Category Archives: Nutrition

Two questions you must ask for diet success

“Lose ten pounds”
“Fit into my jeans”
“Be ready for beach season”
“Lose my pregnancy weight”
“Improve my health”

Virtually everyone who decides to go on a diet knows what they want to achieve to some level of detail. In fact “What is your goal” is the first of my Two Questions You Must Ask. Having goals is a topic that is frequently talked and written about. In fact I wrote about fitness goals here. The linked article is about working out but the same concept applies to diet and nutrition. In fact here’s a great post by Dr. John Berardi about goal-setting.

Goals are important. And the first step to having goals is asking yourself, What is my goal?

The second Question You Must Ask, is not discussed as often, even though it’s equally important: What am I willing to do to reach this goal?

This question may even be more important, because it determines whether you can reach your goal. For many people there is a gap between what they want and what they are willing to do, and that gap can be a source of unhappiness.

Dr. Berardi does address this concept in the linked article above by noting that goals should be behaviour-based in addition to being outcome-based. Absolutely. As long as the behaviour goals and outcome goals match. If the behaviour goal is not enough to meet the outcome goal, then you’re still setting yourself up to fail.

If you have a gap between what you want to achieve and what you’re willing to do to achieve it, you’re going to fail. We all know the emotions that accompany failed diets. Usually there is some ice cream involved, which let’s face it, is nice. But it’s usually not enough to sooth the self-criticism and emotional torment that we put ourselves through when we fail.

Instead of setting yourself up for ice cream and failure, spend some time going over what you’re actually willing to do to get to your fitness and nutrition goals. If the what you’re willing to do part doesn’t match the goal, then you have to change the goal. You have to. Because if you can’t convince yourself before you start your nutrition and/or exercise plan, there is no way you’re going to stick to it.

I know that sounds negative, but it’s the truth. Thankfully there is a giant upside: You don’t have to change a lot to change. Literally if you improve one thing about your nutrition – and stick to it – you will improve your health to some degree. Of course, the smaller the change in behaviour, the smaller the rate of change in results. But a smaller rate of change is still a change.

Changing to healthier habits is one of the best things you can do for yourself, but so many of us aim to do more than we’re ready to do. If you want to make change, be kind to yourself and set realistic goals that reflect what you are willing to do. Then come back and thank me in six months when you’ve seen the result of six months worth of a small change – both to your physical and emotional health.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer and a realist in Ottawa, Canada.

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My 4 week healthy habit failure

Is there one lifestyle habit you have that you want to change? You keep trying to change – maybe every January 1 – and you quickly fall back to normal within a few weeks (days? hours?). What if you tried again but cut the habit in half? Could you do it for months and years? How about a quarter of that habit?

Too much booze and not enough sleep are my two biggest challenges in terms of healthy habits. I’m leaving sleep for another time as I am not confident that I will stick to any change I try to institute, but a few months ago I tried to tackle booze. It was partly because I had started to have an odd reaction to alcohol: Often when I drank wine or beer in winter, my face turned red. Even after one beer or glass of wine. It started last winter, thankfully went away over the summer, and then came back when winter returned. I have had a “winter allergy” to scented moisturizers for years, so this didn’t wholly surprise me, but it did bother me. The idea of giving up red wine and beer was NOT appealing. Buuuut, as I thought about this, I also started to think about how much red wine and beer I drink. It was more than I should.

The after work relaxation glass of wine or beer had become a daily thing, and some days it was two. I didn’t love that it was a daily thing, but if it had just been that, I would not worry about it too much. I also like to go out on the weekend, and when I do, I have more than one or two drinks. When you add those together, my total alcohol consumption was beyond moderation.

So last fall – once the winter symptoms had started again – I decided to address two issues together: I stopped drinking alcohol for four weeks. I had no interest in quitting drinking forever, but I figured a month would let me see if getting rid of alcohol would get rid of the red faced symptom. And I figured that period away from booze would be a good idea based on how much I drink.

So I picked my start date, and jumped in to this trial with enthusiasm. I even posted on Facebook about it, figuring if I put it out there, I had to stick to it. The post got lots of likes and positive comments, which was nice.

A week and a half in, I got the red face symptoms after having a glass of ginger ale. And so I (happily) drew the conclusion that the problem was not alcohol. As I thought about it, I realized the red face didn’t happen with booze all the time in winter – it was only with booze in the evening after a long day. I now suspect that cold plus tired plus sugar or alcohol equals red face for me.

That left me in a strange position: I was ten days into a committed four weeks of no alcohol, but I no longer thought I had an alcohol allergy. I did still think that I drank too much, and I wasn’t thrilled about that, so I decided to stick to the trial. As the weekend approached, I found myself thinking I would just stay in instead of socializing with my friends, because I knew that would make me want a drink. It’s amazing how much our social circles and situations are tied in to food and drink!

