Fitness & Health

I used to be addicted to carbohydrates.

I always loved bread and baked goods and considered bread – the French, crusty variety – as pretty much a part of every meal. I am also a big fan of desserts and sweets. I never bothered with keeping my sugar intake in check – I figured there were enough things to worry about, such as unhealthy fats or weird, lab-made artificial sweeteners and food additives.

But on his last annual checkup, my husband was told he has a slightly elevated blood sugar level, and since doctors take it very seriously, we knew we had to make a few changes.

I still love white flour and sugar and fried stuff. I still enjoy baking more than I enjoy cooking. But I am learning to appreciate new, different flavors and textures. My diet is lower in simple carbohydrates than before, higher in veggies, fruit and whole grains, and after a few months of doing it, I can say for sure that I feel a positive impact.

These are the main things I have learned over the past few months:

1. Bread, or other starches, do NOT have to accompany every meal. A big salad, with lots of veggies, beans, a sliced hard boiled egg and a small amount of dressing made with olive oil and balsamic vinegar is considered a complete meal these days. In the past, I just had to accompany it with a thick, buttered slice of bread. Same goes for, say, serving a meat dish with two sides of veggies and no starches – it used to be unthinkable! Not anymore.

2. Whole grains are grainy, but in a good way. For years, I refused to get used to the texture of whole grain breads and brown rice. I considered the texture offensive. But since whole grains contain fiber, and fiber helps regulate blood sugar levels by slowing down glucose absorption, I am slowly learning to tolerate – even enjoy – the taste and texture of whole grains. I have come to believe many of these things are acquired taste – if you only eat white bread, whole grain bread will taste weird. But if you get used to whole grain bread, white bread will taste like unsubstantial fluff.

3. Oatmeal can be your friend, if you avoid the instant varieties. I discovered – and fell in love with – steel cut oats. Cooked in milk and dressed with just a little maple syrup, steel cut oats are chewy, creamy, fragrant, and very satisfying.

4. Less sugar can still taste good. Again, this is all about habits. I used to take my morning coffee with 2 teaspoons of sugar, but now I’ve cut down to one and it tastes fine. I agree with Nurit on this one – you can absolutely use less sugar than most cake or muffin recipes call for, and the baked goods still taste great. I’ve also learned to be very careful about buying sugary cereal and flavored yogurt – these often contain as much sugar as candy, but they don’t taste as good as candy – so it just doesn’t make sense to eat them.

5. Protein does help keep you satiated, for longer. I accept Michael Pollan’s basic rule of “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” This rule emphasizes veggies, fruit, and whole grains – not animal-based products. But I consider eggs, low fat milk, low fat cheese and lean meats to be natural, wholesome foods – and I find that when I consume them regularly, I feel much better in terms of energy levels and avoiding those terrible dips in blood sugar that used to leave me sluggish and miserable. It’s not that you need huge amounts of protein of course – but a little peanut butter with your apple, or low fat string cheese with your crackers, can make a big difference.

So, have I stopped indulging? Will I no longer publish sugary, fatty recipes here? The answer is no. I do enjoy discovering how very tasty healthy foods can be. I explore more and more healthy options these days, and am curious about using less sugar than recipes call for, substituting whole wheat flour for some of the white flour used in them (as I recently did when baking whole wheat pita bread), and in general “healthifying” recipes as much as I can.

But I haven’t given up flavor nor presentation. I still make and eat awesome food, and I expect the recipes I publish here to be just as awesome as they’ve always been.

Oh, and my husband’s blood sugar? After six months on the new diet: back to normal levels. So there. 🙂

Why America is fat

Recently at my local gas station, this sign was yelling at me in big colorful letters, trying to lure me into getting a “snack” – a quite affordable snack in terms of price, but when it comes to health, is it really affordable?

Let’s do the math.

King size M&Ms = 3.14 ounce = 446 calories, 19 grams fat, 57 grams sugar (about 4 tablespoons).
20oz soft drink = 240 calories, 65 grams sugar (about 4 tablespoons).

Total for this “snack”: 700 calories, 19 grams fat, 120 grams sugar (!), lots of artificial coloring and flavors, and not a whole lot of anything actually useful to the body.

