Let's talk about those healthy cookies...

I lived through the '90s, so when I hear "healthy" and "cookie" in the same sentence, I flash back to the unmistakable kelly green box of Snackwell's fat-free cookies. Masses of people (including everyone in my household) assumed these cookies were not only healthy, but a prescription for weight loss. Years later, we now know that fat doesn't make us fat, and when fat is replaced by loads of sugar, we're certainly not making a nutritious choice.

A client working toward a weight loss goal recently came to me quite excited that she found a way to indulge her sweet tooth with a "healthy cookie." No green box. This cookie is a 4-ounce beast, individually packaged with the words "Complete Cookie" and the tagline "Baked Nutrition" along with some BIG claims on the label: Vegan! 16g Protein! No High Fructose Corn Syrup! No Artificial Sweeteners! 8g Fiber!

Even if all the claims are true, is this a nutritious choice? The truth lies within the ingredient listing, sorted from most to least volume in the cookie:

1. Enriched wheat flour. Make no mistake, friends: This is not whole wheat flour. "Enriched wheat flour" is good old fashioned refined white flour, stripped of its natural fiber and mineral-containing fats. This is the kind of starch we're all trying to avoid.

2. Cane sugar. This is sugar. Period. How much sugar is in one cookie? I noted that there are two servings in each cookie (who eats a half a cookie?!), so if you were to eat the whole cookie (of course you're going to eat the whole cookie), you'll consume 28 grams of sugar, which is 7 teaspoons, or 2 tablespoons plus a teaspoon. For a comparison, a 12-ounce can of soda has 39 grams of sugar, just about a tablespoon more. 

3. Palm margarine. In no universe is margarine a nutritious food, but at least this margarine is made without the use of trans fats. 

4. Chocolate chips, made from chocolate liqueur, sugar, cacao butter and vanilla. These are standard chocolate chips. No big nutrition wins here. 

5. Protein blend. This is the only ingredient in this product that significantly distinguishes it from your standard chocolate chip cookie. There's a blend of pea protein, brown rice protein and wheat gluten beefing up this confection. If you were to eat this whole cookie, you'll be taking in 16 grams of protein, a nice chunk towards your daily needs. However, as Americans, our diets are in no way protein deficient. In fact, we're far more likely to consume excess protein than we need than to be undernourished.

6. Oat fiber, chicory root fiber. With the natural fiber stripped from the wheat flour, the 8 grams of fiber per cookie has to come from somewhere. This added in fiber does not necessarily have the same benefit as naturally occurring fiber in our foods. Chicory root fiber, also called inulin, is added to foods from Fiber One bars to Splenda to give a health halo to naturally fiber-free products, and is often referred to as "farting fiber" in the industry because...well...you can guess (more on inulin HERE). 

7. Molasses, vanilla flavor. One natural sweetener plus one likely synthetic flavor.

8. Baking soda, salt. Standard cookie ingredients.

9. Flaxseed. Finally! A wholesome seed! But with this item sooooo low in the ingredient list, even less than salt, it's a very small amount added here. 

10. Sunflower lecithin. This is an emulsifier, used to help keep ingredients well-blended. I'm not losing sleep over this ingredient for sure, but it's not a requirement in baking. 

On further examination and considering my client's weight loss goal, this is not a great choice for regular indulgence. Does that mean she can never eat the cookie as long as she's trying to lose weight? Of course not. This cookie could be an okay choice right after a tough workout. But otherwise, in order to keep focused on here fitness goal, my client will treat this cookie as she would any other cookie and follow the Treat Treats as Treats rule. And for my money, I'd rather have a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie from a really great bakery or homemade by a friend than a prepackaged cookie like this one. 

Do the claims on our food, on the internet and in our grocery stores have you confused about what you should be feeding yourself and your family? Let's talk! 

Are our genes our fate?

My grandmother Shappy partying hard on her 99th birthday, July 2017

My grandmother Shappy partying hard on her 99th birthday, July 2017

This is a strange time of year for me: Over a span of less than three weeks, I celebrated my maternal grandmother's 99th birthday, observed the 14th anniversary of my dad's death, and I'll soon celebrate (celebrate?!) my 40th birthday. 

At this time of year, I can't help but think about that age old question: Are my genes my destiny?

