Wellness tip: Food for thought on building healthy eating habits

Developing and sticking to healthier eating patterns could be a first line of defense for preventing certain chronic diseases.

Like most things in life, a healthy diet is all about balance. And while everyone deserves a sweet treat every now and again, maintaining that balance could help you prevent the development of chronic disease later in life. Today’s food landscape is rife with indulgence, highly processed foods and copious levels of sugar. Being mindful of how nutrition impacts long-term health and wellness — and what is at stake if poor dietary habits are sustained over time — has never been more important.

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), roughly 117 million Americans — nearly half of all adults — have at least one preventable disease abetted in part by poor diet, lack of exercise, or both1. These include heart disease, diabetes and even some types of cancers.

There is a plethora of research on the ineffectiveness of dieting for the general population, especially with fad diets that restrict certain types of foods or food groups. These approaches often aren’t sustainable, and can sometimes even be unhealthy. Luckily, there are also plenty of other ways to go about healthier eating, starting with some nutritional education.

One of the best things a person can do for their diet is provide variety. This involves eating foods across all major food groups — proteins, vegetables, fruits, grains and dairy — and, to take it a step further, broadening the menu to include several items from each food group2. Adding variety to your diet is an easy way to ensure your body is receiving the nutrients it needs to support your overall health.

Expanding your palate to include a greater variety of foods is important, as is limiting foods that may taste good, but probably aren’t doing your body any favors from a nutritional standpoint. For example, the ODPHP recommends a daily diet that does not exceed 10% of calories from saturated fats (butter, cheese and high-fat meats) or added sugars (sweet treats, candy and soda). Additionally, sodium, which tends to be higher in processed foods and restaurants, should be limited to under 2,300 milligrams per day for the average adult2.

These changes don’t need to be sweeping, and they will vary based on a person’s specific dietary needs and daily caloric intake recommendation. Starting small can be a way to gain confidence with healthier eating patterns. Would a sandwich hit the spot? Reach for whole-wheat bread instead of white. Feeling peckish? Try a handful of fruit or nuts, rather than potato chips. Instead of overhauling your entire diet from the get-go, start small and with intention, working yourself up as you go.

Perhaps the most important part of establishing healthy eating patterns is perseverance. This is why it can be beneficial to make healthy eating a part of your everyday routine. In the words of the ODPHP, “Think of every day and meal as an opportunity to make a healthy choice.”

Building on all this, the following meal planning tips can be a great place to start to help establish healthier eating patterns that last3:

  • Map Out Your Meals: Outline meals you plan to eat for the week and use it as a guide. Be sure to list beverages and snacks, too!
  • Find Balance: If you have veggies, dairy and protein at one meal, include fruit and grains in the next to cover all 5 food groups over the course of a day.
  • Vary Protein Foods: Choose different protein foods throughout the week. If you have chicken one day, try seafood, beans, lean meat or eggs on other days.
  • Make a Grocery List: Start by writing down all of the ingredients for the meals you plan to make. Just be sure to cross off items you already have on hand.
  • Love Your Leftovers: Prepare enough of a dish to eat multiple times during the week. Making leftovers part of your plan can save money and time.
  • Be Mindful of Portion Control and Sizes: Make half of your plate fruits and vegetables. If you are trying to manage weight by reducing total daily calories, only eat half of the amount of the carbohydrates that you would normally eat.
  • Drink Plenty of Water: Avoid sugary beverages such as soda, iced tea, lemonade, coffee and tea (especially made with sugar and creamer) as well as overuse of sports drinks and juices. To stay well-hydrated, enjoy plenty of water throughout the day, with and between meals and snacks.
  • Bonus: Meal planning makes it easier to eat healthy on a budget!

Minute changes in diet can have supersized effects on overall health and wellness. In all, being more mindful of eating patterns and understanding which dietary approach works best for you — whether it be preparing meals in advance or having a plan when grocery shopping — is the key to unlocking healthier mealtimes and staving off the risk of preventable diseases.

