Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Beginner's Guide to Healthy Food, plus Adventure Wednesday

Happy Adventure Wednesday, everyone! Did you include a little adventure in your day?  We'll get to today's exploration a in a little bit - but we're going to start with...

...healthy food!

What do you think of, when you think of healthy food?  Does it bring to mind things you associate with hippies from the seventies, like lettuce and bean sprouts and tofu?  Do the two words in juxtaposition make you cringe? If so, I have a challenge for you.  I challenge you to adjust your perspective on what it means for food to be "healthy."  In fact, I believe that almost any food in its natural state can be healthy, when enjoyed in moderation, and in balance with other foods.  There is no specific food or food group that I avoid.  (Cheese?  I eat it every day.  Potatoes? At least once a week.  Sourdough bread?  I might die without it.  Chocolate?  It's not my favorite, but I do eat it from time to time.)  The trick is moderation.

Our experience with food this year has been a surprising one.  Before January, Tom and I both thought we ate relatively well.  (Outside of the occasional emotional or stress-based binge on my part.)  We even logged calories... when we felt like it.  And when we weren't ordering delivery, or going out to a restaurant. Or when I grabbed fast food on the way back from a long shift.  It turns out that some of those not-logged meals were the ones that were topping 2,000 or even 3,000 calories.  It sounds terrible, I know.  A healthy person who's not trying to lose weight should typically consume around 2,000 calories per day.  If you're eating that much in one meal, there's a good chance that you're going to be consuming more than your metabolism can burn.

And if you're not looking at what goes into your food, it's not always easy to tell that you're consuming that much.  This week, The Daily Meal released a list of the 10 fattiest meals at chain restaurants.  Not fast-food restaurants, mind you.  Burgers & fries are a good way to gain weight, but they don't even begin to compete with... chicken & broccoli pasta.  Chicken & broccoli pasta?  If you were looking at a menu, given a choice between a burger and fries, or chicken and broccoli pasta, wouldn't you guess that the burger was the less-healthy option?  No.  That pasta dish has 1564 calories, which means that a regular Big Mac value meal (with medium fries and a medium coke) is a whopping 434 calories less than the pasta.  Not that we should run out and grab a Big Mac for dinner today, but this is just the beginning of my #1 tip for you today: 

Know what you're eating.

Just because it sounds good for you, it doesn't mean that it is.  Oooh, a veggie burger at a health food restaurant, with avocado and all-natural sauce!  That sounds great.  Except that it's loaded with more fat than our bodies need.

When you know what you're eating, when you keep yourself in touch with your food habits, you're less likely to lose track of how many calories you're consuming.

There's a lot of very simple ways to do this.  The simplest is to just start a food log - a diary of what you eat each day.  Talk to you doctor about how many calories you should be consuming in order to maintain, lose, gain... whatever your goals are.  And then start aiming for it.  There are lots of different ways to log food, though.  Join Weight Watchers.  Download an app.  There are all kinds of handy things out there to help you eat mindfully, and it's really worth it to try them and see what works best.

I use a couple of different methods of food logging.  I am a big fan of the nutritional information available on's Daily Plate.  It has brand-specific information, easily adjustable serving sizes, and an array of graphs and charts that show you how you're doing with vitamins, balance, and overall consistency.  It even lets you enter your own recipes or meals, so that if you make something regularly, you can enter it once and add it quickly again later.  I also use Richard Simmons' FoodMover system to make sure I'm staying in balance.  I could write a very long entry on FoodMover and how best to use it... and I probably will do so later, but it's too long to pack in today.  The short story is that Food Mover helps me make sure I'm eating the right serving sizes - and the right number of servings - per day.  And what a difference that makes!

