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Healthy Eating: A Hierarchy of Needs

pexels-photo-949070.jpegDo you eat cereal? I was thinking about having a bowl of cereal for desert, as I was craving sugar. Most commercial cereal is so unhealthy it is a desert, yet it is touted as a healthy choice. But then it occurred to me that in many, many households, it is the healthiest choice they make, and how much boxed cereal improved the nation’s health when it was introduced, simply because it is vitamin fortified. That led me to think of how relative healthy eating is.

While some of us worry about whether our produce is organic, if our food is locally and humanly raised, or if it is the healthiest of competing eating plans, while many people here in the United States don’t even know, or chose not to know, what they should even be worrying about. There is a vast distance between the  “haves and have-nots” of nutritional awareness. Many people think fried chicken and biscuits are suitable to feed a child. Most Americans have no idea how much refined grains and sugar they are consuming, or the correlation between that and type 2 diabetes.

 Don’t romanticize the past.  While I do believe much of our obesity problem is because of the food industry, eating like your ancestors doesn’t guarantee healthy eating. The one thing I disagree with author Michael Pollen about in his book, “In Defense of Food” was his contention that people in the past ate better. Some did, most didn’t. We may be dying from an overabundance of sugar and calories now, but people died from pellagra, beri beri, scurvy and rickets in the past. Poverty and poor availability of food were extremely common. People in the rural south at corn, but, unlike the Native Americans, they didn’t know to soak their corn in alkali to make its niacin content digestible, which caused rampant pellagra. They also liked it “degermed,” taking more of the B vitamins out. People, for some reason, like their food white and mushy. So rice was also degermed, making it “white.” Rich people ate white bread because it cost more and was “finer”,  that made everyone want it. People abandoned whole wheat as being too rural or poor, which we now know was a huge mistake.

Poverty was a driving force. People took advantage of each other, bakers put sawdust, chalk or alum in the bread, spices covered the smell of spoiling meat, they watered down and chalked the milk. People ate what they could afford, which might be good, like collards or beans, or bad, like fat back, white bread and mayonnaise sandwiches. The ultimate hierarchy of good eating for most people in the past was simply getting enough food to not go to bed hungry.

Education was spotty or nonexistent in the past. Who was teaching about food? The local grange or cooperative extension? Home Ec. class in school? What did they teach? Did they just focus on food safety or how to follow recipes? Or did lessons of nutrition get taught? Did you only get this education if you were middle class or higher? I’ve read some grange and home ec. material from the 40’s and 50’s, and most of it was very sound. Even back then they recommended to not eat cake often. However, then, as now, people had to seek out information, and most didn’t.

Cereal was invented as health food. At the time commercial  cereal was invented, rich people ate whatever they liked, without regard for whether it was good for them or not, poor people ate whatever was cheap.  Having read writings from the past, there was a lot of common knowledge that vegetables were good for you. But then, as now, cake tasted better. People went to spas and sanitariums as they do now, to lose weight and feel better. The sanitariums, for the most part, fed them vegetables and whole grains. It was out of these sanitariums that the cereal industry was born. Those early cereals weren’t too bad; they were whole grains that weren’t overly sweetened. Boxed cereal was affordable, so the poorer people bought it too.

The government got involved. The government later demanded fortification in response to widespread health deficiencies. Bread and flour was fortified with B vitamins in response to pellagra and beri beri, milk with A&D against night blindness and rickets, salt with iodine to prevent goiter. The government also passed food safety laws. While I’m no fan of overreaching governmental influence, those things have made a huge difference.  Not every parent can parent, and if you can prevent a child from having a low IQ from serious deficiencies, they at least stand a chance.

You know, but you don’t know. Now we know better. As a society we are being educated to eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats. That’s why no one eats hot dogs on buns anymore. Fried chicken has been completely taken over by grilled. And when was the last time you saw a french fry? Ok, so my sarcasm is over the top here. But seriously, do we know? Then why is there a whole aisle devoted to soda? Why is sweet tea still the national drink of the south? Why are white flour breads, rolls and cookies still out there in abundance? Judging by the success of the fast food industry, the amount of donuts brought into work, the aisles of junk in the supermarket, we still have a very, very long way to go.

