Friday, April 29

The Weight of Pancakes

“How many pancake restaurants does this town need?” I exclaimed as we drove through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Apparently they need 16.

And that’s within a 10-mile stretch of Hwy 71. That’s a pancake house every 2/3rds of a mile. Breaking up the 16 pancake establishments were 11 mini-golf attractions and seven go-kart facilities. If I hadn’t just left Smoky Mountain National Park, I would have sworn I was in Myrtle Beach. Or maybe Daytona.

Since we’re all about sampling the local culture, we asked about the best pancake restaurant and checked it out.
Amanda's "breakfast"

Amanda, my 13-year-old, indulged in this concoction. Chocolate filled crepes with Oreo cookies crumbled on top, bathed in raspberry syrup, topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with chocolate syrup. It wasn’t breakfast. It was dessert. Even her, a hormonally charged pre-teen, could only stomach a third of it before she pushed it aside.

After departing the pancake capital of the world, we went to my mother’s house in Lake Lure, North Carolina.

I love my mom. She’s the nicest lady you’d ever want to meet. But health food isn’t her thing. She likes sugary treats and she’s from Wisconsin, so cheese and butter are the foundation for almost every meal.

By the end our weeklong spring break I had eaten my share of unhealthy meals. Yes I could have restrained myself. But when other people are scarfing down pancakes, burgers, fries, Chex mix, and those pretzels she makes with the oil and the seasoning…I mean, I’m only human!

So I indulged.

Upon returning home I felt the after affects of my diet—sluggishness, bloat and the sensation that my entire body was covered in a thin layer of grease. Ick!

And this is my point. (I know, took me a while to get here.)

When people talk about why you should have a healthy diet they say it’s for disease prevention and weight loss. While those are worthy goals, what gets lost is the very significant benefit that healthy eating simply makes you feel good.

After a couple of days back on my normal diet of lean protein, fresh veggies and fruit, and limited refined carbohydrates, the greasy film covering my body disappeared, my energy level picked up and the sugar bloat went away.


It’s great to want to look good, but it’s even better to FEEL good.

Thursday, April 28

A Penny Pincher’s Guide to Buying Organic

I always try to do the right thing.

I hold the door for people behind me. I don’t interrupt when someone’s speaking. I say “please” and “thank you.” I eat my veggies and fruit. I work out.

But what happens when doing the right thing, like buying organic produce, is really, really expensive. Then what?

I’m conflicted on this topic. Take milk for example. A gallon of regular skim milk costs $2.88 at Costco. A gallon of Organic Lowfat Milk is $6. My family guzzles about three gallons of milk a week. So I could either spend $18/week or a little under $9.

I choose $9.

If money were no object I would buy all organic products. But until I win the lottery I have to be picky about what I’m willing to pay for and what I’m not. For me, organic milk doesn’t make the cut.

What about fruits and vegetables? I know there are some I should buy organic, but which ones?

Thankfully, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has put together two lists to help me figure it out.

Below are 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest amount of pesticides on them. They suggest buying the organic version of these. If you can’t afford to even the EWG recommends buying the conventional version because not eating them at all is far worse than any damage caused by leftover pesticides.

Produce high in pesticides. Buy organic versions of these if you can.
1.              Celery
2.              Peaches
3.              Strawberries
4.              Apples
5.              Blueberries
6.              Nectarines
7.              Bell Peppers
8.              Spinach
9.              Kale
10.           Cherries
11.           Potatoes
12.           Grapes (imported)

Next are 15 fruits and vegetables with minimal levels of pesticides. Don’t waste your money on organic versions of these. The conventional products are fine.

1.              Onion
2.              Avocado
3.              Sweet Corn
4.              Pineapple
5.              Mango
6.              Sweet Peas
7.              Asparagus
8.              Kiwi
9.              Cabbage
10.           Eggplant
11.           Cantaloupe
12.           Watermelon
13.           Grapefruit
14.           Sweet Potato
15.           Honeydew Melon

For more information visit EWG’s web site.

There you can download a pdf of these lists or their free iPhone app so you’ll have the information when you need it. In the grocery store!

