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Ideas for a Healthier Body

Below are a few ways to make your body healthier. Which ones can you do today?

Eat This Way

There is so much information about how to eat right. New studies seem to come out often, contradicting the old studies. At one point carbs were good, now they are bad. Fats were bad and now they are good. And what about antioxidants, probiotics, and omega-3 fatty acids? Below are ten top tips for healthy eating that will stand the test of time. (I recommend Michael Pollan's Food Rules: An Eater's Manual if you want a quick and easy read about how to eat healthy).

  • Eat real food. Pollan refers to the 17,000 new products that show up in our supermarkets each year as "edible foodlike substances". These foods are highly processed and are designed by food scientists. They consist mostly of ingredients derived from corn and soy along with some chemical additives. I like Pollan's advice for how to eat real food. He says to not eat anything that your grandmother would not recognize as food. The best way to find real food is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store, or better yet, go to your local farmers market. Great real food choices include all fruits and vegetables (particularly broccoli, broccoli sprouts, and berries), nuts, beans, eggs, whole grains (such as quinoa and brown rice) and lean meats (salmon is packed with nutrients). Pollan says, "If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't". It doesn't get much clearer than that.
  • Eat a rainbow of colors. How do you ensure you are getting all the vitamins and nutrients you need? You don't have to know which foods contain vitamin C or beta carotene. Instead, simply eat a variety of colors. This will ensure you get the nutrients your body needs without having to know the details. Good choices are red bell peppers or tomatoes for red, sweet potato or carrots for orange, spaghetti squash or pineapple for yellow, kale or broccoli for green, blueberries for blue, and eggplant for purple.
  • For packaged foods, keep it simple. It isn't realistic that you won't be eating any packaged foods, so when you do, choose those with the fewest ingredients. The longer the list, the more highly processed it likely is. Another good rule of thumb is that if you can't pronounce the ingredients, it's probably genetically modified. For example, when I buy tortilla chips, the ingredients are corn, lime, and salt. I know what these ingredients are. If the package has ingredients like diglycerides, cellulose, xanthan gum, or ammonium sulfate, leave it behind. Most of these food science ingredients are put in the product to extend shelf life and to encourage you to eat more (via our propensity for sweet, fat, and salt).
  • Avoid foods with trans fats and hydrogenated oils. These ingredients are used to extend the shelf life of your food, but can be harmful to your health. Studies have linked these fats and oils with heart disease, bad cholesterol (LDL), and obesity.
  • Consider the food a dessert if it has sugar in the first three ingredients. Sugar is everywhere. There are over 40 names for sugar. It can be disguised as (high fructose) corn syrup, glucose, fructose, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, and evaporated cane juice on packaging. No matter what it is called, it is sugar. As you start to pay attention to the labels, you will notice that your salad dressing, ketchup, and jam are all desserts. Use these products mindfully.
  • Carry healthy snacks with you. Regulating your blood sugar throughout the day is critical for your health and will help keep you from reaching for junk food. If you have healthy snacks with you, you will be less tempted to buy the unhealthy food on the go. I carry a homemade trail mix of almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, and dried blueberries. It is good to have a little bit of protein with every meal and snack for blood sugar regulation. Good proteins include lean meats, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and dairy. See Snack Well for healthy protein snack ideas.
  • Eat mindfully. How many of us eat in front of the TV, at our desk, or in the car? Have you noticed how long it takes to actually eat the meal? Not very long. Try to eat your meals at the table and truly appreciate what you are eating. Think about where the food came from and taste every bite. What does it taste like? What is the texture? When you pay attention to the sensation of eating a meal and think about what you are eating, you are more likely to want to make healthy choices. It also makes you more aware of portion size. One way to ensure smaller portions is to serve your food on smaller plates. A good way to slow your eating is to eat with your non-dominant hand. It takes twenty minutes before your brain finds out from your stomach that it is full. Eating slow will prevent you from overeating.
  • Eat in, not out. Eating out healthy is a challenge. It is important to just be aware. Order salad dressing on the side so that you can regulate how much is on your salad. Think about splitting a meal or taking some home. Portion size is huge in America. When you can, opt for a cooked meal at home or bring your own meal when you are out.
  • Buy hormone-free dairy and meats. The diet of the animals we eat is important because that is what we are putting into our bodies. Non-organic meat and dairy products are often treated with hormones and antibiotics. Drinking milk and eating meats with genetically engineered growth hormones have been linked to colon, breast, and prostate cancer. It is also desirable to buy grass-fed beef because animals who eat grass are much healthier than those who eat only grain. Cattle farmers feed the cows grain because it makes the cows grow quicker and heartier. However, grass-fed animals have much healthier types of fat (more omega-3s) and higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants. You can buy hormone-free dairy and meats at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and Farmers Markets.
  • Follow the 80/20 rule! This tip is very important. Do not drive yourself crazy about eating healthy. Stressing about eating is counterproductive to your health. I like the 80/20 rule. I eat healthy 80% of the time, and 20% of the time I eat those foods that may be a little less healthy but that give me immense pleasure (like New York pizza). Pleasure is a part of health and we derive pleasure from the food we eat. The key to the 20% is to be mindful when you do choose those foods so that you savor every bite.

