By Elizabeth Cohen
CNN Medical Correspondent

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) — This week while you’re traveling, if you happen to spot a man applying hand sanitizer as he gets off an escalator, there’s a good chance it’s Dr. Mark Gendreau, a senior staff physician at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts.

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Travel season can be a germ fest. Make sure to keep your hands clean.

Gendreau studies germiness while traveling, and he knows just how infectious travel can be.

“The risk of contracting a contagious illness is heightened when we travel within any enclosed space, especially during the winter months, when most of the respiratory viruses thrive,” Gendreau said.

Studies show that germs can travel easily on an airplane, where people are packed together like sardines.

For example, a woman on a 1994 flight from Chicago to Honolulu transmitted drug-resistant tuberculosis to at least six of her fellow passengers, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study.

In 2003, 22 people came down with SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, from a single fellow passenger who had SARS but didn’t have any symptoms, according to another New England journal study.

But the airplane isn’t the only place along your travel route where germs thrive. Here are five ways to avoid germs while traveling.

1. Sit toward the front of the airplane

“Pick a seat near the front, since ventilation systems on most commercial aircraft provide better air flow in the front of the aircraft,” Gendreau advised. If you can afford it, sit in first class, where people aren’t so squished together.

2. Don’t drink coffee or tea on an airplane

Monitoring by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that water in airplanes’ water tanks isn’t always clean — and coffee and tea are usually made from that water, not from bottled water, according to Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association.

The EPA advises anyone with a suppressed immune system or anyone who’s “concerned” about bacteria to refrain from drinking coffee or tea on an airplane.

“While boiling water for one minute will remove pathogens from drinking water, the water used to prepare coffee and tea aboard a plane is not generally brought to a sufficiently high temperature to guarantee that pathogens are killed,” according to the EPA’s Web site.

According to the EPA, out of 7,812 water samples taken from 2,316 aircraft, 2.8 percent were positive for coliform bacteria. Although that sounds like a small number, this means 222 samples contained coliform bacteria.

3. Sanitize your hands after leaving an airplane bathroom

A toilet on an airplane “is among the germiest that you will encounter almost anywhere,” said Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona who’s also known as “Dr. Germ.”

“You have 50 people per toilet, unless you are flying a discount airline; then it is 75,” Gerba said. “We always find E. coli on surfaces in airplane restrooms.”

You should wash your hands after using the restroom, but because the water itself might have harmful bacteria (see No. 2 above) and because the door handle on your way out has been touched by all those who went before you, Gendreau also advises sanitizing your hands when you return to your seat.

4. Wash or sanitize your hands after getting off an escalator

Gendreau says tests show that escalators in airports are full of germs.

To confirm these tests, here’s a fun activity while you wait for your flight this Thanksgiving: Look at your watch, and count how many people get on an escalator in a five-minute time period. Multiply that by 12, and you have how many people are on that escalator every hour.

High-volume handrails are why Gendreau sanitizes his hands as soon as he can after he exits an escalator.

5. Wash or sanitize your hands after using an ATM

Gendreau says ATMs, especially in busy places like airports, are full of germs. As with escalators, he sanitizes ASAP after using one.

Gendreau says that keeping healthy while traveling can be summed up in six words: “hand hygiene, hand hygiene, hand hygiene.”

Keeping your hands clean is crucial, he says, when you’re spending the day touching surfaces that have been touched by hundreds or thousands of people before you.

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Conquering the ‘ewww’ factor of the public potty

By Elizabeth Landau
CNN

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) — Most of us have them — the personal ritual to deal with the “ick” of a public bathroom: wiping the seat with toilet paper, using a paper seat cover or even rolling up several pieces of toilet paper to create a thicker barrier between the skin and … the unknown.

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Public bathrooms may be teeming with bacteria, but the toilet seat is probably safe for sitting.

But the toilet seat is actually the cleanest part of the bathroom, one expert says.

Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona who has studied restrooms and other germ-infested environments for more than 20 years, says that because of the care people take when they’re about to sit, other parts of the bathroom are much more prone to delivering bacterial infections.

“One of the cleanest things in the bathrooms we find are the toilet seats,” Gerba said. “I’d put my fanny on it any time — unless it’s wet; then you’d want to wipe it first.”

The Internet has come through for people who just want a clean place to go. New tools like MizPee (nationwide) and Diaroogle (New York only) will point you to the nearest public restroom and display extensive comments about those facilities from users, even delivering the information to your mobile phone. (Warning: CNN makes no promises about the cleanliness of the language in these bathroom locators.)

MizPee launched a year ago for people in San Francisco, California, after co-founder Peter Olfe saw that the city’s public library bathroom was “so disgusting,” said Dhana Pawar, vice president and co-founder of Yojo Mobile, which created MizPee. “Unfortunately, [MizPee] was inspired by that trip.”

Fueled by demand, MizPee has expanded to more than 22 cities in America and six in Europe, and has had more than 300,000 unique visitors. Users rate toilets on a scale from one to five toilet paper rolls and nominate the best and worst toilets for the Flush of the Year award. The site also gives users information on deals at restaurants, shops and services nearby, in addition to toilet trivia called “looisms.”

Women tend to have higher standards for bathroom cleanliness than men, often rating any given unisex bathroom lower than men, Pawar said. In general, many more women than men use the site, but male bikers and older men, especially colitis patients, also come to MizPee.

Women are also particularly concerned about finding clean bathrooms with changing stations, Pawar said. “You’d be surprised how few there are.”

Pawar said she herself is “really paranoid” when it comes to the restroom.

“I’m one of those really anal people who have to have a clean bathroom,” she said.

For many people, public bathrooms generate feelings of anxiety, fear and disgust.

“Basically, everybody is fearful of public restrooms,” said Dr. Lisa Bernstein, assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine, who admitted that her mother always told her that she should never make direct contact with a toilet seat.

Research indicates that fear of the commode itself may be misdirected.

Public bathrooms may contain several kinds of harmful bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, coliform, rotavirus, cold virus and the potentially deadly form of staph known as MRSA, experts say. But people are more likely to pick up these nasty bugs through touching things in the bathroom with their hands, not their behinds.

“I don’t think anyone would voluntarily sit on a seat with urine, but, in reality, urine touching intact skin on the tush won’t do anything,” Bernstein said.

More concerning, however, is a child who steadies himself or herself on a toilet seat by holding onto it and then leaving without washing hands, she said. Those germs could lead to an infection once the child’s hands touch the nose, mouth or eyes.

And don’t forget that unwashed hands have handled everything from the door knob to the lock to the flusher. Again, if you touch one of these objects and then rub your eye, nose or mouth, you’re apt to transmit that bacteria.

But there is hope. Here are hygiene helpers:

Wash your hands

Yes, it’s basic. But, in general, washing your hands is the most effective action you can take to prevent bacterial infections from a public bathroom, experts say.

“You can remove all gastrointestinal and respiratory infection bacteria by washing hands,” said Judy Daly, clinical microbiologist at the University of Utah and spokesperson for the Clean Hands Campaign. “Seventeen seconds of a little bit of friction, water and soap will really mediate bacteria.”

The American Society for Microbiology, which sponsors the Clean Hands Campaign, found in a study last year that about 77 percent of men and women washed their hands in public restrooms, down 6 percent from 2005. The observational study also found that women washed their hands more than men.

