Ignorance Hurts! Weight Loss & New Ideas

One of the most painful stereotypes regarding the obese is that they are gluttons, followed hard by the second most painful stereotype: they are lazy.  Neither statement is true in most cases.  Most people who go on diets adhere closely to the program; they eat their diet food, measure their portions, say no to the cheats and treats.  They lose some weight, maybe even hit their goal, but then we all know what happens next: rebound weight gain!  They feel like failures and society for the most part believes they must have screwed up somewhere or just gone off their diet.

The truth is that, like most people, I tried very hard to lose weight.  I played sports; I tried to eat the healthy food.  My mom was always pushing one diet or another at me, and most of them were pretty awful and I never lost much weight.  Some of her plans included a fast-metabolism program, where I eliminate certain foods from my diet, drink smoothies according to the book’s recipe list, and then the following week, I make more changes to my diet to include/ eliminate more foods, and then make even more changes the next week!  This was guaranteed to jump-start my metabolism so I would burn off weight in no time at all!  Another one of her guaranteed fixes included drinking a smoothie made with an expensive powder (like $30 a pound!) and this powder would ‘bind’ to the sugar/ carbs/ whatever to keep it from being absorbed, so I would lose a lot of weight fast!  One of these diets included the questionably ‘healthy’ meal of buttered egg noodles on a regular basis.  Even as a teenager, I really didn’t think buttered noodles counted as ‘diet food’ and it didn’t take long before I stopped listening to my mom’s fad diet schemes.

However weird and wacky some of these diet plans might have been, my mom had the right idea: we need to keep learning and stay open to new ideas.  What we all thought was the ‘right answer’ when I was growing up (low fat-high carb and eat less-move more) is more than likely NOT the right answer!  We know that carbs turn into glucose in the body and that chronically high glucose leads to insulin resistance which keeps the body from metabolizing stored body fat.  Essentially, the more carbs you eat and the more often you eat them, the less body fat you burn off.  All that advice we were given about eating every two-three hours isn’t ‘jump-starting’ our metabolism but it is keeping us overweight.  The carb roller coaster is why we feel tired two hours after lunch and why that afternoon granola bar makes us feel energized.

When you open yourself up to new ideas, there’s always the danger of getting taken for a ride.  This is why if you are going to keep learning new things, you need to do your homework! I confess I am one of those who poo-poo’d the Paleo diet as one more weird freaky fad diet to be avoided, and I did it without learning anything about it.  I simply lumped into another one of those ‘flash in the pan & sell as many books as possible’ marketing schemes.  Bad, bad, bad! I should know better and I’m going to blame a cynical outlook on weight loss for my poor judgment! Before I made a snap judgment, I should have taken a look at what the Paleo/ Caveman Diet proponents were actually saying.

I’m not going to tell you that Paleo is 100% effective for everyone, because I honestly have no idea if it is.  I can tell you that after years of reading about other weird fad diets and trying a few of them that this one made the most sense to me.  The number one reason for me is that it’s a pretty basic plan: eat real whole food.  I don’t have to go looking for some expensive powder or a long list of strange smoothie ingredients, and I don’t have to drink all my food for weeks at time while doing XYZ exercises.  I simply avoid the processed foods.  Essentially, if it comes packaged in a box or a bag and has chemical gobbledygook ingredients, I should probably leave it on the shelf.

Proponents of Paleo have suggested that one of the reasons it took a long time for this way of eating (most don’t like the word ‘diet’) is that other than cookbooks and how-to books, there’s not a lot of marketing to go along with Paleo.  This is one of the failings of the Weight Loss Industry– because it is an industry!  People make money selling others like me the Hope of Losing Weight, usually in some package or some program that we have to pay for.  There are whole aisles at the grocery store full of packaged diet food, mostly full of chemicals, preservatives and other things that may not be good for us. We can lose weight eating those processed foods, usually only until we stop eating them.  This was my major question when I was losing weight on Nutrisystem: what happens when I stop eating their boxed food?  Easy! I gain weight again, because the focus is mainly on eating their food, not how I should be eating (supposedly that comes later, but I never got to that part!)

This is why Paleo works for me: it’s real whole simple food and I don’t have to buy the “Paleo” brand of food, although now there are brands like Primal Kitchen that fit the criteria, but it’s up to you if you want to buy them- you don’t need them to eat Paleo. If I want to buy some simple salad dressing instead of making it myself, I can buy it and not have to worry about it being full of canola oil, but if I want to make a simple vinaigrette, I can still do it.  The bottom line for Paleo is to keep your food as real, whole and unprocessed as possible.  Like I said, simple!

The point I’m trying to make is that if one thing doesn’t work for you, keep an open mind and keep learning about other methods that might work.  You need to give it an honest attempt (one week probably isn’t long enough) but if it’s not sustainable, you should probably cross it off your list.  A temporary fix is always and only temporary, just like all fad diets- once you stop eating their food or following their program, you’ll gain the weight back.  Paleo is no different in this way: if I were to go back to eating the processed foods I ate growing up, I would gain back the weight. What makes it work for me is that I’m still eating real food and it’s real food I like eating, like salad and spare ribs.  I feel better when I eat it instead of feeling hungry and tired after eating the fettucine alfredo.  I like what I eat, I don’t have to buy weird expensive ingredients or take handfuls of pills.  If I had done my homework about Paleo when I first heard about it, I’d probably have lost weight years before I did and no doubt saved myself some grief.  By choosing to stay ignorant and cynical, I only hurt myself.  Shame on me for being narrow-minded!

[Since learning about it, I’ve read some other great books that follow the same kind of idea: Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson; The Paleo Solution and Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf; Always Hungry? by David Ludwig, and Melissa Hartwig of Whole 30 has just come out with two new books.  All of these advocate eating unprocessed nutrient dense foods and keeping the processed ingredients to a minimum.  However you choose to eat, choose nutrition over convenience when possible and always go for unprocessed.]

A Variety of Hobgoblins: Consistency Doesn’t Have to Be Boring!

One of the quotes I used to hear a lot is the “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds”  by Ralph Waldo Emerson (the complete quote actually says “a foolish consistency”).  I think most people use it to mean getting stuck in a rut is easier than thinking of solutions all day.  Why use your brain all day long when you can follow the same little track?  In other words, consistency is for boring stupid people.  Remember, “variety is the spice of life!”

You can see the problem when it comes to weight loss: we are constantly being told by others to be consistent when it comes to our healthy eating habits, and we are constantly (consistently??) being told by others that we need variety in our lives to keep us from getting bored with the ‘healthy stuff.’  Some of the complaints I hear a lot is that ‘healthy food doesn’t taste so great’ and ‘I get bored fast eating healthy.’  I’m not going to lie: I can eat the same thing over and over again and rarely get bored with it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the ‘healthy stuff’ or not.  I used to eat the same Jack in the Box meal night after night, and that’s just one example.  It has nothing to do with how yummy or not-yummy something is; for me, it’s usually how hungry or not-hungry I am and whether I ‘want to eat’ or not. So, for me, while I understand what they mean, it’s never been much of a problem for me.

The exception was processed foods vs whole foods.  The more processed a food is, the more chemicals and ‘flavor boosters’ it has in it.  These foods are designed to keep you eating more of them by being ‘highly palatable.’  That’s a nice way of saying they are addictive (‘betcha can’t eat just one!’) So when you taste something that’s processed, it never tastes like something made from a whole food.  I recently saw a salsa taste test on America’s Test Kitchen where the tester tried to fool the host: along with the sample of jarred processed salsas for her to taste was a homemade sample made right there in the test kitchen. It tasted different, obviously (she used the word ‘fresh’ to describe it).  What she wasn’t tasting were all the chemicals and preservatives used in the jarred salsa to keep it from spoiling or to ‘boost the flavor.’  For me, when I stopped eating processed foods and started eating more whole foods, the blandness was the most noticeable change.  Although I knew why it tasted blander and was kind of expecting it, it was still an adjustment. However, eating more whole and nutrient dense foods was more important to me than just taste, so I stuck with it.  I was boringly consistent!

And it paid off! In that first year, I lost almost 100 lbs by not starving myself, not exercising myself to death (hardly exercised at all, really!) and by not eating ‘weird diet food.’ I simply stopped eating high carb processed foods for more low carb whole foods (veggies).  In that first year, I stopped two diabetes medications and in the second year I stopped my hypertension medication too!  Still not killing myself with exercise or starving or eating weird diet food! Being healthy and losing weight has more to do with giving your body the right nutrition rather than counting calories or macros or killing yourself with kettlebells.  Eating real nutrient dense food instead of something that comes in a box or a can or a powder will do more for your weight loss than doing seven workouts a week!

