Cook More.

One of my favorite messages from the recent Achieving Optimal Health Conference in DC was made by Georgetown University Professor Thomas Sherman: “Buy real food and cook it.” Some day, I’ll write another post inspired by one of his other comments that day: “Olive oil — pour it on like gravy.”

(c) BB&R Wellness Consultiing

(c) BB&R Wellness Consulting

You can read Dr. Sherman’s commentary on his speech, “Finding a Diet You Can Live With,” on the Georgetown Food Studies blog. There he summarizes how we ended up with an “all fat is bad” approach to what we eat and higher rates than ever of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. It’s definitely food for thought.

A few days after I heard Dr. Sherman speak, I had a conversation with my employer-provided health coach (yet another future post). I think we were probably talking about kale recipes, and she made the comment, “You would be surprised how many people just don’t cook.”

Why cook? Because you’re likely to eat more fruits and vegetables. You can also control what you’re putting into your body (and you don’t even have to be fanatical). And, let’s face it: Meals taste better when they don’t come out of a package.

Now I know some reasons not to make a meal from scratch: no time, no know-how, no one to share it with, and no interest. If you hate to cook, read the NY Times Opinion Pages from last spring to find a kindred (and very funny) spirit. Then find someone to cook for you so that you can enjoy the benefits of real food. 

If you are willing to “stand facing the stove” as Joy of Cooking author Irma Rombauer instructed, here are my suggestions.

Read cookbooks. 

Cooper likes Jamie at Home.

Cooper liked Jamie at Home a bit too much.

Flip through them, check out recipes, get inspired. Maybe I’m the only one who reads cookbooks in bed. It’s a cheap past-time because the library is full of cookbooks. Check some out. Flag some recipes to try. Or don’t. The more recipes you read, the more you will get the sense of how flavors and textures play together.

“Like” food blogs and “friend” friends who like to cook and eat.

Social media has made our dinners more interesting. I’m inspired by photos that our vegan friend Olga posts. Just the pictures will set me in a certain direction. Most of my friends are generous with their recipes. I’m sure yours will be, too. I also love having new recipes pop up in Facebook by bloggers I follow, like Louisa Shafia or Smitten Kitchen.

Make more than you need. Then eat the leftovers.

I just realized it’s 6pm and I need to practice what I’m preaching. I think dinner tonight will be inspired by Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian Cooking.Something with chicken. And ginger. And chiles. And cumin. A lot of it, so we can have a fast lunch tomorrow.

Let me know what you’re cooking!

Postscript Sunday Night: Too hungry to wait for chicken to cook. Used Jaffrey’s Gujerati-style Cabbage with Carrots as the base and added a can of black-eyed peas for protein. Fast and yummy! Heat 3 T of oil (I used coconut), add a pinch of asafetida if you have it, then 1 T of mustard seeds, and some red pepper flakes (I didn’t have a dried chili). When seeds start to pop, watch out! Add shredded cabbage, grated or chopped carrots, and finely chopped jalepeno. Cook on medium heat. After 5-7 mins, add black-eyed peas, big handful of chopped cilantro, 1+ t salt, 1/2 t sugar…. let cook. Add 1+ T of lemon juice at the end. Serve with brown rice.

Why Yoga? Reason #2

Sunday is yoga day. I’ve written about how it helps me avoid the tin man syndrome.  Here’s another reason I include yoga in my regular fitness routine…

To Calm the Beast in Me

My family can tell you that I can be a bear, a bit on edge, even tightly wound. I blame it on a Masarech gene, passed down through the family, labeled a bit fondly as “street-angel-house-devil.”  The first time I heard Johnny Cash’s rendition of “The Beast in Me” (written for him by Nick Lowe) on the American Recordings album produced by Rick Rubin, I knew Johnny and I were soulmates. But I digress. Actually, his performance is a worthy digression.

Breathe…

Yoga centers me. It forces me to slow down and focus. It makes me breathe with purpose. It calms me. It helps stress melt away. I’m a nicer person when I do yoga. I should probably do it more often!upward_dog

And it’s not just me. One study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine a few years ago found evidence that yoga has a more beneficial impact on mood than walking.

Body and Mind

A vibrant life requires more than a strong, healthy body. There’s also an emotional, attitudinal component. So don’t think you’re all set if you’re watching calories and doing regular cardio.

Try yoga if you need to to address the mind/heart part of your life. If you’re new to the practice, check out a local studio. A good teacher can really help you understand how to do the different postures correctly. You can also check out Living Green’s 15-minute awakening practice.

Yoga is the closest I get most weeks to meditation. It’s a topic I plan to explore more, after hearing Tara Brach speak about the benefits of meditation at last week’s Achieving Optimal Health Conference at Georgetown University and discovering Shirzad Chamine’s positive intelligence writings.

