Friday, November 19

Thanksgiving is a time for family—Oh, great

The ice clinks against the glass as Uncle Ralph swirls his scotch. His red eyes and slurred speech inform you that the annual, “When I was in Saigon” monologue is moments away. Cousin Suzy, a born-again Christian, is on the sofa chastising poor Aunt Edna for not attending church regularly. Great-grandma can’t stop discussing her latest health issue, down to the gory details of her colostomy bag. Yippy, it’s Thanksgiving, a time for family.

While diet and exercise get the bulk of media attention around living a healthy life, stress reduction is another important topic that deserves attention as stress contributes to a host of physical problems and chronic diseases.

As we begin the holiday season, stress levels begin to escalate. And while time with family can be a wonderful thing, it doesn’t always work out that way.

Michael and I have been married for almost 15 years. While we have good relationships with both sides of the family, that doesn’t mean holidays have always been drama-free.

The following are our life lessons on how to enjoy a stress-free holiday.

Lower your expectations.

Every family is dysfunctional. The way the dysfunction manifests itself is unique to each family, but it’s there. Even The Brady Bunch was only perfect on camera. Behind the scenes Mrs. Brady was having an affair with Greg, Mr. Brady was hiding his homosexuality, and Marcia had a drug habit. Perfection doesn’t exist and expecting it from your family is unrealistic.

Expect Uncle Ralph’s stories of Vietnam, Cousin Suzy’s zest for all-things religious and conversations with great-grandma about her health, and have a plan for dealing with those situations. Accept the realities of your family—quirks and all—because no matter how hard you try, you cannot change your relatives. Acceptance is a beautiful thing.

Don’t be a part of the problem.

Another way to say this: keep your pie-hole shut. This tactic is easy for me, I come from a long line of conflict-avoiders. In most cases, burying your feelings is not productive, but the Thanksgiving table isn’t the setting to discuss personal disagreements with your mom, sister, uncle, or grandmother. And if they think it is, change the subject. Do not engage. Excuse yourself from the table if you have to, but bite your tongue, shove some turkey in your mouth and don’t take the bait. You can always spit on their food later. Or, if you’re more mature than me, engage in a healthy discussion of your differences in a more appropriate setting.

Create some opportunities for alone-time.

Go for a walk, read a book, go see the latest blockbuster at the theatre, get some Christmas shopping done. Whatever your pleasure, schedule some time apart. There’s no rule that says every moment must be shared with family. Everyone benefits from a little breathing room. 

Plan and communicate your schedule ahead of time.

Sometimes it’s not the drama that’s stressful, it’s logistics. Many families have step-children, ex-husbands and ex-wives and coordinating the activities between all the various relatives feels like a scheduling problem only NASA could solve.

Don’t leave the plan for the day up in the air until the last minute. Get the schedule set ahead of time, including when you need to leave, and let everyone know in advance what to expect.

And if you are hosting the big meal, flexibility on timing will go a long way in easing the tension for those that are juggling multiple meals with several families. For example, the last several years, my family has celebrated Thanksgiving on Friday because it was more convenient for everyone involved.
Just say no.

If the entire production seems too daunting, bail completely. When Michael and I were first married and traveling full-time for our jobs, we told our families we wouldn’t join either of them for Thanksgiving. That was the one time of year we were taking for ourselves, a lovely four-day weekend to relax and reconnect.

With that I wish everyone a Happy, Stress-free Thanksgiving.

I won’t be posting any new blogs next week as I’ll be traveling with my family. In celebration of my mom’s 70th birthday the entire clan is headed to the eastern Caribbean for a seven-day cruise. I’ve packed my workout clothes, gym shoes, and will power. I think I’m ready.

Tuesday, November 16

Thanksgiving Side Dishes—The Agony and the Ecstasy

Mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, green bean casserole, sweet potato soufflé. Who cares about the turkey? For me, Thanksgiving is all about the sides.

The trouble is, those dishes are loaded with calories.

Yes, it’s only once a year, but Thanksgiving is the start of holiday season. If I overindulge now I’m more likely to let my guard down until the first of January, when, once again, I’d have to reacquaint myself with the gym and join thousands of others on the long journey of reversing the damage.

My goal this season is simple: maintain the status quo. Losing weight is completely unrealistic, but not gaining—that I can do.

With that in mind, here are my tips for enjoying Thanksgiving without going up a pant size.

Don’t starve yourself waiting for the big meal.

Seems like a good strategy doesn’t it? Saving all your calories for dinner. But it’s like having one more drink at the office Christmas party. It sounds like a good idea at the time, but it rarely works out well.