When it came to eating healthy food, I was boringly consistent (that hobgoblin is now my pet!) and I used it to my advantage. I ate a lot of the same kinds of foods over and over again: things like spinach, salad greens, shredded cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts (not so much cauliflower) and a lot of different unprocessed meats like roasted chicken, beef, lamb, and pork.  On weekends, it’s a lot of bacon or sausage and eggs for breakfast.  So while it may look pretty boring, I do spice it up with what I like! I used to make my own simple salad dressing: balsamic or apple cider vinegar, olive or avocado oil and Trader Joes 21 Seasoning Salute or any other spice blend that I like.  (Now, honestly I use mainly Primal Kitchen brand salad dressings because they are made with avocado oil.)  I also make my own spice blend for my meats. I sprinkle on a mix of garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, curry powder and sometimes a little red pepper flakes.  Trader Joes just came out with a garlic salt blend that works pretty good too!  As for the salads, I add in things like avocados, onions (green, red or white), peppers of all colors, sprouts, radishes, carrot shreds, heirloom tomatoes and anything else that looks good in the produce department!

Another thing happened while I was being boringly consistent with healthy eating choices: when I tasted the processed foods I used to enjoy so much, they just tasted weird to me.  When I started eating whole foods, I noticed the absence of all those chemicals in the natural foods, but when I ate the processed foods again, I could really taste them!  And it wasn’t just ‘fake cherry flavor’ that I was tasting: I was tasting all the chemicals and additives they put in during processing.  It’s as if all those ‘flavor boosters’ are there to hide the chemical taste in the food.  It doesn’t taste good to me anymore, which makes it easier to give up.  Remember when you were a kid and the first time you tasted coffee or beer and you probably made a face or spit it out? “Why do grownups drink that yuck?!” Because grownups get used to the taste! Just like we get used to the taste of the sugary sweet jarred pasta sauce and the fake mapley taste in the fake maple syrup (personally, I used the real stuff when I made pancakes- another acquired taste!)

While my menus may look like the same boring thing night after night (“I had salad and rotisserie chicken again last night”), there is quite a lot of variety in there!  Think about it: long before people began processing food in factories, all their foods were ‘whole foods’ and we developed as many different ways of cooking it as there are people on the planet! If you are tired of Mexican, how about Chinese? Tired of Chinese? Then how about Moroccan? That plain piece of beef can be Italian, Indonesian, or Southwestern! Whole foods don’t have to be boring, unless you want them to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sugar: The White Death

It is no secret that we are addicted to sugar.  Most of us are pretty good at recognizing the obvious sources of sugars in our diets: candy, soda, sweetened coffee drinks and sweet pastries.  We all know they’re bad for us and so most of us try to limit those.

But there are other sugars in our diet beyond the mochas, cookies and Pepsi: they are the orange juice and bagel we had with breakfast, the whole wheat bread in our turkey sandwich and the pasta we have with dinner.  “But,” you say “there was no jam on the bagel and nothing at all sweet in any of those!”  That is true but there was still sugar just the same, in the form of starches.  This is where most of us make our mistakes (including me) because we haven’t learned how the body processes what we eat.  We’re told to eat low fat and avoid “sugar” so we think we are “eating healthy” when we have juice instead of soda and a whole wheat turkey sandwich or whole wheat pasta with marinara sauce: “I’m eating my healthy whole grains with lots of fruits and vegetables!” But you are still getting sugars in every bite.

Most of us have been told that we can eat better if we give up anything “white,” like cream, whole milk, cheeses, white flour, bread, potatoes, pasta and sugar. While it’s true that “white” usually means highly processed, which is not the best for you, it’s also true that whole wheat breads and pastas are also made up of the similar starches that make up the “white” varieties.  What most of us don’t know is that starches are simply long chains of sugars (polysaccharides)  and while they may not taste as sweet as more recognizable forms (monosaccharides and disaccharides), the body treats them the same way.

[This is where I remind everyone that I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. I just did my own research to educate myself and I’m sharing what I’ve learned.]

I recently read The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes, mainly because I wanted to learn more about what sugar is and some of the problems it causes.  His book is quite shocking: health professionals have been complaining about sugar since before we even started refining it into the granulated white crystals we are familiar with! He mentions how Hindu doctors in the 4th Century noted how those who ate more sweet foods were more obese, had bad teeth and more health problems.  Since then, he points out how, as sugar usage continued to grow across the world and people began using more and more of it, so did health problems like obesity, heart disease, gout, dental caries, and of course diabetes. Most Americans are used to demonizing the Tobacco Industry for their concerted campaigns to defend tobacco usage as healthy and not harmful despite the overwhelming evidence; what we should be demonizing the is the Sugar Industry because their concerted offensive to keep us believing that sugar is healthy and nutritious has worked despite the mounting evidence that sugar causes all the problems listed above: heart disease, dental caries, obesity, gout, and diabetes.  Doctors as far back as the 16th Century were telling people to limit sugar usage, but because the Sugar Industry was and still is profitable and powerful, these facts were suppressed.  FYI: several of the studies that ‘proved’ saturated fat causes heart disease were funded by the Sugar Industry, which successfully buried the studies that showed heart disease was more closely linked to carbohydrates (such as sugar). Another FYI: the Sugar Industry actually taught the Tobacco Industry how to launch successful ad campaigns; the head of one sugar research association went to work for Big Tobacco.  They were already in bed together: those blended American cigarettes that became so popular after WWII are a blend of sugar soaked tobacco and air cured tobacco.  The sugar allows the smoker to inhale the smoke more deeply: without the sugar, the smoke is too irritating to be inhaled as deeply into the lungs.  Less smoke, less nicotine, less chance of becoming addicted.  Talk about a Demonic Duo! 

The aspect of The Case Against Sugar that was so shocking was the coordinated effort by The Sugar Industry to hide the harmful effects of sugar consumption from the public and at the same time, encourage increased consumption as a “healthy energy source.”  Most of us know that sugar isn’t good for us, but it’s the different ‘hidden’ forms of sugar that trip up most of us. The three easiest ways to limit sugar in your diet is to: 1) avoid processed foods; 2) avoid fruit; and 3) avoid starches. 

Avoiding processed foods is the easiest  way of avoiding sugar and while I’m a huge fan of fruit (“Nature’s candy”), the sugar in fruit is fructose which isn’t metabolized like glucose & sucrose (table sugar) and doesn’t trigger the satiety hormone leptin. Starches, whether natural like rice,  potatoes, etc or man-made like breads or cereals, are actually just long chains of sugar and the body treats them like sugar. 

While I highly recommend everyone read Gary Taubes’ book The Case Against Sugar, I have to say it reads like a history book, outlining sugar’s continued spread into our diet across the world, mainly fueled by greed/ economic gain and status. The scary part is how every attempt is made to keep us buying sugar despite its dangers. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Started: Where Do I Begin?

A friend of mine recently decided to lose weight and eat healthier, and like most of us, she’s a little lost.  She knows what her goal is: being a healthier weight and healthier in general, but as to how to get there? It’s all a little vague. Most of us begin in the same situation.  The goal is usually pretty clear, but the path to take is like finding our way through a maze. Which route do we take and how do we know if we are making progress?

I think she has made a good start: she knows where she wants to go and she has an idea of how she wants to get there.  Although she wants to lose weight, her goal is to be healthier overall, so she began by making some realistic changes.  Instead of changing several habits all at once, she began by trying to eat more fruits and vegetables.  She said growing up, her family didn’t eat a lot of those, so she is making an effort to eat more of them.  She also joined My Fitness Pal and is logging her meals and exercise.  Although she’s just started changing her eating habits, she’s been exercising regularly for about a year now (I met her at the gym) so that habit is already firmly established!

As far as “choosing a diet plan,” she hasn’t really opted for a ‘packaged plan,’ which I think is a good thing.  Too often, I hear people trying to fit their lives and eating habits around the Rules for a diet. This is how people end up malnourished or becoming ill after following Rules carved in stone by someone they’ve never met.  (My all-time favorite is the college student who ‘went vegan’ and ended up almost dying in the emergency room because of B12 deficiency.) I don’t have anything against vegans (my cardio trainers are both vegan) but when we opt for following a way of eating, we need to make sure that it fits our nutritional needs and our own preferences.  I really love grapefruit and cabbage, but I’m sure not opting for the Grapefruit Diet or the Cabbage Soup Diet!

When people ask me if I have a diet, I usually tell them that I do a ‘version of Paleo/ Primal,’ because my ‘rules’ are going to be different from anyone else who also does Paleo/ Primal.  There are even disagreements over how to define Paleo and Primal, so following the rules is a little bit like choosing a religion!  This is why I’ve opted to make my own rules and follow my own version.  What I do may not work for my friend or for anyone else, so while it’s great to ask for advice, if it doesn’t work for you, then what’s the point?

As I mentioned above, my cardio trainers are both vegan and they are big fans of promoting veganism.  It really works for them: they are both healthy and fit 70 year olds (not a typo- they’re both in their 70s!)  Personally, I like eating animal products and I know I wouldn’t be very happy ‘eating vegan’ or even vegetarian!  At the same time, there are a few of my fitness and gym friends who eat keto, which is usually heavy on fat, mainly from animal products.  As much as I love things like butter, bacon, meat and dairy, the few times I’ve tried eating keto, it has not been very satisfying, even discounting carb withdrawal.  I hear repeatedly how healthy vegan/ vegetariansim/ keto are and I don’t doubt they work for a lot of people.  My sister was a happy vegetarian for several years before she opted to change her eating habit again.  None of those really made me feel good, so they’re off my list of eating plans!

