Category Archives: Nutrition

Fat loss isn’t easy. But you can make it easier.

scalegun

Fat loss is so easy: said no one ever.

Easy. Yeah, right. But we can make it easier, both physically and mentally. Both are important, don’t you think?

I’ve tinkered with fat loss like a mad scientist for the last few years. And my online and personal training clients have taught me just as much about what works (and bombs) for them when it comes to losing body fat. Here are a few of the biggies:

You have to create a favorable environment for reducing your calories.
For me, that’s always been tracking my calories. And at first, weighing and measuring food. At least for a while. There are non-tracking tricks that work too –like limiting the number of meals you eat or having general guidelines about how much and what kinds of food go on your plate.

Having some structure will give you valuable information, builds awareness of your eating patterns and possible saboteurs, and creates overall mindfulness with eating.

wine

Identify your biggest trigger. Then stomp it out.
One of my new clients noticed that red wine was becoming her bestie during the week. Sometimes habits creep in. But first ask yourself why? As it turns out, she just really, really loves red wine. Any other booze can sit around the house and not be problematic. But if she knows the vino is there, she’ll find it hard to pass up.

So she created a rule for herself to just not keep it in the house. She can still enjoy a glass on a night out. But for now, wine is off her grocery list.

Find the sweet spot for cardio.
I used to be the cardio bunny who did nothing else except run myself ragged. And we often over estimate how many calories we burn doing cardio.

But I also got lazy for a while too and only lifted weights. For body composition, strength training is incredibly effective. But most of us could stand to get out of our chairs and infuse more physical activity into our weeks. 3-4 strength sessions, 1-2 metabolic conditioning workouts, and regular, low intensity cardio that lets me recover for the other stuff is my own sweet spot.

Your own may look a little different, and that’s fine too. And most importantly? Do what you enjoy – you’ll be way more consistent.

farmermarketstands

Find foods you like with naturally low calorie counts.

These are your secret weapons for those days when you just want to eat all the things. Mine are celery, strawberries, a pickle, a small bowl of Greek yogurt with berries, and baby sweet peppers. These typically have either protein or filling fiber and will take the edge off without zapping your progress.

Take a break some times.

You know what women’s bodies hate? Being in a calorie deficit all the time. Our hormones give us the middle finger. They put up road blocks and make it harder. Yes, that sucks. It’s a bigger deal if you’re already fairly lean and less so if you have a lot of weight to lose. One way around this is to do calorie cycling: some days you’ll eat in a more aggressive deficit. And a few days out of the week you’ll eat closer to maintenance level calories. It gives your body (and brain) a breather.

And if you’ve been dieting a really long time, it might be time to take a full diet break for 2-4 weeks. When you return to working on fat loss again, your body will be in a better spot to handle it.

Create livable rules. 
Moderation sounds great in theory. But what does that actually mean? Maybe it means ditching rigid food rules like “no bread, ever.” God, that sounds awful huh? But sometimes temporarily we can create some rigidity where we need it, and be looser where we may need it.

I know I could never live without desserts. Saying “I’m banning sugar for a month” won’t work for me, because that would make me miserable. But “dessert every Saturday” seems doable, and yet encourages me to stop inhaling baked goods on the regular.

Photo credit: pixdaus

Photo credit: pixdaus

Play the long game.

For most of us, losing fat isn’t a six week process. It’s a six month or longer journey. It can be slow at times. It doesn’t always go as planned. But don’t let that discourage you. Because the best part about the long game is that you can allow yourself to see the big picture. Screwed up your plan last night? It’s no big deal – just get right back at it.

Because when you see that night in the bigger context of many days of healthy habits, it doesn’t even cause a ripple. Be kind and patient with yourself. Not because I’m trying to sound like a motivational meme. But because people who feel shame after perceived slip ups end up sabotaging themselves. That leads to days and weeks of going backwards.

You’ll have steps forward – and a few backward. And that’s normal. We’re human, after all. 

Why?
Ask yourself this. Why do you want to make a change? There’s no right or wrong. But unless you have a reason that matters, fat loss is going to feel harder.

Flip your internal dialogue.

I used to feel pissed off that at my size and age, I had so little wiggle room for fat loss. Unlike my 6’4” husband, who can demolish a bag of Doritos and not gain an ounce, I have no such luck. I whined a lot. Then I began to just be less emotional about it. Saying “I can have all the things, just not all at once” helped me chill out.

If you tell yourself something is going to suck, it will. Funny how that works? I’m not saying you need to chant “I freaking love celery” into the mirror. But a positive attitude about the process is going to help more than you’d think.

Find beauty in your inner strength.

Find beauty in your inner strength.

Finally, remember that you’re beautiful.

You matter. And your self-worth has absolutely nothing to do with your body composition. Keep that perspective.

That’s the tough one for me. I rationally understand this and yet am sometimes still so unkind to myself. Let’s knock that off, shall we?
One thing that has always helped is focusing on improving things that have nothing to do with my body’s appearance. Enter a race. Work on a new gym PR. Find that demonstrate how you’re getting stronger. Or faster. Sleeping better, or finding more energy for life. That you’re living a life that makes you happy and healthy.  Isn’t that what matters most?

Have your own tip for making fat loss feel a wee bit easier? Or a lot easier? Leave a comment and share!

Hip healthy eats: what’s trending in 2017.

fancy jerkyIs kale finally over? Do we still need to put an egg on it? If you’re wondering what new foods you should pile on your plate this year to fuel your bod and your taste buds, read on. 

Of course you can eat well with the basics. Fill your plate with broccoli and chicken every day and live your life. But I need a lot of variety in my diet and screw around with new recipes. Thankfully, I can just scroll through my social media feeds to find plenty of inspiration (aka food porn, am I right?)

If you’re doing that too, you’ve likely already noticed certain foods popping up over and over. Are they really all they’re cracked up to be?

In the interest of research and a hungry belly, I test drove a whole bunch for you. Maybe there will be some fresh ideas. In any case, find out what’s healthy and what’s just hype with the new cool kids in your grocery store.

Before I dig into my list, remember this: all foods can be part of a healthy diet. The idea of superfoods is way overblown, as I recently discussed. But still, some foods make it easier to stay nourished and well than others.

Now that I’ve covered my butt in that disclaimer, let’s move on to the fun stuff.

Haha what?

Haha what?

I didn’t sample “functional food”, like supplements you add to smoothies like spirulina, which is apparently ridiculously good for you. I also left out things that while inexplicably popular, are expensive and sound hella stupid. I’m looking at you moon dust and sex dust. Yeah, sex dust is real. I don’t know what else to say about that.

I’m also leaving out recipes for cleanses and detox drinks. Because you don’t need any of that. Your liver does that job. Plus we all know that concoctions of lemon juice, maple syrup and God knows what else is going to taste like donkey. We good? Let’s do this.  

golden milk
My turmeric latte.

Turmeric – the golden child?

It seems that turmeric everything popped out of nowhere. It’s what gives curry powder its vibrant yellow hue. And it happens to contain a compound called curcumin, which provides anti-inflammatory effects to the body.

If its popularity on Pinterest is any indication, it would seem that turmeric has the ability to help fight off disease, help your brain, and maybe fight off ninjas. But you need to keep a few key things in mind:

In order to benefit from curcumin, you need to consume black pepper with it. It contains piperine, which allows you to absorb it way more effectively.

Most importantly, most of the research that finds turmeric to be beneficial uses turmeric extract. The foods and drinks you’re seeing all over the Internet don’t likely contain enough curcumin to improve your health.

Still, I had to try. I decided to go hardcore and use the fresh root instead of the powder form.

First I tried the much pinned “golden milk” or “turmeric latte”.

The verdict:
golden milk is terrible. Medicinal. I took one sip and poured the rest down the drain. The thing is, I’m not sure it was the turmeric that tasted so bad: the drink is usually mixed with quite a bit of fresh ginger and a bit of black pepper, along with coconut or almond milk, because everyone drinking golden milk appears to dislike dairy. Turmeric root itself smells fresh. I liked that.

I gave our relationship one more chance by grating some into my morning egg, cheese, and veggie scramble. On the plus side, it made my eggs prettier. And my eggs tasted great. Except I couldn’t detect any discernable turmeric taste. 

Try if: you want to add a little spice or color to your life. Be prepared for yellow fingers and countertops if you use the fresh root.

buckwheatbowl

Buckwheat porridge.

Quinoa, why you so basic?

Ahh, quinoa, the “ancient grain” that’s still plenty popular. It’s gluten free, though it’s not the protein powerhouse that everyone swoons over.

The term ‘ancient grains’ makes all the health food aficionados wet their pants. Just because something has been around awhile doesn’t automatically make it superior. But why not branch out? There’s a world of whole grains out there that have plenty of vitamins, minerals, and fiber to both power you up and satisfy your need for a little starchy goodness.

I’ve been digging other grains like Chinese forbidden rice, which is slightly chewy and has a gorgeous deep purple hue that you can Instagram to display your fanciness.

Nutty farro and freekeh are worth tasting too. Sprouted grains will likely get more attention this year as well. The process can increase many key nutrients within grains. Some people may tolerate them better too if they have sensitivities to grain.

