Bye to 2016 and the winter blues

Happy 2017!  I hope everyone had a healthy and happy new years celebration.  I was going to write a post about making new years resolutions, but this year I decided to not make any new years resolutions. I decided not to try to make any specific goals for the next year for two reasons: 1.  I think it’s easier to work on short-term goals, without using the calendar year as motivation 2.  Northeastern winters don’t exactly scream “LET’S GET MOTIVATED!” to me.  Instead, today I’m sharing some tips about improving your mood during these cold months.  I decided to share some things that have helped me stay happy and sane during winter because I’ve noticed that every year I start to feel less like my usual upbeat self as soon as November/December rolls around.  While I don’t personally suffer from full-blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD, so aptly abbreviated), it’s always a good idea to consult a mental health professional if you feel your mood going seriously sour during any time of the year.  If you feel like you just need an extra happiness boost during the winter, here are some things that have helped me.

My Winter Mood-Improving Habits

  1. Get outside!

Unless you live close to the equator, your skin gets less exposure to sunlight during the winter (in the northern hemisphere).  Sunlight is important because it’s a major source of vitamin D.  Vitamin D has effects on the hypothalamus which regulates sleep, hunger, and other factors that influence mood.

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These ducks have the right idea, although I didn’t take a dip into the frigid water, I did take this photo on a chilly winter walk

Another reason to get outside is just to enjoy the outdoors.  Although being outside during the winter requires some extra layers, being amongst nature has so many benefits, both for the mind and body.  Try going for a walk outside a few times a week (for the most benefits, aim for mid-day, especially when it’s sunny out).  If you’re feeling more adventurous, go ice-skating, skiing, or snow-shoeing if you live in a snowy climate.

2.  Eat (healthy) carbs!

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a toasted whole-grain bagel with a healthy fat, such as melted natural peanut butter makes for a deliciously warming winter breakfast

Complex carbs can health boost serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that influences mood.  I feel best when I stick to minimally processed whole grains and avoid white flour. Examples of complex carbs include sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole grains and 100% whole grain breads.  Paying attention to portion size is important.  It’s easy to over-do pasta, bread, and rice, especially because these foods can be so comforting.

3. Exercise

I love moving all year round!  Exercise always puts me in a good mood. If you can’t exercise outside, indoors is just as good.  I try to exercise daily for 30-60 minutes, or at least most days.  New to exercise?  Try to find something that you enjoy and that you’re willing to commit to.  Walking, running, yoga, weightlifting all count.

4. Sleep, but not too much

It’s so tempting to sleep more during the winter and go into “hibernation mode”, but I’ve found that (for me) this makes me feel lazy which then affects my mood.  Instead of staying in bed all day, try to get moving and accomplish one productive thing a day.  Oversleeping can be a symptom of depression, so if you find yourself preferring to stay in bed for an excessive amount of time and you also feel symptoms of hopelessness and apathy, it’s important to talk to someone.

5.  Participate in life

Sometimes during winter, I feel like hibernating and going into my shell, but I’ve noticed that this makes me feel down and withdrawn.  Find an engaging hobby that will keep your mind active.  Social support is also vitally important, so make some time for friends and family.

These are just some simple things that have helped me.  I hope you feel amazing today and every day of this winter season 🙂

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Happy Birthday to Vitamin Valentine!

My blog is officially 2 years old this june (technically my blog’s “birthday” was June 10th). I’m proud that I’ve been able to make writing a commitment, even though I feel like I’m a lot less focused on this blog than when I first began. Part of this is actually for a really good reason. I’m a lot less fixated on food than I used to be. Throughout writing about recipes, nutrition tips and advice, I’ve learned quite a bit about what healthy eating actually is. Here are some things I’ve learned as a nutritionist and student of nutrition:

1. Healthy eating is different for everyone

When I started this blog, I was kind of obsessed with counting calories. I just couldn’t shake it. This was not healthy and made me have a really negative relationship with food. I’ve mentioned in past posts that I used to struggle with obsessive dieting, so counting calories was definitely something that I needed to get away from. Instead of taking the latest diet advice or trying to adopt a lifestyle that ignores your personal health needs, do what feels right to you. It might feel uncomfortable to trust your gut, but ultimately, it is the healthiest.

It's a wrap, with chicken in it, because I felt like it ;) !

2. Eat the rainbow

Ok, so you’ve convinced yourself that your “intuition” is telling you to eat burgers and fries? Let’s be real. Your body needs fresh food in the form of fruits and veggies. Things that grow from the earth offer an abundance of vitamins and minerals and are truly nourishing. Learning to prepare vegetables so that they taste good is fun, I promise!