My maternal grandmother was sharp as a tack right up until she was about 97, when she had her driver's license revoked, began losing her memory and started showing signs of dementia. She was always tiny and slim, and looked fantastic dressed up for her 99th birthday dinner. My father, on the other hand, was a giant man, literally and figuratively, who was obese for most of his life, yo-yo dieted for decades, developed type 2 diabetes, and died very suddenly at 57 (which was all at the same time a huge shock and yet wholly predictable).  

Surely genetics play a role in the health and lives of my dad and my grandmother. My grandmother smoked for decades before quitting sometime ago after a health scare. But she also has habits that support her longevity: She's always eaten like a bird. No meal is complete without a pile of tomatoes on her plate. Up until she was no longer able, she was mobile, loved to travel. And she kicks the butt of any fool willing to play her at Scrabble. 

My dad was a Division One football player in his youth but was completely sedentary in adulthood. His diet was lousy despite my mom's attempts to serve the family "green stuff." The cause of his obesity was no mystery, though the reasons he leaned so hard on food are sadly complex. 

I may have genes from my dad's side that make me X% more likely to become obese or to develop type 2 diabetes. I may also have genes on my maternal side that protect me somewhat from the damage of long-term smoking or otherwise promote longevity (alas, I can confirm I did not get the Scrabble gene). 

That said, there are habits I can practice today to support my long-term health: I can move my body regularly. I can fill my diet with nutritious whole foods: Vegetables, fruit, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds. I can make sure I get enough sleep (still not as consistent as I could be here--work in progress!). I can limit risk factors like consumption of red meat, processed meat, added sugars and refined carbs, and I can avoid serious risk factors like smoking.

My genetics are my floor and my ceiling, but I have the power to determine how high off the floor I can rise. I have no plans to hang out on the floor. 

"But what do YOU eat after a tough workout?"

I've been making the rounds to running groups and talking to runners about eating well to fuel their workouts. One of my favorite topics is what to eat before and after a workout. I'm always surprised at just how few people make a consistent habit of eating after their tough workouts and long runs.

Eating a nutritious snack after workouts an hour or longer helps you gain strength and recover more quickly. Skipping that snack could lead to poor recovery and an out-of-control appetite. Following a workout with greasy or sugar-loaded foods doesn’t help you recover, either. A broadly accepted ratio for a perfect long run snack is about 3 or 4 to 1, carbohydrate to protein. That means a nice chunk of carbs and some protein, and the next meal should be rich in quality protein to speed recovery.

I often suggest a home-blended smoothie with frozen fruit and nuts; or whole wheat toast with banana and natural peanut or almond butter; or a loaded sweet potato with yogurt and almond butter. Even with these great suggestions, I often get the follow-up question, "But what do YOU eat after YOUR workouts?," as if I'm hiding a big secret, like I've got some supplements, or commercial shake powder (sorry, Shakeology--I ain't buying your crap), or I'm hitting up a smoothie shop and getting kooky, expensive boosters. 

I'm revealing all today and sharing one of my favorite homemade post-workout treats: The Hot Pink Smoothie Bowl! It's got plenty of carbs from bananas, berries and dragonfruit (sounds exotic but easy to find), and who needs protein powder when I've got the real deal from seeds and nut butter! And with the bright colors in the fruit, I know I'm also getting plenty of antioxidants to aid in recovery. Here's my formula...

  • 1 giant handful of frozen banana chunks, maybe a couple bananas worth (check my freezer any day of the week, and I've always got a container of frozen bananas)
  • 1 packet of unsweetened, frozen dragon fruit (I like Pitaya Plus, available at Wegmans or MOMs)
  • A splash of unsweetened almond milk
  • A tablespoon of chia seeds
  • A heaping tablespoon of chunky almond or peanut butter
  • A handful of fresh fruit

Blend the bananas and dragon fruit with just enough liquid to make the blender work, using a tamp down thingy to keep, well, tamping it down so the blade can do its work. When it's blended, pour it into a bowl and add the toppings. Enjoy! 

