In keeping with the “Snack Food” theme I’ve got going on…

I just discovered the most awesome thing. I’m claiming it as my own “invention” and passing it on, because as I sit here eating it, I’m enjoying the pure pleasure of a newly discovered treat that’s blowing my mind, man!

This weekend while I was out, I grabbed a large container of Fage Total 0% Greek Yogurt. Now, this is plain, unsweetened… (did I mention plain?) Greek Yogurt. I loved it because a frickin’ CUP of this shit packs about 20 grams of protein, zero fat, and only 120 calories. We’re talking good shit here. But, like you, I was a little concerned about the “plain” part. So I had a kind of “stroke of genius” (or perhaps simply a stroke) and thought, “why can’t I make my own vanilla yogurt?”.

I know, right? Like I said, genius.

So last night, as I was putting together my lunch, I decided to measure out a big ol’ cup of this stuff, add a few drops of vanilla, and a tablespoon of clover honey. Stir, place in refrigerator, and I’m good to go.

But that’s not all.

Pineapples are cheap as hell right now. I’m talking a fresh, whole pineapple for like, $2 if you look around. So naturally, when I saw ’em, I grabbed one, sliced and diced it all up, and put it in a handy little tupperware container, 2 cups at a time.

So what does the kid do? Why, he tosses all that delicious naturally wonderful shit into a big ol’ container and stirs it all up. The result? Only the greatest single snack in the history of snacks. I’m telling you, I could eat this 24/7… and until the pineapple runs out, I just might.

What’s the final tally?  Well look no further, here’s the rundown:
329 calories
21.73 grams of protein
4.3 grams of fiber
64.3 grams of carbs
.37 grams of fat (yes… that’s 1/3rd of 1 gram for 329 calories)
89 milligrams of sodium

I told you. Run, don’t walk and get yourself some Plain Yogurt, Vanilla, Honey, and Pineapple. You’ll thank me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some gorging to do…

My Top Ten Snack Foods

You know, I eat about 6 times a day. If you subtract breakfast, lunch, and dinner, that means 50% of my day is what you’d be forced to classify as “snacks”. The simple math says if you’re eating every 2 1/2 to 3 hours, and you’re consuming around 300 calories each time, you’re consuming about 1800 calories a day, on the low-end. My breakfast typically runs from 220 calories (Oatmeal and a cup of blue/black/straw/raspberries) to 270ish (6 egg whites, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and a whole wheat bagel). My HUGE lunch (Double fiber whole wheat bread, low sodium roast beef, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickles, a cucumber, half a dozen stalks of celery) stuffs me and weighs in at about 270 calories, so that leaves me some wiggle room at dinner to consume about 400-500 calories,  and three opportunities during the day to consume about 300 calories and I’m still significantly under 2000 calories a day. Now factor in AT LEAST half an hour of hard cycling a day (which burns anywhere from 500-700 calories JUST for a half an hour… imagine what I burn in three hours of riding on weekends?) and AT LEAST two to three days of swimming or weight training each week… and you can see how I end up in a serious calorie deficit and a lot of times have to eat significantly more just to avoid losing too much weight.

So my snacks have become somewhat of an obsession with me and I’ve got so many creative ways to eat 300 or so nutrient dense, healthy calories. I’ve noticed however, that over time, I’ve settled on a handful of what I would consider my “go to” snacks of choice. What follows is kind of my own personal “top ten” (but purposely in no particular order… it’d be like trying to pick my favorite child) list of snacks that I really love to eat.

Popcorn – (Serving Size: 3 Tbsp, Calories: 130) – A $20 Air Popper from Target changed my life. No oil, half a cup of kernels, and you’ve got all the makings of a delicious, 300 calorie snack that basically fills a bucket. Every night (and I mean every night) I end the evening sitting down with a nice hot bowl of freshly popped popcorn with no mess to clean up. It’s high in that dietary fiber that our hearts and arteries love so much, it’s actually got a little protein to it, and dammit if it doesn’t fill you right up.

