TIME Obesity

Americans Are Still Getting Larger

The latest on our ever-expanding waistlines

A sobering new study by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that American adults are still getting heavier.

Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) showed that the overall average waist circumference of more than 32,800 participants increased “progressively and significantly” from 37.6 inches in 1999-2000 to 38.8 inches in 2011-2012–a 54.2% increase.

The data, which was published in JAMA, also underlines why it’s problematic to base weight status and health on body mass index (BMI). The researchers note that prior analyses using the exact same surveys but focusing on BMI have concluded that obesity prevalence has not changed significantly and perhaps even leveled off. The researchers write that positive developments in eating and exercise “have given hope that the decades-long increase in the prevalence of obesity in the United States may have crested.” But their data shows abdominal obesity is actually increasing.

There’s debate over whether we should stop using BMI as a measure for obesity since the numbers can be misleading. For instance, some people may have a lot of good lean muscle that puts them in a heavier category. Waist circumference is more indicative of where body fat is resting, and it’s well established that the fat hugging the belly is considered the most dangerous for future health problems. A continuous increase in waist circumference is therefore a bad sign.

Study author Dr. Earl S. Ford of the CDC says they don’t have a great explanation for the findings, but the reason waist circumference may still be rising even if BMI isn’t could have to do with factors like sleep deprivation, hormones or certain medications.

Obesity in the U.S. is an epidemic, and about one third of U.S. adults qualify as obese. As a nation, we haven’t exactly been ignoring the trend: The government launched the Let’s Move! campaign to increase physical activity in young people, and overhauls of school lunches have provided healthier options. So what’s not working?

Some research has shown that it’s not just what people are eating that contributes to obesity, but the fact that we lead such sedentary lives. Other research shows that both parents and kids have stopped seeing obesity as a problem. In August, research published in the journal Pediatrics showed mothers often do not view their kids as overweight, possibly because their child fits the norm of his or her peers. “We rarely compare our weight status against an absolute scale or a number recommended by doctors,” said study author Dr. Jian Zhang of Georgia Southern University in an interview with TIME. “Instead we compare to what our friends, neighbors, and coworkers look like.” Another recent report published in JAMA showed that misperceptions about whether young people are overweight are common among both youth and their parents.

“[The results] are not a great surprise. It’s amazing how much we are not doing right…A lot of entities in our culture don’t want the confusion to end,” says Dr. David Katz, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. “I do respect the argument about nanny states, but there has to be some basic propriety attached to this. Peddling junk food to children is just wrong.”

Katz argues that even the best advice can’t succeed if there’s mixed messaging, like when Olympic athletes promote McDonald’s or Coca Cola. If we can parse through the confusion, the tried and true ways to maintain weight are the same. If we stick to them, maybe our waistlines can stay the same, too–or even one day start to get smaller.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

This Is How Many Calories You’d Eat With Olive Garden’s Pasta Pass

Jeffery Patrick—Darden

You could consume more than 100,000 calories taking advantage of the offer

It sounds like a good deal: for $100 you can eat all the pasta, salad and bread you want at Olive Garden for 49 straight days. But taking advantage of the offer has its downsides—perhaps up to 113,190 of them. That’s the number of calories you would likely consume if you were to have a standard dinner nightly at the restaurant for the 7-week period of the offer. That works out to eating about 2,100 calories for dinner alone. Americans’ average total daily caloric intake is between 1,800 for women and 2,600 for men, according to recent government data.

TIME’s estimate assumes you’re eating a fairly standard Olive Garden dinner: a chicken Caesar salad, one order of bread sticks, a spaghetti and sausage entree and a Coke to wash it all down. All of those items are included in the offer, and this estimate assumes you don’t continue to scarf down food after the first serving of each item (the offer is technically “all you can eat”).

“No matter how much we talk about epidemic obesity and diabetes, we have not yet caught up with the times,” says Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and editor of a journal on childhood obesity. “The last thing we need is more refined pasta at no extra charge. It seems like a great deal until the money you saved goes to the endocrinologist.”

Of course, there are less caloric dinner options at Olive Garden. For instance, you would consume 1,670 calories per meal if you subbed in seafood alfredo instead of the sausage pasta—and you could shave off even more if you skipped the Coke.

But, says Katz, that’s beside the point. “Everybody overeats at an all you can eat buffet. You’re missing out the bargain if you don’t eat all you can eat,” Katz says.

Recent research has suggested that the caloric content of many sit-down restaurant chains makes them just as unhealthy as their fast food counterparts. The average size of a meal at these restaurants, according to the study, is 1,400 calories.

