Sunday, April 27, 2014

What Would Half-Pint Eat? A Primer on Sugar

My last post announcing my decision to give up sugar for a while sparked some interesting discussion on my Facebook page and with my real-life-face-to-face friends, so I'm back to elaborate a bit more on what I mean when I say 'I'm quitting sugar' and more on Sarah Wilson's book that got me started. Wow. That was a run-on.

First, let's talk sugar.

The word conjures up images of the white, granulated stuff, but sugar comes in many forms. There's brown sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup, anything that ends with '-ose,' anything that talks about 'syrup' or 'juice.' The list goes on and on. I found this list that seems pretty exhaustive. Some of them sound virtuous, but they're not. They're all sugar. And each one is pretty much as bad as the next. Even the highly demonized high-fructose corn syrup isn't significantly worse for you than regular sugar. 'Natural' sugars are problematic, too. Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's good for you. Tobacco is natural! So is arsenic. We live in a fallen world, people. But one sugar compound is particularly nefarious, and that's fructose.

I used to think fructose was better than regular table sugar. Fructose! That's fruit sugar! Fruit is good for you, so fructose must be fine as a sweetener, right? Wrong.

As it turns out, fructose is particularly troublesome for your body to metabolize, and here's why: table sugar (sucrose) is half glucose, half fructose. The two compounds are held together by a tenuous bond that is immediately severed when it hits the stomach. The glucose circulates throughout the body, giving energy to all your cells. Excess glucose will be stored, but your body will burn off glucose as needed. Glucose is actually your body's preferred energy source.

Fructose, however, goes directly to the liver. A little bit can be used, but the rest will be stored as fat. Our bodies were designed to metabolize about 6-9 teaspoons of sugar per day. Most of us--even those of us who are mindful of our eating--are taking in a lot more. My sugar research has involved a lot of talk of how cavemen ate, but really, we don't have to go back that far.

Just think Little House on the Prairie. Ma cooked at home from whole ingredients. There were no convenience foods stuffed with sugar, produce was not shipped across the globe year-round. The Ingalls ate what was in season, whatever could be harvested or Pa could hunt down and shoot. Even their sweets were seasonal.

Little House in the Big Woods details how maple sugar is made, and you learn what Pa went through to score some honey.

Both honey and maple syrup? Lots of fructose. This is a massive bummer, since as a New Englander, I practically have maple syrup coursing through my veins. I think maple syrup is a theistic proof, so you know I'll be back to moderate consumption one of these days. But you have to remember what it took to procure these fructose-laden delights--they weren't available year-round at the A&P. Any fat stores accumulated got them through the lean late-winter months when provisions were low.
You really had to work for your fix back then.

Does all this mean fruit is bad? 

NO! Fruit contains many micro-nutrients, water and fiber. The fiber in fruit serves as a protective mechanism--you're unlikely to consume crazy amounts of fructose in fruit because the fiber will fill you up. Though I'll admit I've tried in an apple orchard on a crisp, autumn day. Still, Wilson posits eating more than two small pieces of fruit per day could be over-kill.

The main problem is that sugars are now all over the place, and available all the time. If you refer to the list I linked above and poke through any packaged food item in your pantry (even the 'healthy' ones), you will almost certainly find at least one type of sugar in every. single. item. Even things that you consider savory contain sugar. This will be particularly true for North Americans, as our tastes have been cultivated to sweet.

One interesting thing about fructose, however, is that it is actually quite low on the glycemic index. The way fructose is metabolized means it really doesn't elevate blood sugar levels. Consequently, a food that is very high in fructose can still be labeled 'low-GI.' Just because you see a product labeled as such, don't assume it's low in fructose. Caveat emptor.

The other scary thing about fructose is that it doesn't flip the switch of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin is is suppressed to tell your brain that you're full--time to stop eating! But fructose just doesn't register. Any calories you take in from fructose will be over and above what your body needs to be satisfied.