“It’s such an easy intervention,” Daly said. “If you get it to be a habit for a 30-day period, it’s something you do automatically.”

Use automatic devices

Recent bathroom additions like automatic hands-free faucets and paper towel dispensers diminish contact between your hands and bathroom items that may bear bacteria, Bernstein said.

Don’t let your belongings touch the floor

Gerba’s research found that the highest concentration of germs in a public bathroom are on the floor, the outside of the sanitary napkin disposal and the sink and water taps.

When Gerba looked at women’s purses, he found that one-third of them had fecal bacteria on the bottom. Make sure you hang your shoulder bag on a hook. If none is available, some people swear by hanging the strap around their necks.

Use the first stall

The middle stall of a public restroom usually has the most bacteria because people use it the most. “I guess people like company,” Gerba said. The first stall will probably be cleaner.

Recognize the best and the worst

As a rule, the cleanest toilets are usually in hospitals, because they use disinfectants heavily, but the worst are in airports and airplanes, Gerba said. The small size of airplane bathrooms, including the sinks themselves, make it hard for people to wash their hands — in fact, Gerba’s study found a thin layer of E. coli in an airplane bathroom.

As for the airports themselves, “In the men’s room at Chicago O’Hare, I don’t think the toilet seat ever gets cold,” Gerba said.

Don’t hold back

It’s fine for a woman to hover over the toilet seat if she doesn’t want to sit down, but if she doesn’t empty her bladder completely, she’s at risk for a urinary infection, Bernstein said.

“You may be doing yourself more harm than good,” she said.

Along the same lines, you can develop urinary infections from “holding it in” too long just because you don’t want to use a particular facility. Better in a public stall than not at all.

Put it in perspective

Although the bathroom seems like a nasty place, the possible infections from the dreaded stall are no different from the ones you can get anywhere else in public.

“They’re the same bugs we transmit shaking hands,” Bernstein said. “People are more freaked out about restrooms, but the same thing applies anywhere in public.”

After all that research — he’s had the cops called on him while prowling around bathroom floors — Gerba has no problem with sitting down on public toilets. But Bernstein still uses one or two seat covers, “because of what my mother taught me,” she said.

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WebMD Talks Turkey With Light Leftover Recipes

Our ‘Recipe Doctor’ offers tips on how to use up the rest of that bird

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

One of the best parts about the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays actually comes the day after — leftovers! What’s your favorite: the leftover stuffing, the mashed potatoes, or a slice of pumpkin pie?

In honor of the season, and the leftover turkey we all hope to have sitting in our refrigerator after the hordes of dinner guests have departed, Here are a few favorite leftover turkey tips and recipes.

10 Light & Tasty Ways to Enjoy Leftover Turkey

10) Make a turkey salad sandwich by mixing a little light mayonnaise with just as much fat-free sour cream and stir in diced turkey along with some chopped celery, a pinch of Dijon mustard, and a sprinkle of toasted pecans or walnuts. Serve on whole-grain bread or a whole-grain roll.

(Check out my Turkey and Cranberry Sandwich recipe below.)

9) Add diced turkey to whatever soup, stew, or chowder you enjoy. You can even buy low-fat canned soup (like chicken noodle, minestrone, etc.) and stir some diced turkey into the saucepan when you are heating it up.

8) Use shredded turkey in place of chicken in your favorite Mexican recipes, such as enchiladas, quesadillas, tamales, etc.

7) Add shredded turkey to your favorite pasta dish, such as light fettuccine Alfredo (see recipe below), lasagna, pesto and pasta, even chilled pasta salad.

6) Add shredded turkey to your favorite rice dish, such as a rice casserole, a saffron or savory rice dish, or even a cold rice salad.

5) Make an individual serving of stuffing casserole. Stir about 1/3 cup of shredded turkey meat (and 1/3 cup of some vegetables if desired) into a small microwave-safe bowl, along with about 1 cup of leftover stuffing. Top with a spoon of gravy or grated reduced-fat cheese, if desired. Cover and reheat mixture in the microwave about 2 minutes on HIGH.

(Or try out my Irish Shepherd’s Pie recipe below!)

4) Turkey chili will heat things up the day after Thanksgiving. Make your favorite light chili recipe but instead of adding in browned ground beef or beef chunks, stir in some diced or shredded turkey.

3) Enjoy a light turkey Caesar salad the next day. Mix up a quick Caesar salad using Romaine lettuce, tomato wedges, and fat-free or low-fat Caesar salad croutons (available in most supermarkets). Top the salad with plenty of shredded turkey and drizzle bottled light Caesar salad dressing over the top. If you can’t find light Caesar dressing in your market, make up your own by blending 1/2 cup of regular Caesar dressing with 1/2 cup of apple juice.

2) Don’t wait until lunch to enjoy your leftover turkey. Add some shredded turkey to your breakfast omelet or frittata. Turkey goes well with the fixings we normally add to our omelets and frittatas — green onions, avocado, vegetables, reduced-fat cheese, fat-free sour cream, etc.

1) Transform leftover turkey into an elegant turkey divan by topping a turkey and broccoli casserole with melted reduced-fat cheese and a light crumb topping.

Turkey and Cranberry Sandwich

I know you are all going to want to make turkey sandwiches the day after Thanksgiving. To give you yet another sandwich to enjoy, other than the standard turkey sandwich, here’s a sandwich that uses the leftover cranberry sauce as well!

2 slices whole-grain bread or 1 whole-grain roll
1 to 2 tablespoons light cream cheese
1 to 2 tablespoons cranberry sauce
A couple of carved slices of turkey (about the size of the palm of your hand)
Lettuce, tomato, sliced onion, alfalfa sprouts (as desired)

# Spread the cream cheese over one of the slices of bread or roll. Spread cranberry sauce over the top of that.
# Add the slices of turkey and top with lettuce, tomato, sliced onion or alfalfa sprouts as desired. Enjoy!

Makes 1 sandwich.

Per sandwich: 339 calories, 33 g protein, 36 g carbohydrates, 6.5 g fat (3.2 g saturated fat, 0.9 g monounsaturated fat, 0.7 g polyunsaturated fat), 81 mg cholesterol, 4 g fiber, 419 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 17%.

The Day After Irish Shepherd’s Pie

This is a wonderful way to enjoy the leftover mashed potatoes, green vegetables, and gravy, too!

Canola cooking spray
2/3 cup chopped mild or sweet onion
2 cups diced roasted turkey
2 cups leftover gravy
1/2 to 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1-2 cups assorted leftover vegetables (optional)
2 cups mashed potatoes
1 tablespoon butter or no/low-trans fat margarine
Freshly ground black pepper (optional)

# Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. Coat the inside of a deep-dish pie plate with canola cooking spray.
# Coat a large, nonstick skillet with canola cooking spray, add the onion, and cook until the onion is lightly browned. With the spatula, stir in the diced turkey, gravy, Worcestershire sauce, and leftover vegetables, if desired.
# Spread the turkey mixture evenly in the prepared pie plate. Spread the mashed potatoes evenly over the meat. With the fork, make a design in the mashed potatoes. Set aside.
# In a microwave-safe cup, melt the butter in the microwave (or melt it in saucepan over low heat on the stove). With a pastry brush, brush the top of the potatoes with the melted butter. Sprinkle black pepper over the top if desired.
# Place pie dish in the oven and cook until heated through and golden on top (about 25 minutes).

Makes 6 servings.