Getting back to my cereal. For me, it’s desert, for someone else, the healthiest choice of the day. If the choice is between cereal and a donut, cereal doesn’t look so bad. For those of us who worry about our diets and try to eat for health more than taste, try to remember “The perfect is the enemy of the good”. Many people will not give up what tastes good, in spite of being diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease, metabolic disorder or the host of other ailments that can be prevented or mitigated with diet. If we can make some of those foods healthier, or steer people away from the worst offenders, we’ll have still made a difference.

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How I make Yogurt

I am currently on a big yogurt kick, primarily fueled by having bought an Instantpot®. Yes, I’ve joined that cult. No, I don’t cook everything in it, but when it comes to beans or yogurt, I’m a believer.

My daughter bought me a lovely yogurt maker that I used for years, but it used 7 little jars, which I always ended up combining. I often wished there was a way to make a BIG batch of yogurt at one time, but keeping the temperature correct, which is the key, seemed too iffy. The yogurt making feature of the Instantpot was half the reason I bought it, with it’s 8 quart capacity. IF you say to me, “why make it when you can buy it”, I reply, it is cheaper, and I get a great deal of satisfaction, and I get the whey. More about that later.IMG-4965

So what I do is heat the milk first in the microwave, using a very large bowl. I am not certain about the reason for this, my understanding is that it eliminates foreign bacteria that could spoil it, or possibly it changes the nature of the protein, making the yogurt thicker. In any case, I do it and it has always worked. I have never worried too much about the temperature, I get it good and hot, over 160 F on my thermometer. I used to do one qt. at 11 minutes, I do 2 qts. at 15 minutes on high and all seems well.

Next I let it cool to 120 F. I made two batches this week, one using frozen whey, the other fresh, and the first I added the frozen whey when it was at 140 F, hoping the fact the whey was frozen would prevent it from killing the bacteria, the second it was cooler than 120 F, as I had forgotten it, and they both turned out fine.

A note on the whey. I have gone from feeding it to my dogs, plants, compost, etc., to hoarding it for myself. Using a half cup or so to start the next batch is about all I’ll spare from eating it myself. It does make for a more liquid yogurt to use it for the starter, but I strain my yogurt anyway, so I get it back.

Next you add the starter to the warm milk, either in the pot you heated in, or the Instantpot. The starter can be whey from a previous batch, yogurt from the store, as long as it is plain and says live cultures, or yogurt from your previous batch. If you don’t plan on straining your yogurt, don’t start it with whey.

The next step is to throw it in the instant pot on the yogurt setting for 12 hours. You can do 8-10, but I like to give the little critters all the time they might need. I have no idea if there is such a thing as too long.  Put the lid on, go to sleep and wake up to yogurt the next day. When you take the lid off, take a peek and see if it is jelly like with chartreuse liquid about. Don’t worry if you don’t see any liquid, sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t.

Now I pour it in a strainer lined with paper towels set over a LARGE bowl. I set it in the fridge until I remember IMG-4966to look at it again. Seriously. I always forget about it at this stage. It can get too thick for my liking, so I get aggravated at myself if I forget it too long. It has to be a large bowl. You will be shocked at how much whey is in there. Cleaning whey off of the fridge shelf is not my idea of fun. I left it for 6 hours yesterday and that was pretty good. I usually do it for 4-8 hours.

Don’t panic if the paper towel sticks when you go to dump the yogurt IMG-4967

out to it’s final home. For whatever reason, yogurt sticks better to itself than to the towel. I’ve never had a big problem with separating the two. yogurt.jpg

Here is the final product in all it’s glory, ready to eat. I don’t know if you can see in the picture, but more whey continues to come up even after all that straining.

Now, about all that whey. I tried soaking my everyday loaded oatmeal in it overnight and now I’m hooked. I try to keep sugar to a minimum, and somehow the whey makes the oatmeal taste sweeter, and makes the texture creamier. If that idea does not appeal to you, you can still use it for your pets or plants, or even as the liquid in baking bread, it’ll give the yeast a boost and condition the dough.

Elimination Won’t get You There.

I’m going to be nice. If you are on a diet where you have to avoid something, I won’t pick on you. Many people have to avoid certain foods for lots of reasons. If you think it is making you healthier, well, that depends on what you are replacing the banned food with.

