Friday, October 30, 2009

The skinny on soda

I  know I shouldn't drink diet soda. The chemicals. The studies that say it can make you gain weight. The aftertaste. But there are times when nothing else will do. 

One of our clients, Hudson Health Plan, teamed up with one of its dental providers, PRASAD, to demonstrate good dental practices to the students at Ellenville (NY) Elementary School. The message's timing was exact: the week the kiddies would be donning costumes and filling their sacks with candy. But while they had a captive audience, they also impressed on the kids that soda is to be avoided at all costs — except perhaps as a special treat for a birthday.

The event got me thinking about soda in an entirely different way. If it attacks our teeth, what is it doing to our insides? Soda consumption has more than quadrupled in the last 40 years. We all consume about five cans of soda each day. And our soda sizes are exploding. Once we were happy with 8 ounces; today, a small soda is 12 ounces.

This all leads me to my goal this week: I will drink no diet soda. Instead, I will drink seltzer and water. Because this is hard goal for me, it is my only goal.

To help me out, I found these interesting facts on, which I have printed out and will keep tucked in my wallet — just in case!

1. The sugar in soda can increase insulin levels in the blood, which over time can lead to type 2 diabetes, as well as high blood pressure, heart disease and weight gain. Consuming just one can of soda a day can increase your weight by 18 pounds per year.

2. Phosphoric acid found in many types of soda inhibits the proper absorption of calcium causing bones to become week and teeth to become soft. Is it any wonder the incidence of osteoporosis continues to increase in America? Additionally, Americans have the highest incidence of osteoporosis in the world.

3. Many sodas contain caffeine, which acts as a stimulant and energy enhancer. However, caffeine increases urine output further contributing to water losses.

4. Diet sodas contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener. Aspartame has been challenged by many people who claim they have had serious side affects, such as headaches, dizziness, seizures and nausea, from its use. For those who drink diet soda as an alternative to sugary soda, aspartame can interfere with the body's ability to reach weight-loss goals.

5. Soda also contains sodium, a nutrient that promotes water retention. When sodium levels are excessive in the body, the resulting water retention can cause other health risks, such as increased blood pressure.

6. Drinking soda can lead to other health problems because large amounts of soda can decrease your appetite for fruits, vegetable and essential nutrients.

7. It has been widely accepted that Coke can also be used to loosen rusted bolts, clean up blood stains, clean corrosion off battery terminals and remove stubborn toilet bowls stains.

8. One glass of water can alleviate late-night hunger.

9. Obtaining the recommended eight to 10 glasses of water a day can ease joint pain.

10. Drinking at least five glasses of water each day can reduce the incidence of colon cancer, bladder cancer and breast cancer.

11. Drinking the suggested eight to 10 glasses a day can maintain appropriate weight levels.

12. If you are exercising vigorously, be sure to drink three cups of water for every pound lost after exercise.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Power of food

I can't explain it, but I am viewing food differently these days. I am not looking at a piece of cheesecake and thinking "bad, bad, cheesecake" as I eat the whole thing.

I realized this last weekend, when we were eating with a group of friends at my favorite restaurant, 121 Restaurant & Bar at Oxford Airport in Connecticut. Our dinner, as always, was magnificent, and I controlled myself, filling up on salad before my rich entree of duck and risotto. (Kudos to Chef Bryan Gilmour and his wonderful, young, talented staff.) Of course we had all saved room for some dessert, except we decided to share, and not order one for each person. As the desserts were circulating among the six of us, the only one I really craved was the Creme Brulee, which at 121 is among the best I have ever had: decadently smooth and creamy, with a hard crust that screams "EAT ME!" I did, but only three bites. And for me, that is an amazing feat.

My conclusion: Right now, food does not have the power over me it once had. Food can't make me eat it. It's me who makes me eat food. No one is forcing me to eat anything. I really do have the power to say "No," and now that that fact has penetrated my brain, it is really freeing.

I pray this lasts. I know that this is the way people stay trim. For many, it comes naturally. Unfortunately, for me, it is anything but natural, although it is getting easier.

Today's recipe is a continuation of this week's Pick of the Week: My take on an apple pie. I know: It's nothing like apple pie, but believe me, if I am craving something sweet around 8 p.m., this does the trick. I pair it with a cup of Teavana Haute Chocolate Rooibos tea — — and I'm sated.

Val's Fake Apple Pie: Slice 1 apple, leave the peel on, but removing the stem, seeds and core. Sprinkle with cinnamon and nutmeg. Microwave until apples are soft — this depends on your microwave and the type of apples you use. Check it after 2 minutes, then every minute after that.

I was honest: It is not the real thing. But it is delicious and stops me from raiding the pantry.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pick of the Week: Apples

Pick of the Week: Apples

Is there anything better than a just-picked autumn apple, juicy and crunchy, without the mealy texture so many apples take on in a few months. Controlled-atmosphere -- or CA -- has definitely made it easier for apples to be stored throughout the year, but CA apples are just not as fresh tasting as the real thing.