My own version of Paleo means mainly whole natural foods as unprocessed as possible.  It also includes dairy (most hardcare Paleo followers insist that Paleo + dairy = Primal). It does not include starchy vegetables, grains/ grain products, cane sugar and some legumes.  Essentially, I started with a basic Paleo framework and adapted it to suit my metabolism and preferences. In fact, when I started, my diet did not include dairy for many months.  Eventually, I opted to include it again although I do think I need to limit it more than I do now.  The point is that the way I eat now makes me feel my best and I am getting the results that I want.

That is how we find the answers to those earlier questions: which route do we take to our goal and how do we know if we are making progress?  If you are feeling your best with your current eating plan and you are getting the results that you want, then that is the route to YOUR goal.  Most of us go into dieting with the general goal of ‘losing weight.’  Weight loss isn’t always healthy!  In fact, when I started losing weight, because I was so extremely obese, I lost a lot of weight in a short amount of time.  When I saw my doctor, her first reaction wasn’t “finally!”; it was “are you feeling alright? are you having health problems?” Rapid weight loss is an indicator of cancer, hormonal imbalance and intestinal/ digestive problems.  It also leads to malnutrition, i.e. the vegan college student with B12 deficiency.  What most of us really want is ‘fat loss,’ not just ‘weight loss,’ and while the distinction is lost on most people, it is an important distinction.  Losing weight can mean losing water weight (and becoming dehydrated) or it can mean losing lean body mass, i.e. losing muscle, among other things.  When the number goes down on the scale, most of us are really happy about it and keep doing what we are doing to keep the number going down.  But if we are doing something unhealthy, then we are only becoming thinner instead of healthier.  My friend made the observation that while most of her family was obese, all the people she knew who were diabetic were thin.  Just as being clinically obese doesn’t equal ‘unhealthy,’ being thin does not equal being ‘healthy.’

Getting the results you want, whether losing fat, building muscle or being fitter, is one way of knowing you are on the right path, but we must also not discount the ‘how am feeling’ part of the answer.  If you are getting the results that you want, like fat loss, but you hate the way you are feeling or eating, then that is NOT the right path for you!  If you hate the way you feel or you hate the way that you are eating, you are not going to sustain it for long. I tried both vegetarianism and keto a few times, and frankly, I hated both ways of eating.  I felt horrible, had terrible cravings and did not enjoy what I was eating. Although I’ve since learned that the cravings and the ‘keto flu will go away, I didn’t like what I was eating and overall, I didn’t like the way that felt. There are days when I eat more to a keto or veggie plan than other days, but those are the exception rather than the rule.  When I opted to include dairy again in my diet, one of the things I watched for was simply “how does it make me feel?”  If it made me feel awful or kept me from making my goals, then I would have kicked it back out again, but the truth is I like cream, butter and cheese and it doesn’t keep me from my goals.

We’ve all done diets where we strictly limit our foods, either the types or the amounts and yes, most of us have lost weight on those diets, but once we stop the limiting, we gain back fat and usually a bit more.  This is why it’s so important that we must enjoy the way that we are eating in order to be successful, otherwise any fat loss is going to be temporary!  Also, what is the point of looking great if we feel miserable?  Remember the last time you lost weight and showed up at a function like a holiday party where everyone commented on how great you look? That felt awesome…. until we reached the buffet table! There was all that food that either wasn’t on our diet or was simply too much! Instead of thinking, yum! what looks good to eat?, we were crying inside because it was all foods we were denying ourselves! I know from experience that situation is no fun at all! I know I don’t want to spend the rest of my life ‘looking great and feeling miserable!’  Even though there are a lot of foods that aren’t on my list, there are a lot of foods that are, and the last time I was at a buffet, there were still a lot of yummy foods that I could and did eat!  It was easy to choose those foods over the foods not on my list because I knew I felt better eating them and I knew I was going to keep making progress!

My friend is still in the early stages of her getting-healthier journey, but as I said, I think she is off to a great start. She is building good habits on a reasonable time line and she is asking herself the right questions. She mentioned it to me because even though she was enjoying her lunchtime salad with leafy greens and chicken, she was still getting hungry before dinner, so she was asking me about options for fixing that.  We discussed adding in some healthy fats (avocado, olives or more cheese) or more fibrous veggies (broccoli, cabbage or kale).  Obviously, what works for me won’t always work for her, but the important points are that you have to eat what you like eating and still get the results you want, because unless you do both, it doesn’t matter what you eat or how much weight you lose.

Flavor Boosters Boost Your Waistline, Not Your Health!

One of the things I’ve been noticing a lot is people complaining about eating healthy because “the food doesn’t taste that good!”  If it’s someone I can respond to, I usually let them know there’s a reason whole foods taste different: it’s because processed foods have been processed full of ‘flavor enhancers,’ among other things.  This is when they ‘boost’ the flavor by filling it full of chemicals, designed to overpower your taste buds and make you want more of it.  This is the manufacturer making sure you crave their product and want to eat/ buy as much of it as possible!

A lot of these ‘flavor boosters’ show up on the ingredients as ‘natural flavors.’  That does not mean that these ‘flavors’ come from food: it just means they are not ‘man-made’ and come from “Nature” whether that can mean it’s something derived from wood by-products, coal tar manufacturing by-products or something else.  It does NOT mean it comes from FOOD!  Seriously, the artificial sweetener saccharin was originally a by-product of coal-tar manufacturing.  Incidentally, that is NOT the reason it’s banned in Canada: the Sugar Industry lobbied long and hard to ban saccharin because of the competition in both the US and Canada.  In the US, they managed to get it labeled as a carcinogen after feeding it to lab rats at mega-high dosages (like it’s all they fed the rats for weeks on end and wow! some of them developed cancer!) If humans ate that much saccharin, they would probably throw up long before they got cancer, the same way we would throw up after eating the same amounts of sugar, if we didn’t fall into a diabetic coma first!

In all honesty, the food manufacturers have a vested interest in keeping you buying their products, so they make the products as enjoyable and addictive as possible.  The more you buy them, the more you want them and the more money in their pockets.  By contrast, the more unhealthy you get!  Processed foods like chips, snack cakes, fast foods and other things that come with an ingredient list, have been tested to determine what flavors light up our brains’ pleasure centers the most.  Taste testers rate the different combinations and additives according to how much they want to keep eating it, the mouth feel, the smell, and everything else that makes food taste “so delicious!”

By comparison, whole unprocessed foods are going to taste different, because they don’t have all the chemicals processed into them.  They haven’t been processed (I think of it as ‘pre-digested’ personally!) so they are going to have a different mouth-feel.  This is the term food manufacturers use to describe literally the way food feels when you put it in your mouth, as in chips should be crunchy but not too crunchy; mashed potatoes should be soft but still have some texture; burgers should be a little chewy; hot dogs should have a little snap to them, etc.  Products are actually tested to see what ‘mouth-feel’ rates highest.  Most of us do this on our own when we make foods from scratch: I like my ground beef to have a little spring in it and not be completely charred; when I used to make mashed potatoes from scratch, I left a few lumps in them because I like to taste and feel the actual potato!  We know how we like our foods to feel as we chew on them!

Whole foods, by comparison, don’t have the chemical additives to boost the flavor and keep us eating more.  So when you’re eating the ground beef burger you made from grass fed beef (hopefully), it only has the flavors and spices you put on it, such as salt, pepper and maybe some onion or garlic powder.  The same goes for the broccoli you steamed yourself, the spinach you sauteed yourself or whatever else you’ve made from whole foods.  It’s not going to have the ‘natural flavors’ or the MSG (monosodium glutamate) unless you put it on the food.  If you’ve been eating mainly processed foods most of your life, like most of us have, whole foods will taste a little bland at first, but our taste buds change depending on what we eat. When we stop eating processed foods in favor of the whole natural foods, we get used to the way they taste, especially once we learn how to prepare them in a way we really enjoy (for me, this includes not walking away from the stove and turning the beef into a charcoal briquet as I usually do!) I like my stronger tasting meats like beef and lamb with a curry powder I mix myself, but milder meats like chicken I usually just roast.  I’ve learned to prepare my vegetables with olive oil dressings or just a little salt and ghee.  It might sound kind of boring compared to garlic mashed potatoes or Kansas City spare ribs from the freezer section or a restaurant, but I know what’s in the food I’m eating, and it’s not ‘flavor boosters’ and chemicals, and that is important to me!

Another way that processed foods boost your waistline is that the chemical ingredients can really mess with your intestinal bacteria (your microbiome).  We in the Western industrialized world eat mainly processed foods.  No surprise there!  But there is a direct correlation between the rise in consumption of processed foods and the rise in metabolic disorders such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimers, depression, and autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and arthritis.  There are people who say it’s because we’re living longer and we’re exposed to chemicals in our environment.  Both of those are true, but what is also true is that we are exposed to chemicals in our food, and these are chemical compounds that we as a species have never eaten before and were probably not meant to eat (such as a coal-tar by product like saccharin!)  These additives and preservatives are designed to boost taste and mouth feel, not our health.  They keep us fat and unhealthy rather than promoting good nutrition and healthy bodies.  When did the whole point of eating become satisfying our taste buds rather than fueling our bodies?

