Monday, February 21

My Not So Skinny Genes

Here’s a picture of some of my female ancestors.

Besides their sunny disposition, notice anything about them?

My family tree is littered with these hardy, solid looking women. I do not come from the genteel class. My female ancestors didn’t spend their days fox hunting, attending glamorous soirees or traveling through Europe shopping for art. They were plowing fields, managing the kitchens of the rich and sewing dresses for the aristocracy. Manual labor put roofs over their heads and food on the table and they were built accordingly.

Their DNA inhabits my body and while I’m proud of my working class roots, their propensity to pack on the pounds I could live without.

A lot of people like to blame their genes on their weight problems, but research is proving that your DNA accounts for very little of your health issues. A study in Denmark on over 3,000 Danish twins suggests that only 25 percent of health issues are genetic, the rest—75 percent—can be attributed to environmental factors. To lifestyle.

And then there are the Pima Indians of Arizona. These individuals have one of the highest levels of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in the world. Half of adult Pima Indians have diabetes and 95 percent of those individuals are overweight. To study the impact of lifestyle on these diseases, a research project compared the American Pima Indians with their Mexican counterparts living in a remote mountainous region in northwestern Mexico.

The researchers discovered the Mexican Pimas, living a traditional lifestyle of greater physical activity and lower consumption of animal fats, had significantly lower rates of obesity and diabetes—only 8% of the Mexican Pimas studied had diabetes (compared to 50% in the American population) and no one was considered overweight. The scientists concluded that despite a genetic predisposition toward these conditions, the healthier lifestyle of the Mexican Pimas trumped genetics.

The good news is that you’re in control of your health. The bad news is, you’re in control of your health!

It’d be so much easier to blame Great-Great-Great-Grandma Katherine for my large backside and call it a day, but that’s not fair. To her or me. While I have to fight to keep my weight in a healthy range, I do it and have done it for years.

It’s possible to triumph over your not so skinny genes, but it takes commitment and hard work. A sense of humor doesn't hurt either. Take a look at these broads.

Now those are some women I'm proud to call family!

Monday, February 14

To Weigh or Not to Weigh, That is the Question

Hamlet never contemplated this dilemma, what with obesity being a modern epidemic. Plus, his weight was the least of his worries. He was too busy plotting Claudius's murder to bother with counting calories or making sure he got in his daily hour of jousting.

My life is much simpler than a Shakespearean tragedy, so whether or not to weigh myself is exactly the type of question that occupies my mind.

In a very unscientific poll, I asked several girlfriends what they thought about the scale. Did they weigh themselves or not? What I discovered is that people are passionate about this issue and they fall decidedly into one of two camps—either they love the scale or they hate it. There is no gray area. It's like dog people versus cat people, Republicans versus Democrats, creationists versus evolutionists. 

I’m a scale-lover. I find comfort in knowing exactly what my weight is. The daily reminder not only keeps me motivated to stay on track, but it also allows me to make immediate adjustments if I notice the number starting to creep up.

There are downsides of course. For one, my weight is never steady. It fluctuates daily which can be frustrating. Since the human body is two-thirds water this is a natural occurrence. Too much salt in my diet, “that time of the month” and certain medications can make me retain water, which will increase my weight for a day or so. To take this into account and make sure I don’t obsess about each ounce, I allow myself a 4-pound fluctuation range. As long as my weight bounces around within a four-pound range, I don’t worry about it. But if I gain five pounds and it doesn’t drop within a day or so, I know it’s a sign that I need to take a look at my lifestyle. Chances are I’ve allowed a bad snack habit to infiltrate my life or I’ve slacked off on my exercise routine and it’s time to take action before things get out of control.

These daily fluctuations contribute to the second biggest downside to a daily weigh-in. Weight loss does not happen in a straight line. There are ups as well as downs and that can be very de-motivating.
Which is why most of my friends are scale-haters.

When I asked if they weighed themselves they gave me the universal scale-hater response—lurching backward and wincing they shrieked, "Oh my God no! I NEVER weigh myself." 

You'd think I just asked them if they'd ever killed someone.

“Well then, how do you manage your weight?” I asked.

“I can tell by how my clothes fit and how I feel,” was the average scale-hater response.

And that’s perfectly valid. Weight is not the perfect measure of health.

While I respect my friends' opinion and feel their position is reasonable, I will say that research has shown that people who weigh themselves frequently lose more weight and keep it off versus people who don't weight themselves regularly. 

The point of all this is that measurement is an important part of any weight loss program, (it's the "M" in the SMART goal methodology) but you have to find something that's comfortable for you. If you're a scale-hater, use your clothing as a guide or a tape measure to keep track of inches lost.

If you do choose to weigh yourself follow these tips:

      Weigh yourself in the morning before you eat breakfast
      Remember that daily fluctuations are normal
      If you’re female recognize that your weight will fluctuate monthly with your menstrual cycle
      Plateaus are common. Keep up your exercise and healthy eating plans and if you can’t break through the plateau seek advice from your physician to help diagnosis the problem.

    Thursday, February 10

    Does healthy lifestyle mean forever? Like, forever and ever?

    Driving toward downtown Richmond last Saturday to attend the Healthy Lifestyle Expo, I couldn’t help but wonder, "Who goes to these things anyway?" I mean I’m going, but I write about health and wellness topics, so duh, of course I’d attend. But who else will be there? Is the convention center going to be filled with health professionals, fitness buffs, yoga masters and dieticians? If it is I thought, it’s going to be like preaching to the choir. These folks are already on the healthy lifestyle bandwagon, not exactly the type of people that need an intervention. To get to real Americans and talk about healthy habits this event should be at Wal-Mart or Target.

