Friday, September 30, 2011

Boost Your Body Image With Exercise

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom
Have you ever looked in the mirror, and wished you were slimmer, taller, more muscular, or more petite? If so, you’re not alone. Nearly two-thirds of American adults are dissatisfied with their bodies.

New evidence indicates that there’s a simple solution to at least feeling more positive about your present body, even if you can’t change the shape. The solution? Increasing physical activity! An important observation here: whether the physical health benefits of exercise were measurable or not, people felt better about their bodies, just by moving more! Neither duration nor intensity of exercise appeared to matter. Just taking a walk, and moving more in their day-to-day lives, was just what a lot of people needed to help support a better self-image.

A modest effort for a significant positive health outcome – a better self-image helps sustain focus and interest in a healthy lifestyle. That’s what I call a real win-win!

Have you felt this “value-added” of being more active? Please share your thoughts!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Salt Sense

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom
You might be surprised to know that most of the salt we consume every day doesn’t come from the salt shaker – it comes from processed foods. These are the conveniently packaged, boxed, and canned products that don’t taste particularly salty, but provide nearly 80% of the salt eaten daily. Only about 10% comes from the salt shaker, with the remaining 10% naturally found in foods.

So it’s no surprise that all the messages from health agencies to cut down on salt haven’t really made a dent in the intake of most Americans. While the recommended intake for most healthy people is about 2,400 mg of sodium (one teaspoon) each day, the average daily intake for Americans is 2-3 times that. And most of it is coming from processed foods.

That’s why the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) new guidelines advise Americans to cut down on processed foods, rather than cut down on salt. Most people believe they’re following the directive, to “cut down on salt” when they get rid of the shaker at the table, which is the crux of the problem. Kudos to the IOM for changing the message, to help people make betters choices.

While national guidelines for most healthy people suggest a daily intake of up to 2,400 mg, to support our biological need for sodium, some documented “salt-sensitive” groups (age 50+, African-American, high blood pressure, family history of high blood pressure) should aim for around 1,500 mg. And always check with your doctor, to confirm how closely you need to monitor your sodium intake.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Are You Hungry?

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom
When it comes to weight control, you’d think a question as direct as “Are you hungry?” would be an easy one to answer. But in the real world, it’s not so easy.

One way to start thinking about this complicated question, is to think about the flip side of it. Are you content? It’s actually a lot easier to think in terms of “having enough” to be satisfied, compared to figuring out if it’s true hunger driving you to eat.

How about a focus on recognizing “contentment” instead of hunger? I have a simple method of how to do this. It’s called “look for level 2.” And here’s how.

I like to think of 3 levels of fullness – like Goldilocks and the 3 Bears’ approach to the porridge. Most of us eat to what I call “level 3” of fullness – until we are stuffed. How many times have you eaten to the point of feeling “you’re going to burst?” Level 3 (too much) means you are physically unable to ingest any more food. Level 1 (too little) is just enough food so your stomach isn’t growling, but you’re still actively hungry and not content. Level 2 (just right) means that you are content and satisfied, but you could eat more. That’s the new end point you must accept in order to lose weight and keep it off.

Now here’s the challenge – choosing to listen to that signal of level 2. To avoid deprivation, you need to assure yourself that there is always more food later. That answers the question we all fear when we stop at contentment – what if I’m hungry later? The answer: I’ll eat again later.

Following this rule of level 2, you’ll find that it will take far fewer calories to satisfy, for either a meal or a snack, when make your endpoint “contentment” (level 2), rather than being “stuffed” (level 3).

It takes some practice, but you’ll be able to master this within 2-3 weeks, the time it typically takes for form and sustain a new habit. I hope you’ll consider this for your own weight loss toolbox!

What other ways to you have to evaluate hunger and fullness? Let me know!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Apple Juice and Arsenic?

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom
You might have heard the report by Dr. Mehmet Oz - the cardiothoracic surgeon and Emmy award winning television host – that 5 brands of apple juice on his show tested for higher levels of the heavy metal arsenic than are approved by federal regulations for drinking water. His conclusion was that the government should set stricter standards, given that arsenic is associated with kidney damage and some cancers.