Per serving (using a store-bought gravy): 234 calories, 18 g protein, 24 g carbohydrate, 7.3 g fat (2.2 g saturated fat, 2.8 g monounsaturated fat, 2.2 g polyunsaturated fat), 42 mg cholesterol, 2.5 g fiber, 500-700 mg sodium (depending on the gravy). Calories from fat: 28%.

Turkey Fettuccini Alfredo

You will love this totally creamy and comforting dish.

2 to 2 1/2 cups roasted turkey breast, cut into strips (skinless)
1/4 cup light cream cheese
1 1/2 cups fat-free half-and-half or whole milk, divided
1 tablespoon Wondra quick-mixing flour
1 tablespoon butter (or no/low-trans fat margarine)
3 cups hot cooked and drained spaghetti or fettuccine noodles
Salt and freshly grated pepper to taste
Pinch or two of nutmeg (add more to taste if desired)
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese (add more at the table if desired)

# Boil fettuccine noodles.
# Combine cream cheese, 1/4-cup fat-free half-and-half, and flour in a small mixing bowl or food processor. Beat or pulse until well blended. Slowly pour in remaining half-and-half or milk and beat until smooth.
# Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large, nonstick frying pan or saucepan over medium heat. Add the milk mixture and continue to heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce is just the right thickness (about 3-4 minutes). Turn the heat to low and add the hot noodles and turkey strips. Toss to coat noodles and turkey well with sauce. Add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste if desired. Stir in grated Parmesan and serve.

Makes 4 servings.

Per serving: 419 calories, 37 g protein, 44 g carbohydrate, 9 g fat (3.8 g saturated fat, 2.8 g monounsaturated fat, 1.6 g polyunsaturated fat), 79 mg cholesterol, 2 g fiber, 332 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 23%.

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WebMD Green Bean Casserole

A Thanksgiving classic gets a healthy makeover.

Green bean casserole has a pedigree: invented by Campbell Soup Company in 1955 to prompt happy housewives to buy more cream of mushroom soup, it’s a piece of American marketing history. A culinary icon, but one, like many from its era, that falls squarely in our makeover sweet-spot. Traditionally made with butter, canned soup and canned French-fried onions, this classic is high in calories, sodium and saturated fat. We get an equally delicious result by using fresh mushrooms, low-fat milk and lightly pan-fried sweet onions coated with garlic-seasoned flour. When you taste our version, we’re sure you’ll agree this is one culinary icon that was ready for a re-invention.

WebMD’s Green Bean Casserole

Makes 6 servings, about 3/4 cup each

TOTAL TIME: 45 minutes

ACTIVE TIME: 30 minutes

EASE OF PREPARATION: Easy

This healthy revision of green bean casserole skips the canned soup and all the fat and sodium that come with it. Our white sauce with sliced fresh mushrooms, sweet onions and low-fat milk makes a creamy, rich casserole.

3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 medium sweet onion (half diced, half thinly sliced), divided
8 ounces mushrooms, chopped
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
2/3 cup all-purpose flour, divided
1 cup low-fat milk
3 tablespoons dry sherry (see Ingredient Note)
1 pound frozen French-cut green beans (about 4 cups)
1/3 cup reduced-fat sour cream
3 tablespoons buttermilk powder (see Ingredient Note)
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Coat a 2 1/2-quart baking dish with cooking spray.
2. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add diced onion and cook, stirring often, until softened and slightly translucent, about 4 minutes. Stir in mushrooms, onion powder, 1 teaspoon salt, thyme and pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the mushroom juices are almost evaporated, 3 to 5 minutes. Sprinkle 1/3 cup flour over the vegetables; stir to coat. Add milk and sherry and bring to a simmer, stirring often. Stir in green beans and return to a simmer. Cook, stirring, until heated through, about 1 minute. Stir in sour cream and buttermilk powder. Transfer to the prepared baking dish.
3. Whisk the remaining 1/3 cup flour, paprika, garlic powder and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt in a shallow dish. Add sliced onion; toss to coat. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion along with any remaining flour mixture and cook, turning once or twice, until golden and crispy, 4 to 5 minutes. Spread the onion topping over the casserole.
4. Bake the casserole until bubbling, about 15 minutes. Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Tips: Don’t use the high-sodium “cooking sherry” sold in many supermarkets. Instead, purchase dry sherry sold with other fortified wines.

Look for buttermilk powder, such as Saco Buttermilk Blend, in the baking section or with the powdered milk in most supermarkets.

Per serving: 212 calories; 10 g fat (2 g saturated fat, 5g mono unsaturated fat); 10 mg cholesterol; 23 g carbohydrates; 7 g protein; 3 g fiber; 533 mg sodium; 259 mg potassium. 1 1/2 Carbohydrate Servings. Exchanges: 1/2 starch, 1 vegetable, 2 fat

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Lightened Kraft Cheesy Brunch/Lunch/Supper Casserole

Ingredients:

12 cups of 1/2-inch cubes of whole wheat bread (whole wheat sourdough works well), (or substitute rice or left-over rice, to your taste, adjust according to number of servings)

1/2 cup chopped red pepper, divided use

12 ounces Kraft shredded, reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese, divided use

3 cups small fresh broccoli florets

4 large eggs (use a higher omega-3 brand if available)

1 cup egg substitute

1/2 cup fat-free sour cream

2 1/2 cups fat-free half-and-half (or substitute low-fat milk)

Preparation:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 13 x 9-inch baking dish with canola cooking spray.
2. Layer half of the bread cubes, half the chopped red pepper and half the shredded cheese in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle all the broccoli florets over the top then repeat the previous layers with the remaining bread cubes, red pepper and cheese.
3. In large mixing bowl, beat eggs, egg substitute, and sour cream until blended. Pour in the half-and-half and beat until blended. Pour egg mixture evenly over ingredients in baking dish. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, or until golden brown on top and the center of the casserole is nicely set (not runny). Let stand 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

Yield: Makes 12 servings

Is your diet the key to longevity? Find out why eating right just may mean aging right, too.

By Elizabeth M. Ward, MS
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

Aging: everyone does it, yet some people seem relatively unaffected by getting older. Could good nutrition be the key to a healthier, longer life?

Does Aging Equal Illness?

“Aging is often associated with the development of one or more chronic diseases, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

It’s not always just a matter of time before you have a heart attack or stroke, get type 2 diabetes or cancer, break a hip because of osteoporosis, or develop Alzheimer’s, even though these conditions are often associated with aging, Blumberg says.

Your risk for disease and disability increases with inadequate physical activity, genetic susceptibility, and poor diet.

Aging: Defy It With Diet

So what’s the best eating plan for preventing, delay, or minimizing the conditions associated with aging, including inflamed joints, flagging memory, and failing eyesight?

“The most beneficial diets rely heavily on fresh vegetables, fruits, and legumes — foods that are naturally lower in calories and packed with nutrients,” says Bradley Willcox, MD, MPH, co-author of The Okinawa Diet Plan and professor of geriatrics at the University of Hawaii.

Experts suspect the antioxidant compounds found in produce, legumes, and whole grains are largely responsible for holding back the march of time.

Antioxidants, such as vitamins C and E, and other compounds, including polyphenols and anthocyanins, battle free radicals — unstable forms of oxygen that damage cell function. Free radicals form from normal metabolism. Your body also produces them in response to strong ultraviolet rays from the sun; air pollution; smoking; and secondhand smoke.

