Fun With Chia Seeds

ChiaSeedsI agree with this ABC news post that chia seeds have replaced kale as the “it food” this year. These tiny seeds, which most of us are more familiar with as giving Chia Pets their “hair” or “fur,” have gotten a lot of attention for being loaded with omega-3 fatty acids. They are also chock-full of protein and fiber, for few calories.

What’s the advantage of dumping some into your food? A nutrient boost, as well as fiber to help you feel fuller longer.

I decided to buy some on my last visit to Whole Foods, and then the experiment was on. My first stop: breakfast.

I added the chia seeds to fat-free Greek yogurt, along with honey, and I topped off this breakfast bowl with diced banana and strawberries. It was delicious, as you would expect honey and Greek yogurt to be, and the chia seeds added extra crunch. (Shout-out to ripe banana and strawberries as well.)

The interesting thing about chia seeds is that they become a bit gelatinous when exposed to moisture for a bit–which explains the paste you’ve seen slathered on Chia Pet heads in the past–so you could also consider them a thickener for whatever you ChiaYogurtwant to make. It is something to get used to, and I’d think that would be what would make this a love-it-or-hate-it superfood. I didn’t mind; my yogurt got a little thicker over the course of time, but was still enjoyable, partially because despite swelling to sport a gel-like coating, the crunch doesn’t go away from the seeds.

I purchased my bag of chia seeds on sale for about 6 bucks, but a bag can hover around the $10 mark, give or take a few bucks, from what I’ve seen from the other options at Whole Foods. (I’m still on my first bag after having made several meals with chia seeds now, though, so I think it’s worth the price when on the left side of $10.) I haven’t explored yet whether chia seeds have hit the regular grocery stores of if they’re still a specialty item to be found at health food stores, but I imagine they’ll make their way to a Pathmark, Ralph’s, or Publix near you soon. (Wheat germ is still on the shelves after making its debut in 1936, according to this New York Times article, so why not?)

Chia seeds seem like they’d be a little more shelf-stable than wheat germ and, from what I understand (without having tried them), flax seeds.

Interested in adding chia seeds to your meals? Let you know what you come up with! I’ll have more recipes to share here soon myself.

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Healthy and Convenient? Here, It’s a Yes

On the Friday before Super Bowl Sunday, I had jury duty. Basically I sat around for four hours, watching morning shows and reading from the Sherlock Holmes anthology. (High point: learning five ways to make nachos from Rachel Ray for guilty pleasure moments. Low point: when a couple of potential jurors spoiled some Downton Abbey plot points for me.)

When the jury pool’s “babysitter” announced that it was time for lunch, I happily left the courthouse, not just in excitement at the opportunity to stretch my legs, but also because I was excited to check out the restaurant offerings in the area.

The courthouse is nestled in a quaint, burgeoning trendy community, with lots of restaurants. I wanted to check out a Mexican place (naturally), but I ended up going to a local produce/food spot instead.

I had duck confit and a parsnip salad, both delicious. While I was savoring the food, and marveling at the fact that I would get a juror discount for it, I overheard the owner say that she was opening another location in a suburban shopping center…and that it would have a drive-through window.

It sounded like an interesting idea: fresh ingredients, local food, available for a few bucks (she was planning for a lower price point than the restaurant I was in) and a quick lean out my driver’s side window for it all? I would love to check it out.

This restaurant would be taking over an old KFC building, which explains the drive-through window. I don’t how many restaurants there are like this, but I hope to see more of them.

Imagine how much easier it would be to eat healthy if you could get something healthy–food as close to your own cooking as it gets, food that doesn’t have “extreme,” “super,” or “grande” in the name–quickly and with little effort. (This is me assuming that the restaurant won’t cut corners with its new endeavor.) I would love to have options besides rotisserie chicken or salad, and I would love for it to cost less than Whole Foods. (I gotta say that Trader Joe’s has economical options that come together with minimal effort, but unfortunately I don’t have one nearby.)

