An average Jane on health and nutrition

Archive for July, 2013

About fewer, larger meals

Since I made that post about 3 square vs. 5 small meals, which was what, a week or two ago now? I’ve been trying to do fewer but larger meals, as opposed to small ones with snacks interspersed.

For the most part, this hasn’t changed *what* I eat, it has just changed *when I eat it.*
So, if I used to have a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast at 7:30 and then a snack of a banana and a handful of almonds at 10:30, now I have a bowl of oatmeal, a banana, and a handful of almonds at 7:30, and that carries me through to lunch.
Incidentally, there have been a few times where the new larger breakfast didn’t carry me through to lunch; that I was legitimately hungry and I had to supplement with some veggies and hummus, or a granola bar or whatnot. (I’ll come back to that.)

This is interesting in that it makes me wonder if there are regularly days where I’m not eating as much food as my body wants/needs me to, to function optimally. I’ve read a lot about the concepts of eating too little when watching your weight/diet, and SparkPeople users frequently talk about the hesitance they experienced with eating more food than their suggested lose-weight calorie ranges, only to find that eating a little bit more food actually caused them to lose weight.

I don’t know that that’s the case for me, but I imagine I’ll have a chance to see.

But like I said, the fact that my body got hungry is what makes me think that it would function better with more food. I’m very attentive to water and hydration, so I don’t think it’s thirst masquerading. Rather, I suspect that the smaller meals and snacks were doing enough to curb overt feelings of hunger, but not quite reach the optimal satiety between “not hungry” and “too full.” That is, to satisfy the immediate hunger.. but not to give the amount wanted biologically. There is an area in there, a target for how much I should/could eat to feel my best, and while it’s very very easy to tell the high end of it, I wonder if I’m not appropriately accustomed to what the low end of it feels like, and thus not understanding that I was only hitting “barely not hungry” instead of “correct amount of food consumed.” I do think it is a scale. I don’t think there is “hungry” and “full” and that moreover I don’t believe “not hungry” (in terms of not feeling hunger pangs anymore) equates to “adequately nourished.”

It’s bizarre to me that that could be the case, because people throughout modern history up until the last few decades have known more or less how to eat to a right-for-them fullness. But perhaps it’s just symptomatic of an eating culture that has a really confused relationship with dieting, coupled with questionable knowledge of portion sizes, and very little in the way of conditioning to listen for your own fullness levels. So it could just be a matter of me of still learning portion sizes, and being better in tune with the satiety responses. Not stopping with “hunger is gone” but finding the point between that and “ate too much/feeling full.”

I realize I reference In Defense of Food a lot when I talk about eating, but that’s because there are so many relevant things.
In IDoF, Pollan talks about how people in various cultures know when to stop eating. In America, it’s frequently “when the plate is clean/carton is empty” etc. There was one cultural response (French?) that says they eat until 80% full.

Percentages could be a helpful concept here. If “too full” is 100% full, and 0% full is absolutely famished and starving, where does average, everyday hunger fall? And at what percentage does hunger stop feeling like hunger? For wildly unscientific argument’s sake, if we start feeling average everyday hunger if we drop to 25% full, and those feelings stop at 50% full, then there’s 30% range between when the feelings stop, and the (French?) suggestion of 80%.

It’s not a soundproof concept, it’s just to illustrate what I think might be happening, at least for me. I think I was stopping with the amount of food necessary to relieve hunger, but not much more than that. And perhaps there’s something negative to be said for meeting the bare minimum.

Of course, it’s also easy to see where this could be misconstrued. I’m *not* talking about “wanting more food” for taste purposes, for mental purposes just of enjoying it. I’m strictly talking about the body’s desire for food, for what it wants to use it for. I’m also not suggesting that “eat more!” is obviously the solution to health and weight problems. Merely playing with it for my own body, where I am already very conscientious about my own diet and nutrition.

