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Is Healthy Dessert Even Possible?

by | May 15, 2013

Photo by roygbivibgyor

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the dangers of sugar, and one reader asked:

So if you bake things from scratch with things like unsweetened apple sauce instead of sugar and whole grains and seeds etc… can they still be considered healthy? Like are healthy muffins or banana breads possible?

The reason this is hard to answer is because “healthy” is not a black and white word. Instead it is a fuzzy word with many shades of gray. That is because health is not made or broken by any single food, it reflects your daily choices and habits. Health is a pattern, not an event.

Adding less sugar or more nutritious ingredients may indeed move an item a few degrees in the healthy direction, but it won’t change the fact that a muffin is a muffin and will always contain some sugar and flour, and never be an example of healthy eating.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t eat a muffin and continue to be healthy.

The problem with a “healthier” muffin is a philosophical one, because the reality is we do not eat muffins for health. We eat them for enjoyment, which is arguably as important as health when considering your quality of life.

So is it worth sacrificing the pleasure you get from eating a muffin to make it slightly closer to something it will never be?

Read the rest of this story »

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10 Tips To Save Money While Eating Healthy

by | Feb 4, 2013

Collards, Carrots and Lentils Recipe (click for recipe)

Most people consider it common knowledge that healthy food is expensive and unhealthy food is cheap—that’s why we’re all so fat, right?

But for most people it does not need to be this way. Since I upgraded my healthstyle not only have I lost weight and become healthier, I have also managed to save more money.

How?

In a nut shell, I started cooking more at home.

It is a sad reflection on our culture that so many people rely on fast food for their daily sustenance, and my heart goes out to those who truly cannot afford better. But I contend that many of the bad decisions we make about food each day are more an issue of (perceived) convenience than price.

Last I checked burritos in San Francisco averaged over $5. And if you have properly set up your kitchen you will find it actually takes less time to cook a healthy meal than it does to place and fill your order at El Farolito.

Every penny counts in this brutal economy. Here are a few tricks you can use to save a buck and get a little healthier too.

10 Tips For Eating Healthy On A Budget

  • Cook at home The most important change I made to save money was to turn cooking at home into my default option rather than rely on neighborhood eateries as my go-to cop out. Eating out is expensive, no matter which way you cut it.
  • Shop on weekends If you already have fresh food in the fridge you will be more motivated to cook for yourself instead of going out and spending money. Make the habit of buying food ahead of time and you won’t be as tempted to waste money going out.
  • Shop seasonally When choosing what to eat, taste trumps health 90% of the time. (That’s why you rolled your eyes when I suggested you eat fewer burritos.) If you really want to start eating healthy you must want to eat vegetables, and that will only happen if the ones you buy taste delicious. Seasonal, farm fresh produce can completely change how you feel about vegetables and fruits—it also tends to be the best deal in the produce section.
  • Shop at the farmers market In my experience the best tasting produce in a chain grocery store is at Whole Foods. But if you have ever been shopping there you know what a dent it can put in your wallet (this does not apply to their non-fresh items, which are competitively priced and often cheaper than other stores). Rather than handing over your Whole Paycheck or settling for less than inspiring options at Safeway, do your weekly produce shopping at your local farmers market. If you shop intelligently (see below) you can get 2 meals for the cost of one burrito.
  • Focus on leafy greens Leafy greens like kale, chard, collards, spinach and broccoli are some of the most nutritious, least expensive things you can buy. And this is true at any grocery store, not just the farmers market. Frequently, half a bunch of kale with some beans, grains and herbs is my entire dinner and costs around $1.50. It also takes less than 15 minutes to prepare. Can you beat that?
  • Buy in bulk Canned beans are fine, but dried beans taste better and are way cheaper. Grains from the bulk bins at your local health food store are only pennies per serving. Cook these staples in large batches and save them in your freezer for cheap, quick and nutritious food anytime. This is also true of lentils. Just add some greens and you’re good to go.
  • Eat less meat This is probably the easiest way to save money. Whether at the grocery store or at restaurants meat is always the most expensive thing on the menu. I do not advocate a vegetarian diet, but limiting meat to once or twice a week is an easy way to cut back on both calories and expenses. If you are worried about protein (you needn’t be) you can eat beans, eggs and lentils instead.
  • Use fish from cans Fish is an important part of a healthy diet, but fresh fish can be expensive (especially the wild sustainable kinds). Canned salmon, sardines (boneless, skinless), smoked mackerel and anchovies are inexpensive alternatives for protein, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Make fruit dessert If you think the farmers market is expensive my bet is you spend most of your money on fruits. I am the first to admit that fruit can be very expensive, especially summertime berries and stone fruits. While I do recommend you invest in some high-quality farmers market fruit, it will be easier on your wallet if you consider fruit a treat.
  • Think long term I am not arguing that buying every single food item at the farmers market is the cheapest way to shop, but it is almost certainly the healthiest. Our hedonistic tendencies may incline us toward cheap, greasy foods but you should consider what you are really paying for in the long run. Poor diet can be attributed to most cases of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer and a generally difficult, painful life. And I probably don’t need to convince you that a farm fresh salad costs less than a hospital trip and a lifetime of medication. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be expensive, but unhealthy eating can cost you your life.

