We are all in the middle of trying to keep our New Year’s resolutions, and many of those include healthier eating. Mai Trinh, nutritionist, and busy mom of 3, explains how to navigate the latest super foods, fasting fads, and the biggest mistakes people make when they are trying to change over to a healthier lifestyle.
It's the New Year and there are a lot of resolutions flying around - especially when it comes to nutrition. What are the biggest mistakes women who are ready to take the plunge into better diets and fitness routines make?
The biggest mistakes I see over and over are subscribing to extreme fad diets and not getting enough sleep, which wreaks havoc on your metabolism. Going from one extreme to the other is seldom sustainable. Instead of doing a 7 day no food and only liquid detox cleanse which I would never recommend – why not start slowly like cutting all soda and sweet drinks out for a week and then build on that small, but profound step. Studies show time and time again that a majority of Americans drink a bulk of their calorie intake through sweet drinks. Curbing the daily Starbucks run and limiting the daily wine intake to 1 drink per day maximum is a great start for a one week lifestyle shift to build upon other lifestyle shifts.
As for fitness, working in a group and getting support builds confidence. I belong to a mommy boot camp that has been meeting for years. I have only been a member for the last year and a half. Also, I invested in a personal trainer for 30 minutes a week. If that isn’t in your budget or lifestyle- stick to classes you think you will enjoy like Zumba or getting a friend to speed walk with you during lunch. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. The first step could simply be using a pedometer and aiming for 10,000 steps a day. However, exercise without cleaning up your diet defeats your health goals.
There seems to be a new super food every week and it is hard to figure out which is best for whom. What are your go-to super foods for women and do they vary by age?
I try to stay away from fad diets and tell my clients that if your great-grandmother didn’t recognize it as food, don’t eat it, it’s probably not food. As far as everyday superfoods – one gauge is how long has it been around the food chain. My favorite whole food super foods include spinach, mushrooms, blueberries, garlic, onion, turmeric, cinnamon, wild caught salmon, sweet potatoes and my exotic superfood includes goji berries. Everything on my list is anti-inflammatory and helps boost your immune system. These are cancer fighting goodies that keep your system in check and wild caught salmon is chockfull of Omega-3 acids which is great brain food. Our brain is comprised of 60% fat and is the fattiest tissue in our entire body. We need good fats to think clearly so the no fat diet has been debunked.
As far as varying by age, that's a great question! Every 7 years, every single cell in our skeleton is replaced. It's important to know that foods that worked for you a decade ago, may not work for you now. Adults develop food allergies to things that they were able to digest years before. So, the question of do foods vary by age - it does. Kids that are four years and below often have a difficult time digesting raw leafy veggies until their digestive tract matures. Every gut is unique like every finger print is unique. There is not a one size fits all answer. In my nutrition studies, I found the idea of bio-individuality to be key in leading my clients to the right lifestyle that fits their health. People need to experiment with different super foods to see what alleviates their energy. There are universal truths though- that smoking, abusing alcohol, eating a diet full of high sodium, saturated fat and processed sugar and lack of exercise will significantly raise your chances of cancer, stroke, diabetes and heart disease
You have three kids and a busy life. How do you get your family to eat healthy snacks and dinners on the run?
I’m a single mom, widow, small business owner and I continue to take graduate level courses in public health so my plate is quite full. What I’ve learned from juggling so many acts is to plan ahead not only with my schedule, but with nourishing food. I am constantly scanning the web for easy, fast and nutritious vegetable heavy dishes. I’m a big fan of both one pot meals and the crock pot. Family snacks include clementines, nuts and trek mix. I also make easy energy apple balls that consist of pitted dates, dehydrated apples and oats. Some days, I slather organic peanut butter on an apple. When I’m really in a crunch, I boil organic eggs, use frozen organic veggie mix, add a dash of Braggs Amino Acid with a pat of organic butter and mix it with quinoa or whole wheat cous cous. This is my idea of fast food. In short, I keep my snacks and dinners to simple whole foods that can be prepped quickly. Instead of going to the fast food joint, I will often have a rotisserie chicken in the fridge, I’ll put it in the crock pot on warm and by dinner time, I will sautee veggies and voila, dinner is served. I keep my meals simple and whole.
A few women (and men) I know would love to cook healthier food at home, but feel like it isn't well received. How important is it getting your partner and/or kids on board when you want to move to a healthier lifestyle?
