Meditate to Activate?

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A funny thing happened at the gym the other day.

I caught myself smiling as I pounded the elliptical.  In fact, this has been happening all week.

That’s not all.  These days, I’m actually looking forward to going to the gym.  It’s something I want to do.  And in just the last week, my workouts have become more intense.  I’m working out longer — 45 minutes as opposed to 35 — and at higher levels of difficulty.  Also, I’m not checking the clock every five minutes to see how much longer I have to endure.

So I asked myself:  Self, what gives?

I think the answer is:  Meditation.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been meditating nearly every day, anywhere from 10 to about 45 minutes, depending on how much time I have and my powers of concentration at the moment.  I took up meditation a little over five years ago, but haven’t been practicing with any real dedication or discipline until fairly recently.

I know it’s made a big difference in my emotional health.  And, although I can’t prove it, I think it’s making a difference in my physical well-being as well.

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The Price of Spontaneity

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Banh mi: The Vietnamese po' boy

Spontaneity is the quality of being able to do something just because you feel like it at the moment, of trusting your instincts, of taking yourself by surprise and snatching from the clutches of your well-organized routine a bit of unscheduled pleasure.

— Richard Iannelli  (Don’t ask me who he is; I have no idea, but I like the quote.)

 Enjoy every sandwich.

— Warren Zevon

The other day my brother Jeff came over to my apartment to help me out with some fix-it type chores.  Wait, no, he didn’t help — he did the chores while I watched (until I got bored).

Before launching in, we wanted a quick lunch, but I had nothing in the refrigerator, so I suggested nipping down the block to Henry’s for a couple of banh mi sandwiches.  Banh mi is like a Vietnamese po’ boy: a fresh demi-baguette filled with julienned pickled carrots, daikon radish, cucumber, cilantro, sliced jalapeño pepper, paté, mayonnaise, siracha sauce and various meat-like options, such as pork, grilled chicken, Vietnamese salami, sardines, tofu, etc.  It ranges in spiciness from not to very, depending on your personal preference (of course, I like it hot!).

IMHO, it is absolutely delicious.  I got hooked on banh mi last fall while doing a culinary walking tour of Chinatown, where there is good banh mi to be found.

So nip down the block we did, where we picked up a couple of banh mi sandwiches with grilled chicken.  Back at my place, we devoured them with a lovely Grüner Veltliner.

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Week Whatever: Progress Is Slow!

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This is me not obsessing about my weight.

It’s been a while since I posted, due to a combination of frustration, embarrassment and, oddly enough, hope — hope that, if I wait one more day or one more week, I’ll have lost a couple more pounds that I can report.  And I have lost a little bit since my last post about two weeks ago (that was Week 9, making this Week 11).  I weighed in at 179.5 this morning, down 2 pounds, but still above my low, 177.5, about six weeks ago, before my whirlwind wining-and-dining tour of such exotic locales as San Juan and Cleveland.

Honestly, I thought I would be further along on the weight loss journey by now.  I thought I would have lost much more.  Five-and-a-half pounds isn’t much to show for 11 weeks of effort.

Deep down, though, I know I haven’t been trying hard enough.  The ugly truth is that I hate dieting, although Weight Watchers very deliberately bills itself as a plan, not a diet.  Still, it comes down to eating less overall and especially less of certain things that I enjoy very much, like wine, cheese, anything salty and crunchy … I could go on, but you get the picture.

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Week 9: Getting My Mojo Back!

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Where have I been the last six weeks?  Seems like  here, there and everywhere.  Not that it’s been terrible, mind you.  You can’t really complain when you’re flitting about to places like San Francisco, LA, San Juan and DC.  (You could grouse a bit about Cleveland, Ohio,  but it was my own idea to go there for work, so I can’t.)

The point is that I haven’t had much of a routine lately.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that I have strayed from my mission.  You know, the whole losing 30 by 50 thing?

Which is why I am where I am today: 181.5 pounds.  That’s a full 4 pounds over what I weighed three weeks ago, when I was 177.5.  So my net loss after nine weeks is only 3.5 pounds.  Not very impressive. 

Not that I am surprised, given what I’ve been doing — and not doing — lately.

And yet, I have to tell you that I am not discouraged either.  Now that I am back home, with no looming travel obligations, I am psyched to be in my routine again. 