As the weekend got closer, I thought about how ridiculous it was to hide from my life as a means to not drink, especially when I had no intention or interest in stopping drinking forever. At that moment, I decided to stop my four week booze-free trial, and replace it with my cut-the-booze-in-half lifelong change.

It’s been almost three months since I switched from that four week habit change that was really hard for me to follow to a permanent habit change that I knew I could do. And it’s been almost three months that I’ve stuck to the permanent habit change. From a math perspective, 12 weeks of 50% alcohol is equivalent to 6 weeks of 0 alcohol, meaning I am 50% ahead of where I would be if I had stuck with the booze free trial without making any follow on change. Even better, is that I feel good about myself that I’m sticking with it, and I’m happy to continue doing so forever.

I recognize that posting this may welcome comments that I am too weak to stick to something; and that I couldn’t possibly be a good trainer if I can’t even follow a healthy lifestyle challenge. I also have a feeling that being honest and sharing that I’ve failed will resonate with some people and may even help you to re-evaluate how you approach healthier living. That’s an easy I’ll take the bad for the good situation in my mind.

Now back to you: Is there a habit you’ve tried unsuccessfully to kick where you could succeed if you did it at 50%? What about 25%?

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa Canada who would rather help you be the best version of you that works for your life than help you get six-pack abs.

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7 real world tips for healthy eating

The path to eating well and exercising is rarely a straight one with the level of meandering and the time it takes to achieve progress varying tremendously from person to person. There are people out there for whom the road is straight as an arrow. For others, the road doesn’t exist yet. The rest of us live somewhere in between. Some of us have healthy habits most of the time with occasional lapses; while others enjoy periods of food debauchery interspersed with weeks of guilt-induced dieting.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in an environment where physical activity was as common as reading and television, and where the food we ate was relatively healthy. Not everyone grew up with that privilege and sometimes I wonder if it is harder to stick to regular exercise and healthier eating for those who grew up without it.

My healthier living path meanders but not drastically. My normal involves relatively healthy eating, which for me means that I eat primarily home-cooked meals with consideration given to vegetable and protein content, quantity, and taste. My normal also includes alcohol and “unhealthy” foods in smaller quantities. My normal includes either working out or physical activity that I love (currently tennis and skiing are my favourites) three to six times per week. My normal results in feeling great most of the time, which makes it easy to stick to it most of the time, and to get back to it if I stray. My childhood healthy environment privilege probably contributes to this ease.

Despite my preference for healthier living, I still struggle with it at times, especially in the presence of stress. I think most people do, regardless of how healthy they seem. I’ve been living outside my normal for almost a year. Since shortly after I learned that my dad had pancreatic cancer. He passed away from the disease last month. I’m comfortable enough to admit that I use alcohol, and to a lesser extent food, as a way to deal with emotions. Or more accurately, I use them as a means to not deal with my emotions. I have no idea how much weight I gained this year as a result. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s noticeable. Or at least it’s noticeable to me.

Throughout the year there were many times when I told myself it was time to get back to my normal, but each time it only lasted a day or two. I just wasn’t in the right place to get back to normal. This made me think about some of the realities of healthier living that health and fitness professionals don’t often talk about. We talk about what people should do for exercise, and what they should and should not eat; but we rarely talk about whether the person is in a place where change is viable; how much change is viable; and whether there is even an interest in change. With that in mind, I would like to share the following 7 real world tips for healthier living:

1. You have to be ready. Can you wrap your head around the idea of eating more healthily? Around the idea of more physical activity than you currently do? Or do walls pop up in your mind as soon as you start to think about it?

If you have a combative internal dialogue as soon as you think about a new eating or exercise habit, then you’re either not ready to change, or you’re not ready for that change. If you’re not ready, that’s okay. Keep thinking about it and at some point you will be. Or you will be ready for a different change.

2. Choose the right amount of change for you. My favourite healthy living quotation is from Dr. Yoni Freedhoff and goes something like: “live as healthily as you can reasonably enjoy.”

Choose habits you will adopt instead of ones you think you should adopt. No matter how small the change, something you can do it is always a better option than a bigger change you won’t do.

3. Understand that life is about choices, and nobody gets to judge yours. Adopting a healthy habit almost always means displacing a less healthy habit. The problem is that we often really like that displaced habit, which means becoming healthier requires you to choose. Sometimes it’s a hard choice. In some cases the short-term gratification from the less healthy choice is such that your brain sends loud signals telling you, for instance, to EAT THE CAKE.

That can be a very convincing argument when the cake is right in front of you and the benefits of not eating the cake may not be felt for weeks. Sometimes you may want to adopt healthier habits but aren’t in a place where you feel you can. And lets face it; some of us just don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t involve eating cake.

