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, March 25, 2011

Week 11 - S-T-R-E-T-C-H..........

Have you ever watched your pet dog or cat when they wake up from a snooze?  Likely, one of the very first things they do is yawn and stretch.  Front legs extend out on the ground, hind end up in the air, followed by a good stiff-legged stretch of all four legs -- they sure seem to have the art of stretching perfected!  Like our animal friends, we also know how good it feels to stretch upon waking; to reach our arms above our heads, point our toes and extend our legs fully. Sadly, for most of us, as soon as the alarm clock sounds we roll out of bed and hit the deck running.  No time to linger, and certainly no time to stretch.

Up to this point, we have focused on cardiovascular fitness through walking, and strength fitness through resistance training.  The third component we need to add for improved health is flexibility which is accomplished through stretching and other muscle-lengthening activities such as yoga, pilates, tai chi and swimming. Stretching upon waking is a good first step, but we want to incorporate a targeted program into our daily routines just like we did with walking, calisthenics, and resistance training.

Why stretch?  Here are some of the many benefits:
  • improved circulation
  • improved posture
  • stress relief
  • improved coordination
  • improved range of motion
  • reduced risk of muscle and joint injury
  • increased energy levels

While studies about stretching have yielded mixed results -- some show that stretching helps, while others show little benefit (1) -- most health experts agree that stretching, if done properly, is beneficial for overall fitness.  As we age, our muscles tighten and range of motion in joints can become more limited.  Tasks that were once simple, such as reaching something on a high shelf or twisting to pick something up, can become quite difficult and hinder day to day activities.  Regular stretching can help lengthen the muscles, keep motion fluid and prevent injury.  Regardless of age or flexibility, everyone can learn to stretch safely and effectively.  Athletes, and anyone who participates in a sport or exercise, will find stretching to be very beneficial for their particular activity.  For example, golfers have a series of stretches that are specifically designed to help prevent repetitive motion injuries during their swing.  Runners have specific leg and hip stretches, rock climbers rely on a series of upper body stretches, and football players focus heavily on hamstring, glute and groin stretches to prevent injury during explosive moves.

Many of us remember the old-style stretches that were used as a warmup before our "real" exercise -- ice cold muscles were stretched using a bouncing motion which could actually be quite painful at times.  This bouncing motion is known as ballistic stretching and research has shown that this type of stretching is not good for muscles and joints.  Ballistic stretching can cause the muscles and ligaments to expand too far and too fast and result in a pulled muscle.  Also, microscopic tears occur when muscles that have not been properly warmed up are stretched in this manner.  These tears heal by forming new scar tissue and this scar tissue can lead to tighter, less flexible muscles!  A gentler, more effective method is static stretching which involves a long, slow lengthening of the muscles.  This is the type of stretching recommended by most health experts.

Static stretching should be done slowly, and only as deeply as you can comfortably go.  A typical stretching exercise should last anywhere from 15-30 seconds and can be repeated one or two more times.  You should feel some tension on the muscle, but NOT pain.  If you feel pain, you are stretching too hard and too far.  And it is important to feel the stretch all the way through the muscle rather than in the joint. 

How much stretching should you do?  There is no clear cut answer since every person's fitness level, genetics, and motivation are different.  In general though, the more frequently you stretch, the more quickly you will gain flexibility.  At a minimum, you should try to stretch 3-4 times per week for 10-15 minutes per session.  Ideally, you will build up to daily stretching sessions which include all of the major muscle groups.  Incorporating your stretching in with your other exercise is a great way to ensure that you get it done.

Your muscles should always be warmed up before you stretch as stretching cold muscles can increase the risk of pulls or tears.  You can warmup your muscles by jogging in place for a few minutes, doing some light calisthenics, or even taking a warm shower or bath which raises muscle temperature.  Do not lock your joints when you stretch -- try to keep them slightly bent to avoid unnecessary stress.  Breathe normally during stretching.  Do not hold your breath.

It is important to remember that stretching is no longer considered the warmup to an activity, but rather an integral part of your exercise that comes after an effective warmup.  Stretching incorrectly can cause injury so it is important, as with any exercise, to have good instruction.  For the Mayo Clinic's excellent slide show demonstration of basic stretches, click here.  Or you can visit Sparkpeople's very thorough stretching guide here.  You do not have to do the same stretches over and over; muscle tightness can vary from day to day so feel free to try different stretches depending on which muscles need the most attention. 