Light + Refreshing Cucumber Salad

Have I mentioned in the last 10 minutes that I love summer? Because I do--for far too many reasons than I have time to list here. One of the best parts of summer is the amazing variety of produce that grows locally in and around my fine home state of Maryland. Last week, we got about a zillion cucumbers in our CSA share from One Straw Farm, providing the perfect opportunity to whip up my favorite, super-fast summer side. It's less a recipe than a concoction; somewhere between a light pickle and a salad, you can enjoy this as a condiment on a sandwich or salad, or as a side dish at your next barbecue:

Refreshing Cucumber Salad

  • Cucumber, thinly sliced into rounds or half moons
  • Sweet onion, thinly sliced into half moons
  • Fresh dill, roughly chopped
  • Rice vinegar (plain, not "seasoned," which contains added sugar)
  • Coarse salt + pepper to taste

Combine the ingredients except for the salt + pepper in a flat-bottomed dish so everything can marinate well. Allow to sit at least 4 hours or overnight. Add salt + pepper to taste  Make as much or as little as you like, adding more or less of any ingredient to your preference. The longer it sits in the fridge, the more delicious this gets!

Need support in shopping and eating seasonally? Please get in touch!

 

Recipe: Easy Black-Eyed Pea Salad

I hear from clients and would-be clients, "I don't have time to plan or prep meals." I counter that with this simple, flavorful salad that uses simple pantry ingredients, is loaded with flavor AND nutrition, lasts for days in the fridge, and actually becomes more delicious as flavors meld:

Black-Eyed Pea Salad

Whisk together the dressing in a small bowl (or shake them together in a jar), then pour over the rest of the ingredients in a serving bowl. Refrigerate a couple hours or longer.

  • 1 x 14-oz can black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
  • 2-3 stalks of celery, washed and cut into about a half-inch dice
  • 1 bell pepper of any color, cut into about a half-inch dice
  • 1 bunch of scallions, green and white parts chopped 
  • Dressing:
    • About a couple Tablespoons of rice vinegar (not seasoned)
    • About a Tablespoon of dijon mustard
    • OPTIONAL:
      • A teaspoon of honey for palates that love sweet
      • A teaspoon of organic olive oil for oomph
  • Salt + pepper to taste

Makes about 4 servings.

 

An open letter that big chain store about your checkout area

Dear big chain store containing items for the bedroom, bathroom and other areas beyond those rooms:

I came to your store to purchase a couple kitchen items, and found exactly what I needed! Here is what I did not need: The gauntlet of perfectly organized, brightly colored, carefully arranged snacks lined up along the line to the cashiers. There were gummies, chocolate(ish)-covered pretzels, tins of weird little candies, combo packs of crackers + Nutella, chocolate truffles, and even crap-filled "energy" bars to make me feel like I was making a virtuous choice in the midst of all the junk.

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You forced me into a maze that required me not just to walk past said food, but to stand in the midst of it as I waited in the slow moving cashier line. I felt the strong pull to snack, even though I'd had a perfectly reasonable meal not an hour before I came to your store. I watched as a couple women and one college-aged young man stood with their carts and basket, at first just glancing over at the racks, then casually picking up items, then loading up several items.

Thanks again for the great selection of organization tools in your store, but can't I just buy our "As Seen On TV" items without having to dig in and use all my willpower to make it through the checkout? 

Sincerely,

Lauren Shafer

 

Introducing...AvoUnicorn Toast!

Neon and rainbow colored "Unicorn" foods have been devoured on social media feeds for weeks now, peaking with Starbucks' obscenely artificially flavored Unicorn Frappuccino. I found myself completely drawn in by image after image of Unicorn drinks, smoothies, and especially toast created by food stylist Adeline Waugh featuring a rainbow of colored cream cheese (ugh). I also picked up a new cookbook while on my travels in London featuring recipes from the fabulous hotspot Mildred’s and I found a recipe that inspired me to create my own neon toast creation. I am thrilled to introduce my Frankenstein... 

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AvoUnicorn Toast!

First you have to make this lovely Beet & Dill Dip, slightly adapted from Mildreds: The Cookbook. Simply use an immersion blender or pitcher blender on the following ingredients

  • 1 cup Greek yogurt (dairy or non-dairy)
  • 8-oz package of steamed beets (like Melissa's), drained and patted dry
  • Handful of fresh dill
  • Zest + juice of half a lemon

Then make avocado toast with about 1/4 of an avocado mashed over one piece of toasted sprouted grain bread, like Ezekiel Bread. Then ever-so-artistically spread your beet yogurt over the avocado. Add a sprinkle of chunky salt and hemp hearts, and voila! AvoUnicorn Toast with whole food ingredients, no junk. 

