How to Be Well

While it’s common to think of just your body when you think of health, there are other vital parts to consider: how you think, feel, and act, and the social support system you have in place—in other words, your behavioral/mental health and social well-being. These components (physical, mental, and social) combine to make up your whole health picture.

What’s the Difference between Health and Wellness?

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being,” while wellness is “the optimal state of health of individuals and groups,” which is expressed as “a positive approach to living.” Another way of putting it is that health is the goal while wellness is an active way to achieve that goal.

You cannot choose the state of your health, but you can choose wellness and exercise some control over your health. These choices are often referred to as “lifestyle” choices.

How to Prevent Diseases and Be Well

Wellness depends on healthy habits for your mind and body. These habits, which can prevent a whole host of illnesses, are lifestyle choices that you have considerable control over: nutrition, exercise, relaxation, sleep, and support.
Nutrition: Eat a balanced diet and stay hydrated. To help stay on track with healthy eating, download the MyPlate app for free.

Exercise: Be active! Adults should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise and two days of muscle strengthening activity each week. This helps your body and your mind.

Relaxation: Disconnect from devices and live in the moment. Mindfulness practices, yoga, deep breathing, and other stress-reduction strategies can help you relax and build up your ability to deal with stressful situations in the future.

Sleep: Get a good night’s sleep. Adults typically need at least 7 hours of sleep each night.

Support: Strive to make and keep friends, learn new things and discover new hobbies, be part of an active group, and care for others and yourself.

In addition to making healthy lifestyle choices, you want to reduce risk factors as much as possible. This includes practicing safe, consensual sex; reducing or eliminating alcohol use; leaving abusive situations; and stopping smoking and other substance use.

How to Improve Mental Wellness

All healthy lifestyle choices contribute to mental health and wellness. When you eat a healthy diet, for example, it affects your mood and can even reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercise reduces depression and anxiety as well, and it improves self-esteem and cognitive function. Relaxation calms us and clears our minds, aiding in positive thinking, concentration, memory, and decision making. Sleep helps maintain cognitive skills and too little of it increases stress, anger, and worsens mental health conditions. Social support fosters self-esteem, combats loneliness, and reduces distress when you’re faced with stressful events.

Being well is an active process. You have to keep making choices and sometimes changes to reach your best well-being, and sometimes you’ll need help along the way. As a patient-centered medical home, we recognize your whole health and treat all of it in one place. One way we may be able to help is through our integrated behavioral health care.

What’s the Difference between Mental Health and Behavioral Health?

As we see with wellness and health, sometimes terms are used interchangeably. So, what exactly is mental health, behavioral health, and integrated behavioral health?

Mental health is about thoughts and feelings. It includes biological and social factors that influence our mental state. A healthy mental state enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn and work well, and contribute to their community.
Behavioral health has to do with the specific actions people take. It’s about how you respond in different scenarios, and includes mental health as well as substance use, life stressors, stress-related physical symptoms, and lifestyle choices.

Integrated behavioral health care connects medical and behavioral health providers together, to collaborate with each other and their patients. It is a way of recognizing our whole selves.

At DFD Russell Medical Center, we practice integrated behavioral health. This blends care for medical conditions and related behavioral health factors that affect well-being. Because your physical, mental, and social health interact and affect each other, integrated care is the gold standard. Our team works together to keep you healthy.

Calorie-Dense vs. Nutrient-Dense Foods

We can get confused easily by what to eat. There are hundreds of diets out there, thousands of foods, and your wallet can only stretch so far. How are you supposed to know what the right foods to eat are? If you’re determined to eat healthy or lose weight but don’t necessarily want to follow a diet, consider looking at your food choices through the lens of calorie-dense versus nutrient-dense food.

What is a Calorie?

First off, what is a calorie? Quite simply, a calorie is a unit of energy. Counting calories is one method to monitor your weight. An easier and perhaps more effective approach, however, might be to pay attention to whether the foods you are eating are calorie-dense or nutrient-dense.

What Does Calorie-Dense Food Mean?

Energy is vital for your life, and calories deliver energy, so calories=good, right?
Not so fast. You might think that the more calories you can get out of a meal, the better value for your dollar, but you’d be mistaken. When we eat and drink more calories than we use, our bodies store the excess calories as fat. This can lead to weight gain and obesity, which in turn puts you at higher risk for many chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Not only are these illnesses expensive, they can be deadly.

So, what is calorie-dense food? Calorie-dense food is generally considered “empty-calorie” food: high in energy (calories) but low in nutritional value. These are foods you want to avoid—they are “empty” and “junk” food because they don’t help your health. They harm it.

Which Foods are Calorie Dense?

Examples of calorie-dense food include:

  • Highly processed foods, which have been stripped of their nutrients and have had fat, sugar, and/or salt added to them.
  • Sugar
  • Butter
  • White bread
  • Processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, deli meat, and sausage
  • Cakes, pies, and doughnuts
  • Cookies
  • Candy
  • Fast food
  • Fried food, including potato chips
  • Sugary drinks, like soda, sports drinks, juice, and energy drinks

What Does Nutrient-Dense Food Mean?