Choosing: It seems apple varieties keep growing each year. Gone are the days that McIntosh, Granny Smiths, Red and Golden Delicious, Cortland and Empire were just about it at the market. And each variety has its own taste profile and desirable use. For example, although McIntosh are great for eating and in salads, they really star in applesauce because of the high water content. My advice: Read the variety description most markets display, and if you need additional information, talk to the produce manager. Or, contact me, and I'll help you out!

For any apple, be sure they are firm, with smooth, unblemished skin. Because apples are No. 2 on the list of dirty vegetables, I only buy organic. If you want to buy non-organic, you can always follow the Clorox Bath I wrote about yesterday.

Store: Apples do best in a cool, dry place. Refrigerators are perfect. At room temperature, apples ripen 10 times faster than those in the fridge.

Applesauce: Nothing could be easier -- or healthier. I always use McIntosh, which I quarter (include skin, stems, core and seeds), and place in a soup pot. Add nothing else. Simmer over low heat until apples get really mushy. It will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the apples and the number in your pot. When soft, transfer apples, a few pieces a pieces at a time into a Foley food mill. (If you don't have one, check out a hardware store; Amazon sells them for less than $30. Mine was my mom's; they last forever.) Place the food mill over a bowl and crank the handle, forcing sauce through. Repeat until all apples are milled. Taste; add cinnamon. Sweetener is really not needed.

The following recipe is from "The Essential EatingWell Cookbook," by the folks that publish my favorite food magazine, EatingWell. The recipes are always wonderful, clearly written, and definitely fit into a healthy lifestyle. I love this fruit crumble, not too sweet, but a great antidote if you want a little something after your meal.

Apple Crumble
1 1/2 lbs. apples, peeled and sliced (5 cups)
1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup old-fashioned rolled oats (not instant)
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
Pinch of salt
1 Tblsp. butter, cut into small pieces
1 Tblsp. canola oil
3 Tblsp. frozen orange juice concentrate
1 Tblsp. chopped slivered almonds or walnuts
1 1/2 cups reduced vanila ice cream or nonfat frozen yogurt, optional
  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat an 8-inch square baking dish or 1 1/2- to 2-quart dish with cooking spray.
  • Filling: Combine all filling ingredients in a large bowl. Toss to coat. Place filling in prepared baking dish. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes.
  • Topping: Mix flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl with a fork. Add butter and blend with a pastry blender or your fingertips. Add oil and stir to coat. Add orange juice concentrate and blend with your fingertips until dry ingredients are moistened.
  • When fruit had baked for 20 minutes, stir it and sprinkle topping evenly over the surface. Sprinkle with almonds or walnuts. Bake, uncovered, until fruit is bubbly and tender and topping is lightly browned, 20 to 25 minutes more. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature with ice cream or frozen yogurt, if desired.
  • Makes 8 1/2 cup servings. Per serving: 232 calories, 4g fat, 49g carbohydrates, 3g protein, 5g fiber, 17mg sodium.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Clorox bath

One of my first blog confessions was that I have been on just about EVERY diet ever conceived. I've eaten watermelon for a day, fasted, and ate low-carb, high fat, low-cal, blood type, anti-inflammatory -- if it had the word "diet" in it, I was a follower, at least for a week or two.

Before my daughter Caitlin's wedding five years ago, I decided I needed to drop some serious weight. And I did -- and actually kept most of that off -- following the Fat Flush Plan by Ann Louise Gittleman. Gittleman is a huge proponent of organics, but even just five years ago, organics were not easy to find. They were also very pricey. Recognizing this, Gittleman included directions in her book for cleansing non-organics with a Clorox Bath. Yup: I did write Clorox. You are probably just as turned off as I was with the thought of soaking food in Clorox, but I've done it for years and have lived to pass on the formula.

The Clorox bath was developed in the 1960s by Dr. Hazel Parcells, who was head of nutrition at Sierra State University in California. Gittleman writes in her book: "A friend brought her (Dr. Parcells) a bunch of shriveled lemons, which she decided to dump in water with some Clorox for some unknown reason. Amazingly, within a half hour, the lemons regenerated and plumped up. Dr. Parcells surmised that the Clorox enabled the lemons to take in oxygen and become fresh once again."

Clorox is not the same as chlorine, the chemical added to drinking water. The active ingredient in Clorox, sodium hypochlorite, breaks down into salt and water. Further testing by Parcells found that pesticides, parasites and other contaminants are removed with this simple soak.

When she first developed the formula, Dr. Parcells called for 1/2 teaspoon of Clorox -- and yes, according to Parcells it has to be Clorox -- to 1 gallon of water. In 1996, she increased the Clorox to 1 teaspoon because of the increasing chemicals and bacteria in our foods. To read more about Parcells, visit For more on Gittlleman, Gittleman's diet works: But after five months, I could not follow it anymore, and within a few weeks, had regained 10 pounds, 15 pounds a few months later. I did keep off around 30 pounds, so I would call that a success.

The Clorox Bath

This technique will rid the food items of harmful toxins, chemicals, sprays, and poisons, and it will noticeably improve the flavor and shelf life of food. It does not leave a Clorox aftertaste: There is just not enough Clorox in the water. And after the bath, the food is soaked again in fresh water to remove residue.