Sources:

[1] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 8th Edition. December 2015. Accessed Feb. 18, 2024, at https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/previous-dietary-guidelines/2015.

[2] Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 8th Edition. “How to Build a Healthy Eating Pattern.” Accessed Feb. 18, 2024, at https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-10/DGA_Healthy-Eating-Pattern.pdf.

[3] Medikeeper. “Meal Planning Tips.” Accessed on February 16, 2024, from https://my.wellsparkhealth.com/.

Wellness tip: Understanding women’s heart health

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Awareness of the risks and symptoms cannot be overstated.

Heart disease impacts roughly 60 million women across the United States, indiscriminate of age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite being the leading cause of death for women, with one in every five female deaths attributed to heart disease in 2021, only half of American women are aware of this risk1.

Women have specific risk factors for heart health, disease and failure, many of which are caused by gender-specific hormone changes and anatomy. Therefore, more widespread public awareness about the signs, symptoms and risk of heart disease in women, as well as a more gender-equitable approach to understanding women’s heart health in the medical community, are both needed to address these staggering statistics.

Understanding signs and symptoms

According to the CDC, there are three common types of heart disease in women. The most common is coronary artery disease, which is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, and poses a greater risk to women after menopause. Arrhythmia is another common heart disease, and refers to a heart that beats irregularly, too quickly or too slowly. Lastly, heart failure is the third most-common serious health disease among women1.

While some women have no symptoms, there are several to look out for, including1:

  • A dull or heavy ache or discomfort in the chest (angina)
  • Neck, jaw or throat pain
  • Back or upper abdominal pain
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Excessive tiredness

These symptoms shouldn’t be taken lightly, but in the case of no symptoms, women who are experiencing signs of a heart attack — including chest, upper back or neck pain, indigestion, heartburn, nausea or vomiting, extreme fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations (a fluttering feeling in the chest), swelling of the feet, ankles, legs or abdomen — should seek immediate medical attention1.

Risk factors unique to women

Women have long been underrepresented in medical research, including when it comes to understanding cardiovascular health and heart disease, according to the American Heart Association2. Several health circumstances unique to women can impact their heart health. These include starting menstruation or menopause early, the use of oral hormonal birth control, pregnancy complications and outcomes, and polycystic ovary syndrome1, as well as being “disproportionately affected by inflammatory and autoimmune disorders,” which has been known to impact heart health2.

According to the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) Natural Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, women have anatomically different hearts compared to men. Structurally, women have smaller hearts with thinner muscular walls, and smaller blood vessels than men, and are more likely to manifest coronary microvascular disease, which impacts smaller arteries of the heart and can make identifying the disease more difficult3.

There are several other risk factors unique to women’s heart health, including anemia, high blood pressure — which affects more than 56 million women in the United States1 — endometriosis, mental health problems, metabolic syndromes and obesity3. Additionally, women with diabetes and/or low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol, as well as women who smoke, are at a greater risk of developing coronary heart disease, even more so than men with the same predispositions, according to the NIH3.

Understanding these specific catalysts, as well as educating the general public on signs, symptoms, and the level of risk, are key to creating gender-equitable approaches to women’s heart health.

Sources:

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Women and Heart Disease.” Accessed Jan. 14, 2024, from https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/women.htm.

[2] American Heart Association (May 9, 2022). “Report calls out gaps in women’s heart disease research, care.” Accessed Jan. 14, 2024, from https://www.heart.org/en/news/2022/05/09/report-calls-out-gaps-in-womens-heart-disease-research-care.

[3] National Institute of Health (NIH). “Women and Heart Disease.” National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Accessed Jan. 14, 2024, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/coronary-heart-disease/women.

Progress over perfection

Tips and tricks for taking small steps to achieve big goals.

For many, the start of a new year comes with a new sense of motivation for self-reflection and self-improvement. We all have great aspirations come January, but typically fall off the wagon before achieving those goals, whether they are personal, professional or somewhere in between.