These chemicals were never part of the human diet before industrialization, the same way polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), what Dr. David Perlmutter calls “factory fats,” were never part of the human diet.  Because they are ‘derived’ from a plant product or ‘Nature’ they are allowed to be called ‘natural,’ but they are not naturally occurring in nature the way an olive, an egg, a fish or a cow are naturally occurring.  These are foods humans and other animals have eaten for millenia and are pretty much recognized in all societies as something to eat. Monosodium glutamate, cottonseed oil and disodium phosphate, not so much! (Incidentally, cottonseed oil has to be processed to make it edible.  That’s really something I don’t want to eat!)  Most of these PUFAs are also high in omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory and unstable.  They are not fully metabolized by the body either and those unstable fats become a part of every cell in our bodies!

Besides the fact that most processed foods are full of pro-inflammatory “factory fats” that really mess with our absorption of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, they are also full of highly processed carbohydrates that spike our blood sugar.  This is why I usually refer to processed foods as ‘pre-digested.’  The foods have been broken down into the simplest compounds possible for fast easy digestion in our system, so the corn chips we ate 20 minutes ago are already metabolized while the cabbage we ate an hour ago is just getting there. Processed foods have almost no fiber, fewer vitamins (unless it’s been fortified and had them added back in) but are full of quick carbs, artificial flavors, preservatives and unstable factory fats.  When these products hit our microbiome in our small intestine, the beneficial bacteria that break down our food so we can absorb it usually take a hit in that the fiber that some of them eat isn’t there, while some of the chemical ingredients are toxic to them. Remember the last time you tried a new food and it sent you running to bathroom and/ or kept you there for the next couple of days?  That’s your microbiome telling you that food didn’t agree with them! More and more health professionals are realizing that an unhealthy microbiome leads to more than just digestion problems: they are making stronger connections to a lot of the diseases mentioned above like Alzheimers, ADHD, MS, arthritis, diabetes and others.  Many of what we used to think of as ‘brain-only hormones’ like serotonin, dopamine and tryptophan are linked to our microbiome: the same microbiome we are attacking daily with processed foods full of chemical flavor boosters!

Realistically, no one is going to eat something that tastes bad, but we forget that our tastes change over time. As a child, most of us made a face the first time we tasted beer or coffee or blue cheese, but as adults, we’ve learned to like those things.  We refer to them as ‘acquired tastes.’  Maybe it’s time we ditch the kiddie junk food in favor of a healthier subtle but sophisticated palate of whole foods?

“No Thanks! I Choose Life!” Weight Loss Starts with You

Every now and then, I hear people talking about how it’s nearly impossible to lose weight once you get ‘older.’  I have been overweight pretty much all my life.  I was a pudgy kid and then when I was in 6th grade (thereabouts) my weight really began getting out of control.  I was around 200 when I was in my 20s and for each decade thereafter, I added roughly another 100 lbs.  By the time I was in my mid-forties, I was about 375, +/- 10 lbs.  I’d lose some weight, gain it back, gain some more, lose a bit, and repeat the process.  I’d gained and lost the same 40 lbs for several years.  Most people would be thrilled at losing 40 lbs, and frankly, I was too, but when you’re going from 375 to 335, it’s a little less thrilling: “Yay! I’m under 350!” Essentially, I’m still sinking, just not as fast as before.  Unfortunately, even that little glimmer of hope soon faded away.

Most of us chronic dieters are pretty good at making bargains with ourselves and rationalizing our choices.  I remember when I realized that I had been over 350 for so long that even if I lost weight, I would need surgery to remove my excess skin.  “I don’t want surgery, so I won’t lose weight.” Great! Now I no longer need to worry about losing weight! Except….. my weight was still a problem.  I remember thinking “not everyone is cut out to be skinny, so I guess I’m just destined to be fat.”  Great! Now I no longer need to worry about losing weight! Except…. I still kept gaining weight.  “I’m still happy and fairly active even though I’m overweight.” Except…. I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t very active.

Honestly, I spent about ten years or so- most of thirties and the first half of my forties- being about 375, and for most of those years, that last rationalization was true.  Despite being so overweight, I was independent and fairly problem-free.  I could do just about anything I wanted to do and knew how to get around the activities that were a little more problematic.  If I wasn’t truly happy being 375, it wasn’t a big issue in my life.  But unfortunately, I was still gaining weight and so every year or so, I would add a couple more pounds or so.  I think if it hadn’t been for the changes in my job, I would probably have kept gaining about that same rate and probably would have hit fifty closer to the 400 lb mark but still under.

But, when I was about 46, things changed at my job, which led to changes in my lifestyle, which led to me gaining about 65 lbs over the course of two years.  I remember being 48 and realizing I was not only over 400 lbs now, I was beginning to make some serious progress into that weight range: I was 438. That is some serious weight. Even worse, I was completely miserable.  I couldn’t walk for any distance or stand for any length of time.  It hurt to move around, to sit, or lie down.  While being 375 is far from healthy, those additional 65 lbs really put extra stress on my body physically and I started having health issues I’d never had before.  Family and friends started talking to me about getting a gastric bypass.

Frankly, I hated this idea.  I’ve never been a fan of surgery but having your guts rearranged seemed crazy.  I remember meeting with a bariatric surgeon (mainly just to tell others I’d considered it) but the idea was always a no.  [FYI: that surgeon was a real butthead!]

So what happened? Long story short: I decided to make myself a priority.  One of those goofy movie lines that sticks in my head sometimes: Ice Age– Sid looking at Diego’s ‘short cut’ and saying “No thanks! I choose life!” Yeah, it’s goofy, but it’s pretty much what happened to me.  I was looking down the barrel of a very short and painful future, and “no thanks! I choose life!” I quit the Job From Hell and that was the first of a series of choices that put my welfare first.  That lifestyle change led to others: no more fast food; eating healthier; slowly being more active; getting more rest; and those small changes alone had huge consequences.

And I mean Really    Huge    Consequences.  Like the small changes in my job that led to my being so unhealthy and so utterly miserable, those small decisions to eat less processed foods, eat more whole foods, get more sleep and be more active led to my losing roughly 100 lbs in about a year.  No surgery. No weird diets.  Nothing extreme.  I just decided to eat more whole foods, be more active and put my health first.  I picked a food and lifestyle plan that I liked that was also sustainable and I followed it.  If this were a movie, it’d be easy and my weight loss would have been consistently linear and there would have been no cravings, no difficulties (and I’d be happily married to a great guy who looks shockingly like Russell Crowe,) but- alas!- it’s not a movie.  There were lots of cravings at first.  It was hard work following the diet (Paleo), learning what works better for me and what frankly does not work at all.  I did a lot of research, mainly because that’s one of the things that works to keep me focused and I just like it.  It also gives me access to some new ideas, but while people will fret that “it’s impossible to lose weight after 40!”, I am here to tell you that it is not impossible.  I’ve not only lost the equivalent of an entire large sized adult, I am still losing weight.  I didn’t even start losing weight until I was nearly 50! Yes, it was a lot of work at first, but it gets easier the longer you stay with it!  It’s just like any other habit you learn: harder at first, then you learn the little hacks and it’s not so hard anymore.

I’ve lost 184 lbs and I now weigh about 250 lbs.  I am much more active and I feel so much better physically and mentally.  Yes, I do have some excess skin, but it’s not a problem right now.  Maybe eventually, when I either stop losing weight or it becomes a problem, I might have to deal with it surgically.  But the excess skin is less of a problem than my weight ever was! I know this isn’t a movie, but it still has a happy ending for me, and I know that there can still be a happy ending for everyone else who is over 40, overweight and thinks they are destined to be the ‘fat guy/ girl.’  You don’t need a fairy godmother, but you do need to choose yourself first.  (And if you’re a great single guy who looks shockingly like Russell Crowe, give me a call!)

Down and Dirty: How Clean Living Can Make You Sick

I recently finished Eat Dirt: Why Leaky Gut May Be at the Root Cause of Your Health Problems and 5 Surprising Steps to Cure it by Josh Axe. (Yeah, that’s a long title!) While audio books aren’t my preferred format, I think this book is worth the effort. Dr. Axe makes a few interesting correlations between the relatively sudden rise in autoimmune diseases and other disorders, our sanitized society and our microbiome.  While he defines the terms ‘leaky gut,’ ‘microbiome’ and ‘microbiota’ in his book, I will give you the short version: our digestive tract is full of bacteria, both good and bad.  This symbiotic relationship is necessary to our own individual survival: we need this bacteria in our digestive tract to break down the food we eat.  Once it has been broken down by the bacteria, our body is able to absorb the nutrients through the lining in our intestines.  The integrity of our intestinal lining is dependent on the health of these bacteria (microbiota).  The microbiome is the environment these bacteria inhabit: essentially our digestive tract.  Leaky gut (Increased Intestinal Permeability) is what happens to our digestive tract when we don’t take good care of our microbiome: the integrity of the intestinal lining becomes compromised, allowing not only foods we’ve eaten to enter our bloodstream and body but also some of the toxins that should have been expelled.  Sometimes it’s not that the food particles which enter are bad for us: they are not as broken down as they should be, and that causes problems.  When foods we’ve eaten before without problems begin giving us problems, it’s usually because our microbiome has been compromised.