I’m pretty sure anyone can do the math on this one.

Several emails landed in my inbox after I published my post on vacationing in California. They all asked the same question: How do you stay fit even though you eat so much? Instead of responding to each email individually, I decided to answer them here. This is how I do it.

1. Portion control. I don’t eat that much! I know that most of the recipes I publish here are not diet-friendly, and that the restaurant food I eat is not exactly low in calories. I don’t do low-cal or low-fat. I like rich food with strong flavors. I adore butter. I also very much dislike the grainy texture of whole wheat bread, so I eat white flour, including this incredible pita bread, white rice and regular pasta. BUT I KEEP MY PORTIONS IN CHECK. I’d much rather eat small amounts of full-fat food than large amounts of low-cal or low-fat foods. I don’t put a lot of food on my plate and I listen very carefully to my body. I try to never allow myself to get to the point of being uncomfortably full. In restaurants, where portions are huge, I often share meals with my husband, or I eat just half off my plate and get the other half to go. So when I posted photos of the fabulous meals we had on that vacation, it doesn’t mean I actually finished everything off my plate! In most cases, I didn’t.

2. Stay active. I exercise almost daily, for about an hour, either at home, doing a Pilates-like routine, or outside – walking, biking, hiking, swimming or skiing. I rarely stay sedentary for an entire day. I simply don’t feel well when I don’t move. I also follow the usual tips of moving a lot during the day, using stairs instead of elevators etc. On vacations, I am very active – which probably explains why I rarely gain weight even though I indulge.

vered deleeuw
Hiking in the Bay Area

3. Avoid using food to soothe emotions. I have a friend who struggles with her weight. She tells me that she knows it all – she knows what she’s supposed to do to stay fit, to lose weight and to keep it off, but so far she’s not been able to stop using food as a source of comfort whenever she’s stressed or upset. She theorizes that people who are naturally slim treat food as fuel and have no emotional attachment to it. I agree with her, to some extent. I don’t really treat food as fuel. I love food and view eating as highly pleasurable. But it’s true that I have learned to avoid self-medicating with food. I just don’t turn to food to deal with unpleasant emotions. I turn to friends, to exercise, even to the Internet – but never to food. While weaning oneself off the habit of emotional eating is not easy, I believe it can be done, because in my late teens and early twenties I did it on occasion, but have not done so for at least ten years.

These are, in my opinion, the main reasons why I stay fit and don’t gain weight.

In addition:

4. While I eat what I want and don’t worry too much about fat, white flour or sugar, I do eat adequate amounts of fruit and veggies each day (at least 5 servings, usually more) and drink tons of water. I eat 5 small meals each day rather than 3 large meals, because large meals make me feel bloated and sluggish. I also finish eating fairly early – we eat dinner around 6:30PM and I don’t eat anything after that.

blueberries closeup
One of my favorite snacks: fresh fruit

5. I don’t snack mindlessly. I never got into the habit of grabbing a large bag of chips, sitting in front of the TV and eating the whole thing without paying attention. I always sit next to a table to eat, and I make myself a plate rather than grab a bag of something. A typical snack might be Greek yogurt, mixed with some fruit and nuts and drizzled with honey. Or cheddar cubes with a sliced green apple and a few crackers. Even if it’s chips, I still take a portion, put it in a bowl and sit at the table to eat it. With half a bottle of cold beer. 🙂

6. I don’t keep junk in the house. Right now, my fridge contains whole milk, grapefruit juice, cheddar cheese, butter, Greek yogurt, cream cheese, turkey lunch meat, chicken breast for tonight’s dinner, tortilla-style wraps, beer, and lots of fruit and veggies. In the freezer: plain bagels, sourdough bread, brioche rolls, a few bags of frozen veggies, and Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream. Pantry: pretzels, crackers, popcorn, nuts, beans, rice, couscous, 70% dark chocolate, red wine, avocados, yams, and bananas. Some of you may consider some of these (ice cream, butter, beer, white bread) as junk, but I don’t – as long as they’re consumed in moderation.

7. I monitor my weight. I rarely weigh myself, but I do pay attention to how my clothes feel, and if – after a few days of indulging – I feel that my jeans are a little tighter, I pay extra attention to what I eat over the next few days and make sure I exercise.

