TIME health

How to Get Over Your Fear of the Gym

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This article originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

Gym + Intimidation = Gymtimidation, and I’ve had a bad case of it for years. As a big girl, gym culture can be intimidating for a variety of reasons. I know I need to lift weights and build strength, but that testosterone-filled section of the gym doesn’t always feel fat-girl friendly, especially when I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing.

But, it’s not just the free-weight room that gives me anxiety. I’m a strong swimmer, but when I head to my gym’s pool, I’ve had lifeguards ask if I’m looking for the slow lane — before I even get in the water. I’ve noticed that the women who look fit are offered free personal-training sessions, while instructors size me up and simply dismiss me because I’m bigger.

I’m on a plus-size fitness journey, though, which means I need to get comfortable at the gym. In order for me to do this right, I need to work out often and try new things. If I only stick to the exercise classes and workouts I’ve always done, my body’s going to get used to those exercises, essentially making them less effective. And, I intend to meet my fitness goals — not shy away from them.

(MORE: Why Body Confidence is Complicated, No Matter Your Size)

Because of my tendency to get nervous at the gym (and practically run out before I start sweating), there have been many times when I’ve had to give myself a pep talk: “CeCe, get over it!” Lately, when I head to the gym, I have to take a quick minute to remind myself that it’s ok to ask for help. That I must get over my fear of the guys in the weight room. I’m also working on getting more comfortable with getting undressed in the main locker-room area, which is a heck of a lot easier than doing it behind the doors of a cramped stall.

Getting over my gymtimidation is an ongoing process. Every time I think I’ve shed my fears and anxieties, there’s something new I have to conquer: a new machine, a new instructor, or even my desire to try new classes, like Spinning.

When I first braved a Spinning class, I didn’t know anyone in it, so I made sure to arrive 30 seconds before class started to stay as anonymous as possible. I jumped on a bike in the back corner of the room and watched the regulars exchange hugs and kisses before the lights dimmed and class began.

(MORE: Why I Dated a Guy Who Hated My Body)

The next 45 minutes were awful. My shoes got stuck in the pedal straps, I kept turning knobs on my bike without knowing what they did, and, perhaps worst of all, my butt really hurt. When the class ended, I ran out of there as fast as I could and didn’t return.

But, the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to attend another Spinning class meant only one thing to me: I was letting gymtimidation rob me of a good workout. So, last week, I got back on that bike. I arrived early this time, chose a bike in the front row, and when the instructor walked in and asked if I was new, I admitted that I was and asked for help. He taught me how the bike worked and how to set up my seat and handles. The class was definitely intense, but every step of the way, the instructor gave me the attention I needed to keep up. He even instructed me to sit back on the seat a bit, because, as he said, my butt was probably hurting. How did he know?

Forty-five minutes later, I walked out of the studio feeling sweaty, motivated, and, above all, proud of myself. I had finally gotten out of my own way and unlocked a new workout option for myself. Who knew what other workouts I’d try next? As I headed to the locker room, the instructor called out after me: “Great job today! I’m glad you mentioned that you were new; most people don’t do that.” I guess I’m not the only one with gymtimidation!

(MORE: Please Stop Calling Yourself a Fat Girl in Front of Me)

On her blog, Plus Size Princess, CeCe Olisa has detailed everything from what it’s like to be the only big black girl in a yoga class (fine, thanks!), to her adventures in plus-size dating in the Big Apple. Now, the New York City transplant is lending her poignant, often-hilarious voice to R29.

TIME Obesity

Antibiotics Before Age 2 Increase Risk of Childhood Obesity

A potential unintended consequence of the broad-spectrum drugs

Antibiotics, the most commonly prescribed medications in the first two years of life, might come with the unintended consequence of childhood obesity.

By age 2, an astonishing 1 in 10 kids are obese, weighing about 36 pounds. Childhood obesity isn’t a problem with a single cause, but according to a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics, some of it could start at the doctor’s office. Researchers looked at the health records of more than 64,000 children from 2001-2013 and found that using antibiotics before age 2 was associated with an increased risk of obesity by age 5. Almost 70% of the children in the study had taken antibiotics before age 2, with an average of 2.3 courses of the drugs per child. The link was especially strong in children who took four or more courses.