Serving sizes are tricky little beasts.  Aside from all of the ridiculously huge portions we're served at restaurants, even figuring out how much we should be eating can be a challenge.  If you look at two brands of rice, right next to each other on the grocery shelf, one might tell you a serving size is a 1/3 of a cup, and the other might tell you that a serving size is a cup.  It doesn't sound like much of a difference, right?  Except that 1/3 of a cup of cooked brown rice is 72 calories, whereas 1 cup is 218 calories.  If you're working with a certain amount of calories, that's a pretty big difference.  And is that listed serving size for dry or cooked rice?  Fortunately, with FoodMover, you get to ignore all of the listed serving sizes on the boxes, and follow a single source of information.  It comes with a booklet that covers almost all kinds of food serving sizes.  After about two weeks of looking up my every morsel, it became pretty much ingrained.  (According to FoodMover, 1 serving of rice is 1/3 of a cup cooked.)

Number of servings, that's tough, too.  Depending on how many calories you're eating, how much of each food group should you be eating?  Again, that's up to you and your doctor or nutritionist.  My personal intake is about 1400 calories daily (though I'm flexible if I need to be, especially if I become overly hungry.)  And my balance breakdown goes roughly like this:

Breakfast: 1 serving dairy, 1 serving fruit, 1 serving carb, 1 serving protein
Lunch: 1 serving dairy, 1 serving fruit, 2 serving carb, 2 serving protein, 2-3 servings vegetables, 1 serving fat
Dinner: 1 serving fruit, 2 serving carb, 2 serving protein, 2-3 servings vegetable, 2 serving fat

And those serving sizes are roughly 1 oz of protein, 8 oz dairy, 1 piece of fruit, 1 teaspoon of fat, 1/3 cup or 2 oz carb.

If that seems like a lot to consider... well, I won't lie to you.  It is.  There's really only one way I'm able to swing this every day.  And that is my #2 tip for the day...

Plan what you're eating.

We have a food routine that we follow each and every week. Every Sunday, we plan a menu for every meal that week - including scheduling any restaurant or social gatherings that we'll need to plan around.  Then we make a list of everything we're going to need for that menu.  And then we go to the store, and we buy what's on the list.  And nothing else.  (And we don't go shopping without eating healthfully first.)

Once we're home, we put everything away, and - if we're following our schedule perfectly, which we don't always but we try to - we prep the foods we'll need for the week.  Peel and store carrots.  Chop celery.  Roast peppers.  Grill chicken.  Whatever we can do in advance... saves us time when we're making our meals later.  I know that whenever we're not working from home, we'll also need to make big batches of meals that can be stored for eating later in the week (and/or frozen for eating later on.)

Does it take time?  Yes, it takes time.  Not much more than sitting at a restaurant, or waiting for your food delivery to arrive, or listening to an episode of The Simpsons in the background. And, like I keep saying, like I'm going to keep saying, even when you're sick of me saying it...  you are worth it.

The great thing about planning ahead is that I never need to worry the specific calorie counts too much.  I don't have to obsess over what I might possibly be eating next.  I can walk to the fridge and look at our weekly menu, and I know exactly what it will be.  And if you're planning ahead, you can tweak recipes so that they work better for you.  Which brings me to my #3 tip...

Swap what you're eating.

If you, like me, are working with a restricted number of calories, there are different ways you can go about it.  You could eat a couple pieces of bacon, and some steak, and some cheese, and a corn muffin... and then be hungry for the rest of the day.  Or you could go my way.  You could eat primarily vegetables, supplemented with healthy proteins, fruits, and grains.  And you could feel as full - or possibly fuller - than you did when you were eating restaurant portions.

