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!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Week 17 - My Top-Ten Superfoods....

I don't know about you, but I'm getting a little tired of  reading articles that tell us (more like shout at us) a list of foods that we must eat.  "Top Ten Superfoods for Health!" or "Twelve Foods You Simply Must Be Eating!"  And nevermind that all of the lists are different -- sure, a few favorites like blueberries and tomatoes seem to make it on to every list -- but recently I stumbled across one that included kale and watercress.  Kale?  Really?  I'm not at all opposed to this leafy green vegetable but I can't ever recall a time when it was a "must have" on my shopping list. This got me thinking -- who comes up with these lists?  What makes one healthy food superior to another?  And how do they narrow it down to only ten foods?  I have noticed that some of them include far more than ten foods by listing very broad categories such as "fruit" or "whole grains."  That seems a bit like cheating, to me.  If you're going to tell people ten foods they must eat, then be specific.  Entire categories of food are too vague. 

I've always been a big believer that eating a wide variety of foods will help one cover all their nutritional bases.  Having said that, I notice that the same ten or twelve foods keep appearing on my grocery list and menu.  As mentioned in a previous Healthy Tip, studies show that people tend to eat the same foods over and over.  I guess I am no different.  Here is my list of favorites -- I almost always eat all ten every week, and oftentimes eat all ten in a single day!  I hope you will be inspired to include some of these on your shopping list and in your weekly menus:

1.  Blueberries - These little gems are like candy to me.  I eat them everyday, without fail -- in the morning on my oatmeal or yogurt, in the afternoon on a salad, after dinner with a tablespoon of whipped cream.  They are sweet, juicy and delicious and pair up beautifully with both savory and sweet dishes.  Loaded with antioxidants which help neutralize free radicals (unstable molecules linked to the development of a number of diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease and other age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's), they are an excellent source of vitamin C, manganese, and dietary fiber.  With only 80 calories per cup, they are a nutritional bargain for people watching their weight.  Compare that to a cup of pudding which has approximately 320 calories.

2.  Spinach - This nutritional workhorse is one of the easiest superfoods to slip into your everyday repertoire.  Bags of pre-washed fresh baby spinach are conveniently located in your grocer's produce section and make adding spinach to meals a breeze.  At breakfast, toss a handful in with scrambled eggs or an omelette.  At lunch, use it on a sandwich in place of lettuce.  Add it to tossed salads (a superior alternative to lettuces) and chilled pasta salads.  At dinner, add it to soups, sauces and hot pasta dishes.  Or serve it on it's own as a side dish -- drizzle a little olive oil, add a few fresh cloves of garlic, and steam it in a scant amount of water for only a minute or two, just until wilted. Spinach is low in calories, yet extremely high in vitamins, minerals -- especially iron -- and other phytonutrients. 

3.  Oats - I am willing to bet that most people who say they don't like oatmeal have never had it prepared deliciously.  Too often, people add boiling water to their oats -- usually the quick-cooking or instant variety rather than the old-fashioned rolled oats.  Quick-cooking and instant are mushier in texture because they have been more heavily processed, and water doesn't add any additional flavor or nutrients.  The end result is a gloppy, sticky, flavorless substance that resembles wallpaper paste!  On the other hand, old-fashioned rolled oats prepared with milk instead of water, drizzled with a bit of honey, and topped with berries, bananas and walnuts is unbelievably tasty.  The natural sugars in the milk add a hint of sweetness and flavor, and the overall texture is better.  Oats aren't just for breakfast though.  They make a delicious addition to meatloaf and meatballs, a savory coating for chicken and pork dishes, and elevate muffins, cookies and granola bars to a healthier level. Oats are a significant source of dietary fiber.  One component of this fiber is beta-glucans, a substance which acts as an "entrapment" for bad cholesterol.  In study after study, oats have been proven to lower cholesterol when eaten on a daily basis.  Oats contain hundreds of phytochemicals (plant chemicals) which are believed to reduce a person's risk of getting cancer.  Because of their high fiber content, oats have been shown to aid in bowel function as well as weight control.  Studies also show reduced blood pressure in people who eat a daily serving of oats.