I tried buckwheat this week. It has a neutral flavor and texture similar to steel cut oats. Though the name might sound like it contains wheat, it’s actually a gluten-free seed, often called a “groat”. It’s filled with plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and amino acids.

Most importantly, it makes a bomb porridge for breakfast. Start with this recipe to get going. 

Try if: you want new textures and flavors in your whole grains.

Old trends. New trends. Coming together, on my plate.

Old trends. New trends. Coming together, on my plate.

Kale is dead. Long live other green stuff.
Okay, kale isn’t dead. I don’t even hate kale. But I predict people will branch out to discover some other good green stuff. I cooked up mustard greens, which have a peppery bite but taste less bitter than kale.

I used this quick recipe for wilted greens and onions from Martha Stewart, who probably has an entire garden of mustard greens at the ready. Of course she does. They paired perfectly with my avocado toast and poached eggs – two 2016 trends that don’t show much sign of slowing down. #avotoast #putaneggonit.

Try if: you want to feel more excited about leaves.

 

Bowl of power. Or something.

Bowl of power. Or something.

Buddha/Power Bowls
Yeah, yeah, these were a 2016 thing. But plenty of people are just coming to the power bowl party. The basic idea is just to mix plenty of veggies, a protein, and healthy fats – nuts, seeds, avocado, you name it. I threw together zucchini and carrot noodles, cabbage, cucumbers, chicken, and peanut sauce. It made a perfect light dinner that doesn’t require a recipe.

Try if: you like to throw together leftovers from your fridge.

Veggie burgers that taste like burgers.

Veggie “meats” that taste like the real deal.

Eat some peas: pea protein.
Protein is my wing mate. It helps me build and keep muscle, stay lean, and feel full. Protein is also becoming perhaps too much of a grocery shelf darling these days, as you’ll see it jammed into everything from water to cereal.

At the same time, more people are looking for plant-based alternatives to meat as their protein source. Pea protein is gaining popularity as an alternative to animal sources like meat, dairy, and egg. And it’s helping producers create veggie burgers that are more juicy and meaty than ever. I don’t know what kind of witchcraft this is, but I’d wager that the vegans are excited. 

I tried the new Beyond Meat beast burger to give these a test drive. Unlike most veggie burgers, this one packs a walloping 20 grams of protein into it. It’s also 290 calories, which isn’t anything spectacular for a protein to calorie ratio.

But if you’re eating only plant based protein, it weighs in pretty well. Pea protein is also good stuff because it has a good amino acid profile, is unlikely to cause allergic reactions, and lets vegetarians back off from eating a metric ton of soy products. I also plan to try the “chicken” fajita strips. I have high hopes.

Try if: you’re a vegetarian who secretly longs for a juicy hunk o meat. Or gainz.

I didn't spiffy up my "toast" very well here.

I didn’t spiffy up my “toast” very well here.

Sweet potato toast is now a thing.
Sweet potato toast is not toast. I don’t care what you put on it. Toast is bread. This is a thin slice of roasted sweet potato that happens to be a good delivery vehicle for #thingsontoast.

Some people have roasted them in a toaster. This sounded like a disaster waiting to happen. I didn’t want to burn down my kitchen. Well sometimes I want to burn down the kitchen, but only because I want a new kitchen. But I digress.

I read up on this not-toast. Roasting at 450F was apparently the way to go. You can always reheat them in the toaster briefly. I managed to burn most of my slices because I was looking at Instagram at pictures of sweet potato toast. Oh, sweet irony.

But I won’t lie, having a thin slice of sweet potato smeared with peanut butter and apple was delightful. I’ve never been so mobile with my root vegetables. Sure, I might lose a few fingers trying to slice a sweet potato into uniformly thin pieces. But it makes a mighty fine pre-workout snack to take out the door.

Try if: you love sweet potato, are terrified of actual toast, and also have a mandoline to make these less tricky.

I eat this straight out of the jar because I'm weird like that.

I eat this straight out of the jar because I’m weird like that.

Fermented foods – sour, funky goodness for your gut.
Gut health is continuing to gain more attention. Fermented foods contain probiotics that make your gut function well and help your digestion as well as improve other aspects of your health. Research into gut health is still emerging, but it holds quite a bit of promise for helping us function better.

I’ve been eating many of these for a while. Not because I’m trying to be healthy A.F. But mostly because plenty of them are packed with flavor. Think kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, yogurt, and kefir.

Wall-O-Kombucha

Wall-O-Kombucha

Kombucha gets a lot of love too. Whole Foods has an entire wall. That’s impressive. For some reason I can’t get excited about kombucha. It’s just too sour and has a weird, slippery feel. Some varieties contain quite a bit of sugar, unlike most fermented foods that I eat, which are very low in calories. However, the bottles I picked up at the market were very low in sugar. So knock yourselves out if kombucha is your thing,

Try if: you love flavor-packed foods that help you poop like a rock star.

Another power bowl with maple tahini sauce and that sexy forbidden rice.

Another power bowl with maple tahini sauce and that sexy forbidden rice.

Middle eastern cuisine.
Middle eastern food isn’t necessarily synonymous with healthy food – except much of it is. Vegetables and lean meats are star players in this cuisine, which makes wise use of spices to create layers of flavor. They also love tahini, which is high in calories but can be used in small amounts to perk up just about everything.

Watch for more recipes and restaurants featuring vibrantly spiced dishes like Za’atar chicken, dukkah dusted lentils, beans, tahini sauces, labneh, and the holy grail of egg-based breakfasts, shakshouka.

Try a middle-eastern vibe in your next power bowl, like this recipe for roasted sweet potato, beet, and forbidden rice with maple tahini sauce. The sauce was incredible. I added chicken for more brotein.

Pounding some seaweed.

Pounding some seaweed.

Under the seaweed.
Ever have a nori wrapper holding your sushi together? That’s seaweed. More and more seaweed products are available now in American grocery stores than ever before.

Try furikake, a Japanese seasoning, adds a dimension of flavor to veggies, meat, and fish. It’s made from chopped seaweed, sesame seeds, sugar, and MSG. Other seaweed based condiments are also popular in Asian cooking.

Seaweed is low in calories and  is super dense nutritionally. It’s high in fiber and vitamins and minerals,, including iodine, which regulates your thyroid; and vitamin B12, which is usually lacking in vegetarian diets.

I don’t mind nori wrappers when I’m eating sushi. But I took it a little too far. I grabbed these seaweed snacks. I wish I’d grabbed the furikake instead, it holds more promise. These snacks, imported from Korea, just tasted like seaweed. Crazy, right? I guess I’m not a fan.

Try if: you either get down to chow on seaweed or use this as a component in other foods to temper the taste of the ocean in your mouth.

Balls.

Balls.

More and more protein-focused treats.
From 2016-2017, the energy bar aisle exploded. Now there are vegan bars, raw bars, paleo bars, protein bars, energy bars, tree hugging bars, savory bars… you see where I’m going. It’s overwhelming.

And if you read blogs or social media, you may see just as many recipes for homemade versions, especially balls. Energy balls. Protein balls. Power balls. Hey, that’s a lottery game isn’t it?

Everyone loves balls.

While I’d rather eat a bigger snack that I don’t wolf down in under a minute, bars have the potential to be more nutritious than a candy bar. I think this is a key reason why people love energy bars. Because they want to eat candy and feel like they’re doing something better for their bodies with these.

It’s cool to eat some candy. It’s cool to put more nutritious food in there too.

Bars are “meh” on the scale of awesomeness, both with taste and nutrition. Many are little more than candy bars. The homemade versions contain fewer fillers, preservatives, and had the potential to taste good too.

What I mostly found were recipes containing a lot of nut butter, dried fruit, and honey. This might be perfect for powering up an endurance workout. But those foods don’t provide a meaningful source of protein yet also pack a ton of calories, which you might not want to spend on something so small.

I found a recipe that used protein powder, PB2 instead of calorie dense peanut butter, crunchy puffed rice and oats, plus just a small amount of honey and chocolate.

They tasted fantastic. And only 85 calories each. Except I ate three, because I was hungry and they were in front of me.

Try if: you want a portable treat that’s slightly virtuous. Just remember that even healthy treats contain calories. Damnit.

Other Trends to Track
I didn’t have time to eat all of the things. Just most of them. I think in 2017, you’ll see even more of these:

Foods prepared with bone broth. Bone broth is low calorie, nutrient dense, and flavorful. The jury seems divided on its worth so far.

-Poke bowls showing up everywhere. Poke has been popular in Hawaii for awhile. It’s a loose term for a bowl of fresh fish, plenty of veggies, seasonings, and sometimes rice. Healthy. Yummy. And eating poke on my bucket list for 2017.

-All the jerky. More fancy brands of dried meat – but also dried meat alternatives and fish jerky too. Remember the wall of kombucha? The wall of jerky is real too. I love it for a portable snack, so rock on with this.

-More matcha. The concentrated green tea powder is popular already, but with our national obsession over antioxidants, I expect to see some matcha Cheerios anytime now.

We like to over do a good thing, don’t we?

After a week of binge cooking and tasting, I’m ready to kick back with an untrendy but deeply satisfying plate of scrambled eggs and toast with no toppings. How about you? What food trends excite you, and which ones need to die? Leave a comment and share!

Top picks for healthy fast food that doesn’t taste like a plate of sadness.

photo credit: PTBO Canada. If only we had a Tim Horton's here.

photo credit: PTBO Canada. If only we had a Tim Horton’s here.