I think this is pretty much what I do to stay fit. A nutritionist friend once had me keep a food diary and said that I eat about 2200 calories per day, which is about right for an active woman my age (39) who has a good muscle mass. Do I have a great metabolism? I don’t know. If I indulge for several days in a row and am fairly sedentary, I do gain weight, so I don’t think it’s about metabolism. More than anything, I think it’s about portion control and being active. I also think that as I get older, staying fit will become more of a challenge, so we’ll see how things go in the future and if I have to adjust my habits.

I’m not immune to the many temptation I’m surrounded with on a daily basis. In my opinion, the biggest challenge we’re facing in the developed world in terms of avoiding weight gain is the sheer abundance of food, coupled with a strong primal instinct to eat as much as we can and stay sedentary (in case food becomes scarce later), and a ruthless food industry that does whatever it can to make us consume more food, including the use of aggressive advertising and unhealthy food additives. I am facing these temptations just like anyone else, and sometimes I give in, but never for longer than a few days. Staying fit requires constant awareness, the daily exercise of self control, and deciding that being fit and healthy is a top priority.

restaurant_saladMost of us are aware that salads are not always healthy, and this is especially true for restaurant salads. If by “salad” you mean a small plate of fresh leafy greens, a few slices of tomato, and a drizzling of olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette, then yes, that’s healthy and low calorie.

But “salad” at restaurants often means a huge plate filled with lettuce, croutons, chicken cubes, cheese, and half a cup of full fat dressing. That’s not healthy, and the calorie count for this type of salad can be higher than even the most nutrition savvy among us can imagine.

Case in point: the salads at California Pizza Kitchen, a popular U.S. chain restaurant.

We love eating out at California Pizza kitchen. It’s a family friendly restaurant, definitely a few notches above fast food, service is decent, and the food shows consistent quality. Their pizzas are very good.

On our last visit there I noticed they started providing nutrition information on their menu. I’m guessing they were forced to do that since they’re a chain restaurant, or maybe they started providing the info voluntarily. Either way, looking at the caloric values of the items on their menu is a real eye opener, especially when it comes to salads:

pizza-kitchen-salad

restaurant-salad

I thought these values were especially interesting compared with caloric values for desserts:

toffee-cake

banana-cake

Even when you order half a salad, the Thai Crunch salad still comes to a whopping 1,000 calories – for HALF AN ORDER. The full order is 2100 calories! Keep in mind that the average adult male burns about 2000 calories with normal activity each day and the average female burns about 1600 calories.

The best way to defend your waist and your arteries against these attacks by restaurants is to control your portions – in this case definitely choose half an order, or share a salad with someone. Another great way to handle restaurant salads is to ask for the dressing on the side, since most calories and fat come from that. Also, go over the ingredients and see if there are any fatty ingredients you can live without, then ask to get your salad without them.

I’m not saying you should never indulge. Of course you should. I often do! But restaurant salads are something many people order not to indulge but simply because they are hungry and want to make a better choice. In my opinion, serving them a 2000-calorie salad is atrocious.

Loved this Comment: “The Food Industry has truly made a mess of things” by Patricia of Patricia’s Wisdom. I couldn’t agree more.Photo by catsper

Recently it seems as if most of the spam email I get promotes some kind of an acai berry product. Maybe it’s summer, or maybe it’s the Oprah perceived endorsement.

Acai Berry, a Brazilian fruit, has been recently promoted and marketed as a highly beneficial dietary supplement.

But the Center For Science In The Public Interest (CSPI) recently issued a statement saying that “There’s no evidence whatsoever to suggest that acai berry pills will help shed pounds, flatten tummies, cleanse colon, enhance sexual desire, or perform any of the other commonly advertised functions.”

The CSPI also warned that customers who provide acai berry internet sellers with their credit card info may have trouble later on stopping unauthorized charges to their credit cards from these companies.

It’s not just acai berry. Many fad diets promise a quick-fix type solution of a fast and easy weight loss.