Your new favorite potluck dish: Whole Grain Taboule

Holiday picnics and potlucks are landmines for those of us trying to eat healthfully. One of my best strategies is to bring a healthful dish, but I don't want to be that guest; you know, the one who brings a sad, soggy casserole full of weird ingredients that sits untouched. I'm going to share one of my favorite picnic dishes, and despite being loaded with healthful ingredients, it always gets raves. Plus it's super easy to put together--it's less a recipe and more of a put-some-stuff-in-a-dish-and-let-the-ingredients-do-the-work.

Whole Grain Taboule

  • 1/2 cup of your favorite whole grain, dry (great options include bulghur wheat, quinoa, or a whole grain blends like those from truRoots
  • A pint of cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1 large cucumber, seeded and chopped
  • 1 big bunch of scallions, washed and chopped, both green and white parts
  • A big bunch of parsley, leaves washed and chopped (avoid woody stems, but thinner stems are fine)
  • Juice of one big lemon (or a couple smaller)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • OPTIONAL: A handful of fresh mint leaves, torn into small pieces
  • OPTIONAL for serving: 
    • Hummus
    • Chickpeas (canned are fine, just drain & rinse)
    • Fresh lettuces or other leafy greens
    • Lemon wedges

Cook whole grains according to the package using water or stock. BONUS: For really delicious grains, before you cook them, toast them in a dry pan. Just add grains to a pan with no oil or liquid over medium heat, and toss them them till they are lightly brown and emit a nice, toasty smell. Toasted grains have a nutty flavor that really adds to any dish.

Combine the cooked grains with all ingredients (excluding the optional ingredients for serving) in large bowl, adding plenty of ground pepper and some coarse salt. 

Let this sit several hours overnight so the flavors really develop. Serve as is, or with the optional serving options.  Makes 4 entree-sized servings, or 6-8 (or more) side dish servings.

A visit to the USA section

No trip to a foreign country is complete without a visit to the USA section of the grocery store. It's an interesting opportunity to look at our country through another nation's eyes. A visit to La Grande Epicerie reveals that Parisians have quite an impression of us: First off, Americans clearly LOVE us some peanut butter. Specifically, it appears that we love Reese's peanut butter and all Reese's peanut butter candy products. Like, a lot. 

We also adore microwave popcorn. There are not one, not two, but FIVE varieties of popcorn in this little aisle. 

And don't forget the cotton candy in a bag! It's as American as Campbell's Soup, assorted white salad dressings (I had no idea that Guacamole Ranch was a thing!), marshmallow fluff, spray cheese or barbecue sauce.

I hope there will be a day when these items no longer reflect the "best of the USA," and grocers of this lovely market will have to rethink their inventory. 

"What did you eat in France?"

When I told clients and friends that Mr. Live Full (aka my husband John) and I were celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary in Paris--land of crepes, baguettes and macarons--a common question came up: What are you going to eat? 

Yes, I'm a health coach, and I practice what I preach. But as anyone who's worked with me will attest, I love food. Vacations are all about seeking as much pleasure as possible in a short period of time, and I'm not immune to the charms of the triumvirate of quick and easy, super concentrated pleasure: Salt, sugar and fat. On the other hand, there's no pleasure in feeling overstuffed or lethargic in a food or booze hangover. And there's definitely no pleasure in finding you're a few pounds up and further away from your health and fitness goals when you return from vacation. I refuse to accept the notion that in order to enjoy a holiday, you must gain weight.

So with all that in mind, what the hell did I eat?

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1. Fresh stuff

The citizens of Paris muster up quite a demand for fresh produce. It was easy to choose delicious food off every menu that just happened to be full of vegetables, fiber and lean protein. We also made a point to seek out restaurants that specialized in fresh, local food, and our palates were rewarded. We wandered through a beautiful organic farmers market full of brightly colored vegetables, freshly baked bread and amazing prepared food, and we picnicked in the park. Even convenience stores had a selection of tempting fresh produce, and quick carry out spots always had plenty of nutritious options loaded with vegetables, beans and whole grains. 

2. Indulgent stuff

I'm not going to eat crepes under the light of the Eiffel Tower many times in my life, so you can bet I enjoyed that memorable treat without guilt. And handmade tarts with fresh fruit and flaky puff pastry overlooking the Seine River? Creamy sorbet topped with a perfectly crisp, gem-colored macaron in the park? Don't mind if I do! But I had a few caveats when it came to indulging:

  • I didn't indulge at every food opportunity (see #1 and #3). 
  • I'm choosy. I'm not a calorie counter, but I don't want to waste calories eating something that's "meh." I skipped the cheap packaged stuff in favor of the really special stuff.
  • One I chose, I enjoyed sloooooooowly.
  • I practiced the Michael Pollan food rule, "The banquet is in the first bite." The first bite triggers all the bells to go off in our feel good center. The second bite, while still good, is never as good as the first, the third is even a bit less satisfying, and on and on--it's the law of diminishing returns. I ordered the smallest size (a French small is WAY smaller than an American small!) and I often I split treats.

