Weight loss vs. health gain

17079-close-up-of-feet-standing-on-a-scale-pvWeight loss is a multi-billion-dollar industry in the US. Hundreds of companies are banking on the fact that most people would like to see a smaller number on the scale, and they’d like to see it quickly, please. Our culture tells us that extra pounds are something to be loathed. Excess weight is a malignancy that must be excised. That number on the scale is the enemy, and if you can just reduce it down to some other arbitrary number then everything will be okay. People will love you. You’ll love yourself. You’ll get that raise, you’ll get that guy or girl, you’ll make everyone at the beach or the gym or your high school reunion green with envy.

But these companies also are betting that once you lose the weight by following their restrictive diet plans and exhausting fitness routines, you’ll gain it back. Why do so many of them offer lifetime memberships? Or repeat customer benefits? Or sell their shakes/pills/powders by the case at warehouse grocery stores?

It’s because they know the truth: that maintaining optimal weight comes as a result of getting healthy — balancing blood sugar and hormones, reducing inflammation, clearing up systemic infections and/or fungal proliferation, bringing the body’s microbiome systems into balance, restoring the integrity of the gut lining and the vascular endothelium, eradicating toxins, and a host of other things that can throw the body out of balance and cause it to hang on to extra weight, or to require medications that have weight gain as a side effect.

But they can’t sell you that. So instead they sell you restriction, deprivation, starvation and exhaustion. All of those things will, indeed, cause you to drop weight in the short term. Over the long term, even if they stick with the program, many people will plateau because the body has had enough. It flips into survival mode and in order to keep you alive, it starts to hang onto all the resources it can, which results in stalled weight loss.

Most people, though, will stop before they get to that point. They’ll realize they just can’t keep up with a restrictive diet and/or exhausting fitness routine. Their bodies will rebel. And they’ll go back to their old way of eating/moving and gain all the weight back (plus a little extra for their trouble). This is the unfortunate result, more often than not, of focusing solely on weight loss without giving attention to health.

What’s the alternative? Focus on gaining health. A functional medicine practitioner can diagnose and treat any underlying issues, and that coupled with a diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruits and healthy fats and proteins, along with a balance of movement and rest that works for your body, can set you on the path to reaching and maintaining not only your optimal weight, but your optimal health as well. It’s not a quick fix by any measure, but the result is a lifetime of looking and feeling better, and that’s a lifetime membership worth opting into.

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Weight loss vs. health gain

What are your cravings trying to tell you?

8224-chocolate-chip-cookies-on-a-plate-pvWe all crave certain foods from time to time. But what do these cravings mean and why do we have them?

Cravings are the body’s way of communicating a need. Figure out the need, and you can give yourself a variety of choices for how to fill that need, including choices that won’t derail you from your health goals! Here are some common food cravings, what they might mean, and how you can tackle them.

Craving: Chocolate

Why you’re craving it: Odd as it may sound, chocolate cravings often stem from mineral deficiencies, particularly magnesium, iron and zinc.

Try this instead: Make sure you’re getting enough minerals in your daily diet. Grass-fed beef, pastured lamb and sustainably caught shellfish are good animal sources of iron, magnesium and zinc. Plant sources include dark leafy greens, legumes, Brazil nuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds.

If you’ve just gotta have it: When it comes to chocolate, the darker, the better. If your usual drug of choice is a sugary, waxy milk chocolate, it’s time to step up to the good stuff. Gradually wean yourself to the darkest chocolate you can stand (aim for 70% or greater cocoa content). Chocolate that dark not only will feed your chocolate craving, it’ll also help supply the minerals your body is missing without spiking your blood sugar.

My favorites: Green & Black’s Organic 85% Dark Cacao Bar (available pretty much everywhere, including Walmart), Alter Eco Dark Blackout Organic Chocolate bar (also 85% cocoa content, available at health food stores).

Craving: Cake and cookies

Why you’re craving it: A craving for sweet carbohydrates in baked form usually stems from stress. This can be emotional stress from a difficult work, school, relationship or financial situation, or it can be physical stress from illness (or certain medications used to treat it), lack of sleep, injury or overexertion. No matter how you slice it, if you’re craving cake and cookies, you’re hurting on some level and you need comfort.