MORE: This Is How Much Childhood Obesity Costs Over a Lifetime

Not all antibiotics had the same effect, however. The association was only significant with broad-spectrum antibiotics—those that wipe out different kinds of bacteria all over the body—but not narrow-spectrum antibiotics, which target only certain families of bacteria. Of the kids in the sample, 41% took broad-spectrum antibiotics at some point.

Doctors prescribe antibiotics for a host of common infections ranging from the mild, like sinus and ear infections, to the more severe, like pneumonia. Broad-spectrum antibiotics are generally recommended only when the narrow-spectrum kind won’t work, like if an infection won’t respond or if the patient has an allergy. But in practice, broad-spectrum antibiotics are being prescribed for a lot of typical childhood infections that might not even need an antibiotic at all, says study author Charles Bailey, MD, PhD of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

MORE: Antibiotics Overload Is Endangering Our Children

When parents visit the pediatrician with a sick child, they often request antibiotics to help the child feel better faster, Bailey says. “There are these non-medical pressures to use some of the broader-spectrum drugs,” he says. “But if we use broad-spectrum antibiotics a lot of the time, are we creating unintended effects down the road that we didn’t appreciate when we were sitting in the office?”

MORE: Gut Bugs—A Hidden Trigger of Obesity

One of those unintended consequences might be killing off certain kinds of beneficial bacteria in the guts of young kids at an age when their collection of bacteria—or microbiome—is thought to be especially sensitive. Studies have shown that feeding antibiotics to mice around birth alters the kind of microbes that colonize their guts, which in turn changes how they digest food, how many calories they get from their diet and how they extract energy, Bailey says. “Our worry is that we may be seeing some of the same things going on with people.”

Though obesity in early life puts a child at greater risk for obesity in adulthood, it’s still early enough to intervene, Bailey says. “Our hope is that we can find out what the risk factors are in early childhood and do a better job not just at preventing this, but of identifying the kids…who then can change their path by changing their lifestyle and changing the healthcare they get.”

TIME Obesity

Why Cutting Soda Calories Isn’t Such a Sweet Idea

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Civil rights and soda might not seem like a classic combination. But yesterday, as major soda brands announced their goal to reduce beverage calories in the American diet, it seemed to make sense to Wendy Clark, president of sparkling brands and strategic marketing for Coca-Cola North America.

“‘The time is always right to do the right thing’ – MLK” she tweeted. “So proud of our industry.”

That time will come in 2025, the year by which every American will drink 20% fewer soda calories than they do today. In the press release about the announcement, which was made at the Clinton Global Initiative meeting in New York, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr. Pepper Snapple vowed to make these reductions in part by making containers smaller, as well as focusing marketing efforts and innovation into lower-calorie drinks, no-calorie drinks and water. In the release, President Bill Clinton called the pledge a “critical step in our ongoing fight against obesity.”

But are such premature congratulations merited? Is developing more low- and no-calorie bottled beverages really the way to fight obesity?

Soda consumption has dropped, with sales lower than they have been since 1995. And while we might like to think sippers are swapping soda for water or unsweetened herbal tisane, research shows they’re not. A Pediatrics study published earlier this year that showed while kids aren’t drinking as much soda as they once were, they’re guzzling more energy drinks and coffee beverages—both caffeinated sweetened products with a nutritional profile similar to most sodas. Sales for ready-to-drink tea—most of which is sweetened—are also up by double digits in the Coca-Cola portfolio, reports Forbes.

That’s concerning if we want to seriously address obesity. The jury is out on no-calorie and low-calorie sweeteners, but mounting recent evidence showings sugar substitutes may contribute the very obesity they’re meant to combat. That’s because they appear to fuel sugar cravings and alter the composition of gut microbes, leading to a rise in blood glucose levels. Several studies have found a link between sugar alternatives and weight gain, and research just published in the journal Appetite found that drinking artificially sweetened beverages make you think about food more, choose high-calorie foods more often, and feel less satisfied after eating things sweetened with actual sugar.