I’d like to think that I’m not wishful thinking. If I had a wand to wave, I’d turn food deserts into healthy food oases, and I’d have a convenient, wallet-friendly healthy eating spot next to each regular fast-food joint. It would be nice if our neighborhoods actually reflected the healthy environments that we claim to want.

In the meantime, I’ll have to track down this mythical healthy drive-through and see if the reality lives up to my imaginings of it.

Start a Love Affair With Food

Eating is serious business, no? As we gear up for Valentine’s Day, who e’ll likely have visions of sumptuous meals to share with loved ones…or maybe visions of something tasty and a single fork or spoon if we are trying to treat ourselves independent of the holiday.

There’s clearly a sensual component to eating. All of our senses can be employed: the sound of a sizzling fajita plate; the scent of your favorite food instantaneously entering your nostrils and unlocking memories as soon as you enter your family home for a holiday meal; the tantalizing sight and taste of your favorite food; the feel of the tender morsel of crab that you gently pull from the shell, or the weight of a juice-laden orange in your hands. Good food grabs ahold of your brain and takes up residence there, in your short-term and long-term memory.

And yet we sometimes try our hardest to run on the opposite direction from the aspects of dining that are more art than science. In Michael Pollan’s noteworthy book In Defense of Food, he shares that President Martin Van Buren lost his re-election bid, in part, because he had hired a French chef for the White House, a move that was seen as being too highbrow, too focused on food as something other than fuel.

I have written about relegating food to fuel status, but I’m learning that making the experience enjoyable and treating the food lovingly, rather than giving it a cursory once-over with your utensils, goes a long way, even for healthy food. As does sharing a meal with someone you love. If you’re partnered up for Valentine’s Day, when it comes to your first date, the combination of the restaurant, the food, and the conversation–the experience in its entirety–all made the event memorable.

Tomorrow, many of us will smile a little brighter when we think of Valentine’s Day. If you don’t already have a love affair with food–eating the best ingredients, opting for flavorful accents whenever possible, or otherwise paying attention to the quality of the food you eat–why not start on one of the most love-focused days of the year?

Kick Up the Flavor to Eat Less?

I read an interesting New York Times article a few weeks back, which said that people may be less likely to overeat if they are eating foods with strong flavors. The theory, posed by food author Peter Kamitmsky, is explored in his new book, Culinary Intelligence: The Art of Eating Healthy (and Really Well). He shares the idea of FPC, or flavor per calorie, encouraging people to eat more foods that have bold flavors in fewer calories (and to avoid high-calorie foods that are more bland).

Foods he likes: anchovies, chickpeas, capers, plain yogurt, olive oil, roasted almonds, bacon, butter, Italian sausage and dark chocolate. The New York Times author points out that Kaminsky is promoting small quantities of some of these foods, like a few crumbles of sausage or bacon in a lentil stew.

I don’t think this concept is suggesting something totally off the wall. I agree that it’s more satisfying to eat foods that richly satisfy the taste buds, and it’s definitely important to find the intersection of flavor and modest nutritional profile to avoid weight gain. Here are a couple of ideas I’ve tried out recently to do just that:

Jalapeno mustard: I found this in the market, and as a lover of spicy foods, I had to give it a whirl. It tastes like regular yellow mustard, but with a lot more attitude. One teaspoon is 0 calories.

Salad rocking the jalapeno mustard vinaigrette, with a lunch of black-eyed peas and ham with rice.

What I’ve done with the mustard so far is to use it in a relatively light vinaigrette: 2T of the mustard, mixed with 1/2 T agave nectar and 1 T apple cider vinegar. It made a slightly sweet, all-bold presence in a salad made of spring greens, grape tomatoes and vidalia onion. I think it would also be good on a turkey hot dog, served on a light hamburger bun. Add pickled jalapenos to give it even more punch. I’d also like to try making a potato salad, with the jalapeno mustard in place of good old yellow, and some southwest spices, to take this picnic classic into a new direction.

