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Just finishing up a lot of last minute errands and other to-do list items before leaving the country for over a MONTH on Wednesday! Tokyo-Kyoto-HongKong-Bangkok-KohSamui-Sydney-Melbourne, here we come! One of those errands took me to the doctor to get a couple vaccines and Ambien for the time adjustment. Now I am not one to take drugs unless I absolutely need to. But a sleeping aid, when you are moving ahead 14 hours at a time? For me that’s a must! It allows me to adjust to the difference so much faster and, therefore, suffer the least amount of jet lag. Who wants to be dragging on a trip like that? When going to the other side of the world, it’s a great idea to schedule a visit to your doctor for a travel consult beforehand. I always let them know that I don’t want any vaccines or other meds that aren’t 100% necessary, but I do want to make sure I’m prepared.

Next up, the post office… YIKES. Let’s just say, I was there for a while. And that was just the line for the automated machines. If you still need to mail out those Christmas gifts, well… yeah I don’t know what to tell you. Bring a book?

Then as I ate my lunch I was thinking about all the posts and articles I’ve seen about how to get through the holidays, with respect to health. Some regarding stress, some denouncing (with various degrees of contempt!) the idea of watching your figure, and most of them about keeping your diet and exercise routing intact. So I thought I would throw my two cents in. I hope you’ll at least try not to roll your eyes and give me a shot.

But first things first. How good does this lunch look? I was craving some warm soup and this hit the spot! Tomato soup and quinoa salad from Nanoosh, mmm. I could so make this myself but, given we are leaving in a day and half, we have NONE of the raw materials in our kitchen.

So, here’s the thing. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m not generally in favor of the oh-so-popular moderation idea. I think when you do something, you should really go for it! Give it everything you have and be passionate about it. You so often hear how everything is fine in moderation. Well, I disagree. But more on that some other time. However I do believe that the right strategy for dealing with the holidays lies somewhere in between the extreme ideas I’ve seen.

If I see another write-up about holiday dieting I think I might just boycott the media for the rest of the year! But I don’t agree with the idea that you should just let all the rules go out the window for a good two weeks either. Who wants to go to parties and turn down everything that has a little butter or frosting? Or not go to the party at all? But on the other hand who feels good the next day when they are bloated and devoid of energy? I know I don’t.

  • There is something to being prepared when you know there will be nothing with any redeeming health qualities to eat. Maybe it’s not always such a bad idea to make sure you eat a little something nutritious an hour or two before heading out to that party. Fill yourself up a little bit on the good stuff and then top it off with the goooood stuff.
  • You and your host will want to see some tasty treats make it past your lips, but you don’t need to eat them all. Eat the ones you really want, don’t just eat everything because it’s there. Easier said than done, I know, but the party isn’t all about the food, right? Aren’t you there to talk to people you haven’t seen in a while and celebrate the happy holidays with the ones you have? Change your mindset! And it doesn’t hurt to have a drink in your hand – it’s tough to hold a plate and eat when you do. Sparkling water with lime is always refreshing! And it fills you up and keeps you hydrated too. When I’m spending holidays with family, I actually bring a few bottles of water. That way I know I will drink something other than wine and it keeps my hands busy instead of grabbing for every snack I see.
  • Stay active! Just because you are out of town doesn’t mean you can’t hit the road and get in a run, or at least a walk. It’s so much more rewarding to enjoy a big family meal if you’ve worked for it! And it can be a great activity to share with others! Not to mention the stress release you get from a good sweat. And you can take that however you want, there are all different kinds of exercise. 😉 If you keep yourself moving you will have a lot more energy vs. the sluggish food coma you get otherwise.
  • Start new traditions! I don’t see why holidays have to be all about the food, anyway. Make it about family and friends. Make new memories that don’t involve food. Maybe recruit people to run with you? Enter a race, and the family members who don’t join can come cheer! Play games, break out the video camera to capture memories you can re-live later, go for a hike, build a snowman, watch holiday-themed movies, play music and even dance if you feel like it! There are so many non-food things we can cherish as traditions and I think we would feel so much better for it.

