Even a few pounds less can improve seniors' health

Once again, Americans are being warned to count the calories and skim the fat.

Despite an increase during the 1980s in the number of people who joined fitness clubs or reported some daily exercise, new studies show that fried and fatty food and sedentary lifestyles are again ascendant and causing more American waistlines to swell to dangerous proportions.

Doctors say the danger is more acute for people who are middle-aged or older: For them, even 20 excess pounds can trigger killer diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease and can put some people at a much higher risk of dying from colon, breast or prostate cancer.

According to several recent studies, more than one-third of all adults, or 59 million Americans, are overweight. Overweight is defined as weighing 20 percent more than recommended under current medical guidelines. Obesity begins at 30 percent above the medically desirable weight for your age and height.

But don't despair. There are commonsense rules for fighting the battle of the bulge at any age.

According to JoAnne Manson, an endocrinologist at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital who's been studying obesity for 20 years, the fight against fat should start with cutting down on fried food, gourmet ice cream, extra-cheese pizza, and 10-ounce steaks.

Consumption of steamed or raw vegetables and unadulterated fresh fruit should be expanded, she said.

Rice, lentils, beans, pasta, and couscous are filling and healthy main courses. Skip the high-fat cream, bacon and alfredo sauces and try a medley of fresh tomatoes, peppers, garlic, spices or a salsa-type topping.

Other fat-fighting tips:

Try eating six or seven mini-meals during the day instead of big dinners. For example, eat a half a grapefruit or a big wedge of melon and a slice of whole grain bread with some jam for breakfast. An hour or two later, have a low-fat bran muffin, a banana and some tea. A bit later, have a spinach salad and half a sandwich for lunch. Continue like this through the day and avoid eating a heavy meal after 7 p.m.

Take a short walk after lunch and dinner. It will help you digest your food and burn calories long after the stroll is finished.

Don't snack while watching television, unless you eat grapes, raisins, carrot sticks or other veggies and fruits. Chew gum instead of buttered popcorn at the movies or ask for a small portion of popcorn without salt or butter.

Drink eight to 10 glasses of water, juice and other decaffeinated beverages each day.

Cut out or reduce so-called "empty calories" such as alcohol or rich sweets. Try ending a meal with a single mint or a scoop of fruit sorbet. If you drink limit yourself to a single glass of beer or wine or one jigger of hard alcohol a day.

In a restaurant, order two appetizers for dinner or split your main dish with a companion. Or fill up on soup and a vegetable side dish. (No, not baked potato with sour cream and bacon bits.) Ask for lunch or child-size portions or request a doggie bag at the outset and immediately stash half your portion for a later meal.

Build a half-hour of moderate exercise into your schedule each day. Carry grocery bags, walk up steps, garden, vacuum, rake leaves or walk. Thirty minutes of walking each day is just what the doctor ordered. If you feel ambitious, add light wrist weights and improve the benefit to your heart and lungs.

If feeling and looking better are not sufficient motivation for cutting the fat, three recent studies have shown that leaner is definitely healthier.

One, a 16-year study of 115,000 nurses, showed that the women's risk of dying from cardiovascular disease and certain cancers increased significantly as their weight went up. The nurses were 30 to 55 when the study began in 1976. Those who were lean because they smoked or for some other medical reason were excluded.

The nurse study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that being overweight or obese contributed to a surprising one-third of all the cancer deaths as well as one-half of all cardiovascular deaths during the 16 years of the study.

Another study looked at 6,500 Japanese-American men and found that healthy men who had never smoked were not necessarily harmed by repeated cycles of weight loss and gain. But, once again, this study found that the leanest men were also the healthiest and longest-lived.

And finally, first reports from an ongoing study of a group of Harvard alumni also indicate that the leanest men have the best health statistics. The men at the lowest end of the weight tables had death rates 40 percent lower than the heaviest men as they aged, said Walter Willet, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health who also co-authored the nurses' study.

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