Welcome to "52 Weeks to a Healthier You"....

Are you thinking about making changes in your life to become a healthier person but don't quite know how to get started? Perhaps your doctor has suggested eating healthier, exercising and losing weight, but it all seems so overwhelming. Many of us already know what we should be doing, but implementing all of those pieces of information can be quite a challenge. Too often we embark on a new diet or exercise plan only to give up after a few days or weeks because it seems too difficult. Well, worry no more. You have arrived at the ideal place to help you make those changes. We are going to develop new habits, one week at a time. Health, exercise, and nutritional goals have been broken down into small, manageable steps. Each week you will add one new habit and have seven full days to perfect it before moving on to the next one. This is not a traditional diet and exercise plan, but rather a journey towards a permanent healthy lifestyle. The steps may seem small at first, but collectively they add up to major improvements in one's overall well-being. In just 52 short weeks, you will be amazed and proud of the changes you have made. You will look back and see just how far you've come on your quest to be a healthier YOU. Now, scroll down in the archives to January 2011/Week 1 and let's get started.... Then, follow each week's tip to a healthier YOU!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Week 7 - Get strong like a soldier....

There is one form of exercise that all branches of the United States military use as the cornerstone of their fitness programs in order to get soldiers to peak performance levels as quickly as possible:  calisthenics.  Calisthenics are a form of dynamic, rhythmic exercises that build both strength and endurance and require little or no equipment or apparatus to perform.  They include movements such as bending, jumping, pushing, pulling, swinging, twisting or kicking, using only one's body weight for resistance.

In today's modern world with all the fancy weightlifting equipment, circuit training machines and high-tech gyms available, why does the military still rely on calisthenics?  For starters, the fact that calisthenics require no equipment makes them completely portable and extremely affordable (free)!  Because soldiers in the field train in such large groups, training is usually held outdoors with little or no additional equipment. Basic bodyweight exercises are the basis of their strength training workouts.  These exercises are very easy to modify simply by changing body position, tempo and number of repetitions.  But the main reason the military uses calisthenics is because they are so effective!  Soldiers are whipped into shape at blistering speeds by performing calisthenics, and YOU can improve your fitness level and realize strength goals by using these methods too.

Exactly what are calisthenics?  The word "calisthenics" comes from the Greek words "kalos" meaning beauty, and "sthenos" meaning strength. (2) Many of us remember junior high and high school gym classes where we performed a series of warmups including jumping jacks, windmills, toe touches and situps along with other exercises demanded of us by our gym teachers.  Turns out our teachers had it right!  They knew the same thing that military drill sergeants know -- there is no better way to build strength, endurance and flexibility than calisthenics.  All of the aforementioned exercises as well as pushups, pullups, chinups, arm circles, flutter kicks, squats, lunges, dips and squat thrusts are but a few of the literally hundreds of exercises you can do using your own bodyweight.

What are some of the advantages of a calisthenics program?  First of all, they can be done almost anywhere, anytime, and at any fitness level, from total beginners to the most hardcore athletes.  They can be done without expensive gym memberships or fancy equipment.  Calisthenics can be performed at home or while traveling, indoors or outdoors, and at any time of day.  Another advantage of calisthenics is they quickly elevate the heart rate causing the body to burn large amounts of calories in a short amount of time.  Because several muscle groups are used during each exercise, the total workout time can be as short as 20 minutes and still be very effective.  This appeals to many people who are on a tight schedule without much time for exercise.  With calisthenics, there is minimal risk of injury because you are not wielding large, heavy objects which can cause strain.  Also, since so many muscles are engaged at once, you develop an awareness of when something doesn't feel "right" and can quickly stop the movement without risk of dropping a weight or pulling a muscle.  And perhaps the best advantage -- calisthenics are just downright fun!

Last week we discussed the importance of incorporating resistance training into your weekly exercise routine.  No matter what form of strength training you decide to pursue, calisthenics and bodyweight exercises can be an integral part of that training.  They can be rigorous enough to be a stand-alone workout, or they are also a great warm up for traditional weight lifting exercises.