And now, back to the morning stretch -- when the alarm goes off, resist the urge to hit the snooze button and roll over back to sleep.  Your muscles are already toasty from being under the covers, so use those extra few minutes to get a good stretch in before you get out of bed.  Stretch arms, legs, feet and toes; then slowly draw your knees up to your chest and wrap your arms around your calves.  Feel the long slow pull in your back and through your shoulders and arms.  Hold for 15-30 seconds, and then face your morning already feeling rejuvenated! 

If you're still unsure how to perform a stretch, you can take your cue from this little guy...

1. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stretching/HQ01447

Friday, March 18, 2011

Week 10 - Know your numbers....

It seems that every few years the pendulum swings wildly when it comes to counting calories -- new diets come and go touting everything from strict measuring and weighing of food, to knowing the caloric content of every single item that passes your lips, to burning off a certain number of calories through exercise.  At the other end of the spectrum comes the recommendation to disregard calories altogether -- that as long as you're eating "clean" foods in just the right combinations of carbs, proteins, and fats, calories don't matter at all.  In other words, eat correctly and the calories will take care of themselves.  While both approaches may work for some people, the truth lies somewhere in the middle for most of us.

The reality is, calories do matter.  The human body is a highly complex machine with an amazing ability to adjust to fluctuations in nutritional intake.  But like any machine, it obeys certain laws of physics that just can't be avoided, and the way it utilizes and stores energy is no exception.  Calories matter because the human body only needs so much energy on any given day to perform all of its necessary functions.  We take in a certain number of calories through the foods and beverages we consume. Our bodies do one of two things with those calories:  either they are used immediately for energy, or if not needed at the moment, they are stored as fat.  This law of thermodynamics is quite simple -- eat too many calories and you will gain weight.  Eat too few calories and you will lose weight.  So, if it's that easy, why so much controversy surrounding calorie counting?

To answer that question, we must first understand what calories are. A calorie is not a tangible thing; rather it is a unit of measurement of the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree centigrade.  Huh?  Let's just simplify things by saying that different foods contain different amounts of energy within their structure, and this energy is measured in calories.  A medium apple contains about 100 calories.  A small square of chocolate also contains about 100 calories.  Both foods contain the same amount of energy for our bodies to use.

Counting calories can be quite tedious.  It requires knowledge of (or access to) an exhaustive list of the caloric content of foods.  It requires becoming familiar with exact portion sizes so caloric estimates will be accurate.  It means constantly thinking about every morsel that passes your lips which can diminish the joy of eating.  Counting calories involves scales, measuring cups, and mathematics.  And since most calorie counting is associated with "dieting," it can be downright depressing to have only a relatively small number allowed per day.  Ask anyone who has ever tried to stay on a 1,200 calorie-per-day diet for very long -- it's miserable!

But, to just forget about counting calories because it's too much work can be a huge mistake.  It is very helpful to know approximately how many calories your body burns in a day; in other words, how much energy your body is using up in relation to how much energy you are taking in.  In this way, we can learn the optimal amount of food we should be eating to meet our daily nutritional requirements, prevent excessive weight gain or loss, and maintain a healthy body weight.

The average American male needs around 2,700 calories per day to maintain his weight and the average American female needs around 2,000 calories.  These are only averages; age, activity level, metabolism and genetics all play a role in determining caloric requirements but this is a good starting point for most people.  Keep in mind that the more active you are, the more calories your body needs.  The American Heart Association suggests these calorie levels for most individuals:

     Activity Level and Estimated Calories Burned
 Gender Age (years) Sedentary1 Moderately Active2 Active3
  Female 19–30
  Male 19–30

1  Sedentary means you have a lifestyle that includes only the light physical activity associated with typical day-to-day life.
Moderately active means you have a lifestyle that includes physical activity equivalent to walking about 1.5 to 3 miles per day at 3 to 4 miles per hour, in addition to the light physical activity associated with typical day-to-day life.
3  Active means you have a lifestyle that includes physical activity equivalent to walking more than 3 miles per day at 3 to 4 miles per hour, in addition to the light physical activity associated with typical day-to-day life.

These levels are determined by first taking into consideration one's basal metabolic rate (BMR) -- the amount of calories required by your body just to be alive.  Imagine sitting in a chair all day and not moving at all -- no standing, walking, moving, or anything else.  Your BMR is the amount of calories needed by all of your body systems to function at total rest -- your brain, organs, digestion, respiration, circulation, temperature regulation, immune system, etc.  When you begin to add in any activity, even something as minor as standing up, the caloric demand goes up.  Normal daily walking, household chores, exercise, gardening, lifting and carrying, etc. drive the caloric demand way up above the BMR.  By knowing your BMR and then determining the amount of activity you get on most days, it is easy to come up with a fairly accurate number of calories needed per day.  This number is your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE).

