More important than being a ‘foodie’? Being a ‘healthy foodie’

Last week I joined in a Facebook challenge to find out how much of a ‘foodie’ I am.

healthy foodie quiz

Click on through to take the test yourself, then come back and share your score in the comments section below

Of the 100 foods listed, I’ve only tried 53. And as such, am not much of a foodie at all.

Now this surprised me, as I (1) live in a city with lots of cultural diversity, (2) love to explore new recipes in the kitchen and (3) like to think of myself as a somewhat adventurous person.

Upon a bit more reflection, I realized the reason why my score was so average.

Of the 100 dishes listed, many were less-than-healthy (Pocky sticks and deep-fried pickles?) or included ingredients that are not ecologically sustainable (caviar and turtle soup, anyone?).

Rather than bemoan my ‘lack of foodie’ status, I decided to create my own ‘healthy foodie quiz’.

Of the 37 items listed below, (1) how many have you tried and (2) how many do you include in your weekly menu plan? Give yourself 3 extra points if any of those items are organic, wild-caught and GMO.

healthy foodie quiz

I’m happy to say that I scored 49 out of a possible 50 points on this quiz (perhaps a bit biased, since I wrote the quiz…). I’ll be adding gojii berries to my shopping list next week.

What does your ‘healthy foodie’ score say about you?

40-50;  You’re a healthy foodie rock star. You know the value of fuelling your body with nutrient-dense foods and are probably a dietician, nutritionist or healthy living blogger!

30-39; While your diet is fairly healthy, it wouldn’t hurt to brush up a bit on the benefits of including more nuts, seeds and healthy fats in your diet.

20-29; Time to get a bit more adventurous in the kitchen, I reckon. Start by adding one new-to-you food from the above photo each week. Search out ways to prepare it; Pinterest is a great place to find recipe ideas.

0-19; What the heck are you eating if you’re not eating the foods pictured above? (And was there an inverse correlation between your ‘foodie’ and ‘healthy foodie’ scores?)

Any other ‘healthy foodie’ items you’d like to add to my list?

Of the items on the original ‘Foodie’ quiz, what was the strangest one that you’ve sampled?

Did you know that improved nutrition can offset some of the most annoying symptoms of mid-life hormonal change? Just one of the issues we work on in my 40+ Female Online Group Fitness Program. Next session starts January 12, 2014. For more information and to be the first to hear all the registration details, subscribe to my email list NOW.

5 Reasons to Eat More Pumpkin

If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll already know that I adore pumpkin.

PumpkinTweets

Not just pumpkin pie (although it, along with pumpkin cheesecakeis one of my favourite desserts, especially with a drizzle of dark chocolate ganache…). Pumpkin quick breads and soups and curries and oats (try my recipe for Pumpkin Protein Oatmeal bars).

They also make a great backdrop for a family photo shoot…

eat more pumpkin

5 reasons to eat more pumpkin

  • Unlike many other starchy carbohydrates, pumpkin is low in calories (26 per 100 g; that’s about 1 cup of cooked, 1-inch cubes), has a small glycemic load (GL = 3) and and rich in dietary fibre (5 g per 100 g). That means that it’ll satiate you, keep you feeling fuller longer and provide fuel for your workouts without significantly elevating your blood sugars and triggering an insulin response. Try some in your pre-workout morning oats.
  • It’s full of Vitamin A, a powerful, all natural source of antioxidants important for maintenance of the integrity of skin membranes and vision. Just 100 g of pumpkin contains a little more than 7,300 mg of Vitamin A; well over 200% of your recommended daily allowance.
  • The seeds are naturally rich in phytosterols, plant-based chemicals which have been shown to improve heart health by reducing LDL cholesterol. They’re also an excellent source of the amino acid tryptophan, which converts to GABA (a calming, feel-good hormone) in the brain.
  • With 546 mg of potassium per cup (as compared to a banana’s 422 mg), pumpkin is a great post-workout electrolyte replenisher. Potassium helps restore the body’s balance of electrolytes after a tough workout and keeps muscles functioning optimally. Swap pumpkin for banana in your mid-day smoothie to up your potassium intake without elevating your blood sugars.
  • The key nutrient that boosts pumpkin to the top of the SuperFoods list is the synergistic combination of carotenoids. Carotenoids have been shown to decrease the risk of various cancers, including those of the lung, colon, bladder, cervical, breast, and skin. Just a half-cup serving of pumpkin provides more than 100% of your RDA’s for both beta- and alpha-carotene.