This week we are happy to introduce our first guest blogger -- Jay Holdgreve.  Jay is a certified athletic trainer at OrthoNeuro, Inc. in Columbus, Ohio and holds a degree in Exercise Science as well as a Master's Degree in Sports Marketing.  Jay has worked with thousands of athletes, coaches and physicians, and spent time working with the San Francisco Forty-Niners and the Cleveland Browns.  Recently I had the opportunity to ask Jay some questions regarding beginning a calisthenics program, and below is our interview with his very thoughtful and informative answers.

52Weeks: What are potential problems or a downside one might encounter when beginning a home calisthenics program?

JH:  A majority of the issues come from lack of space, keeping a regular schedule, and the presence of other people or pets in the house. When it comes to space issues, many people workout in their basements and oftentimes the ceilings are too low or, if an unfinished space, the room temperature or lack of flooring can make it uncomfortable.

Another issue is that we always have something that needs to be done at home and it is easy to put off working out because there is something else that should be done first.  Family members, pets, phone calls, etc. can be a limiting factor when working out at home.

52Weeks: Can a person initiate a calisthenics program on their own or do they need to hire a professional?

JH:  Yes, a person can initiate a calisthenics program on their own.  The individual needs to make sure that they understand the exercise and the proper way to perform it.  With the internet, there are numerous articles and videos to help one learn to do them properly.  The biggest consideration is to perform exercises that are appropriate to their beginning fitness level, start slow, and gradually build themselves up.  Too often, people push themselves too hard or perform exercises at too high of an intensity level in the beginning.  Those individuals are more likely to be injured and stop working out altogether.

If hiring a professional, make sure they are educated in the type of exercise you are interested in.  Performing exercises with the proper form and progression is imperative to a successful program.  Professional trainers can design and oversee programs that help individuals learn proper techniques and exercise progression.

52Weeks:  What schedule do you recommend for calisthenics for maximum benefit?

JH:  I believe calisthenics are most effective when you incorporate them into your workout, either as the warm-up or cool-down.  If doing it as a stand-alone workout, I would suggest 3 times per week, for 20-30 minutes per session.

52Weeks:  Are there any contraindications to starting a calisthenics program on your own?

JH:  Heart and lung conditions, orthopedic limitations, obesity, or other medical conditions can be a limiting factor and require one to consult with a physician before starting a calisthenics program.

52Weeks:  What recommendations do you have for someone who may have physical limitations?

JH:  The individual should develop a program that fits their specific needs, and should not try to perform exercises that they are not capable of doing.  The main thing is to not use their physical limitation as an excuse not to exercise.  There are numerous ways to modify exercises and one should never do exercises that cause pain!!

Calisthenics are a great way to improve balance, flexibility and strength and I strongly encourage you to incorporate them into your everyday workouts -- a few minutes each day as a warmup or cooldown, or 20-30 minutes as a stand-alone workout.  And certainly don't make the mistake of viewing them as old-fashioned or outdated -- they are a dynamic addition to any workout! The fun part is you get to choose which exercises you like best, and you can change up the routine frequently.  Alternate between upper body, lower body and core strengthening exercises.  Do a Google or You Tube search for "calisthenics", or visit your local library or bookstore for an almost endless selection of exercise guides.

For personal trainer Ricki Butler's excellent video series demonstrating 14 different calisthenics exercises, click here.

Click here for fitness professional Yuri Elkaim's video tutorial/beginner's guide to bodyweight and calisthenics exercises.

Click here to visit Workoutz.com's video demonstrations of hundreds of different exercises.  Follow the "Exercises" link at the top of the home page.

"I do it as a therapy. I do it as something to keep me alive. We all need a little discipline. Exercise is my discipline."       ~ Jack LaLanne

2. Premier Training: It's All Greek to Me, http://premiertraining.blogspot.com/2011/05/its-all-greek-to-me.html

Monday, February 14, 2011

Week 6 - Protect those muscles.....

