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Archive for the ‘Better Living Through Clean Eating’ Category

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We are getting our first real fall weather here in Los Angeles, and I love it. Autumn has always been my favorite season; the crisp air and shortening days speak of possibility to me.

The food of fall is some of my favorite too. I love the arrival of fall produce at the markets: the crisp, juicy apples, the gourds in all their strange shapes and alluring colors. They remind me of the years in college and after when I visited my aunt on weekends in her coastal Connecticut town. One of our big activities was driving over to Bishop’s, the large farm stand in the area, where we would buy bags of apples and the best fresh cider I have ever had (which my best friend called “liquid gold”). And now, visiting farmer’s markets around LA, I get so excited when the piles of gourds appear with their different, delicious options: spaghetti squash, butternut squash, pumpkins, kabocha.

There was a long period of time, though, when I appreciated this bounty mostly through the co-opting of pumpkin to add season flavor to an endless stream of food products. Just as the marketing campaigns would like us to believe, fall to me did mean pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin muffins, and pumpkin scones. Pumpkin honestly makes everything delicious, so it’s no surprise that I liked all these foods. The 380 calories in a pumpkin spiced latte (from Starbucks) is surprising to me – or rather, it was. I know now that most of those foods have more sugar than actual pumpkin (and some don’t have any pumpkin in them at all), and as my views about food change, that reality makes them less delicious to me.

So now I focus on enjoying fall’s bounty in a more direct way: by eating the actual pumpkin, the actual apples, and all the other delicious produce out there. I am relearning how to bake with pumpkin, so it is a healthier experience. I’ve now made this pumpkin bar recipe about a dozen times, and I’m excited to try more recipes. In the meantime, I am cutting up gourds and cooking them in as many ways as I can think of: mixed with meat in the slow cooker, roasted as spears to simulate sweet potato fries, cut in half and baked to enjoy in their natural richness. It’s such a bounty. It makes me feel so fortunate.

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Pumpkin Bar with Coconut Cream

Pumpkin Bar with Coconut Cream

I am working on being kinder with myself in my relationship with food. In that vein, I was offered the challenge last week of baking something just for fun.

I love to bake, but I rarely do it now that I don’t eat most of the ingredients that go into baked goods. The idea of baking a traditional cake/cookie/bread/etc that I either would not eat or would feel bad about eating did not sound fun to me. So I set out to find some recipes that fit my dietary parameters.

I knew this would be challenging because of the sugar. I don’t believe in sugar at all. It is a toxic substance, and while I’ve certainly still eaten it from time to time, my goal is not to. Further, I do not think that chemical sugar substitutes are acceptable, nor is agave (the ways in which agave is not at all what it’s sold to be deserve their own post, but suffice to say that it’s really pretty terrible). At this point, I’m basically okay with maple syrup, honey, dates and fruit as sweeteners. And none of those in large quantity. Also, I like to avoid any kind of wheat flour. And dairy.

So it took some Internet sleuthing, but eventually I found my way to a wonderful site called Spoonful of Sugar Free. The author has a whole section of desserts, and I fairly quickly found one that fit my parameters: her Grain-Free Pumpkin Pie Bars with Creamy Frosting. The ingredient list for this recipe is great in its simplicity: pumpkin, coconut flour (and only a 1/4 cup at that), spices, vanilla, a little almond milk, and eggs. I find all of these ingredients to be totally acceptable, so I was really excited to try the recipe.

And it turned out great! It was easy too. The prep time really did only take about 10 minutes. The resulting bars were tasty – like a milder, less sweet version of pumpkin pie filling. Since I don’t really eat sugar, they tasted sweet to me. My husband, whose diet is less restricted, also liked them though. And one of the best parts? The whole tray totaled just over 400 calories, making a piece a very reasonable snack.

The author also provides a frosting recipe, which is ingenious. I tried it the next day (because it involved overnight refrigeration), and I found that adding the creamy coconut concoction to the top of the bar gave it a little extra punch of flavor. With the frosting, it is a dessert I think almost anyone would enjoy. The frosting also doubles the calorie count because coconut milk is intense. So I’ve approached that part of the dessert with a little more reserve.

