4 Tips for Finding Happiness: One Woman’s Story to Inspire Us

“How do you look so good?” wrote a friend on Gail’s Facebook page. She replied, “because I’m happy.” I knew then that I needed to interview this 82-year-old acquaintance to learn more about her and share her tips for happiness. I’ve known Gail through our mutual volunteer work, but I didn’t really know her. We met for coffee and 2 hours later it quickly is obvious why she is happy.

But first a little background to set the stage for happiness in her octogenarian years. Gail grew up in the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina where, like many of her generation, she played outside all day until her parents called her in for supper. Her mother loved to travel and took Gail and her sister on family adventures, enriching their lives and exposing them to new places and people.

After she graduated from Stetson University with an accounting degree, she joined Delta Airlines as an internal auditor. It quickly became apparent to Gail that she wasn’t cut out for desk work and so she was encouraged to become a flight attendant or “stewardess” as they were called then. “I loved flying back in the day when flying was civil! I worked the initial flights to the west coast and flew for 5 years until I got married. At that time, stewardesses had to retire when they married or when they turned 35…can you believe that?”

Once she had a daughter, she enjoyed staying at home with her for a few years until she went through a divorce. Her daughter was in school, and she missed working and was ready to get back into the business world. She started as a legal secretary at small law firm and eventually became the legal administrator for a large Atlanta law firm. “Even though I worked 50-60 hours each week, “I loved my job, but began to hate the Atlanta traffic!”

With her daughter in college and after her mother passed away, it made sense to move back to North Carolina to help care for her father who was showing signs of dementia. “My father’s favorite saying was ‘every day’s a holiday’ and he had such a love for life that it was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with him as he aged.” It also brought an unexpected adventure…. she was invited to attend a high school acquaintance’s 45th reunion. “Dann was 2 years ahead of me in school and we dated in high school and I hadn’t seen him in 45 years and we met up at the reunion and the rest is history! We’ve been married for 18 years. Between us we have 3 grown children, 6 grandchildren, and assorted grand dogs and cats.”

Gail and Dann in 1957 and recreating the photo 45 years later!

Recently, Gail revealed she lost 45 pounds in the past 2 ½ years. “I had slowly gained weight and I just didn’t feel as good as I wanted to, so I decided to eat more thoughtfully. No special diet or crazy restrictions, just eating more fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean meat, and fish and watching portions sizes. And no mindless snacking.”  Since losing weight, one of the things she enjoys “is trying a new recipe every week or two. I cook simple recipes with just a few ingredients, not too many steps or long preparation time. It makes preparing and eating meals enjoyable.” She also is conscious of staying hydrated. “Fortunately, I enjoy drinking lots of water.”

She also walks regularly with her husband and uses Silver Sneaker videos to practices balance exercises. “I know I need to add strength training and with the pandemic ending I will get back to the YMCA to work on it.”

Getting back to the comment she made on being happy she explained, “happiness is a choice.” Gail’s good friend describes it this way, “Joy is a gift and happiness is a choice.” Indeed, in The Book of Joy: Lasing Happiness in a Changing World by the Dali Lama and Desmond Tutu (if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!)  the pillars of joy are identified and categorized as:

  • Qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor, and acceptance
  • Qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity

Gail exhibits all eight of those qualities!

I asked Gail for 3 tips for healthy aging, and she immediately replied, “I’ve got 4 tips!”

  • Exercise the body and the brain.
  • Eat healthfully and think before you eat.
  • Socialize with a wide range of people of different ages and backgrounds.
  • Think happy, live happy!

This quote from the Book of Joy sums up Gail:

 “The three factors that seem to have the greatest influence on increasing our happiness are our ability to reframe our situation more positively, our ability to experience gratitude, and our choice to be kind and generous.”

― Dalai Lama XIV, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

Chris Rosenbloom is a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University and co-author of Food & Fitness After 50. Follow her blog by clicking here.

Can superfoods lead to healthy aging? Learn what dietitians think of superfoods.

I was thrilled when a writer from AARP reached out to me for an interview. The topic was right in my wheelhouse…healthful eating for those over 50. When we spoke by phone, my enthusiasm dipped as she explained that her editor wanted the column to be about “superfoods.”  I’m not a fan of the term “superfoods,” but super dietary patterns might be a better angle for the story. My suggestions were met with understanding from the writer, but as is often the case “superfoods” in a headline makes for clickable content and the editor has the final say.

When the article appeared online (click here for the article), I posted it to my social media and expressed my concern about the topic of superfoods and was happy that a fellow dietitian, Michele Redmond replied, “I had hoped the term “superfood” had died, but I keep seeing it in media and hearing it from my students!” Michele is a registered dietitian and chef and a “food enjoyment activist.” (To learn more about Michele, click here.) Michele teaches people flexible ways to simply eat well and enjoy making satisfying, flavorful meals.

“There is no formal definition, designation or regulation for “superfood,” Michele explains. That means that when you see a list of superfoods know that they “become defined by the agenda of whomever is writing about it.” Often the intentions are good; no dietitian would argue that eating more fruits and vegetables, more fiber-rich foods, or lean sources of protein aren’t healthful. However, some stories about superfoods promote a product, a diet plan, or supplements that financially benefit the writer. Just because someone declares a food to be “super” doesn’t mean it is.

This loops back to my comments to the writer…. a food that is called “super” only gets its superpowers when it is part of a healthful eating pattern. Eating a pint of blueberries every day won’t lessen your risk of poor health if you also smoke a pack of cigarettes and eat bacon, cheeseburgers each day.

Michele also notes how easy it is to move from “superfood to clean versus dirty and good versus bad foods.” Foods can take on moral overtones when thinking of foods in discrete categories. How many times have you heard someone say they “were bad” after eating an ice cream sundae? Eating ice cream doesn’t make you a bad person, but our language around food often gets tangled up with our self- worth. “Fear, doubt, and judgment should not be on anyone’s menu,” adds Michele.

