Prescription For Health

Health, Home & Family
on April 28, 2002

Frank Carter, 68, remembers when the arthritis in his ankles and knees made the simple act of walking painful. Now he feels great all over—and not from any new wonder drug or medication, but through simple changes in his diet and daily life.

Carter, a retired university administrator, swims daily in a heated pool at his Lady Lake, Fla., home, and his diet now consists of less red meat and more citrus.

Exercise and a healthy diet (“an apple a day…”) have long been known to ward off disease and other maladies, and new research into many areas of health—including arthritis, diabetes, childhood obesity, and hypertension—shed even more light on how important the basics actually are.

Despite the notion that arthritis patients are hemmed in by their pain, it’s now known that regular exercise can actually improve, not worsen, their condition as once believed, doctors say. For adults with high blood pressure, new evidence suggests it’s important to consume enough minerals such as calcium and potassium, while avoiding sodium and high-fat foods. Proper diet and exercise are key in preventing the most common form of diabetes (Type II), which has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).

And the old wisdom of “cleaning your plate” may not be sound advice to young children, researchers have found.

Smaller portions for smaller kids

Sometime between the age of 3 1/2 and 5 years old, children may begin filling up on food—either because it’s on their plate or because someone else insists, not necessarily because they’re hungry. That’s the conclusion of a study from Penn State researchers showing that younger preschool children respond better to their internal hunger cues than do children 5 and older.

“It’s clear from this study that serving children larger than recommended portions encourages them to eat more than is necessary for their long-term good health,” says Dr. Barbara J. Rolls, the study’s lead author.

Controlling portion size is a constant battle, says a Virginia mother of a preteen daughter 20 pounds overweight. “I try to get her to eat smaller portions, and I tell her if she’s still hungry to eat more vegetables.”

The young girl began picking up weight three years ago and has struggled to get back to her recommended weight.

This country is in the midst of an “obesity epidemic” that cuts across all economic levels, Rolls says. As many as 20 percent of children in America may have a weight problem, and the prevalence of obesity has risen some 30 percent during the last decade, says Dr. Christine Wood, an Encinitas, Calif., pediatrician.

As children age, parents often aren’t clued into signals of their youngsters’ weight problem because it occurs gradually. “A lot of parents don’t see it as a problem,” says Dr. Judy Theriot, a pediatrician at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. “They may just think their child is big- boned or is large for their age.”

Encouraging children to clean their plate after they’re full sets up bad habits for a lifetime, Theriot says. “Ask any mom. Often they themselves eat that last bite on their child’s plate. It’s how we were raised. But we should stop when we are full. Your body is pretty smart.”

Rolls recommends that as soon as children are able, they should put their own food on plates. “It’s a bit messy, but they should be deciding that. We really don’t know how much they should eat.”

Doctors also blame fast food, overly processed foods, too much television and computer time, and generally hectic lifestyles for the growing problem of overweight children. If you eat out at fast-food restaurants, order healthful alternatives such as hamburgers without cheese, baked potatoes, and low-fat dressing, says Dr. Stan Block, a pediatrician in Bardstown, Ky.

“Try to limit TV to no more than an hour a day or video to a half-hour,” Block says.

Parents should steer children away from overly processed food, experts say. “Our kids are begging for these foods. They’re easy, they’re quick,” Wood says. “But we’re having what I call a palate change with our move away from fresh foods.”

Obesity and a sedentary lifestyle in adults are also major causes of Type II diabetes, experts say, which can lead to serious eye, kidney, or heart problems. Healthful food choices include fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products, according to the ADA.

Lowering blood pressure—naturally

Phyllis Derr, 63, of Pierce, Colo., credits a combination of medication and diet in controlling her high blood pressure for the last seven years, when the condition was diagnosed. She says she has adapted over time to eating the right way.

“When I buy anything, I read the labels. After a while you get used to no salt and it tastes different when you have it,” she says.

High blood pressure affects as many as 60 million Americans and is considered the nation’s largest public health concern, says Dr. Richard Merrill, a nephrologist in Greenville, N.C. High blood pressure (at a level of 140/90 or higher) is considered a “silent killer” because so many people don’t know they have it.

For years, doctors have recommended reduced salt intake and low-fat diets for people with hypertension, and a new study, published in the American Journal of Hypertension, suggests that an adequate consumption of potassium, magnesium, and calcium also can reduce blood pressure levels. Derr’s doctor has recommended she take a potassium supplement.

Making sure those minerals are consumed, along with adherence to low-fat, low-salt diets heavy on fruits and vegetables prompts weight loss, which in turn lowers blood pressure, the study showed.

Losing weight and stopping smoking are key factors to lowering blood pressure, Merrill says. “If you get people to lose weight,” he says, “their blood pressure also goes down.”

Weight loss is also key to preventing Type II diabetes, according to a recent study headed by the National Institutes of Health.

“It showed us that a major disease—a killer disease—can be prevented, and the strategies are available to almost everyone. It’s just wonderful news,” says Dr. Loren Wissner-Greene, a professor of endocrinology at New York University Medical Center.

New Outlook on Arthritis

Like the characters in the movie Cocoon who discover the fountain of youth through a swimming pool, a dozen arthritis patients in southern Illinois each week find their own vim and vigor through therapeutic water exercises.

They are part of a swim class for people with arthritis, taught at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale by Sue Lipe, 64, a water exercise advocate who uses it to ease her own arthritis. “We tend to think of our class as almost like that pool in the movie,” Lipe says. “When people get in the water, you can … hear the groans and hear them say, ‘Oh, I feel so good.’”

Water exercise is a safe and effective way to ease the pain of arthritis, which affects as many as 43 million Americans, according to the Arthritis Foundation. “Exercising in the water breaks the cycle of pain,” Lipe says.

The 45-minute classes feature a range of motion, strengthening, and flexibility exercises in 80 plus-degree water, which absorbs much of the body weight. “They kind of get a double benefit,” Lipe says. “They work a little hard and because of the water they weigh less and it doesn’t hurt as much to stand.”

Studies show that exercise actually decreases the amount of pain for people with arthritis, but relief may take four to six weeks or longer.

Exercise produces long-term effects, according to a 1997 study by the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine. Some 200 people with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory diseases improved their motion and decreased pain by undergoing moderate exercise (an average of 78 minutes a week). The study found those who exercised realized “significant” long-term therapeutic effects.

Back in Carbondale, a number of swim-class participants are fully committed, including one man who had double-knee joint replacement and, a month later, was able to walk down the ladder at the pool and participate in the class. Lipe herself has had knee replacement surgery and says the classes keep “my whole body in shape and flexible. If I weren’t participating in the program, fatigue would overwhelm me.”

Aside from the physical benefits of water exercise, the Carbondale group benefits heartily from the camaraderie, Lipe says. “This class doesn’t just help the joints, but the whole person. Being with other people is one of the major things. These people become good friends.”