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, April 29, 2011

Week 14 - Good Carbs, Bad Carbs

With all the talk these days about good carbs and bad carbs, low carbs and no carbs, how is one supposed to sort through so much information and figure out which carbs are actually okay to eat?  Pick up any magazine or tune into any talk show and someone is espousing the virtues of eating low or no-carb.  Celebrities are shunning carbs, diets promising speedy weight loss warn us to avoid them, and it seems everyone is on some sort of carb-bashing bandwagon.  But why all the negative press for carbohydrates?  Exactly what is wrong with them and why are so many people eliminating carbs altogether?

To sort it out, we must first understand what a carbohydrate is.  Carbohydrates are the body's main source of fuel and are made up of sugars, starches and fiber. Our bodies break down most carbs into single molecules of sugar which can then be absorbed into the bloodstream.  Carbohydrates are classified into two main types: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are already single or double molecules of sugar and can easily be identified by their "ose" endings -- glucose and fructose (found in fruit), lactose (found in dairy), and sucrose (table sugar which comes from beet or cane sugar).  Simple carbohydrates are easily absorbed and contain little, if any, nutritional value other than providing instant energy for the body.  Complex carbohydrates are made up of many sugar molecules strung together like a chain.  They also contain starch and fiber which are important for good health.  Most starches break down into sugar, while fiber is indigestible by humans -- we do not possess the necessary enzymes to break apart the links, therefore it travels through the intestines acting as a "cleanser" for the colon and encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria in the lower gut.  Complex carbs require the body to work harder digesting them -- the long chains of sugars must first be broken down into single molecules -- and they contain plenty of other vitamins and nutrients that get absorbed along the way.  Complex carbohydrates include grains, vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, corn and potatoes. 

The reason carbohydrates get such a bad rap is because most Americans eat a diet that is much too high in refined carbohydrates.  Refined carbs are foods which have been highly processed by food manufacturers.  For example, refined grains have had the high fiber parts (the germ and the bran) removed from the grain. When a complex carb is refined it loses its complex structure and thus all the properties that made it a healthy choice.  It takes on the properties of a simple carbohydrate and is processed by the body as such. White rice, white bread, sugary cereals, pasta, noodles and pretty much anything made from white flour, including packaged cookies, crackers and pastries, are all examples of refined carbohydrates.  Sodas, sugary beverages and fruit juices are also refined carbs. They are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream causing a rush of glucose which results in excess available energy.  Your body uses only the glucose (energy) it needs immediately and stores the rest as fat.  Once all the excess glucose is stored in the fat cells, you become hungry again and reach for more simple, refined carbs to satisfy the craving.  This cycle repeats over and over.  Eating too many refined carbohydrates can result in rapid weight gain.

Unrefined complex carbs are a much better source of energy for your body.  Because they are loaded with starches and fiber, it takes your body longer to break them down and move them through the digestive system.  There is a slow and steady release of glucose into your bloodstream -- think of unrefined complex carbs as "time-release" capsules -- so you stay full much longer and don't experience rapid hunger and cravings.  Small, frequent meals which include complex carbohydrates, along with protein and healthy fats, are the best way to control appetite and supply steady nutrition and energy.  Whole grain breads and cereals, fruits, vegetables, brown rice, sweet potatoes and beans are perfect complex choices.

Many popular diets would have you believe that giving up carbs completely is the answer to controlling your weight and appetite.  They perpetuate the myth that there is something special, almost magical, about low or no-carb diets.  The reality is when you give up an entire food category such as carbs, you eliminate a large number of calories from your diet.  There is nothing magical about it:  less calories = weight loss.  But weight loss at what price?  Diets that are too low in carbs deplete the healthy glycogen (the storage form of glucose) in your muscles.  Depleted glycogen causes dehydration which results in quick and drastic reductions on the scale.  Dieters are often encouraged by these early, large losses assuming it is fat that is melting away.  The fact is, the loss is due to water loss and muscle atrophy.  We know from our previous Healthy Tip on sarcopenia that a reduction in muscle results in a slowed metabolism.  And a slowed metabolism means rapid weight gain when one resumes eating normally again.  Studies show that most people cannot maintain a low carb diet for an extended period of time. 