More on the Book

The 8-week sugar 'detox' I'm doing does allow for some sweet flavors, but not for a few weeks in the middle of the two month period. So yes, I'm off fruit for a couple of weeks. A lot of people kind of freaked out when they heard that, but really, it's only for two or three weeks.

And this brings me to something I really like about Sarah Wilson's approach to quitting sugar. A lot of people will throw science at you and leave it at that. You'll hear 'studies show X, so do X.' But some people hate X, or for some other reason they can't go straight to X. So they end up doing nothing. But there is a place where science and real life converge. That's the place that interests me, and that's how I try to approach health and fitness. That's what Sarah Wilson does, too.

The first week of the program just has you tapering down your sugar consumption. She doesn't have you quitting cold turkey, because she recognizes that's just too extreme for a lot of people. The second week she introduces fats, which is brilliant. Fat is yummy! Fat fills you up, and so she has you beefing up your diet (heheh, beefing!) with fat and protein. A spoonful of fat makes the medicine go down.

Then you abstain from anything fructose-related for a few weeks. This is partly physical--to rid your system of sugar--but it also breaks the psychological attachment to sweet, that need to have a little nummy-num after a meal. Honestly, I've found even after one week, the sweet flavors in some vegetables and in dairy foods are more pronounced to me. And yes, you can have dairy on the program, so my delicious, full-fat plain Greek yogurt? It's still in the game. Thank you, merciful Lord.

At week six, she reintroduces sweet flavors, and even includes recipes for chocolate treats. She typically uses brown rice syrup as a sweetener, which also freaks a lot of people out. Yes, it's a sugar, but it doesn't contain fructose, and it's really just used in a few recipes. It's not like she has you chugging it from the jar. I made her very yummy Coco-nutty Granola (recipe here) and used less brown rice syrup than the recipe calls for. It gave the granola a nice hint of sweetness, without being too much.

Wilson's approach is also very non-judgey and pretty laid-back if you 'slip up' and have some sugar. She reminds you it's no biggie, and just get back on the horse. I'm finishing up my first week and my clothes are fitting a little better. A friend told me I look thinner in my face. Not that facial bloat was a big issue for me, but I'll take what I can get. I did weigh and measure myself at the start, so I'll give you stats at the end. But any leanness that results from this will just be gravy (note I didn't say 'icing on the cake.') I am really more interested to see if it will help with my insomnia. If it does, I will give up anything--even maple syrup.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

I'm Quitting Sugar

Ah, another Easter day has come and gone. We all got to jump up and down with joy at how much Jesus loves us, and... we got to eat candy. In my case--lots of it. There were egg hunts galore--one of them even beeped! We participated in a beeping egg hunt at the blind school near us. Darling Son #2 is visually impaired, and these blessed souls over at Perkins School for the Blind and MAPVI (Massachusetts Association for Parents of Children with Visual Impairments -- say that ten times fast) host a hunt with beeping eggs so kids who can't really see eggs can still scrounge around for sugary treats just like every other child.

Last time, I shared with you my deep, passionate love affair with chocolate, and let me tell you--it's deep. The problem with Easter chocolate is that pretty much all of it doesn't meet the standard for healthy, medicinal chocolate as outlined in my last post. But having a little not-dark-enough-and-too-sweet for a few days isn't so bad... or is it?

Well, according to a lot of smarter-than-I-am people, it is.

I started researching sugar because I was a little alarmed by how often I was dipping into the boys' Easter baskets. I figured since I gave them life, they can give up a few treats at Halloween and Easter (right?), but I started to go into binge-mode, and it wasn't pretty. I also felt like kind of a jerk. You know, taking candy from my babies and all that. (Please tell me I'm not the only one? Jerkiness loves company? Anyone??)

