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Research Reveals the Myth of Family Dinner Time as Cure-all

benefits-of-family-dinnersThe clock is approaching 6:00 pm and your household is frazzled. Half the kids are still at soccer practice. You have to pick them up in 20 minutes. The younger kids are in “witching hour” mode and running around crazy and begging for snacks. You haven’t yet considered what will be on the menu for dinner.

Does this sound like your house? Many times family dinner time can easily turn into stressful time. Yet, we hear all the time that families who eat dinner together reap great benefits for themselves and their children.

Most of us have heard all the research about how important family dinners are to kids’ long-term outcomes. Just a few years ago, journalist and filmmaker Miriam Weinstein wrote a book entitled, The Surprising Power of Family Meals: How Eating Together Makes Us Smarter, Stronger, Healthier, and Happier, in which she outlines the research that supports the role that family dinners play in kids’ lives.

Reading this research, it really sounds like family dinners are the magic bullet of family life. Family dinners have been associated with all sorts of positive outcomes for kids, such as less teenage delinquency and drug use, lower rates of obesity, greater emotional stability, and even better preparedness for reading. It sounds a little too good to be true. Something as simple as family dinners could make all these great outcomes appear in your family?

Well, it turns out that the “magic bullet” of the family dinner may be a little too good to be true. New research is delving deeper into the role that family dinners play in the lives of children. This research is not only compelling because of the insight it offers into family life, but it also illustrates a perfect example of the difference between correlation and causation in social science research.

In this new research, scientists used a huge national survey of adolescents. They consider the relationship between family dinners and three main outcomes:

  • Teen depression,
  • Teen alcohol and drug use, and
  • Teen delinquency

At first, the study seemed to replicate previous work, with there being a strong correlation between family dinners and less teen delinquency. Then, however, researchers went one step further.

They controlled statistically for other factors that might explain these differences in families such as:

  • How well parents monitor their children,
  • How many activities parents do with their children, and
  • Family resources

Not surprisingly, when these factors are included in the mix, the correlation between family dinners and teen outcomes drops dramatically. In other words, these other factors, not family dinner itself, can explain much of the effects we see. Family dinner time is “masking” these other factors.

So it turns out that family dinners are not the “magic bullet” that they were once considered to be. As is often the case in social science, the strong correlation between family dinners and teen outcomes did not mean that family dinners were the sole cause of this relationship. As this new research shows, the family dinner is really just a proxy for other positive things parents do with their children such as talking and engaging with them on a daily basis. The key component that seems to be influencing kids is this: connection and communication with parents.

Does this mean that you should give up on family dinners? Of course not!

Dinner time is still a great opportunity to connect with you kids, but it’s not the only way. In his popular book, The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Tell Your Family History, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More, Bruce Feiler discusses different ways in which families can connect throughout the day, not just a dinner.

Here are just a few ideas:

  • If after school activities make dinner time difficult, have an early “dinner” at 4:00 for all who can join. Then later at night, have a family dessert for everyone.
  • Family time does not always have to center around a meal—how about a walk when everyone gets home from school and work.
  • Family storytelling and asking kids questions is key. Every family has stories from grandparents or funny tales from relatives.
  • Start a “themed” conversation that happens most times the family is together. Ours is sharing “joys and challenges” of the day or week. Each person shares something that was a “joy” and “challenge” for that day. It is amazing all the good conversation this can start.

Research is clearly showing that “family dinner” is really just a proxy for family connection. Kids that feel safe, connected, and valued by their family are less likely to participate in dangerous activities like drug use, extreme risk-taking or delinquent acts. Furthermore, these kids tend to be happier and are less likely to be depressed.

Take the pressure and stress out of family dinner. Just aim to find a few minutes every day to connect with your family, in any way you can.

How to Help Your Family Eat Healthy in 2017: Processed Foods

Processed foods aren’t just microwave meals and other ready meals. The term ‘processed food’ applies to any food that has been altered from its natural state in some way, either for safety reasons or convenience. This means you may be eating more processed food than you realise.

Processed foods aren’t necessarily unhealthy, but anything that’s been processed may contain added salt, sugar and fat.

