Archive for January, 2012

On Resolutions II: Garbage in, Garbage Out

Alright, we’re now into February!  How is your resolution holding up?

Many health-related resolutions are directly or indirectly tied to our eating habits.  Many of us resolve to “eat better,” and how we fuel our bodies bears heavily on whether we “lose weight” or not.  When it comes to weight loss, the first thing out of many people’s mouths is “Calories!  Burn more than you consume!  It’s not that hard!”

But the thing is, it is hard.  For the 90% of us that have desk jobs,  burning off calories is kind of a chore, and it’s not always practical to abandon our work phones and slug boxes in the warehouse.  According to the elliptical machine I use at the gym, a good half-hour of moderate cardio burns me 200 calories.  That takes care of those carrot sticks I had at lunch!  Let’s be realistic: if you take this approach and try to burn more calories than you consume, you probably have to find a way to burn off 3000-4000 calories daily.  How many hours does each day come with again?

I’m not trying to say that exercise is useless…far from it!  But you have to use it as a supplement to your eating habits, which are phenomenally more important.

So what do good eating habits look like?

I have this theory.  Basically, I assume that our bodies are well-adapted to our environments… whether you want to believe that a God designed us that way, or we evolved that way, it doesn’t matter.  The point is that our bodies are amazing machines that require fuel to operate, and the world around us is filled with this fuel.  However, the more we get our sticky fingers in the process, the less valuable that fuel becomes.  Most of the diet advice out there agrees on one fundamental:  Less processed food, more fresh food.  Whether you’re looking at Paleo, Atkins, Dukan, or whatever diet of the week is popular, pretty much all of them assume that you’re going to start preparing your own food and cutting out factory-made snacks.

I realize that this view can get extreme, and I’m not trying to slam “cooking” as a process, or advocating a raw-food diet at all (though I’m sure that can be great).  I’m not even trying to pimp a 100-mile diet (though I’m actually curious to try that).  What I’m talking about is much more fundamental… for example, let’s take a tomato.  Snap it off the vine and it’s good for you!  Full of vitamins, fibre, and all sorts of wonderful things.  Some studies suggest that cooking it actually makes more of those good things available by breaking it down a bit.  But process it in a factory and pump it full of corn syrup, salt, and preservatives, and the nutritional value is negligible.  Any vitamins that remain will do very little good in the face of all the bad done by that added sugar.

A calorie is not a calorie: it’s either a good or a bad one.  In theory, if you limit your calories to 2000 a day you’ll lose weight, but if those 2000 calories are comprised solely of coca-cola, slim jims, and doritos… I mean, come on, we know better than that.

So what do we do about it?

As I’ve said before, a sudden and exhaustive overhaul of your life will be hard to maintain.  Start with small changes.

I highly recommend taking up the habit of reading labels, and paying attention to the recommended serving size.  I recently read on the side of one can of pop that the serving size was about a third of the can.  Who drinks a third of a can of pop a day?  Nobody, that’s who!  Do you put it in the fridge for later?  All the nutritional information on the label, including calories, had to be tripled, which made that can of pop into more of a snack than a drink!

Not to name names, but...yo.

Check the ingredients list too.  You’d be surprised to see how many storebought sauces list “sugar” as the second ingredient, sometimes even before what you would expect to be the main ingredient!   How does that even happen?

Start looking for alternatives.  What do you like to eat?  Ok, now what’s a better way of making that food?  Instead of buying frozen chicken strips, can you make your own?  That’s a personal example for me…I found a great recipe, and my husband regularly tells me that mine are way better than storebought.  As I mentioned in my previous post, we switched from using pre-made spaghetti sauces to spicing up crushed tomatoes.  I couldn’t believe how much sugar was in a sauce that is supposed to be savoury, and maybe spicy…certainly not sweet!

Moving on to my next point, here’s a quick story.  Over Christmas I had some store-bought yogurt and when I read the ingredients I was amazed by how much sodium was in it!  This is plain, low-fat yogurt…it shouldn’t have salt in it, it should have milk and cultures.  If there’s anything else in there, it should be berries added by me.  Why would you add salt to yogurt in the first place?

Seriously?

Well, because it’s low-fat.  We’ve all been pretty well programmed to recognize fat as the enemy.  After all, it’s the same word we use to talk about our bellies, so it only makes sense.  The problem is that when you strip the fats out of a naturally fatty food, it seldom tastes good anymore.  So we pump it up with things that do taste good….sugar and salt.  See what I mean about people interfering with our foods?