How often do we hear that we should protect our bones in order to prevent osteoporosis?  Health experts remind us to take calcium, do weight-bearing exercises to grow new bone, and maintain a healthy lifestyle including avoiding excess coffee, alcohol and cigarettes.  But how many of us are familiar with the term sarcopenia, which is the devastating loss of muscle that can occur as we age?  Strangely enough, health messages regarding this deterioration of muscle are not on the public's radar.

It has long been assumed that part of the natural aging process is to lose muscle, develop a stooped posture, and become less coordinated and less steady in our gait.  For many years, scientists believed that nothing could be done to halt this deterioration of muscle as we age.  Fortunately study after study has proven that this is an incorrect assumption.  Health experts now know that sarcopenia is not inevitable.

While a decline in muscle is much more pronounced in the elderly, it is important to learn about it as early as possible because the process can begin as early as our mid 30s.  By age 45, muscle mass begins to decline at a rate of 3-10% per decade.  It doesn't sound like much at first, but by age 65 an individual can have as much as 1/3 less muscle than they had in their 30s.  With a decline in strength comes a corresponding decline in physical ability and coordination -- to climb stairs, do chores, take walks or perform other physical activities.  This can affect both men and women, but it is often more devastating in women because females generally have less muscle to begin with.

What causes this long, slow decline in muscle?  To be sure, some of the causes such as disease, genetics or environmental conditions are beyond a person's control.  But here are some major contributing factors that are within your control:

  • Dietary deficiencies - As we age, many of us eat less.  And in particular, we eat less protein which is the building block of muscles.  A healthy, balanced diet which includes plenty of protein is important in maintaining muscle mass.
  • Not enough muscle-stimulating exercise - It is important to do weight-bearing exercises such as weightlifting, calisthenics, yoga, and martial arts in order to prevent muscle deterioration and to add new muscle.
  • Declining hormone levels - Hormones such as estrogen, testosterone and human growth hormone directly affect the amount of muscle we have.  As hormone levels drop, our muscles can begin to atrophy. Fortunately, exercise itself can help boost these important hormones as we age.
  • Loss of neuron cells in muscles - We lose motor nerve cells which send important messages to our muscles to keep them strong and growing.  Again, exercise is the best antidote!

What are some of the implications of sarcopenia?  For starters, loss of muscle mass results in a decrease in metabolism.  Muscles are metabolically active powerhouses that burn a tremendous amount of calories for fuel.  So the less muscle you have each year, the fewer calories you burn.  This lowered metabolism means you must eat fewer calories just to maintain your weight.  To complicate matters, it can be very difficult to detect early muscle loss.  Many people rely on their bathroom scale to gauge whether or not they are holding their weight steady.  But the bathroom scale only reveals part of the story.  While a person may maintain the same weight for years or decades, it is likely that one's body composition (the amount of lean muscle vs. the amount of body fat) has actually changed over the years.  With a small but steady decline in muscle each year, over time you can end up with a much higher percentage of body fat.  This explains why your clothing may fit a little more snugly despite the scale remaining the same.  It also explains why the same weight at age 50 looks nothing like it did at age 20!  Fortunately, there are ways to measure our body composition so we can be sure we are not experiencing significant muscle loss.  A bathroom scale which measures body fat in addition to weight can be a very useful tool.  A simple tape measure can also reveal changes in body compostion. Or, you can visit a health club to have body fat tested with skinfold calipers or the very high-tech Bod Pod machine.

Sarcopenia can also contribute to osteoporosis, which is the loss of bone mass due to thinning and brittleness.  Bones and muscles work in tandem to create a healthy physique.  Strong muscles "tug" on bones creating tension, and this tension stimulates new bone growth.  The absence of strong muscles can contribute to weakening bones.  Also, a loss of muscle affects the entire musculoskeletal system and can lead to other problems with joints, tendons, and ligaments.

