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Automatic Health: Lessons From Personal Finance

by | Apr 3, 2009
Healthy Breakfast

Healthy Breakfast

Probably the biggest misconception about health and weight loss is that it takes a tremendous amount of willpower to succeed. Another myth is that it requires a substantial time investment.  In fact, neither excessive willpower nor time are necessary to be healthy and thin. So isn’t it useless to trying to force them on yourself? I think so.

After reading a captivating article by Ramit Sethi on Tim Ferriss’ (The Four Hour Work Week) blog, I learned most people have the same delusions about personal financeas they do about health—-they think paying off debt and saving money require willpower and time. So we should not be surprised that the solutions for personal finance offered by Ramit are the same fundamental strategies necessary for investing in your personal health. Make no mistake about it, your health is an investment. And a pretty important one at that.

Today I am going to show you how the advice and reasoning Ramit uses in his article can apply to health and weight loss, and how automating these steps can help you achieve your goals. In future articles I will describe in detail how to implement each step. Be sure you are subscribed with either RSS or email so you can follow the series.

Choice Paralysis

Ramit starts by pointing out that we have dozens of choices to make every day when it comes to money. The same is true for health. Should I eat breakfast? Should I pack a lunch? Am I going to the gym?

“Faced with an overwhelming number of choices, most people respond in the same way: They do nothing.”

Clearly “nothing” is not a winning strategy. In both finance and health you must set your default activities so that you will automatically contribute to your long-term goals. Automation is the essence of healthstyle.

Establish a Foundation

Ramit says the first step to automating your personal finance system is to make sure you are getting the best deals you can from your financial institutions, meaning that you have the lowest possible interest rates and are not paying annual fees. Not doing this is equivalent to throwing money away.

In health the first step in establishing your foundation is having the tools you need to succeed. Since how you eat is the biggest factor in determining your long-term health and body weight, you must have the ability to eat properly. In our modern lives, this ultimately means you need to know how to cook for yourself. You will never get healthy eating at restaurants every day. This is the same as throwing your health away.

Therefore it is essential that your kitchen is supplied with the tools you need to cook, eat and store your food. This may seem obvious to some of you, but for many people the kitchen is a foreign and scary place. To assist both newbies and veterans in upgrading your kitchenstyles, I have put together a section of the Summer Tomato Shop called Kitchen Gear (go to the Shop then use the navigation in the sidebar on the right).

Kitchen Gear is grouped into categories that are meant to help you find exactly what you need. The Basics has all the essential items for a functional kitchen. Additionally, below each item I give a brief description of why it is on the list.

If you regularly follow my blog, however, you will soon find that I sometimes use items that are not in The Basics. Usually you can find these in Accessories. In general, Accessories are items that are not absolutely necessary for cooking, but they can make your life a whole lot easier if you have them. For example, you can peel vegetables with a knife, but a vegetable peeler makes it quick and easy.

Storage & Transport has products that help you mobilize your healthstyle, which is especially important if you work away from home during the day. There are also reusable grocery and farmers market bags available.

The Finer Things offers the top-of-the-line products that I wish I had (okay, I have a few of them). I have spent an embarrassing amount of time reading reviews of kitchen products and appliances, and these are the products I envision in my future dream kitchen. For those of you who can afford them, this is your list.

I feel confident in the quality of the items I recommend–I own or have used most of them. I also consider price in my recommendations and try to make this clear in my explanations. If, however, you feel you want an item that is different from what is on my list, you can still navigate to and purchase it through the Amazon links on this website to support this blog. My store is run through Amazon.com and almost always represents the best prices on the internet.

Automate the Basics

The next step in Ramit’s personal finance plan is to automate your bank accounts so that regular payments and savings deposits occur as soon as you get your paycheck (also automatic). This takes care of all your goals and gives you the freedom to make personal decisions with the rest of your money without worry, guilt or willpower.

