Wellness and prevention information from the experts at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing

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Avoiding added sugar and its negative affects

Sugar.157541706By Courtney Baechler, MD

Increasingly, we see reports on the negative affects of sugar. Just last month, a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine linked sugar to increased risks of heart disease.

For years, a variety of experts emphasized that high-fat diets are the strongest culprits of heart disease. Food companies quickly manufactured fat-free foods that were extremely high in sugar – think fat-free cookies, crackers and oversized bagels. This led to a fat-free epidemic, and large increases in the amount of sugar people are eating and the incidence of type 2 diabetes.

What happens when we eat foods with a lot of added sugar?

As we digest these sugars, they are quickly metabolized and tend to spike our blood sugar quickly. The pancreas then quickly releases insulin to decrease our blood sugar levels. Over time, this may lead to decreased insulin production and sensitivity, which in turn can lead to type 2 diabetes.

High levels of sugar also create inflammation in our body. When those high sugar levels hang around, they turn into fat or triglycerides, which are one part of our cholesterol or lipid (fat) profile. This is perfect storm for sticky blood vessels, and leads to increases in both our weight and risk of heart disease.

How can we decrease our sugar intake?

  • Start by getting rid of soda pop. Soda pop contributes to one-third of all the sugar we intake as a nation. You might be surprised, but the average 12-ounce can of pop has nine teaspoons of sugar which on average is more than most grown men and women should have in a day.
  • Keep an eye out for what might be added to your “energy drink.” Often, there is as much sugar added to energy drinks as soda pop.
  • The other big culprits are candies and yogurts. The yogurt is a surprise for most of my patients. I will have many patients tell me that they have a turkey sandwich and a yogurt for lunch. Most think, that sounds alright, right? Think again, many name-brand yogurts have a large amount of added sugar. Many of the “100 calorie-light yogurts” have 26 grams of sugar! Not so healthy after all. Your bread might have a lot of added sugar, too.
  • Start reading food labels. Conveniently, the FDA has moved to make it even easier to read the added sugar content in years to come with the recognition of how important decreasing our sugar content is.
  • Don’t be alarmed or think that you need to stop eating fruit. Fruit has “natural sugars,” which are just fine and also has fiber that helps slow the release of sugar. It’s the added sugars that cause trouble.

On that note, I hope this helps demystify the sugar story some. If you want to learn more, check out our story on KARE 11 news or the original study from JAMA.

Stay well and go light on the added sugar!

Courtney Baechler, MD, is a practicing physician with and the vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. She has a master’s degree in clinical epidemiology from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.


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A look at declining fitness for kids around the world

BaechlerChildren are now slower runners than their parents were, according to new data from the American Heart Association.

The study showed that around the world, children are 15 percent less fit than their parents were during childhood. In the United States, childhood cardiovascular performance declined between 1970 and 2000.

Courtney Baechler, MD, a cardiologist and vice president of the Penny George™ Institute for Health and Healing, discussed these finding on Minnesota Public Radio’s The Daily Circuit. Listen to the segment.

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The state of health in the United States

By Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published the latest data on the health of the United States. Unfortunately, compared to our peers in other developed countries, we aren’t doing so hot.

The data looked at 34 countries from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from 1990 to 2010. Although our life expectancy has increased and death rates have decreased, the incidence of disease and chronic disability now account for over half of our health burden in the U.S.

There are a variety of metrics this journal article used to help measure “disease burden.” One was the years of life lost (YLL), which measures premature deaths. The top causes for YLL that are similar to years past include: coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and car accidents. Causes for YLL that are rising include: Alzheimer’s disease, drug use and falls.

Another measure for “disease burden” was diseases with the largest number of years lived with disability (YLD). These remained the same from 1990 to 2010: low back pain, major depressive disorder, other musculoskeletal disorders, neck pain, anxiety disorders, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, drug use disorders and diabetes.

The leading risk factors related to disability-adjusted life years (DALY) were:

  • dietary risks
  • tobacco smoking
  • high body mass index
  • high blood pressure
  • high fasting plasma glucose
  • physical inactivity
  • alcohol use.

