Benefits of Beans

July 30, 2012

Vegetarian diets are becoming more popular, but even if you are just trying to eat healthier, you may be cutting out meat.   Remember to replace the animal protein with plant protein, found in grains, nuts and seeds, and beans.  Try black-eyed peas, turtle beans, garbanzo beans, fava beans, kidney beans, navy beans . . . the list goes on and on!   There are thousands of different beans eaten around the world, but unless you frequent ethnic restaurants, you may not have tasted them all.   Most cuisines offer beans as a main course with a cornucopia of flavors, and textures.  Think Mexican rice and black beans, Indian daal (lentils) and naan, Italian fagioli with pasta (cannellini), and on and on.

Beans can be found frozen, canned, or dried in most grocery stores.  Dried, the most economical version, need to be either soaked overnight or brought to a boil, wait an hour, and then cooked.  If you prepare the whole bag, you can easily freeze the leftovers and save yourself some steps next time.  Lentils are so small that they don’t require the soaking stage, and cook in less than 30 minutes.

There are many health benefits to substituting plant proteins for animal ones.  Beans have zero cholesterol or saturated fat, which is a boon to people with heart disease, and are a good source of soluble fiber, which helps to lower cholesterol and prevent spikes in blood sugar for those with diabetes.  Vegetarians tend to have lower cholesterol levels, lower body weight, and less risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure.  Plus plant proteins are much less expensive, saving your pocketbook while protecting your health.

A complete protein contains all the essential amino acids (your body can manufacture the rest from these).  Soybeans are the only bean with “complete” protein, like animal sources.  Other beans are limited in the amino acids methionine or tryptophan, but these are easily found in grains or nuts and seeds, and don’t have to be consumed at the same time.  Your body stores some extra amino acids until they can be combined with the missing ones.  Examples of complementary proteins are kidney beans and cornbread, black beans and tortillas, or pita bread and hummus.

Those who can’t bear to give up meat completely can still benefit from a meatless dinner once or twice/week.  Substitute beans in your favorite chili recipe, or use hummus (made from garbanzo beans) on your next wrap.  Order stir-fried vegetables with tofu the next time you eat Chinese food, or throw beans instead of meat into your next homemade casserole.   You’ll soon find lots of delicious ways to include them in your healthy diet.


Best-tasting Gluten-Free Foods

July 30, 2012

Celiac disease is present in one out of 133 Americans, according to the Celiac Disease center at the University of Chicago, and as many as 41% of adults and 60% of children who have it are without symptoms.  Celiac is an inherited auto-immune disorder that affects the lining of the small intestine.  When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, their immune system attacks it and as a result, interferes with absorption of nutrients, causing many different health problems, including anemia and osteoporosis.


Avoiding gluten is the best way to prevent further damage, but in our society, gluten is found in everything, from bread to condiments to multivitamins.  Although other starches can be substituted for wheat, rye, and barley (such as foods made with buckwheat, quinoa, sweet potatoes, corn, beans, brown rice and nut flours), many foods are “contaminated” with gluten, making them unsuitable.  Even a tiny amount of gluten can cause intestinal damage, and that is why it is so important that people with celiac not only read food labels carefully, but also have their own condiments, toaster, etc. to avoid cross-contamination.


Does that mean that a person with celiac has to give up cookies?  And pizza?  And a host of other foods some of us might consider “essential”?  Gluten-free foods are much more common in the past few years, but they are usually more expensive and often higher in calories and lower in nutrients.  In fact, following a gluten-free diet can cause a deficiency in iron, folate, niacin, vitamin B12, calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.  It can be hard to get enough dietary fiber too.


Some of the gluten-free substitutes I have tasted have been, well, “yucky”, and one can go through a lot of gluten-free sampling (and money) before finding something that they consider acceptable in taste and texture.  I asked, Kathryn Szklany, a Syracuse University Dietetic Intern, who has followed a gluten-free diet since 1999 for some recommendations.  Kathryn agrees that there is a lot of trial and error involved.  She suggests taste-testing gluten-free foods at Nature-Tyme.   To save money on gluten-free foods in bulk, check out the group buying website,


The lack of variety can get frustrating too, especially when eating out.  For example, when watching a game in the dome, you can’t enjoy pizza and beer (both contain gluten) with your buddies.  Fortunately, she says, “Eating out has become a lot easier as many restaurants have gluten free menus. Some of these in the Syracuse area include: Bone Fish Grill, Olive Garden, Yum Yums Bakery, Mark’s Pizzeria, Empire Brewery, Alto Cinco, and Papa Gallos.”

