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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why I'm Brand Choosy

You may have been wondering where I've been, given the lack of posts lately. Well, like many other people, I recently took a vacation. We went back to the lake, and I learned from my experience traveling there in July that I needed to bring a cooler of my usual foods with me, as the Oakland (Maryland) SuperWalmart doesn't have the best selection of whole and organic foods.

My husband says I'm "brand choosy," but to be honest, I wish I didn't have to be. Unfortunately, the majority of food products out on the market use too many additives and preservatives for my taste. When I find a brand that's made the same way I'd make it at home - with as few ingredients as possible and no artificial or questionable additives - I tend to stick with it. Since I already know what's in it, I save a lot of time by not having to recheck labels every time I shop. The last time I tried to find the kind of food I wanted while I was on vacation, I took a lot of time reading labels and found very few products that met my standards. So this time, I brought some of my own. I thought I'd share a little picture of what products and brands made my A-list for this vacation.

First, I brought my favorite cottage cheese, which is Friendship low-fat no salt added cottage cheese. The ingredients? Skim milk, milk and vitamin A. The other brands I found in the store had, at minimum, ten ingredients, and don't taste NEARLY as good. Plus, Friendship's no salt added variety has only 50mg of sodium per half-cup. Compare that to other makers, with 350mg or more per serving! Is it any wonder I'm so loyal to this brand? Unfortunately, it's only broadly distributed on the east coast, but I have been able to find it not only here in Pennsylvania, but also as far south as Florida.

Next, I brought my nonfat Greek yogurt. Although there are several good brands, I prefer Fage 0%. Again, ingredients are sparse - just milk and active cultures. And, the package contains a pledge that the milk comes from cows that are never treated with rBGH (bovine growth hormones). I have been able to find Greek yogurt while away from home, but many times, the only varieties available are sweetened. Since one of the things I love about Greek yogurt is that it is so creamy and rich that it DOESN'T need sugar to taste great with fruit, I prefer mine without any added sugar.

Now granola, as yummy as it is, is notorious for being packed with both sugar and fat. It's nearly always healthier to make your own at home. However, I've been fortunate enough to find a brand that's low in both fat (just 2g per serving, and only 0.5g saturated fat) AND low in sugar (6g per serving). The brand is Chappaqua Crunch, and the granola is appropriately named, "Simply Granola." I like the variety with raisins, and it's a fantastic topping for my Greek yogurt.

I also brought a few other items with me, store brands from my local grocery store - Wegmans. Wegmans has a great creamy peanut butter with only one ingredient - peanuts! Perfect. Away from home, I look for Smuckers brand natural peanut butter, which aside from having added salt, is still a fantastic option. And for my kids, who haven't yet learned the joys of stirring your peanut butter, I use Skippy Natural. Although it has added sugar, it's not bad with only 3g total per serving. Skippy adds palm oil to keep the product from separating.

Wegmans also has a great line of breads. One of the things I've found is that many whole wheat breads have high fructose corn syrup in them. Wegmans has a whole wheat bread that is sweetened without HFCS, but still tastes great. And for my white bread eating kids, they also have a whole grain white bread, that unlike the varieties offered by Stroehmann and Sara Lee, has more than 50% whole grains, and doesn't have unhealthy additives. If you don't have access to a Wegmans, I'm sorry to say that I haven't found another brand of whole grain white with these same characteristics. I'll be sure to post if and when I do!

So that's a little peek into what was in my cooler when I drove off to the mountains for the week. I hope you can find some of these brands in your local grocery. And please leave a comment to share the great finds you've made in the grocery aisles!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Is Exercise Just a Waste of Time?

There's been quite a buzz in the fitness community about a story in the latest Time Magazine, entitled, "Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin." Perhaps you've read the story already. Many people who have read the article (and even those who have just heard about it) have had very strong reactions. From the fitness gurus, I've heard the article is misleading and will lead people to abandon exercise. From others, I've heard that the article substantiates their feeling that they are wasting time in the gym. So who's right? Is exercise just a waste of time?

Yes. And no. The real answer is somewhere in the middle. I never hesitate to tell someone that abs are made in the kitchen, or that diet is 80-90% of weight loss success. And frankly, some of the things I've seen in the gym should barely count as exercise, even though people spend hours doing it. So yes, exercise CAN be a waste of time. And, if you can get 80% of the way there on diet alone, should you even bother spending time working out?

This time, I'm giving an unqualified YES. While exercise is no substitute for a healthy diet (nor is it an excuse to eat an unhealthy diet), time spent exercising has significant benefits. On the physical appearance front, strength training helps build and maintain muscle. If you lose body fat and maintain your muscle mass, your body fat percentage declines, your measurements decrease, and you look smaller and lighter -- even if the scale never moves! And intense aerobic training, particularly HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), can boost your metabolism for hours after you exercise, making your total calorie burn greater than you might expect.