When we distinguish between the health-robbing effects of simple sugars and other refined carbs and the health-giving properties of complex carbohydrates, it is easy to see that eliminating all carbs really isn't a good idea (1).  They are much too important nutritionally to just write them off.  Remember, not all carbs lead to weight gain!  Healthy, unrefined carbs are exactly what our bodies need and were designed to digest.  They are an important source of vitamins, minerals and fiber that cannot be gotten from any other source.  Fruit deserves a special mention -- although it contains simple sugars, it gives a lot of bang for the buck, particularly for those of us with a sweet tooth.  It is rich in vital nutrients, high in fiber, relatively low in calories, and provides instant sweetness and hydration.  In contrast, overprocessed, refined carbs are nutritionally "empty" and contribute to the obesity epidemic in our country and globally.

As in all the other nutritional Healthy Tips, I encourage you to start paying careful attention to the kinds of foods you are choosing and eating.  This week, your task is to keep a list of the foods you eat.  Place a star next to carbs that are refined or simple and begin to look for patterns.  When you ate a muffin made with enriched flour (simple carb) were you hungry a short while later?  Did eating a bagel made from whole wheat or a bowl of oatmeal (complex carbs) keep you satisfied longer?  Examine places in your diet where simple, refined carbs can be replaced with wholesome, complex ones.  Choose a piece of whole fruit instead of fruit juice, whole grain breads instead of white breads, and oatmeal rather than packaged cold cereals.  Choose whole wheat pasta over regular pasta, brown rice over white, and water over sugary beverages and sodas.  Try to reduce the number of starred items on your food list.  Commit to eliminating as many of the "bad" carbs as you can, enjoy the "good" carbs, and don't feel a bit guilty about eating them!  After all, they are your body's preferred source of fuel.

1. http://chicagolandwlc.com/Class1/week4CL1.pdf

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Week 13 - Laugh..... a lot!

Laughter is the best medicine..... we've all heard that expression about a million times.  But is it really the best medicine?  And for that matter, is it really medicine at all?  Mounting evidence through research certainly suggests that laughter is medicinal with its own unique healing properties.  Just how that healing occurs as well as laughter's full medical benefit is still a mystery.

One thing for sure... it feels good to laugh!  Laughter triggers the release of endorphins which are the body's feel-good chemicals.  Endorphins promote an overall sense of well-being in the body and can even temporarily reduce pain.  Laughter eliminates negative emotions; anxiety, depression and anger all take a back seat when one is laughing (1).  Laughter can also help reduce stress and tension.  Muscles stay relaxed up to 45 minutes after a bout of laughing.

Researchers know that laughter can be a powerful ally in improving health and fighting disease. A recent study conducted at the University of Maryland found that laughter lowers blood pressure, improves the function of blood vessels, and increases blood flow which can help protect you against a heart attack and other cardiovascular problems. According to Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, the most significant finding in the study was that "people with heart disease responded less humorously to everyday life situations." They generally laughed less, even in positive situations, and they displayed more anger and hostility. Miller adds, "We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list." (2) 

Exactly what is laughter?  Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as a series of "rhythmic, vocalized, expiratory and involuntary actions."  Laughter is the physiological response to humor and is comprised of a unique set of vocal properties. According to ­behavioral neurobiologist and pioneering laughter researcher Robert Provine, it consists of short, vowel-like sounds that are repeated every 210 milliseconds.  Laughter is a universal language, understood in all cultures around the world, and occurs in adult humans an average of 17 times per day.  Interestingly, young children tend to laugh as many as 300 times per day!

Have you ever walked past a room full of people just as a loud burst of laughter erupts?  Most of us will stop, and even turn around, to find out what the laughter is all about.  Humans are naturally drawn to laughter; the cadence and rhythm are familiar and instinctual and we want to experience the same "feel good" emotions of those who are laughing.  Laughter is a bonding experience and can help break the ice and nervous tension among strangers. When we laugh together, we immediately have something in common. Laughter is also contagious and even when one misses out on the initial joke, he or she will often end up laughing just because others are laughing.  And one of the best things about laughter -- people don't even have to speak the same language to be able to laugh at the same things.

