Monthly Archives: March 2010

Healthy for the holidays

Slushy snow. Freezing winds. Bundling up in multiple layers of clothes. Looks like another Kansas fall. Despite the misery of walking to class in bone-numbing temperatures, these pains do come with a silver lining: The holiday season has arrived!

With great food often the centerpiece of celebration, the biggest challenge during the holiday season is finding a balance between indulgence and health. A few simple guidelines make this easy to do.

1) Snack smart. Planning for small meals throughout the day will help ward off temptations to taste-test and will control serving sizes when actual dinner rolls around. Kick snack power up a notch by choosing “dense” foods, such as fruits and vegetables over lighter options such as chips. This way, a smaller amount of calories will be consumed, while more effectively satiating an appetite.

2) Plan in exercise. The holidays are a time to catch up with family. So why not invite Cousin Timmy or Aunt Susan on a pre-feast power walk? Better yet, get some much-needed time away from the constant family gossip and strange distant relatives by blocking out some time for a run. Just load up the iPod with holiday music and hit the pavement.

3) Savor the food. For me, there is nothing like spending hours in the kitchen, diligently preparing a feast, to stir up a big appetite. When time comes to sit down to the dinner table, my general inclination is to dive straight in and enjoy the fruits of my labor. This becomes a problem when, only five minutes in, I am already making a third run though the buffet line.

Instead, I’ve learned the best strategy is to slow down and enjoy each bite. That way my stomach has time to process whether it is full or not and I can fully experience the food.

4) Go for small desserts. Somehow, no matter how stuffed I am, the very mention of dessert gives my stomach a second wind. I eagerly load up my plate with thick slices of pie and mounds of whipped cream. A few bites in and I already realize my eyes were bigger than my stomach. Again, time has taught me that instead of taking big portions of dessert, it is best to get small samples. That way, I get to enjoy more variety, while cutting back on post-binge regrets.

5) When in doubt, bring a healthy option. One of the best ways to ensure healthy eating at holiday time is to offer to bring a nutritious side dish. Some good options include veggies with dip, fruit and yogurt sauce or pita with hummus.

The moral of the story: No holiday feast is complete without a small sample of Grandma’s butter and heavy cream laden mashed potatoes. So go ahead, indulge. Just remember, it’s all about careful selection, thorough enjoyment and knowing that leftovers often taste better than the first time around.

Originally published in The University Daily Kansan on November 24, 2009.

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The reason fad diets fail

“Eat cookies! Lose weight!” proclaimed an advertisement in a magazine I was recently flipping through. In spite of myself, I hesitated. I didn’t care about losing weight, but the eating cookies part? That sounded pretty good…

No denying it, I have a weak spot for cookies. I sometimes wish I could eat them for every meal. So then, a diet explicitly encouraging me to do just that was quite alluring. I soon snapped out of my fantasy and reminded myself that there is a reason cookie gluttony should remain distinct from reality: the only healthy and sustainable diets are those composed of a variety of real, healthy foods.

The “Cookie Diet” is not the first of its kind. For generations diets have risen to popularity, each claiming to have a magic fix for weight-woes.

My mom told me about her attempt at the “Scarsdale Diet” during college. The diet consisted of eating grapefruit, lean meat, vegetables and two slices of toast a day for two weeks of fast weight loss.

Because of the extreme calorie restriction, the diet seemed to work and my mom quickly shed pounds.

However, after returning to a normal, and nutritionally healthier, way of eating she soon gained back the weight. After this experience, my mom realized something many others fail to grasp: Fad diets don’t work.

Scientists have worked for decades to come up with vitamin and mineral replacements. They have isolated individual nutrients from healthy foods, believing they can replicate the natural benefits. However, there has been a baffling lack of success. Only now are many scientists admitting there are truly no substitutes for whole foods.

This revelation explains the major problem with fad diets: Dieters’ bodies crave natural nutrients. No amount of pills or vitamins will ever be able to replace the benefits of the real foods that dieters are often deprived of.

While the greatest consequence of most diets is disappointment and weight regain, some of the more extreme fad diets may actually have health risks. The only fortunate thing about fad diets is that most of the negative side effects don’t have time to set in, as dieters quit the programs before serious damage is done.

