Chow Down

“Americans are sick.  Over 130 million [author’s emphasis] are suffering from chronic disease.” So begins the documentary, Chow Down** a film by Julia Grayer and Gage Johnston, The film is tightly put together and does an excellent job of presenting a sobering view of the state of eating in our country. It focuses on the eating habits of Americans today, the influences which direct those eating habits, and more specifically, on the lives of three individuals who were told that unless they radically changed their approach to eating, they would die.  Grayer and Johnston do not gloss over the fact that it is not so easy to change one’s eating habits even if it means potentially saving one’s life.

Charles, a man “who has it all,” including heart disease, has a very supportive wife and because of this, the whole family has changed their eating habits.  Charles speaks about how as an Italian, whose grandfather owned a meat shop, large meals with lots of meat were a big part of life’s enjoyment.  Yet he and his family have made the adjustment, to the point of bringing their own food when they take trips.  (May Charles live to watch his grandchildren grow up and may he and his wife grow old together).

Two other individuals who are also working at changing their diets were interviewed.  One interviewee lamented that he missed his Kentucky Fried Chicken™  The other spoke about how difficult it was to maintain a more plant-based diet when the rest of her family was not.

And yet the medical profession does not focus on nutrition and diet when interacting with patients, but rather pills and surgery.  Dr. Esselstyn, a former heart surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic and one of the interviewees in both Forks Over Knives and Chow Down, learned through his practice that there was a direct relationship between diet and heart disease.  He says that surgery does not prevent the disease.  He states that the medical industry is “… selling sickness right now.  We are selling sickness as a profession.  You don’t get health out of a bottle of pills.  You don’t get health out of a bunch of operative procedures.  I know that as a former surgeon.”

Another interviewee in Chow Down, Neal Barnard, MD, shares that ” the most popular pill on the market today is Lipitor ™ ….a pill created to curb the effects of dietary excess.”

According to the home page,

…. three factors …. fatally impact our country’s health: the medical community’s allegiance to the status quo, the government’s allegiance to the food industry, and Americans’ allegiance to cheap, convenient food.

Grayner and Johnson, through very tight interviews with key players in the medical industry, the food industry, and the government demonstrate how, at least at this stage in time, we, as consumers, are controlled by the relationship between the food industries, the government and the medical community.

Dr. Barnard points out that the USDA has two mandates.  One is to promote health and the other is to promote American agricultural products.  This could certainly become a potential conflict of interest, particularly since the Federal Government participates in creating generic advertising for certain products (Got Milk? for example) from a fund that they administer but which is provided by the food industry.  In fact, the federal government even has worked with the fast food industry to help them advertise foods that include cheese, not because the foods are healthier but to promote the dairy industry.

Even the food pyramid, which has undergone many changes in recent years, is influenced by the needs of the Agro-business.  One outcome is that we have come to believe that certain foods are more important than others, ie, meat rather than lentils, both sources of protein.  Yet studies have shown that a primarily meat based diet can be harmful to one’s health.  [Whether it is the meat itself or whether it is all the additives that farmers put into their livestock is a topic for further research and another article].

At one point in the documentary, Grayer and Johnson interview Louise Light, a nutritionist who was hired by the USDA in the late ’70’s to come up with a food pyramid.  She and a team of experts had concluded that fruits and vegetables were the most important foods to eat, but when their pyramid came back from the Secretary’s office, it had been revised, emphasizing grains as the most important food.  Apparently, when the meat industry heard about this, they put the pressure on for meats to be better represented. [Recently the food pyramid has undergone a further transformation to MyPlate].

During her tenure at the USDA, Ms. Light had created a nutrition course for the Red Cross.  In the course, she cited several foods that had direct links to cancer.  She states that she was approached by a representative from one of those food industries who offered her $60,000 to drop the word cancer from her coursework.

I applaud Ms. Grayner and Ms. Johnson’s superb documentary.  As more and more information comes out about how our eating habits greatly influence our health, we might just be able to change the course that the food industry has taken in our country.

(As I was “going to press” I came across this link, which I think reflects how the movement for eating right is starting to take off

© Yvonne Behrens, M.Ed  2013

** Following my write up on the documentary Forks Over Knives, I received an e-mail from Julia Grayer, a filmmaker, who along with Gage Johnston, wrote, directed, and produced Chow Down.