The other interesting thing with my 3-squares experiment is that I get hungry more strongly. When hunger for lunch rolls around, I am *hungry for lunch*.
Previously, it was more like “yeah, I’m getting hungry.” or “I’m a little bit hungry, and it’s lunch time, so I could have lunch, I think.” I don’t have nearly as much “little bit hungry” in the course of my day anymore. I am hungry, or am I satisfiedly not.

I eat more food at one time – and yet, don’t feel “fuller”; another factor to why I think I wasn’t getting in my optimum scale of food intake – and then when I’m hungry it’s for those larger meals. My hunger is stronger, because I haven’t eaten in longer, and would like to have more food to satisfy that.

Again, you can see why this might sound problematic to prevailing nutrition. ‘You’re training your body to need more and more food.’
Well. No. It’s not an ever-increasing amount. With the exception of those ocassional days that I’ve needed the supplemental snack* I’m still eating the same amount of food as before. I’m just shifting when. I’m training my body that a big flood of good stuff they can use is coming, as opposed to dribbling them a little bit of good stuff, then a break, then dribbling them a little more.

* And I rather wonder if those days are related to previous days’ additional activity. I haven’t looked at those correlations yet, but I do keep pretty good track of my activity via SparkPeople in addition to food, so I can pretty easily check for instances. I expect that it will line up, as it has in the past even with the small meals and snacks model. The day OF a 35-mile bike ride didn’t see any appreciable changes in my hunger levels, but the day AFTER would see me ravenous.

At any rate, I feel good with this process, I enjoy my food, and I’m curious to see if and how it translates in terms of weight loss over the next few weeks.


3 Squares vs. 5 Small

Note: I wrote this post a few weeks ago, it’s just been sitting in draft. But it’s necessary for the next post I’m about to make. —


Not to fly too much in the face for prevailing wisdom… except kinda, because I think prevailing wisdom is excruciatingly problematic…I’m questioning the multiple small meals and snacks thing, for my body.

I say this because of tradeshows. When I’m away for work for 4+ days, I’m usually eating a bit of a larger lunch than I would, certainly a larger dinner since it’s out with people/multiple courses, and a small/similar to normal breakfast. But no snacks, and limited sweets. Usually there just isn’t time for snacks anyway, but I also find I’m not hungry with the small breakfast, and largeish other meals.
Overall, I’m usually eating more food at tradeshows than I do at home with more plannable meal times.
And yet, pretty consistently, I almost always feel just …less aware?.. of my stomach, in terms of water retention/bloating, or whatever, and I almost always lose a pound of so by the time I get back. (Whether that’s water weight or actual who knows, but it’s pretty frequently.) It can’t be discounted, of course, that I’m very busy at tradeshows, and on my feet longer, etc. which probably accounts for being able to eat more food at two meals, but I can’t just be compensating for extra movement if I lose some weight and feel lighter.

I’m trying to look into more information for how the multiple small meals thing came about, but not finding a whole lot of solid logic for it. I could see how it seems to make sense, just thinking about it. Metabolism is the important component for healthy weight and food digestion, so if you’re eating more often, you’re keeping your metabolism going all the time and that’s good, right?

But maybe it’s not, or not for all people, more accurately. Maybe my body needs the small breakfast to get the metabolism going, then works hard with the lunch, takes a little rest, and works hard again with the dinner, as opposed to working half heartedly all day.

Exercise experts are always advising that you get more benefit from a shorter but higher intensity workout than an hour or two of phoning it in. What if that applies to metabolisms? What if 3 larger, more caloric and nutrient-rich meals are the metabolic equivalent of going for a 20 minute run that includes hills as opposed to a 2 hour treadmill walk on low speed?
Neither are the macro levels, exercise is exercise, and needed. Food is food, and needed. But within those broad categories are a host of factors involving quality, quantity, frequency, etc.. and maybe we just have it wrong, those of us that are riding the prevailing thought when it isn’t how our bodies and digestive systems and metabolisms function best. Maybe some of us need to do the metabolic hill-run.

