February 25, 2014
As Americans, we pride ourselves on having freedom of choice. We can choose whom we vote for, what to wear, where to travel and so on. Importantly, we can also choose what to eat.
Or can we?
According to a new study from University of Illinois researcher Brenna Ellison, most of us do think the choice is ultimately ours. In a survey of nearly 800 Americans, a whopping 94 percent of respondents believed that individuals are primarily responsible for the rise in obesity. Not the government, grocery stores, farmers, food companies or restaurants.
The problem is, many of the factors that ultimately influence food choices are out of our control. Cost is a huge barrier to healthier eating, and it's largely driven by the economics of supply and demand. It's not uncommon for bad weather or drought to wipe out crops, reducing supply and driving up prices.
Government policy can also play a role. Certain agricultural commodities like wheat, beef, corn and others are heavily subsidized while fruits and vegetables are not. This can make products made with commodity crops much cheaper; unfortunately, these are often processed into products that are high in fat and calories.
When a cheeseburger and fries costs $2 and a grilled chicken salad goes for $7, it's no wonder that those with lower incomes are more likely to choose the burger combo.
Beside cost, taste is one of the biggest factors behind food choices. If it doesn't taste good, we're not likely to eat it. Some taste preferences are individual, but other foods are almost universally delicious.
It is well-known that foods containing a trifecta of sugar, salt and fat are nearly irresistible and can have an addictive quality. The slogans "once you pop, you can't stop" and "bet you can't eat just one" are actually quite true for most people. It sure is nice to think that we can just say no, but it's easier said than done.
Despite the fact that these factors are out of our control, I do believe we are responsible for our collective weight issues. How? By placing the burden of responsibility for food choices on our own shoulders, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
We blame ourselves for dietary indiscretions and falling off the exercise wagon. We feel angry and depressed and start another diet, only to perpetuate the obesity cycle. In my opinion, we need an attitude adjustment.
I'm not saying no one is capable of making healthy choices, but I think most would agree that our environment is not conducive to living a healthy lifestyle.
So how can we take back the reins?
It might not be possible to control the larger environment, but you can make changes to your surroundings to encourage healthier eating:
– At home, fill your fridge with fruits, veggies, low-fat dairy and lean protein.
– Stock the pantry with healthier whole grains and fewer "snacky" foods.
– Wash and cut up produce at the beginning of the week and put them front and center in the refrigerator. Out of sight means out of mind – and into the trash can.
– If you know that you can't fight the siren sound of ice cream, don't keep it in the house.
– At work, keep a supply of healthy options in your desk (granola bars, portioned bags of nuts, whole grain crackers) for when you feel like visiting the vending machine.
– Brown-bag it a few more times per week.
– If you can't resist the fast food drive-thru on your way home from work, try taking a different route.
The fact is, freedom of choice is alive and well when it comes to living a healthy lifestyle, just not in the way we've come to believe. More sweeping societal changes may eventually come down the pike, but in the meantime, exercise your right by advocating for your own environment.
After all, if you don't, who will?
February 11, 2014
We're nearly midway through February, but there's still plenty of winter left for central Illinois. They say that cold hands mean you have a warm heart, but how does cold weather affect your ticker? In honor of American Heart Month, I wanted to bring your attention to how you can protect your heart until we start to thaw from winter's chill.
If you've ever shoveled snow, you know it's a strenuous activity. Blood pressure can spike significantly each time you lift a heavy shovelful of snow. The American Heart Association recommends taking frequent breaks when clearing driveways and sidewalks to avoid overstressing the heart. To get things done faster, tag another capable member of your household to work while you rest.
Monitor how you feel when you're working as well as during rest periods. According to the American Heart Association, the risk of a heart attack during snow shoveling may increase for some, especially those in poor physical condition or those with existing heart disease or a personal history of stroke.
Learn the heart attack warning signs: chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, nausea, and pain or discomfort in the back, neck, or jaw. This list is not all inclusive, so if something feels off, don't ignore it. Even if you're not sure if it's a heart attack, it's better to be safe than sorry. Don't wait more than 5 minutes to call 9-1-1.
Another important thing is to avoid eating heavy meals before or after shoveling. Eating diverts blood flow to the digestive tract and away from the heart, so this can make the heart work harder. Also, avoid drinking alcohol, which can make you feel warmer than you really are. This can increase your risk of developing hypothermia.
Hypothermia means the body's temperature is dangerously low at less than 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold temperatures, high winds, snow and rain can all lower your body heat. Make sure to dress appropriately: pull on a hat that covers your ears, don waterproof gloves, and wear thick socks and boots. Note that it's more effective to wear several thin layers instead of one heavy garment. This is because air can be trapped between layers to form a protective insulation.
Symptoms of hypothermia include lack of coordination, confusion, delayed reactions, shivering and sleepiness. Certain people are at higher risk of developing hypothermia, including children and the elderly. According to the Texas Heart Institute, our ability to keep a normal body temperature changes as we age. Plus, older adults seem to be better able to tolerate temperatures and can get hypothermia without even knowing it.