Laughter affects the body in much the same way that exercise does.  It increases heart rate and burns calories.  A study conducted at Vanderbilt University found that just 10-15 minutes of laughter can burn 50 calories or more.  A good belly laugh causes the diaphragm to expand, contracts the abdominal muscles, and even gives the shoulders a bit of a workout.  Interestingly, the brain does not know the difference between "real" laughter and "fake" laughter.  So even if you aren't in a particularly humorous mood, forcing yourself to laugh (which usually results in real laughter anyway!) can provide all of the same healthy benefits.  Laughter Yoga classes*, which have become quite popular in recent years, use this very method to promote wellness through forced laughter.

It is too easy to get bogged down in the details and seriousness of our busy lives.  Due to work or school, professional commitments, and quiet environments, there are times throughout the day when humor and laughter are inappropriate. Therefore, it is important to take advantage of the opportunity to laugh when you can. Try to find humor in everyday situations.  Learn to laugh at yourself, laugh with others and lighten things up a bit.  Laughter unites people during difficult times and helps shift perspective allowing you see situations  as less threatening.

There are many ways to incorporate more laughter into your life.  Aim for a solid 10-15 minutes of laughter each day.  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Look for humor in everyday situations
  • Read the comics section in the newspaper
  • Spend time around funny people
  • Spend time with children
  • When you hear laughter, move towards it
  • Watch funny TV shows and movies
  • Visit a comedy club
  • Purchase a book of jokes
  • Practice telling jokes
  • Interact with pets -- they do some of the funniest stuff!

Remember, smile and the world smiles with you.  Smiling is the beginning of laughter....

"The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter."
           ~ Mark Twain

1. http://www.celebritydiagnosis.com/2011/09/ seth-rogan-and-will-reiser-talk-cancer-in-comedy-5050/

2. Laughter is the "Best Medicine" for Your Heart, University of Maryland Medical Center, http://www.umm.edu/features/laughter.htm

* For more information on laughter yoga, visit Laughter Yoga International at http://www.laughteryoga.org/

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Week 12 - Make time for a healthy lunch....

Lunch is often one of the most overlooked meals of the day.  Whether you are working, are at home, or traveling, it can often be a haphazard, thrown-together, last-minute-idea meal.  Lunchtime tends to be one of the busiest times -- people have a small window of time between meetings, others are busy running errands, and many are literally eating while they are driving.  A portable lunch is convenient on a busy day and people are tempted to whip through the nearest drive through and order a high-calorie sandwich and fries.  It can also be tempting to stay at your desk and work through lunch -- perhaps you are familiar with grabbing nutrient-poor vending machine food and beverages. And a staggering 58% of Americans admit to frequently skipping lunch altogether because they are too busy to stop and eat.  Skipping lunch can lead to snacking on non-nutritious choices in order to make up the caloric deficit; people often resort to eating candy bars, sodas and coffee just to make it through the afternoon.  Unfortunately, these foods are not ideal for fueling your tank midday.

Up to this point, we've already focused on choosing a balanced, filling breakfast as well as a healthy snack.  We are going to continue that theme by choosing the most nutritious and filling ingredients for lunch.  Instead of going out to a restaurant with coworkers or friends for an expensive, oversized lunch, a healthier option is to take a few minutes each evening to plan a balanced midday meal.  A few minutes of planning in the evening will ensure that there are nutritious choices at your fingertips when hunger comes calling.  Knowing that your lunch is already planned and waiting will eliminate bad choices and rash decisions. There's certainly nothing wrong with going out to lunch once in awhile, but make it a treat, not a daily occurrence -- eating out daily can contribute to a shrinking wallet and an expanding waistline.

Just like breakfast, lunch should include a substantial number of calories, enough to keep you full for 3-4 hours.  Most likely you have been running full steam all morning.  Breakfast was hours ago and unless you've included a healthy snack midmorning your energy reserves are running low.  This is the time of day to replenish your body with superior nutritional choices so you have the energy you need to get through the afternoon.  Avoid refined carbohydrates, excessive amounts of sugar, and high-fat meals; instead, choose lean sources of protein, healthy fats such as olive oil and avocado, and unprocessed, complex carbohydrates including plenty of vegetables and fresh fruit.

