The Label vs. The Packaging: Weight Loss & Understanding the Difference

As a former teacher, one of the sayings I love is “when all else fails, read the directions!” It was true for most students and it is true for most of us still today: we don’t read instructions, nor do we read food labels either. The government is trying to keep us informed by insisting those nutrition labels are there, and it even mandates what the manufacturer can put on that nutrition facts label, but the labels don’t do any good if we don’t read them. When you ask most people, they don’t read the labels for a variety of reasons: 1) ‘I already know what it says’; 2) ‘It’s all lies anyway’; and 3) ‘I can’t make sense of all that gibberish!’

Ideally, I should say I am a dedicated reader of labels, but most of the time, unless it’s something new, I don’t really check the labels either. (My bad!) Even then, most of the time, I do what I am sure most of us do: I check the calorie count! I will also check the protein, fat and carbs, but I’m normally checking for calories and serving size.

There is a very real and important difference between packaging and the nutritional facts label on a product.  When it comes to packaging, the government is much more lax than when it comes to the nutritional facts.  For example, a lot of consumers will purchase a loaf of bread that has the words “all natural” on the packaging, but there is no legal definition of “natural.” The cellulose mixed with shredded cheese to keep it from clumping up comes from wood pulp (as in trees!) and it can be labeled as “all natural.” However if your avocado has a sticker on that says “Certified Organic,” that means it has to have been grown according to certain requirements.  Manufacturers know that when it comes to packaging, it’s what more of us pay attention to and read over that little box of information on the back.  So they put a lot of their own attention into putting the right words and phrases on the front of the package!

One of my friends gave me a good example of packaging vs. the label a few weeks ago.  She was at Trader Joe’s and saw of bag of black licorice with the words “Gluten Free!” on the front.  The Gluten Free hype is one of her ‘hot buttons,’ so when she scoffed “licorice has always been gluten free,”  she was surprised when I told her that licorice is made with wheat flour. I’ve read the nutritional label on licorice for the ingredients, among other things, so licorice hasn’t always been gluten free. While I am sure she perused the label for the calories and probably even the serving size, unless you read the ingredients, you don’t know what is in it. This is why so many people stop at those first two items; the ingredients list is a whole new headache!

Those first two items (the serving size and the calorie count) are enough of a headache! How many of us have bought a candy bar, checked the calories “eh, 220 is okay,” eaten the whole thing, only to realize that the manufacturer counted that entire candy bar as two servings? I found out that way about my favorite Pay Day bars. Yikes! It’s on that nutritional facts label, so no one can say the manufacturer didn’t warn me. It’s my fault for not reading that label! This is why there was such a strong movement to put the entire calorie count on the front of the package: most of us aren’t going to drink half a 12 oz. can of soda or bottle of lemonade, so by putting the whole amount of calories on the front of the bottle or can, we knew right from the start how many calories we’d be getting!

There is no denying that calories count (it says so on the front of vending machines now) but there is a lot more information in those little labels than just servings and calories.  The ingredient list is also a little important and the manufacturers like to play fast and loose with that too! One of the commercials I’ve been seeing lately is for Kind bars.  In the commercial, they compare a Kind bar made with almonds to a Clif bar made with brown rice syrup. [Kind vs Clif] As the commercial points out, brown rice syrup is another name for sugar. There is a reason labels manufacturers use ingredients such as brown rice syrup, agave syrup, maltose, dextrose, sucrose, or even just plain honey: either they sound really “natural” or “healthy” or we don’t know what they are.  They are all forms of sugar. (Hint: pretty much anything ending in -ose on a label is a sugar.) The manufacturers of foods like Clif bars and Kind bars know that many of their consumers are looking for something healthy or all natural, which is why choosing a product that doesn’t say “sugar” is more attractive. Or perhaps more deceptive.  If you want to cut back on your sugar intake, you may not realize that the agave syrup, molasses, cane syrup or honey are all metabolized the same as table sugar (sucrose).

Of course, no one is going to quiz you on the ingredients in your kombucha, BBQ sauce or pancake mix. What you choose to eat is all up to you, but if you are trying to lose weight or just eat healthier, it’s worth it to spend a little time looking at those food labels.  A big way to cut down on your label-reading is to make it simple: buying mostly whole foods makes it pretty simple! When I buy a bag of broccoli, the ingredients list simply says: “Broccoli.” Buying bagged salad is similar: “Green cabbage, carrots, butter lettuce, baby spinach.” Even if you get a salad kit, you can choose to use or not use the croutons or salad dressing included.  Half the time, I use my own salad dressing.

This is one of the places where I do read the ingredients, serving size and calories! I am trying to avoid “crop oils.” These are things like canola oil, safflower oil or other vegetable oils other than olive or avocado. Those oils tend to be higher in Omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory.  Since arthritis (an inflammatory disease) is one of my issues, I try to get more Omega-3 fatty acids in my diet, such as fish, olives and avocados.  By sticking with mostly whole foods, I avoid a lot of them, but if I am buying something new, I read the label for those crop oils.

If you are one of those people who is sensitive to gluten, lactose or anything else, reading the ingredients list should be part of your regular practice. I am not sensitive to gluten, but I was surprised to find that one of my favorite foods (surimi aka ‘fake crab’) isn’t gluten free because a lot of it is made of fish paste (usually pollock) and wheat starch as a binder.  That was a big shock to me, since I also try to avoid starch.  Here’s one place where I should have been reading the labels!

You don’t need to examine every ingredient on the label, nor do you have to memorize how many calories per serving or how many servings per package, but taking a little time to review what you are eating isn’t a bad thing.  It can also help you make better food choices, especially if you are trying to lower your blood glucose, sodium intake or watch those calories. I think it is also important to remember that just because a product says “all natural” or “natural flavors” does not mean it is organic, pesticide or herbicide free or isn’t genetically modified.  If these are the kinds of things that matter to you, then spend a few moments to look at the label.  You might be surprised to find how much you don’t know about your favorite candy bar!

 

 

What’s In YOUR Yogurt?: Weight Loss & Probiotics

A few days ago I was having lunch with a friend of mine and I had brought a bottle of kombucha.  As she looked at the bottle, she commented that “everything has probiotics now!”  It’s true: there are a variety of foods you can get that have the words “live probiotics!” enthusiastically plastered all over the labels.  Pharmacies and health foods have entire aisles devoted to probiotics, prebiotics and combos of both. Obviously there is a huge market for these now, but in reality, probiotic foods have been around for centuries.

Pretty much everyone now knows that yogurt’s live bacterial cultures are actually probiotics.  That’s one of the reasons yogurt is good for you, aside from the calcium and protein in it.  Looking back at some of my most favorite foods, there are a lot of them that are probiotic: yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, etc.  Essentially, these are foods which have been fermented in order to make them.  We add some bacteria to milk and let it sit in the right conditions: voila! yogurt or kefir! We do the same thing to cabbage and we end up with either sauerkraut or kimchi, and when we do it to cucumbers, we end up with pickles! Even if we don’t add the bacteria, by leaving it where bacteria can get in, we still end up with the same result.

I am sure there are some of you are thinking “Ewwwww!! Spoiled food!” The truth is that by fermenting the foods, we are preserving them. While the food will eventually spoil, the fermentation not only adds a little shelf life, but it provides some necessary and healthy bacteria.

But in today’s antibacterial world, the idea of bacteria can seem unhygienic.  On the surface it appears ironic: everything is antibacterial but everyone is taking probiotics! Unfortunately, there is more than a little correlation. But first: why is bacteria important to our health instead of bad for it?