I might play with this a bit.

Pollan and Microbiomes

“One case I thought was absolutely fascinating is this difference in the gut of Japanese people and Americans. There’s a very common bacteria that we all share, that all humans have in their gut, and it’s involved in digesting polysaccharides of complex carbohydrates and plants. And the Japanese version of it has a gene that allows it to break down seaweed that we can’t break down. When you eat seaweed in a Japanese restaurant, you’re not getting the nutritional value from it that a Japanese person is getting. And they actually traced the source of that gene, and it came from the bacteria that hang out on seaweed in the ocean. In other words, the bacteria who first learned how to digest seaweed. Through the eating of enough seaweed, this bacteria that is common in the gut of the Japanese borrowed this bit of genetic information and uses it now to digest seaweed. And so now it’s a permanent part of the genome of that bug.

There’s an example of how the microbiome evolved to take advantage of a change in the environment — i.e., Japanese eating of seaweed — probably because they needed to. And the same thing is true with, say, dealing with a new toxin, detoxifying, and other changes in our environment. It’s kind of evolution on fast forward. That’s probably critical to our ability to adapt to change, and it may become more critical as we face more rapid and radical environmental changes.”

 Fascinating indeed… an entire world of possible understandings of human biology with a door just opening to it. If this is actually true, the notion that two people eating the same exact food may actually get different nutritional benefit from it will be proven. The problem, of course, is that it then becomes much harder to give people the one-size-fits-all nutritional guideline that the government and some nutritionists so desperately want to do, and many Americans so desperately want to know. And yet, we need to get past this idea anyway. We need to accept and understand that our bodies work differently, and that saying otherwise is often in competition with the increasing body of evidence we’re discovering.

And also:

“I would try to create incentives that drive diversification. I still feel that the great evil of American agriculture is monoculture. It really does contribute to so many problems at the level of the field and the pests, but also at the level of the diet. The thing you learn is the importance of diversity in what you eat, and to the extent you would drive diversity [in farm policy] you would also be creating raw materials for cooking rather than raw materials for processed food, which are mostly corn and soy.

I love this term “specialty crop.” That’s what the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] lingo is for anything you grow that you could actually eat — fruits and vegetables. Corn and soy and rice and wheat, these are commodity crops — in the case of rice you do eat it directly, but everything else has to be heavily processed first. Right now, we actually have laws that prohibit farmers receiving subsidies to grow commodity crops from growing specialty crops. They get fined. If you’re growing corn and soy, and you want to put in 20 acres of tomatoes because somebody’s doing some local canning deal in your county and you want to get in on it and diversify, you get fined. I know farmers who have been fined forty or fifty thousand dollars for doing that. That’s unconscionable. We should be encouraging farmers to diversify, for both economic and ecological reasons.”

Have not looked into the fines thing, but if true.. yikes. Wth, America.

These are snippets from interview with Michael Pollan:

I will be doing some further research into these notions and claims over the next few weeks, and as things continue to involve. Fascinating time to be paying attention to nutrition science.

– J

Why I’m a Pollanite

I was going to post snippets of an interview with Michael Pollan (and I’ll get back to that) but then I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned my appreciation for Michael Pollan, and why. So let’s do that first.

In Defense of Food was the book that really got me interested in eating well, and in health in the broadest sense of the word.

I really like two things about his work. 1) He doesn’t typically exempt himself. He speaks of ‘we’ – the eaters, the Americans, whomever and 2) I find his thinking to be rational, level-headed, common sensical. Even in the instances that could be considered accusatory (to Big Industrial Farm, to Fast Food, to whatever) his point isn’t really to lay blame. It’s to say, ‘I see this as bad, and here’s some evidence for why. If you agree, here’s what we can do instead.’

There is a problem laid out, there is documentation for why it’s a problem, and there is a feasible alternate suggestion. What’s past is past.. some bad food decisions, some blips in health. Let’s move forward, rather than dwell. (Incidentally, this is also the underlying motivation behind SparkPeople, which I love. Very “you’re not perfect, but you don’t have to be.” You just have to try.

