Friday, September 7, 2012

The Groups: What I Learned: Pt. 5

Food & Nutrition: What comes next…?

We need to change our food selection so that what we consume is rich in ‘micro-nutrients’. This will mean we move away from a diet heavily emphasizing animal protein, processed carbohydrates and fat. No, you don’t need to become a vegetarian, but you do need to eat lots of foods that are nutritionally dense per calorie consumed. You often hear the expression “everything in moderation”. If that has any validity, it doesn’t apply to food. There are some foods that have no nutritional value whatever: French fries, potato chips, soda, to name just a few (see my post of June 27th “All Calories Are Not Alike…”). Conversely, you will discover some wonderful foods you may never have tried like quinoa, kale, tofu and all manner of beans. It also helps to begin your meal with a salad and have veggies rather than potatoes or pasta.

About now is a good time for a word about the “toxic trio”: most of us already know fat and sugar (including sugar substitutes like high fructose corn syrup) are “dangerous”; so is salt, but why? There is nothing inherently bad about their natural occurance in the fresh, unprocessed foods we eat. In fact, appropriate quantities of each are necessary for a healthy, well-balanced diet. For example, if we only ate foods with a high nutrient density score, our diet would be too low in fat. So we have to pick some foods with lower nutrient density scores (but preferably the ones with the healthier fats) to include in our high nutrient diet.

The problem with the “toxic trio” is that they are addictive. Remember that Lays Potato Chip commercial: “I bet you can't eat just one…”?  Yeah, one bag – who can stop crunching and really close the bag after a just couple of chips? And it’s not because they’re just sooooo tasty as the ad would suggest; they’re addictive and the culprit is salt. And any idea why soda has so much sugar or other sweeteners? Again, to mask the huge amount of…salt. And, why all the salt in soda? To make you thirsty so you’ll drink (read as ‘purchase’) more. Don’t you just love the Processed Food Industry – they’re really concerned with our wellbeing!

In order to identify which foods give you the most bang for your calorie, Eat Right America created the ANDI scoring system. ANDI stands for ‘Aggregate Nutrient Density Index”. ANDI was developed so people can quickly view the total micronutrient content of a food. ANDI Scores are calculated by evaluating an extensive range of food factors, including vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidant capacities, based on an equal number of calories for each food. After completing the calculations, foods are ranked on a numerical scale of 1 to 1000, with the highest nutrient foods given a score of 1000. All other foods are then scored relative to them. Kale, a dark leafy green, scores 1000 while Coke scores 1. You can access ANDI tables for "VEGETABLES", "FRUITS" AND "BULK PRODUCTS" here or on my Healthy Cooking...with Howard page.

Making the transition takes time and practice. One size doesn’t fit all and you will need to discover what food substitutions work for you. There’s a gazillion “healthy’ food sites on line: some are awesome; others, not so much. Two of my favorite “go-to” resources are both on the New York Times: Mark Bittman, the The Times Magazine’s food columnist and an Opinion columnist, and author of “Food Matters,” which explores the crucial connections among food, health and the environment, and  Martha Rose Shulman who’s Recipes for Health series offers recipes with an eye towards empowering you to cook healthy meals every day; another is Kerri Hawkins’ blog Dietitian Drive.

“Experimenting” is a crucial part of the journey to a healthier, fit lifestyle; embrace the process!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Groups: What I Learned: Pt. 4

Food & Nutrition: Where to begin…?

Let’s start with an observation about what the ‘food piece’ is not:

  • It’s not a diet in the sense of depriving yourself; yes, you’re ‘eating less’ because portion control is important, and yes, there’s stuff you really want to avoid (like soda and French fries) but after your transition, you may actually find yourself adjusting to the healthy stuff and eating “less” quite nicely
  • You don’t count calories (well, you can if you want to)
  • You don’t exclude all carbs, or all protein or fats
  • You don’t buy specially prepared foods from a ‘weight-loss’ vendor
It is a shift to nutritionally ‘dense’ foods from the stuff we have been consuming all our lives. As was the case with the ‘Exercise and Activity’ components (see my prior posts "The Groups: What I Learned: Pts. 1,2 and 3") there is science behind the changes you need to make. I recommend you check out this piece from Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s PBS presentation, “3 Steps to Incredible Health” here, but to summarize, the way I understand it is that at the cellular level, our bodies expect a regular supply of what’s known as ‘micro-nutrients’ that are crucial for our health. When we are prompted to eat, unfortunately, the message doesn’t specify just what is needed. So, if we eat any old crap, our bodies will, figuratively, throw a tantrum if it doesn’t get what it needs: 1st we feel this uncomfortable craving and are prompted to eat to make that feeling go away. Then, after a couple of hours, the “feed me” mantra will continue and the cycle will be repeated. That’s one way we become obese. By the way, the “feed me” mantra is known as ‘toxic hunger’ – not the real kind; if the body gets what it needs, we just don’t feel hunger – until meal time or when we haven’t eaten when we normally do.

So, how do we make the changes we need? A good place to start is by reducing both the total amount as well as portion size we consume. We – or at least most of us in this country – are blessed to be surrounded by abundance. But that doesn’t mean we need to eat it all! Consider the following:

  • Limit the piece of steak, fish or chicken you eat to something approximating the size of your clenched fist; if you’re in a restaurant, take the balance home.
  • Eat lots of fruits and veggies
  • Skip dessert (unless it’s fresh fruit) and “pass” on alcoholic beverages (at least in the beginning) and sodas and other sugared drinks altogether. If you are a regular soda drinker you will likely need to identify a healthier substitute
  • Close your kitchen after 8pm – no snacks!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Groups: What I Learned: Pt. 3

For the strength (resistance) piece, you don’t need to join a gym or health club but I did. As much as I knew and had experienced about walking, that’s how little I knew about strength and resistance conditioning. True, I had likely joined more than a half dozen health clubs, gyms or Ys in my life, but never succeeded in staying with it and, consequently, wasted time and money.
I interviewed two establishments and went with the less plush – Gold’s Gym in Arlington Heights – in October 2010. Good facility, reasonable price, competent staff and trainers, not too crowded, right off the Minuteman BikeTrail so I can walk there, weather permitting (BTW, I view the trip there and back ( 2.8 miles each way) as ‘activity’ – not ‘exercise’ and do not include the mileage in my stats because my typical Nordic-walk is way longer). 

You get a free orientation session with a trainer who set me up with 2 1-hour routines. I’ve been going on a regular basis – mostly twice a week. My dues are ~ $40/month for unlimited use. Do the math; that’s less than $5 per visit!! Oh, and my health plan reimburses me $150 per year. How great is that!! But even without the refund, aren’t you worth the investment in a healthy and hopefully long life? Of course you are! By the way, this is a mantra we need to repeat again and again – “I am worth the investment in time, effort and $$ to achieve a healthy lifestyle and sustain my physical and emotional wellbeing”.
It first became clear to me how much the “gym” thing had improved my general body strength in December 2010 when we had our 1st big snow fall of the season. Shoveling was a breeze, so much so that after finishing our place, I helped some of my neighbors, all with no evident strain or aftereffects. That was a big difference from my recollection of prior years.
If all this weren’t enough, in the summer of 2011, I experienced what I call the “cross-over” effect. My aforementioned daughter Ali was in from Columbus OH for a visit. As she was training to do a ½ triathlon, she asked if I would do some biking with her. I hadn’t been on a bike in at least 10 years but agreed. Bottom line, we rode from The Bike Stop near Arlington Center where she rented a bike (nice place by the way) to the end of the bike path at Railroad Ave. in Bedford and back, about a 16 mile loop. Even though we pushed it, the only place I felt it – either during or after -- was in my butt. Just amazing!
And as an unintended side effect of coping with my broken toe, as per my prior post, I am adding biking to my exercise regimen. I’m not a linguist but someone once said the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’ are the same.

“Once in a while you get shown the light
in the strangest of places if you look at it right…”
"Scarlet Begonias" Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Dog Days of Summer…

…are upon us and I’m sorting thru the attic of my mind to see which of the more recent acquisitions are worth sharing.