The new buzzword for “healthy bacteria” is microbiome.  Our intestines and pretty much the rest of our bodies are covered with bacteria. (There is even a body wash being marketed as ‘good for your skin’s microbiome!’)  However, it’s the bacteria in our intestines which are necessary for our survival.  No exaggeration here: these bacteria break down the food we eat so our intestines can absorb it.  No bacteria= no breakdown= no absorption= no you. It’s that simple! They also protect us from some of the toxins we ingest as well. If our gut bacteria aren’t healthy, we aren’t healthy.  This is why the stores and internet are full of probiotics (healthy bacteria) and prebiotics (food for that healthy bacteria).  Everyone is very concerned with keeping our gut bacteria healthy because unfortunately, so many of us have problems with our gut bacteria aka digestive issues.

Remember: everything is antibacterial these days! Those antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers and antibiotics do not discriminate against “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria.”  If you take something for an ear infection, you are killing not only the bacteria causing your infection, you are killing your gut bacteria too! We don’t seem to realize that when we are ‘waging war’ on bacteria, our healthy bacteria end up being collateral damage, but until we start having issues with our health, we don’t realize that we are also part of that collateral damage!

Some of you may know that many years ago, my sister worked at the law firm where I am now a legal assistant and while my sister was here, one of the assistants had to retire due to inflammatory bowel disease. When I came to work at the same firm years later, I was shocked to see giant bottles of hand sanitizer on practically every flat surface! Each desk, filing cabinet, table, counter and work space had an industrial sized bottle of the stuff. Even the table in our lobby had the giant version and the one pervasive scent in the building was ‘hand sanitizer.’ Once I saw everyone using hand sanitizer almost daily, it made me wonder if that assistant’s IBD had been triggered or aggravated by the constant use of antibacterial hand sanitizer.

I am not against antibiotics or antibacterials.  I have my own small bottle in my purse. I keep it for those situations where something I touched was gross and soap and water weren’t readily available but it still takes me forever to go through it. In fact, I usually lose it or it dries out before I finish off a bottle because I’d rather just wash my hands.  It’s not that I’m a slob or unhygienic but there is an advantage to being exposed to different bacteria.

While I didn’t exactly grow up on a farm (like my dad), I did live in the country for several years in addition to visiting my grandparents on their ranch.  The barn and orchards were my playgrounds most of the time and I think that was good for me.  Dr. Josh Axe in his book Eat Dirt [Eat Dirt book ] referenced a study involving Amish children and their non-Amish peers. The Amish children growing up in a mostly rural environment are exposed to all kinds of dirt, manure, plant pollen and animals.  As we all know, the country can be kinda dirty! The Amish children also ate far less processed foods than their non-Amish peers. What many researchers found surprising is that the Amish children had much lower rates of asthma, illness, infection and other diseases compared to their non-Amish peers living in an ‘hygienic’ urban environment and eating a modern diet. The researchers theorized that exposure to a variety of bacteria kept their immune systems healthier than those children whose immune systems have less  exposure and therefore less resistance.

Many ‘gut specialists’ note that bacterial diversity is important when it comes to the bugs in our guts.  The more good bacteria we have, the better! They give more digestive advantage and protective advantage, but because our environment has changed so much, we no longer have the wide diversity that older generations had.  Why? Antibiotics, antibacterials, environment and the change in diet have all taken their toll on our healthy gut bugs!  Foods like artificial sweeteners, pesticides in our foods (hello, Round Up!) and other modern chemicals can be toxic to our healthy gut bacteria.

There are some weight loss programs now touting probiotics as a new tool to help weight loss, but I believe the real weight loss advantage comes not from downing probiotic pills and supplements but in maintaining the health of your microbiome.  This means simple things like eating more fiber which feeds your healthy bacteria, eating more whole foods than the processed foods which can contain chemicals toxic to your bacteria and eating the healthy fermented foods you enjoy, such as yogurt, kombucha and kimchi.  By keeping a healthy microbiome which allows you to get all the vitamins and nutrients from the healthy whole foods you are eating, not only are you healthier overall, you will likely lose more weight! It’s a simple recipe: fewer processed foods, more fiber, less hand sanitizer and a little more exercise outdoors are not only good for your outsides, they’re good for your insides too!

 

Consistency Isn’t a Four Letter Word: Weight Loss & ‘The Diet’

When I tell people I’ve lost over a hundred pounds, they usually assume that I had ‘The Surgery.’ When I tell them no, they want to know how I lost the weight, how long ago I lost it (going on 4 years now) and then they want to know how I’ve kept it off. Some of them are rather unhappy with my answer: I changed the way I ate. Permanently.

I think they expected some kind of secret magic answer as to how I haven’t gained all the weight back. It’s not magic and it’s really not a secret either. I made permanent lifestyle changes. I can understand their disappointment: this answer is simple to say but it’s hard to do! It means making the healthy choice every day. It means I have to be consistent, and no one likes being consistent! It’s a whole lotta work without time off for good behavior!

I usually tell people that watching My 600 lb Life is my version of a 12 Step Meeting.  They think I am joking but I’m not. Watching that show reminds me of all the bad food decisions I used to make and all of the excuses I used to tell myself. I still catch myself trying to use those excuses! We all know what they are: “this one thing won’t hurt” (Yes it will!); “I deserve a treat!” (It’s not a treat if it’s bad for you!); “I’ve been so good lately!” (So being bad is a reward?) This show keeps me focused on what happens when I decide to take a vacation from Consistency!

I know it can be a major disappointment to people when they realize they can’t “eat healthy,” lose the weight they want, and then go back to eating all the foods they used to eat. They are looking at a lifetime of no more pasta, no more garlic bread, no more milkshakes, or ice cream or peanut butter cups– whatever their particular vice is, it is PERMANENTLY off the menu! When you start down that road, it can feel kind of bleak. It did for me!

This idea of a ‘temporary change’ comes up a lot on the show. Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients believe they can ‘be good’ for a while, get The Surgery and then eventually go back to eating like they did before.  They think The Surgery will ‘fix’ them so they don’t have to be consistently good with their diet. Truthfully, that’s a lovely fantasy and I wish it were true, but in Real Life, what you eat matters! In reality, all those foods you think you love eating? They become way less important compared to how you feel physically and after a while, you don’t miss them anymore.

Permanent changes are fundamental changes and the farther you get away from the way things used to be, the less hold they have on you.  Before I lost the weight, a big part of my regular eating routine was eating out and that menu was full of bread, rice, pasta and potatoes. Recently, I got treated to several dinners out at restaurants to celebrate my birthday and the morning after one of those dinners at an Italian restaurant, I realized I hadn’t had pasta in probably a couple of years or more. I used to love pasta, but it’s not on my menu anymore because it doesn’t make me feel good after eating it.  My dinner the night before had been fish with sauteed veggies. I felt good eating it, it was satisfying and when I went home, I didn’t feel hungry later on. So why would I eat pasta that’s not going to make me feel as great? Honestly, I don’t miss pasta anymore and I hadn’t thought about my choice not to eat it until that morning.

About the same time I was eating out a lot, my gym decided to be a real pain in the butt. For the last four years, I’ve been going to water aerobics classes two days a week. They only offer two evening classes during the week and none on weekends so some of us in the class get together on Friday or Saturday to work out on our own.  A couple of weeks ago, my gym decided to cancel our Monday class because the instructor is on an extended medical leave. In the past, my first thought would have been “whoo hoo! I’ve got Mondays off!” but now it was “WTH?? I’m going anyway!” So that’s what I did! I showed up for my workout like I do every Monday evening, and so did a lot of my friends.  Now on Mondays, we make our own class, just without the instructor, kind of like our Friday or Saturday ‘classes.’