I speak largely of American food choices in my blog because a) that’s where I am and b) for better or worse, a lot of our brands and foods are seeping into other developed countries. However, America, for all the junk we export food-wise, has a lot of really, really excellent options.

There are, of course, going to be obstacles, challenges, difficulties for the average American eater. But the biggest one, by far, is not thinking that changing your habits is possible. I don’t have time to cook, good food is expensive, I don’t like vegetables.. there are a million excuses. There are just as many workarounds.

The most common excuse I hear – and I don’t discount its partial validity – is that healthy food is more expensive.

When I picked up In Defense of Food, I was working at Walmart. I had worked there during college, and now that I’d graduated, I was still, a year and a half later, sending out job applications and looking for work that paid more, used my degree more, was more fulfilling for my interests.

When I picked up In Defense of Food, I was making around $9.15 an hour, living in a $350/month apartment with two other girls, and driving 20+ miles to work in a 10-year-old Hyundai with 150,000 miles. I had student loans more than my rent, and a questionable grasp on finances. I ate like a lot of recent-college-grads. Frozen pizza, pasta, burgers, fries. The occasional vegetable and fruit, but far less than good for me.

I did not (still don’t) have kids, or faced any of the specific financial and time constraints brought about by children, and I don’t discount those as tremendous challenges, especially in this day of single parents, of two working parents on opposite shifts, of the astronomical costs of quality daycare. I also acknowledge that in so many ways, even with my meager scenario, I was and am much better off than a lot of people. But for a lot of us, for the average Joe and Jane, there IS something we can do.. but we need to want to do it.

Some people look at their challenges, and find ways to make things work for their situations. And I believe that just about everyone can do that, in some way. What is your situation? What are your challenges? What can you do, for baby steps, that will make your food choices better, give you a few minutes to cook?

There are the questions we need to ask ourselves.


The notion of healthy food being more expensive is a complex one. On the surface, on the one hand.. yes, in some ways. There are healthy items that are more expensive, and there is also the time-cost to preparing food that needs cooking, not microwaving. But it’s not quite that simple.

If you are looking to simply replace your current diet with “healthier” (organic, all-natural, whatever) versions, it will probably be quite expensive. That $3 frozen preservative-filled pizza from Discount Grocery will jump to $7 if you get the all-natural organic frozen pizza over at Fancy Grocery. But if you’re looking at Fancy Grocery for a variety of fresh fruits and veggies, they’re generally about the same (sometimes even cheaper!) and usually taste much better. That brings us to what I call the Whole Foods Fallacy.

The joke goes that the chain should be called Whole Paycheck, because if you buy your groceries there, that’s what it’ll cost. Again, if we’re talking the organic frozen processed stuff.. yeah, probably true. I do a modicum of shopping at Whole Foods, and it very rarely includes a trip down the processed aisles. What I do buy at Whole Foods is fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, spices, cheese, and – when I buy it, which isn’t much – meat or fish.

Fruits and vegetables at Whole Foods are no more expensive than other chain grocery stores, and taste delicious. Nuts and spices I can get in the small quantities I want as a single person cooking just for me.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are always cheapest (and tastiest) when they’re in season. If you’re like me, you know that apples are in season in the fall, and watermelon in the summer, and you think maybe corn is late summer? But that’s about it. Someone asks me when kiwi is in season and I’ll suggest they google it. Eggplant? That…seems summerish? Maybe? I don’t know, do I look like an eggplant farmer?

I’ve noted a hole in my education regarding fresh fruits and vegetables. There are several cures, however. 1) internet. Thank you, google. 2) Join a CSA or shop the farmer’s markets in your area. In your CSA box you’ll only get what’s fresh and growing now, and the farmer’s markets, that’s what they’re bringing. You’ll either learn through seeing it frequently, or buy in season because that’s your only option anyway. Or 3, the awesomely lazy version) Find the produce varieties at the store that is the cheapest, and then get the best-looking and smelling of those. Note that this isn’t foolproof. 🙂

 I digress.