I came across this book by Australian journalist Sarah Wilson:
Wilson wrote this book after giving up sugar in response to her diagnosis of Hashimoto's Disease, an auto-immune disorder that affects the thyroid. I found Wilson's story intriguing, because while she admits to having been a sugar addict, her diet appeared quite healthy.

Like me, much of the sugar she consumed was 'healthy.' She took honey in her tea and yogurt, ate lots of fruit and... wait for it... dark chocolate. Like me, she was hardly chugging Coke or schnarfing down Oreos, but like me, if there were some yummy treat in the house, she'd eat the.whole.thing. I don't know if she has kids, but I bet she'd have taken a pretty hefty Mommy Tax on Easter. Just like me.

So I bought Wilson's book and have started her 8-week program. Normally, this is not something I would ever do. Philosophically, I don't believe in eradicating any category of food from my diet, unless there is a medical need to do so. I don't believe the food I eat, or don't eat, makes me 'clean' or righteous. What I just celebrated on Sunday has made me so. But I can't deny the pretty scary stuff I'm reading about sugar. And unlike some other diets that eradicate essential macro-nutrients, I don't need sugar to live. And I think I just might live better without it, or at least with a lot less of it.

So I'm quitting sugar. And I mean, really quitting sugar--no balsamic vinegar, even. (For a few weeks, anyway.) I'm absolutely certain I will eat sugar again. I'm absolutely sure I'll eat cake again... someday. But for the next eight weeks, I'm on the wagon. Expect to hear a lot more about what I'm not eating in the future...

In the meantime, what do you think? Have I taken leave of my senses? Have you raided your kids' Easter baskets, too?


In other news, I wanted to let you know that I am not done with the Mummy Tummy series. The Darling Husband went out of the country for work for many weeks and I need him to take pictures! I suppose Darling Son #1 could take them... he's actually a decent photographer for a six-year-old. Still, they'll probably come out better with DH behind the camera, so stay tuned...

Sunday, April 13, 2014

In Praise of Chocolate

My favorite actor is going to be on TV tonight. Yes. Anthony Howell is playing legendary chocolatier Jean Neuhaus on Mr Selfridge.

This pairing is just too exciting, I have to blog about it. So today I'm going to talk to you about chocolate, and all the health benefits contained therein.

I love chocolate. Really, I love it. It's one of the Top 10 Foods I Can't Live Without. (Yes, I'm compiling a list.) And chocolate not simply a gustatory decadence, it has vital... nutrients. I mean, sure, you can get them from other places, but why would you want to? When you could have them in chocolate? While watching Anthony? On PBS?

So just to keep everything on-topic, I did a little exhaustive internet researchtm and here's what I found:
  • Chocolate contains flavonoids, which act as antioxidants, protecting the body aging from the dastardly misdeeds of free radicals. Doesn't 'free radicals' conjure up images of Iran Contra, Oliver North and the Ninja Turtles? But seriously, free radicals are bad. They can wreak all kinds of havoc in your body, leading to heart disease and other bad stuff. Dark chocolate contains 8 TIMES the number of flavonoids than the saintly strawberry. EIGHT TIMES. Yes, people, you heard it here at the barre.
  • Studies have also shown that regular (moderate) consumption of dark chocolate can lower blood pressure in individuals with elevated BP. 
  • Chocolate can reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad kind... like the free radicals) by up to 10%.
  • Eating chocolate stimulates the production of endorphins--the delicious chemicals that make you all happy after exercise. And sex. Lalalalala.... (Read more about endorphins here.)
  • Chocolate also produces serotonin! This is the hormone that makes you HAPPY! Lord, I'm going to be so happy tonight... assuming I can stay awake for it. Yay!
  • Yes, chocolate contains fat, but one of the fats is the oleic acid kind, a monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil. So it's healthy fat. In fact, 2/3 of the fat in chocolate is healthy fat. I like fat. Happy!
  • Nestle researchers found that women who ate 1.5oz of chocolate everyday lowered cortisol levels, which we've talked about before.
  • Lastly, the flavanols found in cocoa trigger pathways that may stave off Alzheimer's disease and dementia. So chocolate is not only good for your body, it's good for your mind.
So if you decide to take chocolate for medicinal purposes (don't you love how I'm spinning this? I should work at the White House), bear in mind a few key things:
  • As it is with all... er, remedies... proper dosage is important. Chocolate is calorically-dense. Sorry to bring it up, but it's true. So don't get too crazy.
  • It needs to be dark--at least 65% cocoa. Anything less can't boast any health claims--then it's just candy. The Nestle researchers compared a group of men who ate at least 70% dark chocolate vs. a group that had the milk variety. The dark chocolate eaters went on to consume 17% fewer calories than the milk chocolate eaters. 
  • Don't have it in concert with milk. Some research shows consuming chocolate with a glass of milk prevents your body from absorbing all the antioxidants. And you need those. For the free radicals.
I'm trying to publish this in time for you to get yourself some high-quality dark chocolate before the show tonight. No Hershey's--I beg you. Hopefully we'll get to enjoy seeing Anthony in something which doesn't involve the loss of an apendage, a mean wife or getting a dagger plunged into his chest, but there's a war on, so who knows?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Wakey Wakey, Eggs (Kale?) and Bakey -- What's the Big Deal About Breakfast?

