Healthy Holiday Traditions: Apple Pie

It’s hard to stay healthy through the holidays without feeling deprived when everyone around you is indulging in fat, sugar and salt. What if I told you that you could still indulge in a holiday favorite like apple pie? Would you believe me?

I’ve got a traditional dessert that is so good, even your pickiest guests would love. Here’s my personal recipe for whole foods, plant-based, dairy-free, wheat-free, oil-free, no-sweetener added (only sweetened with fruit), baked apple pie. 

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Pie crust

1 1/2 – 2 cups Medjool dates, pitted

1 1/4 cup raw almonds

1 cup raw walnuts

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon of ground nutmeg

Add almonds and walnuts into a food processor and pulse until finely ground. Add remaining ingredients and process until fully combined. Take half of the mixture and press into a pie pan, being sure to cover the sides and doing your best to maintain even thickness all around. Bake the crust for 5 minutes at 350 degrees and let cool completely. 

Pie filling

4 apples, peeled and sliced into thin wedges (1/4 – 1/2 inch thick) (I use 2 Pink Lady and 2 Honeycrisp apples if available, but you can use any apple combination you prefer)

1 1/2 – 2 cups of date paste*

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

*date paste: soak 4 cups of pitted Medjool dates in a large bowl either overnight or use near-boiling water and cover bowl. Add dates to food processor with a 1/2 cup of the soaking water. Process until smooth, adding more soaking water as needed. 

ImageAdd all ingredients into a medium-large saucepan and heat covered on medium –
medium/low heat until apples are softened, approximately 10 – 15 minute, stirring occasionally. Let mixture cool to room temperature and then pour into pie crust. Take the other half of the pie crust mixture place it on a cutting board covered with parchment paper. Add small amounts of water to the mixture until it can be kneaded like dough. Put another piece of parchment paper on top so that you can use a rolling pin without it sticking. Roll out the “dough” until it’s large enough to cover the pie. Carefully roll onto rolling pin and unroll onto the pie. Use a fork to press the edges all around and poke 4-6 holes on top to allow heat to escape. Bake pie for 10 minutes at 350 degrees. Serve and enjoy!

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This recipe is fun an is open to personal adjustments. Share how you tweaked it to suit your needs. 

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Body Mass Index: An Incomplete Gauge of Obesity Risk

What would you say about a man who is 6’2 and 235 lbs? If you couldn’t see him, how could you assess whether or not he was at risk for obesity related illnesses? The obvious tool has been to calculate his Body Mass Index, or BMI. You can calculate this by dividing his weight (235 lbs) by his height in inches squared (5476) then multiply by 703 to get the BMI which in this case is 30.2. You can also use various reputable websites to get to the same figure by just inputting his height and weight. According to these websites, a BMI of 30 or greater is considered obese. Simple right?

What if I told you that this mystery man was Arnold Schwarzenegger at the peak of his bodybuilding career, would you still think he was obese? Probably not.

The problem with BMI is that it only considers height and weight, and fails to acknowledge body composition. Therefore when used solely as an obesity gauge, people with high muscle compositions may end up in the obese range while people with high fat, low muscle compositions may end up in the normal range.

Even though it is flawed, the BMI is still an important component to determining obesity and potential health risk. The National Institute of Health believes that combining BMI, your waist measurement in inches, and taking into consideration your current and genetic risk factors for obesity related diseases provides the best picture at your current and potential risk. More specifically, your risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes increases in women with waist measurements of 35 inches or greater and men with waist measurements of 40 inches or greater. This is something a BMI clearly cannot determine.

Remember, the Body Mass Index is just a tool in the fight against obesity but it is not the only tool. You wouldn’t fix a house with just a hammer so why limit yourself to just one tool when looking to improve yourself?

Make it Healthier: Lentil Soup

When your are trying to eat healthier, you don’t always have to reach for the health cookbooks. Your favorite recipes, and even new recipes you have been dying to try, can be changed around to be healthier. From now on, I am going to start posting some of the recipes I have changed and the estimated impact on their nutritional values.