An individual’s diet composition accounted for 26% of the deaths and 14% of DALY. Tobacco is now being replaced by diet and obesity as the number one cause of preventable death.

What does all of this tell us? Compared to other wealthy countries, we are less “well.” In the United States, we do a great job of intervening and pouring resources into the last six months of an individual’s life. We continue to enhance our technology and ability to deliver acute care. But our ability to keep people well is weakening. We spend 18 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on health care, which is in the highest bracket of spending for developed countries, yet our health reports fair much worse.

Reports like this cause many in health care to pause and ask if we are using resources in the most effective and efficient manner. It also calls out the importance of political policies and plans that help support the individual and community in making good choices around healthy eating, physical activity, and tobacco and alcohol use.

A report like this emphasizes the important work that the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing is doing to help transform health care. We take a mind, body, and spirit approach to working with these challenging chronic conditions. I’m proud to say we continue to:

  • promote care to keep people healthy
  • produce innovative, holistic programs to help people experiencing stress, anxiety and depression, as well as those dealing with physical pain – these programs complement and are integrated with conventional, Western medical treatments
  • work with insurance companies on new reimbursement plans.

With that … keep eating your veggies, and be well!

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, practices at and is the vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. She was interviewed by TV news station KARE 11 on this topic. View that news segment.

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Responding to health headlines on weight loss and Type II diabetes

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing, was featured in the news last week for her response to recent research showing that weight loss from diet and exercise don’t appear to lower the risk of heart problems for people with Type II diabetes.

Watch KARE 11 News and KSTP News to hear her explain why eating well and exercising remain important for those with diabetes.

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Tips for aging well: Nutrition

This article is originally from the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing‘s Spring 2013 Healing Journal.

When it comes to aging and its effects on your body, everyone is different.

According to licensed nutritionist Carolyn Denton, MA, LN, there are general things that tend to happen as we grow older and pass through the decades, but one thing is certain: it’s never too late, or too early, to start eating better.

“The human body is built to last,” said Denton. “As we age, our digestive system may slow down a bit, we may lose some lean body mass and may suffer from insulin resistance.”

With nutrition, the recommendations don’t change much through life’s stages: get plenty of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains. The loss of body mass and lean tissue does usually translate into a lower metabolic rate. So, the number of calories you need to maintain or lose weight will be reduced and we have a tendency to gain weight more quickly if we take in more calories than our bodies require. Denton notes that once women go through menopause, they often notice a big difference in their resting metabolic rate.

To combat the reduced amount of calories our bodies need, we need to reduce the calories
and increase exercise. It may sound simple, but it is often challenging.

At different stages of life, a busy work schedule, family commitments or more time spent alone, may affect how you eat. “This may lead to skipped meals or not getting enough variety of foods that people need for good nutrition,” said Denton. For example, people may decide to repeatedly have a bowl of cereal for dinner. To help, she suggests cooking ahead and freezing meals for future use.

Tips for eating healthy as we age
Think plants. There is no substitute. Plants contain so many vitamins, nutrients, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber and complex carbohydrates that it is impossible to replicate the benefits of food from plants with supplements or highly processed foods. We hear it all the time, but it’s worth repeating: eat your fruits and vegetables.

Make every calorie count. Smaller portions of nutrient-dense foods are important as we age. When we eat foods that are high in nutrients compared to calorie count, we are ensuring that we get the nutrients we need to keep our bodies functioning at their full potential. A diet made up primarily of vegetables and legumes prepared with healthy fats, herbs and spices is a good place to start.

Stay hydrated. As we age, we may not notice as quickly when we become dehydrated. Of all nutrients, water is the most important. Water reduces stress on the kidneys, making those organs function properly. It also helps with digestion and helps to reduce blood clots. Dehydration is so dangerous that it may lead to stroke. The importance of water in our diet should not be underestimated.

Think of the diet as a work of art. To describe a work of art, one may describe its color, texture and balance, along with variety, proportion and accessibility. You could view your diet in the same way. Aim for variety in color, texture and balance. Spending time planning and preparing for meals is important and will pay benefits as you age.

