Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The challenge of eating healthy

Here is a passionate essay from Kevin, a community planner in Madison, WI. He writes about the challenges of eating healthy in our fast-food culture, and gives some excellent principles to live by when working towards a healthier diet.

The challenge of eating healthy is significant and undeniable.  Life is consumed with pressures and triggers that push us towards eating convenient, fast, processed, mass produced food.  Advertisements on television and other media show us ground meat glistening with grease and topped with gooey melted cheese, wrapped in a flour tortilla.  We all have seen the commercials for the new double burger from Burger King topped with two slices of melted cheese, bacon, and hot peppers, and a side of steamy golden French Fries.  Or the endless ways large pizza chains are trying to inject cheese into every square inch of our pizzas - now we have pizza where the crust breaks off into little stuffed cheese balls.  Sounds delicious, huh?  This is all pretty powerful stuff.  I am often sucked in, and it is hard to resist.  

There are teams of expert marketers and advertisers behind those commercials and advertisements.  The stuff is just delicious, and it is fast and available by just traveling to my local corner or making a quick phone call for delivery.  Mass produced food is perfectly designed and engineered to key in on all of our desires when we eat – salty, fatty, sweet, etc.  Food scientists and food companies know what people crave and respond to, and they design and manufacture their food with consistent and repetitive formulas and mechanisms that match all of our cravings and taste sensors.  There is a reason why a cheeseburger at a McDonalds in New York tastes the same as the McDonalds in Alaska.  Combine this with endless flavored sodas and juices packed with calories, and aisles of boxed snack and other food at the grocery store, and these foods are at our fingertips.  We all lead busy lives and these foods are perfect for our lifestyles.  They are quick, tasty, cheap, and convenient, and it is not hard to see what eating these foods has become the default option for many Americans.

That all sounds like a daunting set of pressures to overcome, but I assure you it is not.  Eating healthy is a challenging, yet rewarding endeavor, and it can be done with some simple steps and behavior changes.  Here are some principles that I try to live by when it comes to food, some of which I have read or heard about elsewhere, in no particular order:  
Eat foods with as few ingredients as possible
Avoid processed food with a long list of strange ingredients like disodium phosphate.  These are the wonders of chemistry, manufactured food additives that are meant to add flavor, texture, and create the “ideal” food.  Try eating foods that are as minimally processed as possible.  This obviously includes fruits and vegetables, but also includes beans, oils, nuts, cheese, milk, butter, meats, and the like.  Also, try to avoid processed foods that still require cooking like rice and flavorings from a box, instant potatoes, etc.  These types of foods are more nutritious, more filling, and are more versatile for cooking various dishes.    
Learn to cook
Learning to cook is the most enjoyable, rewarding, and easiest way to healthier eating.  Learning to cook is a tremendous life skill, one that gives you an appreciation for ingredients, an understanding of what ingredients and foods go well together, and a powerful source of camaraderie among those you share your cooking and meals with.  It doesn’t have to be complicated food, or a difficult process.  The most important thing is to have the inspiration, the right equipment, basic skills, and you should be all set.  The most important equipment is a good quality and good size sauté pan, a good knife for slicing meats and cutting vegetables, and a working oven and stovetop.  
With this basic equipment, and basic knowledge of cutting vegetables, sautéing, and baking, you can cook a wide range of tasty and simple meals.  Cooking at home is all about preparing what you like, but it is helpful to have a sense of ingredients that go well together.  We all know about peanut butter and jelly, but how about pork and fennel, cucumber and mint, tomato and basil, and mustard and white wine in sauces?  These are the kinds of ingredient pairings that make food interesting, fun to prepare, and delish.  The joy and feeling of accomplishment of creating a filling, interesting, and nutritious dish that you can eat yourself or share with others is tremendous. 
It’s all about simple foods with simple ingredients
Start slowly and begin with some simple dishes.  One of my go-to dishes that is simple is stir frying vegetables such as garlic, onion, red peppers, broccoli and others in a pan and adding cooked whole wheat spaghetti.  Try adding peanut butter, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, or other Asian-inspired flavors for more taste, and adding chicken, beef, tofu, or maybe cooking an egg in with the stir fry to make it more substantial.  Once you learn to cook basic meals such as this, become more comfortable with using various herbs and spices, and properly prepare things such as baked potatoes, chicken breast, or pork, you will be able to add to and build your repertoire to add more complex pairings, sauces, techniques, and flavor combinations.  Don’t be afraid to use REAL ingredients such as butter, eggs, and the like.  These are the foods that our grandparents ate and there is nothing wrong with any of them as long as they are used properly.  Just experiment and have fun! 
p.s. For more information on learning to cook from scratch, see my post on Basic Recipes for Health.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Friends matter