Labeling something a superfood can also give it a health halo that isn’t always deserved. Just because someone declared that cookies made from “superfood” ingredients or organic cane sugar, gluten-free flour, and non-GMO ingredients doesn’t make them anything other than what they are; they are still cookies. The other issue with superfoods that Michele and I agree on is the “exclusive, and potentially elitist application.” With food insecurity on the rise in the older adult population, it is not helpful to position some foods with hefty price tags as more desirable. As an example, researchers found that when organic foods are touted as superior to conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, shoppers, especially those with low incomes, are less likely to buy any vegetables and fruit. And, considering that only 1 in 10 Americans eat enough produce each day, we should be encouraging, not discouraging intake.

Dietitians want foods to be affordable, accessibility, and appropriate for all Americans. We know that frozen and canned fruits and vegetables are good choices and, in many cases, more affordable, accessible, and appropriate than fresh. No one should be made to feel bad or shamed if they don’t shop at pricy specialty shops or use canned peas instead of fresh.

So, the next time you see the word “superfoods” in a headline, don’t fall for it! As Michele says, “you have your own superpowers to chose good foods that fit into your own super eating pattern.”

The author of the AARP story reached out to me last week saying the article was so popular her editor assigned her another piece…”bad foods to avoid for those over 50.” As my mother-in-law would say, “oy veh!”

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. Her book, Food & Fitness After 50 (with co-author Bob Murray) is available here. Follow her blog by clicking here now!

Can’t sleep? Proven tips to help you get a restful night’s sleep.

“About 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep disorders, and 1 in 3 adults do not regularly get the recommended amount of uninterrupted sleep they need to protect their health.”

National Institutes of Health

Eat well, move well, and be well are three pillars of Food & Fitness After 50.

This blog contains loads of information on eating well and moving well, but today’s post is about being well. Specifically, about sleep. This topic came up at my 8 am exercise class and a common lament was poor sleep.

I’ve been up since 4 o’clock because I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

I feel like a never get a good night’s sleep anymore.

 I fall asleep quickly but can’t stay asleep.

If this sounds familiar you are not alone.

Couple the above quoted statistic from the NIH with COVID-19 and the sleep problems mount. A recent paper found the prevalence of sleep problems was high during the pandemic and affected about 40% of people in the general population.

Aging brings challenges to restorative sleep, too. Sleep time shortens and sleep patterns become more disturbed resulting in more time spent awake during the night and a harder time falling back to sleep. Reasons for this are not entirely clear, but most likely related to declining hormone levels and changes to our usual 24-hour rhythm.

Decreased testosterone in men and estrogen in women may influence sleep. As estrogen levels fall during the transition to menopause, 40 to 60% of women report trouble falling and staying asleep. And hot flashes also contribute to fragmented sleep. For some women, hot flashes affect sleep long after menopause.

Changes to our 24-hour master clock within the brain, called the superchiasmatic nucleus (SCN), also gets dysregulated with aging and with our modern lifestyles. In his fascinating book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley, explains light, whether from the TV screen or LED-powdered smart phones, can fool the SCN into believing the sun hasn’t yet set. This suppresses the release of the hormone melatonin from tiny pinhead sized glands that sense daylight and begin the 24-hour cycle of wake/sleep. Melatonin increases as light exposure decreases and decreases when light levels increase. And melatonin naturally declines with age. (More on melatonin supplements in a bit!)

Remember, that not just waning hormones and night-time light exposure affect our sleep. Medications, whether prescription, over-the-counter drugs, or dietary supplements can all impact sleep. Forty percent of those of us over 65 take 5 or more medications. Common medications for blood pressure, heart disease, benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH), allergies, and asthma can affect sleep, as well as corticosteroids and anti-depressants. The over-the-counter allergy and cold medicines that say, “non-drowsy” may be good for daytime alertness but can negatively affect sleep. Some dietary supplements can also affect sleep. CoQ10, St. John’s Wort, and red yeast rice have all been reported as causing poor sleep.

Don’t forget caffeine, the most widely consumed drug in the world! Some people notice more caffeine-sensitivity as they age and by now you probably know whether you are one of those people. Check your medications for caffeine (some headache remedies contain the drug) and don’t think coffee is the only beverage with caffeine. Tea and cocoa contain caffeine as do some foods. I switched to drinking decaf tea or herbal tea in the evening to avoid excess caffeine…I am definitely one of those caffeine-sensitive folks.

What can we do for better sleep? There isn’t one answer that will work for all people, but these tips can help you get the sleep you need.

Eating and Drinking

  • We’ve already mentioned caffeine in coffee, tea, and some medications, but caffeine is also found in soft drinks, and not just colas. Lemon-lime, orange, and root beer drinks can also contain caffeine. Coffee-flavored ice cream and yogurt contain caffeine, as does anything with chocolate. Caffeine is a drug, so food and beverage makers do not have to list caffeine on the nutrition label. You will have to dig for information from manufacturer’s websites or nutrient-databases.
  • Avoid energy drinks or shots. As the name implies, “energy” keeps you awake, and the most likely culprit is caffeine.
  • Alcohol is another factor for poor sleep. Alcohol might mild sedate you, but it suppresses deep sleep. A night-cap is not a good idea for a restful night.
  • Don’t go to bed too hungry or too full. Both can keep you tossing and turning.

Develop a sleep routine…just like a baby!

  • Take time to wind down before going to bed. That might mean a warm bath, listening to soothing music, or meditation.
  • Learn to recognize when you are sleepy and only go to bed when you can no longer keep your eyes opened.
  • Stick to a schedule; try to go to bed and wake up at the same time; weekends, too!

In the bedroom

  • Keep it cool. In his book, Dr. Walker says 65 degrees is the ideal temperature for sleep. That might not be possible unless you want to freeze-out your partner or other family members and it certainly isn’t good for your power bill, but keeping the room cool with a fan can help.
  • Speaking of fans, the noise of a fan can also help with sleep. A white-noise machine helps some people, but for others, a fan does the trick.
  • Keep it dark. Constant light from bedside clocks, TVs LED lights, or other sources of light can affect sleep. Keep a small flashlight by your bed to use for nighttime bathroom visits instead of a night-light in your bedroom.
  • Turn off the screens…tablets, laptops, smart phones…the light from the screens suppresses melatonin. If you insist on having your phone in your bedroom, turn off notifications.
  • Don’t watch the clock…turn the clock face to the wall and don’t fixate on the time.
  • If you cannot sleep, get out of bed and read or listen to music until you are sleepy.