This is the reason that so many people have problems like Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Celiac Disease, among others.  The helpful bacteria in the gut has been compromised either by highly processed foods, toxins we’ve ingested (sometimes in the form of medication) and our squeaky clean sanitized society.  Not only are we failing to feed and care for our microbiota the way we should, we are actively attacking it with antibiotics, toxic foods, preservatives, chemicals and hand sanitizers.  While being clean is a good thing and no one is saying don’t wash your hands, there is such a thing as being toxically clean. Not everything needs to be disinfected and that disinfectant you just used to kill the benign bacteria on your counter or desk could be making you sick instead of keeping you healthy. Most of the bacteria in our environment is not harmful and some of it is actually beneficial and necessary to our survival. Being ‘clean and sanitary’ the way we think of it now is killing us through digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, malnutrition and possibly cancer.

The cure for this? Eat dirt. Really. If you were to swab your skin and look at it under a microscope, you would see thousands of bacteria.  Dr. Axe reports that we are probably more bacteria than human since we have them inside us and on us all the time.  We are walking bacteria colonies! The naturally occurring bacteria in our environment helps us to break down the foods that come from that environment.  When humans foraged for food, the bacterias on the foods like roots and berries became part of our microbiome.  Since most of them lived on the foods and broke them down to metabolize them, they continued to do the same thing in our intestines.  Therefore, when that farmer plucked an apple in his orchard and ate it after wiping it on his shirt, the bacteria on the apple skin became part of his microbiome and helped him digest the apple he just ate.  The bacteria take up residence and multiply in our intestines, so it becomes easier to digest the local foods.  When we kill those bacteria before they can get to our intestines, we are killing our ability to digest some of these foods.  This is why we sometimes get a little sick when we eat something we’ve never eaten before: the bacteria needed to digest it isn’t in our microbiome.

Humans- and other animals- have developed this way and it’s not a optional condition.  Without these bacteria, we will die, probably a horrible painful death.  We would be ravaged by disease and illness and be unable to derive any nutrients from anything we ate.  Our microbiome not only feeds us, it protects us from illness: our gut is our immune system’s first line of defense.  If our gut is sick, odds are we are sick too!

Some of you know that I work in the same building as my sister, who’s known the attorneys I now work with for many years. In fact, I heard about many of these people for years before I ever met them, and one of the secretaries was forced to retire because of her Crohn’s disease.  When I first met this poor woman at a social gathering a few years ago, I could not believe how thin and frail she looked.  When I came to work here, a little over a year ago, one of the things that really shocked me was how much hand sanitizer they had in the office.  Seriously, they have Costco size bottles every fifty feet and in every room in the building- NOT KIDDING! After reading Dr. Axe’s book, I think I may have an idea about what contributed to this poor woman’s Crohn’s disease. While I have hand sanitizer in my purse and on my desk (little 99 cent bottles), I don’t often use it.  I also have disinfectant wipes that I rarely use.  If I think I need them, I do (mainly to clean off sticky stuff), but there are a lot of people in this building who consistently smell like hand sanitizer.

I don’t want to give the impression that I’m an unsanitary dirty slob (I come from a family of farmers so a little dirt is a way of life), and years ago, I listened to a report about ‘Super Viruses’ and how we were making them ourselves by overuse of antibiotics and anti-bacterial everything.  Every time we take an antibiotic or use an antibacterial, we do not kill all the bugs: some are resistant, survive and then when they reproduce, all the new bugs have their parents’ resistance to antibiotics/ antibacterials.  This is how we end up with killer bacteria like MRSA (methilicillin-resistant staph aureus)  and VRSA (vancomycin-resistant staph aureus) just to name a couple.  These killer bacteria are resistant to most of the drugs used to treat the ‘normal’ staph infections, and if not treated correctly, they will kill you.  (No kidding: I’ve the MRSA and it’s not fun.) The doctor quoted in the report advised not taking an antibiotic every time we think we get a cold or flu, and when we wash our hands, regular soap and warm/ hot water is enough. This advice stuck with me and my sister and so while I do keep the antibacterial stuff around for times when I think it’s needed, most of the time I just use the soap and water.  I’ve never been a fan of gulping medications of any kind (the only reason I went to the doctor for the MRSA was because it was MRSA.) I get a cold, I’m miserable for about a week and I get over it.  Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I figure if we consistently hide from dirt and germs, when we do run across them, we have no resistance to them.  As a kid, I played in the sandbox, ran around barefoot and, according to my mom, was a big fan of making mud pies when I was a baby.  I’ve also had pets all my life and they sit on my lap, lick my face and hands, and sleep right next me. (If what Dr. Axe says is true, my pets and I have a lot of the same microbiota!)

Dr. Axe’s philosophy regarding bacteria and germs is fairly similar to my own: micro-exposure.  Basically, my philosophy has been to treat my immune system like a car and keep the battery charged and fuel lines in good shape by using it.  If your car just sits idle in the garage, your battery loses its charge and if it sits too long, the oil and gas start to lacquer.  The tires and fuel lines start to crack and lose flexibility.  In other words, your car falls apart and your immune system isn’t much different.  If your immune system gets triggered periodically by a cut, a cold or some mildly unpleasant stomach bug, it swings into action, takes care of it and then goes back to ‘stand-by.’  If your immune system doesn’t get triggered regularly, then it can overreact and start attacking everything, including your own body.  Or, if it’s constantly triggered because you eat foods you are sensitive to, then it can also start ignoring the triggers, the way you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock when you’re half asleep.  Later, when you wake up after oversleeping, you’re in real trouble! Getting small exposures to bacteria on a regular basis keeps everything functioning normally.  Your immune system knows what’s a real threat and what isn’t and you can pick up additional healthy bugs!

By contrast, not being exposed to different bacteria does not keep you any healthier, and in fact, can make you sick.  Dr. Axe mentions a comparison study done of Amish children and ‘mainstream’ children regarding allergies, food sensitivities and asthma. The Amish children, most living in rural areas surrounded by animals, pollen and dirt, were much healthier with fewer allergies, sensitivities and breathing problems, while the ‘mainstream’ children had higher rates of all these problems.  Dr. Axe’s theory is that being constantly exposed to a myriad of different bacteria kept the Amish children immune to these problems. Again, microexposures to bacteria were keeping their immune system and digestive tracts in good working order.

Obviously, we need to use a little common sense when it comes to bacteria.  Trying to kill off every bacterium and germ we come across is a bad idea, as well as being pretty unfeasible! But we still need to be sensible about things: if you’re in a public restroom, maybe using the hand sanitizer after washing isn’t a bad idea, and if you have a cut on your hand, you might want to use gloves when you’re out in the yard cleaning up the doggie doo.  Using the hand sanitizer after finishing lunch at your own house or your own desk might be a bit overkill, literally. Washing up is a good idea, but warm water instead of soap with triclosan or another antibacterial agent probably isn’t necessary every time.

Besides not killing our microbiota, Dr. Axe gives some advice on the ‘care and feeding of our microbiome.’  They are living organisms and they need an hospitable environment to live and reproduce (our intestines) as well as plenty of food (our food is their food).  Most of those unhealthy bugs also like the junk food we like, and when we eat more of it than we do the healthy foods, the bad bugs crowd out the good bugs. This is a problem for us, because the bad bacteria (ideally about 15% of our microbiome) can cause many of the digestive disorders mentioned above. When the bad bacteria take over our intestines, we lose the ability to digest certain foods, and these are usually the foods with higher nutrients, so even though we are eating the healthy vegetables, fruits and proteins, our intestines and our bodies never get the nutrients because the bugs in our guts that break those down for us aren’t there to break them down.  It’s like having a flashlight with dead batteries: no good batteries, no light and the flashlight is useless to you.  If you have no good bugs in your digestive tract, all that healthy food is useless to you.  Even just feeding the bad bugs more often than feeding the good bugs can cause a population shift favoring the bacteria that cause us problems.

So don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.  Don’t be afraid to hug your dog or cat, even if they’re a little grungy from the yard.  Eat more local organic veggies.  One of the sayings in my family is “God made dirt so dirt don’t hurt.”  I really believe a little dirt isn’t a bad thing any more than getting a little sweaty is a bad thing: they both keep us healthy!

 

 

 

You Can’t Choose For Them But You Can Choose to Respect Their Choice

This is a topic that is close to my heart, because it stabs right through! I was watching a rerun on My 600 Life: it was a follow-up episode and the patient was doing fairly well, having lost about 200 lbs. The problem now was her 23 yr old daughter’s weight, which was around 300 lbs.  The patient (Charity) was desperate to keep her daughter (Charlie) “from going through what I went through” and was essentially hounding her to lose weight.  I have been that daughter.  For more years than I care to think about, I have listened endlessly to all kinds of threats, inducements, plain old bribes, suggestions subtle and not at all subtle about my weight.  I know the mother’s behavior stems from her love and desire to protect her daughter, but the girl is now an adult and the best way to show that love is to respect her daughter’s decisions, even if she thinks they are the wrong decisions.  It’s okay to disagree with her and be respectful about it, but constant criticism is only going to drive a wedge between them.  Think about it: let’s substitute ‘boyfriend/ girlfriend’ for ‘weight.’  How many of you have listened to a parent complain about the person you are dating/ involved with? How much fun was it seeing your parent when you had to listen to them talk badly about someone you love? How long was it before you limited your exposure to your parent and/ or tuned them out as soon as they started complaining about your boyfriend/ girlfriend?: “You wouldn’t have to do XYZ if Bobby had more ambition.” “If Jolene dressed a little better she’d probably get a better job.”

