Happy National Nutrition Month!

It’s that time of year again! National Nutrition Month is a great time to re-evaluate your eating habits and think about how you can ‘Eat Right, Your Way, Every Day.’ Every year the theme is a little different and I really like this one in particular. It emphasizes that there is no one perfect diet; we all have different food traditions, preferences and cultural influences which shape what ends up on our plates.

We all need to be consuming lots of vegetables, and fruits, whole grains, low and non-fat dairy, and varied proteins. We all need to cut back on high sodium and processed foods and be physically active on a regular basis, but this can mean something very different to each of us! Whether you like stir-fried vegetables and tofu after your Zumba class, or lentil stew along with your daily walk, you too can Eat Right, Your Way, Every Day!


It was a dark and stormy morning on race day for the Hyannis Marathon…. but I’m getting ahead of myself because the story really begins several days before when norovirus swept through my family. Thursday morning it hit me and I was unable to do much for several days (you could call this an extreme and enforced taper). I was able to keep my hydration and electrolyte levels okay but it really took a toll on me. By Saturday morning I was beginning to feel more like myself. Meanwhile, there were questions about whether the race would go on. New England was supposed to be hit with another storm and no one could tell just how bad it would be. We got word Saturday afternoon that the race was a go and I had already begun my carbohydrate loading regime so I was well on my way.

I saw this bald eagle on Saturday morning. Surely a good sign that I should go ahead with the race on Sunday!

Sunday morning was cold and rainy, but I still felt very positive. I had totally weaned myself off of caffeine over the previous weeks and that cup of coffee with breakfast was amazing. I had a big bowl of oatmeal cooked with apples and milk (with more milk on top) and felt full and satisfied. To ensure I started out fully hydrated, I also had a large mug of tea and more water. My strategy is to get plenty of fluids first thing, but stop taking them in 2 hours prior to race start. I had all of my race day fuel with me: sports beans with added caffeine, salted dates, and water to carry with me so I didn’t need to solely rely on the aid stations. I also packed up my recovery foods: dried cherries, chocolate milk, plus a liter of chocolate coconut water I picked up on a whim the day before and thought it might be tastier than plain water for the ride home. I was also planning on grabbing some more food for the car ride from a local restaurant and knew I’d also eat some dinner when I finally got home.

A wet start to the race.

So this brings us back to the cold and rainy start of the race. The first half was actually great for me. Considering the fact that I had just been sick, I felt great. It wasn’t too cold (low 40′s) so the wet didn’t feel too bad and my new raincoat kept out the wind. By about mile 14 the temperature started to drop and the rain was falling a little harder. In a few more miles, I was closer to the water and the wind was unrelenting. After many hours of rainfall, the puddles were so big there was no way around some of them. The course was not closed to traffic and several cars made it their mission to splash the already soaked runners. This was no place for the faint of heart! I came upon another runner at about mile 19 who was not doing well with the cold. With a mutual understanding, we teamed up and encouraged each other on to the finish.

It was slow going (and did I mention cold?) and I couldn’t feel my hands, feet or legs for the last several miles. The volunteers out on the course were unbelievable and I don’t know if they will ever know just how much it helps to see a friendly smiling face every so often; I made a mental note to volunteer for a race sometime soon. The sweetest part was to come around the final bend and into the finish chute to see my husband and three boys standing there cheering me on.

The final result? I was very happy with my nutrition for this race. Tapering off of caffeine went well, the carbohydrate loading the day before (although difficult) went well. I had no GI issues during the race and felt alert and well fueled. The only problem I had was towards the end when my hands and mouth were so cold they didn’t work very well getting the food into my mouth and chewing; baggies are tricky with frozen fingers! Having just been sick and dealing with the elements did not make the most ideal conditions for my first marathon, but I’m sure next time (yes there will be a next time believe it or not) will go much better!

For Love and Chocolate

Happy Valentines Day! Many of you are probably celebrating with chocolates. Lots of people (jokingly) tell me that they eat chocolate because it’s a “health food”, but what’s the real deal? Is chocolate good for us?

Chocolate gets its healthy reputation from the antioxidants and polyphenols that it contains. These compounds help to reduce blood pressure and inflammation. People with high blood levels of these compounds have been shown to have lower risk of heart disease, some cancers, asthma and type 2 diabetes. Because of the high antioxidant and flavanol content in cocoa powder, some people are even making a push to recognize cocoa beans as a “super fruit”.  Well, super fruit or not, it is easy for all of us to reap the benefits of cocoa.

The first and biggest distinction is, that you should go for a good quality dark chocolate with 70% or more cocoa. If you are more partial to milk chocolate and white chocolate, I’m sorry to tell you that they don’t contain the same active compounds as dark chocolate or straight up cocoa powder.

