We’re almost at mid-February, and I’ve been reflecting on my fitness journey and making a few changes along the way to get my routine in a place that works best for me. Health and wellness is definitely something that is tailor-made for each person in a unique way, as we all have different needs and requirements. But it’s always nice to find new ideas and inspiration from others that might give us some insight on things we can try ourselves. My journey has gradually taken a different shape from where it started.
I’ve studied nutrition for more than 12 years. I have a certification in Holistic Nutrition. I’ve read countless articles, blogs and social media posts on health and fitness. There is loads of advice on nutrition, weight loss, and every kind of exercise. But there is one thing I’ve read little about over the years: the fickle nature of the human body, which makes every health experience as unique to us as our DNA.
Good morning, and welcome back! I’ve been writing less and moving more as of late, and I’m bringing that energy to you now. Since becoming a Peloton member on December 18th, I’ve been hard at work learning what workouts I love most to get my body moving. To answer the immediate question I get every time I mention Peoloton – no, I do not have a bike or a treadmill! What most people don’t know is that Peloton has thousands of workouts available online (including live classes) that use nothing more than a workout mat and possibly some weights – no expensive bike or treadmill needed!
Welcome to Spring! It is that time of year where the sunny and warm days draw us back outside and we become naturally more active. You might be thinking of your fitness routine, or of starting one up, in preparation for the upcoming “bathing suit season”. You may have heard it said before that abs start in the kitchen. This expression is meant to highlight how difficult it is to have defined abs, because if there is a layer of fat over the abdominal muscles then no amount of working out will get you where you want to be, and therefore diet is the key. Diet is the key not only to defined abs, but to the overall quality of a fitness routine.
We can spend hours in the gym pushing weights, run several miles per week, take all of the spin classes or hit up a Crossfit gym – but how much weight we lose, energy we have, and how good we feel does begin in the kitchen. There is a common idea that has been around for decades, that we may eat whatever we wish as long as we workout hard enough to burn off the calories. This is a pretty basic idea of how calories in vs. calories out works. And while it may be true for some people if they spend enough hours working out or are blessed with a high metabolic rate, all calories are not created equal.
A diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol will lead, sooner or later, to plaque build-ups on arterial walls even if you run a marathon every single day. In fact, the “father” of running for fitness, Jim Fixx, died of a heart attack in 1984 at the age of 52. He was overweight and a heavy smoker who decided to cut the smoking habit and drop the weight by starting to run. After successfully losing weight, he wrote a book that revolutionized the runner’s world and continued to engage in daily running until his death. Despite the cessation of smoking, the loss of weight, and his enviable fitness level, Fixx had severe blockages in his coronary arteries, one almost completely closed off at 95%.
Plenty of speculation exists around how he could have died so young, and everyone seems to agree that it was “in his blood”. There was a strong genetic link in his family for heart disease and heart attacks, his own father dying in his early 40’s. Genetics, however, are only one piece of the puzzle. As the saying goes, genetics load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger. In Jim’s case, rumor has it that he had quite the love affair with fast food and adopted the common ideology that he could eat whatever he wanted, so long as he exercised enough to burn the calories off. It appears this thinking might have been flawed.
Unfortunately, diet and lifestyle is not something you will hear much about in the doctor’s office – although this is making slight improvements as the knowledge surrounding plant-based nutrition and its impact on pre-existing conditions continues to surge. The typical course of action is – do you have a family history, do you smoke/drink, and which type of pill will work best to mask your symptoms? Some doctors have been cautioning patients against red meat and fast food for quite a while now, but most truly don’t know how powerful nutrition is because nutrition is not taught in medical school. They are learning about medicine and procedures, which is how they then treat their patients. If we want to know how diet and lifestyle effects us, we are left to learn that for ourselves.
When it comes to any fitness routine, before you begin it is important to remember this statistic – it is 80% what you eat, and 20% what you do. In other words, to get yourself in shape it is significantly more important to focus on your diet than on your fitness. The best diet for your body, especially when weight loss is a goal as well, is one low in fat and cholesterol, and high in whole grain carbs, antioxidants and phytonutrients. In short – a plant-based diet is the absolute best at fueling our cells. It provides everything we need for an active lifestyle, and none of the things that contribute to heart attacks, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
We need protein in order to live, as well all know, but when protein was discovered it was largely inflated in significance. It is important, but it is not a nutrient that we need much of and, unless you’re living in a third-world country with no access to food and are suffering from starvation, there is no need to fear a protein deficiency. Protein exists in every single living thing, from the grass under our feet to the leaves over our heads and everything else that moves, breathes or grows in between or below the surface. Every plant, animal and living being contains protein – in fact the living beings that people are eating – namely pigs, cows and chickens – also receive their protein from plants. When it comes to protein and a plant-based diet, as long as you are eating sufficient calories, you are getting sufficient protein.