Exercise

  • People who routinely exercise report better sleep but avoid heavy exercise in the evening.
  • Exercise for at least 30 minutes each day but not later than 2 to 3 hours before bedtime.

What about melatonin? Melatonin is a hormone but is sold as a dietary supplement. Supplementing with melatonin can help you fall asleep but not necessarily help you sleep longer. If you want to try it, here are some suggestions:

  • Start with a low dose, 1 to 3 milligrams.
  • Take it 30 to 60 minutes before sleep; if using a liquid form, try it 20 minutes before bed.
  • Small doses do not appear to affect the natural production of melatonin, but it can interact with some prescription blood pressure and anti-anxiety medications.
  • Use it as needed, but not every night.

If you still can’t sleep after trying these tips, it might be time to talk to your health care provider about your sleeplessness. Check out this free guide to good sleep by clicking here.

I wish you good sleep….just like dogs and cats sleep!

My dog Buddy

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the co-author of Food & Fitness After 50 and publishes this blog, Fit to Eat. Follow the blog by clicking here.

Why It’s Never Too Late: Proven Lessons from Brilliant Athletes

I’m not as big a golf fan as my husband, but I was thrilled to watch Phil Mickelson win the 2021 PGA Championship.  At one month shy of age 51, he is the oldest golfer to win a major championship. In his post-victory speech he said, “I hope that this inspires some to just put in that little extra work, because there’s no reason why you can’t accomplish your goals at an older age. It just takes a little more work.”  Anyone who enjoys golf will tell you it takes physical and mental strength to win tournaments…. whether at the local club or the professional level.

Mickelson is one of many brilliant athletes who continue to win at the highest level. At ages where many professionals are joining the “senior” tour or enjoying retirement, athletes in all sports are shining in the game they love. Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl at age 43 and Serena Williams is still playing at the highest level at 39. And not just professional athletes are pushing the age barrier; consider that Sister Madonna Buder (known as the “Iron Nun”) holds the current world record for the oldest woman to ever finish an Ironman Triathlon, which she obtained at age 82 by finishing the Subaru Ironman Canada. Her book, The Race to Grace, tells her story of competing in over 340 triathlons. She says she has learned many life lessons in her 85 years, “but the ones that I’d look back and tell my twenty something self now are: It’s not what you say, it’s what you do; don’t pay attention to how old you are, only focus on how old you feel.”

Let’s be real. Aging has negative effects on almost all body systems, but regular physical activity appears to lesson most of the age-related changes. Just look at these proven benefits of a physically active lifestyle:

  • Physical Benefits
    • Decreased blood pressure
    • Increased blood flow to muscles and skin
    • Increased maximal oxygen uptake
    • Increased components of the immune system
    • Increased bone mass
    • Increased “good” cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol)
    • Increased strength and balance
    • Normalized blood sugar levels
  • Health Benefits
    • Decreased all-cause mortality
    • Decreased risk of heart disease death
    • Decreased risk of high blood pressure
    • Decreased risk of blood clots
    • Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes
    • Decreased risk of overweight and obesity
    • Decreased risk of falls
    • Decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression
    • Improved sleep
    • Enhanced relaxation
    • Enhanced mood
    • Increased well-being

How can we take the known benefits of activity and the inspiration from older athletes from all walks of life and apply it to ourselves?  Try these tips:

Rob playing golf in Ireland with friend, Mark Stanley
  • Choose something you like to do, not something you feel you have to do. Gardening and yard work can be just as beneficial as a trip to a gym. If you don’t have room for a garden, many communities offer plots in a community garden, free of charge. My husband loves golf and I’m more likely to take exercise classes at the local YMCA. It doesn’t matter what you like to do, just find something you enjoy and stick to it.
  • Set goals. Don’t wait until Monday or January 2 to start an activity program. When I decided I wanted to start running (in my younger days!), my sister-in-law and I would make plans every week to meet after work or on the weekend to run. We started slow, 1-mile, 2-miles, and then registered for local 5-K races (3.1 miles). We set a goal of running the 10-K (6.2 miles) Atlanta Peachtree Road Race and within a few years, we did. Thirteen consecutive years of Peachtree Road Races, all from a small goal of wanting to run.
  • Find a buddy. My sister-in-law was my running buddy for many years. Finding and cultivating an exercise friend helps to keep you motivated, interested and provides accountability. You are less likely to skip your walk or jog or bike ride if a friend is waiting for you!

Go4Life, resources for physical activity and exercise, from the National Institute on Aging, describes three keys to success:

  • Include physical activity in your everyday life. Sit less, move more and take activity snacks throughout the day.
  • Make it easy. The more enjoyable the activity, the more likely you are to do it.
  • Make it safe. If you’ve been inactive, start slow, warm up with low intensity exercise, like walking, before a higher intensity activity and stay hydrated by drinking water before, during, and after exercise.

Aging brings challenges and opportunities to active adults. Today, older people run marathons, climb mountains, skydive, swim competitively, and hike the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail. Consider these feats by masters athletes and everyday folks, like us:

  • Eamonn Coghlan, a dominating indoor runner in the mid-1970s and 1980s, was the first man older than 40 to break the 4-minute mile.
  • Priscilla Welch, a 58-year-old lifelong marathoner, was named the best female masters marathoner in history by Runner’s World. At age 42 she won the overall women’s title at the New York City marathon–the oldest woman to claim that honor. Her running career is even more remarkable when you consider she was a pack a day smoker until she began running competitively at age 35.
  • Nolan Ryan played major league baseball for 27 seasons and was still hurling his fastball at 95 miles per hour at the age of 45.
  • Boxer George Foreman, who is now well known for his low-fat grilling techniques, won the world heavy-weight championship 2 months shy of his 46th birthday.
  • Yuichiro Miura of Japan became the oldest person to summit Mount Everest at the age of 80 in 2013.
  • Diana Nyad, at the age of 64, swam 110 miles from Cuba to Florida; 53 hours of nonstop swimming after four previous unsuccessful attempts.
  • In 2016, Ida Keeling at age 100 broke the 80 years and over world record for the 100-yard dash at the Penn Relays and she didn’t start exercising until she was 67.
  • Julie “Hurricane” Hawkins, at 101 years old was the oldest female athlete to compete at the USA Track & Field Masters Championship, running the 100 meters in 40.2 seconds.
  • Clarence Bass, who began lifting weights at age 13, has never stopped his fitness routine. At the age of 80, he maintained a single digit level of body fat and his fitness, as evaluated by the Cooper Clinic, is rated as that of a 40-year old. (For an amazing pictorial of Mr. Bass, see his website and for an interview I did with Mr. Bass when he was 80, click here).
Rob’s first hole-in-one

And, a shout out to my active husband, the golfer, sailor, and expert dog walker, who got his first hole-in-one at the age of 68!

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is co-author of Food & Fitness After 50. Follow this blog by clicking here.

Top tips for keeping your blood sugar in check. Learn how from the expert.

Keep reading to learn how to win a copy of the best-selling book, Prediabetes: A Complete Guide!

A few weeks ago, I was a guest on Samantha Heller’s Doctor Radio, Nutrition and Exercise Show. It is always fun to talk with my friend Samantha, a registered dietitian and exercise physiologist about nutrition and exercise (click here to read more about her.)

The topic on the show was my favorite….healthy aging, and one of the callers said he was a regular exerciser but was concerned about his strong family history of type 2 diabetes. He asked a simple question: “what three tips would you give me to avoid developing diabetes?”

I replied with these three tips:

  1. Maintain your weight. Many older adults gain a couple of pounds a year and after 20 years those couple of pounds turn into 20 or 40 extra pounds. The disease of obesity can cause a dysregulation of blood sugar and is risk factor for developing diabetes.
  2. Keep up your aerobic exercise. Sugar (also called glucose) in your blood stream needs the hormone insulin for muscle cells to use sugar. Insulin is like a key to allow glucose into cells. Exercise acts a bit like insulin…improving the sensitivity of insulin and helping to facilitate glucose movement into cells.
  3. Choose your carbohydrates with quality in mind. There is no need to avoid carbs but choose carbs with nutrients and fiber.

After the call, I thought his question was a good one and wanted a more detailed answer, so I turned a diabetes expert, my friend and colleague, Jill Weisenberger for a more comprehensive response. Jill is a Virginia-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES). Jill shared her insights on pre-diabetes with me when her best-selling book, Prediabetes: A Complete Guide was published (click here to read the interview.)  She is also the creator of the video course Stick With It to help you finally stick with your eating and exercise goals.

Jill agrees with my tip on aerobic exercise, she explains not only is aerobic exercise on most days important but “try not to allow more than 2 days between bouts of exercise because by then, you lose the boost in insulin sensitivity from your last exercise session. Insulin sensitivity improves for 2 hours to 2 days depending on the type, intensity and duration of the exercise.”

She also reminds us to engage in progressive, resistance exercise or strength training. “Perform strength training at least two times each week. It boosts insulin sensitivity at least as well as aerobic exercise and the effects are additive. Additionally, maintaining muscle mass is critical to managing post-meal blood sugar levels. Muscle is like a bucket for glucose after eating. The more muscle you have the more area you have for glucose to go after a meal.” And, while we are talking about exercise, Jill reminds us to move more. “Avoid being sedentary. Even if you exercise 30 – 60 minutes daily, what you do the other 23 hours matters a lot. Long periods of sedentary behavior decrease glucose uptake. Break up long periods of sitting with 2-3 minutes of activity every half hour. Get up and walk, take a bathroom or water break, do squats, wall push-ups, anything that gets you moving for a bit.”

We’ve all heard about the importance of sleep for good health, but did you know that insufficient sleep affects your blood sugar? Jill says, “aim for 7-8 hours of quality sleep per night because short sleeping decreases insulin sensitivity.”

Photo credit Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics

Lastly, about those carbs, “Don’t become carb-phobic,” says Jill.  Maintain a high-fiber diet from a variety of foods. Only carb-containing foods provide fiber, and we need lots of different types of fibers for good health. The fiber in oats and barley, for example, helps regulate both cholesterol and glucose metabolism. Fibers in pulses (beans, peas, and lentils), some grains and even cold cooked potatoes (hello, potato salad!) help the good bacteria in our guts thrive. And we need lots of these helpful microbes for good health, including the treatment and prevention of type 2 diabetes. In fact, people with type 2 diabetes or obesity tend to have less diverse microbial populations in their guts. The types of bacteria in the gut appears to be related to inflammation, insulin sensitivity and even appetite control, so the more we can help the beneficial microbes thrive with a good diet, the better our chances of avoiding certain health problems.”

In summary, stay active, go for a brisk walk, challenge your muscles to get and stay strong, get your ZZZs, and enjoy fiber-rich carbohydrate foods to keep your blood sugar in check and avoid diabetes.

To win a copy of Jill’s book, drop a comment or question about this post in the comment box and share it on your social media with the #FoodAndFitnessAfter50 and tag me @chrisrosenbloom and tag Jill @nutritionjill.

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the author of Food & Fitness After 50 and creator of the blog on healthy aging, Fit to Eat. Click here to follow her blog.

Exercise is a positive coping skill: Learn how it helps as we age

No matter how well we eat or how many times we exercise, stuff happens as we age. Sometimes it’s an accident, sometimes it’s just bad luck, and sometimes it’s genetics. We know high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking are the “big 3” risk factors for heart disease (and, about half of Americans have at least one of these risk factors). But, when you add heredity and one or more of the big 3 factors, the risk is exponentially increased. In this post, Bob Murray introduces us to a master’s swimmer, Irene, and her journey of resilience and coping and how exercise saved her life!