There are many different ways to calculate your BMR and TDEE including the Harris-Benedict formula, the Katch McArdle formula* or the more precise method of gas analysis which requires going to a testing facility with specialized equipment. Click here for an easy-to-use BMR calculator. Once you know your BMR, you can calculate the amount of activity you get each day by using an activity calculator such as the one at Fitness Partner.  Add your BMR together with your total estimated daily activity to come up with the amount of calories needed to maintain your weight (TDEE).  While not completely accurate, an even easier method for determining daily caloric need is:

   For fat loss:  multiply 12-13 calories per pound of bodyweight
   For maintenance:  multiply 15-16 calories per pound of bodyweight
   For weight gain:  multiply 18-20 calories per pound of bodyweight

You can play around with the different formulas but in the end you will see that they all yield very similar results.

Are you interested in losing weight?  Since there are 3,500 calories in one pound of fat, you must reduce your total caloric intake by 3,500 calories per week in order to lose a pound.  This conveniently works out to 500 calories per day which can easily be accomplished by trimming only 250 calories from what you eat as well as burning an additional 250 calories through exercise.  Sounds simple enough, right?  Unfortunately, studies show that Americans grossly underestimate the amount of calories they are eating in a day!  The good news, however, is studies also show that most people tend to eat the same foods over and over.  Once you learn the basic caloric values for these favorite foods it becomes much easier to meet your nutritional and bodyweight goals.  Dining out can present a significant challenge because it is often difficult to estimate the number of calories in a meal that someone else prepared.  More and more restaurants are including nutritional information for their menu items and many even publish the information on their websites.  For an eye-opening look at just how many calories some restaurant meals contain, check out the Worst Restaurant Meals Slideshow.  Once you realize that some of these meals contain an entire day's worth of calories, you may begin to rethink your dining choices!

This week, your task is twofold:  to determine your basic daily caloric needs using the formulas or AHA table above, and to begin learning the caloric values of some of your favorite foods.  A good place to start is at Calorie Count.  The site is completely free and offers a wealth of nutritional information as well as online community support.  At this point, we are not interested in counting every calorie down to the last morsel, but rather gaining a general sense of the amount of calories in most of the foods we eat and determining whether certain foods are actually worth the "tradeoff" -- realizing that it takes a 45-minute bike ride to burn off a single brownie just may have you reaching for the apple instead!

In future posts we will be examining calories more closely and coming up with strategies to stretch our calories further -- eating foods that are more nutrient-dense so we stay full longer.  We will investigate "empty" calories in junk food vs. "filling" calories in healthy foods.  For now, get in the habit of reading food nutrition labels and sticking with correct portion sizes. We are building awareness of the delicate energy in/energy out balance under which our bodies operate and this will be very helpful in the future as we restructure our eating habits for optimal health.  Pay particular attention to the number of calories in the healthy breakfasts you are already eating as well as your healthy snack.

For a really neat site that allows you to easily compare foods you are considering eating, check out two foods.  It just may help you make a healthier choice!

* For more information on these formulas:
Harris-Benedict Formula
Katch McArdle Formula

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Week 9 - Take your vitamins and minerals!

Walk into the health and beauty section of any drugstore or supermarket and you'll undoubtedly see a vast array of vitamins and supplements lining the shelves.  Everything from all-in-one formulas to individual vitamins such as C, D and E, from enzymes to probiotics, from minerals to fish oil.  Most of us have a vague notion that we should be taking something, but expert opinions vary widely and it can be overwhelming and confusing to try and sort out exactly what should be taken and in what quantities.  Also, many people recognize that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the formulation or sale of vitamins and minerals and we are left wondering if the products are even safe to take, or effective.

What are vitamins, and why should we take them?  Vitamins are vital nutrients that the body cannot supply in sufficient quantities and therefore must be obtained through the foods we eat or through supplements.  There are thirteen known vitamins:  four are fat soluble meaning they are absorbed with the help of fat and are stored in the liver until they are needed.  These include Vitamins A, D, E and K.  The remaining nine are water soluble which means they are easily dissolved in water, are not stored in the body, and must be replaced each day. These include B-1 (Thiamin), B-2 (Riboflavin), B3 (Niacin), Folic Acid, B-6 (Pyridoxine), B-12, Pantothenic Acid, Biotin and Vitamin C.  Vitamins are not optional; they are necessary for many biological processes including growth, digestion, mental alertness, and fighting off infections.

