Real Food – Does it Really Make a Difference?

This past summer, I had the amazing opportunity to go live and work in Florence, Italy for a month and a half.  For this theatre and history nerd, being in the heart of the Renaissance was amazing!  I had the opportunity to learn many things about the history, culture, and, of course, food.  My main hope was that I would even learn some classic Italian cooking! What I learned during my stay, though, was much more valuable.

Rewind about six years.  When I was at my heaviest – 175lbs on my 5’3″ frame – I wasn’t too concerned with exactly what I was eating. Senior year of high school, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. With this diagnosis, I made the connection that (1) my metabolism hated me and (2) even though I had a medical disorder to blame…I was *probably* eating too much.  Thus began the weight-loss journey.

I tried every fad diet I could read about.  Low-carb lasted about a week (and I had no friends left…see my previous post Lessons from a Carb-o-vore).  Low-fat was pretty easy because everything is available in low-fat these days.  Unfortunately, not a pound budged.  I tried all the diets that magazines were talking about including the feast/famine style diets, the strict calorie counting diets, and the just-eat-egg-whites diets.  Nothing worked!  Luckily, I found that Weight Watchers worked for me.  Their fairly simple point system did the trick and I went from 175lbs to 125lbs in about 9 months.  The downside to this miracle?  Because the basis of Weight Watchers old point system was really just calories in vs. calories out…I could eat anything I wanted to.  As long as I didn’t go over my daily point value, I could just eat low-fat, Splenda-enriched ice cream all day.  Yeah.  That’s healthy.

Now, I’m not knocking Weight Watchers.  I helped me lose 50lbs!  And I know several people (including my mom) that have had great success with WW.  I’m just saying that, while it helped reach the main goal, it didn’t create a healthy food relationship.  For years, I was eating little 100 calorie snack packs, “fortified” cereals, and seemingly healthy processed foods.  And all that time I was wondering why I was still tired, foggy, and craving everything under the sun.

Fast forward a few years.  As I’ve gotten older and more educated, I’ve read all the research on how processed foods are going to be the death of us.  And I’ve adjusted accordingly.  I’ve always loved cooking, so that part is easy.  But I’ve stopped buying the processed foods that were once a part of daily life: cereals, white breads, convenience meals, etc.  In the last few months, my boyfriend and I have even starting receiving a weekly CSA box full of local organic produce.  I was pretty proud of myself!  I thought I had it all figured out.  Then I went to Italy.

I spent 49 days in Italy.  I lost 5lbs.  I know.  You’re thinking, “Big effin’ deal.  It was probably water-weight or something.”  I would be inclined to agree with you.  Except that my daily calorie intake was surely upwards of 2500 calories. At least. I went to Italy with the full intention of experiencing all the food and culture that I could.  Here is a typical food day in Italy:

Breakfast: pastries and/or cookies with an espresso drink (mine was usually a cappuccino with a touch of sugar)

Lunch: pasta, cheese, meat, bread, olive oil, and wine (usually)

Aperitivo: bread, olive oil, cheese, meats, fruit, and wine (always)

Dinner: pasta, cheese, meat, bread, olive oil, and wine (always)

Sometimes there are salads present at lunch and dinner, and often fruit is on the menu for dessert.  But these are the only redeeming health qualities of the Italian diet.  And let’s not forget that I didn’t even mention how much gelato I ate over there…

So how in the world did this massive diet, full of heavy carbs and fats, leave me 5lbs lighter?  There are two reasons.

  1. Italians walk or bike almost everywhere.  Need to go to the store to get some bread?  Cardio.  Need to hit up that favorite gelato shop across town?  Cardio.  Everywhere you go is forced, unintentional exercise.  No sweating away in a gym for these people.  Just good old fashioned chores.
  2. Real food. No preservatives. No hormones. No fake food colorings. No unidentifiable chemicals.  That’s right.  My heavy, fatty, delicious Italian diet was, in a sense, cleansing my body.  For 49 days, I ate foods that were free of any unnatural ingredient.  And my body loved it.

