Achieving a healthy eating plan through balanced meals 2

March 11, 2009

If none of the suggestions in my previous post sounded appealing, a balanced meal approach is another way to improve your current eating plan.  Do an initial assessment of each meal and notice which are balanced and which are not.  Do you get at least 2 food groups in every meal?  That’s a good place to start.  Or do you consistently get 3 in some meals but not in others?  Another good place to start.  Finally, if you definitely, most assuredly, absolutely always get at least 3 food groups in every meal, what about the variety at these meals?  Is there a good mixture of protein sources each week, or fruits and vegetables?

Ideally each meal has at least 2-3 food groups.  What does this look like?  Grilled chicken with a side of green beans and bread.  Tomato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich.  Macaroni and cheese with broccoli.  These are not strange, mysterious and complex meals that can only be achieved by those with a lot of time.  It may simply mean throwing some vegetables into your pasta sauce, cutting up a cucumber and handful of tomatoes to serve with dinner, or adding some canned beans to a pot of soup.  Mindfulness towards balanced meals, plus a couple tricks on easy ways to achieve balance, goes a long ways towards improving the eating plan.  Balanced meals means satisfying meals that taste good and fulfill our nutritional needs.  There are so many ways to attain balance that it won’t require forcing unwanted food choices that are unsustainable, but fitting guidelines to your preferences and lifestyle.

One key ingredient is protein to help us feel full.  Animal-based proteins like chicken, fish, pork, beef all tend to be pretty dense in calories, so for weight loss protein doesn’t have to be the main feature of a meal.  A boiled egg sliced into a garden salad adds variety and a little bit of protein without a ton of calories.  Instead of chicken as the main course, why not chop it up, serve it up with beans, rice and wheat tortillas to make chicken burritos?  The idea is to have some protein at each meal, no matter how little.  A small handful of nuts or half spoonful of nut butter, milk or yogurt, hummus are all easy ways to add in some protein for very little additional cooking effort.  Beans, lentils, soy, and certain grains are all great low calorie, high fiber protein alternatives.

Another key ingredient is the fiber found in fruits and vegetables.  Fiber adds bulk to meals, which helps us feel full faster and keeps the food in our stomachs longer.  Also, fruits and vegetables tend to be pretty low in calories, so adding some of those into a meal will increase the “fullness” quotient without adding too many calories.  There are so many fruits and vegetables in supermarkets, there is bound to be a couple that you like.  Slice up some apples and serve them with dinner.  Throw in a banana with French toast instead of bacon (The French toast has egg and milk in it, so you’ve already satisfied the protein component of the meal!)  Add some baby carrots in to your lunch bag.  Instead of the usual tomato and lettuce in sandwiches, try new and unusual vegetables like sliced cucumber, bell peppers, carrots.

For those going the “many small meals” route, most, if not all, snacks should contain a balance of 2-3 food groups as well.  Some prefer small snacks like a banana or a small yogurt, just realize these won’t satisfy for nearly as long as yogurt with granola and dried fruit, or a banana and a couple walnuts.  Creating snacks with more than one food group ensures greater balance and variety in your overall eating.  It also keeps us satisfied for longer, decreasing the need to munch constantly.  Balanced snacks you’ve seen before includes fruit and yogurt, trail mix, low-fat cheese on whole wheat crackers, vegetable sticks and hummus, peanut butter on celery.

Although it sounds complicated at first, intuitively we’re already quite familiar with the concept of balanced meals.  They’re many of the meals and snacks that we grew up with.  Keep a couple handy, portable sources of protein and fruits and vegetables on hand – nuts, already hardboiled eggs, yogurt, canned beans, hummus; vegetable sticks, ready to eat fruits – and you can easily achieve balance with most meals and snacks.


Achieving a healthy eating plan through balanced meals 1

March 9, 2009

Eating balanced meals is important to any eating plan.  Meals that are balanced are ones that incorporate multiple food groups.  A roast beef sandwich with lots of tomatoes and lettuce is a balanced meal.  A plain bagel by itself is not.

Balance is important for many reasons.  The greater the number of food groups in each meal, the greater variety of nutrients provided in that meal.  Our bodies need vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, carbohydrates and yes, even a little bit of fat, for daily functioning.  No one food group can provide all of these.  Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals and fiber, meat, dairy, and plant-based proteins provide protein and fat, grains provide complex carbohydrates (as opposed to sugar, which is a simple carbohydrate).  In terms of a meal, protein helps us feel full, fat keeps us feeling full for a long time, and fiber provides bulk, which also helps us feel full.  In contrast, refined sugars just run through our system, so that we feel hungry again after a short period of time.  This is why plain white bread, eaten alone, doesn’t sustain us for a long time.  A peanut butter and jelly sandwich, however (or better yet, a peanut butter and apple sandwich), sticks to our stomachs longer because it has protein, fat and fiber added to the complex carbohydrates in bread.

