Keeping Track of Healthy Calories

Even when eating nutritiously, healthy aging depends on moderating the number of calories you take in.

Surprisingly, studies show that if you follow a healthy diet, but eat more than an average number of calories, you won’t fare any better in terms of healthy aging than people who follow the traditional Western diet. You want a lifelong diet plan that provides micronutrients, fiber and antioxidants while still limiting calories.

That means whether you count calories or portion sizes, it’s important to keep track of all high-calorie foods, even the healthful ones.

Here are some examples.

While plant oils — such as walnut, olive, safflower, sunflower, grapeseed and sesame oils — are better for you than butter with all its saturated fat, tablespoon for tablespoon, oils actually have more calories — 120 to 130 calories compared to butter’s 100. Use an oil spray to coat pans before cooking to conserve calories when you really need to use oil.

When eating a rainbow of veggies, winter squash and sweet potatoes are great choices in the orange color range, but 4 ounces of squash have only 44 calories compared to 84 calories for the same amount of sweet potatoes. If you need a large portion to feel full, eating squash will allow you twice the volume for the same number of calories.

Among the most nutrient-dense fruits, a large banana can have 120 calories while a cup of strawberries is barely 50.

Nutrient-rich, high-calorie foods are still good for you, but consider cutting portion sizes in half to keep the needed ceiling on your overall calorie intake.

More information

Need a portion size reminder? The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has an illustrated serving size card you can print and carry with you.

Health Tip: FDA Discusses Possible Risks of Bodybuilding Products

Bodybuilding drugs may contain steroids or similar substances that could pose significant risks to users, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns.

Steroids and similar drugs have been associated with severe acne, hair loss, altered mood, irritability, increased aggression and depression, the agency says.

They’ve also been associated with life-threatening reactions such as kidney damage, heart attack, stroke, blood clots in the lungs and blood clots that occur in veins deep in the body.

If the product you’re using contains steroids, you should stop using it, the FDA says. If you’re not sure:

  • Speak with your doctor about any bodybuilding products you have taken or are planning to take.
  • Alert your doctor if you have symptoms such as nausea, weakness or fatigue, fever, abdominal pain, chest pain, shortness of breath, yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes, or brown or discolored urine.

For Diabetics, Going Vegan May Boost Mood Along With Health

Diabetes is a formidable foe that can tax the bodies and the spirits of people diagnosed with the blood sugar disease.

But a plant-based diet may help boost the physical and the mental health of unhappy people with type 2 diabetes, a new evidence review reports.

Diabetics who switched to a plant-based diet tended to experience a significant improvement in their emotional well-being, according to the combined findings from 11 prior studies.

The researchers behind the review believe this is because a plant-based diet helped them better control their diabetes.

“They feel more in control of their health, and therefore their mood and overall well-being improves,” said study lead author Anastasios Toumpanakis. He is a doctoral candidate with the University of London, in England.

Diet is central to the control of type 2 diabetes, which affects more than 30 million people in the United States, the researchers said in background notes.

Vegan diets eliminate all animal products from your food, including eggs and dairy, said Rahaf Al Bochi, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

For their evidence review, Toumpanakis and his colleagues collected data on 433 participants in 11 different clinical trials. Of those trials, eight involved fully vegan diets, while the remainder were vegetarian. The trials lasted an average 23 weeks.

People eating plant-based diets experienced an improvement in their physical health and better control of their diabetes, the findings showed.

“These studies demonstrated that this eating pattern helped them to better control their serum glucose [blood sugar] levels, as well as improve their lipid and cholesterol levels,” Toumpanakis said.

People eating the plant-based diets also experienced a marked easing of their diabetes-related nerve pain, with the results suggesting that such an eating plan might slow progressive nerve damage associated with diabetes, the researchers said.

In six of the studies, patients were able to cut down or discontinue drugs they were taking either for their diabetes or for symptoms of diabetes.

The studies also found that people experienced improved psychological well-being. Depression levels dropped, while overall quality of life improved.

