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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Snack Ideas

For people trying to eat healthier and / or lose weight, a big question is often what to snack on. Snacks are important - they keep our metabolism reved, our blood sugar stable and our stomachs satisfied so we don't fall on our next meal like ravening wolves and overeat. The best snacks provide a mix of protein, complex and simple carbohydrates and some fat, without loading us up on calories.

The 100-calorie packs that are so popular, while low in calories, are made up almost entirely of simple carbs, causing a spike and dip in blood sugar and leaving us hungry half an hour later. Plain fruit, while a little longer-lasting because of its fiber and water content, presents a similar problem.

So, what to do? Below are some healthy snack ideas that fit the above criteria. Calories are approximate and will vary depending on the brand of ingredient you choose, unless the brand is specified.

* 1/2 whole wheat bagel with 1 tbsp cream cheese (175 calories)
* Cottage Doubles cottage cheese with fruit topping (130 calories)
* 1 apple, sliced, with 1 tbsp peanut butter (175 calories)
* 4 Triscuit wheat crackers with 1 slice of deli cheese cut in quarters (160 calories)
* Yoplait Light Thick & Creamy yogurt (100 calories)
* 1/2 whole wheat pita with 2 tbsp hummus (154 calories)
* 1/2 peanut butter & jelly sandwhich with whole grain bread, 1 tsp reduced-sugar jelly and 1 tbsp peanut butter (250 calories)
* 1/4 cup mixed nuts and unsweetened dried fruit (150 calories)
* 1 container Fage Greek Total 2% fat yogurt, 2 tsp honey (173 calories)
* 6 whole wheat crackers spread with a mix of tuna (the kind that comes packed in water), pickle relish and lite mayo (200 calories)
* 8 oz. of Bolthouse Farms Perfectly Protein Vanilla Chai Tea with Soy Protein (160 calories)
* Frozen yogurt pops (127 calories)
* 2 rice cakes spread with hummus and sliced tomatoes (135 calories)
* 1 cup chopped raw broccoli and baby carrots with 1/4 cup hummus (170 calories)
* 1/2 cup low fat vanilla yogurt with 1/4 cup frozen mixed berries (120 calories)
* 1 Mission 6" low carb tortilla with 2 slices of turkey, spinach, sliced cucumber and balsamic vinegar (140 calories)

If you have ideas or favorites, put them in comments. I'd love to hear them!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bonus Activity Points

If you're trying to lose weight, a good tool is simply increasing the number of calories you tend to burn throughout the day by cultivating specific habits. Small things add up, and with little effort can make a big difference. Here are some ideas:

-Whenever possible, stand rather than sit. Or walk around rather than stand still. For example, when waiting for the bus, talking on the phone, reading the paper or a book, or even watching tv (try just getting up during commercials and walking around).

-Stand and sit up straight. Roll your shoulders back and take full, deep breaths. Keep your head up and alert instead of looking down at the ground. Good posture is better for your entire body, keeps you burning more ambient calories, and as a bonus makes you appear more confident and attractive instantly.

-Alter a bad mood quickly by busting out a few jumping jacks or taking a quick walk. Research has proven that such physical resets can help alter emotional states, plus you'll be blasting calories while you're picking yourself up.

-Communicate in person. Instead of emailing or phoning at work, if the other person's desk is just in the other room, walk over and talk. You'll spend the same amount or less time than you would sending several emails back and forth answering and asking questions, and studies have shown productivity goes up when people with desk jobs get out of their chairs once an hour or so.

-Walk purposefully whenever you walk. Like good posture, this has the bonus of making you instantly look better and more confident. You'll probably get compliments, or at least comments, if you're doing this right. Walk with you head up, shoulders back, stomach pulled in, and don't just shuffle along. Stride. Take long steps and let your arms swing freely.

- Take the stairs. Walk up the escalator. Attempt to use your body rather than mechanical means as much as possible to move yourself from place to place, especially when the places are within the same building.