4. Almonds - These teardrop-shaped treats just may be the closest thing to nature's perfect food.  Jam-packed with calcium, magnesium, vitamin E, phosphorus, potassium, and folic acid, they pack a powerful nutritional punch for something so small.  They are high in monounsaturated fats, the same type found in healthy olive oil, which are healthy for your heart and do not raise cholesterol.  Just one ounce -- approximately 20-25 almonds -- contains as much calcium as 1/4 cup milk so they are particularly attractive to people who need to avoid dairy products.  They come in many varieties including natural raw and oven-roasted and their portability makes them a perfect snack along with a piece of fruit.  Sliced almonds are delicious on cereal, oatmeal, yogurt, salads, and as a crunchy coating for fish and chicken.  While a very healthy choice, they are high in calories so it's best to measure these tasty tidbits into one-ounce servings.

5. Tomatoes - How can we possibly say enough good things about them in a single paragraph?!  Tomatoes are loaded with vitamin C and lycopene and are considered one of the healthiest foods on the planet.  But tomatoes weren't always so popular.  A member of the deadly nightshade family, tomatoes were once considered poisonous and inedible and were generally avoided in the western world.  It has only been as recent as the early 19th century that people realized not only were they safe to eat, tomatoes also had tremendous health benefits.  Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant that flushes out free-radicals from the bloodstream, is found in very high levels in tomatoes.  Lycopene gives tomatoes their rich red color and has been proven to reduce cancers such as prostate, cervical, colon, rectal, and cancers of the stomach, mouth, pharynx, and esophagus when consumed in high levels.  There are an endless variety of tomatoes which means they can be enjoyed in many ways.  Of course they are a staple in pasta dishes, soups and stews, delicious on top of a salad, and are a necessary ingredient in a BLT.  Smaller varieties like cherry, grape and cherub tomatoes make quick and delicious snacks.

6.  Fish - Ok, I realize this is one of those broad categories that I was criticizing earlier (sorry!) but I find it impossible to recommend only one kind of fish.  The reality is, with the high levels of mercury that can occur in all types of fish, it is best to mix it up and eat a wide variety. Fish is an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids which our bodies cannot produce on their own. Omega-3s have been shown to decrease heart disease, reduce blood pressure, and promote healthy brain function.  Omega-3 fatty acids are found in every kind of fish, but are especially high in fatty fish. Good fish choices for Omega-3’s include salmon, tuna (canned light), trout, sardines, sea bass, oysters, crab, perch, shrimp, and cod. (1)  The American Heart Association recommends eating at least two servings of fish per week.  My favorite quick and easy method for preparing white, flaky fish such as cod or halibut is to brush it with olive oil, season with Mrs. Dash, crushed red pepper, fresh ground black pepper, and top with fresh bread crumbs and chopped tomatoes (there are those tomatoes again!).  Bake at 400 degrees for approximately 12-15 minutes until fish is opaque and flakes easily with a fork.  This makes a perfect lunch or dinner.  Fish is high in protein, low in fat, and an extremely healthy addition to any diet.

7.  Eggs - Perhaps one of the most maligned food items in the past, the pendulum has swung the other way for the lowly egg.  Sworn off for their high cholesterol content, researchers and nutritionists now know that the egg can be a very healthy addition to one's diet.  Harvard researchers have concluded that "dietary cholesterol isn't nearly the villain it's been portrayed to be."  In a recent study, they found "the biggest influence on blood cholesterol level is the mix of fats in your diet—not the amount of cholesterol you eat from food," with trans fats and saturated fats being the biggest culprit in driving up cholesterol. (2)  Of course if you suffer from heart disease or diabetes you will want to check with your doctor first, but most health experts now give the green light to moderate egg consumption.  This is good news for healthy individuals who love eggs!  Eggs are quick to prepare, high in protein, relatively low in calories, and a good source of Omega-3 fatty acids.  They are portable when hard-boiled which makes them a convenient snack. Evidence shows that organic eggs from free-range chickens are much higher in Omega-3s, lower in saturated fats, and just plain taste better than eggs from commercially raised chickens.  This may be one area where it pays to buy the best.  If you are concerned about calories or fat, you can always add egg whites to one whole egg. This gives all the benefits of extra protein without the extra calories (55 calories in the yolk while the white contains only 16 calories).

8. Sweet Potatoes - If I had to pick a favorite among my Top Ten list, this is it.  This nutritional all-star is full of good things including vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, iron, magnesium and phytochemicals like beta carotene and lutein.  Only distantly related to the white potato (and don't confuse it with a yam -- it's not even the same species!), this superfood is versatile, portable and delicious. Even though they are called "sweet" potatoes, they actually take much longer to digest and enter the blood stream than white potatoes whose starches quickly convert to sugar.  Baked whole, oven-fried in olive oil, or mashed and served in a casserole, sweet potatoes make a perfect accompaniment to any meal.  What I love about them (and this is often overlooked) is how portable they are.  They can be microwaved at home and taken along when you go out.  Later, when they have cooled, they can be peeled like a banana and eaten whole.  Don't forget to pierce them with a fork a couple of times before microwaving or baking to allow the steam to escape. 