Not surprisingly, people who already have heart problems are at higher risk for cardiac events (heart attack, stroke, etc.) during winter weather and are also more prone to developing hypothermia. If you or someone you love fall into this category, make sure to check with a physician before taking on any snow removal or extended exposure to cold temperatures.
For more information about winter safety, check out University of Illinois Extension's Winter Storm Resource Center website at http://urbanext.illinois.edu/winter. You'll find a wealth of information on everything related to winter weather. The website includes travel updates and road conditions, weather news, ways to weather-proof your home, and how to protect your health and safety in extreme conditions.
January 28, 2014
For the past 7 years or so, I would say that 95% of the time I have had oatmeal for breakfast. Why? What's so great about oatmeal?
Well, there are lots of reasons to love the stick-to-your-ribs hot cereal. To start, it's a whole grain, which means it contains the whole grain seed and its nutritional value is left intact. A half-cup serving of plain raw oats (which makes about 1 cup cooked) has 4 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein, both necessary ingredients to start your day off right. Protein and fiber keep you feeling full throughout the morning, so your stomach's not rumbling again before you even get out the door.
The fiber has other health benefits, too. We've all seen the claim emblazoned on packages that oats can help lower your cholesterol, and guess what – it's true. Some of the fiber that's found in foods like apples, barley and oats binds to some of the cholesterol in your digestive tract and stops it from being absorbed. Another great thing about fiber is that it helps keep things moving, if you catch my drift. There's even some evidence that fiber can help prevent colon cancer. So if you needed convincing to get more fiber in your life, you now know three good reasons.
Although the fiber content is generally the same regardless of the form of oatmeal (quick oats, old-fashioned or rolled oats, steel-cut, instant), there can be some differences with vitamins and minerals. Instant oatmeal is often fortified with vitamins and minerals, so you can't directly compare that to oats you get in a canister. You might also see different amounts depending on the brand, or if you're considering a specialty product. For example, I have seen "women's health" oatmeal that is fortified with folate (to prevent birth defects) and calcium (to prevent osteoporosis).
The issue of oatmeal "form" begs the question, what is the difference between quick oats, steel-cut, and others?
Finally, what about sugar? Oatmeal is a relatively low-calorie food, with just 150 calories in our half cup of plain raw oats. Obviously, adding sugar (whether it's white or brown, honey, agave, maple syrup, etc.) will increase the calorie count. If this is a concern, try low sugar instant varieties or use your favorite sweetener in plain oatmeal.
Personally, I make plain oats and then doctor them up depending on my mood. Think of your bowl as a blank canvas, with lots of room for creativity. You can make it sweet, savory, or even in-between. Other toppings can increase the calories, so I like to make them count by using those with added nutrition like fresh or dried fruit and chopped nuts. I also like to add a bit of indulgence with things like chocolate chips or even bacon bits. Just remember to use smaller amounts (e.g., a teaspoon's worth).
Try the tasty topping ideas below and let me know if you have a good one to share. The possibilities are truly endless. No matter the type or flavor, when it comes to oatmeal, I definitely say go with the grain.
Oatmeal Topping Ideas - What's Your Favorite?
January 14, 2014
I opened one of my cookbooks a few nights ago and realized that my recipes are mocking me. Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh, but think about it. Most are written to make four servings or more, suggesting that we should be eating that meal with family or at least a gaggle of friends. But what about the singletons out there? Whether you live away from family, are an empty nester, or have a household of one or two for other reasons, it can be hard to motivate yourself to cook for, well, just yourself.
I'll be honest, I've oft turned to frozen meals and takeout. Hey, no cleanup! Still, there are plenty of benefits to cooking from scratch, even on a smaller scale. Homemade meals can be more nutritious, better tasting, and certainly cheaper than regularly going for restaurant fare. So what is the best strategy to scale it down? Here are my best tips.
You can still use family favorite recipes. Choose those with ingredient amounts that are easy to divide mathematically. If the scaled down recipe calls for only half a can of beans or small quantity of another type of ingredient, put the extra in a plastic container in the fridge and use within 1 week in another recipe. For things like tomato paste or chicken broth, I like to portion into ice cube trays for future use. This is a good option for recipes that call for amounts as small as one or two tablespoons.
When it comes to seasonings, keep in mind that you might need to make some adjustments, especially if reducing the recipe gives you uneven measurements like 1 3/8 teaspoon. In this case, I like to round down to the nearest whole number and add more gradually, tasting each time.
I often omit the salt that is called for in the recipe and then add to taste. Amazingly, most of the time I find that I don't need nearly as much as written, and I'm sure my blood pressure is thanking me for it. I also tend to add more ground black pepper. To me, this helps bring out flavors without having to add more salt.
Another issue with scaling down recipes is that cooking time may need to be reduced. Then, check for doneness 5-10 minutes sooner than the time listed. Importantly, take notes on what works and what doesn't: ingredients used, changes to seasonings, cooking method, time, etc. That way you can replicate your great results in the future.