Friday, April 22

The Tonic of the Wilderness

Last week I wrote about ways to relieve stress. In my research on the topic one element I didn’t find but should definitely be included is the balm of nature.

This week, on spring break with my family, we ventured to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With no iPods, iPhones and i-Whatevers to distract us, we immersed ourselves in the forest. Our LED-illuminated world was replaced with wildflowers, hemlock and spruce trees and mountain vistas. During a three-mile hike to Grotto Falls we crossed four streams, marveled at the beauty of nature and chatted amicably about whatever popped into our minds. Sometimes we simply enjoyed the silence.

Walking hand-in-hand with my eight-year-old daughter Janelle, she said, “There’s something really peaceful about nature Mommy.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I’m not alone in thinking that green space is calming. For centuries conservationists like John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club), Theodore Roosevelt and Henry David Thoreau have understood the importance of nature and worked to protect it.

Sadly as we’ve progressed as a society we’ve distanced ourselves from nature preferring to spend time indoors.

In 2005 Richard Louv published an interesting book called, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. In it Louv draws attention to the fact that we’re raising a generation of children that are deprived of the enjoyment and benefits of playing outside; benefits such as reducing stress, the symptoms of ADHD and increasing creativity and cognitive skills. He contends that to raise physically and emotionally healthy children they need contact with nature.

While Louv's book is directed toward children, he readily admits that nature has the same power for adults.

The solution to gaining the benefits of nature is straightforward and you don’t need to hike the Appalachian Trail, traverse the Grand Canyon or travel to distant forests. Find a local park and take a stroll. Breathe in the air, feed the ducks and listen to the wind blow through the trees.

As John Muir said, “Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

I'll leave you with a couple of photos from our adventure. Maybe these will lure you outside...

Hiking Grotto Falls trail
The trail goes behind the falls making the 1.4 mile hike
to reach it well worth the effort.

The kids behind the falls

Grotto Falls, Smoky Mountain National Park
The essence of the Smoky Mountains--water racing
down the mountain sides toward lower elevations.
Streams like this one litter the landscape.
It's absolutely beautiful.

Friday, April 15

Don’t Freak Out! Tomorrow is National Stress Awareness Day

I’m a worrier.

I worry about my kids getting the right nutrition and succeeding in school; that sex offenders live close by; that one day my beloved dog Snickers will die and I don’t know how I’m going to survive it; that my oldest daughter is 13 and will be dating and driving soon (which scares the crap out of me).

I even worry that maybe I’m not worrying enough. For instance, my youngest child watches a lot of TV, especially on the weekends. And I let it happen. That’s a problem, right? I should be concerned that she’s glued to the tube for five hours watching an entire season of Wizards of Waverly Place. I should be bike riding with her, teaching her a foreign language, pushing her to plant a garden. We should do something productive, right? I should care more.

But I kinda don’t. Which is a problem, right?

All this stress, worry, anxiety, whatever you want to call it, ends up in my neck and shoulders. I know this because they are permanently located right next to my ears. Which is why countless medical professionals have repeatedly advised me to meditate. I hear them. I nod my head in agreement. And I promise myself that, “This time, I’m going to do it. I’m going to make it a part of my daily routine.” And yet, it never happens. Meditating is just not my thing.

So, in honor of National Stress Awareness Day (appropriately on April 16, the day after Tax Day), I went searching for other ways to relieve stress. Ways that I might actually adopt that don’t involve sitting quietly in a room gazing at nothingness and waiting for a transcendent moment of clarity.

Here’s what I found.

  • Exercise: It really is the magic pill. And just about any form of physical activity can act as a stress reliever. Whether it’s gardening, house cleaning, jogging or kickboxing, just get your body moving to start releasing those feel good endorphins. For a more in-depth discussion of the amazingly strong connection between exercise and the brain, check out the book Spark by John J. Ratey, M.D. In his book Dr. Ratey discusses how exercise is our best defense against depression, ADD, menopause, Alzheimer’s, addiction and more.