The buildup of free radicals contributes to the aging process and to the development of a number of age-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and inflammatory conditions, including osteoarthritis. What’s worse, aging increases free radical production. That means your diet should be healthier than ever with the passage of time.

The question, of course, is how do we do that?

Anti-Aging Nutrition

Antioxidants generate a lot of buzz when it comes to longevity, but aging well takes more. You must optimize a myriad of beneficial nutrients, including protein, calcium, and vitamin D, and minimize detrimental dietary components including saturated and trans fats.

While none of these foods is the “Fountain of Youth,” including them on a regular basis as part of a balanced diet can reduce the toll time takes on your body.

Nuts

Nuts are cholesterol-free protein sources, and are worthy substitutes for fatty meats. Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in a group of nearly 35,000 women, those who ate foods rich in vitamin E, including nuts, lowered their risk of having a stroke.

Top picks:

Almonds for their high vitamin E levels; pecans, for their antioxidants; and walnuts, for omega-3s.

Tips:

# Top breakfast cereals, yogurt, salads, and cooked vegetables with an ounce of chopped nuts.
# Snack on an ounce of whole almonds (about 24) for almost half the vitamin E you need for the day.
# Enjoy a nut butter sandwich on whole-grain bread.
# Concoct a smoothie by blending a medium frozen banana, 1/2 cup plain fat-free yogurt, 1/4 cup chopped walnuts, and 2 teaspoons sugar (optional).

Fish

According to the American Heart Association, fish harbors omega-3 fats that reduce the risk of plaque buildup in your arteries; decrease blood triglyceride (fat) levels; help lower blood pressure; and lessen the odds of sudden death. Fish is a wise protein choice because of its relatively low saturated fat and cholesterol content.

Top picks:

Salmon, sardines, and canned tuna are among the fish with the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Tips:

# Have at least two fish meals a week instead of fatty meats.
# Add canned light tuna or canned salmon to salads instead of chicken or cheese.

Olive Oil

Olive oil is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and beneficial plant compounds. It’s also free of the trans fats found in some margarines and other processed foods, and that’s a good thing. A study published in the journal Neurology found that among healthy people 65 and older, the higher the saturated and trans fat intake, the greater the cognitive decline during a six-year period.

Top pick:

The extra virgin variety. A recent report in the Annals of Internal Medicine found extra-virgin olive oil more beneficial than other types for increasing the high-density lipoprotein levels (HDL or good cholesterol) in men.

Extra-virgin olive oil also offers beneficial levels of oleocanthal, a compound that mimics the effects of anti-inflammatory medications including aspirin and ibuprofen.

Tips:

It’s good for you, but don’t go overboard; olive oil is caloric. Limit total oil consumption to 7 teaspoons daily (assuming all of the added fat you use is from olive oil) on a 2,000-calorie diet; 5 for a 1,600-calorie plan.

# Make salad dressing with one part olive oil and three parts balsamic vinegar.
# Choose olive oil instead of butter or margarine.
# Lightly coat chopped broccoli, sweet or white potato, or carrots with olive oil and roast on a baking sheet at 400 degrees until done.

Fruits and Vegetables

Produce provides fiber, vitamins, and minerals, as well as hundreds of anti-aging phytonutrients. When it comes to age-defying properties, some produce is better than others, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s tests for antioxidant activity.

Still, any fruit and vegetable is better than none. People who take in the most produce — upwards of 10 servings a day — have higher levels of antioxidants in their bloodstream, which probably translates to better aging. Produce-lovers also have stronger bones, thanks to the magnesium and potassium that fruits and vegetables supply (dark greens are also rich in vitamin K, necessary to bolster bones).

Top picks:

Fruit: Blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, apples, and cherries.

Vegetables: Kale, spinach, broccoli, artichokes, avocado, asparagus, cauliflower, sweet potato, carrots, pumpkin, and onions.

Tips:

# Include berries at least once daily on top of breakfast cereals, in smoothies or salads, or snack on them as is.
# Add dried cranberries or cherries to cooked whole grains.
# Make a quick guacamole by mixing a ripe avocado and large, diced tomato with 1 tablespoon each of olive oil, fresh chopped cilantro leaves, and finely chopped onions.
# Prepare a pumpkin smoothie with 1 cup canned pumpkin, 1/2 cup low-fat milk, and ground cinnamon and sugar to taste. Heat the remainder of the can as a side dish. Add chopped frozen kale or spinach to soups and pasta dishes.

Legumes

Legumes are packed with complex carbohydrates and fiber to ensure steadier blood glucose and insulin levels, and they provide a cholesterol-free source of protein. Legumes are also packed with antioxidants.

Top picks:

From black beans to soy beans, they’re all good for you.

Tips:

# Add beans to soups, salad, egg and pasta dishes
# Puree cooked beans (includes canned) and add to soups or stews
# Snack on bean dips and fresh vegetables or whole grain crackers
# Munch roasted soy nuts or thawed edamame (green soy beans)
# Substitute firm tofu for meat in vegetable stir-fry dishes

Whole Grains

Whole grains retain more of their natural nutrients, particularly age-defying vitamin E, fiber, and B vitamins, than refined varieties. They are also a wealth of antioxidant compounds.

Top picks:

Quinoa, millet, barley, oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, cracked wheat, wild rice.

Tips:

# Wrap sandwiches in whole-wheat tortillas instead of white
# Choose whole-grain cereal for breakfast and snacks
# Try wild or brown rice or whole-wheat pasta
# Add leftover cooked whole grains to soups

Low-Fat Dairy

Dairy foods are excellent sources of bone-strengthening calcium. They also supply protein that bolsters bones and muscle, and is needed for peak immune function.

Top picks:

Milk, either 1% low-fat or fat-free. Milk is fortified with vitamin D, necessary for calcium absorption. Adequate levels of vitamin D may reduce prostate, colon, and breast cancer.

Tips:

# Sip café au lait or cappuccino made from decaffeinated coffee and fat-free milk
# Make mashed potatoes with fat-free evaporated milk
# Enjoy a smoothie made with milk, berries, and crushed ice
# Indulge a chocolate craving with fat-free chocolate milk

Fight Fat, Live Longer?

It’s not only what you eat when it comes to stalling the aging process. Calories count, too.

“Being overweight stresses your heart, blood vessels, and joints, accelerating age-related diseases,” says Willcox.

Excess body fat also plays a role in the development of dementia, certain cancers, and eye diseases, including cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.

Cutting a few hundred calories a day from your regular eating plan may be all it takes to make it into your 80s or 90s in relatively good health.

That’s what Willcox and his colleagues found when they related eating habits to death rates among 2,000 nonsmoking men. In his study, the men who consumed an average of 1,900 calories per day — about 15% below the average for the entire group — were less likely to die over the 36-year study period.

Nobody knows exactly how a lower calorie diet works to lengthen life. Perhaps the secret lies in a slower metabolism that comes with eating less food. A reduced metabolic rate means your body produces fewer free radicals.

Calorie reduction plans also lower the body’s core temperature and insulin levels, two indicators of longevity. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that overweight people who cut their daily calorie intake by up to 25% were more likely to have a lower core body temperature and normal fasting levels of insulin in their blood.

Aging: We’re all doing it. Perhaps combining a diet rich in “anti-aging” foods with fewer calories overall may help us do it better — and live longer.

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The Secrets of Longevity

National Geographic Magazine features the research of the doctors behind the Okinawa Diet.