Soak all your fruits, eggs, meats, and vegetables in a bath of 1 teaspoon Clorox to 1 gallon of purified, ozonated and/or electrolyte water. Soaking times:

  • Leafy vegetables (15 minutes)
  • Root vegetables (30 minutes)
  • Thin-skinned berries (15 minutes)
  • Thick-skinned fruits (30 minutes)
  • Eggs (30 minutes)
  • Thawed meats (5-10 minutes per pound)

Prepare a fresh batch of Chlorox water for each category of foods; dispose of baths after use. After soaking in the Clorox Bath, Parcells recommends soaking in a fresh water bath for 50 minutes before using. Gittleman says 10 minutes is enough time for the last soak. Dry foods well.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Recipe Exchange

For more than two decades, I met the readers of The Advocate and Greenwich Time newspapers through our weekly Recipe Exchange column. It was one of the best parts of my job, a chance to connect with thousands of people over the years.

From now on, every Monday, I'll make room for Recipe Exchange, with one main difference: the recipes should be fairly nutritious, because, after all, I am trying to lose weight. But life does not revolve around lettuce and celery, so if a dish has a bit more fat and calories, so be it. We'll concentrate on tiny bites and portion control. But like the newspapers' Recipe Exchange column, this one will only work if people help me out -- and start sending in recipes. Ann ? Terri? Anyone!

When I posted a slow cooker recipe last week, my friend, Terri, immediately asked for some more. So today, I offer two soups, one a Mexican-style, the other a hearty fish chowder. Both are flavorful and filling -- perfect to come home to when there is a chill in the air. Start the meal with a big salad, and serve the soup with a loaf of crusty bread. Nothing could be easier.

This one is from me. I'm looking for healthy munchies to snack on before the Thanksgiving feast, and some tempting sides that are not loaded with butter and bread.

1 1/2 lbs. boneless chicken, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 15-oz. can whole tomatoes, cut up
1 10-oz. can enchilada sauce
1 white onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 4-oz. cans diced green chilies
1 jalapeno, diced (optional; if you like things spicy, use 2!)
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp. ground cumin
2 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. dried oregano
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bay leaf
1 10-oz. pkg. frozen corn
Grated Parmesan for serving
  • Combine all ingredients, except Parmesan, in crock pot. Cook on low heat 6 to 8 hours; 3 to 4 hours on high heat.
  • Spoon into bowls and sprinkle with Parmesan.
1 lb. fish, such as flounder, haddock, halibut, grouper, mahi mahi, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 cups diced, peeled potatoes
1 8-oz. bottle clam juice
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 tsp. dried rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
1 10-oz. pkg. frozen spinach
1/3 cup fat-free half-and-half
1 Tblsp cornstarch
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • Place all ingredients, except half-and-half, cornstarch and parsley in slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for 7 to 8 hours, or on high 3 to 4 hours.
  • One hour before soup is finished, mix together half-and-half and cornstarch, until cornstarch dissolves. Add slowly to the soup, stirring as you are adding. Gently add parsley. Cook an hour longer.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Thank you, Heather Wellness

Friday is always the day I set aside to reflect on the past week — and usually to talk about my progress.

It's been slow. I am down 9 pounds — and looking forward to hitting 10 — but for the first time in my life, I am in no rush. And the reason for my new attitude is Heather Pierce, who I love to call Heather Wellness, a nutrition and lifestyle coach and one of the sweetest women I have ever met. Just being in her company forces me to take some deep breaths and calm down.

I started meeting with Heather in August because I realized I needed help losing weight. At my free consultation, she told me how she approaches change, and how she will get me to stop dwelling on calories, carbs, fat, proteins, restrictions, and lists of good foods and bad. Her goal will be to enable me to create a happy, healthy life. And in the process, I will start dropping pounds.

Sounded good to me, so I signed up. And although she told me she would not be giving me a diet to follow, after my first session, I admit I was a bit discouraged. I wanted Heather to tell me what I could or couldn't eat. Instead, she suggested I try adding greens to my diet for two weeks — the greens that most people ignore at the market, but the ones I actually love. We're talking spinach, kale, bok choy, chard. And she gave me recipes and a baby bok choy to get me started.

As I was driving home that night, I had an aha moment, as I began to understand what Heather was saying. She was going to add good foods to my diet, and eventually they would crowd out the bad.

I've grown to love our hourlong chats, when she asks me not only about my diet, but about my sleeping patterns, my stress, my kids, my husband — which subconsciously I know contribute to the way I eat, but didn't realize the extent. As Heather writes on her Web site, "Healthy relationships, a fulfilling career, regular physical activity and a spiritual practice are essential forms of nourishment. When these 'primary foods' are nourished, what you eat becomes secondary." OK: I still am having trouble with food becoming secondary, so I am definitely a work in progress.

But Heather is not giving up. She is always there to offer possible solutions to all my concerns, many of which I have never considered bringing into my life. (For example: A hot water bottle, my mom's favorite remedy for any ache and pain, can ease arthritic hands, keep cold feet warm at night, or soothe a tired, stressed body into sleep.) And if I need a nudge between visits, Heather is as close as e-mail, the phone, or her blog,

Heather Wellness, you are making me see the light.