Healthy Living?

Recently, my niece sent me a link to a post in the New York Times about a gentleman who had been diagnosed with incurable cancer back in 1979.  Instead of undergoing expensive chemo treatments, he decided to return to the island in Greece where he had been born and die among his family there.  But, in spite of expectations, the gentleman not only did not die, but his cancer went into remission.  Thirty-three years later,  he is  still alive.  What could possibly have made this be the outcome?

According to the author, Dan Buettner, longevity on the island of Ikaria, where this gentleman’s family originated,  is higher than other parts of Greece and other parts of the world. Buettner has been part of a group that has been looking at different parts of the world to determine what makes the inhabitants of some areas more likely to live longer.  These areas have been dubbed the “Blue Zones” and the island of Ikaria is one such place.

So what was so special about this island?  The answer is surprising and not so surprising:

Ikaria, an island of 99 square miles and home to almost 10,000 Greek nationals, lies about 30 miles off the western coast of Turkey. Its jagged ridge of scrub-covered mountains rises steeply out of the Aegean Sea.

The air and the sea are factors.  But so is diet.  The population on Ikarea eat things like olives, garbanzo beans, lentils, potatoes, garden products from their back yard, as well as wild greens.  They make their own sourdough bread. They drink wine in moderation, eat meat in moderation,.  Honey is a regular part of their diet as is goat’s milk and goat product.  And they all drink a tea from the herbs on the island which includes wild mint, Artemisia, and rosemary. Plus coffee.  Very little sugar, no processed foods.

But probably the most interesting factor is how they spend their days.  Clocks and watches are just not a part of their lifestyle.  People get up when they want to.  They do their work, whether it is gardening or helping someone build a home.  Then the village takes a long nap in the afternoon.  In the evening, they stay up late, chatting or doing other relaxed recreational activities with friends.  No one on the island is particularly interested in money or the making of it.  Their exercise consists of walking up and down the steep roads of the mountain like island.

Accoding to Buettner, there are about a dozen factors that lead to the longevity factor:

Enough rest; unprocessed fresh foods; walking up and down the hills; time plays no role in people’s lives; you live in a community that will look out for you and for who you will look out; because everyone knows everyone’s business, less likely to be a victim of crime; at day’s end, you and your neighbor’s will share a medicinal cup of tea; you will also share a glass or two of wine with those same neighbors;  and your spiritual as well as social sense of belonging will be nourished by going to church every Sunday.

I count about a half dozen:

Good food, good friends, enough rest, socialization, spiritual nourishment, and exercise.

Although I have all of that, except rest, I also have ridiculous demands on my time.   Hm.  Maybe time to think about moving onto a small island 30 miles to the West of Turkey!

© Yvonne Behrens, M.Ed  2012


Are Supplements Dangerous?

Dietary supplements, such as the vitamin B sup...

Dietary supplements, such as the vitamin B supplement show above, are typically sold in pill form. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Being a person who gravitates to “alternatives” over conventional forms of medicine when it comes to keeping myself healthy, I found myself drawn to an article in the AARP Bulletin entitled, “When Supplements become Dangerous.”  The further I read, the more  apparent it became that the supplements themselves were not necessarily dangerous. What was potentially dangerous was their interactions with pharmaceuticals.

We are a country that relies on pharmaceuticals to a large extent for all sorts of symptoms.  It is inherent in our health care system.  A person goes in to see the doctor complaining of insomnia.  Typically, the doctor, instead of suggesting something nice and healthy like deep breathing  exercises, writes a prescription for a sleeping pill.

So it may not be so surprising that the AARP article was written from the perspective that it is the way supplements interact with the pharmaceuticals that might cause problems, rather than the other way around.

One myth that continues to dominate and was reflected in this same article is that mega amounts of vitamin C can interfere with chemo regimens.  Hm.  I have been told too many stories by individuals I know who knew individuals who successfully overcame their cancer with mega amounts of Vitamin C.  My husband, in his fight with pancreatic cancer, took mega amounts of vitamin C.  Not only did it not interfere with the chemo he was also taking, it boosted his immune system, something the chemo was destroying along with the cancer cells.  Although not scientifically proving this, I believe the Vitamin C did serve to enhance and extend my husband’s life.