All foods contain nutrients, but some foods have more nutrients and are more beneficial to our bodies. These nutrient-dense foods are great sources of long-lasting energy, health, and vitality. They don’t provide as many calories as calorie-dense or “junk” food, and are high in nutrients that are important for your health, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.

Which Foods are Nutrient Dense?

Examples of nutrient-dense food include:

  • Fresh fruits
  • Vegetables (fresh or frozen)
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes, like beans, peas, tofu, and lentils
  • Lean protein, such as baked, skinless chicken
  • Nuts and seeds

Calorie-Dense vs. Nutrient-Dense: What to Eat

Research shows the average American has a diet that is energy-rich but nutrient-poor. This has huge impacts on our nation’s health.

A meta-analysis of scientific studies on people between the ages of 28 and 66 shows a significant link between choosing nutrient-dense foods and healthy body weights. If you are trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, follow a diet high in nutrient-dense foods and avoid or limit calorie-dense foods.

How to Follow a Nutrient-Dense Diet

It can be hard to change habits. The benefits, however, are great. Here are a few small changes you can make to your meals to eat a healthier, nutrient-dense diet.

  • Replace sugary drinks with water. Try adding a slice of lemon if you like a bit more flavor.
  • Eat veggie sticks or a piece of fruit as an appetizer before your main course. This trick will help you feel fuller before you start a meal.
  • Add extra veggies to your dinner—as toppings, sides, or even the entrée.
  • Snack on fresh fruit, like an apple or orange, instead of sugary sweets.
  • When you crave something crunchy, try a small handful of nuts instead of salty pretzels or chips.
  • Switch from white pasta to brown rice.
  • Try a Meatless Monday and fix black bean tacos or vegetarian chili for a change.
  • Incorporate more of the top 9 cheapest and healthiest green veggies into your everyday meals.

Read more tips for healthier eating and consider scheduling a nutrition consultation with your primary care physician. Your health is worth it!

Top 9 Cheapest and Healthiest Green Veggies

Doctors and parents say “eat your greens!” for good reason. Full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, green veggies are good for you. These foods lower your risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other health problems. But they aren’t always cheap. ($2 for an avocado, anyone?) Eating a healthy diet is possible on a budget, though. Read on to uncover the nine most healthy and inexpensive green vegetables, and how to best eat them.

1. Cabbage

Cabbage tops our list as the #1 lowest cost green vegetable with the highest amount of nutrients. In fact, it’s the cheapest fresh green veggie of all the ones the USDA has studied! Studies show this superstar may protect against cancer, especially lung and esophageal cancers, and lower your LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol levels. Cheap + healthy = cabbage.

How to cook cabbage: Eat cabbage raw. Braise, sauté, or roast it. Add to soups. Shred onto tacos or into coleslaw. Eat it fermented, as sauerkraut.

2. Romaine Lettuce

Romaine lettuce is one of the most affordable leafy greens. The USDA recommends you eat at least a half cup of green leafy plants every day. While iceberg lettuce is a veggie option that’s light on your pocketbook, as a dark leafy green, romaine lettuce is better for you. It has vitamins A and K, which are linked to lower risk of heart disease. Romaine lettuce also contains folic acid, which is important for healthy pregnancy, male fertility, and preventing depression. So, get more for your dollar at the grocery store and choose romaine.

How to eat romaine lettuce: Rinse, dry, and eat raw in salads. Try lightly grilling. Use lettuce leaves as wraps.

3. Beet Greens

Budget-friendly beet greens: a dark leafy vegetable, they are so healthy. With a flavor like kale (which almost made our list, too!), beet greens have vitamin K, which is linked to lowering chances of type 2 diabetes, and potassium, calcium, and riboflavin. Beets are usually sold with the greens attached, making it a two-for-one deal. Sometimes you can even get the greens for free, since some folks discard them and just eat the roots. Ask around at the farmers market.

How to cook beet greens: Sauté with olive oil and garlic or just add to frittatas, soups, or whole-grain pasta dishes in the last few minutes of cooking.

4. Broccoli

Broccoli is a green powerhouse, with loads of vitamins C and K, which may lower your risk of some types of cancer. It’s also one of the cheapest vegetables to buy and easy to find and use in many different dishes. Remember, the whole head can be eaten. If it’s a bit bitter for you, try peeling the outer layer of broccoli’s stem first.

How to cook broccoli: Eat raw. Blanch. Steam in the microwave or on the stovetop. Sauté. Roast. Add to stir fries, egg dishes, salads, soups, and casseroles.

5. Zucchini

A gardener’s delight, zucchini grows easily and quickly. It has vitamin C, manganese, and vitamin B6, which may protect against diabetes. Zucchini also helps your digestion and, with its cheap cost, your wallet.

