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7 Day Detox and Weight Loss Plan

by | Jul 6, 2009
Vegetables

Vegetables

I don’t know about you guys, but I had a crazy weekend. In a very uncharacteristic move (I usually work weekends) I found myself at 5 different parties over a 3 day period. Four of these parties involved food.

I did my best to stick with my plan to eat healthy, and mostly I did, but the sheer volume and frequency of eating and drinking was a bit too much and by Sunday night I felt pretty gross.

It is natural to occasionally let your healthstyle slip, and there’s no need to get upset about it, but it is important to get it under control as quickly as possible. This is the essence of weight maintenance–something we all need to master if we want to stay healthy.

I never follow strict schedules or diets, but there are a few rules I keep in mind when I want to get my health and weight back into my comfort zone. These things work best for me, but please let us know what works best for you in the comments section.

10 Weight Loss Rules

  1. Cook at home The most important thing for me when eating healthy is cooking for myself. Eating small portions of healthy food is nearly impossible at restaurants. Every breakfast, lunch and dinner this week will be made from scratch from the beautiful veggies and fruit I got at the farmers market on Saturday.
  2. Small portions I will be cooking and serving myself smaller portions of food this week, approximately 80% of the volume I would normally eat. I will cut down on everything in general, but most of the calorie reduction will come from starchy carbohydrates and protein. Basically, vegetables (and the olive oil I cook them in) are the only foods I will not restrict.
  3. No dessert I didn’t mention cutting out sugar in point #2 because I don’t consider sugar a regular part of my diet. However, normally I allow myself to indulge in dessert for special occasions and other events. This week I will politely turn down any offers of extra calories.
  4. No carbs Flour-based products, also not a staple of my diet, are off the table this week too. No bread at all in any form, no pasta, noodles, white rice, etc. I will still eat whole grains like my morning muesli and the occasional addition of brown rice or quinoa to salads and dinners, but these servings will be smaller than usual.
  5. Less protein Many self-proclaimed fitness gurus will disagree with me on this one, but I find that my optimal protein intake for weight loss is not as high as you might think. I have nothing against protein as a weight loss tool (especially when greater weight loss is necessary), but protein adds a lot of calories to your diet compared to vegetables. So really this rule is more about portion control than protein itself. For the next few days my protein will come from lentils, nuts, whole grains and fish. Servings will be about 3 oz. I will still be careful to get enough protein and fat in each meal so I don’t increase my appetite.
  6. No alcohol Alcohol can be healthy, but it can also impair your judgment about what and when to eat. It also has quite a few extra calories and can create hormone imbalances when consumed regularly. I’m going to skip the wine with dinner, at least until Friday.
  7. Daily workouts I always try to work out every weekday, but excuses come easier on some days than others. No excuses this week: weights and cardio Monday through Friday. I may even try to work in a hike or some other physical activities next weekend.
  8. Stay hydrated People will argue about how much or how little water is really necessary, but none of this changes the fact that water makes me feel better. Water helps me control my appetite, feel more awake and have better workouts. I always carry around my CamelBak, but this week I will try to fill it up a little more often.
  9. Enough sleep For me, the hardest healthy habit to maintain is getting enough sleep. I usually stay up too late and get up early, but this can really take its toll over time. For the next several days I will try to keep myself on something of a regular sleeping schedule.
  10. Be good next weekend I have found one of the more futile activities is eating right and being healthy all week then completely throwing all self-restraint out the window on weekends. To really recover from a bad weekend, I need a full 7 days of self-control and good behavior. In essence this will translate into two good weeks, since the inertia from one healthy week can sustain me until the following weekend. The only real barrier is that first weekend, filled with parties and dinner invitations. It’s fine to go out with friends, but skip the fried mac and cheese and hold it together for just a few more days.

What are your favorite tips for getting your health back on track after a wild weekend?

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For The Love of Food

by | Jun 12, 2009
For The Love of Food

For The Love of Food

Welcome to Friday’s For The Love of Food, Summer Tomato’s weekly link roundup.

We have lots of fantastic articles this week from Lifehacker‘s food week: Eat To Live. Also featured are several healthy shopping guides including ones for fish, seasonal produce and pesticide-free foods.

If you would like to see more of my favorite articles each week or just don’t want to wait until Friday, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@summertomato) or the Summer Tomato Facebook fan page.

Submissions of your own best food and health articles are also welcome, just drop me an email using the contact form. I am also currently accepting guest posts for any healthy eating and exercise tips.

Note: If you have not received any Summer Tomato email updates this week please check your spam folder and mark my email address as “not spam” in your contacts. Please let me know if you have any problems with this adjustment.

