Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fat and Happy

"fat and happy"
Fig.: content, as if from being well-fed.

"Since all the employees were fat and happy, there was little incentive to improve productivity."

Fat and happy: its a phrase used to describe a satisfied, contented person with no desire to change their ways. When I hear someone say it, I picture a man reclining in an easy chair, smiling and rubbing his stomach after a big meal of meat and potatoes, happy as a clam. But, in reality, its commonly accepted knowledge that the opposite is true, that being thin is the only route to happiness, so millions go on a personal quest to find happiness through a smaller waistline.

And they come up short.

The tagline of this article, "'Skinny dream' burst by weight loss realities," got my attention because it zeroed in on something that we all fall victim to - the "if only" train of thought. If only I was thinner, then I'd get that job. If only I lost some weight, then I'd have the confidence to try this or that. And for good reason - studies show that people who are overweight are more commonly discriminated against in job interviews or assumed to be of lower intelligence or competency. With the huge emphasis on body image placed by today's world, it is easy to see why weight loss seems like the only thing standing between us and instant success.

At first I was annoyed by the first woman featured in the article. She had undergone bariatric surgery to help her lose over 150 lbs, and expected her life's circumstances to change along with her body. But to her dismay, she still had the same problems at 140 lbs as she did at over 300, and she was pretty bitter about it at first. And I thought, well, duh. Losing weight doesn't make your life better, it makes your body better. Having a healthier body will enhance parts of your life, but it won't magically make your husband take out the trash or your mother-in-law stop being a bitch. (Note: I should point out here that my mother-in-law is a wonderful person and my husband regularly takes out the trash. I am just trying to make a point, calm down.)

There was a long period of time when I worked my tail off at the gym and methodically counted every calorie with absolutely nothing to show for it. I didn't lose a pound. It was incredibly frustrating, and I spent a lot of time being bitter and resentful about it. But I never stopped working out; not only do I truly love to exercise, I knew that the way I was living was smart, and that even if my healthy habits didn't show in my waistline, my heart, lungs, bones, and joints felt the difference.

An attractive body is a side benefit of being active and eating well; it shouldn't be the prize. I can say that as someone who is petite and muscular, but not a knock-out with ripped abs and muscles like people expect after the workouts I put in. My body doesn't reflect the work I put into it, and at 25% my body fat is nowhere near what it should be for my level of activity. While there are some days when I throw an all-out pity-party temper tantrum about that fact, usually when I'm trying to button something that fit fine last year and dammit why the hell do I run every freaking day if not to fit into these jeans, I've somehow come to accept that even if I never lost another ounce of body fat I would never stop exercising or eating clean because I believe in the bigger picture of healthy living.

By the time I reached the end of the article, I felt slightly less annoyed. The women featured had the same realization I had - losing weight is a wonderful thing for your health, but it doesn't change who you are. You still have to deal with stupid crap, you just do it in smaller clothes.

Yes, I am much, much happier now than when I was overweight, and some of that has to do with the fact that I am not fat. Call me shallow, whatever. My point here is to ask you to keep your eye on the real prize - a healthy body that will carry you through life - not someone else's temporary promise that skinny = happy.

I mean, just look at Lindsay Lohan. That girl's a mess.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Training Season for Tastebuds

One of the common themes in most news from the media about the sources of our national obesity problem is the amount of salt and sugar in the foods we eat. In fact, American processed food has become so salty that one researcher predicted that if things continue on the way they are, the food we eat 15 years from now will be like brine! The amount of sodium in packaged foods can be alarming, and the fact that there are about 25 different names for sugar is a pretty good indication that we're eating way too much of it.

So it is not suprising that one of the first things mourned by people looking to change their ways is sugar. I hear the same complaints over and over: "Coffee tastes weird without a packet of Splenda." Suggest to a Southerner that she not drink sweet tea and be prepared for mutiny. For real, one of my co-workers almost hit me with a stapler when I implied that her ginormous styrofoam cup of sugar water may be part of the reason her clean eating hasn't taken off. Liquid calories are still calories, and liquid sugar is like calories that haven't taken their Ritalin. You can eat fruit, vegetables, and whole grains all day long but if you top it off with an innocent "treat" of some sugar, you will erase all of that good work. I know, it isn't fair. Get over it.