3. Don’t compare your diet to anyone else’s

I used to follow a bunch of vegan people on instagram and then would feel guilty every time I ate something that was less than 100% organic, raw, sustainably-produced, blah blah blah. I realized I was spending more time feeling bad about my perfectly healthy diet than enjoying my food. I also became somewhat obsessed with posting my own food pictures! If you find yourself comparing your diet to someone else’s, try to remember that no one is perfect when it comes to eating. And remember to take anything food-related on social media with a grain of salt (no pun intended).

4. Always bring snacks

Wherever you go, there you are…and hopefully you brought a snack because you will get hungry! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out running errands and became so hungry, I ended up overeating during my next meal. I’ve learned that keeping snacks in my bag really lets me avoid stuffing my face come lunch or dinner. Trail mix, granola bars, a bag of baby carrots, a piece of fresh fruit- these are all great snack ideas to have on hand.

5. Get moving

Exercise is essential for staying healthy, both physically and mentally. Not only do you burn calories and build strength (depending on the activity), exercise has been found to decrease stress and increase mental awareness. Moving your body will you help you in every way to improve your health…plus it makes your butt look good :). Start small and increase the amount of time you exercise. Try different activities and see which one you really like. I used to hate yoga, and now in a few weeks, I’ll officially be a registered yoga teacher. Go outside your comfort zone when it comes to trying new activities, you might just find your passion!

6. Have some kind of routine

Routines can be boring, restrictive, and repetitive-or-they can be grounding, give you a sense of purpose, and help you get things done. It’s all about perspective! When making a routine (whether its related to exercise or when you’ll prepare your meals, etc.) consider what will be most realistic and doable for you. If you’re not a morning person, don’t force yourself to wake up at 5 AM to go for a run everyday, because that’s not exercise, that’s torture. Likewise, if you work 60 hours a week and don’t have a spare minute to prepare your food, don’t waste your free time cooking elaborate meals. Instead, aim to have simple staples and healthy options at the places you dine at.

7. Be a perpetual student

I started this blog the same month I decided to go back to school to pursue a second bachelor’s and a master’s both in nutrition. I’ve probably learned just as much about food outside of the classroom than in it. I’ve learned a lot about how to treat illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, cancer, etc. and I love my professors, but when it comes to learning about the best way to eat, that’s in your hands. Be curious about your food and figuring out what works for you. You know yourself better than any person- nutritionist, doctor, etc. and it can never hurt to learn about food from a variety of sources and then integrate what makes the most sense for you, personally.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the past two years of my blog! If you’re a student of nutrition, feel free to share this post!

-Jess

Chocolate Chip-Granola Compassion Cookies

Cookies in the morning sunlight

Cookies in the morning sunlight

Greetings and happy (almost) summer solstice! The recipe I’m sharing today has nothing to do with summer. After all, chocolate chip cookies can be eaten year-round and aren’t necessarily something I think of as a summer treat. Regardless, I’m sharing this recipe because of the reasons why I decided to wake up early this morning and create these cookies in the first place. Lately my schedule has been jam-packed due to taking an intensive summer class (microbiology and a microbiology lab) and the start of a new job. These two factors have led me to indulge in some not-so-healthy eating, in the form of coming home late at night and indulging in some of my favorite healthy, yet, junky foods. I realized this past week, that I keep buying foods that I tend to overeat (cereal, granola, chocolate chips, and trail mix, although healthy, are my weaknesses and I never eat just one serving). As I’ve written in previous posts, using food during stress is common, but it shouldn’t be your go-to way to relax. With this in mind (and after eating one too many bowls of granola in bed this past week), I decided to make it easier for myself to not over-do my granola + chocolate chip habit by baking cookies that I can share and give to others. If you find yourself eating the same foods during times of stress, or simply when you’re not actually physically hungry, one easy step to alleviate this problem is by getting rid of the “trigger food”. Instead of being wasteful, either make a dish for someone else or donate the food item to a food bank. If the food is already opened, see if you can contact any organizations that accept fresh yet opened food (many do) or if you live in an area with a visible homeless population, consider showing some kindness and giving your food to a homeless person directly. Kindness towards yourself (by not using food to cope with stress) and kindness towards others (by donating said food items) is a win-win. Here’s my recipe for chocolate-chip granola cookies, or as I’m calling them “Compassion Cookies”. Enjoy and share your food!

