Category: Diet & Health

The Green Revolution

I read an article yesterday about how chefs are moving away from big meat/protein portions and into vegetables more and more. The reasoning is very chef-y: big hunks of meat are boring. There really isn’t much you can do with meat but marinade it, and no matter what you do, it ends up filling before you want to be filled.

So they serve smaller portions, focus more on the sides, and turn their menus around. Instead of eating a filet mignon on a bed of spinach and mashed potatoes, you would be served farm-fresh spinach leaves making friends with a mash of Yukon potatoes, with an accompaniment of filet mignon.

The cynic notes that this seems just a ploy to make portion sizes smaller and force people to eat more dishes if you can’t force them to pay more per dish. After all, the cost of food is negligible in a restaurant, compared to rents, salaries, and accidentals. So making people eat more foods instead of more food is a good way to boost the bill, which means the bottom line.


An Eating Day at the Beach

Oh, Sun Diego, shall I count how many ways I love thee? Well, it’s really just one: I can go to the beach any time of the year. Really, I live and work close to the beach and frequently I’ll just head out for lunch, or in the late afternoon.

What if you wan to spend the whole day at the beach, though? What are the challenges of a day in the sun from a dietary perspective?

First, the most important one: sunshine, surf, and all the activity at the beach makes very thirsty. Drinks are very heavy. Nobody wants to shlep around gallons of fluids. Problem.

Advice: never ever waste fluid space on caloric drinks. Your body is going to demand water primarily, and any calories you add to the mix are empty. They get into your body and stay there, just because you are thirsty. So, despite the attractiveness, avoid the six-pack of beer and the sugary sodas at all costs. Stay away as much as you can from fruit juices, too. You want water, water, water.


The Revenge of the Bland

American cuisine focuses on the bland. I don’t know what it is, but apple pie, turkey, mashed potatoes, hamburgers, steak, casseroles, and what you have tend to be light on the spice, measured in the flavor, balanced. No Poblano peppers, no extravagant ginger, sensuous garlic, taste-explosive mole. American cuisine, at least the fast food version, has conquered the world because it’s not offensive to anyone.

The downside: you can’t control how much you eat. Popcorn is bland – so bland that you can just stuff it down your mouth until well after feeling sick, because why not? Milk chocolate is bland – and have you tried putting down that bag of M&Ms? French fries are all crunch, salt, carbs, and fat – bland and unstoppable. Let’s not even talk about cereals, mac&cheese, or marshmallows.

Things with lots of flavor – good or bad – reach saturation faster. Try eating a pound of dark chocolate M&Ms (really, don’t), or a dozen mole tamales. You would have a really hard time. Too much flavor.

So, I thought to myself, why don’t you add some flavor to the foods you eat, and see whether you can eat less? Lo and behold, it worked (for me)! Try adding ginger to apple sauce, or wasabi to your French fries, or dark chocolate on your Graham crackers. It works (for me)!

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Healthy Living – Savvy Supermarket Buys

One of the things I  like doing when visiting a new country or culture: go to the nearest supermarket and see what people buy for food. You learn the most amazing things when you do that. For instance:

Italian supermarkets are full of pasta ingredients. There is typically one full aisle for the pasta itself, then another aisle for tomato products, an aisle full of olive oils. The meats and produce are out of this world, even in your typical grocery store, and they seem never to sell generic produce, only seasonal types.

German supermarkets are full of sweets, breads, and desserts. You’d think the only thing Germans eat are carbohydrates – and empty ones at that. Around every major holiday, then, the desserts and candy double, overtaking pretty much the whole place. Around Christmas time, then, you’d think the whole nation has entered a rat race for the most sugar eaten.

French supermarkets are strangely full of all foods we typically associate with France. Rows of cheeses, myriads of wines, savoir vivre everywhere.

When you come to America, then, you get a very odd picture of what people eat. There are rows and rows of cereals, and rows and rows of frozen goods. The produce section is made up entirely of generic, out-of-season fruits and vegetables, and unhealthy snacks and sodas are everywhere.


Heart Rate and Calories Burnt – How Do They Relate?

You’ve heard me chat about calorie counting, and you’ve heard that I use a heart rate monitor to figure out how many calories I burn on my workouts. You’ve heard my surprise at finding out that “starvation mode” is measurable in the heart rate – reducing caloric output during the day, forcing lower calorie consumption and the usual “plateau” effect in many starvation diets.

But why is there such a strong correlation between the heart rate and the calories consumed? I mean, sure: if your heart beats faster, it must mean that more energy is spent. But why is that the only variable that matters? Why doesn’t body temperature figure into this equation? Why not the air temperature, or the types of food you eat, or the kind of exercise?

On the other hand, why do you have to specify sex, age, and body weight when you set up your HRM? Why do you tell your Stairmaster or elliptical the same thing? How does the machine know what that means?


Healthy Yummy Breakfast Recipe

I am realizing now that I’ve been concocting this recipe for years, improving the ingredients over time, and I finally have something I absurdly like and that is actually pretty good for me – and I have never shared. Here’s the deal – it’s so good that I sometimes fancy it up and serve it as a dessert for dinner guests (hint at the end).