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The HCG Starvation/Pregnant Women Urine Hormone Crash Diet: Seriously?

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So your best friend’s getting married in six weeks and you want to look hot in the cleavage-baring, spandex-like dress that Ms. Bridezilla has foisted upon her hapless bridesmaids, whom she’s confused with Jennifer Lopez.  What’s your best option?

 A)     Go with the flow and buy the gown in your current size.

B)      Commit to losing 5 pounds in six weeks and go a size smaller.

C)      Swear a blood oath to lose 30 pounds in six weeks by embarking on a starvation diet and injecting yourself daily with a hormone made from the urine of pregnant women that is thought to cause morning sickness.

D)     Leave the country until after the wedding.

 Many women apparently would choose C) the hCG diet, which, in addition to adopting a daily routine similar to that of a heroin addict, requires consuming only 500 calories a day. 

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The Best Laid Plans … Aft Gang Kaput

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How is that life always gets in the way of our plans? 

My plan, for example, is simple enough:  Lose 30 pounds by careful, more conscious eating (some might call that “dieting” but I’m looking for a longer-term, more satisfying approach here) and being more physically active, mainly at the gym.

Yet, how easily that plan is scrapped!

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What’s With The New Weight Watchers Plan?

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Stephanie Rost, RD, WW's director of corporate program development

Once upon a time, an overweight Brooklyn housewife named Jean Nidetch went on a diet prescribed by a local clinic and dropped 20 pounds.  She felt pretty good, until she found herself slipping back into bad habits.  Determined to keep the extra LBs at bay, she got together several of her weight-challenged friends and started a support group.

And so was born the forerunner to Weight Watchers, officially incorporated two years later  in 1963.

Today, millions of people in 30 countries around the world attend weekly Weight Watchers meetings or participate in the program online.  I wonder how many LBs that translates to?

I’ve tried Weight Watchers a few times over the years and have always been impressed by its sensible, lifestyle-oriented approach to weight loss and management.  It’s what I’m doing right now, as a matter of fact, although it is a little different this time.

Last fall, WW announced its new PointsPlus program.  Although the philophy is basically the same — change the way you eat for life, instead of crash-dieting for the short term — “PointsPlus is a completely new system, ” according to Stephanie Rost, RD, WW’s director of corporate program development.

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Week 6: Back on Track

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Strolling the canals of Venice, CA -- not the same as hitting the gym, but it's still exercise.

I didn’t plan on taking a 3-week hiatus.  But, with two mini-vacations — one in California and another in Puerto Rico — followed by a brief period of just plain laziness, that’s exactly what happened.

I was not terribly virtuous during this period, despite my exemplary intentions.  For example, I brought gym clothes with me to both California and Puerto Rico.  But I forgot to pack sports bras for my trip to LA, and in San Juan, I slept in too late most days to hit the gym before hitting the beach.  When we weren’t eating out in LA, I cooked — vegetarian, healthy, low-cal and low-fat.  I even made a vegetarian black bean chili for Super Bowl Sunday, but fell prey to the chips and salsa (a particular weakness of mine) that had been arrayed for other, non-dieting people. 

By the time I flew to San Juan, only a few days after returning from the West Coast, my resolve had seriously deteriorated.  My first lunch there at a company picnic, I ate both a hamburger and a hot dog!  (The hamburger definitely wasn’t worth it, but I’ll never forget that hot dog.)  On the buffet line that night, I exercised an unseemly lack of discipline.  And I don’t even like buffet food.

So it was with a heavy sigh that I stepped on to the scale this morning, expecting the worst.

I couldn’t believe what I saw:  177.5.  Down a pound from my last weigh-in three weeks ago!  Just in case, I stepped off the scale.  Stepped on again.  It still said 177.5.

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Super Bowl Chilis That Won’t Sack Your Weight Loss Plan

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Tomorrow is Super Bowl Sunday:  Bring out your chips, your dips, your party mixes, your Buffalo wings, your cheeseburgers and your Dominoes pizzas.  And your beer.  Lots of beer.

Is it a celebration of football, or junk food? 

Could be both.  But because we’re parked in front of the TV for three-plus solid hours, often with our nearest and dearest football-loving friends,  there is a tendency to overconsume — especially if it’s not a real exciting game.   (Just what is there to do at half-time besides wait for the ads and … eat?) 

