Thanksgiving: Food…and Habits for Thought

Avoid Being Stuffed, Like the Bird.

Avoid Being Stuffed, Like the Bird.
From: Microsoft Images

Why does giving thanks have to lead to food comas and indigestion?  While Thanksgiving dates back to a group of European settlers and Native Americans feasting over a plentiful harvest at Plymouth in 1621, most harvesting performed these days involves a bit less manual labor.  Rather, we’re driving over to the local supermarket and filling our carts with turkeys, pumpkin pie and the ingredients for mashed potatoes and stuffing.

Our modern interpretation has evolved into a celebration of family, friends and…lots of food.  Consider the holiday’s common nickname: Turkey Day.  In many ways it seems that the true meaning of Thanksgiving has been lost somewhere between the hors d’oeuvres, the gut-busting dinner buffet and the proliferation of pies for dessert.  This year, let’s give thanks to our health and finish the day feeling light and energetic by following some of the following tips:

Make Nutritious Nudges – If you control the day’s menu, make healthy options available.  Have crudite with appetizers.  Make a big salad with dinner.  Offer fruit as part of dessert.  Or make healthier tweaks to recipes.  Bake instead of fry.  Use less butter in the mashed potatoes.  Use more spices (zero calories).

Here are a few links for more ideas:

Portion Your Plate – When faced with a buffet, it’s amazing how quickly our eyes can become bigger than our stomach.  It takes 15 to 20 minutes to know that you’re full…plenty of time to have seconds and not realize you’re full.  And then you’re stuffed.

So, use smaller dishes and pile them up with fruits and veggies.  Don’t use a plate with appetizers so every time you want something, you have to actually get it.  Use a salad plate with dinner; research shows that we tend to eat less when we have less in front of us.  Then give yourself 15 minutes before getting seconds to give your body a chance to catch up.  If you’re still hungry, get more.  Finally, load up half your plate with veggies or fruit each time you go up, as they will typically be lower in calories and more filling due to their water and fiber content.

Indulge Wisely – It’s important to be sensible on food-focused holidays, which also means allowing ourselves to enjoy the foods that we rarely have otherwise.  For me, that’s sweet potato casserole with marshmallows, mmm.

The key is to choose the indulgences you really enjoy and only have those.  In other words, if you love the home-made pumpkin pie, have a slice (maybe not the entire pie).  If the stuffing is heavenly, enjoy a serving!  Just consider whether it’s also worth having the cheese and crackers with the appetizers, second helpings of mashed potatoes and trying all of the desserts on the table.  If the day loses meaning to you without having a particular food, then have it.  If it doesn’t, then leave it.

Stay Active – We can give our body a great head start toward digesting those Thanksgiving calories by exercising that morning.  Go to the gym or go for a jog.  You can even take it a step further by changing the focus of Thanksgiving from football and food to another activity, such as playing board games, charades, or even touch football outside with the family!  We tend to eat when we have nothing else to do.  Do something else.

Get Back on the Horse – Even with the best laid plans, stuff happens.  One unhealthy decision or day of eating doesn’t ruin our health or fitness…but allowing ourselves to continue those actions for the rest of month or year might.  So rather than feeling guilty or defeated, acknowledge your unintended indulgences (hopefully you enjoyed them), know that they don’t happen every day unless you let them and redouble your focus to healthier eating and staying active as soon as you can.

If you’re hosting, give away all your unwanted, calorie-laden leftovers.  If you’re visiting, don’t take home any leftovers, unless it’s salad.  If the host and visitors are both reading this article, good luck!

Choose the tip that most applies to your situation, make a change, and enjoy a happy, healthy Turkey Day!  I personally give thanks for feedback, so please leave a comment below and let me know what tip(s) worked for you, and which didn’t.

FNCE 2012 Recap, Part 2: Do Happy People Live Longer? Food, Physical Activity and Happiness

Is She Adding Years to Her Life?

Is She Adding Years to Her Life?
Image: stockimages,

Session Speakers:
Dr. Ed Diener, leading “happiness” researcher & psychology professor, University of Illinois

Elizabeth Somer, Registered Dietitian and author of books focusing on food and mood

My Challenge To You: Do one of the following actions listed at the end of the post to naturally boost your happiness levels.  Then comment and tell me about how it went/how you felt.