There are healthy and effective ways to approach weight-loss. Eating well is about combining a lot of common sense and a little nutritional education. This doesn’t have to be difficult. It simply comes down to energizing and rewarding the body through well-balanced meals rather than denying it essential nutrients.

Any diet that severely restricts or eliminates food groups is cause for concern. The best way to ensure long-term weight loss is to pursue a diet that fits naturally with a healthy lifestyle.

A good rule of thumb in detecting fad diets is to consider what it permits eating on special occasions. I find it hard to imagine anyone saying on Thanksgiving, “No, I’ll pass on the turkey. I’ve got a package of cookies waiting for me … ”

A Brief History of Modern Fad Diets

“Vinegar Diet”, circa 1820s: Popularized by British poet Lord Byron, dieters would supposedly shed pounds by drenching food in vinegar.

“The Great Masticator Diet”, circa 1903: Participants chewed food 32 times before spitting it out. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes, was a devoted follower.

“The Cigarette Diet”, circa 1925: Spin-off from a Lucky Strikes marketing campaign, dieters reached for a cigarette whenever they craved a sweet.

Source: American Dietetic Association.

Originally published in The University Daily Kansan on November 9, 2009.


Is honesty really the best policy?

I hate to break the news, but a triple whopper at Burger King costs a whopping 1,160 calories. Thinking about running across the street to McDonald’s? A comparable triple-quarter-pounder with cheese still packs a 960-calorie punch. If this information comes as unwelcome, then any potential travel plans to one of these fast-food restaurants may need to be reconsidered.

In May 2008, New York City became the first city to implement calorie-labeling laws. Since then, momentum for similar laws has quickly picked up as city and state governments around the country have mandated displays of nutritional information in many restaurants. This makes it virtually impossible to remain blissfully ignorant of what exactly it means to “supersize.”

Though the truth hurts, the laws have been placed with the best of intentions. Health officials estimate that, because of the labels, the number of obese New Yorkers could decrease by 150,000 during the next five years. However, both junk food junkies and health nuts have met the laws with resistance.

Upon first impression, it seems obvious that more awareness on the nutritional information of food items would result in a healthier populace. Seventy-nine percent of people are in favor of calorie postings at restaurants, saying that more information leads to smarter choices, according to a survey by MSNBC.com.

What government officials fail to realize is that the obesity crisis is about more than simple numbers. To truly impart change, the behaviors of an entire country need to be addressed. This takes more than posting dauntingly large calorie counts.

The labeling laws are held back from reaching their potential by a key paradox. In most cases, only restaurants with 15-plus locations around the country are required to post information. This mainly includes fast-food chains. Unfortunately, the typical customer at many of these places is not usually concerned with nutritional information, whether obviously posted or not.

The average customer actually ordered slightly more calories than before the calorie labeling three months after the New York City law went into effect, according to a study published in Health Affairs, a medicine and health care journal.

In an ideal world, everyone would be responsible enough to educate himself or herself on the importance of nutrition. This unfortunately isn’t the case. The truth is that there will always be people who don’t care about the saturated fat in an order of fries.

So who pays the consequences? What about the people who view eating out as an experience to enjoy or as a reward from an otherwise healthy diet? For these people, calorie postings mean that a little bit of the pleasure of food is stripped away. It is difficult to enjoy a treat — emphasis on “treat” — in the comforts of oblivion when its nutritional information can’t be ignored.

I believe that there is some merit in calorie labeling laws; if they are able to inspire even a few people to make healthier dining choices, then something positive has been accomplished. Even so, food is about more than numbers. It’s about nourishment, enjoyment and — occasionally — a little bit of indulgence.

Originally published in The University Daily Kansan on October 28, 2009.


Smart choices lead to healthy life

We’ve heard them all: college is a journey; the greatest lessons learned are those outside of the classroom; opportunity lingers around every corner.

But with all clichés aside, I digress. The real point is that college is a time of self-definition, where relationships are developed, career paths pursued and habits formed.

That is why, possibly more than any other time of life, it is critical to make health-conscious choices in college. Simply integrating routines into life now makes it easier to maintain a healthy body in the future.