Try this instead: The first line of defense for comfort food cravings is to try to fill the need for comfort without food. If you come home from work and immediately end up face-down in a box of Ring Dings, it might be time to switch up your routine. Change into some comfortable clothes, put on some soothing body lotion, cuddle up with a blanket (and/or a pet), put on some relaxing music, light a scented candle or diffuse some essential oil, try a little self-massage. Do some yoga stretches (check videos on YouTube) or meditate for as long as you can stand it (one minute is okay — one breath is okay!). Find a long-term stress relief and self care routine that works for you and watch those comfort food cravings melt away!

If you’ve just gotta have it: Sweet fruits and warming spices are the way to go if your body is screaming for baked goods. Try sauteing apple or banana slices in a skillet with some grass-fed butter or coconut oil, then sprinkling with cinnamon, nutmeg and/or powdered ginger. Unsweetened applesauce with cinnamon, warmed on the stove or in the microwave, is another good choice. And if you really really need a cookie, these power cookies from Abel James are packed full of superfood ingredients.

My favorites: I like to mash a banana with some nut butter, then add cinnamon and other warming spices and heat the whole shebang in the microwave or on the stovetop. It sounds weird, but it’s so comforting and delicious!

Craving: Salty, crunchy snacks

Why you’re craving it: Barring a sodium deficiency in your diet, which is rare, a craving for salty, crunchy snacks usually stems from plain old boredom. People who crave chips, pretzel sticks and crackers on a regular basis tend to need a lot of sensory stimulation and novelty, or they tend to have a lot of nervous energy and need to do something with their hands.

Try this instead: Just like with a comfort-food craving for baked goods, a salty/crunchy craving that stems from boredom often can be met by addressing the boredom directly. So try something new that engages your mind, keeps your hands busy, and gives you a different sensory experience. Knitting, crochet and other forms of needlework, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, sudoku, adult coloring books, solitaire (with actual cards, not on your phone), getting up and moving around when you usually sit, or even sitting in a different chair or spot on the couch all can twitch your brain out of that boredom groove.

If you’ve just gotta have it: Kale chips and other veggie chips are a health-supporting alternative to potato, tortilla and pita chips provided they’re fried or baked in a non-inflammatory oil (like coconut, avocado or olive oil). Roasted nuts are another great choice — make your own by tossing two cups of raw mixed nuts with a couple of tablespoons of healthy oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, then roasting on a parchment-lined baking sheet at 350 degrees F for 10 to 15 minutes.

My favorites: This may sound weird coming from a health coach, but I’m a big fan of pork rinds provided the only ingredients are pork and salt – Baken-Ets Traditional is a pretty widely available brand. I also love Seasnax, which are a good source of iodine for those of us not using iodized table salt. And Inka Chips Original plantain chips have taken the place of tortilla chips in my house — they’re great for scooping up homemade guacamole and salsa.

Craving: Beer and bread

Why you’re craving it: Odds are if you’re craving yeasty foods and drinks, you’ve got a little tummy upset going on and your beneficial gut bacteria are trying to boost their numbers through fermentation.

Try this instead: Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi and other traditional fermented pickles should settle your tummy without adding too many inches to your waistline. If you tolerate dairy, try a fermented full-fat dairy product like yogurt or kefir.

If you’ve just gotta have it: Fermented vegetables and diary not doing the trick? Try a traditional fermented cider or ginger beer, kombucha, or a drinking vinegar or shrub. If the bread bug has got you down and you’ll absolutely die without a little bite, opt for a sprouted whole-grain fermented sourdough bread. Just watch your portions if you have a blood sugar imbalance or weight-loss goal.

My favorites: Buddha’s Brew Hop’d kombucha and Live Soda kombucha in Sparkling Ginger are in my refrigerator at all times to soothe any tummy issues that come along. I’m also a huge fan of Farmhouse Culture‘s raw fermented sauerkraut and kimchi.

