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Simple ways to stay healthy and be well

Published August 06. 2011 09:01AM

No one explains meditation, Zen Buddhism, and Far East philosophy to Americans better than Thich Nhat Hanh. In one of the 100-plus books he's published (though a few of those are purely poetry), he simply states there is something you can do to create clarity and calm in any situation, as well as improve your mental health.

Whether you're faced with family-related stress or an unsettling workplace situation, you can always relax and breathe deeply.

Try it sometime. It works. And it doesn't require a trip to the psychiatrist or the purchase of some self-help CD.

It's just a simple way to be well.

And in our fast-paced world where improved health and fitness might be just one of a dozen or so of your current goals, simple is certainly the way to go. So here are a few more simple ways to be well.

Cut down or cut out simple carbohydrates

Although there clearly are other simple carb sources, the ones that you want to limit in your diet primarily come from the refined grains found in white bread, snack foods, pastas, and desserts, and the added sugars found in sweetened beverages, cereals, candies, and desserts. The reason why is because so much recent research is vindicating what a few wise men have been preaching for 25 years: your body processes the different macronutrientsfat, protein, and carbohydratesdifferently.

In other words, all calories are not created equally.

One example comes from research done at UCLA and published in the May issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. This 12-week study placed 52 overweight individuals on a diet designed to create a one-pound-per week weight loss. Half of the individuals, however, ate 240 calories per day of pistachios, a nut high in fat, albeit "healthy" unsaturated fat. The other half replaced the pistachios with 220 calories of pretzels, a low-fat food that's nothing more than simple carbs, the "unhealthy" kind.

After 12 weeks, the pistachio group had better Body Mass Index numbers than the pretzel group (the only way adults improve BMI is to lose weight)even though the pistachio group consumed 10 percent more of their total calories from fat. But by consuming more "healthy" fat, the pistachio group also consumed fewer simple "unhealthy" carbs.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (that belatedly appeared in January of 2011) addresses the issue this way. Americans are advised to "limit the consumption of foods that contain refined grains" (aka simple carbohydrates) by consuming "at least half of all grains as whole grains" and by eating "a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green and red and orange vegetables and beans and peas."

Cut down or cut out alcohol

Simple carbs get stored as fat more easily than any other macronutrient other than "unhealthy" dietary fat, a fact that fuels the first bit of advice. The reason you should cut down or cut out alcohol is similar: stored fat doesn't get burned as energy if alcohol is in your system.

The alcohol gets burned first. In fact, alcohol gets burned even before your body's preferred energy source: glycogen.

That's why moderate alcohol consumption undermines one of the benefits of early-morning exercise: the burning of stored fat.

Let's say that this column or recent research (more on that later) has finally convinced you to work out before breakfast, yet you're still drinking two or three glasses of wine or three or four cans of beer before bed. If so, the alcohol is fueling your body throughout the night, which leaves plenty of glycogen, the fuel source that usually gets used at this time. Now, when you begin your early-morning cardio, you use glycogen rather than fat as the primary fuel.

You're still burning cals, but not nearly the percentage of fat as you do when alcohol isn't in your system.

Keep in mind that several studies have linked moderate drinking to improved cardiovascular health, so if that's your greatest concern, you may want to continue consuming beer or wine moderately. Just be aware that the practice may also be keeping you from losing those last few pounds as well as that lethargic, fuzzy, feeling in the morning.

Exercise early in the day

Besides being the most effective way to burn stored fat, there's another reason why early-morning exercise enhances your overall health: it improves sleep quality. Researchers at Appalachian State University recently presented a study at the American College of Sports Medicine's 58th annual meeting that found when subjects exercised at 7:00 opposed to 1 p.m. or 7 p.m.the amount of time subjects spent in sleep stages crucial for health increased dramatically.

Time spent in deep sleep, for example, increased 75 percent. Light sleep increased by 85 percent.

A lack of quality sleep does more than make people grumpy and sluggish. Some experts estimate that sleep deprivation causes as many traffic fatalities as alcohol abuse.

Recently a lack of sleep has been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Despite all that, the National Sleep Foundation estimates that 25 percent of the U.S. population still gets an insufficient amount of sleep.

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