Bellying up to the Thanksgiving buffet on an empty stomach is a disaster waiting to happen. Eat during the day, preferably some protein and fiber to fill you up, and drink plenty of water. You’ll have better control over your choices if you’re not starving.

Channel your inner toddler—be picky, very picky.

You don’t have to sample everything, pick your favorites and skip the rest. There are plenty of foods I don’t care for, pumpkin and pecan pies for example, so I skip them entirely. Mashed potatoes are tasty, but I can have those at other times during the year. But my mom’s sausage stuffing and my brother-in-law’s butternut squash soufflĂ©, well, those are once-a-year events. I’d rather have a small portion of those than waste my calories on boring old potatoes.

Watch your portion sizes and stick to one plateful.

It’s tempting to go back for seconds, even thirds, but the best part of Thanksgiving is the leftovers. You’ll be seeing everything again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. So don’t go crazy on day one. There’s plenty to go around.

Don’t skip the gym.

Maintain your exercise routine as much as possible to help burn those extra calories. If you can’t get to the gym, how about a walk around the neighborhood before the tryptophan in the turkey kicks in and you conk out on the sofa?

Switch to some healthier side dishes.

Maybe it’s time to reinvent Thanksgiving. Offer some healthier options and see what happens. Below are recipes for two of my favorite side dishes. I’ve been serving these for 15 years to rave reviews. Maybe they’ll become one of your Thanksgiving staples too.

Roasted Vegetables (adapted from a Food & Wine Nov. 1995 recipe)

Serves 8

4 Tbls. olive oil
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 4 wedges
2 large red onions, peeled and cut into 8 wedges, root ends intact (this helps hold the onion together)
1 large eggplant, stem trimmed off, quartered, and then each piece cut in half lengthwise
2 large red peppers
2 large yellow peppers
4 fresh rosemary sprigs*
4 fresh thyme sprigs*
Kosher salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 375.

1.     Pour 2 Tbls. of olive oil into a roasting pan. Add the sweet potatoes and red onions. Turn to coat them in the oil. Season with salt and pepper.
2.     Cook for 1 hour.
3.     Remove from the oven and increase the temperature to 450.
4.     In a separate bowl add 2 Tbls. olive oil, eggplant and peppers, turn to coat in the oil and season with salt and pepper.
5.     Push the sweet potatoes and onions to the sides of the roasting pan.
6.     Add the seasoned and oil-coated eggplant and peppers to the roasting pan.
7.     Add the rosemary and thyme sprigs.
8.     Cook for 40 mins., until the peppers are blistered and the other vegetables are tender.

*Note: You can use dried herbs too. I would recommend crushing or chopping the dried rosemary so the texture isn’t so pointy and sharp, which isn’t terribly delightful to eat.

**This entire dish can be made hours ahead of time and left to rest on the counter to reach room temperature.

Kale with Sherry (from Food & Wine Nov. 1995)

Serves 8

3 pounds of kale, stems trimmed (I know it sounds like a lot, but it shrinks down to nothing!)
2 Tbls. peanut oil
3 large garlic cloves, minced
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper
2 ½ Tbls. sherry
2 Tbls. soy sauce
2 tsp. Asian sesame oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 Tbls. sesame seeds

1.     Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
2.     Add the kale by the handful, pressing it down into the water with a wooden spoon.
3.     When all of the kale has been added, stir well and boil over high heat until the kale is tender, about 5 minutes.
4.     Drain the kale in a colander, pressing it with a spoon to extract all of the liquid.
5.     When the kale is cool enough to handle, cut it into 2-inch pieces, removing most of the stem. (Even cooked the stem is really tough, so discard as much as possible leaving only the leaves.)
6.     Transfer it to a heatproof serving dish.
7.     Heat the peanut oil in a small skillet over medium heat until hot.
8.     Add the garlic and crushed red pepper. TURN OFF THE HEAT AND REMOVE THE PAN FROM THE HEAT SOURCE.  Continue cooking the garlic, stirring constantly until it’s fragrant, about 2 mins. (Be very careful, the garlic burns easily.)
9.     Add the sherry, soy sauce and sesame oil to the skillet.
10.  Pour the dressing over the kale, season with salt and pepper and mix well.

(You can make this dish up to this point a day ahead of time. Cover the kale and refrigerate.)

When you’re ready to serve it.

11.         Pour 2-3 tablespoons of water over the kale, cover with foil and bake at 400 for 20 minutes.
12.         Toast the sesame seeds in a skillet over medium-low heat for 3-4 minutes until golden brown. (Or, put them on a plate in a toaster oven and hit the “toast” button.)
13.         When the kale comes out of the oven, sprinkle the sesame seeds over the top and serve.