  • Socialize: Do you like to kvetch to a friend after a tough day? Go ahead, connecting to family and friends actually releases a hormone called oxytocin, an anti-anxiety compound. So pick up the phone or go for a coffee date. You really will feel better.

  • Just say no! We are overcommitted, overscheduled and overworked. Enough already! We can’t do everything, so stop trying. Repeat after me, “I’d love to [chair the finance committee/run for president of the PTA/organize a fundraiser] but I can’t. Thank you so much for thinking of me though.” And then run. Fast.
  • Keep a journal. Writing is a fantastic release for pent up emotions. Don’t worry about creating the next bestseller, just let the words pour out of you, misspellings and all.
  • Pet the pooch. Dogs really are mans’ best friend. When you pet your dog your body releases serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin, all feel-good hormones. Your body also decreases the amount of stress hormones being released. Good hormones go up, bad ones come down. I knew I loved dogs for a reason.
  • Breathe. Really breathe. Deep breathing sends oxygen through your bloodstream helping to calm your entire body. And if you can, take a whiff of lavender or rosemary, both of those scents are known to lower your levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. 

Wednesday, April 13

Food Spotlight: Raspberries

With ten times the antioxidant activity as tomatoes, three times that of kiwis and 50% more than strawberries, raspberries are a powerful little red fruit.

Raspberries are special because they contain ellagic acid, a compound found in very few foods.

A lot of research is being conducted on ellagic acid since it fights free radical damage. These studies suggest ellagic acid may have anti-cancer effects against liver, esophageal, prostate and colorectal cancer.

Ellagic acid is highest in red raspberries at 1500mcg per gram of dry weight fruit. Strawberries have less than half that level at 639mcg, walnuts have 590mcg, pecans 330mcg, and cranberries 120mcg.

In addition to its potential as a cancer fighter, raspberries are also an excellent source of fiber, manganese, vitamin C, vitamin B2, folate, niacin, magnesium, potassium and copper.

All this goodness, but I hardly ever buy them. And I even like them.

My problem with raspberries is that unless I devour the package in the car on the ride home from the grocery store, they spoil. To say they’re highly perishable is an understatement. They last one day, two days max.

Lately, burned out from apples, bananas and grapes, I decided to try something different. I bought frozen raspberries.  

Luckily, freezing raspberries doesn’t significantly alter their antioxidant properties so I’m still getting all the benefits without the hassle of spoilage. (The one exception is vitamin C, which apparently gets destroyed by freezing. But I can drink orange juice for that.) And the best part is, frozen raspberries keep up to a year. A YEAR!

I’ve been indulging in a delicious raspberry smoothie as a snack. It’s creamy and thick and by using Greek yogurt I get 12 grams of protein which fills me up. Also, at roughly 140 calories this only seems like a diet splurge.

It’s healthy AND delicious. Give it a try.

Raspberry Smoothie (140 calories)

¼ cup frozen raspberries
½ cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt (I like the Fage brand)
1-2 tsp honey
2 Tbls of skim milk (add more if it’s still too thick)

Put everything in a blender and frappe away!

Friday, April 8

Panera Bread, The Solution for Picky Eaters?

We did something last night that we rarely do—we went out for dinner as a family.

I know, crazy right? We're this odd American family that eats at home 99 percent of the time. But now that my kids are getting older we've entered the phase of life where sports practices happen in the evenings, making meal planning a challenge. This was the first week of spring practices and it caught me a bit off-guard.

Our dinner choices were to either split three old meatballs, a moldy salad and some apples or dine out. Michael and the kids quickly chose the latter option, even after I suggested freshening up the meatballs with some parmesan cheese. What's wrong with them?

Since I'm a nutrition Nazi, I proposed Panera Bread, specifically to force Janelle, my eight-year-old I-only-eat-white-food child to try some new things.

Glancing at Panera Bread's menu guess what I saw? They have calorie information for every item on the menu. Right there. In black and white. Well, kind of beige and cream really, but there it is. They are way ahead of game and already in compliance with any FDA ruling about menu labeling. (See my previous post for more information on this.)

