My Definition of Eating Well

fruit2A recent interview on the topic of orthorexia, or an obsession with eating healthy, got me thinking about my own views on health and eating well. I discussed some of the issues in my blog The Pitfalls of the Quest for Perfect Nutrition so won’t repeat those here.

We are constantly bombarded with messages about the “best” way to eat. Eat this “good” food to be healthy, avoid that “bad” food to feel better! Coffee will make us live longer one day and kill us the next. The messages we receive about food and nutrition are often conflicting and sometimes downright scary.   And, unfortunately, a lot of them come with a lot of judgement about the foods we eat. After spending the past 5 years working with people suffering from eating disorders I’ve come to develop a different, but I feel more balanced, way to look at food and eating. So here it is, my definition of eating well:

At its core, food is fuel. All foods provide energy for our bodies in the form of calories. We freak out a lot about calories, but from a scientific standpoint all they are is a unit of energy. Sure, some fuels are more productive than others, and I’ll get into that in a minute, but I don’t believe in good or bad foods. That is putting a lot of judgment on the food, which often becomes judgment on ourselves if we eat that food. How many of us have labeled a donut bad, and then referred to ourselves as “being bad” when we ate one? And how many of us actually let it ruin our day (or at least part of it) that we were bad and ate a bad food and “wasted calories”? Some of us may have even punished ourselves by going to the gym and working out when we’d rather have been hanging out with friends or family. That’s no way to live! Eating a donut (or whatever other food you think is “bad”) does not make you a bad person. It just makes you a person who ate a donut. Maybe even a person who likes donuts, which is no better or worse than a person who likes broccoli. When it comes to being non-judgmental about food I always give the example of fire. Would you say fire is good or bad? Most people immediately think of forest fires or houses burning down and say fire is bad. But for thousands of years fires have helped us cook our food and keep us warm. The same goes for water. Water tends to be thought of as good, and it’s true we need it to survive, but drink too much and you can dilute your electrolytes, feel awful, and even die. Fire is not good or bad. Water is not good or bad. Food is not good or bad. Let’s please stop judging our food and ourselves. It’s not helpful. As Yoda would say “good or bad, food is not. Just is, is food”, or something like that!

Instead of labeling foods as good or bad, I like to describe foods by their nutritional productivity. Some foods are more productive, meaning they are high in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fiber, essential fats etc) and other foods are less productive, meaning lower in those nutrients. If you are eating well by my definition you are probably eating both productive foods and less productive foods. Notice I am not saying “unproductive foods”? That’s because even foods that are low in nutrients are still providing calories, so still giving our bodies fuel they can use. So all foods fall on the spectrum of productivity. There is really no such thing as “empty calories” as that implies there is nothing in them, which is physiologically impossible. Even soda, often deemed empty calories, provides sugar which your body can use for fuel, and actually prefers for fuel during intense exercise.

So what exactly is eating well? Overall, eating well is choosing from a wide variety of foods. It’s having the majority of your diet come from productive foods, but also allowing yourself to eat less productive foods in moderation because they bring pleasure or enjoyment. And moderation could mean every day. Eating well is not denying yourself any food, as this often leads to over doing it with that food down the road. Eating well is listening to your body’s internal hunger cues while also being aware of how your own emotions or external factors influence your satiety cues. Eating well is letting food be fuel first, but also a way to celebrate and enjoy life. Eating well is moderation-not over doing any one food, whether that food be kale or cake. Eating well is letting food be a part of your life, but not the center of it.

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No New Year’s Resolutions!

Ah, 2014, we finally meet.  I’m looking forward to this year, as I plan on having lots of epic bike and running races on the calendar!  Not only that, but I’m joining a team this year: the Runner’s Roost Mountain/Ultra running team!  These are no resolutions however, since it seems to me that most resolutions don’t amount to much in the end.   So here is a blog I wrote last New Year’s about setting goals.  Enjoy!
 
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 I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. I’ve always thought that if you want to change something you should do it now and not wait until the start of a new year, so I don’t usually set resolutions. Sure, there are those that want a “fresh start” and so the first of the year makes sense to embark on a goal, but statistically speaking most New Year’s resolutions fail within the first half of the year. Another potential problem I’ve noticed is that sometimes when we set a start date for a goal we give ourselves permission to do exactly the opposite until then, such as eating or drinking as much as we can before giving up alcohol or starting to eat healthier.

I recently read a statistic that by the end of January over a third of resolutions have been given up on. Anyone who goes to a gym can witness this trend. The gyms are packed in January to the point that it’s nearly impossible to find a machine, but by March they’ve generally returned to normal levels.

I’m not totally pessimistic about resolutions though. A majority of resolutions involve health in one way or another which I am all for, and setting goals can be a good way to stay on track and change one’s life for the better, just make sure to be SMART when setting your resolution!