“On face value you’re getting a nice sweet taste without calories, but my research shows it might lead to cognitive shifts that might promote overconsumption later,” Sarah Hill, the study author and a psychologist at Texas Christian University, tells TIME.

This all suggests that even if soda slashes calories by 2025 as promised, the replacement ingredients could come with unforeseen consequences.

The idea of tasting something sweet without getting any energy from it is an evolutionarily very novel thing for our bodies to handle, Hill says. “When you have that unnatural pairing of sweetness and no energy increase, it leads the body to perceive an energy crisis,” Hill says. “It triggers thoughts and behaviors consistent with a scarcity mode.”

“I think that the real way to get change is drinking water,” Hill says. Plain, unadulterated, straight-from-the-tap H2O included.

TIME Obesity

Are Diabetes Rates Really “Leveling Off”?

For the first time in several decades, we’re starting to see a slowing of new diabetes diagnoses, suggests new data published in JAMA.

The study authors examined data collected from more than 600,000 adults between ages 20-79 from 1980 to 2012—part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s National Health Interview Survey. A broad view paints a grim picture: From 1990 to 2008, the prevalence of diabetes as well as new cases of the disease both doubled. But from 2008-2012, those rates of change leveled off. So while people are still being diagnosed with diabetes, the rate of growth is decelerating.

“It’s encouraging that we may be seeing this slowing and plateauing,” says Ann Albright, PhD, RD, director of the division of diabetes translation at the CDC and one of the study’s authors. The study cites a slowing of rates of obesity—one of the biggest contributors to type 2 diabetes, found one study—as a partial explanation for the results. Black and Hispanic adults, however, have continued to see a rise in new diabetes cases, and prevalence also grew among people with a high school education or less. These disparities, Albright says, could get worse.

“This data is telling us that we are doing some things right,” Albright says, which is especially important given that the population is aging, and baby boomers are hitting peak years for diabetes. Driving down diabetes prevalence is great, but the best way to get there is to curb new cases—not to have people in the diabetes pool die off early, she adds.

“[This study] is important to note, but it doesn’t mean we have this licked and we’re all done,” she says. “We still have a lot of work to do.”

TIME medicine

When Doctors Ignore Their Own Advice

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What to do about docs who smoke, drink, and tan

I live near a health clinic, and on more than one occasion, have walked by men and women in scrubs smoking cigarettes. No human being is immune to nicotine’s addictiveness, but since health care professionals are supposed to advise patients against such behaviors, it’s extremely hard to justify the habit.

Earlier this month, a report published in The BMJ showed that one in 10 doctors admit to using tanning beds. The survey sample was small at only 163 U.K. doctors, but considering skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., the fact that any physician would choose to partake in an activity that puts them at a direct risk for cancer is pretty mindboggling.

But indoor tanning isn’t the only doctor vice. Smoking, poor eating habits, being sedentary, and heavy drinking–while still not the norm–are behaviors not completely eradicated from the medical community.

An unforgiving culture

“It’s unrealistic to expect that knowledge should prompt physicians to avoid unhealthy behaviors,” says Anthony Montgomery, an associate professor of work and organizational psychology at the University of Macedonia in Greece. “Just like everybody else, they have a low risk perception with regard to their health.”

Montgomery says a big part of the problem is how physicians cope when they encounter health problems. In a 2011 study, Montgomery and his colleagues conducted an analysis published in Occupational Medicine that looked at 27 studies on doctors self-medicating. They wanted to examine the implications of a persisting culture within medicine where doctors do not expect themselves or their colleagues to be sick.

“We found that there was considerable evidence that physicians and medical students engage in high levels of inappropriate self treatment for reasons that include avoiding the patient role and occupational norms–keeping things inside the profession,” he says.

The study concluded that these behaviors could be occupational hazards for doctors, and that these problems are not benign for patients. Congruent research finds that doctors with bad health habits are less likely to counsel their patients on the same issues.