Obviously, we all know that too much of anything can potentially be dangerous. The crucial words in that statement are “too much”

So bottom line, if you are taking pharmaceuticals and you are taking supplements, it would be wise to check with your doctor or pharmacist to see how they may interact.  But this need really only exists if you are on pharmaceuticals.

© Yvonne Behrens  2012

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Self-esteem in the Elderly

Self-Esteem for sale

Self-Esteem for sale (Photo credit: fran6co)

My colleague, Denise Scruggs, and I will be giving a workshop on promoting self-esteem in older adults at the Southern Gerontological Society Conference in Nashville, TN.

One might ask, “Why?”  Boomers, the next aging population, are known to have higher self-esteem than their parents or grand-parents apparently had, aren’t they?

But according to a recent study, those facing the big six-0 will also be facing a decline in the value they place upon themselves.  That’s the broad conclusion of a new study showing changes over the human lifespan based on interviews with a total of 3,617 Americans over a 16-year period from 1986 to 2002  (Orth, Trzesniewski, Robins).

Because we boomers, as a group, have had the tendency to be in denial with regard to our aging, that decline could be dramatic. Stop with the hair coloring, stop with the face lifts, stop with marrying someone younger than you, stop all those super athletic recreational activities, stop one’s role in the work place and what is left?

The above mentioned study found that the factors that had the largest influence on one’s sense of self include:

*Income and health.  In our money oriented society, it follows that we would associate money with power.  It also follows that if our independence becomes eroded by health issues, this would affect our sense of self in a negative way.

*Education plays a major role in maintaining self-esteem. Participants with higher education outranked those with less education throughout their lives.

*  The study confirmed that women had lower self-esteem than men through most of their lives, but the two genders were about equal by the time participants reached their 80s.  I suppose that men in their ’80’s have probably lost pretty much everything by which they defined themselves earlier in their lives.  One might reflect on the statement that it is at this time that men and women “were about equal” in their self-esteem.

*The self-esteem of whites and blacks differed only a little at age 25. However, black participants declined more sharply than white participants from about age 60. A further study to look into the factors that cause this discrepancy would be warranted

Beyond these global attributions to the loss of self-esteem, there are also factors of daily living.  The loss of loved ones, in particular spouses, can have an impact on one’s self-esteem.  In fact, findings from a study conducted by Julie Ann McMullin and John Cairney (2004) showed that single people have lower self-esteem than married people demonstrating that receiving feedback from a significant other helps promote a positive self-image.  When that person, with whom you could confront major challenges, bounce ideas off of, share life’s moments with, or was your biggest fan is no longer there and you do not receive regular feedback of your existence, that can erode self-esteem.

What about finding yourself not being able to keep up with the rapidly changing world you used to be a part of?  How would that make you feel?  Pretty worthless, no?

Or, and this is probably the saddest of all, being an old person that people are not interested in because, well, let’s face it, ageism is alive and well in our society.

So this is why Denise and I plan to present tools to our colleagues by which they can help promote positive self-esteem to those confronting that change of life: aging.

I will let you know how it went.

© Yvonne Behrens  2012

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What Chronic Illness Can Teach Us About Aging

I was very inspired by an article I read on Richard M. Cohen and his wife Meredith Vieira.  Together, they have been living with his chronic illness, multiple sclerosis, for over 25 years and he, now 63 years old, has lived with the knowledge of this disease since he was 25.  According to the article:

Cohen and Vieira long ago decided that, while chronic illness might affect their life together, it wouldn’t define that life.

Although Cohen’s health is deteriorating, both he and Vieira continue to work and have successfully adjusted their working schedule to allow a life together.  Cohen writes books and columns on chronic illness. In his columns, he shares that:

…. the emotional experience of living with a long-term condition is much the same for anyone who has one….

In other words, it is the recognition and acknowledgement of having to live with a chronic disease that is the big hurdle that has to be crossed by everyone who has to face this situation.

“There are so many different diseases, and they do different things to your body,” he says, “But the coping issues that go with these illnesses are remarkably similar”

So his articles focus on the challenges those with chronic illnesses face: working at keeping a positive outlook for the tomorrows in their lives and how to maintain their own self-worth.  Pain and Frustration can act to destroy relationships. Cohen, in his columns, shares advice on how to avoid this outcome.