One advantage of cooking food from scratch at home is that you know exactly what is going into it, including the amount of added salt or sugar.

However, even homemade food sometimes uses processed ingredients. Read on to find out how you can eat processed foods as part of a healthy diet.

What Counts as Processed Food?

Most shop-bought foods will have been processed in some way.

Examples of common processed foods include:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Cheese
  • Tinned vegetables
  • Bread
  • Savoury snacks, such as crisps (*potato chips)
  • Meat products, such as bacon
  • “Convenience foods”, such as microwave meals or ready meals
  • Drinks, such as milk or soft drinks

Food processing techniques include freezing, canning, baking, drying and pasteurising products.

How to eat healthy - processed foodDietitian Sian Porter says: “Not all processed food is a bad choice. Some foods need processing to make them safe, such as milk, which needs to be pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria. Other foods need processing to make them suitable for use, such as pressing seeds to make oil.

“Freezing fruit and veg preserves most vitamins, while tinned produce (choose those without added sugar and salt) can mean convenient storage, cooking and choice to eat all year round, with less waste and cost than fresh.”

What Makes Some Processed Foods Less Healthy?

Ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat are sometimes added to processed foods to make their flavour more appealing and to prolong their shelf life, or in some cases to contribute to the food’s structure, such as salt in bread or sugar in cakes.

This can lead to people eating more than the recommended amounts for these additives, as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the food they are buying and eating. These foods can also be higher in calories due to the high amounts of added sugar or fat in them.

Furthermore, a diet high in red and processed meat (regularly eating more than 90g a day) has also been linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer. Some studies have also shown that eating a large amount of processed meat may be linked to a higher risk of cancer or heart disease.

What is Processed Meat?

Processed meat refers to meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. This includes sausages, bacon, ham, salami and pâtés.

The (*UK) Department of Health recommends that if you currently eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, that you cut down to 70g a day. This is equivalent to two or three rashers (*strips) of bacon, or a little over two slices of roast lamb, beef or pork, with each about the size of half a slice of bread.

However, it’s important to remember that the term “processed” applies to a very broad range of foods, many of which can be eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet.

How Can My Family Eat Processed Foods as Part of a Healthy Diet?

Reading nutrition labels can help you choose between processed products and keep a check on the amount of processed foods you’re eating that are high in fat, salt and added sugars.

Adding tinned tomatoes to your shopping basket, for example, is a great way to boost your 5 a day. They can also be stored for longer and cost less than fresh tomatoes – just check the label to make sure there’s no added salt or sugar.

Most pre-packed foods have a nutrition label on the back or side of the packaging.

These labels include information on protein, carbohydrate and fat. They may provide additional information on saturated fat, sugars, sodium and salt. All nutrition information is provided per 100 grams and sometimes per portion.

How Do I Know if a Processed Food is High in Fat, Saturated Fat, Sugar or Salt?

There are guidelines to tell you if a food is high or low in fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar. These are:

Total Fat

High: more than 17.5g of fat per 100g (*rougly half an ounce per 3oz)
Low: 3g of fat or less per 100g (*about a tenth of an ounce per 3oz)

Saturated Fat

High: more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g  (*100g is about 3.5oz)
Low: 1.5g of saturated fat or less per 100g

Sugars

High: more than 22.5g of total sugars per 100g  (*a little under 3/4 of an ounce per 3 oz)
Low: 5g of total sugars or less per 100g

Salt

High: more than 1.5g of salt per 100g (or 0.6g sodium)
Low: 0.3g of salt or less per 100g (or 0.1g sodium)

For example, if you are trying to cut down on saturated fat, try to limit the amount of foods you eat that have more than 5g of saturated fat per 100g.

If the processed food you want to buy has a nutrition label that uses colour-coding, you will often find a mixture of red, amber and green. So, when you’re choosing between similar products, try to go for more greens and ambers, and fewer reds, if you want to make a healthier choice.

However, even healthier ready meals may be higher in fat and other additives than a homemade equivalent. That’s not to say that homemade foods can’t also be high in calories, fat, salt and sugar, but if you make the meal yourself, you’ll have a much better idea of what’s gone into it. You could even save yourself some money, too.