The gym has been another part of my permanent lifestyle change for the last four years. I like it; it makes me happy and I feel better afterwards. Of course, if I didn’t feel well or had to work late or had another appointment, I would have made a different choice, but those options aren’t the rule. The rule is Mondays and Wednesdays are workout days, not because I ‘have to’ but because I like it! I also like seeing my friends, so it’s not only a healthy exercise; it’s a healthy social activity as well.

I know for a lot of people, being consistent sounds hard or it sounds like I live a life of deprivation.  Actually, when I was 440 lbs (sadly, not a typo!), I was feeling pretty deprived. Being that big was physically and mentally painful! The physical pain was pretty obvious: back, hips, knees, feet- they all hurt all the time! Lying down was best except for the sleep apnea and even sitting hurt my back.  Mentally, I was always afraid of going anywhere new simply because I’d be wondering “what if I don’t fit?” And I don’t mean ‘fitting in!’ Do I fit in the chairs at that theater/ restaurant/ vehicle/ conference room/ wherever? Do you know how embarrassing and painful it is to sit in a chair and have your thighs bulge over the arms? How about trying to sit in an older theater where the seats are smaller and not adjustable? Let’s cram my fat butt in those! Just worrying over trying to maneuver my large body was enough anxiety to make me consider bailing on any new situation. And forget doing any walking! If I couldn’t park somewhere close by without another car next to me, I’d freak out. There’s nothing like walking in the door huffing and puffing like I ran a marathon! Or worrying someone will park too close and I wouldn’t be able to get back into my car- more fun! Let’s not discuss the particular torture that are stairs….

Deprived? Yes, I was very deprived! I didn’t go to a lot of places because of my weight. The places I did go to were those where I had no choice or I felt that I could maneuver my 440 lbs body well enough. Even in those places, it was still somewhat embarrassing that I had to go sideways through some obstacles. Like most situations in life, it was a trade-off: I ate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted and as much as I wanted, but as for going anywhere or doing anything? Nope! That’s what I was giving up!

Now I go a lot of places. Besides the gym, I went to our local Highland Games this fall and walked all over the fairgrounds without having to stop every few minutes to rest. In 2017, I toured the Queen Mary several times in one weekend, going up and down many flights of stairs! When I go someplace new, I park wherever is convenient for me, not where it’s closest. Standing up and walking no longer requires a moment of thought and a deep breath before doing it. When I make plans to go anywhere, my first thoughts aren’t “can I fit there?” or “how much walking/ standing is involved?” Believe me, not having to wonder about that is pretty liberating! In addition to the walking, standing and fitting, there’s not having to get up to pee every two hours, even at night. There are a lot of changes to my new lifestyle and most of them don’t revolve around food.

So what did I trade to be able to do all these things? I gave up processed foods: the mac & cheese which was a staple at my house; the other pastas; fast food; sugar; cookies, cakes, brownies; chips & crackers of all kinds; breads, cereals and oatmeals; pretty much anything that came in a box! Do I miss it? Not really. I was watching one of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients eat a huge bowl of cereal last week and I remembered that I used to eat cereal: “oh, yeah….” That’s how much I missed it! Chips, crackers, pasta: most of those foods I don’t even think about anymore unless they cross my path. Bread, especially garlic bread and croissants, I miss the most, mainly because they cross my path on a regular basis. Giving up these foods doesn’t mean I never ever eat them: it means when I do eat them, I make sure they are worth it and they are the exception instead of the rule.

It doesn’t take much to remind me what it was like when processed starchy foods were the staples of my diet: waking up every two hours to pee; my joints aching from the inflammation; not being able to fit into chairs. To be honest just the constant bathroom breaks are enough to remind me why I don’t eat bread every day or why cookies are an occasional treat instead of dessert each night!

Just remembering how I felt before I lost the weight is enough to keep the weight off for good. I keep some pictures of myself around to remind myself of what I looked like back then, but it’s not the pictures which are the impetus to stay consistent: it’s the aches and pains; the embarrassment; the inconvenience; the constant running off to the ladies’.  So whenever someone asks me if giving up processed foods makes me feel deprived? Not one little bit!

Turn Off the Food Faucet!: Weight Loss & Five Simple Steps

We hear expressions like this one almost daily: “Stuck in a hole? Then stop digging!” You would think it’s common sense, but sometimes we get so caught up in what’s going on in front of our faces that we miss what’s really behind the problem. Elizabeth Benton (Primal Potential) has an analogy I really like: you’re in a boat with a hole in the bottom so you start bailing out water as fast as you can, but bailing doesn’t fix the problem. You have to fix that hole to fix your problem!

Of course a hole in the bottom of your rowboat is pretty noticeable but when it comes to weight loss, figuring out why you are not losing weight, or gaining- even worse- can be more of a problem! There are millions of books, infomercials, websites, podcasts, pdfs and blogs about how to lose weight because finding the problem is so damned hard. Solving the weight loss problem a billion dollar industry and everyone wants a piece of that pie! (yeah, it’s a pun!)

It took me nearly 45 years to figure out a few simple truths that started my weight loss and have kept me from gaining it back. Whether they are the legitimate Answer to the Weight Loss Problem or not, they work and they aren’t rocket science (good thing ’cause I suck at math & physics!)  You don’t need to follow them in any order but when you do all five, in my experience, you lose weight and you don’t gain it back!

First Step: Eat whole foods.

This is pretty basic: whole foods tend to have more fiber and nutrients than processed foods, which are usually carb-rich and nutrient-poor. In short, whole foods, like eggs, raw fruits and veggies, cheeses and meats, fill you up faster and keep you filled up longer than processed foods. This is because they take longer to digest than processed foods. Also, foods like eggs and meat are mostly healthy fats and proteins. Your body has receptors which signal when you’ve eaten enough of these, so you get the “I’m full” feeling. With carbs, there are no receptors so we eat and eat and eat until stomach discomforts signals we’re full! That’s how we get full on a small steak but can binge a whole bag of potato chips!

 

Second Step: Only eat when you are hungry.

This should also be pretty basic, except we’ve been trained to eat according to a schedule! How many times have you seen kids who aren’t hungry out at a restaurant being told they “have to eat”? We also encourage our kids to eat everything on their plate too! Then the kids grow up and turn into us: eating according to a clock and eating everything (usually) on the plate! For some of us, we can’t really tell if we are actually hungry or if our stomach is expecting to be fed at a certain time each day! Believe it or not, if you think you are hungry and you wait about twenty minutes or so, you might be surprised to find that you really aren’t hungry anymore! Skipping a couple of meals or at least holding off on them will give you a pretty good sense of what real hunger feels like instead of ‘meal memory’!

The second part of this is to stop eating when before you feel full! By that time, you have likely eaten too much, so eat slowly and when you realize you are no longer hungry, stop eating.  Again, this is connected to the “clean your plate” mentality we learned as kids!

Third Step: No snacking.

Snacking is something most of us grew up with.  When I was a kid, we were always told that snacks ruin our dinner or if we had a snack, we wouldn’t be hungry at meal time. Then sometime in the 1970’s, some food manufacturer came up with the idea of “snack foods,” which has turned into an entire industry! We can buy “snack-sized” foods and “snack packs” at the store so we don’t have worry about fainting from hunger in the middle of the day.  In my opinion, snacking is why so many of us are overweight. We’ve been told that snacks are good for our metabolism and we should eat every two hours.  Both Dr. Nowzaradan (My 600 lb Life, TLC) and Dr. Jason Fung (The Obesity Code; The Diabetes Code) emphatically state that there is no such thing as a healthy snack! Why? Hyperinsulinemia (too much insulin) is why we gain weight: it’s a storage hormone. It’s what takes glucose out of the blood into the cells where it gets turned into FAT! All foods, not just carbs, trigger insulin, so that healthy snack of cheese or an apple or carrot sticks still triggers insulin. We burn fat when there is no insulin in our blood but if we are eating every two hours, when does that happen? Ummm… never? Bingo! Listen to grandma: no snacking!