Furthermore, eating a balanced meal means eating a combination of foods that are calorically dense (i.e. many calories in a few mouthfuls, like protein and fat) and calorically light (i.e. few calories in many mouthfuls, like fruits and vegetables).  Particularly for those who favor calorically dense foods, a mixture of the two will lighten up the overall meal without changing how much food is consumed or how full we feel afterwards.  Increasing the number of food groups at each meal also provides greater variety and possible combinations of foods.  This variety means meals are more enjoyable and less prone to become boring or stale; boredom from eating the same foods over and over again is one of the main causes of overeating, as the pleasure switches from the food itself to the process of eating.

If none of the suggestions in my previous post sounded appealing, a balanced meal approach is another way to improve your current eating plan.  Do an initial assessment of each meal and notice which are balanced and which are not.  Do you get at least 2 food groups in every meal?  That’s a good place to start.  Or do you consistently get 3 in some meals but not in others?  Another good place to start.  Finally, if you definitely, most assuredly, absolutely always get at least 3 food groups in every meal, what about the variety at these meals?  Is there a good mixture of protein sources each week, or fruits and vegetables?

For those wrestling with these questions, my next post will cover specific ways to increase balance at both meals and snacks.

5 places to start making eating changes

March 6, 2009

So you’re ready to make some changes.  You’re convinced an overall eating plan is the way to go, and that it will be created one step at a time.  You want to make some tangible goals to guide your efforts this week.  Where to start?

For some people this may be obvious, as they have a good sense of what they need to cut back on or change.  For others, it’s an overwhelming question because there are so many areas that could be changed that it is difficult to pinpoint the best place to begin.

Generally, most people are doing well in some aspects of their eating habits, but could make improvements in other areas.  It is very, very rare to find someone who has no area for improvement.  In my experience, there are five general areas where most people start to make changes, and when I performed diagnostic assessments in our first meeting, I would usually ask about all of these at some point.

If you’re not sure what area to tackle first take a look through this list.  Even if you know what you want to start with, read through this list anyways.  It will point out areas you aren’t yet focused on, and will give you ideas down the road.   Again, don’t feel pressured to make more than 1-2 changes right now.  I’ve worked with plenty of people who built up their weekly routines to hit all of these after 3 months, and they felt better doing it in a stepwise fashion because it was a gradual, controlled process.  Better to train for a marathon than to go out and run 26 miles on the very first day.  These are not listed in any particular order.

1)    Getting enough servings of fruits and vegetables.  5-A-Day, 5-9 servings, we all know we should be getting a lot, but most of us don’t get quite enough.  Don’t know what one serving looks like?  For now, don’t worry about that.  Ask yourself: do I get a piece of fruit or vegetable in with every meal?  More than one?  If you’re not then that’s a great place to start.  Generally speaking, swapping fruits or vegetables for other foods in your diet results in eating fewer calories, because the high bulk (from fiber) means that for the same space in your stomach, they pack in fewer calories.  Note this doesn’t mean to eat fruits or vegetables on top of what you normally have, it needs to be a substitution to be effective.

Possible SMART goals include:
-Get a piece of fruit or vegetable in with [pick a meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, midafternoon snack, midmorning snack, etc.], and do it [choose a frequency: daily, each day of the workweek, every other day].
-Have a salad with [pick a meal: lunch, dinner], and do it [choose a frequency: twice this week, a small salad daily, on the weekend].

If you choose a non-daily frequency, think through now which days to make your change.  Do you want to space it out, say Tuesday and Thursday?  Does it make more sense to do this on a weekday, when your schedule is more regular, or on a weekend, when your schedule may contain more free time?

2)    Not eating at regular intervals.  To keep your body’s metabolism most active it must be fed every couple of hours.  Otherwise it becomes unsure when the next meal is coming in and goes into conservation mode, burning fewer calories, storing more calories when you finally do eat.  This is the idea behind the “eat many small meals” mantra touted by nutritionists and celebrities alike.  Also, spreading meals out through the day helps reduce large spikes in blood sugar.