When Cooking Food at Home…

For tips on how to eat healthily on a budget, read our healthy recipe ideas and check out the Eat4Cheap challenge.

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.





Which Complementary Therapies are Proven Effective for Asthma?

Most complementary therapies for asthma haven’t been shown to work. The exception is some types of breathing exercises, which do seem to improve symptoms and quality of life.

complementary therapy for asthmaResearch by Asthma UK shows that almost 1 in 10 people living with asthma use complementary medicine, and many would consider using it in the future.

According to Dr Mike Thomas from Asthma UK, there’s little evidence that complementary therapies in general improve asthma symptoms.

Specific remedies that are sometimes tried include homeopathy, acupuncture, air ionisers, the Alexander technique and Chinese herbal medicine, but the results have been disappointing. Read more about asthma treatment.

Breathing Exercises for Asthma

The exception is certain types of breathing exercises, which can help some people with asthma. These include breathing exercises taught by a lung (respiratory) physiotherapist, some types of yoga breathing exercises, and the Buteyko method of breathing.

People with asthma are taught slow, steady “diaphragmatic” breathing through the nose. This type of breathing is done by contracting the diaphragm, which is located between the chest and the stomach. This can result in fewer asthma symptoms and better quality of life. However, these exercises are not a cure, and people with asthma still need to use their regular inhalers.

The Buteyko Method

The Buteyko method, a system developed in Russia, teaches similar exercises and may improve asthma symptoms for some people. However, some find that the breathing exercises used during yoga also help their symptoms.

According to Leanne Male, Asthma UK’s assistant director of research, people with asthma who gain some relief from Buteyko and other types of breathing exercise should not rely on it so much that they stop their conventional medication.

“We know that some people with asthma use breathing techniques such as Buteyko but, while they may reduce symptoms, they will not reduce the sensitivity of the airway, and should not replace regular asthma medicine. Also, we don’t know what the long-term benefits are.”

Chinese and Other Herbal Medicines for Asthma

There isn’t enough clinical evidence to recommend the use of Chinese medicine, other herbal medicines, acupuncture, hypnosis and other complementary therapies.





Understanding Asthma and How to Overcome Its Challenges

According to the charity Asthma UK, one in five households has someone living with asthma.

understanding asthmaNobody knows for sure what causes asthma, but we do know you’re more likely to develop it if you have a family history of asthma, eczema or other allergies. You’re twice as likely to develop asthma if your parents have it.

Modern lifestyles, such as housing and diet, also may have contributed to the rise in asthma over the last 30 years.

Every 10 seconds someone has a potentially life-threatening asthma attack, and the latest data shows that deaths from asthma are on the rise again.

What Causes Asthma?

There are many theories about what’s caused the increase in the number of people with asthma.

One of the most popular is the “hygiene hypothesis”. According to this theory, asthma is more common in western societies. Because western society is becoming cleaner, we have less exposure to allergens and pathogens.

When a person with asthma comes into contact with a “trigger”, their airways become irritated. The muscles tighten, the airways narrow, and the lining of the airways gets inflamed and swollen.

The main symptoms are chest “wheeze” or noisy breathing, chest tightness and breathlessness. You may also develop a cough, particularly at night, but this is more common in children.

Boys under the age of two are more susceptible to asthma because their airways are narrower when they’re younger. But they usually grow out of it, whereas girls are more likely to have asthma beyond puberty.

Obesity is also thought to make asthma more likely. Symptoms often get better when the person loses weight.

Find out more in Are we too clean for our own good?

Smoking and Asthma

Smoking also has a definite impact. Parents’ cigarette smoke will affect their child’s lung function development, and it irritates the airways. People with asthma are advised not to smoke.

Research shows that smoking during pregnancy increases the risk of your child developing asthma. Children whose parents smoke are also more likely to develop the condition.

Once you have asthma, high levels of pollution and smoking may make it worse. But there’s no proof that these triggers actually cause it.

Asthma Treatment

How to Help Yourself/Your Child

If certain things trigger your asthma, such as dust mites, minimise your exposure to them. Put mattress covers on your bed, use a damp cloth when you dust, don’t have too many soft furnishings in your house, and put down laminate or wooden flooring instead of carpets.

