Destination Thailand: A Healthy Honeymoon? (Part 2)

Best Green Curry Ever: I Made It!

Best Green Curry Ever: I Made It!
And a Snazzy Apron to Boot.

I’ve been back from Thailand for almost two weeks now (time flies, sheesh!).  Here’s the second installation of my lessons learned from staying healthy when traveling to the other side of the world.  This post focuses on tips to stay healthy and happy while enjoying your vacation destination:

Indulge in local treats rather than “usual” ones

Thailand had many of the usual indulgences available, from ice cream to Oreos.  But unlike the U.S., Thailand had some awesomely flavorful tropical fruits, so I chose to indulge in those instead (coconuts, mango shakes, rambutan, mangosteen, pineapple, guava, bananas [much better than what I get in NJ], etc.).  In contrast, when I was in Italy, I did have gelato just about every day.  Moderation was key: one scoop, which is actually one small scoop in Italy (vs. two heaping scoops for the “small” in most U.S. ice cream parlors).  If you want to indulge, seek out foods or desserts that you can’t get anywhere else (or not as good anywhere else).

Try new things (or old things in a new place)

When going to Thailand I knew there would be a number of foods that I never had before and I made it a point to try them: fruits (mangosteen, rambutan, fresh guava), veggies (baby eggplants, fresh(!) baby corn) and even raw peanuts!  I just never brought myself to trying the insects (though I’ve heard they are very good, per an 8 year old Thai boy).  When traveling, check out what’s new, different and possibly tasty.  Who knows, you may have a new favorite food to look for when you get back home (it’s amazing what’s actually available when you’re looking for it).

Of course I also had to try all of the usual dishes I have at my local Thai restaurants: papaya salad, pad thai, green curry, panang curry and more.  I can tell you one thing: it’s spicier in Thailand; and in many cases, much more flavorful.  The coconut milk and curry flavors were fantastic and better than most that I’ve had stateside.  At the same time, I decided to try some dishes that I’ve never been a fan of in the U.S. Many of the noodle dishes in Thailand (pad see ew, pad thai, etc.) were less greasy than I’m used to dealing with, which is a welcomed change.  In fact, some of the best dishes I ate were the ones Becca and I made ourselves in a cooking class in Chiang Mai.  When in doubt, make it yourself!

*Note: When traveling to other countries, if you’re trying some new foods be aware that your digestive system may not always be adapted yet.  Also, be aware how safe the water system is (we only drank bottled water in Thailand just in case, but we brushed our teeth with the tap water without issue).  A few days of GI upset can happen in any radically new eating environment and honestly it’s not the worst thing in the world compared to the experiences we got for it.  Worse comes to worse you can always go to a pharmacy (or bring with you from home).  Thailand is very hospitable in helping you find solutions to any GI problems.

Look for alternative ways to stay active

None of our hotels had gyms, so my usual workouts were out of the question.  But you always have your body, so running/jogging/walking, pushups, squats, pullups, lunges are always fair game.  I actually brought along a Pinky ball, mini band and super band for some extra options (under one pound in the baggage).  In addition we did a number of activities that are not in my usual routine such as paddle ball, kayaking, rock climbing, jungle hiking, snorkeling and walking everywhere.  Here’s some tips:

  • Take a look at your surroundings to see how you can be active (any unique opportunities to go sightseeing and be active?)
  • Remember you always have your body weight
  • Consider bringing some light workout equipment like mini-bands, Therabands, super bands, etc.  Even a TRX can work well.
  • Walk everywhere.

Stay in touch with your body’s hunger signals

Often we’re so busy and rushed in our daily lives that we lose touch with when we’re actually hungry and full.  As a result we’re usually alternating between ravenously hungry and totally stuffed.  Use your vacation as an opportunity to listen to, and get back in touch with your body’s satiety signals.  Your body usually takes at least 15 to 20 minutes to know when it’s full, so take your time when eating meals on vacation.  Eat slowly and savor the local foods (where else do you have to be?!?).  Stop when you’re satisfied, not stuffed.  Unless you’re hiking the Sahara, odds are there will be lots of food available everywhere you go.  When you’re hungry, have a small snack (choose a local flavor) to tide you over until meal time.  At meals, don’t feel compelled to buy a three-course meal every time.  Get what looks good and unique; split dishes with others when possible.  If you have a big day of sightseeing or evening out, you may even want to focus on eating “light” so you don’t run into a sluggish period when you’re trying to be your most energetic.  Taking the time to get back in touch with your hunger and satiety signals during vacation can help recalibrate your system for when you return if you make it a point to eat slower and listen to when your body is actually hungry upon your return.