While muscle loss can occur in people of all fitness levels, physically inactive people will see a faster and greater loss of muscle than those who are physically fit.  The expression "Use it or lose it" is completely applicable here.  Muscle growth is stimulated through repeated use, and leading a sedentary lifestyle does not provide enough opportunity for the muscles to be challenged.

So, what is the best way to prevent sarcopenia?  The answer is twofold: 1) Proper nutrition which includes sufficient calories, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and adequate protein levels, and 2) Exercise in the form of resistance training.  We have already addressed some aspects of nutrition in previous healthy tips and will be revisiting this topic again and again.  For now, eating a balanced diet which includes plenty of protein along with whole grains and fruits/vegetables, and eliminating heavily processed foods is a great first step.

Resistance training is any exercise that causes repeated contraction of a muscle group resulting in muscle growth and increased strength.  It can include weightlifting with free weights or machines, calisthenics, yoga, pilates, martial arts, or exercises with rubber tubing and stability balls.  Resistance training causes microscopic tears in the muscle fibers.  The body is forced to repair these tiny tears in order to heal the damage and this results in muscle growth.  A regular resistance training program performed 2-3 times per week for 20-30 minutes can significantly increase the amount of muscle mass an individual has.  "Two months of resistance training can reverse two decades of typical muscle loss and three decades of typical muscle strength deterioration," says University of Maryland exercise physiologist Ben Hurley.

Many Americans choose cardio exercises such as walking, running, cycling or swimming as their preferred method of exercising.  While these are terrific activities that improve cardiovascular fitness, they simply don't provide enough resistance to cause significant muscle growth. Sadly, muscle loss continues its steady march despite doing endurance exercises.  A program that includes both cardio and resistance exercise is necessary for good health and strength.

The good news for adults is it is never too early, or too late, to begin a resistance training program!  The human body has an amazing capability of responding to demands made on its muscles.  Studies show that even 80 and 90 year olds have the capability of improving strength by as much as 175% when participating in resistance training programs.  And since we know that an almost inevitable decline in muscle will occur as we age, it makes sense to start it as early as possible -- your 20s and 30s are an ideal time to begin.  If you are already in your 40s and 50s or beyond, you have a little more work cut out for you :) but your efforts will be rewarded tremendously.

Consider the effects of muscle atrophy in the illustration below:

Which muscles do YOU want?

Your task this week will be to investigate the different types of resistance training to see which ones appeal to you the most -- weightlifting, circuit training with machines, calisthenics, exercises with bands, balls and tubing, martial arts, to name a few.  If you are already participating in strength training, great!  Keep up the good work -- share this article with others and encourage them to begin their own strength program. There are many ways to incorporate resistance training into your routine that do not require expensive gym memberships or fancy equipment, including classes at local rec centers, exercise DVDs or home calisthenics programs. Of course safety is paramount and if you are completely unfamiliar with resistance training it can be very helpful to join a gym or hire a professional to provide guidance.  Before beginning any exercise program you should always check with your doctor first to be sure that it is safe for you. 

In the coming weeks we will be incorporating resistance exercises into our overall wellness routine, so start looking for openings in your calendar where you can fit 2-3 sessions lasting 20-30 minutes each.  Remember, developing a new habit is a skill that requires lots of practice.  It won't get done if we don't make it a priority, so be sure to pencil-it in your calendar and get ready to watch your strength soar!

"Great ideas originate in the muscles."
       ~ Thomas Edison

Click here for more information on sarcopenia.

For an excellent beginners' guide to strength training, especially for older adults (from the Centers for Disease Control in collaboration with Tufts University) click here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Week 5 - Become a Food Detective...

This week we will be playing the role of food detective, so brush off those magnifying lenses and get ready to examine the fine-print found on food packaging labels.  Since 1994, the FDA has required that Nutrition Facts labels be placed on most food packaging.  They are usually located on the side or back of the package and are very easy to recognize as they all share a standard format.  They contain a wealth of information as long as one knows how to read and interpret the information.  A recent study found that 61% of Americans regularly read food labels, 50% check the ingredients list, and 47% check the serving size. Not bad, but definitely room for improvement. What can we learn from these labels?  And what are the key pieces of information that we need to pay attention to? 

