Sunday, January 18, 2015

"It's Still Fat"

Ten years ago, my mother had a triple bypass and was encouraged to switch to olive oil. Olive oil, she was told, had a positive impact on cholesterol. But, she should be careful not to eat too much of it.

When we questioned that, the response was "it's still fat."

That didn't make sense to me. Sure, it was fat--but, it was apparently a fat that had a positive impact on cholesterol (and, thus, artery blockage). So, what were its downsides? What was the negative effect?

We never got an answer, and it turned out not to be urgent since my mother's cardiologist pushed her toward cholesterol medication. I didn't want her to take it after reading the potential side effects, but he and her regular doctor convinced her that there was no way to lower your cholesterol as much as she needed to with just dietary changes.

I was skeptical about that whole "no other way" thing. In law school, I'd lowered my cholesterol by nearly 100 points in six months just but cutting way back on fat. I didn't know anything, then, about fiber or good fats or the various foods that helped cholesterol. I just cut my fat intake to the bone and my cholesterol dropped like a stone.

After a triple bypass, though, she was understandably skittish about experimenting and started the medication.

I didn't have much occasion to think about it again until a couple of years ago, when my own cholesterol started climbing into the danger zone. Naturally, the go-to solution was to start me on medication, but I still hated that list of side effects and I had that early experience to tell me that the "no other way" argument probably didn't hold water.

I did lower my LDL by 69 points in four months, but that's another story for another day. The story I came here to tell is about how, after years of questioning doctors and a good bit of time invested searching the internet in vain, I got a straight answer about what "it's still fat" means.  And, it's not something you should fear.

There are, apparently, two concerns about eating too much "good fat" when you have cholesterol issues:

  • Fat has a lot of calories. That's not likely to come as a surprise to anyone, but for some reason instead of saying, "These fats are good, but they have a lot of calories, so watch your total intake," the medical profession has decided to shorthand to "it's still fat". Which, as I may have mentioned, is meaningless and unhelpful. So, the upshot is that if you eat a lot of good fats, your recommended daily caloric intake is still your recommended daily caloric intake. For this, the medical profession has had us all uncertain about good fats for years.
  • If the percentage of unsaturated fat in your diet gets too high, your body can't process it normally and it starts to act like bad fat. This, obviously, is a more serious concern...until you consider what "too high" means. Many studies over the past several years have shown that getting about 1/3 of your calories from fats is heart healthy, so long as your saturated fat intake is very low and those fats are coming from sources like olives, nuts and fish. 

In short, "it's still fat" seems to mean that if you eat too many calories because good fats are dense with calories, you'll gain weight (probably not news) and that it's important to balance your caloric intake among fats, carbohydrates and protein (which, if it's news, is something your doctor should have told you anyway).

It took me exactly ten years to sort that out, so I'm hoping this post will save you some time.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Finding My Plumb Line

I've spent the last year and a half or so making a lot of changes in the way I live.  I've got a really thriving yoga practice (acupuncture and yoga triggered my healing from the chronic pain I was in) and I've been working on being in this world in a different way. I'm still working at it, but I am thinner and happier and more fit than at almost any time in my life.  If you'd like to know more about that, you can read more about that here: Finding My Plumb Line

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Seemingly Unrelated

For as long as I can remember, the heat has bothered me. I know it didn't when I was a child; I can't remember when it started. But I know that the summer I spent in Georgia in my early twenties nearly killed me--though I loved the slower pace and the proximity of the ocean, any notion of moving south was promptly abandoned when August struck.

Since that time, if not earlier, it's been a simple fact of life for me: I can't stay outside long in the heat, and I can't exert myself in the heat. I get dizzy, I get short of breath, sometimes little silver spots dance before my eyes and make me fear that I might faint (although I never have).

Until this year.

I've mentioned in previous posts that my daughter and I have been pretty steadily walking 2-4 miles/day, and sometimes even more. The other big change I've made is that I'm prioritizing sleep. I've learned that for me, 5-6 hours of sleep on a regular basis just isn't sufficient and if I don't average 7-8 my blood pressure and heart rate start to creep back up.

I've noticed a big change in my endurance recently, not so much in the course of intentional exercise but in the things I'll do without thinking about them. For instance, one night about a week ago I locked my keys in my car about a mile from home and just automatically walked home to pick up my spare keys and walk back. For most of my adult life, I would have had to stop and assess whether I was feeling up to the walk. But last week, I didn't even think about it.