I decided to weigh myself on the last night of my vacation (mainly because it was the only hotel room that had a scale) just to see if my weight changed since my eating and physical activity habits were very different than my usual habits.  Turns out my weight was exactly the same.  What I noticed was I ate when I was hungry but did not force dessert or extra foods on myself when I was full.  I just waited until I was hungry again (at the next snack/meal) to have them.  I think I only felt “stuffed” once during the entire 14 days (I ordered a whole fish one night to try it and Becca’s a vegetarian…and the fish was really good!).

Stay hydrated

Thailand was hot and muggy.  I think I had water bottles in my hand most of the day.  And the days I didn’t drink enough water, I started to get a headache by the end of the afternoon.  So I would pound back some H2O and was right as rain.

Many of us fail to stay hydrated even in day-to-day life, let alone when on vacation.  There are many opportunities to become even more dehydrated on vacation, from lengthy flights to long days sightseeing/sunbathing in hot weather.  Regardless of the health effects, becoming dehydrated can be a huge drag on our vacation because it can make us feel lethargic, headache-y, irritable and even hungry (when we’re actually thirsty).

Start hydrating as soon as you get to the airport and drink throughout the flight.  Either bring your own big water bottle on board or just keep getting up for more water (makes for a good stretch too).  If you’re brazen like me, you can even ask a flight attendant for a whole bottle of water.  Once at your destination, aim to drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water per day.  I’m 170 pounds, so that’s 85 oz. of water, or about 5 regular Poland Spring bottles of water. Add in more if you’re spending a lot of time out in the sun.  If you ever start to feel tired or a headache during a busy day, make water and shade a go-to first intervention.

Hope you found some of these tips helpful for the next time you travel (if you do, tell me which!).  And as they say in Thailand, lah gorn kop! (see you later).

Replace Social Eating with Social Activity Once a Week: Small Change, Big Results

Dancing...Fun For the Whole Family!

Dancing…Fun For the Whole Family!
Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For many of us, spending time with friends or family means food.  Hey, we’ve gotta eat, right?  So why not do it with others?  In fact, a relationship-building book was written about it, “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi.

But what are we usually eating when we socialize with others?  Salads and green smoothies?  Or buffet-style pot lucks with a few glasses of wine or beer?  Or a three course dinner at a restaurant?  Social eating tends to lend itself to indulgence, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing on occasion, doing it too often can lead to excess calories and weight gain.

When addressing healthy eating with social eaters, they sometimes feel that making improvements to their eating habits means they can no longer socialize with their friends…because that’s what they do.  Being social = eating out or cooking.  Their primary focus of social discussion can be around food as well, especially for “foodies” such as myself.  I would rebel too if I felt that someone told me that eating better required that I never see my friends or family again.

Of course, logically that’s not the case.  We can do lots of things with our friends or family that does not involve eating.  But we haven’t been required to think about doing something else in a long time, if ever.  And when we stop performing a certain habit (i.e. social eating), there’s a gap/void left to be filled: “So if I’m not eating, what do I do with my friends/family??”

If an acceptable alternative cannot be provided, usually one of two things happen:

1. We stop seeing our friends or family because we can’t think of something else to do.  Then we get fed up with being unsocial and go back to our old habit of social eating.

2. We try to see our friends or family without an idea of what to do.  So after 20 minutes of debate and deliberation on what to do, everyone gets fed up and just decide to eat.

So this post is devoted to providing an alternative to social eating: social activity. I’m not asking you to replace all of your social eating with social activity.  Just make one substitution per week.  So if you eat socially three times a week, try two days of social eating and one day of social activity.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • A game of tennis or table tennis
  • Shoot pool/billiards (have water or seltzer, not beer)
  • Charades (you’d be surprised how much you can move)
  • Go for a swim
  • A round of golf or mini golf
  • Going for a walk or jog (bring the pets along)
  • Go dancing
  • Bowling (without the beer and nachos)
  • Go to the gym together and train/motivate each other
  • Rock climbing
  • Hiking

Will it require some effort to learn where you can do these things and prepare for them?  Yep, but choosing what restaurant to eat at or preparing to cook takes time as well, so you’re probably not wasting much time.  And once you find a good activity to do, you can do it over and over again with much less effort!  Then you may find yourself talking about another topic in addition to food (i.e. what hiking trails you like, what kind of dance moves you’re working on, etc.).