In Gainesville, I got very involved with soups. I made all kinds of soups, but one of my favorites is lentil soup. I found this recipe on the food network but I wasn’t thrilled about all the ingredients. I try to use very little meat, if any, in the dishes I cook at home. Making something vegetarian is an easy way to get rid of calories and fat in a meal. I also changed the kind of broth and the quantity to help reduce sodium. I added no extra salt and added black pepper to taste. This makes approximately 11, 1 cup servings.

Ingredients:

2 tablespoons of olive oil

4 large celery stalks, sliced

3 large carrots, peeled and sliced

1 large white onion, chopped

6 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons of dried oregano

4 cups of low sodium organic vegetable broth

4 cups of water

2 (14-ounce) cans of diced tomatoes (basil, garlic, oregano flavored) in juice

1 bag (about 14 ounces) of lentils, rinsed

Directions:

Saute the onions, celery, carrots, garlic, oregano, and rosemary in the olive oil until the onions are translucent. Add the vegetable broth, water, and tomatoes with their juice. Bring it to a boil and then add the lentils. Reduce to a simmer, and cover. It should take about 40 minutes for the lentils to become tender. Add black pepper to taste and serve.

Approximate calculations of nutritional value per 1 cup serving:

Calories: 144

Fat: 2 g

Saturated Fat: 0.3 g

Sodium: 422 mg

Carbohydrates: 30 g

Fiber: 12 g

Sugar: 4 g

Protein: 10 g

Comparing this to the original recipe you are avoiding approximately 126 calories, 506 mg of sodium, 5 g of fat, 2 g of saturated fat, 57 mg of cholesterol per serving! You could take this recipe even further by purchasing canned tomatoes with no salt added and by skipping the sautéing part by cooking the vegetables in the broth or by sautéing and draining the oil prior to adding the broth.

These strategies can be used in tackling all your favorite recipes. Even though you may not think that it makes a huge difference, every little bit matters.

Happy cooking everyone!

***Keep in mind, these are approximations based on brands I have used and the brands I have compared them too. The above figures are just to give you an estimation of the benefits of making these changes.

Please don’t pass the salt

Salt, or its alter ego sodium, has become a huge problem for Americans. The U.S. government has been compelled to address the issue, claiming that 50% of Americans need to drastically reduce their daily sodium intake. How do you know if you’re in that 50%? Should we all be taking steps to reduce the sodium in our lives?

Sodium is extremely important for many of your body’s daily tasks, like controlling your fluid levels, so why is too much a problem? If you intake more salt than your kidneys can filter out, the sodium that builds up in your blood causes you to retain fluids (that gorgeous bloating look you get after a really salty meal). This in turn elevates your blood pressure because of the increased stress on your heart from having to pump the larger amount of blood. High blood pressure is associated with various ailments including heart disease and stroke so it isn’t something to take lightly.

Sources of Sodium for Americans

When looking for the sources of sodium in the American diet, the Mayo Clinic found that an alarming 77% of sodium we intake comes from processed and prepared foods. This may shock some people who think that because they avoid processed foods they do not have to worry about their sodium intake. My warning to you all is that if you eat outside of your home, regardless of where you go, you should be concerned about your sodium intake. In my case, I found out that my favorite quick meal, an “all natural”  low fat chicken noodle soup served at a national chain restaurant, contains over 1400 mg of sodium. That’s over half of your daily recommended value of 2300 mg!

Besides limiting my dining out, I also avoid processed foods whenever possible (this can sometimes be difficult when your are a college student or someone on the go but it’s important to do the best you can). Additionally, I have taken the steps to reduce the salt I knowingly add to my meals. For example, I cannot control how much salt a company chooses to put in their vegetable broth, but I can choose a lower sodium option and mix broth with water to dilute the sodium. I can also eliminate extra sodium by avoiding the salt shaker altogether. It’s okay for food to come in flavors other than “salty.” If you learn to cook with herbs and spices I guarantee you won’t miss the extra salt. Basil, rosemary, cayenne pepper, oregano, and cumin, are just a few staples in my cabinet that give my food tons of flavor without the health risk.