So what does this look like?  It might mean not eating breakfast (more on breakfast in a later post), skipping lunch, going more than 4-5 hours between meals, having a tiny breakfast and lunch and consuming most calories during dinnertime.  This can be one of the hardest areas to change because food habits start young and stay with us for years.  Still, if you are open to building in a midmorning piece of fruit or 100 calorie snack bar, or a similar midafternoon snack, the results can be dramatic.  No rumbling stomach when you get home that prompts you to overeat at dinnertime, reduced afternoon drowsiness, more energy all day long, these all can happen when blood sugar levels are evenly distributed through the day.

Just remember, the idea isn’t to add more food on to what you eat daily, but to redistribute the calories over an additional “snack” or small meal, or two.

3)    Eating too many sweets or other junk food, including soda.  This is huge.  Junk food and soda are empty calories because they provide no nutritional benefit, but take up calories anyways.  They also tend to be pretty dense in calories, so cutting out a few will have a big effect.  One soda has 150 calories.  One soda per day is 900 calories each week, which is about a pound per month, or 12-13 pounds every year.  Cutting out that one daily soda is a small change with a big impact.

Again, if you find yourself eating too many sweets or junk food, ask yourself:
What do I tend to eat?  Salty?  Sweet?  A favorite?  Anything that’s around?
When do I tend to eat these?  For breakfast?  To stave off late afternoon drowsiness?  After dinner?
Where am I at this point?  Home?  Work?  In front of the TV?
Why do I tend to eat them?  Boredom?  No time for a real meal?
How am I feeling when I eat them?  Am I stressed, tired, angry, sad, frustrated?

Even if you know exactly where your weakness lies when it comes to junk food, these questions identify additional factors that come with this eating habit.  We never act in a vacuum.  Our environment, the people around us, our life histories all impact what we eat, when we eat it and why we eat it.  If you always have a bag of chips or popcorn immediately after work and before dinner, is it because you’re starving because you didn’t eat lunch or go 6 hours between lunch and dinner?  Is it your way to unwind after a long day of work?  Do you associate popcorn with certain emotions or times of the day?  Or do you just really, really like popcorn?

Once you answer these questions it becomes easier to see what accompanying changes need to be made to support a change in this early evening popcorn habit.  Maybe a small snack on the way out the door from work to home will satisfy the munchies until dinnertime, eliminating the need for popcorn.  Maybe there are other ways you like to unwind, like a bath and a magazine, gardening, or otherwise tinkering with your hands.  If popcorn is associated with certain emotions, think about where that link comes from.  In the past, what other activities have helped when you feel those emotions, and can you incorporate one of those into your early evening routine?  And if you just really, really like popcorn, my suggestions are twofold: healthier popcorn, and smaller serving sizes.  You can buy the no butter individual –serving packages and then drizzle a bit of olive oil over the top, which acts like butter but is healthier for you, and is certainly healthier than the artificial butter they use.

As you can see, some food habits require “supporting habits” or accompanying changes.  If you set a goal to stop eating popcorn after work but don’t create any supporting habits, this creates frustration and

4)    Portion control.  Even if you’re eating the right foods, if you consume too many of them, weight control will be an issue.  More tips on portion control in a later post, but possible SMART goals include limiting seconds to a couple times a week, ordering smaller portions when eating out, serving food in smaller plates or bowls,

5)    Frequently eating out or eating impromptu vending machine meals.  This generally speaks to lack of time or lack or advance planning so that we are forced to grab food from the nearest available source.  Restaurant meals and vending machine snacks are higher in fat, oil, sugar and salt than foods prepared at home.  If this is a problem area, if the goal is to cut down on the number of impromptu vending machine meals or meals eaten out during lunch or dinner, a supporting habit is advance planning around grocery shopping.  Half an hour a week of planning results in healthy meal or snack items that can be stored at work or at home.  By stocking up on healthy alternatives, there eliminates a major driving force behind the problem.

Pick one or two items off this list to try, or maybe this post sparks thoughts of other eating habits to tackle.  Set a goal for this week for yourself.  Be specific, right down to the time of day.  And let me know how it goes!

The argument against diets

March 4, 2009

Mindfulness is the theme of the month.  Not dieting, not some crazy scheme that goes against my regular eating pattern, but tweaking habits in a concrete, mindful way.  Diets don’t work because they are unsustainable.  If I gained 10 pounds in 3 months, go on a crash diet to lose those 10 pounds, then revert back to my former eating habits, whatever caused me to gain the weight in the first place is going to still be in my diet, and I’ll just gain back those 10 pounds.  Worse yet, that crash diet may have thrown off my metabolism and I’ll gain even more than 10 pounds.  This phenomenon is known as “yo yo dieting,” and it happens precisely because we don’t go about weight loss in a gradual, sustained way.  In other words, if there was some eating habit that caused me to gain those 10 pounds in the first place – regularly sizing up my fries, eating out for lunch because I started grad school and don’t have time to cook, a newfound love for ice cream that must be indulged every night – I need to make a sustained change to my exercise or eating habits in order to permanently keep off the weight.

