Don’t be fooled by fat-free foods

It’s been said that the best things in life are free. Many people think when they see fat-free foods that they have hit the jackpot. They can eat as much as they want because the item contains no fat.

Unfortunately, foods labeled fat free, reduced fat, low fat or sugar free do not equate with calorie-free and contain additives like salt, sugar and chemical fillers that make them less than healthy.

If you want to keep off unwanted pounds, you need to look beyond the claims on the front of the package and take a critical eye to the nutrition label and ingredients. Labeling a food item fat free is a classic bait-and-switch marketing strategy the food industry uses to try and get consumers to forget about the calories.

Labeling a food as fat free is a tactic companies use to get consumers to forget about calories Click To Tweet

Kari Kooi, RD, LD, with Houston Methodist Wellness Services, says reduced-fat products often contain the exact number of calories per serving as full-fat versions.

Reduced-fat foods have a perceived healthy image that researchers have dubbed a “health halo.” Studies have shown that people tend to eat twice as much or more of these foods.

Nutrition facts
Don’t just look at fat content. You need to also pay attention to serving size and other macronutrients such as carbohydrates.

Manufacturers often set the serving size for packaged foods to be unrealistically small (a serving size of Oreos is three cookies, ha!), so it’s important to look at the number of servings per container.

For example, chips and drinks offered at the checkout lane in the grocery store appear to have one serving, but often times have two or more.

Instead of looking for products with health claims such a low fat, Kooi suggests concentrating on eating healthy fats from whole foods such as nuts, olive oil and avocados. Monounsaturated fats found in these foods have been shown to lower LDL or bad cholesterol and boost HDL or good cholesterol in the blood.

Omega-3 fats in oily fish such as salmon and anchovies also have been shown to lower LDL. She says that fat plays a strong role in feeling satisfied after eating, thereby helping with appetite control and should make up at least 30% of our daily calories.

She also recommends avoiding trans fats as much as possible as it promotes inflammation in the body. Products that contain partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients list have trans fat.

When it comes to sugar free, it’s extremely important for people with diabetes to be smart label readers. Sugar is a carbohydrate and foods such as sugar-free cookies or candy are not free of carbohydrates. A person with diabetes may be unintentionally consuming large amounts of carbohydrates, which could lead to increased blood glucose levels.

The best way for all of us to avoid being fooled by reduced fat and sugar-free labels and putting on those unwanted pounds is to shop for nutrient-dense foods that don’t come in a package and therefore require no labeling.

What travelers need to know about deep vein thrombosis

Back in the summer of 2008, I was talking to one of our doctors about my family’s impending trip to Australia to visit my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. He was telling me that I should buy some compression stockings. Now, when I was a kid, I used to see my mom wear these all the time after she had varicose vein surgery. They were ugly and I thought they were just for people with really bad veins. He informed me that was not the case and without them I might be at risk for deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a condition that most people don’t think about when they are packing for an exciting long distance vacation.

DVT occurs when blood clots form in the deep vein of the lower legs and thighs. Sitting for long periods of time, either on an airplane or a car, can limit circulation in the legs, leading to a blood clot forming in the vein. The clot can travel unnoticed through the blood stream and lodge in the brain, lungs, heart and other areas causing severe damage to organs and, in some cases, death. The good news is the problem can be easily avoided.

Deep vein thrombosis affects 2 million Americans each year Click To Tweet

Dr. Alan Lumsden, chief of cardiovascular surgery at Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center, says if you plan to go overseas or on a long drive, make sure you get up and walk around at least every two hours, and try not to sleep more than four hours at a time. He adds you should drink plenty of water or juices, wear loose-fitting clothing, eat light meals and limit alcohol consumption. The aforementioned compression stockings are also a good idea, especially for people with venous problems or the elderly. These help prevent clots from forming in the deep veins.

