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How to Stay Healthy During the Holidays

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November/December 1998
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If you’re stumped about what to buy for a holiday gift, consider this: Some gifts may transform people’s lives for the healthier.

In a study published in the 1996 Journal of the ­American Dietetic Association, researchers conducted ­interviews with 150 people who had made notable ­improvements in their eating habits. Some of those interviewed mentioned gifts as pivotal ­influences.

“I think when people receive a gift, they feel obligated to try it—or eat it, if appropriate—when they might not do so otherwise,” says Cheryl Achterberg, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at Penn State and a researcher on the study. Gifts that may help change a person’s habits include unfamiliar or exotic fruits and vegetables that the receiver wouldn’t normally buy.

“Similarly,” Achterberg says, “an invitation to dinner for a different cuisine—for example, Indian—or a [gift] certificate to a different restaurant might again spur someone to try different foods that he or she may then incorporate more routinely into the diet.”

The findings show that one modest change can prompt several changes that researchers call a “clump.” Just one gift can trigger such a clump.

“Behavior change tended to occur in groups of about six to eight specific changes,” Achterberg says. “The gift of a wok might trigger an increase in ­cabbage and peppers, an increase in rice or complex carbohydrates, and a decrease in meat, as someone uses this appliance on a regular basis.”

Study participants mentioned several kitchen appliances as motivators, including rice cookers and bread machines, which can lead to the consumption of more whole grains. A gift of homemade food alone is not likely to change someone’s behavior unless it is accompanied by the means and motivation to do so, Achterberg says. For example, she recommends supplying the recipe for the gift or the book that contains the recipe.

“The main thing is that someone needs to try it, like it, and then follow through and re-create it,” she says.

A Basketful of Nutrition

What can you give friends and family that would be more meaningful than a box of candy, slippers, or another tie? Healthy gift baskets may be a good place to start. Nutrition and health-food stores have a wide selection of books and videotapes on nutrition and cooking, healthy snacks (such as roasted soybeans or pumpkin seeds), teas, juices, and products such as specialty skin creams and soaps. Visit grocery stores for exotic fruits. Beth Bussey, a registered dietitian and EatRight weight-control program coordinator in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says she likes to assemble the ingredients for a healthy bean soup and include a recipe. Dried beans come in many colors and are nutritious, too. She stuffs a basket with the beans, plus canned items, specialty crackers, and a soup mug.

You may also consider a magazine subscription (wrap up a copy of your favorite health, cooking, or nutrition magazine with a gift card) or a book. The National Center for Nutrition and Dietetics, part of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), has compiled the Good Nutrition Reading List, a selection of publications on nutrition, diet, fitness and health.

Savvy Strategies to Keep You on Track During the Holidays

Ah, those buffet tables, those butter cookies, cream pies, and fatty snacks. How will it ever be possible to eat healthy from Thanksgiving through New Year’s? ’Tis the season to be jolly—not a time to worry about what you’re going to consume. Have a good time, eat well, but be realistic, nutritionists say.

“The holidays are a time for sharing the festivities of the ­season. Be observant of what you eat—but not fanatical,” says Peter D. Vash, M.D., an expert in the treatment and control of obesity and the executive medical director at the Costa Mesa, California, Lindora Medical Clinic.

And don’t even think about dieting ­during the holiday season. “Think weight main­tenance, not loss,” says Beth Bussey, a registered ­dietitian and EatRight weight-control program co­ordinator in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Here are some savvy tips for getting through the season—from what to eat before tackling the mall to how to graze successfully at the buffet table.

Off and Running

You’ve heard it before, but it’s important to repeat: Don’t skip breakfast. Get plenty of rest, too.

“I recommend that people sleep at least eight hours a day, especially during the holidays, and this may mean short naps,” says Connie Crawley, a registered dietitian and nutrition and health specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

“When people get too tired, they are more likely to eat to keep going and to drink caffeine, which disrupts natural sleep patterns,” she says. “They should also eat three to four small meals per day. Aerobic exercise should also be a priority. All these things help a person deal with stress and resist overeating or eating low-nutrient foods.”

When you take to the road for shopping trips and other holiday errands, Bussey suggests keeping some healthy foods, such as a bag of apples, in your vehicle. She keeps a case of vegetable juice in her car and cans of nutritious beans in her desk drawer at work. If you get caught without healthy snacks and are tempted by fast food, order a chicken breast sandwich or a salad instead of a cheeseburger. Remember that stress also can add to poor eating habits, so prepare to pamper yourself.

“Plan for disaster, not perfection,” Bussey says. If you can, she says, put aside some “mad money” to pay for such time-savers as additional time on your cellular phone or the gift-wrapping service at the mall.

A Balancing Act

Carbohydrate-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains turn into energy quickly in the human body. However, you also need a bit of fat and some protein to help you sustain that energy while you’re running on full speed.

Crawley says that when people get too hungry, their bodies crave high-sugar and high-fat foods.

“Our appetite control centers work best when we are moderately hungry,” Crawley says. “Also, we are more likely to control our intake better if we eat ­carbohydrates that are higher in fiber—that usually means fewer processed foods.”