“We would say that people with type 2 diabetes following a plant-based diet might be happier because, as the studies suggest, the majority found that through this eating pattern they can have a better control of their condition,” Toumpanakis said.

“If through diet they can have the power to improve their physical symptoms and their glucose levels, and reduce or even stop some of their medication, then this has a huge impact on their quality of life,” he added.

Toumpanakis said there’s nothing to be lost in switching to a plant-based diet, noting that both the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and the American College of Endocrinology promote vegetarian or vegan diets as the optimal nutrition plan for people with diabetes.

But the study didn’t prove that a plant-based diet improved the patients’ mental and physical health, just that there was an association.

And Al Bochi isn’t ready to embrace the review’s findings.

She noted that of the 11 studies included in the review, only four tracked the people’s psychological well-being.

“Keeping that in mind, we’re working with very small sample sizes,” Al Bochi said.

Prior studies have shown that food can play a role in a person’s mood, she said, but “whether there’s an exact mechanism with meat products and mood, I’m not sure if there is an actual association.”

In addition, protein can increase the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can help improve mood, she noted.

Al Bochi suggested that people can best control their mood through food by making sure they eat regular meals, to prevent the “hangry” feelings that can come from blood sugar swings.

“There’s a lot of different nutrients we know that can help with mood. I’m not sure if eliminating certain groups like meat products can have a positive effect on mood,” Al Bochi said.

The evidence review was published online Oct. 30 in the journal BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care.

More information

The American Diabetes Association has more about vegetarian diets and diabetes.

Tap Into the Health Powers of Garlic

As scientists look more deeply into the effects of diet on health, they’re finding that more and more everyday foods offer benefits that go well beyond making dishes tastier.

Garlic, an ingredient found in almost every type of cuisine, is emerging as one such superfood.

Part of the allium family, which includes onions and leeks, garlic has a number of compounds that supply its health-boosting effects as well as its pungent aroma. According to wide-ranging research, garlic seems to improve immunity and heart health, help fight certain cancers, and lower triglycerides and total cholesterol.

Some of these benefits can be seen after eating just one meal with raw garlic. Yet overall there’s enough evidence to have at least half a clove every day, researchers suggest.

Garlic is readily available and relatively inexpensive. Buy one whole head of garlic at a time — the skin should be dry and papery and the visible bulbs should be firm and full, not shriveled.

To get the most benefits, chop, slice or crush fresh garlic to use it. This fires up a process that makes its compounds more potent. Wait 5 to 10 minutes before eating or adding to a dish, especially if you’ll be mixing it with a highly acidic food like lemon juice.

Some easy ways to use minced raw garlic are to blend it into avocado, along with red onion, jalapeno and cilantro for guacamole; into chickpeas for hummus; or into cooked white beans for bean dip. Whisked into oil and vinegar with your choice of herbs, garlic adds zest to salad dressings and marinades.

But you don’t have to always eat it raw. As long as the garlic is prepped as suggested and added toward the end of a recipe, it will retain its nutritional value when cooked.

More information

Learn more about garlic from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University.

AHA: How to Beat Triggers That Make You Crave a Cigarette

When Rafe Poirrier smoked cigarettes, he smoked as soon as he woke, after eating, while driving, and whenever he took a break at work.

“I think my favorite (part) was socializing — hanging out with smokers outside an office building, at a bar or in a park,” said Poirrier, 51, of Houston.

Physical cravings, combined with environmental, behavioral and personal triggers like those Poirrier experienced, can make quitting very difficult. In fact, a 2009 study showed that simply viewing an image of a person smoking can trigger someone who has recently quit to abandon their newfound resolve.

The classic example of how a trigger works is from Psychology 101: Pavlov’s dogs salivated every time they heard Ivan Pavlov ring a bell because the researcher always rang a bell before feeding them.

“We too have these conditioned responses,” said clinical psychologist Barry J. Jacobs, a Pennsylvania-based clinical psychologist and health care consultant. “Certain stimuli wind up giving us a certain response.”