Now that you know WHY you should eat more pumpkin, head on over to my Pumpkin Pinterest Board for some tasty ideas you can whip up TODAY.

MorePinterestPumpkin

Do you have a favourite pumpkin recipe to share? Leave your link in the comments section below!

Wishing a Happy Thanksgiving to all of my Canadian readers. Are you having pumpkin pie for dessert today?

A 3-pronged approach to kicking food cravings

Last week we talked at length about the science behind food cravings (if you haven’t read that post, or need a little refresher on the hormones involved, take 10 minutes to read it now; we’ll be here when you get back ;) )

kicking food cravings

Given that (a) your brain rewards you with a little pleasure rush each time you consume sugary, fatty foods (that’s serotonin) and (b) your wildly cycling blood sugar levels urge you to eat more to return them to normal (that’s insulin), it’s not surprising that kicking food cravings is extremely difficult.

Combine that with (c) strong associations between certain types of foods and specific activities (for example, dessert on Friday and Sunday nights, soft drinks and licorice at the movies or pastries with afternoon coffee) and it becomes damn near impossible.

Let’s face it, sugary, fatty, processed foods are no different than the other stimulants we, as humans, become addicted to. To reduce the hold they have on you you need to treat them the same way you would a nicotine, alcohol or cocaine addiction.

The best way to combat the cravings? Recognize and treat the physiological, psychological and social aspects of the addiction.

Physiological:

Interrupt the roller coasted blood sugar cycling by eliminating sugary, fatty, processed foods for a minimum of 10 days. Longer is better (The Whole 30 approach suggests a minimum of 30 days), but taking it one week at a time is psychologically easier in the beginning. That includes natural (e.g., honey, agave nectar) and fake sugars (e.g., aspartame, sucralose); most create the very same insulin response as the real thing and even those that don’t (e.g., Stevia) continue to trip the pleasure centres in your brain.

kicking food cravings

By eliminating added sugars and processed foods you’ll be re-training your palate to enjoy things that taste less sweet. And don’t bother trying to make ‘healthier’ versions of your favourite sweet and fatty foods; this will only undermine your attempts to learn to enjoy unprocessed foods.

Some of you will say that it’s easier for you to just reduce sugar and processed foods than eliminate them entirely. You may be right, but I suspect that if you’ve tried that strategy and are still reading this post, it may not have worked for you :)

Don’t tell yourself that you’ll never eat chocolate again. You may very well be able to go back to enjoying occasional, small amounts of your favourite less-than-healthy food once you’ve normalized your blood sugars.

The first week will be the most difficult. Cravings will be intense, in particular if you don’t simultaneously address the psychological and social aspects of the addiction. Here are some tips to help you eliminate sugar.

Psychological:

Find other ways to get your serotonin high. Rather than using food to elevate your mood, try exercise, spending time with friends and family, participating in activities that you enjoy, shopping (within reason; I can’t begin to describe how fabulous buying a one-of-a-kind skein of hand-dyed yarn makes me feel…) or sex. All have been shown to spike serotonin production and increase mood and feelings of happiness.

Remind yourself that food is fuel. Not a reward for good behaviour or heaven forbid, exercise. Celebrate achievements by DOING things with family and friends rather than EATING something.

Social:

Break the associations between high sugar-high fat processed foods and social situations. If you can’t go to the movies without reaching for the Twizzlers, don’t go to the movies for awhile. If coffee shop visits with your girlfriends always include fresh baked pastries (even gluten-free pastries have too much sugar and fat…), take the visits elsewhere. If you head to the pub with your co-workers every Friday after work for pizza and beer, take a pass for a month (you see enough of them all week anyways!).

Replace the activities you associate with certain foods with new, food-neutral ones. If your friends and family give you grief, explain to them WHY you’re making these changes and encourage them to join you, for the good of THEIR health.

What’s your favourite tip for eliminating food cravings?