For The Love of Food

What great articles did you read or write this week? Leave your links in the comments.

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Who Can You Trust For Diet Advice?

by | May 1, 2009
3D Brain MRI

3D Brain MRI

Last time I gave you a list of 10 people you can’t trust for diet advice, but many of you were left wondering who can you trust? As I alluded to before, it is extremely difficult to give a generic answer to this question because, frankly, there is no single group of people I can point to and say, “These people always do it right.” This is never true.

Where To Start

In the comments on Wednesday, reader Steve Parker M.D. (blogger and author of The Advanced Mediterranean Diet – visit his new Diabetic Mediterranean Diet Blog) said he mostly relies on primary scientific literature for his information. “Primary” literature is the original study where the actual scientific data is published and analyzed. This is very different from a newspaper article or press release (what a newspaper article is based on).

Without a doubt going straight to the source is the best way to get the facts regarding food, health and nutrition, and this is exactly what I do.

The Catch

It would be wonderful if we could all read the science directly and decide for ourselves how to eat for health and weight loss. But unfortunately, most people do not have access to these studies unless you are on a university campus or pay the exorbitant subscription fees (hundreds of dollars) for each individual scientific journal (there are thousands).

Moreover, unless you have extensive training in biological sciences (more than a bachelors degree), these papers will make no sense to you anyway. Some people try to get around this by reading only the abstracts, but reading an abstract to comprehend a scientific paper is like trying to understand a Seinfeld episode by reading the TV Guide (only more irresponsible).

This is the root of the problem.

Scientific experimentation and analysis is incredibly complex and requires decades of training. Therefore the general public needs the data translated into plain English and explained in simplified concepts. It is tempting to believe that anyone with the appropriate education and a knack for writing can provide this service, however the nuances of data interpretation make this very tricky business. It is frighteningly easy to spin ideas and make claims the data does not really support. This is even scarier when you think of health and how many lives are at stake.

The difficulties that arise from this issue are far reaching. At the most extreme, we have seen that research funded by industry is biased toward a favorable result for the company conducting the research.

Another potentially dangerous scenario is the misinterpretation of data by press rooms and journalists, who then translate these false ideas to a wide audience. Finally there are well-meaning people who do their best to alert the public to important health concerns, but simply misinterpret the science for one reason or another.

Who Is Qualified?

Scientists Although I myself may be biased, I am inclined to trust the opinions of well-respected (highly published) scientists in the field of food and nutrition. Luckily, several of these people have written wonderful books clearly explaining the basics of food and health. Although I am probably the only person under 50 to have ever read these books, they are wonderful resources that I recommend whole-heartedly.

Here are my favorites:

Eat, Drink and Be Healthy by Dr. Walter Willett

Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink

What To Eat by Marion Nestle

Smart journalists Despite my tirade above, scientists are not the only ones with good diet advice. Some journalists have the intelligence and tenacity to uncover all the necessary information and convey it to their readers. To know if you have found this kind of journalist you must read their work and make critical judgments about the logic and conclusions drawn from the data provided.

I have read more bad than good books by journalists, so please be skeptical of what you find. Note: extended book reviews are on the future agenda at Summer Tomato (for short summaries please read the captions under the books in the Summer Tomato Shop).

So far the most thorough analyses I have read from any journalist are the works of Michael Pollan. I also think the work of Gary Taubes is essential reading.

These are the best books on food and health ever written:

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

Trained nutritionists and dietitians I have also been impressed by many of the nutritionists I have encountered (especially Dinneen at Eat Without Guilt – find her on Twitter @EatWithoutGuilt). Nutritionists and registered dietitians are specialized in nutrition, food and eating. These professionals are skilled at working closely with an individual to develop personal eating plans. Although they are not specifically trained to read and interpret scientific studies, their education ensures substantial familiarity with the literature on nutrition, putting them ahead of most medical doctors.

Conclusion

In general you should be more skeptical than accepting of diet advice–particularly if the recommendations sound very strange or unnatural to you. However there are many good resources if you are careful to choose them wisely.

I am always looking for more book recommendations. See what I have read in the Shop and leave your additions in the comments.

Thanks to everyone who has participated in this lively conversation!

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10 People You Can’t Trust For Diet Advice

by | Apr 29, 2009
Tapeworm Diet Pills

Tapeworm Diet Pills

Throughout history there has never been a shortage of (bad) diet, health and weight loss advice. Everything under the sun has been called a weight loss cure at some time or another. And now that we are blessed with the amazingness which is the internet, snake oil is more abundant than ever.