How to cook zucchini: Great raw, steamed, and grilled. Try shredding into a salad, cooking a batch of fritters, or making “zoodles.”

6. Green Peas

Good ol’ green peas. They are so common, and so good for you. Full of vitamins C and E, zinc, and other antioxidants that strengthen your immune system, green peas are a heart-healthy vegetable with bonus points for its low price. If you’re low on cash and want to eat healthy and feel full, pick protein-packed green peas.

How to cook green peas: Boil briefly, steam, or sauté. Easy addition to almost any dish near the end of cooking time.

7. Green Beans

One of the most affordable green veggies when they’re canned, green beans have vitamins A, K, and C, plus a healthy dose of protein and fiber. Often, you’ll find cut green beans less expensive than whole.

How to cook green beans: Eat raw when fresh. Lightly steam. Add to soups near the end of cooking time.

8. Celery

Take care of your heart: eat more celery! Celery is so full of nutrients, including flavonoids, vitamin C, lunularin, phthalides, fiber, and other antioxidants, and it’s one of the most loved, budget-friendly vegetables.

How to cook celery: Eat raw (kids love ants on a log!). Sauté with onions and carrots to start dishes. Add to soups and stir fries.

9. Okra

This Southern favorite is a low-fat, low-calorie way to get your vitamins A and C, magnesium, and folate. Frozen okra often costs less money than the harder-to-find fresh kind here in New England.

How to cook okra: Steam, sauté, grill, or roast. Add to gumbo and casseroles.

Are Sugar Rushes Real?

You’ve probably been to a birthday party and heard parents commenting on their kids’ sugar rush. Or sighed yourself at the hyperactive energy on display after a round of trick-or-treating or Valentine’s Day candies. But are sugar highs fact or fiction?

It turns out sugar rushes are a myth. Scientists have looked at what happens to your body after you eat a lot of sugar. You don’t get a sugar “high” or a rush of energy; you crash, actually! After about an hour, you feel more tired and worse than you did before eating sugar. While sugar highs aren’t real, cutting down on sugar is still a good idea. Let’s look at why.

What Is Added Sugar?

There are many types of sugar: white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, corn syrup, palm sugar, molasses, maple syrup, agave nectar, date syrup, maltose, etc. Nutritionally, sugars are fairly similar. They are simple carbohydrates consisting of glucose, fructose, and/or sucrose. You don’t need any added sugar in a healthy diet.

Why Is Sugar Bad for Us?

Sugar rushes may be fake, but sugar crashes, tooth decay, and the risk of serious medical conditions when we eat too many sweets is real. Why is excess sugar unhealthy?

Our livers turn excess sugar into fat. Too much sugar can cause fat to be deposited on our waist. This type of fat, known as visceral fat, is particularly harmful to our health. It increases the risk of serious health issues, heart disease and type 2 diabetes among them.

How Much Sugar Can I Eat?

The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily sugar intake to less than 6 teaspoons for women and children, and less than 9 teaspoons for men. Babies and toddlers under the age of two should have no added sugars. The average American adult eats a whooping 77 grams (or 18 teaspoons) of sugar per day. And the numbers for American children are even worse.

To live longer, healthier lives, we need to consume less added sugars.

Where Does Added Sugar Come From?

We don’t need added sugars, and we’re getting too many. Where is it all coming from?

Sugary drinks are a big culprit, especially soft drinks. In America, this accounts for more than 47% of all added sugars we eat. Look at what foods you’re eating, read food labels, and try to cut back on these common sources of added sugar:

  • Soda
  • Candy and gum
  • Baked goods (brownies, cakes, pies, doughnuts, pastries, etc.)
  • Frozen treats (ice cream, frozen yogurt, popsicles)
  • Sports and energy drinks
  • Juice
  • Processed, store-bought foods like cereals, breads, energy bars, yogurt, jelly and jams, salad dressings, ketchup, tomato sauce, and BBQ sauce
  • Large amounts of dried fruit
  • Flavored milk
  • Coffee and tea

What About “Healthy” Sugars?

We can compare sugars by looking at where they come from and how much they are processed. White or table sugar and corn syrup, for example, are highly processed, and both are shown to have poor effects on human health. If you substitute date sugar or molasses, which are less processed, you’ll get more minerals and antioxidants. That’s not to say these substitute sugars are good for you—they’re still added sugar—but they are less bad for you.

Another way to consider sugar is by looking at the glycemic index (GI), or the rate at which your blood sugar level is raised. The higher the GI value, the more blood sugar levels are raised. Raised blood sugar levels can lead to disease. White sugar and corn syrup have a high glycemic index. Lower GI values can be had in sugars like agave nectar, honey, or maple syrup. Unfortunately, many of these so-called healthier sugars are also more expensive.