It's been a big relief to see that I can, in fact, build endurance. That hasn't been my experience in the past, and I think it's because I never tried to combine regular exercise with getting enough sleep before. When my heart rate and blood pressure were up, more exercise just wore me down. But a few days ago, something even bigger happened. On a 93 degree day, I walked the 12 blocks from the train station to my office and back again. And, again, I didn't give it much thought. After nearly 25 years of having to be careful in the heat and suffering the consequences if I wasn't, I threw caution to the wind and suffered no ill effects.

I know this isn't a pretty thought, but I just have to share: it is such an incredible relief to be able to break a sweat again!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Just Walk

For years, I've been seeing blurbs on the covers of checkout-stand magazines promising "secrets" for walking off pounds. I'll admit it--I usually flip open the magazine to see if they've really got something. Some of the "secrets" I've seen include short bursts of power walking, arm action and strapping on weights. And I'm sure that all of those things have health and weight loss benefits.

However, I'm here to tell you that there's no secret required. Over the past few months, I've taken to walking 2-4 miles per day on a regular basis. I shoot for 25 miles a week, though I don't always make it. I don't incorporate weights. I don't have a walking technique. I don't plan my walks for a certain time of day or place them a certain distance from my meals. I just walk.

And, in fact, I'm not dropping pounds like the magazines promised I would--so if weight loss is your goal, maybe you should pick up a few of those magazines and figure out which tips to incorporate. But I have dropped two clothing sizes in about two months, without losing a single pound. And though I know the number matters to some people, I am a lot more interested in my lean body mass, my health and how my clothing fits than I am what the scale says. So for me, the big secret is this: just walk. Every day.

It takes between 45 and 90 minutes a day depending on how far I walk, and I would have been the first to say that I didn't have time for that. But it's all a matter of priorities, isn't it? Surely there's a television show or a Facebook game you could swap for that walking time, if you want to be healthy and slip back into your thin clothes.

Friday, October 8, 2010

A Handy Tool for Anyone Counting Calories, Fat, Carbs, etc.

Recently, my doctor told me that if I lost twenty pounds, I might be able to eliminate my blood pressure medication--my last maintenance med. Although that's been my goal for a long time, the pros have consistently told me for the past few years that I'd be on that medication for the rest of my life, so I have a powerful new incentive to knock that weight off.

During that appointment, the doctor pointed me to, and I'm loving it. I don't entirely agree with the calorie/fat/carb recommendations for the day--the fat content is a bit high--but the tracking is invaluable. You can generate a report that tells you not only how many calories you've had each day, but how much fat, fiber, carbs, sodium and protein. You can also log exercise and get a instant count of how many calories you've burned.

We've all logged these things before, but what makes this system different for me is the huge database of foods, including brand name and grocery-store-brand packaged foods, so that all you have to do is type in the name of what you ate and all of the nutritional information is automatically pulled into your log. Helps keep me honest, too. And it's entirely free. If you're looking for an easy way to track exercise and calories, you should check it out. The site appears to have a great community as well, though I haven't really gotten involved with that.

Friday, April 2, 2010

The Simple Things We Don't Do to Get Healthy

Earlier this evening, I happened to see that Mike Foster had posted a video about green tea on Facebook, and it made me feel just a little bit foolish. I've got a couple of kinds of green tea in my cabinet, along with a number of other teas. I like tea. I know that tea contains anti-oxidants. And I have high cholesterol and a family history of heart disease. I have high blood pressure,and anti-oxidants reduce the risk of stroke. Anti-oxidants may impact the risk for diabetes, which my father has.

But do I
drink the tea? Not too often. And there's just no reason for it. No excuse, either.

There are medications I don't want to take because of the possible side effects. There are foods I just don't want to give up because I love them. There are times when I'm just too tired to prepare a healthy meal and take a shortcut. But there's rarely a day when I don't have time to boil water. There's never a day when I just can't stomach the idea of sitting down with a cup of tea. I just don't drink tea because I just...don't think about it.

So I'm setting an easy goal today. I'm going to drink green tea at least once a day. I don't know how much that will have on my various health risks, but I know it's in the plus column, and that there's no downside--not even one that's just a product of my own whims.

So what simple, painless thing are you NOT doing to improve your health? Are you going to change it today, too?

Photo Courtesy of Carlos Porto via

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Healthy Food Takes Time

One of my biggest downfalls in eating healthy over the years has been that I often don't have time--or perceive that I don't have time--to prepare healthy foods. Ordering a pizza only takes a minute, and microwave enchiladas don't make dishes. Washing and chopping lettuce and other ingredients for salad, on the other hand, takes time, space, and dishes. Really...who wants to wash a strainer every day? Who has time?