And the results can be surprising:  A full three course dinner including appetizer, entrée, desert and beverage can easily run 1500 to 2000 calories…and even higher if you are the type that prefers steaks and Fettucine Alfredo.  On the other hand, some of the activities listed above can burn anywhere from 150 to 400 calories per hour.  So replacing one social eating meal with one hour of social activity can be a difference of 1650 to 2500 calories per week, which is equal to about half a pound or a little more.  Half a pound a week over 52 weeks means 26 pounds a year.  One small change, with a big result.  Stay social…just use your legs.  🙂

Thoughts on Meal Frequency, Calorie Restriction & Weight Loss

4 Empty Dishes: From All Day or Dinner?

Is this from all day, or just dinner?
Image(s): FreeDigitalPhotos.net

America sure likes its dinner.  While other countries view lunch as the biggest meal of the day and dinner as a “don’t go to bed hungry” snack, our busy schedules don’t give us a chance to breathe or eat until 6, 7, 8 PM.  And then the feast is on!

I’ve talked to a number of people whose daily eating habits sound like riding a roller coaster:

  • Wake up not very hungry – Maybe a piece of toast and some coffee
  • Busy all day – A couple pieces of fruit or a light salad or small soup for lunch
  • 3 PM – Crash, consume nearest edible (or questionably edible) thing in sight.  Sugar kick to get through the rest of the day
  • 7 PM – Sugar kick crash, starving, not wanting to cook or think about anything than the nearest opportunity for warm food in mouth.  Usually results in eating second portions faster than most people eat their first or purchase of foods that appeal to us regardless of whether it’s nutritious.  Pizza, Chinese, Thai, huge plateful of pasta and meatballs, maybe a mini-salad or a couple pieces of broccoli.  Hey, at least there’s shredded cabbage somewhere in my lo-mein!
  • 9 PM – Another evening snack, usually something sweet because we’re used to having something sweet after dinner
  • 10 PM – Go to bed
  • Wake up not very hungry.

I wonder why we’re not waking up very hungry.  Maybe it’s because we eat two-thirds or more of our calories in the hours immediately before we go to bed.  Calories are designed to fuel our activity, right?  So what are we fueling at 7 and 9 PM?  A rousing, challenging eight hours of sleep (or so we hope).

There’s been a big debate over how to “ideally” fuel our body for weight loss with ideas ranging from:

  • Does eating small frequent meals really increase your metabolism?
  • Should we always be restricting calories?
  • Is intermittent fasting better?  (Intermittent fasting involves significantly reducing food consumption or fasting for a day or so followed by regular eating)
  • Should we cut out a particular nutrient group (i.e. carbs) or follow a particular diet to optimize weight loss?
  • Is three meals a day enough?
  • What time should I stop eating before bed?  7 PM?  2 hours before?

You can argue for or against any of these until you are blue in the face…and there’s research to back all of them up.  But why should we care unless:

  1. It fits into your lifestyle
  2. It gets you results
  3. You can continue to do it for the long haul

We are the product of our habits, so if we make changes, lose weight and then return to our old habits, I can guarantee you that you’ll return to your old weight.  So I took a step back and considered, what do we know and what have I seen in my experiences.

What we know:

  • We lose weight when we burn more calories than we consume
  • Our blood sugar is most stable when we are fueled consistently throughout the day.  Unstable blood sugar is associated with headaches, fatigue, irritability, trouble concentrating and more not so fun things.
  • Athletic performance is better when we fuel before and after it
  • Non- and minimally processed foods (i.e. fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats) tend to be higher in nutrients (vitamins, minerals, water, fiber) and lower in calories
  • Carbohydrates are an ideal source of energy, particularly for the brain and muscles
  • Protein provides the foundational building blocks of lean mass, transport proteins, hormones, chemical messengers, enzymes and many other molecules in the body
  • Fat helps protect and regulate a number of our body’s functions including hormones, inflammation, cell membranes health and efficient conduction of the neurological system.  It also provides access to essential fat-soluble vitamins: A, D, E and K.
  • Intermittent fasting is about equivalent to consistent calorie restriction for weight loss results when people performed both options consistently
  • Consistent calorie restriction leads to a decrease in metabolism, usually resulting in stubborn plateaus

What I’ve seen:

1.   The more frequently we eat throughout the day:

  • The more it forces us to think about what we eat and the meal and/or snack planning that goes with it.  Most homemade foods will be more nutritious and lower calories than eating out.
  • We don’t have the time to eat crappy because we’ve usually planned and are eating meals every few hours.  So we’re rarely starving.
  • We have more stable blood sugars, so we’re less likely to be ravenously hungry.  We tend to make better decisions about food when we’re not ravenously hungry.
  • The better and more energized we feel throughout the day.  The better we feel, the better we can handle stress.  The better we can handle stress the less we want that brownie/cookie/ice cream to comfort us.
  • The more likely we are to fuel ourselves pre- and post-workout so we get better workouts and burn more calories during them.
  • The less starving we are at dinner so we end up having smaller dinners.  And lo and behold we start getting hungry in the morning.