Over the river and through the woods… with a few stops along the way for a bite to eat. But have you wondered what to order when you pull that sleigh up into a fast food parking lot?

Or maybe zombies attack. And you’re trapped at Wendy’s. Grab your machetes and a salad.

Or you’re just hangry, out shopping, and the thought of eating a plate of kale overwhelms you with sadness. 

We all find ourselves out and about and have to grab a quick bite to eat. Most of the time, whether you cook at home or find yourself cruising the drive through, you’ll feel a lot better if you make a healthy choice. Over the last few years I’ve found a few hidden gems at fast food joints. And my clients who travel a lot have unearthed even more.

One thing to keep in mind if you do find yourself eating out frequently is to watch the sodium content of what you choose. A meal here and there is no big deal. But if you’re a frequent traveler, it may impact your health.

Now for the ideas: I’m no scrooge, so I’ll share my top picks with you today. What constitutes a “healthy” meal?

Healthy is a bit of a vague idea. For me, what I choose falls best in line with my overall nutrition goals. It might not be a perfect choice, but you do the best with what you’ve got. So along come my criteria:

  • 500 calories or less – if you have more calories to play with in your day, your meals can have more food. But I’m in the “small and aging” category and a 400 to 500 calorie meal is about a third of my daily maintenance calories.
  • Protein – the more, the better. It preserves muscle and helps you feel full.
  • Veggies –whenever I can find these at a restaurant, I add them to my meal. They’ve got plenty of vitamins and minerals but also filling fiber.
  • Whole grains – if I do choose to eat some delicious carbs, I usually try to find a fiber-rich whole grain source.

Think it can’t be done? It can!

Under the Golden Arches
goldenarch
Classic fast food chains are losing ground to slightly more upscale, not-quite-so-fast restaurants like Chipotle and Panera. But if you’re traveling on the interstate, your restaurant choices become slim. If we’re on the way to grandma’s, we want to make our stop quick and snappy. Here are a few picks from places that you can find nearly everywhere.

KFC
kfcchicken

Look, fried chicken is delicious. But it’s also heavy and high in calories. Instead, go grilled. Their Kentucky Grilled Chicken Breast is only 180 calories and has 31 grams of protein. Drumsticks are 60 calories and boast 10 grams of protein. Add a side of green beans for only 25 calories more.

Wendy’s
azn-salad
On a wintery day, the large bowl of beefy chili at Wendy’s hits the spot. It’s 250 calories and has 23g of protein and 5g of fiber.

An even better choice is the Asian cashew chicken salad. It comes in at 380 calories, even with the dressing. Yet it also packs a whopping 37g of protein and 6 grams of fiber.

McDonalds
egg-white-delight

There’s always McDonald’s. I have a few favorites here. When you can get breakfast, the Egg White Delight McMuffin has 250 calories, 18 grams of protein, and 5 grams of fiber.

For lunch or dinner, the Premium Bacon Ranch Salad with Grilled Chicken will give you 29g protein and 2g fiber but only sets you back 220 calories. And if you’re jonesing for something sweet, treat yoself to a low fat vanilla ice cream cone. The full size is 170 calories, but you can get a kiddie cone for only 45 calories.

Burger King
veggie-burger

Skip the mayo on the BK Veggie Burger and you can get a sandwich that’s 310 calories with 6g of fiber and 22g of protein. And it actually tastes good. 

Subway
subway-salad

So this surprised me. You can get a big ass salad at Subway with just about any meat you like and it’s super filling because you pile on a ton of veggies. Yet very low in calories. The Oven Roasted Chicken Salad is only 140 calories yet has 19 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. Just don’t ask for a “big ass salad”. They’ll look at you funny.

If you have a craving for a sandwich, order the Rotisserie Style Chicken Sandwich. With cheese, it comes in at 360 calories with 26g protein and 5g of fiber. Skip the heavy dressings and oils and stick to mustard and seasonings – with plenty of veggies packed in.

 

Beyond the basics.

Chipotle
chipotle-salad

All my bro friends love Chipotle. I love Chipotle. I ate it so frequently for a while that I needed a break. No, it’s not authentic Mexican food. But if you’re out and about and need a quick bite, this place will help you out. You can customize just about anything here.

My standard order is a salad. I add double chicken, salsa, pinto beans, and just a tablespoon of guacamole from the big container they give. It comes in at around  520 calories yet has 70g of protein. You can lighten this up a bit by just doing a single serving of chicken. Full bros order double though. It’s science.

 

Panera
thaibrothbowl
Apparently Panera discontinued their secret menu of “power” meals. What a bummer –these were all fresh and used mostly whole foods. But there are some solid choices you can still grab. Some of their salads are seasonal and you can’t get them all year round. But most of their salads are relatively reasonable for calories and several are moderately high in protein.

In the winter, though, soup sounds even better to me. The new Thai Garden Chicken Wonton broth bowl is 290 calories, contains 4g fiber and 23g protein. A bowl of turkey chili contains 260 calories, 17g protein, and a hefty 16g fiber. Order the apple for your side instead of bread or chips and you’ll have a healthy spanking meal.

Culver’s
baconbleu
I associate Culver’s with delicious but greasy butter burgers. I mean, butter burger. Just say that. So I drove past Culver’s until my friend Angie tipped me off to the Cranberry Bacon Bleu Salad with Grilled Chicken. It has 360 calories and 44g of protein. And bacon. Whoa.

Starbucks

photo credit: peanut butter runner

photo credit: peanut butter runner

Aside from coffee and calorie-laden coffee drinks, Starbucks has a few healthy breakfast and lunches you can enjoy. Some locations carry more things than others. But for breakfast, I love to order a breakfast sandwich. The Egg White, Spinach & Feta Wrap has 290 calories, 6g of fiber, and 19g of protein. And it’s delicious.

The Turkey Bacon Breakfast Sandwich is also a solid choice, especially if you’re craving some bread. It’s 320 calories with 18g of protein and 3g of fiber.

Chick-Fil-A
chicfilawrap

Grab the Grilled Chicken Wrap and you’ll be able to feast for only 340 calories – yet stay full with 15g of fiber and 36g of protein.

Other Quick Tips
You don’t always get to choose your restaurant. Maybe you have a meeting or your family outvoted you. These tips will help you make good choices wherever you land.

  • Order grilled meat instead of fried. And if it comes on a bun, either eat half the bun or ditch it entirely.
  • Look for salads – even a plain green salad can be punched up with a burger or chicken breast to give you extra veggies and a lighter but filling meal.
  • Beware of dressings on salads: they can easily add hundreds of extra calories. Don’t ditch it entirely, because your body needs a little fat to absorb the nutrients from your greens. Just order it on the side and use a small amount.
  • For breakfast, several places now offer oatmeal. If you’re looking for some good whole grain fuel, this is a good choice. Just watch your toppers. Ditch the dried fruit and extra sugar. If you can grab a banana or other whole fruit, add that instead.
  • Choose whole meats and veggies over sandwiches and pasta dishes most of the time if you’re trying to lower calories and amp up protein.
  • For soups, creamy soups are usually high in calories. Order a small cup instead of a large bowl to enjoy these and amp up your nutrition with a side salad.

Phew. We made it. Those are my current favorite finds. What are yours? Share them in a comment below!

Superfoods aren’t real, but these foods are super.

cinderellaIf you stuff a smoothie with maca powder, quinoa, acai berries, hemp seeds, and cacao, will you fly? Or at least be tremendously healthy? In other words, what’s up with superfoods?

Get back to me on how that smoothie goes. But I don’t think you can walk into a grocery store these days without seeing something labeled as a superfood. The words conjurs up all sorts of imagery, doesn’t it?

I imagine a superfood makes my insides kick ass like Salley O’Malley. You know, glowing and full of energy. 

salley

But why do some things get labeled as superfoods? Have you ever wondered if they really deserve such a grandiose title?

I walked into a market this morning and was reminded of some of the misconceptions about how we think about food as it relates to our health. Just check out this snapshot:

superfoods

And then I peered a little closer. Chocolate covered goji berries. What the hell is a goji berry, anyway? I’ll answer that for you in just a bit. But first, let’s talk about the idea of a “superfood.”

 
Do superfoods even exist?
The most common benefit associated with most things labeled as superfoods is antioxidant power. Stay with me for a moment so I can science you.

Some foods contain chemicals that seem to counteract the effects of oxidative damage. If the processes in our body create too much oxidative stress, it can damage our cells.

That’s not so super. Too much production of things like free radicals and things like oxygen ions and other chemical reactions may cause disease and other unhealthy conditions within the body.  

And so it seems like we’d want to grab onto anything that can prevent oxidative damage. Interestingly, sometimes that damage is a good thing. For example, when we get injured, inflammation helps us heal up.

So a certain degree of oxidative damage is normal in our bodies – if we are healthy.

Magic juices and other tales

photo credit: mr. ginseng

photo credit: mr. ginseng

You’ve probably heard of certain fruits being full of antioxidants: acai, goji, pomegranate, in particular. Berries are particularly rich sources of plant chemicals like polyphenols, stilbenoids, and tannins.

And these compounds have an association with combating bad juju like inflammation, cancer, certain neural issues, cardiovascular disease, and other disease states.