For starters, the very first thing we should notice is the serving size.  All of the information supplied is per serving, so if there are two servings listed and you plan on eating the whole package you need to multiply all of the information by two.  This is very important because too often people just check the calorie content and then proceed to consume all of the contents in the package.  This can lead to a gross underestimate of the amount of calories and nutrients consumed.  Pay particular attention to the amount of fat in the product, and especially the amount of saturated fats and/or trans fats.  If the food contains any trans fats, it is truly better to just put the package back on the shelf and look for an alternative product.

What are trans fats and why should we avoid them?  To understand why trans fats are so bad, we must first have a brief lesson on the different types of fats.  Fats occur naturally in foods and can also be added by food manufacturers to improve flavor and texture.  Natural fats can be either saturated or unsaturated.  Saturated fats are the types found mostly in animal products such as meat, dairy, eggs and some seafood.  These fats contribute to higher cholesterol.  Unsaturated fats (both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) are the "good fats" which occur naturally in plants and fish and contribute to an overall reduction in cholesterol.  Although unsaturated fats are better for you than saturated fats, both of these types occur naturally in foods and your body knows exactly how to process them.  Your body has a "formula" for dealing with both types and can utilize nutrients from both of these.  Too many saturated fats are not good for you, but when eaten in moderation your body is able to handle them with relative ease.

Trans-fats are the BAD BOYS of the fat world!  They are entirely man-made and your body has no mechanism for processing them.  Trans fats are also known as "partially hydrogenated oils" which means that manufacturers have figured a way to add a hydrogen molecule to naturally occurring fats. This extra hydrogen molecule stabilizes the fat in products and greatly extends the shelf life by preventing the fat from going rancid.  This is why most packaged crackers, cookies, snack cakes, puddings, and literally thousands of other food products can remain in your pantry for months (if not years) without spoiling!  When you ingest trans fats with their extra hydrogen molecule, your body has no way to process this extra molecule.  You are actually allowing a "damaged" molecule (the hydrogenated oil) to enter your bloodstream and permeate your cells. Because your body does not know how to process this extra molecule -- it literally has a different shape and doesn't fit into any of the body's receptors -- this unnatural fat floats freely in your bloodstream and begins clogging your arteries. Trans fats deliver a double-blow by also lowering good cholesterol and raising bad cholesterol!  Due to somewhat misleading labeling standards, if a product contains trans fats but has less than 0.5 grams per serving, it can be labeled "Trans-fat Free."  Do NOT be misled by this false claim.  If there is any trans fat on the nutrition label, it is best to just pass this item by.

Other important features on the nutrition label include information about Sugar, Cholesterol, Sodium, Dietary Fiber, Carbohydrates, and Protein content.  Vitamin and mineral information is listed as well.  We will discuss all of these nutrients in future healthy tips, but for now we want to move specifically to the ingredient list.  The ingredient list is usually found right beneath the Nutrition Facts label.  By law, manufacturers are required to list all ingredients contained in a product and thanks to newer labeling requirements, allergen information is now required as well.  This is particularly helpful for those trying to avoid specific foods which trigger allergic reactions.

The ingredient list is where we really want to pay close attention to the fine print.  In general, the more "processed" a food is, the more ingredients it will contain.  In our quest to lead a healthier lifestyle we want to avoid eating processed foods as much as possible.  Just as our bodies are unable to metabolize those tricky trans fats, they have an equally difficult time handling many of the chemical additives and preservatives found in processed foods.  Our bodies are magnificently capable of utilizing most of the nutrients found in nature (plants, seeds and nuts, animal proteins) but are completely stymied when it comes to figuring out what to do with unnatural, man-made ingredients such as dyes, preservatives, flavor enhancers, and artificial sweeteners. Nutrients from foods fit into your body's cellular receptors like a "lock and key" and there are simply no receptors for these artificial ingredients.  Your body's digestive system must work extra-hard just to digest them, try to absorb any nutrients (which are practically non-existant) and then eliminate them from the body.  Your body becomes tired and sluggish when it is forced to operate day after day on this artificial food.