I know it can seem insurmountable to consider life without sugar. As a former sugarholic, I've been there. I can clearly remember thinking it was completely unrealistic to think that I could live the rest of my life without added sugar. But I do. I get plenty of sweetness through fruits, vegetables, and the occasional drizzle of honey and by and large have lessened my sweet tooth to the point where baked goods are actually a little nauseating to me. I know. It's weird. I never expected that.

It ain't easy, but it does happen. You can retrain your tastebuds to recognize and appreciate foods in their natural, unsalted, unsweetened state. All it takes is some time and nerves of steel. Before long, what was once as bland and watered-down as a rice cake (don't eat rice cakes) will simply be food. It won't be a reward, it won't be a companion, it won't be anything other than wonderful, healthy, nourishment for your body that you will eat and then move on from. And isn't that what food is for anyway?

Some tips to get yourself over the first few days/weeks/homicidal thoughts of living the unsweetened life:

1. Stop expecting food to soothe, reward, vindicate, justify, or erase feelings. Food doesn't give a crap about you or your problems and isn't going to fix anything. Stop expecting it to do anything other than interact with your body in the only way it knows how. It doesn't know that you had a bad day and those calories weren't supposed to count.

2. Don't set yourself up for failure: change your behavior as well. If you know that every time you go to XYZ Restaurant you want to order the huge ginormous dessert, don't go there. I used to get a piece of 60% cacao chocolate almost every time I went to the grocery store, to the point where I became like some Pavlovian dog as I neared the end of my grocery shopping, knowing that I was going to have that chocolate. It was becoming a problem, as I didn't have a need for that much chocolate in my nutrition plan (unless I was seriously PMSing in which case back off) and I didn't like the habit I was forming. But instead of just trying to use self-control to not buy the chocolate, I changed my total behavior at the store. I shopped at a different store for a few trips and was sure to be either on my phone or otherwise engaged when I neared checkout so I would be distracted from it. It worked. After just a couple of trips, the habit was broken and I was no longer self-sabotaging.

3. Avoid sugar alternatives. Fake sugar is not acceptable in a cleaneating environment, and it will not help you get over a sugar habit. Quite the opposite, actually, as research points to evidence that man-made sweeteners actually trigger your brain to crave more of it. No, the point here is to alleviate your dependency on sweetness althogether. We are learning to eat food in its natural state, not a hyped-up version of it.

4. Be patient. Sugar is a tricky little devil. It's been said that sugar withdrawl can be even harder than quitting smoking, so be patient with yourself and the amount of time it will take for your tastebuds to get with the program. It can take days or even a couple of weeks for your body to adjust, but it will. I promise. Eventually, you will look at those big frosted brownies in the bakery case and think, "ugh, I used to eat that whole thing?!"

I know that seems crazy but it is possible if you are willing to put in the time, patience, and forward-thinking that it takes to give your tastebuds a fighting chance. They deserve it!

Are you struggling with sugar withdrawls? Have a unique challenge or question for how to make the conversion? Let me know how I can help; I've been there!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

People, come on. It is NOT that hard.

You know, sometimes I get so mad when I see what some people eat these days that I just want to cry, especially when they do so while making excuse after excuse for why it just isn't realistic to eat healthier. It seems like these days everyone is on the childhood obesity bandwagon, but not nearly as many people are doing what it will take to change the health of our country and reverse the dangerous trend we are in: eat healthier.

Just freaking do it, people. It is NOT that hard. Stop buying crap and stop feeding it to your kids! Stop talking about it, stop blaming food manufacturers or marketing companies or the school system and just EAT HEALTHIER FOOD.

DO IT!!!

Each week, new studies come out with the shocking (not) news that Americans are fat and are immediately followed with editorials and blogs about how yeah, we're fat and all, but its just not realistic to think that we wouldn't be what with all the salt and sugar that is packed into our foods. It's not our fault, it's the food's fault for making us fat.

Hmmm. I'm an American and I'm not fat. Weird. I eat food all day long. I buy my food at the grocery store with all the fat people. It's so strange that I manage to maintain a healthy body while its unrealistic for other people with access to the same resources to do it.

This morning I heard a report about the rising levels of salt and sugar in processed foods, which featured a mother expressing how her kids "wouldn't" eat Shredded Wheat, so she compromises with frosted Shredded Wheat. Shredded Wheat covered in sugar. Is healthy. For her kids.