Unfortunately, we can’t simply gorge on foods that have high antioxidant ratings and automatically improve our health. That’s because the way that nutrients interact with each other in our body to produce effects is still a bit of a mystery.

We do know that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps prevent disease. But we don’t know if it’s the fact that they have antioxidant properties or rather other compounds that influence a healthier body.

You need to remember two big things when considering choosing food for your health:

All foods are useful to our body.
We need to eat them in proportions that serve our overall health from diverse sources. That means plenty of whole foods rich in nutrients and less of those things that are nutrient poor (especially if they’re very dense in calories.)

But every food can be super. Even a donut before working out. It’s still fuel. Some foods just let us meet our goals more easily than others. 

Many items labeled as superfoods are no healthier than other whole foods that we eat.
And they probably won’t do anything remarkable except put a giant dent in your wallet. Some also are basically junk food masquerading as health food, which confuses people. And that stinks.

Check out my chocolate covered goji berries.
chocolategojiomg

As a treat? Sure, if that’s your thing. I’m more of a Raisinets fan, personally. But if you’re looking for a big boost of nutrition, don’t buy candy. 

So what foods are super if superfoods are merely make believe?

My personal list of “super” foods includes those foods that do a bang up job of helping you eat for a happy, healthy life. Here are just a few of the many good things to put into your belly.

Whole fruits and vegetables.

veggies
You knew I’d say that one, right? Fruits and veggies are full of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, energy-giving carbohydrates, and fiber. They taste amazing. They’re not hard to find. And these keep you feeling full and nourished. Eat lots. 

In fact, if you’re currently struggling to eat well, start by adding a fruit or vegetable to your day. Don’t obsess about packing your diet with expensive, exotic bags of “superfoods.” Eat more colorful stuff. Or as my friend and trainer Jenna says, “green shit”. Eat more green shit. 

But what about those goji berries? I’ve only found them in dried, powdered, or juice form.

I bought some to test out. They looked a little chewy, like dried fruit. Except harvested by ancient people from somewhere. The bag boasted their innumerable health benefits, including fiber and protein but seemed to convey a sense of specialness that one could only obtain for about $12 a bag. Hmmm.

I had a hankering for some Greek yogurt and needed a topping, because I’m fancy. So I weighed out a half portion of goji berries along with a half cup of fresh raspberries.

berries

Here’s how they stack up nutritionally:

Goji Berries (14g)
Calories: 50
Protein: 2g
Carbs: 14g
Fat: 0g
Fiber: 2.5g
Sugar: 6.5g
Random nutrient perks: high in fiber, vitamin C, like other berries, high in antioxidant compounds. May interact with certain meds, especially blood thinners.

Raspberries (68g, about ½ cup serving)
Calories: 26
Protein: .5g
Carbs: 6g
Fat: 0g
Fiber: 3.5g
Sugar: 2g
Random nutrient perks: high in fiber, vitamin C, and manganese, along with other vitamins, minerals, and flavonoids.

Nutritionally speaking, the raspberries have less sugar, a bit more fiber than the goji berries. Neither one is a terrible choice for a snack, but I’d prefer a big bowl of raspberries over the calorie dense dried berries. Plus the goji berries tasted rather blah to me.

Lean protein
meat

Protein is full of amino acids that build up your body – and your muscles. Protein- rich foods help you maintain and build muscle mass. They also help you stay full longer. Choose them from a variety of sources, especially:

  • Lean meats and fish
  • Dairy (Greek yogurt is my best friend)
  • Eggs
  • Plant-based proteins from soy, legumes, etc. (Try tempeh, tofu, chickpeas, and beans)

By mixing it up, you’ll get the unique nutrients that each kind provides.

Healthy fats
You need fat in your diet. For your overall health, energy, and hormonal function. And because things like salmon and avocado taste pretty freaking fantastic. Foods with fat also may contain a healthy portion of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids – your body can’t make them, so you need to get them from foods.

Plus fat helps you absorb all those powerful nutrients in your veggies. Don’t go fat free: just eat them in small amounts at your meals to get their health benefits while keeping your calories in check. 

Whole grains
Whole grains can reduce your risk of getting certain diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Eat starchy whole grains around workouts to fuel yourself. I set aside packaged cereals and bars most of the time. Instead, try cooking up batches of oatmeal, quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, and other minimally processed foods. My favorite one lately is farro: it’s nutty, chewy, and easy to cook. 

Funky fermented foods
kimchi

Good bacteria in our gut has the power to improve our digestion and boost our immunity. Gut health is a fairly young area of nutrition research. What kinds of fermented foods should you eat?

Think kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, and yogurt, for starters. Fermented foods contain probiotics that can help keep your gut healthy. As a bonus, many of them are relatively low in calories and perk up other food you’re eating. Kimchi in my scrambled eggs is now my thing. Try it, I dare you.

Foods that allow you to maintain your weight more easily.
Sometimes I get the urge to munch on things. Especially if you’re working on fat loss, having low calorie options available can make it way easier to meet your goal. Try celery, strawberries, pickles, and even sugar-free jello. No, the chemicals won’t kill you. Yes, it’ll take the edge off the urge to eat a pint of ice cream.

Foods that bring you life happiness.

This is actually real.

This is actually real. And it is a glorious junk food. 

No, you probably shouldn’t eat a pint of ice cream on the regular. But leaving room in your life for foods that you love is just as important as eating for your health. Truly. You’ll be less likely to go off the rails if you know that no food is off limits. Who cares if it unlocks the secrets of the Mayans? If it tastes good, have a little bit from time to time. After all, Captain Crunch may have a few secrets of his own. 

References
Seeram N. Berry fruits: compositional elements, biochemical activities, and the impact of their intake on human health, performance, and disease. J. Agric Food Chem. 2008: 56(3): 627-629.

Dragsted LO, Pedersen A, Hermetter A et al.The 6-a-day study: effects of fruit and vegetables on markers of oxidative stress and antioxidative defense in healthy nonsmokers. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004:79(6):1060-72.

Can’t take another shake? Try these ways to use your protein powder.

I giggled.

I giggled.

Do you have a bag of protein powder sitting in your pantry? Sweet: you’re in business today. 

If you’re like me, your containers may be collecting dust. I go through phases with how I choose to get more muscle building protein into my diet. Lately I feel ‘meh’ about protein shakes. Especially now that it’s autumn and I just want to bake things. And shove them in my belly. 

Protein shakes can save the day. Whey protein in particular is top notch for being easy to digest, quick to whip up into a shake with nothing more than water, and relatively cheap to boot. There are other kinds of protein powders too, and you can learn more about how they work here. 

You can fancy them up too with some milk, fruit, and whatever else you can dream if you’re feeling like channeling your inner Top Chef. 

Sometimes I’d rather eat more “food food” for my protein intake. You know – meat, fish, eggs, lentils, or a bunch of Greek yogurt. Sometimes I can’t stomach the idea of sucking  down yet another protein shake. Still, using protein powder makes it way, way easier for me to hit my daily protein target. And it’s a high quality source of those amino acids your body needs to build those gains. 

If you’re feeling burned out on bro shakes but want to get that extra boost from a powder, here are a few ways you can shake things up (without the shaker bottle). 

 

Spiced Pear Rice Pudding
rice-pudding

Use whatever kind of rice you have sitting around for this not-too-sweet dessert that works for breakfast too. The idea is simple: use equal parts rice and milk, add a splash of vanilla and a little bit of spice. I substituted pear for my usual apple, added a pinch of cardamom, and sprinkled on a few teaspoons of hazelnuts. 

Get the recipe here. 

Mug Cakes
lemon protein cake
Protein mug cakes are a thing now. Usually you microwave them and they become rubbery and sad. Yes, an affront to cakery. Is that a word? In any case, I almost always skip these. I’ve found a few good tips if you do decide to nuke one. The power level in your microwave should stay at around 30% power as you bake your cake. Start with a minimal time-  like 30 seconds. And then check.

The kind of protein you use makes a difference when baking with powder. Whey protein absorbs less liquid than other protein powders, so be wary of substituting when you follow a recipe. 

Or you can just bake your little cake in the oven, as I did with my lemon protein mug cake. It was surprisingly tasty and felt like dessert. Or breakfast dessert. 

Rating: 1 or 9, depending on your recipe. The lemon was a 9 for “almost real dessert”. 

Sludge
sludge
This recipe isn’t pretty. It sounds kind of gross. But it’s a chocolatey way to increase your protein intake. I added a few teaspoons of peanut butter chips. Because peanut butter is life, and I was PMSing like a beast. You know, weeping intermittently while watching the Walking Dead. I also needed a gateway recipe to help myself stop stealing my kids’ Halloween candy. Get the recipe from Muffin Topless. 

Cinnabon Protein Oatmeal
cinnabon

You don’t even need a recipe for this breakfast treat. And it’s crazy good. Instead of adding whey protein to my oatmeal, I whipped egg whites into my oats along with a little cinnamon and vanilla.

The magic comes in the topping. Use a tablespoon of Greek yogurt cream cheese or lowfat cream cheese.  Add a half scoop to a full scoop of protein powder depending on how much of a boost you’d like. Thin it out to a thin frosting by adding a little milk, bit by bit.