The more that you replace an unhealthy version of something with a healthier counterpart, the more calories you have to play with.  And the same goes for adding in things that are flavorful but not high-calorie - the more you entice your palate, the less likely you'll be to crave something else.  And so far, we've come up with all kinds of swaps to make, inspired by tips from Hungry Girl and other food bloggers or cookbooks.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Fat free Greek yogurt.  This variety, which is strained to remove whey, is lusciously thick and creamy... but it has about twice the protein as regular yogurt. If you're a regular reader, you probably already know this is my favorite swap ingredient.  I use it for tuna salad, for potato salad, for deviled eggs, for baked goods, for sour cream or mayonnaise in any recipe. At this point I'd feel confident betting you that I can work Greek yogurt into any recipe and make it better and healthier.
  • Smaller/Low-Carb tortillas.  I probably eat a wrap sandwich daily, and I'm able to fit more protein and veggies into it if I use a wrap.  My favorite is Mission brand.  Technically, corn tortillas are lower in calories than flour, but I'm a sucker for the flour.
  • Spray oil.  We used to follow recipes to the letter, but they often ask for large amounts of olive oil.  I only eat about 3 teaspoons of fat (outside of meat, dairy, beans etc) per day, so when we started FoodMover, we started using Pam for stir frying, roasting, and most of our other oil needs. I really don't miss the oil at all.
  • Whole grains.  We used to eat white pasta, white rice, white bread... on a regular basis (and in large portions.)  It took a little getting used to, but we now eat a majority of our grains whole.  We eat whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, light wheat bread, and some more unusual whole grains like quinoa and barley.  Give it a try - give it some patience - and see if you can include one new whole grain this week.
  • Vinegar and lemons.  I'm a sour fiend, so I've been using these to spruce up veggies or salad in place of oil.  I love a squeeze of lemon on my broccoli (sometimes with a few capers for extra flavor.)  Vinegar on good salad greens is simple and delicious.
  • Herbs, spices, onions, garlic, and scallions.  These aromatics add far more flavor to food than anything else.  Try a little dill on your cottage cheese, a little rosemary on some roasted potatoes, a little garlic in your chicken soup.  If you keep shaking it up, you won't get bored... and one of the most frequent causes of diet-crashing is boredom.
  • Turnips.  Holy crap, I love turnips.  We slice them up like fries and bake them so that they're crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside.  One cup of turnip fries is 34 calories.  One cup of McDonald's fries is 740 calories.
  • Roasted red peppers and sun-dried tomatoes.  Available commercially packed in water (or home-roasted, like we do) these low-calorie flavor boosters bring an lovely note to any sandwich or salad.
  • Bananas.  When I need a frozen treat, and we don't have any homemade sorbet around, all I do is slice up a banana and pop it in the freezer.  When they're icy, you can blend them up in the blender to make ice cream, eat them plain (they melt creamy!) or dip them in a little bit of chocolate.  I also use half a frozen banana in my pre-Slimmons fuel smoothie.
  • Pumpkin.  Whether hidden in mac & cheese, used as a filling for lasagna, or snuck in as a secret ingredient for chocolate cake pops (entry coming soon!) pumpkin is a perfect food.
  • Kabocha squash.  Most squash is sweet enough to count as a carbohydrate, not a squash.  Kabocha has only 30 calories per cup, and is terrific in Tom's Thai squash recipe.
 Yes, that Thai squash is yummy.  And if we weren't on this weight loss journey, I doubt we'd have tried it, because the final tip for today is...

Play with your food.

No, really.  It's time to get playful.  It's time to look up recipes for the things you order at restaurants, and see if there's a way to switch them up at home.  It's time to start a quest for the tastiest possible cake pops for the lowest possible calories.  It's time to venture out to an ethnic food store.  And that's just what we did today, for Adventure Wednesday!

Yesterday after writing about the wonders of exercise, we skipped class.  Well, technically we were driving to class when our car started shuddering, so we drove to the mechanic instead, and walked home.  We're sans wheels for the next few days, so this morning we hit the bus stop...

The sky was incredibly blue.

...on our way to India Sweets & Spices, so that we could find some ingredients for our upcoming Indian Feast.

 They have both a market and a restaurant at the location in Atwater Village.

Tom wonders if this is code for "where vegetarians come to die."

We spent most of our time in the market, where they sell all kinds of things.

