Chocolate is my new diet strategy

This post is not about the nutritional profile of chocolate or any newly discovered health benefits to eating it. There are no embedded links to published research or journal articles on the antioxidant content of cacao – no listicles of conditions that may be improved by regular consumption of dark chocolate. That information is out there and easily found with a few keywords and a click.

For now, it’ll suffice to say that a little chocolate is not a bad thing in an overall well-balanced diet. But we’re still talking confectionery here, i.e. candy, calorie-rich and sugar-laden – maybe less so the darker, bittersweet varieties, but even those contain added sugars.  And, as we all know, sweets, including chocolate, are to be limited in general, and altogether avoided when trying to lose weight. At least, that’s what common nutrition sense and conventional diet wisdom tell us.

Let’s digress for a moment and talk about pizza.

Pizza is, for me, a special class of food all by itself, set apart from anything else I enjoy on a regular basis by its power to render my satiety signalling pathways completely kaput. A good New York-style pepperoni pizza with the perfect crust that’s simultaneously tender to the bite yet crisp and browned on the very bottom (never soggy in the middle) is quite literally a slice of heaven. When I’m having pizza, no matter how many slices I’ve already eaten, no matter how full I am, I always want more.

That was the case last Friday night. Capping off a busy week, hungry after the long grind and too tired to cook, we went out for pizza. One large slice…then another. I ate slowly relishing every bite. Two slices down, I waited and began contemplating my next move. I wanted to keep going. Just one more, I thought. But I was full – and fully aware that one more slice would tip the balance toward too much.

What entered my mind at that point (strange as it might sound) was chocolate, specifically the dark caramel sea salt bark I’d purchased earlier in the week. I visualized myself relaxing and enjoying a piece of it later in the evening while stretched out in front of the TV watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. I also thought to myself that it wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable right after gorging myself on pizza.

That was the decisive moment at which I resisted the temptation to keep eating. We concluded our pizza meal by asking for a to-go box.

Chocolate is no longer just a sweet indulgence. It’s a strategy.

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Later that evening, I got comfy in front of the TV and feasted my eyes on the extravaganza that opened the games in Rio. And without further delay…gratification.

I’m so close to my goal weight now.

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Strength

Six pounds down and still going…really slowly. That’s okay.

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My husband noted a few days ago that my abdomen appeared to be flattening out. “Thank you,” I said, “I’ve been working on that.” And I have, as part of a total body workout of cardio and strength training, but not necessarily focusing on abs specifically. It’s still early, but I am getting stronger, and it evidently shows.

Not only do I feel stronger, I also have the sense that I’m accomplishing something sort of important to my long-term health. I have a greater awareness of my body’s nutritional needs, for sure. I’m forming new habits based on better nutrition, but not completely avoiding things I enjoy. I’m actually enjoying food, in general, more than ever before, and feeling more satisfied, more nourished, all while eating less. To claim a slight sense of empowerment due to these changes wouldn’t be an overstatement.

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Dinner: bibb lettuce, yellow tomato, avocado, green onion, cilantro, lime, olive oil. Not shown: slices of baguette, black plums

Waiting in line at the grocery store check-out one day last week, I picked up a magazine – unfortunately, I can’t remember which one – featuring Cindy Crawford on the cover and an article about her recently published memoir, Becoming. Cindy Crawford is 50. I have to admit, being a woman of a certain (similar) age, and familiar with, as having lived through, the golden age of the supermodels, I’m kinda interested in reading it. Any woman who looks that great at 50 knows something that I do not, but would like to. (Of course, her hair and beauty budget likely exceeds my gross income many times over. But even so.)

After flipping to the article, the first thing I noticed, standing out from the text in a block quote, was the sentence, “Physical strength translates into emotional strength.”

I agree with that statement. Certainly, the extent to which physical strength contributes to overall health and well-being is an individual matter and different for every person. In addition, paradoxically, we may gain emotional strength from battling and coping with serious illness, disease or physical disability. Notwithstanding, who can argue that working to strengthen the body, whatever the preexisting limitation, often yields vast immeasurable psychological benefits as well; the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, aspects of our nature are intertwined and, I believe, inseparable.

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Confidence is an example of an emotional attribute that’s boosted by physical strength.

Do you agree with Cindy’s statement? Has losing weight, or working out regularly, or getting physically fit, helped you emotionally? What psychological benefits have you experienced as a result of physical fitness and training?

Now, about the exercise

My last post was a food “check-in” – a list of everything I ate in the previous week. Where I left off was the lead up to the July 4th holiday weekend. And you know how I handle the holiday eating – like the Nike slogan, Just Do It. Eat, that is. That’s how we celebrate.

