretch may not be a good thing, contrary to popular belief. It may decrease performance and even lead to injury, because a muscle that’s too stretched out lacks power and has to work harder, which can strain it.

Before vigorous aerobic activity, warm up the muscles by moving slowly, a walk or slow amble on the bike, even a warm bath or shower, and save the stretching for afterwards when the body is sufficiently warmed up.

The goals of good cardiovascular health and calorie burning aren’t the only things to strive for when seeking ways to get your body fit. A limber and flexible frame goes a long way towards a fit body, especially for those of us who may be aging. The human body loses flexibility as it gets older and we have to work harder to maintain it. An increasingly sedentary lifestyle for all of us — all that screen time — doesn’t help. The American Academy of Sports Medicine recommends flexibility exercises at least two or three times a week to maintain and improve range of motion of the limbs. Doing them every day may be even better.

Double-jointedness is not really double joints. More accurately called hypermobility or joint hyperlaxity, it affects three per cent of us and can be due to the shape of the bones, shallow joint sockets, weak collagen in the ligaments and/or hypotonic muscle tone. Contortionists usually expand on their genetic hyperlaxity and train themselves to tie their bodies in knots. Although the condition is a good one for gymnasts and some musicians to have, it can be the source of joint pain and increased susceptibility to dislocations, bone breaks and muscle and ligament strains and sprains.

The health of healthcare

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New Paltz Chamber of Commerce President Michael A. Smith. (photo by Lauren Thomas)
New Paltz Chamber of Commerce President Michael A. Smith. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

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The movement toward implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act will continue in 2013 as one of the very biggest issues in American society. It’s going to be as big an issue in 2014, and in 2015 as well. And every year beyond that for perhaps a decade. So we might as well be prepared to deal with it.

Health insurers and most provider organizations are better prepared than they were a couple of years ago. The provisions of the federal legislation require them to come to terms with the subsidized healthcare benefit exchanges scheduled to go into business in every state of the nation less than a year from now.

Other deadlines are looming, too. The players are scrambling to participate in a variety of experiments, figuring out how most effectively to find their niche in cooperation with other healthcare organizations. Most if not all are also wrestling with the implementation of electronic health records and other tools of information technology.

By October 31 of this year, health insurers will be competing for New York customers in the state-run health benefit exchange. This is no small enterprise. New York, one of the most aggressive states in setting up its state-run health benefit exchange, is getting tens of millions of dollars in the form of federal grants to fund implementation.

According to the 2009 American Community Survey, some 121,000 of the medically uninsured in the seven counties of the mid-Hudson region (Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Dutchess, Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties) will gain coverage as a result of the ACA. With the state health benefit exchange in place, the uninsured in the region will decrease from 15 per cent to nine per cent of the population.

TB or not TB

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health TB
Back in the old days, tuberculosis was very common and deadly serious.

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One year, when I was in my early twenties and fresh out of nursing school, my annual TB skin test puffed right up within a day or two after I had it done. Suddenly I turned from nurse to patient. I had to have a chest x-ray, blood tests and take Isoniazid for a year and a half. My liver and kidney functions were monitored continually.

Having been a robustly healthy child and teen, I wasn’t used to this. TB is the disease of unwashed skid-row bums, 19th-century writers and movie characters slowly and dramatically fading as they cough their last few days away. How could I have this? And I was confused. How could I have TB and not have TB at the same time?

Somewhere during the course of my workday tending to patients, I had breathed in the exhaled air of someone with active tuberculosis. I have no idea who; none of my patients had it as a diagnosis. It was enough for my body to make antibodies against it, as evidenced by the puffy bump on my arm, but not enough for me to get sick with the disease.

I was in good company. According to the World Health Organization, about a third of the people on the planet have latent TB infection like I did. They are neither ill nor contagious. They have no symptoms.

Recently Ulster County’s health department reported a case of active TB in a retail employee in Kingston. Due to privacy laws, namely the federal Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA), neither the woman’s name nor her place of employment have been released. This has irked a few people who shop in Kingston; however it’s very unlikely that a customer making a purchase with this person’s help would catch the disease from her, as it takes somewhat more than casual contact to get it. The woman’s family members and possibly some co-workers would be at more risk than any customers.

She is now quarantined at home and is being treated, according to county officials.

New York State reports about 1,300 cases of TB a year. Ulster County had five last year and only one the year before.