3. Some stuff in the hotel room

We all know meals eaten out are typically bigger and richer than meals eaten at home, so I controlled for one of those meals by making a simple breakfast in the hotel room. A bag of muesli, some chia seeds and almond milk made for overnight oats in our mini fridge. I also brought along some raw almonds (got to love Trader Joe's Just a Handful of Raw Almonds), which were ace in snacking emergencies in the hotel and on the plane. (Bonus: This saved us some cash because dang, Paris is expensive.)

4. Move my stuff

Basic math tells us that exercising (calories out) creates more room for eating treats (calories in). We were clocking in an average of 9-10 miles of walking per day, but that didn't create enough of caloric deficit to compensate for three meals of serious indulgence plus desserts. It did allow us an extra dessert or chunk of crusty baguette here and there, though. But just as important, moving feels good and walking is an amazing way to see a city, making it a vital part of my overall pleasure-seeking strategy. 

5. Non-food stuff

We enjoyed lots of good food, but our great time didn't revolve around it. We oooh'd and ahhhh'd at tourist attractions and art and buildings and nature; we talked; we got lost in the best possible way in a beautiful city; we people-watched; we walked and walked and walked; we got lost some more; and we created many lovely memories. 

Local produce doesn't have to be difficult

There's a misconception that in order to eat nutritious, locally grown food, we have to...

A. Spend a fortune.

B. Go out of our way to shop for it.

Those statements used to be true, but they aren't any longer. As much as I love shopping at the farmers' market, it's not always practical. Now grocery stores of all sizes, from behemoths like Costco to mom-and-pop shops are hearing our requests for better quality, more nutritious food, and they're answering by stocking more of it. Take a trip to a pretty standard grocery store like Giant and you'll find plenty of excellent options, including innovative growers like Bright Farms. Bright Farms is growing quality produce in greenhouses that lessen environmental impact while preserving flavor and nutrition. They're fresh, grown just down the road in Culpeper, VA, and the cost is beyond reasonable.

In a time when it feels like our voices don't carry a lot of weight, our dollars have carried a lot of weight with grocers! Our requests are being heard, and the spread of quality, locally grown produce in our grocery stores is inevitable. 

 

Need support in navigating your local grocery store and planning menus? Let's talk!

Mother's Day gifts that aren't cheap chocolate

Is there a mom in your life who deserves something special for Mother's Day? I’ve written before on the perils of sugary, salty, fatty food gifts for those of us who are working toward health and fitness goals. Skip the cheap box of chocolates made with fractionated palm kernel oil and corn syrup, and thank mom with something meaningful! There are plenty of cool events this weekend in Baltimore where you can find a unique gift:

Towson University Spring Pottery Sale  

Friday, May 12, 3 - 9pm and Saturday, May 13, 9 - 5pm.

Buy a handmade gift created by upcoming artists and professors of Towson. Be on the lookout for fantastic work by Towson professor and local artist Mary Cloonan (pictured)! The sale is located in the ceramics studio, room 3012 in the Center for the Arts building.


For the Greater Goods Market

Saturday, 11am - 4pm at R. House in Remington.

At "Baltimore's Handcrafted Shopping Pop-Up Party," you'll find works by small businesses and local makers. Plus a portion of funds go to support Remington Village Green 


Pile of Craft 

Saturday, May 13, 10am - 5pm at St John's Church @ 2640 St Paul Street

Charm City Craft Mafia puts on this much loved spring show featuring more than 50 artists showing their locally handmade works.


Baltimore Farmers' Market  (or any of our region's amazing farmers' markets)

Sunday, May 14, 7am - noon under the JFX

Take mom out to the market Sunday! It's a scene: This time of year, you'll find lots of potted plants and herbs, locally made food by quality producers like Michele's Granola, Zeke's and Hex Ferments, plus local functional and decorative artwork. And of course, there's plenty of fresh produce! Come early to snag a quart (or two!) of berries from Agriberry. 


What other great options have I missed?