Guest post by Dr. Bob Murray

No one knows for certain when Irene had her first heart attack.  She was informed about it only when her second heart attack was diagnosed.  After having experienced a second heart attack, she believes her first heart attack happened about two years earlier while she was skiing in Utah at 10,000 feet.  She recalls feeling awful, but thought she was just experiencing altitude sickness.  She did not seek medical attention and never mentioned it to her primary care physician, decisions she now knows were big mistakes.  Two years later, at age 67, Irene woke in the middle of the night with the real deal – and was certain she was having a heart attack.  Her husband was out of town, so she was taken by ambulance to the hospital.  She immediately told the ER doctor about her family history of heart disease, nonetheless, the doctor declared her symptoms to be heartburn and sent Irene home. 

Relieved that it wasn’t a heart attack, Irene went through with her plans to fly to North Carolina the next morning to connect with her husband to take their 2 young grandsons on a trip.  Irene felt extremely tired but was no longer having chest pains.  She attributed the exhaustion to being up most of the previous night.  After 4 days in NC, it became obvious there was still something very wrong and Irene went to the small-town ER where they were staying.  She was soon flown by helicopter to a major medical center and had middle-of-the-night surgery to correct a heart valve that was not functioning properly and posed an immediate threat to her life.  Two days later, she had open-heart surgery for 5 coronary artery by-passes.  Two weeks later, Irene had a pacemaker implanted in her upper chest, which has since been replaced with an ICD (pacemaker-defibrillator).  She spent 10 days in intensive care and a total of 3 weeks in the hospital and came out feeling almost dead, but very happy to be alive.  Unfortunately for Irene, the 4-day delay caused permanent damage to her heart, killing 50% of her heart muscle cells.

Irene, left, with husband, daughter, son-in-law and grandsons skiing in Utah, after her 2nd heart attack and bypass surgery

Irene’s Formative Yeas

Irene was raised in a suburb of Chicago.  As with many kids in1940s and 1950s, her parents told her to “go outside and play and come home when the streetlights come on.”  There were lots of kids in her neighborhood and they played active games like hide-and-see, kick-the-can, jump-rope, tennis, and baseball. In the winter, they ice skated, sledded, and played in the snow.  At that time, hardly anyone owned a television, so screen time was non-existent– kids were outside and constantly active. Irene’s meals were almost always at home, going to a restaurant was rare, and they didn’t eat fast food or TV dinners.  Meals were basic “meat and potatoes,” along with whatever vegetables Irene’s parents could get her to eat.  

Irene remembers her childhood as being almost idyllic, except for one very important event: her father died of a heart attack at age 34 when Irene was only 4 years old.  Not only did heart disease claim Irene’s father, her paternal grandfather and all 6 of her father’s siblings also died from heart disease.

When she was 6, Irene learned to swim while on a vacation.  At the age of 10, she joined the local YMCA swim team.  She loved competitive swimming right from the start and continued for 8 years, “retiring” when she graduated high school.  This was pre-Title IX, and there were more disincentives than incentives for women to participate in sports in college.

Although many of her friends smoked in high school, Irene did not because of her swimming.  She had survived the pressures to smoke in high school, so Irene thought she was safe from that habit.  But as an 18-year-old college freshman, she started smoking and continued for the next 13 years.

When she graduated from college, Irene married and took a job where many of her co-workers also smoked, as did her husband.  When her daughter came along 4 years later, she left the business world to become a full-time mother and homemaker.  Her new lifestyle was more sedentary than active, and she began to gain weight.  Keenly aware of the medical history of heart disease in her father’s family, Irene knew she had to start exercising regularly.  She tried several activities but didn’t enjoy any of them as much as she had enjoyed swimming.  In 1972, the local YMCA started a masters swim team and an old swimming friend pestered Irene until she finally agreed to give it a try.  She wanted to swim but didn’t think she wanted to compete and certainly didn’t intend to train as strenuously as she had as a teenager.  At 28, Irene thought she was much too old for those workouts.

A Masters Swimmer, a Masters Degree, and a Law Degree

After a few training sessions and her first masters meet in 1972, Irene was hooked.  Her workouts soon became much more strenuous than when she was a teen, and she added strength training as part of her routine.  Irene was swimming faster than she ever had, setting national masters records … and still smoking!  After 3 years of swimming and smoking, Irene decided it was just crazy to smoke and finally quit, “cold turkey,” and never looked back.  Her husband quit the next year. 

Irene swimming in the snow in Park City, Utah. “It was chilly, but fun,” she says.

Around that same time, Irene decided to become a part-time student to earn a masters degree with the goal of teaching at a local community college. She reached that goal and taught for 7 years, but her dream was to be an attorney, so at the age of 40, Irene enrolled as a full-time student in law school.  She wasn’t the oldest one in her class, but close to it.  After receiving her law degree, Irene enjoyed a very satisfying 31-year law career, retiring at age 74 only because her health demanded it. 

After the heart attacks

After her heart attacks, open heart surgery, valve replacement and long stint in the ICU,

Irene was put on a long list of medications and went through cardiac rehab, but it was still a huge disappointment when she first got back into the pool.  She swam 1 length and came up gasping for air. Once upon a time she had been a Masters national champion in butterfly events multiple times, but now could barely swim 50 yards!  That was 10 years ago.  Since then, Irene has been swimming, walking, doing some resistance work, and is currently going through her second round of 36 sessions of cardiac rehab.  Irene knows her diet isn’t perfect but tries to eat lean meat and include fish and more fruits and vegetables in her meals.  Although she has a sweet tooth, she tries (with varying degrees of success) to control it.  Every cardiologist she now meets tells her that her history of regular exercise is the only reason she survived the second heart attack. 

Irene retired when she was 74 because she wanted to exercise more but needed a 2-4 hour nap after doing so.  Now 77, Irene continues her exercise routines and current sessions of cardiac rehab, resting whenever she feels the need.  She stills go to Utah to ski each year but limits her skiing to altitudes less than 10,000 feet.  Irene also spends time with friends, reads, and does a little sewing and gardening.  