Wii can help

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We all know that exercise is good for us, not just for keeping in shape but for good functioning of all the systems in our bodies, including the brain. When we get older and joints are stiffer, or even painful, everything takes more effort. But it’s not the time to slow down or to stop crucial physical activity.

Getting or staying fit is challenging for older folks who may not want to go out and walk because they feel frail or fearful of crime or slippery streets or other hazards. All kinds of things conspire against keeping them as fit as they’d like. They may feel out of place at the gym, and other activities they might have enjoyed may be out of reach for them. They may lack transportation. They may tire easily. All kinds of things conspire against keeping them as fit as they’d like.

Enter the video game.

Video game? Yes, seniors who can be convinced to take advantage of these innovations can use them to improve balance, flexibility, muscle strength, mood and brain functioning. The Nintendo Wii system uses sensors inside controllers and a video sensor on top of the system’s video monitor to allow games to be controlled by bodily motion, as opposed to the traditional joystick and buttons. A league of senior citizens playing Wii bowling may not burn a lot of calories, but the participants are doing something they love that is good for their bodies.

In the Woodland Pond retirement community in New Paltz, residents from their sixties through their nineties are doing a variety of activities in structured Wii classes. “We are constantly looking for new and better workout solutions to offer our residents,” said Mary Jo Murray, the community’s wellness nurse. “The Wii classes engage them visually, and they enjoy the variety of music that goes with the games.”

Wii tennis, golf and dance are on the schedule, too. “These classes are different because they allow you to be competitive, which spices up the workout,” said Louise Mandy, a Woodland Pond resident.

Gentle exercise

The Wii-based activities boost motivation, inspiring older people to get out of their chairs and have fun. More and more retirement homes around the country are adding this inexpensive feature. Seniors who may have given up bowling or golf can take it up again in their cozy home. Less strenuous and taxing on the body, Wii provides a gentle way to exercise that retains all of exercise’s benefits. And it’s social as well.

Playing the games can make people feel young at heart. Playing Wii, whether alone at home or in a residential center, can help reduce depression, improve mobility and balance, and lessen falls. It can increase mental sharpness and memory, plus providing the novelty of something new gives the brain a boost. It helps hand-eye coordination, reflexes and attention skills. The added social interaction is good for cognitive function as well.

Wii comes with a sports package that includes bowling, baseball, boxing, tennis and golf. Wii Sports Resort adds swordplay, wakeboarding, Frisbee, archery, basketball, ping-pong, power cruising, canoeing, cycling and skydiving. So anyone who may have previously enjoyed any of these activities can re-live some of the movements and some of the fun involved in doing them. Wii Fit Plus adds yoga and strength training. Big Brain Academy provides competitive games involving memory, quick thinking, numbers and visual recognition.

One component of Wii is a balance board seniors can stand on to test their center of balance and percentage of body weight. Just a few extra minutes of exercise a day adds benefit.

Various exercise classes

Besides the Wii classes, Woodland Pond residents can do water aerobics, water walking, strength, dance movement, yoga, chi kung and sit and fit. They can also go for strolls in New Paltz. The Walkway Over the Hudson is another destination.

“All movement has positive effects that we can benefit from,” said Murray. “You may not be able to run, but if you can walk even just a distance around your home, that helps with circulation and sleep.”

Seniors who are not a resident of such a facility can take exercise classes especially geared toward their needs. IXL in Saugerties offers classes that are free with membership. Silver Sneakers, held on Mondays at 3:30 p.m. and Thursdays at 11 a.m., is for older adults who want to improve their strength, flexibility, balance and endurance. There is a Silver Sneakers yoga stretch class on Fridays at 11 a.m.

The Rhinebeck branch of the fitness center offers a senior fitness class on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 11 a.m. which involves a low-impact aerobic class that begins with a gradual warm-up and leads into varying strengthening exercises followed by an aerobic conditioning segment. In Rhinebeck, Silver Sneakers is on Tuesdays at 3:30 p.m. and Thursdays at 1:15 p.m.

Woodland Pond is at 100 Woodland Pond Circle in New Paltz. Call 877-505-9800 or go to wpatnp.org. Find the Saugerties IXL at 3139 Route 9W or by calling 246-6700. The Rhinebeck IXL is at 3752 Route 9G or 876-4100. Find information on either at www.ixlhealthandfitness.com