Chobani Greek Yogurt – (Serving Size: 1 Cup, Calories: Approximately 140) – I discovered this through “Eat This Not That: The Supermarket Guide”. Actually, to be more accurate, I discovered Greek Yogurt through the book. Chobani just happens to be my favorite brand. I love the Peach, Strawberry, and Blueberry, and was fortunate enough to run across it at Costco, which sells a dozen containers for just under a dollar each, which is a pretty good price. Each one of these little gems packs about 10 grams of protein into 140 calorie servings with zero fat. It’s almost like your own little delicious cup of protein bar. Think about that. You’re looking for about 300 calories to snack on, and if you added a boatload of fruit to this, you’d be hard pressed to get it up to 200 calories. Go ahead, treat yourself to some Triscuits while you’re at it.

Kirkland Signature Dried Mango and Berries – (Serving Size 1/3 Cup, Calories: 100) – My wife found these at Costco as well. As if I don’t get enough fruit already, here’s a great way to carry it on car rides, on trips to the beach, family outings, picnics, bike rides in the park. You name it. 1/3 a cup is only 100 calories, so you could cram a whole damn cup of these things into a ziplock baggie and snack on them all afternoon. As an added bonus, I’ll point out that the dried strawberries are so delicious you’ll be fighting over them, so pick and eat strategically. I treat them like I used to treat the marshmallows in Lucky Charms. I’d eat all the cereal first, so I’d have a whole bowl of marshmallows to end my breakfast. I like to try and end with a bag full of dried strawberries. Then I treat myself to a grand finish.

Chex Mix – (Serving Size 2/3 Cup, Calories: 120) – I love Chex Mix. Some of the flavored versions are good, some of them are bad, some of them are somewhat nutritionally bad, but when it comes to guilt-free snacking, nothing beats the good ol’ original flavored Chex Mix. I love those little brown melba toast bits and my daughter and I regularly spar over them. 2/3 a cup is actually a nice bowl-full and if you wanna double it, you’re only looking at about 240 calories, so this is one snack that I don’t feel very bad about over-indulging beyond the single serving recommendation. Like all snacks of this nature, watch the sodium, but if you’re generally eating healthy and this is your only sodium rich indulgence, then I think it might be okay.

Oatmeal – (Serving Size: 1/2 Cup Dry, Calories: 150) – Breakfast? Has to be oatmeal. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but sometime over the last year or so I became a 100% official crack-addicted oatmeal addict. I have to eat the shit at least once a day, and if I don’t eat it for breakfast because I chose egg whites that day, then I make it a point to eat it as a snack later in the afternoon. It fills you up like no other food, and when you add fruit to piping hot oatmeal, and the oatmeal cooks the blueberries, blackberries or strawberries a little, it’s heaven. Pure heaven. I don’t sweeten my oatmeal in any way, because, like I said, at some point I just started to realize that I loved the flavor of oatmeal. I don’t like brown sugar in it, but if I have no other fruit around and have to resort to a serving of raisins, I’ll lightly sweeten it with just a teaspoon of brown sugar, and when you don’t normally sweeten your oatmeal, a teaspoon is more than enough. One of the best things I’ve discovered is using frozen berries with the oatmeal. Frozen berries, like most frozen fruits and vegetables are actually as good, and in some cases better nutritionally than fresh picked fruits and berries. Frozen fruits and vegetables are picked at the peak of ripeness and quickly frozen, trapping important nutrients that a lot of times get lost in the time it takes fresh fruits and vegetables to make it to your dinner table. You can find mixed berry medleys at every supermarket I’ve been to, and the price is reasonable. Put them in the fridge and they don’t even need to thaw all the way before use, the piping hot oatmeal will thaw anything you add to it. Quaker Instant Oats, a cup of Frozen Mixed Berries, and in about 2 minutes, you’ve got the most delicious way to start the day since coffee was invented.