It is vital to have everyone on board if you want to make lasting change for your health overall. The first question I ask when talking to clients is: Will your spouse be supportive of this change? Numerous studies show that the people closest to you heavily influence your health. If your spouse is resistant to change- I suggest getting your significant other hyped for homemade fruit smoothies in the weekend. Small steps are profound. What I found with families is kids emulate their parents. If they see their mom taking better care of herself, they start to take her lead. Another big thing to incorporate healthier eating habits is to include kids in cooking the healthier meal. Also, giving dishes blockbuster names like Suzy’s Incredible Hulk Power Smoothie. It’s simple, but studies have shown, it works for kids and school cafeterias.
What does a typical session with a Health Counselor or Nutritional Consultant entail?
I’m a certified health counselor and I teach nutrition and preventative health seminars to Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. I’m also on the Speakers Bureau at Kaiser Permanente Health Works program so my reach is not limited to what Registered Dieticians have to subscribe to – which are USDA standards. In my work, I teach groups and individuals health promoting foods and preventative care. My first step is to spend 50 minutes on a health history to gather information about my client to gage what their goals are and what their family history looks like. During this time, I also ask what obstacles have been in their way of reaching their health goals. I find that a majority of the time, people know exactly what they need to do for their health, but don’t have the support or they self-sabotage their goals due to emotional blocks. I teach people to modify their health goals in small and sustainable steps.
Did you grow up in a healthy eating environment? And how much does how we eat when we are kids affect what we eat as adults?
I grew up in a mixed environment. My step-dad was on the macrobiotic diet [based on whole grains, vegetables and beans] in the early 1990s and I would help prepare his meals. My mom did not practice a healthy diet and subsequently, suffered from health issues in her 40s. I grew up seeing both sides of the dietary spectrum. What we eat as kids can lead us into bad habits especially when it comes to leaning toward comfort foods. However, the human spirit is remarkable when it is motivated and supported for change. In my 20s, I had a terrible diet of soda, McDonald’s and vending machine food. I was always getting sick and suffering from rashes. At 29, I drastically changed my lifestyle and I can honestly say, I feel more energetic now than I did in my 20s and I’m 40 years old!
How often do you see clients who use food as an emotional crutch and what are the signs of that?
In my seminars and my private practice, the way we eat is linked to how we feel, what we crave, our stress levels and how much we sleep. Sleep deprivation leads us to eat salt, sugar and high caloric foods. Everything is tied into what we decide or mindlessly put in our mouth. I see food used as filling an empty void all the time. Signs of emotional eating are eating mindlessly, eating out of boredom, intense cravings for foods that you know aren’t healthy for you. Reframing daily habits takes around 3 to 6 months for permanent change. One question I often ask clients is what does food mean to you? Draw a picture. It’s a very powerful tool to gauge if you see food as nourishing or is it wrought with guilt and punishment?
And now, for the down and dirty: Do you ever sneak in a trip to McDonald's? I guess what I'm asking is do you ever break the rules and is that ok?
Two things you will never see me eat are McDonald’s and soda. I haven’t eaten McDonald’s or used a microwave for over 8 years. However, in my daily life – I keep a 80/20 rule. 80 percent of the time, I keep a clean diet and 20% of the time, when I’m out – I allow myself to indulge. I love pizza so at home, we make our own, but if I’m out—I will indulge at a kid birthday party. It is okay to break the rules, but keep it minimal. If you are under an austere lifestyle – you can rarely maintain that kind of oppressive lifestyle and it makes living a bit joyless. I do help clients wean away from soda permanently because there is a seldom an upside to drinking processed chemicals. Instead, I help them learn to substitute – half sparkling water with a splash of 100% juice. Juice is still sugar, but if you dilute it with sparkling water, it is still less caloric than soda.
By Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer
I am in my last two months living overseas, and am without a doubt focused on food and cooking, which is much easier than organizing and packing. While part of me is thrilled to go back to convenience foods and take-out, I fear I will lose the ritual of cooking that has become key to building relationships and learning to deal with what is in front of me.
I spend hours with friends wandering the fruit and vegetable stands buying whatever is in season, and going home and calling those same friends to find out what meal they are preparing with what we found. Sometimes we’re faced with eggplant for weeks, and then that will be gone with cabbage in its place.
As part of an expat community where people come from many different countries, the recipes we trade are often wildly different. These dishes would sometimes delight, sometimes shock, and once in a while disgust my family (think carrot and broccoli pizza with mayonnaise).