Thursday, November 11

Food Spotlight: Soda vs. Coffee (Part 2)

Coffee and purple leopard print jammies,
 now that's a good morning!
I love coffee.

No, scratch that. My passion for the dark, hot brew goes beyond love. I need coffee. As the molten liquid makes its journey down my throat, it warms my soul, lifts my spirits and raises my IQ by about 50 points. Without it, I doubt my ability to walk, talk, or even breathe. Asking me to forgo my morning ritual is akin to asking rapper Eminem to stop swearing. It’s just not going to happen.

While I might be a bit biased toward my favorite beverage, I do strive in this blog to be objective. So let me start with the bad news regarding coffee, because nothing is perfect, and coffee is no exception.

The most common complaint regarding coffee is the “jitters.” Too much caffeine can produce anxiety, restlessness, irritability, insomnia, and in some people, it can raise their blood pressure. Coffee is also acidic, which can cause stomachaches, heartburn and reflux.

Lesser known issues with coffee are the following:

  • Women who use hormone therapy and drink six cups or more a day have an increased risk of Parkinson’s Disease.
  • High amounts of coffee may affect a woman's fertility and possibly contribute to miscarriage.
  • It interferes with iron and calcium absorption.
If you’re sensitive to caffeine and/or acidic foods, then coffee probably isn’t a good choice for you. (Although you could try dark roasted coffee. The darker the roast the less caffeine and acidity.)

For those of us blissfully unaffected by the acidity and thriving on the caffeine, on to the good news.
Unlike soda, coffee is a natural substance and has almost 2,000 different components, including micronutrients such as magnesium, potassium, niacin and vitamin E. And it’s loaded with antioxidants. Researchers aren’t sure why but they believe it’s the antioxidants in coffee that contribute to a reduced risk of diabetes for regular coffee drinkers.
Additionally, according to WebMD, “…people who drink coffee on a regular basis are up to 80% less likely to develop Parkinson's…at least two cups daily can translate to a 25% reduced risk of colon cancer, an 80% drop in liver cirrhosis risk, and nearly half the risk of gallstones.”
And, the Mayo Clinic notes, “Results from at least four studies suggest that coffee drinkers have a decreased risk of Alzheimer's disease.”
Can I get a "woo hoo"?!

I love it when my vices turn out to be healthy choices.

As with most things, moderation is the key. WebMD suggests no more than two cups a day. The Mayo Clinic defines moderate consumption as two to four cups a day.

I’ll take my cup of java over soda any day. In addition to the health benefits I get to say,
“Grande nonfat latte please,” when I’m at Starbucks, which is so much cooler than, “I’ll have a diet soda.”

I’m just sayin’.

Sunday, November 7

Pass the Tissues Please

It’s that time of year--cold season.

As I sat in bed last week, a mountain of tissues slowly building beside me, I bemoaned my fate. My body ached, my head pounded, and I produced enough goo to power the slime machine at the next Kids’ Choice Awards.

An impatient person, I wondered how to speed my recovery. Is resting really necessary or is it an excuse? Should I eat chicken soup or am I supposed to “starve a fever?” Should I load up on vitamin C? Or is all this nonsense and regardless of what I do, the cold will go away whenever it runs its course?

Confused about which cold remedies were truly helpful, I scoured the internet for answers. Here’s what I found.

Rest really does help

You’re lethargic, achy and tired, but you drag yourself to work anyway soldiering through the sniffles and stuffy head. Good idea?

Nope. Your body needs rest so it can focus on fighting the infection. Help it along by resting as much as possible.

Bottom line—Don’t be a hero. Hit the bed, snuggle under some blankets and catch up on Grey's Anatomy, Brothers & Sisters and Modern Family.

"Feed a cold, starve a fever" is just a myth

There’s no science behind this old wives tale. You should never starve yourself, but don’t force yourself to eat if you don’t feel like it. If you’re hungry doctors recommend clear broth, hot drinks and other fluids. Hot beverages help relieve nasal decongestion and fluids keep you hydrated.

Bottom line—Drink plenty of fluids and eat if you feel like it.

Chicken soup really is good for a cold

Mom was right. According to WebMD, “There’s some scientific evidence that chicken soup may help with healing and have mild anti-inflammatory effects. Studies have found that hot chicken soup can improve the ability of cilia, the tiny hair-like parts of the nasal passages, to protect the body from bacteria and viruses.”

Bottom line—Slurp away.