The very first thing I do when I wake up in the wee hours of the morning is start the coffee pot, which is conveniently located in my closet. Is that sad? Actually, if I had a remote control to start it, that would be even more convenient... and even sadder, maybe? Since I like my coffee light and not-so-sweet (just like me), it fills me up a little and I could go without breakfast for a while...

But I don't. I eat breakfast before I get the small people where they need to be in the morning. I believe in breakfast. I recently had a discussion with a friend who thinks the whole breakfast thing is a lot of hype, that you should just heed your hunger cues and if that means not eating until lunchtime, then so be it.

This mentality is a thing--it's called intuitive eating, and on one level, I can really dig it. We have God-given hunger and satiety cues that should be given a voice, surely. However, my body is imperfect and I live in an imperfect world, thus I find my hunger and satiety cues are not always 100% reliable. I get distracted, I think I'm hungry, but I'm really not, etc. So, I eat a little something for breakfast. Here are a few reasons why:

  • If I don't eat something by 8am at the latest, I find myself ravenously hungry by 10. As in, I-could-eat-my-hand kind of hungry. Usually then I'm out somewhere and grab something less beneficial for my health and well-being (read: sugary, refined carbs.) I would have been much better off just having eaten a little something at home.
  • I find a good breakfast gets me off on the right foot. I'm much more likely to make wise food choices throughout the day if I've had a decent breakfast.
  • It turns out I'm not alone--78% of National Weight Control Registry members (individuals who have lost at least 30lbs. and kept it off for at least a year) report having breakfast everyday, among other healthy habits.
  • Breakfast can be a great way to get in some fruits and veg--yes, veg for breakfast! Read on.
Following are two recipes from The Physique 57 Solution. I love this book for the breakfast ideas alone. Both these recipes use quinoa, the ancient grain of the Incas. Quinoa is considered a 'super food' by many--a gluten-free grain that is rich in protein (for a grain, anyway.) One cup of cooked quinoa contains 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber, compared to 5 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber in brown rice. I usually make up a pot of quinoa and use it throughout the week. 

Carrot Grain Omelet 

What you need:

1 tsp. olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 c. shredded carrots
1/4 tsp. onion powder (I use dried minced onions... cuz... it's what's in the cupboard)
Pinch of sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 eggs
1/4 c. cooked quinoa
1 tsp. butter

Heat the oil in a medium saute pan and add carrots, onion, salt and pepper.
Cook until carrots are soft, about 4 minutes.
In a small bowl, whisk the eggs, quinoa and cooked carrots.