So good. Not funky. Much yum. Get my recipe here. 

Strawberry Fluff

So fluffy.

So fluffy.

This is the bro-iest bro treat to ever bro. I avoided it because it didn’t sound very yummy to me. But I finally caved and I’ll make this over and over again. Because it’s tasty.  But mostly because: holy mother of God, it’s filling. If you’re having a hangry kind of day, make fluff. It’ll fill your belly. 

You only need fruit, protein powder, some kind of milk, and perhaps a little extract and stevia.  Plus something to help whip it up. Most people use xantham gum. I used an egg white. Yeah, it’s raw. I probably won’t die. 

Get my recipe here

I have two questions for you, because I’m a curious cat. First. What’s your favorite brand/flavor/type of protein powder? And what’s your favorite way to use it? Leave a comment below or on my Facebook page. Thanks!

P.S. I share ideas for workouts and nutrition in my newsletter. I’ll help you build muscle, get lean, and feel mighty fine. Just fill out the form thingy below and I’ll hook you up with my Fat Loss on a Budget book. See you there!

 

Just tell me what to eat. (No! Ok, maybe.)

alicememe

That’s what some clients and friends implore me to do. They ask me to tell them exactly what to eat in order to kick ass at getting lean, building muscle, or just becoming healthier for taking life by the horns. 

My preachiness was cringeworthy in retrospect. I’d put on my Mike Brady voice and lecture them about why I didn’t write meal plans. If you’re too young to remember Mr. Brady, then I’ll pinch your cheeks, youngster, and school you. 

No Cindy, let me break it down fo you.

No Cindy, let me break it down fo’ you.

Mr. Brady, the patriarch of the Brady Bunch, patiently doled out life lessons to his brood before telling them to skidaddle. He always had a neat and tidy answer at the ready. 

Just like Mike, I tsk-tsked. There are better alternatives to handing out a meal plan. 

That’s because very strict meal plans – you know, the ones that tell you exactly what to eat for every meal, don’t work for the long term. 

  • Meal plans don’t teach us why choosing certain foods help us meet our goals successfully. 
  • They tend to fall apart the first time that something unexpected happens. We have an event. Or we run out of an ingredient but it’s 6 p.m. and we’re hangry.
  • Nobody is going to use a meal plan forever; so why not start by building skills that will teach you how to eat well for life?

Let me teach you, I say. I don’t think I sound like Mr. Brady, but who knows? Alice was an empathetic listener. I needed to channel her instead. 

cindybrady

Wut?

Yeah some people look at me like Cindy.  When I see that look or sense that feeling in someone’s words, I know we need a new starting place. 

That’s because I’ll always show you the ropes. But learning to climb dem ropes will take a whole lot of new skills.

  • Learning the nutrition basics – macronutrients, micronutrients, etc. 
  • Counting calories. Not forever, but until you learn what’s in your food.
  • Learning to manage your emotional relationship with food.
  • Managing hunger.
  • Learning what kinds of foods best meet your goals.
  • Menu planning.
  • Changing what kinds of foods you choose at the grocery store.
  • Figuring out new ways to cook.
  • Understanding what a healthy meal looks like.
  • Incorporating treats so you don’t binge.


Damn, Cindy, I get it.

That’s a lot. And I’m not even done telling you what you’ll learn along the way to building the skills that will keep your body and mind happier and healthier. 

So is there a middle ground we can find?
Some people can hop right in and get going with doing all the things at once. If this isn’t your first rodeo in the nutrition game, most likely you just need to do some fine tuning.

But it’s a lot different if all of those things I rattled off are brand new. I get you. 

What vegans showed me about taking on new things.

photo credit: someecards

photo credit: someecards

I remember how exasperating it was to learn how to cook and eat like a vegan last summer. You see, I wanted to better understand clients who might not be on #teamchicken like I am. I came away with two giant realizations.

1. Vegan cooks share some surprisingly tasty recipes. It was good to shake things up and get new ideas. #teamlentiltoo

2. I now get why jumping into the deep end of lifestyle change can be so overwhelming. 

Yes, I can better empathize with trying to make sweeping changes in one swoop. I needed training wheels. 

If the thought of having to figure out everything at once makes you break out into a sweat, chill out. Instead, choose one thing that you think is both totally doable and will make a meaningful difference to how you feel. 

Eat mostly junk? Stop bringing it into the house. And throw some apples into your shopping cart. 

Working out sporadically? Make a schedule you know you can keep. 

Too busy to cook? Choose some stupidly simple meals that are more like “throwing together things on a plate” than actually cooking.

But what if you still want me to just tell you what to eat?
Here’s one way I help clients who need more guidance. You can do it too:

1. First you need to understand what a daily meal should look like most of the time. My recommendations vary based on your goals, but nearly everyone should have a plate that has mostly non-starchy veggies, a portion of protein, and a small amount of fat. Meals surrounding workouts benefit from having some starchy carb too. 

2. Start making lists of lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, starches, and fats that you actually enjoy eating. Begin with the basics: zucchini, broccoli, spinach for vegetables; chicken, pork, dairy for lean protein examples. Here’s a cheat sheet. 

bestcheatsheet

3. Refine your list. What specific recipes or meals do you have that would fill in the blanks for those categories? Instead of “dairy”, write down “Greek yogurt” or “string cheese”. 

4. You’re almost there. Before you create your own plan, keep a few points in mind: 

1. Are your meals really simple to prepare? They should be at first. You have time down the road to go full Martha Stewart.

2. Are your meals varied enough that you’re getting a fairly wide source of nutrients? I.E., your protein source shouldn’t be always the exact same thing.

That’s because your body needs to get different kinds of vitamins and minerals from that variety of foods. Also if you keep eating chicken for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, you may turn into one. And you’ll be bored to death too. 

But what shapes up is a meal plan. One that puts your own needs into play and also begins to build your skills to a new and healthier lifestyle. 

Mike Brady yourself while you work off a menu.

Try tracking your calories and pay attention to what kinds of nutrients are in your meals.
Pay attention to how hungry you were before, during, and after meals.
Slow down as you eat. Do you want the whole plate of food? If not, set it aside.

I ask my online coaching clients to track  their calories at first. Not so it becomes a ball and chain. But because it shows you how your days shake out. You’ll often be surprised at what foods are calorie dense and which fill your belly for next to nothing. 

While I don’t write up detailed meal plans and demand that people follow them, I’m happy to show them some of my own logs. Here’s one to teach you with. I’m not using my Mike Brady voice at all, by the way: 

sample-day

You can see how I had plenty of protein at every meal. You’ll notice that I ate mostly whole foods, with a bit of chocolate included for life happiness. If you look at my lunch, you will see that I too am a bro who loves Chipotle. But ordering two times the chicken and skipping the rice goes a long way toward meeting my daily protein goal. I don’t usually get 150g of protein, but this day was great. 

Not every day will perfect. But you’ll see trends, as I did when I noticed I was insanely hungry at 11 a.m. if I ate too few calories at my morning meal. Or how cookie lunch made me feel blah by 3 pm. (It was glorious at the time, however.)

Looking back at the day’s log can be illuminating. Building awareness of how our bodies respond to how we fill them with food goes a long way toward a whole new healthy lifestyle and achieving your fitness goals. 

And when that happens, you’ll be ready. Ready for whatever unexpected situations come at you, like a football to Marcia Brady’s nose, the next office party, or just eating in a way that makes you feel good, function well, and enjoy your meals for life. 

Oh, my nose!

Oh, my nose!

Have you read Fat Loss on a Budget? It’s free! Fill out the form below and I’ll hurl it right into your inbox, along with the inside scoop for burning fat, building muscle, and getting fit like a boss. 

 

Your calorie tracker may be busting your body comp: use these tweaks to fix it.

7023751359_e317cb1cdb_z

photo credit: Memphis CVB

Do you use Myfitnesspal or a similar tracking tool? If so, hang out with me for just a few moments because there are a few really important things you should know.

Before we get plunge right in, let me be clear: the point of this article isn’t to determine whether the practice of tracking is a good or bad thing. There are passionate advocates and deterrents, and both camps make valid points about the benefits and costs of managing our nutrition with calorie counting. 

But if you are tracking your intake or considering it, there are a few important things you should know. I’m using Myfitnesspal today because it’s the most widely used app around and the one I’ve also tinkered with the most. 

Unlike some, I don’t hate tracking: it’s great for people who are:

-Just getting started with fat loss. It’s a data tool to tell us if things are moving in the direction they want.

-Builds mindfulness of what’s in food – is it calorie dense? Was the portion surprisingly small? What foods actually have a lot of bang for their buck in terms of filling protein? How on earth can chicken wings be so high in calories? 

-Gives us time on “training wheels” to begin learning those lessons and skills that will make NOT tracking way more successful.

-More useful than intuitive eating for someone who wants to more quickly lose weight. It’s hard to intuitively put yourself into a significant deficit. Most people don’t need to put themselves into a steep one, but they do have a place in some situations.

-Tracking intake of nutrients. I discovered I don’t eat enough dietary fat and my iron counts have been low lately.

-A way to regain a sense of control if you find yourself packing on a few pounds. This isn’t the ONLY way to get back on track, certainly. It’s just one way that I find a lot of people actually like.