Fourth Step: Pause before eating.

This step and the next seem like they don’t have much to do with weight loss, but these two steps really do help.  Remember the last time you had a craving or when you got really anxious about something going on and felt that urge to grab anything to eat? This is when that pause gets between you and the bag of Oreos! It is kind of an offshoot of Step Two: checking to see if you are really hungry.  Odds are that you aren’t really hungry: you either saw/ smelled/ or heard of something you really wanted or you are trying to distract yourself from your problem by eating something. I know whenever I get anxious, it’s my first reaction! Pausing before you reach for the chocolate or starting prowling through the fridge lets you redirect that urge. It gives you time to realize that you really don’t want the chips, you just want to feel better or that the only reason you want to eat is that you can smell the garlic bread someone had for lunch! It gives you time to take control away from the craving and the emotional eating. Take a walk; meditate; turn on some music: they can all help and they don’t involve eating!

Fifth Step: Rest and relaxation.

We’ve all been told that stress and lack of sleep don’t help with weight loss, and a lot of us just roll our eyes and flip the page.  Going back to the flooding rowboat analogy, imagine that hole in your boat is stuck somewhere you can’t see it. You know that water is coming in but you don’t know where it’s coming from so you can’t fix it. Stress and lack of sleep take their toll on your body. Your body releases cortisol (the stress hormone) which triggers your body to release glucose for quick energy, which means- you guessed it! Insulin! Because most of our stress (including the sleep deprivation) is chronic and not associated with physical activity anymore (like running away from a bear), that means our body is always triggering cortisol, glucose and insulin! Your stress is that hidden hole in your boat that keeps letting water flood in! Learning to relax such as meditating, taking a walk, listening to music, playing with kids or pets, reading or hey, here’s an idea- taking a NAP: all of these can help with stress and getting your body to calm down some. You will be surprised at how much better you’ll feel physically and mentally! Even better, you’ll lose some weight!

 

 

Speed Up Your Health By Slowing Down: Weight Loss & Slow Food

Some of you might have heard about the “Slow Food Movement” in the restaurant industry (Slow Food).  Essentially, it’s about creating healthy nutritious food in a green sustainable community, which isn’t a bad idea.  There are a lot of reasons why slow food isn’t just good for the environment and local community but also good for you.

At the risk of sounding like your grandma, I am old enough to remember (barely!) when fast food was still something of a novelty. When I was a kid, the main street in my hometown had more drug stores, gift stores or Five-and Dimes than it did fast food chains and the fast food places it did have were local independents.  When the first McDonald’s opened in our town, it was kind of a big deal. Because fast food was still new, it wasn’t something we had every day or even on a regular basis.  Food made at home, from scratch, was more the norm.

It’s not just restaurants that have ‘fast food’ either. Processed foods were also something new back then and most of us thought of it as something good. We can make mashed potatoes in ten minutes instead of an hour. Macaroni and cheese takes fifteen minutes instead of all day.  Oatmeal and rice take no time at all now that we have microwaves! So now that fast food and processed food have been around ‘forever,’ how are those working out for us?  Ummmmmm…. let’s think about that!

For most of us, the best thing about processed food is that it saves us time. Growing up, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen. For holidays and family gatherings, I would spend most of the day in the kitchen with my grandma and my aunts.  That is where I learned to make all kinds of foods that I could probably get at a restaurant or in a grocery store now, but none of it would taste like what I made in that kitchen with my family. Not everything that came out of my grandma’s kitchen was completely homemade, but most of it started as a whole food.  Grandpa’s chile started with fresh jalapenos he cut up, garlic he peeled and mashed and pork steak he cut up himself.  The only can he opened was the tomato sauce.  All of those ingredients were sauteed and simmered for a couple of hours or so.  My grandma’s adobo recipe began with pork steak and chicken cut and boiled in vinegar and water with her blend of spices added.  After a couple of hours or so, it was served over rice that had been steaming on the stove next to it!

As a kid, most of the food we ate started out as whole potatoes, whole dried beans, whole chickens from the butcher and rice from bins at the grocery store.  Our salads were lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers that we washed and sliced or shredded ourselves. Making dinner wasn’t ten or fifteen minutes of opening a plastic bag while something heats up in the microwave.  Preparing food took longer because it started out as close to whole as possible!

A few years ago I was watching one of those chef competition shows with Gordon Ramsay, something I normally don’t watch, but I was glad I saw this episode. There were about five or so contestants who all touted their cooking skills as ‘chef quality’ and this show was to weed out the pretenders. The first chore? Take this whole chicken and cut it into eight equal pieces.  I was unimpressed with the task until most of these wannabe chefs looked at the chicken and their eyes glazed over: they had no idea what to do! REALLY?!?!  I’ve been cutting my own chickens since I was about twelve and I am certainly no chef! Even at twelve, I could have done a better job than some of them did.

Another incident I recall had to do with potato salad.  At a luncheon, I was talking to the woman next to me about potato salad (it came out of a box!) and I mentioned that when I made it, I sometimes added tuna to make it more of a main dish. When she asked me about making it, she commented “isn’t it hard to take the skin off all those little pieces of potato?” I waited to see if she was joking (she wasn’t) so I told her gently “You peel the potatoes before you cut them up and boil them.”

As I mentioned above, I am definitely not a chef and until incidents like those above, I never really considered how far away we have grown from whole natural unprocessed foods. Yes, they can take longer to prepare but they also have more nutrition and less chemical additives and stabilizers. Most of us know this but what we might not realize is that processed foods are quicker because they are in a lot of ways “pre-cooked” and “pre-digested.” That box of potato flakes are potatoes which have been so highly processed they have virtually no fiber or vitamins or minerals. They have virtually no protein and no fiber, although they do have a little potassium (150 mg) and iron and even less vitamin C.  What else is in those ‘potato flakes?’ Sometimes it’s stuff we can’t pronounce, let alone spell! (Ingredients in Instant Potatoes)  I am sure that comes as no surprise to a lot of us: there are chemicals in our processed foods! Yes, let’s all roll our eyes at that one!

Think about it for a minute: we are eating food with less nutrition but with more chemicals. How much of what we are eating is actually food? And what do those chemicals do to our bodies? While listening to a couple of my favorite books for the second time (The Obesity Code by Dr. Jason Fung and Brainmaker by Dr. David Perlmutter), I was reminded of a few things. Margarine is only one molecule away from becoming plastic; transfats cannot be expelled from our bodies, and artificial sweeteners not only raise our insulin levels, they kill our gut bacteria. Humans invented most of these chemicals in the last century so they are absolutely foreign to our bodies. Our bodies have no idea how to process them or expel them, so some of them end up in our liver or fat permanently because these compounds are recognized as “food” (because they aren’t). There are a lot of chemicals in processed foods that were never intended to be “food,” such as the sawdust in your processed grated cheese.  The manufacturers put it in there to keep the cheese from clumping together but our digestive bacteria and our intestines don’t know what to do with it, so…. what happens to it? (Woody Cheese?)  FYI: it’s not just in Parmesan, either!