And so I did. There was a celebratory meal with friends on Sunday night at my favorite Atlanta haunt, Eclipse di Luna (followed by a night-time jaunt through Chihuly in the Garden). Then another celebratory Independence Day meal with family that featured rib-eye steak on the grill.

Back to the daily food log for a moment. After recording and examining everything I ingested and imbibed throughout the previous week, I saw no opportunities for further reduction in caloric intake. My diet has settled into a pattern. I’m definitely eating less now than when I started, and I’ve lost weight, albeit not a vast amount and not continuously – there have been pauses and plateaus – but no rebound weight gain, even with the occasional indulgence.

This process is going slow, but that’s okay. I want the changes I’m making to be comfortable and permanent. I want to make sure my metabolism keeps working for me to keep the weight off, so that I may continue eating and enjoying all that the foodie universe has to offer.

How diets mess with your metabolism

Since metabolism is also a function of physical activity, it’s time for an exercise “check-in.”

I haven’t written much about my exercise routine, except to say that I mostly walk. Although I prefer outdoors, with summertime temperatures soaring into the 90s, I have to take my walk indoors on the treadmill. Lately, to increase the fat-burn, I’ve started doing an elliptical jog, which is a more vigorous work-out than walking. Either way, I try for at least 30 minutes 4 days a week. It may not sound like much to the fitness gurus – 150 minutes of moderate, or 75 minutes of vigorous, activity a week is the recommended minimum – but it’s more than what I was doing before. (Actually, anything is more than what I was doing before.)

But now that I’ve been at it for a number of weeks, I am noticing the workout getting a bit easier. I think I’m ready for a challenge. There’s added benefit to variety in exercise routine, so I’m changing things up by joining a dance class, a hip-hop dance class. It’s Mom-hop. Move over, Beyoncé – here come the moms.

I’m also adding strength training to my workout – twice a week, and that’s in addition to my walking/ellipticaling.

Suddenly, it sounds like I’ve gone from exercising “not that much” to “a whole lot,”  but I still have a long way to go before I’m overdoing it.

Moderation is key. Sound familiar?

Week 11: All about the food

I got back to the business of tracking this week, in the hope of seeing what’s needed to rid myself of those last stubborn few pounds. No frills in this post, just a list of what I ate.

With no one home, except for my husband and me, the gallon of blueberries that we picked on Saturday (a week ago) carried us a long way…that and half-a-gallon of blackberries too. My usual breakfast of cereal with fruit was replaced each morning by the streusel-top whole-wheat blueberry muffins well into mid-week. I kept the fresh fruit on the side.

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Monday, 6/20 – For breakfast, a muffin, and ½ cup of fresh blueberries. For lunch, a chicken artichoke flat-bread sandwich from Starbucks – one of two sandwiches I got with a BOGO offer.  For dinner, we cooked up a pot of ratatouille and grilled slices of ciabatta bread. Add to today’s list a cappuccino mid-morning and piece of dark chocolate with a cup of coconut-almond milk in the evening. Fruit & veggie count: 4 (Some room for improvement there)

Tuesday, 6/21 – Same breakfast as yesterday, but a yogurt in addition. I had the other BOGO Starbucks sandwich for lunch, this one egg salad on whole wheat, accompanied by some sweet potato chips. For dinner, Greg made some pan-roasted chicken thighs with onions and grapes, which we enjoyed with rice and a sliced (home-grown) tomato with olive oil and sea salt. It’s rare for us to have dessert with dinner at home, but Greg was also inspired this evening to make a blackberry cobbler…so simple, so southern, and so good. Dessert was in lieu of chocolate tonight, however, I did have a small bowl of cherries before going to bed. Fruit and veggie count: 4 (Sweet potato chips don’t count, but the onions, grapes, plus blackberries can count as = 1.)

I’ve never been a huge fan of yogurt, but since discovering the distinctive flavors of Dreaming Cow, I am definitely on the verge of becoming one. -unbelievably creamy and good!

