Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Mini-Medical School draws a crowd

The stream of visitors to last Thursday’s edition of Fauquier Hospital’s Mini-Medical School was steady – and damp.

It was a cold, rainy night, but most of those who had signed up for the six-session course on “Wellness and Prevention: Living Long and Living Well” managed to make it to class in the Sycamore Rooms at Fauquier Hospital. The topic of the day was “The Skinny on Health and Nutrition.”

About a third of the participants arrived early enough to take part in the free blood pressure screening and nab some free packets of Fiber One cereal, but it was clear the crowd was eager for the main event.

So was I. Although I was present to help with the logistics of the evening, I was eager to hear some definitive advice on diet and nutrition. In 2008, it’s impossible to read a newspaper, magazine or go into a book store without being bombarded with miracle products and get-thin-fast schemes. How do you sort out the truth?

Dr. Steven von Elten did not disappoint. With humor and passion for his subject, he shared his keys to health and fitness with the attentive audience. Dr. von Elten is board certified in family practice, emergency medicine and clinical lipidology, and has very definite opinions about health and nutrition.

Well, you may say, a lot of people -- medical and otherwise -- have very definite opinions about health and nutrition. Dr. von Elten, however, backed up his opinions with data.

During the course of his 90-minute talk, he debunked a number of myths and revealed a few surprising facts, all based on credible medical studies.

Among the surprising facts:

75 percent of adults are now overweight or obese.

The life expectancy of our children and grandchildren is now expected to be shorter than their parents – for the first time in history.

Metabolic Syndrome – the clustering of distinctly different diseases, all due to the increase of intra-abdominal fat – can cause long-term complications like vascular disease (heart disease and stroke), cancer or dementia. This syndrome is rarely diagnosed.

The most healthy diet is a vegan diet. (No animal products of any kind.)

Supplements and vitamin pills are not the answer. (They represent “a panoply of choice based on hope, not fact.”)

There is no evidence that vitamin E, cinnamon, garlic, chromium or beta carotene offer any health benefits.

Fish oil is loaded with Omega-3s, powerfully healthy fatty acids.

You should eat fish twice a week. The benefits of eating fish far outweigh concerns about mercury deposits.

In order to lose weight, you must exercise vigorously for 90 minutes a day.

The 21st-century diet is deficient in: Omega 3 (from fish, fish oil, and other sources), fiber, vegetables and Vitamin D.

For those of us who need to lose weight, Dr. Elten offers these suggestions:

Eat smaller portions. (Dr. Elten said that super-sized meals were the beginning of the end for the American diet.)

Eat more vegetables and fruits.

Eat foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids.

Avoid trans-fatty acids.

Watch the glycemic index of foods!

Learn to deal with stress.

EXERCISE. And stay active.

Fad diets always fail, although Weight Watchers, which offers a balanced approach, can be effective.

Losing weight requires not just a change in diet. You need to make a lifestyle change.

If you follow the rules 80 percent of the time, you’re doing OK.

During the question and answer period, Dr. von Elten answered queries, but deflected some about nutrition, deferring to the next speaker, Aren Dodge, a registered dietician. Dodge spoke after a short break, during which the audience enjoyed fruit and veggie platters provided by The Bistro on the Hill at the hospital.

Dodge opened her discussion by showing the audience what a pound of fat looks like – she passed around a thoroughly unattractive slab of mustard-colored rubber. Good thing we had all eaten our fruits and veggies. That thing could really take away person’s appetite, especially after Dodge told us that our hearts had to pump an extra mile of blood for every extra pound we carry.

For anyone who needed a little more motivation to lose weight, Dodge said that “Virtually every chronic medical disease carries a contribution from physical inactivity and poor nutritional habits.” and… “seven of the ten leading causes of death in the U.S. each year have a nutrition or alcohol-related component.”

Dodge covered a lot of territory in her presentation – the difference between good and bad fats (olive oil vs. bacon), cholesterol (“bad fats” contribute to high cholesterol), sodium (it’s everywhere!), portion sizes (keep ’em small), BMI (body mass index), and the importance of reading labels.

Dodge also touched on the psychological aspects of trying to lose weight. She spoke of “mindful eating,” which means slowing down, chewing thoroughly and enjoying every morsel of food. If you take your time over a meal, you are more likely to enjoy it and get full faster. No watching TV or working through your meals. Multi-tasking is out.

To prove her point, Dodge gave everyone one Hershey’s Kiss. She instructed us to savor it – no chewing – and all agreed it was a more thoughtful and satisfying way to enjoy a forbidden treat.

Dodge’s talk was well-received, and a dozen or so audience members lined up afterward to ask more specific questions. It was a full evening, with lots of good information being passed around with the veggies and fruit.

So what’s the final result? If I had to guess, I’d say a sharp spike in the sale of fish oil and health club memberships.

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