Friday, February 26, 2010

Let's Get Physical (Part Two)

A couple days ago, an acquaintance said, "I don't feel like I've gotten a good workout unless I've worked so hard I feel like I'm going to throw up." Besides the rather graphic and disturbing image it brought to mind, it struck me as wrong somehow. Is a good workout really supposed to be so... unpleasant? Tired, yes. Sweaty, sure. A bit sore, ok. I'm actually pretty sore myself today from an intense upper body workout I did yesterday, and I love that feeling. But I strongly believe that exercise, just like eating, should be if nothing else, enjoyable. What have you really gained if you're forcing yourself to eat bland, boring food, and enduring painful and miserable hours of physical exercise??

Living in a large city, I see a lot of people out jogging on the sidewalks. Some of them *look* like runners... they have slight bodies, long and lean muscles, and look completely effortless and at ease. They're clearly running because they love running. I can understand that (as much as a non-runner can understand I suppose). What I can't understand is the many many people I see who look completely MISERABLE. They look like they're dreading each and every stride as they thump, thump, thump down the street. I always want to roll down the window and ask them WHY they're running. If they're running because they have a genuine interest, and are just new to the sport, then I will be supportive like crazy. But I can never help but wonder if some of them are running simply because they want to lose weight/tone up/improve health, and think that running is the way to do that... even if they hate it. Which is odd to me, because it's just one of umpteen thousand ways of getting exercise!

I'm not a runner for a few reasons (not the least of which is that I trip a lot) but I love to exercise. My favorite form of exercise is actually incidental exercise, the kind you get the old-fashioned way... hiking, working outside, playing with the kids, even cleaning the house. Beyond that, I like to try almost anything, with one criteria: I have to LIKE it! I'm not going to force myself to do something I hate just for the sake of exercising. Maybe it goes without saying, but vomit-inducing would be a deal-breaker for me as well. I get bored very, very quickly so I never really liked exercise tapes (even though I've bought several of them). I do them a few times, or until I feel I've mastered them, then ditch them for something else. The same holds true for exercise bikes, skiers, rowers, treadmills and ellipticals. I do some yoga nearly every day, because I love the way it makes me feel, but otherwise I'm all about variety. The advent of all the exercise programs for the Wii was a God-send for someone like me, who needs things constantly changed up. Upper body one day, lower body the next. Cardio on Tuesday, core work on Wednesday.

I really look forward to exercising, and I miss it when I have to skip a day. I think that should be the goal when starting any sort of exercise program - to find something that you love so much you just don't feel right when you have to miss it, whether it's kickboxing or tai chi, yoga or spinning classes, dancing or tennis lessons, martial arts or pilates, jogging or ice skating, weights or ellipticals. Or something else entirely! It always makes me laugh a little when people say things like "I don't like vegetables." I think that just means you haven't tried the right kinds of vegetables. I believe it's the same with exercise. If you're someone who says you just don't like it, you just haven't found the right kinds of exercise.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Let's Get Physical (Part One)

Several years ago I was a distributor of nutritional and weight loss supplements - for a company that shall remain nameless, because it's not something I'd recommend anymore - and one of the questions we got a lot was "Do I have to exercise to lose weight?" We were instructed to tell people that no, they didn't have to exercise, that as long as they were following the program and eating right, they would lose. Diet was the most important thing, and if they didn't have the time or inclination to exercise... oh well. And while that's true, sort of, it's only half the story. Exercise can, and SHOULD, play a huge role in losing excess weight, gaining necessary weight, and just improving overall health.

Here's the deal with exercise vs dietary changes:

If you want to lose weight, and you have to - HAVE TO - choose between one or the other, you will see results more quickly with diet. It's a simple matter of science. If you 1) consume less calories or 2) burn more calories, you will lose weight. It's a relatively easy thing to cut unnecessary calories out of your diet, especially if your diet is poor to begin with. If you're a soda drinker for instance, you can shave hundreds of calories (and by extension, lose weight) just by giving up that one habit. Two 20 oz cokes have about 500 calories, about a quarter of an average person's caloric needs for the day! By comparison, in order to burn 500 calories, you would need to do some heavy-duty aerobic exercise, such as running, for around an hour. It takes much more time and commitment to stick with an exercise program, and it's all too easy to burn out and give it up.