Get Sleep

Do you fall asleep as soon as you get into bed at night? Do you have difficulty waking up in the morning? Are you moody and irritable? Do you fall asleep at work or in class? If so, you are probably sleep deprived. Sleep is highly underrated. It is not something that is "nice to have"; it is essential for our health. Generally, 8 hours of sleep is the norm, though the range people need varies from 6 to 10 hours. There are many factors that can affect our sleep including stress, hormonal changes, excessive caffeine intake, little or no exercise, shift work, medication side effects, and alcohol consumption.

Some of the benefits of sleep are that it organizes memories, enhances concentration, solidifies learned material, regulates mood, releases hormones, and rests and repairs neurons (which is essential for the nervous system and entire body to function). Researchers who observe sleep-deprived people have observed that the mind is more affected than the body. Lack of sleep puts you in a bad mood, impacts motor skills (driving while sleep deprived is comparable to drunk driving), and weakens our immune system (which puts us at greater risk of disease and infection).

Below are some tips for getting a good night's sleep:

  • Sleep in complete darkness. (I swear by this one. I sleep much more soundly when I wear my eye patches. Earplugs help me too.)
  • Don't drink caffeinated beverages after lunch.
  • Try eating a snack before bed that is a complex carb paired with a low protein, such as apples with almond butter or a cup of oatmeal with milk.
  • Learn and practice a relaxation technique to do before bedtime. This could be breathing exercises, yoga, or meditation.
  • Keep a journal and write in it before bed. How many of us lie in bed with our minds going a mile a minute? Write your thoughts out before bed to get them out of your head.
  • Avoid drinking too many fluids within 2 hours of going to bed to minimize trips to the bathroom.
  • Exercise regularly (but not too close to bed time).
  • Relax before bed (listen to music, take a bath)
  • Make your bedroom a place for sleeping—not for watching TV, eating, or working.
  • Stop smoking, nicotine is a stimulant.
  • Watch your alcohol intake. Alcohol may help put you to sleep faster, but your sleep will be disrupted.

Walk 10,000 Steps

Do you drive around several times in a parking lot to get as close as possible to your destination? I laugh when i find myself doing this at the gym parking lot. Many of us are so busy with our lives that exercise often falls low on the priority list, but exercise is essential to our health. Exercise brings us back to homeostasis (balance) in the body and clears our mind. Every time I go out for a run, my mood improves. One study showed that 20 minutes of cardio helped people feel positive for up to 12 hours. It also decreases resting heart rate, lowers blood pressure, decreases muscle tension, gives us better sleep, decreases body fat, and increases resistance to colds and illness. It also increases the oxygen levels in our bodies, reducing cancer-causing free radicals.

Walking is a great way to get exercise. I highly recommend buying a pedometer and aim for walking 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day. You can find a pedometer online or at your local sporting goods store. It makes a difference to have a device that is keeping track of your steps because it makes you realize how much or little you have walked in a day. Having that goal makes a huge difference. My husband wears a pedometer as part of his company's wellness program. If it is the end of the day and he has 8,500 steps, he'll suggest we go for a walk to get him to 10,000. I used to have to initiate our walks together and now he does. Wearing the pedometer may encourage you to park a little further away, take the stairs, or go for a walk.