We don’t have to limit ourselves to artery-clogging junk foods tomorrow; we can at least create for ourselves the opportunity to eat healthily while rooting for … whoever.  (I think Green Bay for me, although it’s kind of immaterial without the Giants.)

Here are two hearty, healthy and tastey chili recipes that will you help you get through the Super Bowl without busting your gut.  Although they are both vegetarian, you could, if you like, incorporate some ground beef or turkey.  Seasonings, as always with chili, are to taste.  These are filling dishes, which, with a light beer or two, should leaving you feeling satisfied and content (and consoled, should you require consolation) without eating huge quantities.

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Contemplate This: Eating Just One Potato Chip

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You really can eat just one.

My friend Nancy just gave me The Complete Tassajara Cookbook a lovely book of “recipes, techniques and reflections” from the kitchen of Tassajara, a Zen monastery in the Santa Lucia mountains of California, which I visited some years ago for a yoga and meditation retreat.  A beautiful, serene and remote place, Tassarjara serves up absolutely delicious vegetarian fare in a huge family-style dining room for guests who come for retreats and classes — or just to get away from the world for a while. 

The author of The Complete Tassajara Cookbook, Edward Espe Brown, is an American Zen priest and teacher, and a founder of the famous Greens Restaurant in San Francisco.  I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this delightful and wise book — and not just for the recipes.  In fact, one of Brown’s essays so enchanted me that I felt I had to share it right away.

It’s called “Eating Just One Potato Chip,” and it’s about, well, eating just one potato chip.  But with complete mindfulness — that is, with complete attention to the experience of eating  a single potato chip, like it’s “the only chip in the universe.”

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Week 3: Progress Happens!

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My scale continues to surprise me in ways both pleasant and mysterious.  I lost 3 pounds this week, dropping from 181.5 to 178.5 — first I’ve been below 180 since August.

And, since making my declaration three weeks ago, I’ve lost a total of 6.5 pounds.  Only 23.5 to go by June 20!

I admit that I am surprised by the pace of my own progress.  Obviously I’m doing something right here, but I am by no means the perfect dieter.  I still drink more wine than is recommended (that would be virtually none) for optimal weight loss.  I continue to have my setbacks with compulsive eating — like the night I ate half of a large bag of peanuts.  I’m sure I could have eaten a whole bag, but I only had the half to begin with.  At least they weren’t salted.

And although I work out regularly, there’s nothing maniacal or over-the-top about my workouts.  I made it to the gym four times this week.  I only did the eliptical once or twice.  Other than that, I just did my four miles of fast-walking on the track.  Not all that impressive.

So, what exactly am I doing right?

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Feeding the Blues: Depression & Weight Gain

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Billie Holiday: This lady both lived and sang the blues.

Have you been in this place?  Slumped on the couch  at the end of the day, watching cable repeats of “NCIS” or “Criminal Minds,” and craving — I mean craving — a bunch of saltines.  Like, a whole box.

But, somehow, the box of saltines isn’t enough.  So you root around in your fridge and come up with some leftover black beans and a not-too-ancient-looking container of hummus.  And in the cupboard you find a whole bag of pita chips that you forgot you had.  Ooh, and there’s a jar of peanut butter.

Might as well have another glass of wine while we’re at it.

Perfect!

Not.  Definitely not, not, not.

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In Appreciation: Jack LaLanne, 96, ‘The Godfather of Fitness’

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Jack LaLanne was still going strong into his 90s.

 If only I had listened to Jack LaLanne when I was younger.  I would not be blogging about my weight loss struggles today.

When it comes to health and fitness, Jack LaLanne essentially told us everything we needed to know, more than 70 years ago.   Eat a healthy diet.  Eat in moderation.  Exercise every day.  And, perhaps most importantly, think positive.

LaLanne died Jan. 23 at the reverential age of 96, following a bout of pneumonia.  Reportedly he was still going strong — working out two hours a day — until he took sick.

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Week 2: The Song Remains The Same

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I dreaded stepping onto the scale this morning.  You can probably guess why:  I got cocky after losing 3.5 pounds my first week on the new plan.  As a result, I got sloppy.

I knew, for certain, that I would weigh in higher today than a week ago.  The question was:  How much higher?  Just how bad was I the last seven days?