When I got motivated to get healthy last year, I made some discoveries about the time-and-effort obstacles that had been getting in my way for years. Or rather, I made one discovery that impacted everything else: most of the obstacles are surmountable if you're motivated. The workarounds might not be perfect, but they're a far cry from throwing up your hands and ordering Chinese.

Plan and Prepare Ahead to Eat Healthy

When it's time for lunch and you're taking a quick break from work, chopping, dicing and washing might not be very appealing--or even be the best use of your time. But a lot of that legwork can be done in advance. Some fruits and vegetables hold up better than others, so think about what you can prepare in advance. My mother eats salad with every dinner, and so she chops enough lettuce for several days, spins it and then stores it in the refrigerator in her salad spinner. It stays crisp for nearly a week that way. Shredded carrots, diced or sliced radishes, and a variety of other salad ingredients keep even longer, and cherry or grape tomatoes eliminate the need to cut tomatoes for a salad. Wash them when you get home from the produce stand and then just grab a handful and toss them in your bowl.

The best part is that having things ready makes it hard to rationalize. It's easy to say, "I'm in a hurry, so I'll just grab..." It's much more difficult to sell that line of reasoning to yourself when it's just as easy to grab something healthy.

Let Someone Else Prepare the Healthy Food

I'm no fan of paying someone else to do what I can do myself, but sometimes it's worth it. For instance, when even though I'm perfectly capable of doing it myself, I don't have time. Or I'm just not going to do it. Or I know I'm likely to use the time involved as a lame excuse to eat pizza rolls instead.

Here are just a few cheats I've found that not only make it easy to eat healthy in a hurry, but also make it hard to convince myself that I have a good excuse not to:

-Pre-mixed salad: It's not quite as good as the fresh stuff, but it's still made out of vegetables, and all you have to do is dump it in a bowl and rinse it. It's faster than heating up a can of soup or microwaving some mozzarella sticks (which aren't really all that good microwaved, anyway).

-Grated cheese: I like to sprinkle some cheese on my salad instead of dressing. Dairy has many benefits, and most dressings are outrageously high in sodium. But (although I'm embarrassed to admit it), I'm too lazy to get the cheese grater dirty for an ounce of cheese at lunchtime every day. Resealable bags of pre-grated cheese solve the problem. Or, if you're just slightly more ambitious, so does grating the whole block of cheese at once and making your own bag.

-Gorton's frozen fish filets: I've written before about the magical properties of fish, but preparing it can be a hassle. Sometimes it's worth the investment to broil salmon with your own herbs or bake cod with lemon and fresh ground pepper...but sometimes that's not an option. And sometimes you just don't feel like it. Those pre-seasoned frozen fish fillets that bake for 15-20 minutes just might be the answer. They're fast, easy, taste okay and have all of the nutritional information you need printed on the box with no need for guessing at serving sizes or portions.

-Pre-packaged meals: Lean Cuisine makes some very nice fish-and-a-side frozen meals with the fat and calories right on the label and five-minute microwave instructions. I'm sure many of their other meals are just as good, but I stick with the fish because of the omega3 fatty acids and those magical properties I mentioned earlier. An even greater discovery for me, though, was the Healthy Choice microwavable lunches that don't require refrigeration. That means I can throw one in my purse and have it on hand for a quick lunch at work with no fuss, or even leave one in my desk drawer. Yes, the whole "no refrigeration" thing probably says something scary about the preservatives, but again, everything is relative. If I can't get out of the office or I'm on the run, it's a much healthier option than my usual fallbacks. And, as an added bonus, the ones I've had all taste pretty good and are quite filling.

Do Fast Food the Healthy (ish) Way

Sometimes you really do have no choice but to grab lunch on the run. The key for me is to throw out all-or-nothing thinking. It's so easy to say "I can't eat broiled fish and fresh vegetables today, so I might as well just grab some fried chicken and french fries." There's a lot of ground between broiled fish and fried chicken, and some of that ground is covered even in a fast-food restaurant. Salads are an obvious choice, but beyond that there's still a broad spectrum. A grilled chicken sandwich might not be ideal, for instance, but it's a far cry from a Whopper. Subway has all of those sandwiches with fewer than six grams of fat, and even Taco Bell has recently introduced an "al fresco" menu for healthier eating. Don't let the fact that you can't eat perfectly become an excuse to eat badly.

What tips have you discovered to make healthy eating quicker and easier (and do away with the excuses to fall off the wagon)?