This post was prompted by my amusement over my husband’s creamer bottle, proudly stating iIMG_4611t is gluten and lactose free. If you have celiac disease, or are lactose intolerant, that’s a good thing to know. However, if you think for one moment that either of those things makes creamer healthy, it doesn’t.  First, the ingredient list is closer to a chemistry classroom than a kitchen, and second, sugar is a top ingredient. Third, I don’t know how quickly you’d go through a quart bottle, but in our house, it’s about a one a week. I did the math. That’s 35 calories a serving, times 63 servings, 2,205 calories a week. That’s a whole days worth of calories in one extra ingredient. That is a perfect example of little things adding up.

Getting back to the “Free” business. Just because something doesn’t have an ingredient that is on your personal no-no list, doesn’t make it a good product. I know vegans that live on brownies and potato chips, since they make vegan versions. White bread is vegan, and there are a multitude of reasons to not eat it.

I’m lactose intolerant, so I might get enticed by our little creamer here, except for all the problems already mentioned. Nowadays there are dozens of options, from lactase pills, lactose free milk, soy, almond, coconut and rice milk. Since I look to milk for protein, carbs, and calcium, I opt for soy. Most almond milk, no matter how fortified, doesn’t have the same profile. When you decide something is off your eating list, you have to carefully consider what to put in its place.

Another example. Sugar is very bad for you. I could show you all the studies, but it is like using rocket fuel in grandma’s sedan. Unless you are very, very active, you won’t use it, and it will raise your blood sugar and increase the odds you’ll get diabetes. Like everyone else on this planet, I have a strong desire for sweets. So what to do? Rather than substituting something else, I try to keep the quantity of real sugar to a minimum. I try to avoid “mindless” sweets, and save my sugar for the “good stuff”, in my case, chocolate.

I found another funny example. Look. It’s a sensible choice. No fat, no cholesterol, no trans fat. Must be good, right? Turn it over and read the label. IMG_4646

IMG_4647 Twenty seven grams of sugar in a one third cup serving. That is identical to a Snickers candy bar. If you are trying to lose weight, fine. A snickers has 250 calories. If you are striving for all over health, and healthy foods, no.

I love my cranberries. I put them in almost everything. However, I don’t put 1/3 of a cup in. They are a condiment, and a source of sugar. I do try and eliminate certain foods, sugar being one, so I try and keep that overall amount of added sugar down to 25 grams. I wouldn’t want to  blow all of that on one serving of cranberries!

Moral of the story? Don’t trust labels or eliminating specific categories of food to make you healthy. Eat mostly vegetables, then fruit, then grains, meats and dairy and finally sweets. Read the labels. Learn all you can. Whatever your favorite belief system is about food, read the criticism of it and see if it is accurate. If you aren’t getting the results you want, rethink what you are doing. Don’t follow fads. Keep trying.

“Should I Juice?”

This is what a friend of mine asked me recently. Since I am obsessed with fitness and nutrition, I would have thought this question had been answered and settled long ago. I forget for people who don’t think about this stuff all the time, this might be the first time they heard of juicing. I have two answers. One, you’re a grownup, do what you want, and two, no, it won’t do what people are telling you it will do.

I told my friend that if what she wanted to do is fast, sure, go ahead. She said, “No, this isn’t fasting, as least they don’t say it is”. Let me assure you,unless you are on TPN, if all you are consuming is two glasses of juice a day, you are fasting. Or even three glasses. Just drinking the juice of a plant or fruit in limited quantities is not enough calories for a day. And yes, you will lose tons of weight, since you are not eating enough. And yes, you will gain it all back, plus some, the minute you resume normal eating because while you were fasting, you weren’t establishing better eating habits and you probably weren’t exercising because you felt like a limp noodle.

So my friend said, “what if I put it all in a blender and make a smoothie?” Well, that is better, at least you are getting the fiber and bulk, and that will slow down all that sugar from hitting your bloodstream at once, but still, what have you learned? Are you planning on eating that way the rest of your life? What is your transition plan? Plus, all those foods are delicious. Why put them into a blender and end up with something you can barely tolerate?

That brings me to my next point- most people pushing juicing are doing so to sell something. Either a powder to add to the juice, or a juicer, or their book. Anytime you see a “new” diet method, follow the money. What are they selling.