If you do not have the opportunity to get up every couple of hours, the following exercise can be done while sitting down:

  • Extend both legs and move both feet back and forth in a circular motion.
  • Move the knee up to the chest and hold the stretch for at least 15 seconds.
  • Put both feet on the floor and point them upward. Also, put both feet flat and lift both heels as high as possible.
Deep vein thrombosis infographic
This infographic describes the symptoms of DVT, as well as tips on how to avoid it.

Some two millions Americans are stricken with DVT every year and nearly 200,000 die. DVT is most often found in people over 60, but can occur in any age group. The most famous death due to DVT involved late NBC reporter David Bloom, who got DVT in 2003 while embedded with the U.S. Troops in the Iraq War. He was 39.

Lumsden says symptoms can include pain and tenderness, swelling, redness, and increased warmth in one leg. In some cases, a physician might suggest that a patient go on blood thinners or simply take an aspirin before and during a long trip to avoid DVT. He adds that if you are pregnant, have a history of heart disease, cancer or blood clots, you should always consult with a physician before taking part in long travel.

DVT is a very serious condition that can ruin your vacation in an instant. Yes, I bought the compression stockings and wore them for the more than 24 hour trek to Australia. Did I feel a bit foolish? Yes I did, but at the end of the day I would rather feel foolish than be dead.

World Heart Day: the global issue of heart disease

e told my dad for years that he should stop smoking. First it was a pack a day, and then as he got older and the stresses of raising a family got to him, it was two packs and sometimes more. 

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

By age 66, he was having trouble breathing and had to be rushed to the hospital, where he was told he had congestive heart failure and would have to undergo a quadruple bypass operation. He made it through the operation, but never made it out of the hospital. He was gone; another victim of heart disease. 

According to the World Health Organization, more than 17 million people died from cardiovascular diseases in 2008, representing 30 percent of all deaths worldwide. Of these deaths, an estimated 7.3 million were due to coronary artery disease and 6.2 million were due to stroke. More than 80 percent of these deaths take place in low and middle-income countries. The WHO believes the number of cardiovascular disease deaths, mainly from heart disease and stroke, will increase to more than 23 million by the year 2030. The numbers are truly staggering. 

Cardiovascular disease accounts for 30% of all deaths worldwide Click To Tweet

The world has decided something needs to be done. The World Heart Federation, set up in 1970, and composed of heart foundations around the world, with the purpose of supporting international research, professional and public education, as well as community programs, is sponsoring World Heart Day on Sept. 29 as a way to alert the world about this growing health concern.

For the first time, the WHF has joined forces with the United Nations to try and reduce the number of deaths caused by cardiovascular disease. Dr. William Zoghbi, a cardiologist with the Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center and a WHF Board Member, says for the first time in its history, the United Nations has taken an active role by putting non-communicable disease like cardiovascular disease on its agenda. He believes this will go a long way toward getting countries involved to do something about the world’s number one killer.

“The goal is to reduce this number by one-third by 2030 through prevention and treatment,” said Zoghbi, who currently chairs the WHF Global Task Force for cardiovascular disease. “We want to ensure that every country’s health plan includes an essential package for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease.”

Zoghbi suggests countries must work on agriculture, transport, environmental and fiscal policies as well as international trade agreements that will have a strong impact on a person’s diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use.

“We need to help impress upon people lifestyle changes that will help reduce risk factors like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking” Zoghbi said. “More importantly, we need to hammer home the importance of screening for heart disease. Many people go to the doctor when it’s too late. Our goal is to make sure people have the tools to prevent heart disease and I believe we can make that happen.”


How to cope with summer allergies

Ten years ago for my 40th birthday, my wife bought me a nice Martin acoustic guitar. After using it in original bands for years that didn’t make any money, I thought I might venture out on my own and try to bring in some extra cash playing other people’s songs by myself. So far it has been very rewarding, and in some instances, lucrative.