How much chocolate does it take to get all of the benefits? Moderation is key, just about 1 ounce of dark chocolate per day is all it takes.  You can also add a scoop of cocoa powder to your post workout smoothie for a deep chocolate flavor.

Enjoy your chocolate – in moderation of course!

Does Caffeine Improve Performance?

I was recently asked about using coffee as a performance enhancer. Coffee, or rather caffeine, is one of the only legal performance-enhancing drugs not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency at this time. The results of many research studies are clear: caffeine does enhance endurance performance. Caffeine won’t be of any help to sprinters, but might be just the thing to turn a good marathon performance into a great one. The only questions that remain are why, and how much caffeine will do the trick.

There are several mechanisms of action by which caffeine works. The first, which many people are most familiar with, is its stimulant effect on the nervous system. Because of this stimulant effect, fatigue is reduced and mental alertness is increased so you feel less tired. Caffeine has also been found to help burn fat as fuel; what all endurance athletes are seeking! When caffeine is ingested, fatty acids are released into the bloodstream, which helps to spare muscle glycogen for later use and extends the benefit of all the carbohydrate loading you did the days before your race. Also, speaking of carbohydrates, caffeine has been shown to increase the rate of glucose absorption; in other words, a little caffeine will help you to utilize your gel a little quicker.

So we should all be popping NoDoz, right? Well, not so fast. There are several caveats to caffeine use, the first being that it doesn’t affect every person in the same way. For some, the use of caffeine comes with disrupted sleep, anxiety, stomach upset and jittery nerves. Additionally, the effectiveness of caffeine is reduced for those who are already habitual users, and the smallest effective dose is recommended because there are diminishing returns when you start to ingest large quantities.

In practice, utilizing caffeine to enhance your performance takes some planning. First, try caffeine during training to ensure you don’t have any negative side effects. There are several products on the market (gels, beans, etc) and you will want to make sure they go down smoothly come race day. Additionally, if you are a regular caffeine user, you will want to wean yourself down in order to get the biggest boost on race day. During the weeks of your taper, take a tally of all foods and beverages you consume that contain caffeine (this will take some time and investigation), slowly remove these items from your diet over a period of weeks and you will greatly reduce the possibility of withdrawal headaches.

It may take some time and effort, but hopefully the results will be worth it! I’ll be trying out caffeine for my upcoming marathon and will report back to you with the results!

During my taper I’ll need to say goodbye to the delicious coffee my husband makes every morning.

New Year – A Fresh Beginning!

After taking a month and a half off of blogging, I’m back. As a warning, this is will be more personal than nutrition related so feel free to stop reading if you’re not interested! One of the reasons behind my hiatus has to do with my personal resolution last year (which was to find new ways of challenging myself) so I thought I’d reflect a little on the year that was and talk about my resolution for the year to come.

Resolving to push myself out of my comfort zone and challenge myself was a great resolution and definitely had its intended effect. In the past year I was able to grow professionally and explore a few new opportunities. The mixed result of this is that my schedule is busier than ever going into the new year! Tackling new challenges like teaching has me both excited and nervous. I also am looking forward to seeing many more counseling clients. I’ve been helping out with several professional groups too which has allowed me to meet more great RDs in my area. Professional challenges – check! I definitely succeeded there!

My personal goals were all about physically challenging myself in 2012. The year started off with a bang when I signed up for the Hyannis Half Marathon, my first ever half. I had never actually considered myself to be much of a runner; I ran because it was a quicker way to fit in my exercise. A friend urged me to try this one and let’s just say I was hooked! I ended up running all three half marathons in the Cape Cod Trilogy last year. I also ran a 5 miler in July and ran with two of my three boys in their first 1 mile fun run the same day. I did a Team 5K trail run with 20 “challenges” (obstacles) with three friends in October which was a lot of fun! Then, since the 5K trail run was so fun, I ran a 15K trail run the following weekend. On top of all of my running firsts I have been working out in a Dojo that among other things, trains MMA fighters; There I’ve been working on my strength training and I’m happy to report I’ve made a leap in my strength in the past year. Round all of that out with Pilates twice a week and I would call last year a success! Oh and before I forget, I made the leap and signed up for my first full marathon which is coming up in February – the Hyannis Marathon (also the site of my first half) I can’t wait!

So what could I possibly do to make 2013 just as successful? My overarching goal for the new year is to be kind to myself and realize that I really don’t need to do it all. Several times over the past year I have felt overwhelmed and more than a little stressed out with all of the things I had scheduled. Let’s just say that training for a marathon while preparing to teach a college class and deal with the ins and outs of family life at the same time is a little stressful. I’ve already started to work on my new resolution by deciding which professional groups I will continue to work with and which I will pass on next year. I’ve also realized that adding in a rest day here and there (or even just shortening a run once in a while) isn’t the end of the world for my training. Rest is just as important as the training itself.