That’s it. I really didn’t want to make a list of rules. The holidays, and every day for that matter, are meant to be enjoyed. I just know how it feels to completely over-indulge. It may be fun at the time, but it doesn’t feel so great the next day and it definitely doesn’t feel good at all after several days. Don’t be overly critical of yourself but don’t completely derail your healthy habits either.

So… Happy New Year!! I’ll be back – and with some much more interesting photos! – in a month!

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Undercover Veggies

WOW it is cold out there. Makes you want to put on sweats, curl up under a blanket and eat something like mac ‘n cheese! Veggies are certainly not everyone’s priority this time of year. And even if they are still at the top of your list of favorite foods, they may not be for your husband or children. (At any time of year!) That’s why it can be helpful to disguise them as something else. Now, if you’ve ever been to a raw restaurant, you know that veggies can be transformed in to an endless variety of foods and you can’t even tell they are what they are. It’s amazing! For the purpose of this post, we will keep it SIMPLE.

The benefits of hiding vegetables is two-fold. Of course, you are adding the nutrients of vegetables to a dish, enough said. But also, the displacement of whatever you are substituting the vegetable for is a huge benefit too. Faking out your kids with a bowl of “chips” or “onion rings”? The real deal is so unhealthy, and you are eliminating trans fats, sodium, preservatives and a whole list of things you can’t pronounce. For instance, last night instead of empty calorie-filled white pasta, we had zucchini “noodles”. You can transform boring this…

…into delectable this! When all the tomato sauce goodness soaks in to the zucc, it is just not the same vegetable. Or any vegetable at all.

So let’s see how we can transform healthy produce in to all sorts of palate-pleasing dishes!

Juices and Smoothies: This is an easy one! Throw an apple in the juicer with a bunch of greens and it’s suddenly a sweet treat! With bananas and blueberries in a smoothie, your taste buds won’t even notice the kale.

Breakfast: Try adding pumpkin to oats or yogurt with a little cinnamon and nuts, it’s more like dessert. How about an egg scramble with a bunch of chopped up veggies? Add a little hot sauce? Mmm! Or how about a healthy zucchini muffin? No one thinks they are anything but delicious – until they hear there is zucchini inside!

Starches: There are SO many ways to substitute white flour with vegetables. Cauliflower is one of the most versatile. Depending on how finely you grind it up and when and how much you cook it, it can stand in for mashed potatoes, potato salad, rice or risotto, or breadcrumbs. Did you know you can make a delicious stuffing with cauli instead of bread? As we’ve already seen, you can make “pasta” noodles out of zucchini – most squashes and root vegetables for that matter. Spaghetti squash is a great stand-in. You can also use these same veggies, and bell peppers too, as noodles for Asian-themed dishes – add a peanut or sesame sauce. To take the pasta theme one step further, if you thinly shave root veggies they can make a fantastic ravioli too. For the last of the starches, how about using cabbage instead of a tortilla? Or even a hamburger bun – though that is less “hidden”, it at least still allows you to pick up the burger with your hands so that has to count for something!

Fried foods – I can’t tell you how easy it is to cut sweet potatoes in to the shape of french fries, toss them with a little olive and salt and pepper, throw them in the oven for a little while and suddenly you have awesome-tasting “fries”. Thinly slice any root vegetable, toss them with the same ingredients and bake them in to crispy chips! Your kids or husband may cringe at the mention of kale – mine certainly does – but when you add oil, salt and a little cheese and bake them into chips they are a whole different animal. You can even make onion rings or zucchini fritters that taste freakin delicious baked in the oven.

Dips: Who doesn’t love guacamole and salsa? And what’s more, you can use veggie chips to dip! Pesto can be made with added vegetables and it is delicious – try adding bell peppers or mushrooms next time! I had a roasted red pepper dip at a restaurant the other night and it was fantastic. Ever made raita? Add some garlic and cucumber to plain yogurt, it’s to easy.