(By the way, I know I said in my original post that I wouldn't advocate calorie counting... but I needed to mention calories in this instance for the sake of my illustration. No one should be drinking 40 ozs of coke every day anyway. ;-)

But here's the thing. Setting aside the context of weight loss for a minute, exercise is hugely important because it:

~strengthens cardiovascular health and reduces your risk of a heart attack
~reduces the risk of developing diabetes
~reduces the risk of developing high blood pressure
~reduces the risk of certain cancers
~helps build and maintain healthy muscles, bones, and joints
~reduces feelings of depression and anxiety, and promotes psychological well-being
~increases strength, flexibility, and agility

This is just a partial list! In addition, if you add exercise to a good clean, diet, you will lose weight more quickly, because not only does it burn calories in and of itself, but it also helps to increase your metabolism even when you're at rest. Bottom line is, if you're trying to decide which one to do -either diet or exercise - choose BOTH.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Easy Garlic Vinaigrette

Super, super simple; a million times better than anything you can buy in a bottle; and made with ingredients you can pronounce!

A few whole garlic cloves, minced
Extra virgin olive oil (about a tablespoon per person)
Balsamic vinegar (to taste; about a teaspoon per person)

Heat the oil over med-low heat in a skillet. Add as much garlic as you'd like, and heat till it gets aromatic, starts to sizzle, and begins to turn golden. I smash it with a fork to infuse the oil even more. Remove from the heat, cool back down to room temperature, and whisk in the vinegar. You can add any herbs you'd like too, but I think it's simple and delicious with just the three ingredients.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Comfort Foods

My husband grew up in a traditional Italian family. Every family get together was centered around food. Whether it was a wedding, a funeral, a Superbowl party, or a Tuesday... there was food, and lots of it. Food was for socializing, celebrating, and mourning. In times of stress, he'd turn to heavy, rich food that usually involved something that had a face at one point.

I grew up with a freezer full of icecream. Not just a little refrigerator freezer, but one of those big, chest freezers. Ice cream sandwiches, bars, and cones. I remember these wonderfully huge ice cream bars that had vanilla centers, a big, soft layer of caramel, and were wrapped in a thick, crunchy layer of chocolate. They had nuts on top - something I never liked with my sweets - and I'd painstakingly break them off one by one, careful not to lose even a morsel of chocolate. Yes, in times of stress, I'd turn to sugar, in all its glorious forms.

Together we made quite the pair.

The problem with both of these kinds of comfort foods is that while they may feel or taste good the moment (and good taste is a relative thing) they're not doing anything remotely kind to your body, and they make it oh so easy to over-indulge. I've heard them called "wood-chipper" foods. You eat one bite, then two, and before you know it you've followed them with twenty more. You end up feeling worse than when you started: tired, sluggish, bloated, achy, and just all-over YUCK.

It has been a process, to be sure, but my comfort foods have changed. Now nothing makes me happier than when I'm chopping up a huge pile of vegetables for a homemade soup or salad. Everything from the feel of the heavy knife to the fresh smell to the crisp cutting sounds are all part of the experience, even before I eat. I love homemade vegetable soups; I love brown rice piled with chopped tomatoes, fresh basil, olive oil and salt and pepper; I love whole wheat pasta tossed with tons of tender crisp vegetables or white beans, tomatoes and fresh herbs; I love dark leafy salads with homemade dressing, chick peas, and avocados. I love that I actually feel better instead of worse after I eat any of the above.

Don't misunderstand, I still love my sweets! And sometimes, well sometimes those social situations are made even better by their presence. We had friends visiting from out of state last year, and I remember with such fondness chatting, laughing, and making and eating chocolate chip cookies at 2 A.M. Surely the company was more important than the cookies, but somehow I just don't think it would have been the same if we'd whipped up a big salad instead. These days I'm experimenting with making healthier versions of old favorites. Alicia Silverstone's book, The Kind Diet, has some insanely delicious dessert recipes, and I'm working my way through, trying them all one by one. I've already made the brownies twice, we sucked down the chocolate chip crispy bars, and I'm just waiting for a good excuse to make the peanut butter cups again. I love trying new recipes, whether it's from a book, a friend, or the internet, and I like knowing that I can make healthier versions of nearly everything.