Of course, convenience items aren't completely off limits. Consider buying pre-cut or prepared ingredients if it fits in your budget. They may be more expensive, but can save time and effort. They are also usually found in smaller amounts that fit with your needs. Frozen foods are also great options. Frozen chicken breasts tend to be smaller than those you would buy fresh and are closer to the recommended 3 ounce portion size.
Sometimes you can get great deals on large packages of fresh chicken breasts and other meats. Just because it says family pack doesn't mean you can't get in on the savings! Form ground meat into patties and cut up steaks into portions the size of a deck of cards or an iPhone.
I have found that boneless skinless chicken breasts tend to be much larger than what one person would need, but this can be easily remedied by cutting the piece in half. Even better, butterfly the portioned pieces; when they are thinner they'll thaw quicker and then take less time to cook through. These freeze very well when individually wrapped tightly in foil and then stored in a freezer bag.
You can even get a roast; prepare as directed by a recipe, then portion out leftovers. Freeze in plastic containers to eat as a quick meal on a busy day, or use as part of another recipe like a soup, stew, or casserole.
What about "not wanting to go to all that trouble?" I understand that it can take effort and make a lot of dishes dirty if you prepare a new dish every night. Set aside some time on the weekend to think about ways you could repurpose ingredients over a few days. For example, leftover cooked chicken could be eaten in sandwich, tossed with greens and dressing for a salad, or stir-fried with vegetables and rice. Cooking a little extra once can feed you at least twice.
Although we all have busy lives, we often forget that being social is an important part of the eating experience that can add to our enjoyment and satisfaction. Get together monthly with friends and do a potluck dinner and recipe swap. Allow others to benefit from your delicious creations and get new dishes to try.
If this all seems daunting, no worries. Scale up your cooking confidence by making a scaled-down recipe just once per week, then increase the frequency when you get more comfortable. Just remember, whether you are a newbie or seasoned pro in the kitchen, you're worth the time and effort. Even – or especially – when it's just you.
December 31, 2013
As you read this on the last day of 2013 -- before the dawn of the New Year at midnight tonight – I, like many of you, am reflecting on the choices I have made in the 12 months past. Have you made healthier food choices and stuck with your exercise routine? Have you spent less money and saved more? Built stronger relationships with loved ones?
I recently realized that while we attempt to better ourselves with New Year's resolutions, we're essential shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot. We are unrealistic with our expectations, setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Think about it; once we've started off on our mission to lose weight, the game is on. The fridge is stocked with healthy food, we're going to exercise for an hour every day, drink tons of water, and the pounds will fall off. It may go well for a few days, even a few weeks or months. Then life gets in the way – a birthday celebration here, a dinner date there. Before you know it, several slices of pizza and cake have gone down the hatch.
Instead of moving on from these dietary indiscretions, we beat ourselves up: "I can't believe I ate that cake, I failed at my diet. I'm a failure." Sound familiar?
I doubt you'd say such things to another person, so when did it become okay to talk to ourselves like that? We are appalled when we hear about extreme bullying in the media, yet we continue to bully ourselves. When it comes to diet, exercise, or other health issues, we are quick to place the blame on our own shoulders. We have no willpower, we can't do anything right.
So many resolutions are to stop doing certain things – stop smoking, stop eating so much, stop spending so much. Or, we need to start doing other things – start exercising, start losing weight, start saving money. The problem with these assertions is that they imply that our past actions have been wrong. We have done wrong.
Perhaps we have, but luckily, life gives us plenty of opportunities to learn from our mistakes. However, we can't truly learn from our mistakes if we don't get to the root of what happened – and the why.
How did we get here in the first place? Why have we gained 50 pounds in the past few years? Why do we smoke a pack a day? Why do we compulsively shop? What are we trying to cover up?
So many times we indulge ourselves, saying we need or deserve it, but what we're really doing is avoiding dealing with something unpleasant. This could be stress at work, lingering memories from an unhappy childhood, or any number of problems. So many times, people think that losing weight or stopping smoking will fix all of their problems.
It sounds great, but it's just not true. Even dieting is yet another distraction; when it ends, the underlying issues are still there. So this year, along with your goal to get healthy, I ask you to get emotionally healthy, as well.
Resolve to tackle the deeper issues in therapy and resolve the problems, not just the symptoms. Therapy is hard work, I won't sugarcoat it, but it'll pay off. Not only will you be in a better place emotionally, but you'll be better equipped to manage your health throughout 2014 and beyond.
While I am not a therapist, I can help get you started with your New Year's resolutions to get healthy. I am excited to announce that for the first time, I will be offering the New Year, New You program.
At this free workshop, you'll get up to date on the latest diet and exercise recommendations, create a plan for reaching your resolutions, and learn the best strategies to make those lifestyle changes stick. The program will be held January 15, 6 PM, at 801 N. Country Fair Drive in Champaign. Space is limited, so make sure to reserve your spot by calling the Champaign Extension office at 217-333-7672. Or, you can conveniently register online here.
Whatever your New Year's resolution, University of Illinois Extension wishes you a happy, healthy, and productive 2014. And remember, be kind to yourself.