Compassion Cookies 

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Makes 3 dozen cookies

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups of flour (it can be whole wheat, spelt flour, almond meal, gluten-free, whatever floats your boat)
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
  • 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup coconut oil (softened, I microwaved it in a bowl for 45 seconds)
  • 1/4 cup soy milk (or almond milk)
  • 1.5 cups granola (I used Nature’s Path Cinnamon Raisin Granola)
  • approx. 8 oz. vegan chocolate chips (I used sunspire organic 65% cacao chocolate chips, but I know trader joe’s also makes vegan chocolate chips)

Directions:

  • Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • In a large mixing bowl, mix together flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.
  • Create a well in the dry ingredients and add applesauce, vanilla extract, and melted coconut oil.
  • Add the soy milk
  • Add the granola and chocolate chips.
  • Mix well.
  • Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or grease with non-stick spray
  • Using a spoon, spoon cookie batter onto the sheet and bake for 12-14 minutes
  • Remove from the pan, allow to cool.
  • Share and enjoy!

 

-Jess

 

Mindfulness Matters: Keep a Food Journal to Limit Stress-Eating

Keeping a mindful eating guide can be helpful, and can be stored with your food journal.

Keeping a mindful eating guide can be helpful, and can be stored with your food journal.

As I’ve written in previous posts, the connection between stress and how we eat, or what influences our eating is huge. Nutrition is obviously important, but the reasons for why we decide to consume food (whether it is hunger, celebration, or emotionally-driven eating) is equally important. For me, I know during times of stress, food can be comforting. As someone who is trying to practice what I preach, the keys to stopping emotionally-driven eating involve some work but the payoff is worth it. Food journaling has been shown to not only help people become more aware to the specific foods and amounts one is consuming, but it also helps diminish emotional or stress-eating, which is something we’ve probably all done from time to time.

I’ve always been a fan of food journaling, but it’s only been recently that I’ve paid more attention to the reasons why and how I eat, rather than what. If you have a basic knowledge of nutrition and you’re maintaining a healthy weight, chances are, nutritionally- you’re doing something right, but you may be struggling with turning to food at inappropriate times. The first piece of advice I would give to anyone who feels that they use food during times of stress, would be to buy a notebook and write down when you feel stressed. You may be so anxious or stressed-out that you don’t even realize it or can’t even pinpoint a specific stressor, but it’s important to let your mind be free and write it all down. No one else has to read your words, so using a free flowing writing style is A-ok in my book. Next, write down why you think food can help you. Be completely honest with yourself. If you’ve already eaten, and you’re doing a post-meal/snack/binge “confession”, write down what you think led to your eating indiscretion. There is absolutely no shame, despite what your brain might tell you. The key here is to not place blame on yourself. Chances are, food has been your go-to stress-relief for a while, so being nonjudgmental towards yourself in a situation that may have produced guilt in the past is really important.

After you’ve written down your feelings about the food and eating, it’s now time to examine better ways to handle a stressful situation next time. One way to stop a stress-induced-eating episode is to keep your food journal with you at all times and right before you’re about to eat, remind yourself to write down how you’re feeling. Ask yourself, “will food solve this problem in the long-run?”. Although food might provide some immediate comfort and distraction, the answer is probably no, food is not the solution (unless you are actually hungry, then please, do eat something!). Being able to identify healthier ways to deal with stress is a baby step onto real, serious change, so even pausing and writing in a food journal shows great progress. Creating an eating plan for the next day may sound like a good idea, but if you feel that may add additional stress to your life, keeping the focus off food is better. Instead, resolve to pause before eating, take a walk when stressed, or practice meditation. Even sitting for 2 minutes before deciding to use food during stress may help calm your head and change your mind.

Journaling and mindfulness are two ways to get in touch with the factors that lead you to eat, but if you’re facing a problem that you just can’t seem to fix and food is the only solution you can think of, it’s important to get help. Confiding in a friend, social worker, psychologist, or other person you can trust can help you deal with the issues at hand, and may help you find solutions to your problems and also guide you towards diminishing problematic behavior such as stress-eating.