TIME Research

Study: Pesticides Could Cause Unexpected Allergic Reactions

New regulations could stem the risk

Traces of antibiotic pesticides in fruits and vegetables may trigger unexpected allergic reactions for people with food allergies, according to a new study published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

“As far as we know, this is the first report that links an allergic reaction to fruits treated with antibiotic pesticides,” said lead study author Anne Des Roches in a press release.

The study looked at a patient who suffered from anaphylactic shock after eating a blueberry pie, despite not being allergic to any of the ingredients. After weeks of testing with both the patient and a sample of the pie, researchers concluded that the pesticide streptomycin, which is used in orchards, had triggered the reaction.

The use of such pesticides remains legal in the United States, though new Food and Drug Administration regulations may help address the issue, according to the study. The pesticides are illegal in some European countries, Roches said.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Training Your Brain Could Make You Prefer Healthy Food

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Which is more appealing: cheese pizza or salad? For many, the lure of lettuce hardly matches that of greasy comfort food, but new brain research from Tufts University published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes suggests that reconditioning can train adults to prefer healthy food and shun the junk.

“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” said study co-author and Tufts University professor Susan B. Roberts in a press release. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – repeatedly! – what is out there in the toxic food environment.”

The researchers studied the brain scans of 13 people, then assigned eight of them to a new behavioral intervention geared toward weight loss. The program taught lessons on portion control and distributed menu plans geared around specific dietary targets, encouraging people to get 25% of their energy from protein and fat and 50% from low-glycemic carbohydrates, with more than 40 g of fiber per day. After six months either on or off the program, a second round of scans showed the part of the brain associated with addiction and learning had changed in people who participated in the program and stayed the same in the control group. That brain region appeared more active and sensitive to healthier foods and less sensitive to caloric foods among people in the weight-loss group.

Though the study acknowledges the need for further research, the findings suggest that it may be possible to recondition our cravings from cheese puffs to carrots. “Our study shows those who participated in it had an increased desire for healthier foods along with a decreased preference for unhealthy foods,” co-author Sai Krupa Das, an assistant professor at Tufts, said in the release, “the combined effects of which are probably critical for sustainable weight control.”

TIME Cancer

How Diet Can Lower Risk of Prostate Cancer

Tomato and bean consumption helps prevent the disease

Consuming more than ten servings a week of tomatoes and beans lowers the risk of prostate cancer, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Bristol.

The findings expand on previous research and suggest that men should consume foods rich in lycopene and selenium, which are found in tomatoes and beans respectively, to help prevent the onset of a disease that kills about 30,000 men in the United States each year.

The study compared the diets of more than 1,800 men between the ages of 50 and 69 who had prostate cancer to the diets of more than 12,000 of their cancer-free peers.

While the study’s conclusions provide some dietary guidance, researchers say more work needs to be done to develop further dietary guidelines.

“Our findings suggest that tomatoes may be important in prostate cancer prevention. However, further studies need to be conducted to confirm our findings, especially through human trials,” said Vanessa Er, a researcher at the University of Bristol who led the study. “Men should still eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, maintain a healthy weight and stay active.”

TIME Heart Disease

Eating and Exercise Needs to Be Part of Heart-Health Counseling, Say Docs

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Comstock—Getty Images

A government panel of experts found that behavioral counseling to help people at risk of heart disease to adopt healthier habits can lower their risk of having heart events. But it’s not easy

We know how to lower our risk of heart disease, yet it remains the leading killer of Americans year after year. That’s because the most powerful ways to fend off heart attacks and strokes are also the hardest. Changing our diet and exercise habits involves changing our lifestyles, and doctors have yet to come up with the perfect prescription for that.

But a group of government-convened experts says that one strategy shows promise. They studied the latest trials investigating what works and what doesn’t in getting people to eat healthier and move more, and found that behavioral counseling, either by physicians or nurses or specially trained counselors, can lower risk of heart problems in people who are overweight or obese.

“Intensive behavioral counseling does seem to move the needle,” says Dr. Michael LeFevre, chair of the U. S. Preventive Services Task Force and vice chair of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri Columbia. “We can take people at elevated risk – for starters, people who are overweight or obese and have at least one other risk factor for heart disease — and saw modifications in their risk factors that we think are great enough to have an impact on their health down the road.”

The task force reviewed 74 trials of intensive behavioral counseling – which included education about heart health, nutrition and physical activity, as well as individualized programs in which the participants were provided feedback and problem-solving strategies – and heart outcomes. The counseling was not associated with any harms or serious adverse events, but the sessions did lead to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure over two years and a decrease rate of diabetes over four years. About a quarter of people were exercising at a moderate to intense level (150 minutes of exercise per week) after several years compared to 10% who were at the start of the studies.