But that's not even what I'm really excited about. After Janelle finished her grilled cheese sandwich and yogurt (I know, not a huge stretch for her) she asked for a bite of Grant's tomato, mozzarella and basil sandwich. And she loved it! She even tried my creamy tomato soup and loved that too!

I almost cried. She ate tomatoes and basil—red and green food. Hallelujah!!

Maybe she's not a lost cause. Maybe, just maybe, if I keep putting healthy food in front of her she'll actually eat it?

The Mayo Clinic says that's a good plan. One of their tips for dealing with this troublesome bunch is to keep the healthy food coming. Eventually they'll give it a try.

If you've got a picky eater too, click here to view the Mayo Clinic's top ten list for dealing with them. And be strong. One of my greatest assets is my stubbornness, something Janelle doesn't appreciate, but I refuse to give in when it comes to her health.

Broccoli here we come!

Tuesday, April 5

Death to “Death by Chocolate”?

Back in college my roommate Kim and I would head down to one of our favorite restaurants for a decadent, sinfully rich dessert called Death by Chocolate. In our 20-year-old brains it was the perfect break from studying. Jacked-up on sugar, we reasoned, we would be more effective at memorizing physics formulas, calculus equations and all things math related. We didn't give a hoo ha about calorie-counts, sugar levels, fat content or any such nonsense. We were blissfully ignorant of our poor food choices.

With some newly proposed regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it's going to be harder to enjoy those types of treats guilt-free.

As part of the health legislation signed into law last year, the FDA announced new menu labeling requirements. The proposed regulation would require restaurants to post the calorie count for each item on their menus. This will impact an estimated 280,000 establishments including: restaurants with 20 or more locations, bakeries, grocery stores, convenience stores, coffee chains and even food sold in vending machines.

Now much older, wiser and with a significantly slower metabolism, I think this is a fabulous idea. 

Too many restaurants hide this information and they do it purposefully, knowing that their food is loaded with high-calorie ingredients like butter, oil and cheese. Requiring the information to be printed on the menu will make it impossible to hide the 2,000-calorie serving of lasagna, the 1,000-calorie cheeseburger and the 1,300-calorie goodie known as Death by Chocolate.

I’m hopeful this regulation will have a three-pronged effect.

1) Armed with good information, people will make healthier choices. (Except college students, they're hopeless.)

2) Restaurants will offer healthier, tastier cuisine.

Currently restaurants rely on fat (butter, oil, bacon, cheese etc.) to flavor food and don’t push themselves to develop flavor through other means. “Healthy” options are relegated to the back page of the menu and consists mostly of steamed veggies and uninspired broiled fish. No wonder no one wants to eat that stuff. With menu labeling, hopefully restaurants will see demand for new products and as always, money talks. If customers want it, they’ll provide it.

3) Supersized portions will go away.

One of the easiest ways to cut down on an item’s calorie count will be to reduce the portion size. This alone will go a long way to re-calibrating our sense of what a normal portion size is.

Of course, I don’t think it’s going to be perfect. There are always loopholes and my guess is the restaurant industry will find them. For example, I bet they’ll vary the serving size information. If they are required to post calorie count information but not at a specific serving size, then they can post whatever calorie count they want and adjust the serving size.  This is how that'll play out. They could post that a bowl of soup is 200 calories for ½ cup. That could be accurate, but they’ll fail to mention that what they’ll serve you is a two-cup portion. Meaning you’ll eat 800 calories. They’re technically following the guidelines, but not without some deceptive marketing thrown in.

I’m just speculating here, but I think if these rules go into effect consumers still need to be wary and read the fine print to understand what they’re eating.

In the meantime, download this app for your iPhone. It’s called Restaurant Nutrition and it’s free. Loaded with nutritional information for 200 restaurants and 30,000 food items, you can see the calorie count for your favorite menu item today.

P.S. The FDA is collecting comments on this proposed regulation for the next 60 days. If you'd like to submit a comment go here to read the press release and at the bottom of the page are the directions for submitting a comment. (Unfortunately, the directions for submitting a comment aren't working. I tried to comment this morning. Hopefully the government will fix this shortly. I plan on trying again later.)