What are your favorite money saving tips for healthy eating?

This post was originally published on May 20, 2009.

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How To Become A Great Cook Without Being A Chef

by | Nov 12, 2012
Photo by Sara Bjork

Photo by Sara Bjork

I have a confession to make: I don’t love to cook.

Sure I like the idea of cooking, and I’m glad that I can cook, but my idea of a perfect day rarely involves spending time in the kitchen.

What I really love is food.

I love to shop for ingredients and envision the delicious dishes I can make with them. I love the taste of fresh, ripe, seasonal produce from the farmers market. I love the way good food makes me feel. I love the knowledge that what I eat helps me thrive.

But cutting stuff up and putting it in a pan isn’t particularly fun for me, though I certainly enjoy the fruits of my labor.

For me cooking is a means to an end. I cook for my own health and happiness, and for whomever I happen to be sharing my time with at the moment.

This is enough for me.

I came to realize my lack of cooking passion over the past several weeks as I’ve watched my fellow food bloggers fret on Twitter over holiday meal plans, perfect cookies and fallen souffles. It became very obvious to me that I had no desire to entertain dozens of people or perfect the quintessential holiday recipe.

I’m proud of the food I make and it’s always important to me to do a good job (I love eating, remember), I just don’t have that extra drive that distinguishes a good cook from a true chef.

For some, cooking is a true passion–they adore being in the kitchen and everything it involves. These are my heroes. They are the brilliant chefs responsible for the exquisite food all over this wonderful city. They construct the fabulous recipes I count on when searching cookbooks and blogs for something new. They photograph the beautiful dishes that inspire me to try a little harder. Without passionate chefs we would not have spectacular food, and I am profoundly thankful for them.

But not all of us can be amazing cooks. Fortunately it isn’t necessary to be a Michelin-rated chef to make delicious food.

Simple, fresh cooking doesn’t require any special talent. It all starts with excellent ingredients and just a few basic techniques that anyone can master with practice.

The moral of the story is that you do not have to be a kitchen ninja (or even particularly enjoy cooking) to be able to feed yourself well on a daily basis. The most important step is getting in the habit of buying good-quality, seasonal food and learning the basic skills you need to whip up something you enjoy.

If you get in the habit of cooking for yourself, it will one day stop feeling like a big ordeal and become second nature. You’ll get faster at chopping, you won’t need to constantly check recipes and measure ingredients, and you’ll intuitively know when and in which order to add things to the pot. But all this takes practice, and if you don’t make a regular habit of cooking for yourself it will continue to be difficult.

The good news is once you are comfortable in the kitchen, more interesting and complex recipes start to sound appealing. This is not necessarily because you learned to love cooking, but simply because it is easier for you.

Once you’ve broken the proficiency barrier you open a world of different dishes and cuisines, unchaining yourself from repetitive stir fries and culinary boredom.

For the non-chef, this is the level of proficiency you want to achieve. You do not have to love cooking to enjoy making dinner. You just have to get beyond the point where you struggle with it. It really isn’t as hard as it sounds.

Why do you cook?

Originally published January 4, 2010.

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Gone Bananas? Why I Don’t Eat America’s Favorite Fruit

by | Aug 15, 2012

Photo by Crystl

No, I don’t eat bananas. Not really anyway.

It’s not that I don’t like the taste, I actually really enjoy them (particularly with ice cream). Nor do I actively avoid bananas—I’d eat homemade banana cream pie any day of the week, and in Thailand I noshed on the small red finger bananas sold at the local markets. But I don’t buy bananas in the US, and given a choice I’d almost always opt for something else.

While this probably sounds strange to some of you, if you stop and think about the way I live and shop it’s easy to see how this idiosyncratic habit evolved.