9. Extra Virgin Olive Oil - One of the few oils that is delicious enough to eat right out of the bottle, Extra Virgin olive oil comes from the first cold pressing of the olives and has the freshest flavor and the most nutrients.  Do not confuse it with Virgin olive oil or Pure olive oil.  Virgin olive oil is still delicious but comes from the second pressing of the olives so it has slightly less flavor and more acidity.  Pure olive oil can be rather misleading because it is often a blend of either extra virgin or virgin olive oil as well as poor quality olive oils that are refined.  The health benefits really are dramatically different among the three types of olive oil, so it pays to buy the best extra virgin oil you can afford.  A staple of the healthy Mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats and relatively low in saturated fats.  In numerous studies, it has been associated with reduced risk of coronory disease, reduced cancer rates including breast, lung, stomach, small intestine and colorectal cancers, and supports overall bone health and cognitive function.  Extra virgin olive oil is especially delicious right out of the bottle when accompanied by a hearty whole grain bread for dipping.  You can drizzle it over steamed vegetables, add it to pasta sauces, and use it on noodles in place of butter to prevent sticking together.  It is perfect for sauteeing delicate fish and chicken cutlets, imparting a sweet, nutty flavor when heated.  Olive oil is also wonderful for skin and hair and can be applied to both as an extra-nutritive conditioner.  Include up to a tablespoon of this wonder-food in your diet each day to glean the most benefit.

10. Brown rice - The ugly duckling of the rice world, brown rice is quickly becoming the rice du jour among foodies and people with discerning palates. Unlike white rice which has had the germ and the bran stripped (thus almost all of the nutrients are gone) brown rice has had only the outer, inedible hull removed.  Because it still has the germ and the bran, it has as much as 70% more nutrients than its stripped, bleached and polished cousin, white rice.   It has a nuttier, chewier flavor and texture and retains its natural color from the fields. It is an excellent source of manganese, magnesium and selenium and is rich in fiber.  Like other whole grains, brown rice is slow to digest and enter the bloodstream, making it a perfect carbohydrate to pair with protein and healthy fats.  If the taste is too bland for your liking, you can add flavor by cooking it in low sodium chicken broth.  You can also make a delicious rice pilaf by sauteeing it raw in extra virgin olive oil, then steaming it with chopped cashews and mushrooms.

Well, there you have it -- my top ten superfoods!  You will notice that all of these foods are unprocessed and contain no additives or preservatives.  They are readily available in any grocery store and provide a wide array of nutrients.  They combine well with eachother and other foods, can be eaten at any time of day, and are convenient to prepare and store.  This week, your task is to add some or all of these superfoods to your grocery list.  Over the next few days and weeks, make it a goal to include all ten in your weekly menus.

"Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."
      ~ Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

1.  Health Benefits of Fish, Washington State Department of Health,  http://www.doh.wa.gov/ehp/oehas/fish/fishbenefits.htm

2. Fats and Cholesterol - The Bottom Line, Harvard School of Public Health, http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/fats-full-story/index.html


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Week 16 - Drink more... (you guessed it)... WATER!!!

If it is starting to sound like a broken record around here with the "drink more water" mantra... well... all I can say is, "Drink more water!"  This is the third post on the site having to do with water so I hope it is becoming clear how important hydration is for your health.  At this point, you are already drinking at least four glasses of water per day -- one before breakfast and one before dinner, as well as one mid-morning and one mid-afternoon.  Time to add two more glasses to our schedule:  one after breakfast, and one after lunch. Easy enough?  It may begin to feel tedious trying to remember each glass at the specific time; one way to approach it is to purchase a water bottle which can hold up to 32 ounces, and sip 8 ounces at each strategic time of day refilling as necessary. Personally, I like the ones that have the ounces clearly marked on the side of the bottle.  As you chug your water, you can see the progress you are making towards your ultimate goal of six to eight glasses per day*.  If you choose a wide-mouth bottle such as the one pictured below, it is easy to fill it with ice.  You can also fit sliced lemons, limes and oranges if you enjoy your H2O with a citrus twist.  On the other hand, some people feel intimidated by the "giant water bottle" approach -- they feel overwhelmed at the thought of getting through all that water and prefer instead to fill and drink a single 8-ounce glass at a time.  Either method is fine as long as you are getting it in.
In previous posts, we examined some of the reasons why water is so important to our health.  You will recall that the human body is made up primarily of water (almost 75%) and that water is essential to every vital bodily system.  It transports life-giving nutrients, minerals and salt throughout our bodies, cleansing and purifying as it moves along.  It also helps regulate body temperature, keeps joints lubricated, and aids in digestion.  You will also recall from our first post about water, the jury is still out when it comes to how much we actually need each day.  Expert opinions vary widely on how much water to consume, whether or not only pure drinking water counts (or all beverages including coffee, tea, soda, milk, etc.) and for that matter, does the water obtained from food -- which accounts for nearly 20% of our total daily fluid intake -- count? 