In-Season Fruit – (Serving Size: One Fruit, Calories: Depends) – There’s nothing I can say about Fruit except, “I’ve never met an in-season fruit I didn’t like”. Strawberries, Blackberries, Blueberries, Peaches, Watermelon, Grapes, Pineapple, Apples, Kiwis, Oranges, Tangerines, Grapefruit. I eat so much fruit on a daily basis that I never worry about heart-healthy dietary fiber because I’m sure I get it in fruit alone. I love adding fruit to my yogurt. I add fruit to my oatmeal. I eat bananas on Triscuits. You name it, I’ll put fruit on it, in it, near it…

Cucumbers – (Serving Size: 1 Medium Cucumber, Calories: 45) – Man, I can’t get enough of cucumbers. I actually went to Target one day during a lunch break to go get my own paring knife because I was hogging the one here at the office because I ate them so much. Look, they’re forty-five calories, man! What do you expect? They fill you up like mad, they’re astonishingly delicious chilled, and if you wanna REALLY knock ’em out of the park, thinly slice them, mix them with some red onion, add a dash of olive oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and go ahead and treat yourself to a little mouth orgasm.

Food Lion Seltzer Water – (Serving Size: Unlimited, Calories: 0) – I don’t drink sodas. At all. Ever. I don’t even like them when I go out to dinner as some kind of “treat”. I honestly can’t stand them. Syrupy Sweetness of Corn Syrups or over-sugared drinks that, at this point, just nauseate me. It wasn’t always like that though, and I can’t remember the exact moment that I realized how much I disliked sodas, but it happened as a result of discovering this at my local Food Lion. For about 88 cents (yes, you read that right) I can get a two liter bottle of Seltzer Water. Not “Club Soda”. Not “Tonic Water”. Seltzer Water. Look at the ingredients. See what it says? It says, “Water”. That’s it. Nothing else. You buy two or three of these, and with the money you saved over Coke, Pepsi, or whatever shit you’re buying, walk over to the produce section and spend it on a couple lemons and limes. Now guess what? You’re drinking water with lime and lemon… and it’s carbonated. It’s refreshing, light, effervescent, and most of all, delicious. You’ll never drink a shitty over-sweet soda again.

Triscuits – (Serving Size: 7 crackers, Calories: 120) – Again, scoring points because of the ingredients list, which (for the reduced fat version) is all of three ingredients. Whole (notice that key word? “Whole”?) Grain Soft White Winter Wheat, Soybean Oil, Salt. Seven of these babies packs 3 grams of dietary fiber too. Great for the heart. They pair up easily with other items as well. A couple of ounces of cheese slices, some fresh, homemade guacamole, cottage cheese, peanut butter. The possibilities are endless, and each one is as delicious as the last. Definitely my “go-to” snack food. The dietary equivalent to the “Multi-Tool”.

Nut Butters – (Serving Size: 2 Tbsp, Calories: About 190) – This, I believe is my number one snack (I know, I said “not in order”… but this is my one exception). Notice I didn’t write “Peanut Butter”. There’s a reason for that. Peanut Butter is a close second, but it’s just behind Almond Butter. If you haven’t tried Almond Butter, then I highly suggest you close this browser window right now, get up, get in your car and drive to the nearest location that sells almond butter. It’s easily the greatest snack on earth. High in monounsaturated fats, Vitamin E, and lower in saturated fats than Peanut Butter, Almond Butter is the gift that keeps on giving. My favorite brand is Maranatha. They sell no-stir varieties, but I believe the no-stir contains palm oil. In the case of both peanut butter AND Almond Butter, I will absolutely insist on the ingredients being simply the nut, and perhaps salt as part of the roasting process. Palm oil is a cheap oil that’s added to nut butter to prevent the oils from separating. Unfortunately, it’s really high in saturated fats, which actually makes the whole exercise of eating nut butters pointless. Why on earth would you add sugar, palm oil, or any other additive to something as delicious as a peanut and an almond? You wouldn’t, unless you were a moron. Smucker’s makes the MOST delicious all natural peanut butters. The Crunchy version has a delicious, deeply roasted, peanut flavor, and if you simply must have a sweetened peanut butter, they make an all natural smooth peanut butter sweetened with honey. The ingredients read like some down-home recipe, “Peanuts, Salt, Honey”. They’re wonderful, delicious additions to your diet, just make sure you maintain strict portion control. I recommend partnering the peanut butter with the single serving of Triscuits. There’s a great snack that will fill you up for a couple hours, and only weighs in at about exactly 300 or so calories.