How about we compromise in a different way, mom? How about 1/2 shredded wheat and 1/2 frosted this week. Then next week add fewer frosted pieces. Then add some strawberries the next week for sweetness. Then omit the frosted pieces altogether. Give your kids some credit, mom. They deserve better than lazy "compromises" when it comes to the bodies they will live in for the rest of their lives. They may throw a fit today about how you're the meanest mom in the world and they're never going to eat again; my kid does that too, right before I remind him that I am #1 Mom in Charge and I love him too much to let him eat that crap for breakfast. He gets over it. We move on.

I don't think I am just being dramatic - a report released this week shows that American kids are too fat to serve in the military. More and more children are entering the first grade pounds overweight, indicated by a Journal of the American Medical Association's report that 16.9% of American children are obese. Not overweight. OBESE.

I shop at the same grocery store as the fat people. I just buy different food. I don't feel angry about it, I don't feel cheated, I don't feel restricted, and I don't feel like I am being punished.

Quite the opposite, actually. I feel happy. I feel like I'm ahead of the pack. I feel free. I feel like every day is a reward, because my body and I are working as a team.

I did feel angry, cheated, restricted, and punished when I was overweight, though.


Monday, April 19, 2010


I'm a little bit known for being a motormouth.

I just blab all day long to anyone who will listen about whatever is on my mind, completely oblivious to the non-verbal "please stop" cues from people around me until its too late and I have already said too much. I embarrass my husband at parties, reveal waaaaay too much information, and typically work under the (usually false) assumption that everyone is on the edge of their seats to hear the thrilling conclusion to my story of the time my...well, never mind. That's not the point.

Usually this is fine, except on mornings like today, when I end up making this big statement, and then taking it back a few hours later. For example, this morning while I was standing around at the gym putting of doing more jump squats, I announced to the general population that I was contemplating taking a break from running for a while. I've been forcing it the last few weeks, and my runs have been pretty...crappy. At first I thought it was my old shoes, so I got new ones. I thought I needed a new route, so I ran one. I considered a new, peppier playlist, so I downloaded one. But no, I just wasn't that into running. So I took a break for a week and figured I'd enjoy it more after a few days off.

I didn't.

In fact, I wasn't even looking forward to running. I was just plain old burned out, finding myself craving long bike rides and not minding being on the elliptical instead of out in the fresh air soaking in endorphins. When I entered my third week of not wanting to run, I started to feel bothered...and a little guilty. I've worked hard at running for a long time, and I've just recently started to get better at it. Plus, let's get our priorities straight here, I really like how running makes my legs look. My gut was telling me that I needed a real break, longer than a week. But I'll admit that I was afraid of what that might mean. After all, there's a fine line between a running break and a running lapse, and an even finer line between a running lapse and me turning into Bitch Supreme.

But then I heard myself say it: "I think I am going to take a little break from running." It was out there. And once the words were out I the little panic voice in my head immediately wanted to go for a run. But, I didn't. I promised myself three weeks off, and if I wasn't ready to run by then I would check myself in for psychotherapy.

It was a little scandalous, not running. It felt a little like a vacation, having given myself permission to purposely ignore what has been a fundamental part of my workout for years. I did different cardio instead; I watched "Sober House" on the elliptical. That was interesting.

And then, a few hours later, I clicked on a link someone tweeted to see live coverage of the women running the Boston Marathon. I was pretty captivated. Not only did these women make running a marathon look effortless, they made my piddly little 3-mile morning runs seem like a trip to the mailbox. I watched their legs stretch ahead of them and then propel them forward, over and over and over and over, and became hypnotized by it. And then it clicked. I wasn't tired of running 3 miles a day, I was done running 3 miles a day. I wasn't tired of running, I was bored with it. I do need a break, but not a break from running. I need a break from running like a robot.

So half-marathon training it is. The beatings will continue until morale improves? Yeah, that's kind of how I roll. I'll take my three weeks off, and then it is game on. Thanksgiving Day, my first 15k.

Gulp. Anyone know of a good Couch to 15k podcast? :)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Clean Eating That Won't Clean You Out

I preach to people a lot about the importance of shopping around the perimeter of the grocery store and sticking to clean, fresh, natural food. It's absolutely the best way to eat, and I am a die-hard believer that eating clean is the solution to many of the health, obesity, energy, and stress related problems we face in our society.

But I also hear a lot of grumbling about how eating clean is more expensive, and at times that is a legitimate complaint. It's a real problem, and one that I don't have a quick solution for. It is a shame that some of our most malnourished populations, the ones in most desperate need for education about how to prepare and eat healthy foods, are also those that are often experiencing levels of poverty that exclude them from access to those healthy foods. I want to be part of the solution to this problem, but I don't yet know what that is. If you have any ideas, let me know!

