Home Cooking: A Key To Healthy Eating

Those warm, traditional, home cooked meals that have been romanticized by the media are – unfortunately – a dying art. Scenes of the entire family gathered around a warm meal, made from fresh ingredients have largely been relegated to the realm of fiction. In large part, people just don’t have time to cook anymore. For many, time is also a powerful barrier to home cooking.

But the value of these meals goes much further than nostalgia – they could have a large influence on the health of you and your family. The full impact of home cooking – and it’s increasing rarity – was highlighted by a new paper, published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.


The Value of Home Cooking

For the paper, entitled “Is Cooking At Home Associated With Better Diet Quality or Weight-loss Intention?” three years worth of dietary data from 9,000 people was processed. The survey asked questions about what the participants ate, their fast-food intake and their use of frozen or prepared meals. Based on this information, the subjects’ caloric intake was estimated, including their macronutrient profiles.

On average, the group of subjects that rarely cooked at home – once or less per week – ate more total calories than those that cooked more often. The “home cooking” group also ate less sugar and fat than their counterparts.

It’s also interesting to note that the subjects who cooked more often were more likely to make better choices in the ingredients they used, relying more on fresh foods. This group also tended to make better decisions on the rare occasions that they did eat out.


The Take-Away

Of course, the obvious lesson from this study is this: Home cooking is healthier than eating out. This likely isn’t a revelation for most people.

What is fairly surprising, though, is the way that home cooking can change your overall dietary habits. In essence, you can train both yourself and your family to eat better even when you are not in a situation to eat a homemade meal.

There’s also the factor of additives that was not included in the study, but still worth mentioning. Prepared foods, whether they are packaged or purchased at a restaurant, often have preservatives, sweeteners and other artificial ingredients that you may want to avoid. Many of those additives are still fairly controversial so it will be up to you to decide what you want to try to avoid or exclude.


What If You Can’t

But, honestly, it may just be unrealistic for you to try to cook as much as six nights a weeks. So, what can you do?

Learn how to read nutrition labels and understand what goes into the foods you get at restaurants that you frequent. This type of education will at least help you, and your family, to be well-educated when faced with a confusing assortment of food choices.

Some people who work busy schedules even dedicate an entire night to preparing all of their food for the week. While this technique does involved a fairly large investment of time, it will save you time and money throughout the week – while providing you will healthier food options.








Disneyland Races

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This weekend I participated in another runDisney race and always enjoy the ability to mingle with the Disney characters. This weekend’s festivities included a super heroes theme and I found plenty of men and women dressed in Avengers’ costumes and volunteers also decorated in a mix of colorful Thor and Captain America memorabilia.

Although the winds were a bit strong in this race (up to 65 mph headwinds and blowing over aid stations), I generally adore running through California Adventure Park and Disneyland Resort. Here are a few reasons to consider adding a runDisney race to your 2015 schedule…be sure to add it into your budget, however. They come with a nice hefty registration price (but I think it’s worth it, at least once in your life).

1. Early morning start. Yes, they have to start early to get you out of the park before it opens to the public…However, this means you can be back at your hotel, showered and ready to explore one of the resorts early as well. Plus, you have the race done and over before most people even open their eyes for the day.

2. Plenty of “set-up” camera opportunities. Throughout the park, Disney officials bring in loads of costumed characters complete with race photographers and another Disney employee standing there ready to take a photo with your own camera. If you don’t want to spend the money on photos, it’s easy to take your own. Although photographers dot the course and take much higher-quality photos perfect for keepsakes (and Disney races offer the best keepsake photos).

3. The memorabilia available, from princess tiaras to wear while you run to the best medals in the running biz, you’ll bring home plenty of racing loot.

Upcoming Disney races:

Disneyland Half Marathon Weekend September 3-6, 2015 │ Disneyland Resort

On Sale: Feb. 10, 2015

Disney Wine & Dine Half Marathon WeekendNov. 6-7, 2015 │ Walt Disney World Resort

On Sale: March 17, 2015

Avengers Super Heroes Half Marathon WeekendNov. 12-15, 2015 │ Disneyland Resort

On Sale: April 7, 2015

Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend Jan. 6-10, 2016 │ Walt Disney World Resort

On Sale: April 28, 2015

Star Wars Half Marathon Weekend Jan. 14-17, 2016 │ Disneyland Resort

On Sale: June 16, 2015

Disney Princess Half Marathon WeekendFeb. 18-21, 2016 │ Walt Disney World Resort

On Sale: July 14, 2015

Tinker Bell Half Marathon WeekendMay 5-8, 2016 │ Disneyland Resort

On Sale: Aug. 11, 2015


Diet and Exercise for Lasting Health Benefits

Whether you’re an athlete or a fitness enthusiast, you work hard for any improvements you see in your body – from losing weight to cutting time off of your mile. And, just like anything that takes a large investment of time and energy, you are likely concerned with maintaining any and all of those improvements. In fact, guilt after missing some gym-time or cheating on your diet is generally considered part of the price we pay for caring about our fitness.