Adjusting Activity to Fit Your Circumstances

“I’ve had to adjust my swimming goals from being very competitive to just enjoying being in the water,” says Irene.   “I think the most important thing I have done for my health is, as my front license plate reads: “Just keep swimming.”  Irene says the best advice she’s received about health issues is to keep moving as much as your energy level allows and look around you – you’ll always find someone with worse health problems.  Irene’s advice to anyone with similar health problems is, “Don’t give up.  Keep working at whatever it is that makes you happy.  Sitting in your rocker and grieving for your lost health will only make your health worse and probably hasten your death.”  A poster on Irene’s wall nicely sums up her philosophy, “You don’t quit swimming because you get old, you get old because you quit swimming.” 

Irene snorkeling with son-in-law and grandsons in Mexico.

Resilience and Coping Skills

Irene’s story points to resilience and coping skills needed for healthy aging. Resilience influences how we evaluate a stressful situation and coping is the strategy we use to manage stressful events. Coping strategies can be positive or negative. Optimism, humor, acceptance, spirituality or religiosity, social support, role models, and exercise are examples of positive coping. Research shows that resilient older individuals tend to employ the positive adaptive coping strategies. Irene’s exercise habits not only help her physically, but also mentally. Physical activity improves the quality of our lives and reduces anxiety and depression.

Irene is truly a role model for all of us as we navigate the challenges of aging! Share your story with us and let us feature how you eat well, move well, and be well as you age. Reach me at chrisrosenbloom@gmail.com and follow our blog by clicking here.

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. Chris and Bob are the authors of Food & Fitness After 50.

Want to live a long, healthy life? Add this powerful food to your plate.

“How to Live to Be 100.” That was the title of a course I taught when I was a professor at Georgia State University. Faculty were asked to develop 1-credit hour courses on topics that might interest young college students. Since I was interested in healthy aging, I wondered how I could get a young college student, who thought age 30 was ancient, to think about their own path to wellness beyond the college years. So, I modeled the course on the Blue Zones, observational global research on long-lived populations and the guiding principles common to all groups.

Photo credit The Blue Zones

The Blue Zones gained popularity when it was the 2005 cover story in National Geographic. Students in the class were instructed to develop a personal Blue Zone plan as the capstone project of the course. With 100 students in the class, some enjoyed the project, especially those who were close to their grandparents and saw first-hand the challenges of aging. The Blue Zones team identified 9 commonalities and they fit within the theme of eating well, moving well, and being well…. all tenants of Food & Fitness After 50.

  • Belonging to a community
  • Living in an environment that allows for more movement
  • Putting families first
  • Moderate alcohol intake, for those who drink alcohol
  • Developing routines to defuse stress
  • Finding a purpose in life
  • Surrounding yourself with lifelong friends
  • Learning to eat when 80% full, leading to smaller meals
  • Eating a plant-based diet, especially beans
Image credit The Blue Zones

Focusing on the dietary patterns, one common element in all of the diets of long-lived populations….from Loma Linda, California to the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, is beans. Different kinds of beans from kidney beans to black beans, or even soybeans in the Blue Zone in Japan, but they all eat beans.

What makes beans so special? Let’s break the benefits down into three buckets:

  1. Beans have an excellent nutrient profile. “Beans are rich in protein, iron, fiber, the B-vitamin folate, the minerals potassium, magnesium, and choline,” says Dr. Karen Cichy, Research Plant Geneticist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service, “and they are one of the most affordable sources of potassium and fiber…. two nutrients in short supply in the diet of most Americans.” Beans are also naturally gluten-free, cholesterol-free, and have a low glycemic index.
  2. Beans have many health benefits. Dr. Cichy cites research supporting the role of beans in weight management, reducing heart disease and cancer risk, and managing diabetes. “Beans contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, prebiotics, protein, resistant starch, and bioactive compounds which increase a feeling of fullness, moderate blood sugar and blood lipid levels, and tamp down oxidation,” says Dr. Cichy.
  3. Beans are sustainable and good for the soil. Beans are capable of nitrogen fixation, which enriches and naturally fertilizes the soil in which they are grown. So, they add nutrients to the soil instead of depleting them.
Photo credit Bush’s Beans

What makes beans so appealing to so many different cultures? Besides the benefits listed above, they are versatile, affordable, and delicious. As a rich source of protein, they can replace meat for vegetarians or extend meat dishes so less animal protein is consumed. Think of the many traditional dishes featuring beans: Cajun-style red beans and rice, French cassoulet with white beans, Caribbean rice and pink beans, refried bean burritos, pasta fagioli, or good old baked beans at a summer cookout, all starring beans.

Photo credit Bush’s Beans

I’m a big fan of canned beans for the ease, convenience, great taste, and long shelf life. On occasion I will use dry beans in a dish, but mostly I reach for the handy can. (Disclosure: I am not a paid influencer, blogger, or spokesperson for Bush’s Beans, but they are my favorite because they hold their texture in cooking and I did ask them for some photography for this post.)

However, some people don’t eat beans citing GI complaints or buying into the myth that beans contain a toxic chemical and shouldn’t be eaten. Others cite the sodium in canned beans as a reason not to use them.

Beans contain a carbohydrate that is not digested in the gut, so it passes to the large intestine where it is fermented causing gas. “The cooking process reduces the gas-forming carbohydrates in beans and for those whose diets are low in fiber, increasing consumption of high fiber foods can lead to gas,” says Dr. Cichy, “however, these same carbohydrates are prebiotics, meaning they feed the healthy microbes in your gut.” Gradually increasing the amount of fiber-rich beans can help your body adjust to the GI effects and canned beans cause less gas than dry beans.

There is a popular diet, called a lectin-free diet, advising against eating foods containing compounds called lectins. Dr. Cichy explains, “lectins are sugar-binding proteins that can attach to red blood cells and alter them to produce compounds called PHAs. Lectins are naturally found in dry beans (as well as other legumes and whole grains) but the soaking and cooking process neutralizes the effect, so there is no need to stay away from cooked beans.” Canned beans are no cause for worry. The bottom-line? Don’t eat raw or undercooked beans!