It’s not just about nutrition: processed food can get in the way of your weight loss. Remember I called it “pre-digested”? That’s because the manufacturers have already begun the digestion for you! That is why it takes less time to cook! Consider those mashed potatoes: when they are made from potato flakes, the potatoes have been cooked, dried out and then processed with chemicals so they won’t spoil on the shelves.  When you eat them, it takes no time at all to digest them because 90% of what your body would do to them has already been done to them! Mashed potatoes from whole potatoes have more vitamins and fiber because those parts haven’t been removed or broken down yet. A simpler example is broccoli: raw broccoli is a whole lot crunchier because the fiber isn’t broken down by the cooking process. It’s the same reason canned green beans are mushier than fresh or even thawed frozen green beans. The canning process requires cooking while freezing doesn’t.  This is why your nutritionist will tell you if you can’t get fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen is the next best thing.  On the can, the label usually reads “green beans, water, salt” while your bag of frozen beans reads “green beans.” The biggest difference is the fiber and nutrition which aren’t lost in the cooking.

Faster processed food means it’s digested faster, hits our blood stream faster and so we get hungry again faster.  Add to that there is less nutrition in what we are eating but more stuff that is making us fatter, such as the carbs, transfats and sugars. As someone who eats a Paleo diet, rice is one of those things I like to stay away from, but it’s not the natural rice that makes people fat.  Many cultures using rice as a traditional staple in their diets weren’t obese until their diet became more Westernized.  It’s not the steamed rice that makes them fat: it’s the processed Western diet that did that! Real whole food takes longer to prepare, has more nutrition and is something your body knows how to digest. It also takes longer to be absorbed so we tend to stay full longer. It just makes more sense! One of my friends jokingly calls the processed cheese food she buys “plastic cheese” because of the individual plastic wrapper on each slice. She doesn’t know how right she is!

 

 

 

 

 

Gaming the System? Weight Loss & Eating Like an Adult

When most people think of “gaming the system,” weight loss and dieting are usually not the first things that spring to mind– unless of course you are one of those ‘perennial dieters.’  Unfortunately, most of us (me included!) fall into this category: we are always trying to lose weight! And since we are always in a hurry to lose as much weight as we can as fast as possible, we’ve gotten pretty good at “gaming the weight loss system.”

Gaming the system means that we jump at the quick fix option instead of trying to make lasting changes.  Obviously we tend to see quick results with the quick fix, but we forget that ‘quick’ usually isn’t lasting, and let’s face it, while we want quick, lasting is what we are really after! No one likes losing those stubborn twenty pounds only to gain it back (and usually a couple more) and have to lose it all over again.

The problem is that ‘lasting’ takes too long and we get tired of waiting and frankly, tired of doing the work without seeing real results.  It doesn’t make us irresponsible or lazy or mean that we have no will power– it simply means that we’re human. Enter the quick fix with those quick results! But those quick fixes are usually something more drastic than the lasting change option, which is why we see those results so fast.

One of my mom’s famous quick fixes was meal replacement bars and shakes.  Instead of having breakfast and lunch, you have the shake/ bar and then a ‘healthy dinner.’  (Sound familiar, anyone?) We end up cutting out a lot of calories, so we lose weight fast, which makes us really happy for a while. Have you ever lasted on that program for more than a few weeks? I know I can barely manage one week because the shakes and bars taste so awful to me! We all know what happens as soon as you stop with the bars and shakes: Hello, weight gain!

The same thing happens with ‘diet food’ programs: once we stop eating the packaged low-cal meals, we begin to gain back whatever we lost while eating them. If all you want is to lose a few pounds so you look fabulous at the wedding or special event, that’s fine.  There’s an end date to the quick fix and if you gain it back, you are okay with that.  Seriously, though, there aren’t very many of us who are eating the bars, shakes and diet food just because we want a temporary weight loss! We’d rather lose weight permanently so we can look and feel great all the time.

When we opt for the long term lasting change method, the weight comes off slowly and steadily because we are learning as we go. We learn what healthy foods we enjoy and help us lose weight.  We learn how to eat when we’re hungry and how to stop when we’re no longer hungry. That may sound pretty simplistic, but think about it: ‘feeling full’ is not the same as ‘not being hungry!’ Most of us eat until we feel full, which usually means we’ve over-eaten, and many of us also sit down to eat without asking ourselves “am I even hungry?”

Making lasting changes means a lot of us have to change how we think about food and hunger, and that can feel pretty embarrassing to some of us.  Do we really need to learn how to monitor our hunger?  Do we really need to be told to stop eating when we’re not hungry anymore? For a lot of people, yes! Growing up, many of us were made to eat whatever our parents served us and if we didn’t eat “enough,” we were punished for it! I saw plenty of my cousins who had to force down food they didn’t want, either because they didn’t like it or weren’t hungry, just to make their parents happy.  This is what many of us were taught to do as children and many of us (like my cousins’ parents) grew up to force our own children to eat as well.  It was “meal time,” so we “have to eat!” The whole idea of not being hungry isn’t part of that equation, so is it any surprise that many of us sit down to eat at the appointed times and that we eat all or most of what is served to us?  This is what we were taught to do!

For me, this is a big part of what makes those quick fix meal and/ or meal replacement programs such a quagmire: we aren’t learning how to change our thinking about food, meals or hunger.  We are simply substituting one prescribed ‘meal’ for another! Instead of having a real food breakfast, we’re having a shake.  Instead of eating a real food lunch, we’re eating a bar.  Instead of eating a real food dinner, we’re microwaving a packaged meal.  No wonder many of us do so well on the meal replacement systems only to stumble when we try eating real food again: instead of learning what’s good for us and how much of it satisfies our hunger, we are eating what someone else decided was good for us, just like we did when we were kids! When we start eating real food again, we really are like little kids not knowing what to eat or how much of it. As parents, we know we don’t let the kids choose they want to eat all the time because we know it’ll be something like cereal three times a day or fast food for dinner each night.  We accept that children don’t know how to eat well-balanced meals but how many of those ‘kid meals’ sound like something we eat on a semi-regular basis? How many of us come home from work and rather than fix something nutritious, we settle for cereal eaten at the kitchen sink? Or we hit the drive thru for the third time because we’re late getting home again?

We know it’s not healthy for us and we tell ourselves that it’s not our “normal” way of eating, but at the same time, it’s our fall-back meal.  No time to heat something up? Cereal time! Or toaster pastries or granola bars etc.  The same thing happens when we come home late, or are too tired to cook or just don’t want what we’ve got at home: we get drive thru or take out or microwave a packaged meal. Is it any wonder that we have problems with our weight and our health when we eat like kids?

Changing how we think about eating isn’t fast and it takes a fair bit of practice but when we stop opting for the quick fix we end up making some real lasting progress with out health and our weight loss.  We only really win the game when we stop playing with our food!

Taking a Short Cut?: Weight Loss & Real Food

Weight loss is a very lucrative industry, especially in America.  As we become less and less mobile and food continues to be more and more easily obtainable, we keep getting more and more obese.  You would think food would become healthier, and in some cases, it has, but overall, the more food is processed, the more nutrition is lost.

In most cases, manufacturers enrich their finished products with vitamins, minerals and other essentials to make them healthier.  In some cases, it’s the result of a government campaign, as in breads, cereals and milk, which are routinely fortified. While these fortified products are better than the unfortified version, there are still questions about how healthy highly processed foods are for us.  Yes, they may have “all the required vitamins” to satisfy the recommended daily allowances, but what else is in there?