So who should you listen to?

Most people I speak to are so cynical about health advice they ignore all of it completely and simply hope they are one of the few blessed with the genetics to withstand decades of smoking, poor diet and/or no exercise. They always point to a great aunt who smoked like a chimney and lived to 95. At least she enjoyed her life, right?

The problem with this approach is that the vast, vast majority of us are not blessed with these genetics (sorry, being related to someone with those genes has very little effect on your own personal chances). Also, even if you have the most resilient body in the world the only way to test it is to do an experiment on yourself: Eat whatever you want and maybe you’ll make it to 60 without a heart attack. Maybe you’ll make it to 80 without colon cancer. Or maybe not.

It is also important to consider that no matter how long you live you can improve the quality of that life by making better decisions about how you treat your body now. And contrary to popular belief, these choices need not sacrifice fun and enjoyment. I for one consider my healthstyle habits–fresh delicious food and regular workouts–the best part of my daily grind. By far. The trick is finding a personal healthstyle that makes your life better, not worse.

But if bad advice is so abundant who should you listen to? Who do I listen to?

As hard as I tried, I could not come up with a way to describe someone who can be trusted for diet advice. I wanted to say “scientists,” but I could think of too many examples (usually involving money) where this simply isn’t true. Instead it is easier to think about who cannot be trusted and why.

10 People You Can’t Trust For Diet Advice

  1. USDA Sadly, the government agency that has been given the responsibility of establishing the dietary guidelines for the United States is the Department of Agriculture. As you can tell from its name, the responsibility of this organization is to protect the interests of American agriculture industries. It has a far lesser interest in public health. Dairy and sugar lobbyists are the reason we are told up to 55% of our total calories can come from these sources. Obviously the USDA recommendations were not based on the data that clearly describes these substances as dangerous. Stay away from the bizarre food “pyramid” on their website.
  2. Food companies When KFC tells you their grilled chicken is healthier for you than their fried chicken, do you believe them? How about Yoplait’s yogurt? Companies trying to sell you something are notorious for twisting scientific facts to make you believe their products are healthy. Think twice before you believe them, history tells us it is more likely the opposite is true (remember margarine and fat-free cookies?).
  3. Your mom Although your mother has more interest in your personal health than lobbyists and food companies, she has been subjected to the same deceptive nutrition advertisements as you. A tragic fact of the past 60 years is that our parents grew up learning in school what the USDA wanted them to learn: calcium does a body good, fat = bad health, protein = good health. But these things are not true, no matter how strongly your parents believe them.
  4. Celebrities It is difficult to look at a beautiful person and not believe they are doing something right or know some secret to perfect health. But just like your great aunt, celebrities have many advantages you probably don’t have that make their looks deceptive: genetics, time and money. These people make a living off looking beautiful and have all the resources in the world to achieve it. If they claim to have some secret to health or weight loss, chances are it is not something that will be effective in the long-term for a normal person. Even more likely is that they are being paid to sell you something.
  5. Athletes If you are not a professional athlete or Olympian, chances are you do not have the same metabolism or dietary needs as someone who is. As much as I loved watching Michael Phelps win 8 gold medals, I am not going to start eating like him.
  6. Cardiologists (or any M.D. with no research experience) Cardiologists are highly trained doctors that specialize in disorders of the heart and blood vessels. But while heart disease is strongly tied to diet, cardiologists are not necessarily trained in science or nutrition. I do not wish to take anything away from what these individuals do–most are incredibly talented, skilled professionals. However medical school and residency training focus more on treatment than prevention. Moreover, science (Ph.D.) and medicine (M.D.) are different, and few doctors have the time or training to keep up with and evaluate nutrition science. But some certainly do, and it is worth it to find out who. Another thing to consider is that heart disease is only one chronic disease related to diet. If you are worried at all about cancer, stroke, diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease would you ask a cardiologist?
  7. Main stream media We all love a good story and journalists are trained to sell them to us. But very few journalists–even science writers–have more than a bachelors degree in biology or other hard science. This, of course, is less than the doctors I mentioned above. Though journalists are often very intelligent and can do a great job of analyzing the available scientific evidence (Michael Pollan comes to mind), even my beloved New York Times can drop the ball on nutrition science on occasion. When push comes to shove, they are more trained in story telling than scientific analysis.
  8. Personal testimony We are all impressed by the person who lost 200 lbs on the Biggest Loser, and I salute anyone who has ever achieved substantial weight loss. But all diet advice from these people should be taken with a grain of salt. Personal testimony is the ultimate in non-scientific fluff (check out any website selling diet pills). In science a personal testimony is called N=1 and is proof of absolutely nothing. These people may be a great source of moral support, but real evidence and facts have numbers and statistics tied to them.
  9. Natural health “gurus” Cynicism about health, medicine and science frequently cause people to turn to “alternative” solutions that often involve “natural” remedies. I would never suggest that natural solutions might not be the best path to health, but something being “natural” is not a guarantee of any particular benefit. In my experience, advice from natural health “gurus” is often based on poorly designed, poorly controlled studies that do not stand up to rigorous scientific testing. That does not mean these methods will never be proven effective, but keep in mind that most of them never will.
  10. Personal trainers The gym is one of my favorite places in the world, and if I need help with a certain exercise I ask a personal trainer. Most trainers have (hopefully) gone through a (fairly easy) certification program where they learn the basics of body mechanics. They are not scientists and are not trained in nutrition.