This is just one glaring example of consumer confusion when it comes to food. Apple juice? Safe or not? The FDA has challenged Dr. Oz’s conclusions, saying that his testing methods were flawed, and that he did not distinguish between harmful inorganic arsenic, and organic arsenic (not thought to be a health risk by safety regulators). The FDA says it is always testing apple juice, and the levels are within guidelines, posing no health risk.

It’s the consumer who always has to slug through these kinds of mixed messages. When it comes to apple juice, it seems that many health professionals continue to support the FDA’s food safety testing, so if you drink apple juice, don’t panic!

But possible arsenic concerns aside, there are other more important reasons to limit apple juice consumption, for both yourself and your children. You always want to eat your fruit and not drink it – even 100% apple juice is nutrient-poor, and simply a source of extra calories, contributing to overweight, as well as cavities (it’s sugary composition!).

Be an informed consumer. Sometimes it’s a challenge, but information is always available from the FDA, National Institutes of Health, and other evidence-based websites.

Please weigh in with your thoughts!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Top Food Safety Tip: Cook It!

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom
You might have heard about the recent recall of raw ground turkey from supermarket shelves. Salmonella (a type of bacteria causing food-borne illness) was found during routine testing, with a quick removal from stores. Food contamination does seem to occur more often in ground meats (including poultry, beef, pork, and lamb), and with good reason. It’s not just the uncooked meat that can be affected, but the meat grinders can be loaded with bacteria, easily passed along to the meat.

So, what to do? You don’t have to give up eating your favorite burger, but it’s a good idea to rethink how you’re cooking it. While you don’t need to cook your meat until it’s the texture of shoe-leather, it’s important to follow national guidelines to optimize food safety.

Cooking ground meats kills bacteria, including salmonella, but temperature matters. Skip the visual testing, as in “it looks done to me”, and use an instant food thermometer. Instant is the key word – as this type of thermometer registers the temperature in real time. It is definitely a worthwhile purchase that you can use for a variety of cooked foods.

Cook ground meat (beef, pork, veal, lamb) to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. And ground poultry (turkey, chicken) to 165 degrees. This is the temperature that studies show kill bacteria - definitely limiting your risk of food-borne illness.

And one last tip. to further avoid food-borne illness, make sure to refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours (within 1 hour if you’re outside and the outdoor temperature is approaching 90).

Simple preventive measures like these can go a long way when it comes to food safety!

What other tips do you have?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Boost Your Fitness Online

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom
No, I don’t mean sitting at your computer and “working out.” I’m suggesting that you use health-specific websites and social networking to track and share your exercise routines. While it seems automatic for many of us to log our food intake, we’re less inclined to include physical activity in our online cruising.

I’ve written before about sites like and, that are helpful for so many people – and now I’d like to add some more, that are more activity-specific. Even if you only take a look, it might be just the boost you need to try something new and different.

Keep in mind that aerobics, strength training, flexibility, and mind/body activities are all part of a well rounded fitness routine. While it’s not always possible to do all of these, consider some new additions to your own activities.

Interested in yoga? Try, with a virtual instructor showing you correct alignment. This is a big help for those who like the idea of yoga, but might not be ready to enroll in a class.

Are you a swimmer or want to be? This site is devoted to your inner fish: it’s all about swimming, and uses videos, user forums, blogs, and other ways to learn to swim (at your own pace) or improve your current skills. Pool not included!!

Is golfing your thing? might be for you. Imagine a golf pro evaluating your swing in the privacy of your own home. On this site, you email a video of your swing to the instructor, and receive a personal lesson in return, with tips on how to improve, including indoor exercises you can use for practice.

And don't forget, UPMC Health Plan members have their own personalized activity trackers, health coach chat and more. If you're reading our blog after you signed in, click this link to see these resources.

What other online workouts have you found? Share your thoughts!