SMART goals are often used in the business world, but they can work for health and fitness related goals as well. You’ll see some variations, but SMART generally stands for specific, measurable, attainable (or achievable), relevant, and time sensitive (or timely).

Specific- A specific goal is easier to stick with than a general one, so instead of saying “I will lose weight” or “I will work out more” make it specific, such as “I will work out 4 days per week in order to improve my body composition”.

Measurable- You’ll need a way to know if you are meeting your goal, so make sure it’s measurable. For the above goal you could say, “I will do 30 minutes of cardio at the gym 4 days a week”. You could also use body composition measurements as an indicator of staying on track.

Attainable- They say reach for the stars, but if you set your goals too high you’ll likely get discouraged and give up. I recommend setting mini goals that feel manageable and work you towards the greater goal. For instance, what’s the goal for this week? This month? Don’t focus too far into the future and don’t set unrealistic goals (like losing 20 pounds in a week or running your first marathon next month when you’ve never ran more than a mile in your life).

Relevant- You gotta want it to stick with it so don’t set a goal you don’t really care about. If it is not really relevant to your life or worth the effort to you, you’ll likely get bored with it quickly. So make sure it’s a goal you really care about.

Time Sensitive- Put an end date on it. Having a deadline can be motivating (as long as it’s realistic and attainable!).

Good luck and Happy New Year!

Training (or trying to at least) in the Heat

I had planned on blogging about mental toughness this week, inspired by a not so stellar performance at a race last weekend.  But when my planned 8 mile run turned into a 4 mile run due to the heat this evening I decided I need to address a more pressing topic for July in Denver: training in the heat.  I’ve never considered myself to do particularly well in the heat, but I swear it wasn’t this difficult last summer.  It’s hard enough to go for a run after a long day of work, and with the heat lately my legs feel like lead and my body feels S-L-O-W!  I tend to pride myself on the fact that I don’t get cold easily, and I often joke that getting cold is 90% mental ( I even managed  to run on some 12 degree days), but getting hot is a whole other thing. While my Weatherbug app claimed my run was only 89°F my body would argue otherwise.  I tried to slow down but it didn’t make the run feel more manageable.  Ultimately, I gave up and cut the run in half (I guess I better get on that mental toughness blog…).

One of my new favorite quotes happens to be “there is no such thing as bad weather, only weak minds”, but besides just toughing it out or moving your workout indoors, is there anything a runner (or any athlete for that matter) can do to beat the heat? Here’s what I’ve either learned :

  • Avoid the heat if possible (duh).  Typically mornings are cooler so try to fit in your workout before heading off to work if possible.  If you aren’t a morning person, consider a night run (assuming that you have a safe and reasonably well lit route).  Not only will a run after sun down be cooler, but there is something about running in the dark that feels more like an adventure than a day run.
  • Wear light colored clothing. Loose fitting clothing may also be cooler.
    • Columbia Omni Freeze clothes have special technology that supposedly helps keep you cooler.  I’ve only had one experience running in one of these shirts, and I did feel delightfully cool, but it was probably in the 70s and I was in a forest. You can check them out here:

http://www.columbia.com/Omni-Freeze/Technology_Omni-Freeze,default,pg.html

  • A light colored hat to keep the sun off your face may also help, but you lose a lot of heat through your head-meaning it may actually make you hotter.  If you do wear a hat keeping it wet can help.
  • Bring extra water and sip more frequently.  Heat means more sweat so you may also need more electrolytes than during cooler long runs.
  • Lower your expectations.  You’ll be less likely to break mentally if you accept the fact that you’ll likely be slower in the heat, at least initially.  Supposedly your body will adapt to the heat after a few weeks of running in it.  Doesn’t seem to be working out for me this summer though!
  • Seek shady routes. In Colorado in particular there is usually a big temp difference (or at least perceived difference) in the shade vs the sun.
  • Run near water if possible.  This one isn’t so easy in Denver, but if you have access to a lake, river, or even an ocean front running alongside it will help cool you down.
  • Wet yourself.  No, not that way!  But dumping some water on your head and neck can have a surprisingly cooling effect, at least for a bit.
  • Run with friends.  Okay, a friend won’t actually help keep you cool unless they squirt water at you (which is an option I suppose), but having company may help distract you from the heat and make your run more enjoyable.

All this being said, be safe.  If it’s a record heat wave seriously consider moving your run indoors.  Also be aware of the signs of heat exhaustion and dehydration (headache, confusion, loss of muscular control, clammy skin, goose bumps, hot or cold flashes, nausea, vomiting, or dizziness) and listen to your body.  If you feel awful, stop or at least walk for a bit to cool down.