My goals for next week:
1. I never had trouble drinking 64 ounces of water. Now I am. I've got to improve.
2. Try meditating three times this week, five minutes each time.

Past goals that I am working on:
1. Exercise 4 times this week, 20 minutes each time. I exercised 6 times, twice for 30 minutes. Maybe I'm on to something: 20 minutes goes by in a flash and I still make it to work on time.
2. Eat something different at breakfast, instead of my usual cottage cheese and nonfat yogurt, mixed with an apple and cinnamon. I added steel cut oatmeal, and changed the toppings throughout the week. I like this better than the cottage cheese and nonfat yogurt. So does my tummy.
3. Chew each bite 20 times: Still getting better. But sometimes I forget.

Consider these done:
1. Weigh myself each day.
2. Except for days I eat lunch out, beans and walnuts are substituted for chicken in my daily salad.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Dirty veggies!

I try to buy organic whenever possible -- so much easier now that organics comprise a huge section of my market. But I recently came across a list of the 12 most contaminated non-organic foods, and was horrified to see that the fruit I eat most often — apples — is No. 2 on the hit list.

The list was compiled by the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit in Washington that advocates for health-protective and subsidy-shifting policies, with an eye toward “shaming and shaking up polluters and their lobbyists,” according to their Web site,

EWG analysts developed this list based on data collected between 2000 and 2008 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from about 87,000 tests for pesticide residues in produce.

What If find most upsetting is that the EWG says that rinsing residue from produce does not eliminate pesticides. Peeling helps, but the peels are loaded with vitamins. And, according to the EWG, if you eat the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables, you consume an average of 10 pesticides a day.

Shopping used to be so much easier!

For the full list of 47 tested foods, check out There’s even a handy little list that fits into your wallet, so you will always know the most — and the least — contaminated fruits and vegetables.

Here's a list of the best -- and the worst -- foods:

Dirty Dozen: Most Contaminated Non-Organic Foods

  1. Peaches
  2. Apples
  3. Sweet Bell Peppers
  4. Celery
  5. Nectarines
  6. Strawberries
  7. Cherries
  8. Pears
  9. Grapes (Imported)
  10. Spinach
  11. Lettuce
  12. Potatoes

Least Contaminated Non-Organic Foods

  1. Onions
  2. Avocado
  3. Sweet Corn (Frozen)
  4. Pineapples
  5. Mango
  6. Asparagus
  7. Sweet Peas (Frozen)
  8. Kiwi Fruit
  9. Bananas
  10. Cabbage
  11. Broccoli
  12. Papaya
I love making my noon salad, and like it even better now that I have substituted beans and nuts for the chicken. My mix is simple -- no proportions, I just mix enough to keep me satisfied and happily munching away while I eat at my desk. Since I'm chewing each bite of salad at least 20 times, it takes me an hour or more to finish this feast.

My Daily Salad
Baby spinach
Chopped fennel
1 scallion, diced
1 apple, diced
Daikon, diced
1/2 cup beans, such as chickpeas or black beans
1 Tblsp. chopped walnuts or sunflower seeds

My dressing of choice is usually 2 Tblsp. of a Newman's Own low-fat dressing. I love all of the Newman's dressings, especially the lime (very hard to find), and the ginger. But I was going through my recipes recently and came across an old favorite, long forgotten -- Apricot and Rosemary Vinegar.

I quickly made a batch and in a few weeks it will be ready. This vinegar is a perfect addition to any salad, but especially one starring fruit. Plus, it is perfect as is, without oil, so that automatically cuts calories.

Make it in bulk, then package in pretty glass jars, and the vinegar becomes a great gift from your kitchen, a wonderful take-along to any holiday party. Just be sure to replace the rosemary sprigs with fresh ones. If rosemary is not your favorite herb, fresh oregano or thyme works just as well.

Apricot and Rosemary Vinegar
4 dried apricots, chopped
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 cups good-quality apple cider vinegar
  • Place the chopped dried apricots in a 3-cup bottle with a large opening. Add the rosemary and pour in the vinegar. Cover and shake well.
  • Set aside in a cool, dry place for 4 weeks. Shake once or twice a day.
  • Pass the vinegar through a fine mesh sieve lined with cheesecloth. Press down on the fruit and rosemary to extract as much flavor as possible.
  • The vinegar keeps in a cool, dry place at least a year.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pick of the Week: Figs

When I think of fall, I think of sweaters, boots, apples, winter squash, long walks, beautiful leaves — and figs. Why figs? Because I know soon, the season is over, so now is the time I eat my fill.

I'm not talking Newtons here. I’m talking fresh figs, one of the least understood fruits that Mother Nature has to offer.

When I was choosing my figs last night, a little girl — with the biggest of blue eyes — was staring me down. “What are those?” she asked, wrinkling her nose. I told her “those” are figs, one of my favorite fruits, which to me tastes like a cross between a peach and strawberry. “But they are so ugly,” she said.