How do we determine the number of calories to include in our lunch?  For now, try to keep it somewhere in the neighborhood of 350-500 calories (can be slightly higher if you are male or very active, slightly lower for females or sedentary people).  In future posts we will be combining all of the information we've learned about basal metabolic rate (BMR), total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), and determining the number of meals/snacks we want to eat in a day.  It is important to remember that not all calories are created equal.  There is a big difference between eating a large tossed salad with grilled chicken, nuts, vegetables and olive oil vs. eating a burger with fries.  While both meals may contain the same amount of calories there are far more nutrients available to your body in the salad.  Don't fall into the trap of believing that "any old thing will do" for lunch; make this a meal that is chock-full of nutrients and delicious ingredients.  Lunch is your second best chance (after breakfast) to get it right!  Also, don't make the mistake of undereating at lunch.  You have all afternoon to keep moving and burn off calories, so fill up now and keep your metabolism revved all afternoon.

Here are some suggestions for healthy lunches during the busy week:

  • Leftovers from dinner make a perfect next-day lunch.  I find it easiest to put the leftovers into lunch-size plastic containers when I'm cleaning up after dinner.  That way, lunch is ready to go the next day; just grab a container from the fridge and you're all set.
  • Get into the habit of cooking extra meat at dinner.  Grilled or sauteed chicken, fish, pork or lean cuts of beef can be used the next day in a sandwich, on a salad, or mixed in with pasta to make a delicious chilled pasta salad.
  • Salads are particularly quick and easy to put together.  Assemble a base of assorted lettuces and spinach.  Top with a variety of chopped and grated vegetables, a small amount of nuts, shredded cheese and lean grilled meats.  Drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
  • On Sundays, make a pot of brown rice.  Drain and rinse a can of black beans and store in a plastic container.  Do the same with canned corn, chickpeas or any other bean/legume.  To prepare a fast lunch during the week, just scoop some of each into a bowl, toss in some chopped lettuce, top with leftover meat, chopped tomatoes and mashed avocado for a delicious, nutritious lunch.
  • On Sundays, also consider making a serving or two of whole wheat pasta.  Drain and chill in the fridge.  To assemble a quick weekday lunch, scoop some pasta into a container; top with a small amount of marinated olives/artichokes/sundried tomatoes/mozzarella (this can be purchased in the deli section of most groceries).  Toss in fresh cherry tomatoes, a handful of fresh spinach and top with leftover chilled meat and a few almonds or walnuts.  The oil from the marinated vegetables is usually sufficient, but you can drizzle a little extra olive oil and balsamic vinegar if necessary.
  • Individual serving size packets of salmon or tuna make a quick and delicious lunch served on a sandwich or a salad.  They don't need to be drained so keep a few of these stashed in your desk at work or in your pantry at home.
  • Leftover homemade soup and chili are a nutritious option for lunch.  It is easily portable in a small thermos.
  • Use a variety of whole grain breads, wraps, pitas and tortillas so sandwiches don't get boring.  Add unusual toppings like sprouts, cucumber slices, avocado, sliced hard boiled egg, and spinach to spice things up.
  • Don't overlook "breakfast" foods for lunch -- yogurt, oatmeal and eggs are just as healthy and delicious at the midday meal.
  • Chopped vegetables with hummus or cottage cheese make a nice side dish for sandwiches -- a healthy alternative to chips
  • If you do end up eating out, review the restaurant's menu and nutritional information online before you go.  There are plenty of healthy options even at fast-food restaurants -- salads, baked potatoes, chili, subs with lean lunchmeat, fruit salads, etc.  Know before you go!
  • Add a piece of fresh fruit to all of the above suggestions to balance out your meal with plenty of healthy carbs and fiber
  • Click here for more delicious lunch options from Eating Well magazine.

Whether you are in the workforce or are at home during the day, taking a proper lunch break is important because it gives you a chance to decompress and destress for a few minutes.  Don't make the mistake of always working through lunch or standing at the kitchen counter snacking while you continue to do housework.  Everyone can benefit from sitting down to a nourishing meal and really focusing on the food in front of them.  Chew your food well (this aids in digestion) and appreciate the different flavors and textures.  Give your mind a rest from your "to do" list.  Take a moment to read something for pleasure, talk with a friend or listen to music.  Allow lunch to be the repast* it is meant to be -- nourishment that is good for the mind, body and soul and will help you face your busy afternoon.

*repast (r-pst) n
1. a meal or the food provided at a meal a light repast
2. food in general; nourishment; the act of taking food or refreshment