According to a survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Forbes Health, the average new year’s resolution lasts up to three months — at best — for most people1. Out of the 1,000 people surveyed in October 2023, only 5% kept up with their new year’s resolution through June.

Whether your goal is to lose weight, be more mindful, advance in your professional role, or something else entirely, it’s important to make a plan toward achieving that goal, as well as a means for following that plan. When it comes to setting goals, one common problem is shooting too high, or setting unrealistic expectations that are more likely to result in disappointment than success. According to the experts, the best approach is to start small2.

For example, in the book Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear, he suggests every goal or positive habit can be boiled down into a two-minute version3. If your goal is to run three miles per week, you could start by tying your shoes, or referring to yourself as a runner in casual conversation. These tactics might sound ridiculous, but science shows taking small steps like these over time can lead to significant results toward achieving a larger goal.

Clear also argues that a goal is only as good as the system used to achieve it. This is why it’s important to be intentional and methodical in your goal setting endeavors.

In a 2020 study published in PLOS ONE, Martin Oscarsson and his fellow researchers suggest approach-oriented goals are typically more successful than avoidance-oriented goals4. Approach-oriented goals refer to maintaining a desired outcome, while avoidance-oriented goals are centered around eliminating bad habits or undesired outcomes. So, instead of setting the goal of “losing weight,” changing your perspective to “eating healthier” or “exercising more” — in essence, taking steps toward a positive outcome rather than spending time and energy avoiding a negative outcome — could result in a better success rate.

Aside from starting small, the American Psychological Association also suggests focusing on one goal at a time to get the best results, as well as sharing your progress (and setbacks) with friends and family to keep yourself accountable2. Most importantly, seek support when you need it, and remember to give yourself grace. It should be about progress, not perfection.

Sources:

[1] Forbes Health. “New Year’s Resolutions Statistics 2024.” Accessed Jan. 8, 2024, from https://www.forbes.com/health/mind/new-years-resolutions-statistics/.

[2] American Psychological Association. “The secret behind making your New Year’s resolutions last.” Accessed Jan. 8, 2024, from https://www.apa.org/topics/behavioral-health/new-year-resolutions.

[3] Clear, J. (2019). “Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results.” Penguin USA.

[4] Oscarsson, M., Carlbring, P., Andersson, G., and Rozental, A. (2020). “A large-scale experiment on New Year’s resolutions: Approach-oriented goals are more successful than avoidance-oriented goals.” PLOS ONE, 15(12), e0234097. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0234097

Taking a whole-person approach to obesity support

Anti-obesity medication paired with healthy lifestyle skill building could be the answer to sustainable weight loss.

In 2018, 30.7% of adults in the United States were considered overweight, 42.7% had obesity, and 9.2% had severe obesity1. Obesity is linked to several life-threatening medical conditions, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even some types of cancer. From a healthcare perspective, obese adults paid $1,861 more on average in medical costs compared to adults at a healthy weight2.

These statistics point to a nationwide obesity crisis. According to Silver Fern Healthcare, the issue has stemmed from inadequate healthcare approaches to obesity, as well as a “flawed national dietary prescription for obesity,” referring to calorie counting, a focus on low-fat eating and smaller servings, combined with exercise and better willpower and accountability3. The pervasive presence of ultra-processed foods in today’s restaurants and grocery stores have only exacerbated the issue.

Many have tried traditional weight loss methods with little, or short-lived, success, but recent pharmaceutical advancements have presented us with a new plan of action — anti-obesity medications (AOMs). According to Silver Fern, AOMs could play a crucial role in response to the national obesity crisis4.

Clinical studies of AOMs on the market today have resulted in between 18% and 22% weight loss on average4. These medications act on gut hormones to make patients feel fuller faster and reduce hunger, among other things. However, AOMs target biological symptoms of obesity and do not address the root causes. When a patient stops taking an AOM, the hormonal and metabolic benefits cease to exist, and — without ancillary support — any weight lost is likely to return.

