I've managed to completely swear off sodas in the past few weeks—I've switched mostly to unsweetened brewed tea and water. Likewise, I've kept away from fried chips, except on Fridays when I give myself a day off. And with the weather finally—knock on wood—turning to fall, it's a great time for some long walks.
A little success can spur you to try more, which is my goal for the second half of this road. By the end of it, I want my eating and exercise lifestyle to be healthy and wise—particularly with the holidays coming.
This past week I've spent a little time with a book called "Active Wellness" by Gayle Reichler (Avery Publishing Group, 2003, $18.95). I like her premise, which is based on very straightforward diet recommendations that you can internalize and do your best to roll into a new lifestyle.
Start with this tenet: The key to losing weight is taking in less energy than you use up. That's what the calories in food are—energy, which is stored or used in various ways depending on what our body is doing. So, in order to lose weight, you've got to take in fewer calories while expending more in exercise and metabolism.
It's that easy. And just as frustrating.
Of course, losing weight (or maintaining a healthy weight) is only one part of what we're calling "wellness." But, clearly, eating right is an important component, just as is exercise. Of course, it's damned near impossible to eat right, especially if you aren't a gourmet cook. Again, it requires some change in lifestyle, but those changes are going to have to be gradual, and they require a learning process.
You'll encounter two different types of dietary recommendations out there in the world. The first are the "generally agreed" dietary recommendations that you'll get from a book like "Active Wellness" or the U.S. government or various medical entities. And they're the sorts of general things that you've probably heard for a long time—eat whole grains, get lots of fruits and vegetables, cut down on high fat and empty calories and avoid refined sugars. You know—stuff that sounds like it makes sense.
Then you'll hear about those other diets, which I like to loosely lump into the category of "breathless did you know" diets. Now, it's perfectly possible that a "did you know" (as in, "did you know that many complex carbohydrates are broken down into insulin which…") diet will work for certain people, particularly if they take the recommendations very seriously and don't just use the diet as an excuse to, say, eat a hamburger at every meal because they cast off the bun.
But my personal opinion is that the balanced, whole-grains, you-know-it's-healthy-don't-you? approach is probably the easiest one to sustain as you alter your lifestyle.
Here, then, are some thoughts, many of which are adapted from "Active Wellness" and other reading, which I plan to use to slightly alter my lifestyle over the next five weeks:
• I'm doing my best to drink 64 ounces of water a day, and to cut down on sugared sodas, caffeinated drinks and even de-caffeinated drinks. For variety, I've looked into flavored (but not sugared or sugar-free) seltzers and herbal teas. I still have coffee in the mornings, but I'm exploring the possibility that one day I may give it up. We'll see.
• Eat whole foods. This can be easily understood as: avoid refined foods. A whole food is a food with one ingredient. We're talking about fruits and vegetables, legumes, seeds—foods in their simplest form, particularly when fresh and in season. Organically grown is also ideal.
• A key mantra in my approach is this—vegetables are good. The best are the green leafy veggies such as kale, spinach and collards. They offer tons of advantages, as do nearly all vegetables that are bright in color. You'll also find big advantages in vegetables that you eat whole—that is, those that include tasty "skins" or husks. Eating as many vegetables as you can—particularly organically grown and often raw—is nothing but good for you. The produce section is the first place to go, but most frozen vegetables are fine. A few servings of vegetable juice (watch for high sodium content) is a great approach—and people seen drinking vegetable juice in the office or about town may appear up to 35 percent sexier than people drinking a 64-ounce fast food soda.
• Avoid refined sugar. Beyond skipping the sodas and sweet coffees, I'm looking around for other places where sugar creeps into products—including store-brand yogurts and dessert-style smoothies and empty-calories deserts. It takes a little label reading, but it may be one of the easier ways to shed some pounds.
• Choose your oils carefully. The reason I gave up tortilla and potato chips (except on Fridays) was the fact that they're usually deep fried in partially hydrogenated oils; oils which are widely thought to be huge contributors to America's obesity problem. We gotta cut back on oils. That includes butter and vegetable oil, but margarine and typical store-bought shortening—not to mention nearly all store-bought cookies and chips—are often the biggest problems in our kitchens.
I leave you this week with a recommendation: extra virgin olive oil and a wok. The best success I've had when cooking vegetables is to take a relatively small amount of olive oil or canola oil spray and heat it high in a wok. Toss in veggies before the oil smokes—broccoli, carrots, onions, red and green peppers, even green beans—and stir them until they're sizzling, bright colored and still a bit crunchy when you taste them. Now, kill the heat and coat with some lemon juice or low-sodium soy sauce, just enough to taste.
You can use basically the same technique but change flavors of your stir-fry—Cajun salt with some oil and vinegar, for instance, or Tabasco and oil for a slightly "buffalo-style" taste—and you can toss your veggies over rice, pasta or eat plain next to a small sliver of lean meat or baked tofu, or other soy meat substitute.
That's three to four healthy meals a week right there!
Ms. D: Screw the Fast-Food Industry
I'm feeling a bit philosophical this week on the Road to Wellness. Last night, I watched the excellent, and hilarious, "Super Size Me," the documentary about what fast food is doing to Americas. The filmmaker points out the most obese states—and, yes, Mississippi is the fattest in the U.S. It was a funny moment: the packed auditorium erupted in a sarcastic cheer. But the message is clear: Our diets are killing us—and, worse, our children and their future. (The film is out on DVD soon, by the way.)
Here in Mississippi, we need to get more educated about our diets. The simple truth is, our bad eating habits, combined with lack of exercise and too many hours sitting, is a primary reason our health-care costs are too high. I think it's obvious by now that our elected leaders, or even many of our health practitioners, are not going to encourage us to get ourselves educated about preventive health—it's big business for them. So we must take it upon ourselves. And if you listen even with half an open mind to the problems that fast-food diets and the junk they're now allowing into school cafeterias (especially sodas) are doing to your children's health—hardened arteries by age 18!?—it might just motivate you to start taking taking charge.
As Todd has been pointing out, being healthy is not about losing quick weight on a fad diet. It's about making a lifestyle change. For us, several years back, that meant giving up meat (yes, that includes fish and all that antibiotics-stuffed chicken). For you, though, it might mean simply cutting back. Make gradual changes if you need to: if you eat fast food every day, eat it once a week. Have meat every other day at first. Eat healthy side dishes. And for goodness sake, give up most of that soda (diet or regular) that you and I were weaned on in our baby bottles! As a Southerner, I know it can be hard to change our habits. We're stubborn, and we like our chicken-fried steak. But it is a way to control our lives, cut our health-care costs, increase our energy—and decrease our reliance on the greedy health-care industry. Take that, Mickey Ds!.
So, I'll be seeing you at the Belhaven Market on Saturday mornings, where you can get fresh, locally grown produce (and eggs, and sometimes goat cheese) from small farmers. I think the road to wellness from your door to the market is about 8 blocks.