In the past, however, we’ve talk a lot about the various benefits of the somewhat nebulous “Mediterranean diet” – focusing on fish, fresh vegetables, olive oil and nuts with very little red meat intake. A recent study shows that a combination of both exercise and the Mediterranean diet could have long-lasting health benefits.


The Secret Combination

Of course, we know that the Mediterranean diet and exercise are both very good for you. That much is extremely well-documented and fairly widely accepted. In this study, however, the subjects were split into two groups: one that ate a Mediterranean diet and exercised and one that only exercised.

It’s worth pausing to emphasize the fact that the control group was not made up of people who did not exercise at all, as would be common to this sort of study. Instead, the control group only exercised.

Essentially, then, the study was designed to see whether or not a Mediterranean diet added anything to the already well-known health benefits of exercise.

Both groups followed their routines for 8-weeks and then were simply monitored for another year. Of course, over the course of the study, both groups saw various improvements in their overall health. Of particular note to this study, however, was the oft overlooked factor of endothelial health. These endothelial cells line the inside of everything single blood vessel in your body and keeping them healthy translates to health benefits for your entire cardiovascular system.

A full year after stopping their 8-week long programs, the groups had their endothelial function checked. While both groups saw improvements at the end of the 8 weeks, only the group that followed the Mediterranean diet and exercised maintained those improvements.


Comments and Concerns

While this study does point out some interesting benefits of a health diet and exercise combination, it also raises some concerns. For one, isn’t it possible that these benefits could be seen from any health way of eating combined with regular exercise? More research is needed to answer that question properly.

Also, some might criticize this study since the long-lasting benefits were on a fairly small scale. After all, most people have never even heard of endothelial cells unless they have had related issues in the past. However, endothelial function has a large baring on blood flow which is a factor in just about everything you do. Blood is, you might remember, very important. Despite it’s somewhat modest reputation, the endothelial lining can effect everything from your risk of developing heart disease to your athletic performance.





Running When the Temperature Drops

greenland 12We’ve all seen the news: an Arctic chill blasted Canada and Alaska and the bitter cold swiftly made its way into the continental U.S. Although it remains comfortably in the fall season on my calendar, the outdoor temperatures make it feel like the middle of winter. I’m trying to maintain a positive attitude and look forward to running in wintertime. Here are a few reasons why:

I burn more calories. While running causes a calorie deficit, running while freezing really burns off those Thanksgiving pies. The body works harder when it’s cold, which in turn, makes a six-mile run burn an extra Christmas cookie.

The gym is less crowded. Until New Year’s, when everyone joins a gym to reach their resolution goals, the gyms stay relatively empty. This means open treadmills. When it is just too cold to run outside, I will take to the treadmill to rack up a little mileage. While it’s not ideal for me, I much prefer outdoor running, in the wintertime I don’t have to wait in the dreaded line for a machine. I can work out in hot, sweaty gym and still get in a run and not have to stand around hoping one opens.

Cute apparel. I’m used to sports bras and running shorts; they get plenty of use. In the winter, I dig out my nice running jackets, matching hat and gloves, and long running pants. It’s the fashionista in me that loves this whole new wardrobe that comes with the seasonal change. Just as I love reaching into the back of my closet to pull out my purple winter coat with the silver lining, I love wearing my pink running jacket and black cap. No one notices but me, but hey, I feel good and that’s all that matters.

Christmas lights. While Thanksgiving has come to a close and the turkey leftovers are in the pit of my stomach, houses all around decorate for the holidays. I love taking my run off my normal six-mile path and discovering new streets lined with tinsel and glowing lights. Some homes even play loud music from speakers wired to the outside. This gives me a little more pep to my step. The lights give me something new to enjoy from the darkness of the neighborhoods.

What do you love about cold-weather running?  Whatever the reason, happy running!

Is Resveratrol Good For Exercise?