AOMs aren’t a silver-bullet solution, as there are several individual factors that lead to and enable obesity. A whole-person approach to obesity care should consider more than just medical and dietary interventions; it must also consider overarching cultural influences, lifestyle choices, health inequities, mental health, and personal pressures stemming from a person’s work, social and family life3.

According to Silver Fern, these behavioral and psychosocial factors are the driving force behind 60% of obesity intervention outcomes, which should put them at, or at least near, the top of the list for tackling sustainable weight loss. While AOMs may be an excellent tool for kick-starting weight loss, they are most effective in the long term when paired with a whole-person approach, which could include programs like health coaching and healthy lifestyle skill building.

Employees who are taking AOMs and have access to comprehensive obesity support programs with personalized wellness strategies are likely to see the best — and most lasting — results. While AOMs may be a promising new tool in obesity treatment, they aren’t cheap. According to Silver Fern, first-to-market Wegovy costs as much as $17,976 per year, and emerging competitors are expected to price their solutions similarly4. For employers, covering the cost of AOMs necessitates preemptive action with benefits partners to ensure sufficient program options are available. Helping employees find a path to sustainable weight loss and better wellbeing is good business. Learn how WellSpark helps employers improve the health of their workforce through employee support — individual, group and text — focused on removing barriers that prevent lasting change.

Sources:

[1] National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. “Overweight & Obesity Statistics.” National Institutes of Health. Accessed Sept. 30, 2023, from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-statistics/overweight-obesity.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Adult Obesity Facts.” Accessed Sept. 30, 2023, from https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html.

[3] Silver Fern Healthcare, LLC. “Traditional US Obesity Programs Have Failed Us — But New Science Provides Hope and a Path Forward.” Accessed Sept. 30, 2323, from https://blog.silverfernhealthcare.com/traditional-us-obesity-programs-have-failed-us-but-new-science-provides-hope-and-a-path-forward/

[4] Silver Fern Healthcare, LLC. “Want to Ensure Your AOM Spend is Worth the Investment? Create an Effective and Affordable Obesity Program.” Accessed Sept. 30, 2023, from https://blog.silverfernhealthcare.com/want-to-ensure-your-aom-spend-is-worth-the-investment-create-an-effective-and-affordable-obesity-program/.

It Doesn’t Have to be Scary!

Approaching Generative AI Adoption with Strong Change Management Practices

We are living in a time of workplace transition. What started as a primarily onsite work culture in the U.S. shifted dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many employers are now facing resistance from employees as they try to nudge things back toward the “way things used to be.” Coupled with unprecedented economic, political, and technological uncertainties and the need to retain the absolute best talent, employers may have a heightened awareness of the potential for volatile behavior. The result? Careful action at a time when swift action is essential.

Since the launch of ChatGPT in late 2022, generative artificial intelligence, or GenAI, has contributed to fueling this uncertainty. It’s here, and it’s not going anywhere. It has permeated our daily routines, and organizations of every size are working to learn how to leverage, adopt, and protect against it. In some industries, such as insurance, healthcare, marketing, and finance, we are already seeing glimpses of GenAI finding its footing.

The shift to embracing this form of AI can be a big change for your workforce, and employers can’t assume that their employees will react well to this change. It is particularly scary for some employees because they may feel that their jobs are at stake with the adoption of this new technology. Just like in the 1970s and 1980s when workplaces had to embrace the addition of computers, and since then, the many significant advances in digital and mobile technology, here we are again.

From the lens of workplace behavior, there’s a concept called change management, which, boiled down to its essence, is a systematic approach to organizational transition or transformation. Leaders at organizations touched by GenAI can acknowledge that any change causes uncertainty and that this one, like others in the past, has the potential to negatively impact workplace culture.  

According to behavior and data scientist and author Dr. Pragya Agarwal, “workplace culture is the shared values, belief systems, attitudes and the set of assumptions that people in a workplace share.” For employers to successfully implement any major change, including the integration of GenAI, they want to consider what support and resources are available to employees.