And there lies the problem. They are pretty unattractive, although some call the fruit erotic and claim it is a powerful sexual stimulant. Guess beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder. Figs have a long and storied past, one of the oldest known fruits. They were Cleopatra’s favorite fruit, the tree under which Buddha meditated, and the Tree of Life and Knowledge for inhabitants from Central Africa to the Far East.

 I just like them — in all their many varieties. The following are the most common:

Brown Turkey Figs have a brownish/copper-colored skin, often with hints of purple, and mostly pink/red flesh with some white mixed in. They are most commonly sold fresh.

Calimyrna Figs are big, with greenish-yellow skins. The crunchy seeds inside give this fig a slightly nutty taste.

Black Mission Figs get their name from the missionaries who planted this fruit along California’s coast. This fig is a deep purple that darkens to black when dried. It is one of the most versatile varieties, available fresh and dried.

Kadota Figs are nature’s candy, the sweetest of all figs. This variety is usually canned and dried, but if you see them at market, give them a try. They have a pale yellow skin and is pink to purple inside.

 Actually, give them all a try.

Choosing: By the time a fig reaches market, it’s ripe. They have a very short shelf life. The skin will become soft, but it should still be firm. The skin itself should be thin and moist. Leave bruised or split figs at the market. And please, handle them with care because they are very delicate. Like eggs, they belong at the top of your grocery bag.

Storing: As soon as you get home, place them in a container in a single layer and pop them in the refrigerator. Eat as soon as possible, definitely within a day or two.

This recipe was my mom’s favorite hors d’oeuvre, the perfect match with the Manhattans and martinis my parent’s group of friends favored. Although they are very rich, I recommend doubling the recipe. Stuffed Figs a la Vi tend to disappear very quickly. Make them early in the day, and pop them in the oven as your guests arrive.

Stuffed Figs a la Vi

6 large whole figs, quartered

Soft garlicky cheese such as Boursin

12 thinly sliced prosciutto, cut in half

3 Tblsp. honey

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
  • Cut a small hole in the center of each fig quarter. Fill each hole with 1/4 teaspoon Boursin.
  • Wrap 1 prosciutto half diagonally around a fig quarter, starting at the top. Tuck the ends underneath and place on prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining figs.
  • Drizzle honey evenly over each fig. Place in the oven on the top rack and roast for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove; serve immediately.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Organic, genetically modified: Here's how to tell

My mother lived the adage, "You are what you eat." It was at her side -- when I was just barely walking -- that I learned how to choose my fruits and veggies, what to look for in each variety, the ones to bring home, and the ones to leave with our neighborhood green grocer. She took as much care picking her produce as she did caring for her family. For my mom, it was all about love.

Which is why I have always gravitated toward organic produce and foods without added hormones. I avoid genetically modified foods just because I think they are wrong. I want my corn to taste like corn, without a hint of peanuts or soy or whatever the mix du jour some chemist decided will prolong the food's shelf life.

I am a purist, thanks to mom. I was recently talking about GM foods with a friend, who asked me how to tell if a food has been modified. It's actually simple -- a clue on every fruit and vegetable at markets around the world: the price look-up number, or what we affectionately call the PLU. If the number begins with an 8, it's been genetically modified. You can also tell which foods are organic and which aren't. Here's the key:
  • The PLU numbers on conventional produce fall within 3000 and 4000; so it begins with a 3 or 4.
  • Organic produce is a five-digit number that begins with 9.
  • And those GM foods are five-digit numbers beginning with 8.
For more information, check out, the Web site of the International Federation for Produce Standards. It's comforting to know that wherever you travel, if the produce has a PLU number, you will know how to read it.

Last night I put my slow cooker to use again -- after all, it is winter-like in Connecticut -- and made a Turkey Mole Chili that I threw together in the morning. That easy.

Turkey Mole Chili
1 lb. package (approx.) turkey breast, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 sweet onions, diced
1 large green pepper, seeded and diced
1 10-oz. pkg. sliced baby bella mushrooms
1 16-oz. jar salsa, your choice (we like things spicy, so I used a chiptole salsa)
2 Tblsp. chili powder
2 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
2 tsp. cumin
2 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. cinnamon
Shredded reduced fat cheese to sprinkle on top
  • Place all ingredients except the cheese in a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker. Cover and cook on high for 4-5 hours; low, 8-10 hours. Serve over brown rice, if desired. Sprinkle cheese on top.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Breakfast for diet champions

I always ate breakfast — until I met Jack, who still eats a banana each morning and calls it a meal. Know that I am not blaming my husband for turning me away from a meal I knew I should eat. But not eating breakfast became a habit. Plus, I thought I was saving calories.

Now we all know — or should know — that breakfast is a very important meal. Eat a good breakfast and you’ll have a better chance of controlling your food intake the rest of the day. Understand the word breakfast — breaking the fast from a night’s sleep — and you’ll be sure to make this meal part of your eating plan.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m heading for the nearest donut store to grab a chocolate glazed delight or Mickey Ds for an Egg McMuffin. And since one of this week’s goals is to eat something new each day for breakfast, I found this list on really helpful. The article I read also encouraged a breakfast of unprocessed, whole foods, which are digested and absorbed more slowly than refined, processed foods, and choosing foods with a low Glycemic impact, to lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.