The only drawback is that most of these gigs are outdoors. While the sweltering Houston heat hasn’t bothered me (at least not yet), the pollen and every other type of weed, grass or air pollution certainly has. It seems like every gig I battle a stuffy and runny nose, a scratchy throat, etc. This is not good when you are trying to sing for anywhere between two and four hours at a time.

Millions deal with summer allergies every year, and many things can cause symptoms such as watery eyes, sneezing, coughing, itchy eyes and nose, hay fever and the aforementioned scratchy throat and stuffy and runny nose.

Our body’s immune system is built to protect us from viruses, bacteria and parasites, but sometimes it gets confused. When this occurs the body releases chemicals, like histamine, that can trigger an allergic reaction.

The most common triggers are pollen and ragweed. Pollen usually arrives when trees are done pollinating in late spring and the ragweed likes to rear its ugly head in August. While pollen attaches itself to grass and weeds where you live, ragweed can travel hundreds of miles in the wind and trigger allergies. In other words, ragweed in Dallas can get us here in Houston.

Air pollution can also wreak havoc during the summer months. The most common pollutant is ozone, which is caused by a combination of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxide and the sun. The levels in cities like Houston and Los Angeles are very high during the summer. It’s important to pay attention to local weather reports to see the daily pollen, ragweed counts and ozone levels are each day and if it’s safe for you to be outside on those days.

Common allergy triggers are ragweed, pollen, dust mites and air pollution Click To Tweet

Don’t forget about dust mites. They are those lovely little creatures that we cannot see, but who show up in our house and make themselves at home. They love the summer’s warm, humid temperatures and they live and multiply in places like beds, fabric, carpets and, it seems, every place else.

Dr. Joshua Septimus, an internist with Houston Methodist Hospital, says it’s important to be the aggressor when it comes to dealing with seasonal allergies. For example, if you know you have seasonal allergies, a couple of weeks before you usually experience problems, start taking an over-the-counter, non-sedating, antihistamines like Claritin, Allegra, and continue to take them through allergy season. Nasal steroids are also good for people who experience something as simple as a runny nose.

Septimus adds that you should schedule a doctor’s appointment to talk about your symptoms and allergy history. Your doctor may suggest allergy treatments or send you to a specialist who might perform a skin test.

Taking steps to battle your summer allergies will make that trip to the beach or pool or just spending time with your family much more enjoyable.

What are the Transplant Games of America?

Born with a heart defect and diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2004, then 42-year old Brian Gilliam was told he would need a heart transplant to stay alive. Surprisingly, he was against the idea. He felt he had lived a good life and didn’t want to take an organ away from a younger person who he thought needed it more than he did. After his family told him they would like him to stick around a little longer, he changed his mind.

Since receiving a new heart in 2008, Brian has been a tireless promoter of organ donation and lives life to the fullest. He spends many hours visiting and encouraging other patients to be strong and not afraid because, as he puts it, “there is life after transplant.”

His passion fueled him to take part in the National Kidney Foundation Transplant Games in 2010. The experience inspired him. He watched people who went through the same experience he had gone through thrive in sports like swimming and basketball. In November, 2011, the games were abruptly canceled, leaving Gilliam and the rest of the team devastated.

Later, a group from Michigan breathed new life to the games after being approached by a persistent kidney transplant patient named T.J. Maciak. With only a few months to prepare, The Western Michigan Sports Commission hosted the first Transplant Games of America in July, 2012 in Grand Rapids, MI.

Gilliam, along with Houston Methodist J,C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center Coordinator, Donna Esposito, quickly assembled a team of 86 transplant recipients, living donors, donor families and supporters to go to the games. Team Texas took home more than 60 medals. When Brian and Donna found out that the games would continue in 2014, they both set out to bring those games to Houston.

There is life after transplant Click To Tweet

They met with Janis Burke, head of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, the group responsible for bringing high-profile events such as the Super Bowl and Final Four to Houston. Burke loved the idea of the games. After putting together a bid, the pitch was made to the Michigan group.  The games were awarded to Houston.