If that sounds intimidating, it isn’t as hard as it sounds!  There are so many places in our exercise or eating habits to make a change that it won’t mean a complete overhaul of the system, and everybody can find some change, somewhere in their eating habits, that they’re willing to change.  Some of our eating habits come about by default, such as using white pasta because that’s what we were raised eating.  Other eating habits are “non-negotiable” and that’s fine, as long as you’re willing to make adjustments elsewhere to compensate for them.  In the examples above, maybe I go back to the small fries, or only eat out twice per week and start walking to work on the days I do eat out to compensate for the extra calories, or I switch over to frozen yogurt or use smaller bowls to dish up the ice cream.  Use SMART goals when making dietary changes, and don’t take on too much at once.

Most diets work exactly opposite to SMART goals.  They offer a quick fix solution.  They are unsustainable because they don’t fit our needs.  They are either too restrictive or too prescriptive, either limiting dieters to very few “appropriate” foods (Atkins and the grapefruit diet come to mind), or provide tightly scripted recipes but no insight in how to modify or tweak the recipes to retain their healthful benefits.  Who even knows what kale is and where to buy it, and what are you going to do with the 1.75 leftover heads of kale after you’ve made the one recipe that calls for it?  And do we honestly think we could eat it, week after week after week for the rest of our life?

The point, then, is to find a nutrition plan rather than a strict formula, one that is sustainable for an extended period of time.  It should be reasonable and flexible, easily tailored to the changing demands of life, yet ensures we’re meeting our nutritional needs while keeping within a reasonable calorie count.  The tradeoff is between a quick fix and a permanent solution.  A quick fix changes everything at once in an unrealistic and unsustainable way.  A permanent solution makes a couple changes at a time, slowly builds on those changes, and integrates itself into daily life.

This month I will post a series of articles on basic guidelines for creating a plan and how to incorporate these changes into busy schedules, but I thought it was important to lay out my philosophy towards eating in the very beginning.  Posts will not contain headlines such as “5 Miracle Foods You Should Know About – But Don’t!”  Instead, I hope they cause you to consider what you eat, how you eat it, why you eat certain foods, and how this is intimately linked to our physical and social environment.  Once we understand the many forces that act upon our eating habits, we can make long lasting, intentional changes that.  Mindful changes.

March Challenge: Day 1 Eating Plan

March 3, 2009

Breakfast: tea, yogurt with lemon curd, banana, tofu and mushroom miso soup.

Lunch: leftovers (potato, kale, chicken, carrot, onion), apple, Chinese rice cracker wafer thingie, bread with cheese.  I ate this in 3 batches, the bread and cheese and rice cracker wafer thingie on the bus between campuses, half of my leftovers and the apple during lunch hour, and the other half of the leftovers around 4PM.

Post workout snack: egg and kimchee, 2 Chinese date candies.

Dinner: Rice with eggplant, scallions, ground beef, Chinese pickled vegetables.

I admit I ran into a bit of trouble during my afternoon class, where I was passing around white chocolate-covered pecans that my friend had given me.  Admittedly I’m not a huge white chocolate fan (if it had been dark chocolate I don’t think those pecans would have seen the light of day!), but as I was passing them around I was tempted to sneak one or two myself, just, you know, to be companionable in eating the sweets and all, but certainly not part of The Plan for yesterday.

Not a bad start to the month, but I’m certainly going to have to tighten things up a bit.  I can already see that I need more vegetables in my diet, and more dairy, too.

Steps to Creating an Eating Plan

March 2, 2009

Believe it or not, this is not the first time I’ve engaged in such a challenge.  Back in 2007 I embarked on Operation Cold Turkey where I ate no junk food and no unplanned snacks for 31 days.  Throughout my life I’ve been a health maniac on one hand, closet snack junkie on the other.  Seriously closeted, seriously a junkie.  I love nutrition, healthy eating, fresh fruits and vegetables but I also had a bad habit of sneaking little snacks now and then, and as the years went by I started indulging more and more.