Wednesday, 6/22 – Breakfast: same as yesterday – no muffins are going to waste here. Lunch was a big salad of Romaine lettuce, bacon, tomato, cucumber, and red onion, with vinaigrette dressing. A slice of Havarti cheese for snack in the afternoon, along with some fresh blueberries. Dinner was pan sautéed chicken tenders, Parmesan roasted zucchini and yellow squash, and a Caprese salad with Balsamic vinaigrette. A piece of dark chocolate at bedtime. Fruit and veggie count: 7 (Much better)

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Thursday, 6/23 – Breakfast: muffin again (almost gone). Lunch was salad, same as yesterday but minus the bacon, and with blue cheese yogurt dressing instead of vinaigrette. Watermelon for dessert. Blackberry cobbler with coffee in the afternoon. The rest of the day entailed dinner of leftover ratatouille and chicken tenders, 2 squares of dark chocolate and a bowl of cherries. Fruit and veggie count: 5

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Friday, 6/24 – Cereal for breakfast. Finally, the muffins are no more! -still plenty of fresh blueberries, though. Cappuccino mid-morning. Greek salad for lunch, and the last of the leftover ratatouille and chicken tenders for dinner. Chocolate, cherries, etc. Fruit and veggie count: 6

Saturday, 6/25 – A poached egg in the morning and some blueberries. For lunch, I had a salad and a sizable piece of Bosnian (fluffy pita) bread, which we picked up from a local bakery. I also had some watermelon after lunch and then a big peanut butter-chocolate chip cookie (with coffee) at the movies.  From there, we detoured home via the Dekalb Farmers Market, picking up some samosas to go. Fruit and veggie count: 5 

If you love samosas, as I do, then you’ll enjoying reading about this humble Indian street snack.

Sunday, 6/26 – Cereal, blueberries, maple ginger yogurt for breakfast. Avocado and tomato salad (i.e. guacamole) and white corn tortilla chips for lunch. An encore of blackberry cobbler – perfect for basking in the lull of a hot summer Sunday afternoon. Afterwards, a 35 minute work-out on the elliptical followed by dinner of lamb chop, pan sautéed yellow squash and red bell pepper, and boiled potatoes, all embellished with a beautiful salsa verde, and red bibb lettuce salad. And the weekend ends on a note of dark chocolate. Fruit and veggie count: 6 

But, I still have work to do.

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Week…10? The Reckoning

I’m going to address a messy topic today. Thinking about what I want to say has given me a lot of grief this past week…and how to say it, a lot of frustration. This post is about failure. If I am to be at all times honest, admitting failure at this point seems kinda unavoidable.

On April 11th, I embarked on a (public) journey to lose weight, get fit, and put a stop, once and for all, to the creep of pound after pound sneaking up on me over the past few years. The goal I set for myself was 8 lbs. in 8 weeks’ time. The plan to get me there was (1) follow eight simple dietary guidelines, and (2) be sure to get at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 days a week.

Now comes the reckoning.

Last time I posted my weight, it was 125. That was 2 weeks ago. It’s still 125. (Hey, at least I haven’t gained any weight back.) So, calculating from April 11th, I’ve dropped 5 lbs. in – you got it – 10 weeks. That’s an average of exactly ½ pound per week (do the math). I guess I won’t be publishing “Janet’s Special Rapid Weight Loss Plan” anytime soon.

I wouldn’t say that I failed miserably, though. I accomplished something – five pounds is something, after all. And, in the process, I became more aware of how much I ate on a regular basis. I learned how often is too often for a doughnut or almond croissant (every day is too often). I became attuned, and learned to respond appropriately, to my body’s hunger and satiety signals. I learned that I could be perfectly satisfied with one little square of dark chocolate at bedtime instead of two, and that I really don’t need a french baguette with every evening meal at home. (Of course, I do when enjoying an elegant meal out – besides, it comes to the table at no extra charge, freshly baked, crusty and undeniably delicious, and not to be refused under any circumstances.) Also along the journey, inspired by the seasons, I acquired a new appreciation for the fresh, the whole, the raw, the completely unadorned and utterly simple. How splendid is a mere slice of peak-season, home-grown tomato with nothing more than a sprinkling of sea salt?

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Black plum

There’s a certain beauty in extreme simplicity when it comes to ripe, freshly picked, seasonal fruits and vegetables. And there’s a new ease to not only meeting, but exceeding, that “5-a-day” fruits and veggies recommendation. This alone represents an unequivocal improvement in my eating habits and overall health, whether or not I continue to lose toward my original goal. Take a look at what I’ve been eating lately. (Scroll down for links to the recipes.)

Slow-cooker beans and Mexican rice, avocado, cilantro, red Sangria

Slow-cooker beans and Mexican rice, avocado, cilantro, red Sangria

And while true that I’ve only lost 5 lbs., on the other hand, I’m only 3 lbs. away from my goal weight of 122. That’s not much. I could stop and focus instead on maintenance, which seems natural now, given how my eating habits have changed for the better. Yes. I could quit, call it a day, and just go shopping.

But there’s just one problem. I’m still a few pounds too much in the midsection (if you know what I mean) for my new scuba dress, which I purchased at the end of last summer, and which I have, almost a year later, yet to wear. Have you ever bought a dress knowing it was a tad too snug, but hoping it would provide you the motivation to lose some pounds because you loved it so much and wanted to rock it in that smaller size? Well, I have.