Do you find the physiological, psychological or social aspects of changing your diet the most difficult?

This is your body on sugar | the science behind food cravings

As a fitness professional, I hear a lot of food “confessions”.

science behind food cravings

Stock photo purchased from DreamTime

Here’s just a sampling of this week’s shares (names omitted and comments paraphrased to protect the innocent…);

“I have no self control when it comes to chocolate”

“Why can’t I stop at just one cookie?”

“I get the worst cravings for PopTarts just before I get my period”

“Gotta have that mid-afternoon coffee and donut to make it through the day

“I looked down from the TV to find an empty bag of chips on my lap. I don’t even remember eating them”

Frequently, these admissions are accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame and promises to exert more willpower in the future.

The thing is, willpower alone doesn’t usually lead to success. In my experience, willpower goes a lot further when one understands the underlying cause of the behaviour. And when it comes to food cravings, it’s all in your head.

Your brain that is. Your brain and the way your hormones communicate with it to direct your thoughts and actions.

The Science Behind Food Cravings

A long time ago human diets consisted primarily of plant matter and a little animal protein. Sugar, fat and salt were fairly rare commodities, although required for growth, reproduction and survival. Hence, human brains became wired to reward behaviours that resulted in the consumption of these scarce nutrients.

Not such a bad thing when sweet, fatty and salty were REAL foods (fruit, wild game, vegetables, seaweed) and difficult to come by.

Fast forward a few thousand years. The same reward circuitry exists, but the sweet, fatty and salty options available to us today are stripped of nutrition and readily available.

Think about eating something sweet, fatty or salty and the reward centre of your brain releases the pleasure-seeking hormone dopamine. Dopamine gets you excited about the possibility of eating a donut and motivates you to drive to the donut shop.

Eat something sweet, fatty or salty and your brain releases endorphins; opiate-like hormones that provide emotional relief, release stress and generally make you feel good.

science behind food cravings

Birthday cake makes me happy!

Repeat the ‘anticipation-satisfaction’ cycle a few dozen more times and presto, you’ve created a habitual response; the automatic craving for a specific food in response to particular triggers.

But it gets worse. In addition to stimulating the pleasure centres in your brain, sugar also triggers a cascade of hormonal responses in your soma.

Eat something sweet and your pancreas release insulin, a hormone that tells the cells of your liver, muscles and adipose tissues to store energy for future use.

If the sugar load is light and your body is sensitive to insulin, your pancreas will release just the right amount of insulin to return your blood sugars to their normal, healthy range. Since elevated insulin levels also have a satiety function, you’ll probably feel satisfied with your meal and leave the table without feeling hungry.

If the sugar load is heavy but infrequent your body’s insulin response will not be sufficient to remove the excess sugars from the blood and much of it will be stored as fat. As fat levels rise in the body, fat cells release leptin, a hormone that tell your brain that you’re “fat enough” and it’s time to eat less and move more.

If, however, the sugar load is both heavy and chronic (as it is for many modern humans) three very bad things happen;

(1) your body relies almost exclusively on sugar for fuel (fat stores go untouched)

(2) your brain stops hearing the leptin message (a condition known as “leptin resistance”) and continues to seek out sweet and fatty foods because it thinks you’re not fat enough

(3) your cells stop hearing the insulin message (a condition known as “insulin resistance” or Type 2 Diabetes) so your pancreas produces more insulin than necessary to remove sugar from the blood, thereby leading to blood sugar crashes and intense cravings for foods that will rapidly increase your blood sugar level (exactly the foods that caused the problem in the first place)

The only way to break the cycle (and undo the hormonal and metabolic damage) of cravings and addiction is to drastically reduce your intake of the offending foods; cookies, chocolate, chips and baked goods (to name but a few).

Now that you understand the science behind food cravings (the WHY), you’ll probably want some suggestions as to HOW to break the cycle. Because this post is too long already, I’ll keep you hanging until next week…

In the mean time, please check out this post on ‘trigger foods’ and share your tips and tricks for overcoming food cravings in the comments section below!