By the time I started Operation Cold Turkey I was working at a non-profit that had candy and chocolate out in multiple locations.  I would nibble on sweets several times each day, sometimes while chatting to coworkers, sometimes as a “little treat” after lunch or to give me a boost before my teenagers came in for the day.  When I got home each night, still feeling the residual effects of the refined sugars in my system, I would put off dinner until I felt hungry around 8 or 9, or I would eat dinners that consisted of hummus spread on celery, or a single-serving package of Raisin Bran cereal doused with chocolate milk, dipping into the box from the food bank that I’d brought home from work because nobody wanted to eat anything that healthy.  It was such a slippery slope – that first mini Snickers or chocolate graham peppermint bark, and next thing I knew I’d thrown off the balance of my entire day.  The situation was so dire I knew I’d have to take drastic measures to set myself back on course.  Operation Cold Turkey was born.

I remember telling my boss Michelle about the month long challenge.  “And I have two exceptions –”

Michelle burst out laughing.  “Talking about exceptions already?  I see how this is going to go!”

“No really — !!!”  I was so busy blushing my usual shade of fire engine red, I didn’t even have time to finish my thought before the conversation turned in another direction.

Before the month started I had decided on two occasions when it would be best to break the oath and ingest the refined sugars.  One: if a friend, coworker or family member came running in terribly excited because they just baked a pan of scrumptious sweets, there was no way I could turn that down.  Two: if a piece of birthday cake was passed my way, and I happened to like the birthday girl or boy (OK really, anybody’s birthday would suffice to break O.C.T., except, perhaps, mortal enemies).

But other than that, no exceptions, no matter what.  As painful as the detox might be, I wanted to recalibrate my internal sweet tooth so that I could better enjoy the sweets I ate without the little nagging clutter of little pieces of junk.

I made it through the entire month without encountering a single homebaked good or birthday event, which is surprising given the woman who worked in our development office used to own her own bakery and regularly showered us with mouthwatering treats.  Still, those clauses were important, even if they went unused.  Life is unpredictable.  There is some degree of variation that we can count on, like the candy tin at work occasionally becoming populated with our very favorite Hershey’s miniature assorted chocolates, or that Thanksgiving is coming up and the in-laws will bring 3 types of pie, as they always do.  And then there are the unexpected moments, like when we bombard friends with an entire chocolate cheesecake right after exams, and then they turn around and expect us to finish it together that very night (we made it through two thirds of the cake).

When starting up a new eating plan, it is best to think through as many “what if” scenarios as possible, and to create contingency plans for each one.  Most eating plans are derailed because they are broken once and then abandoned.  Contingency plans are part of The Plan; they’re Section 1B Clause 4.2.  There are two types of contingency plans: ones for specific events (such as my two Exception Clauses listed above), and ones for general events, like the general guideline to opt for either wine or the bread basket at a fancy restaurant, or no seconds at the buffet table.

Contingency plans keep our eating plans moving forward.  They also ensure that if we do encounter an unexpected situation, we are better equipped to handle it with moderation, rather than plunging in wildly and digging ourselves deep into the I Blew My Diet hole.  They keep us flexible yet firmly on track.  And they ensure our chances for success.

How successful was Operation Cold Turkey?  There were no birthday parties or homemade goodies that month, so I did indeed make it through an entire month without junk food.  Having a firm absolute rule (with two exceptions) in a defined time period really helped me focus instead of falling into the wishy-washy trap.  That wishy-washiness, in fact, created the problem in the first place, because I could never hold my resolve to have just one mini Snickers or egg custard tart.

Operation Cold Turkey also worked because it paired two objectives: no junk food, and planned meals each day.  I had healthy substitutes on hand to replace the junk food, and I knew roughly when I was supposed to eat what.  So if it was achingly difficult to walk by the plate of Betty Crocker brownies that had been sitting out since yesterday, I knew 1) I had some wedges of pomello in my bag (a delicious Chinese fruit that pops up in grocery stores around lunar new year), 2) those were supposed to be eaten roughly halfway between lunch and dinnertime, not gobbled down 15 minutes after I finished my lunch.  In other words, Operation Cold Turkey attacked the twin root causes of my junk food nibbling addiction: mindless grazing on junk food, and lack of healthy alternatives.

At the end of 31 days, what amazed me most was not the fact that I made it all the way through an entire month without junk food.  At the end of my challenge, when I finally indulged in fun size candy bar or a couple pieces of chips, I was immediately hit with indigestion.  I no longer craved junk food, and if I went ahead and had some anyways, my body protested loudly.  Refined sugar can be addictive, and breaking the cycle lowers the cravings “set point.”  In my case, there was even a physical component to the addiction, and one that protested loudly when junk food was reintroduced to the system.  Sadly, that protest has faded with time, as evidenced by my latest junk food spree.