Jacobs, who specializes in helping people form good health habits, adds that when a person smokes while drinking coffee, for example, cigarettes and coffee eventually become associated so that when the person drinks coffee he or she automatically wants a cigarette. “Coffee becomes a trigger,” he said.

Triggers come in a few categories. Etta Short, director of clinical development and support at Optum, a corporate tobacco cessation program, said dependence on the nicotine in tobacco causes physical cravings that become paired with actions and emotions throughout the day.

Triggers associated with behaviors include driving, finishing a meal or talking on the phone. Environmental triggers include spending time with smoking friends or being at a bar or music concert. And emotional triggers can include stress, boredom, anger or even pleasurable feelings.

For Poirrier, who started smoking at age 20 while on a college exchange program in France, it was a business trip. Although he had quit smoking two years earlier, returning to Paris caused a personal trigger so strong and so unexpected that he relapsed.

“I think the need to smoke was fueled by nostalgia,” said Poirrier, who smoked for more than two decades.

His relapse was short-lived. He walked throughout the city smoking the cigarettes in that single pack for hours, then took the metro back to his hotel, smoked one last cigarette outside and tossed the remainder.

That was in 2014. “I haven’t smoked since,” he said.

Poirrier initially quit when his workplace became smoke-free, which caused him to cut back from his three-pack-a-day habit to one pack a day. But he also had a constant cough, struggled to catch his breath when walking up stairs and was concerned about the effects of secondhand smoke on his kids. He said staying focused on the benefits of not smoking helps him to avoid triggers now.

Tying your motivation to quit to those types of core values can really help, Short said. “Living up to core values is a strong intrinsic reinforcement that helps the person stick to the plan and not let triggers get in the way of the resolve.”

Short said the way to turn your back on triggers is to anticipate them and make a plan with coping strategies, such as substitutes for smoking, distractions, relaxation techniques and motivating statements. She also recommends nicotine replacement therapy to manage physical cravings so that the person can stay focused.

“The first two to four weeks are the toughest,” she said. “But for many people, it takes much longer for all triggers to fade.”

An Action Plan When You Regain That Lost Weight

It’s the most frustrating part of dieting: Regaining the weight you worked so hard to lose.

It helps to understand why this happens so you won’t blame yourself as you get back on track.

Many hormones that regulate body weight and rule your appetite seem to go haywire after weight loss, possibly because the body wants the weight it was familiar with back on. These hormones can stay higher, encouraging weight regain, for more than a year, even after the pounds start creeping back.

So the tendency for weight regain could be part of the body’s natural instinct and not simply because you went back to old eating habits. To combat this, you need to keep a diet mindset for at least one year after you reach your goal weight.

But what can you do if that weight has already started coming back? First, go easy on yourself. Dieting takes dedicated effort and you don’t want to waste energy blaming yourself.

Next, go back to all the diet principles that helped you lose weight. Do a self-checkup to see if your portions have gotten bigger recently, if you’re eating too often, or if you’re not being as careful about the quality of calories you choose as you were when you were losing weight.

It may also be that you aren’t exercising as much as you did. While calorie restriction seems to increase appetite, exercise can reduce it as well as burn off calories. A study published in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism found that exercising after a meal may extend the feeling of satisfaction that the food gave you. This could be helpful in coping with smaller portions.

Just be sure not to overeat right before exercise. A small snack is OK, but you should wait two hours after a full meal so that digestion isn’t fighting against your workout efforts.

More information

To help you calculate the right amount of calories to both get to and stay at your desired weight, use the body weight planner tool from the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.

Health Tip: Get More Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps build strong bones, regulate the immune system and ward off illness.

It also helps maintain blood calcium levels and regulate calcium and phosphorous, which are crucial to keeping bones and teeth firm, the Arthritis Foundation says.

People with arthritis who take oral corticosteroids are at greater risk of being vitamin D deficient, the foundation says.

Here are its suggestions for boosting your levels of vitamin D:

  • Get direct sunlight without sunscreen for just 10 to 15 minutes every other day.
  • Eat three ounces of a fish that is rich in vitamin D, such as salmon or Atlantic mackerel.
  • Take a supplement of cod liver oil, which is rich in vitamin D.
  • Eat vitamin D-fortified foods, such as cereal, milk, cheese and soy products.