I am not suggesting that these people contribute nothing to our conversation about diet. However you should always be skeptical of who you take your advice from, particularly when it comes to your health.

Is there anyone you would trust for diet advice?

Read my answer….
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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Foods To Avoid

by | Apr 22, 2009
Junk Food

Junk Food

What truly liberated me from worrying about food all the time was shifting my thoughts and fears away from things I couldn’t or shouldn’t eat and instead focusing on delicious foods–foods I love–that also make me healthy. Changing my relationship with food in this way turned it from something that caused me anxiety to something that brought me pleasure.

One unexpected benefit of choosing healthy, tasty foods over bland diet foods was that many of my old cravings for sugary, unhealthy fare disappeared. While I have not found a clear scientific explanation for this, it stands to reason that a nourished body would be less prone to strong feelings of need toward certain foods. I was amazed how powerful it can be to focus on health instead of dieting. These days, really unhealthy foods barely even tempt me.

(This post is the final post of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry, part two is Essential Groceries, part three is Seasonal Shopping, part four is Stock Your Freezer and part five is Balanced Meals. Get future posts by signing up for email or RSS updates–always free of cost and spam.)

Upgrading your healthstyle will go far in helping you overcome your cravings, but as I much as I would love to tell you that you can eat any foods you want in any quantities you want, we all know this is not true. While you are focusing on eating more of the foods you love there are also foods that are generally worth avoiding as part as your daily healthstyle.

There is room for anything in a healthy life, but here are some foods that DO NOT promote health and can lead to weight gain:

  • Sugar In any form, sugar wreaks havoc on your health and metabolism. Two keys to protecting yourself from sugar damage are quantity and timing. Do not eat too much sugar at once (stick to small desserts) and do not eat sugar very frequently. I try to limit real desserts to once or twice per week (max) and satisfy all other sweets cravings with fruit. Eating whole grains is particularly effective at reducing sugar cravings.
  • Refined flour Processed grains (all flour) are almost as bad as sugar in their effect on your metabolism. In fact, your body processes them exactly the same way. Generally look for alternatives to breads, pastas and other foods made with flour. Instead focus on getting carbohydrates from intact whole grains. Try to limit refined flour foods to less than once per day. If you are actively trying to lose weight, I would make an effort to cut these out completely.
  • Trans fat Twenty years ago scientists believed they had solved the problem of saturated fat by replacing it with an artificial solid fat made from plants. It turned out these processed fats, trans-fats, are one of the most dangerous foods you can put into your body. Not only do they raise your “bad” LDL cholesterol, they also contribute to lowering your “good” HDL cholesterol–a double whammy for your health. No amount of trans-fat is considered safe in the diet (the data is striking), and you should avoid these processed fats completely. Better to eat foods made with real butter. Better yet, choose healthy fats from vegetable sources like coconut oil, olive oil and canola oil.
  • Anything processed It is worth emphasizing that nothing processed has ever proven to be healthier for you than real whole foods–even foods with fantastic health claims on the package. In fact, as Michael Pollan points out in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, a health claim on a package is a pretty good sign that a food is bad for you. There are no stickers for “Whole Grain” or “Low Carb” on your vegetables, and those are what you should be eating.
  • Red meat As I discussed earlier this week, red meat is probably not good for you. Some people argue that it is really bad for you, and some people think it is not so bad. It appears to not be quite as bad as processed foods, but there are plenty of compelling reasons to limit how much red meat you eat. For myself personally, cancer is a bigger fear than heart disease. But there is also some data that saturated fat plays a role in insulin resistance. I recommend less than one (4 oz) serving of red meat per week. The same can be said about poultry with skin.