But what if I’m hitting the weights extra hard at the gym? Loren, I need extra protein for muscle growth!
True! But there is something more to consider here. When you are working out extra hard at the gym you need extra calories to fuel that workout. Calories = energy, and if you burn more energy you need to eat more energy. Do you know what you get more of by eating more food for those extra calories? Protein! The more calories you eat, the more protein you consume. So if you are an athlete or are training extremely hard at the gym, the extra calories you are consuming to fuel your hard work already contain the extra protein that you need. If you’re still not convinced, you can always try a plant-based protein powder as a supplement – just check the label for sugars and toxic ingredients first. If you need guidance, check out Eat Move Rest as they have high plant-based standards and use a good quality protein powder that you might find intriguing. You can click the link, or go look them up on YouTube.
The safest and healthiest sources of protein – the ones that come without saturated fat and dietary cholesterol – are beans, lentils, peas, tofu, soybeans/edamame and tempeh. Plant sources that do contain some saturated fat (avoid for weight loss or if battling heart disease, high blood pressure or diabetes) but no dietary cholesterol are seeds and nuts. At least three servings of legumes per day will have you on the right track. Increase for higher activity levels.
Carbohydrates are key for fueling workouts. This may come as a surprise since carbs have been persona non grata for a while now. Just like calories, all carbs are not created equal. Processed, refined carbohydrates should be avoided at all costs. However, whole, unrefined grains are a necessity for optimal health. Glucose is the number one fuel source for all of the cells in our bodies – especially muscle cells. While protein may help muscle growth, glucose is what provides them with fuel to function. The ability for muscles to move, power through a workout, and recover comes from glucose.
When it comes to macros, protein should only make up about 10-15%, whereas carbohydrates should make up about 75%. The remainder should come from healthy fats, although this is something you’ll want to keep very low (no more than 10%) if your goal is weight loss or you are working to reverse heart disease or type 2 diabetes. The best sources for carbohydrates are any unrefined grain – brown or wild rice, oats, quinoa, farro, bulgur, etc. Avoid breads as even the whole grain ones are processed and usually have salt and sugar added. If you are going to eat bread, choose Ezekiel Bread, which is the only one that is minimally processed (as close to whole grain as possible), with no added salt or sugar. If you are going to eat pasta, choose whole wheat – but keep this minimal.
This literally means “plant nutrients.” This covers all of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and other beneficial compounds that come from eating fruits and vegetables. These are the things that keep our cells thriving and protect us from the free radicals that cause oxidization and promote inflammation, chronic disease and cancer. Phytonutrients are like a suit of armor for our bodies and without them we are exposed and vulnerable. It is vitally important to eat greens and berries daily. An excellent pairing with greens and berries is ground flax seed, which is a healthy fat (omega-3) that is shown to be highly protective against disease. It is recommended to have two tablespoons of ground flax per day, or four tablespoons for those fighting heart disease.
Citrus is an excellent pairing with leafy greens, as it doubles the absorbability of the calcium in leafy greens. Kale, arugula and romaine lettuce are the best sources of calcium (aside from beans), so a lemon dressing ensures that your body will absorb as much of that calcium as possible. Weight-bearing exercise improves bone density, so calcium intake is an important component of fitness as well. Leafy greens, especially kale, arugula and spinach, also provide powerful protection against cancer and inflammation, as do other cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussels sprouts.
Great antioxidant-rich foods are berries, lemons, walnuts, almonds and greens. Antioxidant is the opposite of pro-oxidant. Oxidant = oxidization, or the process by which our cells become damaged by free radicals in the body. These free radicals are the result of stress, toxins, environmental factors, and processed or animal-based proteins. This is what promotes disease in the body, and antioxidants help protect against these things.
What it Looks Like
Breakfast could be a bowl of oats made with almond milk, ground flax, chia seeds and berries. A great lunch might be a large kale salad topped with wild rice, black beans, blueberries, walnuts, ground flax, some quick-pickled red onions and an oil-free lemon dressing, with some type of fruit for the side. Dinner could be grilled tempeh with a quinoa-broccoli salad and roasted carrots. And for snacks – fruits, edamame, Ezekiel toast, a smoothie made with a frozen banana, some berries and almond milk…the possibilities are endless!
These are the foods that will fuel your body and provide a noticeable boost in energy levels to help you sustain your workouts. If you are not currently plant-based but are interested in giving this a try, I recommend dedicating three weeks to eating entirely plant-based. If you’re not sure where to start, there is a great program called the 21-Day Kickstart by PCRM that might be beneficial. Or, you can start searching plant-based recipes (avoid or modify any that recommend the use of oil – a simple substitution with water for cooking or applesauce for baking will do the trick, as will air frying vs. roasting or deep frying) on Pinterest or Instagram until you feel you have enough to get you started.