For those concerned about sodium in canned beans, there are low sodium versions of your favorites, but a simple at-home trick can reduce sodium by rinsing. Research on five popular canned beans (red kidney, garbanzo, pinto, black, and great northern) showed draining and rinsing reduces sodium. Draining canned beans reduced sodium by 36% and draining and rinsing with tap water reduced sodium by 41%.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 1.5 cups of beans (or other legumes, like lentils) each week. For me, no problem, but if you aren’t eating beans, get started! There are many ways to incorporate more beans in your diet and for inspiration check out cannedbean.org and open the possibilities!

Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the co-author of Food & Fitness After 50. Follow her blog, Fit to Eat, by clicking here.

Powerful food pairings to dial up nutrients you need for healthy aging

Do you have to give up meat to be healthy? Should you be a carnivore or a vegan? A better question might be why does it have to be one or the other? While some people choose to be vegan (foregoing all animal products), vegetarian (not eating meat but including milk, eggs, and cheese), or flexitarian (mostly plant-based meals but with some flexibility), there is room for meat on a healthy plate. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recently released for 2020-2025, takes a lifecycle approach. As we age, “resilience, stamina, independence, and mental clarity” are the goals for most aging Americans, says Dr. Heather Leidy, associate professor of nutritional sciences and member of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Lean meat can provide the protein and nutrients needed to help us stay strong as we age. 

Americans like meat. Pandemic purchases proved that. Meat sales increased almost 20% during the past year and 43% of households say they bought more meat than before the pandemic.

But, to make every bite count, consider pairing a 3 to-4-ounce portion of lean meat with plant-based foods to boost nutrients needed to age strong. While meat, like lean pork, is rich in protein, vitamin B12 and zinc, plant-based pairings can add dietary fiber, B-vitamins, and a host of other nutrients that are often in short supply in our diets.

Recently, three food groups paired up to encourage us to balance our plates with both lean meat and plant-food favorites. USA Pulses, the Pork Checkoff, and Sorghum Checkoff make up Powerful + Pairings, a website filled with delicious recipes and reasons why these 3 foods make up a happy plate.

I’m sure you are familiar with pork, but did you know that pork is a versatile meat that checks all the boxes for good nutrition for older adults? It is a nutrient-rich meat of high quality, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids needed for muscle repair and maintenance. Older adults need about 30 grams of protein per meal…sounds like a lot, but easy when lean meat is part of the diet. A 3-ounce serving of lean pork, beef, chicken, or turkey has 24 grams of protein. A scoop of protein powder might also give you 20 grams of protein but is devoid of other nutrients.

And while there are fattier cuts of pork (hello, bacon), there are 7 cuts of pork that are lean by the USDA definition (less than 10 grams of total fat, less than 4.5 grams of saturated fat, and 95 milligrams of cholesterol per serving). Pork tenderloin and pork sirloin roast are leaner still. An easy way to remember to choose lean cuts of pork is to look for the word loin or chop in the name.

Pulses
Mediterranean Bean Salad

Pulses is a word you may not know when it comes to food, but you know them as a delicious vegetable found in global cuisine. Pulses are the term for the dry, edible seeds of legumes, including dry beans, dry peas, chickpeas (or garbanzo beans), and lentils. For a recent virtual meeting I was asked to make a side-dish with pulses and I choose a Mediterranean Bean Salad (you can find the recipe here) and it will be my new summer go-to salad. Pulses are good for people and the planet; a sustainable crop that puts nutrients, like nitrogen, into the soil.

Another sustainable crop is sorghum. You might be less familiar with sorghum as a grain but more familiar with it as a syrup. Sorghum is an ancient grain with a texture like rice or quinoa. It makes a great base for grain bowls, either on its own as a vegan option or paired with lean meat as a side. Depending on where you live, it can be hard to find so here’s a link to help you source sorghum. Check out this website for more on sorghum and recipes to learn how to incorporate it into delicious dishes.

Whatever you choose, remember it is the total dietary pattern that makes for good health. So, for meat eaters, keep the portions in check, pile on the veggies, eat healthy grains to make every bite count.

Christine Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and professor emerita of nutrition at Georgia State University. She co-authored Food & Fitness After 50, available online and other book sellers. And, for more timely tips on eating well, moving well, and being well, follow her blog by clicking here.

Keeping your food and family safe: A COVID-19 update from the experts

One year ago, we learned a whole new vocabulary: coronavirus, COVID-19, fomites, masking, and social distancing were words we had to use, and we continue to use. But we’ve learned a lot in the last year and where science usually moves slowly, food safety experts really upped their efforts to help us stay safe….on the farm, in the processing plants, in grocery stores, and at home.

I had a chance to talk to a few of those experts to help us understand what we need to do to stay in the grocery store and in our homes. But let’s be clear, the pandemic isn’t over. While many of us are getting vaccinated, we still need to exercise caution as new variants of the virus circulate.

Dr. Ben Chapman, North Carolina State University, says we’ve learned a lot about virus transmission. As it is a respiratory virus, person-to-person, face-to-face interaction is the number one way the virus is spread. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we were concerned about the virus infecting people in the grocery store and restaurants through transmission on surfaces. We’ve learned that infections from touch pads, condiment bottles, grocery store carts, or menus, while theoretically possible, isn’t actually occurring based on data available. The best thing you can do is follow the CDC guidelines for masking and social distancing and continue to wash your hands/sanitize them after being in public places.” Dr. Chapman and colleagues have developed a useful resource at foodcov.net. This one-stop shop of resources is based on the best available science from the CDC, FDA and USDA and peer reviewed by food safety and virology experts across the country.

Dr. Chapman’s colleague at NC State, Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus, a professor in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing, and Nutrition Sciences, urges us to continue to use hand sanitizer when we can’t wash our hands. “For the simple reason that we touch our faces numerous times each day, using hand sanitizer is an excellent way to reduce virus contamination and prevent its introduction through the mouth or nose. This reduces infection. Continue to use hand sanitizer when entering or leaving any retail establishment.“ When we stop to think about it, how many of us have not had a cold or the flu this past year? While we might miss hugging our friends or shaking hands with our neighbor, the fist or elbow bump might be a good practice for the future.