Fruit naturally contains some sugar. But unlike most foods with added sugar, fruit has a lot of other nutrients that we need for a balanced diet. Fruit is an excellent source of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, folate, and antioxidants. The fiber helps your body absorb the fruit’s sugar more slowly. Aim to eat two cups of whole fruit per day.

How to Reduce Sugar in Your Diet

It’s tempting to think you can simply substitute “bad” sugar for “healthy” sugar. The reality is that while healthier sugars like agave syrup may be a little better for you, they aren’t good for you either. Too much sugar is still too much sugar!

If you’re baking from scratch, replace sugar in a recipe with spices, unsweetened applesauce, and/or or mashed banana, or sub a plant-based sweetener such as stevia or monk fruit. You can usually reduce the amount of sugar called for by about one-third and often not notice the difference.

If you want to satisfy your sweet tooth or enjoy a quick snack or easy dessert, try a piece of fruit! Fresh, frozen, or canned fruit are all healthy choices.

And if you do indulge in a highly sugared food, take a smaller portion and eat it slowly.

Learn more about a heart-healthy diet here.

To sum up, some types of sugar are better for you than others, but sugar is still sugar. Our advice is to cut down on your sugar intake. Choose foods with little or no sugar listed in the ingredient list, eat whole fruits when you crave something sweet, and pick water instead of sugary beverages. Less sugar, more fruit, please!

Simple Exercises You Can Do at Home or at the Office

Exercising all year long provides you with a natural mood booster, more energy, less stress, better sleep, weight management, less risk of depression, and more. Despite our best intentions to stay fit and healthy, sometimes rain, sleet, or snow—or simply a 9-to-5 job—can get in the way of working out. Whether you are an older adult, an office worker, or simply want to keep moving and maximize your health inside, out of the elements this winter, there are plenty of free, indoor exercises you can do to stay in shape—no equipment needed.

What Are the Best Chair Workouts I Can Do?

Improve strength, flexibility, cardiovascular health, mobility, and balance—all from the comfort of your own chair or couch! Let’s get moving.

Seated Exercise: Calf Raises

Increase your lower legs’ strength and mobility with seated calf raises. This is a great exercise you can do discreetly at your desk, too.

Sit tall in a chair with your feet flat on the floor about hip-distance apart. Look straight ahead.

Begin with one foot, lifting the heel from the ground as high as you can. You will likely be on your toes. Slowly lower the heel back to the floor. Repeat 10 times.

Repeat the calf raise exercise with your other foot.

Seated Exercise: Shoulder Press

Develop your strength and maintain flexibility throughout your shoulder area with this simple activity.
Sit tall in a chair with your feet flat on the floor about shoulder-distance apart.

Hold a light dumbbell, water bottle, or canned good in each hand at shoulder height. Keep your elbows bent and your palms facing away from you.

Press your arms straight up overhead by extending your elbows. Slowly lower your hands back down. Repeat 10 times.

Seated Exercise: Sit-to-Stand

This exercise is essential for seniors who want to maintain mobility and independence.

Begin from a seated position and repeatedly stand up and sit back down again.

Seated Exercise: Triceps Dips

Build arm and shoulder strength with this bodyweight exercise.

Sit on the edge of your couch. Put your hands on the edge of the couch on either side of you and push yourself up.

Lower your body down toward the floor, then lift again using your arms. Repeat 10 times.

Seated Exercise: Cat-Cow Stretch

Chair yoga can be done by people of all ages and abilities. The Cat-Cow Stretch is a popular yoga movement that tones your muscles, improves spinal flexibility, and helps prevent arthritis.

Sit at the edge of your chair with your back straight. Your core muscles should be engaged.

Inhale and gradually arch your back as far as is comfortable, holding the position for about four breaths. This is the “cow” part.

Then bring your back to the position you began in, and invert the stretch. Your shoulders will be above your hips, but your back will be curved in a forward arch. Hold for about four breaths. This is the “cat” part.

What Are Some Quick Cardio Workouts I Can Do at Home?

Getting your heart rate going with exercise is great for your health. For those looking for cardio exercises with more intensity, here are a few more ideas for keeping physically active at home this winter.

  • Jump rope.
  • Climb the stairs (or stair-step during a screentime session).
  • Clean the house (mopping and vacuuming are especially good calorie-burners).
  • Throw a dance party with your family and get your heart rate going.
  • Do jumping jacks.
  • Perform push-ups.
  • DVD or YouTube workouts. Your local library likely has workout DVDs you can check out.
  • Lunges. Stand up straight with your feet a few inches apart, looking straight ahead. Step forward with one leg, gently lowering your hips toward the ground as you bend both knees. Keep the knee on the forward-stepping leg in line with the ankle. Hold the position, then step back to stand. Repeat for 1 minute, then do the same with the other leg.
  • Planks. Short on time? You can still build your core muscles and upper body strength! Get into a push-up position, but with your arms extended rather than your elbows bent. Try holding the position for 30 seconds each day. Want even more of a challenge? Add an additional 10 seconds every day to your holding time.
  • Squats. Stand up straight with your feet about shoulder-distance apart, looking straight ahead. Start to lower your body as if you’re going to sit in a chair. Keep lowering yourself until your thighs are parallel with the floor. You’ll find your upper body will lean slightly forward as your knees bend. Gradually straighten into a standing pose. Repeat 10 times.