This stuff works. Studies have shown that slimmer people move and engage their muscles more constantly all day long than overweight people, not just when they are working out. You may not see dramatic weight loss from adopting these habits, but if nothing else they will help maintain a healthy metabolism and prevent future weight gain. The more inactive you have been in the past and the more you commit to using your body all day long, the more change you will see as a result. Good luck!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Body Fat Percentage, Body Mass Index, and What It All Means

Most of us now understand that the our weight alone doesn't tell the full story about our health or fitness. Neither, frankly, does body mass index (BMI) or body fat percentage, but these are additional pieces that can help us put the puzzle together. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about what these numbers are and what they mean, so here is an attempt to clear them up.

First off, BMI and body fat percentage are different things! BMI is a set of numbers used to estimate the body composition of average, non-active people based on their height, weight and gender (as compared to a large data set of people of the same height and weight). You can get an estimation of your BMI here. A BMI of 18.5 or lower is considered underweight, over 18.5 to under 25 is considered "normal," 25 and over is considered overweight and a BMI of 30 or more is considered obese. The problem with BMI is that it is based on averages and not on your individual makeup. A very muscular athlete, for example, would probably be classified as overweight according to BMI. Muscle weighs more than fat, after all. If you begin an exercise program and begin developing muscle and losing fat, the scale might not budge, and neither will your BMI since it is based on your weight and height. Frustrating!! What will change, besides the image in the mirror, the fit of your clothes, and the way you feel, is your body fat percentage.

Your body fat percentage is how much of your body is made up of fat, including the essential fat that you need to survive and function. It can be measured in several ways, with the most accurate being hydrostatic (underwater) weighing, which is done in a medical facility and somewhat impractical for repeated measurements. Other methods include circumference measurements (using a tape measure), skinfold measurements with a caliper, and bioelectrical impedance, in which a small electrical current is sent through the body - muscle conducts electricity better than fat since it holds more water (but this method varies depending on the hydration level of the subject). The easiest method is probably bioelectrical impedence and a variety of scales are now available for home use that include this function. Whatever method you choose, note that you should measure under similar conditions each time. Drink plenty of water before measuring, measure before exercise and measure at the same time of day if possible. Try not to measure every day since daily fluctuations are not as meaningful as weekly or monthly patterns of gain or loss.

According to the American Council on Exercise, the following ranges of body fat percentage have been classified under these categories. Women have higher fat percentage needs for reproductive and hormonal functions.

Description: Women Men
Essential fat 10–12% 2–4%
Athletes 14–20% 6–13%
Fitness 21–24% 14–17%
Acceptable 25–31% 18–25%
Overweight 32-41% 26-37%
Obese 42%+ 38%+

Keep in mind that these numbers are not the only numbers out there - there are other professional opinions. Also, if you are classified as overweight or obese, this is not the end of the world nor something to browbeat yourself about - it is just a number, another tool to use in assessing and improving your health. If it makes you crazy, set it aside and focus on being active and eating well. This is, after all, the point!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Change your 'tude to change your life

Humans are made to move. Our bodies are amazingly put together to allow us to run, jump, dance and play - all the things you see small kids doing all the time. What is it that happens to us as we get older that makes us stop taking joy in in the ways our bodies can move and start seeing movement as a chore? The cues we receive are myriad - from our parents telling us to sit still, to our teachers expecting us to be quiet in the classroom, to our first desk jobs, to a sudden shift in messages from everywhere as we get older that movement isn't about FUN - it's about being FIT, and that we should all feel BAD about not doing enough of it. I don't know about you, but guilt trips tend to take any possible fun out of something I'm doing and make it positively grueling. But these are the messages we receive as we move through our lives as Americans, and it's no wonder so many of us end up with exercise continually on the bottom of our to-do list, constantly feeling lousy about it, with health problems piling up because of it.