Including statues of the Hindu god, Ganesh

And incense.  Lots and lots of incense.

But mostly they sell food products.

We've been making a lot of our own Indian food, because restaurant food of any kind is harder to estimate in terms of calories.  And since they aren't out to adjust the recipes for maximum health factor, they sometimes use ingredients like these...

Meet ghee. Clarified butter.  The starting point of almost any Indian dish.  We cook without ghee.

They also sell all manner of Indian snack foods, much of which
wouldn't fit into our food plan, cute names notwithstanding.

We do sometimes enjoy a bit of jam, and if we ever run out of my dad's homemade preserves,
I'll be sure to pick up some passion fruit jam, here. But what the heck is woodapple?

Here is lime pickle, which seemed like an interesting condiment,
low calorie and presumably flavorful. I'd like to try it sometime.

They carry brown basmati rice! I didn't realize that all shapes/types of rice come in the brown variety,
but Tom reminded me that of course they'd have to - it's just unprocessed rice.

I'd never heard of coconut vinegar, but since I love both things,
I'm looking forward to figuring out how to use this someday.

The market specializes in all kinds of Indian spices. Lots and lots and lots of them!

Garam Masala is a very popular blend of spices, and I thought we might purchase some today. Tom would
like to try making our own out of some of the spices we have in our well-stocked cupboard, first.

I thought that these were very small coconuts, but they were marked as very large dried lychees!

I that the Mukhwas was beautiful - it's a digestive aid and breath freshener
made from a blend of seeds with sugar and essential oil

The fennel candy was also bright and cheerful-looking.

I was grossed out by the Dieter's Delight slim tea, which came with the warning
"if you experience stomach cramps or diarrhea, you should stop drinking this tea." 
Or perhaps not start drinking it.

I usually visit ethnic food stores to learn more about the culture, not to laugh at it.  But I couldn't help but laugh when we found Indian foods made by American brands that you wouldn't usually expect.

Uncle Ben's Korma. "Perfect every time!"

Nothin' says lovin' like samosa from the oven.

The only down-side to Adventure Wednesday was that I had forgotten to eat breakfast before we left the house, so I had to look at and smell all of these lovely things while feeling rumbly in the tumbly.  Little successes, though, right?  We bought the Darjeeling and the cardamom pods for my chai recipe, but I was able to hold out and not buy any barfi, a dessert made of sweetened condensed milk and sugar.

And in this case, also pistachio. Ah well, I will have the picture forever.

What can you do to add more adventure to your food?

My friend David (who blogs about his journey at tries to buy one different food he's never tried before, every week.  Maybe you could join him!

Or perhaps you could venture out to a new grocery store, or a farmer's market, and see what they have to offer!  Or you could pick up a cookbook of your favorite kind of cuisine, and see what you can do to adjust and make it healthier!

What are your tips for healthy food, be they about adventure, moderation, or mindfulness?

All right, that's it for today, but I hope you'll come back tomorrow, when I come armed with tips on how to make your kitchen friendly for the new, healthy you.  Until then, take care of you!


  1. And now I'm officially finding your blog depressing.

    Nah, not really. But I'm not too concerned with counting calories and such, or giving that much attention to what I eat. Food just doesn't concern me that much, and yeah - it's not really a problem for me. But I DO try and eat reasonably healthfully - and finding out my common sense choices might very well be not only more caloric but downright less healthy all around than seemingly nastier choices kinda bums me out a little bit. Le sigh.

  2. Finally read this - the Indian market looks GREAT! Do they carry fresh produce?

  3. Steve... don't be depressed! First off, you don't have food problems, so you don't have to be as concerned. And not EVERY common sense choice is the wrong one. If you eat in moderation, just about any choice can be OK. (But following closely isn't as depressing as it might seem. It's been fascinating for me.)

    David, the Indian market was SO much fun. They do indeed carry fresh produce, and it seemed reasonably priced (but perhaps not as much so as Super King.)