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ScientIST: Eat Well

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This year, with the official start of the holiday season tragically mired in a financial fiasco, the fires and soaring temperatures feeling more Summer than Fall, and Prop 8’s passage reminding us all we’ve still a long way to go, it’s enough to think drowning your sorrows in gravy and cheese balls is the answer to all of life’s problems. So, as tempting as it is to stress eat (think Jack Donaghy of "30 Rock") and entirely abandon 2008’s diet and exercise resolutions, a recent and highly publicized article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) is reminding us yet again that it’s crucial to be smart about food choices. With the belly fat-wielding juggernaut of Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah, and the Holiday Party on the horizon, we here at the ScientIST bring you a helping of science and common sense to successfully navigate the next few months. Your waistline can thank us later.

The body-mass index (BMI) (which takes into consideration weight and height) is a widely used alternative to direct measurements of adiposity (fatness), but does not distinguish between the locations of the stored fat. And the distribution of fat appears to matter. Belly fat, in comparison with say, the fat that collects on our thighs and rears, is more closely linked to a variety of chronic diseases and, as a study published in the November 12th issue of the NEJM reveals, death. Researchers, led by first author Dr. Tobias Pischon, enrolled and examined 359,387 men and women (ages ranging from 25-70) from nine European countries over 10 years to assess the association of BMI, waist circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio with the risk of dying.

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The results were clear: Excessive abdominal fat increases this risk, regardless of whether or not you are considered overweight by BMI standards. In layman's terms this means that just because you're fitting into your skinny jeans doesn't mean that you're healthy. (Check the muffin top hanging over them to be sure.) Researchers posit that adipose tissue, especially that around our middle section, is a key source of inflammation, which, in turn, can lead to the development of chronic diseases. While belly fat and body mass are more closely related in men than in women (so BMI may suffice as a screening tool in males), the study remains a strong push for the inclusion of the waist circumference and waist-to-hip ratio measurements during a routine physical for men and women alike.

How can you apply this to your health this week? The smart folks over at Men's Health Magazine have parlayed their extensive diet and fitness knowledge into the ever engaging "Eat this, Not That!" column. Check the website for the special sections on holiday noshing. And don't forget your number one weapon: Common sense.

• Try white meat instead of dark meat.
• Load up on crudités (sans dipping sauces) before dinner.
• Avoid anything with "casserole" attached to its name.
• Break out the expensive bottle of wine you've been saving instead of throwing back empty calories on cheap booze.
• At work, keep heart-healthy nuts and fruit on hand for daytime snacking.
• Stay hydrated with plenty of metabolism-fueling water.
• Don't forget to eat breakfast and lunch, each with a mix of lean protein (turkey, salmon, tofu, lentils, eggs) complex carbohydrates (brown rice, quinoa, whole grain bread), and fat (olive oil, avocados, walnuts) to keep you alert and productive all day.
• When pre-vacation deadlines keep you past the dinner hour, remember that the candy dish on your assistant's desk at 11 pm is NOT the best of ideas. Instead, stock your office freezer with portion and calorie controlled microwaveable meals from the likes of Amy's or Kashi. Or, even better, utilize LA staples Whole Foods or Joan's on Third for a quick and freshly prepared bite.
• When the appetizer platters are passed around at the New Year's Eve shindig, keep clear of items that drench a napkin.
• Drink a club soda between your martinis to avoid the excessive calories (and the walk of shame the next day.)
• Eat a small meal (peanut butter sandwich, oatmeal with almonds and fruit, eggs on toast) before you leave for your holiday party to curb munchies altogether.

And remember, the holidays don't have to be solely centered on the kitchen. Getting your loved ones together for a hike in the canyon, a yoga class, or even a heated game of dominoes can be a stress-relieving alternative to refined carbohydrates or a third helping of pie. If the current economic crisis has any silver lining, it should be to reveal that the gifts of health and home are the most sought after and precious gifts of all.