These tools get a bad rap for a few reasons. Some features are admittedly terrible: I don’t like the arbitrary and usually very low calorie goals that MFP sets for pretty much everyone who uses them.  

The calorie burning estimates that allow people to “eat back” calories as a reward from working out aren’t great for our mindset but more importantly, they usually are wildly inaccurate. The macronutrient ratios are needlessly fussy and confusing to new users. Bleh. And stop alerting me that I might go over my fat goal! This is not a crisis, MFP. Sheesh. You don’t even know me, MFP.

Now a smelly pre-teen. Did not throw out with bath water.

Now a smelly pre-teen: did not throw out with bath water.

But the biggest reason MFP actually hampers fat loss is not so much the fault of the app – just how we use it. This is a “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” kind of scenario.

I saw that lesson played out last night after I got home from an evening talking shop and life with a trainer friend over a taco and margarita.

Myfitnesspal is the tool I use to monitor my overall calories and protein intake right now – I’m trying to build some sweet muscle. I knew my margarita contributed very little to my day except through calories and fun, but I looked up the count anyway.

Imagine my surprise when I appeared to have hit the jackpot:

Go home Myfitnesspal. You are drunk.

Go home Myfitnesspal. You are drunk.

Sweet baby Jesus. A margarita with 23 grams of protein? Bye bye, chicken! Just kidding. Unless they were mixing tequila with protein powder, that’s not happening. And yuck: that’s a truly terrible idea.

How could this be?

It’s simple: user error. We’re going to fix that as well as we can today.

How we screw stuff up.
You see, Myfitnesspal entries, like those on several other apps, are created by users. People like you and me; I can only imagine that entry was shared by someone who had already enjoyed a few too many beverages.

There are a few ways to make sure you’re getting a close estimate.

-Whenever possible, check ingredient labels: then you can use them to compare with the current entries you see in in the app.

-On foods that don’t contain labels, look up the USDA estimates if you’re unsure. It’s not a perfect tool but it’s less overwhelming than the bajillion entries in the MFP database; and more accurate. 

-Look for Myfitnesspal entries that have a little green check mark. Those have been verified by many users as being accurate.

-Mind your meats: was the food entered cooked or uncooked? This changes the weight and caloric density of the meat.

Grandma didn't eff around.

Grandma didn’t eff around.

Rock the Recipe Creator

It can be really confusing at first to enter “tuna salad” and have 50,000 entries pop up, all with wildly varying estimates. At this point, you have 2 choices:

-Know that calorie estimates aren’t completely perfect anyway, use your best judgment, and chill out.

-Create your own recipe and have a closer estimate.

Neither of those options is terrible, but if you’re consistently way off on what you’re actually eating, you may be consuming far fewer or more calories than you intended.

Dip your toes in these waters once you get the hang of inputting basic foods. It gets faster as you acclimate to the process too. What’s in it for you? A better estimate of the calorie content of your favorite casseroles, soups, and stews.

Some things are easy to generate with this tool. You look up the ingredients one by one, add them to your recipe, indicate the number of servings, and poof. You’ve got your dinner counted.

recipemfp

No soup for you?
Serving sizes can be tricky for things like soup. For this reason, I have an easy trick to show you. Just do this:

-Input all of your ingredients into the recipe with the MFP tool. 1 medium onion? Check.
50 grams of sweet potato? 1 quart of low-fat chicken broth? Done. They don’t all have to be in grams at this point.

1. Weigh the entire recipe in grams. I scoop it into a bowl; reset the scale to 0; then get the total weight in grams.

2. Input the serving size as whatever total grams you have. So if the soup weighs 850 grams, put 850 servings.

3. When you record having a portion of this recipe at your next meal, input how many grams you actually ate. If 1 portion is 2 calories, and I ate 200 portions, then the total calories would be 400 kcal. Fortunately MFP will do the math so you don’t have to fiddle around. Phew.

This sounds tedious but it becomes faster with time. I’m more likely to do it if the recipe isn’t too complicated or if it’s something I intend to make often. 

Another bonus of the MFP tool is the ability to import recipes from other websites. You save a step because they gather all of the ingredients and attempt to find them in their database.

Just check them all. The other day it told me my garlic contained 2,000 calories. That’s one hell of a clove.

There are other times when we’re busy or just not up to the hassle of this. In this case, use the best estimate you can find and get on with your day.

salmons
Tracking restaurant meals:
Look, my friend: unless you’re training to be the next worldwide bodybuilding champ and need your diet to be 100% on point, relax. Don’t haul along a scale. People do this. Please don’t. Even when you’re tracking diligently most of the time, there’s a time to ease up.

Sure, some restaurants offer estimates for their meals. You can use that if you wish. 

But it’s just as useful to practice an alternate strategy – aim for a plate that has plenty of non-starchy vegetables, a portion of protein, a small portion of something starchy or a glass of wine, and then a little bit of fat to boot. Toast your companions, enjoy your dinner, and put the app away for the evening.

Trackers are tools that have a helpful place while working on our body composition: but they should never become a ball and chain. How do you feel about them? Love? Hate? Love-hate? Leave a comment below and share!

 

Could these nutrient deficiencies harm your fitness goals?

Every picture I found of "fitness vitamins" was shockingly awful. So here's a kitten with some oranges.

Every picture I found of “fitness vitamins” was shockingly awful. So here’s a kitten with some oranges.

If you take a glance at supplement store shelves, you might imagine that getting into great shape requires buying a boat load of powders, pills, and potions.

I’m not against taking supplements. I’m just not in favor of taking every boost under the sun, especially if someone hasn’t yet mastered the basics.

The vast majority of people will be able to get amazing results for goals like burning fat, becoming more athletic and strong, preventing disease, and staying full of awesome by doing a few key things:

1. Eating mostly whole foods. These are stuffed with vitamin and minerals and make you feel good. 
2. Eating a diet with adequate protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs.
3. Getting plenty of sleep.
4. Managing our stress in healthy ways.
5. Moving our bodies often.

If you’re a competitive athlete or have very high expectations for carving up your muscles like a Thanksgiving turkey, then you’ll likely need to dial those things in even more finely. You’d benefit from certain supplements more than the rest of us. 

But what about the rest of us? Is there stuff we can take to make ourselves be more of a badass in and out of the gym? 

There are, but they’re not what you might expect. Here are two common ones that you can safely skip:

1. BCAAs: branch chain amino acids, usually taken in powder form. Most of us get enough of them anyway if we’re getting adequate protein in our diet, and the latest research seems to show that our bodies don’t utilize the isolated BCAAs the same way we do when they’re in food. 

I don’t see protein powder as a supplement – it’s just a highly concentrated food.

2. Fat burners. With a few exceptions, they’re mostly bunk.

But what about vitamins and minerals: can they help us with our body comp and performance goals, and can we get enough from just eating food?

In some cases, our bodies don’t do so well when we try to get a vitamin from a supplement instead of from the food itself. We’re not really sure why, exactly, but it’s not just about a nutrient – it’s how that nutrient plays with the other ones as they’re digested and absorbed by your body.

Plus, when we eat those foods, we get a whole bunch of other benefits other than just one nutrient.

We also get boosts from things like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins; plant chemicals that play a role in our overall health; and like I said, the intricate and still mysterious interactions that make nutrition best suited to coming from our diets.

Still, there are certain vitamins and minerals that are hard to get adequately even if we follow a rockstar diet. Vitamins K, D, Zinc, and Magnesium are very commonly lacking in our diets. I have to work at getting enough omega-3s, those fatty acids that help blood flow, decrease inflammation, and may lower risk for heart attacks and strokes.

So eat lotsa nutrient-packed foods. But for active people in particular, there are a few to really zero in on to improve our health AND our fitness.

Also – ALWAYS check in with your M.D. before taking a new supplement, particularly if you have a medical condition. Deal? Ok, cool.

Vitamin D

Why to supplement: it’s actually a hormone. Your body can make it from exposure to the sun, except we sit inside all the time or wear sunscreen when we go out. Doh. Some foods contain it, but it’s tough to eat enough of them to take care of your body’s needs.

I don't know about you, but whenever I see a sunset I make a heart around it. Just kidding, this is weird.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I see a sunset I make a heart around it. Just kidding, this is weird.

Roughly 40% of American adults are deficient in Vitamin D, so it’s worth having your doctor check you out on this one. Aside from all kinds of critical hormonal functions, bone health, and possible disease prevention, new research is showing that vitamin D may help you build muscle. Higher doses may also improve testosterone levels. That can help you out with those gym gainz.

How much: the upper limits on this one are generally much higher, but the standard adult dose to prevent a deficiency is 1,000-2,000 IU/day.

Magnesium
Why to supplement: here’s the kicker. If you don’t get enough of this mineral, it may be harder for your body to use Vitamin D. Magnesium has an important role in many processes that directly impact our body composition and athletic performance: stuff like hormonal balance, helping to regulate insulin, and has also been linked to making athletes perform more explosively and recover more easily.

Meanwhile, not getting enough of it carries risks too. Low levels have been linked to inflammation that increases risk for certain diseases, diabetes, and cancers. It also may put you at risk for osteoporosis.

greenshits

How we get it: you can eat things like dark leafy greens, beans, peas, potatoes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. But most of us just don’t eat enough to make the grade.