MORE: Prostate-Cancer Screening: Men Should Forgo PSA Testing, Panel Advises

That’s good news, says LeFevre, and prompted the task force to recommend behavioral counseling in a statement published in the Annals of Internal Medicine to help people reduce their risk of heart disease.

The advice is an endorsement of the more formal counseling that more primary care doctors are relying on help their at-risk heart patients. It’s also a definitive statement against the current standard in which doctors merely urge their patients to lose weight or exercise more. “What we didn’t find evidence to support is what most of us do in our practice,” says LeFevre, who is a practicing primary care doctor. “And that is, we just say to John Doe sitting across from us who is overweight, has high blood pressure and smokes, to lose weight. John says, ‘I’m working on that.’ And I say ‘Let me know if I can help – just cut back to eating 1500 calories a day and walk every day.’ We don’t find any evidence that helps.”

What does work, he says, is a program that links both diet and exercise interventions, and that typically helps participants over several sessions occurring over several months, and involves many hours of interaction with a counselor. In those sessions, setting goals and addressing barriers to reaching those goals is an important part of the behavioral counseling – that’s what helps the patients to actually change their behavior rather than simply think about it.

MORE: U.S. Panel Recommends Delaying Regular Mammograms Until Age 50

But as a primary care doctor, LeFevre admits that the counseling isn’t exactly practical or widespread – yet. “One of the major barriers for implementation is that the resources aren’t out there. Many physicians simply don’t have the personnel, programs or location to which to refer people to make this happen.”

That’s the purpose of the USPSTF recommendation—by providing the scientific evidence supporting the benefits and effectiveness of behavioral counseling, LeFevre and the task force members hope that more doctors and hospitals will provide such programs to help their patients—and potentially contribute to lowering heart attacks and heart disease deaths. “We know the risk factors for heart disease pretty well, and we know that behavior change can alter your risk. So the question is, what can the health care community do to support that behavior change? We combed through the literature and looked at all the studies, and this is what seems to work,” he says.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Consumer Reports Says Pregnant Women Should ‘Avoid All Tuna’

Standards For "Dolphin-Safe" Tuna Label Upheld In Federal Court
Cans of tuna are seen on a shelf August 12, 2004 in a grocery store in Des Plaines, Illinois. Tim Boyle—Getty Images

A new report analyzes the mercury levels in fish

In a new analysis of government data on mercury levels in fish, Consumer Reports suggests that pregnant women should “avoid all tuna” — particularly if it comes in a can.

Earlier this summer, the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration suggested that women who are pregnant, want to get pregnant, or are breast feeding should eat up to 12 ounces of fish a week. While fish can be a good source of protein and provider of nutrients, Consumer Reports released an article Thursday warning vigilance given the high mercury level in many fish, including tuna.

“We’re particularly concerned about canned tuna, which is second only to shrimp as the most commonly eaten seafood in the United States,” said Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, in a statement. “We encourage pregnant women to avoid all tuna.”

While Consumer Reports identified 20 seafoods that can be eaten safely several times a week, the report reads:

“Consumer Reports disagrees with the recommendations from the FDA and EPA on how much tuna women and children may eat. (We don’t think pregnant women should eat any.) We also believe the agencies do not do enough to guide consumers to the best low-mercury seafood choices. To make decisions easier for consumers, our chart below gives advice about good low-mercury choices.”

The federal agencies and Consumer Reports agree that childbearing women and small children should avoid swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish due to mercury levels.

[Consumer Reports]

TIME

6 Happy Ways to Lose Belly Fat

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Let’s face it: Trying to eat healthier and move more can sometimes feel like a drag. Change your mindset with these six tricks.

Set the table

A beautifully dressed table allows you to really cherish what you’re eating. So use the nice silverware, buy flowers, light candles, and bust out your place mats and cloth napkins. Even if you’re reheating leftovers or having a healthy frozen entree, take it out of the container, put it on a nice plate and savor each bite by candlelight as you listen to your favorite music. Using a knife and fork to cut each bite in to small pieces also makes you slow down and eat less. It takes 20 minutes for our bellies to register that we are full, so the slower, the better.

Eat outside

Dining al fresco can be so much fun. As you enjoy the fresh air and the people-watching, notice how you slow down, stay present, and really taste each yummy morsel of food you eat. When my husband and I went on our honeymoon in Italy we ate outside for many meals and I always took my time and enjoyed the scenery just as much as the food I was eating. Yes, vacations are special occasions but you can easily appreciate your patio or back yard—even a park bench.