Stay cool out there!

 

Coming Down From a 14,000 Foot High

It has been a more tiring than usual week.  Sure, it’s busy at work but that is nothing new.  And it’s ridiculously hot out- that doesn’t help.  But I think I am suffering a bit from Post Epic Event Let Down (PEELD).  When you’ve spent so much time training hard for an event and thinking about it non-stop there is a bit of a void afterwards.   The more epic the event, the harder it is.  Which is probably why my post Mt Evans Ascent week has been so blah.  Yes, my friends, it’s hard to come down from a 14,000 foot high.  Typically, the only solution is to get the next great adventure on the calendar.  Which I have done.  I’ve also done a lot of resting and a bit of beer drinking.  So since I don’t have the energy to write an actual informative blog this week, I figured out how to create a poll! What’s your strategy?

 

 

Can I Visualize Myself to the Finish Line?!

As I was driving home from a training run on Mt Evans last weekend, sitting in I-70 traffic, I started thinking about how the words “awesome” and “awful”, although fairly opposite by definition,  sound pretty similar.   I’m guessing they both come from the same root word-“awe”, which according to a quick Google search is defined as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder”.  Yup, that about sums up how I feel about Mt Evans.   I’m betting that the Mt Evan’s Ascent will be a roller coaster that is both awesome and awful, possibly at the same time, and hopefully ultimately worth the battle.

I am at that weird place in training right before a race where there is really nothing you can do but sit back, relax, eat right, and hope that you’ve done the appropriate training to reach your goals. It’s sorta like that last hour before a big test.   There is typically a fair amount of freaking out during this time, but cramming won’t help, and might actually hurt you.   But there actually is something I can be doing: visualizing a successful race.  I once heard about a study that had basketball players practice visualizing themselves shooting the perfect free-throw over and over again.  They never actually touched a basketball, but their shooting average went up (sorry if that is incorrect basketball terminology).  So just by merely imaging yourself performing your particular sport with perfection, you may actually improve your performance.  The theory was that, if you do it right, you can “trick” (or teach if you are a glass half full kind of person) your brain into thinking you’ve physically practiced a bunch of free throws, and new neural pathways can be created, because your brain basically doesn’t know the difference between doing a free throw in real life and only imaging you are doing one (again you can choose to think of this as awesome that the brain is this powerful, or awful that the brain is this stupid!)  Think of it as an imaginary dress rehearsal.   It’s pretty cool stuff.

I’ve seen visualization mentioned in many other articles, so I figure it’s worth a shot.  I’m not talking cheesy “The Secret” type stuff, just simply picturing myself running up the course, feeling strong and fast, pumping my arms and breathing steadily….I’m feeling better about it already!

And even if it doesn’t help, it’s unlikely to hurt me (note to self: do not visualize self tripping and falling!)  If nothing else, doing it may help build confidence in my abilities and distract me from all of my nervous thoughts about what may go wrong during the race.

So time to sit back, eat carbs, and visualize success!

 

For info regarding visualization or “mental imagery”:

http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/psychology/health_psychology/mentalimagery.html

Why I’m Marinating My Meats

One of the many qualms with nutrition that I have wrote about on here before is the feeling that no matter how hard you try to eat healthfully it’s never good enough.  Sometimes it seems that no matter what you are doing, there is another step to be taken towards “perfect” health.  For instance, maybe you decide instead of going out and getting fried chicken, you’ll bake some at home yourself.  Good move towards better health! Now let’s say you choose the chicken breast labeled “natural” at the grocery store and you feel pretty good about that too. But is it organic?  Nope.  Well, is it locally raised? Nope.  Opps, could’ve done better! And did you know that when you cook that chicken, you could be creating harmful carcinogens? See what I mean?!  What started as a great step toward eating more healthfully (baked chicken instead of fried) is now not good enough.  Taken too far, an unhealthy obsession with eating healthfully is unofficially called “orthorexia”, and I see it all time working with eating disorders.

It is my personal belief that the ever changing face of nutrition, along with this “never good enough” or “I should eat more healthfully” mentality sets us up for failure when it comes to meeting our nutrition goals and feeling good about it.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed and develop a “why bother?” attitude, which is unfortunate because nutrition is important.  But it is hard to navigate the ever-changing “facts” about what optimal nutrition really looks like, and to determine what’s important enough to actually implement and what not to worry too much about.  We all draw the “ah screw it” line in different places, which is totally fine.  Life is too short to worry too much about the quest for perfect nutrition (see that blog), so we each have to determine individually how much we want to pay attention to our health and nutrition.  So is buying chicken at the store instead of getting fried restaurant chicken enough? Well, generally I’d say yes, as small steps are better than no steps, but it also depends on who you are and what your health goals are.  For the average American choosing to bake at home instead of going out to eat and ordering a fried chicken is a positive step toward better nutrition.  However, if you already do that consistently maybe you are ready to take the next step, such as marinating your meats.  That is where I find myself today.