Just Say No (to Prescription Drugs)

Did you know that Americans spend over $250 million a year on prescription drugs? Or that the average American takes 14 prescriptions a year? It is estimated that more than 100,000 Americans die each year from prescription drugs—more than those who die from diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease. Another one million Americans are hospitalized each year from adverse reactions to prescription medication.

I firmly believe that we are taking too many drugs. We accept whatever prescription our doctor gives us without doing our own research on whether it is right for us to take. There are numerous, serious side effects to many medications. There are also complications with certain medications when taken in conjunction with other prescriptive drugs you might be taking. We often do not realize that we feel sick because of the drugs we are taking. My mom was recently given an antibiotic for a sinus infection. Within hours of taking her first pill, she was in the emergency room. When she talked to her doctor about it, her doctor said it was unlikely to be from the medication because she had never heard of such a reaction. When we looked at Ask A Patient, a website where people list side effects of medications they have taken, there were plenty of accounts similar to what my mother experienced.

The frightening thing is that we are drugging our children too. In recent years, prescription spending rose faster for children than for any other group. I do not dispute that there may be a time and a place for medication. However, I encourage you to take them mindfully. Do the research. Find out about the side effects and pay attention while you are taking the drug to see if you are experiencing any of the side effects. Explore natural ways that you may be able to take care of the problem instead. For example, if you have high blood pressure, try changing your diet, exercising more, and incorporating stress management techniques into your life. You may be surprised that these changes alone will do the trick, and you won't have to take a chemical substance to bring the numbers down.

Our body is an amazing self-healer. Give it the time it needs without reaching for the antibiotics if you feel a sniffle coming on. As Voltaire, a french writer and satirist said, "The art of medicine is to amuse the patient while nature heals the disease".Don't put potentially harmful pills into your body unless you absolutely have to.

Go Natural

We often take great care in what we put in our bodies (food), but don't think twice about what we put on our bodies (products). It is important to recognize that 60% of the product you put on your skin is absorbed into your body. When you are using body wash, shampoo, lotion, toothpaste, and makeup, you could be putting toxins into your body. Using these products can increase your risk for cancer as well as cause neurotoxic effects or allergic reactions. Don't be fooled by "natural" products. Only 1% of natural ingredients need to be in the product to be called "natural". Learn to read labels. There are many new products on the market made from plants and minerals which are less harmful to the environment and to you.

It is best to opt for personal-care products that are based on plant oils instead of petrochemicals, colors derived from natural minerals such as titanium dioxide, fragrances from essential oils, and natural preservatives such as vitamins C and E or grapefruit seed extract. The general rule (which applies to food products and household cleaning products as well) is to buy products with the fewest ingredients. If you don't know what the ingredient is, it's probably a manufactured chemical. I carry a cheat sheet in my wallet to remind me of the synthetic chemicals to avoid that are found in beauty products. These include the following:

  • Parabens - Parabens are listed as ethyl, methyl, butyl, or propyl in the prefix. Parabens have been linked to weight gain, hormone disruption, and breast cancer. The FDA considers parabens safe, but some research shows that these substances mimic estrogen and can adversely affect testosterone levels and reproductive functioning in men. Look for a company that uses vitamin C or grapeseed extract to preserve their cosmetics.
  • Fragrance - Phthalates accumulate in the body's fatty tissue and can remain there for years. Studies have found that nearly 75% of the most popular beauty products have phthalates in them, including perfume, hair-care products, nail polish, and hand lotions. These chemicals are linked to liver damage, birth defects, infertility, and cancer. On the label, it will simply be listed as "fragrance".
  • Triclosan - Triclosan is a known irritant.
  • Petrochemicals - Petrochemicals include Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Polyethylene Glycol (PEG, PPG, Cocoate), Propylene Glycol, and artificial colors.
  • Coal tar - Coal tar is listed as FD&C and D&C colors. Made from bituminous coal, these synthetic tints are a common ingredient in hair dyes, dandruff shampoos, and cosmetics. Nearly all coal tar colors have been found to cause cancer in animals. Most have never been tested for safety in people.