What are your cravings trying to tell you?

Easy recipe: homemade nut milk

almondmilk

Have you ever read the ingredient label on a carton of nut milk from your local supermarket or health food store? Most of them are full of thickeners, coloring agents and sugars. It’s kind of crazy because nut milk is so easy to make! You don’t even need a recipe, really, but here are the instructions for one quart of homemade nut milk.

For all nut milks: begin by soaking one cup of nuts in water with a pinch of sea salt for 10-12 hours (or overnight). Rinse and drain nuts and dump into a blender with a pinch of sea salt. You also can add a pitted date and/or a bit of pure vanilla extract if you like.

For almond or hazelnut milk: add 4 cups filtered water and blend on high speed until liquefied. This might take a couple of minutes depending on how powerful your blender happens to be. Line a wire mesh strainer with fine cheesecloth (or use a nut milk bag) and strain, then transfer the liquid to a sealed quart-sized bottle or jar and keep in the refrigerator for up to one week.

For cashew milk: add 3 cups filtered water and continue as above, but do not strain milk. There’s no need with cashew milk as the cashews will soften and pulverize completely. (The date may not, however, so you may want to substitute a tablespoon of raw honey for the date if you’d like a sightly sweetened cashew milk.)

That’s really all there is to it! If you’re making almond or hazelnut milk, you can take the further step of drying the leftover pulp in the oven or a food dehydrator, then pulsing it for a couple of seconds in a food processor to make nut meal for recipes that call for that ingredient. All for the cost of one cup of raw nuts!

Easy recipe: homemade nut milk

Recipe Hack: Paleo Dongpo Pork (soy-free, nut-free, legume-free)

dongpo2My friend Kim is basically a superhero. A talented journalist and blogger, mum to four boys and spectacular cook, the food photos she posts on social media never fail to get my mouth watering. A couple of weeks ago she posted a photo that had me wiping drool off my phone screen: jewel-like cubes of pork belly slow-simmered in Asian seasonings until they were sticky and caramelized. She called it Dongpo Pork and posted the recipe on her blog not long after.

I had four pounds of pork belly in my freezer just waiting to be turned into such a delicacy, but there was one small problem: the original recipe is very soy-heavy, and my husband and kids all are allergic to soy. Other problems, on the night I decided I HAD TO MAKE THIS THING RIGHT NOW and didn’t want to take the time to run out to the store first: I had no idea what Shaoxing wine was, I had no peanut oil in the house, ditto Chinese tea of any kind, tritto yellow rock sugar (or any “normal” sugar for that matter).

But no matter! When pork belly needs to happen, PORK BELLY NEEDS TO HAPPEN, PEOPLE. Somehow, miraculously, I managed to make it work with a million substitutions. Below is my hacked version of Kim’s amazing original recipe. For what it’s worth, my version is soy-free, nut-free and completely paleo, though I did serve it over rice. And it was delicious! We literally fought over the leftovers, which never happens in my house. Awesome stuff!

Paleo Dongpo Pork

  • 4 lbs. pork belly
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 cup coconut aminos
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 cup mirin
  • 5 Tbs. coconut palm sugar (it’s what I had)
  • 2 cups brewed black tea (I used a chai spiced tea because again, it’s what I had)
  • 1 thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger, peeled, sliced and bruised
  • 8 green onions, cut into thirds or fourths

Place the pork in a large pot or dutch oven, cover with cold water, bring to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Remove pork and set aside until cool enough to handle.

Cut pork into 1.5-inch cubes (more or less). Wipe out the dutch oven, add the olive oil and brown the pork in batches over medium-high heat, setting aside afterward.

Carefully wipe out the dutch oven again. Add the coconut aminos, molasses, mirin, coconut sugar and tea and bring to a boil. Add the ginger and onions.

Add the pork and enough water to cover, if needed. Bring it back up to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer uncovered for around 3 hours or until the pork is tender (make sure all the pork is covered with liquid during the cooking process or, as per Kim, it may dry out).