An exerpt from the cover story by Dan Beuttner follows…

The first thing you notice about Ushi Okushima is her laugh. It begins in her belly, rumbles up to her shoulders, and then erupts with a hee-haw that fills the room with pure joy. I first met Ushi five years ago at her home in Okinawa, and now it’s that same laugh that draws me back to her small wooden house in the seaside village of Ogimi.

This rainy afternoon she sits snugly wrapped in a blue kimono. A heroic shock of hair is combed back from her bronzed forehead revealing alert, green eyes. Her smooth hands lie serenely folded in her lap. At her feet sit her friends, Setsuko and Matsu Taira, cross-legged on a tatami mat, sipping tea.

Since I last visited Ushi, she’s taken a new job, tried to run away from home, and started wearing perfume. Predictable behavior for a young woman, perhaps, but Ushi is 103. When I ask about the perfume, she jokes that she has a new boyfriend, then claps a hand over her mouth before unleashing one of her blessed laughs.

With an average life expectancy of 78 years for men and 86 years for women, Okinawans are among the world’s longest lived people. More important, elders living in this lush subtropical archipelago tend to enjoy years free from disabilities. Okinawans have a fifth the heart disease, a fourth the breast and prostate cancer, and a third less dementia than Americans, says Craig Willcox of the The Okinawa Centenarian Study.

What’s the key to their success? “Ikigai certainly helps:” Willcox offers. The word translates roughly to “that which makes one’s life worth living.” Older Okinawans, he says, possess a strong sense of purpose that may act as a buffer against stress and diseases such as hypertension. Many also belong to a Okinawan-style moai, a mutual support network that provides financial, emotional, and social help throughout life.

A lean diet may also be a factor. “A heaping plate of Okinawan vegetables, tofu, miso soup, and a little fish or meat will have fewer calories than a small hamburger;” says Makoto Suzuki of the The Okinawa Centenarian Study. “And it will have many more healthy nutrients.” What’s more, many Okinawans who grew up before World War II never developed the tendency to overindulge. They still live by the Confucian-inspired adage “hara hachi bu–eat until your stomach is 80 percent full.”

And they grow much of their own food. Taking one look at the gardens kept by Okinawan centenarians, Greg Plotnikoff, a traditional-medicine researcher at the University of Minnesota, called them “cabinets of preventive medicine.” Herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables, such as Chinese radishes, garlic, scallions, cabbage, turmeric, and tomatoes, he said, “contain compounds that may block cancers before they start.”

Ironically, for many older Okinawans this diet was born of hardship. Ushi Okushima grew up barefoot and poor. Her family scratched a living out of Ogimi’s rocky terrain, growing sweet potatoes, which formed the core of every meal. To celebrate the New Year, her village butchered a pig, and everyone got a morsel of pork.

During World War II, when U.S. warships shelled Okinawa, Ushi and Setsuko, whose husbands had been conscripted into the Japanese Army, fled to the mountains with their children. “We experienced terrible hunger;” Setsuko recalls.

Ushi now wakes every morning at six and eats a small breakfast of milk, bananas, and tomatoes. Until very recently she grew most of her food ( she gave up gardening when she took a job). But her tradition-honored daily rituals haven’t changed: morning prayers to her ancestors, tea with friends, lunch with family, an afternoon nap, a sunset social hour with friends, and before bed a cup of sake infused with the herb mugwort. “It helps me sleep:” she says.

Back in Ushi’s house we’re finishing our tea. Outside, dusk is falling; rain patters on the roof. Ushi’s daughter, Kikue, who is 78 and finds little amusement in the attention her mother draws, shoots me a glare that I take to mean “you’ve overstayed your welcome.” (When Ushi ran away from home, she was actually fleeing an argument with Kikue. She packed a bag and boarded a bus without telling her daughter. A relative caught up with her in a town 40 miles away.)

Ushi, Setsuko, and Matsu take the cue and fall silent in unison. These women have shared each other’s fortunes and endured each other’s sorrows for nearly a century and now seem to communicate wordlessly.

What is Ushi’s ikigai, I ask — that powerful sense of purpose that older Okinawans are said to possess?

“It’s her longevity itself;” answers her daughter. “She brings pride to our family and this village, and now feels she must keep living even though she is often tired.” I look to Ushi for her own answer. “My ikigai is right here,” she says with a slow sweep of her hand that takes in Setsuko and Matsu. “If they die, I will wonder why I am still living.”

After Thanksgiving Day, WebMD to the rescue with a 7-Day Diet

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature

What It Is

If eating a bottomless bowl of cabbage soup, along with a few other low-calorie foods, for a solid week appeals to you, the Cabbage Soup Diet is sure to lead to quick weight loss. However, since the food choices are so limited and the calories so low, boredom — and inadequate nutrition — are inevitable.

Versions of this very restrictive diet have been buzzing through fax machines and circulating around water coolers for years. A few books have documented different variations of this simple, anonymously written diet plan, which surprisingly has survived the test of time

The Cabbage Soup Diet plan is not in any way individualized. There are no recommendations about exercise, no behavioral tips, no advice on changing bad habits — just a strict list of what to eat each day of the week. And meals need to be eaten at home, because these foods won’t be found on most restaurant menus.

The Cabbage Soup Diet plan promises a 10-pound weight loss in one week, and dieters are restricted to one week at a time on the plan. If they want to lose more, they are advised to wait awhile before commencing another week on this super-low-calorie diet.

What You Can Eat

The 7-day Cabbage Soup Diet plan promises all you can eat — as long as you stick to the small list of allowed foods on alternate days, along with two daily bowls of fat-free cabbage soup. Other specific foods that must be eaten including fruit, vegetables, skim milk, and meat. Dieters are also advised to drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol.

Here’s a sample Cabbage Soup Diet plan:

Day 1: Cabbage soup and all the fruit you want except bananas. Drink unsweetened tea, black coffee, cranberry juice, or water.

Day 2: Cabbage soup, all the low-calorie vegetables you want (except beans, peas, or corn), and a baked potato with butter.

Day 3: Cabbage soup and a mixture of the above fruit and vegetables.

Day 4: Cabbage soup, up to eight bananas, and two glasses of skim milk.

Day 5: Cabbage soup, up to 20 ounces of beef, chicken or fish, up to six fresh tomatoes, and at least 6-8 glasses of water.

Day 6: Cabbage soup, up to 3 beef steaks, and unlimited vegetables.

Day 7: Cabbage soup, up to 2 cups of brown rice, unsweetened fruit juices, and unlimited vegetables.

The recipe for the cabbage soup varies slightly among different versions of the diet. But it basically includes cabbage and assorted low-calorie vegetables such as onions and tomatoes, and is flavored with onion soup mix, bouillon, and tomato juice.

Here’s a typical recipe:

1 package dry onion soup mix

2 bouillon cubes, either chicken or beef

1 celery stick (not the whole stalk), diced

1/2 head green cabbage, diced

3 carrots, sliced

2 bell peppers, sliced

6 large green onions, or 1 large yellow, white or purple onion, diced

2 cans of tomatoes, diced or whole

Cooking spray

Salt, pepper, parsley, garlic powder, soy sauce to taste (or any other seasoning you like)

Spray a large pot with cooking spray and saute all vegetables except cabbage and tomatoes until tender. Add cabbage and about 12 cups of water. Toss in bouillon cubes, soup mix, and seasonings. Cook until soup reaches desired tenderness; add tomatoes.