Notice that, in the article, the author primarily relies on steady-state cardio for his exercise. While steady-state cardio has its place, for sure, questioning its role in fat loss isn't a new topic of conversation. In fact, it has been questioned long before this Time Magazine article was written. For instance, Craig Ballantyne of Turbulence Training has often criticized steady-state cardio as making people exhausted and hungry, but not providing the weight loss they want. Sound familiar?

So, if you respond to your workout by, say, drinking a 700 calorie protein shake, a box of oreo cookies, a fast food lunch, or even a 32 ounce Coke slushee (like I used to do), then you've undone all of your hard work. No, you do not EARN treats with your workouts. Any "cheat" or "reward" meal should always fit into your plan for your weekly caloric intake.

That's right - the key is to HAVE A PLAN. Don't watch TV with a death grip on the stairmaster for an hour, and then let your exhaustion lead you to McDonalds after your workout. Do short, efficient workouts, and plan for your post-workout meal in advance, making sure it fits into your daily calorie allotment.

As for the article, although it seems to cite a number of credentialed professionals and official studies, there's been much backlash from those cited. For instance, Dr. Timothy Church, an expert quoted in the Time article, cried foul, saying his professional opinions were misrepresented, according a statement from the American College of Sports Medicine. Church noted that virtually all people who lose weight and keep it off are exercising to maintain weight.
Frankly, while I think the basic premise of the article was true (that premise being that exercise does not grant someone a license to eat whatever they want), I felt the article was extremely irresponsible journalism. It's likely to cause people to stop exercising, since they've just been told that there exercise makes them fat. Meanwhile, the article doesn't give people any help in understanding how to improve their nutrition. That's two strikes. Maybe now is the time to cut a little fat from your budget and cancel your subscription to Time in protest of this slanted and misleading article.

Want to read some of the other outraged responses to the article? (Feel free to respond with more if you have found them.)
And from my friends in the blogging community:

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Test in Meal Conversions: Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

There was a time in my life when my family knew me as "the starch queen," due to my frequent consumption of pasta (and rice, and potatoes... you get the idea). Now, however, I get the vast majority of my carbs from fruits and vegetables, and rarely, if ever, eat pasta.

So that's why the idea for this particular meal conversion was so fun for me! My goal was to come up with a tasty meal that would be a healthy replacement for a down-home pasta dinner.

Since it's always fun to come up with a packaged or restaurant meal to replace, I'm going to compare my version to the Pizza Hut Spaghetti with Meat Sauce (did you know they serve pasta now?).

Serving size: 467 grams
Calories: 600
Fat: 13g
Saturated Fat: 5g
Cholesterol: 8mg
Sodium: 910mg
Carbs: 98g
Fiber: 9g
Sugars: 10g
Protein: 23g

So for my replacement, instead of using spaghetti, we're going to cook some spaghetti squash. For the sauce, instead of using a jar of pre-made sauce, we're making a simple sauce of our own. And finally, the meat in our sauce will be ground turkey, not ground beef.

Here's the ingredients and how to make it:

1 small spaghetti squash, halved (lengthwise) with seeds and pulp removed (like a pumpkin) -- yields about 600g cooked
1 pound lean ground turkey
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 8oz cans tomato sauce (no salt added variety)
Seasonings of your choice (oregano, basil, garlic, onion, parsley, etc.)
1 TB olive oil
Shredded Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Drizzle the spaghetti squash with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, and place on a cookie sheet. Bake for 30-40 minutes. While the squash is cooking, make the sauce.

Brown the ground turkey in a pan on the stove. Add the onion and saute for a few minutes more. Remove the meat and onion from the pan. Pour two cans of tomato sauce into the pan.. Stir in seasonings to taste. I used garlic powder, onion powder, basil, oregano, and parsley. Let simmer on the stove for 10-20 minutes. Add back in the meat and onion.

Run a fork lengthwise through the inside of the squash and the strands should come out fairly easily. Place them into a casserole dish. Top with meat sauce and shredded Parmesan cheese.

Bake squash and sauce in the oven for 15-20 minutes. The recipe makes four servings. Serve and enjoy!

So here's how the nutritional statistics came out:

Calories: 302
Fat: 13g
Saturated Fat: 2.5g
Cholesterol: 80mg
Sodium: 630mg
Carbs: 23g
Fiber: 5g
Sugars: 11g
Protein: 26g

How do the two compare? Well, my version is about half the calories for a similar serving size, but has the same fat content. Where do all those extra calories in the original come from? CARBS, of course! My recipe has 1/5 the carbs of the original. Protein is still high, and we've reduced the sodium and saturated fat. All good things!

And how does it taste? I loved it! It's not exactly like eating spaghetti, but if you're someone who generally likes squash and zucchini, I'm guessing you'll
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l like the taste, and find it an acceptable replacement for the original. However, I will say that if you, like my husband, are not a fan of squash, this meal may not be for you. (He did report that he enjoyed the sauce, though!)

Please let me know if you try it, and what you think!