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Eating To Live Or Living To Eat? The Weight-Gain Struggle During a Pandemic

To my fellow physicians and patient providers, how many of your patients have gained weight and blamed it on the pandemic due to limited options for physical activity outside of the home?

Unsurprisingly, almost all of my patients I’ve seen over the past year have fallen victim to this, with good reason. They are protecting their health by avoiding exposure to COVID-19 but at the same time are unconsciously neglecting their health by not having the means or green light to engage in healthy behaviors such as going to the gym, walking in public spaces, and engaging in aerobic exercise and strength training. Our current restrictive environment combined with more time at home to eat and indulge is a fail-proof setup for adding on these harmful extra pounds.

So what can our patients control and how do we motivate them? This reminds me of my roommate in medical school who once told me that I “live to eat” because I would act immediately on a food craving and would also plan my next meal while actively eating a meal in front of me. I asked him if he also followed this same dogma of being an “emotional eater” and acted impulsively on energy-dense, nutritionally lacking foods. He responded with “I eat to live” because he only thinks about food when his body sends him the appropriate signals. I had to think about this. Yes, “stress-eating” is a habit that many of us are using as a coping mechanism during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Food culture is central in many cultures across the world. Food brings people together, establishes common ground amongst strangers, and provides satisfaction and emotional fulfillment while traveling, learning, and growing. We’re social creatures who naturally select to build connections that many times are centered around meals. But when the balance tips towards overindulgence and away from physical activity and healthy mindfulness is when chronic diseases such as coronary artery disease and its associated comorbidities arise.

For many of us, we understand what we should eat to become healthier, however, that does not mean we will actually follow this rationale to maintain a heart-healthy diet, especially during a pandemic when most of our day is spent sedentary in isolation at home. Despite having a master’s degree in Nutrition as part of my training, I can admit that I have invariably fell victim to the vices of food comfort at home. I was eating a lot of baked desserts after dinner but recently decided to replace this habit with a cup of hot chocolate made with soy milk and sugarless cocoa powder.

So how do we combat this? We know the right food prescriptions of diet to provide our patients and have all heard the saying of “you are what you eat.”

Let me quickly review the 4 strategies of motivational interviewing (OARS) and a few quick tips to help our patients (and ourselves) make gradual and achievable nutritional changes:

  • Open-ended questions- this allows your patient to explore and think more deeply about personal goals.
  • Affirmations- highlight your patient’s strengths and skills to support self-efficacy
  • Reflections– reflective listening and providing empathy deepens the trust with your patient; avoid making judgments as patients become may become defensive
  • Summaries- summarizing the above then allows you to move on to making a specific plan with your patient

Here are 5 tips to help your patients make healthier food choices during the pandemic:

  • Allow your patient to decide on 1-2 specific food goals per week (this can involve eliminating one food item they are able to identify that is unhealthy or decreasing the amount of this food item per day or week).
  • Empathize with the difficulty of being at home and that boredom by itself can cause overeating. Prior to eating, challenge them to take a few seconds to determine whether or not they are hungry or are deciding to eat because they are bored.
  • Make a goal of drinking at least 8 glasses of water a day- being underhydrated can in turn cause overeating of salt-laden foods.
  • “Eat your calories, don’t drink them.” Ensure that your patient is avoiding caloric beverages. If they enjoy fruit juices, ask that they try eating fruits as the fiber benefits are much more plentiful with less additive sugars.
  • Lastly, congratulate them on their decision to make a change and have a specific follow up plan to continue building on the changes they are making.

Be well,

Kyla Lara-Breitinger, MD, MS

References:

https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1998-04654-001

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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#HeartMonth and Healthy choices

See what’s on Netflix or go for a run? We’re more than half-way through #HeartMonth and I’m still picking the next episode of Netflix nine times out of ten. That said, with the Heart Month hashtags flooding my twitter feed I have been inspired to start “prescribing” exercise to patients who are having trouble making healthy exercise choices. Thanks to #cardiotwitter I also have a couple of interesting studies to show patients on the benefits of running.

One observational study at the London Marathon found an approximately 4-year reduction in vascular age associated with training for and completing the race among first-time runners. Most of these people ran 6 to 13 miles per week for the 4-5 months leading up to the race. [1] A separate, outcomes-focused meta-analysis published in 2019 analyzed data from 14 studies and found a 27% risk reduction of all-cause mortality associated with running. The authors concluded that mortality risk reduction was seen with running even just once per week. [2]

Heart disease is the nation’s leading cause of death, but it doesn’t have to be. February is American #HeartMonth to reminds us that we can fight back by making healthy choices: being active, eating healthier, and going for that occasional run.