“Fifty years ago smoking was very common among physicians and nurses, though fortunately we’ve reduced that significantly,” says Shiv Gaglani, co-founder of a pledge for medical students called The Patient Promise. “Now however, physicians and nurses have the same level of obesity as the general population. Our caregivers are human too and can succumb to same behaviors that everyone else can.”

Montgomery, who typically studies doctor burnout, is working on a report that collected data from health care professionals in Croatia, Portugal, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria and found that the effects of burnout were significant predictors of fast food consumption, infrequent exercise, drinking alcohol and using painkillers.

“Certainly most physicians I’ve met understand the paradox between what they preach and what they practice,” says Gaglani. “Seeking help is often complicated by the fact that you don’t want word to spread about your issues because it would spread within the community you practice. In some cases it could even mean the end of your career.”

Solutions

Gaglani created The Patient Promise in 2008 with his roommate at Johns Hopkins Medical School after they attended a course on obesity and motivational interviewing of patients.

“We realized that many of the harmful lifestyle behaviors we were learning to counsel against as future physicians were actually becoming part of our daily lives,” says Gaglani.

The pressure and stress of medical school was causing Gaglani and his peers to eat less nutritious food, exercise fewer times each week, and get significantly less sleep. “We asked the simple question: How can we counsel patients on important lifestyle behaviors if we couldn’t practice them ourselves?” says Gaglani.

And so the Patient Promise was created, and still serves as a pledge for health care workers to live the lifestyles they are recommending for their patients. The movement calling for doctors to be healthy has spread to many health care facilities.

Some hospitals have even incentivized healthy behaviors, like the Cleveland Clinic, which took staff health to task in 2014 and asked all of its employees to wear an activity tracker called Pebble. Target goals were set across the board, and participating in the program allows employees to get lower health insurance premium rates. So far out of the 26,790 employees and spouses participating, 18,302 have already met their target goal for the year: 100,000 steps a month or 600 activity minutes a month for six months.

The Patient Promise is available for all health care workers to sign as a pledge to patients and themselves. “We believe in the power of partnership and shared accountability between clinicians and their patients to lead healthier lives,” says Gaglani.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

4 Things People Don’t Tell You About Major Weight Loss

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Losing weight and getting healthier should be a good thing…right? Well, as Rosie O’Donnell told ABC News, shedding a lot of pounds may not instantly change your life for the better.

O’Donnell recently returned to hosting The View after leaving the talk show in 2007. She suffered a heart attack in 2012 and since then, she had a procedure known as a vertical gastric sleeve and dropped 50 pounds. Unlike a gastric bypass, which re-routes how your stomach processes food, a vertical sleeve gastrectomy removes a large portion of the stomach, leaving it about the size of a banana, according to the National Institutes of Health.

It’s hard to imagine seeing any downsides to slimming down, especially since people who are overweight are more prone to serious health conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Still, O’Donnell says it took some adjusting to get used to her new body.

“Everyone assumes that obese people would just be jumping for joy that they were healthier and thinner,” O’Donnell told ABC News. “But it’s also filled with a lot of emotional turbulence you wouldn’t expect.”

In fact, a UK study published in the journal PLOS One found that losing weight may not alter your mood the way you might expect. Of the 1,979 overweight and obese participants, 14% lost at least 5% of their initial body weight. After controlling for factors like serious health issues and major life events, researchers found more than half of the people who lost weight were more likely to report being depressed.

That may be because weight loss doesn’t address any underlying problems you may have. “Sometimes other things are making you unhappy, and the expectation that weight loss will fix it doesn’t pan out, which makes you even more unhappy,” says Gail Saltz, MD, Health‘s contributing psychology editor.

Here are some surprising things people might not think about when it comes to losing weight:

You may not be prepared for increased attention

Not many people may have gone out of their way to talk to you when you were overweight, and the attention that may come with your new look could be shocking at first. “Some people keep weight on unconsciously to protect themselves from intimacy with others,” Dr. Saltz says. This is especially true in settings of sexual intimacy. The fear of being hit on or being sexual with others may terrify some so much it causes them to regain the weight, Dr. Saltz says.