Now, I’m not saying that if we all start eating a perfectly organic diet that we should just throw caution to the wind and eat everything in site.  I’m just saying that clearly the quality of food makes a real difference.  Upon returning from Italy my boyfriend and I made two huge changes to our life.  We found a local butcher where we now procure all our local meats.  And we bought (matching) bicycles.  I know what you’re thinking: “Um, I thought you were poor.”  We are.

We spend $29.50 on our box of produce.  We get roughly 25 servings of veggies and fruit from that. That’s $1.18 a serving.  From our new found butcher, we purchased a 14lb freezer stocking special for $49.  Since we only use 1/2lb per meal, that’s 28 meals at $1.75 (or $0.88 per person).  And we purchased our bikes from a used bicycle store for $250 each.  A bit of an investment, but given the fact that I can now be a bike commuter instead of driving to work everyday, the investment will pay off (see post Exercising in the Real World).

We also leave room in our budget for extra groceries that don’t get delivered to our door.  All in all, we spend $100 or less on quality, non-processed groceries every week.  In the few weeks that I’ve been home from Italy, these changes have already made a huge impact on my life.  I already thought I was “healthy,” but now I really feel like it!  My sleep is a hundred times better, I wake up easier in the morning, and even though I haven’t lost any extra weight, I feel less jiggly when I look in the mirror.

If you’ve been feeling a little less than healthy lately, maybe see if these changes can work for you:

  1. Check out local CSA programs.  Community Supported Agriculture programs are wonderful! Basically, by helping ensure the farmers that they have continual customers, you get access to reduced-cost, local, organic produce. And if you love to cook – these boxes are a cooking adventure waiting to happen.  Just search for “CSA __(your city)__” and something is bound to pop up.  We get ours from New Roots Organics.
  2. Make friends with a butcher.  Until I went to Italy, this didn’t seem important to me.  But after tasting how delicious local, non-arsenic-laced meats taste (and how they feel in my body), I knew it was a change I had to make.  Yes, meat from butchers cost a little more money than in the bargain grocery store.  But you are paying for fresh, local meat and for the expertise of the butcher.  Ask if he or she has a “freezer” deal or specials for loyal customers.  If you’re in Seattle, check out Don and Joe’s Meats in Pike Place Market.
  3. Go SUPER Local.  If you live in an awesome place like Seattle, you’ve got food artisans on every corner.  If you can afford it, make those foods a part of your life.  Get fresh cheese from a local shop, fresh eggs from a farm, honey from bees in the meadows, or freshly baked bread from a bakery.  These things are a bit out of my budgetary reach right now, but I look forward to the day I can include them!
  4. Shop Wisely.  Get good at grocery shopping. This is really a tip to save money while eating healthy. Do some research on food prices in your area.  I shop at two stores.  Because there are some things that are dramatically cheaper at chain stores. Don’t be afraid to put a little inconvenience in your day so you can save money AND be healthy.  It’s not that big of a deal.
  5. Read your Labels.  I get tricked by “wholesome” looking foods all the time.  A good general rule of thumb is that a food should be made with only a handful of pronounceable ingredients.  If you can’t pronounce it and don’t know what it is…you probably shouldn’t eat it.
  6. Eat REAL food.  Of course, cut out processed foods.  This is a no brainer.  But also…if you are a consumer of pre-made shakes or shake mixes (like many exercise programs promote), I STRONGLY encourage you to stop!!  These shakes are supposedly little packages of nutrient-rich slush that allow you to “eat” healthy without eating.  Um…soylent green ring a bell, anyone??  Seriously.  Unless you are a body builder, fitness competitor, or extreme athlete, there is nothing in that shake you need that you cannot get in real, wholesome food.  Start your day out with a homemade shake, like I do every morning (recipe at the bottom).  Sneak greens and veggies into foods all day long (pureed into sauces/soups, sauteed and tossed with pasta, the possibilities are endless!).  You’ll feel better and your bank account will probably get healthier, too.

I hope making the transition to a more local-based, whole food diet rewards you the same way that it has rewarded me.  I feel like I’m taking better care of myself and my boyfriend when I can whip up a quick dinner and I know all of the ingredients are wholesome and fresh.  It’s just one thing that makes it a little easier to be healthier in the real world.