Dessert: Yes, even dessert. I guarantee you no one will notice if your chocolate pudding is made with an avocado base. Guarantee it! They may ask how you made it because it is so smooth and delicious, but not because it taste anything like avo!

Well, that’s a pretty good start. So go eat your veggies – no excuses!!

The Calorie Paradox

I got a great question today and I thought it warranted a longer explanation. So here I am, inspired to write a post that I hope people will find helpful. And motivating! This time it’s not about calories in (food), but rather calories out. The question was… As you get in shape, your resting heart rate goes down – does a lower heart rate mean less calories burned? Yes. But that isn’t the whole story and in fact it’s more good news than bad.

OK so it doesn’t seem quite fair. The more fit you are, the slower your heart rate, so the less automatically, effortlessly you say goodbye to calories. But here’s why that’s a good thing!

  • Your body is more efficient. It takes work to keep that complicated system functioning. The less effort you require to keep everything running smoothly and keep your body healthy, the better. Right?! You’ve got a heartbeat to maintain, food to digest and for that matter good and bad bacteria to sort through. It’s a lot of work for your immune system to fight off infections, especially this time of year! I try to hold my breath when forced to stand near all these people who seem to be hacking up a lung, but I can’t hold it that long! And oh yes, your lungs! They need to move air in and out, well, pretty much non-stop. Isn’t it kind of comforting to think that you can make this less work for your body? I certainly wouldn’t want it to get too tired to perform any of these relatively important functions.
  • The fitter you are and the more efficient your body becomes, the more energy you have for other things. How much more fun is life when you jump out of bed and run around doing a million things! When you have energy, your whole outlook changes. You are more optimistic, things seem more achievable and they are. And let’s face it, you’re more fun to be around! Unless it’s 5AM and the unfortunate person next to you is not a morning person, but… you get my drift.
  • You are in better shape! Yes, that’s the problem, I know, I know. But it means you can work out harder! You have more capacity to push yourself and get a better workout, which means… more calories burned! That’s what you wanted, right? The harder you work during your workout, the more calories you burn afterwards. The more muscle you build. And muscles burn a lot more calories than fat!
  • There is a lot more that goes in to your metabolism than resting heart rate and I’m guessing your metabolism is only getting healthier. The amount you exercise, the foods you eat… I for one do not subscribe to the all calories are equal idea. Provided you are fueling your body with better options than before you started losing weight, you are improving your metabolism.

Not the prettiest picture, but certainly an illustration of making healthy choices. And a seriously simple dip* that tasted so good! There are SO many reasons why exercise is important. The question pertained to the calorie issue so I will stop there for now. It’s kind of a central theme to this blog, though, so you can imagine there will be more to come on that subject. (As if you didn’t already know that exercise is generally positive!)

*For this veggie dip, I threw a few things in to the food processor and voila. No measurements were made, just threw everything in and pushed a button. I used white beans, olive oil, a little bit of garlic, lemon juice, cumin and a touch of salt.

Enjoy!

Hopefully you get the Michael Pollan reference. The Omnivore’s Dilemma? In Defense of Food? If you looking at the computer screen with a confused look on your face, get up and run out the door to pick up one of his books ASAP.

Right then, on with the blog post… I noticed as I made my way through the grocery store today that I do not crave sugar at all. I never thought this was possible. I mean, I have kept my sugar addiction at bay and eaten a very healthy diet for the last several years, but no desire at all? Once upon a (recent) time, I was the craziest sugarholic I’d ever met. Lack of sugar cravings almost invariably meant that I was about to notice all the other symptoms that accompany the flu, in short order. Today I saw some of the things I would have HAD to get in the past and… nothing. I don’t know if this is because I told myself these foods are absolutely off limits, no if’s and’s or but’s; if it’s because I am too frightened of the consequences it will have, given my blood sugar issues, pushing me down the path toward full-blown diabetes; if the mood swings and digestive issues and the crap I know I will go through as a result has become that unpalatable; or if it’s simply because I haven’t had the evil starch in so long. I imagine it is a combination of all these things, but mostly the last point.