As I have worked with more and more clients both as a strength and conditioning specialist and Registered Dietitian, I believe that my reason for being in this field is to enable people to live their best lives possible, through their physical activity and eating habits.  And in many ways, living your best life possible, whether it be moving pain free, having energy all day (even after a long day of work), feeling confident about yourself or enjoying time with others, all results in one key emotion: happiness.  For those who have not watched the movie “Happy”, I recommend it; it provides some great insights into the emotion of happiness, its impact on our body and what really makes us happy.

Interestingly, happiness research is relatively new in the psychology field.  Much of the historical research in the early and mid-part of the 20th century focused on understanding and managing unhappiness: dementia, depression and psychological disorders.  Analyzing what happens when things go wrong.  And as a result many therapies and medications have been developed to manage the problems of unhappiness.  Yet getting people “not unhappy” does not necessarily mean they will be happy.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, researchers like Dr. Diener decided to take an alternate approach: what makes people happy?  And what are the effects of living a “happy” life?  Now practitioners like Elizabeth Somer and I have begun applying the results of this research to help people like you and me live happier, and healthier lives.

What makes people happy?

The results of Dr. Diener’s 20+ years of research, from observing, discussing and measuring happiness across different people and cultures across the world, has slowly distilled the pursuit of happiness into four primary traits/characteristics:

1. Close social, supportive relationships filled with respect & trust.

2. A realistic, yet positive outlook; seeing the glass as half-full.

3. Feeling able to fulfill personal needs (Maslow’s hierarchy).  Research contends that we’re trying to realize all of the different aspects of our personal needs simultaneously, not in a particular order (from food, clothing, shelter to fulfilling work and personal growth; Maslow 2.0).

4. Ability to have daily pleasures and uplifts; via daily interests, activities and pleasures.

Some additional interesting findings from his research:

The limits of money on happiness: Money can buy happiness…to a point, mainly based on how much it costs to meet basic needs of shelter/food/clothing/entertainment in your country.  For example, there’s a big difference in happiness for those making $7,000 and $70,000 in the U.S.  But there’s a much smaller difference in happiness between those who make $70,000 and larger sums like $500,000 and more.

Despite easily having the highest income of the 36 countries surveyed, the United States ranked 12th in life satisfaction according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (, beat out by countries such as New Zealand, Canada, Austria and Denmark.

Extreme feelings fade: When something amazingly great or devastating happens to us, we can’t imagine how we can ever be sad (if it’s good) or happy (if it’s bad) ever again…in that moment.  But as the saying goes, time heals all wounds, and fades all feelings.  Not all Super Bowl/World Series/Stanley Cup winners are happy the rest of their lives.  And we learn to move on and smile after losing a close friend or loved one.  In fact, many people share positive and happy stories at a funeral.  We have an emotional baseline that we tend to move back toward no matter what happens.

It’s not about avoiding lows, but instead seeking lots of little highs: Some people tend to focus on avoiding negative situations.  While that may help you steer clear of major disasters, being constantly focused on avoidance and risk management does not put you in a frame of mind to promote greater happiness.  In other words, you’re focused on treading water to avoid drowning rather than looking to learn how to swim and progress.  Rather than avoiding the negative, flip the situation on it’s head and start looking for positivity in daily actions and life.  Our brain and how it regulates mood is like a muscle; the more you flex it (think positively), the better it becomes at finding the positive in everything.  You’ll start to, “Always look on the bright side of life.”

The Results of Happiness

The long-term effects of happiness have been studied and measured.  Here’s a recap of some of the most notable results of being happy:

1.    Promotes social success.  People like hanging around happy, positive people.  Who wants to be around Debbie Downer? (intended as a fictitious name, if someone is actually named Debbie Downer, I am not referring to that person).

2.    Promotes workplace success.  Those who take the “I can” approach tend to get things done, work better in teams and create an atmosphere of positivity and success around their colleagues.

3.    Improves citizenship.  Most of us like to help others when we can.  When you’re happy, you tend to feel more empowered to help others, whether it be volunteering your time at a non-profit or even just holding the door for someone and smiling.  This makes them happy because you’re thinking of their well-being, and you get a boost from being helpful.  makes you happier for being helpful.  It’s a win-win.