Morning Shake Recipe (makes two 20oz shakes)

2 cups frozen unsweetened fruit (I usually mix strawberries/blueberries or have a berry mix)

1/2 cup plain unsweetened Kefir (find it by the yogurt….or just use yogurt)

1 cup Almond-Coconut Milk (like Blue Diamond brand)

1/2 cup 100% Fruit Juice (I like cranberry blends)

2-3 tbsp Ground Flaxseed Meal  (optional)

1-2 cups Kale or other leafy green (dark leafed lettuce works well, too!)

1 medium Banana

Combine all ingredients in a blender and blend for 2-3 minutes until smooth.  If your blender is ornery like mine, defrost the fruit a little in the microwave first.  This recipe provides roughly the following nutrition per shake:

270 Calories…7 grams of healthy fat…9 grams of protein…125 milligrams of sodium…and 50 grams of carbs…not to mention a healthy dose of fiber, omega-3’s, potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron, vitamins A, B, C, and K (and others that I’m probably forgetting).

Once I pair this with a protein rich egg breakfast (adding another 7 grams of protein per egg), my day is good to go!  Or, if your morning’s a time-crunched, put all the ingredients in your blender the night before and leave it in the fridge.  In the morning, just blend and go.  Breakfast in less than 5 minutes!

**Note** This shake is, in fact, a little carb heavy.  But remember, fruit and dairy are natural sources of sugar (i.e. carbs) and are not processed.  This shake is meant to be something that boosts my energy rapidly and keeps me going (carbs) and that keeps me full until lunchtime (fat and protein).

P.S. If you want to read about my adventures in Italy, here is my blog from my visit: Avventure Toscana


Lessons from a Carb-o-vore

Confession: I adore carbohydrates.  Pasta, bread, rice, cereal, potatoes, corn, etc.  If it has a carb, it is going in my mouth.

This post is inspired by a friend of mine, Scott, who was joking about how much bread he is currently eating.  See, he’s currently a baker (Renaissance style) and is creating an unbelievable amount of bread in his little oven (see what I’m talking about at his blog:

Sad news for carb-lovers: one of the trendiest diets now, as it has been for years, is the low-carb/no-carb diet.  Also annoyingly trendy? Gluten-free. Now, first let me say this: if you do have Celiac disease or an actual gluten-sensitivity…then PLEASE stay away from gluten.  I cannot imagine the pain you go through trying to digest something your body thinks is poison.  But this post is still for you – because there are a lot of carbs out there that are gluten-free!

First, let me debunk some myths.

Myth: No human can sufficiently digest gluten.

Truth: 1% of Americans actually have Celiac disease.  That is 1 out of 133 people.  Only 5% to 10% of Americans have a form of gluten-sensitivity.  The other 90% are just following a fad.  The other 90% can digest gluten just fine and have simply fallen into this belief that “gluten” is going to kill us all.  But here’s the thing about gluten.  It’s a protein.  You know. That macro-nutrient that we are all trying to get more of in our diets.  It is one of the reasons ancient people ate bread-like foods.  Because grains are a decent source of non-animal protein. In fact, the first supposed instance of wheat (the major source of gluten) being used is 9,000 BC in modern day Turkey.  We’ve been digesting gluten for over 11,000 years.  I think we’ll be okay if we keep eating it.

Myth: All grains contain gluten, so we can’t eat them

Truth: Any smart Celiac suffer will tell you you’re wrong. The major gluten offenders of the grain world are wheat, rye, and barely.  But there are many grains that are perfectly safe forms of carbs and protein: corn, rice, millet, amaranth, teff, sorghum, quinoa, and sometimes oats (but make sure the oats are certified gluten-free…they like to sneak gluten in while processing). Not to mention potatoes! The best news is that most of these grains are as easy to cook as rice AND many of them make very successful loaves of bread.

Myth: Carbs make people fat.