I knew an expat cooking club existed here in Tbilisi, and even have a few friends that are part of it; but the thought of cooking for fun sounded exhausting (the process already takes so long!) so I never joined. But in my last couple of months here, I am starting to look at things I once passed by - museums, little stores I’ve always wanted to go into, and activities I never tried.
After talking with some of the members, I found that the cooking club is an organized version of the cooking ritual that I had been using to deal with being a stranger in a strange land: a reason to get together, develop friendships, and a lesson on how to deal with what you have, instead of what you’re used to. Only in this group, they have much better food.
For Amy Austermiller, an American who has lived overseas for the past 14 years, cooking club is like being at an old friend’s house, a feeling that most expats don’t get to experience often because best friends are usually across the globe. “Old members jump right into a meeting at someone’s house - taking out pots, looking for knives and just chatting away as we receive directions and catch up on all topics Tbilisi. There is always such a sense of community when you cook and then sit down to eat together.”
Other members find that it is a good way to share part of yourself with people you may not know well through food you cook. Naira Delphia, another seasoned expat and from Armenia, identifies the food people make by the person who made it. “Funny thing is if I got a recipe from a certain person, we call it with their name, e.g. Michelle’s salmon, Amy’s pumpkin roll or Marta’s cake.”
And while Delphia often uses the recipes she learns at home, the club is more about being with people who can have a good time together over a shared interest. “It’s not important to me how much we cooked and ate, as long as we had fun cooking.”
Coming together over food, also gives people a way to find similarities in cultures that might start friendships. Ethel Tohver, from Estonia, says she found there are as many similarities as differences. “There are no bad experiences in cooking club. Plenty of interesting and different experiences, like horsemeat, but at the same time as many experiences where you recognize that we are not so different.”
For Michelle Der Ohanesian, an Armenian-American, it is a flashback to the cultural value of food that her father taught her years earlier and the family-style atmosphere that makes it feel homey. “When my Armenian father retired and started cooking dishes from the home country I began to understand how cooking can be cultural. It's been great to be here and in fact have Armenian ladies in the cooking group to see how some familiar dishes are made in context. You really see how cooking and culture are intertwined in these meetings.”
But what Der Ohanesian likes most is how it all happens so naturally, like a family when actual family is far away. “What I like best is the easy, casual style we have. I don't know how it worked out this way, perhaps it's because we all love food and cooking but we just all get along. We chat, we randomly wander into the kitchen to help chop or clean dishes; we move on to munch on something. It's hard to describe. It's organic. It's unplanned.”
For expats, or really anyone who lives away from their home, these make-shift family and friend opportunities are key to survival, whether it is cooking club or hiking group or a regular happy hour. I’ve made many good friends that I probably never would have even had a second coffee with if I had been in my comfort zone. But you need each other, and so you take the time to find something in common. And by developing rituals together, you find a way to connect with each other and the place you’re in.
By Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer
When I imagined having a daughter I pictured a mini-me: strawberry blond hair and freckles, an introvert, maybe a bit shy, who is happiest snuggled on the couch with a hot cup of tea and a crossword. When she was born with a thick tuft of jet black hair, I was undeterred – babies often lose their first hair and what grows back can be dramatically different. We could still share the red-headed gene, and sit together under the umbrella on the beach after playing in the water, applying our SPF 50 and moaning about how pale we were in summer and admiring our lovely skin in winter.
By age 3, her soft brown hair had settled over olive-skinned ears, and it was clear our bond would not be over freckling and sun burns. But no matter, there was still the bond we would share over the things we would both surely love – and I was convinced we’d spend time snuggling on the couch watching the latest BBC mini-series in no time.
When she turned 4, her extroverted personality really began to shine through and it did not include anything quiet. And while she will find me for a quick hug, snuggling takes much longer than she has time for. She developed into a leader – sharp and brave, never hesitating to solve problems or set the rules (sometimes too many rules), with a level of confidence I have never had. She hates walks unless we have an approved destination. When she enters a room, she makes sure everyone knows it, and when she stays home sick from school, she never fails to point out how, “All the kids at school will really miss me.” Add to this that she is very, very loud – at all times.
Images of quiet walks and tea time began to fade away and, for a long time, I struggled to connect with her beyond being there when she needed me – but she rarely does beyond the regular skinned knee or bad cold. When a friend asked my son whether he protected his little sister, he replied with surprise, “Bridget? Oh no, she is brave enough to protect herself.”
I noticed it wasn’t only me struggling. She was jealous over my easy relationship with my son (my actual mini-me, freckles, books and all). He and I have long discussions and find humor and interest in what we did in our day – laughing over jokes that only we get, and he loves to sit next to me on the couch and help me with my crossword.