If you decide to play along with the junk food ban, ask yourself if Operation Cold Turkey is realistic for an entire month, or if it is more appropriate to spread it out in several phases.  This will depend how much junk food you currently consume and how attached you’ve become.  Phase I could be to limit junk food to one piece per day or twice per week; Phase II, or complete elimination, occurs a couple weeks after Phase I.

Some guidelines to create your own Operation Total Elimination:

1)    Identify when you tend to eat the most junk food.  Between meals?  In the afternoon?  Right after dinner?  Right after staff meetings …?  In lieu of breakfast?

2)    Take this one step further and ask: What’s the pattern here?  Usually junk food consumption is symptomatic of an underlying issue, so to eliminate the habit we need to identify the root source.  It could be any number of issues, such as:
*Maybe you tend to grab some candy when you’re stressed or bored at work, or need an excuse to get up and stretch your legs.
*Sometimes we use junk food as a meal stand-in.  This points to the need for advance planning to make sure a healthy meal or snack is on hand.
*Some people need to end a meal with something sweet.
*Others crave munchies when they’re studying or watching TV.

3)    Figure out a plan of attack.  During the first round of O.C.T., banning junk food was actually my starting point.  It was only upon examining my life that I realized I would need healthy substitutes on hand at all times, and to have them planned out in advance to circumvent the “just one” mentality I had fallen into.

Also, remember my conversation with Michelle?  The more detailed your plan is the more likely you are to succeed.  One of the main reasons people fail at diets is that they do well for a couple days, weeks or even months, and then they slip up.  Rather than hopping back on the bandwagon and continuing at full force, they give up and slip right back into their old habits.  In addition to anticipating potential weak spots in your plan, create a plan for if you happen to slip up.

4)    Hold yourself accountable.  Chronicle your efforts in a journal or in a visible location (my favorite is to mark days or weeks on the calendar when I am successful, after awhile you don’t want to break your own momentum!), tell friends and family what you’re up to, keep a notebook filled with dreams, goals, resources, ideas, contact information of useful contacts, etc.

formation of useful contacts, etc.

Monthly Challenge: March

March 1, 2009

Oh March.  Your approach means that spring is on its way, though in New England, I’m told, this elusive season goes by the nickname “sprinter” and that your approach really means that daytime highs consistently rise above freezing.  Just now I saw some suspicious white fluffs drift past my window, but rather than contemplate what that holds for my noontime trek over to a friend’s place to cook some Chinese food, I will instead avoid looking out the window for the next half hour and instead focus on the computer screen in front of me.  Denial is such a warm, happy place.

February is the toughest month of the year, which means that things look up in March, sprinter or not.  Knowing February would be difficult I took every preventive measure I could think of: daily doses of inspiration, meals out with friends, a couple new crafting projects and a regularly cleaned apartment.  And still one more tactic slipped in through the back door when I wasn’t paying attention, one that has since taken over the kitchen and needs to be wrestled back out the door once more.  Junk food.

Normally I’m pretty good about junk food.  Sure, it sneaks into my diet on a regular basis, but in a reasonable way.  Since the semester started, though, I’ve been consuming alarming amounts of sugar, butter and chocolate, sometimes in various forms of junk food, sometimes, I admit, in unadultered form, like shoveling large handfuls of Ghirardelli 60% cacao dark chocolate baking chips into my mouth.  Sugar, butter and chocolate are one of those fast and easy ways to stay awake in class (and I have two of them, back to back, on Wednesday afternoons), to alleviate a bit of stress, and are that perfect distraction from the paper that should be written.  It may not be the best for you, but when you’re in a rush convenience usually trumps all else.

A large mug of hot chocolate to go with breakfast is pushing it, but reasonable.  A plateful of chocolate chip cookies – albeit homemade ones, with pumpkin puree substituted in for half the butter, and a combination of wheat flour, rolled oats and white flour instead of the usual white – right after a mind-numbingly large dinner, is not.  You know things are bad when you pour M&M mini baking bits into a bowl of vanilla yogurt and call it breakfast, just because you needed that fix of colorful candied shells crunching between your teeth.  With certain foods, it isn’t so much the taste as it is the unique sensation of how it squishes between my teeth that I find so addictive.  Edamame.  M&M’s (the peanut ones squish differently than the regular).

When I start needing the junk, it’s time to cut back.