Here is a post from Chris, a construction supervisor in Milwaukee. He has a healthy dose of sense of humor when it comes to living a healthy life. He also recognizes the importance of surrounding yourself with others who have similar goals. He has a great support system, and recognizes how much this affects his healthy lifestyle.
I have friends who like being active, I have [my fiance] who likes being active, I have a supportive family, and I know that if I were to start doing things that were very unhealthy, people would try and help me to reverse those decisions and turn my life in the right direction.
This has been shown time after time, that friends help us live longer, or, conversely, influence our levels  of obesity. So one strategy for living a healthy life is to look at the people with whom you surround yourself. While we certainly can't change everyone we see each day, we can make a conscious effort to notice our habits when we are with others. Around some people, we may tend to eat out more, drive more, or indulge more. Alternatively, others may inspire us to eat healthier or walk more. And best of all, certain friends or family members may motivate us to stick to our goals. Try to find someone who has the same health goals as you, and hold each other accountable. If you can't find anyone, I'm always looking for someone to motivate me!

But remember not to be too hard on yourself when you slip up. We're all human, we all make mistakes. Chris also points out that living a healthy life is about balance, not about perfection. As he says,
I know that I'm able to go out for a couple beers after work, because I worked hard during the day.  And yes - the beers aren't super healthy for me, per se... but life is about balance.  There are people who do everything that is perfectly healthy and nothing that isn't.  That life isn't for me.  I work out so I can enjoy life, not so I can become a super model (even though my dashing good looks already make me look like one).  I work hard so I can spend a couple snow day mornings watching Netflix on my sweet new HDTV.  I bike to work so I can have a few beers after work.  Am I in perfect health?  Absolutely not.  Do I eat crap sometimes?  Oh yeah.  I love me a Big Mac every now and again.  But I notice that after eating junk, I don't feel as good as after I eat a great healthy meal.  That motivates me to keep going and continue as healthy a lifestyle as I can.
P.S. One inspirational study mentioned in the NY Times article linked above: Thirty-four students wearing heavy backpacks were taken to a hill and asked to estimate how steep it was. Those that were standing next to friends estimated that the hill was less steep than those that were standing alone. The hill was the same in both cases; for some reason, it appeared less steep to those that were standing next to friends. Pretty awesome.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How much sugar is in that?

Thanks go out to Katie, a graduate student at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, for sending along this interesting link called How Much Sugar Is in That? The website shows crazy (but true) images depicting the sugar content of various foods we eat. For example, this image shows the number of carrots you'd have to eat in order to equal the amount of sugar in a bottle of Coke.

Drinking a bottle of vitamin water is the equivalent of consuming seven sugar cubes. Strawberry yogurt has seven as well. And a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice's like eating 21 sugar cubes!

As much as I love Ben & Jerry's Half Baked, this is a great website to visit when you're craving something sweet, and can't seem to resist the ice cream. Seeing these images might help you turn instead to grapes, apple slices, or other fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth. The natural sugar found in fruits doesn't have the same negative effect on your body as added sugar in other food products.

And one last resource: the Nutrition Diva has a really great five-minute podcast with more practical tips on how to reduce your sugar intake.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Making exercise a habit

While I have (more or less) mastered the routine of eating healthy, I still struggle greatly with incorporating exercise into my daily schedule. I love to run, once I get outside. But in the morning, I'll find any excuse not to get out of bed and venture into the cold (or rain, or slush, or sunshine, or whatever else seems to be a good reason to avoid getting up). 

Thus, I'm constantly seeking tips on how to make exercise a regular part of my routine. I've found a very inspirational and simple blog called Zen Habits, which has lots of ideas on how to make exercise a daily habitAnd I also love to hear from people in my life who have the same goal. Below is some advice from Teagan, an ecologist in Montana who is a long-time runner and biker. In 2008, she completed a 2,300 mile bike ride from the Yukon to Yellowstone National Park (see this article to read more about her trip). She talks about the importance of making exercise a part of your life, in the same way that eating and sleeping are mandatory activities:
Combine things you love with exercise. 
If you're a competitive sort, schedule a weekly game of racquetball or basketball. If the social aspect appeals to you, find a group of friends to exercise with. You can have a different friend and different activity for each day of the week. If you love exploring, go for a long bike ride around places you don't normally see. If you're inspired by a scenic view, find a trail or route near a natural area.
Diversify your activities. 
While it's great to commit 100% to one thing, say running, it can be super hard on your body to subject it to the same stresses every day for months or years. If you can find activities that challenge different parts of your body, your overall fitness and enjoyment will benefit.
Be flexible. 
It can sometimes be hard to do the same activity based on seasonal changes, weather, and changing school or work schedules. Incorporate exercise into your class or work commute; run or walk there. Bike to a dinner party or to the store if you have a small list. Find a gym or indoor activity that you can frequent when the weather is cold or inclement. You can maintain a high level of fitness this way and also keep reduce stress on your body.
For more ideas on how to get moving, see Top 42 Exercise Hacks, or Developing an Exercise Routine, or Make Workouts Daily.
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