Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Not So Healthy Habits

In my last post, I wrote about cholesterol and heart-healthy habits, and how I am trying to be more conscious of the choices that I make. I wrote down a big long list of all the things that I already do to lead a healthy lifestyle, especially on the dietary front. Now it is time to come clean and identify some of my not so heart-healthy choices and behaviors that keep adding inches to my waistline and plaque to my arteries.

The not so healthy habits and health factors fall into several categories. These are: salt, sugar, dairy fat, love of cooking, snacks, husband, work, knees, and social eating and drinking booby traps.


Yum, yum, yum! I love salt. I know that the research findings out there on the effects of a high salt diet are not as straight forward as we used to think. The health message used to be high salt = hypertension; therefore eat a low salt diet. Now it appears that some people are more prone than others to respond badly to salt. The sensible course of action is to reduce one's salt intake to be on the safe side, so I am trying (even though there is a little devil in my head that whispers not to worry about it as I am probably one of the lucky ones who can eat salt without dire consequences). But it is so hard, because everything tastes better with salt. I am putting less salt in my cooking, leaving it to individual diners to add salt at the table if they wish.

For me, the biggest problem with salt is that most salty snacks are also high calorie fatty snacks. This includes chips, crackers, salted nuts, cheezies, cheese, fries, and so forth. When I am having a salt craving, it is all too easy to reach for a bag of chips. Pretzels and (unbuttered) popcorn are probably the two lowest calorie salty snacks (and also my two least favourite ones).


Sugar is probably one of the biggest culprits that is adding inches to my waistline and pounds on the scale. Sugar hides in so many foods, and in a myriad of forms. It is not just in the obvious things, like candy, ice cream, baked goods, and canned fruit. There is sugar in just about every kind of bottled sauce, store-bought cookie, cracker, packaged soup or other packaged meal, and frozen prepared food. Many foods that sound healthy, like granola bars, whole grain breakfast cereal, yogurt, and instant oatmeal are in fact loaded with sugar when you take a look at the nutritional information.

The bad guy in the media right now is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which in Canada is called glucose/fructose. This product of the highly subsidized American corn industry is now used in place of sucrose (table sugar) in most manufactured foods, and especially in breakfast cereals and soft drinks. There is lots of concern about the possible negative health effects of HFCS, in part because it appears to alter appetite processes, turning off the triggers that signal satiation. Over the last 50 years of increasing consumption of HFCS in the USA, obesity has increased in a similar proportion. HFCS has been linked to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and fatty liver disease. The research is not conclusive however, and a lot more research outside of laboratory settings needs to be done.

I have been trying to cut down on the sugar in my diet. I do not add sugar to my coffee or tea. I mostly buy unsweetened breakfast cereals, but even though the sugar levels are lower than in sweetened cereals, most still have plenty of sugar, according to the nutritional information. (I do buy mini wheats because I like them.) I try to add less or no sugar to foods like oatmeal. And I read the nutritional information. But, when a sugar craving hits, I do eat cookies or granola bars or toast with jelly. Probably one of the most common ways that sugar sneaks into my diet is in beverages, like coke, iced tea, and fruit juice. When I am really tired, or both tired and hungry, I find it hard to resist sugary snacks, which are all around and so easy to get.

I haven't finished saying all that I wish on not so healthy habits, so I will post again on this topic.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Heart Healthy Habits

Yesterday, I made spicy prawns for dinner. I have been to trying to not eat prawns very often because they are high in dietary cholesterol. I wondered to myself, just much cholesterol is there in prawns? How much dietary cholesterol is an appropriate level on a daily basis? So I did a little research.

I read that cholesterol is necessary in the body, and that most of the cholesterol in the blood is manufactured by the liver. Only fifteen percent of it comes from dietary cholesterol and triglycerides in the diet. However, that dietary source is the portion that people can change by changing their lifestyle and eating habits. When describing people as having "high cholesterol levels," it is the Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) blood level of cholesterol that is of concern. LDL cholesterol is the guilty party that sticks to the artery walls, making them narrow and stiff and leading to blockages and clots that result in heart attacks and strokes. The other kind of cholesterol in the blood, High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) is the "good" cholesterol, because it gathers up excess LDL in the blood and takes it back to the liver to be decomposed.

My interest in cholesterol has come about because I was recently told by my doctor that I have a borderline high LDL cholesterol level and that I should begin to eat a low cholesterol, low fat, heart-healthy diet. According to the Mayo Clinic Website, 3.4 to 4.1 mmol/L is borderline high, with 2.6 to 3.3 being near ideal (except for people with high risk of heart disease, in which case it should be lower). Fortunately for me, all of my other cardiovascular health indicators are good, including my HDL cholesterol level. The exception is that I am a little heavier and wider around the middle than I should be -- no surprise there. In middle age, I have turned into one of those apple shaped people.

