postheadericon The power of preparation

cucumber-slices

We all know how time consuming it can be to do food prep- you know, all the stuff that has to be done before you can even start cooking. And for those of us on a plant based diet, it can seem like a never ending process of washing, chopping, slicing, dicing, and soaking. Not that it’s a bad thing. Actually, one of my favorite things to do is to wash and chop vegetables. I find it can be very relaxing, and I love to have a feel for the fresh and raw ingredients that will soon be turned into a meal or a snack. And after a disturbing find recently in a tub of commercially bought hummus (I think it was a corn husk but who really knows for sure?), I am even more determined to stay on the path of home cooking and no processed foods. My ultimately goal would be that nothing in my grocery cart even has to have an ingredient list because it doesn’t contain any ingredients other than the item that it is (oranges, for example, don’t need a label other than the bin label to identify the type – navel, etc.). Now I doubt I will ever get to the point where everything in my cart is that way (I am not giving up store bought soymilk or peanut butter), but I want to get as close to that as possible.

So back to food prep. As I said a minute ago, I actually like chopping veggies and doing the prep work. But I don’t necessarily like doing it at the moment I plan to cook a meal. Especially dinner – it’s late, I’m tired, still have a number of things to do, and I am just HUNGRY! The idea of leisurely chopping veggies for a stir fry is not doing much for me at that moment other than perhaps overwhelming me. It’s always amazing to watch Rachel Ray or any of the food cooks do their thing – it seems like it takes them literally minutes to prepare a dish, or at least get it into the oven. And the reason for that is, of course, all the cute little bowls and glass cups that are assembled near the cook at the start of the show containing all the ingredients they will need – even the spices are measured out (personally, I don’t feel the need to do that at home). All the washing and chopping has been done, so all the cook has to do is assemble the dish according to the recipe – easy peasy, right? They certainly make it look that way. So I have decided to adopt this method of prepping stuff that I might need later, especially if there will be a lot of it for a particular recipe. If I am going to make chili for dinner, I can chop the onions, garlic, peppers, etc. the night before or the morning of and stash them in a baggie in the fridge. If I’m going to be having a salad, I can wash and chop the veggies and put them in a baggie, with the salad greens washed in another baggie (to keep them from getting too soggy). If a stir fry is on the menu, all those veggies can be washed, chopped, and ready to go so all I have to do at mealtime is hit the pan with some oil and it’s cook time. Sometimes I find that even an hour or two before dinner (when it is possible to do it) can help tremendously in the psychology of “I’m so tired I can’t imagine cooking now.” Knowing there are several bowls on the counters of fresh veggies waiting for me to just toss into the recipe, can, for me, make the difference between preparing a nice meal or having a piece of fruit for dinner (sometimes I’m that tired and I know I’m not alone).

So just as we might prepare for a race or a hike by training and conditioning ourselves before the event, we can do some of the prep work for our dinners before we actually need to cook. It may seem like a very simple, basic change (and it is), but for many of us, it can make the experience of cooking dinner at the end of a long day just that much easier. bon appetit!

photo: publicdomainpictures.net

postheadericon The Firm Express – a test drive


mms_picture(18) The Firm Express is going to be my latest fitness experiment. A couple of months ago I wrote about my experience in attempting to work out for a month with no cardio. That was the result of having done some reading by folks who believe that cardio workouts are harmful. Maybe it’s my science background making an appearance, but I am in the mood for another experiment. I was in a sporting goods store the other day, and as is usually the case, I found myself near the strength building equipment – weights, medicine balls, etc. In that area, there were also a few box sets of exercise DVDs (does it mean I’m old because I keep wanting to write “video?”). Anyway, there were two sets that caught my eye – Jillian Michael’s Body Revolution, and The Firm Express –get thin in 30. I am a big fan of JM, and I have several of her DVDs, including Kickbox Fastfix and Ripped in 30. I had heard many good things about Body Revolution, and it was tempting to plunk down the $60 or so the store was asking for the set. But then I started to read the box of The Firm Express (cost: $30), and a couple of things captured my attention. First, the workouts are only about 20 minutes each, which is great for days when there isn’t a lot of time, but not so long that they couldn’t be doubled up. Also, I was intrigued by their mini-burst system – very short bursts of high intensity followed by slightly longer (but still very short) periods for active recovery). As an Insanity veteran, I am very familiar with high intensity bursts with breaks in between (although Insaniacs will know that in Insanity, the bursts are quite long and the breaks are reeeaaallllly short).