4.    Improves health and longevity.  Dr. Diener’s research has shown that high subjective (as reported by the participant) amounts of happiness and well-being can promote health independent of our physical activity and eating habits.  In other words, the happier you are, the more likely you are to live longer.  In addition, feelings of happiness and well-being were associated with better eating habits, increased physical activity (a positive cycle), a better immune system, better cardiovascular health and possibly lower risk of some cancers.

Let’s all take a tip from Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy.”  Simple saying, not always easy to do.

Use Food & Fitness to Make Your Life Happier…and Vice Versa

Many people go through life anywhere from mildly to severely unhappy and accept it.  Why?  Maybe we have unrealistic expectations?  Maybe we don’t think we can do better?  Maybe we don’t really know what we want?  Regardless of the cause, being constantly unhappy is useless.

One of the best quotes of FNCE came from Elizabeth Somer in regards to feeling crappy/louse: “What are you willing to tolerate?”  And in response I ask, “What are you going to do about it?”  Nothing changes without action, so I challenge you to do one of the following to boost your serotonin/dopamine levels and get happier:

Focus on little wins – Start a journal and spend three minutes at the end of every day thinking about two health (eating, exercise, movement, etc.) related activities that you did well that day.  Write down at least two accomplishments or successes, no matter how small they may seem. Turn down a free cookie? Great!  Walk up a fight of stairs instead of taking the elevator? Awesome! Little wins add up over time.

Exercise one more time than usual this week – Do any type of activity you prefer; studies show that exercise can promote better feelings of wellness and lower risk of depression (happiness and exercise works both ways).

Eat whole-grain carbs – Our brain runs best on carbs, particularly types that breakdown slowly over time like whole grains (i.e. barley, rye, quinoa, brown rice, oatmeal) and starchy veggies (i.e. sweet potato, baked potato, fresh corn).  These starchier foods can be a significant part of breakfast (i.e. bowl of oatmeal with almonds and berries) and should be 25% of your plate at lunch and dinner.

Get fluid from water and foods – Staying hydrated keeps us alert, focused, less stressed and lowers our chances of headaches.  Which makes a positive outlook easier. While drinking water is always a great idea, remember certain foods are naturally very high in water: fruits and veggies!  Most fruits and veggies are actually over 90% water!  Eating fruits and veggies regularly throughout the day goes a long way in keeping you hydrated.

Sit, pay attention to, savor and appreciate your next dessert or indulgent meal – If you can’t sit and truly enjoy it, reconsider whether it’s worth buying.  We all need some sugar and fat in our diet; the key is having some, but not too much.  Elizabeth Somer likens it to currency: you get a daily sugar/fat allowance, how do you want to spend it?  Spend wisely ?

Learn/practice a new food or movement-based skill – The better we become at something, the more confident we feel.  And the more confident we feel about ourselves, the easier it is to be happy.  Cook a new recipe.  Take another dance lesson.  Learn a new exercise at the gym.  Try a new fruit or veggie.

A second batch of non-food/physical activity ways to make yourself happier are on the way, stay tuned!

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).

Destination Thailand: A Healthy Honeymoon? (Part 1)

Kayaking in Railay Bay

Kayaking in Railay Bay

Howdy everyone, I just returned from beautiful (and sometimes rainy) Thailand!  Two weeks of amazing fun with the woman that I love, and am now married to!  We spent one week trekking around, exploring a friendly, welcoming country full of history and nature (including monkeys and elephants).  The other week was spent relaxing (and climbing, kayaking, etc.) on the confines of a pristine beach surrounded by natural limestone cliffs.

Needless to say, I was very much out of my usual “routine” of both physical activity and eating.  While reviewing the photos of my trip, I decided to also review what lessons I learned in the pursuit of staying healthy when traveling to the other side of the world.  Turns out I wrote a lot on this topic (surprise!), so I’m splitting it into two posts.  This post will discuss tips for getting to/from your destination (particularly, long flights) feeling great and how to re-acclimate upon your return.  My second post, in a week or so, will review tips to stay healthy, and happy, at your destination.