My toolbox (for Doug… who asked).

I got an email last week from a friend of mine who wanted to advice on weight loss. He’s looking to lose some extra weight and wanted to know if I could help him out.

I struggled with this for a while, wrote a couple of drafts that went nowhere, mainly because I fixated on weight loss, nutrition, etc. It became a rambling, incoherent soapbox of a post with no direction or purpose.

Then I just sat back and thought about what he was asking. He was just asking, like, “what did you do?” and I was busy getting all philosophical and shit on him.

So I decided to just kinda chill, kick back, and write a nice, easygoing post about the shit that I do, and how it contributes to my discipline. Because don’t get me wrong, the name of this game is discipline with a capital fucking “D”. If you don’t make a lifestyle commitment to this, and you view it as a “diet” or a “way to lose weight”, then I’m afraid you’ve already lost the battle my friend. This shit here is for life. Unfortunately, I’ve sadly reached several conclusions over the last couple of years. The first is that I’m a man in my 40’s, and with that comes a higher level of dietary maintenance and discipline if I wanna live past 50. The second, and most recent lesson, is that you can’t slack. Lifestyle change means lifestyle change. It doesn’t mean, “lifestyle change for the next couple of months, then back to what I was doing before”.

I’m not here to tell you what you can and can’t eat, that’s all for you, but for me, I’ve got a finite number that represents my daily caloric intake, and I’m not about to fuck it away on shit food that does nothing for me. I’m all about the nutrient density. If I put it in my body, I want it to be as close to unprocessed and good for me as possible. My whole idea of “taste” has changed dramatically over the last couple of years as a result. I don’t like salty, oversweetened, fried, greasy, fatty, overprocessed food. I love the taste of fresh vegetables, fruit, etc. I don’t sweeten my oatmeal in the morning because, dammit, I actually like the taste of oats. I eat whole wheat english muffins without anything on them because I eat breads and rolls so infrequently that when I do treat myself to some kind of bread, I like to taste… you know… the bread.

So without further ado, I’m going to list some of the things that I’ve discovered have been invaluable to me, or put another way, “I wouldn’t have been able to live so well without them”.

But first, a quick word or two about, “why”? I want to just state, for the record, that all of this has nothing to do with losing weight. I’ve detailed this in previous posts, but the short of it is, I’m a grown, adult, white male in his early 40s. Right now my main concern is cardiovascular health. If I have a strong, healthy heart, then everything else is gravy. If I’m doing everything I can to strengthen my heart, and increase my cardiovascular fitness, then weight isn’t an issue. I’m eating right, exercising, and living a stress free, relaxing, healthy lifestyle only to create an environment that’s best for my heart-health. As a result, weight melts off me, diabetes isn’t even in my vocabulary, my cholesterol manages itself, and my blood pressure is so low you’d think I was a corpse (I have a resting heart rate of between 45 and 50 beats per minute… and I’m 43). So for me, weight loss is secondary. In fact, I don’t even think much about my weight except in the summertime when I bike so much that I have to increase my caloric intake or else my weight drops below 160 and I start to look a little sickly (my wife hated my summer weight, she thought I looked “malnourished”).

So what are the tools in my “heart healthy toolbox”?