I also read that in a healthy diet, one should eat no more than 300 mg of dietary cholesterol per day, and even less if there is existing heart disease. To put this into context, there is 183 mg of cholesterol in one large egg. Apparently (according to the nutrition information on the package), the prawns I ate yesterday had 130 mg of cholesterol per 100 grams, or about 7 prawns. I ate 6 prawns, or about 120 mg of cholesterol. Counting up all of the other high cholesterol things I ate yesterday (part of an egg, butter), I still slipped in under the 300 mg wire. Phew!

However, I do feel a bit miffed about being told that I should "start" eating a heart-healthy diet. I have been very interested in health and nutrition for my entire adult life and have always strived to cook and eat healthily. I have also always included exercise in my life. So I have done a bit of an analysis to see where my eating and health habits might need some changes, such as being careful not to eat too many of those sneaky high cholesterol prawns. But first I am going to start by making a list of the heart-healthy habits that I already have.

I almost always cook from scratch.
I rarely use packaged or prepared foods.
I eat 5 or more servings of fruit and vegetables each day.
I eat breakfast.
I mostly use heart-healthy oils (olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil) in my cooking.
I use the least amount of oil necessary, and often choose baking, broiling, braising, and boiling over frying.
I rarely eat anything deep-fried.
I use very scanty amounts of spreadable fats (butter, margarine, mayonnaise) on breads and sandwiches, and choose low fat versions of mayo, cream cheese, etc.
I substitute heart healthy oils for hard fats when I make quick breads (e.g., pancakes)
I seldom eat fast foods, and when I do, I skip the fries and pop, and go easy on the sauces.
I eat fish twice a week.
I eat lean rather than fatty meats, and not more than the recommended amount each day.
I usually buy whole grain breads and cereals.
I chew my food slowly and savour it.
I rarely overeat at a meal.
I don't skip meals.
When we go out to eat, I choose healthy options from the menu.
In a restaurant, I only eat as much as I need, and pack up the rest to take home.
I drink alcohol moderately -- not more than 1 drink per day or 7 drinks per week on average.
I rarely drink soft drinks (pop).
I include nuts and seeds in my diet daily.
I include lots of colorful fruits and vegetables on the menu.
I limit the quantity of bread, rice, potatoes, and pasta that I eat.
I mostly use herbs, lemon, vinegar, and spicy sauces to flavor dishes, rather than creamy or cheesy sauces and dressings.
I drink low fat milk.
I seldom eat cream, ice cream, or whipped cream.
I rarely eat more than two eggs per week.
I do not smoke.
I get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week, and usually exercise five times a week.

Sounds pretty healthy, doesn't it? And yet, I am a little heavier than I should be and since reaching middle age, my weight and waistline measurements keep creeping upward. Now my cholesterol level is borderline high. It is time to inspect my not so heart-healthy habits. If I can get the dietary fat and cholesterol levels down and also lose a bit of weight, it will be good for my heart and also for my arthritic knees.

Friday, November 16, 2012


Sometimes I wonder about the choices that I make. Last night, I stayed at work until 11:45 pm working on a writing a proposal that has an immediate deadline. I was exhausted, as I had started work at 8:30 am and worked hard all day, including through breakfast and lunch. I attended a work dinner event, then went back to my office and kept working. The proposal was not MY priority. My work priority was a different huge project (let's call it "the budget") that also has an imminent deadline, and which is of great consequence to my work unit. Moreover, I am solely responsible for "the budget" submission, whereas the proposal is a group effort.

Today I have had a pounding headache all day. I was in all-day meetings, so I couldn't work on the the budget, but even if I'd had the time, I am too tired and sick. Yesterday was the time that I had set aside for the budget. Now the deadline is one day closer. The time I had blocked off on this upcoming Monday to work on it also is going to be eroded by: 1) an important time sensitive meeting scheduled by my boss, and 2) an emergency situation that suddenly has arisen and has to be dealt with because it potentially involves someone's personal safety and health (and I chair that committee). I am considering going in to work on the budget this weekend because I don't know when I'm going to get it done, otherwise.

Probably, dear reader, a couple of questions popped into your mind as you read my account. For example, why did I agree to devote most of a 15 hour day to working on the proposal when I have other higher priorities?