I do the majority of my grocery shopping (~80%) at the farmers market, and as you might expect bananas aren’t common in San Francisco. The one or two brick and mortar stores I shop at for the rest of my food here in the city are nothing like your typical supermarkets. Like the farmers market these stores carry local, seasonal food almost exclusively (did I mention I love San Francisco?), and if they carry bananas I’ve never noticed them.

So the main reason I don’t buy bananas is logistical: they don’t exist here.

Honestly for me that’s enough of a reason to focus on the rest of the produce the season has to offer—there’s always more beautiful fruit than I could possibly eat (even in the winter), why do I need bananas too? But when you pause and reflect on why this makes me strange, you start to realize that there are deeper issues with our most popular fruit that make them less than an ideal snack.

The vast majority of bananas sold in the US are grown in Latin Amercia by a handful of countries including Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica. In these places bananas are grown year round, are harvested while unripe, then shipped in special refrigerated compartments until they reach their destination weeks later. The fruit is then exposed to ethylene gas which causes it to ripen and turn their characteristic bright yellow (a different shade than their natural dull yellow when tree-ripened).

Though not genetically modified (yet), all commercial bananas are genetically identical clones grown in monocultures. While this makes the product extremely consistent, it also leaves it vulnerable to disease since cross-breeding cannot confer any protective benefit. Before 1960, the most prevalent commercial banana variety was ‘Gros Michel.’ However, these bananas were wiped out by the fungal Panama disease, forcing farmers to adopt a new variety.

Now all commercial bananas are the Cavendish variety, which was chosen for shelf life and shipping rather than flavor. Cavendish bananas are not immune to infection, however. An extremely virulent strain of Panama disease known as TR4 has threatened Cavendish bananas in Southeast Asia and Australia, and scientists believe TR4 will likely reach Latin American banana plantations soon. There is no variety currently considered a viable replacement for Cavendish, and bananas may be gone from supermarket shelves in our lifetimes. As I hinted above, companies are working to genetically modify the bananas to be resistant to TR4.

Even worse than monoculture ag destroying a commodity that millions of people depend on for their livelihoods, the large banana companies in Latin America (Dole and Chiquita) have a history of mind-boggling corruption. The term “banana republic” describes corrupt countries where the political system favors large agriculture corporations over public welfare. I had trouble finding information on the current state of the banana business and its politics, but there is little indication that things have improved.

But what about nutrition? Am I missing out? Bananas are famously high in potassium, but so are all the green leafy vegetables that make up a huge portion of my diet. Commercial bananas are indeed a good source of several nutrients, however they are also one of the most calorie dense fruits due to their high sugar content. There’s nothing in bananas that you can’t get from other foods, and lower calorie fruits may be a better choice if you eat them often or are watching your weight.

Despite these concerns, there are plenty of valid reasons to continue eating bananas. Just don’t let anyone call you crazy if you choose to skip them.

What are your thoughts on bananas? B-A-N-A-N-A-S!

Originally published August 1, 2011.

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Why Sliced Bread Was Never A Great Invention

by | Aug 13, 2012

Photo by mattburns.co.uk

Food marketers have been at it for nearly a century. They’re saving us time, making it ever easier for us to consume their products, and all they ask in return is to charge us a little extra for the “convenience.” Bless their hearts.

When pressed, most of us will acknowledge that the top priority of food marketers is not to make our lives easier or tastier, but to get us to eat (and spend) more. What’s truly remarkable is that despite knowing this, we still parrot and defend their ideas as ardently as if we’d thought of them ourselves.

Do you really believe Krispy Kreme makes the best doughnuts, Ben & Jerry’s makes the best ice cream or life is impossibly difficult without pre-sliced bread? My guess is you probably do, or at least did at some point.

But the reality is none of these things are true, and that we think they are is just a sign of brilliant marketing.

Food isn’t like other products. There are people who buy every single gadget that Apple creates, and if Apple started making twice as many products per year those people would still buy them all. But humans can only eat so much food, which makes it difficult for food companies to expand their market and be competitive.

Enter “added value.”

Sliced bread, instant oatmeal and single serving Go-gurt are all examples of foods designed to be easier to eat. And companies correctly assume that we are happy to pay more for the free time these conveniences allot us.

But does this freedom really make our lives better?

I would never argue that time doesn’t have value. Though I think there is a strong case for slowing down and taking time to eat mindfully, I certainly see the appeal of fast and portable food. As a PhD student, writer and website owner I know what it means to be busy.

But convenience is not the only thing you get when marketers sell you on their products. You also eat more, and you eat worse.