I really enjoyed making and eating a treat a felt good about, and it’s something I intend to do again. I love treats, and I don’t really want to live a life without them. I just want them to nourish and support the life I’m choosing.

 

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We live in a society with a largely compromised food source – something many, even most people do not want to believe. After all, everything looks fine. Our supermarkets are enormous and endless stocked. Restaurants, fast food chains, mega-supermarkets, and convenience stores make everything from a candy bar to a papaya to Cornish game hen pretty easy to come by. We can get whatever we want, whenever we want it, regardless of seasons.

Except maybe for food that is not filled with additives and chemicals. I’ve been hearing about problematic food additives for years, as I’m sure we all have – ingredients like MSG and rBGH (Bovine Growth Hormone) – but it was not until I started reading Michael Pollan several years ago that I really began to understand the extent to which the food might not be okay.

This was my first significant understanding of the idea that food could be bad to eat – not because it was making me fat and being fat meant I was bad and unlovable (not true, obviously, but still what I believed), but because it was not natural, was not healthy, and might cause long-term health problems. So I began shifting away, as Pollan suggests, from foods that have more than five ingredients and avoiding foods with ingredients I can’t pronounce.

I was reminded of the importance of this practice this week when several articles on ingredients to avoid popped up in my newsfeed. One of these, The 9 Worst Food Ingredients Your Money Can Buy, is a list of exactly what it advertises, and the descriptions of what’s wrong with the ingredients are stark and frightening.

For example, high fructose corn syrup. I routinely refer to this ingredient as “high fructose corn death,” which my husband seems to think is blowing things out of proportion. And yet… “Consuming this chemical inhibits your body’s production of leptin, which is responsible for telling your brain you’re full (leading to overeating). Moreover, it can contain high levels of toxic mercury and can damage tissue, and interferes with your body’s production of glucose and insulin – leading – you guessed it – to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and all sorts of metabolic disorders.”

Knowing that, why would any of us go near something containing HFCS? But it is so many foods, and often what’s convenient takes priority over what is good for us. And here’s how easy that can be…

Another ingredient from the article’s list is BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), which “the Department of Health and Human services has readily deemed these additives as known carcinogens…BHA and BHT are known to cause hair loss, fetal abnormalities, growth retardation, behavioral problems, liver and kidney damage, issues with sleep and appetite, oh – and cancer.

Obviously, I would avoid such a terrible ingredient, except… I just looked at the label on my package of gum, a piece of which I was happily smacking – it contains BHT. To “maintain freshness” (the package actually says this), so you know… that makes it totally cool.

So that’s how easy it is. Obviously, I spit my gum out. It’s a reminder though, of the constant diligence needed, diligence that can be hard and annoying. Because sometimes, you just want to eat the thing, you know? The thing you were fed as a kid, that your parents thought was fine, the thing that so many other people are eating, the thing that’s easy to get to after a long day, for god’s sake.

But often it really is a thing, as opposed to, you know, food. And it’s good to have these reminders about what’s at stake when we don’t eat real food, why it’s so important that we take the time to truly nourish ourselves.

 

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This article, “How Carbs Can Trigger Food Cravings” from the New York Times, is really interesting to me. It’s another piece in a growing body of reading I’ve done on the idea that not all calories are the same.

For a long time, I was a believer in the calories in-calories out theory. I thought that a calorie was a calorie, no matter where it came from, and as long as I kept them to a manageable number, I would lose weight. Well… ask my four rounds on Weight Watchers and the countless other diets I did how that worked out. The answer is not well.

I think I was never successful at Weight Watchers in part because I used the point system as a way to justify living off desserts and vegetables. I could spend half my daily points on sweets and the rest on really low-calorie meals. Not surprisingly (although I was very surprised by it at the time), this didn’t work.

What I’ve learned from personal trial and error is that I have to cut out sugar and refined carbohydrates in order not just to lose weight but also to be able to maintain a healthy eating regiment without constant cravings. This is a hard reality some days, so I really like it when I read something that backs up this experience.