Balsamic vinegar: I have had balsamic vinegar in my house for a long time, occasionally using it in sauces for chicken dishes, and making a pretty standard salad vinaigrette out of it. I love the rich, subtly tangy taste of it, but I didn’t know what else to do with it. Then I got a mint plant, and I my brain pulled into focus on a simple dessert idea that many people enjoy: strawberries and balsamic vinegar.

A handful of sliced ripe strawberries; a few leaves of mint, shredded; a packet of Splenda, and a teaspoon of the balsamic vinegar is all you need. Mix the ingredients together, and enjoy the complex richness of this simple meal-ender.

I second Kaminsky’s suggestions for bacon and dark chocolate. I’d also add cheese to that list. A tablespoon of real bacon bits on a salad can be yours for 30 calories. A small piece of dark chocolate, alone or with fruit, is a good dessert or pick-me-up snack. The same goes for an ounce of a flavorful cheese, like a smoked gouda, chipotle cheddar, or havarti with dill. You could eat the cheese with an apple to make this snack a little more substantial.

Tightened Wallet, Tightened Belt: It Can Happen

There are a couple of things going on in the news right now that raise good questions about the costs of healthy eating. First, the organization Live Below the Line recently completed a challenge asking Americans to try out living on $1.50 of food each day for five days. The significance of the figure is that this is the American equivalent of the extreme poverty line. (In reality, 1.4 million people around the world live below this line, according to Live Below the Line, an initiative of the Gobal Poverty Project.) The challenge was intended to make people aware of the difficulty some people face in finding nourishing food on this income, and to raise money for various organizations that fight poverty and hunger.

Also in the news is research from PruHealth in the UK reporting that Britons are less likely to spend money on healthy food in the down economy. The report uses data acquired this year from 2,000 respondents; compared to a similar study undertaken in 2008, the number of people who say they find it challenging to eat five fruits or vegetables a day increased by 12 percent. 75 percent of people said they have changed their eating and shopping habits, and 85 percent attributed this behavioral shift to rising food prices and the recession.

It’s not a secret that the cost of living has been on the rise for quite some time, but the challenging of eating healthy on a tight budget may come as a surprise to some of us. Notice I said challenging, but not impossible.

It concerns me that people think healthy eating is the province of the wealthy. But the reality is that one doesn’t have to shop exclusively at Whole Foods or some similar upscale store to become or remain trim and fit. Eating healthy for less does require a shift in where we shop and possibly what kinds of foods we buy, however. And for some, it most certainly requires better access to affordable, healthy foods–as this article states, the 6,500 “food deserts” that exist across the country pose a big problem to making this a reality. If the best deals at the corner store are on processed, prepackaged foods, and quality produce is a long commute away, it’s clear why some people will not or cannot spend time or effort on identifying the places where the best, budget-friendly  food can be found. I applaud the organizations that try to address this problem, and I hope that they will continue to make it easier for abandoned populations to get convenient, affordable access to nourishing foods.

During the course of my weight loss journey, I have come to shop more at discount stores, often reserving my traditional grocery shopping for things that simply aren’t carried at discount stores, like turkey pepperoni or light hot dog and hamburger buns. (I’m happy to say that the list of things I can’t find at discount stores has gotten shorter over the years; for example, Aldi now offers Greek yogurt, reduced fat cheese, and good knockoffs of Kashi cereals.) I put together meals every day using these items. There are viable healthy alternatives to be found with an open mind and a little ingenuity, and in my opinion, there is no need to halt your weight loss momentum if your take-home pay comes under siege by rising gas prices, health insurance premiums, or increased costs for any other necessity.

In the near future, I hope to complete a book on this topic, to share some of the things I’ve learned during my weight loss journey that have helped me to be successful while still being frugal. But in the meantime, I’ll say that research is key–knowing what’s in your local market, knowing when there are sales on things you actually buy, knowing how to combine meals for nutrition in a way that does not waste your purchases.

Yes, sometimes I round out my discount purchases with things like salmon or sirloin. Yes, things will be more challenging for someone who lives at or below the poverty line. But I believe that healthy eating is (and should be) possible at any income level, something that is vital for longevity and attainable for all.