Since then, Brian and Donna, along with co-captain and kidney transplant patient Amy Frackowiak, have traveled around the state recruiting transplant recipients, living donors and donor families. To date, nearly 400 people have signed up to be members of Team Texas.

The event takes place July 11 – 15 in Houston with events such as swimming, bowling, golf, and track and field. There will be information booths and seminars about organ donation and transplantation, along with a special ceremony honoring donors at The Wortham Theater. There will also be opening ceremonies on Saturday, July 12 at BBVA Compass Stadium and closing ceremonies on July 15 at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

I invite you to attend the five-day event; it’s very inspiring. I attended the 2012 games and watching people who were once on the brink of death competing at such a high level is truly something to see. It’s beautiful to watch people of all ages and from all different ethnic backgrounds come together like they have known each other for years, sharing stories, expressing their gratitude for their donors and celebrating their second chance at life. The thing you will notice if you attend is how everyone is always smiling. It doesn’t matter what they are doing … they are always smiling. It’s a good lesson for all of us.

For more information about the 2014 Donate Life Transplant Games of America, click here. To get involved in Team Texas, go to

Weight loss: there’s an app for that

“I will start tomorrow” was a common phrase for me. I uttered it every day, usually as I was eating a Pop Tart or a bowl of pretzels or handful after handful of Wheat Thins.

Weight loss was just one of those things that I would get to … eventually. But as the years went by, I watched my weight continue to rise. I always vowed that I never wanted to weigh “240,” so whenever I would get within a few pounds, I would exercise or lay off the sweets for a day or two, lose a couple of pounds and breathe a sigh of relief.

On February 20, 2014, I stepped on the scale and it said “239.8,” not the dreaded “240,” but about as close as you can get. I knew it was time for a change. I was tired all the time, I had low self-esteem and I knew that 240 would eventually become 250 and it would just keep going up if I didn’t do something now.

A couple of weeks earlier, my daughter began using a food app called MyFitnessPal as a way for her to stay in shape for her upcoming soccer season. That was the spark I needed.

The app is not magic, but it does help you lose weight by simply counting calories. After you put in your current weight and then your desired weight, it gives the number of calories you can eat each day to lose the weight you want.

I put in that I wanted to lose 55 pounds, so it gave me 1,340 calories. It sounds like very little, but if you can make it through the first few days, you gain momentum and it becomes a new way of life.

3d supermarket smartphone
From automating calorie counting to assigning letter grades to foods, apps can help you lose weight and make healthy food choices.

While calorie counting is a great way to lose weight, Houston Methodist dietitian Kari Kooi says it’s important to make sure your calories count and that you are just not counting calories.

In other words, you want to be eating nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, etc., and staying away from processed foods that usually have empty calories. She says a good rule of thumb is to eat foods with five or less ingredients in them.

Kooi adds there are a couple of other apps besides My Fitness Pal. One is called Fooducate. This app assigns a letter grade, A through F, to the foods you eat. It also tells you why certain foods receive the grade they receive.

Another app is called ShopWell. It helps you pick groceries based on your health goals.

In the beginning of this quest, I did not exercise at all, but I have recently started to incorporate that into the plan.

While counting calories is helpful, don't forget to eat plenty of nutrient-dense foods, too Click To Tweet

I downloaded a workout app called Endomondo. It tracks how far and for how long you run or walk, and measures how many calories you burn. The great thing is that it connects to MyFitnessPal, so every time I exercise it automatically adds the extra calories I have burned to the daily calories I can eat.

Since February 21, 2014, I have lost 34 pounds. While I haven’t turned into Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, I feel much better about myself and my health.

Through this journey I have found that whether you have an app or go someplace that helps you, losing weight is all in your mind. I know I sound like Tony Robbins, but it’s true. If you decide to do it, you can do it. Food apps are just great tools that will help get you there.