And I am absolutely not complaining one bit. I don’t miss it. The best part is that the experience gives me deeper insight in to what it takes to get away from sugar addiction, for me and for anyone else. Honestly, if I can kick the habit, anyone can kick the habit. Well… that may not be fair, but certainly almost anyone. There are so many strategies, substitutions, remedies. Exercise, stay hydrated, don’t let yourself get too hungry, make healthy sweet treats at home, the list goes on and on and on. The ‘suck it up and just don’t eat for a couple weeks’ strategy works for some people. Sugar, if you are really dedicated to the cause, will not beat you. Or me!

I made the simplest dinner that perfectly fulfilled my need for comfort food. One of my favorite meals used to be pasta with pesto, preferably gnocchi but I wasn’t about to argue with regular white pasta either. Today? Who needs the pasta?! This was delicious, I did not feel like I was missing a thing!

Spinach and Buckwheat with Pesto

Ingredients

2T olive oil
1/2 small onion
1/8 (approx.) cup raw cheese
2 cups chopped fresh spinach
1/2 cup whole grain buckwheat (pre-cooked)
pesto (to taste)*
*Note I usually make my own pesto with nothing but fresh basil, olive oil, pine nuts and the slightest bit of sea salt; but today I cheated with an organic, store-bought version with the same ingredients.

Directions

Heat olive oil in a pan and throw in onions. Cook for five minutes or until softened. Throw in sprinkling of cheese, spinach and buckwheat and cover for one minute, until spinach is just wilted. Quickly turn off stove and mix all ingredients together. Do not over-cook.

This was honestly so delicious and hit the spot. If you have a better tolerance than I do, of course you will want to have fresh white pasta from time to time, and you should enjoy it! But try using whole grains as a substitute now and then. Or even better, often. Even whole wheat pasta is processed, the closer you can get to the way nature intended (whole grains) is best. And when you do feel the craving, try to have more sauce than pasta. I’m certain some people will disagree or think I’m crazy, but I never understood the concept of eating a large plate of mostly white pasta with just a teeny bit of marinara sauce. The tomato sauce is the best part! Make tomato sauce with tons of veggies, even sausage or some other meat if that’s your thing – and make the pasta just another ingredient rather than the main one. The plain ol’ pasta doesn’t offer you much, at least once it gets past your taste buds.

When Michael Pollan said ‘eat food’ he meant eat it in the form of food, like the edible kind, not as in the kind that comes from a box or a can. His rules are pretty simple. Don’t eat too much? Pretty straightforward. I realize people may find this part easier said than done, but it’s a LOT easier to control how much you eat when you aren’t loading up on sugar. I think the last part, ‘mostly plants’, is the most important part. If you are eating a heap of raw vegetables, no one is going to tell you you really should be watching your portion size. What is better than vegetables? They are delicious, available in a wide variety and ridiculously healthy for you, giving you energy and well-being. What’s not to love? You violently chew them up and swallow them without mercy and they just give back! Incorporate more of them and make everything else a side show.

Ah titles… not my strong suit. I really just don’t go the extra mile to come up with good ones and I don’t see that changing. Hopefully you will just roll your eyes and trust that there will be some good content despite the title. (And even more hopefully, there is some good content!)

Wwowwww. I am so excited about this dessert. I have yet to see a healthier truffle, and they are so easy to make and SO tasty. The best part is they are even rich, like a gourmet store-bought truffle, so you can eat one (or two) and not feel the need to stuff ten more down your face. No seriously, it’s not because they taste bad, they really are delicious! Maybe it’s just that I haven’t had anything resembling sugar in so long that my taste buds are out of whack. But I’m not going to argue with that, that is fine with me – I’d like to see us all have that problem! Take a look…

Date Truffles (adapted from Edible Nutrition)

Ingredients

15 pitted dates
2/3 cup cocoa powder
1 cup almonds
1 tablespoons coconut oil
1/8 cup water (to texture)
cinnamon for dusting (optional)
coconut for dusting (optional)
Directions
Mix ingredients in a food processor. Add water gradually until you reach desired texture. Pull apart about a teaspoon size of mixture and roll into a ball.  Dust with cinnamon or coconut, or just eat them plain!