5 tips to get back on track after a week-long sugar binge

Today is the last day of birthday season. Between May 31st and June 10th there are three birthdays in my house. Three birthdays in just ten days.

get back on track

That means three birthday dinners (with wine pairings), three birthday cakes (with ice cream) and a variety of chocolatey gifts (from personal training clients!), loot bag treats (gummy worms and wine gums) and less-than-healthy nutritional choices. (And of course, three readings of Dr. Seuss’ Birthday book; our favourite family tradition!)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that sugar is my trigger food. Once I start down ‘sugar mountain way’, my ability to resist it gradually weakens until ice cream for breakfast no longer sounds like a horrifying idea. (I haven’t gone there yet, but only because we’re out of ice cream; thank goodness).

Given that (a) the weather is finally warm enough to wear summer clothes, (b) I’m tired of the sugar-induced lethargy and (c) I’ll be seeing 300 fitness friends at a fitness bloggers conference in just over two weeks, it’s time to get back on track.

Want to know my 5 tips to get back on track after a week-long sugar binge?

  1. Eliminate all added sugar immediately. For me, cold turkey is the only way to kick the sugar habit. Sugar is a drug. It stimulates the pleasure centres in your brain. Your brain likes to be happy and does whatever it can to get more sugar.
  2. Drink like a fish. Water that is. Water not only helps to flush your system of toxins, it also keeps your mouth busy and your belly from feeling hungry. My 12 ounce sippy cup is my new BFF.
  3. Eat vegetables for breakfast. Re-training my palate not to expect sweet foods at each meal is critical to overcoming sugar cravings. Thankfully, our kitchen vegetable garden is overflowing with kale, chard, spinach and arugula, making it easy to green up my scrambled eggs and protein smoothies.
  4. Move a little bit more each day. In addition to my regular strength and cardio workouts, I’ll be aiming for 30 minutes of walking each and every day. The extra 2500-3000 steps are not only good for my overall health, it will help me burn an extra 200 to 300 calories per day.
  5. Get a solid 8 hours of sleep each night. When I’m well-rested, my body rarely craves sweet and starchy foods. Sleep is also key to reducing the fat-stimulating effects of cortisol (given that I have three school-age children about to be released for ten weeks of summer vacation, my ‘stress’ hormone level is high enough).

Thanks so much for all of your birthday wishes!

Now I need some good ‘get back on track’ juju. Help a girl out? I’d love it if you’d Tweet me and use the hashtag #nosugar! The more often I’m reminded, the easier it will be!

Do you have any special tricks for getting back to healthy eating after a week or two of indulgences?

Share your best ‘get back on track’ tip below!

Ten things I’ve learned about fitness and nutrition at Cub camp

My daughter is a Cub Scout.

fitness and nutrition at Cup camp

In addition to weekly meetings, monthly hikes and quarterly bottle drives, Cub Scouts also go camping. A lot. And because Cubs are typically between the ages of 8 and 11, the parents of Cub Scouts regularly accompany them to camp.

As both the ‘accompanying parent’ and the volunteer food coordinator for three of this year’s camps, I thought I’d share some things I’ve learned about fitness and nutrition at Cub camp.