There are a lot of fats that are very good for you!

You’ll hear a lot about “heart-healthy fats.”  But what does this mean, and how do they differ from the fats we were all raised to believe are evil?  The more I read, the more I’m convinced that the only fats we really need to worry about are in red meat.

Vegetable fats like Olive Oil and Avocado are packed with health benefits.  Poultry and Dairy are ok, but I’d still recommend limiting your dairy.  Having a little yogurt a day is amazingly good for you, but a glass of milk with every meal might not be the best choice.  Red meat, on the other hand, is largely over-consumed.  I won’t go as far to say we all need to become vegetarians, but cutting beef down to once or twice a week will be easier on your body, the environment (cattle farming!) and your wallet all at the same time.  You’d be surprised at how good chicken is in your chili or on your nachos!

Bonus points for artful arrangement of leaves around your bottle.

And on the point of meat-eating, I need to plug wild meat.  What I said about people interfering with our foods applies here too:  A wild animal that has eaten what it wants and lived an active “happy” life will be better for you than an animal that spends all it’s life in a barn being force-fed corn.  Seriously, give wild meat a shot (pun!).  If your deer is gamey, soak it in milk.  I remember the last time we ran out of deer and I had to buy some beef from the store.  I couldn’t believe how bad it tasted!  Store-beef was tasteless and just kind of gross: the deer was flavourful and delicious.  Maybe shooting and cleaning your own meat is too much for you, so make friends with a hunter.  Half a deer kept us in red meat for over a year.  Let that sink in for a second… How much money do you drop on beef monthly?

But back on topic.  Some have even suggested that a low-fat diet causes your body to hold on tightly to every scrap of fat it gets.  I can’t vouch for the science of this, but the point remains:  You need healthy fats in your diet.

But what about calories?

Watching your portion-sizes is also important.  Some experts have said that in many cases, cutting out 300-400 calories a day is the tipping point between losing weight or not.  This can be as easy as drinking water instead of juice and pop with every meal, and nixing your daily bag of skittles.  Start to improve your meals on top of that, and I think you’ll be happy with the results.

As mentioned earlier, burning more calories than you consume is hard…so it’s better to focus on consuming less than you burn.  You may feel a little hungry at first, but start to really listen to your body.  Are you really hungry, or are you just craving the tastes?  Can this hunger be sated by a snack, or do we really need a whole other meal?  Sometimes it can be psychological:  You feel like you have to clean your plate.  Take a smaller serving on a smaller plate!

Was that so bad?

Cutting down on quantity and improving the quality of your calories is key to so many health-related goals.  I can’t encourage you more to start evaluating your eating habits and making changes for the better.  You’ll start to feel better, even if you didn’t necessarily feel “bad” before.  I know personally that when I’m eating well, I wake up with more energy…and I am the polar opposite of a morning person.  My mood improves, and I’m more motivated to exercise and get projects done.

The benefits are numerous, and the drawbacks are negligible.  You may have to take a little more time in food prep, but can you cut back an hour of TV or video games?  It’s time invested into your health, which is a very safe investment. And don’t for one second believe that you have to sacrifice taste for health!  There are a ton of healthy and delicious recipes and foods out there, and with this new-fangled internet-thing, they’re easy to find.

It will take time to see results, but be patient and don’t rush yourself.  Your goals are within your power to accomplish: you control what you put into your mouth, and you can absolutely break bad habits.  You can form better habits.  This is completely doable.

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On Resolutions: How we Think and What to Do About It.

So here we are in 2012!  May I personally state that I think this is going to be a great year, impending apocalypse notwithstanding.  And how could I write a blog post in January and not address Resolutions, the majority of which involve becoming healthy and/or losing weight.

While I don’t think you necessarily need to purchase a new calendar to make changes in your life, most of us do decide to get back at that “health thing” in January.  We may not say it out loud or even really articulate the thought, but somewhere in our brains we look back at what we’ve been eating over the Holidays and think “Oh dear…enough of that now!”   It’s just kind of a reflex to follow a period of overindulgence with a period of restraint.   The problem is that this restraint only lasts until March at best.

So I’m going to write a couple posts on that “health thing.”  Whether you want to lose pounds or inches, run farther or lift more, or just simply feel better about yourself, there are three basic areas you’ll need to make changes in.  I will talk mostly specifically about weight loss, but I do think that these things can be applied to any goals.

So here’s my first topic: How we Think.