So here’s the plan.  Rather than cutting junk food out entirely, I am going to cut down in careful, measured ways.  In fact, I am going to be more mindful of food in general this month.  I’ve been here six months already, but I have yet to establish a good food routine for myself.  Good weeks are followed by off weeks, where I grab my can of kimchee and mix it into scrambled eggs and call it dinner, until the kimchee runs out and I have to think up a new Miracle Meal.

Every day I will have an idea of what I am eating and when.  Breakfast, lunch, dinner, plus any snacks along the way.  If it’s in the plan it’s OK, junk food and all.  If I decide to have a banana and a chocolate chip pumpkin cookie during my afternoon Biostats class (you know, the one that immediately follows my other boring afternoon class), there’s nothing wrong with that.  But if I haven’t planned ahead properly, there is no spontaneous vending machine run for the king size bag of peanut M&M’s, because, of course, in a school of public health they would only stock the king size bag.  There are other ways to stay awake in class, like stretching, jogging up and down the stairs during the break, or even writing out every last Chinese poem I can remember in the back of my notebook, something I’ve discovered can really stave off close encounters with the pesky ZZZ’s.  It’s time to let go of this crutch we call junk food.  It’s time for regular, nutritious meals.

Some days I may post up my eating plan for the day, others I’ll share tidbits of fooding knowledge I’ve picked up along the way from over a decade of healthy eating attempts, plus years of health education and health coaching experience.  It’s one thing to learn the rules of the eating game.  It’s another to figure out how those rules fit into the daily commute, a controlling boss at work, children who refuse to eat anything green, and those 3 half-eaten cartons of ice cream staring back from the freezer door.  But we’ll tackle all of that together.  March is rays of hope peering in through short, gloomy days.  And eating?  My kitchen used to be one of those places of warmth and contentment to return to at the end of a long day.  Here’s to bringing it back to that status once more.

March: A Month of Mindful Eating.

Inspiration Challenge 27: Enjoy the magic of twilight

February 27, 2009


3 Ways a Support Network Helps You Achieve Your Goals

February 26, 2009

In my family, it’s no secret that I love nicknames.  Silly, irreverent, they often take some passing comment and turn it into a running inside joke, codifying bits of life history that can be drawn upon with a single word.  Occasionally the nickname becomes embedded in daily life, so layered in details and memories that nobody can recall the exact muse for inanity.  So it is that I cannot remember when, exactly, I started referring to myself as ‘Mighty Mouse’ with my parents.  The self-imposed nickname makes no reference to the cartoon from the fifties; the idea sprung up as a metaphor for the angst I was experiencing over my first job.  The idea of a tiny mouse striving for superheroic acts that, ultimately, are inconsequential to anybody outside the miniscule realm in this hypothetical world of mice, struck me as both ironic and a little reminder to stop whining and develop a backbone.  To act more like my namesake while mocking how seriously I took myself, in other words.

There’s very little about this nickname that separates it from scores of others that have faded with time, except that on a whim, I translated it into Chinese.  We have no word for “superhero,” so I used the word xia instead.  Though it literally translates as “warrior,” the meaning is more Robin Hood than knight of the Middle Ages.  The subculture of xia has its own code of conduct has woven itself into pieces of the landscape of Chinese literature for hundreds of years now, right up through the martial arts films of today like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  To this I married the phrase “super,” in keeping with translations for “superman” and “supermarket.”  Chaoji shuxia.  Super Mouse Warrior.  It tickled me dad pink that I finally progressed beyond literal translation, so the name stuck.

Chaoji shuxia is a composite phrase comprised of two individual phrases, each loaded with connotations and references.  Pairing the tiny mouse (shu) with the noble and righteous xia, for example, is as irreverent as the spirit in which I created the nickname.  An added layer of complexity is the fact that the Chinese language is perfectly situated for puns, as multiple characters are associated with one sound, and characters can take on multiple parts of speech, depending on the context.  For example, the word for “father” and “assistant” are the exact same sound, and thus one fine spring day the joke evolved further to birth a sidekick, a deputy mouse assistant who also happened to have brought me into this world.

More a right hand man than a disciple, a cross between Robin and Batboy, dad’s nickname is at once a mocking jab at traditional Confucian values and a reflection of the immense moral support he’s given me through the years.  My mother’s only comment – “Well, at least he’s not Assistant Stapler,” punctuated by an eye roll – underscores the fact that my parents support me in vastly different ways, dad with day-to-day encouragement and as a sounding board for ideas, mom in occasional heartfelt conversations about what it means to operate in this nation as a minority woman, dealing with issues of identity, career, love, power.

