What Happens When? Easy Choices for Better Health

Rushing out the door without breakfast…having a mixed drink before dinner…spending your day off sitting…or choosing a chocolate bar for your midday snack? All seem like small and innocuous discretions. But each causes things to happen inside your body that you probably would never know if we didn't tell you.

from Reverse Diabetes (Reader's Digest Association)
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    1. What happens when I skip breakfast?

    The inside story: When you wake up after a long night's rest, your body has gone as much as 12 hours without a meal. That means one thing: You need fuel. More precisely, it means there's probably a shortage of glucose in your bloodstream. If you don't eat breakfast and head out the door with low blood sugar, one organ in particular won't be operating at full speed: your brain, which requires a steady flow of blood sugar to run effectively. And even a mild case of low blood sugar can leave you queasy and jittery. You may also feel less sharp-witted. Studies of school children have shown repeatedly that kids who eat breakfast have better memories and learn more than their classmates who don't. What's more, blowing off breakfast is a set-up for pigging out later on. "Breakfast is important for keeping your appetite under control the rest of the day," says endocrinologist Suma Dronavalli, MD, of the University of Chicago Medical Center. In other words, skip breakfast and by noontime your groaning stomach will convince you to skip the salad and order a Dagwood-size sandwich, instead. Most people more than compensate for the calories they miss at breakfast by overeating at lunch and dinner — especially foods high in saturated fat, the kind that plugs arteries. Meanwhile, breakfast skippers are also more likely to snack on junk food between meals. One study found that women who usually nixed breakfast were able to take off four pounds — simply by adding a nutritious meal in the morning. Eat breakfast regularly and you'll not only lose weight, but your blood sugar should shape up, too. BOTTOM LINE: More than three quarters of people who lose weight and keep it off eat breakfast. Sitting down for the morning meal may also make you up to 50 percent less likely to develop insulin resistance, the problem that causes type 2 diabetes.

    2. What happens when I eat a bowl of high-fiber cereal for breakfast?

    The inside story: First, consider what happens when you eat sugary, low-fiber breakfast cereal. The carbohydrates in those crunchy treats make a rapid trip through your digestive system and are just as speedily converted to glucose. You know what that means: Your blood sugar spikes then plummets, and you're hungry soon after. Choosing breakfast cereal or other foods high in fiber minimizes that problem for a simple reason: You can't digest fiber. Instead, this rough stuff gets in the way as your body tries to absorb carbs and convert them into glucose. That makes for a slower, gentler rise in blood sugar after a meal. Keep eating high-fiber foods and your blood sugar will stay low, which will make cells throughout your body start processing this key energy source more efficiently. That means your pancreas won't have to work so hard to churn out insulin, which can help keep diabetes at bay and make you less likely to need medications if you have the condition. Eating fiber-rich whole-grain cereal has other benefits for blood sugar. For instance, whole grains are high in the mineral magnesium, which helps insulin to perform its handiwork. Eating high-fiber foods also lowers cholesterol and fills your stomach, which means you feel satisfied on fewer calories. That makes fiber a dieter's friend. BOTTOM LINE: In one huge study of more than 21,000 men, those who ate a daily bowl of cereal — especially high-fiber whole-grain varieties — cut their risk for type 2 diabetes by 37 percent.

    3. What happens when I snack on a chocolate bar?

    The inside story: Sugar or corn syrup are the primary ingredients in all candy, and when you eat choices like jelly beans, licorice, or hard candy that have so few other ingredients, your blood sugar immediately (and sometimes dangerously) soars. The blood-sugar effect of chocolate isn't quite as bad: The fat in chocolate slows down digestion just a bit. That means that the sugar in a chocolate bar will raise your blood sugar somewhat, but nowhere near as high as simple carbs like candy — or white bread or potatoes, for that matter. But before you toss out your carrot sticks for a Hershey bar, keep in mind that snacking on chocolate bars has plenty of downsides. For starters, milk chocolate — the kind in most popular chocolate bars — contains lots of artery-clogging saturated fat. It's true that some of that fat is a form called stearic acid that doesn't boost cholesterol much. But lots of fat means lots of calories; either way you munch it, milk chocolate pads your belly while packing little in the way of nutrients — unless you choose dark chocolate, which contains antioxidants that lower blood pressure. Eat a tiny piece every day (or one small bar per week) and your numbers could head south, though only by a few points. BOTTOM LINE: Chocolate may be alluring, but make it an occasional pleasure. Best Bet Look for brands of dark chocolate that contain at least 60 percent cocoa.