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Now is not the time to quit. Now is the time to double down on a new goal: rock the scuba dress. I’m going to recommence tracking every single thing I eat, all my meals and snacks, every day for the next couple of weeks, and I’m going to up my exercise.

Here’s to sticking with it. I hope you’ll stick with me.

Recipes:  Vietnamese Lemongrass ChickenDouble Chocolate Greek Yogurt Banana BreadWhole Wheat Blueberry Muffins

One rule rules vacation

It’s been awhile since I last posted, so now comes a bit of catching up.

After the last day of the school year and before the Memorial Day weekend, I took time off of work (and blogging) to spend some time with my teenager. We made the 1½-hour drive to visit my parents (a.k.a. Grandma and Grandpa) at their home in the Northeast Georgia mountains where we found plenty of spectacular scenery to lure us outside, onto shady trails through old-growth forests, past blooming Mountain Laurel and Rhododendron, high above waterfalls, across creeks via suspension bridges, and more. Welcome to beautiful Tallulah Gorge State Park. And, welcome to summertime in the south.

Whether a road-trip to a nearby destination, a low-key visit with friends or relatives, sight-seeing in a great city, or romantic escape to some far-away and exotic paradise, the break in routine that travel provides is refreshing, invigorating, and beneficial to health on many levels.

But, vacation poses a serious challenge to a person’s weight-loss efforts, does it not? No question, one of the most enjoyable aspects of travel is the opportunity to try novel and unfamiliar food, sample regional specialties, and feast on delicacies unavailable at home. Exciting for sure, but not exactly a diet-friendly proposition.

Here’s how I handle the dilemma: I temporarily abandon my diet rules — all except for one, that is — to savor everything a destination has to offer. I say yes to the culinary pleasures travel affords, because saying no almost always backfires (see On Rituals and Traveling). I’ve come to understand that the opportunity to partake of a particular thing, by way of place and time, may never come again. And the moment of refusal, for all of its good intentions and all the right reasons, turns inevitably into one of regret, spoiling the memory of what was otherwise a cherished and unforgettable experience.

My downtime in Appalachia last week involved such southern fare as fried chicken, biscuits, collards cooked in meat, not to mention the pot liquor. But it wasn’t all deep-fried or made with pork fatback. There was also local farm produce fresh from roadside stand to Grandma’s table.

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Grandma’s table – Yellow & red tomatoes with vinaigrette, half runner beans, pan-sauteed lemon-pepper chicken tenders

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Grandma’s salad – vinaigrette perfection!

The only rule that I continued to observe throughout the week was portion control. I had everything I wanted, just not too much of it. With each meal, I made sure to stop eating before I got very full.

It just takes self-awareness, that’s all, starting from the time you sit down at the table. You eat your meal slowly and pay attention to your body’s signals. It may take a little practice if you’re not used to doing it, but eventually you learn to recognize the point when satiety is reached. Then, you put down your fork, and you’re done. You take a deep breath and smile. You feel satisfied. Grateful even. You feel nourished.

I did not weigh in for the entire week. Not sure what I’d find after I got home and stepped on the scales again, I was relieved to see this:

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Four days later, post holiday weekend filled with the sweet aroma of traditional hickory-smoked barbecue, accompanied by corn on the cob, potato salad, and ice tea, this:

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My one rule rules!

Cheers to summertime and to vacation. Give yourself wholehearted consent, ahead of time, to enjoy all the sensory pleasures of travel, or any special occasion. Say yes. Just, not too much.

Week 5: A little fat and a little carb

After more than a week of weight loss slump, post-birthday cake, post wings & fries, I made an effort to get back on track with losing some pounds. I considered whether to make more drastic cuts in my eating beyond what I initially intended, but decided instead to simply remind myself of, and recommit to, My 8 Rules – be sure to get 5 fruits and veggies each day, pay attention to the body’s hunger-fullness signals, and keep the portions modest, particularly when it comes to snacks. One additional reminder to myself was to pass up things made with flour and sugar, thereby avoiding not only unhealthy carbs, but also some fat, since things made with flour and sugar often contain generous amounts of butter.

Over the years, I’ve adopted an approach to eating that conforms loosely to the Mediterranean Diet: olive oil as the principal fat; lots of fish and poultry; red meat in moderation; fruits and vegetables in abundance; dairy in moderation, including cheese, yogurt, and 2% milk (I don’t care for skim); nuts, legumes, whole grains; a little wine.