Minerals are elements that originate in the soil and cannot be created by living things, such as plants or animals.  Like vitamins, they are necessary for good health and are required for essential body functions such as nerve transmission, bone growth, metabolism, energy production, protein formation, and building a strong immune system.  There are seven macrominerals -- calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and sulphur, along with eleven trace minerals -- boron, chromium, cobalt, copper, fluorine, iodine, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium and zinc.  Trace minerals are needed in much smaller quantities (less than 100 milligrams per day) than macrominerals.  Cellular function is dependent on adequate levels of all of these minerals.  For example, magnesium is essential for the functioning of more than 300 different enzymes in the body, particularly those that produce, transport, store, and utilize energy.  And calcium is essential for the development of strong bones and teeth.  Deficiencies in any of these important minerals can lead to serious medical problems including diabetes, osteoporosis and high blood pressure. (1)

In theory, eating a well-balanced diet should provide all of the necessary nutrients one needs.  In practice, most Americans' diets are far from balanced and are shown to be lacking in many vitamins and nutrients.  There are many reasons for these deficiencies including poor food choices and consuming overly processed foods whose nutrients are stripped in the manufacturing process.  Also, modern-day agricultural practices contribute to overworked, mineral-depleted soil so fruits and vegetables absorb far less of these important life-giving nutrients.  No longer are crops rotated and fields allowed to rest; today, modern practice allows growers to pump the earth full of insecticides and fertilizers and keep the fields producing.  The crops grown in this manner are nutritionally inferior to organically grown plants.  Conventionally grown broccoli today contains one-sixth the amount of calcium that it contained in the 1950s due to depleted soil. If an element is missing in the soil, it will also be missing in the food we eat.  Many fruits and vegetables are harvested before they are fully ripe in order to prevent spoilage during shipping.  This early harvesting results in a lower nutrient density.

Eating a variety of foods from each of the basic food groups is the best way to ensure an adequate supply of all of the vitamins and minerals.  The U.S. government has established a Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) which is the minimum amount necessary to prevent deficiency and disease.  Taking a daily multivitamin (a preparation that includes most of the necessary vitamins and minerals all in one tablet) is the best way to "fill in the gaps" for any nutrients that may be low or missing from your diet altogether.  While most researchers, nutritionists and doctors agree that a daily multivitamin is a good idea, they tend to part company beyond this recommendation.  There is no real consensus on exactly which vitamins, in which strengths, to take!  If they don't know, how is the average consumer supposed to know?

Many experts agree that the RDA for many nutrients is simply too low -- it often is the bare minimum needed to prevent disease, but not necessarily the amount needed for optimum health.  In addition to a good multivitamin, many health experts recommend the addition of calcium, magnesium, a B-complex supplement, and fish oil capsules which contain important omega-3 fatty acids.  In the northern hemisphere where sunlight is diminished, experts recommend the addition of vitamin D (sunlight helps the body manufacture its own vitamin D), and of course many people take vitamin C which is well known to aid in immune function and help prevent colds. Taking vitamin supplements is not without some risk, however.  Fat soluble vitamins are stored in the body and can reach dangerous and even toxic levels when taken in large quantities.  All vitamins and minerals can cause problems when taken in excess.

It is important to note that the quality and potency of multivitamins vary widely.  Vitamins that carry the certifications of the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) are signs of higher quality and consistency.  Most stores carry national brands as well as their own store brands and these can run the gamut in price and quality.  Cheaper isn't always better, and this is one instance where it pays to do a little bit of research on the brands you are considering buying. 

Click here for an excellent resource of basic daily vitamin and mineral requirements.  This is a helpful place to begin educating yourself on how the body uses each vitamin and mineral.  You can see where there may be gaps in your own diet and plan your supplementation accordingly.  Another excellent resource is The Real Vitamin and Mineral Book by Shari Lieberman, PhD. Of course, you should always check with your doctor before taking any supplements, but don't be too surprised if he or she doesn't have all the answers!  Unfortunately, this is one area of health with no clear-cut answers.

This week, your task is to spend some time in the vitamin aisle, select a quality, name-brand multivitamin, and purchase it.  Many people give up before the purchase is even made because they are so overwhelmed by all the choices.  Experts agree that almost any multivitamin is better than none at all, so don't come away from your shopping trip empty handed.  If you are a woman, you might consider learning about daily calcium recommendations and picking up a good calcium supplement too.  A word of caution -- don't make the mistake of coming home with a basket load of supplements.  As with all of our previous Healthy Tips, we're going to start small and get the multivitamin habit formed before we start adding in other supplements.