Remove the pork with a slotted spoon and set aside. Bring the sauce back to a gentle boil and reduce to a thick glaze (this took about 30 minutes for me).

Pour glaze over pork and serve with rice, cauliflower rice, vegetable noodles or just on its own!

Recipe Hack: Paleo Dongpo Pork (soy-free, nut-free, legume-free)

Should you take a cheat day?

14730-a-young-asian-woman-serving-herself-food-from-a-dining-table-pv

As a nutrition and wellness coach, when I say I don’t believe in cheat days I immediately paint myself as a hard-nosed, toe-the-line, no-deviation-from-the-script ascetic. But that’s actually the opposite of my philosophy. Let me explain.

In case you’re not familiar with the concept of cheat days, the idea is that when you’re following a restrictive diet, you get a day off every week or so to eat whatever you want as a sort of reward for sticking with the diet the rest of the time. The more restrictive the diet, the more hog-wild cheat days tend to be, often ending in gastrointestinal distress and feelings of guilt and regret. “I was doing so well, but I totally blew it on my cheat day! OMG, why did I eat that?!”

One of the reasons I don’t believe in cheat days is that I don’t believe in restrictive diets, either. I don’t believe in starvation or deprivation. That’s not how you heal the body.

The reason we need food to live is that we break down everything that enters our digestive systems into smaller bits that our bodies need to function. We use food to build and repair tissue, synthesize vitamins and hormones, remove toxins, keep our organs functioning — pretty much everything the body needs to do, it needs food in order to do it. Food isn’t just there to fill up our stomachs and keep us from feeling hunger. Food literally builds our bodies.

Different foods work for different people because we’re all so unique, inside and out. Your genetics, the composition of your gut microbiome, your external environment and whatever toxins and irritants exist there — all of these things affect how your individual body breaks down food and what it does with those smaller parts.

A large part of my coaching practice is helping people figure out what foods work for their individual bodies. What foods support health for you? What foods make you feel and look amazing? What foods give you glowing skin, boundless energy, sound sleep, balanced moods, untroubled digestion, painless movement throughout your day? Conversely, which foods make you feel awful? Which foods cause skin rashes and breakouts, digestive distress, insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches, muscle aches, joint pain and fatigue?

It takes a while to figure all this out. But once you have figured it out, and provided you’ve done it by enjoying an abundance of clean protein, healthy fats and whole-food carbs in proportions that work for your body (not starving yourself, in other words), my hope for you is that you’ll choose to eat in a health-supporting way most of the time. Notice I didn’t say all the time. There may be situations in which you make an informed choice to eat a food that you know will make you feel bad because you’re willing to deal with the consequences of that. And that is a valid choice because you’re the boss of you and you get to make those decisions, guilt-free.*

(* Caveat: When you know a food makes you feel bad and you choose to consume it more than once a week or so, or if you feel compelled to set aside an entire day to binge on foods that you know make you feel lousy, there’s something going on there that needs to be addressed. The best-case scenario is that you’re not including enough calories and fat in your diet so that you feel deprived and deserving of a food “reward”. Worse-case, it’s about you feeling that, for some reason, you deserve to feel bad. Or at the very least, you don’t deserve to feel good. And it might be a good idea to examine why you feel that way.)

Barring an allergy or some other medical condition like diabetes or celiac, there are no good or bad foods. There are foods that make you feel good and foods that make you feel bad. There’s no such thing as “cheating” when you’re eating this way. There’s no stress over worrying whether a particular food is vegan or paleo or low-carb or detox-approved or otherwise on your “diet”. Everything you put into your mouth is a choice, or in some cases an experiment: how will this food make me feel? The answer to that question matters more than any diet dogma.

Love yourself. Forgive yourself. Nourish yourself. Don’t cheat yourself.

Should you take a cheat day?

Do you need a detox?

11705-a-beautiful-woman-holding-a-glass-of-juice-pvI’m sure you’ve seen them around: “cleanse” and “detox” programs promising to jump-start your health and weight-loss journey in anywhere from three to 30 days. Some involve juices, smoothies or shakes, some involve supplement pills, powders and specially packaged “foods”. Nearly all of them promise big results, fast. But do you need a cleanse or detox in order to kick off your journey to health and wellness?

