Go green for Earth Day

As Earth Day approaches we should think about the impact we have on our environment. We should also think about what we can do to reduce that impact. The good news is there are ways we can “go green” that are good for our health and the health of our planet, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


Bicycle commuting

 

First, you can go green by replacing car trips with walking or cycling. Every mile you drive releases carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the environment. Additionally, spending more time sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your health and happiness. Walking or biking has no such effects on the environment and has important health benefits including improved fitness, weight control, and greater feelings of wellbeing. Despite the potential environmental and health benefits of replacing car trips with active transportation, 37% of Americans report not walking for transportation at all in a given week.

Obviously, walking or biking everywhere isn’t practical. But you could probably replace some car trips with active transportation. Most people commute less than five miles to work and nearly half of all car trips are less than two miles. Both are reasonable distances to bike or walk. If you have several places to go, you can always park in a central location and walk to each destination.

The second way you can go green is by eating more vegetables and fruits. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. At a minimum, you should eat five servings per day with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables. You should also try to buy from area farmers. Eating locally grown food is good for you and the environment. Food production and delivery is second only to cars for fossil fuel use  and is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Did you know that the food items that make up a typical meal travel 22,000 miles to get to your table? Food from local farms is associated with fewer “food miles” and a lower environmental footprint.

Additionally, produce grown locally is picked at the peak of freshness, meaning it is richer in nutrients, not to mention flavor. By contrast, produce that is grown far away is picked before it is ripe, resulting in lower nutritional value. As an added benefit, the money you spend on food from local farms stays in our area, supporting farmers who live in our community.

Since you are eating more veggies, you can eat less meat. Raising animals for meat, milk, and eggs has a major impact on the environment. Over a quarter of land is dedicated to raising livestock, and almost 15% of total greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock. These animals also produce tons of manure every minute, at least some of which ends up polluting water supplies.

Finally, you can literally “go green” when you exercise. Being active outdoors leads to enhanced feelings of energy and diminished fatigue, anxiety, anger, and sadness compared to similar activity conducted indoors. Additionally, some research suggests that outdoor activity may improve attention in adults and children. Another advantage of exercising outdoors is that you might get a better workout because you will likely walk or run faster outdoors. Research shows that even though people tend to exercise at a higher intensity outside, it may feel easier. Much of the psychological benefit of outdoor exercise occurs in the first five minutes, so even short bouts of activity, like walking instead of driving a short distance, are meaningful.

So, as you celebrate Earth Day this week, think about all the ways you can go green—it’s good for you and the environment.

Weight loss “frenemies”: How the people around you can support–and sabotage–your weight loss.

 

Anyone who has tried to lose weight, quit smoking, or make another behavior change knows that having the support of family and friends is a key to success. Additionally, having a “buddy” to go through the process with can help keep you motivated, leading to greater success now and in the long run.

However, a lack of support can make these changes even more difficult. Some people even encounter behavior by friends and family members that directly interferes with their efforts, something that seems to be more common among women than men. (something that my friend Shannon has noticed).

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

together-hands


Social support has long been recognized as a key component of group exercise, weight loss, and smoking cessation programs. This support can be both real and perceived. Family, friends, co-workers, and others who directly or indirectly offer support and encouragement are obvious examples. But research shows that even thinking that you have the support of others can boost your chances of success.

Group weight loss programs are popular because they provide accountability, positive role models, and advice in a supportive environment. From my perspective as a weight loss researcher, the group dynamic is a major reason people stick with a program when they otherwise might not. In fact, research supports the idea that programs with a group component tend to be more effective over time. Not wanting to “let the group down” keeps many participants focused and on track. While guilt isn’t the best reason for continuing a weight loss program, it is an effective motivator for some people to reach their goal.

Group support can also make up for support that may be lacking from other people. Some dieters find that the people around them are unsupportive. This can include comments (“seeing you eat healthy makes me feel guilty!”), being excluded from activities because the person is on a diet, and direct sabotage of the person’s efforts by encouraging them to stray from their diet. Participants of group programs report that support from other members helps them get past these barriers.

Even with strong support from others making the same lifestyle changes, the assistance of friends, family, and coworkers is essential. Some support is relatively simple to provide and includes making positive comments and encouragement. A simple acknowledgement of the effort a dieter has been making goes a long way. Sometimes others may see changes before the person losing weight notices any progress. This feedback can be especially motivating.

