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Some more simple ways to be well

Published August 13. 2011 09:02AM

In the early years of this column, I often spent Saturday afternoons in college libraries, searching for studies to either support an existing idea or create a new one. Not finding what I needed and not having anything to write! was always a concern.

I don't have that concern anymore.

In fact, now I can feel overwhelmed simply by checking my e-mail and seeing the dozens of studies and articles sent to me daily.

Too much information, you see, can be as big a problem as not enough of it.

That's why last week's column was titled "Simple ways to be well" and why this week's column will be more of the same.

Make sleep a priority

The last tip from last week, to exercise early in the morning, was suggested as a way to improve your quality of sleep. But if you're like many Americans, quantity is as much a problem as quality.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, for instance, found that 35 percent of respondents reported averaging less than seven hours of sleep a night. Quite simply, too many Americans see anything more than the bare minimum of sleep as a luxury.

But studies have shown that a lack of sleep increases a number of medical problems, including the one that seems to trigger so many others: unhealthy weight gain.

One reason why weight gain is often the result of insufficient sleep was presented at SLEEP 2011, the 25th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. In a study involving 262 high school seniors in public school in New Jersey, the odds of having strong cravings for carbohydrates were clearly linked to excessive daytime sleepiness, an indicator of insufficient sleep.

When asked about the correlation by Medical News, Dr. Mahmood Siddique, director of Sleep and Wellness Medical Associates and Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey and the principal investigator in the study, said, "This study highlights the importance of diagnosing sleep deprivation as a risk factor for obesity among young teens."

Another study presented at SLEEP 2011 reported that daytime sleepiness decreased the activation of the part of the brain that talks you out of eating high-calorie foods when you see them pictured as advertisements.

This finding creates interesting questions about the cravings that so often derail a diet. In the past, these cravings were seen as the inevitable result of being denied the "bad" food or restricted amounts of it. According to this study, that may not be the case.

William Kilgore, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts and principal investigator of the study, said, the results suggest "that even normal fluctuations in sleepiness may be capable of altering brain responses that are important for regulating dietary intake, potentially affecting the types of choices that individuals make when selecting whether and what to eat."

If that's the case, it's easy to see how insufficient sleep increases the odds of dieting failure.

And if you think you can catch up on a lack of weekday sleep during the weekends, think again. According to Dr. Alexandros N. Vgontzas, professor of psychiatry and endowed chair in sleep disorders medicine at the Penn State College of Medicine, who also presented research at SLEEP 2011, "The usual practice of extending sleep during the weekend after a busy workweek associated with mild sleep loss is not adequate in reversing the cumulative effects on cognitive function resulting from this mild sleep deprivation."

Eat like your ancestors . . . or present-day Europeans

Undeniably, the United States is the world leader in many different areas. Unfortunately, one of those areas is poor eating.

At least that's the conclusion you can draw from an article published in the May issue of Psychological Science. It revealed why immigrants to the U.S. and their U.S.-born children reach U.S. levels of obesity within 15 years of arriving here.

In what appears to be an attempt to fit in, they abandon their homeland's foods for typical American fare. According to Maya Guendelman, a psychology graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of the study, eating American foods makes the immigrants "feel more mainstream."

They certainly look more American with a few extra pounds.

It would be far better for immigrants and native Americans to emulate traditional Europeans. Not only do traditional Europeans eat far smaller portions than Americans, but they also eat more slowly.

Since it takes up to 20 minutes for consumed food to register and provide a feeling of fullness, those who eat slowly generally eat less.

Traditional Europeans also make time for meals rather than cram them into a busy day. As a result, they tend to be more mindful of the food they're eating, and that results in eating less. That they also view meals as social events often keeps them from the mindless eating Americans do while eating supper and watching TV or reading the newspaper.

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