Asthma Triggers

Asthma triggers include pets, but studies show that getting rid of animals doesn’t improve asthma. In fact, the emotional upset of getting rid of your pet may make your asthma worse. Keep your exposure to pets to a minimum in areas such as the bedroom, and consider not getting any new pets.

Asthma Medicines

If you have symptoms more than three times a week and you need to use a reliever inhaler (usually blue), you should also use a preventer inhaler (usually brown).

But if you only have symptoms a few times a week when exercising, you can manage your symptoms safely with a reliever inhaler before you exercise.

Asthma is an inflammatory disease. This means preventative treatment is vital, and you must take it even when your asthma symptoms aren’t present. This will ensure your asthma is well controlled.

Review your treatment with your asthma nurse or GP (*family doctor) at least once a year as you might be able to reduce your dosage of medicine.

Find out more information about asthma treatments.

Taking Steroids When You Have Asthma

Because asthma is caused by an inflammation of the airways, anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids are sometimes used to treat it.

You may be concerned about the potential side effects of steroids, such as weight gain, stunted growth (in children) and weakened bones.

The risk of side effects if you or your child are using a steroid inhaler is lower than with steroid tablets because less of the medicine gets into your system. With both steroid inhalers and tablets, the risk of side effects increases if the dose is high and if you use them for long periods.

Generally, if inhaled steroids are prescribed carefully and at the lowest dose needed, the risk of side effects is outweighed by the ability to reduce your or your child’s need for steroid tablets. Discuss the risks of steroid treatment with your doctor if you’re concerned.

If you have queries about any aspect of asthma, you can call the Asthma UK helpline, which is a free telephone helpline staffed by asthma nurse specialists on 0800 121 62 44, Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Find asthma services in your area. (*UK)

Asthma Resources in the US:

Editor’s Note: *clarification provided for our US readers.





Flu Shot Facts You Need to Know to Protect Your Family

Some surprising flu shot facts to spur you to protect yourself and your family this winter.

Our house recently got hit by a VERY nasty virus. We had someone sick at home for over a month – and each of us missed about a week of work or school, with lingering after effects. It’s been a tough road! I was the last to get the bug and the timing couldn’t have been worse. I was so sick I wasn’t able to attend national music championships that my son was competing in….and his school WON! Best in the country….but I missed it.

flu-facts2This got me thinking about the flu and annual flu shots. The illness we had seemed every bit as bad as the flu, but we knew the bug wasn’t influenza. We had all been to the doctor – and the symptoms just didn’t quite fit (see the F.A.C.T.S. in the box to the right). Plus 2 out of the 3 of us had already had our flu shots for the season. It was just a really bad cold. But it made me think about the benefits of the flu shot – something which CAN avoid the risk of an illness as bad as the one we all just suffered through.

Critical Info for 2016-2017 Flu Season

The nasal flu mist vaccine is NOT recommended this season due to concerns about how well it works – so kids will need to get the standard shot. And it’s not too late for kids or adults to get vaccinated. Click here for more information on this season’s guidelines.

Benefits of the Flu Shot

  • Prevent your kids from missing lots of school (in higher grades this can really set them back and create stress – which it did for our son)
  • Prevent you from missing lots of work – or REALLY important events – like your child competing in a national championship!!
  • Pflu shot foctsrotect you and your child from the most severe risks of the flu
    • The flu kills – as WW1 drew to a close in 1918, more people died from the flu pandemic of the time than from the war – which any female who followed the Twilight series would know!
    • But even in regular flu seasons people (and kids) die – over the past 10 years, the number of children killed by influenza in the US has ranged from 34 to 171 per year – EXCEPT for the 2009 flu pandemic when well over 300 children died!
  • Not so concerned by these small numbers? How about protecting your child from ending up in the hospital with influenza complications?
    • Each year an average of 20,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized in the US because of flu complications – the risk is especially bad for kids under age 2
    • The most common complication of influenza is pneumonia – which was found to be one of the main drivers of the death toll during the 1918-19 flu pandemic
    • Other less common but very severe flu complications include
      • Breakdown of muscle tissue that can cause kidney damage (rhabdomyolysis)
      • Inflammation and damage of the heart muscle (myocarditis)
      • Swelling and damage of the brain, including seizures (encephalitis)
    • Protect those you love and others in your community – not everyone can get the flu shot, including babies younger than 6 months, so help keep everyone safe by getting vaccinated