So, juice or smoothie if that’s what you love. Remember it has calories, so if you are adding juice to your diet, replace something else. In fact, you want me to support your juicing, tell me it replaced doughnuts in your life, then I’ll be on board all the way! A fruit and vegetable smoothie is a GREAT replacement to 90% of what Americans eat for breakfast. Add some yogurt or protein powder and have that. I’m not against those things by themselves, I’m against people trying to lose weight with JUST those, and no plan. Remember the “sensible meal” part, and learn what that is.

Your New Normal

For the longest time I’ve struggled to find the right way to convey the idea of what it takes to go from living an unhealthy lifestyle to a healthy one. I found it the other day from an unlikely source.

I was sitting in my kinesiology class and we were talking about upper motor neuron lesions, and brain plasticity. My instructor said that people with these kinds of injury don’t get normal back, they get a kind of new normal.

While weight loss and fitness are COMPLETELY different from spinal cord injury or head trauma, the same idea does apply. If you want to get fit, you have to make a new normal. It is truly the concept of not dieting, but changing your eating habits for life. It isn’t going to the gym for a quick fix January first, and dropping out by February, but rather swapping post meal tv for a walk. It is making new choices at the grocery store, the restaurant, in our leisure activities and our social events.

We are the product of the sum total of our daily activities. If that involves more in than out, we gain weight. More out than in, we lose it. So, we have to make a new normal that pares down the in, while increasing the out. Every choice we make is part of creating the new normal.

The analogy to recovery from brain or spinal cord injury goes a bit further. Just as you would not get up out of bed and walk a week after suffering such a condition, but rather you would struggle, and work and have triumphs and setbacks, so it is with creating a new lifestyle for yourself. You set yourself on the path, and you cannot even see the destination at first. You just make one choice, then another. Eventually you pick up steam, the earlier choices are cemented in, and you layer on the new ones, until finally, one day, someone asks you, “how did you do it?”

If there is anything I hope you gain from this analogy is to change the mindset of quick weight  loss – THERE IS NO WAY TO DO THAT AND BE HEALTHY. They are starting to refer to the “Biggest Loser phenomena” because the people who lost weight on the show really struggle to keep it off. It has to be slow, incremental, permanent changes.

If anyone is offended by my analogy, I apologize, and I hope I’ve made it clear I am not saying the two situations are in any way the same in seriousness or pain.

Scrooged

man shaking his finger at you.

You are hereby absolved from your Christmas baking. Yup, you don’t have to do it. I know what you are thinking, “I was enjoying this lady’s blogs, but now I’m wondering if I’m reading stuff from a nut job. I mean, here it is August, why are you talking about Christmas now?” Well, I figure if I say it now, you’ll have time to let it digest. Plus, if I say it any closer to Christmas, I’ll probably get hate mail.

So back to the Christmas baking. Either you are the Nana, MeeMaw, Gigi, Grandma, Granny, Mom, Aunt or other producer of the family Christmas goodies, or you are the recipient. If you are the recipient, pass this on to the producer. You know who they are! They are the martyrs who tell you, “I was up till midnight last night making three dozen pfefferneuse, two dozen chocolate chip and two batches of kringles.” They are the ones who bring the huge plates of cookies to the office parties or give them as gifts. They strive to outdo each other as the preeminent cookie supplier. Points are given for both quantity and quality. They wouldn’t dare have less than three kinds of cookies on hand for any occasion from November 30 to the end of January.

They are also the ones who complain that they can’t lose weight, or they gained x number of pounds over the holidays. So stop it. Just stop.

I can hear the screams of outrage now. “I can’t, my family expects it.” “What fun are the holidays without goodies?” “Lighten up, you have to live.”

So how serious are you about your health? Do you really want to lose weight, or do you want to just complain without really doing anything? How about that family? Do you really want to set your children and grandchildren up to be overweight as well? Do you seriously want to train them to be unhealthy? It scares me how we have this mindset to give our children food that is bad for them, simply because it is not making them fat at the moment. What do you think happens when they stop growing? Also, if that food is unhealthy for you, why do you think it is any less so for children? While it is a topic for its own blog post, we are training our children to be unhealthy by giving them the white flour, sugar, salt, processed meats, and fats that we know we shouldn’t eat. Our society is a bit schizoid as well in its competing beliefs that we should party for two months and not gain weight. Generally, people gain 1-5 lbs over the holidays, and never lose it. Half of that is alcohol, so there is another part of the equation, but telling people to not drinking is even less popular than telling them to lay off the baked goods!