Some brands that I like include Dr. Hauschka, Aubrey Organics, Burt's Bees, Jane Iredale, Giovanni, Nutribiotic, Natural Dentist, and Griffin Remedy. Just because you buy a product at Whole Foods, does not mean it is free of the chemicals mentioned above. Read the label or go to Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database and type in your product to find out how it rates in terms of toxicity. Be warned—this can be depressing and a time sink.

Buy (Some) Organic

When buying organic, you can cut 90% of your exposure to pesticides. There are certain fruits and vegetables that are more contaminated than others. These are referred to as the "dirty dozen" and are best to buy organic, if possible. For the fruits and vegetables with the lowest pesticides, the "clean 15", it is not as important to buy organic. You can download a free app from Environmental Working Group (EWG) here. Below is the 2013 list.

 Dirty Dozen                       Clean 15
 Highest in Pesticides            Lowest in Pesticides
 Buy These Organic              Okay to Buy Non-Organic

Apples Corn
Celery Onions
Strawberries Pineapples
Peaches Avocados           
Spinach Cabbage
Nectarines (Imported) Sweet Peas - Frozen
Grapes Mangoes
Sweet Bell Peppers Papayas
Potatoes Cantaloupe
Cherry Tomatoes       Kiwi
Hot Peppers Mushrooms
Cucumbers Eggplant
Kale/Collard Greens * Asparagus
Summer Squash * Grapefruit
  Sweet Potatoes

 * EWG has added two crops that did not meet traditional Dirty Dozen criteria, but were commonly contaminated with pesticides exceptionally toxic to the nervous system.

Partner with Your Doctor

We often think of the doctor as expert and rely on him or her to tell us what to do. Recognize that you are your own best health advocate. You know what is best for your body. Trust yourself. Doctor diagnoses are wrong as many as 1 out of 4 times. If your doctor tells you to do something that doesn't feel right to you, follow your instinct. My dad recently went to a doctor who wanted him to sign a document that said he would follow exactly what the doctor said and if he did not sign the document and adhere to the recommendations, the doctor would no longer treat my dad. Needless to say, my dad went elsewhere. If your doctor does not make time for you or listen to you, find another doctor. Do not be afraid to ask questions. If you are not being served well by the traditional medical model, consider also seeing a naturopath, nutritionist, or acupuncturist. Look to your doctor as a partner in your health care, not as the absolute expert. You are the expert on your health.



Find Your Gypsy

When you think of the word "exercise", what vision comes to mind? Is it being in a stuffy gym running on a treadmill watching Law and Order reruns on a TV that you can barely see? Well, no wonder it is so hard to get to the gym! It is important to be creative and think outside the box when it comes to exercise. How about this image instead... You are riding on your cruiser bike whose name is Gypsy. She has red spokes and tassles on the handle bars with painted flowers on the fenders and, of course, a very cute basket. When you ride her, you feel like a kid again. You ride around the neighborhood streets and parks, appreciating the beauty of nature, of kids playing, and of people out walking their dogs. In no time, you realize that 30 minutes has flown by. The point is that you need to find an exercise that you want to do. Here are a few ideas for getting more exercise in your day.

  • Instead of meeting your friend for coffee or lunch, meet for a walk instead. It saves you money and you get some exercise.
  • Commit to a goal. Sign up for a 5K or join a tennis class.
  • Do it with a friend. It is easier to cancel out on yourself than someone else.
  • Think outside the box. Hula hooping is a great ab work out and fun too. Jump roping is good cardio and reminds us of our childhood days. How about a game of hopscotch or frisbee with the kids? Or turning on the stereo and dancing around to your favorite tunes.
  • Walk. See Walk 10,000 Steps.
  • Just do it! The hardest part is getting out the door. Just take that first step. You will definitely feel better after you do.

I love my time on Gypsy and look forward to getting out for a ride every chance I get. Maybe for you, you like to dance, play with the kids, or work in the garden. What is your Gypsy?