To maintain one’s energy during the day, Vash suggests eating carbohydrate-rich food with a little protein, such as cottage cheese and a slice of whole-grain toast with jelly or a turkey breast sandwich with mustard on whole-grain bread. If you have a salad, he says, make sure it includes some protein, such as egg whites, poultry, or seafood—and don’t load it with dressing.

A mixture of black beans, brown rice and salsa is also a good mini-meal, Bussey says, and provides you with protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals.

Don't Forget Your Multivitamins

If you’re already taking vitamins and/or supplements, be sure to continue taking them throughout the holidays. “This is no time to change your routine,” Bussey says.

Taking a multivitamin is a prudent thing to do, Vash says, and will ensure quality health, not only during the holidays but throughout the year.

“Many physicians realize the value of vitamins, minerals and herbs; we generally feel that all these can have an important place in the maximizing of the individual’s health.” He says, however, that eating the right foods and getting exercise also are part of a healthy lifestyle.

Working the Party

Go to parties somewhat hungry, never famished—and before you set out, plan an eating strategy. Think moderation and balance.

“I suggest [having] a piece of fruit or a bowl of soup before the party to curb hunger and give the person a sense of control,” Crawley says. Curbing your appetite may help you make better choices at the buffet table.

Once there, survey the food options. “Even at the buffet table, you usually have a wide range of choices,” Vash says. He recommends avoiding foods that are oily or greasy, especially items made with butter, mayonnaise and margarine.

“Choose more grain foods, turkey, chicken, fish and seafood. And just because it’s fish or seafood, that doesn’t mean it can be fried.”

If appropriate, Bussey suggests, bring a healthy appetizer or main dish to add to the buffet table, so that in a worst-case scenario, there will be something you can eat.

“The goal is to go and eat right,” she says. “We feel so good when we do what we planned—it’s those feelings of control that give us the feeling of success.”

A part of the plan may be to allow yourself one bite of everything you truly like. Don’t deprive yourself, but use discernment; nobody ever ruined his or her health or gained weight by having one serving or one bite, Bussey says.

It's Not Just About Food

Eat well before you arrive at the party. Once you’re there, socialize instead of eating or drinking—the refreshments at a holiday gathering should be merely incidental. You’re there for fellowship, to celebrate, Bussey says.

“If we could focus on the purpose of the gathering, food can move into second place.”

Have a handful of heart health and nutrition
Nuts are a misunderstood food. Sure, all nuts have fat, but most of that fat is unsaturated, which means nuts won’t increase cholesterol.

They’re also nutritious. Walnuts, in particular, supply several vitamins—including thiamin, vitamins B and E and folic acid—and are high in protein and cholesterol-cutting fiber. They’re also a good source of the minerals iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium. The fat in walnuts is 70 percent polyunsaturated and includes the essential fatty acids linoleic acid and linolenic acid, plus omega-3 fatty acids.

“A lot of studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the risk of heart disease and certain types of strokes,” says Liz Weiss, a registered dietitian and Boston-based independent nutrition consultant.

“Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in seafood and the vegetable world,” Weiss says, “but a lot of people don’t like seafood.” Only 33 percent of Americans eat fish regularly, according to a 1996 U.S. News/CNN poll. For people who don’t eat seafood, walnuts may be the answer, Weiss says. A quarter-cup (1 ounce) of walnuts contains 2 g of omega-3 fatty acids. The American Dietetic Association suggests that fish, seafood, or nuts be eaten two to three times a week to get the full benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

In a Loma Linda University study published in 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine, walnuts were shown to help reduce blood cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease. Researchers found that when men with normal cholesterol levels replace foods high in saturated fat calorie-for-calorie with walnuts, their blood cholesterol levels drop by more than 12 percent.

Walnuts also contain vitamin E, an antioxidant. A study from the University of Minnesota published in 1996 in the New England Journal of Medicine examined the diets of 35,000 postmenopausal women over a seven-year period. The study showed that women who consumed diets richest in vitamin E, such as those including nuts, had a 62 percent lower risk of heart disease.

A 1995 study published in Stroke and conducted by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco compared the serum fatty acid levels of ninety-six middle-aged men who had suffered a stroke with a similar group of men who hadn’t. For every 0.13 percent increase in blood levels of alpha-linolenic acid, a polyunsaturated acid, the risk of stroke dropped by 37 percent. Lead researcher Joel Simon, M.D., reported that alpha-linolenic acid and the omega-3 fatty acids derived from it may help reduce chances of clot formation and the occurrence of a stroke. Thus, foods such as walnuts that contain this “good” fat may help lower stroke risks. The weight-conscious may fret about nuts and calories, however. Not to worry.

“If you decide to include a handful of walnuts into your diet, you’re not going to gain weight from that,” Weiss says. “It’s all about eating the foods that you enjoy in moderation.”

A quarter-cup of walnuts equals about 190 calories.

“It’s like eating a big bagel,” Weiss says. “It’s no different. No studies show that walnuts make you fat. Too much food makes people fat.”