What follows are 10 low-Glycemic Index breakfasts from eDiets. I’m eating one a day, but refining it. For example, this morning I started with breakfast No. 1: Steel-cut organic oats. But I added cinnamon, and substituted soy milk for cow's milk, and an apple for raisins. After all, it’s my eating plan!

For me, mixing it up at breakfast is also a test: I’m looking for the breakfasts that keep me satisfied until lunch.

1. Steel-cut oats and raisins with nonfat milk 
Whole-grain breakfast cereals, like whole oats, contain protein and fiber and stay with you throughout the morning. Although raisins have a high-glycemic index, their glycemic load is low, because in the proper portion size (2 tablespoons) it fits into your healthy diet.

2. Crunchy yogurt parfait 
Layered parfait of protein powder-fortified nonfat yogurt, wheat germ, chopped walnuts and blueberries.

3. Cottage-cheese berry delight 
Low-fat cottage cheese is a good source of protein and goes well any seasonal or frozen berries.

4. Southwestern omelet, whole-wheat toast and grapefruit 
Use egg substitute or two egg whites and one yolk; saute in a nonstick pan with diced onions, and green and red peppers. Add one-quarter teaspoon of chili powder, then add eggs and cook until set. Serve topped with a tablespoon of salsa. Round out this meal with whole-wheat toast and half a grapefruit.

5. Cheese-and-tomato sandwich with avocado 
Enjoy with whole-grain bread and low-fat cheese of choice. One-quarter cup of mashed avocado provides healthy monounsaturated fat that's quite satisfying and tasty.

6. Eggless egg sandwich 
Mix firm tofu, egg-free mayonnaise, Dijon mustard and garlic to taste. Serve on a whole-grain English muffin with cantaloupe.

7. Mexican cottage cheese 
Toast a sourdough or whole-wheat English muffin and top with 1-percent or fat-free cottage cheese and salsa. Serve with a cup of cantaloupe.

8. Berry nutty yogurt parfait 
Mix seasonal or frozen berries with a sprinkle of nuts and wheat germ. This combo works well together to achieve stable blood glucose and sustains you throughout the morning.

9. Vegetarian pita pocket 
Quickly saute onions, mushrooms, green pepper and diced firm tofu in a nonstick pan. Add a couple of teaspoons of tomato sauce, season with onion and garlic powder, and serve in a whole-wheat mini-pita pocket.

10. Cold (low GI) cereal with milk or dairy substitute and fruit 
Choose a cereal with at least 10 grams of fiber per serving — one that's low in sugar. Good choices include Kashi GOLEAN, Fiber One or All-Bran. Add 2 tablespoons of slivered almonds, your choice of 1-percent or nonfat milk or unsweetened soy or rice milk, and one cup of high-fiber berries.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Exercise dilemma

I knew one of this week's goals — to exercise 30 minutes three times a week — was going to be a challenge. How much of a challenge? Last night, I had to squeeze in the last 30 minutes. And the whole time I was doing the 2-mile "Walk Away the Pounds" video with Leslie Sansone, (; more about that later), I was internally yelling at myself for being such a slug.

There was a time when I exercised daily, and was quite fit. Why I stopped is a mystery, except I think kids, their schedules, my job, my home life, my husband and my friends, got in the way. Of course, my friend Beth would argue that is no excuse. And she is correct.

We all know we need to exercise. We all know it helps maintain weight, and when you are trying to shed pounds, it helps the process. We all know that to be really healthy, we need to get moving.

So why is it so hard to set aside a few minutes each day to get it done?

I had a eureka moment last night. As I was following Sansone's moves on the 2-mile walk, I thought, "Why not try the 1-mile walk four times next week?" Could you hear the "duh" that was resounding in my head. Yes, it was that loud.

You see, the 1-mile walk takes only 20 minutes; the 2-mile walk, 30; and the 3-mile walk, 45 minutes, aka a real commitment. I know it's only 10 minutes, but the difference between setting my alarm for 4:45 vs. 4:55 is a big deal. Plus, if I can't find 20 minutes a day to do something that is so good for me, then I better find a new life.

Last night, before I feel to sleep, I repeated this mantra: "When the alarm goes off, you jump out of bed." It somehow worked, which is kind of scary. I am definitely a hit-the-snooze-alarm person.

Without thinking this morning, I put on my sweats and sneakers, headed into my basement workout area (which prior to today has never been used), and put on Sansone's 1-mile walk, a really wonderful CD and a great deal. For $19.95, you get three walks — 1, 2, 3 miles — all led by Sansone and her eight walking buddies. I discovered this program six years ago, and off and on through the years, I have given it a try. And I know now why I've failed to continue with the program in the past: I have increased my walks to the 3-mile within a few weeks, and trying to fit in 45 minutes is an issue for me. 

So here's my new plan: I will do the 1-mile plan until I become like my friend Beth, who is miserable if she doesn't hit her gym daily. When I start loving the way exercise makes me feel, I will graduate to the 2-mile walk. Not before. I might never make it to the 2 miles, but I don't care. Doing the 1-mile walk is 1 more mile than I am now walking.