Consider the ingredients list on a popular brand of breakfast cereal:


Now, compare that to the ingredients list on a package of old-fashioned oatmeal:


Any idea which one is easier for your body to digest?  With more than 50 ingredients listed on the packaged cereal, many unrecognizable to the average consumer, this is considered a highly processed food.  As you scan the list of ingredients you may begin to notice some very peculiar things.  For example, the second line lists "strawberry-flavored apples" which include dried apples, artificial flavor, citric acid, red dye #40, and sodium sulfite.  Here's something to think about:  rather than eating man-made, artificial strawberries, why not eat real strawberries on top of a less processed cereal? You may also notice that the word "sugar" appears seven times in the ingredients list making sugar a major component of this cereal.  This doesn't even include the additional sugar found in the honey, molasses, corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup which are listed as ingredients seven more times!

Now let's look at the ingredient list for the oatmeal -- it contains only one ingredient!  And while it is true that the oats have been processed in order to package them, they are very minimally processed -- in most cases they have only been rolled (less for old-fashioned oats, more for quick-cooking oats, and not at all for steel-cut oats) but no additional ingredients have been added.  Please note that we are talking about the plain oats which come in cardboard canisters, not the little individual "flavored" packages which usually contain many artificial ingredients and preservatives.

When you read the fine print, you can begin to see how food manufacturers can significantly alter a food's natural state. That's not to say that all processed foods are bad or unhealthy; rather, it is the first step in beginning to weed out the less nutritious foods from our diets and add in more healthy, wholesome choices.  You may have heard the advice to "shop the perimeter" of the grocery store.  What does this mean and why should we shop the perimeter?  Consider that the least processed foods are found along the edges of the store in the refrigerated sections -- fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy and eggs.  Your first clue to their healthiness should be the necessity for refrigeration.  Most of these foods will spoil in a matter of days because there are no harmful trans fats added.  Of course there are exceptions in every food category, but with our new awareness of ingredients we will be reading labels carefully and choosing the least processed among them.

The "inside aisles" of the grocery store are where the majority of processed foods are found.  Most of these items are boxed, bagged or canned and contain the highest amounts of trans fats, artificial ingredients, sugar and sodium.  While there are plenty of healthy and convenient options in these aisles (canned tomatoes, dried beans, brown rice, spices) there are loads more unhealthy options that are highly processed.  Packaged cookies, crackers, snack cakes, dinner-in-a-box (the kind where you add your own hamburger), stuffing mixes, scalloped potato mixes, and canned soups are some of the biggest offenders.

This week, start examining the products that are already in your pantry.  Read over the ingredients lists carefully and notice which products are the biggest offenders -- which ones have the most additives, preservatives, dyes and trans fats.  When you make out your grocery list, put an asterisk next to the items which need to be replaced with a healthier version.  Allow extra time for your grocery trip so you can read labels and find suitable alternatives.  It is not necessary to throw out everything in your pantry that is on the no-no list (although that's really not such a bad idea!) but as you use up the offenders, make a commitment to replace them with a healthier choice.  At first, some of the healthier products may seem bland and less flavorful, but over time you will develop an appreciation for the way food is supposed to taste in its natural state vs. food that has been highly "hopped up" by clever food manufacturers.  Don't be fooled by claims on the front of the box such as "Low fat", "All-natural", or "Healthy".  These are very vague terms with no standards for labeling; instead, turn the box over and read the ingredients list.  And don't forget your magnifying glass...