If you are like most people the structure of your day stays pretty much the same all year long (particularly Monday through Friday). We wake up, go to work (or equivalent), come home, eat, spend time on personal things then go to bed. This structure provides us an excellent opportunity to optimize for health.

Breakfast. One of the simplest things you can do to improve your health is eat breakfast, particularly whole grains and fruit. To easily begin improving your metabolism and blood sugar control, find a couple whole grain cereals you like and start eating breakfast every day. If you think you do not like to eat first thing in the morning, you are most likely dehydrated. Wake up, drink water, then eat breakfast.

Lunch. For many people lunch is the most difficult meal to make healthy because they do not prepare for it, get stuck at work with no food and end up going out and eating something unhealthy. But since you know you always eat one meal at work each day, this is something you can easily automate in your favor.

Each weekend you need to plan in advance what you will be eating for lunch all week. Make sure you cover at least 4 days, but five is better. There are several ways to approach this: you can bring ingredients and prepare your own lunch at the office, make a large batch of food on weekends especially for lunch during the week, or make enough food each night at dinner that you have leftovers for the next day. All these strategies are effective because they help you avoid buying your lunch.

Shopping. In order to accomplish the two above points, you need to set aside a little bit of time each weekend to go grocery shopping and plan (or at least consider) your meals. This time must be non-negotiable; ultimately it saves you time later in the week. For my personal healthstyle the weekend always includes a trip to the farmers market, but there are many other options if this is not realistic for you.

Effective shopping has several components. You must always have the basic stocks of items in your pantry, freezer and refrigerator. You need to shop regularly for staples (milk, for example) and fresh items must be purchased weekly. Details on how to shop for all these components will be given in future posts.

Dinner. People expect the most out of dinner. It generally needs to be quick (I’m starving!), simple (I’m busy!) and delicious (I’m picky!). Luckily, the changing seasons offer great opportunity to keep variety in our dinner menus without needing too many different cooking techniques. If you can get at least a few of the basic skills under your belt, you can make an infinite number of healthy, interesting and delicious meals. Basic cooking techniques will also be summarized in future posts.

Work exercise into your daily routine. Physical activity is essential for staying fit and trim, but it doesn’t particularly matter where you get it. The important thing is that you make it happen consistently by incorporating it into your average day. Personally I walk to work, take the stairs, and make it to the gym for cardio and weights whenever I can.

Whatever method you choose as your source of physical activity must be your default, and skipping your exercise must be the exception. If you prefer using a gym, make sure you have a membership, a gym bag and the necessary apparel to workout at all times. Don’t like the gym? Find an activity that you enjoy and recruit friends to join you. Even if you prefer not to engage in formal workouts at all, you can make an effort to increase your non-exercise daily activity. Some scientists think non-exercise energy expenditure may be especially effective for people who are trying to lose weight but dislike structured workouts.

Tweaking Your Style

Ramit’s final recommendation for automating your personal finance is to customize your plan for your personal circumstances.

We are all individuals and have different needs and preferences, especially when it comes to food and exercise. I do not recommend trying to incorporate every ounce of my advice into your life at the same time. Try the things that are easiest for you and see how they work. Once a few new habits are formed, you can try to tackle some harder ones. As you grow and evolve into your own healthstyle, you may find things that never worked for you before are suddenly feasible. Or you may come up with your own hacks to optimize your health and fitness.

This blog is meant to be a source for suggestions and guidelines, not dogma or a regimented plan. Discovering and improving your own strategies for success are essential for building a lasting healthstyle that reflects both who you are and who you want to be.

How will you upgrade your healthstyle?

Read more on How To Get Started Eating Healthy:
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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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Should I Buy Whole Grain Pasta?

by | Jan 19, 2009
Pasta

Pasta

Is whole grain pasta really better for you than regular pasta? Recently I featured pasta puttanesca greened up with a little kale in the sauce. When one reader made this recipe at home, he opted to use whole grain pasta instead (I used a regular rigatoni).