This year I resolve to give myself a break when I need it and realize I don’t have to do everything. The question comes up over and over again “Is it possible for women (or anyone for that matter) to have it all?” I recently heard Michele Flournoy (formerly the highest-ranking woman in the Pentagon) in an interview. When asked if a woman can have it all she said “I’m one who believes that you can have it all — you just can’t always have it at exactly the same time with equal intensity.” Very wise words indeed! What are your resolutions for the coming year?

It’s a Miracle! Homemade Fat-Free Chips

I have recently learned how to make chips in the microwave with no fat. Yes, you read that correctly. Make your own fat-free potato chips from real potatoes! I was listening to ATK Radio a while ago and they spoke about a gadget that cooks potato chips in the microwave which they tried with success! I was so intrigued I just had to try it for myself.

What I ended up getting, were two silicone trays that are covered with a variety of holes. All you do is thinly slice your potato and spread them out on the trays in a single layer. Microwave for about 3 minutes and you get some crispy delicious chips! It also works wonderfully with sweet potatoes and supposedly also works with carrots, beets, parsnips, apples, pears and mangos, although I haven’t tried those yet.

Since I do not like to promote any particular products, I’ll tell you that a quick google search lead me to some posts about doing this same thing with paper plates, glass plates (they used cooking spray) and parchment paper. I tried it out with parchment paper and got very good results. The only things you need to be careful about are the moisture that will accumulate on the parchment as the chips cook and cool (which makes for a soggy chip) and also getting the potato slices on parchment in and out of the microwave is a little trickier.

Making your own chips couldn’t be simpler!

Step1: Thinly slice potatoes. Using a mandoline will make this a lot easier and will ensure even sizing for even cooking.

Step 2: Place potato slices on tray (or parchment) and season as desired. The package instructions said to season after cooking, but then the chips are dry and seasoning doesn’t stick. This is where you can get creative and make your chips unique.

Step 3: Cook in the microwave at high power for about 3 minutes. Each microwave is different so you may need to cook them longer or shorter, make sure to watch them.

Step 4: Enjoy your delicious crunchy homemade chips!

Tackling Thanksgiving

With the holidays fast approaching, now is the time to start thinking about how to successfully get from here to New Years day without any extra pounds or regrets. Thanksgiving is just the first in a whirlwind of celebrating that will last from now until the new year (or Valentines Day for some). To successfully navigate the onslaught of holiday parties and goodies, having a plan will get you through so that you won’t wind up feeling eater’s remorse in January.

  • Try to keep to your normal eating habits and routines as much as possible. Every coffee shop and bakery will be rolling out goodies that are “only available for a limited time” but that doesn’t mean you need to have one every day. An eggnog latte every day between now and Christmas will result in a four and a half pound gain (6 pounds if it’s a Venti!) if you must have this treat, make it special and have it just once or twice.
  • It may be cold outside, but try to keep your kitchen looking like summer. During the summer you might be more likely to keep lots of fresh vegetables and fruit on hand, but in the winter cookies, spiced cakes and holiday candy all tend to find their way into your house. Make it a point to put the sweet sometimes foods into out of the way cabinets and keep the produce more visible. It’s easier to resist something you can’t see and you are more likely to consume the things you see on a daily basis.
  • If there are high calorie holiday treats that you adore, make sure to plan it out, keep portions small and really savor them. You don’t need to approach Thanksgiving dinner as an all or nothing affair. Have a scoop of the super rich mashed potatoes but keep it to one small serving and fill up half of your plate with salad too. Have a little pie for dessert but there’s no need to sample every single one.
  • Don’t “save your calories” for a big dinner or party later in the day. This is always a sure recipe for disaster. Make sure to eat healthy well-balanced meals and snacks throughout the day; you’ll be in a much better mindset to make good choices later if you aren’t absolutely ravenous.

Planning ahead is the key to success for successfully surviving the holidays. If you do slip up, make sure you don’t beat yourself up! Things happen, put it behind you and move forward, and make your very next meal or snack a healthy one. Remember to stop, look around, and enjoy the holidays with the people who are special in your life!

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Now that the cold weather is officially sweeping in, I’ve started my winter soup production (you may remember the delicious lentil stew that I blogged about last winter). When it’s chilly outside, I like to have a variety of soups on hand in the freezer as a quick option to augment a meal or just as a snack. In the fall and winter months, many people have a harder time incorporating lots of vegetables into their daily diets. While summer produce seems to call out to us, winter’s chill can make hot cocoa and cookies so much more appealing. I find that a hot mug of soup can be a very satisfying, and warming alternative, and if it’s vegetable heavy you get a few extra servings of vegetables; a win – win!