I don’t focus on either low-fat or low-carbs. There are healthy fats, which the body needs, the kind found in olive oil, salmon, nuts, avocados; and there are healthy carbs such as corn, grapes, whole grain cereal, potatoes. Potatoes are good carbs, low in saturated fat, rich in potassium, vitamin C, B6, and magnesium. They’re versatile and satisfying, too. I was watching when the legendary Julia Child, at age 90, told Larry King how she loved a baked potato, with lots of butter. And I remember thinking, So do I.

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I shan’t argue that french fries are bad for you. As much as I love them, I must acknowledge the nutritional pitfalls of ‘deep-fried’ in hydrogenated something-or-other oil. That’s bad.

But there’s a debate about even the good stuff: low-fat versus low-carb for weight loss and health. Clearly, the scientific evidence favors the low-carb argument.

How the times have changed… and also what we once thought was good for health and longevity. Avoiding fat, all fat, was thought to be good. Does anyone recall tromping up and down the grocery aisles scanning packages for “healthy” low-fat foods, defined, for example, as containing < X g. of fat per serving, never mind the sugar? Well, now we know how detrimental sugar can be to health, and the current guidelines recommend that sugar make up no more than 5% of total diet. For most normal-weight adults, that amounts to about 25 grams a day (less than half of what’s in the typical flavored blended coffee drink).

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/world-health-organization-lowers-sugar-intake-recommendations/

Caution when reading package labels. The FDA has some catching up to do.

http://www.cnn.com/2016/05/13/health/fda-food-labeling-healthy-fats-and-sugar/index.html

So, should we be counting grams now along with calories?

Personally, I’m disinclined to count. But I will pay attention and try to steer clear of flour and sugar. Generally speaking. Unless, of course, someone is having a birthday. Every rule has its exceptions.

The last week was a good one. I followed my rules, and still enjoyed some dark chocolate and a coconut macaroon or two (very small – just a little bit of sugar).

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Green leaf salad with herb-roasted golden beets, red onion, cucumber and red wine vinaigrette

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Warm corn tortillas topped with fire-roasted tomato sauce, chicken, sour cream and cilantro

My weight is going down again – at 126 lbs. I’ll take my pounds one at a time.

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Midpoint Melancholy

Week 4 on my weight-loss plan found me feeling a tad melancholy and slightly anxious about the way I’m going about it. My hope, at the outset, was to lose 8 lbs. in 8 weeks by making only minor modifications to my diet – see my 8 rules – and getting at least the minimum recommended weekly amount of exercise (150 minutes). After the first two weeks, I was optimistic, completely convinced I was on the right path toward sweet success. Three pounds fell off almost immediately. But after that second week, it leveled out, plateaued, as they say, and I haven’t lost any more since.

One of the challenges to weight loss is that the body’s metabolism tends to adjust to a reduction in caloric intake by slowing down. The much-publicized “Biggest Loser” study, published last Monday in the journal Obesity, confirms this physiological reaction. It makes a valid argument against extreme calorie restriction and rapid weight loss. While I’m not drastically cutting calories for quick or substantial weight loss – I think I’m taking in 300-400 fewer calories a day than before – I wonder if my body is trying to adapt to the (albeit modest) decrease in energy consumption. I sure hope not. Because, menopause has already put the brakes on my metabolism. That’s, no doubt, one of the factors contributing to my creeping weight gain.

On the other hand, perhaps my body is just responding to….well, raspberry white chocolate birthday cake. Even If I’d thought about it, this past week was definitely not the time to introduce further dietary restrictions. Not while there was a birthday to be celebrated. Not while there was cake to be had. Happy Birthday to my beautiful and talented, exceptional, delightful, daughter, Marguerite, who turned 15 this past week.

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My weight loss plan is still on. I’m going to stay the course, continue to follow my 8 rules, indulge on occasion, be patient, and give it a little more time.

Highlights of my week in food:

I ate cereal every morning, except for one, and on that day, I had a poached egg and English muffin with butter and cherry preserves. I ate lots of fruit throughout the week, as I usually do, including bananas, apples, strawberries, blueberries, and some pineapple. The PB&J sandwich was my lunchtime standby, and chocolate my bedtime ritual. Different types of salads, including spinach, appeared on the menu at home. Restaurants still figured into the picture of our week, but I tried, and generally succeeded, to keep it light or take half to go. One other little cheat this week: buffalo wings and fries on Saturday night, along with a cider…the hard kind : )

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Spinach salad with tomato, avocado, green onion, bacon, egg and red-wine vinaigrette dressing

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Fresh berries with hand-whipped vanilla cream & mint from the garden

No change to my weight. Stay tuned.