  1. You don’t need to go to the gym to get a great workout in. Hauling tents and sleeping bags and bin after bin of food is equivalent to a rigorous strength training workout. Hiking uphill in heavy, wet snow burns more calories than an hour of step class; especially if you have to drag a tired, resistant child much of the way. fitness and nutrition at Cub camp
  2. When cooking for a large group in a foreign kitchen, simple foods are best. Providing the un-assembled ingredients for morning oats, lunchtime wraps or dinner pizzas allows everyone to enjoy a healthy, nutritious meal without the cook having to cater to specific dietary needs (or diners to go without because they weren’t sure what type of sauce was used on the chicken or because they simply have a ‘non-adventurous palate’)
  3. Resist the ‘weekends are for splurging’ mindset. Dessert doesn’t need to be served with every meal. Excess sugar and empty calories ultimately put a damper on weekend fun by making us too tired and cranky to enjoy our time with family and friends.
  4. Graze on healthy snacks when meal times are spaced irregularly. At Cub Camps, we set up a ‘grazing table’, laden with fruit, nuts, cheese and cereal bars and have found this practice to greatly reduce pre-dinner melt downs (by children and parents, alike ;) ).
  5. Choose a room (or set up your tent) as far from the centre of activity as possible. You’ll not only sleep better, but you’ll also have to walk more throughout the day. Note, however, that snorers also tend to frequent the periphery so remember to pack ear plugs.
  6. When food is served buffet style and you didn’t have a hand in it’s preparation, choose raw over cooked. Fill your plate up with salad (go easy on the toppings and dressing if you’re watching your calories or fat intake) and raw vegetables, rather than the cheaper, and nutritionally impoverished white rice, pasta, mashed potatoes and french fries that typically accompany meals prepared for large groups. Your digestion will thank you in the days ahead (if you do indulge, see point #8 below).
  7. Plan an activity that requires big muscle movement between dinner and bedtime. At camp, dinner tends to be the largest meal of the day. Thankfully, a rousing campfire, replete with action songs, skits and cheers is a tradition with Cubs and Scouts. Don’t be that parent who sits in their chair watching the activity. My kids love it when I’m stomping and clapping and dancing with them!
  8. Learn how to operate the coffee machine. Institutional coffee is often weak and watery. On a weekend when your fibre intake is lower than usual, a good strong cup of joe can help kick-start a sluggish bowel and return you to regularity.
  9. Get back to your regular routine ASAP. Because food and fellowship often go hand in hand, it’s unlikely that you’ll make it home without having sampled something sugary, salty, fried or processed (s’mores and brownies are my achilles heel). Ditch the guilt and get back to your routine. Immediately.
  10. Processed food is for the birds. Even seemingly healthy processed snacks can be laden with sugar, fat and salt, not to mention unpronounceable chemicals and preservatives. Take a page from the Cub’s handbook and feed them to the birds!

fitness and nutrition at Cub camp

Do you have a favourite indulgent camp food?

How do you ‘get back on track’ after a weekend of missed workouts and nutritional missteps?

Are you an urban gardener? 8 reasons to grow your own greens

Of all the delights that spring brings with it (goodbye snow shovels, winter boots, hats and mitts; hello tank tops, sunglasses and flip flops!), my favourite is being able to return to urban gardening.

grow your own greens

Although coastal British Columbia’s growing season is not long or hot enough for tomatoes (or cucumbers or peppers or melons) :(, there’s plenty of time to grow your own greens.

Every spring, once the danger of frost has passed, my family and I make the trip to our favourite garden centre in the valley to purchase the seedlings that will keep us in salads until mid-October. Kale, swiss chard, spinach, arugula, romaine. Multiple varieties of each along with parsley, cilantro, oregano, thyme and basil; herbs for dressing our greens and marinading the fish fillets and steaks we’ll soon be grilling on the barbecue. Yum!

(Of course, I don’t need to remind you that salad greens are chock full of vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants and fibre and they’ll help you meet your daily quote of 7-8 servings of fruits and veggies…)

Don’t think you have enough space to grow your own greens? Think again! We grow our vegetables in 4 x 8 wooden boxes and large ceramic pots, filled with organic soil and set upon cement blocks to allow for proper drainage. A sunny, sheltered spot works best.

grow your own greens

Not convinced yet? Here are 8 reasons to grow your own greens

  1. They’re fresher (5 minutes from garden to table) and tastier than store bought greens.
  2. Because you’ve grown them yourself (either from seeds or pesticide-free seedlings) you can be confident that they won’t be covered with pesticide residue
  3. You can easily source non-GMO seeds and seedling varieties
  4. They are far cheaper than store bought greens (last week I paid $7 for a large package of organic spinach; a packet of seeds can be purchased for $1 and will last you all season)
  5. Home grown greens don’t need to be driven to market and easily fall within the guidelines of the ’100-mile diet’
  6. There’s no packaging to throw out or recycle
  7. Tending to plants is a relaxing, almost meditative activity
  8. Your children can help. Think of it as ‘cultivating’ the next generation of urban gardeners! (I’ve also found that my children are much more willing to eat vegetables that they’ve helped to grow)

grow your own greens

Are you an urban gardener?

What are your favourite crops to grow?