Your second task is to come up with a plan to actually take the vitamin every day.  Some people find it helpful to leave their vitamins sitting out on the counter in the kitchen or bathroom.  Others like to purchase a pill box and fill it up with their weekly supply.  The advantage of this method is the pill box is portable and can easily be slipped into a purse or briefcase.  But remember, out of sight, out of mind so don't tuck them away in a drawer where you will forget about them.  Personally, I find it easiest to leave the vitamins sitting right next to the coffee pot where I am reminded to take them in the morning.  And good for you if you are already taking a multivitamin or other supplements.  Take this week to make sure you are really taking them everyday.  If there are days when you forget, examine your habits carefully and establish a routine for getting them in.  Vitamins are only helpful if they are in our bodies, not sitting out on the counter!

1. http://www.sott.net/articles/show/ 205871-The-Magic-of-Magnesium-A-Mighty-Mineral-Essential-to-Health

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Week 8 - Increase your water, your walk, and add a new healthy snack....

By now, after seven weeks of brand new habits, you are well on your way to a healthier lifestyle. You are hopefully feeling more energetic from your balanced, filling breakfasts and also realizing the effects of improved hydration.  And you should be feeling stronger from your daily 10-15 minute walks and perhaps a bit more virtuous from all those vegetables!  You're seeing fewer and fewer processed foods and more single-ingredient items in your pantry such as oatmeal, brown rice, beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, nuts, and perhaps even a canister of whey protein powder.  You have spent some time online and at the library or bookstore learning about resistance training and are more convinced than ever that the time is NOW to make meaningful exercise part of your lifestyle.  And with the addition of some calisthenics last week, you're remembering how much fun it is to move your body and get things going.  Are you feeling empowered and encouraged, like you really can make these changes and make them stick?

Experts tell us it takes 21 days to form a new habit so be patient and don't expect perfection all at once.  If you slip up, don't be too hard on yourself.  Just do what you can on this day and tomorrow you'll have a fresh new chance to try again.  We are on a year-long journey towards better health and it takes lots of practice to get it right.  Remember, we are striving for improvement, not perfection.  This week we will focus on three things (and don't worry, you're already a pro at two of them!)  We're going to increase the length of our daily walk by an additional 10-15 minutes and add two more glasses of water to our daily fluid intake.  Finally, we will be adding in a healthy snack, either before or after lunch.

Why the increase in our walk?  For starters, both the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend that all healthy adults under age 65 do the following:

Do moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week
Do vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, three days a week
Do 8 to 10 strength-training exercises, 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise twice a week. 

For healthy adults over the age of 65, the recommendations are basically the same except the strength training recommendations are increased to 12-15 repetitions of each exercise, 2-3 days per week.  They also include this additional recommendation for seniors:

If you are at risk of falling, perform balance exercises
Have a physical activity plan. (1)

 It is important to note that the above recommendations are just the minimum. The ACSM and AHA both approach exercise from a "more is better" philosophy.  So, increasing our daily walk to 30 minutes* is really just the minimum daily movement our bodies need.  In the coming weeks and months we will be discovering even more ways to incorporate additional movement and activity into our daily routines.  For now, let's take another look at the ACSM's last recommendation:  Have a physical activity plan.  This is a very good piece of advice. I can't stress enough how important it is to schedule your exercise into your daily calendar.  When planning your weekly appointments, pencil-in your daily walks and your 2-3 resistance training sessions and calisthenics. Treat exercise just like an appointment -- an appointment with yourself.  It's that important!

With an increase in walking and increased exertion through beginning calisthenics and resistance training programs comes a need for additional hydration.  You are probably feeling thirstier and may already be drinking more water.  If so, terrific!  We want to add in two more 8-ounce glasses of water per day -- one at mid-morning and one at mid-afternoon.  Again, these are strategically timed to help decrease hunger as well as spaced throughout the day for steady hydration.  Water is necessary for every chemical reaction in the body, helps regulate body temperature, flushes out waste, and helps transport nutrients to all body tissues.  If you are not drinking enough water on a daily basis, you may experience headaches, fatigue and dry skin (2). So drink up!