Until then, there's hope for those of us who aren't necessarily in poverty but still don't want to find ourselves at the grocery register paying the equivalent of Harvard education just to eat for a week. Read this article that gives three examples of how to eat clean on a budget. Eating healthy can be expensive, but it doesn't have to be if you are willing to apply a little elbow grease and imagination when you head to the market.

Consider these techniques that I frequently use in preparing my own clean meals:

1. Sacrifice variety to an extent. Remember, food is fuel, not a companion. So, while variety can be important in regulating your metabolism, I choose to standardize my breakfast, snacks, and lunch during the week to allow me to buy in bulk.

  • Preparing a cheap egg white casserole large enough for six servings during the week saves time and money

  • Baking a turkey breast on the weekend to chop for salads during the week is a lot cheaper than buying lunchmeat or chicken breasts

  • Buying a large container of Greek yogurt is less expensive than individual cups, just be sure to measure the quantity when spooning out a serving each day for a snack

  • In winter, I'll make a huge pot of vegetable soup and have that for dinner or lunch most days. Its comforting, easy, and incredibly healthy.

For me, standardizing my meals not only saves money and time at the grocery store, it also takes the guesswork out of portion sizes. I have enough to think about in a day, I don't want to also have to think about what to eat.

2. Invest time in food preparation. Yes, chopping and portioning a turkey breast takes time. Spending an hour preparing salads or egg whites or chopping fruit can be a chore. And for busy moms, this seems like just one more thing to do in an already over-scheduled day. Well, get over it. If you want to get healthy and save money, you'll find time to do this, and depending on the age of your children, it can be a fun family activity as well. Personally, I look forward to my time on Sunday afternoon when I can flip on the TV, chat with my son while he plays nearby, and prep all my food for the coming week. It saves loads of time on rushed mornings, as well. You'll be suprised how quickly your kitchen will turn into a mini culinary institute, with a pot of stew on the stove, a loaf of bread in the breadmaker, breakfast scramble in the oven, fruit on the chopping board, and baked turkey waiting to be carved...and your house smells like Thanksgiving every weekend! The hardest part is keeping your family members from nibbling on all your clean eats. I often lose precious turkey to the ninja-like reflexes of my turkey-gobbling husband.

3. Buy seasonal fruits and vegetables. Fruits and veggies are expensive, especially the really nutritious fruits like berries. But by buying produce when it is abundant (and prices are lower) you can enjoy some refreshing variety and avoid paying a premium. When your favorite item is too expensive to buy fresh, consider buying it frozen. I often buy frozen blueberries to mix into my yogurt when fresh are more than I want to pay. They last longer and the unit price is cheaper.

4. Make your own. My breadmaker may be one of the most useful items in my kitchen. Baking a loaf of bread for the week requires 5 minutes of prep time and costs a fraction of the price of lesser-quality store-bought bread. Buying oats, seeds, and dried fruit in bulk to make homemade museli is healthier and cheaper than paying for the marketing of packaged mixes. And while I will never profess to be a gardener, growing your own produce can be rewarding and inexpensive if you have the skill and patience. I'm personally pretty excited about the blooms on my first-ever tomato plant. I doubt my black thumb will ever produce enough food to feed more than the neighborhood squirrels, but it's fun to try!

For my recipes and other clean eating tips, visit the Recipes page of my website.

Eating clean might be expensive, but it doesn't have to be! The hardest part may be deciding how to spend all that money you can save. Hint: get a gym membership. :)

Bon appetit!

Monday, April 5, 2010

You May Now Refer to Me as a Triathlete

It feels good to have a triathlon in the books.

It feels even better to have it be the Red Hills Triathlon, reported to be the toughest sprint in Florida.

I want to do it again. In fact, all weekend I wanted to go do it again. After having gone through the course once, I had ideas for what I would have done differently and how I could improve, and it was just so much fun that I want another turn! Luckily, doing a triathlon is not a once in a lifetime opportunity so I will definitely be doing it again.

The morning was perfect: clear, sunny skies; temperatures in the 60s; and just gorgeous. My husband and I pulled in about 6:00 am in time for me to get marked with my number, set up my transition station and bike, and realize that I had only packed one sock. Excellent. But running without socks isn't necessarily a deal breaker...and seeing that it was only three miles I shook it off. My husband offered his socks, but vanity overpowered me; his were crew socks. I mean, I do have my dignity. I would look like a total dork! Luckily, the sock gods smiled on me, and my Boy Scout of a husband ran to the car and returned with running socks from his own gym bag; my hero! And they were Thorlos, to boot. Score! Thanks, babe!