Because sliced bread is easier to eat, people tend to eat more of it, along with whatever they choose to put on top. Additionally, since real bread quickly becomes stale when cut into smaller pieces food companies have had to find new (non-ecofriendly) packaging and add preservatives, dough conditioners and other chemicals to keep breads soft.

The ingredient list on a loaf of Wonder Bread is truly remarkable:

Wheat Flour, Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup or Sugar, Yeast, Contains 2% or Less of: Ferrous Sulfate (Iron), B Vitamins (Niacin, Thiamine Mononitrate (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Folic Acid), Barley Malt, Soybean Oil, Salt, Calcium Carbonate (Ingredient in Excess of Amount Present in Regular Enriched White Bread), Wheat Gluten, Dough Conditioners (Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, Mono and Diglycerides, Calcium Dioxide, Datem and/or Azodicarbonamide) Vitamin D3. Calcium Sulfate, Vinegar, Yeast Nutrients (Monocalcium Phosphate, Dicalcium Phosphate, Ammonium Sulfate, Ammonium Phosphate and/or Ammonium Chloride) Cornstarch, Wheat Starch, Soy Flour, Whey, Calcium Propionate (to Retain Freshness), Soy Lecithin.

In contrast the bread I buy at Acme, my local bakery, is made of flour, water, yeast and salt. Special loaves may contain olives or herbs, but you get the general idea.

I have to cut it myself and it doesn’t last long if I leave it on the counter (it freezes absolutely beautifully), but the bread at Acme is also some of the best tasting bread I’ve had in my life.

Are you shocked that my Acme loaf costs around $2, while Wonder Bread costs close to $4?

I don’t eat much bread, because it is not particularly healthy. But I enjoy burgers, pizza, sandwiches, naan and other traditional foods way too much to cut it out completely. Reasonable quantities of bread can easily be incorporated into a healthy diet, particularly if you exercise regularly. But bread is not health food and eating as little as you’re comfortable with is generally a good idea.

We do not need unhealthy foods to be more convenient or less expensive. And if you’re going to put health aside and eat them anyway they should also taste absolutely amazing, not good or even pretty good.

Does pre-sliced bread really make the cut? I don’t think so.

Sliced bread was never a great invention, it was great marketing. “The best thing since sliced bread” was derived from an ad campaign claiming it’s invention was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.”

The phrase may be perfect for describing brilliant marketing (“The best added value campaign since sliced bread”) but do we really need to continue propagating the message that low-quality convenience food is the best invention of the past 100 years?

If we want a true benchmark for greatness, maybe we should change it to “the greatest thing since the iPhone.”

Just for fun, here’s a video of Seth Godin’s TED talk about marketing and the sliced bread campaign.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

How great is your bread?

Originally published September 1, 2010.

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Why I use the “S” word

by | Jun 25, 2012

Photo by Charlotte Astrid

In response to last week’s post How To Eat Dessert And Still Stay Skinny, I got an email from a reader asking why I use the word “skinny” when it undermines my message of health:

“I’ve been following your blog etc for a few months now. I love it and have shared your posts widely…. Unfortunately, your emphasis on being “skinny” really puts me off, not just in this article but in your bio and elsewhere in your writings.

To me, and folks in my world, to value “skinny-ness” is to encourage excessive — and often obsessive — emphasis on body size without regard to health. This dangerous message is everywhere in our society, and not consistent with the rest of your message. Do you see how this undermines your credibility — despite your academic credentials?

Please consider changing your language from “skinny” to “a healthy weight.”  I don’t think this is just semantic.”

This is a very important point, and I want to thank the reader again for bring up her concerns. Since I’m sure there are at least a few of you with the same question, I wanted to share my response:

“Thanks for writing, I really appreciate your input. I totally get your point, but there are a few reasons I make the word choices that I do.

First, I’d guess that given your stance the reason you enjoy Summer Tomato at all is that I actually do make a concerted effort to not use the words “skinny” or “thin” in the text of my articles, particularly when I talk about goals and motivation. (My bio is a different story, I was intentionally trying to illustrate the thoughts of a chronic dieter.)

But I do occasionally use these words in headlines. The reason is that one of the major categories of people I’m hoping to win over with my message is dieters. I want them to focus on being healthy and stop dieting.

The problem is, to get their attention in the first place I need to speak their language. The word skinny rings bells with these people and draws them in, and then my message is different from what they expect and that’s how changes are made.

The phrase “healthy weight” does not even come close to bringing in the click throughs as the word skinny, which I’ve seen in my Facebook and Twitter traffic analytics. I’m less interested in preaching to the choir then helping lost people find a new way to live.