His favorite coping mechanism is denial of how his chronic illness may encroach on his future.  As he says it:

“I deny the certainty of possible outcomes.”

After an initial adjustment period which may include shock and dealing with the logistics of the diagnosis,  families must learn not to let the disease monopolize the family’s life.  On the other hand, chronic diseases are progressive and with each progressive loss of function, everyone involved has to adjust and re-adjust.

Margaret Guroff, the author of this article, points out that there are similarities between chronic illness and aging.

In some ways, the course of a chronic illness parallels the indignities of aging.  Most of us, if we live long enough will realize that we’ve driven our last car or scaled our last fence.

As we age, we start to loose more than we gain.  This can bring about negativity, depression, fear, a sense of uselessness.  But just as Richard M. Cohen points out about chronic illness, how one ages very much depends on one’s attitude and one’s coping mechanisms.  If we spend all our time denying the aging process as a part of our life process, when it starts to happen, we will probably be less prepared when it hits us.  On the other hand, accepting that aging is all part of the life process will enable us to accept those aspects of aging more positively and allow us to be better prepared to cope with it.

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Aging: The West’s New Pariah

Portrait of old woman sitting by a window.

Image via Wikipedia

The other day I was speaking with a very successful 50-something realtor and I asked her what she thought about aging.  Her response: “The topic depresses me.”  Hmm.  That sounded like a very familiar answer.  “Yes,” I replied, “The way our country has dealt with the aging issue has been rather depressing.  But you and I are at an age when we can still effect change and can re-create a paradigm that has only been in place for approximately 50 years.”

Prior to World War II, the elderly remained at home, surrounded by their families, participating in the day-to-day activities.  After World War II, our nation focused on mobility and youth as the image it wanted to project.  Not a lot of room for the elderly within that picture.

So what did we do?  We created a band-aid fix: the retirement/nursing home.  It certainly is one way to deal with all the ‘old’ people “left behind” in our fast-paced ever forward looking society where “New!”, “New!”, “New!” gets shouted out every time one turns around.  But as any of us who has interacted with these homes knows, the isolation and humiliation that can be caused by being in a space that is not your own and being taken care of by strangers is, well, depressing.

This is not to say that individuals do not make friends in these homes or become very close to their caregivers.  As with everything, there are many scenarios that can occur within one picture.  However,  one has to wonder at a system in which those employees who interact most intimately with the resident by helping them get dressed, showered, toileted, and fed are also the lowest paid in the hierarchy.

One outcome of our society’s focus on mobility and youth is that many of us have gone into denial about our aging process.  Baby boomers and older are spending a lot of time trying to look and be younger whether through plastic surgery or keeping fit.  I don’t think it is bad to remain youthful and strive to remain active in our day-to-day life.  What I have an issue with is the co-opting of the image of youth as the only game out there.

Another outcome is that the health industry has started to focus on the aging population and is doing everything to keep the aging process at bay to the extent of now referring to aging as a disease –“Is Aging a Disease?”

Aging a disease?  I always thought that aging was part of the cycle of life, a cycle we see reflected in everything around us.  The tree blossoms in Spring, leafs out in Summer, starts to loose leaves in Fall, and stands starkly against the Winter landscape.  Each period has its own special beauty and we don’t usually associate this normal process with disease.  Wow!  Ultimately, I believe that our buying into the idea that aging is a disease will allow a whole new branch of the pharmaceutical industry to — do I dare say –blossom, but I don’t know that this will keep the “bogey man aging” out of our lives.  It will just push it back by a number of years and I think the jury is still out on whether this is a good or bad thing [see: Aging: The New Financial Industry]

Nope, folks, aging is part of the process of life and the sooner we acknowledge this, the more empowered we will be to create an older age to our liking.  Does this sound like a negative statement?  If it does, know that this is how much you have been “brainwashed” into looking at old age as an anomaly rather than a normal part of the cycle of life.

In all aspects of our society, there is a reverence to youth from advertising to the image that the e-world projects, to the products that are sold, even to the way we parent.  But by allowing advertisers, for example, to tell us what we want, how we want it, and when we want it, we do a disservice to ourselves and those who are still oblivious to the aging process.

Here is another article that speaks to this “Aging Successfully

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