Early in the pandemic, people were concerned about coronavirus in food, and some were spraying produce with a bleach solution, scrubbing with dish detergent, or wiping foods with disinfectant wipes. “We have no evidence that the virus is spread through eating or drinking,” says Dr. Chapman, “and bleach, soap, and disinfectants are not meant for consumption. They are great for cleaning hands and kitchen surfaces but are not for ingestion.” The Alliance for Food & Farming has some good resources on food safety, but the recommendations from all government organizations have been consistent in advising that we should continue to do the following: note the word “continue” because we should be doing these things all of the time!

Photo credit: Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics

Wash produce under warm or cold running tap water to help remove any dirt, bacteria or residues that might be on the product. This goes for conventional and organic produce whether from the grocery store, farmer’s market, or CSA.

•            When preparing fresh produce, begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation. Your hands are the dirtiest thing in your kitchen. (According to one study, 65% of consumer don’t wash their hands before meal preparation…let’s change that sad statistic!)

•            Wash cutting boards, dishes, utensils, and countertops with soap and hot water between preparing raw meat, poultry, and seafood and preparing produce that will not be cooked.

•            Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables before preparing and/or eating. Throw away or compost any produce that looks rotten.

•            Remove and discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, like lettuce and cabbage, and toss in the compost bin.

•            Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, it is still important to wash produce first so dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the surface when peeling or cutting produce. I always scrub melons, cucumbers, avocado with a produce brush under running water before I slice into them. Dirt on the outside can be transferred to the inside through the knife.

•            According to the FDA: “Many pre-cut, bagged, or packaged produce items are pre-washed and ready-to-eat. If so, it will be stated on the packaging, and you can use the produce without further washing.”

Dr. Chapman adds that “There is no link between reusable bags and COVID-19. Reusable bags are

not considered a significant risk factor in the spread of COVID-19 and as such do not need to be banned from stores.”  However, reusable shopping bags should be cleaned between uses. Bacteria from raw fruits and vegetables can get into the bags so they should always be tossed in the laundry and washed with hot, soapy water between uses. (This is not new advice, but how many of us do it?) For more tips on keeping reusable bags clean, click here. As an older adult, we know that our demographic and those with chronic diseases are in the high-risk category for COVID-19.

Those in their 50s are at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 40s. Similarly, people in their 60s or 70s are at higher risk for severe illness than people in their 50s. The greatest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 is among those aged 85 or older. As older adults get vaccinated, restrictions are lessening but it still is recommended to mask up, wash your hands, and avoid crowds. As Dr. Chapman says, “nothing we do is zero risk,” so continue to follow the advice from the CDC so we can see the end of this pandemic.

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. Check out her website and her book, Food & Fitness After 50. And, Click here to follow her blog.

Surprising insights on how your brain makes it hard to manage weight loss.

(I attended a virtual, sponsored session, A Journey from Conversation to Care: Shaping Communication on Obesity, sponsored by Novo Nordisk. I was not asked to write or compensated to write this post.)

I bet we all know someone who has been on the roller coaster of weight loss:

Step 1: Pick a diet from the hundreds that are popular at any moment (Paleo, Keto, Atkins, South Beach, WW, Nutrisystem, etc.)

Step 2: Lose weight.

Step 3: Regain weight.

Step 4: For many, repeat steps 1-3.

Motivation to lose weight was high, the plan was easy to stick to, but rarely do we stay “on” the diet. And, then after the initial weight loss, our lost weight finds us! Why?

Why do we eat?

We eat for three main reasons, and all are regulated by our brain. We eat for hunger (called homeostatic eating) and that is our survival mechanism. We also eat for pleasure (called hedonic eating). Under this heading I would lump recreational eating. Ask yourself how many social events (back when we had social events) centered around food? Or how many times has the smell of freshly baked cookies called your name, even though you were not hungry?) And third, is the brain’s executive function in deciding to eat or not eat.

What drives the brain to regulate our food intake? The answer is hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers produced in one part of the body that get transported to another part where they regulate functions. For eating, hormones influence the brain to trigger either hunger (telling us to eat) or satiety (telling us we are full). Satiety hormones are produced in the intestines, the pancreas, and even in fat tissue; hunger hormones are produced in the stomach. Sounds simple: our brain tells us to eat or not, but in the disease of obesity and especially after weight loss, a dysregulation can occur.

Dr. Gabe Smolarz, an endocrinologist and obesity specialists describes it as the “push-pull” of weight loss. After weight loss, metabolism declines (leading to less calories or energy burned), hunger hormones increase (making you hungrier) and satiety hormones decease (making you feel less full.)

Where does that leave us? It’s important to remember that obesity is a disease (click here a previous post on the disease of obesity) and is caused by many factors: societal, environmental, and genetic. Our genetics contribute 40 to 70% of our risk for overweight and obesity and our environment can influence the expression of those genes. There is no arguing that we live in an obesogenic environment…plentiful, inexpensive, good tasting food and little motivation to be physically active. Layer in societal issues, such as no or poor access to health care, racial injustice, and income inequality and it isn’t a surprise that 100 million Americans (or 2 in 5 adults in the US) are living with obesity.

What can we do? We can recognize that obesity is a disease that needs long-term management. Many people living with obesity find it  hard to have a conversation with their healthcare provider because they are often dismissed or simply told to “eat less and move more.” But that is still a good first step. The website The Truth About Weight gives tips on how to start the conversation, along with more information on obesity treatments and science of the disease. We can also lean in by helping to change how society sees, prevents, and treats obesity.

Two recent initiatives (supported by Novo Nordisk) are worth checking out. Healthy Women and Black Women’s Health Imperative have teamed up to empower and educate women across diverse communities about obesity health risks and treatment options.

Another great partnership is with the NFL Alumni Association. Check out the video, “Huddle Up—Let’s Talk About Obesity” encouraging men to act on learning about and treating obesity.

As Obesity Week has just concluded, let’s remember their slogan, “Every Body Needs Everybody,” to successfully treat obesity.

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. Check out her book, Food & Fitness After 50 and click here to follow her blog.