I do not recommend completely eliminating foods you love–even if they are bad for you–because this is not something you can maintain forever and it strips some of the joy from life. Instead I suggest trying a few customizable strategies to be sure that the less healthy foods you love bring you happiness, but do not damage your body:

  • Reduce, Don’t Eliminate Simply being aware of how often you eat these foods and trying to stick to the guidelines above can drastically improve your healthstyle. If you currently eat a lot of sugar, processed foods or red meat, do not attempt to completely overhaul your diet overnight. Make changes gradually or it will be very difficult to make them permanent.
  • Be Picky When you first start to upgrade your healthstyle, identify foods you can do without and those you can’t live without. Some changes will be easier for some people, while others are nearly impossible. Focus on the easier changes and do not beat yourself up over things that are difficult for you. Every little change you make will add up to a healthier you.
  • Set Up Simple Rules It is often hard to keep track of everything you do or do not eat. A food journal or Twitter can help with this, but the simpler your healthstyle the better. Setting up simple, easy to remember rules for yourself can help you make healthy changes. The guidelines above are a great place to start. For example, if you decide in advance you can only have one dessert per week, you can be sure that the one you choose is well worth the wait. Use simple rules to both increase your good habits and decrease your bad ones. Experiment to find simple rules that work for you. For example, if you love to eat pizza make a deal with yourself that if you have it you must have a big pile greens on the side–this may also help you eat one less piece.

Please share with us the strategies and rules you use to upgrade your healthstyle!

This is the final post in the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Much thanks to those of you have shared your tips and insights in the comments so far. Summer Tomato will continue to build upon these ideas and help make it easier for you to upgrade your healthstyle. If you have specific questions, concerns or even an idea for a future post please submit them in the Ask Me section.

Read more How To Get Started Eating Healthy:
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How To Get Started Eating Healthy: Seasonal Shopping

by | Apr 13, 2009
Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom Tomatoes

Every Saturday morning I wake up as early as I can (usually not very early) and head to the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to buy my vegetables for the week. Seasonal vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet, and buying them each week is the single most important step you can take to upgrade your healthstyle.

(This post is part three of the series How To Get Started Eating Healthy. Part one is Stock Your Pantry and part two is Essential Groceries. Subscribe to Summer Tomato to get more free healthy eating tips)

Why Vegetables?

Decades of research on diet, nutrition and health have universally confirmed that a vegetable-based diet can reduce your risk of (and even reverse) almost every disease. Debates still rage regarding the mechanism by which vegetables improve health (Is it because they replace bad foods? Contain antioxidants? Are low in calories? Low in fat? Low in protein? Have low glycemic index?), but for you and me the reason doesn’t really matter. The important point is that vegetables are proven to make you healthy. Those other questions are only important to people who want to bottle that benefit and sell it to you at a premium.

Interestingly, one of the most consistent findings in nutrition science is that any attempt to isolate a specific element of food and create a useful dietary supplement fails to mimic the benefits of the whole food. The lesson from all of this is that you are much better off spending your money on vegetables and other whole foods than on nutritional supplements.

Why Seasonal?

If you have ever wondered how much vitamin C is in a tomato, please stop. The idea that one tomato is the same as the next is ludicrous, yet this is the kind of logic we have accepted from grocery stores and the food industry in general.

Anyone with taste buds can immediately tell the difference between a sweet, ripe heirloom tomato at the height of summer and a mealy red beefsteak from your grocery store in December. These foods taste wildly different because of how they were grown, so doesn’t it stand to reason that they may have different nutrient levels as well?

In fact, there is a tremendous difference in nutritional quality of foods grown in the correct season and in good soil. Seasonal organic produce is substantially better for you than the conventional produce at Safeway, and this difference is reflected in how your food tastes.

For these reasons, shopping in season can do wonders for how you think about vegetables. A salad may sound boring to you, but how about miner’s lettuce tossed with arugula, Tokyo turnips, Mediterranean cucumbers, ruby grapefruit and sliced almonds? If you are more excited to eat vegetables because they look, sound, smell and taste delicious, then you will lose weight and become healthier by default. Your daily greens will be a joy, not a chore.

Seasonal produce is also more affordable than out of season produce that was grown in a greenhouse or shipped halfway around the world.

How To Shop Seasonally

Farmers Markets

As I mentioned above, my preferred place to shop for vegetables is my local farmers market on Saturday. Farmers markets are wonderful because you have access to the freshest local and seasonal vegetables available, usually just picked the day before. This means that not only are you guaranteed vegetables at the peak of their season, you can even go from stand to stand and find the batch you like best. You can also discover interesting and unique offerings (like the chocolate persimmon), and build relationships with local farmers. If you are lucky enough to have a weekly farmers market in your area, it is certainly worth it to commit yourself to go every week.