The Firm Express was developed by the people at The Firm fitness center, which has a fairly long history of producing reliably effective workouts. The express system consists of 13 DVDs – four week-long cycles, each containing a “cardio,” “sculpt,” and “cardio+sculpt” DVD, each about 20 minutes in length. There is also one additional DVD containing two 10-minute workouts: one for abs, and one “kick start” workout, which is a brief cardio session. The idea of this DVD set is to do one cycle per week for a total of three workouts per week.

I know that for me, three 20 minute sessions will not come close to meeting my need for exercise, both on a mental and physical level, so I am going to adapt the schedule. Some days I might double the Firm workouts, and some days I might go for a run or decide to do a weight day in the gym. And on the firm “off” days (which I am not really going to observe anyway), I might even toss an Insanity in now and then. But enough of my workout regimen for the next month will be Firm Express workouts so I should have a good idea at the end of the month as to how effective a system it was for me. I will be basing that on the following: weight gain, loss, or neither; strength gain, loss, or neither; and energy level.

I would like to, at the very least, not lose any strength. If any small gains were made that would be fine too, but I need to know if this is a program which can maintain muscle strength in the absence of a structured weight lifting program (my suspicion is that it is not, especially for upper body). I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds, and certainly I would like to maintain or increase my energy level, which usually happens when my cardio program is good. So I am going to give this a shot and in a few weeks will report back. If anyone else has tried this program, I would be very interested in your experience, whether positive or negative. Wish me luck!

postheadericon Vegan diets – what’s good about them?

bell_peppers2
No matter where we look these days, vegan diets (also called plant based diets) are everywhere. Bill Clinton is on one. The Rev. Al Sharpton credits his 70+ pound weight loss to a vegetarian diet, and he has since gone vegan. Raw food and vegan celebrities are everywhere. While some continue to push paleo-style and other meat-based variants, the evidence is mounting almost daily (at least it seems that way) that a plant based diet is better for overall health and can be quite beneficial for athletes as well. Just ask triathlete Brendon Brazier, bodybuilder Robert Cheeke, and tennis champion Venus Williams, who says a raw vegan diet helps her manage the symptoms of an auto immune disorder (1).

So for any well-meaning omnivores in your life who say they are healthier because they still “eat a little meat,” you can tell them that their “healthier” choice puts them at higher risk for heart disease (2) and cancers of the colon (3) breast (4), and prostate (5). Obesity, which is now an epidemic and an official disease as designated by the American Medical Association, is also a higher risk for meat eaters (6), and diabetes (7), the cause of many associated and serious problems, is more likely to occur in meat eaters as well. And speaking of serious problems, since heart disease is the #1 killer of men and women in the U.S., some doctors, such as those at the world renowned Cleveland Clinic, have recommended “40 top foods” for heart health. Of those, 38 are vegan foods (8). And unfortunately, since the two foods on the list that are not vegan (salmon and tuna) are plagued with PCB’s and dioxin (9) as well as high levels of mercury in tuna (10), those doesn’t necessarily seem to be great choices either, especially when good sources of protein as well as omega 3 fatty acids are available through plant foods.

Actually, whether for general health or for athletic performance, a vegan diet is cleaner, healthier, and comes with fewer impurities, pathogens, parasites, contaminants, and unhealthy byproducts than a meat based diet. And the only thing that can’t be obtained through a strict vegan diet, vitamin B-12, can easily be obtained through a supplement.

So the next time meat eaters try to tell you their meat diets are better for health than vegan diets, you will know that you have seen a lot of evidence to the contrary.