A New Year: New Ways to Achieve the Life You Want

Every year when the countdown to the new year begins, people around the world start the time-honored tradition of making New Year’s resolutions. Gym memberships rises, new hobbies abound, habits are upended. While we, of course, support making healthy goals a reality, a personal resolution might not be the best method to actually achieve a goal.

Less than 10% of people stick to their New Year’s resolutions. We strive to be healthier, better versions of ourselves—an admirable aim—but with that track record, we might be better off looking at options beyond resolutions, which can lead to longer-term success, increased happiness, and improved mental wellness. Better results … better lives.

What Works Better than a New Year’s Resolution?

Rather than plunk all your hopes into a New Year’s resolution, consider crafting a New Year’s goal instead. Resolutions are the big ideas—lose weight, get healthy, learn a new skill. Goals, on the other hand, are how you get to the improvement: the steps you take on your journey to a better life.

How Do I Stick with my Goal?

To increase the likelihood your New Year’s resolution will last past the first month of the year, make your resolution a goal, and make that goal SMART. SMART goals are:
• Specific
• Measurable
• Achievable
• Relevant
• Time-bound

Using these criteria to guide your goal-setting helps make your goal clear and reachable. For more on how to create a health goal, look here.

New Ways to Celebrate the New Year

If you’re searching for how to honor the new year with a new tradition and you’re not interested in a new goal, consider writing a Look-Forward List, developing a self-reflection practice, or composing a letter to yourself. These three rituals can help you on your path to a better life and they don’t come with the pressure and failure rate that New Year’s resolutions have.

Look-Forward List

To increase your happiness, spend time savoring the anticipation of an experience. You might very well find that you enjoy life more by looking forward to life! Positive psychology research reveals it’s healthy to contemplate good times ahead, and it actually makes living in the present considerably easier. (Likewise, those who suffer from depression often experience a loss of positive anticipation.)

To fully embrace anticipation, take time as the New Year’s ball drops to write a list of what you’re looking forward to in the new year. What’s happening in the coming twelve months that you’re excited about? Big or small, include it all.

Reflect Back on the Year

January 1st is symbolically a new start. For many people, the big, bold resolutions they set cause undue anxiety. Instead, why not slow life down a notch? Rather than look ahead, look back. Consider what the past year has meant to you, pick up a pen, and reflect on questions such as:

  • How do I feel about the past year?
  • What matters most to me?
  • How do I want to be remembered?
  • What habits do I have and what habits do I want?
  • What are my strengths?

A review of the previous year helps to develop meaning and purpose in our lives. Meaning, or serving something larger than yourself, is a strong motivating factor. Connect with your core values, and let your goals naturally flow from your larger purpose. This gives you lasting motivation to power through the struggles you may experience as you work toward your goal.

Write Yourself a Letter

To combine self-reflection and anticipating experiences, consider a new New Year’s tradition: write yourself a letter on December 31. Go over how the year has been and what you wish for the coming year. Then, next year on January 1, open the letter you wrote yourself a year ago. This ritual gives you a chance to look back and reflect on how your life is going so far. By putting what we want into words and seeing it in concrete form, addressed to ourselves, we connect with our larger purpose and develop meaning in our lives—major sources of happiness, mental well-being, and ultimately a successful life.

What is Eczema?

Why is My Skin So Itchy?

To celebrate November’s National Healthy Skin Month, we’re taking a look at a common skin condition: eczema. If your skin is itchy, it may be due to eczema. Learn what to look for and when to seek professional care for your skin.

What is Eczema?

Itchy skin is a leading symptom of eczema. Eczema refers to a group of conditions that cause inflamed, irritated, and often itchy skin. Eczema includes several skin conditions: nummular eczema, contact dermatitis, neurodermatitis, and atopic dermatitis. It is not contagious, but it can be uncomfortable.

While common in childhood, some adults can get eczema, too. Signs of eczema in both children and adults include intense itchiness and a rash that results from scratching it. This skin condition can lead to:

  • Sleep loss due to itch
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Skin infections
  • Increased risk of developing asthma, hay fever, and other allergies
  • Decreased quality of life, if left untreated

In adults, eczema is more likely to present as extremely dry and scaly skin, and to be present on particular areas, including:

  • Back of knees
  • Crook of elbows
  • Hands
  • Back of neck
  • Face, especially eyes

It’s important to see your healthcare provider if you show symptoms of eczema, since different skin conditions require different treatments. An accurate diagnosis is essential to ensure you’re properly treated, and other conditions that can cause itchy skin, such as chickenpox, hand-foot-mouth disease, hives, psoriasis, shingles, and ringworm, can be ruled out. Rarely, itchy skin can be a sign of a more serious disease, like kidney disease, hepatitis C, or Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When in doubt, have it checked out.