For example, this line in the article:

“This research suggests that based on their effects on brain metabolism, all calories are not alike,” [Dr. David Ludwig] said. “Not everybody who eats processed carbohydrates develops uncontrollable food cravings. But for the person who has been struggling with weight in our modern food environment and unable to control their cravings, limiting refined carbohydrate may be a logical first step.”

This line reminds me a lot of one of the big ideas I took away from Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat. Which is that not everyone’s bodies will respond poorly to carbohydrates, particularly highly processed ones, but for those people whose bodies do, they will gain weight from eating those foods. I recognized myself in this, as I do in Anahad O’Connor’s article. I frickin’ love bread. So much. And I hate the idea that it’s not good for me. But. It seems that part of the reason I love it so much is because “foods that are sugary and highly caloric elicit pronounced responses in distinct areas of the brain involved in reward.”

So basically it’s my drug. Which would explain both why I’ve been addicted to it for so long, and why it’s so important to change that relationship.

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It’s time for a reboot. If my previous posts haven’t made it obvious enough, I have struggled to get back on the path of healthy eating since my wedding. I have been somewhat successful, but still I have wandered and lost my focus in places. A bite of cake here, a glass of wine there, an entire weekend just eating whatever. Healthy living is a big picture endeavor, but it’s also an every day practice. Which means that the devil is in the details.

As in, when I get too loose with the details, I let the devil back in. The devil of sugar, of compulsive eating, of slacking off on exercise more than once a week. All those little details start to add up to a less healthy version of myself.

I am not content to be less healthy. I know from experience that it does not feel good. I traded in sluggishness, chronic tiredness, poor physical conditioning, and 50+ pounds for a more agile, energetic, engaged, and strong version of myself. It’s one of the best things I ever have done, and I’m not giving it up. In fact, I want to be better still.

I’m in my 30s. It’s not going to get easier to be healthy. So the stronger the foundation I build now, the better off I’ll be. I spent years being the last one to finish a hike, the one who avoided team sports. I hated feeling so incapable, but also, it was what I knew. And now I know there is another way.

It’s a path that requires more diligence. To make the time to exercise, every day, even when I don’t feel like it. To eat whole, nutrient-dense foods, even when there are other temptations. It’s important to remember that I do these things for me. To fuel my body and clear my mind. To improve my mood and strengthen my whole self. To reduce my risk for pretty much all of the diseases. It’s easy to forget how massive the benefits are – and how fully I feel them. But it’s so important and fundamental that I remember. So…

I’m getting back to it. This is what I’m committing to:
*Daily exercise
*Consistent strength training
*Eating a diet of lean protein (sustainably sourced whenever possible), whole grains (and not very many), vegetables, fruit, and healthy fats. No more sugar. No more booze. No processed carbs. And very little dairy.

This is how I want to live. It’s what I truly believe is best for me. I also know that I’m the only one who can choose my life, each of the choices, every time and every day. So I’m recommitting to making the best choices I can. To being present and mindful of what those choices are and why I want them.

 

 

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For a quick and clever summary of most of what’s wrong with our society’s relationship to food and health, read this article: DEAR AMERICAN CONSUMERS: PLEASE DON’T START EATING HEALTHFULLY. SINCERELY, THE FOOD INDUSTRY.

Written, tongue firmly in cheek, from the perspective of the food industry, it touches on some high points of what’s so disturbing about the state of eating in our country. For starters, the focus on health as a reflection on appearance rather than “outcomes like quality of life and reduced disease risk.”

One of the biggest catalysts for change in my own life was the realization that my well being and health were what was truly at stake in my fight with my weight. For years, I focused on how my excess weight led to me being judged superficially. This judgment motivated me to want to lose weight because who doesn’t want to be considered desirable and fit in? But also, it didn’t motivate me. Because it felt shitty to be judged in that way, and so I was not truly motivated to change because I was angry at a system that set such superficial standards. It was only when I realized that this conversation about beauty was not nearly as important – like not even in the same building of the lecture hall – as the one about my health and how my eating affected it.

Once I understood that what I was eating was harmful to my well-being, that it was poisoning me, I started to rebel in a new way. Where before, I had rebelled against beauty standards by eating more donuts, now I looked at all the processing and chemicals in the donuts and started rebelling by insisting on eating real food.