Unfortunately, health takes a backseat all too often. This doesn’t have to be the case. Beneficial habits can fit into a schedule otherwise packed with studying, time with friends and occasional fast food.

Not convinced of the significance that decisions made now have on the rest of life? That isn’t surprising. College students are infamous for procrastination. I’ll even argue in favor of occasional deference — other than the freshness of the printer ink, what is the difference between a paper written today and one written tomorrow?

Yet — for the sake of the metaphor — postponing healthy choices is like waiting to complete a major assignment until the last minute, only to realize it was due yesterday. While professors may be sweet-talked into providing extra time, excuses do not apply to lifestyle choices. Sorry, but saying, “My dog ate my running shoes” is not particularly effective in warding off diabetes or lung cancer.

There are no magic pills or instant fixes in the pursuit of healthfulness. It requires awareness and self-accountability. But healthful habits don’t necessitate sacrifice.

In developing new routines, start small. Mindless changes, such as drinking more water throughout the day or turning off the TV earlier, quickly become automatic.

Once little habits are tackled, it is time to take on bigger obstacles. Issues vary from person to person, so self-reflection is necessary in determining what to address. From that point, break down larger goals into smaller, manageable habits.

Struggling with a diet? Attempt to eat a good breakfast and avoid processed foods. Exercise? Find an enjoyable activity, be it dance or rock-climbing. Mental health? Take time to slow down and think positively. Eventually, small successes add up to a healthier body, without ever having felt the burden of sacrifice.

On the path to a healthier life, you will face challenges. It is natural to fall off the wagon or realize that some goals aren’t realistic.

No denying it, “Sunrise Yoga” isn’t for everyone. Failing at one habit is no excuse to throw all positive routines aside. Count the completion of every goal —big or small — as an achievement.

Ultimately, healthy habits aren’t about being seen at the gym or impressing friends. They are about committing to the pursuit of a long, active and enjoyable life. Besides, being “the hottie” at the 20-year high school reunion won’t hurt.

Originally published in The University Daily Kansan on October 9, 2009.


More to eating healthy than diets, quick fixes

Diet. At one time the word alone was enough to make even the most health-conscious of people cringe. And now? Every magazine is filled with the latest tips. Every morning news show proclaims the best methods. Everyone behind the checkout counter thinks they have the best advice. It is as if, suddenly, there is no “I” in “diet.”

So, what exactly is the problem? Couldn’t it be assumed that the increase in dialogue would lead to more healthful eating habits and, consequentially, bodies?

Au contraire!

Instead of creating a more healthful America, mass dieting has spawned a nation of androids, blindly — or rather, tastelessly — consuming foods based on current fads. It is as if this nationalization of feeding has resulted in widespread distancing from the very best parts of eating: the aromas, the colors, the textures and finally the tastes. And the worst consequence of all, more so than the bizarre willingness to consume cardboard if suddenly deemed healthful, is that Americans are surrendering their abilities to truly enjoy food.

Yet, unlike the latest diet plans that many people are so eager to embrace, there is no quick fix to overcoming contention with culinary mediocrity. Instead, it is necessary to rework the ways in which we associate with food.

First, we have to learn to talk about food not as the inevitable and eternal enemy, but rather as a close friend with whom we share positive experiences and fond memories.

Reworking my own relationship relationship with food has been a challenge, but the greatest reward of becoming aware of what I really am craving is the deep joy and pleasure I feel in indulgence. I now know that I love a cool ice cream cone on a hot summer day, a steaming cup of aromatic coffee in the early hours of a winter morning and a slice of whole wheat bread topped with peanut butter after an intense workout.

Though I may not be sticking to any strict diet, I have found that acknowledging my hunger allows me to feel easily and completely satisfied. Often a bite of chocolate that I slowly savor fills me up more than a hastily devoured — and later regretted — slice of rich cake.

True, there are some key principles that are important to stick close to. No matter how much they may be craved, a body can only get by for so long on Twinkies or hamburgers.

But beyond a few smart guidelines, eating is more about personal reflection than prescribed diets. This approach may take a bit more time and effort than simply consuming based on fads. However, the results of a healthy, empowered body and truly satisfied appetite are well worth it.

Originally published in The University Daily Kansan on August 31, 2009.