Mega-doses of vitamin C don't do a thing

In 2007 The Cochrane Library published a report stating that “high doses of vitamin C … starting after the onset of symptoms, showed no consistent effect on either duration or severity of common cold symptoms.”

What the? Yup, after analyzing several studies involving over 11,000 individuals the researchers concluded that vitamin C doesn’t help. It’s not harmful, but it’s not helpful either.

Bottom line—Drink orange juice if you like it, but it’s not helping you with the cold.

Unbelievably, drinking a hot toddy (hot tea, bourbon and honey) relieves nasal congestion

This was my mom’s favorite cold remedy. For her, not us.

I always assumed this was a bunch of crap. With four kids running around I figured mom just wanted to go on a bender for a couple of days, you know, to escape from us and watch The Sound of Music a couple dozen times. 

But according to WebMD, “If you're so congested you can't sleep at night, try a hot toddy, an age-old remedy. Make a cup of hot herbal tea. Add one teaspoon of honey and one small shot (about 1 ounce) of whiskey or bourbon. Limit yourself to one. Too much alcohol inflames those membranes and is counterproductive.”

Bottom line—Sorry for doubting you mom, but I’ll stick with the virgin drink anyway.

One final note, a recent study showed that individuals who exercised regularly were less likely to catch a cold. So your excuse about not going to the gym because you don't want to catch a cold from all the sickies there—yeah, that's not really valid. Use the hand sanitizer and keep working out. It’s your best defense.

Tuesday, November 2

Food Spotlight: Soda vs. Coffee (Part 1)

Soda drinkers versus coffee drinkers. It’s like Ohio State versus Michigan. Team Edward versus Team Jacob. Dog people versus cat people. You just like what you like. Right?

Well, I’m going to try and persuade the soda people to come over to the espresso side for their caffeine fix. It’s the better choice.

First, let me start with regular soda.

Who drinks this stuff anyway? It’s baffling to me that regular soda is still sold. It’s nothing but sugar, 10 teaspoons per can to be exact, which adds up to roughly 160 calories. Drinking three of those a day is an extra 480 calories and zero nutritional benefit. ZERO people!

You don’t care? Think about this. If you give up your 3-drink a day habit and change nothing else, you’ll decrease your weekly calorie consumption by 3,360 calories, which is almost equivalent to one pound of fat.

You could lose weight by simply giving up regular soda. I’m just sayin’.

Still not convinced? A study released last week by Diabetes Care found that people who drank as little as one regular soda a day had a 25% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Regular soda. It’ll make you fat and give you diabetes.

Now lets talk about diet soda, which gets a little trickier.

I can’t make the calorie argument since most diet drinks have zero calories. So let me start simply with the ingredient list for Diet Coke—carbonated water, caramel color, aspartame, phosphoric acid, potassium benzoate, natural flavors, citric acid and caffeine.

Yeah, there’s nothing I like more than the refreshing taste of potassium benzoate and a splash of phosphoric acid. Yum.

You don’t care you say? You like that slightly metallic taste and the bite of artificial sweetener? Alrighty then, let’s move on to science.

There have been countless studies on artificial sweeteners and their correlation to health. The data is often contradictory and sometimes, highly controversial. For example, an Italian paper argued that aspartame caused cancer in rats. But, the National Cancer Institute, the FDA, and other prominent health agencies state that no solid evidence exists linking artificial sweeteners to cancer or other serious health issues. They declare these substances safe for human consumption.

While they might be safe, scientists are finding unexplained linkages between diet soda drinkers and weight gain.

Taste distortion is one possible explanation. Artificial sweeteners are hundreds, sometimes thousands times sweeter than real sugar. Scientists theorize that these super-sweet substances have led to taste distortion. They have redefined “sweet.” This causes diet soda drinkers to desire highly sweetened and therefore, highly caloric foods, which lead to weight gain.
Behavior modification is another possibility. Consumers of diet sodas may overindulge in other areas of their life, believing that they’re saving a lot of calories by drinking a diet beverage. For example, they’ll go ahead and get the candy bar out of the vending machine since they’re chasing it with a Diet Coke. While the diet soda doesn’t cause the weight gain per se, it’s an enabler to bad behavior.
My final argument against diet soda comes from the San Antonio Heart Study. The study’s bottom line— individuals who consumed over three artificially sweetened beverages a day were twice as likely to be overweight or obese.  The researchers ended their paper with this statement:

“Such an association does not, by itself, establish causality. But it raises a troubling question, which can be answered only by further research: are [artificial sweeteners] fueling—rather than fighting—the very epidemic they were designed to block?”

Next week…the benefits of java.