    But to my surprise, the convention center was filled with normal people. Over 7,500 folks showed up to learn how to change their lives and start down the path to a healthier way of living. Plus, they got to see Dr. Oz.

    As I meandered the aisles looking at the companies showcasing their products and services, I was struck by the common theme among them—long-term, permanent changes. There were no diet pill suppliers or other quick-fix companies, the vendors embraced the “lifestyle” component of the expo and were there to educate the public about nutrition, fitness and specific diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

    For example, the VCU nutrition staff taught folks how to read a food label, American Family Fitness directed several fun fitness programs and Herb Mesa, a chef who competed in The Next Food Network Star, whipped up some fast, healthy food.

    Even Dr. Oz echoed the theme of the day saying, “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” and encouraged people to make three small changes toward a healthier life.

    1) Eat breakfast with either protein or fiber (e.g., oatmeal or eggs are good choices)
    2) Eat nutrient-rich foods to avoid hunger (e.g., no junk food or sugary, empty calorie snacks)
    3) Exercise a little each day

    The message is definitely getting out there—we need to make permanent changes to fight the obesity epidemic.

    While expositions like these are a great first step, we still have a long way to go. As I left the Expo I couldn’t help but notice the kiosk with the biggest crowd—McDonald’s.

    (heavy sigh)

    Tuesday, February 8

    Food Spotlight: Oatmeal

    There’s something about these cold, dreary winter days that make me crave comfort food. The gray skies and chilly air seem to propel me toward the couch. Like Linus I drag my blanket to the sofa, snuggle into the corner and surf the TV channels for a romantic comedy. The piece de resistance for my perfect afternoon would be a bowl of freshly made cookie dough at my side, or maybe a whole chocolate cake.

    I haven’t done that, thank God, but the desire’s there.

    Fortunately it’s sunny today, which lifts my mood and makes me think I can make it one more day without morphing into a cookie-dough-eating sloth.

    Since I know I shouldn’t eat like that, I’m always looking for substitutes. Looking for healthy options to satisfy my comfort food cravings. Lately, I’ve rediscovered oatmeal. It’s creamy, hot, and when I add a little brown sugar, fruit and nuts, it seems almost decadent. And oatmeal is one of those foods that’s ridiculously healthy for you. Not only is it loaded with vitamins and minerals but it’s also a great source of protein—a half-cup has 5 grams of protein, almost as much as an egg.

    While that’s fantastic, the real superstar in oatmeal is the fiber. Oatmeal is a whole grain and contains a specific type of fiber known as beta glucan. Study after study has demonstrated that this fiber lowers cholesterol.

    In fact, studies suggest that individuals with high cholesterol (above 220 mg/dl) can lower their cholesterol by 8-23% by consuming just 3 grams of soluble oat fiber per day (an amount found in one bowl of oatmeal). This is significant since each 1% drop in serum cholesterol translates to a 2% decrease in the risk of developing heart disease.

    Dr. James W. Anderson professor of medicine and clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine suggests that, “Whole-grain products like oatmeal are among some of the best foods one can eat to improve cholesterol levels, in addition to other lifestyle choices.”

    Oatmeal’s benefits go beyond reducing cholesterol. New research is uncovering benefits such as:

    ·      Reducing the risk for elevated blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and weight gain

    ·      Reducing the risk of developing breast cancer (Pre-menopausal women eating the most whole grain fiber (at least 13 g/day) had a 41% reduced risk of breast cancer, compared to those with the lowest whole grain fiber intake (4 g or less per day)).

    And here I thought oatmeal just made me feel warm and cozy on a cold winter’s day.

    Here are a couple of recipes to jumpstart your oatmeal consumption too. Enjoy!

    The Perfect Bowl of Oatmeal (according to the World’s Healthiest Foods website)
    (Serves 2)


                    2-1/4 cups water
                    dash salt
                    1 cup regular rolled oats
                    1/2 tsp cinnamon
                    1/4 cup dried cranberries
                    1/4 cup chopped walnuts
                    1 TBS flaxseeds
                    1 TBS blackstrap molasses
                    1 cup milk or dairy-free milk alternative

    1.   Combine the water and salt in a small saucepan and turn the heat to high.
    2.   When the water boils, turn the heat to low, add oatmeal, and cook, stirring, until the water is just absorbed, about 5 minutes.
    3.   Add cinnamon, cranberries, walnuts, and flaxseeds. Stir, cover the pan, and turn off heat. Let set for 5 minutes. Serve with milk and molasses.

    Here’s one for the kids. I know it sounds kind of gross, but they’re really good.

    Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies with chickpeas!
    (from Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious)

         Nonstick cooking spray
         1 c firmly packed brown sugar
         3/4 c trans fat-free soft tub margarine
         2 large egg whites
         2 tsp pure vanilla extract
         1 15 ounce can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
         2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
         2 cups flour
         1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
         1 tsp baking soda
         1/4 tsp salt
         ¾ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
         ¾ cup raisins (optional)

    1.     Preheat oven to 350. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.
    2.     In a large mixing bowl, or the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the sugar and margarine with a wooden spoon or on medium speed until smooth.
    3.     Beat in the egg whites and vanilla, then the chickpeas, chocolate chips, nuts and raisins.
    4.     Add the flour, oats, baking soda, and salt, and mix on low speed until a thick dough forms.
    5.     Drop the dough by the tablespoonful onto the baking sheet, spacing the cookies about 2 inches apart. Press gently with a fork to flatten.
    6.     Bake until the cookies are golden brown and just set, 11 - 13 minutes; do not overbake. Transfer to a rack to cool.
    7.     Store in an airtight container for up to 3 days.

    Note: I mash the chickpeas up a bit before adding them to the batter. They disappear better into the mix this way.