Read this blog on Saturdays to keep up with local finds in the Bay Area and California in general.

CSAs

Unfortunately, farmers markets are not practical for everyone. Some people have time constraints that prevent them from attending a weekly market. Luckily there are some alternatives available. One option is the CSA, or Community-Supported Agriculture. When you subscribe to a CSA you have pledged support for a particular farm (or sometimes a group of farms), and in exchange receive a box of seasonal produce each week or on an agreed schedule. The biggest convenience of joining a CSA is that the times arranged for delivery or pick up are much more flexible than the weekly market. There are CSAs for vegetables, as well as meat and dairy.

From what I understand, individual CSAs can vary substantially in how they are run and what they provide. If you are interested in finding a CSA in your area, I recommend spending some time researching your options and deciding what works best for you.

I have personally never belonged to a CSA and would love to hear about your experiences if you have.

Local Produce Markets

Even without a farmers market or CSA it possible to shop in season. Most cities and suburban areas have local produce markets and/or health food stores that focus on fresh vegetables. While not everything in these markets will be seasonal and local, they usually provide a nice alternative to large chain grocery stores to at least supplement your produce shopping. For more information you can read my article about how to find local produce markets in your area.

Grocery Stores

Even if none of these options are available in your neighborhood, it is still likely that the most affordable and best tasting food at your regular grocery store is whatever happens to be in season. Thus it is still worth it to keep up on local produce trends in your area.

Conclusions

Eating your vegetables is the most important thing you can do for your health, and neither nutritional supplements nor regular workouts can substitute for a healthy diet. Whether you have access to farmers markets or not, you are better off eating any vegetables than no vegetables at all. The same is true if you are considering conventional vs. organic produce.

If farmers markets are not available to you year-round there are many ways to get seasonal vegetables and fruits. But the first step is committing to your health and your future by making sure seasonal, fresh vegetables are a part of your personal healthstyle.

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‘Diet’ Is A Four Letter Word

by | Mar 20, 2009

fresh vegetablesHave you ever wondered why we use the same word for both normal and extreme eating behaviors?

Diet vs. Dieting

We all know what it means to “go on a diet.” When you are dieting (the verb) you temporarily change how you eat–sometimes in ways that are very extreme–for the purpose of losing weight or achieving another immediate goal, like “detox.”

But we also use the word diet to describe normal, everyday eating patterns such as a “healthy diet” or “vegetarian diet.”

Failing to distinguish short-term and long-term eating behaviors is a serious problem though, because in reality most of us confuse these methods and try using short-term strategies to achieve goals that can only be met with a long-term approach. And describing and correcting this fallacy is almost impossible when the terminology we use is the same for both.

Dieting Is Temporary

To be clear, there are a few cases where dieting (short-term) can be beneficial. Sometimes an athletic event or other performance requires temporary weight loss or a special training program. But if your goal is long-term health or permanent weight loss, you won’t find much success with this approach.

Sure you can lose weight if you go on a diet. In fact, you can lose weight on almost any diet (I’m still skeptical of the cookie diet, but I would not be surprised if someone has lost weight on it). What you must remember is if your changes are temporary, so will be your success.

Worse, most temporary weight loss plans encourage rapid weight loss that ultimately destroys muscle and lowers your metabolism. This makes future attempts at weight loss even more difficult and may result in a net weight gain, once you have fallen off the bandwagon. In other words, you achieve the opposite of your goal.

The Maintenance Illusion

Deep down you probably know all this. Yet still we love to rationalize this behavior by telling ourselves that once we lose the weight, then we will switch to a healthier diet. We tend to associate “healthy diets” with weight maintenance, and we keep this idea in the back of our brains for the mythical time when we finally achieve our perfect, ideal bodies.

But this strategy is backwards.

Habit

To lose weight and keep it off, to prevent chronic diseases and stay fit and active into old age, we need to permanently change our daily eating habits. We must learn to make healthier choices and gradually shift our behaviors to those of a healthy, thin person.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

-Aristotle

Aristotle’s wisdom holds true for weight loss as well. To change our bodies we must change our habits. And habits are created in our minds. We need to stop thinking of dieting as a way to achieve permanent weight loss. Instead we need a term that emphasizes our set of personal habits we adopt for long-term good health.

Healthstyle

Healthstyle is the word I am choosing to describe the healthy habits that fit our own individual styles.

One of the wonderful things about health and weight loss is that there are countless ways to get there. And what works for someone may not work for you. Healthstyle is your customized path to health that suits your personal tastes and lifestyle.