You knew how to do it when you were small. There wasn't any complication to it - your body was new and it felt good to move. Moving wasn't about health or looks or guilt. It was just fun. Now, you have the habits and the aches and pains and the attitudes of an adult. You're probably going to be a little hard to convince at first. But - would you rather keep your current attitude that exercise is a difficult, annoying chore and hate every minute of it, if you ever manage to make it a habit? Or would you rather try and get some joy from it if you're going to try and do it anyway?

So. How to start working on making movement a fun thing again when it sounds like anything but?

- Take cues from your kids. If you don't have kids, you probably know some. Kids love it when adults are willing to play with them - but you have to actually play. Run around, roll around, dance, jump, crawl, play! If your kids are already caught up in the video game or computer's maws, tell them you're going outside. Bring squirt guns, or balls and mitts, or a frisbee, or sleds if it's winter, and a determination to have fun!

- Let the dog take you for a walk. Don't just take the shortest route possible and go back inside - let the pup have an adventure and share the excitement.

- Indulge your silly side! If you're in a good mood and feel like skipping down the sidewalk, or dancing to a song you like, or running up a hill and striking a king-of-the-mountain pose, do it!

- Use your imagination! Yes, you're a dignified adult, but that doesn't mean your imagination has dried up and died. Sometimes, when I'm running laps on the track, I'm actually Batgirl chasing criminals. It's much more interesting than running in circles on a track, and it gets me done faster. Yes, it makes me a total nerd, but I'm a total nerd who can run for miles.

- Pair exercise with things you like. Listen to music that makes you want to move and use it to energize you. Work out in front of your favorite tv show. Put a comedy skit in your ipod and laugh through your routine.

- Take a fun class. There are all kinds: Zumba is latin dance aerobics. Drums Alive lets you beat on stability balls with drumsticks. Hip Hop Abs is pretty much what it sounds like. My own Sunday Kickstart class is largely spent giggling. If you're uncertain, bring a friend so you'll both be in the same boat.

Whatever you do, it has to be something that works for you. The more you focus on having fun, the less of a chore exercise will be, and the easier it will be to make it a permanent part of your life. You might be sore and tired at first, but remember, consistency is the key to getting rid of these symptoms. As they exit stage left, you can have even more fun!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Simple Things: Eating Healthier

Eating healthier can be a daunting task. It's hard to know where to start. Like most things, it's easier to take small steps, one at a time, and shift behaviors until you have a new set of habits insetad of trying to overhaul everything at once, becoming overwhelmed, giving up; lather, rinse, repeat. Below is a list of small steps you can take in order to begin shifting toward a healthier way of eating over time. Try one (an easy-sounding one, even!), get the hang of it, and once it becomes comfortable (a couple of weeks or a month), try another.

- Figure out what portion sizes are and start using them. This page is an excellent resource: it contains pictures of many foods next to common objects for size comparison. Most Americans vastly overestimate the amount of food that they can reasonably eat at a time. Check the food pyramid for guidelines on how many servings of each food group you should be getting on a daily basis, but mostly, start being mindful of how much food you are taking in.

- Slow down. It takes 20 minutes for the stomach to report to your brain that you are full, but most of us eat much faster than this. Try chewing your food thoroughly, savoring the flavors and putting the fork down between bites in order to give your "full" indicator more time to kick in.

- Plan your meals and snacks ahead of time instead of grabbing them on the go. If you're always getting a candy bar from the vending machine at the office mid-afternoon, for example, try bringing some nuts and dried fruit from home to satisfy your hunger instead. If you're too hungry to think about cooking when you get home and always end up grabbing takeout, think about putting something in a crockpot in the morning so it's waiting for you. This will not only save you calories, but usually money as well.