So like my new way of eating, I am taking baby steps. I'm just revving the steps up a tad.

This week's goals:
1. Exercise 4 times this week, 20 minutes each time.
2. Eat something different at breakfast this week. I am stuck on cottage cheese and nonfat yogurt, mixed with an apple and cinnamon. I like it, but variety is nice.

Update on past goals:
1. Exercise 30 minutes, 3 times a week: Enough said about that!
2. Eat vegetarian at lunch: Except for a lunch out, when I had chicken salad, I substitued my chicken for chickpeas and walnuts. I actually like this more than the chicken.
3. Chew each bite 20 times: getting better
4. Weigh myself each day: part of my day.

Happy Friday. Happy weekend!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Poor size 4

Shame on Ralph Lauren. Because of him, Filippa Hamilton is out of work.

It seems Hamilton, at 5-foot-10-inches, 120 pounds, is just too fat for the folks at Lauren. On yesterday’s Today Show, Hamilton told Ann Curry: “They (Lauren) said I couldn’t fit in their clothes anymore.” In a letter to Hamilton’s agent, Lauren wrote: “We’re terminating your services because you don’t fit into the sample clothes that you need to wear.”

She takes a size 4! Are these people for real? Not to mention company loyalty: Hamilton has been working for Lauren for eight years, since she was 15.

Ralph Lauren denied that she was fired for being too large. “We consider her an important part of our imaging and branding,” the designer said in a statement to the media. “We regret that our relationship has ended as a result of her inability to meet the obligations under her contract with us.”

Perhaps it’s time for Hamilton to visit Germany. Last week, I wrote about Germany’s most prominent women’s magazine, Brigitte, announcing it is banning professional models from its pages, instead featuring prominent women and regular readers in its beauty, fashion and fitness pieces. The magazine editor, Andreas Lebert, told the Associated Press that readers are tired of seeing protruding bones on models.

Of course, Hamilton’s size 4 frame is probably a tad too small for us mere mortals and the new pages of Brigitte. But if she finds the idea intriguing, she could actually eat a hamburger — or whatever treat she has been avoiding during the past eight years.

To get her started, she could try this easy slow-cooker recipe — our dinner last night. It really is yummy, nutritious and filling — what more can you ask from a weekday meal? It felt so good to come home last night to an already cooked meal. Got to use that crock pot more often!

Serve this savory stew over brown rice or couscous.

I am amending this post because of an e-mail I just received from my friend, Terri, who has been wanting to make lentil soup and thanked me for this recipe. This is not a soup — it is a thick, heavy stew, which I should have explained. After all, what's lentil stew? An accident actually — a happy occurrence after I did not add enough liquid to what was supposed to be lentil soup. I tasted it and thought I would try it over couscous. It was an even bigger hit than lentil soup, and since it was so thick, I called it stew!

Back to Terri: If you want to turn this into a soup, increase the liquid to 2 quarts. And yes, chicken or even beef broth or stock works just as well. Terri is also wondering if she could add a ham hock or chorizo to the mix. Absolutely! In fact, any sausage would do, and the smokier, the better the flavor.

Lentil Stew
1 lb. lentils, rinsed and picked over
5 cups vegetable stock
1 14.5-oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained
4 celery ribs, chopped
1 large onion, chopped
2 green peppers, chopped
2 carrots, cut in half lengthwise, then cut into 1-inch pieces
3 garlic cloves, diced
2 tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. salt
Grated rind from 1 lemon
Juice from 1 lemon
1 Tblsp. cider vinegar
2 tsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste, if needed
  • Place lentils, stock, tomatoes, celery, onion, peppers, carrots, garlic, oregano, basil and salt in slow cooker. Cover, and cook on low 8 to 9 hours.
  • Just before serving, add lemon rind, juice, cider vinegar and olive oil. If needed, add salt and pepper to taste.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Pick of the Week: Acorn squash

Each Wednesday, Diet? Not Again! will become Pick of the Week, the weekly column I wrote for more than two decades for The Advocate and Greenwich Time, two newspapers in Fairfield County, CT. I couldn't decide what day to feature it on my blog, but then thought — it's always been a Wednesday feature, so why mess with the past?

The hardest part about resurrecting the column was choosing the first pick. I finally decided on acorn squash, the perfect fall/winter vegetable. As soon as there is a bite in the air, there is a basket on my counter, mixed in with an assortment of apples and pears. To me, it's screams autumn and harvest, the calm before the holiday storm.

Choose: A well shaped squash, heavy for its size. Look it over: There should be no burises, cuts of soft spots.

Store: In a cool dry place. The beauty of winter squash is that it keeps for two months, which is why I always have a basket filled with the beauties in full view. Fall art.

Cook: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking dish with foil. Spray foil with cooking spray. Wash the outside of the squash, even though you won't be eating it. Just good practice with any fruit and vegetable. Halve the squash lengthwise and remove the seeds by scraping with a spoon. Place squash halves, cut side down, in a baking dish. Bake for 30 minutes. Turn squash. I sprinkle with cinnamon and a touch of nutmeg, but this is not necessary. Cover with foil and bake about 20 minutes more. You can also cook the halves in a microwave oven, in a baking dish, cut side down, with 2 tablespoons water on High for about 9 minutes. Let stand, covered, five minutes.