Most importantly, Healthstyle emphasizes habits and long-term health, not painful diets and temporary weight loss.

Please join me in removing the word diet from the discussion of healthy eating. If you use Twitter, share your healthy habits with the tag #healthstyle.

What is your Healthstyle?

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Low-Carb, Low-Fat and High-Protein Diets Equally Useless

by | Feb 27, 2009

A widely publicized study out this week in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that there is virtually no difference between low-carb, low-fat, high-carb or high-protein diets when it comes to weight loss. I don’t often like to toot my own horn, but if you read my post on Monday about the Top 10 Food Facts Everyone Should Know (see point #10), then this was not news to you.

For several years now data has been accumulating that the relative composition of different macronutrients (fat, carbs, protein) in your diet has little to no effect on long-term weight loss. What makes this study stand out from the pack is how well it was designed.

The Study

This was the largest, longest run study of this kind ever conducted, including nearly 650 over weight individuals of diverse racial, socioeconomic, geographic and education backgrounds. The participants were highly motivated to lose weight and were given detailed instructions on why their assigned diet was considered an effective weight loss strategy (this was to remove bias caused by the media about popular diets).

For you carbophobes out there, the importance of dietary carbohydrates was addressed directly. The amount of carbohydrates in the different diets varied from 35% (very low) to 65% (very high). All participants, including those on the high-carb diet, were instructed to choose foods that had lower glycemic index. Carbohydrate composition had no significant effect on long-term weight loss.

All subjects received substantial behavioral therapy to help them meet their goals, and detailed measurements of health and weight loss were collected from each individual throughout the study. The participants were told to keep food journals and use online support provided, as well as weekly dietary counseling.

Importantly, all the diets resulted in similar calorie deficiencies to promote weight loss. Not surprisingly, after 6 months all the participants had lost a substantial amount of weight, but after 1 year had gained about half of it back. During the final year the subjects had more difficulty sticking to their assigned diets, particularly those assigned the most extreme regimens (very low-fat or high-protein).

Conclusions

Regardless of diet, all participants experienced similar, modest (5% body weight reduction), but clinically relevant weight loss that is mainly attributed to a reduction in calories.

Interestingly, the measure that best correlated with weight loss success was attendance at the dietary counseling sessions.

Since the study is over can we now assume that many of these participants have gone back to their old eating habits? I would bet yes.

What can we take away from this study?

You can lose weight on any diet, but for most people it is very difficult and not sustained. This is because cutting calories is very tough for most people.

This study also suggests that losing weight with standard diets is very difficult and, in most cases, only moderately helpful. It seems future research should focus on how to increase adherence to a lower calorie diet. Gaming the system by manipulating macronutrient composition doesn’t seem to be working.

Why you should focus on whole foods, not nutrients

Another thing we can take from this study is that if weight loss is your goal, calories are what count. (Some of my friends responded to this finding brilliantly: “DUH.”) The nice thing about a diet based primarily on vegetables is that lowering caloric intake is relatively easy. As long as some effort is made to achieve a balanced diet (enough plant protein and fats), satisfaction after a meal can be attained with far fewer calories.

Vegetables are very bulky, highly nutritious and have very few calories. It’s not easy to gain weight when you eat kale, beans and brown rice for dinner.

Like I explained a few weeks ago, since I have focused on health (rather than weight) and a vegetable-based (rather than macronutrient-based) diet, I have lost weight effortlessly. I am also less stressed about food in general, and have completely lost my old cravings for sugar and fat.

Best of all, I do not feel like I have given up anything whatsoever. In fact I would argue I have gained the freedom to eat what I want, whenever I want it. And the food I eat is much more satisfying and delicious. I guarantee you this tagine tasted better than any Atkins bar, rice cake or BigMac.

My life now is much more delicious.

Are you ready to give up diets and focus on health?