I am sure Charity thinks she is doing what moms are supposed to do and look out for their children. She no doubt thinks she’s ‘guiding’ Charlie, but Charlie has already told her that when she criticizes her weight or her eating habits, it hurts her feelings (frankly, that’s more than I could ever tell my mom!)  So, Charity does the ‘next best thing’: when they show up at Dr. Nowzaradan’s office, Charity tells him to tell Charlie she needs to lose weight! (One of those not-at-all-subtle suggestions!) What Charity does not realize is that she is not helping her daughter any more than the constant criticism and humiliation at the hands of others helped Charity to lose weight herself! As someone who has been in Charlie’s shoes, I can tell you that all Charity is doing is making Charlie feel more inadequate and more like a failure or disappointment.  There is the ‘constant qualifier’ to her self-esteem and worth as a person: ‘you’d be such a pretty girl if only you weighed less“; “you could do XYZ if you didn’t weigh so much“; etc.  In other words: “you’re just not good enough because you’re too fat.”  I am sure that this is not what Charity believes just as I am sure this is not the message she wants to send to her daughter, but this is the message she is sending her daughter when she criticizes her weight and her eating habits: you are screwing up!

People eat for a variety of reasons and two of the biggest are emotional solace and simple control.  We hear a lot about people ‘eating their emotions’ because they are either feeling something they don’t know how to deal with or they don’t want to deal with, so they distract themselves by eating something that makes them feel good, or they want to celebrate by making the good feelings last longer, so they eat something to reinforce those positive feelings.  The end result is usually obesity: ‘I can’t handle my emotions.’

Control is another reason: pretty much the ultimate control over your own body is what you eat.  Remember how little kids will refuse to eat?  They are exercising control over their situation in the only way they can.  This can end up as an eating disorder, usually anorexia.  Sadly, this is how my grandmother died: as her health deteriorated and there were fewer things she could on her own, she chose to eat less and less.  Despite being hospitalized and having the doctor (and others) flat out tell her that she would die if she didn’t eat, she refused to eat.  The flip side of self-starvation is obviously obesity: ‘I am in control of what I eat and I am choosing to eat!‘ The irony is that the more you choose to eat or not eat, the less control you have over your situation.  As my grandmother grew weaker, there were fewer and fewer things she could do, until she finally ended up in a hospital where she died.  The same is true for the super morbidly obese: the more they eat, the bigger they become, the less mobile they are, the less they can do until finally they are bedridden and dependent on someone else bringing them the food they still demand because their ability to eat as much as they want is still under their control as they learn to manipulate their enablers.

In a situation like Charlie’s, the more disapproval she senses from her mother, the more likely she is to eat her emotions: she feels bad that her mom is unhappy with her, and her mom makes her feel bad about herself, so she eats to feel better, and then feels guilty that she ate or that she ate the ‘wrong thing,’ so she eats something else to feel better.  I think for Charity growing up, she ate for control (I know I did): her childhood was chaotic and scary and eating was something she had control over, so she ate as much as she could to make herself feel safe and secure (it was kind of the same for me).  When everything is chaos and disorder, you control what you can, even if it’s just a bag of potato chips.  The point is that having used food for solace and control in her own life, Charity should realize that her nagging behavior is not supporting Charlie.  Unfortunately, like most of us, Charity is too close to the issue to be objective.

It’s hard to say what I would do in a similar situation: I’ve been morbidly obese like Charity (technically I still am) and I grew up being hounded over my weight like Charlie.  Obviously since my weight remained a problem, one thing I am absolutely sure of is that hounding someone is guaranteed not to succeed.  Constant nagging only alienates those involved and in most cases adds to the stress which triggers the ‘offending behavior,’ whether it’s smoking or eating (my mom hounded one of her boyfriends about smoking with the same results!) There’s that old expression: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” You also can’t push him down the road you think he should be on.  All you can do is try to lead him, and leading by example works a whole lot better than bullying or humiliation.

When it comes to other family members, whatever they choose to eat is their own choice.  There are few things more personal than what you choose to put in your body.  My sister was vegetarian for many years and while it’s not my choice, it was hers and I respected that when we went out to eat.  My dad eats the Standard American Diet, and when he was recovering from an illness recently, I bought groceries for him.  It would have been easy for me to buy him what I think he should be eating (my mom would have) but I bought things he likes, although I did buy the healthiest versions of them that I could.  I could have filled his bags with organic produce and meats and left out the breads and processed foods he likes, but that’s what I choose to eat for myself. Having been the recipient of “healthy” groceries chosen by my mom, based on whatever “doc of the day” said was healthy, instead of being grateful, I was more hurt and annoyed than anything else.  I confess, when I shopped for him, I leaned a little more heavily on the fruits and vegetables he likes rather than the stuff in cans or boxes, but they were all things he enjoys.  His grocery bags looked way different than mine do and that’s the point: we all choose different things for ourselves.  You may not like what someone else chooses to eat: you might think it’s bad for them; that they are eating all wrong; that they need to ‘fix’ whatever in their diet, but the fact remains that it’s their life, their body, their food and their choice. We need to respect one another’s choices as we expect them to respect ours.

Do you know what has helped me the most in my weight loss? Other people respecting my food choices.  My mom disagreed with my choice to eat Paleo (at least until the “doc of the day” gave it his thumbs up) and just like before, I tuned it out. The rest of my family was kind of interested in it, or at least they faked it for my sake, and they encouraged me to make better choices by respecting my different way of eating.  Now if I eat something that ‘isn’t Paleo,’ they tease me about it but won’t tell me that not to eat it.  Being supportive doesn’t mean being critical; it means respecting someone else’s decision.  If Charity really wants to be supportive with Charlie, she can do it by inviting her to share her healthy meals, setting a good example and letting Charlie decide for herself.  After all, what is more encouraging that being around someone who is happy, healthy and is holding the door open for you to join her?

 

 

 

 

Buying Trouble? Supplements, Probiotics, and Protein Powders

These are topics that make the rounds periodically: “what supplements should I be taking? What do I look for in a probiotic? Are whey protein shakes better or should I get a plant based one?” The problem with these questions is that almost anyone you ask can’t answer them for you. The operative phrase in that sentence is “for you.” I’m not trying to be clever here because, unless that person is your doctor or nutritionist, you are the only one who knows what works best for you.  Products like supplements, protein powders and probiotics/ prebiotics are extremely personalized: they depend on what your body and what you are eating.  There are some health professionals who will say things like “everyone should be taking vitamin D/ B/ multivitamin, etc.” (I heard one say it again today!) While I think most people would benefit from those, especially if they are eating the Standard American Diet, the fact is there are some people who don’t need them or should not be taking them.   In general, I think most people would be okay taking a multivitamin but I also think taking supplements “because everyone needs them” can be harmful, especially if they are electrolytes or a fat soluble vitamin.  [Again, I am not a doctor; this is just my regular person opinion.]

Electrolytes are vitamins and minerals that conduct electricity in the body: they are necessary to make our muscles contract, our nerves function and pretty much every other biochemical reaction in our bodies work smoothly.  Examples of electrolytes are potassium, magnesium, sodium chloride, calcium and phosphates.  I learned about electrolytes when I was in middle school because I used to get really really nasty leg cramps at night and it was usually because I was low on one of the above.  Most sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade are designed to replace the electrolytes we lose through sweating.  The problems can come when our electrolytes get seriously out of whack, usually because- like me- we don’t eat/ drink the right things or because we are loading up on ‘healthy supplements.’ Just a small reminder: your heart is a muscle! and it is as liable as any other muscle in your body to be affected by an electrolyte imbalance!  Too much potassium or magnesium or vitamin D can cause the serious problems.  (Example: whenever I eat a lot of potassium rich foods like spinach or sweet potatoes, I get really nasty leg cramps.) I remember seeing one “True Stories of the ER” episode where the patient was a kid who’d drunk an entire bottle of antacid (a magnesium, sodium bicarbonate mix) and the doctors had to give an antagonist lest he have a heart attack.  [FYI: when prisoners are executed by lethal injection, it’s usually potassium chloride, which stops the heart.]