Kale salad starter | food prep makes healthy eating easier

Last Sunday we were invited to two Easter celebrations; brunch at my sister’s and dinner at the home of one my husband’s colleagues. Both hostesses asked if I would bring a green salad. No problem; salads are my thing :).

kale salad

Since I knew I’d be short of time on Sunday morning (only 15 minutes between teaching group step and having to leave the house for brunch), I decided to prep both dishes the night before and, to make it even easier on myself, make the same recipe to take both places (eat once, dine twice (or even thrice) is my kitchen mantra).

Given that I didn’t want to show up with a soggy salad, my green of choice was kale.

kale salad

Kale is unique among salad greens in it’s ability to happily sit in a bath of lemon juice and olive oil for days at a time without wilting and loosing it’s structural integrity. Can’t say that about spinach or romaine…

As I washed and chopped and massaged a rather large mound of kale leaves, I was reminded of the sourdough bread ‘starter’ my mom used to keep in the fridge (did your mom have one too?). Rather than starting each batch of bread from scratch, she’d remove a portion of the batter to bake with, returning the unused batter (after ‘freshening it up’ with extra flour and milk) to the fridge for another day.

Why not a kale salad starter? Prep your kale on Sunday and enjoy a variety of fresh kale salads all week long! Not sure what to add to your starter? Check out my kale salad Pinterest board. Just a few of the recipes that have made my mouth water recently!

kale salad

Steps for making your own kale salad starter

  1. Wash and ‘de-spine’ 3 or 4 bunches of kale. Don’t be afraid to combine varieties! Curly green and large leaf purple are my favourites!
  2. Remove excess water and chop leaves into bite size pieces.
  3. Whisk olive oil, lemon juice and crushed garlic together in a large glass or stainless steel bowl (my preferred ratio of olive oil to lemon juice is 3:1; feel free to alter these amounts and add as much, or as little garlic as you can stand)
  4. Add kale leaves to bowl.
  5. Using hands, ‘massage’ marinade into leaves, squeezing and crushing kale for 2-3 minutes, or until it starts to soften and darken slightly, in colour. (This is my favourite part; it reminds me of making mud cakes in my sandbox as a child…)
  6. Cover greens with a tea towel and place in the refrigerator overnight.
  7. Use kale salad starter in your favourite kale salad recipe!

My over-zealous Sunday kale prep kept us in kale salad for five days! Good to the last bite!

Have you ever made a kale salad?

What are your favourite kale salad toppings?

Healthy living motivation and inspiration | I’ll take mine without the judgement please

A couple of weeks ago I ran into a friend and fellow fitness professional at the grocery store. We stopped and chatted for a few minutes about teaching schedules and the gym and our children. Just as I was about to end the conversation and continue with my shop it happened.

Her eyes briefly left mine to skim over the contents of my grocery cart. When her gaze returned upward I knew immediately that I’d been JUDGED; judged and found lacking by the food that I’d chosen to feed my family.

motivation and inspiration

My gut reaction was to defend myself.

We’re having company over for brunch. I don’t usually buy bakery cinnamon buns. That whipping cream was for a special dessert. Those are turkey hot dogs, made without nitrites and preservatives. Why don’t I have more produce in my cart? I never buy produce at this store; it’s fresher and less expensive at the green grocer’s down the street. This isn’t what a ‘normal’ shop looks like.

But I held back, not wanting to acknowledge and validate my friend’s judgemental behaviour or create a scene by telling her what I really think of fitness professionals who look down their nose at people whose choices aren’t one hundred percent perfect, one hundred percent of the time.

Do they really think that judgment serves to motivate and inspire?

As a healthy living blogger and personal trainer I frequently dispense information about fitness, nutrition and making better choices when it comes to eating and exercise.

But what my readers and clients DO with that information is entirely up to them. I’m here to help, not judge.

Remember that the next time you see me in the grocery store and have the urge to run the other way lest I see the Doritos/ice cream/Oreo cookies/Twinkies in your cart. Your body. Your choice. Your health. End of conversation.

While we could all use a little healthy living motivation and inspiration, I’ll take mine without the judgement please!

Have you ever felt that your food choices were being judged by friends or relatives? What did you do?

Fitness professionals, have you ever run into clients at the grocery store and had them ‘rationalize’ the contents of their cart to you?