I'm not a nutritionist. I'm not a fitness expert.

I am a 57 year old woman who has never felt more healthy and fit in my entire life. Five years ago, at 52, I weighed about 80 lbs. more than I do now. I felt much older, with stiff joints and back aches and no energy. And don't even ask about clothes!

My goal was not just weight loss, but to get healthier. I did not "go on a diet," I did not count calories or carbs. I made lifestyle changes, a little at a time. I tried to eat healthier and move more. You can do this, too. You can make changes to look, and more importantly, feel healthier and fit. You don't have to be overweight to be unfit. You will feel a difference in strength, energy, stamina and flexibility. I'm talking to you, men, too!

I can tell you how I did it. Not everything I do will be right for you. Through posts about my progress; tips and ideas about nutrition and exercise; links to sites I like and find helpful, I hope to inspire others to get fit and healthy and encourage a community of support and an exchange of ideas. And have a little fun on the way! Much of our information will be about local Cape Ann sites - walking and bike routes, gyms, types of exercise, yoga studios, good buys on healthy food - but Guests and commenters from anywhere are welcome as well.

Okay, I know you all want to know. Right now I'm wearing a pair of Levis - size 8. A comfortable size 8!

Twenty year old daughter:
"Mom, why are you wearing my clothes?"
Mom: "Because I can!"

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Healthy Eating During the Holidays

Have you ever been on a diet, over-indulged at a dinner or party, and thought, "Well, I blew that - I'll start again Monday" - then loaded up on cookies, breads or sweets until Monday rolled around? (I'm writing what I know about!)

If you're not on a diet, you won't be programmed to think like that. If you're working on lifestyle changes - a special dinner or once-in-a-great-while party food is part of life! You enjoy a treat and the next day continue on your healthy eating habits.

I rarely dine out - I don't think you can maintain healthy eating habits if you dine out often. (And you can put the money you save towards a gym membership or new, smaller clothes!) A week or so ago I attended a yearly family and friends dinner at a restaurant. I wouldn't normally order onion rings - but someone else did and I had a few, just because they were there. I had a roll - not so much because I wanted the bread, but there was a fabulous (and healthy!) olive tapenade. I ordered French Onion Soup because I knew they made an outstanding soup - more bread and gobs of cheese. I was stuffed - and I had also ordered an entree! I ate a little of that - chicken scallopini in a lemon/butter sauce with capers, artichoke hearts and mushrooms, served over angel hair pasta - I brought the rest home and had it for dinner the next night. Nothing I ate was horrifically unhealthy when eaten occasionally - the lemon butter sauce was even light on the butter - but I felt so uncomfortably full and sluggish - a good reminder of how much better I feel when I don't over-indulge. The thing is - I enjoyed everything, but I don't have any cravings to eat like that again anytime soon. My brain has been re-framed to really enjoy the healthy food I normally eat and like how it makes me feel.

A good tip is to eat something filling at home before you go out - like a bowl of oatmeal. That will help prevent eating too much of whatever is being served - but go ahead and enjoy a taste of this and that. You won't put on ten pounds overnight, your cholesterol levels won't soar - unless, of course, you do it several times a week for the entire month of December!

Busyness during the holidays can also throw a workout schedule off track - way off some weeks! "I'll get back to it the first of the year." Don't let yourself fall into that! Do what you can, when you can - just don't give it up. I've slacked off a bit at Curves the past couple of weeks. But if Thursday rolls around and I haven't been yet that week - I don't say, "I'll wait until Monday." I get in that one day, even if it's Friday. Five or six days without a Wii Active workout and boy do I feel it! But it feels good when I do it and makes me glad I didn't put it off until Monday, or next week, or next year ...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Getting Fit - with Wii Fit?

Last Christmas my daughters, then 19 and 25 and both living at home at the time, asked for a Wii console and the Wii Fit game.  I groaned.  They have never been into the video game thing.  We have a few old Nintendo consoles in the basement that were given to them as gifts when they were young.  Never mind the zombie-like appearance I've seen on kids engrossed in those things, but when I found out what it cost for games - I was not a happy mom.  Thankfully, they were used for a week or two and never turned on again.  Their choice, for which I'm forever grateful.

So I was wary of the Wii purchase.  "You'll love Wii Fit, too!" they told me.  As Christmas neared, I read and researched (I had absolutely no clue about what a Wii even actually was) and decided I'd do it.  And now I'll come out of the closet as a Wii fan.  I do love it.

Wii Fit has yoga, strength training exercises, balance games and aerobics.  I was walking and going to Curves, and the Wii Fit aerobics were still a challenge - mostly because I put a lot into them.  And it was fun.  The competitive aspect, trying to outdo my daughters and improve my own scores, is motivating.  A funny thing happened - as when they were young, they lost interest after a couple of months. (They would probably tell you that it was because I was always using it.)  But I've kept at it!