- Shift toward complex carbohydrates. Carbs are not evil, but some are (much!) better for us than others. In fact, it's very important for us to get enough fiber, and can help us to maintain a healthy weight, among other things. Complex carbohydrates are the ones that takes our bodies longer to digest, like the ones in whole wheat, whole grains, oats, brown rice and vegetables. Simple carbohydrates like the refined sugars and white flour in baked goods, white bread, sweets, ice cream and "junk food," are digested quickly, dumped into the blood sugar, used up and leave us feeling hungry again quickly. Eating more complex carbohydrates and fewer simple carbs means we stay fuller longer, take in fewer calories overall, and stay more energetic and healthier.

- Revamp your drinking habits. You may be taking in far more calories in liquid form than you think. Soft drinks are some of the worst culprits at about 100 calories per cup. Even diet soft drinks are being looked at with skeptcism, as studies have shown they may make it difficult for people to lose weight despite being calorie-free. Alcoholic beverages are worse and mixed drinks can be up to 400 calories a pop when they contain sugary juices as well as the booze. Fruit juice, while it sounds healthy, takes most of the fiber out of the fruit and concentrates the sugar content, making it very expensive calorically speaking. A 16 oz. glass usually contains 200+ calories. Better beverages include teas (hot or cold)and coffee (preferably unsweetened, though a packet of sugar adds only 15-20 calories). The best drink of all is plain water.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

First of all, just move more every day.

Fitness does not have to be an epic undertaking, especially if your expectations are realistic. Supermodels and actors are a) genetic anomolies, b) paid to look the way they look and spend a good amount of time and money to do it and c) costumed, airbrushed, photographed from good angles and sometimes nipped and tucked to look the way they do. For the average person with a desk job, kids, and a budget, looking like Madonna is going to be a lot harder than it is for Madonna. That doesn't mean you should get discouraged and neglect your fitness altogether in despair! American attitudes tend toward the all-or-nothing, and it is killing us. Nearly everyone can benefit from increasing their physical fitness, but many people think of it as such an enormous endeavor that they never begin. Increasing your fitness doesn't mean you have to run a marathon tomorrow, or for that matter, ever! You don't have to be an extreme fitness enthusiast to be healthier, just like you don't have to be an auto mechanic to get regular oil changes to keep your car in good working order.

One step you can take toward better health is simply to look for ways to move more than you do now on a daily basis. Government guidelines say that you should exercise for at least half an hour each day (more if you're trying to lose weight), but that doesn't mean this needs to happen all at once. A few minutes at a time will all add up. This doesm't mean there's no merit in longer workouts, but if you feel you have no time and have to start somewhere, stealing a few minutes here and there is a great way to go.

Here are some ideas:

-Take a few minutes to walk around at the office instead of sitting all day. Go over to your coworkers' desks instead of emailing. Take a 5 minute break to get up, stretch and walk around. This actually helps your productivity and mental health as well as your physical well-being.

-Use commercial breaks during your favorite shows to get up and walk up and down the stairs a few times, jog in place, stretch or do something else active for a few minutes.

-If you're at your kid's sporting event, don't just sit in the bleachers. Be up and walking around while you watch, for at least part of the time.

-If you have an exercise bike, treadmill or other piece of unused exercise equipment sitting around, make a commitment to use it for 10 minutes in the morning before you start your day. You can do it in your bathrobe, with very little fuss.

-If a song on the radio makes you feel like dancing, do it!

-Take the stairs. If you don't want to take the stairs all the way, take the stairs for a flight or two before getting on the elevator.

-Play with your kids (or someone else's!) instead of just watching them play. Let the energy of youth inspire you!

-Find ways to make spending time with friends and family active. Bowling instead of a movie; a walk in the park instead of a coffeehouse chat.

-If you're in the middle of a stressful project or bad day, take a few minutes to punch a pillow or stomp around and blow off steam. The physical release will help your mood and get you back on track.

Be creative in looking for opportunities to move your body. The more you do it on a daily basis, the better your health will be in the long run - you'll feel, look and function better than if you let those opportunities pass you by.