Sources:
(1) Venus Williams
(2) heart disease
(3) colon cancer
(4) breast cancer
(5) prostate cancer
(6) obesity
(7) diabetes
(8) Cleveland Clinic 40 top foods
(9) salmon
(10) tuna

postheadericon No cardio – how did it go?

no-cardio-hand_weights_close_up

A few weeks ago, I decided to experiment with a no cardio regimen. The experience was interesting, and I do not regret trying it. But, as I explain below, I will probably (almost surely) not become a “no cardio” advocate – at least not for myself.

Ok, the results. I did get through about the first three weeks with no cardio. For the first two of them, I actually felt great. I enjoyed strength training more knowing I would have the next day off. The schedule was much easier to deal with, since I didn’t have to make time for strength days and cardio days. The additional time saved by not doing cardio could be redirected to additional strength work or to other pursuits. I still slept well, because strength training has that effect on me. My appetite actually decreased a bit, allowing me to drop a couple of the ten or so pounds I am still looking to shed. That was the good news. On the other end, I noticed a slight dumpy feeling after about three weeks, and then a real funk – almost a depression, but not quite. I hadn’t realized or appreciated how much cardio gave me a bit of a zing, added energy to my day, and frankly, is just plain fun. So I decided to break off my experiment a week early, ending it with what is arguably the most intense of the butt-kicking cardio workouts – an Insanity DVD. That first workout felt like a cool glass of lemonade on a ninety degree day. So I kept going and added cardio back into my schedule in much the same way it had been before. Adding cardio back into my schedule felt normal, balanced, and energizing. It was as though the missing piece had been added back into my exercise life.

So would I recommend a no cardio regimen to anyone? As usual, those kinds of questions often have answers like “it depends.” Each of us has to figure out our own best routine and adapt it as needed over time. But for me, the answer is clear. Cardio brings balance to my fitness training, makes me feel better, and is the perfect complement to a very enjoyable strength training regimen. So at least for me, cardio is staying.

postheadericon Caring for our immune system

immune-system-SALMON_1

Our immune system is something we often don’t think much about until we get a cold or the flu. But a healthy immune system is critical for us to carry out our daily activities, including our workouts, without falling ill to many of the microscopic invaders that we come into contact with daily. One important part of our immune system is in our intestines. Our intestines do a lot of work for us – trillions of bacteria, most of them the beneficial kind, inhabit our intestinal tracts, processing our food and making available essential nutrients that fuel our bodies and help us to carry out all of our activities, including exercise. One of the important functions of our intestines is immunity. About 70% or more of the power of our immune system resides in our intestines. Important players in our immune system, such as B and T cells, have their origin in the gut, specifically the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). So a healthy intestinal tract is important for overall health, immune strength, and good training.

So how do we give our guts the best care we can and how can we help our overall immune system stay healthy?

> Well, one thing we can do is obvious – eat a healthy diet. Unprocessed, nutrient-dense food makes less work for our bodies and gives us the nutrition we need without having to filter out a lot of junk (there’s a reason it’s called “junk food.”)

> We can also be tuned in to any negative reactions we have when eating certain kinds of food. We all know people with food allergies or intolerances, and having that as an added burden won’t help our health OR our workouts. So watch for that often hidden problem.

> Probiotics, which can be found either in some foods or taken as a supplement, are basically the beneficial bacteria that can help keep the population of “good bacteria” high enough to allow for good function. Probiotics are available in capsule or tablet form, either in refrigerated or shelf stable varieties. Soy or almond yogurt is also a good vegan source of these beneficial bacteria.

> Exercise! Moderate exercise has been shown to help immune function and is recommended for almost everyone, even people with serious diseases such as cancer. For example, colon cancer patients have been shown to have better odds of survival if they walk regularly.

> Get plenty of rest and sleep. Lack of sleep can impair immune function and predispose us to all kinds of ailments. Plus, it just makes us feel lousy.

> This one is tough, but try and avoid stress. Or, if there is unavoidable stress in your life (and who DOESN’T have some stress?), try and find healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise (!), relaxation techniques, or spending time outdoors.

> Phone a friend – or better yet, get together with one. Social relationships can have a positive effect on our immune system.

So externally and internally, there is a lot we can do to strengthen our immune system and keep it working for us and our workouts!