Now, I’m not advocating eating these for every meal. There are dates in the recipe and, therefore, sugar but this is an excellent option when you are craving a delicious chocolate treat.

And now for something unrelated to chocolate… if that should interest you at all… People seemed to like the tip on upcoming movie Forks over Knives, so I thought I would share another worthwhile health-related thing I did this week. This one you can enjoy now (I think)! The other night I was lucky enough to preview a new exhibit at the Natural History Museum.

There was a lot going on and I didn’t get to spend as much time as I’d like going through it, so I will definitely be going back. It was informative, not boring at all and pretty extensive. And, obviously, there is all sorts of other cool stuff to see once you are there. Oh, and it’s a LOT warmer in the museum than it is outside, so… good winter activity!

Another day gone in a flash. Back at the doctor for more blood tests this morning, monitoring this pre-diabetes issue. Every time I go there I leave behind at least four vials of my blood, it’s not a good pattern. It’s amazing I don’t run out! One of the tests we did was for magnesium level. Did you know that magnesium deficiency can contribute to insulin resistance? If you are having problems with the regulation of your blood sugar it is worth checking in to.

At 6:30 after running around all day, speaking to clients, stuffing lunch down my face and getting some much needed work done, working out was not at the top of my list. But I took the day off yesterday so there was no arguing with the gym as it called to me. I am hyper-sensitive to exercise. If I let a couple of days go by without getting it things cease working properly. Including my brain. Exercise is crucial to regulating blood sugar. So there you have it. I went to the gym.

Once I got there, as always, it felt good to be working out. I felt strong! But even feeling as good as it did to sweat, as I ran, I thought “I’ll cut it short so I don’t use up too much energy and I can still get a really tough workout in tomorrow morning.” What? That just doesn’t make sense. Do you ever do this? Why save energy for the next workout when you could just give everything to one you’re doing right then and there? Because it’s easier to procrastinate? It’s not like I have a race tomorrow. I’ll just give it everything I have now and I’ll give it everything I have tomorrow and if I am dead tired and just can’t move another minute, I can stop. I actually think I would have stopped tonight if I hadn’t thought of a book I recently read. It’s about writing, but the message translates to just about anything:

Anne Dillard has said that day by day you have to give the work before you all the best stuff you have, not saving up for later projects. If you give freely, there will always be more. This is a radical proposition that runs so contrary to human nature, that I personally keep trying to find loopholes in it. But it is only when I go ahead and decide to shoot my literary, creative wad on a daily basis that I get any sense of full presence, of being Zorba the Greek at the keyboard. Otherwise I am a wired little rodent squirreling things away, hoarding and worrying about supply. Arthritis forms in my hands and in the hands my mind is using to shape things…

You are going to have to give and give and give, or there’s no reason for you to be writing. You have to give from the deepest part of yourself, and you are going to have to go on giving, and the giving is going to have to be its own reward. There is no cosmic importance to your getting something published, but there is in learning to be a giver.

from bird by bird by Anne Lamott

And so on I went for an additional 15 minutes. Good heart-pumping music on my iPod didn’t hurt, either. And yes I really did have this deep thought on the treadmill. I come up with some of my best ideas when running! Like continuing to run, for one. On this particular evening, I actually took it a little farther. I started thinking about what Matt Frazier writes on his No Meat Athlete website about moderation. This time the message is about veganism but, again, the message translates to so many other things. (You can read the inspiring posts here and here, and you should.) He’s so right. Why settle for moderation? You can accomplish so much more when you don’t.

Getting home at 8:30 I quickly threw together something surprisingly delicious! It’s so easy when you have the right things handy.