Properly socked, we decided to head down to the lake to stretch and watch the sunrise. As I listened to other athletes discuss their apprehensions, and thanked God that I wasn't the only one who was clueless, I peered out into the lake and spied several yellow bouys relatively close to the shore. The swimming leg didn't look bad at all! My confidence rallied; I could definitely do that with no problem.

Then the sun came up, and I saw the actual bouys. The big orange ones really, really, really, far away. Like, eons away. Memories of my first lake swim came to me, but I pushed them away. I had done it before, and I could do it again. No prob. But I kinda wished I had vodka in my water bottle instead of Gatorade.

Before I knew it, I was in my wet suit and standing in the frigid water with the rest of my wave, women aged 39 and younger and wearing bright green swim caps. We were the third group to go, after the young whippersnapper men took off, an idea I am grateful for because some of those guys looked like they could drown me with one stroke. I turned and smiled and waved at my camera-toting husband. Ready or not, I was about to start my first triathlon.

We splashed into the water, and it was begun! The swim was slow; I didn't want to put my face in the water and risk losing my breath like I had the week before, so I sacrificed time in favor of sanity. I side-stroked and back-stroked for .33 mile, and as I rounded the second bouy and came into the last leg of the swim, I felt good. Challenged, but good. I had stayed calm and was surprised it was over so fast. As I came out of the water and began to run up to the transition area, I checked my stopwatch. 18 minutes, about what I had expected. Good.

Transitioning to the bike was a lesson in preparedness. For one, I had neglected to untie my shoes, so valuable time was lost doing that. I also had chosen clothing that was difficult to put on while wet, so another lesson was learned there. But, I had time to shove half a banana in my mouth and gulp some Gatorade before I wheeled my bike onto the course.

I think I was the only person on a mountain bike. But, it got the job done. In fact, as I cycled along the gorgeous canopied hills of one of the more challenging portions, I was so caught up in the beauty of the morning that I had to frequently remind myself that I was in a race. I love to cycle, and it was a nice surprise to be able to chat a little with the other athletes as we biked along. One woman had written "birthday girl" on her number. A girl I passed a couple of times had actually been issued race number 1. Another first-timer and I leap-frogged each other for most of the bike until she surpassed me on the portion where a road bike was a much better advantage than the thick tires of my mountain bike. But all in all, the cycling portion was a breeze, a lot of fun, and really energizing.

By the time I came in from the biking leg, the rest of my family had arrived and cheered me into the transtition station, where the DJ had started playing, "Running on Empty." I smiled; it was a nice little bit of irony, and I hoped it wasn't prophetic. It wasn't: as I parked my bike and got ready to run, I was relieved to find that unlike during all of my brick workouts, my legs felt completely fine. They weren't numb and useless like I had expected. But, that didn't keep the 5k run from being a challenge. I was tired and felt like I was running through glue. In fact, I began to question whether the run was going to be the leg that got me. When swimming or biking, you can't just stop and take it easy. But when running, it's always an option to walk. I didn't want to take that option. I ran 95% of it, walking a few steps a couple of times when my left leg started to cramp up. Coming up the last hill and rounding the corner into the downhill stretch to the finish line, I was surprised at how easy my first triathlon had been. I could totally do it again. I was ready to go!

The finish line was a blur of euphoria, relief, and a little annoying bit of regret. When I hit the button on my stopwatch as I crossed the finish line, I realized how close I had been, at 2:05:41, to finishing in less than two hours. Although my goal had been 2:30, a time I beat by almost 25 minutes, those extra 5:41 haunted me. I knew if I had pushed a little harder on the bike I could have done it. Well, its good to have a goal.

Reality came rushing back pretty quick. My little man was antsy, and we wanted to get home so he could take a nap before we headed off to a birthday party later that afternoon (he didn't). But throughout the day, as I caught glimpses of my race number, safety pins still attached and abandoned on the kitchen table; the wet suit hanging up to dry in the bathroom; or the registration form for an October triathlon stuck to the fridge, I paused. My first triathlon was past-tense. That was pretty cool.

Thanks to everyone who cheered me on and sent such excellent vibes to me that morning! They worked, and you made it so much fun! You helped me become a triathlete.

A triathlete who has five minutes and 41 seconds to turn into ancient history.