In the same pan, melt the butter over low heat. Pour in the egg mixture, turn heat to low, cover pan with a lid and cook on low for about 2 minutes.
Then flip it over (carefully) and continue to cook until it is firm and cooked through, about 2 minutes more, though I let it go longer because I like my eggs well-done.


The second recipe is super easy if you've prepped the ingredients ahead. It's just mix, heat and eat:

Breakfast Egg Salad

What you need:

1 hard-boiled egg
1/4 c. cooked quinoa
1/2 c. steamed kale (I've made it with spinach, arugula, you name it. Any cooking green will work.)
1 tsp. olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.

I boil the eggs ahead of time, and toss the ingredients (including raw greens) all together and heat it up. The greens wilt on their own. If I have a ripe avocado on hand, I'll put that in, too. Super yummy.

I was not always a breakfast eater. I really wasn't hungry in the morning, because I had back-loaded my calories the day before. Since I ate so few early in the day, I made up for it with a bigger dinner and snacking in the evening... exactly when I really didn't need a lot of calories. If you find yourself really not hungry in the morning, try eating less the night before. You might even wake up wanting KALE! You never know...

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Hormones and Why You're Middle Is Like an Episode of Storage Wars (Mummy Tummy Series, Part 2)

I've actually never watched Storage Wars but it's still a good title for today's topic, which is hormones and how they affect fat storage. This is part two of the Mummy Tummy series, but even if you've never birthed a child, read on. There is something for everyone here at the barre!

The Skinny on Hormones

Excess fat storage is governed by caloric intake vs. expenditure, and hormones. Everyone thinks of the former when trying to lose fat, but the latter is just as--if not MORE--important. If your hormones are out of balance, all the calorie counting in the world isn't going to get you where you want to be.

Hormones serve as messengers, passing valuable information back and forth between our cells throughout the day and night. Hormone levels are never static--they ebb and flow depending on what's going on with your body. It's a question of less and more. Problems arise when hormone levels are out of balance, and a big one pertaining to fat storage and release is...


Cortisol is the hormone that your body releases when under stress. If you Google it, you will find myriad links along the lines of 'cortisol is of the devil and will make you fat, impotent and will ultimately kill you.' Maybe a little dramatic, but really, the anti-cortisol 'literature' out there is enough to make you think it's all bad and no good, and that's just not true. When your body is under threat, it is cortisol that works to control inflammation and release your body's energy stores (sugar and fat) to respond to the threat.

That's right--under the right circumstances, cortisol stimulates fat burning. You want your cortisol levels to be elevated when you're exercising, for example. It works with other fat burning hormones in this environment to release glucose and fat for energy. When cortisol is acting in concert with these other hormones (called 'catecholamines'--adrenaline and noradrenaline, and growth hormone), cortisol is your fat-burning friend.

The problem occurs when your cortisol levels remain high, or are chronically low.
This image shows cortisol naturally elevated in the mornings, and tapering off in the evening. Cortisol levels that are too high can make winding down at the end of the day more difficult. Sleep helps lower cortisol, so it becomes a vicious cycle.

Cortisol levels that are chronically high or low can interfere with your thyroid in various ways that blunt the use of fat as fuel, as well as how it interacts with other hormones like leptin and insulin. How the various hormones socialize is key, and the type of stress that is stimulating cortisol's production.

Acute vs. Chronic

Not all stress is bad. We talk about stress as if it's something to be avoided at all costs, but really, you need stress to get things done. Acute stress, like a deadline or a last-minute change of plans, can stimulate creativity and productivity. During these acute events, cortisol works in conjunction with catecholamines to release energy stores. Then, when acute stress has abated, those hormones recede.

