Mindful awareness

Monday, April 25, 2011

Thinking Outside the (Lunch) Box

A passage I read in a novel last month has stayed with me. The woman protagonist was about to prepare herself lunch when she was distracted by someone knocking on the door. As the scene proceeded and she answered the door I wondered to myself, “But I want to know what she prepared for her lunch.” Well, she returned to the kitchen table and I was disappointed to learn that she had made herself a sandwich.

Couldn’t the author think of something more creative – and nutritious – than a sandwich? I was disappointed on so many levels. Many people are perplexed about why they try to lose weight and they cannot. Some of them have gotten the message that they need to have a nutritious breakfast. People that skip breakfast weigh more than people that do not. Moving along to lunch, these very people who cannot understand why they aren’t losing weight need to look closely at their lunch habits. Taking lunch to the office from home will always save calories (and money). And avoiding sandwiches, whether one eats out or packs lunch, will also help shed unwanted pounds. Sandwiches are traditionally packed with empty calories and added preservatives, salt and sugar. We can construct one right now. Whole wheat bread purchased in packages from the grocery store will contain healthy fiber. But a single slice will have at least 100 calories. That is a lot of calories when it hasn’t been filled yet. Nutritionally the sodium content is relatively high (at least 7% RDA per slice) and the nutrient level relatively low (highest content is calcium and iron, about 4% RDA for each mineral). White bread has more saturated fat and simple sugars than whole wheat bread.

Condiments will add salt and sugar.  Mayonnaise will add the most fat and calories (90 calories for one tablespoon including 10 grams of fat and 90 milligrams of sodium).  Yellow mustard would be the wiser choice with only 3 calories, 57 milligrams of sodium, and 0.2 grams of fat in a teaspoon-size serving (Dijon has 5 calories and 120 milligrams of sodium).

People put all different things into their sandwiches, but processed lunchmeat is a popular filler. Two thinly sliced pieces are considered a serving. Ham adds about 92 calories and 730 mg of sodium. Lean ham cuts calories to 60 calories and about 596 mg of sodium. Turkey breast adds about 45 calories and 436 mg of sodium but smoked ham adds an additional 30 mg sodium to that. Roast beef will add about 70 calories and 410 mg sodium. But those are figures for the things people control as they prepare lunch at home. Most deli sandwiches will have portions at least three times this amount.

A single slice of processed American cheese adds 60 calories, 250 mg sodium, and 13% saturated fat recommended for the day. A slice of cheddar cheese adds 113 calories, 174 mg sodium, and 30% saturated fat for the day. Swiss adds 110 calories, 115 mg sodium, and 25% fat for the day.

Overall, a single sandwich (2 slices of bread, 2 slices of processed meat, 1 slice of cheese, condiments) means at least 500 calories and a lot of salt and saturated fat. At the very least, one sandwich represents about 25% of daily calorie intake recommended for most people.

There are many healthier and more creative lunch options. A smaller portion of dinner from the night before is easy to pack in small containers for lunch. Add a piece of fruit and the lunch is complete, nutritious, and easier to prepare than a sandwich. Two tablespoons of prepared hummus has 50 calories and eaten with carrots, cucumbers, green peppers, and celery is a filling and nutritious option. A can of beans (white, kidney, black, garbanzo, …) in a food processer with favorite herbs (thyme, cumin, cayenne, sage, …) ends up providing many spread alternatives. Heating up a serving of prepared soup from a cardboard container adds another 80 calories or so and rounds off the meal well but adds 400 mg sodium (about 640 mg of sodium if the soup is in a can).

A potato, baked in its skin (microwave for about 8 minutes) has only 160 calories, virtually no saturated fat, and 17 mg of sodium. Sour cream would add about 400 calories, half the recommended saturated fat for the day, and 180 mg sodium, though. Cheese sauce clearly is not the best choice (475 calories, 53% recommended saturated fat for the day, and 382 mg sodium). Adding salsa is the wisest option (10 calories, no fat, and 230 mg sodium in a 2 tablespoon portion). Top it with steamed broccoli and scallions to add more flavor and nutrition.

Salads that are primarily made of vegetables are perfect options but be careful to avoid the fat-, sodium-, and calorie-packed prepared salads, dressings and cheeses. Pre-washed greens with some carrots and green peppers and a handful of black beans or walnuts and raisins is a good choice when tossed with a little olive oil and lemon juice. This idea has as many combinations as there are people with their preferences for salad ingredients. Exchanging olive oil and walnuts for sesame oil and sunflower seeds changes the flavor to offer variety through the week.

Healthy lunch options can be varied, colorful, and exciting. There is so much more to lunch than a sandwich. As for that novel, I’m pleased that the plot and character development were much more enticing than the lunch the protagonist made that day!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Staying Balanced

We all are striving to balance something. Perhaps we are learning to balance our time to juggle all the demands required of maintaining relationships while achieving in our careers and caring for our children and/or parents as they need us.

Many of us are learning to manage our money so that we can strike the appropriate balance between saving for the future and spending for the present while we pay off debts from the past.

Some of us may be balancing our words so that we can offer criticism to employees while still relaying the fact that we appreciate what they do for us. Or we are trying to find that fine line between supporting someone in need yet maintaining our own protective boundaries.

Staying balanced may appear easier for some than for others. But no one of us has more time in a day than anyone else does. None of us has learned to grow money on trees. Each of us who cares about our relationships struggles with the way we communicate and support so we avoid misunderstandings. Those of us that seem to balance life’s challenges better than others know that to do so begins with a firm foundation in the form of friends, love, and integrity. But it also requires practice in focus and awareness. One result of this practice is learning to use the breath as a support. Think of the times you have had difficulty maintaining balance, managing your finances, or participating in a difficult conversation. You may have noticed that you were holding your breath. Holding the breath increases blood pressure and overall strain, perhaps making the situation even more difficult through this tension.