NOTE: If you have problems cutting the tough skin of the squash, just pop the whole squash in a microwave oven for a minute to soften a bit. If the squash halves roll, cut a small sliver from the bottom of each squash so they stand straight.


2 acorn squash, halved lengthwise and seeded

1 onion, chopped

Salt and pepper to taste

1 Tblsp. ginger, minced

1 tart apple, diced

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

1/4 cup dried cranberries

2 tsp. olive oil

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  • Line baking dish with foil. Spray foil with cooking spray. Place squash, cut side down,on baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes. Remove from oven and turn over. Reduce heat to 350 degrees.
  • While squash is baking, spray saute pan with cooking spray. Add onion and salt and pepper and saute until onion is soft, but not brown. Add ginger and apples and saute about 5 minutes more. Stir in cinnamon and nutmeg.
  • Transfer to a bowl.
  • Add bread crumbs, walnuts and cranberries to onion mixture; toss.
  • Fill squash halves with stuffing.
  • Drizzle oil over squash. Cover with aluminum foil and bake 30 minutes. Makes 4 side-dish servings.
  • NOTE: To make this a main dish, when making stuffing, add about half pound cooked sausage, removed from casing and crumbled.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tips and a recipe

An article on lists four ways to get a diet started: Know your weight loss goal, make a firm weight loss commitment, and combine exercise with diet. No revelations here.

It was the list's No. 2 that got me thinking: Know your weight loss personality. Is this the key to why I can be so good one week, eating only nutritious foods, and horrid the next? says personality plays a role in our attitude toward food, and to succeed, we need to know how we react to food and tailor our plan to conquer our "unproductive inclinations." Love that: Unproductive inclinations!

Thomas R. Przybeck, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, has published on the topic of diet and personality. Here's what he said to WebMD:

Impulsive. "If you have a tendency to be impulsive, you might see a pint of Ben & Jerry's in the freezer and go for it," Przybeck says. Clearly you are a dieter who needs to remove those temptations.

Oblivious. If you tend to not pay attention when you eat — maybe you're a TV snacker? — you need to avoid such situations if you want to control portions.

Uptight. "If you are highly anxious, you will probably have more difficulty," Przybeck says. "Those who are anxious, nervous, and depressed might eat to feel better."

Tenacious. Certain personalities don't find it that difficult losing weight. "If you are highly self-directed, cooperative, and have a lot of stick-to-it-ive-ness, you are going to have an easier time," Przybeck says.

Sociable. You tend to monitor your food intake better than others, Przybeck found.

Val's take:

My problem is that at any given time, I can be any of these five personalities. But, I did find it helpful, because now I know I am like everyone else — I just spread my personalities out. Keeps life interesting.

Impulsive: To be successful, I've removed everything in my house that will trigger a bout of eating. Ben & Jerry's cannot be in my freezer. Even the one in our garage. If I'm hungry, that's all I will see.

Oblivious: Snack in front of the TV? Give me a bag of chips, plop me on a couch, and in less time it takes to say, "Bet you can't eat just one," the whole bag will be gone. Snacks get portioned in the kitchen. Only then can I become a happy couch potato.

Uptight: You bet I eat when I'm feeling blue. So I visited, bought all kinds of yummy rooibos, green and herb teas, and have programmed myself to put the pot on to boil and make myself a cup of tea when I'm feeling down. The Haute Chocolate rooibos soothes anything.

Tenacious: That's me, the first five days of any diet. Come Saturday, my willpower disappears. Why do you think I started this blog? It's keeping me honest.

Sociable: See tenacious.

Today's recipe is terrific anytime, but especially after a busy day when the last thing you want to do is cook. It's one of the easiest meals to throw together. Add a loaf of bread — cornbread is even better — and call it dinner. I've made this soup with pork, chicken, shrimp, or even extra beans, and it's always terrific

Southwestern Soup
  • Cooking spray
  • 1 cup onion (if you are very busy, buy frozen chopped onion)
  • 1 green pepper, diced
  • 1 jalapeƱo, minced
  • 1 garlic clove minced (or buy the already chopped cloves)
  • 1 lb. chicken breast or pork tenderloin, cut in bite-sized pieces, or shrimp, shelled and deveined
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 3 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 tsp. oregano
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 15-oz. can large red kidney beans, rinsed and drained (or add two cans and leave out the meat or shrimp)
  • 1 14-oz. can diced fire tomatoes, undrained
  • Zest or 1 lime
  • 2 Tblsp. chopped fresh cilantro
  • Juice of half a lime
  1. Coat a small stock pot with cooking spray.
  2. Add onion, bell pepper and jalapeno and saute until soft.
  3. Add garlic; saute 2 minutes.
  4. Add chicken or pork (not shrimp); saute 3 minutes.
  5. Add broth, chili powder, cumin, oregano, salt, pepper, beans, tomatoes and lime zest; bring to a boil.
  6. Add shrimp, if using.
  7. Partially cover, reduce heat, and simmer 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  8. Remove from heat, and stir in cilantro and lime juice.