2.    There is not particular time to stop eating before bed (i.e. 7 PM).  Ideally aim to have your last meal a couple hours before bed.  That means if you have dinner at 7 PM but don’t go to bed until midnight, you should be planning a small, balanced snack around 10 PM.

3.    A great way to keep your metabolism high during calorie restriction is to stay active, particularly with a resistance training component (weights, bodyweight, etc.).  It helps maintain your lean body mass which is your main calorie burner.

4.   During periods of calorie restriction, give your body more calories every few days to keep your metabolism from dropping.   In other words, have a bit more food every fourth or fifth day if you are mindfully eating less.  You can consider it a cheat meal, cheat day or just eat more of the same healthy foods you’re eating normally.  The key is not to go insane and eat a whole pizza pie, a tub of ice cream, etc.  Enjoy a burger and fries.  Have a couple slices of pizza.  Enjoy a serving of your favorite dessert.  The goal is to have about 20-25% more calories on those days.

5.   While I’m personally not a fan of the intermittent fasting approach because it seems to be contrary to the idea of “consistency”, it could be an option if avoiding food for a day doesn’t make you feel like crap and if it doesn’t make you go overboard the day after.  ****Be aware not eating for an entire day can have a lot of side effects: watch out if you have diabetes, are sensitive to changes in blood sugar, are on medications, have thyroid issues, etc.  In other words, DO NOT make drastic changes like this until you speak with your doctor or appropriate medical professionals about it.  And please be sure to drink water!

Don’t just take my word for it.  Consider for yourself:

Consider your current meal habits.  Write down what you eat and when.  Also track your energy levels throughout the day.  Is it usually after going a long time without food?  Ideally you should be eating a small, balanced meal (carbs, fat, protein) every 3 to 4 hours.  About the same amount of food, evenly spaced throughout the day.  While that’s a perfect world, start considering how you can make a small shift in that direction.

Another good way to check and see if you’re fueling your body well throughout the day is charting your hunger levels:  write down what your hunger level is throughout the day on a scale of 1 (starving) to 10 (stuffed).   Aim to be around 3 to 7 all day.  When we get too low, we tend to go overboard with eating and then end up too high (think how much we eat when we’re starving…then we’re stuffed because we ate faster than our body could digest and signal us to stop).

Some ideas:

  • If you know you crash at 3 PM, start planning/bringing a healthy snack with you.
  • If you know you always stuff yourself at dinner and are never hungry in the morning, purposefully eat slower (I guarantee you won’t starve if you eat slower) and only to about 80% fullness at dinner for a week and see if your appetite at breakfast changes.
  • If you’re skipping meals, eat something…anything!
  • If you know you’re eating too little at a particular meal, try adding one more thing.
  • Make it a point to fuel yourself pre- and post-workout.
  • If you’ve been very strict with your eating and you’ve plateaued, consider adding in a day of increased caloric intake.  If you’ve been at a very stubborn plateau, consider actually increasing your caloric intake for a few days in a row.  You’d be amazed as to how that can renew your metabolism.

Give one of the ideas a shot, what’s the worst that can happen?  Alternatively, what’s the best that can happen?

Three of the Most Despised, Yet Misunderstood Words in Health and Wellness Discussed: Part 2

Balance

Image: Idea go / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

These words are used so often in the field that either myths about their meaning have arisen or the images associated with their use creates a sense of frustration in those who are trying to live a healthier lifestyle. But when we dig down into their origins and true meanings, we’ll see that the words themselves can provide a renewed sense of meaning to our journey towards eating better and being physically active.

Today’s word: Moderation

Yes, it’s true you can die from drinking too much water and you will probably not keel over after your second slice of pizza. When it comes to eating, the catchphrase of the dietitians/nutritionists is “Eat everything in moderation.” Many of us who care about a client’s long-term well-being and success really hesitate to say “never eat X” or “these foods are bad and those are good”. Because in the end, what happens to most people in the long run if you tell them they can’t have sugar or bread or cookies or pizza or BBQ or cheese ever again? They listen for a while, but that inner voice says, “screw this, I want cheese!” And then they have cheese…and a lot of it, to make up for all of the cheese they couldn’t have for the past few months. And we’re back to square one.