Dieters beware; you may encounter some gastrointestinal discomfort from the highly sulfurous cabbage and other gassy vegetables.

How It Works

The Cabbage Soup Diet is essentially a modified fast, containing so few calories that dieters will lose weight rapidly during the weeklong regimen. There is nothing magical about cabbage or cabbage soup that fosters weight loss. It’s the low-calorie nature of the diet plan that does the trick.

The diet makes no scientific claims on how it works. While several versions exist, common to all is the premise that if you eat lots of cabbage soup when you’re hungry, it will keep you satisfied enough to sustain this very low-calorie diet for a week.

Dieters may very well lose the promised 10-15 pounds, but the problem is that most of the weight lost will be primarily from fluids, not fat, and will return once the dieter resumes eating normally.

Factor in the monotony of eating virtually the same foods every day for a week, and dieters may tend to eat even fewer than the already dangerously low (approximately 800-1,050) calories per day.

Experts agree that any diet under 1,200 calories per day is unsafe unless you’re under a doctor’s care. It’s almost impossible to get all the nutrients you need and satisfy hunger in so few calories. A bottomless bowl of cabbage soup, along with a restricted list of allowed foods, provides a mere skeleton of the nourishment your body needs each day.

What the Experts Say

There is little debate as to whether this is a sound diet plan. Indeed, it has all the components of a diet disaster.

“It is a monotonous, short-term fix, severely lacking in nutrients, which will result in a weight loss that is primarily water and not the essential fat loss that is so important to improving health,” says Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, president-elect of the American Dietetic Association.

Diekman worries that diets like the Cabbage Soup Diet perpetuate feelings of failure for most dieters.

“People who go on and off diets get so discouraged when they lose weight only to gain it back, and these feelings make so many people think that diets don’t work,” she says.

As a registered dietitian, she urges dieters to find another plan that is balanced, varied, and includes regular physical activity. The only positive aspect of the Cabbage Soup Diet plan is that it may get people to eat more vegetables, Diekman says.

Food for Thought

If you want to give this modified fast a try, check with your doctor first. Some people have reported feeling lightheaded while on the plan.

If you get the go-ahead, head to the grocery store, buy all the ingredients for the soup, stock up on fruit, vegetables, skim milk, fish, chicken, or meat (depending on which plan you follow) — and plan on staying home. Consuming mass quantities of cabbage soup may cause you to be too gassy to go out in public.

You will lose weight on the Cabbage Soup Diet, but you can plan on seeing those pounds return. This diet plan that is nothing more than a quick fix that does nothing to help change the behaviors that lead to weight gain.

The bottom line? Keep looking for a program that contains all the components of a healthy lifestyle, including regular physical activity, and is suitable for long-term weight loss.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING
From ON TARGET Blogosphere
To All Of OUR READERS !

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Thanksgiving in Space

The November 2008 NASA Thanksgiving feast shuttle astronauts will eat in space is displayed 20, 2008 at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Clockwise from upper left: green beans and mushrooms, candied yams, cranapple dessert, cornbread stuffing and smoked turkey. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

WebMD Talks Turkey

Talking Turkey: Get the Best From Your Bird

Experts offer tips for buying and cooking a tasty turkey

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Thanksgiving Day is a time-honored American tradition, a time for family gatherings and a holiday meal that encourages over-the-top decadence. And for many (some 97% of us), the thought of a Thanksgiving without turkey is heresy. We gobble up roughly 45 million turkeys to celebrate the annual holiday.

To help make sure your Thanksgiving dinner is safe, nutritious, and delicious, we asked the experts for some timely turkey tips.

A Little Background

The tom turkey, the larger male bird decorated with colorful plumage, has a long wattle — a fleshy, wrinkled fold of skin hanging down from the throat — and is known for his trademark “gobble.” The hens are smaller and less colorful than the males, and make only a clicking sound.

Both males and females are raised extensively for their excellent meat (and for eggs). The most common breeds in the United States are the Bronze, Narragansett, White Holland, and Bourbon Red.

We’ve all heard the legend about the first Thanksgiving: After a tough first year in America in 1621, the Pilgrims celebrated a successful fall harvest of fruits, corn, and other vegetables. They had beaten the odds, and for that, they were mighty thankful. The Pilgrims’ Governor William Bradford proclaimed a day to give thanks that was shared by the new colonists and their Native American neighbors.

The tradition continued each year after the harvest, and in the late 1770s, the Continental Congress suggested a national Thanksgiving day. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt later declared that the holiday would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November.)

Turkey Prep 101

For most of us, there’s no doubt that a turkey will be the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving feast. The only question: Should we buy it fresh or frozen?

Frozen birds tend to be less expensive, but they require more time to defrost properly.

“If you have the room to defrost a frozen turkey in your refrigerator, plan on one day to thaw [each] 4-5 pounds,” recommends culinary nutritionist Jackie Newgent. Place the wrapped bird on a tray on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator so the juices won’t contaminate other foods.

Another safe method of defrosting is to submerge the bird, breast side down, in cold water, and change the water every 30 minutes. With this method, thawing takes approximately 30 minutes per pound.

“Defrosting in the sink is time-consuming, and if you don’t change the water to keep it cold, you risk the chance of bacterial contamination,” advises Newgent.

For purists, nothing can compare with the mouth-watering aromas of slowly roasting a turkey to golden perfection in the oven. Deep-frying is a popular alternative cooking method, though it requires the right equipment and lots of oil.

If you prefer the crispy fried version, don’t worry about the extra fat calories, says registered dietitian Newgent: “Thanksgiving only happens once a year, so just go for it and enjoy!”

Newgent also shares a few basic turkey-cooking tips:

# Buy 1 pound of turkey per person. That will allow plenty for the feast and leftovers, too.
# Make sure the bird is completely thawed before cooking; otherwise, it will not cook uniformly.
# Cook the turkey to the proper temperature. A meat thermometer is the only way to ensure proper cooking to 180 degrees. Place the thermometer deep into the thigh, without touching the bone.
# Slowly cooking the turkey at 325 degrees will result in the most moist and delicious meat. Higher temperatures can overcook or dry out the bird.
# Rub the bird with olive oil and season lightly with salt, pepper, onion and garlic powders, and a little sage. The rest of the meal is so flavorful that you shouldn’t overpower the bird with heavy seasonings, Newgent says.
# Baste oven-baked birds with their juices and a little butter for added moistness and rich color.
# Cover the drumsticks and breast with foil when the bird is two-thirds done to prevent drying and scorching.
# Plan to take advantage of all cooking surfaces when you prepare the meal. Use shallow baking dishes that fit on an oven shelf under the turkey. Prepare other dishes on the stovetop and in the microwave.

Safety First

It’s always important to follow safe food handling practices to reduce the risk of food-borne illness. This year, consumers may also be worried about the potential for bird flu in their turkeys. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service reassures us that bird flu (avian influenza) is not transmissible by eating poultry.

The real concern, as always, is viruses and bacterial contamination. So keep these safety tips in mind on Thanksgiving (and anytime you’re preparing food):

# Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling food.
# Prevent cross-contamination by keeping raw foods separate from cooked foods.
# Wash hands, cutting boards, utensils, sink, countertops and anything that comes in contact with raw turkey with hot, soapy water.
# Sanitize cutting boards with a weak bleach solution (1 teaspoon bleach in 1 quart water).