Another important point is that I feel the phrase “healthy weight” has been greatly over-used and has come to mean something a little bigger than it should. Sadly, the latest statistics suggest many overweight people believe they are a healthy weight, simply because the average has been so skewed in the upward direction over the past 20 years.

Health is definitely my message, but I’m very careful to not let people off the hook just because they are the same size as their friends and family.

I’m walking a very tight rope with my message balancing health, weight loss and quality of life, and I’m acutely aware of the power of words. I hope you understand that to make the biggest impact I need to reach the people who need me the most, even if sometimes it comes off as less academic and more mainstream.

My hope is that I’m in a position to bridge these two worlds and get diet trends headed in the right direction again.”

To be clear, I read a lot of great blogs that do preach to the choir, and I share them here regularly.

But one of the best things about the Summer Tomato community is that it includes people from all walks of life, from young college students frustrated with their bodies to baby boomers and academics with more letters after their names than in them. We also have foodies trying to balance their love of food and need for health, and geeks just trying to get fit enough to beat their friends at Kinect.

Most people that come to Summer Tomato for the first time don’t know that the solution to all these goals is the same. My main mission here is to help people see that healthy habits (not dieting) is what makes you both thin and healthy, and provide you with the tools to create a healthstyle that works for you.

I hope one day these points will be obvious to everyone, but in the meantime my experience has shown me that the best way to capture someone’s attention is with the promise of looking great and eating amazing food.

I was happy to get a sweet reply back from this reader signed,

Even a bigger fan than before,

R

What do you think about the “S” word?

Originally published May 30, 2011.

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I Love You Mom, But You Suck At Cooking Vegetables

by | Jun 18, 2012

Photo by Telephone Melts

A strange thing happens to some people after their first few experiences with perfectly cooked farmers market vegetables. It is not always easy to admit, but after awhile you might find yourself thinking that the veggies you grew up eating were, ahem, pretty horrible.

It is common for people of both my generation and my parents’ generation to have been raised on frozen spinach, canned beets, over-steamed carrots and boiled broccoli—foods that would make anyone with taste buds pick up their fork and run to the nearest steakhouse.

Is it any wonder that vegetables rarely rank on anyone’s favorite foods list?

Unfortunately, sometimes these negative early experiences can create life long food aversions that could have been avoided with a little extra TLC in the kitchen. They also help propagate the unhealthy eating habits that are now so common in America.

But our exposure to bad vegetables isn’t really Mom’s fault. Over the past 50 years America has been seduced by the allure of convenience. We’ve come to believe that meals come in packages and cooking is too hard and time consuming to bother with. We rely on supermarkets for our fruits and vegetables, which we expect to be the same year round.

The watering down of our food culture is directly responsible for our vegetables losing flavor (they are bred for shelf life, not taste) and us losing our ability to make them palatable. As a result vegetables have become an afterthought, something we eat from guilt and obligation, not from love.

But the good news is that this trend is reversing. People are starting to understand that where food comes from is important and has a tremendous impact on how it tastes. We are learning that it is worth it to go out of our way and spend a little extra money (at least occasionally) for the best ingredients. Restaurants are beginning to pride themselves on serving locally sourced foods–it is no longer uncommon to see farm names printed next to ingredients on menus here in San Francisco.

Focusing on quality ingredients and real foods is forcing us to reexamine cooking as well. I remember how surprised I was the first time I realized that instant oatmeal only saves about 3 minutes compared to real oatmeal and that sautéing fresh spinach is easier than making a bag of the soggy frozen kind. Not only are we starting to understand that taste is worth sacrificing a little convenience for here and there, but also that the inconvenience we feared isn’t as big a deal as we might have guessed.

But not everyone has been converted quite yet.

Learning to shop for and cook seasonal foods does involve a learning curve, and the first steps are always the most difficult and intimidating. (These aren’t exactly skills we pick up in school or learn in our daily lives.) To get and cook real food requires finding local farmers markets and knowing how to work a stove, for starters. Since farmers markets don’t usually run daily, a bit of foresight and planning are necessary if you hope to make it a part of your weekly routine. Working a stove demands some basic understanding of how food reacts when heated.

One of the reasons I wrote Foodist is to show you that these things aren’t actually as difficult as they may seem at first. And once you acquire just a few basic cooking skills—stir fry in olive oil, oven roasting, basic grain and legume preparation—expanding your culinary repertoire to include dozens of your favorite dishes isn’t much of a stretch.