Defining Moderation

Moderation means: “the avoidance of excess or extremes, especially in one’s behavior or political opinions.” Politics aside, this definition goes to show why the situation described in the example above is doomed to failure; we’re swinging from one extreme to another. The problem is, lots of people do this and expect permanent results! Permanent results = permanent changes to habit. So if you can live without those foods mentioned above forever, then go for it. But as for me, I still like my occasional chocolate cake or ribs. A great slogan on the website of a Registered Dietitian puts it best: “I eat cookies, but I eat my broccoli, too!”

We say “eat in moderation,” but as my client asked me today: “How much is moderation?” That’s a problem: Moderation is not well-defined in relation to food, and living between extremes (all-or-nothing) still encompasses a lot of “wiggle room”.  Enough wiggle room that can allow us to eat in “moderation” and still not achieve a healthy lifestyle or weight. Because in the end, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, while rich in “healthy” mono-unsaturated fats, is still about 400 calories and can still lead to weight gain just as easily as 400 calories of candy bars (which has very little nutrients).  This is not license to eat candy bars all day, just a note that eating “healthy foods” does not always mean weight change.

Really Defining Moderation

Using some numbers to define how to practice moderation can help create some clarity.  You can count calories.  You can track portion sizes.  Or you can use the 80/20 rule (see below).  It’s about creating a way to consistently track how your current definition of moderation translates into your current habits…and results. If you would sooner run into a brick wall than count calories, consider another approach you could perform more consistently.  To some it up, review the following points and see how you feel about them (or write down how you feel about them…leave me a comment!):

Point #1: Your current weight or health is the result of your current eating and physical activity habits. If you want to change your weight, health or physique, you need to change your habits.

Point #2: Is it worth making big, radical changes that you can’t sustain? If you said no, then you are pro-moderation.

Point #3: If you don’t want to track your calories, then consider using the 80/20 rule, sometimes referred to as the Pareto Principle (though it’s not an exact interpretation of the original definition). The goal is to eat well at 80% of your meals and allow indulgences at 20%. You can also apply this rule to a particular nutrition change such as cutting back soda, dairy, red meat, etc. My nutrition philosophy regarding this idea is, “Eat well when you can, because there will be times you know you won’t want to.” If you are super-motivated, consider 90/10. But don’t go 100/0 unless you are 100% sure you can go without that food or meal for the rest of your life. Otherwise you’re no longer in moderation.

So what does Point #3 mean for you? If you eat 3 meals a day, that’s 21 meals a week. At 20% indulgence rate, that means you can indulge 4 times per week. If you also have 2 snacks a day, that’s 14 snacks a week, which leads to 2-3 indulgences in snacks per week. Of course, what does indulge mean? Let’s turn to our old friend: moderation.

What Does it Mean to “Indulge”?

Indulgence means enjoying a food you may not normally have, but not going to extremes. Is a slice of pizza an indulgence? Yes. Is a whole pizza pie an indulgence? That may be a bit much. Is a glass or two of wine with dinner an indulgence? Yes. How about the whole bottle? Not really.  A couple cookies after dinner?  Fine.  A few cookies after a dinner of Mac ‘n Cheese, fried chicken and mashed potatoes?  That’s a few indulgences right there.  I hope you get the idea.

Most of us tend to over-indulge when we feel restricted (a.k.a. we can’t have any pizza or wine for weeks or months). But if we know that we can enjoy it on a regular basis, then we may feel less compelled to stockpile a month’s worth of indulgences in one sitting. If you are following an 80/20 approach and still not getting the results you want, consider:

1. Am I really only indulging 20% of the time?  Or am I rationalizing or justifying certain indulgences?  Track the number of indulgences you have each week by keeping a notepad with you and writing down each indulgence as you have it.  Or track your entire week’s eating and highlight all the indulgences.  Consider having some objective guidance if you feel that you may not give yourself an honest assessment.

2. How significant are my 20% of indulgences? Are they little extras that satisfy me or are they whole meal smorgasbords / extravagant desserts designed to be split?

3. If I prefer larger indulgences, am I willing to accept an 85/15 or 90/10 approach? Or smaller indulgences?

Notice the subtle shifts and changes. That’s why moderation is ultimately a game of balance. Your eating and activity habits are on one end of the scale and your body, weight or health is on the other. Make one change and see how the other side adjusts. Ultimately, the only side you can truly impact is the eating and physical activity habits; your body, weight and health are a result. So choose wisely…and in moderation!

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