How much: More is not better here, with too-high levels being linked to everything from diarrhea to um, death. The standard recommended adult dose for a supplement is 300-350 mg/day, with citrate better than oxide for absorption. This is also used to treat constipation, so ease into this one to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Iron
Why we need it: sometimes we think we’re overtraining, and we might actually not have enough of this nutrient.

Iron deficiencies can lead to anemia and generally feeling like crap. If you’re finding that you’re tired all the time, cranky, and have lost your gym mojo, looking at your iron intake is one box to check: it might be worth tracking your intake of iron and having your levels tested.

Around 20% of women and 50% of pregnant women don’t have enough iron in their body. Yikes! Athletic folks have more red blood cell mass. And so we have a higher demand for iron.

Foods: you can get iron from plant sources, especially beans and dark leafy greens. Fortified cereals and breads contain iron too. Heme iron, the kind found in beef, turkey, and chicken, is particularly good because our bodies absorb it more efficiently.

You can just eat it: if you’re eating plenty of these sources, you may be just fine. If you don’t eat a ton of calories each day, you may find your diet falls short, however.

When to supplement: ONLY after you’ve checked with your doctor. Taking iron can screw with absorbing other nutrients and also make you feel lousy too.  

I’m a big believer in keeping things as simple as possible. We eat as well as we can and then fill in the gaps where we need a little boost. Have more questions? Shoot me an email at fit@amydix.com and I’ll be happy to help you out. 

10 delicious ways to give your meals a healthy makeover.

healthy

Think eating healthier means saying sayonara to your favorite flavors? It really doesn’t have to feel like a drag to eat well. Let’s talk about how to make it easier (and yummier) today.

As I changed the way that I eat to lose weight and maintain better overall nutrition, my day-to-day choices began to look much different than they had in the past. It’s not that I never allow myself to have super rich, cheesy, decadent things: but they’re more the exception than the rule. When I do, I enjoy the hell out of them and then get back to the regular scheduled programming.

But I’ve also found myself doing things that I never used to do – making completely painless tweaks to my meals that don’t diminish them at all. In fact, I think many of the changes make for even tastier dishes. Here are 10 biggies to try:

#1. Lighten up on cooking oil.
Even though fat isn’t the enemy, using a lot of it to cook our meals can pack on a bunch of extra calories. So it’s wise to scale back.

I’ve begun using nonstick sprays quite a bit more the last few years. Don’t go crazy spraying your pan – unlike what the label tells you, nonstick sprays aren’t calorie free. Who actually sprays for a quarter of a second? But it’s still a viable tool. Either with a nonstick spray or with a thin veneer of your favorite oil, scale back on how much added fat you use for sauteeing.

I see so many recipes that use a few tablespoons of oil to just help veggies not stick to the pan. I’d rather use that oil in something that I can actually enjoy. A nonstick pan with a little spray can easily shave off significant numbers of calories without us missing any flavor. My caveat to this is that sometimes a sauce actually needs a little fat in it to round out the taste of the dish: I’d rather save that for a small amount of butter added to the end rather than making my food not stick.

#2. Greek yogurt instead of mayo or sour cream.
Yogurt in tuna salad. Yogurt on a potato. Yogurt in your chili. Yogurt on yogurt. It’s high in protein, low in calories, and serves as a perfect stand in for heavier condiments as well as making your morning breakfast bowl more wonderful.

#3. Cereal vs. granola for sprinkling.
This one pains me, because I love the flavor and texture of granola. And it might surprise you to see this one listed. After all, granola has a rep for being wholesome and virtuous. Sure, it has some whole grains and nuts. But it’s also crazy high in calories and has bunch of extra sugar and fat that I’d rather not spend on such a tiny amount of food. Granola is usually a topper for my yogurt. I began switching it out for a little cereal, because the main reason I like it in yogurt is for the crunch.

When I do have it, it’s just a few tablespoons – definitely not an entire bowl. I’ve found a few exceptions – Mamma Chia granola is relatively low on calories and high in nutritional value. I found some at Target recently. It’s definitely not as sweet or decadent as most granola I’ve had, but it’s satisfying.

Grilled bok choy and plums with pork chops is mind blowing and amps up your nutrition too. Nom nom.

Grilled bok choy and plums with pork chops is mind blowing and amps up your nutrition too. Nom nom.

#4. Flip flop your veggie to starch ratios.
A good rule to follow when putting together a dinner plate is to cover half of it with veggies, include a portion of lean protein, a small portion of starchy carbs, and a wee bit of fat.

That’s a great rule: except that becomes tricky to do with many recipes, especially soups, stews, and casseroles. An easy way to make your meal look more like what I described is to just double the amount of veggies in the recipe and halve the amount of starch (especially if the recipe includes a lot of it). 

This makes for a meal where you still get to enjoy your family’s favorite “epic pasta meal” but can usually make it a little less calorie dense. You’ll squeeze in more nutrient-packed vegetables this way too. Win/win. 

Gonna marry this.

Gonna marry this. 

#5. PB2 vs peanut butter.
PB2 was a slowly-burning love affair for me. This is the most popular brand of what’s essentially dehydrated peanut butter. At first I just added it to smoothies. Then to Greek yogurt. Those were my gateways into full PB2 obsession. Now I rehydrate it with a little water and add it to oatmeal, pancakes, or just eat it like peanut butter: with an apple, celery, or on a spoon. It’s so much lower in calories than peanut butter and it’s shockingly good.

#6. Lemon and a drizzle of heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil vs. packaged dressing.
I end up using less dressing this way and my salads actually taste fresher. Try it! Sherry and balsamic vinegars are intensely flavored and make another good sub for lemon. I end up needing very little additional oil. Just enough to help absorb those nutrients in the greens.

#7. Fresh fruit instead of dried in pretty much everything. 
Ugh, I love raisins and dried cherries. But I can get so much fuller from using fresh fruit on way, way fewer calories. Dried fruit is calorically dense, often contains added sugar, and makes me sad when I measure out the tiny 2 TBSP serving. I use it sparingly or as a treat. Most of the time, I’m team #freshfruit.

#8. Bulk up a casserole with plant-based protein.
Mushrooms are extremely low in calories, boost a bit of protein and minerals, and have a meaty texture that plays well as either a stand-in or addition to meat in many meals. They’re also usually easy to find at a low price.

Now that my 3 boys eat enough food to feed a small army, bulking up our casseroles with foods like beans, chickpeas, and mushrooms not only gives them a more diverse source of nutrients in their diet; it also sometimes shaves off calories and saves us money. I don’t mind going totally meatless some days – my kids prefer me adding at least some meat to the dish, so I just do half meat/half plant stuff.

photo credit: the belle vie blog. The autumn turkey burger is kickass, by the way.

photo credit: the belle vie blog. The autumn turkey burger is kickass, by the way.

#9. Turkey brats/Italian sausages/ground turkey or chicken instead of ground pork.
I feel like a traitor, because I’m from Iowa, the pork capitol of the world. I really don’t feel like turkey or chicken is a sacrifice in most of these forms; there are so many insanely yummy sausages out there now too. Turkey and chicken varieties contain less fat and protein than their porky counterparts. My only exception is bacon. Turkey bacon is barely better for you than pork and pork bacon is just too good to swap. Come at me, turkey bacon. 

#10. Smaller corn tortillas or burrito bowls vs. white flour tortillas.
Tacos are life. It’s also Tuesday, so I thought I’d wrap this up with a taco tip. Those tortillas we use to wrap up our yummy fillings can really pack on a ton of not-all-that nutritious calories. Corn torillas are flavorful, smaller, and help control portions.

Sometimes I skip them completely and just serve my filling on top of greens, which shaves off calories and helps me get more servings of veggies into my day. This is one example of a thing I don’t really miss all that much.

Do you have any swaps you use? Share them, pretty please? I’m always up for new cooking hacks. Do me a favor and leave one on my Facebook pageLet’s start a conversation about it. Have a great day!

 

I share my best strategies for using nutrition and fitness to torch fat, get strong, and feel like a million bucks. You can get in on more conversations by signing up for my free newsletter. I’ll send Fat Loss on a Budget right into your inbox right away. Sign up on the form thingy below.

 

 

How and Why to Choose a Protein Powder

The importance of getting more protein in our diet seems to have hit the mainstream hard this year: has anyone else noticed the explosion of protein-enhanced products on supermarket shelves this year? Some of them make me cringe a bit. Just like it’s a better choice for you to eat an apple instead of a Fiber One bar if you’re trying to increase your fiber intake, I’d much rather people get their protein from whole food sources like lean meats, eggs, dairy, and legumes than cereal labeled “Protein Fruity-O’s!”

Why? Those things aren’t inherently evil, but they contain a bunch of other ingredients that you probably don’t need. The apple has vitamins and minerals and lacks some funky additives that your body might not actually digest all that well from that fiber bar (like chicory root, for example. It does a number on my stomach.) 

The American recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is actually fairly low. But keep in mind that those guidelines are to maintain a baseline of overall health. If you want to maximize your potential for things like burning fat, building muscle, and enhancing your performance, you’ll need to eat more than that. I won’t delve into the intricacies of how much you should eat for today, though aiming for daily grams that equal roughly your target body weight is a good start.