Support starts with open, honest communication – early and often. In her book, Rising Strong, Brene Brown says that in the absence of data, people will create their own stories. If you want to foster a culture that encourages people to embrace GenAI, inform people about what you’re doing along the way. Invite employees to participate in the conversation about innovation. Allow the information they receive – their data – to tell a compelling story that will 1) keep them aligned to your company’s values, assumptions, attitudes, and beliefs; and 2) inspire them to want to be part of it.

At the same time, hold space for those who don’t operate at the speed of technology and put resources in place for people to work through the change. Try hosting focus groups for people to get their concerns addressed or extra training sessions for those who might not feel as confident with learning new skills. Connect the change to your broader wellbeing strategy and cross-promote your company’s employee assistance program (EAP), mental health support benefits, or health coaching programs.

Innovation is also a key driver of positive workplace culture, and the best talent expects it. They also expect whole-person support for their physical and mental health. Invest in the wellbeing of your employees, integrate wellbeing into your people strategies, and make sure you frequently communicate about these efforts to your workforce.

It can be a delicate balance between preserving workplace culture and implementing changes to meet the future needs of the business, and GenAI adoption is no different. This time of transition could lead to amazing organizational transformation with a strong and purposeful approach to managing change. Don’t be afraid of taking swift action if that’s what your business needs. Just bring your people along with you.

Contact WellSpark and find out how we can help your organization better manage change.

Wellness tip: Putting the ‘health’ in healthy relationships

Social connectedness is crucial to survival, and keeping these bonds strong can also benefit physical and mental health.

In 1995, two social psychologists posed the argument that the concept of belongingness is a basic human need1. Since then, the dawn of the World Wide Web and social media as we know it today has made social connectedness easier in some ways, and harder in others.

According to The University of Arizona’s Telemedicine Program, feelings of loneliness are linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety, heart disease and heart failure, stroke, dementia and premature death. What’s more, the effects of sustained loneliness have been equated to smoking 15 cigarettes per day2. Luckily, building and maintaining strong social connections is one way to combat these deleterious effects.

How does one measure social connectedness? The CDC defines social connectedness as reflecting the number, quality and diversity of relationships people have that cultivate a sense of belonging, value and support3. This could also mean cultivating a sense of community.

Staying social can have shockingly positive outcomes for health and wellness. These connections make us stronger, figuratively and literally — according to various sources, strong social bonds can help to prevent heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression and anxiety3.

PositivePsychology.com offers five ways to enhance social well being, including: expressing gratitude to others, performing random but consistent acts of kindness, practicing loving kindness meditation or LKM, sharing positive experiences with others and reflecting interest in others’ positive experiences, and seeking and maintaining high-quality relationships4.

Sources:

[1] ResearchGate. “The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation.” https://www.researchgate.net/publication/15420847_The_Need_to_Belong_Desire_for_Interpersonal_Attachments_as_a_Fundamental_Human_Motivation. Accessed Nov. 26, 2023.

[2] University of Arizona, Telemedicine Program. “Why is Social Health Important for Our Overall Wellness?” https://telemedicine.arizona.edu/blog/why-social-health-important-our-overall-wellness. Accessed Nov. 26, 2023.

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “How Does Social Connectedness Affect Health?” https://www.cdc.gov/emotional-wellbeing/social-connectedness/affect-health.htm. Accessed Nov. 26, 2023.

[4] PositivePsychology.com. “What Is Social Wellbeing? 12+ Activities for Social Wellness.” https://positivepsychology.com/social-wellbeing/. Accessed Nov. 26, 2023.

A more enduring path to employee wellbeing

Employee engagement is suffering, from entry-level workers all the way up to company executives. A transparent and empathetic approach could be what’s missing. To combat suffering engagement in today’s fast-paced workplace, company leaders will do well to take ownership of — and advocate for — their employees’ wellbeing as well as their own.