It certainly wouldn't replace a gym workout or regular power walks.  I mostly used the balance and aerobics parts.  The balance games really do help balance and coordination - especially eye/body/mind coordination - something I think is really important to keep working on at my age.  I worked my way up the levels of boxing - I was huffing and puffing at the lowest level when I first started.  When the step dancing became too easy, I started holding and lifting 6 lb. weights when I did it.  It's fun.  It's easy to fit in a little time with it here and there.  I sometimes turned it on while dinner was cooking and did a ten minute boxing round.

By the time June rolled around, I was still using Wii Fit, but looking for ways to make it more challenging.  The game marketers must have calculated my progress, because just around then EA Sports Active for Wii was released.  I bought it.  I love it.  It does what I had wished the Wii Fit did - Wii Active has complete routines.  With Wii Fit, you're on your own to pick and choose what to do.  I like having a circuit to follow.  Wii Active has many routines and many levels.  Lower body exercises are mostly old school squats and lunges with variations.  You use a resistance band for upper body exercises.  My arms have never, ever looked like they do now.  Oh, I still have bat wings, but there's a whole lot more toned muscle surrounding them.  Same with my legs.  There are really no ab exercises in the circuit, but I do sets of situps and crunches at Curves when I stretch.

I've never had a piece of home exercise equipment.  The convenience factor of having something to use at home when I could fit in the time was always an attraction, but a single type of working out never appealed to me.  Oh wait ... I did get an exercise bike years ago as a gift.  I do think it worked much better than a treadmill would have ... as a clothes rack.

There are other ways to work out or just get some exercise at home - like the hundreds of exercise DVDs available.  Tae Bo, dance, aerobics, yoga, Pilates.  I have several and my daughter just brought home a kickboxing one that looks fun.  But I never stuck with them like I have the Wii.  I think it's the variety of things available to choose from in the one program and the interactive part that holds my interest.

Wii Fit pros:  It's fun.  It's convenient - you can fit in a little aerobics or a balance game here and there several times during the day.  The balance and coordination games are good, especially for those of us who are of a certain age.

Wii Fit cons:  You're on your own as far as putting together a routine.

Wii Active pros:  Pre-set routines - and lots of them.  There are all-around routines as well as ones that target upper body or lower body.  It's more interactive than the Wii Fit - your "trainer" will tell you if you're going too fast or too slow or when you're not getting down far enough on a squat!

Wii Active cons:   The resistance band included with the program is inferior quality.  I had read that in several reviews and sure enough, after a couple of months mine did break.  I have some heavier duty ones that I had bought in a previous at-home-exercise burst of motivation.  I dusted them off and they've worked fine for me.

My older daughter moved last spring and there was a little discussion about Wii custody.  The Wii stayed.   She was finally able to afford to buy her own a few weeks ago.  She bought the new Wii Fit Plus and reports that it is much more like the Wii Active with preset routines.  I also read that Wii Active released a new edition, EA Sports Active: More Workouts with more routines and includes ab workouts.  I'm still feeling the burn with my Wii Active, so I have no desire to drop money on a new version just yet.

You don't have time to go to a gym.  You're too tired after work to go out for a walk or someplace to exercise.  You can't afford a gym or a game console.  Whether you try an interactive video program, an exercise DVD, or just turn on some music and dance for half an hour - there really are no excuses.  If you're reading this, you have internet access.  There are hundreds of routines, tips, videos and motivating sites on the web.  You can find something you like, something you can fit into your day, something you can afford.  Whatever you find that works for you - you will only get out of it what you put into it.  Getting motivated to put effort into something is the hardest part, but the results - feeling more fit and stronger - will be worth it. And it really can be fun!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Abs Diet Power - Eggs

Here we go again!  Don't eat eggs, they'll kill you.  Eat eggs, they're good for you.

I eat them.  I actually eat more eggs these days than I used to.  When I started exercising more and paid closer attention to how I should be eating in terms of fueling my body for energy and strength, I found that the inexpensive egg is a power source for good protein.  Eggs supply all essential amino acids and provide several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin A, riboflavin, folic acid, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, choline, iron, calcium, phosphorus and potassium.  The egg is one of the few foods that naturally contain Vitamin D.

All of the Vitamin A, D and E, most all of the other nutrients, and half the protein are in the yolk.

And all of the fat and dietary cholesterol are in the yolk.  Good food/bad food.