Because that’s not what the food industry wanted me to do. It wanted me to eat unhealthy food that it had formulated specifically to make me crave more of it, so that I would keep buying it and spending money on it, which in turn would cause me to spend money on diet plans and health care costs, so that all I was doing was spending money on crap I didn’t need when in reality, there was an apple available all along.

Statements like this one make me see red:

On top of that, we understand human biology. Humans evolved in situations in which food was scarce. This led to an evolutionary adaptation that causes you to crave salty, sugary and fatty foods. Consuming foods with these characteristics actually lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as cocaine. Who wouldn’t play upon that biological craving to increase profits?

Because now I see how I – and everyone around me – is being used. And I’m not okay with that. I’m not okay with compromising my own well-being in order to further line the deep coffers of an industry that’s only interest is in profit. Suddenly, donuts don’t really seem appealing at all. In fact, they seem fake and gross and like the enemy they are.

And statistics like the following blow my mind:

Specifically, according to General Mills, “of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages in America, 88 would fail the IWG’s proposed standards.” So you see? If you people start eating the way the nutrition experts at the CDC and USDA recommend that you eat, that would delegitimize almost 90 percent of the products we produce!

90%! The vast majority of what is being sold to us is crap. And it’s crap that’s intentionally created to use us for profit with no concern for how much it harms us. And it harms us a lot. This is so disturbing to me and so disgusting. It is the fuel I need to walk away from the temptation of foods crafted to appeal to me. And it makes me wonder: why aren’t more people outraged?

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There are a lot of different approaches to healthy eating, probably as many as there are days in the year. This is mine…

I am guided by Michael Pollan’s principle of eating real food, as outlined in his book In Defense of Food. The goal is to eat real food, not processed, with a focus on plants. This goal has been refined into specifics by my trainer, tweaked over the past two years, often to a point that I find extremely annoying (like when we cut out carbs at night).

Here’s what I eat:

Lean protein: Chicken, turkey, fish, tofu, egg whites. In an ideal world, all the meat would be sustainably sourced, but that’s still an ideal I’m working on as I often get my meals from restaurants, Trader Joe’s salads, and the commissary at work.

Vegetables: All of them. I most enjoy kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, all the many squashes, broccoli, artichokes, and peppers.

Fruit: All of it. The goal is to eat fruit with a lower glycemic index like berries, but i enjoy all of it. I eat an apple pretty much every day, and I am happiest in stone fruit season (which is now) when my most favorite fruits, cherries and peaches, are in abundance.

Legumes: Beans are good. Particularly chickpeas. I eat a lot of chickpeas, most often in hummus form.

Limited dairy: My dairy is limited to nonfat, plain Greek yogurt. I eat it almost every day, and I love it.

Whole grains: My biggest struggle is to cut out processed flour in breads. I love me a good, fresh from the oven loaf of French bread, but my body does not love it at all. In fact, it can barely process it. My current intention is to not eat wheat flour at all. Instead, I ate brown rice or coconut flour. I also eat brown rice by itself and a limited quantity of corn tortillas, because I live in Southern California.

Nuts: I limit my nut consumption because I would eat all the almonds, all the time if I could. They’re good for me, but also dense in calories, so I eat a few, mostly in times of hunger.

Drinks: Water, black coffee, black or herbal tea. That’s it! Occasionally, I’ll have almond or soy milk. Occasionally, I’ll have a glass of wine. But most liquids are empty calories that I know do nothing for me.

Dark Chocolate: I’m only human, and dark chocolate keeps me sane. I eat 85% dark or higher. It’s got kind of an earthy taste, but I like it. I’m working now to limit the quantity of dark chocolate I eat because, given the opportunity, I would eat it all.

That’s what I do. It’s simple, but effective. What matters most to me about it is that it’s real food that actually nourishes my body. Sometimes it’s hard – often in fact – but it’s always rewarding. Sometimes it’s boring, but that’s a limitation I create. The more creative I am, the more interesting my food becomes. And I haven’t even scratched the surface of new and interesting way to make it delicious.

 

 

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