Are you a frugal “big loser,” or are you struggling to lose weight and stay within your budget? Share your story here.

The Joys of “Permanent Beta”

I am exploring my future career path at the moment, and I recently picked up a new book, The Start-up of You, co-written by Reid Hoffman, co-founder and chairman of LinkedIn. One of the first things he says in the book that grabbed my attention is that nowadays, people need to consider their careers to be in a state of “permanent beta,” that it’s best to be adaptable and bent on keeping your skill set fresh with continual learning, if you want to be able to keep your options open and keep moving forward.

I agree with this sentiment for work, but I also agree with it for weight loss. Over the past few years on Weight Watchers, I have gone about with a mindset that I have one big push to make in order to lose weight, and then I settle into a thinner life, where my outlook on life and my perception of food doesn’t change. But in reality, as I’ve discovered over the course of the past nine months or so, change is necessary to keep moving the number down on the scale.

I have done a great job at maintaining my 40-lb weight loss, but you could say I haven’t done too much lately to shake up my approach for losing more. Here are three things I want to do to remind myself that weight loss involves ongoing monitoring and change:

Exercise. My excuse for avoiding exercise has been that I haven’t had enough time. But I’m working from home for the time being, so I have regained the time that had been devoted to my commute. Also, this recent New York Times article has further demolished my excuses, making it painfully clear to me that in 20 minutes, I can get in some respectable exercise. (Anything beyond 20 minutes is icing on the cake, says the author.) I can get in a lunchtime walk or mosey on down to the basement and dust off the elliptical machine that’s been patiently waiting for me. If you’re better at consistent exercise than I am, consider changing up  your routine periodically, whether than means increasing intensity or duration, or moving on to new activities.

Pencil in times for indulgences. The blessing of Weight Watchers is that you really can eat anything you want, in moderation. The curse is that it can be easy to forget to put some boundaries into place. I’ve written before that I generally eat a modest dessert with lunch (like a high-fiber cookie or granola bar, or frozen fruit with honey); I think it would be wise for me to build in one day a week to have something a little more splurgy (like an ice cream sundae or a piece of cake). I could do the same with a splurge meal. The best piece of advice I gleaned from the weight loss story I red recently on Huffington Post is that the food isn’t going anywhere; it’s best to focus on the menu over the course of a week or month (or the rest of your life) rather than by the hour. If you struggle in this area like I do, it can’t hurt to try out adding a little more structure to your eating.

Get a life. On the weekends in particular, I find myself getting bored and tempted to eat to pass the time. But if I’m doing something interesting–an outing with my family, taking a class, volunteering, etc.–I will feel more fulfilled and may be less likely to seek that pleasure from the food I eat. I am a terrible couch potato, so I think coaxing myself into this would be very valuable.

Be realistic about imperfection. If there’s ever an area in which I understand constant work and evolution should be at play, it’s this one. Yes, I can push myself and test myself, but there will be times when I simply don’t have the fight in myself for the day or the week. And that’s OK. I haven’t always been that compassionate with myself about that, but finding a way to be loving to myself despite setbacks will help me to achieve a better quality of resilience as far as my weight loss progress is concerned. If you find it hard to bounce back from a vacation weight gain, or a bout of blues cured by food, consider checking in regularly to see whether you give yourself pep talks to get back on track, or criticisms that keep you down.

Do you feel that constant evaluation and change is necessary for weight loss? In what areas do you like to mix things up?

My Weight Loss Role Model

After checking out the Web buzz on the recent TED MED conference, I discovered, when following some links on talks related to obesity that The Huffington Post has a pretty extensive section devoted to weight loss success stories. As someone who’s been on Weight Watchers for a while, I am familiar with the positive vibes and insights to be found in the story of someone who has lost weight and kept it off. The Huffington Post stories were longer than the typical Weight Watchers posts, though, so that made them even more valuable.

The story that I really focused on was that of Gabe Evans, who lost 200 lbs, largely by changing his relationship with food and his general outlook on life.