Dietary cholesterol (cholesterol that you actually ingest) is different than blood cholesterol (cholesterol made by your body from ingested saturated fat and trans fat).  Foods loaded with saturated fat or trans fats can claim they contain zero cholesterol, but they're actually more of a threat to your heart and arteries than foods with a little cholesterol and less saturated fat.  In many articles that I've read, there is caution advised about consuming dietary fat if you have diabetes or already suffer from heart disease.

As always, I look at the big picture.  Do you avoid eggs, but chow down on shellfish, which is high in dietary cholesterol?  How many other things, like baked goods, do you eat that contain eggs?  In my opinion, and it's only my opinion because I'm not a doctor or nutritionist - if I'm doing my best to avoid saturated fats and other dietary cholesterol whenever possible, the protein and nutrients served up in eggs for the number of calories (about 70 in a large egg) are more beneficial than the minimal negative effect of the amount of dietary cholesterol in that egg.

Egg Beaters, liquid egg whites, real egg whites - in my mind, what's the point?  Sure, egg whites have no fat or cholesterol, but they also have half the protein and limited nutrients.  And taste - isn't the yolk what that's all about?

People have so many food facts, warnings and advisories thrown at them these days, it can be mind-numbing.  It can also create eating silliness.  People avoid a few real sugar calories in their coffee by using an artificial sweetener, but have that coffee with a gigantic muffin.  People use Egg Beaters to avoid dietary cholesterol, but serve them with bacon.  I used to do things like that.  Now I think, "How crazy is that?"

I can't emphasize these things enough:  Educate yourself - know what you're eating.  Use common sense and moderation.  Weigh the nutritional value against the negatives.  Read labels.   It won't take long before doing those things become second nature and healthy habits.

Egg Nutrition and Heart Disease : Eggs aren't the dietary demons they're cracked up to be (Harvard Medical School)

Good Eggs: For Nutrition, They're Hard to Beat - The egg is no longer a nutritional no-no By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD at WebMD

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Natural" Food Labels

The results of a survey by The Shelton Group, a market research firm that monitors sustainable and organic industry:

"Our Eco Pulse study revealed that most Americans prefer the term Natural to the term Organic — and they would be more likely to reach for a product with a label that says “100% Natural” over one that says “100% Organic” because consumers believe — erroneously — that Natural is the term regulated by the government, while Organic is an unregulated, fancy marketing buzzword slapped on products to justify a higher price point."

How consumers were influenced:

100% Natural - 31.3%
All Natural Ingredients - 25.4%
100% Organic - 14.2%
Certified Organic Ingredients - 11.7%

The power of marketing!

As I wrote in my last post, “Organic” is a claim strictly regulated by the USDA.  "Natural" - not so much.  This consumer confidence in "Natural" labels has led to the surge in the appearance of "All Natural" products on supermarket shelves.  At a higher price than "conventional" products - just because they can.  Natural is generally still cheaper than Organic because there is no certification process, and the associated costs, involved in being allowed to label a product "Natural."

Neither FDA nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has precise rules for "natural,"  except as applied to meat and poultry products. "Natural" meat and poultry must be free of artificial colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives and other such ingredients. They are minimally processed and must contain labels that explain the term "natural." It does not, however, refer to how the meat was raised. Meat that was given growth hormones and antibiotics, if not overly processed during the butchering process and free of additives, can be labeled "natural."  "Natural" chicken in the market can be pumped up with "natural" chicken broth, sea salt and seaweed extract to "flavor" it and add to its weight.

The "natural" label for all other food products has no official definition and can be used without any USDA or FDA approval. Those agencies do require that claims on food packaging should be truthful and not misleading, but nobody's watching.  In recent years, consumer groups have successfully gone after some manufacturers about their labeling practices - and the debate over "natural" labels on products containing high fructose corn syrup goes on.  When pressed by a group to take a stand on high fructose corn syrup, the FDA issued a statement saying that HFCS may be labeled natural when synthetic fixing agents do not come into contact with it during manufacturing.  Perfectly clear, isn't it?

Natural does not equal healthy.  Nor does organic, for that matter.  Natural saturated fats and organic sugars are still fats and sugars.

Some food product manufacturers do adhere to a truth-in-labeling policy and others really stretch it and go to great lengths to defend a product's "naturalness."  Reading the ingredients, not falling for a flashy label, is the only way to know what you are consuming.

File under "not following my own advice" -

I was hurrying through errands.  I was parched.  I always have water in my car, but I really needed something else to quench my thirst.  I pulled into a convenience store, spotted iced tea and knew that would hit the spot.  With no time to compare labels, I grabbed a Lipton bottle.  Waiting for my change, I glanced at the calories:  70.  Not bad.  18g of sugar - oh well, I need it.  I drank the whole thing while I finished my errands.  When I finally got home, I read the label.