This outrageous tweet is a good example:

tweet

Fad diets often promote a single “miracle food” or “miracle ingredient.” Many of them eliminate, or severely restrict, one or more of the five food groups and treat foods as either “good” or “bad.” Many fad diets also lack major nutrients such as dietary fiber, carbohydrates or healthy fats, as well as important vitamins and minerals. If you follow them for extended periods, or repeatedly, you may develop serious health problems later in life.

Acai Berry diets are relatively new, but the phenomenon of fad diets is hardly new. Classic examples of fad diets are the grapefruit diet, and the cabbage soup diet.

The Grapefruit Diet claims that there are magical ingredients in grapefruit and that when eaten with protein, it triggers fat burning and causes weight loss. In reality, according to most experts, people lose weight on this diet simply because they severely restrict their caloric intake.

The Cabbage soup diet is a radical weight loss diet designed around heavy consumption of low-calorie cabbage soup for seven days. The goal is to lose 10 pounds in a week, but nutritional experts say it is nearly impossible to lose that much fat within a week, so most of the weight lost on this diet is water weight.

So why do people fall for fad diets and quick-weight-loss scams? Because we don’t like to hear that we need to work hard to achieve real results. “Fast and easy weight loss” sounds so much better then “slow and gradual weight loss.”

Indeed, achieving healthy, long-lasting weight loss is quite boring. You need to eat less (but not so much less that you’re constantly hungry); exercise more (but – for most people – no more than a few hours of moderate exercise each week); fill your plate with colorful fruit and veggies and whole grains, then add a little lean protein and healthy oil such as olive oil; limit intake of saturated fat, sweets, salty snacks and alcohol; drink plenty of water; and get plenty of sleep.

It’s boring, but it’s the only thing that works.

antibacterial-wipes-ad1

Antibacterial products are dangerously overused in the United States.

I took the above photo outside our local supermarket. The wipes caught my attention because the container said “antibacterial wipes.”

Indeed, research shows that “shopping carts are loaded with more saliva, bacteria and even fecal matter than escalators, public telephones, and even public bathrooms. The only surfaces that had more germs were playground equipment and bus rails.”

But can’t our bodies handle it? Assuming we are generally healthy and are not in a special risk group, do we really need to kill all bacteria and create a completely sterile environment for us and for our kids?

My biggest worry is about the liberal use of antibacterial products in the household. During a recent trip to the grocery store, I was looking for an all-purpose cleaner. It wasn’t easy to find a non-antibacterial cleaner. Finding a non-antibacterial hand soap is even more challenging.

I am enraged at the manufacturers, and I’m enraged at their stupid commercials, featuring smiling soccer moms who tell us that our counter tops are covered with bacteria and that we must use their product to kill “99.9” of that bacteria, when our bodies should be perfectly capable of handling that bacteria.

Look at what happened with the very liberal use of antibiotics since the 1950s: by wiping out all but the most resistant bacteria, antibiotics were responsible for the development of a new “superbacteria,” capable of causing life-threatening illnesses, and resistant to antibiotics.

When we kill 99.9 of the bacteria on our counter tops, when we try to create a sterile, germ-free home, we are in fact encouraging the growth of much, much worse bacteria, that will not respond to antibacterial agents, and possibly not even to antibiotics. Do we want THAT on our counter tops?

When we choose antibacterial products, are we simply taking basic precautions to keep ourselves healthy, or are we slowly killing ourselves by weakening our immune systems and by contributing to the development of dangerous super bugs?

My personal opinion is that antibacterial products for the household should be outlawed. Seriously. They are that dangerous. What do you think? Do you use antibacterial products? If you do, are you aware of the possible implications?

Thank You For Smoking

by MomGrind

cigarette-adImage credit: Jollyboy

I can’t believe they used to market cigarettes this way.

Do you smoke cigarettes? If not currently, have you ever smoked? I’m particularly interested to hear any tips for quitting, or better yet, for helping a loved one quit. A family member that I deeply care about smokes, and there’s no stopping them. I sometimes worry so much about what they are doing to their body. I wish I could find a way to make them stop. To make them WANT to quit smoking.

Me? I tried smoking ONCE. Inhaled. Coughed A LOT. My throat was burning and the taste in my mouth was horrible.

Let’s just say it wasn’t a positive experience.

Thankfully, that single bad experience turned me off smoking for good.