Gabe doesn’t really say what was going on in his life while the scale was going up, but he mentions settling into a self-limiting mindset. For example, without ever testing his theory, he stopped himself from going on roller coaster rides, saying,

“I never got turned away from a ride, but it was a mental barrier that I had put in place that made me not want to try to do these things, out of fear of being turned away.”

I have never considered whether I stopped myself from doing certain activities when I weighed more, strictly because of my previous weight, but I know that I have definitely been inspired to live differently now. I’m not sure if I can attribute that most to the success of having lost 40 lbs. having emboldened me in some way, or my exploration of the roots of my emotional eating issues inspiring me to make positive changes. Whatever it is, I can say that I am slowly becoming a different, stronger person in this process, and I encourage you to assess what limits  you may have imposed on yourself due to weight gain, or the limits that spurred the eating habits that led to your weight gain.

Gabe goes on to describe himself as a generally happy person throughout this period, but says he decided to make a change to step more fully into his life. And the biggest change he made was to his relationship with food. On this, he says,

“We live in a time where fast food and packaged foods are king. Food isn’t special anymore, and you don’t savor it. Once I started looking at my food like a long-term relationship instead of as a one-night stand, I was able to dive into my weight loss journey.”

This was a powerful quote to me. I can relate to not thinking beyond tomorrow when it comes to reveling over a decadent dinner or dessert. I can definitely say that before I started losing weight I had a mindset that was focused on eating whatever I wanted, when I wanted it. These desires were urgent, and they were not ignored–generally, they were fulfilled on the spot.

Have I broken from a “one-night stand” mentality when it comes to eating? In some ways yes, but in others, the article made me realize that no, I haven’t. I am eating unhealthy food less frequently, and in smaller portion sizes, but it feels like I’m approaching eating one or two meals at a time, rather than focusing in on the big picture. Yes, I understand that a series of good choices or bad choices can crystallize a path of weight loss success or setback, but I sometimes catch myself focusing in on what I may pass on eating to balance out a day or a week, rather than reminding myself that the food isn’t going to go anywhere–the pizza joint won’t stop making pizza, and Hershey isn’t planning on halting its chocolate production anytime soon. I am not giving up on any food, I’m just not having certain things all at once in one sitting, or eating them as frequently as I did in the past.

The article was a good reminder to think of myself as being in a long-term relationship with food. I already understand that weight loss itself is a long-term relationship, but considering food and meals with those same perceptions will enable me to better respect myself and the food.

I also agree that I have often not savored meals, or considered them special, but that changing that mentality has been helpful. Slowing down, taking a moment to experience the sight of a well-presented meal or smell its goodness is a 180 from the fast and furious eating that was a hallmark of my poor eating habits.

Lastly, Gabe mentions exercise, and that’s the last weight loss frontier for me. I haven’t committed to a regular dose of physical activity, but he’s right that it’s important. He says he goes to the gym three times a week for an hour, which seems reasonable. One thing I’ve learned about myself during the weight loss process is that I never really had a strong set of priorities or values, that they were a shifting sand dictated by whoever I felt I needed to please at the moment. There is still work for me to do in sorting out what’s important and committing to a life that reflects that, but one component I need to add is a regular exercise commitment. Gabe’s inspiration strikes again.

This leads in nicely to an inspiring quote from Gabe’s mother, who is proud of her son’s weight loss, but not surprised by it.

“I’ve known that you’ve had this in you forever. Look at all of your talents. Look at all of the things you have excelled at. You’ve just started using your talents to improve yourself, because you’re worth it.”

I can say in my life, before I started Weight Watchers, I hadn’t been using my talents to improve myself. I do now, but I’m slowly realizing I’m not fully tapping into all of the skills at my disposal, due to the negative thought patterns I’ve held about myself for a long time. I am very slowly coming out of that self-destructive fog. think it’s worth considering for all of us whether we are bringing our full arsenal of skills into the weight loss battle–or if we consider ourselves worthy of the effort in the first place.

I have to say a big thank-you to Gabe for the inspiration he has given me over the past week! I now consider him a weight loss role model.