1. A bicycle
It goes without saying that I love riding bikes. I think a more accurate way to say that would be, “Jeff is addicted to riding a bicycle”. But do you know why? I’ll let the American Heart Association Website explain:

For health benefits to the heart, lungs and circulation, perform any moderate-to-vigorous-intensity aerobic activity for at least 30 minutes on most days of the week at 50–85 percent of your maximum heart rate. You can accumulate 30 minutes in 10 or 15 minute sessions. What’s important is to include physical activity as part of a regular routine. The training effects of such activities are most apparent at exercise intensities that exceed 50 percent of a person’s exercise capacity (maximum heart rate). If you’re physically active regularly for longer periods or at greater intensity, you’re likely to benefit more.

So there you go. I ride a bike because it’s a vigorously intense aerobic activity. I currently ride anywhere from 100 to 120 miles a week. My weekend rides are generally in the range of 35-40 miles and last about two hours, and during the week I ride about 11-12 miles a day at a faster, more intense pace. This leads me to my second most important tool, but one that was probably the most important purchase I ever made.

2. Rollers
I can’t say enough about rollers. Not a stationary trainer. Rollers. As in, you just put your bike on them and ride. Why rollers? Lots of reasons, not the least of which is vanity. I remember years ago, when I was in the Navy, I was friends with a guy who was probably the most serious cyclist I ever knew. This guy turned me on LeMond, Eddy Merckx, and the peloton. He schooled me in the art of riding, and gave me an appreciation for Road Riding at a time when my whole life had been about BMX and bunny hops. He drilled into my head the importance of form and cadence, and was the first (and up to now, only) person I met who rode rollers. So when I decided last year that I wanted to start riding in the winter to prepare for Spring, I knew there was only one way to go if I wanted to get into proper cycling shape. Nothing else will force you to maintain an even pedal stroke. Rollers have repercussions. Fuck off on rollers at your own peril, and likewise, become skilled on rollers and watch your efficiency on the bike go through the roof. I rode some last year with some local riders who easily have more time in the peloton than I could ever dream of having, and I had enough confidence to jump in precisely because I knew I was able to ride a bike and not stomp up and down for two hours. Rollers will turn you into a cyclist. They’ll smooth your rough edges. Trust me, if you can maintain a 110+ rpm cadence for a couple of minutes at 32+ miles per hour on rollers, the rest will be cake.

3. Eat This Not That
(Full disclosure time. I’ve actually been picked to be featured in the 2011 version of this book, so I might come off a little biased.) Last year, when I started riding to get healthier, it only took me a couple of weeks before I realized I needed to overhaul my diet. I’m fortunate to have a little more formal training in metabolic pathways and probably a better grasp on nutrition fundamentals including the chemistry of food simply because of my biology/chemistry background. So I knew what needed to be done, what needed to be eaten, and in what proportions and ratios. I also knew what needed to be avoided and why. What I didn’t know, or have access to, was some way to accurately compare the foods I was buying at the supermarket without spending hours and hours reading labels. Enter this book. They’ve done all that research for you! The greatest thing about this book, by the way, is that this isn’t a diet book! You’ll lose weight if you use it as a buying guide, that goes without saying, but not because of any particular dietary magic. This book is all about one thing: healthy choices. It bases its conclusions (“you should eat this… not that) on strictly health (heart/sugar) criteria. Why is one food a better choice than another? Because of sodium content, or because it contains more dietary fiber than its counterpart, or because it has the fewer calories derived from added sugar. It’s simply putting the act of shopping for groceries (if you use the supermarket guide… I don’t eat fast food, so I skipped the restaurant guide) into the simplest framework possible. That it’s just a matter of making the right decisions when you’re reaching for something that you’re going to spend your money on and put inside your body. If you’re going to spend money (you are) and you’re going to put it in your body (you are) then why wouldn’t you choose to pick the best item on the shelf? I’ll tell you why most people don’t. Because they simply don’t have the time, or tools to look at every label and make that comparison. That’s where this book is a lifesaver (literally). I changed everything about how I eat just by using the supermarket guide for a couple of months. I went shopping every week, and every time I left the house, this book went with me. I’ve never seen a book that even came close to being as valuable as this book became.