There are many “salt traps” that can be easily avoided. For example, condiments such as salad dressings and sauces are notoriously high in sodium. Alternatives such as oil and vinegar, or making your own dressings and sauces could save you 100s of mg of sodium in just one serving. Try my favorite salad dressing which is balsamic vinegar with garlic powder and black pepper sprinkled on top. You’ll forget all about your trusty salt shaker.

Another trap is deceiving product labels. Just because a label says that the product has “reduced sodium” doesn’t mean you should add it to your pantry. It’s important to check all labels because “reduced sodium” could still be an excessive amount.

Reducing your daily sodium intake is likely to be beneficial to your health and is easily possible once you know what to look out for and what to do to make the transition painless. Feel free to leave your sodium reducing tips below.

The Superbowl Sunday Sabotage

For those of you with the new year’s resolution of eating healthier and getting in better shape, Superbowl Sunday could be your biggest nightmare. Since you committed to improving your lifestyle, you probably have not had many opportunities for major temptation. Barely any holiday parties (unless you celebrated Chinese New Year) and there has not been much time for birthday parties (unless you know 15 people with January birthdays and went to each of their parties). It has been a pretty safe ride so far… until now.

I heard on the radio today that Superbowl Sunday is the number one pizza ordering and delivery day. They recommend that orders be placed far in advance to insure your pies make it before the post-game champagne celebrations in the locker room. Of course it does not stop at just pizza. There are always tons of other unhealthy snack options to trip up on. It can be pretty easy to end up overindulging on the endless food options.

My previous advice for holiday parties still stands but I would like to offer further advice. For some reason, sports and dips go hand in hand. Before you get carried away with the french onion dip while watching the game, remember, the guys you are watching on the field are burning 100s of calories… you are not.

First off, skip the chips altogether. If you are worried that a veggie platter will not be there then bring your own. I do this often. For example, many times people fail to add a fruit salad to the dessert table so I take one.

The next step is resist dipping the veggies in the unhealthy dips like blue cheese or ranch. Instead, make your own healthier dips like hummus or even guacamole. The Doctors show has a few great dip recipes that can really reduce your calorie intake at one of these parties.

It is so important to continue to push on with your new year’s resolutions because the longer you stay in line, the easier it becomes. For those of you that have already given in to temptation or end up doing so today, don’t give up! Just because you have not been perfect with your resolution does not mean that you should give up on the idea entirely. Get back on the horse and continue on the ride to a better, more healthier you.

The New Year’s Let Down

Have you ever started a new year with an unfeasible resolution?

I know too many people who eat themselves into a food coma all the way up until 11:59 pm on December 31st. At midnight their new year’s resolution to lose 10, 20, or 50 pounds begins. What they do not realize is that they have had this same goal every January 1st for the past five years. Why are these people having to repeat the same resolution year after year? Probably because they did not lose the weight they wanted or maybe ended up gaining even more weight.

Would you say they are hopeless? I can guarantee they feel that way.

Will it stop them from starting the whole process again on January 1st of the following year? Probably not.

I think the biggest reason for new year’s resolution failures is setting unrealistic goals. For example, f you have always been a below average student you should not say to yourself, “next semester I am going to get straight A’s.” Why do I think this? Well chances are it will take a while to adjust your learning and studying habits. Also, if you end up getting straight B’s instead, you will feel defeated and think that trying hard will never work. You will fail to realize that maybe the teacher was impossible and only one student received an A.

A more realistic goal would be to try your hardest in every class and do whatever possible to get the best grade you can. That way, if you get straight B’s you know you tried your hardest and you could not do anything more.

How can this be applied to a someone wanting to purge the pudge? For starters, they should stop obsessing about a particular number. Is it really so terrible if you lose 10 pounds instead of the 20 you wanted? Every bit matters and every pound gets you closer to your long-term goals.

The focus should be on exercising more and making better food choices. If you focus on the journey rather than the destination, I guarantee you will be a better you at the end of the year without the pressure and disappointment that most new year’s resolutions bring.

This new year’s, remember to take smaller steps when trying to better yourself. You will be much less likely to trip.

Have a happy and healthy new year!