Yes, sweets still definitely have their place, but I'm infinitely glad to also have an arsenal of good, whole "comfort foods" that are healing for both body and soul. If you don't have such a repetoire to choose from, just start with ONE! It's not overwhelming that way, and will almost instantly start you on a path to better health. You can start with a fruit or veggie you already love, and experiment with new ways to make it. When you're feeling more adventurous, you can try something you think you don't love. If you're someone who says, "I don't like spinach." Or brussel sprouts. Or asparagus. Or whatever it is... Find a different recipe! There's a world of difference between a vegetable cooked to mush and placed in a steaming heap on a plate, and one that's been lightly roasted with garlic and olive oil, bright and green and crisp. You can try new vegetables in sandwiches, salads, and soups. They're good with pasta, and awesome on pizza. I have a friend who makes smoothies with lots of fresh and frozen fruit and a handful of spinach. To hear her tell it, she's the last person you'd expect to be drinking such a thing, but tried them, experimented to find what worked best, and was hooked. It's all about finding what you love.

I was going to post a recipe for an easy, homemade salad dressing while I was on the subject, but dinner calls. It can wait for tomorrow.

Yay, FOOD!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Vegan Pancakes

I love breakfast. All kinds of breakfast. I've never met a breakfast food that I didn't like. The kids and I usually have oatmeal during the week, but Sunday morning in our house has always been spelled p-a-n-c-a-k-e. This is my current favorite , tweaked by yours truly until I got it exactly the way I like it. If you are someone who wants to try animal-free cooking, but thinks that you need eggs or milk for good taste or texture, this recipe is the perfect place to start. These pancakes are easy, fluffy and delicious. You can make them with either all-purpose or whole wheat flour, but you need to increase the liquid a bit when using whole wheat, so the batter doesn't get too thick.

1 cup flour
1 T sugar*
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp salt
1 cup soy, rice, or almond milk (experiment to find your favorites!)
2 T vegetable oil
splash of vanilla

Mix dry ingredients and wet ingredients in separate bowls, then mix together until thoroughly combined. Cook on hot griddle until golden, and eat with maple syrup :)

*Regular white sugar, because it's so refined and depleted (along with a host of other problems) isn't my first choice for a sweetener, though I'd choose it over an artificial sweetener such as aspartame every time! Agave nectar, which you can find in most grocery stores, is my favorite natural sweetener. It's mild, smooth, works well anywhere you'd use sugar, and doesn't give you the sugar "hangover". Brown rice syrup is another sweetener to experiment with, as is pure maple syrup. You could also leave the sweetener out altogether, especially if you use a sweetened & flavored milk.*


Saturday, February 13, 2010


The other day I went to Barnes and Noble to browse with my sister. Right inside the front door, front and center, was one of those huge circular displays, covered with dozens of diet books. It made sense, given that it was only shortly after New Years, and the store had to market to all the people who'd resolved that 2010 would be the year that they'd finally lose weight and get healthy.

As I read through the titles, I was struck - and honestly, kind of disgusted - by two things. One, they were all filled with flash, gimmicks, and complicated rules (eat this, not that; diets for divas, for women, for men; Hollywood secrets; diets to train your brain, shrink your waistline and flatten your stomach. This went on and on and on...) And two, they all contradicted each other: Eat more protein. Eat less protein. High carbs. Low carbs. Full plates. Tiny portions. Calories! Points! Fiber! Fat!

And the grocery store is even worse. We've got Weight Watchers, South Beach, and Atkins. There's protein shakes and energy bars. Vitamin water and soda with antioxidants. 100 Calorie Snack Packs. Fat free, sugar free, carb-free.

Is it really any wonder that so many people are overweight?!

I started this blog because I wanted to cut through all of that confusing hype and just talk about good health and good food. By good health I just mean bodies and minds that are balanced and strong. By good food I mean food. Real food. Food that grows in the ground, not something that comes in a box or a can or a cellophane wrapper in the cracker aisle.

So my promise to you, and myself, is that this blog will NOT advocate, endorse, or mention

Fad diets
Calorie restriction
Point counting
"Diet" foods
Diet supplements
Packaged, processed, non-foods

I will share healthy tips, healthy information, and vegetarian recipes that have not only been tested and approved by me, but also by my former meat and potatoes husband. Real food, and real information.