MY TOE: is much better. Last week I began biking (with a sandal on my left foot) – a 9-miler followed by a short (for me) 4-mile Nordic-walk with no ill effects. Did it 5 days; sort of like I’m doing of a mini-triathlon (is there such thing as a biathlon??). This week, I’m trying it with my New Balance instead of the sandal; so far, so good. Despite the progress, I’ve decided to forego the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk this September; bummer, as I love the challenge, but probably a wise decision.

HCwH: Last week, we began post-production on Episode #1 with a couple of run-thru’s to get a sense of what was captured during the shoot. Truth be told, I expected my initial reaction to be replete with cringes of embarrassment; instead, I was surprised, bordering upon “shocked” to see how good it was. Yes, I hold myself to unrealistic expectations (nothing new about that!!) and yes, I need to insert more ‘palaver’ while I’m engaged in doing the cooking and to relax and smile more. But my main take-away from the viewings was: “This guy looks like he knows what he’s doing and is comfortable in the process”. Couldn’t be happier, especially for the 1st time before a camera. Episode #2 is already in the planning stage. It will be shot during either the last week in August or the 1st week in September on a date to be determined.

DIETING VS EXERCISE FOR WEIGHT LOSS: An interesting piece about a couple of studies addressing this dichotomy in the NYT, last week. Bottom line, calorie for calorie, it’s easier to lose weight by dieting than by exercise: people are more likely to stay with a diet than with an exercise regimen; metabolic rates drop as we lose weight so, we burn fewer calories with the exercise. But, as I’ve posted in The Groups: What I Learned: Pts. 1 & 2, exercise and activity are important in their own right. If you want to be healthy and fit, especially as you age, you gotta do both…and you don’t get the endorphin boost with diets!

And speaking of dogs, my daughter Ali was in from Columbus, OH for a visit last month with her 2 Border Collies – Tobey, age 4 and Chance, 2 – whom she rescued and have, under her guidance, matured into reasonably well-behaved animals with really good character and singular personalities. Tobey’s the smart one, Chance has the looks (its ok, they can’t read…yet). It was fascinating to observe them interact with us, each other and behave in a public stetting (we took them to Bertucci’s outdoor cafĂ© in Lexington Center). Here's some photos:

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Groups: What I Learned: Pt. 2

Aerobic exercise saves your life; strength training makes it worth living.

Yes, exercise is important as an ‘activity’ but for other reasons as well: it will strengthen your body, elevate your mood and increase your sense of well-being, relieve stress and resist regaining the weight you’ve lost. You need to adopt a regimen that includes both aerobic/cardiovascular and resistance (strength) exercise.

Let’s start with the aerobic.

First, pick something you enjoy doing (or think you might enjoy) so you will be motivated to make doing it a habit for life. Let me emphasize that: the changes we are urged to make are not short-term remedies – not just something to do for a while and then revert to our prior inactive behavior pattern. There’s walking, jogging, biking, elliptical, swimming, Zumba, just to name a few. I recommend you begin modestly to establish a “duration” baseline during which you can comfortably do the routine. Then, whatever you do, make doing it a habit.

I Nordic-walk – that’s ‘power walking’ with hiking poles. You can check out the benefits of Nordic-walking here. I love it. My body loves it. In fact, Suzanne (my lovely wife) says that she can tell if I’ve gone more than a day or two without walking by the change in my mood. (Unfortunately, I am currently suffering some withdrawal symptoms: since breaking my left big toe July 10th – I dropped a 20 lb. cutting board on it while unloading stuff from my car at home after shooting the initial episode of the Health Cooking …with Howard video series at the LexMedia studios – I have been without my favorite regular aerobic exercise, mostly inactive and, frankly, going a bit nuts without it. I can ride a bike with a Teva sandal on my left foot and I’ve done 8 miles at about a 10 mph pace several times but it’s not the same.)