Source articles:

Mother Earth News
NIH
Prevention
Weight Training

Photo: Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells. Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIH

postheadericon No cardio (for a month, anyway)

No cardio – that’s right. I am going to experiment, just for a month, with a no cardio regimen. What is causing me to make this decision that many fitness enthusiasts would say is not productive and possibly even unhealthy? Plain and simple – a slump. I have been in a bit of a workout slump for a little while, in part because of a time/schedule situation which required me to cut back on workouts overall for a few weeks. But it isn’t just that. I have often taken breaks from lifting, usually for a week or so. Most of the time, I returned to the gym with a new energy for lifting and was often happy to see that my strength had increased from the additional rest. But I almost never take a significant break from cardio. And I am starting to wonder if the break I feel I need is not from strength training, but from cardio, both steady-state training and high intensity. Not that I don’t love a good run or a butt-kicking HIIT workout, but perhaps a rest from just cardio while maintaining strength training will help me to accomplish my short term goals – to lose a few pounds, get better defined, and have more energy.

So why are so many people saying no to cardio? A couple of reasons. First, muscle has a higher caloric requirement than fat just to maintain itself. The more muscle on the body, the more calories consumed, even while resting. This means that highly muscled individuals often maintain their weight better than people who don’t have as much muscle. So more muscle = better weight maintenance. How do we get more muscle? – strength training. Second, many people believe that cardio, especially long duration exercise, causes inflammation in the body, increases the production of stress hormones, and destroys the muscle acquired after many hard hours in the gym. Why work so hard to get something only to destroy it? Especially if it might lead to other problems, such as inflammation and fatigue.

track-running-lanes-no-cardio
I do believe a variety of cardio routines, including HIIT and even steady state on occasion, have their place in a healthy lifestyle. And cardio training DOES help heart health, after all. So eventually, I am sure I will introduce it into my life again. But until July 4, which will be an easy date to remember, I am going to strength train three times per week and not do any intentional cardio workouts. If I have an opportunity to go for a walk or a hike, I will, but I am not planning any specific exercise, especially high intensity activities. So that I only have one variable to deal with, I am not going to change my sleep patterns or my diet significantly, other than to maintain my current effort to eat pretty clean. Wish me luck – I’ll let you all know in a month how it turned out.

postheadericon Why power training is important, too

I was so tempted to start this discussion with a Star Trek reference in the title (Scotty, I need more POWER!!). It was a close call. But dilithium crystals aside, we actually DO need more power. A training regimen which includes power training is believed to benefit health as much as one that includes strength training. Power training may be even more effective than strength training in helping older adults carry out their daily activities. It is even recommended as part of training for endurance athletes, such as triathletes and marathoners.
strength training hand_weights_on_workout_mat
Before we get to power training, though, let’s do a quick review of strength training. Strength refers to the ability of muscle to exert force against resistance. That resistance can be in the form of a very heavy weight, from a resistance band, or from one’s own body weight. Typically, strength training goals revolve around how much weight a given muscle or group of muscles is able to lift. So when people talk about being able to bench press x pounds or squat y pounds, it is a strength measurement. Strength training refers to training which is designed to increase muscle strength. The variety of weight training exercises performed in succession (reps) and in repeated successions (sets) is the cornerstone of strength training regimens. As previously mentioned, resistance bands and body weight exercises can provide the necessary resistance to build strength in many cases, although weight training with heavy weights remains the popular choice for strength training.

power training basketball_hoop_at_park
Power is a bit different than strength. Power refers to the amount of work done per unit of time. There is a new component here – time. Power is the ability to do something, but it also matters how quickly it gets done – so now timing and speed become part of the training. Power training often includes exercises such as plyometrics (think basketball jumps), sprints, and quicker and reduced rest sets with weights (usually with much lighter weights than are used for strength training) – exercises that require explosive expenditures of energy in short periods of time. Incorporating these types of exercises into our training regimen can help us to be better at our athletic pursuits, our daily activities, and to be healthier overall.


Here is a very comprehensive article about power training and specifically what kinds of exercises to do.