One of the perks of starting with great ingredients is that messing up a meal is much more difficult than it is when you start with low-quality ingredients and rely on additional hacks and seasonings to mask the lack of flavor. Bad vegetables are almost always either over-cooked or under-salted, so if you can get these right you are most of the way there. Just a few extra seasoning tricks like garlic, chili flakes or lemon zest can elevate almost any green vegetable into something worth building a meal around.

Cooking vegetables well is neither an art nor a science. Learn to prepare a few of your favorites well, then branch out from there. Then next time you visit your parents, maybe you can volunteer to cook dinner and show them how broccoli is supposed to taste.

Have bad childhood memories turned you off to any foods?StumbleUpon.com

Modified since originally published on March 8, 2010.

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My Weekly Workout

by | Jun 6, 2012

Food is by far my favorite thing to write about, but exercise is another essential component of my healthstyle and many readers have asked me to share my weekly routine.

To be honest, however, I have avoided posting my workout regimen for several reasons. First, I am not a trainer and this is in no way intended as a training program for anyone. These exercises are just what work for me and you should not assume they will work for you as well. I also worry that some fitness snobs will come out of the woodwork and accuse me of doing everything wrong, a criticism I have no interest in refuting or discussing.

That being said I have been a consistent gym goer for the past 18 years and feel very comfortable in the weight room.

My routine has changed over the years, but I am very happy with my current fitness level. At 30, I feel confident saying I’m in the best shape of my life and it feels awesome.

A few points to start:

  • I work out 3-5 days a week and start every session with half hour of cardio. The only thing that keeps me out of the gym is scheduling conflicts. I love exercise.
  • I almost always workout with a partner–a male nearly double my size–and our workouts are approximately the same (obviously using different weights).
  • We rotate cardio equipment between treadmill (either running or brisk walking at a steep incline), stationary bike and elliptical machine, trying not to repeat the same exercise 2 days in a row.
  • For strength training we focus on 2 or 3 muscle groups per day, and try to get through all the major muscle groups twice in a week (but I’ll settle for one time per week if that’s all I can fit in).
  • I do an abdominal workout every time I’m at the gym, rotating through a few different exercises throughout the week.
  • I always wear gloves when I weight train to avoid callousy man hands. (BTW, these aren’t hot on men either). They also make me look tough while I’m lifting.
  • I try to do my lifting slowly and controlled in both directions of the movement. But sometimes I forget.
  • For most of these exercises we use free weights, but once every week or two we’ll use the machines to mix it up.
  • In addition to my weight training sessions, I make an effort to walk extensively each day. According to my Fitbit pedometer I take between 8,000 and 17,000 steps per day (this includes my workout). This is intentional and I do it for both stress relief and fitness purposes.

On any given training day we do two or three of the following sets of exercises after our cardio workout. If we anticipate being able to workout every weekday, we will use the last two days of the week to push harder and complete the entire set in just 2 days.

Muscle Groups

Shoulders

My shoulder workout consists of shoulder presses and lateral raises in a superset (each exercise back-to-back, then rest). I do 3 sets of ~12 reps using dumbbells.

Biceps

My only bicep exercise is dumbell curls. I alternate each arm and do 3 sets of 20. I superset my bicep workout with lunges, still holding the dumbbells.

Triceps

I do tricep workouts on the cables using the rope attachment. We do supersets of bent-over tricep extensions and tricep push downs.

Back

I use specific cable machines for back exercises. We superset cable seated rows and cable pulldowns, usually 3 sets of ~12. For lower back I do lifts using the Roman chair, usually holding a single 10-pound barbell weight to my chest.

Chest

For chest we superset bench presses (I just use the 45-pound bar) and flies using dumbbells. For these I’m happy to get through 3 sets of 10.

Legs

I’m not fond of the quadricep and hamstring equipment at my gym (my partner uses them), so I only use the machines for V-squats and hip extensions. I do 3 sets of 20, and superset if the gym isn’t too busy.

Abs

Each day we rotate between the various abdominal equipment we find in the gym. This usually includes hanging leg raises, incline crunches and a few others.

Final Thoughts

As a female I was reluctant to begin almost every one of these weight training exercises, besides abs.

Nervous, I started with biceps and triceps, then shoulders and back. I gave myself a 6-month trial period and said if I thought I was getting too “bulky” at that point I would stop. The opposite happened and I became more adventurous in the weight room.

Six months later I reluctantly worked chest exercises into my routine and was again pleased with the results. I only recently started my leg workouts and, again, was blown away by the unexpected awesomeness of the transformation.

I became stronger, thinner and my clothes looked better after each exercise I added to my regimen. From my perspective, strength training is infinitely more rewarding than running marathons.