Your partner may not be supportive

O’Donnell says her partner encouraged her to be healthy, but that may not be the case for everyone. “A lot of marriages break up once one person gets healthy,” she told ABC News. Your partner might feel threatened by your weight loss for a number of reasons. A big one is they’ll fear others will want you or you’ll look better than them, Dr. Saltz says. Your shaping up forces your significant other to think about their own health choices, which they may not be prepared to handle. Another problem: Your partner may worry about how your personality might change. “You feeling great, sexy, or confident could shift the balance of the relationship,” Dr. Saltz says. “They fear losing the identity of the more confident one or losing the upper hand.” Many of these challenges could apply to friendships, too.

Your clothing options may feel scary

It’s not uncommon to feel unsure about shopping outside of plus size stores or sections. “It may be unexpected to feel nervous and conflicted about styles you might not have worn before because they are body revealing,” Dr. Saltz says. After losing weight, you may not know how to react to clothes that fit your body in new ways—not to mention the hefty price tag that comes along with buying a new wardrobe.

Your body might not match your expectations

Being thinner doesn’t mean your body will look “perfect” to you now. Loose skin, a flat behind, and sagging breasts are all changes that might accompany weight-loss procedures or lifestyle changes that help you shed a lot of pounds. Those changes won’t go away overnight either. And when your reflection doesn’t match what you imagined, you may feel more disappointed that there’s no healthy lifestyle change to fix the problem right away, Dr. Saltz says.

This article originally appeared on Health.com.

More from Health.com:

12 Ways We Sabotage Our Mental Health

11 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Belly Fat

How to Do the Perfect Squat

19 Medical Tests All Adults Need

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Artificial Sweeteners Aren’t the Answer to Obesity: Here’s Why

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Artificial sweeteners may be contributing to the very health problems they were supposed to prevent, say researchers Tetra Images—Getty Images/Tetra images RF

They’re supposed to be the sweet alternative to high-calorie, diabetes-causing sugar. But the latest science shows that artificial sweeteners may actually set us up for obesity and diabetes

Aspartame, saccharin, sucralose—sugar alternatives go by many names, but share an almost irresistible promise: all the sweetness of sugar without the calories, weight gain and increased risk of diabetes that comes with uncontrolled amounts of sugar in the blood.

But studies on artificial sweeteners and weight loss—as well as research about whether sugar substitutes helped people avoid metabolic disorders like diabetes—have been mixed. And in a paper published Wednesday in Nature, Dr. Eran Elinav from the Weitzmann Institute of Science in Israel found that the sugar stand-ins actually contribute to changes in the way the body breaks down glucose. How? Fake sugars aren’t digested and therefore pass directly to the intestines, impacting the millions of invisible bacteria that live in our gut. And when he and his colleagues gave seven people who didn’t normally use artificial sweeteners the sugar substitutes for seven days, about half of the people showed higher blood glucose levels after just four days.

MORE: 5 Steps to Quitting Artificial Sweeteners

“What our comprehensive genetic profiling of the microbiome pointed to is that exposure to artificial sweeteners directly impacts the microbes,” Elinav says. “We found that the artificial sweeteners we think of as beneficial and that we use as treatment or preventive measures against obesity and its complications are contributing to the same epidemics they are aimed to prevent.”

In the intestines, gut microbes are hard at work, pulling out some nutrients from food that are helpful in stopping tumor growth, for example, and squirreling away others to store as energy for later use. But while artificial sweeteners aren’t absorbed by our own cells, they may be absorbed by our bacteria—and when that happens, things appear to go haywire.

Higher amounts of the sweetener substitutes, Elinav and his team found, can change the makeup of these bacterial communities. And that in turn can change how those bugs behave, leading to weight gain and poorer glucose breakdown. These alterations in intestinal bacteria were the same as those in a group of 400 people who reported using artificial sweeteners—and those changes were the same in mice as well.