And to quote Shaun T in the Cardio Power and Resistance DVD of Insanity, “It’s all about power, y’all.”

postheadericon My new fave breakfast (or lunch, or dinner…..)

mms_picture(15)
Seems like a small thing – a bowl of cereal, yogurt, and some fruit. But for GF vegans who are looking for a protein-filled high fiber start to the day, a good bowl of cereal (that tastes good!) can be a challenge to find.

Enter Van’s Cinnamon Heaven gluten free cereal. Van’s products have been very reliable sources of good tasting, nutritious GF food for me, and this cereal does not disappoint. With a soy yogurt and some fruit, it provides fiber, protein, carbs, and is filling and tasty. It does make a good lunch and in a pinch or at the end of a long day, a light dinner.

Nutritionals are for a bowl of Cinnamon heaven, silk fruit and creamy soy yogurt, and a half cup of fresh blueberries:

calories 300g
fiber 6.3g
protein 8g
carbs 59g
fat 4.5g

postheadericon Southwest lasagna

mms_picture(11)
This takes about ten minutes to put together (if that), and another ten minutes in the microwave. Longer if you go with a conventional oven (I would guess about 20-30 minutes at 350 deg.), but still a quick meal.


Ingredients:

1 can of refried beans (I used Amy’s traditional)
1 jar of salsa (I used Chi-Chi’s mild)
1 package of shredded cheese (I used Galaxy vegan Mexican shreds)
1 package (8 oz. or so) of cream cheese (I used Follow Your Heart Vegan Gourmet cream cheese)
1 box of corn taco shells (it was a box of 12 and I used 10) or you can use tortilla chips if you like and do it as a layered nacho dish
plus sides and garnishes of choice – chopped tomato, jalapeno, guacamole, etc.

I used a 9×9 baking dish.

1. spread a thin layer of salsa across the bottom of the dish.
2. break the shells in half and make a layer of shell halves on top of the salsa
3. spread the whole can of refried beans across
4. spread the whole container of cream cheese over the beans
5. spread another layer of shells on top of the cream cheese
6. put about half of the shredded cheese across the shells
7. spread the remaining salsa over the cheese
8. top with the remaining shredded cheese

I baked in the microwave for ten minutes on high and it came out gooey and soft/chewy. If you like it crispier, it could go longer. Also, a conventional oven might work better for the crispier texture. I like it softer. The cheese melted really well. With a green salad or green smoothie, and some cornbread or some black bean and corn salsa, it makes a quick and filling meal. And the microwave splatter was much less than I had feared (I did not cover it while baking).

Estimated protein and carbohydrate content (based on the above named ingredients):

Protein per serving: 7 grams
Carbohydrates per serving: 29 grams

This was based on my pan being cut into six servings. Depending on your preferred serving size, it could be cut into anywhere from four large servings to nine smaller squares. Hope you like it!

postheadericon About my recipes…

It is my hope that everyone who visits this website will find useful information. As for recipes, though, a quick note: If you are a foodie or gourmet cook, are good at it and enjoy it, first of all, I admire and envy you. Second, you might not find my recipes very inspiring. In theory, I love the concept of unprocessed ingredients and homemade, healthy dishes. In reality, with everything going on in my life, I often do not have the time/energy/interest to prepare anything that isn’t quick and simple. But I still like the idea of choosing the ingredients that I consume (vegan and organic in particular) and having a small role to play in the preparation of my meals. So the recipes I share are based on my versions of meals that are filling, taste good, and provide a choice of ingredients and brands to include. They also tend to be quick, often utilizing the microwave and the one-pot meal idea (think Rachel Ray meets Isa Chandra Moskowitz). I tend to be a simple eater and am happy if something is easy to prepare, filling, and as healthy as possible. So these recipes will reflect that philosophy. There are many well done and beautifully photographed websites about vegetarian and vegan cooking. As time goes on and I expand my link list, there will be links to many of those websites. So if you are ok with quick, uncomplicated, and un-fancy, I hope you like these ideas or are at least inspired to create your own quick and easy dishes. On those occasions when I spend more time in the kitchen and have more gourmet type recipes, I’ll certainly share those too. Bon appetit!