1. On the Plane (To & From)

Getting from New York to Bangkok required two flights, one 14 hours and the other 4 hours.  A long time to be sitting in a tight space (ahhh, coach).  Here are three ways you can prepare yourself for long flights:

  • Drink water

From the moment you get to the airport, start drinking water.  An airplane can be a very dehydrating place, between the dry air and difficulty in getting access to fluids during the trip (unless you’re like me who asks the flight attendant for an entire liter of water a few hours into the flight, with a smile of course).  In fact, I recommend bringing your own water bottle (empty first to get through security) and then go to the food area to refill it regularly during the flight.

Dehydration could contribute to physical discomfort during the flight including headaches and even upset stomach.   I’ve also talked to people who said being dehydrated prolonged their jet lag, so if you want to enjoy your trip, stay hydrated!  Try to avoid alcohol on long flights as well, as it becomes another stressor on the body and can have a dehydrating effect too.

  • Bring some of your own food

Food, of course, does depend on the airline.  Even if you know you’ll love the food on your flight, most of the time you’re going at least 8 to 10 hours between meal services on long flights.  Having some non-perishable, healthy snacks (i.e. nut/fruit trail mix, fruit, Kashi/Lara bars) can go a long way in keeping you satisfied and avoiding hunger pangs/crashing.  And if you don’t like the food, be sure to bring your own meal (from home or the airport) on-board.  Just be careful how long you hold onto the for, since perishable foods like dairy and meat can start to spoil after 4 hours.  If you want simpler food options on the flight, consider booking your meal preference as a “vegetarian”, even if you aren’t one.  Becca’s vegetarian meals actually looked better than mine on the flights (I was surprised…and jealous!).

  • Get up and move around regularly

Moving during the flight is essential to prevent you from feeling stiff for the first few days of your trip, keep your GI tract happy during the flight  (prolonged sitting could lead to indigestion or cramping) and to ensure you avoid a rare, but serious condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) which involves developing blood clots in your leg.   Areas that tend to get tightest during long flights are calves/hamstrings, hip flexors, quads and chest.

If you’re drinking a lot of water, you’ll have to get up often to go to the bathroom, so that’s a great start.  Stand up in the aisle or go to the back of the cabin and run through a 5-minute series of stretches starting from your toes to your head (calf raises, quad stretch, hamstring stretch, chest stretch against a wall/ledge, shoulder/arm circles, wrist folding, marching in place, mini-squats, wall pushups, lunges).  If you don’t want to get up you can still do a few of these in your seat.  In fact, the airline I was on had a seat-based, 10-minute exercise video that they played towards the end of our flight.  Doing this even a couple times during the flight can pay significant dividends both during the flight (more relaxed) and when you step off the plane.

2. Getting Back Home

  • Avoid Injury by Gradually Returning to Your Workout Routine

When I went to Thailand, I stayed quite active, doing hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, swimming, etc.  But these activities were very different from my usual training routine.  Missing just two weeks of exercise can result in strength and endurance losses.  Therefore I am not planning on immediately running the same distances and lifting the same weights as I did when I left.  To avoid injury, I plan on giving myself a week at 50% intensity followed by a week of 80% intensity to ramp myself back up into my training regimen.  I may add an additional “recovery” day of foam rolling, dynamic warm-up and core stability training as well after having to sit for that long flight back home.  On the other hand, if you maintained your usual training routine during vacation, then feel free to continue as is (i.e. you’re a runner and have were able to log similar mileage and intensity to your home training regimen while traveling).

  • Review Your Habits

Did you pick up any new, healthy habits while you were away?  Would you like to continue them?  Take a few minutes to review those new habits and how you could potentially fit them into your current routine at home.  Did you eat more fruit because you were in a tropical place?  Were you more physically active because you had more time?   Did you try some new foods that you’d like to work into your routine?  Did you walk more?  Were you able to regulate your appetite better during your vacation because you could eat slower? To make room for these habits, consider any “usual” habits that you didn’t need to do while traveling, and don’t need to resume now that you’re back at homey (you probably have to go back to work, but maybe you don’t need to watch 2 hours of TV every night).

On the flipside, consider if you started any unwanted habits that you can make sure to stop doing once you’ve returned.  When I went to Italy for a week a few years ago, I had a scoop or two of gelato every day (it’s really good there!).  So when I came home, I made sure to avoid the ice cream shop for a week or so to allow my body to forget the ice cream habit.

Do you have any healthy travel tips?  Please share by commenting below!

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