Unfortunately you may know some people who think their opinion about how you should eat matters more than yours. It doesn’t. Nobody gets to make these choices for you, and nobody gets to judge you for your choices. Your family and friends get to care about you, love you, and even be concerned about your health; but they don’t get to judge you.

4. If you are judging yourself for your choices, then you haven’t made the right choice for you yet. If the choice you are making about lifestyle habits is leading to a place where you can’t imagine fulfilling that change, but you also can’t accept yourself without making that change, it’s time to get help. I think that for some of us, the most important person to help with healthier habits is not a nutritionist, but a therapist.

Somehow I managed to avoid self-judgement for my habits over the past year and for having gained some weight as a result. I’m proud of myself for that. I think this was possible because I knew deep down that it was temporary for me. In fact just last week I came to a “now I’m ready to treat my body to healthier foods and cut back on the booze” state, and I’m happy to report that I am following it. Not perfectly, because perfectly isn’t how I roll. I’m not quite at my normal, but I’m pretty close and feel confident I’ll be ready to go there in a couple of weeks. Despite ending this period of emotional eating and drinking, I’m still looking for a therapist. I know emotional health is important, and I know that even though I’m in a pretty good place, I’m still not in the best place emotionally. I will be; but I think I need help to get there. Maybe you do too?

5. Aim for healthier instead of healthy. Healthy living can be a daunting goal, while healthier living is relatively available. Consider that you can make one change to your lifestyle and that will improve your health, instead of trying to make all of the changes. It doesn’t even have to be a big change. Not having “fries with that” once per week could be your one thing. Having a fruit instead of cake one time per week could be your one thing. Drinking water instead of pop one time per day could be your one thing. Walking instead of driving partway one time per week could be your one thing.

You may be thinking this is essentially point 2 restated, and you’d be right. Consider that a reflection of how important this is.

6. Celebrate your achievements. A small change made successfully is a big deal. Respect and celebrate that. Personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with celebrating with food, but I do suggest you consider whether there are other ways to treat yourself. Maybe a visit to a local spa? A morning on the links? A bubble bath? Tickets to a football game? Take the afternoon off work and pull your kids out of school for an afternoon of play? Or take the afternoon off and leave the kids at school for an afternoon of play?

7. Once you adopt one healthier habit, you may find you want to adopt another. People often talk about a spiralling effect in a negative way, but the opposite of the downward spiral also exists, although I have no idea what it’s called? Adding a healthier habit to your life often leads to adding another healthier habit to your life down the road. And maybe another. And another…

I was talking about this with a client last week. After she mentioned that she can’t change, I suggested she pick 1% of the changes that are being proposed and that she do that. She then commented that after a while she might want to do another 1%. Indeed! So we started to contemplate 1% per month. In two years, that would add up to approximately 24% change (despite my high geek quotient, I opted to stick with linear instead of a net present value equation with discounting). Either way you calculate, it’s very clear that it adds up.

If you find yourself thinking “I want to adopt another healthier habit”, remember to apply the tips you followed to succeed the first time. Keep choosing habits you will adopt, keep the judges at arm’s length, get help with your inner judge if you need it, and celebrate your accomplishment.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa who loves working with real clients with real strengths and weaknesses, and thinks it is just fine to not have six pack abs as a goal.

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I just walked into the gluten-free section at the grocery store

Last week I did something I thought I’d never do: I went to the gluten-free section at the grocery store. And not for any sinister reasons. I went there to actually contemplate purchasing gluten-free food-like products. In the end I chose not to get anything because the stuff either didn’t look great, contained ingredients I don’t recognize, contained other ingredients I’m temporarily avoiding, or were things I’d be better off making.

So phew – I’m still me. But why was I there? Because I recently started an elimination diet. I’m not usually one for diets – unless you count my daily pizza diet. I’m not trying this as a means to lose weight. (Side note: I’m mortified that I felt a need to say that. Like somehow if a person changes their eating it must be because they aren’t happy with how they look. And apparently on some level I share that thought or I wouldn’t have written that sentence. Sigh.)

I’ve started this elimination diet because I have noticed what I think are a few allergy-like symptoms. I’ve recently realized that I’ve been slightly congested for a good six months – maybe even longer. Not enough that it prevents me doing anything, but noticeable when I breathe during exercises like kettlebell swings. For years I’ve had what I think is considered a winter allergy: If I use skin products with any scent in the winter, that area of skin becomes red and feels hot. Easy to fix by just not using scented products in the winter. But this past winter that problem turned ugly: I started getting red-faced after drinking red wine or beer. (side note #2: The appropriate response to this as a reader is to place hands on cheeks and let out a loud “noooooooo”. Or just visualize that. Either or.) As you can imagine, the obvious solution did not appeal to me, so instead of cutting out red wine and beer, I experimented with different beers and wines. While the hoppier beers were worse, I sadly can’t say that other beers were fine. Thankfully my problem went away as the weather improved before I tried to replace red wine with white.