Beat the Holiday Bulge

Are you worried about how the holidays will impact your waistline? Concerned that the spiked eggnog will hinder your ability to ‘just say no!’ to the array of desserts taunting you? Well, If your parties are anything like my family parties, you can easily consume 1000s of calories if you are not careful.

My suggestion, start eating before the party. Sounds counter-intuitive right? It is if you think I am talking about loading up on sugar cookies. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as building up a calorie tolerance. My suggestion is to eat a large salad (skip the blue cheese dressing of course) and a handful of walnuts right before you head out. It will keep you satisfied for at least an hour, letting you skip the appetizer period when people tend to eat the most.

At the party, drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated will also keep you from overeating. If staying sober is not an option, then be sure to go for lower calorie drink choices. Skip fruity drinks that are often loaded with calories and go for a glass of wine, a light beer, or a flavored liquor on the rocks. When drinking, pace yourself. Even a light beer can add over 500 calories in just one night if you are having 1-2 an hour. Being drunk will not help you with portion control either. If you can not tell me how many fingers I am holding up, then you will have a hard time distinguishing one brownie from six.

When it comes to eating at the party, choose the little plate. Getting the large plate just encourages you to fill it up and before you know it, you will have eaten every last bite. With the smaller plate, you will probably end up eating much less because you will have to get up and refill your plate four or more times to get the same amount of food as the big plate. Chances are, the booze you allotted yourself will keep you in your chair.

The last way to not regret the holidays is to keep exercising. Do not use the holidays as an excuse to become a bigger you. Even if you are in charge of cooking an elaborate meal, there are always time periods that there is nothing to do. Use that time to walk briskly around the block instead of taste-testing everything you have made.

Remember, the holidays are a great time to enjoy the company of others and to indulge (just a little!) on things you would normally avoid. By taking these extra steps, you can make your new years resolution that much easier to achieve.

Happy holidays!

Addictions…

When you think of the word addiction, what comes to mind? Heroin, cigarettes, prescription drugs? Most of us would think that we are not addicts because we do not use any of those kinds of substances, but I am here to say that there are addictions beyond the obvious ones. I am coming out and saying I was addicted to soda.

Just because something is not illegal or because it is a part of our everyday lives does not mean excessive use is not an addiction. Researchers are finding that addictions to fast food, candy, soda, etc. are very much real, just as any drug addiction. The study demonstrated how animals who were fed a high fat diet had clear changes in their dopamine receptors causing them to become more compulsive eaters. The animals also refused to eat healthy food even when that was the only kind of food given.

So what is the big deal about dopamine receptors? Dopamine receptors are in charge of managing the body’s pleasure responses to drugs, foods, alcohol, etc. so when we indulge again and again, the body starts reducing the number of these receptors. The big problem with this is as the number of receptors decreases, we need to increase the amount we intake in order to get that same pleasure response. Are you starting to see how you can be addicted to that cheeseburger and how it is very similar to drug and alcohol addictions?

Currently, I do not eat fast food very often but my one addiction has always been soda. I have never gotten to the point of drinking various 2-liters a day, but for most of my life I have drank 1-2 cans a day. I have tried to quit drinking soda but just like a drug, I relapsed again and again. I realized that to quit soda I had to do it gradually.

First, I stopped drinking soda at home. This was pretty easy because if you realize when you crave things like soda it is usually when you are out to eat at a restaurant, or eating really greasy foods at a fast food joint. You will quickly find that water goes just fine along side a healthy meal you prepare yourself. I then started eliminating the soda I drank when I was out. You have no idea how hard it is to resist the value meal option at Subway! I actually had them give me water in the same cups they serve soda so I could trick my brain. This was actually pretty helpful.

The biggest advice I can give about any addiction (and I used this myself with soda), is something I picked up from a past drug addict talking on The Doctors show. He said that every time he had a craving, he would urge himself to wait until tomorrow to get his fix. He told himself that he would get through today and have his fix tomorrow. By the time tomorrow came, the urgency was no longer there and he could keep on. It sounds silly but it really works. Next time you are going to go get ice cream, tell yourself you will get it tomorrow and watch the days between servings increase!