What's more difficult is when stress is chronic--dealing with an ongoing situation day in and day out that causes elevated stress hormone levels is where the trouble starts. Imbalanced hormones resulting from chronic stress can affect you in the following ways:
  • Blunting your body's sense of hunger and satiety--you feel hunger when you really don't need food, and you're less likely to feel satisfied after eating, prompting you to eat more.
  • Increased cravings for fatty/salty/sweet foods
  • Increased likelihood of fat storage, especially in your middle. And the crazy thing about belly fat is that more cortisol is produced in the belly fat itself, not just in the adrenal glands. So the more belly fat you have, the more elevated your cortisol levels will become.

And again, not all chronic stress circumstances are bad--I'd categorize adjusting to parenthood (with all it's challenges and sleepless nights) as a chronic stress event. Yes, we all love the blessed little nuggets, but living with them is stressful. Limit stress where you can, but chronic stress happens. We can't avoid it entirely, so the key is learning to cope with it.


One of the best ways to balance stress hormones is through rest--and I know, this is the sticky wicket, especially when we're talking to mothers. Sleep is very hard to come by with small children, and since I struggle with sleep even when no one is in my way, it's honestly a little painful to write about this. But we need rest. We need to prioritize rest and sleep. So, more of this:

I know even for good sleepers, getting to bed is tough. Evenings are often the only time we have to get things done or have time for ourselves, but start thinking of rest and sleep as one of the most important things you'll do today. Turn off whatever guilty pleasure is on TV and go to bed. If you're up too late right now reading A Mom Walks Into A Barre, please just shut me off. I'll still be here in the morning. Night night!

But rest is not just sleep. Many other rest-based activities can lower increased cortisol levels. Sex, cuddling, skin-on-skin contact reduces cortisol levels, so go snuggle with someone appropriate. Studies have shown people with pets have lower stress levels, so get a dog. If that's not an option, get a massage or a foam roller. Laugh with a friend. Be with your people. It's all so good for you.

Exercising for Stress Management

You knew I was going to tell you to exercise, right? But if your stress levels are high, how and how much you workout is important. In some cases, exercise can backfire. Good workouts for stress reduction include:

  • Short, intense workouts. Really, just 10-15 minutes can do the trick. This produces the beneficial effects of acute stress. However, intense workouts should be short. Exercising at high-intensity for a longer period of time can have the opposite effect. It can stimulate intense hunger and increase cravings. Play around and see what works. Just remember that more isn't always better. Sometimes it's just... more.
  • Slower, low-intesity workouts. You don't need to be out of breath and sweating profusely to reap the benefits of exercise. A leisurely walk, especially if it's outside, is very beneficial for lowering stress. Gentle yoga, dancing and stretching are very useful. 

  • Avoid stimulants like caffeine and sugar. Doh! I know. You're sleep deprived and coffee is what's getting you through the day (am I projecting maybe?) Having a coffee in the morning is fine, but chain-drinking caffeinated beverages or sugary snacks will only exacerbate the problem. Sorry. So, less of this:
  • Don't drastically cut calories. Living in a state of significant caloric deficit elevates cortisol, so don't get too gung-ho with the dieting. I could go on a nice spicy rant on this one and someday I will, but for now just focus on consuming high-quality calories, lots of fruits and veg, etc. More of these:
  • Eat some quality carbohydrates! Carbs are your body's primary fuel source. Your body burns carbs first, then fat, which is why some advocate an extremely low carbohydrate diet. But eliminating them completely.... guess what? Elevates cortisol. So have a nice sweet potato, a bowl of quinoa, whatever non-processed carbs light you up.
The last thing I'll say about cortisol imbalance is that the whole thing is highly individual. These lifestyle factors impact people differently. Novices to exercise will experience more elevated cortisol levels than experienced exercisers, individuals will respond differently to stimulants, dietary changes, etc. Paying attention to your hunger and energy levels and food cravings can give you insight as to whether or not your stress hormones are in balance. And please, get some rest. Even if you can't sleep, rest, breathe, hug, love. Do lots more of stuff like this:
Sometimes that's the best thing you can do... for more reasons than just your middle.