I’ve long thought that elimination diets were a great option for people with digestion issues affecting them. It just makes sense. But I never felt any need to try one because I always felt great, and it never for a moment occurred to me that my winter allergy (sensitivity?) to scents (scentsitivity? – sorry, my repressed familial habit of punning comes out on occasion) could be related to food. Until it spread to wine and beer, which suddenly had a more direct link to my digestive tract. That’s also when I realized I had mild congestion that had been hanging around a long time.

Through conversations with my clients and friends, I suspect that a lot of people have at least slightly unhappy digestive systems. It turns out a lot of people experience (what I think are) obvious symptoms like bloating and what I’ll politely refer to as intestinal distress. I wonder how many are reading this and thinking, ‘huh, maybe I should try this.

I did what everyone does when they think they have a health issue: I turned to Dr. Google. She did not disappoint! There is a lot of information “out there” about elimination diets and as it turns out, many different versions exist. I had initially settled on a version from Precision Nutrition, because I find them to publish science-based information. I went to the grocery store to pick up foods that would fit the diet: fish, fruit (but not citrus), vegetables (no nightshades), rice cakes, rice cereal, and coconut milk. I was going to grab some lamb and turkey as well but they were both more expensive than I was hoping, so I skipped that momentarily.

Rice cereal, coconut milk and fruit
Rice cereal, coconut milk and fruit

The day before I was planning to start, I baulked. I was thinking about what I would eat for the next two days and I didn’t have enough options ready. I decided to wait a few days and pull together more recipes. In searching for recipes, I came across several other elimination diet options, including this phased approach from greatist.com, Phase one offered a removal of gluten, dairy, soy, and eggs for 21 days. Huh, that seems very doable. I’ll be honest, I was having a hard time wrapping my head around the Precision Nutrition one. I couldn’t even find a salad dressing recipe that would fit the diet, as vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise, yoghurt, and lemon juice are all out. I guess olive oil with salt and pepper would work, but I have a hard time with that. Maybe the Oil & Vinegar concept has been hammered into me for too long. I was also looking ahead to my birthday and then Canada Day thinking that I either have to drastically change how I typically celebrate one of them, or wait until July 2nd to start. I really didn’t want to wait, making the phased approach even more appealing.

Salad with an oil and vinegar dressing. And lots of other delicious bits.
Salad with an oil and vinegar dressing. And lots of other delicious bits.

Seeing that there are so many different versions of the elimination diet also told me something: It told me that the specificity of the science behind them probably doesn’t exist. And that’s okay. But it does suggest to me that the evidence supporting one version over another is probably not strong. And thus I steered myself to the phased approach over the more restrictive approach. For a moment I felt badly about that – that it was somehow cheating. Until I realized that I was very confident that I can stick to the phased approach for the prescribed duration without cheating, but I did not have that confidence for the restrictive one. As a coach, I know that the program you will stick to is always superior to the one you won’t. I should probably apply that to myself as well. Thus I happily made the decision to go with the phased approach. In fact I was so excited about it, I decided to go ahead with my original schedule of starting the next day.

Day 1 dinner: Salmon with rice, brocoli, and a cucumber avocado salad
Day 1 dinner: Salmon with rice, brocoli, and a cucumber avocado salad

I’m writing this on day 12 and I have a number of observations:

  1. Overall I’m amazed at how easy this is. I thought I might seriously crave cheese, but I haven’t really. The guacamole has probably helped there. And the fact that I can eat rice, corn, and potatoes makes creating a meal quite manageable.
  2. I need to eat fish more often. Its healthy, delicious, and easy to prepare.
  3. Tilapia with mango salsa, rice, and a bunch of veggies.
    Tilapia with mango salsa, rice, and a bunch of veggies.
  4. Indian food fits the bill quite nicely. I was happy to reach for the notes I had made when my friend Neena gave me a Punjabi cooking lesson. This time I tried an East meets West variation by making a curried Venison chop with red lentils, zucchini and broccoli, and rice.
  5. Curried deliciousness fit the bill
    Curried deliciousness fit the bill
  6. Social breakfast is a different story. I went to a friend’s cottage last weekend and it was while discussing breakfast for Sunday that I suddenly realized that eggs are a component of bacon and eggs. Seriously. It was a terrible realization. But whatever, I had some tasty cereal with fruit while my friends had waffles with maple syrup. It probably wasn’t that good anyhow. At least I had the side of bacon.
  7. Side of bacon; side of fruit salad. Okay.
    Side of bacon; side of fruit salad. Okay.
  8. As I sat on the dock drinking a gin and tonic and eating potato chips, I pondered how silly it is that many people assume a gluten-free diet is by definition healthy.
  9. I love most Asian cuisine, so I searched long and hard to find something that didn’t have soy in it. Eventually I came across a recipe for pad thai that is allegedly “the real thing”. The sauce is fish sauce, vinegar, tamarind paste, and sugar. I just skiped the egg and went ahead, with rice noodles. So yummy!
  10. A Pad Thai variation. No eggs for my elmination diet, and a few other changes based on what I had in the kitchen.
    A Pad Thai variation. No eggs for my elmination diet, and a few other changes based on what I had in the kitchen.
  11. As the week progressed, I realized that preparation was key to success with sticking to this diet. The option to just grab take out is much trickier without gluten, soy, eggs, and dairy. Social events can also be tough. I went to my tennis club bbq and had a steak and some coleslaw. Everything else was dairy-licious.
  12. Mexican food is a good friend when avoiding these foods. Which thankfully is one of my favourites.
  13. Thank you corn tortillas and guacamole for making last week delicious.
    Thank you corn tortillas and guacamole for making last week delicious.
  14. After eleven days of this, I realized I had not noticed any difference, which suggests to me that none of the phase 1 foods are problematic for me. Because of this, I decided that I would go off this approach for my birthday (day 12) because, well, I wasn’t interested in trying dairy-free, gluten-free, egg-free cake. Had I noticed any changes, I might have been convinced to stick with this for 21 days straight, but I have a hard time buying that 20 of 21 days will be a failed experiment while 21 of 21 days would be scientific. If someone has a compelling argument (preferably fact-based) as to why I am wrong about this, please do share.

Over the weekend I had a chat about food with a friend at the tennis club, who quickly noted that dairy is evil. I disagreed and within a short time he rephrased his comment to dairy is evil for him and likely others, but not everyone. He also noted that he thinks everyone should try going without dairy for a few weeks to see if in fact it is evil for them. I agree with that completely. In fact I really think everyone would be well served to take some time to remove foods from their regular diet and see if they notice a difference. I will qualify this with the suggestion that if you have medical concerns, you really should see you actual doctor instead of Dr. Google. I do intend to see my doctor if this congestion doesn’t clear up.

Thoughts? Your own elimination diet experiences to share? Let’s chat below in the comments.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa.

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Maximalist is the new minimalist: The absurdity of fitness trends

I saw my first pair of maximalist running shoes in a store last summer and I had to do a quick self-check: is it April fool’s Day? Nope, it’s August. This was the shoe I saw on the shelf in a reputable running and triathlon shop:

I was there waiting to pick up my bike but I had to ask about the shoe. And that’s when I learned about the new maximalist running shoe trend. Apparently extra cushioning is what we need to prevent running injuries in 2016. That’s one mighty big pendulum swing when you consider that in 2010 we learned that we need minimalist running shoes to prevent injuries.

Aside from putting an amused look on my face, the Hoka (the clown-like shoe above) brought me back to two conclusions that I have often hold:

  1. Scientists and/or companies claiming that “this is the one true answer” is your first sign that you should be sceptical of everything else that person or organization says. Science is rarely that certain, and it is never that certain before the science has had a chance to be vetted by other scientists. This typically takes years, which means by the time there is evidence that it is “the one true answer”, it’s probably not that exciting any more so nobody is talking about. So pretty much if you’re talking about an amazing new scientific discovery, understand that it may or may not be true at this point. This is not a dismissal of the scientific process. That is sound. It’s an accusation that most of the science that makes it to the mainstream has cut corners out of the scientific process.
  2. There probably isn’t a “one true answer”, but rather there are different best answers for different people and different scenarios. Minimalist running shoes may be the best option for you; so may maximalist. Heck, maybe the running shoes that got run out of town in 2010 are the best option for you. Or maybe running isn’t great for you. How can you tell? Great question. I’m not an expert in running shoes, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that trial and error is probably your best bet.

Unfortunately the “this not that” mangling of the scientific process is also prominent in the nutrition world. I just read an interesting article about how “leptin resistance is the main reason people gain weight and have such a hard time losing it.” Some of you will remember that not long ago “The real reason that you may have struggled to lose weight is insulin resistance.” It would seem that leptin is the maximalist shoe of the nutrition world.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is an engineer turned personal trainer who is both amused and annoyed at the inadequacy of what often passes as science.