Resveratrol, an antioxidant found in the skins of grapes, has enjoyed a lot of popularity over the past few years. Not only did research into the so-called “French Paradox” suggest that resveratrol is responsible for protecting cardiovascular health even when people routinely indulge in fatty foods, studies also hinted to the idea that the substance could enhance the benefits of exercise. In fact, these metabolic and cardiovascular benefits of resveratrol were though to be so potent that the supplement has been marketed as an “exercise mimic.”

The problem is, though, that most of these claims have been debunked through more thorough human studies. In a past post, we’d discussed some of the new information we have regarding resveratrol and cardiovascular health.

New Findings

While that older study dealt with the effects of 250mg of resveratrol on men over 65 years old, this newer research broadened the scope by using active men aged about 22. It’s also important to note that this study used a dose of 150mg – much lower than that used in the past.

For four weeks, the subjects were asked to perform three HIIT-based workouts each week while taking either resveratrol or a placebo. Before and after the training program, all of the subjects were given a muscle biopsy, peak oxygen uptake test, Wingate test, and submaximal exercise test. Essentially, this battery of tests gave the researchers a baseline regarding the subjects muscle composition, oxygen use, power and endurance.

What’s really surprising is that at the end of the study, the placebo group saw a significant increase in power while the resveratrol group actually lost some power. In fact, the group taking the real supplement experienced a significant decrease in each measure that the researchers were watching.

This study stands in stark contrast to the fairly large body of evidence that led to resveratrol’s reputation as “exercise in a bottle.” The truth is, though, that many of the early studies that stirred up all that excitement were animal or test tube trials – which can produce very different results from experiments conducted within the human body. Large reviews of the previous research also suggests that the claims regarding resveratrol’s benefits were greatly exaggerated.


What About Wine?

This begs the question: Is wine bad for your exercise goals, then?

Well, let’s look at the numbers. Remember that the negative effects shown in the above-noted studies were observed in connection with fairly large doses of the antioxidant – 250mg and 150mg. To put that into perspective, an especially dark resveratrol-packed glass of wine could max out at about 2mg. So, with moderate drinking, you aren’t likely to reach the levels of resveratrol needed to really do some damage. These effects are only possible with supplementation.






Running in November

indexMy favorite season is autumn and we are well into with Halloween passing us by. Now onto the holidays!

I love the fall foliage and the spectacular colors Mother Nature offers this time of year.  The chill in the air is the perfect complement to a tough cardio workout. I feel that I run well in the fall when my body doesn’t work so hard to stay cool.

I flew to Denver for trip and ran where I could see the leaves turn and actually enjoyed the time change when it forced me to get out earlier. I didn’t go out for a speed workout, but instead loved the simpleness of the crisp air and shorter amount of daylight.

I simply partook in the magnificent fall colors and the crunching of the leaves under my feet. Here are a few things I tried during my trip to make my running more memorable:

I frolicked. I twirled. Instead of running in a straight line and charging ahead with my mileage, I decided to dance (kind of) through the leaves. I felt like a child again as I twirled my body in a circle as the leaves floated to the ground and I jumped into heaps of leaf piles. I haven’t done that since elementary school; I highly recommend it.

I stopped. Usually if I stop it’s because my shoe came untied or a side stitch makes it impossible to carry on; this time I stopped for no reason pertaining to injury. I stopped because I wanted to partake of the views. I watched the leaves float through the wind and hit the ground silently. The woodsy areas felt calm and peaceful as the leaves just fluttered around me.

I left my iPod in the hotel room. I am a full-on fan of music when I run. I completely understand that this makes me not a “purist” runner. I’ve heard numerous runners tell me at races that they can’t run with music; it makes it not nearly as valiant an effort. But I love my hip-hop and a banging beat when I run. This time I decided to join the ranks of the purists and ran with my own thoughts and silence of nature. It was a nice change of pace, I admit. (Though I am fully back with my iPod and Pandora.) I think I will do that sometimes now—run with complete solitude.

I made friends. Because I run with music, I usually just wave when a runner passes by, but this time I ran up to someone and carried on a conversation. I asked about good running routes, what races are like in Minneapolis, how to run in the cold winters and about the runners themselves. I appreciated the company and learned about running in a new city straight from runners and not from Internet searches.

I suggest trying out a fall run with a new perspective.

Coconut Oil – The Honest Truth

According to supporters, it can help you lose weight, improve your cardiovascular health, boost your immune system, prevent Alzheimer’s and seizures, and kill off a variety of microorganisms – all while giving your skin and hair a healthy luster. But is coconut oil really this panacea that it’s proponents (and merchants) would have us believe?