Although I still have the occasional soda, I am definitely not addicted to it anymore. I hope that you all are inspired to break one addiction you have today!

Granola: Health Food or Health Hazard

As a kid, I definitely had my share of granola bars. I have flirted with all the different flavors, but have been committed to the chocolate chip chewy granola bars. I have also never been concerned with the contents of the bars, because granola is supposed to be good for you right? I have come to find that this is not always the case.

The basics of granola are simple: whole grain rolled oats and honey, toasted in the oven. Sometimes nuts, dried fruit, and seeds are added as well. Granola is an amazing source of whole grains and can provide protein, phosphorus, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, etc. etc. depending on the kind you get.

Look at your box of granola bars and count how many extra ingredients it contains. How many of those ingredients are sugar in one form or another? Pretty shocking right? So now we see yet another really amazing health food, get drowned in so many bad ingredients that you might as well pick up a Kit Kat bar.

The goal with granola is to make sure it is organic, contains no trans fats, is sweetened naturally, and contains no artificial preservatives, flavors, or colors. If you follow those tips, you are likely to find a product that is extremely good for you. If this does not sound appetizing and all you can picture is chewing on a tree branch I promise you, granola is for everyone.

Today I ventured out to try loose granola (in a bag and not packed into bars) to see if it is even edible. I went to my local grocery store and picked up Back to Nature’s Apple Blueberry granola.

It satisfies all the requirements and it was delicious! I ate it right out of the bag and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The best part, is that each 1/2 cup serving size contains 38g of whole grains which brings you much closer to the recommended 48g a day than my favorite granola bar would (containing only 18g).

Although you may think healthy granola is out of reach, this bag (8 servings worth) was $3.59, less than your Starbucks coffee. It may still be tempting to buy that giant box of fruity sugary cereal for that same price or less but remember, what you save now on price, you may be paying for it later with your health. My suggestion: pay a little more now for a great source of whole grains, no trans fats, and reduced sugar content.

And if you are still obsessed with the idea of granola in bar form, there are tons of great recipes online to make your own. Making your own granola bars guarantees that you know what is in it and you can control how much sugar you are adding.

So what is the verdict? Granola is definitely a health food if done right. Enjoy granola, your body will thank you.

Quinoa, the Protein Disguised as a Grain

So I have decided that my first post will be about quinoa.

I first came across quinoa when it was presented on The Doctors television show as one of the healthiest food items. I quickly began reading about it and was presently surprised. Quinoa is 100% whole grain, wheat free, gluten free, and it contains all the essential amino acids so it is considered a complete protein. It is also an excellent source of fiber, iron, phosphorus, and riboflavin. Basically quinoa is the perfect side dish (replacing rice, pasta, etc.) to all those who vegetarian (who are always looking for different ways to get their daily protein), allergic to wheat or gluten, or to someone who is just looking for a healthier option.

Quinoa is also a joy to prepare. It cooks extremely fast on the stove, in a rice cooker, or even in the microwave, and it readily absorbs the flavors you cook it in.

Below is a picture of how I prepared quinoa this evening:

I cooked it on the stove in low sodium chicken broth and once cooked mixed in a dressing of fresh thyme, dried oregano, black pepper, extra virgin olive oil, and lemon juice.

I know it does not look very appetizing but I promise it is delicious! Imagine really tiny grains of rice but with more of a bite to it. If you cannot imagine what it would be like (or even if you can) I strongly recommend trying this out.

I was able to find the above box at my local grocery store (which is not the most health food friendly store) so I imagine that it is becoming readily available at most stores. I located it in the organic foods aisle but if your store does not have one, it could probably be found among the rice and pastas. If you cannot find it in stores it is widely available online as well.

It paid around $4 for the box but each box contains approximately 7-8 servings. Not a bad deal for an organic, 100% whole grain, complete protein, extremely healthy option.

I strongly suggest trying out quinoa and incorporating it into your diet. If you have had quinoa before or were convinced to try a new recipe let me know how it turned out. I love hearing about new ways to cook the things I love.