Fun Fact About Flu Shot Development

Did you know that the experts who decide what flu strains go into the seasonal vaccine don’t just guess or pick what goes in the vaccine at the last minute? They are constantly monitoring the state of the flu all around the world. For example, when flu season is over in the US and Europe – it moves south to places like Australia, since their winter occurs when it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere. There are 5 major centers around the world that coordinate with the World Health Organization on flu tracking – in the US, UK, Australia, Japan and China. All this information helps with choosing the best possible strains for the seasonal vaccine in each region.

OK to Salt a Child’s Food? I Disagree

don't-salt-kids-foodI am a fan of the health and wellness articles in the New York Times (NYT). Their reporting is based on scientific studies and evidence – but the articles are engaging and bring the science down to a more readable level. So, this post is a departure for me, because I disagree with a recent NYT article, by Rachel Rabkin Peachman, on whether it’s ok to salt a child’s food.

The basic argument of the article is that using a little bit of salt on your child’s food isn’t going to add that much sodium – especially compared to how much is hidden in processed foods. And that if adding a bit of salt to healthy but bitter foods, like broccoli, gets kids to eat more of these – then it’s probably worthwhile.

But I strongly disagree.

So What’s the Problem?

First of all, salt intake is MUCH too high in most countries, and this causes serious health issues. In the US, adults and children consume around two to three times more salt than is recommended, most of which is added to foods during processing. The Harvard School of Public Health highlights that these excess salt levels lead to high blood pressure and heart disease – as well as stomach cancer and osteoporosis. Nation-wide salt reduction efforts in the UK, starting in 2003, resulted in a 15% drop in salt consumption and very significant drops in blood pressure, stroke and heart attacks.

And these issues are not just adult concerns. Both the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that factors leading to high blood pressure and heart disease begin in childhood. Studies have shown that about 15% of kids already have high blood pressure.

Starting in Childhood is Key

Research shows that most food preferences are developed in childhood and are difficult to shift. I’ve seen this first-hand through my own research dissertation for my Masters in Public Health. My project involved qualitative focus group interviews with employees of companies who offer a home delivery service for fresh produce as part of their wellness program. The people I met with struggled to eat the recommended levels of fruit and vegetables – even if they wanted to. Many cited that not growing up eating a large amount and variety of produce set habits that are tough to break and limited their knowledge about healthier cooking and eating.

Ms Peachman’s article states that children who learn to like bitter vegetables with toppings like salt, will like the veggies even after the salt is taken away. Personally, I VERY much doubt that. The study they cited as evidence didn’t use salt, but rather cream cheese – plus another New York times article published in 2011 points out that babies fed higher levels of sodium prefer salty foods when they are older. Again, both the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend taking the salt shaker off the table – and trying to reduce the sodium kids get through processed food. Kids will learn to prefer less salty food. That’s advice I believe – and how we operate in our house. Now the whole family generally finds that processed and restaurant foods taste too salty.

What to Do Instead?

So, without adding salt, what CAN you do to help kids learn to like certain healthy vegetables that may not be so appealing at first bite? The AAP recommends using other things to alter or boost taste – like herbs, spices and lemon juice.

We do all those in our house. Pepper always gets put on the table, along with Mrs Dash – a salt-free topping. And I use herbs and spices like basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme and cumin. I also brown steamed vegetables, like Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, in a frying pan with a bit of butter or olive oil to add to the taste. Another good option is a little bit of Parmesan cheese sprinkled on veggies – or cooked onions or leeks mixed with veggies like broccoli. See the end of this article for more resources for getting kids to eat veggies.

The point is, there are healthier ways to help kids get used to vegetables – ones that can become lifelong habits without concern.

Tips for Getting Kids to Eat Veggies 

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