Monday, July 7, 2014

Two Reports, One Conclusion: Chronic Disease Are Not Only Killers, They Stress Us Out

Two reports this week – one, the results of a National Public Radio (NPR), Robert Wood Johnson/Harvard School of Public Health poll; the second, a study in the British medical Journal Lancet – point a big finger at chronic diseases as a major source of stress and the biggest killer of people worldwide. NPR reported that “1 in every 4 Americans said they had a great deal of stress in the previous month”. The number 1 cause of stress was poor health. Disability was the biggest health stressor at 45 percent but chronic illness came in second at 36 percent. The Lancet researchers reported that non-communicable diseases now account for nearly two-thirds of deaths world-wide.

What does this mean for you? Some chronic diseases include conditions like disabilities and diseases that are not preventable like type 1 diabetes. But many chronic diseases can be prevented – or at least slowed down. Most of our preventable chronic diseases can be traced back to a fairly short list of risk factors:

  • Tobacco use
  • Poor diet
  • Physical Inactivity
  • Drinking Too Much Alcohol
  • Uncontrolled High Blood Pressure
  • High Blood Fats

All of these either are either behaviors we can change (smokin’ and drinkin’) or we can change them with behaviors (high blood pressure and high blood fats). Most of these factors are interconnected.  Let’s take a look at the healthy habits you can do every day that will have the biggest impact on these common killers:

·         Lose 10% of your body weight. If you are overweight, losing a small amount of weight can drop blood sugar, blood pressure, and blood fats. The good news is that you don’t have to get down to a textbook ideal body weight.  Even a 10% body weight loss, if you are overweight, can lower your numbers. So let’s say you weigh 275 pounds and need to drop 100 pounds to be at your “ideal body weight”.  A 27 pound weight loss could make a big difference in your numbers.

·         Walk, cycle, swim, move!   Even if exercising doesn’t give you big weight loss, your body often shows appreciation for your efforts. During and after exercise, blood sugar drops.  Long term, the body’s cells become more sensitive to insulin helping you to control your blood sugar. Exercise can also lower blood pressure and the blood fats that lead to heart disease. Most of the studies that show benefits have been done with aerobic exercise such as jogging ten to twelve miles a week (that’s just a couple of miles a day!). Some studies suggest that exercise can lower “visceral” fat (the type that many researchers consider highly related to disease) without lowering body weight.

·         Ditch the Empty Calories:  When I work with someone on weight loss, I always go for the “low hanging fruit”. One of the biggest is sweet drinks like sweet tea and regular sodas. If you drink these regularly, switching to unsweet or diet versions can have a huge impact on lowering your weight – as long as you don’t “compensate” by eating more of other foods.

·         Add On Potassium & Fiber:  High potassium foods like fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, milk and yogurt can help lower your blood pressure. High fiber foods – particularly those with more soluble fiber like oats and starchy beans – can help lower blood fats.

Making these changes in your life is not easy. Busy schedules and difficulty getting motivated are typical barriers. But many people are finding success with using phone apps like my Fitness Pal and online support groups and weight loss programs. In the coming weeks, I’ll be highlighting some of the best!

Beth Kitchin, PhD, RDN
Assistant Professor, Nutrition Science
University of Alabama at Birmingham

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