8 Easy Ways to Healthify Your Halloween

Halloween can be fun, festive, and healthy! Take a pass on the sugar hangover this year, and keep in the spirit of things with these simple, delightful ways to make the Halloween holiday happy and just a little bit healthier.

  1. Bake tasty treats. Put a creative spin on traditional sugar-laden sweets this October. Rather than candy and other unhealthy refined sugars, consider Halloween themes as you craft recipes into yummy, healthy treats.
    • Turn ghostly green apples into goblin faces with peanut butter mouths, a triangle of cheese for tongues, and toasted pumpkin seeds for teeth.
    • Whip up granola and yogurt cups with fruit toppings that resemble pumpkins or black cats.
    • Roast veggies in cutout shapes of jack-o-lanterns, witch hats, and ghosts.
    •  Transform a frozen banana on a stick into a mummy by applying stripes of yogurt and two dots for eyes.
    • Top quesadillas with spooky veggie faces.
    • Try out bat-shaped cookie cutters on pita bread and serve with hummus dip.
  2. Let the fall season be your guide. Whether you pick a local pumpkin to carve (or roast and bake into Healthy Pumpkin Muffins or Pumpkin Pie Smoothies or head to the nearest corn maze, fill your days with all the goodies that fall in Maine brings.
  3. Consider throwing a Halloween bash in lieu of trick-or-treating. Play games, dance, give out fun prizes, and start your own healthy Halloween tradition!
  4. Fill up on good-for-you food before trick-or-treating. As tempting as it is to call in a pizza on All Saints’ Eve, plan ahead. Try putting together a Pumpkin Turkey Chili in the slow cooker the morning of Halloween, and it’ll be ready before it’s time to hit the streets. (Bonus points for serving it in a cleaned-out pumpkin!) Or make a spooky charcuterie board so everyone can help themselves—load up slices of fruit, vegetables, nuts, and meats alongside rubber spiders, skeleton bones, and peeled grape “eyes.” When you fuel up on healthy food first, your kids (and you!) are less likely to overdo the refined sugar.
  5. Mix up what you give out. Trade bowls of candy for Halloween-themed erasers, stickers, fake tattoos, glow sticks, bubbles, or other games or toys. Or hand out bags of healthier snacks, like string cheese, trail mix, or granola.
  6. Get active. Take a bike ride, walk the long way to the trick-or-treating neighborhood, and enjoy time outdoors in Maine’s beautiful fall weather.
  7. Limit bag size and location. If your child has a smaller bag trick-or-treating, they can’t carry as much candy. Likewise, combing a small neighborhood for candy will minimize the amount of candy they collect.
  8. A little goes a long way. Develop a trick-or-treat rationing system that works for your family. Consider setting aside a few of their favorites and managing the stash: allot a certain number of candies for each night in the coming week. Moderation is helpful to model. Or give away the loot. Some homes for older adults, food pantries, and other local charities take donations of candy. Dentists, too, will often “buy back” candy from children. Some families even have a “Switch Witch” come overnight and replace the candy with a special gift for each child.

With a little planning and a dose of creativity, your Halloween celebration doesn’t have to involve copious amounts of candy, sugar overload, and super stimulation. It can be fun—and healthy, too!

September is National Cholesterol Education Month

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2020, 696,962 Americans died from heart disease. A major risk factor? High blood cholesterol.

This September, we’re celebrating National Cholesterol Education Month with information to help you reduce your risk. Find out what “good” and “bad” cholesterol is, how to find out where your cholesterol falls on the scale toward optimal health, and how you can proactively prevent and manage it to reduce your risk for heart disease, heart attack or stroke.

What is Cholesterol?

Blood cholesterol is essential for good health. Your body needs this waxy, fat-like substance created by your liver in order to perform crucial tasks, such as making hormones and digesting fatty foods. You make all the cholesterol you need, which is why you do not need to eat any additional cholesterol in your diet.

Dietary cholesterol is found in animal foods. These foods include meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese. Consuming dietary cholesterol leads to unhealthy blood cholesterol levels.

Managing your blood cholesterol level is important for your heart and brain. High blood cholesterol typically has no symptoms, but it can lead to heart attacks and strokes. That’s why it’s important to have your cholesterol screened regularly by your health care provider.

How to Check Cholesterol Levels

You can easily check your cholesterol levels with a screening done by your healthcare provider. A cholesterol screening consists of a simple blood test and requires you to fast for 8 to 12 hours before blood is drawn. The test will check for your levels of lipoproteins, triglycerides, and total cholesterol.