I live near the Minuteman Bike Trail which is a delightful ~12 mile course that follows the route of an old commuter railroad bed from Alewife Station in Cambridge MA, through Arlington, Lexington and terminating at Railroad Ave. in Bedford. It’s mostly level, mostly wooded, mostly quiet, no auto fumes, lovely flora and fauna all year round (I even saw a coyote). It can also be quite social; I usually encounter several regulars doing their thing (walking like me, biking, jogging, inline skating or just out with their kids and/or dogs) whom I greet either by name, a nod or a wave.
For more about walking, see the tab “Walking with Howard…” above as well as a prior post of the same title.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Groups: What I Learned: Pt. 1

Exercise is important; activity is crucial.
To vastly oversimplify the new understanding about the biology of aging, at the cellular and molecular level, instead of discussions about the inevitability of aging, the emphasis is now on decay not being merely inevitable but rather linked to choices we make in our daily lives. In response to the choices we make, our bodies can actually get better, functionally. At the cellular level, we renew ourselves over and over again, always rebuilding as we age; we replace 1 % of ourselves each day. So, according to the new understanding, you can come in with a new 1% either better or worse; that is, you can grow or decay.

Apparently, growth and decay are survival strategies that originated in our evolution. Our body and brain have evolved so that behaviors that helped our ancestors survive – robust daily physical activity and close links to members of a tribe or clan – send positive signals to our most fundamental biological systems that say "life is good: grow, heal, thrive!" Being sedentary and isolated sends the opposite message: shut down and decay, conserving energy (read: calories) for times of scarcity or inhospitable climate. Unfortunately but understandably, the ‘default’ position is “off”; so in the absence of signals to grow, our body and brain will decay and we age. We also become weakened. Fortunately, we can turn the switches “on” merely by being active.

While “activity” includes “exercise”, it also covers many of the things we can do daily, just in the process of our lives.

Known in the trade as “non-exercise activity thermogenesis” (NEAT), it is the energy we expend for everything we do that is not sleeping, eating or sports-like exercise. NEAT includes:

  • Taking the stairs instead of the elevator
  • Being “inefficient” (e.g., making 3 trips to the basement instead of 1 trip carrying 3 items)
  • Walking around your home or office when on your cell phone
  • Taking a stroll with a colleague to discuss a matter rather than sitting in the office
  • Working at a ‘stand-up’ desk
  • Watching TV while on a treadmill or an elliptical
  • Biking to work instead of driving
  • General housekeeping (e.g., vacuuming, making the bed)
  • Yard work
  • Walking to the local store instead of driving
You would be amazed at how the steps and their effect add up. Do this stuff daily – log at least 8000 steps – and you will lose weight. Get yourself a good pedometer and try it for 2-3 weeks. And let me know how you did.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Scene 1; Take 1; “Marker”…

Yesterday, the initial episode of Healthy Cooking…with Howard was shot in Studio K at LexMedia’s facilities in Lexington.

I have been anticipating this event since I conceived of the idea in March and had been preparing for it for at least a month: planning the menu, designing a concept, scripting it, rehearsing for it “in my head”, watching other LexMedia’s cooking shows, testing the kitchen facilities, etc. I even took a series of courses in filming and editing offered by LexMedia to get a sense of what producing a show entails. Suffice it to say all of that did not prepare me for the experience of simultaneously articulating a message and cooking a meal on camera. Sort of takes the “walking while chewing gum” dichotomy to a whole new level (I guess that’s what rehearsals are for).

That said, the experience was generally a positive one for me. So, if we can edit the footage and get a 30 minute show out of it, I’m committed to making it the 1st in a series. And, unless it’s just awful, I’ll post it to the Healthy Cooking…with Howard page when the editing is done. The recipes for the food I prepared will shortly be available on my Recipes page.

Finally, my sincere thanks to the LexMedia staff and crew for their effort and expertise; to my “studio audience” for their support; and, as with all things in my life, to my wife, Suzanne, for her encouragement and collaboration.

Inspiration, move me brightly
Light the song with sense and color,
hold away despair…”

"Terrapin Station" Words by Robert Hunter; music by Jerry Garcia