Fueling Up With Functional Foods

Though the term “functional foods” currently has no legal definition, it’s more than just a clever marketing catchphrase.

According to health organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, these are foods that go beyond providing calories and basic nutrition to actually improving your health. They can be whole foods in their natural state or enhanced ones.

But to be considered functional there must be research that attests to their benefits when eaten regularly as part of a good diet.

The academy points to three main categories of functional foods. First are everyday foods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy, fish and meat with compounds that provide a higher level of nutrition — think of the probiotics in yogurt and the antioxidants in berries.

Next are foods enriched or fortified with food compounds like omega-3 fatty acids.

And finally are synthesized food ingredients, like prebiotics.

With many functional foods as close as the nearest supermarket, it’s easy to add more of them to your diet. For instance, choose fatty fish (think albacore tuna, salmon, herring as a few examples) for dinner — it’s a functional food because of its natural omega-3s. The monounsaturated fat in olive oil may reduce the risk of heart disease, so it makes the list, too.

The value of many functional foods lies in their micronutrients, like the polyphenols that give fruits and veggies their rich colors. Research into many of these substances is still in the early stages, but scientists have already identified more than 8,000 “phyto” or plant-based chemicals.

Most fruits and vegetables have numerous ones, but research has yet to unravel what specific combinations make them so good for you. So, until researchers learn more, eat fruits and vegetables in every color of the rainbow to get the widest array of nutrients.

More information

The website Fruits and Veggies: More Matters has more on phytonutrients and how they boost health.

For Your Dry Eyes Only…

Dry eyes is a condition in which the eye does not produce tears properly, or tears are not of the correct consistency and evaporate too quickly.

Tears 101

With each blink of the eyelids, tears spread across the front surface of the eye known as the cornea. Tears provide lubrication, reduce the risk of eye infection, wash away foreign matter in the eye, and keep the surface of the eyes smooth and clear.

Excess tears in the eyes flow into small drainage ducts in the inner corners of the eyelids, which drain into the back of the nose. Dry eyes can occur when tear production and drainage is not in balance.

In addition, inflammation of the surface of the eye may occur along with dry eye. If left untreated, this condition can lead to pain, ulcers, or scars on the cornea, and some loss of vision. However, permanent loss of vision from dry eye is uncommon.

Reasons for Dry Eyes

Age: The majority of people over age 65 experience some symptoms of dry eyes.

Medications: Certain medicines, including antihistamines, decongestants, blood pressure medications, and antidepressants, can reduce tear production.

Medical Conditions: People with rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and thyroid problems are more likely to have symptoms of dry eyes. Also, problems with inflammation of the eyelids (blepharitis), inflammation of the surfaces of the eye, or the inward or outward turning of eyelids can cause dry eyes to develop.

Environmental conditions: Exposure to smoke, wind and dry climates can increase tear evaporation resulting in dry eye symptoms. Failure to blink regularly, such as when staring at a computer screen for long periods of time, can also contribute to drying of the eyes.

Dry eye symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Stinging or burning of the eye
  • A sandy or gritty feeling as if something is in the eye
  • Episodes of excess tears following very dry eye periods
  • A stringy discharge from the eye
  • Pain and redness of the eye
  • Episodes of blurred vision;

How to treat Dry Eyes

  1. Adding Tears
    A mild case of dry eyes can often be managed using over-the-counter artificial tear solutions. These can be used as often as needed to supplement natural tear production. Preservative-free artificial tear solutions are recommended because they contain fewer additives, which can further irritate the eyes. 
  2. Wearing Sunglasses
    Wearing glasses that fit close to the face (wraparound shades) or that have side shields can help slow tear evaporation from the eye surfaces. Indoors, an air cleaner to filter dust and other particles helps prevent dry eyes. A humidifier also may help by adding moisture to the air. 
  3. Increasing Tear Production
    Your optometrist can prescribe eye drops that increase tear production. Taking an omega-3 fatty acid nutritional supplement may also help. Supplements or dietary sources (such as tuna fish) of omega-3 fatty acids (especially DHA and EPA) may decrease symptoms of irritation. The use and dosage of nutritional supplements and vitamins should be discussed with your primary medical doctor.