The short answer: Maybe.

But let’s look at some of the research to expand on that conclusion.


What Makes It So Special?

In general, most of the proposed benefits of coconut oil come from a very unique type of fat that the fruit contains in unusually high doses called medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). While all fats are extremely calorie dense, MCTs  have a much simpler chemical structure than their long-chain counterparts. This allows your body to metabolize MCTs quickly and use them as an almost immediate source of fuel – similar to the way that it uses carbohydrates – instead of packing them away as body fat.

The key difference between using MCTs and carbs for fuel, though, is that the simple fats have a lot more too offer in the way of energy. Each gram of carbohydrates that you eat gives you about 4 calories. A single gram of MCTs, however, delivers a whopping 8 calories – double the amount of fuel packed into the same rapid-release dose. Based on these properties alone, it seems logical that MCT supplementation would be a great idea for athletes looking for a solid source of energy.

And some animal studies have shown promise in this respect. Unfortunately, the human trials have all been too small to be reliable and have produced frustratingly conflicting results.

Human studies have, on the other hand, suggested that MCTs have promise in improving body composition and increasing insulin sensitivity. The special fats could also be helpful in improving your overall cholesterol profile. Keep in mind, though, that we’re talking about complete coconut oil here – not just MCTs. There’s a lot more to consider.


The Flip Side

First of all, let’s talk about calories. Any excess calories, regardless of their source, will get stored as body fat. That means that if you take in any calories and don’t use them almost immediately, you’re going to gain weight – even if they’re of the medium-chain variety. So while this sort of rocket-fuel might be beneficial for athletes, it’s likely just extra calories to the average person.

And, the sad truth is that coconut oil isn’t actually all that great a source of MCTs. In fact, it has the same concentration as butter – about 15 percent. If you would like to give MCTs a try then, you’re better off getting a purified form than using plain old coconut oil.

Then there’s the fact that the vast majority, 90 percent, of the fat in coconut oil is saturated. And, while modern research has shown that saturated fat isn’t the dietary villain we once believed, it’s still not the greatest thing in the world. As mentioned, it is incredibly high in calories which can lead to weight gain – a precursor to diabetes, stroke and heart disease.

While we’re on the topic of heart disease, it’s worth briefly revisiting the topic of cholesterol. According to Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, the research into coconut oil’s effect on cholesterol is interesting – but not conclusive.

The bottom line, then, is this: Coconut oil does have some potential benefits when used in moderation. Despite having a very unique blend of fats, coconut oil is still extremely high in calories and should be treated just like any other calorie dense food. If you do decide to use it, make sure that you get a virgin coconut oil that has not been hydrogenated. Athletes looking to give MCT a go as an extra source of energy should consider purified MCT supplements rather than coconut oil


A Word On Brain Health

Apart from the proposed uses mentioned above, coconut oil has also been suggested as being useful in increasing mental clarity and preventing Alzheimer’s disease. While there has been some interesting laboratory results, no quality study has ever proven this theory in humans. Much of the evidence for this use is strictly anecdotal.


Topical Uses

But the claims about coconut oil go beyond it’s dietary function and extend to using it on the skin and hair. Happily, it seems to work well in this both these applications. Studies have shown that coconut oil can be helpful in treating a variety of skin conditions and helps to prevent hair damage caused by standard hair-related activities like combing.









Polar Circle Marathon

greenland 16Yesterday I finished a tough marathon near the North Pole in Greenland. Perfectly named the Polar Circle Marathon, it’s held within the Arctic Circle. To say the temperatures felt freezing would be an understatement. Here are the top reasons to consider a race at the top of the world:

1. Running on an ice cap. I don’t know of any marathon in the world in which part of the course traverses over a complete ice sheet. It’s like running on a skating rink surrounded by powdery snow and glaciers. The impressive views help offset the challenge of running on ice and you must wear spikes or coils on the bottom of your running shoes to help with the slipperiness. But it’s worth every slip and slide you make.

2. Running in the frozen tundras and next to glacier lakes. Spectacular scenery surrounds you and you even must wear sunglasses because of the sheer whiteness.

greenland 103. The hills. Runners meet some of the toughest hills  and hardest terrain even after you survived the ice cap at the beginning of the course. You’ll work your glutes and hamstrings and come back with a much more toned body (well, at least you can tell yourself.)