Brighten your plate

Add splashes of colors and shapes and use a variety of healthy vegetables, plus lean protein and a small portion of carbohydrates. I notice my 1-year-old son gets such a kick out of all of his different sized mixed vegetables. He’ll pick up a pea and roll it around a few times before eating it, then he grabs a little carrot, next a green bean, then a piece of corn. He is visually stimulated and interested in the textures, tastes, and colors of his food. Following that cue as adults can help us savor our meals.

Go out for a fancy lunch

Not only will you save calories—lunch portions are generally smaller and you’re less likely to drink alcohol mid-day—but you’ll also save money! One of my favorite things to do is go out to lunch during restaurant week in NYC with friends. We have a little salad, a nice meal, and a small but tasty dessert. I’m usually satisfied until dinner and often only want something light for my last meal of the day.

Share your creation

Show off your pretty meal by snapping a photo for Instagram before you eat. You might just appreciate it more if you treat it like an Insta-artwork. You can also share by saving a bite or two on your plate for your partner, friend, or child to try. I give my son Timothy a taste of everything I am eating at each meal. I automatically save a few calories by letting him sample a bit of my salmon and veggies or PB&J.

Hold a competition

with your office colleagues, group of friends, fellow moms or even your spouse. When you have others to share in a goal with you, it makes slimming down more fun…and who doesn’t love a friendly competition? If you are too shy to involve others, buy a tracking device and have a competition with yourself and the online community. Every day you can add more steps to your log or shave off a few unwanted calories.

More from Health.com

20 Ways to Stick to Your Workout

11 Reasons You’re Not Losing Belly Fat

15 Ways to Lose Weight Without Trying

This article originally appeared on Health.com

Kristin McGee leading yoga and Pilates instructor in New York City. ACE certified personal trainer who regularly trains celebrity clients in New York and Los Angeles. Contributing fitness editor at Health.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

These New Healthy Vending Machines Are a Huge Hit

Park goers not only like healthier vending machine snacks, they buy more of them too

Replacing vending machine fare in Chicago parks with healthier snacks significantly increased total monthly sales, new research shows.

Chicago, with its 100% Healthier Snack Vending Initiative, is one of the first cities to try to improve the foods available in public places. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been recommending that communities make more healthy food and drinks available in public parks, and the Chicago Park District serves 200,000 kids every year. It replaced candy and cookies from its vending machines with fruit snacks, granola bars, and baked chips, and for a little over a year, Northwestern University researchers collected data about the vending machines. They discovered that 100% of the park staff members and 88% of park patrons reported liking the healthier vending machines, and monthly sales per machine spiked from $84 to $371.

The researchers found that almost 55% of snack vending purchases were made for or by kids, showing that vending machines could have an impact on the future of America’s eating habits.

“These are important findings given that fear of revenue loss is often cited as a barrier to implementing healthful vending initiatives,” the researchers conclude in their report published Thursday in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease. “Our experience can help to assuage those fears in other communities and provide support for the district’s new healthful beverage vending initiative.”

TIME health

Losing Weight Could Make You Depressed, Study Says

Woman standing on scale.
Woman standing on scale. TommL—Getty Images/Vetta

Yet another reason not to listen to diet product hype

Going on that diet may help you shed a few pounds, but it could also worsen your mood.

A new study at University College London examined 1,979 overweight or obese individuals in the U.K. to investigate the effects of weight loss on both physical and mental health. Unsurprisingly, losing weight led to significant physical benefits: those in the study who lost 5% or more of their original body weight over four years exhibited a drop in blood pressure and reduced serum triglycerides, both of which lower the risk of heart disease.

However, controlling for health issues and major life events that could cause depression, those participants were 52% more likely to report a depressed mood than those who stayed within 5% of their original weight. Though the study doesn’t prove that dieting causes depression, it does show that weight loss doesn’t necessarily improve mental health, as many people assume.

“We do not want to discourage anyone from trying to lose weight, which has tremendous physical benefits, but people should not expect weight loss to instantly improve all aspects of life,” said lead author Sarah Jackson in a statement. “Aspirational advertising by diet brands may give people unrealistic expectations about weight loss. They often promise instant life improvements, which may not be borne out in reality for many people. People should be realistic about weight loss and be prepared for the challenges.”

But Jackson points out that this negative effect on mental health could be more a function of the stress of dieting, rather than a consequence of the actual weight loss. “Resisting the ever-present temptations of unhealthy food in modern society takes a mental toll, as it requires considerable willpower and may involve missing out on some enjoyable activities. Anyone who has ever been on a diet would understand how this could affect wellbeing,” she said. “However, mood may improve once target weight is reached and the focus is on weight maintenance. Our data only covered a four year period so it would be interesting to see how mood changes once people settle into their lower weight.”

In other words, it looks like supermodel Kate Moss may have been way off when she uttered her infamous motto, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.”

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