Truth: Carbs don’t make people fat.  Food makes people fat.  Specifically, too much food makes people fat.  Yes, I know.  There is all this research saying that low-carb diets work.  Of course they do.  A carbohydrate has 9 calories per gram.  When you switch to a low-carb diet, you generally replace those carbs with protein (4 calories per gram) and vegetables (mostly water, nutrients, and fiber). Long story short: when you eat low-carb, you automatically eat fewer calories.  Fewer calories = less you.  But here’s the problem.  You need carbs.  Your brain needs carbs.  Here are just a few things carbs do for you that other foods just don’t:

  1. Convert quickly to energy AND store up for future energy.  The glucose in carbs converts very well into ATP (the stuff cells need for energy).
  2. Without carbs, your body will use all that protein you’re eating for energy.  Sounds good in theory, right? Wrong.  If your body is using protein for energy…it ISN’T using it to build lean, healthy muscle.  And that’s something we could all use more of.
  3. Help keep you regular.  Carbs (good carbs) have tons of fiber.  And fiber keeps you happy.  Enough said.
  4. According to the Mayo clinic, carbs can also protect you against cardiovascular diseases and other bad things.  Cool.

Now, am I telling you to fill your plate three times a day with pasta and call it dandy? No! I’m very well aware that there are “good carbs” and “bad carbs” and that moderation is key. And I do believe that very much.  Nothing in this next sentence will be anything new: eat whole grains!  If it is made of flour and it is white, just say no!  We’ve heard this recommendation for quite a while now. We’ve also heard all the recommendations about when you should or shouldn’t eat carbs (never for dinner!) and how much a serving should or shouldn’t be (it should fit in your hand!) and blah blah blah. Blah.

Let’s get real and infuse a little “Real World Healthy” into this conversation.  First, I have a few confessions about my own relationships with carbs.

  1. I. Love. Carbs. And no matter what all the health professionals say, I am not satisfied with a meal any time of the day if it doesn’t include a carbohydrate. I am okay with that.
  2. If I don’t eat carbs, I don’t have friends.
  3. I am happy to eat whole wheat bread and experiment with various grains. But I strongly dislike brown rice and I refuse to eat whole wheat pasta.
  4. If given the opportunity, I could eat bowls or cereal and/or pasta for every meal for the rest of my life.

Now.  Since I’m doing a pretty good job of being a carb-o-vore and not packing on a hundred pounds a year…how about some of my tips and tricks to living a carb-full and carb-happy life.

  1. Mix it up!  I try to have a variety of different carbs every day.  Example: if I have toast with breakfast, I try not to have a sandwich for lunch.  It’s a pretty simple way to make sure I get a variety of grains and nutrients (and not go through a loaf of bread in four days).
  2. One carb per meal.  When I was younger, my favorite school lunch was anytime I got bread to dip in my mashed potatoes. Yum!  These days, I do my best to make sure I only have one carb in every meal.  Yes, this typically means no garlic bread with my pasta, no french fries with my hamburger, and no mashed potato sandwich.  It is really a very tiny and easy sacrifice that helps ensure I keep my carb-munching in check.
  3. Measure your pasta!  Pasta is the easiest food to eat too much of (much like peanut butter…).  I always, always, always weigh my pasta.  If the pasta is the main food item in the meal (like spaghetti or mac and cheese), I will measure 4 oz per person.  If I’m making a pasta side-dish, it is 2 oz per person.  My scale is a life-saver when it comes to pasta.  Left to my own devices…I could easily eat a whole pound bag.
  4. Eat what you like!  If, like me, you hate brown rice and continually force yourself to eat it…you will forever be craving huge bowls of white rice.  And you know what will happen if you ever get that bowl of rice in front of you.  So, go ahead.  Eat the white rice.  Just be mindful of the amount you’re eating and, most importantly, don’t beat yourself up for eating it!
  5. Get moving!  Like I said earlier, carbs are the building block of cellular and physical energy.  So…if you eat a giant bowl of pasta one night (we all do it sometimes!)…maybe don’t go to sleep right afterwards.  Get up and go for a walk, go biking if your neighborhood/city is good for it, or even just clean the dishes and give the house a quick pick up.  Even a little bit of that energy used up will be good for you!