A Few Tips for Healthy Eyes
Remember to blink regularly when reading or staring at a computer screen for long periods of time.

To help alleviate digital eye strain, follow the 20-20-20 rule; take a 20-second break to view something 20 feet away, every 20 minutes.

Avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of water (8 to 10 glasses) each day.

Small Meals for a Stress-Free Work Day

There has been much discussion about how eating six small meals a day instead of three relatively larger meals can help reduce calorie intake and increase the metabolic rate.

If today’s office culture is anything to go by, hours are spent at the desk with nary a chat about food. Come mealtime, however, there is a ravenous beast just waiting to gorge on whatever comes its way. This drastic swing in eating habits is what has the nastiest effect on the body.

Irregular eating patterns are something every working professional has to deal with in the 21st century. If you skip breakfast, the hunger caused by avoiding this meal can make you giddy. This discomfort can make you less productive in your day’s tasks and put an enormous stress on your mind and body.

There are some basic rules about eating that need to be kept in mind, things that our mothers told us every time we went up to them demanding one more cookie.

Here are some of them to remind us:

  • If you are feeling hungry, think of the last time you ate. If it was less than three hours ago it’s not hunger, maybe just a passing attack of the munchies. Drink some water and ride it out.
  • If you are in the pattern of going long hours without having a meal, carry some healthy snacks with you. Fruits or a small whole-wheat salad sandwich usually work well.
  • Wait out your hunger pangs. Use work as a distraction but not for so long that you turn ravenous.

While it is not always easy to do the above, there are some simple ways in which you can split your daily diet into six, small simple meals that can help you tide over through the day. Here are some pointers:

A Timely Breakfast

It’s the first meal of the day and also the most important one.

A couple of things to remember about breakfast: Have it within a couple of hours of waking up and, most importantly, fill yourself up.

Research shows that people who eat a healthy and filling breakfast run a lower risk of obesity over those who skip it (and no, a doughnut is not breakfast).

Add a little variety to your breakfast by alternating between fish, fruits, meat and salads, with a little bit of egg. The first meal of the day brightens your mood as well as gives you energy for the day to come.

Portions and Nutrient Value

Often forgotten in the blinding allure of a fried chicken leg dripping with juice and butter, understanding the right portion size and nutrient value of the food you eat is essential to having a healthy diet.

Even as that chicken leg might be glorious for the palate, regular or binge-eating the same would probably wreak havoc on your waistline. If you are going for multiple meals a day, keep track of what you are eating and how much of it is going in.

A bag of chips does not count as a small healthy meal, nor does that bacon and cheese grilled sandwich, however scrumptious they appear. Restrain yourself to small portions and ensure that you carry fruit with you in case hunger pangs strike.

Having multiple small meals a day won’t just balance your blood sugar levels, it’ll also flatten out your cravings. But, it is essential to remember that multiple small meals will only work for you if you keep in mind the keywords: Small portions and healthy food.

Intermittent Fasting Isn’t a Bad Idea

Also known as IF, intermittent fasting has been picked on by many food and health experts because it was believed that it can cause loss of muscle mass. Nonetheless,  it is currently one the world’s most popular health and fitness trends.

The 16- or  24-hour fasting technique, done twice a week, has the potential to boost insulin sensitivity, lower glucose levels, and reduce insulin levels among various other improvements to health parameters.

IF also sets off a process called autophagy, in which the body’s cells clean up waste buildup. This waste contributes to ageing and causes diseases, and research shows that when fasting, the human body’s metabolic rate increases, only decreasing again after two to three days.

Short-term fasting could be a great way to help your body burn some fat and can work well with having multiple small meals a day. It may be a good idea to give your stomach a day off from all the hard work that it usually puts in.