    4. What happens when I snack on an apple?

    The inside story: Few snacks are as good for you as this justifiably popular treat. Every bite of a juicy Granny Smith or McIntosh delivers vital nutrients and other food compounds that keep your metabolism on an even keel, curb appetite, and nourish the heart. Chief among them: fiber, specifically soluble fiber. All forms of roughage are good for you, but soluble fiber has a talent that's critical for controlling blood sugar: It turns all gooey in your intestines. That slows down digestion, which means that the sugar in an apple — and it has plenty — is absorbed slowly; eating one causes barely a blip in your blood sugar. (The soluble fiber in apples will have the same effect on any other carbs you consume at the same time, making them a great addition to salads.) Apples also contain an antioxidant called quercetin. People who consume lots of this potent compound (onions are another good source) seem to lower their risk for heart disease, some types of cancer, and even asthma. BOTTOM LINE: Large studies have shown that apple lovers are less likely to develop diabetes and have heart attacks. Other research shows that eating an apple a day may help you lose weight, too. What Else Happens? New research shows that the soluble fiber in apples, oats, and other foods cools damaging inflammation and helps your body fight infections.

    5. What happens when I spend the day sitting around?

    The inside story: Remember that old saying "the devil finds work for idle hands"? Spending a lazy day on the sofa may not seem evil to you, but your body finds plenty of ways to make trouble with the sugar, or glucose idling in your bloodstream. Taking a walk or getting any other type of physical activity forces muscle cells to soak up glucose, which it uses to produce energy. On a day when you don't give your muscles enough work to do, glucose goes unused. Over time, a sit-around lifestyle encourages two major problems: * Your body converts some unused sugar to fat. Build up too much and your butt, thighs, and belly will expand. The latter flab depository is the most worrisome; research shows that fat cells around the waistline produce chemicals that cause insulin resistance and low-grade inflammation, which promotes heart disease and other conditions. * Having lots of glucose lingering in the blood increases levels of dangerous compounds called AGEs that damage nerves and blood cells. That's why high blood sugar causes diabetes complications such as blindness and kidney disease. Getting up off the sofa and heading out the door for a walk can help you to avoid these fates, of course. Exercise is a reliable fat burner and research shows that physical activity lowers levels of AGEs, too — among many other benefits. BOTTOM LINE: Sitting around all day may help you get caught up on your favorite cable shows, but it is also a set-up for bad blood sugar, weight gain, and all the problems they can cause.

    6. What happens when I go for a 30-minute walk?

    The inside story: Simply taking a long, brisk stroll produces enough good news for your body to fill a Sunday paper. Let's start with your blood sugar. When you get up and move for an extended period, muscle cells eventually run out of juice. To keep on moving, your muscles refuel by drawing sugar from the blood. For this to happen, cells must become less resistant to insulin, the hormone that allows them to use blood sugar. Insulin resistance causes type 2 diabetes, but regular exercise can help keep the problem at bay by training muscle cells to respond better to the hormone. Exercise can help you lose belly flab, too, which further lowers insulin resistance and reduces inflammation as well — a plus for your heart and overall health. Taking a walk can also set you on the path toward better cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and a happier outlook on life, to name just a few of the many benefits of exercise. BOTTOM LINE: Starting a walking program and eating a healthy diet can cut the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 58 percent, a major study found. If you take medication for type 2, getting up off the sidelines and on the go could allow you to lower your dose.

    7. What happens when I spend the day really angry?

    The inside story: There's nothing wrong with getting angry — it's perfectly natural and healthy to get ticked off now and then. Staying angry is another matter altogether: It's terrible for you. Apart from wrecking your mood and alienating others, fuming all day can make it much harder to manage diabetes. Anger is a form of emotional stress, which causes your body to release adrenaline and other related hormones. One effect of these "stress" hormones is to raise blood sugar. Also, stress may make you indulge in bad habits, such as eating junk food, which can make matters worse. There's more. Letting your anger boil all day can damage your heart. Do you get irked and annoyed now and then, but you're able to shrug it off? No big deal. But scientists now know that clinging to anger raises blood pressure. While that's not a big surprise, a recent Yale study found that people who tend to let their anger stew also have high levels of a substance called endothelin, which is known to trigger heart attacks by causing plaques in the arteries (clumps of fat, cholesterol, and other gunk) to burst open and form blood clots. Other research has found that intense, sustained anger can actually cause an arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, which can stop your ticker from ticking — permanently. BOTTOM LINE: Day-long anger can be toxic, so find a way to let it go. Write down your rage in a journal. If a friend or family member made you mad, tell 'em. Or just go outside and scream — whatever helps you blow off steam.