Since I’ve decided to make my blog a little more personal in certain posts, I was actually inspired to write this because I have found much help with the use of a food journal and even on days when I do have a food faux pas (that’s my code for “stress eating episode”!), the use of a journal has helped me immensely. Today in particular I was feeling stressed out due to an issue unrelated to food or school, or anything related to this blog, and I came home and ate a sandwich. Afterwards, I continued to eat some snacks, and then I started to feel uncomfortably full. I took my food journal, and wrote down what I felt, and I wrote an entire page of what was plaguing me throughout the day. It made me realize how important it is to examine my thoughts as they’re occurring, or simply not give into cognitive distortions that my mind is telling me (if you haven’t guessed, yes, I was a psych major). Even though I did eat more than I was hungry for and even though I did happen to give into my stress, it’s great to be able to realize that I can face an issue simply by writing down my thoughts. Sometimes we have to go through a process, whether it seems imperfect in the moment, to be able to realize that we may have the answers within ourselves. Allowing a screw-up to happen is okay, if we’re able to grow from it (and we’re not hurting anyone else in the process. Luckily eating a few extra snacks is not terribly destructive). My final piece of advice is to allow yourself to feel, experience, observe, and write without judgment and see how far you can go!

-Jess

A Simple Way of Eating

A burrito I made filled with brown rice, lentils, tofu, spicy avocado hummus, and hot sauce. Delicious but my stomach was less appreciative.

A burrito I made filled with brown rice, lentils, tofu, spicy avocado hummus, and hot sauce. Delicious but my stomach was less appreciative.

Lately I’ve been cooking and creating so many new dishes and even though I’m having a ton of fun in the kitchen, my stomach is starting to complain (I tend to use a lot of spices while cooking and I eat a lot of difficult-to-digest beans and grains). I also find that trying to constantly come up with new meals can take a toll, especially when my main focus should be on school (I’m currently pursuing two degrees, both in nutrition!). So, I’ve decided to simplify my diet and eat pretty basic, nutrient-packed meals for the time being. Besides my stomach pains and limited time and energy due to my classes, another reason why I’ve decided to get back to basics when it comes to eating is an inner feeling that my body just craves real simple food right now, instead of the complicated yet tasty meals I’ve been making. As I’ve mentioned many times throughout my blog, I’m a big fan of (trying) to listen to one’s body. Not only am I an advocate of intuitive eating, I’m also on my own journey to eat more intuitively and be less dependent on external factors (like counting calories and eating at certain pre-determined times during the day).

A blood orange up close and personal!

Luckily, the food stores I shop at have a great variety of fresh produce. Here’s a blood orange, up-close and personal.

I don’t really have a plan of what I’m going to eat, because that would be counter-productive to the goals of intuitive eating. However, I know that for the past few weeks I’ve been eating a ton of oatmeal (see my previous post—all those photos are from my own breakfasts!), tofu, wraps and sandwiches with spicy hummus galore, and a lot of other bean and veggie dishes. Obviously, I eat quite healthy, but my stomachaches indicate I should switch up my diet. I keep craving really simple meals (like fruit, salads, soup, nuts) so I’ve purposely stocked my pantry and fridge with the above. I also had a wild thought of trying to wean myself off of coffee (I’m heavily dependent on the magical bean elixir) but I will get back to you on that in the A.M. hours! (Update: Still drinking coffee, and even wrote a new blog post on coffee!)

This was a meal (I ate this for lunch) composed of dark purple grapes, a banana, strawberries, and turkish figs. I craved fruit, I ate fruit, and got my fair share of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients!

This was a meal (I ate this for lunch) composed of dark purple grapes, a banana, strawberries, and turkish apricots. I craved fruit, I ate fruit, and got my fair share of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients!

Salads are never boring with the right dressing. Here, I used cilantro dressing. Yum!

Salads are never boring with the right dressing. Here, I used cilantro dressing. Yum!

How do you know when it’s time to make a change in your diet? Is your weight the first thing you check, or are you more aware of your energy levels, digestion, and overall wellbeing? Feel free to share your input!

-Jess

When Counting Calories Becomes Harmful, Instead of Helpful

For anyone that has been reading my blog since I started posting regularly, I tend to take moderate approach to eating and diets. That is, I don’t advocate for elimination diets or encourage people to worry about every morsel that goes into one’s mouth. I write this way because I feel moderation and mindfulness are the two keys to having a good relationship with food while staying healthy. I know from experience that for many people, myself included, going on a restricted diet or being obsessed with calories often is just that—an obsession. I’ve known for a while that I’ve wanted to write about this issue from my own perspective, so I’m going to dedicate this entry to my experiences with calorie counting. Some of you reading may disagree with my own personal feelings on the matter because calorie counting is a legitimate way to lose weight (assuming there is an actual deficit of calories burned vs. consumed). I’m not disagreeing with the laws of thermodynamics, rather I am writing this for people who have counted calories and feel obsessive about it, and for people who have suffered from disordered eating and want to break free of their obsessions with food and calories.