The best I could hope for was that Bridget and I could find something we shared when she was older. But I worried that time would never come.
One May afternoon, I had the window open, one ear listening to the kids playing outside while I chopped vegetables for dinner and one ear to NPR. We live in a developing country, so good prepared foods are not available, making each dinner a long process of going to several stores for meats and vegetables and cooking that starts from scratch. And I admit cooking is not my forte. I cook to provide healthy food for my family. I cook to save money. I do not cook because I love it. But I have made it a meditative part of my day – baking away while I listen to the radio or some mindless show on TV.
But on this warm, spring afternoon, it became too quiet outside, which as any parent knows means trouble. I turned off the radio, and called through the screen, “Everyone okay?” My son replied, “Just looking for bugs. I’ll show you later.” But I didn’t hear my daughter’s voice.
“Bridget, everything ok?” I called again.
I almost chopped off my thumb mid-onion when my daughter loudly replied directly over my shoulder, standing on a stool she had silently moved just behind me. “You’re chopping it wrong Mommy,” she said. “It won’t look nice that way. Can I do it?”
I shooed her off the stool and out of the kitchen, saying she was too young for knives, irritated she had surprised me like that. Plus, the idea that the child who treats every dinner like she is a magazine food critic (and a cranky one at that), wanting to help with dinner was ridiculous. I turned my NPR back on low and heard them both looking for bugs outside - my son complaining that her loud voice was scaring them away.
The next afternoon, as I stood facing the chicken I had to separate, rinse and marinade, and a mountain of vegetables to wash and rewash before chopping; I heard the kitchen stool dragging along the floor behind me. And then there Bridget was again, asking me what was for dinner. I replied with one of the usual dishes. “I think I can help you make it really good,” she said in her ever-confident voice.
“No, no, you can’t handle raw chicken – you might get sick. Go play with your brother outside,” I said maybe a little too sharply. She stomped off again – this time with a few tears.
Twenty minutes later, halfway through making my marinade, I saw that Bridget had quietly returned to the kitchen and was sitting on the floor, petting the dog, and watching me. That the loudest child in any room of children (we actually got her hearing checked because she speaks so loudly) was willing to sit quietly to observe me cooking dinner brought on a shock of realization that she loves cooking so much she is willing to do whatever it takes to be a part of it.
I turned off the radio and asked if she wanted to help. Bridget jumped up off the floor, brought a small apron out from behind her back that had come with a child’s kitchen set, pulled up a stool, grabbed a piece of raw chicken and begin to rinse it in the sink before dropping it in the bowl of marinade.
She cracked eggs, basted meat, and sautéed onions – handling the kitchen like she had been doing it for years. I wondered how many times she had been watching me when I didn’t notice. Or did this skill come to her naturally?
From that moment on, as long as I am in the kitchen, she is by my side – literally. She actually leans on me a bit while we work – occasionally giving me a kiss on the cheek. Maybe it wasn’t only the cooking. Maybe we finally had something we could do together; and although we are in the kitchen for different reasons, maybe that doesn’t matter so much.
When I hosted a baby shower a few weeks ago, she had the menu planned before I had even sent the invites (which she also asked to pre-approve). And she stood by me that long Sunday morning chopping, sautéing, arranging. She insisted on coming with me to choose the flower centerpiece because, she explained, “I am just better at that than you Mommy.” And she’s right. The only thing I did on my own was to choose the cakes to buy, and nobody ate them. She shook her head after the party and sighed, “You should have let me come to the bakery.”
Bridget is still 6 – at the baby shower she had too many cookies and got fussy and fell asleep on my lap with crumbs all over her dress. But the next afternoon she was back by my side while I chopped my way through a lentil stew.
My kitchen is different now. The music and the TV are gone so we can discuss preparation and presentation (the latter I never gave a thought too until she joined me). It is certainly much less Zen. I spend half the time over her shoulder making sure she doesn’t chop her finger off, burn her arm, or put her hand in her mouth after touching raw meat. My sister and I call this kind of kitchen assistance, “kitchen hell-p.” But I never shoo her away anymore and I’m not sure if I did, she’d listen.
The kitchen is her domain, her happy place, and it is a place she knows she can find me every afternoon. I look forward to returning to the states this summer, with the ease of takeout and the vast array of prepared dinner options. But I think I will cook a little more from scratch than I used to when I come to live in the U.S.
By Suzette Lohmeyer