This week, our brand new habit is to add in one healthy snack.  Pick the time of day when you are the hungriest between meals -- for some people it's around 10:00 in the morning, for others it's that late afternoon slump before dinner.  Many of us believe that we should stick to "three squares" a day and that snacking is somehow bad or a sign of weakness.  We are going to begin to retrain our thought processes and embrace the idea that snacking really is okay. The reality is, it only takes about 3 hours for your stomach to empty after each appropriately sized meal, so those first signs of hunger (such as a growling stomach!) are your body's best attempt to tell you that it's time to refuel.  Because we "feel" hunger in our stomachs, we overlook the fact that our brain is actually driving the hunger signals -- it is sending a powerful message that vital nutrients are running low and need to be replenished as quickly as possible. If nutrients from food are not made available in short order, the brain will simply send out another message to take them from the next best source:  the stored glycogen (energy) in your liver and muscles, and when that runs out it will begin to use protein from the muscles themselves.  In other words, your muscles are actually  "cannibalized" in order to fuel your brain!  Imagine, all your hard work exercising to build new muscles only to find that your brain is undoing all that work just to fuel itself.

A much better strategy is to go ahead and eat a balanced snack containing a sensible amount of calories.  It is not necessary to watch the clock and put off eating for a couple of hours until the next mealtime rolls around.  Too often, we ignore important hunger signals and convince ourselves that it is not "time" to eat.  But which do YOU think has a better idea of your true hunger -- your super-smart, highly intelligent brain, or the clock on the wall?! 

In future posts we will be examining ways to spread out our calories throughout the day in order to fuel our brain, muscles, and metabolism in the most efficient way.  For now, we will concentrate on adding just one healthy snack to our day.  Exactly what is a healthy snack?  It is helpful to view it more as a "mini-meal" -- it should be substantial enough to hold us over almost as long as breakfast or lunch.  That means it should be a balance of protein, carbs and fat and contain a significant enough amount of calories to keep us going for another 2-3 hours.  Ideally, this snack will be comprised of wholesome, unprocessed, mostly single-ingredient foods. Have you ever snacked on a package of cookies only to find you are ravenous 45 minutes later?  That's because cookies are high in carbs, sugar, and saturated or trans fats (not to mention high in calories) and low in protein, whole grains and healthy fats which take your body much longer to digest.  A more nutritious snack/mini-meal would look like this:

  • 1 oz. of unsalted nuts and a piece of fruit
  • An apple with 2 Tablespoons of natural peanut butter
  • A hard-boiled egg, 12 almonds and a piece of fruit
  • Light string cheese and veggies with hummus
  • 3-4 ozs tuna salad made with low fat mayo or pickle relish and 8 whole grain crackers
  • A smoothie made with whey protein, lowfat milk and frozen fruit
  •  1/2 of a deli turkey sandwich on whole grain bread and a piece of fruit
  • Greek yogurt with 1/4 cup granola
  • 1/2 cup cottage cheese with a piece of fresh fruit
For more delicious, healthy snack ideas, visit the Real Simple website.

This snack should be substantial enough (at least 200 calories) to "buy" you a couple of more hours of satiety and satisfaction until the next meal rolls around.  It's going to prevent you from being ravenously hungry and completely overeating at the next meal.  It will level out your blood sugar and keep your brain happy as a steady supply of nutrients keeps coursing through your bloodstream.  It's going to prevent wild cravings because it is balanced with protein, carbs and healthy fats which take your body hours to digest.  And best of all, you will stop watching the clock and eat this mini-meal when your brain and stomach signal that it's time.  Your body will begin to follow its instinctual cues to eat when you're hungry, and don't eat when you're not!

In future Healthy Tips, we will  learn to estimate our basal metabolic rate, calculate our total daily caloric needs, and plan nutritional goals based on these numbers.  But for now, just concentrate on choosing fresh, wholesome foods that are as close to their natural state as possible.  Fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, low fat dairy products, and lean meats fit the bill perfectly.  Plan your snack ahead of time and carry it with you to work, when you are shopping, running errands, etc.  A mini cooler is helpful for items that need to be kept cold.  Always have a portable, healthy choice so you will not be forced to eat processed vending machine snacks or high-calorie, nutrient-poor choices at the mall.  Don't get caught without that healthy snack!

"If you add a little to a little and do this often, soon the little will become great."
             ~ Hesiod

1. From the  ACSM Physical Activity & Public Health Guidelines
2. From The RealAge Diet by Michael F. Roizen, M.D.

*Note:  If you are unable to find a 30-minute block of time for your walk, you can break it into two 15-minute walks or even three 10-minute walks.  The cumulative benefit still counts -- the most important thing is getting in the minimum amount of activity.