Vitamins are generally either fat soluble vitamin, which means it is stored in your body fat or water soluble.  Most of the vitamins we take, like B or C, are water soluble and anything our body doesn’t use is flushed out fairly quickly. (This is why your urine is bright yellow after you take B.) That makes it almost impossible to overdose on water soluble vitamins, but fat soluble vitamins build up in your body and you can overdose on those.  Fat soluble vitamins are D, A, K, and E.  This is by no means a comprehensive list of vitamins and minerals that can be stored or can cause problems if you take too many. Before you go out and load up on any supplements, please look at what you are already taking. If you have a nutritionist, meet with him/ her and ask their opinion.  If you want to talk to your doctor, have bloodwork done and ask him/ her if there are any vitamins or supplements they would recommend, and when you do that, please make sure their list of what you are already taking is current! I review this list with my doctor at least twice a year so she knows what I’m taking.  Just another FYI: if your doc gives you a new prescription (or even if refill a current one), PLEASE READ THE INFORMATIONAL PAMPHLET THAT COMES WITH IT. I know most pharmacies will put a sticker on them, but even with supplements, you need to read the pamphlet to 1) make sure you don’t have a drug interaction (which can be serious), and; 2) to make sure you aren’t wasting your time & money!  A close friend of mine was told by her doctor that her D3 levels were very low, so she should take vitamin D twice a day, which she did every morning on an empty stomach. After 3 months, she went back for a follow up and her levels had barely changed; she didn’t understand it until she read the instructions on the bottle: ‘take with food.’  It wasn’t being absorbed.

As for the other “biggies” like probiotics, prebiotics, and protein powders, it’s all about you: what are you eating? Most people want a protein powder because either they: a) don’t think they are getting enough protein; b) think protein is a ‘free food’ so they want a lot of it to lose weight; c) are trying to build muscle.  Protein will help you build muscle if you are actually working out and doing strength training.  If your goal is building muscle, hopefully you are working with a trainer who can advise you, because your diet, body type and strength training experience are a lot more important to your success (and not hurting yourself) than whether you are drinking a pea-based protein shake or a whey-based protein shake.  (If you need some guidance getting a trainer, check out Metabolic Radio.)

If you are looking at protein shakes because you think it’s a ‘free food,’ sorry but it’s not.  All foods have calories and if you eat/ drink too much of anything, it’s still too much.  Many people think that fat and carbs are stored as body fat but ‘protein builds muscle.’  It’s true: it builds muscle, but since protein can’t be stored as ‘protein,’ if you eat/ drink too much of it, surprise! your body turns it into glucose (a carb) through gluconeogenesis and it’s stored as fat or glycogen.  End result: too much protein can make you fat just like carbs and fat. It can also make you sick; people who consistently get more than 35% of their calories from protein can suffer from protein toxicity, so protein is definitely NOT a free food.

Most people get protein powders because they think they are not getting enough protein.  While they can be good supplements to a healthy diet, you should focus on the ‘healthy diet’ part first.  If most of what you eat comes from a bag, box or a restaurant, focus on more whole foods. Even though they’re ‘healthy,’ protein powders are still processed, which means there can be some nutrients and other necessary factors that aren’t included in them. Most whole foods are nutritious not because they are high in protein, fiber or vitamin/ mineral XYZ, but because they usually have more than just the one thing in them.  Spinach for example is high in vitamins K, A , B2, B1, B6, C, E, manganese, folate, magnesium, iron, copper, calcium, potassium and is a good source of dietary fiber, phosphorus, choline, and yes, protein! All of these things are in a serving of spinach, so you not only get a good dose of protein, you get the fiber, mineral and boatload of vitamins that come with it. This is why even the highest quality protein powders can’t beat eating whole foods. If you are eating a whole food diet and still think you aren’t getting enough protein, then yes, a quality protein shake can be a shortcut to give you more of what you want without eating a truckload of food.  If you are transitioning to a whole food/ healthier diet, then a protein shake can be great boost, but please bear in mind that ‘shortcuts’ also cut corners: while you may be getting more protein, you aren’t really doing yourself any favors missing out on the rest of the healthy nutrition that goes with the whole foods.

What’s often missing from protein powders (and meal replacement shakes/ bars) are the co-factors that help you metabolize the nutrients that are in them.  This is called bio-availability.  Example: calcium cannot be absorbed by your body without vitamin D and magnesium.  These bind to the calcium and ‘escort’ it into your cells, so if you are taking a calcium supplement without the D & magnesium either in the supplement or in your diet, your body is not absorbing the calcium and you aren’t getting much benefit from what you are taking.  This is why some powders/ shakes/ bars will say they have 20 grams of protein (or whatever) but it’s either in a form your body can’t absorb or because there aren’t the necessary co-factors that allow your body to use it. This is what happened with my friend and the vitamin D and is the biggest reason whole foods are better than just supplements.

Beyond the quality of the product, the choice of plant v whey/ animal protein pretty much depends on you: is vegetarian/ plant based important to you?  Do you have digestive problems with milk (whey is a milk product)? There are other options out there: egg, bone broth, collagens, hemp, etc.  Obviously you want to aim for quality, so check them out.  Read some reviews and see if any are endorsed by an organization you trust.  Organic and non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) are important to me.  But again, it’s all about you and your preferences. Since almost all of them are expensive, try getting a sample packet if you can. I like Ancient Nutrition Bone Broth Protein.  It’s chicken bone broth based, organic, non-GMO and ‘gut friendly.’  They also have a variety of flavors: so far I like the chocolate and banana creme the best.  As far as what you mix it with, again that’s up to you.  I’m not a big fan of coconut, so I opt for Almond Breeze Unsweetened Original or Vanilla (hey, I’m from California- home of Blue Diamond Almonds!) I usually drink it for breakfast especially since I’ve been skipping lunch lately.

As for probiotics and prebiotics, most of what I learned comes from Josh Axe’s book Eat Dirt. (A review is forthcoming!) Definitions first: probiotics are the bacteria themselves and prebiotics are food for the little bugs.  If you didn’t already know, our intestinal tracts are home to millions of bacteria which we need to survive.  These bacteria break down the foods we eat (they eat them too) which allows our intestines to absorb the nutrients.  Problems happen when we don’t feed our little ‘pets’ the right foods, or we feed the bad bacteria that’s also there instead of the good guys.  What happens when we starve the good guys or overfeed the bad guys is that the bad guys out-number the good guys and we literally feel it in our guts: foods are not being digested or we have serious digestive issues.  This is why we have problems like irritable bowel, constipation/ diarrhea, gas/ bloating, etc.- all the fun stuff! This can also happen when we take antibiotics: we kill whatever bug is making us sick but we also kill the bugs in our bowels which we need.  Because so many people have digestive issues, probiotics/ prebiotics are getting a lot of attention: it’s an ‘easy fix’ for most digestive problems, or at least it looks like one! The biggest issues with probiotics are: 1) the bugs in your pill are dead; 2) the bugs are alive but don’t make it to the bowel; 3) they’re the ‘wrong’ bugs; or 4) you don’t need them!

I know most people don’t like talking poop, but it’s a fact of life.  As a life-long pet-parent, I’m always checking on my pets: is everything going in okay and is it all coming out okay? Like pets, people’s digestion is usually the first indicator that something is wrong, and as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t ‘fix’ it! If you are not having digestive issues, ie you are eating healthy foods and everything is going down, staying down and coming out without any problems on a fairly regular (and frequent) basis (pun intended!), then don’t try fixing anything.  You don’t need it.  But if you are eating healthy and having issues, then probiotics and prebiotics may be options for you, but you need to eat living bugs and they need to make it to your bowels where they can take up residence.  Most of the time, the bugs that come in those little capsules are dead by the time you pick the box off the shelf or, if they are alive, the ‘protective’ capsule dissolves in the stomach and so do the bugs, so they don’t help you.  The other issue has to do with the type of bugs that are in the capsules: different bugs eat different things, so if you are having an issue with fiber for example, the bugs that you buy at the corner happy & healthy pharmacy may not be the ones that you need.  The best advice I’ve heard is to get a probiotic with as many different organisms as possible and look for something ‘enteric coated’ so it will survive your stomach acid.  Also important- once you get the good guys re-established in your bowels, you need to feed the little guys! Give them plenty of healthy whole foods to keep them thriving! Eat healthy whole foods with as little processing as possible and eat a variety of them.  When nutritionists say ‘eat the rainbow of fruits and veggies,’ they are not wrong- all the different whole foods feed all the different good bugs in your bowels.  The bad bugs have a tendency to like the junk food and so do we. This is why we as a nation have so many digestive trouble: our highly processed diet is feeding the wrong bacteria in our guts so they are overpowering & crowding out the good guys who keep everything running smoothly. Bottom line: if the good bugs are not thriving and happy, neither are you!

The most important thing to remember about supplements is that they are supplements, which means they are ‘in addition to’ what you are already eating/ drinking.  Gulping them down by the handful is not going to solve the underlying diet issues. Eat better, move more, get plenty of quality sleep and manage your stress: then ask yourself how you are feeling.  If you are still having issues, then start looking at some health professionals or some supplements- then you can start ‘adding on.’ Until then, don’t buy trouble because “everyone” says so!

 

 

Conquering Stove-A-Phobia: Making Friends with the Kitchen Again

How many of you have dust on your kitchen stove? Or on your pans and other cookware?  Was the last “oven” you used a microwave? I’m not going to point fingers and giggle.  I avoided cooking (at home at least) for about ten years or so.  I grew up cooking.  As soon as I could reach the stove top (about 12 years old), I was pretty much in charge of cooking at home.  Since my parents were divorced most of the time, I got to cook at both of their houses.  (It was either that or sandwiches!) When I was about 20, my grandmother was recovering from surgery and wasn’t able to make the Thanksgiving turkey so she asked my aunt to do it.  My aunt freaked out: “I don’t know how to roast a turkey!” I was incredulous: how can you not know how to roast a turkey?!  I had done it myself a couple of times by then. (hint: it’s like a chicken, only bigger, so it takes longer! Oh, and it matters if you’ve stuffed it or not.)