One of the commercials I’ve been seeing a lot is for a vegetable juice drink which compares itself to a banana.  The commercial asserts that the little can of juice drink has as much potassium as the banana, claiming “it’s a post work out snack you don’t have to peel.”  This statement makes me roll my eyes every time I hear it.  I am not claiming the commercial is lying about the potassium levels, but we’re comparing juice to a whole food. Something which is as highly processed as juice is likely not as nutrient dense as a whole food, especially when it comes to fiber.

It’s bad enough that nutrition and fiber are taken out of foods in processing: other things are added in to make them more shelf-stable, to preserve “freshness” and taste and to make them look prettier. That can of vegetable juice has less fiber, likely less nutrition from the vegetables themselves and way more sodium than the vegetables it was made from, since the vitamin C and betacarotene are added. However, it is much easier to carry around a little can of veggie juice than the actual vegetables!

That is the primary reason people choose processed foods over whole natural foods: convenience!  How many times have we bought fresh fruits and veggies only to have them spoil in our fridge? (Raising my hand here!) It happens more than I like with spinach, lettuce and cabbage.  It happens to me most often with milk, and in fact, it happened–again!-– last weekend! I love coffee but I only drink it with cream.  I also only drink coffee at home on the weekend (since that’s when I spend the most time there), so I went about making coffee only to realize right before I turned on the machine that the cream in the fridge had spoiled. No cream, no coffee! As I added it to the grocery list, I considered buying something shelf-stable that wouldn’t spoil for weeks so this wouldn’t keep happening to me.

How much easier it would be for me to have powdered cream sitting in my cupboard for me to use whenever I needed it!  I wouldn’t have to worry about spoilage and I could have coffee without first checking to make sure I have cream.  Wow, wouldn’t that be great! Except the list of ingredients on the powdered creamer reads like a chemistry experiment because it really is more chemicals than actual food! Does it taste good? Most definitely! I admit it: I love the stuff and used it for years for mainly because it’s convenient and good tasting.

Unfortunately, in addition to being shelf-stable and delicious, it also has so many things that I don’t like, such as preservatives, corn syrup solids and trans fat.  Yes, if you look on the labels of many of these, they say they are “free of trans fats.”  They are allowed to say that if the serving size is very small. Even though you are getting only a small amount of trans fats with each serving, let’s consider how much of that stuff you, or rather I, consume! I don’t put in one or two tablespoons (1 serving) mainly because I drink great big mugs of coffee and usually more than one daily.  So over the course of a weekend, I’m going to have probably six or eight tablespoons each day.  That’s a lot of “little amounts” which build up into a real number! (Seriously, I think all the trans fats & saccharin I’ve eaten over the years have become part of my DNA–ugh!)

Then there are all the extra calories that come with that shelf-stable powdered creamer! Once I reminded myself of why I stopped using that stuff, I ended up putting a small carton of half and half in my shopping cart.  I know what’s in that and most importantly, my body knows what’s in it too! This is the problem with chemical preservatives and additives: some of these things were invented in the last century and our organs don’t know what to do with these things, especially trans fats! As a result, these unstable compounds just get stored in our bodies. Some chemical compounds can really disrupt your gut bacteria, resulting in poor nutrient absorption or even a more serious disorder such Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).  Anyone who has had any kind of digestive disorder knows what kind of havoc they can wreak not only on your health but on your daily life. The last time I had a stomach bug was bad enough for me!

Not all processed foods are unhealthy but they should not be the majority of your meals. The best way to minimize your intake of trans fats, preservatives or other unhealthy chemicals is to eat as few processed foods as possible. I occasionally buy refrigerated or frozen foods out of the sheer convenience.  They are mostly fruit or vegetables and they tend to be minimally processed. Usually they are raw frozen foods and the ingredient labels read” sweet potatoes” or “green cabbage,” but I do buy the occasional frozen entree or other processed bagged item. However, these items are “occasional.”  The majority of what I eat doesn’t come in a bag or a can: it comes in butcher paper from the meat counter or in its own natural (and sometimes edible) wrapper.  There’s something to be said for the vitamins and nutrition in those natural vegetable wrappers: I can guarantee you they taste better than that juice can!

 

 

 

The Weight Loss Guarantee No One Talks About

When we see commercials for weight loss or fitness programs, they almost always have some kind of 30 day or six week guarantee.  You follow their program for the requisite number of days, and “if you don’t lose weight/ inches, we’ll refund your money!” Of course, there is always the caveat that “you WILL lose weight/ inches” because you’ll be following their program (yeahhhhh, riiiighht!) but no one ever guarantees that you’ll keep the weight off and won’t have to do this again.

There is one guaranteed method of losing weight and keeping it off, but no one likes to talk about it.  It’s not glamorous or ‘trending’ or novel.  It’s Consistency. We all know about it but we hate doing it, so most of us don’t!  We know we should eat more veggies and less processed/ packaged foods, but.…. We know we should avoid the sweets, the carbs, the treats that aren’t good for us, but……one won’t hurt, right??  We make exception after exception because it’s So & So’s birthday/ anniversary/ celebration etc.  Then it’s a holiday or another special occasion or a ‘special’ treat so we cram those treats down even though they’re # 10 or more on our list of ‘exceptions.’  Then we wonder how we got so far off-track or why we stopped making progress or how we managed to gain X amount of pounds when we haven’t eaten ‘that much!’  This is the first sign that we’ve become Inconsistent: we stop making progress, i.e. losing weight!

Then comes the second consequence of Inconsistency: “why is it so hard to resist temptation??” Because we have taught ourselves that we can eat whatever we want! Yes: we have taught ourselves this bad habit! It might be nice to blame all those people who had birthdays or brought cookies or shared candy or other treats but they didn’t make you eat them! Even if they pushed them at you with the “one won’t hurt” excuse, you were still free to say firmly but politely: “no thank you.” It also wouldn’t have been out of line to give the brief explanation: “they’re not good for me.”  But we didn’t say that, did we? We said “thanks!” and helped ourselves! ……And now here we are, our progress stalled or erased and we are once more struggling with cravings and temptations that we really want to give in to, when just a few months ago, we would hardly have noticed that the grocery store has that great bread from that restaurant chain or that the Peanut Butter M&M’s are on sale for Halloween.

This is where most people just tune out because no one wants to hear that it’s our own fault and that staying Consistent would have bypassed these issues entirely! We don’t want to be Consistent because it’s BORRR–INNNNGGG!! Eating nutritious healthy low calorie food every day is just so old and tired! I’m tired of eating healthy food that helps me lose weight! I want to eat all the cookies and bread and sugar that makes me feel like crap and makes me gain back all the weight! Of course, we don’t actually say that to ourselves but it’s still the truth.  We lie to ourselves by making the ‘celebration’ excuse or the ‘one won’t hurt’ excuse, but at the end of the day, the truth is that most of these treats that we want to eat don’t make us feel good, they get in the way of our reaching our goals, and they make it harder for us to resist temptation.  But they were yummy, right?

“Eh…they were okay….” This is also usually the truth.  Most of the time, these treats aren’t as good as we remember them being and even if they are good, they last only as long as it takes to eat them: about a minute or so.  Was that minute worth the cravings and sacrificing your progress?  Add all those minutes up and weigh them against feeling cruddy, gaining weight and fighting temptation: worth it? Yes or no?

I can only answer for myself: NO, they weren’t worth it.  Some were good (bread is nearly always yummy for me!) but at the same time, I know what happens to me when I eat bread: I retain water like a freakin’ sponge, my hunger shoots through the roof about an hour after eating it and the next day, my hands hurt.  Nothing like a pin-through-your-thumb-joint kind of pain to get your attention and remind you “Yep! You chose to eat that bread!” As much as I love bread, it’s not worth the ‘hangover’ I have to suffer through for the next couple of days or so until the grains and carbs get cleared from my body.