Other forms of support may be more challenging. For example, if one member of a family is trying to lose weight, the rest of the family may need to alter their habits as well to accommodate changes in eating and exercise. Others can contribute by helping a dieter shop for healthier food, prepare meals, and find time for exercise. Sadly, missing this support is a frequent reason why people are unable to realize long-term weight loss success. The bottom line is that those close to someone who is trying to improve their health can be influential, both positively and negatively, in their success.

If you are trying to lose weight, look for people who can provide support, whether that is encouragement or actual assistance. If you know someone who is on a diet, try to be a source of support for them. Complimenting them on their progress and encouraging them to continue is a good start. At the very least, don’t do or say things that make their health improvement process more difficult. Best of all, you can play along with them—chances are, you could benefit from eating better and getting more exercise!

Skip the smoothie, have a burger? Fast food for exercise recovery.

Many athletes use specialized supplements before, during, and after exercise to improve performance and enhance strength and endurance gains from training. Many non-athletes also use similar supplements, even though they may not need them. And a recent study suggests that fast food, literally meals from McDonald’s, can work as well as more expensive sports supplements for promoting muscle recovery following intense exercise. I try to make sense of all of this in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.



SONY DSC

After exercise, many athletes consume specialized beverages and foods that supply nutrients to help their muscles recover. These recovery drinks generally contain some combination of carbohydrates (sugar) and protein and come in liquid, shake, or smoothie form. There are also energy bars specifically formulated for use after exercise. Research shows that these carbohydrate-protein recovery drinks and foods enhance muscle recovery and adaptations to training in some athletes. Even if you aren’t an athlete, you may consume these products after you work out. Let’s explore when and for whom these recovery products might be useful.

Intense endurance exercise—think of a distance runner, cyclist, or triathlete—uses muscle glycogen as a fuel. Muscle glycogen is a storage form of glucose, sugar that the muscle converts into energy. During prolonged exercise sessions that last at least 60–90 minutes, muscle glycogen levels can be severely depleted. Resynthesizing that muscle glycogen is a priority following exercise.

Athletes who are engaging in intense resistance training to build muscle and strength may also benefit from a recovery drink. Weight training stimulates protein synthesis in the muscle, so it makes sense that consuming additional protein would be beneficial. As new muscle protein is formed, both strength and muscle size are increased.

It has also been shown that combining the carbohydrates with protein results in more rapid muscle glycogen replenishment and increases muscle protein synthesis. This is why many specialized recovery drinks and foods include a combination of carbohydrates and protein. The best time to consume carbohydrates to restore muscle glycogen levels is immediately following exercise. Similarly, the muscle is most responsive to extra protein immediately after a resistance training session.

Perhaps these recovery drinks, bars, and shakes aren’t even necessary. Sports nutritionists have long recommended conventional foods and beverages for athletes after exercise. Research shows that chocolate milk is just as effective as more expensive supplements for replenishing muscle glycogen and promoting muscle protein synthesis. Remarkably, according to a study published last week, fast food may work just as well!

In this study cyclists were fed either commercial recovery aids or food from McDonald’s including pancakes, sausage, juice, a burger, fries, and soda after they completed an intense exercise session. Importantly, the meals contained equal amount of calories and nutrients. It turns out that there was no significant difference in how quickly muscle glycogen was replenished or in performance in a subsequent exercise bout between the two conditions. While the authors don’t recommend eating more fast food, this study suggests that foods not typically thought of as sports nutrition products can be effective for muscle recovery following vigorous exercise.

But what about people who engage in regular exercise to improve fitness or lose weight? The benefits of recovery drinks in athletes exist because the intense training causes changes in the muscle that allow the extra carbohydrates and protein to have a positive effect. Training at a lower intensity is unlikely to create this stimulus in the muscle, so these nutrients would not have a significant benefit. Simply put, most people don’t train hard enough to need a recovery drink.

The bottom line is that these recovery aids are not always necessary and you can get the same benefits from regular food. Something else to keep in mind is that these supplements, especially in shake or smoothie form, can be high in calories. It is entirely possible to consume more calories in a recovery beverage than you burn during exercise. This could diminish the effect of exercise on weight loss and may actually lead to weight gain. For most of us, a sensible diet with regular exercise is the key to meeting fitness and weight loss goals.

Exercise and seasonal asthma.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you may want to know if it is safe to exercise outdoors. The short answer is yes, provided you take the right precautions. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


 

Jogging-poster

Spring means blooming flowers, new leaves on trees, and green grass. But for millions of people, spring also means seasonal allergies. Also known as allergic rhinitis or hay fever, seasonal allergies are caused by pollen produced by plants. Tree pollen is the most common culprit in the spring, with grass and ragweed in the summer and fall, respectively. Allergy symptoms — watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing, congestion, and cough — may start within 5–10 minutes of exposure in sensitive individuals and last for hours.