Has weight training helped you reach your health and fitness goals?

Originally published April 14, 2010. Little has changed in my routine and I’m still kicking ass and taking names.

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Is It Healthier To Eat Like A Caveman?

by | Mar 7, 2012

Photo by Lord Jim

“What do you think of the Paleo diet which advocates zero grain consumption?”

The Paleolithic diet is one of the most rapidly growing diet trends of the past several years. Followers of the Paleo diet argue that humans have not evolved to eat agriculture-based foods and can only achieve optimal health by consuming a hunter-gatherer style diet. Thus the Paleo diet is completely devoid of grains and legumes, and also shuns dairy, salt, refined sugar and processed oils. The diet is composed primarily of meats, fish, vegetables, fruits, roots, nuts and seeds.

(The Wikipedia article on the Paleo diet is actually pretty good if you’d like to read up on the details. I particularly like the Opposing views section.)

Like most diets the Paleo diet has a little bit of good science behind it, but also a lot of logical leaps and baseless assumptions. The evolutionary argument that humans are somehow maladapted to agriculture-based diets is particularly unconvincing (resting on many unproven assumptions), yet is the fundamental premise on which the Paleo diet bases its recommendations.

The reasoning behind the Paleo diet is less interesting to me, however, than the impact of the diet itself. Will “eating like a caveman” really help you be healthier?

Possibly, but not necessarily.

The most obvious advantage of the Paleo diet is the lack of processed foods. There is ample evidence that societies on traditional diets boast far better health than those on modern, Western diets–and the hallmark of modern diets is food processing. Paleo diets therefore are low in sugar, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, excess salt and pretty much everything else that leads to “diseases of civilization.”

Paleo diets are also abundant in healthy, nutrient-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, fish and meats. I have no doubt that anyone willing to stick to a Paleo eating plan will have a healthy weight and remain virtually free of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and may even have lower rates of cancer.

But the question still remains, is it necessary to eat Paleo to be healthy?

This is where I take issue with the Paleo philosophy. While a diet completely free of processed foods is undeniably healthy, the Paleo diet goes beyond this and demands considerable sacrifice.

Paleo diets do not allow for any grains or legumes. This pretty much eliminates every traditional cuisine on earth including Japanese, Italian, Indian and Greek. Not only is this a culinary tragedy, it ignores the fact that these cuisines feed some of the world’s healthiest and longest-lived individuals.

Traditional, global diets that exclude highly processed foods but also include grains and legumes have been some of the most successful for health. Diseases of civilization are only problematic in Western cultures where processed foods make up a large proportion of the calories and few whole food are consumed.

Proponents of the Paleo diet argue that it is necessary to eliminate grains and legumes because they contain “antinutrients,” substances that can interfere with the body’s absorption of other important vitamins, minerals and proteins. However, well-nourished individuals who eat a varied diet of unprocessed foods (including grains and legumes) are not nutrient deficient and are generally healthy.

Given that it is possible to thrive on a diet that includes some grains, legumes and even small amounts of processed foods, one must question if giving up the culinary joys of travel and global cuisine are really worth the sacrifice.

In my experience, food substitutions and modified recipes designed to mimic traditional meals can sometimes be tasty but can never replace true authenticity.

Another contention I have with the Paleo diet is the assumption that the same eating patterns will work for everyone. People’s lives differ in countless ways. We each have different levels of daily activity, demands on our time and food preferences. We also have different genetic backgrounds, which can result in significant differences in metabolism and hormone levels. These individual variations make dietary needs different for each of us.

Because of our individual differences, there is undoubtedly a percentage of the population that thrives on the Paleo diet and finds it easy to stick to and achieve results. Hooray! However there may also be a segment of the population (myself included) that finds living without grains and legumes to be chronically unsatisfying and unsustainable.

Try telling a foodie they can never eat cheese or drink wine again and see how far you get pitching a Paleo diet.

If you currently eat a typical Western diet with little variety and many processed foods, tend to have better success following rigid diet plans, and have no qualms about giving up or modifying traditional meals to meet your dietary demands, then you might have luck following the Paleo diet. However there is no reason to believe it is the only path to good health.

The best diet is the one that works for you. Finding a healthstyle you can embrace and enjoy is essential if you want to build a lifetime of healthy habits.

Do you follow a Paleo diet? What do you think?

Originally published February 22, 2010.

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Are You Eating In The Matrix?

by | Oct 12, 2011
Do You Think That's Food You're Eating?

Do you think that's food you're eating?

Or to put it another way, do you know the difference between real food and food that was designed to fool you into believing it is real?

