Sweetening the pot

[wide]sugar photo by Alden Chadwick
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I always thought that artificial sweeteners were kind of silly, for those of us without diabetes, that is, and maybe full of chemicals besides (although in college I had a Tab habit). That teaspoon of real sugar in your coffee or tea gives you only 16 calories, not enough to bust your belt buckle. Granted, some of us have health issues that make us need to limit or cut out sugar, and it doesn’t do our teeth any favors. Refined sugar isn’t health food and has a host of ills, the extent of which depends on your source. But when it’s about counting calories, that little bit of sugar just doesn’t have that many.

According to some recent studies, it now appears that those artificial sweeteners may cause more harm than good. The Calorie Control Council claims that the number of Americans who consume artificially sweetened foods and beverages climbed from 78 million to 187 million between 1986 and 2010. It’s not just those little packets of Equal. We find artificial sweeteners on the shelves lurking in diet sodas, flavored drinks, juices, yogurt, pudding, gum, candy, baked goods, jams and jellies and more.

In the 1970s studies found that saccharine (in Sweet ‘N Low) led to bladder cancer in lab rats. But the National Cancer Institute has since said there’s no risk. Subsequent studies claimed that in limited quantities it was safe, and so has the FDA.

Artificial sweeteners aren’t always so artificial, and may be made of herbs or from isolated parts of the sugar molecule. We like that they have few to no calories. If you normally drink six Cokes a day, the diet ones will pack on fewer pounds.

 

News broke last week that some of the fake sugars could lead to pre-diabetes by affecting the friendly hitchhikers we call the bacteria in our intestines, bacteria which metabolize sugars like glucose or fructose (table sugar is half and half). The journal Nature published a study in which the sweeteners that are used in Sweet ‘N Low, Equal or Splenda (saccharine, aspartame or sucralose) were put into the drinking water of lab mice. Other mice got real sugar and others plain water. Nearly three months later, the first group of mice tested higher for glucose intolerance and blood sugar levels than the others, meaning their guts had lost the ability to metabolize sugar, a condition that can lead to type two diabetes. The researchers tried the same experiment on mice that ate a diet high in fat, and then did a four-week run of antibiotic treatment to destroy all their gut bacteria, which put them all back at the same level of sugar-processing ability.

Studying 381 human members of an ongoing clinical trial on nutrition showed a link between artificial sweeteners and higher weights and higher blood-sugar levels. Besides the diabetes risk, high-fasting blood sugar results can lead to other health problems like eye and kidney diseases.

The researchers then did a short, one-week study on seven subjects who normally didn’t use artificial sweeteners and gave them the equivalent of how much would be in 40 cans of diet soda a day. At the end of the week, four had trouble metabolizing sugar while three were fine.

Downsizing your resolutions

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health pancakes
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“How few there are who have courage enough to own their faults, or resolution enough to mend them.” — Benjamin Franklin

 It’s January 2 or thereabouts. Have you kept your New Year’s resolutions so far? Although Ben says our numbers are few, nearly half of us (45 percent) make resolutions every year to make important changes. But only eight percent of us succeed, according to a 2012 study by the Journal of Clinical Psychology of the University of Scranton.

I am among the 38 percent who don’t even bother with resolutions (the remaining 17 percent makes them, but infrequently) because I know I’ll never keep them. Why make a promise to myself that I know I’ll break?

A new year, with its fresh, pure calendar, is a popular time for people to want to start new healthy habits or breaking unhealthy ones (although relationships and money are common themes as well). Of the ten most popular resolutions three are health-related: to lose weight (38 percent), to get in shape, and to quit smoking. Gyms are packed with people whose intention is to keep going all year, not stop by February. Actually, three-quarters of resolution-makers make it through the first week of the good behavior. By the end of the second week the number has dipped to 71 percent, and by the six-month mark it is only 46 percent.

So why bother if we’re doomed to failure? That urge to be healthier is undaunted, and actually making resolutions makes you more likely to succeed at your goals, ten times more likely, actually, per the same study. But you won’t know if you don’t try, and there are ways to make success more probable.

Thirteen for ‘13

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Photo by David Plakke
Photo by David Plakke

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Let’s peek into the crystal balls of a few health experts out there and see what trends in health will draw our attention in the year to come. Although some trends are new and others tried and true, their popularity shows no sign of fading in 2013.

Based on results from an extensive worldwide survey this year, fitness fads that may be on the way out include stability balls, Pilates and spinning, according to Walter Thompson of the American College of Sports Medicine. Obamacare, approved by the supreme court in June, means healthcare costs will go down. Consumers, providers and insurance companies are all looking for new ways to interface with the new reality.

Our first trend for 2013 is wellness coaching. The personal coach encourages, guides and supports clients in goal-oriented elements of behavioral change and disease prevention, whether one on one or one on two or three to keep costs down. Now fitness trainers are educating themselves in accredited programs and going after official certifications as the experts they are. Although the survey said this has dipped slightly in the past year, fitness training should remain strong and job opportunities for these professionals should continue to expand.