We will be revisiting nutritional information frequently in the coming weeks and learn new ways to prepare healthier versions of our favorite foods, but for now it is important to get used to reading labels and choosing the least processed foods we can find.  Take this little challenge the next time you are shopping -- try to find products that contain 5 ingredients or less and buy those.  They really do exist!  More importantly, avoid food products that contain ingredients you've never heard of.  Click here for a helpful list and explanation of 9 ingredients to avoid in packaged foods.  And remember, we're not striving for perfection, but improvement.

"Food" for thought......

A popular brand of crackers:

Another popular brand of crackers:

Hmmmmm....... Which one will you choose?  :)

"Anyhow, the hole in the doughnut is at least digestible!"
           ~ H.L. Mencken

Friday, February 4, 2011

Week 4 - Eat your vegetables!

Admittedly, this is going to be a TOUGH one for many people.  If you are one of those lucky souls who loves vegetables and can't seem to get enough of them, this tip will be a breeze for you.  For the rest of us, buckling down and getting those veggies in may seem like a chore at first and it will definitely require determination and sheer will to nail down this tip.  We are going to jump headlong into this one, feet wet, no dipping just one toe in the water here.

Most of us already know that we should be eating 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.  Many of us love fruit and are more than happy to eat a few servings daily.  We top our cereal with berries or bananas, eat an apple or orange as a snack, and feel good about getting in some fresh produce.  In fact, we often justify skipping the vegetables because we already ate some fruit. What's wrong with this approach? While fruit is loaded with antioxidants, fiber and vitamins, it is simply too high in sugar and calories to make it the main source of these vital nutrients.  And fruit only supplies a portion of the many nutrients we need. Many people have never developed a taste for vegetables (or they have never learned to prepare them deliciously!) and so they avoid these important sources of nutrients.

Vegetables are the cornerstone of a healthy, balanced diet.  They are the powerful workhorses that help keep our bodies fueled and our metabolisms stoked at a very modest tradeoff in calories.  They are loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and disease-fighting phytochemicals such as beta carotene and lycopene.  Scientific evidence abounds showing that a diet rich in vegetables is necessary for good health and contributes to lowering blood pressure, reducing the risk of certain cancers, heart disease and stroke, as well as reducing the risk of vision problems including cataracts and macular degeneration. With their high fiber content and assortment of enzymes, vegetables assist in digestion and colon health.  They also aid in weight management as they naturally contain a large amount of water which helps keep one feeling full.  For anyone who is looking to improve their overall health and well-being, vegetables are simply too important to skip any longer.

This week, we are going to concentrate on eating a large serving of vegetables with dinner.  In fact, our goal will be to fill half our dinner plate with vegetables!*  This amounts to roughly 1-1/2 cups. Traditionally, Americans take a large serving of meat, an even larger serving of a starchy side dish such as rice, pasta or potatoes, and a modest serving of a vegetable which is often topped with butter or cheese.  With a new mindfulness on improving our health, we are going to rethink the way we assemble our dinner plates.  We will focus on limiting our starchy side dishes and instead choose a wide array of colorful vegetables and learn exciting new ways to prepare them and make them appealing and delectable.

One reason many people don't like vegetables is they have fallen into the trap of preparing them with no additional healthy oils, spices or flavorings.  They pile broccoli or green beans into a steamer basket, put the lid on, cook them WAY too long, and then serve up a mushy offering that is overdone and flavorless.  Alternatively, they open a can of limp veggies which are loaded with sodium and plop those onto their plate. No wonder no one wants to eat this!  Properly prepared vegetables are bursting with flavor and crunch and still retain most of their nutrients because they have not been overcooked.  My favorite method for cooking fresh vegetables (and this method works for almost any veggie you choose) is to place them in a single layer in a 12-inch skillet, add a scant 1/4" of water -- just enough to cover the bottom of the pan -- and drizzle a teaspoon or two of extra virgin olive oil over the veggies.  Season with a few shakes of garlic salt and lemon pepper, or use a sodium-free substitute such as Mrs. Dash if you are watching sodium intake.  You can also tuck a few cloves of fresh garlic in among the veggies for added flavor.  Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover for a mere 5-6 minutes or less.  Tougher veggies such as green beans or thinly sliced carrots may take slightly longer, but only a minute or two.  Watch the heat on this -- if your heat is too high the water will evaporate.  A gentle simmer will allow the veggies to release their own water and they will steam beautifully while the small amount of oil adds tenderness and a delicious flavor.  The beauty of this method is you can toss almost anything you have in your fridge together and cook it all at the same time.