It might not be as easy as you think.

(Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t seen the original Matrix film yet, crawl out of your cave and go watch it real quick before reading. We’ll wait.)

In the classic film The Matrix, machines of the future create a sophisticated computer program that produces an alternate reality for their human slaves. The program, the Matrix, placates humans into believing they are living normal lives while their bodies are imprisoned in suspended animation.

The Matrix is plugged directly into the brains of humans. They live the Matrix, breathe the Matrix, eat the Matrix. They’ve grown up with it, and have never known any other world.

Now think about a Twinkie or a McNugget. Can you remember life without them? I can’t. These products have always been a part of my world, even though it has been a long time since I’ve eaten them. I have vivid childhood memories of both products–after school snacks with friends, my 10th birthday party–and my memories are happy.

But I’ve learned to refer to Twinkies and food from McDonald’s as products and not foods because, when you think about it, they really aren’t foods. Sure you can eat them, but that just makes them a novelty–something akin to beating up your friends in Mortal Kombat.

“Do you believe that me being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place?” -Morpheus

Real food nourishes your body by providing essential building blocks for your cells and organs. The human body evolved alongside real food and is adapted to digest it.

Edible products on the other hand were specifically designed to fool your brain and sensory perception, but your body, cells and organs have no idea what to do with them.

Twinkies and McNuggets are engineered. They do not come from the earth and are not food. Twinkies were created in the Matrix.

Do you think that’s food you’re eating now?

This may sound like rhetorical foodie fluff, but please humor me and entertain the metaphor for a little while longer.

Food should nourish your body and contribute to your overall health. Even foods that are considered fattening–bacon comes to mind–provide nourishment so long as they are based in reality.

But what is a Twinkie? What is a Pringle? What is a McNugget?

BigMacs may look, smell and vaguely taste like food, but if what you are eating is not sustaining your health and is possibly making you sick, isn’t it time to question whether it is food at all?

These are products that were created in a laboratory. They may have started as raw materials from plants, but the plants were never grown to be eaten. Industrial corn, soybeans and the cattle raised on them have been processed and redesigned to the point where they’ve been stripped of anything that allows for them to be reasonably classified as food.

Shouldn’t we then stop calling this stuff food?

Most people will initially reject this idea. Of course food is food. But I’d argue that this opinion is just another product of our environment. Haven’t we always lived in the Matrix of industrial agriculture?

We have coexisted with McDonald’s for so long it seem preposterous to speculate it doesn’t meet the definition of food.

But let’s take a closer look:

Food –noun:

1. Any nourishing substance that is eaten, drunk, or otherwise taken into the body to sustain life, provide energy, promote growth, etc.
2. More or less solid nourishment, as distinguished from liquids.
3. A particular kind of solid nourishment: a breakfast food; dog food.
4. Whatever supplies nourishment to organisms: plant food.
5. Anything serving for consumption or use: food for thought.

(emphasis mine)

With the exception of the last point, which is clearly philosophical, all these definitions include the word nourishment.

Nourishverb (used with object)

1. To sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth.
2. To cherish, foster, keep alive, etc.: He had long nourished the dream of living abroad.
3. To strengthen, build up, or promote: to nourish discontent among the workers; to nourish the arts in one’s community.

(emphasis mine)

If it doesn’t provide nourishment, it is not food.

But relying on dictionary definitions is both semantic and impractical. It also becomes confusing when companies market products that are not real food but have added back nutrients to give the appearance of nourishment.

The important question is how do we break free?

Being convinced that these products are not food is not enough. Like the Matrix, McDonald’s is so closely tied to your perception of reality that it can fool you even when you know it isn’t real.

Remember, when Neo makes his first attempt to jump across the building roofs. He doesn’t make it.

“Everybody falls the first time.”

That’s because the Matrix feels so real that not believing it is almost impossible. Likewise, knowing that edible products are not food and that they will in fact make you less healthy is often not enough to prevent you from eating them. Your senses are easily fooled.

But better decisions are not impossible and your food world doesn’t need to be 100% black and green. Even small steps in the right direction, back into reality, can improve your health.

The first small changes you try also make subsequent steps easier.

Unplugging from the industrial food Matrix does not need to happen all at once, but you can extract yourself from it eventually. The first step is starting to see it clearly.

“I’m trying to free your mind, Neo, but I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”

Are you eating in the Matrix?

For your viewing pleasure: Morpheus is fighting Neo!

This post was inspired by commenter Martin Levac who gave me permission to roll with his awesome idea.

Originally published November 11, 2009.

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