It all starts with what I like for breakfast: something crunchy, sweet, plentiful, but not weighing down; something with good balance of nutrients, with lots of proteins, healthy carbohydrates, fiber, and a good amount of water; and of course something that can be made quickly and without fuss. Here is the recipe:


  • 1 cup nonfat Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 cup mixed berries (thawed if frozen)
  • 1/2 cup cereal of your choice
  • 2 tbsp fat-free whipped topping
  • Stevia powder to taste


  1. Stir yogurt, topping, and Stevia until blended
  2. Add cereal and berries and fold as desired
  3. Done

Takes about 2 minutes total, 3 if you have to thaw the berries. It requires one bowl and one spoon (two bowls if you thaw the berries). It really couldn’t be easier.

Greek yogurt has very little sugar, which is really important, since pretty much all the other types come loaded. If you look at the labels, you will notice that some of the yogurts have three or four times the , amount of sugar that they have of protein – not healthy at all. On the other hand, Greek yogurt tends to be quite hard – which is why I add the whipped topping, which adds a trivial amount of calories (and a hint of vanilla).

The berries are full of nutrients – anti-oxidants mainly, that make you feel good about them even if they weren’t so darn good by themselves. Additionally, some berries have really great amounts of fiber, which adds to the goodness. The downside: sugars, masked by acidity.

The cereal adds he crunch and the fiber. Because of that, I use cereals that have lots of crunch and fiber, and not a lot of sugar. For the crunch, you can’t beat Kashi GoLean! Crunch (in any of the different varieties). I wish it had less sugar. Trader Joe’s (which has killer ingredients for this breakfast in general, except for the topping) has a really good reduced sugar cereal with plenty fiber.

The recipe above, depending on the exact ingredients you use, should range somewhere between 300 and 350 calories. For that, you get a big bowl of yum that is full of proteins, fiber, anti-oxidants, and low in fat and sugars. Or you could always choose two toaster waffles with no topping, or 2/3 of a Starbucks scone. Takes more time to get these two than to do the Healthy Yummy Breakfast. Think about it!

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Enters Starvation Mode

One of the things calorie counters like to say is that if you don’t eat enough, then your body enters “starvation mode.” I held that to be a bit of hyperbole, akin to the notion of ketosis in Atkins Diets, but I could finally watch that happen in real time.

For that, I have to thank a combination of habits I’ve developed:

  • I wear my heart rate monitor at every workout
  • I perform some workout every day
  • I started calorie counting after my accident and the resulting loss of exercise and gain in weight

What happened? Lately, the weather turned really nice in San Diego. I mean, summer in March kind of nice. And when the weather turns for the better, I lose (temporarily) all interest in food. So I would get to the end of the day with sometimes 1,000 calories to spare – almost half my daily intake. I wasn’t trying, I wasn’t going for it, it just happened.

Now comes the interesting part: for the first few days, I lost weight very, very rapidly. It was about 8 pounds in just a matter of three or four days. Then, miraculously, the weight loss stopped completely. I didn’t lose weight, didn’t gain much, either. I just floated at the same level for three or four more days. That was quite frustrating at first, considering that I was still undereating a lot.

Then I noticed something strange. I start my workouts with the same routine all the time: I get a medicine ball and do 50 throwing crunches, where I throw the ball up in the air and catch it, while lifting my back from the floor. It’s a great abs exercise, is decent warm-up, and tells me at once how I feel that day.

Typically, on a set of 50, I will get up to about 120 beats per minutes (bpm). If the ball is heavier it can get to 130, in the opposite case I get up to 115. But when starvation mode entered the picture, I could only get up to 100 bpm. The pattern continued throughout the workout: no matter what I did, I could barely move my heart rate up. Even when it went up, it almost immediately fell down to a resting pulse.

Now, if you extend this to the whole day, then my body would have decided to actually save energy by shutting down the expendable fueling. If you need the energy, we’ll produce it. If you are not using it, we’re turning it off. Sorta like a smart furnace at home.

With two differences: first, you don’t lose weight any more, because your body doesn’t burn more than it gets. And second, the “empty” energy is actually used to fuel your muscles (including your heart) and make them run more smoothly. Working out in starvation mode is like chronically omitting your warm-up. You are cold at every machine, with the risks that go along with that.

Scary thought!

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Tracking Calories by Bar Code

It’s been a while now that, whenever I need to lose weight, I start calorie counting. Most recently that happened in February, when I gained 15 pounds after a bad snowboarding accident. I was incapacitated for weeks, barely able to get out of the house, and the only place close enough to walk to was the grocery store. A fancy grocery store (I live near La Jolla, after all) with the best junk groceries you could imagine.

I currently use MyFitnessPal for tracking. The site is free, is reasonably well-built, and has an active community of people tracking food stuff. From a features perspective, the calorie tracker is probably more exciting, but it’s not free for advanced use, and it doesn’t share foods (which really stinks, because that way most foods at grocery stores are not available).