Stay tuned. And breathe.

October 18th update: I just came across this short post that I thought was worthy of sharing: MindBodyGreen’s “7 Reasons Why Yogis Are Happier People.

Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?

It’s good to have goals. I, for example, don’t want to be ordinary. You may want to lose that last five pounds, achieve a PR in your next 5k, or keep high blood pressure and diabetes at bay.

It’s good to have a plan for achieving your goals, too. Part of my plan is this blog. If I write about health and fitness, then I have to practice what I preach, right?

So what gets in the way of successful achievement of our goals? What trips us up from being the extraordinary people we were born to be?

10 Saboteurs

According to Positive Intelligence author Shirzad Chamine, there are saboteurs lurking inside us. In his blog he explains:self

Saboteurs are the internal enemies. They are a set of automatic and habitual mind patterns, each with its own voice, beliefs, and assumptions that work against our best interest. To illustrate, when our mind tells us that we should prepare for tomorrow’s important meeting, it is acting as our friend, causing positive action. When it wakes us up at 3:00 a.m. anxious about the meeting and warning us for the hundredth time about the many consequences of failing, it is acting as our enemy; it is simply exhausting our mental and physical resources without any redeeming value. No friend would do that.

So who’s living in you? The Judge, most likely — and which of his or her accomplices? Controller, Stickler, Avoider, Restless, Pleaser, Victim, Hyper-Rational, Hyper-Vigilant, or Hyper-Achiever? You can take a self-assessment on Chamine’s site to find out. He also talks about these saboteurs (and especially his experience with the Judge) in his TED talk below.

Exercise Your PQ Brain

Want to keep those saboteurs in check? I just downloaded a copy of the book to my Kindle to find out more about Chamine’s three strategies. The short answer for this short blog: Exercise. Not the kind of workout that I’ve been writing about, though. From what I can tell from Chamine’s site (and his PQ Gym), we’re talking mental reps, not push-ups. It involves stopping your “busy mind chatter” and redirecting attention to your physical sensations. Sounds a lot like meditation and prayer.

I think it’s a great reminder that we need to take control of what we eat, what we do, and how we think.

“Ring, Ring, It’s Your Brain Calling: Get Up!”

Next time you consider hitting the snooze button or flipping off your calendar prompt when it’s time to workout… Don’t. Resist the urge to sit tight. Get up and move. Don’t do it to squeeze into that size 8 dress in the back of the closet or look good at your upcoming reunion. Don’t do it for a healthy heart. Do it for your brain.

Exercise Boosts Brain Power

Brain Rules by John Medina is one of my very favorite books. There are 12 rules, but the first is “exercise boosts brain power.” I could summarize the main points of his chapter here, but I encourage you to check out Professor Medina’s interactive explanations on the Brain Rules site and the YouTube video below.

Don’t Stop with Exercise

Medina advises weaving activity into other tasks, and this idea may be taking off in the workplace. A client from my day job recently reported that her employer put a treadmill with a laptop desk, power cord, and Internet connection in the middle of the new open space office so employees can walk and work (maximum speed 2 miles/hour).

Playground Power

Earlier this month, I heard a PRI radio report about the impact of longer recess on student achievement in Finland. It appears that the secret to smarts isn’t more time in class but out. That prompted me to send an email to the Fairfield school board to understand why high school students are not required to take gym every semester.

I won’t bore with you the long reply, which noted that there was increasing pressure for standardized testing and that Fairfield actually requires more physical education than the state’s standard for graduation. Instead I’ll share the good news about recent legislation: Apparently teachers cannot require participation in gym as a form of punishment. Whoopie.

Danielle Henderson: Kickass Woman #3

Dani Get Your Guns in action. In red.

(c) 2013 Donalee Eiri, Photography by D.E.Sign Dani Get Your Guns in action. In red.

Today is my friend Danielle’s birthday. She’s a wife, a mom, a business professional with a full-time job, and a roller derby skater. Yup.  Roller derby. I am in awe. I don’t know how she does it all.

Danielle is one of two friends who inspired me as I was approaching 50 to return to a healthier, fitter lifestyle. (My other pal, Darlene, will no doubt get her post one day, too!)

Danielle, who skates as Dani Get Your Guns for the Windy City Rollers, was my colleague at the time. One Friday night I was in the Princeton office; she was in her home office in Chicago. Our Skype chat had moved from business to personal. She recommended I try the 10-Minute Trainer DVDs to work up to the type of fitness regimen she had. I shut down Skype, ordered it for Saturday delivery, and drove home to CT. I pushed play that weekend. A month later, we were both in NJ for work. I joined her at 5 a.m. for a 2-hour combo of p90x, Insanity, and Brazil Butt Lift. (That night when I drove into my driveway I could barely get out of the car!) Since then I’ve been pushing play for one program or another. I’m even an Independent Team Beachbody coach

What’s my point? Kickass women inspire others.  They take the time to help people accomplish things that they may not have considered possible. Thank you, Danielle! Maybe some day I’ll even have biceps like those you sport in your team pic!