To Stuff or Not to Stuff?

In many families, stuffing the bird has long been the preferred method of cooking. But the Department of Agriculture advises against this practice because of the risk of food-borne illness.

“It is difficult for the stuffing to reach the internal temperature of 165 degrees even when the meat is done,” warns Diane Van, USDA meat and poultry hotline manager.

So instead of putting the stuffing inside the bird, experts advise, cook it separately in a casserole dish.

Cooking Time

The National Turkey Federation and USDA suggest following these guidelines — along with using a meat thermometer — when roasting an unstuffed bird:

# 8-12 pounds: 2 3/4 to 3 hours
# 12-14 pounds: 3 to 3 3/4 hours
# 14-18 pounds: 3 3/4 to 4 1/4 hours
# 18-20 pounds: 4 1/4 to 4 1/2 hours
# 20-24 pounds: 4 1/2 to 5 hours

As you prepare for your upcoming celebration, keep these safety and preparation tips in mind to make sure you enjoy a happy and healthy holiday.

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Wild Turkey

Famous works of abstract art achieve popularity by using shapes that resonate with the neural mechanisms in the brain linked to visual information, a psychologist at the University of Liverpool has discovered.

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Piet Mondrian, Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red, 1921

University of Liverpool, November 22, 2008 — Humans make aesthetic judgements about shapes and forms quickly and easily, preferring certain shapes to others, even in the absence of any narrative. Dr Richard Latto, from the University’s Psychology department, has discovered that these shapes resonate with the processing properties of the human visual system, which is responsible for analyzing what we have seen.

Dr Latto said: “Humans inherit a basic visual system through genetics. That system provides very selective information about the world around us. It has evolved to provide only the information that we need to survive – for example, we cannot see most electromagnetic radiation or follow the leg movement of a galloping horse.

“Of course our visual systems can be influenced by social factors, like fashion and the number of abstract images that we expose ourselves to, but evolution had given us some genetically determined responses to certain shapes and forms. In popular abstract works such as Matisse’s The Snail (1953), Mondrian’s Composition with Red, Blue and Yellow (1921), and Malevich’s Supremus No. 50 (1915), the artists start with a blank canvas and arrange shapes and colours in a way that is aesthetically pleasing, using their own brain to monitor the effect.

“We like to look at the human body or parts of the body like the face and hands, stylized representations like stick figures and organic forms of the kind incorporated into the work of Salvador Dali and Francis Bacon. Certain landscapes and horizontal and vertical lines are also popular because they resonate with our visual systems, which have been tuned by evolution and experience to respond particularly to these biologically and socially important stimuli.

“We know that neurons in the brain need to be kept active to flourish and develop, so it is important for the visual system to be stimulated and sometimes pushed to the limit to function effectively. As with other adaptive behaviors, we have evolved a mechanism for encouraging this by rewarding ourselves with good feelings. Perhaps we enjoy looking at faces, landscapes and Mondrian’s work because it is good for us and good for our brains.”

Dr Latto added: “Artists were experimenting with abstract shapes long before scientists began analyzing our nature of perception. Through observation or trial-and-error, artists have been identifying these aesthetic primitives – critical shapes and arrangements – and have indirectly defined the nature of our visual processes. In purely abstract painting, as with much music, form is all we have. Popular works have shown that essentially we like looking at what we are good at seeing.”

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Kazimir Malevich, Supremus No. 50, 1915

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Escher style Fractal – Connected Cubes.

ScienceDaily.com — M.C. Escher’s ambiguous drawings transfix us: Are those black birds flying against a white sky or white birds soaring out of a black sky? Which side is up on those crazy staircases?

Lines in Escher’s drawings can seem to be part of either of two different shapes. How does our brain decide which of those shapes to “see?” In a situation where the visual information provided is ambiguous — whether we are looking at Escher’s art or looking at, say, a forest — how do our brains settle on just one interpretation?

In a study published this month in Nature Neuroscience, researchers at The Johns Hopkins University demonstrate that brains do so by way of a mechanism in a region of the visual cortex called V2.

That mechanism, the researchers say, identifies “figure” and “background” regions of an image, provides a structure for paying attention to only one of those two regions at a time and assigns shapes to the collections of foreground “figure” lines that we see.

“What we found is that V2 generates a foreground-background map for each image registered by the eyes,” said Rudiger von der Heydt, a neuroscientist, professor in the university’s Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute and lead author on the paper. “Contours are assigned to the foreground regions, and V2 does this automatically within a tenth of a second.”

The study was based on recordings of the activity of nerve cells in the V2 region in the brain of macaques, whose visual systems are much like that of humans. V2 is roughly the size of a microcassette and is located in the very back of the brain. Von der Heydt said the foreground- background “map” generated by V2 also provides the structure for conscious perception in humans.

“Because of their complexity, images of natural scenes generally have many possible interpretations, not just two, like in Escher’s drawings,” he said. “In most cases, they contain a variety of cues that could be used to identify fore- and background, but oftentimes, these cues contradict each other. The V2 mechanism combines these cues efficiently and provides us immediately with a rough sketch of the scene.”

Von der Heydt called the mechanism “primitive” but generally reliable. It can also, he said, be overridden by decision of the conscious mind.

“Our experiments show that the brain can also command the V2 mechanism to interpret the image in another way,” he said. “This explains why, in Escher’s drawings, we can switch deliberately” to see either the white birds or the dark birds, or to see either side of the staircase as facing “up.”

The mechanism revealed by this study is part of a system that enables us to search for objects in cluttered scenes, so we can attend to the object of our choice and even reach out and grasp it.

“We can do all of this without effort, thanks to a neural machine that generates visual object representations in the brain,” von der Heydt said. “Better yet, we can access these representations in the way we need for each specific task. Unfortunately, how this machine’ works is still a mystery to us. But discovering this mechanism that so efficiently links our attention to figure-ground organization is a step toward understanding this amazing machine.”

Understanding how this brain function works is more than just interesting: It also could assist researchers in unraveling the causes of — and perhaps identifying treatment for — visual disorders such as dyslexia.

Other authors include Fangtu T. Qiu and Tadashi Sugihara, both of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind-Brain Institute. Funding for the research was provided by the National Institutes of Health.

Adapted from materials provided by Johns Hopkins University.

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Northwestern Memorial Hospital — A study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management found that art therapy can reduce a broad spectrum of symptoms related to pain and anxiety in cancer patients. In the study done at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, cancer patients reported significant reductions in eight of nine symptoms measured by the Edmonton Symptom Assessment Scale (ESAS) after spending an hour working on art projects of their choice.

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Website: Mary Andrus, art therapist, licensed
Clinical professional counselor

Fifty patients from the inpatient oncology unit at Northwestern Memorial were enrolled in the study over a four-month period. The ESAS is a numeric scale allowing patients to assess their symptoms of pain, tiredness, nausea, depression, anxiety, drowsiness, lack of appetite, well-being and shortness of breath. Eight of these nine symptoms improved; nausea was the only symptom that did not change as a result of the art therapy session.

“Cancer patients are increasingly turning to alternative and complementary therapies to reduce symptoms, improve quality of life and boost their ability to cope with stress,” says Judith Paice, PhD, RN, director, Cancer Pain Program, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and an author on the study. “We wanted to see if the creative process involved in making art is healing and life-enhancing. Our study provides beginning evidence for the important role art therapy can play in reducing symptoms. Art therapy provides a distraction that allows patients to focus on something positive instead of their health for a time, and it also gives patients something they can control.”