High on the list is the high-energy workout Zumba, described as really hard work but a lot of fun by friends who’ve tried it. I hope to try it soon, as soon as I can summon up the energy! Other dance workouts, from belly to Bollywood, remain popular as an enjoyable way to stay fit.

No one can call yoga a fad. This ancient and perennially popular practice has many forms and variations. It seems every small town has several studios. More and more of us are jumping on the yoga bandwagon for its mind-body benefits.

A rising trend is the appeal of outdoor activities, a growing area of interest for fitness enthusiasts who want to get out of the gym and hit the trail, slope or waterway. Great as a fun thing to do with family or friends as well, this category includes camping, hiking, mountaineering, boating and team sports.

Back into that gym, several types of physical fitness training are worth mentioning as they stay popular, according to that survey. Emerging in popularity is body weight training, where, like it sounds, our own body weight is used rather than external equipment. This form of resistance training includes classic, ancient exercises like sit-ups and pull-ups. Meanwhile we still want our weights, as many of us continue to love traditional strength training, lifting free weights or using weight machines. Core training emphasizes supporting the spine by strengthening and conditioning the abdomen and trunk, with balls, boards and rollers as aids. Growing in popularity is circuit training, groups of six to ten exercises in a specific sequence. Although it has decreased slightly in popularity in the last couple years, boot camps — high intensity military-style callisthenic workouts -— should stay strong.

Senior fitness is key. Programs designed for older adults are expected to increase as baby boomers age and that population segment grows. Many retired people have the time and money to focus on fitness, and as Jane Fonda, Kathy Smith and Denise Austin get older they are still making videos to inspire seniors.

At the other end of the spectrum, as we segue into healthcare in general, is a renewed focus on ways to combat the “epidemic” of childhood obesity. Big cuts in school programs combined with processed fast foods and a more sedentary lifestyle due to technology all contribute to this problem. Exercise programs that are fun and motivating for kids are crucial for staving off an even bigger health care crisis as they all become adults.

As a smartphone app like Kayak lets us plan our own trip without the aid of a travel agent, technology is enabling us to be more hands-on when it comes to health choices, too. The Internet and a mushrooming wealth of apps from RunKeeper to iTriage let us be more directly involved in and have some extra control over our own healthcare. They measure our progress and motivate us to get fit or calculate cost estimates and show consumer ratings of healthcare providers for comparison.

Keeping workers healthy in proactive ways is a relatively new focus for employers able to provide health insurance benefits for their employees. Health education and incentive/reward plans are strategies they are using to decrease the need for curative health care as opposed to preventative, keeping costs down for both employers and insurers, who are working in tandem on this. For a variety of reasons, however, a majority of workers are non-compliant in controllable measures at improving health. The challenge remains. Workplace-based programs for quitting smoking and diet and exercise are only as successful as the workers are motivated, but a culture of encouraging self-healthcare can’t hurt.

Of 82 employers surveyed by The National Business Group on Health this year, 48 percent plan financial incentives in 2013 to attract workers to wellness programs, with $450 being the median amount, about $375 for dependents. Over one in five said they will fine non-participating employees.

On the nutrition front, coconut water is refreshing and tasty. Whether it lives up to all the other claims is a matter of debate. Touted as hydrating and low-fat, a good source of energy-giving carbs and electrolytes, it remains popular.

Fish-oil supplements with omega-3 — and sometimes omega-6 and omega-9 fatty acids as well — are popular for brain and heart health. They are claimed to be good for skin health and for lowering blood pressure, too.

Last year’s flax seed is this year’s chia seed. Our focus on the bad boys and good guys of what we eat wax and wane continually. Leading consumer magazines like Eating Well and Cooking Light that focus on nutritious eating are offering a few trends with staying power.

Grains are getting plenty of attention in the media spotlight, but protein-rich quinoa remains strong as an ox. Sales have quadrupled in the last five years, and with a crunchy bite and versatility in soups, salads, pilafs and snacks it shows no sign of going away.

Even those of us without celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are staying away from gluten in increasing numbers. Gluten is in flour and other wheat products and well as rye and barley. Many say they just feel better mentally and physically without it. Many bakeries and food manufacturers are stepping up to fill this demand with lots of foods based on alternative flours.

Cooking Light says we’ll fall in love with sour flavors in 2013, like kombucha and kimchi, and to look for sour beers from craft brewers. Eating Well predicts the emergence of adult Jell-O, cake pops and goat meat as hot items in 2013.

So whether new ways to get in shape, new legislation that affects our health care, or trendy foods in the spotlight, 2013 will be a new and interesting era for us, from body strength training, to fines at work for being unhealthy, to sour beer!