A standard measurement of healthy cholesterol levels is:
Total cholesterol: Less than 200 mg/dL
LDL cholesterol: Less than 100 mg/DL
HDL cholesterol: Greater than or equal to 60 mg/dL
Triglycerides: Less than 150 mg/dL

Generally, adults should have their cholesterol checked every 4 to 6 years. Some people, such as those who have heart disease or diabetes or a family history of high cholesterol, will need to be screened more often. Children and adolescents should have a cholesterol test at least once between ages 9 and 11 and then again between ages 17 and 21. If you’re not sure how often you should have your cholesterol level measured, consult your primary healthcare provider.

What is “Good” and “Bad” Cholesterol?

You have likely heard of “good” and “bad” cholesterol. But what does that even mean?

Cholesterol travels through your blood on two types of lipoproteins: low-density lipoprotein, which you may be familiar with as LDL, and high-density lipoprotein, or HDL. LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, makes up most of your body’s cholesterol. High levels of LDL raise your risk of heart diseases and strokes. The “good” cholesterol, HDL, absorbs cholesterol and carries it back to the liver, where it is then flushed out of your body. High levels of HDL can lower your risk for heart diseases and strokes.

When you have too much “bad” LDL cholesterol, it can build up as plaque on the walls of your blood vessels. Plaque buildup causes the inside of your arteries to narrow over time. This blocks blood flow to and from your heart and other vital organs, potentially leading to a heart attack or stroke.

How to Prevent High Cholesterol

In addition to heart-wise cholesterol checks at your doctor’s office, you can proactively prevent high blood cholesterol with your food choices. Research shows that eating less cholesterol reduces your risk of cardiovascular diseases. Your diet is under your control, which can feel comforting when facing the prospect or management of a major disease.

We already know that your body makes all the cholesterol it needs, so you don’t need any additional cholesterol from food to be healthy. The main culprits of dietary cholesterol are foods high in saturated fat and trans fat.

For a heart-healthy diet, you can:

  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. The more, the better, really! Try “eating the rainbow” to ensure you get a variety of nutrients. DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) is a flexible, well-balanced eating plan you could try.
  • Curtail foods high in saturated fat. Saturated fats come from animal products and tropical oils (palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil). A mostly plant-based diet can help you achieve this goal.
  • Reduce your sodium (salt) intake. Say no to salty foods such as canned soup, frozen meals, processed cheese, beef jerky, and smoked or cured meats like bacon, ham, and sausage; and strive for homemade meals over packaged or restaurant food. Swap salt for herbs and spices to keep your food flavorful.
  • Eliminate all trans fats. Also known as trans-fatty acids, trans fats are usually created through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to vegetable oil. Trans fats are downright unhealthy. Avoid it by reading labels; you’ll see it listed as partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Foods that often contain trans fats include commercial baked goods, shortening, microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough, fried foods, nondairy creamer, and margarine.
  • Eliminate or reduce added sugars in your diet. This means fewer baked goods, desserts, and convenience foods. Turn toward fruit and other naturally sweet alternatives to satisfy your sweet tooth.
  • Choose foods naturally high in fiber, such as oatmeal and beans, and unsaturated fats, which you can find in avocado, olive oil, and nuts. These foods may help lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise “good” HDL cholesterol. Browse these healthy recipes to find delicious, fiber-filled meals and snacks you can enjoy, such as Mexican Street Corn and Grilled Zucchini and Hummus Wraps.

Your diet is not the only way to lower your risk for heart disease and stroke. You can also make heart-healthy lifestyle changes.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Overweight and obesity raise levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and affects how your body uses cholesterol. Use your body mass index (BMI) number to determine whether your weight is in a healthy range, and if it’s not, work with your healthcare provider to create a food and fitness plan that works best for you.
  • Get regular physical activity. In addition to helping you maintain a healthy weight, exercise lowers your cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Adults should aim to get at least 2 ½ hours of moderate exercise each week, while children should have an hour or more of physical activity every day.
  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking damages your blood vessels, speeds up the process of hardening arteries, and has a profound effect on your heart disease risk.
  • Limit or eliminate your alcohol consumption. Men should consume no more than two drinks per day, and women should have no more than one. Better yet, do not drink at all.

An estimated 71 million Americans have high blood cholesterol, and yet fewer than half get treatment. If you’re concerned about your cholesterol, speak with your healthcare provider. There are many choices you can make together to ease your worry and plan for a healthy future.

How to Add Fruits and Veggies to Every Meal

The health benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables daily are undisputed. They contain a terrific supply of vitamins, minerals, and fiber; they are generally low-calorie and low-fat food sources; they help you maintain good health and weight; they supply antioxidants; and they are naturally low in sodium and cholesterol. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, and have a positive effect on blood sugar levels. In sum, a healthy diet reduces your risk of some chronic diseases and improves your wellbeing.