MyFitnessPal has many advantages, but also one humongous disadvantage: it is cumbersome to use. Tracking calories is a pain, because you constantly have to jump between screens. Sometimes that’s because of unnecessary flows, sometimes that’s because the author doesn’t like to use what’s called AJAX. In any case,  you end up spending a lot of the time you interact with the site, just waiting for the next page to load, for no good reason.

[As an example, consider the section where you enter the calories you spent exercising. You go to the “Exercise” page. From there, you click on “Add Exercise”, where you are presented with a form that contains all exercise types you’ve already performed. You select the exercise you just performed, the duration, optionally the calories, and then save. Way too many clicks, where all I want to do is say how many calories I spent exercising.]

There is, though, a simple way to improve the whole process, and I am thinking of doing something about it. That’s to use the bar codes on food stuff to record what you have just eaten.

Basically, you take the box in which the food cam and wave it in front of your webcam, or camera phone (iPhone, for instance). The camera sees the bar code, matches it up with the database it has and enters the food data into your record. If the bar code is not entered yet, it will ask you to take a picture of the nutritional information for later evaluation.

If you eat more or less than one serving, you just change that in the record. It’s easy to do, and the software can be even modified to remember how much you typically eat of a given food. Your calorie counting life then becomes a matter of simply waving your food in front of your camera (iPhone), and the phone can immediately analyze how you are doing and how far you are from nutritional goals.

Even better, the app could also tell you what you SHOULD be eating instead of what you are holding in your hands… 😉

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Rain and No Workout – the Lethal Combination

This has been a horrible winter for all of us in San Diego. The usually fairly dry city has been beset by a series of winter storms, the latest passing over my head right now. It’s an El Niño year, which always means more rain for us, and this one is particularly nasty (nothing like the 1998 season, though).

Unable to get to my workout (and too lazy to replace it with something else), I decided to just eat less. Sometimes I just let myself go on days like this, but this time it was too important to me: I still have to lose 10 of the 15 pounds I gained after my motorcycle accident, and stopping right now would have been terrible for my motivation (especially since the weather is going to be nice tomorrow).

What can I tell you – I never feel cravings and hunger, to the point of physical discomfort, unless I don’t work out. Even after a hard workout, even if I really need food, the hunger never feels as bad if I am actually working out. When I am not, my body starts feeling ill and I know that only excessive food intake can make that all go away.

What is it? I think it’s mostly low blood pressure, brought on by the weather (don’t ask me why) and by the lack of exercise. I get lethargic as soon as the weather turns bad, and that is the original reason for my feeling unwell.

I have gone to the gym on rainy days, and I have skipped the gym on sunny days. The effects are as I had expected: lethargy is caused by lack of workout. The weather contributes only in that it starts me off on the wrong foot.

Solution: just go to the gym first thing in the morning on rainy days. Not an option on Sundays, since the gym opens late, but there is no excuse on other days.

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Change Your Brain – Change Your Body

I just happened to channel surf last night and stumbled across a weight loss information segment on PBS. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist telling his audience how he used brain scans to determine pattern and causes of overeating. All in all, an engaging two hours, and I would advise buying the DVD from the PBS site.

Aside from he shock and awe-inducing pictures of brain scans of old people, football players, and alcoholics, and from the constant references to chemical imbalances that cause overeating, the focus of attention was on the notion there are different kinds of personality profiles that tend to overeat.

That’s a great notion, since anyone who’s ever watched people trying to lose weight realizes that while the war is the same for all, the battles are all fought in different places and at different times.

I really paid attention only to the first two personality descriptions, the compulsive and the impulsive types. I’ll discuss my recollection of the two, but you really should go and listen to the whole thing, and learn about the best strategy to fight the good fight.

The compulsive eater is the type that obsesses about food. Every waking minute is spent thinking about food, about how to avoid food, about how wonderful food is, about how horrible it is to gain weight. You’d think this kind of person is doomed to a life of obesity. Not so! Says Dr. Amen.

In his brain scans, he detected hyperactivity in compulsive eaters. Now, my first reaction was, “duh!” I didn’t think about the consequence of this finding, though. If your brain is hyperactive, thinking about food all the time, calm it down. Just making the brain less preoccupied and overactive will give the compulsive eater a better chance at not overeating.

In short, if you think too much about food, instead of focusing on something else, just think less.

The impulsive eater is the type that can’t resist. Will power is the issue, and the psychiatrist starts a lecture about the prefrontal cortex, the censor in all of us, the piece of the brain responsible for coordinating, moderating, (and hence suppressing) thought.

The piece of information that stuck in my mind is that hypoactive PFCs tend to do worse the more the individual tries to force his or her will. The more someone with weak force of will tries to control his desires, the less he or she will be able to do so.

In the end, the battle can be won only by strengthening the will in an organic fashion (the psychiatrist seeks a chemical solution, of course).

Now, don’t think for a second that my recollection is accurate. As said, I was just half paying attention. Regardless of how much I was interested, though, I completely agree that the one-size-fits-all approach to dieting just doesn’t work.

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