But if I care about health so much why didn’t I use whole grain pasta originally?

You probably already know that I health-heartedly support the regular consumption of whole grains. But I also hold that there is a huge difference between intact grains and processed whole grains. So yes, brown rice is better for you than white rice, but pasta is different.

Noodles are made of dough and are therefore processed no matter what. For this reason they will never be a pinnacle of health food, but that does not mean that there can’t be a place for them in your diet. Italians eat pasta almost every day, and most of them are healthier than us. The important thing to think about when you are eating pasta–any pasta–is quantity.

So to answer the question, is whole grain pasta better than regular pasta? Maybe a little. But because I do not eat pasta very often, and because when I do eat pasta I eat a normal (aka small) portion, I always buy what I think will taste the best with meal. And for me, that is usually handmade fresh pasta (the soft refrigerated kind), not the whole grain stuff.

If you do not mind the taste of whole grain pasta, go ahead and buy it. It might be slightly better for you than the other kind. But the impact of whole grain pasta on your overall health is really small, so this is not a question to get hung up on.

Want a healthier Italian meal? Add more vegetables.

What is your opinion on pasta and health?

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Breakfast Cereal Eaters are Thinner, More Nourished

by | Nov 12, 2008

The case for eating breakfast everyday is mounting. We already know that people who eat breakfast are generally thinner than those who do not. They also tend to eat a healthier diet overall. Now new data suggest that the nutritional quality of your breakfast is also important for your health. Surprise!

A study published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is the first to address how your choice of breakfast is correlated with the quality of food chosen during the rest of the day. The scientists combined dietary data from three continuous National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (1999-2004) to determine energy density, nutritional quality and variety of foods eaten. They also examined the relationship between breakfast choices and body mass index (BMI). A total of 12,316 people were analyzed.

Eighty percent of people in the study reported eating breakfast. Although breakfast eaters ate more total daily calories during the study, the foods they chose tended to be of lower energy density. Lower energy density foods have fewer calories per gram and are usually associated with more nutritious fare such as fruits, vegetables and grains. Examples of higher energy density foods are meats, cheeses and processed carbohydrates.

Interestingly, breakfasts of lower energy density, such as cereal with milk and fruit, were an indication of a more diverse diet throughout the rest of the day. In other words, participants who ate cereal for breakfast were more likely to report eating a lot of fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and other healthful foods overall. This was true whether or not breakfast itself was included in the calculation.

People who chose breakfasts of higher energy density ate fewer different kinds of foods, but more pastries and junk foods. Countless studies have shown that dietary diversity is one of the best predictors of good health. This was confirmed in this study, as higher energy density breakfasts predicted fewer beneficial micronutrients consumed overall.

The researchers also found that seventeen percent of people who ate breakfast reported items that could not be “grouped into the major food groups,” things such as pastries, confections and meal replacement drinks and bars. With this the authors of the study point out that a significant percentage of Americans do not eat “real food” for breakfast (somewhere Michael Pollan is smiling and nodding). Not surprisingly, this group comprised the highest average energy density of any type of breakfast.

Women (but not men) that did not eat breakfast had a higher average BMI. This was true regardless of body image or attempted weight loss. In both men and women, breakfast energy density showed a linear positive association with BMI. This means that even for people who do eat breakfast, if you eat foods with higher energy density you will probably weigh more.

In English, what this all means is that although eating breakfast alone does a body good, it is much better if your breakfast is cereal and fruit rather than eggs and meat.

There is no clear cause and effect in an analysis of this kind, however there seems to be a correlation between eating less healthy foods at breakfast and making poor food choices throughout the day. While it is possible that some people simply make unhealthy selections all the time, there is also a possibility that your breakfast choices affect metabolic and hormonal systems that alter your cravings for different foods over the course of the day. Indeed, there are studies showing that people who eat whole grains in the morning have altered insulin responses for nine to twelve hours after eating.