Another terrific method for preparing vegetables is to roast them in your oven.  Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, arrange a layer of uniform size vegetables on a large jelly roll pan, drizzle with olive oil and season them with garlic, sea salt, pepper and other seasonings of your choice.  Stir the veggies to coat them all in oil, roast for 30-40 minutes stirring every 10 minutes or so.  Peppers, onions, squash, zucchini, tomatoes, asparagus, sliced carrots and brussels sprouts all roast beautifully.  Roasting creates a pleasant, slightly-sweet flavor that masks the typical bitterness of many vegetables and also gives them an attractive brown-edge much like the beautiful appearance of grilled vegetables. (1)

How will we accomplish our goal of eating half a dinner plate of vegetables?  For starters, commit to purchasing enough fresh vegetables for weeknight meals (we'll discuss weekends in a moment).  Frozen vegetables are nice to have on hand too, but honestly, in my opinion they can't compete with the versatility and flavor of fresh.  Monday through Friday, no matter what you are serving up for dinner, prepare your pan (or pans-- depending on the size of your family) of vegetables to go along with your entree.  Get into the habit of always having a vegetable with weeknight meals.  Even on the nights when you have pizza or other takeout food, a pan of roasted vegetables elevates the meal to a whole new nutritional level.  Salads are a great option too, but a bowl of plain lettuce drenched in store-bought dressing won't cut it here!  Start with mixed baby greens, add a few handfuls of fresh spinach, and then toss in a load of fresh chopped vegetables and even a handful of broccoli slaw.  Eliminate store-bought dressings which are high in sugar and filled with preservatives and instead make your own with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a splash of orange juice, or do a Google search for literally thousands of delicious homemade dressings. If you are eating out, no problem.  Most restaurants have a selection of steamed vegetables available. Just ask your server for double the amount of veggies -- they are usually happy to oblige.

On nights when cooked vegetables just aren't an option, prepare a tray of raw veggies and munch on those before dinner as an appetizer. Think "outside the box" when you are choosing your vegetables.  Don't just settle for the pre-cut trays of predictable vegetables that come with a little container of fat-laden ranch dressing.  Opt instead for more unusual raw veggies such as snow peas, sugar snap peas, cherry or grape tomatoes and mushrooms.  As a general rule, the more colorful the assortment, the more variety you are getting in nutrients. Raw zucchini and squash cut on the diagonal into thin slices, along with hummus, make a wonderful alternative to chips and dip!  My favorite healthy, low calorie and low fat dip is to mix 2-3 Tablespoons of organic salsa with a couple of teaspoons of plain Greek yogurt.  This makes a delicious, creamy southwestern concoction that is a perfect complement to any raw veggie.

If you are eating half a dinner plate of vegetables on weeknights, then give yourself permission to ease up a bit on the weekends.  Most families eat out at least one weekend night anyway.  Sunday nights are a good time to use up any extra veggies that are still in the fridge.  Just toss them all together and come up with your own creative assortment!

Remember what Mother always said.... "Eat your peas!"

*Did you know......

....Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) examine the latest developments in nutritional science and release a new version of their Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Their new guidelines focus on less sodium, added sugar, and solid fat, and filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables. “By following the new guidelines and filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal or snack you’ll be eating more of what your body needs to be healthy and at your optimum weight,” said Elizabeth Pivonka, Ph.D., R.D., president and CEO of Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH), the nonprofit entity in partnership with CDC behind the Fruits & Veggies-More Matters® national public health initiative.

1. http://www.thirdgenerationgourmet.com.au/recipes.html