 

Cold-weather nutrition

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Photo by WordRidden
Photo by WordRidden

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When skies are clear and it’s 80 degrees out, it’s easy to run around, eat salads, and stay healthy. But when it’s bitterly cold out and icy or snowy forms of precipitation are falling, you’d rather order pizza or nuke a frozen dinner than go buy healthy food to cook.

Shorter, colder days mean we get less vitamin D and less serotonin, causing carb-craving, dark moods and worse. For some of us the main factor is the stress of the holidays. Jolly as they may be, seeing relatives, making arrangements, and just adding all that extra stuff — from attending events to mailing cards to shopping to figuring out how to pay for it all — tops out an already maxed-out schedule. And those extra worries coupled with less time equals grabbing things to eat that are really quick and/or really comforting. That may not be the best bet for our bodies.

The first plan of attack is to keep it simple. “After Thanksgiving and many delicious meals out in a row, my body was craving simple foods,” says Holly Shelowitz, a Rosendale-based nutritionist and cooking teacher (658-7887 or www.nourishingwisdom.com). “Salads, soups and one-pot meals are what I’m after these days. Never underestimate the power of a baked sweet potato, or the simple luxurious taste and belly filling goodness of simmered potatoes and cauliflower.” Shelowitz steams quartered potatoes and “giant chunks of cauliflower” until the potatoes are soft and the cauliflower still crunchy and puts them atop a dressed tossed salad. She adds butter pats or olive oil, nutritional yeast, sea salt and fresh ground pepper.

Homemade soups are tastier and more nutritious than canned, and freeze well. You can even cut up a bunch of onion, garlic, carrot and celery and freeze in smaller portions for a future quick soup-starter.

Your local winter farm market is your second line of attack in your arsenal against the season’s bad eating. Although the outdoor ones and most farmstands are gone with the flip-flops, a new trend in the last few years is to continue offering the bounty throughout the year at a cozy, warm, indoor location. Several local winter markets have been organized recently. Farmers can store many kinds of produce at controlled temperatures so that they are still fresh weeks and months down the road. Growing tunnels extend the growing season of tender greens, too.

From a recent trip to the first-of-the-season indoor market in Rhinebeck, I had a haul of Bosc pears, white and yellow turnips, daikon radish, rose gold potatoes and an orange kuri squash (and all for less than ten bucks). The Rhinebeck event takes place at the town hall every other Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 pm; the next one is December 16. The Red Hook winter market is at the Elmendorph Inn on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., the next one December 15, also on alternating weeks. Not to be outdone, Greig Farm, in northern Red Hook, will also host a weekly Saturday winter market.

The new Kingston farmers’ winter market opened last Saturday and will be held on the first and third Saturdays of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the Old Dutch Church at 272 Wall Street. The next one is December 15. Find one at the New Paltz Community Center on Veterans Drive off Route 32 behind the town hall the second Saturday of the month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. In Saugerties you’ll find the winter market at the Senior Center on 207 Market Street on one Sunday each month: December 16, January 13, February 10 and March 10.

Healthy and happy old age

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Dr. Jodi Friedman.
Dr. Jodi Friedman.

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People no longer experience life as a succession of roles which shift like clockwork purely on the basis on their age. What it means to be 40, 50 and 60 has changed. People are living longer than ever before, and as the first wave of baby boomers enters retirement the process of aging is evolving, beset by unique challenges as well as opportunities.

Many new types of facilities are sprouting up that not only treat seniors medically, but also help them maintain quality of life in extreme old age. The Center for Healthy Aging, a facility on the grounds of Northern Dutchess Hospital, in Rhinebeck, is an example. It offers geriatric assessments and works collaboratively with patients, caregivers and primary-care providers to deliver inpatient, outpatient, and transitional care to people age 65 and older.

The center opened in 2011 with a full-time medical director, Dr. Jodi Friedman. A year later she was joined by part-time social worker Allison Gould. The center caters to seniors in several counties, providing assistance in developing a customized, comprehensive wellness plan.

Friedman treats “mostly the oldest and most complicated medically patients,” usually referrals from other doctors. Gould sees younger seniors as well — people in their mid-seventies — who are dealing with emotional issues related to aging, such as bereavement or fears about dementia.

To further reach out to the growing community of retirees, the center has begun partnering with [email protected], a not-for-profit networking organization that’s located in the same building and dedicated to helping its 56 members stay at home and maintain their independence.

The center, which accepts private insurance and Medicare, can refer its clients to community services such as [email protected] It can come up with a program of therapy, including alternative modalities such as massage and acupuncture. It offers use of a medically based fitness center and educational programs. In the fall and spring, it hosts a lecture series, in which past topics have included financial wellness, relaxation and meditation workshops, and aging gracefully.

Isn’t “healthy aging” a bit of an oxymoron? “There’s more chronic illnesses, and people are on a lot of medications,” said Friedman, who has a background in family practice. “We try to look at their medications in the context of different medical problems. Part of being a healthy older person is managing these multiple problems.”