It is possible to eat healthy on a budget. It requires a little preparation and creativity, but there are many healthy foods that are inexpensive. Buy dried legumes and invest the time in soaking, straining and then cooking them. Frozen fruits and vegetables are a nutritious alternative to fresh. Homemade stocks are inexpensive to make by using peels and ends from other vegetables you prepare. Just freeze them for the time you are ready to make a stock and throw them in the pot.

Try some neglected foods. Celery, which is usually left over on the relish tray once all of the other vegetables are eaten, is one of the most powerful detoxifying foods available. Certain foods are known for healthy properties. Weave them into your diet. What you didn’t like when you were younger may taste delicious to you now. Some examples of things to try: leeks, garlic, scallions, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, beets, kale, eggplant, bok choy, endive and more.

Vitamins have a purpose, but it’s impossible to replicate real food. Supplements have a purpose if someone is low in certain areas such as calcium, zinc or magnesium. Low magnesium levels, for example, will cause muscle spasms. Supplements should be used as a bridge and support for a healthy diet, not a replacement.

To make an appointment with Denton, call 612-863-3333.

Carolyn Denton is a licensed nutritionist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing.

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Exercise – getting started and sticking with it

by Gail Ericson, MS, PT, Physical Therapist

LiveWellPhoto BlogWe all know the benefits of exercise, like feeling good, and warding off disease and weight gain. So why is it so hard to do it? It’s not about information – there are thousands of publications, online resources and professionals to turn to for exercise recommendations. Even a health scare or a warning by a doctor doesn’t always do the trick.

So, where does one go for motivation? You have to look within yourself. You need to find an exercise program that resonates with, motivates, and has long-term meaning for you. How do you do that? It’s not a cookie-cutter approach, but there is a process to go through to develop an exercise program customized to motivate you.

You can follow these steps:

  1. Evaluate your readiness for exercise. Do you ever say, “I won’t exercise” or “I can’t exercise?” Do you constantly make excuses for not exercising? Then it’s time for some thinking-and-feeling prep work.
  2. Consider your “barriers to exercise” and evaluate what is real and what is an excuse. Brainstorm with friends or family on ways to get around the real barriers. Research movement activities available in your area. Once you start making plans about when, where or with whom you will exercise, you are ready for real change.
  3. Create a personal wellness vision statement by answering in writing the questions below.

    If I had optimal health and wellness:
    – What would that look like? Talk about why these things are of value to you.
    – How would you feel?
    – What would you look like and sound like?
    – What would you be doing for fun, work, with family, and for exercise.

    Write your statement as though it is already happening, such as, “I am energetic and focused. I am less stressed, and I exercise most days of the week because I love it …”
  4. Set long-term goals you’d like to achieve in three to six months or more. Be specific, time sensitive and measurable. Instead of simply having a goal of “I want to be stronger,” consider how you would measure stronger. Try: “I want to do 15 push-ups on my knees without stopping.”
  5. Set short-term goals, such as “I will do five push-ups three times per week.”
  6. Rate your confidence level in meeting your goals on a scale of 0-10. If your answer is seven or below, you might want to rework your goal to something you rate as an eight or higher.
  7. Execute your plan. Reward yourself for meeting your short-term goals with incentives, like a special coffee or new music. Remember, any movement is better than none!
  8. Revisit these goals weekly and adjust them as necessary. Ask yourself: What worked? How can you change a goal so you can achieve it? If you don’t meet some goals, don’t consider it a failure. Learn from it. Remember, change is a process, not an event.
  9. Read your vision statement often to remind yourself of why you are exercising.

If you feel you need more support to get motivated or make a health change, consider integrative health and wellness coaching at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center.

Gail Ericson, PT
Physical Therapist
LiveWell Fitness Center

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Learn how to improve your heart health

BaechlerTips for living a heart healthy lifestyle and sampling heart-helping foods will be featured at store events hosted by Kowalski’s Markets and Allina Health on Feb. 21.

The event, to be held at the Eagan Kowalski’s markets, feature Allina Health cardiologist Courtney Baechler, MD and vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing, and Susan Moores, RD, Kowalski’s nutritionist.

Schedule and cost information