The moral of my story is this: I love carbs and that’s okay.  If you enjoy eating carbs (and they don’t make you sick), please don’t let society tell you that they are bad.  Carbs will not kill you or make you fat.  Carbs have the ability to sustain you and keep your energy flying!  We just have to respect their mighty power…

Exercising in the Real World

Today, I became a statistic. I joined the 3% of Seattlites who bike to work. A mere 3%, you say?  Believe it or not – Seattle has one of the highest bike commuter rates in the whole country! Based on our estimated population, nearly 18,624 people ride their bikes to work in Seattle.  Clearly, we who live in this absurdly hilly city are gluttons for punishment.

Aside from my slight masochistic tendencies, I chose to become a bike commuter for many reasons. First, to save money.  According to sciencey people who do research, you can save around 50 cents a mile by riding your bike to work instead of driving.  Since my commute by car was 6.5 miles each way, I’m saving $6.50 every day.  That’s $32.50 every week…or roughly $1600 a year (give and take a few holidays).  I don’t know if that’s true…but my bank account will be one happy camper if it is!

Secondly, I chose to become a bike commuter because I adore riding my bike and I live in one of the most beautiful places in the country.  Seattle is lined on one side by the Puget Sound/Elliot Bay and is surrounded on all sides by mountains.  And on a clear day, I can see Mount Rainier reigning over the landscape.  A morning (and afternoon) bike ride is food for the soul around here.


Isn’t Seattle Purty?

My third reason for becoming a bike commuter, and the one that relates directly to this blog, is that it is what I lovingly call forced cardio. As I mentioned in my previous blog, I’m far too busy to reliably schedule exercise in my daily life. A few months ago, my boyfriend and I lived on Capitol Hill in Seattle.  We were within walking distance of everything.  Grocery stores, food, parks, etc.  Just about anything we needed was a mile or less away. And, as the name of the neighborhood suggests, every direction we walked was a hill.  It was great exercise!  Then we upgraded apartments and moved closer to downtown.

Now, we’re wonderfully close to Pike Place Market and other downtown goodies…but we are car distance away from our favorite grocery store (Trader Joe’s) and everything else.  Long story short – we don’t walk nearly as much.  Even if we jaunt down to Pike Place for some fresh produce, it’s less than a mile and flat all the way.  Needless to say, a couple weeks after the move, I started to feel sluggish and extra jiggly.

So. I would try to get to the cute little gym in our apartment building as often as possible.  But working 30+ hours a week at one job, working weekends and some evenings at my other job, squeezing in time for my third job, and attempting to get all the housework, errands, and chores done in between all of that….it was so much that I don’t even know where this sentence began.

Basically, I would get to the gym, get a bit of weight lifting in and then hop on a treadmill only to get bored out of my mind in the first 3 minutes.  I’d start thinking about all the things I could be productively do instead of moving forward to nowhere.  Eventually, I’d convince myself that 15 minutes of cardio was all the workout necessary and I’d be off to get things done.  This is more exercise than many Americans get, true, but not enough to constitute a healthy, active lifestyle. And I know what the experts would tell me: “Go outside!  Working out is more fun outside!”  Let me tell you – I find traditional cardio dreadfully boring no matter where I’m at.  In order to be successful at cardio, I need to feel that I’m actively going somewhere and adding to the productivity of my day.

So I got the bike! Now, by just leaving a 20 minutes earlier for work and getting home 20 minutes later, I automatically get over an hour of cardio and 10 miles of cycling!  It’s like magic!!

If you’re like me and you simply cannot fit a steady amount of exercise in your life, please stop berating yourself!  I know the exercise gurus keep chastising us for not devoting hours and hours to exercise.  But that’s not fair.  Some of just do not have extra hours – plain and simple.  So here are a few of my own ideas that maybe you can use to add a little extra exercise in your life.