Well, the proposal was for one of those unexpected opportunities with a very tight timeline that suddenly drops into your lap. You either drop everything and go for it, or possibly kick yourself forever after. If our proposal is successful, the payoff could be large. It could even solve some of my budget problems.

Well then, you're thinking - why me? If it is a group effort and you're so busy, why didn't someone else step up to write the proposal?

In fact, someone else did write a preliminary first draft. She took it as far as she could, and then wasn't sure where to go from there. Another person is very busy and stressed, and not able (or willing) to adjust her schedule for anything right now. Although I might question her priorities, her reasons are very real and important to her. The third person on the team, who took the leadership to follow up on and gain the initial opportunity, admits that the topic is quite far outside of his disciplinary expertise.

The topic is within my area of expertise, I have written proposals successfully before, and, in fact, I enjoy writing proposals. The initiative is really important. It's just that the timing is not good for me. So I dropped everything and wrote it, and now I have passed it to the others to edit and provide final touches.

Maybe you are thinking, there's a pattern here. I've way too much on my plate and don't seem to want to relinquish any of it. Aha! Bingo!

That's kind of what I am thinking myself. Maybe I did need to spend some time writing the proposal, but probably I didn't need to spend as long as I did crafting every word and paragraph to perfection. (In any case, how perfect was it going to be when I was too exhausted and cross-eyed to even see the screen as midnight approached?). My colleague had said to get the content in and then he'd work on cleaning up the language.... I didn't have to do it all myself.

"But I don't write that way!" the writer in my head protests.

Likewise, the budget. Do I really have to do it all myself? Does it have to be perfect? Is there any flexibility around the deadline? No, no, and maybe.

As for the events coming up on Monday, maybe I could get out of the meeting called by my boss, although I know he wants me there. Okay scratch that possibility.

I can't postpone the meeting about the safety issue. But maybe there are other meetings that I could decline to buy some more time to work on the budget.

I do know for sure that I cannot sustain these really long hours at work. It is affecting my health (headaches, eating habits, amount of exercise). It gives me too little time to spend with Rob, friends, and family. It makes my life very uni-dimensional.

I DO have too much work to do. But ultimately, the person responsible for that is me

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Zipper Face

Some time ago, I posted an image titled Face Art. Here is another face art image, this time from a friend in the art world who had a great idea for Halloween. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Dinner for One

Recently, Rob went on a trip, leaving me alone at home for two weeks. He went over the mountains to visit our newest grandson, born at the beginning of October. I was unable to go with him, as things are very busy at work, and I simply cannot take time off at this time of the year. Rob, on the other hand, is retired, so he can travel at any time. I will get to see the new little grand-baby at Christmas, but nevertheless, I felt very sorry for myself, stuck here, working way to hard.

Even though Rob could go travelling at any time, in fact he very rarely goes away without me. It's more likely to happen the other way around -- me flying off somewhere for a meeting or conference, and leaving him at home alone. When I do have vacation time, we love to go traveling together, most often on camping excursions along backroads or into the wilderness, but sometimes to more exotic places. We travel well together, enjoying a loose make-it-up-as-you-go kind of itinerary, preferring to explore new places and have new experiences that are off the usual well-beaten tourist track, stopping for the night wherever we happen to be, and including lots of excellent food experiences.

So what I discovered during Rob's absence is that I don't get along really well as a single person on my own. It is true that I did raise my kids as a single mom for many years, but that was not the same at all. I wasn't on my own then; I had my kids with me.

Without Rob here, the house seemed huge, cold, and empty. (This is in spite of the pets being exceedingly needy; they missed Rob too.) Activities of daily living, like cooking, doing dishes, going for a walk, and so forth, seemed pointless and tedious. Even pursuits that usually fill me with contentment and a feeling of well-being, like reading a book in front of the fire in the evening, seemed like just a way to make the empty time pass by.

Although I have always enjoyed cooking and eating, it was not very enjoyable cooking for one. I quickly reverted to making very simple meals, serving them straight from the pan, and eating at the kitchen counter instead of at the table. I did rouse myself from my torpor to prepare a couple of reasonable meals for myself, however. The dinner pictured here is sauteed garlic prawns, yams, salad, and red wine. I should not have been eating the prawns, as shrimp and prawns are high in cholesterol, and thus on my verboten list (but I compensated by putting no butter on the yams and no salad dressing on the salad).

I was very happy to welcome Rob home. He was eager to get back too, and drove for a thirteen hour stretch over a high snowy mountain pass to get here. I am very lucky to have found love late in life. We have a great life together, filled with with joy, fun times, love, and contentment. I am grateful for my good life, and for my wonderful partner, Rob.