In 2004, a noteworthy event occurred when the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, made an official recommendation about water intake for healthy individuals.  It was the first official recommendation of its kind and is especially significant because it came on the heels of the U.S. government's Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) conclusion that "it is impossible to set a water recommendation." (1)  The IOM study concluded that the recommended daily fluid intake is 91 ounces for women and 125 ounces for men.  That translates to more than ten 8-ounce glasses of water for women and nearly sixteen for men!  Keep in mind though that this recommendation was for the total daily fluid intake, not just pure drinking water, and included fluid from all beverages as well as water obtained from food.  While this still doesn't tell us exactly how much pure water to drink, one can see that drinking six to eight glasses per day is probably reasonable for the average American adult.

Research is lacking in this area because it would clearly be unethical to deprive humans of water in order to conduct the studies.  The average person can live for more than 30 days with no food, but only 4-5 days without water.  Dehydration can lead to severe medical consequences so it would be quite difficult to conduct controlled studies.  Additionally, our bodies have an amazing ability to adjust to varying levels of hydration -- whether overhydrated or underhydrated -- and this makes it especially difficult to determine cause and effect in the short term.  Most of the research is confined to the effects on athletes after sports' performances.  While this is helpful, it does not necessarily translate to the general population.  Athletes are in the unusual position of losing extreme amounts of water through sweating in a short amount of time.  Most of us become gradually dehydrated over a period of many hours and days.

So where does this leave us in terms of understanding how important water really is to our health?  Doctors, researchers, nutritionists, and other health professionals rely on clinical evidence, anecdotal observations and assumptions.  Because dehydration occurs at the cellular level, all  bodily systems have the potential to be affected negatively.  We release about 2.5 liters of water per day through respiration, perspiration and digestion.  If this water is not replaced we start to run a deficit and mild dehydration begins.  Early symptoms of dehydration include thirst, loss of appetite, dry skin, dark-colored urine, fatigue/weakness, chills, sleepiness, headache and dizziness.  As dehydration progresses, more serious symptoms develop such as increased or decreased heart rate and respiration, decreased sweating and urine output, elevated body temperature, extreme fatigue, muscle cramps, headache and nausea.  And there is an almost endless list of medical conditions that dehydration is known to exacerbate including asthma, allergies, constipation and digestive disorders, diabetes, eczema, chronic fatigue, headaches, high blood pressure, kidney stones, menopause, obesity, osteoporosis, respiratory problems, and stroke.  Many experts believe that something as simple as proper hydration could greatly reduce the complications associated with these conditions.  An estimated 80% of the American population does not drink enough water.  Are YOU part of that group?

This week, challenge yourself to get in all six glasses of water every day!  One upon awakening, one after breakfast, one mid-morning, one after lunch, one mid-afternoon, and one before dinner.  And of course, if you are exercising you should be drinking extra water as necessary to quench your thirst.  By spreading your water intake throughout the day you are ensuring optimal hydration.

"Water sustains all."
       ~ Thales of Miletus

* The goal of six-eight glasses per day is the recommendation for healthy adults.  Always check with your doctor first, especially if you are taking medication or suffer from heart, kidney or pulmonary disease.

1. Hydration Needs Throughout the Lifespan, http://www.jacn.org/content/26/suppl_5/585S.full

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Week 15 - Goal-setting and accountability.....

Most people, when they begin any new form of exercise, start out gung-ho and full of optimism.  They have big plans and big ideas on how to get started.  Donning new exercise clothes and brand new sneakers, they have big dreams for their final results.  After a few short weeks, plenty of muscle soreness (in muscles they didn't even know they had!) and less than stellar results, many people abandon their efforts altogether and slip back into little or no exercise.  Sadly, what they fail to realize is that there is no quick-fix when it comes to improving fitness and physique.  They didn't get out of shape overnight and they surely won't get in shape overnight.  Consistency is key and this is one example where slow-and-steady really does win the race.