In a nutshell, walnuts can be included as part of a low-fat diet to replace foods that are high in saturated fat.

“Use them in baking or toss them in a salad or breakfast cereal,” Weiss says.

Trace Mineral May Help Diabetics

Although not a magic bullet, chromium picolinate may help protect against diabetes, according to recent research. Chromium picolinate is an easily absorbed form of chromium, a mineral that our bodies require in trace amounts. In November 1997, the medical journal Diabetes published a study showing that Type II diabetics benefited from taking chromium picolinate in addition to their hypoglycemic therapy. The double-blind study involved 180 men and women; those who received 1 mg of chromium picolinate daily showed substantially improved blood sugar control, according to Richard Anderson, Ph.D., lead scientist at the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and director of the trial.

Another double-blind clinical trial, announced at the 1997 meeting of the American Diabetes Association, supports Anderson’s findings. Overweight people with a family history of diabetes took 1 mg of chromium picolinate daily for four months. Results documented a 40 percent increase in insulin sensitivity, reports researcher William Cefalu, M.D., of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine. Lack of insulin sensitivity, known as insulin resistance, is a precursor to Type II diabetes. Nutrition 21, a supplier of raw ingredients to the supplement industry, pioneered chromium picolinate. Nutrition 21’s Research Director Mark McCarty says that taking chromium picolinate “may, in the long term, have important protective benefits.”

“A lifelong feeding study of rats shows this,” McCarty says. However, future studies will be necessary to confirm these findings in people, he says.

Other than helping those who are overweight and diabetic, “insulin resistance is an important prognostic factor for heart disease,” McCarty says. “We hope that by improving insulin resistance we can subsequently decrease heart disease risk.” He stresses, though, that diet, weight loss, and exercise also have an impact on heart disease.

McCarty says that although chromium picolinate has not produced any adverse side effects in the amounts used in the clinical studies, diabetics taking other drugs or injections may need to modify their treatments and should consult their physicians. Chromium is available as chromium picolinate, chromium polynictotinate, and chromium chloride. Only a small amount of chromium is absorbed by the body from foods such as beef, fish, fresh fruits, whole grains, potatoes, and brewer’s yeast. The USDA’s Anderson says that additional studies are needed to establish the form and amount of supplemental chromium necessary to produce the maximal response in individuals.

Legumes Packed with Folic Acid, New Research Shows

Americans haven’t been too fond of eating beans and peas in the past—even though these legumes are excellent sources of fiber, protein, minerals, B vitamins and folic acid. Kathaleen Briggs Early, a researcher at the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Washington State University, says, however, that recent findings about the folic acid content in legumes may encourage people to eat more of them.

Her study—to be published in December in Research Signpost—suggests that legumes may contain more folic acid than had previously been detected. Early used an analytical method called high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) in conjunction with new extraction methods. Her research implies that foods should be re-evaluated for their folic acid content. Folic acid, also known as folate, lowers the risks of specific birth defects during pregnancy and also may reduce levels of homocysteine, an amino acid that is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Legumes include peas, lentils, garbanzo beans and dry beans such as soy, black and kidney.

Drug-Free Headache Relief

The Headache Alternative:
A Neurologist’s Guide to Drug-Free Relief

By Alexander Mauskop, M.D., F.A.A.N., and Marietta Abrams Brill
Dell Publishing, 1997.
Softbound, 411 pages,
$13.95. ISBN 0-440-50820-7

Book Review 

Headaches. We all get them at one time or another. Some people suffer chronic, often debilitating headache pain. Is the solution to grab some aspirin or acetaminophen? Not necessarily.

The Headache Alternative, a recently published guide to preventing and stopping headaches—from debilitating migraines to tension headaches—may be of help to sufferers. Intended to be a thorough guide to drug-free options for headache relief, all of the therapies recommended by author Alexander Mauskop, a neurologist and director of the New York Headache Center, are natural methods.

Mauskop, also an associate professor of clinical neurology at the State University of the New York Health Science Center in Brooklyn, has found that the most effective ways to treat headaches are biofeedback, acupuncture, and the use of vitamin B2 and magnesium supplements. Over the past six years, he has conducted several studies with magnesium that have opened his eyes to natural alternatives, he says. His studies with magnesium and migraines continue.

Mauskop reports in his book that “stress- or disease-related deficiencies in important vitamins or minerals, such as magnesium, may set off a cascade of biochemical events that lead to headache.” Magnesium in the body can be depleted, he says, through stress, alcoholism, or malnutrition, among other factors. In an easy-to-read style, Mauskop explains how headaches happen, the importance of diet in offsetting headaches, and alternatives to drug treatments—from the simple to the more specialized. The book also includes a useful glossary, resource list, selected bibliography, and references.

“Nutrition supplement: vitamins, minerals, and more” is offered as a bimonthly supplement to Herbs for Health and is written by Lee Peck, an independent journalist from Fort Collins, Colorado. “Nutrition supplement” is intended as an educational service, not a source of medical advice or a guide for self-medication. Please consult a qualified health-care professional for treatment of any serious health problems.


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