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Oh hello breakfast cake, I mean muffin

I had a craving for cake this morning, so of course I made muffins. I previously wrote about how muffins were dead to me. Usually we eat them because we think they are the healthy choice, even though we really want the doughnut, when the reality is they are not a healthy choice. As I note in that article, muffins often have more calories, more fat and more carbohydrates than doughnuts. Yes, there is sometimes a bit more fibre, but not much, and not enough to make them anywhere near healthy.

The truth of the matter is that muffins are cake. Breakfast cake, if you will. So let’s start calling it what it is so that we can make a proper decision about them. This morning, for instance, I really wanted some breakfast cake. So I made some. Eyes wide open to the fact that this is not a healthy breakfast choice. Which is okay sometimes. I’m a firm believer in the idea of eating healthily most of the time, but that it’s okay to be imperfect. As Dr. Yoni Freedhoff put it (maybe slightly paraphrased), “eat as healthily as you can reasonably enjoy”. This might mean something different for you than for me, and it means something different for me than for a person who is training for an elite level athletic pursuit. For me these days, it involves getting enough protein, vegetables, and water. But it also includes (home made) pizza, red wine, and on rare occasions, breakfast cake.

I resurrected breakfast cake for myself because sometimes it is exactly the treat I want. Especially chocolate chip ones. A good chocolate chip muffin is white cake with a liberal sprinkling of chocolate chips. What’s not to like? But let’s be clear: there is nothing healthy about it. It’s time we liberate the muffin from the shackles of its false brand and acknowledge breakfast cake!

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Even though I recognize breakfast cake’s true self, I still found myself not fully getting it. The photo above is the tray of breakfast cakes just before putting them in the oven. The recipe includes a crumble on top made with cinnamon, flour, sugar, and butter. As I sprinkled it on top of the muffins, I thought to myself, “wow, I can’t believe I’m putting this much sugar and butter on top.“. And then I chuckled to myself. Yes, crazy to sprinkle flour, sugar and butter on top of a dough made up primarily of flour, sugar, and butter.

Now that we’ve addressed the true self of breakfast cake, give some thought to zucchini bread, banana bread, and apple loaf. While they each contain some fruit or vegetable, guess what? Cake.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some blueberry crumble breakfast cake to enjoy.

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Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer who recognizes that people can be healthy without being perfectly healthy.

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Is coconut oil the best choice for cooking?

Like to eat healthy? Always on the lookout for great recipes with a healthy twist? If so, you are probably a coconut oil keener. Am I right? Coconut oil is great. For some things. But did you know coconut oil is actually an unhealthy choice for some recipes? Let me explain.

Most non-chefs select oils for cooking based solely on the type of fat. Not long ago, that meant vegetable oils for everything. This was during the saturated fats are evil period. Fast forward a few years to the Mediterranean era where olive oil was all things to all recipes. We now live in the time of the coconut oil, which makes that the perfect oil for all uses. Or so suggest the healthy recipes that make their way around the interweb.

It’s amazing how quickly truth changes in the era of the internet.

I’m just going to put this out here: When it comes to oil for cooking, unless you were taught by a cook, everything you know is wrong. Let me explain that.

There are three important criterion for selecting an appropriate cooking oil for a recipe, but most people make their selection based on only one. The three criterion are:

  1. Health
  2. Smoke point
  3. Taste

Most healthy recipes shared on the internet take only #1 into account. If you’re a chef, you undoubtedly take numbers 2 and 3 into account.

I just finished making a healthy recipe for (pretty tasty) banana oatmeal squares that said to use butter or olive oil to grease the baking dish. Olive oil for banana oatmeal squares? Really? Think of it this way: would you put olives in a banana oatmeal square? I love olives, but not with bananas and oatmeal. Many oils have a taste, so if you’re going to use it in a recipe, make sure you’re picking an oil for which the taste works. Before using an oil for a recipe – even just for greasing a pan – ask yourself the question above: “how would this recipe taste with olives in it?” In this case, the butter would have been a good choice, but I opted for coconut oil which I think also complements the flavour of the ingredients nicely. Coconut is not a slam dunk though. Have you ever had eggs cooked in coconut oil? That’s not a good combination. There’s a reason nobody adds coconut oil to their eggs – it doesn’t go. If it doesn’t go as an ingredient, it doesn’t go as a cooking oil.

This is one of the reasons vegetable oils remain popular among cooks as a cooking oil. Unlike many oils, vegetable oil is essentially flavourless. That means from a taste perspective, it goes with everything. Which means it is versatile.