Take a little time to do some research first so you can have the resources to prepare yourself for the three-week challenge. Remember that this is a lifestyle change, so be patient with yourself, and expect resistance. Your default settings and habits will try to take over and convince you to give up, so be ready for this and have a plan of action to combat it. If you prepare yourself ahead of time, it will help you stick to your plan.
If you’re not ready to take on a plant-based life, simply eliminating processed foods and oil, and reducing the amount of animal-based foods you are consuming (this includes eggs and dairy), while increasing whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes will still make a big difference. Give it a try! I think you’ll like the results.
What absolutely beautiful weather we’ve been having here in the Midwest! After that deep freeze in mid-February, it’s been a dream to see sunshine and daytime highs in the 50’s and 60’s – even pushing 70 a couple of times! The return of warmer weather brings with it two of my favorite things – gardening season, and walking outdoors. This time of year does wonders for both physical and mental health.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing a lot for both! I decided to redo my garden this year to make an L-shaped raised bed and add a second greenhouse cover, so I’ve been hard at work setting that up. Concrete blocks, eight 42-lb-bags of garden soil, and shoveling lots of existing soil into its new home has proven quite the workout – my biceps are screaming as proof! When given the option between doing yard/garden work, and doing an “official” workout, I’m choosing the yard work every time!
However, I’ve also made a return to my outdoor lunchtime walks. At 12:30 on every sunny and warm day, I lace up my walking shoes and hit the pavement for a 20-minute one mile walk from my house, to a paved foot and bike trail a few blocks away. I’ve been doing my walks indoors since it’s been cold, but there is simply no comparison between indoors and out. Body movement is an undeniably important part of a healthy lifestyle, but exposure to the outdoors is significant for not only physical health, but mental health as well.
While reading Fiber Fueled by Gastroenterologist Dr. Will Bulsiewicz, I learned something new about the significance of getting outdoors. The book is all about gut health, and it turns out that our gut bugs absolutely thrive with exposure to nature. We have trillions of microorganisms in and on our bodies, the majority of those living in our gut microbiome. Each one of us has a unique makeup of these bugs. In fact, our gut microbiome is just as unique and individualized as our fingerprints. Even those of us living together in the same home, eating primarily the same meals and going to many of the same places, have vast differences in our microbiome.
The significance of the outdoors is that many of the gut bugs living in our microbiome come from nature. Just a simple walk outdoors can expose us to numerous bacteria that end up in our guts, which in turn contribute to our overall health in ways you’d never suspect. Now imagine what it would mean for our microbiome by doing something hands-on, like gardening, or kayaking, or rock climbing. The bacteria in our guts are among the oldest living organisms on the planet, and they’re living inside of us. The complexities of the microbiome are vast, and your gut is arguably the most important health factor deserving of your focus. These bacteria are involved in every function of our bodies from digestion, to detoxification, to our moods, and even cancer fighting! Each and every organ and system inside your body is affected by your gut, including (pretty significantly) your mental health.
The gut is actually known commonly as the second brain, because it is in constant communication with your brain. We think of the brain as the epicenter of emotions, hormones, stress…but each of these are actually triggered in the gut as well. In fact, over 90% of the body’s serotonin, the “happy hormone” that combats stress, is produced in the gut. A happy gut makes for a happy life – quite literally. So getting outdoors and exposing yourself to nature does so much more for your body than just keep you in physical shape.
Sun exposure is another important factor in mood and mental health. In parts of the world where it is often cloudy, rainy, snowy, or dark because of its proximity to the poles, Seasonal Affective Disorder can occur. This is a depressive state that is caused primarily by lack of exposure to sunlight, and is actually treated by use of artificial sun lamps. Even those of us who do not live in places where the sun is frequently hidden may feel some effects of SAD during the winter months when we are spending much of our time indoors.
One of my favorite feelings is what Thumper described on Bambi as “twitterpated”. When the air warms and the birds return and start to sing their songs at dawn – I feel downright giddy and want to spend every second I can outside soaking it all in. Nature is the most natural mood lifter there is, and the benefits to our physical and mental health are indisputable. If you haven’t already, work in some time this weekend, or in your evenings after work, to get outside. Go for a walk, hit a hiking trail, clean up your yard, take your yoga mat to the patio, plant some bulbs or seeds – anything to get you outdoors.
Start working some outdoor time into your routine, just as you would healthy meals and workouts. Your body, your gut, and your mind will thank you!