With all of the beautiful squash that is currently in the market, I decided to make a roasted butternut squash soup this week. Roasting the squash before puréeing it into the soup gives it a deeper more complex flavor that is fantastic. Roasting also keeps the hands-on watch-the-stove time to a minimum and makes your kitchen smell delicious!

I started with a large butternut squash which I peeled and cubed, and also added three large onions that were peeled and quartered. I tossed them together with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkled them with salt and pepper before putting into a 450 degree oven. They roasted for about 50 minutes with a quick stir in the middle of cooking.

I then put the squash and onions into a pot with four cups of warm chicken broth. I let the flavors meld a bit, then blended them all together and checked for seasoning. If the soup seems a little too thick at this point, you can simply add some more broth or water until it is the right consistency. This is one of those deceptively simple recipes that have an endless number of possibilities to change up the flavors. I have done this same idea with any combination of roasted sweet potatoes, cauliflower, shallots, beets, carrots, and anything else that looks good in the market and seems to work well together. The seasoning can be changed up with cumin, curry, cinnamon, garlic, paprika, red pepper, and many more.

I like to ladle the soup into single serving plastic containers and put them in the freezer; when I want some soup, I run the container under warm water until the frozen soup can easily be popped out and put into a microwave safe bowl. Bon appétit!

Smoothie Making 101

A classic combination of banana and strawberry blended with milk and a dash of vanilla.

Smoothies have been a bit of a food trend for quite a few years, and now green smoothies have also become vogue. A friend has recently gotten into a green smoothie kick after having one at the local farmers market, and she asked what I thought about them. My response was, what’s not to love? Smoothies can definitely have their place in a healthy diet, especially when you fill them up with lots of great ingredients! Just be aware that some smoothies you can buy pre-made, are loaded with sugar and will not do you any nutritional favors.

Step one in smoothie making is to define its purpose. Is it a snack? A meal? A treat? A way to refuel post-workout or fuel up prior to a workout? This will help you to decide what to put in, to reach the appropriate amount of calories, protein, and carbohydrates. Personally, I’ve been using smoothies as a post run drink for years, and the recipe changes with the season and with the type of workout I’ve had. After a four mile loop I don’t need to bulk up my ingredients in the same way as I would for ten miles, so I make sure to adjust accordingly.

For an antioxidant kick: a combination of frozen cherries and cocoa powder mixed with yogurt and milk.

I usually start with the fruit I have in the house and see what I have that will go together. I typically have bananas and they go with almost anything (in my mind), as well as frozen strawberries, blueberries, cherries, pineapple, mango and raspberries. Frozen fruits are not only cost effective, but they are usually picked at the peak of freshness and frozen not long after, which helps them to retain both flavor and nutrients. When in season, I also like to use things like watermelon (you need to cut back on the added liquids), oranges (not just the juice), and almost any other type of fruit; I’ve also used canned pumpkin when I had some left over from another use. Here’s where you can definitely add a handful of spinach or other greens and see what happens. Bright green color but not too much flavor change (depending upon the amount) is typical. This is a great alternative for those who aren’t yet ready to have a spinach salad but still want to reap the benefits of this nutritional powerhouse.

After you have your fruit sorted out, you can proceed with the type of liquid you want to use. I typically use skim milk and sometimes soy milk if I have it in the refrigerator; when combined with the other ingredients, it brings my protein to carbohydrate ratio right into the 1:3 or 1:4 range where I want it. Sometimes I use other things like tart cherry juice, almond milk or coconut milk for a change of pace. If I use one of these alternatives, I make sure to include some greek yogurt or silken tofu to reach my protein needs.

A tropical smoothie: frozen pineapple, coconut milk, banana, and silken tofu.

Other add-ins you can try are flax seeds or chia seeds. These are a good source of Omega 3′s as well as fiber. If you use flax seeds, make sure they are ground before adding because the hard outer coating of these seeds will keep them from being digested. Some people also add a scoop of uncooked oats for the fiber and protein they add. With all of these options, you will need to be aware that they will absorb a lot of the liquid in your smoothie and adjust accordingly.

Lastly, add-ins like vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg can be great flavor boosters. A tablespoon of cocoa powder will not only add flavor but it is rich in flavonoids and minerals. Some people even like a dash of spice to perk things up. In the summer, adding a few ice cubes are also a great way to cool down and make your smoothie a little more slushy in quality. Experiment with the many combinations that can be made easily in your own kitchen to suit your own personal taste!