Servings per container: 2.  That was 140 calories and 36g of sugar.

It's Lipton Pure Leaf Iced Tea.  It has a fancy logo that says:  Contains Natural Antioxidants.  Another fancy logo tells me it's certified by the Rainforest Alliance (at least 50% certified tea).  It's made with fresh brewed tea.  It has a picture of lemons, says "Lemon" under the picture and under that "Natural Flavor."  And under that, "All Natural."  That's all on the front of the label.

I have little problem with the "natural" label for the ingredients:  Brewed Tea from Lipton® Tea Leaves, Sugar, Citric Acid (Provides Tartness), Natural Apple Extract (Color), Natural Flavor, Pectin.

Added natural color?  Marketing - the darker color makes it more appealing.  (Does it make you wonder just how much tea is involved?)  Added natural flavor - that's another long story.  If you're interested, there is an excerpt from Eric Schlosser's book, Fast Food Nation, about Natural and Artificial flavors over at Truthseeker.)

But about that lemon ... the front label suggests that it contains lemon, but doesn't actually state that it does.  Their web site calls it "Iced Tea with Lemon."  Am I missing something?

Seriously, couldn't they just call it what it is: tea with sugar and added flavor and color but no damn lemon?

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Do You Buy Organic?

In the produce aisle, I hover over vegetables labeled "organic" and those not. Back and forth, I inevitably choose the non-organic because they are cheaper and like most folks these days, I'm watching pennies. I'm also the oldest of six children from a middle class family and the penny-pinching gene is alive and thriving.

I'm not fanatical about food choices. I just try to make the healthiest choices and sometimes those choices are also based on economics. But I can rationalize (I am the queen of rationalization!) spending more on a healthier option by comparing it to what that bag of chips or cookies, the ones that I'm not buying, costs. Funny how I don't remember ever giving a second thought to price when I was buying some of those things. There was no way I would buy store-brand shortbread cookies over Lorna Doones. We humans can be so oddly funny about how we spend money (but that's another subject!).

Produce is probably the one food that I might consider paying a higher price for the organic option. Processed foods labeled "organic", from cottage cheese to potato chips, are still processed and can have added fat and sugars. Are they healthier - and for the price?

Trying to understand "organic" labeling standards can make your head spin!

“Organic” refers not only to the food itself, but also to how it was produced. Foods labeled organic must meet or exceed the regulations of the National Organic Program (NOP). They must be grown and processed using organic farming methods that recycle resources and promote biodiversity. Crops must be grown without using synthetic pesticides and petroleum-based fertilizers, bioengineered genes and sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Organic livestock must have access to the outdoors and be given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Easy enough, eh? But wait ...

USDA makes no claims that organically produced food is safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food. Organic food differs from conventionally produced food in the way it is grown, handled, and processed. Labeling requirements are based on the percentage of organic ingredients in a product:
  • Products labeled as “100 percent organic” must contain (excluding water and salt) only organically produced ingredients and processing aids.
  • Products labeled “organic” must consist of at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients (excluding water and salt). Any remaining product ingredients must consist of nonagricultural substances approved on the National List including specific non-organically produced agricultural products that are not commercially available in organic form. Agricultural products labeled “100 percent organic” and “organic” cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.
  • Processed products that contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients can use the phrase “made with organic ingredients” and list up to three of the organic ingredients or food groups on the principal display panel. The percentage of organic content and the certifying agent seal or mark may be used on the principal display panel. However, the USDA seal cannot be used anywhere on the package.
And so, my own personal thoughts on organic ...

I believe that organic farming is better for the environment.

It seems to me that organic produce may get a healthier start, but once it leaves the farm it follows the same packaging, handling and transportation routes as conventional produce. Guaranteed Organic does not mean guaranteed E.coli free.

Organic does not mean more nutritious. It may mean less harmful.

Organic does not mean pesticide-free, it means free of synthetic pesticides - and, of course, there are those who question whether synthetic pesticides are any more harmful than natural pesticides.

You can find a study to support or dispute most any position (depends on who is paying for it). The best you can do is try to educate yourself, research the source of information, and make decisions that you feel are best for you.

These are some of the interesting and helpful resources I used:

Glossary of Organic and Natural Food Terms (The Nibble, a specialty foods magazine)

Organic Food Standards and Labels (The University of Wisconsin-Madison)

USDA National Organic Program (US Government web site)

Synthetic v. Natural Pesticides (New York Times)

Something I found very interesting in my reading is that consumers are more drawn to a "100% Natural" label than an "Organic" label - significantly. Next time, I'll write about what I've learned about "All-Natural" and "100% Natural" labeling and how food manufacturers take full advantage of that.