    8. What happens when I spend the day really happy?

    The inside story: When you're feeling chipper, your body settles into a state of calm and seems better able to focus on taking care of itself. Since you're at peace with the world, there's no reason to blast out stress hormones, which not only raise blood sugar, but also boost blood pressure and heart rate. The latter effects may help explain the results of a recent study of more than 1,700 Canadian men and women. Over a 10-year period, people who felt happy and satisfied with their lives had far fewer heart attacks than others who were more sour and gloomy. There is also intriguing research hinting that happy people may be less likely to develop infections and other illnesses. In one study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University exposed men and women to various viruses. They found that those who were upbeat and positive produced significantly greater numbers of infection-fighting proteins called cytokines. Maintaining a confident, content attitude has actually been shown to prolong and save lives in patients coping with cancer and many other conditions. How you feel affects your behavior, of course. Other studies have found that diabetes patients who are optimistic about their lives are more likely to eat right and exercise — and have lower blood sugar to show for it. Naturally, if you're struggling with your mood and outlook you can't just flip a switch and turn on the smiles. But asking your family to eat the same healthy foods you need, or getting a friend to walk with you every day might help. Many studies show that emotional support helps diabetes patients feel and fare better. And if you feel depressed day after day, tell your doctor. BOTTOM LINE: Remember the old line about how a smile exercises more muscles in your face than a frown? Turns out happiness helps battle high blood sugar, too.

    9. What happens when I have a cocktail before dinner?

    The inside story: If you have an empty stomach, you could be asking for trouble. While that adult beverage may confer some health benefits, it's always best for a person with diabetes to sip alcohol with a meal. Here's why: When you pour that pre-dinner drink, it's been hours since you ate lunch. After your midday meal, your blood sugar rose, then dropped. To bring your blood sugar back to normal, your liver began releasing glucose into the blood. However, alcohol temporarily shuts down that process. In some cases, this could cause you to develop hypoglycemia, or very low blood sugar. If you enjoy alcoholic beverages, be sure to drink in moderation. That means one drink a day for women and two for men. BOTTOM LINE: Never drinking on an empty stomach will help avoid very low blood sugar. Limiting how much you drink will safeguard you from a long list of ills, such as liver disease, high blood pressure, and some forms of cancer (including breast cancer). Smart Drinks If you enjoy cocktails or mixed drinks, avoid varieties made with soda or juice — they're high in sugar and calories, which can mess up your blood-sugar control and pack on pounds. Try drinks made with diet soda or tonic water, seltzer, or water, instead.

    10. What happens when I have a glass of wine with dinner?

    The inside story: As you savor a spicy pinot noir or oaky chardonnay with your food, changes are taking place in your bloodstream that lower your risk for heart disease and improve your blood sugar. For starters, blood levels of HDL cholesterol rise; that's the beneficial kind of cholesterol that helps keep your arteries clear. Moderate consumption of alcohol boosts HDL by about 12 percent, on average. Alcohol also makes proteins in the blood less likely to clump together and form clots that can cause heart attacks. Healthy blood vessels do more than protect the heart, however; your brain needs good circulation, too. People who have a drink now and then have fewer strokes and are less likely to develop dementia, or age-related loss of mental clarity, especially forms caused by diseased blood vessels. Moderate drinking also seems to improve blood-sugar control. No one is sure why, though it could be that alcohol makes the body more sensitive to insulin. Drinking wine — especially red varieties — may offer the most overall health benefits, since it contains a compound called resveratrol and other antioxidants that may confer added disease protection. BOTTOM LINE: Moderate alcohol consumption lowers the risk of heart disease 30 to 50 percent. It guards against the most common form of stroke, too. There's also evidence that a drink or two a day can lower the risk for type 2 diabetes by up to 56 percent. Just don't consume on an empty stomach. What's a Drink? Drinking in moderation means pouring in moderation. ONE SERVING OF ALCOHOL = 5 oz of wine 12 oz of beer 1.5 oz of liquor

    11. What happens when I only sleep five hours?

    The inside story: No one knows for sure why sleep is necessary, but there's no doubt that getting too little throws a wrench into your body's works. For example, studies show that a sleep debt lowers levels of the hormone leptin, which helps keep your appetite under control. Implication: Sleep too little, and there's a good chance you'll be soon overeating. Sleep deprivation also boosts levels of stress hormones, which prompt your body to send more glucose into your bloodstream. Too little sleep also makes your body less sensitive to insulin. But that's just the beginning. Research shows that sleeping too little shuts down production of certain chemicals in the immune system that defend your body against germs. Shortchange yourself on shut-eye and you may want to have a box of tissues and cough medicine handy: A 2009 study found that people who sleep less than seven hours a night are up to three times more likely to develop a cold. Other studies show that even modest sleep deprivation — cutting back from your usual eight hours a night to six hours, for instance — can turn up levels of chronic inflammation, which increases the risk for many conditions, including heart attacks, strokes, and osteoporosis. Then, there are the immediate effects. When the alarm clock blares you out of a deep sleep, you're apt to start the day in a sour mood. As the day passes, you're also likely to feel dull witted and foggy. Some neurologists believe that one purpose of sleep is to give your brain a chance to build and strengthen the wiring between neurons. Studies show that well-rested people learn new information faster and have sharper memories. Short sleep reduces your reaction time, too, making you at risk for car accidents and other mishaps. BOTTOM LINE: While some people can get by on relatively little sleep, most of us need seven to eight hours a night. Experts say one sign that you're getting adequate sleep is that you can wake up on time every day without using an alarm clock.

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