I boiled some whole grain buckwheat in one pot. Meanwhile I chopped up Brussels sprouts and onions and stuck them in a pan with some coconut oil and then, just at the end, added a little bit of balsamic. Threw it all together and added a few walnuts. Done in minutes! So simple.

Side note: I went to a screening of Forks over Knives the other night. It was great! I highly recommend seeing it when it comes out. The movie is about the prevalence of “diseases of affluence” that are taking over our society, how diabetes rates are soaring and are affecting people younger and younger and how such a large number of people are on drugs for things that could be reversed (and could have been prevented in the first place) through a diet of whole foods. It emphasizes a diet of plant-based foods and the importance of getting away from processed foods. The film largely covers the work of Dr. Colin Campbell (of China Study fame) and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn. I am so glad I saw it.

Sugar and spice and everything nice! Isn’t that what they say girls are made of? I’ve always had the spice, there’s never been doubt about that. I think it came naturally with my hair color; redheads and their tempers, you know… it’s not my fault, it’s my genes. But sugar? I’ve got a whole heck of a lot of sugar coursing through my veins and I’m not sure there’s much nice about that! Having had digestion issues for years, I always knew starch and sugar were issues for me but now I’ve got the concreteness of a blood test. (A few of them, actually! I was sort of wondering if they were going to leave any blood in my arm. They did, fortunately.) Pre-diabetes. The crazy wacko part is that I eat so little sugar by normal standards!! If I ate like the average American I’d be diabetic for sure. Well, OK same with most people, but… In any case, being thin, athletic and careful about my diet, I was sure I had a food intolerance of some kind or bacteria or or or… I was not about to guess that my blood sugar was through the roof. But I’m nipping it in the bud! (About a decade after I started noticing the symptoms, but let’s focus on the positive.) Look at the healthy start to my day! Leftovers from my dinner last night were eeeeven better this morning…

Raw vegan lasagna a la quinoa mixed with healthy stuff. Mmm plenty of energy for my workout and just enough to get me through to lunch. Or at least to the green juice I had just before lunch. Ah lunch… my favorite salad from Peacefood Cafe. Pure angelic goodness.

Well, so it’s not the answer I was hoping for but at least I have a cause for my troubles. Which means I can address them. Finally. Weeding out all the possible culprits is the hardest part. Eating healthier and more regularly, exercising vigilantly, staying hydrated, etc. etc. (oooh yes the list goes on) etc. That’s my game! At least I have the tools and I’m not afraid to use ’em. So, goodbye sugar and starchiness. I don’t think I’ll miss you. It may be a pain sometimes but hey I’ll be the healthiest one in the room!

It goes to show that generalizing is never a good idea. Just because you don’t have all the signs doesn’t mean something isn’t worth investigating. I was on the right track but I and my doctors must have made assumptions that kept us from looking in exactly the right place.

Now I just have a really good reminder to be vigilant about treating my body right. Just to give you a few of the basics, if you are pre-diabetic (or diabetic for that matter), you should… Well, you should seek professional help but in addition to that: Exercise regularly. Stay the heck away from sugar and it’s cronies. Yes that includes alcohol, but paired with the proper meal you don’t need to worry too much about having some now and then. Says me. No processed food, yuck. Lots of fiber. Stay hydrated. Eat regularly. You don’t want your blood sugar (and it’s co-worker insulin) levels all over the place, nor do the people hanging out with you.

Dinner hasn’t happened yet so you will have to imagine what my final meal of the day looks like. I think you’ll be OK. Oh! But I do have one final goodie for you. I was craving something along the lines of macaroni and cheese and I had nothing resembling pasta. I had some leftover wheat berries in the fridge and some raw cheese, though. That’s it. Stuck it in a pan to warm it up with a little bit of cheese and… voila! Craving satiated!

Of course I’m not trying to say this was just like eating the most decadent version of macaroni and cheese, but it definitely did it for me. There are countless simple ways to make comfort food so much healthier for you. Any other favorites?