Buy Local

There has been a lot of recent media hype about buying organic. However, you could be buying organic fruit that has traveled thousands of miles to get to you. On average, the food we eat travels 1,400 miles before it finds its way on to our dining table. The best way to ensure that you are eating fresh food is to buy local. Local food has fewer chemicals because it is not being stored as long or shipped as far as non-local food. The best place to find local food is at your Farmers Market. Even if a vendor is not certified organic, they often use organic practices, but cannot afford to buy the certification. Ask vendors if they spray their crop with pesticides. Most often the answer is "no", certified organic or not. I have discovered new foods by buying local. I now look forward to the seasons for the variety of fruits and vegetables that come and go. Last fall, I discovered persimmons. This summer, I discovered figs. The vendors at your local Farmers Market often give free samples so you can try before you buy. What new fruits and vegetables can you add to your pantry?

Say Yes to Fat (and Omega-3s)

Fat gets a bad rap. Eating fat does not cause fat. In fact, recent studies confirm that healthy fat consumption actually promotes sustainable weight loss. You just need to be eating the right fat. Fats in your diet are necessary in order to maintain healthy cells in your body. Not enough fat can lead to low energy and hypoglycemic issues. Supermarket shelves are lined with low-fat and no-fat foods. These actually contain more sugar and are not as satisfying as their full fat counterparts (which means we eat more of it). Americans have gotten fat on these low-fat and no-fat foods. Since the low-fat campaign, Americans have actually been eating more than 500 additional calories per day, most of them in the form of refined carbohydrates like sugar. Instead, eat the real thing (e.g. whole milk instead of non-fat, butter instead of margarine), and just eat them in moderation. Healthy fats include avocados, nuts, seeds, almond butter, olive oil, and eggs.

Omega-3s are healthy fatty acids found in cold water fish (salmon, halibut, mackerel, and sardines) walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, seaweed, and leafy green vegetables. The American diet tends to be high in omega-6s (e.g. meats, dairy, fried foods, processed foods containing partially-hydrogenated oils, and many cooking oils), but not high in omega-3s. The recommended ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is no more than 4:1, but most Americans have a 10:1 or 20:1 ratio in their diet. Among other benefits, omega-3s have been shown to reduce the inflammation associated with many chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disease, and arthritis. I take a fish oil supplement daily.

Snack Well

Snacking throughout the day is a good way to regulate your blood sugar levels to keep you energized throughout the day (and away from grabbing junk food). It is important to have a snack that has some protein in it to keep your blood sugar from spiking. For example, fruit is a great snack, but it has natural sugar in it which spikes your blood sugar level. If you pair it with a protein such as nuts, your blood sugar will not spike and you will have energy for longer. Below are some good snack ideas.

  • Pear and string cheese stick
  • Plain yogurt and berries. Add nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts) for extra protein.
  • Celery sticks or carrots dipped in almond butter or sunflower seed butter (healthier alternatives to traditional peanut butter)
  • Red bell pepper, celery sticks, or carrots with hummus
  • Trail mix: raw nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts), seeds (sunflower, pumpkin), and dried fruit (cranberry, blueberry, raisins)
  • Red bell pepper and guacamole
  • Apple and almond butter
  • Apple, pear, or orange with a handful of almonds or walnuts
  • Hard boiled egg
  • Sardines (Don't knock them until you try them. They are a great source of omega-3s. Try grilling them and serving them on whole grain crackers or in a salad. See my Sardine Salad Pita Pocket recipe.)
  • Berry Smoothie (bananas, berries, plain yogurt, coconut water, chia seeds, and kale)
  • Oatmeal with nuts and berries added
  • Lentil soup
  • Quinoa salad
  • Black beans in corn tortilla

Chill Out

Our minds and our bodies are inextricably linked. Stress wreaks havoc on our bodies. It can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, digestive system diseases, cancer, and aging. It is worth taking the time to figure out how you can reduce the stress in your life. Symptoms of stress include difficulty sleeping, digestion problems, constant feeling of urgency, tension headaches and backaches, rise in blood pressure, low energy, anxiety, increased alcohol and drug use, under eating or overeating, and extreme sugar cravings. Great ways to reduce stress include eating healthy (see Eat This Way) and quieting the mind (explore the Mind quadrant).

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