Developing courage and initiative is critical for pursuing our dreams.  Just like the visual sources of inspiration that keep us moving forward, support from friends and family is critical to keeping us on track and motivated.  Friends and family offer several flavors of support.  There is moral support, like when I email my fu or dad/assistant, long rambling ruminations laced with self-doubt and uncertainty.  He rises heroically to the challenge, blaring metaphorical trumpets of encouragement and humor that pick me right back up to superhero status once more, or at least elicit a wild outburst of laughter that cause my classmates in the computing lab to all edge a little further away in their seats.

There is accountability, like the year I decided to walk 500 miles and posted this new years resolution to my blog.  Through the year friends asked after my progress, just often enough that I always heard their voices in my head if I felt like slacking off for a day or two.  Let your friends and family know what you’re up to, keep them updated on your status, have them check in with your progress on a weekly basis.  Internally imposed deadlines have more teeth when we answer to both internal and external sources, even if it’s a friendly “So did you get to the gym today?” asked in passing by a coworker.

Or the coworker might meet you at the gym.  The third form of support comes from going through the same challenge together, whether that is a walking buddy or a small business support group that meets monthly.  These people understand the trials and tribulations more intimately than anyone else.  In addition to moral support they offer ideas, resources, experience, and a fresh perspective.  As I mentioned earlier, my daily ping with Kris is not just about accountability, it’s about having someone to share the small successes with, to reflect together and push one another forward.  Thanks to her I wake up at 6:30 now and am aiming for 6AM by the middle of March.

After writing this, I can see that I haven’t enlisted enough support for this writing project.  Although Kris and I still have a daily ping challenge going, I haven’t tapped into the other two forms of support yet.  I think I should change my daily ping to include a minimum word number, which will increase accountability to a certain production level.  I might also want to report a weekly scorecard to a different friend, just to increase the accountability.  Finally, I definitely need a source of moral support.  Part of the courage I’m seeking this year is the ability to show an imperfect face to my friends – imperfectly thought through vision for this space, imperfect words, imperfectly honed ideas expressed by imperfect drafts.  Without their support and feedback I can only get so far.  I need their help to move beyond my current level of imperfection.

Although my parents are a huge support for me in most of my undertakings, I’ve decided not to involve them in this one.  I will miss my fu in this project, but I also know our relationship must evolve to a new level.  To have moved to another country at the start of adolescence and learned to succeed in a vastly different set of cultural norms and expectations, supporting and encouraging your daughter to navigate those ambiguous waters and to do so in a funny, encouraging way in your adopted tongue; to break ground in the first wave of women and minority students to enter the legal profession and to do so as both a woman and a minority: I can only hope one day to have as much patience and strength as my parents do, to help my own children take flight and to have the privilege of looking back on these words etched into memory, and retrace with humility the footpaths tread along the way.

Inspiration Challenge 24: One Free Pass

February 24, 2009

Day 24 Challenge: One Free Pass

Not one free pass from participating in these inspiration challenges, but one free pass from life.  From obligations – other people’s obligations, other people’s “should”s.  It’s easy to get caught up in external benchmarks.  They’re easy to identify, come with no self-doubting strings attached, and they’re everywhere.

I also have this long list of internal “should”s.  Should get started on my next homework assignment.  Should look for alumni to make contact with.  Should bake cookies for friends to thank them for cheering me up.  The problem with a long list of shoulds, though, is that it becomes hard to differentiate the true priorities from the ones that can wait.  The everpresent list of things that “need” to get done weighs down o me, so that eventually I don’t want to do anything and sit in front of the Internet in a rebellious stupor, but a reactive stupor at that.

So instead, last night I tried something different.  I gave myself a time deadline to finish my paper due tomorrow, plopped myself in the library, and when I was done I decided, “That’s it.  No more work for the night.”  Instead, I grocery shopped.  I multitasked in the kitchen.  Improvised pumpkin chocolate chip cookies.  Watched my favorite Chinese soap opera.  Did some Internet trolling to look for summer internship ideas, but with no strings attached beyond information gathering.

It felt great.  It’s going to be a busy week (then again, aren’t they all?), but sometimes it’s necessary to proactively put away the list and give ourselves one free pass, whether that is a couple hours, an afternoon, or an entire weekend to just do whatever we want.  It rejuvenates.  And oddly enough, it makes us more productive when we pick up the list again.  More importantly, it gives us enough perspective to prioritize and eliminate the unnecessary items from the list.

So take a free pass!  What will you do instead?