Minding your mind to be in the moment

Practicing mindfulness could help mitigate stress and improve overall wellness

Muscle memory. Creatures of habit. “I could do it with my eyes closed.” These common phrases all refer to how the brain helps us streamline familiar tasks and sensory information so we don’t have to process it all in real time. But while going through life on autopilot, what might we be missing?

The idea of being more mindful has become increasingly prevalent as a way to combat this tendency. Mindfulness is all about being present, or in the moment. It can mean noticing small things, like the weather or a particularly nice cashier at your local grocery store, but it can also mean being more attuned to how emotions manifest in the body, whether stemming from joy or frustration or sadness. The point is to experience life fully, purposefully, and without judgment.

According to Kelly Barron, life teacher at eMindful, living on autopilot can be a joy-suck, and it can also perpetuate unhealthy habits, like stress eating1. If being open to life’s experiences is the first part of being mindful, using that newfound awareness to inform the way we deal with mental or emotional adversities is the pièce de résistance.

In Barron’s own words, “Being mindful gives us the opportunity to not only live more fully but also to see our mental and emotional habits more clearly and to choose whether or not we want to engage in them.”

Being mindful may come more naturally to some, but making a conscious effort to cultivate mindfulness can be beneficial to anyone. One way to do this is through meditation. Another way to practice mindfulness is by taking a moment to pause and ground yourself in the present, both physically and mentally2.

Both of these methods are intended to bring the body and mind back in sync, so we can act effectively on what we need, address any seemingly rogue emotions or intuitions, and remind ourselves to enjoy the little things in life.

Sources:

[1] Barron, K. “What is mindfulness?” eMindful. Accessed Oct. 20, 2023, from https://emindful.com/2019/01/14/what-is-mindfulness-making-sense-of-mindfulness-practice/.

[2] eMindful. “Mindfulness for Beginners: 3 Ways to Ease into Mindfulness if You’re New to the Practice.” Accessed Oct. 20, 2023, from https://emindful.com/2020/04/10/mindfulness-for-beginners/.

Wellness tip: Get back to your roots

Research points to a direct correlation between spending time outdoors and improving mood, attention and cognition

According to Nielsen, most Americans spend more than 10 hours per day with their eyes on some kind of screen1. Assuming this screen time takes place largely indoors, and with research showing outdoor exposure can help boost mental health and benefit cognition, it’s no wonder our workforces are struggling with mental health and stress.

There are several health and wellness benefits linked to spending time outdoors. According to WebMD, these range from getting more exercise and vitamin D to improving sleep, fostering social connections, enhancing self-worth and focus, fortifying the immune system, bolstering creativity, and lowering stress and anxiety2.

An article from the American Psychological Association details just how much getting outside could benefit our overall wellbeing, including lowering stress, boosting mood, increasing empathy and cooperation, and improving attention3. According to a 2019 study cited in the article, people with exposure to natural environments showed improved memory, cognitive flexibility and attention.

Making time to be outdoors can be challenging in today’s bustling society. However, it doesn’t take much to receive the benefit — according to a study conducted in the United Kingdom, people who spend at least two hours in nature over the span of one week reported “significantly greater health and wellbeing.”

Sources:

[1] Nielsen. “U.S. Consumers are Shifting the Time They Spend with Media.” https://www.nielsen.com/insights/2019/us-consumers-are-shifting-the-time-they-spend-with-media/. Accessed Oct. 20, 2023.

[2] WebMD. “Health Benefits of Getting Outside.” https://www.webmd.com/balance/ss/slideshow-health-benefits-nature. Accessed Oct. 20, 2023.

[3] American Psychologicl Association. “Nurtured by nature: Psychological research is advancing our understanding of how time in nature can improve our mental health and sharpen our cognition.” https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature. Accessed Oct. 20, 2023.

The power of taking a personalized approach to diabetes self-management

Employee engagement is suffering, from entry-level workers all the way up to company executives. A transparent and empathetic approach could be what’s missing. To combat suffering engagement in today’s fast-paced workplace, company leaders will do well to take ownership of — and advocate for — their employees’ wellbeing as well as their own.

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