So back to the carcinogen topic:  Carcinogens are compounds that can cause cancer.  There is data that says that marinating your meats before cooking can cut down on the level of carcinogens, particularly heterocyclic amines (HAs or HCAs), created during the cooking process (particularly in grilling and frying, but to a lesser extent in baking as well).  Researchers aren’t entirely sure why the marinades work, but the theory is that the marinade creates a barrier on the meat’s surface which prevents water-soluble molecules from moving to the surface where they would be turned into HCAs by the high temperature, reducing the HCAs created by as much as 99% in some cases.

This is one nutrition philosophy that I do feel is worthy of implementing.  Why? Well firstly because cancer scares the crap out of me, so if I can do something simple to reduce my risk I’m all for that. Second, marinating meats is pretty easy. It won’t cost a lot of money or take a lot of time.  All marinades help reduce HCAs.  Lastly, marinating meats is delicious!  Whether or not marinating meats falls below your “screw it” line or not is up to you, but if not below are some of the marinades I’ve used.  Feel free to recommend others, I’ve got a lot of marinating to do!

Salmon marinated in white wine and lemon, with an avocado/mango salsa

Salmon marinated in white wine and lemon, with an avocado/mango salsa

 

For steak/red meat: soy sauce and/or Worcestershire sauce; beer (yup, beer); red wine and rosemary

For chicken: orange juice and bbq sauce; apricot preserves; rosemary and olive oil

For salmon: honey with ginger and lime; white wine with lemon; soy sauce (w/ honey)

 

 

Super Foods: Super Healthy or Super Silly?

One of the first books I did a report on during my undergraduate nutrition program was “Super Foods Rx: Fourteen Foods That Will Change Your Life” by Steven Pratt and Kathy Matthews.  I think I liked the book at the time, but I honestly don’t remember what I said in the report, and unfortunately it’s on a floppy disk somewhere so I can’t access it anymore (yes, college was that long ago for me!).  The 14 “super foods” were beans, blueberries, broccoli, oats, oranges, pumpkin, salmon, soy, spinach, tea (green or black), tomatoes, turkey, walnuts, and yogurt.  You may be surprised by some of those, but bear in mind the book was written in 2004.  Since then many other foods have been labeled super foods. Remember Acai?  It got booted by Chia.  And these days you hear more about kale than spinach.  The ever changing list of super foods is, to me, proof that there really are no magical super foods.  Sure kale is good for you.  Spinach is good for you too. I’d say the most “super” one is the one you like the most, because if you enjoy what you are eating you’ll be more likely to keep it in your diet long term, and thus reap the health benefits.  Choking down a vegetable (or whatever the health food du jour is) that you find disgusting is not the best path to true health.  That’s why it is unlikely that I will never force myself to eat a mushroom (sorry mom).  Maybe I’ll miss out on a few nutrients, but I’m pretty sure I can get them in less vile forms.  That’s the thing about super foods-maybe they have more of a particular nutrient than other foods, but they aren’t they only food with that nutrient.  And by focusing too much on incorporating one holy grail of foods, you’ll likely end up leaving out many others or possibly even exceeding your energy needs by eating too much of the super food.  So let’s all stop worrying about incorporating a few key “super” foods.  What shall we focus on then?  Glad you asked. Below is my top list of nutrition rules for dummies (although not really dummies, it’s for everyone!)

vegetables

Nutrition For Dummies:

  • Choose from a wide variety of foods. Different foods= different nutrients. Try not to eliminate any food group , unless you have a legitimate allergy or sensitivity to it.
  • Bright colors = lots of nutrients and antioxidants.  This is assuming that the bright colors are natural, like in fruits and vegetables, and not the result of added food dyes.
  • Choose foods that don’t come in a package more often than not.  Less processed foods tend to have more nutrients, so make sure the base of your diet is from whole foods.  The closer a food is to its natural form, the better.  The less ingredients, then better.
  • Eat when you’re hungry. Stop when you are satisfied (not stuffed!).
  • Mind your portions. Don’t measure your food but just be aware of serving sizes.  Portions at restaurants these days are pretty out of control.  For example, a standard serving of meat is 3 oz, which is the size of the palm of your hand.
  • Hydrate.  Your body is mostly water so be sure to keep it supplied! Generally, aim to drink at least half of your body weight in ounces per day.
  • Balance and moderation.  Yup, I said it again.  Allow yourself moderate portions of less than healthy foods you enjoy.  Denial often leads to over eating down the road.