But is Consistency really boring?  Not unless we make it boring!  For most of us, there are a lot of foods on that healthy and nutritious list, but we either don’t want to make them or we just crave novelty. Right now, there are dozens of new books hitting the stores almost every day full of delicious, low calorie healthy recipes and, if you don’t want to buy a book, the same kinds of recipes are available for free on Instagram, Facebook, websites and blogs! All you have to do is Google!  You can eat something different that’s healthy, low calorie, low carb and unprocessed every day if you choose to do the work! (FYI: I Googled for you & there are links below!)

Myself, I choose not to do that much work with cooking! It’s too much of a hassle for me and I am seriously happy with much more simple recipes like “fried hamburger.”  I am also just as happy with steamed veggies, tossed salad and –whoa!– sweet potato fries! (Those last almost qualify as ‘a hassle’ for me!) But those are the kinds of foods I like to eat, and if I get bored, I can change it up by getting roasted chicken or simply switching to another protein that I enjoy such as pork, lamb or even an omelette.  The same is true with the vegetables: if I get bored with one, just switch to another! It sounds simple and it is! I don’t have to choose between Mexican or Chinese or Indian food in order to eat what I like, and even among those foods, there are still dishes I can enjoy that meet my guidelines.  Last week I met friends at a Mexican restaurant and had chicken caseras: grilled chicken on a bed of shredded cabbage and onions with guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo– and it was really really good! Even more importantly, after enjoying something different and delicious, I didn’t feel cruddy afterwards!

Also as a bonus, how hard would it be for me to make something like that at home? It’s something even I could do: get a bag of shredded cabbage, chop an onion, chop up some rotisserie chicken breast and mix it up with some fresh pico, sour cream and guacamole! Yummy, healthy and– most shocking of all– it’s Consistent with my goals! I can eat something like this every week or every day and stay Consistent with my weight loss, health and nutrition goals! How boring is Consistency from this viewpoint?

What happens with most of us (me included) is we get stuck in a rut.  It’s easy to fill the fridge with rotisserie chicken and bagged veggies so we forget that there’s a whole array of foods and recipes that are available to us. In that situation, yes, Consistency is boring, but it doesn’t have to be! We don’t know what to look for or we get lazy and rather than try to find something new that stays within our eating guidelines, we go back to what we used to eat.  The problem is the way we used to eat is what caused us to gain weight and feel cruddy all the time.  We call it a treat or a special occasion but all we are treating ourselves to is failed goals, a blood sugar roller coaster, weight gain and added aches and pains.  Personally, I don’t think of any of those things as “treats!”

Food For Thought

Nom Nom Paleo

Paleo Leap

Primal Potential

Eating Clean

 

 

Convenience Foods: Weight Loss & Effortless Eating

One of my biggest problems continues to be weekends. When I am locked into my weekday work routine, it’s easier to stay on plan. Obviously, we have less variation in that work-a-day schedule so unless you have an office where people bring in treats or have catered conferences and luncheons, you only have what you have brought to eat into the office. Feeling hungry or want to snack? There are none because you didn’t bring any! Or, they are healthy snacks like nuts, string cheese or something else nutritious or low calorie.

Weekends, unscripted and constantly changing, are horrendous for me simply because there are too many opportunities for “unscheduled or improvised eating.”  If it’s a ‘Stay-At-Home’ weekend, it’s a little easier to stay closer to the target, but again the opportunities are still there to wander into the kitchen or to have seconds of lunch or dinner.  It’s not much different than the office: not a lot of snacky foods and the ones that are there are healthy or low cal, but too much of any food, healthy or not, isn’t good for you.  I try to keep easy to eat food like string cheese or nuts or beef sticks out of the house simply because they require no cooking or preparation.  When you feel the urge to eat our of boredom, the thought of getting out a pan to scramble some eggs or to put a chicken in the oven is too much of a hassle, not to mention the clean-up later! “I’m not that hungry!” But something ready to eat? Unwrap it, eat it and throw away the trash? Too much temptation there!

The same thing happens when you’re out running errands or shopping or just hanging out with friends: too much convenient ready to eat food! It’s easy to stop for lunch or a snack or even get a high calorie coffee drink and before you know it, you’ve consumed too much sugar, too much starch, too much fat or just too much! We tend not to pay attention to what we ate or even remember that we ate it because it was nearly effortless. We don’t have to deal with preparing it or cleaning up afterwards so our only real consideration is the cost in cash and calories, and we all know how easy it is to give in temptation or to make an excuse.  If we are out with friends, then it’s a ‘special occasion,’ or if we are running from one errand to another, we rationalize it because ‘I don’t have time to eat healthy.’ And let’s not forget the Impulse Buy: see it and throw it in your basket before you have time to think about it! Of course, once you get it home, well, ….I bought it so I might as well eat it….Really?

I remember one of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients complaining that she wished “they’d close up all the bakeries” because they were her downfall. I can empathize because I am someone who looks at bread the way kids look at candy on Halloween. I can walk right past the chocolate, the chips and the soda without even noticing, but bread? That’s most often where I will linger, and the excuses start creeping into my thoughts: the dogs love bread too, so if I get this bag of rolls, I can give half of them to the dogs….. And they love warm cornbread too, so I can split this pan with them….. Yeeaahhhh, riiigghhhttt [insert eye roll here].  While the dogs may end up with part of whatever bread makes it into my home, the fact that I had half of it (or more) still isn’t a good thing!

Again, the problem goes back to how easy is it to eat? Bread is one of those foods that is right there ready to go! You can buy the kind you need to heat up or ready-to-bake and depending on how much ‘work’ that is for you, it’s still far less than making bread from scratch.  Even cornbread mixes, which usually only require you add two ingredients, are much easier than doing it all yourself.

While many health and weight loss gurus decry processed foods for their potentially unhealthy shelf-stable ingredients, in my opinion their biggest problem continues to be they are just too effortless! When we feel the urge to snack, we usually don’t choose these easy convenient foods because they are so wonderfully delicious– we choose them because we just have to open the package! They are as close to instant gratification as we can get with food!  While fast food, bakery and deli foods may have less of those unhealthy processed shelf-stable ingredients, they are just as problematic as the convenient packaged foods because all we have to do is hit the drive-thru or pop them into our basket. They are still as effortless as we can get.

Which is why the only “convenient  and effortless” foods at my house belong to the pets! It’s a ‘hassle’ to prepare food to eat.  It requires actual ‘work’ as in cooking or making a salad dressing.  Just last night I was grumbling to myself about having to cook: the only effortless food I regularly bring home is rotisserie chicken and I had finished the last of it the night before. Now, I had to get out the skillet and put the pork steaks on the stove…grumble grumble. Obviously, pork steaks aren’t a ‘snack food’ or ‘convenient,’ but that doesn’t mean we are doomed to go through the Food Preparation Production each night to keep from bingeing on hot dogs or refrigerator pasta.  When I do cook ‘real food,’ I usually cook the entire package, which means tonight all I have to do is reheat the leftovers.