Before we go any further, I am not a gourmet or even any kind of ‘foodie.’ I learned to cook out of necessity: two divorced working parents and one younger sister.  (FYI: my sister learned to be a much better baker than I ever was.) We both learned to cook because this was before processed prepared foods were cheap and easily available.  I remember when Pepperidge Farms came out with their frozen cakes; until then, if we wanted cake, we made it ourselves- with and without the boxed mixes. Popcorn was made in a cast iron skillet with a glass lid, cream puffs began as batter, and chicken, rice, and enchiladas were all made by hand.  Nothing really fancy, unless it was my sister’s Boston Cream Pie (awesome!) but we grew up reading recipes, tweaking them and making all kinds of things.  It was cheaper to buy a bag of flour, a bag of sugar, baking powder, and other ingredients that would make several cakes, pies and whatever else we wanted to make than it was to buy them already made or even the boxed mixes and a tub of frosting.

By the time I was in college and living on my own, I was pretty tired of cooking.  I didn’t hate it (much) but I had done it all my life and cooking for myself was just one more thing that I didn’t want to do. So, I opted for prepackaged or fast food/ takeout as much as I could.  It wasn’t that cooking was “such a chore”; part of it was that food-not-made-by-me was a bit of a treat. There were some really nice dinners that I made for myself on weekends and other times that I really enjoyed making and eating.

To be honest, I never really thought people could be of cooking or dread it as much as the do until recently. One of my water aerobics classmates recently started the GoLo diet program (you’ve probably seen the ads on tv) and she was groaning about how it seemed like it was mostly vegetables and the whole idea of cooking was just awful: “it takes such a long time and I don’t want to have to pick up groceries and then go home to cook them after working all day!” I tried to be as supportive as I could but another classmate sort of headed me off by commiserating with her.  Sympathy is great, but it’s not a solution, and in this case, it just added to her dread and reinforced her reluctance to cook. When I mentioned that I go grocery shopping on Sundays and buy my groceries for the week, she countered me with ‘meal planning dread.’  This is actually something that Robb Wolf handles rather well in Wired to Eat.  While he actually has menus and meal plans in his book, he offers some quick, on-the-fly ideas using five protein, five vegetables, and five spices.  Using those fifteen total ingredients, he makes a variety of meals, none of them particularly complex or time consuming.

I do something similar when I do my Sunday grocery shopping.  I make a grocery list, but I don’t make any meal plans or menus and certainly nothing complicated.  I buy my breakfast and lunch items, usually just a protein and maybe a fruit or smoothie ingredients, and for dinner- my most ‘complex’ meal of the day- I buy enough protein to see me through the days I plan on cooking and whatever vegetables I’m in the mood for, which can be sweet potatoes, broccoli, brussels sprouts or bagged salad greens, and whatever else I want on the salad.  Yesterday, I came home and threw a pork shoulder steak on the stove (cast iron skillet with avocado oil) and then I poured out half a bag of butter lettuce, threw on about ten grape tomatoes and in a my ‘salad dressing’ container (an empty spice jar), I poured two teaspoons of Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute, a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a tablespoon of olive oil.  I let it soak for about ten minutes while I let my dog out and did some other stuff.  I flipped the steak, poured the dressing over the salad and I ate the salad while the steak finished up.  The steak obviously took the longest, about 20 minutes, and when I was done eating the salad and steak, I sliced some strawberries for dessert.  The whole meal took about 30 minutes tops to make.  It definitely isn’t fancy or complicated, but it’s real food and it’s foods that I like that are good for me.  The only reason the salad wasn’t fancier is that I didn’t want to slice a bunch of radishes or onions (although I have shallots in the fridge- I put them in eggs) and most of the avocados I find aren’t worth the money.  I cook what I like since I’m the one who has to eat it.

I think what puts most people off are the recipes they see in the cookbooks or diet plan books.  There’s a lot of spices and ingredients they aren’t familiar with and they feel unsure. Usually, they are cooking for family too, so there’s the whole idea that the family won’t like what they cook. What if they screw up the meal? What if it takes too long? Cooking- like everything- takes a little practice.  Accomplished cooks know that one side of the oven cooks hotter than the other; I know my favorite skillet is a little lopsided on one burner, so we just rotate what’s in the oven or move the food/ skillet around. Usually these little defects aren’t disastrous to what you’re cooking anyway.  When you’re cooking for a family, just ask them what they like, if you don’t know already.  If you have an “I don’t like carrots” person, either 1) don’t make carrots; or 2) make something in addition to carrots. For example, if you are roasting a chicken and one of your kids won’t eat carrots, make a medley of roasted veggies with it, like potatoes, brussels sprouts or veggies you know they do like.  If you have someone that won’t eat beef, then when you make your pot roast, just make something that they do enjoy (toss a chicken in the oven- they can have chicken leftovers while the rest of the family has pot roast leftovers.) Usually it doesn’t take any longer to make one more part of the meal than it does to make the entire meal itself.  When I lived with my dad, I did it pretty much every time one of us wanted something the other one didn’t like (lamb for him and goulash for me).

Don’t be afraid of your own inexperience.  Remember when you were learning to drive?  You only get driving experience by driving, so you had to get behind the wheel if you wanted to learn.  Of course, on your first day, you probably didn’t get on the 405 in L.A., either! If you don’t have a lot of experience cooking, or you’ve been away from it for a while, then start simply with some basic meals.  It’s a lot easier if it’s just you or your spouse, but if it is for a larger bunch, then make some notes.  I know my sister really hates fish of almost all kinds, so nothing fishy on her menu. My mom doesn’t like anything salty.  My dad is not a fan of lamb and I am not a fan of rice or most beans, so it’s simply a matter of finding the middle ground.  Most soups, stews, pastas and other main dishes aren’t too complicated. Chicken stew is not hard (chicken, veggies to taste, spices to taste).  This also has the advantage of something you can start in a slow-cooker and add some of the softer veggies later in the day.  Even with a family, you don’t need to do complex meal planning.  Sometime over the weekend, or whenever is convenient, make a list of what dinners you want for the week and make sure you have the groceries.  It also helps to have a back up entree in the freezer just in case.  If you do have a group you are cooking for, a meal suggestion box is a good idea.  That way you’re not stuck doing all the planning and you learn more about what they prefer.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with your cooking.  A good cookbook will give you some variations on recipes, but the more you cook, the more confident you will get. As a teenager, I used to make a lot of fruit pies for family holidays and the recipe in our cookbook called for 2 tablespoons of flour as a thickening agent (apple pie), which frankly was pretty icky, no matter how long you let the filling macerate or how much you mixed it.  What works a lot better? Instant tapioca.  I switched the tapioca for the flour with much better results.  Recipes are basically a framework for the dish, and most experienced cooks don’t hesitate to switch one ingredient for something they like better. For a lot of foods, you don’t need a recipe- you just need the ingredients you like.  My chicken soup is closer to a chicken stew: legs and thighs, barley, peas, mushrooms, onions and lots and lots of bay leaves. Macaroni and/ or noodles depends on my mood.  This is why for some ‘traditional’ dishes, there are as many recipes as there are cooks.  Ever ask a Texan how to make chili? Or a Filipino how to make adobo?  How about asking a Mexican how to make huevos rancheros? The only wrong way to make something is the way you don’t like it.

I was living with my dad when we both decided we wanted enchiladas one night.  The way we grew up making them was really time consuming: cook the meat, grate the cheese, chop the onions, warm the sauce, then soften the tortillas in hot oil, soak them in the sauce, stuff and roll them up.  When we made them for family gatherings, we made a few dozen and it took an assembly line to make them for the whole family.  This was just two of us.  So we cooked the meat, bought grated cheese, and chopped the onions, then I stuffed two tortillas, put them on a plate, covered them completely with the sauce, and I microwaved them for two minutes! Were they ‘traditional’? Hell, no! Were they good? Hell yeah! and they weren’t a huge production and we had leftover filling for the next night to make more fresh enchiladas. This is the kind of recipe that you can prepare the filling when you have time and then have your dinner in ten minutes or less when you get home from work.

There are a lot of gourmets and foodies who think of ‘food as art,’ and in at least one way, they are right: one person’s art is another person’s trash. We like what we like, whether food or art.  That’s why there are so many different cooking shows on tv: Martha Stewart’s mac & cheese might be fabulous, but I’m not going to make it!  It’s just not my style, cooking-wise or eating-wise. My best friend loves refried beans and rice, and she can have my share because I won’t touch them.  I can eat lamb seven days a week for weeks on end and my dad thinks that’s crazy. Cooking is about trying new things, and learning what things you like and don’t like.  Yes, you will get a few things ‘wrong,’ but more often you will get them right.  Don’t be afraid of finding your own style of cooking and don’t be afraid of getting it wrong. The more you cook, the more you learn about how to tweak things so they are a little more to your taste. (Why do you think I put 4 bay leaves in the chicken soup?)