So I was relieved — and surprised — when the read-out told me I was 181.5 pounds, exactly what I weighed a week ago. 

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Fighting the Evil Joneses: What To Do When You Crave a Stuffed Potato

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Re-imagined stuffed potato with red pepper sauce and sea scallops on the side

Winter tends to bring out the evil joneses. You know, those terrible comfort food cravings that are so hard to deny. 

Out of the blue the other day, I wanted a stuffed potato.  Really, really badly.  And not just any kind of stuffed potato, but one stuffed with bacon and every evil thing imaginable, and — very important — smothered in melted cheese, preferably cheddar. 

I don’t know where my head was that day, because I got hit by yet another cheese-related jones.  I wanted broccoli, the way my mother used to make it:  smothered in melted Cheez Wiz and topped with seasoned bread crumbs. (This was the ’70s — that’s what we did with broccoli in those days.)

So here I am, a mature, responsible adult trying to lose a bunch of weight and eat healthily, struggling with these very evil twin joneses.  What to do?

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Thought for Food: Mark Bittman’s New Book on Saner Eating

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Author Mark Bittman, aka "The Minimalist"

I’m a big fan of cookbook author and food columnist Mark Bittman.  I love his simple, flexible approach to cooking — hence his moniker “The Minimalist” for his weekly New York Times  column.  When my friend Trish gave me a copy of Bittman’s latest book, Food Matters, I was thrilled.  I read it right away.

 Like Bittman’s cookbooks, Food Matters reflects a clear, concise and practical approach to food.  But it is a bit different:  part manifesto and part cookbook for what Bittman calls “saner eating” — saner for both the personal health of individuals and the environmental health of the world.  

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Week 1: Down 3.5 LBs!

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There’s nothing like losing weight to reinforce your motivation to keep losing weight.  So I’m happy to report that, a week into my plan, I’ve lost 3.5 pounds, weighing in at 181.5. 

Now I know from experience that the weight you lose early on is generally the weight that’s easiest to lose.  It would be unusual — and unhealthy — to continue losing weight at this pace.  (Plus, I would reach my 30-pound weight loss goal in just over two months.  What would I have to blog about until June?)  Nor can I assume that my weight loss journey will proceed in a nice, straight line, without any setbacks.  There may be weeks when I gain back a pound or two.  In fact, there probably will be.

The important thing is to keep going — whether you had a good week or a not-so-good one.  The weekly weigh-in offers an opportunity to look back at the previous week and determine what worked well, where you had difficulties and how you might overcome them in the future.  Be honest with yourself.  (Although you don’t have to be like me, and be honest with the world by blogging about it, if you don’t want to.)

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Enjoy Your Salad Days

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A kitchen sink salad

Salads are too often taken for granted — yet they are not only delicious and healthy but they are also diverse and ripe for imagination and experimentation.

A friend recently lamented that she finds the salads she makes at home “boring.”  The ones in restaurants, she said, seem so much better.

I couldn’t disagree more!  Restaurants either throw together some random greens with a few pallid tomatoes and watery cucumber slices — hardly my idea of a real salad — or they “compose” an artifice for which they charge $12 and which you could have made yourself for about $2!

Upon further investigation, I discovered the truth.  My friend, who, like me, is trying to lose weight, makes salads that have close to zero calories and fat.  No wonder she finds them uninspiring.

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How Did I Get Here? Middle Age & Weight Gain

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Letting the days go by …

No one really plans on becoming middle-aged.  You just get there, eventually.  Different people have different ideas on when they achieve middle age — 40, 50, depending on how optimistic you are — but sooner or later, you’re forced to accept that  not only are you not 25, you’re not the same as you were at 25 and you’re never going to be in this lifetime.

Oh, and BTW, unless you’ve eaten like a sparrow and exercised  like a maniac, consistently, for the past 20 years, you’ve probably accumulated some extra LBs.  Your waistline has expanded and your muscle tone is, well, there’s less of it.

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The Challenge

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Here I am: six months shy of the big 5-0. Overall, I’m a happy camper.  My name is Mary.  I’m single, I have a great job and I have many wonderful people in my life. I also love where I live, in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, which, IMHO, is one of the coolest neighborhoods in New York City.

But … I’m 5’9″ and carrying 185 pounds.

Not where I want to be, weight-wise.