4. FatSecret
Now, again, keeping in mind that I didn’t start down this road to lose weight, this last tool might seem a little counter to that, but it’s really not. When I first started trying to get a handle on my diet, I was mainly concerned with the breakdown of calories. I wondered, for instance, just how many calories a day I was eating. How much sodium was I taking in? How much fat? Protein? So I started off writing everything down in a notebook. Then I thought, “Hey, I wonder if there’s an app for my phone?” and (at the time) there was only one app for Android (remember, this was about two years ago… before app craziness and before Android and iOS made “app” a household word). It was called, appropriately enough, “Calorie Counter”. When I initially installed it, I was dismayed to discover that it required a membership on a website, fatsecret.com. I wasn’t really sure I wanted to join a website, so it sat on my phone, unused, for a week or so until one evening I decided to give the website a try. I fell in love immediately. Studies show that people who keep a food diary, on average, double their weight loss. This isn’t a fluke. The discipline of keeping track of what you eat every day is probably the most important piece of this whole puzzle. If you wanna know where you’re going off track, or what the makeup of your diet is, there’s no more valuable resource. The site’s easy, it builds a library of frequently eaten food, facilitating the biggest barrier to keeping a diary which is data entry, and quickly becomes your go-to resource. Not only does this site track your food, but by entering your height, weight, age, and weight loss goals, it will track physical activity and compare calories in vs. calories out, giving you an immediate snapshot of your lifestyle. It’s all a simple matter of doing the math. If you’re taking in more calories and you’re burning, then what do you think is going to happen? Likewise, if you’re burning more calories than you take in on a consistent, day to day basis, how do you think you’ll look in a month or two? Well, if you kept a diary, you’d know the answer to those questions.

I keep a daily diary of everything I eat. Everything. I track my physical activity every day as well, and I make sure I’m doing regular cardiovascular exercise. I swim regularly, I ride almost every day, and I make sure that every decision I make about the foods I eat are all well-informed. I do everything in moderation, and I treat myself regularly to indulgences that, because I take care of myself, are actually, real, honest indulgences. I’ve maintained a fantastic weight now for about two years without anything close to what I’d call “effort” or “sacrifice”. I have a lifestyle, and that lifestyle is active, healthy, fun, outgoing and energetic.

So Doug, there you go. I told you it was more than I could put together in an email, and I’m sorry it took so long, but as you can tell, it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. Literally. I hope it helps you with what you were asking, and if you wanna ask me any questions about any of it, feel free to drop me a line in the comments. I think it’s a topic that people may find interesting and helpful, and anything either of us can do to help anyone else out there get healthier, lose weight, or (hopefully) pick up a bike and start riding, then it was worth every minute I spent putting it down on “paper”.

Update 1: I’m calling this “Update 1” because I have a feeling I’ll update and add to this more than once. This afternoon, while I was out riding, I realized that I have an additional tool in my toolbox. When I started riding, I realized I needed a heart rate monitor. After shopping around and reading some reviews, I settled on the Mio Motiva Heart Rate Watch. This has been invaluable in helping me track my heart health. The Motiva measures heart rate with a dynamic display that quickly shows you what percentage of your Maximum Heart Rate you’re currently at. The contacts on the front of the unit never, and I mean never fail me. I can quickly and easily get my heart rate in a matter of seconds no matter where I’m at and it’s dead-on accurate. I’ve taken it to doctor appointments and it’s never been off by more than a single beat. It has a “calorie management system” that uses your age, weight, etc and uses your heart rate and exercise intensity to calculate calories burned and counts that against your recommended daily caloric intake. I can’t recommend enough the Mio Heart Rate Watch. As an aside, I had some simple issues with my first watch when it arrived, and I contacted Mio and they quickly and effectively handled my issue. I was blown away by their customer service, so I’m what you call a “raving fan”.