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Top 10 Food Facts Everyone Should Know

by | Feb 23, 2009

winter vegetablesIn honor of the food issue this week at Synapse, I compiled a list of ten essential diet and nutrition facts you might not know:

  1. “Vitamins” are not the same as whole foods. Instant ramen and a multivitamin is not a healthy meal. There is no substitute for a diet of whole foods rich in vegetables, beans, grains and fish.
  2. A healthy diet can prevent or even reverse four out of the six leading causes of death in the US. Evidence indicates that diet is more important than genetics in the vast majority of heart disease, stroke, cancer and type 2 diabetes cases.
  3. The thinnest, healthiest people in the world eat “high carb” diets. But they definitely do not eat the processed, refined carbohydrates that flood Western culture. If you want to lose weight and live longer without disease, eat more vegetables and whole grains.
  4. You get plenty of calcium. Americans consume more calcium than most countries on earth, yet still sport some of the highest rates of osteoporosis. This debilitating disease is more likely caused by insufficient vitamin D, not enough exercise and/or too much protein. Also, excess calcium is linked to prostate cancer and milk to ovarian cancer. Calcium does not support weight loss either.
  5. “Fiber” is not the same as vegetables and grains. Fiber supplements do not offer the same benefits as fiber-filled foods, and do not help with weight loss or protect against disease.
  6. The best sources of protein are plants and fish. It is relatively easy to get complete protein (i.e., all the essential amino acids) from a diverse diet. Protein from red meat offers more risk than reward. (Yes, pork is red meat.)
  7. Fruits and vegetables protect your vision. Both cataracts and macular degeneration are strongly tied to diet.
  8. Fats from factories are dangerous. Processed oils and trans fats (not total dietary fat) are associated with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and obesity. Replacing them with natural oils could save your life.
  9. Fats from plants and fish are essential. Mono- and polyunsaturated fats protect against heart disease, type 2 diabetes and memory loss. In moderation they can also aid in weight loss, since they increase the satiety you feel after a meal.
  10. You can lose weight on any short-term diet, but you will probably gain back more than you ultimately lose. This is often true even if you stay on the diet. Focusing on long-term health is the best strategy for sustained weight loss, but it requires patience.

What are other common myths about diet and nutrition?

UPDATE: For more information on the health value of oils from fish, please read my answer in the comments section.
http://forms.aweber.com/form/30/split_210533730.htm

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Having My Cake

by | Feb 18, 2009

This past week I mentioned a few times on Facebook that I was going out to eat. Once I mentioned something about meatballs, another time a burger and then fried chicken. The response from my friends was pretty uniform:

“YOU EAT MEAT?!?!”

I can understand the confusion. I spend pretty much all my free time trying to convince my readers that eating more vegetables, legumes and whole grains, while cutting back on red meat and refined carbohydrates will help you lose weight, keep your heart healthy and stave off cancer. My recipes almost never include meat or dairy and, it’s true, I don’t eat much of these things (at least not compared to most Americans).

But I do eat pork, beef, cheese and cake, and I love them!

What really distinguishes my eating habits from a typical Western diet is the quantity and quality of the unhealthy foods I eat, as well as the quantity and diversity of the healthy foods.

As I have explained before, taste is a huge factor in what I decide to consume. I do not eat gross foods just because they are supposed to be healthy, and I do not deprive myself of foods that I love. Instead I have learned to cook myself healthy food that tastes amazing–food I would be proud to serve to friends and chefs alike. My method is to get the best ingredients I can get my hands on, and that involves seasonal shopping every weekend at the farmers market.

I have a similar strategy for less healthy foods.

When I do choose to eat meat, cheese or dessert I do so with the understanding that these foods are treats I cannot take for granted. And because I know they are not indulgences I can (or want) to make very often, when the time comes I make sure that whatever I am eating is unquestionably worth it. In San Francisco this probably means I’ll be having the best ______ I’ve ever eaten in my life.

I never waste my health or time on cheap junk food.

Besides excellent food there are occasionally other circumstances that give me valid reasons to stray off course. For example, once in a while an experience justifies making an exception. In these cases it can be more important to spend quality time with friends or loved ones than it is to have a balanced meal. No one likes a food snob, so when faced with a situation like this I just eat whatever foods I like, relax and enjoy myself. If the food happens to be unhealthy, I make some effort to not eat too much of it.

The reason I do not stress about these situations is because the biggest impact on your health comes from how you choose to eat most of the time, not what you eat some of the time.

Look at any of my grocery lists or recipes and you know that my diet consists of abundant fresh vegetables, legumes, fish, grains and fruit. This is why my cholesterol, triglycerides, fasting glucose, iron, body fat and pretty much any other health measure you can think of are so impressive (my HDL is higher than my LDL!). But I do still eat eggs, poultry and cheese on occasion, and sometimes even bread, sugar and red meat.

Most importantly, everything I eat is absolutely delicious and there is no question in my mind I can sustain these habits indefinitely. I never feel deprived of anything. I always feel healthy and nourished. And with the changing seasons, my meals never get boring.

But trust me, if I am really feeling the burger at Absinthe I don’t hesitate to go get me one.

  • Do you think there is room in a healthy diet for indulgences?
  • Is there room for health in an indulgent diet?
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