4. Running in temperatures with a negative sign in front of the number. Want to race in cold conditions? It’s too cold to even stand outside for a few minutes. Luckily, the running helps warm you up (a bit).

greenland 125. The gratitude and euphoria you feel at the end. Finishing an adventurous marathon and one that involves a significant increase in your finishing time gives you an even greater satisfaction.

More Benefits of a Healthy Breakfast

There are certain things that I expect to be controversial in the fitness world: alcohol, chocolate and supplements are all pretty predictable sources of contention. But breakfast? This unassuming meal has been the certain of a fairly heated dietary debate for some time now, both in the lab and the gym.

For years, breakfast was touted by moms and doctors alike as “the most important meal of the day.” Then intermittent fasting came along and turned on the concept, challenging it’s followers to do something that was previously considered an unforgivable dietary sin: skip breakfast. But studies continue to roll out that highlight various benefits of eating a healthy breakfast. The problem, though, is that most people don’t eat a healthy breakfast.


Controlling Cravings

One of the most popular reasons people give for supporting breaking the nightly fast is to stop you from eating poorly the rest of the day. And numerous studies have backed this up, showing that a healthy breakfast sets a dietary tone for the day and helps you to avoid needless snacking.

A recent study, published in the Nutrition Journal, people who eat breakfast have reduced cravings for sweets throughout the day. Specifically, the researchers working on this study looked at the effects of breakfast on dopamine levels – a “feel-good” chemical that your brain releases to reward you for doing something good. Generally speaking, dopamine is released in varying levels after every eating session throughout the day which certain foods having a greater impact then others.

The study found that the dopamine release in breakfasters helps them to avoid binging later on. This was not the case with those that skipped this all-important meal. In fact, the paper explains that overweight and obese individuals develop an insensitivity to dopamine which requires them to eat more food, releasing more dopamine, the feel the same effects. The situation was the essentially same in those that skipped breakfast; they developed a resistance to dopamine and, as a result, craved more food.

But, you may have noticed, up to this point I haven’t defined a “healthy” breakfast. Let’s get into that.


Doing It Right

All of these oft-cited studies, including the one mentioned above, do not use the traditional American breakfast. Pancakes, cereal and all of their sugary ilk are not what we’re talking about here. Instead, all of these benefits have been found with high-protein meals. To be fair, though, I have to say that this more recent study did find craving-reducing benefits with any breakfast. The longest-lasting and widest reaching effects, though, were seen with high-protein meals.

So, while having a healthy meal to start your day does appear to have some absolutely undeniable benefits, it’s important to do it right. Start off with high-protein foods, like eggs, yogurt and bacon – yes, bacon – that will leave you feeling full and satisfied throughout the day.








Top 10 Moves You Aren’t Doing

cornstockI know I’m guilty of this: focusing on running instead of other training. If I have heavy mileage to get in, I don’t put in the effort to workout in any other fashion. I once interviewed a top female endurance runner/triathlete who said she would give up a run to do weight lifting because it had that much more impact. She’d do what was called “The Dirty 30″ and spend 30 minutes one to two times per week lifting. She said it was her most important workout of the week. Here are some suggestions of movements you should start incorporating now:

1. Squats: Even if you don’t add weight, squats help tone your glutes, which often don’t get strengthened during running.

2. Sideways lunges: Running only involves forward movement. You should do workouts in a multi-planar fashion.

3. Frog leaps: Jump up and lift your legs to your chest at the same time. This works your core muscles while working out your legs.

4. Twists: Sit on the ground and twist side to side. Clasp your hands and touch the ground with each twist. This works your core and tightens it for running.

5. Burpees. Jump down and lay in a plank position and then pop up and jump. Repeat. Works your core and legs.

6. Jumping rope. Works your calves, core and balance–all three you need for running. Try jumping for five minutes as a warm-up  to weight lifting instead of a quick run.

7. Backwards lunge. Works your glutes. Try going forward, sideways and backwards to move in all planes.

8. Runner’s lunge. Bend one knee and stretch the other behind you. Always keep your bent knee in line with your ankle. Do this after you’ve finished your run when your muscles are nice and warm. Hold each side for 30 seconds and no more.

9. Crunches on a stability ball. Runners don’t focus on balance, so use a stability ball whenever possible during weight training/core training.

10. Plank. Lie on the ground and then pop up onto your elbows and toes. Hold this pose for 30-60 seconds. Try adding this into a training run. At every mile, stop and hold a plank pose. If you train on a track, this works perfect.