I don’t know how intense this can be for men, but I know personally as a woman that it can be terribly hard to break out of the vicious cycle of self-loathing and guilt.  It’s a well-crafted trap:  You don’t like how you look/feel, which makes you feel guilty, so you shrink back from taking action because it’s easier to deny there’s a problem than to admit that you’ve made a mess of yourself.  Then you still don’t like how you look and also know that you’ve done nothing but exacerbate the problem by shrinking back, so you feel guilty and try to tell yourself it’s not so bad, and the whole thing starts again. And usually there’s a lot of deep-frying involved.

This has to stop.

..and gnawing a leg off won't help

So let’s start by taking an honest look at ourselves, and I do mean that.  Constructive criticism means taking an appraisal of both the negative and positive and finding solutions to the negatives.  Don’t stand in front of a mirror and bash yourself, but also don’t stand there and make excuses:  we’re aiming for somewhere in the middle.  Make yourself add compliments in there if you have to.

Part of being honest is simply being realistic.  You may never be a size zero, but you also may never be an astronaut (something that I am still in denial about).  Let’s start with a realistic look at our expectations.

Really, what do you need to achieve?  I will always tell you to start small, and once you’ve achieved that, re-assess.  I cannot emphasize enough how personal this decision is: Everyone’s body is different, and 50 pounds looks different on a 5 foot person than a 6 foot person, never mind what their body is shaped like!  Don’t feel like there’s some universal standard you need to meet: you set your own standards. After all, you know yourself better than anyone else, and you know when you’ve done your best and when you’ve dropped the ball.

We all have that inner critic, whether if it’s a muted voice in the back of your brain or an obnoxious voice spewing venom.  You need to make peace with this guy: make him be reasonable and kind.  This voice is a valuable tool, and like all tools, it can be abused.  It should be pushing you to do well, not beating you down about not doing well enough.

Like this, but with less drugs.

Allow yourself to feel good about going to the gym or sticking to your diet today.  Don’t devalue what you accomplish.  Trust me, if you hit the gym and mentally beat yourself up afterwards for not “doing enough”, you won’t be likely to go back…after all, you’re associating it with feelings of guilt!  Instead, be proud of yourself for going!   Hell, look at yourself in the mirror and tell your reflection that “you done good!”  if you have to.

And keep track of your progress! Record your weight and take your measurements, time yourself or whatever you need. Take a “before picture” if you like.  Never, ever, for any reason, use an image of someone else as a “goal!”  This is setting yourself up for failure: You cannot become someone else, you can only become the best you.  Remember to check your progress often, and don’t let early days frustrate you. It’s normal to gain a little and plateau for a while before starting to lose weight. You will have to learn to be patient with yourself:  the sad fact is that establishing new habits just takes time.

Losing weight and keeping it off is a long term endeavor.  The longer you keep your body at a certain weight, the more it believes this weight is “normal” and the harder it fights to keep you there.  Silly meat machine, it only wants what’s best for you!  Honestly I didn’t start losing weight until I’d kept at my eating and exercising resolutions for at least four months.  It will be a slow process, and we sure like instant results in our society.  You can look at this negatively…like it’s going to take slaving away forever to get anywhere….or you can look at it like you aren’t rushed, and can take your time with this.

And do you really need one more thing in your life to hurry at?

If you really want these changes to stick, you will have to change the way you do things….  And yes, change is hard.  If habits were easy to break, New Years Resolutions wouldn’t be a thing in the first place.  But it’s easier to move a mountain one stone at a time than all at once.  So start small.  Pick one or two doable things and get that down before you move on to larger issues.

If losing weight is your goal, a diet plan may help but definitely watch out for a couple things.  Any plan that says you can lose weight without any changes and just add supplements is suspect in my eyes.  The “no changes” approach is unlikely to work.   Same goes for any plan that says you have to eat only their foods.  Extreme change is hard to sustain, and the odds are that after you finish your plan, you’ll go right back to eating like you did before:  If you lost 50 pounds but stop what you’re doing and go back to eating for a body 50 pounds heavier, guess what happens?  Pick a plan carefully: find something with lessons you can apply long term, whether that’s about portion control or creating well-balanced meals.

Above all, changes need to be sustainable.  Overhauling your entire life at once is just too drastic: you need to adapt into changes slowly and they have to be incremental.  You can start by cutting out pop and juice, and then move into adding more fruits and veggies into your diet.  Start trying to get your recommended daily glasses of water!  Switch from sugary, salty pasta sauces to plain crushed tomatoes and add your own seasonings.

But one step at a time.  Nutrition is a whole other topic, and we’ll get there!