The other reason vegetable oil remains a popular choice is that it has a fairly high smoke point. Every oil has a smoke point, which is the temperature at which the oil starts to burn. When cooking, it is important to use an oil whose smoke point is higher than the cooking temperature you’ll use. For many recipes, this is another knock against coconut oil as it has a relatively low smoke points, or at least unrefined coconut oil does. The coconut oil in my cupboard (unrefined) has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s quite low. Thankfully this brand notes on the label that it is for medium heat cooking. Unfortunately not all brands list smoke point on the label, leaving people to inadvertently use inappropriate oils for their cooking needs. If you’re someone who loves to use coconut oil for all your cooking please reconsider, or make sure you use a refined coconut oil for the high heat cooking to avoid adding vile-tasting free radicals to your meal.

Interested in reading more about smoking point of cooking oils, including a table of oils and their smoke points? There’s a great article about it on seriouseats.com. Note SeriousEats.com is also a great source for delicious recipes.

What about health in oils? As noted above, once vegetable oils were considered the pinnacle of health while saturated fat was the work of the devil. The current trend is the opposite. So what’s the truth? This will unfortunately be different depending on what you read. That’s sad state of modern nutrition information: many “experts” have taken to cherry-picking scientific findings that support one concept while ignoring evidence that brings it into question. It is true that the evidence that once vilified saturated fat has been brought into question, but this does not mean that saturated fat is perfectly healthy. Similarly, the modern vilification of vegetable oils is that they are bad because we ate so much of it that our diets became overly high in omega-6 fatty acid, which put our bodies out of balance with the omega-3s. I think that argument has a lot of merit – or at least the part about the omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid balance. What doesn’t make sense is that we should stop using it entirely. If the problem was that we ate too much of it relative to other fats, then the solution is not to get rid of it entirely: it’s to eat less of it relative to other fats.

Different oils for different tasks

If you aim to make all of your cooking oil choices based on smoke point and taste, you will end up using a balance of oils. I would argue that the present body of knowledge suggests that a balance of different oils is the healthiest option.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who gets frustrated by the myriad of bad recipes mislabelled by fitness and nutrition professionals as “healthy and delicious”.

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Should you take Greens supplements?

I just received the following question this morning from one of the participants of my 8 Week Get Lean Challenge. The challenge is one where participants adopt one new habit change per week. One of the habits is to fill half your plate with vegetables a set number of meals per week (depending on what level of the challenge you are doing). The following question refers to this vegetables habit:

Q: ” I wanted to know what your thoughts/opinion was on “GREENS” the popeyes substitute? Would that be considered as half the plate, should I take these? If I can take these how much to they count towards my portion?”

greens_flickr_fady habibPhoto credit: fady habib on flickr.

A: “I think greens are great, however, they won’t count toward your half plate as vegetables. The reason for this habit is two-fold: it ensures you get lots of veggies, and it helps to prevent you from over-eating non-veggies. The latter is as important as it reduces the likelihood that you’ll overeat. So you can see that the greens helps toward the first goal but not toward the second. ”

I do feel a bit sheepish for taking the slightly-misleading-contrarian-blog-post-title approach, but I’m feeling a bit contrarian today, so it seemed appropriate. In fact I have nothing against Greens supplements. I even think they’re a good idea for those who otherwise won’t get much in the way of vegetables. I’d much rather someone take these with a low-vegetable diet than follow a low-vegetable diet and not take them. It’s a way to get the many, many micronutrients vegetables have to offer, and that’s a good thing. But if I had a say, I’d much rather have someone add actual vegetables to their diet so that they get both the micronutrient and macronutrient benefits. What is this macrunutrient benefit? Primarily it’s that vegetables tend to be high in fibre and protein, and they are low in calories. Here are a few examples of what 100 calories of vegetables look like.

100 calories of broccoli
100 calories of broccoli
100 calories of spaghetti squash
100 calories of spaghetti squash
100 calories of spinach
100 calories of spinach
100 calories of tomatoes
100 calories of tomatoes
100 calories of peppers
100 calories of peppers

And for comparison, a couple of examples of 100 calories of not vegetables.

100 calories of almonds
100 calories of almonds

100 calories of butter tart (the little piece on the left; not the whole thing)
100 calories of butter tart (the little piece on the left; not the whole thing)

100 calories of bacon
100 calories of bacon
100 calories of pasta
100 calories of pasta
100 calories of cheese
100 calories of cheese

Interested in this Get Lean Challenge? Here is the registration form along with the details of how it works and when we’re running it next..

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada who thinks vegetables are the bomb. That is if people still say that things are the bomb. Otherwise, she thinks they are…(please help a once-was-cool-ish-now-is-old-and-less-cool trainer and blogger with her diction by commenting with a better expression below.)

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3 Tips for Healthy(ish) Holiday Eating

Dinner parties, cookie exchanges, and chocolate gifts oh my!

‘Tis indeed a season full of tempting treats. This means three things for anyone who finds healthy eating to be a challenge at the best of times:

  1. It’s about to get a whole lot harder to stay on your healthy eating plan.
  2. Many of you are going to feel guilt about this, thus initiating a nasty spiral of negativity.
  3. That will be compounded by the “How to Earn your Holiday Treats” exercise memes that will start floating around facebook any day now, which can further accelerate that negative spiral.