Kathryn might be biased about the taste of gluten-free foods since she has eaten them for years. However, she notes that her husband enjoys Pamela’s gluten-free brownies, pancake mix and cornbread mix also and he doesn’t follow this diet.   Here are her taste-tested, favorite brands to recommend:


Udi’s- bread,buns, or pizza crust

Pamela’s- Cookies, brownie mix, pancake mix
Mary’s Gone Crackers or Nut Thins- Crackers
Bob’s Red Mill All Purpose Flour
Bob’s Red Mill Oats
Annie’s Mac & Cheese, Annie’s Bunny cookies
Orgran – bread crumbs
Tinkyada- PastaJoy, any kind of pasta
Food for Life Wraps

Sunshine veggie burgers
Conte’s Gluten Free Raviolis

Jillians Gluten-free pie crust

Following the New Sodium Recommendations

February 25, 2012

Even if you don’t salt your food or binge on potato chips, chances are you are consuming a lot more sodium than recommended. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommended a significant reduction in sodium intake, to 1,500 milligrams per day, for everyone who is over 51 years old, is African American or has diabetes, kidney disease or high blood pressure. Everyone else is encouraged to limit sodium to 2,300 milligrams per day, or the sodium in one teaspoon of salt. Studies suggest that the average American consumes 3,400 milligrams per day or more.

Why the push to cut back on salt? Research shows that reducing sodium consumption can reduce blood pressure in many people, which can reduce your chance of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and congestive heart failure. An added benefit is that reducing sodium often results in weight loss as well, since high sodium foods are often calorie dense.

So what types of meals meet the recommended 1,500 milligrams per day limit of sodium? Here is a sample meal plan that provides 2,067 calories (average calories needed), 100 grams protein, 1,439 milligrams sodium, and 100 percent or more of most major vitamins and minerals. Note the absence of high-sodium foods like chips, pickles and packaged foods. This sample plan also has 27 grams of dietary fiber, a boon for dieters looking to stay fuller longer.

Breakfast: One cup bite-size shredded wheat cereal; one cup 2 percent milk; one fresh banana, sliced.

Snack: 1/2 ounce (11) unsalted almonds; one grapefruit.

Lunch: Sandwich with two slices whole wheat bread, 2 ounces sliced, cooked fresh ham, two slices tomato, one romaine leaf, 1 tablespoon mayonnaise; 6 ounces nonfat, low-calorie yogurt.

Snack: One apple, cored, spread with 1 tablespoon peanut butter.

Dinner: 4 ounces lean beef; 1 cup brown rice; 3 cups baby spinach, steamed; 1 tablespoon olive oil, butter or margarine; 1 cup 2 percent milk.

Theoretically, one could adhere to this meal plan indefinitely, simply by substituting other fruits, vegetables, meats and grains for more variety. To keep the sodium under control, be sure to choose simple foods that are unprocessed. Also, it is important to season your food only with herbs and spices that do not have sodium added, such as garlic, rosemary, chili pepper, etc. and not condiments like soy sauce, steak sauce and garlic salt.

Spice mixtures, such as Mrs. Dash, come in lots of combinations and since they do not contain sodium, can be used freely. Check the label to be sure of the contents. Salt substitutes, which can contain potassium chloride, mimic the taste of table salt, but are not safe for everyone to use. People with kidney problems or those taking certain medications for high blood pressure should not use potassium chloride salt substitutes. Ask your doctor before using them.

» Find more information on the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and recipes

Fast and Easy Isn’t Always the Best

January 27, 2012

Americans love the adjectives, “fast and easy”, and none others are more likely to convince them to buy a product.  It doesn’t matter whether it is an oil change, a home fix-up project, or a frozen meal.  If “fast and easy” is a part of the description, then it sells itself.  Even some cookbook authors have jumped on the bandwagon and use “fast and easy” to sell healthy cooking.   The only problem is — truly healthy food is neither fast nor easy.

The ideal health food starts in its natural state, which means that it requires a little washing, trimming, dicing or steaming to make it edible.  Herbs or spices may be added to bring out the flavors, and slower cooking methods, like roasting or stewing, really concentrate them.  Fresh fruit and vegetables aside, healthy food requires work!

In fact, there seems to be a direct correlation between the healthfulness of a food and the time required to prepare it–  the less time and effort required, the less healthful the food.   Think about the lowly potato.  First you have to scrub or peel it, then boil or bake it, then add seasonings.  But the result is a  nutritious food, high in potassium and low in fat.  Compare that to a frozen package of tater tots, which can be microwaved in a few minutes with no other preparation steps, but packs twice the calories and almost three times the sodium.

Maybe in your Mom’s kitchen, every dish was made “from scratch”, and meals took hours, or even days, to prepare.  Fortunately, we don’t have to be a slave to the kitchen to improve our eating habits.  Compromise on busy nights, choosing foods that are minimally prepared, and spend a few minutes to make them into a meal.  For example, instead of frozen burritos, you can heat canned refried beans and spoon them onto whole wheat tortillas along with chopped tomatoes, grated low-fat cheese, and fresh cilantro.  Throw in a bagged tossed salad with added sliced fruit or fresh vegetables and you have a healthy meal in a short time.   Or pair a bag of frozen Asian vegetables with frozen shrimp in a wok with some ginger, garlic, and low-sodium soy sauce and serve it over quick-cooking brown rice.

When you have more time, prepare meals that take a little longer but pay big dividends in flavor and nutrients.  Roast chicken pieces with chopped root vegetables and herbs, or cut up meat and vegetables to throw in a crock pot for a simple meal the next day.  Some people even prepare enough to freeze for an extra meal, like grilling double the chicken breasts needed and using the extra breasts chopped on top of a salad or tossed with pasta.