Instead, I want to talk about what most of my clients face when they begin to increase their protein intake: it’s pretty tricky at first. Over time, you learn to choose meals that are naturally higher in protein to meet your goal. But often, many of us are either too busy to prepare all of our meals and snacks at home or we just want to change things up.

As it turns out, protein powders are one of the few added supplements that are an excellent boost to your intake. I don’t really think of them as a supplement so much as a highly concentrated food. For example, the whey in your dairy products gets filtered out and micronized into powder form to be used in whey protein powders. But when you go to your local vitamin shop, supermarket, or look online, the varieties available can feel incredibly overwhelming.

proteinpowders

Not only are there countless brands to choose from; there are all sorts of proteins available; whey, egg white, casein; plant based solutions like hemp, rice, and pea powders; grass-fed beef and even cricket. Yeah, for real, cricket. (I can’t quite get past the idea of the last one but hey, to each her own.)

So what kind of protein supplement should I choose?
My short answer is the one that you can afford that also tastes good to you and aligns with your overall nutrition needs. If you’re a vegan, my recommendation to try an animal-based protein isn’t going to do much for you.

My long answer is that if you want to really get into the nitty gritty of how the body uses protein, we have to understand the idea of bio-availability. That just means that your body can use more or less of the protein in different kinds of foods. Dairy and egg based protein sources are the most highly bio-available of any protein source; soy protein is also quite high; other plant-based sources are often lower.

photo credit: critical bench

photo credit: critical bench

But does that mean we should do nothing but guzzle milkshakes? Nope nope nope. The amino acids that protein sources contain are important – they’re the building blocks for everything that your body does. But food also contains a host of other nutrients that your body needs, so slurping nothing but smoothies might be delicious but you’d miss out on quite a few other vitamins and minerals. I’m pretty sure it would get boring really quickly, too. So keep in mind that your supplement should probably only serve as one snack or meal out of your day. Put in the context of your overall diet, the type of protein powder you choose probably matters less than we think .

But whey is still my first pick… here’s why:
Aside from whey having a very high bio-availability score, in the sea of protein powders, you can find high quality whey protein inexpensively. I look for protein supplements that don’t contain a ton of extra fillers and ingredients that add fat and calories. If I want extra calories, I would rather add them back in with tasty whole foods. You’ll find whey protein concentrate, isolate, and hydrolyzed isolate in the whey protein market.

gainz

gainz

All whey powders go through a filtering process that removes most of the carb, fat, and lactose from unprocessed whey. Both concentrates and isolates are high in their protein content, though isolate is higher. Concentrate has more lactose, so if dairy makes your belly hurt, you might choose an isolate. Hydrolyzed isolates further break down the isolate through processing and are easier to digest. Personally, I don’t like the taste of the hydrolyzed isolates I’ve tasted. They’re also more expensive than other forms of whey protein.

anabolicmeme

Whatever form you choose of whey, your body quickly digests it, making it a good source of post-workout protein. The idea of an “anabolic window”, i.e., of having only a short time to take advantage to muscle-repairing protein, has been reconsidered. You can chill out and don’t need to choose a particular form of supplement purely based on rate of absorption.

Getting some recovery fuel into your body within an hour or so after your workout will aid your gainz and help you feel better. The only people who really need to examine nutrient timing more closely are athletes – endurance athletes in particular need to make sure they’re fueling their work with sufficient nutrition. 

sciencepepsi

I’m intrigued as well by a recent study shared at the April meeting of the Endocrine Society too: researchers found that obese subjects with Type 2 diabetes felt much fuller after a breakfast containing whey protein than other high-protein breakfasts. They also experienced fewer spikes in their glucose levels thoughout the day. Of course this is just one study and its worth will emerge more in the context of more studies. But it’s one that I’m keeping my eye on 1

For those with dairy allergy, an egg white protein powder would be my first pick. It has a high score for bio-availability and is a “complete protein”, meaning it contains all the amino acids your body needs to function well. It may sound funky, but I’ve sampled several and they don’t taste eggy at all. Vegans might take a look at supplements containing pea protein, which is easily digested and contains several, though not all of the amino acids your body needs. It digests more slowly than whey protein, but like slow digesting casein, this might be a bonus for staying full longer.  Hemp protein contains a good dose of fiber and is also easily digested. All in all, if you’re shying away from animal-based protein supplements, a vegan supplement with a blend of plant-based protein might be your best bet to try.

Brands
Some companies have been caught spiking their supplements with non-protein sources to increase the overall nitrogen content of the powder. When tested, they appear to contain more protein than they actually do, because carbs and fats, unlike protein, don’t contain nitrogen. If you’re eating a well balanced diet, this isn’t a make or break scenario. However, as a business practice I think it stinks. So before you heavily invest in a brand, spend a few minutes on Google to learn a bit about the reputation of the company.

Everyone’s budget and tastes are unique; I’ve read glowing reviews of certain powders only to find that I could barely stand ingesting them. When you can, start with a sample or the smallest size available. I’ve consistently had good luck with companies like True Nutrition, Optimum Nutrition, and Cellucor. For vegan protein powders, I loathed many of them but found that Vega Sport tastes excellent, to me at least.

Some people prefer unsweetened protein powders for their versatility and lack of artificial sweeteners. Sometimes I just want to mix powder with water and ice and go, so flavored protein is a bonus in my book. Vanilla is versatile, works in lots of different recipes, and is often less cloying than other varieties. I also try to choose brands that use stevia as a sweetener because it tastes less fake and funky to me.

How to Eat/Drink Protein Powders

I’ve had a few that tasted great enough by themselves to just shake up in a blender bottle with some water, add ice, and go. If you have to bring one to work and want to minimize extra calories, this is, of course, a fine option. However, if you have a bit of extra time, making a smoothie with some kind of milk, fruit, and vegetables is an easy way to amp up both flavor and nutrient content.

I’ve also used protein powder in place of part of my flour in pancake recipes. This works surprisingly well as long as I don’t make the powder ratio too high. Mug cakes have historically ranged from cake disappointments to epic disasters. A half scoop melts seamlessly into my overnight oats, and a small amount added to Greek yogurt along with a bit of fruit is surprisingly tasty. If I throw that concoction into the freezer for 15 minutes I can almost convince myself it is ice cream. Except not completely, because I’m no chump. Have a small bowl of ice cream if you really want some, but it makes a very yummy and healthy snack.

In general, I avoid using protein powders to make a lot of healthified “Frankendesserts” and instead just enjoy it for what it is: an easy, inexpensive, and tasty way to boost my protein intake when I need it. Here are two summer smoothie recipes I made this week. The calorie and macro profiles will change a bit depending on the type and brand of supplement you use, but you’ll have a basic idea.

strawberrysmoothie

Strawberry Cheesecake Protein Smoothie
Serves 1

Note: I made this for breakfast, and it makes a gigantic shake. Halve the recipe for a snack if it’s too much food for you.

Ingredients:
½ cup strawberries, fresh or frozen
¾ cup vanilla cashew milk (or milk of your choice. It’s what I had on hand.)
½ cup 1% cottage cheese
2 Tbsp Greek yogurt cream cheese spread (I use Green Mountain. Lowfat cream cheese would work too.)
1 scoop strawberry or vanilla protein powder (I had a sample of Quest strawberry whey-casein blend, which whips up like crazy from the casein. Vanilla is just as good here.)
5-6 ice cubes
½ graham cracker sheet
Optional: grated lemon zest and a packet of stevia. My berries were ripe and my protein was sweet, so I skipped the extra sweetener. The zest is optional but adds a nice something something to this shake.)

Directions:
Whirl everything except for the cracker in a blender. Top your smoothie with a crumbled cracker, and marvel at how cheesecakey it actually is.  

Nutrition:
Calories: 314|Protein: 40g|Fat: 6g|Carbs: 28g|Fiber: 3g|Sugars: 18g

Full disclosure- this photo was from a kale smoothie, but all green smoothies look pretty much the same!

Full disclosure- this photo was from a kale smoothie, but all green smoothies look pretty much the same!

Big Green Smoothie
Serves 1
Note: adding spinach or kale to protein shakes is a very quick way to get more leafy greens into your diet. Coupled with fruit and flavored protein powder, you won’t taste the “green stuff”. I swap out fruits in this smoothie, but usually leave in some banana – it adds extra sweetness. Use frozen fruit to make this shake thicker and creamier. 

Ingredients:

1/2 frozen, medium banana, preferably frozen
1/2 cup strawberries, fresh or frozen
1 cup spinach
1 packet stevia
1/2 Tbsp chia seeds (for healthy fats)
1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
1 scoop of  vanilla protein powder (I used True Nutrition vanilla whey isolate)
5-6 ice cubes if not using frozen fruit

Instructions:
Blend it all up, and enjoy!

Nutrition:
Calories: 296|Protein: 36g|Fat: 6g|Carbs: 29g|Fiber: 7g|Sugars: 14g

I hope this demystified choosing some powda for you. If you already use a protein supplement, what are your favorites and how do you use them? Leave a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear your ideas. 

Want more ideas for getting strong, torching fat, and feeling amazing? My free insider newsletter delivers exclusive content to your inbox on the regular. Just fill out the form below and I’ll send you my book, Fat Loss on a Budget, right away. 

 

 

Notes:

  1. The Endocrine Society. “Large whey protein breakfast may help manage type 2 diabetes.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 April 2016.