Yoga practice can help us learn to balance because on the mat we learn focus, awareness, and breath work that is required to maintain challenging poses as much as to manage life’s challenges. That is what my yoga students and I will be practicing this week. We will maintain balance and awareness in virabradrasana 2 (warrior 2 pose), checking to be sure we have equal weight on both feet and that our eye gaze remains steady over the front fingertips as our breath remains steady and long. We will work on arm balances like bakasana (crow pose) and adho mukha vrksasana (handstand). Sure, those poses require strength and flexibility, but no one will balance in these poses without focused awareness and timing the breath!

This blog and my yoga students will help me to “practice what I preach”. I am charging myself to remember to stay present and to keep breathing when I have that difficult conversation Friday morning with an employee…

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Making Healthy Food Choices a Little Easier

I know that most people try their best to treat their bodies well and to serve their families healthful foods. Few things make me happier because I would like everyone to feel the exuberance that results from being fit. I’m not referring to beauty as synonymous with being thin or having swimsuit-lovely figures but to the energy and joy experienced from having a healthy heart. Being fit means more than being one’s optimal weight. Being fit means being able to briskly walk across a parking lot without feeling out of breath, keeping up with one’s kids as they bicycle around the neighborhood, and feeling the heart pump with exercise but not like it feels as though it will explode.

Creating a healthy heart requires aerobic exercise by sustaining an increased heart rate. But I’ve blogged about that previously and I will again. A healthy heart also requires a diet rich in wholesome foods. And that is what I will blog about today.

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will help anyone maintain a healthy weight and healthy lipid and cholesterol levels. The result is a healthy heart and elastic arteries so that blood is less likely to clot, blood remains a healthy viscosity, and arteries can accommodate blood pumped by the heart.

But recognizing healthful foods can be challenged by the way foods are packaged and marketed. A food product labeled “low fat” is not necessarily healthy. It probably means that the version labeled “low fat” has fewer fat grams than the “regular” option but it could still contain more fat than the minimum daily requirements recommend. Food engineers also probably replaced the fat with added sugar and salt to replace taste lost by reducing fat. Similarly, foods labeled as “diet” or “low calorie” may have fewer fat grams and fewer calories than non-diet options but they still offer too little nutritional value to make the calories worth ingesting.

Even vegetarians can choose unhealthy options. Potato chips, soda, and cheese pizza are all vegetarian options, after all, and I don’t think anyone would be fooled to think that would be a healthy diet. Fake meat products made with soy, such as lunchmeat replacements, turkey alternatives and sausage substitutes often contain more chemicals, sodium and fat than lean beef, pork and poultry. Beans, nuts, and legumes are healthier protein options.
Many people are surprised to learn that the foods they eat are not as healthy as they thought. They had the right intentions when they replaced foods with low fat options and meat substitutes. But marketing food products is big business and food companies are motivated to present their products in a way that is often confusing, perhaps even deceiving.

Figuring out how to eat well doesn’t need to be difficult, however. Wholesome foods will be the best option. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and lean meats (if one decides to eat meat) will always be healthier choices than produced and packaged foods. I think Michael Pollan’s advice was concise and accurate when he suggested a few recommendations. He recommends selecting foods with no more than 5 ingredients. That is an easy way to read a food label! More than 5 ingredients indicates that the food probably has been so processed that it has little in common with the original food item. Pollan also has said that if your grandmother wouldn’t recognize it as food, then it isn’t. All food options were whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean meats before food manufacturing became big business. Another of Pollan’s recommendations is to shop only around the periphery of a grocery store, where produce, dairy, and meats are shelved. Interior and frozen food aisles contain mostly packaged and processed foods with more than 5 ingredients and less likely to be recognized by Grandma as food.

Food manufacturers are motivated to make selecting healthy foods more confusing than it really is. The exuberance of being fit can be achieved by exercising and choosing wholesome foods and making those choices feels great!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Spring is trying hard to arrive right now. Where I live, some buds are on trees and some perennials are in bloom. But one day seems like spring only for the next day to turn cold again. I keep putting away gloves and hats only to take them back out again the following day. I love springtime so the transition seems like a good one to me. But still, enduring any change requires more effort than the status quo.

Life comes with many transitions, including relocating, entering or exiting relationships, and starting or ending new jobs and life roles. Sometimes people stay in relationships and work settings longer than they know they should if only because the change itself is so challenging.

Yoga has taught me that even through the impermanence of every situation I can find some stability in my breath and in the goodness of each moment. As in life, the transitions in yoga are least balanced. Moving gracefully from one pose to the next requires focused attention and long breaths.

I have worked on transitions this week by linking three standing poses: vrkasana (tree pose) into virabhadrasana 3 (warrior 3 pose) into garudasana (eagle pose). Any one of these poses is demanding so sequencing them together without letting the floating foot touch the ground is even more of a challenge. Still, once I am in any of these standing poses I can settle in and balance. Moving from one to the next is the tricky part. The best way I have found to approach the transitions is to acknowledge that there is something similar in each. I can build on the fact that the pelvis is level and the hip points aligned forward in each of the poses. The standing foot stays in full contact with the ground to provide stability. And my breath is with me always, helping me to focus and remain stable even as I move. I have learned to be graceful in these transitions by letting my breath move me and quiet my mind. I also am comforted in knowing that as much as one pose is different from the other, some components are constant among them.

Tools I have learned on the mat have helped me to endure transitions off the mat with a little more grace and focus. Even as things change, I love and am loved and life generally is very good. Breathing and focusing through it all makes life’s transitions a little easier. So I take another breath and pull out that winter coat again.