Seasonal allergies are an abnormal response of the immune system to pollen. Inhaled pollen acts as an allergen, which stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies, including IgE. Antibodies are produced whenever the immune system encounters a foreign antigen, whether it is a virus or pollen. The IgE stimulates specialized cells in the airways called mast cells to produce histamines, which cause the familiar symptoms of seasonal allergies. This is the same process that causes allergies to dust mites, animal dander, and certain foods.

Since histamines are an important step in triggering an allergic response, seasonal allergies can be treated by using antihistamine drugs such as fexofenadine (Allegra), loratadine (Claritin), cetirizine (Zyrtec) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl). Some antihistamines also include a decongestant (Claritin-D, for example).

Allergy symptoms can be diminished by reducing exposure to pollen. This means keeping the windows of your home and car closed and minimizing outdoor activity when pollen levels are highest, particularly early in the morning, on windy days, and when the pollen count is high. Pollen levels are often reported with weather forecasts.

People often ask if it is safe to exercise if they have seasonal allergies. In most cases, the answer is yes. Allergy symptoms are typically similar to cold symptoms, so the usual advice about exercise with a cold also applies: If the symptoms are above your neck (runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing), it is safe to exercise. That said, allergy symptoms are based on exposure to pollen and the more you inhale, the worse your symptoms. Since your breathing increases significantly during exercise, so does your exposure to pollen.

There are some cases in which exercise with allergies could have serious effects. Exercise-induced bronchospasm (EIB), also called exercise-induced asthma, is a condition that affects the majority of people with asthma, many of whom also have seasonal allergies. EIB is thought to be caused by the cooling and drying of the airways due to the high ventilation during exercise or exposure to particulate matter in the air, typically from pollutants, or pollen. EIB results in the constriction of airways, severely limiting airflow into the lungs. Asthmatics typically carry a rescue inhaler (bronchodilator) during exercise for this reason.

Interestingly, EIB also occurs in athletes, including those who compete at the Olympic level. It is more common among athletes competing in outdoor winter events (cooling and drying of airways) and indoor ice events (pollutants from ice resurfacing equipment). Through careful warm-up and use of certain approved medications, athletes with allergies and EIB can successfully compete at an elite level.

Since most of us don’t reach the exertion level of athletes, there is no reason to let seasonal allergies stop you from exercising. You may be able to exercise outdoors on days in which the pollen count is lower, especially if you do lower-intensity exercise like walking. Antihistamine medications may help ease the symptoms and shouldn’t interfere with exercise. For many people, allergy season is a good time to exercise indoors. Walking on a treadmill or an indoor track or participating in a group exercise class at a local gym are great ways to stay active on days when exercise outdoors just won’t work. By taking some precautions, you can and should exercise even if you have seasonal allergies!

Driving yourself to the doctor.

Have you ever thought about how much time you spend in your car? On average, Americans face a 50-minute round-trip drive each day just for their jobs, and nearly thee-quarters of commuters drive alone. In suburban and metropolitan areas the commute can be much longer. Even in Aiken the average commute time is about 23 minutes. When you include driving to work, taking the kids to school, and doing errands, sitting in a car can easily account for an hour or more each day.

You can find the average commute time in your area using this really cool interactive map from WNYC.

You are probably very aware of the time you spend in the car. What you may not know is that sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your health and happiness. This is the conclusion of several studies that examined the relationship between commuting time and indicators of health. One of these studies suggests that vehicle miles traveled is a strong predictor of obesity. In another study, commuting a greater distance was associated with lower levels of physical activity and fitness as well as a higher waist circumference and blood pressure.

This makes sense because spending more time sitting in your car means you have less time to dedicate to being physically active, something we know is good for your health. Add to that the fact that driving is sedentary. There is accumulating evidence that spending more time sitting in the car, at work, or at home is a predictor of poor health, regardless of how active you are the rest of the day.

It gets worse. Many people eat in their cars during long commutes. Much of the time these “meals” consist of fast food and other prepackaged foods—not many people eat salads while they drive! Since these foods are typically of questionable nutritional quality and high in calories, this alone can contribute to obesity and poor health. The combination of inactivity and eating behind the wheel can easily shift the balance toward weight gain. Plus, eating while you drive is dangerous!

Beyond the direct impact on health through eating and activity behaviors, commuting alone in a car is a form of social isolation. Research suggests that this can lead to depression, itself an important factor leading to poor health.