Time to Soup Up Your Diet

Gotta love Monday mornings. I just had chicken-barley soup for breakfast.

Here’s why you should make — and eat — more soup.

Soup Is Nutrient Dense

Chicken-barley soup

Chicken-barley soup

When I was a kid, my Nana came over every Sunday for a mid-day dinner that my mom would make (roast beef, ham, roast chicken, pot roast, etc.). Supper was my dad’s job, and he often made soup by emptying all the week’s leftovers from the refrigerator into a pot and “doctoring” it up with fresh ingredients. His results were so tasty that my Nana once declared, “I like the suppers better than the dinners.” (Not a wise move in terms of mother-daughter relations.)

What my father knew is that you can pack a lot (and hide a lot) of healthy ingredients into soup, and it can still taste good. Scientists even study the chicken-soup-for-a-cold connection. Who am I to argue?

Soup Is Convenient

I telecommute for my day job. That means no corporate cafeteria. So when it’s lunch time, I walk down from my attic office (aka “the tower”), take the dog for a walk, and start scrounging around for something to eat. Since my husband works from home as well, I usually have two mouths to feed. Oh, and sometimes three, since our youngest daughter arrives home from her packed lunch-less high school schedule around 2:30 famished.

Heating up soup is super quick. Follow it up with an apple and peanut butter and we’ll all make it to dinner without becoming homicidal. (Okay, I am actually the only one who gets homicidal with hunger.)  I sometimes take a container of healthy soup with me to NJ on business, and heat it up for lunch or dinner.

The Days (in the Northeast US anyway) Are Getting Chilly

Soup and autumn are a great combo, especially with the wonderful squashes that will soon hit the local farmer’s markets: Delicata, butternut, and buttercup are my faves. What’s better than a brisk breeze coming through the still-open windows while a simmering soup on the stove fills the house with warm smells of yumminess? Perhaps only a cinnamon-y apple crisp in the oven.

Try These Soups

Here are a few suggestions to inspire you. No, they’re not exactly recipes. Who needs exact directions for soup? Go for it. Be creative! That’s another reason to love soup.

Chicken-Barley: I never let a chicken carcass go to waste. I turn it into soup. (Tip: I once heard Gourmet editor Ruth Reichel say you should never boil ingredients when making stock. Simmer!)  Take meat off the bones, then throw in lots of peppercorns, a bay leaf, celery, onions, garlic, and carrots and simmer. After a while, strain the bones and vegetables out of the broth. Toss the bay leaf, put the veggies back in, and zap it all with an immersion blender. (This last step isn’t required. I do it because someone in the family used to object to carrots. Another avoided celery.) Throw in barley, cook for 30 minutes or so. Then add back in the chicken, season with salt and pepper, and yum.

Lima Bean Soup

Lima Bean Soup

Lima Bean: Our local vegetarian restaurant Bloodroot serves a number of lima bean soups, depending on the season. This weekend I was too lazy to go upstairs to find their cookbook, so I tried to approximate my favorite version from memory. I sauteed onions and garlic in olive oil (until almost caramelized), added a bag of frozen baby lima beans, salt, pepper, sage, and about a quart of vegetable broth. Brought it to a boil, then simmered for 30 minutes or so. Added Bragg’s Amino (you could use regular soy sauce), a tablespoon of tomato paste, juice of a lemon, and basil.

Ginger Squash: Roast a variety of squashes in the oven. When cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh into a pot with vegetable (or chicken) broth (not too much — you can always add more). Add fresh ginger (at least an inch or two, peeled). And a peeled apple or banana, too. Ground cumin and ground chipotle are good additions, too. Simmer. Then blend. Season with salt and pepper, and some lime or orange juice. Serve with cilantro on top. If you want a more dramatic presentation and dose of dairy, add a dollop of sour cream or yogurt.

What are your go-to soups?

Diana Nyad: Kickass Woman #2

Within seconds of publishing this week’s blog (“In Defense of Walking“), a CNN alert popped up in my email announcing that Diana Nyad had just completed her 100+ mile swim from Cuba in about 53 hours. At 64 years old. No shark cage. Fifth attempt. I don’t think there is any commentary I can add but Wow. Woo-hoo. Way to go. Congratulations Diana Nyad.

Let’s all get out of our metaphorical shark cages and do something great.

Here is Diana’s inspiring 2012 TED talk about why she was compelled to try this swim.