Most importantly, when time is tight, don’t compromise by leaving fruits and vegetables off the menu.  Canned vegetables are pre-cooked and only require a brief heating, and raw fruits and vegetables simply need to be washed.  So even if you are relying on a pizza delivery, be sure to invest the few minutes it takes to toss a salad or wash some fresh fruit to eat with it.  It isn’t as fast and easy as just pizza, but it really doesn’t require a lot more time and effort to turn it into a healthful meal.

Tuning Into Yourself

January 17, 2012

If you are one of the 2/3 of Americans who are either overweight or obese, recognizing your natural hunger signals may be a lost skill.  In our busy, hectic lifestyles, we may forget to check in with our bodies and discover how we feel.  Stress, anxiety, fatigue, etc. can build up to the point that we can’t ignore them any longer, and lead to overeating or even bingeing.

A body scan is one way to identify how we are feeling and respond appropriately to those feelings.  Starting with the top of your head, and slowly working your way down to your toes, focus on each part of your body.  Do you feel tension, pain, or discomfort?  If so, can you do something to relieve it?  Often engaging in some deep breathing several times a day can take the edge off a stressful event.

Hunger is felt in the stomach, a small “balloon” at the base of the ribcage.  Place your hand on it.  When you focus there, does it feel empty?  Or is the discomfort coming from elsewhere?

Confusing other feelings with hunger can become a way of life.  Since eating provides a temporary respite from uncomfortable feelings, we start to associate eating with feeling better, whatever the cause.  Over time, eating in response to other feelings rather than true hunger can cause weight gain.  Learning to check in with ourselves, identify what is bothering us, and treating the real cause of the discomfort, instead of eating to mask it, is an important step in eating mindfully.

Building Willpower

January 5, 2012

Building Willpower

Holidays and good food always go together, and gaining weight during the holidays seems to be a national pastime.   Almost every social occasion involves treats that cause us to overindulge.  Often excessive eating seems to be “accidental”.  Whether it is an extra serving of Mom’s homemade pie, or numerous trips to the break-room for candy, this type of eating just “can’t be helped”, despite our best intentions.  Are there some situations that cause us to lose control of our willpower?

Research on this phenomenon shows that everyone has some willpower.  The difference between people who can resist temptations and those who cannot seems to depend on how often the person has to use their willpower. Those who plan ahead and use techniques to reduce temptation are much more successful at resisting temptation.

To build your willpower, try:

  1. Only eat food that you enjoy (don’t over-restrict yourself)
  2. Eat the food slowly, savoring the taste, texture, and aroma
  3. Acknowledge that you can have the food any time you want, not just the present moment.
  4. Stop as soon as you have satisfied the desire for that food.
  5. Decide ahead of time when and what you will enjoy that day.

Limiting yourself to eating only food that you enjoy will prevent wasting calories on food that does not satisfy you emotionally.  People who substitute a lower calorie option for what they really want often end up eating both the substitution, and then later, the food they craved to start with.  Don’t allow yourself to mindlessly graze on anything, especially foods (even cookies) that don’t taste great.

Eating the food slowly and savoring all the taste, texture, and aroma of foods allows you to fully experience it.  It satisfies both the physical hunger and the psychological hunger for pleasure.  Many people find that when they practice this, they are happy with a much smaller portion than if they race through the food.

Recognizing that each meal is not your last takes away the power that food can have over us.  Even if it is Moms famous dish that she only makes at Christmas, you can always enjoy the leftovers tomorrow, or look forward to next year, or find a similar recipe and make it yourself!  The point is, you can never really eat enough of a special food at one sitting, no matter how much you consume.  Expect that there will be other opportunities in the future.

If you are savoring the food slowly, it is much easier to determine the point at which you have satisfied the craving for it.  Eating more at that point is a waste of calories, since your enjoyment goes way down once you have had enough.  Be prepared to stop before you finish your serving.

Decide ahead of time (as much as possible) what and when you will have special foods.  Try to anticipate the menu when invited to dinner, and decide which of the foods offered you would enjoy the most.  Then focus on having that food, and avoid those that you don’t really like as much.   Resist having a “little bit of everything” which usually still results in overeating. Put away tempting foods the rest of the time so that you aren’t using valuable willpower to resist them.

Try one or all of these tips this holiday season to build your willpower.  Not only will you enjoy what you eat far more, but you will also help yourself to avoid needlessly overeating.  Remember, it isn’t that long until Valentine’s Day!

Will social drinking affect my health?

November 4, 2009

What’s wrong with a glass of wine after work, or a beer with your friends?  Especially during the holidays, alcohol seems to be a part of the mix.  A moderate intake is one 12 oz beer or 5 oz wine or 1.5 oz alcohol per day for women, two for men.  More than that puts you at higher risk for many diseases.  Even only one drink/day increases the risk of breast cancer for women.  And you can’t safely “save up” drinks to have all on the same day.  So, consider switching to non-alcoholic drinks after the first one or two.  You’ll be less likely to overeat, more likely to get home safely if driving, and feel better the next day.  Happy Thanksgiving!