My son and I after his first Turkey Trot last year

References:

  1. Bhuva A, D’Silva A, Torlasco C, et al. Training for a First-Time Marathon Reverses Age-Related Aortic Stiffening. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020 Jan 7;75(1):60-71. doi: 10.1016/j.jacc.2019.10.045.(https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31918835)
  2. Pedisic Z, Shrestha N, Kovalchik S, et al. Is running associated with a lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular and cancer mortality, and is the more the better? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med 2019; 0:1-9. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2018-100493 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31685526)

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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A New Year, A New Story: Tips for a Healthy Lifestyle in 2019

A new year presents a new opportunity for improvement. Each year, thousands of advertisements beckon us to join or buy the most recent fitness and wellness craze – wearable technologies, personal coaching, pea protein and oat milk. However, if trends are not your thing, you may find it reassuring that “traditional” fitness and wellness strategies (e.g., training for a 5K walk/run, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and reducing your sugar intake) can also be re-imagined and integrated into your daily routine leading to a healthier, and likely happier you.

Perhaps contrary to the many images trying to sell wellness products, adopting fitness and wellness strategies are equally if not more important for those who are living with a chronic disease. In November 2018 at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions, the Physical Activity Guidelines were updated and, for the first time, specified that physical activity can help to manage chronic conditions including decreasing pain, reducing the rate of progression for high blood pressure and diabetes, reducing anxiety and depression, and improving cognition in those with chronic comorbidities. These critical health outcomes symptoms are particularly important for adults living with HIV, who tend to experience worse symptoms than many living with other chronic illnesses – and consequently, they may stand to benefit the most from increased and improved physical activity.

Figure 1 Photo by Christine Schmitt via flickr (http://bit.ly/2LZufoz)

However, in addition to physical activity, nutritional intake is a critical part of improving health and wellness among adults living with HIV. A recent practice paper of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that nutritional status affects the overall health and longevity of this population. They suggest that improved diet can lead to reduced blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, which will result in improved cardiovascular health. Lead author of the report, Amanda Willig, RD, PhD, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, suggests that when anyone (especially someone with a chronic disease such as HIV) is starting to adopt a new diet to “Remember, the enemy of good is perfect. A perfect diet is not needed to see big changes in your health.”

So what are the good diet changes needed to improve health? Regardless of one’s HIV status, Dr. Willig’s recommendations on healthier eating are the same: “Watch your portion sizes, try to eat vegetables every day / fill ½ of your plate with vegetables at meals, limit the amount of sugar in your diet, and choose water over sugar sweetened beverages like soda, sports drinks or sweet tea.”

However, for those with HIV, there are some special considerations. While the evidence is still emerging, Dr. Willig indicated that those with HIV may need more Vitamin D than they did prior to their HIV infection for their overall health.  And if one’s CD4+ T-cell count is less than 250, they may want to avoid eating raw or undercooked meat and seafood, as they be at higher risk for food poisoning. Additionally, for the growing number of people living with HIV who are over 50, they may need to increase their protein intake from 0.8 grams per kg per day to 1.2 grams per kg per day. This will help with maintaining muscle mass and preventing bone loss.

Yet whether you are decreasing your portion size or increasing your daily protein intake, changing behavior can be hard and as we age, it can seem complicated and sometimes discouraging. In addition to seeking help from registered dietitian or a Physician Nutrition Specialist who can help you decide which lifestyle nutrition plan is best suited to you, Dr. Willig also suggested several tips for adopting a healthy diet in 2019 (see insert).

 

Dr. Willig’s Tips for Adopting a Healthy Diet in 2019

  • Keep a food diary for 3-4 days to learn not just what you are eating but why.
  • Start with the small steps that can produce big changes, such as cutting out sugary drinks or not eating during the night.
  • Regardless of the nutrition plan, portion sizes still matter. One can eat too many of the “right” foods, so learn what a portion of the foods you eat actually looks like.
  • Make sure your nutrition plan fits your lifestyle. If you want to cook, you can to experiment with baking and sautéing instead of frying foods. If you travel often, learn to read nutrition labels and restaurant nutrition information to avoid eating too many calories.

 

Additional strategies can be found on the American Heart Association’s Healthy Living Website.

As you start to navigate how to start the year committed to becoming healthier you, there will undoubtedly be challenges – busy schedules, competing demands, mood, weather and so on. But you can overcome them and take small steps to become a healthier you in 2019. As you start this journey, consider the words of writer Alex Morritt, “New year — a new chapter, new verse, or just the same old story? Ultimately we write it. The choice is ours.” The new year has just begun, and regardless of your age, sex, health status, or neighborhood in 2019 you get to write your own story – one in which you relentlessly pursue a healthier you.