  1. Get a bike! Check out if your city is bike friendly.  Many cities are these days.  I know Boca Raton, Florida is (random, right?).  You may very well be living in a bike mecca and not even know it!  Even if you live a ways from work, see if your city offers “bike-and-ride” bus programs.  In Seattle, for no extra charge, you can rack your bike on the front of a bus, get off at a bus stop closer to work, and bike the rest of the way.
  2. Park really really far away.  You’ve heard this before, right?  We all love to spend precious minutes searching for the closest parking spot.  But unless you have a severe problem walking, parking far away is going to do you more good than harm.
  3. Carry a hand basket in the grocery store. Now, if you’re shopping for a family of four, this is probably not an option.  But if you DO carry a hand basket instead of pushing a cart, you’ll not only get a little strength training into your life…but you’ll also be less likely to load your basket down with not-good-for-you foods.  There is only so much room in those baskets!
  4. Take the stairs! I don’t mean take 10 flights of stairs.  I’m certainly not planning on always taking the stairs up to my 8th floor apartment.  Not when there is a perfectly good bank of elevators.  However, if you only have one or two floors to go up, is taking the stairs going to kill you?  Probably not.  More than likely, it is just going to help sculpt a nice backside.
  5. Walk wherever you can.  Take a look at the places you go most.  Is the grocery store only a mile away?  The drugstore on the corner?  Do you really need to drive to those places?  Probably not.  And if you’re concerned about carrying groceries home, buy yourself some adorable reusable rolling shopping bags!  Just load ’em up and drag ’em behind you.

I sincerely hope I, maybe, inspired you to add a little real world exercise to your day.  At the very least, I hope I’ve inspired you to stop beating yourself up if you don’t have the time to exercise everyday.  There are definitely going to be days when I don’t ride my bike to work.  Maybe because I have to get to another job immediately after work or maybe because I just woke up late that day.  And that is all okay.  Because I’m just doing the best I can for me.  And that’s what matters.

Reality Check

Why in the world am I starting a blog?  With over 11 BILLION blogs in the world (I looked it up), why would I presume to think people will read yet another food blog?  Short answer: I don’t.  I highly doubt anybody besides my friends and family will read this blog.  It will be shocking to me if I even maintain this blog for longer than a couple weeks.  But I’m starting it for one simple reason:  I have something to say.

Well, theoretically, I have a lot of somethings to say…otherwise this blog would only be one post for eternity.

As we move forward in society, leaving the days of hard manual labor far behind, we all begin a never-ending journey: The journey to be healthy in this fast-paced, fast-food, ADD, everything-is-bad-for-you kind of world.  The health and diet industry is a 40 billion dollar industry. Yet, how often do we hear this: “Diets just don’t work for me!” Or this: “I’ve tried everything!” It seems to me that if we’re spending 40 billion dollars a year on healthy stuff and it isn’t working, something is wrong.

Before I start getting flack about being a skinny girl ragging on the diet industry, let me point out that I once was the “fat girl.” I have an unfortunately common metabolic disorder called hypothyroidism.  Long story short, my metabolism is painfully slow and I packed on 50 pounds of extra weight in my last 3 months of high school.  It took me almost 4 years to lose the weight, and I definitely “tried everything.” Luckily, my share of the 40 billion dollars worked out and Weight Watchers helped me lose that 50 pounds.  That was nearly 6 years ago. Ever since then I’ve been on a food journey that has taken me through binge eating, emotional eating, and other unhealthy relationships with food. I’ve drunk health shakes galore, eaten my fair share of health bars, attempted various extreme athlete workouts (P90X = ouch), tried to sweat off extra jiggles, and thrown a lot of extra money into that 40 billion dollar pot. And I have learned a lot.

The fact of the matter is this: most of the mumbo-jumbo thrown at us by the fitness and diet industry just isn’t practical for everyday life.  I don’t know about you, but I work no fewer than 3 jobs at a time. I very rarely have time for an intense weight-lifting session or good, sweaty jog. If I do have the time, chances are I’m way too exhausted anyway. And living on a tight, very low middle-class income…I most definitely don’t have the money to throw at the newest fad diet or soylent green shake.

I intend for this blog to be about all that I’ve learned and all that I continue to learn.  This is a crazy world, and most of us just aren’t cut out to be fitness gurus, extreme athletes, or models.  But we can ALL be healthy.  Healthy can be any size or shape.  Healthy is about how you feel on the inside.  Healthy is about loving yourself and giving yourself the best you possibly can.

I hope you join me in this blog and let all your friends know about it, too.  I’m not saying I have all the answers.  I’m CERTAINLY not saying my advice is on par with a dietician, doctor, or personal trainer’s.  I’m just saying I’ve got real world experience and I want to help real people be real world happy and healthy.