If you can’t stop, may I suggest modifying. Instead of baking two or three kinds of cookies, bake one batch of one kind. Do not bake another till the first is gone. When you have multiple kinds, people feel obligated to take one of each, encouraging over-consumption.

Think about it. All the time you save not baking all that stuff will give you time to go for a walk or to the gym. If all this is causing you to have a glassy eyed look of horror pasted on your face, well, you have a few months to adjust to the idea. And when you come out of hibernation in the spring a few pounds lighter instead of heavier, you’ll thank me. Really, you will.

Your Weekly Pep Talk

I know some of you out there are really struggling with your weight. I don’t like to make weight the main issue, health is far more important, and while there is a correlation between the two, most people focus on weight for appearances. I like to refer to it as healthy eating. Healthy eating usually leads to weight loss, since most people don’t get too overweight on eggplant and okra, even if it is fried.

I’m here to give you a pep talk.

All the right information is already out there, it’s just so much easier to succumb to the “lose weight fast” garbage. So I’m just going to give you another reinforcement of the good stuff so you can renew your efforts this week.

Reassess

What are the sticking points for you? Quantity? Feeling hungry? Favorite foods you don’t want to give up? Psychological need to treat yourself? Everyone is different. Take a piece of paper and write down your problem areas. Be specific. Write “Every night I REALLY want a bowl of cereal. I can’t go to sleep without it”. Or, “Going out to eat makes me so happy, I can’t give it up.” “I won’t or can’t cook.”

Make a plan

When it comes to food, planning is everything. Like spending, it is the impulse items that get you every time. Even if you don’t count calories, you need to control portions, and decide  what you are going to eat when you are hungry ahead of time. Plan breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus any snacks you need. If you need a good quantity of food, plan to add a large salad to each meal- yes, you can eat greens for breakfast. Really clamp down on the starch and fatty foods, and decide how you can increase your vegetable and fruit intake. Swap hot dogs for fat free ham or turkey, add 2x as much lettuce, tomato and onions to your sandwich.

Some things are a given, if you are still eating white bread or pasta, swap it out for whole wheat immediately. No one should be eating white bread any more. Make sure your pasta and potato servings are 1/2 cup. Put that potato in your one half measuring cup. If it won’t fit, eat half. Buy one box of “white wheat pasta”, whole wheat or Barilla’s protein plus. Cook your pasta, rice and potatoes ahead of time and reheat- it makes more of the starch resistant, meaning it won’t raise your blood sugar as high. A lot of starches are empty calories, and cause bouncing blood sugar that makes you hungrier sooner. Empty calories mean they don’t have any nutritional value other than calories.

If you can’t or won’t cook, read menus and labels carefully. All restaurants are supposed to have their calorie counts available. Choose carefully and stick with it. Be ready to ask for a “to-go” box early in the meal and place 1/2 in it, or split it, if the meal is over your calorie limit. Remember the 1/2 cup for starches? Most restaurant potatoes are double that, so don’t eat the whole thing. Many supermarkets have salad bars and take out items, again, choose carefully. Cheese should be a condiment. Olives are high in fat, hence calories, so go sparingly on them. Treat breaded and fried things like the plague.

Address your needs.

If you are a sweets lover, don’t sit here and say “I just won’t eat them.” You can try that, but it won’t work for long. Instead, find healthier sweets by making or baking your own, or buying less harmful ones. Portion control on sweets is hard for people. My husband and I will cut a Klondike bar in half to make it more reasonable. Make sure you are eating till full of the good food, so you aren’t eating sweets when you are hungry. Don’t keep “trigger” foods in your house. I can’t have trail mix in my house. Every time I do, I eat 2-3 portions a day. Find a sweet that satisfies you without causing binging.

I hope something I’ve said here resonates with you, and that you will feel empowered to make some constructive changes or get back on track. Eating isn’t black and white, it is a continuum. Don’t get discouraged, at any point you can improve, and that’s all you need to do.

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