Weight has not been an issue for me most of my life.  But it has been a challenge on and off since my mid-30s. I’ve lost weight a number of times, only to regain it in times of stress and depression. And every time it’s harder to lose.

When I moved to Brooklyn from Washington, DC, a little over three years ago, I was under 150. The transition was not an easy one for me.  I sunk into an emotional black hole.  It’s remarkable how quickly I packed on the LBs after I stopped working out and started overindulging in wine, cheese, ice cream, eating out, etc.  Things only got worse after I developed a persistent and painful case of plantars fasciitis, which made it difficult for me to even walk a few blocks.

Several times during the past few years I’ve vowed to take off the weight again. But I just wasn’t serious. Instead, I put on more weight!

Things are different now. I’m better — emotionally and physically — and I’m taking a stand.  I hereby declare:  By June 20, 2011, approximately six months from now, I will lose 30 pounds.  I will reach 155.

I feel that this is an ambitious but achievable goal. I know what needs to be done; it’s not exactly rocket science. Eat less, exercise more. I’ve done it before and will do it again.  And this time, I will maintain a healthy weight after reaching my goal by not falling back into bad habits.

As my guide, I’m using the Weight Watchers plan online.  It’s a sensible plan with a good tracking system.  I’m skipping the meetings — not really my thing.  And now that the plantars fasciitis has eased up, I’m back at the gym.  I’m fortunate to live right across the street from a terrific gym, at the Park Slope Armory.  It has a beautiful indoor track that I use to do fast-walking.  To kick it up a few notches, I use the eliptical machine.  I’m thinking of adding weights at some point, but first I need to just get back into the work-out groove.

My primary reason for writing this blog is to keep myself honest and on track.  I’ll do a weekly weigh-in and I’ll talk about the various challenges I encounter as I struggle to shed the LBs.

Week 1 Weigh-In

But there’s a lot more I want to do here.  Eating is fundamental to staying alive, and yet few of us eat simply to stay alive.  There are so many psychological, emotional, and social entanglements — even political ones.  Some of the topics I want to explore: 

  • When food becomes our pal:  eating and depression
  • Meditation:  a tool for weight loss?
  • The new versus the old Weight Watchers plan
  • Bad influences:  The friends we love to overindulge with
  • TV is our weight loss enemy!
  • Losing weight as a singleton vs. feeding a family

And of course, favorite recipes and menus.  I love to cook and entertain, and this does present a challenge for me sometimes.  But there are a lot of great resources out there that I’d love to share, and I’m sure some of you will have suggestions as well.

So, here goes:  I’m on the road to losing 30 by 50.  Thanks for joining me along the way.

Cauliflower & Red Lentil Curry

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From EatingWell:  September/October 1993

Red lentils turn yellow when cooked and dissolve, giving the curry a nice, thick quality.  I used about 3/4 cup of lentils instead of a half-cup to enhance the stew-like meatiness.  Also, I upped the curry powder to a tablespoon (I like it hot!) and substituted a little honey for sugar.   You can serve the curry over rice if you like.  Me, I just eat it plain!

4 servings | Active Time: 25 minutes | Total Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup red lentils, rinsed
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder, preferably Madras
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
  • 2 cups water
  • 4 plum tomatoes, seeded and chopped, or one 14-oz. can tomatoes, drained and chopped
  • 4 cups cauliflower florets
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, halved, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

Preparation

  1. Combine lentils, onions, curry powder, salt, turmeric and water in a large saucepan over low heat; bring to a simmer.  Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the lentils are soft and the sauce has thickened, about 45 minutes.  Add tomatoes, cauliflower and jalapeno peppers and simmer, covered, until the cauliflower is tender, 8 to 10 minutes longer.  Remove from heat.
  2. Heat oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat.  Add cumin seeds and cook for about 10 seconds.  Add garlic and ginger; cook, stirring, until the garlic is lightly browned, about 1 minute.  Stir in cayenne and immediately add the oil-spice mixture to the cauliflower mixture.  Stir in lemon juice, cilantro and sugar.  Taste and adjust seasonings with additional salt and cayenne.

Nutrition

Per serving : 184 Calories; 5 g Fat; 0 g Sat; 2 g Mono; 0 mg Cholesterol; 28 g Carbohydrates; 10 g Protein; 8 g Fiber; 335 mg Sodium; 812 mg Potassium

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