The problems with long commute times are well established and easy to appreciate. Unfortunately, the solutions are not. Most people can’t move in order to have a shorter commute and relying on public transportation isn’t practical or even possible for many people, especially in our area. Replacing driving a car with active modes of transportation simply isn’t practical.

Aside from the time requirement—imagine how long a 25 minute drive would take on a bike or on foot!—our environment doesn’t adequately support active travel. Being able to walk or bike requires access to safe bike lanes and sidewalks that connect people’s homes to work, school, and other destinations. Even public transportation increases activity over driving and enhances social connections. Sadly, this infrastructure doesn’t exist in most communities, which were built to support cars, not people.

But we can take steps to undo some of the damage that so much driving can cause. Making activity at other times of the day a priority is a good start. This could include exercise at the gym, going for a walk, or even yard work or housework. When possible, replace car trips with walking or biking. Planning these activities with others can strengthen social connections as well as improve health and fitness. Finally, act as an advocate for changes in the community that will make active transportation more realistic.

More confusing food labeling, from people who should know better!

Since I am thinking about the topic of confusing food labeling this week, I wanted to share another example that I read about recently.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, formerly the American Dietetic Association, announced the first food to bear their “Kids Eat Right” label. This is a big deal, because the label is a sort of endorsement from the professional organization that represents nutritionists and dietitians. It follows that these foods would be among the healthiest choices for kids.

Unless they aren’t.

It turns out that the first food to bear this label is Kraft American Singles cheese “product.” It’s not even real cheese. Or even real food for that matter. Obviously, there is more going on here than helping consumers identify healthy foods for their kids. Hint: it involves money!

Nutritionist, professor, and author Marion Nestle provides some excellent commentary about this on her blog, Food Politics. Check it out…she is an excellent resource for all things nutrition.

When it comes to making good food choices, knowledge is power.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about making smart food choices and how the nutrition information we are provided with can complicate that process.


Making smart decisions about what you eat is an important step in losing weight, feeling better, and preventing and treating a host of health conditions. But doing so requires that you have the knowledge to make those healthy decisions. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a good education in nutrition, forcing them to rely on information provided to them.

Some of this information comes from reputable sources and is based on research and experience. More often, though, nutrition information is provided by food manufacturers whose interests may not be consistent with providing smart recommendations. The end result is that consumers (that’s us) may not understand the information they get or know how to use it to make healthy choices.

A good example is the health claims about whole grains found on many food packages, including breakfast cereals. “A good source of whole grains,” is a common claim. Most people would reasonably interpret as a sign that the food inside is healthy, or at least is healthier than similar foods that don’t contain whole grains.

These types of claims are allowed by the FDA, but they refer only to what is in the food, not whether it is healthy or not. Many of the foods bearing this claim probably are healthy choices, but this isn’t always the case.

For example, Lucky Charms cereal contains whole grains. In fact, whole grains are the first ingredient, as the claim on the box indicates. Sounds good, right? But, when you read the Nutrition Facts panel on the side of the box you will find that the second ingredient is marshmallows! Does that sound like a healthy breakfast? (Hint: It’s not!)

Lucky_Charms package

 

This is the problem. If you are like most people, you won’t take the time to read the ingredients or the nutrition information on the back of the package. And even if you do, you may find that information to be confusing. Even if you wanted to make healthy choices, you might not have the knowledge to interpret and apply the available nutrition information.

This general lack of knowledge we have about nutrition has led to situations in which some foods are restricted or banned. Recently, the city of Berkeley, California voted to impose a tax on soda and other sugary drinks in an effort to keep people from consuming too much sugar and too many calories.

This effort, and others like it, have contributed to a vigorous debate about personal choice and freedom for people to make their own decisions about what to eat and drink. One argument against these types of restrictions is that if people have the nutrition information about soda (or any other food) they can make informed choices.

This is a nice idea, but it simply isn’t fair to expect people to make good decisions if the information isn’t available or is not easy to understand. Worse, misleading information can lead to making bad decisions.

Help may be on the way. The FDA is working on a redesigned Nutrition Facts panel that should help us make better food choices. In particular, the amount of sugar added to foods will be listed. This change alone will help identify foods that may appear to be healthy, like Lucky Charms which contain whole grains, but are actually high in added sugar. Additional changes include more realistic serving sizes and better information about fat content.

It is unclear when the updated nutrition facts panel will be implemented. In the meantime, do your best to read labels and use common sense as your guide: The addition of marshmallows does not make any food any healthier, no matter how much whole grain it contains!