Each art therapy session was individualized and patients were offered a choice of subject matter and media. When participants could not use their hands or were not comfortable using the art materials, the art therapist would do the art making under the direction of the subject or they could look at and discuss photographic images that were assembled into a book. Sessions ranged from light entertaining distraction to investigating deep psychological issues, says Nancy Nainis, MA, ATR, an art therapist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who is the lead author on the study. “We were especially surprised to find the reduction in ‘tiredness’,” says Ms. Nainis. “Several subjects made anecdotal comments that the art therapy had energized them. This is the first study to document a reduction in tiredness as a result of art therapy.”

“Art provides a vehicle for expression,” says Dr. Paice. “It may be preferential to some cancer patients who may be uncomfortable with conventional psychotherapy or those who find verbal expression difficult.”

###

This study was supported by a grant from the Service League of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

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A painting made by a participant in the art therapy workshop. (Credit: Image courtesy of Universidad de Granada)

Universidad de Granada .— Elizaberta López Pérez, a Bachelor of Fine Arts and doctor in Painting at the University of Granada, has carried out one of the first studies in a Spanish university on the use of art therapy for the treatment of acute mental sick persons. Her work, based on psychoanalysis principles, starts from a basic premise: A work of art is a sign formed as a vital trace and its essential material is the humanity of the human being who leaves his memory in the world.

Art therapy or therapy through art, a current started in the middle of the 20th century, uses visual arts with therapeutic purposes. It is based on the idea that visual representations, objectified through plastic material, contribute to the construction of a meaning of the psychic conflicts, and favour its resolution. Plastic representation would be, from this point of view, a process for thought construction.

Therapeutic community

In order to carry out her research work, López Pérez worked for more than one year with 20 acute mental patients from the Therapeutic Community of the Northern Area of the Virgen de las Nieves Hospital of Granada. Those who participated in these sessions took part in them voluntarily two days a week and they adapted paintings of artists such as Modigliani, Munch or Van Gogh, offering their own vision.

The researcher of the University of Granada highlights the liberating nature of art for these patients, who project their inner world and their repressed desires through their paintings. This way, they deal with their fears and desires, which get real during the artistic process where it is possible to give them life or to destroy them.

The peculiar works of art carried out in this art therapy workshop gave rise to an exhibition called The Fugitive Memory, organized by the Vice-Rectorate of Extramural Studies of the UGR held in the Corrala de Santiago in 2003.

Adapted from materials provided by Universidad de Granada.

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The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci

University of East Anglia — The brain of the artist is one of the most exciting workplaces, and now an art historian at the University of East Anglia has joined forces with a leading neuroscientist to unravel its complexities.

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The Scream, by Edvard Munch

Creating a brand new academic discipline — neuroarthistory — Prof John Onians uses the results from new scanning techniques to answer questions such as:

* What happens in the brain of the modern artist as he or she works?
* What happened in the brain of an artistic genius like Leonardo Da Vinci?
* How do the brains of amateur and professional artists differ?
* Why do artists in certain times or places have certain visual tastes?

Prof Onians, of UEA’s School of World Art Studies, said: “Until now we had no way of knowing what went on inside the artist’s brain — although Leonardo tried, using anatomy and observation. But now we are finally unlocking the door to this secret world.

“We can also use neuroarthistory much more widely, both to better understand the nature of familiar artistic phenomena such as style, and to crack so far intractable problems such as ‘what is the origin of art?'”

There are many areas in which neuroarthistory puts the study of art on a more informed foundation. None is more striking than the first appearance of art in the Cave of Chauvet 32,000 years ago. No approach other than neuroarthistory can explain why this, the first art, is also the most naturalistic, capturing the mental and physical resources of bears and lions as if on a wildlife film.

Neuroarthistory can also explain why Florentine painters made more use of line and Venetian painters more of colour. The reason is that ‘neural plasticity’ ensured that passive exposure to different natural and manmade environments caused the formation of different visual preferences.

Similarly, the new discipline reveals that European artists such as Leonardo stood before vertical canvases while Chinese artists sat before flat sheets of silk or paper because ‘mirror neurons’ collectively affect artists’ deportments.

“The most interesting aspect of neuroarthistory is the way it enables us to get inside the minds of people who either could not or did not write about their work,” said Prof Onions. “We can understand much about the visual and motor preferences of people separated from us by thousands of miles or thousands of years.”

Working alongside Prof Semir Zeki FRS of University College London, one of the leading neuroscientists in the field of the visual brain and the founder of neuroesthetics, Prof Onians will now apply his findings to a series of case studies, from prehistory to the present, in a book entitled Neuroarthistory. If the approach is successful this will be the foundation stone of a new discipline.

Adapted from materials provided by University of East Anglia
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Origami Cranes

Mathematicians And Artists Use Algorithms To Make Complicated Paper Sculptures

ScienceDaily.com — Mathematicians design new figures in a traditional art form called origami, using modern techniques. Innovations developed in pursuit of the art find application in multiple fields, including applied mathematics and engineering. One application is the use of folding algorithms to pack air bags.

Can a piece of paper save your life? You probably don’t know one modern invention that was derived from the science of origami, the ancient art of paper folding…..read on for the answer.

“What first got me as a kid was the idea that you can create all these different shapes from such a simple starting material — an uncut sheet of paper,” says origami artist and engineer Robert Lang, Ph.D.

Origami is the traditional technique of Japanese paper folding. Modern science agrees there’s a lot they couldn’t do with out this ancient art form.

“Science, technology, space, automotive, medicine — all these different fields have benefited from origami,” Dr. Lang says.

Dr. Lang is one of America’s greatest origami artists. He can fold just about anything from a single sheet of paper. He’s honored that his art can also be effective for education and invention.

“There has been some testing that shows that after students have done origami, that they have a higher appreciation or understanding of various mathematical geometric concepts,” he says.

It’s an ancient science that uses mathematics for modern day miracles. The twists and bends in an origami turtle may just make their way into your cell phone’s circuit board. And how can a paper scorpion actually save your life? The origami algorithms used to fold bugs are the same ones behind the invention of the air bags in your car.

“An algorithm that origami artists had come up with for the design of insects was the right algorithm to give the creases for flattening an airbag,” Dr. Lang said. “So that has now been adopted into airbag simulation code, and presumably automotive engineers are now using those codes to design airbags.”

Cal Tech says the applications are endless. From consumer programs to the space program, the options have yet to unfold.

Remember the fortune squares you flipped as a kid? That was a form of origami. So if you told fortunes through torn and tattered paper, you were actually studying science.

ABOUT ORIGAMI: Paper folded into delicate shapes may look like art, but at its foundation is a strong supporting layer of math. Beyond a basic paper airplane or simple animal shape, geometry and mathematical calculations enable the creation of astonishing shapes and designs. People have developed a way of diagramming their creations called sequenced crease patterns, which indicate where to make folds, and in what order.

ORIGAMI REVEALS ANSWERS: Algorithms developed for use in origami have been applied to several other fields. Engineers use the algorithms to design the best way to fold an airbag for optimum deployment and astronomers use them to compute the optimum configuration of space telescope lenses. People use the techniques of origami to design games, puzzles, and even magic tricks.

The American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.

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