Michael Pollan.

For my situation, when I first picked up the book, re-assessing my finances and prioritizing better food was a necessary step. Pollan has a stat about the comparatively low percentage of our budgets Americans spend on food, compared with the French, Italians, etc. That stuck with me, and made me rethink the notion of cheap and plentiful, in favor of quality, if a bit less.

But the thing I like most about Pollan is that, for all the complexity of some of the subject matter, In Defense of Food is still very readable, accessible. This is a book you can pick up, as a general interested person, and read without a lot of complicated jargon interfering. No small task.

Have you read anything of Michael Pollan’s? Do you agree or disagree with his position on food and health?

– J

Striking the word “guilt” from our discussions of food

If there’s one thing I would like to see shift in the American discourse around food, it would be the frequency of the use of the word “guilt.”

Admittedly, it’s usually “guilt-free”, as in “guilt-free cheesecake” or “guilt-free cheesy pasta.” But I have a very strongly held belief that “guilt” has no place in a function so basic to human survival. Though it tends to be gendered, with females reporting more guilt over food choices than men, it does seem to be increasingly universal as our relationship to food gets more and more out of whack.

This is not an overly informative post; mostly just a quick blurb, almost as a reminder. A reminder to myself to do some research on this, to see where we think this is stemming from, and how we can hope to combat it in order to live healthier lives in all senses of the word.

Do you ever feel guilty over your food choices? How do you think we can over come it?

Ode to Spinach (with recipes!)

On today’s edition of “Where can I put spinach?” I find myself eating a leftover Memorial-Day-cookout hotdog on a bed of spinach in a bun. Fact is, when you live alone and cook mostly for yourself, buying a bag of spinach means you have a lot of the stuff. Thankfully, it’s versatile enough to eat with almost anything. Many a successful meal has started with a considering glance at the bag of spinach in my fridge and impulsively throwing it in with what I’m cooking. (Stir fry? Yep. Pasta bake? Sure. Crabcake? Why not.)

The funny thing is, 5 years ago I rarely ate spinach (not including spinach artichoke dip, for which I have a profound weakness) and now it’s one of my staple veggies. It goes on my tuna sandwiches, in scrambled eggs over toast, makes up the bulk of my salads, lets me pretend I’m still a grownup by adding it to grilled cheese, and even stars in pasta when I’m feeling ambitious and make my own.


This is also an interesting look at the notion of taste buds changing. In theory, I knew that. That taste buds change and adapt to the foods they commonly receive. It’s interesting to see it in practice. Where I’d never have previously included spinach, now it goes without a second thought. Patterns and habits. I figured if I keep introducing more good ones, some will have to stick.

Anyway. The recipes!

Delicious (and easy!) spinach pasta recipe here:

I haven’t tried this one, but I want to because it uses more spinach:

I don’t have a pasta maker. I roll out the dough, fill it with stuff, and make misshapen blob ravioli. If you have a pasta maker, you’ll probably have prettier results, but if you don’t, I promise it will still taste good. Try it with spinach-ricotta filling for the full Popeye effect.

Spinach squares? Yes please! (Recipe:

Let’s not pretend this is super healthy, because while it’s chock-full of spinach, it’s also chock-full of cheese. (So while it’s not the most virtuous thing on your plate, it’s the MOST AWESOME.) The consistent mantra you will see from me, informed by my own experimenting and nutritional reading (for fun, only, at this point) is: there are no “good” foods, there are no “bad” foods. There are regular foods and occasional foods.

These little guys are always tremendously popular at potlucks and picnics. Bonus, they’re a snap to whip up. I like them room temp, others swear by them warm.

Who’s got a good spinach recipe to share? I’m always in need of things to do with it!

– J