In a word: no.

I am not at all a fan of cleanse and detox programs and don’t include them as part of my health coaching practice. Here’s why:

  1. They’re often deficient in calories, protein and/or fat — all things your body desperately needs to stay healthy and strong.
  2. They don’t actually do anything to reduce whatever toxic load you might be carrying (your liver and kidneys detoxify your body all day, every day).
  3. They’re expensive.
  4. They don’t produce lasting results.
  5. They’re often an excuse for people to eat junk when not on the program.
  6. They shock the body and actually can do more harm than good.

If you drink nothing but grapefruit juice, or lemon juice and cayenne pepper mixed with water, or kale and cucumber smoothies for an entire week, then yes, you’re going to lose some weight. You’re taking in about half the calories and way less than half the protein and fat your body needs to function, so obviously you’re going to shed some pounds (most of it water and sometimes muscle depending on the length of the program).

But what then? What do you do when the cleanse or detox is over? How do you eat moving forward? And how long do you think you’ll keep that weight off once the detox has ended?

Instead of embarking on a seven-day starvation regimen of flavored water and/or synthetic vitamins, what if instead you start TODAY eating just a bit less refined sugar, refined flour and factory-made food and eating just a bit more fresh vegetables, fresh fruits and clean protein? And then tomorrow, you cut back even more on the refined/processed stuff and load up a bit more on the fresh/clean stuff?

Do that every day and instead of sending your body into metabolic shock, causing it to break down muscle and throw your hormones out of whack, you’ll be building sustainable nutrition habits that lead to slow, steady hormone balance, tissue repair and weight loss. You’ll learn what foods work for your body, what foods don’t, what foods you truly enjoy and what foods you can give yourself permission to stop eating. Your relationship with food will change. No longer will it be a source of reward, punishment, guilt or shame; instead it will be what it’s meant to be — an extremely enjoyable way of keeping your body running in tip-top shape, feeling strong and energetic and free from pain and illness.

Those are results that last a lifetime, and that beats the heck out of losing and gaining the same 10 pounds (at $10 or more per pound, in the case of some cleanses) over and over AND OVER again!

Do you need a detox?

What does “whole grain” really mean?

17400-various-breads-and-grains-pvCan you spot the whole grain in this photo?

There seems to be a lot of confusion over what constitutes a “whole grain”. I’m not sure why as it’s really pretty simple. A whole grain not only contains the inner germ, the middle endosperm layer and the outer bran, it’s also … well, whole. You can see it with your eyes. You can feel it with your hands. It looks like a grain. It has defined edges.

A lot of processed foods like to splash “Made with 100% whole grain!” all over their packaging but if the grain has been milled into flour to make that product, it’s no longer a whole grain. It’s flour. The cell walls have been broken, the fats have been oxidized and a lot of the nutrient content has been lost. You’re no longer getting the benefits, however small, of consuming whole grains.

As far as those benefits go, whole grains do contain fiber, B vitamins, small amounts of protein and some healthy fats. But the truth is, if you’re eating a variety of fresh vegetables, leafy greens, seafood, nuts and meats, particularly organ meats, you’re already getting everything that whole grains have to offer from a nutritional standpoint. And you’re getting far fewer insulin-spiking carbohydrates.

Whole grains do add a nutty flavor and chewy texture to meals, and they also can help stretch higher quality ingredients over a greater number of servings. Just keep in mind that the nutritional content compared to the foods listed above is relatively low and that the carbohydrate content is quite high.

If you do choose to eat whole grains, I highly recommend eating TRULY whole grains and entirely avoiding products made from grain flour. The Whole Grains Council has a handy guide to cooking a huge variety of grains in their whole, unprocessed form. It’s also a good idea to soak, ferment and/or sprout your grains before cooking to aid digestion.

And if you choose not to include grains in your diet? As long as you’re eating a variety of fresh, unprocessed plant and animal foods, you’re not missing a thing.

What does “whole grain” really mean?