Having leftovers is almost a forgotten practice. When people think of leftovers today, it’s usually leftover pizza, leftover fried chicken or maybe leftover Chinese.  Most of them are processed foods, as in there are three pieces of last night’s pizza or chicken in fridge. The hassle involved with cooking ‘real food’ each night is one of the reasons convenient effortless food has become so popular, but I also think it’s one of the reasons we’ve become so unhealthy in general.  Like me, we get home from work or errands and when we think about ‘what’s for dinner?’, you have the same response I did last night: “Crap! I have to cook!” So we get in the habit of keeping easy effortless food close at hand: we head home via Jack in the Box or we call in a To-Go order at the Chinese place, or we have something at home that goes right from the fridge/ freezer into the microwave! It’s easy to eat, takes little to no work and before we know it, we’ve eaten dinner so fast that by the time our stomach has noticed it’s full of food, we’ve moved on to dessert! How many of us have finished a pint of ice cream because we’re ‘hungry’ only to feel stuffed and bloated afterwards? (Raising my hand here!)

This is one of the other benefits of eating less convenient, not so effortless foods: it also takes time to eat them! Even the rotisserie chicken that makes a weekly appearance at my house has to be cut up and eaten off the bones rather than being boneless nuggets. Most convenient foods are highly processed so they are easy to eat (I think of them as ‘pre-digested’ since a lot of the work with chewing and metabolizing is already done in the processing.) How easy is it to eat a slice of pizza compared to cutting up a pork steak? Compare tossing french fries into your mouth with eating a salad full of raw veggies? Neither of them is a major production but those few extra minutes means your stomach has a little more time to notice it’s full of food before you start stuffing it with more!

Sticking with the less than convenient foods is a simple way of keeping your hand out of the cookie jar or bag of chips: when you have to make them yourself, it makes you ask yourself  “am I really that hungry?” Starting with real whole foods not only means you’re staying away from unstable fats and chemical preservatives, it also means that when you sit down to eat, you aren’t eating out of boredom or habit.  Another bonus I have noticed when something processed and effortless makes it into my kitchen is that the more you eat real whole foods, the more you taste the chemicals in those convenient foods.  They might be effortless to eat but they tend to taste like the plastic they were wrapped in too!

 

Yay, Whole Foods!: Supplements, Nutrition & Weight Loss

I’m a huge fan of whole foods and I don’t mean the supermarket chain.  (I’m not knocking them; I’ve shopped there before but there isn’t one in my town.) I’m talking about the real as-close-to-right-out-of-the-ground whole foods. Apparently, they are one of the hot trends right now in the food and nutrition arena. One of the other hot trends is biohacking.  Biohacking is a loose term for finding ways to get what you want from your body (or from something else organic) by using some kind of quick trick or other means.  One of the most well known biohackers is Dave Asprey, ‘inventor’ of Bulletproof coffee.  Essentially, Bulletproof coffee is a high energy drink you make yourself that keeps you full and can keep you in ketosis if that’s your thing.  (Ketosis can also be called another biohack by some people.) While I found a lot of descriptions and examples of biohacking, I didn’t really find anything that defines it.  The best example for me is what I used to do when I couldn’t get to sleep at night: I used a placebo of sorts. I’d take a couple of plain ibuprophen.  (Not the PM version because it didn’t exist then!) Generally, within twenty minutes of taking the generic Advil, even if I wasn’t in pain, I’d start to get sleepy and be out before I knew it.  It worked every time.

One of the drawbacks to biohacking is that sometimes people try it with nutrition, which usually comes out to taking handfuls of supplements, smoothies or protein shakes.  I have heard Dave Asprey on podcasts talking about taking about 20 or more supplements and while I don’t want to malign supplements or those that use them (I take a few myself!), I do want to point out that just because you take 2000 mg of Calcium every day, that doesn’t mean you have all your Calcium needs covered.  One important issue that gets marginalized– with both supplements and whole foods– is the subject of bioavailability.   Bioavailability is pretty much just what it sounds like: the nutrients in the supplement or food either is or isn’t available to be absorbed by your body.  This is important because if you’re eating bushels of spinach thinking you’re getting your iron RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance), then you’re sadly mistaken. While the nutritional information label on that bag of spinach may say it’s loaded with iron, it’s not in a form your body can absorb!

Example: being a bit of a geek-groupie, I watch The Big Bang Theory and in one episode Penny was out shopping with Sheldon, who in typical Sheldon fashion, criticized her choices of vitamins and supplements.  He told her (paraphrasing here) that he could help her get her vitamins and minerals because what she had in her hands was “a recipe for expensive pee.” We think we’re getting enough vitamins and minerals and all that good nutritional stuff because we’re popping those supplements daily, but the fact of the matter is while we may be swallowing the pills, they may not be staying in our bodies!  Some nutrients need ‘helpers’ to be absorbed and others may just be plain unavailable! This is what Sheldon meant when he told Penny she was making ‘expensive pee.’ We can take all the supplements and protein shakes in the world and if the nutrients aren’t available, they just pass right through our bodies and do nothing for us but drain our wallets.

Supplement manufacturers usually take a big hit on this topic because while a protein powder label may say it had 25 mg of protein per scoop, what’s actually available to be absorbed is maybe half of that.  We need to check labels for the amount that’s bioavailable.  The protein is there: we just can’t use it. The same is true for supplements: just because it’s there on the label doesn’t mean we actually get the benefit.  Unfortunately people tend to think that whole foods have ‘solved’ this problem which isn’t the case, although they do have a slight advantage. Many whole foods- like spinach- have lots of nutrients, minerals and vitamins, but plants have defenses too, and a lot of their defenses rely on keeping their nutrition unavailable to those who eat them.  For example, while spinach, broccoli and other dark leafy greens have calcium, they also have oxalic acid which binds to the calcium so we can’t absorb it. So while we may eat  five cups of broccoli, we may only end up getting less than half the calcium we think we got.

The advantage to choosing to rely more on whole foods than supplements comes from tradition, in my opinion.  We tend to prepare a lot of foods in ways to make them more bioavailable.  Take creamed spinach: that oxalic acid doesn’t care if it binds to the calcium in the spinach or the calcium in the cream, so we’re getting more calcium in that creamed spinach than if we ate plain spinach.  There’s a similar benefit to eating the traditional beans & rice that come in many cultures: legumes and rice both contain incomplete proteins so if we ate them alone, we wouldn’t get any protein benefit, but by eating them together, we get the proteins.

Whole foods also have a slight advantage because of the ‘whole package’ deal.  For some foods, like white potatoes, there are a lot of vitamins in the skins but once those foods get processed (say into potato flakes), the skins are discarded and we don’t get those vitamins.  We’ve heard a lot of similar stories about other fruits and veggies: eat the whole fruit/ veg rather than just part of it (apple sauce or veggie juice). This also why people advocate eating the whole egg instead of just the whites where the protein is concentrated: the yolk has beneficial nutrition such as vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.

There are a lot of diets that rely on nutrition bars and protein shakes to promote weight loss, but again bioavailability bites you in the butt! There might be 100% of all your RDA on those labels but how much remains in your body? How many times does someone you know who relies on those bars and shakes complain of being tired or not feeling great? Yes, they’re losing weight but is feeling cruddy a great trade off? Are they hungry a lot? I know I was when I was on those diets- tired and feeling really blah. Not the benefit I wanted with my weight loss!

I am not saying you should throw out your bottles of vitamins and supplements. I’ve got quite a collection of those myself but I don’t depend on those bottles to make sure I get all my vitamins and minerals. Remember the word ‘Supplement’ means to ‘add to’ something else. I try to get most of my vitamins, minerals and nutrition from whole natural foods and then use vitamins and supplements to make up any differences that might be lacking.  I’m sure my diet has some holes in it. No one’s is perfect, I’m sure! The point is that I feel better eating mostly whole foods and- not to brag- but a lot of people have been asking me what I use on my skin because it looks so much better.  Umm, nothing? No lotion, no cream- just soap and water! Unless broccoli, eggs, fish and butter lettuce count!