MORE: Why Your Brain Isn’t Fooled By Sugar Stand-Ins

In the mouse studies, Elinav’s team found that the artificial sweeteners pushed one particular group of bacteria, Bacteroides, to thrive, while inhibiting growth of another, Clostridiales. Bacteroides are the microbial equivalent of hoarders, hungrily pulling energy out of food and squirreling it away as fat. The end result of a Bacteroides-heavy gut is a physically heavy gut as well. In studies by other research groups, its dominance, and the resulting drop in diversity of other microbes, is typical of obese people compared to normal weight individuals.

MORE: 7 Not-So-Sweet Lessons About Sugar

The metabolic consequences were also dramatic in both the mice and people studied. In the mouse experiments, animals who were fed the same dose of saccharin that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers safe for daily use showed a drop in their ability to break down glucose. When he gave those mice antibiotics, their ability to break down glucose returned to normal, suggesting that wiping out the abnormal balance of bacteria could return the animals back to a healthier state.

And to confirm that the changing microbial communities were indeed responsible for the glucose changes, he also transplanted fecal samples from the people using artificial sweeteners into mice whose own guts had been wiped clean. These mice then developed the same abnormalities in glucose breakdown that the human donors and the mice who were fed saccharin did—even though they never actually ate artificial sweeteners. Simply harboring the microbes that had been exposed to the sweeteners was enough to disturb their glucose metabolism.

MORE: Can Sugar Substitutes Make You Fat?

The good news is that as easily as the gut microbiome can shift toward an unhealthy state, it can just as easily be brought back into line with the proper balance of bacterial communities. The best way to do that isn’t clear yet, but, says Eran Segal, a co-author of the study and a professor of computer science and applied mathematics at the Weitzmann Insttitute, “We believe that the situation today at the very least needs to be re-examined. We were able to induce glucose intolerance in a few days in some individuals, so this massive, unsupervised and unregulated use [of artificial sweeteners] should at the very least be reassessed and perhaps re-examined in additional studies.”

Elinav, for one, isn’t waiting. Based on his findings, he’s stopped adding artificial sweeteners to his coffee.

 

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

Salt Doesn’t Cause High Blood Pressure? Here’s What a New Study Says

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Sodium has long been labeled the blood-pressure bogeyman. But are we giving salt a fair shake?

A new study published in the American Journal of Hypertension analyzed data from 8,670 French adults and found that salt consumption wasn’t associated with systolic blood pressure in either men or women after controlling for factors like age.

Why not? One explanation, the authors write, is that the link we all assume between salt and blood pressure is “overstated” and “more complex than once believed.” It should be noted, however, that even though the study found no statistically significant association between blood pressure and sodium in the diet, those patients who were hypertensive consumed significantly more salt than those without hypertension—suggesting, as other research has, that salt affects people differently.

As for the factors that did seem to influence blood pressure, alcohol consumption, age, and most of all BMI were strongly linked to a rise. Eating more fruits and vegetables was significantly linked to a drop.

“Stopping weight increase should be the first target in the general population to counteract the hypertension epidemic,” the study authors wrote.

All of which is surprising given the fact that Americans are bombarded with warnings that we eat far too much: just yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report finding that 90% of U.S. children eat more sodium than guidelines recommend. Almost half of that comes from 10 processed foods that kids tend to eat a lot of: pizza, bread, processed meats, savory snacks, sandwiches, cheese, processed chicken, pasta dishes, Mexican dishes, and soup.

The CDC firmly believes that salt directly influences blood pressure. “We consider the totality of the evidence,” said Janelle Gunn of the CDC’s Division of Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention at a press conference. “A vast majority of scientific research confirms that as sodium is reduced, so is blood pressure.”

We’ve reported before that the science surrounding salt is crazy confusing, and conflicting studies come out with some frequency. In keeping with the frustrating reality of so many nutrient groups, no one side has definitively won the debate.

In the meantime, it surely can’t hurt to curb some of our salt-laden processed-food intake—but the pounds we shed may be even more helpful than the salt we shun when it comes to lowering blood pressure.

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.

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