How about this year, we choose a better option to enjoy the holidays? With that in mind, here are my 3 tips for enjoying a healthy-ish holiday:

  1. It’s the holiday season. Hopefully you’re going to go to parties and take part in feasts with family and friends. Accept it and plan to enjoy the holiday eating. Celebrations and connection are important. And throughout history, food has been a central part in celebrations. For those of you trying to follow healthy eating plans, adjust your expectation for the month. Instead of aiming for healthy, aim for healthy-ish. Is there cake for dessert? Have some. Are there cookies at your staff meeting? Have one. The world won’t stop orbiting around the sun if you do so, and your pants will probably fit almost as well at the end of it. Switch back to healthy in January, and by the end of January, you will be back where you are today.

    "Planets2013" by WP - Planets2008.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Planets2013.jpg#/media/File:Planets2013.jpg. Modified by E Vaino to include note about cookies.
    “Planets2013″ by WP – Planets2008.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons. Modified by E Vaino to include note about cookies.
  2. Seek out and say yes to vegetables every chance you get. This is my best tool for healthy-ish eating, and the best option I can suggest to stay healhty-ish and avoid jumping into the deep end of holiday indulgence. Going to a Christmas party? Seek out soup or salad for lunch that day. Is the dinner party family style (serving dishes on the table and you fill your plate), or buffet style? If so, go a bit heavier on the veggies and a bit lighter on the non-veggie options. Vegetables provide a fantastic one-two punch for healthy eating. They are low in calorie and chock-full of micro-nutrients, and they take up space on your plate that would otherwise be filled with lesser foods.
  3. Judge your indulgences before you enjoy them. My criterion is 8 out of 10 for indulgences. Sometimes it’s 7, if I’m in a “meh, calories-schmalories” mood. If my perceived Deliciousness Factor (DF) for a cookie, cake, pie, beer, or second serving of stuffing isn’t at least a 7 or 8 out of 10, then I pass. Don’t worry if you find yourself scanning and thinking “these are all 6s, but I want a treat!” Trust me when I say that this will either never happen, or if it does, your goal for next year should be to become friends with better cooks.

That’s it. Three simple tips to enjoying the holiday season without stressing about the food. It’s a celebration! Relax and enjoy!

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada who apparently doens’t believe in spell check or re-reading blog posts to check for basic typos.

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If you’re Canadian and food labelling is important to you…

Consider stepping up and being part of the solution. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has created a survey for consumers and industry about proposed changes in direction to the food labelling system in Canada. If you’re Canadian, and you have an interest in the direction we take in our food labelling, then please take the time to fill in this survey.

Unfortunately the survey is clunky and long, and I know it’s not easy to find time to fill in surveys like this. In fact the instructions say it will take about 45 minutes to fill in. I didn’t keep track of how long it took me, so I can’t confirm or refute that estimate, but it isn’t short. The upside is that you can save at the end of each section, so you don’t have to finish all at once. The other downside is that some of the questions are oddly worded. In fact they remind me of project meetings from back in my consulting days. My guess is the survey was designed in-house. Oh well. The upside is that there is a lot of room for comments, so if you have ideas do share them. Hopefully someone will be reading.

Also keep in mind that this is a survey for industry and consumers. My bet is that there will be no shortage of responses from industry. This means that if we the consumers don’t take the time to fill it in, the direction of our food labelling system will be (more?) skewed in favour of industry.

What if only industry representatives answered the following question (from the survey):

“Are you in favour of a model in which industry takes a more active role in the development and maintenance of policies on consumer values claims?”

This is my answer:

At the end of the day, industry is responsible to its shareholders, not to the public. By definition that means they have goals that are related to profit over health. They should of course be a stakeholder along with the Government, nutrition and health practitioners, and consumers. But the size of their role should be strongly scrutinized.

I have a friend who is in the frozen foods business, and he once told me that one of their key performance indicators was oil uptake. They try to adjust recipes to increase the relative quantity of oil because oil is their cheapest ingredient. My guess is that all manufacturers have their own version of that KPI, and it is very clear that that does not align with either the Government, health care, or consumer goals for food. This is why industry should not have a bigger stake.

Want to make sure interested Canadians have as much of a say as interested industry?

Here’s the link to the survey again: Canada Food Labelling Survey. Please fill it in if you have an interest in the future of the Canadian food labelling system. The deadline is June 30th, 2015. If you have an extra interest in food labelling, there is an email address for the initiative at the bottom of the first page of the survey.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who counts on effective labelling to help make healthy choices.

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