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Crock Pot is Back!

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom
What could be easier than firing up the grill, and cooking your favorite foods with almost no cleanup? I have two words for you: crock pot! While these slow cookers have been around for decades, crock pots are enjoying a well-deserved resurgence in American kitchens.

For those who are concerned with leaving an appliance plugged in all day, unattended, it’s not a worry – the power is that of a single light bulb. Flip the switch in the morning, go about your day, and when you return home 8 – 12 hours later, you’ll have a healthy, flavorful meal, ready to serve.

A crock pot meal can be as easy as 3 ingredients - a lean protein (skinless chicken, lean beef or pork), fresh or frozen vegetables, and liquid to cover (low-sodium broth, canned tomato sauce) – or a complex one with a variety of ingredients.

There are dozens of crock pot recipes available online, in books, and in the newspaper. My personal favorites have come from those small “slow cooker” magazine-like books found at the check out counter in the supermarket.

While I’m not a fan of cooking everything, from appetizers to desserts in the crock pot, I think it’s a great tool for main dish “one-pot shopping” and eating! An added plus for beef-lovers: ultra-lean cuts of beef that are tough when grilled, cook tasty and tender with liquid and many hours of simmering.

Are you a crock pot lover? Please share some of your favorite recipes!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Downsize Those Sugary Drinks!

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom
It’s official – Americans are drinking way too many sugary drinks. New results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) have documented some scary findings when it comes to consumption of sugary drinks. These include fruit drinks, sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened bottled waters. Surprising to me, this group does not include 100% fruit juice, sweetened teas, or flavored milks, which means that the consumption reported here is likely a very low estimate.

About half of the US population consumes a sugary drink daily. And with all of the focus on trying to get soda machines out of the schools, you might be surprised to know that less than 5% of these drinks were purchased at schools. Most sources were from home (store purchase). On average (meaning many people consume a lot more, some less) men consume nearly 200 calories daily, with women drinking about half that amount, 100 calories.

To me, the scary part of this trend, is that it’s only getting to get worse, with the ability to purchase super-sized bottles and cans of these drinks, for a very low price. Yes, companies are selling down-sized single servings of sodas – about 7 ounces and 100 calories – that can support responsible consumption, but the price point is not competitive. For most consumers, the choice of purchasing a 20 ounce soda for the same price as a 1 liter (or sometimes 2 liter!) bottle is not one they are willing to make.

So, for the sake of your teeth and your waistline, choose these drinks carefully, If you enjoy an occasional treat, select a small serving (100 calories or so). Or better yet, select a low-calorie sweetened soda, or seltzer with some lemon or lime added. And skip the 100% juice – it’s always better to eat your fruit, and not drink it!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Exercising Your Brain

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By Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom
A new movement is afoot, which takes exercise for your brain just as seriously as exercise for your body. So, is this “mind fitness” craze a passing fad, or a true health benefit? Mounting evidence shows that it can be a big health plus.

While your brain is not a muscle, there is some reasonable evidence that mental exercises can improve some brain functions. Brain games are not currently linked to disease prevention (like Alzheimers), but can be an effective way to boost specific day-to-day notable actions, including increased mental alertness and focus, improved concentration, and a sharper memory.

An update of the old “brain teasers,” there are some new brain-training games, like Luminosity, Posit Science, and MindSparke, and multiple phone apps for iphones and Androids. It’s a growing segment of the “educational apps” market, which is now a more than $100 million market!

Like any kind of workout, it must be done daily (or at least multiple times a week) to notice any effect. And while a pre-planned set of games is a plus, these games and apps have a financial commitment. Some economical options include crossword, Sudoku and other puzzles, joining a book club, or even signing up to learn a foreign language. If there’s a Nintendo Wii in your household, consider some of these fun and effective options, including WiiFit. Other game systems have similar brain-stimulating choices.

It’s never too late to engage your brain! Brain games are here to stay – and mind fitness is an area to explore, if you haven’t already! Any ideas you’d like to share? Post away!