In my experience, once you get into the habit of counting calories and start to get obsessive about it, it can become more destructive than it is helpful. Food becomes only about calories and a lot of judgment can occur based on whether you were “good” or “bad” that day, depending on whether you stayed under your calorie allowance. The pleasure of food is often reduced or eliminated once you begin to see food as calories, which are unwanted to any dieter aiming to lose weight. This is a very destructive mindset to get into, because food is fuel. It can also backfire heavily and lead you to eat in rebellion, because as soon as you eat the forbidden food or go above your allotted calories for the day, you might feel like a failure and simply give up on attempts to be healthier. In a worst case scenario, when this goes on repeatedly it can lead to restricting/compensation eating disorders or binge eating disorder.  Sure, on a “good” day of eating, you may feel powerful and in control, but on a “bad” day of eating, you may feel like an utter failure. This disordered way of viewing food can be avoided by using a different method other than calorie counting to achieve health and weight loss (if desired).

If you feel the need to lose weight, first you need to look at your habits of how you gained weight. Was it a decrease in activity? Increase in junk food?  A combination of both? Once you pin point the definite contributors, you may also want to take a look at what was going on during the period of weight change. Were you under stress for a particular reason? Did you use food to cope with the stress? If so, there are many ways to reduce stress that do not involve food (Listed at the end of this entry are some resources for reducing stress). The next step is to figure out what foods you are likely to overeat. Sweet, salty, high-fat foods are usually everyone’s weakness, which isn’t to say you should completely eliminate them from your diet, but if you keep a steady supply of junk food in your kitchen, you might want to reconsider and only have small portions available or only treat yourself to such foods as a special occasion.

Another change you can make instead of calorie counting is to become a mindful eater. I wrote a post about mindful eating earlier in October, but I will restate the importance of mindfulness with regards to food and eating. Being present during a meal or eating experience is essential for people who eat on autopilot, as well as those who view food solely as calories. It is difficult to truly enjoy a meal when you’re distracted or anxiously calculating the calories in each bite. It is also difficult to gauge your hunger and fullness when you’re not in the present moment. Being mindful allows you to consult your stomach (ask yourself if you are hungry/full/something in between) and your brain (decide what food choice would be both healthy and satisfying) without having to stress out about macronutrient minutia. As you become more in touch with yourself using mindfulness techniques, you’ll probably eat less due to not being distracted or anxious.  Food is also a lot more satisfying, and thus you may require less of it to feel satisfied, when you are actually paying attention to all the sensations that eating involves.

Some of you, especially dieters who’ve relied on counting calories for a long time, may find it difficult to get out of the calorie counting habit and I can definitely relate. I find it very difficult to NOT count calories because I’ve been a calorie counter since my early teens. My wish for anyone that feels obsessive about calorie counting is to get out of that habit as soon as possible by being mindful and using food as fuel. If calorie counting is working for you or you have a detail-oriented mindset and don’t judge yourself for minor food indiscretions, then keep doing what’s working. For anyone that suspects their relationship with food has taken a destructive turn, please visit the following link for a self-assessment to determine whether you may have an eating disorder.

http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/online-eating-disorder-screening

You can also find additional resources on the National Eating Disorder Association website.

Here are some tips for stress relief without using food:

  • Get out of the house/out of the area where junk food is present. Take a ride or walk around your neighborhood.
  • Paint, draw, make beaded jewelry…or take a trip to the nearest art supply store and buy the materials for all of the above!
  • Make an inspirational collage (not using model’s bodies that you wish to attain) but instead, fill it with words of encouragement and pictures of scenery you enjoy. My favorite magazines to use for collages are Outside and Travel + Leisure.
  • Text or call a friend.
  • Take a hot bath or shower.
  • Give yourself a manicure.
  • Get a massage
  • Go to an animal shelter and hug some furry friends
  • Go outside and take pictures
  • Do yoga. Instead of judging yourself for any flexibility limitations, enjoy the way it feels as your body stretches.
  • Organize your closet
  • Listen to music and do one or more of the above

Eating disorders go beyond issues related to food and dieting. Although this post was specifically about calorie counting and its relationship with eating disorders, not everyone with an eating disorder is focused on calories specifically and not everyone who counts calories has an eating disorder. In my experience, calorie counting has not been a positive thing for me to focus on and I know many others in the eating disorders and dietetic communities also agree that obsessive calorie monitoring can lead to a distorted relationship with food.

-Jess