If you have been following all of the Healthy Tips up to this point then you are already taking a daily walk, participating in strength training, and performing calisthenics and stretching exercises.  You have laid a very good foundation on which to build the ultimate fit YOU.  Perhaps you've already lost a few pounds and gained some strength and new muscle, but odds are that after only 14 weeks you have not yet seen a total body transformation.  This is the point where you might ask yourself, "Why bother? It's really not making a difference."  But the truth is, it is making a very big difference.  Too often we measure our progress by what we see on the outside -- scale weight, body measurements, clothing size, cellulite -- and fail to recognize what is really happening on the inside.  Lower blood pressure and resting heart rate, healthier arteries, stronger muscles, faster metabolism, improved circulation, etc. are all benefits from exercise that we don't necessarily "see."  We must remind ourselves of our ultimate goal -- to be as healthy as we can possibly be -- and not focus exclusively on our outward appearance.

This is the point where we want to dig in and stay focused.  Daily exercise and healthy eating are becoming  ingrained habits and this is no time to turn back when results aren't as fast as we would like.  We mistakenly believe our new plan isn't working because we are constantly barraged by media messages telling us we can transform our bodies quickly.  Magazine articles promise things like "Your Perfect Beach Body in 30 days!" or "Lose 20 Pounds by Summer" (and it's already May 1st).  These are unrealistic claims that are meant to sell magazines.  Would anyone buy a magazine with this headline: "Lose 2-4 Pounds in 1 Month!"  Of course not, and magazine editors are savvy business people who know how to sell their product.  We've all seen the glossy photo spreads of beautiful fitness models using five pound dumbbells to build muscle, doing crunches that promise 6-pack abs, and performing the latest, greatest belly-blasting workout.  What they don't tell you is the models usually diet for 2-3 weeks before a photo shoot, reduce water intake so that their muscles "pop" for the photos, and no one gets muscles like that from lifting five pound dumbbells!  Don't be fooled -- these models are pumping heavy iron at the gym.  To add insult to injury, the pictures are often heavily photoshopped so the models themselves don't even look like the pictures.  If your goal is to look like a magazine fitness model in a short period of time, then you are setting yourself up for major disappointment.  People who set realistic, long-term goals are much more likely to achieve them.

For most of us, getting in shape is a long, slow, steady process.  Fitness gains and health improvements come in very small increments.  Some weeks you may not notice any changes.  It is important, therefore, to look for other ways to keep yourself motivated.  Set short-term goals such as walking a little bit further each week, increasing the speed of your pace, or reducing the time it takes to cover a certain distance. Then, reward yourself for accomplishing your small goals.  These rewards can be a small treat such as a new book, new exercise clothes, or a spa service.  Perhaps the best reward of all is the great feeling you get after a workout.

One of the best ways to stay on track with your fitness plan is to involve yourself in activities where you must be accountable to someone else.  Exercising with a buddy means you have to show up at a certain time.  Working out with a personal trainer means you have someone waiting for you at the gym.  And my personal favorite -- signing up for an organized event such as a 5K walk or run.  When you commit to participating in an event like this (and especially after you pay the entry fee) you are much more likely to continue your training efforts.  These events are scheduled every weekend all across the country and are open to people of all fitness levels from total beginners to elite athletes.  Most events are for both walkers and runners. Your goal is to do your personal best, so don't be intimidated by more experienced participants.  You can find local races by visiting sites such as Active.com or Running in the USA.

Another fun way to be accountable in your exercise program is to join a local walking, swimming or biking club such as the American Volkssport Association.  This group organizes more than 3,500 events nationwide each year.  Volksmarching (non-competitive fitness walking that originated in Europe) is particularly enjoyable -- you can walk in organized events or you can complete the walks on your own.  Most cities have Volksmarch walks already mapped out so you can participate in your own hometown or even when you are traveling.  For a small fee you can buy a passbook to collect stamps showing the Volksmarches you have completed.

No matter which form of exercise you are participating in -- walking, biking, weight lifting, running, swimming, martial arts -- the most important thing is to do it consistently, set realistic goals, and be accountable.  Your task this week is to commit to an organized exercise activity in your community.  Search newspapers and radio stations for upcoming local events, sign up for one, and put it on your calendar!  Involve friends and family and make it twice the fun.  Training for an event like this can help keep you motivated and elevate your workouts to a whole new level.

"An athlete who tells you the training is always easy and always fun simply hasn't been there. Goals can be elusive which makes the difficult journey all the more rewarding."
         ~ Alberto Salazar