Even if your breakfast choice does not have a direct impact on the rest of your food selections, choosing cereals and fruit will certainly bring you a step closer to better health. Pouring a bowl of whole grain cereal and adding some fruit is pretty simple, and I guarantee you it is easier than making eggs and sausage. Do yourself a favor and save the cakes and donuts for dessert.

This article can also be found at Synapse.

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Weekday Breakfast: Cereal and Fruit

by | Nov 10, 2008
Healthy Breakfast

Healthy Breakfast

Monday mornings are rough, but skipping breakfast is not an option. Current wisdom recommends you drink a glass of water and eat breakfast within an hour of waking. The quickest, healthiest thing you can have in the morning is a bowl of cold whole grain cereal with fruit.

But buyer beware. Almost all breakfasts cereals these days claim to be “whole grain.” Yet as you can probably deduce on your own, Cocoa Puffs is not a nutritious breakfast. All that sugar negates any benefit of their “whole grain” health claims.

The Truth About Whole Grain Products

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has defined the requirements that must be met for a manufacturer to use the term “whole grain” on its label (along with the respective health claims):

“Cereal grains that consist of the intact, ground, cracked or flaked caryopsis, whose principal anatomical components – the starchy endosperm, germ and bran – are present in the same relative proportions as they exist in the intact caryopsis – should be considered a whole grain food.” (emphasis added by me)

Understand? To be considered “whole,” grains do not actually have to be intact. Armed with this, manufacturers set to work demolishing grains as normal, then adding back the required ratios of grain parts (germ and bran) to meet the standard. Presto! Magic health in Lucky Charms.

Would you then be surprised if I told you that intact grains are much, much better for you than demolished and reassembled grains?

If you really want the benefits associated with eating whole grains you should be able to see an intact grain in what you are eating; something like an oat, for example. If not, there has definitely been some processing involved, which reduces the whole grain benefits. That being said, processed whole grains are better than purely refined grains (without germ and bran). White sandwich bread is indistinguishable from sugar in my view.

So this is the problem with breakfast, and it is difficult to avoid in cold cereals. Real whole grains are tough and bland, so some demolition and sweetening are almost always necessary for most people to eat them regularly.

Oatmeal is a fantastic choice. Steel cut oats are even better, but they take 45 minutes to cook. When you just want to pour, eat and run you will need a quicker alternative.

My Solution

I first turned to granola. Those grains sure do look intact, right? But take a closer look and you will find granola often contains ungodly amounts of sugar. Though I enjoy granola and occasionally eat it during outdoor activities, I cannot bring myself to eat it every day for breakfast. It is just too sweet and dessert-like for me. You can make your own granola and add less sugar if you have the time. But still.

The good news is there are some products that are whole grain, palatable and not packed with sugar. But making a good breakfast out of them requires a touch of creativity. I have found one company that makes a kind of granola without sugar. Muesli is actually the appropriate term for this kind of cereal. It is regrettably difficult to find, but is available at Whole Foods in a variety of flavors. The company that makes it is called Dorset Cereals out of the UK. It is not cheap, but I only use about 1/4 cup per serving, so a box lasts me several weeks.

Another cereal product I like is the Ezekiel 4:9 brand made by Food for Life. Though these cereals are not exactly intact grains, they are made from many different kinds of sprouted whole grains and are free of flour and other bad stuff. To give you an idea of what they are like, think of Grape Nuts with more flavor.

I wish I could say that these products solved all my problems, but there is also the issue of taste and texture. Both these cereals are very dense, and eating them without any additional sweetness is a little brutal. For this reason I do not eat them alone, but instead mix them with my favorite flake cereal, Nature’s Path Flax Plus.

I also always add fruit. These days I am using pomegranate seeds (see pic), but almost anything will do. I even keep a bag of frozen organic wild blueberries for emergencies. Fruit is sweet, but also very good for you. Hooray, problem solved!!

What is your healthy breakfast?

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