But—what if you don’t like the taste of vegetables? Or your children complain too much when a broccoli spear touches their plate? How do you incorporate more whole foods like veggies and fruit into your diet when you know it’s good for you but haven’t made the health goal a reality?

How to Make a Healthy Change

We know fruits and vegetables are essential to our health, and yet most of us are not getting enough. It can be challenging to change your behavior even when you know the facts.

The way to make a healthy habit stick is to make it easy and repetitive. Americans are increasingly turning to simple vegetables that you can grab and go out the door: avocados, salads, and favorite fruits such as bananas, blueberries, grapes, and oranges. Start by figuring out what works best for you. Go with your favorite options, the ones that are easiest for you to incorporate into your day, and expand from there. While variety is the optimal goal, the easiest way to start is whatever fruits and vegetables work naturally for you.

Repeating your new habit is key. Once you have begun to make progress on incorporating more whole foods into your diet, make sure you repeat, repeat, repeat! Repetition is what turns a good choice into a healthy habit.

You may find you need some time for your taste buds to get used to fresh produce and its subtleties, but over time you’ll find fruits and vegetables to have more flavor than any convenience food. Just give it time. Before you know it, eating healthy will be automatic for you!

How Much Produce Do You Need Every Day?

Fruits and vegetables should make up half your plate at each meal for the average adult. (Specific serving recommendations vary by age, gender, and activity level, as well as whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding—consult your primary care provider to develop a plan that is tailored to you.) This translates to five servings each day of produce, according to the USDA, or approximately 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables daily.

More Fruits, More Vegetables: The Everyday Diet

Everyone can benefit from incorporating fresh produce into their diet. How should you go about making sure you get the fruits and veggies you need every day?

Plan to eat the rainbow.

Making a meal plan for the week can not only reduce your grocery bill, it can also make you eat a healthier, more varied diet. Make it a point to make vegetables and fruits the stars of every meal and snack, and build the rest of your meal around them. Part of this may involve an internal mind shift. Instead of thinking chicken wings are what’s for dinner, think Mexican Street Corn is for dinner—now what lean protein and whole grains will you add to that?

Eat local.

Shop at your local farmers’ market. The CDC finds that routine visits to the farmers market result in higher consumption of vegetables and fruits. Not only that, but being in season tends to translate to less expensive produce. Get more tips on how to make the most of your local market.

Start a garden! In addition to or instead of visiting the farmers market, a container or backyard garden can yield a whole lot more than produce. You’d be surprised how children and adults alike enjoy their food more when they pull it from the soil themselves. Plus, a garden is a cheaper way to get your veggies in. Learn more about starting your own garden.

Snack on fresh food.

Many fruits and vegetables require little to no preparation, making them convenient and nutritious. Blueberries, apples, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, bell peppers, carrots, celery, radishes, and cucumbers are all easy-to-eat, healthy snacks you can consume raw. To make these healthy choices more filling, try adding a protein-based dip like hummus or almond butter.
Spread fruits and veggies across your day.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, dinner tends to be the meal when most families eat veggies. If you want to add vegetables to your day, try focusing on breakfast or lunch. And if you skip produce in one meal, don’t fret; simply add more of it the next time you dine.

Tips on Sneaking More Veggies and Fruit into Your Diet

Here are some more easy, tried-and-true ways to add more fruits and veggies to your diet:

  • Make your salads as colorful as possible. Try using three or more veggies in addition to greens.
  • Top oatmeal, cereal, or yogurt with Maine berries or fruit, or make a savory breakfast by adding sauteed mushrooms and kale.
  • Plant-ify meals you already have in regular rotation: add a can of black beans and some frozen corn to chili, toss strips of green peppers in with your morning eggs, sneak tomatoes into your sandwich.
  • Chop them up. Finely diced zucchini, mushroom, or summer squash and your family might not even detect its presence!
  • Prepare veggie snacks in advance—slice them and put them already prepared into containers for instant snacks. The more convenient you can make the choice, the more likely they will get chosen.
  • Try a salad a day. A green salad is a wonderful, healthy choice, but feel free to think beyond that color: load up a bowl with an array of cut fruits, mix and match fruits and veggies, or use a different vegetable than lettuce as your base, such as raw zucchini or grated carrots. Get creative!
  • Add fun! Skewer fruit onto kebab sticks or make veggie art. Young kids aren’t the only ones who enjoy a side of fun with their meals!
  • Introduce more vegetable- or legume-based dips into your diet, such as guacamole, hummus, and baba ganoush—and then dip in fruit and vegetables.
  • Make smoothies. So easy, so good!
  • Add cooking greens like kale, spinach, collards, or Swiss chard to your soups about 10 minutes before they are done cooking.
  • Make wraps with lettuce or cabbage leaves in lieu of bread.
  • Add sauteed mushrooms and garlic to tomato sauce.
  • Add herbs and fruit to make water extra fancy.
  • Change up dessert. Fresh or frozen fruit is a delicious and healthy way to cap off a meal.